“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Um, yeah, there’s some dude screaming at the North Street playground. He says he’s stuck in a slide?”
It’s not great to laugh in the face of a member of the public, even when they’ve done something as stupid as getting high and trying to go headfirst down a children’s slide, so Eddie retreats between the engine and the ambulance to collect himself.
Unfortunately, he's not the only member of the 118 to have that idea.
“What did he think was gonna happen?” Buck wheezes as he swings around the back of the engine.
Eddie’s doubled over laughing with his hands on his knees. “Get out,” he says, waving him off with a breathless hand. “I’m never gonna stop if you’re—” Back here, setting Eddie off again, which is exactly what’s happening now.
Buck slumps against the ambulance, his head thrown back. “Did you hear what he said?” he gasps.
“Don’t tell me, seriously,” Eddie begs.
He thinks honestly Buck would tell him just so he doesn’t have to suffer the knowledge alone, but luckily for Eddie, Buck can’t stop laughing long enough to get the words out. Buck staggers over and thumps his forehead down on Eddie’s shoulder, and the two of them lean on each other and the ambulance, laughing helplessly.
“Okay,” says Buck, finally, clearly trying to sound determined. “Okay.” He sucks in a deep, shuddering breath. “Okay.” He pushes himself upright and shakes out his hands, swiping tears of laughter from under his eyes. He’s red in the face and bright-eyed and happy and handsome in the sunshine, and Eddie glances from one side to the other for any sign of an audience and then grabs a fistful of Buck’s LAFD T-shirt and pulls him into a kiss.
He feels Buck start with surprise under his hands, then Buck shoves Eddie backward until the backs of his shoulders hit the ambulance with a thump. Buck’s mouth is still trying to smile beneath Eddie’s, and he’s got a strong hand clasped around the back of Eddie’s neck.
They kiss and kiss, breathing hard into each other, until the urge for Eddie to pull Buck flush against him is starting to grow stronger than the urge to start laughing again. Then Eddie finally nudges Buck back, both of them panting. He again glances to either side of the tunnel formed by the parked engine and ambulance. There’s still no sign of anyone.
Buck fans himself with one hand, grinning, and Eddie laughs. “I thought we said we were gonna be totally professional at work,” Buck says. He lifts his eyebrows at Eddie, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Was that not professional?” Eddie asks, giving him an appreciative look from head to toe — bunker pants are never the sexiest look, but suspenders over the fitted uniform T-shirt that shows off his biceps is a good one — and Buck laughs.
“We still on for tonight?”
“Hell yeah,” says Eddie, and then he hears the sudden crunch of approaching footsteps and Hen walks around the back of the ambulance. Eddie determinedly doesn’t guiltily spring away from Buck, but she doesn’t even give them a second glance — she’s laughing fit to bust.
“Oh Jesus,” she gasps, “I can’t, I can’t. You gotta go back and help Chim and Bobby. The feet sticking out—” She starts cackling again. “How did you guys stop?”
They exchange a glance.
“Just — breathe deep, Hen,” Buck says, and Eddie claps her shoulder as they jog back out to the patient.
Eddie is warm and drifting, just barely awake enough to understand that he's in his own bed at home and Buck is curled up beside him, when he begins to realize that something is off.
“Dad,” says Christopher’s voice, and Eddie blinks — then fully wakes up to take stock of the situation.
Christopher, calling for him just outside his bedroom door. Buck, snoring softly with his face pressed against Eddie’s arm.
Oh shit, Buck. He was supposed to move out to the couch last night so he’d be there when Christopher woke up in the morning. They must have nodded off together.
“One sec, Chris,” Eddie calls. He urgently shakes Buck, who grunts in complaint — quietly, thankfully — and cracks an eye open.
“What?” Buck grumbles, clearly indignant and still half-asleep.
Eddie hadn’t wanted to make a 10-year-old keep a secret from all of their friends and family, given the LAFD’s policy on intra-station relationships. Christopher is in the dark, but if he walked in right now, he wouldn't be anymore. Buck’s sleeping shirtless in Eddie’s bed. Christopher’s a smart kid.
“Christopher’s up,” Eddie says, low, pointing at the door, and Buck lunges up onto his elbows. “You gotta hide.”
Buck’s eyes widen. “Uhh, where?” He bolts upright and reaches for the T-shirt crumpled up at the foot of the bed. He pulls it on — it’s inside-out and it’s definitely Eddie’s, not his.
Eddie’s bedroom isn’t that big. There’s only one feasible option here. “Closet.”
“Are you seriously telling me to get in the closet?” Buck hisses, wiggling around so he can yank his jeans on while still in the bed. Eddie’s pretty sure that if Buck wasn’t panicking about Christopher walking in, he’d be laughing uncontrollably by now; Eddie probably would be, too. This is so stupid.
“Yeah. Get in there,” Eddie says ruthlessly, except then Christopher calls for him again and the doorknob rattles.
Buck yelps and rolls off the opposite side of the bed.
The bedroom door opens, and Christopher pops his head in. He’s leaning in the doorway, still wearing his pajamas, hair sticking up in a wing on one side of his head and glasses askew. “Dad, Buck’s gone.”
“Is he?” Eddie says. He very carefully doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t look over at where Christopher could probably see Buck if he was just a little taller or came a little closer to the bed. There haven’t been any rustling noises and there wasn’t time for Buck to have crawled over to the closet without being seen, so he’s almost definitely wedged between the bed and the wall.
“He said we’d make waffles,” Christopher says with the easy certainty of a kid who knows that when Evan Buckley promises him breakfast, he’s going to get it.
“He probably went for a run or something, Chris,” Eddie says, rising out of bed.
“Can we text him?”
Buck never puts his phone on silent, no matter how many times it goes off in the dead of night or in a crowded movie theater or the middle of a heated conversation. It’s almost certainly on the floor of Eddie’s bedroom with Buck himself, three feet away from Christopher.
“In a minute,” Eddie says hurriedly. “Why don’t we go start the batter?” He keeps his body between Christopher and the bed, reaching out to snag a T-shirt from his dresser.
“Is he coming back?”
“I don’t know, bud.”
There’s a protesting thump from the other side of the bed, which Eddie quickly tries to cover with a heavy footstep as he guides Christopher out of the room. “Probably,” he amends.
Christopher is happy to be sat on the kitchen counter to measure out flour, milk, sugar, oil, and baking powder under supervision. Eddie turns on the radio to help cover any noise but he gets caught up picking eggshells out of the bowl, and Buck is so sneaky that even Eddie, who was listening for it, doesn’t know when he leaves.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, too early for the full warmth of the sun but the sky is blue out the kitchen window, tree branches swaying in the breeze, and the air conditioning hasn’t had to kick on yet. September in L.A. is hot and sunny, and Christopher’s perched on the counter, absently singing along to something on the radio. Eddie tries not to pay close attention to the lyrics; he suspects they're not totally appropriate for a fifth grader.
Eddie’s phone chirps as he’s watching Christopher dump liberal amounts of blueberries into the bowl. He reaches for his phone and can’t help but laugh when he reads the vague text. Whatever Buck is bringing back is definitely going to contribute to a sugar crash later in the day.
“Buck says he’s almost here, Chris,” he says.
Christopher cheers, but instead of returning to humming along with the radio, he says, “Hey Dad.”
“Yeah?” Eddie asks.
“Can we go camping?”
Eddie glances over at him. “You want to go camping?”
“Yeah!” Christopher chirps. “We went in Texas.”
They camped in the backyard in Texas, in a tent Eddie’s dad had had that was at least as old as Eddie himself.
“We could do that,” Eddie says, smiling. “Out back?”
Chris rolls his eyes cheerfully. “No, for real.”
“Oh, for real, huh?” Eddie leans to loom over him and peer into the mixing bowl, and Christopher laughs and pokes him with the drippy spatula he’s been using to mix ingredients. “Maybe, buddy; we’ll have to find a weekend when I’m off work and your social calendar isn’t full.”
“Okay,” Chris says, and then he gives the messy bowl of mostly-mixed ingredients one more stir. “Is this good?”
“Yeah, looks great. Now you just need,” Eddie says, looking around the kitchen and trying to think about where everything is stored, “a waffle maker.”
“It’s under the sink,” Christopher says, surprising him.
Eddie shoots him a bemused look as he crouches down and opens the cabinet under the sink. “What is it doing there?”
Christopher grins. “Buck did it.”
“Your Buck’s not allowed to clean anymore, Christopher,” Eddie says, to laughter from Chris. He has to climb halfway inside the cabinet to dig through the tangle of pots, pans, and old appliances.
Eddie sets aside a broken mixer and keeps pawing through the contents of the cabinet. “Yeah?”
“Would you rather,” Christopher asks, thoughtful and deliberate, “fight one horse-sized duck, or a hundred duck-sized horses?”
“What?” Eddie almost whacks his head off the top of the cabinet as he cracks up laughing, which is when the front door slams.
“Hel-lo Diazes,” Buck calls down the front hallway, sounding pleased with himself already, and Christopher shouts, “Bucky!”
Eddie glances back over his shoulder as Buck steps into the kitchen. He looks pretty put-together, considering how rudely he was woken up. He clearly figured out he was wearing Eddie’s shirt and switched back to his own T-shirt before he left and he’s balancing a blue bakery box and a tray of three drinks.
“Hey, look at you, gettin' your chef on,” Buck greets Christopher, leaning in to hug him with one arm — carefully, since he has the bakery box still in hand — when Chris reaches out. “Is your assistant doing everything you tell him?”
“No,” Christopher laughs.
“Hey,” Eddie complains, “who’s down here getting the waffle maker for you and answering questions about ducks and horses?”
Buck immediately says, “Oh, fighting a horse-sized duck or a lot of duck-sized horses?”
“What?” says Eddie. “You know this? Is this a thing?”
Christopher only laughs harder, beaming.
Buck ignores Eddie. “Duck-sized horses, for sure,” he tells Christopher. “Ducks are mean, I don’t want to go up against a giant one.”
“Me neither,” Christopher says.
Eddie laughs to himself, shaking his head, as he worms out of the cabinet with the waffle maker in hand. “You guys have given this a lot of thought.” He finds them both looking at him expectantly. “Oh, uh … Horse-sized duck, I guess.”
“What!” Buck protests dramatically, as a laughing Christopher insists, “Nooo!”
“Listen, a hundred is a lot of horses, I don’t care how small they are,” says Eddie. He sets the waffle maker on the counter next to Christopher and plugs it into the outlet. “What’d you bring us, Buck?”
Christopher is easily distracted when there’s a promise of sweets involved. He looks over at Buck’s bakery box.
“Well,” says Buck, setting down the box on the kitchen island and still talking to Christopher, “I’ve got coffees for me and your dad and a hot chocolate for you.” He hands Eddie a coffee and then, with fanfare, sets the smallest cup down on the counter beside Christopher. “And—” Buck lifts the top off the bakery box to reveal four enormous, fist-sized muffins, “muffins, to go with breakfast!”
Christopher is grinning. “What flavor’s mine?”
“Chris, would I do you dirty? Chocolate chip, obviously.”
Christopher’s face lights up. “Yes!”
“With breakfast,” Eddie says. “Christopher, you blueberried yourself.” Christopher laughs, glancing down at his purple and blue hands. “Go wash your hands, kid.” Eddie gives him a lift down off the counter.
“Don’t make waffles without me!” Chris calls as he tears off to the bathroom.
Eddie leans against the counter, arms folded, and he and Buck look at each other as Christopher’s footsteps move away from them. There’s a grin hovering at the corners of Buck’s mouth.
“Muffins and waffles and hot chocolate?” Eddie asks, eyebrows raised.
“I got you cranberry,” Buck wheedles.
“ ‘Cause that makes it better.”
“It does. You like cranberry!”
The bathroom door clicks shut and Buck glances down the hall, then takes a few steps into Eddie’s personal space and slowly, thoroughly kisses him good morning. He tastes like coffee and like he’s been sampling muffins.
“Mmm, learning nothing from how you got woken up this morning, huh?” Eddie asks, low and amused. He cups Buck’s face in his hand and strokes his cheekbone with his thumb.
“Guess I’m a slow learner,” Buck drawls. He crowds in closer, warm and solid and full of sunshine, his hands on Eddie’s hips. He leans their foreheads together. “I live dangerously.”
Eddie’s laughing when they kiss again — too much, it turns out, because he doesn’t hear the toilet flushing and they have to jerk apart when the bathroom door opens down the hall.
Eddie doesn’t like hiding things from his son. He let this go on for way too long with Shannon, insisting he was protecting Christopher in case she left again but honestly trying to protect himself, too. That’s one of the things he’s talked about with Frank, his therapist. Eddie doesn’t like being back here again.
Buck understands and has been game for anything — he doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge from having to hide half-under Eddie’s bed this morning, anyway — and Christopher has unquestioningly accepted Buck being around even more than he used to be, but Buck sleeping on the couch when he stays over and the two of them diving away from each other when Christopher enters a room can’t go on forever. They’re going to have to figure out how to handle disclosing at work, eventually, so they can tell Chris.
Bobby and Hen and Chim, Carla, Buck’s sister, Eddie’s family too — the list goes on. They’ve been keeping a big secret from a lot of people, and nobody has guessed, as far as Eddie can tell. It’s been for the best, Eddie knows, so they don’t pull anyone down with them if they get caught hiding their relationship. Theoretically, they were supposed to disclose to Bobby or HR as soon as they got together. But kissing in the ruins of a basement research laboratory after an earthquake and then taking Buck home with him afterward, both of them hopped up on adrenaline, wasn’t the most stable and certain of starts to a relationship, and one of them would have been transferred out of the 118. So they waited and now here Eddie is — trying not to look at Buck too lingeringly or flirt too obviously when somebody else is in the room. Christopher is the hardest.
Christopher’s with Buck at the counter now, standing on the wide, flat stool that he isn’t going to need to comfortably reach the counter for much longer; he’s getting so tall these days. Buck is close enough that he’d be able to reach out and lend a supportive arm if needed but Christopher’s steady on his feet at the moment, the pair of them ladling batter into the waffle iron together.
Eddie watches them for a second, smiling, before a thought strikes him. “Did you guys grease the iron?” he asks, and the resounding silence is all the answer he needs.
“...Yeah?” tries Buck, to immediate giggles from Christopher.
Eddie goes to the rescue with a can of non-stick spray.
"You think Chris would like this?" Buck asks, holding up a brightly-colored box in the pasta aisle.
Eddie glances over from studying the grocery store's enormous wall of pasta. Bobby had exacting specifications, and Eddie doesn't pay enough attention to pasta as a general rule to be able to figure out what Bobby's looking for without searching carefully and doing a little Googling.
"It's macaroni and cheese shaped like dinosaurs and he’s ten," Eddie says. "Do you really have to ask?"
Buck snorts a laugh. "Do you mind if I get it for dinner tomorrow night?"
"Nah, go ahead. He'll love that. I can grab some broccoli too."
