A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Chapter Text Chapter 2 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 3 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 4 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 5 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 8 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 12 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 16 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 18 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 22 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 25 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 26 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 27 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 29 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 30 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 31 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 32 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 33 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 34 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 35 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 36 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 37 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 38 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 39 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 40 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 41 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 42 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 43 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 44 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 45 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 46 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes:

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (1)

Part I: Buck Begins

Chapter 1 A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (2)

Evan Buckley was just shy of his fifth birthday when he realized that his parents didn’t love him the same way they loved his siblings. While they showered an eight-year-old Maddie with affection and adoration, they largely ignored Evan until he was deemed useful . Instead of being lavished with the same devotion and attention as a seven-year-old Daniel was, Margaret and Philip Buckley looked down at their youngest. They showed such disdain and disgust that it caused something deep inside his chest to curl up like a scared, wounded animal, frantically hiding away from the circling predators.

The only times his parents paid any sort of attention to him was when it was time to go to the hospital. He never remembered much, as the visits were few and far between, but his nightmares were always filled with white-coated doctors in dark, menacing masks hovering above him and the harsh scent of antiseptic.

And the needles.

Always the needles.

It didn’t matter how loud he screamed and begged or how hard his little legs kicked out in frantic protest; the doctors never failed to pin him down with a mask shoved against his face as they brought the needle closer and closer until everything finally went dark.

Every time he awoke to the plain white-washed walls of the exam room, his back, near his hips, felt sore and unpleasant, limbs still too heavy from the general anesthetic. To add to his confusion, Evan didn’t even know why he was there in the first place. His parents refused to even try to explain what the doctors wanted from him badly enough to torture him once every eight months. Instead, they dismissed every question and plea for answers, simply telling him to stay quiet and let the doctors do their jobs.

What was worse, Evan couldn’t see Daniel for months after his trips to the hospital. He missed his brother desperately when he wasn’t around, especially when he felt alone and scared. He wanted the bear hug Daniel always had waiting for him when he got home from school and the warm comfort of sneaking into his big brother’s room after a particularly bad nightmare. When Evan tried asking where his brother was because he just didn’t understand , his parents’ faces twisted and hardened with disapproval, causing his heart to sink straight down into his stomach.

Thankfully, Maddie took pity on him and brought him to the neighborhood park, away from Margaret and Philip Buckley’s near-constant degradation. It had stormed heavily the night before, leaving the playground equipment coated with a layer of rainwater and their shoes squelching as they hopped over puddles. They quietly made their way to the swingset, and Evan used his small hand to brush off as much water as he could before settling into one.

As Maddie gently pushed him on the swing, high enough where he could kick his feet out freely but not high enough to where he’d hurt himself if he fell, she softly explained that Daniel was really sick and had been for a while. Apparently, Daniel needed to stay in the hospital after each one of his treatments, which happened to coincide with Buck’s visits, to ensure he didn’t get an infection, which is why he couldn’t come home.

Evan had asked why they couldn’t go see Daniel in the hospital, because wouldn’t their brother feel better after seeing him and Maddie? That would be the only way Evan would feel better if their situations reversed, he reasoned. But, judging by the devastated look on Maddie’s face, he’d said the wrong thing.

He was always saying the wrong thing.

It wasn’t until a few years later that he realized that Maddie did visit Daniel in the hospital, and often enough to know that he did, in fact, love visitors. Their parents just didn’t want Evan near their precious Daniel—the son they actually wanted .

But Maddie, even at eight years old, knew that she couldn’t share that bit of information with her little brother without breaking his already fragile heart into a thousand different pieces. When they returned home, and Evan was asleep upstairs, she puffed out her chest and confronted her parents about how they treated him. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately shot down and told that she “just didn’t understand the situation,” and that they “didn’t treat Evan any differently than her or Daniel; he’s just a problematic child.”

Maddie was old enough to know when her parents were lying to her—could see how they bulldozed over her baby brother with her own eyes—but not old enough to be able to do anything about it. So, instead of fighting for Evan like she fiercely wanted to, Maddie tried to give him the love he deserved.

She would ruffle his messy blonde curls, brushing a thumb over the pink-dotted birthmark over his left eye, and wrap an arm around his little shoulders whenever she was close enough to touch. Their daily bedtime routine grew as she gifted him a set of books from her own room, seeing as Evan’s bookshelf was heartbreakingly empty, save for a few polaroid photos she, Daniel, and Evan had taken together. She made her baby brother laugh by reading to him with an array of funny voices and did her best to keep that smile on his face for as long as possible.

However, she was only one person and far too young to stop the freight train of abuse Buck endured around their parents and each and every trip to the hospital. Her willingness to love her brother couldn’t stop what was coming, no matter how hard she tried.

Despite her efforts, Evan Buckley couldn’t escape the mounting trauma that resulted in him coming online just shy of his fifth birthday.

XX

The world’s population of Sentinels and Guides had steadily been decreasing over the past few centuries. While almost half of the soldiers who fought in the First World War had the Blessed Gene embedded in their DNA, only one in every one hundred people carried the capacity to come online nowadays. Scientists attributed the steady decline to Natural Selection—the differential between survival and reproduction of organisms due to the characteristics of the environment. Naturals, those born without the Blessed Gene, had adapted to the changing of the times—and their innate competition with those carrying the superior genome—through sharp increases in technology, machinery, medicine, and so much more. This led to the working theory behind the decline in the Blessed Gene being an equally steep increase in the abilities of Sentinels and Guides.

While rare in numbers, Sentinels possessed overly-heightened senses. Where they previously could only fully tap into one or two of them, the evidence of Natural Selection is highlighted in the fact that modern-day Sentinels hold the ability to utilize all five elevated senses.

As expected from the evolutionary adaptation of the Sentinels, Guides, in turn, have grown exponentially more powerful than their ancestors. A Guide’s base function of simply acting as a Sentinel’s anchor evolved into an empathic ability with the potential for outward physical, mental, and physiological stimulation. With the proper training and discipline, a modern-day Sentinel-Guide team is practically unstoppable.

Due to the diminishing numbers, when an individual with the Blessed Gene comes online— always during puberty—the law requires registration with the closest Center. There is usually one in every major city, but those in less populated areas might need to drive or fly a few hours to reach one. At the Center, the individual will undergo a series of tests and examinations of their newly-formed tattoos to determine if they manifested as either a Sentinel or Guide. They would subsequently receive a mentor to study under and a training schedule to take back to their families.

The public’s opinion on Sentinels and Guides is generally positive. Because of their natural abilities, they usually fall into more demanding roles and career paths such as military personnel, first responders, and jobs of that nature. Naturals previously held a lower opinion on Sentinels and Guides due to their instinctual need to bond with their counterparts.

While a Sentinel was astonishingly powerful with full control over their heightened senses, they risk falling into a zone, or fugue state, where they become hyper-focused—losing awareness of the world around them. Only a trained Guide can pull a Sentinel out of this fugue state. In turn, when a Guide is overwhelmed with the onslaught of emotions, only a Sentinel can truly anchor them to the world, using that foundation to reaffirm their senses long enough to come back to themselves.

Because of this biological imperative, a compatible Sentinel and Guide can proceed with an imprint and bond if they so choose. Bonds can either be romantic or platonic, but regardless, they are always exceptionally intimate and spiritual in nature. Additionally, bonded Sentinels and Guides have elevated control and emotional connections to their counterparts due to the heavily involved process of becoming one.

However, modern medical advances include suppressants for those with the Blessed Gene. When an individual comes online and does not have the opportunity or necessary funds to follow the provided training schedule or a counterpart to help them adjust to their new way of life, the Center prescribes suppressants to allow a buffer so as not to overwhelm the new Sentinel or Guide.

Older Sentinels and Guides, who either didn’t want to or couldn’t bond for whatever reason, are allowed suppressants as well. However, their brain chemistry is far too advanced for the medicine to fully satisfy their biological need. As a result, they aren’t as readily available as the adolescent suppressants and exponentially more expensive, although there are those who swear by them.

Due to the extensive research and studies surrounding this phenomenon, society as a whole is reasonably well informed on those individuals who carry the Blessed Gene. Countless fiction and non-fiction books, movies of all genres, and various forms of music exist with the Blessed Gene right at the heart of the subject.

Despite all of this, when a four-year-old Evan Buckley jerked awake with a piercing, guttural scream rather than slowly coming awake from the anesthesia, the doctors and nurses within reach were all at a complete loss for what was wrong until the tell-tale tattoo blossomed across the pale skin of his chest, directly over his heart.

XX

As Evan’s screams filled the room, Margaret Buckley clutched at her husband’s arm, her chest seizing in shock. Her son’s tiny nails clawed at his head and up his rib cage, hard enough to break through the skin.

“What’s going on?” Philip shouted at the doctors and nurses flooding towards their son, his hand gripping his wife’s tightly. “What’s wrong with him?”

His usually steady voice trembled as the hospital staff grew steadily more frantic. They didn’t look any closer to finding a solution until Evan let out a sharp whimper, and everyone in the room froze, their eyes never leaving the small boy.

“What?” Margaret demanded, wanting to get closer to see what they were looking at but afraid to know the answer.

“Will there be complications with Daniel’s bone marrow transplant?” Her husband asked warily, and Margaret felt a weak stab of embarrassment that Daniel was both of their first priorities while their youngest son was clearly in distress. However, she shook off the doctors’ uneasy looks and her own guilt with a quick roll of her shoulders. Her son was dying , and she would do anything to save him. Evan would thank her one day once he understands the sacrifices they made to save Daniel.

A pair of nurses attached themselves to Evan while Daniel’s surgeon turned to look at Margaret and Philip with wide eyes behind his thick-framed glasses. The others who had filled the room earlier quickly made their escape, leaving a high-strung tension permeating the air around them.

“Well?” Philip challenged hotly. “What happened?”

Doctor Cooper’s mouth fell open for a moment as he glanced at Evan and then back at the Buckley’s. “Your son…” he hesitated, “are either of you familiar with a family history detailing the Blessed Gene?”

Margaret reared back as if slapped. “ Excuse me? What does that have to do with anything?” It was common for families to have some history of Sentinels and Guides in their ancestry. But, Philip and Margaret were a part of a Naturalist Group who took pride in the fact that their blood had diluted enough to ensure that nobody in their family had come online in three generations. They didn’t need heightened senses or blubbering empathy to succeed in this world, not when they had their own mind to think rationally and independently from those who depended on others to survive.

“Well,” Dr. Cooper continued, swallowing thickly, “it seems as though Evan has come online.”

What? ” Philip roared, making everyone in the room, including herself, flinch away from him. “That’s impossible! There shouldn’t even be enough of the Blessed Gene in his DNA to allow this to happen; regardless, Sentinels and Guides don’t come online until at least puberty , if ever!” He swiped his free hand across the air in front of him, taking a menacing step forward. “So, you’re wrong .”

Dr. Cooper shook his head, straightening his shoulders against the verbal assault. “Mr. Buckley, I understand how difficult this might be for you to understand. I confess that even I will have to take some time myself to wrap my head around it, but the evidence is indisputable. The tattoo has formed over his heart. Therefore, per protocol, we will take Evan to the hospital’s testing floors to determine if he is a Sentinel or a Guide. We are contacting a representative from the Global Sentinel-Guide Association as we speak.”

Margaret’s hands trembled as she clutched onto her husband tighter. “How—how is this even possible? He’s four years old.”

“I don’t know,” the doctor admitted, looking back at a struggling Evan with a crease between his eyebrows. “To be honest, this is unprecedented. Perhaps the GSGA will have more information.” He pushed his glasses on top of his head and rubbed at his eyes before returning his attention to the Buckley’s. “Would either of you like a moment with your son before we take him downstairs?”

“No,” Philip denied harshly, dropping down onto the couch pressed up against the hospital windows and burying his face into his hands. “No.”

Margaret secretly agreed but kept quiet. She didn’t understand what was happening nor what this meant for their family. Their Naturalist Group would surely find out if hospital staff had already called the GSGA representative. The group would remove them as active members for breaking the fundamental code of ethics, and they would lose their support system surrounding Daniel’s illness. Margaret fought hard not to allow the tears that had gathered in the corners of her eyes to fall.

Daniel . How would this complication affect her sweet son? Surely, any future transplants would be tainted? Would they even be viable?

What was going to happen to her son?

XX

Evan wanted to go home .

He wanted Maddie and Daniel to hold him tight and tell him that everything was going to be okay, that he didn’t do anything wrong . He didn’t want to be taken to an entirely different part of the hospital and asked questions he didn’t understand.

The nurses put him in a room by himself, except for one lady with long, curly brunette hair, a stern-looking face he was instantly wary of, and an iPad. She sat him atop a bed high enough off the ground that he couldn’t jump off and run away. The lady was quiet as she attached colorful wires to different parts of his body—his chest, the base of his neck, and various points around his head—before finally addressing him. “Hello, Evan, my name is Dr. Schmidt. Can you tell me how you are feeling?”

Evan looked around for anyone or anything he might recognize, but everything was frighteningly unfamiliar. “It hurts,” he whined, hating to sound so much like a baby, but it did . His entire body felt like tiny fire ants had crawled underneath his skin and were trying to burrow their way out. He wanted to tear the wires off of his body and toss them across the room with another loud scream. The throbbing in his head made everything fuzzy, and all he wanted was Maddie . She would know what to do to make him feel better.

“What hurts, Evan?”

“Everything!” He shouted, scratching over his chest again, where the nurses had added a thick, lumpy bandage over his heart, right where it hurt the most.

Dr. Schmidt’s face twisted unpleasantly, so much like his parents did when he did something they didn’t like, that Evan grumbled to himself and forced his hands to his side. Why wasn’t she helping him? Wasn’t that supposed to be her job?

“I understand you’re upset, Evan, but I need you to concentrate. This is very important.” She told him smoothly, bringing her device closer to her face before looking up at him again. “Now, there is a person right on the other side of that door.” Dr. Schmidt pointed towards the wall to his left with a manicured finger. “Can you tell me what they are saying?”

Evan blinked, opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it again. He looked over the wall, trying to figure out if she was trying to trick him. How was he supposed to know what someone was saying if he couldn’t see them? They weren’t even in the same room!

“No…” he frowned, feeling frustration well up in his throat as his eyes burned. “I can’t hear anything .”

“Are you sure? Can you smell anything coming from this person? What about tasting something new on your tongue?”

“No!” He repeated, the tears finally leaking out of his eyes, streaking down his cheeks. “They aren’t in the room! How am I supposed to hear or smell or taste anything !? I want to go home!”

Dr. Schmidt took a deep breath and clicked on her tablet a few times, her mouth pulling into a grimace. She touched a finger to her ear, whispering something that he couldn’t make out. When she finally brought her attention back to Evan, her face was blank in a way that had him scooting back against the pillows. “I’m sorry for upsetting you, Evan. You must be very scared.”

He curled his hands together and looked down at his lap, nodding slowly. He was terrified . His parents dragged him to the hospital, again , even after he begged not to go, and the doctors did something to him while he was asleep because his hip hurt like it normally did when they forced him to come here. But when he woke up from his nap this time, it wasn’t just his hip that hurt—it was everything . There was just—just so much , digging into his brain and yanking at his heart like they were trying to take it straight out of his chest. The doctors must have given him something to make him feel better because the pain was muted now, though he could feel everything hovering, just inside his veins, pushing outwards, desperate for freedom.

“I am trying to discern what exactly made you sick, and then I’ll give you the right medicine to make you better. Do you understand?”

Evan nodded again, his lip wobbling at her softer tone. Things always got worse when his parents stopped yelling.

Dr. Schmidt hummed. “Thank you, Evan. Now, I know you are confused but could you try to focus on the person in the next room one more time. Do you think you can tell me what they are feeling?”

“How?” He asked quietly. He didn’t want to make the doctor upset with him again, but he didn’t know what to do .

“Why don’t you close your eyes for me? Maybe that will help.”

Evan pouted and crossed his arms over his chest, careful of the wires, but followed her instructions.

“Very good,” she praised lightly. He felt a small spike of satisfaction ping inside his head. “Now, think about the room next to us, the one I pointed to earlier. It looks exactly like this one, but a person is sitting in a chair inside.”

His imagination stretched and reached out as if flexing a muscle as Daniel sometimes did. The room materialized within his mind, settling in a flurry of muted colors and abstract shapes. Evan knew the room should be a copy of the one he was in, but that’s not what his brain decided it looked like.

Inside the chaotic painting sat a man, younger than Evan’s father by quite a few years if the lack of wrinkles indicated anything. His form blurred and melted without warning, making it impossible for Evan to make a guess as to what he looked like.

However, while Evan was living in color, grays and dark blues covered the room; a yellow light shone brightly from deep inside the man’s chest. It was warm and inviting, and Evan wanted to burrow into that feeling.

“Well?” Dr. Schmidt pressed again. “Do you know what this person is feeling, Evan?”

He opened his eyes once more, almost disappointed when the world returned to its rightful state. Evan nodded, rubbing a hand over his puffy eyes. “He is happy.”

Dr. Schmidt’s eyebrows shot upwards, almost disappearing behind her curly bangs. She looked down at her tablet once again for a long moment before meeting his eyes. “That’s…correct.”

Evan didn’t understand why she sounded so surprised. All of this was her idea, wasn’t it? Didn’t she want him to get the answer right?

“Do you know what’s wrong with me now?”

She sucked in a sharp breath and stared at him. Evan’s eyes felt heavy, and his limbs started losing their feeling. All he wanted was to go home .

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Evan. These tests confirm that you have what’s called the Blessed Gene. You’ve come online as a Guide.”

XX

While Philip rested his eyes for a few minutes, Margaret kept hers wide open and focused intently on the hallway, watching for any movement from the hospital staff. Sure enough, Dr. Cooper greeted a slim woman with a certain air around her who looked to be in her late sixties, with long gray hair parted straight down the middle. They spoke for a few minutes, with Dr. Cooper writing something down on the chart in his hands. After that, they turned to enter Evan’s room. Margaret tugged on her husband’s arm and encouraged him to his feet.

“Mr. and Mrs. Buckley, I’d like to introduce you to Charlotte Keen, the GSGA representative I mentioned earlier.”

Mrs. Keen held out her hand for both Philip and Margaret to shake, which they did, albeit reluctantly. The woman stood before them in a well-pressed navy pants suit; the regal authority she carried in her shoulders would, in a normal situation, have Margaret inquiring about an invitation for coffee. But, unfortunately, her affiliation with those with the Blessed Gene ruined any possibility of friendship.

“I’ll leave you in her capable hands,” Dr. Cooper addressed, “but I wanted to inform you that the lab has finished rendering the results of Evan’s bone marrow sample.” Margaret sucked in a sharp breath of air and tightened her grip. “I’m pleased to inform you that it will still be viable for Daniel’s transplant. I’m going to go check on him now; if you’ll excuse me.”

As he ducked out of the room, Margaret and Philip let out matching sighs of relief and shared a pleased glance. Thank goodness their son wouldn’t suffer from this horrible misunderstanding.

“It’s nice to meet you both.” Mrs. Keen said pleasantly, though there was a strange undercurrent of disapproval Margaret couldn’t quite grasp. “I’d like to speak with you both about your son, Evan. Please, have a seat.”

They followed her lead and sat back down on the small couch while Mrs. Keen perched atop the closest chair, setting the tablet from the nearby workstation onto her lap. When her attention returned to them, Margaret felt an uncharacteristic impulse to fidget.

“Evan completed his testing downstairs within the hospital’s designated ward, and the results were quite astonishing.”

Philip clenched his teeth so tight Margaret could see the muscle jumping from the strain. “And you’re sure there’s no mistake?”

Mrs. Keen’s face made a complicated movement before smoothing out once more. “I can assure you, Mr. Buckley; there is no mistake. Testing confirms Evan is a Guide and his results, which are unprecedented, have been filed with the GSGA.”

“But he’s four years old ,” Margaret stressed, her voice trembling. “How is this even possible?”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” Mrs. Keen narrowed her eyes as she continued. “I shared Evan’s results with two of the GSGA’s specialists to ask that very question.”

Margaret and Philip stared at her as she paused, annoyed with the fact that she seemed to enjoy putting them on edge. “Well?” Philip snapped.

Mrs. Keen simply raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “They believe his early manifestation was a result of his participation in these bone marrow transplants.”

“What?” Margaret breathed, bringing a hand up to her mouth in disbelief. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, Mr. and Mrs. Buckley,” she answered with a frown, “that Evan undergoing the donation process resulted in enough trauma and fear that it sparked an abnormal increase in the neurochemicals to which the Blessed Gene responds. Because of this, Evan came online far, far earlier than nature intended.”

“Are you saying this is our fault?” Philip demanded hotly, pushing up to his feet once more and bringing his wife with him. “We’re trying to save our son here!”

Mrs. Keen stood to her full height as well, not the least bit intimidated by the man. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything, Mr. Buckley, just stating the facts.”

Margaret’s chest seized at the thought of someone looking down on her family. She couldn’t stand the idea of people having the wrong idea about them. They were good people! They donated money to charity and made sure that their children never went hungry. They didn’t deserve to have a dying son without any chance of survival until his parents did something about it. “Daniel has been ill for a long time, Mrs. Keen. Evan was his only hope; we didn’t have a choice . We had to save our son. Please, you must understand.”

The woman pursed her lips and nodded, looking down at her tablet and clicking on the screen a few times before lowering it again. “Be that as it may, the GSGA is concerned about Evan’s adjustment as a Guide in his current state. He’s far too young to be prescribed suppressants, and without a counterpart, I’m afraid he will have a difficult time adapting to his new way of life.”

“Well, what do you suggest, then?” Philip sneered, crossing his arms over his chest, the plaid stretching with the movement.

“I’m glad you asked, Mr. Buckley,” Mrs. Keen told him with a slight smirk. “The GSGA is assigning a mentor to Evan. We feel it is in Evan’s best interests to meet with this seasoned Guide for a few hours at least twice a week—no exceptions. He will take diligent notes on Evan’s well-being and progress to ensure he is comfortable and cared for in his home. If this Guide comes back to the GSGA with anything short of an exemplary, then we will send an agent to investigate. Do I make myself clear?”

Philip sputtered while Margaret swallowed around a lump in her throat. “What—what is the meaning of this? How can a stranger be the judge to determine how I run my household?”

Mrs. Keen narrowed her pale blue eyes at him. “I’ve already flagged Evan’s file due to the circ*mstances surrounding his coming online. He’s the youngest Guide to date, due to trauma no less, and everyone’s eyes will be on him. So the world will be watching you, Mr. Buckley.”

“Is that a threat?” Philip growled, his eyebrow twitching in barely contained rage.

Margaret cleared her throat in an attempt to push the attention away from her husband to give him a few moments to calm down. “Who will the GSGA be sending to mentor Evan?”

“His name is Robert. Robert Nash.”

XX

Chapter 2

Summary:

Bobby meets the newly manifested Guide, Evan Buckley.

Notes:

Happy Sunday everyone :) Wow, the response to the first chapter was amazing! I'm so glad you've enjoyed it so far.

Thank you to my beta @MugiwaraLexi and my cheer reader @Neeco for all of your help.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (3)

Part I

Chapter 2

The familiar ebb and flow of the bustling firehouse washed over Bobby as he swiped the rag over the blood-red engine, clearing the last of the soot from their call earlier that afternoon. He felt the mental shields he erects at the beginning of each morning falter under the weight of his exhaustion from coming up on the end of a twenty-four-hour shift, and he fought the clawing in his chest that demanded attention. He could survive a few more hours without finding his way to the nearest bar.

He could .

“Firefighter Nash!” An echoing voice called from across the bay, causing Bobby’s heart to seize and his throat to tighten. “My office, now!”

What could his captain possibly want? He hadn’t made any mistakes on any of the previous calls, and he didn’t think his slight hangover was noticeable enough to warrant a discussion, not when he could play it off as feeling under the weather.

As he neared the small office, Bobby wondered if this was the intervention he knew he desperately needed. He wondered if his captain, colleagues, or family finally figured out how he truly dealt with the constant influx of emotions forced upon him in these high-intensity situations as an unbounded Guide.

“Captain?” He asked with a straightened spine, dread curling in the pit of his stomach.

The man was sitting at his desk reading over a report within a Manila folder, looking up at Bobby over the rim of his oval glasses. “Take a seat, Firefighter Nash.”

Bobby did so, swallowing down the paralyzing fear that everything was coming to an end—that his ruse was finally up. “What can I do for you, Sir?”

Captain Conrad huffed, laid down the folder he was reading from, and ran a calloused hand through his salt-and-peppered hair. It was due for a trim, Bobby noticed idly. “I just had a call from the GSGA. You’ve received an assignment.”

Bobby blinked rapidly, re-orienting himself. This was…the opposite of what he had been expecting. He knows that his previous tutoring record was exemplary, but he’d been off the roster for at least three years now. His wife, Marcy, had given him an ultimatum when it became clear he couldn’t handle the demands of firefighting, training, and being there for his one-year-old son and pregnant wife. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me, Bobby,” Conrad replied gruffly. “You’ve been asked to report to a home in Hershey twice a week to train a new Guide that’s come online.”

“But…” he hesitated. “How is that possible? And why me ? Hershey is at least two hours away, and I know for a fact there are active trainers closer to that area.”

Conrad sighed and shook his head. “I know this is strange, Bobby, but the request came from Charlotte Keen herself.”

Bobby’s shoulders stiffened. What was the state representative of the GSGA doing involving herself in a simple case like this? “But why ? I don’t understand.”

“The kid who manifested as a Guide…he’s four years old.”

What? ” Bobby choked, pushing up to his feet in disbelief, a surge of protectiveness rising within his chest. Robert Jr. was just shy of his fifth birthday himself, and Brook had just turned three. He couldn’t imagine either of his own children manifesting so early in life. How the hell did this happen?

Conrad pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses before returning his attention to Bobby. “You and Marcy will need to meet with Charlotte to go over the case file because she only gave me the bare minimum to explain why I’ll need to cut your hours here at the firehouse. But, apparently, the scientists over at the GSGA concluded trauma had a hand in the kid coming online, and they want you to train him.”

Bobby sagged heavily, as if all of the air had been snatched from his lungs, and dropped back down into the chair. His head fell into his hands as he pictured his own children faced with the constant barrage of emotions he dealt with daily and found that he couldn’t . It was too distressing to imagine a child going through the same pain he experienced.

He would have to talk with Marcy— plead with her, really—because there was no way in hell he was leaving that little boy to deal with manifesting on his own.

“What’s his name, Captain?”

Conrad huffed again, looking down at his file and raising his head to meet Bobby’s eye. “Evan. Evan Buckley.”

XX

Bobby stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, wiping away the condensation that formed during his shower, and then returned his white-knuckled grip to the porcelain edges of the sink. He fussed with his hair just a bit before leaning back and letting out a sigh. It had been a few days since his last trip to the liquor store, so there wasn’t anything he could do about the darkening bags under his eyes or the slight trembling of his hands.

Ever since Bobby talked to Marcy about the situation surrounding Evan, his wife had been watching his every movement like a hawk. While she agreed wholeheartedly that this little boy, so close in age to their own son, needed a seasoned trainer to help him through manifesting, she just couldn’t risk their family falling by the wayside again. He couldn’t blame her, not when he’d failed so spectacularly in the past. He swore to her that she, Robert Jr., and Brook would still be his priority.

He begrudgingly agreed that something would have to give. They’d met with Captain Conrad and the Chief two days ago to confirm that his benefits would still be in place despite his decreased hours at the firehouse. With the agreement the GSGA had in place with government-funded businesses, they were required to hold his position and pay during an assignment that lowered his hours from full-time to part-time.

He wasn’t necessarily concerned about that part, as he’d more than proven himself as deserving of the spot, but knowing that his lifestyle would need to change drastically was putting him on edge. Bobby wasn’t a naive man; he was perfectly aware that he had a problem with alcohol. He knew that drowning out the constant bombardment of emotions on high-intensity calls and dangerous situations with booze was not the appropriate way to handle his demons, but he never believed he was in a situation where he could quit.

Until now, of course. Bobby hadn’t come across another Sentinel or Guide in quite some time, and when he did, he was able to throw up his mental walls and block out their instinctive intrusiveness. But if Bobby was going to train Evan, a four-year-old boy with absolutely no knowledge of this life, he couldn’t risk falling back into bad habits. Not giving a newly minted Guide his full, completely sober attention during training could result in an unmitigated disaster for everyone closest to him. He just couldn’t take the chance of hurting Evan while under the influence.

Not that quitting cold turkey wasn’t severely problematic. He already had the dates and times of his preferred AA meetings mapped out and a handful of sponsors he needed to get in contact with. Bobby grit his teeth against the throbbing in his temple, moving to his bedroom to change into the clothes laid out on the bed.

“She should be here any minute,” Marcy told him softly when he made his way into the living room, looking nice in a knee-length forest-green dress. “The kids are down for their nap.”

“Thanks, Hon,” Bobby said gratefully, pressing a quick kiss to her cheek. “I’ve got the paperwork ready in the front room.”

Before his wife could reply, a knock sounded at the door. They shared a nod of understanding and went to open the door together.

Charlotte Keen greeted them politely; her long grey hair pulled back into a tight bun. “Mr. and Mrs. Nash, what a pleasure it is to see you again.”

“You too, Mrs. Keen,” Marcy grinned, stepping aside and gesturing her inside. “Please, come in. Make yourself at home.”

They both shook her hand, and Bobby led them into the living room, where he and Marcy settled on the couch while their guest took the opposite armchair. “Marcy made some snacks if you're hungry, Mrs. Keen.”

She gave them a small smile and picked up one of the offered plates from the coffee table, and began piling a handful of cheeses and grapes onto it. “Please, call me Charlotte. We’ve certainly known each other long enough.”

“Charlotte, then,” Bobby allowed, wiping his sweating palms against his pant leg. “Thank you for coming by. Marcy and I have been looking forward to discussing this with you.”

“Bobby’s right,” Marcy agreed readily. “We’re very interested in hearing about Evan. Do you know how he has been since he manifested? We’ve been worried.”

Charlotte’s lips twisted down into a frown before her expression cleared. “He’s returned home since coming online last week. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep him at the hospital for more than a night once we completed testing, though we tried.”

Bobby’s muscles tensed as he leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs. “And his family? I read the initial report, but you must have a few suspicions if you came to me with this. There are perfectly respectable trainers closer to his area who are far more convenient.”

She nodded with a sigh. “To be frank with you both, I’m concerned with his quality of life. Evan’s parents, Philip and Margaret Buckley, are members of a Naturalist Group which takes pride in the dilution of the Blessed Gene. When I spoke with them in the hospital, their views on Evan’s manifestation were…disturbing, to say the least.”

“What was he doing in the hospital in the first place?” Marcy asked, her hands fidgeting together in her lap. “Was he hurt? Or was he brought in when the tattoo appeared?”

Charlotte shook her head and looked away for a moment before returning her attention to them. “Evan is the youngest of three. His older brother, Daniel, is a seven-year-old with Leukemia.” Both Bobby and Marcy sucked in sharp breaths of surprise. “He’s been in remission for a few years but has needed yearly bone marrow transplants, with this last donation meant to be the end of it. Philip and Margaret had Evan hoping he would be a savior sibling. They got their wish. Evan was mid-procedure when he manifested.”

A slight ringing noise sounded between Bobby’s years as he tried and failed to picture Robert Jr. in Evan’s situation. He couldn’t imagine the fear the little boy must have felt through this whole process. From his EMT training, Bobby was aware that it took multiple blood tests to confirm if someone could be a viable donor, which meant they had to take the blood from him as a baby . After confirmation would be the extraction. Bone marrow donations were incredibly painful, requiring a large needle inserted in the pelvic bone. And if Charlotte’s suspicions were correct, then Evan wasn’t receiving the emotional support he desperately needed to make it through that entire experience intact.

Which would explain how he came online as a Guide so unbelievably early.

Judging by the reflection of tears gathering in his wife’s eyes, she had come to the same conclusion.

“That’s horrible,” Bobby closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Are they aware that I have my first session with Evan next week?”

“They are,” Charlotte assured him, straightening her posture after setting the empty plate down onto the coffee table. “I don’t think they were very pleased with the ultimatum, but they agreed nonetheless. Have you completed the first draft of Evan’s training schedule as I asked?”

Bobby cleared his throat and nodded, picking up the binder from the end-table and handing it over. He’d worked on it almost non-stop since he received his captain’s call, and Marcy reviewed it for him once they worked everything out with the firehouse. “I used my previous lesson plans as a guide and then revised them based on the information I had about Evan. I was hoping you could help me tailor it with the results of his tests and suggest a few different practices after speaking with him personally.”

Charlotte’s lips twitched into a smile, turning to the first page. “Of course. Let’s get started.”

XX

Evan sat on his bedroom floor, toes digging into the beige carpet as he played with the legos Maddie pulled out of Daniel’s room when their parents weren’t around. His brother had to stay in the hospital for a few months to ensure he didn’t get an infection, so he wouldn’t mind if Evan borrowed his toys.

At least that’s what Maddie said. Evan wasn’t so sure.

The past two weeks have been…different. His parents didn’t allow him to leave the house anymore, so Evan only interacted with them and Maddie since the hospital. The walls had begun closing in on him, threatening to take the very air from his lungs as confusion and disorientation pressed heavily atop his chest.

Evan felt almost constantly overwhelmed and unbalanced. His parents kept him at arm’s length even more than usual, and Evan knew it was because he was a Guide now, though he’s unsure what that means. The doctors at the hospital tried to explain it—that he could feel other people’s emotions now. But he really hated it so far, and nothing truly made any sense.

Where he felt small and insignificant around his parents before, now their presence was borderline oppressive and muted in rays of murky red and dim greys. Evan couldn’t really describe it to Maddie when she asked, but if he put some effort into looking for it, faint tinges of color protruded from people’s chests. He assumed it was the emotions the doctors told him about manifesting into something he could perceive.

Today, the air felt anxious and tense, bringing everyone to the edge of their tempers and making Evan hide away in the safety of his room. According to Maddie and the hushed conversations he picked up from eavesdropping on his parents, someone was coming to the house.

A Guide .

Evan didn’t know if he should feel relieved or nervous. One of the first things he asked for when he left the hospital was to meet another Guide, but his parents shut him down quickly with a sneer accompanied by a wave of disgust. If he really had the chance to meet one now, he would have so many questions.

Why did this happen?

Why did his parents hate it so much?

How do you make everything stop?

Commotion out in the hall pulled Evan from his thoughts, and he froze in his attempt to put Iron Man’s helmet on the Lego figurine. A few moments later, a soft knock sounded at the door with Maddie’s head poking through the gap.

“Ev?”

Evan swallowed around a lump in his throat. His heart pounded an echoing tattoo against his chest, and he idly wondered if his sister could hear it. “Yeah?”

“He’s here. Can we come in?” She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, and he nodded if only to keep her from hurting herself by accident.

Maddie sucked in a deep breath and pushed the door open, leading in a tall, stocky man with shortly cropped dirty-blonde hair. His pressed khaki pants and dark blue polo drew Evan’s eyes to the firefighter logo stitched onto his breast pocket. When Evan concentrated harder, he realized he couldn’t necessarily feel anything from this man, but a yellow hue and light green swirl radiated from the center of his ribs.

“Hi, Evan,” the man greeted softly, pinching the fabric of his pants and dropping to a crouch so that he was eye-level with Evan. “My name is Bobby.”

The countless lessons his parents drilled into him had Evan reaching out a small hand to fit into Bobby’s giant one out of politeness. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”

Bobby grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling with the movement. “I’d like to speak with you about a few things if that’s okay with you?”

Evan glanced over at Maddie, who gave her cautious nod of approval. He swiped a sweaty palm over his curls and chewed on his lip. “Yes, that’s okay.”

“Great,” Bobby hummed, pushing to his feet and holding out his hand. “Your parents gave me permission to bring you and your sister to the park down the street. I had a feeling you might need a bit of fresh air.”

Evan swallowed again, taking the offered hand and following Bobby out towards the living room. His parents stood tersely in front of the couch with their arms crossed protectively over their chests. They shot him a passing glance which morphed into a glare when Bobby acknowledged them with a tight smile. Their usual reds and greys whirled into darker shades that had Evan hovering closer to Bobby.

It only took a few minutes to make it to the park, where a handful of kids played on the monkey bars with their mothers watching from the surrounding benches. Bobby led them to one of the picnic tables nearby and helped Evan onto the seat before sitting across from him and Maddie.

“So, Evan, can you tell me what you have learned so far about being a Guide?”

Evan twisted his hands together, pressing his leg against Maddie’s for support. “The doctor told me that I can feel other people’s emotions. Is that right?”

Bobby gave him a gentle smile and nodded. “Exactly, very good.” Evan’s cheeks flushed with the light praise. “There are two different types of people in the world. There are the Naturals, like your mom, dad, and Maddie, who have standard DNA and do not possess any additional abilities. Then, some have something different in their DNA, something we call the Blessed Gene, that makes them special. Those with the Blessed Gene can come online as either a Sentinel or a Guide. That is what happened to you, Evan.”

“Hmmm,” Evan hummed, searching Bobby’s face as he parsed through the new information. “What do Sentinels do?”

“Are you aware of the five senses that people have? Sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell?”

Evan and Maddie both nodded their agreement. “Well, Sentinels are hard-wired to have heightened senses. So where you and I can hear the laughter coming from the children on the playground or smell the barbeque cooking down the road, a Sentinel can hear the rushing of the river located two miles west, or be able to smell the deodorant of the chef standing in front of the smoker. Does that make sense?”

Evan’s eyes were wide and hopeful as he leaned forward. “Does that mean they are superheroes?”

Bobby barked out a laugh that had the corners of Evan’s lips twitching upwards. “No, they aren’t superheroes, just people like us. However, a comparison would probably help you understand the relationship between Sentinels and Guides.” He placed a fist underneath his chin as he tilted his head to the side to think. “Okay, imagine that Superman is a Sentinel. He can see, hear, and smell things far away from himself, and he can taste more when something touches his tongue, or he can feel more when something brushes against his skin. But, like Kryptonite, this power can also make him vulnerable. There is a risk of a Sentinel getting too focused on one of those senses, making him enter into a fugue state or a zone. This means that the Sentinel gets so caught up in one of their senses that they can’t focus on anything else. Every part of their mind, body, and soul is stuck, leaving them vulnerable—where someone can hurt them. Do you understand so far?”

The three of them were quiet as Bobby let Evan process everything. “I think so. If a Sentinel gets hurt, how does he get better?”

“That’s where a Guide, like you or me, comes in,” Bobby told him with a smile. “While on their own, Guides have an extraordinary amount of empathy, which means they can feel other people’s emotions; this becomes something else with a Sentinel. In the example with Superman, Guides are like the sun. They help power up a Sentinel when they are vulnerable and weak and help ground them when they are caught up in a fugue state, or zone, and can’t get out of it themselves.

“This help goes both ways, though,” Bobby continued. “While a Guide can help build a foundation for a Sentinel, in return, a Sentinel can help a Guide from getting too caught up in the emotions of the people around them. Have you felt something like that since coming online?”

Evan’s gaze dropped to the tabletop, and he chewed on the inside of his cheek. “It’s...a lot. Everyone is so mad all the time. I don’t know how to make it stop.”

Maddie gently rubbed his back as he slumped forward against the edge of the table. Bobby hesitated before reaching out one hand towards Evan and the other towards Maddie. When both children slowly took the offering, he squeezed each of their tiny hands. “That’s what I’m here to help you with— both of you. I’ll be coming to see you twice a week to teach you how to concentrate and block out all of the emotions of others you are feeling. You’re far too young to receive help from a Sentinel, and the medicine that many people take won’t be available to you until you’re at least fourteen or so. But, once you learn control, a world of possibilities will open up as a Guide. I’m sure between myself and Maddie, we’ll be able to help you, Evan. I don’t want you to worry. Everything is going to be okay.”

Evan’s throat tightened while his lip wobbled and tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. “Do you promise?”

Bobby squeezed their hands again. “I promise.”

XX

Notes:

Thanks everyone for reading! Thoughts? Feelings? Kudos and comments are like lifeblood and help encourage me every step of the way in completing this story.

If you ever have questions or just want to chat, I'm on Tumblr at "shesliketexas-17"

See you next week!

Chapter 3

Summary:

Buck begins his training with Bobby. Daniel comes home.

Notes:

Thank you to everyone who has subscribed/given kudos/bookmarked/commented on this story, the response has been really wonderful! I hope you enjoy this chapter!

S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi and my cheer reader @neeco.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (4)

Part I

Chapter 3

Evan plastered his face against the front window of the house, his palms stuck against the pane as he bounced on the balls of his feet. Bobby would arrive any minute now and Evan couldn’t wait to see him again. They hadn’t started any training during the first session; instead, focusing on getting to know each other. They discussed Bobby’s job and Maddie’s school, along with their favorite movies and animals. Evan and Maddie learned about Bobby’s family, including his wife, Marcy, and their two children, Robert Jr. and Brook. The older Guide promised to introduce Evan and his sister one day, which meant Evan actually had the chance to make a new friend.

Predictably, his parents were just as cold and distant as they had been the weeks prior, but now Evan had something to look forward to—a sliver of hope. Maddie had snuck into his room the past three nights since Bobby dropped them back off at the house, cuddling up with him against the mound of pillows and fantasizing about what life as a Guide would be like now that they’d actually met one in person.

As he pushed up to his tippy-toes to see further out past the rose bushes nestled in the front yard, Evan wondered what Bobby would teach him today.

He wouldn’t have to wait long to find out because his mentor’s rusted, red pick-up truck pulled up against the curb, and Bobby hopped out of the cab, making his way towards the cookie-cutter, American Dream house through a stereotypical white-picket fence. Evan squealed, calling out for Maddie and rushing towards the front door.

Evan , how many times have I told you not to leave smudges on my windows? Worthless child .” He cringed away from his mother’s sharp tone, instinct forcing his eyes down to his feet as he backed up against the wall. “Clean it up, now !” She turned on her heel, returning to her spot on the couch next to his dad, who had a dark scowl on his face.

Evan didn’t hesitate to shuffle into the kitchen to find the cleaning supplies, swallowing against the lump in his throat as he heard Maddie open the door to greet Bobby. Dread settled heavily inside of his stomach, and Evan desperately hoped that his trainer didn’t stop coming to see him because he was a bad son—a worthless child . He refused to meet Bobby’s eyes and was too afraid to respond to his soft “hello” until the window was clean because he knew his mom would make things even worse for him if he tried.

Once the paper towel roll and cleaning spray was put back in the cabinet (always at arm’s reach for him), Evan made his way back into the living room with his hands fidgeting behind his back. “Evan?” Bobby called out again, and when he finally looked up at the older Guide, Bobby’s face appeared pinched, an unhappy frown tugging at his lips.

Evan squeezed his eyes shut and tried to stop his lip from wobbling. He couldn’t let Bobby see how bad he was, how worthless. If only he’d listened to his mom and remembered to follow the rules; then, maybe, he would already be at the park right now and not about to be told that Bobby didn’t want to train him anymore.

“Can you look at me, please?” Bobby asked gently, his voice much closer than Evan expected. The older Guide had crouched down in front of him with Maddie standing close enough to intervene if necessary. Evan obeyed but sniffled in an attempt to keep his nose from running. “Are you okay?”

Evan nodded slowly, fighting the urge to break eye contact. It felt like Bobby was looking straight into his soul, and Evan was distinctly uncomfortable.

“Are you ready to go? We can head to the park again, just like last time.”

Evan’s eyes widened, surprised that Bobby still wanted to train him even after seeing what a bad kid he was. He didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he took Bobby’s offered hand and let the older Guide lead him out the front door. Maddie fell in line on Evan’s other side, and when he looked over his shoulder, his parents were sneering down their noses at them.

He snapped his gaze forward, trying to will away the turbulence in his stomach. The muted yellow wisps coming from Bobby’s ribs swirled together with a mix of black and red, though Evan couldn’t feel any particular emotions coming from him. As they drew closer to the park, the line of Bobby’s shoulders relaxed, and Evan felt himself mirroring the movement. The older Guide prompted Maddie into a conversation to catch up on the previous few days’ events, and when they arrived at the park, he helped Evan onto the same bench as the last session. There were fewer children at the park this time around, and Bobby explained that it was actually ideal to have less distractions for today’s lesson.

“Before I outline our objective for today, I need to explain what makes the Blessed Gene special,” Bobby started, lacing his fingers together and placing them on the table in front of them. “Do you remember what I said about it during our last session?”

Evan chewed on his bottom lip before responding. “You said that people with the Blessed Gene can manifest as either Sentinels or Guides.”

Bobby’s lips tugged upwards into a grin, “Exactly right, Evan. There is a very specific reason scientists named the gene as such, and that’s because those who have it are able to access the Spirit Realm with time, patience, and a lot of training.”

Evan and Maddie exchanged an alarmed look. His sister scooted closer to him, brushing their legs together. “The Spirit Realm?”

“Yes, it is a parallel plane of reality which coexists alongside the physical world. Think of it as putting on glasses for the first time after not being able to see. Everything is really blurry and confusing until you get fitted for your correct prescription. Now, all of the sudden, you can see clearly. All Sentinels and Guides can access the Spirit Realm, but it takes a lot of training to establish a real connection. Once you’re aware of it, then you can see yours, and others’, Spirit Animal.”

Maddie’s jaw dropped to the ground while Evan straightened in his seat. “Wait—I have a Spirit Animal?”

Bobby nodded and glanced off to the side, a fond expression on his face. “All Sentinels and Guides have one. Mine is an African lion, whom I’ve named Zeus.”

Evan snorted and couldn’t help the wide grin stretching across his lips. “That’s a funny name.”

“I was really into Greek mythology when I manifested as a Guide,” Bobby shrugged, amused and fond as he reached out a hand to pet the invisible cat. “Spirit Animals are a reflection of our souls. They represent the qualities from which we formed our personalities and interests.”

“What does it mean that Zeus is your animal?” Maddie asked with narrowed eyes darting across the bench as if she could make out a hint of the creature.

Bobby leaned back and tilted his head. “Lions are well-known symbols in many different cultures, including Greek, Celtic, and Egyptian, as well as religious sects, such as Christianity and Buddhism. They, most commonly, represent power, protection, and strength of mind. It’s one of the reasons I became a firefighter, actually.”

Evan rested his chin atop his tiny fist, excitedly shuffling forward as far as he could. “How can I see mine?”

The older Guide chuckled. “It will be a while before you can tap into the Spirit World. The primary way you access it is through meditation, which is where we are starting. A critical part of meditation is controlling your breath. Once you learn how to breathe properly, you can focus on clearing your mind. After that, I’ll teach you how to connect with the energy inside of you, which will establish the link to the Spirit Realm.”

“Wow,” Maddie breathed out. “That sounds amazing.”

“It will be a lot of hard work,” Bobby warned, watching Evan with a soft look that held a hint of steel. “I know you’re young, Evan, but this is important, and the very first step to becoming a Guide. Are you ready?”

Evan practically scrambled up to his feet, leaning against the tabletop for balance as a blinding smile split across his face. “I’m ready!”

XX

Exactly thirty-three days after Evan met Bobby, he turned five. His parents had warned him that they would visit Daniel at the hospital, so it wasn’t like he was expecting them to wake him up with a hug and birthday wishes, but he couldn’t help but be disappointed when the house was quiet.

He sulked in his bedroom for a few minutes before giving himself a shake and trying to overcome the heartache burrowed inside his chest. After everything his parents have said to him since becoming a Guide and how they’ve treated him, he should have known that his birthday wouldn’t be a cause for celebration. He wasn’t funny like Daniel or smart like Maddie, so he didn’t have any traits to keep his parents from leaving. They even told Evan that manifesting as a Guide would ruin things for their family, but he desperately wanted to believe Bobby when he explained how wrong that type of thinking truly is.

Evan let out a harsh sigh and shuffled towards the kitchen to make himself some breakfast. He’d watched his mom make pancakes a few times before, and surely there were instructions on the box? When he stepped into the room, his eyebrows shot up toward his hairline, his mouth falling open. “Maddie?”

His older sister squeaked in surprise and almost dropped the pan she was taking out of the oven. Her brunette hair was thrown messily into a bun, while her cheeks flushed with a pink tinge, and it appeared she’d splashed batter on the white apron wrapped around her torso with batter. “Ev? You’re not supposed to be awake yet!”

A crease formed between his eyebrows as she hurriedly placed the pan on top of the stove and turned off the oven. Then, Maddie pulled the mitten off her hand and rushed over to Evan, wrapping him up in an encompassing hug. “Happy birthday, baby brother.”

Evan’s throat closed up at the reminder that someone in this house did, in fact, love him. He clutched onto his sister and buried his face against her apron, careful to avoid the stains. When they finally pulled away, Evan sniffled and wiped at the wetness trailing his cheeks. “I—thank you. What are you doing in here?”

Maddie pursed her lips and set her hands on her hips. “Well, I was trying to have some cupcakes ready for you when you woke up, but someone decided to get out of bed earlier than usual.” Evan glanced over at her to see a hint of a smile softening her words. “So now they just need to cool off before I put the frosting on.”

“Buttercream?” Evan asked hopefully, twisting his fingers together in front of him. He really shouldn’t push because she’d already done so much more for him than he was expecting, but he couldn’t help it. He loved Buttercream icing.

But he didn’t need to worry because Maddie simply grinned and put an arm around his shoulder, pulling him in closer. “Of course, baby brother. I know it’s your favorite.”

When Bobby called later that morning to wish him a happy birthday, Evan preened with the knowledge that someone outside of his family remembered. He bit into another cupcake and cuddled with his sister, settling in on the couch to spend the day watching his favorite movies.

XX

Three months into his training sessions with Bobby, Daniel returned from the hospital.

His parents had spent the last few days running around the house preparing for his arrival. They barked at Evan to stay out of the way while they bustled about. He wasn’t willing to risk another hiss of his name, as every time they snapped or snarled “ Evan, ” he knew he was doing something wrong and was forced back into his room. Maddie tried to play peacekeeper, but even she was more stressed out than usual. Neither of them knew how Daniel being back home would affect the family dynamic, and Evan was terrified of finding out.

What if his brother hated him just as much as their parents did? Sure, they never came right out and said as much, but when he’d gathered up the courage to ask his parents point-blank if they loved him, every fiber of Evan’s body screamed at him—helping him understand that they were lying when they responded, “Of course we do. Don’t be ridiculous.”

Would Daniel be the same? Would he look down on Evan and be surrounded by swirls of agitated reds and greys, pushing out feelings of disappointment and fury every time he so much as looked in Evan’s direction?

Or would he be like Maddie, a blaze of sunlight breaking through the turbulent storm raging around him? Would he condemn his parents’ treatment of him and behave like Evan was part of the family?

Evan stood beside his sister on their front porch, clutching her hand in an attempt to stop the trembling of his own. They watched together as his mom helped Daniel out of the car, hovering over his shoulder as if terrified he’d collapse any moment. Which might not be so far off base, considering how thin he’d gotten since the last time Evan saw him. A thin layer of blonde hair had regrown atop his head, and there were dark shadows beneath his eyes, but they shone brightly when he looked towards the house.

“It’s going to be okay, Ev,” Maddie whispered reassuringly. Even she didn’t sound sure.

But Evan couldn’t breathe. Tension rolled off him in waves, getting trapped in his lungs until he was struggling to take a breath. As Daniel and his parents drew closer, Evan curled into himself, effectively making himself a smaller target in case something went horribly wrong.

“Evan!” Daniel beamed, pushing away from their mother and running forward with a strength none of them realized he possessed. Before Evan could flinch away, his big brother’s arms wrapped around his small frame and crushed him to their chest. Daniel buried his face in Evan’s hair held onto him even harder. “You saved my life, Ev. I’ll never, ever be able to thank you enough. I love you.”

A sob tore itself from Evan’s throat, and he grabbed onto his brother’s red hoodie, finally letting the fear and apprehension drain from his shoulders. “I love you too, Daniel. Welcome home.”

XX

Life with Daniel was nothing like he expected. Instead of outward signs of aggression, Philip and Margaret spent their time largely ignoring Evan. Daniel seemed to think this behavior was odd and always tried to include his little brother in their activities. However kind Daniel and Maddie were, whenever their parents had to interact with Evan, they continued to spit his name as if it were poison in their mouths.

Evan tried to pretend like their actions didn’t hurt him, as if he was out of their reach, and their aversion couldn’t touch him; it was more difficult than he imagined. Instead, he focused on the love and kindness his siblings and Bobby showed him.

A week after Daniel returned home, he waited for their parents to put him to bed and disappear behind their own bedroom door before slipping out from underneath his sheets, knocking on Maddie’s door, and dragging her to wake up a sleeping Evan.

“Okay,” Daniel grinned, burrowing beneath his brother’s comforter and nudging their shoulders together, “tell me everything about being a Guide.”

Buck smiled, finding Maddie’s hand and recapping everything he’d learned from Bobby the past few months, his heart bursting with pride and affection for his big brother.

XX

It took six months of hard work, both with Bobby during his lessons and with his siblings during every free moment at home, to establish a connection to the Spirit Realm. After a few weeks of practice, he learned how to breathe and focus his mind, but it took longer than expected for him to connect with the energy within himself.

He was at the park with Bobby, sitting cross-legged atop a checkered picnic blanket while Maddie and Daniel played on the equipment a few yards away when it happened. Evan synched his breathing with Bobby, absent-mindedly counting in for four beats, out for three. A sharp twinge in the back of his mind had his eyes fluttering open, squinting against the bright sun and stiffening in surprise when an overwhelming bustle of energy swirled by his knees.

Evan must have let out a gasp because Bobby’s hand covered his own a moment later, and his siblings rushed over to fall by his shoulders.

“Is everything okay?”

“Are you hurt?”

Daniel and Maddie asked simultaneously, glancing at each other with furrowed brows when their little brother remained silent. Bobby’s lips twitched upwards to assure them Evan was fine. “He’s alright, don’t worry.” He squeezed Evan’s hand to gather his attention. “You’ve done it, Evan, great job. Keep concentrating, and your spirit animal will solidify.”

His siblings sucked in quick breaths but otherwise remained quiet, intent on giving Evan the space that he needed. The young Guide’s eyes snapped back towards the ball of energy and called on everything in his power to make it come to life. He wanted—no, he needed a companion like this. Bobby said that spirit animals are a reflection of your soul , that they can never leave you. They protect and provide, staying by your side through every success and failure—something Evan craved more than anything.

Not five minutes later, a figure began to emerge from the light. Short limbs stretched languidly, pawing at the ground, accompanied by a swish of a tail. Finally, the rest of the creature emerged, revealing a small, translucent cat-like animal with large ears and a twitching nose.

“My God,” Bobby breathed out in surprise.

“Well?” Daniel demanded, fidgeting as if he’d like to inch closer but not wanting to ruin the moment. “What is it?”

A chuckle leapt from Bobby’s throat as he shook his head with a smile. “It’s a mountain lion. A cub . I never...”

At his apparent confusion, Evan glanced up in worry. “What’s wrong? Did I do something I wasn’t supposed to?”

“No, no, of course not,” the older Guide assured him, looking back and forth between Evan and his spirit animal. “I’ve just never seen one as young as this, that’s all.”

“It’s a baby mountain lion?” Maddie asked, rubbing Evan’s back for comfort when his hands began twisting together anxiously.

Bobby nodded, leaning forward to get a better look at the animal pressing into Evan’s space, its head cuddling up against the juncture of the young Guide’s neck. “A cub. Most spirit animals are practically fully grown whenever Sentinels and Guides manifest, though considering your age, I suppose it makes sense that yours isn’t. It’s remarkable.”

Evan stared at his cub reverently, running his small fingers through the translucent fur, giggling when the animal purred deep within its throat. “She’s amazing,” he cooed, a swell of emotion working its way into his throat.

“How do you know it's a girl lion?” Maddie asked.

He shrugged in response. “I don’t know; I just do.”

“Sentinels and Guides are incredibly connected to their spirit animals,” Bobby explained patiently. “Remember, they are a reflection of our soul, so there are some things that are second nature to us. Evan probably knows more about the cub than he realizes.”

“Really?” Evan asked, looking up at Bobby with wide eyes.

Bobby nodded with a twitch of his lips. “Really. For the next training session, I want you to research mountain lions and draw up a report for me. I’m sure Daniel and Maddie will be happy to help. You’ll also need to name her as well.”

Evan turned towards his siblings and grinned before a thought occurred to him. “Will we get to meet Zeus?”

“Not until you feel more comfortable with your cub,” Bobby answered. “I don’t want her to get skittish when they finally meet. Zeus can be a bit of a handful at times if you aren’t prepared.”

“I really wish I could see your animals,” Daniel pouted, resting his chin atop Evan’s head. “I bet they’re so cool!”

Maddie hummed in agreement. “We’ll help you, Evan, don’t worry.”

When her little brother remained quiet, a tense line coming over his shoulders, she and Daniel shared a frown. Even Bobby noticed something was wrong when the mountain lion cub pulled away and watched its master with a tilt of her head.

“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”’

Evan’s hands twirled in his lap, not able to bring his gaze up to meet theirs. “I’m fine; it’s nothing.”

Daniel nudged his shoulder, coming around to sit by his brother’s side. “It’s obviously something, Ev. Come on, you can tell us.”

“It’s that ,” Evan blew out with a loud exhale, gesturing towards Daniel with a flail of his hand.

“It’s what?” Maddie asked, confusion evident in her voice.

Evan swallowed around a lump in his throat, the muscle in his jaw jumping. “My name ,” he said quietly. “I don’t like it. Mom and Dad always make it sound so... bad . Can you call me something else?”

The other two Buckley siblings and Bobby were quiet for a few moments until the older Guide rested his hand on Evan’s shoulder. “Of course we can. Do you have another name in mind?”

Evan didn’t respond for a long while, but the three of them waited for him patiently. Finally, he raised his eyes to look between Bobby, Daniel, and Maddie. “Buck. I want you to call me Buck.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? I hope you enjoyed this one. I know the Sentinel/Guide Fusion is a bit confusing, but its one of my favorites and I wanted to make it my own. Also, Daniel Lives is one of my favorite tropes and I don't see it very often.

If you ever want to chat or have questions, I'm on Tumblr at shesliketexas-17

Chapter 4

Summary:

During the next three years, Buck meets the Nash family and Owen and TK come in town.

Notes:

Surprise, happy Saturday! Usually I post on Sundays, but I'm going to be completely booked up tomorrow so I wanted to get this chapter out now.

This chapter takes you through Buck's next three years or so. I hope you enjoy <3 I had so much fun writing the Nash family. Dad Bobby makes me so happy!

Photos are: (1) Colors = Emotions Buck sees and (2) How I picture Robert Jr. and Brook Nash

S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi and cheer reader @neeco

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (5)

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (6)

Part I

Chapter 4

“Ev—er—Buck!” Daniel hollered from their father’s study, tripping over his words when he called out for his little brother. Buck shared a grin with Maddie and dragged her along, climbing up onto the rolling chair Daniel had pulled out for him so that he could see the computer screen. “There’re a few different pages with information on mountain lions. They look awesome!”

Buck scooted as far forward as he could and giggled when a hint of translucent fur burst into the edge of his line of sight. “I want to know everything there is to know about her,” he told his siblings, running a hand over her ears when she prowled closer.

“She also needs a name,” Maddie said, taking over the mouse from Daniel on his other side and reading the screen. “It looks like mountain lions are the largest member of the cat family in North America. They are also known as cougars, pumas, yellow cats, and a few others. How cool is that?”

Daniel nodded and bumped shoulders with his sister. “Yours must be pretty small, Buck, considering she’s a cub, but they can grow to be eight feet long from their nose to their tail!”

Buck’s eyes widened as he looked over his spirit animal, trying to imagine just how big she’ll eventually get. “Wow...do you think I’ll be as big as her one day?”

Maddie shook her head with a smile and reached over to ruffle his hair. “Maybe not eight feet tall, but I’m sure you’ll be a friendly giant.” She co*cked her head after reading a few lines from the screen and looked back at Buck. “What color is she?”

“Oh,” Buck frowned, running his fingers down the line of her arched back. “She doesn’t really have a color. I can kind of see through her? But if I had to pick one, I’d say blue?”

Daniel snorted, leaning back in his father’s chair. “I think that might just be spirit animals in general. The website says that mountain lions can have a variety of colors, like black, light brown, and a bunch of others, but not blue.”

“Anyway,” Maddie continued with a roll of her eyes. “They are really adaptable. It says here that they can survive in a lot of different habitats, like mountains, deserts, and swamps. Mountain lions also have really good vision so that they can hunt.”

“Cool!” Buck beamed, leaning in towards his brother to get a better look at the computer. “Oh, oh! They can see at night too!”

Daniel nodded, wrapping an arm around Buck’s shoulders. “And they’ve got a really good sense of smell too. Better than most cats. Maybe you’ll learn even more when you start school in the fall.”

Buck jerked back in surprise and looked up at his siblings with a furrowed brow. “I forgot about that. What if—what if I can’t do it?”

Maddie’s lips twitched downwards in worry. “What do you mean?”

“I…I mean, it’s hard enough just being around you guys,” he explained quietly, his hands fidgeting in his lap. “There’s so much to feel, and I don’t know how to make it stop yet.”

“Hey,” Daniel grabbed his hand and squeezed, making a burst of light purple spring from the center of his chest as a wave of protectiveness washes over Buck. “There are still a few months before you have to go. Bobby will teach you how to control it, and Maddie and I will be right there next to you, I promise.”

“Yeah,” his sister agreed with a gentle smile. Maddie must have known he needed true comfort at that moment because she leaned in close and used a shortened version of his name, something Maddie and Daniel had taken to doing when they needed to be serious. “Don’t worry, Ev. Everything is going to be okay.”

Buck sucked in a deep breath and nodded, looking over at his spirit animal, knowing she would be by his side as well. “Okay, thanks.” He perked up when an idea popped into his head. “Can we watch Lion King?”

XX

“Your siblings are right, Buck,” Bobby told him lightly. “Today, we’ll be starting your shields training. You needed an established connection to the Spirit Realm before we could begin; you’re ready now.”

Buck practically vibrated on top of the familiar picnic blanket, casting a glance at his brother and sister, who were making friends on the playground a few yards away. “Where do we start?”

Bobby chuckled and reached into his bag to pull out a large sketchbook, then flipped past a few pages before landing on what he was looking for. “Do you know what empathy is?”

“Something to do with emotions, right? I’ve heard the word before.”

“Right,” Bobby agreed with a nod. “It is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. What this means as a Guide is taking on surrounding emotions, like with your parents, Daniel, and Maddie.” His mentor put a hand on Buck’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’ve noticed that you are particularly sensitive to other people’s emotions. I don’t know if it is simply because of your age or a trait due to your Blessed Gene, but it’s very important you develop a mental shield to avoid getting overwhelmed.”

Buck blew out a heavy breath and leaned back onto his splayed hands, taking in the new information. “How do I make a shield?”

Bobby passed over his sketchbook and tapped on the open page with a drawing in the center. “You learned how to control your breathing during your training to connect with the Spirit Realm, so the next step would be envisioning what you want your shield to look like.”

“I can make them look however I want?” Buck asked with wide, surprised eyes.

“Absolutely. I’ve sketched a few different designs from my experience as a Guide and from the pattern in your tattoo. I’d like you to look them over and choose which one resonates with you the most. From there, we can see if any adjustments need to be made.”

Buck shifted his weight, so he sat on his knees, perking up with excitement. “And then I can start making the shield?”

Bobby’s lips twitched upwards. “And then we can start small, forming it in your mind before putting it into practice.”

Buck sighed, settling in to choose which sketch he liked best. His eyes snapped up when he caught sight of his spirit animal’s translucent fur. “Hey Nala, want to help me?” He turned to look up at the older Guide, who was watching him with a fond smile on his face. “If she’s a reflection of me, then she’ll know which shield I should use.”

“That’s an excellent idea, Buck.”

“Hey,” Buck started as a thought came to him. “If I can block out emotions, does that mean I won’t be able to see the colors anymore either?”

Bobby paused, blinking at him slowly. “What do you mean?”

“Um,” the younger Guide hesitated, suddenly unsure. “You know, the colors everyone has in their chest,” he explained warily, bringing a hand up to point just above Bobby’s ribs. “It’s how I can see what people are feeling before they get too close.”

Bobby stared at him for a few long moments before blowing out a breath. “I think this might be another thing that makes you special, Buck. Why don’t you tell me all about these colors?”

XX

Buck practically bounced within the confines of his car seat, secure in the back of Bobby’s rusted, red pick-up truck. The older Guide managed to convince Philip and Margaret—though it honestly didn’t take much, just highlighting the fact that their son would be out of the house; Jesus, he despised those two—to let him take Buck back to Bobby’s hometown for the day to meet the rest of the family at Robert Jr’s tee-ball game.

They’d been training together for almost eight months now, and Bobby’s kids, as well as Marcy, had been chomping at the bit to meet the young Guide. Marcy understood why her husband wanted to give it some time—in case things didn’t work out—but Bobby finally insisted on integrating him into the family.

He’d grown to care about Buck as more than just a mentee. The exceptionally sweet, full-of-life toddler had wormed his way into Bobby’s heart with his incredible ability to see the best in people and how he could always spin a bad situation into something positive. Buck continued to hold the record for the youngest manifestation in written history. Yet, he took the countless phone interviews, grueling hours of training, and endless reports better than someone twenty years his senior.

Frankly, It was inspiring being around a kid who had so much love to give when so many things in his life tried to tamp down the fire that burned so brightly within him. While Daniel and Maddie were essential to Buck’s emotional support system at home, Bobby was all too aware that the love shared between siblings was not an adequate replacement for a parent’s love. Philip and Margaret spent most of their time pretending Buck didn’t exist, treating him like a ghost in his own home, despite the fact he is the reason Daniel survived his diagnosis. Bobby simply couldn’t understand how the Buckleys convinced themselves they were justified in the way they treated their youngest son.

So, if Philip and Margaret would not give Buck the love and support he deserved as a human being and desperately needed as a Guide, then Bobby would step up to the plate. He’s been handling his addiction reasonably well up to this point through AA meetings and a sponsor who also happened to be a former firefighter. Marcy still wasn’t aware of his relapse and subsequent recovery, or if she was, she kept that knowledge to herself. He knew he and his wife needed to have that difficult conversation, but with everything going so well, Bobby was anxious to keep the peace for as long as possible.

Which was another reason he decided to introduce Buck to his family. Bobby realized that he failed Marcy and the kids previously, trying so hard to keep every aspect of his life separate. When dealing with life-threatening calls or handling dying victims became too overwhelming, Bobby—instead of reaching out to someone at the GSGA or confiding in his wife, as he should have—turned to alcohol. He sought to block out the emotional onslaught that managed to seep through weak points in his mental shields. That poor decision sent him down a self-destructive path that led him to retire as a mentor and pull away from the people who needed him most. But, if he could bring Buck into the fold, into his family’s life, then maybe everything else can fall into place.

The fact that Robert Jr.‘s tee-ball game would be a good test of the young Guide’s shields helped spur his decision as well. They’d been training together, with Buck working with his siblings on the days they didn’t meet, on building up the shields in place around him. Their radius only extended a few inches past Buck’s outstretched arms, but it was a solid foundation and a testament to how hard Buck had been working. The young Guide had taken a few days to mull over the design he connected with the most, and he finally managed to construct his first projection during their last training session.

Buck would be starting Kindergarten in a few weeks, which meant he needed to have some sort of protection in place before being thrust into a cacophony of overpowering emotions. They were making good time, but Bobby wanted to ensure the young Guide could handle being around so many new people before deeming him prepared for school.

“Are we there yet?” Buck asked, straining against his car seat, trying to push himself upwards to see through the front windshield.

Bobby chuckled under his breath and couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips. “Almost, just a few more minutes. Robert Jr’s team is probably already warming up, so we can go find Marcy and Brook in the stands.”

“Sweet!” Buck fist-pumped the air, his face bright and happy.

They pulled into the nearly-full parking lot and found a spot in the back row. Bobby checked his phone to confirm which field his family was waiting for them at, cutting the engine and moving to let Buck out of the cab. “I’m going to need you to keep a tight grip on my hand, okay? I don’t want you to get lost out here.”

“I’m not going to get lost,” the young Guide told him incredulously with a furrow between his brow. “I’m five, Bobby.”

“Don’t remind me,” Bobby grumbled under his breath, feeling a little cheated at how quickly time flies. For Christ’s sake, Robert Jr. would be seven in a few months. Before he knows it, his kids will be teenagers, not wanting to be tucked in anymore and turning their nose up at bedtime stories.

He shakes his head to dispel his spiraling thoughts while weaving through the crowds, a generous mixture of bystanders and children, ages five to eighteen, all dressed up in baseball gear. It didn’t take too long to find the correct field, though he had to tighten his grip on Buck’s hand a few times when the young Guide got distracted by someone carrying a hot dog or cotton candy.

“Bobby!” A familiar voice called out, gaining both his and Buck’s attention. Marcy looked beautiful in a pair of blue jeans and a green jersey with Robert Jr.’s team’s logo on the breast pocket. Brook squealed by her legs and sprinted towards him with a grin. Bobby let go of Buck’s hand to scoop his four-year-old up into a bear hug, propping her up onto his hip.

“Hi princess, are you having fun?”

Her blonde curls, so similar to her mother’s, bounced as she nodded. “Yup! Rob’s team is supposed to start soon!” Her large brown eyes widened as she looked down towards Bobby’s feet, finally spotting Buck, who was hiding behind his legs.

Bobby bit back a laugh as he crouched down, sharing an amused look with Marcy. “Brook, I’d like for you to meet Buck. He’s my student and a very, very special boy. Do you think you can help make him feel welcome?”

Brook glanced between her parents for only a moment before wriggling out of Bobby’s arms. She shuffled closer to the young Guide, a look of fortitude dawning her normally gentle features. “Are you going to cheer for my big brother with me?”

Buck blinked, opening and then closing his mouth in surprise. “I—“ he hesitated before finding a sense of resolve. “Yeah. Bobby says we need to yell really loud so that he can hear us.”

“Good,” Brook beamed, holding out her small hand for Buck, making Bobby’s heart swell. “Then come on! Mommy has the best snacks!”

Buck looked back at Bobby as if for permission, and Bobby couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “We need to ask the boss,” waving a hand towards Marcy.

His wife crouched down so that she was eye level with the children and gave the young Guide a soft smile. “It’s very nice to meet you, Buck. We’re very excited to spend time with you today.” At Brook’s insistent nudging, Marcy chuckled. “Why don’t you go with Brook? She’ll show you the best place to cheer from and get you something to eat if you’re hungry.”

Bobby’s headstrong daughter finally managed to pull Buck away, though he called out a “Thank you, Mrs. Marcy!” from over his shoulder.

They watched the children run towards the crowded stands for a few moments before Bobby turned to press a quick kiss to his wife’s cheek. “That went well, I think.”

Marcy hummed her agreement, slinging her arm through his. “How are you? I know all that driving must be getting to you.”

Bobby shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m just happy the GSGA is reimbursing me for gas. I’ve been trying to listen to a few new CD’s that I picked up from the store.” He gave a short sigh and looked towards the field where the players were getting into position. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it in time to wish him good luck.”

“Brook and I made him a sign you can hold up. He’ll be so happy to see you.”

“Do you think the boys will get along?” Bobby asked with a slight frown. Kids made pretty fast friends, but Bobby had been feeling quite a bit of anxiety over this meeting. What if his children and Buck decided that they hated each other? Or what if they couldn’t get along no matter how hard they tried? He’d even taken to shooting a text to his sponsor for some emotional support. His urge to find the nearest drink was frustratingly strong during times like this.

Marcy squeezed his bicep. “Everything will be fine, love. I promise.”

“We’ll see,” Bobby grumbled.

XX

On the drive back to Hershey, Bobby wondered how he could have ever doubted Buck.

Bobby’s entire family had fallen completely in love with the young Guide. Brook immediately claimed him as her second older brother and delighted in the fact that she could bully him into having tea parties with her. Robert Jr., on the other hand, decided Buck would be his new best friend an entire two seconds after meeting him. Following his tee-ball team’s win, Robert Jr. taught the young Guide everything he knew about the game—which, admittedly, wasn’t much—and begged Bobby to let them throw the ball back and forth for a while. Even Marcy was charmed, and she was the one most reserved about bringing him into the family.

His wife certainly felt for Buck when Captain Conrad first told them about Bobby’s new student, and she’d pressed Bobby to pursue the assignment when Charlotte Keen explained his situation. However, she was the only one wary about what this might mean for their family. Dividing Bobby’s time and attention once again had the potential for disaster, but he’d been working extremely hard to not fall back into his old habits. He wanted to prove that he could do it all without sacrificing the important things in life.

Today helped him realize that it was possible. He could be a loving father, a supportive husband, an accomplished firefighter, and a mentor to a five-year-old Guide, all without turning to substances when things got too overwhelming. That knowledge would give Bobby the strength to come clean to his wife about his previous relapse when he returned home later that evening.

Buck did an excellent job as well. While the experience was, first and foremost, meant to introduce him to the Nash family, the outing to the ballpark was also supposed to be a test of his mental shields. He’d ask for help putting them back up every half hour or so, and Bobby would lead Buck away from the crowds, somewhere just a bit quieter so that the young Guide could concentrate, and they would sit together while Buck built his shields back up.

They’d need to practice quite a bit more over the next three weeks before Buck was ready to spend a full seven hours at school, but Bobby was confident that they could do it.

Maddie and Daniel were disappointed that they couldn’t come to meet the rest of the Nash family with their little brother, but Bobby placated them by promising to bring everyone to the next game the following weekend. It would be a bit more difficult to convince Margaret and Philip to let him take the rest of their family out of town for the day (and wasn’t that just a kick to the stomach?), but the kids told him they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Though Daniel was far stronger than he was when he first came home from the hospital, he was still technically in recovery and, therefore, not able to participate in any sports at school. If Maddie had any interest in playing anything, Margaret and Philip would most likely support her (honestly, it was hard to tell), but the young girl was simply content to watch. After having such a wonderful time with the Nash family, Buck confided in Bobby that he’d like to play tee-ball too, or maybe pee-wee football, but he was too scared to ask his parents for permission. Normally, Bobby would encourage the young Guide to pursue his interests. Though with Margaret and Philip’s relationship with their son and Buck’s position as a new Guide…he wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.

“Maybe in a few years, when you have more experience with your shields under your belt,” Bobby told him gently, glancing at his student in the rearview mirror and tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “You’ll need to get to a place where it will be second nature to throw them up—and keep them there under stress. It will be a while before you get to that point, though, so don’t get discouraged, okay?”

Buck crossed his little arms and slumped in his car seat, exhaustion clear on his face from the long day at the ballpark. “Do you really think I’ll be able to do it one day?”

“Buck,” Bobby answered seriously, adding a hint of steel to his tone. “You can do anything you put your mind to, I promise. The things worth doing will take time, effort, and patience. Trust me on that.”

The young Guide nodded slowly before turning to look out the window, seemingly content to watch the world fly past as his eyes fluttered shut.

XX

“-dear Ro-ob. Happy birthday to youuuuu!” The room sang loudly, filling in the space with cheers and a round of excited applause as Robert Jr. blew out the candles on his personal chocolate Oreo cake, decorated as a shark. Bobby’s son was going through a phase that involved playing that ridiculous children’s song, ‘Baby Shark,’ on repeat.

With so many people attending, their apartment would be filled to the brim. So, instead, he and Marcy decided to host the birthday party at the park down the street. He rented an aquatic-themed bouncy castle and spent the entire morning setting up tables and chairs for their guests while his wife set up the food and wrangled Brook and Robert Jr. into their, frankly, adorable outfits covered with little sharks.

Even the Buckley kids stuck with the theme when they arrived. He was pleasantly surprised when Margaret and Philip accepted Bobby’s invitation to join the party two hours away, though he realized months ago that they had an exceedingly difficult time saying no to Daniel. He wasn’t sure if it was the reminder of almost losing their firstborn son that made them so agreeable (and so harsh and distant towards their youngest, for that matter—god, he hated them for that), but Bobby wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Watching all five kids, along with a crowd of Robert Jr.‘s friends from tee-ball and school, laughing and grinning together as they devoured their cupcakes and desserts, had Bobby’s lips stretching into a wide smile across his face. He was eternally grateful that the kids got along, especially after their less-than-auspicious start. When Bobby brought the Buckley children to Robert Jr.’s second game, Maddie and Daniel took one look at Buck’s new “best friends” and immediately went on the defensive. It had been just the three of them for so long that they’d never had to share their little brother before. The Nash children were equally possessive over their new friend, so Bobby had to talk to both sets of kids separately and tell them that Buck wasn’t a toy.

Bobby reminded all four of them that the young Guide could both see and feel their emotions (Charlotte Keen had been beside herself with shock when Bobby called to tell her about that previously unknown skill), so every time they were upset or angry that Buck was playing with someone else, it was especially difficult on him. He dealt with enough of that at school, and Bobby was adamant that he shouldn’t have to feel that way with either his siblings or the Nash family—not when he was supposed to be safe with them.

The GSGA required Margaret and Philip to alert the school of Buck’s manifestation to accommodate accordingly. The young Guide was allowed three private breaks per day to rebuild his shields when the stress of the classroom and the other children’s emotions grew to be too overwhelming. As Buck’s manifestation and age were sensitive topics, the GSGA suggested that they conceal the manifestation for his safety.

However, Hershey was a decently small town, which meant that people talked. Buck didn’t even make it to lunch on the first day of school before the children around him began whispering. Sentinels and Guides were already rare enough to begin with, but having one under the age of thirteen was unheard of.

On the first training session after Buck started Kindergarten, Bobby spent the entire afternoon hugging the young Guide to his chest as he hiccuped great, heartbreaking sobs. He told Bobby all about how all of the other kids avoided him and gossiped behind his back. He tried to make friends because, of course, he did—he was Buck, but the other children went out of their way to make him feel like a freak. The teachers were sympathetic, but they didn’t understand him, nor did they dissuade the students from misbehaving. On top of everything else, the school administration insisted on calling him Evan—disregarding his request to go by Buck and dredging up even more emotional conflict for the young Guide.

Bobby reminded Robert Jr., Brook, Maddie, and Daniel of this fact when they butted heads the first time they met. All four children felt thoroughly chastised, hanging their heads in shame until the boy in question came flying over with an enormous stick of cotton candy Marcy must have bought him, wanting to share with everybody. Bobby couldn’t help the sharp jolt of pride that burst within his chest, so he reached over to press a light kiss to the top of Buck’s hair, ruffling his curls as Bobby left him with the now-enthused children.

Now, just a few months later, the five of them were as thick as thieves, playing gleefully together in the bounce castle as Maddie and Daniel tried to send the younger kids flying higher. Bobby sighed happily, wrapping an arm around Marcy’s waist and tugging her to his side.

XX

“Come on, Buck! You can do it. Concentrate.”

Buck grit his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut and forcing his mental shields further than he ever had before. Exhaustion clung to his limbs, the sudden weight bringing him crashing to his knees. “I–I can’t hold it!”

Bobby crouched down behind Buck so that the young Guide could feel his presence. “I know it’s difficult, I know. But you’re doing so well; I’m so proud of you! Don’t give up.”

Bolstered by his mentor’s praise, Buck gave a sharp nod and sucked in a deep breath. He focused every spare lick of energy into imagining his shields inching outwards, covering the now-frayed red and white checkered picnic blanket, a few feet of the surrounding grass, and, finally, Bobby. Almost immediately—and for the very first time—Buck touched what Bobby was feeling with his protections down instead of just seeing colors burst from the older Guide’s chest.

Pridehappinessjoy.

Buck’s concentration broke with a gasp. He fell forward onto his hands, panting short, harried breaths. Nala flew into view and shoved her head under his chin, her echoing purrs drowning out everything else. Buck jolted in surprise when Bobby’s hand clapped him on the shoulder, turning him around to tuck him against his chest. A delighted, tired laugh erupted out of Buck’s throat as he wrapped his arms around Bobby. “I did it! I did it!”

“I am so proud of you, Buck. I knew you had it in you.”

A cluster of tears left salty tracks down Buck’s cheeks. He felt so grateful for the older Guide’s support—something he couldn’t even get from his own parents, the Buckley household practically scrubbed clean of any mention of his designation. Neither Philip nor Margaret wanted any reminder that their youngest son carried the Blessed Gene—much less that he manifested as the youngest Guide in written history.

But Bobby…

Bobby was different. He’d done nothing but treat Buck with respect and love, encouraging him to push his limits and grow into his abilities as a Guide. “Thank you,” Buck whispered, tightening his grip on his mentor.

He felt Bobby’s chuckle from where he pressed against his button-down. “You’re welcome, kiddo.”

“I—,” Buck hesitated suddenly, burrowing in further, too afraid to look up at Bobby’s face. “I wish you were my dad sometimes.”

“What?” Bobby stiffened, finally pulling Buck away from his embrace, though Buck kept his eyes averted. “What made you say that?”

Buck gave a soft huff. “They’re never proud of me, Bobby. My parents hate me. They can’t stand the sight of me.”

“Oh, Buck,” Bobby breathed. “That’s not true.”

The young Guide finally looked up, his brow furrowed in frustration. “It is, and you know it. Maddie and Daniel are the only ones who care about what happens to me.”

“You know Marcy, Robert Jr., Brook, and I all love you, Buck. We care about you so much; you have to know that.”

Buck sniffled, swiping a hand under his nose. “Then why can’t you be my dad?”

Bobby was quiet for a few moments. He took deep, even breaths and then placed both hands on Buck’s shoulders. “You already have a father, Buck.” When the young Guide moved to argue, Bobby gave him a look that told him not to interrupt. “But you’re right; I do love you like you’re my own son. You’ll always be a part of my family, even when you don’t need me anymore.”

“I’ll always need you, Bobby,” Buck swore, feeling indignant at the very idea. Nala, who’d grown slightly bigger in the past few years, bumped her head against Bobby’s leg in agreement.

He didn’t understand why Bobby laughed, shaking his head and looking amused.

“You’re doing so well as a Guide, Buck, better than even some much older than yourself. In a few years, there will be nothing left for me to teach you.”

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t need you anymore,” Buck shot back. “Rob is my best friend, and Brook is like my little sister. Marcy is so nice to me and you—“

Bobby scooped him up into a tight hug, squeezing hard. “I understand, Buck. I get it. Thank you.” When he pulled slightly away, Buck watched his throat work as he swallowed. “And um—you, you can call me Pops sometimes if you want to. I would be okay with that. Maybe not in front of your parents, though.” He added as an afterthought.

Buck dove in for yet another hug, unable to stop the giggles from escaping. “Thanks, Pops. I love you.”

“Love you too, Buck.”

XX

The short list of people who loved Buck grew by two when he was seven. One of Bobby’s old friends from the fire academy, Owen Strand, came into town to visit for spring break with his son, TK. Owen and his wife were on the tail end of their divorce, and during their monthly phone call to catch up, Bobby suggested that it might be a good idea to get out of the city for a bit. He offered to entertain them down in Pennsylvania, though he didn’t have room in his apartment to put them up. Owen waved him off and promised to talk with TK about the possibility of a trip.

Naturally, the six-year-old boy was begging to get out of the house, especially when their loft in New York City had become a sort of battleground between his parents. His mom, Gwenyth, was in the process of moving out, but she and Owen continued to fight to the death over their beloved beauty products.

Bobby had chuckled good-naturedly when TK complained about his situation over the phone, promising him that there wouldn’t be any drama if they came down for spring break. That seemed good enough for TK, and Owen booked their trip the following day.

While Bobby was looking forward to seeing one of his oldest friends, he did have another reason for inviting them down for the week. It had been a little over three years ago now that Buck had manifested as a Guide, and he still had yet to meet a Sentinel. They weren’t exactly common in small towns like Hershey, and there were probably only a total of ten or eleven people with the Blessed Gene in a four-hour radius of Buck’s house. So, Bobby would need to manufacture the meeting if he wanted the young Guide to gain some experience with a Sentinel before other students began manifesting when Buck made it to middle school in a few years.

Owen was aware of Bobby’s mentorship of the young Guide, and although he hadn’t expected to get roped into Buck’s training, he heartily agreed when Bobby asked. They arrived in town a few days later. The drive from New York to Bobby’s apartment was roughly five hours, so both boys were happy to shake their legs out at the restaurant they met Bobby and his family at, though they weren’t groggy or exhausted after the trip.

Bobby clung to his old friend tightly, then scooped up TK for a bear hug while Owen greeted the rest of his family. After TK squealed and demanded Bobby let him down, Marcy and the kids descended upon him. Considering neither Bobby nor Marcy had any other family, Robert Jr. and Brook had grown up thinking of TK as their cousin they got to see once or twice a year. Owen was the fun firefighter uncle, and Gwenyth was the lawyer aunt who always brought the best gifts whenever they spent holidays together.

Once they got settled into the restaurant and tore into their food, Owen clapped Bobby on the shoulder with a grin. “So, I hear there’s a new addition to the Nash family? How is Buck?”

“Buck?” Robert Jr.’s eyes widened at the mention of his best friend while Brook perked up and started searching the dining area. “Is he here? I miss him!”

Bobby’s lips twitched as he chuckled fondly. “No, son, Buck isn’t here. I’m going to take Owen and TK to meet him this week during our sessions. He’s got a solid foundation for his shields, and now that he’s able to expand them, I think it’s time to take his training to the next level.”

