Title: Into the Mystic
Series: Every Moment
Series Order: 2
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Soulmates
Pairing: Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz, canon pairings
Warnings: Canon-level violence, situations, and angst. Minor flashbacks to the truck bombing.
Author Note: I have a particular headcanon about Maddie and Buck’s relationship, in that they haven’t had much time to get to know one another as adults. As a result, I think she often treats him a bit like a child. I explore some of that a bit in this (a very little bit). I don’t consider this bashing. If you do, consider this author note a warning. Also, I take some liberties with how long it takes to become a specialist/engineer with the LAFD. Author handwave of convenience. Jazz Hands
Timeline: Takes place between seasons 2 and 3 of 9-1-1. There are references to canon events, but canon knowledge isn’t necessary. There’s a time skip of about 4 months after the end of the last episode.
Beta: Grammarly and I are still fighting about how many ellipses are “necessary.”
Word Count: 16,365
Artist: Still me.
Summary: Buck recovers from his injuries after the bombing of the ladder truck when his life takes another dramatic turn, and painful secrets are revealed.
Episode Two: Into the Mystic
Eddie held Buck’s hand, waiting for the next attempt to pull him free of the downed ladder truck. The first attempt’s failure burned in him like acid, Buck’s pain and suffering eating away at him. His fingers stayed pressed to Buck’s pulse, feeling the erratic, too-fast beat.
The masses of people providing the manpower lifted the truck again, getting enough clearance this time to pull Buck’s pinned leg from beneath the twisted metal. Even before they could move him, Buck was screaming, the sound tortured and raspy, filling Eddie’s ears.
Eddie jerked upright in bed, the sound of Buck’s screams reverberating through his brain as clearly today as they had four months ago. Feeling bile rise in the back of his throat, he swung to sit on the edge of the bed and buried his face in his hands.
There were a lot of bad moments in Eddie’s life, moments that sometimes intruded on his dreams or made him moody for days on end. Too many of them were from his eight years in the Army. But those moments where Buck’s life hung in the balance, with his leg crushed under their own station’s ladder truck, had eclipsed every other horrific memory in Eddie’s subconscious when it came to nightmare fodder.
When his breathing was under control, he glanced at his clock, finding it just a few minutes before five. If Chris were home, Eddie would be waking up in forty-five minutes to get his son ready to spend the day with Carla before Eddie left for his shift. Christopher, however, was availing himself of summer vacation to have sleepovers with Denny or Harry as frequently as possible. When Eddie was on his own, he could sleep in until seven if he was in the mood to deal with a frantic rush out the door.
He fumbled for his phone and pressed one of the top favorites. Buck was always awake by five. Stupid morning people.
“Hey,” Buck answered immediately.
“Yeah.” Eddie cleared his throat, unaware until that moment of how dry it was. “Sort of.”
Eddie didn’t know how to respond. He’d finally admitted to Buck that he had nightmares about the ladder truck bombing, and Eddie wasn’t the only one. He’d brought it up with Bobby after an awful, sleepless night, and Bobby had confessed to having the same issue. That had snowballed into everyone who was there admitting they were struggling. The department had arranged for trauma counseling for the entire shift who had been present. Eddie still wasn’t a fan of therapy, but he could admit that the counseling had helped, particularly some memory reprocessing work they’d done.
The dreams had become less frequent, less painful, but they still happened sometimes. Still pulled him from sleep with the sounds of Buck’s tortured, raspy screams or Buck coding in the back of the ambulance.
When the silence dragged on too long, Buck said, “Come over, Eds. I’ll make you breakfast, and we can talk about whatever. Chris is at Hen’s, right?”
“Yeah.” He shouldn’t bother Buck, but he wanted to be there.
“You know I like the company, right? I gave you a key and told you to come over whenever you wanted, and I meant it.”
“All right. I’ll be there in thirty.” Even with showering first, it wouldn’t take long. Buck’s place was only fifteen minutes away at the outside, closer than Maddie’s place had been before Buck moved.
“See you soon.”
– – – –
Eddie entered Buck’s apartment, dropping his keys into the bowl by the door. Buck was in the kitchen, which was open and visible from the doorway. The first thing he noticed was that Buck had a more pronounced limp today.
He’d never seen anyone attack physical rehabilitation the way Buck had. There had been three surgeries in fairly close succession and then six weeks of waiting before a marathon of rehab. Buck had progressed from crutches to a cane to no aid in just three months. Not that Buck had been idle while he’d been in the cast; his upper-body work had become sort of ridiculous in Eddie’s opinion, but Buck had needed the distraction, so Eddie had kept his thoughts about too much working out to himself. Buck’s limp had been getting less pronounced over time, but today was definitely worse than when Eddie had seen him two days ago.
Buck was watching him and shaking his head. “I just landed on it badly. It’s sore and that’s all. Don’t fret, okay?”
“I think we’ve established my ability not to ‘fret’ is non-existent.”
“Get in here and eat this food I’ve slaved over. You can poke at my leg later.”
Eddie huffed but joined Buck in the small dining area. Buck’s apartment was spacious and open, but the one thing the designers had skimped on was dining space. If Buck ever wanted more than four people dining at his place, they’d have to take it to the living room.
Since the injury, with Buck having so much time at home, the place was feeling more lived in, and it had taken on more of Buck’s personality. There were books all over the place, most of them non-fiction on every subject imaginable. And there was a fair amount of real estate—wall and shelf—devoted to Christopher, which always made Eddie feel safe and welcome.
Buck’s guest bedroom had been turned into a home gym for his rehab work, which probably kept the rest of the apartment from feeling like an ode to home exercise.
“If your leg’s bugging you, you’re going to lay off the rehab today, right?” Eddie asked as he dug into the blueberry wheat germ pancakes Buck always made just because Eddie loved them.
“Some of it, yeah.” At Eddie’s look, Buck rolled his eyes and added, “There’s no need to lay off the yoga, Pilates, or upper-body work. But I’ll give my leg work a rest, okay?”
Eddie grunted an affirmative and took another bite of his food, not protesting when Buck put more eggs and ham on his plate.
When the food was nearly gone, Buck braced his arms on the table. “You want to tell me what it was about this time?”
“By my recollection, there are four usuals: being forced to wait and watch, pulling me free from the truck, me coding in the ambulance, and then that anxiety-fueled thing between you and Maddie that didn’t actually happen. Which was it?”
“The second.” Eddie scrubbed his hands over his face, as if that could chase the images away. “I haven’t had the Maddie one in a long time.” That was some weird shit where his subconscious had decided there’d been a big blow-up at the hospital that had never happened. It had been revealed to everyone when Buck had been taken in for surgery that Buck’s advance directive put Eddie in charge of Buck’s healthcare decisions, not Maddie. Maddie was next in line if Eddie wasn’t available, but it was very explicit that Eddie should make choices for Buck if Buck were incapacitated. Eddie had already known, of course, but Maddie hadn’t.
In reality, Maddie had been taken aback but then nodded and went along with it. Eddie’s dream-muddled brain had twisted that into a huge fight that had resulted in him being evicted from the hospital and cut off from Buck after his surgery. Time had put that particular dream behind him, but not the others. They were less frequent now, but they all still came up.
Buck reached out and squeezed his wrist. “I wish there was something I could do to help. Sometimes, I wish I knew what you all were dealing with.”
“I don’t,” Eddie said immediately. “Seriously, Buck, the one consolation for us in all of it is that you don’t remember most of the time you were pinned or what you went through when we pulled you out. The parts you do remember seem like more than enough.”
“I just wish I could help more.”
“You do help. You let me call you at stupid o’clock in the morning then feed me breakfast when I have no good reason for showing up so early.”
“Except the delights of my company.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Yeah, your company is delightful.” He got up to clear the table and do the dishes.
“I’ll do the dishes, Eddie.”
“It’s my kitchen!”
“So? You do the dishes at my place all the time.”
Buck huffed but couldn’t argue that, so he followed Eddie and kept up an idle stream of chatter while Eddie quickly loaded the dishwasher. Buck was a neat cook—Bobby’s influence—so it was always easy to clean up after him.
He checked the time and still had plenty left before he had to leave for the station. “Come on. You said I could poke at your leg.”
Buck sighed but led the way into the guestroom. He had a Cadillac pilates table that doubled as an off-the-floor flat surface for most of his other rehab work. Eddie knew the tables were expensive as hell; Buck had pulled money from savings for it, saying anything he spent on his rehab was worth it. Eddie had been surprised to learn that Buck spent most of his early twenties saving most of what he made as he traveled around. It gave him the latitude to buy a $5,000 piece of exercise equipment to help with his physical therapy.
Buck got into position on the table, pulled up his joggers, and said, “Every day since the bombing, I’m grateful I passed on that loft apartment. I really wanted it from a style perspective, but the bedroom was in the loft. I’d have been sleeping on my own couch for months. Plus, no room for exercise equipment. I swear, Pilates has made a ton of difference. I love this table more than my Jeep, and that’s no small thing. Maddie gave me the Jeep; it has sentimental value.”
“First of all, no, you would not have slept on your couch. We have moved your bed downstairs until you were out of your cast, or you’d have stayed with me. Or Bobby. Or really anyone at the station who offered. Repeatedly.”
“I didn’t want to expose anyone to that. Especially Chris.”
“Is that why you wouldn’t come to stay?” Eddie stared at Buck in shock. “You ass. Chris has been through as many surgeries as you. He gets it. Don’t underestimate him, Evan.”
Buck looked thoughtful, lips pursed. “That’s fair. All I could think at the time was how much pain I was in all the time and how I didn’t want to upset him.”
“He was more upset not to get to see you as much, which is why I finally started bringing him over despite your weird, nonsensical protests. And don’t tell me he didn’t make you feel better because I could see that he did.”
“Of course he did. He always does.”