Buck tosses a couple of boxes of mac and cheese into his basket and comes over to join Eddie at the massive pasta shelf. The two of them stare up at it together.
"I can't believe Bobby gave the probie his own assignment for dinner but said I needed adult supervision," Buck says.
"You do need supervision," Eddie says, laughing.
Buck scoffs. "You don't get the difference between all these types of pasta either. It's all the same stuff, just in weird shapes and sizes; why do we have to get some specific kind?"
"Yeah, but the difference between you and me, Buck," Eddie says, leaning in close and lowering his voice to cheerfully mock him: "is I know not to say that in front of Bobby." Eddie claps Buck on the shoulder and then grabs a few packages of curly pasta for the basket that Eddie is carrying for the firehouse. "He said to get fusilli."
"I could've found it by myself," Buck complains.
Eddie laughs as they move down the aisle together. "Chimney was right, wasn't he? There's a new probie and not being the baby anymore is getting to you."
"Hey," Buck says, turning around and walking backwards so he can point at him vigorously, "you were a probie after me. If anyone's the old baby, it's not me."
"Buck, don't worry," Eddie assures him, straight-faced. "You will always be the station baby."
"This is harassment," Buck says, with the pinched expression that means he's trying not to laugh. "Hen and Chim aren't even here and you're harassing me. Aren't you supposed to be on my side?"
Buck's still moving backward as they come to the end of the aisle, and Eddie catches his arm just before he would have backed into a display of spaghetti noodles on sale. "For the record, if I wasn't on your side, I would've let you knock that over."
Buck laughs as Eddie helps pull him away from the display — and then someone says, "Oh hey guys."
The station's new probie, Haggerty, is crouched behind the spaghetti display, studying the selection of spices with a poleaxed expression. He looks up at them helplessly. "Do you know the difference between basil and Thai basil?"
Buck points emphatically down at him with both hands. "Supervision!"
Eddie has never talked about Buck in therapy.
Well, he has, but mostly in the context of Buck’s choice to sue Bobby and the city or as the friend who was with Christopher during the tsunami; never as the person Eddie’s dating. It didn’t seem like a good idea to talk about their relationship with a department-issued shrink, much less one who Buck has also seen in the past.
But as much as Eddie resisted going to therapy last fall, he can admit now that talking things through with a neutral third party on a regular basis has done nothing but good for him.
So when Frank tilts his head and asks, “Something on your mind?” during their monthly session, Eddie doesn’t just brush him off.
"Yeah," Eddie admits. "I've, uh.” He glances over at Frank, a little sheepishly. “I’ve been seeing somebody.”
“Wow,” says Frank, leaning back in his chair. “That’s a big change.”
“It's not..." Eddie starts and trails off, and then he takes a second shot at it, trying not to sound defensive. "I don't feel guilty about it the way you probably think. Shannon wanted to get a divorce, before she died, and I know she wouldn't have wanted me to hold onto her memory and stay alone forever. I loved her like crazy, and I'll always love her, but I don't feel bad about dating someone."
Granted, it took at least six months after Shannon's death for Eddie to reach a point where he could even begin to think like that. He still misses her every day.
"But you do feel bad about it in another way?" asks Frank, because he's too perceptive.
"I haven't told anybody."
Frank’s watching him. "Why's that?"
It's a big question, and there are a couple of big answers.
Eddie goes for the smaller ones, first.
"I didn't want Christopher to get too attached to the idea when we first got together; there was no guarantee it was gonna work, you know? And it was, uh.” He pauses. “If it worked, it was gonna be a big deal, so we kept it to ourselves at first to see how things went."
"Why would people think it's a big deal?"
"He's a guy," Eddie says, which is, in all honesty, probably the least complicated part of all this. "And was a good friend of mine. He still is, just — now he's my boyfriend too."
That’s not a word that Eddie really gets to use. It’s hard to, when you can’t acknowledge that you’re dating anyone. He has never actually said it to someone before. Buck’s his boyfriend.
He finds himself smiling unexpectedly.
Frank's pokerface is masterful. Eddie sometimes wonders if they train for that in shrink school. "Is he not out of the closet?"
"He is. I guess I'm not."
He shifts his weight in his seat. "I kind of told my little sister I thought I might like guys too, when I was 17 or 18,” he admits. “We never talked about it again but I think she probably told at least my other sister, and maybe our parents. My family’s not great with secrets."
"How do you feel about it?"
"About what, being bisexual?"
"I don't know — I guess I used to feel a little weird. I started really realizing it right when I was about to go to basic training, you know? Didn't seem like the time to throw a Pride parade. And it didn't matter, because I was in love with Shannon and she was pregnant and we got married."
"It still matters, Eddie," Frank says. "Even if you're not acting on attraction, it's part of who you are."
"I know that now," Eddie says. He rubs the back of his neck. "Just took me a while to get here."
"So do you still find yourself reluctant to come out?"
He screws up his face. "A little? I'm not totally sure how some of my relatives will take it. Some of the older generation are pretty old-school. It'll be awkward at first for sure. But my abuela and my aunt know him and they love him.” He laughs. “They’re always trying to feed him. So they’ll be happy, I think." He remembers his tía's face when she first met Buck, and the arch way she’d asked who he was when Eddie showed up at the hospital with him in tow. She won’t be especially surprised, Eddie thinks.
"How did your sister take it when the two of you were young?"
"She was surprised," he says, "and I think neither of us really knew what to say. I wasn't exactly open to the idea back then. I spent years avoiding it. But things are different now."
Frank nods thoughtfully, scratching his chin. "How long have you been seeing your boyfriend?"
"That's a while to have to hide a relationship. Are you coming to a point where you want to be open?"
"I do," Eddie says, honestly. "Everything's great and I hate not being able to talk about him and lying to people, especially Chris. He's gonna be over the moon when we tell him. He loves him." Watching Christopher and Buck goof around together is honestly one of the great joys of Eddie's life right now.
"What do you think is holding you back?"
Eddie pauses, then, to think about what he's going to say; what he can say, without outright admitting it. Frank's a smart guy, and he knows Buck. There's a chance he'll be able to put it together. But Eddie wants at least some plausible deniability. "I can't say a lot about this," he says, picking his words carefully, "but there’ll be consequences to coming out, professionally. We've been avoiding talking about it for a while but I feel like it's starting to hang over everything we do."
Frank pauses, his eyebrows furrowed. The silence is unusual for him. He always has a response for everything. It was something that used to drive Eddie nuts when he first started having sessions with him, and that he appreciates now that he knows Frank better and knows that's just Frank, not some insincere therapist talk or something.
"Has someone given you reason to be concerned at work, Eddie?" Frank asks. "There are LAFD resources that we could—"
"No, no, nothing like that," Eddie says, shaking his head. "I don't doubt there are some people who'd be assholes but the 118's my family. That's not a problem. Frank, man, I really can't talk about it more than that. We just have a decision to make."
"It's clearly weighing on you."
He sighs. "Yeah, I guess."
"If you don't speak to me, you should talk to someone, Eddie." Eddie can read the warm, kind, professional concern in Frank's face. "The kind of pressure you're describing can be difficult to navigate alone."
"I'm not alone," Eddie says, and for the first time in a long time, he really feels it.
He has always worked best in teams and still does; he had his unit in Afghanistan and has the 118 here in California. But in his personal life, after Shannon left, Eddie and Christopher were on their own. Eddie has been lucky enough to have overwhelming support from his family both in El Paso and here in L.A., but at the end of the day, it's him who's responsible for Christopher — for making sure he's loved and provided for and he has the greatest life that Eddie can give him. Eddie loves him more than he ever could have imagined before Christopher was born. He'd do anything for him. Christopher comes first now, always.
So that means Eddie comes second at best, and sometimes, realistically, it's more like third or seventh or fifteenth. And before, Eddie would have said he's fine with that, it's not a problem. But the feeling of having someone standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him again has been revelatory. He knows he can trust Buck to step up if he needs him. He's been doing it for two years now; even more so since they started dating.
When Buck sued the city last year and there was suddenly a Buck-shaped hole in Eddie and Christopher’s life, Eddie had been furious. He’d just been starting to get used to having a partner in crime again — after he had just started to get used to it again when Shannon came back into their lives, and then she died — and he hadn't reacted well at having the rug pulled out from under him. At feeling abandoned again, as much as he knows Shannon loved them and would never have chosen to leave Christopher again.
But Eddie has been talking to Frank for the better part of a year, now. He knows he can't try to protect himself all his life. That he might think he's shielding Christopher by not letting people in, but at the same time he's denying him the joy of new experiences and new family who'll love him.
Buck loves Christopher. Buck clearly loves both of them. He and Eddie haven't said it to each other yet, but it's in every gesture, every word. Every package of dinosaur nuggets Buck keeps in his refrigerator. Every time he sends a text because he saw a video of dogs looking ashamed after destroying stuff and he knows Eddie will think it's funny. The care he takes when he carries a sleepy Chris to bed. How he looks at Eddie when he thinks Eddie's already asleep.
Eddie never could have imagined it, the first day he met Buck; he was being such a petty dick. But first impressions aren’t everything. Buck is fiercely loyal and compassionate and funny and, yeah, kind of oblivious sometimes, but he’s got the biggest heart of anybody Eddie knows. And he’s in it for the long haul. They both are.
"We're gonna figure it out together," Eddie says, and feels it in his bones.
"911, what's your emergency?"
"Oh god, we're down at the Coliseum and there was a crash! A car went into the crowd!"
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind when dispatch said a car crash at a race track," says Hen as they all jog after a harried race official. The track is a narrow, winding asphalt strip bordered by hay bales and crowd control barriers. Even now, there are still spectators pressed up against the barriers up and down the track — attendees stand inches from the track all along the course. It looks incredibly precarious from a safety perspective, if also like a hell of a lot of fun. The costumes are eclectic. There's a band of cowboys wandering the track, while a group of bank robbers casually talks with Santa and his elves.
"I doubt dispatch knew it was a soap box derby," Bobby says.
"Oh man, I love these videos on YouTube," Buck says. "Have you seen the ones where they launch into the water?"
"That's flugtag," says Eddie, grinning. "They're trying to fly in those."
"This sounds like an exceptionally bad idea," says Bobby. He raises his voice. "Okay, clear a path, please! LAFD!"
The knot of people up ahead loosens and ripples as spectators and race officials step aside to reveal the crash site: a turn raised up on boards, with only thin sheets of plywood separating the audience from the banked turn. From the looks of it, one team went crashing straight through the boards into the crowd.
"Do these things have motors?" Bobby asks.
"Nah, Cap, they're totally people-powered," Buck says. "They're usually just big enough for one or two riders, and they're supposed to be able to steer and brake. Fastest team down the hill wins, though you get extra points for style and creativity."
"Motor or not, looks like they could have picked up some pretty serious speed coming into that turn," says Chimney.
"Captain? Hi, I'm with first aid for the race," calls a tall woman wearing a T-shirt with VOLUNTEER stenciled on the back in big red letters. "We've got some bumps and bruises, a few broken bones and splinters, and. Well."
The volunteer leads them over to where the car landed. At first, it just looks like an explosion of shattered yellow and black plastic — then more people move aside and Eddie sees the guy pinned to the equipment shed by a particularly big, sharp spear of yellow material that went straight through his shoulder. His feet are dangling off the ground and two people are crouched on their hands and knees beneath him so he can stand on their backs.
He's in a red and white baseball cap, a blue jacket, and fingerless gloves. One of the people trying to prop him up is wearing a red and white globe-shaped costume.
Yellow and black plastic. The costumes.
Hen has apparently reached the same conclusion Eddie has. "Did he get skewered by Pikachu's ear?" she says, with the same mix of appalled fascination that Eddie's feeling. He wouldn't be surprised if Hen's household has watched just as many hours of Pokémon as the Diaz house has over the years.
"Woof," says Chimney, with feeling.
"The Gotta Win 'Em All team came off the track when they tried to make the corner," says the volunteer. "Ash has been screaming bloody murder but we didn't dare take him down — I mean, I took a first aid course last year, but this is kind of beyond my pay grade. In that I'm volunteering. So a free pay grade."
"Finally!" shouts the man dressed as Ash Ketchum. "Get me down!"
"Hen, Chim, Buck, Eddie, work on getting Ash down," says Bobby. "Will, Gomez, and Johnson, fan out and check on everybody the car drove into. Haggerty, Linden, go get a saw and a ladder. Help with the crowd when you get back." As everyone starts to disperse and Eddie, Hen, and Buck push past him, Eddie hears Bobby say something to the nearest race official about safety precautions, permits, and emergency medical stand-by.
"Those guys are screwed," Buck says, which sums it up pretty neatly. Bobby’s going to have their asses.
"Oh thank god," says one of the two people struggling to support the injured man. She is, Eddie realizes, dressed as Ash's friend Misty. Her orange wig is dangling out from under her helmet. Her voice is shaking. "We're dying here; help."
"How long has he been up there?" Hen asks.
"Forever," says the Poké Ball darkly. Ash's foot is skittering on and off the rounded circle of her costume.
"Um, I don't know, maybe five, ten minutes?" says Misty. She's slight and splashed with Ash's blood and she's unsteady, clearly straining under his weight.
"Guys, you wanna give them a break for a minute?" Hen says, and Eddie and Buck glance at each other, then crouch down.
"We're gonna swap out on the count of three, okay?" Eddie tells Misty, and when she nods tearily, he counts down and then grabs the patient's foot and takes his weight on his shoulder as Misty lets herself flop onto the pavement. Buck's doing the same under Ash's other foot, though it goes less smoothly thanks to the Poké Ball costume and there's a moment of flailing and screaming from the patient before Buck gets underneath him.
Hen and Chimney are talking to the guy — his real name is Todd, apparently. That leaves Eddie and Buck crouched under him, each with a foot on his shoulder.
"What do you think the odds are that Bobby thought his name was actually Ash?" Buck says.
"Oh, I'm not takin' that bet," Eddie says, “he definitely did,” and Buck looks like he wants to laugh. The woman dressed as Misty is slowly trying to pick herself up again. She looks wobbly, like she can't get her knees under herself enough to kneel. "You okay? Feeling any pain?" Eddie asks her.
"Just my neck is kinda sore," she says. "And my head." She's slurring her words, which Eddie had originally taken for a panic response.
Eddie frowns and exchanges a look with Buck. "Were you in the car when it crashed?" Buck asks her.
She starts to nod, then goes white and looks like she thinks better of it. Her hands are scraped up and she has a pretty good streak of road rash scraped along her left cheek — and there are fresh trails of blood from her nose and her ears.
"Ma'am, hold still. Chim!" Eddie calls, and Buck grabs Chimney's pant leg to get his attention. Eddie points to their newest patient. "We're gonna need a backboard, likely head trauma."
Chimney nods and flags someone else down, then crouches down with a hand on her arm. "Hi there, I'm going to help you lie down, okay?"
