Title: Days Like This
Series: Every Moment
Series Order: 3
Author: Jilly James
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Soulmates, Episode Related
Pairing: Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz, canon pairings
Warnings: Canon-level situations
Author Note: See series page. I am aware that in canon Eddie’s house only has two bedrooms, however, in this verse, it has three. The layout is basically the same, just with a third bedroom near Christopher’s.
Timeline: Takes place in early season 3 of 9-1-1. There are references to canon events, but canon knowledge isn’t necessary.
Beta: meh. If my antecedent is unclear, I don’t even care.
Word Count: 21,040
Artist: I’m really using just one piece of art and tweaking it for every story.
Summary: Buck and Eddie begin to move forward in their relationship, despite the uncertainty of soulmates coming back, but nature intrudes in the worst possible way.
Episode Three: Days Like This
Eddie finished packing the re-rolled hoses onto the truck, making sure everything was secured properly. They’d had a busy day so far, and he was eager for a dinner break. He hoped it was quiet long enough for them to eat properly because it’d been nothing but sandwiches on the go while in the truck for lunch.
He blinked in astonishment when Buck walked in. It was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. Seeing Buck always made things better. He was wearing a loose white button-up over a pale grey tank top, and he looked stupidly hot. Every day, it was harder for Eddie to keep his hands to himself.
Buck had stayed with him most of the last couple of weeks, the guest bedroom now feeling more like Buck’s bedroom, especially once Chris started putting artwork up on the walls. Every once in a while, he retreated to his place for a night, but Eddie and Christopher both made sure Buck always knew that they wanted him back, sooner rather than later.
It helped Eddie’s cause that Buck’s address had been leaked, and conduit groupies were occasionally lurking around Buck’s place, so he was hesitant to be at his own apartment. They’d had a few show up at the station, looking for Buck, but Bobby had been firm about evicting them.
“Hey,” he said, stepping close. “Everything okay?”
“Yep,” Buck said with a smile. “Just dropping by for dinner. Bobby arranged it.”
Eddie tilted his head, confused at there being no mention of dinner plans before now.
“Yeah, I sure did.” Bobby had come up behind Eddie without Eddie noticing. “We’re going to go get burgers from Marie’s. Our station will be taken off callouts for the next ninety unless there’s a major emergency. Chief approved it.”
Buck blinked in surprise. “Wow, that’s more than I was expecting.”
“I thought it’d be good if we all went, same vehicles as that night, except I’ll be riding with you and the others who were injured.”
Eddie blew out a breath. He’d known they were planning a first night drive for DeKay but he hadn’t realized that would be tonight.
Buck rubbed his hands together. “So, let’s do this thing. Where’s Marcus?”
“Right here!” DeKay jogged down from the loft. “Is it just me and Buck?”
“Nope,” Bobby said. “We’re all going to go. Same vehicles as that night. Ambulance, ladder truck, command truck. I realize the triple didn’t roll that night, but they’re going to follow. Reynolds has agreed to be man behind. Load up, everyone!”
Eddie suddenly wished he’d had some warning about this. Chimney had been interim captain when the bombing happened, and he’d made some reassignments that put people on a different apparatus. That’s why Eddie hadn’t been on the ladder truck with Buck. Bobby had arranged this event to happen at the same time of day, on the same day of the week, and Eddie was going to be in the ambulance again instead of with Buck.
Knowing this needed to happen, Eddie loaded up in the ambulance with Hen.
They were pulling out when she shot him a look. “I didn’t think this was a big deal, but I’m suddenly hating it.”
“Me too,” he agreed.
“Which means we probably need to do it.”
“Right.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth, watching the road as they followed behind the ladder truck with the command truck bringing up the rear. “Are we going the same route?”
“Yes,” DeKay said over the radio, which they’d agreed to have open for the duration. “It’s not a good test of whether or not I’ll have a flashback if I drive to the park.”
Eddie blew out a breath and listened to Buck and DeKay talk. The conversation was innocuous, mostly about the latest groupie who’d tried to touch Buck in the grocery store, but Eddie thought Buck sounded tense.
The route they were driving was not the way to Marie’s burgers, so it took them a good ten minutes longer to get there than it normally would have. But they were following the route from that night, right past the site of the bombing. Silence reigned over the radio for several minutes as they drove through the intersection where the ladder truck had been downed.
When they arrived at Marie’s, Eddie was out of the ambulance immediately, jogging over to where Buck was stepping down from the front seat of the ladder truck, the only one of them not in uniform. “You doing okay?”
Buck pursed his lips and gave a minute shake of his head. “That sucked. Way more than I expected.” It was dark out, but Eddie thought Buck looked a little pale under the street lights.
“Agreed,” DeKay said, rounding the front of the truck. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Buck, and they both leaned back against the truck until the rest of the squad arrived. The other two who’d been injured, Martinez and Calley, were also looking a little peaked. Like DeKay, they’d been back at work for a couple of months or more, but the minor recreation aspect of this seemed to be affecting them negatively as well.
Hen looked like she wanted to start taking everyone’s vitals even though there was nothing physically wrong with them.
“I already placed our usual order,” Bobby said. “Marie held all the outdoor tables for us, and Frank is waiting. I thought an informal discussion about how this went would be a good idea.”
“Seriously, Bobby?” Buck asked, sounding incredulous. “Group therapy?”
“Kid, if you saw how pale you are right now, you wouldn’t say a word about it. Let’s eat and talk about our feelings.”
Calley was the first to break. “Well, I’d say I’m tired of talking about my damn feelings, but I had a full-on flashback a few minutes ago, so that was fucked up. I haven’t been on the ladder truck since I got back, and that wasn’t fun.” Calley was usually assigned to the triple engine rather than the ladder truck. She’d broken her arm badly in the bombing and had been out of work just about a month less than DeKay.
“I had a feeling there might be some issues bottled up, and that’s why Frank is having dinner with us. This is informal, and you don’t have to participate. Everyone’s been saying they’re fine, but I think there are some lingering problems, which is why I sprung this on you in this way.” Bobby shot Eddie a pointed look. “Don’t think I didn’t notice how tense it was making you to be back in the ambulance. Even though it’s been almost five months, none of us will ever forget what happened that night, but we can’t let it control us. So, we do what we have to do in order to deal with it—suppressing it is not the same as dealing with it. Right now, dealing with it means burgers, milkshakes, and those of you who are willing will talk about anything this brought up for you, okay?”
Eddie just nodded, not exactly feeling comfortable, but he got what Bobby was trying to do and the point he was making. He waited until the others headed over to the tables where Frank was waiting to fall in step with Buck.
He bumped Buck’s shoulders, and Buck nudged him back.
Everything would be fine.
– – – –
Eddie watched Buck fidget in the waiting room chairs. He pulled at the cuffs of the long-sleeved shirt he’d taken to wearing most of the time when he was out in public. Buck’s surgery was the first of the day, so there were only a few people in the large, open room.
“Hey.” He reached out and stilled Buck’s nervous movements. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“I know. Should be old hat by now, right?” He took a deep breath, and a little of the nervous tension bled away. “It just feels like there’s so much riding on these screws being removed.”
“Maybe, but it’s still damn fast. You got here in only five months; everyone is astonished. The screws are going to be gone after today, but if it takes a couple more months to sort everything out with the thinners, you’re still way ahead of schedule.”
“My brain knows.” Buck tapped his head. “I just have a hard time getting it here.” He moved his hand to his chest.
“I’ll just keep telling you until you get it.”
Buck smiled wanly.
“As soon as they call you back, I’m going to leave to go pick up Chris from Shannon’s and take him to school. The hospital will call me if anything comes up, but remember the plan. Do not deviate.” Eddie had been able to persuade Buck to spend more days than not at the Diaz house over the last month, but Buck still had a tendency to isolate when he was upset. It was odd because Eddie could tell Buck craved support, but he ran away from it too often rather than accepting it.
“I know. Maddie will be here when I get out of recovery to take me back to yours,” Buck dutifully repeated. “Carla is going to relieve Maddie after she picks up Chris from school. At which time, Maddie will go to work, and Christopher becomes the boss of me. I know the plan.”
Eddie smiled. “I will see you in the morning, but if anything comes up, you call. You know Bobby will let me leave if you need anything. Hell, he’d probably call dibs on coming to help you himself.”
A couple of minutes later, the nurse called Buck back. Eddie stood in front of Buck, trying to will Buck to believe that everything would be fine. The surgery wasn’t particularly risky, and they’d see each other in the morning, but he found he couldn’t just walk away.
When Eddie continued to linger, Buck rolled his eyes. “I promise I’ll do everything the doctors and nurses tell me to do, and I’ll stick to the plan for the next twenty-four hours.”
“Right.” Eddie cleared his throat. The last month had made it harder and harder to keep from moving their relationship forward. There wasn’t a whole lot of physical space between them as it was, so Eddie had the sweet torment of getting to touch but not in the way he really wanted to.
He cupped Buck’s face with his hands, getting a wide-eyed look in response. “Everything’s going to be fine.” He pressed a lingering kiss to the corner of Buck’s mouth, fighting back the want that rose up in him at the simple touch. “Go. I’ll see you tomorrow, less a few screws.”
Buck squeezed his wrist, offering a more genuine smile, then turned to go to pre-op.
– – – –
“How’s Buck?” Bobby asked the minute Eddie cleared the locker room.
“He was fine when I left him at the door to pre-op. I’m getting automated text updates from the hospital.” He waved his phone. “His surgery started basically on time, which was about a half an hour ago and should be done soon. I’ll get a text when they move him to recovery, and then they’ll call me when he’s awake.”
“You look frazzled,” Hen observed as she exited the locker room.
“Chris is annoyed with me that he had to stay the night at his mom’s. He wanted to go the hospital this morning. My son in a snit is no small thing.”
Hen shook her head, lips quirking into a half-smile. “How’d you manage that?”
“Pointed out that he’d be seeing Buck before I would. That seemed to placate him a little bit.”
“Is Buck having a general for this surgery?”
“That’s not the plan, no. Twilight and an epidural. His nausea with general anesthesia is no joke.”
She asked him a few more questions then split off to get started on her first tasks of the day.
Bobby gestured him over to the gym, which was currently empty. “How are Maddie and Buck doing?”
“They’re getting there.” Buck had given him permission to fill Bobby in on the general details. “They don’t talk about anything upsetting outside of their bi-weekly therapy session, but they’ve come a long way in a short time.”
“And Buck’s doing okay with everything?”
“I can’t say that,” Eddie scoffed. “How could he possibly be okay after finding out the truth? I doubt he’ll ever talk to his parents again, to be honest, but he’s doing better.” Eddie blew out a breath. “I actually think that whole thing has made him more focused on getting back to work. It’s like they made him feel so worthless that he needs to prove that he’s useful.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe I’m reading that wrong.”
“Probably not. Buck is very driven to be of use. It had to come from somewhere.” Bobby looked pained.
“I’m going to get to work. I’ll let you know when the hospital calls.”
They were on their way to the scene of a car accident when the phone rang, displaying the number of Mercy General. He pulled off his headset and answered. “Diaz speaking.”
“Mr. Diaz, this is Dr. Patel. I’m calling about Mr. Buckley.”
“Sorry about the noise; we’re in the truck.”
“It’s fine. I just wanted to inform you that the surgery went well, and Mr. Buckley is in recovery now.”
“Nothing of note. One screw was a little bit…stubborn, you might say, but the removal went fine. We’ll have all he screws examined for defects. His vitals were a little unpredictable, which isn’t unprecedented for a conduit, so we were prepared for that.” That was something Eddie had already known—that there would be a specialist on hand who dealt with the quirky issues conduits faced with their unpredictable blood pressure and pulse during surgery. “We’ll keep him under observation in recovery a little longer than we might otherwise, but he should be on his way home in a few hours. If you have any questions, call outpatient surgery and ask for Jennifer.”
“Thank you, Dr. Patel, I really appreciate it.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Diaz.”
Eddie hung up and slipped his headset back on, aware that everyone was paying attention. DeKay was driving again, so Jones had gone back to B-shift, and Calley was filling in for Buck on Cap’s squad. She didn’t have Buck’s facility with heavy rescue, but she was good on the ropes and had a lot of experience, more than anyone on Cap’s squad except Bobby himself.
“He’s fine,” Eddie informed the rest of the team. “The doctor said one screw was a little stubborn, but he’s in recovery and should be going home in a few hours.”
“Good,” Hen’s voice came from the headset only as she was driving the ambulance. “I can’t take that boy having any more medical crises!”
