It happens so fast. One second Buck is crossing the fallen log over the river with the kid in his arms. The next, another fallen tree sweeps down the swollen river and rams into the logs they’re balanced on. Buck tightens his hold on the kid before he falls into the racing water, only barely grabbing hold of the log himself.
But Eddie goes under.
Buck can do nothing but watch in horror while Eddie’s ropes tangle under the logs and suddenly go slack. For just a second, Eddie’s head pops up over the rapids and Buck catches his eyes.
And then he’s gone.
Buck is only aware of trying desperately to untangle himself from his own ropes and harness so he can get to Eddie when hands grab him and haul him ashore. He thrashes and he’s sure he’s screaming or his throat wouldn’t feel this bloody.
The worst part is they shouldn’t even be on the call. With the storm, everyone’s been asked to go farther than usual, and they kept not having transports and getting sent farther east to the next call, until they were practically on the edge of Los Angeles County.
He only finds out later that Chim and Hen had to sedate him to get him off the scene. He learns later that Bobby stayed at the river coordinating Search and Rescue and didn’t leave for three days.
He discovers he gets a three day grace period before he’s expected to do something more productive than stare at the wall of his apartment in catatonic shock.
“You should’ve let me stay and look,” Buck tells Bobby when he turns up at Buck’s apartment. “Why didn’t you let me—"
That’s as far as he gets before Bobby’s hugging him. Buck breaks down, and he can’t stop the sobbing. It’s not like when Eddie got shot. It’s like the well, but so, so much worse. There’s no — no body for Buck to drag to safety, and now he can’t even fight the river the way he’d clawed at the mud.
“Because we couldn’t lose you too,” Bobby says and it’s not in his captain voice. It’s in the same tone Buck’s heard him use with Harry and May, the tone he’s heard Chimney use with Jee-Yun, the tone he’s heard Eddie use with Chris.
And that just breaks Buck even more. Chris. God, he doesn’t know how he’s going to tell Chris.
Chris. Who is now his legal dependent.
Bobby just lets him sob into his shoulder until Buck can’t really stand up anymore and then he steers him to the kitchen barstools. Bobby fixes him a glass of water and a cup of coffee and then some food while Buck tries to stop crying long enough to actually function.
It can’t be a losing battle. Chris is going to be home from summer camp in three days and Buck has to have his shit together by then.
“I would prefer to give you a few more days before I had to ask, but do you have his parents’ contact information?” Bobby asks when he places a plate in front of Buck and hands him a fork.
“Um, yeah,” Buck says. He forces himself to take a bite. “It’s not on his file for emergencies, though?”
Bobby doesn’t answer right away, like he’s deciding what to say. Finally, gently, he says, “His aunt was his secondary emergency contact.”
Buck frowns. “Why does his secondary contact—"
“Buck, it was you,” Bobby says. Gently. Since it’s obvious the wrong word at this time is going to shatter him irreparably. “If you’re not up to it, I can be the one to call his parents, and let them know, give them Christopher’s sched—"
“No!” The word is out before Buck registers it leaving.
“No,” Bobby repeats slowly.
“They, um, they don’t need to know Chris’s schedule,” Buck says.
Bobby is quiet again, considering slowly. “Buck, I know for right now, he’s still considered missing presumed, but eventually, Chris is going to have to be with his legal guardians.”
Buck swallows past the jagged glass lump in his throat. “I — I know. But, uh, but that’s me, too.”
And now Bobby just stares at him, blank, across the kitchen island.
“He did it after the well,” Buck says and he can feel himself starting to crumble again. “He told me last year after the sniper. I—"
And his voice cracks and he can’t keep speaking.
“How long had you been together?” Bobby asks, and for the first time he just sounds baffled.
“We weren’t,” Buck says. Bobby clearly doesn’t believe him if the way his eyebrows have risen is anything to go by. “We weren’t. Bobby, I never even told him that I - that I love him.”
When he breaks again, he thinks Bobby believes him. Buck had only admitted it to himself sometime last year. Around the time when Eddie got shot. And he hadn’t had time to tell him because things had been complicated with Ana and Taylor and then by the time they weren’t, Buck had been too scared to take the plunge. Because — ironically — he’d been too afraid of losing Eddie.