As he's starting to check her out, Haggerty and Linden arrive with the ladder and the saw. Hen makes quick work of sawing through Pikachu's ear, Todd shouting in protest the whole time. Eddie keeps his head down as a couple of stray sparks touch the back of his neck, but he briefly makes eye contact with Buck, who gives him a 'well, what can you do? some days you crouch under a dude dressed as Ash Ketchum while the rest of your engine triages crowd injuries' sort of grin.
Hen, Linden, and Haggerty haul Todd off what's left of Pikachu’s ear and off Eddie and Buck's shoulders, to more screaming, and Eddie finally helps get him onto a stretcher.
"Did we win?" Ash asks deliriously.
"You crashed, you dumbass," says the Poké Ball.
It's the start of a deeply weird day.
The team takes its next call without Bobby — he has some kind of surprise visitor from LAFD headquarters in full dress uniform, who everybody eyes with interest as they head out.
Bobby doesn’t miss much on the call. It’s a straightforward medical emergency for a corporate executive who thinks he’s having a heart attack and seems weirdly put out to be told it’s heartburn.
The call’s already forgotten by the time they get back to the station; they spend the ride back debating kids’ movies. “I just don’t know how much more I can watch it, you know?” Eddie says, hopping out of the engine. He’s the last one out, so he shuts the door behind him. “How many times can one person let it go?”
“Oh god, you too?” Hen asks as she swings around from the ambulance. “Denny and Gabi are obsessed. I hear the songs in my dreams.”
“My nightmares,” Eddie commiserates.
“I dunno, guys, I still like it,” Buck says, spreading his hands expansively. “It’s got a good message! Family and stuff.”
“You watch it with Christopher, then.”
“And Denny and Gabi,” Hen adds.
“I will,” Buck vows, to laughter.
Eddie glances up.
Bobby is standing up on the second level, leaning on the rail and looking down into the truck bay. “Need a word.”
“One sec!” Buck calls up, still grinning.
“Now,” says Bobby, in the tone that brooks no argument, and he walks away from the railing.
“Ooh, principal’s office,” Chimney sing-songs.
“Is he calling you into his actual office?” Hen asks. “Bobby never uses that office.”
It sits and gathers dust, for the most part. Eddie has had the vast majority of his conversations with Bobby, even the official or difficult personal ones, sitting with him at the big table upstairs while everybody else clears out of the kitchen.
Eddie exchanges a wary glance with Buck.
“I’m, uh, I’m sure it’s fine,” Buck says, to the group at large, and Chimney claps him on the shoulder.
“Godspeed, boys,” he says. “I’ll pray for you.”
As they jog up the stairs together, Buck mutters, “Do you know what’s—?”
“Nope,” Eddie says, and he walks to the office beside Buck with great misgivings.
Bobby’s sitting behind the desk he never uses. The tall stranger he’d been talking to earlier, before they went out on the call, is sitting to the side of the desk. There are two empty chairs in front of it.
“Uh, hey Cap, you wanted to see us?” Buck asks hesitantly.
“Sit down, guys,” Bobby says, and out of the corner of his eye, Eddie sees Buck shooting him another dubious look as they sink into the two chairs saved for them.
“Firefighter Diaz, Firefighter Buckley, this is Captain Anthony Ferrante from headquarters. He’s here with some questions for you.”
“Happy to answer anything,” Eddie says tightly.
“Hi, guys,” says Captain Ferrante. “Pleasure to meet you. There’s no good way to ease into this, so I’m just going to say it. LAFD has no interest in regulating the personal lives of our people, but there are strict regulations regarding relationships between active personnel on the same shift. Are you aware of those regulations?”
“Yes,” says Eddie stiffly, and Buck says, “Yeah.”
Behind his desk, Bobby shifts his weight but doesn’t say anything.
“Then I’ll ask you: are the two of you in a romantic relationship?”
Buck has already turned toward Eddie, and Eddie finally turns and looks at him too. Buck’s eyes are wide.
“I’d like to point out that they don’t have to answer that,” Bobby cuts in. His words are directed to Captain Ferrante, but he’s looking steadily first at Buck, then at Eddie. He speaks slowly, with deliberation. “They’re entitled to have a union rep present.” He’s all but shouting at them to keep their mouths shut and wait for union representation, Eddie realizes.
It makes sense. It’s as good of a strategy as they’re going to come up on short notice in the middle of this disaster, anyway. Eddie makes eye contact with Buck again and nods faintly, and Buck nods back. They’re on the same page, at least.
“Yeah,” Buck says to Captain Ferrante, and there’s a long moment where that statement rings in the office.
They weren’t on the same page. Eddie's going to have a heart attack.
“Yeah, we’re gonna wait for a union rep,” Eddie says, kicking Buck under the desk.
Buck sits up straight, and he says, “Yep. The union.”
Captain Ferrante glances between the two of them, with a final look for Bobby. Then he sighs and says, “Okay, message received. Talk to the union and have your rep get in touch with my office to set up an interview.” He reaches into his jacket and produces a business card, which he hands across the desk to Buck.
Buck tilts it toward Eddie and he glances down at it. It’s embossed with the LAFD shield and identifies the captain as part of Human Resources. Not the most ominous title.
“Speaking hypothetically,” Ferrante says, “if two active-duty firefighters on the same shift were in a relationship, and if they came forward and one of them applied for a voluntary transfer, no disciplinary action would be taken.”
“What if nobody put in for a transfer?” Buck asks, and Eddie seriously considers kicking him again.
“I would strongly recommend against that course of action,” says Captain Ferrante, “but that would open the way to an investigation, disciplinary proceedings, and long-term suspensions with the possibility of termination as an end result.”
Eddie knows all of this already, they both do, but it’s bleak to sit in Bobby’s dusty office and have the frank words wash over him.
None of them say anything. Eddie carefully doesn’t look at Buck beside him, or at Bobby behind the desk.
“So,” says Captain Ferrante, “next steps. It sounds like no one is making a statement or filing for a transfer at this exact moment. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” says Eddie tightly. At the very least, before they do anything else, he’s got to talk to Buck. The union isn’t a bad idea, either.
“They’ll schedule the interview for as soon as possible. In the meantime, you’re both suspended pending further investigation.”
Eddie flinches. Buck snaps, “What?”
“It’s standard procedure when a formal complaint is filed,” Captain Ferrante says. “LAFD takes potential conflicts of interest among first responders very seriously.”
Buck lunges forward in his chair, his eyes flashing. “Who the hell filed a formal complaint about us?”
“I can’t disclose that information at this time, Firefighter Buckley,” he says. “If an investigation results, you and your representation will be entitled to further details.” He rises, cover tucked under his arm. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying this. “Have your rep call my office and we’ll move this along as soon as possible,” he says again, more warmly this time. “Let’s not dawdle.”
“Thank you, Captain Ferrante,” says Bobby, and he waits for him to show himself out and close the door before he looks at the two of them again.
Eddie sinks back in his chair with a deep exhale. Buck is leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hand. His expression is dark.
“Right,” says Bobby, when neither of them immediately volunteers anything. “So I take it it’s true, then.”
They both pause. Without fully meeting Bobby’s eyes or raising his chin from his hand, Buck starts to nod. Eddie folds his arms over his chest and says, “Yeah.”
“And it’s serious, this thing between you two.”
This time, they look at each other.
“I would hope it is, because I’d like to think the two of you wouldn’t jeopardize both your careers for anything less.”
“No, it is,” Buck says, his eyes still on Eddie, and Eddie nods, mouth pressed into a thin line.
“So I’m assuming you’ve considered all the possible consequences of getting into a romantic relationship with a member of your crew, and you’ve decided this is worth those risks,” Bobby says, steadily.
This feels a little like an ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed’ talk from a parent. It’s not fun.
“We talked about it, Bobby,” says Buck.
“Oh, you talked about it? Oh good.”
Buck gawks at him. “Are you mad?”
“Mad? No. But I’m a little surprised and I’m playing catch-up here, Buck.”
“We couldn’t tell you; not without getting you stuck in the middle if LAFD found out,” Eddie says.
Bobby pointedly glances at his door, where Captain Ferrante just left, but doesn’t comment. He says, “Who knew about this?”
“Literally nobody,” says Buck.
“We didn’t tell anyone.”
“Not anyone? Not Hen or Chim or your families?”
“We didn’t want anybody to have to decide if they were gonna lie for us,” Buck says. That was genuinely their reasoning, but it sounds weak now.
“What about Christopher?”
“He doesn’t know,” says Eddie, harder.
“Well, someone clearly knows.”
“I don’t know how!” Buck bursts out. “We’ve been completely professional at work.” Except that one time they made out behind an engine at a playground, Eddie thinks a little guiltily, but he's not about to mention that to Bobby and he doubts Buck is either. “I can’t figure it out. Who the hell was it? Did somebody follow us?”
“I can’t give you more information,” Bobby says, “but I can tell you that it sounded like the complaint came from up high. There won’t be any brushing this aside, guys.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “We’re gonna have to talk transfer options.”
Eddie blows out a long breath, leaning forward over his knees, as Buck lunges upright. “No! No way. We can fight this.”
“That’s a big fight, Buck,” says Bobby. “How long has this been going on?”
“Two months,” says Eddie.
“Almost three,” Buck mumbles.
“You realize withholding this information could have put all of your colleagues at risk on a dangerous job?”
That stings. Eddie jerks, but before he can say anything, Buck snaps, “At risk? Bobby, come on. What the hell!”
“If you can’t take these questions from me, you definitely won’t be able to from the panel you’ll be facing if you decide to fight a transfer.”
Eddie lifts his chin from his hands and looks over at Buck, who’s still staring at Bobby then says, “—Oh,” and slowly deflates.
“They’re going to ask a lot of probing questions about your relationship, your home lives, the calls you’ve been on together. Are you ready for that?” If anyone would know, it would be Bobby, who faced an investigatory panel himself last year.
“We’ve—” Eddie glances at Buck. “We need to talk about it.”
“I’d say you do,” Bobby says. “Get out of here; go call the union.”
“Wait, the suspensions start now?” Buck says, dismayed. “I just got back to full-time without the blood thinners.”
He’s exaggerating — it’s been a few months now — but Eddie knows what he means. Buck has spent the last year working so hard to get back to where he was before the bombing. A suspension is ugly for both of them, but it has to smart for Buck to be taken out again.
“LAFD isn’t taking any chances.” Bobby folds his hands on the desk and leans forward over it. “Use the time,” he tells them intently. “Figure out what you’re going to do.”
Jesus. They should have had a plan ready for this, probably, but they didn’t, and Eddie doesn’t have the slightest clue what he’s going to do.
Buck’s mouth is set in an unhappy line. When he lifts his head again, it’s with a challenging tilt. “You gonna back us, Cap?”
It’s a fraught question, especially considering Eddie knows that Buck had originally expected Bobby to go to bat for him when he was coming back from his injury, and instead Bobby had told LAFD that Buck wasn’t ready.
Bobby raises his eyebrows and leans back in his chair. “I’m going to take some time to think everything through, considering that I’ve apparently been in the dark for almost three months.”
Buck doesn’t quite wince, but he’s definitely nodding too much. “Yeah, yeah, no, that’s fair.”
“Look, guys, I’d suggest telling anyone who you want to tell yourselves, fast. There won’t be any keeping this quiet now.”
“I guess I was starting to wonder how we’d tell everybody,” Buck says, in an unexpected stab at humor.
Eddie snorts once and then again, and he glances down and huffs a silent laugh, shaking his head.
“This wouldn’t have been my recommendation,” Bobby says dryly, but Eddie can see he’s amused. He’ll stand by them in the end, Eddie thinks, regardless of what they do. The whole station will. It’s one of the things holding back the vague nausea he’s been feeling as he sits here.
Buck pulls a sour, wry face, and says, “Wasn’t the plan.”
“Was there a plan?”
The two of them glance at each other. “Nope,” says Eddie ruefully.
“I’m shocked,” Bobby deadpans, and Eddie barks a laugh.
As they're rising from their seats, Bobby says, “Hey.” He’s watching them steadily. “If you weren’t both on an engine under my command, I’d tell you congratulations.”
Eddie slowly smiles, just one corner of his mouth rising; Buck says, “Thanks, Bobby.”
“I said ‘if,’ ” Bobby says, but mildly. He has a few fingers pressed to his temple like he’s staving off the start of a headache. “Go home, guys.”
They leave him to it.
Outside of Bobby’s office, with the door shut behind them, Buck misses a step and then stops and sags against the doorframe. “Holy shit,” he says blankly.
“Yeah,” says Eddie. That pretty neatly sums it all up.
He exhales with a whoosh and glances over at Eddie. “You okay?”
He gives him an incredulous look. “What part of any of that could possibly have felt okay?”
“I mean, the end wasn’t so bad,” Buck says. He scrunches up his face and looks upward. “Pretty sure Cap almost laughed.”
Eddie laughs, at that, and Buck grins at him, eyes crinkling with his smile.
Eddie has spent what feels like a long time now being very careful how he touches Buck in public. The last few months while they’ve needed to hide that they’re dating, yeah, but months before that, too, when he began to realize he had feelings he wasn’t sure he was ready for. He always thinks before he reaches for Buck. But he doesn’t have to anymore. The cat’s out of the bag. They’re suspended, so they’re not even on duty. Buck is side by side with him in this shitty situation, asking how Eddie’s doing and pulling faces and cracking stupid jokes to make him smile.
“He got pretty close,” Eddie agrees, and he reaches out and rubs Buck’s arm, sweeping up and down a couple of times before squeezing his bicep. Buck smiles back at him, softer.
“Okay, what the hell did you guys do?” Hen’s voice asks from behind them, and, on instinct, Eddie quickly drops his hand back to his side.
Hen and Chimney are standing over by one of the big dining tables, staring over at the two of them. “That was a long talk with Bobby and whoever that was.”
“We didn’t do anything,” Eddie says defensively as he and Buck walk over to join them.
“We kinda did,” says Buck, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, by not saying anything.”
“Guys, please! The suspense is killing me,” pleads Chimney.
Buck looks to Eddie — giving him a chance to decide not to say anything, Eddie thinks. Eddie steps closer to him, and Buck gives him a firm nod.
This time, they’re on the same page.
They face their friends together. “We’ve been dating since July,” Eddie says.
“—Shut up,” says Hen, blindly reaching out and grabbing Chimney’s arm in what looks like an iron grip, while the pitch of Chim’s voice swings up wildly in: “You what?”
Buck lifts both hands in a weak show of jazz hands and says, “Surprise?”
Chimney points between the two of them incredulously. “Each other? You’re dating each other.”
“You really didn’t know?” Buck asks them, but mostly asking Hen.
“Holy shit,” Chimney is saying.
“I mean, you guys have always been kind of—” Eddie has no idea what Hen even means by the wry gesture she makes, “and you, I’m not that surprised by, you’re not subtle, Buckaroo, but Eddie...”
“Congratulations on having a better poker face than Buck,” Chimney tells Eddie.
“That’s a low bar,” Eddie points out.
“Does Maddie know?” Chimney asks.
“No. Don’t tell her, I gotta tell her.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, but, hey, quick question, can I be there when you tell her? Her face!”
