His knuckles were tired.
Buck noticed it peripherally. He’d been clenching the steering wheel the whole way home.
He pried one of his hands far enough off to throw the Jeep into park. His fingers creaked. The pain was grounding.
Inside. He needed to go inside. It was dark out, and late, and he needed to go inside.
Buck swung the door open. Dread coiled in his stomach. He lowered his legs, then stood up slowly, leaning hard against the seat.
Agony roared up his shin and stabbed him behind the eyes. Buck gasped and fell back against the seat.
He swallowed a sob. The panic from earlier, the sucking despair that he’d barely managed to keep at bay long enough to drive home, began to swell.
Fuck. Fuck. He had to get inside.
He left his bag. Managed to lock the car as an afterthought. Thank god his apartment building had an elevator. Buck leaned against the wall and rolled his forehead into the cool metal, the change in temperature a feeble relief to his burning face.
His whole body was burning, actually. Was he on a call? Was his sweat steaming inside his turnout gear?
No, no, he wasn’t on a call, he was– he was in the elevator of his building.
His leg though– his leg must be burning. Why else would it hurt like that?
The elevator dinged and Buck jerked back into himself. Right. He was– he was almost there.
The hallway was blessedly empty. He stumbled along the wall toward his door. The tears were coming now, seeping up through his throat, choking him. He couldn’t breathe right.
Fuck, it hurt.
He found his door, unlocked it blindly. He didn’t turn on the lights. The streetlights outside offered enough of a glow to guide him, and otherwise the darkness was soothing. No one would see him like this if he was in the dark.
Buck shut the door. He dropped his keys somewhere. He needed– he was going to fall, he needed to sit down.
He made for the couch and was nearly there when he missed a step in the dark. He stumbled and landed hard on his bad leg.
The night was suddenly torn open as bright, hot light exploded behind Buck’s eyes. He gasped and curled into himself, distantly registering that he’d landed hard on his side. He wrapped his hands around his shin, clawing at it. He had to dig it out, dig out the smoldering, ember-dense log that had replaced his bones.
His chest started burning. Buck inhaled raggedly.
Slowly, so slowly, the agony backed off, a low fire rather than inferno. Buck blinked rapidly. His face was wet, his vision cloudy with tears.
His stomach roiled. God, no, please, not the puking too. Not this time. He couldn’t handle it this time.
He breathed slowly, closing his eyes again. A hiccupping sob broke from his chest.
It had been almost a year. It shouldn’t– fuck, why did it still have to hurt this much?
He was full-on crying now, pressing his face into the hardwood, hunching his spine around the roaring despair that turned his stomach. His ribs crunched against the floor, punches of pain as he wept.
“Stop,” Buck whimpered to the empty air. “Stop, please. It hurts.”
Whatever god decided to make his life hell refused to listen. The pain had plateaued, not as bad as before, but still enough to make Buck hiss each breath between his teeth. He closed his eyes, broken cries still crawling out of his throat.
Time seemed to melt and spread out. Nothing was real. Nothing but the pain. He couldn’t feel his body except for the fire in his leg.
Buck let himself drift. Nothing really mattered anyway.
A distant pounding thudded through the fuzzy ringing in his ears. Buck it noted apathetically. It was probably just his heartbeat.
Someone was yelling something he couldn’t make out. Then a familiar rattle, a mechanical click, and light suddenly flooded into the room.
“Buck?” someone called. “Buck?”
Buck blinked sluggishly. He knew that voice. He squinted against the light and looked into the kitchen. “Eddie?” he called weakly.
There was a thunder of footfalls, then Eddie rounded the stairs and caught sight of Buck. His eyes widened.
“Jesus, Buck!” Eddie hurried down and knelt next to Buck. Suddenly warm, strong hands were running over him, checking for injuries, and Buck couldn’t help but lean into the touch.
“Buck, what–what happened, what’s wrong?” Eddie asked. He sounded– scared. Buck frowned at that; Eddie never sounded scared. Guilt twisted in Buck’s chest for worrying him.
“’S fine,” Buck rasped. “I’m fine.” He tried to lever himself upright, swallowing as nausea curdled his stomach. His leg was one long blur of agony. He leaned heavily against the side of the couch, clenching his teeth to suppress his gorge.
“Uh, no, you’re clearly not fine, Buck,” Eddie retorted. “What’s going on? Is it another clot? Do I need to call dispatch?”