Bobby places him on no-arguments-allowed bereavement leave. Buck doesn’t actually try to argue, for once. Especially because, as soon as he’s picked up Chris from summer camp, and as soon as he’s explained the conversation, Chris refuses to let Buck out of his sight except when he’s sleeping (which he will only do if Buck stays in the same space as him) or when he’s in therapy.
Necessarily, this means Buck’s own therapy has to take place when Chris’s does. Within the first week, they develop a routine of taking their emotionally wrought selves to get ice cream afterwards.
A week of intensive grief counselling is all they get to themselves before Helena and Ramon descend on Los Angeles like an avenging plague. Buck almost doesn’t let them in the front door of Eddie’s house. Abuela and Pepa have been over almost every day since Chris got back from camp, always bringing food and always hugging both of them goodbye like Buck is part of the Diaz family beyond just being Chris’s guardian while Eddie is... missing presumed.
The first day, before they’d left, Abuela had paused to cross Buck.
“I’m - I’m not Catholic,” he’d said.
She’d waved away his concern and kissed him on both cheeks. Buck has never had a grandmother before, but he’s got a feeling that no matter what he tries from here on out, he’s got Isabel Diaz.
Whatever that emotion had been, he gets the exact inverse and opposite when he opens the front door to Helena and Ramon.
It’s early — too early — and Chris isn’t awake yet. Buck had been reluctant to sleep in Eddie’s room for the first night. But Chris refused to sleep at all unless he could be snuggled against Buck’s chest and Chris’s bed didn’t fit both of them and the couch wasn’t comfortable enough on its best days, and at the end of the day, Buck didn’t think Eddie would mind.
It had almost broken him, that first night. Because the pillow beneath Buck’s head had smelled so much like Eddie. He’s sure Chris had heard him crying, but he hadn’t tried to assure Buck everything was going to be okay this time. Buck has been telling himself ever since that he’s more concerned about what that means for Chris’s mental state than he is for his own well-being.
The night before Helena and Ramon turn up on their doorstep, Chris hadn’t slept well. Which meant, of course, neither had Buck. So he’s a little out of it and a lot still cavernously hollow inside with the loss of Eddie, and he’s not in a place to deal with Eddie’s parents.
In the end, he’d let Bobby be the one to call them. He tells himself it’s because he’d thought they’d be more respectful of a figure of authority, and not just because of his own cowardice.
“We’re here for our grandson,” Helena says. Neither of them has red-rimmed eyes. Both Buck and Chris have looked like shit for the past week — and an extra six days on top of that for Buck — and they’ve gotten to a point where staying hydrated is an actual problem.
He’s just reading into things — he hopes — but to him, their expressions have an unbearable tinge of “I told you so” coupled with relief at finally getting what they’d wanted all along: Eddie’s son, so they can have a do-over. As if every good and beautiful and perfect thing about Eddie hadn’t been in spite of them, rather than because of them.
“Chris is still sleeping,” Buck says. His voice sounds hollow to his own ears. He can’t imagine what it sounds like to them. “If you come back later, we can maybe do lunch. Lunch is sort of the best time of day.”
Helena and Ramon glance at each other. Buck remembers meeting them on their way back from the forest fires in Texas a few years back. They’d been good hosts to the exhausted team of firefighters from the 118.
Buck’s pretty sure the only times they spoke to Eddie while they were there had been to say hello, move back home immediately, and goodbye.
“I meant, we’re here to take him back to Texas,” Helena clarifies.
“Yeah,” Buck says. He’s too tired, way too tired to be tactful. He rubs at the stubble on his jaw. It’s built up. He needs to shave. “Over my dead body.”
In the next few weeks, while August burns out into September, Helena and Ramon don’t leave LA. They also don’t try to kill Buck, which he sort of thought they might. Instead, they pick a different dead body.
Instead, they start the process of having Eddie declared legally dead.
Buck’s response is to sign the lease on his apartment over to Albert and move permanently into Eddie and Chris’s house. He doesn’t want to move into Eddie’s room, especially after Chris starts to be okay sleeping in his own bed. Buck doesn’t — he can’t feel like he’s trying to replace Eddie because he never, never could and doesn’t want to. He’s allowed to sleep on the couch until Maddie comes over early one morning and catches him at it.