“How are you planning on having Owen help, love?” Marcy asked, wiping a napkin across their daughter’s face to clean up a smudge of ketchup on her cheek.

“He’s never met a Sentinel before, so I want to make sure he’s familiar with one,” Bobby explained, tucking into the rest of his food.

Owen nodded and set his fork down, intertwining his fingers and setting his elbows on the table. “It would be a good idea to have him practice influencing a Sentinel’s emotions and manipulating his shields. He’ll have at least eight years of experience under his belt before kids in his grade start manifesting, so I predict the school administration will take advantage of that. It’s what I would do in their position.”

“Why?” Robert Jr. asked warily, sharing a frown with TK from across the table. “What would they need Buck for? Is he going to be okay?”

“He’ll be fine, Rob, don’t worry,” Owen assured him. “The manifestation process is volatile, so if there are any new Sentinels or Guides, it’s always preferred to have someone with experience nearby in case things go wrong. It’s why mentors are always assigned to the new Sentinels or Guides after they receive medication.”

“And you believe that Buck will be ready to handle that kind of pressure by the time he hits puberty?” Marcy asked.

Bobby nodded, wiping his mouth with a napkin and pushing his empty plate aside. “Buck’s already incredibly talented and has a few abilities that seem to be unique to him. With the way his training is going, he won’t even need the medication provided when he reaches that age.”

Owen looked thoroughly impressed, as he should. “Gotta say, I’m looking forward to meeting this kid.”

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? Thanks for reading everyone. The feedback has been incredible and I LOVE writing this story. TBH its completely self-indulgent. These are my favorite tropes and I've tried to mush them all together in a monster fic. Let me know how you'e liking it, I would l love to hear from you!

If you ever want to squeal with me about this story, I'm on Tumblr at shesliketexas-17

Chapter 5

Summary:

Buck meets Owen and TK and finally trains with a Sentinel. Bobby gets hurt on call, changing everything.

Notes:

The response I've gotten for the story has been really wonderful, so I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has commented, subscribed, bookmarked, and given kudos. Your support makes this story so much fun to write.

That being said, this chapter was difficult. I'm an empathetic writer, so I feel the same emotions I write. Warnings - canonical character death. Thanks to my beta @MugiwaraLexi

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (7)

Part I

Chapter 5

As expected, Buck managed to capture Owen’s heart almost immediately when he and TK hit it off after the first mention of Pokemon. The young Guide practically squealed when TK revealed he received the newest game for Christmas, and, naturally, Buck wanted to learn every single thing about the new-generation Pokemon.

Bobby was happy to let the boys chat to their hearts’ content as they played on the swingset while he caught up with Owen. After the tragedy of 9-11, where the Sentinel devastatingly lost his entire crew at Ground Zero, he’d been promoted to Captain and asked to rebuild Station 252 from the ground up. While his mission was ultimately a success, the long, grueling hours cost him his time at home away from his family, and Gwenyth decided she had enough after Owen missed TK’s sixth birthday a few months ago.

Owen told him about how the divorce proceedings were almost wrapped up and how Gwen was using this spring break as a chance to move into her new apartment. “TK knows,” the Sentinel explained with a sigh. “He knew it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. Her new place isn’t too far, so at least it will make the custody agreement easier.”

“I’m sure none of this is easy,” Bobby offered gently. “But he knows how much you both love him.”

“I hope so.”

Bobby’s lips twitched. He gave the boys a few more minutes before pushing up to his feet and calling out to them. “Buck! TK! Come on back, time to get started.”

They both hopped off the swings in giant leaps to see who could jump further, laughing as they raced each other to the picnic blanket. TK got there first, giving his new friend a slight shove when Buck crashed into him. Bobby chuckled, sharing an amused look with Owen. “Alright, Buck, are you ready to start training with Owen?”

“Yes!” The young Guide threw both hands up in the air in excitement. “What are we going to do? Bobby said that Sentinels have crazy senses! Can you hear things really far away? Can you see really small things? Or, or—”

“Give the man a bit of breathing room,” Bobby grinned, ruffling Buck’s hair.

Owen snorted, then settled down with his full attention on Buck. “It sounds like you’ve got the basics down. Sentinels do have enhanced senses, but there’s also the chance that we can become hyper-fixated on one. When that happens, we get too caught up in the feeling and can’t break out of it ourselves. That’s where an experienced Guide comes in to help.”

Buck’s face had fallen, losing the child-like excitement as it transformed into a more serious expression. “I want to be able to help people too.”

Bobby nudged his arm while Nala slipped into view, settling down in the grass beside Buck. “And you will. As a Guide, you’re able to feel and, in your case, see other people’s emotions; now that you have your shields in place, you can also block them out. The next step is to manipulate other people’s emotions in order to de-escalate a scene.”

Buck’s brow furrowed as he looked between the two adults. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Well, Bobby’s job as a firefighter puts him in dangerous situations most of the time, right?” Owen continued, resting his elbows atop his thighs. “Well, when people are stressed or scared, their first reaction is often to panic. If his team rescues a person from a fire, but they are too frightened to breathe properly once they go to check them for injuries, Bobby can use his abilities as a Guide to calm the victim down enough so that the paramedics can do their job without any more harm coming to the victim. Does that make sense?”

TK scratched the back of his head and frowned at Buck. “Couldn’t that be bad, though? If a Guide can control feelings, what if they make someone angry or scared on purpose?”

“That’s a great point, kiddo, thanks,” Bobby nodded, shooting Owen an impressed eyebrow. “The GSGA monitors both Sentinels and Guides. If either of us uses our abilities for something intending to harm others, then we can be brought before a council. Of course, Sentinels and Guides can face normal charges by the police too, but the GSGA has its own force that can stop particularly dangerous individuals with the Blessed Gene.”

“While Sentinels and Guides are rare, they are still only people. There’s good and bad in all of us; it’s just how we use the gifts we’re given that determines the kind of people we are.” Owen cleared his throat and returned his attention to Buck. “Now, Bobby said that the two of you have trained in the Spirit Realm before, correct?”

Buck hummed his agreement, shifting around so that his legs were crossed and his back was straight. “Yes, sir.”

Owen’s lips twitched at the honorific, but he let it slide for now. “Great, then I’d like for you to follow me in. Bobby will be right here if you need anything, okay? I want you to expand your shields until they surround me, then focus on matching my emotions with yours. It will take some time and practice, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it on the first try.” Owen closed his eyes, and Buck mirrored the movement. “Ready?“

Bobby watched them both slip into a meditative state, breathing four counts in, four counts out. After a few minutes, both Owen and Buck’s shoulders relaxed minutely enough to tell him that they found themselves in the Spirit Realm. Nala shuddered out of sight, and Bobby was pleased to see her protecting the young Guide.

When a few other people started trickling into the park, Bobby nodded when TK asked if he could go play with the other kids, shifting around so that he could keep an eye on everybody.

Over the course of the next hour, Bobby watched beads of sweat gather at Buck’s temples and shivers run down his arms in exertion. Bobby grit his teeth and forced himself to settle down and not interfere—Owen knew what he was doing, had trained almost as many Sentinels as Bobby had Guides. The fact Buck was struggling meant he was working hard, not that he needed Bobby’s help.

As Bobby neared the end of his rope, just about to pull both Owen and Buck out of their trance, they both gasped awake, collapsing onto the blanket.

TK must have noticed the commotion because he came sprinting over, a frown tugging his lips downward. “Are you guys okay? You were out for a really long time.”

Bobby wrapped an arm around Buck’s shoulders and encouraged him to lean back against him. “Here, drink some water,” he urged, passing open bottles of water to both the young Guide and Owen. “How did it go? You both must be exhausted,” - they looked it too. Even Owen was drenched in sweat, meaning he had to have been working hard as well. Buck was practically shaking, though, gaining Bobby’s immediate attention.

Owen forced himself to suck in a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart, then tugged TK in for a quick hug. “We’re fine, kiddo. Buck’s a lot stronger than I imagined, though,” he told Bobby with a strange look on his face. “He got it down on the fifth try. After that, it was just practice.”

“That’s fantastic!” Bobby grinned, giving Buck a gentle nudge. “I knew he could do it.”

Buck flashed him a tired smile, burrowing further under Bobby’s arm. “I think I need a nap.”

Owen and Bobby shared a round of laughter before the Sentinel reached over to ruffle Buck’s damp hair. He pushed himself up onto his feet then held out a hand to help the others up. “Excellent idea. We’re done for the day, though I want to practice again later this week. Maybe we can also have a day where we just spend some time together, how about that?”

Both TK and Buck gave quick nods of approval. The younger Guide looked up at Bobby with what Marcy liked to describe as ‘big, blue, puppy-dog eyes’. “Can we take Maddie and Daniel to the aquarium? Maddie loves the ocean, and I’ve never been!”

“Of course,” Bobby chuckled, steering him back towards the truck while Owen cleaned their setup. “We’ll make a day of it and bring Robert Jr., Brook, and Marcy along too.”

The young Guide cheered tiredly, exceedingly pleased to be able to spend more time with all the people he loved.

XX

Shortly after his eighth birthday, Marcy called the Buckley residence. Maddie answered the phone while their parents were out, shouting for her baby brother in the other room. Buck came running when she said the phone was for him, hoping it was either Rob or TK, both of whom he’d taken to calling every other week.

“Hello?”

Marcy’s voice on the other line surprised him. He didn’t usually hear from her unless he was spending time with the Nash’s. “ Buck, sweetie?

“Hi, Marcy,” he greeted warily, already on edge because of her tone.

“I’m sorry, but Bobby won’t be able to come to your training sessions for the next two weeks. He hurt his back on a call last night, and the doctors told him that he needs to rest for a while.”

Buck stiffened, earning worried looks from both of his siblings, who paused their movie to come and check on him. “Is he okay? How did he get hurt? Oh my gosh—”

Buck, ” Marcy interrupted. “He’ll be fine, don’t worry. Remember, firefighting is a dangerous job. There’s always a risk. But Bobby is strong; he’ll bounce back. I’ll have him give you a call soon, okay?”

He blew out a breath, his shoulders drooping. “Yeah, okay. Can you please tell Rob and Brook I said ‘hi’ please?”

“Of course, sweetie. Have a good day.”

When he put the phone back on the receiver, he explained what happened to Maddie and Daniel, gratefully accepting the hug that had him sandwiched in between the two of them. They led him over to the couch, snuggling close and reminding him that Bobby was fine and that everything would go back to normal in a few weeks.

When Nala appeared at his feet, her tail twitching in agitation, Buck couldn’t help but think that they were wrong . The sinking feeling in his gut told him that things were changing—and not for the better.

XX

A few weeks after Bobby resumed their training sessions, Buck noticed the colors protruding from his mentor’s chest had changed from his usual swirl of yellows and light greens to a mixture of oranges and bright whites. While he couldn’t actually feel Bobby’s emotions due to his shields, he could still see them. Buck mentally reviewed the list of colors and their corresponding emotions they’d created together years ago and wondered why his mentor felt anxious and afraid. Was he still scared from when he got hurt on the job?

“Are you okay?” He asked carefully.

Bobby looked surprised at his question but must have realized what Buck saw because his expression smoothed out, and the colors inside his chest crashed together again. “I’m fine, Buck. Don’t worry about me. Now, try again.”

Buck wasn’t convinced but obediently closed his eyes. Ever since Owen and TK had gone back to New York City, Bobby had Buck working on strengthening his shields and pushing them further and further out. The older Guide’s reasons being the stronger Buck’s shields, the more protected he’d be when faced with a stressful situation.

He wondered if Bobby’s anxiety from his job was spilling over into their relationship. It had happened a few different times, all after close calls at the firehouse, but the colors in his chest had never transitioned so completely.

Something was wrong, and he needed to find out what.

XX

Things went from bad to worse.

Dark circles began appearing under Bobby’s eyes, bringing with them a heaviness to his shoulders that even Buck could see. The older Guide’s movements volleyed between erratic and sluggish, never quite landing on one side. The more Buck tried to figure out what was wrong , the more closed-off Bobby became.

Marcy called to cancel their sessions two or three times over the next few months, always sounding frustrated and at the end of her rope but trying to stay calm for Buck. When he spoke with Rob on the phone, his best friend told him how often his parents were fighting these days, though he didn’t know why. They even did a three-way call with TK, hoping he would have overheard his dad speaking to Bobby about what was bothering the older Guide but to no avail.

At least with his abilities as a Guide holding pretty steady, Buck wasn’t having as much trouble at school. Sure, the kids in his class still didn’t seem to want anything to do with him, and his teachers looked at him with what one could only describe as pity —god, he hated that—but he never got overwhelmed anymore. Bobby had helped him completely block out everyone else’s emotions so that he could think for a change.

When he relayed as much to the older Guide, Bobby’s lips twitched upwards into a ghost of a smile before weariness once more shrouded his face.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Pops?” Buck pressed again, almost hesitating over the name but too desperate to connect with Bobby to not at least try . While Maddie and Daniel still came to the park with them for training sessions every once in a while, they’d both found new friends they wanted to spend time with, so today, it was just the two of them. “It’s like you’re in another world when we’re together lately.”

Bobby’s face crumpled, though he fought hard to shift his expression into something more neutral. “I’m fine , Buck, I told you. I just have a lot going on at work.”

Buck shifted, looking down and pulling up a few blades of grass between his fingers. “I know you say that, but I can tell you're lying to me.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “I always know when someone is lying to me, Bobby.”

They were quiet for a few moments; the only sound between them was the faint laughter of children on the playground and a cluster of birds singing in a nearby tree.

Finally, Bobby cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Buck. I don’t mean to lie to you, I promise.” When Buck raised his gaze to meet Bobby’s, the older Guide continued with a sigh. “I’m dealing with some personal things, but it’s nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

“But it’s like you’re a different person!” Buck argued, running a hand through curls. “I just want to help!”

“You can’t help me, Buck,” Bobby shot back, his voice harder and with an edge of steel he hardly ever used on Buck. “This is something I need to figure out on my own.”

When Buck opened his mouth to disagree, the older Guide pushed up to his feet and looked towards the truck parked in the lot. “It’s time to get you home. I have a long drive ahead of me.”

“Fine!”

They didn’t speak the entire way home.

XX

The call came three months after Buck’s ninth birthday.

Maddie was thirteen, she passed through the first stages of puberty and had it confirmed she did not carry the Blessed Gene, and Daniel was twelve, only a few years from finding out if he would remain a Natural, or if manifest as either a Sentinel or Guide.

Daniel was the one to answer the phone, shouting at Maddie to turn down her music so that he could hear the person on the other line. Buck was resting on the couch, paying little attention to whatever show Daniel was watching and content just to sit, running his fingers through Nala’s fur.

“Buck, it’s for you.”

The young Guide moved from his spot, careful not to disturb his sleeping spirit animal, and took the phone from Daniel. “Hello?”

He recognized the voice from a few different phone interviews he’d done over the years. “Hi, Ms. Keen. Did I forget about a meeting we had?”

The other line was silent for a few moments. “Hello, Evan.” Her voice wavered in a way that had Buck instantly on edge. “Your brother informed me that your parents aren’t home, but I have some terrible news to share with you, and it really can’t wait. I wish I could tell you this in person or that someone else could call you, but I don’t believe Bobby is in the right frame of mind to have this conversation.”

Buck swallowed heavily, leaning all of his weight against the countertop. “What happened? Is Bobby okay?”

“He’s in the hospital,” she explained softly. “There was a fire at his apartment building. Evan, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but the rest of Bobby’s family didn’t survive.”

Static flooded Buck’s mind, washing away his thoughts and leaving him utterly empty—alone. He slid to the ground slowly, heavily, blood racing in his ears loud enough to cover up his rapid wheezing. “W-what?” He managed to choke out— no— it wasn’t possible. She had to be lying .

“I’m so sorry, Evan. I know how close you were with Marcy, Robert Jr., and Brook. I can’t even imagine what you must be going through.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “The funeral will be held next Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral. If you have any questions, please have your parents call me.”

Buck felt his throat grow tight; a choked sob ripped free his throat as he hurried to end the call. No —this was a joke. It had to be. A cruel, horrifyingly mean joke . He forced his shaky fingers to dial a number he knew by heart. The same number he’d been calling every week for over three years now—and prayed that someone would pick up.

They were fine. Rob was probably sitting at home playing the new Halo game—he’d promised to call Buck tomorrow to let him know how awesome it was. Brook was probably at a friend’s house. She’d met a nice girl in her class, Susie, who was teaching her how to french braid hair. His family was fine .

When a dial tone and the words “ We’re sorry, the number you’ve reached is no longer— ” rang in his ear, Buck wrenched the phone back with a desperate cry and tried again.

And again.

And again .

After the fourth time, Maddie pulled the phone away from him while Daniel crouched by his side, his hands hovering above Buck’s arm but careful not to touch him. “What’s wrong, Buck?”

But he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t even think . Tears blurred his vision and left his face blotchy and wet, and Maddie fell to the ground in front of him, frantically trying to help clean him up. He pushed her hands away with a sharp scream making his siblings cringe back in shock curling his head into his knees and wrapping his arms around himself. His shields fell with a shudder, and Buck flinched away from the concern and rising panic radiating from his siblings.

“What happened?” His brother demanded, trying to pry Buck’s arms away in order to see his face, but he refused . He couldn’t.

If he says it out loud, then it makes this all real .

“Please,” Maddie begged, sounding so confused and upset that it sent Buck further into a downward spiral.

He pressed his head further against his knees until pain bloomed across his forehead. He let out another choked-off scream and hiccupped on a wet whimper. “Th-there was a f-fire,” he tried to get out through gritted teeth, but it came out quiet enough that his siblings had to bend down to hear him. “A-at Bobby’s a-apartment. They’re dead.”

“Who?” Maddie asked with her hands wiping Buck’s messy face, devastation creeping into her voice. “Who’s dead?”

Buck forced himself to take a shuddering breath and pressed himself closer to his brother and sister, desperately needing their comfort. It felt like he was completely falling apart, and the only people holding the last, frayed thread keeping him together were Maddie and Daniel. “Marcy. Brook. R-Rob.” His voice broke on his best friend’s name, utter desolation invading his heart at the thought of never seeing his friends—his family ever again. They were gone, and—and, Bobby was—

“I’m so sorry, Evan,” Maddie whispered, tears escaping out of her own eyes as Daniel wiped his cheeks with his sleeve. “I’m so sorry.”

XX

Bobby never calls.

Buck waited by the phone every day leading up to the funeral, curled in the corner of the kitchen and turning away when someone tried to ask how he’s doing, so sure that Bobby would reach out and tell him what happened—tell him how this could have happened .

But he never does.

Buck’s parents stuff him into a new suit. It's uncomfortable, and itchy, but it means that his parents are actually paying attention to him for once, so he doesn’t complain like he wants to. He knows they’re sad for him. They might not have particularly liked Bobby or his family due to his designation, but that didn’t mean they wanted any of them to die .

There’s no comfort to be found in pity.

Buck never stopped crying. He never seems to run out of tears. Every time he thinks it's finally over and he can pass out from exhaustion, a memory of Rob or Brook flutters back into his mind, and he’s losing it all over again. Nala refuses to leave his side, despite his fits of anger where he screams at her to leave him alone. His parents never try to comfort him, but his waves of devastation are enough to push Maddie and Daniel away for a few hours.

On the other hand, Nala stubbornly refuses to leave him by himself for even one second.

He doesn’t realize how grateful he is for the companionship until the day of the funeral.

She sits by his side as he tries, fails, tries, fails, and tries again to raise his mental shields brick by brick. He’s sweating from exertion by the end of it, but he won’t survive a day like today, one filled with anguish and heartbreak if he can’t protect himself.

And he needs to be strong enough to talk to Bobby. To ask why he never even called Buck to tell him that his best friend was dead , or came by the house to give him the hug he needed so, so badly.

It takes two hours to reach the church. The car ride is mostly quiet on the way there; a classical music station that Buck doesn’t have any hope of paying attention to fills the silence. When they get there, the sky is painted dark enough that everyone grabs their umbrellas, their ankles sweeping through the light fog that dances at their feet as they make their way up the stone steps. The church is tall and probably wouldn’t be described as ‘menacing’ on any other given day, but today it seems like an apt description.

Buck feels the weight of everyone’s grief brushing against his shields, battering the foundation and seeking out a weak point to break through and swallow him whole.

Buck stands tall, though. He needs to make it through this to speak with Bobby.

He finally catches sight of the older Guide in the front pew, surrounded by older men who keep their hands pressed against his shoulders. Buck takes a step forward to speak with him but is distracted when TK crashes into him with a sob.

Another round of quiet whimpers erupts from his throat as he clutches at his friend. Owen suddenly appears by his side and tugs both boys into a crushing hug, cupping the backs of their heads and holding on tight. “I’m so, so sorry, boys. I’m here. I’m here.”

He finally pulled away to give Maddie and Daniel a hug as well, then swallowed harshly and shook Buck’s parents’ hands before introducing everyone to Gwenyth. She was nice enough, a pretty brunette with a dark black dress to match the rest of the guests, and Buck spared a thought that it was nice of her to come, but he couldn’t seem to focus on anything else. His thoughts were too jumbled, and he felt like he was walking a tightrope without a net—seconds away from careening towards the ground.

The service began before Buck could find Bobby, and he was squished between Maddie and TK, both of them holding his hand for dear life. The priest said a lot of things Buck didn’t understand, and there was more singing than he was used to, but the only thing that stuck out to Buck about the service was that Bobby never moved from his seat. He didn't fidget or shift to get more comfortable. He didn’t kneel or stand up whenever everyone else did.

He was so still, almost as if he was never really there at all.

After the church service, the priest led everyone out into the graveyard. Buck might have been scared if it weren’t for the distraction of mentally strengthening his shields, seeking out their weaknesses and reinforcing their structure. He couldn’t afford to lose it—not here. Not now.

His heart constricted once again when he saw the three pine coffins lying side by side. The size differences were almost jarring enough to break his concentration, but when TK slid his hand into Buck’s again and Nala twisted between his legs, he found himself calming down enough to push through.

They were all given roses to place atop the coffins. Then, one by one, they each walked through the rising fog and heavy humidity in the air to say their goodbyes. Buck managed to choke out a few words before Owen scooped him up and tucked Buck’s face into his neck. He rubbed his back gently while Buck soaked the Sentinel’s suit jacket with tears, doing everything he could to muffle the sounds of his sobs.

Maddie and Daniel were crying too, clinging onto their parents whose expressions were carefully blank, like they weren’t real people capable of feeling emotions. Buck knew better though. Their usual mixture of reds and grays was mixed in with a light blue—the same color everyone else in the graveyard carried.

Grief. Sadness. Despair.

Finally, people began leaving, not wanting to overstay their welcome. Owen didn’t let him go until Buck started squirming, suddenly desperate to see Bobby. He couldn’t let the older Guide walk away without speaking to him first. The second his feet hit the ground, Buck frantically searched the graveyard, his heart racing when he spotted his mentor sitting alone by a tree away from everyone else.

“Buck!” Owen called after him, “Don’t—”

But Buck wasn’t even listening. He just needed to see Bobby. He needed a hug from the man he loved like a father.

“Bobby!”

Bobby’s face snapped up at Buck’s cry. A swirl of light purple and orange burst from his chest with a shot of light blue, telling Buck that Bobby was drawing in guilt, anxiety, and grief like they belonged there. During their training sessions over the last year, the older Guide had gotten pretty good about shoving his emotions down so that Buck wouldn’t figure out what he was feeling, but it didn’t seem as if his practically impenetrable shields were even up .

“Buck,” he started, shaking his head and holding up his palms. “Stop!

Buck halted in place, windmilling his arms to stay on his feet. His breaths came in as short, quick pants that told him he was on the verge of a panic attack. “Bobby,” Buck sobbed, his entire body shaking with the need to collapse against his mentor. “Please!”

“No,” Bobby commanded with the same steel in his voice that would have had Buck wanting to take a step back if he wasn’t rooted in his spot. “You have to go. You can’t be here.”

“Why?” Buck demanded, tears spilling from his eyes again. He whined in frustration, not understanding how he wasn’t completely dried up yet. He needed to be strong for Bobby. “I need you! Please !”

“I can’t see you anymore, Buck; I’m sorry.”

All the air rushed out of Buck at once. “ W-what?

Bobby pushed himself to his feet, closing his eyes and pressing the palms of his hands against his lids. When he spoke, his voice wavered with sorrow, “You don’t need a mentor anymore, Buck. You’ve got more control than most of the Guides I’ve met. We’re done .”

Buck couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I—I told you that I would always need you! Even if I didn’t need a teacher, I still need you, Bobby!” Buck pleaded, crashing to his knees and clutching at his curls. “Please!”

But Bobby was shaking his head again, tears escaping from the corners of his eyes. “I just lost my family, Buck, I—”

They were my family too! ” Buck erupted, suddenly furious and baffled that the man he loved so much could toss him away so easily.

“I know!” Bobby shouted back, throwing his hands up in the air and advancing on Buck with a broken expression. “And I killed them , Buck. I killed them. They’re dead because of me . You have to stay away from me, or else I’m going to hurt you too.”

Buck flinched back as if slapped. He watched Bobby through blurry eyes as Bobby looked back at him, his gaze tracing every inch of Buck’s face—like he was trying to memorize it. They were silent for a few heartbeats until Bobby’s shoulders slumped in defeat, and he whispered, “We’re done, Evan.”

Buck watched Bobby walk away from him, leaving him against the treeline with a shattered heart—all alone. He was shockingly still for the next few minutes, his mind entirely blank of anything that wasn’t Bobby’s words replaying over and over in his head, until he couldn’t breathe again.

I killed them.

They’re dead because of me.

We’re done, Evan.

The rising waves of griefangeranguishconfusion crashed against one another within his chest, choking the breath from his lungs and sending shudders down his limbs until they crested—Buck fell forward to his hands and knees. A scream of despair tore from his throat, and Buck let everything go—every single emotion he’d felt over the past year, ever since Bobby’s injury on that call and everything was different—he thrust it away from him in a tornado of fear and heartbreak. It felt like an explosion bursting from his chest. Exhaustion overcame him, sending him careening towards the ground and snatching away the light.

Seconds, minutes, or hours later, a sharp ringing sounded in his ears, dragging him back into consciousness but blocking out the people calling out to him, yelling his name and the sharp gasps of surprise when they found what they were looking for.

In the end, it was Owen who found the nerve to approach him.

Buck was on his side, curled around himself protectively as silent tears tracked down his cheeks, completely unaware and uncaring that his new suit jacket was shredded to pieces. Everything hurt . His body ached and trembled as his throat clicked from strain. A warm, gentle hand jostled him from his stupor, and Buck managed to open his eyes just enough to see the terrified expression on Owen’s face.

“Buck…” The Sentinel started, shifting his gaze to look around him. When his face paled even further, Buck’s quiet curiosity got the better of him. He pushed himself up onto his elbows, groaning with the movement and wiping a bare arm across his face before trying to see what had scared Owen.

Buck couldn’t breathe. He had no idea what he was looking at. How could something like this have happened? Everything within a fifteen-foot radius was destroyed . He saw the grass crumpled and pressed flush to the ground and the rocks, sticks, and logs that had surrounded him were cracked and broken, laying further away as if a powerful wind had come and shattered them before picking them up and heaving them in anger.

And he was in the very center of it all with a shredded suit jacket.

When Buck looked up again, he finally saw Owen’s horrified expression.

“Did...did I do this?”

XX

Notes:

*Hides under desk* I'm sorry. I really am. It had to happen. Things had to get worse before they get better.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Again, I'm sorry.

Chapter 6

Summary:

A view of Buck through the ages 9-13.

Notes:

Happy Sunday everyone! Last week's chapter was tough and emotional, so I just had to spend the week at the Happiest Place on Earth (aka Disney and Universal).

Thank you to everyone who has followed/given kudos/commented on this story. It's amazing to see the feedback and I'm so, so happy you're enjoying it. Like I said at the beginning, it's gonna be a long ride, so I appreciate everyone sticking with me!

Again, s/o to my beta @Mugiwaralexi

Hope you enjoy this chapter!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (8)

Part I

Chapter 6

The only moment Buck ever felt genuinely grateful for his parents’ intervention was when Charlotte Keen came by the house a few weeks after the funeral to discuss a new mentor for him. The thought of someone new coming into his life—of someone trying to replace Bobby —had panic flooding into veins.

He immediately shook his head from his spot next to the couch, backing up and crossing his arms over his chest protectively. “ No ,” he ground his teeth. “I can’t. I don’t want anyone else.

“Evan,” Charlotte Keen frowned at him. “You’re only nine years old; you need someone else to teach you.”

“I don’t,” Buck argued, shooting an imploring look at his parents. “Bobby said I had more control than most Guides he knows!”

Mrs. Keen sighed, crossing one ankle over another. “I’m sure that’s just something he—“

“It wasn’t,” he scowled before closing his eyes and taking a long, deep breath. Buck concentrated on shifting his shields away from the tight bubble he had wrapped around his body, pushing them forward until they enveloped the older Guide. As soon as he touched on her professionalism and carefully neutral emotions, Buck forced a wave of bitterberefitsmugdistant onto her, a dark smirk tilting his lip as he watched her stumble in surprise, clutching onto the arm of the couch. Finally, Buck decided to take pity on her, pulling back his shields and releasing her from his grasp. “Bobby wasn’t exaggerating, and I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Mrs. Keen paled, her mouth agape as she watched him with something resembling a cross between horror and interest. “That was…”

Buck’s mom cleared her throat, clutching onto her husband’s hand with a white-knuckled grip. “Are we in agreement that Evan does not need another mentor?”

“I…believe so,” Mrs. Keen agreed reluctantly. “The GSGA will still require monthly reports on Evan’s progress, but he’s been completing them on his own for almost a year now.”

“Fine,” Philip glared, standing up but careful not to dislodge Margaret’s grip. “Then I think we’ve finished.” He swept an arm towards their front door, and Mrs. Keen gave a stilted nod.

“I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you, Evan.”

“Bye,” Buck looked away, not able to watch as his parents closed the door behind her. He swallowed thickly and fought against the oppressive silence that followed the older Guide’s departure. “Thank you,” Buck forced out between gritted teeth. He was aware that they weren’t supporting him with his best interests in mind; it was more that they were taking advantage of the opportunity to move on from anything to do with their son’s designation. Buck was more than capable of taking care of himself now, and they didn’t want anyone else coming in to place any more responsibility on their shoulders.

His parents simply waved him away, effectively dismissing him from the conversation. Buck slipped away from the living into his room and burrowed under his sheets, throwing them over his head and desperately wishing Maddie or Daniel were home from spending time with their friends.

With Mrs. Keen gone, Buck was able to drop his exaggerated confidence in his own abilities, allowing the mounting fear of his lost control at the funeral to creep back into his mind. He shivered at the reminder of the utter destruction around him, wondering how something like that could have happened. Owen had explained that, no , he’d never seen nor heard of another Guide being able to do something like that, but they’d figure it out together.

Buck had no idea how they were supposed to do that with Owen all the way in New York City and Buck in Hershey. He refused to entertain the idea of studying under another Guide. Owen understood his aversion, promising to start scheduling monthly calls with Buck, in addition to Buck’s continued talks with TK, to walk through what happened at the funeral.

Buck could handle this. Bobby had left him alone, hadn’t he? That meant he believed Buck would be fine by himself.

Right?

XX

Over the next year, instead of abating with time, Buck’s grief only seemed to grow and fester until it impacted other aspects of his life. The longer he went without Bobby’s unwavering love and support, Rob’s endless chatter and excitement, Brook’s tight and all-encompassing hugs, and Marcy’s long fingernails lightly scratching through his curls, a sharp fear of abandonment seemed to take root in Buck’s chest.

He clung to his siblings with everything he had. Maddie took it as well as she could for a fourteen-year-old. Ever since their parents started giving him the cold shoulder at a young age, she’d always pictured Buck as hers . She always wanted him to ride bikes with her and her friends or accompany them on a walk around the small shopping center in town. On the other hand, Daniel was finally a teenager—experiencing all of the hormones that came along with that. The doctors confirmed he didn’t carry the Blessed Gene, so the family wouldn’t need to accommodate another manifestation in the house. As with most kids, puberty came with the sudden desire for privacy and time away from his family. Buck didn’t understand the ever-increasing brush offs and denials to go skateboarding at the park with Daniel’s friends, just that his brother didn’t seem to want to be around him much anymore.

At home, both his siblings indulged him the best they could. Sure, Daniel and Maddie spent more time in their own rooms, and they didn’t really do sibling sleepovers anymore, but they never failed to cuddle together on the couch for a weekly Buckley siblings movie night. They shared their own inside jokes and pinky promises, something they kept separate from their parents and other friends—wanting at least a few things to remain between them.

Nala grew alongside Buck, slowly shedding her cub features and growing almost as long as Buck was tall. While she was still young, her translucent eyes held more wisdom in them with each passing day. Every once in a while, he’d look at Nala and remember Zeus, Bobby’s spirit animal, and a shot of heartache would paralyze him for a few agonizing moments until someone intervened. Nala would butt her head against his leg with renewed fervor, and break him out of his trance, but each slip up weighed him down more than he’d like to admit.

With Maddie and Daniel spending an increasing amount of time away from the house, Buck had to find other things to keep him entertained. Maddie had taught him how to ride a bike years ago, but Daniel recently learned how to skateboard and hadn’t gotten around to teaching Buck yet. Their parents seemed content to leave him on his own more often than not, so when Daniel left his skateboard behind when he was out with his friends, Buck took the opportunity to figure it out himself.

Everything started out well, going slow and steady as he learned the mechanics of how to shift his weight while picking up speed. His first speed bump came in the shape of a crack in the sidewalk, sending him careening into the grass—thankfully breaking his fall—and knocking the air out of him. He pushed himself up to his feet and tried again.

And again.

And again.

After his seventh attempt, Buck laid there for a few minutes, catching his breath and looking up towards the darkening sky. His entire body ached and Buck knew burgeoning bruises and bleeding scrapes covered him, but he couldn’t find the energy to take care of them. He closed his eyes and remembered Bobby’s soft, gentle encouragement every time he found himself doubting his abilities.

“One more time, Buck. You can do this.”

“Deep breaths. Concentrate.”

Buck ground his teeth together and shoved up from the grass, eyes locked onto the sidewalk in front of him as evening slowly fell over his neighborhood. He swallowed around a lump in his throat and pushed the skateboard along one more time.

And he flew. The wind brushed along the sweaty curls that had stuck to his neck underneath his helmet, and Buck couldn’t help the exhilarating laugh that tumbled from his lips.

“You did it, Buck! I’m so proud of you!”

If he was still crying when Maddie came home—absolutely freaking the hell out from the look of him—he didn’t correct her assumption that he was upset because everything hurt.

XX

While Buck expected Maddie’s frantic overreaction and Daniel worriedly hovering over his injuries, he was downright dumbstruck by his parent’s blatant concern for his safety. They fluttered around him constantly, ordering him back into bed where they could serve him meals and stroke his hair until the bruises faded from his skin. His siblings seemed just as confused as Buck, staring at Margaret and Philip in amazement and suspicion every time they checked on their youngest son or asked how he was.

Unfortunately for them, Buck realized that the only possible way to get his parents attention was to act recklessly—to the point of injury. Over the next few years, he invested way too much time and energy into creating contraptions that he could jump over with his bike or skateboard and thinking up new ways to get higher and higher in the air. As a result, he broke his ankle, left wrist, collarbone, and dislocated his shoulder—all before the previous injury fully healed.

Maddie and Daniel caught on pretty quickly and scolded him for it every time he did something stupid, but, unfortunately, they couldn’t argue with the results. Buck’s parents paid more attention to him during those injuries than they had during his entire life . He hated the fact that he wanted someone to care about him so much that he stooped to new lows with every opportunity.

But he just couldn’t seem to stop.

XX

Everything changed again when Buck turned thirteen.

First, the entire town was surprised to see Hershey’s rising darling, Sarah Robinson, and the seventh-grade basketball team’s best point-guard, Dylan Hoover, manifest as a Sentinel and Guide, respectively. Then, as Owen predicted, the school administration requested that Buck stay after class for the next few weeks to help Sarah and Dylan through the transition. He’d been expecting it—and his parents couldn’t care less about him unless he was in a cast—so Buck agreed readily, excited to finally be of some use. He was careful not to mention any abilities that Bobby and Owen told him were outside the general scope of a Guide’s abilities, but Buck had more fun than he anticipated teaching them the basics.

As Sarah and Dylan settled into their designations with Buck’s help, the school’s general aversion to him shifted practically overnight. Suddenly everyone wanted to be his friend. Sarah’s cheerleading posse followed him around, giggling and whispering to each other as soon as he flashed them a smile, and decorated his locker every game day—even though he wasn’t part of any sports teams. Dylan’s friends must have gotten the nod of approval from their captain because he never found himself without a partner in his classes again. Someone was always around now, vying for his attention, wanting to know every detail about his training since he manifested.

While it was everything he ever wanted from his classmates over the past nine years, earning their affection now was bittersweet. Losing the Nash family left a fear of abandonment that was much too difficult to overcome, even with the attention and admiration from his new friends. Buck was fine with superficial friendships and relationships, happy to pose for pictures, play video games all night, and hold hands with the girls who were attracted to him; he simply wasn’t interested in building a deeper connection with any of them. What would be the point? None of them could love him like Rob did or bring him the same kind of joy Brook gave him.

But he smiled and pretended as well as he could, and they all ate it up like they believed every word that came out of his mouth.

XX

Second, on Owen and TK’s annual spring break trip to Pennsylvania, the Sentinel asked Maddie and Daniel to take TK to the aquarium for the day so that he could speak with Buck alone. When Buck looked to his friend for some idea of what was going on, TK simply shrugged and dove into Maddie’s jeep, excited to spend the day with the older kids.

Buck shifted uncomfortably on the couch sitting in the lounge area of the Sentinel’s hotel suite. Owen watched Buck’s hands fidget and his teeth tug on his bottom lip, worried that he was in some kind of trouble. “I think,” Owen started with a sharp release of air and a furrowed brow, “that you’re old enough to learn what really happened to the Nash’s.”

“What?” Buck choked, not expecting Owen to bring up their shared loss today. He knew Owen still spoke to Bobby as often as the older Guide would allow, but he was exceedingly careful to skirt around their topics of conversation during his calls with Buck every few months.

“Do you remember what Bobby said to you at the funeral?”

How could he possibly forget? He only replayed that conversation in his head every night before he fell asleep.

‘I killed them, Buck. I killed them. They’re dead because of me. You have to stay away from me, or else I’m going to hurt you too.’

Buck couldn’t repeat any of those words, not without feeling like he’d burn up from the inside out the moment they left his lips, so he simply nodded.

Owen swallowed thickly, his throat worked with the movement and rubbed a hand across his face. “You were too young to see the signs or understand what was going on, but Bobby is an alcoholic.”

Buck felt a crinkle form between his eyebrows. He was aware of alcoholism, in the distant, general understanding that most people have. It meant that Bobby could not control his drinking due to both a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol.

“Bobby’s always struggled with it,” Owen explained softly. “When we became friends in the fire academy, he told me that the disease ran in his family and that his first trouble started in high school. Manifesting as a Guide is an overwhelming event in and of itself, as you know, but having a genetic propensity to seek substances to help block out the constant barrage of emotions when his shields weren’t strong enough made everything ten times worse. Bobby, bless his heart, was clean the entire time I knew him, up until about fifteen years ago.”

Buck did the math in his head, confused and slightly alarmed that Bobby had fallen off the wagon after such a long time without relapse.

Owen nodded, following Buck’s train of thought. “It was hard on everyone. Bobby and Marcy struggled through a rough few years until something big changed everything.”

“Me,” Buck whispered, tears gathering in the corner of his eyes.

“You,” the Sentinel agreed solemnly. “When Charlotte Keen assigned him to your case, Bobby had been retired from training younger Guides for a few years. Your situation was too important to ignore though, and he managed to quit drinking cold turkey by finding a sponsor and going to as many AA meetings as he could fit into his already busy week. When he took on mentoring a Guide, he couldn’t risk something happening to you during your training. Bobby had to be sober and focused to take on such a big responsibility, or else it could have been dangerous for you.”

Buck closed his eyes and dropped his head into his hands. He thought back to every interaction between him and Bobby, from Bobby introducing Buck to his family to remembering how much love the older Guide had to give. “What happened, Owen? What changed?”

“Do you remember when Bobby got hurt on that call five or so years ago?”

“Yeah.” It certainly made sense if that was the catalyst that caused Bobby to start drinking again. Nothing was the same after Marcy called Buck to tell him that Bobby wouldn’t be available for those two weeks of his recovery.

Owen grimaced. “He and his team got the call to a warehouse fire. The structure was already weak because of building code violations, and the expanding fire dialed the potential hazard up to ten. Bobby and his partner went to the second floor, where they had reports of a trapped warehouse employee. They found the young man right where his coworkers said he would be. Bobby carried him out while his partner led the way, but when they were nearing the staircase, the floor collapsed from under them.

“Bobby twisted so that he was protecting the victim, but it meant that he landed on his back.” Owen wiped his hands across the front of his jeans before leaning forward. “He lost his partner in that fire too.”

“That’s so awful,” Buck mumbled with a wobble of his lip, his stomach tightening and curling with the dead weight of the new information. “Poor Bobby.”

Owen’s lips twitched downwards, and he let out a sigh. “It was really, really hard on him. The emotional and physical pain was too overwhelming for him to put enough energy and concentration into keeping his shields up as often as he normally did. After that…everything was just too much to handle.”

“He started drinking again,” Buck guessed with hunched shoulders. “Bobby changed. Even though we were still together all the time, it was like he wasn’t really there.”

“Yeah,” Owen agreed sadly. “He was struggling, and nothing I said could change that. Unfortunately, people in crisis don’t always accept the help offered.” The Sentinel took another deep breath and fixed Buck with a look that had him straightening in his seat. “What you need to understand next is that the building Bobby’s family was living in was not nearly up to code. It was a death trap—sprinklers not hooked up to anything, broken smoke alarms. There were so, so many safety violations - to the point where it should have been condemned—that the super and landowner chose not to update because it cost too much time and money.”

“Why did they live there then?”

“They were saving up to buy a house,” he explained. “Marcy stayed home with the kids, so they relied on Bobby’s salary. They were getting close to being able to move out, but…” he trailed off. “Bobby wasn’t in the right frame of mind to notice the building code violations.”

Buck swiped a hand across his wet cheek, growing impatient to learn the truth of what had been haunting him for over four years now. “Why did Bobby say that he killed his family, though? He would never hurt anyone!”

That much Buck was certain. He had absolutely no idea why Bobby would blame himself and push Buck away as he did, but the man would never hurt the people he loved.

Owen’s gaze swept up towards the overhead light for a few moments before coming to rest on Buck. “Bobby came home after a particularly rough call. In the parking lot of his apartment building, he…indulged in a few things that he shouldn’t have. He went upstairs, said goodnight to Robert Jr. and Brook, and went to take a walk. Marcy tried to convince him to stay.”

“Why?” Buck asked, leaning forward in his seat.

“You have to understand that Bobby had a serious problem,” Owen stressed, only continuing when Buck motioned for him to go on. “One of the apartments below theirs was vacant, and Bobby used it as a safe place to satisfy his addiction and keep it a secret from the rest of the world.”

Buck grimaced, feeling sick to his stomach. He knew the ending of this story and now the beginning, but suddenly wasn’t sure he could handle everything in between.

“It was cold out, so he turned on a gas fire heater to stay warm. After a while, Bobby went back home. Marcy was waiting up for him because she had an idea of where he’d gone,” Owen sighed, rubbing at his temple. “They had a big fight when she confronted him about his addiction, and they decided that he needed to spend the night somewhere else. He left the apartment to go back downstairs but realized he’d forgotten his keys. So,” the Sentinel shifted in his seat, “Bobby went up to the roof to get some fresh air. He fell asleep.”

“What happened next?” Buck breathed, almost too scared to ask.

Owen was quiet for a few long moments. When he spoke again, his expression crumpled. “The gas fire heater—it…”

“It caught on fire,” Buck finished for him, a sob ripping from his throat. “And spread. It killed them.”

“Yes,” the word was watery as it fell from Owen’s lips. “One hundred and forty-eight people died in that fire.”

Buck didn’t want to be sitting alone anymore, his heart echoing in his chest and the blood rushing in his ears, so he shoved up to his feet and stumbled towards Owen, relieved when the Sentinel swept him into a crushing hug. Owen cradled the back of Buck’s head and held him as he cried against the Sentinel’s shirt. “Bobby is a good man. He has so much love in his heart. I know you know that; you’ve seen it. He was an excellent father, but everyone has their demons. That fire might have started because of that heater, but Bobby is not at fault for those deaths. The person who built that apartment complex and had those people living there without updating the safety codes is at fault. Bobby believes he killed all those people, but he’s wrong .”

“Bobby would never hurt anyone ,” Buck swore, clinging onto Owen’s shirt with every ounce of strength he had left. Despite what he’d learned about what Bobby went through, the familiar ache of hurt and betrayal rose in Buck’s throat before he could push it down. “He left me, though. He pushed me away, and I haven’t seen or heard from him in four years. He left me alone .”

“Oh, Buck,” Owen pressed his forehead against the young Guide’s temple. “Bobby loves you like a son. Always has and always will, I promise. He’s been punishing himself for so long.” The Sentinel took in a shuddering breath before leaning back to look him in the eyes. “He‘ll come back around one day, Buck, I swear to you. I don’t know when or how that will happen, but don’t give up on him, okay?“

Buck’s eyes slid shut as he pressed closer to Owen and tucked his head under his chin. “I promise.

Xx

The third change occurred when Buck was thirteen and Maddie met Doug Kendall.

Neither Buck nor Daniel were introduced to Doug until he and Maddie were already four months in and swept up in their whirlwind romance. They knew something was up when she started coming home later and later, looking like she was walking on air with a dreamy expression on her face.

As if that weren’t strange enough, Maddie started arguing with their parents more often than ever before. Out of the three Buckley siblings, Maddie was the one who had the most patience for their parents’ abrasive tendencies, but, for some reason, every little thing that came out of their mouths rubbed her the wrong way. Buck shared an equally confused look with Daniel when their sister started a screaming match with them over a comment about the way the chicken was cooked.

“What’s gotten into you?” Buck asked her later when she was getting ready for bed. He collapsed on top of her comforter and frowned at his sister through the crack of the bathroom door.

“Absolutely nothing,” she called back with a sniff.

Her bedroom door swung open, and Daniel leaned against the frame with his arms crossed over his chest. “Are we talking about what suddenly crawled up Maddie’s ass?”

Their sister made an offended noise and wrenched the bathroom door open with a scowl. Her long brunette hair was thrown up into a messy bun, and she had a green mud mask covering her face. Buck wasn’t proud of how hard he cringed away from her.

Daniel, on the other hand, cackled like a man possessed, slapping his thigh with glee. “See, look at that! Even Buck here is terrified of the monster our sister is turning into.” He rolled his eyes in exasperation when Maddie glared harder. “Oh relax, Mads, you know he’s nothing if not a loyal puppy. But seriously, what’s going on with you?”

“Is everything okay?” Buck asked, pushing up to his knees and choosing to ignore his brother’s comment.

Maddie sighed, all of the tension draining out of her shoulders as she collapsed next to Buck on the bed. “Everything is great. Better than, even.”

Buck and Daniel shared yet another look, their eyebrows reaching up towards their hairline. His older brother chuckled under his breath. “Then what’s up with the whole scary-Mary routine with Mom and Dad?”

“I just…” Maddie started, running her hands over her pajamas. “I’ve started to realize that Mom and Dad don’t always know what’s best, and it’s getting on my last nerve.”

“You’re just starting to—“ Daniel scoffed, scooting into the room and closing the door behind him.

It was Maddie’s turn to roll her eyes. “ Yes , I know; I’m the last to figure out that our parents are obnoxiously controlling.”

“That’s one word for it,” Buck muttered under his breath, guilt dropping into his stomach like a stone when both of his siblings stiffened. “Er—I, uh—sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Daniel snapped, harsher than Buck was used to hearing from him. His brother closed his eyes and shook his head, coming over to wrap his arm around Buck’s shoulders. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that you have nothing to be sorry for. You’ve gotten the sh*t end of the deal for our entire lives.”

“But you’ll always have us,” Maddie grinned, squeezing his arm and looking up at both of her brothers. “Anyway, I know they want me to go to school to become a doctor, but I’m thinking about doing something different.”

Buck co*cked his head, leaning into both of his siblings’ touches. “Like what? I know you’ve wanted to go into the medical field.” These past few years of fixing up Buck’s cuts and scrapes have helped her understand her love of helping others.

“Maybe nursing?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Daniel asked with a furrowed brow. “You’d make the best nurse—you have your very own Guinea pig!”

Their sister snorted, gently shoving Daniel’s chest. “There’s nothing wrong with it; that’s the thing. But Mom and Dad said they won’t help pay for school if I don’t do what they want.”

“Wow,” Buck sucked in a sharp breath. He knew school was outrageously expensive, and he didn’t think his parents were capable of leaving Maddie to deal with it herself.

Before they could ask anything else, Maddie shifted uncomfortably, getting the look on her face that said she was hiding something. She was a horrendous liar.

“That’s not all, is it?” Daniel asked with a raised brow.

She grimaced and shook her head, fidgeting with her hands the same way Buck does when he’s nervous. “I met someone. His name is Doug.”

Buck blinked in surprise. This was the first he’d heard of it. “You have a boyfriend?”

“I do,” she hummed with a strange smile on her face. “I—I think I love him.”

“sh*t, Mads,” Daniel blurted. “How long has this been going on? And why haven’t you said anything before this?”

“Mom and Dad never approve of anyone either of us dates, you know that,” Maddie told him with a frown. “I didn’t want them to ruin this for me.”

Buck looked down and picked at the comforter absent-mindedly. He was aware of the anxiety building up in his sister, but he’d gotten better about blocking out his siblings’ emotions out of respect for their privacy—if they wanted Buck to know how they were feeling, they’d talk to him about it. That was the deal. “But what about us?”

Maddie cleared her throat. “Doug didn’t want to put either of you in a position where you had to lie to our parents.”

The tense silence in Maddie’s room was telling.

“Doug didn’t want us to know?” Daniel asked incredulously.

“That’s not what I said, and you know it,” Maddie shot back, pushing up to her feet and placing her hands on her hips.

“That’s what it sounds like!”

She moved forward until she was in Daniel’s face. “You’ll meet him when I’m ready to—“

“What—when you’re ready to run away together?” Daniel interrupted with a glower, eyes going wide when Maddie reared back in surprise.

Buck’s jaw dropped to the floor. “Are you really planning on running away?”

Maddie ran her fingers through her hair and huffed out a breath before taking Buck’s hands in her own. “I’m not going anywhere, Evan, I promise. It’s just something Doug mentioned, is all.”

Daniel swallowed thickly, crossing his arms over his chest again and moving towards the window. He looked out over the darkened front lawn before turning back towards them. “Don’t you dare lie to him, Maddie. If you’re planning on going somewhere out of state for nursing school, then you need to be honest. We both deserve that.”

“It’s still a few months before I have to decide on anything, okay?” She said quietly, tightening her grip on Buck’s hand. “But I love him. I don’t want to lose him.”

“Then introduce us,” Daniel implored softly. “If you love him so much, then we will too, right?”

“Right,” Maddie agreed, her lips twitching upwards.

XX

Buck really, really wanted to like Doug. He did—for Maddie.

But one look at the deep pit of red and shades of brown hiding behind a mask of light green had Buck cringing back before he could even bring himself to shake Doug’s hand. The other boy’s carefully relaxed expression twitched for a moment before smoothing out, and he looked towards Maddie with raised eyebrows.

She shot Buck a searching look and made some excuse for him that he missed. Daniel was dragging him back to his room by the arm, blocking him from Doug’s interested gaze.

“Okay, what was that? What did you see?”

Maddie and Daniel were always careful when talking about their little brother’s designation. They never once breathed a word about his unique abilities to anyone outside of the family, and he sincerely hoped that Maddie wasn’t about to start now.

Buck closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands against his lids. “I—I don’t even know.”

Daniel double-checked that the door was closed before leading Buck to the bed, gently nudging his arms. “Come on, talk to me. You completely froze up out there.”

“I know you guys don’t like it when I see or feel your emotions without your permission, but most of the time, I can’t actually help it.” He started, looking at his brother out of the corner of his eye. “Doug…there was so much anger and—and disgust coming from his chest. He tried to hide it, something I’ve only seen Bobby do, but I could still see it.”

Daniel was quiet as he absorbed this, twisting his hands together in his lap. “Could you feel it too?” He asked quietly.

Buck shook his head, swallowing around a lump in his throat. “My shields are too strong. I didn’t want to feel it, so I didn’t.”

“Do you think he’s dangerous?”

“I don’t know,” Buck stressed, turning towards his brother. “I really don’t, but…I’m scared of him,” he whispered.

Daniel ducked his head and scratched at the nape of his neck. “We need to tell Maddie.”

Buck’s brow furrowed. “Do you think she’ll believe me? She said that she loved him.”

Evan ,” Daniel said softly, tapping Buck’s knee with his knuckles. “Maddie loves you. You’re like her kid. If you tell her that you don’t trust Doug, then she’ll break up with him.”

“But, she said—“

“It doesn’t matter what she said,” Daniel insisted. “If she’s in trouble, then we need to talk to her about it. Right?”

Buck blew out a breath, rubbing a hand across his face. “Right.”

XX

The next day when Maddie came home from her date with Doug, Daniel and Buck were waiting for her in her room wearing matching worried expressions.

Maddie paused when she saw them, her dreamy smile disappearing and twisting her lips into a concerned frown. She went through the motions of pulling off her coat and mittens, tucking them back into her closet before standing in front of them expectantly. “What’s wrong?”

Daniel inhaled noisily, straightening his shoulders. “We have something to tell you, and you’re not going to like it.”

“Then don’t tell me,” she shot back with a frown, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Not an option,” Daniel groused, turning to look at Buck.

Buck’s gaze ducked down, hovering near Maddie’s socked feet. “Doug is…” he hesitated, trying the words out on his tongue. “Doug is bad news. Really, really bad news.”

“What do you mean?” Maddie asked suspiciously, tapping on Buck’s chin to encourage him to look up. “Doug has been nothing but wonderful to me.”

Buck shook his head, nausea curling in his stomach as he remembered the dangerous colors trying to hide behind a wall of light green. “It’s an act. I swear, Maddie, I could see everything he was really feeling. It was scary.”

His sister chewed on her lip, looking unsure. “Maybe he was just having a bad day—“

“What did you tell him about our family? About Buck?” Daniel suddenly asked, pushing up to his feet.

They both looked at him in surprise. Maddie was silent for a few moments before answering. “ Nothing . I mean, he knows that Buck is a Guide, of course, but I didn’t tell him anything else, I swear.

Daniel scowled, narrowing his eyes. “That’s why he felt disgust then. He’s a Naturalist, like Mom and Dad.”

Buck couldn’t help it—he flinched back and curled into himself. Maddie had an arm around his shoulders in an instant and glared at Daniel for his bluntness. “He’s not! I would know if he was. How can you say something like that?”

“Buck is never wrong when it comes to these things, Maddie! If he says Doug is dangerous, then he’s dangerous .”

Maddie pulled away from Buck to look him in the eye. “Is that true, Evan?”

“I’m sorry, Maddie,” Buck swallowed and bit the inside of his cheek. “But yeah, it is. You can’t trust him. I don’t know how else to explain it in a way that you’ll believe me, but Doug is really bad news.”

His sister pinched the bridge of her nose, inhaling and exhaling until she turned her attention back on her brothers. “Okay, I believe you. I need some time, though, because I just—I really care about him.”

“I know you do,” Daniel sighed, nudging Maddie’s foot with his own. “And I’m sorry. You know we would never want to hurt you, but Buck and I couldn’t let this one slide.”

“We love you,” Buck echoed Daniel’s sentiment, curling into his sister when she pulled him into a hug.

“Love you both too.”

XX

A few days after Maddie broke up with Doug—which caused the carefully placed mask over his emotions to crack like the fragile shell of an egg and expose his true nature—Buck received his first letter.

Daniel came home from school with his backpack slung over his shoulder, biting through an apple in one hand and sorting through the mail in the other.

“Buck!” He called out loud enough for his little brother to hear him from the other side of the house. “Letter for you!”

Like the loyal pup he was, Buck came running when called, a lopsided grin on his face. “Who’s it from?” He asked excitedly.

Daniel shrugged, tossing his backpack onto the couch before leading his brother into the kitchen and settling atop one of the barstools. He slid over the envelope and tried to pretend he wasn’t interested in the contents. Buck received mail from Owen and TK in New York and correspondence from Charlotte Keen and the GSGA, but he didn’t recognize the sender this time.

He grimaced when Buck tore into the envelope without care but didn’t reprimand him. His brother got enough of that from their parents and, occasionally, from Maddie. Daniel was the only one in the house Buck could go to without judgment, and he didn’t plan on changing that now.

A crinkle formed between Buck’s eyebrows as he unfolded a fine piece of stationary and began reading through it.

“Well?” Daniel urged, no longer keeping up his cool-detached pretense. “What is it?”

“It’s…” his brother hesitated, “it’s from a guy in Peru. He read my file from the GSGA and asked if he could mentor me.”

Daniel blew out a breath, delivering a low whistle to accompany it. “That’s crazy. Someone from all the way in Peru wants to train you?”

Buck certainly didn’t look happy about it, though Daniel didn’t expect him to be. Ever since losing the Nash family, Buck adamantly refused to even entertain the idea of a new mentor. Not that he really needed one, his experience and developed abilities spoke for themselves, but it was tradition for young Guides to train under someone after manifesting at puberty. Everything about Buck’s background and involvement was abnormal.

It seemed that word had finally got out, and people wanted to crane their necks to see a piece of the side-show.

Buck simply rolled his eyes and scoffed, tossing the note in the trash and stomping off to his room, uninterested in reading anymore.

Daniel, on the other hand, felt a sudden compulsion he didn’t quite understand. Without truly thinking about it, he opened the trash can and retrieved the letter, smoothing out the wrinkles Buck had made when he crushed it in his hand. Daniel couldn’t explain it —he just knew he should protect it for his brother.

Buck might not want to keep something like this, but if he happened to change his mind later, Daniel wanted to make sure he had the option to reach out to someone interested in helping.

It would be months before Daniel’s foresight to save the letter would prove to be helpful.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? Its a bit of a time skip, but I want to highlight what's happening in Buck's life at all the major moments. I hope you all enjoyed reading, and I'll see you next week!

If you ever want to come chat, I'm on tumblr at shesliketexas-17

Chapter 7

Summary:

Buck's teenage years. Maddie and Daniel both leave for school and Buck finds someone from his past.

Notes:

Happy, happy Sunday everyone! It's been a WEEK, let me tell you. I did manage to finish three whole chapters though (so that means I have up to chapter 15 completed - still Part II: Military Service), which means the story is coming along nicely. Like I said before, it's going to be a monster. It's sitting at 70k and a little over halfway done.

I want to thank EVERYONE who has read, given kudos, commented, subscribed, and bookmarked this fic. It's really encouraging to see that people are interested in this story.

This chapter is one of my favorites, not going to lie. Daniel's been a really fun character to write and explore, so I hope you fall in love like I did!

Anyways...enjoy :)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (9)

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (10)

Part I

Chapter 7

Six months later, almost two dozen Sentinels and Guides from across North and South America started sending Buck letters. Buck regularly received letters from Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Chile, British Columbia, and Ontario. They all wanted to get in touch with Buck to invite him to their homes and train with the earliest manifested Guide on record.

He ignored them all, though their continued correspondence seemed to weigh his mood further down than it already was.

After a few screaming matches with their parents, Maddie applied and, subsequently, was accepted into the nursing program at a university in Boston. But, of course, Margaret and Philip Buckley refused to pay for anything less than medical school, to no one’s surprise. So, with Buck and Daniel’s help, she applied for hundreds of available scholarships in the area and received enough to pay for the majority of her schooling, which meant she still needed to find a job in Boston to help with living expenses.

With their sister’s imminent departure in a couple of weeks, a fourteen-year-old Buck retreated further and further into his own head. Daniel and Maddie weren’t ignorant of their brother’s abandonment issues stemming from the loss of the Nash family, but they’d

been careful over the years not to feed into his fear of losing the people he loved most.

Although Maddie was recently busy planning the move and her newest life change, she still found the time to take Buck on long drives in her jeep and bring him and Daniel out to the drive-in theater for a double-feature. She told them about the one-bedroom apartment she had lined up, and they looked through the ads online for potential job openings in Boston. Because Maddie kept her brothers involved in every step of the planning for her next chapter, Buck’s anxiety about her leaving diminished enough that he agreed to drive up with her to school with Daniel riding behind them in his Accord.

Their parents continued to be difficult until the very last moment, choosing only to wave goodbye from the porch as their three children drove away for the long weekend. Daniel was sure that Maddie was upset with their stubbornness and outright inability to support their children in anything other than what they approved of, but by the time they made it to Maddie’s apartment building in Boston, Buck had managed to cheer her up considerably.

They helped her move in without complaint, despite the mountain of shoes she decided to bring along with her. As expected, Buck was practically attached to Maddie’s hip for the remainder of the weekend until she was finally settled in and set up with a few interviews for the next day. At his forlorn expression as Daniel packed their bags in the car, Maddie tucked one of Buck’s curls behind his ear and drew him in for a lengthy hug, whispering reassurances in his ear. Buck choked out a sob when they finally pulled away, wiping his wet cheeks with his sleeve and ducking into the passenger seat of Daniel’s car.

Daniel’s throat tightened at the sight, but he focused on pulling his sister into a tight hug. “I’m going to miss you, Mads.”

“I’ll miss you too, Daniel,” she sighed, curling her head underneath his chin. “Take care of Evan, alright? This is going to be really hard on him.”

“I will,” Daniel promised, pulling away to place both hands on her arms. “You’re going to kick ass in nursing school and call us whenever you can. Buck will be fine; I’ll make sure of it.”

She nodded quickly and swallowed, the glossiness of her eyes shining in the mid-morning sun. “Drive safe.”

“Will do, love you, Maddie.”

XX

“Oh my god, brake! Brake!” Daniel blustered, tightening his white-knuckled grip on the grab handle on the passenger side of the Accord. “You have to step down on the clutch and take your foot off the accelerator when switching gears!”

The car lurched forward a few times until Buck groaned in frustration, flicking on the turn signal and peeling into the nearest gas station. He shut off the car with a huff and ran his fingers through his curls while Daniel’s heart tried to slow from a gallop down to a trot.

“I’m never going to get this,” his little brother said with a sigh, pressing his forehead against the leather of the steering wheel.

Daniel tipped his head back against the headrest. “Sure you will. It just takes practice.”

“Yeah, with you ,” Buck shot back without looking up at him. “And I’m running out of time to figure this out.”

“What do you mean?” Daniel asked, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion.

Buck was silent for a few moments. “I mean that I know you got accepted into John Hopkins and that you’re going to be leaving soon.”

Daniel’s eyes widened, and he had to bite down on the long list of curses running through his mind. “How did you—I mean, I was going to tell you—but, how?”

His little brother finally sat back and rolled his eyes. “You think Mom and Dad are capable of not gloating that their favorite son got into one of the top medical schools in the country? Come off it.”

“Well, that’s just—” Daniel blew out a breath with a shake of his head, turning in his seat to face his brother. “I wanted to tell you myself. I know it’s been hard with Maddie gone,” he continued when Buck groaned again, “and I didn’t want you to think that I was abandoning you or something—”

“Daniel,” Buck interrupted with both palms up in front of him, his cheeks aflame. “I’m not fragile , no matter what you and Maddie think.” His glare, which he probably meant to be menacing, was, in fact, comparable to a golden retriever denied a toy. “And you’re my brother; of course, I’m happy for you.”

Daniel’s lips twitched upwards as he clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Thanks, Buck.” A burst of affection and warmth spread throughout his chest, prompting him to say, “you know, I want to become a doctor because of you.”

Buck’s expression twisted into one of confusion, and his throat worked when he swallowed. “What?”

“Yeah,” Daniel told him softly. “You’re the reason I’m alive today, little brother. I want to pay that forward and save others too.” He looked away, shame curling in his gut. “I know it was so, so hard on you when we were kids. I mean, you manifested as a Guide at four f*cking years old and—”

“Woah, woah,” Buck leaned forward to grab onto Daniel’s hand, squeezing tighter than he probably realized. “I don’t regret any of that, and I wouldn’t change a single thing. Yeah, I manifested earlier than other kids, but it meant that I could help you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“You’re a good kid, Buck.”

His little brother shrugged, ducking his head down shyly. “Whatever.”

Daniel nudged his arm. “You’ll have to keep busy when I’m gone. Maybe go out with at least one of the long line of boys and girls wanting to be with you.”

Buck snorted. “Nobody is lining up to go out with me.”

Dude ,” Daniel said incredulously, his eyebrows jumping towards his hairline. “Don’t even lie. I’ve seen all of those kids that stop by the house wanting to see you. You’re way more popular than you realize. Although,” he paused, thinking back on all of the interactions over the past few years. “You never initiate anything. What’s up with that?”

His little brother’s shyness morphed into one of distress, sending alarm bells off in Daniel’s head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think you do. Why don’t you ever reach out to people? You have a ton of friends. You can’t just leave it all one-sided and expect them to reach out first every time. It isn’t fair to them.”

“I can do whatever I want.”

“Buck,” Daniel sighed.

Buck grit his teeth and twisted so that he faced the steering wheel again. “I just—I don’t want to get too close to anyone. People leave .”

The sound of blood rushing echoed in his ear as Daniel’s heart shattered at the hitch in his brother’s breath. “Evan,” he stressed, bringing those blue eyes back on him. “It’s okay to let people in sometimes. What happened with Marcy, Brook, and Rob was a tragedy , but you can’t let the fear of losing the people you love dictate your whole life.”

“Why not?” Buck whispered, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. “Bobby did.”

“Bobby is in a really, really bad place,” Daniel argued. After Owen explained to Buck what happened the night of the fire, he talked to Maddie and Daniel as well to help them understand and to encourage them to look out for their little brother as he dealt with the new information. “He wouldn’t want you to be so closed off. The Nash’s would want you to be happy and to find more people who love you for who you are. People can’t do that unless you let them in, though.”

Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek and wiped the tear tracks off his cheeks. “I’ll think about it.” He tilted a strained smile towards Daniel. “If you can actually teach me how to drive before you leave.”

Daniel paused for a few moments before allowing his brother to change the topic. “It’s a deal. Remember, when you’re switching gears, be gentle on the clutch. We don’t need your lead foot making us stall out in the middle of the street.”

XX

The weekend before Daniel would move to Maryland for school, Maddie drove into town to surprise her family. Buck was, of course, the first one out the front door, barreling into his sister at break-neck speed. She threw her head back and laughed as she tried to keep from falling over but hugged him back as tightly as she could. God, she missed him.

Daniel was next, crushing her smaller frame against his own in a bear hug. “Oh my gosh, did you get even taller than the last time I saw you?” She grumbled against his chest, looking between her two brothers. “Both of you are going to be giants.”

“I wish you could see Nala,” Buck grinned, reaching down to run his hands along his spirit animal’s fur despite the fact she was invisible to everyone else. “She’s so long now. Almost a full-grown mountain lion.”

“I’m sure she’s beautiful,” Maddie told him diplomatically. While neither she nor Daniel could see Nala, they had felt enough brushes of energy from the spirit animal’s attempts to get their attention to know that it was always better to stay on her good side. With how eerily strong Buck was, they wouldn’t be surprised if Nala somehow surpassed expectations that dictated how spirit animals interacted with the physical world.

The sound of the front door opening again caught Maddie’s attention, and she had to fight to keep the smile on her face. Her parents stood there side by side, looking wary and dimly pleased that she came home. “Maddie, it’s so good to see you.”

Maddie inhaled through her nose and gathered the strength to go hug both of her parents. Neither of them had called even once while she’s been away at school, leaving it to her to keep up the communication between them. She called the house often enough to speak to Buck or called Daniel on his cell, but her parents always managed to grab her attention for a few minutes—long enough to make her feel guilty for leaving Hershey to pursue nursing.

“What are you doing here?” Her father asked, letting his arm fall away from her and pushing his glasses further up his nose.

She slung an arm around Buck’s shoulders and nudged Daniel with the other. “I just wanted to spend time with my brothers before Daniel leaves for Maryland next weekend. I can’t stay long, I have a test on Monday, but I thought this might be my last opportunity to see everyone in one place.”

“Well, it certainly didn’t need to be like that,” her mother argued lightly. “You had the grades to get into John Hopkins. You could be going there together.”

“Mom,” Daniel objected, careful to keep the annoyance out of his tone. “Leave Maddie alone. She’s going to make a wonderful nurse.”

“But she has so much potential—”

“It’s not up for discussion,” Maddie closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe. Jesus. Every. Single. Time. “I’m here to spend time with my brothers. Nothing else.”

Before their parents could continue arguing, Buck started dragging Maddie into the house. “Then come on! I’ve gotta show you this awesome lego set Daniel got me. We’ve been working on it together.”

She spared a brief moment to watch her youngest brother fondly before following him inside. At least she could always count on Buck to never change.

XX

“Are you sure you want to do this now?” Maddie asked when the three of them piled back into the house after a trip to the aquarium.

Buck looked up at her questioningly, but Daniel nodded and steered them both into his room, carefully closing the door behind him.

Maddie chewed on her bottom lip as she got settled in her brother’s desk chair, glancing over the pile of familiar medical books splayed out in front of her.

“What are you two planning?” Buck asked with narrowed eyes, perching himself on the edge of Daniel’s bed. “Oh my god, you two aren’t going to ‘talk’ to me about my abandonment issues again, are you?”

Maddie couldn’t stop the snort that came from her nose when Buck used air quotes in his “deeply annoyed” tone. She shook her head while Daniel laughed in exasperation. “No, we aren’t planning on ‘talking’ to you—unless you think we need to?”

“Nope!” Buck denied vehemently. “I’m fine. Perfectly fine.”

“Sure you are,” Daniel rolled his eyes before straightening up. “But seriously, we did want to give you a few things.”

Now Buck looked more excited than suspicious. He always adored receiving gifts. “Oh, what is it?”

“Well, first,” Maddie started with a wide grin. “You’ll be the one driving me back up to Boston. Daniel will need to ride home with you because you need an adult in the car while you still have your permit.”

It took him an embarrassingly long amount of time to put that together. When he finally got it, his entire face lit up. “You’re giving me the jeep ? Are you serious? I’m not even sixteen yet!”

She caught him with a huff when he launched himself at her. “You only have a few more months to go. Daniel and I thought you would need something to get you out of the house when he leaves next week.”

“I’m going to overlook the fact that you two think I can’t handle myself,” Buck groused with a scowl before squeezing his arms around Maddie’s waist one more time. “But thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” she tucked a stray curl behind his ear when he pulled away. “A friend of mine is selling her car, so I’ll drive that until I figure out what I really want.”

“You are seriously the best.”

Daniel cleared his throat to gain their attention. “Yeah, yeah, Maddie is the greatest of all time, we know, we know. She wanted to give you that first, so you’d be in a good mood when we gave you my gift.”

Buck was instantly on edge again, most likely sensing Maddie and Daniel’s emotions, though he was usually better at keeping his reactions from them. “What did you do, Daniel?”

“Why do you automatically assume I did something?” Daniel asked, scoffing in offense. The looks Maddie and Buck leveled at him had Daniel ducking down and scratching at the back of his neck. “Okay fine, maybe I did something. But only because I thought you needed it!”

Maddie reached over to grab ahold of Buck’s hand while Daniel dropped to the ground and pulled out a box from underneath his bed. He toyed with the lid for a moment before tossing it away and handing the box out to their brother.

Buck took with trepidation, shifting his gaze between the box and Daniel. When he finally flipped through the box’s contents, his eyes widened, and his expression crumbled. “These are the letters from all of the people who want to train with me. Why did you keep these? I threw them all away!”

“Because,” Daniel explained gently. “You’re on track to graduating high school a year early, but you don’t have any interest in going to college. So, I thought maybe you could travel for a while. All of these people will help pay your way.”

“Plus,” Maddie interjected before Buck could argue, “this could be really good for you. Owen may have helped you with solidifying your control after the funeral, but what if these people can teach you more than that? It’s been six years since you’ve had a mentor, Evan.”

Buck set the box down on the bed and rested his face in his hands. “I don’t want to learn anything else. I’m fine teaching the new Sentinels and Guides who manifest every year. I don’t need anyone else.”

“Of course you don’t,” Daniel agreed. “But they might need you. Have you ever thought about that?”

Their little brother peeked through his fingers to look up at Daniel. “No.”

Daniel clucked his tongue. “I didn’t think so. But just because they’re older and have some experience doesn’t mean they have the training that you do. Owen and Bobby were so good for you, and I have a feeling other Sentinels and Guides don’t get that kind of attention.”

“Will you at least think about it? Maybe we can talk about it more on the drive back to Boston Sunday.” Maddie suggested, rubbing her hand across his back.

“Also,” Daniel shrugged, turning to look out the window towards the front lawn. “I have a feeling you’ll be chomping at the bit to get the hell out of this house. It will be a long two years.”

The energy in the room dipped again at the reminder of how their parents treated Evan. Maddie wanted to bundle her baby brother up and bring him back to live with her in Boston, but she knew it wouldn’t be possible to afford living with a fast-growing fifteen-year-old teenager. She was barely home as it was anyway, spending most of her time at the hospital or the library.

“You’ll both promise to call, right?” Buck asked with his shoulders slumped. “And maybe write? TK and I still send letters back and forth, so I promise to write back.”

Daniel stepped forward to ruffle Buck’s hair, earning him a light smack on the wrist. “Of course we will. I know Med school is going to be a lot of hard work, but I promise not to ditch you once I’m there.”

“Same,” Maddie gave him a small smile. “You can always call us anytime. Just don’t do anything stupid while we’re gone, alright?”

XX

Buck was ready to climb the f*cking walls. God, it had only been six months since Daniel moved to Maryland, and the entire Buckley household had fallen apart.

Where before, his parents were pleasantly detached from their parenting duties and allowed Maddie and Daniel to look after Buck, now, suddenly, they thought they could have a say in how he lived his life. He was almost constantly degraded for his attitude towards college, forced to listen to his mother’s comments about wasted potential and his father’s grousing about having a son who wouldn’t amount to anything.

He refused to tell them his plans for after graduation, wanting, instead, to put every ounce of his energy towards getting the hell out of Hershey as fast as he could. At Maddie and Daniel’s insistence, Buck reached out to the people who had sent him letters over the past few years to see if anyone was still interested in working with him. He really hadn’t been expecting the kind of response he got, but there were at least eight offers that were willing to wait until after he graduated high school and pay for his travel costs.

Buck used the next few months to plan out his trip, forcing himself to grit his teeth and not snap back at his parents every time they enforced a curfew or asked to see his grades. He’d start by driving to Maryland to see Daniel for a few days, then travel up to New York to stay with Owen and TK for two weeks before driving up to see Maddie for the weekend before her finals week. After that, he would spend three months in Toronto, two months in Quebec, and two months in Edmonton before driving back down through the US. Buck planned on stopping by California for a few days, then driving through the southern states before heading down to South America. He would spend the next year or so in Mexico, Venezuela, and Guatemala before finishing up his travels in Peru.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after he finished all of his training, but he figured he’d have a better understanding of where to go when the time came.

A few months before his early graduation, Buck started to get anxious about leaving Pennsylvania. It took him a few sleepless nights to figure out that he was worried about leaving the state without talking to Bobby again. Through Owen’s updates, Buck knew Bobby was still in the same town he’d always lived in, though he never stayed in one place for too long. He was still wallowing in guilt and self-pity to the point of destruction, and instead of Buck feeling the same taste of sadness and betrayal when he thought about the man who was like a father to him, all Buck felt was rage .

Yes, what happened was nothing short of a tragedy, and it would haunt Buck for the rest of his f*cking life, but Bobby wasn’t the only one who lost his family in that fire. Buck lost a brother and a best friend, a little sister and a light in his life, and a woman who loved him for who he was instead of what he could give her. Maddie and Daniel forced him to move on when all he wanted to do was curl up under his comforter and never come back out. He didn’t think anyone really did that for Bobby.

Buck sat up in his bed, the sheets pooling at his waist, and reached for his cell phone. He needed to talk to Owen. If Bobby didn’t break himself out of this downward spiral, he was going to f*cking kill himself, and Buck refused to let that happen.

Owen picked up on the fourth ring, groggy and voice full of sleep. He quietly listened to Buck explain his idea, then let out a long, deep exhale. “ Are you sure about this?

“I’ve never been more sure about anything,” Buck stressed, his voice breaking on the last word. “This is my last chance.”

Then I’ll help however I can, ” Owen promised.

XX

After his graduation dinner, where Daniel and Maddie came into town and treated him to the nicest restaurant in Hershey, Buck slipped out of the house and started towards his jeep. He let his siblings know he had an errand to run, and although he hated missing out on any time with them, this was important.

He drove two hours to the dropped pin Owen sent, wiping his sweating hands onto his jeans every twenty minutes. It has been eight years since he last saw Bobby, although a day didn’t go by where Buck didn’t think about him. Buck still spent hours remembering the man’s kindness and protectiveness during the five years they worked together.

Bobby brought Buck into his life, into his family. They were all each other had left of their old lives, and Buck couldn’t leave the older Guide to his own devices. Not anymore.

The GPS alerted him that he’d arrived at his destination. Buck swallowed nervously and peeked out at the run-down apartment building that looked one stiff breeze away from falling apart. He grabbed his things and locked the jeep behind him—then double-checked that it was really locked—and found apartment 3B.

f*ck. Okay, this was it. Eight years later. He could do this.

He could do this.

Buck closed his eyes and raised a shaky hand to knock on the splintered wood.

After a minute or so passed with no answer, the sickly feeling in his gut prompted him to bang on the door, harder and louder this time.

Finally, he heard a frustrated grumbling coming from the other side. A few moments later, the door flew open to reveal the same eyes that he remembered from his childhood.

Bobby’s jaw dropped open in shock, and Buck took the opportunity to reconcile the man he once knew to the one standing in front of him. The familiar soft, brown eyes had deep, purple bags weighing them down, and he had lost at least twenty pounds of muscle over the years.

“Buck?” Bobby breathed out, sweeping his gaze up and down as if he couldn’t believe the Guide was really here. “Are you— what ?”

“Yeah,” Buck swallowed around a lump in his throat. “I’m here. I came to talk to you. Can I come in?”

Bobby watched him for a few moments, eyes never leaving Buck’s face, before stepping back and inviting him inside.

The place was nothing short of a disaster. Half-empty and broken beer bottles lay scattered around the kitchen and living room, with plastic tumblers tipped over around the floor. Bobby cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable, and rubbed a shaky hand through his hair. “I, uh, I’m sorry; I don’t really have any place for us to sit and talk. I’m not—I don’t—”

“I know,” Buck said gently, trying to keep his tone even. His white-hot anger dissipated almost instantly after seeing Bobby in person. Clearly, the man had been punishing himself enough. Buck straightened so that he rose to his full height, gathering as much courage as he could, and dug into his pocket to pull out the folded piece of paper he’d written on after his latest phone call with Owen.

“I’m leaving Hershey,” Buck began, watching Bobby’s expression crumble. “And I’m not coming back.”

Bobby took a second to rub and hand over his face, blinking away tears. “Oh. That—that makes sense. You’re seventeen now, graduating high school and—”

“How did you know that?” Buck interrupted, his eyebrows drifting towards his hairline.

“Ah,” Bobby shuffled his feet, looking embarrassed. “I try to keep up to date on your life as much as possible. I knew you graduated this morning, but I—Owen never said what your plans were for after.”

Buck…had no idea how to feel. A strange, familiar warmth flooded his chest at the proof that Bobby still cared, though it tasted like copper in his mouth when he remembered that Bobby could have been a part of his life this entire time.

“I’m traveling for a few years to train under a few Sentinels and Guides,” he explained roughly. “I received a lot of offers over the years, but I haven’t been interested until now.”

“That’s—that’s good,” Bobby nodded, his brows furrowing deeply. “You deserve to have someone look after you. Something I couldn’t do.”

The anger crawled up his throat again, flashes of a completely different life with Bobby—by his side and helping him through his teenage years—playing through his mind.

“It could have been you, but you’ve been so lost in your own grief that you pushed me out of your life!” Bobby flinched back as if slapped, but Buck barreled on. “You’ve been blaming yourself for their deaths, and I’m tired of it. It’s been eight years , Bobby. Time to grow the f*ck up and realize that while the fire might have started because of you, you didn’t choose to disconnect the smoke alarms or sprinklers. You’re feeling guilty while the people responsible are sitting in a jail cell where they belong.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Buck continued with a fierce growl, shoving the paper against Bobby’s chest until the older Guide flailed for it. “You’re going to go to this address first thing in the morning. This is the finest rehab center in Pennsylvania. Owen has already paid for your stay, so if you don’t show up, he’ll fly down here and kick your ass for losing him all of this money. You’re going to get sober and go back to firefighting because it made you happy . Despite whatever you believe, Bobby, you deserve to be happy.”

Bobby choked out a sob, trembling against the wall where Buck had him pinned. “Why? Why would I do any of that when it’s my fault ?”

“Because,” Buck’s voice broke then, tears leaking out the corners of his own eyes. “You’ll lose me forever if you don’t.”

What? ” Bobby stiffened.

“I love you, Pops,” Buck continued over Bobby’s quiet whimper. “When I leave Hershey, I’m never coming back. I’ll send postcards to Owen, TK, Maddie, and Daniel to keep them updated on my trip, but I swear to God if you don’t get sober and start living your life again, you’ll never hear from me again. I won’t let Owen tell you anything . No more checking up on me through anyone else or knowing if I’m alive or dead. I will keep you in the f*cking dark until I draw my last breath if you don’t get your sh*t together. Do you understand me?”

Buck ,” Bobby crumpled to the ground, dragging Buck down with him. “ Please , please don’t—you’re all I have left. Please .”

Buck‘s hands clamped onto Bobby’s arms with a vice grip. “ Pops , I’m doing this because I’ve always believed in you. You were the most important person in my life; you introduced me to my brother and best friend, to my little sister. I love you so much it hurts . I need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for me. I’ve spent eight years without you in my life; please don’t make me wait another f*cking day.”

Bobby pulled Buck into his arms and sobbed, clinging onto him with every ounce of his strength. Buck tucked his head underneath Bobby’s chin and held on just as tight, not caring the least bit that they were both a complete mess after a few minutes. He’d waited so f*cking long to see Bobby again; he wasn’t going to miss another second of having him close.

“Okay,” Bobby finally choked out. “I’ll go. I’ll go.”

XX

Notes:

YAY they finally reunited :) Not gonna lie, I teared up a bit when I was planning this one out. I love the Buckley Siblings but Bobby and Buck's relationship will always have a special place in my heart.

Thoughts? Feelings? I would love to hear them. If you want to chat or see any of photos or artwork for this fic, I've posted them all on my tumblr at shesliketexas-17

See you next Sunday!

Chapter 8

Summary:

Buck completes his two years of traveling and training with older Sentinels and Guides. When he returns to New York, he meets a surprise guest.

Notes:

Happy, happy Sunday! I hope everyone had a wonderful week.

This chapter marks the conclusion of Part I: Buck Begins (we made it!). Part II: Military Service begins next week, and I'm in the middle of writing chapter 18 right now (so it will be a long one).

S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi!

Anyway, please enjoy this chapter :)

05/04 Edit: Sorry about the notifications - my beta and I are working through doing a bit of editing for Chapters 8 on for a few SEAL clarifications :) Bear with me! For your patience, I'm planning on posting chapter 16 a day early!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (11)

Part I

Chapter 8

Buck slumped a bit further down in the seat of his jeep, his fingers tightening into a white-knuckled grip around the steering wheel as he tried to keep himself awake.

After two full years traveling through North and South America, Buck was more than ready to finish this last leg of his trip. He was looking forward to seeing Owen and TK in person for the first time since he’d left New York right before he kicked off his journey. Plus, their expressions would be priceless when he surprised them for dinner tonight. They were aware that he planned on stopping by within the next week or so, but Buck was careful to be vague on the details.

After spending some time with his pseudo-uncle and cousin, Buck planned to call Maddie and Daniel to let them know he was back in the country. From his correspondence through postcards and letter replies, he learned Maddie was doing well in Boston, his brother was finishing up medical school in Maryland, and Bobby had remained sober since his first day in rehab.

While everyone seemed to be on a path forward in their lives, Buck wasn’t sure where he wanted to go now that he’d finished everything he set out to accomplish. It was true that he was reluctant at first; if Daniel and Maddie hadn’t pushed him to go outside of his comfort zone, Buck would still probably be wandering around aimlessly—or worse, he’d still be stuck in Hershey. Now, though, he’d learned something new from each of the Guides and Sentinels he stayed with over the last two years, and he even managed to pick up a few languages while he was at it.

He felt infinitely more in control than he had after graduating high school, and Buck was fiercely proud of the progress he made studying under his mentors. While he never truly let himself get close with any of the trainers, they did their best to engage him anyway. Apparently, word had spread through the Guide and Sentinel community of what happened when he’d been a child, losing Bobby’s entire family—losing the people who had become his family—along with his unwillingness to continue training with others. Thankfully they had understood and respected his boundaries. Buck appreciated that privacy more than he could express, and he’d wanted to prove he was worth their consideration, which meant giving his heart and soul to learning everything they chose to teach him when he finally chose to train with them.