“Preach, sister,” DeKay muttered. Eddie and Marcus DeKay had never been particularly close. He was a good guy and Eddie liked him; they just didn’t have much in common. But he had a soft spot for him now because he was Buck’s friend and he’d made an effort to stay in touch with Buck even when DeKay was stuck in the hospital, uncertain about his own recovery from a traumatic brain injury. Not everyone had made such an attempt.
– – – –
Eddie was at loose ends, something he wasn’t used to these days. When he had weekend days off, he preferred to spend them with Christopher and Buck, but Shannon had requested to take Christopher to the beach on Saturday. Eddie had Friday and Sunday shifts, so his Saturday was wide open, but his son was his mother, and Buck had been hiding back at his place for the last few days.
Impulsively, he decided to head to Buck’s. He knew why Buck was isolating, but Eddie wasn’t having it anymore.
He let himself in and found Buck slouched on the sofa, bad leg propped on the coffee table, pants leg rolled up. “Leg bugging you?” He asked as he sprawled at the other end of the couch.
“No. I was just massaging it. I don’t have to be so careful anymore, and it feels good to really get in there.”
“Want me to…?”
Buck sighed like the world was ending but pivoted and put his leg in Eddie’s lap. The laparoscopic surgery scars from the screw removal were basically healed from the procedure nearly two weeks ago, but they were still an angry red.
“You want to tell me what’s going on? Because I don’t think getting your leg massaged warrants that level of melancholy.”
“I’m just…in a funk.”
Eddie chuckled. “Man, you are the most impatient person I have ever known. Two more days, Buck. Two more days. You get your CT scan and MRI on Monday, and Dr. Patel is going to read both of them immediately so you don’t even have to wait to find out the results. You’ll know the day after tomorrow if your leg looks good and if you get to stay off the Enoxaparin. If you get the go ahead on the leg, they have recertification testing happening next Friday, and Bobby reserved you a spot just in case. It’s just two days.”
Buck buried his face in his hands. “I know. I just keep wondering what else is going to go wrong. I need this so bad, Eds.”
Eddie dug his thumb into a particularly obnoxious knot in the back of Buck’s calf, trying to get his thoughts in order. “You’re so focused on what you don’t have, that you aren’t seeing what you do have.”
Buck’s head snapped up, expression stricken. “Oh god, Eds, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not trying to make you feel bad, Buck; I just want you to realize there’s more for you than your job. Before the blood clots, I thought you were starting to see that.”
Buck rubbed his hands over his face. “You’re right. I just get twisted up sometimes. Firefighting makes me feel like I matter, and I’m terrified of losing it. It wasn’t the blood clots that kicked off this mess in my head; it’s the stuff about Daniel.”
“I know,” Eddie said softly, squeezing Buck’s ankle. “You matter, Evan Buckley. Firefighting or no. I wish I could make you believe it.”
“For starters, you have to stop hiding out here. I know you need some time to yourself, but this is full-on isolating.”
Buck shot him a weak smile. “I guess we should put a stop to that.”
“Damn right we should. I’m at loose ends for the day, and my best friend has been in a mood lately. I think he should make it up to me.”
“Is that right?” Buck’s smile was more sincere. “How am I going to do that?”
“You weirdo. Don’t you get enough time in harnesses and on the ropes at work?”
“Nope! And you could use the practice since I have confidence that you’ll be back to work soon.” He nudged Buck’s leg out of his lap. “And then, tomorrow, Christopher is all yours.”
“Yep. You can make it up to him too. That kid has been patient with the Buckley funk, but he deserves some fun. I suggest you bring your A-game. But not Dave & Busters. I want to go with you guys next time.” Eddie was still bitter about those two doing D&B without him a couple of weeks ago.
“You big baby.”
“Don’t ever leave me out of Dave & Busters or Disneyland, Buckley, and we can remain friends.”
Buck laughed. “So I can take him to the zoo?”
“I suppose, though I really like that too.”
Buck rolled his eyes and got to his feet, his gait smooth as he walked to the kitchen to grab a couple of bottles of water. “All right, Diaz, get it in gear. The climbing wall awaits.”
Eddie joined Buck in the kitchen, curling his fingers around Buck’s wrist, thumb idly tracing the lowest red petals just over Buck’s pulse point. “Anything?”
Buck shook his head.
The soulmate thing had become a barely spoken about topic. They went from discussing it all the time to it becoming another thing simmering under the surface. Buck had been the last conduit to come online until a conduit in India died and a new one emerged to replace them. But the month since Buck’s marks had appeared was this quiet period where nothing was happening on the soulmate front. The world was poised for something to change, but no one knew what that would be or when.
Everyone had been at the edge of their seats for a while but, after a month, the world had to relax and focus on other things.
“Is part of your retreat about this?” Eddie asked gently.
“Eds, please. We said we weren’t going to talk about it.”
“Tell me if this is part of it.”
Buck’s eyes were suddenly filled with tears. “I just want you to love me. I don’t want the mark to matter.”
It was his chest was squeezed in a vise.
He pulled Buck into his arms, feeling as if his heart had broken. “I’m sorry, baby. So, so sorry. I do love you.” The admission was so easy. Loving Buck was like breathing. He was just terrified of it being taken way. “I’m scared. I hate the uncertainty of not knowing.”
Buck’s breath was shuddery against Eddie’s neck, his hands fisted in Eddie’s shirt. “I love you so much, and it hurts that you don’t want to hear it. I’m sorry; I thought I was doing okay with it.”
Eddie rubbed his hands in long strokes over Buck’s back. “There’s nothing I’ve wanted more, Evan. I don’t know how people deal with this uncertainty—that the person they love might be destined to be with someone else. I know you’re certain, but I can’t get there; I don’t have your belief. It was never like this with Shannon; we signed domestic partnership paperwork after she got pregnant, knowing that if soulmates ever came back that we might not stay together. It didn’t even register as a problem.”
Buck held on tighter. “I love Christopher too.”
“You’re my soul, Eddie, and he’s my heart. Why would you think I’d be okay with walking away from you orhim?”
“Dios, Buck, I don’t actually think that. I know you love him like he was your own.” Eddie struggled to regulate his breathing, feeling like he’d been broken wide open. He pulled away enough to look at Buck, hating the tears.
He cupped Buck’s face, swiping the tears away gently with his thumbs. “I’ve never felt like this, and the fear, the what if, is driving me crazy. I know we’re in limbo, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how to get from this fear that’s tearing me up to where you are. I want your certainty, so badly, but—”
Buck put a finger over his lips. “I know. I don’t fault you, Eddie, I’ve told you that. It’s just hard to be around you all the time, and feel like you’re mine, like you’re my everything, but I can’t say it. I can’t hold you and say the words.”
Eddie was so conflicted, but he didn’t know how to make this right for either of them except to start living their life together. “You can. Let’s start taking some more steps forward. We’ll go slow, and if I start freaking out, you just have to be patient with me.”
Buck nodded, giving him a weak smile. “I can do that.”
“You know I’m not alone in feeling this way, right?” He wiped away a final stray tear, then lowered his hands to Buck’s shoulders.
“You mean how everyone we know is quietly freaking out? Yeah, I know,” Buck said softly. “I see the stress the most in Maddie and Chim, probably because they’re the most recently together. Or maybe it’s all the Daniel stuff on top of the soulmate stress, but they’re all going to be fine. They all feel like they’re meant to be.”
Eddie raised a brow. “Really? Is that some sort of mystical thing you’re getting?”
“I don’t know. I just feel certain about it. Not Martinez though. He and his wife are definitely not fate’s design.” Buck shuddered.
“You just can’t stand her.” She was pretty wretched. Eddie had only met her once, and he had no idea how an easy-going guy like Martinez wound up with a harridan like that.
“I’m serious; those two are not soulmates. I’ll eat my hat if they are.”
Eddie wondered if Buck really did have some sort of mystical insight. “Let’s spend the day together. We’ve got the whole day to ourselves, so we should make the most of it. Shannon’s not bringing Chris home until after dinner.”
“I’d like that.”
“And then you could come back to the house tonight?”
Buck laughed. “You just want me to move in.”
“I do, actually.”
Buck looked stunned.
“Wow, Buckley, I didn’t think I was being subtle.” Ignoring Buck’s still befuddled look, Eddie looped an arm around Buck’s shoulders and edged him toward the door.
– – – –
It wasn’t uncommon for Buck’s feet to wind up in Eddie’s lap, but his head being there was new. Eddie carded his fingers through the curly strands, pleased at the evolution of their relationship even if he was fighting back anxiety about the soulmate thing.
They had eventually gone climbing but Buck had detoured them first to his typical Saturday morning yoga class at Runyon Canyon. Eddie wasn’t great at yoga, but he was exceptional at watching Buck do yoga. Buck’s flexibility put thoughts in Eddie’s mind, and made him have to shift his hardening dick.
They’d had lunch and then hit the climbing wall. Buck had wanted to stress his leg a little, so they’d tacked on hiking after. It had been the kind of day Eddie hadn’t had in a long time. They’d picked up food on the way home then laughed over dinner like they hadn’t since before the bombing.
After eating, they’d split up to shower away the day of exertion then Buck wanted to watch this documentary about coral on Netflix. When Buck had started to get in his usual position with his feet in Eddie’s lap, Eddie had tugged him around to lie the other way.
Buck’s smile told him he got it right. Eddie hated how his fears were causing Buck pain, but he couldn’t pretend that those fears didn’t exist.
His fingers played with the soft curls, enjoying the feel of them slipping over his skin. “I love your hair without gel in it.”
Buck scoffed. “It’s a nightmare.”
“You can’t take away my opinion, Buckley.”
“At least your weird hair fetish is relaxing, even if my hair is a frizzy poofball when you’re done.”
Eddie laughed. “I’m surprised you’re watching this without Chris.”
“I’m pre-screening it.”
“You’re doing what?”
“I always watch the documentaries first to make sure there’s nothing that’s going to freak him out. I can’t imagine there’d be anything terrible in a documentary about coral, but nature is weird. Although, I totally missed it on that blobfish. Who knew that would bother him so much?”
“That thing was hideous but, I agree, I wouldn’t have suspected that it would freak him out.” The fact that Buck pre-screened nature documentaries for Chris made Eddie want to kiss him senseless. He settled for curling his free hand over Buck’s bare arm, letting his fingers stroke the closest petals of Buck’s conduit mark.
Ten minutes later, while a diver swam through beds of coral on the screen, Buck’s fingers interlaced with Eddie’s. They stayed like that, barely paying attention to the documentary until they heard Shannon’s car in the driveway.
Eddie got up and opened the front door as Chris made his way up onto the porch. His greeting died in his throat at the mutinous look on Chris’ face. Eddie got out of the way as Chris determinedly made his way into the living room then practically collapsed on Buck.
His attention was divided between Shannon slowly making her way from the car with Chris’ bag and where Christopher clinging to Buck in the living room. When Christopher suddenly burst into tears, Buck sent Eddie an alarmed look.
Chris had come home moody a few times after visiting with his mother, but he hadn’t wanted to talk about why he was upset, so Eddie let it slide. He had asked Shannon, but she’d claimed ignorance of whatever was upsetting Chris. But this? There was no way she didn’t know what the problem was.
Buck seemed to get what Eddie needed because his expression shifted to understanding, and he nodded even as he held Christopher a little tighter and whispered in his ear.
Eddie stepped out on the porch, closing the door behind him.
Shannon was subdued, so she definitely knew what the problem was. “Here are his things.” She passed the bag over.
He accepted the bag but couldn’t stop the glare if he tried. “Really, Shan? You’re just going to pretend like he didn’t stomp into the house, climb Buck like little lemur, and then burst into tears?”
She winced. “He’s crying?”
“Yes! What the hell happened?”
“It was really nothing.”
“The same nothing that’s had him in a mood lately and not remotely interested in his days to visit you?”
Looking away, Shannon said, “I didn’t think he’d take it so badly.”
“Take what so badly.”
“He just…” She sighed. “He talks about Buck all the time. All the time.”
“So? He talks about you all the time to Buck. At least, he used to. He’s been a little more quiet lately.”
Her gaze snapped to his. “He does?”
He frowned. “Are you jealous of Buck?”
“No!” Something about her demeanor said she was jealous. “He just talks about Buck like he was another parent, and I’ve been trying to set him straight.”
Eddie felt his temper ignite and barely managed to keep control of it. “What exactly was said?”