Eddie chuckled as he began prodding gently at Buck’s leg. The scars from the surgeries were terrible, not having faded much yet. They were bright red but thin, so they would likely fade to thin, silvery lines in a year or two. “I think you pulled a muscle.”
He’d learned a lot more about the anatomy of the leg after Buck’s injury than he’d had to know for his EMT certifications. He reached for the massage balm Buck favored and started working on the less tender muscles that were overcompensating for the muscle strain.
“Don’t use that stuff Hen got from her acupuncturist. That stuff is intense.”
Eddie glanced up. “Thought you liked it.”
“Like is a strong word. It’s helpful, there’s no doubt, but I’m not up for it today.”
“Buck?” Eddie said gently, wondering what was going on. He’d never heard Buck say he wasn’t up for something that was helping. Buck pushed himself too hard. To the point that they were constantly having to explain how doing too much could set him back.
Buck was staring at the ceiling, blinking furiously. “Sorry, I’m just worn down. I need a day; I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Hey.” He stopped massaging and sat on the table by Buck’s hip. “You’re allowed.”
“What if I can’t shake this limp? What if I can’t requalify?”
“I know you believe it’s over if—”
“A firefighter is what I’m meant to do, Eddie!”
“Would you just listen! You are so busy getting yourself wound up, preparing for the worst, that you’re making yourself miserable. The doctor said six months to a year for your recovery, and that a year was more likely. I’d be shocked if it takes you the entire six months to be ready to requalify but, Buck, can you please wait for the doom and gloom until we at least get to the six-month mark? That’s still two months away.
“Also, and I’ve been sitting on this, but you need to hear it. You may feel you’re meant to be a firefighter, but why wouldn’t it be enough to be a paramedic?”
Buck finally met his gaze, eyes filled with confusion. “Huh?”
“Paramedic doesn’t have the same level of physical qualifications, but it’s still saving people. Don’t think I don’t already know that you’re only about five hundred hours short of your certification.”
Buck shook his head. “Hen and Chim have to do the same—”
“To be a firefighter-paramedic, yes. But that’s not what I mean.”
“Oh.” Buck squeezed his eyes shut. “But then I couldn’t come back to the 118. You guys are my family.”
“Dios, Buck, we’re your family even if you decide to chuck it all and go become a doctor. You say being a firefighter is what you were meant to do, but why is that? Is it saving people? If so, why can’t you aspire to be a paramedic? I don’t believe for a second that your fate is so narrow that you can only exist at the 118.”
Buck gave a watery-sounding laugh. “No, I suppose not.” He took a shuddery breath. “But I love being a firefighter, and I love being at the 118.”
“So, that’s plan A. But the world won’t end if we have to go to plan B.”
“Yeah, we. Your family. The ones who don’t care where you work or if you’re a firefighter or not. Well, that’s not true. We’d miss you like hell if you never came back, but we love you too much to give up on you just because you have to walk a different path in life.”
Buck nodded, staring at the ceiling again. “Yeah, okay.”
“Just think about it, okay?”
“Promise.” Buck cleared his throat and met Eddie’s gaze. “How’s Marcus?”
“He’s doing okay.”
“You don’t have to hold back about talking about him. I’m glad he was able to return to work.”
“I know, Buck. I never thought for a second that you’d resent him for beating you back.” DeKay had received the most life-threatening injury, though they hadn’t known that until they got to the hospital. Buck’s recovery, however, was the longest.
Because there had been so many injured, Chim had multiple paramedic teams ready, one prepared to go to each injured firefighter. DeKay and the others who had been thrown clear had already been rushed to the hospital by the time they pulled Buck free of the ladder truck. They’d thought Buck was the worst off because of the crush injury and the way he was pinned, plus he’d taken so long to free.
DeKay had a severe brain injury and had to have emergency surgery for an intracerebral hemorrhage. He’d been out of work for three months recovering.
Eddie went back to kneading the muscles in Buck’s sore leg. “Marcus is fine. Bobby’s not letting him drive yet, which is making him a little huffy.”
“Why isn’t Bobby letting him drive?”
“I think he’s concerned about flashbacks, maybe. He’s having him drive the truck around when it’s not for calls.”
“So, who’s driving?”
“Jones, actually.” DeKay and Buck were the specialists on their squad for the truck. With Buck’s muscle gone and both specialists down for months to recover, Bobby had to shuffle the rosters to cover. There were only four specialists on A-shift to begin with, and with two of them on medical leave, it’d left a hole. Even though five other people on the shift had the correct type of license to drive the truck, they still had to have a specialist assigned to the apparatus. “He’s eager to get back on B-shift, but he’s also patiently waiting for DeKay to be ready to get back behind the wheel. Bobby’s made some noises about me getting specialist certification.”
“I know why he’s never pushed that before, but why don’t you? You already know most of the equipment. And if you didn’t want to get all of the specialist certifications, you could just get a commercial driver’s license.”
“Specialist would have meant additional time at the academy where I wasn’t working, so I opted out of it at first. Also, I’m not eligible for the actual job title for another year even if I have the training. But honestly? I hate driving big vehicles. I should probably get the training so that we have a backup, but…ugh.” He shuddered. He knew his limitations.
“Fair.” He gave Eddie a thoughtful look. “You’re closer to paramedic certification than I am, which you haven’t finished because…?”
“Why haven’t you?”
“Because the light force cap runs for his squad on A-shift can’t support more than two paramedics. I could still be with the 118, but I wouldn’t work with Bobby. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
“Me either. For now, I’m happy where I am. But if things have to change, then that’s it.” He considered for a second as he rolled Buck’s pant leg down. “I like being your partner out there more than anything else. That won’t change, Buck.”
Buck pulled himself to a seated position. “What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying that if your plan B were to be a paramedic for a private company, I’d probably follow you.”
Buck looked stunned, but Eddie didn’t want to do a deep dive into that conversation right now, so he headed for the bathroom to wash the remaining balm off of his hands.
When he came out, Buck was back in the kitchen, prepping his French press. Eddie sat at the bar to watch. “Am I going to get some of that?”
“I suppose I could be persuaded, seeing as how you made my leg feel all better.”
“Does it feel better?”
“Much. You’ve got magic hands. But, yes, mom, I’ll still go easy on it today.”
“Good. Now, tell me how the conduit onlining is going. I heard on the news that it’s finally hit Southern California.”
Buck’s smile was big and bright. “Yeah. Twenty-three people in the Greater Los Angeles area so far.”
“With our population density, how many do they think there will be?” Eddie already knew the answer. He’d learned a lot the last few months, but it was an easy, happy subject for Buck.
“Not many more. In a dense population, it’s about one per hundred thousand. Rural areas are higher—five or even ten per hundred thousand. Our population is quite dense, so we wouldn’t have more than two hundred total. New conduits are just replacing the ones who died during the decline. If there were no more, I wouldn’t be surprised, but if there are, I’d think no more than ten…?”
“And they still don’t know why none of them have soulmarks?”
“Dr. McAvoy’s working theory is that they’ve met their soulmates already; otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to become a conduit. However, the energy isn’t flowing, so the soulmark representing a preliminary connection to someone else doesn’t manifest. It’s like taking a photograph but not getting it developed.”
“Ah. Okay, that’s the first analogy that’s made any sense to me. I heard she was back working for the U.N.?”
“Yeah. She double-birded the U.S. government for the way they blackballed her the last decade or so, but she’s consulting with the U.N.”
“Wait. I thought she was doing something with the registry offices?”
“It’s splitting hairs, but the soulmate registry is technically an international body under the U.N. The U.S. government has their piece of it domestically, of course. She consults through the international side even if that sometimes means she’s working with a U.S. branch, on U.S. soil.”
Eddie shook his head and accepted the mug of coffee from Buck, already doctored with cream the way Eddie preferred. “Leave it to us to shoot ourselves in the foot with the person who was right about pretty much everything.” He sipped the coffee. “I miss your coffee around the station.”
Buck grinned and ducked his head.
“You should drop by today. Everyone misses you, and Bobby’s been grumpy since you haven’t needed him to go to rehab visits anymore.”
“I figured he’d be happy to be done with that.”
“Nah. I think he liked feeling like he was contributing to your recovery. You know how he took on that he was to blame for everything.”
“Yeah, but I thought the group and individual therapy worked through that.” When Bobby had revealed that he blamed himself for what happened to Buck, it had resulted in Buck coming unglued and yelling until he broke down in tears in the middle of a rehab appointment. Buck had insisted Bobby get help for his inappropriate guilt.
“He worked through feeling guilty, but he loves you like his own, Buck. I don’t know why you still doubt that. Also, he likes feeling useful. He likes seeing you, and he sees you way less these days. He doesn’t feel as free to drop in on you at any time of the day or night as I do,” he said with a wink.
“You drop in less than I’d like, so I guess no one is happy,” Buck said with a huff, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the counter.
Eddie sobered a bit and tried to parse what was going on. “I don’t want to intrude, Buck.”
“You’re not. I keep telling you that. You and Chris are always welcome.”
“Okay. Message received. You know, the reverse is true too. You’ve been driving for at least six weeks now, but you come over much less than you did before the incident.”
Buck blew out a breath. “It’s totally backward, but I guess if I make people come to me, I know I’m not intruding.”
“Dios, Buck, I offered to let you move in.”
Buck shrugged. “Don’t get all up in my neuroses, Eds. That’s my therapist’s job. I’m working on it, okay?” Bobby had insisted Buck get therapy too. If the whole damn shift had to do it, Buck was not going to be exempted.
“All right. I’ll let it go. For now. But you get your ass down to the station today to say hi. Text me first, and I’ll let you know if we’re out.”
– – – –
Buck entered the station, laden with cookies he’d baked the last few days. His leg was still bothering him, but not like it was since last night. The only reason he could walk without a pronounced limp was because of Eddie’s help earlier in the day.
He hadn’t mentioned his baking binge to Eddie because Eddie had a minimal sweet tooth as it was, and he was never in the mood for sweets in the morning. He didn’t even put syrup on his pancakes, the Philistine.