Buck cleared his throat as he re-focused on the drive the closer he got to the city. Rather than run through the material and skills he learned yet again, Buck decided to practice, in his head, the new languages he studied during his travels. Francis in Quebec taught him French, while Sarah and Juan taught him Spanish while in Mexico City and Venezuela. His mentors in Guatemala and Peru were impressed when he was able to keep up with their conversations, albeit a bit slowly.

Before Buck knew it, he pulled into Owen and TK’s apartment complex. He took a few minutes to stretch and work out a few kinks that had built up over the long haul up to New York City before finally making his way up to the third floor. Buck only hesitated for a moment before knocking loudly, biting back a grin when he heard Owen yelling at TK to get the door.

Sure enough, the door swung open to reveal a scowling TK, whose expression shifted into one of pure joy—not that Buck couldn’t still see the bright yellow bursting from his friend’s chest; he just preferred to read body language—and he threw his arms around Buck. “You’re back!” TK cried, hugging him tightly. “It’s good to see you, brother.”

Buck didn’t let TK pull away for another few moments, wanting to hold on just a bit longer. “It’s good to see you too.”

“I thought you were coming later in the week,” his friend said, tugging him inside and closing the door behind him.

“I wanted to surprise you guys,” Buck explained with a silly grin dancing on his lips.

“Who is it?” Owen called out from the kitchen, to where TK dragged Buck by the wrist.

When they crossed the threshold, Buck noticed an imposing Sentinel with salt-and-pepper hair leaning against the countertop near Owen, who stood in front of the stove wearing a ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron.

Buck’s stomach swooped, suddenly unsure if surprising the Strands was a good idea considering they had company. “Ah, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—“ he started before Owen whipped around with wide eyes.

Owen had the foresight to turn off the stove before meeting Buck halfway for a tight embrace. Buck let out a sharp laugh and patted him on the back a few times. “I missed you guys.”

“We missed you too. Welcome home!” Owen’s face lit up with such fondness that it had Buck melting. “I was just about to finish up dinner. The more, the merrier!”

The other Sentinel smiled at Buck and held out a hand, “I’m Steve McGarrett. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Evan Buckley, please call me Buck. It’s nice to meet you too,” Buck took the offered hand and shot Steve a grin.

Owen clapped Buck on the shoulder once more with a proud smile on his face. “Buck is practically my nephew. Known him since he was six years old.” He looked over his shoulder at the pot on the stove. “TK was just about to set the table. Why don’t you two go sit down, and I’ll get dinner set out.”

“Are you sure I can’t help with anything?”

Owen waved Buck away with a shake of his head. “Absolutely not; you and Steve are our guests tonight. Tomorrow, though,” he teased.

Buck couldn’t help the laugh that escaped his throat as he led Steve into the small dining room. When he took his usual seat to the left of TK’s, Buck looked at Steve expectantly. “So, how do you know Owen and TK?”

“Ah, Owen and I go way back,” Steve explained, his lips twitching upwards. “We crossed paths while I was at the Naval Academy years and years ago. I retired last year, so I’ve been making the most out of my civilian life by traveling and visiting old friends.”

A spark of interest ignited in Buck’s mind, and he found himself leaning forward. “You were in the Navy?”

Steve nodded, taking a sip of his drink—tea because Owen didn’t allow alcohol in the apartment after discovering TK also struggled with addiction. “I was. I did about five years of Naval Intelligence and six in the SEALs before being reassigned to lead a task force in Hawaii.”

“Wow,” Buck breathed, feeling his own eyes widen with excitement. “What was that like? Did you have a good team for your task force?”

If it weren’t already obvious by the proud look on Steve’s face, his fond chuckle would have answered that question. “I’m a bit biased, but I believe I have the best damn team in the country. In the military, those with the Blessed Gene are so rare that it’s difficult to find a good pairing between a Sentinel and a Guide. But Danny Williams—Danno—was the perfect fit for me from the very beginning. We did a lot of good work together.”

“Oh?” Buck’s eyebrows knit together, wanting to know more. But before he could ask a follow-up question, Owen and TK came with the rest of dinner.

“Quinoa Vegetable Soup,” Owen announced proudly, setting the pot on its trivet atop the table. TK distributed a set of bowls and spoons, then sat down next to Buck, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“This is one of my favorite meals that Dad makes,” TK told Steve. “You’ll love it.”

Steve served himself a few scoops and wafted the steam towards him, his eyes crinkling on the sides with his smile. “I smell garlic, thyme, and…bay leaves?”

“Your sense of smell was always more acute than mine,” Owen said, nodding and pouring his own bowl before looking toward Buck. “How did your studies go? We’ve saved all of your postcards, but it’s not the same as hearing about your experiences in person.”

A burst of affection warmed Buck’s chest at the reminder that his family kept all of the postcards he sent them. “Everything was great. It was challenging but rewarding. I learned a lot and even picked up French and Spanish while I was in Canada and South America.”

“Wow,” Steve commented, his eyebrows shooting towards his hairline. “You must pick up languages fast. So, does that mean you weren’t traveling for fun?”

“Well,” TK smirked, “If I know Buck, and I do, I know that he would have had plenty of fun everywhere he went.”

Buck rolled his eyes and playfully shoved TK’s shoulder. “I received a few letters when everyone else in my grade started manifesting, asking if I’d like to train under them. I wasn’t in the right mindset for something like that, so I reached out a few months before I graduated high school to see who was still interested. There were still a good number of Sentinels and Guides who wanted to work with me.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve paused, looking between Buck and Owen. “I’m not sure I understood that right. Did you say ‘when everyone else was manifesting?”

Buck ducked his head, his eyes finding a particularly interesting spot on the table. “Er, yeah.”

Thankfully, Owen took pity on him. “Buck manifested as a Guide at four years old. After that, he became something of a celebrity to those offering their services through the GSGA.”

“Yeah,” TK hummed. “Buck was the prettiest princess at the ball. Everyone wanted a piece of him.”

Buck snorted with a shake of his head before tucking into his food.

“Wow,” Steve breathed out, a tone of wonderment lining his voice. “Have you ever considered joining the military?”

Buck’s head snapped up again to meet Steve’s calculating gaze. “What?”

“The military,” Steve repeated evenly. “More specifically, the Navy. A friend of mine leads a SEAL team, and I know they could really use someone like you.”

“There’s no way I would qualify to do something like the SEAls,” Buck grimaced. “Those guys are on a whole other level than someone like me.”

“Hey, now,” Owen scowled. “You know you aren’t at home anymore, which means I don’t want to hear any negative self-talk.”

“Yeah, Buck,” TK nodded. “You should think about it. You’re in great shape, speak multiple languages, and are probably one of the most gifted Guides in the country right now.”

Warmth flooded Buck’s cheeks. “I don’t know about all that…”

“Sounds like these guys know what they’re talking about,” Steve said, wiping his mouth with his napkin before setting it down next to his empty bowl. “Do you already have plans now that you’ve finished traveling?”

“Not exactly…” Buck admitted with a shrug. “To be honest, I was hoping to get a few ideas from Owen. He always had my best interests in mind.”

Owen gave him a soft smile. “Damn right I do. Why don’t we talk about it more tomorrow? Then you can have some time to think about it.”

“Alright, I’ll at least consider it.”

XX

One week following his arrival to New York City, Buck leaned against Owen and TK’s balcony and stared at the business card in his hand, a light bead of sweat tracing his temples.

If he made the call, Buck would move out to San Diego to take his chances in BUD/S. If not, then he would consider going straight into the fire academy. Even after talking things through with Owen, Buck was still undecided.

He’d called Maddie, Daniel, and Bobby to tell them he was back in the States, but Buck didn’t mention anything about his indecision during their conversations. For one, he didn’t want to make his family worry. They were still fiercely protective over him, something that hadn’t diminished the older and more experienced he became. On the other hand, Buck wanted something that was just for him. Sure, he’d traveled across North and South America training under incredible mentors and learned as much as he could, but those sessions were just as much for the older Sentinels and Guides as they were for him.

If Buck did, indeed, try out for the SEALs, the decision would be solely for himself—to prove he was skilled enough to take on such a huge responsibility. However, Buck also wanted to be absolutely sure that he would never lose control like he did at Rob, Brook, and Marcy’s funeral. Owen assured him that they’d curbed any new surprises, especially during his intense training the past two years, but Buck couldn’t risk hurting anyone by accident because he lost control. The SEALs were known for their unprecedented discipline and ability to flip their emotions on and off.

Buck needed to have all of the information before making a decision, so he had spent the last few days researching the background, tests and training he would have to endure, along with the structure and leadership makeup of the teams if he did end up passing the program.

The SEALs are the US Navy’s primary special operations force and a component of the Naval Special Warfare Command. Their main functions include small-unit special operation missions across multiple types of environments. They typically receive orders to capture or eliminate high-level targets or gather intelligence behind enemy lines.

Before getting accepted into BUD/S training, Buck would need to pass a certain number of both mental and physical requirements—neither of which Buck felt particularly worried about. Once accepted, he would need to obtain a SEAL contract after passing the physical screening, including a five-hundred-yard swim in under twelve minutes, fifty push-ups and sit-ups in two minutes, ten consecutive pull-ups in two minutes, and a one-and-a-half-mile run in less than ten minutes. After obtaining a contract, Buck would spend the next few years completing a series of formal and specialized training, along with pre-deployment training. Even after placement with his SEAL team, should he complete BUD/S, he had the option to continue certifications—appealing to his love of learning new and exciting things.

It sounded like an immense amount of work, but if he were successful, then Buck would finally be a part of a SEAL team—a new family if Steve’s experiences were anything to go by. SEAL sixteen-man platoons got divided up into two eight-man squads for operational purposes, and those squads got separated further into two four-man fire teams or eight two-man reconnaissance teams.

Buck spent an abnormal amount of time fantasizing about the team he would be assigned to (if he did, in fact, manage to pass all of the training and not flunk out two weeks in). Would they be as close-knit as Steve described? Or would they see him as some freak who manifested ten years before everyone else his age? He had no idea which end of the spectrum they would choose from to view him, but Buck knew it would be worth it regardless.

Daniel and Maddie were always getting on him about opening up and letting people in. Well, who better to trust to have your back than a team trained to keep each other alive?

He needed direction, discipline, and something to throw his entire being into. If Buck wanted to be absolutely sure that he wouldn’t hurt anyone by accident if he lost control, then trying out for the SEALs was the best choice. He had no doubt that they would be able to keep him in line if things got out of hand.

If he was going to do this, Buck decided he wouldn’t tell Maddie or Daniel just yet. There was no guarantee that he would be successful, and even if he were, they would try to talk him out of it. His older siblings still believed he was fragile, needing their direction and guidance when facing a life-altering decision. Bobby, on the other hand…

Buck didn’t want to keep his plans from the older Guide, nor did he want to put Owen in the position of having to lie to his best friend if asked. The night before Bobby returned to rehab, Buck and Bobby had promised not to keep things from each other again. Besides, even if Bobby didn’t like the thought of Buck putting himself in danger—like joining the Navy—he trusted Buck enough to handle himself. He’d proved himself over and over again during his childhood, and Bobby knew what Buck was capable of.

Buck sucked in a deep breath, holding it for three counts before letting it out. The warm July air ruffled his curls and snuck beneath his shirt. He turned around to lean his back against the railing and pulled out his phone, punching in the number he had memorized over the past week.

It only rang for a few seconds before Steve answered. “McGarrett.”

“Steve,” Buck started haltingly. “This is Buck, er—uh Evan. Buckley.”

Buck,” Steve greeted warmly. “It’s good to hear from you. Have you decided to take me up on my offer?

Buck ducked his head and scratched the nape of his neck with his free hand. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I will.”

XX

Steve tapped a pen against the jut of his lips, his thumb hovering over a contact he hadn’t planned on using now that he was retired.

Heaving a sigh and rubbing at his temples, Steve pressed the call button and held his phone up to his ear.

Harrelson,” the voice on the other line barked, sounding frustrated and strung out. Steve wasn’t surprised—the young Sentinel Lieutenant had been leading his SEAL team without the help of a Guide for almost a year now. The stress of that kind of severe imbalance would be enough to grate on any sane person’s nerves.

“Hondo,” Steve greeted with a twitch of his lips. “It’s been a while.”

There was a beat of silence on the other line until, “Steve. It’s good to hear from you.”

“I know I swore that I wouldn’t be in contact for at least another few years,” Steve groused, already annoyed that he was breaking his own self-imposed rule of isolation from the Navy after finally retiring. “But I have some news that I believe might interest you.”

Oh?” Steve could practically hear Hondo’s widening grin over the phone. The smug bastard knew that Steve could only be calling about one thing. “You’ve found me a Guide?

Steve rolled his eyes fondly. Hondo’s team lost the Lieutenant Commander, who was also one hell of a Guide, last year when William “Buck” Spivey received an honorable discharge after a raid overseas. Steve scoffed, finding it incredibly amusing that he wanted to replace one “Buck” with another.

“It’s like you read my mind,” Steve ducked his head with a soft laugh. “You’ll never guess what this kid’s name is…”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

For those of you who aren't familiar, Steve McGarrett is from Hawaii Five-O. He's a former SEAL and all around a total badass. If you haven't watched S.W.A.T., it's a television series (I watched it on Hulu) that is a reboot of an old classic. I fell in love with the cast and decided to bring them into this universe. The roles will be different, as they're in the SEALs, not S.W.A.T., but I'm hoping you'll enjoy them either way. With the way I've written this, you don't need to have watched S.W.A.T. to know what's going on.

Thank you to everyone who has read/given kudos/commented/bookmarked/subscribed. All of your encouragement is helping me finish this story strong <3

Chapter 9

Summary:

Buck survives Hell Week and meets his future commanding officer.

Notes:

Happy, happy Sunday! It is a gorgeous day down here where I'm at. Windows down with the puppy in the backseat kind of weather.

Anyway, welcome to Part II: Military Service of "A Million Pretty Pieces." If you can't tell, "U.S. Navy SEAL Evan Buckley" is one of my favorite tags, but I always wanted to see his training and missions played out to really get a feel for how Buck got to be a SEAL in the first place and how he handled it. That's what this Part II is. The characters from the tv show S.W.A.T. will be his team, led my none other than Daniel "Hondo" Harrelson. (In case you haven't seen it, it's Derek Morgan from Criminal Minds!). This Part II will be about 10 chapters.

05/05 edit: My beta and I revised a few SEAL details and ranks for this chapter :)

S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi

Anyway, Disclaimer - I did a lot of research about SEAL training, but I'm not perfect, so take it with a grain of salt.

Enough from me...I hope you enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (12)

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (13)

Part II: Military Service

Chapter 9

Buck let out a guttural groan as he dipped into the ice bath, throwing his head back with a hiss as he settled down into the glacial waters. He gripped the edges of the metal tub and forced himself to breathe—to focus on recovering from Hell Week and not the flashes of the bitter-cold depths of the Pacific Ocean.

After arriving in San Diego and filing the necessary paperwork to apply as a BUD/S candidate, Buck went straight into eight weeks of Naval Recruit Training—the classic “boot camp” he’d expected—followed by another eight weeks of Naval Special Warfare Prep School. There, he ran through the courses meant to improve the candidate’s fitness and subsequently learned the basic concepts of special warfare. Buck didn’t have any problems with the Physical Screening Exit Test at the end of the course and mentally patted himself on the back as he flew through the three-week long BUD/S Orientation.

Buck thought Steve had prepared him for what he would face during the BUD/S training. He thought he knew what to expect out of the twenty-four-week long course designed to wreak havoc on a soldier’s body and mind—to push a person to the absolute brink of what they could withstand and then throw them off the goddamn edge and force them to pick themselves up again. All while the instructors watch with cold, expressionless faces. He thought the Navy exaggerated the statistics. Only twenty-five percent of his almost two-hundred candidate class would get through Hell Week—only the fourth week in? So, it had to have been bullsh*t, right?

It wasn’t.

Over the course of five and a half days, Buck managed a full four hours of sleep—total. He spent the rest of his time devoted entirely to running more than two hundred miles and completing physical training for more than twenty hours each day. No matter how fit Buck was going into Hell Week, nothing could have prepared him for the gruelling, mind-numbing physical exhaustion he endured during those agonizing five and a half days. Luckily, most of the training forced him to retreat into his own mind—something he’d been strengthening since he was four years old.

While his body ran through the paces on auto-pilot, listening to the hoarse barking of his instructors, Buck hunkered down behind his mental shields to avoid the constant assault of the other candidates’ flood of emotions. He could still see their cores protruding mixtures of blood reds, bright oranges and whites, and deep blacks, but he could protect himself against feeling most of their volatile blend of anger, anxiety, fear, and hate as they crawled through the BUD/S trials.

The only actual moment of peace he found during, what was, as of now, the most difficult week of his life came in the middle of the drownproofing task.

Over the last two years of his travels, Buck found a home beside the ocean. One day as he drove through California, he remembered how Maddie fell in love with the sand between her toes and the simple mystery of what lay beneath the crashing surface. Buck decided to follow her lead and spent an entire week camping out on the sands of the Pacific Ocean. From there, he learned that it would be his bread and butter—that he’d always come back, a moth to a flame.

Many of Buck’s fellow candidates succumbed to the fear and panic of having their hands tied behind their backs and forced into a nine-foot pool. But Buck would just let his pulse even out, reinforcing his shields with precision as he completed each task without hesitation; his mind fell back to the intense training he endured during his childhood, remembering how he never thought he’d be as strong as he was today. Yet, Buck never faltered during this exercise because he was in his element, with Nala watching him with steady, knowing eyes. How could he fail?

After his commanding officer congratulated the thirty-five remaining candidates, Buck let out a shaky breath of relief and limped towards the medical tent for a quick check-up; every muscle in his body fought with each other on which would fail first. The doctor on-site confirmed that Buck wasn’t going to fall to a flesh-eating bacteria, pneumonia, or any other Hell Week induced ailment and patted him on the back with a muttered, “Good work, kid,” and sent him on his way. From there, the next tent offered an entire large pizza and a massive bottle of Gatorade with a stern order to finish everything and not to leave his barracks room for a full twenty-four hours.

Arguing never even crossed his mind; he was too focused on taking the hottest damn shower known to man and then passing out for the entirety of those twenty-four hours. He hadn’t slept in almost a week, and his veins felt flooded with ice and flames all at once.

Before he reached the door to the barracks, his instructor was waiting with a crisp brown shirt with Buck’s last name stitched across the back. Buck froze in place, his jaw jumping as he fought against the white-hot tears that suddenly gathered in the corner of his eyes.

From the moment he was thrust into boot camp with almost two hundred other men and women, all of them had worn the simple white t-shirts that told anyone with eyes that you were new—unproven. It marked you as not yet making it through, arguably, the most harrowing and physically challenging training in the United States military.

But now? Now Buck had the privilege of stripping off his tattered and soiled white t-shirt right then and there and donning the brown one—proving to everyone who watched that he was not the same person he once was. Instead, he was something new, something weathered and unbreakable.

So, now, here was Buck, a full day later—most of which he spent sleeping after finally showering for the first time in a week—forcing his battered body into that ice bath to help his aching muscles recover. His eyes slipped closed against his will, and he thought about calling Maddie and Daniel. They had no idea that he was going through BUD/S training—he’d told them he was planning on doing a bit more traveling before finding a place to settle down for a while. After a bit of deliberation, Buck decided to hold off on telling them until he officially received his SEAL trident. While he might have made it through Phase One of BUD/S, there were still five months left of training, three weeks of Parachute Jumping School, and finally, twenty-six more weeks of SEAL Qualification Training.

What if he didn’t make it through everything? Would they be disappointed or relieved that their little brother wouldn’t be throwing himself into harm’s way? He loved his siblings, but they tended to see him through rose-colored glasses that made them believe he was still ten years old, working through herculean-sized abandonment issues and desperately needing their protection.

Buck just wasn’t that guy anymore. Not after training with some of the most talented Sentinels and Guides on the continent, but also after surviving Hell Week with his mind and body intact.

While he couldn’t call Maddie or Daniel, he could definitely let Bobby and Owen know the good news.

Buck took a deep breath and reached down to the side of the tub to grab his phone, settling back into the frigid water as he held it up to his ear.

Buck,” Bobby greeted warmly after the first ring. He never missed one of Buck’s calls—ever. The knowledge settled deep within Buck’s chest and made a home for itself. “I was hoping to hear from you. How did it go?

The young Guide swallowed around a lump and willed back the trickle of pride and relief that threatened to crawl up his throat. “I made it.”

Bobby’s booming shout of triumph had Buck wincing and tugging his phone away from his ear, but a wide grin plastered itself across his face. “That’s my boy! I knew you could do it, Buck! I’m so damn proud of you!

Several other voices sounded on the other line, and Buck could hear Bobby happily explaining Buck’s accomplishment to a group of people. He must be at the fire station, finally back on the job after rehab. Bobby seemed to enjoy his crew, though he wasn’t particularly close to any of them anymore, from what he’d told Buck. Nevertheless, everyone offered him sincere congratulations and told him to kick ass during the rest of his training.

Buck chuckled under his breath and let the back of his head rest against the metal tub. “Thanks, everyone, and thanks, Pops. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it for a second there. Turns out the name ‘Hell Week’ is no joke.”

Bobby muttered something to the others and must have moved somewhere more private because the background noise dissipated. “I can’t even imagine, but you did it, kid. You made it through. Will you have to get back to it on Monday?

“Hmmm, yeah,” Buck hummed, rolling his shoulders with a sigh. “But next week is mostly focused on classroom instruction in hydrographic reconnaissance. I have no doubt that the instructors will send us back out into the surf and generally torture us—because they can’t let us get soft—but I think it’s supposed to be pretty muted.”

Bobby’s amused laugh rang in Buck’s ear, sending a familiar warmth that he missed during their eight years apart and settling the gooseflesh that had crawled over his skin. “I hope so. I can’t talk for much longer, but call Owen to let him know—he’s been chomping at the bit just as much as I was to hear about how it went.

“Will do, thanks, Pops. Stay safe.”

Always do. I’m so proud of you, kid.”

Buck ended the call with a soft smile tugging at his lips and tucked the phone back into his bag before sinking under the water again.

XX

Buck had only managed to lie down in his bunk for a grand total of four seconds before one of his instructors, Chief Petty Officer Sanders, was roaring his name across the barracks. “Petty Officer Buckley, front and center!”

He practically fell out of his bed, thankful he wasn’t tangled up in the sheets and rushed to the door. Buck snapped to attention, lifting his chin high and praying that nobody could see through his sleepwear of faded boxers and his new brown t-shirt. “Chief Sanders, Sir!”

Sanders stayed quiet for a moment, and Buck saw him raise a bushy eyebrow at his outfit. “At ease,” he said with amusem*nt. When Buck relaxed, Sanders huffed out a laugh. “You have a visitor. Throw on some clothes and meet me out front.”

“Sir,” Buck dipped his head in acknowledgement. When Sanders walked out the door, Buck flipped off two of his fellow candidates while they snigg*red at him. Buck’s curiosity sparked at the back of his mind while he tugged on a pair of sweats, his socks, and running shoes. Who could be visiting him? None of his family or friends were nearby, and they wouldn’t drop in on him without calling first. Maybe Steve? Though, he seemed to be taking retirement pretty seriously and had mentioned more than once that he wanted a break from everything SEAL related.

When he stepped outside, sighing at the heat prickling his skin, Buck didn’t recognize the dark-skinned Sentinel with Oakley sunglasses and a goatee standing casually with Sanders. When he walked up, his instructor gestured toward Buck. “Buckley, meet Lieutenant Daniel Harrelson.”

Buck snapped to attention once again, anxiety building in his stomach at the question of what an Officer of Harrelson’s caliber wanted with him. “Lieutenant Harrelson, Sir.”

“Relax, Buckley; I’m not your CO. You can call me Hondo,” the man grinned easily, holding out a hand to shake.

Buck’s lips twitched upwards to match the Officer’s. “It’s nice to meet you, Sir. You can call me Buck.”

“Same to you, Buck,” Hondo said, nodding towards Buck’s instructor. “Sanders agreed to loan you out for a few hours. Take a walk with me?”

Buck’s eyebrows raised in surprise but found no answers from Sanders, who watched them with an air of interest. “Uh, sure.”

They walked in silence along the seawall for about five minutes or so until they were far enough from the barracks, so nobody overheard. Finally, Hondo turned to him and moved his Oakleys atop his shaved head. “Do you know why I asked to speak with you privately, Buck?”

The young Guide shook his head, tucking his sweating palms into the pockets of his pants. “No, Sir. Are you here to reprimand me?”

Hondo let out a puff of air and smirked. “Definitely not. I’ve only heard good things about you, kid. Don’t worry about that. I’ve been keeping an eye on you since Steve McGarrett called me.”

Buck stopped short, reaching to lean against the seawall’s railing and examining Hondo once again. Steve had previously mentioned a friend who led a SEAL team that could use someone like Buck. “Oh,” he muttered under his breath. “Does that mean you want to recruit me?”

“I think it's a possibility,” Hondo admitted with a shrug, “but I’d like to talk to you about a few things first. Has anyone spoken to you about being a Guide yet?”

Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek and furrowed his brow. “Not in detail, no. When I got to the recruitment office, they marked it in my file and took photos of my tattoo.” His hand unconsciously rubbed at the spot over his heart before he noticed and dropped it back down to his side.

“I reached out to the GSGA and spoke with Charlotte Keen,” Hondo told him, gently nudging Buck back towards the sidewalk. “Your file was…interesting, to say the least.”

Buck was suddenly grateful that Hondo started walking again because it meant he didn’t have to look the Officer in the eye as his heart rate picked up. He hadn’t spoken to anyone outside of his mentors and family about his unique abilities. Bobby and Owen were always so protective over them as if someone would take notice and drag him away from his loved ones. Even his mentors during his travels were careful not to speak too openly about it.

“Was it?” Buck hoped he managed to keep his voice steady, though, by the knowing look on Hondo’s face, he didn’t succeed.

“Don’t worry, kid. After getting hold of it, I went up the chain of command and redacted your file. So, anyone wanting to read it will need special permission from your commanding officer.”

That had Buck stopping once again in shock. “What?”

Hondo looked out towards the sea, breathing in the salt hanging in the air from the crashing waves a few yards away. “You're special, kid. I knew that from the very beginning. Steve wouldn’t have called me about just anybody, you know?” He blew out a quick huff of breath, and his shoulders hunched just a little. “My platoon is divided up into two eight-man squads, and I lead two of the four-man fire teams. I took over command after we lost our previous lead—his name was Buck too.”

Buck co*cked his head in interest. “Really?”

Hondo nodded with a fond smile, “Lieutenant Commander William Spivey, but everyone just called him Buck. He was the best damn Guide I’d ever worked with—that any of us had ever worked with. There are three other Sentinels on our teams, and all but one of us has a Guide at home. Do you know the statistics the GSGA spits out regarding Sentinels and Guides nowadays?” The Officer asked, leaning with his elbows hanging over the railing.

Buck thought back for a moment to this past year’s report. “Only one percent of people have the Blessed Gene; I know that. About seventy percent of that one percent go into the military. The other thirty percent splits into demanding careers such as first responders, doctors, lawyers, and the like. Of course, there are people who don’t feel called to do any of that, but most of them don’t get reported in the GSGA statistics.”

“Right,” Hondo agreed. “And because there are so few of us, it’s difficult to find a counterpart that genuinely understands us. You can’t just stick a Sentinel and Guide together and expect them to work as a team immediately. Bonding and partnership requires commitment and trust.” The Lieutenant looked back at Buck with crinkles in the corners of his eyes. “Back home, I’ve got Jessica; Deacon has Annie, and Street has Molly. Except for Luca, all of us bonded to incredible Guides that we can’t bring with us while deployed. That’s where William Spivey, our leader, came in and brought us together like a team—a family.”

“Sounds like an impressive guy,” Buck observed quietly.

Hondo gave a short nod. “He is. He was injured during a mission overseas last year and honorably discharged, which is why I got promoted. I’m happy to step up and lead the team, of course, but…”

“But four Sentinels on a team without a Guide to balance them out is dangerous,” Buck finished for him. He’d never heard of that many Sentinels in a unit together without a Guide to back them up. The pressure of the situation they are in must be overwhelming. “I can see why Steve mentioned it when I met him.”

Hondo huffed out a low chuckle. “Steve wouldn’t have called me if he didn’t think you were the real deal, kid. He has a sixth sense about these kinds of things. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I looked you up. It takes a special kind of Guide to juggle four advanced Sentinels in one go, much less in an active war zone.”

A smug smile fell over his lips. With Buck’s background and abilities, he could balance fifty Sentinels in crisis without breaking a sweat. “And what conclusion did you come to?”

“That I sure as hell want you on my team,” Hondo offered with a shake of his head. “Once word gets out about how powerful you are, every team in the Navy is going to try and recruit you. I just want you to remember that Steve thought we’d work well together, which means that we can offer you something that no one else can.”

“And what is that?”

“A family,” Hondo explained, looking him straight in the eye. “My team is my family. We would die for each other in a heartbeat, and we have each other’s backs at every corner. We came together because we are some of the best in the world at what we do, but we stay together because we’re a cohesive unit. Right now, my family is struggling, and I will do anything to help.”

Buck swallowed thickly, licking his lips and looking out over the coastline. He remembered his deliberation before calling Steve—he wanted direction, discipline, and something to throw his entire being into. A family that he could place his trust in. He took a deep breath and turned back toward the Lieutenant. If Hondo wanted him to be a part of his family, then Buck needed to know that he wouldn’t accidentally hurt anyone. “I like the sound of that a lot, I do. Yeah, I’m strong, maybe stronger than most Guides you’ve come across, but all of that power has its downsides, too.”

“You can talk to me about it, Buck, I promise. This is a give and take. Tell me what’s on your mind.” Hondo assured him with a soft voice.

Buck grimaced. “When I was nine years old, I lost people who I’d grown to love as family. When things got to be too much, my control was, well, obliterated is probably the best word for it. My shields were physically forced outwards without conscious thought. When I came to, it looked like a bomb went off around me. I was so lucky that nobody was around. I could have—I could have killed someone.” He closed his eyes against the familiar ache before dropping his gaze down towards the cracks in the sidewalk.

“It’s never happened again, and I’ve worked on my control every day since then, but my point is that I manifested at four years old. I have abilities that no other Guide has, and I’m still learning new things. I need discipline and direction—people who understand and will help me make sure something like that never happens again. I never want to accidentally hurt people.”

Hondo was quiet for a few moments before touching Buck’s chin and encouraging him to look up again. “I’m sorry about your family, kid. You learn to understand that kind of heartache and loss in this profession. But I can promise you that if you’re with us, then we’re also with you. Whatever you need, we can make it happen. We won’t let you fail, Buck.”

Buck blew out a heavy breath he didn’t realize he’d held on to. “That’s…that’s good. Thanks, Hondo.”

The Officer clapped him on the back and started leading him back toward the barracks. “You’re welcome. Now, I’m not concerned about you making it through the rest of training. If you can make it through Hell week, you can make it through anything. But I wanted to speak with you now because you should know that people are waiting for you on the other side. My team is going to be excited when I tell them about you.”

“That’s going to help a lot,” Buck beamed, tucking his hands into his pockets again. “That can get me through the rest of training.”

“Exactly,” Hondo agreed with a grin. “It’s a little unorthodox, but I think I can bring the team up to meet you when you finish each new course. You’ve got the rest of BUD/S, Parachute Jump School, and SQT to start. From there, you’ve got eighteen months’ worth of Professional Development, Unit Level Training, Squadron Integration Training, and, finally, sniper training. That’s seven training courses to get to know your future squad members.”

“Sniper training?” Buck asked with wide eyes. They were getting closer to the barracks, with more people walking past and looking at them with curiosity, but Buck wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet.

Hondo laughed and clapped Buck on the shoulder. “Don’t worry; you’ll be great. Like I said before, I’ve only ever heard good things. All of your instructors are really impressed with you. Keep up the good work, and you’ll be one of us in no time.”

Buck couldn’t help it—he pulled Hondo in for a quick hug and was delighted to feel the other man tighten his hold for a few moments before pulling away. “Thanks, Hondo, really.”

“We’re all rooting for you, kid.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? I hope you enjoyed it, I really love this entire part because it was a lot of fun seeing how the characters interact.

But, I'd love to hear what you think. Thank you to everyone who has followed/given kudos/boomarked/commented on this fic. It gives me life. Seriously.

See you next Sunday!

Chapter 10

Summary:

Continuing his SEAL training, Buck meets two of his future teammates: Christina Alonso and Victor Tan

Notes:

Happy Sunday! I hope everyone has had a good week :) I finished Chapter 19 this week, which means Part II is finally complete! I'm going to be starting on Part III: Eddie Begins tomorrow and I'm pumped.

Also...9-1-1 is BACK!

S/O to my wonderful beta @mugiwaralexi

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter. I did a lot of research for SEAL training and organization, but I'm not perfect so just a reminder to take it with a grain of salt.

05/05 edit: My beta and I went through and did some SEAL clarifications and revised the ranks a bit

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (14) A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (15)

Part II: Military Service

Chapter 10

Five months after surviving Hell Week and meeting Hondo, Buck officially completed his twenty-four-week BUD/S training six days before his twentieth birthday. The three phases of physical conditioning, combat diving, and land warfare on the small island of Coronado, California, kicked his ass, but Buck felt like he was in the best shape of his life. He felt on top of the world when Sanders shook his hand and told him to pack up his bunk and return to the mainland for three weeks of Parachute Jump School in San Diego.

As he’s folding what little clothes he has into his standard-issue black duffel bag, he hears a handful of his fellow candidates letting out long, drawn-out wolf whistles. Buck’s brow furrowed in confusion. Based on those idiots’ reactions, there must be a woman nearby, although Buck didn’t have any in his SEAL candidate class.

The obnoxious whistles were abruptly interrupted by their instructor barking out a sharp reprimand. “I’d show some respect if I were you, boys. Petty Officer can rip your balls off and feed them to you for breakfast.”

Now that had Buck jerking upright, his bag forgotten. Petty Officer Second Class Christina Alonso was the first woman ever to earn her SEAL trident and be assigned to a Team. He hadn’t followed her career, mostly because almost everything in her file was classified, but Buck knew that she was the type of woman to let her actions speak for herself. The senior officer could keep up with every man she came across and deserved every ounce of respect she got.

So, what the hell was she doing in a place like this?

“Petty Officer Buckley, front and center!”

Oh, sh*t. She was here to see him. Buck internally groaned as he scrambled towards the barracks’ door. He hit a major growth spurt three weeks ago and was still growing into his new height—mainly by tripping over his own two legs when he wasn’t careful.

Buck stood at attention and lifted his chin, staring straight ahead. “Chief Sanders, Sir!”

Sanders clapped him on the shoulder with a quick, “at ease, Sailor,” and grinned at the woman who sauntered through the barracks as if she owned them. “Buckley, I’d like to introduce you to Petty Officer Second Class Alonso.”

Buck’s mouth went dry. He’d never even seen a picture of Alonso, but he had imagined that she’d be tall and built to complete the rigorous training that weeded out seventy-five percent of candidates who tried out for the SEALs. Instead, the senior officer was petite—at least seven inches shorter than Buck—with her stark-black hair in a pixie-cut style and dark eyes that crinkled in the corners. She held out her hand with a slight smirk tilting her lip.


“It’s Buck, right? It’s nice to meet you. You can call me Chris.” He shook the offered hand on auto-pilot, though the confusion must have shown on his face because she let out a laugh that reminded him of wind chimes during a spring day. “I guess Hondo didn’t mention I’d be stopping by?”

Finally, Buck’s eyes went wide with shock and understanding, a giddiness building in his chest as a wide smile stretched over his face. “You’re on Hondo’s Team? That is the coolest thing ever!” Holy crap, he couldn’t believe he’d be working with someone as impressive as PO2—er, Chris. Damn. The familiarity will take some getting used to.

“I guess that answers the question of if you’re comfortable putting your life in the hands of a woman,” Chris said with an amused twitch of her eyebrows.

“What?” Buck reared back in surprise. “Of course, I’d be fine with it! You’re one of the most badass women I’ve ever even heard of!”

Sanders nodded like Buck said something right and squeezed his shoulder. “Just remember that, and you’ll be fine, Buckley. I’ll leave you to it.” He gave Chris a respectful nod before ducking out the door.

Chris grinned at him. “I think we’ll get along just fine. Why don’t you grab the rest of your things? I can drop you off in San Diego after we finish for the day.”

Buck hurried to comply, stuffing the last few things into his duffle before flinging it over his shoulder and bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

XX

Wherever Buck could have guessed Chris would take him for the day, it certainly wasn’t the Belmont Amusem*nt Park about fifteen minutes from the mainland port. A rush of giddiness thrummed just beneath his skin as Buck lit up like a kid at Christmas. “I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I arrived in San Diego!”

Chris shook her head in amusem*nt and looped her arm around his, leading him towards the entrance where a crowd of laughing young adults, over-extended parents, and bright-eyed children pushed through the turntables. “Well then, come on, I’m buying.”

True to her word, the senior officer bought two adult tickets and wristbands for all of the games, much to his delight. As soon as Chris fastened it around his wrist, he steered her towards the line of colorful booths, slipping in the line for the ring-toss game.

“So,” Chris nudged his arm with her shoulder. “What made you want to be a SEAL, Buck?”

He shifted on his feet and watched a pair of teenagers run past with a mountain of cotton candy.

“After I graduated high school, I traveled for a few years to train with a few Sentinels and Guides across North and South America. Afterwards, I felt a little…unmoored, I guess. I wasn’t sure where to go next, only that I wanted to help people. Then, I met a retired SEAL Sentinel, Steve McGarrett, who encouraged me to try out.”

Chris’ eyebrows rose towards her hairline. “McGarrett is kind of a legend for us. Did you know that?”

Buck shook his head as they moved closer to the front of the line. “No, Steve was just a friend of my uncle’s that happened to be there when I visited. Pure coincidence. He said that he had a friend who could use someone like me. I didn’t really understand what he meant until I met Hondo.”

“Mhmm,” Chris hummed before flashing her wristband and accepting a set of rings from the lanky, strawberry-blonde attendant. She kept her eyes on the milk bottles, narrowed and focused, but continued speaking to Buck. “Our last commanding officer was a great man, and he took one look at the seven of us and made us into something more than just a team. He was also a talented Guide that handled the four Sentinels on our teams better than anyone I’d ever seen.”

She casually tossed each ring over the neck of a milk bottle, only missing the last two. Chris rested her hand on her hip and frowned, gesturing for Buck to try next. “If Hondo thinks you can step into Spivey’s spot, I believe him.”

A flicker of warmth spread over his chest when Buck quickly double-checked and didn’t see any deception coming from the senior officer, so she must actually believe what she said. He accepted the rings from the freckle-faced teenager with a blinding grin and set to work.

Chris whistled in admiration when he sunk each ring over the milk bottles, winning his choice of a prize. Buck thought for a moment before pointing towards the hanging yellow Pikachu—a normal-sized stuffed animal rather than the mammoth gorillas he would have to lug around the entire park—and snuck a quick photo to send to T.K. “My cousin—er, friend, I guess, but he and his dad have always been more like family—and I used to play every single Pokémon game that would come out. It’s how we bonded the first time we met.”

“Well, that’s adorable,” the senior officer mused, giving a playful nudge when his cheeks flushed. “Don’t be embarrassed. I wish I had something like that when I was growing up.”

Buck was quiet for a few moments, letting her lead them towards another booth. This one had a series of targets pinned against the make-shift wall and a line of water guns waiting for them. “I’m sorry that you didn’t,” he told her quietly. “What about you? What made you want to defy literally every odd and kick ass in SEALs training?”

Chris gave a soft laugh and picked up one of the guns after flashing her wristband to the bored-looking man leaning against the counter. “It’s not a pretty story, Buck. I’m not sure if it’s one you want to hear.”

“I asked, didn’t I?” He countered easily, dropping his voice so that the people behind them couldn’t hear. “If it’s too personal, please don’t feel like you need to share. But I’m not put off by sad childhoods. I manifested when I was four years old, remember?”

She didn’t respond, instead taking aim and nailing almost every bullseye in front of her. She hit the outside of the target on the last shot but still almost perfect enough for the attendant to give an impressed whistle. Chris motioned for Buck to grab the gun next to hers while she leaned against the counter on his other side.

“I was ten when my mother died in a car accident,” she started, watching the attendant switch out the targets for Buck. “They took me to the police station after. The officers on duty must not have noticed me or didn’t realize who I was because they made horrible, nasty comments about my mother’s body at the crash scene. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be better than those men who had no sense of humanity.”

“That’s unbelievable,” Buck growled, furious on her behalf. What business did they have joking about something so agonizing—at their place of work, even? He took aim as soon as the targets were in place and pulled the trigger one after another, hitting each bullseye with rapid-fire efficiency. “First responders are there to save lives and take care of people. Not whatever the hell they were doing.”

Chris hummed her agreement and clapped him on the back. “Nice shooting, Ace. Guess Hondo’s pushing you to complete sniper training, huh? We’ve needed a marksman on the team.”

Buck looked at her with a furrowed brow. “I thought everyone on the team was a good shot? You were excellent, and this was just a game.”

“We all have our strengths and weaknesses,” Chris shrugged before her face smoothed out into something softer. “Thanks for getting all fired up on my account, though. It was a long time ago, and I’ve moved past it.”

“Considering you’re one badass Navy SEAL, yeah, you have.”

She grinned with a shake of her head and moved them towards the boardwalk, buying them both a mound of cotton candy to share. “At first, I just wanted to be a cop. Clean up the streets and treat the people under my jurisdiction with respect, you know?”

“How did you make the leap from beat-cop to SEAL?” Buck asked, making sure to look over at the coastline to give Chris some breathing room if she needed it.

He could hear the senior officer swallow thickly and run her clean hand through her hair. “I grew up in a really sh*tty neighborhood—dangerous, even. When I was fifteen, I was kidnapped by this gang. By the time they realized that I wasn’t who they thought I was, the damage was already done.”

Buck’s heart seized in his chest, though he was careful not to let any pity or sympathy show on his face. Chris wasn’t the type of woman who wanted or needed that from him.

“After that, I realized I wanted to be stronger, faster, and more ruthless than any man who thought he could hurt me. If anyone tried anything like that again, they’d be dead before they laid a hand on me.” She finished with finality, finishing the rest of their snack and tossing the plastic stick into the trash.

“If it ever comes down to it, I’ll make sure they’re never close enough to try,” Buck promised quietly before both of them cleared their throats and looked to the other to change the subject. “Anyway, there are a few rides. You in?”

“Let’s do it.”

XX

A few hours later, Buck and Chris sat at a painted periwinkle-blue picnic table with a stack of hot dogs and condiments spread out before them, still on a high from the Ferris Wheel, mini-roller coaster, and spinning tea-cups ride.

“It’s a good thing you’ve got a strong stomach,” Chris told him with a wide grin. “Means I don’t have to worry about you puking after you see combat for the first time.”

“If I do, we can revisit this conversation, and you can tease me to your heart’s content; how about that?”

Chris threw back her head and laughed while wiping off a spot of mustard from her lips. “Sounds good, Buck.”

Buck grinned down at his food and paused, hoping that his next question wouldn’t bring the mood down. He’d had more fun than he could remember since childhood, but he really needed to know what was going through Chris’ head. “Not that this isn’t completely awesome, because it is, but why did you bring me here? Just to get to know me?”

“Ah,” the senior officer nodded, crumpling up the empty foil from her finished hot dog and putting it aside. “Hondo asked each of us to teach you a lesson about what you’ll need to know about being on one of his Teams—about working with us. I volunteered to go first.”

Buck frowned and replayed the day in his head, trying to pull out a “teaching moment” that he missed. “I’m sorry, I might have missed it with how much fun we were having.”

She gave him a fond look and patted his forearm. “I had fun too. The goal of today was to remind you that no matter what happens—no matter how much sh*t you go through—you need to hold onto your humanity.”

“What?” He leaned in closer, trying to dissect what she meant.

“The entire purpose of SEAL training is to burn the heart right out of you, Buck. For Christ’s sake—you have to go through something called ‘drownproofing.’ They want to create a switch inside of you that suddenly strips down your feelings and doubts out there on the battlefield. But when and if we ever find ourselves on the other side, we’ll need that humanity to help us put one foot in front of the other.” Chris told him with imploring eyes as if she wanted to make sure he paid attention, but Buck already hung on every word. “Hondo wants the best of the best because of our mind, body, and soul—not the kind of machines SEALs training tries to turn candidates into.

“Do you understand, Buck?”

He did.

She nodded once, and an amused smirk tilted her lip as she stole one of his remaining hot dogs and jerked out of reach. “Good, because you’re basically a Golden Retriever, and the team has been asking for a dog.”

Buck’s jaw dropped open in mock-offense, and he scrambled to take back the stolen sandwich with a squawk of retaliation.

XX

Three weeks later, Buck shook the hands of his instructors from Parachute Jump School outside the barracks, where his fellow candidates began packing up their bunks. Adrenaline still rushed through his veins at jumping out of airplanes at thirty-thousand feet for almost an entire month. It didn’t come as much as a surprise for Buck to realize that he’d come to crave the rush of endorphins bubbling under his skin from leaping head-first into danger. After years spent trying to gain his parents’ attention with increasingly death-defying stunts, his addiction to dangerous situations made a certain amount of sense.

Buck stopped short when he felt a prickling on the back of his neck, spinning around to see a tall, Asian American man leaning against a blacked-out SUV in black pants and a navy blue shirt that hugged his broad chest and biceps. Although Buck had packed on a decent amount of muscle since starting training, he was still only twenty years old and couldn’t fill out a shirt as this guy could.

Buck forced himself to meet the man’s eyes when he began walking towards him, a wide grin touching the man’s lips. “Buck, right? I’m Victor Tan; we’ll be working together under Hondo once you make it through training.”

Buck exhaled in relief and shook Victor’s hand with a matching smile. “It’s nice to meet you, man. Thanks for coming by.”

“Of course, I’ve been looking forward to this,” Victor told him, easily slinging an arm around Buck’s shoulders and leading him towards the SUV. “Chris says you’re good people. She’s quite the judge of character.”

Warmth and disbelief bubbled within Buck’s chest at earning Chris’ seal of approval. He knew she had a good time getting to know him at the carnival based on the bright yellows and dark blues protruding from her core, but it was flattering to hear it from another one of his future teammates. “Thanks, man. She’s one hell of a woman.”

“Damn straight,” Victor nodded—then stopped short and narrowed his eyes when he looked at Buck. “She’s not, though. You won’t have a problem with that, will you, Sailor?”

Buck couldn’t help the snort that tumbled out, raising a hand to swipe across his mouth. “It would be a bit hypocritical of me if that were the case. I’m not really picky when it comes to my partners.”

Victor’s eyes were filled with mirth as he clapped him on the shoulder and nudged him towards the passenger side of the SUV. “Happy to hear it. The team is really supportive of everyone’s preferences. None of us would take too kindly to bigotry. Glad I don’t have to kick your ass.”

“Oh, those are fighting words,” Buck needled, sliding into the car and settling against the leather seats, letting out an impressed whistle as he took in the interior. Victor hopped in on the driver’s side and started up the engine, throwing on his sunglasses and pulling out onto the street.

“Please,” the man rolled his eyes behind his shades. “You haven’t even made it halfway through your training. I’d wipe the floor with your ass before you could blink twice.”

Buck hummed because, well, Victor was right. Buck had learned a lot in the last year, but it wouldn’t hold a candle to the kind of experience the members of his future team had. “I’m definitely not going to argue with that. How long have you been doing this?”

Victor tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, looking completely relaxed beside him. “I worked for the LAPD right out of school. I was in Vice before deciding to try out for the SEALs. I’ve been with Hondo’s team for three years now. Petty Officer Second Class Victor Tan, at your service.”

“You were in Vice?” Buck leaned forward with an expectant expression. “You must have some badass stories, then!”

“Hmmm,” Victor co*cked his head with a smirk. “Maybe if you can impress me today, I’ll consider giving up a story or two.”

Buck chuckled and fought not to vibrate in his seat. “What are we going to be doing? Hondo sent you down here to teach me something, right? That’s what Chris said.”

“That’s right,” Victor agreed easily. “You’ll hear it enough times—it’s basically our motto before every mission—but I wanted to be the first to introduce you to it.”

“Well, now I’m excited. What is it?”

“Buck—the old Buck, that is—pulled us all aside before our first mission together and told us to ‘fill in the gaps; stay liquid.’ This was basically a reminder that anything can happen and to keep our eyes peeled. Adapt to the situation and to the environment. Now we say it before we break.”

Buck nodded slowly. “Sounds like sound advice. Are we doing something today relating to that?”

“Yeah, we’re here, actually,” the senior officer tipped his head towards the parking lot they were pulling into. A nondescript single-story building stood before them—spray paint decorating the faded grey brick.

“What is this place?” Buck asked in a hushed tone as he closed the door to the SUV behind him, slipping to Victor’s side.

The senior officer snorted and tugged a ring of keys out from his pocket, taking a moment to find the right one before sliding it into the heavy door to the side of the building. “A buddy of mine owns this place. It’s where the team comes to get a private workout in when we’re in town.”

The inside wasn’t anything special, though it was large enough to hold two boxing rings, a small gym with weights and four squat racks pressed against the east wall, and two rooms with large windows displaying slick wood paneling.

Victor gestured towards the closest room, “Go ahead inside and warm up for a bit. I need to get everything ready.”

“I’m getting a bit anxious, man. What are we going to be doing?” Buck asked, wiping his sweating palms against the thighs of his camouflage pants.

The senior officer tucked away his sunglasses and rolled his eyes with a grin. “We’re just going to be going over the basics of blade combat.”

“Oh,” Buck blinked in surprise. “I’ve learned a few things during training, but nothing where I spent a lot of time on it.”

Victor snorted. “I know; that’s exactly why we’re doing this. If you’re out on mission and somehow, for whatever reason, you lose your gun in combat or need to eliminate a target quickly and quietly without all of the fanfare, you’re going to need to know how to use a knife. ‘Staying liquid’ and ‘filling in the gaps’ includes knowing every way to protect yourself.”

Buck nodded and started backing up towards the room Victor had pointed out. “Can’t wait. Thanks for doing this!”

“Thank Hondo!” The senior officer turned around and called over his shoulder.

XX

Four hours later, Buck was sprawled out on his back in a puddle of his own sweat, sucking in frantic gasps of air as his pulse attempted to slow from a gallop to a trot. The sharp spike of excitement from getting his blood pumping was finally cooling down. He had a few shallow nicks covering his arms from working with the knives, but he was more-or-less unharmed.

Just really f*cking exhausted in a way he hadn’t been since Hell Week.

Victor collapsed next to him; a towel slung around his shoulders and his elbows resting on his knees. “How’re you feeling, Buck?”

“Ugh,” Buck groaned, throwing an arm over his face. “I’m never moving again.”

“You did great, though,” the senior officer praised, chugging a water bottle and tossing a new one at Buck, who caught it clumsily. “Keep practicing when you start SQT next week, and I’ll see how you’ve improved the next time I see you.”

Buck forced himself up onto his elbows and finally straightened, taking a few deep pulls from the offered water bottle. “I guess it won’t be for a while, right?”

Victor hummed and wiped the sweat from his temple with the towel around his neck. “You’ll be with us before you know it, Buck. Don’t worry.” He gently slapped Buck’s knee. “Now, let’s hit the showers. There’s a bar across the street, and I believe I promised you a few stories.”

Buck perked right up, struggling up to his feet with a grin. “Now you’re talking.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? We got to meet two of Buck's future teammates. The next few chapters will include his other teammates' introductions and a picture of what's going on with the rest of Buck's family.

Thanks for reading/commenting/giving kudos/bookmarking this story. It really makes my whole day and encourages me on this story.

Chapter 11

Summary:

Buck earns his SEAL Trident and celebrates with a few familiar faces - and one new one.

Notes:

Happy Sunday! I hope everyone had a wonderful week. It's beautiful weather here, so trying to spend as much time outside as possible.

I'm starting on Part 3: Eddie Begins of this fic, and I'm going to be honest - I'm struggling just a bit. I think I relate too much to Eddie, so its taking a bit longer than usual to get in the groove of writing. Any encouragement you might have would be wonderful.

I hope you enjoy this chapter. I had a great time writing it!

S/O to the BEST beta - @MugiwaraLexi

05/05 edit: My beta and I revised this chapter to clarify a few SEAL items

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (16)A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (17)

Part II: Military Service

Chapter 11

SEAL Qualification Training, SQT, was Buck’s last stop before earning his SEAL trident—the special warfare insignia that identified him as a US Navy SEAL. The course lasted a little longer than six months, and by the time he finished, Buck was practically vibrating out of his own skin. He’d worked so damn hard to make it to this point, making it through the classes for advanced weapons training, small unit tactics, land navigation, demolitions, medical skills and maritime operations, and even went through cold-weather training in Kodiak, Alaska.

The number of SEAL candidates had fallen even more over the last few months, which pulled at something inside of Buck; they got so close to finally making it as SEALs. It spoke to the difficulty of training, but he still wanted to scream when Abernathy fell to his knees in Alaska and shook his head, refusing to push forward no matter the encouragement directed at him. Buck had an even harder time swallowing past the disappointment when Woodall froze up on the plane thirty thousand feet in the air and couldn’t make the jump.

Despite others falling around him, Buck never allowed himself to hesitate in his training. He had an entire team depending on him surviving the hell his body endured over this past year, and Buck wasn’t about to let them down.

A week before the graduation ceremony, Buck collapsed onto his bunk and stared at his phone with a frown tugging at his lips. It was finally time to let his siblings know what he’s been up to—they were under the impression that he’d been traveling for the last year, never quite ready to put down roots. Bobby, Owen, and TK all promised to let Buck tell his siblings in his own time, though he knew they weren’t happy about keeping his secret. Maddie and Daniel called and texted semi-frequently, and they’d both expressed their disappointment in not seeing him for so long.

Finally, Buck let out a sigh, ignoring the twist of nerves in his stomach, and pressed the call button. He held the phone up to his ear and tensed further when his sister answered.

Buck! Oh, it’s so good to hear from you. How are you, baby brother?

He couldn’t help the flood of warmth that expanded his chest at the reminder that there were, in fact, people from his family that genuinely missed him. “I’m good, Mads, really good actually.”

That’s great, Buck. I was actually going to call and let you know that I’m switching to the ER here in a few weeks. The ICU isn’t quite fast-paced enough for me right now.”

Her voice was calming and delighted all in one, encouraging the tension to leak from his shoulders. “Oh wow, that’s great, Maddie. I’m excited for you!” He shifted on top of his sheets and took a breath. “Do you think you could take off a few days next week to visit?”

His sister hummed, and the rattling of paper on the other line told Buck she was looking for the calendar she always kept nearby. “Any special occasion? And where are you living right now? Is it Peru this time? Or Chile?

“Uh,” Buck hesitated. “Not exactly. I’m in San Diego.”

Wow,” Maddie’s grin was practically audible. “You’ve always wanted to live on the ocean. How is it? Have you learned to surf yet? Have you met anyone?

“Haven’t really had the time in between training,” Buck blew out a breath and paused, chewing on his lip while Maddie absorbed that information.

His sister was quiet for a few moments before she asked, “Training? What kind?

“….for the SEALs?”

WHAT?” Maddie screeched, forcing Buck to yank the phone away from his ear. “Evan Buckley, explain yourself this instant!”

Buck cleared his throat and rubbed a hand over his short curls. “I’ve kind of been training to be a Navy SEAL for the last year or so, and I get my trident next week, and I was really hoping you’d be able to come?”

Maddie muttered something to herself before audibly calming herself. “You’re telling me that my baby brother has joined one of the most dangerous branches of the United States military and didn’t tell me about it?” Her volume rose steadily before sucking in a sharp breath. “Does Daniel know? Oh, my gosh. Did you tell him before you told me?

“No!” Buck quickly assured her, sitting up in his bunk, careful not to smack his head against the metal framing. “No, I’m calling him next. I didn’t want to tell either of you until I was sure that I would make it.”

Oh, Evan,” his sister sighed. He could picture her squeezing the bridge of her nose. “Of course, you would make it. You’re so much stronger than you know. That’s never even been a question.

A lump formed at the back of Buck’s throat as tears threatened to form in the corners of his eyes. “Mads…”

I’m so proud of you, baby brother. Of course, I’ll come. Send me the details, okay?”

“Will do. Love you.”

I love you too, Evan.”

When he ended the call, Buck fell back once again and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes until he calmed down. He had to admit, that went better than he expected. Maddie didn’t seem too upset—hell, she even said that she was proud of him. That boded well for next week when he would finally see her in person for the first time in over a year. If he got lucky, he’d get away with not being yelled at for lying to her for so long.

Now, one down, one to go.

Daniel, unfortunately, didn’t answer on the first try.

Buck left a short message telling his brother to call him back when he could and threw on a pair of sweats and a tank top. He’d made friends with a fellow candidate, Anderson, who agreed to help him practice the moves Victor taught him in blade combat.

Thankfully, Anderson was down to get in some extra training, and they both spent two hours full hours in the gym until they were covered in sweat and had at least four separate nicks on their upper torsos. Buck thanked him again, bumping his fist against Anderson’s and hopped in the shower. When he got back to his bunk, Daniel had texted, letting him know he was free for the rest of the evening.

Buck psyched himself up, keeping in mind that his conversation with Maddie didn’t go so bad, and held the phone up to his ear.

Daniel answered immediately. “Hey, little brother. Sorry, I missed your call earlier; I was finishing up a surgery.

“That’s okay,” Buck reassured him, collapsing against the sheets. “How did it go?”

No complications.” Daniel had survived med school and would soon finish his residency. He planned on potentially moving out west for a job as an orthopedic surgeon once all was said and done. “I’m learning a lot, though I’m ready to stand on my own two feet.

“I’m sure,” Buck agreed. “Hey, listen, are you free to come for a visit next week?”

Hmm, probably,” Daniel hummed. “I’d have to double-check my schedule, but I could make it work. Why, what’s up?

Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek and shifted so that the back of his head rested against this palm. “Well, I get my SEAL trident next week, and I’d love for you to be at the ceremony.”

Daniel was quiet on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry, it sounded like you just told me that you joined the Navy SEALs. But that couldn’t possibly be correct because my brother would never keep something like that from me!

“Er…”

Evan!” Daniel growled, snapping at someone on the other end of the line and slamming a door. “Did you seriously keep this from me? You would have had to be training for over a year to get to the point where you could get a trident. Is that what you’re saying?

The knot in Buck’s stomach coiled even tighter. “Well—“

It’s a yes or no question!”

Yes, then,” Buck bit out. He tried to shove down the disappointment and guilt that attempted to crawl up his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Daniel didn’t seem to be calming down the way Maddie did. “Buck, people die during that training! Do you understand? What if something had happened to you?

“Nothing happened—“

But it could have!” Daniel snapped, loud enough for Buck to wince. “You shouldn’t have kept this from me, Buck. Or should I say ‘us’ because there’s no possible way Maddie wouldn’t have immediately called me.

Buck blew out a shaky breath. “I called her right before you.”

He could hear his brother’s throat click on the other line. “Good. I’m so pissed at you, Buck.

A surge of remorse punched through his stomach, weighing him down with more shame than he’d felt in years. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I really am. I should have told you.”

Yes, you should have,” his brother agreed sharply before taking an audible breath. “But holy sh*t, am I proud of you.

Buck blinked back the tears that gathered in the corners of his eyes. “What?”

Buck, you’re about to be a Navy SEAL. That’s an incredible achievement. You must have worked so hard.

“I—“ Buck hesitated. “I thought you were mad?”

He could picture his brother rolling his eyes fondly. “Of course I’m mad. You went and did something so incredibly dangerous without talking to me first. But it doesn’t make me any less proud of you. Just send me the details for the ceremony. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“Thanks, Dan,” Buck whispered, wiping at the wetness on his cheeks.

Don’t thank me yet,” Daniel groused. “I’m going to punch the sh*t out of your arm for keeping this from me.”

Buck couldn’t help the laugh that escaped from his lips. “I guess that’s fair.”

Love you, little brother.

“Love you too, big brother.”

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (18)

XX

As anticipated, Daniel did, in fact, smack Buck’s bicep with more force than necessary before throwing his arms around him, squeezing tightly. Buck exhaled in relief and clung to his brother, his hands curling into Daniel’s collared shirt. As soon as they stepped back, Maddie took Daniel’s place. Buck let out a low chuckle and buried his nose in his sister’s hair. “I missed you both.”

“And we missed you, Buck,” Maddie gave him a watery smile and tucked her arm into his. “You’ll have to tell us everything we’ve missed in the past year while we thought you were traveling.”

“Well,” Buck grinned sheepishly, scratching at the nape of his neck. “Technically, I did do some traveling. I was in Alaska for about a month or so for cold-weather training.”

Daniel snorted and picked up his and Maddie’s bags, following Buck out towards the jeep. They’d both flown in around the same time the night before Buck’s pinning ceremony. He planned on letting them get checked in at the hotel before meeting Bobby at the restaurant. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Maddie meant.”

Buck shrugged, child-like giddiness thrumming beneath his skin at having his siblings so close. Even Nala reflected his mood, leaping between Maddie and Daniel and curling around their legs. He bit his lip to keep from laughing. “How was the flight? Not too bad, I hope?”

Daniel shook his head. “Not bad at all. I was able to get more uninterrupted sleep than I have in the past month.”

“The life of a surgical resident,” Maddie teased as she slid into the passenger seat of the jeep. “Don’t forget to take care of your nurses, Dan.”

“Oh, I do,” Daniel stressed, leaning forward to drape his arm around the back of Buck and Maddie’s seats. “They keep the hospital running.”

“Damn straight,” Maddie nodded.

Once his siblings checked in to the hotel, Buck’s limbs refused to keep still for even a second. He was just too eager to finally see Bobby in person for the first time since convincing him to go to rehab. Maddie bullied him away from the driver’s side with a fond smile and told him in no uncertain terms was he allowed to be driving in this condition.

Buck whined good-naturedly but ultimately found his way into the back seat, where his knee vibrated with anticipation. They finally pulled into a restaurant he frequented with his fellow candidates—a little Mexican food place where the owners adored them—and was out of the jeep before Maddie could even put it in park. Bobby was waiting for them by the front door, and he let out a loud “oomph” when Buck collided with him. Bobby repositioned them so that his arms were around Buck’s shoulders, and he cupped the back of Buck’s head, his fingers scratching lightly against his curls. “Damn, it is good to see you, kid.”

“I missed you, Pops.”

Bobby melted above him, holding him tighter. “I missed you too, Buck.”

When they finally stepped back, Bobby kept a hand clasped around Buck’s neck with a wide grin on his lips. His eyes were suspiciously watery, though they were clear as day and shockingly sober, as he greeted Maddie and Daniel. “Wow, look at the two of you! You’ve both grown so much!”

They were pulled in for long hugs, too, and Buck felt a surge of surprise and disbelief that this must be the first time his siblings had seen Bobby since the funeral.

f*ck, that was almost ten years ago.

Buck had told Maddie and Daniel about his conversation with Bobby after his high school graduation, and while they were happy to hear that Bobby was finally getting help, they didn’t share his enthusiasm. Their cautiousness made sense, with how protective they both were and how much Bobby’s words had hurt Buck as a child. However, while Buck understood that caution, as they were never quite as close with Bobby as he was, he had total faith in Bobby and his resolve to remain sober.

They found their way inside and got shown to one of the tables reserved for Buck and his fellow candidates. They spent the evening catching up on the last ten years and enjoying each other’s company. Buck soaked up the outpouring of love and support from the family surrounding him. Owen and TK were due to arrive in the morning, a few hours before Buck’s pinning ceremony, and then everything would be perfect.

When Buck waved discreetly to get their waitress—Marie’s—attention to let her know he was ready for the check, she gave him a sweet smile and patted his cheek. “It’s already been taken care of, Amor.” She gestured towards a stern-looking Sentinel at the bar with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, and a twinkle in his eye, lifting up a half-finished glass of beer in hello.

Buck blinked in surprise and nodded at the man before turning to Bobby and his siblings. “I’ll be right back.” He wiped his mouth one last time with the napkin and pushed up to his feet, stepping in front of the stranger and holding out his hand. “Thanks for taking care of the bill, Sir. You didn’t have to do that.”

The man shook the offered hand with a grin, putting down his drink to stand with Buck. “It’s no problem at all. I wanted to introduce myself without interrupting your evening. I’m Senior Chief Petty Officer David Kay; I lead the second four-man fire team under Hondo.”

Buck’s spine snapped to attention without his permission. “Senior Chief Kay, it’s an honor to meet you, Sir.”

The senior officer’s lips twitched, and he shook his head. “Please, Buck, call me Deacon.”

Buck forced his shoulders to relax. “Deacon, then.” He gestured towards the table where his family watched them with expectant expressions. “Please, join us. I’d love to introduce you to everyone.”

Deacon held his palms up, “No, no. I couldn’t impose.”

“You’re not imposing; I'm inviting you.” Deacon finally relented and allowed himself to get herded over to their table, leaving his beer at the bar—the Sentinel’s keen observation skills noted that nobody at Buck’s table drank alcohol. “Hey guys, this is Deacon; I’ll be working with him once I finish all of my training. Deacon, this is my sister Maddie, my brother Daniel, and this is Bobby.”

They all politely said their hellos and ordered another round of waters and sodas, and Marie brought them a tres leches cake to share. “So, Deacon,” Bobby started, humming as he dug into his cake. “Tell us about yourself.”

Deacon cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve been a SEAL for almost fifteen years now. My bonded guide, Annie, is back home with our four kids, two sons and two daughters.”

Daniel blew out a long whistle. “Fifteen years? That’s insane. I’m glad someone like you will have Buck’s back out there.”

“Our team is the best one I’ve ever worked with,” Deacon began with a hint of pride in his voice. “Hondo has really proven himself as a leader, and we all work well together.” He turned back towards Buck. “You’ve met Chris and Victor, right? I lead a team with those two and Mumford, who you’ll meet eventually. You’ll be under Hondo with Luca and Street. I think you’ll fit in nicely.

Buck’s eyebrows shot towards his hairline when Deacon spoke the last part in perfect French. “You speak French?” He asked, matching the senior officer’s language.


Since I was a child,” he agreed. “I heard you speak Spanish as well. Being multilingual will come in handy on mission.

Buck chanced a look at Bobby and his siblings, and his brow furrowed when he noticed them watching him with wide eyes. “What?”

“Since when do you speak French?” Maddie asked, leaning back in her chair.

“Er,” Buck co*cked his head. “Since I spent a few months in Quebec? I also learned Spanish in South America.”

“Of course you did,” Bobby chuckled, shaking his head in wonder. “You never cease to amaze me, kid.”

Buck ducked his head as his cheeks flushed. “It’s no big deal, really.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “No big deal, he says.”

After another hour or so talking and getting to know Deacon, Daniel straightened when he glanced around the restaurant, all of them finally noticing that the rest of the patrons had filtered out throughout the evening. “Oh, I think we’re overstaying our welcome.”

Buck jerked out of his chair in embarrassment for making the wait staff stay so late, accidentally banging his knee on the table. He dug his wallet out of his pocket and pulled a few twenties out, setting them over his napkin. When Deacon opened his mouth to argue, Buck shook his head. “I know you already took care of the meal, but Marie and the owners have always been really great to me; I don’t want to make a bad impression.”

“Impossible,” Bobby assured him with a clap on the shoulder. “We need to get you to bed; you’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

“He’s right,” Deacon agreed as they waved goodbye to the staff and made their way out to the parking lot. “You’ve worked hard for this; make sure you get to enjoy it. We’ll talk tomorrow, alright?”

Buck nodded and shook the senior officer’s hand. “Thanks again for dinner, Deacon.”

“Anytime.”

After he left, Buck gestured towards his jeep. “I’ll drive Maddie and Daniel back to the hotel. I’ll see you in the morning, Pops?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Bobby replied, pulling Buck into another tight hug before stepping back to do the same for Maddie and Daniel. “Be safe, alright?”

Buck grinned at him, “Always am.”

XX

Buck’s pinning ceremony went off without a hitch. He felt on top of the world and practically untouchable in his stark-white service dress uniform, standing tall and proud, grinning like a lunatic as his senior officer pulled him in for a quick hug. Maddie, Daniel, Bobby, Owen, TK, and Deacon all cheered wildly as the senior officer punched the SEAL trident into his chest—and Buck could finally breathe as though a great weight had lifted off his shoulders.

Afterwards, he found his friends and family, accepting tearful embraces and hearty praise from everyone with a racing pulse. Bright yellows and deep pinks burst from everyone’s chest around him, and Buck soaked in the outpouring of happiness and love. His shields were far too strong to allow the pure emotions to filter through, but Buck still thrummed with how joyful everyone felt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this genuinely elated, riding high on the eruption of colors from the people surrounding him.

A sudden pulse of discontentment jabbed at his heart as he wished that Marcy, Rob, and Brook were there to celebrate with him, causing a swell of heat to lodge itself at the base of his throat and push against the pressure behind his eyes. At the reminder of who was missing from the crowd, a downward spiral of wondering if his parents would be proud—if they would even care—dimmed his smile, but Bobby’s hands cupped his cheeks, and the sheer pride in his voice chased away those dark thoughts. Buck gave himself a mental shake and focused on enjoying the moment instead of getting caught in the past.

He chatted lightly with his family in the atrium of the Victorian-style mansion where the ceremony took place, relishing the weight of TK’s arm around his shoulder while he caught up with him and Owen. TK was thinking about moving out and getting his own place, but the Sentinel insisted on keeping his son close for at least another year or so.

Once everyone had their share of drinks and appetizers provided by the generous wait staff, Deacon cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Do you mind if I steal you away for a bit?“

“Just promise to bring him back,” TK joked, lightly shoving him towards the older Sentinel.

“Of course,” Deacon agreed easily. Buck promised the others he’d come back soon and followed the Sentinel towards the mansion’s gardens. White, pink, and red roses filled the landscape surrounded by blooming yellow daylilies, causing Buck’s nose to scrunch up before letting out a flurry of sneezes.

“Bless you,” The older Sentinel said with amusem*nt, tucking his hands into the pockets of his own white service dress uniform. The colorful ribbons and polished trident insignia outlined his many accomplishments, and Buck couldn’t help but stare. “I can’t stay much longer; I’m stopping in to spend some time with Annie and the kids before I need to report back.”

Buck blinked and raised his eyes to meet Deacon’s gaze. “I understand; thank you for coming. I hope I get to meet your family someday.”

Deacon clapped him on the shoulder with his free hand, “I don’t doubt that you will. But, I wanted to talk to you before I leave. Hondo mentioned that one of the main concerns that you had with joining our team was that you needed to have confidence in your abilities—that you were afraid of accidentally hurting someone if something went wrong.”

Buck looked away, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Yeah, something like that. There’s no one else like me—not really. I’ve learned so much from more experienced Sentinels and Guides, but I can do things that no one else can. I’m afraid that I’ll lose control one day.”

“Discipline and direction,” Deacon said, repeating Buck’s words to Hondo back to him. “That’s what you need, right?”

Buck nodded slowly.

The older Sentinel’s gaze swept over the bright fields of flowers before them. “If you’ll indulge me, I think I have something that can help you. It will take patience and adjustment on your part, though,” he warned.

“I’m ready; I swear,” Buck implored, unconsciously feeling himself straighten to his full height. “I’d be grateful for any advice.”

“That’s a good attitude to have,” Deacon praised lightly. “Discipline is what gives people like us freedom. Without it, we can’t take the consistent actions required to push forward towards our goal in a productive way.”

He turned to face Buck with an expression that held a hint of steel. “You want the freedom to use your abilities without fear. Our team will have your back; we won’t let you fail in that regard, I promise. But until you’re with us, I suggest waking up an hour earlier than normal and doing some sort of physical activity. Swimming, running, going to the gym, anything that gets your blood pumping.”

Buck raised an incredulous brow. “I have ProDev, ULT, and SIT coming up; I’ll be doing PT for at least six hours a day for each. What difference does it make if I add another?”

Deacon’s lips twitched. “Because later on, you won’t also be training to drop and rebuild your shields at the drop of a hat throughout the rest of the day.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Buck reared back in surprise. Deacon wanted him to start off his day without his shields? It was like asking a bat to fly without echolocation. He couldn’t; that just didn’t happen. “Why?

“Buck,” the older Sentinel frowned. “I received permission to read your file. I know exactly how powerful you are. You’ve learned so much from other Sentinels and Guides throughout your life, but it's clear that you haven’t learned to listen to yourself yet. Your shields are stable and secure, that’s true, but I wager that you don’t spend a lot of time without them.”

“Of course not,” Buck agreed, still confused by Deacon’s line of thinking. “That’s the whole point of being a Guide. I keep my shields up, and they block out everyone else’s emotions. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?”

Deacon gave him a soft smile. “That’s true, yes. But what happens if you’re in the middle of a warzone and your shields fail for some reason? Let’s say that you get injured, and the shock breaks your concentration. Your shields fall. You’re in pain, and you’re panicking because the people around you are panicking, and you can’t shut them out. How long is it going to take you to rebuild your shields? How will you filter through everyone else’s emotions to find your own?”

“I…don’t know,” Buck admitted. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s why I mentioned it. Having the discipline to train every single day for something that might never happen is what’s going to keep you alive one day.” Deacon clasped his shoulder again before letting his hand fall. “Trust your body, Buck. Listen to what your mind is telling you. Your instincts are hardly ever wrong. Have the discipline to head in the right direction, and you’ll earn the freedom to use your abilities without fear of consequence. Your control is impressive now, Buck—even I can see that—but don’t let yourself become too comfortable. Anything can happen, right?”

Buck swallowed and gave a short nod. “Right. Thank you, Deacon.”

“Anytime, Buck,” The older Sentinel shook his hand with a smile tugging at his lips. “Feel free to call or text if you ever need some encouragement. I’m always happy to help.”

“I will. Tell your family I said hello.”

Deacon stepped back and gave him a small wave. “Will do.”

Buck watched him go until Deacon disappeared around a corner and let out a sigh. He allowed himself a few moments to gather his thoughts before finding his way back to his family and friends.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? I love writing about Buck's happy little family. Maddie and Daniel are some of my favorites - and Bobby, of course.

You've met Hondo, Chris, Victor, and Deacon from Buck's future team so far. Just a few more to go! Who is your favorite so far?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I'll see you next week for the next update!

Chapter 12

Summary:

Buck finishes ProDev and ULT training and meets two other members of his team, Jim Street and Jeff Mumford.

Notes:

It is SPRING, y'all. Here in Texas that means the Bluebonnets are lining every single road and it's gorgeous. I hope everyone had a wonderful week.

Eddie is still fighting me on his part, but it's getting a little easier. Thank you to everyone who sent encouragement; that meant a lot!

S/O to my wonderful beta, @MugiwaraLexi.

I hope you enjoy this chapter.

05/05 edit: My beta and I made some SEAL clarifications and rank changes

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Part II

Chapter 12

Following Deacon’s advice through the next few months of ProDev Individual Speciality Training was even more difficult than Buck anticipated. It took about two weeks for him to get into a routine of waking up an hour earlier than normal and even longer to feel comfortable dropping his shields during PT in the mornings.

At first, he focused on small workouts on the ground—push-ups, sit-ups, ab exercises—because he had to be sitting down when his shields fell, or he’d fall straight over in shock and probably smack his head against the pavement. Although there weren’t a lot of people awake at this early an hour, it was enough that it flooded Buck with an influx of stress, anxiety, and grumbling about the time. The subsequent headache made it hard to focus during the rest of the day, leaving him exhausted and distracted during his courses.

After discussing his options with Hondo before ProDev began, Buck decided to enroll in the Naval Special Warfare Combat Fighting Course (NAWCFC), Climbing/Rope Skills, and Language School. Now, each of his instructors pulled him aside to check in on him—probably a request from Hondo and Deacon that they had no choice but to comply with—because even they noticed his difficulties.

Buck gritted his teeth in frustration when he was jerked awake by his alarm three months into his new routine. He couldn’t stand how long it was taking him to fully adapt to following the training schedule Deacon set up for him. Although he knew pushing against his nature as a Guide would take some time, Buck discovered he had developed overinflated confidence in his learning curve. He’d forgotten that it took five years of training with Bobby and two with other experienced Sentinels and Guides to get where he was today.

He needed to remind himself that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building strength within his own mind without his shields would take some time.

And, slowly, but surely, it got a little easier. After four months, Buck can finally make it through his ProDev courses without stumbling from the piercing headache or rush of other people’s flood of emotions.

Buck decides that, for all his hard work, he deserves a break for his twenty-first birthday. He was perfectly fine celebrating alone, so he didn’t reach out to anyone to accompany him to the bar. While he made friends with a few of his fellow SEAL candidates during his training, none of them enrolled in the same courses as he did, and Buck hadn’t made a real effort to get to know anyone new. That meant that nobody besides his family knew that it was his birthday, and he didn’t plan on advertising it. He’s gotten better about letting people in after years of keeping them at arm’s length, but he didn’t think he’d ever be completely over his issues.

Buck gratefully received calls throughout the day from Maddie, Daniel, Bobby, Owen, TK, and, surprisingly, even a few texts from Hondo, Chris, Victor, and Deacon—all wishing him a happy birthday. Their thoughts and well-wishes were more consideration than he’d received, other than the people he loved, in years, so Buck went through his day with a pleased smile tugging at his lips and his shields pulsing with delight.

He headed to the bar across from the gym Victor showed him a few months ago, O’Bannons, after finishing up at the base around ten p.m. The Uber driver was kind enough to exchange a few pleasantries, even wishing Buck a happy birthday and suggesting a fruity co*cktail he enjoyed—something called an Old Glory. Once he stepped out of the car, Buck adjusted his collared shirt and fought against the urge to run a hand through his slicked-back curls. He’d have to remind himself not to fidget with the unfamiliar gel after getting dressed up for the first time in months.

A semi-familiar rock song purred through the speakers, pushing a throng of people closer together on the dance floor as they held their drinks up in the air and sang along. Buck’s grin widened as he moved through the crowd towards the bar, excitement thrumming through his veins in anticipation of ordering his first legal drink. He’d been before with Victor, but they forced him to stick with water or soda while underage.

A seat at the bar opened up, and Buck slid right in, flashing a grin at the brunette bartender—Sarah, he remembered. She nodded at him and held up a finger, letting him know she’d be with him in a moment. Buck wasn’t in any rush, so he settled in to people-watch with his elbow on the bar top.

A Sentinel a few years older than Buck, dressed in a tight black shirt and jeans that hugged his well-muscled thighs, wormed his way next to him, his lips stretched into a co*cky smirk. Buck thought about opening with a line, but he noticed the same interested glint in the man’s eye as the other members of Hondo’s team.

As predicted, the blonde stuck out his hand for Buck to shake. “Evan Buckley, right?” At Buck’s nod, the man grinned. “I’m Petty Officer Second Class Jim Street. We’ll be working together in a few months.”

“It’s good to meet you, man,” Buck answered enthusiastically. “How’d you find me?”

Street raised an eyebrow. “I’m on one of the most prestigious Navy SEAL Teams, Buck; I can find pretty much anyone I want.”

Buck snorted and rolled his eyes. “One of my instructors told you, didn’t they?”

“Akin, yeah,” Street chuckled, clapping his hand over Buck’s shoulder. “I heard from the grapevine that it was your twenty-first birthday, so I wanted to buy you a drink. What would you like?”

“Thank you,” Buck blinked in surprise. “I’m good with anything. I haven’t really experimented.”

Street hummed, turning back towards the bartender to examine the wall of draft beers. He flashed a grin at Sarah and asked her for two IPAs. When she placed them on the bar top, Street motioned for Buck to try his.

Buck had to fight a grimace as he swallowed it down. He coughed into his fist and smiled sheepishly up at the senior officer. “Guess it will take some getting used to.”

Street threw his head back and laughed. “There’s no rule that says you have to. I’m surprised, though; you really haven’t tried any kind of alcohol? Never had a fake ID?”

Buck shook his head, his gaze dropping down as he traced the rim of his beer. “No. My, uh—Bobby, who's like a father to me, is a recovering alcoholic, so I was never really interested in indulging when it wasn’t safe.”

“Oh,” Street breathed, leaning back an inch or two as he exhaled. “Listen, you don’t have to—”

“No, no,” Buck shook his head. “It’s fine. I just wanted one drink, you know? Experience the whole ‘bar scene’ now that I actually can.”

Street eyes him for another few moments before giving a short nod. “Alright, if you say so.”

“I do,” Buck implored, then cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but, it doesn’t look like you’re that much older than me. How long have you been a SEAL?”

“Honestly? Not long,” Street admitted. “I was at the Long Beach Police Department for a few years. When I started looking for something else, I got a call from Will Spivey—Buck.”

Buck’s brow furrowed as he took a small sip. “Did you already know him?”

Street scratched the nape of his neck. “Kinda? Buck, the old Buck, arrested my mom for murdering my father when I was twelve.”

“Um. Woah.”

“Yeah, not exactly a happy story,” Street acknowledged quietly. “He kept an eye on me while I was growing up, and once I started looking at transferring out of the LBPD, he suggested that I try out for the SEALs. We only worked together for a year and a half before his discharge.”

Buck finished his drink and leaned over to ask Sarah for a glass of water, which she slid over easily. He returned his gaze to Street with his eyebrows raised. “It must have been difficult to lose your Guide out there.”

Street gave a small shrug of his shoulders. “It was hard being out in combat without one, there’s no getting around that, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. My bonded, Molly, keeps me pretty settled. Luca is the one who had the most difficulty.”

Buck hummed, swirling the ice in his glass around. “What is it like? Bonding with someone, I mean.”

“It’s probably different for everyone,” Street warned. “Especially between a Guide and a Sentinel. My experience may not benefit you if you ever bond yourself.”

“That’s okay,” Buck assured him. “I’ve just been curious about it, is all. You, Hondo, and Deacon are the only bonded Sentinels I’ve met. Bobby and Owen were both married to Naturals, and none of the mentors I had during my few years of training had bonded either.”

Street finished off his drink and pushed the empty glass towards Sarah. In return, she handed him a glass of water when he gestured towards Buck’s to indicate he wanted the same. When he returned his attention to the Guide, Street couldn’t help but give Buck a wry grin in response to his questioning gaze. “I’m not drinking alone, buddy. Anyways,” he cleared his throat to return to their conversation.

“When I was working this case in Long Beach, I had to give quite a few statements and testimonies when the cases I closed went to trial. It was fine—run of the mill stuff I’d come to expect. Then, one day, this new hot-shot lawyer blew through the precinct and managed to ruffle every single feather on the way to her client in the interrogation room.”

The Sentinel ducked his head with a fond expression that heated his cheeks. “She stomped right up to my desk and—and everything just stopped. I’d been stuck in a fugue state before, and that’s the closest I can come to describing what it was like. I looked up at her, and, suddenly, every sense dialed up to eleven. Her perfume sat heavily on my tongue, her eyes held more colors than I thought existed, and I could hear the catch in her throat and the stutter of her heart when our eyes met.”

Buck inched forward, subconsciously wanting to be closer so as not to miss a single damn detail. He’d offhandedly thought about bonding throughout his childhood, but it wasn’t something he put too much stock in. When nobody in his life had experienced it, bonding hadn’t seemed all that important; it was more of a distant story that people offhandedly tell at parties. It wasn’t like bonding was all that common anymore. Bonds were almost essential back hundreds of years ago but, now, there are medications and suppressants to offset the need for one. The general public threw the term “soulmate” out there to help boost book and movie sales, to call out to the true romantics in their songs and ballads, but it really all just boiled down to how compatible a Sentinel and Guide were. Because of all this, Buck hadn’t really cared about bonding one way or another.

But now? f*ck. He craved someone to look at him like that—like he was their entire world. Like they’d find a way to bring the Earth’s rotation around the sun screeching to a halt if Buck asked it of them.

It felt like a dream—out of reach and blurry at the edges.

“Oh,” he breathed, his throat suddenly dry. A light nudge against his calf had him straightening in his seat and blinking down at Nala. He reached down to scratch between her ears, his lips twitching upwards as a gentle purr burst from her chest. “That sounds incredible. I wish more people experienced that.”

“Me too,” Street said with an amused smile. A flash of transparent feathers caught Buck’s attention as the Sentinel’s spirit animal, a hefty owl with bright, gleaming eyes, settled on the bar’s floor beside Nala. “They’re getting along well.”

“Looks like it,” Buck agreed with a nod.

The Sentinel scratched at the nape of his neck and took a sip of water from his glass. “I’m a little surprised, actually. My first impressions don’t usually go this well. Even Archimedes, my spirit animal, gets prickly when meeting someone new.”

“Why’s that?” Buck asked with a furrowed brow. Street had been nothing but kind so far, and he couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t like him.

“Maybe because I used to be an asshole,” the othe chuckled under his breath. “When I first got placed on Spivey’s team right out of SEAL training, I thought I was hot sh*t. We’re the biggest and baddest of the United States Navy. Pretty big deal, right?”

Buck nodded because, well, Street wasn’t wrong.

“I wanted to get to work immediately—track down terrorists and save damsels in distress by fighting off dangers around every corner. I thought this was my chance to really make a difference; in a way, I didn’t think I could in Long Beach.”

