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.
* * * *
It was two in the morning, and sleep was proving impossible. Buck meandered through the rental house, checked the windows and doors, and lingered in the kitchen for a few moments with a glass of water before dropping down on the couch. He pulled his phone out and reluctantly went to his text messages to see what Bobby Nash had to say for himself. He wasn’t even certain what he wanted Bobby to say, and that was disconcerting.
Bobby: I’ve always associated therapy with rehab, and that’s a difficult association. Over the years, I’ve allowed myself to find some kind of solace in the church. The night of the bombing, I spent hours in a hospital chapel. I prayed and bargained and even made demands I had no right to make of God and the universe out of fear for you.
Bobby: The thing with Mackey brought a lot of things to the surface for me that I didn’t expect and couldn’t force myself to acknowledge on my own. After the loss of my wife and children, I floundered around a bit, full to the brim with guilt and horror. I can’t speak fully to it even now. Somewhere between firing you for fucking around on the job and that ladder truck pinning you to the pavement—you became a son to me. The thought of losing you feels like it might destroy me. Athena made me an appointment with a therapist against my will.
Buck laughed and brushed tears from his eyes because he could just imagine how that conversation had gone. He cleared his throat and focused on the last message Bobby had sent.
Bobby: I’m sorry I was so wrapped up in my feelings that I couldn’t see what was really going on with you. And I’m sorry I allowed your sister’s fear for you to magnify my own to the point where I stopped treating you like an adult. I hope you can forgive me. I understand we have a long road ahead of us on that front. Also, I’m pissed that Eddie took you away from us and I don’t know where you are. It’s driving me nuts.
Buck snorted and checked the time. Bobby was at work and probably awake, so he called.
“Buck. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, of course,” Buck said and put his feet up on the coffee table. “Eddie doesn’t let me get into any trouble when he’s around.”
“Athena told me you weren’t in LA.”
“Eddie thought it might be safer if I wasn’t,” Buck admitted. “They aren’t entirely sure they’ve gotten all the players in the Mackey situation under control. I haven’t had an update in about twelve hours, so I don’t know if anything has changed.”
“There was a fourth arrest,” Bobby said roughly. “I don’t know the details, but Athena’s already practically brawled with three different detectives in Major Crimes over the entire operation. I’m half afraid I’ll have to post bail for her at some point.”
Buck snorted. “I’d like to meet the cop that would put Athena in cuffs.”
“I’m not sure I would,” Bobby admitted wryly. “Still, she’s making sure all the loose ends are handled. The fourth arrest wasn’t a cop.”
“It makes sense that he’d have contacts in various areas in the city government,” Buck said. “The detectives mentioned an informant in the mayor’s office as well. I was asked to try to get a name. I never saw an opportunity to ferret that out, and that’s probably for the best because I might have given away the whole thing sooner and gotten myself killed.”
Bobby sighed. “I hate that you did this, Evan.”
Buck blinked because he couldn’t…Bobby had never called him Evan as far as he could remember. “I….”
“It’s like you think you have nothing to lose, and I don’t know who to blame for that,” Bobby continued. “I used to think you were reckless with yourself because you were trying to prove something, but now I wonder if it’s because you feel like you don’t matter.”
Buck huffed. “Bobby.”
“You can’t even deny it,” Bobby muttered. “Will you come back to the 118?”
“Can you handle that?”
“I can handle it better than you going somewhere else,” Bobby returned. “But if you can’t do it—I’d like to recommend the 133 over the 56. There is a single opening on A shift there. I know you’d find the SAR work that the 56 does compelling, but Captain Mehta at the 133 is a great firefighter, and I trust him.”
“And you don’t trust Robins at the 56?” Buck questioned curiously.
“Not with you,” Bobby said quietly. “If there was an opening on Salazar’s shift and a guarantee you’d never end up under Robins command, then I’d say the 56 would be a great fit for you. Robins is careless with his people, and he’s far more interested in his own reputation than anything else. He’d see you and your ridiculous online fame as a meal ticket.”
“I was only offered the 56,” Buck admitted. “But I don’t want that, Bobby. You have to know it.”
“What we both want and what would be best aren’t necessarily the same thing,” Bobby said roughly. “I don’t think the chief wants to leave you with me, but at this point, no one is going to argue with your choice.”
“I feel like almost getting murdered twice should come with some sort of consideration,” Buck muttered and winced when Bobby’s breath caught. “Too soon?”
“Yes, you brat, way too fucking soon.”
Buck snorted. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you curse.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll make an appointment for a physical and see my orthopedic to make sure that I’ve not got some damage we aren’t seeing. I think I’ll probably need about two weeks to recover. I’m not limping, but I want to make sure I’m still clear on the clot front and that the blood thinner is still doing its job.”
“Two weeks,” Bobby agreed. “I’ll work on the schedule and send you an update. Have Eddie call me when he can, and we’ll discuss how many days he needs off.”
“Yeah, I will.” Buck cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“For what? You’ve done nothing to apologize for.”
“Mackey hurt you with his bullshit, and I’m sorry for it,” Buck said. “I really regret all of it, and I wish I’d told the LAPD to fuck off. I don’t think any of this was worth it.” He cleared his throat. “I’m at Michael Grant’s beach house.”
“Nice place—he let Athena and I use it for a weekend a few months back,” Bobby said. “You didn’t have to tell me.”
“Just don’t tell Chim because he’ll tell Maddie, and she might try to come here, and I’m not ready to deal with that situation yet.” Buck grimaced and stood from the couch. “But you can do me a favor and convince Chim to stay completely out of it. I realize that’ll be difficult for him, but it’s for the best. He’s already enabled her enough.”
“Hen told us both about ourselves,” Bobby admitted. “We had dinner last night together—talked it all out, and I can’t say it was pleasant. Hen made Maddie and Chim cry. That meeting is exactly why I’m now scheduled to see a therapist that I don’t want to see.”
“I think my sister is a bad influence on Chim,” Buck said, and Bobby laughed. “Seriously, though. He never used to cry like this.”
“Well, we all have issues, apparently. I just don’t want those issues to make things more difficult for you going forward. Bone deep personal relationships develop when you work together with the same people in the situations we find ourselves in, but keeping those relationships healthy can take work. It’s work we haven’t been doing.”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “Maybe some of us have never done that work. I’ve always thought I should just be able to push through a situation until it gets better. But sometimes, things don’t really get better, and I just push it as far as away as I can. That isn’t healthy, but my parents weren’t all that great with teaching anyone any sort of coping mechanisms.”
“Yeah, I got that some time ago,” Bobby admitted, and the alarm sounded in the background. “Gotta run, kid. Go back to sleep.”
The call ended before Buck could respond. He stood and tucked his phone in the pocket of his sweat pants as he walked to the French doors that led out onto the back deck. Eddie came down the hall at that point, grabbed his hand, and tugged him gently toward the bedroom.
“I can’t sleep.”
“You can at least rest,” Eddie said.
“I already tried,” Buck complained but pulled his phone out to put on the nightstand then crawled into the bed. “Normally, I just stay up until I pass out when I get like this. I don’t want to keep you up, Eds.”
“Just try to relax, okay? If you’re exhausted when Chris wakes up, he’ll notice and get worried.”
“Wow, you laid that guilt trip down like a pro,” Buck muttered, but he pulled Eddie close as soon as the other man turned off the lamp on the bedside table. “I really do want to marry you. I know it’s too soon, though.”
“My marriage to Shannon was over long before she got around to asking for a divorce. I tried to cling to it for Christopher’s sake, but it would’ve been a terrible mistake for us to try again. We never really worked outside of bed and….” Eddie sighed. “It was just a mistake, and everything about you and me feels exactly right and amazing. Let’s see how Chris reacts to the idea and go from there.”
“He already said we’d be married already if he had his way,” Buck pointed out in amusement. “What about your parents?”
“They’re never happy with anything I do,” Eddie muttered. “So why bother trying at all?”
* * * *
“Athena says that Detective Ransone feels confident that everyone involved has been identified,” Buck said quietly. “Mackey’s already made bail, but the two cops that attacked me were denied.” He fiddled with his phone with a frown. “He facilitated an attempted murder and made bail.”
“White dude with money equals privilege,” Eddie said. “You should get another lawyer.”
“For what?” Buck questioned with a frown.
“So, you can sue the fuck out of Chase Mackey,” Eddie said. “He tried to have you killed—surely you’re entitled to some sort of compensation from him personally. You should wipe out all three of them. I would.” He shrugged when Buck gaped at him. “They deserve it, plus whatever criminal charges get filed. Getting a personal lawyer on board now ensures your rights going forward. You need someone on your side who knows how to make the law work for you. You sure as hell can’t trust the LAPD or the LAFD to watch your back on this front.”
Buck exhaled slowly and nodded. “Right.” He frowned at his phone. “I fucking hate this, Eddie. I just want it all to go away.”
“I know, but it wouldn’t….” Eddie sighed and sat down on the couch beside him. “Listen, they used your good nature against you and put you in a terrible position that could’ve gotten you killed. No one had your back on this, Buck, and I’m so furious with the chief that I’m half tempted to suggest we both move to the county fire department. Or maybe even leave for a different city or the state altogether.”
Buck swallowed hard as he considered the idea of leaving California. He’d moved around a lot since leaving his parent’s house, but he’d become attached to LA and the people he’d connected with. He knew, however, that he’d go wherever Eddie wanted to go because he couldn’t imagine being separated from him or Christopher.
“San Diego was appealing at one time,” Buck admitted. “Maddie and I don’t always get along, but I wouldn’t want to move very far away from her. I mean, if it doesn’t feel safe to stay here going forward, then…that’s a different conversation altogether. Frankly, if I have to leave LA because of this bullshit undercover operation, then the LAPD is going to have come up off a serious amount of money.”
Eddie sighed. “I wouldn’t want to leave either, and it isn’t entirely about physical safety. You have the right to emotional and mental safety, too, Buck.”
“I….” Buck frowned and cleared his throat. “That’s not something…I’ve ever really had. I had a friend tell me once that I loved too easily but that it was a shallow and thoughtless kind of love. Maybe he was right.”
“Or maybe he was a massive dick,” Eddie muttered. “The quality of your heart doesn’t concern me, Buck. And he was no sort of friend to you.”
“I wasn’t much of a friend to him either,” Buck admitted. “In the end, he wanted more from me than I could give him, and he found my honesty on the subjects of love and sex to be deeply hurtful.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mark said…he loved me and wanted to make a life with me,” Buck admitted reluctantly. “I did love him, but not in a romantic way. I told him that I wasn’t in love with him. He said such a distinction was ridiculous and immature. There was an ugly argument, and I moved out of the house I was sharing with him and three other guys. I moved into another room share with some guys from the academy, then I met Abby Clark…you know how that turned out. I probably should’ve gotten my own place at that point, but I was still invested in saving as much money as possible.”
Eddie frowned. “I don’t get the perspective because there is a clear difference, to me, between loving someone and being in love. He wasn’t in love with you because if he had been, he’d have understood what you meant. Or maybe he was trying to gaslight the fuck out of you to get what he wanted.”
“A lot of people take my general good disposition as an indicator that I am naïve and easy to manipulate,” Buck admitted. “I’ve had more than one sex partner try to get one over on me in that vein. I can’t say I always reacted well to those situations, and bailing was my go-to response for dealing with any kind of conflict.”
Chris came into the living room at that point, propped his crutches up against the arm of the couch, and crawled over Eddie to drop down between them. “I want waffles for breakfast.”
“I don’t know if there is a waffle maker,” Eddie said.
“There is,” Buck admitted with a yawn. “We found it yesterday. It shouldn’t be any sort of problem on the ingredient front. No whipped cream, though.”
“There’s real maple syrup,” Chris pointed out and grinned when Buck shifted forward to leave the couch. “And strawberries.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Buck agreed and snatched Chris up. “You get to wash the strawberries and hull them with that silly device we found in the drawer.”
“Great!” Chris wrapped his arms around Buck’s neck. “Daddy, you can set the table.”
Eddie laughed. “I see how it’s going to be.”
“And wash the dishes afterward,” Buck muttered. “And the waffle iron.”
“Right, ‘cause Buck’s still recovering, Daddy,” Chris said over Buck’s shoulder as they moved around the large kitchen island. “He has to save his energy for the important tasks.”
“Like waffle making?” Eddie questioned.
* * * *
“Detective Ransone wants to interview me,” Buck said and made a face as he stared at his phone.
Eddie kind of wished he’d just turn the thing off as it had started to become a source of stress. “You can make an appointment for Monday, right? Michael said we can have this place until Saturday as is, so that’s three more days.”
“I don’t think they want to wait that long,” Buck admitted. “It’s probably best if we just go back tomorrow and deal with whatever is going on.” He frowned. “And we can go to Chris’ school and deal with that bullshit sooner rather than later. Then on Monday, he’ll be in a new classroom.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said, and his gut tightened a little as he thought about that whole situation which he’d been pushing to the back of his mind repeatedly since Christopher had confessed what he assumed to be the whole of it. “Do you think he’s told us everything?”
Buck looked up and focused on him. “What?”
“I mean…she played favorites, gave him special attention to the point where other little kids noticed….” Eddie took a deep breath. “It’s just…that’s grooming, Buck.” He winced when the blood drained from Buck’s face. “I want to believe that he would tell me if someone touched him inappropriately or even suggested it, but I don’t know for certain. He’s very empathetic, and if they threatened to hurt me or whatever, then he might….”
Buck frowned, stood, and put aside his phone. “Just a second.”
Eddie stayed where he was while Buck left the room and wasn’t all that surprised when he came back with Christopher, giggling and slung over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, whom he deposited on the bed with a put upon groan. He put Chris’ crutches on the bed near the footboard.
“Buck! I’m working on my island! It’s supposed to be a secret.” Chris pressed his own Switch to his chest in mock outrage. “You gotta plan your own!”
“I won’t cheat and look,” Buck promised, and Chris eyed him shrewdly before he put his Switch down on the bed, face down. “Your dad and I want to talk to you about something important.”
Eddie shifted around and set aside his phone as Christopher focused on him. “You know you can tell us anything, right? You can ask any question you have—always. Even if you think it might hurt or upset someone.”
Chris frowned. “Daddy, I’m not about to sit here and get the sex talk!”
Buck laughed and got a full-on scowl from Chris.
“I’m serious!” Chris crossed his arms over his chest. “That whole conversation about erections was enough.”
“In my defense, you are the one that asked about it,” Eddie said wryly. “And at least I didn’t give you the lecture I got from your grandmother about sin and going to hell for masturbation.”
“Wow, she’s the worst,” Buck muttered. “I mean, seriously.”
Eddie shrugged and sighed. “Listen, Chris, I need to know that you’ll talk to me if something happens and…I’m worried that you didn’t come to me about Ms. Desmond when everything started.”
“We already talked about this,” Chris said and shifted his Switch around in front of him. “You said you’d fix it.”
“And I will,” Eddie assured. “But sometimes adults are really nice to children to get something specific from them.”
“Oh.” Chris made a face. “Ms. Desmond isn’t like that, Daddy. I was talking to Denny about it, and he thinks she wants to be your girlfriend. Harry agrees. We all think that would be awful because who wants a teacher bossing you around at home, too?”
Buck blew air out noisily between his lips, probably to keep from laughing.