“He just keeps talking about how excited he is that Buck will be his second daddy. I was trying to be gentle about correcting him, but today I was a little more explicit in telling him that Buck is not his father, nor will Buck ever be his father.”
“Why the fuck would you say that?”
“Because he’s not! You and I are Christopher’s parents!”
“For starters, Buck is already Chris’ parent! And, frankly, more of one than you are.” He knew it was a low blow, but he was pissed. “Buck is there whenever Chris needs him. Buck goes out of his way to make sure Chris gets what he requires. Buck is here to stay. And Buck has never, ever talked badly about you in front of Chris even though he thinks what you did when you walked away from your son for over two years was detestable. So, really, Shannon, how dare you!”
Shannon looked both hurt and furious. “Don’t you throw that in my face. You know why I had to leave.”
“Leaving is not the same as never coming back. Leaving is not the same as not calling. You vanished on him for two years, Shannon. And when you did come back, you only wanted him on your terms.”
“You knew where I was!”
“It was not my job to find you and make you take an interest! You left. I moved to Los Angeles to be near Abuela and Pepa. I hoped that being there would make you come back into Christopher’s life, but it took you more than a year to make an appearance. I don’t doubt that you love Chris, but you don’t want to deal with the day-to-day of raising a child with special needs. So you get to flit in and see him when it’s suits you, and we’ve accepted that. But don’t you dare talk badly about the person who is there for Chris when you aren’t. The person who makes my life work.”
She crossed her arms. “Is this your way of saying you’re going to partner with him? Really, Eddie?”
“He’s my soulmate,” Eddie snapped.
Paling, Shannon took a step back. “You can’t know that.”
“Buck is a conduit, as you damn well know, and conduits supposedly know who their soulmates are. But even if Buck wasn’t certain, I can’t imagine how he could be anything but mine. If the universe were making someone perfect for me, it’s him. Buck is here to stay and, yes, he’s Chris’ father now. You’re going to have to deal, and if you don’t stop badmouthing him, I’ll get your visitation revoked.”
“You can’t do that!”
“You think not? You think after the shit you’ve pulled that if I go before a judge and say you’re causing my son emotional distress because you’re badmouthing my soulmate, who happens to be one of the new conduits, that the judge won’t see it my way? Do you really think for a second that the judge is going to side with you?”
She looked gutted, and Eddie reined in his fury. He didn’t want to fight with her, but he refused to let this situation go on. He didn’t like using the truth like a weapon, but he’d take what he could get. Shan was trying to make up for her mistakes, but she wasn’t going to change history.
“I know I wasn’t a good husband, Shan, I know that, but we made a mistake when we decided to partner rather than just co-raise a kid.”
“You’re saying our partnership was a mistake?”
“We’re divorced after you ran away for two years; it certainly doesn’t speak highly of our decision-making skills. But I thought we had an amicable divorce. Yet here you are bashing my future husband.”
“I didn’t realize, okay? It’s not like you told me he was your soulmate.”
“Even if we were only going to partner, he’s still Chris’ parent! Just like whoever you next partner with will, hopefully, be Chris fourth parent. What in the world is wrong with you?”
“I feel replaced!” she yelled then looked shocked. “Oh god.” She pressed her hand to her mouth. “I didn’t even realize.”
He wanted to rail at her, but there didn’t seem to be any point. He leaned against the door, feeling most of the anger drain away. “You can’t do this, Shannon. I can’t have him coming home crying. I want him to a have a relationship with you, but not if it’s making him miserable.”
“I’m sorry. God, Eddie, I’m so conflicted because I don’t want to be a full-time parent, I’ve accepted that. I don’t even really want to be a part-time parent.” She stared down at her clasped hands. “I love Chris so much, but he was an accident. I don’t think I’d have chosen to have children otherwise.” She met his gaze again, tears in her eyes. “Maybe not ever. I don’t have any inclination to have more kids. I’m happy with the way things are, with our custody arrangement, and yet I seethe inside when he talks about Buck. Like this man I’ve barely said two words to is everything I’m not.”
“He’s different from you, Shan, that’s all. It’s not wrong not to want children. I don’t think knowing that about yourself makes you love Chris less. That said, it’s not my job to sort you out. It’s my job to take care of Christopher. I want him to have a relationship with you as long as it’s healthy; this isn’t healthy.”
She nodded. “I really am sorry. I didn’t want to admit why I was upset, and I told myself I was being a good parent by setting realistic expectations. Instead, I just made him angry because I told him his father’s soulmate wasn’t his parent.” Her look was inquisitive. “You really sure about that?”
Eddie’s stomach was tangled up in knots at the question. He’d blurted it out earlier, but his fear about the soulmarks wasn’t gone; it just wasn’t as important as Christopher and Buck. “Buck is sure, and I’m sure about him. Also, Chris isn’t mad at you for dissing my soulmate. He’s mad because you aren’t accepting his best friend.”
She shook her head. “He says that, but he’s a child. Buck is a grown man.”
“Don’t dismiss his feelings or their relationship,” Eddie snapped. “Buck has always treated Chris like the most precious person in the world. He encourages his curiosity; goes on weird fact binges with him, learning about all kinds of strange things; he figures out how to make Chris’ life easier and consults with Chris about what Chris needs.” Eddie ran his hands through his hair. “He’s loves Chris as if he were his own, so when you talk down about Buck, Chris isn’t mad because of me, he’s mad because he loves Buck.”
Shannon looked sad. “He must feel so conflicted. I’m so sorry, Eddie.”
“I’m not the one you need to apologize to.”
“Can I talk to Chris now?”
“I don’t know. Are you going to make it worse?”
“No? I don’t know.” She blew out a breath. “I’d wanted to take him to the pier today, but he said he wanted Buck to take him. I didn’t handle it well. I told him he couldn’t go at all.”
Eddie blinked in shock. They’d agreed if Chris acted out with Shan that Eddie would support whatever restriction or grounding she laid down, but she couldn’t take away a privilege or an outing because Chris had a preference about which parent he went with.
“I know I screwed up, Eddie; don’t look at me like that.”
“In a minute, you can go in and talk to Chris. I’m going to be there, and Buck will be too. If you start making it worse, the conversation is over. But, Shan, you can’t take Chris to the pier.”
She looked affronted. “I can take my son to the pier, Eddie.”
“What are you going to do when he gets tired? There’s no close parking at the pier.”
“I… I guess I’d…” She stared. “I’d have to carry him back to the car.”
“You can barely pick him up anymore and you’d carry him potentially several blocks to the car? Sure, Shan.” Eddie blew out a breath. “Chris has pushed his limits to the point of meltdown before. He knows that places like the pier or the zoo or Disney require a lot of walking. He feels safe asking for that with me or Buck because he knows we can carry him or give him a piggyback ride when he’s ready for it. Instead of getting butthurt about the whole thing, you could have just asked him what he’d like to do with you or even why he didn’t want to go with you to the pier.”
She looked abashed. “How could I have missed how much walking the pier would be? God, I’m a terrible mother.”
“You’re an out-of-practice mother. But you’re not going to get practice if you keep pissing off our son, because I’m going to choose his wellbeing over you every day.”
“And you should. I just feel like I keep screwing up.”
“We all do. Make it right, and don’t screw up in this way again. I’m not going to let it go next time if you say another bad word about Buck.”
She nodded, her whole demeanor radiating that she felt conflicted. Likely actually remorseful but also defensive. “And Buck doesn’t say bad things about me?”
“Never. Even if he thought it, he would never hurt Christopher by bashing his mother,” Eddie said pointedly.
Now, she looked stricken. “God, Eddie, I fucked up.”
“Go make it right.” Eddie opened the door and gestured her inside, following her into the living room.
Chris was still clinging to Buck, but he was no longer crying.
Shannon dropped down on one knee by the couch and set a hand on Chris’ back. “Hey, sweetie, can we talk?”
“No.” Chris said, face buried in Buck’s shoulder. Chris could be mulish and stubborn as hell when he was angry. The only people who’d ever been successful at talking around an angry Christopher Diaz were Abuela and Buck.
Buck met Eddie’s gaze, looking worried.
Eddie mouthed, it’s okay, and gestured for Buck to just wait.
“I know why you’re mad, and you should be,” Shan said gently. “I didn’t understand about your dad and Buck or about how much Buck means to you.”
“Cause you weren’t listening,” Chris snapped as he turned to look at his mother. “I told you and told you.”
Shannon bit her lip but nodded. “I know you tried to tell me, but…” She blew out a breath. “I was afraid maybe you wouldn’t love me as much if you had a new dad.”
Chris huffed. “That’s silly. That’s like saying I can’t have more than two friends because I might run out of ways to love them.”
Eddie bit his lip so he didn’t laugh. When Chris got mad, he didn’t let people off the hook easily.
“That’s fair. Love isn’t a finite resource.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Shannon blinked, looking stymied.
“It means,” Buck said softly, “that you don’t run out of love just because you use some.”
“Oh.” Chris nodded firmly. “Right. I don’t run out; I can love lots of people.”
Shannon rubbed little circles on Chris’ back. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand about Buck being your dad’s soulmate. And I definitely didn’t understand about what a good friend he is to you.”
“He’s my best friend,” Chris said hotly.
“Your best friend. And I’m very sorry I got mad about the pier. I think it’d be a great thing for you and Buck to do together.”
Chris’ expression was still a little mulish, but he was softening. “You could come too.”
Buck sent Eddie a wide-eyed look, no doubt horrified by the idea of spending the day with Eddie’s ex-wife.
“Oh,” Shannon hedged. “That sounds like it could be fun. I have a hunch that you guys will go soon, though. But the pier will still be there, so maybe we can meet up there one day for lunch. Hit the Ferris wheel. Maybe your dad will come too.”
“Okay!” Chris looked to Eddie. “Can we, Dad?”
“Of course, Mijo. I think you and Buck are probably going to go first, but we’ll go again. Love isn’t a finite resource and neither is the pier,” he said with a smile.
Chris laughed and turned completely on Buck’s lap so he could hug Shannon. “I’m sorry I got so mad.”
“Me too, sweet pea. I wish we could talk a little easier, but we’ll just have to practice some more.”
Eddie needed a minute, so he retreated to the kitchen, promising to be right back. He wound up with his hands braced on the counter, trying to catch his breath.
“Eddie?” Buck said softly from behind him. “What’s wrong?”
He whipped around. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“First of all, lie. Second of all, you don’t usually abandon me with Shannon. Everything is not fine.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I left them making up on the couch. Christopher has that really detailed book on coral we got from the library out, and he’s telling his mother all about it. She already looks a little glazed over, so I figure this is a suitable punishment for whatever she did to freak Chris out. Want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Chris has been telling her you’re his new dad.”
Buck looked a little uncomfortable. “Yeah, I kinda got that. Is that a problem?”
“No, Buck, of course not. You are another parent. She decided to correct him that you weren’t, and he got a little bent about it.”
“I saw that. But that doesn’t explain what’s going on with you.”
“I told her you’re my soulmate,” Eddie blurted out.
Buck’s eyes went comically wide.
Eddie wound up bent over, hands braced on his knees.
“Are you freaking out?” Buck asked from right next to Eddie.
Buck hunkered down so he could meet Eddie’s gaze. “It’s okay if you were just trying to make a point.”
Eddie huffed, the panic subsiding. He stood up and crossed his arms. “You drive me nuts sometimes.” He swallowed thickly. “I’ve just never said it before. It felt like it was taboo, like I shouldn’t tempt fate.”
Buck smiled softly and stepped closer. “I think fate’s on our side, Eddie.”
Eddie was about to reach out, to touch in the way he’d desperately wanted to for so long, but Chris’ voice rang out from the living room. “Dad!”
Buck stepped back. “The boss awaits.”
A few minutes later, Shannon left, then Chris was demanding their full attention all the way up to bedtime, including three stories.
When Chris’ light was finally shut off and the door closed, Eddie and Buck stood in the hall with a mere eighteen inches between them. Eddie didn’t know what to say. He desperately wanted to touch and taste, to hold tight and never let go.
“You know it’s okay, right?”
“I told you that if you started getting freaked out by our little steps forward that I wouldn’t hold it against you.”
And, just like that, Eddie’s fears vanished. Because Buck did accept Eddie; it wasn’t just a veneer. Buck didn’t hold it against him that he was terrified about the soulmate thing. That acceptance, that he could be flawed, made it so much more bearable.
Eddie reached out and took Buck’s hand. “Will you sleep with me tonight? My room, your room…wherever.”
Buck’s smile was blinding. “You have an interesting definition of a little step forward, but I’m not complaining.”