“And it wasn’t?” The Guide asked quietly.

Street gave another small shrug. “Well, kind of. We went on a few really dangerous missions that got my blood pumping in a way I’d been hoping for. But,” he sighed, shifting his gaze down towards the bartop. “I was reckless. Impulsive. A lone wolf. I wanted to shine and didn’t really trust the team to have my back—which meant they didn’t trust me to have theirs.”

“What happened?”

“On the first mission where Hondo took command, the Brass sent us into a small village to take out a cell of insurgents that were terrorizing the villagers. Things were going okay at first, but I got distracted.” Street ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. “I caught sight of a sniper, and I abandoned my post to go after him.”

Buck watched him warily, unsure where the Sentinel was going with this. “Did you get him?”

Street nodded. “I did.”

“Then…” Buck hesitated. “What’s the problem? You got the bad guy, right? You probably saved a lot of people.”

“True,” Street agreed with a grimace. “But I did it without alerting my team, and I left both myself and my partner without backup. Anything could have happened—there could have been another sniper that took me out while I ran out into the open, or Chris could have been killed without me watching her six.”

A stab of dread pushed its way into Buck’s stomach at the image of his new friend lying dead in the street, leaving him with an inexplicable chill and a lump in the base of his throat. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Street mimicked before rubbing at his temple. “We’re all supposed to teach you something that Hondo wants you to know before you start up with us, right?”

“Er,” Buck swallowed. “Yes?”

The Sentinel laughed into his fist and clapped a hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Then I’ll tell you exactly what he told me—well, yelled at me is probably more accurate. Once the area cleared and we were safe, Hondo shoved me up against an old storefront and got in my face. I thought there was actual smoke coming out of his ears when he pushed me again and told me to ‘never be in a hurry to die.’

Buck tilted his head. “Not to never do that again?”

“Nope,” Street grinned. “If I’d alerted my team and gone in with backup, it might have been a different story. But I didn’t, so I almost got myself and Chris killed. What we do is dangerous, more dangerous than anything I’d ever done before working with the LBPD, but we aren’t getting sent on suicide missions. Hondo does everything he can to keep us safe and protected. Being a reckless idiot with a hero complex and trying to solve problems on your own is the exact opposite of what he wants.”

“Hmm,” Buck hummed in thought, sitting back on the barstool and running a hair through his curls, effectively ruining the put-together look he’d worked on for tonight. “Thanks for warning me. I might have a bit of the same issue…”

Street smirked. “I thought so. You’re young; you’re in high demand—I wanted to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

“I’ll try to keep the recklessness to a minimum. I can’t promise never to do something stupid, though. I hear I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he told the Sentinel sheepishly.

“That’s okay,” Street assured him. “Your team’s got your back.”

XX

Three months after meeting Jim Street and completing his ProDev courses, Buck finished his Unit Level Training, or ULT, conducted by a Groups Training Detachment. He spent ninety days in separate blocks going through countless exercises for air operations, land and maritime warfare, and urban and special reconnaissance.

Buck’s body struggled to adjust to the limited amount of sleep that came with rising early for Deacon’s training schedule and collapsing into bed late after a last-minute workout practicing Victor’s blade-combat routine. He appreciated his team’s teachings and support— it meant they were looking out for him in their own way—but Buck couldn’t help but feel more run-down than ever before. While he wasn’t experiencing the headaches or brain fog that previously followed lowering his shields at any given moment anymore, the rest of his body seemed to finally catch on to how exhausting the paces he put himself through truly were. Buck’s muscles ached in protest with every step, and the fatigue clung heavily to his shoulders, weighing them down further than he could remember in the last few years.

But, Buck refused to complain or even take a step back. He signed up for this, didn’t he? He was the one who tried out for the SEALs in the first place, desperately needing the direction and discipline they offered him; nobody coerced him into the decision. Buck was more than grateful for the opportunity, and he stood by his choice—didn’t regret it for even a moment—but sometimes…sometimes he just wanted to rest for more than a few days between his courses. Almost every second of the last few years, he underwent, arguably, some of the most challenging training in the United States military. Before that, he’d had an intense two years under some of the most powerful Sentinels and Guides in North and South America. And, preceding all of his training, Buck spent two years alone in his house with nobody but his parents—which might not seem difficult to the casual observer, but he never stopped having nightmares about their condescending and increasingly belligerent emotional and verbal abuse.

He just—he just wanted a break, a little one. Just until his body and mind recovered from the maltreatment he put himself through.

But that wasn’t possible. At least not yet. Now that Buck finished ULT, he had three months of SEAL Troop Training (TRP) and two months of Sniper Training to look forward to before finally shipping out with his team. Buck wanted nothing more than to skip ahead to saving lives side-by-side with his team, feeling the sharp rush of adrenaline with every new mission. His chest constricted at the thought of finally having late-night heart-to-hearts around a campfire. Or sharing rounds of laughter with his new family—the people who would have his back at every twist and turn, in every life and death situation they encountered.

Buck scowled at the reminder that he wasn’t ready yet. He burrowed further into his pillow, settling on his stomach and willing his alarm to wait another half-hour before going off. Heaviness pulled at his eyelids despite the remainder of his body not feeling rested in the least. Along with struggling to adjust to his exhausting schedule, Buck’s sleep was recently interrupted with nightmares he thought he’d long since moved past.

Flashes of white-hot heat and all-too-familiar screams invaded his dreams, leaving him breathless and choking on the grief of losing Rob, Brook, and Marcy all over again. When not haunted by losing the people he loved dearly, Buck re-lived that day of the funeral when Bobby turned him away, leading to the destruction of a small clearing which could have been deadly for anyone nearby when Buck lost control.

As if those memories and accompanying guilt weren’t enough, scenes from his childhood dragged him further and further away from the light at the end of the tunnel. Angry shouts and screams along with disappointed silences and hateful glares from his parents almost kept Buck from getting up in the mornings. The reminder that the people biologically predisposed to love him wished they could forget he ever existed was enough to force Buck to retreat into himself, to curl his shoulders protectively and strengthen his shields against the outside world. If he kept everybody else out, then he could keep himself from getting hurt all over again.

Buck knew he wasn’t in the best headspace and that he should call Maddie or Daniel, or even Bobby, to let them know his thoughts were spiraling down. He was sure that they would drop everything to help him, and that was part of the problem. Buck didn’t want to be a bother. His family has been busy, especially lately. He hadn’t been able to talk to his siblings over the phone since he started ProDev, only a few texts here and there. He spoke to Bobby more regularly, though their conversations didn’t last for more than ten minutes at a time because they caught each other in between calls and exercises.

If he told them he was having a hard time, Buck was sure they’d make time to talk him through whatever was on his mind. But, he just couldn’t bring himself to take any more time out of their already busy days. Besides, he would be fine.

Buck could handle this.

Right?

When the alarm sounded beside his ear, Buck groaned in protest. He hurried to turn it off after a few of the other SEALs in his barrack grunted curses and obscenities in his direction. Buck didn’t blame them for their ire, considering today was meant to be a day off after three long months of training. While he would have liked to sleep in, Buck had to drive out to the private gym Victor gave him the key to, to work out his frustration. As a Guide, he was so used to focusing on other people’s emotions that his own usually fell by the wayside. However, after speaking with Deacon, Buck finally took the time to pay more attention to himself, enough to realize when he pushed to his limits.

And, now, after his body rebelled against the work he put into it and the edges of his focus frayed, Buck was more than aware that he couldn’t last much longer without some sort of release. He was too afraid of hurting one of his fellow candidates, so Buck dressed as silently as he could before brushing his teeth and washing his face, his eyes narrowing at the run-down reflection in the mirror. The bruises under his eyes were getting more prominent, and his normally pale skin looked clammy and thin. He cut his gaze away as quickly as possible and grabbed his backpack, slinging it over his shoulder as he headed out towards his jeep.

There were a few senior officers up, nodding their hellos and not caring for formality at the early hour. Buck sucked in a deep breath and built his shields up brick by brick, focusing on weaving an extra layer of protection in them on the drive over, not interested in being bombarded with everyone else’s emotions today.

The quiet that settled over Buck’s shoulders as he stepped into the private gym was like a breath of fresh air. He was blissfully alone—something that was hard to come by in the Navy. Here, Buck didn’t have to worry about impressing anyone or not reacting when his superiors got too close while screaming in his face. He didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine, that he wasn’t slowly coming undone—not here.

Buck swallowed against the sudden knot in his throat and focused on wrapping his hands, carefully layering the material over his knuckles. Once he finished, he blew out a breath and started warming up on the heavy punching bag hanging in the corner of the room. Usually, each hit he landed against the leather helped the tension slowly release from his neck and shoulders, but, for some reason, he felt more pent-up than normal. Buck found himself sinking further into his own head, trying to push back the dark memories from his nightmares that clawed for his attention.

Before he could figure out exactly what was going on with him, the sound of a door opening pulled his attention away. He was sure he’d locked the door behind himself. Buck was instantly on alert, his eyes wide as he whipped around with his fists held up protectively in front of him.

An older man, maybe around the same age as Deacon but a bit stockier and with grey peppering his hair, stood with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder and a key in his hand. He didn’t look surprised to see the Guide; instead, giving him an amused smile. “You must be Buck, right?”

Buck nodded, wiping the sweat from his forehead and forcing himself to relax. If the man had a key, he must be from Hondo’s team. “Sure am. And you are?”

“Master Chief Petty Officer Jeff Mumford,” he introduced himself, setting his bag down next to Buck’s. “I mainly work with Chris and Street on Deacon’s fire team, although we all fall under Hondo’s purview.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Sir,” Buck grinned with a wave. “I would shake your hand, but I’m kind of gross.”

Mumford chuckled lightly, pulling out his own wrap and got to work on prepping his hands. “That’s okay. We’ll both be a bit gross after a workout.”

Buck’s eyebrows shot towards his hairline. “You want to spar?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Buck hesitated, looking over toward the Heavy bag. His control already teetered on the edge, staring at the precipice ready to fall; he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to pull himself back in time.

But Mumford just shook his head with a knowing look. “Listen, kid, I’ve been through SEAL training; I know exactly how it feels to be so close to the end yet still so far away. I might not be a Sentinel or a Guide, but I can recognize when someone needs an outlet. That’s why I’m here.”

Buck gritted his teeth and folded his arms across his chest defensively. He was fine, he could handle it, and he certainly didn’t appreciate the lack of faith his future team had in him if they sent someone down to talk to him. When he told the Master Chief as much, Mumford rolled his eyes and refused to back down.

“It’s not about your ability to compartmentalize or fight this battle on your own,” Mumford insisted, stepping closer now that his hands were wrapped, gesturing for Buck to loosen up and mimic him. “It’s about letting someone help you. You can’t just bottle up your emotions, Buck. You should know that better than anyone.”

“I’m fine,” Buck repeated with a scowl but dropped his stance nonetheless when the senior officer moved in range. His shields prickled, almost as if they were pulsing under his skin. He had to concentrate on holding on to his control and keep from lashing out toward the newcomer.

Mumford snorted, raising his hands and striking out, as quick as a viper, only for Buck to side-step to the left at the last moment with a quick intake of breath. The Guide reacted with a combo left-right, expertly getting blocked before trying for a roundhouse kick. Mumford effortlessly caught his ankle, sending him crashing to the padded floor. “You can tell yourself that all you want, but out there, in combat, if you let yourself get slow and distracted because you refuse to lean on your team, it could get someone killed.”

Buck swallowed thickly, swiping his arm against his sweaty curls. He pushed up to his feet and advanced quickly, only to get out maneuvered at every twist and turn. He groaned in frustration as his muscles ached. Buck had to keep his emotions forcefully in check and his shields stubbornly in place so he wouldn’t strike out at Mumford. “Well, what am I supposed to do, then?” He snapped. “Just spar with someone every time I feel like crawling out of my own skin? That doesn’t seem healthy.”

Mumford parried Buck’s blows with ease, not even out of breath, whereas Buck kept panting and sucking in sharp, shallow breaths. He dropped to the floor and swept out the Guide’s legs, throwing him off balance once again and onto his back with an oomph. “Nobody can win a battle on their own, kid. Find someone to have your back. Like your team, for example.” He leaned over Buck and quirked an eyebrow. “Who knows. You and I might have more in common than you think.”

“I doubt it,” Buck grumbled, accepting Mumford’s offered hand with a weak glare.

Instead of responding to Buck’s sarcasm, the senior officer ignored him and led him towards the bench, tossing Buck a water bottle from his bag. “I’ve been where you are. Maybe not in the exact same context,” he relented, “but I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t confide in anyone, to feel like you’re on your own out there; I’ve been divorced three times. You feel like you’ve been pushed to the edge and aren’t sure you can claw back out if you fall. All of us have experienced that.”

Buck frowned, sighing down at his hands. “I guess you’re right. I’ve just felt like everything is getting to be so much, and it’s difficult to find someone who understands. My family wouldn’t get it, and I don’t know the team well enough yet to reach out. I also,” he hesitated.

“You don’t want to hurt anyone on accident?” Mumford hazarded a guess. When Buck looked up guiltily, the senior officer shook his head to dispel it. “You kept yourself in check while we sparred. I was fully prepared to fall on my ass when you lost control.”

“What?” Buck reared back in surprise. “You knew it was a possibility that I could hurt you, and you still wanted to spar with me?”

Mumford shrugged. “You needed to let off a little steam, Buck. It would have been worth it.”

“I don’t…” Buck groaned, hissing out a breath of frustration. “I don’t understand. Nothing is worth that.”

“You’ll learn differently working under Hondo,” the senior officer explained grimly. “He helped make us into a family. And this is what you do for family.”

Buck closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids, the sudden burst of color twinging his mounting headache. “What do you want from me?”

Mumford unwrapped his hands and clapped Buck on the back. “I want you to lean on me, kid.”

So, with more effort than he would have thought possible, Buck did.

He unloaded onto the senior officer, explaining every single one of his fears and doubts while admitting to his increased exhaustion and his body’s failings. “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it through without falling apart,” Buck finished wearily, running his now-bare hands through his drying curls.

“You’re going to take a breath, sleep in the next few days before TRP starts,” Mumford directed gently, knocking their shoulders together. “And then you’re going to call or text any one of us if you start feeling run down again. We’re happy to help shoulder your responsibility, kid.”

Surprisingly, Buck felt immensely lighter after speaking with Mumford. He didn’t realize how much tension was strung up in his neck and shoulders until he felt more relaxed than he had in months. The Master Chief was an excellent listener, nodding along but staying quiet until Buck spilled everything on his mind. “Thanks, man,” Buck let out a sigh of relief and didn’t hesitate to pull the other man into a tight hug when they finished cleaning up the gym. “I feel better already.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

Thanks for reading! So far, you've met Hondo, Chris, Victor, Deacon, Street, and Mumford! Luca is the last one next chapter.

Thank you to everyone who has given kudos/commented/bookmarked/subscribed to this story. It really means the world.

Between Parts I and II, we're sitting at 100k...and I'm only 2 chapter deep of Part III, which means this story is a long one. See you next week!

Chapter 13

Summary:

Buck completes his last training before deployment and meets the final member of his team - Dominique Luca

Notes:

Happy Saturday, folks! I'm going to be busy all day tomorrow, so I decided to post this chapter a day early.

We'll see Buck's team and his family interact before he deploys, so I hope you enjoy that! The next few chapters will be them in action.

S/O to the world's greatest beta, @MugiwaraLexi

Enjoy!

05/05 edit: My beta and I made some SEAL clarifications and rank changes

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (19)

Part II

Chapter 13

Buck wanted to kick himself. He’d spent months in his own head, his thoughts spiraling down until they were in danger of exploding in an epic fiery crash when he could have been happy—back to his old self. If only Buck had reached out to the people who cared about him earlier or was quicker on the draw with taking care of himself, then he wouldn’t have spent so long in the dark. Having Mumford know exactly what to say and how to bring him out of the deep waters he’d tread was like a breath of fresh air.

Instead of dreading the next three months of TRP as he had been, Buck found himself rejuvenated and bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation. While he waited for his first day to arrive, Buck found the time and energy to call his siblings to give them an update on how his training was going and what the members of his future team he’d met were like, and Bobby was able to talk for an entire hour when they spoke on the phone a few days later. Buck even managed to finish a hand-written letter to TK, carrying on the tradition they’d had since childhood.

He reminded himself of every lesson his future team taught him each morning when his alarm went off an hour earlier than everyone else’s in the barracks, causing them to groan and grumble in annoyance. Buck ignored their sleepy protests and sprung out of bed with a renewed grin that made his cheeks sore.

Over the next three months, Buck remained focused and disciplined on each new and increasingly difficult task, though he never lost the giddiness and excitement that caused his fellow SEALs Trainees to flock towards him like moths to a flame and his instructors to crack a reluctant smile beneath their practically unbreakable facade.

That’s not to say Buck couldn’t be serious and menacing when he needed to be. He received special recognition for his leadership during the Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) technique. Buck effectively and efficiently led his team to board and capture the ‘enemy vessel’ with the fewest casualties and the shortest time out of the other groups. They celebrated with a round of drinks at O’Bannon’s, outlining every detail they did well and discussing the maneuvers they could improve on. Considering Buck only had one drink while the rest of his team drank themselves under the table, he wasn’t surprised when everyone else had an exceedingly difficult time getting up the following morning.

From there, Buck found that his adrenaline never spiked higher than when being hoisted into a CV-22 Osprey from the Air Force’s eighth Special Operations Squadron during a joint training exercise. During the two weeks they shared close quarters, he made a few friends, taking the harmless ribbing between branches easier than he would have a few months ago. Getting everything off his chest with Mumford helped Buck feel lighter in almost every aspect of his life, including his sensitivity to criticism—even if it was in jest.

Along with the VBSS technique and joint exercise, Buck completed a month of tactical mobility training and a diving exercise without any problems. In fact, the only issue he did have during the entirety of TRP was the close quarters combat training. He had assumed that during his time practicing Victor’s blade-combat routine and sparring with Mumford that he had gained a pretty steady grasp of close combat, but it turns out that Buck had a lot to learn. He got knocked to the ground quicker than anyone else on his team and soon fell behind the others. His strengths, which came as no surprise to anyone who knew Buck, lay with long-range attacks, climbing, and technical surveillance.

His instructors were kind enough to set aside extra time to bring him up to speed in every maneuver and technique he needed to master to make it through TRP. After countless hours of additional training and a few Skype calls to Hondo, Victor, and Mumford, Buck finally passed the course with flying colors.

Congratulatory texts and calls came flooding in as soon as confirmation came in that he just needed to complete one last course—Sniper Training—before officially shipping out with his team. Hondo was, unsurprisingly, the most excited for Buck to flex his natural gifts in the field to solidify his position as the Team’s Sniper. The Sentinel had waited almost two years to complete his team and round out their skills and abilities. They were already some of the best in the world, but with a fully-trained Buck, they’d be unstoppable.

Buck took the compliment in stride, ducking his head to hide the rising blush dusting his cheeks from the senior officer’s grin over the Skype call. Hondo promised that he’d be in touch as soon as Buck finished Sniper training in three months and logged off with a wink.

When Buck blew out a heavy exhale and closed his laptop on the free table of the break room, a new voice right next to his ear had Buck springing up in surprise and clutching his chest.

“Boo.”

“Jesus,” Buck panted, glaring at the tall, blonde Sentinel who was at least Buck’s height with muscles rivaling Victor and Hondo. “You scared the crap out of me.”

The Sentinel gave him an amused grin and offered his hand. “We’ll have to work on that. Petty Officer First Class Dominique Luca at your service. But,” he warned with a feigned dark look, “just call me Luca or I’ll have to kick your ass for insubordination.”

A laugh escaped Buck’s throat, and he shook Luca’s hand, feeling instantly at ease by the Sentinel’s friendliness and felt exorbitantly happy to have met the last member of his future team. “It’s great to meet you. I’ve been waiting a long time to.”

“Just saving the best for last,” Luca’s lips twitched upwards in a co*cky smirk before nodding towards the break room door. “Think I can steal you away for a bit?”

“Absolutely.”

Buck thought that a Sentinel like Luca would take him to the team’s gym like Victor or Mumford, or maybe out on the town to do something fun like Chris. Hell, Buck wouldn’t have been surprised if they just went to get a drink together like Street or Deacon. But, Luca didn’t take him to do any of that.

No. Luca took him to a library of all things.

“Uh,” Buck blinked, scratching the small hairs at the nape of his neck. “Not that I don’t love reading, I do, but what are we doing here?”

The Sentinel snorted and led him to a table in the back that was covered in—wait, were those medical textbooks? The library seemed deserted except for an older, greying librarian watching them with interest, so Luca didn’t bother whispering as he answered. “I know you’ve been given the basics on human anatomy throughout your training, but I thought you and I could dig a little deeper. You’ll need a better understanding of it than a civilian in order to operate at the level we do.”

“What do you mean?” Buck asked with a frown, sliding into one of the crickety chairs while Luca pulled out the one next to him.

Luca leaned back with an ease of a man who was comfortable in his own skin, lacing his fingers together behind his head. “One of our team’s mottos is to ‘Keep it clean; make it a work of art.’ Tell me what you think that means.”

Buck’s brow furrowed between his eyes as he considered the possibilities, thinking back to the different lessons his future team members imparted to him. “Um,” he hesitated. “Does it mean not to make a mess of things if you can help it?”

“Basically,” Luca agreed with a nod, a swirl of pale yellow and bright green protruding from his chest, and Buck found himself unconsciously matching the Sentinel’s simple feelings of happiness and contentment. “Although it's a little more morbid than that. Chris told you to hang on to your humanity, that the SEALs’ training is designed to help you create a switch you can flip to turn everything off and get the job done. She’s right. This is a hard job, and we see some dark things, and the Brass asks us to do the unthinkable. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it change who you are.”

Buck swallowed, running a sweaty palm over his mouth and leaning an elbow against the edge of the library table. “What are you trying to say?”

It was comforting that Luca’s emotions hadn’t flickered once while explaining his reasoning to Buck, keeping him calm and relaxed—which was impressive because that was Buck’s job.

“I’m saying that when you’re ordered to take out a high-profile target from two hundred yards away or charge in with the rest of the team to dismantle a cell of insurgents, you need to remember that each life you take belongs to a person. We don’t kill for pleasure, kid. Even if our targets are monsters who do the unspeakable, we don’t need to drag their kills out unless we’re ordered to.”

Buck hummed quietly in understanding, repeating, “Keep it clean; make it a work of art. I think I understand. If I’m put in that position, you want me to make it quick. You and the team are experts in one-shot kills, from what I remember.”

“Exactly,” Luca said with a dimmer grin than before, pointing down to the textbook in front of Buck. “Which means knowing everything you can about the body, specifically the central nervous system. You’ve learned in training that when shooting a target for an instant kill, you’ll want to aim for the T-zone if you’re dead on. But if it’s not a clear shot, then you need to take out the brainstem or the heart.” His lightness twisted into something darker. “Before you head off to Sniper Training, I need to know that you’re knowledgeable in this. It’s important.”

Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek, nodding slowly and clenching his fingers into shaking fists. He never wanted to take someone’s life, but if it was for his country and his team? He wouldn’t hesitate—couldn’t. Luca understood that struggle if the knowing look in his eyes was anything to go by.

“You’re a good kid, Buck. The team’s been pretty consistent on that. You’ll make the perfect addition to the rest of us as long as you know your stuff. Think you can handle that?”

“Yeah,” Buck met his eyes with a new determined steel in his gaze. “I can handle it.”

XX

The two of them spent the next four hours pouring over the medical textbooks Luca pulled from the shelves for them, along with published journals and accredited papers the librarian was happy to direct them to. The Sentinel quizzed him until Buck could recite all of the information back to him; he’d always been good with facts—bombarding his siblings with every piece of information he could get his hands on during his childhood.

They were only brought out of their bubble when Buck’s stomach roared between them, making both men pause in surprise and break out in a round of laughter.

“Come on, kid,” Luca helped him up, and they started putting all of the books back where they belong. “I promise to feed you. Where to?”

“I know the perfect place,” Buck promised.

When they finally finished at the library, Buck directed them towards his favorite Mexican restaurant, Santiago’s, where Maria waved them in with a delighted grin. “Mi Amor, I’m glad you could come in today. What will you be having?”

They spent a few minutes talking with their waitress, asking about her family before she took their orders and brought them their drinks. Buck started on the chips and queso while Luca devoured the quesadilla appetizer. “So,” Buck swallowed around his food, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “What made you want to become a SEAL? How long have you been in?”

Luca took a sip of his tea before answering, “I’ve been in for about eight years now. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was on one of the original Pacific Underwater Demolition Teams in Hawaii in 1943, which were the SEALs’ first precursors. My dad was also a SEAL, so it’s kind of like the family business.”

“Wow,” Buck grinned, leaning forward in his seat. “That sounds amazing. I can’t imagine what it was like back in the day. Your family must be legends or something.”

“Or something,” Luca agreed with a snort. “They had a fiftieth-anniversary celebration for the SEALs in Hawaii a few years back where they honored a lot of the OG’s, including my grandfather, but if I’m being honest, I would have just skipped it if I could.”

Buck’s brow crinkled between his eyes. “What? Why?”

As the Sentinel opened his mouth to answer, Maria brought their food out. They thanked her and turned back to their conversation as soon as she was out of earshot. “My grandfather was a total jackass,” Luca grimaced. “Spent my entire life telling me that I was too soft and too stupid to follow in their footsteps. I had to overcome my dyslexia and a mountain of other issues before I earned my trident. At first, it was just to prove the old man wrong.”

“When did it change for you?” Buck asked; he was absolutely certain that the Sentinel didn’t continue as a SEAL because he wanted to stick it to his grandfather. The Guide could practically see a deeper sense of belonging in the mixture of bright yellows and dark blues swirling within his chest.

Luca grinned around a bite of his enchiladas. “I was assigned to Spivey’s team originally with Deacon. They both really helped me step out of my family’s shadow and prove that I deserved to be there on my own merit. After we lost a few good men over the years, Hondo and Mumford came along. From there, we got Vic, Chris, and, finally, Street. It was a harsh blow to lose Spivey, but it honestly could have been a lot worse. At least we managed to bring him back to his family with a pulse. Too many of us don’t get that privilege.”

Buck gave him a tight nod, his throat working as a sudden reminder of losing Rob, Brook, and Marcy made it difficult to breathe. He pushed through the moment of panic and finished his meal, keeping his gaze down as the Sentinel talked about the team and a few missions they’d been on.

“But things will be different now that we have you.”

Buck finally lifted his eyes to meet Luca’s crinkled blue ones. He squirmed around a moment of self-doubt. “Hopefully, a good different?”

Luca chuckled and set his silverware over his now-empty plate. “Definitely, kid. Spivey was an excellent Guide, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. Word’s going around about your unique skill set. That’s going to be interesting out in the field.”

The Guide’s cheeks heated up at the praise. “You haven’t read my file yet?”

The Sentinel shook his head. “Not yet. I wanted to meet you first. Wanted to get a real first impression rather than one the Brass cooked up.”

Buck thought that was more than fair and that it made a lot of sense considering Luca’s own family history with the SEALs. He probably wanted people to judge him for his skills and achievements rather than those of his family. “Thanks, man.”

“Of course,” Luca grinned, reaching over to clap Buck on the shoulder. “You’re about to be family—and my Guide. If I can’t trust you to have my back out there, then I can’t trust anyone.”

“I won’t let you down,” Buck promised, feeling an overwhelming sense of protectiveness and familiarity with the senior officer even after such a short amount of time. The next few years of Buck’s life would be centered around supporting the Sentinels on his team and having his team’s back in every situation and mission they would come across. If they were really going to be like a family, then Buck would do everything in his power to ensure that he wouldn’t lose anyone, like Rob, Brook, or Marcy, ever again—not while he had anything to say about it.

XX

A few weeks before his twenty-second birthday, Buck earned a medal for receiving top honors during his three months of Sniper Training. He consistently ranked at the top of his class in Land Navigation, Range Estimation, and Special Reconnaissance. While he felt honored and uncharacteristically proud of himself for the first time in years for his accomplishment, he didn’t expect anyone else to attend the ceremony. It wasn’t that he thought they wouldn’t want to, but his family was busy with their own lives. They couldn’t just leave their friends and their jobs to come running when Buck did something well, right?

Of course, they proved him wrong by dropping everything and showing up with pleased grins, more balloons than he knew what to do with, and congratulatory gifts to commemorate the occasion. Bobby gave him a black Navy SEAL Chronograph 358.1 BO Military Dive Watch. Buck couldn’t stop from throwing himself into Bobby’s arms and crying like a child all over again because he knew exactly how much that watch cost; he couldn’t believe the older Guide would spend so much on him.

Maddie presented him with a silver St. Michael’s military medallion with the engraving, “Stay safe, Buck,” on the back. Nobody in their family was particularly religious, but since joining the SEALs, Buck learned that Michael, the archangel and commander of the army of God, was the patron saint of paramedics, police officers, and military personnel. “Thanks, Mads,” Buck whispered against her temple with watery eyes as he wrapped his arms around his sister. It meant the world to him that while he couldn’t take his family with him on deployment, Buck could hold something close that reminded him of his loved ones.

Daniel slipped a thick coin between his fingers, showing Buck both sides—one with the Navy SEAL insignia and the other with a surgeon’s insignia. “I just want you to remember that we’re two sides of the same coin, brother,” Daniel gripped a hand around the curve of Buck’s neck and brought their foreheads together. “I wouldn’t be standing here today without you, and I know you’ll be giving that same opportunity and hope to so many people around the world. I’m so proud of you, Buck.” Tears gathered in the corner of the young Guide’s eyes, and he didn’t try to stop their path down his cheeks.

Owen and TK refused to miss the celebration, putting their life in New York on pause to come to California to praise Buck on his achievement and see him off before his deployment. The older Sentinel handed Buck a stack of books—all related to military strategy and interesting facts about the world—to read during the long plane ride and any downtime he might have. The young Guide beamed at his pseudo-uncle, pleased and a little overwhelmed that Owen knew him so well, thanking him profusely.

TK, on the other hand, brought him a plain, stark-black ball cap with a crisp SEAL insignia on the front and a small, faded photo from fifteen years ago. Buck’s heart leapt to his throat as he examined Rob’s delighted, toothless grin from when he lost three teeth in a handful of months, with his arms around TK and Buck and Brook’s lips pressed against Buck’s cheeks; the three of them surrounded by Bobby, Marcy, Owen, Maddie, and Daniel. His family. “To remind you who you’re fighting for out there,” his cousin whispered when Buck yanked him into a fierce hug.

He didn’t think his day could possibly get any better with his family there to celebrate with him, but Buck was once again proven incorrect when his entire team showed up, taking up most of the small ballroom’s space with their overly-broad shoulders and outrageous personalities. Buck greeted them with surprise and enthusiasm, not hesitating to introduce them to everyone else, outright laughing at their wary expressions.

“You’ve got a great kid here,” Hondo complimented Bobby, looking between him and Owen and throwing an arm around Buck’s shoulders while Chris and Street spoke with Maddie and Victor and Luca surrounded Daniel and TK with a chorus of laughter.

Mumford and Deacon agreed readily, bringing a flood of warmth and gratefulness crashing into Buck’s chest. His two families were meeting for the first time—two sides of who Buck really is—and it was going well. Everyone was happy to be there to celebrate together and prepare for the next leg of their journey.

Buck’s siblings, Owen, TK, and Bobby were getting the rundown of Buck’s five-year tour of duty. He would spend the next two weeks doing joint training exercises with his now official team and get to know them as a cohesive unit to see exactly where he fit in. After that, they would deploy, for eighteen months, to an undisclosed location for their first tour. Depending on the available technology and classification, Buck would have limited access to his family until he returned home. Then, he would have three months’ leave before shipping out once again.

“That’s a long time to be away, Buck,” Maddie sniffed under Buck’s outstretched arm. “We’ll miss you so much.”

“Yeah,” Daniel agreed with a forlorn expression, leaning up against the wall. “I guess that means we won’t know if you’re safe until you’re able to contact us.”

“His team will keep him as safe as possible,” Bobby implored, knocking his shoulder against Buck’s. “Remember, we’ve had a bit of time to come to terms with this. This is Buck’s decision, and we should be supporting him, not trying to make him feel guilty for defending his country.”

Both of Buck’s siblings looked thoroughly chastised. Deacon stepped forward and cleared his throat, bringing their attention to the older Sentinel. “I know how difficult this must be for everyone. Leaving your family behind is painful, but there are ways to make it easier.” He handed each of them a card. “That’s my wife, Annie. She is in Los Angeles with my kids. She’s been doing this a long time and has gotten in touch with Street and Hondo’s bonded, along with the rest of the team’s families. They all help each other out when things get difficult, and it gives us peace of mind to know that everyone is taken care of.”

“Thank you,” Maddie breathed, holding the card between both hands. “I’ll definitely reach out. We can use all the help we can get.”

“Yes, thank you,” Bobby agreed, shaking Deacon’s hand. “As long as you keep my boy safe out there, I’ll do my best to keep an eye on your family here stateside.”

“Don’t worry,” Hondo cut in with a grin. “Buck’s one of us now, which means that he’s the best of the best. None of us will let anything happen to him if we can help it. Now, who’s hungry?”

XX

Notes:

I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter, I really love having Buck's team and his family interact. Like I said above, the next few chapters will be Buck and his team on mission.

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts and feelings. Comments are really helpful in keeping me writing, especially when Eddie is still fighting me with his part of the story.

Anyway, see you next week!

Chapter 14

Summary:

Buck begins his first deployment and his skills as a Guide are put to use

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone! I hope you had a wonderful week. Who else loved this past week's episode of 9-1-1?

For Buck's deployments and tours, it is heavily influenced by the movies American Sniper and Old Guard. Buck's career as a sniper in the SEALs resembles that of Chris Kyle. Please, for the love of God, don't take any of this as a political statement; I really just watched military movies and decided to go with this storyline, that's all there is to it.

Big shoutout to my beta @MugiwaraLexi

05/06: Minor edits made

A few short-hand military words and phrases that I use for this story are shown below:
HTVs: High Value Targets
AQI: al-Qaeda in Iraq
Green-Side: starboard, right side, east side
White-Side: stern, rear, south side
R.O.E: Rules of engagement

Anyway, I hope you enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (20)

Part II

Chapter 14

Iraq was much hotter than expected. Buck shifted uncomfortably in his seat, grinding his teeth together as the humvee somehow managed to hit every pothole on the uneven gravel road, forcing him to keep a harsh grip on the weapon held tight in his hands. He still wasn’t quite used to being in full tactical gear, but considering they weren’t in Kansas anymore, Buck figured he didn’t have any more time to adjust.

Hondo checked the coordinates on his compact GPS across from Buck and cleared his throat, quickly shifting everyone’s gaze and gaining their full attention. “Welcome to Fallujah, the new Wild West of the old Middle East. AQI put a price on our heads, and now extremists from around the globe are flooding the borders to collect on it.” He smirked and rolled his eyes fondly when his team straightened proudly in their seats. “We’ll pair up with First Marines for this mission who will be going door to door to flush out enemy HTVs. Buck, you’ll be on Overwatch with Street as your sniper partner.”

Buck swallowed under his chin strap; his stomach twisted in anticipation and dread at the news of his first assignment. He was ready for this—more than ready, but the reality of the situation was finally catching up to him. Victor nudged their shoulders together in consolation, and Buck gave him a weak smile.

“Our job is to protect these Marines at all costs,” Hondo continued. “The city has been evacuated. Any military-aged male who is still here is here to kill you. Let’s bring these Jarheads back safely and get our asses home. Keep it clean. Make it a work of art.”

“Fill in the gaps. Stay liquid,” the team responded in unison.

Watching the world pass by through the bullet-proof-glass windows of the humvee, Buck watched as devastation spread from the outside of the city-in. Collapsed buildings and blackened vegetation lined the dirt roads, layered in white-hot sand that seemed to stick to everything. The homes, apartments, shops, and restaurants—practically every building in sight—were shoved close together, reaching high into the sky, seemingly to preserve space. The convoy rumbled to a halt inside the city limits, and Deacon pushed the heavy doors open. “Out, out, out!” The older Sentinel barked, and the team filed out obediently with fire licking at their heels.

As they moved forward towards their assigned positions, Street knocked their elbows together with a grin. “I’d keep that head down if I were you, Buck. MUJ’s got snipers too.”

“You’ve heard stories?” Buck asked with a co*cked eyebrow. Street liked to get into his team’s head, though it was usually all in good fun. Buck wasn’t sure if the young Sentinel was yanking his chain or not.

“You know it. Man, they’ve got this one sniper that’s been hitting headshots from five-hundred yards out.” Street led them into an abandoned building, and they checked the perimeter quickly with their rifles raised.

“Left side clear!”

“Right side clear!”

Street gave a tight nod. “Room clear!”

They slowly made their way up to the roof, careful to investigate each room, although their intelligence confirmed this area was empty. Hondo had trained them for thoroughness. “They call him Mustafa,” Street continued. “He’s in the Olympics.”

Buck’s brow furrowed. “They’ve got sniping in the Olympics now?”

Once they made it to the roof, Buck set up his McMillan TAC-338A chambered with .338 caliber Lapua Magnum rounds on the green side of the building per Hondo’s orders, settling on his stomach and switching his helmet out for the black backwards ballcap he’d gotten from TK before he deployed. He touched a hand to the silver chain around his neck, which held Maddie’s medallion and Daniel’s coin—he’d punched a hole through the top and added it to his small collection the first moment he had—before leaning in to look through his scope, holding his right shoulder steady.

Over on a rooftop about two hundred yards away, he saw a scruffy man making a call with a harsh expression looking down at the street. Splashes of red and deep black protruded from his chest, suspicion taking root in the back of Buck’s mind. He tapped the communication device in his ear to confirm it was working with a frown. “I’ve got a military-age male, on a rooftop two-hundred and fifty yards south of my position, on a cell phone watching the convoy, over.” Street crouched down next to him and pulled out his binoculars.

Hondo answered immediately. “If you think he’s reporting troop movement, you have the green light. Your call, over.”

Street hummed by his ear. “Maybe he’s just calling his old lady.”

Buck adjusted his rifle scope. The man disappeared after a few moments, but a twist in Buck’s stomach had him bringing his sightline down towards the building’s front door. “He’s stepped off,” Buck reported shortly. He watched a woman, completely covered in a black Hashimi dress, ushering out a young boy, maybe eight or nine, leaving through the wooden door and looking around frantically. The suspicion in the back of his mind flared brighter. “Hold on. I’ve a woman and a kid, two-hundred yards out, same building, moving towards the convoy.”

He swallowed around a knot in his throat, shifting towards Street. “Her arms aren’t swinging. She’s carrying something.” He sucked in a sharp breath when the woman pulled out a large brass grenade from the folds of her dress, handing it carefully to the boy. “Yeah, she’s got a grenade,” Buck grunted into the radio. “She’s got an RKG Russian grenade. She just handed it to the kid.”

Hondo’s voice rang in his ear. “You say a woman and a kid?”

“You got eyes on this? Can you confirm?” sh*t. He wanted to be wrong. He didn’t want to believe that a mother could hand her little boy a literal weapon of destruction with the ease of a favorite toy, expecting him to murder the ‘enemy’ and understand what he was risking.

“Negative,” came Hondo’s gruff reply. “You know the R.O.E., Buck. Your call.”

Street blew out a harsh exhale next to him. “You have to be sure, Buck. They’ll send your ass to Leavenworth if you’re wrong.”

Buck licked his lips and thought back to his lessons with Bobby and his training with the SEALs, taking four deep breaths in and out and beginning a countdown in his head. ‘We master our breath; we master our mind.’ The kid started running towards the convoy with a little furrow between his brow; it made Buck’s stomach drop as the reality of what he had to do hit him with more force than he anticipated.

He takes the shot.

The boy falls to the ground, cradling the grenade—coated with his blood—in his limp hands.

“f*ck,” Street inhaled unsteadily, watching through his binoculars.

The woman starts screaming, running towards the boy with a devastated expression on her face and—f*ck—doesn’t even stop to check on the boy; instead, she grabs the blood-spattered grenade with newfound determination and starts towards the convoy. Buck lets out another breath and pulls the trigger again. His shot hits home, sending the grenade flying through the air, hitting the ground and exploding one hundred yards out from Buck’s team and the Marines. Deacon, leading the group closest to the blast, ducks away from the outstretched flames and gestures toward the Marines. “Get up, keep moving! Keep moving!”

Hondo’s voice sounds in his ear. “Nice shooting, Buck. Hell of a call.”

Street slumps down next to him, eyeing the Guide with clear concern etched across his face. “Evil bitch. You okay, Buck?”

Buck swallowed and dropped his forehead heavily onto the rooftop, a hollow feeling carving itself deep within his chest. “No.”

XX

When they finally made it back to camp, Buck kept his head down and ignored the claps on the back and praises from his team and the Marines. He didn’t want admiration for his first kill being a—a child. Buck hadn’t spent too much time imagining what his first kill would be like, but he certainly hadn’t pictured it going down like that.

Instead of stopping in the mess hall for dinner or the showers to wash off the day, Buck headed straight for his bunk. When he pushed through the tent flaps, he wasn’t surprised to see Mumford sitting on the bed across from his own. Buck’s jaw clicked as he tried his best to ignore the senior officer, racking his gun and depositing his gear on its rungs.

“You okay, kid?”

Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek and sank down heavily onto his bunk, pressing the heels of his hands against his stinging eyes. “The—the kid. Not a single hair on his chest, and the mother gives him a grenade, Mumford. A grenade. She sent him out there to kill Marines.” He sniffed and rubbed a hand over his sweaty curls. “That’s evil like I’ve never seen before.”

Mumford let out a sigh. “Yes, it is, but you know that kid could have taken out at least ten marines and Deacon.”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed miserably, “but I killed him.”

The senior officer stood up to take a seat beside Buck, curling a hand around the back of the Guide’s neck, grounding him. “You did your job, kid. End of story.”

Buck swallowed around the knot of emotion stuck in his throat. “I know. It’s just not how I envisioned the first one going down.”

Mumford hummed, and Buck let himself collapse in the strong arms of his teammate.

XX

Eight months into his first tour, Buck’s team got called away from Iraq for deployment five thousand miles south in South Sudan. By now, Buck had earned a bit of a name for himself; his confirmed kills through a sniper scope doubling any other active sniper—except for the mythical Mustafa, who seemed to be picking off American soldiers with increasing accuracy. The young Guide found himself thinking of Mustafa as his arch-nemesis, although it was unconfirmed if the lone, enemy sniper was the one behind each of those long-range kills.

Buck forced down his frustration at losing any opportunity to go after Mustafa and brought his attention back to Hondo’s briefing. They were in the covert intelligence base, crammed into a building the size of his living room back at home, with thick walls and tight security.

“Yesterday afternoon local, a school southwest of Juba was attacked by a militia,” Hondo explained with a grim expression. “They murdered every one of the teachers and abducted seventeen of the students at gunpoint. The youngest was eight; the oldest was thirteen. Two of the students manifested as Sentinels within the last two weeks.”

The young Guide breathed in through the rush of panic clawing at his chest. If those Sentinels were as green as Hondo said, without proper care and attention, they could be in some of the most agonizing pain imaginable. When Sentinels manifested without the help of a Guide to stabilize them, their senses dialed up to eleven and stayed there—revolving in an excruciating fugue state they couldn’t break out of on their own.

Hondo continued with a knowing glance in Buck’s direction. “The South Sudanese asked the U.S. for help. The current administration revisited its policy to provide aid, considering the situation, even to the nonstrategic allies.” The Sentinel picked up a tablet sitting on an expensive-looking piece of tracking equipment and gestured towards the projector on the wall, revealing several reconnaissance photos of the area that Luca took on a flyover the previous day. “The last overfly confirmed the personnel on-site. No food or water is being brought in.”

Street stiffened next to Buck when a photo of the children abducted appeared on the screen. Their grins were wide and happy, and their arms slung around each other, squishing in close together so that everyone could make it in the shot.

“That means they’re moving them soon,” Chris observed with a hint of steel in her voice.

“Buck,” Hondo barked, bringing the young Guide to attention. “What does that mean?”

Buck blinked once, twice, before clearing his throat. “It means that when they do move the children, they’ll most likely be separated, and odds are that we’ll never find them again. The extraction has to be done quickly.”

Hondo nodded, giving Buck a proud twitch of his lips. “Very good. This extraction has to be done by the very best, and our team is the best.”

XX

As dusk fell across the expansive Middle Eastern sky, providing the perfect cover, the team filed into the Blackhawk piloted by Anderson, a fellow SEAL from their sister platoon. Usually, Luca was their point man on any aircraft, but Hondo wanted his full team for this mission.

Anderson brought them down to the drop zone and gave them a tight nod of good luck, taking off again when the team got clear. Once the helicopter moved out of sight, Hondo looked over at the seven of them to confirm they were ready before starting toward their destination, periodically checking his compact GPS. After half an hour of walking, where the temperature had thankfully dropped with the absence of light, they finally arrived about two hundred yards from the compound. With the naked eye, the team could see that the perimeter was completely roped off with wire and covered in roaming spotlights.

Buck settled over a small hill on his stomach and set up his rifle, clicking on the night vision mechanism and looking through his scope to give his team more specifics. “Based on the warning signs hanging, the fencing is laced with barbed and electrical wires,” Buck reported after a few moments, his eye catching every detail in front of him. “I’ve got five sentries with binoculars and fifteen armed guards between them.”

“Nice work, Buck,” Hondo praised lightly. “Street, you stay here with Overwatch. We’ll take them out east to west. I want this to be covert, so, Buck, don’t start on the next sentry until we get through the previous wave. Follow us in on my command.”

“Roger that.”

The Sentinel gave them a wicked grin. “Keep it clean. Make it a work of art.”

“Fill in the gaps. Stay liquid,” the team responded in kind, everyone’s lips twitching upwards in anticipation.

Buck watched his team move closer to the compound through his scope. Once they were about fifty yards out, Buck took out the first sentry and held his breath. The compound remained quiet—the guards unalerted, thank f*ck. Hondo led the team as close as possible before stepping out of the way so Victor, their assigned Breacher, could carve out a piece of the fencing for them to get through. Hondo went first, followed by Deacon—his right-hand man. The team moved through the first wave of guards, silent and efficient. Victor effortlessly sliced the necks of two men while Mumford watched his six, killing two more with his modified rifle with a silencer. The others followed in kind, no hesitation between them.

Buck’s stomach twisted unpleasantly at the slaughter, but he reminded himself why they were there and what these monsters would do to the children if Buck’s team failed.

As soon as they dropped the last grunt, Buck took out the second sentry and waited for his team to finish the second wave. Twenty minutes later, every last guard was on the ground, and Hondo finally gave the signal for the others to join them. Buck packed up his gear quickly while Street watched his back, and then they both took off towards the compound. They slipped through the breach in the fencing Victor provided and quietly double-checked each of their team’s kills to ensure they wouldn’t face any surprises. “Right side clear,” Buck confirmed.

“Left side clear,” Street agreed.

“Outside clear,” Hondo echoed, coming into view around a corner. The rest of the team gathered around and examined the central building and confirmed there was only one entrance. The entire place was built by grass-thatched mud, surrounded by carefully placed rocks for an extra layer of protection.

Chris stiffened and cursed quietly under her breath. “Son of a bitch.”

Buck’s heart rate skyrocketed when his eyes fell upon what she must have seen—a pile of rugged, dirty children’s shoes piled outside a fortified wooden door. “sh*t.”

Luca crouched down and pushed his hand through the pile, spreading them out. “Thirty-four shoes,” he grimaced. “Seventeen pairs for seventeen hostages.”

“Victor,” Hondo called, sending the Breacher towards the door.

“Roger,” Victor answered. The rest of the team took a step back while he set two carefully-placed explosives along the hinges. When he moved behind Hondo, the rest of the team raised their weapons and tensed in apprehension.

The door blew open wide, and Hondo swept through immediately, followed by Deacon, then Mumford, Victor, Luca, Chris, Street, and, finally, Buck hot on their heels. The doorway sloped down into a tunnel surrounded by rock and mud. It opened up into a dark cavern of sorts, revealing the seventeen disheveled children huddled tightly together on the ground with four men pointing guns at their heads while two others aimed their weapons at Buck’s team, who fanned out around Hondo.

The children were wailing—crying out in pain and begging for their freedom—for their homes and families. Buck could see the two Sentinels in the center, practically comatose as they curled into fetal positions with wobbling lips and tears tracking down their stained faces. A sudden reminder of his first kill threw Buck off balance for a moment, but he forced the memory away and came back to himself half a second later. A fierce burst of protectiveness crawled out of the Guide’s chest as Nala bounded forward with a snarl, pushing through the enemies to get to the young Sentinels. Considering none of the enemy guards noticed, Buck realized quickly that none of them carried the Blessed Gene.

“Step away from the children, and you might get out of here alive,” Hondo ordered menacingly—already knowing Buck would translate for him if needed. The Guide had spent a majority of his time in training learning an array of languages, including Arabic, Japanese, and Russian, picking them up quickly and practicing with fellow candidates every chance he had.

However, the national language for South Sudan was English, so the insurgent in charge simply barked out a negative and forced the barrel of his gun against a little girl’s temple—she couldn’t be more than ten.

Buck watched the line of Hondo’s shoulders draw closer to his ear and mentally prepared himself for the firefight. No matter what the Sentinel said to these men, they wouldn’t give up their hostages. Not while they were still breathing.

A few moments later, Hondo gave the signal by relaxing the line of his neck, and the team opened fire on the enemy guards. Before any of them had a chance to get off a shot, they dropped to the ground, a bullet between their eyes, their guns clattering to the ground beside them.

“Left side clear!” Mumford called out, fanning out while Deacon did the same.

“Right side clear!” Deacon responded.

“Room clear!” Hondo confirmed coming up beside them, giving Buck, Chris, Luca, and Victor the green light to check on the kids.

Buck sucked in a sharp breath, shoved his rifle into Street’s hands, who had already prepared to take it, and moved toward the two young Sentinels while his team took care of the rest of the children. The smell of urine, feces, and body odor permeated the cavern, but Buck forced himself to ignore it, biting off his gloves with a growl and cupping the faces of the two Sentinels in the palms of his bare hands.

He called on his impenetrable mental shields to encompass the two girls, pulling them as gently as possible into his orbit and quelling their internalized panic. Buck’s shields prodded their young, traumatized minds, confirming that one of the girls zoned on her sense of hearing while the other’s sense of sight kept her paralyzed. The Guide took a deep, soothing breath before drawing each Sentinel back to their own minds, using a piece of himself—a part of his soul—to lead them home. He coaxed them away from the flashes of blood, death, and their friends crying out in terror, finally banishing the fugue state and watching their little eyes clear with simultaneous gasps.

They wobbled unsteadily before falling weakly into Buck’s outstretched arms, clinging to him with a desperation Buck remembered as a child. He took a shuddering breath and let his shields push outwards toward the rest of the children, surrounding them until he could comfort them with safetywarmthlove. The frantic cries instantly died down as they trembled and hiccuped, reaching out towards Buck’s team as they offered their own hands.

“We’re here to take you home,” Hondo told them gently. He looked up towards the others. “Deacon, you’re up front with me. Mumford and Victor have the rear. Everyone else, take care of the kids.”

They all nodded their affirmative and got into position. Buck grabbed his rifle from Street and slung it around his back before picking up the two young Sentinels and carrying them on his hips. Street, Chris, and Luca each picked up a young child and held the hand of another, giving them as much attention as possible as they moved through the tunnel towards the doorway.

Hondo and Deacon swept out first, confirming the area remained clear before leading the others back towards the breach in the fence. Luca radioed in to an extraction crew when they all made it outside the perimeter of the compound while Hondo led them towards the drop zone.

Chris and Street distracted the kids by telling funny stories and making funny faces, trying to keep them as comfortable as possible while Buck muttered reassurances to the young Sentinels in his arms. Thirty minutes later, a pitch-black MV-22 Osprey landed before them, kicking up a sandstorm of dirt and mud. Thankfully, with all of the team’s work on helping the kids feel safe and relaxed, it wasn’t any trouble getting them into the cargo hold. Victor, Deacon, and Chris checked over each of the children and confirmed there weren’t any lasting injuries, though they wrapped and bandaged a few minor scrapes and cuts. Luca had thought of everything and packed the helicopter to the brim with water bottles and snacks. The team encouraged all of the children to put something in their bellies, though they had to start small after starving for a few days.

By the time they got back to the village southwest of Juba, the kids were smiling and practically jumping up and down in their seats in excitement to go home. The landing was smooth, Luca complimenting Anderson on it, and they were all filing out into the small village nearly forty-five minutes after departing the compound.

On the ground, a group of men and women huddled together with matching expressions of fear and swirls of greys and whites twisting in their chests. Buck couldn’t blame them; after what happened a few days before, he would be afraid of newcomers as well. However, their mistrust and apprehension dissipated the instant they saw their children behind the line of imposing soldiers. The families and children broke out in a run toward each other, and Buck had to hold back a relieved sob when he watched the two young Sentinels getting grabbed up in loving hugs by who he assumed were their parents.

Hondo stepped up next to Buck and gripped his neck gently. “You did good, kid.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

I KNOW having Buck's first kill in the military be a kid is awful, but it's important for the journey his mental health will take and for the support he needs from his team and family back home. Buck will have a total of 4 tours under his belt before he retires, but I can promise that the rest of Part II won't only have Buck's career in the military. We'll see what the rest of his family is up to as well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter. See you next week!

Chapter 15

Summary:

We find out what Maddie has been up to during Buck's deployment and how the young Guide's first shore leave goes

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone! Not going to lie, I'm in the best mood this morning. I passed my Real Estate License Exam yesterday, which means that I don't have to spend my evenings studying anymore! YAY!

PLUS - I get to post one of my favorite chapters. This one started as a buffer, and it kind of morphed into its own monster...but I hope you enjoy it!

Thanks to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

05/05 edit: cleaned up a few SEAL clarifications and rank revisions

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (21)

Part II

Chapter 15

Maddie hadn’t expected how difficult it would be having her baby brother drop her off at the airport in San Diego after celebrating his award ceremony. Her throat felt thick and the pain unmanageable as she tried to convince herself to walk away, to turn around and make good time through the busy security line. But, how could she do that when Buck would be spending the next few weeks with his team in Coronado, California, before he went overseas.

To fight in a war .

“Mads, it’s going to be okay,” he told her softly, his curls tangled adorably on top of his head. He was already so much bigger from when she saw him last. The young Guide had lost the awkward gangliness from his second growth spurt, and his biceps were almost as big as her head. The shy little boy she taught how to ride a bike and would drive to the aquarium every weekend was gone. In his place was a man she barely recognized, though Maddie would always love every part of Buck.

She was finally able to wrench one hand away from his arm to cover her mouth to hold in a silent sob, her vision blurring at the edges as tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. Maddie hated watching Buck’s expression crumble in response to her pain, but she just couldn’t help it. Evan—Buck, her sweet, fun-loving baby brother—would be going off to play soldier with one of the deadliest units in the United States military. She just didn’t see how that was possible.

Buck pulled her in for one last hug, wrapping his enormous arms around her like a bear and burying his face in her hair. She knew exactly what he was doing—he’d been doing it since she left Hershey for college. Maddie let him memorize her perfume as she did the same with his cologne, touching her nose to his neck and leaving a wet trail of tears behind. When they pulled away one last time, Buck’s lower lip wobbled, and Maddie couldn’t help but let out a wet chuckle.

“I’m being ridiculous, I know. I’ll see you for your leave, and you’ll call when you can.”

Buck pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes to push his own sorrow down and nodded his head. “They’re even giving me my own satellite phone. Apparently, the rest of the team earned the privilege a few years ago.”

Maddie inhaled a shaky breath and tried to pull herself together. “See? We’ll be okay. It’s only a year and a half until I see you next.” She ran her fingers through her hair and wiped the wetness from her face. “Daniel didn’t cry this much when he said goodbye.”

“No,” Buck agreed with a teasing smile. “But Bobby did.”

A fond laugh escaped her throat as she remembered Bobby trying so desperately hard to hold in his breakdown when they said goodbye yesterday. The older Guide was usually so stoic and even-tempered, but when faced with his only remaining son leaving the country for the first tour in his five-year Tour of Duty , Bobby clung to Buck like a limpet, the two silently sobbing in the other’s arms.

It was the sweetest thing Maddie had ever seen, and a true show of love that made her thankful Buck had managed to bring the older Guide back into their lives.

Maddie straightened her clothes with renewed determination and finally moved to grab the handle of her carry-on bag. “You’ll be safe out there—for me, for Daniel, and for Bobby—won’t you?”

“I’ll do my best,” Buck agreed, a fond smile touching his lips. “I love you, Mads.”

Maddie swallowed around the knot of emotion stuck in her throat, praying to every God there is and ever was that her baby brother would make it home to her in one piece. “I love you too, Evan.”

XX

Surprisingly, life went on. For some reason, Maddie thought that things would change now that her brother was overseas fighting in a war, that she would feel completely strung out with perpetual worry or practically comatose from the inevitable scenarios rolling around in her brain where her brother died mercilessly. However, things were more or less…normal.

Work helped. The ER at her hospital in Boston was constantly busy, and she still saw her friends on her off days, so, thankfully, Maddie didn’t have much time to think about whether her baby brother was staying safe or not. Before she knew it, Buck had been gone for over four months.

That’s not to say that things were easy. No, she had her fair share of anxiety attacks from bolting awake in the middle of the night because she had a nightmare about Buck dying—so unbelievably far away from home and from her. After the second week of losing the majority of her sleep, Maddie decided to take Deacon’s advice and call his wife, Annie. The Guide was married to a Sentinel Navy SEAL, which meant she’d been dealing with this situation for over a decade now; if Annie couldn’t help Maddie, then no one could.

To Maddie’s relief, Annie turned out to be really easy to talk to. She’s educated about life as a SEAL spouse and family member, but more than that, she’s kind and empathetic—even more so as a Guide. She doesn’t make Maddie feel nonsensical about her newfound fear of losing her brother; Annie helped her feel heard and cared for, even encouraged her to reach out to Bobby and Daniel because chances were that they felt similar.

Maddie ended up having a lot in common with Annie as well, leading to a tentative friendship that developed slowly but surely over the next few months. While their family situations weren’t necessarily similar, with Annie having four kids—Matthew, Lila, Victoria, and Samuel—and Maddie still hilariously single, it turned out that Annie actually went to school for nursing before meeting Deacon.

It didn’t take me very long to realize that life wasn’t suited for me, ” Annie told her sheepishly over FaceTime during one of Maddie’s lunch breaks out in the hospital’s courtyard. “ I stuck with it for about two years to finish out my contract before I decided to go with something less…bloody.

Maddie snorted, finishing up her turkey sandwich and wiping the edge of her mouth with a napkin. “What did you decide to do next? You and Deacon had just met before you left the hospital, right?”

Yup,” her new friend grinned while wrangling a two-year-old Samuel with as much grace and practice that a mother of four naturally possesses. She had tossed her long blonde hair into the same messy bun as Maddie’s. “ He was doing some training before trying out for the SEALs and accidentally hit his head, ending up with a small concussion. I was his nurse in the hospital, and, well, that was it for us. But, after that, I went to work at the dispatch center.

“Oh,” Maddie leaned forward with interest. She’s always wondered what it was like for people on the other side of the hospital doors. Dispatchers were basically the first link in the chain of emergencies. “How did you like it?”

I loved it, Maddie. I made some wonderful friends, and it felt remarkable to still be able to help people without wanting to lose my lunch every day.

Maddie’s lips twitched upwards, but before she could respond, a coworker, Philip, called her name with a furrow between his brow from where he was holding the courtyard door open. Maddie turned her attention back to her friend. “Hey, do you mind if I call you back? Looks like something might be wrong.”

No, of course not, ” Annie told her gently. “ I hope everything’s alright. We’ll talk soon.

When her friend hung up, Maddie packed up the rest of her lunch and met Philip as he approached her table. “What’s up? Is everything alright?”

Philip ran a hand through his hair and looked over his shoulder. “Look, I’m sure I’m just overreacting here but…”

A sudden thought occurred to Maddie, and she felt every muscle tensing in horror. “Oh, God, is it my brother? Is he okay?”

Her friend blinked at her, then shook his head hurriedly with a guilty expression. “No, no. I’m sure Buck’s fine, Maddie. It’s nothing like that.”

Maddie blew out a relieved breath and placed one hand on her forehead and one on her hip as she willed her heart rate to slow. Buck was fine . “Then what’s wrong?”

“There was a man up front asking for you,” Philip admitted. When Maddie simply raised an eyebrow that demanded further explanation, he licked his lips and continued. “He just gave me a bad feeling, that’s all. I told him you weren’t working today, but he seemed pretty insistent.”

“Oh,” Maddie frowned, thinking through her list of friends who might need to get ahold of her but coming up empty. They all had her phone number, and she hadn’t missed any texts or calls. “Did you get his name?”

“No,” Philip said with a sigh. “When I tried to ask for it, he walked away.”

“That’s strange.” Maddie wasn’t sure who this man was, but she could understand why he made Philip uncomfortable. A small tendril of fear took root in her own stomach, sending goose flesh breaking out across her arms. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep an eye out.“

XX

A week later, Maddie jogged through the well-carved-out path through the park down the street from her apartment in the early hours of the morning. The first rays of muted sunlight lit her route with a tangle of oranges, pinks, and yellows. She was about a mile into her run, bopping along to her running playlist, when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up in alarm. Maddie slowed, pulling out one of her earbuds and twisting around. She was sure she felt someone watching her, but there was no one around but the towering white-pine and hemlock trees lining the path.

At the memory of Philip’s uneasy expression from the hospital, Maddie swallowed thickly and tucked her headphones away into her pocket, sprinting back towards a spot in the park where she knew a yoga class would be starting. She felt a little better once she was around other people, but she couldn’t shake the anxiety building up in her chest. Just in case, Maddie took a long way home, stopping at a few different places hoping to throw off anyone who might be watching before making it back to her apartment.

Maddie was sure she was just being paranoid, but…just in case.

XX

“You should absolutely trust your instincts, ” Annie implored when Maddie called to tell her about all of the strange occurrences that had been happening over the past few weeks. Maddie hadn’t necessarily seen anything out of the ordinary, but she constantly felt watched wherever she was, even inside her own apartment. A perpetual chill grew from the base of her spine, keeping her tense and afraid at all hours. “ Have you called the police?

“And tell them what, exactly?” Maddie sighed in exasperation, looking back over her shoulder for the third time on the train ride home. It was a full car, and she didn’t recognize any faces. “There’s no evidence that anyone is actually following me. What if I’m just crying wolf?”

Annie made a displeased noise in the back of her throat. “ But you’re scared; that should be enough to at least have an officer come speak to you, right?

Maddie shrugged, then remembered they weren’t talking over FaceTime. “Maybe. I don’t know; you might be right. Or I could be making the whole thing up.”

The train rumbled to a halting stop, causing Maddie to tighten her grip on the pole before letting go and stepping off when the doors opened. The sky’s usual light cloud cover had darkened during the ride back to her apartment. Now, heavy rain clouds swelled low in the sky, threatening to unleash their contents at the drop of a dime.

Don’t do that ,” her friend scolded. “ You’re the least paranoid person I know, Maddie. If you feel that something isn’t right, then we can do something about it.”

“Like what, exactly?”

Annie hummed. “ One of Deacon’s best friends is in the FBI, operating out in Washington D.C. It’s only a short flight to Boston.

Maddie shook her head immediately. “Absolutely not, Annie. I can’t ask some random agent to leave his fancy government job in D.C. to check something that might not even be there.” She finally arrived under the maroon awning of her apartment complex just as the sky opened up around her, heaving sheets of brisk rain clawing at her back.

She could practically hear her friend rolling her eyes as Maddie pushed open the thick door to her enclosed stairwell, shivering as she climbed up the four flights of curlicue stairs. “ Again, I think you need to trust your instincts. Plus, he owes me a favor. I helped patch things up between him and his partner when they had a fight.

“I don’t—” Maddie started before getting distracted by the echoing opening and closing of the door leading out to the street. She inched closer to the railing to peek down towards the bottom floor, her heart in her throat as she saw a very familiar face—one she hadn’t seen in nearly a decade—twisting out the flood of water that had drenched his coat.

With a hitching breath, Maddie didn’t waste any more time; she pushed through the door to her floor, rushing towards her apartment. She quickly turned the key in the lock and flew inside, closing the door behind her as quietly as possible and sliding all three of her locks in place, then double—hell, triple—checking that they, indeed,fastened. After that, she hurried to her windows to ensure they were locked as well and shoved her curtains closed, turning out the lights as she went. When Maddie was finally sealed away inside her apartment, pulse hammering against her veins, she heard the frantic, tinny calls of her friend.

Maddie? Mads? Are you there? Are you okay? Oh my gosh, I’m calling the police-

“No,” Maddie exhaled shakily, bringing the phone back up to her ear. “No, I’m okay. Well,” she amended, trying to steady her trembling hands. “I saw someone I used to know right outside my apartment. Doug, Doug Kendall. He used to be my boyfriend in high school.”

Annie was quiet for a moment, and Maddie could hear her taking a few deep breaths on the other line. “ I’ve called the police and reached out to Deacon’s friend. Don’t leave your apartment, okay? Do. Not. Leave. Now, tell me what happened when you broke up.

Maddie grimaced, rushing into her bedroom and collapsing against the door, sliding down to the floor without turning on the light. “It was bad. Buck is…well he’s a special Guide, as I’m sure Deacon mentioned.”

He has ,” Annie confirmed softly.

“Well, Buck could tell right away that Doug wasn’t good news. He and Daniel helped convince me to end things between us. When I went to break up with him, I finally saw it too. I’m glad I did it in public because Doug kind of lost his mind. The police were called and everything. I haven’t even seen him since then.”

Maddie jumped in shock when someone banged on the front door of her apartment. Annie sucked in a sharp breath in her ear while Maddie covered her mouth to hold in a terrified scream. “ Don’t open that door, Maddie. I’m serious. Pretend you’re not home. The police are on their way, and Deacon’s friend is hopping on a plane right now. Stay on the line with me until they get there.

“Okay,” she agreed quietly, not having any reason to argue. If her prediction was correct and Doug had been stalking her for the past month, he could be dangerous. The unholy rage she remembered seeing in his eyes when she broke up with him had scared her, even back then, and they’d only been seventeen years old. Maddie distantly wondered what he wanted with her; maybe Doug just wanted to talk or catch up, but that seemed painfully naive considering he had followed her for weeks now.

It might be safer for you to keep quiet, ” Annie instructed, humming a quiet tune underneath her breath to help calm Maddie down. “ Just stay on the line. I’m right here with you.

“Thanks, Annie,” Maddie whispered, resting the back of her head against the door and closing her eyes. Her window was thankfully still shut with the curtains drawn from this morning, and, for once, she felt blessedly thankful that her apartment didn’t have a balcony.

Maddie remained where she was, not daring to move lest Doug somehow hear her, until the sound of sirens abruptly broke up the belligerent knocking that had been going on for over ten minutes. “Annie,” she whispered, interrupting her friend’s long, drawn-out recount of her and Deacon’s first date. “I think the police are here.”

Oh, thank god, ” Annie exhaled heavily. “ Call me back as soon as you work everything out over there, okay?

“I will,” Maddie nodded, ending the call and pushing herself up unsteadily to her feet. She slowly made her way back to the front door, gripping her trembling hands together until she heard an officer knock—already so much calmer than Doug’s.

“This is Officer Graham with the BPD.” A woman’s stern voice called from the other side. “I received a call about a domestic disturbance?”

Maddie swallowed around the knot in her throat and forced herself to peel open the locks to her front door. She didn’t open it very wide, her frantic eyes flicking back behind the officer, with glittering blue-green eyes that held a striking contrast to her pale brown skin, to search for any sign of Doug.

She breathed out a sigh of relief when she found none. “Yes,” Maddie agreed shakily, opening her door wider. “Please, come in.”

Officer Graham was kind and concerned as she sat down with Maddie; she took her statement and was quick to ask questions when Maddie didn’t seem to know how to continue.

“And you didn’t see him when you pulled up?” Maddie asked dejectedly half an hour later, hoping they could handle everything swiftly and she could get moving with a life that didn’t involve looking over her shoulder every five minutes.

“No, he must have heard the sirens and ran off,” Officer Graham explained. “But I’ll take your statement back to the department, and we’ll run a search on Doug Kendall. Do you have a friend that you can stay with until then?”

“My friend who called 9-1-1, Annie, has someone who is on their way here from D.C. I just don’t want to be alone until he gets here.” She curled her hands around the steaming SEAL mug Bobby had bought one for each of them at Buck’s pinning ceremony.

Officer Graham nodded, her bright eyes clear with concern and understanding. “I’ll post an officer just outside the apartment; how about that? Can you have your friend check in with them when he gets here before coming up? That might help avoid any confusion.”

Maddie suddenly had to blink back the tears that gathered in the corner of her eyes. She nodded, wiping her cheek with her now-steady hand. “Of course. I can’t thank you enough, Officer Graham. I was so afraid that nobody would believe me. I was afraid of even believing it myself.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got a recording of Annie’s call, which includes the continued disturbance outside your apartment as well as the fact that your statement reflects a profile I’m familiar with. After what we’ve seen here today, I can tell you that you’re not crazy, Miss Buckley, or paranoid. We’ll clear this up.”

“Thank you again,” she repeated, hoping the officer understood what her kindness meant to Maddie. She walked the older woman to the front door and couldn’t resist checking the area again. “I appreciate your help.”

“Be safe, Miss Buckley. We’ll speak soon.”

XX

A few hours later, after another cup of tea and a few phone calls to Bobby and Daniel explaining the situation, reminding them not to tell Buck about this—her little brother didn’t need anything else to worry about while overseas—a new knock sounded at her door.

This time, a tall, classically handsome, broad-shouldered Guide in a standard black suit with a colorful tie was on the other side, greeting her with a quick twitch of his lips. “Miss Buckley? I’m Agent Seeley Booth with the FBI. Annie Kay called me?”

All of the tension that built up between Maddie’s shoulders suddenly released, and she held out her hand with a reassured smile. “Just Maddie, please. Come in.”

She offered him a cup of tea, which he declined, before they sat across from each other in her small living room. “Thank you for coming, really. I can’t believe Annie called you, but I’m grateful she did.”

“Annie and Deacon are good friends of mine,” Agent Booth offered, getting comfortable in the leather armchair. “I spoke with her and Officer Graham, as well as the officer waiting outside. I think I’ve got the full story, but I’d like to hear it from your perspective if you don’t mind going through it one more time.”

“Of course,” Maddie sucked in a deep breath, trying to center herself in a way she’d watched Buck do all throughout their childhood.

Once she finished, Agent Booth leaned forward, clasping his hands together between his knees. “I don’t want to frighten you, but I did some digging on my way here, and I found out that Doug Kendall from Hershey, Pennsylvania, has a handful of warrants out for his arrest.”

Maddie’s eyes widened to the size of saucers, and she sucked in a gasp as her pulse thudded against her throat. “For what?”

“Apparently, this isn’t the first time he’s gone after an ex,” the Guide grimaced. “A woman, Caroline Swope, reported Doug for stalking and emotional and psychological harassment last year. The court reviewed the evidence and found him guilty, though he skipped town before they could arrest him. Looks like he came here next.”

Maddie touched the back of her hand to her lips before brushing her fingers through her hair in distress. “Did he hurt Caroline?”

Agent Booth shook his head. “He broke into her apartment and trashed the place, but thankfully she wasn’t home at the time.”

“Do you think he’ll try to do something like that here?”

“Honestly?” Agent Booth asked with raised eyebrows. “Yeah, I do. If he’s been watching you for at least a month, and he decided to engage? It means he’s getting desperate. But I’m working with Officer Graham, and we’ll handle this for you. You don’t need to worry.”

Maddie crossed her arms over her chest and sunk further back into the couch. “You don’t want me to worry ? I’ve been scared out of my mind for weeks now. I don’t feel safe going to work or even staying here at my apartment anymore. What am I supposed to do?”

The Guide shot her a good-ol’-boy grin and pressed a hand against his tie. “You’re supposed to leave it to me. You’ll go about your life as normal, and I’ll find Doug. I promise. Nothing’s going to happen to you, Maddie. Trust me to do my job.”

Maddie chewed on the inside of her cheek and looked down at her feet before nodding. “Alright. If Annie trusts you, then so do I.”

XX

Maddie shouldn’t have doubted Agent Booth for even a moment. Twenty-four hours after he arrived in Boston, the older Guide arrived on her doorstep to let her know that they had arrested Doug Kendall.

She collapsed back onto her couch, staring blankly at the FBI agent in front of her. “You’re serious?”

“Yup,” The Guide cracked his neck for show and placed his thumbs in the hoops of his ‘co*cky’ belt buckle. “I told you we’d track him down. Officer Graham and the Boston Police Department were a huge help. We found him in a hotel under an assumed name two blocks down.”

“Wow,” Maddie blew out a breath, not quite knowing how to feel. She supposed she felt safer knowing that Doug wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but…

“You okay?” Agent Booth asked with a furrow between his brow. “I apologize for being rude, but I can’t help but notice you’re not exactly jumping for joy now that we’ve caught this guy.”

She swallowed thickly and chewed on the inside of her cheek. Maddie shouldn’t have been surprised at Agent Booth’s insight—she’d lived with an inquisitive Guide for most of her life. “I just thought I’d feel safer, you know?”

The Guide nodded slowly, looking around her apartment with a soft expression. “You feel violated.”

It wasn’t a question, but she agreed with a quiet, “yes,” anyway. For the past month, an anxious, sickly feeling crawled underneath her skin and kept her off balance wherever she went. As much as she wished it would, she didn’t think that feeling would go away now that Doug would be behind bars. “I’m always looking over my shoulder at work now, and I can’t seem to settle even at home. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Maybe it’s time to start thinking about moving. Is there someplace you can go to feel safe?”

She buried her head in her hands and took some time to think about Agent Booth’s question. Maddie had been in Boston for the past eight years, and she’d made a life for herself here. She had friends, a great job, and a decent apartment—what else was missing?

Her family, for one.

Maddie could survive without her parents in her life. She’d visit for holidays, and they stayed connected over the phone every few months, but her life wasn’t any less full without them. She missed Daniel like a phantom limb, though he was just as busy as Maddie, maybe even more so. They spoke as often as possible but not nearly enough compared to what either of them preferred.

Buck was an entirely different story in and of itself. Her baby brother was hers —a kid she helped raise into the incredible, compassionate man he was today. Every once in a while, she still woke up in a cold sweat from a nightmare of Buck, alone, on the cold hard ground where she couldn’t reach him. Maddie didn’t think she would survive losing Buck if anything happened to him.

However, Maddie soothed her anxiety with the knowledge that Buck would be coming home in a few months on shore leave, and she wanted to hug him and not let go as much as she could then.

The question of who he would stay with for his three-month leave had been floating around between Maddie, Daniel, and Bobby ever since he deployed. None of them wanted to push the young Guide into staying with them, even though nobody was planning on letting him out of their sight the moment he landed back in the States. It seemed like Buck himself, when they had the chance to speak with him, was leaning more towards staying in the older Guide’s spare bedroom in Pennsylvania and visiting Maddie and Daniel when they were free.

Maddie considered her priorities and options. She could remain in Boston, away from her family, and try to shake the crawling feeling of violation everywhere she went, or she could just…pack up and move back to Pennsylvania. She’d be closer to her parents, which wasn’t ideal, but Bobby would also be just a phone call away. While he was a father to Buck, Bobby always looked out for Maddie and Daniel the best he could as well. She knew she’d be safe with him.

Plus, she’d be able to spend three entire months with her baby brother when he got home.

In truth, Agent Booth’s question wasn’t a difficult one to answer.

“I want to go home.”

XX

Two months later, Maddie stood in the center of her new bedroom in Pennsylvania, surrounded by half-opened boxes, wiping the sweat from her forehead and begrudgingly trying her hair up into a ponytail. It took some convincing with the administration of her hospital to explain the situation of why she needed the move, but they agreed to help transfer her over to a sister hospital half an hour from Bobby’s apartment.

Maddie’s parents were surprised that she was moving back and then subsequently offended when she told them she wasn’t settling closer to home. Apparently, Maddie hadn’t visited enough in the past ten years, which meant they didn’t get enough ‘family time,’ as if they visited her place in Boston even once .

So, no, except for the initial, obligatory drop-by when she first made it in to town, Maddie did not have any plans to visit her parents again anytime soon. On the other hand, Bobby was wonderful and everything she wished her own father was. He enlisted his crew to help her move everything up the stairs into her new place and even stayed behind after everyone else had left to put things on the wall and rearrange furniture until she was content with the setup. Bobby even helped her install a security system for her peace of mind, even though she already felt safer closer to the older Guide.

When they collapsed into the small dining room’s chairs, Bobby gladly pried open a box of supreme pizza, Maddie’s thank-you-gift, and grabbed a few slices. “Are you absolutely sure you don’t want to mention anything to Buck about Doug? You know we don’t keep anything from each other.”

“I’ll tell him in my own way,” she insisted, using a napkin to wipe the grease from her fingers. “I just don’t want him to have anything else to worry about while he’s over there, you know?”

Bobby blew out a heavy breath and leaned back in his seat. “I know. I get it. Just don’t keep it from him for long, alright? He’ll take one look at you and know something is wrong.”

Was wrong,” Maddie corrected lightly. “Doug is in jail, and I feel safe here.” Her shoulders slumped in dejection when she thought about Buck’s possible reaction. “And I know you’re right. Buck’s more insightful than anyone else I know. Just…let me talk to him about it, alright?”

“Fine,” Bobby agreed, reaching over to shake Maddie’s hand. “We have a deal.”

XX

At the Harrisburg International Airport three months later, Maddie, Daniel, and Bobby waited with bated breath at the bottom of the escalator, each craning their necks to catch a glimpse of camouflage. Finally, Daniel slapped Bobby’s arm and made a noise in the back of his throat when he spotted Buck weaving in and out of the throng of travelers returning to Pennsylvania. He must have seen them too because the wide, unbridled grin that Maddie remembered stretched over Buck’s lips as he hopped out of line for the escalator, deciding instead to hurry down the stairs towards his family.

Maddie didn’t quite notice she was moving until she was upon Buck, throwing herself into his arms and burying her face into his neck. Two seconds later, she felt Daniel and Bobby collide on either side of them, keeping them upright but pinned together with a chorus of overjoyed cries and murmured gratitude. Buck’s bright, delighted laugh had them pulling away, though Maddie remained under his outstretched arm while Daniel slung his own around Buck’s waist.

“Damn, Evan,” Daniel greeted with a smile that crinkled in the corners of his eyes. “What happened to you? It looks like a Navy SEAL up and ate my little brother!”

Maddie covered her own laugh with the palm of her hand while Bobby clapped a hand around Buck’s neck and took his duffle bag. Daniel certainly wasn’t wrong. Buck seemed to have grown a few more inches, standing at least a few inches taller than Bobby now, and had gained another fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle. Maddie remembered how monstrous they all looked when she met Hondo, Victor, and Luca at Buck’s medal ceremony before his Tour of Duty started. Now, her little brother seemed to be catching up to that size.

Buck ducked his head in embarrassment as the familiar flush stained his cheeks, and Maddie couldn’t help but curl in closer. “I haven’t changed that much,” Buck insisted weakly, letting his family lead him out towards the parking lot.

“Buck,” Bobby chuckled with an amused expression. “You look like you could probably bench press me if you wanted to.”

The young Guide rolled his eyes and wrapped his free arm around Daniel’s shoulders. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be bigger than Daniel, here. Looks like I finally made it.”

Daniel snorted at the joke and reached up to his toes to ruffle Buck’s curls. “Oh, I see how it is.”

“Children, no fighting,” Bobby told them dryly, pulling out his keys to unlock his truck when it came into view and placing Buck’s bag into the bed. “Oh, and Buck gets shotgun.”

“What!” Maddie and Daniel squawked in unison, watching as Buck threw his hands in the air and slipped into the passenger side seat with his tongue sticking out.

Maddie groused in good humor and piled into the backseat with Daniel while Bobby started the engine. “You’re playing favorites, Bobby.”

The older Guide simply shrugged, placing a hand on the side of Buck’s neck and squeezing lightly. “Damn right I am. It’s good to have you home, son.”

Buck sniffed and flung himself across the seat to wrap his arms around Bobby. “I missed you, Pops.” He leaned back and wiped his cheeks with his sleeves. “I missed all of you.”

“We missed you too, brother,” Daniel croaked, then cleared his throat while the tips of his ears went pink.

It was only about a forty-five-minute drive to Bobby’s apartment, during which the four of them talked about what Buck’s team had planned for their shore leaves. Deacon returned to LA to reunite with Annie and his children, while Street flew back home to Florida to see Molly. Hondo went to see Jessica in Chicago; Chris decided to surprise her parents in southern California, while Victor returned to Washington to see his grandparents. Luca and Mumford chose to use their leave as an opportunity to test for their SDV Pilot/Navigator/Operator and Outboard Overhaul Mechanic certifications, respectively, and some of the others had plans for their own on return—Buck and Street planned to tackle Lead Combat Swimming. Buck looked forward to seeing the outcome of their hard work. Once they finished their testing, Luca and Mumford planned on setting up in Hawaii for some much-deserved rest.

“Wow, that sounds really nice,” Maddie commented when they pulled up to Bobby’s place. “It would be so much fun to go back to see the ocean.”

“Maybe we can visit the aquarium again, just like old times,” Buck suggested as they made their way inside. It was ten times nicer than Bobby’s last apartment, with marble countertops and a cozy living room.

Bobby pointed to a closed door down the hall. “You can set your stuff down in the guest room, Buck.”

Buck grinned in thanks, clapping his hands together in excitement when he returned. “So, what’s the plan?” He asked, looking towards his siblings. “How long are you in town for? Are you staying with Mom and Dad?”

Daniel snorted derisively and shook his head, making himself comfortable on one of the barstools and leaning against the countertop. “Absolutely not; I’m staying with Maddie just down the road. The three of us staggered our schedules. I took this week off, flying back out to Maryland on Saturday. I’ll be back for a few days before you have to leave again.”

As Buck opened his mouth with a furrow between his brows—obviously planning on asking about Maddie’s place, she hurried to explain further. “Then I have the week off so you and I can spend some time together.”

“After that,” Bobby began with a soft smile, pulling ingredients out of the fridge to cook dinner. “I have two weeks free before you hop on a plane to go visit Owen and TK in New York.”

Buck placed his hands on his hips and grinned at his family. “Thank you for planning all of this. You really didn’t have to go out of your way to do this for me. I know you’re busy—“

“Don’t even finish that sentence,” Maddie warned with a threatening finger pointed in her little brother’s face. “We’ve been waiting for this for almost two years. Of course, we took time out of our lives to spend time with you. We love you, Evan.”

Buck’s shoulders sagged when Bobby and Daniel voiced their agreement, and he pulled Maddie in for another hug. “Thank you, really.” When he pulled away, his eyes narrowed. “What’s this about Daniel staying with you? Do you have a hotel out here or something?”

Maddie licked her lips, feeling three sets of eyes watching her in interest. “Um, well, I actually moved out here three months ago. My apartment is about half an hour away. Daniel’s staying on my couch.”

Her little brother’s expression twisted into one of confusion and hurt, and Maddie felt her heart sink. “Did…did you not want to tell me? Did I do something wrong?”

She tossed a glance over to Bobby and Daniel, who were raising their brows expectantly, and hurried over to wrap her hands around Buck’s. “No, of course not. You haven’t done anything wrong. I just didn’t want to tell you over the phone. We’ll talk about this later, okay?”

Buck watched her carefully for a few moments, and she wondered what he was thinking. His expressions used to be so clear and easy to read, but now it felt like a challenge to understand him. Finally, he gave her a tight nod. “Alright, but I’m not leaving the country without an explanation.”

Maddie’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Of course, Buck. Now, I believe Bobby wanted to teach you a new dish?”

As expected, Buck perked up again and padded over to stand beside Bobby in the kitchen, just like a loyal golden retriever. The older Guide even reached up to ruffle Buck’s curls.

When they finally sat down to eat an hour later, everyone raised their glasses of water for a toast. “To Buck,” Bobby declared warmly, his honey-brown eyes watching the young Guide with such fondness. “We are so pleased to have you home, son.”

“To Buck!” Maddie and Daniel echoed while the man himself scratched at the nape of his neck sheepishly.

“So,” Daniel started as he cut into his dinner. “What all have you been doing over there?”

Buck’s eyes flickered up to his brother and back down to his meal. “Um, I can’t actually tell you that.”

Maddie, Daniel, and Bobby looked at each other. The older Guide cleared his throat. “Oh. Well, where were you assigned?

“I can’t tell you that either,” Buck sighed, setting his drink down and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Practically everything I did and everywhere I went is classified. I’m not allowed to talk about it. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Maddie quickly assured him. “You're doing important work over there, Buck. It’s not your fault you can’t say anything.” She cleared her throat and started back on her dinner. “I made friends with Annie. She said that Deacon practically sings your praises. Apparently, you’re the perfect addition to the team.”

That had the pinched expression on her brother’s face clearing. “Really?”

“Really. Now, I know Daniel has been waiting to share some pretty interesting stories. He says they’re not for the faint of heart,” she teased, nudging Daniel’s shoulder.