He put one hand on Buck’s shoulder to steady him. The other found his carotid. The warm roughness of his best friend’s palms drew Buck a little closer to the surface.
“Buck,” Eddie said again, “tell me what’s wrong.”
Buck noted with dismay that Eddie had taken on that watered-down drill sergeant tone that he only used on bratty probies and belligerent patients. Buck knew better than to fight it. Eddie was nothing if not persistent.
“It’s my leg,” he whispered. His throat was thick with phlegm. “When I– on that last call, when those stairs broke, and I fell–“
“We checked you over, you said you were fine,” Eddie said, confused.
“It started at the station.” Buck hung his head. He stared at his hands in his lap, curled loosely into fists. “I– usually I can get home and– and get ready for it, for when it gets bad, but…” he trailed off. The present scene was enough explanation.
Eddie’s hand on his pulse point migrated upward, cupping the angle of Buck’s jaw and tilting his face up.
Buck blinked in confusion. Eddie looked upset. Why was Eddie upset?
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked, voice soft. His dark eyes met Buck’s unflinchingly, digging down into Buck’s hidden heart the way they always had.
“I’m used to it,” Buck said plainly. “They happen like, once a month. Like I said, usually I can deal with it.”
Eddie’s face shuttered. His eyes flashed, then softened, and saddened.
“Right,” Eddie said stoutly, “come on.” He hooked his elbows under Buck’s arms.
“Come on,” Eddie repeated, “let’s get you onto the couch and lying down. I’ll go get your painkillers.” He lifted, and Buck startled, scrambling for purchase.
“Eddie, you don’t have to–“
“I’m not offering, Buck.”
“Seriously,” Eddie huffed as Buck came to standing, entire weight against Eddie and on his good leg, “how long were you going to stay like this? I was ready to go home and shower for five years and here you are on your goddamn floor–“
Eddie finally shut up at Buck’s urgent tone.
“Shit.” Eddie threw his arm around Buck’s ribs and hurried him to the bathroom.
Even Eddie’s careful motions to ease Buck onto the tile floor in front of the toilet couldn’t stop the pain from shrieking up again. It was the last straw for Buck’s battered stomach. He retched, curling miserably around the basin.
Eddie knelt by him and cupped Buck’s forehead with his palm. The other hand started sweeping up and down Buck’s back, a soothing pattern that eased some of the tension ratcheting up his spine.
It became a feedback loop of shitty. Every convulsion of his stomach sent new pain shooting through his leg, and each throb of his heart produced a spike of agony that cracked a whip against his insides.
Buck moaned in between one set of heaves. His head was swimming.
“Easy, easy, you’re okay, Buck,” Eddie murmured. His voice was comforting and warm. “Just let it out.”
Eventually, Buck was wrung dry. He spat into the bowl a final time and shuddered. Only Eddie’s hand kept him from slumping over against the seat and drifting off again.
“All done?” Eddie asked softly. Buck nodded. “Okay, okay, good job. You think you could make it back to the couch?”
Moving was the absolute last thing Buck wanted to do right now, but his leg was already cramping. He nodded again, bracing for the misery to come.
“Okay. Just lean on me, Buck, I’ll do all the work.” Gingerly, Eddie scooped him up. He was a solid wall of muscle against Buck’s right side, and Buck leaned hard on him as he came to a wobbly sort of standing. Tentatively, he stretched his leg out.
The pain tripled.
Buck’s other leg buckled, and he was only saved from crumpling by Eddie catching him and bracing him upright.
“Fuck!” Buck wailed. He couldn’t even see. “Fuck, Eddie–“
“I got you Buck, it’s okay–“
“Eddie,” Buck gasped, and suddenly his face was being pressed against a soft neck, a strong shoulder, and powerful arms were holding him fully upright.
“Lean on me, Buck.” Eddie’s voice hummed against Buck’s jaw where it lay pressed into his throat. Buck obeyed, going boneless against his best friend’s chest. The pain was like a feral animal, ripping and biting, dragging him into darkness.
“Eddie,” Buck sobbed, “it hurts. It hurts.”
“I know, I know–“
Buck couldn’t even hold himself up. Couldn’t stop crying. Couldn’t make the pain go away. The wide shard of self-loathing that had always lived under his ribs, strengthened by the lawsuit and fed by his loneliness, cut upward into Buck’s lungs and ripped another cry from his mouth.
“I’m sorry!” Buck sobbed into Eddie’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry!”
Eddie’s arms tightened around him, and Buck felt Eddie’s nose and mouth press against his own neck.