“Buck.” Eddie huffed and glared at him. He focused on Chris, who was staring intently at his Switch. “Mijo, look at me, please.” Chris looked up and pressed his lips together. “Sometimes an adult with bad intentions will lie to you—threaten your family to get what they want. They’ll use your love against you. Do you understand?”
“Are you sure there’s nothing else about Ms. Desmond that we should know?” Buck questioned. “Anything at all?”
Chris shrugged. “She was just extra nice. I think she wanted to be my new mom, which is gross.” He frowned. “Because I don’t want a new mom, ever. Having a mom just hurts.”
Eddie swallowed hard. “Chris.”
“She just kept leaving, Daddy,” Chris said flatly. “Then she went away forever, and she never said she was sorry for leaving me in the first place!” He frowned. “And it’s hard to forgive her because I can’t even tell her how I feel. She died. And I shouldn’t be mad at her because I know she didn’t die on purpose.”
“Well, you’re going to be in therapy until you’re married with your own kids at this rate,” Buck said dryly, and Chris sighed dramatically. “At least you’ll have someone to bitterly complain to about being a teenager. Those are prime complaining years just stretched out in front of you.” He reached out and tapped the top of Chris’ hand where it rested on his game. “Point blank question.”
“Real honest answer,” Chris replied quietly.
“Did Ms. Desmond or anyone else ever touch or try to touch your private parts?”
“No.” Chris made a face. “Except…”
“Except what?” Eddie asked in growing horror.
“The last time Grandma was here, she tried to give me a bath, and I had to tell her no four different times,” Chris said with a blush. “I told her that I wanted privacy, and she acted like I wasn’t allowed it. I locked the bathroom door at Abuelita’s house just so I could shower, and she got mad about me locking the door, but I don’t care. Grandma never cares what I want, and that’s awful.”
“I will have a very explicit conversation with her,” Eddie promised. “And it won’t happen again.”
“Grandma likes to treat me like a helpless baby, and that’s gross. Abuelo just acts like I’m a burden. I overheard him tell Grandma that with me around that you’d never get married again and have more children.”
Eddie’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
Chris shrugged. “I mean, that’s mostly why they want me to live with them—so you can trap some woman into marrying you, and they’ll get more grandchildren.”
Buck snorted, then burst out laughing.
“You’re such an asshole, Buck,” Eddie muttered and exhaled noisily as Chris started to giggle. “And a terrible influence on my precious child.”
Chris crawled over to him and slouched against his side. “They also think you’re a bad parent.”
“I know,” Eddie murmured and kissed the top of his head. “But they were awful parents to me, so I know I can’t take them seriously at all.”
“Daddy, what would’ve happened to me if you’d been killed when that crazy man bombed the ladder truck?”
Eddie’s fingers curled into Chris’ T-shirt. “I…I haven’t updated my will since your mom died. You’d probably go to live with my parents.”
“I don’t want that,” Chris said quietly. “Ever.”
“Okay.” Eddie cleared his throat. “Where…would you want to go?”
“Buck.” Chris glanced toward Buck, who was watching the conversation silently.
Eddie watched his partner process that. They’d already made this decision, but it was good that it aligned with Chris’ own wishes. “And if Buck…isn’t available?”
“Aunt Karen and Hen,” Chris said. “They’re good to me, and they want more kids. I wouldn’t feel like a burden with them.”
“I’ll ask them,” Eddie promised and ran his fingers through Chris’ curls. “I’m sorry I hadn’t already thought about this stuff.”
“It’s probably hard to think about it because of how mom died,” Chris said like he was consoling him, and Eddie blinked back tears. “And it was really hard for a while to think about her at all without crying. I think she was sorry she ran away and never called me.”
“I think she was, too.”
“I just wished she’d said it,” Chris said with a sigh, then reached out and snatched his Switch, which Buck had been pushing around with his toes. “I see you, Bucky!”
“My island redesign is finished, by the way,” Buck said with a smug grin.
“Daddy!” Chris frowned up at him. “You were supposed to be distracting him while I worked.”
Eddie grinned when Buck’s mouth dropped open. “Sorry, mijo, I was listening to a podcast and forgot.” He cleared his throat. “We’re going back home tomorrow, and I’ll call the school to make an appointment to speak with the principal on Friday.”
“Do I have to go?” Chris questioned.
“No, we’ll take care of it,” Eddie said. “You’ll probably stay with Carla or Abuela.”
* * * *
Buck picked up a towel and rubbed his face briskly. He loved swimming in the ocean. Maybe California had called him, he mused. He looked toward the house and found Eddie standing on the deck with a cup of coffee. They’d decided to leave after breakfast, so he’d taken a morning swim to clear his head. Of course, he’d promised not to go out above his own head. It had seemed like a reasonable boundary considering everything, so he’d agreed.
He walked to the outdoor shower and used it quickly to clean off the salt and sand, then used his towel to dry his hair off as he started up the steps. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Eddie took a deep breath and looked out over the ocean. “Chris decided he wanted a shower before breakfast.”
Buck dried off his chest and picked up his watch from the table. He put it on and checked the time. “The quiche should be done soon. We used up most of the perishables that were purchased. We should take the other stuff home since it’ll be thrown out by the cleaning service if we don’t. We can finish off the milk with breakfast.”
Eddie nodded. “Sounds good. Have you messaged Detective Ransone?”
“I sent a text asking for an appointment,” Buck said and took a deep breath. “I guess there’s no point in putting it off. Athena told me he was a good guy and that I don’t have anything to worry about.” He shrugged when Eddie made a face. “I trust her, so that will be enough.”
“I trust her, too,” Eddie said roughly. “But this whole thing has been a shit show, and I’m resentful as fuck. I wasn’t even the one that got nearly murdered.” He waved a hand in frustration and leaned on the railing. “So, I realize you have more right to be emotional about this situation than I do.”
“Well, I didn’t take either hit alone,” Buck said and watched Eddie’s gaze narrow. “I mean the night of the bombing—I wasn’t the only injury. That happened to all of us, in some fashion or another. As for those two dirty cops trying to kill me…well, you weren’t there, but you heard some of it, right? Chris heard more.”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted, and his mouth thinned into a line. “I heard enough. The bombing is mostly a blur for me—all I really remember is you. Even Fuentes, who broke his arm, only seems to focus your circumstances. Well, he also bitches about being put in an ambulance and taken away from the scene before we got you out from underneath the truck. He was really pissed about that. Maybe we all focus on you, so we don’t have to deal with the fact that it happened to us, too.”
“There aren’t enough therapists in LA to deal with you assholes,” Buck muttered and walked into the house.
He checked the quiche and reasoned that he had time for a real shower. “Hey, pull this out if the timer goes off before I get back.”
“Yeah, of course,” Eddie said as he came in through the French doors.
By the time Buck was dressed and returned to the kitchen, Eddie and Christopher were at the table with the food. He stopped to watch them, amused by the look on Chris’ face since quiche was going to be a new experience, and he’d been pretty skeptical about the whole process. He’d made a relatively small one in a tart pan so they wouldn’t have leftovers.
He slid into his chair, and Eddie slid a piece of quiche onto his plate. “Thanks.”
“It looks good,” Chris said but scrunched up his nose at the same time.
“Try it,” Buck urged. “You like all the individual ingredients.”
Chris used his fork to cut a section off and stuck it in his mouth like he was undertaking a full-on planetary invasion all by himself. Buck watched him chew very slowly and shared a grin with Eddie.
“I like it more than I want to,” Chris declared, and Eddie laughed. “Next time, we should put green onion in it, too.”
“Yeah, that would be good,” Buck agreed. “Maybe some tomato.”
“No.” Chris made a face.
“We’re gonna expand your palate,” Buck told him.
“You’re not supposed to threaten children,” Chris told him seriously, and Eddie coughed into his hand. “This conversation is making me uncomfortable.”
Buck grinned at him. “You’re ridiculous.”
One of the things Eddie really liked about the school that Carla had helped them get into was the warm and inviting classroom environments. It was irritating that part of that had been disrupted for Christopher. He checked his watch and resisted the urge to stand and pace around the small waiting area they’d been directed to when they’d arrived. They were ten minutes early because Buck was allergic to being late and had hurried all three of them through the morning. Christopher was at Abuela’s, and they were hoping to be back in time for dinner.
After the appointment with the principal, they were heading to the LAPD for an interview with Lou Ransone. Eddie wondered how they were going to react to the fact that Buck wanted him there. Since Buck was the victim, he hoped that Ransone and whoever else was involved would be understanding. He knew he hadn’t done himself any favors with the two cops involved in the case originally, but honestly, he’d like to kick both of their asses. He figured they knew it, but he wasn’t worried about it.
“Mr. Diaz, Principal Summers is ready for you and Mr. Buckley.”
“Thanks, Dina,” Buck said and threw away the paper cup he’d gotten from the water cooler.
Shortly, they were seated in front of Kathleen Summer’s desk. He liked the older woman and had from the very start. The visitor chairs were close enough together that Buck could gently nudge him with a knee when he didn’t start talking immediately.
“I’m unsure where to start, exactly,” Eddie admitted, and the woman raised an eyebrow. “Ms. Desmond has made a series of missteps with my son that I find very concerning, and I’d like him moved into a different classroom. His preference for a new teacher is Mr. Monroe, and considering the circumstances, I’d like that to be the choice made.”
He watched the principal’s face slowly go pale. She shifted forward in her chair and picked up an ink pen as she pulled a legal pad toward her. “If you could elaborate?”
“She centered him out and overtly favored him until his peers started calling him a teacher’s pet, which upset him a lot. He told me that she was so nice to him that it made him really uncomfortable. That situation came to a head when she asked him about his mother’s death and told him he should be prepared to get a new mother.” Eddie took a deep breath as Summers’ mouth dropped open. “When he said he didn’t need a new mother because he had Buck, she questioned him about my relationship with Buck, and he told her that we were in a romantic relationship. After finding out I was not single, she stopped paying special attention to him entirely.”
“He doesn’t want to be in her class anymore and is worried about being in Ms. Flores’ class next year since she appears to be friends with Ms. Desmond. You can see, obviously, why this is a problem.”
“Yes, of course. He doesn’t trust either one of them.” The principal cheeks darkened with a blush, and she exhaled sharply. “I’m at a loss, Mr. Diaz. I’ve never had this sort of situation happen in the school.”
“Let’s just get it out in the open,” Buck suggested. “Eddie’s attractive, and we believe that Ms. Desmond tried to ingratiate herself to his child in an effort to pursue a personal connection with him. This is unacceptable on several levels, but fortunately, we don’t think Chris has realized she was manipulating him as a method of engaging his father’s sexual interest. He did say he thought she wanted to be Eddie’s girlfriend, but he doesn’t put a lot of thought into what that would entail.”
Eddie winced at the bluntness but just took a deep breath as Principal Summers stared in shock.
“If that isn’t the case, then we’re even more concerned about the level of attention she gave him before realizing he had two involved parents,” Buck continued. “We know that the child of a single-parent household might be considered an easier target, and her behavior was a form of grooming. Chris has assured us that she was just too nice to him and that she never touched him.”
“Thank God,” Summers muttered and pressed trembling fingers to her mouth as she stood. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I’ve…I work very hard to make Durand a safe and beautiful place for my students. The thought that such a person could be moving freely around the students would be a nightmare.” She went to the door and opened it. “Dina, please have Ms. Desmond come to my office then start the process of moving Christopher Diaz to Asher Monroe’s classroom effective immediately.” She shut the door and returned to the desk.
Eddie wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be in the same room with the teacher while she was made to explain her behavior, but he was striving to be an adult about it. Part of him wanted to believe that all of it was a misunderstanding, but also, he felt weirdly arrogant for assuming that the woman was interested in him in some fashion. He wasn’t unaware of his own appearance, but women didn’t normally go to such lengths to get his attention.
“What?” Buck questioned.
“I feel weird about all of this,” Eddie confessed and flushed when Principal Summers cleared her throat. “I mean, assuming that Ms. Desmond has some sort of personal interest in me. It’s a little arrogant for me to make that assumption, right?”
“Based on what Christopher told us, it’s the most reasonable conclusion,” Buck pointed out. “And it’s honestly the best we can hope for regarding her behavior.”
There was a quiet knock on the door, and Summers answered with a terse order to enter. Alice Desmond was a soft, sweet woman that Eddie had been relieved to meet when he’d taken Chris to the first day of school because he thought that his son would respond well to her. The first time he’d met her, he’d mentally compared her to a little flower in bloom with her soft, pale skin, delicately blushing cheeks, and white-blond hair.
“Ms. Desmond, you’ve met Mr. Diaz. This is his partner, Evan Buckley,” Principal Summers said.
“Fiancé,” Eddie corrected.
“Oh, congratulations,” Principal Summers said with a tight smile. “Ms. Desmond, please sit. Mr. Diaz and Mr. Buckley came to me with concerns regarding their son and have requested he be removed from your classroom.”
Eddie watched Alice Desmond’s eyes go wide as she sat down. His own discomfort increased by a factor of ten. Could someone die of second-hand embarrassment? He’d have to ask Buck because he’d certainly know.
“Has something happened, ma’am?” Ms. Desmond questioned, her gaze darting between the three of them. “Christopher is doing very well in class. He’s attentive, asks good questions, and is friendly with his peers. Several of them were concerned that he was missing this week, but I assured them that he was fine. Is that not the case?”
“Christopher is fine,” Eddie said. “There was a situation with a crime against Buck, and we left town for security purposes while the LAPD investigated the situation.” He glanced toward Buck, who was touching the fading bruise on his left cheek.
“Oh, I hope…everything is okay, Mr. Buckley.” She clasped her hands in her lap and managed to look even younger than she already did.
“I’ll be fine; a mild concussion was the worst of it,” Buck said.
“Ms. Desmond, did you question Christopher Diaz about the death of his mother?” Principal Summers asked.
Eddie watched the younger woman’s eyes go wide and her lips press into a thin line.
“Yes, I…he seemed to struggle when he returned to school after her death, and I was worried. He refused to speak of it.” She shifted in the chair. “I…was that the wrong thing to do?”
“It was intrusive,” Principal Summers said stiffly. “Did you overtly favor Christopher? Single him out for special attention to the point that other children in your classroom noticed and teased him about it?”
“I….” Her shoulders stiffened up. “He wasn’t getting any female attention at home…I thought he might need a little more care from me due to the death of his mother. Also, I was told that she’d abandoned him years before her death. I thought some positive and thoughtful female attention would be good for him.”
Eddie moved straight past discomfort and into anger in the space of a few seconds.
“Did you tell Christopher that he would be getting a new mother?” Principal Summers demanded in building ire.
“It would’ve been a natural progression for Mr. Diaz to remarry,” the teacher said. “I had no idea he was…involved with Mr. Buckley until Christopher explained it.”
“After you found out Mr. Diaz was involved with Mr. Buckley romantically, did you stop giving Christopher special attention?”
Alice Desmond’s gaze flicked briefly to Buck before she cleared her throat. “I realized that Christopher was being teased by the other children, and I made changes to mitigate the situation I’d created in my desire to connect with him and provide him support while he was grieving his mother. I don’t believe I’ve done anything inappropriate, Principal Summers.”