“Is that a yes?”
“It’s a hell yes.”
It was too early for two grown-ass men to be going to bed—unless sex was involved—but suddenly, that’s all Eddie wanted.
Buck seemed to read his intent because his smile softened. “I’ll get ready for bed then meet you in yours.”
“Okay.” They split up; Eddie headed for the master bath, Buck to the hall bath. When Eddie emerged from the bathroom, Buck was already lounging on Eddie’s bed like he belonged there, wearing sleep pants and a tight muscle shirt. It was always startling to see Buck’s bare arms. He wondered when he’d ever get used to the photorealistic garden on human flesh. It was always a reminder of the soulmate thing, but tonight it made Eddie eager for fate to take the next step. He wanted to see his mark on Buck’s back.
He pushed those thoughts aside and focused on the rest of the stuff that came along with Buck being in his bed. There were five books, two notepads, a couple of pens, a stack of post-its, and a pack of colored markers. Eddie thought he looked like he was absolutely right where he was supposed to be.
Eddie had to nudge the pack of markers out of the way to lay on his own side of the bed. “Some light bedtime reading?”
“Chris was asking me about penguins the other day.”
“Yep. We’re still knee-deep in coral, but I figured I’d get a head start on penguins so I’m ready when the time comes.”
Eddie braced his weight on his elbow, thumbing through one of the books. “Is that what you always do? Prepare like this?”
“Usually. Chris is super smart, but his attention is a little mercurial. An overbearing or tedious resource can be the death knell, and penguins are awesome, so I want to be set.” He gave Eddie a serious look. “It’s not like I don’t enjoy it. I love doing research, and it’s even better when I have a partner in crime.”
Eddie let his fingers drift over the page with pictures of Emperor penguins. “I can’t do this for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can get him resources, take him to the zoo, and many other things, but I can’t make myself be interested in penguins like this.”
“Are you saying you’re not interested in penguins?”
“That’s not even the point but, no, I’m not. I can listen and nod, but he’ll know the difference. The point is that you just dive right in, let yourself be immersed in whatever strikes his fancy. It always makes me feel…” Eddie trailed off, shaking his head. Something about Buck always made him feel safe. Safe for himself and for Christopher too. “We’re just really lucky to have you.”
He looked up and met Buck’s gaze, seeing pleasure and uncertainty in equal measure. “Just accept it, Evan. You’re amazing.” Buck seemed flustered, so Eddie let him off the hook. “Move your research materials to the nightstand and get under the covers. I plan to aggressively spoon you while you read to me about penguins. Just don’t read to me about those little fuckers with the horrible teeth.”
Buck laughed, but his cheeks got a little pink. “Aggressive spooning, huh?”
“Not a one.”
They got under the covers, and Eddie left the reading light on. It was new but felt so incredibly right to be moving close to Buck, curling around his back, and wrapping an arm tight around his waist. They’d hugged many, many times, but this was the way Eddie had always wanted to hold Buck.
With a soft exhalation, Buck melted into his arms, muscles going relaxed and loose. “Something this simple shouldn’t feel this good.”
Eddie pressed his forehead to the back of Buck’s neck. A stalk of yellow snapdragons with a bit of red at the tips of the petals curled at the base of his neck. “Read to me, or I’ll forget myself and rush us forward.”
“Yeah, okay.” Buck grabbed for one of the books on the nightstand and began reading about the Emperor penguins Eddie had been looking at earlier.
He didn’t really care about the penguins, but holding Buck and listening to him read made him feel whole in a way he couldn’t ever remember experiencing before.
Buck’s voice trailed off after a while, and he laced their fingers together. “You’re my calm in the storm, Eddie. Where I look when everything is wrong and the world doesn’t make sense anymore; you bring me peace. Nothing will change that.”
Eddie was consumed by Buck, the feel of him, the smell of clean skin, the sound of his voice. “We fit,” Eddie murmured against Buck’s neck. “But even if this somehow wasn’t meant to be, we can forge our own path.”
“We already have, Eds. Everything up to this moment has been us, not fate.”
Eddie felt like his perspective got turned on its ear. He breathed out heavily, breath ghosting over Buck’s skin. “Yeah, we have. I love you, Evan.”
Buck squeezed his hand and moved infinitesimally closer. “I love you so much, Eddie.”
– – – –
Buck laughed through poses in the photo booth with Chris. They got out, and while they were waiting, he noted that he could pay an additional $5 to get the digital images emailed to him. “Now, that’s a good idea.”
“What’s a good idea?” Chris tugged at Buck’s shirt, sporting a huge grin.
“We can get the photos emailed to us too.”
“Yay! Can we send them to Mommy and Daddy?”
“Of course.” Buck paid then punched his email address into the digital display. The printed photos popped out, but he lingered to make sure he got his emailed photos before he walked away.
Since no one was waiting, he knelt down next to Chris to review the images. “Which ones do you want to send? And should we put another on Insta?”
“You’ve done hundreds already!”
Buck laughed and tickled Chris. “I can tell I’m never going to get away with anything ever again.”
Chris grinned and pointed to the photo he wanted to send to his mother. “Tell her I want her to come with us next time so I can have booth pictures with her too.”
“Will do.” Buck had Shannon’s number in case there was an issue with Chris, but he’d never had cause to use it. He fired off the text along with the photo and Chris’ sincere wish that she come along next time.
“That one for Dad.”
Buck shook his head as he laughed. Predictable. Chris had picked the goofiest to send to his father.
“That one for Insta.”
“Look at you being a social media genius.” Buck quickly uploaded the photo then tucked his phone in his pocket. “What’s next?” They’d already been there for a couple of hours, eating too much sugar in about the first ten minutes.
“I want to go on the roller coaster and then I want a funnel cake.”
“At some point we’re going to need actual food, not just sugar; I’m old and I need protein to exist. How about lunch next and then funnel cake later?”
“Deal!” Chris tugged on his shirt again. “Can I have a piggyback ride?”
“Hell yeah,” Buck enthused. “You know, when I was little, Maddie took me to the county fair one year and let me ride around on her shoulders. It was so much fun. I was bigger the next year, and we did a short piggyback ride instead. I knew someday I’d take my own kids around on my back or shoulders at places like this.”
Chris grinned hugely, any tension about asking for help evaporating. “Like me?”
“Exactly like you. There couldn’t be anyone better.”
Chris hugged him tightly around the waist for several seconds, then he gave Buck an impish grin. “Can I ride on your shoulders too?”
“Yes, but how about we try that the first time when your dad is around so we have someone who isn’t on a sugar high checking the positioning?”
Staring up at Buck with big, earnest eyes, Chris said, “You’d never drop me, Bucky.”
“I’d do my best to never let anything happen to you, buddy.” He ruffled Chris’ hair. “But we’re still going to try the shoulder perch the first time with your pops around to spot us. All right, let’s get the piggyback fun started.”
Buck turned around and got down into the position they’d practiced quite a bit after Chris had a total crying meltdown at the zoo one day because he was tired and in pain, but didn’t want to admit it and risk cutting the day short. Buck had missed the signs of Chris’ fatigue and wound up feeling like shit about the whole thing. They’d worked out piggyback rides as the solution Chris preferred. Eddie had talked to Chris for a long time about being willing to ask when he needed a rest, but Buck had also better learned the small signs that Christopher was getting tired or was achy.
Chris put one hand on Buck’s shoulder for balance then passed off his crutches. From there, the transition was smooth as Buck got his forearms under Chris’ knees. The crutches had a Velcro strap around them and then a long cross-body strap so that Buck wasn’t hampered by them.
“Remember, hold on to the shoulders—”
“Not the neck.”
“Right. You’ve always done that part well, buddy, but safety reminders first.” To give Chris a little more time to rest, Buck decided to take the scenic route. “I think we should get your dad a really tacky souvenir. Something we think is hideous, but we tell him how much we love it and watch his expression freeze. Then he’ll feel like he has to pretend to want it.”
Chris giggled in his ear. “That’s mean.”
“Maybe so, but it amuses me, and I know it amuses you too.”
Another laugh was his answer.
“So, are you going to be my enabler?”
“I think one of those dancer girls that people put in their cars.”
Buck had to think for a moment. “You mean the hula girl dashboard bobble doll?”
“You, sir, are a mad genius. Maybe we can find one with a really tacky ‘I ♡ LA’ T-shirt.”
– – – –
Buck was feeling edgy, and he had been since right after he and Chris won the giant bear. He didn’t think it really had anything to do with the bear, but he made mental note to leave the bear behind if they had to leave in a hurry. He stared at the big bear, with its big bear grin like it had personally offended him.
He’d warned Chris that he wouldn’t be able to give Chris a piggyback ride and handle the giant bear, but Chris said he was feeling well-rested after a lengthy lunch and Buck carrying him around for the couple of hours leading up to their meal.
They finished up their funnel cakes, and Buck took a picture of Chris with his face covered in powdered sugar and sent it to Eddie. He immediately got back a huffy reply about sugar crashes. Buck laughed.
“What’d Dad say?”
“That you’re going to be bouncing off the walls from the sugar high and then crash. I’m pointing out that he’s at work and that I have a sugar high too, so I’m clearly in good company.”
Chris giggled so hard his little body vibrated with it. “I’m glad we came today, Bucky. I wanted it to be just you and me this one time.”
“I love spending time with you, buddy.”
“I know; you never lie to me.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that. But why’d you want it to be just me?”
“Just this once. Because I know you’ve been sad about your brother and that Dad’s scared about adult stuff. I wanted you to be happy today.”
Buck stilled and met Chris gaze squarely. “What do you mean about your dad?”
“You’re soulmates, but Daddy’s afraid you might not be.”
“Did he say that?”
“No, but I can tell. He loves you though, the same way Abuelo and Grandma love each other. He should trust more.” Chris reached out and touched Buck’s wrist where it was covered by a long-sleeved, button-up shirt. He patted right over where his favorite cluster of flowers was, where all three colors sat just above Buck’s wrist bone. Chris always traced the petals when he sat in Buck’s lap for movies. “He has to trust in our family.”
“Your dad has a lot of reasons to be worried, kiddo. I’m not mad at him; you know that, right?”
“I know. Dad was sad after Mommy left; it hurt him a lot. I just want him to be happy again.” Christopher gave him a speaking look. “He’s happy with you, even when he’s worried.”
“You’re very wise, Christopher.”
Chris nodded earnestly, and Buck laughed.
Buck’s prickle of unease was rearing its head again, and Buck looked around, trying to find the source.
“Nothing. Everything’s okay.”
Chris’ eyes narrowed. “You’re not telling the truth.”
“No, I am, Chris. Obviously nothing’s wrong. I just…” Buck considered how to explain. “You ever get a feeling? Like a hunch?”
“Yep. I knew the day I met you that something was going to happen.”
Buck frowned. “You mean you knew the earthquake was coming?”
“No, you. Dad came into the school, and he hugged me so hard. And I asked him, ‘who’d you bring for me, Daddy?’ and he laughed and asked how I could see that. But I didn’t see, I just knew. I’d been waiting all day to meet you.”
Feeling a little choked up, Buck had to clear his throat before he could speak. “Chris…”
“You’re our special gift; I knew it before I ever met you.”
Buck felt like someone had just de-Grinched his heart, and he was pretty sure he was never a Grinch to begin with. “You and your dad are everything to me, and you leave me in awe every damn day, kid. Have you ever felt like that at other times?”
Chris shrugged. “Sometimes. Not always so good though. You were the best feeling I ever got.”
“You flatter me, bud.”
Chris grinned, then his expression fell. “I knew Mommy was gone before Daddy told me.”
“I’m really sorry you had to go through that.” As much as Buck supported Shannon making amends to Chris now, sometimes he wanted to throttle her. No matter how bad her domestic partnership had gone with Eddie, there was no cause for the way she’d abandoned Christopher.
“Daddy doesn’t know, but I wanted him to leave Texas. I knew something bad would happen if we stayed. I kept telling him how much I wanted to see Abuelita.”
Buck couldn’t even find it in himself to be skeptical. Chris would have just turned five when Shannon left, so he was getting these nudges very young. But Buck had been damn young, too. He remembered the first time being around the age of four and, for all he knew, it had been even earlier than that, but he couldn’t remember for sure.
“I get little nudges sometimes about what I should do,” he admitted. “Not everyday, and not even over every big thing. But some things are apparently important enough that I need to pay attention to what choices I’m making.”
Chris grinned brightly. “We’re alike!”
“Yeah, I think we are.”