Jones was the first to spot him. “Yo, Buckley! You ready to get your ass back to work?”
“Hell yeah, but the doctors are being a pain in my ass on the subject.” They clasped forearms briefly. “How’s it going?”
“Good. But it seems that question is better directed at you.”
“Getting better, some bad days still.”
“What you got there?” Jones nodded to the big plastic container.
“Cookies. I’ve been bored-baking.”
“And my stomach thanks you!”
“You mind carrying them up? I’m still in the hold-on-to-the-railing-or-Cap-pouts-at-me phase of my recovery.”
Jones laughed. “They’ll be on the table when you get up there.”
“Label it that I made them so Cap doesn’t throw the whole batch away,” he called after Jones because Hen and Chim were inbound, so he figured he wasn’t getting upstairs right away. They’d started labeling anything safe to eat because Cap had a zero-tolerance policy about baked goods from the grateful public after they’d been dosed with LSD in some brownies.
“Buck!” Hen had him in a hug so tight it was nearly painful. “How are you?” She held him at arm’s length. “Damn, you look good.” She squeezed his shoulders. “You got bigger.”
“Not much to do but workout, and when the leg is bothering me, I focus on upper body.”
Chim clapped him on the back, not even trying to get in Hen’s way. Buck saw Chim a bit more than anyone besides Eddie. Chim and Maddie finally got together after Buck’s accident, so he had semi-regular dinners with the duo.
“Cap’s in his office, but he’ll be happy to take a break,” Eddie said as he rounded the front of the truck, also clapping Buck on the back and not getting in the way of Hen poking Buck thoroughly.
“Up here eating your cookies!” Marcus called from the loft, waving a cookie. “Get your ass up here, Buckley.”
Buck blew out a breath, feeling like he was home even if he knew it would be fleeting. He tried to hold on to what Eddie had said earlier, to remember that he wasn’t losing everything even if he couldn’t come back here. The thing that had floored him, that he still hadn’t absorbed fully, was Eddie’s implicit offer to be paramedic partners if Buck couldn’t come back to the LAFD. He didn’t feel like he had even come close to dealing with the magnitude of that declaration.
It seemed like such a huge thing for Eddie to say and, yet, Buck was sure that Eddie was his soulmate, which gave the gesture a different context. He couldn’t conceive of how anyone could be more suited to him than Eddie, connect with him better, make him feel more complete than Eddie. Maybe Eddie was feeling that too. And even if by some weird twist of fate they weren’t soulmates, Eddie is who Buck wanted to be with.
Life kept getting in the way of them making any sort of overtures. First, there was waiting for Eddie to get through the whole divorce process. Buck had not wanted to be Eddie’s rebound, and Buck had been able to feel the relationship with Shannon as a nearly physical presence between them.
Then Buck had gotten blown up and crushed under his own damn fire truck.
They’d been so close the last few months, and Buck didn’t know how he’d have gotten through it without his family, particularly Eddie, but Buck didn’t want to come into a relationship when his life was such a mess. He didn’t want to be on such an unequal footing.
As much as getting back to work, Buck was eager for a full recovery so he could once again feel like he was on steady ground, ready to move forward in his personal life as well as the professional. He hated how stalled out he’d felt the last few months. But, still, the potential always felt like it was there, bubbling under the surface.
When he got to the top of the stairs, Bobby was already waiting on him, a big grin on his face, pulling Buck into a giant bear hug. Bobby was actually an inch shorter than Buck, but something about the way he hugged made Buck feel sheltered and safe.
“It’s good to see you, kid.”
“It’s good to see you too, Bobby.” And it was good to be at the station, no matter how bittersweet it felt right now.
Bobby passed him off to Marcus, whose hug was more side-hug than anything because he was shoving cookies in his mouth. “Feel free to bake anytime. I like these the best. Just in case you’re taking orders.” Marcus was waving around the coconut, chocolate chip, and pecan.
“Duly noted. How goes it?”
“Good. Cap’s gonna let me get back behind the wheel during daylight hours starting next shift. Ease back in before trying it at night.” The ease with which Marcus spoke about it told Buck that he was probably going to be okay.
Buck squeezed his shoulder. He and Marcus had talked a lot on the phone when both of their recoveries were at the stage where they were stuck in bed more often than not. The other two who had been hurt had less severe injuries, the most notable being a broken arm that had kept them out of work for nearly two months, including rehab. Despite the long stretch to mend broken bones, they hadn’t been laid up the way Marcus and Buck were.
“When you’re ready for a night drive,” Buck offered, “if you want me to ride along, I’m there.”
Marcus gave him a searching look. “I may take you up on that.”
“It’d probably be good for me too.”
Marcus nodded, and the moment was broken as the rest of A-shift came over to say hello. Conversation was lively while everyone snacked, but then the other squad had to get back to work. Cap’s squad was already caught up on chores because Eddie had been riding them hard all day, knowing Buck would be coming to visit.
The seven of them wound up sitting at the big dining table; Jones tried to leave, but Buck insisted he stay. He was filling in for Buck, and Buck didn’t want him to feel unwelcome.
Buck couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. “You smell that?”
“What?” Hen looked under the table. “Did someone leave food under the table again?”
“Smells a little like ozone,” Buck clarified.
She shook her head. “I don’t smell anything like that.”
Everyone else was sniffing but shook their heads.
“I just smell Chim’s excessive Old Spice,” Marcus complained.
“I don’t wear Old Spice, you ass!” Chim laughed as he punched Marcus’ arm.
“You okay there, Buck?” Bobby asked, looking concerned.
“Yeah. Guess I forgot what the loft smells like.” He sniffed again, still smelling nothing but ozone. It wasn’t an awful smell, but it was annoying. Maybe they were using new cleaning products. “Tell me what’s been going on.”
“Yesterday,” Jones began, “we tied the station record, held by your shift when you were a probie, I believe, for the most number of dick-slash-testicle callouts.”
Buck burst out laughing. “I kind of miss the dick callouts.”
Chim groaned. “I swear, you have all the statistics for dick calls.”
Buck rattled off the top six dick-related statistics he could think of for the last calendar year, including the number of penises the LAFD had removed from toasters and vacuum cleaners. He nearly fell out of his chair laughing when Jones just gaped at him.
“Is he for real?”
“Never question the statistics,” Marcus said then shoved another cookie into his mouth. “Buck lives for quirky facts.”
Buck was grinning, but then he froze in place, feeling weird. He shivered, something like electricity racing along his spine.
Eddie had been chuckling, but he stilled and stared at Buck. “You okay?”
Buck started to reply then shuddered when he felt the same electrical sensation again, only more potent this time. He felt all his hair stand on end. He tried to laugh it off and held up his arm. “Goosebumps.” All the hair on his arm was sticking straight up.
Eddie reached out to touch and jerked back like he’d been zapped. “What the hell?”
Because Buck was staring at his arm, he noticed when something started to look funny. Like his skin was distorted. Then his vision went blurry, his stomach felt like it dropped to the floor, and the room began to spin.
“I don’t feel so good….” He felt like the whole room was moving as if he were on a boat on choppy water.
“Buck!” Eddie’s voice was loud, and arms were around him, holding tightly. “Tell me what’s wrong? What are you feeling?”
Buck couldn’t make his mouth work because it felt like the energy of the Earth was flowing through him.
“Eddie, look at his arm!” Hen said
“Holy shit.” Chim sounded a little breathless.
“Ay Dios.” Eddie held him even tighter.
“What?” Buck managed to get out, vision still blurry.
It felt like it took an eternity before Buck’s vision was clear again and the room had stopped spinning. He’d feltlike he’d fallen out of his chair and been riding on turbulent seas, but he was still seated in the same place with Bobby and Eddie boxing him in from either side.
“I’m okay,” he muttered.
“Yeah, well, we’ll be the judge of that,” Hen said snippily, the way she got when she was anxious.
“Pulse is slow,” Eddie said to Hen, and Buck realized Eddie had one hand locked on Buck’s wrist. “I’m counting forty-eight.”
Chim ran up to the top of the stairs with the first aid pack, handing it off to Hen but keeping the blood pressure cuff for himself.
“Hush,” Hen snapped. “I’ve never seen this happen before, I’ll probably never see it again, I’m a little freaked out, so you’re just going to sit there and let us assess you. Also, the protocol is a trip to the hospital because it’s not uncommon for persistent low blood pressure for a day or even longer. More than one person has fallen and gotten a serious head injury as a result.”
Buck’s brain was still sluggish, but all the pieces started to come together in his mind, and he raised his arm—the one Chim and Eddie hadn’t commandeered—and stared at it. His arm was covered in flowers. They looked impossibly real even though they were in black and white.
“The color comes in over the first forty-eight hours,” he murmured, knowing the facts about conduits like the back of his hand. “Oh my god.”
Bobby suddenly chuckled, squeezing Buck tight around the shoulders, which meant the arm around his waist belonged to Eddie. “I don’t know why I’m surprised, kid. I should have seen this coming from a mile away.”
The rest of the shift had come back to the loft at some point and were all staring wide-eyed. Buck hated to be a spectacle, but he was just numb at the moment, not sure what this meant for him.
“Blood pressure is 85/50,” Chim said, taking the stethoscope out of his ears. “I checked it twice. That’s well below the threshold set for getting conduits to be evaluated at the hospital.”
“Oh my god.” Buck pressed a hand over his eyes. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Hey,” Eddie whispered from very near Buck’s ear, “you’re as close to ready for something like this as anyone I’ve ever known. It’s gonna be okay. Just take a deep breath.”
“I’m fine,” Buck insisted, though it sounded weak to his own ears. He let the hand drop, the black and white flowers drawing his gaze like a magnet. Conduit marks couldn’t be faked; they were too realistic. Buck had a feeling he would be investing in a lot of long-sleeved shirts in the future.