“Is that so?” The principal demanded. “Did you not question a child about his father’s romantic relationships? How exactly is that within your purview? Christopher told his parents that you were too nice to him, and it made him uncomfortable. I hope you realize that your behavior could be seen as grooming.”
The teacher’s eyes went wide with shock, and tears welled. “No. No. I would never….” She pressed a shaking hand to her chest and took a deep, shuddery breath. “Please, ma’am, I would never hurt a child. I didn’t…I never thought…I don’t know what….”
“This is only your third year as a teacher, correct?” Principal Summers questioned as she made a note on her legal pad. “I’ll have to report this incident to the school board, and you may face some consequences regarding the situation. I will be requesting that Christopher be interviewed by a psychologist to ensure there is nothing we should be concerned about regarding this situation.”
Eddie gave a slight nod when the principal looked his way for confirmation. “He sees a therapist already—for both the death of his mother and the tsunami. I’ll be speaking with the doctor about this situation. If you have specific concerns or questions for him, I can relay them.”
“Thank you, Mr. Diaz.” She turned and focused on Alice Desmond. “Mr. Diaz is an attractive man. I can see how you might have been intrigued and interested in getting to know him.” The younger woman blushed furiously. “But such behavior is completely inappropriate. Even if the interest were returned, and it isn’t, becoming involved with the parent of one of your students would be a breach of ethics that I would not tolerate. Understood?”
“Yes, of course.” She averted her gaze at that point, shoulders hitching up slightly with an effort to not cry. “I’ll apologize to Christopher.”
“No.” Buck sat forward slightly when they all three focused on him. “That would just make him more uncomfortable. Right now, he’s relieved to think that we’re here fixing this situation for him, so he doesn’t have to interact with you anymore at all. It would be best if you avoid any sort of personal interaction with Christopher going forward. He’s an empathetic kid, and he doesn’t need to take on your guilt and discomfort from the situation.”
“Of course…I…I wouldn’t want to make things more difficult for him than I already have,” Alice said stiffly, but then she focused on the principal. “I…it’s…”
“I’m listening,” Principal Summers said pointedly. “Should I ask Mr. Diaz and Mr. Buckley to step out?”
“No, it’s… just that it wasn’t about… Christopher.” She exhaled sharply. “This is profoundly embarrassing, Principal Summers, but I had a little bit of a wager going on with Ana Flores about which one of us could….”
“Get a date with Eddie?” Buck supplied when she trailed.
“Something like that,” she admitted in a rush. “It was immature, and I’m very sorry. In that vein, I don’t believe Christopher should be placed in Ana’s class next year.”
“No, I’d think not,” Principal Summers said stiffly. “It behooves me to point out, Ms. Desmond, that if another teacher or a parent had objectified you in such a manner that I would’ve zealously defended you. To think that two highly educated young women would do something so juvenile and hurtful is….”
“Hurtful?” Ms. Desmond questioned with a frown.
“Christopher liked you,” Eddie said flatly, and Alice Desmond flinched. “He enjoyed being in your class and you…abused his trust and good nature with this bullshit….” Buck’s hand settled on his arm, and Eddie slouched back against the chair. “You used my son, and that’s unforgivable. I don’t know that I’m willing to enroll him here next year as a result, Principal Summers.”
“Mr. Diaz, all I can do is offer you my personal reassurance that this situation will be thoroughly investigated, and appropriate punishments will be put into place,” Principal Summers said. “And my apologies. I offer you my sincere and unreserved apologies for everything that happened.”
“Buck and I will speak to Christopher about this, and his comfort going forward will be the deciding factor when it comes to next year,” Eddie said. “I don’t even know what to say about the wager.” He stood. “I need to think about that part because…honestly, I’ve never once pursued any sort of relationship with anyone based merely on their appearance, and I don’t understand how this became a thing….”
Buck stood. “We’ll work through that privately, Eds. Thank you for your time, Principal Summers. Ms. Desmond, please don’t let yourself be tempted to approach Christopher to assuage your guilt in this situation—it will result in a restraining order and a criminal complaint. And I couldn’t be more serious about that. I am frankly disgusted by your overt emotional manipulations of him.”
* * * *
Buck unfastened his seatbelt as Eddie turned off the engine. His gaze flicked briefly over the LAPD building they were parked outside of. “You’re aware of your looks.”
Eddie snorted. “Yeah, I mean, I know what I look like. I’ve been ignoring that kind of attention since I was fifteen.” He flushed. “One of my mother’s friends hit on me at a dinner party one night. My mother, for all of her faults, came unglued when I told her. Needless to say, that friendship ended instantly. I get that casual sex is a thing, and some people don’t even need to even know someone’s name before they’re down for sex. I just don’t work that way, and I never have.”
“I get it,” Buck said. “I’ve had more than enough casual sex for the two of us.” He paused. “And Chimney. I picked up all of that slack, too. Regardless, I understand, and it’s okay for you to be offended by the situation. In fact, I would be offended by the whole thing, and I’m not demisexual. This isn’t even about that, really. It’s about the objectification of you and the emotional manipulation of your son. I can’t imagine the situation would’ve gotten better next year if he’d ended up in Ana Flores’ class.” He paused. “If the bet is actually a thing.”
“You think Alice Desmond lied about it?”
Buck shrugged. “You can’t assume that she was entirely honest about the situation. I mean, it was clear it was a sex wager that Chris ruined for them with a lie. Which, honestly, we should never ever admit that he was lying. I don’t know how to frame that for him, but it wouldn’t serve the situation to admit that. No matter why he did it.”
Eddie made a face. “The fact that he was driven to that is infuriating, though. He’s just a really honest kid and struggles to make up an excuse when he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t.”
“Yeah.” Buck cleared his throat and checked his watch. “Let’s go in and get this over with. I really hope there are plea deals on the deck across the board because I don’t want to participate in a trial process at all. It would bring up shit that I don’t want to be discussed in public. I think Mackey would actively work to make things really difficult for me personally.”
“Agreed,” Eddie said with a sigh.
They checked in with a desk sergeant and were directed to an office on the fifth floor of the building. Buck just rested against the back of the elevator, stomach tight with nerves, as the car moved smoothly. Eddie pressed their shoulders together briefly, and Buck just gave him a nod.
“I’m not nervous.”
“Yeah, okay.” Eddie made a face. “You lie as well as Chris does.”
“I’m a much better liar,” Buck protested in outrage, and Eddie laughed. The doors opened, so they left the elevator.
Athena Grant was leaning on a wall just short of a pair of doors with her phone in hand when they turned down the hall. She looked up and focused on them. “You’ve got five minutes before they’re ready for you.” She inclined her head toward a door and opened it.
“Something wrong?” Buck questioned as he slid into the room, and Eddie followed.
“No, I just want to speak with you both before the official interview,” Athena said as she shut the door. “The investigation is being handled by Major Crimes and the Internal Affairs Division. The load is being split because a fifth LAPD informant for Mackey was revealed, and that person works in IA. As a result, the chief insisted that the case be a multi-division investigation. Additionally, an agent from the FBI has been brought in to oversee the entire operation as an impartial party.”
“Mackey has an elected official in his pocket as well?” Buck questioned. “That’s how the FBI got a foot in, right?”
“The deputy mayor has taken bribes from Mackey,” Athena said. “Not concerning you or your situation, but on other cases. Mackey has sued the city, successfully, several times to the tune of almost fifty million dollars over the last several years, often winning due to extortion of some sort that couldn’t be proven. He specialized in out-of-court settlements. Eventually, there will be federal charges for Mackey and anyone involved in those specific crimes.” She focused on Buck. “How do you feel?”
“Fine, a little sore. No headache, so that’s something. We have a situation concerning Chris and his teacher that we need to talk to you about.” He glanced toward Eddie, who made a face but then nodded. “But that can wait until later.”
She eyed them both, gaze narrow. “What’s his teacher’s name? I’ll run a background check to start.”
“Alice Desmond,” Eddie said. “Twenty-six or so, and she teaches the third grade at Durand. I think she went to UCLA.”
Athena nodded. “Come to dinner at my house tonight.”
“Sure,” Buck agreed despite the fact that it hadn’t been a question.
Her phone pinged, and she checked it. “Okay, Lou’s ready for you. Of everyone in the room, keep in mind that he’s there for you, Buck. He doesn’t have any sort of agenda going into this. The IA detective is invested in protecting her own department, and the FBI agent is a difficult read. He’s made it clear he doesn’t think anyone in this situation should get a pass.” She paused. “Except you, he doesn’t think you need to go to jail, but you’re about the only one. He’d like to see charges filed against both chiefs for involving a civilian in such a situation at all.”
“Well, that’s something,” Buck said. “And they all agree that Eddie can stay with me?”
“Very reluctantly,” Athena said. “But the chief told them they had to deal with it.” She opened the door. “You can expect them to be a little salty about it.”
Buck thought they could all kiss his ass. It must have shown on his face because she just grinned and shook her head before leaving the room. They followed her through the double doors, down a hall, and to an interview room. Athena shot one of the men a hard look and got a grin in return. She shut the door with a huff.
Buck was torn because if the dude was flirting with Athena, he figured he should say something about that. But, also, Athena would probably curse him out.
“Mr. Buckley, Mr. Diaz, thank you both for coming in. I’m Detective Lou Ransone, Major Crimes. Detective Jenna Macy, Internal Affairs and SSA Don Eppes with the FBI. Agent Eppes is an observer for this interview.”
Buck nodded. “What do you do at the FBI, Agent Eppes?”
“I run a Violent Crimes response team,” Eppes said. “Detective Ransone requested me as I’ve worked with him on several cases over the years.”
“Violent crimes like—hate crimes?” Buck questioned. “Is that an avenue you’re considering?”
“There’s no indication that the two cops that attacked you had any other motive than financial,” Eppes said neutrally. “But I have investigated hate crimes in the past.”
Buck nodded and sat down at the table. Eddie slid into the chair beside him.
“Is there any particular reason why you need your boyfriend here?” Detective Macy questioned snippily as she sat down.
“Fiancé. I was nearly murdered by two on-duty police officers,” Buck said, and she flinched back from him. “I wouldn’t be in this building alone for any single reason outside of being put in cuffs and forced into it.”
Macy flushed and shared a glance with Ransone. “I see.”
“I hope you do,” Buck said flatly and tapped his fingers idly on the table. “I haven’t done a single damn thing in this situation to deserve anyone in this room giving me attitude.”
“Quite,” Ransone interjected and set a digital recorder on the table.
Buck listened as the detective made verbal notes regarding the interview into the recorder and listed all the occupants of the room, then the man focused on him. “Mr. Buckley, please describe the attack with as much detail as you can starting from the beginning.”
“I was in my Jeep in the parking garage of my building. I’d just returned home from the deposition phase of the fake lawsuit. Mackey had been especially vicious to members of my team, and I was upset about the whole thing. I really regretted agreeing to go undercover at that point because I felt like the whole operation was destroying my life.
“I got a phone call from Christopher, Eddie’s son. He’d called to cheer me up because Eddie had told him I had a bad day. Which was really true though, at the time, Eddie didn’t know the whole of the situation. Chris is eight and can be chatty, so I was just listening to him and answering his questions. It was helping. He’s a cheerful kid, for the most part, and he was clearly on a mission to make me feel better.
“The glass on the driver’s side window broke, and I was hit in the head. I dropped my phone as they dragged me out of the Jeep. I was disoriented, and it didn’t take much effort for them to put me on the ground. When it first started, I yelled out to Christopher where I was, but then I tried…really hard…not to scream because I didn’t want him to hear it.”
“Jesus, Buck,” Eddie muttered and rubbed his face with a shaking hand.
“I just figured he has enough trauma,” Buck said in his own defense. “There was some screaming though—a woman, I think. They were trying to pull me into a car, and I wasn’t making it easy. I lost consciousness then I woke up in the hospital. I was told by my doctor that at some point in the altercation that they’d managed to drug me—ketamine. I don’t remember the injection. I remember getting hit in the ribs with the baseball bat and getting my left leg kicked, though.”
“And your left leg is the one that was crushed under the ladder truck earlier in the year,” Ransone said as he made a note in a small notebook. “During the serial bombing case?”
“Yes.” Buck cleared his throat. “I assume they intended on rebreaking it, which was just malicious since their end goal was my murder.” He cleared his throat. “So, Mackey has taken the city for a lot of money. More than enough money to have stopped and fucked off somewhere to live his best life.”
“Yes, and?” Macy questioned.
“So, maybe money wasn’t his motive,” Buck speculated. “Every single interaction I had with him felt desperate on his part. He clearly has a grudge. I wouldn’t have been involved at all if he hadn’t sought me out specifically. He saw me as another opportunity to make the city pay for something. I suppose you should probably figure what that is.” He shrugged when she glared at him. “Maybe he spent most of his cut buying cops and city officials. That’s your part of the investigation, right?”
“Partially,” Detective Macy said. “Agent Eppes and his team will be handling the mayor’s office and assisting with city administration as well. The conspiracy could go quite deep. Did you inform Detectives Mills and Carson that you were in a relationship with Mr. Diaz prior to agreeing to the undercover operation?”
“They knew we were best friends,” Buck said. “And that I insisted on having some sort of access to Christopher. It was the only stipulation I put on the whole thing. My future stepson has been through a lot, and I didn’t want to see him hurt in this mess.”
“But you introduced Mr. Diaz as your fiancé,” she pressed. “Had they known about the intimate relationship, they would’ve made different choices for the operation.”
“That part is recent. We just got our heads out of our asses on the subject,” Buck said easily and relaxed in his chair when she blinked in surprise. “Our coworkers will be relieved. They used to practically drown in our UST.”
“So, you went from best friends to engaged since the assault?” Macy asked skeptically.
“Attempted murder,” Buck corrected firmly and frowned at her. “Stop trying to minimize what happened to me, Detective Macy. It’s insensitive, uncalled for, and borderline harassment. Also, I can do without the judgment regarding my personal choices, which are none of your damned business.
“I was asked by the LAPD to do them a favor, and I did that favor to the best of my ability despite the emotional and physical toll it took on me. Because the police officers involved didn’t do their damn jobs before and during the operation, I was nearly killed. I don’t have to be here. I can stand up, walk out of this room, and go straight to the nearest lawyer’s office. Then you can spend the next five years talking to them instead of me.”
She paled, and Ransone cleared his throat.
Eppes sucked air through his teeth. “I think we can all agree that Mr. Buckley had the right to expect back up during this operation, and the LAPD failed in their due diligence on the subject.”
“Yes, we can agree,” Ransone said smoothly and shot Macy a look when she started to speak. “Mr. Buckley adhered to the agreement to the best of his ability while undercover. The fact is that Christopher Diaz’s phone should’ve never been attached to his father’s name. Why Detectives Mills and Carson allowed such an oversight is beyond me. They knew Chase Mackey had access to Mr. Buckley’s phone records as part of the discovery process. He monitored his client as a matter of record to ensure he wasn’t harassed by the defendants.”
“I didn’t realize he had ongoing access to my phone records until after the fact,” Buck admitted. “He didn’t say that, and neither did the detectives. But if they knew, then they set me up to fail at this whole thing.” He paused. “Is that incompetence or what? Surely this would’ve gone nowhere if Mackey had known the LAPD was investigating him, so they probably weren’t on his payroll.”