“Do you think I’ll be a conduit like you when I grow up?”
Buck glanced at the bit of Chris’ forearm that was exposed by his pushed-up shirtsleeve. Suddenly, it was like he was seeing a shadow of a conduit mark. Like a dream superimposed over reality. It was branches with distinctive leaves and lots of little acorns.
He blinked and the image was gone.
He blinked a few more times, waiting for the surreal feeling to fade. Shaking his head, he replied, “You know, buddy, I think you will be.”
Chris’ smile was blinding. “Me too.”
Buck couldn’t help but return the smile.
“What’s nudging you?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like something’s wrong. So wrong that I thought about leaving, but then leaving felt wrong too.”
Eyes big and guileless, Chris stared at him. “We should figure this out.”
“I guess we should.”
“Let’s go over by the water. The ocean helps me think.”
Buck laughed at how adult Chris sounded. “The water’s really good for that; it helps me feel centered too.”
They wound up kneeling side-by-side on bench, watching the small waves come in and lap against the pilings.
“Maybe you’re supposed to save someone,” Chris offered.
“We just passed a bunch of firefighters. I have no gear, so I don’t think I can do anything they wouldn’t be able to do.”
“Maybe they won’t be in the right place…”
“Maybe.” He couldn’t discount the idea. “That doesn’t explain why I feel like I should go but also stay.”
Chris got this funny little expression on his face; it read a bit mulish, but it was the way he looked when he was turning over a problem in his head. “Should I go?”
“Maybe you should be here, but I shouldn’t…?”
Buck frowned, letting that percolate in his mind. Then the feeling of go got so intense, it nearly made him dizzy.
“I think we should go,” Chris said, sounding uneasy.
Because Buck was staring at the water, he saw the sudden pull on the waves going the wrong direction. He was frozen for precious seconds, watching the water levels drop rapidly.
Without thinking about it, he threw Chris over his shoulder and started to run. “Get off the pier! Tsunami!” he yelled to whoever might listen, but no one was paying him any attention other than looking at him like he was crazy. If he didn’t have Chris to think about, Buck would stay, try to ensure people evacuated, but he did have Christopher, and that made all the difference in the world.
The path straight out wouldn’t take him anywhere near the firefighters they’d seen earlier, so that help was out. All Buck could do was try to give a few seconds heads up to someone. He fumbled his phone out of his pocket and dialed while continuing to run.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“This is LAFD firefighter Evan Buckley on the Santa Monica Pier.”
“Buck? It’s Josh. What’s going on?”
“I think there’s a tsunami,” Buck gasped out. “There’s no warning alarm, but water suddenly receded so sharply there’s no water under the pier. I’ve got a child with me; I’ve got to get him out of there. Can’t stay. Give a heads up if you can.”
“Yeah. Uh, yeah. Stay on the line.”
“Running. Phone going in pocket.” He managed to get his phone tucked away without dropping it. Bouncing along on Buck’s shoulder couldn’t be comfortable for Chris, but the kid was a trooper and didn’t make a peep, his little hands clinging to the back of Buck’s shirt.
The tsunami alarm sounded.
Buck had barely cleared the pier when he heard people distantly behind him start screaming. He wasn’t running toward anything in particular, like his Jeep, because he’d taken an Uber this morning rather than potentially have to park blocks from the pier. All he knew was that he had to get farther away. Without stopping to evaluate, he kept running, looking for any way to get them to higher ground.
There were some two-story buildings, but there was no way to know if going inside one of them would result in salvation or wind up getting them trapped and ensuring they’d drown.
Of all damn things, there was a fire truck up ahead, but he was hearing water behind him, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.
The window was rolled down, and Buck sent up a small prayer as he put everything he had into beating the wave. He tossed Chris through the window then reached for the doorhandle, but then the wave was on him and he was clinging for his life to the hand hold inside and the door handle outside.
“Buck!” Chris scrambled across the seat and tried to hold on to Buck’s hands.
He couldn’t manage anything but to try to keep his grip on the door as the water buffeted his body with incredible force, small things crashing into him with bruising intensity.
When the initial force lessened a bit, he gasped out, “Back up. I’m gonna pull myself in.” Using every bit of strength he had, he fought the water and pulled his body through the window, collapsing in a heap.
The whole truck shifted and was pushed down the street as the wave continued to surge.
“Buck!” Chris cried again, tears coursing down his face as he patted at Buck’s cheeks. “Please be okay.”
“I’m all right, buddy. I promise,” he panted, completely winded. “Come here.”
Chris collapsed on top of Buck, little fingers fisting in Buck’s shirt. Buck held him close then he realized he was hearing another voice.
“Buck, can you hear me? Buck?”
Buck blew out a breath. “Thank god for waterproofing. Okay, buddy, let’s sit up and assess, then I need to get my phone out of my pocket and talk to Josh.”
“You need to call Daddy,” Chris said with a little huff.
“I have a feeling it’s about to be very hard to make a phone call, so we have to take advantage of the call we already have.” Buck got them seated, noting that the water level was getting higher and was very close to the window. Keeping an eye on the rising water, he did a quick assessment of both of them to check for injuries. Chris was rattled, but seemed okay. Buck had some nasty bruises and scratches, but nothing else.
He dug his phone out and put it on speaker. “Josh?”
“Yes, thank god! Are you okay?”
“A little battered but otherwise okay. We’re in a fire truck, of all damn things, on Colorado Avenue. I think we’re near 2nd.” He looked out the window. “Wave is still surging. There were other people on the street, but I don’t see anyone now.”
“You were trying to outrun a tsunami, Buck. You couldn’t keep track of other people. Maddie’s here. She’s chomping at the bit to talk to you, but we can’t tie up the line for too long.”
“Evan?” There was a distinct quaver in her voice. “Are you okay?”
“We’re okay, Maddie. Unless the water surges higher than the top of the fire truck, we’re going to stay put and wait for rescue.”
“Okay, you do that. Keep your phone on. We’re putting in a request for access to your GPS. Even when the phone lines get clogged and go down, or if we lose a cell tower in the area, you might still be able to send SMS. Keep me posted if you can, okay?”
“I will. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you. Go do your job, Sis.”
“Yeah. I figure you’ll find a way to do yours too.”
“Listen, I don’t suppose you could patch me through to the 118? I’d hang up and call Eddie, but I’m not sure I’ll get another call out if I do that.”
“I’ll patch you through to the 118 and then I have to start taking calls. You did good calling in the warning.”
“God, Maddie, there were so many people.”
“I know. Don’t focus on that right now. One thing at a time, baby Bro.”
“Yeah, I know.” Water started to pour into the cab, and Buck swore. “Here, buddy, hold the phone, okay? I’m listening, Maddie, but I need to stick my head out the window for a minute.”
“Be safe, Buck.”
“You too, Maddie. Damn!” The water was going to keep getting higher. “Give me about two minutes before you connect us. I need to relocate us to the top of the truck.”
“Okay, I’m going to take calls, but I’ll be back.”
Buck assessed the flow of the water and knew he needed to be quick. “Buddy, I’m going to stick the phone back in my pocket, then I’m going to pull myself up on the roof. When I’m on top, I’m going to reach down for you and pull you up top, okay? You’re gonna get wet, but you’re not going to go in the water, all right? I promise.”
Chris nodded, expression tight and scared.
Buck got up on the top of the cab easily enough then reached down for Chris to take both of his hands and pulled him up on top of the truck and into his arms. “You did great, buddy.”
Chris looked around wide-eyed. “Everything’s gone. It’s all underwater.”
“Yeah, I know.” He fished his phone out of his pocket. “Maddie?”
“It’s Josh. Maddie’s on a call. Hold on, I’m going to put you on with the 118. They just left the station.” Josh’s voice became more professional as he said, “118, this is dispatch for Captain Nash.”
“Dispatch, go for Nash,” Bobby’s voice came over the line.
“I have Evan Buckley on the line for you.”
“Buck!” Eddie’s panicked voice came over the line then was drowned out by several people talking at once.
“Quiet!” Bobby yelled. “Go, Eddie.”
“Buck, where’s Christo—”
“Daddy! I’m here too.”
“Oh, Mijo.” Eddie sounded broken. “I thought I’d lost you both. You’d just sent me that picture of you both sitting on the pier. Buck, are you two okay? I’ve been trying to call.”
“I know, Eds. I called 9-1-1 when I realized the tsunami was incoming, and I never disconnected. I wasn’t sure I’ll be able to make another call.”
“Are you okay? Where are you?”
“If you can believe it, we’re sitting on top of a fire truck on Colorado Ave, about two blocks from the pier.”
“You’re on top of a fire truck?” Chimney exclaimed.
“Shh,” Hen remonstrated.
“Buck, are you okay? Is Chris okay?”
“We’re both a little bruised and lot waterlogged, but we’re fine. Chris’ bruises seem to all from bouncing on my shoulder as we ran.”
“My tummy’s a little sore, Daddy, but it’s okay.”
“I’m so glad you’re okay, Mijo. You let Buck take care of you, all right?”
“I will. Buck saved me, Dad. Buck will always save me.”
“I never doubted it. We’re coming for you, you got it? You guys just hold on tight, and I’ll be there soon.”
“Okay, Daddy. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mijo. And I love you, Buck, so don’t you dare not be there when we arrive.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“We have to clear the line, Buck,” Bobby said, “but try to keep your cell on so we can track your GPS. Just in case.”
“Be safe, kid.”
Neither Josh nor Maddie said anything, so he knew they were on calls. Buck wanted to keep the line open, to have that connection to other people, but he knew he couldn’t tie up 9-1-1 dispatch that way, so he reluctantly disconnected and slid the phone back in pocket.
A pile of debris hit the truck so hard it knocked Chris over. Buck grabbed for him even though Chris was nowhere near the edge, feeling his heart try to pound out of his chest. “Never mind what I was about to say, let’s get somewhere a little more safe.”
He got them both positioned behind the cab of the truck, in a spot with runners on each side boxing them in. The only way they were coming off this truck was if it were upended.
He pulled Christopher tight to his side just a few seconds before he heard the sound of someone screaming for help.
“Bucky! People!” Chris pointed back toward the pier.
In the distance, he could see people caught up in the water, getting pulled down Colorado Avenue. He knew he had to help them even if it felt like leaving Chris on his own was the worst possible thing he could do.
“Save them. I know. I’ll stay here.”
Buck ripped off his overshirt, the loose wet fabric making it harder to move. His conduit marks looked a little weird, but he didn’t have the time to focus on them. He needed to get these people out of the water.
As he was working out a strategy in his head, he said to Chris, “I can’t do this if I’m not sure you’re safe.”
“I won’t move, Bucky, I promise. You’re here to save people.”
Buck nodded and got to work.
– – – –
Buck finished securing the second of two sections of curb jumper hose to the large-sized SUV. He’d broken out the windows on the vehicle and threaded the two hoses through the broken windows and tied them off, creating two huge straps on top of the vehicle.
He looked to the father and his two teen kids that he’d fished out of the water a few minutes ago. They were battered and exhausted, but not otherwise seriously injured. They’d initially been on the Ferris wheel of all things, and when the tsunami alarm had sounded, they’d climbed from their baskets up the Ferris wheel. It was at the direction of a firefighter on the pier. They’d clung to the Ferris wheel for as long as they could before getting knocked off during a surge.
The top of the fire truck was full, and Buck had filled the cab with three college kids when he’d run out places to put people. It wasn’t optimal to be sitting in this water, but they were running out of places to put the rescuees.
“If the water starts to surge in either direction—”
“Either direction?” the girl asked.
“Yeah, the water’s going to go out eventually. At this point, there’s only so much debris left to come in from the ocean, but there’s an epic amount to go back out to sea. If it surges, the water levels could get higher. Right now, it’s barely two inches below the top of the roof, so it could rise above the top.”
“So we just hold on?”
“You may need to get off the vehicle. Just listen to me, okay? If the water is higher, a debris field will take you right off the top of the car and possibly crush you. Pay attention to which direction the water is going, hold on tight, and if debris is coming for you, grab on to the hose and drop to far side of the SUV so the debris doesn’t hit you. You may have to go under for a few seconds. Just do not let get of the hose. All four ends of the hose are dangling over on that side.”
The teen boy was the most adventurous, so Buck walked him through how to drop off the side into the water, using the hose to hold on, and then how to pull himself back up. They did it a few times with the sister and father watching.
“You got it?”
“Yeah,” the man said. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what we’d have done without you.”
The girl’s gaze flicked to Buck’s arms. “I can’t believe a conduit pulled us out of the water.”