“Buck,” she says, her voice thick with compassion.
“I can’t,” he says. His voice breaks a little and he’s glad Chris is still asleep.
“Let us help,” she says. “The way you and Chim helped me last year. Please?”
And what’s Buck supposed to say to that aside from “okay”?
He doesn’t let them get rid of any of Eddie’s things. It doesn’t hurt that Eddie had a pretty spare wardrobe to begin with so there’s mostly enough space in the closet and dresser for Buck’s clothes without even having to move anything. Chris sits on the foot of Eddie’s – Buck’s – bed beside him while Maddie unpacks Buck’s things.
Buck understands – god, he understands – but it breaks his heart all over again how quiet Chris has gotten.
“You know,” Maddie says. She picks up a dark blue t-shirt from one of the drawers that Buck quickly identifies as one of Eddie’s LAFD shirts. “This would probably make pretty good pyjamas.”
She hands it to Chris and he hugs it close and leans into Buck’s side. That night, when Buck goes to tuck him in, he’s wearing it.
“Buck?” Chris asks quietly when Buck takes his glasses and folds them neatly on the bedside table.
“Yeah, buddy?” Buck asks.
“Are you going to leave too?”
Buck has to take a second to compose himself before he can answer. “I’m not going anywhere,” he promises. “Never.”
“Dad wasn’t going anywhere either,” Chris says. It isn’t the first time they’ve talked about Eddie’s – about the river. But it’s the first time they’ve managed it without both of them immediately bursting into tears.
“I know,” Buck says. “I know, and it was an accident. But we’ve got more people on our shift now, and whenever we’re in a super dangerous situation, now I make them do it, and I stay on the outside holding the ropes.”
Bobby had been floored – grateful, but completely stunned – when Buck’s first shift back had included that request. Buck’s days of stupid stunts had already been tapering off, ever since Eddie told him about his will, and now they were simply…done. It still squeezed Buck’s heart with fear – and the slightest tang of envy – when they sent Albert and Ravi to do the kinds of crazy shit he and Eddie had done, but all he had to do was think about Chris and then it was the easiest decision in the world.
“Do you promise?” Chris asks.
“I’ll do you one better,” Buck says, and holds out his pinkie.
Chris stares at it, a little hazily since his glasses are already on the bedside table. “Your finger?”
“It’s a pinkie promise,” Buck says. “They’re extra special promises you never get to break. Maddie and I made a bunch of them.”
“What do I do?” Chris asks.
Buck loops his pinkie around Chris’s and, for the first time since Buck had picked him up from summer camp, Chris gives him a quick grin.
“I promise, I am going to avoid as much danger as I possibly can,” Buck says.
Chris squeezes his finger around Buck’s. “Okay,” he says. “Love you.”
“I love you, too, kid,” Buck says, kissing the top of his head. “So much.”
Chris lets go of his finger and snuggles down into his pillow. “As much as you loved Dad?”
“It’s – um – it’s a different kind of love,” Buck says and wonders who told Chris that. As far as Buck’s concerned, the only people who know he was – is, will be until he dies himself – in love with Eddie are Bobby and Buck’s therapist. “But I love you just as much, and maybe even a little more.”
“Okay,” Chris says, and nods into his pillow.
Buck kisses the top of his head again and then turns out the light.
He leaves Chris’s door open a crack and then has to face the reality of sleeping in Eddie’s bed – his own bed – by himself. Buck hugs a pillow to his chest and cries himself to sleep.
He dreams of his last glimpse of Eddie’s face before he disappeared beneath the water.
Magda Maguire has been a nurse in the coma ward in this part of California’s only hospital since she finished nursing school. St Joseph’s serves Nowhere and every other township and CDP in the area, which makes it an incredibly slow place to work. There’s not a lot of places around Nowhere.
But, they have a pretty darn good long-term care practice for coma patients, so sometimes they end up with people from farther away. People whose families don’t want to pull the plug, people with living wills that say they can’t, and Magda has spent the past fifteen years being their primary carer.
She knows all of them, even if she’s never seen their eyes or heard their voices. Some of the stories she’s collected from the occasional visitors they get, some of them she’s picked up from their files, some of them she looked up online when she was willing to take the time to let Nowhere’s patchy, near-useless dialup internet start working at her house. It’s Nowhere’s claim to fame: only town in all of So-Cal that still uses dialup. They’d been missed by cell phone towers too, and every time Magda makes an attempt to go into a city, it feels like she’s time-travelled.