“Shhh, all of you, hang on. Wait. What’s the deal?” Hen says, starting to frown now. “You know I’m gonna be happy for you two as soon as I get over how long you’ve been lying to us,” (she’s already happy for them, Eddie knows — her voice is too warm, the hard stress on the L in ‘lying’ too funny, for anything else), “but this is a big LAFD no-no.”
“We’re both suspended, pending investigation,” Eddie says. “It all goes away if one of us transfers out to another station and another shift.”
Chimney whistles low through his teeth.
“A transfer?” Hen says.
“It’s bullshit,” Buck says vehemently. “We’ve been dating for two months and it hasn’t caused any problems!”
“Not sure ‘we’ve been flouting LAFD policy for months’ is the defense you think it is, buddy,” Chimney says, not without sympathy. He shakes his head. “Guys: this sucks. What can we do?”
“You can tell them how surprised you were and how our relationship definitely didn’t affect anybody at work when they interview you, if it gets that far,” Eddie says.
Buck tilts his head sharply. “If?”
“Can we talk about this somewhere else? Like, not here?” Eddie says, with a meaningful look at the office that Bobby just threw them out of.
“I can’t believe all those times they were having old married couple arguments, they were actually having old married couple arguments,” Chim says to Hen, sotto voce.
“Shut up, Chim,” says Buck. “I — yeah, fine. Guys, we gotta go; we’ve got to talk to the union.”
“Are you gonna try to fight the fraternization rule?” Hen asks, her eyebrows lowered.
Buck opens his mouth — knowing Buck, to say, ‘Yeah.’
Eddie heads him off at the pass. “We are gonna go talk about that,” he says, putting a hand between Buck’s shoulders and starting to push him in front of him, “right now, somewhere that is not the middle of the station.”
“They have arguments places that aren’t the middle of the station?” Chim says to Hen, behind them. “They’re learning.”
“Hey,” calls Hen, and Eddie and Buck both turn back. “What Chimney means is: let us know what we can do.” There’s nothing but sympathy and determination in the steady way she’s looking at them. Beside her, Chimney’s expression is much the same as he nods.
“Thanks, guys,” says Buck, and Eddie thinks he’s as touched as Eddie feels.
In the locker room, they start making a list of everybody they have to talk to this afternoon.
“Union,” Buck recites, “Maddie.” He lifts the collar of his T-shirt and sniffs, pulls a face, and pulls it off over his head. He stops. “Your family?”
“We gotta start with Christopher,” says Eddie, sitting on the bench to change his shoes, “and once he knows, everybody knows, so, yeah. I’ll see if I can take him to my abuela’s for dinner tonight.” He’ll have to call his parents in El Paso right afterward — like he told Frank a few weeks ago, his family’s not so good with secrets.
“Eddie, I’m sorry,” Buck says, and Eddie blinks and looks up. Buck is hovering with his hand clenching and unclenching in his grip on a clean T-shirt dangling from his hand. “I know this isn’t how you wanted to come out to people.”
“Buck, I had no idea how I wanted to come out to anybody,” Eddie says wryly. “It’s okay, seriously. It’s not your fault.” He reaches out for Buck’s hand, T-shirt and all. “We’ll figure stuff out.” He shakes Buck’s hand back and forth until Buck reluctantly smiles. “I—”
Eddie releases Buck’s hand and they both look back when the locker room door opens. It’s Haggerty, the deeply earnest probie with a blond buzz cut, who’s built like a refrigerator and spends most of his time riding with Linden and Gomez on Truck 118. He’s normally methodical and steady as a rock, but now he’s wringing his hands. His ruddy face is white as a sheet. “Guys, I’m so sorry,” he’s saying.
“Wow, is gossip spreading that fast?” Buck says. He shakes his head, yanking his fresh shirt on.
“It’s cool, Haggy. It’ll be fine,” Eddie tells the probie, glancing up from tying his shoelace. He stops, then, when he gets a look at his face. The kid looks like he’s about to hyperventilate.
He stands in front of them with his mouth pressed together tightly, shaking his head, and then he bursts out, “It’s my fault.”
“...What’s your fault?” Eddie asks, lost.
“I — I heard you guys at the grocery store last week.” Haggerty’s words are tripping and tumbling over themselves, barely making it out of his mouth.
Eddie genuinely can’t even remember what he and Buck talked about at the grocery store last week. Honestly he barely remembers what he had for breakfast this morning.
“Dude, what are you talking about?” Buck asks.
“You were talking about dinner with your kid and you were flirting and stuff and it was just so nice to see it’s possible, you know? My dad’s such a hardass about the fire department being a bad place for me and we were arguing again at dinner last night, and I was like, ‘There are other gay guys in the LAFD, they’re some of the best firefighters I know!’ ”
Eddie exchanges a deeply startled look with Buck, who looks as stunned as Eddie feels.
“We’re not… gay...” Buck says slowly, which is probably the least of the problems here, but Haggerty’s on a roll.
“And I didn’t say anything about you guys being together or what your names are, I swear, but he wanted to know how I knew that, and then I think he must have looked into the 118 and pieced some stuff together or something, and—”
“Hold up, Haggy. Slow down. You’re telling me you figured out we were dating ‘cause we were talking about Easy Mac?” Buck asks incredulously.
“I’ve always had, like, really great gaydar,” Haggerty starts, and Buck turns away in disbelief, throwing his hands up, while Eddie shakes his head.
“I had no idea he was going to file a complaint, I swear; I would have tried to stop him, I would have warned you—”
“Who the hell is your father to file a complaint about me and Buck?” Eddie snaps.
Beside him, Buck makes a startled noise that sounds like a squawk, his eyes going wide. He lifts both hands to his own head. “Oh fucking — Haggerty. Is your dad Battalion Chief Haggerty?”
When probie-Haggerty nods miserably, Eddie turns away and covers his mouth and chin with a hand, rubbing his chin hard, to give himself time for a couple deep breaths so he doesn’t start yelling at this kid or punching a locker.
He’d realized Haggerty was a legacy hire with a father or an uncle or a brother who was already a firefighter, but legacies like that are a dime a dozen in the LAFD. Eddie had no idea Haggy is renowned hard-ass Battalion Chief Haggerty’s kid.
“That’s why Bobby said the complaint came from high up,” Buck says. “Because it was Battalion Chief Haggerty.” He throws his jacket at the bench. “We’re screwed.”
“You’re not,” Haggerty says. “I’ll talk to him, I’ll get him to stop.”
“I’ve been on a scene where your dad's in command before,” Buck says. “Does that guy stop for anything?”
The silence says it all. “No,” says Haggerty, finally, impossibly small for such a big man, and Eddie tips his head back and stares at the ceiling, hands fisted tightly at his sides.
“Guys, I’m so sorry—” Haggerty continues.
“I know,” says Eddie, too tired and too angry for any of this. “We heard. Buck, you wanna get out of here?”
“Yeah, I think I’m done,” Buck says. He scoops up his duffel bag. “Haggy, see you around.”
“He won’t,” Eddie says pointedly, as they walk past Haggerty on either side of him, “because we’re suspended.”
The sun is shining, the palm trees are swaying, and the day looks very normal considering that Eddie’s life currently feels like it’s in the spin cycle of a dryer.
He sighs and sinks back into the driver’s seat of his truck, scrubbing a hand over his face. Beside him, Buck is staring out the windshield into the Station 118 parking lot.
“Man, she was not impressed with us, huh?” Buck says.
“Nope,” Eddie agrees. He rests his arm out the open window. There’s a bird singing somewhere nearby. His phone is resting on his leg and he almost imagines it feels hot from the spiciness of their union rep’s verbal dressing down over how they’ve handled all this. They have an in-person meeting with her scheduled for Tuesday, which he doesn’t expect to be any less intense. “But I wouldn’t want to go up against her.”
“Yeah, no, I am terrified of her,” Buck says frankly, and Eddie barks a laugh and turns to look at him. He looks as tired as Eddie feels.
“Let’s get out of here, huh?” Eddie asks him. “Come home with me. I can bring you back to get the Jeep later.”
“I am definitely over this parking lot,” Buck says, vehement, and he switches on the radio as Eddie focuses on getting them the hell on the road.
Buck’s phone rings. He glances down at it, then cancels the call or sends it to voicemail and he lowers the phone again. “We’ve gotta fight it, right?” he says. “This is bull. We’re good together — all of us. One of us shouldn’t have to get transferred just because we — because we’re together.”
“I don’t want anybody to transfer any more than you do,” Eddie says, “but we’ve gotta be smart about this. We could both get fired, Buck.”
“No way.” Buck’s phone rings again and he silences it. “They wouldn’t fire us.”
“Captain Ferrante was pretty clear that they would.”
“He was trying to scare us,” Buck says. “That’s his job.”
“As Human Resources? That doesn’t sound right.”
“They don’t want other people to do what we’re doing. But we can do it — we’ve been doing it,” Buck says intently, and his phone starts buzzing.
Eddie loves him but he’s also the most frustrating person. “Would you answer that already?”
Buck grimaces. “I’m good.”
Eddie glances over at him as he takes a righthand turn into the residential neighborhood he always cuts through to try to avoid the traffic at the freeway onramp. “Who keeps calling?”
Buck’s grimace gets worse. “Maddie.”
“Do you think somebody told her?”
Rolling up to a stop sign, Eddie frowned. “What? No, you didn’t. You’ve been with me this … whole…” He stops. At the stop sign, he turns to fully face Buck. “Hold on, did you text her?”
Buck’s face has set in mulish, defensive lines. “Yeah,” he says. “Why not?”
Eddie starts to laugh. “Oh man, you told your sister in a text? What did you say?”
“That we’re dating.”
“No, no, man. Read it to me.”
Buck slowly lifts his phone. He sighs, and then he says, “Hey, just FYI, me and Eddie are dating.”
Eddie shouts with laughter. He laughs so hard that the car behind him has to lay on the horn to get him to move through the intersection. “She’s gonna kill you!”
“Why do you think I’m not answering the phone?”
“It gets worse the longer you don’t pick up,” says Eddie, still laughing.
Buck’s phone buzzes again. He stares at it like it’s a viper, then finally picks it up. “Heyyy Mads.”
Eddie reaches out and turns down the radio, grinning. He can’t make out what she’s saying, but he can hear her voice and it’s definitely insistent.
“Uhhhhh,” says Buck. “Two months.”
Eddie can hear her tinny voice yelp, “Two months?”
“I’m gonna put you on speaker,” says Buck.
“What?” says Eddie.
Buck lowers the phone from his ear.
“Come on, wait.” Eddie drops his voice: “Buck, she’s your sister; I’m not—”
Buck hits speaker and lifts his phone across the center console.
“—you’re doing?” Maddie’s insistent voice finishes.
“Heyyy Maddie,” says Eddie, giving Buck a betrayed look. Buck shrugs unrepentantly.
“Oh, Eddie! Hi! I didn’t realize you guys were together! In … more ways than one, I guess.”
Eddie laughs as Buck complains, “Oh, so you’re nice to Eddie?”
“Eddie’s not my dumb little brother,” says Maddie. “Eddie, I can’t believe he convinced you to date him. You’re so far out of his league.”
Buck shakes his head, playfully aggrieved. “Rude. So rude.”
Eddie grins, both because he enjoys messing with Buck but also because he can tell from the warmth of Maddie’s voice that she’s genuinely delighted. “Thanks Maddie.”
“You’re very welcome,” she chirps.
“Oh stop it,” Buck says, finally breaking into a laugh.
“I should stop it?” asks Maddie. “You know, you lied to my face last week, you jerk.”
“When I asked if you were seeing anyone and you said no!” she says, incredulous.
“I mean, I wasn’t seeing him right then; you and me were at your place, he was at home.”
“You’re the worst,” Maddie laughs.
Eddie glances from the road to Buck’s smiling face and back again. Maddie doesn’t sound upset to have had this kept from her, but he doesn’t want Buck arguing with his sister over him, either. “Buck didn’t want you to feel like you had to keep secrets from Chimney, and we didn’t want the 118 getting in trouble hiding stuff for us.”
“Are you two in trouble?” Maddie asks, because laser-sharp perception is apparently a universal sister trait.
Buck’s grin falls away. “LAFD found out and they want to transfer one of us.”
She sucks in a breath. “God, really?”
“We’re not doing that; we can get the union involved, fight it.”
“Yeah, and maybe lose our jobs in the process,” Eddie points out.
“They won’t fire us.”
“You’re that willing to bet on it?”
“Yeah,” says Buck firmly. “Why aren’t you?”
They look at each other until the stoplight turns and Eddie has to look back at the road as he turns onto his street.
“So it sounds like you guys have some stuff to talk about,” says Maddie’s voice. “Evan, call me later, please. No more big life news in FYI texts.”
“Told you,” says Eddie, pulling up in front of his house. Carla’s car is in the driveway, so she and Christopher can’t have gone far.
“Okay, okay. I’ll call,” says Buck.
“Oh, wait! Do you want to tell Chimney yourself?” Maddie asks.
Buck fully cringes at Eddie, and Eddie struggles not to laugh.
“I’m hanging up now, Evan Buckley,” says Maddie darkly, and she does.
Eddie unbuckles his seatbelt and turns to reach into the back seat of the truck cab for his bag. Buck grabs his arm. “Eddie, hang on. What’s the game plan here?”
“We go in the house, stick a frozen pizza in the oven, and I check Christopher’s social studies homework,” Eddie says lightly. “I can’t speak for what you’re planning.”
“I’m serious. Do you want to tell Chris now?”
“It’s time. Don’t you think?”
Buck watches him for a second, and then he leans across the front seat and kisses him. Eddie lifts a hand to Buck’s jaw and kisses him back warmly. It’s comforting how familiar this is now. He’d always had a small, lingering worry at the back of his head that when everything came out, when his life inevitably changed, he’d feel some resentment or he’d regret it, but he doesn’t. There’s no way he could. Even if Buck is a hothead who’s fighting to take the hardest possible way forward.
Buck smiles at him crookedly when he draws back. Eddie thumbs his cheek and then drops his hand and opens the car door. “Come on.”
“Still not hearing a plan,” says Buck.
“Do you want to tell him together?”
Buck hesitates. “I feel like maybe you should do it, you know? Give him some space to say he’s not happy, if he isn’t.”
“Buck,” he says. “You’re, like, his favorite person. Happy doesn’t even begin to cover it. This is gonna make his whole year. Trust me.”
He shakes his head. “You should talk to him first.”
“I can do that, but I’m not gonna make an announcement the second we walk in the door,” Eddie says, finally grabbing his bag from the backseat. “So come inside.”
Buck is still frowning, but he follows Eddie out of the truck and up the front walkway.
“Hello?” Eddie calls, as he tosses his keys into the bowl by the front door.
“Dad!” Christopher yells, and Eddie turns the corner and finds him sitting on the living room floor, papers spread across the coffee table and pencil in hand, Carla leaning over his shoulder.