Buck chuckled. “About a hundred conduits in Great Los Angeles Area are firefighters or paramedics so, in an emergency, there’s a certain likelihood you’d run into one of us. I need to get back to the truck; my kid is there. If you need—”
“Look!” the teen girl said. “There’s another lady in the water.”
Buck wanted to bang his head on the wall but he followed the direction she was pointing and saw a woman swimming against the strong flow of the water, looking exhausted. “Right. I gotta go. Call out if you get in trouble.”
He’d had to swim against the current to get to the trio in need earlier, so he was closer to the woman being carried in the water than he was to the fire truck. He actually swam away from her to get back to where he had the long fire hose strung across the street as a catch line. The last time he’d tried to catch an exhausted survivor in the water, they’d nearly drowned him. Having the hose to hang on to was a safer bet for himself.
When he had the hose in his grip, he positioned himself directly in her path. “I’ll catch you. Just reach out!”
She obviously heard him because she was trying to swim for him even as it was clear her muscles were fighting her. He caught her easily, letting her cling to him while he held on to the hose line with one hand. Buck’s own exhaustion was starting to become an issue. He’d been in and out of the water so many times, fighting the strong flow of the water every step of the way.
“I’ve got you,” he said over and over as she clung, sobbing into his shoulder.
Buck’s conduit marks pulsed, something they’d been doing all day. Like a ripple of energy causing them to change visually for only a fraction of a second. Each time it happened, he felt a little re-energized.
“I’ve been holding on to the branches of a tree for so long,” she gasped out. “And then a branch broke, and my muscles were like Jell-o. I thought I was going to drown.” Her whole body was shaking.
“I’m going to get you over there to that truck, okay?” The truck was pretty damn full, but she was tiny, so they’d make it work. “I know you’re tired, so I’m going to have you cling to my back, okay? Legs around my waist, hands on my shoulders. Do not obstruct my throat in any way. Do you understand?”
She nodded shakily. “What’s your name?”
“Buck.” She gave a shaky laugh. “I’m Marissa. Are you like a professional natural disaster victim?”
“I’m an off-duty firefighter. Sort of.”
“I have no idea what sort-of means, but I’m really grateful to have run into a firefighter today.” She blew out a breath. “Let’s do this.”
“I’ve only got one hand to help you, so you’re going to need to do most of the work.”
“Life-saving piggyback ride is something I can manage.” There was something about her that seemed vaguely familiar, but Buck couldn’t place it. And he figured no one looked exactly like their usual selves in these circumstances.
“Okay, Marissa, let’s get you out of this water.”
Despite her exhaustion, she shifted herself around and got into a good position on his back. Buck used both hands to follow the line back toward the truck. As he worked, he noticed a young couple he’d pulled out of the water shortly after the first wave were lowering themselves into the water and following the guideline Buck had laid down earlier toward the big SUV with the dad and two teens. They both waved to Buck, smiling in reassurance.
Buck would never have asked anyone to move, but they were in better shape than most, better rested too, so they were a good choice to switch vehicles.
When they reached the truck, several people were immediately there to help haul Marissa up onto the back of the truck and give her some water. Buck had done some scrounging earlier to bring up whatever supplies were in the fire truck that might be useful. Most trucks carried some amount of bottled water, and this truck had recently restocked as there were several cases. He’d managed to wrestle them up despite being underwater. They were keeping them rationed because who knew how long they’d be here, but no one said a word about giving Marissa a full bottle.
Forcing his muscles into action again, he hauled himself out of the water, muttering, “In the water, out of the water, in the water, out of the water. I’m like those idiots in the movie Titanic.”
Jorge, one of the first guys Buck pulled out, laughed as he helped Buck up, pressing a bottle into his hands too. “I always thought it was ridiculous every time they went below deck again.”
“Preach.” Buck tilted the bottle. “Can we spare it?”
“Brother, you’re doing all the hard work, so you get all the water you need. Don’t even be self-sacrificing about this. We sent the young lovers to take some water to the family on the SUV too.”
“Yeah, okay.” Buck tried to catch his breath, gaze flicking toward Christopher, getting a bright, sunny grin in response. The kid was irrepressible. Buck smiled back and drank some water then made himself move, carefully navigating the crowded truck to return to Chris.
Jen and Pat helped Chris get to his feet and keep his balance while Buck took Chris’ seat. He then pulled Christopher into his lap.
Chris had custody of Buck’s cellphone.
“Nope.” But Chris didn’t sound defeated. He just kept trying.
Jen held up her phone too. “No calls getting out. Most messages are blocked, but I keep hitting retry on my SMS messages and one went through a few minutes ago. I think it was just good timing because I haven’t gotten another one out.”
“Well, I don’t want to waste a bunch of my battery hitting send when I’ve already relayed this location to first responders. As much as I’d like to reassure my family that we’re still okay, it may not be worth it for us to keep trying.”
He leaned his head back against the cab of the truck.
Chris’ small hand touched the side of his face. “You tired, Bucky?”
“A little bit. I’m just going to rest here with you until whatever comes next.”
Jen leaned a little closer. “You know that’s the deputy mayor of LA you just pulled out the water, right?”
That’s why she looked familiar. Marissa Morales. A very popular deputy mayor too. “I wasn’t paying close attention. Glad she’s okay.”
Jen laughed. “You’re unbelievable. Finish your water before you close your eyes again. You’re sweating out huge amounts of fluids, you just don’t notice because you’re in the water when it’s happening.”
He looked at her askance. “What is it exactly that you do?”
“Personal trainer, so I know all about hydration. There isn’t enough water here to properly hydrate you and have any in reserve, I get that, but you’re saving everyone’s bacon, so drink.”
Buck finished the bottle without complaint, feeling some of his fatigue lift. Chris had nodded off and was sleeping against Buck’s shoulder. “Can you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
“If I have to go back in the water, will you ensure he gets back to his father?”
“I thought you were his father…?”
“His father is my soulmate.”
“Yeah, we’ll get him home.” She pursed her lips and nodded. “I know another new conduit. She’s certain about who her soulmate is too.”
The tone of voice made Buck take notice. “You?”
Jen gave a tight nod. “I keep wondering if I should believe her.”
Jen’s smile was wobbly. “I’m really glad she had to work today.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a doctor at Angel’s.” She looked at Buck’s multi-colored arms. “Her arms are covered in white clitoria ternateas.
Buck racked his brain for what flower that could be. “I’m not familiar with that, I don’t think.”
“Common name is the butterfly pea or the Asian pigeonwing. They’re lovely. Imagine a sweet pea and a petunia had a baby.”
Buck laughed, able to visualize it. “You’ll be together again. Is that you who texted?”
“Yeah. I put everyone’s name in the text and just kept hitting retry on it. If she got it, she’ll let people know they’re alive. I didn’t know about Deputy Mayor Morales when I sent it though. I also don’t have the names of the people not on this truck, but I gave guesses on age and gender for everyone.”
Buck nodded. “What do they symbolize?”
“The butterfly peas?”
“Consecration of love.”
Buck patted her knee then held Christopher tight and closed his eyes.
– – – –
Eddie did his job, not for one second did he take his attention off his duty, but he was internally fuming that he wasn’t able to go get Buck and Chris. The incident commander had met with them and had drone footage of Buck actively pulling people on top of a fire truck, showing that everyone was okay. The still image frozen on the screen was burned into Eddie’s brain.
Buck was braced on the side of a firetruck, half in the water. Arm and back muscles straining both from where he was holding on to the truck and from pulling someone out of the water. His conduit marks were starkly visible beneath the sleeves of his dirty white t-shirt. The top of Chris’ head had barely been visible in the footage.
While they were indeed trapped, they were considered a low-priority rescue during the first critical moments because everyone on that truck was safe. At least, they were when the drone footage was shot. All Eddie could think about was what might have happened after that picture was taken.
Bobby had rightly pointed out that they didn’t have the boats available yet to go get everyone that Buck was pulling out of the water, and Eddie couldn’t go in there and just pull out Buck and Christopher; it would be a gross ethical violation. He knew that, but it was infuriating to have to leave his son on a tiny red island of survival in the middle of all that death and destruction.
He understood, and he did he job, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. To be fair, he knew no one else liked it either. The rest of the team would have rather have gone after Buck and Chris too, but they’d first headed to a boat that had been pushed inland with several trapped aboard and then to the Ferris wheel on the pier. Several people were trapped in the upper baskets, but all those who were in the lower baskets when the wave hit had drowned.
They barely got the survivors away from the Ferris wheel before it fell over as the water began to recede. They’d also picked up a firefighter from the 136 who had been on the pier when the tsunami hit.
Bobby ordered Eddie and Firefighter Bosko to the field hospital to take in the injured and instructed Eddie to have Bosko checked for unreported injuries. Eddie wanted to argue because he needed to be out there finding Buck and Chris.
Bobby gave him a pointed look. “The direction we’re being sent is nowhere near Buck’s reported location. You have a better chance of being able to join S&R going to Colorado Avenue if you’re at the field hospital. Get the victims checked in, get Bosko checked out, and then tag along with whoever is headed in that general direction.”
Eddie pressed his lips into a thin line but nodded.
“You got someone out there?” Bosko asked after the boat was well away.
“My son.” He hesitated. “And my soulmate.”
She flashed him a look. “You’re not old enough to have a soulmate.”
“He’s a conduit, and he just knows.”
“Ah.” She glanced back toward the fallen Ferris wheel. “So many died. When we saw the wave coming, I tried to get people out of the bottom baskets so they could climb because no one was outrunning that wave. You couldn’t outrun it; all you could do was try to go up and hold on.” She shook her head. “Not everyone could. There was this father and his two teen kids. They were the most successful at climbing out of everyone, but the son lost his grip and the father tried to catch him. They both went into the water. The girl jumped in after them.”
“After the initial wave?” Eddie kept himself busy with checking the bandages of the injured.
“They might have made it if they’re good swimmers, and if they got swept down Colorado, someone set up a catch line down near your firetruck.”
“Stretched a firehose across the street, from your truck to a tree, and he’s hauling people up on top of the truck to keep them safe.”
“Who is doing that?”
Eddie smiled faintly. “Buck.” He wasn’t even recertified yet, but he was still being a firefighter with every damn breath he took.
– – – –
“The water’s receding!” Jorge called out, watching the flow of the water carefully from his position on top of the cab.
Christopher roused in Buck’s arms and started looking around. Buck had wound up sitting next to Marissa for the last twenty minutes or so, and he’d told her about how they were waiting for Eddie who was a firefighter with the 118. That 9-1-1 dispatch knew to look for Buck’s GPS signal.
People started to get excited at the water going down, but Buck held up a hand. “Receding water is another type of surge, so it’s still a strong current. It’s just going the opposite way. Hopefully, by the end of it, we have dry land but, in the meantime, it brings most of the problems of a wave and all that debris going back to sea. So hold on tightly.”
Jen gasped a pressed a hand to her mouth. “Oh god.”
Buck craned his neck to see what was bothering her and saw a body face-down floating toward the truck.
Buck wasn’t having Chris seeing any dead bodies if he could help it. He swapped seats with Jen so his back was to the water with Chris facing the buildings. He used his hand to shield Chris’ peripheral vision.
Marissa pulled out her phone. “I’m going to try to get pictures for later identification.” Her expression was grim as she picked her way down the truck to try to take some pictures. She had a top of the line iPhone, so she might be able to get some identifiable photos.
“Buck!” Kyle called from inside the truck. “We got a live one coming right toward the cab!”
“Damn.” Buck got to his feet and let Jen steady Chris so Buck could see what was going on. The survivor was indeed coming right for the truck. “Can you catch him, Kyle?”
“We’ll try! We’ve got room for him in here, but when we get him, pass in some water for the new dude.”
Buck was moving to try to assist, but then the truck was rocked by a collision with something, and there was nothing for Buck to grab on to. He toppled backwards off the truck.
Buck was underwater the next instant and then something landed on him hard. The jerky movements told him it was a person who’d landed on him, so Buck held on to the small body and kicked for the surface.
Breaking the surface, he gasped for air, registering Christopher crying in his ear.
Why was Chris in the water?
Buck had no time to figure anything out. He had to stop their path back out to sea and not get smacked into by anything on the way.
They were already past the catch line, and people were screaming out their worry, but he had to ignore it for now. Buck held on to Christopher and swam as hard as he could for anything to grab, anything that would protect them from the piles of debris being swept out to sea.