Buck’s eyes settled on his brother once again. “Bring it.”

XX

Later that evening, after he said his goodbyes to Maddie and Daniel and goodnight to Bobby, Buck stared up at the ceiling of his room. Bobby had called it a guest room, but somehow he had found a spot for the handful of things Buck actually missed from his bedroom back home. Daniel or Maddie must have swiped them from under his parents’ noses—which probably wasn’t actually that difficult considering how little they cared about him—and given them to Bobby. The knowledge that his family tried to make his homecoming as warm as possible filled in some of the hollowness that had clawed itself into his chest.

Buck didn’t realize how much he needed his family again until their arms wrapped around him at the airport, supporting him upright when his knees weakened. God, he had missed them so much. He spent more time than was probably healthy examining the photo TK gave him before starting his first tour in Iraq, but the small comfort it gave him was nothing compared to how it felt being with the people he loved once again.

Despite how thrilled he was to be home, it didn’t erase the memories of his actions from the past eighteen months. Flashes of each of the faces he killed remained tattooed behind his eyelids, making it impossible for him to fall asleep. The weight of his guilt and doubt seeped into the bubble of happiness he’d found himself in. Would Maddie still look at him like her ‘precious little brother’ if she knew what he’s done? Would Daniel still be proud of him for saving lives if he knew how many he’s taken?

Would Bobby ever forgive him if he knew that the first person Buck ever killed was the same age as Rob when he died?

After about two hours of staring listlessly up at the ceiling and sinking further and further into his spiraling thoughts, Buck groaned and pushed himself to his feet. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and shuffled out to the living room, planning on making himself a glass of milk, but he paused in the doorway when he saw Bobby settled on the couch with the television’s volume on low.

When Buck shifted his weight, causing a creak in the floorboards, Bobby turned around with his eyebrows raised towards his hairline. “I’m sorry, Buck. Did I wake you?”

Buck shook his head. “No, I couldn’t sleep.”

Bobby gave him a soft smile. “Why don’t you come sit down? I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

Buck didn’t have the energy to argue, which is how, five minutes later, he found himself lying across the couch with his feet in Bobby’s lap with his hands cradling a Navy SEAL mug. He took a sip and hummed. “This is good.”

“Your sister is the one who introduced me to it, actually,” Bobby chuckled, settling his free hand atop one of Buck’s ankles. The two of them sighed and looked over to the living room floor where Zeus and Nala curled up together, sleeping soundly.

“Nala looks happy.”

Bobby squeezed Buck’s ankle lightly. “So do you. At least, you did until you walked out here. What’s on your mind, kid?”

Buck swallowed thickly and rested his head against the couch’s armrest. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to get out his thoughts until they crammed up into his throat. Mumford’s gentle reminder to lean on the people he loved helped Buck finally get it out. “I just…I don’t know if you’d feel the same way about me if you knew what I’ve done.”

“What?” Bobby asked, quiet and concerned. He moved Buck’s feet off his lap and wrapped a hand around Buck’s arm, gently leading him up until he was sitting. Bobby set his and Buck’s mugs on the coffee table before pulling the younger Guide into a soft embrace. “Buck, I want you to listen to me very closely.” He paused. “Are you listening?”

Buck sniffed and nodded, his cheek brushing against the chest of Bobby’s t-shirt.

“Good. There is nothing, and I mean nothing , that you could do that would ever make me love you any less. You are like my own son, Buck. The last piece I have of the life and family I loved. You’re the bridge for me. If you can look past the horrendous, monstrous things I’ve done, then I can stand by you every step of the way while you fight for your team and your country.”

“You’re not a monster,” Buck denied a moment later, still struggling to process the unconditional love Bobby was expressing. If Bobby was telling the truth and things wouldn’t change between the two of them, maybe it meant that Buck could actually sleep through the night.

Bobby chuckled wetly and pressed a kiss to the younger Guide’s disheveled curls. “Of course, that’s what you would say. I love you, kid. More than anything.”

“I love you too, Pops.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? Who thought I had forgotten about Doug? He needed to make a short appearance. ALSO did anyone catch the small cameo? One of my FAVORITE shows - I couldn't not include a reference to Bones. Is it weird that it's my comfort show?

I love the Buckley sibling dynamic and Bobby as a dad. Obviously, I can't get enough of it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. I hope you have a wonderful week, and I'll see you next Sunday!

Chapter 16

Summary:

Buck and his team head back for their second tour in Iraq.

Notes:

Thanks for being patient this week while I re-posted a few chapters for a few SEAL clarifications and rank changes. As a thank-you, I'm posting a day early.

Not gonna lie, this chapter is a little difficult in terms of subject matter. Its war-typical violence, but there is a scene near the end that's tough. Just be warned!

I hope you all had a wonderful week, and I hope you enjoy this chapter!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (22)

Part II

Chapter 16

A few days after Buck’s twenty-fourth birthday, the team went back for his second tour in Iraq. They were welcomed by a familiar group of Marines with open arms, this time with their sister platoon on their heels. Their commander—and Hondo’s counterpart—Lieutenant Rodriguez, shook the older Sentinel’s hand with enthusiasm and led both platoons through the base camp to outline their mission for the next few months. Their assignment was more or less similar to their first round in Fallujah, acting as security for First Marines as they go door-to-door attempting to flush out high profile targets. However, this time they’re operating on a much larger scale, hence the need for additional protection.

After a late evening spent reminiscing and celebrating many of the team’s promotions—Luca to Chief Petty Officer, Deacon to Master Chief Petty Officer, and Chris, Street, and Victor to Petty Officer First Class—along with Buck’s recent promotion to Petty Officer Second Class with the people they hadn’t seen in over a year, Buck’s team set out to their destination in the early morning light. The Marines moved sluggishly but grew more alert the closer they got to the city, while both SEAL platoons were focused and determined from the moment they stepped out of their bunks. As soon as their boots were on the ground in the city, Buck and Street made their way to their post, quickly confirming the building was clear before heading up towards the roof.

“Man, I think Walker has it out for me,” Street grumbled as Buck set up his rifle on the white side of the building and lowered himself to his stomach. “Hasn’t stopped scowling at me since we walked through the damn door.”

Buck smirked, tugging off his gloves and switching his helmet out for his now-fraying ballcap, fitting it snugly backwards on his head. “I mean, his girl did send you naked photos of herself. That’s enough to piss anyone off.”

“It’s not like I asked for them!” Street insisted, his twitching lips betraying his amusem*nt. “I met her once during leave and flashed her a good-ol’-boy smile. I was being polite .” The Sentinel heaved a great sigh. “I should have known better. I’m irresistible.”

“I’m sure Molly will agree with you,” Buck snorted derisively, lowering his eye to his scope and holding his shoulder steady.

Street let out a laugh beside him. “Dude, you should have seen Molly rip that girl a new one. I had no idea my bonded was so possessive!”

“Yes, you did,” Buck shot back with a grin.

The Sentinel bit his lower lip to keep in another round of laughter. “Okay, yes, I did. It’s hot as hell. Did I mention that she’s going to move out to LA in a few months?”

“No, you didn’t. What’s out there?”

“She’s been looking for an opening at a law firm on the West Coast, and one finally crept up. I guess a partner at a firm she’s interested in is retiring soon, and they want her to come and fill it. They’ve heard what a badass she is in Florida.”

Buck looked away from the scope for a moment to catch Street’s eyes. “That’s really great, man. I’m happy for her—and you. Sounds like she’ll be close to Annie and the kids, right?”

Street nodded with a soft expression. “Yeah, I think I heard Hondo mention that Jess is thinking about transferring there as well.”

“Woah,” Buck blinked, reaching to remove a rock poking into his hip and shifting his legs to get more comfortable. “That would be all of the families nearby, right?”

“Yup,” Street confirmed brightly before his eyes lit up with delight. “Then Walker’s girlfriend would have to deal with all of our women if she tries anything else.”

Buck rolled his eyes and settled in, taking a deep breath to center himself, carefully examining the scene before him. A group of about thirty marines led by Rodriguez and Hondo marched forward to the east while Victor and Mumford, Chris and Deacon, and Luca and Casey—a SEAL from their sister platoon—led their own set of marines, about fifteen each, to the north. Buck’s assignment was to keep his team in his sights while Grimes, their sister platoon’s sniper, kept an eye out for the groups moving to the south and to the west.

Victor and Mumford’s unit trudged slowly—carefully—through the streets, and Buck’s sharp eye caught an enemy insurgent tip-toeing out of his fourth-story balcony, leaning over to fire towards the American soldiers. Buck didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger, his lips twitching when the insurgent tumbled to the dirt-covered ground right in front of a pair of Marines, who freaked .

“f*ck, man!” One of them cursed, flailing backwards in alarm.

The soldier next to him raised his weapon and looked up, spinning around, trying to see where the man came from. “What the hell?”

Victor's rumble of laughter was warm and playful in Buck’s ear. “That was your Overwatch, Einstein. You can thank him later.” His teammate gave a smug wave towards Buck’s direction, and Street snorted as he watched through his binoculars.

“Let’s move!” Mumford barked to push his unit along, though amusem*nt laced his voice. “Hurry up! Keep going!”

The next few hours went by similarly—he had to take out five more enemies trying to sneak their way towards his team—and Buck and Street had to switch rooftops when their marks moved out of range. An hour or so after they settled into their new position, Buck focused in on Hondo and Rodriguez’s unit. Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he heard Street let out a nasty curse as they both noticed the sh*tty blue Toyota drift dangerously around the corner with a piercing screech .

“Disperse!” Hondo shouted, waving his hands to signal the majority of the Marines to run—to get to safety. “Get down! Get down!”

The Sentinel dropped down into a front line with Rodriguez and four other Marines with their weapons raised, ready to defend the convoy. The firefight began abruptly, the air filling with the familiar whir and the ping of bullets raining down atop the car had Buck’s pulse skyrocketing.

Buck wasn’t about to lose Hondo, the man who trained him to care about something bigger than himself—his leader . The young Guide found the driver quickly through this scope, letting out a calming breath as he pulled the trigger.

Blood splattered the windshield, the car erratically swerving as it came to a natural halt about one hundred yards from Hondo’s line and the convoy. “Cease fire!” The Sentinel barked, staying low and watching the car like a hawk. The dead man’s finger must have slid off the trigger because, between one heartbeat and the next, the Toyota exploded in a rain of metal and fire, causing the front line to duck down for cover.

“Woah,” Street let out a low whistle. “Nice shot, Buck.”

XX

Six months later, Buck let out a quiet groan as he stretched his muscles out, popping the joints that had been stuck in place for ten hours straight. There are still ten hours left of his shift, and Buck seriously considered taking Street out with a well-placed kick to the temple. He can only spend so much uninterrupted time with someone before their voice starts to grate on his ears. It’s one of the hotter days of the year, the temperature stretching well above one-hundred degrees even though the sun started setting half an hour ago, which does nothing to help Buck’s mood. They were both cleared to wear their civvies, so Buck chose his lightest khaki pants with a plain black shirt and his hat, but none of that meant he was comfortable, despite the layers of blankets he managed to find on which to spread out.

He forced himself to ignore Street’s quiet humming under his breath as he pulled out his binoculars, switching on the night vision device to do a new sweep. Roughly two hundred and forty-eight yards away, a woman brought a hamper of wet clothes to a laundry line to hang up to dry on her home’s rooftop. Buck frowned, a hollow feeling in his stomach causing him to set down his binoculars and settle in to watch through his rifle’s scope. His instincts proved correct when he followed the building’s walls down to the alley, finally spotting a man with a ripped backpack shuffling around a corner, frantically looking around for an audience. “What are you doing?” Buck mumbled to himself, causing Street to become more alert next to him.

The man fell to his knees and kept the backpack close as he started digging into the dirt with both hands, still looking around for any witnesses. His intentions quickly revealed themselves when he carefully pulls a brass grenade—the same kind the woman and the child carried on his first kills—out of the bag and places it in the little man-made hole. Buck adjusts his scope for a moment, centering himself quickly, then pulls the trigger, leaving the man hunched over the grenade, covering it with his body and pool of blood.

Buck wipes the sweat from his temple and shifts slightly to get more comfortable before bringing his attention to the street again. He moves his scope along the rooftops, carefully examining the hanging lines of laundry to ensure he doesn't miss anything until he’s distracted by movement on the street. Down below, a man with an AK-47 and combatant wear comes sprinting out of the front door towards a unit of marines led by Chris and Deacon. Buck silently exhales as he takes the shot, and the man goes down.

He’s still there eight hours later, about an hour or so before the sun will rise. Street switched out with him a few times so that he could use the bathroom and stretch out when he cramped up, but Buck finally found a way to be comfortable on his stomach by bundling every piece of fabric they could find beneath him. He starts a new sweep through his scope, watching as two women in their black Hashimi dresses two hundred yards away walk quickly near the walls of a restaurant. His gaze drifts towards a convoy led by Luca and Casey to the east, their path lit by torches stacked unevenly on the side of the road.

“Eyes on the rooftop!” Luca barks out to the Marines. “Keep your eyes up there!”

Buck doesn’t see any movement above the group and considers switching his attention to someone else when one of the Marines behind Luca and Casey drops down like his strings were abruptly cut with a bullet through his heart. “f*ck!” Buck curses, and Street stiffens next to him.

His team are sitting ducks out there. Luca shouts for them to get to cover, and they're thankfully smart enough to duck behind vehicles and building overhangs, but none of that eases the sharp twist of panic in Buck’s stomach. He can’t help it—not when someone he loves is in danger.

“Enemy sniper located,” Oliver—a broad-shouldered black man from their sister platoon—reported. “Approximate grid, Quebec-Romeo, 1-5-5-6-0-4”.

While Buck is adjusting his position accordingly to find the enemy sniper, Luca and Casey order their Marines to stay hidden while they lift the dead soldier stretching an arm each over one of their shoulders and behind the neck, their arms crossed behind the dead marine’s back and around the waist, and bring him back under the store’s awning they found for protection. Buck wanted to rage, to scold them until he was blue in the face for taking such an unnecessary risk and putting themselves in danger, but he knew his thoughts were hypocritical when he would do the same.

Two hours later, Buck finishes his shift empty-handed and a renewed spark of hatred and determination for the enemy sniper. He couldn’t help remembering many of the books and movies he’d watched, and the image of how the “arch-nemesis” usually goes out carved itself even deeper in Buck’s chest.

One of them always kills the other.

“sh*t,” the Guide swore, pushing up to his knees with a series of popping joints and packing up his rifle with care. “That asshole is still out there.”

“It’s someone else’s turn to go after him,” Street insists, helping Buck up to his feet. “You need to get some sleep. We both do.”

“After I write up my shooter statement,” Buck grouses, the heaviness settling over his shoulders and reminding him exactly how exhausted he was.

Street groans and runs a hand through his disheveled hair as they make their way downstairs, nodding at the new round of sentries waiting for them. “How many did you get tonight? Eight?”

“Yeah,” Buck nodded with a grimace. “But they dragged two off.”

They walked together back to base, and Street clapped him on the back before heading out towards the showers while Buck went to finish his shooter statements. Once he submitted them and hung up his gear above his bunk, he went before a pair of JAG officers to go over each one individually.

“His wife says he carried a Quran,” one of the officers prods with a frown, looking down at the paper in front of him.

Buck shook his head. “I studied Arabic during training, Sir. I know what a Quran looks like.” His jaw ticked in frustration. “I can tell you exactly what he carried. It was pressed metal, shot 7.62s, and it looked just like an AK-47. So, why don’t you tell me what it was?”

He left the room without any flourish, dismissing himself as irritation bubbled up in his chest. Buck hated it when his kills got called into question. He already spent too much time feeling guilty for every life he took—but he’s had more than enough training to tell him exactly who the enemies are. If they’re trying to kill American soldiers—to kill his team, his family —they have to go down. That was the bottom line. Buck clung to Luca and Chris’ advice like a lifeline, trying to keep a hold on his humanity and not let his job change who he was on the inside. He would never take a life—it was too sacred a thing to take without warrant—except in defense of that which he meant to protect. If there was no clear and present danger, another option remained.

Buck tried to wash everything away in the shower, scrubbing at each kill that had ingrained itself onto his skin with renewed vigor, letting the hot water settle on his face for longer than usual until the tense line of his shoulder relaxed. When he finally felt clean, Buck dried off and dressed in his camos before heading off to the busy mess hall.

Street noticed him first, the purple bags under his eyes a little less pronounced after his own shower and getting food in him, grinning wide as he pushed himself up onto his feet and announced loudly, “There he is! The Overwatch himself! They say he can take out one hundred men with a single blow!” A fake look of confusion crossed his face as he tapped his index finger to his temple. “Or—or was it that you can blow a hundred men and that you’re single….”

Buck couldn’t help the smile that broke across his lips or the bubble of laughter that erupted from his throat. “Shut up, Street.” He picked up a burger from one of the Marines’ plates and chucked it at the Sentinel’s head, earning another round of laughter from the mess hall. At least Buck can always count on his team to bring up the mood when he has a bad day.

XX

Nearing the end of his second tour in Iraq, Buck blew out a heavy breath and tracked the convoy’s position three hundred yards away. He switched on his satellite phone and held it to his ear while keeping his eye on the scope.

Maddie picked up after the third ring. “ Hello?

“Hey, Mads.”

Buck! ” He could practically hear his sister’s grin through the phone as she set down whatever she was working on to give him her full attention. “ How are you? I miss you so much, little brother!

Buck chuckled under his breath. “I miss you too, Mads. I was just calling to let you know that I got promoted to Petty Officer First Class the other day.”

What!” Her screech had him wincing and pulling away slightly. “ That’s amazing, Buck! I’m so proud of you!

“Thanks,” Buck breathed out with a blush dusting his cheeks, watching Deacon and Mumford’s unit cover another block. “It was a huge surprise, and I’m not really sure that I deserve it—”

Evan, ” Maddie stressed, interrupting him. “ If what Annie says about your work over there is even remotely true, then you deserve every sliver of recognition you get.

Buck’s lips twitched upwards, and he gave a slight shake of his head even though she couldn’t see him. “Guess I can’t argue with that.” He sighed and narrowed his eyes as he spotted movement further east. “Can you do me a favor, Mads?”

Anything. You know that.

“Can you pass the news on to everyone else? Bobby, Daniel, Owen, and TK? I’m going to be out of reach for a while, and I don’t have time to call anyone else.”

He heard a slight hitch in his sister’s breath. Maddie always hated it when he went off the grid—when she had no way of knowing whether he was alive or dead. Buck didn’t blame her in the least. “ Of course. I’ll let them know. And you’ll—you’ll be safe, won’t you? We need you to come home to us.

Buck wanted to reassure her that he wasn’t going anywhere—that he would be with them before she knew it. But, Hondo had drilled him and the rest of the team on making promises they couldn’t keep.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make it home to you. That, I can promise.”

Her silent sobs finally cracked through the speaker as she tried to pull herself together for him. Buck’s heart squeezed painfully with the need to hug his sister and pull her close. “ I love you, Evan. So, so much.

“I love you too, Mads.”

XX

A few months later, Buck’s team and sister platoon received orders to gather in the central intelligence tent for a new briefing. He filed in with the rest of his team and stood between Chris and Street, leaning his shoulder heavily against the former’s due to the lack of sleep he’d gotten the night before. She patted his arm in consolation. Buck’s nightmares were growing increasingly violent, and he was trying his best to accept help from the people who cared about him.

Chris always let him put his head in her lap while she ran her fingers through his hair while Victor and Street tried to regale him with some of their favorite memories from growing up and making it through BUD/S. Buck has no idea how Luca did it, but the Sentinel managed to find a way to make hot chocolate on the base and sneak it in for the rest of them when they’re awake at all hours of the morning.

Hondo and Rodriguez stood in front of the group with grim expressions and shades of deep reds and solid browns protruding from their chests. Buck straightened as soon as he saw the disturbing mixture, a hollow feeling in his gut tightening in apprehension.

Hondo clicked on the projector and picked up his tablet, revealing a group of militants dressed in black with their faces covered standing in a line behind one man, who was clearly in charge, who had a large knife pressed against an American soldier’s throat. “The man with the blade is a Jordanian militant. He’s funded by Bin Laden. He’s trained by Bin Laden. He’s trusted by Bin Laden. His name is Zarqawai.”

The slide switched to a file of everything they knew about the man, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. Rodriguez gestured towards the screen. “Now, this asshole is the crown prince of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. His mercenary army, AQI, is five-thousand strong. These guys aren’t your average sh*t-kickers. They’re well trained; they’re well paid, and, right now, they are waging the largest urban assault since Vietnam.”

“Zarqawi and his lieutenants are our top priority,” Hondo continued with a stitch between his brows. “Now, there’s only one way to root these guys out, and that’s to go door to door, house to house, until we find them or we find someone who will give us their whereabouts. So, we will need to clear ten structures an hour, which is why I’ve brought in Marines once again. Granted, there aren’t enough of us to do security with them without splitting up pairs, which I’m not willing to do, so they’ll have to get their asses in gear.”

Rodriguez grimaced at the looks the rest of the SEALs gave them. “I know, I know. It’s a lot; it’s aggressive. We’re going to be loosening things up with air support. This is the highest priority target we have to date. I want this asshole dead or captured.”

“Does everyone understand?” Hondo asked with his arms crossed behind his back. “Are there any questions?”

When everyone grunted negatively, they received a dismissal to prepare for the next day. Buck rolled his shoulders and followed Deacon out with a scowl. “I’ll tell you something; if the Marines, without you guys as backup, keep rushing in like they’re doing, they’re going to have their asses shot off.”

“Well,” Deacon acknowledged with a tip of his head. “They’re Marines. They don’t get the training we do. Half of these guys were civilians six months ago.”

Buck blinked in surprise. He’s spent nearly two years training to help ensure his survival, and they sent these guys out to war after only six months? “Well, let’s coach them up. I can help show them how Team guys do it. Street and I can lead a unit on the street.”

Deacon stopped walking, placing a hand on Buck’s arm. “No, you can’t do that, Buck. We need you on Overwatch.”

“Oh, come on,” Buck argued, throwing his arms out to the side. “If I’m on the street then—”

The older Sentinel cut him off with a shake of his head. “Look, house-to-house is the deadliest job out here. Do you have some sort of savior complex?”

Deacon knew as well as anyone that Buck did indeed have ‘some sort of savior complex’, but he was kind enough to ignore the Guide’s scoff of denial. “No, I just want to get the bad guys, Deac, but if I can’t see them, then I can’t shoot them.”

“Look, all of these guys? They know your name, and they feel invincible with you up there.”

Buck felt his face twist unpleasantly. “They’re not.”

The older Sentinel let out a small sigh. “They are if they think they are. Why don’t you just keep banging on the long gun? Let everyone else sniff out Zarqawi.”

XX

The roar of the whirling blades had Buck’s gaze ticking upwards as a Blackhawk flew overhead. When it passed him by, the Guide settled back into position and lowered his eye to the scope. A bead of sweat escaped the curls on the back of his neck as he watched a group of Marines— without a SEAL security detail—converge in the street and head towards the next home on the block.

“You said AQI has a sniper in the Olympics,” Buck reminded Street, sure that the Sentinel would remember their conversation from their first mission together. “But Iraq hasn’t qualified a shooter in three games.”

Street shifted beside him, watching another lone unit of Marines through his binoculars. “Well, that’s because Mustafa isn’t Iraqi. He’s from Syria.”

Buck cursed internally, irritated at his oversight. Now his inability to obtain any concrete information on the enemy sniper made sense—he’d been looking in the wrong place. He pushed away his frustration and refocused his attention to the unit coming out of the last home and moving towards the next one on the block.

“Regroup!” Their team lead, Percy, shouted, the communication ringing in Buck’s ear.

“Hey,” Buck called out to seize their attention. “Once you gain entry, I can’t see anything, so take it slow and move through your target.”

Percy touched his ear for a moment before gesturing towards the Breacher to take the door. “Understood. Fire in the hole!” A sharp explosion sounded distantly through the line, and the Marines filed in one by one with their rifles raised. “Go, go, go!”

A firefight started inside, and Buck couldn’t help but clench his jaw and flex his fingers in aggravation at being completely useless. “sh*t.”

The next moment, a new round of swearing sounded in his ear as two Marines carried out their wounded man with one of each of his arms around their shoulders; Buck couldn’t tell if he was still alive or not.

The young Guide pulled back from his scope with a low growl rumbling from the base of his throat. “f*ck this. I’m going to go clear those houses with the Marines.” He pushed up to his knees and raised a brow at Street. “You coming?”

His sniper partner watched him for a long moment, a clear sign of the Sentinel internally holding his anger in check. Buck winced at putting his partner in this position, but he knew Street would have his back. He always did. “Hondo’s going to be pissed we broke command,” he warned.

“I know,” the Guide agreed with a twitch of his lips, packing away his long gun and slinging it over his back while preparing his Barrett. “I’ll call it in.”

By the time they made it down on the ground, both Buck and Street had received a thorough chastisem*nt by their leader, but Buck couldn’t find it within himself to feel guilty. They found the unit they’d been watching after a few minutes and slid right into their party—which was already a man down from the last encounter. “You mind if we roll with you guys?”

Percy’s eyes widened at the sight of them, and he shook his head. “Hey, man. Any SEAL is cool by me.”

Another Marine, O'Connell, judging by the name stitched into her uniform, did a double-take. “Hey, you’re that guy they’re calling Overwatch! You’ve already got like, thirty confirmed kills, right?”

“Well, who’s counting?” Buck groused, glaring sharply at Street, who just grinned at him like a lunatic. That nickname was going to be the death of him.

Another member of their party, Akin, let out a low whistle and hurried to keep up. “That’s f*cking badass. I heard some motherf*cker in Bravo is catching up, though; better watch out!”

Before the conversation could get completely out of hand, Buck stepped up to the team lead. “Listen, I know you’re all meat-eaters. Absolutely. But, Street and I know a couple of things, simple things that we could show you. Maybe it will keep us above ground. What do you say?”

“Yeah, alright,” Percy agreed with a shrug, sounding perfectly fine with someone else taking command.

Buck rolled with it, taking position on the opposite side of the next apartment’s threshold while Street moved in across from him on the other side. The Guide hit a fist against his helmet twice.

“Hey, what does that mean?” Akin asked behind the Sentinel.

“It means Breacher up,” Street informed him when the unit’s Breacher came in from the front to knock the door down with an echoing bang!

“Moving!” Buck ordered shortly, stepping inside first with Street hot on his heels with their rifles raised.

Street instinctively swept to the right while Buck took the left side of the room; the Marines followed close behind them both. “Right side clear!”

Buck nodded for O’Connell to push open the partition to the kitchen area, but before she could, a young boy, no older than six, ran out towards them with his hands covering his head, terrified sobs escaping his lips. A man, who had to be his father, let out a muffled, panicked groan and chased after his son.

“On the ground!” Buck barked out, blocking the man’s path and nodding for Akin to hold the boy while he and O'Connell shoved the man onto the rug with his hands behind his back. “What are you still doing here? You’re supposed to have evacuated this area! Who else is here?” When the man didn’t respond, only whimpering beneath his hands, Buck switched to Arabic.

The man’s eyes widened at the realization that an American soldier could speak their language, and after a moment, he nodded towards the room he came out of. “ This is my home! My family. I couldn’t leave it behind! Please, please! We’re peaceful!

With a signal from Buck, Street stormed past the partition with a group of Marines and corralled everyone back into the living room. They rounded three women and another little girl, checking them for weapons before clearing the rest of the house. “I’ll call Hondo,” the Sentinel offered with a tightness in his voice.

“Let’s get them into the other room,” Buck suggested gruffly, lifting the man up onto his feet and loosening his hold so that he didn’t hurt him. Percy led them to a separate area of the house where they had the women and children sit at the table together, but they stayed under the guard of the Marines while Buck kept the man across from him in place with O’Connell at his back. “ What’s your name?

The man hesitated, glancing over at his family with a wobbling expression. “ Sheikh Al-Obodi.

Buck tried to give him a reassuring smile, though it probably came off as more of a grimace. “ Nice to meet you. I’m Buck.

Before they could get any further, Hondo came through the door with his weapon in hand and shoulders tight with tension, causing the Iraqis to shrink away at the sudden sight of a furious Sentinel. He looked towards the Guide for an explanation, which Buck gave, quickly, to not anger him further, considering their last conversation.

Sheikh looked between the two soldiers and must have realized that the interrogation was about to begin now that Buck’s commanding officer had arrived. He shook his head frantically, backing up until he ran into O’Connell and his face went white.

“Sheikh says that if he talks to U.S. soldiers, he will come to his house and make an example out of him,” Buck translated for Hondo with a frown.

Hondo stood up straighter, his eyes gleaming like a bloodhound who caught a scent. “He? Who’s he? Who’s he?”

Buck interpreted for Sheikh, whose hands trembled in his lap. “The man who they call the Butcher. He’s the despaired one, son of Shayton—son of the Devil.”

The older Sentinel moved closer to Sheikh, getting into his personal space with a fire lit behind his eyes and looking more imposing than Buck could ever remember. “He’s like an enforcer?”

“Yes, an enforcer,” Buck confirmed after listening to Sheikh’s shaking voice. “Number one soldier for Zarqawi.”

Every person in the room stiffened at the name, instantly alert with anticipation between one heartbeat and the next. f*ck, yes, Buck thought with a rushing buzz. This was the first piece of information they’d been able to find about Zarqawi or any of his lieutenants. They’d done it!

“Zarqawi? Do you know where he is?” A snarl leapt out of Hondo’s throat as he advanced further on the man, moving closer to his face. “Tell us where he is! How can we get to him?”

Sheikh backed up against O’Connell again in an attempt to flee the raging Sentinel and raised his hands over his head, shrieking out a response.

Hondo looked to Buck sharply, who translated with a short nod, “You find the Butcher, you find Zarqawi. He reports to him.”

The Sentinel took a deep breath in and stepped back with telegraphed movements. Buck watched the colors in his chest twist and churn as the man fought to control them. “How do we find him?”

Buck looked to Sheikh, who peeked out through his fingers, for interpretation. After hearing his response, the Guide’s expression contorted. “We have to understand the risks this poses to them. He’s asking for money. One-hundred thousand dollars.”

Hondo’s eyebrows soared upwards. “You need one-hundred thousand dollars? We have no proof that this guy even exists!”

When the Guide explained as much to Sheikh, a dark, determined shadow fell over the man’s face, and he looked toward his family. “ Fatima!

“His wife,” Buck explained as she approached cautiously and tucked herself under Sheikh’s arm, her gaze dropping towards her feet. Sheikh gently took one of her arms in hand and reached into the folds of her black Hashimi dress, revealing the mutilated nub that cut off right where the elbow was supposed to be. “f*ck,” Buck swallowed and listened to Sheikh before looking back towards Hondo. “This is your proof.”

Hondo exhaled loudly and sat down heavily beside the Guide, finally losing his towering stance for intimidation purposes. “Well, look. I want to help you. I do, but I need something. I need phone numbers, addresses, names. You have to give me something .”

After Buck translated, but before Sheikh could respond, a Marine from Hondo and Rodriguez’s unit burst through the doors with a frantic air, his wide eyes immediately finding Hondo causing everyone in the room to tense in alarm and tighten their grips on their weapons. “Lieutenant Harrelson, Sir! The First Platoon is pinned down in the East Quadrant! Lieutenant Rodriguez is requesting immediate backup!”

Buck was on his feet before he even realized what was happening— that was Chris and Deacon’s unit . As he took an unconscious step towards the door, Hondo placed a hand in the center of his chest to stop him from moving. Buck looked down at the impediment in shock while Marines flooded out through the door, leaving the Iraqis twitching uncomfortably from all of the commotion and shrinking away from the roving soldiers.

“Listen, I need you to give me something,” Hondo turned back to Sheikh. “You give me something, and we will take care of it. We can keep you safe, but you have to tell me right now!”

Buck blinked at Hondo’s tone and found himself translating with the same level of aggression—he needed to get the hell out of this interrogation and save his team. He’d promised Chris he wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to hurt her again, and Deacon had the most beautiful family waiting for him at home—Buck couldn’t just sit back and do nothing while they were in danger.

sh*t .

The sudden possibility of losing someone in his new family burned fiercely in the back of his mind, sending flashes of cherished memories revolving around Rob’s toothy grin, Brook’s little arms curling around his neck, and Marcy’s long fingernails running through his hair. Dread sunk into his veins, making them throb and pulse beneath his skin. He had to get to them.

Sheikh must have realized something was wrong and that he was about to lose out on his chance at one-hundred grand because he nodded his head quickly and hurriedly took a step forward. Buck ground out the man’s response through gritted teeth, “Amir Khalaf Fanus! This is the given name of the Butcher.”

“If this name turns out to be good intel, you’ll get your money,” Hondo promised, waiting for Buck to translate before finally taking his hand off his chest. The Guide let out a sharp breath and pushed towards the door where Street stood waiting with hardened steel in caramel-colored eyes.

In their ears, Hondo explained their assignments with an undercurrent of stress in his voice, and the sniper team took off towards their post at a sprint. They cleared the building quicker than ever before, and Buck deposited his McMillan on the white side of the building’s roof. Street whipped out his binoculars while the Guide dropped to his stomach and set up his equipment with practiced ease.

Street relayed the coordinates of the First Platoon’s location. “I’ve got five insurgents on the third floor and three on the fourth of the building across the street who are lighting up the unit. I see Chris and Deacon pinned behind the back of the convoy, three marines are behind the corner of the restaurant, and three are taking cover around the apothecary shop. Two are down.”

“Roger,” Buck nodded, lining up his scope with renewed focus and a fierce wave of protectiveness guiding his movements. He exhaled sharply and pulled the trigger without hesitation, dropping one of the insurgents from the third floor.

A Marine who stepped out to return fire got taken out, falling heavily onto his side in a splatter of blood, and Buck cursed as he lined up his next shot. Then spent the next three minutes eliminating as much of the threat as possible until backup could arrive. He managed to put down two more before they realized that a sniper had them in his sights. The insurgents regrouped and ducked back inside, just enough time for Hondo and Rodriguez’s unit to storm in and get the First Platoon to safety.

When the rest of the team was safely back inside the convoy and had the rest of the insurgents taken out, Buck let out a groan and dropped his head. The pent-up panic and the crushing fear of losing one of his own was finally dying down, bringing his raging heartbeat down with it. “sh*t.”

“We got ‘em,” Street assured him, slightly breathless as he nudged Buck’s boot with his own. “They’re safe.”

XX

Back at the central intelligence tent, Buck narrowed his eyes at the whiteboard the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had drawn up with what they knew so far about their targets. They had it filled with photos and barely recognizable scribbles that had Buck wondering who the hell taught this guy to write. Agent Snead, a short, mousey man with a hard set of his jaw, finished up a phone call before pushing away from his cluttered desk and coming to stand in front of Buck and Hondo with a scowl twisting at his lips.

“We believe that the Butcher is Zarqawaui’s number two man. This is your guy right here,” He explained sharply, pointing the tip of a marker at the photo of the Butcher.

Buck scoffed, not impressed in the least and losing his patience with the man’s dismissive air. “Yeah, but you don’t know his real name. Otherwise, you’d have written it up there.”

Hondo glared at him in disapproval, and the Guide cleared his throat, looking away sheepishly.

“He’s got several aliases. Now, if Fanus is legit, well, then we’ll go see Sheikh. He’s asking for one-hundred thousand dollars. Figures.” Snead shook his head derisively with a roll of his eyes, which Buck thought was unfair considering what the Butcher did to Sheikh’s wife. The man was just trying to provide for his family. “If he delivers the Butcher, he’s going to get it.”

Snead collapsed back into his desk chair, kicking his feet atop the thin wood in a show of petty dominance over the Sentinel and Guide. Buck had no idea what this guy’s issue was, but it was getting on his last nerve. The agent clicked on the radio to call it in. “This is Agent Sead, DIA; I need a name check for Amir Kalaf Fanus.” When the response came through, he brought the radio in close and turned his attention to a file waiting for him. “Yeah, I’ll wait.”

Buck stepped closer to the information board, memorizing the Butcher’s face, when a thought occurred to him. “I can go back and check on Sheikh if the info turns out. Street and I don’t mind relieving his security team.”

“We don’t have a security team on him,” Snead shook his head without looking away from a report on his desk.

What? ” Hondo jolted in shock, the undercurrent of darkness in his tone causing every hair on the back of Buck’s neck to stand at attention. Sentinels biologically descended from the apex predators humans evolved from, and it was no secret that Hondo was one of the strongest Sentinels in the entire U.S. military. The last thing someone would want to do is provoke him—yet Snead seemed to have an active goal of trying to rile him up. “You’re not protecting potentially one of the most valuable intelligence assets we have to date? I specifically ordered a detail—one that I trust to get the job done!”

Snead’s stoic expression faltered with uncertainty but ultimately remained unchanged, “That’s not your call, Lieutenant Harrelson. My team decided we couldn’t waste valuable resources for a tip that might amount to absolutely nothing.”

Buck was utterly dumbstruck at the cruelty of the man before him. He forced himself to reign in his blistering anger, which threatened to strike out at the shortsighted DIA agent, and stood beside his leader, backing him up in every way he knew how. “Sheikh trusted us to keep him and his family safe from the Butcher! What happens if someone finds out he talked? They’ll be sitting ducks!”

“Not my problem,” Snead shot back with a glower. “In fact, the two of you are excused. If the tip is , in fact, good, the Head-Shed’s going to want contractors on it if we’re humping money. There’s nothing else for you here.”

Before either Buck or Hondo could retort, Snead’s radio went off. He picked it up while glaring at the two SEALs. “Yeah, I’m here. What do you have?” When the response came, he nodded decisively. “I’ve got the green light. We’ll handle this.”

“I don’t f*cking think so,” Hondo snarled, pressing forward until he towered over the DIA agent with every inch of muscle in his body tensing in anticipation to throttle the smaller man before him. “You went directly against a Lieutenant’s orders—the same one who helped bring the intel in, in the first place. You can bet your ass that I’m going straight to Vice Admiral Gonzales with this, and we’ll see whose side he takes.”

“I wonder,” Buck thought out loud with a scowl. “If it will be the DIA agent who's been on the job for a hair’s breadth or the man who he invites to his monthly poker game.”

“If anything happens to Sheikh or his family, it’s on you ,” The Sentinel warned, not breaking eye contact with the DIA agent, who had fallen back into his desk chair and curled into himself. “I will have your head for this, Snead.”

XX

Two hours later, Buck’s knee bounced up and down from nerves as their convoy headed back out into the city. Hondo’s intimidation tactic had worked, which meant that Luca, Chris, and Victor were sitting across from him in the humvee on the way to act as security for the PMCs assigned to the money drop. Buck’s emotions were still thrumming against his shields, desperately wanting to lash out in anger for the poor judgment on Snead’s part, but they couldn’t do anything about it now.

“I heard the Butcher’s weapon of choice is a drill,” Luca huffed with a shake of his head. “How f*cked up is that?”

Buck shuddered, but before he could respond, his satellite phone started ringing from his pack. He shot his teammates a quick wink and pulled it up to his ear. “Bobby?”

Hey, kiddo, ” came the reply of one of Buck’s favorite people.

“Hiya, Pops. What’s up? I can’t talk for long.”

Bobby cleared his throat. “ I understand you’re busy, Son; I just wanted to let you know that I accepted a job offer to Captain the 118 Fire Station in LA in a few weeks’ time. There were some issues with the old captain, and a few people put in a good word for me when I submitted my application .”

Buck straightened in his seat, knocking his knees against Victor’s next to him, with a newfound excitement that had his teammates smiling fondly at him. “That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you! You’re going to be incredible out there.”

Thank you, Buck. I’m finally ready to take the next step, and I’m glad this opportunity came when it did.

“Well, no one deserves it more than you,” Buck told him softly, earning him a playful slap on the arm from Chris. “Have you talked to Annie yet? I think Street’s bonded, Molly, and Hondo’s, Jessica, are both moving out there soon too.”

I haven’t yet, but I will definitely—

Buck missed the last part of Bobby’s sentence when a bullet from an enemy sniper struck their driver between the eyes, leaving a splatter of blood painting the window and causing their humvee to swerve erratically within a handful of heartbeats. They went crashing into a nearby abandoned market, jostling them from their seats and forcing the phone to fly out of Buck’s hand and out onto the dirt.

“sh*t!” Victor swore as the four of them braced themselves on impact, clinging to the safety handles and keeping their weapons from clattering out of their hands. “Unit Seven’s been hit,” he yelled into his comm device.

“Find cover!” Luca barked, pushing the three of them out of the open-air bed of the humvee and towards the cluster of buildings. “Go, go, go!”

Buck’s entire line of sight and hearing range is a flood of bullets coming from every direction. He cursed as he and Chris bounded into an abandoned market while Luca and Victor rushed in the opposite direction.

“Grab the money, get to the drop!” Buck heard one of the PMCs shout from about fifty yards away.

He ignored them the best he could while a group of insurgents pinned him and Chris down, shooting off without any care or precision but unpredictable enough to keep them away from the men trying to finish the job. Three of the PMCs get shot down as they rush toward the money, and Buck swears under his breath as he tries to think and calculate the math in his head. “I heard one shot; it came in at an angle. It would have been three hundred or more yards out!”

When the rain of bullets transitioned to a different target, Buck looked around the empty aisles for anything they could use. A reflection caught his eye, and he peeked around a corner to see a filthy handheld mirror on the ground. He gestured to Chris, who watched his back as he quickly picked it up and moved back into his position. The mirror was relatively easy to clean with the fabric of his uniform, and the Guide slowly reached it around the corner.

“You got a bead on him?” Chris asks breathlessly.

Buck grimaced at the small reflection. “I’ve got a tiny little window.” When he moves the mirror to the side to get a better view, he’s distracted by the piercing scream of a child—a terrifyingly familiar child. He quickly scans for the culprit, praying that he’s wrong, his heart falling out of his chest when he finds it. “Ah, f*ck. I’ve got eyes on the Butcher. He’s got the Sheikh’s kid on the avenue.”

Suddenly the glass shatters in his hand, a bullet cutting through the glass with enough precision to tell Buck exactly who’s on the other end of that long gun.

Mustafa .

“Requesting QRF!” Chris starts shouting into her radio at Buck’s shoulder. “We’re being pinned down by sniper fire on approach to a high-value target. Grid zero-four-five-three-six-two-three-six. Over.”

Urgency screamed in the back of Buck’s brain as the life of another little boy hung in the balance. “I want to pop a smoke-em and secure this building,” he snapped through gritted teeth. “I’m going to the roof.”

“Got it,” Chris nodded, rolling her shoulders in preparation.

Buck grabs a smoke grenade from his pack and pulls the pin, tossing it out in front of the market and sucks in a deep breath. “Hold up!”

He can hear Sheikh’s son gasping in between hiccuping screams as he’s thrown harshly onto the ground, sliding across the dirt.

“Hold,” Buck repeats, timing out the shots he hears outside.

He can feel Chris next to him, practically vibrating in place. “Holding.”

After four more shots bounce off the surrounding metal, Buck shouts, “Go!” before dashing to the staircase, which leads up to the roof, while Chris rushes off in Luca and Victor’s direction. He can hear the Butcher roaring threats at the Sheikh, telling everyone watching that anyone who talks to the Americans will be punished .

Buck thinks he’s going to be sick.

When he makes it up to the roof, a shot hits right above his head and has him diving onto the smooth rock, jerking away when a large grey pitbull snarls in his face. Buck has a brief moment of panic before realizing the dog is on a chain, but he doesn’t trust it to hold with the way the dog is straining to bite at his face. Buck swallows down his agitation thrusting his shields out and sending waves of calmsafetysleep towards the pitbull, letting out a breath of relief when it yawns loudly before slumping over with an oompf .

He feels his own moment of peace shatter when the boy shrieks in agony, Buck managing to look over the rooftop wall for only a moment to see that the Butcher is f*cking drilling into the boy’s calf before the sniper pins him down again. “f*ck,” Buck curses, his heart rate skyrocketing again as he glanced around for something he could use. He crawls to the opposite corner, trying to keep out of sight of Mustafa’s scope and has only a moment to aim his rifle before the enemy sniper is shooting again.

Hopelessness claws at his chest as he peeks out for another moment to see the Butcher twisting the drill away from the boy’s leg, sending blood flying everywhere as it pools below him and pushing it against his temple. Buck ducks back down and hurries to the other side as Sheikh’s son’s piercing cries come to a sudden halt and Sheikh's mournful screams fill the air; their grief is powerful enough that Buck feels it pressing against his shields. The young Guide can’t help but let out a sob when he realizes what’s happened—what he couldn’t stop.

With another rain of bullets, he feels the Sheikh’s grief ripped away too.

Buck allows himself a brief moment to breathe, shoving the guilt and dread away from his heart, forcing himself to his feet, pointing his rifle down, shooting out towards the avenue with his heart shattering in his chest.

He’s too late.

The Butcher is gone.

XX

Hondo finds Buck lying across his bunk, eyes tracing the tent’s roof but not really seeing a single thing.

“Everything is shut down pending an inquiry,” the Sentinel explained, standing above him.

Buck listened absently, not knowing how to respond when the hollow memory of the day’s events break him open from the inside out.

Hondo sighed, and Buck could see him out of the corner of his eye rubbing a hand over his shaved head. “Agent Snead’s out. He’ll be reprimanded and stripped of his command for what he allowed.”

“That won’t bring them back,” Buck whispered, the words falling out of his chapped lips like a ghost of grief.

“No,” Hondo agreed softly, his throat working as he moved to sit next to Buck and press their knees together. “No, it won’t.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

Buck is going to have a really hard time dealing with this, but it's important for his future development and his mental state ini which forces him to lean on the people who care about him.

I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I'll see you next week!

Chapter 17

Summary:

We find out what Bobby's been up to and how Buck handles coming home for leave.

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone! I hope everyone's had a great week.

Not gonna lie, I LOVED the response to last week's chapter. All of your comments made me happy because you asked to see Bobby's reaction - which I had already planned out. So, please enjoy this chapter :)

Thanks to my beta @MugiwaraLexi who always has my back.

Enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (23)

Part II

Chapter 17

From the moment Bobby stepped out of his rehab facility four years ago, his determination to remain sober and start living his life again had reached new heights. If starting the process of forgiving himself and returning to firefighting was what it took to stay connected to Buck, then Bobby swore to himself that he wouldn’t let the young man he loved as a son down again.

However, despite his resolve, it was grueling, exhausting work. Bobby had his sponsor on speed dial, and his entire firehouse kept their eyes on him from the second he announced his intentions of coming back to work. He attended at least five AA meetings per week during the first year, and there were still times when Bobby found himself pausing in front of a bar or liquor store. During those moments of weakness, the only thing keeping him from stepping inside was the memory of Buck’s expression, twisted and shattered, as he gave Bobby his ultimatum. Either get sober or lose Buck forever.

After remembering those broken words and the conviction behind them, permanently etched into his memory, Bobby found the strength to walk away from every drop of alcohol and hint of illegal substances since that day. He wouldn’t lose Buck again; he couldn’t . Bobby didn’t think he would survive the fallout.

So, when Buck called to tell him that he was joining the Navy—trying out for the SEALs, no less—Bobby thought he would falter. He thought the sudden reality of Buck’s mortality would be the final straw that broke the camel’s back. But, Evan Buckley knew Bobby better than that. He didn’t let Bobby retreat back into the dangerous mindset that threatened their relationship.

Instead, the young Guide gently reminded Bobby of their deal. If Bobby slipped up now, he would get cut off from Buck’s updates about his life—which would be crucial, now more than ever; now that the young Guide was actively risking it. Buck explained his reasoning behind his decision and why it was something he needed to do for himself. That, more than anything, felt like getting dunked in a tub of ice water, yanking Bobby out of his spiraling thoughts. Since he was four years old, every decision Buck had made was for someone else. Living in the Buckley household, and having a mountain of pressure and a sea of eyes on him, ensured that Buck never even had the opportunity to be selfish.

Buck helped Bobby remember how strong the young Guide really was—how capable he was in his own right. “ I can do this, Bobby, ” Buck had stressed before letting out a stuttering sigh, as if afraid of Bobby’s response to his next question. “ Can you?

After hearing Buck’s piercing question, Bobby shoved down any immediate denials and selfish pleadings to reconsider and responded with a resounding, “ yes . I won’t let you down again, Buck.

Bobby repeated his promise again and again anytime he struggled during Buck’s deployment overseas. He worked hard and earnestly at the firehouse, keeping busy enough not to have the time to anxiously worry about Buck, re-earning his team’s trust little by little—brick by brick. They rejoiced when Bobby was finally back to his old self again and always quick to check in with him after a phone call from the young Guide, understanding when Bobby needed space and when he needed to be surrounded by his team for support.

When Buck returned home for leave from his first tour in Iraq, Bobby realized how far he’d come from the broken, desperate man who couldn’t find his way out of the bottom of a bottle after a horrific tragedy. Having the young Guide tucked underneath his arm, surrounded by people who loved them, helped Bobby realize he’d truly been living up to his side of the bargain and how grateful he was that Buck helped Bobby find himself again.

It was more difficult than expected saying goodbye to his son at the airport, tugging him in for a tearful farewell and praying over and over again that Buck would be safe during his second tour in Iraq. The young Guide seemed to struggle as much as he did, clinging to him just as tightly and wiping the wet stains from his cheek when they finally pulled away. Afterwards, Bobby took Maddie and Daniel out for a long lunch, basking in the company of the people who loved Buck as much as he did.

When Maddie called him halfway through Buck’s second tour to let him know about the young Guide’s promotion, Bobby had to drop his ingredients for dinner on the countertop and lower himself down to his couch with his head cradled in his hands. A promotion to Petty Officer First Class so soon meant that Buck worked exceptionally hard overseas, becoming a leader with an incredible skill set and determination to succeed.

From the moment Bobby stepped out of rehab four years ago, he had a plan. Stay sober. Continue firefighting. Start living again.

Now, he’d done all of that, and Bobby had no idea where to go from here. On the other hand, Buck kept moving forward, advancing his career in the Navy with gusto if his hastened promotion was anything to go by.

Where could Bobby go next? What were his options?

He spent a few months thinking and praying about his predicament before approaching his Captain. Conrad had retired six years ago—early enough that he didn’t get to see Bobby’s comeback, leaving his right-hand man, Miller, to lead the firehouse in his stead. Captain Miller was a good man and was supportive of Bobby’s recovery from the very start. While he was careful to keep a watchful eye on Bobby, he was also the first to step in and offer his encouragement if the older Guide asked for it.

When Bobby requested a meeting to discuss his future, Captain Miller was the one to suggest he think about applying as a captain himself.

Bobby blinked in surprise, opening and closing his mouth until he found the words. “I’m sorry, what?

“I think you’re ready,” Captain Miller told him with a firm nod. “You’ve come a long way, Bobby. You dug yourself out from a near-endless pit and stood strong in the face of your addiction, working hard to regain the trust of your teammates. You’re one of my top men here, and I believe you’re ready for more responsibility.”

The older Guide shook his head, bringing up his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “No, that was—that was because of Buck.”

“That kid of yours might have been the catalyst for your recovery, but, Bobby, you’re the one who agreed to go to rehab. You’re the one who made the decision every single day for the past four years to remain sober. Sure, Buck might be kicking ass overseas, but you’re doing the same thing here. You’re ready for more.”

“I don’t know,” Bobby hesitated, running his fingers through his shortly cropped hair—so similar to Buck’s nervous tick that the older Guide had to pause and chuckle under his breath before clearing his throat with a cough to cover it up.

Captain Miller must have heard it anyway because the corners of his lips twitched upward. “Why don’t you give yourself a bit of time to think about it? We’ll revisit this conversation next month. If you are, indeed, interested, I’ll help you send your application out.”

Bobby stood up and shook the man’s hand with a wave of gratefulness pressing at his shields. Bobby believing in himself was one thing, but to have his coworkers and friends believe in him was another thing entirely.

One month later, Bobby had made his decision.

As promised, Captain Miller helped him send his resume and applications out across the West Coast. Despite his decision to take the next step and the confidence the people surrounding Bobby had in him, Bobby didn’t really expect to hear back from anyone so soon. However, only two weeks later, Firehouse 118 in Los Angeles requested an interview.

As nervous as Bobby was, the interview went better than expected. Maddie dropped him off and picked him up from the airport, offering to take him to a congratulatory dinner when he returned to Pennsylvania.

A few days later, the Fire Chief called to offer him the job as captain of the 118. Bobby would have three weeks to relocate to Los Angeles before starting the next leg of his career. His team was more than happy for him, even going so far as to throw a party in his honor at the station. Daniel flew in from Maryland to surprise him, and he and Maddie charmed the entire firehouse into revealing their favorite calls and stories over the years while Bobby stole a few moments to himself to give Buck a call.

He knew the young Guide had gone off the grid for a while, so Bobby was just planning to leave a voicemail when he heard, “ Bobby?

Bobby’s spine stiffened in shock as a wide grin stretched over his lips. “Hey, kiddo.” He hadn’t expected the young Guide to answer, so his mood instantly skyrocketed at the chance to speak to Buck after months of radio silence.

Hiya, Pops. What’s up? I can’t talk for long.

The familiar warmth of hearing Buck call him ‘Pops’ blossomed across his chest. “I understand you’re busy, Son; I just wanted to let you know that I accepted a job offer to Captain the 118 Fire Station in LA in a few weeks’ time.” Bobby scratched the back of his neck with a shrug. “There were some issues with the old captain, and a few people put in a good word for me when I submitted my application.”

Buck’s delighted grin could practically be heard over the line when the young Guide gave an excited laugh. “ That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you! You’re going to be incredible out there.

“Thank you, Buck.” Bobby blew out a pleased breath. This day couldn’t get any better. He accepted a wonderful job offer and would soon be moving out to the City of Angels, was celebrating with his firehouse and the family he’d found in Maddie and Daniel, and he even got to talk to the boy he loved like a son. “I’m finally ready to take the next step, and I’m glad this opportunity came when it did.”

Well, no one deserves it more than you, ” Buck told him softly, causing Bobby’s heart to melt straight through the floor. “ Have you talked to Annie yet? I think Street’s bonded, Molly, and Hondo’s, Jessica, are both moving out there soon too .”

That was news to Bobby. He’d spoken with Annie a few times because of her friendship with Maddie, but he was pleased to hear that more of Buck’s SEAL family would be living in Los Angeles. “I haven’t yet, but I will definitely—”

Before Bobby could finish his sentence, a sharp, piercing sound of breaking glass, followed by an echoing crash, interrupted him. Bobby choked on his words as he stumbled, his back hitting the wall, clutching onto the nearest threshold to steady his shaking hands. “Buck?”

But the young Guide didn’t answer. Instead, Bobby could hear someone on the other line curse, reporting the attack on their unit and someone else directing their team to find cover.

Bobby might have recognized those voices, but his son wasn’t one of them. “ Buck? ” He called out again, louder this time with a hitch in his breath, as his knees gave out on him. He slid down the wall until he hit the ground. Fear clogged his throat, and Bobby couldn’t help but let out a distressed, wet groan, calling out again for the young Guide as tears escaped the corners of his eyes.

The comforting sounds of the celebratory party in the background suddenly came screeching to a halt, and he heard footsteps moving in his direction. However, Bobby’s entire focus was settled on the phone in his white-knuckled grip, listening to the sound of bullets pinging off metal.

“BUCK!” Bobby shouted, sobbing now as someone reached him. He couldn’t tell who it was, only that they tried to take the phone away from him. His last connection to Buck, who could be—“No!” He heaved his body away from the gentle hands, desperate to hear his son. “Buck!”

Bobby couldn’t help struggling against the arms surrounding him, thrashing and calling out to the young Guide when the line went dead—effectively cutting Bobby’s strings. He fell limply into a firm embrace, muttering his son’s name over and over again as someone ran their fingers through his hair. His shoulders shook violently as giant, hiccuping sobs erupted from his throat.

A sharp ringing blared around Bobby, snapping him out of his spiraling headspace. The older Guide let out a pained grunt and clasped his head as his team started moving around him.

“You’ve got him?” He heard Captain Miller ask.

“We’ll take care of him,” Daniel responded with a strained voice. Bobby’s shoulders started shaking again as he realized that he’d have to let Buck’s siblings know what happened.

What did happen out there? Was Buck still alive? Was he trapped in the middle of a firefight? Was he scared? Did he wish he was home?

f*ck.

“Bobby?” Maddie asked hesitantly, her nails pausing their trail through his hair. “Are you okay?”

The older Guide heaved himself up, expending more energy than he thought possible to bring his bloodshot eyes to meet their gaze.

“What happened?” Daniel asked, crouching low with a knit between his brows.

Bobby swallowed thickly, bringing up a hand to wipe the tears from his face. “I, uh. I called Buck to leave him a message to tell him about the job offer.”

Maddie and Daniel shared a petrified glance, their muscles tensing in preparation for the bad news.

“He answered,” Bobby’s voice wobbled. “He was so happy for me. We were talking, and then—” He pressed the heels of his hands to his stinging eyes. “And then he must have dropped the satellite phone because all of a sudden there were gunshots and…”

“Is my brother okay?” Maddie urged, her own expression shattering as her fears clawed through the surface and broke out across her face. “Is Evan alive ?”

Bobby looked away and couldn’t stop the broken sound that escaped his throat. “I don’t know. I have no idea, Maddie. I’m so sorry. I—”

sh*t ,” Daniel shuddered, collapsing onto the floor and shoving his head between his knees. “sh*t.” His breaths started coming out in short pants until he was wheezing painfully. Maddie shot up from her spot next to Bobby so that she could comfort her brother, rubbing his back and murmuring reassurances. However, Bobby could tell that she was just putting on a brave front. The tears dripping onto the firehouse floor proved that she was just as scared as Bobby and Daniel.

Bobby sucked in a shaking breath, trying to remind himself that he was the adult here. He was a grown man who could care for two of the people his son loved most in this world. The older Guide scooted closer and wrapped his arms around both Maddie and Daniel, holding them tight as they collapsed against him. Buck’s sister stayed strong for another few moments before giving up her facade, clutching onto Bobby’s shirt and burying her face into his neck. Daniel was the same, shaking his head back and forth repeatedly.

“Someone will call us and let us know,” Bobby assured them quietly. “We’ll know one way or another soon, but we have to have faith he’s alive.”

After a half-hour sitting on the ground together, Bobby finally ushered them up to their feet and drove them back to his apartment. He went through the motions of making them tea—not food because none of them would have the stomach for anything until they heard from Buck’s team—and calling his sponsor for support. Members of Bobby’s firehouse stopped by every few hours to check on them, though their visits were quiet and haunting considering the circ*mstances.

At two in the morning, when Maddie and Daniel were curled together on the couch with Maddie’s head resting on her brother’s shoulder, Bobby’s phone rang. All three of them leapt to their feet immediately, instantly awake as Bobby fumbled with his phone.

“Hello? Buck?” Bobby panted, his chest already heaving from the possibilities of this call.

Hey, Bobby, ” A deeper, familiar voice sounded on the line. “ It’s Hondo.

A sob burst out of Bobby’s throat, and his vision blurred at the edges. “Is Buck—”

Buck’s fine, ” Hondo reassured him quickly, though he sounded exhausted.

Bobby blew out an enormous breath of relief and reached out a hand toward Maddie and Daniel, who took it greedily, placing the phone on speaker. “Where is he? What happened?”

Hondo paused for a moment. “ He’s resting. I can’t give you any details about what happened, but I can tell you that, physically, Buck’s perfectly healthy .”

Maddie and Daniel shared a glance in front of him. “And emotionally?”

He’s struggling, ” Hondo admitted. “It was a hard day. We’ll take care of him here, though. However, he’ll need some support when he gets home.

Bobby’s spine stiffened. “He’s coming home?”

All of us are ,” the older Sentinel agreed. “ We’ll be back in two months for a little while. Buck can give you more details when he’s ready to talk. I know you were hoping to speak with him, but just give him some time .”

“Thank you for calling us,” Bobby told the Sentinel, his voice breaking on the last word. “I thought—I thought something awful happened when we were on the phone.”

Hondo sighed on the other line. “ Something awful did happen, and I’m sorry you had to hear that. But rest assured, Buck is alive and well. He asked me to call you if that makes you feel better. He’s just not in the right mindset to do so himself.

“That’s okay,” Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off a fresh wave of tears. “Give him our love, will you?”

Of course. Rest up, everyone .”

“Thanks, Hondo,” Bobby repeated before ending the call.

The three of them stared at one another for a few moments before slumping back down into their seats and letting out matching sobs of relief.

XX

A month later, Bobby stood in the living room of his new apartment and sighed, placing his hands on his hips. Everything was more or less put away, the empty boxes stacked in the corner ready for him to donate. He had all his kitchen supplies clean and ready to cook with; the photos of Marcy, Rob, and Brook, along with ones of Owen and TK, Maddie, Daniel, and Buck, sat or hung all around the apartment, and he had the guest room set up and ready to go with all of Buck’s things.

He was ready for his fresh start—for the next chapter of his life.

His files on the 118 team members provided him with a small glimpse into who he’d be working with. His paramedic team consisted of Howard Han and Henrietta Wilson. All of the information he had pointed to them being exceptionally good at their jobs, as well as close friends. The other firefights on “A” shift that he would be working closely with were Tommy Kinard and Sal Deluca. They had impressive resumes, though Deluca had more than one reprimand in his file. Nobody else at the firehouse had the Blessed Gene, so Bobby would be the only Guide on calls unless the police or another firehouse came in.

Bobby tucked the folders away in his bag after reviewing the rest of the firehouse’s staff, intent on not making any judgments until he met his team in person. They were already sure to be nervous about a new Captain, and he wanted to make a good first impression.

After arriving the next morning and watching his team, in amusem*nt, place bets on how long he would last, Bobby decided to get in on the action and surprise them by stepping out of the fire engine. Howard, “Call me Chimney,” Han and Henrietta, “Please, just Hen,” Wilson laughed and welcomed him to the 118 while the other firefighters scattered away like scolded puppies.

Los Angeles was shockingly different from Pennsylvania. The city’s infrastructure was like a maze drawn up in the seven layers of Hell. Civilians were idiotic enough to get themselves caught up in the palm trees, and the first responders out West had no idea how to pick up a rogue chicken.

When he found his footing a few weeks later, he instituted the “Family Dinner,” hoping it would help his heart ache just a little less until his son arrived.

“So, Cap,” Hen started as she dug into his famous brisket macaroni and cheese. “We don’t know anything about you. Where are you from?”

A sliver of anxiety prickled at the back of Bobby’s mind, but he forced himself to stay relaxed. His team wasn’t hurting him by asking logical questions about their new captain. It was only natural to want to know more. “I’m from Pennsylvania.”

“Do you have a family that followed you out here?” Chimney asked before moaning obscenely around a bite of his dinner.

Tommy threw his head back and laughed, tossing a napkin at the paramedic and shaking his head.

Bobby swallowed thickly, eyes sliding down to focus on his fork. “No.” How was he supposed to explain his situation to an outsider? He obviously couldn’t tell them about Marcy, Rob, or Brook without telling them about the fire. That wasn’t even an option . Explaining his relationship with Buck, Maddie, or Daniel was even more difficult.

“That must have been tough to move out here without knowing anyone,” Hen’s eyes softened with sympathy. “I don’t know what I would have done without Karen or Denny—my wife and son.”

The Guide cleared his throat and decided to take a risk, not wanting to start off his relationship with his team by being closed off. Besides, Hen had shared something personal. Bobby could reciprocate. “My son has a few friends out here that I’m planning on reaching out to.”

Deluca hummed in interest as he finished his plate, scraping away every last crumb. “Well, there you go! You’ll have a tour guide to show you around.”

Tommy snorted beside him, taking a sip of his drink. When everyone looked at him with an eyebrow raised, the firefighter turned bright red. “Oh, I thought that was a joke. You know, because Cap is a Guide? Tour guide? No?”

Chimney and Hen rolled their eyes hard before turning back to Bobby with expectant looks. “What’s it like being a Guide, Cap?” Chimney asked, leaning forward in his seat.

“I’m sure you’ve met plenty,” Bobby reasoned.

The team glanced at each other until they looked back at him and shook their heads. “No, not many. Maybe a handful,” Hen told him.

Bobby’s brow furrowed. “Really?”

Tommy nodded and rested his elbows on the table. “Yeah, only one of our other captains has had the Blessed Gene, and he only lasted two months.”

The Guide blew out a low whistle. “Well, it sounds like you all have a lot to learn.”

“Sounds like,” Chimney agreed with a grin. “So, what about your family? Are any of them Guides too?”

Bobby hesitated. Their questioning was getting a little deeper than he expected. “My son, Buck, is a Guide as well.” Bobby wiped his sweating palms on his napkin. “He’ll be visiting next month, actually. You’ll have an interim Captain for two weeks.”

“You’ll have to bring him to the station!” Hen gave him a playful slap on the arm. “I’m sure he’d love to see where his dad ended up.”

“We’ll see,” Bobby relented, having no such plans to bring Buck around more people than necessary. After the scare from a few weeks ago, Bobby wasn’t sure how Buck would be feeling. Besides, the older Guide felt a bit possessive already about his limited time with his son. He didn’t think he would be up for sharing with anyone besides family.

When the alarm sounded, he let out a breath of relief, and Dispatch alerted them to a warehouse fire. “Let’s go, 118!”

XX

For the first twenty-four hours after Buck landed in LA, Daniel refused to let his little brother out of his sight. Sure, he had a hotel room in the same building as Maddie, but he chose to stay on Bobby’s couch the first night instead—just in case Buck needed him.

The young Guide seemed more subdued and on edge after his first Tour of Duty’s end. The usual light that shone behind his bright, ocean-blue eyes was dimmer than his last shore leave, and Buck struggled to smile as much as before. Instead, he jumped more often at abrupt, loud noises, and Buck seemed to itch under his skin, keeping him in motion at all hours of the day. According to Bobby, even Nala appeared agitated, her tail twitching continuously and brushing up against Buck every chance she had. Clearly, whatever happened before he came home caused more trauma than they all initially assumed, and Buck couldn’t tell them anything to know how to help him. It was heartbreaking—all of them realizing how, with the classified nature of the mission, Buck had no choice. The young Guide admitted someone got hurt when they didn’t have to be and that it was really screwing with his head, but his team had taken him under their wing and were helping him work through his issues, including getting him set up with a Navy psychologist to help him sleep.

Buck’s phone went off at least every two hours—someone from his team checking up on him, letting him know they were there for him. Daniel appreciated their support more than he could say because he watched his little brother brighten every time his phone dinged. He hated seeing the heavy slump of Buck’s shoulders and the lines etching themselves across his brother’s forehead when he thought no one was paying attention.

Bobby, Daniel, Maddie, and Buck received an invitation to the Kay household for dinner with Deacon, Annie, and their four kids, which greatly seemed to help Buck’s mood. Daniel grinned as the young Guide ran around the backyard with Lila, Victoria, and Matthew, throwing his head back with laughter as the kids squealed in delight around him. Buck lifted up two-year-old Samuel by the armpits, blowing playful raspberries against his belly and pretending the young boy was Superman.

“He’s so good with them,” Annie commented from where she sat tucked beneath Deacon’s arm on the loveseat. They were all out on the back patio, watching Buck chase the Kay children pretending to be the ‘claw monster.’

“Yeah, he is,” Maddie agreed with a wide grin, taking a sip of fresh lemonade. “He’s going to be an amazing dad.”

Bobby choked on his drink. “ What? Has he talked about that? Is Buck seeing someone?”

Daniel snorted and waved Buck off when his brother perked up across the yard. “Not that I’ve heard.”

“He’s waiting for his Sentinel, I think,” Deacon offered, his eyes reaching towards his hairline when Bobby, Daniel, and Bobby all shot him matching incredulous looks. “What?”

“Since when is Buck interested in bonding ?” Maddie asked.

The older Sentinel shrugged, pressing a soft kiss to Annie’s hair. “I’m not sure. He asks Hondo, Street, and me questions every so often. I think he likes the idea of bonding.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” Bobby sighed dreamily. “It’s basically the most popular love story in literature.”

“Oh,” Daniel blinked, leaning back in his chair in shock. “I didn’t realize you were thinking about it too, Bobby.”

Bobby visibly shook himself and cleared his throat. “No, of course not.” He hesitated before amending, “sometimes. Maybe.”

Maddie reached over and gripped Bobby’s hand, giving him a gentle smile. “Bobby, that’s wonderful. You deserve to be happy.”

The older Guide squeezed her hand and returned her smile, nodding back to Daniel when he raised his glass in Bobby’s direction.

“Thanks, everyone,” Bobby told them quietly, looking back out towards Buck with a fond expression.

XX

The fifth morning Buck returned, Daniel admitted to having a secondary reason for flying out to LA. He had an interview at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center the next day for a position as an Orthopedic Surgeon and wanted to visit the hospital to get a lay of the land, so to speak.

Buck and Maddie agreed to accompany him when he promised to buy them both dinner after a quick tour. Julie, a charge nurse who greeted them warmly, showed them around and discussed the different procedures they had for the OR and the staff who Daniel might be working with. She even offered to introduce Maddie to the director of the ER in case she was interested in switching hospitals, but his sister declined politely.

Apparently, she was thinking about meeting a few of Annie’s friends from the dispatch center for dinner the following evening.

When Julie showed them to an empty patient room, she got called away unexpectedly. She encouraged them to stay put, promising to finish their tour when she returned.

“No problem,” Daniel assured her with a smile. “We won’t break anything, I promise.”

Buck snorted in disbelief, chuckling under his breath when Daniel shot him a glare. To be fair, the moment Julie turned a corner, Daniel started poking and prodding around the decent-sized room.

“Should you be snooping?” Maddie asked with her arms crossed over his chest.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “If I’m going to be this hospital’s top Orthopedic Surgeon, I should know where to find the blood pressure cuff, shouldn’t I?”

He let out a triumphant sound when he found it after opening a few drawers. Daniel turned to his brother and gestured for him to hold out his arm. “I need you to be my guinea pig, Buck.”

“What?” Buck asked with a knit between his brows, though he let Daniel guide his arm without protest. “Why?”

Well, he wasn’t about to mention that he’d been worried about his little brother, so he shrugged instead. “No reason. Why not?”

Buck grumbled but let Daniel strap the cuff around his larger-than-life bicep, scowling when Maddie leaned in closer to see the screen.

Maddie’s sharp gasp had them all jumping in surprise. “One-seventy over one-ten? Jesus Christ, Buck!”

The young Guide looked between his siblings and chewed on his cheek, tension building beneath his pale skin. “Is that high?”

Daniel scoffed, running a hand through his hair. “Not if you’ve just had fourteen cups of coffee. But for someone who is sitting down doing nothing? Yes , it’s incredibly high!”

Buck stared down at the cuff with an odd expression before giving a short hum. The muscle in his jaw twitched, and he refused to look up at his siblings. “I appreciate you taking a look at it, Dan. I’ll look into it when I get back, thanks.”

The forced politeness had both Maddie and Daniel narrowing their eyes. “Will you?” Their sister argued. “Will you actually look into it?”

“Sure,” Buck shot back dismissively, standing up and yanking the cuff off. He tossed it on the bed with more force than necessary. “It’s time we get back to Bobby’s, don’t you think?”

The young Guide stormed out of the room without looking back, ignoring the worried calls from his siblings.

XX

Back at Bobby’s house for dinner, they brought up Buck’s blood pressure again, earning Maddie a dark look from the young Guide.

“What did you expect me to do, Buck?” Maddie asked in exasperation, setting her fork down on the table. “Not tell Bobby? You’re not talking to us. You’re acting like everything is fine!”

“It is fine!” Buck thundered. A storm barreled in behind the brightness of his eyes, and Daniel didn’t like where this was going.

“It is not fine,” Daniel objected, finding himself unable to stay out of the argument. “Your blood pressure is one-seventy over one-ten!”

Buck groaned in frustration and set his elbows on the table, running both hands through his loose curls and gripping them tightly. “I’m in one of the most beautiful cities stateside. I’m with my family. I’m fine ! There’s a war going on; people are dying,” he growled, bringing the small hairs on the back of Daniel’s neck springing to attention. “No one’s even talking about that. It’s like it’s not even happening. Everyone’s on their cell phones, living our simplistic lives. It’s not even on the news!” Buck cried, shoving up to his feet with a glassy sheen glistening over his eyes.

“Buck,” Bobby started gently, reaching for the young Guide’s hand. “You can talk to us about it. We’re here for you.”

“That’s the thing!” Buck shouted, yanking his hand away from Bobby and pounding a fist against the table, making the plates and silverware rattle. “I can’t! I can’t even talk to the people I love about the sh*t that happened over there! I can’t do anything !”

He pressed the heels of his hands against his stinging eyes and tossed his napkin down, hurrying down the hall to his room and slamming the door, which echoed throughout the entire apartment.

Daniel slumped back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. “sh*t.”

XX

Buck stirred when a warm hand lightly gripped his shoulder, blinking back into awareness to see Bobby sitting on the side of his bed.

“Pops?” His voice sounded rough with sleep even to his own ears, and Buck had to wipe the wetness from his face as he sat up and remembered last night’s argument. He felt like an asshole for walking out and slamming the door on his family, but he couldn’t be in that dining room for a moment longer. The usual tight grip he had on his emotions had faltered ever since the killing of Sheikh and his son, and Buck struggled to keep his shields erect long enough to keep his fury and guilt from physically lashing out at the people around him.

“It’s time to get up, Buck,” Bobby told him softly. “You have plans this morning.”

Buck rubbed at his eyes and pressed a hand over his mouth to cover up a yawn. “I do?”

He wanted to explain to Bobby how he felt, how he wanted to scream and fall to his knees from heartache, but how could he even start with every part of the mission classified? Talking to Hondo and his team had helped. But unfortunately, Buck still felt like a powder keg ready to explode; his disbelief, shame, anger, and grief kept whirling violently underneath his skin.

Bobby didn’t say anything else, just silently encouraged Buck to get dressed and brush his teeth. When they finally made it outside and down the steps, Buck co*cked his head to the side as he recognized the black SUV sitting idle a few yards away.

“Deacon?”

The older Sentinel rolled down the passenger side window and leaned over. “Hop in, kid.”

Buck looked towards Bobby with a furrowed brow, growing more confused despite the crisp morning breeze waking him up. “Where are we going?”

Bobby opened the SUV’s passenger door and gestured for Buck to slide in. “Deacon’s going to take you on a little trip this morning.”

“Is everything okay?” Buck hesitated, suddenly worried that the older Guide was more upset about last night’s argument than he let on. “Am—am I going to be coming back?”

Bobby reared back in surprise and brought his hand up to cup Buck’s jaw. “ Of course, you’re coming back, Son. This is your home too. I’ll see you when you get back, don’t worry.”

Buck swallowed and blew out a breath of relief. He nodded, sliding onto the leather seat and buckling his seat belt. “Bye, Pops.”

The older Guide ruffled Buck’s hair one more time, leveling a knowing look towards Deacon. “Take care of him for me.”

“Will do,” Deacon promised, rolling the window back up and pulling out of the apartment’s parking lot. He didn’t seem particularly interested in answering any of Buck’s probing questions about where they were going, so Buck gave up trying to get answers and fiddled with the radio until he found a station they both liked.

A quick coffee stop at Starbucks broke up their quiet two-and-a-half-hour drive, leaving Buck practically vibrating out of his seat by the time Deacon pulled over in the middle of nowhere. As Buck stepped out of the SUV, a warm gust of wind slid through his curls and blew beneath his shirt. Red rock canyons stretched tall and imposing in the distance, and the packed sand and sparse shrubbery surrounding him extended for miles.

“Where are we? What are we doing here?” Buck asked with a frown, tucking his hands into the pockets of his sweats.

The older Sentinel leaned against the hood of the SUV and watched him carefully. “We’re in the Mojave Desert. Nothing around for miles. Here in a second, I’m going to hop back into the car and drive ten minutes down the road, wait thirty minutes, and then come back to get you.”

Buck blinked at him, looking back over the expansive landscape. “What? Why?”

“Because you need an outlet,” Deacon explained with a raised brow, daring Buck to argue. The young Guide curled into himself, wrapping his arms around his chest protectively. He didn’t think it was that obvious. “And, after seeing you at dinner the other night, I don’t think sparring is going to cut it.”

“What do you want me to do?” Buck grumbled, looking down and kicking at the dirt.

Deacon’s grip on his shoulder had him looking up, meeting the Sentinel’s gaze. “I want you to let go, Buck.” He squeezed. “Your control is slipping, and I know what that means for you. The first thing you asked Hondo when he wanted you to join the team was to learn how to control this side of you. Well, sometimes you can’t control it. You need to let it out, everything you’ve been feeling.”

Buck shook his head, the fear of what happened as a child creeping up his spine and paralyzing him. “No, I’m going to hurt someone—”

“Who?” Deacon challenged softly. He threw his hands out to the side, reminding Buck of where they were. “No one is out here, Buck. I’ll be out of range, and you’ll be alone. Let yourself have this. It’s okay.”

Buck wanted to deny him again, but the words caught in his throat. Deacon was right—there was no one else for miles. The surfeit of emotions that he kept bottled up raged against his shields; they constantly flung themselves outwards in an attempt to get let loose. A simple sparring session wouldn’t do anything but make things worse—he was past the point of calming down from physical activity. After years of training and learning to listen to his body and mind, Buck knew himself and understood that he needed to do exactly what Deacon said.

Let go.

“Okay,” the young Guide finally nodded, licking his lips and taking in deep breaths. “I can do this.”

Deacon pulled him in for a tight hug, which Buck reciprocated, and stepped away silently. “I’ll be back in less than an hour, okay?”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed, knowing Deacon wouldn’t leave him alone longer than was necessary. He watched the Sentinel slide back into the SUV and start the engine; the retreating tires kicked up a small cloud of sand and dirt as Deacon headed back the way they came.

When Buck was finally alone, he collapsed onto his hands and knees and squeezed his eyes shut, digging his fingers into the loose dirt. He shuddered as he concentrated on tearing down his reinforced shields, deconstructing them brick by brick until his heartbeat echoed against his ribs, and his breath burst from his lungs. When the fear and panic from the memory of his last mission crept into the hollow cavern within his chest, Buck didn’t try to push it aside or shove it down deeper this time.

Instead, Buck let it envelop him—to surround him.

A shaking breath escaped his chapped lips as the turbulent string of emotions that held Buck together over the past few months surged higher and higher, blinding him with the terror of being pinned in the abandoned market with Chris and then again on the rooftop by the enemy sniper—by Mustafa . He remembered the helplessness that tightened in his heart and his throat as he listened to the Butcher slaughter the little boy—a child the same age as Buck’s first kill—and then his father while Buck was unable to do anything under Mustafa’s gunfire. Buck choked on the shame, wrath, and unfairness of it all when he thought about how they were supposed to protect Sheikh and his family, sending the mounting tidal wave cresting and crashing over the top, leaving Buck trembling on his hands and knees.

They failed to protect innocent lives in that cursed city.

Buck failed to save a little boy and his father, who just tried to help.

Buck failed .

Finally, the young Guide let the sobs erupt from his throat, not bothering to muffle the scream that tore out of his chest. The culmination of the past few months—the fear, grief, shame, fury—Buck let it all go.

He let it go.

Buck’s ears popped as the sand funneled around him, shooting straight up into the sky and surging outwards in all directions like a squall. The young Guide gasped, every ounce of energy draining from his body in a sudden explosion of power, sending Buck tumbling into the dirt. His cheek rested against the small crater that had formed around him, his uneven pants whisking away loose sand.

After a few minutes passed, Buck groaned, low and guttural, forcing himself onto his back. His limbs were practically useless, flopping about as he tried to take stock of his body. Everything hurt; that much was certain. The splitting headache rubbing at his temples made it hard to think, and Buck was pretty sure his nose was bleeding.

But, if there was one thing Buck was sure of, it was that he felt better . Lighter.

Better than he had in months, in fact.

A bubble of exhausted laughter escaped his lips, and Buck exhaled in relief as he rested his head against the dirt.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? I hope you enjoyed seeing a bit of an insight into Bobby's life with a sprinkle of Maddie and Daniel thrown in there along with some time spent inside Buck's head. He's had to deal with so much, and sometimes just talking about it isn't enough.

I've got a plan for Buck's journey that I hope everyone likes.

For an update, I'm writing chapter 24 this week, and hoping that Part III: Eddie Begins caps out around chapters 25-26. Any encouragement would be great!

See everyone next week!

Chapter 18

Summary:

Buck begins his second Tour of Duty and meets someone special.

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone! I hope you had a wonderful week.

After this chapter, we've only got 1 more before Part II is complete! Part III is all about Eddie, which will be between 6-7 chapter.

Big S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi <3

Enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (24)

Part II

Chapter 18

Considering how Buck’s first Tour of Duty ended, there was no question for him on whether he would re-enlist for his second. Despite his family’s fears and their mounting concern about his behavior while home for shore leave, they begrudgingly understood his need to finish what he started and protect his team’s back. Hondo called a week after Deacon took him to the Mojave Desert to let Buck know the investigation into the Sheikh and the Butcher had finally closed. Snead had lost his job for his actions, while Hondo received a promotion to Lieutenant Commander. The young Guide wasn’t surprised about either outcome in the least; Snead had failed in his duty, costing civilian lives; it warranted his removal. In contrast, Hondo deserved the recognition for safely commanding his team in a deadly situation and obtaining valuable intel at the same time. Buck’s chest swelled with pride to be working under a Sentinel like Hondo. In his mind, there was no one better for the job.

When he arrived at the airfield, Buck crashed into Chris and Street the moment he saw them, pulling them in tight with an arm around each of their shoulders. “Damn, I missed you guys.” They hugged him back just as enthusiastically, and the three of them talked about what they did during their leave until the rest of the team caught up with them. The heaviness that had weighed Buck down over the past few months lightened when he had his team back together; knowing that they were safe and healthy helped stave off the low-level panic that buzzed in the back of his mind when they all separated.

While it was true Bobby, Daniel, Maddie, Owen, and TK were his family, Hondo, Deacon, Mumford, Victor, Street, Chris, and Luca had fallen under that category as well over the past five years working together.

They greeted their sister platoon eagerly as they crossed the airfield; Walker, Casey, Grimes, Oliver, Anderson, Wright, and Nguyen all welcomed them back to Iraq with open arms, pulling Buck and his team in for quick embraces and patting them jovially on the back. Judging by the distance Walker kept between himself and Street, Buck guessed he hadn’t gotten over his girlfriend sending the young Sentinel naked photos of herself yet.

When Street noticed, he snorted and shot Buck an amused wink.

Rodriguez managed to break up the small reunion with a few well-placed glares and hefty grunts and ushered everyone into Luca’s stark-black MV-22 Osprey. Anderson hopped in as the Sentinel’s co-pilot, and Buck grinned as he watched the two fist-bump—they’d bonded over the past few years as two of the best pilots in the U.S. Navy. Oliver and Street settled in on opposite sides of Buck while Hondo took the seat across from the young Guide.

“You know there’s one hundred and eighty-thousand dollars on your head right now, Overwatch?” Oliver asked with his eyebrows reaching towards his hairline.

Street nodded and slapped Buck lightly across the arm. “Oh, yeah, there is! Turns out they only want one mythical sniper in the game. They want to take out the competition.”

Buck rolled his eyes and pushed away the steady tendril of dread that tried crawling up his spine. It made sense that AQI’s bounty on him was so high, considering Mustafa was quickly rising through the ranks of the U.S. military’s HTVs. It didn’t exactly make him feel warm and fuzzy, though.

As their co-pilots started up the chopper, everyone pulled on their headsets and strapped themselves in. When they made it into the air, Hondo tapped lightly against his mouthpiece and steadied his expression.

“We’re putting together a direct action squad to hunt the Butcher,” he explained when everyone gave him their attention.” We’ve got some intel indicating his area of operations.”

Rodriguez nodded with a determined glint in his eyes. “We’ll find him, and we’ll put the fear of God in that monster.”

When they finally arrived back at base three hours later, both SEAL platoons deposited their bags on their bunks before settling into the central intelligence tent. Hondo and Rodriguez stood together as they presented a PowerPoint of all of the information they had on the Butcher. Buck leaned against Chris as they took notes side-by-side, the general mood in the tent dropping further and further as they learned about all of the Butcher’s horrific actions in the past few years.

After their leaders finished their presentation, they dismissed both platoons, sending them to the mess hall, the showers, or off to bed to prepare for the following morning. Mumford stood and stretched, reaching both arms over his head with an exasperated sigh. “You know, growing up in Oregon, we had this electric fence around our property. Us kids would grab on to it and see who could hold on the longest.” His gaze dropped down to his boots as he scraped a palm over the nape of his neck. “War feels like that; it puts lighting in your bones and makes it hard to hold on to anything else.”

Victor clapped him on the shoulder in a show of comfort. “I know you might be feeling like we’re not making a difference, but we’re keeping these guys from coming to a place like San Diego or New York. We’re protecting more than just this dirt.”

Buck swallowed thickly as he made his way back down to the mess hall with Luca at his side. While they piled the MREs onto their plates, the young Guide dropped his voice. “Do you agree with Vic and Mumford?”

“About believing in what we’re doing over here?” The Sentinel asked, just as quietly. They sat at a table away from the crowd for some semblance of privacy. When Buck nodded, Luca’s mouth twisted. “I believe in fighting for our country and protecting the lives of innocent people, yes, but if I’m being honest? My first priority will always be watching my team’s six. If you guys are here fighting for the War on Terror, then I am too. It’s us against the world, brother.”