“They’re under investigation,” Ransone said. “Is there anything you can tell us about Chase Mackey that wasn’t included in the reports you filed with Detectives Carson and Mills?”
“No, I was thorough, I thought,” Buck said. “They never said otherwise and rarely acknowledged the emails I sent them from the account that was set for it. Maybe they just didn’t take the case seriously at all, despite the involvement of the Chief of Police.”
“Did you have any interactions with Detective Mills or Carson that made you question their motives?” Macy questioned.
“No, but I accepted them at face value because my chief told me I could trust them and the LAPD,” Buck said, and Ransone winced. “Lesson learned.”
* * * *
“Well, they’re going to avoid putting you on the witness stand,” Athena said wryly but then raised an eyebrow. “And what’s this about an engagement?”
Buck blushed. “It’s…new.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head at them and motioned them into the house. “You just ruined several years of bets because not a single damn person bet that you’d just show up engaged one day.”
“You and Bobby eloped,” Buck said in his defense. “In the midst of planning a wedding.”
Bobby grinned from the kitchen island and shrugged. “She had a great dress.”
Buck decided to ignore the smug look Athena tossed her husband’s way.
“Where is Christopher?” Bobby questioned.
“Considering the topic tonight, we decided he should stay with Abuela,” Eddie said. “The situation at the school stressed him out as is.”
Athena motioned them to sit. “Alice Desmond is from Los Angeles, did study education at UCLA, and is currently single. No criminal record, no civil judgments, and she shares a duplex with an older woman named Winifred Hollister. Mrs. Hollister told me that Alice is an ideal neighbor who goes out of her way to help her bring in her groceries and take out the trash.”
“She struck me as very nice the few times I met her,” Eddie said.
“What has she done?” Athena questioned and flipped open a black leather notebook.
“I don’t know the full details as the school is investigating,” Eddie murmured. “She…singled Christopher out and made him uncomfortable by being too nice to him. She claimed in the meeting today that she merely sought to give him some female attention because he wasn’t getting it at home. She asked about his mother’s death and told him he should be prepared to get a new mom. Eventually, she asked about my relationship status and dropped her whole campaign of winning my son’s favor when he told her that Buck was my boyfriend.”
“Did you ask Christopher if she made any physical contact with him?” Athena questioned with dark, furious eyes.
“He said that she didn’t touch him—that she was just too nice. Today, during a meeting with the principal of Durand, Ms. Desmond admitted to having a wager with another teacher about which one of them could…well, she agreed to the word date, but we’re pretty sure it was about sleeping with me,” Eddie said and flushed. “The school board is going to be involved in the situation, and I can only hope that it doesn’t get to the students. I’ve had Christopher moved to a different classroom, and we cautioned her not to approach him at all for any single reason. The principal assured me that she would take care of it. I’m just not…sure I can take him back to the school, though.”
“I understand,” Athena said. “There’s a month left until winter break. Maybe we should focus on finding him a new school that the education grant you get will cover.”
“We’ll work with Carla on it,” Eddie said. “I’ll talk to Christopher about what he wants because he does like the school, and I’d hate for him to feel punished for this situation. He just asked to be moved to a different classroom, and the principal arranged that today while we were there.” He rubbed his mouth. “It’s honestly embarrassing as hell, Athena. But also, I’m furious that someone would attempt to use my child like this. He doesn’t really understand what she was trying to do, and I’m grateful for that. I admit, though, that I do have a soft spot for people who are good with Christopher.”
“Well, who wouldn’t?” Bobby questioned and squeezed his shoulder gently. “Did she contact you personally?”
Eddie frowned, and Buck raised an eyebrow. “I…well, the times I would go to pick up Christopher from school, she would talk to me? Sometimes there would be notes with his homework praising his classroom participation that seemed longer than what I would get from the school last year. I chalked that up as the difference between public and private schools. She has fewer students and more time.”
“If she subtly flirted with him, he probably wouldn’t have noticed,” Buck said frankly. “You’ve seen him on a scene, Bobby.”
“Yeah,” Bobby admitted with a nod. “People have to practically wave their phone numbers in his face.”
Eddie flushed. “Just because I’m professional….” Athena started laughing. “I hate all of you.”
“Seriously, he wouldn’t have noticed unless she really put herself out there, and I don’t know that she’d have been that unprofessional,” Buck said. “She was clearly expecting Christopher to do her heavy lifting by praising her at home while she engaged him as often as possible at the school.”
“We did tell her that she wasn’t allowed to seek Christopher out for any sort of conversation, and if she did, we’d file a police report and seek a restraining order,” Eddie explained. “It seemed to get through to her.” He paused. “She cried.”
“Eddie feels guilty about that, but I don’t,” Buck said plainly. “Her behavior was completely out of line.”
“Agreed,” Athena said. “And I’m willing to caution her and file a report on the matter for record-keeping in case it escalates. Right now, it’s a civil matter, but it could quickly become a criminal one if she interacts with Christopher without your permission now that you’ve disallowed it, Eddie. I’m sure the principal is handling it, but I can go over there on Monday and have a talk with her just to make sure.”
“I think I want that, yes,” Eddie admitted. “Principal Summers took it seriously, but I want her to realize that we’re taking it very seriously as well. The circumstances are uncomfortable and infuriating for several reasons. I’m just not one of those men who’d find something like this remotely flattering. And I have to wonder if she confessed to the bet she’d made with the other teacher as a way of complimenting me? Is that weird?”
“No, it makes perfect sense,” Buck said. “She was also trying to deflect attention off of her behavior as well and to make the situation about you and not about Christopher, despite how she used him to further her goals. And some men would be amused and even turned on by the idea of two attractive women vying for their attention.”
“This other woman? What’s her name?” Athena questioned.
“Ana Flores, she teaches fourth grade,” Eddie said. “I think I’ve met her in passing, or maybe I saw her at an open house? She’s attractive and friendly. I think she’s the one that told me she hoped to have Christopher in her class next year.” He frowned. “This is ugly.”
“Very,” Buck said. “You’re allowed to be offended, Eddie, and not just about how she interacted with Christopher. You can be offended for yourself.”
Eddie nodded and sighed. “What do you know about the two cops that were supposed to be watching Buck’s back during the thing with Mackey?”
“They’ve been suspended and are under investigation by IA,” Athena said. “The union is involved, so they probably won’t lose their jobs. They’ll certainly be moved out of Major Crimes due to the mishandling of the case. The terms and conditions of Mackey’s plea deal are still being worked on.”
“I hope they have Mackey in a secure location,” Eddie muttered. “Someone might try to kill him.”
“It’s a consideration,” Athena agreed. “The chief and the DA are working to keep this situation out of the media, so plea deals are going to be offered left and right to avoid a scandal. I can’t promise it won’t get out in some fashion or another. But they’re going to want to minimize it as much as they can. The deputy mayor will be made to resign prior to arrest, which is the only information I’ve been given on that front.”
* * * *
“My therapist says I have many issues to work through,” Bobby said, and Buck raised an eyebrow. “I know. Obviously.”
Buck laughed. “It’s good to get it out in the open.”
“Maybe,” Bobby muttered. “Athena laughed until she cried. At any rate, I let HR know you’d be back on the schedule in two weeks. I immediately got a phone call from the chief, who basically gave me some weird kind of shovel talk about taking my people and their loyalty for granted.” He huffed and rolled his bottle around in his hands. “Which is true. I took a lot of things for granted before and after the bombing. I made decisions for you, which was an immense abuse of power as your boss and profoundly hurtful on a personal level.
“I’d tear someone a new one for failing to respect your autonomy, but then turned around and stomped all over it myself. The hypocrisy of that will be sticking in my gut for a while.”
“I’m just worried that you don’t really trust me, Bobby,” Buck said quietly and glanced back toward the house where Eddie and Athena were still seated at the dinner table. “You never question the others when it comes to their ability to work. Hell, Chim came back to work a month after getting a piece of rebar straight through his head and didn’t have to recertify. How is that a thing?”
“All of that happened through HR and a department doctor,” Bobby said. “They determined he didn’t need to recertify, not me. But I did schedule him as soon as I was allowed without questioning it, so you’re right about that. I also ignored the headaches he got for six months afterward, even the ones that required him to miss work. He really should’ve spent that whole period on medical leave.”
“Yeah, he should’ve,” Buck agreed. “But that’s done, I suppose, unless something else comes up on that front. Cosmo said I was an idiot for thinking my whiteness would protect me from dirty cops.”
Bobby snorted. “Yeah, he’s been complaining about it a bit on shift. Apparently, you shouldn’t be allowed to be out and about unsupervised. The whole shift decided that you definitely don’t get go play at the LAPD’s house anymore.”
Buck sighed. “I hate everyone.” He slouched on the lounger when Bobby laughed. “I know the engagement thing seems weird.”
“Oddly, it doesn’t seem weird at all,” Bobby admitted. “And that’s weird. The two of you were practically a unit from the first day. I was worried, at first, and realized I hadn’t handled the new hire well when it came to you. But you have to know, by now, I hired him to be your partner because really no one else on the shift was a match for you on the heavy rescue front.”
“I figured it out,” Buck admitted. “But a head’s up would’ve kept me from spiraling a little. I know what my issues are, Bobby, and being discarded isn’t a new experience for me. My parents don’t care about me at all. Maddie disappeared from my life repeatedly and…I can’t blame her exactly, considering what was going on with Doug. But I felt adrift and really lonely until I came to the 118. I used sex to make myself feel better, for good and bad. I tried hard not to use people at the same time. Chim apparently thought I was a womanizer.”
Bobby sighed. “Well, you can’t take that opinion seriously considering his history with women. His inferiority complex practically has a zip code. Chim has some things to work through when it comes to you, and I made sure he knew it. I don’t know how much of it is really even about you specifically.”
“Maybe not much at all,” Buck said. “But I’m not going to take any more of his toxic jokes, just so you know. Nearly getting murdered twice has sort of destroyed my patience for that kind of bullshit.”
“I realize you have a right to your own experiences, but please stop talking about people trying to murder you,” Bobby said roughly and frowned when Buck laughed. “I trust you to know your limits. I trust you to have the backs of every single member of our team. I just need you to work on some cultivating some damned self-preservation.”
“I…the thing is, Bobby, I’d never do a damn thing to hurt Christopher. Getting myself recklessly killed would do that. I can’t say I’ve ever had that perspective before, and sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around it.”
“Kids ruin you,” Bobby said roughly. “Destroy you; remake you and your priorities. I can’t recommend parenthood enough.”
“I don’t know where to start,” Maddie said and stared into the cup of tea Buck had put down in front of her.
Buck settled into a chair on the opposite side of the small dining table. He’d come back to the loft to give Eddie and Christopher a little space, though both had protested it. Still, he figured that they needed to have a few conversations about the school and about their new relationship that Buck shouldn’t be around for. He wanted Christopher to be very honest with Eddie about everything.
“I make a point of not getting in the middle of your relationship with Chim,” Buck said pointedly. “I don’t appreciate you injecting yourself into the working relationship I had with him.” She flinched. “And you had no right whatsoever to use your personal relationship with a coworker to manipulate Bobby Nash into doing what you couldn’t do.”
“You had a pulmonary embolism,” Maddie protested. “You pushed too much….” She trailed off with a huff when he held up a hand.
“I’ve contacted a lawyer about medical malpractice, actually. Absolutely no one told me that I should be worried about blood clots. There was no treatment plan in place for it when it was to be expected due to the crush injury. My new orthopedic surgeon is very concerned about the entire process and is reviewing everything, including my physical therapy.” Buck took a deep breath. “And every single bit of physical therapy and exercise that I did was monitored by someone else. I followed the instructions regarding exercises at home to the damned letter, Maddie. But Eddie already told you all of this.”
“Being a firefighter is too dangerous,” Maddie said.
“It’s not even in the top ten of the most dangerous jobs in this country,” Buck said flatly. “I’ve rarely been injured during the course of my actual job. The bombing wasn’t a job risk; it was a life risk. I could get in a car accident tomorrow and die. I won’t be coddled by anyone, Maddie. I’m not going to stop living my life because some asshole bombed the ladder truck I was on because he was pissed at Bobby.”
She frowned and lowered her gaze. “I…what are the top ten most dangerous jobs in the US?”
“Logging, aircraft flight crew, oil and gas mining workers, roofing, garbage collection, steelworkers, commercial driving, farming and ranching, firefighting supervisors, and power linemen. And Bobby is more likely to be hurt or killed during the supervision of a traffic accident than for any other reason during the course of his day.” He took a drink from his water bottle. “But it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to structure my life or my career around your comfort, Maddie.”
“That isn’t what….”
“That’s exactly what you tried to do,” Buck said sharply. “You also managed to do a lot of damage to a relationship that I value a lot. I’m not sure Bobby and I will ever get back where we were.” He pressed his lips into a thin line when she started to cry. “I need you to go to therapy and deal with your issues, Maddie.”
“This isn’t about my issues! You’re my family. I just want you to be safe!”
“Jesus Christ,” Buck muttered and stood from the table. “I’m not a child, Maddie. I spent the better part of a decade on my own without a single bit of family around. I love you, but I’m not going to let you tell me how to live.” He cleared his throat. “And I did listen to that voice mail you left me. It was no more or less what I expected from you if I’m honest. I’m sure you regret it. But I’d rather not hear an apology for it.”
“Why?” Maddie questioned. “Buck…I was just upset…you didn’t deserve anything I said.”
“I know I didn’t.” Buck waved a hand and leaned on the counter. “It’s not about that. It’s about…the thing is that maybe I was a little thoughtless with this whole thing. You believed I was thoughtless and self-absorbed about the lawsuit. You probably weren’t the only one thinking that before the truth came out. And maybe, I was a little thoughtless in my agreement to help the LAPD. If I’d thought about it a bit more, maybe I’d have said no. Or maybe I’d have gotten an immense amount of pressure to do it anyway, and I’d have caved to keep my job.
“I regret certain parts of it, but I honestly don’t regret much about the deposition process because everything said and done was accurate—the absolute fucking truth—and they needed to hear it. I’m really tired of being the only one to own the consequences of what I do and what is done to me when it comes to the work I do. If Chimney can’t handle that—it’s between the two of us and none of your business.”
Maddie gaped at him. “I have a right to be concerned!”
“Sure, but you don’t have the right to smother me with that concern,” Buck said evenly. “You don’t have the right to sabotage my relationships and career with that concern. You don’t have the right to run roughshod over every single decision I make because you don’t agree. You’re not always right, and even if you were, I’m entitled to make my own decisions and mistakes.”
“You’re so young.”
“I’m an adult,” Buck said exasperation. “I’ve been on my own for a long time, and I grew up. I need you to understand and see that, or I don’t think we’ll be able to have a relationship going forward. I legitimately can’t afford to have a dysfunctional relationship with you. Do you understand? I need to focus on my own healing—across the board.”
“I understand,” she whispered. “You’ve been through a lot. I wish….” She frowned and trailed off. “I guess it doesn’t matter what I wish.”
“I don’t want you to think I don’t care about your opinions,” Buck said. “I just need you to recognize that I have the right to do what I think is best for me regardless of what you want.”
“I wish I’d never left you with our parents,” Maddie blurted out. “I think they were probably horrible to you and never told me. I wish I’d never married Doug. I wish I’d run from him the first time he hit me, and I don’t know what I didn’t. I always thought I was stronger than that. I never imagined I would tolerate such a thing. But I did. I did it for years, and I don’t understand why. Maybe I never will. It wasn’t love because I don’t remember ever loving him.”
