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Two For One, a neighborhood romance

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_______________________________________

“This is Ulysses Jackson Grant!” Buck exclaims as he turns his phone around and shoves it into Hen’s hands. “I’m picking him up on Friday after work, but we’ve already hung out several times.” He’s finally found his dog, after months of looking and visiting, Buck feels he’s the one.

“He’s very handsome,” Hen says patiently and passes the phone to Chim.

“Of course he is! His coloring is more unique with the white nose and cheeks, but brown around the eyes. My favorite is the little white patch on his brown ear.”

“Are you going to be insufferable about this?” Chim asks, swiping through more photos of his soon-to-be-dog.

“Maybe. How many photos of Jee do you have?”

Chim scoffs. “That’s different.” And before Buck can take offense Chim adds, “Plus, you love it. I know you’re in competition for the title of Best Uncle, so I know you aren’t really annoyed over photos of Jee.

Buck sarcastically salutes him. “Besides the point.” He takes his phone back, glancing at the photos again before shoving it in his pocket.

“That’s a terrible name for a dog. Are you going to change it?” asks Hen.

“I don’t love it. I feel bad about changing it though? May just give him a nickname; see what sticks.”

“They can learn a new name.”

“That’s what I’ve been reading, but still.”

When he doesn’t offer anything else Chim asks, “Are you going to share the name?”

“Nope, gonna surprise everyone.”

Rolling his eyes, Chim cracks his gum and adds, “Aren’t you moving in a month?”

Cringing, Buck nods. “The timing is awful, but he’s been returned three times. He needs some training on how to act around other animals, but he’s so sweet. I don’t understand how anyone can’t love him.”

“Oh Buck,” Hen sighs, “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yes, totally. Already researched the best ways to train a dog, even started some of it while we’ve been hanging out. It’s going to be perfect.”

* * *

It’s not perfect. It’s a pain in the ass and Buck is so frustrated he can barely think straight. The first week is hit or miss but they fall into a routine. Turns out Jake is obsessed with boxes; he nibbles the corners of them which messes with the integrity of the boxes making some of them useless.

But it’s ok, because he’s cute.

And he settles on the name Jake, kind of close to Jackson, and he seems to respond to it. Buck notices an overall improvement in Jake’s general listening skills, particularly around sitting and staying. Walking, on the other hand, is fair at best. Jake continues to pull Buck down the sidewalk and gets overly excited when he sees another dog.

Moving day comes and it’s like all progress is lost. Buck doesn’t understand why. Maybe it’s the new place, or too much change in a short period and it’s causing Jake to be anxious. At least that’s what his research reports. Whatever it is, there’s a ton of barking and just being a bad dude. Buck tries not to yell at Jake, but he does lose his temper after finding a pile of shit in the corner of the living room. He cleans it up as Jake watches from the opposite corner, head between his paws, looking oh-so-very sad and sorry.

Buck tosses the rags right in the washer and then lies down in front of Jake, nose to nose. He gets a few quick licks before laughing and ruffling Jake’s ears and kissing the top of his head. “Sorry buddy. I missed you standing by the door. My fault.”

He returns to organizing the kitchen and gets lost in the task until sometime later when he hears a soft woof. Glancing over, Buck sees Jake standing by the kitchen door that leads out to the deck with steps down to the yard. “Alright, let’s go.” He grabs a leash and they head outside.

Buck walks Jake around the backyard, giving him time to check out the area. The yard is fenced in and he’s looking forward to leaving Jake off leash but that can’t happen until Buck’s comfortable with his reactions to surprise people or other animals. He keeps walking a tight circle toward the back corner because he’d read that establishing a specific area for potty business will make letting them out so much easier in the future.

Afterward, they meander across the yard and back up the stairs. Buck notices the downstairs place has a light on but he’s heard nothing from them for the two days he’s been here. Maybe he’ll get lucky in that they won’t return for a little while and he’ll have time to settle in and get Jake better acclimated. He doesn’t know if he’s hoping they have a pet or not. Jake seems to want to play with any animal he sees, but he still doesn’t read the room well about knowing when to stop.

Stepping back into his kitchen, he marvels that it’s only been two days and it already feels like a home, but he’s exhausted. He will be forever thankful to Chim and Hen for attacking the bedroom and bathroom; they located the sheets, made the bed, unpacked the towels and found places for all toiletries. Buck had concentrated on the kitchen and finding the right place for everything.

Anything the three of them couldn’t get to, or could wait, is shoved into the second bedroom for Future Buck to deal with. He flops back onto the bed, exhaling and closing his eyes. It’s only a second later when the bed bounces and Jake sits on his chest. Buck laughs and scratches his hind legs while pushing him off; Jake only shifts until his body is pressing against Buck and his head rests on Buck’s chest. Buck feels himself relax into the mattress knowing he’s already so attached to Jake and he’s fine with it.

_______________________________________

It’s late when Eddie finally pulls up to the house and finds a jeep in the driveway. Guess this means the new person finally moved in. He’s already mourning the quiet. He could fit behind it but he doesn’t know the person, or their schedule, and the last thing he wants is to get out of bed in a few hours just to move the damn truck.

So, Eddie sighs and parks on the street. Looking over his shoulder, he sees Chris asleep with his head resting on the window. He reaches back and gently taps his knee and murmurs, “Hey buddy. We’re home.” Then he exits the car and walks around to the passenger side.

Checking to make sure Chris isn’t leaning on the window, he opens the door and is met with a glare. Eddie bites his lip to keep from smiling. “I know. Let’s get you inside and you can go right back to sleep.” Chris steadies himself on Eddie’s arms as he hits the ground and holds out his hands expectantly for his crutches.

As Chris makes his way up the walkway, Eddie grabs their two duffle bags and backpack and realizes he’ll have to come back for their trash. He jogs past Chris to open the door so he doesn’t have to stop. Chris mumbles a thanks as he passes Eddie and heads straight down the hall.

Eddie shimmies past and drops his bag in his bedroom, almost tripping over the brown and white blur that scampers from the room, before catching up with Chris entering his own. The kid barely has his eyes open as he shuffles over to his bed. Eddie pulls down the sheets and comforter in one quick tug before guiding Chris to sit, then kneeling and removing his socks and shoes; he can sleep in the rest of his clothes.

Their cat, Bear, returns and plants herself between Eddie’s knees, head butting him when attention is not immediately given. He picks her up with one hand and gives several kisses to her head before she rubs against his cheek.

As Chris slips under the sheet, Eddie gently removes his glasses before he curls around the nearest stuffed animal, eyes closing and probably halfway to sleep already. Eddie’s jealous. Bear squirms in his arms and Eddie deposits her on the mattress and she climbs on top of the stuffed animal nearest Christopher’s head and closes her eyes.

It’s nice to know they were missed. Smiling, he stands up, brushes his fingers through Chris’s curls and kisses the top of his head. “You can sleep in tomorrow,” Eddie reminds him softly and hopes Chris is tired enough that Eddie will be able to get a little extra rest too.

He pulls the door until it rests against the latch and collapses against the wall, rubbing a hand down his face. He’s so tired. Right now he regrets driving to El Paso, but he hadn’t been to see his family in over a year and had been listening to the passive aggressive comments for six months until his mom flat out demanded that he come home. She complained about missing her grandson and was always sure to mention how much she saw Sophia’s kids anytime she wanted.

So Eddie planned the trip. He took time off and drove because Eddie is a spiteful person and refused to give his mom the satisfaction of winning, which somehow manifested into driving instead of flying. Plus, he didn’t relish the idea of being trapped, and having his truck allowed him to feel like he could leave if he needed to. There were plenty of downsides to an 11 hour drive, but he and Chris had a great time on the way down. They sang along to all kinds of songs, talked about science experiments and whatever drama was happening with his classmates; it was a lot of fun. Good bonding time.

The way home though was hard. Because it was mostly at night, Eddie didn’t have a distraction from the monotony of the highway or the way his thoughts drifted to the way he left. To the same old arguments about when he was moving home, that he needed family, that Christopher needed stability.

As though he’s not giving his son everything he needs to thrive. As though Pepa and Abuela aren’t regular fixtures in their lives. As though Chris isn’t happy.

They still think he’s a failure.

He wishes it didn’t bother him, but it does. Shaking his head, he tries not to dwell on the ultimatum his mom threw down and heads back out to clean up the truck. He really doesn’t want to smell half eaten burgers the next time he gets in.

Collecting the trash, he detours through the side yard to dump it right in the outside trash can. He closes the fence behind him and stumbles, stepping in a hole. He doesn’t fall but does drop half the trash and, looking around the yard, sees multiple holes. What the hell?

Eddie takes a quick lap around the yard and stops counting at 10 and now all of the anger and frustration he feels at his parents is directed at the mess of his yard. He shoves everything in the can and drops the lid down with a bang. A loud bark comes from the unit above him and he looks up, but the lights are out and there’s no additional barking. That explains the holes. Eddie scowls and walks around the house to go back inside and knows he’ll have to have a discussion because the yard is a mess.