Buck blew out a breath and nodded, grateful that he wasn’t the only one who shared this belief. His team—his family —were the people he couldn’t lose, that he would kill to protect. That was why he remained here while Bobby, Daniel, and Maddie continued their lives stateside. He couldn’t lose any more people he loved, though he wondered what his life would have been like had he not signed up to join the Navy at nineteen years old.

XX

Eleven months into Buck’s third tour in Iraq, they finally received intel into the Butcher’s whereabouts in Ramadi. He followed his fire team, consisting of Luca and Street and led by Hondo, down an alleyway in the dead of night, stepping quickly and silently in the dry air until they came out onto a deserted, gravel street corner. Hondo tapped the side of an apartment complex with an outstretched, gloved hand and spoke into his comm unit. “Bingo. It’s this building right here. Any apartment on the east side that faces the restaurant.”

They waited in the cover of darkness for a few minutes until Deacon’s fire team arrived. As they moved into position, Hondo tapped his helmet with his fist twice, and Victor breached the door with his miniature battering ram. Hondo and Deacon swept through first into the lobby with Mumford and Luca on their heels.

“Left side clear!” Deacon barked.

“Right side clear!” Luca echoed.

Hondo grunted in affirmation. “Room clear. Moving!”

He led them up a few flights of stairs until they made it to the fifth floor, stepping aside while Chris and Street examined the handful of apartments to choose from.

“This one,” Chris gestured towards the door in the very center, facing east and in the perfect position to get a good view of the restaurant. Deacon grunted, ordering them all into position until Hondo stepped to one side of the door and repeated his signal against his helmet. Once again, Victor moved forward to breach the door, slamming it back on its hinges while Hondo led the team inside with his weapon raised.

A baby wailing echoed in Buck’s ear, but he brushed it off with a grimace while his team moved to corral the family inside the apartment. Victor, Luca, and Chris moved first, surrounding four women huddled together with a baby and two small children between the trio. Street and Mumford came second, ordering the military-aged man to get on the ground with his hands behind his back. Hondo kept watch as Buck and Deacon secured the rest of the apartment.

“Target secure,” Street confirmed, holding the man on the ground with a firm but painless grip.

“Left side clear,” Deacon reported.

“Right side clear!” Buck affirmed, meeting the rest of his team back in the kitchen.

Chris nodded and started moving towards the living area. “I’ll get the window.”

Hondo looked towards Mumford. “Set the security team.”

“Alright, let’s get set up,” Buck agreed as they all fell in line with their orders. The family was moved into the kitchen, and once they were all seated, Buck introduced himself and learned the man’s name, Saad Mousma Kahilil, before passing around a photo of the Butcher. “ Do you recognize this man? Please, any information can help.

They all seemed surprised that he could speak their language, but they all shook their heads tightly with frightened expressions marring their faces.

This man isn’t going anywhere until we get to him, ” he warned, though it sounded hollow even to his own ears as he remembered what happened to the last family that tried to help them. What reason did these people have to cooperate? He didn’t blame them for their fear or their reticence.

“Keep eyes on the window,” Hondo ordered, leaning against the doorway separating the two main rooms. “Make sure to take pictures of anyone coming and going.”

Street and Chris had first reconnaissance watch on the restaurant through the window, and Mumford and Hondo took security while the rest got some sleep.

A few hours later, Buck awoke to a rain of gunfire and distant explosions. Deacon was gone from their make-shift cot in the corner, and the others stirred beside him. Buck rubbed the exhaustion from his eyes and crouched down beside Chris. “What do we got?”

The youngest Sentinel grimaced on the other side of her. “Sixteen military-aged males have gone in.”

Buck whistled lowly. “Sixteen?”

“Yeah, they serve more customers than a f*cking McDonalds,” Street muttered grimly.

Chris shook her head with a frown and held her camera lens up to Buck. “Here, check this out.”

Buck shifted so the newly awakened Luca and Victor could see the small screen, too, as he scrolled through the photos. The Butcher was indeed inside the restaurant.

“Is he still in there?” Hondo asked.

Street nodded. “I clocked one point of entry. He’s in there, but it’s not going to be easy to breach.”

Victor chuckled underneath his breath and clapped Buck on the shoulder. “Oh, I don’t know about that, man. They’ll probably see Overwatch here and just let him right in.”

Buck rolled his eyes and shoved his teammate lightly while the others grinned at him.

Someone clearing their throat behind them broke everyone out of their momentary reprieve. The owner of the apartment, Kahilil, took a step forward into the room with his hands up. When he spoke, Buck’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. His team looked at him expectantly. The young Guide cleared his throat and translated. “He’s inviting us to dinner for an Eid al-Adha supper.”

When Kahilil spoke again, this time with a hesitant smile, Buck returned it as he repeated his intent. “He said, ‘On this day, everyone has a seat at my table.’”

“That’s pretty generous of him,” Chris hesitated, though the longing etched on to her face betrayed how much she missed a home-cooked meal.

As Kahilil said, there was a feast of incredible looking dishes for them. The team gathered around the dining room table with Kahilil and his family, the atmosphere light and engaging while the team laughed heartily and passed around plates and bowls. The food was divine , and the team looked like they were having more fun than they had in months. Buck enthusiastically thanked the women for cooking for them, making sure to try, and savor, each dish, encouraging the others to do the same.

As he reached across the table to steal a Kleicha from Luca’s plate, something strange caught Buck’s eye. One of the children had dropped something on the ground beside the head of the table, and Kahilil reached down to pick it up with a smile, grabbing on to the table for balance.

His elbows were bruised and calloused.

Just like Buck’s .

Like he’d spent time resting his elbows holding a sniper rifle, a lot of time.

Suspicion scratched at the hollowness in Buck’s chest. He cleared his throat and forced his expression to appear relaxed, though the Sentinels in the room could probably hear his heartbeat kicking up. Nala stood from her spot in the corner, prowling around the kitchen, her tail twitching in agitation. Hondo, Deacon, Luca, and Street all clocked it but carefully didn’t react.

He stood to his feet gingerly, flashing a smile when their host looked up at him. “I’m just going to wash my hands.” When Kahilil lost interest in him, Buck kept his footsteps light and disappeared around a corner, searching the first room discreetly. Nothing looked out of place as he swept through the small crevices, so he switched to the next room, which seemed to be the apartment’s main bedroom.

Buck dug between the stacked books, checked behind the standing furniture, and felt the dips in the walls for a hidden room. He stepped back with a scowl and settled his hands on his hips when he didn’t find anything, eyes scanning every inch of the room to see what he missed. Blowing out a frustrated breath, he did one more turn around the room, pausing when the floorboard creaked underneath his boot. Buck chewed on the inside of his cheek and flipped over two rugs in the way, then carefully scooted the bed over until he could move the last rug to expose the scratched wood. A soft knock against the floorboard revealed a false bottom.

The young Guide wiped his sweaty hands on the thighs of his pants before yanking on the small handle. He silently cursed when he discovered a collection of weapons, ranging from small hand-held guns to two older, well-used sniper rifles.

Disbelief and rage simmered just beneath Buck’s skin as he pushed himself to his feet, storming into the kitchen, yanking Kahilil up by the collar and pinning him against the wall with a growl erupting from his throat. When his team shot to attention around him, demanding an explanation, Buck ignored the terrified screams coming from the women and small children and dragged Kahilil into the other room to unveil what he found to the others.

Hondo’s quick intake of breath was nearly silent, but Buck heard it all the same. The rest of his team swore angrily, Mumford and Victor keeping security while the rest of them hovered around the room, looking between Kahilil and Hondo. The Sentinel’s jaw jumped, pushing forward into the man’s face with a fierce scowl. “You tell him that he’s going to be sent off to a detention center where the Iraqi courts can decide what to do with him, or he can help us get inside that restaurant downstairs. You tell him; say it’s his choice.”

Buck translated, keeping his shaking voice low enough for Kahilil to hear the dangerous undercurrent. Everyone knew what happened in those detention centers—it was like signing a death warrant.

Kahilil must have understood his options because he nodded slowly, his throat clicking with the movement as he swallowed harshly.

XX

An hour later, when the moon began its descent in the stark-black sky, Hondo pulled in their sister platoon and a squadron of Marines for backup. Buck watched the units move into position from his post in the apartment. He already settled in, in Overwatch with his partner sniper—Grimes was standing in for Street on this Op—resting on his stomach, his fingers grazing the chain beneath his shirt before steadying his right shoulder. Buck could see Street down on the ground with the rest of their platoons. The sniper pair shared a knowing look, saying everything in a glance about how the two felt being so far from their teams.

“Keep it clean. Make it a work of art.” Hondo called out quietly.

“Fill in the gaps. Stay liquid,” the rest of them responded with determination.

Hondo led his team into the restaurant’s courtyard while the Marines filed into the alleys in between the buildings. Rodriguez’s platoon prepared to act as the second wave when they raided the restaurant. “Left side clear,” Hondo announced into Buck’s ear, followed by Deacon confirming the same for the other half of the courtyard.

“Keep moving,” Hondo ordered, sticking close to the buildings’ walls with the others following his lead. Then, when they were in position, he raised his weapon higher. “Assault team set.”

The group of Marines, led by O'Connell, who he remembered from his previous tour, dropped low down into their stance as well. “We’re in tight. Security set.”

Buck’s gaze dropped down to his scope, taking a deep breath in, getting his bearings. He watched Kahilil come around the corner, glancing over his shoulder for signs of the American soldiers. “Package is moving,” he reported softly. “Fifteen meters out. Ten meters. Five meters.” When Kahilil reached the door, he raised his fist to bang against the echoing metal. “He’s knocking.”

A slit in the door wrenched open, and a man’s blazing eyes greeted Kahilil. When they started to exchange words and hand signals, Buck grunted, “Woah, hold. They’re vetting him.”

Whatever Kahilil said must have done the job because the slit shoved closed, and the door opened to reveal the same insurgent with an AK-47 strapped to his chest. Buck let out a breath as he pulled the trigger, hitting his target between the eyes and sending him crashing to the floor. “Lights out,” Grimes murmured beside him.

“Execute! Execute!” Hondo barked in his ear, sending the team surging forward towards the restaurant. Kahilil recovered from where he covered his head with his hands and hurried to pick up the AK-47 that the dead man dropped. He spun around towards Hondo with a scowl and raised the weapon. Buck lined up his shot and exhaled as he pulled the trigger again.

Deacon lined up beside the door and threw a grenade inside, shouting, “Frag out! Frag out!” After they listened for the explosion inside, a blaring light show that sent rivets of smoke pouring out of the restaurant, Hondo led his team inside in a storm of gunpowder and raining bullets. When they disappeared inside, and their sister platoon fanned out around the courtyard, the anxiety building in the back of Buck’s mind leaped forward as he tried to get a beat on his team through the windows. He f*cking hated not having eyes on them.

When the second wave of gunfire settled, Luca’s voice brought Buck’s rapid heart rate back down incrementally. “Four down.”

“Buck, any movement coming out the back?” Hondo asked.

Buck frowned, double-checking that he hadn’t missed anything. “Negative.” That didn’t make sense. Chris and Street clocked at least sixteen men coming into the restaurant. According to Luca, they’d only taken out the four guarding the entrance. Where were the rest?

“Checking the freezer,” Street reported as the team moved to clear the rest of the restaurant. “ Holy f*ck.”

“What is it?” Deacon asked in Buck’s ear; his movements hurried as he rushed to bring back up to the young Sentinel.

Street’s voice wavered, and Buck wanted to reach down through the comm unit and shake the bastard. What the hell was happening?

“It’s Percy,” Street whispered.

Buck blinked in surprise as he remembered the young Marine who led the unit he and Street worked with on their last tour. “sh*t. What’s happening, guys?”

Chris made a noise in the back of her throat. “Percy was strung up like a pig in the freezer. They’re keeping body parts—heads, eyes, hearts—of American soldiers they captured and killed.”

Hondo must have arrived because the low growl that came out of his throat had the hairs on the back of Buck’s neck standing tall and Grimes flinching beside him. “Luca, Street, take him down. Get him down!”

“We’ve got him,” Luca assured them as the sound of breaking chains filled the background noise.

Buck and Grimes shared a grimace before returning their attention to the restaurant.

Hondo led the team forward, gunfire sounding in Buck’s ear as they moved through any enemies standing in their way, but it still didn’t add up to the numbers they knew, for sure, were in the restaurant. Finally, Hondo swore, revealing the reason for the lack of return fire. “We found a tunnel! Watch your back! Keep your eyes open!”

“sh*t,” Grimes cursed as he shifted his position trying to find where the tunnel let out. “There!” He directed Buck. “Twenty yards west of the restaurant’s entrance.”

Buck brought his scope down and readjusted the lens as the firefight below them began. A cloud of smoke from a grenade obscured much of his vision. Instead, Buck grit his teeth, focusing and isolating the colors he discerned through the fumes. Buck knew he could use his unique gifts as a Guide to get through this temporary environmental blindness. He concentrated, pulling the trigger again and again, shooting down anyone with the acrid combination of pitch-black and blood-red swirling from their chests coming from the direction of the tunnel’s exit.

“How the f*ck are you doing that?” Grimes wondered in awe beside him, though Buck ignored him in favor of taking out the enemies; he could see now that the smoke had dissipated. The other sniper visibly shook himself and began pointing out their enemy positions for Buck to focus on.

There must have been a lot more than sixteen insurgents already inside the restaurant when Chris and Street began their watch because a flood of them besieged the courtyard. The hitch in Grimes’ breath and sudden, choked sob was the only indication that something was wrong—very, very wrong—though Buck couldn’t take his eyes off the scope to figure out what it was. He had a job to do.

Finally, Hondo and the rest of their team arrived on scene and quickly overtook the remaining insurgents, though two emerged from a neighboring building with a freaking grenade launcher . Buck’s eyes went wide when the weapon aimed in his direction—they must have figured out his location—and he yanked back from his rifle and gripped Grimes’ shoulder. “Move, move, move!”

The next moment, a flash of light, followed by an ear-shattering blast, rocked the apartment. Buck was flung back against a wall, his left shoulder cracking against the sharp brick, soot clinging to his skin. A furious silence and a wall of heat met him as he forced his eyes open, pushing to his knees and cringing at the pain traveling up his left arm. Buck hacked the smoke out of his lungs and blinked rapidly, trying to get his bearings as the muffled sound of gunfire and car alarms rang in the distance. Feathers from the pillows he’d been laying on floated gradually back down to the ground, flames licking at the tips and burning out.

Buck staggered to his feet, his memory fuzzy as he tried to remember what he was doing here. There was something—something important. Was he alone?

No. His gaze zeroed in on a body lying face-up beneath a crumbled wall.

Grimes.

The young Guide let out a broken cry and stumbled over to the other sniper, dropping down to his knees and placing his fingers against his friend’s neck, searching desperately for a pulse. Grimes’ glassy, unseeing eyes stared back up at him. Buck couldn’t feel the rhythmic beat he so hoped for. “No, no, no, no,” Buck mumbled, tears escaping out of the corners of his eyes.

“— Buck ?” Something sounded in his ear and made him wince at the volume. “Buck, are you there? Are you okay?”

He recognized that voice.

“Street?”

A breath of relief, and then, “ sh*t, f*ck . Thank God you’re alright, brother.”

Before Buck could tell him no, no, he wasn’t alright, Hondo’s voice interrupted him. “Butcher’s on the move! Repeat, the Butcher’s on the move! I’m in pursuit!”

sh*t.

The asshole who murdered Sheikh and his little boy, the person who butchered American soldiers and stuffed their body parts into a freezer, was getting away, and Hondo was on his own going after him.

Buck grits his teeth, forcing himself to his feet once again, sparing one last look at his friend’s body before limping out of the apartment with his rifle in hand. He did a quick set of calculations in his head, moving four doors down—far enough the grenade wouldn’t have hit but close enough where he could still get a bead on what was happening.

Thankfully the apartment was empty, and Buck hurried to set up his long gun as he dropped down to his stomach, cursing when the movement sent a spark of agony through his collarbone.

“Buck, you got eyes?” Hondo asked, slightly breathless as he sprinted down the street. “Brown station wagon three hundred—maybe four hundred yards east of my position.”

Buck grunted to let the Sentinel know he was on it and dropped his eye to the scope, searching the streets for his target. When he finally caught sight of the station wagon, Buck lined up his shot and took a deep breath in. “This is for Sheikh, you asshole.”

He pulled the trigger.

The next moment, the broken-down car swerved erratically, crashing into the side of a market, the engine catching on fire and exploding in a rain of fire and metal on impact.

“The Butcher’s down,” Buck breathed out shakily, laying his gritty forehead down on the floor and letting unconsciousness take him away.

XX

When Buck woke up in the med-tent sixteen hours later, Street and Chris were sitting on either side of his bunk. The ringing in his ears had thankfully dimmed, though his vision swam from the pain when he tried to sit up. His partner’s expression morphed quickly between relief to panic as he encouraged Buck to lay back down while Chris ran to get the medic. Apparently, his collar bone fractured in the explosion, and he had a minor concussion, but the medic that explained his injury assured him that he would recover in ten to twelve weeks.

Chris and Street mournfully explain how they lost almost their entire sister platoon in the raid. They held him as he cried, Street moving behind him and letting Buck lean against him while Chris gripped his hands tightly. Walker, Casey, Oliver, Anderson, Wright, and Nguyen all died when the insurgents stormed the courtyard, and he already knew Grimes hadn’t made it out of the explosion that dismantled the apartment they set up in. Rodriguez was the only one who survived the raid, though he would go in for surgery as soon as he returned to the states.

Slowly but surely, the rest of Buck’s team filed into the med tent. They scraped fingers through his sooty curls—careful of his head injury—and cupped his face, all just as relieved to see him awake and alert as he was to see them alive and unharmed. The hollowness in Buck’s chest left him feeling broken and exhausted, but having his team surrounding him helped. He was devastated by losing almost his entire sister platoon, and the blank expression on Grimes’ face would haunt him for the rest of his life, but Buck couldn’t help but be grateful his team still stood before him. Buck didn’t think he would survive losing any of the people surrounding him now. Hondo, Deacon, Mumford, Victor, Luca, Chris, and Street were his family —the people that kept him alive these past nearly six years.

But he wasn’t sure how much more of this his soul could handle. How long could he keep saying goodbye to Bobby, Maddie, and Daniel and actively stepping into a warzone that plagued his every nightmare?

Buck shook his head, wincing at the movement, and leaned back into Luca’s side from where he sat tucked under the Sentinel’s arm. As they listened to Hondo’s debrief, the young Guide realized that another sniper had made waves last night—including being responsible for shooting down Walker, Rodriguez, Casey, and Wright.

Mustafa was still out there.

A sharp sense of determination and resolve settled deep within Buck’s hollowed-out chest, filling his mind with fantasies of victory and revenge. Buck wanted to be the one to take Mustafa out. It was his right—his duty—as the enemy sniper’s foil. When he finally took care of the bastard, Buck could finally rest.

He could go home.

XX

The familiar backdrop of shimmering constellations and the radiant arch of the Milky Way hid behind thick plumes of cloudy, blackened smoke and the sharp crackle of ignited flashes of light shooting from the barrel of countless guns inside the Valley of Death.

Thirteen weeks after killing the Butcher, Buck tightened his grip on his M4A1 and leaned out the open door of the ebony UH-60 Black Hawk that disappeared with the night sky, the harsh wind whipping his curls up from beneath his helmet. The battlefield below lit up like fireworks on the fourth of July, the parade of death and destruction twisting Buck’s uneasy stomach. His fingers twitched in anticipation to take out the high-value target they’d tracked now for almost a month, a ruthless local militant leader who indulges in child soldiers and pre-teen girls. Unfortunately, they had a severe time crunch to make it to the rendezvous point with Deacon’s fire team to eliminate the target and his small army.

So when the cabin suddenly dipped to the side, Buck’s shields shifted into high alert. Luca grunted into his headset, echoing in Buck’s ear, and cursed loudly. “f*ck, we’ve got a Chinook down below us. Shot down from the east side of the Valley.”

Buck’s heart crawled up his throat, knocking the scope attached to his helmet down over his eyes and sweeping his gaze over the wreckage. With the scope enhancing his eyesight and ability to see people’s emotions, he zeroed in immediately on the crew of the downed helicopter. They—thankfully—looked to be still breathing. Before he could let out a sigh of relief, his gaze caught on several things at once. Buck could see a squad of enemy troops quickly closing in on the survivors of the crash, although he was far too focused on one soldier, in particular, to think about what he was doing.

“Put it on the ground, Luca!” Buck screamed into his headset, ignoring the tight grip that came down onto his sleeved arm in alarm.

What? ” Hondo snarled in his ear, but Buck wasn’t listening.

The soldier below was a Sentinel, a powerful one. Unfortunately, based on the static, flickering light coming from his chest, he was in a fugue state without a Guide to pull him out of it. He was a sitting duck. Buck wasn’t about to leave one of his own to die down there without at least trying to help.

“One of ours is down there in a zone; I have to help him!” Buck explained through gritted teeth, never taking his eyes off of the soldier, too caught up in his own head to notice the danger closing in. “Either put me on the ground, or I’ll jump!”

“The hell you will!” His COr protested, pushing up against his back when Buck scooted closer to the open door. Hondo’s grip on his arm was unforgiving as he forced Buck to turn towards him and move his scope back up over his helmet. “We’re on a time-sensitive mission, Buck, one that you’re essential for, or did you forget?”

Buck scowled and yanked his arm away. “I haven’t forgotten anything, Hondo. I’ll be in and out, I swear! I have to do this!”

Hondo looked like he wanted to argue, but Buck flipped on the safety and slung his M4A1 over his shoulder before reaching down to grip his 9mm and .45 ACP pistols in each hand. “f*ck, fine!” The older Sentinel growled and called out over the roar of the wind and spinning blades. “Luca, put it on the ground.” He turned towards Buck again with a frown tugging at his lips. “Street and I will cover you. You’ve got forty-five seconds, Buck. Do you hear me?”

Buck blew out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding as the Black Hawk neared the ground. He swallowed around a lump in his throat and held out a fist for Hondo to bump with his own. “Copy that.”

“Keep it clean. Make it a work of art.”

Buck grinned, fierce and wild, as he twisted back around to face the night sky. “Fill in the gaps. Stay liquid.”

And then he jumped.

He ducked and rolled, coming up from the twister of sand into a crouch with both arms outstretched, firing simultaneously and hitting his marks with precision and expertise as his shields flew outwards. Buck absentmindedly checked on the soldiers inside the downed Chinook and confirmed most of them were breathing—simply unconscious, though they would have one hell of a concussion when they awoke. One soldier had taken the brunt of the impact and hadn’t survived, but Buck couldn’t waste time on things he couldn’t change. Not when there was someone who needed his help.

As he neared the fallen Sentinel, he whistled for his spirit animal. Nala appeared by his side instantly, alert and rumbling low growls deep in her throat. “Take soldier boy’s spirit animal and go find help,” he ordered while downing another enemy fifty yards away. “We’re near the border, so there has to be a medical tent nearby. Go, now!” In his peripheral, he watched Nala bound over to the fallen Sentinel before taking off with another flash of translucent fur. He didn’t catch the animal’s species but knew it had to be strong and quick to keep up with Nala.

Finally, Buck dropped heavily onto his knees in front of the Sentinel with blood, sand, and mud decorating his fatigues and covering up the name stitched into his uniform. He trusted his team to have his back, so he holstered his pistols and reigned in his shields with a quick twitch and focused completely on the man in front of him. Blood was churning from his left shoulder, though it was a flesh wound, so Buck knew he would be fine if he could just get him fully conscious again.

Over the course of his six years with the team, he’d pulled hundreds of Sentinels out of a fugue state - it was literally in his job description as a Guide. The process was always the same: Make contact with the Sentinel, use his mental shields to bring the Sentinel into his orbit and keep their panic under control, figure out which of the five senses the Sentinel was hyper-focused on, and, finally, call them back to their own minds with a push of his own soul—a piece of himself bringing the Sentinel back into balance.

He moved through the steps quickly and without thought, going through the motions as only a master of his craft can. When Buck called the Sentinel home, coaxing him away from the metallic taste of blood in his mouth and the flashes of a waterfall Buck remembered on the other side of the Valley. He was awestruck to find an answering push shoving lightly against something deep within—only distantly recognizing the old sense of longing he’d almost forgotten he felt.

His eyes widened in alarm. He’d never , not once in his entire career as a Guide, felt anyone push back.

What the f*ck?

Before Buck could process what happened, the Sentinel surged forward with a choked gasp, his chapped lips parting as he leaned forward in Buck’s grip. “Woah there, soldier boy. Breathe with me. Your helicopter got shot down. We took care of the insurgents and called for help, but you’re in charge of getting your men out of the wreckage and to safety.”

“What—” The man tried to speak but cursed as the pain registered, and he clutched on to his shoulder. “f*ck!”

Buck couldn’t help the soft chuckle that escaped his throat. “You’re fine, I swear. Flesh wound.”

“I know it’s a flesh wound,” the Sentinel ground out before looking back up at him, stiffening as he watched Buck behind his dusty goggles. “Oh my god, you’re—”

He was cut off by Hondo grabbing Buck by the pack and pulling him away, yelling over his shoulder, “Time’s up!”

“sh*t,” Buck swore and scrambled after Hondo, silently berating himself for forgetting what he needed to do in the first place.

“Wait!” A rough voice called back to him, and Buck twisted around with his fingers clutching the interior handle of the Black Hawk to see the Sentinel limping towards him slowly with his jaw hanging open. “You’re mine !”

Buck froze, his lips parting in shock as the explanation of what just happened between him and the Sentinel finally clicked into place. “Oh, sh*t —”

Hondo and Street yanked him inside the helicopter without warning, and he surged up with a quiet, broken noise falling out of his chest as he watched his Sentinel get smaller and smaller as Luca flew them back on course to the rendezvous point.

XX

Notes:

EDDIEEEEEEE. I'm sorry it took so long to get here, but they finally met! (kind of...) We've got one more chapter of Buck's military career, and then we can move on to Part III and see what Eddie has been up to this whole time :)

Seriously, thank you to everyone who has given kudos/commented/subscribed/bookmarked this story. You're the reason I'm keeping up with my schedule and still in love with writing.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this chapter, and EDDIE <3

Chapter 19

Summary:

Buck's second Tour of Duty and his final mission.

Notes:

Happy Monday, everyone! I sincerely apologize for not posting yesterday. I was sick enough that I couldn't even look at a phone/computer screen, so I couldn't muster up the energy to post chapter 19.

So, here we are! The final chapter in Part II: Military Service. The next part is Eddie Begins, and will be 6-8 chapters, I'm not 100% sure just yet.

Thank you for the amazing response to Chapter 18 and meeting Eddie. That last scene was the first one I wrote for this entire story, so it was encouraging that so many people liked it! S/O to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

Warnings for this chapter - military-typical violence

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (25)

Part II

Chapter 19

Buck wanted nothing more than to beg Hondo to allow him to break his contract for his second Tour of Duty. The young Guide had found his Sentinel— something he’d fantasized about since hearing how Street and Molly met and then, promptly, lost him. The memory of the Sentinel’s choked off voice, so full of disbelief and astonishment, declaring Buck was his , almost had Buck ignoring their mission altogether to go back and find the injured soldier.

Even during his leave, Buck spent most of his time endlessly researching and digging through government databases, trying to find any clue to who his Sentinel might be, growing increasingly frustrated when he ultimately came up empty handed. But, of course, it didn’t help he had so little to go on—it had been the dead of night, and his Sentinel was covered in blood, dirt, and sand, meaning Buck didn’t have a name nor a branch to go off. Everything worked against him, and Buck was certain he was losing his goddamn mind.

So, he didn’t exactly take it well when Hondo dropped in one day to discuss their next tour. Buck tried to convince his CO to let him stay home and search for his Sentinel, but Hondo gently reminded Buck that Mustafa was still out there. If anyone could take Mustafa out, it would be their sniper— Buck . His duty came before his love life, no matter how much he wished it didn’t.

In addition to Buck’s struggles with feeling like he was abandoning his Sentinel, Bobby took Buck’s leaving for his next tour harder than normal. The years apart and too-short reunions grated on the older Guide more than he’d ever let on, so when Buck haltingly explained how he had to go back, even when it was evident his heart wasn’t fully in it, Bobby sat down heavily and buried his face in his hands.

“Are you absolutely sure , son? You don’t have to do this.”

Buck sighed and scraped a hand over his curls, sitting close enough to brush their shoulders together. “I just—I’m not ready yet. I’m sorry, Pops.”

“No,” Bobby squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “No, don’t apologize. Please . I’m struggling with this, but only because I miss you, Buck. I want you to come home .”

The younger Guide looked away, swallowing thickly around a knot in his throat. He didn’t want to promise Bobby that this would be his last tour or that he’d be home soon; Hondo warned him against making promises he couldn’t keep. After all, things can happen that none of them anticipate—like Mustafa or Buck finding his Sentinel in a goddamned war zone. “I know,” he whispered. Buck pushed further into Bobby’s space until the older Guide wrapped an arm around his shoulder and reeled him in closer.

“Just,” Bobby hesitated. “Just come home whenever you’re ready, Buck.”

“I’ll try,” Buck promised quietly. “I’ll try.”

XX

After Buck said goodbye to his family at the end of his shore leave, Buck arrived back at the base in Iraq with an aching heart but a solid determination to finish what he started.

His hollowed-out chest felt a little fuller after being surrounded by his team, lips spreading into a wide grin while listening to them describe their time spent on leave. Their families were happy and healthy, and Hondo’s bonded, Jessica, would be joining Deacon and Buck’s family in LA within the next month. They all knew that Buck had met his Sentinel during their last tour and had offered to help the Guide find him whenever he was ready. He was grateful for their support and planned to take them up on their offer once he returned home.

After they finished catching up late into the evening, spread out across the empty tables of the mess hall, the blanket of grief from losing most of their sister platoon settled back over their shoulders as if it finally received permission to weigh them down once again. Victor shifted to accommodate Buck’s head on his shoulder and loudly exhaled as he passed along the gossip he’d heard around the base. “Apparently, we’ve been shot off position three nights in a row. Fallujah was bad. Ramada was worse. This sh*t is f*cking biblical.”

“Just what we need,” Luca scoffed. “Can’t believe we’re stepping straight into this after what happened to Rodriguez,” the Sentinel sighed with a tight shake of his head.

Buck blinked, confused as to the shades of light blue clinging to Luca’s chest. “What are you talking about? I visited him after the funeral, and his doctors said he was responding well to the treatments. He just had one more surgery left before he could go home.”

His team members watched him hesitantly, which had Buck’s defenses soaring higher at how similar they were acting to Daniel and Maddie when his siblings didn’t want to give him bad news. He straightened in his seat and scowled at the others. “What happened? Just tell me.”

“Buck,” Chris started with concern clear behind her honey-brown eyes. “Something went wrong during his surgery. Rodriguez crashed on the operating table. He didn’t make it.”

A shudder of grief traveled down Buck’s spine, a rush of goose flesh breaking out over his arms. The bitter truth that their entire sister platoon didn’t survive the night raid in Ramada—that the last of them had succumbed to his injuries—took a firm grip on the young Guide’s lungs, making it hard to breathe. All at once, Buck needed to leave —to get the hell out of there. Rodriguez was alive and smiling through the obvious pain the last time Buck saw him last month, and now he was gone. f*ck .

Buck pushed to his feet, shaking his head with gritted teeth when the others moved to follow. “I’m fine , just need some air.” Then, without looking back at their matching expressions of disbelief and worry, Buck stormed out of the mess hall and wove through the familiar twists and turns of the base until he found privacy in a stretch of dirt. A few small boulders littered the desert terrain, a dim light reflecting off the rough surface from the base’s floodlights.

Perfect for what he needed.

Ever since Deacon brought him out to the Mojave Desert, the young Guide had spent every free moment building on controlling his new skill set. Another weapon to add to his arsenal. Buck finally had an outlet when he got too overwhelmed, where sparring and blade combat training wasn’t enough, where his volatile emotions couldn’t lash out and hurt someone he loved accidentally.

He needed the release like he needed to breathe—when he felt too choked up on grief and haunting pain to be around his team or his family safely.

Just like Deacon told him, Buck needed to let it go.

Buck didn’t even consciously decide to move—not realizing that he was focusing on the physical manifestations of his shields until he threw out his arm and Nala bound forward with a snarl towards the largest boulder in sight. When she collided with it, the force of his shields and emotions clashed together in a focused blast of power. The boulder shattered like glass, the jagged pieces splintering outwards in a controlled explosion, leaving Buck’s ears ringing.

Despite the exhaustion and fatigue that now crept through his veins, blurring his vision and making his lungs burn, Buck already felt lighter. He had a job to do—a vicious combination of justice and revenge.

The Butcher was dead, but the enemy sniper who killed most of his sister platoon—the same man responsible for keeping Buck from saving Sheikh and his son—was still out there.

Mustafa .

Buck kicked at one of the shattered pieces scattered across the dirt. He would do everything in his power to bring down the sniper who caused so much death and destruction to the people Buck is supposed to protect.

And then he would go home to his family and find his Sentinel.

Buck let out a frustrated sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose as he pulled out his satellite phone. He could practically taste the acidity of his mood, so Buck called one of the only people that could bring him out of the funk where he found himself buried.

Buck? ” TK asked, a pleased hum undercutting his confusion.

“Hey, brother,” the young Guide breathed out, his shoulders sinking as he scratched the nape of his neck with his free hand.

You doing okay? I didn’t think I’d hear from you so soon .” TK quickly reassured him that he was pleased to hear from the young Guide. “ Although I think we can both agree that one week here in New York during your shore leave is nowhere near long enough.

Buck chuckled under his breath and swallowed thickly. “Yeah, just got some tough news. Wanted to hear your voice.”

I’m sorry for whatever happened. But, sounds like you might need some cheering up?

“That’s exactly what I need,” he quietly agreed, the corners of his lips twitching upward. “Hit me with it.”

TK paused for a moment on the other line. “ Do you remember that guy I told you I was dating?

“Uh, yeah,” Buck thought back with a frown. “Alex, right?” TK had practically sang the man’s praises, but the young Guide wasn’t sure that Alex shared his boyfriend’s excitement and commitment to their relationship.

Yeah! ” TK agreed, and Buck could practically hear his grin through the line. “ I bought a ring .”

Buck choked on air. “You what ? You’re going to propose?”

His cousin’s laugh made one of the tight coils in Buck’s chest release. He’d missed that laugh. “ That’s the plan. I’m taking him for dinner at this great place in Manhattan next month that’s impossible to get reservations to. I’ll pop the question over dessert .”

“You guys haven’t even moved in together, right? Or did I miss something?”

Nope, ” TK denied happily, completely unaware of Buck’s internal panic. “ But, when you know, you know, right? He makes me happy.

Buck scrubbed his free hand over his face and chewed on the inside of his cheek. He didn’t think Alex was the man TK would eventually settle down with, considering he didn’t even make time in his schedule to meet Buck during his visit. But, if TK really wanted this….”That’s great. I’m happy for you.”

Thanks, brother, ” his cousin exhaled softly. “ I wish you could be here to celebrate .”

“Me too,” Buck clicked his tongue. “Email me photos and let me know how it goes, alright? I’m not sure when I can check it, but I will when I can.”

Will do. Be safe out there, alright?

“I always am. Give everyone my love.”

XX

Three months later, Buck lay on his stomach in his civvies atop a scorching rooftop. After maintaining his position for the last five hours, his sweat has soaked through his camouflage pants and tight, black t-shirt. He would definitely need to wash his frayed hat to clean out the lingering smell. Street sat beside him, chugging a bottle of water before pouring a handful over his face.

“This is something else,” the Sentinel grumbled as he settled back in with his binoculars, wiping down his face with a rag. “It’s been this hot every day for a freaking month. I’m surprised the back of your neck hasn’t burnt off yet.”

Buck rolled his eyes without moving from his scope and jerked his chin towards his bag. “Sunscreen, Street. It’s our best friend; you know that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Street muttered as he looked back over the courtyard and to the barricade out in the distance. “The T-wall is going up too slowly.”

The Guide hummed his agreement, the muscle in his jaw jumping as his gaze snagged on a chipped, run-down, white SUV rolling down the street, the tailpipe popping loudly. He followed its path through his scope until it disappeared around a corner—clearly a civilian vehicle. Near the same corner, a military-age male outfitted in full insurgent gear, a rifle gripped between his hands, sprinted out of a building and towards a group of American soldiers two hundred yards away.

Buck lined up his shot, pulling the trigger with a silent exhale of breath.

A few moments later, Street made a noise in the back of his throat that had Buck’s muscles tensing. The reason for the Sentinel’s distress came into view thirty seconds later. A young boy, maybe nine or ten, dressed in a gritty tank top and long shorts, came stumbling out of a nearby door and looked around. When he spotted the insurgent on the ground, blood pooling from the bullet wound in his head, the young boy inched closer—either he was too curious for his own good or wanted to finish what the man started.

“Don’t pick it up,” Buck whispered to himself. Street’s boot nudged his own, offering what little comfort he could. Everyone on the team was aware of Buck’s issues stemming from his first kill, but Street knew better than anyone how much it affected him. The Sentinel had worked as Buck’s sniper partner, having his back for nearly every mission in the last six-and-a-half years. He knew Buck well.

Buck didn’t think he could handle having to kill another kid—a child who didn’t understand what he was doing, what he was risking. The first one back in Fallujah still haunted him, and no amount of therapy or comfort he received from the people who loved him would make the nightmares disappear.

He chewed on the inside of his cheek until it bled when the boy picked up the rifle. “Son of a bitch,” Buck cursed softly, feeling the familiar hollowness squeezing his lungs and carving out even more space in his chest. “Drop it.”

The boy adjusted his grip on the weapon, almost as if he’d never held one before, and Buck’s heart crawled up his throat as he prayed to a whole heaven of gods he didn’t believe in. “ Please , drop it.”

Thankfully—against all odds—as soon as Buck’s finger curled around the trigger, the rifle fell from the boy’s hands, and he ran back into his building, not looking back.

A choked sob escaped Buck’s lips as his hand fell off the trigger, and his head dropped to the stone below him. Street exhaled loudly and fitted his hand across the nape of Buck’s neck, ignoring the sweaty curls matted there, squeezing lightly.

The silent comfort of knowing that his partner was there, having his back, helped push the bile back down his esophagus long enough for him to refocus.

f*ck .

XX

Six months into his fourth tour in Iraq—a year and a half into his second Tour of Duty, Buck’s team got called in to the central intelligence tent for a briefing. The empty space between them, previously filled with their sister platoon, reminded them of who they’d lost and how they lost them that much more poignant. Hondo cleared his throat, obviously reading the tension in the room. Once he streamed the photos from his tablet, the Sentinel gestured towards the projector.

“Alright, the Head-Shed believes this T-wall here will help win the war by trapping remaining AQI behind it.” Hondo folded his arms across his chest. “Problem is the engineers building the goddamn thing are getting picked off by a single sniper from deep behind the wall.”

His eyes flashed to Buck, who immediately straightened to attention. “How deep?”

“Roughly one thousand meters.”

A twinge of anticipation settled in the back of Buck’s mind. “Is it Mustafa?”

Hondo looked over at the rest of the team, who were on their feet with similar furious expressions. The same sniper who f*cked them over in Fallujah and Ramada was finally within reach. The Sentinel nodded his confirmation. “We need him dead, is that clear?”

Everyone agreed solemnly. Street and Mumford stepped up to Buck’s side and brushed their shoulders against his in solidarity. His entire team knew how important it was for Buck to be the one to bring him down—finally.

“They’ll shuttle us six blocks north into enemy territory, which will put us right under the sniper’s nose when he takes his shot. Okay?”

Luca exhaled loudly, running a hand over his cropped blonde hair. “In the middle of a f*cking sandstorm.”

Chris snorted and elbowed the Sentinel in the ribs. “Bring your goggles, Bambi.”

“We need to shut this shooter down, understood?” When everyone nodded in return, Hondo clapped his hands together. “Good. Gear up.”

XX

The humvee rattled over the gravel road, jerking with every dip in the uneven dirt. The team was quiet as they entered the city limits in the early light of day. Going so far into enemy territory was dangerous, and they all knew the risks they faced if caught in the middle of a raid. It would take at least twenty to thirty minutes for the QRF to reach their location to provide aid if something went wrong.

When their vehicle shuddered to a stop, Hondo’s lip twitched up into a smirk. “Keep it clean; make it a work of art.”

The team grinned in response. “Fill in the gaps; stay liquid.”

Deacon opened the humvee doors, and they filed out quickly, following Hondo and his right-hand-man into the abandoned building Luca’s flyover from the previous day pointed out.

The air was cool as it brushed through Buck’s curls, a far cry from the usual hundred-degree weather they’d grown accustomed to. The two Sentinels swept the bottom floor of the building in tandem with Luca and Mumford at their heels.

“Right side clear,” Hondo announced.

“Left side clear,” Deacon echoed as they met up at the bottom of the metal staircase.

Hondo led the way while Buck and Street kept their rifles pointed up in the rafters to ensure they didn’t miss any movement.

“Clear,” their leader confirmed, giving the rest of the team the green light to follow him up. At the door to the rooftop, Hondo held out a fist for Deacon to bump his own against. “We’re maneuvering. You’re base.”

Deacon’s grin had Buck fighting back a smile. “Yup. Go!”

They swept the rooftop in the same manner, announcing “Roof clear!” the moment they confirmed they were the only ones up there.

“Set security,” Hondo ordered, leaving Victor, Mumford, Chris, and Luca to position themselves on the four corners of the rooftop and Deacon to man the door. “Buck, white side.”

The Guide nudged Street’s arm, and they moved to set up between Victor and Luca, who shot him twin winks. Buck lowered himself onto his stomach and arranged his rifle, switching out his helmet for his backwards ball-cap and holding his right shoulder steady. Through his scope, he could see a handful of engineers working on the wall, though there didn’t seem to be any insurgents on the opposite side just yet.

Street crouched beside him and pulled out his binoculars. “It’s quiet out there.”

“For now,” Buck muttered under his breath, apprehension curling inside his stomach.

Sure enough, three hours later, Hondo let out a quiet curse as he pulled out his own pair of binoculars to confirm Street’s warning that things were getting dicey. “Streets are crawling; hold your fire.”

As the Guide watched through his scope, a wave of sand started kicking up on the ground beneath the engineers’ feet.

“Enter the f*cking Sandman,” Street told the rest of them through his comm unit.

Buck shifted to get more comfortable, tugging his gloves off and refocusing down on the wall through the layer of sand. It was difficult, but the colors radiating from the soldiers’ chests were enough for Buck to find them through the obstruction.

Before he could even blink, one of the engineers teetering on a ladder flew back from the force of a shot, blood trickling from the bullet wound between his eyes as he crashed onto the ground.

“Man down!” Street called out with tension straining his voice.

“sh*t,” Buck swore, jerking up and grabbing his gear. “The shot came from the east! We set up in the wrong f*cking direction!”

Street helped him tear down and reposition his rifle on the greenside, their jaws set as they tried to control their movements—careful to push down any panic.

“Doesn’t matter,” Hondo growled in their ears. “Hold your fire. We’ve got uglies right below us.”

Buck let out a shaky breath as he desperately searched the buildings for any sign of the enemy sniper. Then, when another shot rang out, killing a second engineer on the wall, Buck fought back a wince and followed the line of sight.

It took him close to thirty seconds, but he found him.

“f*ck,” the Guide seethed. “One-thousand-nine-hundred yards out.”

Luca let out a soft whistle in his ear. “sh*t, you can’t even see that far out.”

“Hold your fire,” Hondo repeated. “You’ll expose us.”

Street grimaced beside him. “He’s right, Buck.”

Buck adjusted his scope and range once again, settling back down and keeping steady. “Correction, he’s two-thousand-one-hundred yards out.”

The Sentinel beside him shook his head. “That’s more than a mile. Impossible shot.”

Another reset of his gauge cleared his scope, and he could finally confirm he had Mustafa within his sights. “This is Overwatch; I’ve got eyes on our target.”

“Initiate QRF,” Hondo called into base.

Copy that, ” Base confirmed. “ ET on Quick Reaction Force is twenty minutes.

Buck chewed on his bottom lip. Twenty minutes wasn’t fast enough. How many more of their engineers had to die before Buck had another opportunity to take the shot? “He’s got eyes on our guys.”

“Can you confirm it's him?” Hondo demanded, his stress and anger prickling against Buck’s shields.

“Oh, it’s him alright.” That much Buck was sure of. He would never consider risking his team’s lives for anything less than a positive ID.

His team was quiet for a few moments while examining the battlefield before them. Finally, his leader grit his teeth. “It’s your call, Buck.”

f*ck . The Guide swallowed, fighting between the knowledge that he had the opportunity to take out the man who caused him, his team, and so many other people so much pain and the possibility that his shot could alert every insurgent in a ten-mile radius of their position.

“QRF is twenty minutes out,” Deacon reminded him.

Chris clicked her tongue. “That bastard killed Walker, Rodriguez, Casey, and Wright. If you have the shot, take it .”

She was right. If Buck didn’t eliminate Mustafa right here and now, his slaughter of American soldiers would continue unchecked. There wasn’t anyone else active in the military that could take this shot and hit their mark. Only Buck could end the bastard’s reign of terror.

‘We master our breath; we master our mind.’ Bobby’s voice rang in his head, with his instructor from Sniper Training chiming in with helpful advice just when he needed it. ‘ Aim small; miss small.

Buck exhaled slowly, honing his mind and focusing on the small space between Mustafa’s eyes before pulling the trigger.

Mustafa’s head snapped back with a splatter of blood coating the rooftop below him. He didn’t get back up again.

“Tango down!”

“We need QRF ASAP!” Hondo shouted to Base, ordering the rest of the team to get into position to hold off the incoming enemies. As anticipated, Buck’s shot alerted the insurgents below to their position, and they were closing in— fast .

Buck’s head dropped to the ground and the tension released from his shoulders for all of three seconds before Street started yanking him back as soon as he got clear. “Mission accomplished, Overwatch.”

“He had eyes on our guys,” Buck echoed the thoughts he’d had swimming around in his head ever since he decided that he needed to be the one to handle Mustafa. “I had to take him out.”

“I’m proud of you, kid,” Hondo grunted. “But now we’re f*cked. Everyone, get ready!”

Echo-Seven be advised. You have enemies approaching from all directions on your POS, ” Base alerted them.

f*ck .

“White side!” Mumford shouted, gesturing towards the building across from theirs.

“Yeah, let’s go!” Street helped Buck switch out his long gun with his McMillan and got into position.

Deacon and Hondo did a quick sweep of the rest of the rooftop. “Alright,” Hondo inhaled sharply. “I see two ways up onto the roof. We want to lock both staircases down. Conserve ammo.”

The rest of the team didn’t have any time to acknowledge the strategy before the gunfire began. Buck’s team returned fire and hunkered down the best they could, conserving their ammunition as the flood of insurgents doubled on the nearby rooftops.

After what seemed an eternity, though it could have only been a few minutes, Buck switched to his second magazine through gritted teeth.

Echo-Seven Kilo, you have Tango-heavy guns on your green side, ” Base announced in their ear.

Mumford growled in response. “We’re taking effective fire, white side! Effective fire, white side!” He repeated.

“Hondo,” Chris stressed on the opposite side of the roof from Buck. “I’m down to two mags! We gotta move!”

sh*t , Buck let out a string of silent curses. This was not good.

Nothing about this was good.

“Don’t stop shooting!” Their leader ordered over the rain of bullets.

Deacon’s voice came out rough and shuddered in their ear. “QRF’s stuck three blocks out!”

No, no, no .

“I’m out!” Victor shouted, taking cover the best he could behind one of the units on the roof.

“Three o’clock,” Street swallowed, exchanging a knowing look with the Guide as they switched out their ammunition. “Loading last mag.”

“I’ve only got one mag left,” Luca echoed, his voice straining with the knowledge that they were all slowly getting stripped of their defenses. Help wasn’t coming, not fast enough.

Chris dove behind the same unit as Victor and covered her head. “We can’t hold them any longer! We’ve gotta move!”

The bottom of Buck’s stomach dropped out.

He knew what that meant.

They all did.

If they got pinned down with no hope of rescue, then their mission was to take as many enemies out with them. Much to Buck’s frustration and devastation, he couldn’t do anything to protect them, either. He had started to control his psychical ability to manifest his shields and emotions, but it took an incredible amount of concentration; he couldn’t just hit some people and not others; he just wasn’t skilled enough yet. f*ck.

Their last option was clear. If they went down, so did their enemies.

Hondo called it in with a somber exhale. “This is Echo-Seven requesting an ordinance drop. Grid number zero-four-eight-three-seven-nine-five-nine.”

There was a moment of silence before Base responded. “ That target location is your position.”

“I know my f*cking position,” Hondo snapped, making the small hairs on the name of Buck’s neck rise to attention. “They’re right on top of us. Just drop it!

Buck swallowed and took cover with Street, keeping their heads down as the gunfire rained down around them.

Viper Three-four, ” Base alerted the jet. “ Move to final attack.

Viper Three-four. Roger. ” The pilot answered. “ Thirty seconds out.

Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds before the building Buck stood on would get blown to pieces. Thirty seconds before he lost his chance at everything he’d been dreaming of when he got home. Buck flipped his pack around to his front and shoved a hand in to grab his satellite phone. If he only had thirty seconds left, Buck knew exactly who he wanted to talk to. He dialed the number he knew by heart and prayed for an answer.

Hello?

A sob tore from Buck’s throat. Yes, he’d taken down Mustafa, he’d done his duty, but now he wouldn’t be able to go home to his family or move to LA for a chance at a normal life. Buck wouldn’t be able to find his Sentinel—the other piece of himself that he never even knew was missing. He’d never figure out if they could have had a life together.

Buck would never see Bobby again. His sister. His brother. TK. Owen.

“Pops?”

The older Guide’s voice cut in and out with the bad connection, a harsh reminder of his quickly-diminishing time. “ Hello? Buck? I can’t hear you. Hello?

“I’m ready,” Buck squeezed his eyes shut as tears leaked from the corners, tracing over his cheeks and under the strap of his helmet. “I’m ready to come home.”

Street grabbed his arm as a flurry of sand kicked up from the ground below and soared overhead, coating the air around them.

What ?” Bobby asked haltingly.

Viper three-four sounded in their ear. “ I have the building in sight .”

Buck, what’s happening?

“I’m ready to come home, Pops,” Buck repeated, counting down in his head and wishing he had more time with the people he loved.

Buck?

It’s pretty bad air up here, ” Viper three-four reported. “ I can’t hold this much longer.

Base command answered grimly, “ Viper three-four, fire away.

Buck reached up to hold on to Street’s hand, threading their fingers together. At least his partner was by his side, and his team was at his back. They would go out together.

As the countdown in his head fell to zero, Buck held his breath in anticipation of the pain he grew familiar with after the apartment in Ramadi exploded. The foundation below his feet shuddered as debris flew around them, sand and heat whipping through Buck’s curls.

Target missed .”

Buck‘s eyes snapped open, realizing with a jolt that the sandstorm had roared to life around him, and he couldn’t see two feet in front of him. The missile had missed —destroying the rooftop next to them and taking out half of the insurgents firing at them.

“Oh my god,” Street breathed out, not letting go of Buck’s hand while the young Guide stuffed the satellite phone back into his pack. “Holy f*ck.”

Buck full-heartedly agreed with the sentiment.

Because, of course, Hondo and Deacon had saved their ammunition better than the rest of the team, they continued their assault, returning fire at the swarm of insurgents shooting in their general direction as best they could with the limited visibility. To Buck’s delight and disbelief, they were all still alive.

“We gotta move!” Mumford shouted, somehow appearing on Buck’s right and grabbing his arm.

Echo-Seven, ” Base command called, their voice sounding more hopeful than Buck could ever remember hearing. “ Green side is clear for exit!”

Chris and Victor shared matching audible exhales of relief.

“I’ve got the out!” Deacon yelled, directing them to a pole they could slide down to make it to the ground.

“Let’s go!” Hondo ordered, keeping an eye out and covering their backs while the rest of the team scrambled towards the out, one by one jumping on the pole without hesitation.

Finally, only Buck and Hondo remained. The Guide shoved his leader towards the exit. Only Buck could hold them off while his team scrambled towards safety, and he had to do it alone. “Go! I’ll buy us some time.”

“Buck—”

Go! ” Buck repeated with a harsh cry, shoving at Hondo again.

When the Sentinel finally relented, pressing his forehead against Buck’s before jumping down, the young Guide turned back to the wave of insurgents heading his way, all armed to the teeth and shooting in his direction. Buck took a deep, centering breath, concentrating on bringing forth every ounce of fear, hatred, grief, and anger the last twenty-four hours gave him and whistled for Nala.

His Spirit Animal surged forward with a blood-curdling roar as Buck let everything go, flinging his shields and emotions outward alongside her and sending an unrestrained wave of energy crashing toward the enemies surrounding him. With that sharp burst of sheer power, they were all shoved backwards brutally, flying through the air with cries of pain and disbelief before smacking their heads against the rooftop pavement and lying on the pavement, unmoving.

Buck trembled as the energy left him in a rush, dizzy and in pain, with a ringing in his ear and a shattered comm unit by his foot. He blinked away the blurriness from his eyes the best he could and forced his legs to the edge of the building, leaping onto the pole with a gasp. His hands burned as he slid down, missing his gloves from earlier, but his feet collided with the loose sand as turrets shifted and blurred around him.

The Guide sent out a tentative push of his fragile shields, seeking out the rest of his team, panic building back up within his chest when he couldn’t find them. Everything was too loud, and it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of him.

Before he could open his mouth to call out, a familiar humvee shoved through a wall of sand, barreling towards him with the back doors open.

Another sob escaped Buck’s throat as he rushed forward, using every ounce of strength he had left to run to his team. His family .

Hondo and Deacon were screaming at him, calling him forward and holding out their hands.

“Pull him in!” He heard someone shout. “Come on!”

Two, no, three sets of strong hands yanked him inside none-too-gently, sending him crashing down atop Luca and Deacon while Hondo and Victor slammed the doors closed behind them, silencing the roar of the sandstorm.

“Buck!” Chris cried with joy, hauling him up where she and Street could fuss over him.

Hondo shoved in next to the younger Sentinel and wrapped his arms around Buck’s head, pulling him in for an all-consuming hug. “We made it, kid. We made it.”

Buck let out a relieved sigh, his mind relaxing now that he was safe with his team, and he let the darkness consume him.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? We have reached the end of Part II! Chapter 20 will be up next Sunday :)

Thank you to everyone who has given kudos/commented/bookmarked/subscribed to this story. It's the highlight of my week and I really appreciate all the wonderful responses!

Chapter 20

Summary:

Eddie manifests as a Sentinel

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful week.

We finally made it to Eddie's time to shine :) This Part III will focus on what Eddie's been up to from the time he manifested as a Sentinel up until he meets Buck on the battlefield. It will be about 7-8 chapters long. We don't get a lot of Eddie's backstory, just bits and pieces throughout the show, so I took a LOT of creative liberties. I will warn you - I don't like Eddie's parents any more than I like Buck's, so that *might* come across in this story.

S/O to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

I hope you enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (26)

Part III: Eddie Begins

Chapter 20

Eddie fought off a groan and rubbed a hand over his shortly-cropped hair, grinding his teeth together beside Adriana and Sophia out on the back patio when his mother started in on her lecture on bonding once again. His little sisters were less quiet about their annoyance, whining and grumbling in their lawn chairs until Helena narrowed her eyes at them. The sinking sun of the waning summer cast lengthening shadows over the browning grass of the pastures.

“This is important, girls; any one of you might manifest as a Sentinel or Guide in a few years. When that happens, you’ll have the opportunity to bond with someone who completes the other half of your soul. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

Adriana, in all her eight-year-old wisdom, with curled pigtails and two missing teeth, scoffed incredulously. “I don’t need someone else to complete me, Mom.”

Eddie abruptly coughed to hide his amusem*nt, ducking his head and trying to still the shaking of his shoulders.

“Yeah!” Sophia agreed with both hands on her hips, always quick to provide back-up for her younger sister. “We don’t need anyone else!”

His mother sighed in disappointment, pinching the bridge of her nose and tossing back the curtain of black hair out of her eyes. “I guess you’re still too young to understand. One day, that will change.” She gestured to Eddie with a wave of her hand. “At least your brother is paying attention. He’ll be ready.”

Eddie looked away with a frown tugging at his lips. “I mean…” he hesitated. “I agree with Adriana and Sophia. I’m fine on my own. Why do you keep telling us that we need someone else to make us better?”

“I never said they will make you better, Eddie,” his mother argued sharply, pushing to her feet and wrapping her cardigan tightly over her chest defensively. “But you’ll be turning thirteen next year, the age where most children manifest as either a Sentinel or a Guide and—”

If it happens,” Eddie pointed out, leaning forward to rest his elbows atop his thighs and thread his fingers together.

His mother rolled her eyes, dismissing his, frankly, valid concerns. “Your father is a Sentinel, and I am a Guide. We both have the Blessed Gene. All of you are more than likely to inherit it.”

Sophia threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “I thought you said having the Blessed Gene was rare and special.”

“It is,” Helena insisted. “Which means when you all manifest, this family will be even more so. I just want you all to be prepared for when it happens. It will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. You all need to start taking this seriously.” She shook her head and turned to hurry inside, leaving her kids behind with an air of superiority that Eddie had never appreciated.

He loved his parents; they were good people who had his and his sisters’ best interests at heart, but they seemed more concerned with pairing them off with a bond than helping them grow as individuals.

Eddie had gotten tired of arguing with them both years ago. He was only twelve years old, and it seemed like every decision he made was the wrong one. He learned that it was easier to nod his head and keep his expression as neutral as possible when his parents said something he disagreed with. Adriana and Sophia had picked up on it and, thankfully, rebelled more often than not, unwilling to back down and turn away from a fight to keep the peace like their older brother.

Their unwillingness to take his parents’ condescension sitting down helped bolster Eddie’s own confidence, though he wished he didn’t need his little sisters to fight their battles before plucking up enough courage to fight his own.

“What happens if one of us doesn't manifest?” Sophia grumbled, sinking back into her lawn chair and bringing her legs up underneath her. She was ten, only a few years from puberty herself.

“Mom won’t like that,” Adriana exhaled, propping her chin up atop her open palm. “She’ll think we’re broken or something.”

Eddie pursed his lips. “She won’t think we’re broken if we don’t manifest, but we’d never hear the end of it.”

His sisters exchanged knowing glances and tracked him with a frown. “If you do become a Sentinel or Guide,” Sophia asked quietly, “would you bond like Mom and Dad want?”

“No,” Eddie denied vehemently, shaking his head and chewing on the inside of his cheek. That was the last thing he wanted. “I don’t need a bond to make me happy. I’m sick of hearing all about how perfect and important it is to do so. I don’t want it.”

Adriana clicked her tongue and pushed onto her feet, moving so she stood between her older siblings. She held out her hand and stuck out her pinky finger. “Let’s pinky promise, then. No bonding for us!”

Sophia chuckled underneath her breath but perked up at the prospect of pulling one over on their parents. “I’m in.” She hooked her own pinky around Adriana’s.

Eddie’s sisters turned back to look at him with matching expectant expressions. They looked so alike that most people mistook them for twins, despite Sophia being two years younger than Adriana. Eddie had never been able to say no to either one of their adorable honey-brown puppy-dog eyes, so he heaved a heavy sigh and brought his finger up to curl around theirs. “Pinky promise.”

XX

“Edmundo, watch your sister!”

Eddie fought hard to keep from rolling his eyes. Up on top of Helado, their black and white spotted Appaloosa horse—whom Sophia named for her obsession with ice cream, Eddie kept Adriana secure in the saddle in front of him. Their legs fell over Helado’s powerful flank as they strode down the well-worn path of the pasture. Ramon watched them warily from the fence line, though Eddie kept his attention focused on teaching his sister everything he knew about riding a horse.

Considering the fact their parents bought the land before their kids were born, Eddie, Sophia, and Adriana had all been around animals their whole life. However, Helena and Ramon were hesitant to let their children ride until they were old enough to learn properly. So in their new attempt at teaching Eddie some responsibility, they tasked their oldest with getting their youngest comfortable around the horses—under their watchful eye, of course.

He himself learned how to ride on Helado, who is quietly social in the sense that the horse enjoyed being around other people and children but was content to bask in their presence rather than demand their attention. Eddie had spent the last few weeks teaching Adriana how to take care of the horses and giving her and Helado a chance to bond. As anticipated, her excitable nature evolved into a healthy fondness that would keep Adriana from spooking the horse with any startling movements or sudden squeals of happiness.

“Remember, keep your back straight. You’ll want good posture to keep your balance in the saddle.”

Adriana grinned at him over her shoulder. “But you're here, Hermano. You won’t let me fall.”

Eddie’s lips twitched upwards in response. “Duh.” He nodded to encourage his sister to return her attention forward. “Helado’s pretty good with voice commands and the reins, but you really want to lead him with your legs. If you apply a little bit of pressure, he’ll know to start moving. If you want to move to the left, you’ll turn your head, shift your hips in that direction, and squeeze your right leg just behind Helado’s girth. It’s the opposite if you want to turn to the right. Got it?”

His sister’s shoulders tensed for a moment. Eddie chewed on the inside of his cheek, considering repeating himself but ultimately decided that Adriana could use the reminder. “Remember, horses can recognize positive and negative emotions in humans. They’re really smart animals and can also remember your emotional state from when they last saw you. You’ll want to stay calm and relaxed whenever you’re up here.”

Adriana blew out a breath and forced herself to relax, dropping the line of her shoulders incrementally. “They kind of sound a bit like Guides.”

Eddie snorted and reached forward to pat Helado’s neck before leaning back in the saddle. “I guess you can say that. He’s more even-tempered than Mom and the other Guides that I’ve met, though. I wouldn’t mind it if I turned out to be a Guide, though I would rather be just like him.”

His sister snickered before straightening her spine in preparation. “Okay. I think I got it.”

“Then let’s try it.”

They spent the next hour or so mounted in the saddle, letting Adriana get a feel for the horse and how to change directions. Then, when they were both covered in a fine layer of sweat under the blaring El Paso sun, Eddie took control of the reins and led them back towards the red-painted stables. He brought them to a stop and shook off his parents’ attempts at helping him down, and Adriana glared at them until they backed away far enough for her to swing her leg over Helado’s side.

“You did amazing, Sweetheart!” Their mother gushed, helping Adriana out of her helmet and brushing a hand over her dismantled braid. “You looked like a natural up there.”

His sister beamed with pride before Eddie cleared his throat with a playful glare. “The lesson isn't over. You’ve got to wash and cool Helado down now.”

“Oh, Edmundo,” Ramone placed his hands on his hips. “I’m sure you can do that for her.”

I can do it!” Adriana insisted with a scowl, just like Eddie knew she would. Sometimes knowing and understanding his sisters’ combative spirits came in handy.

Eddie walked her through the steps of taking off the saddle—though their father had to be the one to remove it entirely, considering the last time Eddie tried, he collapsed underneath the weight—and let her pick out Helado’s feet. They replaced the bridle with a halter and led him over near the side of the barn, where Adriana took three tries to get the knot right.

They spent the next half-hour cooling Helado down with the hose and brushing him out, though Eddie couldn't help himself and turned the water on Adriana, who looked outraged at first before she bent over cackling. Turnabout's fair play, and by the time they settled Helado back into the stables, they were both soaked. When Sophia arrived home from piano practice to find them giggling like lunatics in the backyard, she felt entirely left out and pouted up until Adriana sprayed her with the hose too.

Their parents watched them with fond exasperation, though Ramon refused to let them drip water into the house, forcing them to dry themselves out on the back patio until it was safe enough to come inside. After all the kids bathed and ran out of energy, they spent the rest of the evening having smoked brisket with all the fixings for dinner before passing out in the living room, in front of the television, watching a Disney movie.

As Eddie’s eyes grew heavier throughout the night, he tried to take mental snapshots, reminding himself that it was indeed possible for his family to be happy and content. No one had brought up manifestation or bonding the entire day, and Ramon hadn’t said anything grating to his self-confidence, both of which kept Eddie, Sophia, and Adriana in a cheery mood and their parents from sighing in exasperation and shaking their heads.

Despite what his parents believed, he didn’t need a bond to be happy. Eddie could only hope that if he did manifest, his body would push it off as long as possible to keep the delicate balance of peace the Diaz family found themselves in.

XX

The day Eddie manifested started off as innocent as each day before it. He buried his face further into his pillow with a frown when Adriana snuck into his room and jumped on the bed—his own personal alarm clock from Hell. The fact Eddie was not a morning person was the worst kept secret in the entire Diaz household, the likes of which his sisters loved to use to their advantage whenever they could.

When the little terror was satisfied that he wouldn’t burrow himself underneath the covers again, Adriana left him alone to start getting ready. Eddie moved through his routine of brushing his teeth, taking a short enough shower so it wasn’t suspicious, and dressing in clothes too baggy for his parents’ taste.

The entirety of the Diaz household struggled with timeliness, so breakfast was always a rushed affair. By the time he stumbled into the bright kitchen, with its windows pushed up halfway to let the morning breeze come through, his mom was hurrying to zip-up all three kids’ lunchboxes and tossing a handful of bagels into the toaster to take on the road.

Eddie rubbed his eyes and opened the refrigerator door, fishing out the cream cheese before moving to their silverware drawer and grabbing a knife. As expected, his sisters slid into the kitchen as soon as he had their breakfast prepared. He dutifully passed each of them their dressed bagel, accepting their thanks in the form of quick kisses on his cheek.

“Ready?” His mom asked, straightening her scrubs and holding out their lunchboxes before leading them out into the garage towards the truck. His dad had already been up for a few hours, mucking out the horses’ stalls and refilling their water and feed buckets. About the time Helena and the kids left the house for school, Ramon would be heading out to the back pastures to take care of the cattle. Eddie knew that as soon as he manifested—or made it through puberty without doing so—his father would deem him old enough to start helping out on the ranch so he could return full time to his work as a petroleum engineer. So Eddie silently wished his body would push it off as long as possible.

It wasn’t necessarily that Eddie didn’t want to manifest—he had a healthy amount of respect for those with the Blessed Gene—but he dreaded his parents becoming even more unbearable than normal. That, and knowing his dad would be around a lot less, solidified his reluctance to wake up one morning as either a Sentinel or a Guide.

Adriana and Sophia’s elementary school started fifteen minutes before Eddie’s, so his mom dropped them off first with a rushed goodbye before heading ten minutes down the road to the middle school.

When his mom glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, Eddie crossed his arms over his chest and sunk further down against the cracked leather. Of course, she couldn’t let things go for even one day. “Eddie—”

Eddie shook his head and pressed his forehead against the cool window. “Mom, don’t. I don’t want to have this conversation again.”

“But it’s important, love. You could manifest any day now—”

“Or not,” Eddie ground out between clenched teeth for what felt like the millionth time.

His mother sighed in frustration and barreled on. “Your insistence on not taking a bond when you manifest is no longer acceptable. You’re not a child anymore!”

“I don’t want a bond, Mom, and you can’t force me into one!”

She sniffed, turning her nose up at him and pulling into the drop-off zone of his school. “You will think differently soon; I’m sure of it.”

Eddie bit his bottom lip and grabbed hold of his backpack, clicking off his seatbelt and jumping out of the truck as soon as his mother put it in park. He slammed the door behind him without saying goodbye and ignored his mother’s squawk of offense.

It wasn’t the first time in the last few months that one of his parents had ruined a perfectly good morning, but Eddie couldn’t seem to shake the anger this time around. His friends caught on to his darkening mood and were smart to keep their distance, willing to give Eddie space when his irritation and resentment were palpable enough to taste on the tongue.

Eddie made it through his classes silently, unable to keep from scratching at the feeling of ants prickling beneath his skin. A headache started pressing at his temples during his lunch hour, and by the time he headed toward the locker room to change for football practice, his head felt like it was splitting open.

He thought about telling his coach he needed to sit this practice out, but Eddie had the overwhelming urge to hit something, so he pushed through the pain and headed out to the field. His teammates’ sweat was overwhelming during warm-ups, and he wasn’t proud of snapping at a few of them to start showering more often, but it was a bigger problem than he could remember. Why weren’t people practicing good hygiene? Was it really so hard? Coach’s whistle broke through his simmering thoughts, causing Eddie to wince and jerk back in surprise. He grimaced and shook off the worried looks his teammates shot at him and moved into position.

When Eddie tried out for the football team at the beginning of the year, he originally thought he’d be interested in playing Wide Receiver. He wasn’t exceedingly tall, but he was quick and good with his hands. However, when tryouts came, Coach McNally thought him better suited for Linebacker. He shed his usual passive demeanor the moment he stepped on to the field, channeling all of the frustration he had built up in life and transferring it into aggression. Football gave him an outlet when he couldn’t take his anger out on his family—because he was a good son who tried to keep the peace as much as possible.

Today, however, his senses seemed to be dialed up to eleven, making him more agitated than normal. His argument with his mom had forced his annoyance to the surface and seemed to fill every empty space in his brain. His skin felt strangely sensitive, and he couldn’t help but scratch at it beneath his training pads. Before the play, Eddie risked glancing up towards the sky and instantly cringed, forcing his eyes shut when the sun’s brightness burned his irises. What the hell was going on with him? He shoved a hand beneath his helmet to rub at his eyelids before he focused back on the play, waiting with bated breath for Coach McNally’s whistle—already anticipating the pain he’d started associating it with today.

However, the moment the sound pierced through the air, Eddie charged the Running Back in front of him. When they collided, Eddie bit down on his tongue in shock at the pain blossoming beneath his skin. His muscles spasmed a moment before locking up completely, sending him crashing to the turf with the sudden taste of blood in his mouth consuming his consciousness. It felt as if the entirety of his existence narrowed down to the mixture of his base parts—the blend of plasma with its water, salts, and proteins: red blood cells, that sharp metallic hemoglobin: white blood cells, and platelets. Sounds rose and faded like tumultuous waves, unable to resist the chaos guiding their movements, though Eddie remained unaware of anything besides the heaviness on his tongue and the jagged, agonizing pain bursting against his temples. His eyes remained unseeing as he curled himself into a ball unconsciously, unable to let out a scream and desperately hiding away from the stimuli assaulting his mind.

After what felt like hours, days, weeks of unimaginable pain, an unfamiliar voice brushed against his mind, causing him to flinch away like a wounded animal. After a few moments, the voice tried again, gently coaxing away the madness his mind had descended into. Slowly, but surely, the pain lessened. His awareness came back to him in waves.

The first to return was touch, with the feeling of someone brushing a wet washcloth where sweat had gathered on his forehead. The scratch of cotton made the hairs on the back of his neck rise and gooseflesh break out over his arms. A strange echoing pain stretched over his heart, and he fought the urge to rub a hand against it. Next, the smell of a woman’s unobtrusive perfume hit his nostrils, and he couldn’t avoid catching hints of mandarin and blood orange, fresh lily of the valley, and earthy patchouli.

Someone was whispering; not in the room he’s currently in, which from the crinkle of plastic beneath him and the sharp ticking of the coo-coo clock in the corner, he guessed was the nurse’s office, but outside the closed wooden door. His principal, a weasel of a man Eddie had avoided up until now, was speaking to the school’s nurse, letting her know he had called Helena and Ramon to alert them of Eddie’s new development.

He swallowed convulsively at the thought of his parents rushing to the school, their wide, frantic eyes and worried expressions making everything about this situation worse. The next moment, he noticed his mouth tasted like copper and remembered that he accidentally bit his tongue at practice. Eddie suddenly needed to wash the taste out of his mouth and forced himself to open his eyes.

The school’s counselor and appointed Guide, Mrs. Villanova, sat by his bedside with a strange, calculating look in her eyes. She had obviously prepared for his awakening with the lights already dimmed to keep the pain from returning. Mrs. Villanova reached over to the tabletop beside her and poured Eddie a glass of water from the pitcher, handing the cool plastic cup to him without allowing their fingers to touch accidentally.

Eddie took the offered drink and threw it back, shivering as the water slid down his throat, taking the taste of blood with it.

Finally, when he managed to sit up and shake out his sore limbs, Mrs. Villanova stood to her feet and placed her hands behind her back. “Eddie, do you understand what happened to you today on the football field?”

Eddie had to remind himself to be respectful—that she was only doing her job. He would have had to live stuck under a rock his entire childhood to be oblivious to the events from this afternoon. Everything he’d hoped for—pushing his body to hold off on the inevitable for as long as possible or giving him a respite altogether—was ruined in one short day that started off like any other.

His gaze dropped to his dirtied hands; they must not have cleaned him off after practice. Eddie swallowed reflexively and wasn’t surprised when his voice sounded hollowed out.

“I’ve manifested as a Sentinel.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? We don't get any screen time with Sophia and Adriana, so their interactions with Eddie are completely out of my own head. I think Eddie would be super protective, but would also gain the courage to push back against his parents if he had them to encourage him.

Also, I know it's a little cliche to have someone from Texas have a ranch, but I'm from Texas and about half of my friends grew up the exact same way (also I worked on one for about a year in college), so I wanted to add it in. Plus, who doesn't love the fact that Eddie can ride a horse?

Thank you to everyone who had given kudos/commented/bookmarked this fic. It makes me happy and encourages me to finish up this MONSTER fic. So thanks <3

Chapter 21

Summary:

Eddie learns more about his manifestation and starts training

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Y'all, it has been a WEEKEND. Goodness. My grandma has cancer and her house has been in need of some work, so my family all traveled out here to fix up the house and yard. About 20 hours worth of work and it's mostly done, but now I'm sore and exhausted lol. Feeling accomplished, though!

I've been amazed at the response to this story and to Eddie's introduction. He deserves the absolute best, y'all. I've finished Part III and it clocked out around 38k, which brings the story word count to about 140k so far....and we've still got Part IV to go. DANG.

Anyway, S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi. I hope you enjoy this chapter!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (27)

Part III

Chapter 21

On the way to the Center to register his manifestation, Eddie refused to speak with either of his parents, instead choosing to hunker down in the back seat and keep his eyes closed while his body struggled to adjust to the influx of stimuli. He could hear his dad trying to engage him in conversation, explaining the ‘tips and tricks’ to being a full-fledged Sentinel, while his mom’s excitement practically radiated off of her, making Eddie’s nose twitch. He stifled an internal groan at the realization that she would be insufferable from now on, never willing to drop the concept of bonding now that he was a Sentinel.

El Paso’s Center was smaller than the bigger ones in cities like Austin, Dallas, or Houston, but it was homey and didn’t make Eddie feel like he was walking in somewhere he didn’t belong. The staff were in similar states of dress as his parents—boots with either jeans and a pearl snap shirt or a dress with flowers decorating the pockets. An older Guide, with her short blonde hair cut into a bob and a warm smile, greeted them with her clipboard. “Hello, you must be the Diazs’.”

She shook his parents’ hands before standing in front of him with a kind expression behind her large, horned-rimmed glasses. “Hi, dear. My name is Annabel Louis. I heard that you had a hard day today.”

Eddie swallowed around the lump in his throat. When he opened his mouth, he found that he couldn’t speak, so he nodded and gazed down toward the maroon-epoxied concrete flooring.

“Well, I don’t want you to worry about a thing. I’ll have your parents fill out some paperwork while our doctors get you checked out. Don’t worry; you’ll be in a Sentinel-safe room so that it will be easier on your senses.”

Eddie might have been having a horrible day and in the worst mood possible, but his parents raised him with good manners. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

Ms. Louis gave him a small grin and returned her attention to his parents, handing his mom the clipboard. “If you can just complete the forms there, I’ll take Eddie back for a few tests and an exam. Please, wait out here.”

When Eddie hesitated, his father nudged him in the back. “Go on, Edmundo.”

Reluctantly, Eddie was led through the back hallway with fluorescent lights, catching glances of hanging landscape photos and framed degrees. He forced his eyes forward when the colors started getting too intense.

When they stopped in front of the third door on the left, Ms. Louis gestured for him to head inside. “A nurse will be with you shortly, dear.”

She left him with a small smile, closing the door behind her. Eddie instantly blew out a relieved breath when the commotion that had been steadily pushing at his temples dissipated. He rubbed a hand over his face and propped himself up on the examination table, crinkling the paper sheet beneath him. The room kept his eyes from straining with muted-beige painted walls and warm and soft lighting.

A Sentinel-safe space.

Thank goodness , Eddie thought to himself, leaning back onto the exam room table and closing his eyes, attempting to get some rest. A few minutes later, a grey-haired nurse in pink scrubs knocked and slid into the room with a tablet. “Hi, Eddie. I’m here to take your vitals and document your new tattoo.”

Eddie shot up in alarm, eyes wide as his hands clawed at his chest. He completely forgot about the searing pain that formed over his heart during his manifestation; it had somehow slipped his mind entirely that tattoos are part of the process. When he finally managed to unzip his oversized hoodie and push his T-shirt up his torso, Eddie forgot to breathe for a whole ten seconds.

Like the bare branches of a dying oak, black, twisted tendrils branded his skin in a delicate design. Eddie couldn’t tear his eyes away from the unfamiliar mark, suddenly a stranger in his own body.

Eddie always knew becoming a Sentinel was a possibility—his parents continuously filled his mind with ideas and pushed their expectations on him for years —but now that it was actually happening, Eddie had no idea who he was anymore.

The tattoo over his heart was new and frightening, and he couldn’t seem to control his own senses, which stayed in constant overdrive—leaving him exhausted and with a piercing headache.

His spiraling thoughts must have shown on his face and the slump of his shoulders because the nurse cleared her throat, catching his attention.

“I know it must be so much to take in,” the older Guide offered kindly, “but I promise, it gets better.” She nodded towards his chest. “I was surprised when mine showed up too.”

Eddie’s throat worked as he tried to speak. “You were?”

“Of course,” she replied, tucking a loose grey curl behind her ear. “You think that you’re prepared for what happens if and when you manifest, but when it does, it’s hard to think of anything at all. My tattoo appeared between my shoulder blades, so I spent an inordinate amount of time standing in front of mirrors.”

From medical experts to palm readers, practically everyone had their own opinions about the tattoos that formed on a new Sentinel or Guide’s body during their manifestation. Some believed the location where it blossomed—either over the heart, between the shoulder blades, or across the meat of the left thigh—said more about the Sentinel or Guide’s personality than anything else, good or ill.

Eddie thought that all of those theories were bullsh*t and that the tattoo placement was just like the design— random .

His lips twitched upwards into something resembling a smile. “So, does that mean, deep down, you’re a ‘caregiver’ who has ‘the capacity to feel and cause a great amount of pain?’”

The nurse snorted and shook her head. “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, Mr. Diaz. Now, why don’t you sit up, and I’ll take some photos for your file.”

Thankfully, the process was harmless. The nurse kept the conversation light and helped distract Eddie enough that his internal breakdown didn’t cause his legs to give out beneath him when she asked him to stand. The nurse took his vitals and asked him a few standard questions, tracking down his answers into her tablet, before finally standing back to her feet, pushing the rolling stool away toward the wall. “The doctor will be with you momentarily. Have a great day, Mr. Diaz.”

Eddie waved weakly before sitting back down on the exam table. He wanted to go home and crawl into bed, but the young Sentinel knew his parents would pounce as soon as they left him alone. Eddie needed some time to get his head on straight and figure out how he would feel comfortable in his own body again.

Maybe if he could drag this doctor’s visit out long enough, Eddie could convince his parents he was tired enough they’d leave him alone.

Dr. Andrew Maurer, an older Sentinel with light hazel eyes and a white coat that fell past his knees, came into the room to explain most of what he already knew—he’d manifested as a Sentinel. “As I’m sure you’re already aware, your five senses have become heightened. It will be an uncomfortable adjustment period, but with the assistance of the suppressants and a mentor, you will learn to control the enhancements. Once you have access to the Spirit World, you will meet your Spirit Animal, which is also a helpful companion.”

“I forgot about that,” Eddie admitted quietly, zipping back up his hoodie and hunching his shoulders. “That might be the only good thing to come out of this.”

“You don’t sound very excited,” Dr. Maurer observed with a slight crinkle between his brows.

Eddie chewed his bottom lip and couldn’t meet his eyes. “I’d hoped the Blessed Gene skipped me.”

The doctor let out a sigh and set his tablet back down on his lap. “You’ll learn to adjust, Eddie. I know it’s frightening and unfamiliar at first, but just give it time.”

The young Sentinel didn’t want to tell him that he dreaded his parents and their reactions more than figuring out how to handle his newly heightened senses.

“I’ll be right back with your parents,” Dr. Maurer told him. “Then we can discuss the path forward.”

As promised, a few moments later, Helena and Ramon Diaz bustled into the room and converged on either side of Eddie, running their hands over his face and through his hair. He flinched away from the new sensations that burned across his skin and burrowed further into his hoodie. At least his parents had the mindfulness to look embarrassed for not considering his newly enhanced senses.

“Now, Mr. and Mrs. Diaz,” Dr. Maurer began, crossing one leg over the other. “I’ve written a prescription for the suppressants, so they should be ready to pick up on your way home. Please ensure that Eddie takes them once a day with food, or he’ll be nauseous for a few hours after.” He reached over to pick up a stack of papers from the countertop and held them out for Eddie’s parents. “My team has compiled a list of mentors the GSGA offers for this area, and you’ll find their information and bios—“

“Oh,” Helena shook her head and tried to hand the papers back. “No, we won’t be needing this information.”

The doctor’s eyebrows shot towards his hairline. “Excuse me?”

Ramon cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. “What my wife means to say is that I will be mentoring my son.”

Well. That was certainly a surprise. Eddie’s brow furrowed. As far as he was aware, now that Eddie had manifested, he was old enough to help out at the ranch. With the chores split between the two of them, Ramon had always said that he planned to return to work as an engineer. Where would he find the time to train Eddie?

“Are you registered with the GSGA?”

“Well, no,” Eddie’s dad frowned and shared a look with his wife. “Not yet.”

Dr. Maurer’s lips twitched downwards. “It’s Texas law to match young Sentinels and Guides with qualified mentors, Mr. Diaz. Please see Ms. Louis up at the front desk. She can start the registration process and discuss a few training dates with you.”

Eddie’s parents didn’t look especially happy about the prospect of putting actual work in to teach their son, but they conceded easy enough. Dr. Maurer finally stood up to shake all of their hands before leading them out to the lobby. “It was a pleasure meeting you all. Eddie,” he said with a small smile, “good luck.”

XX

Back at home, Eddie managed to hold his parents off on their interrogation by playing up his exhaustion and pain level. They were more accommodating than usual, which was nice, but Eddie knew his parents were just waiting for the opportunity to dig their claws into him.

Adriana and Sophia snuck into his room that night when he pretended to be asleep, poking at him from beneath his comforter until he begrudgingly yanked it down from over his head. “What?” He hissed.

His sisters, looking completely unperturbed, climbed onto his bed in a rush, although they were careful not to touch him—small miracles. “So,” Sophia started, leaning in close enough that he could smell her spearmint toothpaste. “You’re a Sentinel.”

“Obviously,” he drawled, rolling his eyes.

“What’s it like?” Adriana asked in a hushed whisper. “I know what Dad says it’s like, but that’s different! It’s Dad!

Eddie rubbed a hand over his face, forcing himself to look away from the light shining through the crack in the door. “It’s…a lot. Overwhelming.”

Sophia’s face scrunched up. “Is it bad?”

“Kind of,” he admitted. Nothing about his manifestation experience had been positive. Although… “I did get my tattoo.”

Both of his sisters made matching noises of intrigue in the back of their throats. “Let’s see it, then!” Sophia encouraged, gesturing for him to lift up his shirt.

He rolled his eyes again for good measure before relenting, switching to turn on his bedside lamp so that they could see.

They were quiet, sucking in sharp breaths and moving incrementally closer. “It’s so pretty,” Adriana mumbled, reaching out a hand to touch. Eddie backed away with a glare, and she had the decency to look embarrassed.

“It’s fine, I suppose.”

Sophia scoffed. “It’s your tattoo—different from every other Sentinel and Guide’s out there. It’s more than fine ! It’s unique!”

“Is it true that they can change?” Adriana asked, bringing her knees up to wrap her arms around them.

Eddie dropped his shirt and settled with his back against his headboard. “It would only change if I were to ever bond.”

“Which you won’t,” Sophia stressed, waggling her pinky finger in front of him. “Right?”

“Right,” he agreed easily. His feelings on bonding hadn’t changed just because he had manifested as a Sentinel.

“But how ?” Adriana puzzled with a frown.

Eddie glanced between his sisters and sighed. His parents had spoken enough about finding a Sentinel or Guide for all of them when it was time, but they didn’t really touch on the specifics. He kind of hated that he was the one to explain this. “When someone with the Blessed Gene finds a counterpart that they like enough—it’s not that soulmate crap that Mom and Dad keep trying to sell—then they can decide to have a bonding ceremony. It’s kind of like a wedding but more . A priest says a lot of really flowery words, the Sentinel and Guide recite some vows, and then they have to…” He grimaced. “Exchange blood.”

His sisters flinched away from him with matching expressions of horror, squealing “ ewwww, ” under their breath.

He nodded in sullen agreement. “ Right ? They can do it any way they like. There is no specific method to follow; some people prick their fingers, some use knives, and others use their teeth .” Eddie leaned in on that last bit, enjoying watching them shudder in disgust.