There’s one patient she doesn’t know about. Or, at least, doesn’t know anything useful about. Their John Doe, brought in after a freak rainstorm back in August. They’d pulled him from the river near-drowned, with a head injury, a significant collection of broken bones, and all of his clothes in tatters. From the material that had eventually been placed in his personal effects, should he ever want them or should someone come to claim them, he’d probably been white-water rafting and fallen in, only to get swept away before his partners had been able to get him. Or, he’d been alone.
The only other personal effect he’d had on him – no wallet, cell phone smashed to glittery powder – was a St Christopher medal. Magda had taken that from the administrator who was trying to inter it with his tattered tactical clothing and clipped it back around his neck when they’d brought him to the coma ward. The one additional clue they have about John Doe’s identity is that he has four bullet wounds: three long-healed, one relatively recent, within the past eighteen months.
Magda imagines he was some sort of adrenaline junkie. Maybe a daredevil type, because who else would go white-water rafting during a storm?
It isn’t like she can ask him, and she has no effective details to try and look up, should she be willing to take the entire day of screeching dialup tones and loading pages it would require. The troubling thing is that they’d kept him knocked out when he was first brought to the hospital, a medically-induced coma to keep him from injuring himself further after the surgeons had fixed his broken limbs. He’s not in a medically-induced coma anymore. He just…hasn’t woken up.
He breathes on his own, which is more than Magda can say for a lot of her patients. He does it well enough they can’t keep him intubated; his body fights against that, which gives Magda some hope. He seems like a fighter, to have survived all of this. She doesn’t know him, obviously, she can’t, but she hopes he survives this, too.
“Good evening, everyone,” she says when she comes into the coma ward for her last rounds before she heads home for the day. “Love what you’ve done with your hair, Casey. Your sister sure fixed that up nicely for you, didn’t she?”
Casey – Casey Kelly, 33, car accident, sister with survivor’s guilt, two nieces, CPA, two years here – doesn’t answer.
“And Mr Hendricks, you look just fresh as a daisy,” Magda says, moving on to the old man’s bed once she’s checked Casey’s vitals. “Your grandson left you the loveliest bouquet, don’t you think?”
It’s silk, not live, which seems appropriate for a hospital wing full of the patients stuck in limbo.
“I think it brightens up the place, too,” Magda continues as if Mr Hendricks had answered. She checks his stats, marks them down on his chart, and moves on to John Doe. “And how’s our John Doe doing today?”
She’s already checking his vitals and thinking to herself that she should get one of the orderlies in to cut his hair and shave him, so she is deeply unprepared for John Doe to open his mouth and say, “Thirsty.”
He doesn’t know where he is. That particular problem is not helped by the fact the town he’s in is apparently named Nowhere. He’s exhausted, even though he’s apparently been in a coma for the better part of two months, and he’s sore like someone stuck his body through a tumble dryer.
“Actually, an old-fashioned washing machine mangler might be more accurate, since you were in a river,” his new friend the coma nurse says. “You really don’t remember anything?”
And then there’s the other thing.
“No,” he says. He can talk, he can walk, he can laugh at the Spanish bickering a family of four is doing in one of the hospital lobbies – so, great, he can be confused in two languages – he thinks he could probably drive, or hold a pen, but…
“Not even your name?” the nurse, Magda, asks.
He shakes his head. He can function, but when it comes to himself, there’s just a blank.
“You know, there’s this old Jim Carrey movie, he’s in a car accident and he loses his memory and he gets mistaken for an old hometown hero in the town that finds him, even though he’s actually an asshole Hollywood producer,” Magda says. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I’m pretty sure he gets his memory back and gets the girl.”
He nods, slowly. “Who’s Jim Carrey?”
“Right,” Magda says. “We’re gonna get you some brain scans, okay?”
“Because I don’t know who Jim Carrey is?” he asks, guileless.
Magda stares at him for a beat like she’s not sure if he’s serious, and when she figures out he’s not, she laughs.
“Oh, so you’re funny,” she says, rolling him down the hall towards a different part of the hospital. “I thought you’d be serious and rugged or something.”