Why did it have to be a dog? Why not a nice cat? Bear could’ve made a friend.

_______________________________________

Buck knows his downstairs neighbors are back as soon as he’s awake enough to notice that Jake keeps investigating each room and then standing perfectly still with his head cocked. Buck doesn’t hear anything, not really. Maybe a murmur here or there, but he assumes Jake hears more than him.

There’s no time for introductions because he’s due at the fire station to cover half a shift for Tony. He lets Jake out and watches from his deck to make sure he goes to the bathroom, and only the bathroom, with no digging detours. Buck cringes at the sight of the yard. It’s bad, and Buck’s been meaning to pick up dirt and fix it but he hasn’t had a day off since he moved in.

He allows Jake to roam a little before calling, “Jake! Come!” Buck smiles as Jake obeys immediately and pounds up the steps. He’ll be sure to work on the holes tonight and maybe he’ll meet the neighbor.

Unfortunately, his carefully laid plans are derailed, as their last call is long, and he barely makes it to the store before closing time to pick up the dirt and some grass seed. He’s not going to hold his breath the grass takes right away, but he can try. He piles the bags of dirt on the edge of the yard before going up to his place.

As soon as he opens the door, Jake bolts past him and down the steps making a beeline to his potty spot. Buck shakes his head and accepts that he’s going to have to have a backup plan for when he gets stuck at work. Jake comes right back giving Buck a happy grin as he jumps up and places his front paws on his chest. Buck leans down for kisses and rubs behind his ears. “Good boy,” he says. “Thanks for holding it.”

Buck heats up leftover chicken parm from Bobby and scarfs it down before heading outside. He’s only gotten one bag of dirt opened when Jake whines, yipes and then Buck can hear scratching. He chuckles to himself before jogging up the steps and opening the door. “Want to come out with me?” he asks Jake, who takes full advantage of the open door and rushes out.

Jake sniffs around the bags but doesn’t bother them, so Buck gets to work. It’s not an ideal task to accomplish by flood light, but he manages half the holes before Jake’s loud bark startles him. Buck freezes when he sees a man standing near the stairs, he yells, “Jake, no!” and lunges to catch him by the collar but Jake easily swerves around him heading right for, he assumes, his downstairs neighbor. Who is standing there with his arms crossed. Very thick and muscled arms. Glaring.

Jake jumps up, wanting nothing more than love, and the guy rocks on his feet a little. On the plus side, he seems more inviting now that his hands are occupied with keeping Jake away from his face.

What can he say? His dog loves to lick and show his love through kisses. And this man is pretty enough to be given all the kisses, dog and human alike.

It’s not the introduction Buck was hoping for; him sweat covered and dirty while working in the yard fixing his dog’s destruction, but that’s the way it’s playing out.

He quickly walks over, grabs Jake’s collar and pulls him away. “No Jake. Down. Sit.” And Jake listens while his tail still wags and he’s panting happily.

“I’m sorry,” Buck offers. “I”m Buck. This is Jake.” Buck takes a moment to appreciate that the man is just as beautiful close up, even as said man quirks a brow, eyes narrowing slightly.

“Is he going to continue to ruin the yard?”

Buck wants to like his neighbor, they’re going to be living on top of each other, but the hot guy is coming off a little bit like an asshole. “Hope not?” He leaves it sounding like a question because he’s been working with Jake, but Buck has come to realize that he doesn’t really have any control over Jake.

Jake’s his own dog.

“Good. Because my kid can’t come out here if there are holes everywhere.”

Smiling, he says, “You have a kid? I love kids.”

Almost reluctantly, the gorgeous grumpy guy’s face softens and he grins slightly. “Yeah, he’s eleven.”

“I look forward to meeting him.”

The warm brown eyes squint and then he takes a step back, like he forgot he was mad. “Kind of late for yard work, isn’t it? But thank you. I really didn’t want to be a dick about it.”

Buck chuckles. “I’m a firefighter and the hours are haphazard. And this is you not being a dick? Can’t wait to see your face when you aren’t scowling at me.”

The man rolls his eyes and turns back to the house, as though Buck is going to let him leave without a name to go with that … really spectacular ass. Without allowing his mind-to-mouth-filter to function he says, “Well, I don’t mind watching you walk away… but you didn’t give me your name.”

The flush that blooms across the guy’s cheeks and around his neck is so adorable Buck can’t help but smile.

He huffs and replies, “Eddie.”

Buck nods. “Nice to meet you Eddie,” he says to the retreating legs in very form fitting jeans. Damn. He looks down at Jake. “You’ll win him over. I know it because you’re just that awesome.” Jake licks his fingers in agreement.

Buck turns and surveys the yard. “Well. Now that I know there’s a kid, I’m gonna finish this tonight.” Jake nudges his leg. “No playing ball. Unless you want to refill the holes.” The dog pants lightly with his tongue hanging out a little but makes no move to miraculously fill in the holes.

Clapping his hands once, he picks up a bag of dirt and fills the next hole before pounding it down into the ground. Falling into a routine helps the task go quicker but he doesn’t finish until almost midnight. His limbs burn with the stress of the last couple of hours but the yard is safer for a kid to be out here and Buck feels proud of the work. The flood light shines in his eyes and he hopes the light didn’t keep Eddie up but judging from the darkened windows, everything seems quiet.

He climbs the steps with light feet, attempting to keep the noise down. Jake scratching and climbing is never going to be quiet, but he can try.

Buck takes a quick shower to wash away any clinging dirt and his thoughts turn to Eddie. It’s a rocky start, but Eddie doesn’t seem like a true asshole, maybe only one that was trying to do right by his kid. Buck can respect that and hopes they can be friends. As he scrubs his fingers into his scalp and the shampoo lathers slightly, he knows he’d like to be more than that. He can’t explain it, but he feels a connection between them, which is silly since they just met. But he does. There’s just something about him. The man has a shy smile, smooth skin, kind eyes and Buck just knows there’s a banging body under the henley and jeans.

_______________________________________

It’s only been a week but all Chris wants to talk about is the dog upstairs. So much so that he starts to think Chris believes maybe just the dog moved in.

“When can he meet him?”

“As soon as we’re all home at the same time. Right now you need to finish breakfast so we can get to school and work.”

“Do you think he’ll like me?” Chris quickly asks before shoving a final spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth.

“Of course! What’s not to like?”

“Think Bear will like him?” he asks and pushes his bowl away from him.

Eddie swoops in and collects the bowl and plate and sets out to quickly wash them. As he’s wiping and rinsing he responds absently, “I can’t predict what she will do.” And he gives the brown and white cat at his feet a withering glance; she never does what he expects her to do.

The scratch of the chair signals Chris getting up to brush his teeth, so Eddie picks up the glass and quickly cleans it. He hates leaving the house with dirty dishes lingering in the sink or anything out of place. It’s just a better return home when things are neat and tidy. With a fast wipe of the table, he rinses and squeezes out the rag and hangs it to dry.

Chris is waiting for him by the front door as Eddie pockets his keys and phone. He turns and gives Bear a watchful look, as though that will have any affect on her behavior. They adopted her almost a year ago when he couldn't say no to Chris anymore. Eddie took him to the local animal shelter and walked around trying to lead Chris to a senior cat but of course he was drawn to the younger brown puffball who turned out to have a chill personality.

From the moment she set her paws down she’d made herself at home and they didn’t manage a name for a couple of days until Chris found her wrapped around one of his teddy bears, so he declared her name Bear. It somehow fits with her fluffiness and beautiful amber eyes.

Bear’s favorite place to sit was anywhere the sun was shining, but she also enjoyed the bathroom tile when she overheated. She fit in quickly and the only real issue was the litter box. Over the course of a month Eddie tried several brands of litter, then changed out the actual box. She continued to hate everything; she still used it but would push out the litter and make a mess everywhere. It was her way of letting Eddie know she was not happy, as though the angry meow sounds and frantic scratching at the box hadn’t been enough of a clue.

That sent Eddie researching until eventually he found a self cleaning litter box - system - thing. Hundreds of reviews all contained references to finicky felines, which was code for spoiled. It was expensive and Eddie’s still not sure how he justified it to himself, but he splurged and purchased the Litter-Robot. Bear was cautious at first, but after a thorough investigation, she deemed it worthy. And once it was accepted there hadn’t been any issues, plus Eddie has to admit the system is so easy and he’s glad he spent the money.

The point is, they have a great, well behaved and personable cat. She greets Chris when he comes home. She eats dinner most nights when they eat. She sleeps with Chris when she’s in a really good mood. Eddie is happy to have her be a part of their unit.

Until now.