“Hey bud,” Eddie says, grinning, as Chris levers himself up and comes hurrying over for a hug. He’s getting so big — it feels like it was just yesterday when all he could reach was Eddie’s knees, and now his arms are around Eddie’s waist. Eddie hugs him back, hand in his hair.
Carla rises from the couch. “Well, you’re six hours early,” she says, raising her eyebrows at Eddie, who’s aware that Buck is hovering behind him. “And with Buckaroo in tow?” She smiles, extending an arm to Buck, and Buck cracks a smile and leans in to hug her. “It’s my lucky day.”
“We got out a little early,” Buck says sheepishly. He looks deeply shifty. He’ll never be a master criminal.
“Uh huh. Well, Christopher and I have had a good day, haven’t we?” Carla says and Chris nods cheerfully, patting Eddie’s side and then going back to the coffee table. “We went to physical therapy, Christopher cleaned his room, and now we’re working on math homework. I was just about to get started on lunch.”
“We can get that, Carla,” Eddie says. “Unless you want to stay?”
“As lovely as that offer is, I think I might take advantage of my new free afternoon,” she says, smiling. She glances curiously between the two of them again. “Buck, you want to walk me out?”
Buck noticeably hesitates.
Eddie knows Buck first met Carla through the mysterious Abby, who Buck was still stuck on when Eddie arrived at the 118. From mentions here and there, Eddie thinks Carla has stayed in touch with Abby. Buck genuinely loves Carla and has his own relationship with her, independent of his ex-girlfriend, but this has to be kind of weird for him, too.
“Buck,” Eddie starts. “I can—”
“No, no, we’re good,” says Buck, and he offers Carla his arm.
“Ooh, I’ll take an escort from L.A.’s finest,” she says, gathering her purse and her jacket and tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Christopher, I’ll see you on Thursday, right?”
“Right!” he cheers.
“Bye, Diazes,” Carla calls.
“Bye!” Christopher chirps absently, as the front door closes behind her and Buck. “Dad, look!” He digs through the mess on the table in front of him and comes up with a sheet of paper, which he holds up to Eddie. It’s a spelling test, the one they drilled vocabulary for together earlier this week — the test has a smiley face sticker and ‘97%’ written in neat red pen at the top.
Eddie breaks into a huge smile. “Chris, that’s amazing! High five!”
Christopher winds up and slaps his palm with obvious pride. “I got ‘referee’ wrong,” he says, but he’s still grinning.
“Honestly I’m not sure I’d get that right either, buddy,” says Eddie. “Where do all those e’s go?”
“I don’t know,” Christopher laughs.
“What do you think about pizza to celebrate?”
“With peppers?” Christopher asks.
“I’ll put it in the oven,” Eddie says, and he takes the long way to the kitchen. At the front of the house, he leans in the window and draws back the curtain to peek outside.
Buck and Carla are standing beside her car in the driveway. She has both her hands on his face and is saying something to him, smiling. Buck’s back is to the house, but he’s holding her wrists and the hard set of his shoulders has relaxed.
Eddie smiles and drops the curtain. “What was that, Chris?” he calls. “You wanted olives on your pizza?”
Christopher’s disgusted shout could wake the dead. Eddie laughs.
Buck comes back inside looking calm, though he immediately tenses again when he looks at Christopher scribbling at the coffee table. Eddie shakes his head at him — they’re not going to make a big thing out of this.
Christopher, meanwhile, has other concerns. “Buck! Can you help with my social studies homework?”
“Sure thing,” Buck says, and then he realizes that Eddie’s laughing at him. “What’s so funny?”
“No, please,” says Eddie. “By all means. You try.”
“People don’t give me enough credit,” Buck says defensively. “I know stuff.”
“You know lots of stuff,” Christopher says, loyal, and Eddie struggles not to start laughing again.
Buck pointedly turns his back on Eddie as he sits cross-legged on the floor next to Christopher. Grinning, Eddie keeps listening as he goes to toss their duffel bags into his bedroom and clean up a board game that Christopher left on the floor.
Very quickly, predictably, Christopher begins teaching Buck.
“Wait, that’s how a bill becomes a law?” says Buck, fascinated, and Eddie goes to the bathroom so he can laugh himself sick without disturbing Christopher’s civics lesson.
Buck eventually forgets to stops looking like a spooked horse every time he glances at Christopher. When he goes to the kitchen to ‘check on the pizza,’ aka give Eddie time alone with Christopher, he even manages to make it seem natural.
Homework set aside for the afternoon, Christopher is coloring, tongue between his teeth in consideration.
Eddie watches him for a long moment, and then he says, “Christopher.” Christopher glances up, and Eddie pats the couch. “Come talk to me for a sec.” Chris smiles at him and pushes himself to his feet, clambering off the floor, and pulls himself onto the couch beside Eddie.
“I know it’s been just you and me for a long time, buddy,” Eddie says. For all that he's been shaking his head at Buck's nerves, Eddie swallows now that he has pulled Christopher away from what he was doing. He should have planned out what he was going to say. Through the first year after Shannon died, Eddie went on exactly one date with one woman, so until everything unexpectedly crashed into place with Buck over the summer, he hadn't had to think about this conversation at all. Now that it's here, it's hard to know where to start.
Christopher tilts his head, considering. Eddie always feels very seen when Christopher studies him like this. “I know,” Chris says. “I miss Mom too, Dad.”
God, he’s the most open-hearted, honest kid.
Eddie swallows again, willing himself to keep a smile on his face. “And we’re keeping her in our hearts, right?”
Christopher nods firmly. “Right.”
“I’ll always love your mom. Nobody can ever take her place. But we can still love her and also love new people, too.”
Christopher nods again, clearly listening, his ever-present smile hovering.
“What would you think if I dated Buck?”
Christopher doesn’t react for a long second. Then his smile launches into a broad grin and he throws his head back and laughs.
Eddie raises his eyebrows at him. “Is that good?”
“Yeah,” says Christopher, grinning from ear to ear. “Is Buck your boyfriend, Dad?”
Eddie raises his voice, because the kitchen has been dead quiet for at least three minutes. “What do you say, Buck?”
There’s a sheepish moment of silence, and then Buck appears to lean in the kitchen doorway. “Only if you’re cool with that, Chris.” He probably looks steady to a kid’s eye — though Christopher has always been perceptive, so who knows — but to Eddie’s, he’s nervous.
“The best!” Christopher crows, and he flings his arms up, probably equal parts celebration and wanting a hug.
Buck laughs and crosses the living room in a couple of strides to bend down and accept the enthusiastic hug. As he rises back out of it, Buck kisses the top of Christopher’s head and then makes eye contact with Eddie. He’s lit up with relief and happiness, his face incandescent.
Eddie hasn’t said it to him in so many words, yet, but he loves him.
Pushing himself back up onto his feet, Buck tosses Eddie a helplessly warm look and then cracks up when he sees that Chris is staring up at them like it’s Christmas and his birthday and Fourth of July fireworks all rolled into one. Eddie laughs, too, and ruffles Chris’s hair.
Buck clears his throat. “Okay!” He claps his hands together. “Who wants to eat pizza with me?”
“Me!” cheers Christopher, still beaming.
Buck grabs him under the arms and sets him on his feet with a melodramatic grunt, like he was so heavy, and Christopher laughs and heads for the kitchen. He’s food-motivated, as always.
Eddie rises off the couch and pulls a grinning Buck in close. “I told you he’d be fine,” he says, low and smug.
“Nobody likes an ‘I told you so,’ Eddie,” Buck says, but he’s wrapping his arms more tightly around Eddie and swaying a little as he says it, definitely flirting, so Eddie doesn’t put much stock in the complaint. “No more sneaking around, huh?”
They kiss, slow and warm. Eddie shuts his eyes and leans into him, and lets himself focus on the big, hot hand in the small of his back, the hint of teeth at his bottom lip, instead of on whether Christopher is going to walk in.
Their mouths part with a soft sound.
“It was kinda hot, not gonna lie,” Buck says, ruining the moment, and Eddie cracks up laughing, leaning his forehead against Buck’s.
“Dad! Buck! Pizza!” Christopher calls insistently.
Buck’s not wrong, though. “It was,” Eddie says. “This’ll be better, though.” As long as they don’t get fired. But he’s trying not to think about that for at least the rest of the afternoon. He’s going to eat lunch with his son and his boyfriend, and they’re going to figure it out later.
Buck says, softly, “Yeah,” and lets Eddie take him by the hand and pull him into the kitchen.
“You look like you’re gonna be sick,” Eddie says, taking in Buck’s grim face above his dress uniform.
“You do, too, Diaz,” says their union representative dryly. Sara Garcia is a short woman with close-cropped salt and pepper hair and a jaw like a battering ram. In another life, she told them, she went to law school. Eddie can believe it.
“Take deep breaths and try not to puke on anybody’s dress shoes,” she says. “If you have any questions about whether you should answer something, look at me. I’ll object to anything I feel is out of bounds.” They’ve heard it all before, but she clearly wants to remind them while they’re sitting right outside the room, waiting to be called in.
“You’re making this sound like we’re on trial,” says Buck, frowning.
“I want to tell you you’re not, but I’m not naïve and you shouldn’t be either,” says Sara. “This is a fact-finding meeting, not a disciplinary process yet, but we need to start early on convincing the panel. Stay calm. Answer everything you can but don’t provide any extra information.”
Sitting in a hard-backed chair in the hall beside her, Buck nods nervously a couple of times, hands clasped between his spread knees. Eddie lets out a heavy breath and starts pacing back and forth again.
“¡Oye!” says Sara, flapping a hand at him. “Cálmate. If you have enough energy to do that, maybe you have enough energy to tell me exactly what we’re lobbying for here.”
“We want to stay at the 118,” says Buck, like it’s obvious.
Sara doesn’t look at Buck. She’s a smart woman — she has definitely figured out the score here. “No puedo ayudar si no estás seguro.”
“Seguro,” says Eddie, crossing his arms over his chest. “Lo amo.”
“Guys, come on,” says Buck, but it’s not Eddie’s fault Buck somehow bartended on a beach in Chile for three months and has lived in L.A. for years without picking up more than a handful of basic Spanish phrases. Eddie ignores him.
“Un gran amor,” Sara says, and Buck whips his head around to look at her. “¿Suficiente para perder tu trabajo?”
“I thought you’re supposed to be on our side,” Eddie tells her sharply.
“I am,” she says. “Both of your sides. I have to make sure I’m representing what you want, and what I’m hearing— Not you, Buckley.” She points at Buck as he opens his mouth, and he closes it again. “What I’m hearing is you want to stay at the 118 and you want to keep your jobs. I’m going to do my very best but I can’t promise that’s possible. And if it isn’t, if you go through the disciplinary process and one or both of you lose your jobs for refusing a transfer, are you going to feel it was worth it?”
Eddie looks at her.
The door opens. “Firefighters Buckley and Diaz?” calls the receptionist. “They’re ready for you now.”
Sara holds Eddie’s gaze steadily as she rises from her chair, and then she walks past him.
“Eddie,” Buck starts, standing up.
He shakes his head. “Let’s get this over with.”
It’s a disaster from the start.
Battalion Chief Haggerty isn’t in the room — he probably couldn’t be, as the officer who filed the complaint — but they’re facing a sea of blank faces, including a gray-haired captain from the 206 who tried to prevent Hen from helping to treat a convulsing patient on-scene last year because he said his own guys could handle it.
The questions are personal.
“What’s the nature of your relationship?”
“We’re dating, sir,” Eddie says. “We have been for two months.”
“And before that? You’ve both been with the 118 for two years.”
“We were friends,” Buck says. “Sir.”
“At what point did you decide to deceive the LAFD about the nature of your relationship?”
Eddie’s fingers curl into a fist on his knee, under the table. The captain from the 206 is definitely an asshole.
“We didn’t want to lie to anyone,” Buck says. “It was just a lot of pressure for a new relationship.” It’s not the most convincing response of all time, even if it’s the truth.
“Were you aware that you were expected to self-report the change in your relationship and then request a transfer?”
Eddie glances at Sara, who nods. “Yes,” says Eddie shortly.
“What led you to believe you were exempt from LAFD regulations?”
“We don’t think we’re exempt,” Buck says, frowning. “We needed a little time. That was all.”
“We work well together,” says Eddie. “We’re a good team.”
He can sense Sara staring at the side of his head beside him. She warned them not to editorialize — only to answer the questions that have been put to them.
One captain glances down at his sheet of notes, then back up at them. “How did y—”
A loud phone cuts the tense atmosphere. It’s a familiar ringtone.
Eddie stares at Buck incredulously as Buck says, “Sorry; sorry—” and frantically fumbles for his phone in his pocket. He finally manages to cut it off. He looks up again, white-faced, at the panel members across the table. “I am so sorry.”
The nearest captain's eyebrows have lifted sky-high.
Bobby was right. It's hours of questions that feel invasive, about calls they've been on together; about their relationships with coworkers; about moments of poor judgment or danger on the job; about when they got together (they stick to the pre-arranged story that it happened after a shift — lying doesn't feel great, but Eddie doubts 'I thought he was dead or hurt for a second and I kissed him when I realized he wasn't' would help their case). They seem to be conspicuously avoiding the topic of Buck's dropped lawsuit, and Eddie's brief stint fighting in illegal rings never made it into the official LAFD chain, thank god and also Bobby Nash, Lena Bosco, and Captain Ronnie Cooper, but nothing else is spared.
Eddie holds onto his own knee, tighter and tighter, as the interview progresses. He knows his responses are growing more terse but it’s harder than he’d thought to remain even, informational, and steady. Buck can be a hothead in general but he's somehow better at this, even if he trips up a couple times — he steps in and starts answering as many of the questions as possible after Eddie nearly snaps at the captain from the 206 when the topic turns to Christopher.
The closing question is a doozy. The panel chair is an assistant chief with a keen eye who has said very little throughout the afternoon. She leans forward, as everyone is starting to gather up their notes, and she says, “Gentlemen, I have to ask — if it came down to a question of transferring or leaving the LAFD, would you accept the transfer?”
Before Buck can answer, Eddie says, “I think we’d need to consider all our options,” and in his peripheral vision, he sees Buck looking at him.
Buck manages to keep his mouth shut until they’re out of the room and down the hallway, before he bursts out, “What the hell, Eddie?”
“Sara said be honest with them, so I was honest,” Eddie snaps. “You can’t tell me you don’t have any doubts.”
“I don’t! I know this is the right thing!”
“Buck, you didn’t want to get out of bed for months while you were off work rehabbing your leg. You did everything you could to get back. You seriously don’t have a problem risking getting thrown out of the LAFD for good?”
“It’s not gonna happen!” Buck insists.
“Look, you might be able to live in fantasy land here, but I don’t have that luxury! I have to be practical, okay? I’ve gotta be able to provide for my son.”
“Are you saying I’m not thinking of Christopher?”
Buck physically jerks, and then he steps forward and opens his mouth, and Sara, who Eddie had honestly forgotten was standing there with them, has clearly had enough.