He smiles for a second and then looks down at the casts on both his legs. He’d reportedly broken a significant number of bones during his trip down the river, but for better or worse, he’d been in a coma for most of the agonising part of the recovery process. After the MRI for his head, they’re going to stick basically his entire body in an x-ray to see how he’s recovering, and then he gets to be in an actual hospital room instead of the coma ward.
“I’m not…sure how I’m going to pay for all this,” he says as Magda takes him to the MRI.
“That’s not something you need to be worrying about right now,” she replies. He doesn’t really have any choice but to trust her since, well—
“Alright, Mr…I’m sorry, I’m not sure what to call you,” the MRI tech says, looking down at his patient file.
“Me neither,” he replies.
“You’ve got a St Christopher medal,” Magda says. “Maybe your name is Chris?”
He considers it, while Magda unclips the medal in question and tucks it securely in her pocket.
“Patron saint of travellers, right?” he says.
“That’s right!” Magda sounds delighted he remembers this much, but he’s not so sure it’s worthy of celebration.
“Pretty sure Sunday school catechism falls into the procedural memory category,” he points out. Her name is Magdalene Maguire, so he figures she’s probably pretty damn Catholic herself.
“Fair point,” she says. “What do you think, though? Chris?”
He turns it over in his head and for whatever reason it feels familiar , but it doesn’t feel like him.
“No, I don’t think so. I think Chris is–” my son, some distant, otherwise silent part of his brain says. But the implications of that idea – that he might have a son named Christopher, while he’s been in a coma for almost two months and doesn’t even know what his own name is – hurts worse than the broken ribs. “St Jude might be more appropriate.”
“You’re not a lost cause yet,” Magda states, and then she and the MRI tech get his broken body into the machine.
When he gets transferred to a proper room – shared, but the other half is unoccupied at the moment – all he’s left with are his own thoughts. Well, his thoughts and an ache in his sternum. At first he thinks it’s medical, but after his new nurse and then a doctor check him, it turns out to be emotional rather than physical. He doesn’t remember his own name, let alone anything else about his life, but he’s broken-hearted. What a fucking state of affairs.
There’s a TV in his room but all it gets is the solitary local news channel here in Nowhere. The news is utterly unremarkable. It tries to cover some international and even state-wide events but then it fizzles out to just talking about local news, and the local news is that nothing is happening and it may as well be 1995 so far as technology is concerned.
Weirdly, that makes him feel a little fond of the small town in the middle of, well, nowhere.
He’s more or less alone in his room, recuperating, for an entire day. The only company he gets are the nurses who come to provide him with painkillers and the support staff that bring him food.
And then, the next day, Magda shows up. She’s not wearing scrubs, so he assumes it’s her day off. And she comes bearing gifts.
“Okay, so I figured you’re probably bored as hell,” she says. “Since you don’t even have happy memories to keep you company – you still don’t, right? Your memories didn’t come back overnight?”
“They did not,” he confirms. Just the nagging pain and the idea of Christopher, but looking at that one too closely just makes the pain that much worse.
“Sorry,” she says. “Anyway, I brought you a crossword book, and a dictionary to go with that, and a sudoku book in case you’re crap at the crosswords, and! I thought you could poke at this and see if anything jumps out.”
“This” turns out to be a baby name book.
It’s battered and worn and looks well-used. The thought of baby names makes his hand drift to his St Christopher medal. It’s a rote reflex though, that’s for sure. Something he’s done a million times.
“You’ve got a few kids?” he asks Magda, picking up the baby book with his unbroken hand.
She scoffs. “Oh, sugar plum, not my gay ass.”
The sudden profanity makes him burst out laughing in surprise, which makes his ribs twinge, but it also feels nice to laugh about something. It covers the ache in his chest just a little.
“No, my friend runs a lending library for queer resource books since our internet around here is dialup at best, and so she’s always got a few baby name books on hand for any trans folks looking for ideas,” Magda says. She shrugs. “Or, you know, amnesiacs who don’t have any form of ID.”
“Right,” he says. “Thank you. I’ll take a look. See if anything jumps out at me.”
“Or we can always just keep cycling through the saints. Whichever feels most appropriate on any given day,” she suggests. “St Anthony, maybe?”