Eddie scowls, watching Bear skitter from the front window, where she had been sunbathing, out to the kitchen where he assumes she’s watching … the dog. The dog. Sure Eddie knows its name but for now it’s just the dog because it’s a menace as his cat obsession.

A clatter comes from the kitchen and Eddie rolls his eyes. He should not try and keep anything in the window that overlooks the yard because Bear has taken to sitting in it.

Walking into the kitchen, he finds Bear sitting primly, tail wrapped around her paws and blinking at him. Shaking his head, he points a finger at her. “Behave. Stop knocking things off.” He picks up the plastic prism and presses the suction cup to the opposite window and up a little higher in the hopes she will ignore it, even though she likes to bat at the rotating crystal that hangs down. Eddie doesn’t have a lot of hope it will last but he and Chris enjoy the rainbows that float around the room during dinner.

Bear’s ear twitches and her tail loosens, hanging down to brush against the wall. Sometimes Eddie really thinks she understands him and does things just to fuck with his head. This is one of those moments. Frowning, he tsks softly but runs a hand down her back before he leaves.

* * *

Eddie parks next to the curb in front of his house and lets out a sigh as he shuts off the car. It had been a non-stop day as he fielded what felt like hundreds of calls. With Chris at Abuela’s, Eddie will be able to enjoy the quiet without feeling guilty about it.

The door shuts behind him with a soft snick. Toeing off his shoes, he shuffles over to the couch and flops down. His body sinks into the softness and Eddie’s aware of how heavy he feels. Too many nights in a row with less than three hours of sleep have finally caught up with him. He licks his lips and settles into the stillness.

He hums softly and he can’t remember the last time his house was this quiet. Chris is always making noise no matter if he’s building, coloring, playing video games or reading. There’s almost always a sound coming from his room.

And Bear, she likes…

Eddie sits up and looks around. “Bear!” he calls, as though the cat is going to come; she barely acknowledges her name on a good day. He hurries down the hall to the bedrooms, checking Chris’s first as she likes the sun from that window later in the day. Eddie is sure to check in the closet, under the bed; he shoves his hands in and around all the stuffed animals piled against the headboard.

Nothing.

He checks his room and the bathroom. He double checks the living room. He keeps calling her name but there’s no response. Eddie gets to the kitchen and sees the window pushed up. “Son of a bitch!” Eddie groans, sliding open the door and walking the perimeter of the yard, softly calling for her. When she fails to appear, he accepts she’s not curled under one of the bushes and returns inside. Walking swiftly to the living room, he shoves his feet into his shoes, not bothering to tie them, and runs out to his car.

It’s almost dark but he has to try to find the cat. He drives around the neighborhood slowly, his caution lights flashing, calling out the window for Bear. He feels ridiculous because he won’t be able to hear a meow if she decides to answer. And who drives around yelling for a cat? A desperate person, but he’s got to find her.

On his third trip around the neighborhood Eddie is starting to accept that he won’t be able to find her before he’ll have to tell Chris. He grips the steering wheel tightly in anger. Did he leave it open? He doesn’t think so. He’s been careful to push it shut when they leave because he’s caught her pawing at the open few inches like she wanted out. Clearly he must have left it open just a bit.

And with her obsession with the fucking dog –

His cell rings, with a number he doesn’t recognize the number but he picks it up anyway. “Hello?”

“Yeah. Uh, hi. Um. I think I have your cat.”

Eddie’s really glad he’s idling at a stop sign because he freezes. “What? Really?”

“Yeah. Collar says Bear. Does she belong to you?” The voice is amused but also understanding.

“Yes, that’s her. Thank you! Can you give me your address?” Eddie asks hurriedly. Relief washes through him knowing that she’s safe and that he won’t have to tell Chris he lost her.

“I found her curled up with my dog. I took a photo; it was the cutest thing.”

He’s sure it is, but his nerves are shot and he just wants to get his cat. “Great. Your address?”

“4995 S. Bedford Street.”

Eddie blinks. That’s his address. His cat is… “Buck?”

“Yeah?” he replies cautiously.

God dammit. Sighing, he says, “This is Eddie. Your neighbor.”

There’s stunned silence for a moment before Buck starts laughing. Eddie thumbs off the call without bothering to respond to Buck’s obnoxious amusement and turns the truck toward home to collect his damn cat. Who just had to go and snuggle up to the damn dog. If Chris were here he would say that maybe they were meant to be friends.

_______________________________________

Buck’s still chuckling even though Eddie hangs up on him. The situation is absurd but ridiculously funny.

Sitting at his small kitchen table, he flicks his fingers and thumbs over the phone screen before posting the most adorable photo to Instagram with the caption:
Guys. I don’t have a cat?

The picture is of Jake, curled into a donut shape, with Bear nestled up in the space between Jake’s head and his butt. They’re both brown and whiite and blend together almost seamlessly so that Buck didn’t even notice her at first. He thought the extra brown was a pillow. Their eyes are even similar, being slightly different shades of brown.

They’re very pretty together.

Buck’s startled from his thoughts by a knock at the door; he opens it and smiles. He tries not to but Eddie is grumpy again with his eyes squinting and hand on his hip. “Hi neighbor!” Buck greets him cheerily; Eddie’s eyebrows almost touch as his face scrunches up even more.

“She’s here?” he asks as he walks in, eyes flicking around trying to find his cat.

“Yeah, she’s fine. She’s with Jake on the couch.” Buck motions for Eddie to follow him and as they enter the living room both animals lift their heads. Bear’s ear twitches while Jake decides it’s not important enough to move from his new BFF, and rests his head down once more.

Eddie stands there staring at Bear like she can read his mind. And maybe she can sense Eddie’s anger, unhappiness and relief because she stretches and reaches a paw out in Eddie’s direction, almost like she’s reaching for him or waving. Buck glances at Eddie as he shakes his head and mumbles, “Bear,” and it’s said with so much feeling that Buck melts a little.

Gorgeous hot neighbor has a spunky cat who he clearly loves, even under the put upon facade. Buck’s in real trouble.

“Hey man, you want a beer?”

It looks like Eddie’s going to decline but after a heavy pause agrees, so Buck pulls two bottles from the fridge. He motions toward the door and they head out onto the deck.

“This is nice,” Eddie offers as he reaches for the beer before sitting in a chair.

Popping the cap off, he leans forward to drop it onto the small table before sitting back. “Thanks! It’s new.” Buck is overly proud of his find. “Well, new to me as I picked it up from someone that didn’t want it anymore.”

“You trash picked it?”

“Not exactly, I used Facebook Marketplace. I got these two chairs and table for fifteen bucks. My sister helped me find the new cushions. I wasn’t sold on the burnt orange color but she convinced me.”

Eddie hums and adds, “We got really lucky at how peaceful it is out here.”

Buck looks up, wishing he could see more stars, but he’s really enjoying the stillness and how comfortable it is sitting with Eddie. He takes a long swallow of beer before asking, “Has she ever run away before? I see she has a collar.”

“My son insisted on the collar and wouldn't be dissuaded. It took days before Bear stopped scratching at it and weeks before she stopped glaring before finally accepting it.”

“Clearly your son is a genius.”

“Yeah,” Eddie says quietly. “I’m relieved I don’t have to tell him I lost our cat.”

Buck narrows his eyes slightly. “How did you lose it?”

“I must have left the kitchen window open. She’s been obsessed with your dog, always watching the backyard. They even chase each other from window to door.”

A loud laugh escapes Buck. “Really?”

“Yep. It’s why I may hate your dog. He’s corrupted my perfect cat.”

“Clearly she can’t resist his charms,” Buck says, smirking before bringing the bottle to his lips. And if he licks at the opening a little, it’s only to gauge a reaction. Eddie definitely watches.

_______________________________________

Arriving at the work parking lot on time isn't the same as actually being on time for the start of the shift. Eddie just misses the elevator so he decides to jog up three flights in the hopes he can still grab a cup of coffee before he gets started. One look at Josh as he enters the floor tells him that isn’t happening and he goes right for his station.

He pauses a moment to remove his jacket and takes a deep breath to center himself, before donning his headset and making himself ready for his first call. Falling into an easy rhythm he finishes three calls in quick succession; as he ends the last one, he hears someone clear their throat.

Maddie stands at her desk with a hot cup of steamy coffee held out in offering. Eddie is moving before he even realizes. “Thank you,” he gushes as he takes it from her hand and sips at the heavenly taste.

“Not like you to be late,” she says.

Swallowing another mouthful, he gasps, “It’s the new neighbor. Well, his dog. It’s creating chaos in my perfectly planned routine.” Then he admits, “And he’s… flirty.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Josh asks as he pauses in walking the aisle to join in, making it sound like Eddie’s the one being ridiculous.

“It is when I’m holding a grudge about all the holes in the yard. And my cat escaped.”

Maddie coughs as she swallows and he glances her way but she just stares at him with big eyes before blinking and says, “Your cat got out?”