“Let’s try some Gatorade and get you to eat something,” Hen said. “We’ll wait fifteen minutes and see if we can get your BP up a little. But in fifteen, we’re taking you in either way.”
“Can’t someone just drive me over in my Jeep?”
Bobby looked conflicted. “I’d prefer you let us transport you in case anything goes wrong. It’s not common for conduits to have medical problems beyond low pulse and low blood pressure, but there have been some other extreme reactions like plummeting blood sugar. But, if you insist, then Eddie can drive you over.”
“Speaking of,” Hen said as she grabbed his hand and swabbed his finger. “Let’s check that blood sugar.”
– – – –
Buck couldn’t stop staring at the grey flowers on his arms. His mind had been blank since they left the station. Hen had made him stay for a full thirty minutes before she’d let him leave with Eddie.
He came back to his senses when the Jeep came to a stop, and Eddie said, “We’re here.”
Buck looked up and met Eddie’s gaze. Eddie’s pained gaze. What could that be about? But then Buck’s sluggish brain kicked into gear. “I didn’t expect this.”
Eddie’s smile was a little sad. “I know, though I’m not sure why we didn’t all see it coming. Now that it’s happened, it seems so obvious. We should have been waiting for it. Hen should have had a betting pool; I’m sure she’s kicking her own ass at the missed opportunity.”
“Eddie, you know this doesn’t change anything.”
The laugh he got in return was anything but amused. “Buck, this changes everything.”
“How?” When Eddie went for the door handle, Buck reached out and grabbed his arm. “Come on… How?”
“You’ve got a soulmate, Buck. Everyone’s clear on that. Even if the mark hasn’t bloomed, you already have a soulmate. Undeveloped photograph, remember? And conduits need their soulmate; they can’t just walk away.”
“For starters, of course they can, and they have. It’s very rare, but it has happened. It’s not predetermined, Eds; it’s an opportunity. Fate is always an opportunity.” Buck fidgeted with the seam on his joggers, feeling way out of his depth and without any solid foundation. “There’s so much we haven’t said, and I’ve wanted to be back to normal, to feel like I wasn’t bringing a bundle of problems into your life.”
“No! You listen, Edmundo Diaz. We’ve been letting it simmer, not saying the words, but if you think for a second that these flowers are more important to me than you and Christopher, then you don’t know me at all.”
Eddie looked stricken. “Buck, this is your calling, your destiny. I don’t want you to have to make that choice.”
“It’s not going to be a choice, Eddie! When the energy starts to actually move again, when the marks bloom, I know that—” Buck’s speech was cut off by Eddie’s hand over his mouth.
“Please don’t. If you say it, and you’re wrong, I couldn’t stand it.”
Buck glared until Eddie pulled his hand away. “Fine. I won’t say it. As long as you don’t do something idiotic and self-sacrificing like pull away. I couldn’t stand that.”
Eddie stared out the front of the Jeep, the muscle in his jaw jumping. “Okay. I’m not sure I’d manage for very long anyway.” He turned to look at Buck again, then touched his arm, fingers tracing gently over the petals. “What are these?”
“Um, they’re snapdragons.” Tingles were racing up Buck’s arm.
“Snapdragons. I’ll bet they’re rare for conduit marks.”
“They are. How’d you know?”
“Because there’s nothing common about you.”
Buck’s breath caught.
“What do they symbolize?” Eddie smiled softly, not looking away from the flowers.
“Usually strength or the strength needed to overcome challenges. But they can also represent grace or the idea of grace under pressure. Weirdly, they can represent deviousness too, and sometimes they’re used as a charm against falsehood. Different colors have different other meanings.”
“Other than the deviousness, that’s pretty on the nose for you. What color do you like the best?”
“Um…” Buck took a shuddery breath. “Yellow. They represent happiness and good luck.”
“Then you should be covered in yellow snapdragons.” Those skilled fingers slid to Buck’s wrist and took his pulse.
“I feel fine.”
“And yet your pulse is only thirty-eight now, Buck. If you think you’re walking into the hospital, you’re sadly mistaken. Because while I may practice hauling around guys your size, if you think I actually want to do that today, you’re way more out of it than I thought.” Eddie started the Jeep and put it in gear. “I’ll take you to the door and then park.”
“Eds, I’m fine!”
“You gonna issue me a guarantee that you won’t pass out when you stand up? Because if you can’t, you’re sitting in a wheelchair.”
Buck threw up his hands, frustrated by his family’s overprotectiveness. He really did feel fine.
Eddie stopped at the door in the ER loading area, gaze flicking to Buck’s arms. “You want a shirt? Is there something in your bag?”
“God, yes. I don’t want to be stared at. There’s a shirt on top of my duffel in the back.”
Eddie took care of the shirt first then jogged inside. When he came back out about two minutes later, one of the nurses Buck knew well from his many leg surgeries was following him. Paul waved to him but hung back with the chair.
Buck was sitting with the door open, legs already swung out, but he’d promised Eddie he wouldn’t try standing until Eddie was back.
Eddie hunkered down in front of Buck, setting one hand on Buck’s knee. “Bobby called ahead, so they’re ready for you. Since this isn’t an emergency medicine thing, and the low blood pressure and low pulse are typical for conduits, and it’s already been confirmed by a paramedic, they’re going to take you straight to admitting and keep you overnight for observation. Don’t give me that look; you know the procedures better than I do, Buck.”
That was fair. Still, Buck found it annoying. “I have PT in the morning.”
“I’ll call and cancel it for you. And, yeah, I’ll tell them why because you’re not going to be able to keep this from your physical therapist.”
Buck blew out a breath.
“I can stay with you until the station gets a call that they need me for. Bobby’s orders.” Eddie stood, but Buck reached out and caught his arm.
“Eddie, please promise me that nothing will—”
“I promise, Buck.” Eddie pulled him to his feet, and Buck felt a rush of dizziness. He wasn’t sure if that was because of his blood pressure or because Eddie was hugging him, holding on like the world was trying to tear them apart.
– – – –
Buck set down his phone, feeling frustrated and alone. He’d been texting Maddie about his epic boredom, but her break had ended, so she’d gone back to work. Eddie had only been able to stay for a couple of hours before he’d needed to get back to finish out his shift. He’d taken Buck’s Jeep, promising to pick him up tomorrow whenever he was discharged.
There had been a flurry of attention for an hour, then Buck was left to his own devices in this private room. Not that he wanted people fussing over him, but being in the hospital when he was fine was stupid.
Intellectually, he understood why these precautions were advised. Whatever caused conduits to come online never occurred when they’d be in danger. So, it didn’t happen when they were driving or crossing the street or handling a chainsaw. But the changes conduits went through could, for a day or two, cause vital signs to plummet, and some people didn’t react well. A few conduits had even sustained a significant injury or died from falls in the day after their blooms appeared. Passing out was quite common, and that was why overnight observation was recommended if blood pressure or pulse were low. Buck had the double threat.
Buck wasn’t even supposed to be out of bed without someone walking him, but he’d gotten agreement that he could move from the bed to the chair without ringing for a nurse. The very idea made him roll his eyes. The only upside was since he was only there for observation, he could wear his own loungewear and not an ugly, assless hospital gown.
The door to his room opened, and he sent thanks into the ether for a reprieve from his boredom. Three doctors came in, and he didn’t know any of them.
“Mr. Buckley, I’m Dr. Patel, the head of orthopedic surgery here at Mercy General. These are two of my residents, Drs. Summers and Keigley. I wanted to discuss the results of your MRI with you.”
Buck sat up straighter. “Is something wrong?” The attending who’d checked him over after he’d been admitted ordered bloodwork and a new MRI on his leg, which was a couple of months early, but Buck hadn’t had anything else to do. He also didn’t mind knowing how the healing was progressing.
“Not wrong, as such. Do you mind getting back on the bed so I can have a look?” Dr. Patel came around the bed, obviously waiting to lend a hand if Buck needed it.
Ignoring the offer of assistance, Buck got back on the bed, nudging his phone out from under his ass, then pulled up the leg of his track pants.
Patel did a comprehensive examination of Buck’s leg, leaving him pretty sore by the end. “I’d like to order a few more tests.”
“Oh god, what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing like that. The bone looks good, better than I would have expected at this point. But I see something in the soft tissues that I’m not willing to sign off on. The MRI that was ordered isn’t ideal for this particular type of diagnostic. I’d like to get a CT scan. It’ll be quick, I promise. Since you’re here until tomorrow, we have time to do a thorough check on your leg today.”
Part of him wanted to argue, ask what was going on, because he’d had thorough care for his leg so far; he wouldn’t have accepted anything less. But the part of him that was panicked that he wasn’t going to get past this injury wanted to know and know now.
The doctors left, promising someone would be up to get him soon. When he had been admitted, the decision was made to put Buck back on the ortho ward because it was his most significant health issue at the moment, so he wasn’t all that surprised when Paul came in a few minutes later. Paul had been the day nurse in ortho for every one of Buck’s surgeries.
“Hi, Paul. What’s up?”
“Transport is on the way up. The doctors are taking every precaution with any conduits that come in for observation. The Registry has even recommended that long-online conduits get checked out before that soulmate energy gets going again. So, don’t worry yet, okay? There’s nothing to panic about.”
Buck made a face. “Are you telling me that conduits get better medical care?” He really wasn’t down for that.
“It’s not like that is the intention, but maybe it’s the end result. They just want to be sure everyone is as healthy as they can be before anima energy starts flowing through them again. You know the whole world is on the edge of their seat waiting for this decline to end.”
“I get it, but I don’t like feeling like an exception.”
“Try to think of it a different way: when it comes to any rare group, we have to make some kind of accommodation or exception. Conduits aren’t really any different.” Paul tapped the bed rail that was up on one side. Buck kept putting it down; anyone who came in put it back up. “Anyway, I just wanted to assure you that almost every conduit that’s been under observation here has gotten an extra test or two, so don’t worry. It’s the same thing that’s happening with the old-timers who are visiting their doctors for the recommended check-up.”