Buck remembered a point when his sister had appeared to be enthralled by Doug Kendall, but he couldn’t imagine saying that aloud considering what happened. “I never liked him, but I don’t think I knew enough about the world to really understand what he was doing and what that would…I wish I’d understood.”
“I don’t,” Maddie said flatly. “He’d have killed you, Evan. I don’t doubt that in the least, and please don’t ever blame yourself for me staying with him. That was all on me, and I know it. I had the resources to leave but didn’t. I thought about leaving dozens of times, but every single time I talked myself out of it. I always believed he’d go completely off the rails if I left. I just thought…I hoped I was wrong.”
“He was always going to be exactly what he was, and none of that was your fault,” Buck said. “No matter what he told you.”
“Why don’t you want an apology?” Maddie asked quietly.
“Because you won’t be apologizing for the right thing,” Buck said wearily. “You’re sorry you hurt my feelings, I’m sure. I accept that, but you aren’t sorry for your behavior, and that’s the problem, Mads. I need you to work on yourself and stop trying to parent me.”
She brushed fresh tears from her face. “I…understand.”
“When will you start seeing someone about your problems?” Buck questioned.
“I started with the online service, and I’m being very honest,” Maddie said. “I’ve had one video session and two chats. I’ve scheduled more, and I’ve already been told I’ll probably need a referral to a psychiatrist for medication.” She took a deep breath. “Which I expected to be the case; I’ve been struggling with depression for a while.”
“Well, if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, then store-bought is fine,” Buck said and smiled when she laughed. “Seriously, though, if you need some sort of medication—get it and take it. Life is really short, Maddie, and dealing with personal misery for no damn good reason is bullshit.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of life being short, I asked Eddie to marry me, and he said yes.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You aren’t even dating.”
“We decided to skip right over that,” Buck said and flicked a hand as he went to the fridge and refilled his flask. “And go straight to married people fights, make-up sex, and baby procurement.”
She snorted. “Right. I’m…wow…I’m happy for you.”
“Are you really?” Buck questioned.
“Yeah,” Maddie said and picked up her tea. “You two have been practically joined at the hip since you met. Honestly, you’ve probably spent more time together in the last two years than some married couples. It probably should sound crazy, but honestly, it doesn’t. I can just imagine how that went. I bet he didn’t even hesitate to say yes.”
Buck grinned and shrugged. He certainly wasn’t going to tell his sister the circumstances. In fact, they’d agreed to never discuss the actual proposal with anyone. “Yeah, something like that. I love him.”
“I know.” Maddie smiled. “We all know, but it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen. It’s clear that you’re both just stupid in love with each other. It’s kind of hard not to be jealous of it. I don’t think anyone has ever loved me the way Eddie loves you.”
Buck blushed and took a deep breath. “Mads.”
“Seriously,” Maddie said quickly. “He’s just all in on you, and that’s amazing.”
“Chim loves you,” Buck said, though he felt weird for defending the man. “I mean…he’s real with you, and I think that’s pretty much a first for him.”
“We’re in a difficult place,” Maddie said and frowned at her tea. “Maybe we both have too much baggage to be together. We’re working on it and considering couples counseling. I’ve been thinking about our relationship, and he enables a lot of my really bad habits. I think I’ve probably done the same for him. So, we’re going to work on that and our communication overall. He does love me, I don’t doubt that, but it’s a quiet and comforting love. Which was exactly what I needed after Doug.”
“Is that what you need now?” Buck questioned.
Maddie shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m working on it because life is short, and I’m nearly forty. I want a baby, Buck.” She flushed. “Doug refused to have children—he said he wouldn’t share me with anyone.”
“Does Chim want children?”
“I’ve never even asked!” Maddie exclaimed huffily. “See! We need to communicate!”
Buck laughed. “Yeah, you do. Probably soon if your biological clock is acting like a fan.” He swirled his finger in the air to make his point, and she huffed at him.
“Shut up,” Maddie muttered and frowned in her tea.
* * * *
Eddie paused just briefly when he heard his front door open. A set of keys dropped into the bowl on the table near the door, and he relaxed. “In the kitchen!”
“Where’s Chris?” Buck questioned.
“Down for a nap,” Eddie said and leaned on the counter as Buck walked across the room and straight into his space. He hooked a hand around Buck’s neck and pulled him in for a soft, brief kiss. “How’d things go with Maddie?”
“I was as frank with her as I could be,” Buck murmured and pressed his cheek against Eddie’s. “It’s hard because of her history. I’m furious with her, but I don’t feel comfortable letting her know that.”
“I know,” Eddie said. “It’s also kind of hard to actually be mad at her for any length of time.”
“She means well,” Buck said roughly, and his hands fell to Eddie’s hips. “I feel better just being here with you like this.”
Eddie understood that on a deep level because, almost from the start, Buck had been a safe place for him to fall. “Want to watch a movie?”
“No,” Buck muttered and lifted his head. “I’m exhausted and sad.”
“Then you need a nap,” Eddie murmured and stroked gentle fingers down Buck’s cheek. “Then we’ll figure out something for dinner. I’m back on shift tomorrow.”
Buck nodded. “Yeah, okay.” He let his head fall to Eddie’s shoulder, and he took a deep breath. “Sometimes I think it’s too hard to have a relationship with her, and that makes me feel like a dick. I need to set some serious boundaries, which is difficult because of her history. Doug controlled all of her interactions with others and….” He moved away and rubbed his face. “It’s just awful.”
Eddie snagged his hand, pulled him from the kitchen, and held his hand all the way to the bedroom. “I’ll lay down with you.”
“Well, that won’t be conducive to a nap,” Buck said wryly but unbuttoned his jeans as he toed off his sneakers.
Eddie watched him shed the jeans and crawl onto the bed in his boxers and t-shirt. “Well, we’ll leave the door open, so you won’t be tempted.”
“Yeah,” Buck snagged the blanket from the bottom of the bed and unfolded it. “Good idea. How long has he been down?”
“Just about ten minutes,” Eddie murmured and joined Buck on the mattress. “He wants something fun for dinner.”
“Which always equals tacos,” Buck said in amusement. “I think we have everything we need for it.”
Eddie tucked in close and pressed a kiss against Buck’s neck. “When do you see your therapist next?”
“Is that soon enough?”
Buck made a face and shrugged. “I mean, I’m not suffering or anything. Stuff got hard, and I just have to deal with it.”
Christopher shuffled into the room at that point, hooked his crutches on the footboard, and crawled onto the mattress. He huffed a little as Buck snatched him up and dropped him down in the spot that Eddie had made room for between them. “I’m still tired.”
Eddie watched in amusement as Chris slouched against Buck and drifted off back to sleep. Buck dozed off pretty quickly, and Eddie just stayed where he was watching the two of them sleep. After a while, he pulled out his phone and logged into the therapy site. He had some reading to do on that front as his therapist had recommended several articles and a book on dealing with repression and toxic parents. He knew he had a habit of pushing trauma down deep until it exploded out of him, and he wanted to be better about it going forward.
When he was sure they were both down for the count, he eased out of bed and went out into the living room to have the video session he’d scheduled with his therapist after they’d returned to LA.
“I’m glad you kept the appointment today. I was worried when you canceled both sessions we had scheduled.” Dr. Cole shifted a notebook around in front of her and picked up a pen.
“Buck was physically assaulted, and I had to focus on him,” Eddie explained. “The lawsuit is over. I can’t really discuss the details or anything.”
“How are things between you?”
“Better than I ever expected them to be,” Eddie admitted and waffled about telling her about the engagement. He knew from an outside perspective it would seem weird and maybe even desperate. “He…asked me to marry him.”
She grinned. “Well.” She blew air out gently between her lips. “Congratulations on being utterly mistaken about his feelings for you.”
Eddie flushed. “Yes, well. I said yes.”
Dr. Cole nodded. “Was the assault on him traumatic?”
“They intended on killing him.” Eddie frowned and cleared his throat. “I realize he’s reactive right now, and it’s impacting him emotionally in ways he doesn’t even recognize. But I love him, and I couldn’t imagine saying no. That kind of rejection is the last thing either one of us needed in that moment. I meant it, though. I do want to marry him.”
“Yes, I know you do. But you should be prepared for him to go through a series of emotions over the next few months—not all of them positive. This marks the second time in less than a year that someone tried to kill him. I imagine the circumstances are connected, and that magnifies the original trauma. He’s in therapy, correct?”
“Yeah,” Eddie murmured and rubbed his mouth roughly. “Since shortly after he got out of the hospital when the ladder truck was bombed. He’s been doing the work on that front, and the results are obvious. It’s why I signed up for this service because I could see the progress he was making before the lawsuit happened. I realized I needed an outlet after he wasn’t here for me to talk to. I didn’t really comprehend how much I regularly unloaded on him until he wasn’t available. It made me question how equal our friendship is.”
“Well, in a healthy relationship of any sort, a balance is achieved through communication and hard work. Recognizing that you’ve been emotionally unavailable in the past will help you going forward.”
Eddie nodded. “Yeah, I know. But, also? Also, I just sort of prefer to be unavailable most of the time on that front. It makes it easier to control…I know that’s a button my parents installed. I wasn’t really allowed to have any sort of opinion or emotional response when I lived in their house. They honestly wish they could tell me how to feel now. They want to do the same thing to Christopher, and I know I can’t allow that.”
“I’d like you to read a few things on parental alienation,” Dr. Cole said. “I’ll email you some links of resources that I trust. Additionally, people are often hesitant to see a lawyer when issues like this crop up with their parents. But knowing what your resources are going forward would only be to your benefit both emotionally and legally. How are they going to respond to your relationship with a man?”
“They like to pretend they’re modern and woke,” Eddie said roughly. “But they’re old-school Catholics who practically swim in toxic masculinity. They have some ignorant ideas about homosexuals and often try to micromanage my relationships to make themselves feel better. They used to interrogate me regularly about the roommate I had before I married Shannon. I did sleep him with often, but it wasn’t anything romantic. I won’t hide Buck or ask him to hide from my parents like some dirty secret. So, I guess I will consult a lawyer just to get my ducks in a row on that front.”
“It’ll help,” she said. “Just for peace of mind. Anytime you can reduce your stress on any one issue, do so. Little issues can pile up on you until they weigh a ton, and you won’t know how to get out from underneath it.”
“Because there wouldn’t be a single solution,” Eddie said roughly. “I get it. I’m working on being honest with myself even I don’t always get the words out of my mouth.”
“Doing the work is important—each step forward is a victory, so don’t focus on what you haven’t accomplished yet. It’s okay to be a work in progress, Eddie.”
Eddie laughed and relaxed on the couch. “Yeah, okay.”
* * * *
Eddie checked his watch as he parked in front of the medical complex where Buck was getting an MRI done. He’d dropped Buck off at the doctor’s office then had taken Christopher to his abuela’s since they were running a lot of errands, and Chris hated to be carted around town a lot in the truck. He’d made it back to the orthopedic facility and was relieved Buck wasn’t waiting on a bench. He looked up and watched as Buck left the building through a pair of double doors.
“What’d the doctor say?” Eddie questioned as Buck slid into the passenger seat of the truck.
“Everything is fine,” Buck said and slouched back against the seat. “No clots in evidence, range of motion is on point, strength is good. He said to give myself a week off, but I’ve got two. I’m ready to go, basically. He’ll send all of that to my regular ortho, but I don’t expect a different opinion. I just wanted this check today because of the attack and the previous clot.”
“Why don’t you sound excited about going back to work?” Eddie questioned curiously.
Buck shrugged. “I haven’t really been on the job in seven months; I guess I have a mental stumbling block over it actually happening. And despite the apologies, I don’t expect it to be smooth sailing with everyone. No matter the reason behind it, the lawsuit brought up a lot of trauma and hurt feelings.”
Eddie nodded as he started the truck. “I know, but I’d like you to keep in mind going forward that you’d have been right to actually sue. It might have made getting another job as a firefighter harder, but the circumstances were awful and unfair.”
“Yeah,” Buck said quietly. “It’s hard to ignore some of the things Mackey revealed during the depositions. It was really clear that I had an actual case for unfair treatment. Everyone says that I’m Bobby’s favorite, but I have to think that’s actually Chim because he gets away with a lot on the job.”
“I always kind of thought that Chim’s Bobby’s lost cause,” Eddie admitted frankly, and Buck’s mouth dropped open. “Honestly, Buck, sometimes Howard Han is downright fucking pathetic.”’
“Wow.” Buck exhaled. “Eddie.”
“I know you’ve thought it,” Eddie muttered as he pulled out of the parking lot. “You give him a pass on the regular because of Maddie and maybe even before her because of the rebar thing or because you thought you had to.”
“Yeah,” Buck murmured. “I mean, sometimes he’s a lot. He is better now that he’s with Maddie, but he could certainly use some improvement.” He hummed under his breath when Eddie pulled into a parking lot near a bunch of food trucks. “I wonder if that Greek truck is here.”
“Yeah, I saw the sign,” Eddie said. “That’s why I pulled in. Julio’s is here too, so we can get some stuff for dinner as well. Chris likes the barbacoa.”
* * * *
“I think maybe you resent Chimney more than I do,” Buck said.
Eddie glanced around the kitchen and shrugged. They’d brought the food back to the house so they could store dinner and not have to eat in the sun. “Sometimes he’s an asshole, and I have to admit he’s said some things about you during this whole thing that have stuck with me. He’s immensely jealous of you on the job and was complaining because he’d overheard you talking about starting the work to become an engineer while you were on medical leave.”
Buck nodded. “I can certify for that in three months, and I’ve done all the course work. I just have a test to pass, and it’s a done deal. He’s pissy because a firefighter engineer would technically outrank him despite his time on the job, and he actively discouraged me from doing the work for it. He said it would be a waste of time since Fuentes is the engineer for our shift. The thing is, there is room for two, but Bobby never bothered to hire another. Cosmo does all the work, and he could use a second. I don’t know why that can’t be me. Since Cosmo is primary, I wouldn’t be assigned to an apparatus.”
“Fuentes outranks Chim,” Eddie said with a frown. “Then why wasn’t he made acting captain when Bobby was suspended?”
“He didn’t want to do it,” Buck said and shrugged. “He’d only been with us six months when that happened and asked the chief to consider the emotional atmosphere of the shift when making that decision. Cosmo isn’t fond of the personal dynamics on A shift and would’ve already moved to another shift if there was room for him. He considered moving to another house before the bombing, but I guess he’s done some bonding at this point and settled in. He did say that he wouldn’t step aside the next time something like that happens because acting Captain Han was a lot.”
“Yeah,” Eddie muttered. “And I guess I do resent him more than you do because I’ve had to put up with him at work during this whole thing. I’m sure he feels sorry for what he’s said and done now, but he played the victim really well at Bobby’s house after the deposition. He really seemed to enjoy Maddie’s attention and her anger toward you, which was extremely off-putting. Whatever she said to you in that voice mail, he probably encouraged.”
“She called me selfish, immature, thoughtless, and reckless,” Buck said. “She also told me that only the worst kind of person goes through life leaving nothing but destruction in their wake, and that’s how she saw my life going if I didn’t get over myself.”