He laughs again at that. He doesn’t feel like a Tony – probably not, anyway – but if ever there was a lost thing.
“Sounds appropriate,” he says.
She smiles at him, all freckles and dimples, and pulls a pair of DVDs out of her bag. “What would you say to a movie?”
And honestly, what else is he going to do with his time?
For the next few weeks, Magda comes and checks in on him during her lunches and on her days off. She helps him with the crosswords when they contain cultural references he doesn’t remember – the sudoku was a losing battle from the very beginning as it turns out; he is not good with numbers, and he really hopes that’s a consistent thing rather than an after effect of his head injury – and they go through the names in the borrowed baby book. None of them really seem to fit, though, and so mostly they stick to cycling through various saints.
The day he gets all his casts off and gets to see how pale and atrophied three of his four limbs are, he insists on Jude. It’s going to take months of physical therapy to get everything working correctly again, and even then, there’s no telling if he’s actually going to make a full recovery. Physically, he’ll probably be functional again, but when it’s been a month since he woke up from his coma and he still hasn’t regained a single memory, he can see his doctor trying very hard to stay positive.
“There’s always a chance,” the doctor says. “And Nurse Maguire was telling me you have nightmares that include things from before you woke up, which does mean the memories are still in there somewhere, they’re just…”
“Locked,” he says, and then digs his teeth into the inside of his lip before he can start tearing up in frustration.
He wants to know who he is. He wants to know why his chest hasn’t stopped hurting since he woke up. He wants to know how he ended up in the river, and he wants to…well, he wants to go home, but first that requires knowing if he’s got a home to go to.
“It’s definitely a Jude sort of day,” he tells Magda when he gets escorted back to his hospital room.
“I’m sorry, hon,” she says.
He’s pretty sure they’re close to the same age, but she feels like a big sister, and since she’s officially the only person he knows, there’s something a bit comforting in that.
“And they’re going to discharge me in a few days, did you hear that?” he asks. “At which point, I will have no name, no identification, and be homeless without the ability to get housing or a job because of the whole, you know, lack of name or identification. And the probable million dollars of medical debt.”
Magda is on shift today, and she narrows her eyes at him over the top of the clipboard with his medical chart on it.
“First things first, you won’t be in debt,” she says.
“How?” he asks, glum. Because everything is fucking hopeless and he’s still heartbroken and doesn’t know why. Was there someone with him when he was white-water rafting or whatever he’d been doing to end up in the river? Was he there with his partner? Does he know, deep down, that he’s lost them forever? Is he right that the reason his hand keeps going to his St Christopher medal is because he’s got a son? Because if so, then – god, he can’t even imagine. If he’s heartbroken because there are people looking for him, and missing him, people somewhere that he loves, and who love him? And he can’t even remember his own name, let alone theirs?
It is an exquisitely specialised subsection of Hell.
“Because I know a girl in billing and gosh, wouldn’t you know it? Keeping track of a record for a John Doe without a social security number is like catching an eel with a bar of soap,” Magda says.
He stares at her in disbelief.
“And you’re not going to be homeless, because I have a spare room, so long as you don’t mind cats,” she continues. “And as for a job, it’s a small town. Someone’s gonna be willing to pay you under the table for something until we figure out a more secure plan. We don’t get the feds here. We’re not close enough to the border or a city.”
It all makes his chest constrict, which only adds to the constant ache of longing and missing.
“Why would you – why are you doing all this for me?” he asks.
Magda shrugs. “A couple reasons. Partly because I read a lot and I took a mythology class in college and there were a few too many myths where someone didn’t offer hospitality to the broken, weary stranger who turned out to secretly be one of the gods in disguise and their entire village got smote for it.”
“Which is why all the saints’ names, right?”
“Right,” she agrees with a quick smile. “Partly because you’ve clearly got a good heart, even if you’re the sort of person who’s been shot four times.”
He grimaces. He hadn’t had a lot of remodelled fractures in his x-rays – mostly just the new ones from his river journey – but there had been those four bullet wounds. Unsettling, to say the least.
“But mostly because you’re the first patient I’ve had in fifteen years who talked back,” Magda finishes. “So what do you say? Cats?”
“I think I can probably handle cats,” he says.
He has no idea how he’s ever going to repay her.