Eddie couldn’t blame them. He thought the entire concept was unsanitary and had a similar reaction when his dad told him about it. Plus, when a Sentinel and Guide bonded, they were connected on an entirely new level. A bonded pair had some semblance of a cognitive link. They couldn’t read the other’s mind or anything, but they were far more attuned to each other than before the ceremony, even when they were apart. A Sentinel or Guide in California could know what their counterpart in Florida felt if they concentrated hard enough, and their connection kept the Sentinel from falling into a fugue state more often than not.

After years spent having the bond shoved down his throat and now experiencing the manifestation himself, the thought of that kind of intimacy—someone so attuned to his emotions—felt like something out of a nightmare.

“You know Mom and Dad are never going to let it go now,” Sophia grumbled, finally pushing herself off the bed and encouraging Adriana to do the same.

Eddie blew out a frustrated breath and caught his baby sister’s arm when her legs tangled in his sheets. Once she had both feet safely on the floor, he tried to rearrange his expression into something more stoic. “I know. It’s going to be awful.”

“We’ve got your back, Hermano !” Adriana whispered, grinning at him with the gaps in her teeth.

His lips twitched upwards against his better judgment. Eddie shooed his sisters away and moved to turn off his lamp. “Thanks, guys. Goodnight.”

XX

Thankfully, the use of the suppressants made life bearable until his father completed the state-mandated training sessions to register as a mentor for the GSGA. It took about three weeks, during which the family hired two temporary ranch hands to tend to the land and animals. Eddie was able to take breaks during the school day when he felt overwhelmed before Ramon returned home with a scowl and a slump in the line of his shoulders. With her husband gone, Helena hadn’t had much chance to get Eddie alone to discuss a bond with him yet, but the young Sentinel was sure the “talk” would be coming soon.

While Eddie had a small reprieve from his parents, his friends bombarded him with questions about what it was like being a Sentinel. He was the first in his grade to manifest, which meant the entire seventh grade suddenly found him the most interesting boy they could get their hands on. He constantly got pulled in different directions, whether by his usual friends wanting to know every detail, the volleyball team fluttering their eyelashes and asking him to come and watch their games, or the baseball team encroaching on his space and trying to convince him to help figure out the opposing team’s plays with his enhanced sight and hearing.

To say Eddie was stressed out was an understatement. At least his teachers and the school administration were understanding of his situation. They tried to help the best they could while not stepping outside their official capacities. Any formal training would have to come from his appointed mentor, which meant that Eddie was surprisingly grateful when his father finally returned home.

They had a family dinner that evening to welcome Ramon back and to hear about his trip to New York, where the training had taken place. “I was surprised,” Eddie’s dad started as he cut into his sirloin with a hum. “A lot has changed since I manifested. Apparently, many of the old rules and regulations were revised when a new Guide manifested about six years ago.”

“All that fuss for one Guide?” Eddie’s mom asked with a quirk of her brow. She buttered her roll with pursed lips while Eddie shared a look with Sophia.

“A Guide who manifested at four years old , Helena,” Ramon stressed.

Helena choked on her bread, clearing her throat and bringing up her napkin to wipe her mouth. “What? How is that even possible?”

Eddie’s dad frowned, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of his beer. “Trauma, I think, is what they said. I guess it’s pretty hush-hush until he’s of age.”

“That poor boy,” Helena tsked, reaching over to grab hold of Eddie’s hand. “I’m so glad you weren’t subjected to anything like that, Edmundo.”

“Please don’t call me that, Mom,” Eddie grumbled, feeling a little sick at the thought of someone so young going through what he did. He knew manifesting as a Guide was different, but it couldn’t be any less painful.

Eddie shuddered, setting his fork and knife down and rubbing his hands over the thighs of his jeans, eager to change the subject. “So, Dad, when can we start training?”

His dad perked up at that. “Tomorrow after school. I need to take stock of the ranch in the morning. When you get home, I’ll start showing you the ropes, and we can get started on teaching you a few exercises. Once you get into the swing of things, I’ll finally be able to return to work.”

Guilt crawled up Eddie’s throat. He knew they made money on the cattle at the ranch, but his dad had been eager to return to his job as a petroleum engineer for almost his entire life. Eddie was the one holding him up.

“What kind of things are you going to teach him, Dad?” Adriana asked, finishing the rest of the okra on her plate.

Ramon took another sip of his beer before threading his fingers together, setting his elbows on the table. “Eddie needs to learn how to keep control over his heightened senses. I’d like to find a baseline of where he’s at first before making any decisions. The instructors at the GSGA said that everyone learns at a different rate.”

“That’s what my teacher says, too,” Sophia grinned, gently kicking her feet against Eddie’s underneath the dining room table. “She says that’s okay if people go at their own pace.”

“I’m sure Eddie ,” his mom emphasized, earning her a grateful smile from her son, “will do great.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Eddie sighed with his lips twitching upwards.

XX

The peace between Eddie and his parents lasted a full two weeks after Ramon returned home from New York. Eddie was excused from football practice until he learned control over his heightened senses, so every day after school found him on his family’s ranch with his father.

While exhausting, training wasn’t too overwhelming or tedious. Ramon was more patient and understanding than Eddie ever expected, so walking their property and learning how to care for the animals was a lesson in and of itself. When Ramon grew restless at times, Eddie made sure to pay extra attention to their task to ensure he didn’t hold his father up any more than he already was. The constant guilt continued gnawing at him, but he shoved it down the best he could.

Adriana and Sophia were under strict orders to keep the noise level in the house down to a minimum until Eddie could handle it, so the girls spent most afternoons at their friends’ houses. Eddie and Ramon worked from the moment he came home from school until dinner, where Helena grilled them both on their progress.

The young Sentinel learned breathing exercises to calm his heart rate when he found himself anxious or overloaded, which worked well when he actually put his mind to the task, and they spent a lot of time focusing on one of his five senses to figure out his baseline—which is where their first argument arose.

“Edmundo, if we’re going to do this right, you can’t lie to me,” his father stressed, curling both hands around the wooden fencepost until his knuckles whitened.

Eddie threw his hands up in the air, exasperated, lifting his eyes upwards as if the heavens had answers for why his dad acted like such an ass. “Why would I lie about this, Dad? That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Because, Mijo, I know for a fact that you can’t see the largemouth bass or bluegills in the creek up against the property line. I’ve taken you fishing there before, so that’s the reason you know what kind of fish can be found there.” Ramon shook his head and closed his eyes as if in disappointment. “And I know that you can’t hear our neighbors talking about what to have for dinner on their front porch.”

Eddie groaned low in his throat and pressed the palms of his hands against his eyelids. He shook his head and glared back up at his father, scowling. “You told me to concentrate, and I did . You told me to tell you what I could see and hear, and I did . I don’t understand why you could possibly think I’m lying! Or why!”

Ramon pinched the bridge of his nose as if Eddie were the one who was being unreasonable here. “I know you can’t do either of those things because I can’t do them, Edmundo!”

I’m not you! ” Eddie exploded, his throat straining as he shoved away from the fenceline. “Believe what you want,” the young Sentinel snarled, backing up towards Helado to untie his lead, “but I’m done for today.”

Without looking back at his father, Eddie shoved up onto Helado’s saddle and pushed the horse forward, racing back towards the barn and ignoring the shouts of protest behind him.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

If Buck is a powerful Guide, then it would stand to reason that his Sentinel is badass too ;)

Thank you to everyone who has given kudos/commented/bookmarked this fic. It's been a true pleasure writing it and interacting with y'all. I'll see you next week!

Chapter 22

Summary:

Eddie is a protective big brother

Notes:

Happy Sunday, and happy Father's Day to all of the dads out there! I hope you had a wonderful week.

S/O to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

I love how much everyone loves Eddie, it makes me happy. He's such a protective older brother, y'all. I hope it shows here! You meet someone who will be important in Eddie's life, and while I'm not really big on OC's, I like having cause --> effect. Hopefully you'll come to see why :)

Enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (28)

Part III

Chapter 22

Unfortunately, the arguments between Ramon and Eddie regarding his advanced abilities continued past the one in the field. Ramon never budged on his insistence on his capabilities as the only possible benchmark. Over the following few weeks, the two repeated the same argument, going back and forth almost constantly, with Helena stepping in between trying to play peacekeeper. With her own temper rising, the Diaz household felt more like a ticking time bomb than a home. In the end, Eddie lit the powderkeg, despite all his efforts to keep it contained. He grew tired of the unceasing attacks to his character, finally demanding that his parents find out if he was lying by having him tested by Dr. Maurer.

After a round of tests at the Center, Dr. Maurer concluded that Eddie was, indeed, different from other Sentinels. Moreover, the enhancements to his five senses went further than others with the Blessed Gene, advancing the bar by which they could compare other young Sentinels. A representative from the GSGA came by to confirm the Center’s results, adding the information into Eddie’s file and speaking with Ramon and Helena about revising the young Sentinel’s training strategy.

“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you, Mijo,” Ramon sighed and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, tightly squeezing, as he led Eddie out to the truck. “I didn’t realize this was possible.”

“A young man manifested at four years old ,” Helena scowled. “Anything is possible.”

Eddie chewed on the inside of his cheek and kept his mouth firmly shut; he had no desire to remain involved in the arguing now his part had proven true. His parents had been arguing for the last two weeks, going back and forth about what to do regarding Eddie. Helena had grown more and more anxious in the months since Eddie manifested. She certainly wasn’t happy with her husband for basically blowing him off regarding his abilities, while Ramon, on the other hand, was in an all-around foul mood, determined that he was in the right, as always.

An uneasy tension had followed them around for too long, leaving the entire Diaz family strung out and severely unhappy. Ramon’s apology didn’t seem to mollify Helena, so the ride back to the ranch was silent and awkward. When they made it home, Eddie retreated into his bedroom while his parents sniped at each other in the living room. It wasn’t long before Adriana and Sophia snuck into his room, both of their expressions drawn with annoyance.

“They’re arguing again,” Sophia exhaled in frustration, crawling onto Eddie’s bed while he watched on from his desk. He pushed his English textbook to the side, grumbling at the homework he’ll need to finish later.

Adriana climbed up beside Sophia and lay her head in her lap, encouraging her sister to absently play with her hair. “When do you think they’ll stop?”

“Either when you manifest, Soph, or when Mom finally gets around to asking me about a bond,” Eddie ran his hand through his hair and tugged on his bottom lip with his teeth. “I know she’s been chomping at the bit to, but Dad has been fending her off until I’ve got a bit of training down.”

“Is that really all there is to it?” Sophia asked incredulously.

Eddie shook his head, frowning. “Of course not. Mom’s pissed at Dad for not taking me to the Center earlier, and I’m sure she’s also anxious about him going back to work. I bet it will be hard for her when he’s not around much anymore. I wonder if she’ll start looking at Guides for me to make her and dad feel better about all of it.”

“But,” Adriana hesitated, “you only manifested a few months ago. There aren’t any other Guides in your class yet.”

“Trust me, I know,” the young Sentinel scowled. “I bet that as soon as I get into high school, she’s going to start setting up ‘interviews’ for me.”

“What are you going to do, then?” Sophia asked, running her fingertips through her little sister’s long hair.

Eddie shrugged. “I don’t think I’ll really have a choice except to go through with them. It doesn’t mean I’ll bond with anyone, though. We have a deal.”

Adriana grinned, her gap teeth slowly growing in. “A pinky promise.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Eddie shook his head fondly at his sisters. “A pinky promise.”

XX

Training with his father went much smoother over the next few months. Ramon seemed to understand that Eddie responded better to challenges with words of affirmation and encouragement than tearing him down emotionally, though it was touch and go there for a while. His dad wasn’t willing to teach Eddie how to connect to the Spirit Realm just yet, but considering the amount of time and mental effort that went in to creating that link, Eddie agreed to push it off until later.

With Ramon returning to work full time, they settled into an unsteady routine where Eddie would wake up two hours earlier than normal and meet his father out in the pasture, talking through everything he could see or hear with his senses. After their chores, Eddie would work with his dad on his other three senses—smell, touch, and taste. When he could finally get through the day without feeling as if his head were going to explode, between the suppressants and building control, Eddie received the all-clear to return to his classes and football full time.

Sadly, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year already passed, the football season had ended. Now that it was spring, Eddie could have tried out for the school’s basketball team or a club’s baseball team if he wished, but he decided he needed a break after the toll manifesting and training took on his body. Eddie didn’t want to return to sports until he was one-hundred percent sure that he had his abilities under control. He owed it to himself and his teammates to have his head in the game.

Things around the house were…different. With Eddie finally having his feet back under him, Ramon started weekend trips to drive out to further cities and towns for work.

When Ramon told Eddie that he needed to step up and be the man of the house, Eddie tried to help his mom as much as he could—he really did. But unfortunately, during his first attempt at making eggs for breakfast, the smoke detectors went off, and the house descended into chaos. On the second try, his mom found him curled in on himself against the kitchen cabinets as his first attempt repeated itself. After that, his mom finally taught Eddie how to at least make scrambled eggs without burning them.

Eddie continued training with his dad with only minor adjustment issues until Eddie’s fifteenth birthday, only a few weeks before starting at La Salle High School as a freshman. Helena had managed to make it through the last year or so without dragging Eddie into a full-blown conversation (argument) about bonding. Still, she wasn’t above dropping passive-aggressive comments here and there to keep the topic at the forefront of his mind.

The young Sentinel was sure Sophia would have pushed back against his mother’s comments with a ferocity he could never manage if she weren’t approaching puberty herself. Helena and Ramon were steadily transferring their overbearing attention from Eddie to his younger sister, causing the entire household to hold their breath in anticipation.

Thankfully, high school wasn’t nearly as daunting as he expected. Eddie’s friends stuck by his side as if he could protect them from the upperclassmen who either ignored them completely or scowled fiercely when the freshmen stumbled too close to them in the hallways. He had to remind his friends, repeatedly , that just because he was a Sentinel didn’t mean that he had superpowers or anything as ridiculous as that.

Because three different middle schools fed into his high school, Eddie met three different students with the Blessed Gene in his classes—two other Sentinels and a Guide. They were all behind Eddie in their training schedules, but none of them had dipped their toes into training in the Spirit Realm. So, when Joseph, the freshman Guide, suggested they meet once a week to practice together, everyone jumped at the chance to advance.

Eddie knew that his parents would be overjoyed at him taking the initiative to train with other kids his age, especially with his dad traveling more often, but he decided to keep the knowledge to himself for a while. With Sophia still not manifesting and their parents making noise about taking her to get tested at the Center, Eddie wanted to keep quiet on his own activities until he might need it to take the heat off of Sophia.

Adriana, of course, didn’t care for the rest of the family’s attitudes and blew past all of them whenever someone was in a bad mood. She would talk over anyone complaining and play the piano obnoxiously loud whenever she felt as if the family were careening towards another argument. His baby sister single-handedly kept the entire Diaz family from blowing a fuse for as long as they did.

Everything came to a head when Helena finally decided that she couldn’t handle not knowing if Sophia would manifest, as either a Sentinel or Guide. So she picked Eddie up on a random Thursday with Sophia and Adriana in the truck’s backseat with matching sour expressions. His eyebrows soared towards his hairline when he picked up on the general mood in the cab, and he frowned at his mom, silently demanding an explanation.

Helena straightened in the leather seat and curled her hands over the steering wheel as she drove them out of the parking lot. “Don’t give me that look, Edmundo—”

“Eddie,” he corrected for what felt like the millionth time.

Eddie ,” his mom relented with a scowl. “It’s been too long. We need to know either way.”

He turned around to see Sophia, who’d sunk in her seat and crossed both arms over her chest. “Are you okay?”

She refused to look at him, keeping her head against the window. “I’m fine. Mom is being stupid .”

“Sophia Carmen Diaz!” Their mother shrieked, causing all of them to jump. “What did I tell you about talking back to me?”

“But I don’t want to go!” Sophia argued hotly, finally turning her gaze to the rearview mirror to catch Helena’s eyes. “This is what you want!”

Helena shook her head, refusing to respond. So the four of them stayed silent the rest of the drive to the Center, nobody wanting to upset her temporary truce. And they remained quiet as they walked through the double-glass doors, where Annabel Louis waited for them with a carefully blank expression.

“Mrs. Diaz, welcome.” Her tone warmed, and her lips twitched upwards into a smile when she saw the young Sentinel. “Eddie, it’s good to see you again. Are these your sisters?”

He nodded, throwing an arm around Sophia and bumping Adriana with his hip. Eddie introduced them with a smile, trying to throw off the tense set of their shoulders. Just like their brother, Eddie’s sisters seemed to like Ms. Louis and her ability to calm them down with a simple look.

The older Guide returned her attention to Eddie’s mom. “Mrs. Diaz, what can we do for you today?”

Helena raised her chin and gestured towards Sophia. “My daughter should have manifested weeks ago. I’d like to have her tested for the Blessed Gene.”

“We can certainly do that for you, but it will take a few hours.”

“We’ll wait.”

Eddie grimaced as his mom took the clipboard from Ms. Louis and started filling out the paperwork. It was going to be a long day.

XX

Ramon showed up three hours later with a scowl placed firmly on his lips as he tugged his hat further down over his face. From what Eddie understood from his parents’ whispered phone argument, his dad had driven back in from a work trip to Marfa. He collapsed into one of the seats in the waiting room beside his wife. “Is there an update yet?”

Helena started to shake her head until Dr. Maurer walked into the lobby with Ms. Louis and Sophia at his heels. Eddie and Adriana immediately checked on their sister while their parents waited for the news.

“Thank you for waiting,” Dr. Maurer said politely, and Eddie couldn’t read anything off his tone. “We drew a blood sample and sent it to our lab. The results confirmed that Sophia does not, in fact, have the Blessed Gene within her DNA.”

“How is that possible?” Helena fumed, her grip on her purse tightening. “Ramon and I are a bonded pair, and Eddie is a powerful Sentinel in his own right. How can Sophia not be one of us?”

“Mom!” Eddie growled, curling Sophia underneath his arm when he heard the near-silent hitch in her breath. “Don’t say things like that!”

At least his mother had the good sense to appear chastised. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Helena sighed, reaching forward to grab on to her daughter’s hand. “That’s not what I meant.”

“What my wife means to say,” Ramon cut in with an expectant look at Dr. Maurer, “is how can she not have the Blessed Gene when both of us do.”

The older Sentinel adjusted his glasses atop his nose. “I’m sure you’re aware of the statistics, but the Blessed Gene is only present in about one percent of people. It’s not a recessive or dominant gene, like eye or hair color; instead, its cause is an abnormal cell division. It’s not inherited as many people believe.”

“Oh,” Ramon blinked, bringing a hand up to scratch at the nape of his neck. “I didn’t realize.”

“Not many people do,” Dr. Maurer told him evenly. “Anyway, thank you for coming in today. If you’d like any more material on the subject, Annabel can provide it.”

The older Sentinel shook their hands and gave Sophia a soft smile before turning on his heel. When Ms. Louis stepped forward and directed Eddie’s parents to follow her to the front desk for payment, Helena cleared her throat.

“Excuse me, but since we’re here, can we also have Adriana tested?”

Eddie’s baby sister stiffened beside him, and he could see Sophia reach out to grab her hand.

The older Guide’s expression didn’t change as she kindly informed Helena that the law requires students to be at least twelve years old before testing for the Blessed Gene.

“Oh,” Helena cleared her throat, obviously embarrassed. “Of course. Thank you for your time.”

Eddie and his sisters followed their parents out to the parking lot, where Sophia immediately attached herself to Ramon’s side. “I’m going with Dad.”

“Sophia—” Helena began to argue, but Ramon cut her off.

“We can talk about this tomorrow, Helena. I’ll take Sophia home and get her into bed.”

The ride home was nearly as uncomfortable as the trip to the Center. However, instead of the tense silence, Eddie’s mom spent the drive attempting to justify her actions. After the third reference to the rarity of a family of only Sentinels and Guides, Eddie grit his teeth and decided he couldn’t let his sister take the heat for something that wasn’t even her fault.

When they made it home, Eddie encouraged his sisters to get ready for bed while he steered his parents into the living room. They sat side-by-side on the couch, a few feet away from each other, and a sinking feeling in Eddie’s chest told him his parents would argue non-stop for the next few days if he didn’t do something drastic. His father said it himself, didn’t he? Eddie needed to step up and be the man of the house.

He cleared his throat and ran a hand over his hair, unable to keep from pacing the length of the rug.

“What is it, Edmundo?” Ramon sighed, leaning over to rest his elbows atop his thighs.

“I don’t want to bond,” he started, holding up a hand to silence his parents when they immediately started protesting. “ But , I am willing to start on the interviews like I know Mom is dying to set up.”

Helena leapt to her feet with a bright, unrestrained grin. “ Oh , Eddie! Really? That’s amazing news.”

“What’s the point if he’s not willing to bond?” Ramon grumbled, taking off his hat to run a hand over his head.

Helena placed both hands on her hips. “Because he could change his mind, Ramon. Agreeing to interviews is the first step. This is good news!” She turned her attention back to Eddie. “Now, come, let’s talk. There are so many things that you need to know about a potential bondmate before you start on the interviews.”

Eddie— barely —kept the groan in behind gritted teeth, reminding himself that as long as he kept his parents distracted, they wouldn’t come down on Sophia as hard for not possessing the Blessed Gene.

He could do this.

XX

He couldn’t do this.

Eddie sat across from the third Guide his mom found for him, trying to keep his hands by his side so that he wouldn’t feel tempted to try and rip out his hair. In the months since he allowed his mom to start setting up interviews, and she had at least been kind enough to space them out as he finished off his freshman year and neared the end of his sophom*ore year.

The first Guide, Laura Ellis, was a sophom*ore from La Salle High School who snorted at the stiff collared shirt and pressed pants his parents stuffed him into and eyed his hair, which, after using copious amounts of gel, he wrestled into lying flat, with distaste. She set the interview up at a neutral location at the nearby mall, where both of their parents left them to fend for themselves at the food court. Their stilted conversation lasted an entire thirty minutes before both of them admitted that they weren’t interested in the other. They agreed to at least try and stay friendly when they saw each other at school.

The second interview didn’t go as well as the first. Abigail Graham, a freshman from the high school across town, somehow got it into her head that she and Eddie were soulmates . She spent an hour and a half talking about herself and the life they would have after graduating high school—most of which involved Eddie taking over his family’s ranch and buying her four new horses. He had no idea where she got her literal notebook of ideas from, but Abigail definitely didn’t take it well when Eddie explained to her that he wasn’t interested in pursuing her—much less bonding with her.

Eddie received a lap-full of strawberry milkshake for that rejection.

At least his third interview came near the end of the school year when all of the students were anxious for summer break to begin.

When he settled into his familiar booth in the food court and watched a seventeen-year-old Guide slide into the seat across from him, Eddie realized with a jolt that his mom was only setting up interviews with women .

Sure, they lived in Texas, where hom*ophobia (unfortunately) ran a little more rampant than in other parts of the United States, but it was generally accepted when dealing with a Sentinel and a Guide. Considering the rarity of those with the Blessed Gene, if a Sentinel and Guide of the same sex connected spiritually and intimately, people didn’t seem to blink twice if they bonded. The people who were uncomfortable with the pairing could simply pretend that it was strictly platonic. For same-sex bonds, they couldn’t have children naturally; but there was always adoption, surrogacy, foster care, donor insemination, and reciprocal IVF if the pair wanted.

Which begged the question, why hadn’t his mother even considered setting him up with a male Guide?

It was painfully obvious from the moment that Clara Keenland, his school’s head cheerleader and junior prom queen, slid into the seat across from him that she wanted absolutely nothing to do with him. “Listen up, Diaz,” Clara tossed her mass of brunette curls back across her shoulder with a scowl. Eddie twitched in annoyance at the use of his last name, but he wasn’t about to correct her—he didn’t have a death wish. “The only reason I’m here is because my father threatened to take away my car if I didn’t show up. Don’t think for a second that I’m interested in bonding with a pipsqueak like you.”

Eddie blew out a rattled breath and slumped with relief. “Hey, no complaints here. If you want, we can sit here in silence for the next hour. I don’t want this either.”

Clara raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow and leaned back against the cracked red leather. “ Excuse me?

“Uh,” he hesitated, realizing that he might have just insulted one of the most popular girls at La Salle High. “Not that I don’t think you’re great, or—or anything. I’m sure you are. But—but, I’m not interested in bonding. At all.”

“Hmmm,” Clara hummed, leaning forward to place her elbows on the table. “I know why I won’t bond, especially with a fifteen-year-old kid who hasn’t even taken Biology yet, but what about you ? What’s your deal?”

Eddie blinked at her. He felt his brows furrow as he tried to figure out why she even cared. “My parents are a bonded pair. They’ve basically shoved the whole idea down my and my sisters’ throats growing up. I want to choose, for myself, who I end up with. Not because some chemicals in my brain tell me that I’d be good with someone or because the universe tells us we’re meant to be together—but because I want to.”

The Guide watched him for a few moments longer, her light eyes flickering across his face. She must have found what she was looking for because Clara gave a short nod and straightened in her seat. “Alright, I can respect that.”

“Why, er,” Eddie started, suddenly curious about her own decisions. “Why don’t you want to bond?”

“Because I’m dating a Division One college quarterback, that’s why,” Clara shot back with a smug slant of her lips. “He’s a Natural, which is why my dad agreed to this interview in the first place.”

Eddie shrugged. “That definitely makes sense. I’m sorry that you’re being forced to sit here with me when you’ve got a boyfriend.”

She blew out a breath, relaxing the line of her shoulders; he’d never even realized it was there. “Thanks, Diaz.” Clara’s features morphed into something considering. “Maybe we can help each other out.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Like how?”

“Like,” the young Guide grinned sharply, “we agree to play nice with each other to get our parents off our backs.”

Eddie leaned back in the booth and crossed his arms over his chest. “You scratch my back; I scratch yours? How would that work?”

The tilt of her head caused her long curls to brush over her shoulders, and he absently noted that she was a very beautiful girl who had about half of the school falling at her heels and the other half wishing they were her. “I still have my senior year left. The other handful of Sentinels that I know are complete idiots that can’t take no for an answer. During my other interviews, most of them have tried complaining to my dad that I didn’t make a good enough effort, so I’m willing to play pretend if it means that I don’t have to give up Cameron. I’ll need you to sit with my parents during a few competitions and ride with me to school on occasion to sell it.”

“So we pretend like you’re my Guide—albeit platonically —and I’m your Sentinel. It would keep my mom from putting me through these interviews, sure. But you get to keep your boyfriend,” Eddie pointed out. “What else do I get?”

Clara pursed her lips. “I can agree to introduce you to a few of my cheerleaders. If we’re going to do this, your reputation will need to get kicked up a few notches. Right now, you’re a nice kid who turned out to be a pretty powerful Sentinel. That’s not enough. I’d suggest that you spend the summer remembering how to play football and try out for the team next year. I’ve got a few friends who can help you with that.”

Eddie’s eyes widened. He wanted to get back into playing since he finally got control over his abilities but hadn’t found a way to start practicing again. “You—uh.” He swallowed thickly. “Alright. You’ve got yourself a deal.”

When she reached out a hand to shake, he took to it without any sign of hesitation or reluctance.

“I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Diaz.”

XX

Notes:

Isn't Eddie the best? He feels like its his responsibility to take the heat off his sister (because his parents are the WORST). Also, fun fact, I already had most of this written until we got one of the latest 9-1-1 episodes, and then I had to go back and rework some stuff because we finally found out what Ramon does for a living.

ALSO - can anyone spot the small easter egg/cameo that I had in this chapter? (hint: not in the 9-1-1 verse)

Thank you to everyone who has commented, given kudos, or bookmarked this fic. Because of all of your encouragement, it makes the rest of this story so much easier and fun to write.

Have a wonderful week, and I'll see you next Sunday!

Chapter 23

Summary:

Eddie makes it through his junior year of high school with a minor crisis and a new friend.

Notes:

Happy Sunday! I hope you had a wonderful week. To anyone in Texas or one of the southern states this summer, I hope you're finding a way to stay cool. It's been around 104 for the past 3 weeks where I'm at and I'm kind of dying a bit.

(BTW - if anyone caught the Hannibal reference in the last chapter, kudos!)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter. It was a lot of fun writing it!

Thank you to my wonderful beta, @MugiwaraLexi

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (29)

Part III

Chapter 23

The summer before Eddie’s junior year of high school went differently than he’d previously anticipated. Originally, he thought he’d spend the months off school helping his dad and hanging out most days with his friends, having bonfires in the middle of nowhere and cooling off in the frigid springs on their properties.

Sophia was old enough to help out around the ranch now, despite their parents’ grumbling about her being a Natural. With Adriana at a summer camp, his mom putting more hours at the hospital, and his dad traveling for most of the week for work, Eddie was tasked with teaching her everything he’d learned about taking care of the land and animals over the past two years. He was grateful when she didn’t complain even once; instead, she took every new task in stride and looked at Eddie as if he hung the moon.

His little sister might still be grateful for taking the heat off of her not manifesting with their parents. Eddie didn’t mind; he wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

With the two of them working together, his hours on the ranch got cut in half. Eddie took advantage of his free time by taking Clara up on her “offer”, getting in touch with her friends on the football team. He wasn’t sure what kind of dirt Clara had on varsity’s entire first line, but they welcomed him into their practices with minimal fuss. Sure, they ribbed him a bit for his age, but once Eddie hit a growth spurt—thankfully not looking like he was in middle school anymore—and proved that he actually had some talent, the football players were actually… cool .

Surprisingly, most of the team defied the typical “asshole jock” stereotype. They weren’t the type of guys to bully the kids they saw as the bottom of the high school food chain to preserve their image or reputation, which Eddie appreciated. They also didn’t complain when Eddie dragged his friends with him to their senior parties every other weekend, and they had more than enough tips and tricks for Eddie to find his second wind as Linebacker. The long hours they spent practicing in the Texas sun were, thankfully, enough to earn him a starting position on the junior varsity team.

The more time he spent around the football team, the more willing Clara seemed about being seen with him. While their agreement was mainly about keeping their parents off their backs while they lived their own lives, the junior prom queen still had her reputation to consider. Until Eddie made a name for himself and carved out a place with the more popular crowd, Clara ignored him to the best of her ability.

Eddie thought about being offended, but he couldn’t find the energy. Clara was obviously one of those girls who spent years cultivating a certain “look” and did everything in her power to keep it that way. Her supposed “friends” were more like minions who were grateful that she deigned to allow them to bask in her presence, which Eddie continued to snort at, but they seemed willing enough. If keeping his parents off his back about the idea of bonding meant humoring La Salle’s “It” girl, then so be it.

Besides, she wasn’t all bad. When Clara was “generous” enough to take Eddie out to lunch a few weeks into their arrangement, she quickly realized that Eddie didn’t actually enjoy being addressed by his last name. While she didn’t stop using it herself (“it’s not my style, Diaz ”), Clara somehow managed to get everyone else to call him “Eddie” overnight.

Though he couldn’t prove it, some amount of threatening happened somewhere; he is convinced.

By the time school started up again, Eddie had earned himself a spot at “the” lunch table, which consisted of the senior varsity football first line and their band of cheerleader girlfriends. Surprisingly, the girls were fifty times more difficult to win over than the guys. With the football players, Eddie just had to prove that he could find his way around a field. With the cheerleaders, they only followed Clara’s lead to an extent. As a result, he found himself snapping back against back-handed compliments and disdainful sneers, earning him more than a few re-assessing looks when he refused to let anyone walk all over him.

Growing up with two sisters with backbones had prepared him for this.

When Eddie and Clara finally spent more than a passing few moments together, he let it slip to his parents that he was “seeing” a Guide—as casually as possible. As expected, they were over the moon, pressing him for every little detail that he decidedly kept close to his chest. They wanted to know how long they’d been dating (they weren’t), if she was a nice girl (ha—no), and if they would consider bonding ( absolutely not).

Despite his mom’s disappointment in his non-answers, her mood had sailed higher in the months since Sophia’s confirmation as a Natural. The snippy comments and sighs of disappointment got shoved to the side when Helena could talk to Eddie about Clara. While Eddie hated every second of those conversations, he loved his sister and knew it was worth a little pain if it meant keeping everyone else happy.

Eddie and Clara’s polite ruse transitioned into friendly territory on the night of the football team’s first home game against El Paso High. The entire school had spent the last few weeks hyping the team up and leaning into the decade-old rivalry by decorating the halls with colorful banners and posters depicting the two mascots in a headlock.

Game night itself was pure chaos—the stadium packed to the brim with students, parents, and spectators decked out in their school’s colors and swinging echoing cowbells, opposing bands playing to out-perform the other on the sidelines, and the cheerleaders working their hardest to get the crowd as rowdy as possible.

The game itself was intense, with both teams fighting through blood, sweat, and tears to take back the lead. The score crept higher and higher as the night went on until La Salle scored a last-minute touchdown as the clock ticked down to zero.

If the beginning of the game was chaos, then the end of it was pandemonium. The stadium erupted in cheers, and the students rushed onto the field, hopping over railings and bypassing amused security guards to celebrate with the team.

Eddie probably would have been right in the thick of it if he hadn’t ducked underneath the stands with his arms wrapped around Clara, rocking her back and forth as his knees dug into the damp grass. Their time together paid off because his hearing had zoned in on the quick uptick of her heart rate and the shallowness of her breath a few minutes into the fourth quarter. He had excused himself from where he’d sat with his family, assuring his sisters he was fine and made his way down to the track as quickly as possible. After slipping past the teacher guarding the gate, he managed to usher Clara away from the rest of her cheerleading squad without them paying too much attention.

She only had time to toss him a grateful look before her mind shut down, shuddering under the considerable weight of the stadium’s rampant emotions. Eddie had never calmed an overwhelmed Guide before, but Sentinels were hard-wired for it. Once he had Clara away from the crowd, he over-exaggerated his breathing so she would match his.

His hands were busy rubbing small circles over her back and running a hand over her hair to help calm her down, and Eddie let out a low hum so that Clara could focus her hearing on it from where she pressed against his chest.

They remained seated until the final buzzer declared the game over, and the stands went wild above them. Clara jerked back in surprise at the noise, displaying her wide, bright eyes that were no longer glassy and unfocused. Her nose scrunched up in confusion as he slowly let her go. “Diaz?”

“How are you feeling?”

She paused, running a shaking hand through her hair and taking stock of herself. “I’m better. What happened?”

“I saw you dropping out on the track. I thought you might not want an audience for it.”

Clara blinked slowly before her shoulders slumped in relief. “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”

Before he could react to her unexpected gratitude, the young Guide slid a hand into a pocket of her uniform to pull out a thin, compact mirror. Clara flipped it open and adjusted her makeup, carefully covering up the redness around her eyes and the tear tracks down her cheeks. When she was finished, Clara took a deep breath, shoved the mirror back into her uniform, and met Eddie’s gaze. The vulnerability on her face had disappeared, replaced by a steely expression that, honestly, scared Eddie a little bit. She leaned forward when he shifted away, pressing a chaste kiss to his cheek. “I won’t forget this, Diaz. I owe you one.”

Eddie didn’t even have a chance to respond before she left, sitting back on the grass and wondering what the hell just happened.

XX

After the night of the football game, something in the way Clara and Eddie interacted with each other changed. Instead of the cold, stony expression she usually held when they spent any amount of time together, the young Guide looked at him with something soft and fond behind her gaze.

Clara had more patience than he thought possible as she helped him in his training as a Sentinel. However, he still hadn’t achieved the one task of connecting to the Spirit World, so they spent a few weeks after both football and cheerleading practice behind the bleachers sitting across from each other, learning how to meditate correctly.

He hit a breakthrough in October. While Eddie’s eyes slipped closed and he focused on his breathing, Clara explained all of her plans for the Halloween party at her house the upcoming weekend. He lost interest in the small details she droned on about, which, looking back, might have been the entire point, and suddenly found himself slipping into a trance.

When Eddie opened his eyes again, a translucent, familiar animal sat in front of him, blocking Clara from his view. He jerked back in surprise with a gasp, completely ignoring Clara’s bubble of laughter. The wolf was beautiful; intelligent dark eyes watched him with a hint of amusem*nt, and the fur covering his sleek body ruffled as he swished his tail over the dying grass. The wolf pawed at him, reminding Eddie of one of his friend’s dogs, and he couldn’t help the grin that stretched over his lips.

“Dios mio,” Eddie breathed, never taking his eyes off his Spirit Animal.

Clara moved over beside him, watching the wolf with interest. “What is it, exactly?”

Eddie’s eyes roamed over the animal, greedily picking up each detail that jumped out at him. “A Mexican Grey Wolf. El Lobo.” He explained. “They’re pretty common in the mountain and tropical forest regions, and can survive even in the desert. The Grey Wolves are social, living in packs with these really complex social structures—like alphas, a breeding pair, and helpers. They’re big on scent markings and are more vocal than other wolves, and their packs can get huge—at least up to thirty if there is a lot of prey around.”

Clara let out an impressed whistle and nudged his shoulder. “How do you know so much about them?”

“My sister, actually.” Eddie reached out both hands to run his fingers through his Spirit Animal’s fur, and he was only a little disappointed when they went straight through with tiny sparks dancing at his fingertips instead of connecting with anything solid. “Adriana had a school project about wolves and asked me to help her. During one of our research binges, I came across El Lobo and just kind of…fell in love. I think they’re beautiful animals.”

If it were possible, Eddie would swear his wolf preened at the praise.

The young Guide chuckled under her breath. “Well, congratulations on getting a Spirit Animal you like so much. The next step is to name him.”

Eddie co*cked his head as he examined the wolf in front of him, thinking through a list of names he was familiar with. “Fenrir,” he decided, his lips tilting upwards when his Spirit Animal’s ears twitched and followed Eddie’s movement. “The child of Loki and is said to be the one to finally kill Odin, the king of the Norse gods.”

“That’s dark,” Clara acknowledged, though he could practically hear the smile stretching over her lips. “I love it.”

XX

Over Thanksgiving break, Eddie got introduced to the important people in Clara’s life, including her parents, younger brother, and boyfriend. Clara’s mom and dad were nice enough, if not a little stern. They were oil tycoons who made sure their kids wanted for nothing, living in a mansion sitting on fifty acres just outside of town. Her younger brother, Mason, had recently turned eight and was obsessed with horses, which meant his ocean-blue eyes lit up in excitement when Eddie explained that he lived on a ranch with an array of animals—including horses. After Mason bullied an invitation to visit Helado, Clara whisked Eddie away from her family to bring him over to an unfamiliar house near Main Street.

Clara’s boyfriend, Cameron Cox, was in town during Thanksgiving after winning the annual game against the University of Texas. He was visiting from Texas A&M where he was the starting freshman quarterback, making him one of the pride and joys of El Paso, Texas. When he met them on the porch, Cameron lifted Clara up with both hands on her hips and spun her around, grinning as she let out a delighted laugh. Eddie’s eyes were wide and cautious as he watched them interact, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with seeing Clara—the stone-cold bitch who never smiled unless it worked in her favor—so deliriously happy.

When they ended a, frankly, too-long kiss, Cameron finally noticed him. His eyebrows rose towards his hairline, and he held out a hand. “You must be Eddie. It’s nice to meet you.”

Eddie’s breath caught in his chest at having the full force of Cameron’s crystal-blue eyes turned on him. The quarterback was frustratingly handsome, with blonde curls styled handsomely and broad shoulders that stretched the material of his cream sweater. Eddie’s wide-eyed stare caught on Clara’s knowing smirk, and he forced down the strange feeling of embarrassment to shake Cameron’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Hell of a game this weekend.”

“Thanks,” the young quarterback laughs brightly, wrapping an arm around Clara’s shoulders. “Clara’s told me a lot about you. Why don’t you come on in? We can go sit out on the back porch.”

“She has?” Eddie asked with a furrow between his brows. He followed the couple through a modest one-story brick house that felt homey with an abundance of plants flowing over the sides of hanging pots and bright rays of sunlight flitting through the open windows. Cameron handed him a bottle of water from the fridge and led them out back to a set of cozy rocking chairs. “That surprises me.”

Cameron hummed, settling in on a loveseat with Clara tucked under his arm and rocking them gently while Eddie sat across from them. “She said that you really saved her ass the night of the big game a few months ago. I’ve gotta say, I’m a bit jealous.”

Eddie snorted as he took a sip of water, coughing in surprise and wiping his face on the sleeves of his shirt. “I’m sorry, what? You know she’d never—”

“I know,” Cameron interrupted with an amused grin. “Clara’s loyal to a fault, and I know what you two have going on is strictly platonic, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be a little upset that I’ll never be able to help Clara that way. Only Sentinels can ground a Guide during a drop like that.”

Clara sighed beside him, threading their fingers together. “There’re suppressants for that, though. I had missed my dose because of back-to-back practices, and I forgot in the excitement of the game. It won’t happen again.”

“But what if it does?” Cameron pushed, sinking further back into the cushions. “Eddie won’t be around forever, babe.”

Eddie cleared his throat, trying not to be offended. “I’ll be there for Clara until she graduates. I have her back.” He turned to his friend. “And I’m also just a phone call away. There are studies that show that even talking on the phone to a familiar Sentinel can help a Guide through a drop.”

She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Since when do you read scientific studies?”

Since Sophia didn’t manifest as a Sentinel or Guide , but he didn’t mention that. “I like to read. I’m subscribed to a few articles and medical journals.”

“That makes me feel a little better,” Cameron admitted. “I just feel like I’m lacking a bit.”

Eddie was surprised that a man like Cameron was so open and honest about his feelings, but he surmised that a girl like Clara had to like him for more than just his looks and sports talent. Eddie’s dad would have scoffed and scolded him for getting so emotional . “I’ll help in any way that I can,” Eddie heard himself promise. He wasn’t sure why he decided to make such a huge statement. Two pairs of blue eyes were watching him with something resembling a challenge, and Eddie always found himself in the middle of things when someone needed help. It was like his superpower.

“Thanks, Eddie,” Cameron told him before shifting in his seat so his elbows rested on his knees. “So, I hear that you play Linebacker for JV. How do you like it?”

They spent the rest of the afternoon talking about football and getting to know each other. Besides being ridiculously good looking, Cameron was a great guy who gave Eddie his full attention when he spoke to him, succeeding in making him feel important and seen. However, it felt unnatural because his parents certainly never made him feel like that, and Eddie had no idea what to do with it.

When Clara decided she needed to get Eddie home before it got too late, he slid into her passenger seat after a quick hug from the young quarterback. “So,” the Guide started with a smug expression, “I didn’t realize you played for both teams, Diaz.”

The blood in Eddie’s cheeks flared, staining them with splotches that highlighted his embarrassment. “I—I don’t. I’ve never—”

“Relax,” Clara urged gently, her expression softer than he ever remembered seeing. “I didn’t realize you didn’t even know yourself.”

Eddie forced himself to take a handful of deep breaths, his shoulders sinking further as Clara pressed a certain amount of calm towards him in the confines of the car. Then, when his heart rate returned to a normal rhythm, Eddie brought his eyes up to meet Clara’s watchful gaze.

“I’m not going to apologize,” Clara warned—because, of course, she wouldn’t; it wasn’t her style—“but it’s fine. I know Cameron is something special. It’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed.”

“I didn’t know,” Eddie whispered, his eyes dropped back down to his clenched fists. His fingers slowly lost their white-knuckled grip on his seatbelt as they dropped into his lap.

Clara hummed, starting up the ignition of her Fusion and pulling out onto the road. “There’s nothing wrong with it, Diaz. There’s nothing wrong with you .”

Eddie closed his eyes and sunk back into the leather seat, pinching the bridge of his nose and exhaling sharply. “Yeah, I know.”

XX

Two weeks before Christmas break, Eddie decided to corral Clara into putting in a few driving hours with him. While Eddie’s parents didn’t understand their non-relationship, they still loved having her around and didn’t hesitate to push them together whenever they could. Because of their fondness for her, when La Salle High School had a half-day, Helena and Ramon readily agreed when Eddie offered to pick up his sisters from school.

He took the truck, wanting as much practice as possible with the vehicle he’d take his driving test in when he turned sixteen in a few months. It was slow going, but Eddie was careful not to hit any curbs or press too hard on the gas pedal when he drove down the familiar route. Sophia’s school was only fifteen minutes away, and he felt confident he knew the way.

He succeeded in making it into the designated pick-up lane and flushed when Clara congratulated him with a genuine smile that he was slowly getting used to. However, after ten minutes, Sophia never showed up. Eddie grumbled and asked Clara to call his sister while he swung around to go through the line again. But, again, Sophia didn’t answer, nor did she appear on the second run through the line.

“Where is she?” Eddie frowned, pulling over to the visitor’s parking lot and throwing the truck into park. “Sophia is never late, and she always calls or texts one of us when something comes up.”

Clara shrugged, flipping down the small mirror and tugging out the lipstick from her purse to reapply. “She’s your sister. Where do you think she might have gone?”

He drummed his hands against the steering wheel and thought about it. Sophia had recently been interested in soccer, demanding they watch whatever game was on television the past few weekends. Eddie had set up a make-shift goal for her in one of the pastures and got bribed with her taking over a few chores in exchange for helping her practice. “She might be out at the fields?”

The Guide sighed loudly—more for dramatics than actual annoyance, as he finally learned how to tell the difference—and moved to hop out of the truck. “Well, come on, then.”

Eddie sent a quick text to his mom to let her know about the hold-up and ask if she could pick up Adriana. She replied with an affirmative as they wove around cars in the visitor’s lot, heading towards the east side of the school that housed the track and fields. “It’s been a while since I’ve been over here,” Eddie mused, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Oh right,” Clara hummed with a slight smirk tilting her lips, “You played pee-wee football here.”

“Shut up,” Eddie groused, sending her a weak glare. “For your information, we—” He got cut off before he could finish, his heightened senses picking up an argument from about one hundred and fifty yards away. His eyes narrowed as sight and hearing zeroed in on his sister.

Sophia, dressed in a practice jersey one of her friends must have lent her, was scowling up at a group of three older boys who Eddie recognized from school. Josh Taylor, Tanner Vandenhouten, and Clay Danvers were all his age and on the baseball team together. They were a group of assholes who had been reprimanded for bullying at least twice that Eddie knew of—and for some reason, they had set their sights on Eddie’s sister, of all people. What the hell they were doing here , at the middle school, was a mystery, but there was no mistaking what they were saying.

“I almost feel sorry for you, Diaz,” Danvers crowed, stealing the soccer ball from Sophia and bringing it underneath his foot. “Eddie’s manifested as this badass Sentinel and is f*cking the hottest piece of ass in the school, and you’ll show up next year with nothing . You’ll be the lowest rung of the totem pole without even trying.”

Eddie broke into a run, ignoring Clara’s confused shouts behind him.

“A whole family with the Blessed Gene, and you’re stuck as a Natural,” Taylor continued with a sneer, looming over her with his arms crossed over his chest, attempting to look intimidating. She was two years younger than him and about thirty pounds lighter— of course, he was intimidating.

Sophia sniffed haughtily, trying her best to appear unaffected, but Eddie could hear the uptick of her heart. “You dipsh*ts are Naturals, or did you somehow forget? And Clara has a boyfriend! You’re just jealous she doesn’t want anything to do with you.”

Vandenhouten scowled, reaching out and shoving Sophia to the ground with a grunt, sending her sprawling onto her back in the grass. “Shut the f*ck up, you little bitch!”

Hey! ” Eddie raged as he sprinted towards the scene, eyes flashing red as he took in the unrepentant expressions on those assholes’ faces. “Get the hell away from her!”

Vandenhouten rolled his eyes, stepping over Sophia to meet Eddie head-on, opening his mouth to, probably, give a scathing retort or a useless excuse for his actions. Eddie’s fingers curled up in a tight fist and co*cked back before letting it fly and hitting the junior first-baseman clean across the jaw. Vandenhouten fell to the ground heavily, clutching his face as his expression twisted into one of pain and disbelief.

Blood rushed between Eddie’s ears as his pulse thudded against his neck. His mind, usually restless with identifying and organizing his perceptions, was empty except for the fury blinding him. How dare these assholes lay a hand on his sister? How dare they think they could speak to her like that?

Belatedly, he watched Danvers and Taylor advance on him. Eddie’s body shifted so that he could strike out, planning on going for Taylor’s throat and then taking out Danvers’ weak ankle, but before any of them could move, a sharp whistle caught their attention.

Clara strolled up, looking entirely unaffected except for a raised brow and a twitch of her lips. She stepped around them and carefully helped Sophia standing, ushering her into Eddie’s arms before turning and facing the three baseball players. “Boys, just what do you think you’re doing?”

“None of your business, Clara,” Taylor scoffed, shuffling his feet and flexing his hands.

The young Guide hummed again, placing a hand on her hip and brushing a piece of fake dust from her shoulder. “Really? Because it looks to me like you were harassing my Sentinel’s little sister, which makes it my business. I don’t know what you hoped to accomplish, but you’ve certainly managed to piss me off. Is that what you wanted?”

While Danvers and Taylor bit their lips and shook their heads, Vandenhouten pushed up to his feet and wiped the blood from his lips. “Why the f*ck would we care about what you think, you whor*? Everyone knows you're stepping out on Cox with Diaz here. So, why don’t you get the hell out of here?”

A snarl erupted from Eddie’s throat as he stepped towards Vandenhouten, but before he could hit him again, Clara stuck her arm out, halting him in his tracks. “I’m not letting you get expelled or arrested for beating these three idiots unconscious, Diaz.”

Her expression hadn’t changed during the asshole’s entire speech; in fact, she looked, more or less, bored . Clara stepped forward slowly, taking deliberate steps and grinning sharply. “Tanner, I’ve known you since you were ten years old and placing firecrackers underneath your cat for sh*ts and giggles, so trust me when I say that I know exactly what I’m talking about.” She narrowed her eyes, pushing a wave of fear towards the boys that had Eddie clutching onto his sister a little tighter. “You’re nothing but an abusive, repulsive, vindictive little child that never figured out how to compensate for the lack of your father’s love. Not to mention, you’re a sub-par baseball player, at best , and the only reason you start is that your mom is screwing your coach. You’ve already made the worst decision of your life coming here today to terrorize a kid two years younger than you, but if you don’t turn around and get the hell out of my face in the next five seconds, you’ll quickly find yourself pleading for my forgiveness on your knees . Do I make myself clear?”

Silence and fear pressed further onto Eddie’s lungs, making breathing difficult. Danvers and Taylor stood frozen in place until Vandenhouten let out a furious growl. The two boys had their friend by the arms before he could take a step closer to Clara, dragging him away while Vandenhouten fought against their hold, shouting obscenities at Clara and Eddie.

When they moved far enough away, Eddie let out a sigh and felt his shoulders relax. Clara turned around primly and stopped before him to look down at Sophia. “You okay, Soph?”

Eddie’s sister swallowed thickly and nodded, still clinging to her brother. “Yeah. Thank you.”

Clara winked at her. “Don’t worry about it.” She brought her gaze back up to meet Eddie’s. “By the time those boys wake up in the morning, they’ll be expelled from La Salle High. You won’t need to worry about them.”

“What?” Eddie paused, his brow furrowing in confusion. “How?”

The Guide flipped her curtain of hair back around her shoulder and smirked. “Evidence and testimony will be sent to Principal Haas this evening proving that Josh, Tanner, and Clay were responsible for the vandalism and destruction of property to the principal’s home. Now, I think I’ve earned myself a latte. Come on.”

When she brushed past him, Eddie reached out to catch hold of her wrist. “Wait, everyone knows that a few guys from the swim team did that because Haas cut the funding for their program.”

Clara shrugged, unbothered. “I know. Now we’re even, Diaz.”

Eddie watched her walk away with a hearty mixture of fondness, fear, and awe before Sophia tugged on his hand.

XX

A few days before Christmas, Eddie stopped by Clara’s house to drop off a gift from himself and his family. The Diaz’s had heard about Clara standing up for Sophia and keeping Eddie out of juvie for assault and battery and decided to reward her with a box of handmade items from each of them. Adriana had weaved together a friendship bracelet with a note telling Clara she had a matching one, while Sophia wrote the Guide a three-page long thank-you note and a plea for Clara to teach her how to be as strong as she was. Helena painted her a canvas of bluebonnets in the springtime, and Ramon shared his gratitude by carving Clara a wooden jewelry box.

Eddie, on the other hand, decided the Guide might appreciate something more practical. He’d spent more time with the football team’s first-line cheerleader girlfriends than he ever wanted to in his life, but he managed to snag a handful of rumors and secrets that Clara could use at her discretion. It might be petty and childish, but it made his friend happy.

Clara’s grin was blinding as she opened the door, revealing an outpour of music and the buzzing of conversation in the background. “Finally, you made it!”

“You knew I was coming?” Eddie asked as she dragged him into the marble foyer.

The Guide rolled her eyes. “I know everything, Diaz. Anyway, you’re just in time. I wanted to introduce you to my cousin. She’ll be starting at La Salle High in the fall, so you won’t have to go your senior year without a Keenland to boss you around.”

Eddie didn’t bother fighting back the snort that escaped him. “Right, that’s exactly what I need.”

Clara agreed with a knowing smile. She led him into the kitchen, where Clara’s mom and a few other family members bustled around preparing dishes for dinner. A girl that looked frighteningly similar to the Guide from the back spun around, revealing softer features and a gentler smile than his friend.

“Eddie,” the Guide gestured towards the girl. “I’d like for you to meet my cousin, Shannon.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? Eddie figures out that boys are pretty too and he finally meets Shannon!

BTW - there's no Shannon hate (besides Eddie's parents) in this fic. It's an AU (obvs) so things happen much differently than canon.

Thank you to everyone who has left kudos/comments or bookmarked this fic. You guys are totally the reason I keep chugging along. I'm about 4 chapters into Part IV and I'm having a blast.

Chapter 24

Summary:

Eddie's junior and senior year of high school and a step forward

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone. I hope you had a great week.

Just as a reminder, there's no Shannon hate in this fic.

Anyway, S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi

Enjoy :)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (30)

Part III

Chapter 24

The remainder of Eddie’s junior year flew by in, what felt like, the blink of an eye. He spent long hours at the brink of dawn grumbling through his chores at the ranch with Sophia. If they had extra time before school, his sister would slump against his shoulder at the kitchen table while they slowly made their way through their simple breakfast of cereal or bagels. Eddie learned his lesson earlier in the year when the fire alarm went off every time he went near the stove.

Afternoons not spent at football practice, strength and conditioning, or allowing Clara to drag him around town, he filled with horseback riding out in the pasture alongside Adriana. Recently, his youngest sister got into a popular rodeo event—barrel racing. Eddie dropped Adriana off at a nearby arena where Helena had hired a coach. Once Adriana’s interest proved genuine, their parents bought her a beautiful chestnut quarter horse, whom she named Gus after watching Cinderella during one of their rare family movie nights. With Eddie on Helado, he set up a practice course for his youngest sister, and they worked together on straight line sprints and small circles to prepare for her first event in the coming months.

With the kids busy with school and their various sports practices, Helena took on some extra hours at the hospital while Ramon was away for most of the week on his work trips. To Eddie, the Diaz household felt emptier than ever, so he took full advantage of the limited supervision and newfound freedom. He passed his driver’s test the day after his sixteenth birthday, ecstatic when his parents announced that Eddie could have the truck because Ramon needed something more reliable for his work trips.

At the first opportunity, Eddie ushered his sisters into the backseat of the truck and headed to pick up Clara before driving everyone to his favorite restaurant, the local roadhouse, which served the best fried pickles and okra this side of Texas. At the end of their celebratory meal, Clara wouldn’t hear of him paying, so he reached over to wrap her in a hug whenever she slid her card to the waiter.

She teased Eddie relentlessly about his texting friendship with her cousin, Shannon, and Eddie would roll his eyes every time she brought it up. Shannon was beautiful and a Natural, but, one, she wouldn’t be coming to El Paso until the fall, and two, he had enough going on in his life without worrying about a relationship . He was looking forward to spending more time with Shannon during his senior year, but until then, he focused on finishing his junior year of high school.

On the other hand, Clara got accepted to Texas A&M University and planned on moving into a house her parents bought in College Station with Cameron. She spent her last few months of school deciding on a major, working out which classes she wished to take, and roping Eddie into deciding which pairs of shoes to bring with her to college (hint, it was all of them).

While he didn’t care for helping Clara pack, Eddie realized how much he would miss the Guide, who inadvertently became his best friend. For all of her uppity behavior and holier-than-thou attitude, Clara was brilliant and loyal to a fault. Ever since their “deal” evolved into actual friendship, the young Guide attached herself to Eddie’s side and refused to move, despite the rumors surrounding their relationship and the pressures of bonding to a companion neither of them was in love with. Clara protected his family from teenage bullies, his friends from people who tried to take advantage of them, and his reputation from falling back to the lowest rung on the totem pole in their year together, and Eddie would sorely miss the Guide when she left.

When Cameron mournfully announced that he couldn’t make it to her senior prom at the end of the school year, Clara allowed her feelings of disappointment for all of three seconds before dragging Eddie along as her platonic date. Despite his protests that he could find a way to handle it himself— somehow —she paid for his suit rental, the limousine, and dinner before the event. As expected, she won Prom Queen by a landslide and accepted her crown with a regal smile, winking at Eddie, who stood by proudly cheering her on in the crowd. Eddie sent Cameron photos of his girlfriend’s crowning, warning the talented quarterback that Texas A&M had no idea that a tornado would be gracing its campus in the fall.

When the young Guide’s graduation was finally upon them, Eddie’s entire family attended—including Ramon, who took off work for the day to attend the event—sinking into the seats Clara’s family had saved for them. He was pleasantly surprised to see Shannon there, and he had to do a double-take because of how much she looked like her cousin. Their brunette curls were almost identical, though Shannon had softer features and dark eyes, whereas Clara’s cheekbones could cut glass, and her eyes were the same crystal blue as Cameron’s. The three of them wolf-whistled when Clara proudly walked across the stage, winking up at her friends and family up in the stands. Afterwards, she kept both Eddie and Cameron by her side as she had Shannon take at least one hundred photos of them, posing dramatically with her decorated graduation cap and her arms over both boys’ shoulders.

Before Eddie left, knowing they wouldn’t see each other again for a while, Clara hugged him until he couldn’t breathe, thanking him for being one of the only people she truly considered a friend. He pretended that his eyes weren’t watery, giving her a light shove when she gave him permission to date her cousin in the upcoming school year.

“Don’t miss me too much, Diaz,” Clara winked at him, watching him with a soft expression.

“Get out of here, Keenland,” the young Sentinel grinned, unable to resist pulling his best friend into one last hug before she walked away from La Salle High School for the last time as a student.

XX

Eddie’s mom lamented the fact that Clara was going off to school, loudly sighing and flashing her son a frown every time he walked into a room.

“Are you positive that you don’t want to bond with Clara, Edmundo?” She pushed when he came back inside the house from helping Sophia out at their make-shift soccer field in the east pasture. His sister scrunched her nose in annoyance and strode through the house for a shower while Helena kept him behind.

Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s Eddie ,” he corrected, yet again , “and yes, Mom. Clara’s my best friend. We never intended to bond; you know this. Plus, she has a boyfriend. I thought you liked Cameron?”

Helena waved her hand dismissively and started pacing the length of the living room rug. “Cameron is a nice boy, but he’s not a Sentinel . He can’t give Clara what she really needs; you can.”

“Mom,” Eddie scowled, frustration and offense on Cameron’s behalf stirring within his chest at his mom’s condensation. “In this day and age, the suppressants are strong enough that the people with the Blessed Gene don’t have to bond to live our lives. Sentinels and Guides can be with Naturals and live a perfectly healthy life! If Clara really needs something, she can just call me. We’re still friends, and that’s not going away just because she’s leaving.”

“But your father and I don’t want that for you, sweetheart,” his mother continued, settling down on the sofa with a noisy exhale. “Bonding is beautiful and unique; it’s an experience that every Sentinel and Guide deserves to have. What if your soulmate is out there waiting for you? She’s meant to make you better , Edmundo. The other half of your soul! How are you going to find her if you refuse to at least be open to the idea?”

Eddie’s jaw ticked at his mother’s assumption that his supposed “soulmate” would be a girl. It had taken him a while, but with Clara’s—and the internet’s—help and his sisters’ support, he came to terms with the fact that his instant attraction to Cameron wasn’t just a one-off thing. He was interested in boys the same as he was interested in girls. With that, Eddie determined that he was bisexual, though he hadn’t gotten around to opening up to his parents about it yet.

Based on how this conversation was going, Eddie wouldn’t be able to be honest with them anytime soon.

“I don’t have a soulmate, Mom. I don’t need someone else to ‘complete me,’ or whatever excuse you are trying to make. I’m fine the way I am. I want to be able to choose who I’m with, and not because of some idiotic notion that the universe has someone picked out for me already.” All the breath left him in a rush, his shoulders sinking under the weight of what he was trying to make his mom understand. “Why do you keep telling me that I need someone else to make me better ? Am I not enough?”

Helena’s voice caught, and she brought her hand up to her lips, slowly shaking her head. “Oh, Edmundo. That’s not what I meant at all!”

Eddie’s gaze cut down to his socked feet, digging his toes into the carpet. “That’s what it sounds like. You keep pushing me into bonding. It’s not what I want.”

He heard his mother swallow harshly, followed by a few moments of silence. She finally inhaled deeply and pushed up to her feet, coming around the sofa to run her fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry for making you feel that way, Mijo. That was never my intention. Your father would be able to explain this so much better.”

The young Sentinel snorted, stepping back away from his mother. “No, I don’t think he could.” Ramon was just as emotionally stunted as Eddie, if not more. “Just…” Eddie hesitated, looking back up to meet Helena’s gaze. “Can we just stop? With the bonding talk?”

His mother nodded and closed her eyes, rubbing a hand through her long ponytail. “Yes, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, Edmundo. I just want what’s best for you.”

Eddie thought her “apology” was distinctly lacking, but it was probably the best his mother could do, so he let it go. “Sure, Mom.” He started to back up towards his room. “I’m going to go take a shower.”

“I love you, Sweetheart!!”

Eddie sighed quietly. “Love you too, Mom.”

XX

Over the summer, when Eddie wasn’t busy splitting his time between Sophia and Adriana, he spent his time at the school’s practice field with the football team. The entire first line graduated with Clara, so Eddie thought his chances of earning a starting position were pretty good.

Eddie’s confidence bolstered every time he scanned the sparse stands to see his Spirit Animal, Fenrir, watching him intently from the sidelines, either sitting placidly on the cool metal or prowling along the length of the field. With Clara gone, he found himself missing his constant companion, so having Fenrir at his side kept Eddie from feeling lonely.

His sisters also helped with that, as they became increasingly vocal about their support as football tryouts neared. They seemed to be trying to pay Eddie back for helping with their soccer and barrel racing practices, but Eddie didn’t care for the reasons why; he was just pleased that they seemed intent on seeing him succeed. With their mom picking up extra shifts at the hospital and their dad in Dallas for work, Sophia and Adriana decided he couldn’t go into the days leading up to tryouts without a home-cooked breakfast. Eddie insisted that his usual bagel and cream cheese would be enough, but neither one of his sisters would hear of it, so they forced him into the kitchen chair while they practiced making omelets with fresh ingredients from his most recent grocery run. It took a few tries, but Sophia and Adriana finally accomplished what Eddie never could—an edible meal that didn’t involve a toaster.

When he came home from tryouts a few days later, his hair still dripping from the shower he took in the locker room at the school, his sisters sat side-by-side on the sofa, lost in a television show on Disney Channel. Eddie couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips as he watched his siblings perk up at the sound of the garage door, shutting off the television before spinning around and crowding across the back of the sofa, watching him with expectant looks.

“I made it,” he grinned, not bothering to fight off his laughter as Sophia and Adriana pounced on him, nearly tackling him to the ground with twin squeals of delight.

“I knew you could do it!” Adriana cried, circling her arms around his waist and squeezing hard.

Sophia wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m so proud of you, Hermano!”

He hugged his sisters back, cupping the back of their heads with a sigh of contentment. With their parents gone so often, Eddie started to realize that Sophia and Adriana were the two most important people in his life. His job as a big brother was to protect his sisters to the best of his ability, and he was grateful that he could spend so much time with them these past few years. Despite their two-year age gap, they still looked so much alike, with long, dark hair that fell past their shoulders and light brown eyes that matched his own. Sophia was taller than Adriana, but Eddie suspected they’d even out by the time they were adults.

Eddie was anxious about the upcoming months because of how well everything was going. Sophia would be turning fifteen in the next few weeks, and Adriana would finally be approaching the age where puberty and manifestation would occur. He didn’t want his baby sister going through the same kind of pain that he did when he became a Sentinel, but Eddie also knew how difficult Sophia had it when she received confirmation she was a Natural. It was no surprise which outcome their parents were hoping for, and Eddie didn’t think he had it in him to fake an interest in bonding again to get his parents off his sister’s back if things went south.

Until then, Eddie decided he would focus on enjoying his senior year of high school. He needed to figure out which college he wanted to attend and focus on playing well now that he was finally starting on the varsity football team. Sophia would be a sophom*ore and trying out for the soccer team in the fall, and Clara’s cousin, Shannon, was supposed to be moving to El Paso a few weeks before school started. Based on what he knew from their limited texting correspondence, she would be in the same grade as Eddie and was, apparently, looking to follow in Clara’s footsteps and try out for the cheerleading squad.

Eddie assured Shannon that her cousin had paved the way for her, instructing the rest of the cheerleaders to treat her well on threat of coming back to La Salle High School and ruining everyone’s lives. Plus, he would be looking out for her as well, so Eddie was sure that Shannon would be fine .

XX

Turns out, Shannon was better than fine. As they went through their senior year, everyone could see the resemblance between Shannon and Clara, making it perfectly clear who she was related to. However, where the former prom queen was intimidating and cruel when she wanted to be, Shannon was exceedingly kind and generous. Like Eddie, she carved out a place for herself without letting others walk all over her, but she did it with a gracious finesse that had everyone falling all over themselves to get close to her.

Despite having her infinite choice of friends, Shannon made it clear that Eddie was her priority. The young Sentinel didn’t quite understand her attachment, though he privately assumed that she was trying to fill in the space Clara left behind. He once tried to explain to Shannon that she was great just the way she was and didn’t need to step into anyone else’s role, but that earned him a thorough scolding that discouraged him from saying anything like that ever again.

Unfortunately, Eddie’s parents didn’t take to Shannon the way they had to Clara. He wasn’t sure if it was because she wasn’t a Guide or they didn’t like the way she looked at him, but Helena and Ramon were noticeably dismissive of their friendship.

When he confronted them about it at the dinner table a few weeks before Thanksgiving break, his mom simply shook her head and set her fork down. “Shannon is perfectly nice. We just don’t appreciate the way she falls all over you.”

Eddie rolled his eyes and frowned at his family. “She does not. Shannon’s my friend, Mom, and she can tell that you don’t like her.”

“It’s not that we don’t like her,” Ramon, who was home for dinner for once, argued. “But she’s a Natural, Edmundo, not a Guide. We don’t want either of you getting the wrong idea.”

Eddie’s jaw muscle jumped as he glared at both of his parents. “I’ve already had this conversation with Mom. I don’t have any interest in bonding. If I want to be with a Natural, then I can be. End of story.”

“He’s right, Dad,” Sophia scowled, always having Eddie’s back. “Shannon’s really nice. And what would you say if I decided that I liked a Sentinel or a Guide? Would you say that I can’t like that person just because I don’t have the Blessed Gene?”

“That’s not fair,” Ramon objected between gritted teeth. “Eddie has a responsibility as a Sentinel -”

“Nu-uh!” Adriana shouted, dropping her fork and slamming her fist against the table. “You guys always do this! You think people are better just because they have the Blessed Gene! What happens if I don’t manifest either?”

Eddie blew out a harsh breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had hoped they could get through one family dinner peacefully without everything going to hell. “Soph, Adriana, stop.” He grimaced when they shot him matching betrayed looks. “We can argue about this later, I promise. But let’s get through dinner first before someone says something they don’t mean.” Eddie directed the last bit at their parents, who both wore frustrated expressions, but they didn’t argue. Everyone returned to their meal, and despite Helena’s attempts to pick back up the conversation, the rest of the evening was quiet.

After crawling into bed later that night, his sisters found their way into his room, sitting at the foot of his bed. “They’re never going to change their minds, are they?” Sophia asked dejectedly, wrapping her arms around her knees while leaning against the wall.

Eddie rubbed a hand over his face and looked away. “I don’t think so, no.”

“But what’s going to happen if I don’t manifest?” Adriana whispered, the hitch in her breath telling Eddie that she was holding back tears.

He swallowed harshly and dragged his sister up next to him so he could wrap an arm around her shoulders. “Then I’ll do something about it. I took the heat off of Sophia, didn’t I? I’m your big brother, Adriana; I’m not going to let them treat you any differently.”

Sophia reached a hand over to wrap it around her younger sister’s ankle, giving her a watery smile. “Eddie and I are both here for you.”

A tear escaped from the corner of Adriana’s eye, and she burrowed further against Eddie’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

XX

A week after Eddie’s argument with his parents about their treatment of Shannon, he drove to Clara’s house, where Shannon and her mom were staying. He dropped in to say hi to their parents before ushering his friend into the passenger seat of his truck.

“Okay, okay,” she chuckled, fastening her seatbelt as he slid into the driver’s seat. She rolled her window down, and Eddie knew her well enough to suspect she was soaking up as much cool air as possible after a hotter-than-hell few months in El Paso. “Where are we going again? You said that I haven’t lived until I tried…what, exactly?”

“Fried pickles from the roadhouse,” Eddie grinned, pulling out onto the busy street. “I’ve been craving some ever since Conrad brought some leftovers to lunch the other day.”

“Oh, you’re right! Those smelled amazing!”

When they arrived at the restaurant and got shown their table, Eddie slid into the booth across from Shannon. As expected, she loved the appetizers as much as he did, and he distractedly noticed that her wide smile lit up her entire face.

Eddie swallowed harshly as he watched his friend explain something that happened at cheerleading practice today, leaning forward to look him in the eye and knocking her feet against his, and thought about his parent’s attitude toward her. They didn’t like Shannon because they realized that she liked him . Eddie hadn’t let himself think about relationships that often. With Clara, he never had the time, and she wouldn’t consider letting him date anyone she didn’t approve of anyway, and since then, he’s been spending all of his time juggling football, his family, and Shannon.

He’d always been aware that his friend was beautiful. She looked too much like Clara to be anything but. While he never felt attracted to the young Guide in that way—she scared him too much—Shannon was different. Eddie found himself wanting to be around Shannon as much as possible, pleased that she chose to spend most of her time with him rather than anyone else. The more he thought about it, Eddie realized that Shannon often found a way to touch him by brushing their shoulders or looping their arms together as they walked.

Eddie wasn’t sure of his own feelings, but he thought he could grow to like Shannon if he really tried.

XX

When Adriana’s thirteenth birthday came and went without a manifestation, Helena lasted about three weeks before deciding the youngest Diaz needed to get tested. She waited for a weekend when Ramon was home from work before dragging the entire family to the Center where Ms. Louis greeted them at the front desk.

“Mr. and Mrs. Diaz! Welcome back,” she grinned, leaning over the counter to wave to the rest of the kids. “Eddie, Sophia, it’s good to see you. Is this the youngest Diaz?”

Eddie squeezed his sister closer to him in a show of comfort. “This is Adriana.”

The older Guide came out from behind the desk to shake Adriana’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, sweetheart. My name is Annabel Louis. I assume you’re here to get tested?”

Adriana took the offered hand and looked down at her shuffling feet. Helena cleared her throat and gave Ms. Louis a shaky smile. “Yes, that’s correct. Adriana experienced puberty a few weeks ago, and we haven't seen any symptoms of her manifestation.”

Ms. Louis nodded her head and grabbed the clipboard off her desk. “I understand. Please fill out this paperwork, and I’ll take Adriana back. Remember, the testing will take a few hours.”

“Of course,” Ramon said gruffly, scratching at the base of his neck. “Thank you for taking the time to take a look.”

When they disappeared down the hallway behind the desk, Eddie sat down heavily in one of the chairs in the lobby. Sophia sank into one beside him, leaning over to rest her head against his shoulder. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”

Eddie hummed, ignoring his bickering parents a few chairs away. “Adriana’s strong; we know that.”

“But this is different.”

“I know,” he sighed, adjusting in his seat so it would be more comfortable for his sister. “But she also watched you go through it, remember? She’s got the best role model.”

Three hours later, Dr. Maurer came out with a hand on Adriana’s shoulder. Judging by the expression on her face, Eddie knew exactly what the results would be. He ushered her under his arm while Sophia held their younger sister’s hand on the other side.

“Mr. and Mrs. Diaz, thank you for waiting,” Dr. Maurer greeted, lacing his fingers together after shaking their hands. “We’ve confirmed that Adriana is indeed a Natural. Do you have any questions?”

Eddie watched his parents’ expectant expressions fall, Helena’s shoulders slumping down and Ramon’s tensing. “No,” his mother swallowed harshly. “No questions. Thank you for your time.”

The doctor nodded, waving hello to Eddie and Sophia before heading back to see his next patient. Eddie cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows at his parents, willing them to say something . Anything.

When they remained silent, Adriana wrung her hands. “Are—are you mad at me?”

“No, of course not!” Helena denied vehemently, cradling her youngest daughter’s face between her hands. “We could never be upset with you for something like this.”

“It’s just not the outcome we were hoping for,” Ramon admitted, earning him matching glares from the rest of his family. He hurriedly attempted to correct the situation by rubbing her back. “We love you just as you are, Mija.”

Adriana nodded shortly, turning her face into Eddie’s stomach. “Can we go home, please?”

“Of course,” he assured her, frowning at his parents. “Let’s go.”

XX

Eddie decided he couldn’t stay in the house the day after the news of Adriana’s designation, so once he was sure that his sisters were busy with their own friends, Eddie met Shannon at the park a few miles from the Keenland's property.

Shannon hugged him when he arrived, noticing his dark mood. “Is everything okay?”

Eddie ran a hand over his shortly cropped hair and scowled as he gripped the side of a bench. “Adriana is a Natural.”

His friend stiffened. “Is there something wrong with that?”

He scoffed, shaking his head and folding his arms across his chest. “Of course not; don’t be ridiculous. My parents, on the other hand…”

Shannon chewed on her bottom lip, reaching out to wrap a hand over his bicep. His skin tingled at the contact. “Are they not supportive? I know they don’t like me, but I didn’t realize it was because I don’t have the Blessed Gene. That’s not something anyone can help.”

Eddie wanted to argue, assure her that his parents liked her fine, but he couldn’t find it in himself to lie. He squeezed his eyes shut. “They’re old school, set in their ways. They don’t do it on purpose, but they made Sophia feel like crap when she didn’t manifest, and I know they’re going to do the same thing to Adriana. I hate that I can’t make them see that they’re hurting their own kids. I can’t protect them!”

“It’s not your fault, Eddie,” Shannon refuted, moving closer. “You’re a wonderful brother, and you love Sophia and Adriana so much. I’ve always admired that about you. If Helena and Ramon aren’t going to be there for them, then they know that you will.”

He looked away when she brought herself flush with his side, wrapping an arm around his waist and bringing a hand up to cup his cheek to turn his attention back toward her. Eddie startled at the touch, and his eyes went wide when he realized that she was leaning in—to kiss him .

Holy sh*t.

Eddie froze, panic flooding his veins as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do. On the one hand, he and Shannon were great as friends, and he always appreciated having her as someone he could talk to now that Clara was gone. But, on the other hand, Eddie remembered his realization from the roadhouse. Shannon was beautiful, and he could see himself liking her as more than a friend if he really tried. Plus…if he got together with Shannon, his parents would lose their sh*t. They hated the idea of him not bonding with a Guide, which means that their relationship would take the heat off of Adriana.

That, more than anything, pushed him to meet Shannon halfway.

XX

Notes:

Thanks for reading! Thoughts? Feelings? Eddie is a silly teenager when it comes to women, but he's super protective of his sisters and I really love that.

Thank you to everyone who has commented/given kudos/bookmarked this fic. See you next week!

Chapter 25

Summary:

Eddie completes both high school and college, and realizes what his next steps are

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Thank you for reading and sticking with this story. In case you were curious, I am writing chapter 35 right now, and I think I'll probably cap it out around chapter 45 with how it's going to far. Once I finish up the full story, I'll start posting twice a week.

S/O to my beta @MugiwaraLexi for all of her hard work

Please enjoy <3

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (31)

Part III

Chapter 25

“You can’t be serious, Edmundo!” Helena cried, standing above him while he sat back against the couch, pushing down every instinct in his body that demanded that he fight back against his parents’ onslaught.

Ramon stood beside his wife with his arms crossed over his chest, his frayed cowboy hat lying upside down on the ground where he threw it in anger. “You have deliberately disobeyed our wishes, Son. I can’t even fathom the reason that you decided to take up with Shannon.”

Eddie’s eyes slid over to where his sisters’ heads peer out from around the corner. Sophia had a frown marring her lips while Adriana’s brown eyes were glassy with tears.

“I really like Shannon, Dad,” Eddie began as calmly as possible. It was taking an abnormal amount of control not to lash out at his parents, but Eddie knew he needed to keep their attention on him if he wanted his parents to forget Adriana’s failed manifestation. “I always have. She’s beautiful, kind, and a great friend to me.”

“Exactly,” Helena agreed, far too loudly while throwing her hands out. “A great friend . We just don’t understand why you want to ruin that, Edmu- Eddie ,” she hastily corrected when she saw her son’s eyes narrow. “What happens if this relationship doesn’t work out?”

Eddie wanted to laugh at the idea his mom could ever care if he remained friends with Shannon. His jaw muscle twitched in annoyance at her blatant attempt at manipulation, and he let out a harsh exhale of breath. “Then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Listen,” he started, shifting his weight on the sofa to sit more comfortably. “I turn seventeen next month, and I’ll be hearing back from colleges relatively soon. I’m an adult who can make my own decisions. I’m not asking for your permission to date Shannon. It’s already happening. I just wanted to let you know.”

“And what will you do if we decide to tell you that you can’t see her anymore?” His mom asked with a steely voice, watching him for any sign of weakness.

Thankfully, he’d expected them to pull out all of the stops. Eddie hoped they wouldn’t, but he stopped being surprised at their actions long ago. “You can ground me if you want, and I’ll take my punishment because I still live under this roof. However, none of that is going to keep me from seeing my girlfriend.”

His parents cringed at the term “girlfriend,” but neither followed through on their threat, just as he anticipated. While Helena and Ramon might have old-fashioned views on what Bonding and family should look like, they still loved their children, even if they had a sh*tty way of showing it. They didn’t intentionally set out to make them miserable.

“Just…” Ramon scowled, rubbing a hand over his greying hair. “Go to your room. We’ll talk about this another time.”

Eddie hummed, jumping to his feet without another word, pushing past them toward the hallway. Adriana and Sophia met him in his bedroom and threw their arms around him, thanking him for intervening.

He pulled them in tighter, setting his cheek atop Sophia’s head.

Yeah , he thought to himself. Worth it .

XX

Being with Shannon was easier than he thought it would be. He expected to second-guess himself most of the time, but they got along just as well as they had when they were just friends. During the rest of Eddie’s senior year, he discovered all of the joys of having a girlfriend. He gave her most of his firsts—his first kiss, first time meeting a girlfriend’s family, first sexual experience—which they both enjoyed. However, when the conversation looked like it was heading into deeper territory than Eddie felt comfortable with, he veered it in another direction.

Eddie didn’t know why he felt so distressed whenever Shannon tried to pry too hard into his past or when she got too close to an emotional nerve, but he did everything in his power to assure her that everything was fine. He just wasn’t a touchy-feely guy, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that. Thankfully, she accepted his attempts to push aside the issues easily enough.

Their relationship ended up the talk of the school. With people believing he used to date Clara behind Cameron’s back, Eddie dating Shannon was apparently scandalous . They tried to set the record straight more than once, but the students didn’t really seem to care for the truth. Either way, the attention earned them the title of Prom Queen and King, and they were dragged up on stage to receive their accommodations. Eddie wasn’t sure how he felt about it, though Shannon basked in the limelight, calling her cousin to inform her the moment they got back in the limo afterwards.

Surprisingly, they both got accepted to Texas State University in San Marcos, roughly eight hours southeast of El Paso. While it would be hard being away from his family (mainly his sisters), Eddie was pleased to discover that San Marcos was only two hours away from College Station, which meant he could see Clara for the first time since she moved away. Of course, they had their bi-monthly phone calls where they could update each other on what was going on in their lives—including his spot on the football team, his relationship with Shannon, and Adriana’s designation—but it wasn’t the same as being together in person.

During one of their conversations, his friend helped him decide on a major—Health Sciences. Clara pointed out that Eddie still followed a handful of medical journals and articles, and he had always been interested in the healthcare field. “You don’t have to know what you want to do right away,” she explained to him one night on speakerphone—apparently, doing her nails couldn’t wait even a moment longer. “Health Sciences is a good starting place. If you decide you want to change it later, that’s okay too.”

So, Eddie found his major while Shannon decided on obtaining a Finance degree. She was excellent at math and had helped him study more than a few times during their last year of high school, ensuring he passed all of his classes. The dorms they applied to happened to be right across from each other, which helped ease some of Eddie’s anxiety about moving so far from home. He would have at least one familiar face to rely on whenever he felt homesick.

Graduation came and went, and Eddie hung up his Letterman jacket that carried patches outlining his achievements throughout his high school career. Their football team did exceptionally well in Eddie’s senior year, and he was happy to end on a good note. He loved the sport, but it wasn’t something he ever considered pursuing in college. Texas State didn’t have a cheerleading squad just yet, but they did have a “Spirit Program” that Shannon was looking forward to trying out for, so at least one of them would be pursuing athletics at school.

While Eddie’s sisters were excited for his next step in life, they had difficulty covering up their distress at his upcoming absence. Sophia would be going into her junior year of high school and had plenty of friends on and off the soccer team, and Adriana would finally be entering La Salle High School as a freshman. Her first few barrel racing events didn’t turn out as well as she hoped, but Adriana was never one to give up. She continued to practice every day and was determined to earn a first place trophy in the next few years.

During his final summer in El Paso, Eddie helped teach his sisters how to keep up the ranch for when both he and his dad were gone. He convinced his parents to hire a ranch hand to help with the heavier chores because while both Sophia and Adriana were perfectly capable, Eddie drew the line at risking their safety when it came to stacking hay twice their body weight.

When it finally came time to move into his dorm, Eddie’s entire family tagged along. They were, thankfully, split into two cars, so it wasn’t uncomfortably crowded when Sophia and Adriana decided to drive up with him while their parents rode in Ramon’s Honda. It was a grueling, eight-hour trip that needed more bathroom breaks than he would have liked, but Eddie was grateful to spend the time with his sisters, ensuring they would be alright without him. Plus, getting stuck in a car with his family for so long reminded him that he was excited about being on his own for a while.

As they approached San Marcos, Sophia grinned at him from the passenger seat. “We’re going to be fine, Eddie. Don’t worry about us!”

“I’m always going to worry about you,” he argued, frowning at both his sister beside him and toward the rear view mirror.

Adriana rolled her eyes in the back seat, reaching forward to jostle his shoulder. “You’ve gotta let us be, Hermano. We can take care of ourselves.”

“But—”

“Nope,” Sophia interrupted with a shake of her head. “You’re in college now, and who knows what you’ll do after. Mom and Dad will be fine now that we’ve gotten past the whole manifestation fiasco—thanks to you , might I add.”

Eddie let out a heavy breath. “Are you sure you guys will be alright?”

His sisters shared a knowing look, looking so much alike that his heart ached, and nodded. “We’re sure.”

Eddie allowed his lips to twitch upwards into some semblance of a smile. “Then, that’s good enough for me.”

XX

While many students spent their college years indulging in their first-time freedom away from home with countless parties and late nights filled with drinking every type of alcohol under the sun, Eddie chose to do everything in his power to pay for his own schooling. Eddie knew his parents did fine financially, but they would also need to save every penny to get Sophia and Adriana through school when it was time, so he picked up jobs throughout his four years at Texas State.

During his freshman year, Eddie worked as a server at one of the popular restaurants in San Marcos, the Root Cellar Cafe. He made decent money since most clientele weren’t college kids who couldn’t afford to tip extra. In addition, the customers were fairly nice besides the few bad eggs who did nothing to help his newly-discovered anger-management problem. Everything was pretty fast-paced, so Eddie, more or less, enjoyed his job and didn’t mind the long hours as long as he got paid well.

He and Shannon spent most of their free time together, studying at the library or in each other’s dorm rooms when their roommates were out. He didn’t have much time to make new friends, but Eddie did join the TSSGA, the Texas State Sentinel-Guide Association, an organization that brought together all the Sentinels and Guides on campus. They shared knowledge and information, encouraging one another to grow stronger and help others who struggled with their designation. A few members were impressed by his abnormal abilities as a Sentinel, and two of the other Sentinels asked for private training sessions that Eddie couldn’t find it in himself to refuse. The Guides, on the other hand, were a little offended when Eddie didn’t show any interest in pursuing a relationship with them—platonic or otherwise—but he wasn’t interested in connecting with another Guide besides Clara. They were able to help each other over the phone these last two years, and Eddie didn’t need any more than that while on suppressants.