“Just hold on, buddy. Don’t let go.” He could feel the energy in his arms pulsing, it was even affecting his back, and he had no idea what that was trying to do, but it was helping. Helping him keep striking out for something to hold on to. He did not want them swept out to sea.
With Chris holding on to him and the water moving so fast, Buck had a hard time grabbing anything. He got to a tree for a brief moment but an incoming field of debris had him kicking away or risk them being crushed.
He finally managed to get ahold of a light pole of some kind and there was a slanted roof staring him in the face. The water was riddled with bodies and debris, so Buck didn’t hesitate to sling Chris onto the slanted roof. “Hold on!”
“Chris, just lie down so you don’t fall. The roof isn’t flat!”
“Don’t leave me!” Chris sobbed.
“I won’t, just please lay down so you don’t fall. I can’t get up there if I’m worried about catching you. Please, sweet boy, just lie back.”
Crying, Chris lay down so his position was less precarious, and Buck released his one-handed grip on the light to try to haul himself up. He was unsuccessful and got swept a little further down to the next light pole.
“Just stay there. I’m right here, Chris. It’s the same building. I just need to get myself out of the water, okay? Please, please, wait right there.”
Chris’ sobs were breaking his heart, but Buck had to ignore it as he grabbed the edges of the roof and pulled himself up, his arms shaking. He felt splinters lodge in his palms but kept going until he was collapsed on the slanting overhang. He was in danger of falling off at any second if he wasn’t careful.
“I’m here, buddy. I’m maybe fifteen feet away. Just let me catch my breath and I’ll get to you.” From the landmarks, he was pretty sure they were back on the pier.
“O-kay,” Chris hiccupped.
Buck stayed in the weird reclining-curled-up position that was required to stay on the roof and just focused on breathing for several long moments. Then he lifted his hands and yanked out several big splinters from his hands. Watery blood was running down his arms, but not in huge amounts. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had cuts and abrasions over a lot of his body. Being swept several blocks in the water was not trivial.
His conduit marks were pulsing steadily. “I have no idea what that means,” he muttered. He dropped his arms and blew out a breath. “Chris, you okay?”
“I know. I’m coming.” Buck began inching his way along the slanted overhang toward Christopher. It was hard to figure out the architecture with most of the building under water, but he knew this was a restaurant and thought this slanted bit of roof was over their patio. He just had to hope it would support his weight.
He finally got within touching distance of Christopher, and their hands were immediately clasped together. “I’m here, buddy.” Chris’ face was a little scratched up, but nothing else visible. Buck inched closer. “Are you hurt?” He began prodding at Chris’ torso, feeling along his ribs.
Chris shook his head and then sobbed. Buck slowly pulled him close, being careful with their hazardous perch. He kept feeling along Chris’ back, checking for injuries.
“Chris, I need to know if anything hurts.”
“Okay, buddy. We’re okay.” He held Chris tightly. “Please tell me you didn’t jump in after me.”
“I was reaching for you when you fell, and I slipped. And I dropped your phone!” Chris wailed.
“Oh, Chris, that’s okay.”
“But how will Daddy find us without the phone?”
“Your dad will find us just fine. He doesn’t need a GPS signal to find us, kiddo.” He tipped Chris’ head up so he could meet Chris’ gaze. The glasses were around Chris neck, no telling when they’d come loose. “We’re on a roof now, and we’re going to just stay here until the water goes down. Then we’re going to climb down and I’m going to give you a piggyback ride to the nearest first responder. Okay?”
Chris sniffled and buried his face against Buck’s chest. “Okay, Bucky.”
– – – –
The work at the field hospital was incessant. Eddie had asked that they let him know, let him go along, whenever they sent a team out to Colorado Avenue. So far, it was one thing after another and no reports of a team going where Eddie needed to be. The cell phone lines cleared up and phone calls started getting through intermittently about ten minutes ago, but calls to Buck weren’t connecting yet.
Bosko’s captain had been brought into the field hospital less an arm, but still alive, and Eddie hadn’t seen Bosko since. He kept working, checking in with the incident commander whenever he got a break.
When he went to check in with the IC again, the guy waved him over. “The water has almost completely receded on most of Colorado up to the pier.”
“I’m headed out then. If I don’t have to wait for a boat, I’ve got no reason to stay here.”
The guy held up his hand. “They’ve already evacuated the firetruck. There are about thirty people from that one section of Colorado on their way here now. They were picked up by National Guard troops helping with search and rescue.”
“They’re coming here?”
“If you’ll just wait right here, they’ll arrive any minute.”
Eddie frowned, something seemed weird, but the IC turned and got back on his radio. He felt like he’d been half-ordered to wait in the command tent, so he stayed put, fidgeting restlessly.
A couple of minutes later, a woman in a tattered blouse and pants, arms and face covered in scratches entered the tent. She was obviously a victim of the tsunami, but had a lot of presence about here. She was familiar, but Eddie couldn’t place her.
The IC nodded to her then gestured to Eddie.
The woman came up to him, hand extended. “Firefighter Diaz?”
His gut clenched. “Yes.”
“Deputy Mayor Marissa Morales.”
“Ma’am,” he managed to get out.
“Buck pulled me out of the water; he saved my life.”
“Where is Buck?”
“He got knocked into the water during the final surge back to sea. Debris hit the truck and rocked it pretty badly. He probably could have made it back to us, but Christopher was reaching for him and lost his balance, fell right on top of him. They both went under, but they came back up; Buck was successfully fighting the current when we lost sight of them as they were swept back toward the pier.” Her tone was clinical and dispassionate, but her gaze was conflicted and emotional.
Eddie felt his knees go wobbly and sat down.
Morales sat with him, taking his hand in both of hers. “I believe they’re okay, and you need to believe that too. I was the last person Buck pulled out of the water, but everyone told me about him, about how he’d pulled them all out. Including the people on the two SUVs and the guy he even helped up a tree; he saved over thirty people out there.”
“It’s no comfort if I don’t find him,” Eddie choked out.
“I know, so I’m going to offer you the only comfort I can. There’s a search and rescue team right outside. They’re ready to leave. You’re with them; they’re tasked to the area down Colorado and up to the pier. I’ve explained we’re urgently looking for Mr. Buckley and the young Mr. Diaz. So, get going.”
Eddie got to his feet, throat feeling tight with suppressed emotion. “You called in ahead.”
“Yes, I radioed the incident commander as soon as the National Guard pulled me down from that truck to ask him where you were.” She handed him a phone. “Christopher dropped this. Take it back to him.”
Eddie took Buck’s ridiculous, oversized phone that took damn great pictures and held it tightly. “Thank you.”
“There is no way to repay Mr. Buckley for what he did today except to bring him home. So…go.”
He ran out of the tent and met up with the S&R team ready to take him along. Somehow, the gear bag he’d stashed in the medical tent had made its way over, and Eddie didn’t bother to ask questions, just climbed in the back of the Humvee.
As they drove, he half heartedly participated in the introduction, but most of his attention on the phone. He unlocked it and checked the recent text messages. There were red exclamation points next to several messages, showing failure to send.
Message: Dad, we’re okay. Bucky is saving people. We love you.
Message: We’re still okay. The phones are all broken. <3
Message: Miss Jen says we should have a message ready with all the people on the truck so if someone gets a message out people will know we’re here. She’s going to type it. Buck keeps going in the water to help people. I’m scared he won’t come back. I love you Daddy please come find us.
Message: Names of survivors on firetruck and surrounding vehicles at Colorado and 2nd. Please contact loved ones.
The long list of names was the last thing typed into the phone. Eddie held the phone against his chest, eyes squeezed shut.
– – – –
Every person they helped should make Eddie feel good, but it didn’t. Because these people weren’t his son, and they weren’t his soulmate.
Every dead body they tagged for later was like a knife in the gut. Would he be finding Buck and Christopher? It felt like they’d been searching down Colorado for hours. It was dark, and Eddie didn’t even know where to look. For all he knew, Buck and Chris were swept down a side street or back onto the pier.
He wanted to scream in frustration, but he kept doing his job, kept stopping for each trapped person, and tagging each dead body.
The power was mostly out in this section of Santa Monica, and it was dark outside the range of their search lights. Though there were some odd pockets of light. One of the hotels clearly had a generator and the lights were blazing on the second floor and above. They had their lobby doors open with a sign that people were welcome to shelter on the second floor until transport could be arranged to shelters. But the streets were dark.
One of the Guardsmen partnered with Eddie, pointed down the pier. “Look. Survivors.”
Several people were walking in from the direction of the pier, using phones for flashlights. A few even had what looked like candles. It was hard to tell their condition or even how many there were in the dark, so Eddie grabbed his first aid bag and jogged to meet them. “You okay?”
“We’re all right,” a young woman said.
“Where’d you come from?”
“We were at Bubba Gump’s when the wave hit. I work there. We’re a hodgepodge of customers and employees. It was the wrong time of day for the restaurant to be very busy, but we tried to get people in for as long as we could.”
“The doors held?”
“For a little bit, but we could tell it wouldn’t last. But the kitchen doors did hold. We were still knee deep in water, but it’s better than being underwater.”
“No one’s hurt?”
“There were some people hurt, yeah. But when the water receded, we went out to see what was going on. There was this man and a kid on the overhang of this other restaurant. He stayed to help with the wounded; he’s an off-duty firefighter. He said as many of us as could manage it should walk out and try to get help, to send someone back for them.”
Eddie’s heart started pounding in his chest. “Were the firefighter and the kid all right?”
“I guess. We were inside for the whole thing, so we we’re fine. I don’t have much to compare it to, but they looked beat to hell. But he swore they were fine.”
Eddie wanted to run. “And you guys are all okay, right? No one needs help?”
“This firefighter, was he a conduit?”
“Yeah? His arms looked like an entire garden. You know him?”
Eddie ignored the question. “Where exactly is Bubba Gump’s?”
She looked confused. “Uh. Go straight down to the pier. It’ll be on the right.”
“Okay, good.” Eddie started moving. “Report to that man over there. He’ll tell you where to go or when someone will be here to get you.” Then Eddie was full-out running, aware that the two Guardsmen were running along with him.
“This the people you’re looking for?”
“It sure the hell sounds like it.”
He had to slow when it got to be too dark to see the obstructions in the way. With their high-powered flashlights, he was easily able to tell when they were on the pier, and he started picking out landmarks.
“That’s Bubba Gump’s right there,” one of the guys said, pointing. “Look at the candles.”
The area in front of the restaurant had a lot of candles burning. A few people were milling about, and the doors to the restaurant were open. A dim glow spilled out from within. There was a bench next to the door and two people were on it. One was an older woman and the other was…
“Christopher!” Eddie ran full-tilt for his son.
“Daddy!” Chris was on his feet, holding on to the woman’s hand by the time Eddie got there.
Eddie dropped to his knees and pulled his son into his arms; he’d been so afraid he’d never hold him again. “Oh, Mijo, I was so scared.”
“I’m okay.” Chris was alternating between patting him and clinging. “I’m okay, Daddy, I’m okay.”
Eddie pulled back and looked Chris over, noting all the scratches and bruises. Are you hurt? Where’s Buck? Is anything broken? Why are you out here alone?”
Chris’ hand settled over Eddie’s mouth, stopping the flow of questions. “Bucky said I’m not old enough to watch a lady have a baby, so I’m sitting here with Ms. Georgina while the lady inside has her baby.”
Eddie blinked a few times then laughed behind Chris’ hand, but it sounded more like a sob. “I was so scared I’d lost you two,” he said as he pulled the hand away. He looked to Georgina. “Thank you for sitting with him.”
She nodded. “I’ll continue to stay so you can go in and help out with the expectant mother.”
Clive, one of the Guardsmen with Eddie, clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ve got this. Stay here.” Clive and Ian headed inside to see what the medical situation was.
“Anyone else hurt in there?” Eddie made himself ask, wanting nothing more than to ignore everyone else in favor of his family.
“Not in there, no,” she said evasively.
“Ms. Georgina hurt her ankle,” Chris offered. “Buck carried her out here.”
“Ah. Well, thanks for filling me in, buddy. How about you sit again while I check that ankle out.” He got Chris back on the bench. Then glanced at the other milling survivors. “Everyone okay?”
Georgina said, “They’re either with me or with the young woman inside. It was my birthday party.”
“Hell of a birthday.” Eddie began checking her ankle, taking her through moving her toes. “That is definitely broken.” He radioed back to the head of the S&R team he’d been with. “Be advised, in addition to the woman giving birth, we have a seventy-four-year-old female with a fractured left ankle.”