“Yeah, she evidently made herself at home with The Dog. It’s embarrassing that Bear got out and went to… him.”

Linda rolls a few feet away from her station, clearly wanting in on the gossip. “The dog?” Linda tries to clarify and Eddie plans to ignore her but he blushes. He didn’t mean to, it just happens. Of course that actually brings her over to stand with the other equally nosy co-workers.

“The hot neighbor,” Maddie says slowly, like she can’t believe the words coming out of her mouth.

Eddie sighs. “I’m not making the best first impression.”

Maddie sips from her coffee cup, staring at him over the rim then lowering it slightly and asking, “Are you sure he was flirting? Maybe he was just being really friendly.”

“I realize I may be rusty, but he definitely insinuated that I have a nice ass.”

“Well you do,” adds Linda helpfully and Eddie’s cheeks burn in embarrassment. As he rolls his eyes, Linda continues,“Do you think he’s cute?”

He flashes on how Buck’s legs went on for days and the t-shirt struggled to contain his biceps; the way his smile was crooked and his eyes twinkled.

It doesn’t matter, not really, but his hesitation is enough for this group to make assumptions as they make ooooh and ahhhh sounds. “It doesn’t matter if he’s hot, what matters is my cat’s personality has changed in a matter of weeks and my kid only wants to meet the dog.” Eddie lowers his hand to stop his gesturing and takes a long swallow of coffee, wincing because it’s still too hot.

Smiling, Maddie clears her throat, “I think you need to give him a chance.”

Before he can answer, Josh starts shooing them back to their stations and Eddie turns and walks away. The back of his neck burns and he looks over his shoulder to find the three of them staring at… his butt.

He rolls his eyes and gives them the middle finger, hiding his grin behind a sip of coffee when the catcalls start.

* * *

Eddie’s interactions with Buck are sparse over the next couple of weeks; their schedules do not line up. He notices a high school kid coming most days who seems to be feeding the dog. Eddie should probably offer his services but he’s still hating on the dog since everyone else in his house loves it. He’s going to hold onto the negative feelings for a little while longer out of spite. Chris, very much dipping his toe into teenage attitude, rolls his eyes every time Eddie grimaces when Jake is mentioned.

So Eddie does it a lot, for pettiness sake; it’s his right as a father.

“What’s got you all crabby,” Linda asks, startling him out of pondering how to train a cat.

“Can cats be trained?”

Linda’s eyebrows raise high and an incredulous look appears on her face.

“That’s a no, then?”

“That is. It’s highly unlikely. But I thought your cat was the “best cat ever.” I seem to recall you stating how awesome she was and how she could do no wrong.”

“That was BJ.”

Linda stares at him; Maddie rolls back a few feet with a questioning look. Eddie rolls his eyes; he works with dirty-minded teenagers apparently. “Before Jake. BJ.”

“You… are ridiculous,” Linda replies, shaking her head. She brightens as though something occurred to her and starts, “Hey, isn’t –” Maddie clears her throat loudly interrupting her and Linda gives her an annoyed look.

Eddie doesn’t get it, but he’s not here to learn about the interpersonal relationships of his co-workers. “She was great before the bad influence moved in. And she doesn’t act up when the dude is home, it’s only when the kid comes and lets the dog out. Then it's like all hell breaks loose and she’s running from window to door to window.”

Chuckling, Linda admits, “It sounds adorable.”

“Of course you’d think so. You haven’t lost the most chill cat ever. Now I have a semi-rambunctious, easily excitable, furball.”

Maddie clears her throat more gently this time. “What’s the real harm Eddie?” Maddie asks.

He sighs. There really is no harm, it’s just that he liked the way Bear was predictable. How she’d sit by his feet while he cooked or seemed to roam the house checking on them. Now she’s always trying to dart past him to an available window, or open door. He sighs again. “Nothing I suppose.”

Eddie’s just not good with change. He’s been listening to Chris wax poetic about how fun Jake looks, and he’s brown and white just like Bear, and he knows they’re going to be friends. And maybe he’s a little bit jealous because Jake and Buck are shiny and new and Eddie’s… not. He realizes this is stupid but his brain doesn’t always make sense. Hopefully their shifts will line up soon so that introductions can be done and the newness will be over.

“And how’s the hot neighbor?” Linda pries.

Eddie groans and stretches his arms up and back to try and relieve the tension. “Why are you so interested in my love life?”

“‘Cause it’s non-existent and that’s a damn shame. You’re too pretty to be single.”

“I’m a dispatcher and a single father. It’s not a sought after combo.”

Maddie rolls over and their chairs bump together. “You need to stop convincing yourself there’s no point. You will find someone that wants your package.”

Josh laughs loudly as he walks by before covering his mouth and stopping with wide eyes. “Sorry,” he says and clears his throat. “Clearly I missed something vital in this conversation because I can’t fathom why you, Maddie, would be talking about Eddie’s package.”

Smirking, Eddie enjoys the way Maddie’s face flushes, because his friends continue to meddle in all aspects of his life. If he’s honest, he loves feeling cared for, but ever since the new neighbor, they’re all up in his business. He’s afraid they’d play matchmaker if they actually knew Buck and Eddie’s not sure how he feels about that.

With her face red, Maddie insists, “We were just confirming that anyone would be happy to know Eddie, dispatcher and father.”

With a smirk Josh says, “Ah. I see. And yes… anyone would be very lucky.”

Eddie doesn’t understand the emphasis and doesn’t have time to examine it as there’s a beep in his ear, signaling a call.

* * *

Once again his mind has it out for him. Eddie gasps awake from a nightmare, heart racing and hands trembling. He wipes his hand down his face, pushing memories of sand and the smell of iron down as far as he can, as the clock comes into focus: 2:30am. Laying back down, it’s obvious after a few minutes that he isn’t going back to sleep soon, so he quietly goes out to the kitchen for some water. He is contemplating making tea, even though he hates it, just to give himself something to do, when he hears footsteps on the back stairs.

Only the light above the stove is on, so Eddie leans against the sliding glass door and peers into the backyard. Buck is there with Jake and he’s playing with an open rubber ball, which seems to make it easier for Buck to tug, hold and throw. It takes a few repetitions for him to realize Buck has two of the same toy. He throws one, Jake runs and retrieves it, then drops it before Buck throws another one.

It’s a clever way to teach Jake to fetch so Buck doesn’t have to wrestle it out of Jake’s mouth every time. Leaning against the door with his arms crossed, watching, Eddie gets lost in the lesson. His breathing settles back into a gentle exhale and his pulse slows to a resting rate. Eddie’s eyes are heavier as he leans his head against the glass and realizes the throws are reducing in frequency.

Buck picks up the second toy and mutters “come” and Jake’s at his side in an instant as they turn toward the house. Eddie realizes a beat too late that he should’ve backed away to avoid being seen. Buck’s stride falters as he reaches the stairs and catches sight of Eddie. Eddie tenses being caught staring, but it’s the witching hour and neither acknowledges the other. Each of them is safe in their isolation and Eddie wonders why Buck was up and whether he suffers from nightmares too?

_______________________________________

“Now that you’ve been there over a month, how’s your place?” Maddie asks before sipping at her orange juice. She asked him to meet for brunch, which wasn’t odd, but the tone of her voice was, so Buck knows she’s looking for something. The last time her voice took on that musical pitch, she was fishing for information about Chim, and now they’re dating.

Buck’s not ready for them to get married.

“It’s great! I feel like a real boy after that loft of impersonality. Although I did love it, until I didn’t.”

“Maybe Chim and I can come over for dinner.”

Squinting, he replies, “You’re always welcome. Chim needs an invite though.” He laughs when Maddie kicks him under the table.

They talk about work in general terms, with both being first responders they shy away from most shop talk. And of course Buck regales Maddie with tales of Jake and what clever or adorable thing he did lately.

“I bought a throw rug for the living room, thought it might help muffle the noise for the neighbors. Jake has taken to army-crawling his way across it as he waits for me to put on my shoes before our daily walk.”

“I think he’s just wiping his junk.”

“Maddie!” Buck chuckles. “No he’s not. He’s just being cute.”

With a twinkle in her eye, Maddie teases, “Cute like your neighbor?”

He blushes and points his fork at her. “I told you that in confidence, not to give you ammunition.” He takes a bite of cantaloupe and mumbles, “Besides, I said beautiful, not cute.”

“Oh! My mistake.” When Buck doesn’t elaborate, she adds, “Have you talked to him? Maybe you should ask him out.”

“I don’t think he likes me much. We’re doing the polite wave as we pass each other.”

“You seem attracted to him.”

“Hen would agree he’s beautiful, he’s that good looking, so… Yeah, I’m attracted to him. But he seems to have a routine and a life and I'm messy.”

She covers his hand and says softly, “Don’t do that. You’ve got to give him a chance.”

“If, and I mean if, the opportunity presents itself, I will strike up a more real conversation.”