“Shut up! Shut up! Both of you!” Sara hisses furiously, and she snatches both of their arms and tows them down the hall, away from the room where they’d met with the panel. They both follow willingly, but she still doesn’t let go of either of them until they’ve reached an empty corner of the lobby near the vending machines.
She shakes her head in disgust, dragging her hands down her face. “Look, if we’re gonna go for this, this isn’t going to cut it. Either somebody takes the transfer or you two get your shit together. The disciplinary panel is next week. I don’t care how you do it or what you do, but come back and be better.” She stabs an accusatory finger first at Buck, then at Eddie, and she maintains intent eye contact with Eddie for a long moment before she turns and leaves.
They stand together watching her storm out the front doors.
“She still scares me,” Buck says, unexpectedly. A startled laugh punches out of Eddie and he turns to look at Buck.
Buck blows out a breath. “Eddie, I think of Christopher,” he says, face intent and painfully earnest. “Of course I do. I wanna be there to watch your back every day so I know you’ll go home to him.”
Jesus. Eddie’s heart lurches. “Okay, come on, let’s do this outside, at least,” he says, glancing around, and he pulls an unresisting Buck outside into the ugly concrete courtyard beside the building.
Beside a park bench, Buck stands and folds his arms obstinately. “I’m not an idiot.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“No, you just talked to me like I am,” he says. “I know what it was like when I couldn’t do my job, Eddie. I was there. It was right up there as one of the shittiest times of my life, so if I’m willing to risk that again, because I love you and I want both of us to stay with the 118, you should freaking believe me. I can make up my own mind.”
“Okay!” snaps Eddie.
“Okay?” Buck asks, sharp.
“All right. I hear you.”
“Okay,” says Buck darkly, and he settles back onto his heels.
Out on the street, one car idly honks at another one. A few office workers stroll past, lunches in hand. LAFD headquarters are housed in a tall, gray block of concrete and the courtyard they’re standing in matches its look. The two nearest palm trees are turning brown. It’s a spectacularly everyday, unromantic place.
Eddie watches Buck. “You love me.”
Buck blinks, clearly thinking back over what he’d said, and then one side of his mouth tilts but he refuses to smile. “I heard what you said to Sara. I know my Spanish sucks but it’s not that bad.”
Eddie raises his eyebrows at him.
“Okay, fine, it is,” Buck admits, and he points at him, “but you definitely told her you love me, too.”
“I do,” says Eddie, and Buck smiles before he can curb it. He has folded his arms again; Eddie reaches out and catches one of his elbows. “I’m sorry. It was bad in there but that's not an excuse. Shouldn’t have snapped at you.”
“Yeah.” As soon as Eddie touched him, Buck was already leaning toward him, his tense arm softening under Eddie's hand. “Me too. Man, that sucked.” And they have days if not weeks more of it ahead of them, Eddie knows.
“You’re the most stubborn person I know.”
Buck makes a rude noise. “Right back at you.”
Something vibrates loudly. Buck sighs sharply; glances down and pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Maddie wants to know how it went.”
“Not great,” says Eddie, to an affirming snort from Buck, as he grabs his own phone to check how long they were in there. He has texts from his sister, Chimney and Hen in the groupchat, and his tía. Eddie blows out a breath.
Their friends and family have been nothing but supportive while they’ve been suspended — overwhelmingly so. Between Bobby and Athena and Eddie’s abuela and tía, they’ve been fed to within an inch of their lives. Hen and Chim and others from the station have been checking in regularly. Eddie had a beer with Lena, who offered a sympathetic ear and then told him about her quest for a promotion, and he knows Buck has hung out with Maddie and Chim a few times.
Eddie’s family in Texas have been stalking Buck on Instagram and had apparently thought Eddie was secretly dating him for the last six months. They keep calling to see how things are going. They want to meet him.
It’s great and a lot, all at once.
Buck says wryly, “You too, huh?” He shakes his phone lightly.
‘Get it together,’ Sara had said. She wasn’t wrong.
“What do you say we get out of here?” Eddie asks.
“Yeah, not creeping outside LAFD headquarters anymore sounds great. Let’s go.”
“No — like really out of here.”
Buck gives him a quizzical look.
For a man who talked a good game about camping all the time when he was a kid, Buck has no clue how to light a campfire.
“You want help yet?” Eddie drawls, watching Buck continue to glare at the firepit, and Christopher laughs.
Buck sits back from his latest futile attempt to blow air into the weakly glowing embers that are already fading out again. He rubs his forehead with his arm — a good call, considering that his face and both of his hands are streaked black and gray with ash. “That should’ve done it. I don’t get it.”
Eddie glances up, grinning.
Jackson Lake is beautiful. The campground is tucked in among tall, shady oaks and spindly ponderosa and sugar pines, just a short walk from the lakeshore. There’s a thick bed of thick green pine needles underfoot, cushioning footsteps and giving the whole place an air of unreality. The air is clean and crisp, with a chilly snap you just don’t get in Los Angeles.
With a week left before the campground shuts down for the season, there are only a handful of other sites occupied tonight. Their campfires are golden glows in the darkness. The only sounds are the murmur of a few distant voices, the crickets, and the occasional crackling snap of a piece of firewood giving way to the heat, bright embers rising into the sky before winking out. The nearest occupied campsite has two SUVs parked and a giant tent up, so Eddie had wondered if the neighbors were going to be rowdy, but it’s been dark every time he’s glanced over so they must have gone to bed early. His own small tent is up on their site, the sleeping bags are down inside, and Buck’s Jeep is parked at the entrance to the site.
The fire isn’t going as smoothly.
“You know what? Yeah, okay, fine, I give up; if you think you can do so much better, be my guest,” Buck says, and he dusts off his hands — it does absolutely nothing for the mess he’s managed to make of himself — and gets up to come sit with his back against the big log, on Christopher’s other side.
“Watch and learn, Buckley,” Eddie crows, grabbing a few sticks and taking the lighter from Buck.
Except, of course, he can’t get it done either.
“How many firefighters does it take to light a fire?” Buck says after a few minutes of increasing struggle, and Eddie barks a laugh despite the frustration.
“More than two, I guess,” he says. “Chris, what do you think?”
“More newspaper,” Christopher prescribes, grinning from his comfortable seat on a blanket, “and sticks.” He’s wrapped up in a warm jacket against the chill and is clearly having the time of his life laughing at them.
“You heard him,” says Buck, reaching for another handful of kindling.
“You have to make a teepee.”
They both stop and turn to look at Christopher.
“How do you know this stuff, Christopher?” Buck asks.
He grins at them. “Cub Scouts!”
Buck looks at Eddie. “Cub Scouts.”
“We should have just had Chris do this all along,” Eddie says, to more laughter from Chris. “Okay, buddy, what stick looks good to you?”
Eddie had mostly been kidding, but Christopher actually does have good, simple advice — and here Eddie had thought most of most of his Cub Scout badges were for volunteer work or computer projects — and between the three of them, they manage to light a tidy fire.
Christopher claps when it’s roaring away, as they lean back to admire their handiwork. There’s not a sarcastic bone in that kid’s body; he’s genuinely showing his appreciation.
“Good job, Chris,” says Buck. He looks like he’s rolled through the entire Angeles National Forest, covered in ash and pine needles. Eddie snickers.
“Hey, the more you laugh at me, the less marshmallows you get,” Buck threatens, getting up to walk back to the Jeep.
Eddie settles in next to Christopher with an oof, leaning back against the log to watch their fire burn. His feet and legs are already starting to warm from the heat. “What do you think, bud?” he says, nudging Christopher’s shoulder with his. “You wanted to go camping; is this what you had in mind?”
Christopher beams and gives him two enthusiastic thumbs up. “Yeah!”
There’s one good use for their suspensions, at least.
It’s good to get out of Los Angeles. Eddie and Buck don’t even have cell service up here, which is honestly kind of a relief. They’ll drive back on Sunday so Eddie can send Christopher off to school on Monday morning, but until then, the only plans on the docket are making s’mores and teaching Christopher to fish.
Buck comes back with the bag of marshmallows in one hand and three long skewers in the other. He pointedly offers a stick and the bag of marshmallows to Christopher first. With great concentration, Chris starts stabbing marshmallows onto the end of his stick.
Eddie could do it faster for him, he knows, but he also knows Christopher wants to do it for himself.
“You’re really gonna withhold marshmallows here?” he asks Buck, who still hasn’t handed him the bag.
Buck settles down on Christopher’s opposite side, so they have him sandwiched between them. “What do we think, Chris?” he asks. “Does your dad deserve a marshmallow?”
Christopher gives Eddie a mischievous, considering look.
“Christopher, I’d like to remind you that I’m your father and I love you,” says Eddie. “And I have the power to decide if we stop for McDonald’s on the way home.”
“Dad can have one,” Chris tells Buck immediately.
“Bribing him? Really?” Buck says judgmentally, but he follows Christopher’s edict and gives Eddie a skewer and the bag of marshmallows.
“Hey, you do whatever works as a parent,” says Eddie smugly. He glances up from readying his own stick to find Chris happily turning his marshmallows into a flaming ball of goo, one marshmallow dripping perilously close to the end of the stick. He opens his mouth.
“Oh man, better pull it out or you’re gonna lose it,” Buck advises Christopher, and together they pull the stick out of the fire and blow out the fire. Buck stamps out a couple of sparks that fall into the dirt, and then he sits back and lets Christopher go to town eating the marshmallows off the end of his stick.
Eddie’s phone may not have service, but it still takes great pictures.
The stars out here are incredible, bright white and vibrant in the inky black sky. It’s the kind of sight Eddie can't show Christopher in L.A. While Eddie makes one more s’more, sitting on their campsite’s big log and leaning over the dying fire with his stick, Christopher and Buck are lying sprawled out on the blanket behind him, Buck’s long legs propped up on the log beside Eddie and Christopher tucked against his side.
“That’s the Big Dipper,” Buck is saying. “See?”
Eddie glances back over his shoulder. Buck has Christopher’s hand in his and they’re tracing the shape in the air together. Christopher’s face is rapt. He’s never going to stop asking to go camping.
Eddie smiles at them and turns back around to make sure he’s not burning his marshmallow.
“What’s that one?” Christopher asks.
“That’s Taurus, the bull. See? Those are its horns.” Buck is terrible at pop culture that happened before he was born and his math skills are truly abysmal, but he’s a font of knowledge on cool, random topics, especially ones that appeal to one specific 10-year-old.
“Wow,” Christopher breathes. “What’s that?”
“Oh, that one?” Buck says confidently. “That’s Spongebobius.”
Eddie almost drops his marshmallow into the guttering flames.
“No, it’s not,” Christopher says.
“It definitely is; Chris, would I steer you wrong?” Buck says. “Those are his pants, and that’s his tie—”
Christopher bursts into giggles.
Eddie pulls his marshmallow out of the fire. “Christopher, your Buck’s a big liar,” says Eddie, looking back at the two of them again.
“What — I’m not! Eddie, don’t tell him that.” He makes a big show of covering Christopher’s ears as Chris keeps laughing. “You’ll undermine my authority!”
“What authority?” Eddie asks incredulously, around a mouthful of gooey marshmallow.
“Bucky!” Christopher insists, batting his hands away from his ears. He points straight up. “What’s that?”
“That, Christopher,” Buck says seriously, “is the Dad constellation. You can tell because it looks so grumpy.” He drops the pitch of his voice and screws up his face as he says it and Chris starts cackling again.
“Very funny,” Eddie says, laughing, and he thumps Buck’s boot. “Hey, do we want another log on?”
“Yeah, that’d be good,” says Buck absently, his attention clearly on his audience as Christopher demands another fake constellation. He tosses Eddie his car keys.
Eddie shakes his head at them, grinning, and sets down his skewer. He rinses his hands off with the water bottle they left next to the log and rises to walk back to the Jeep, where they’ve got a stack of firewood they bought from the general store at the camp entrance.
As he goes, he hears Buck say, “Oh, that’s an easy one; it’s Olaf, see his nose?”
Buck is definitely going to get Christopher singing songs from Frozen for hours on end, and he won’t even have the good grace to regret it.
As Eddie walks through the soft needles underfoot, he takes a deep breath. The air smells like campfire smoke and pine. Christopher’s in heaven this weekend, and honestly, Eddie is, too. He feels like he can breathe for the first time in a week, even with everything that’s still hanging over their heads back in L.A. Buck’s face has lost that pinched look. This was good, for all of them.
He spins Buck’s keyring on his finger, rounding the back of the Jeep. Then something catches his eye — a thin light in the distance.
He frowns, peering out at it. It’s maybe a couple hundred yards away, bobbing up and down. There’s a distant voice on the wind.
Eddie stops walking. In the absolute silence, he hears it more clearly, distant but growing closer along with the light: “Help! Anybody!”
“Buck,” he calls. “Is there a flashlight in here?”
“Yeah, in the back!” Buck shouts back.
“Help!” the distant voice calls again.
Buck’s voice is sharper this time. “Eddie?”
“Yeah, I hear it; I’m gonna go see. Hang on.”
Eddie unlocks the Jeep and opens the back. The dim overhead light turns on, and after a second’s digging, he finds the sturdy flashlight — it’s square-shaped with a handle, the kind of thing you could set on the ground without it rolling around. He grabs Buck’s first-aid kit, too, then shuts the door and goes jogging down the gravel road.
The strong flashlight beam hits a group of four bedraggled guys in hiking gear, staggering toward the empty campsite beside the one that Eddie rented with Buck and Christopher. Two of the hikers have laced their arms together into a chair and are carrying another one, while the fourth one drags along behind. The man in the rear is wearing a headlamp, which must have been the light Eddie saw approaching.
“Hey,” he calls. "What happened?”
“Holy shit,” says one of the men carrying their injured friend, “we made it.”
“Mike slipped when we were coming down the notch this afternoon; we think he broke his ankle,” pants the other carrier. “We’ve been trying to get back for hours.”
Mike is a big, solid guy and looks shocky. His left pant leg is pushed up and bloodied.
“Set him down, guys; I’m a firefighter,” Eddie says, and one of them says, “Oh thank Christ,” as Eddie puts down Buck’s flashlight and first aid kit so he can help the hikers lay Mike down in the road without dropping him.
“Mike, how we doing here?” he asks, and Mike groans.
“He’s been out of it for, like, an hour,” says one of the other men — the only one who seems really with it, at this point. The other two have straight-up collapsed in the road. “I think he’s in shock.”
He’s right — the big guy is breathing shallowly, his pallor apparent even in the beam of a flashlight.
Eddie yanks open Buck’s first aid kit. It’s as thorough as you’d expect from a first responder’s car — he grabs a pair of nitrile gloves. “How long ago did he fall? Could he move his foot?”
“He fell at like four,” says the friend. “He said it hurt too bad to move it.”
Three hours. That’s not good. “Mike, I’m Eddie,” he says. “We’re gonna help you out here.” He props Mike’s injured leg up on Eddie’s thighs, just to get even a little elevation on it, and Mike groans again so he is responding to stimuli.