“Copy. We’re sending transport to you.” He received a few additional instructions from the commander while he extemporized a split for Georgina’s ankle.
“Okay, buddy, now it’s time for me to check you over.” He really wanted to find Buck, but the need to make sure Chris was okay was just as strong.
Other than bruises and scratches, Chris had a tender abdomen, but he said it didn’t hurt too bad. “I was on Buck’s shoulder when he was running from the tsunami, Daddy. It was bouncy.”
“I guess that could make you sore. I don’t see any significant bruising, so I guess you’re all right.”
“See? I told you.”
Eddie framed Christopher’s face. “Yes, you did.”
“Eds,” Buck said, and Eddie whipped his head around to stare at the love of his life standing in the doorway of a cheesily named theme restaurant. He looked like he’d been through a tornado and like he could drop at any moment from exhaustion.
Eddie staggered to his feet. “You scared the hell out of me, Evan Buckley.”
Buck’s smile was wan. “Yeah, well, you took your sweet time.” The tone was teasing, but there were tears in Buck’s eyes.
They were only a couple of feet apart and reached for each other at the same time. The instant they touched, it felt like Eddie was hit with a sledgehammer.
His back felt like it was on fire, his head felt like it was expanding, and all he could think of or feel was Buck.
A surge of energy felt like it was building between them; it felt so strong, he was sure it would consume them both. Buck’s arm felt hot and pulsing under Eddie’s hand.
Then it felt like the world exploded.
– – – –
Bobby helped the last of the stragglers off of the truck; it was the people they’d rescued from the natural-gas flooded apartment building. Then he went in search of the incident commander, wanting to find out where Eddie and Buck were.
The man shook his head. “Unknown. Diaz went out with an S&R team after the people from the firetruck were brought in without Buckley or his son. Last known location was at Colorado and Ocean.”
“They’re going back to the pier?”
“Buckley was swept back to sea.”
“Is there a clear path to get to Colorado?”
“There’s an entire S&R unit out there, Captain. They’ve got the vehicles and equipment for this. If your people still have juice, I can use help here with the people incoming.”
Bobby was about to argue, to make plans to get back to where they’d left the 118 ladder truck and search on their own, when he felt a sharp sting and then a burning sensation on his upper arm.
He slapped his hand over it, hissing in shock. “What the hell?”
Several other people in the tent were doing the same thing, only some were grabbing the back of their neck or their hip or a leg.
Bobby yanked up his sleeve and saw a grey mark forming on his skin; the kind of mark that would go deep black when he had a soulbond. He stared wide-eyed at the symbol that looked something like a torch with two handles.
“Oh my god.”
“Is that a new soulmark?” the commander asked in astonishment even as his radio squawked again.
“Yeah, it is.” He took a shuddery breath. “It has to be.” He reached out and touched it and felt Athena resonate in his very being.
“Bobby!” Hen was yelling his name as she and Chim came racing into the tent. “Soulmarks!” She held up her hand, displaying something that could pass for tribal rendition of a fern on her wrist. Chim had his shirt pulled up, something that looked like a loopy plus sign on his ribs on the left side.
He showed his arm. “When you touch it…?”
Hen’s eyes were filled with tears. “I feel Karen.”
“Maddie,” Chim confirmed, sounding choked up.
The commander came over, expression grim. “The National Guard team is coming back with injured, including your boys. The team is reporting that this soulmate thing started with them. They say it was some kind of intense burst of energy when the two first touched.”
Bobby blinked in astonishment. “Are they okay?”
“They’re both unconscious. Their kid is freaking out, so you need to be here when they arrive.”
Floored, Bobby nodded. “We’re not going anywhere.”
– – – –
Bobby paced around the area for arriving vehicles, aware of Hen and Chim doing the same, anxiety coming out of every pore. He’d gotten a text from Athena that she and Maddie were on the way. He’d acknowledged it, but hadn’t known what else to say.
Headlights pierced the dark and then the Humvees came to a stop. Chris’ sobbing tore at Bobby’s heart, and he stepped forward, hating that he had to pull Chris away from an unconscious Eddie. Buck was in the other vehicle.
“I’ve got you, Christopher, I’ve got you,” Bobby whispered against Christopher’s hair. “Let them work on your dad.”
Bobby watched, filled with worry and sadness as they unloaded Eddie and then Buck, both out cold, the doctors rushing in to help.
A woman’s voice carried strongly over the din. She was in the back of the open truck with an improvised splint on her ankle. “For those of you who have never worked with soulmates before, you can’t split them up! You need to keep them close to one another. We were all there when they got their marks, so you keep them together!”
The doctors and nurses looked startled but then started taking Eddie and Buck the same direction. Hen shot Bobby a look then ran after the medical team, no doubt to make sure they didn’t split the pair up again.
Bobby rubbed Christopher’s back. “They’re gonna be okay. We’ll make sure of it.”
– – – –
Athena rested against Bobby’s shoulder—the arm with the soulmark. They hadn’t talked about it or looked up the mark; they’d simply squeezed each other’s hands and then worked at the field hospital until they’d received word that Buck and Eddie were being moved to Cedars.
None of them were invited to go along, so they’d made their way back to the truck—with a very upset Christopher in tow—and made the trip to Cedars. From there, it had been like pulling teeth to get information.
They’d been told it was after visiting hours and they should leave, but when they refused, they were shown to waiting room. Hen had left to go home, needing to be with her family. The phone lines were more reliable away from Santa Monica, so Hen had taken on the task of contacting Isabel Diaz, Eddie’s Abuela, so that she could spread the news as needed.
The nurses had taken pity on Bobby, Chim, and Athena, allowing them access to clean up. So, they’d peeled off one at a time to shower and change into scrubs. A doctor had carefully looked Christopher over and then Maddie had helped him bathe and get changed into some pajamas.
They’d thought about sending Chris with Hen, but the kid had pitched a fit at the idea. Other than that one outburst, he’d been quietly desolate since they’d arrived at Cedars. He was currently asleep on Maddie’s lap. Maddie was curled up against Chim on the small sofa.
All they could do was wait. And pray.
“Captain Nash?” a woman said from the doorway. She was an older woman—probably in her late sixties, but she looked younger—dressed in slacks and a blouse, looking nothing like a hospital employee, though she was a little disheveled. Her pure white hair was pulled back in a braid and she had small black plastic glasses.
They all got to their feet, Chimney taking Chris from Maddie.
“I’m Dr. Ellen McAvoy with the Soul Registry.”
Bobby blinked in shock. “Oh. Hello.” He managed to get his feet into motion and stepped forward to shake her hand.
“My apologies for the lack of communication up until now; I was the one who arranged to have Mr. Diaz and Mr. Buckley transferred here.”
“Because they weren’t going to get what they needed out there. Medicine has forgotten new soulmates a little. A conduit getting their soulmark is a little bit traumatic; it can be almost as difficult as when they get their conduit marks.”
“Is that why they’re unconscious?” Athena asked, stepping close.
“Not precisely. I theorized with my colleagues based on how the conduit onlining basically rippled out across the world that the energy for soulmarks flowing on this plane would be released in much the same way: rippling out from one point. Buck was one of the likely candidates we’d identified as being the first—assuming our theory was correct. I stayed in Los Angeles to monitor the situation.”
“But how did you know?”
“It’s rather convoluted, and we didn’t know, we hypothesized. In any case, it wasn’t just the matter of getting his marks that was difficult, it was that the initial surge of anima energy being released went through him, flowing out to other conduits, connecting the points on the web. The whole globe is already covered.”
“Through Buck?” Maddie repeated.
“He’s a remarkable young man,” McAvoy said with a smile. “I didn’t want anything to happen to him, and what they hadn’t told you was that both of them had gone into shock. I had them transferred here to avoid any preventable issues that might make matters worse.” She waved a hand. “But come with me. I have them in a VIP suite upstairs. There are plenty of soft couches for you all to rest on. We can place the young Mr. Diaz in bed with them. I’m sure they’d all find that reassuring.”
Bobby felt like he was in a daze as he followed along with Chimney, listening as Maddie and Athena peppered McAvoy with questions that were only vaguely answered. They went up to a floor Bobby had never even been on, with a security guard and access codes. The weird environment silenced Maddie and Athena, who were taking it all in.
Chris was still conked out on Chimney’s shoulder.
They were shown into a spacious suite that could have been a hotel room if it wasn’t for the medical equipment on either side of the queen-size bed.
Buck and Eddie were both in the bed, presumably in nothing but pajama bottoms because their chests were bare. They’d been cleaned up, and Eddie looked the same as always, but Buck was a mess of cuts and bruises. His conduits marks stood out in colorful relief against his too-pale skin. His face was pretty badly sunburned. Both men had IVs and heart monitors.
“They’re holding hands,” Maddie whispered. “Did they wake up?”
“Soulmates put side-by-side will always hold hands, even if they’re unconscious,” McAvoy said, stepping up to Buck’s side of the bed to check his chart.
Maddie was looking between the two high-end monitors displaying vital signs and other information. “They’re synced. That only happens between soulbonded pairs who are touching. How could they have soulbonded?”
“We think it’s a sort of proto-bond, something they instinctively did so that Buck would survive the energy release. Conduits channeling anima energy need a shield to balance them. Without a normal soulbond, nature found a way to make do. I don’t believe it will last, but we’re in unchartered waters, so only time will tell.”
“Their pulse is only thirty-two,” Bobby choked out.
“It’s not unexpected for their circumstances, and they should rebound quickly. We expect them to be fine as long as they can stay together until they’re ready to wake up and sort out their soulbond.” She gave them all a cursory once-over. “I’ve cleared for you all to stay here if you wish. There are drinks and food in the refrigerator. I do think the young Mr. Diaz should eat and then sleep with his fathers.”
Bobby just nodded dumbly, feeling like all his energy had drained away.
Chim put Chris on the bed next to Eddie. Chris woke partially, realized he was with his dads, and cuddled close. He reached out for Buck then fell right back to sleep.
“I’ll wake him in a bit to eat,” Chim said tiredly. “It’ll give us a minute to take care of our own meal and make some calls.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it,” McAvoy said. “Press the call button if you need anything. I’m staying on this floor, and I expect to be working quite late.”
“Thank you,” Athena said as McAvoy started to walk away. “We can’t tell you what this means to us.”
McAvoy nodded, then her gaze flicked to Athena’s arm. “Is that new?”
Athena touched it. “Yes, it appeared tonight. It matches Bobby’s.”
Bobby couldn’t help but touch his own mark, feeling Athena resonate in every fiber of his being.
McAvoy smiled softly. “It’s the symbol of the hearth. Generally marking pairs who have a strong sense of family, particularly extended family.”
Bobby felt like he’d been gut punched for some reason. Athena’s small hand curled into his.
Maddie’s hand went to her ribs. “Do you mind looking at ours?”
“You two as well?” McAvoy’s smile got bigger. “I’d be pleased to help.”
Chim raised his shirt.
McAvoy’s expression briefly looked a little pained. “It’s the symbol of happiness. It usually comes to pairs who have not had much of it, and fate is correcting your course.”
“Oh.” Maddie pressed her hand to her mouth, eyes filling with tears. Chim led her over toward one the couches, and the two sat together.
Athena held out her phone. “One of our other friends who had to leave also received her mark. Do you mind? I got a picture of it earlier. I’m sure she can look it up…”
“That’s the AYA. Or just fern. It symbolizes resourcefulness and endurance. It typically comes to those who have outlasted many difficulties.”
“It’s probably terribly inappropriate to ask about Buck and Eddie’s mark, isn’t it?” Maddie asked.
“Generally, yes. Though someone was caught taking a picture of Mr. Buckley’s mark. We confiscated the camera, so no actual picture was leaked, but the nature of his mark has been given on a social media site. Tweeter or some such.”
“I hope whoever that was—”
“They are no longer employed here,” McAvoy said. “In any case, they both bear an enso. A circle made with a single brush stroke.” She headed for the door. “Goodnight.”
“What does an enso mean?” Bobby called out softly.
“Whatever they wish it to.” The door clicked shut.
Bobby collapsed into a chair on Buck’s side of the bed, and Athena folded herself onto his lap.
She kissed him gently. “We all made it through.”
“Yeah.” His eyes felt hot and wet, and Athena brushed the tears away.
He reached out and took his heart-son’s hand. They’d weathered the storm, and they’d all come out the other side intact. He had faith that the boys would wake up when they were ready. Nothing was going to be the same, that was for certain, but at least nothing was going to be broken this time.