“Good. You may be surprised,” she states with a little smile.

Buck shovels in a forkful of fruit before he remembers about the new photo he wants to post to Instagram. Swallowing, he picks up his phone, opens the app and with some quick fingers creates the post.

“What’s with that grin?” asks Maddie as she jabs her fork into the stack of kiwi he had pushed to the side of his plate.

“Well, the neighbor’s cat came for another visit.”

Maddie stops chewing and stares. “What,” he asks self-consciously.

“Nothing.” She reaches for her own phone and after a few moments she guffaws and covers her mouth.

“What?” Buck repeats.

“It’s just,” she chuckles again. “The photo you posted.”

“It’s Bear, the cat that keeps coming over. She now sits on the deck railing, right in front of the window so I can see her, telling me she wants to come in. I took that before I left.”

“Did you let her in?”

“Yeah. I texted Eddie so he can come and get her later.” He finished his glass of orange juice. “I’m actually thinking of installing a pet door. That way Jake can go out when needed and Bear can come in.”

Maddie laughs delightedly, making Buck shift self consciously. “That’s something you should talk to… Eddie about.”

“I will. He’ll have to make one too, otherwise Bear will need to open the kitchen window again.”

“He’s not sure that’s actually how she keeps getting out.”

“What?” Buck asks, confused.

“Oh! Jee’s newest thing is trying to feed herself. Here’s her this morning,” she shoves her phone into his hands with the cutest video playing of the best niece in the world. She only hits her mouth every three tries, but she’s getting it.

* * *

Later, Buck will blame Maddie for manifesting what happens because Jake takes the open door as an invitation to enter Eddie’s home. His heart’s in his throat as he runs for the open sliding glass door and skids to a stop in Eddie’s kitchen at the sight of Jake resting his head in the lap of the cutest kid. Said cutest kid is laughing and scratching behind Jake’s ears, which Buck knows he loves.

“What’s all the laughing…?” Eddie trails off as he enters the room, taking in the picture of Buck gasping by the door with his big-ass dog basically at the table.

“Uh –” Buck eloquently starts.

“Dad! It’s the dog from upstairs. He came in to meet me!” The kid doesn’t stop running his hand all over Jake’s head. “Told you he’d like me.”

Eddie crosses his arms and levels the most impressive Dad look Buck’s ever seen. “Did you leave the door open?”

And evidently the adorable kid is only masquerading as one as he instantly flips on the teenage attitude, shrugging in reply while not meeting Eddie’s eyes. Buck bites his lip to keep from laughing.

Before Eddie actually has to ground the kid for his insolence, Buck pipes up, “I’m really sorry. Jake, his name’s Jake,” he says for the kid’s benefit since Eddie already knows. “Is friendly, but first impressions are hard due to his size and look.”

Jake wags his tail as though pleased with Buck’s words.

“You’re more than welcome to hang with Jake whenever you like. As long as your dad is ok with it.” He finished quickly, catching Eddie’s eye; Eddie inclines his head in thanks.

“Can I Dad? Please?”

“We can talk about it,” he answers as he walks over to their rag tag group. Eddie reaches out and drags his hand down Jake’s flank, who wags his tail a little more. Buck catches a small grin before Eddie schools his face to something more neutral, but Buck isn’t fooled.

“I thought you said he was well behaved,” quips Eddie, raising his eyebrow.

It’s like that, is it? Buck huffs lightly, hooking his thumbs in his front pockets and rocking toward Eddie slightly. “He’s behaved. He just must have really wanted to come in.”

Buck’s grin widens as Eddie’s eyes quickly roam down his body before snapping back to his face. To test his theory, Buck sucks his lower lip into his mouth and has to suppress a chuckle as Eddie’s eyes widen just the tiniest bit.

Just then, Bear trots into the kitchen and right over to Jake, rubbing up one side before settling against him. Buck takes out his phone and snaps a pic so that the animals are the focus but you can see the kid’s legs hanging off the chair and the bottom of Eddie’s jeans and sock covered feet.

He captions it: All members of both families have finally met

Breaking the moment, Buck turns towards the kid. “It was really nice meeting you.”

Eddie groans. “This is Christopher, my son. Chris this is Buck.”

Sticking his hand out, Chris shakes it hard and it distracts Buck away from the endearing blush staining Eddie’s cheeks. “Listen, Jake kind of made a mess of the backyard. I’m hoping he doesn’t anymore but anytime you find anything that messes with you moving around, just tell me and I’ll fix it. Don’t be shy about it.”

“Ok. I will.” Chris kisses Jake’s head and pulls one of his ears. “I really like Jake.”

“Perfect, because he seems to like you.” Stepping back he claps his hands once and states, “Jake. Come.” And walks toward the door. Jake looks over his shoulder at him but doesn’t move. Buck sighs when a deep chuckle escapes from Eddie. “Come Jake. Now.”

Buck swears the dog rolls his eyes; he doesn’t, but it just seems like that’s the kind of attitude he’s giving off. He lopes out of the house and Buck hears his nails scrape against the wooden stairs; the next moment Bear takes off out the door.

“Hey!” Eddie yells. And Buck watches Bear stop, look back at Eddie and stare at him. He bites his lip to keep from laughing when she swishes her tail and runs up the steps after Jake. Seems as though neither of them have any real control over their pets.

Buck clears his throat. “Really sorry about the way he barged in here. But I’m happy to have met your kid.”

Nodding, Eddie replies, “Yeah, probably should have made it happen before now.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” He exits fully from the kitchen and does a half wave, which he immediately regrets and says, “Hopefully we’ll see more of each other.”

Eddie smiles and as he slides the door closed says, “Maybe.”

Buck looks down to hide his pleasure at the idea of seeing Eddie again before turning and bounding up the steps.

_______________________________________

Eddie rolls over to Maddie as she disconnects from the last call. “Neighbor was over the other night.”

“Really?” Sounding very amused.

“I didn’t invite him. His dog broke into my house and accosted my kid.”

Maddie’s face scrunches in confusion and she cocks her head. Eddie acquises. “Chris left the door open and the dog waltzed in. He seems to really like Chris.”

She rubs her forehead and says, “You guys should be friends.”

“He’s a shameless flirt.”

“And?” Maddie demands. “Is that such a bad thing?”

“He just seems like he’s looking for fun. And that’s not me.”

Maddie throws a paperclip at him and he swats it toward his desk. “Rude,” he gasps, offended.

“What’s rude, is you making assumptions and not giving the cute guy a chance.”

“All of you are too invested in my love life,” he complains.

Linda’s head pops up over the divider. “Lack of love life is more like it.”

Eddie tosses the paperclip in her direction; she just chuckles and sits down. “You both should mind your own business.”

Maddie laughs loudly and turns back to her own screens. Eddie smiles as she shakes her head in a way that he interprets as fond, before returning to his own station.

* * *

Eddie gets home to a sticky note on his front door
Hope you had a good day.
Saw the trash collectors this morning, there won’t be another pick up this week.
You seem a little old school, so I thought you’d appreciate the physical note, which now feels silly. I know you have my number, feel free to use it whenever.
- Buck

Rolling his eyes, he pulls it from the door as he walks in. He’s starting to think Maddie has superpowers with the way she’s able to predict what happens next. Old school. Why the quip about his age? Just because he’s not telling all the smart devices all his secrets, doesn’t mean he can’t use them. Eddie pulls out his phone and send a short text:
Thanks.
This is Eddie. Let me know if you ever need help with Jake

There’s a loud thump from above him and Eddie smirks as he enters the kitchen to Chris finishing homework and Carla turning down the sauce pan. His phone dings with a message but he ignores it in favor of hearing how their day went . It’s well after dinner before Eddie picks up his phone and sees the message:
I knew it!
You like him
🐶

Eddie smiles. He’s always liked the dog just fine, but Jake comes with Buck and liking Buck could be messy. Still, there’s no doubt he’s attractive and there’s this exuberance to him that’s infectious. Eddie’s not sure it’s a good idea to get involved with a person you practically live with though. He finds his fingers hovering over the phone itching to reply. So he does:
Don’t read into things.
I’m being polite.
Besides. Seems my
🐱 is dating your’s

He likes to think he hears Buck laugh and ignores the thrill that thrums through his body at the thought.

* * *

It becomes a new thing that they do as the weeks pass, exchanging texts and photos. Most of the photos come from Buck as he’s always witness to the animal hijinx, so Eddie’s not all that surprised when he receives a photo late into his shift.

Do you even close the window anymore?

He doesn’t want to dignify that with a response, so sends 🙄 But he does “like” the photo of Jake and Bear stretched out on Buck’s deck.

He receives two more photos an hour later followed by a text:
I need to leave for an overnight.
What do you want me to do about Bear?

He grimaces before sending Will she let you pick her up so you take her back?