Buck thought about texting Maddie and Eddie about what was going on but then decided against it.
– – – –
It was three hours later and pushing into the dinner hour when Dr. Patel and his two residents returned.
“The scans did find a little problem, but don’t worry; it’s manageable.”
Buck’s hands fisted in the material of his hoodie. “Your idea of manageable and mine might be a little different.”
“I don’t think it will affect your return to work, at least not long-term. If that helps at all…?”
Relaxing a little, Buck blew out a breath. “Yeah, it does. Okay, hit me with it.”
“You have some small blood clots. If we hadn’t caught it, they’d have potentially gotten bigger and possibly wound up in your lung, causing a pulmonary embolism.”
Buck stared, trying to absorb what they’d caught through this quirk of fate.
“Based on a variety of factors, including my own experience, looking at your current and past scans, your age, health, and just how these injuries tend to go, I suspect these clots are being caused by the screws that were used to stabilize the fractures. Ultimately, we’ll need to remove those screws, but it’s too soon at this moment. You need more time with them supporting you structurally.
“We’ll have to start you on anticoagulation immediately. Even if we were taking the screws out right away, you’d need the medication for the blood clots that are there. I’d like you to stay here for an extra day while we adjust the medications to make certain it doesn’t affect your vitals since they’re still a little erratic.” He gestured to the monitor that was persistent with the low heart rate and BP. “It’ll be subcutaneous injections at first and possibly switching to oral medication later.”
“Aside from the medication, what does this mean for my recovery?”
“It might slow things down a little. We’ll need to advise the rest of your care team that you’re on anticoagulants; that could certainly affect how they approach your physical therapy. We’ll keep an eye on the healing of your leg and take the screws out as soon as it’s reasonable to do so. After that, we’ll reduce the medication and monitor to see if you get any new clots. It’ll be a daily injection in the abdomen for now. You’re not needle-phobic, I take it?”
“No.” Buck shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to figure out, based on what you’ve told me, how much this will slow things down.”
At that moment, the door opened, and Carla and Christopher entered.
“Christopher!” Buck held out his hands for Chris, shaking his head at Carla when she tried to apologize for interrupting the doctors. He got Chris up on the bed with him, not caring how the crutches clattered to the ground. Pressing a kiss to Chris’ curly hair, he squeezed the little body tight to his side. “Dr. Patel, this is Carla Price, the best health care professional I’ve ever known. Would you kindly explain everything to her? Because if she knows all the precise details, she can relay it accurately later. And then she can stop me from freaking out,” he muttered under his breath.
“What’s going on, Buckaroo?” Carla asked softly.
“Blood clots,” he whispered.
Her eyes widened, and she nodded. “I’ll get all the information.” She herded the three doctors to the far side of the room.
Buck looked down at Chris. “Hey, buddy. How are you today?”
“Better than you!” Chris retorted hotly. “You’re in the hospital again!”
“I know!” Buck huffed dramatically. “It’s ridiculous. Did Carla tell you why?”
“She said you’d surprise me, but blood clots don’t sound like a nice surprise.”
“To be fair, they’re not. That’s something extra they found because they were checking on something else—the real reason I’m here.”
Chris stared up at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’ll show you, but it’s just between you and me for now, okay? Well, your dad and Carla know, of course.”
“I’ll keep your secret.”
Buck began rolling up his sleeves. Almost immediately, Chris gasped and reached for Buck’s arm. Buck had been a little twitchy about people touching his arms since the marks appeared, but he didn’t mind when it was Chris or Eddie.
“Buck! Conduit marks.”
“That’s a really good surprise! Why are they grey?”
“It takes a day or two for the color to bloom.”
“Because the changes take a toll, and people can get dizzy or feel nauseated. So, it happens slowly. I’m not really sure what the difference is between a grey mark and color mark, but I guess when energy is flowing like it’s supposed to be, there is a difference.” He considered for a second. “Before the decline, I’ll bet conduits didn’t actually start helping with energy flow until their colors bloomed.”
“Cool!” Chris kept tracing his fingers over the petal shapes. “What kind of flowers are they?”
“Snapdragons. I’ll get you pictures later.”
Chris continued making invisible patterns on his arm. “I don’t need pictures. They’re beautiful.”
Buck and Chris scootched down in the bed, talking about conduit marks and snapdragons until the doctors and Carla joined them again.
None of these doctors had seen his marks, so they eyed them curiously before they took their leave, promising to come back tomorrow.
Carla took the chair and patted Buck’s shoulder. “It’s going to be fine. They caught it early, before it could become a big problem, and they think they know what caused it. Adjustments will have to be made to ensure your rehab doesn’t hurt you, but you’re only looking at a month or two delay, okay? And maybe even not that if you can go back to work on the medication. The only slowdown will be the time you’ll be laid up for another minor surgery to remove the screws.”
Buck blew out a breath and nodded, trying not to feel frustrated by the setback.
Carla nodded to his arm. “Seems like you’ve got a lot on your plate anyway.”
“Buck’s a conduit!” Chris said excitedly, looking at Carla from where he was half lying on Buck.
“I see that. It’s very exciting. Our Buckaroo is covered in gorgeous snapdragons.” She patted his leg. “It’s a fitting bloom for you, baby. Very fitting.”
He forced a smile, feeling a little emotionally messed up at this setback, no matter how minor it might be.
“Do you want me to call Eddie and Maddie? Explain what’s going on?”
“Would you? If I do it, I’m going to make it sound worse or better than it is. I’m just gonna sit here and show Chris pictures of snapdragons until whatever awful thing they have for dinner arrives.”
“Sure thing, sweetie. Though, before you get wrapped up in Google land with Prince Charming there, I wanted to put a little bug in your ear.”
“Gross, Carla!” Chris laughed, putting one hand over Buck’s ear.
Carla laughed along. “That’s a figure of speech, kiddo, though I can see how it does sound gross. I promise to leave Buck’s ears alone.”
“What’s up?” Buck asked, chuckling as he pulled Chris’ hand away from his ear.
“Your name’s already out. I know it’s only been a few hours, but someone here or at the station leaked it.”
“What’d they get?”
“Anything easy to find in the public record, honey: name, that you’re from Pennsylvania, and that you’re a firefighter. A couple of sites have already connected you to the bombing, which you know was on the news. Just a warning that interest will grow. I’ve mentioned it to Eddie and also Bobby and Athena.”
“You think something might happen? Is it okay for…” He glanced down at Christopher.
“Yes, of course. The hospital is always extra cautious these days when there’s a conduit present, so don’t worry. But since the end of the decline is near, people are getting rather fannish about conduits, especially the new ones, so I’ve mentioned to Bobby that he should be careful about who’s allowed in the station. Even with you not there, fans will start showing up.”
Buck just stared with his mouth open.
Carla waved her hand negligently. “You and mini-you sit there and goof off for a while. I’ll go make the phone calls.”
“Thanks, Carla,” Buck said weakly.
Chris giggled. “Mini-you.”
– – – –
Buck woke when his door opened. He’d never been able to sleep through anyone entering his room in the hospital. He expected it to be the shift nurse coming to check on him, but it was an older woman in a charcoal pantsuit.
She turned on the dim reading light over the bed and waited for a few seconds for him to get his bearings.
He recognized her as soon as the light came on. “Dr. Ellen McAvoy.”
“Just Ellen is fine, Mr. Buckley.”
“Buck,” he countered softly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He sat up, letting his legs dangle, and extended his hand. “I’ve been following you for years.”
She shook his hand. “I know. I actually interact on all the same boards and forums that you’re on. You have a very astute grasp of anima mechanics.”
“Oh.” Buck felt his face heat. “Thank you.”
“I wasn’t all that surprised when your name wound up on my tablet this morning. Fate takes care of bringing certain people along. I’d hoped to be here earlier, but any region in this part of the healing process tends to be a little chaotic and time-consuming.”
“I wasn’t expecting you at all.”
“While I don’t advertise it, I’ve been trying to visit the conduits when I can. Both the new ones and a few of the old-timers I’ve known for years.”
“This is my life’s work. For me, trying to make sense of soulmates is like making sense of the universe. When the decline began, several of us immediately speculated that it was related to the murder of soulbonded pairs. And I knew all along why officials pretended we were crackpots. As good as it is to be vindicated, the best part is to see the world righting itself.”
Buck smiled, rubbing his hand over the blanket. “Yeah.”
She crossed her legs and leaned back in the chair, looking more relaxed. “You know, it might interest you that a considerable percentage of our new conduits are first responders.”
“Really? Do you know why?”
“I don’t know much of anything, but I suspect that whatever sentience drives the engine of the universe is seeking protectors. So, you being a firefighter plus a member of my forums makes you of more interest to me. Also, I’m looking for anyone whose markings are a little unusual.”
“Have you heard any speculation about the anchor conduit?”
Buck frowned. “I’ve seen mentions of it over the years, but I thought it was just a rumor. A fanciful thing.”
“No. As far as we can tell, there’s always one, and only one, whose conduit marks extend to their back. We’ve always referred to them as the anchor, but conduit prime would probably work just as well since we’re using the term to describe uniqueness rather than function. We don’t actually understand why there’s a conduit who is slightly different from the rest. The last anchor died about four years ago. Since conduits started to come online again, we’ve been waiting for her replacement. I’d speculated that it would be one of the first to come online or one of the last. Possibly the last.”
“I don’t know if my marks go beyond my shoulders.” He’d looked in the mirror when he’d gone to the bathroom, so he’d see that they disappeared under his shirt. The doctors and nurses had seen his arms, but that was to take his blood pressure. It wasn’t acceptable to request to see conduit marks anymore than it was to see soulmarks; Buck certainly hadn’t offered.
“Would you mind if I have a look? I can take a picture so that you’ll see whatever I see.”