Other campers are starting to appear. “What happened?” asks a woman from the darkness.
“Broken ankle. Does anybody have cell service at all?”
“Not out here,” she says, coming closer into the ring of light. She’s clutching her phone, a teenage girl hovering just behind her. “And the campground office and the store are closed for the night. What can we do?”
“Can you send over my boyfriend from site 12 and sit with my son there?” Eddie asks, starting to unlace Mike’s hiking boot. “I could use his help but I don’t want to leave Chris alone; he’s 10.”
“Of course we can,” she says. “Jessie, come on.” She and the teenager hurry off into the darkness.
“Tell him to bring a blanket and a knife,” Eddie shouts after them. He gives the boot an experimental tug and Mike twitches away from him, but it doesn’t budge.
“A knife?” asks one of the other hikers in dismay.
“His ankle swelled so bad his boot won’t come off,” Eddie says. “Do you guys have any idea if the bone is sticking out in there?”
Nothing has punctured the boot, at least, and the blood seems to be stemming from an ugly series of scrapes down his shin.
One of the hikers who collapsed makes a retching sound in response to Eddie’s question, so they’re still conscious; probably just exhausted.
“I don’t think so; he didn’t say anything about that,” says the one man who’s been answering him.
"Can any of you drive?” Eddie asks. “You’re going to have to take him somewhere to get care.”
There are running footsteps on the gravel and then Buck comes down on his knees beside Eddie. He tosses down his cooler and throws a blanket over the injured man’s torso, and he and Eddie elevate the guy’s legs up on top of the cooler.
“I think I can,” says the friend, exhaustion in his voice.
“I can take them,” says another voice out of the darkness. “We should be able to get some help down at the resort; they’re starting to get ready for ski season. They can call for an ambulance.”
“You should go get your car. He’ll need to lay down in the backseat,” Buck says up to whoever that was, and footsteps crunch away again.
“Chris is good,” Buck says to Eddie. “We cutting the boot?”
“Can you get it?” Eddie asks.
“Yeah, on it,” Buck says, with a glint of metal in his hand, and Eddie leaves him to it. If the patient’s bleeding or the bone has come through the skin, they’ll probably need to keep the boot on him. But this way, they can at least get an idea of what they’re working with here.
“Does anybody have water?” Eddie asks, and someone passes a Nalgene bottle into his hand. He splashes water over Mike’s shin to sluice away more of the gravel and blood. He can see someone has made an attempt at cleaning it, at least. It’s a deep, raw scrape, more like road rash. He must have slid a ways.
Eddie lifts Mike’s arm and presses his fingers to his wrist. “Pulse is steady but weak,” he says to Buck, and he looks back over to the friend again. “Did he hit his head or his back? Complain of any other pain?”
“No, no,” says his friend. “It’s just his leg.”
“What about the rest of you?” Eddie asks.
“We’re good, dude, just dying; he’s fuckin’ heavy.”
“Can you guys help them sit up? Get them some water,” says Eddie to their audience, and he’s vaguely aware of shapes moving in the darkness; people moving to the aid of the other hikers.
“Eddie,” says Buck, and Eddie glances down. Buck is peeling away the shredded boot and sock, knife lying on the gravel beside him. There’s no blood inside the boot, but the ankle has swollen to grotesque purple and green proportions.
There are a couple of groans. “Oh Jesus,” somebody says, from their audience.
“We’re firefighters; we’ve seen worse,” Buck tells them, in full ‘keep the civilians from panicking’ mode now, while Eddie palpates the ankle. Definitely a nasty break. “He’s gonna be fine.” He’s grabbing ice out of the cooler, reaching around beers and uncooked hot dogs, and pouring it into a towel.
It all happens fast. Eddie works with Buck to wrap up the patient’s ankle and start icing it, getting him as stable as possible and checking his vitals all the while. There’s a moment when, as they’re lifting the patient into the backseat with the help of a few other campers, they think one of them is going to have to ride down to the ski lodge, but then a breathless nurse arrives and volunteers.
It hasn’t been more than ten minutes since Eddie first saw the bobbing headlamp in the distance when he and Buck start walking back to their own campsite together, watching the little caravan’s tail lights descend through the trees toward the main road.
“What do you think?” Buck asks.
“He should be good if local dispatch can get a crew out here fast enough,” Eddie says, and, walking beside him, Buck knocks their shoulders together.
“Dad!” Christopher calls as they approach their own campfire.
“One sec, bud,” Eddie calls. He strips off his gloves and dumps the first aid kit by the Jeep, and jogs around to the fire. It’s burning low now, and Christopher is standing by it — with the woman and her daughter standing between him and the fire, Eddie’s gratified to see — and he comes straight for Eddie when he sees him. Eddie dodges a wild crutch and crouches to grab him in a hug.
“Everything’s good, Chris,” he says. “Me and Buck helped a hiker who was hurt.”
Above their heads, Buck is saying something to the women who sat with Christopher. Eddie tunes it out, knowing Buck’s got it.
“Was he okay?” Christopher asks. He’s so kind, always. Definitely his mother’s son.
“Yeah,” says Eddie, knowing a little white lie can’t hurt. “Some other campers brought him to that big hotel we passed earlier, so they can get him to the hospital.”
“That’s good,” Christopher says. There’s a beat. “Can I have another marshmallow?”
Eddie laughs against the side of Christopher’s head. He was going to ask how Chris was doing, but clearly he hasn’t been too traumatized. “I think you’ve had enough sugar, kid,” he says, and he kisses his head. “Time for bed. We can make s’mores again tomorrow night.”
Christopher gets ready for bed without too much arguing, so he must be tired as hell. Buck sits with Eddie at the picnic table, each with a beer, while Christopher rolls around changing into his pajamas in the tent.
Eddie holds up his beer and Buck’s mouth curls with his smile as he taps their cans together, a silent salute for a job well done.
Christopher’s already mostly asleep by the time the two of them go to bed, but even while barely awake, he insists on burrowing into a blanket nest on the air mattress between them. Buck has always been able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, so he crashes fast, his face shoved into the pillow. Eddie lies awake longer, watching them in the dim light from the moon.
Eddie knows that in the ongoing argument he and Buck are having over how to deal with the LAFD’s rules on fraternization, Eddie has taken the practical position. The reasonable thing to do is for one of them to accept a transfer. Things won’t be the same, but life will go on.
But Eddie loves the work they do, and he loves doing it with Buck and with the 118, who have become his family in L.A. Working on that hiker together, every time Eddie turned to ask Buck for something, he was already doing it. The patient’s friend turned to both of them with relieved tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you,” as he climbed into the passenger seat of the car that would bring them to more help.
Eddie wants to do that every day, and he wants to do it with Hen and Chim and Bobby, Linden and Gomez and Haggerty and Vu and the rest of the 118. And with Buck.
He’s had Buck’s back on the job for two years, and he’s not ready to give that up.
Arriving for the day of the disciplinary hearings feels a little like arriving for their own funerals. Eddie’s phone has been blowing up with well wishes and Buck has been quiet all morning. Bobby and Haggerty — their probie Haggerty, not the jackass dad Haggerty who Eddie has still never even met — are sitting in the hard, uncomfortable chairs outside of the meeting room in the hallway that Eddie has spent way too much time in, over the last two weeks.
Haggerty’s eyes widen when he sees Eddie, Buck, and Sara approaching. He rises from his chair. “Guys,” he says. “Listen, I’m—”
“It’s okay,” Buck says, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You didn’t think before you said something; I get that.”
Bobby makes a low sound, and when Eddie glances at him, he finds him hiding his mouth behind the uniform cap in his hand.
“It’s not your fault your dad sucks,” Buck says.
Haggerty blinks, and then he snorts a laugh, and smiles at Buck, and glances over at Eddie uncertainly.
“Don’t worry about it, man,” says Eddie. “You can’t help what other people do, even if they’re related to you.”
“Thank you,” Haggerty says. “Seriously, I’m really sorry. And I appreciate you guys being so nice.”
“We did kinda ice you out at first. And we’ve gotta get you a new nickname, man,” Buck says. “Haggy?”
“I know,” Haggerty says, laughing.
“Alex is here to speak to the panel,” Bobby says, from his seat.
Haggerty looks like he hasn’t slept in a week, but he nods firmly. “They should know where the complaint came from and what was behind it.”
“The rest of the station sends their best,” Bobby says. Eddie’s phone is probably still lighting up with all of their best. “A bunch of them wanted to be here, but I thought it may not make your point to have half an active fire station turn up for the hearing.”
“God, no,” says Sara. “Finally, a voice of reason. Thank you, Captain Nash.”
A man in dress blues appears in the doorway of the meeting room. “Probationary Firefighter Haggerty?”
Alex Haggerty squares his shoulders like he’s marching off to battle, and follows him in.
“You know we have to keep him now, right, Bobby?” Buck says, watching him go.
“Oh, I’m well aware,” says Bobby.
Haggerty’s in there a long time. Eddie doesn’t know what they’re asking the poor kid but it can’t be comfortable ratting out your own father, no matter how much of a homophobic asshole he is.
Sara goes to take a call from her office, and when he can’t stand sitting in this cramped hallway anymore, Eddie goes to the vending machines in the lobby and spends a few minutes staring at chocolate bars that he doesn’t actually want to eat.
He comes back with a Snickers and finds Buck in the middle of an intense conversation with Bobby. The back of Buck’s head is turned to Eddie, but the way he’s clutching the edge of his chair doesn’t look great.
“I’m not his dad, Bobby,” Buck says, and Eddie stops. His voice sounds raw.
“No, but he loves you,” Bobby says, patient and low, “and you’re dating his dad, and that counts for something. I’m not trying to change your mind about anything, Buck. I’m just saying you should be thinking about it. That’s all.”
“Captain Nash?” calls a voice from inside the meeting room, and Bobby rises from his chair, squeezes Buck’s shoulder, and then enters the room, nodding to Eddie as he goes.
Eddie takes Bobby’s old seat. Buck, who’d been staring into space, starts and sits up straighter. His eyes are red. “Hey,” Buck says. “Haggerty came out while you were gone.” He pauses. “Uh, not came out came out but—” He smiles tightly and shakes his head. “You know what I mean. He left.”
Eddie nods, and the two of them sit together quietly, for a moment. He can’t hear anything from behind the closed door where Bobby’s talking to the panel.
“What was Bobby saying about Christopher?” he asks.
Buck scrubs a hand over his face. “He, uh, made some good points. About how I have to think about Chris now, and what it'd be like for him if we both got caught on a bad call.”
“I’ve thought about it, obviously,” Buck continues. “But I figured — I’m not his dad.”
“Buck,” he says. “Christopher would be devastated if anything happened to you, Jesus." He stares at him. "You don’t have to be me for him to love you. He loves you.”
“I know! I know." Buck's eyes are too bright. He takes a deep breath and shakes his head, and leans in intently. "That’s — that’s not where I’m going with this, though, Eddie.”
“Where are you going?”
“I was wrong, okay?" Buck says. "You were right. I was being an idiot. I’ll take the transfer.”
The bottom drops out of Eddie’s stomach. “—What?” he says blankly.
Buck barrels onward, his shoulders set with determination. “I’ll get the papers from Sara and it should only take, like, ten minutes to sign them," he says, glancing over his shoulder as if trying to figure out where she went. "Bobby’s still here so I can get his signature, too. We might not even have to go in there and talk to them again.”
“Buck,” he says. “Wait.”
“I’m sorry,” Buck says, with feeling, finally looking Eddie in the eyes again. His voice is thick. “Look, I know I’ve been pushing, and you were right.”
“Stop. Listen to me,” he says, and he grabs Buck’s face in his hands so he’ll stop talking. “You seriously want to transfer out of the 118?”
Eddie had figured, all along, that he would be the one who’d take a hypothetical transfer. Buck has been at the station longer, and, more practically, Eddie has more experience fitting himself into new teams and isn’t known throughout the LAFD as the guy who sued the department.
Eddie genuinely hadn’t considered that Buck could be the one to go. He hates the idea at least as much as he hates the idea of leaving the 118 himself. Honestly, Eddie probably hates it even more.
“Yeah,” says Buck with finality. He meets Eddie's eyes with absolute rock-solid certainty, like he's never been so sure of anything in his life. “It’s what we should do. I love you and Chris. You should stay. I should go.”
The 118 is Buck’s life. He literally almost worked himself to death last year, trying to return from an injury that plenty of people would have taken as a sign to walk away altogether. He turned down a million-dollar settlement offer so he could come back to work with the rest of them.
Eddie’s heart is pounding. It’s going to come right out of his chest. Jesus, Buck.
He has spent the last two weeks maintaining a strict distance from Buck in various LAFD meeting rooms and hallways, doing his level best to project professionalism to the people who hold their futures in their hands.
Eddie leans in and desperately kisses Buck, who goes stiff with surprise.
“Nobody’s going anywhere,” Eddie says intently, drawing back just enough that he can meet Buck’s eyes. “We’re gonna fight.”
Buck's eyebrows rise sharply. “What?”
“Look, you’ve been part of our family for a long time,” Eddie says. “We didn’t have to get together for Christopher to love you. He was already attached; you can’t get rid of him now. He’s like an octopus — his grip is crazy strong.” Buck barks a wet-sounding laugh. “And a transfer isn’t a sure thing for safety, anyway. We work on scenes with other crews all the time. Stuff can always happen. And if it does, god forbid, of course I’d want you to be there for him if I couldn’t be. But I have family who love the hell out of Chris, and I’ve got guardianship and providing for him all worked out. And I know we’ll both do everything we can to come home to him. Together.”
Buck manages, “Disappointing that kid is the worst.” His eyes are red-rimmed.
Eddie shakes him a little bit. “We’re gonna fight,” he says again. “Let’s go for it.”
“This is so stupid,” Buck says.
“There’s nobody I’d rather do stupid, risky stuff with,” says Eddie, and Buck shuts his eyes, and leans against him, and laughs.
“We’re all in,” Eddie tells Sara. “Let’s fight.”
“Bueno,” says Sara, and she smiles with cold satisfaction. “I like a good fight.”
When they file into the meeting room, Eddie finds that they’re facing a much smaller crowd than they did the last few times they were here. He glances at Sara, who’d said, “We're gonna try something, follow my lead,” before vanishing for 20 minutes and reappearing just in time to walk in with them.
Sara nods placidly at Eddie and doesn’t seem especially concerned by the fact that the only people waiting for them are the three senior members of the panel: Captain Jerry Cook, Battalion Chief Bill Mattingsly, and, most importantly, Assistant Chief Loretta Hunter.
Eddie and Buck glance at each other, and they both carefully sit at the table across from the three senior officers.
“Look,” says Sara, seating herself on Eddie’s other side. “Loretta, Bill, Jerry. We’ve known each other a long time now — let’s just cut the crap and discuss frankly here.”
Assistant Chief Hunter gives Sara a long, assessing look, then says, “By all means.”