Eddie taps his fingers watching the three little dots. Then his headset beeps signaling a call, so he flips his cell over and gives his full concentration to the young woman calling about a possible wolf/coyote/large dog loose in her backyard. He instructs her to stay inside and that animal control is needed and proceeds to transfer the call.

When he picks up his personal phone, the NO was sent a few minutes before. Bear seems to like Buck so Eddie thought there might have been a possibility.
I’m sorry.
Thought she might.
I’ll be home in an hour, can you leave her on the deck?

Before he’s able to put the phone down, it rings with Buck’s name lit up.

“Hi,” Eddie answers.

“You think that’s a good idea? Leaving her outside?”

“Not really, but I can’t leave and Chris is at my aunt’s.” Eddie glances at the clock and there’s thirty minutes left in the shift. “I’ll be able to leave soon, it will be fine.”

Buck scoffs. “Just because you say it with conviction, doesn’t make it so.”

“Buck, it’s fine.”

“We should,” Buck hesitates before finishing in a rush, “exchange keys if you want. That way you can collect your escape artist of a cat and maybe you can feed Jake once in a while.”

Eddie hums. “An exchange of convenience. Might work.”

“Next time we’re home at the same time.”

“Yes. Now, get to work,” Eddie commands and even he can tell he sounds fond. This is not how he told himself it should go; he’s starting to rely on Buck and enjoy being with him.

Buck hangs up and Eddie shakes his head, putting the phone down. It takes him a few extra seconds to realize Linda is watching him with only her nose and eyes above the divider. “Stop it,” he tells her, not needing to know what she is thinking.

“Eddie,” he hears and the tone sounds exasperated. He turns towards Maddie and there’s confusion in her face; her phone in her hand. “Just how often is Bear getting out?”

“Uh, why?”

She fiddles with the phone and shrugs. “I overheard your conversation.”

He leans heavily on one arm and gives her a skeptical look. “From over there?”

Eddie’s not sure how she does it, but she just keeps staring at him and raises one eyebrow as though he’s being ridiculous when clearly she intentionally eavesdropped. He sighs and answers, “It started out a couple of times a week. We’re up to almost every day now.”

“And you still haven’t made a move on the neighbor?”

Eddie’s line lights up, saving him from answering. The shift ends quietly and he rushes a little to get home so he can get Bear. Just like he assumed, she’s sitting on the railing looking longingly into the window where Eddie can see Jake laying on the couch with his head on the arm, pouting.

He’s not sure what overtakes him, but he pulls out his phone and takes two pictures of what he finds and sends them to Buck. He adds See, she was ok. Thanks! He gets the thumbs up emoji back and then he collects his cat, who only moderately hisses and swipes at him, and ends his night on a high note.

_____________________________

It’s the middle of the night and Buck can’t sleep; he finds he doesn’t sleep much on overnight shifts because there’s time to catch up later. Instead, he’s entertaining himself in the loft by scrolling through his photos and realizes he should post them all to Instagram.

He starts at the beginning, even though he already posted it, with the picture of Bear and Jake curled up together and puts it in his “story,” then adds the one of everyone meeting, and proceeds to select a handful more from over the last several weeks.

Jake lying in the center of his bed; Bear behind him, peeking over his back.
I didn’t know she was here until I changed. It was weird

One of Bear alone on his bathroom floor
I’m not sure how she’s getting in

The two of them curled in Jake’s bed, Bear’s head propped up on his hind legs.
I think they’re going steady now

Jake and Bear, sitting side by side, tails entwined.
I was a little late. They were unimpressed with this schedule change, evidently Jake really had to go

The ones he took today have a more artistic vibe as the rays of sun highlight the gold in Bear’s fur and the shine in Jake’s eyes. They were sunbathing on the deck, Bear snuggled into Jake’s belly; followed by one of just Bear glaring at him and one of his arm with three distinct scratches on it.
Note for future: Bear does not like to be forcibly removed from her bf.

He ends with the two Eddie sent him, picking a layout that allows side by side posting so it’s clear that Bear’s staring at Jake.
Unhappy they were separated. But dad has to work

Pleased with his work, he rests his head against the couch and closes his eyes as he feels more relaxed now. He startles awake sometime later when Chim sits down with a cup of coffee.

“Morning Sunshine!” Chim happily announces.

The microwave reads 6:43; meaning he fell asleep which is a nice change of pace.

“You were busy last night. Lots of pics added to Insta.” Chim takes a swallow of what Buck knows to be some weird sugar spice thing he created. It’s vile to anyone but Chim. “What’s going on with you and the sour cat daddy?”

Buck recoils and grimaces. “God, you make it sound like really bad porn.”

“Well, it could be! Dog Daddy, looking for Cat Daddy to rough house with while their fur babies are –”

He throws a pillow at Chim. “Stop!” Buck relaxes against the couch. “We’re friends. Things are nice, maybe a little flirting, but… I just don’t know if he’s into me.”

“Oh, he’s into you.” Chim states matter of factly.

“Really. And you know this, how?”

Freezing, Chim’s eyes dart from Buck’s to the pole and back again, as though Chim was thinking of fleeing. Buck leans forward, smelling weakness. “What do you know, Chim?”

“Nothing!!” Chim shouts, jumping up and leaving Buck to wonder what that was all about.

His phone buzzes and it’s Instagram notifications; his photos seem to be popular. Buck decides Eddie should see and texts:
what’s your insta?
I’ve been posting pictures of Jack and Bear’s illicit tryst.
I thought I’d tag you

B Shift arrives promptly at 8am and he gets to go home to a whole day of running errands and spending time with Jake. Maybe Eddie and Christopher will be around later.

* * *

In hindsight, Buck wonders how this is the first call they get from Eddie. Because evidently, Eddie is a dispatcher and his voice is currently being fed directly into Buck’s ear giving the details of the single house fire they’re en route to.

They’ve been hanging out for months, enjoying his deck or having dinner together; Bobby even sends extra food home with Buck knowing that he will share it with Eddie and Chris.

How did it never come up what Eddie does for work?

Buck knows he doesn’t do all the talking. Eddie plays it quiet but Buck had been pleasantly surprised when Eddie started sharing personal stories after a handful of dinners together. Buck knows about his time in the Army and that Eddie’s sleep pattern is unpredictable due to his PTSD. Sensing Eddie was self-conscious, Buck shared about the firetruck bombing and his own struggles with recovery and sleeping.

There’s plenty they discussed, just not… work specifically. And Buck feels off balance because, shouldn’t Eddie have shared? Buck’s a firefighter and dispatch tells them where to go everyday, why not bond over that?

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he bounces up to Bobby as he’s barking orders. “Ravi, you’re with Buck. Clear the house. The neighbors called it in. We don’t know if anyone’s inside.”

“On it Cap,” Ravi shouts and the two of them jog toward the burning house. There are some flames visible over the roof peak, toward the back of the building. Buck shouts at the closed door, “LAFD!” as Ravi slams the hammerhead right into the lock. It splinters on the second swing.

Buck takes the steps two at a time, noticing the way the smoke thickens as he arrives on the landing. He yells, “LAFD! Anyone here?” Then Ravi echoes his call. They repeat as they head toward the last door off the hallway.

The smoke is so thick it’s hard to see. He pushes open a closet door while Ravi is on his knees looking under the bed. They find no one. Nodding to each other they move onto the next room. It takes them a few long minutes to clear the second floor; they’re just returning to the first floor when the radio crackles.

“Buck. Ravi. Check in.” Bobby sounds stressed.

“Yeah Cap. Second floor clear,” Buck responds.

“Might be a fourth grader inside.”

He exchanges a horrified look with Ravi. “On it.” Buck responds tersely. He turns toward Ravi and says, “We go into the room together, but split to search each side. Stay in constant contact.”

Once again they head to the back of the house, into the kitchen. Buck takes the right; opens the pantry, checks the very bottom, turns toward the small table and pushes the chairs around. He calls out his findings to Ravi, who answers back that he’s found nothing. The sound of kitchen cabinets opening and closing is loud as he tries to listen for any calls of help.

With the kitchen clear, they move onto the large front room. It’s not as smoke filled with the front door open, but the air is hazy. Ravi goes left, so Buck goes right. It’s only moments later when Ravi shouts, “I found him!”

Buck pivots, meets Ravi in the center of the room and ushers them out the front door. Buck presses the radio button, “Coming out! Boy, unconscious.”

Chim and Hen have a gurney ready for Ravi to deposit the boy gently. The radio crackles and he hears Eddie, “118? What’s the boy’s status?”

After a handful of tense seconds, that feel like an eternity, Chim answers, “No visible injuries. On O2, en route to the hospital.”

Buck repeats it to Eddie, who states hesitantly, “Thank you… Buck.”

“Yeah,” Buck replies and hates that his voice cracks.

* * *

Pulling into the driveway, Buck sighs as he cuts the engine. He’s tired. The rest of the shift was normal but Buck couldn’t stop thinking about Eddie leaving out such an important fact. He thought they were moving towards something and that he was finally doing it right. Making friends; learning about the other person before falling right into bed.