“It’s okay, Buck,” Eddie said, his lips moving against Buck’s skin. Goosebumps erupted down Buck’s arms, and god, even now, even in the midst of this soul-stealing pain, a pulse of helpless longing shot through Buck’s heart. It just made him cry harder.
“It’s okay,” Eddie said again, and it was probably just Buck’s imagination, but it felt like his lower lip was trembling. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I know it hurts, I know, just hang in there, Buck. Just breathe. Come on, breathe with me.” Eddie’s chest expanded, pressing into Buck’s like a fall of sun. Buck moaned, struggling to match the motion.
“You’re okay,” Eddie said. “Just focus on me. Focus on me. I’ve got you, you can do this.”
Slowly, so slowly, Buck’s inhalations slowed down. The sobs petered out, ceding to silent tears. Buck pressed his face into Eddie’s shoulder, drinking in his familiar scent of lavender detergent and aftershave. The pain was quieter, but beyond it he felt numb, like he wasn’t fully attached to his body anymore.
“That’s it,” Eddie murmured. “There it is. Just hold onto me, okay?” Buck nodded frailly.
Eddie shifted, pulling Buck with him, supporting his weight as he stumbled. They inched across the apartment and back into the living room.
“Okay, I’m going to sit you down on the couch, okay?” Eddie said. “Just let me do the work.”
“Okay,” Buck whispered.
Eddie eased him onto the futon and slid pillows behind Buck’s back to prop him up.
“Just stay like this for one second,” Eddie said, arms still wrapped around Buck’s own. “I’ll be right back, okay? Are your painkillers still on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet?”
Buck nodded dully. He didn’t want Eddie to leave.
Eddie squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured. Then he left in a flurry of soft footfalls.
Buck didn’t have the strength or desire to lift his head. He let it hang heavy on his neck, a low ache building in the base of his skull. Eddie was doing something in the kitchen, the sound of his movement punctuated by the spring of the toaster turning on and the ceramic tink of a plate being set down. Then footsteps were moving over his head, into the loft. The sound of another person in his apartment was more comforting than Buck wanted to think about. He liked the space, a lot, but it was always a little too solitary when he was alone. It held silence like flypaper, and Buck got stuck in it often. But when anyone joined him, Eddie especially, the whole place seemed to glow from within.
He was so lost in thought that Buck didn’t hear Eddie coming up to him, and only registered his presence when he sat next to him holding two pills, some water and a plate of buttered toast.
“I’m not hungry,” Buck managed to say.
“I know, but you’ll get sick again if you take these on an empty stomach,” Eddie said. “Eat up. I’m going to get a few more things.”
Yes, Dad, Buck thought, faintly funny. He started to nibble on the toast. He tracked the sound of Eddie ascending the stairs again as the molten butter coated the tip of his tongue.
By the time Eddie got back, Buck had forced down half the toast alongside the pills and a little water. His stomach was protesting, but he already felt a little relief, just from knowing the pain would be decreasing soon.
“Good job,” Eddie murmured as he took the plate and set it on the coffee table. “You doing okay?”
Buck nodded. He didn’t feel like talking.
“Okay.” Eddie knelt in front of Buck. “Let’s get you changed, yeah? You’re all sweaty.” He lifted the hem of Buck’s T-shirt. Buck hunched down and lifted his arms so Eddie could slide the damp garment over his head. The cool of the night made goosebumps rise on his skin, but he felt his face flame and his heart clench with how different he wished the circumstances were.
He’d thought about this. Of him and Eddie in the dark.
Buck refocused on the pain in his leg, which had started backing off ever so slightly. His heart eased.
It took some finesse and a few gasps of pain, but between them Eddie was able to shimmy Buck into a set of sweats and a soft old LAFD shirt.
“These feel okay?” Eddie murmured. “Are you cold?”
“No,” Buck rasped, “these are fine.” He picked at the worn hem of the shirt.
“Okay, good. Let’s get you lying down and I’ll get some IcyHot on your leg.” Eddie scooched the pillows from behind Buck’s back and situated them against one end of the sofa. As Eddie helped him lay down, Buck caught sight of the heavy bags under his friend’s eyes, mementos from a string of long shifts, including today’s.
Guilt coiled in Buck’s gut. They’d gotten off shift at midnight, so he knew Chris was staying with his Abuela tonight, but Buck still felt awful that Eddie was here taking care of his sorry ass when he should be at home resting.