“Wow,” Eddie muttered. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that shit.” He drank some water. “Chim told her how you kept interfering when Mackey was questioning me but didn’t with anyone else. They acted like that wasn’t fair.”
Buck snorted. “I tried to keep you out of it entirely, so I guess if they knew, they’d be pissed. I told Mackey point-blank that I didn’t want you in the depositions, and I didn’t want anything to do with your work at the 118 included in the lawsuit. He pushed back hard, and the detectives told me to let it go. I wish I hadn’t. I hate that you were hurt in all of this.”
“It doesn’t seem personal anymore,” Eddie admitted. “It honestly was a hard hit, but afterward, I was more worried about you than I was anything else. You looked like you’d fought a war after it was over, and the others were so wrapped up in their own feelings that they didn’t notice.”
“Well, it’s to be expected, right?”
“A little self-awareness doesn’t hurt anyone,” Eddie said roughly. “I get that you’ve forgiven them, and I understand why. It’s a healthy choice for you to make as long as you don’t accept any of their bullshit going forward.” He paused. “Or mine. If I step over the line with you, I want to know Buck.”
“Well….” Buck said and sighed. “You did give me a really judgy look when I added the baklava to my lunch order.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Whatever.” He cleared his throat. “Can I ask a question? I don’t want to upset you with it, so, if you need to take some time to answer it….”
“Yeah, okay,” Buck said and focused on him.
“During the interview with the LAPD, you seemed to distance yourself from Christopher in the way you spoke of him—he was just my son, and you said step-son once. But earlier in the day, you were comfortable calling him our son with the school. What’s the distinction there?”
Buck exhaled slowly. “I put a lot of emphasis on my contact with Christopher during the undercover operation, and I regret it. I don’t regret the part where I got to talk to him, but I feel like I put an unreasonable spotlight on him, and what if…what if Mackey had lashed out at him instead of me?” He cleared his throat. “I guess I was just trying to create a divide with those cops so that he wouldn’t be a target for whoever is left. Because I don’t believe that they’ve found everyone involved, and Mackey is probably holding a few names in reserve to get the best possible deal.”
“I’d straight up fucking murder anyone that came for my kid,” Eddie said and just stared when Buck blinked at him. “I wouldn’t even hesitate, Buck. So don’t worry about it. These people involved with Mackey, they’re all scrambling to cover their own asses, and at this point, it doesn’t include committing another crime. The two cops that attacked you were a problem, but they’re in jail, and they’ll probably stay there considering the charges.”
Buck relaxed a little and nodded. “Yeah, I know. That detachment was just for them. I’m really all in on being a family with you and Chris.”
Eddie reached out and caught one of Buck’s hands, clenched briefly, and pulled away. “I know. I was just surprised by the tone you took during the questioning. I’ve never seen you be that…cold with anyone.”
“I hated being surrounded by all those people that I didn’t know if I could trust,” Buck murmured. “I recognize my privilege in this, Eds. I’ve never really, truly feared cops before, not even when I’ve been pulled over.” He flushed and averted his gaze. “And now every single time I see a cop, I’m going to wonder if they knew those two guys working for Mackey were dirty and never said anything. I’ll wonder if they turned a blind eye while a suspect was beaten or even murdered in custody.”
“I get it,” Eddie said. “I’ve never been pulled over, but I’ve been followed a few times. Like they were looking for a reason to stop me. It happened more in Texas than it does here.”
“It’s good that you’ve never had that experience,” Buck said and frowned own at his collection of kabob sticks. “I should’ve gotten more.”
“Are you bulking?” Eddie questioned.
“Nah, I’m in maintenance at this point. But I’ve got to eat 3300 calories a day to stay where I am. I did do some bulking after I was finished with physical therapy because I’d lost some muscle mass during recovery. I wanted to be as fit as possible for recertification. I’m deadlifting 400 pounds when I work out. I’ve not tested my upper limit, though.
Eddie wet his lips. “Hmmm, so you weren’t kidding about that whole wall thing.”
Buck grinned. “Not at all.”
“I was thinking when I sell the loft that we could…get a bigger house sooner rather than later.” Buck flushed when Eddie focused on him. “Something bigger…room to expand our family.”
“Yeah,” Eddie murmured in agreement and smiled. “That sounds great. My lease on this house has about six months left on it. You could move in here while we prep the loft for sale and search for the right house. There’s time to get it right.”
“Yeah, that’s a plan.” Buck relaxed his shoulders purposefully and cleared his throat. “We should ask Chris.”’
“He already asked me when you were going to move in,” Eddie said as he picked up his watch and wrapped it around his wrist. “You two can talk about what kind of house you want today after school. Thanks for taking him and handling whatever comes with that. It’s really nice to have someone with me on this issue.”
“Athena is going to meet me there,” Buck said and shrugged when Eddie raised an eyebrow. “Her idea. She wants the principal to know how serious we are about this woman not having any contact with Christopher. I don’t think the other one should try to talk to him either. So, I’ll be making sure that Principal Summers knows that. I think it’s a given, honestly, but we’ll cover all the bases.”
“He did seem intimidated by the idea of being in Ana Flores class next year,” Eddie said. “Maybe he just anticipated a repeat of this year. If she becomes a problem, we’ll have to explore that emotional response on his part.” He paused. “Or should we get ahead of it?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Buck admitted. “Maybe we should ask his therapist about it when we get the evaluation that Principal Summers requested.”
“I made an appointment after school on Thursday,” Eddie said. “I’m off that day. I think he’ll want us both to be around before and afterward.”
Buck nodded. “Yeah, I think so as well. This situation is so fucking irritating, and it’s hard not to be hostile about it.”
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed. He rubbed his head in clear frustration and sat down on the bed to put on his shoes. “We need to tell Carla about the situation as well. I meant to call her but got distracted and forgot.”
“I can tell her. She’ll be picking up Chris since I have another damn doctor’s appointment.” He waved a hand in frustration. “I hate doctors at this point.”
“I get it,” Eddie said roughly. “Well, we don’t expect anything different from what was said on Saturday, right?”
“I don’t feel anything different,” Buck said and stretched his leg. “The bruising isn’t all that bad at this point. I’m good. I’d tell you if I felt like there was a problem.”
“I know,” Eddie said easily. “Just…checking in, I suppose. I’ve been told in the past that I’m not all that great on the front and tend to make assumptions that I shouldn’t.” He stood and walked over to where Buck was leaning on the dresser.
“You won’t have to drag information out of me,” Buck said in amusement and let one hand settle on Eddie’s hip as the other man crowded close. “I feel like I can tell you anything.”
Eddie brushed his mouth against Buck’s once, then again as he pressed up against him. The kiss deepened between one breath and the next. Buck cupped the back of Eddie’s head.
“Gah, all you do is kiss now. This is awful.”
Eddie pulled his mouth from Buck’s with a laugh. “You ready for school, mijo?”
“Sure,” Chris said with a shrug. “I even have my makeup assignments all in the folder. I don’t know what Mr. Monroe will do with them, though.”
“I’m sure they have a similar class structure due to state requirements,” Buck said easily. “Let’s go see what your lunch options are.”
“Can I have two oranges? I want to share with Susan.”
“Sure, we can do that,” Buck said in amusement.
“As friends,” Chris clarified huffily, and Eddie laughed a little.
“Well, of course, just friends. Will you have the same lunch period?” Buck questioned as he followed Chris down the hall and into the living room.
“Yes, we don’t have to sit with our classes in the lunchroom as long as we don’t get too loud.” Chris settled down at the table in the kitchen. “We sit with Lanie already, and she’s in Mr. Monroe’s class.”
Eddie entered the kitchen, keys in hand and work bag over his shoulder. “I’m heading out. You two stay out of trouble today.” He pressed a kiss to the top of Christopher’s head and another quick to Buck’s cheek, where he was at the counter with an insulated lunch bag. “Especially you.”
Buck laughed. “I’ll be fine.”
“Sure,” Eddie said wryly and shook his head as he walked away.
“You’re a trouble magnet, Buck,” Christopher said from the table, and Buck flushed as Eddie left the house laughing.
Buck pulled a pair of clementine oranges from a drawer in the fridge and put them on the table. “Okay, what are you thinking for your actual lunch?” He pulled an ice pack from the freezer and grabbed the containers that matched the lunch box. “There’s hummus?”
“Maybe a sandwich roll-up,” Chris said. “Turkey and cheese.”
“Yogurt or trail mix for your side?” Buck questioned.
“Yogurt,” Chris decided. “Buck, are you going to live with us?”
“Well, that’s what people do when they get married, most of the time,” Buck said. “Your dad and I are going to talk to you about it tomorrow.”
“Okay, I can wait for Daddy. I guess his input is important.”
Buck laughed. “Yeah, it is. Maybe you can start thinking about what kind of house you’d like.”
“We’d move, too?” Chris questioned.
“Well, this house isn’t very big,” Buck pointed out. “And it’d be nice if Carla had her own room when she has to spend the night.”
“Yeah, it would,” Chris agreed. “Okay, I’ll put that on my list.”
List, Buck thought and grinned. He couldn’t wait to see Eddie’s face when the kid presented a list of things he wanted in a new house.
“So, listen. We’ve told Principal Summers that Ms. Desmond isn’t allowed to approach you or talk to you. If she does, you need to tell Mr. Monroe immediately so he can deal with it. I’ll be talking to him this morning to when I take you to class.”
“You’re gonna take me all the way to class?” Chris questioned, and Buck noted the sour look on his face.
“Just this one day, okay? We want to make sure everything is going to go as requested and planned. You won’t have to worry about anything.”
“Did I make a big deal out of nothing, Buck?” Christopher asked quietly.
“No.” Buck left the counter and went to him. He squatted down beside Chris’ chair. “Hey, look at me.” Chris crossed his arms over his chest but turned to face Buck. “You didn’t make this a big deal, and none of this is your fault. When someone acts inappropriately, they are at fault, and any consequence they face is also their fault. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Chris frowned. “Will the other kids know?”
“No, and you shouldn’t talk about it, okay? People may ask you questions because you’ve been moved, but just say that your parents asked you to be moved and you don’t know why. I know it’s a lie, but it’s a small one because you don’t know everything about the situation.”
“Okay.” Chris made a face. “I hope no one asks me.”
Buck didn’t know if they’d get that lucky, but he hoped so as well.
* * * *
The school was bustling, and when they entered, Athena Grant was already standing near the main office with Principal Summers. She inclined her head and leaned on the wall as the principal came to them.
“Good morning, Christopher,” Principal Summers said with a smile and consulted her clipboard. “Your teacher, Ms. Desmond, has resigned for personal reasons, and all of her students are being moved to different classrooms. You’ll be in Mr. Monroe’s class. Do you know where to go?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Christopher said and glanced toward Buck, who nodded. “See you later, Buck.”
Buck watched him walk away, then glanced toward Athena. “Resigned?”
The principal passed the clipboard to the vice-principal who was hovering nearby. “Come with me, please, Mr. Buckley.”
Buck followed the principal into the office, and Athena joined them, pulling the principal’s office door shut behind her. “The school board hasn’t had time to meet.”
“No, in fact, they are scheduled to meet this evening to discuss the situation,” Principal Summers said. “Ms. Desmond resigned Sunday afternoon. I assume she didn’t want to have a termination following her to her next job. She cited an illness in her family in the email she sent. It was savvy and irritating.”
“Very,” Athena muttered.
“So, there won’t be anything else?” Buck questioned.
“I spoke with Ms. Flores on Friday afternoon. She’s mortified by the situation and the potential investigation by the school board. When she found out that Ms. Desmond resigned this morning, she asked me if she should resign as well. As far as I know, she’s only guilty of making a foolish and disgusting bet with a fellow teacher, but she will be made to answer questions by the school board. I’ve told her that her contract won’t be renewed for next year, and she’s been warned against any contact with Christopher. Her classroom is on the opposite side of the facility, so there’s no reason for them to cross paths. Mr. Monroe has been fully informed of the situation, so he can be proactive if there is a reason to be.
“As to Ms. Desmond, the school won’t be providing her with a reference. But she need not list us as a previous employer, and many smaller school districts wouldn’t check for past employment for a teacher as young as she is. That’s the frustrating part. Sergeant Grant and I have discussed it, and as far as we know, she’s done nothing to meet the burden of a criminal complaint. If something comes out in Christopher’s psychological evaluation…then…well, I hope there’s nothing for his sake.”
“No, agreed, but we certainly need to know,” Buck said and took a deep breath. “I think he’s been honest with us about it, but we did schedule an appointment for after school on Thursday.”
“Great. I realize Mr. Diaz has lost faith in the school as a result of this situation. I’m not sure how to rectify that.”
“Being proactive in the situation has certainly helped,” Buck said carefully. “Christopher loves it here, and we’ve been careful regarding the discussion of a different school because we don’t want him to get the impression that he’s being punished for other people’s behavior. Of course, we haven’t told him anything about the bet because he’s a savvy kid, and he’s likely to…figure out his teacher was trying to sleep with his dad if given any more information on that front.”
Principal Summers nodded, and her shoulders relaxed. “I’ve made every effort to keep the situation on a need-to-know basis. We’d prefer there not be any gossip about the situation. Ms. Flores has been ordered to keep her mouth shut about Ms. Desmond’s departure from the school. We spread the children from Ms. Desmond’s class across the other three teachers for the third grade.” She paused. “I did have to make an adjustment this morning when one of his fellow students arrived. I’d put little Susan Miller in Mrs. Royce’s class, and she insisted that she should go where ever Christopher went. So, we made a switch with a student who hadn’t arrived yet.”
“They’re very good friends,” Buck said in amusement. “All the way up to food sharing at this point.”
“That’s serious,” Athena said with a small laugh.
“He’ll be happy that she’s in his new classroom,” Buck said and took a deep breath. “Do I need to do anything else?” Because he felt like there was some parent-thing that he was missing out on. “I was going to walk him to class and speak with Mr. Monroe, but he clearly didn’t want me to. That’s about his independence more than anything else.”
“His fierce desire for independence is one thing that everyone has noticed,” Principal Summers acknowledged. “It’s something that many of the children here battle with—it’s my goal as an educator to teach them how to make the world work for them instead of against them. It’s an immense battle for some but preparing them for that is my honor.”
It was kind of hard to be upset with the woman for a variety of reasons. Buck knew she’d have never allowed the situation to go the way it had if she’d had a single inkling of the offensive little wager between the two women.
“How is Mr. Diaz?”
Buck sucked air through his teeth. “If it had just been about him and hadn’t involved Christopher, he would’ve probably been annoyed and…hurt. These two women saw his widowhood as an opportunity.” Principal Summers winced, and Athena made a short, angry sound. “And, in a way, they dehumanized him. But he’s furious because she manipulated his son. Christopher trusted Ms. Desmond, and she abused that trust. While Ms. Flores wasn’t directly involved, she had to know it was going on, and she told Eddie that she was looking forward to teaching Christopher next year.”
Principal Summers made a face. “We were already planning classes for next year based on current contracts. He would’ve been in her class. I’ve already made a different choice for him regardless of Ms. Flores’ contract status. She’s currently studying to get her Ph.D. in education.”
“She could use a perspective adjustment,” Athena muttered. “Because if her goal is school administration, she didn’t demonstrate good judgment in this situation. Out of curiosity, what was the bet for? What did the winner get beyond laid by a hot firefighter?”