Clearly he’s still doing something wrong if Eddie isn’t sharing a basic, important fact about himself. He trudges up the back steps and hears Jake’s soft woof bringing a smile to his face.

Jake will always love him, and selfishly that is one of the reasons he wanted a dog. Having someone, or something, to come home to is all he wants. Right now it’s a dog but eventually he wants it all: partner, kids.

When he opens the door, Jake greets him with a quick lick to his fingers before pushing past and bouncing down the stairs, heading to his pee spot. Buck’s smile turns a little sad as he thinks about Eddie and how he really thought Eddie might be his future.

As Jake returns, Buck pushes it from his mind and concentrates on getting dinner for them both. They spend some time playing catch in the backyard and do a little roughhousing in the living room before some snuggles as he channel surfs. Nothing is keeping his interest, although having Jake sprawled over his lap does wonders for his stress.

His phone chimes with an Instagram notification and he checks out his activity, seeing Maddie’s userid pop up on each photo. Maddie. Why didn’t this cross his mind earlier? Not caring that it’s after ten he quickly thumbs open his contacts and calls her.

After the fourth ring, Buck thinks she’s going to let it go to voicemail but she finally picks up. “Hey!” she says sounding so normal about it. Like she hasn’t been lying to him for months.

“That’s all you have to say?”

“Was there something else you were expecting? It’s a little late for a call. Is everything ok?”

Buck clears his throat and asks, “Have a good day?”

“It was pretty regular.”

“Mine was fine.” He sounds brittle to even his ears. “Found out Eddie’s a dispatcher.”

He’s met with silence and then a soft, “Oh.”

He laughs bitterly. “You knew. You knew and didn’t tell me?”

“Buck, it’s not what you think.”

“Does he know?” Feeling the burn behind his eyes, this all feels like a betrayal and Buck’s not sure why.

“Eddie? Know what?” Maddie asks, confused.

“That you’re my sister.”

“No. At least I don’t think so. When you first started talking about your beautiful neighbor, I didn’t know. It only clicked when Eddie talked about his hot neighbor and the dog that digs holes in the yard.”

He gasps, “Maddie! You’ve been holding onto this for that long?”

“You’re making it sound terrible. I’ve been trying to get you guys to date, but –”

“But he doesn’t want to,” Buck finishes sadly.

“He wants to, he’s just being… Eddie. But I know if you two would spend time together and not just picking up your pets from each other’s places, you guys would open up to each other.”

“We do hang out, all the time, which is why him not telling me seems like a sign.”

“Buck. Don’t look for things that aren’t there. Just ask him.”

“Maybe,” he says quietly. Then he asks, “Does Chim know? He ran away from me the other day.”

Maddie laughs delightedly. “He does. And he did tell me about that.”

Sighing he admits, “I really thought this was going somewhere.”

“It still could.”

“You need to tell him tomorrow.”

She groans, but Buck insists, “You’re the one that… that lied by omission.”

“Fine,” she says. “Everything will work out. I promise. And I’m rarely wrong.”

Buck smiles already over his initial snit and says softly, “If you think so. Goodnight Maddie.”

“Night, Buck.”

He slouches into the couch more, so that his head is resting against the back, thinking about how his neighborhood romance got so complicated. Buck’s mind flits from work, to fire, to Jake’s monthly medicine, to if he needs more toothpaste as his hand restlessly pets Jake.

It’s almost midnight when there’s a soft knock at the door. Jake’s ears perk up accompanied by a playful growl but he doesn’t bark; that’s how he knows it’s Eddie. “Should I answer?” he whispers to Jake because if he talks to Eddie tonight, he’ll be the one to reveal his connection to Maddie. Jake’s tail thumps against the cushion spurring Buck into motion.

He opens the door slowly and finds Eddie looking nervous; he notices the bare feet and soft sweats, assuming these must be Eddie’s pajamas. His hair is tousled and he looks so good; Buck just wants to touch him to see if he’s as soft as he looks.

“Hey,” he says. “Everything ok?”

“Yeah, I just… thought we should talk.” Eddie stumbles out.

“You think?” Buck winces a little at the angry tone. “Sorry. Come in,” he opens the door wider.

Eddie enters, only to continue through his kitchen in order to greet Jake, who’s still lying on the couch, with multiple kisses to his head and behind the ear scratches; Jake’s tail beats on the couch. Eddie’s pace is slow as he returns to the kitchen, where Buck rests against the counter; Eddie presses his back to the refrigerator, crossing his arms over his chest, hunching inward. Buck doesn’t feel it’s meant to be defensive, more like he’s protecting himself. He seems nervous and Buck thinks that he isn’t the only one struggling their way through this.

“Guess you’re wondering why I never said I worked at dispatch,” he offers sheepishly.

Buck grips the counter behind him and nods. “It’s been on my mind all day.”

Eddie shrugs. “I don’t know. Not really. I didn’t think about it at first.” He runs a hand down his face, before returning to fold in on himself. “Then I thought it was too late and it would be weird.”

“Yeah, I get that.” Thinking about what he has to share. “But I don’t know why you didn’t offer it, at any point, after you knew I was a firefighter. It’s like… like you didn’t want me to know.”

“Buck,” he sighs. “I come with a lot of baggage and I hadn’t planned on getting to know you.”

Buck flinches because that hurts.

“I know it sounds mean, but I have my life; which fits into tidy boxes of Christopher and my job. That’s all I have room for. I didn’t want to get attached.”

“And now? Do you still feel that way?”

Eddie licks his lips and Buck is helpless to stop his eyes from flicking down to follow the movement. “I don’t know,” he says softly. “I’m not flexible. I have this routine. Things are controlled and I can make it through each day, allowing me to be whatever Chris needs me to be.”

“Is that enough? Making it through the day?”

“I used to think so. Lately though… thinking about adding people to our life, or going on dates…” Eddie pauses, then finishes in a rush, “I hate the idea and just want to hide.”

Buck’s heart skips a beat as disappointment thrums through him at the honesty; he nods and pushes it down. “I get that. Just felt like we were heading somewhere.”

Eddie shuffles his stance and looks down. “Yeah,” sounding sad. “I’m a mess and you shouldn’t have to deal with it.”

Taking a chance, because he fully believes he wasn’t the only one feeling anything, Buck takes a few steps towards Eddie. “Can’t I decide?”

“I thought it would start to feel easier.” Eddie glances at him from under his lashes, and instead of Buck finding it sexy, he sees the shyness in it. “To just want to be friends.”

“I’m happy to be friends. Never had a friend quite like you before.”

Eddie’s lips quirk and Buck takes another step forward, slowly reaching out to lightly grasp his bicep. “Or… we could try something different.” He steadily drags his hand down Eddie’s arm until his hand is resting on his watch, tucked in close to his elbow.

“It scares me how much I want to,” Eddie admits.

Buck’s breath hitches and he leans forward smoothly, giving Eddie plenty of time to stop him; instead Eddie licks his lips and sways forward. Their lips meet in the softest, sweetest, first kiss Buck’s ever had. It lasts only moments before they’re backing away with matching grins.

“I told everyone at work you were a shameless flirt,” Eddie says, eyes bright, lips quirked up in a half smile.

Buck’s heart stops at the reminder of Maddie and her secret. He squeezes Eddie’s wrist once and steps backwards. “Soooo. There’s something else you need to know.”

Immediately, Eddie tenses and his expression goes blank.

“I found just a couple of hours ago actually. And it’s, I know it might seem like a set up. But I swear it’s not. I had nothing to do with it. But it’s something –”

“Buck,” Eddie says strongly but still kind of warm. Buck stops and looks at him, seeing nervousness flutter across Eddie’s face, probably thinking this is all a mistake. But Buck wants to be with him so badly.

Just rip off the bandaid. “Um. Do you know my last name? I mean, we’ve talked a lot, and shared so much, had dinners… but I don’t think we’ve exchanged formalities.”

Cocking his head to the side, Eddie seems to think about it. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Right? And my Instagram isn’t my name, neither is yours, so it’s not weird or unheard of that we don’t know.” Buck insists.

Eddie huffs a sort of laugh. “It kind of is, though.”

Buck nods, wholeheartedly agrees. He sticks out his hand and waits until Eddie grasps it in the weirdest handshake he’s ever had. “Uh. I’m… Evan Buckley, but people call me Buck.”

A small grin flashes across Eddie’s face as he responds, “Eddie Diaz.” And Buck can see Eddie processing, processing until it finally hits him and his eyebrows scrunch slightly and he jerks his hand back, body pressing against the fridge.

“Buckley? Like… Maddie Buckley?” he asks carefully.

“Yeah. She’s, she’s my sister.” Buck tenses as Eddie shakes his head, emotions flashing so quickly that Buck’s not sure he caught them all; his heart sinks recognizing the hurt in Eddie’s eyes.