“As long as you take the picture with my phone.”
After unlocking it, Buck handed her his phone and then slipped off the long-sleeved pajama top he was wearing open over a muscle shirt. The muscle shirt went next.
“Snapdragons are an unusual mark,” she murmured, leaning in to look at his shoulder. “Shows remarkable strength and resilience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these were purple when the color comes in.”
“About eighty percent of people get all one color.”
“And some people get up to three. I’d be shocked if you didn’t have more than one color because I believe you are the anchor, and they always have at least two. I’ve always figured fate is trying to tell us something about its chosen with these marks.” She smiled at him. “Something good, of course. In any case, purple snapdragons represent spirituality. I’m not sure about the rest of your personality, Buck, but the way you embrace fate in your comments online tells me purple snapdragons are in your future.”
Buck didn’t even know what to say.
“Now, let me get a look at your back. Your chest is a delight, young man, but you’re young enough to be my grandson, and I’m feeling like a dirty old broad here.”
He couldn’t help the laugh as he turned so she’d have a clear view of his back.
“Hmm.” It only took a few seconds before she handed the phone back to him.
It wasn’t often that he saw pictures of his own back. The black and white flowers jumped out first, of course, but the scale of his back made him blink. He really had gotten bulkier since the bombing.
The snapdragons were across the tops of his shoulders and then down the sides of his back, joining together just below his waist. They left a big swath of open skin in the middle of his back. “It almost looks like a frame.”
“Yes, it does. That’s where your soulmark will be.”
“Wait. No one knows where soulmarks are going to appear. Other than being between the chin and the knees, it’s uncertain.”
“Except for anchors and their soulmates; it will always appear on the back for that pair. I think that’s perhaps why anchor is favored as a term over prime. Something about the mark always appearing on the back feels more like an…anchor.”
Buck let the hand holding the phone fall to the bed. “I’m really not certain how I feel about all this. Am I supposed to do something?”
“Not as far as we know. Fate is doing something a little extra with you, that’s all. I’ve never met anyone who was an anchor who wasn’t very receptive to the nudges of fate.”
Looking up sharply, Buck stared at Ellen. “Nudges?”
“I wondered about that.” She smiled and shook her head. “I’ve only met three personally, Buck, you being the third, but there are journals about other anchors. Many of them report feeling what might be called a nudge at times in their lives. I take it you do?”
She nodded. “As I said, it’s all a mystery. Anchors aren’t the only people who get nudges from fate, of course, but all anchors have reported being guided, as it were. You are an integral part of what may always remain a mystery, but I would like to keep in touch to see how much of this mystery we can unravel. If you’d be willing to share your experiences with me as time goes on, I’d appreciate it. We can try to connect some more dots for the next generation.”
“Can I ask what your username was on the forum?”
“Promise to keep it to yourself? No one outside of you and your soulmate, whoever that might be.”
Buck blinked then fell back in the bed laughing. “You literally called yourself a dirty old lady when I’d flirt with you.”
“I wasn’t lying.”
“I’d be pleased to keep in touch, Ellen.”
“Excellent! I have a few minutes. Let’s engage in some rampant speculation about what might happen next, shall we?”
“That sounds fun.” Buck grinned. The next few minutes were just like exchanging ideas with Ellen on the forum.
She glanced at her watch. “Now, tell me, do you have a suspicion who your soulmate is? I find most conduits know.”
“Oh, I know. And if it’s not him, this conduit gig can fuck right off!” He felt his cheeks get hot at swearing at Ellen that way. “Sorry.”
She laughed, waving him off. “No. That’s a sure-fire sign that you’re right about who it is. Two people interested in an unconsummated soulbond will be territorial about the potential bond until it’s realized. You should be sure he’s in the loop about this anchor business. We refer to the soulbonded of conduits as shields because the bond you have with your soulmate protects you from burnout from all the anima energy that’s literally moving through you 24/7. When I met the anchor who lived in Japan before the decline, there were times that the energy moving off of her was palpable. Her soulmate was almost a null field comparatively. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand someday. You both will.”
Ellen set a card on the table. “Please keep in touch. I don’t know how long it will be before energy starts to move tangibly in this plane again, so there’s no telling where I’ll be when it happens. But I’d like to hear how it goes for you, all right?”
“Give my contact info to your young man too. He’s welcome to call me anytime.” She got to her feet.
“He’s worried that I’m going to have a different soulmate. That he’s going to believe we’re meant to be, and then I’ll be taken away from him.”
“Oh, to be young and an idiot.” She patted his cheek. “Don’t fret, darling. You know the truth. If it helps for me to knock some sense into him, I will.”
“I just don’t know how to make him believe.”
“Hmm.” She looked up as if the ceiling held the secrets of the universe. “I think faith is your gift, Buck. What’s his?”
“He’s steadfast, loyal. He sees the best in me.”
“So, one of you is more grounded. That’s not a bad thing. However long this takes, it will be harder for him, I think. Harder to live with the worry that fate will take you away. You have the comfort of believing that fate wouldn’t be that cruel. You feel that fate nudged you right to him, I’d imagine.”
“And his son.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. Amazing kid. I don’t know what I’d do without either of them.”
“If the doubts are driving him up the wall, have him call. But the best you can do is just reassure him and be patient. Time will prove you right, Buck; I believe that. In the meantime, try not to let his doubt hurt you. It’s probably not a lack of faith in you; some people just don’t believe as easily. They need proof in hand before they can accept.”
“He doesn’t want me to do stuff like tell him I love him.”
“You know him well enough to know if you should respect that request or not. He’s afraid, yes. Will reassurance make it harder or easier for him to endure this time of waiting? If he’s someone who needs the proof, every moment until he sees his mark on your skin will be a test of endurance.”
Buck nodded, wishing there was more he could do but accepting that he might just have to wait a little while. “Thanks, Ellen.”
“My pleasure, Buck.”
– – – –
“Good morning, Buck.”
“How was the night?” Paul fussed with the monitor for a few seconds.
“Heard you had a late-night visitor.” Paul shot him a speaking look.
“Yep.” Buck grinned. “I’m a big fan, so I have no complaints.”
Paul snorted and crossed his arms as he leaned against the side table. “Your pulse started rebounding back to normal range around four this morning, but your blood pressure is still stupidly low. We still have to take extra precautions, but I assume you want to take a shower? Visiting hours will begin in two hours.”
“Shower would be good, yeah.”
“We did have a couple of people try to sneak onto the wing last night to get into your room.”
“Oh, come on. Are you serious?”
“Deadly. It’s happened with other conduits. People are weird. But since you’re going to be with us an extra day, it’d be helpful to get a list of who’s on your approved visitor list. We’ll be checking ID.”
Buck huffed and swung his legs off the bed, not protesting when Paul steadied his elbow.
“How’s the leg feel this morning?”
“Stiff but all right.”
“Someone from physical therapy is going to come by and talk to you about doing massage while on blood thinners. You don’t have to stop, but you need to approach it more carefully, okay? You may have to rely more on stretching than you have up to now. You can’t be digging aggressively into sore muscles the way you have in the past.”
“All right. Let’s do this. Oh! I meant to tell you that your full bio is up on social media and this conduit tracking site.”
“Yeah, Carla mentioned that to me last night.”
“That was just bare-bones stuff. Someone did a deep dive into you. They’ve got family details, siblings, the whole works.”
“Oh, great. Maddie’s gonna scream.”
“Although, they say your conduit mark is a gladiolus.”
Buck laughed. “So whoever called the media about me doesn’t have any idea what a snapdragon is. Cute.” Part of him wanted to get bent about the whole thing, but he figured there was no point.
“Well, you seem steady on your feet; let’s head for the shower. I can leave you on your own as long as you use the shower chair.”
“I thought my shower chair days were far behind me, but if it means privacy, I’ll take it.” The yellow fall risk tags all over his room didn’t allow him to get away with anything.
When the shower was over, he dressed in a long-sleeved Henley and joggers, then settled into the armchair to eat breakfast and make the visitor list. Once that was done, he opened his tablet to pull up whatever dumb profile had been put online about him.
He was aware of the sites that tracked information about conduits, but he didn’t usually visit them because he thought it was a shitty invasion of privacy. They didn’t come right out and reveal addresses, but it was damn close.
It was easy enough to find himself; he was the most recent conduit in the world to come online, though there had been a small cluster right before him yesterday.
He frowned as he read the short bio. It had way too much information, the kind that only came from a background check. There were a few glaring inaccuracies, however. The person who leaked the info about him clearly didn’t know what the hell a snapdragon was, but they also got some biographical information wrong.
Then he backtracked and re-read. Most of the biographical information could have only come from the background check, not the person calling in a conduit onlining. So, why would his family information be wrong?
The door suddenly opened and Eddie was there, breathless and looking disheveled, his hair a little wild.
“Eds? Something wrong?”
Eddie cleared his throat and closed the door. “Not exactly. I mean, yes. In a way.” He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose as he took a deep breath. “Everything is okay, it’s just I’m closer to the hospital, and I thought….” Eddie trailed off, looking uncomfortable. “Maddie’s on her way too. She wants to talk to you, and I thought maybe I should be here….”
“Okay, you’re freaking me out. Almost as much as this weird bio someone put up about me.”
“Weird bio?” Eddie sounded a little choked.
“Yeah.” Buck waved his tablet. “I got the heads-up a couple of times that there was info out there. Not to mention the fact that they got stuff wrong. Gladiolus.” Buck shook his head. “I get that not everyone recognizes snapdragons, so that’s understandable, but I can’t figure out why whoever did this background check thinks I’ve got a deceased older brother.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Eddie.
Buck looked up and found Eddie still as a statue, eyes wide. “Eddie?”
“Uh. Maddie’s coming to talk to you about that.”
“The older brother thing.”
“I don’t have an older brother.”