Buck winced, and Principal Summers flushed bright red. “I didn’t ask. But whatever it is, couldn’t have been worth…this.”
“No, agreed,” Buck said and stood. “Eddie will be relieved that Ms. Desmond is no longer at the school, and that will have some impact on our decision about next year’s enrollment.”
In the outer office, a woman he’d never seen at the school was standing at the counter. She glanced between the three of them, her eyes widening slightly at the sight of Athena.
“Ms. Flores, what are you doing in here?” Principal Summers questioned stiffly.
“I heard that Christopher Diaz’s father was here, and I wanted…to apologize in person for my poor judgment.” She wet her lips. “Did I miss him?”
“Mr. Buckley is Christopher’s other parent,” Principal Summers said stiffly. “And Mr. Diaz has no interest in speaking with you or Ms. Desmond going forward. He was explicit in the desire, as I already explained to you.”
“It seems poor manners on my part not to apologize in person,” Ms. Flores said.
“It would be even poorer manners to violate my fiancé’s boundaries in your efforts to make yourself feel better,” Buck responded. “If you’re incapable of following instructions from your boss, I can ask a judge to tell you to leave my family alone.”
“Considering the circumstances, involving a minor, and the tawdry nature of the behavior of two elementary school teachers…getting a restraining order would be easy to accomplish,” Athena said.
Ms. Flores glanced between Buck and Athena, nodded, and left the office without a glance toward her superior.
“Well, she’s about to get fired,” Principal Summers muttered and checked her watch. “I can’t…I’m too old for this shit.”
Athena nodded her agreement, and Buck grinned at her.
“I’m also too old to be disobeyed by people who work for me,” Principal Summers said tartly and returned to her office.
Buck exhaled sharply and followed Athena out when she inclined her head toward the door. In the parking lot, she walked him to the Jeep. “Did I handle that okay?”
“Yeah, Buck, you did great,” Athena said. “The whole situation is ugly. I’ve made it clear to Principal Summers that I will launch a full-blown investigation into the school, complete with a pair of detectives specializing in sex crimes if the situation escalates.”
Buck sighed. “Eddie is mortified, you know.”
“I do know,” Athena admitted. “He doesn’t seem the sort to like his personal life given so much attention.”
“No, not at all. He doesn’t even like to be hit on. The others joke about him being oblivious about it, but that’s not really it. He just ignores it because he doesn’t…really understand that kind of overt sexual interest.”
“I see.” Athena leaned on the Jeep, and Buck joined her. “They don’t understand why you…took your slow ass time making your interest in Eddie known to him. We all saw it, but…it just seemed like you were afraid of it.”
“Not afraid, just…content to wait until he was ready. He loved Shannon, and he wanted to make it work for her for Christopher’s sake. Her death was more permanent than even the divorce she asked for.” Buck sighed. “Chim’s low on emotional intelligence, and Bobby takes his opinion onboard way too often. And not just about me.”
“I agree,” Athena admitted. “And I’ll be working on that. He’s been trying to fix him, I think, since before the rebar incident, and it’s not…going to happen.”
“Well, I wasn’t kidding about the therapy situation. They all really need it.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Because I can’t be the only one dealing with my shit. At least, not anymore. I need better from the people I want to call family.”
“Eddie on board with that? Bobby and I both suggested he see someone after Shannon died, but he shut us down.”
“Yeah,” Buck said. “We’re on the same page for the first time in a while. It’s good. It was Christopher that made him see that talking to someone about what he was feeling was necessary.”
* * * *
Eddie checked his footing just short of securing the vehicle to the cable attached to the ladder truck. Bosko was great on the ropes, but she didn’t have Buck’s physicality, so every single rope rescue he’d done with her had been slightly more stressful. She was good and made great decisions in the moment, but he couldn’t help but remember how reckless she’d been prepared to be on the day of the tsunami and how he’d basically had to sit on her to keep her from going into the field wounded.
“Vehicle secured,” Eddie reported and started to work down the side of the truck to check on the occupants. “Confirming two victims.” He checked the driver’s pulse as Lena appeared in the passenger side window to check on the other victim. “Driver has no pulse.”
“Passenger’s pulse weak,” Lena said. “We’ll need the basket for her.” She reached into the car ran her hand gently over the woman’s stomach. “She appears to be in the late stages of pregnancy.”
“Eddie, move to the passenger side. Bosko prepare to receive the basket.”
Eddie worked his way back up the side of the cliff, climbed over the car, and back down as Lena moved out of the way. He pulled open the passenger door, slid in close to get a better look, and took a deep breath. He activated his radio. “Cap, her water broke. I need to check the baby’s position.”
“I can do it,” Bosko offered as she secured the basket out of the way.
“Have you delivered a baby?” Eddie questioned, and she shook her head.
“Yeah, not…here.” Eddie grimaced. “Twice when I was in the Army.”
“In theater?” Bosko questioned.
“Yeah, once while doing a wellness visit to a village. I can’t talk about the second one in any kind of detail.” Eddie focused on the victim, pressed against her stomach in several places until he got a sharp kick in response. Then activated his radio again. “Fetus is active, currently feet down based on feel. We need to move her now. Let’s get her in a harness to ease the lift.”
“I can handle the weight.”
“So could I,” Eddie said. “But there’s no need to take any risks with her…and I need to make sure the baby doesn’t…fall out.” Her eyes went wide. “We have no idea how dilated she is or how long she’s been in labor. Her position could be the only thing keeping the fetus in place. I don’t think she’s very far into her third trimester. The baby is small based on movement and position.” Plus, visibility was low despite the lights they had on their gear.
Lena exhaled slowly and nodded.
It was a harrowing experience, and he missed Buck more than ever. Lena handled the maneuver decently and the transfer of the woman into the basket. Eddie took note of the blood in the seat and reported that to Hen as the basket was lifted away from the vehicle.
He took a deep breath as he watched the basket.
“Matching wedding bands,” Eddie said quietly and looked across the truck to the driver. “If all goes as well as it possibly can, she’s going to wake up a single mother.”
“What a terrible fucking day,” Lena muttered.
The ride back to the station was mostly quiet, though Eddie did listen to enough of the chatter to find out that Hen delivered the baby in the ambulance three minutes before they got to the hospital. A premature girl. He hoped they made it, but they’d probably never know one way or another.
He took a shower, dressed in a fresh uniform, and found a spot in the loft to focus on his phone.
Buck: School situation handled. Desmond resigned over the weekend. Athena was there and we had a good conversation with the principal.
Buck: Got a phone call from Ransone. Mackey finally signed the plea deal and produced the list of names. I hope it was accurate. Most of the case will be federal going forward. My part is probably done.
Buck: Confession—I ordered pizza for dinner. Chris was thrilled. Carla judged me hard.
Eddie laughed and shook his head. It was too late to text back, so he sat back in the chair and closed his eyes.
“The 118 gets more heavy rescue than I ever saw at the 136.”
He looked up and focused on Bosko. “Light brigades are seconded to SAR if the 56 is busy, and they often are. Plus, Bobby makes sure that each shift has at least two assets on shift that are certified for it. Buck and I are both assigned to an SAR reserve unit. Reynolds on B shift is, too.”
Bosko nodded. “I’ve never bothered with extra certifications. Which would be the most beneficial?”
“Flood and swift water, ground search and rescue, vertical rescue—wilderness since you already have urban and close quarters would all benefit you.”
“My lack of advanced certs is why you don’t trust me in the field,” Bosko said.
“I trust you,” Eddie said, and he did, but not like he trusted Buck. “But I do worry that you don’t respect your own limits. It’s kind of hard to forget that you tried to go into the field during a natural disaster with a couple of cracked ribs.” She flushed. “I realize you were being driven by your loyalty to your captain, but that kind of emotional response in the field can get people killed. Personally, I know you to be reckless. So, I pay more attention to you and what you’re doing to make sure you’re where I need you to be. It’s not about you, in the end. It’s about me going home to my family.”
She made a face. “Right.”
Eddie stared at her. “What?”
She shrugged. “Just heard you were playing house with Buckley. That can’t be easy with all of his issues. He barely requalified, right?”
“Buck broke records during his recertification process,” Hen interjected breezily as she came into the area and dropped down on the sofa across from Eddie. “Some of those records were a decade old. He’d have already returned to the job if he hadn’t thrown a clot. Regardless, we get him back next week.”
Eddie’s gaze flicked between Bosko and Hen. There was some tension there that he didn’t understand. He wondered what had happened the week he’d been gone. Bosko wandered away with a frown in Hen’s direction, and Eddie raised an eyebrow.
Hen huffed. “She’s had some rude things to say about Buck over the last week. I think she expected to stay on until the 136 is ready, but Bobby’s already put her back on the floating schedule starting next week. Apparently, she thought she brought more value to the table than someone who should be disabled out of the LAFD. She asked Chim why a charity case was being given so much special treatment when you took off a whole week to take care of him.”
Eddie frowned. “She doesn’t appear to have a problem on the self-worth front.”
He wondered, again, if he should tell Bobby about the street fighting. Well, Eddie knew he should, but the ramifications could get ugly. The thought of one of those assholes showing up at his house out of revenge was a huge factor in his indecision. Though throwing it in Bobby’s lap and letting him deal with the whole thing had a lot of appeal. Bosko hadn’t demonstrated any sort of physical symptoms that spoke to an injury, and he had been paying close attention because he knew she didn’t think injuries were a deterrent when it came to being on the job.
The whole thing was a level of frustration that made him wish he’d never let her take him somewhere interesting. The worst part, of course, was that he had been very tempted by the whole thing and could’ve easily given into that temptation if he hadn’t watched a woman take a compound fracture in a fight. He paused to consider that part because he’d started to move in to help the woman, but Bosko had stopped him. She hadn’t looked bothered by the injury at all.
He exhaled and rubbed his face with a hand because Bosko was good at her job, but she had some problematic behaviors. Eddie knew she really didn’t like being at the 118 so the attitude about Buck’s return to work was weird. Maybe she just didn’t like being displaced before she was ready to go on her own. Or, she liked routine and didn’t want to go into the floating schedule being run for the firefighters that had been displaced because of the tsunami.
Bobby came up to the loft, crossed the kitchen area, and started rummaging around, which equaled dinner, and Eddie was on board with that. He pocketed his phone and went to offer to cut up stuff, which was really all that he had the patience for. He didn’t mind cooking, but he certainly didn’t love it the way Bobby and Buck did. He was immediately tasked with salad duty.
“Something on your mind?”
“Just…Buck,” Eddie said and shrugged. “He had a full day and seems to be doing okay even if he did feed Chris pizza for dinner. Everything was fine with the MRI we got done on Saturday, but I think he texted you about that.”
“Yeah, he did,” Bobby said. “And offered to take me to the appointment to his regular ortho.” He sighed. “Which made me realize how much work I have to do on that front. I never thought he was lying to me about his recovery, Eddie. I just thought…well.”
“You thought he was lying to himself,” Eddie said.
“Maybe a little of that, but also, I was just really fucking worried about the blood thinners. I had Hen go through the procedure for dealing with an injury with me, and she made it clear that if he took that kind of hit, bleeding out would be a concern on blood thinners or not. She also showed me the equipment they already have for dealing with those kinds of injuries—pressure bandages, surgical glue.” He frowned. “Which made me feel like an asshole because it was clear that she and Chim had both taken my worry on that subject personally as well. Like I didn’t trust them either.”
“You need more therapy than all of us combined,” Eddie said wryly and laughed when Bobby huffed. “Except for Chim.”
“Rude!” Chim exclaimed. “I signed up for some stuff.”
“Yeah, but did you sign up for enough?” Bobby questioned and grinned when Chim stomped off with an exaggerated huff. “Maybe we can start working on you here.”
“I’ll get my aromatherapy kit out of the car,” Hen announced. “I’m prepared!”
“You’re all a bunch of assholes,” Chim muttered.
“Lavender will enhance your calm,” Hen continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And help you create a Zen state of mind.” Eddie noted she was reading from her phone. “Then we can meditate!”
“You’re out of your mind,” Chim told her firmly. “I’m not meditating.”
“How about I ask Maddie?” Hen questioned. “I bet she’ll think meditation is exactly what you need.”
Chim threw himself on the couch and buried his face in the cushions.
“You’re a real drama king, Chim,” Hen said wryly, and Eddie laughed before he could help himself.
* * * *
Coming home and finding Buck in his bed was kind of like getting a present, Eddie mused as he slid into bed and cuddled up close to his lover. Buck was deliciously naked and warm, so Eddie just burrowed close and groaned a little when Buck shifted in his sleep and pulled him close. A big, warm hand slid down his back, and Buck inhaled gently against his hair.
“I’m surprised you’re still in bed.”
“Well, I took Chris to school then decided a nap wouldn’t hurt a damn thing,” Buck said in amusement. “Plus, I’ve always liked coming home to someone naked in my bed. I figured you’d like it, too.”
“I’m not mad about it,” Eddie said and pressed a soft kiss against Buck’s chest. “We had a rescue on the side of a cliff just after midnight last night. The survivor gave birth to a baby girl in the ambulance. Hen figured she was at least five weeks premature.”
“That…sucks.” Buck relaxed against him. “How did Bosko handle it?”
“She did fine. The work was within her skillset, but I think she was pissed that Bobby put me on the primary transfer. I had originally gone down on the driver’s side. She did tell me later that the 136 didn’t have a lot of heavy rescue calls.”
“That’s the difference between a light and a full brigade,” Buck murmured. “She’s probably had more fire experience than you since you’re both just out of your probationary periods.”
“I’m going to tell Athena about the street fighting.”
“She’ll find a way to keep you out of it,” Buck assured. “It’s for the best. She doesn’t need to be…encouraging that shit amongst first responders. It’s a deeply unethical situation beyond the legal issues, you know. The lack of rules and the chances of injury…she’s lucky she hasn’t taken an injury that could take her off the job permanently.”
Eddie lifted his head and rested his chin on Buck’s chest. “I’m really glad you’ll be back on the job for the next shift.”
“Me, too.” Buck cupped his head gently. “I worry myself silly about you half the night if I think about it. I need to be the one watching your back as much as possible.”
“Yeah.” He shifted a little and slid on top of Buck. “Also, you get into trouble when left to your own devices.”
Buck grinned. “You look like you want to get in a bit of trouble right now.”
“Well, I did come home to someone naked in my bed,” Eddie murmured. “It gave me ideas.” He rubbed his hardening cock against Buck’s stomach. “Maybe I’ll just come on you.”
“What am I going to get out of this?” Buck questioned, his hands clenching briefly on Eddie’s thighs.
“Satisfying me should be its own reward,” Eddie said as seriously as he could muster and grinned when Buck raised one eyebrow. He barely had time to catch his breath before Buck flipped them over. “You don’t agree?” he asked with a breathless laugh.
“Oh, I do, actually,” Buck murmured, then he slid down and sucked Eddie’s cock right into his mouth.
“Fuck,” Eddie gasped and let his legs fall open in shock. “God, Buck…your mouth should be illegal.”
Buck lifted his head, his plump lips clinging briefly to the head of Eddie’s cock before he released him. “Do you want to come in my mouth?”
“Yeah, please,” Eddie said and took a deep breath as Buck took him back inside.