“We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about just how good Diaz and Buckley are at their jobs. You know how many commendations they’ve received and how many lives they’ve saved. They literally helped rescue a hiker while they were still suspended, just last weekend. I know for a fact that this panel received signed statements of support from more than a dozen of their colleagues who said they’d be happy to continue serving with the two of them together.”
Eddie starts and glances at Buck, whose eyes have widened. Nobody had told them about gathering signed statements.
“Even though this isn’t a trial and they weren’t asked, yes,” says Battalion Chief Mattingsly, but his tone is dry, not hostile.
“Captain Nash was asked, and he spent more than four hours answering this panel’s questions and pushing hard to keep both Diaz and Buckley at his station,” says Sara.
It’s not a surprise to hear, considering that while Bobby has been unable to discuss what’s been said in the investigatory hearings or outright say what his recommendations were, his support has been undeniable (and also delicious — he and Athena have had them over for dinner a couple times). But it’s a massive relief, too, hearing for sure that their captain has been going to bat for them. Buck’s face tightens a little, in a show of emotion that looks complicated.
“You’ve also spent countless hours speaking to Buckley and Diaz themselves,” Sara says, tilting her hand at the two of them. “You know they’re dedicated to their work. All they want is to keep doing their jobs with the team that they’ve been a part of for years.”
Assistant Chief Hunter is the highest-ranking person on the panel and has also said very little, throughout the proceedings. She has a perpetually sharp, thoughtful expression and reminds Eddie of nothing so much as a hawk or other bird of prey. She has largely listened rather than questioning. Now, she sighs. “What’s the rest, Sara? I know it’s coming.”
“Look,” says Sara, and her chin lowers. “We all know how close you get to people, doing this work, and what fire stations are like. A leader's like a second parent to you, somebody's in a serious relationship with somebody else's brother, your cousin works the same shift as you, or someone's dating a 9-1-1 dispatcher who sends you to half your calls.”
Eddie glances at Buck. He's sitting up straight beside him, shoulders back and expression serious as he listens to Sara. It's a far cry from the last time Eddie saw him in a room like this, during the depositions for the lawsuit he'd ultimately abandoned. He'd clearly known, even then, that he wasn't doing the right thing; his body language had screamed it. This is about as far from that as you can get.
“And we’re only calling out personal connections as a problem if two firefighters start dating each other? Diaz and Buckley were so professional on the job that for two months, in that environment where everybody's in each other's business all the time, nobody had any idea they were together.”
“Sara,” Assistant Chief Hunter says, again, but Sara can't be stopped now — she's steaming ahead, calm and calculating and still absolutely terrifying.
“LAFD is trying to diversify, these days. We all know the department needs to break the good old boys’ network and get away from the scandal of 25% of recruits being legacy hires a couple years back. You’ve got two exceptional firefighters here who worked their way into the LAFD on their own merits, and we’re talking about the possibility of firing them?” Sara shakes her head, tight and sharp. She’s genuinely among the most intimidating people Eddie has ever met, and he had actual drill sergeants. “One’s a decorated Afghanistan vet and the other’s the firefighter who half of east L.A. pulled out from under a fire truck last year after his engine was attacked by a mad bomber. You know how many million hits that video has on YouTube?"
“No way LAFD’s firing Diaz and Buckley and risking that PR nightmare,” Sarah continues, “and that’s before we even get into the optics of canning two bisexual firefighters who have the amount of commendations Diaz and Buckley have between them. You’re bluffing. Just look at where this complaint came from in the first place: a bigoted battalion chief who’s never even met them, who I hope to hell is having disciplinary proceedings brought against him next. You heard what Probationary Firefighter Haggerty had to say earlier.”
“You didn’t,” says Assistant Chief Hunter tiredly. “You weren’t even in here.”
“I didn’t have to be — I know what happened and I saw the look on that kid's face when he walked in. This whole process was built on a foundation of homophobic bullshit and a personal family matter that should never have sucked in Buckley and Diaz in the first place, Loretta, and everybody here knows it. You wouldn’t have agreed to this meeting, just the six of us, if you weren’t ready to negotiate.”
“Okay,” says Assistant Chief Hunter with a hint of steel, massaging her temples. “Enough, Sara. Your points are taken. If someone else could please get a word in edgewise now?”
Sara finally sinks back into her chair, arms folded.
Her onetime offhand reference to ‘going way back’ with a few members of the panel, Eddie is beginning to realize, probably did not fully cover it.
“Gentlemen, we’ve repeatedly discussed much of the reasoning behind the LAFD’s prohibition on romantic relationships in fire stations over the last few weeks,” Assistant Chief Hunter says, her eyes on Eddie and Buck. “I think we all can name multiple disastrous examples right off the top of our heads. I have to ask you one more time: will one of you apply for a transfer to another station?”
“No, ma’am,” says Eddie firmly. “We’ve been with the 118 together for two years. I know our relationship is technically against LAFD regulations, but our crew is family. We make a great team and we want to stick together. I’m not applying for a voluntary transfer.”
Eddie glances over and finds Buck looking back at him. Buck had been ready to give up, an hour ago, for Christopher’s sake, and while Eddie thinks he talked him out of it, he’s suddenly not sure what Buck’s about to say.
Eddie can’t reach for Buck’s hand, but he can meet his eyes and nod. Come on, he thinks. We can do this.
Buck's mouth twitches, just a little, and his expression sets in familiar stubborn, resolute lines. He turns back to Assistant Chief Hunter. “We know the pitfalls and we’re prepared to face them, ma’am,” he says. “We’ll sign any waivers LAFD asks for. We can do this.”
Eddie does his best not to slump with relief. He has no idea where LAFD is going to land, but at the end of the day, they’ve put up a fight. They’re not going quietly. And they’re doing it together.
Assistant Chief Hunter slowly sighs. She glances to her two colleagues, then back across the table. “I’m going to follow Sara’s lead, here, and be frank with you all,” she says. “This panel has been privately talking itself in circles for the last two weeks, and I don’t think there are any perfect solutions here. While I appreciate the candor with which you’ve addressed our questions, I continue to have serious reservations about a couple, any couple—” she shoots an unimpressed look at Sara, “being able to work together on a sustained basis, and we don’t appreciate that you’ve been acting in direct contravention of LAFD policies by hiding your relationship.”
Eddie forces himself to uncurl his hand from the fist he has unconsciously made beneath the table.
“But,” says Assistant Chief Hunter, slowly, “I’m also reluctant to forcibly split up a decorated unit with a proven track record of excellence and years of growing into a strong team, and I’m aware that a firefighter transferred into a new unit for this rationale may not be met with a welcome worthy of the LAFD.” Her expression hardens. “I think the series of events that led to this particular complaint proves that point.”
Sara is leaning over the table. On another person, it would be barely noticeable; on Sara, whose preternatural competence cloaks her like armor, it’s like she’s vibrating. “Oh cut to the chase, Loretta.”
Assistant Chief Hunter ignores her, still looking at Eddie and Buck. “You’re both suspended for two weeks for breaking LAFD policy. Since you’ve already been suspended pending the results of this panel, we’ll consider it time served.”
This is a better result, discipline-wise, than Sara had prepared them for when the three of them made their game plan yesterday, but Eddie finds himself still waiting with bated breath.
“Ma’am, the 118?” Buck asks insistently.
“If your relationship becomes a deterrent to the optimal functioning of your team, as judged by any superior officer with close, personal knowledge of your work, one or both of you will be transferred and potentially suspended and/or fired, depending on the severity of the incident,” Assistant Chief Hunter says.
Eddie’s heart beats with sudden hope so hard it echoes in his ears.
They’ve refrained from physical contact in front of the panel during this whole process, but Buck reaches out and grabs Eddie’s knee under the table. On Eddie’s other side, Sara sags into her chair.
“You’ll be expected to work together with the utmost professionalism regardless of what’s happening in your personal lives.”
“We can do that, ma’am,” says Eddie hoarsely, as Buck’s fingers dig into his knee.
“If I ever hear of either of you withholding information again, you’ll be out on your ass so fast it’ll make your head spin,” she says. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorus.
She looks exhausted, then, and at least ten years older. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“We won’t,” Buck says eagerly. “I swear. Thank you.”
“You can thank me by never appearing in front of an LAFD disciplinary panel again,” Assistant Chief Hunter says. "That said, on my recommendation, LAFD is opening an investigation into the conduct of Battalion Chief Robert Haggerty." Her mouth tilts dryly, viciously. "If you're asked to speak in front of that panel, I think I can make an exception to my rule."
Buck squeezes Eddie's knee again. Eddie says, "Yes, ma'am," with a sharp nod and a deep feeling of grim personal satisfaction.
“You’re dismissed, Firefighters Diaz and Buckley. Sara, a word?”
It doesn’t sound like that’s going to be a word that Sara will enjoy, but when Eddie glances at her, she’s grinning fiercely. “Sure thing.” She looks to Eddie, and to Buck beyond him. “Congratulations, guys.”
Buck leans straight across Eddie to pump her hand in his obvious, bone-deep gratitude. “Thank you, so much, seriously—”
“Buy me a drink sometime,” she says, still grinning, and on the other side of the table, Eddie’s pretty sure Battalion Chief Mattingsly and Captain Cook are trying not to smile.
“We’ll buy you a whole bar,” Eddie promises, low and finally starting to smile as he rises from his chair with Buck by his side, and Sara laughs.
“I’ll hold you to that, Diaz.”
Eddie somehow manages to keep a straight face until they’ve stepped out into the hallway, but the second the door closes behind them, Buck tackles him, sending them both careening into the wall.
He’s laughing; Eddie is, too, holding him, face buried in his shoulder.
“Guys,” says Bobby’s voice, and Eddie lifts his head to find Bobby standing there looking at them expectantly — hopefully. He spreads his hands. “What’s the word?”
Buck lets go of Eddie. “You can’t get rid of us yet, Cap!” he says jubilantly, and he grabs Bobby in a huge hug as Bobby laughs and squeezes him back. He claps Buck on both shoulders, grinning, when Buck finally releases him.
“Bobby, seriously, thank you,” says Eddie.
Bobby smiles at him, and he pulls Eddie into a back-slapping hug, too.
“They want to talk to you about everything; they’re gonna call you in a second,” Buck tells him.
“That’s just fine,” Bobby says. “Guys, congratulations. I’m so glad.”
“You’re not — you don’t think we should have taken the transfer option?” Buck asks, expression shifting from overjoyed into hesitant.
“I think you’re two grown adults who can make your own choices,” Bobby tells him steadily. “And I’ll support those choices, as long as they’re not interfering with the running of my fire station.”
Buck’s smile is shaky and enormous. Eddie squeezes his shoulder.
“You should head to the station,” Bobby says. “I’ll wrap things up here and see you there soon.”
“The station?” Buck says. “We were gonna go get lunch or something; we’re still technically suspended until tomorrow.”
“Trust me,” Bobby says, and he smiles.
The truck bay is suspiciously quiet and empty. “How overboard do you think they went?” Eddie says dubiously, the two of them standing together at the foot of the staircase.
“Like a fifteen on a scale of one to ten,” says Buck. “At least.”
Eddie laughs. “You ready?” He offers his hand.
Buck takes it. “Let’s do this.”
When they walk up the stairs hand-in-hand, they’re met with a cacophonous wall of sound. Hen and Chimney are front and center but the whole station’s up there, gathered around the tables and the kitchen counter, plus more familiar faces too — Maddie, Athena, Lena, and more — and they’re all yelling.
The crooked banner hung on the wall reads: BUCK AND EDDIE: 1; BUREAUCRACY: 0.
Buck starts to lift their hands, then Eddie catches on and they put their joined hands up over their heads like a referee announcing the winner of a match, to more cheering. Laughing, they wade in together.
The cake says HUNKA HUNKA BURNING LOVE and is slathered in tacky airbrushed hearts and flames.
Eddie's mouth opens and closes when he sees it, and then he starts laughing. Buck laughs for at least forty seconds straight.
“Dad!” Christopher calls.
Eddie groans and buries his head in the nearest pillow.
“Dad.” This one is louder — Christopher has definitely entered the bedroom.
“Christopher,” he says, into the pillow. “Are you in my room at five-thirty in the morning.”
“You said I couldn’t before seven on Christmas,” Christopher says, reasonably. The bed dips next to Eddie’s waist. “It’s not Christmas.”
This kid’s loophole-finding skills are going to kill Eddie. He’s getting too smart. Eddie’s got to institute a new all-time ‘no Dad before six A.M. unless you really need him’ rule. He starts to lift the pillow off his head so he can wrap an arm around Christopher and pull him more securely into the bed, but then there’s more movement from his other side.
Buck yawns with a rustle of sheets. “Hey buddy. What’s up?”
“I can’t sleep,” Christopher says, and then Buck shifts his weight and there’s a 10-year-old clambering over Eddie’s back to get to Buck.
“Oof,” Eddie complains, when Chris nails him right in the kidney.
“Sorry, kid,” Christopher says, laughing. Eddie feels Christopher’s hand pat his shoulder, and he smiles sleepily despite having just been climbed all over.
“You can’t sleep? Well, what do you want to do about it?” Buck asks.
“Can we make waffles?” Christopher asks hopefully.
Eddie groans in wordless protest beneath his pillow. If Buck gives in to this, they’re going to get woken up at five-thirty in the morning every time he stays over.
“It’s too early for waffles,” Buck says, who sounds patient but also as tired as Eddie feels. They stayed up way too late last night celebrating. Eddie is ferociously glad he made Buck get up and go put sweatpants on before they went to sleep. “How about we lay here and think about quiet things.”
Christopher laughs. “That’s boring.”
“It’s a good book.”
“Here,” says Buck, and there’s more rustling and then laughter from Christopher. Eddie thinks Buck has just dragged him farther into the bed. “You sit here, and you can read it to me, and I’m gonna try really hard not to fall asleep. How’s that?”
“Okay,” Christopher says cheerfully, and he clears his throat. “ ‘There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself.’ ”
Buck patiently waits for Christopher to finish reading part of the first sentence, and then he launches into cartoon-worthy snores. Christopher breaks off reading and starts giggling again. “Buck! Hey!”
“What? I’m up!” says Buck, a laugh in his voice, and Eddie peers out from under his pillow.
Christopher is comfortably tucked beneath Buck’s arm, his hair wild, the two of them studying Christopher’s well-worn copy of The Phantom Tollbooth spread open across the blankets. “We have to start over!”
“Okay, I’m ready. But quietly, okay?” Buck glances over at Eddie, and if he sees that the pillow is slightly lifted and Eddie’s eyes are open, he doesn’t give him away. He just smiles.
Eddie smiles back.
Christopher lowers his voice. “ ‘There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.’ ”
“He'll probably figure it out eventually," Buck says, low. "Milo? That’s a cool name; I like it.”
“I want to get a dog named Milo,” Chris says thoughtfully, and Eddie stuffs the pillow back over his face again.
“It’s too early for dogs too, bud,” Buck says. “What happens next?”
Eddie drifts off to the sound of their voices murmuring together.
It’s a good Saturday morning.