“Apparently, you did.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“I don’t know the whole story, Buck.” Eddie finally crossed the distance between them and did that thing where he hunkers down in front of Buck, hands resting on Buck’s knees. “She called this morning, freaking out about this information being online. She said you had no idea about your older brother. That he died when you were a baby, and your parents swore her to secrecy.”
Buck just stared, mouth hanging open. Finally, he managed another, “What?”
“I don’t know more than that, Buck, I swear. She was freaking out, saying we had to get them to take it down. Chim told her she was being completely irrational, that it was never going away now that it was out there.”
He blinked furiously, trying to get his brain to work. “I don’t understand.”
Eddie rubbed his hands soothingly over Buck’s legs. “What can I do?”
“I don’t understand,” Buck ground out.
“Believe me, I know. Whatever reason your parents had for keeping their middle child a secret is way beyond my understanding. We’re going to have to wait for Maddie to get here to explain.”
As if she were summoned, Maddie was there in his room. Chimney was behind her, closing the door softly. “Buck,” she said breathlessly, looking as disheveled as Eddie.
He got to his feet, feeling just fine, though he didn’t shake off Eddie’s support, needing it like an emotional lifeline. “I had a brother?”
Her eyes immediately filled with tears. “Buck…”
“Answer the question, Maddie!”
“Yes. His name was Daniel. He died a few months after you were born. But can we not talk about this now? We haven’t even talked about the blood clots, and I’d like to hear how you’re—”
“No! Oh my god, Maddie! We can’t just talk about whatever you want. The whole goddamn world knew I had a brother before I did. Why did you keep that from me?”
“Please, Evan, Mom and Dad made me promise not to tell you.”
Maddie bit her lip, and more tears fell. Chimney pressed close to her side and whispered something to her. She nodded then sniffled and met Buck’s gaze. “Daniel had leukemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant, but no one in the family was a match. So Mom and Dad had you. They used IVF to ensure an HLA match, but the cells didn’t graft during the transplant. Daniel died.”
“Dios,” Eddie breathed.
Buck staggered a little then just collapsed into the chair. He buried his face in his hands. “It all makes sense—how they always were with me. I always thought there was something wrong with me, something that made me unlovable. But they never wanted me to begin with.” He looked up and met Maddie’s gaze. “Did they? I was never anything to them but spare parts to fix the kid they actually wanted.”
“No, Evan. God, no. They love you.”
“They do not!” Buck snarled
Maddie flinched back.
“Don’t you dare defend the way they treated me. Don’t you dare pretend like the years of neglect are love, Maddie. How could you—” He forced himself to stop. “No. I’m not doing this. I need you to leave.”
“Leave!” he yelled.
“Please, go away,” he choked out as he fisted his hands in his hair.
“Maddie, you need to go,” Eddie said firmly. “I’ll call you later.”
“I need to tell him—”
“No, you need to leave,” Paul’s voice said firmly. “If Mr. Buckley says go, then you go.”
Buck just sat there with his elbows braced on his knees, holding the back of his head as sounds washed over him. He heard the murmur of Eddie and Chim talking then the snick of the door shutting.
Eddie pushed away from the door, feeling like his heart was breaking. He rounded the bed to kneel down in front of Buck. He took both of Buck’s hands in his own and held them tightly. “Hey. I’m here. Everyone else is gone.”
Buck’s breathing was erratic, like he was fighting back the emotions, but he finally looked up, eyes bloodshot and filling with tears.
“What can I do for you, Buck?”
“I was doing okay, wasn’t I?”
Eddie wasn’t sure where Buck was going with that, but there was only one answer. “Of course you were.”
“It’s not always easy for me to accept things, but I was rolling with it the best I could, Eds, I was. The leg and surgeries and the worry about the future. And then this.” He looked meaningfully at his arms. “I was doing okay.”
“Yeah, Buck, you’re doing great.”
“But I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know how to be okay anymore, Eddie. I feel like I’m flying apart.”
“I’ve got you, Buck, I promise. We’ll get through this.”
“They never wanted me, and she never told me the truth.” His breathing hitched. “They just wanted sp-spare parts for the son they actually loved.”
“No, Buck… Dios.” He framed Buck’s face with both hands and pressed their foreheads together. “Please don’t say that about yourself. There is nothing extraneous about you. You are necessary. To Christopher and to me. To your family at the station.”
Buck’s hands fisted in Eddie’s shirt. “Eddie…”
Eddie pulled Buck into his arms, holding him tightly. “I’ve got you, Evan. I swear I won’t let go.” There was a broken sob, and then the dam burst. Eddie rocked him through it, holding tightly.
– – – –
Buck was asleep, curled up under the covers with just the top of his head visible. Eddie was slowly combing his fingers through the blond curls, something he rarely got to see because Buck kept the curls tamed in a harsh way most days.
The emotional storm after Maddie’s horrifying reveal had left Buck with a monster of a headache and his blood pressure bottoming out again. They’d given him something for the headache, and then Buck had climbed into bed and done his very best to impersonate an ostrich before falling into a troubled sleep.
The door cracked open, and Bobby stuck his head in, taking in the scene quickly, shaking his head at whatever he saw. He slipped into the room, crossing to stand next to Eddie. “How is he?” he asked so softly that Eddie barely heard.
Bobby shook his head. “Chim. Explained everything.” His expression was pained.
“He’s upset. Understandably.”
“I don’t have a new update on that—just what Carla told me last night.”
Bobby looked anxious, and Eddie knew this conversation would wake Buck if they kept it by the bed. He carefully extricated himself, pulling away slowly, then led Bobby across the room to a spot by the bathroom.
Keeping his voice pitched low, he continued. “Don’t get ahead of the situation, Bobby. He’ll either requalify when the time comes or he won’t. Don’t borrow trouble.”
“Bobby,” Eddie said as sternly as he could while whispering. “Don’t let your concern become oppressive. The doctors and the LAFD make the call, right?”
“Well. I have a say.”
Eddie’s eyes narrowed. “Only in whether he works at the 118. So, don’t go there, okay? He doesn’t need the stress of you deciding you know what’s best for him. Not after what he went through today with other people making decisions for him.”
“God.” Bobby ran his hands through his hair. “You’re right. I just worry about him.”
“I know. I worry about him, too, but he needs to find his way with our support, not our hindrance or second-guessing.”
“Even if he’s causing the problem? Maddie and Hen were talking, and these kinds of blood clots could be caused by overdoing it, and you know—”
“No. You are not taking Maddie’s opinion over his doctor’s. I know Hen didn’t talk to Carla, but Maddie did. Carla spoke to the head of orthopedic surgery here, so Maddie got the same info I did. They think the clots are being caused by the screws, and there’s not a damn thing they can do until they can take them out. But he needs the screws for the stability of the leg right now, so they can’t remove them yet. It’s a catch-22, and the blood thinners are the only option.”
“Right.” Bobby blew out a breath. “My heart can’t take this.”
“If mine can, yours can. So, suck it up.” Eddie didn’t say it to be callous, but he needed Bobby to be putting Buck’s interests first, not his own fears. “Talk to Frank about this and get his second opinion before you let Maddie rev you up.”
Bobby frowned. “You think that’s what happened here?”
“I think Maddie talked to Carla directly, and there’s no reason for her to decide Buck was causing the problem. Except that Maddie has been fighting Buck all along about his courses of treatment. He’s always opted for the most aggressive, and she’s wanted him to go with the most conservative. That medical disagreement between them has nothing to do with today. I mention it because she already had an agenda when it came to this situation, so when the blood clots became an issue, she was already looking for him to have made the wrong choice.
“I’m not saying she’s bad for caring, but she’s not objective. And, Bobby, this isn’t a right or wrong situation. The doctors give him options, tell him the risks, and he makes the choice. That’s his right. He doesn’t need Maddie or you second-guessing him.”
“How do you feel about it?”
“I’m conflicted because some of the choices he’s made carry more risk, but he has the right to make the risky choice. I’d probably do the same. Either way, it’s not his fault if he gets blood clots.”
“I’m not saying that.”
“It’s sort of sounding like that. And Maddie not giving you the whole story is definitely leading you to draw a wrong conclusion.”
Bobby shook his head. “I don’t get why she didn’t tell Hen the whole story.”
“I guess because she loves him and she’s worried, and when Maddie’s concerned about her brother, she gets a little overbearing. I have a little more perspective now on why she’s that way.
“There’s a reason I’m the one named in his advance directive. He told me about how she’d get in an emergency months before the bombing. They love each other, and I believe they’ll get over all of these Buckley-family issues, but you shouldn’t let her influence you about this medical stuff and how you treat Buck. That’s going to drive a wedge between you and Buck that you might not be able to fix.”
“I hear you.” Bobby blew out a breath and let his head fall back, shoulders dropping. “I just need him to be okay.”
“Yeah, but he needs to walk his own path and make his own choices.”
“I know.” Bobby reached out and squeezed Eddie’s shoulder. “I’m glad he’s got you on his side. You keep checking me if I step in it.”
“Count on it.”
Bobby stayed a few minutes longer, just watching Buck breathe, then he nodded to Eddie and slipped out the door.
– – – –
Eddie entered his house, Buck trailing along behind him, practically radiating reluctance. “I’ll drop your bag in the guest room. I picked up some fresh clothes from your place before I came to pick you up from the hospital.”
“Eds, I should just go home.”
“Nope.” Eddie headed for the guest room, which he’d gotten set up for Buck last night, planning to keep Buck closer until the emotional blow about this older brother was somewhat blunted.
When he returned to the living room, Buck was still standing in the entryway, arms crossed, looking miserable. “Abuela’s dropping Chris off in two hours. She’s also bringing food, so expect her to fuss over you.”
“Eddie, come on.”
“No, Buck. I’m done letting you pretend like you’re an ostrich while you’re miserable.”