“Eddie,” Buck started, “you don’t have to–“
“I’m not asking, Buck,” Eddie said firmly. “Shut up and let me help you.”
“But you’re tired–“
“And you think I’d be able to sleep knowing you’re in this much pain?” Eddie met Buck’s eyes fiercely. “I knew– I knew something was wrong with you at the end of shift, you got real quiet, but I figured you were just tired. Then you wouldn’t answer your phone…” Eddie looked away, jaw clenched. “and I…I got scared you’d thrown another clot. I know the blood thinners should prevent that, but you scared the shit out of me that night at Bobby’s, and I couldn’t help but think that maybe it had happened again and this time you were alone in your apartment instead of surrounded by paramedics.”
Eddie glared at the floor. His eyes were oddly shiny.
Buck swallowed down new tears. He didn’t often see Eddie like this, vulnerable in the way only deep tiredness could make him.
It made Buck feel like total dog shit. He’d scared Eddie. He’d left his stupid phone in his stupid car and he’d scared Eddie.
Buck reached out and clumsily wrapped his hand around Eddie’s wrist. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“No, don’t apologize, Jesus, Buck–“ Eddie turned around so he was kneeling and facing the couch, eye-level with Buck. He cupped Buck’s jaw again. It was a tender motion, one Buck had only ever seen Eddie do with Chris, and it made something deep inside him go soft.
“Buck, you don’t need to apologize for being in pain,” Eddie said earnestly. “Why would you even think that?”
“It’s not that,” Buck muttered before he could stop himself. He swallowed and looked down.
“Then what is it?”
Buck stayed silent.
Eddie tilted Buck’s face up again and caught his eyes. They were seeking, intense, and– worried. “Buck, please, talk to me,” Eddie whispered.
His voice was so gentle, so genuine, and some of the tears Buck had been struggling to hold back escaped. “It’s just,” he said hoarsely, “I…you shouldn’t have to deal with it. No one should– should have to deal with it. With me. I– I know I’m obnoxious, and I annoy everyone, and I’m a pain in the ass even when I’m not having a pain attack, so I–I’m not going to ask anyone to deal with me when I am.” The tears were coming steadily now, and Buck felt sobs begin to build in his throat again. He looked at the floor.
Eddie didn’t reply. The silence stretched and Buck got scared that he’d done something wrong. He’d made Eddie realize how unfair it was to be here taking care of him, and he was going to leave now.
Buck hazarded a glance up. And froze.
In the low light of the apartment, Eddie looked– gutted. His mouth had dropped open in shock and his eyes were shiny.
“Buck,” he whispered, stricken, “is that really what you think about yourself?”
Buck couldn’t handle the brutal sincerity on his face. He shook out of Eddie’s warm grip and hunched into himself, burying his face in his hands.
“I mean, yeah, because it’s true. I’m always driving Bobby crazy, and– and you guys, and– I know I’m dumb, and exhausting, and–“
His hands were pulled away from his face, and suddenly he was enveloped in Eddie’s warmth and scent as he threw his arms around Buck and pulled him in.
Involuntarily, Buck returned the hug. He wrapped himself around Eddie’s torso, buried his face in the crook of his neck, still wet with tears from before. Eddie was hugging him hard, squeezing him, like he was trying to hold Buck together, and in that moment, Buck allowed himself to believe that Eddie was able to. He let the lurking sobs work loose and hugged back as hard as he fucking could.
Buck was a crybaby bitch if there ever was one, and when he finally broke down it was always about far more than the initial trigger. But he’d already cried a lot tonight, so he didn’t go completely to pieces the way he would when he was alone, the kind of jag that lasted half the night and had him waking up with bruised eyes and a salty face. The bout of weeping died down fairly quickly.
But he didn’t let go of Eddie, and Eddie seemed in no hurry to let go either.
“Buck,” Eddie said at length, sounding absolutely shattered, “I’m so sorry.”
Buck pulled back, confused. “Eddie, what? No, you–“
“No, no listen, Buck.” Eddie grabbed the sides of Buck’s neck, forcing him to meet his eyes. “You listen to me. You have nothing to be sorry for. Nothing.”
“I– I sued the department, I abandoned you and Chris–“
“Chris has me,” Eddie interrupted. “I’m his father. He loves you and you him, and I know you would die for him– you almost did. But he is not your responsibility. He’s mine. You had no way of knowing that he was having nightmares or that he missed you. I didn’t tell you. I didn’t invite you over, I didn’t tell you what was going on. I was so fucking terrified after that fucking tsunami that I just– I just pretended that everything was okay instead of checking in on you.”