Eddie’s head tilts against the refridgerator door as he looks at the ceiling, mumbling, “What the fuck.”

“I know it’s a lot.” Buck steps a little closer. “I called her tonight, uh I asked her straight out and she confirmed she knew you were my neighbor.”

Buck’s momentarily distracted as Eddie blushes. He watches the way the color spreads slowly across Eddie’s cheeks and down his neck. Again, he wonders briefly if keeps traveling down his chest but Eddie asks, “Do you know how long she’s known?”

It’s Buck’s turn to flood with embarrassment and hopes his face isn’t as bright as it feels. “Um, almost from the beginning. When you mentioned the holes in the yard.”

He barely manages not to cringe when Eddie’s eyes dart to his. “The … holes? Jesus Christ, Buck, I didn’t even know your name yet!” Eddie takes several purposeful strides across the kitchen, heading for the door.

Grabbing his arm, Buck says, “Don’t go.”

Eddie pulls his arm away angrily and spins around to face him. “Did you know?”

“No,” he answers, shaking his head. “I said that. I swear I didn’t know.”

“Why didn’t she say anything? I feel like a fool.”

Buck shrugs. “Why do sisters do anything?”

“To embarrass their brother. At least mine would.” Eddie rubs his hands up and down his face several times and groans. “I don’t know how to feel about this,” he admits.

Buck lightly trails his fingers down Eddie’s arm and tangles their fingers together. “Can you forgive her? Because I, I really like you.”

Eddie blushes, grinning slightly, squeezing his fingers before his face loses color. “I can’t believe I have to go to work tomorrow and face her.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Buck tries to reason but Eddie sighs, rolling his eyes before folding his arms once more.

“You don’t know some of the stuff I’ve said.”

Smiling, Buck leans on one foot to invade Eddie’s space just a little. “Oh? Was it to wax poetic about how I’m a great neighbor?”

“More like bitching about the dog that’s corrupted my cat, while the guy keeps checking out my ass.”

Buck chokes.

_______________________________________

Eddie sits in his truck like the coward he is before convincing himself to get out and climb the stairs to his work station. He doesn't want to face Maddie after moaning about her brother for weeks on end. He hates how open he was, clearly admitting that he was attracted to Buck. And the endless amusement surrounding their pet’s unlawful affair? That was private. He was comfortable sharing because no one knew each other. Meanwhile everyone knew he was talking about Buck.

Because, here’s the thing, Eddie now knows what all the looks were between Maddie and Linda, maybe even Josh too, which is just fucking peachy. It was their enjoyment at his expense. Whatever. He might still be harboring some anger over the situation.

Sitting at his desk, he immediately pulls on the headphones and waits for a call. He brought his own coffee so that he could go right from his truck to his seat, avoiding eye contact with everyone. He doesn't want to be standoffish but… he’s being standoffish. He really feels like a fool for not noticing earlier.

He’s able to make it to lunch before he leaves his desk. When he gets up, he raises his arms up high overhead as he’s stiff from being still for so long. Everyone around him is focused on their calls and Eddie happily escapes to the kitchen to grab a water bottle and some granola bars from the cabinet. He makes a quick side trip to the restroom and as he’s exiting, he runs into Maddie. Almost literally.

Eddie freezes. Maddie freezes, although he suspects she’s stalking him, and they stare at each other. After a few moments of silence, Eddie juts his chin in the direction of the call center and says, “Got to get back to it.”

He gets a half a dozen steps away before she says in a rushed voice, “I’m sorry.”

Eddie stops and hangs his head because he was content to ignore the situation until the weirdness went away and he could start being “work” friendly again. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not though.”

He sighs. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But –”

He turns toward her and states, “It’s embarrassing. And makes me feel ridiculous as you all laughed about it.”

“I know, but – I’m sorry. I just know you’re perfect for Buck.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but…” He takes a breath and glances at her. “I’m going to need time to get over this feeling.”

Maddie nods, looking a little sad. “Please don’t hold it against Buck. He really likes you.”

He smiles, the first unguarded emotion of the day. “Yeah, I know.” Returning to his area he feels better. He recognizes he’s no longer waiting for things to go to shit. He’s an adult and knows that this uneasy feeling under his skin will fade with time, but right now he wishes things were like they were before.

* * *

The dishwasher door swings shut as his phone vibrates against the counter where he left it. Buck’s name flashes with a text:
Call just came in.
Won’t be home for a while.
Can you let Jake out and feed him?

Picking up the phone, he turns and leans against the counter and texts Sure. No problem

Buck sends back 😘 which prompts Eddie to roll his eyes as he replies 🙄 but his heart skips a few beats anyway.

He checks on Chris, who’s finishing up homework, before jogging upstairs to Buck’s place. They exchanged keys to be able to help in cases just like this and even as Eddie lets himself into Buck’s place, he thinks on the fact that they’ve had exactly three dates. And yet they already have each other’s keys, the thought sends a flutter through his stomach. The key exchange was before their official dates started and were a swap of convenience, not an indication of their relationship.

Eddie likes that Buck’s key rests against his own in his pocket, knowing the access they have to each other’s spaces. As he opens the door, Jake jumps up from his spot by the front windows and runs past him to get outside.

They’re doing this out of order and he tries not to dwell on it, but he twitches if he examines it for too long. The dates have been low key, two out of three taking place on Buck’s deck because they work and he has a kid. They were nice though, lighthearted conversation over cold beers and snacks.

Eddie’s not really sure if they actually qualify as dates. Buck says they do and made a point of stating it was a date, so, ok, they were dates. He’s unclear on how he feels about it. In all the ways he imagined his life, dating wasn’t something he thought about often. He felt it was awkward and time consuming and where does a single dad even start? So why try?

It’s a lopsided viewpoint. One he’s been told is holding him back from moving forward. It’s just the way he is and Eddie has accepted his own flaws.

He also accepts that he has a weakness for Buck who can nonchalantly get him on dates without Eddie even noticing. Eddie smiles to himself remembering how Buck handed him several daisies the last time he asked Eddie up for a nightcap. Buck is such a romantic; so open with his feelings. Eddie… is not; he’s so tightly wound he worries when Buck will tire of prying his way in.

Eddie calls Jake again, shaking the bowl so the food tings against the side, but Jake doesn’t appear. He walks out onto the deck and looks out, unable to find him. Sighing, Eddie keeps hold of the bowl, closes and relocks the door and descends the stairs in search of the wayward dog.

The sight shouldn’t surprise him, but Eddie still marvels at Jake, lying in front of his sliding glass door, head between his paws staring at Bear, who is sitting primly on the other side.

He pulls the phone from his back pocket and takes a photo and sends it to Buck with he’s a menace
You know as soon as i open the door he’s in my house

Sure enough, Eddie slides it open and Jake scrambles up and into the kitchen. He and Bear trot over to where Bear’s food dish sits and turn to look at him. Obediently, Eddie places Jake’s full bowl next to Bear's and steps back; he receives a few tail wags for his efforts.

Eddie steadfastly ignores how foolish he feels being at the beck and call of his pets as he finishes cleaning up the remaining dishes in his sink. A few moments pass before he realizes he thinks of Jake as his own, at least partially; he scrubs the pan a little harder as though trying to rub away the feelings. It seems he can’t stop falling for them.

With the kitchen spotless, he searches for Jake to take him back to his own place; there’s got to be a line somewhere, even if Buck keeps pushing it back little by little. He finds the animals snuggled together in the standalone chair; somehow it looks like Jake is hugging Bear to him as she rests between his legs, right under his head.

Hanging his head, he accepts defeat. Bringing up the phone again, he takes another photo and sends it to Buck with
Jake will be staying here tonight it seems

Eddie joins Chris in his room as he promised to watch him play a game. Evidently it’s more fun if Eddie watches. He has no idea what’s going on, how they can possibly build things and shoot, run and jump at the same time, but Chris holds his own against the others on his team. Eddie lasts a half hour before excusing himself and allowing Chris to finish up the mission before turning it off and getting ready for bed.

Eddie picks up his phone from the coffee table and finds an Instagram notification informing him Buck posted something new. Finding Buck’s new post and he’s not surprised to find the two photos Eddie sent him on display with Buck’s own commentary:
Jake missed his girl so much he didn’t come for dinner. He was willing to starve for some snuggle time. Now that’s love.
But so is allowing someone else’s pet into your home just because they miss each other ❤️

Buck doesn’t mention Eddie specifically by name, but his Insta ID is tagged in the post. Licking his lips, he taps the heart and quickly swipes up, closing the app. His heart beats rapidly in his chest and he feels nervous, like how he imagines a high schooler would feel being called out by their crush.

He falls back against the couch and waits for Buck to stop in to collect his dog. Eddie’s at least self aware enough to know he’s very much looking forward to it.

The End