It had been ages since he’d had a proper blow job, and Eddie relaxed into it with a soft, pleased groan. He let his fingers trail through Buck’s curls but offered no pressure because he couldn’t stand that himself and had no idea how Buck would feel about it. The sweet, insistent pull of Buck’s mouth was such a pleasure that he didn’t know how he would last any length of time. Buck prodded one of his legs up, and Eddie shuddered as he settled his leg against Buck’s broad shoulder. Fingertips drifted gently over his asshole, and he came just like that.
“You dirty cheat,” Eddie accused with a shudder as Buck swallowed around the head of his cock.
Buck released him with a soft pop. “Next time, I’ll eat your ass.”
Eddie huffed when his cock twitched, despite the orgasm still flitting across his nerves. “I’m too old for that kind of talk.”
“Nah, you’re just about right,” Buck murmured and sat back on his heels. He palmed his own cock, stroked himself a few times as he stared at Eddie.
“You really have no right looking like that,” Eddie said huffily and sat up. “Did you want me to blow you?”
“Well, the answer to that question is generally always yes. But since I’ve cleared for work, I’d like to do some work.”
Eddie’s gut tightened in anticipation, and he took a deep breath. “Yeah. Whatever you want.”
Buck grinned. “You’re gonna learn, eventually, that you can’t give me that kind of leeway.”
“I trust you with everything,” Eddie admitted and smiled when Buck blinked in surprise. “You know that.” He sat up and moved to his knees. “Right?”
“Yeah, of course,” Buck said easily, but his eyes were dark, and Eddie felt like they were on the precipice of something stupidly important.
“Evan,” Eddie murmured and cupped the back of Buck’s head. “We’re okay, right?”
“Yeah, of course.” Buck leaned in for a kiss, but Eddie touched his mouth with trembling fingers.
“You look like you’re about to fall off the side of a building. Unfortunately, I know exactly what that looks like,” Eddie said, and Buck laughed. “Seriously.”
“It’s scary,” Buck murmured.
“Well, no one has any business trying to fall off a skyscraper,” Eddie said in return and let his fingers curl against Buck’s hair. “What’s scary?”
“I don’t think anyone has ever loved me like you do. I don’t know…how to keep it. Keep you.”
“You’ve got me,” Eddie promised. “And I’m not going anywhere. Don’t worry about keeping me because I’m keeping you. I promise.”
“Yeah?” Buck questioned, a small smile drifting his lips.
“Yeah,” Eddie said and pressed their mouths together. “Now, about the work you wanted to do.”
Buck left the bed, stopped to grab a condom and the lube from the nightstand, and inclined his head toward the bathroom. “Come with me.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow as he left the bed and followed Buck into the en suite. “Shower sex is how 9-1-1 gets called.”
Buck laughed. “Man is it ever.” He put the supplies down on the counter. “Let’s just make a rule that we’re never doing that.”
“Deal,” Eddie said, but his breath hitched when Buck caught him by the hips and pulled him close. “What are you up to then?”
Buck turned him to face the mirror. “Whatever I want.”
Eddie took a shuddery breath as he braced himself on the counter, and Buck urged him to widen his stance. He focused on their reflection and met Buck’s gaze in the mirror. Eddie wet his lips and inhaled deeply as Buck flicked open the lube.
“It’s a little vain to fuck in front of a mirror.”
Buck pressed a soft kiss to Eddie’s shoulder before smiling. “If I wanted to watch us fuck, I’d suggest we set up a camera.”
Eddie huffed a little because he wasn’t sure he wanted to make a sex vid, but also the idea of watching Buck fuck him like that was startlingly appealing. “Just for us.”
Buck laughed, leaned into him, and kissed his neck. “I’d never share you with anyone.”
“Have you shared other lovers?” Eddie asked and lowered his head as Buck pushed two slick fingers into his asshole. “Dios.”
“Yeah, I’ve only had a few serious relationships, and the rest were casual arrangements or hook-ups,” Buck said. “I’m clean, though—I tested a few weeks after Ali left, and there’s been no one but you since her.”
“I know you’d have told me if you had something serious going on with that,” Eddie said and let his head fall forward. “I’m clean, too.”
Buck hummed his agreement under his breath and added a third finger. “You’d have never let me blow you raw if you were worried about that kind of thing. Feel good?”
“Fantastic,” Eddie admitted and spread his legs a little further as his cock hardened completely. “Are you going to fuck me or what?”
“Getting impatient, Firefighter Diaz?”
Buck laughed and snagged the condom. “Turn around.”
Eddie turned around and leaned on the bathroom counter. “You aren’t going to make me watch you fuck my ass?”
“You make that sound downright tawdry,” Buck said dryly. “I picked this room because the counter is just the right height.”
“Right height for what?” Eddie asked, hands curling around the ledge of the countertop.
Buck laughed, cupped his hips, and lifted him right up onto the counter between the two sinks. “This.”
“Oh,” Eddie said and shook a little as Buck urged his legs up and around his waist.
“The thing about this position…is that getting the angle right is a little complicated…with a man,” Buck murmured as he pulled Eddie close. “Lean back just a little.” Eddie did as instructed, bracing his hands on the counter with a shuddery breath.
“So, you’re saying if I had a pussy….”
“Well, I’d be balls deep right now,” Buck pointed out reasonably. “And because the ladies are really lucky in the orgasm department, you’d probably spend the next thirty minutes coming repeatedly.”
Eddie’s mouth dropped open. “Thirty minutes?”
Buck shrugged, gripped his own cock, and guided it right into place. “Or longer if I’m in the mood for it. I’ve got stamina for days, Eds.”
“I don’t know if that was a brag or a threat,” Eddie muttered and laughed a little when Buck grinned, lifted his legs up a little more, and pushed into his ass with one long stroke. “Fuck.”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed as he cupped his ass and lifted Eddie right off the counter. “Just like that. I love the way you take me.”
He turned and pressed him against the wall, and Eddie tightened his legs around Buck’s waist with a harsh groan. Pinned between the wall and Buck was probably just the best situation Eddie could imagine for himself. Then Buck started to move, and Eddie got a little lost in the heavy, overwhelming pleasure of being fucked. He loved it, the freedom of giving everything he had over to Buck. Trusting in his partner’s strength was as easy as breathing.
“Good?” Buck questioned.
“Perfect,” Eddie responded and let his head fall to the wall as he clung to Buck. “You’re all I want.”
The hot drag of a cock in and out of his body was intoxicating, and Eddie was long past denying himself exactly what he wanted when it came to sexual pleasure. The need to come built slowly as sweat dampened their skin. Buck’s hands tightened on him, and he shuddered violently against Eddie.
“Easy, I got you,” Eddie murmured and pressed a soft kiss to Buck’s temple. “Is this too much?”
“I want more,” Buck confessed hoarsely against his cheek. “Eddie.”
“Take it,” Eddie urged. “Take me. I’m yours.”
“Hold on,” Buck murmured and held tight as he stepped back from the wall and took him into the bedroom.
Eddie bit down on his bottom lip to keep from protesting when Buck put him down on the mattress and pulled free of his body. Buck stared at him intently, gaze drifting over his body.
“Can you get on your knees, please?” Buck wet his lips.
Blushing furiously, Eddie did as he was asked. He’d never let a man take him from behind on his knees. Buck eased back into his ass like he belonged there, and Eddie couldn’t help but rock back into the penetration. A big hand slid down his back—possessive and eager. Buck grabbed his hips and started to fuck him with long, hard strokes. The smack of skin against skin was lewd and hot at the same time.
“Okay?” Buck asked as one hand curled over Eddie’s shoulder.
“Hell yeah,” Eddie admitted roughly. “Fuck me.”
If anyone had told him that Evan Buckley was the sort to just hold someone down and fuck their brains out, Eddie would’ve been in the man’s lap as soon as he possibly could. The thought was both startling and shocking as he hadn’t realized how much he’d wanted that kind of experience until he was in the middle of getting it. Buck wrapped a hand around his aching cock and started to grind roughly into his ass.
“God…damn it.” Eddie shuddered and came all over the sheets underneath them.
Buck’s hips slapped against his ass two more times, and he came with a low groan. Eddie took a deep breath and dropped down on the mattress after Buck pulled carefully from his body. He rolled away from the mess with a huff and sprawled where he landed. Buck followed, tucking against his side.
Eddie hummed and focused on Buck’s face. “I’m not going to share you, either.”
Buck pressed his lips to Eddie’s shoulder and smiled in a way that was straight-up bashful, and Eddie didn’t even know what to do with that.
“Now I need another shower,” Eddie said and cupped the back of Buck’s head. “You’ve gotten me filthy.”
“I regret nothing,” Buck said with a cheerful grin.
Eddie hummed. “I see that. I missed you the whole time I was gone. I’m glad that was my last shift without you. Let’s not work any overtime for a while, okay?”
“Sounds fine.” Buck propped his chin on Eddie’s shoulder. “How was everyone? Did it get awkward?”
“Hen spent a lot of the shift trying to get Chim to meditate and find his happy place,” Eddie explained. “At one point, he started citing the Geneva Conventions. Bobby laughed until he cried.”
Buck sighed. “I hope they are taking it seriously, though.”
“Yeah, they are, I think,” Eddie said. “I think the humor has taken a hard edge sometimes in the past, but it was different. We both know that Chim will be the most resistant to change, and there will be a point when he’ll be focused on being a victim of the entire process. I can expect that to get a little ugly.”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “But I’m not going to tolerate that shit.” He slid out of bed and stretched. “Let’s take a shower. I’ll clean up my mess.”
Since that sounded great, Eddie followed.
Bobby sat down beside Buck on the bench. “So, you’ve been sitting here for ten minutes.”
Buck nodded. He’d gotten dressed with Eddie but hadn’t left the locker room with him. He really couldn’t explain himself. “There was a moment during the attack when I thought maybe I’d be killed.”
Bobby exhaled sharply.
“I’ve not said that aloud before now,” Buck murmured. “I mean beyond talking about almost getting murdered twice like it isn’t a big deal when it certainly is a huge deal. It’s just been sort of sitting in the back of my mind because my main focus was making as little noise as possible when they dragged me from the Jeep.”
“Why?” Bobby asked quietly.
“I didn’t want Christopher to hear it,” Buck confessed. “Mitigating his trauma seemed like the only thing I had left.” He exhaled sharply and shifted his legs out in front of him to flex his feet in boots. “I’m not freaking out.”
“If you were freaking out, Eddie would be in here petting you,” Bobby pointed out reasonably, and Buck flushed because that was more accurate than ever.
“Well, you did make quiche this morning, and you know he can’t ignore the temptation of feta and spinach,” Buck said and laughed when Bobby grinned. “Still, I’m not freaking out or whatever. I was just settling my mind, I suppose. I noticed that Bosko is still here.”
“We had two call-outs,” Bobby said. “Jenkins has food poisoning, and Martinez has declared himself an unidentified biohazard. He’s getting a flu test this morning. I assigned her to the triple if that’s a concern.”
“I don’t dislike her,” Buck said. “I think…she’s a problem for Eddie and had the potential to influence him in some pretty destructive ways. I’m glad he recognized it before things got ugly.”
“Something to do with the conversation he had with Athena last night?”
“Yeah, but he wants to keep that out of the station,” Buck murmured quietly. “And away from us, personally.”
“I got that from Athena,” Bobby said and stood. “Well, come get some food. What’s your calorie intake these days? Is the new uniform shirt fitting okay?”
Buck flexed his shoulders. “Yeah, it’s fine. I’m in a maintenance phase, so there won’t be any more size increase outside of a normal fluctuation. I need about 3,300 for a regular day, upwards of 5,000 if things get really active. I’ve been supplementing meals with protein bars.”
“I’ll check the supply,” Bobby said. “There’s bacon and cheddar scones as well.”
“Wow, sold.” Buck hopped up and trotted out ahead of Bobby.
He was making a plate by the time Bobby made it back up to the loft. Of all the meals shared at the station, the first one was the most casual as far as sitting arrangements went. Still, he found himself sitting down at the table between Eddie and Hen in short order. Hen was at the end, reading on her phone and eating with one hand.
“Buck, you’ve met Lena Bosko from the 136, right?” Hen questioned then motioned toward the other new person at the table. “Mark Rutledge, also from the 136.”
Buck gave them both a nod as he chewed a scone.
Bobby sat down at the table at that point with a laptop and a cup of coffee. “Buck, they have you scheduled to test for the engineer certification next month. Should I push it?”
“I could take it today,” Buck said. “I know the material backward and forward. The practical work has been in my wheelhouse since I was a teenager. I earned most of my money back then working in garages around town—it was a twofer. Money, plus I avoided the hell beasts that are my parents. One of the instructors for the course suggested I go ahead and get an ASE to go along with the class A CDL I picked up when I first left the academy.”
“What’s an ASE?” Hen asked.
“Automotive Service Excellence certification,” Eddie said. “My dad won’t let anyone work for him that doesn’t have one. He’s run an auto repair business for forty years. I wouldn’t let anyone near my car without it, honestly. It speaks to education, experience, and the desire to be good at the job.”
“Why get a class A when a B is enough to drive a firetruck?” Bosko asked.
Buck shrugged and opened up the bottle of orange juice he’d brought to the table. “I didn’t see a reason to put any sort of limit on it. It’s come in handy, as I’m qualified to move most commercial vehicles at an accident scene should it be needed.”
“And it has been needed,” Bobby said mildly. “The more you can bring to the table when it comes to your skillset the better. It all benefits the team.” He focused on the screen in front of him. “I encourage all of my firefighters to continue to educate and improve themselves.”
“Which is why our station has the highest rate of continuing education in the whole department,” Hen said cheerfully. “Okay, Buckaroo, I’ll get the manual and quiz you!” She left the table. “Every question you get wrong is going to equal one week of bathroom duty!”
Buck exhaled and frowned as he turned to Eddie. “And to think I missed her.”
“You’re a masochist,” Eddie said with a shrug and dug out his phone. “I’m not helping you clean toilets, so you’d better know your shit.”
“No pun intended,” Eddie said belatedly and shrugged as Buck huffed dramatically at him.
Buck shoved half a scone into his mouth and tried to frown as everyone else started laughing, but it was hard because he had missed them a lot. A part of him hadn’t believed he’d ever get a chance to really come back to the 118. Most of that had been about Bobby and his stubbornness, but the undercover operation had weighed heavily on him, and he knew he wasn’t done dealing with the ramifications of that.
“At what speed can an emergency vehicle outrun the effective hearing range of its siren?” Hen questioned.
“Fifty miles per hour,” Buck said and snagged another scone from the basket she’d also brought to the table. “At speeds over that, the audible distance can be reduced by 250 feet or more.”
Chim joined them at that point. “Maybe it should be two weeks per wrong answer.”
“If I get them all right, Chim should have clean the toilets for a whole quarter.”
Hen smirked at that, and Chim groaned.
“No, don’t involve me in this!” Chim protested.
“Too late,” Bobby said cheerfully. “Sounds like a perfectly reasonable forfeit to me.”
“This is so rude,” Chim muttered, and Buck just sent Eddie an amused look.
Eddie bumped their shoulders together, and Buck relaxed. Nothing was ever going to be perfect, but hopefully, everyone was willing to put as much work as he was into making things better.