“Christopher can deal with you being sad!” Eddie rubbed his hand over his mouth. “I’m not perfect for him; I’m not on every single day. I do my best, but sometimes I’m sad, or I’m angry. Believe me, he notices, no matter how hard I try to hide it. He noticed all the times I tried to hide how much I was worried about you, and he’d ask me, ‘why don’t you go see Buck, Dad? You’ll feel better once you see that he’s okay.’”
Buck swallowed heavily, blinking rapidly.
“You don’t have to be perfect, Buck. Not for him, not for me. Just be you. If you need to be alone, you can hang out in your room. If you want company, sit on the couch, and Chris will climb all over you.”
Buck’s laugh sounded a little watery. “I love that kid.”
“I know. This is the best place for you. And honestly, Buck, it’s not just for you. It’s for us too. I need you here, and so does Chris. Just let us have this, okay?”
He could see the moment Buck gave in by the way the line of his shoulders relaxed.
“Come on. No alcohol while you’re on Enoxaparin, but I got you some of that damn Pibb Xtra you like so much.”
Buck’s smile was small, but it was genuine.
“I don’t know what you see in it. Tastes weird.”
“Don’t judge my soda, Edmundo.”
They wound up sprawled out on opposite ends of the sofa with Buck’s bad leg in Eddie’s lap. He was working some of the muscles gently. The physical therapist had shown him how to handle massage for a person on blood thinners so that he didn’t inadvertently cause nasty bruises that would take a long time to fade.
The conversation was easy, even if there was an air of sadness lingering around Buck. “You know, you can talk to me about whatever you want, right?”
“I know, Eds; I just don’t have anything to say.” He shook his head and picked at the label on the soda bottle. “At least, I don’t have anything to say right now about Maddie or…Daniel.”
“Something else on your mind?”
“That first night in the hospital… Ellen McAvoy visited me.”
Eddie blinked at Buck in confusion. “Wait. The soulmate specialist who was blackballed by the government after the decline?”
“Why’d she come to see you?”
“She said she’s been trying to visit a lot of the conduits; she was in or near Los Angeles because it was the latest area with the conduit onlining ripples.”
“Wow. So, how’d that go?”
“Actually, I’ve apparently known her for years. She participated on the same forums that I’m on for the last decade. We’ve actually flirted quite a bit.” Buck nudged Eddie with his foot. “Don’t give me that look; it was just in fun. She really is old enough to be my grandmother.”
Eddie resumed his careful work on Buck’s tight calf muscles. “What’d she say?”
“You’re familiar with the pattern of conduit marks?”
“Yep. In everyone, they go up the arms to about the shoulder joint. In some people, about thirty percent, they spread out a little further, connecting across the back of the shoulders and possibly wrapping around a little into the chest. Why?”
“Apparently, there’s a quirky conduit mark that only one person at a time has.”
Eddie’s hands stilled, and he met Buck’s gaze squarely. “Oh?”
Buck handed over his phone with a photo pulled up. The image was of a broad back with grey-scale snapdragons creating almost a frame around an open expanse of skin. Even though Eddie had never seen it since the conduit mark appeared, Eddie would know that back anywhere.
He blew out a breath and handed the phone back. “You have a singular conduit mark?”
“Yeah. They call it the anchor. Ellen said she wouldn’t be surprised if no more conduits came online after me, though they can only speculate the function of the anchor.”
Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose. “Buck.”
“I’ve never doubted you were special, but this may be a little too special.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just…” He sighed. “I worry, that’s all. It’s not going to cause them to come to take you away or anything, right?”
“No. Just like any other conduit, if something happens to me, I’m replaced. She said anchors, at times, channel more anima energy than other conduits. To the degree that it can be tangibly felt on occasion.”
Eddie’s brow furrowed. “Is that dangerous?”
“You’re leaving something out. I can always tell.”
Buck chewed on his lip. “It’s just… The soulbond is apparently very important because my soulmate helps bleed off the excess energy.”
Eddie froze, hands unmoving on Buck’s skin. “We said we weren’t going to—”
“She said I would know, and I do. But it’s okay if you can’t get there yet.”
Closing his eyes, Eddie took a steadying breath, trying to chase away hope and want and every other feeling that could destroy him.
“It’s okay, Eddie,” Buck murmured gently. “I’ll believe for both of us.”
Eddie’s breath caught, and his eyes snapped open. “How are you like this? I don’t understand.”
Buck’s brow furrowed. “What’d I do?”
“You just give, and I really don’t deserve it.”
“Of course you do.” Buck took a deep breath. “Ellen said she thought some of my flowers would be purple because purple snapdragons mean spirituality. She said she’d never encountered anyone on the forums with as much faith in fate as I had. But, Eddie, I have even more faith in you than I have in fate.”
Feeling overwhelmed, feeling like he hadn’t earned this, all Eddie could manage was to nod.
“If it’s what you need, we’ll maintain the status quo until the soulmarks appear. I won’t bring it up again, but I want you to know that I have no doubts.”
“Okay,” Eddie said weakly, feeling inadequate to the situation, to Buck’s belief in him.
Buck nudged him. “Get back to work, magic hands.”
Eddie’s laugh was a pathetic effort, but Buck didn’t call him on it. They talked about random, less emotionally charged subjects until Abuela arrived with Christopher and a mountain of food. He occupied himself in the kitchen, appreciating the solitude for a few minutes, while Chris and Abuela fussed over Buck.
The more time passed, the more he needed Buck in his life. If soulmarks bloomed and Buck wasn’t Eddie’s soulmate, he didn’t think he’d actually be capable of letting go.
– – – –
“What movie are we watching, Mijo?” Eddie cleared up the mess of the afternoon research binge Buck and Chris had gone on. “What in the world were you two reading about?”
“Before his phone call, Buck showed me a new coral they found near the Gal– Gal-palgos.”
“Yeah! And then we started looking at coral. There are over six thousand species, Dad. And then we looked up the Gal-a-pa-gos,” Chris enunciated carefully.
“Well, I never have to worry about your little mind turning to mush with Buck around.” He ruffled Chris’ hair. Buck had been in his room on the phone for the last hour, but he’d promised to be out shortly to join them for the movie.
“I want him to stay forever, Dad.”
Eddie closed his eyes for a second. “Me too, Mijo,” he whispered.
“You should tell him.”
“I think he knows, but we just need a little more time.”
Chris nodded, looking wise beyond his years.
“Back to the original question. What was the movie choice?”
“Moana. Buck always sings Shiny with me.”
Eddie groaned but gamely got the movie out. “The earworm lasts for days.”
The bedroom door opening could finally be heard, and Buck headed for the kitchen. “I’m just getting a soda since my best friend is enabling my habit.”
“It tastes yucky!” Chris called.
“I’ll get you a fruit punch,” Buck shot back.
“I’ll be right back.” He patted Chris’ knee. “Cue up the movie.”
Chris nodded enthusiastically.
Eddie found Buck just leaning against the counter, obviously not getting drinks. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he looked tense. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just talking to Maddie.”
“So…you’re not okay.”
Buck snorted. “Right.”
“Can I help?”
“We’ll be all right. Eventually. We’re going to go to therapy together to talk it out. Everything she says feels manipulative, and I know I’m not being fair about that. I’m just super reactive to everything she has to say on the subject.”
“A third party sounds like a good choice.”
Buck nodded. “I hate being at odds with her; it makes me feel like shit.”
“You two will fix it. I have no doubt about the love you have for one another; you just need some time.”
Buck took a deep breath then cracked his neck in a way Eddie couldn’t stand. It was like nails on a chalkboard. Then he shook out his arms and loosened his shoulders. “So, what’s the movie?”
“Oh good. I love to sing Shiny with him.”
Eddie couldn’t help but laugh. “Get your drinks and come on.”
When they got in the living room, Buck set the drinks on the coffee table then stared at Christopher. “You’re sitting where I usually do, buddy.”
“You sit in the middle this time, Bucky. You’re sad; we both need to be able to hug you.”
Buck’s breath hitched. “Chris, I’m okay.”
“You heard the wise kid.” Eddie pushed Buck gently toward the couch. “Sit in the middle, Buckley.”
Without further protest, Buck took the middle seat, and Chris promptly climbed on his lap. Eddie laughed as he took his own seat right next to Buck.
“Bucky? Can I see your flowers?”
Buck got rid of his zippered hoodie, leaving him in just a muscle shirt. He curled his arms around Christopher again. Eddie hadn’t seen this much of Buck’s conduit mark before, and it made him a little breathless. The flowers could be called a work of art if they weren’t so real. It was like a live garden exploded all over Buck’s arms, except in black and white.
“It’s okay if I touch, right?” Chris asked, peering up at Buck.
“You and your dad can, yes. I’m not sure I’d let anyone else, to be honest.”
“That’s ‘cause we’re family,” Chris said confidently.
“Yeah, we are family.” Buck grinned and pressed a kiss into Chris’ hair.
Eddie leaned forward enough to catch Buck’s gaze. “Family.”
Buck’s smile softened, and he nodded.
Eddie watched in astonishment as color raced up Buck’s arms, a shocking display of red, yellow, and purple. Some of the petals were a mix of yellow and red, creating a more orange or peach shade, but the core colors were definitely yellow, red, and purple.
“Wow,” Buck exclaimed breathlessly, staring at his own arms.
“It’s so pretty!”
“It is. One color for each of us,” Buck said as he tickled Chris. “Purple for me, yellow for you, and red for your dad.”
Purple and red covered the shoulder nearest Eddie. In that moment, he was tired of fighting his own fears. He curled his arm around Buck and pulled him close, holding Buck and Chris to his side.
Buck shot him an inquisitive look, but Eddie ignored it as he took the remote and started the movie.
Once there was a little background noise, he leaned in and whispered, “What does red signify?”
“What red always signifies,” Buck murmured back. “Love and passion.”
Eddie couldn’t breathe for a moment. He dropped a chaste kiss on the purple blossom adorning Buck’s shoulder and sent up a prayer that fate would not be unkind to them.