Eddie sniffled, and to Buck’s utter shock, a tear ran down his face. “And I was wrong. Bobby was wrong. He shouldn’t have kept you from coming back. It was unprofessional and it was wrong. And yeah, you shouldn’t have sued the department. It was fucked up. Your methods were fucked up, but you were right, Buck. And instead of seeing that and realizing that you would never, ever do something like that unless you were really desperate, I just got angry and I refused to acknowledge that you were hurting.”
Eddie dragged a fist across his eyes. “I was mad at you and I was mad at myself because maybe if I’d paid better attention and actually asked if you were okay after you had three near death experiences in less than six months you wouldn’t have done something so drastic.”
Buck couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Eddie, Eddie, no. Maybe Chris isn’t my responsibility” – and that stings, more than Buck wants to think about, even if it’s true– “but I’m not your responsibility either.”
“Okay, maybe not,” Eddie said, “but you’re my friend. You’re my partner. I promised I’d have your back. And instead I tried to pretend everything was okay, and when you said it wasn’t, I called you exhausting and made you feel like it was all your fault.”
“It was my fault, I hurt you guys–“
“And we forgave you. Buck, the lawsuit was months ago. I should’ve– I should’ve realized, after that talk in the kitchen, that you were still feeling bad about it, but I didn’t say anything. I never said anything. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Buck.” Eddie shook Buck’s face in his hands gently, like he was trying to make the information stick.
Buck– Buck couldn’t bring himself to speak. He stared at Eddie, unable to comprehend that this was real, that everything he’d longed to hear for almost a year was actually being said.
“And you’re not exhausting,” Eddie continued, voice thick. “I’m so sorry I said that. I was angry and I was wrong. You’re not annoying, or a pain in the ass, you’re my friend. You’re a wonderful person, Buck. You’re kind and smart and supportive. You always put others before yourself, even when you shouldn’t. And I know I can speak for the others when I say that we all love you so much.”
Each word was like a shaft of warm light on Buck’s aching heart. Eddie swiped his thumb over Buck’s cheekbone, catching the new tears that had sprung up from the soul-crushing relief of his words.
“You’re not a burden for needing help,” Eddie whispered. “You’re not a bad person for wanting your friends to take care of you. It fucking kills me that these– these attacks have been happening to you for months and I had no idea. And you didn’t feel like you could come to me for help. But that stops now, okay?” Eddie looked at him fiercely. “The next time you’re in pain, or you’re sad, or anything, and you need me, you call me. Call me, Buck. I’ll come. I’ve been doing a shitty job of having your back, that that stops now too. Please, let me help you when you need it. You’d do the same for me, or anyone.”
Buck looked down and swallowed hard. “I don’t– deserve it.”
“Yes, you do.” Eddie angled his face up again and caught his eye, and Buck saw no lie there. “I promise you do, Buck. We all do, but you especially. You’ve been through so much this year, and you’ve been dealing with it alone. I’m not going to let you do that anymore. I promise.”
Eddie shook him again. He was crying now too. “I promise, Buck. You’ve got me. I promise.”
For a moment, Buck couldn’t move. He just stared at Eddie, tears falling freely into his partner’s hands.
Then he knocked Eddie’s hands from his face and yanked him back into another hug.
“Thank you,” Buck gasped. “Thank you, Eddie, thank you.”
“It’s okay, Buck. I promise. I promise.” Eddie held on to Buck just as tightly.
They stayed like that for a few minutes more, until Buck’s now-settled stomach grumbled and they pulled apart, giggling tearfully. Eddie made him some more toast as Buck laid out on the couch under a fuzzy blanket. When he got back, he turned on some reruns of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and pulled Buck’s legs into his lap. As Eddie started massaging IcyHot into the painful tangle of muscle, Buck felt the long shift, long night and hangover of agony and emotion slam into him.
Eddie seemed to notice him nodding off and smirked.
“Get some sleep, Buck,” he murmured. The lunar light of the TV threw his face into sharp relief. The sight stirred something up inside that Buck was too afraid to name.
“Will–could you–“ Buck started to ask, before the words got clogged up in his throat.
But Eddie knew. He smiled softly. “Yeah. I’ll stay.”
Just before he fell asleep, Buck felt Eddie take his hand and thread their fingers together.