After having a year under his belt, Eddie adjusted to college life a bit more. He had a better handle on his classes, so he took up a second job at the 24-hour gym on campus. He worked the 5 am–10 am shift before going to class and having lunch with Shannon at the campus cafeteria, then worked the evening shift at the Cafe. His time management skills were something his friends all teased him about, but, thankfully, Eddie kept up with his grades without too much of an issue. When Clara visited with Cameron in the spring after his football season, she convinced Eddie to take a few days off of work and spent the entire weekend with them. Once Shannon heard her cousin was in town, the four of them floated the river during the day and visited the strip of bars, even though Eddie wasn’t old enough to drink just yet, in the evenings.

“Why are you working at a restaurant and a gym, Diaz?” Clara asked while stretching out on the inner tube, bobbing her head along to the music coming from Eddie’s speaker. Many of the students went home for the long weekend, so the river was less crowded than usual.

Eddie raised an eyebrow at her, floating closer while Shannon and Cameron discussed his football season the previous fall. “You know why. I’m paying for as much of my schooling as I can.”

Clara scoffed, bringing her sunglasses down to the bridge of her nose and fixing him with a glare. “Of course, I know that. I meant, why are you working at a restaurant and a gym when you should be doing something in the medical field? You love all that crap.”

“Uh,” Eddie blinked, shifting on his tube and dipping his feet into the water. “Honestly, I don’t think I’m qualified yet. I don’t start getting into my core curriculum classes until next year. And the gym has been good for me. I’ve packed on a few pounds of muscle.”

The young Guide threw her head back and laughed, taking a sip of her drink. “I’ve noticed. Looking good, by the way,” she grinned, and he found himself smiling back. “But there’s no reason not to get a head start on seeing what you might be interested in. I’m sure the hospitals here have some kind of internship for people with your majors.”

“I’ll look into it,” he promised.

Eddie took Clara’s advice over the summer and applied for the Health Communications Student Internship at the nearest hospital to campus. He received his acceptance letter a few days before choosing his classes for his junior year, so he could rearrange his schedule to accommodate the internship. With his days suddenly full, Eddie took a step back from his jobs at the Cafe and gym, promising to help out again during the summer when he had more time.

First and foremost, Eddie found himself loving the high-paced and high-pressure cases he got assigned. Although he was only there to observe and learn as much as possible from the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, Eddie was able to help out in small ways when they were understaffed.

During his junior year of college, while Eddie fell more in love with his classes and new job, his relationship with Shannon suddenly fell by the wayside. She tearfully broke up with him a few weeks after classes began, promising they would still remain friends, but she needed someone present in their relationship and willing to be vulnerable with her.

Although he liked Shannon, Eddie couldn’t find it within himself to disagree with her. She was right; even after three years together, he’d never felt capable of taking the leap with her and being vulnerable, especially considering that he entered into their relationship because he knew it would piss his parents off enough to take the heat off of Adriana’s failed manifestation—something that Shannon apparently suspected from the beginning. Eddie loved Shannon as a friend, and if they weren’t going to be together, he didn’t want to lose her in his life, so he took their breakup as well as he could, promising to be there for her if she needed him. She was kind, generous, and a piece of home—someone he always enjoyed being around. If spending some time apart meant he could keep that connection, he would happily step back.

It certainly wasn’t easy, but going into Eddie’s senior year of college, Eddie and Shannon had found their way back to being friends. It took almost eight months to figure out the dance of how to act now they had broken up, but they both tried hard to work it out. They slowly started studying together, and after the awkwardness dissipated, they started hanging out more regularly. When Shannon had her first date since Eddie, she called him up and explained how nervous she felt, and Eddie explained that she deserved happiness and to put herself out there, grateful when he didn’t feel a single ounce of jealousy.

During winter break, Shannon’s roommate for her apartment, a teammate of hers from the Spirit Program, ended up dropping out of school without any notice. They were back in El Paso, hanging out at the Keenland house with Clara and Cameron playing games in the kitchen, when she got the call.

“This is a nightmare,” she groaned, slinking back into her chair and dropping her head into her hands.

“What’s going on?” Eddie asked, reaching over to rub circles over her back. They recently started touching each other again, which felt a little weird, but Eddie was so touch-starved by that point he wasn’t going to argue.

Shannon looked over at them with a frown, resting her chin atop a closed fist. “Mandy suddenly decided that she was going to drop out of school and become a model, which means that I’m screwed when it comes to paying the rent.”

Clara snorted, placing her cards facedown on the table. “We can always—”

“No,” Shannon scowled, narrowing her eyes at her cousin. “I don’t want to take money from you guys. That’s not how my family does things.”

“We are your family,” Clara responded hotly, leaning back in her chair with a raised eyebrow.

Shannon shook her head. “My mom paid rent to your mom when we moved here. I’ve been paying for my own rent in San Marcos since I got the apartment. I’m not about to start taking money from you now.”

“Then what are you going to do?” Cameron asked with a furrow between his brow.

When his friend closed her eyes and let out a frustrated exhale, Eddie’s heart constricted at the thought of her losing her apartment. “I can move in to help pay the rent.”

The three of them stared at Eddie with disbelieving looks. “What?” Shannon whispered.

“Are you crazy?” Clara snapped, sitting up in her chair. “You guys used to date—for three years.”

“We were friends before, and we’re friends now,” Eddie argued, crossing his arms over his chest self-consciously. “I was looking for a new place anyway—my roommate is a pothead, and I get drug tested for work.”

Before Clara could respond, Cameron placed a hand on her arm and looked at Eddie. “Are you sure about this?”

Eddie shrugged, not understanding what the big deal was. “She needs help, and I’m offering it. You guys don’t need to make this weird.”

“I mean,” Shannon hesitated. “It’s a little weird. But you’re right. We’re friends now, and we’re getting along well. Besides,” she gave him a small smile, “It’s only for a semester—maybe even the summer. We graduate in May.”

“Exactly,” he nodded, raising his eyebrows at his best friend and her boyfriend. “See?”

Clara blew out a sharp breath and grimaced. “Fine, but I don’t like it.”

“Noted,” Eddie chuckled, picking back up his cards. “Now, can we get back to our game?”

XX

It took a few weeks, but Eddie and Shannon found a comfortable routine together. When he would head out for his eight-am classes, Shannon would leave for her Spirit Program practices. She wouldn’t be home when he ran back to the apartment to change for his internship after class, and since he wouldn’t return home until late, they really only saw each other on the weekend. By that time, they were both exhausted and just wanted to watch a movie or cook dinner together rather than worry about what it was like living with an ex.

Eddie’s parents were furious about his decision to move in with Shannon, but since he was one, almost twenty-two years old and two, paying for his own schooling and apartment, they couldn’t do anything about it. It didn’t stop his mother from calling every few days to make him feel guilty about the limited amount of time he spent at home, even though he visited during every break he could. It wasn’t like they came up to San Marcos to see him. He tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, considering Sophia was now at Baylor University in Waco, hoping to pursue law school in the next few years, and Adriana recently got accepted to Tarleton State University in Stephenville to join the rodeo team for barrel racing. Helena and Ramon were soon to be empty nesters, and it appeared they weren’t taking it well.

As graduation neared, Eddie stressed when he couldn’t decide on what he wanted to do after school. He liked his classes well enough, but Eddie wasn’t interested in going to nursing or med school. His internship served him well and gave him a baseline knowledge of the medical field, which was great—but not fast-paced enough now he was comfortable in his position.

The answer came in the form of a car accident. While he was walking towards the deli down the street from his apartment, he witnessed an SUV t-bone a truck at a traffic light, sending both vehicles spinning out and smashing through the light pole into a building wall. Eddie’s heart rate spiked as he broke out into a run once the traffic surrounding the accident came screeching to a halt, rushing forward to check on the drivers. He pointed at a nearby witness and ordered them to call 9-1-1 while he wrenched open the door of the SUV to find the driver unconscious but breathing with his head against the airbags.

He turned to see the driver of the truck stumble out of his vehicle in full army fatigues, blinking and clutching his temple, which bled profusely. When the soldier fell to his knees, Eddie sprinted toward him to catch his head before it smashed against the asphalt. The man’s breathing stuttered, and his pulse dropped when Eddie pressed two fingers against his neck, so he set him gently on the ground and started compressions.

Eddie had no idea how much time passed before emergency services got there. His entire focus and each of his senses had narrowed down to the two drivers—one still unconscious but breathing, and the other beneath his own hands. When the fire department arrived, their EMTs gently dragged him away while resuming his work.

“You did good, kid,” one of the firefighters praised, clapping him on the back. “We’ll get them checked out at the hospital. You should head home to rest.”

Eddie swallowed harshly and took the man’s advice, his thoughts snagging on the memory of the soldier collapsing to the ground and the rush he felt as he got the man breathing again.

Shannon screamed as he walked through the door, rushing over to cup his face and frantically ask what happened.

He blinked, looking down at himself. “Oh,” he said dumbly. “It’s not my blood.”

“Then whose is it?” She demanded, her breaths coming quicker as she hurtled towards a panic attack.

Eddie felt like an asshole as he wrapped her up in a hug, trying to help calm her down and completely forgetting about his bloodstained clothes. “I witnessed an accident down the street. One of the drivers collapsed, and I started compressions. That’s all, I promise.”

Shannon’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, clutching onto his shirt. “I thought something happened to you! I thought—I thought,”

“I’m fine, Shannon,” he promised, pressing her back so he could look her in the eye. “I promise; everything is fine.”

She nodded, tears escaping out of the corners of her eyes. Shannon heaved in a few deep breaths before pouncing on him, pressing him against the closed door to their apartment and smashing her lips against his.

Eddie stiffened in shock, but before he could even think to stop and ask if this is what either of them really wanted, Shannon started pushing up his shirt and skating her fingertips across his abs. Eddie shrugged mentally, leaning into the kiss, twisting his fingers into her hair, and dragging his hand across her lower back.

They were always good at this part.

XX

A few weeks later, Eddie and Shannon carried on much as they had before. They didn’t really talk about their one night together, and both seemed content to let it pass as just that—one night. If Shannon didn’t want to talk about it, he certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.

He spent the last few weeks of school deciding what he wanted to do. Anytime he leaned towards one thing or another, the memory of the soldier returned to the forefront of his mind. So, Eddie spoke to a few people in the TSSGA who he knew were going into the military, asked what helped them choose that path, and researched each branch in the military.

He finally decided after going to visit the man from the accident. He used his resources from the hospital to find his name, Private Corey Scolfield. Scolfield was apparently in town and planning on surprising his parents when the SUV hit him. When Scofield realized who Eddie was, he pulled Eddie into a crushing hug and ushered him into the house to introduce him to his parents.

By the time Eddie left the Scofield’s home, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and headed straight to the Army’s recruiting office on campus. Thankfully, they weren’t busy and had time to sit down with him to explain all his options. When Eddie expressed interest in becoming a field medic, the Sergeant grinned and shook his hand. They scheduled his ASVAB together for a month from then at the testing center, one week after Eddie’s graduation. If he received at least a 107, then he could go ahead and get started on the paperwork.

After he received the green light at MEPS, Eddie would get shipped off for Basic Training for ten weeks. If and when he completed that, Eddie would then be sent to AIT, or Advanced Individual Training, to get any and all certifications he needed to become a Field Medic at Fort Sam Houston for at least six months. After completing all of his training, Eddie would begin his first Tour of Duty.

Eddie couldn’t wait. After helping to save Private Scolfield, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. It wasn’t like he had any desire to move back to El Paso and get a job there—his parents were too critical of his choices and decisions for that to ever work, and while he would miss his sisters, Clara, and Shannon, Eddie was sure they would be fine without him. Plus, he would be saving lives. They would be proud of him, right?

As he strode through the apartment door, with a bounce in his step, Shannon leapt to her feet from the couch, watching him with a nervous expression and biting her nails.

“Eddie! We need to talk.”

He pushed away the fear that something was wrong and grinned at her, pulling the paperwork from his bag and holding it up to show her. “Yeah, we do. I finally figured out what I want to do after graduation. I’m going to be an Army Medic!”

When she didn’t immediately congratulate him on making a decision, after months of complaining, Eddie’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong?”

Shannon took a deep breath and placed both hands on her hips as if steeling herself for this conversation. “I’m pregnant.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

This story is an AU (I'm not sure if Eddie went to college in the show) so I had to play around with few events in Eddie's life to match up with the rest of the story.

BUT we finally get to meet Christopher next chapter, and, y'all, he's the best. I love that kid. He is a national treasure.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, or if you have any questions. Have a wonderful week!

Chapter 26

Summary:

Eddie begins his next phase of life and Christopher graces the world with his presence

Notes:

Happy Sunday, everyone!

I hope you had a wonderful week. I'm not going to lie, I'm excited about this chapter. I LOVE Christopher Diaz, y'all. He's so, so sweet and I love how much he and Eddie love each other. I hope you enjoy this chapter!

S/O to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (32)

Part III

Chapter 26

After Shannon’s announcement, life seemed to move at the speed of light, rushing forward and blowing past everyone and everything without Eddie in the driver’s seat. Without his permission, Helena and Ramon’s voices sounded in his head, berating him for making such a huge mistake and scolding him for ruining their chances at having Eddie bond with a Guide.

Their disapproval, and the fact that he did love Shannon, even if he wasn’t in love with her, had Eddie exhaling shakily and reaching out to grab hold of her wrist gently. “Marry me.”

What? ” She blinked, her mouth agape.

Eddie cleared his throat and tried to smooth out his features to keep the panic off his face. “I want to do the right thing. I want to be there for this baby—if,” he hesitated, “if that’s what you want.”

Shannon placed a hand over her flat stomach and moved toward the couch, collapsing onto the cushions with a huff. “I…I don’t know what I want. I know that I love you, but I never wanted to be a mom.”

An expanding tendril of dread lodged itself in Eddie’s throat. The very idea of losing his child so soon after finding out about it made his chest tighten in fear. “I wouldn’t ever think to tell you what to do, but I will love this kid with everything that I have, Shannon. I swear to you.”

She nodded, running shaky fingers through her hair. “You’ve enlisted in the Army, though, right? What would we do? When do you have to leave?”

Eddie moved to sit down next to her, pressing their shoulders together. “I need to take a placement and a physical exam before I choose the job that I want, which would be an army medic. Then, I would spend about ten weeks in Basic Training.”

“I don’t think I can do this alone,” she admitted.

“You won’t be alone,” he denied. “I’ll be here for as long as possible, and then I’ll call as often as I can while I’m away. We can get an apartment back home in El Paso so my parents and your mom can help out. I know you don’t want to move back in with Clara’s mom.”

Shannon chewed on the bottom of her lip. “What about money? Babies are expensive, Eddie.”

Eddie brought one of his arms up over the back of the couch. “I’ll be making plenty with the Army, and I can get as many certificates as I need to make sure my insurance is what we need it to be for the baby. You can maybe get an accounting job in El Paso? You’ve been talking about getting your CPA. Maybe you can work from home, too, if that’s what you want. We can make this work.”

She let out a soft exhale, resting her head on his shoulder. “Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m going to love this baby, Shannon,” he promised. “I’ll do anything to help.”

Shannon reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose before finally nodding. “Okay. Okay, let’s do this, then.”

XX

As anticipated, when Eddie called to share the news, Helena and Ramon completely lost their minds. He thought the idea of becoming grandparents might, somewhat, at least, alleviate their ire, but no. Instead, Eddie spent forty-five minutes on the phone listening to their incessant berating of his character, decisions, and lack of responsibility before he hung up.

Eddie ignored their repeated calls after that, instead choosing to browse the internet for available wedding dates at the El Paso courthouse. He sent a few options to Shannon and decided to call his sisters instead, knowing they would at least be happy for him.

Eddie, ” Adriana greeted as she picked up the other line. “ What’s going on, Hermano?

“Hold on,” Eddie explained, “I’m adding Sophia to the call too.” He fiddled with his phone for a few moments until he heard the click on the other end. “Soph? You’re on with me and Adriana.”

Hi, guys, what’s going on?

“I have some news,” Eddie told them and rubbed a hand over his newly cropped hair. “Shannon’s pregnant, and we’re getting married.”

Wow, ” Adriana breathed out. “ That is…Wow. I’m so happy to hear about the baby, but, Eddie...are you sure you want to get married?

Of course, we’re happy for you, ” Sophia quickly jumped in. “ And Shannon is great, but I thought you two decided you’re better off as friends? You were pretty set on it.

Eddie shrugged, sitting down heavily on his bed. “I want to do the right thing, and she doesn’t want to do this alone. This is the only way I can prove that we’re in this together.” He swallowed around a lump in his throat. “Mom and Dad are being pretty awful about this, so I really need y’all’s support.”

His sisters sighed, and Adriana cleared her throat. “ Of course, I’m sorry, Eddie. We’ll help out in whatever way that we can. Send us the details for the wedding, okay?

Yeah, ” Sophia agreed. “ We’ll be there for you.

“Thanks, guys. Love you both.”

Love you too! ” They chimed together.

Eddie ended the call and collapsed onto his back, sinking into his mattress with a grimace. At least his sisters were onboard, albeit reluctantly.

XX

The ceremony was short and sweet, just like Eddie and Shannon wanted. They picked a Friday two months after her announcement, after their college graduation, and after they received Eddie’s ASVAB scores, with Adriana, Sophia, Clara, her mom and brother, Cameron, and Shannon’s mom in attendance. In the end, Helena and Ramon didn’t get invited after their continued berating of Eddie’s choices, so he chose not to tell them when or where the ceremony would take place.

Eddie’s hair was quite a bit shorter than he would have liked, but he was due to leave for Basic Training in a few days. A few minutes before the ceremony, he snuck into the men’s bathroom to fuss over it with his simple blazer and suit pants and to have a moment to himself. Of course, Clara trampled over his boundaries like she did when they were teenagers and blew into the bathroom a few moments after him. After checking the stalls to ensure they were alone, she stuck a perfectly manicured finger in his face.

“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told my cousin, Diaz,” she started, her eyes narrowed and fierce. “I love you both so much that it hurts to breathe sometimes. Shannon is like the sister I never had, and you were the Guide and best friend who has gotten me this far. This baby is going to be God’s gift to this world because its parents are two wonderful, amazing people.”

She took a deep breath, and her expression tightened. “But you don’t have to get married if you don’t want to. I know you both—you aren’t in love. Eddie, you could find the person who’s going to reach so deep into your soul and love every bit of your emotionally repressed heart. Shannon could find a man who gives her everything she could ever need and be happy about it. Are you absolutely sure about this?”

Eddie swallowed thickly, leaning back against the counter and squinting under the fluorescent lights. “I’m sure, Clara. Shannon needs this commitment and stability. If we get married, I can provide for her and the baby.”

“My family—“

“Shannon has never asked your family for anything, and you know it,” he glared. “You might have money, but she won’t take a single dime of it. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Clara stared at him for a few moments before letting out an annoyed sigh. “I can’t. She’s even more stubborn than you.”

“Not possible,” Eddie snorted, shaking his head and throwing his arm around her shoulders. “The baby will have two dedicated, fully involved parents. Let’s just focus on that, okay?”

“Fine,” she grumbled, letting him lead her out of the bathroom. “Let’s go get you married, Diaz.”

XX

During Eddie’s AIT at Fort Sam Houston, he sat down on his bunk and pulled up his weekly call on his laptop.

Shannon’s face appeared in the window and she grinned at him, leaning forward, wanting to sit closer to the camera. She had cut her hair recently, so it fell just above her shoulders. It was a good look on her. “ Eddie! How are you?

“I’m doing well, thanks,” he easily matched her smile, wiping the sweat from his brow and nodding towards the hands that rested over her stomach. “How’s the baby?”

Her face brightened, and she checked over her shoulder before returning her attention to Eddie. “ Great. I actually have some news; I had an appointment today, and my doctor was able to tell me the gender .”

Eddie straightened in his seat as adrenaline flooded his veins. He’d been able to think of little else besides his baby in the months since he left for training. Images of what they might look like, if Eddie would ever get home to hold them while they cried, and if he could give Shannon all of the support she needed all weighed heavily on his mind while he prepared for his job. “Are you serious? Have you told anyone else?”

Shannon shook her head, threading her fingers together to place them under her chin. “ Nope! I wanted you to be the first one to know besides me.

“You’re the best,” he exhaled heavily. “Well?”

We’re having a boy!

Eddie whooped, shooting up to his feet—careful to hold on to his laptop—and cheering loudly. “That’s amazing!” When two guys from his class, Harraway and Valentine, poked their heads into the barracks’ room, he raised an excited fist into the air. “We’re having a boy!”

They both shouted their congratulations before Eddie turned back to smile widely at Shannon, his eyes suspiciously bright, though he refused to let the tears fall. “That’s amazing news, Shannon. Thank you for telling me!”

You’re his father, Eddie,” she stressed, looking at him fondly. “ You deserved to find out before everyone else. ” She huffed. “ Now I can finally tell your parents. Maybe that would get them off my back about my diet and how I should quit my job.

He sat back down onto his bunk and grimaced. “I doubt it. I’m sorry they’re still hounding you; I’ve told them to give you your space. They don’t seem to be listening. Have my sisters been around to give you a buffer?”

Shannon shook her head and sighed. “ Sophia has been by once, but Adriana is still in Stephenville for the rodeos she’s competing in. I think she said she had a break coming up in the next few weeks.

“Okay, good,” Eddie nodded, making a note to call his sisters and beg them to talk sense into Helena and Ramon. Shannon felt stressed out enough without them making everything worse. “How’s your mom?”

She’s moving up to Los Angeles, actually, ” Shannon frowned, rubbing a hand over her temple. “ Her doctor recommended an Oncologist over there.

Eddie pinched the bride of his nose. Her mom was her biggest support system in El Paso, and the fact that she was moving would be really hard on Shannon. Janet had received a breast cancer diagnosis a few months ago, and the doctors had worked hard to set up a treatment plan for her. Unfortunately, with her moving away, Shannon would be left to the wolves with Eddie’s parents unless Shannon escaped to Clara’s parents’ home every once in a while. “That’s really tough; I’m sorry, Shannon. I know how much you love having your mom around. I’m sure she’ll get the best care possible in LA.”

Shannon swallowed and blinked back the tears in her eyes. “ I do. I hate that she’s leaving, but I know it’s what’s best for her. She’ll visit when the baby is born, though .”

“Of course, she will,” Eddie assured her. “Have you thought about names yet?”

She sat back in her chair and ran a hand through her shorter hair. “ Not yet. I have a few that I like. Christopher, like my dad, or maybe Arthur, like my grandpa? Are there any names that you’d like to toss into the ring?

Eddie shrugged, shifting atop his bunk. “I don’t really want him tied to any of my family. My dad’s a nightmare, and my Abuelo left my Abuela when my dad was a teenager.”

There’s no reason to decide now, ” she suggested. “ We’ve got some time.

“Sure,” Eddie exhaled in relief. He heard a few familiar shouts from his commanding officers outside of his barrack and grimaced. “It looks like I need to go, but, seriously, Shannon. I can’t wait for this baby. He’s going to be so loved, and you’re going to make a great mom. I’ll talk to you soon.”

Bye, Eddie, ” she waved, her eyes watery again, making Eddie’s heart clench inside his chest. “ Be safe. Love you.

“Love you too.”

XX

“Come on, push!” The OBGYN called out over Shannon’s screams. “One more big push!”

Eddie tried to focus on the hand Shannon kept crushing with her own, to zero in on the pain, but his mind felt completely blank from the rush of overwhelming stimuli in and outside the room. The machines hooked up to Shannon blared loudly while the smell of sterilization and sweat filled his nostrils.

“One more big push! You can do this!”

Shannon’s cries reached their peak as he tried to comfort her in any way he could, clawing at his control to stay out of a fugue state. He couldn’t risk falling into one when his son was fighting his way into the world.

Finally, after minutes that seemed to stretch into hours, the sound of a baby crying filled the room and pierced Eddie’s already fragile psyche, snapping him out of the spiral of sensations pulling him down. “I have a son,” he breathed out with a smile working its way across his lips.

“He’s beautiful,” Shannon cried, shaking from the exertion of the labor and wiping her sweaty bangs across her face.

“Just like his Mama,” Eddie laughed wetly, shifting his position to help Shannon hold the baby, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, and watching his family in adoration.

Their son bawled his eyes out as the nurse looked toward Eddie. “Would you like to cut the cord, Mr. Diaz?”

Eddie’s stomach lurched at the suggestion, and he let out an awkward chuckle as he scooted closer to Shannon and the baby. “Ah, no—no. You go ahead; I’ll just—”

Shannon huffed out an amused, exhausted breath. “You’re a combat medic, and this makes you squeamish?”

The nurse watched them both with a patient smile. “Come on, Dad. You won’t hurt him, I promise.”

When Eddie hesitated again, Shannon reached a free hand up to grip his wrist with a playfully-teasing grin. “Yeah, Daddy . You can do this.”

Eddie sputtered and stared at Shannon wide-eyed and in shock before he shook his head, grinning, swallowing around a lump in his throat—Shannon succeeded in breaking his forming panic, that’s for sure. He was a dad now—now and forever. This was the greatest day of his entire life. “I like the sound of that.” He finally nodded, following the nurse’s instructions as he took the scissors and clipped the umbilical cord, feeling as though something in his very core had changed for the better.

XX

The next day, only two weeks after his twenty-third birthday, Eddie and Shannon visited his parents at their house across town, where Helena and Ramon, along with Sophia and Adriana, waited for them. His youngest sister called dibs and, after asking permission from Eddie and Shannon—who appreciated the consideration—swept the baby away in her arms and toward the couch.

Eddie had worried that his parents would never come around. He thought them a lost cause after their initial reactions and constant judgment, but once they realized they hadn’t received an invitation to the wedding, both Helena and Ramon apologized for their behavior and promised to be there for both Eddie and his future child. Despite Eddie catching their exclusion of Shannon from their promise, he decided to let it go and enjoy the peace for as long as possible. Their recent interactions had remained tense and uncomfortable, especially around Shannon, but they were his parents, right? They should have some inclusion in their grandson’s life.

“Oh, Edmundo,” Helena sniffed, pulling him into a tight hug while his dad patted him on the back. “You have a son!”

“Cutting the umbilical cord,” Eddie shook his head and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Not as easy as it sounds.” He nodded toward his father. “Por qué no dijiste?”

His mother laughed and threaded her arm through her husband’s. “Oh, your dad wasn’t there. He was in, uh,” she looked towards Ramon with a furrowed brow, “Galveston when you were born? And then with Sophia, he was in…”

“Gulf Port,” Ramon supplied easily.

“Right,” his mom nodded. “And then Adriana was a c-section, so you dodged that bullet three times!”

Eddie’s stomach twisted. He couldn’t even imagine missing the birth of his son—or any future children he might have. It was an experience that fundamentally changed him, and Eddie distantly wondered if that wasn’t why he never seemed truly connected with his father.

“Yeah,” Ramon agreed with a smile, walking over towards Adriana to pick up the baby and hold him close. “But I always made it back in time for the good part.” He cooed at Eddie’s son, who squirmed. “This part! Look at this guy; what a perfect boy.”

Eddie heard Shannon let out a tired exhale and moved to sling an arm around her waist to help support her weight. She looked up at him gratefully and leaned against his side. Helena and Ramon continued with their passive-aggressive comments, but they thankfully put them on pause while they were busy with the baby.

Eddie’s enhanced hearing picked up the rental car pulling up the driveway, and he squeezed Shannon’s waist and nodded towards the front of the house. When a knock sounded at the door, she perked up. “Oh, that must be my mom.”

Shannon’s mom, Janet, came through the door when Sophia answered it with a grin, reaching out to hug her daughter tightly. “Oh, sweetheart. I couldn’t miss this!” She turned to hug Eddie, who reciprocated with a smile. From what she explained over the phone, Janet hopped onto a plane from Los Angeles when Eddie called to tell her Shannon was in labor and came straight to the house from the airport. She cupped Shannon’s cheeks. “My baby had a baby. Honey, I couldn’t get here fast enough.”

“You look good,” Helena observed gently. “How are you feeling?”

Janet grinned. “Oh, I couldn’t be better. I got a clean bill of health and a new set of boobs.”

“Mom!” Shannon reared back, mortified, while Eddie couldn’t help but let out a sharp laugh. Janet always did have a great sense of humor, even when it came to morbid topics.

Julie simply shrugged. “What? I do!”

Helena cleared her throat and gave a shaky smile, though she clearly looked uncomfortable. “Well, they look…great!”

“Thank you,” Janet chuckled. “Just call me ‘Hot Granny!’” She walked over towards Ramon and looked at the baby with sheer fondness in her gaze. “And what are we calling this little darling?”

Eddie couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips. “Christopher.”

“Do you want to hold her, Janet?” Helena asked, gesturing for her husband to pass over the baby.

“I couldn’t think of anything I’d like more,” she answered wetly, wiping the tears from her eyes before settling Christopher in her arms. “He’s so beautiful.”

Shannon nodded and petted their son’s head gently.

“How long are you going to be here for, Eddie?” Janet asked.

Before Eddie could answer, Shannon cleared her throat. “He’s headed to Afghanistan next week.”

He felt the shift in the room, the happiness seeping out of their family with a single sentence. Eddie kept his gaze on his son. “The sooner I leave, the sooner I can come back home for good.”

“I’m holding you to that,” Shannon implored, looking up at him with an expression mixed between hope and anguish. She reached back out for Christopher. “We both are.”

When Christopher started crying, Eddie grabbed hold of his son’s tiny fingers, his heart thudding inside his chest when Christopher held him back tightly. “Oh, it’s okay, Mijo. Daddy’s here.”

Shannon dug into her bag and pulled out a black box, holding it out to Eddie, which he took with his free hand. “What’s this?”

“Open it and find out.”

His sisters gathered behind him to look over his shoulder when he opened it, revealing a gold medal with a familiar saint etched into the front. “St. Christopher.”

“The patron Saint of travelers,” Shannon explained. “To protect you and keep you safe. To remind you that you have a family to come home to.”

Eddie’s throat closed up with emotion, careful to keep the tears from coming to the front—especially with his dad in the room. He leaned down to hug his wife. “I love you.” He placed a kiss first on Shannon’s, then on Christopher’s, head. “Both of you. And no matter what happens, I’m always going to fight to come home to my family.”

XX

Eddie’s first thought when his platoon touched down in Afghanistan during his first deployment was that it was hot . He’d grown up in El Paso, where the temperatures reached upwards of 100 degrees, but at least they had air conditioning and access to pools whenever they couldn’t stand the heat. Yet, Afghanistan’s temperature hovered at around 105 almost daily, and they had to endure it without anything to cool them down besides water.

Now it was six months into the second deployment of his first Tour of Duty, and Eddie had adapted to his surroundings.

He thought that he might struggle to adjust to the new way of life, but, instead, Eddie grew accustomed to the heat, the near-constant rush of stimuli assaulting his senses, and the increasingly high-pressure situations he found himself in. Between his weekly video calls with Shannon, Eddie worked with the other medics in his platoon of forty soldiers to provide medical care to everyone who needed it.

There was a Guide onsite that helped any of the other three Sentinels control their abilities whenever they required an anchor, though Eddie kept himself centered by calling Clara every few months. It wasn’t the same, or nearly as helpful, as when they met in person, but their friendship helped keep him calm whenever he thought his mind would tear itself apart from the grating sounds of gunfire and the accompanying stench of gunpowder.

His only reprieve, aside from saving a soldier’s life when injured in combat, was when he could see Shannon and Christopher’s faces on his computer screen every week. His son had gotten so big since the last time Eddie saw him during his shore leave a few months ago, and his heart ached at the differences he noticed each time. Of course, it didn’t help when Shannon’s expression tightened while explaining what Eddie’s parents did to upset her this time—it was always something. They hadn’t liked Shannon from the start, and even marrying Eddie and giving birth to their grandson wouldn’t stop them from crossing boundary after boundary and passive-aggressively complaining about her parenting.

Eddie called his parents whenever he could, ordering them to lay off his wife and give her the respect she deserves, but it was hard enforcing a rule when he was halfway across the world. Thankfully Sophia had moved back to El Paso to work at a local law firm and could act as a buffer as often as possible, but it didn’t make Helena and Ramon’s treatment of Shannon any less hurtful.

When Eddie took his first life during a night raid that injured ten of his fellow soldiers, he began counting down the days until he could return home for good. He thought of little else besides the future he and his family could have when they were finally together. It wouldn’t be difficult to convince Shannon to move away from El Paso and his parents, and he believed they would both be happier for it. Maybe he could pick up a job or two in the medical field or maybe even find a program to help him transition into a nurse wherever they ended up.

After realizing that the last thing he wanted to do was take lives, Eddie concluded his career in the Army had an expiration date. Yet, despite the daunting realization, he found peace in his realization that everything had to end eventually.

XX

Two months before Eddie’s third deployment and the end of his Tour of Duty, Shannon broke the news of Christopher’s diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy.

The moment she explained what happened at the doctor’s visit, Eddie’s entire world came crashing down. He didn’t even remember choking out an excuse of why he had to end the call, but his vision blurred, and her words echoed in his ears until they were all he could hear. The pain didn’t register when he fell to his knees, cracking them against the dried mud beneath his cot. The voices of his friends from his unit grew muffled as their dark shadows moved around him, and the blood seemed to shudder and freeze inside his veins.

When the unit’s Guide, Holland, finally reached him, Eddie had stayed locked in a fugue state for over an hour. His commanding officer looked on worryingly as he explained that it took almost thirty minutes to pull him out of his own head. Eddie blinked in response but couldn’t find an explanation of why it was so difficult to come out of the zone; he could only promise that it wouldn’t happen again. He’d need to double his suppressant dosage, but anything was safer than getting caught like that in a warzone. If they were anywhere else and Holland wasn’t within reach, Eddie could have gotten killed.

When they finally left him alone after drawing promises from him that he would call out if he needed anything, Eddie forced himself to research Cerebral Palsy. He’d known for years that the internet was a terrifying place, and this experience was no different.

Apparently, CP is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture—caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control their muscles. The symptoms of CP vary, so someone with severe CP might need to use special equipment to walk or might not be able to walk at all and require lifelong care, while someone with mild CP might walk a little awkwardly but not need any special help. It won’t get worse over time, though the symptoms can change over someone’s lifetime.

Eddie read that along with balance, movement, and posture; many also have related conditions such as intellectual disability: seizures: problems with vision, hearing, or speech: changes in the spine: or joint problems. So, while there is no cure for CP, there are treatments that can improve the lives of those with the condition. After diagnosis, the medical professionals and the child’s family can develop a treatment plan—including medicines: surgery: braces: and physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

After learning everything he could about the disorder itself, Eddie swallowed thickly, brushing aside his mounting desperation, looking up how much money a CP diagnosis would cost over Christopher’s lifetime.

The answer was an estimated cost of $921,000.

Almost one million dollars .

Eddie sat there staring at the unbelievable number until his mind went blank.

No matter how much he wanted to go home—to Shannon, to Christopher, to his family—there was simply no other choice. He’d never find another job that provided the kind of health care and insurance that the Army provided, at least not without going back to school or going through another program, and he didn’t have time for that. Not when his son might need surgery within the next year.

f*ck, he thought to himself, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. f*ck. He needed to speak with his commanding officer.

Shannon was going to be furious.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Shannon's arc will be different in this story than in the show because I wasn't really happy with how they handled her character and thought there was a lot of potential there, so we are going to explore that a bit! Christopher is finally here!

Thank you to everyone who has given kudos, commented, and followed this story. The support means the world and it encourages me to finish strong!

Have a wonderful week <3

Chapter 27

Summary:

Eddie's final years in the Army

Notes:

AHA it is 10:55pm on Sunday. I apologize for getting this out so late in the evening, but I literally have not had 2 seconds to myself all weekend due to two weddings and parties.

BUT - this is the final chapter of Part III: Eddie Begins. I hope you enjoy because it is one of my favorites.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (33)

Part III

Chapter 27

“Are you insane?” Shannon hissed as Eddie set his cup of coffee down, pushing the sharp spike of anger back down inside his chest.

“I’m doing this for you,” he explained tightly.

His wife ran her hands over her face, tugging on her ponytail to keep quiet to keep from waking Christopher. “You reenlisted without even discussing it with me! How is that doing it for me?”

“I didn’t have a choice! Someone has to pay for all of this!” He gestured to the room around them. “I mean, there’s the house and the cars, and now Christopher’s illness. The medical bills and therapists!”

She huffed and started pacing the room, glaring at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s not an illness! It’s cerebral palsy, which you would know if you’d been in that empty chair next to me when the doctor explained it all.”

Eddie grit his teeth, forcing himself to take a deep breath. “I was in Afghanistan, not Cancun.”

Shannon threw her hands out to the side, her eyes watering as her emotions raged high enough to make Eddie’s nose twitch. “You know what? We’ll just sell the house and the cars, and I’ll go back to work! Maybe only part-time.”

“No,” Eddie shook his head. “No. Christopher is the priority right now. You should stay home with him.”

“So should you!” She shot back, the tears escaping from the corner of her eyes. “We need you here. I cannot do this without you.”

Eddie rubbed a hand over his shortly cropped hair and bit his lip. “I am trying to provide for this family! That’s the whole reason I reenlisted.”

“Without telling me,” she stressed, pushing forward to lean her elbows against the countertop. I tell you that I’m pregnant and surprise! You enlist in the goddamn Army. I tell you that Chris has CP and surprise! You do it again!” She shook her head. “You say that you don’t have a choice, but you’re the one who keeps making these choices for the rest of us.”

Before Eddie could respond, the baby monitor sounded with Christopher’s cries, and Shannon let out a heavy exhale. They both stared at each other, and Eddie guessed that they were both wondering where everything had gone wrong—if they were stupid to think their marriage could work and if everyone was right all along.

“Christopher needs you.” When he let out another cry, Shannon pointed toward the doorway. “Go get your son. I’ll get dinner.”

Eddie bit the inside of his cheek, threw the kitchen towel he had been twisting between his hands, and headed toward his son’s room. Christopher was sitting up in his crib, looking absolutely miserable, and Eddie’s chest constricted at the thought of the entirety of his heart looking so upset. “Hey, hey, Buddy, everything’s okay. It’s okay; you’re okay.”

“Daddy!” Christopher wailed, curling up to Eddie’s shoulder when he picked his son up and held him close, rocking him just like Shannon had shown him how to.

He heard Shannon’s footsteps draw closer until she leaned against the door frame, and he frowned before nodding towards his son. “He wants you, not me.”

“You’re still a stranger to him,” she told him shakily. “But you don’t have to be. If you were home—”

“Shannon!” Eddie argued.

But she barrelled on. “I don’t need a provider; I need a partner! You don’t know what it’s been like going through this alone!”

Eddie breathed out and silently begged Christopher to stop crying. “You aren’t the only one who feels alone.” He returned his attention back to his son when he heard Shannon’s breath catch. “Hey, buddy. Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re alright, I promise.” He called after his wife when she stomped away, leaving him alone with his crying son.

XX

If Eddie thought it difficult being away from his family during his first Tour of Duty, then his second was a waking nightmare. But, now that he had four deployments under his belt, the fifth allowed him to go through the motions, giving the best care possible to the soldiers brought to his tent, while a part of his mind kept wondering what Shannon and Christopher were doing.

With Christopher’s diagnosis, Helena and Ramon began pushing their way further into Shannon’s sphere of control, dropping by at all hours and not respecting their predetermined schedule in the least. They were also more upfront about their displeasure with Shannon and her parenting techniques, something Eddie ripped them a new one about every time he got them on the phone. The fact he couldn’t be there to defend his wife or help out with Christopher’s care weighed heavily on his soul, and the hour-long video calls he had with Shannon and his son weren’t nearly enough.

While his wife might want to strangle him for being away, she at least knew Christopher needed to know his dad. She didn’t hesitate to sing his praises to their son all day long, always putting on a smile for him during their calls with Eddie, so Christopher knew how much his dad loved and cared about him. Eddie didn’t thank her for that enough, and he reminded himself every other day to show her more appreciation.

Thanks to Eddie’s stellar performance in the field, recognized by his unit and commanding officer, and his commitment to furthering his education, Eddie received a promotion through the ranks quicker than anticipated. If things continued to go well at work, Eddie hoped to earn the rank of Staff Sergeant during his final deployment in a few years.

When he and Shannon discussed his promotions and what they meant for their family, she continued to make her case for him to come home permanently. Two weeks every few months wasn’t enough time for him to support her the way she needed, and although Christopher adored him and always greeted him with a smile, Eddie couldn’t help but feel like a stranger to his own son.

At least while he was home, Eddie could defend Shannon from his parents. During his last shore leave, he banned his parents from coming to their house, absolutely livid at their raised voices over the phone about how Shannon couldn’t properly care for “their grandson.” He put them in their place the best he could, the superior Sentinel bleeding into his voice when his dad tried to challenge him on it and successfully kept them away for the duration of his trip. Of course, when he returned to Afghanistan, Shannon announced that they showed up the day after Eddie left and were even more unreasonable than before.

Eddie decided to speak with Sophia, a family law associate at the local firm. If he couldn’t get their parents to back off of Shannon and Christopher, making Shannon feel as though she were a horrible mom and constantly berating her, Eddie thought he might need to look into legal action against his parents. While it would break his heart to do it, Eddie’s job as a husband was to provide for and protect his wife—and he was failing miserably at the latter.

Sophia was shocked at first when Eddie brought it up, but after hearing about Shannon’s experience and witnessing it for herself, she understood where Eddie was coming from. She promised to talk to their parents about it and hopefully have them take a step back.

While Eddie knew his sister was excellent at her job, he didn’t have a single ounce of faith in his parents to do the right thing—not when they’d been like this his entire life. Helena and Ramon’s speciality lie in making other people feel less-than and unable to live up to their ridiculous expectations.

Eddie only hoped their ignorance and cruelty didn’t tear apart his entire family.

XX

Six months from the completion of Eddie’s second Tour of Duty, he rushed through his weekly call with Shannon while gearing up for a routine mission transporting a handful of injured soldiers back to base. The pilot had already started the helicopter up as Eddie pulled on his helmet, the powerful whirl of the blades drowning out the surrounding sounds and forcing the Sentinel to concentrate on his heightened senses.

Eddie? Can you hear me? ” Shannon’s voice was already shaky as she held Christopher, who sat in her lap, waving at the camera, making Eddie’s heart melt right through his chest.

“Sorry,” he shouted over the roar of the blades. “We’re moving out!”

Wait, wait, wait, ” she begged, causing Eddie to pause as he clipped on his helmet’s chin strap. The connection was spotty, and he could barely make out Shannon’s question. “ Did you find out about your leave?

“Diaz, we’ve gotta go!” His commanding officer bellowed from outside the tent, and a wave of his fellow medics tightened their gear, clapping him on the back as they made their way to the helicopter.

Eddie grimaced and turned back to his wife and son. “Still waiting!”

Shannon’s entire expression grumbled, and Eddie wished he could be there to talk through things, but he didn’t have the luxury of time. Despite what Shannon might think, Eddie desperately wanted to be there for her and Christopher—to wake up with his family every day and not have to be shot at while trying to do his job.

Mommy? ” Christopher asked quietly, perceptive enough at such a young age to understand that his mother was upset. The video feed seized every few seconds, and Eddie feared the connection would drop.

She sniffed and wiped her nose with her sleeve. “ I’m fine, baby. Everything’s okay.

A white-hot bolt of fear crawled up his throat, and he picked up the tablet after pulling on the rest of his gear. “Hey, what’s going on? Is Chris—”

No, no, ” Shannon shook her head, her voice wobbly and face streaked with tears. “ He’s fine. It’s my mom. It’s cancer.

“What?” Eddie shouted, his eyes wide with disbelief as he pushed through the tent’s flap and into the dry heat beneath the Afghanistan sun. “But she had a double mastectomy! The odds are—”

Shannon held Chris tightly to her chest as she answered. “ No, it’s a different cancer. It’s endometrial carcinoma, stage three.

The helicopter blades roared ahead of him and would have drowned out the sound of the call if Eddie didn’t have enhanced hearing. He glanced up to see his team getting into position, and Eddie swallowed thickly. “I have to go, but we’ll talk soon, okay?”

I have to go see her, Eddie! ” Shannon cried.

Eddie nodded with a frown, desperation pulling at his gut because he couldn’t do a damn thing to help his wife—not from the other side of the world. “We’ll figure it out!” Unfortunately, the connection cut out before he could say anything else, and Eddie cursed and smacked his hand against the tablet.

sh*t .

If Janet had stage 3 endometrial carcinoma, she only had a seventeen percent chance of surviving—if the patient had been healthy before the cancer. Janet had previously had breast cancer, so she already had a weakened system from the chemo and radiation. Of course, Shannon would need to go see her mother, but with Eddie away, Christopher would need to be taken care of. His parents were an obvious option to watch his son, but Helena and Ramon were dangerous in their own right. They didn’t respect Eddie or Shannon’s parenting and never missed a chance to berate them for one thing or another. He didn’t want to entrust his parents with Christopher.

Eddie cursed again and placed the tablet in his bag before sliding into a seat inside the helicopter and buckling himself in. His squadron nodded to him, and he bit the inside of his cheek to keep his anger in check, then reached beneath his gear to press a kiss to his St. Christopher medal. They took off from the ground with a thumbs up from the passengers and were soon on their way to their destination.

A few hours later, the sun was sinking under the horizon as Eddie’s squadron headed back to base after picking up the wounded soldiers from the front lines. Eddie had wrapped Stevens’ eye injury the best he could and deposited him beside Langston, who had a bullet wound straight through his arm—which Oliver was thankfully applying pressure to. While the rest of them were all strapped in, bloodied and exhausted, Eddie was on the helicopter’s floor with Greggs, trying to keep his breathing steady while he attended to the wound on Greggs’ abdomen.

“Base, this is Actual,” the pilot, Norwhal, called in over the radio. “We’re ten clicks out and heading back with wounded. Prep the med tent.”

Mills, the only woman in Eddie’s squadron, watched the miles of sand below them from her seat in the co*ckpit and whistled. “Wow. From up here, it’s kind of pretty. Almost makes you forget that you’re flying through the Valley of Death.”

“Seriously, Mills?” Oliver grumbled, frowning at her and tightening his grip on Langston’s arm. “Nobody needs that. There’s guys dying back here.”

Mills huffed. “I didn’t name it!” Eddie shook his head at the twitch of her lips. “All the dead guys did.”

Greggs shifted beneath Eddie’s hands, nodding toward his boots. “Drop something?”

Eddie’s eyes zeroed in on the glint of silver on the ground. He cursed, picking up his treasured medal and placing it safely inside one of the pockets of his uniform. “Damn; clasp must have broken. Thanks.”

“St. Christopher’s medal,” Greggs grinned through bloody teeth. “Are you religious?”

“Not really,” Eddie shook his head, taking out a pair of scissors to cut through his patient’s uniform to give him more room to work on Gregg’s abdomen. “My wife gave it to me when my son was born. I’m not convinced it has any magical powers. It just reminds me of him.”

Greggs hummed before letting out a wet cough. “It’s why I got this,” he explained, pointing out the tattoo on his chest, directly over his heart. “If anything happens to this, then I’ve got bigger problems.

Eddie laughed, grinning while keeping an ear out for any changes to Gregg’s heartbeat. “Three girls? You must have been busy!”

Before his patient could respond, Eddie’s head snapped up as he heard the familiar whirl of a fired missile. “Hey, what—”

“Incoming!” Mills screamed, her eyes wide with fear as she looked out at something along the darkened horizon line.

Eddie barely had any time to secure himself or Greggs before something collided with the helicopter’s side. The crash echoed in his ears, and the sudden heat from the explosion prickled the sensitive skin beneath his uniform. The helicopter rocked and shuddered, spiraling down toward the mountains of sand below.

He must have blacked out during the impact because when Eddie opened his eyes again, everything was pitch-black and nearly silent. His muscles screamed and pulled as he checked himself over, grunting when his ribs and collarbone protested the movement. Eddie swallowed and examined his surroundings, his stomach dropping when he found his squadron and the wounded soldiers unconscious. He listened hard despite the sudden spark of pain at his temple, and Eddie’s breath caught when he realized that Greggs wasn’t breathing.

Before he could move to start compressions, gunfire began raining down around him. Eddie cursed and concentrated again, focusing on the trajectory. It sounded like only three insurgents surrounded him, though he didn’t doubt that more were on their way. He fumbled for his radio. “Break, break, break! This is Diaz; we’re pinned down and taking fire! Two clicks north of our last reported position.” He swallowed and moved to start trying to wake the others. “Prepare for landline!”

When the rest of Eddie’s team remained unconscious despite his best efforts, he shuddered and checked his weapon, knowing that he would need to stop the gunfire if he had any hope of rescuing his squadron. Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to control his thudding heartbeat. He’d only killed three men during his entire line of duty; Eddie was a medic—he endeavored to save lives, not take them. He took a deep breath, patting his St. Christopher medal for luck before kicking open the helicopter’s jammed door and returning fire.

He got a few rounds off before moving closer and ducking behind an enormous boulder, drudging through the whistling sand and encouraging the enemies to focus on him and not his squadron. He took out one fifty yards ahead of him before turning his attention to the two moving in from the southeast. Another one went down with a headshot, and Eddie could hear the last one’s cry of fury as he advanced on Eddie.

The Sentinel focused his attention on the final insurgent, cursing under his breath at the show of aggression and fighting to keep his own pulse steady. As he fired off another round, the enemy slumped to the ground, but not before hitting Eddie with a shot to the shoulder. Pain lanced through Eddie’s body, the taste of white-hot blood on his tongue and the broken memory of the waterfall he caught sight of during their fall taking over his consciousness.

He fell back against the boulder he’d taken cover behind, and his grip loosened enough for his gun to fall out of his hands and clatter onto the sand. Eddie’s entire world narrowed down to the core of his senses, though his brain couldn’t make sense of the stimuli rushing in. The murky contrast of light and shadow blinded his eyes while his body was a disconnected tangle of nerve endings.

A metronome of heat broke through his stupor, pressing against the edges of his mind, and a bell-like chime resounded within his chest, calling him forward. Eddie’s heart soared toward the sound, clawing at the new intrusion and trying to grab ahold of something tangible—wanting to be closer to it and not let go.

The chime echoed again, surrounding him completely until the sound rang too close in an overwhelming pitch, a sharp hook yanking Eddie forward, and he gasped—the world righting itself into sudden clarity.

His eyes sprung open to see a broad-shouldered Guide kneeling in front of him. He couldn’t see the soldier’s face or nametag behind the foggy goggles and blurry vision, only a surprised expression with a confused frown tugging at his lips. “What,” Eddie started before the pain in his shoulder registered, heat blossoming from the bloodied wound. “f*ck!”

The soldier chuckled and placed a comforting hand on Eddie’s other shoulder, squeezing lightly, lighting up every nerve ending in Eddie’s body. “You’re fine, I swear. Flesh wound.”

Eddie scowled in annoyance. “I know it’s a flesh wound.” He remembered the gunshot, for Christ’s sake, and after…sh*t. After . He went into a fugue state, and this Guide must have pulled him out.

But—

It wasn’t like how Clara or any of the Guides in the Army had done it. Eddie’s soul had never latched on to someone else’s like that, as if it were desperate to keep it close and hold it steady. Like…

The realization hit him like a freight train.

“Oh my god, you’re—”

Was it even possible? Was everything he believed about bonded pairs wrong?

“Time’s up!” Someone shouted, yanking the Guide away from Eddie and dragging him toward a helicopter whose blades were gearing back up to full speed, drowning out everything else in its wake.

Panic seized Eddie’s mind as the Guide moved further away—away from Eddie.

“f*ck,” he cursed, scrambling up to his feet and dangerously wobbling when he took a few shaky steps forward. “Wait!”

He couldn’t let the Guide go without getting some kind of information from him. Without letting him know what they might be—what they were to each other. When the Guide climbed into the Black Hawk, he curled his fingers around the interior handle and turned back toward Eddie; his head co*cked in a way that told Eddie that he was listening.

“You’re mine !” Eddie tried to explain, praying that it was enough to keep the soldier here, where they could talk this out and try to figure out what happened—how it was even possible.

The soldier stood stock-still for a few seconds while parsing through Eddie’s words until he jolted in realization. He scrambled toward Eddie, reaching out a hand that Eddie shuffled toward but was yanked back inside the Black Hawk without warning.

The helicopter took off toward the west, taking Eddie’s Guide with it.

XX

By the time Eddie snapped out of his stupor, he could hear the soldiers from his squadron begin groaning in pain as they regained consciousness. Eddie swallowed thickly, forcing himself to push down the confusion and sudden heartache at finding his Guide and then f*cking losing him—all in the span of sixty seconds—and rushed to drag everyone out of the downed helicopter. Thankfully, Chief was fine besides a mild concussion, although, Norwhal and Mills needed medical attention immediately, and the wounded soldiers that they had picked up to bring to base had all exacerbated their injuries. Eddie ended up spending another twenty minutes trying to get everyone stable.

His heart sank with grief when he realized Greggs didn’t make it, and he bit down hard on the inside of his lip while trying to figure out a plan of action. He knew they were about eight clicks away from base—a little less than five miles. Eddie had alerted base where they were, so someone would at least be looking for them. He looked over the wounded men and women, grimacing—they might not make it five miles.

Eddie double-checked his radio. “Base, this is Staff Sergeant Diaz; please be advised that we need medical attention now .” A familiar howl caught his attention, and Eddie’s gaze found Fenrir bounding toward him, looping circles around the helicopter before pointing his nose toward the west. Eddie wasn’t sure how Fenrir knew where to go, but he trusted his Spirit Animal. “I’m going to lead my squadron west toward base. Send assistance immediately.”

Copy that, Diaz.

Eddie took a deep breath, gripping the St. Christopher’s medal in his pocket once before reaching down to pick up Gregg’s body in a fireman’s carry, gritting his teeth against the searing pain in his shoulder and encouraging everyone else to their feet. “Time to go home. Let’s go!”

It took the medical helicopter almost forty minutes to reach them, but finally, it did.

Eddie’s legs collapsed from underneath him as it touched down, sheer relief flooding his veins as the adrenaline tapered off and the darkness overtook him, the memory of his Guide’s soul wrapped around his keeping him warm as everything else went cold.

XX

Returning home from war to a distraught wife and parents who cared more about his silver star than his diagnosed PTSD would have been enough to crack his carefully maintained exterior. But, he had a measure of support in his son clinging to his neck, bawling his eyes out with how happy he was that Eddie was home for good.

Eddie had remained overseas for a week while undergoing surgery for his bullet wound, but he received an honorable discharge due to his “heroics” in the Valley of Death and, thankfully, allowed to recuperate at home. When she saw him standing in their driveway waiting to surprise her, Shannon dropped all of the groceries she’d picked up from the grocery store, leaping over the fallen bags of fruit and bread, hurtling into Eddie’s arms and crying hysterically. He barely had enough time to adjust his stance, leading her away from his wounded shoulder, but Eddie held his wife close until she pulled away, and they watched Christopher fly toward Eddie with his crutches. That hug might have been the best one of his entire life.

After Eddie gave the bare minimum explanation of what happened to allow him to come home, waving off Shannon’s concerns and promising to go to therapy, he basked in his family’s presence for a few days before calling everyone else. His parents threw him a welcome home party the next weekend, and Eddie hugged his sisters, Clara, and Cameron tighter than was probably necessary, but, damn, it was so good to see all of them again.

Despite spending five years in the Army and the fact that they were his parents , he continued to feel uncomfortable around Helena and Ramon. They wanted to know the kind of “action” he saw overseas and had—point-blank—asked if he’d killed anyone. If that weren’t horrifying enough, Christopher was old enough to understand that his grandparents treated him like a baby, even though he wanted to be as independent as possible—something Eddie supported after doing months of research into his son’s condition. Thankfully, Sophia’s presence and ruthlessness as an attorney kept them in line, so he didn’t need to worry about them ruining his return home—at least, not yet.

After getting caught up with everyone, Eddie learned that after getting drafted into the NFL, Cameron had a few good years with the Dallas Cowboys until he blew out his knee about a year and a half ago. The former quarterback now coached the football team at a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, while Clara had gotten a prestigious modeling job—something she’d worked for since graduating college.

Adriana had earned five beautiful buckles and countless trophies from winning Rodeos over the last few years, and she planned to compete in the Austin and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeos in the next three months. She had moved out to Llano, Texas, not too long ago with her boyfriend, Ryan, though Helena and Ramon hadn’t met him yet—likely because Adriana worried they’d chase him away.

To be fair, it was a valid concern. Apparently, they did, in fact, scare away every man Sophia brought home in the years Eddie was away in Afghanistan. During any family dinners or get-togethers, Helena and Ramon grilled anyone Sophia brought as a plus one, looking down on their profession, no matter how honorable, and asking endless questions about their views and beliefs, sneering at any answer they received.

Eddie was ridiculously grateful that he missed all of it because he might not have any sort of relationship with his parents if he’d heard them talking down to either of his sisters or their dates. He refused to allow that with Shannon when he was physically present to do something about it. He still felt guilty when they went behind his back and berated her for her care of Christopher, despite his insistence they treat her respectfully.

When they finally made it back home after the party at his parents’ house, Shannon helped Eddie put Christopher to bed before dragging him into the bedroom to finally have the discussion they’d been putting off for a few days.

They both knew it couldn’t wait any longer.

Eddie knew he needed to tell her he’d done the impossible—finding his Guide . He knew it would change their relationship, but she was his wife, and they needed to have that discussion before someone got hurt from lack of communication. Besides that, Shannon needed to visit her mother in Los Angeles—for who knows how long—and Eddie didn’t think he was ready to pack up his life and move so far away, not when he was still attending therapy and counseling for his PTSD.

Shannon changed into her pajamas and crawled into bed, leaning back against the headrest and reaching for Eddie’s hand when he did the same. “I am so, so happy that you’re back home, Eddie, and that you’re safe,” she sniffed, squeezing his hand in hers. “It’s been a really long five years.”

Eddie nodded, shifting his wounded shoulder to a more comfortable position and holding back a wince. “I told you I’d fight to come home to you.” He swallowed around a lump in his throat and looked down at the comforter, not quite ready to see the blatant show of emotions behind Shannon’s eyes. “I’m sorry I haven’t been here for you and Chris. I know you’ve been through so much with your mom, my parents, and taking care of Christopher. I wish I’d been more of a partner to you.”

“Thank you for that,” she ran a hand through her loose curls and took a deep breath. “You know that I love you and that I think you’re a wonderful father to Chris, but I think I need to leave for a while. It’s something that’s been on my mind for months—if not years.” Shannon’s shoulders shook with a hitch of her breath, and he scooted closer to provide what comfort he could. “I need a break, Eddie, and I need to see my mom. I think that if I keep pretending like I can handle this on my own, it could destroy our family.”

Eddie rested his head against the padded wood and closed his eyes, knowing where this conversation would eventually lead. “I’m not ready to move away just yet, Shannon. I need to get my head on straight.” He opened his eyes again to find her gaze. “I understand that you need to go, though. I won’t stop you. Just—” he had to stop when a lump of panic seized his throat. “I need Christopher. I swear that I’ll take good care of him.”

Shannon’s expression softened. “I wouldn’t take him away from you, Eddie—not after what you’ve been through. I trust you with our son. But…” she shook her head, squeezing his hand again. “We still need to talk about us .”

“Yeah,” Eddie agreed quietly, which seemed to surprise Shannon.

At her searching gaze, Eddie licked his lips. “I get that we’ve been in a rough patch for far longer than any healthy couple should be. Plus, there’s something you need to know.”

“Did you—” she started with a sharpened tone that had Eddie wrapping his good arm around her shoulders and pulling her close.

“No, no, of course not,” he interrupted with a frown. “I would never cheat, Shannon. And you know better than to assume that.”

His wife let out a heavy exhale and looked sheepish. “I’m sorry; I don’t know why I came to that conclusion. I know that you’re faithful to me, Eddie.”

He nodded, though he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. “I am, I swear. But…” he hesitated. “I found my Guide.”

Shannon stiffened in shock before pulling away to rest on her knees, watching him with a disbelieving stare. “ What?

“On the last mission, the one where I was shot,” he explained, jerking his chin towards his wound, “I had fallen into a fugue state. Next thing I know, I’m looking at—at a man , a soldier, right in front of me. He was the Guide who had brought me back, though it was like…” he shook his head, trying to find the words to describe the experience. “It was like my soul was calling out for him. I’d never felt anything like it before.”

She co*cked her head and raised an eyebrow. “I thought you swore you’d never bond. I didn’t even realize it could be like that.”

Eddie looked away again, still struggling to decipher the myriad emotions he felt when thinking about his Guide. “It isn’t always. I don’t know what to think. I never thought that soulbonds were really a thing, and it was disconcerting to experience it for myself. There are Sentinels and Guides who’ve bonded and don’t have that kind of connection either—they just find counterparts they get along with like any other married couple. ” He shrugged wearily, gnawing at his bottom lip. “Anyway, I still might not. Even if I do find him again, and that’s a really big if , we might not bond at all. I’ve always wanted the freedom of choice, and it feels like that’s been taken away.”

Shannon shifted into a more comfortable position, placing a gentle hand on his knee, likely sensing how difficult it was for Eddie to admit that his potential Guide was a man . “Do you know who he might be?”

Eddie pressed his palm against one of his stinging eyes, hissing in frustration. “I have no idea . I didn’t get a name, a good look at his face, or even what military branch he was in. One second, he was there saving my life, and the next, he was flying off in a Black Hawk. I honestly thought I might have imagined it.”

“This is….” Shannon breathed out.

“Yeah,” he agreed solemnly.

She gently smiled, reaching out to take his hand again. “I’ll help you find him if it helps.”

“I don’t even know where to start, but thank you,” he told her honestly.

Shannon’s lips twitched upward. “I guess that brings us to the next conversation we need to have.”

Eddie swallowed again, grimacing at what he knew was coming. “It’s okay; you can say it.”

“I think we need to get a divorce.”

He remained silent long enough for it to grow awkward, but Shannon was patient and more than willing to ride it out. Finally, Eddie gave a small nod of agreement. “Yeah, I know.”

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t love each other,” Shannon offered.

Eddie pulled her in close, and they held each other for a few minutes. “I know. But we aren’t in love like we should be.”

She shook her head against his chest. “No, we’re not. We’re still a family, though. I’ll call as often as I can, and whenever you’re ready to move to LA, if ever, then I’ll be there waiting for you. We can have different places, but we’ll still be in each other’s lives—and not just for Christopher.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Eddie promised. “I want Christopher to have both of his parents.”

“He will,” Shannon agreed before leaning back and resting a hand over his cheek. “But he needs his dad, now.”

Eddie took a deep breath in and gave her a small smile. “I won’t leave him again. I swear to you.”

XX

It took six months for Eddie, now twenty-eight years old, to finally feel ready to move to Los Angeles. He’d kept himself busy, working three jobs and fighting to support his family while Shannon was away, and, against his better judgment, he let his parents help with Christopher. Nevertheless, he maintained as many boundaries as possible with the help of months of therapy, though they never seemed capable of respecting them unless he threatened to keep his son away from them.

The only reason he endured for so long against his parents’ verbal abuse and constant disparagements of his “failed” marriage and parenting ability was entirely the influence of forcing himself to continue seeing his therapist, who encouraged him to be a better dad for his son, and because he spent every free moment he could and called in every favor available in an attempt to find his Guide. Eddie still wasn’t sure what he wanted their relationship—if any—to look like if he found him, but Eddie owed it to himself, not to mention his Guide, to try.

The problem he faced, and anyone else who tried to find out who else was in the Valley of Death that night, was hitting a roadblock at every turn. Their issues ranged from classified documentation to the Brass, who, if they knew anything, kept their mouths shut for “global security.”

Eddie had no idea what the f*ck that meant, but he forced himself to come to terms with the fact that he might never find out who his Guide might be.

Which was…fine.

Disheartening, but then again, Eddie had never wanted to bond. He’d pinky-promised to that, in fact.

When he allowed himself to close that door, or at least turn away from it for a while, as painful as it might be, Eddie finally decided that it was time to join Shannon in LA. It took a few weeks to find a house to rent and extract himself from his parent’s claws, but Eddie finally made the leap and even managed to secure a position at the Los Angeles Fire Academy.

Christopher was over the moon to see his mother again. Eddie and Shannon agreed that their son should continue living with Eddie, though she would assist with childcare whenever training or at work, which would be a huge help and a major stressor taken off his plate because he could actually trust her with their son—unlike the feeling Eddie always got when he forced to drop Christopher off with Helena and Ramon. Thankfully, if Shannon was unavailable or with her mom at the hospital, Eddie’s aunt, Tia Pepa, and his Abuela were also in town.

When Eddie graduated from the Academy and started deciding which firehouse he would join, he felt as if he had finally found his bearings and could stand tall against what life wanted to throw at him. Things settled even further when he sat down with Bobby Nash, the Captain of the 118. Eddie’s heart clenched at the Guide’s stern yet gentle demeanor, highlighting his crew and explaining why Eddie would fit right into the family he was building.

At the end of the interview, Eddie grinned before reaching out to shake Bobby’s hand, confident that he’d found where he belonged.

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings? You get to see Eddie's POV of his and Buck's first meet up! How do you think it will go in Part IV?

Thank you to everyone who has read, followed, commented, and given kudos to this story. I can't thank you enough for your support.

Chapter 28

Summary:

Bobby introduces Daniel and Maddie to the 118 and we check in on Owen and TK.

Notes:

HAPPY SUNDAY!! It might be the second month of having temps over 100 degrees, but it is a good day because I finally get to post the first chapter of our FINAL part of this story. I've LOVED writing this and have had so much fun with it - thanks to all of you.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I've seen a lot of (amazing) comments saying they are excited to see Buck and Eddie meet again (ME TOO), so I wanted to warn you that Buck won't be introduced to the 118 until Chapter 32 - and there will be at LEAST 10 chapters after that (I'm working on Chapter 39 now). Just wanted to manage expectations...

Anyway, a BIG S/O to the best beta in existence, @MugiwaraLexi. Thanks for making my writing better.

Enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (34)

Part IV: Living in LA

Chapter 28

“Bobby, relax,” Maddie coaxed, adjusting her sunglasses against the rays breaking through the scattered cloud cover. “Everything will be fine .”

The older Guide shot her an unimpressed glare, going back to triple-checking that everything—including napkins, cutlery, plates, condiments, and buns—was accounted for on the picnic tables and that the coolers were packed full of water and sodas. “I’m sure it will be,” Bobby agreed with a determined nod. “Just as long as we have what we need.”

Daniel snorted from where he was finishing cleaning the park’s grill. “We do. You’ve made sure of that. Multiple times .”

Bobby opened his mouth to argue before giving up and shaking his head fondly. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a reason to be nervous; his two worlds were colliding for the first time, and Bobby wanted it to go perfectly. Their recent trips to LA during Buck’s shore leave had proved fruitful, with Cedars-Sinai chomping at the bit to bring Daniel aboard while Annie, Deacon’s wife, spoke with Sue Blevins, the Supervisor at the Dispatch Center, about setting Maddie up with an interview. So, as the older Guide finally found his footing, hitting his stride as Captain of the 118, Daniel accepted a surgical attending position at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Maddie followed him to Los Angeles two months later with a job at the Dispatch Center.

Having them both so close again made Bobby feel as though everything was slowly falling into place. He had a firm handle on his alcoholism, with a sponsor he trusted and friends at AA that were both supportive and encouraging in sharing experiences and hardships. He loved his job and was confident it was where he belonged—saving lives alongside a handful of talented firefighters and paramedics. His team wasn’t perfect, but he found himself forming connections with Henrietta “Hen” Wilson and Howard “Chimney” Han. While Bobby thought the rest of his firefighters were great, hard-working people, he trusted the two paramedics.

He let Daniel and Maddie find their footing in LA before approaching them with the idea of having a barbeque at the park right outside his apartment. The 118 had recently started getting together once a month outside of work and Bobby had been itching to host. After the tail end of Maddie’s second month using the spare room in Daniel’s apartment, the two Buckleys cheerfully agreed to meet Bobby’s team.

While he was excited about his two worlds finally coming together, he realized the amount of pressure weighing on this meeting. What if, for some godforsaken reason, Maddie and Daniel didn’t get along with the 118? What if Hen and Chimney found some fault with his relationship with the Buckley siblings? Bobby had no clue how he would handle damage control if something went wrong.

“I don’t know why you’re nervous, Bobby,” Maddie huffed with a hint of amusem*nt lacing her voice as she sat down at the end of one of the picnic tables beneath the shade. “I’m sure Daniel and I will love your team.”

“I told them I had a few people I’d like for them to meet, but I didn’t quite know how to…” Bobby hesitated, scratching the back of his neck.

“Explain our relationship?” Daniel offered, closing the lid to the now-clean grill and wiping his hands on a wet wipe.

Bobby chewed on the inside of his cheek and nodded. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Daniel and Maddie shared a glance with their lips twitching upwards. The eldest Buckley shook her head and smiled softly at Bobby. “We’re family. That’s all they really need to know.”

A bubble of happiness expanded inside the older Guide’s chest at the thought that the two Buckley siblings felt the same connection he did. While Buck held half of his heart, Bobby had an enormous amount of love and affection for Daniel and Maddie as well.

As Daniel connected his phone to his speaker—playing something upbeat and faithful to the summer weather—the first of the 118 began to arrive. Chimney and Tommy strolled up with sunglasses donned and wide grins stretching over their faces, followed quickly by Hen and her family, who carried lawn chairs and bags filled with chips and veggies. B-shift came soon after, while C-shift remained at the firehouse for any calls that came in.

After Bobby greeted everyone heartily, he beckoned his two favorite paramedics over, the nerves creeping back into his stomach.

“What’s up, Cap?” Chimney asked, clapping him on the back earnestly. “Do you need help with anything?”

Bobby cleared his throat and shook his head. “Actually, I wanted to introduce you to some people.” He gestured towards the siblings, who were watching him with open, encouraging expressions. “This is Daniel Buckley and his sister, Maddie. They’re pretty new to town, but I’m over the moon to have them here.”

“It’s really nice to meet you both,” Hen grinned, shaking their hands enthusiastically. “I’m Hen, and that’s my wife, Karen, and my son, Denny,” she pointed out her family, who were exploring the playground a few yards away.

“And I’m Chimney,” the paramedic introduced himself, though Bobby noticed that he couldn’t seem to fully take his eyes off of Maddie. “How do you know Cap?”

“We’re family,” Daniel explained easily, relaxing the tense line of Bobby’s shoulders. “Our brother, Buck, is basically like a son to Bobby, so we’ve all gotten really close.”

“Oh,” Chimney blinked, looking between the two of them and Bobby. “I thought Buck was your son.”

Bobby shrugged, not interested in getting into the gory details. “In all the ways that matter. Anyway, Daniel is an Orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai and Maddie is finishing up her second month at the Dispatch Center.”

Hen snapped her fingers. “I knew I recognized your voice! I hope you’re enjoying it because you’re great at your job.”

Maddie blushed. “That’s really kind of you to say. Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary,” Hen told her earnestly. Then, as she opened her mouth to say something else, a figure walking up to their gathering caught her eye. She jovially waved the woman over, who Bobby recognized as the Sergeant from a few of their calls. “Hey, Athena!”

The two women embraced before pulling back, with Hen wrapping an arm around Athena’s shoulders as she gestured towards the others. “Athena, I’d like for you to formally meet my Captain, Bobby Nash, and this is Maddie and her brother, Daniel. Everyone, this is Sergeant Athena Grant.”

They all shook her hand, though Bobby suddenly found his mouth dry and his skin feeling as if something were stretching it too tightly. Athena was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever met, and, now that his focus wasn’t on the job, Bobby was currently working out a way to subtly ask Hen why she’d never brought her friend around before.

“I hope it’s okay that I’m crashing your party, Captain,” Athena teased with a smirk tilting her lip, eyeing him appreciatively.

Bobby cleared his throat, licking his bottom lip and trying to pull confidence from somewhere . “No, of course not. We’re happy to have you. How do you two know each other?”

Hen gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, Athena and I go way back. She was one of the first people to make me feel welcome as a woman of color in a predominantly white man’s world.”

“Well,” Bobby smiled, though it might have been a bit wobbly from nerves. “Thank you for coming, and thanks for looking out for Hen. We’re lucky to have her.”

Daniel and Maddie found their way to either side of him, lightly gripping his arms and maneuvering him forward. “I’m sure the Sergeant here is thirsty, Bobby,” Daniel said with a pointed look.

“Yeah,” Maddie agreed readily. “Why don’t you offer her a drink, and we can start on the burgers and hot dogs?”

“Oh, I’m not sure—” Bobby started, though he was quickly interrupted by Chimney, who had a sh*t-eating grin on his face.

“I’m happy to help them with the grill, Cap,” he winked, smacking on the new piece of gum in his mouth. “You go do your thing.”

Athena threw her head back and laughed, nearly knocking the breath out of Bobby, who could have sworn that the sound embedded itself into his memory right then and there. He wanted to hear that laugh every day for the rest of his life.

She held out her hand, one of her eyebrows climbing suggestively. “I’d be honored, Captain.”

Bobby reached out to snag the offered hand without a moment of hesitation, feeling sparks of joy and disbelief radiating off of the Sentinel and knowing his own stunned expression mirrored it. “Then I believe I owe you a drink, Sergeant.”

XX

Daniel checked his phone as he took the seat the waiter offered him inside the small Italian restaurant a few miles away from the hospital. He met Maddie for lunch here every other Wednesday since she moved to LA, spending an hour or so catching up and enjoying each other’s company. On the weeks they didn’t do lunch, he and his sister had a standing dinner reservation at Bobby’s and consistently went out with the 118, so they weren’t missing out on spending time together, no matter how much time all three of them spend at work.

His sister’s text confirmed she was running late - that she’d run into one of her co-workers outside and was checking to see if she could add one more to their lunch today. He shrugged, shooting off a quick affirmative before asking the waiter to bring one more water and a set of silverware for their guest. Maddie bustled in a few minutes later, giving him a grateful grin as she turned to introduce her co-worker, Abby Clark.

Abby may be some ten years older, but Daniel was instantly smitten. The blonde senior dispatcher was as charming as she was beautiful, and he found himself leaning forward in anticipation during their lunch to hear each story she offered from her calls. Abby was effortlessly funny and made Daniel feel seen when she gave him her full attention, her blue eyes sparkling in interest behind her red-framed glasses.

Maddie, ever the romantic, wasn’t blind to the casual flirting happening in front of her and cut out of lunch early, waving off Abby’s objections and leaning over to press a quick kiss to Daniel’s cheek. “I’ll see you soon, little brother. Have fun.”

Daniel rolled his eyes, though he thanked her with a wink before she left, and turned back to Abby. When their meal ended, he insisted on paying for her portion and walked her out to her car. Despite how well they hit it off, it still took him by surprise when she was bold enough to ask for his number. “I know this might be strange because I work with your sister, but I’d really like to call you sometime.”

He scratched the back of his neck, a nervous tick he picked up from either Buck or Bobby, and gave a little nod. Abby was a beautiful, caring woman who seemed to like him. He might not have had much luck dating out here in LA over the past few months, but maybe the tide was finally turning.

“I’d like that.”

XX

Bobby sank into his leather recliner, huffing out a relieved breath at finally being able to relax after a twenty-four-hour shift. He’d been working hard the past few weeks, ever since the barbeque where he introduced Daniel and Maddie to the 118, and now, he had a few days to himself to look forward to. Both of the Buckley siblings and Athena were all working, so there wasn't anything needing his attention, which was a nice change of pace. While he loved spending time with his family and friends—including getting to know Athena—Bobby enjoyed the peace and quiet.

Of course, he should have known better than even thinking of the “q” word.

His eyes snapped open when his phone rang in his lap, and Bobby grumbled before raising it to his ear. “Hello?”

Hey, Bobby, ” his friend’s familiar voice sounded through the other line. However, instead of the usual warmth he associated with Owen’s greetings, there was an audible line of tension lacing his tone.

“What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Bobby,” Owen started. He sounded weighed down by grief Bobby instantly recognized. “ I need your help.

Bobby shot up to his feet, heading straight toward his bedroom to start packing a bag. “Anything, you know that. Tell me what’s happened.”

His friend’s breath caught on the other line, and he swallowed thickly. “ So much. I don’t even know where to start.

Bobby closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting to keep his voice calm because that’s what Owen needed right now. He knew the Sentinel almost as well as he knew himself, and if Bobby started freaking out, then so would Owen. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, then?”

Owen cleared his throat, working himself up with a confidence he didn’t feel—a method Bobby had seen him do before. “ Well, first off…I had a doctor’s appointment. I have lung cancer—from being at ground zero on 9/11.

Every train of thought Bobby had whirring around in his brain came screeching to a halt, and Bobby collapsed onto his bed with a sharp inhale of breath. His ears rang and his vision blurred at the edges. “What—”

The doctor said I have a good chance, ” Owen sighed. “ But, Bobby, that’s not the news I called you about.”

What could possibly be worse than his best friend—his brother in arms since the academy—having a disease that might kill him? “Tell me,” he pleaded, unable to keep the strain from his voice.

Owen sucked in a shaking breath. “ TK OD’ed. He’s in the hospital.

“f*ck,” Bobby cursed, running a trembling hand over his face and ignoring the tears escaping from the corners of his eyes. “What happened?”

You know how he was planning on proposing to Alex? ” When Bobby let out a weak noise of acknowledgement, Owen continued grimly. “ Apparently, the bastard has been cheating on TK for months. He found out when he tried to propose.

Bobby had never wanted to hurt someone the way he wanted to hurt Alex, and the sudden thought scared him, so the Guide fought down the bubbling anger that fought its way up his throat. Owen was like a brother to Bobby, meaning TK was like his nephew. Even more than that, TK was Bobby’s godson—if anything were to have happened to Owen and Gwen while TK grew up, Bobby would have raised him as his own.

It hurt, more than expected, to know the kind of pain TK was suffering.

“Is he okay?” Bobby asked quietly.

He’ll be fine, physically, ” Owen assured him. “ But he’s in a really bad place. I’m taking him to Austin with me .”

“Austin?”

Owen made a noise in the back of his throat. “ That’s another thing. A firehouse in Austin, Texas, lost nearly their entire crew. They were impressed with what I’ve done with the 252; they’ve asked that I do the same with the 126. With everything going on here, I think TK could use the change in scenery.”

Bobby blinked in surprise. He knew Owen had done amazing things rebuilding the 252 in New York, though he never expected his friend to want to make a life elsewhere. New York was his home . Although, with TK’s addiction and Owen’s diagnoses, he didn’t blame his friend for wanting to start over somewhere else.

“You’ll be great in Austin,” Bobby told him with a hint of a smile tilting his lips. “Do you have a doctor down there yet?”

I was referred to one, yes. Also, they have one of the best cancer hospitals in the nation in Houston, a few hours away.

Bobby nodded. “Good, that’s good.” He paused, sitting up and looking at his half-packed duffle bag. “What can I do, Owen?”

His friend gave a low chuckle and breathed out noisily. “ I could use a friend for a few days when I get to Austin. TK would be happy to see you. Plus, I need someone I trust to help me choose my new crew.

“Anything for you,” Bobby promised him. “Just send me the details, and I’ll make it happen.”

Thanks, Bobby. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.

Bobby shook his head, running a hand over his shortly-cropped hair. “No need to thank me. I’ll talk to you soon.”

When he hung up, Bobby stared at his phone for a few long moments until he shook himself out of his stupor. The Guide brought his phone back up to his ear. He had a few calls to make.

XX

Bobby let out a soft oomph when TK collided with him at the bottom of the escalator at the airport. Owen was right behind him, pulling Bobby into a tight hug and clapping him on the back as well. The sharp prickle of grief was palpable, despite being buried beneath stacks of relief at having Bobby here and a tinge of hope that Austin could hold more in store for them than New York. “I missed you both.”

“We missed you too,” TK muttered against Bobby’s chest before stepping back and stuffing his hands in his jean pockets. Owen had originally wanted to keep his diagnosis from TK, not wanting to put his son in an even darker place than he already was, but Bobby convinced him otherwise. TK would never forgive Owen for keeping such a big secret, and Bobby wasn’t about to be in the middle of their fight if he could avoid it. He loved them both too much to allow this wedge to come between them. Ultimately, TK had taken it really hard. Still, he appreciated the honesty nonetheless and found a new resolve to stay clean in order to help Owen through any hardships that he’d have to handle in the future. “Thanks for coming all the way down.”

Bobby brought his hand to rest at the base of TK’s neck and wrapped his free arm around Owen’s shoulders, leading them out the automatic doors and toward the parking lot. “Anything for family; you know that. So, how is Austin?”

“It’s…interesting,” TK grumbled. “The station is like a tomb.”

“They shuttered it the day after the call came in,” Owen explained grimly as he led them toward the car. “Nobody was ready to move on. We started construction a few days ago.”

TK shot his dad a glare. “A lot of people weren’t happy to have strangers come in and start wrecking their firehouse.”

Bobby hummed, tossing his duffle bag into the trunk and sliding into the passenger seat. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to give someone a different perspective.”

“That’s what I said,” Owen snapped his fingers and gave Bobby a small smile. “We can head there now if that’s okay?”

“Sure,” the older Guide nodded. “Have you found a place to live yet?”

TK grasped the edge of the seat next to Bobby’s head and nodded. “A house a few miles from downtown. It’s pretty.”

“Knowing your dad, I’m sure it’s a great place to live,” Bobby told him softly.

Twenty minutes later, they were pulling up to the firehouse where construction crews were hard at work, breaking down walls and hauling old equipment out the bay doors. A man dressed in a sharp uniform carrying a stack of papers noticed them immediately and reached out a hand toward Owen. “Captain Strand, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Deputy Fire Chief Aiden Radford.”

Owen nodded with a small, welcoming smile. “Pleasure is all mine, Chief.” He gestured beside him. “This is my son, TK, and my friend, Captain Bobby Nash of the 118 in LA.”

Recognition lit up the Deputy Chief’s face. “I’ve heard great things, Captain. Welcome to Austin.” He turned back toward Owen. “So, is all of this in the budget?”

The older Sentinel smirked slightly. “I find people work better in spaces where there’s more natural light.” He nodded to the papers in the Deputy Chief’s hand. “What do you have there?”

“Ah,” Radford grimaced. “Resumes. They’ve been coming in from all over the state. Got a lot of good people here.”

As Radford and Owen spoke, Bobby took a look around the firehouse, his gaze catching on a young man, maybe a little younger than TK, cleaning the handles—almost obsessively—of a blood-red SUV with the words “Austin Fire Department” plated across the side. While Bobby didn’t have Buck’s unique abilities, he was still a powerful Guide in his own right and trained well enough to recognize the sheer potential standing before him. The young man was brimming with hope and was eager to please, wanting every task he completed to be perfect.

“Now this one right here,” Radford started saying before Bobby interrupted.

“Excuse me,” Bobby cut in with a nod toward the man in question. “Who’s he?”

Owen followed his gaze and raised an eyebrow, silently communicating with Bobby in the way they’d learned how to when they first found each other in the fire academy.

Radford waved dismissively at him. “Oh, that’s Mateo. He’s a frequent flier at the academy; never passed, but he’s a good kid.” The Deputy Chief grinned with a light chuckle. “I hired him as my driver.”

The older Sentinel hummed. “Alright, Chief. I’ll look at your resumes, but I am casting a slightly wider net. Bobby is here to help me find the right people to fill this place.”

The Deputy Chief raised his eyebrows in surprise but ultimately shrugged. “Well, I trust your judgment, Captain. Good luck.”

XX

Owen drove them to lunch at a local pavilion a few blocks away, where half a dozen food trucks spread out in a semicircle. Owen went with something covered in way too much lettuce while Bobby and TK tried the tacos, humming their approval as they sat down and had a glass of lemonade. “This crew can’t just be good,” the Sentinel explained, wiping his mouth on a napkin. “They’ve got to be the best.”

“I’m guessing you want the 1927 Yankees?” Bobby mused, taking another bite of his taco and smirking when Owen winked at him, pushing a folder towards the Guide and his son.

“Exactly,” Owen agreed. “No one is going to cut us any slack. We need exceptional people; they’ve gotta be battle tested.”

Bobby finished his meal and wiped his hands, leaning forward in anticipation. “Well, who are we looking at first?”

XX

Bobby collapsed into his desk chair, booting up his computer and flexing his fingers in preparation for drafting his weekly email to Buck.

Bobby’s week in Austin proved fruitful. After a bit of digging and a lot of work, Owen had a crew he was proud of and excited to work with.

They already knew TK’s potential, so the Sentinel and Guide were comfortable with how he would perform, especially with the stipulation that he would live under his dad’s roof.

Marjan Marwani from Miami, Florida, is an internet-sensation daredevil and almost as reckless as Buck, but she has a big heart. She puts the lives of civilians first and thinks about her own safety second, which has the potential to be dangerous if Marwani doesn’t have a captain she respects. Bobby thought Owen would be the perfect person to help mold the young Muslim woman into the best firefighter she could be and help her find pride in herself and her work without being used as a pawn by the fire department for public relations.

Mateo Chavez is a brilliant kid; told he was “slow” his whole life because it took him a bit longer to learn certain things than it did for others. However, Bobby immediately caught on to the untapped potential, and as soon as Owen began paying attention, the Sentinel saw it too. Chavez set AFD academy records in multiple categories and wholeheartedly knew he was born to be a firefighter. His relentlessness and obvious love for the job would help Owen’s crew step up to fill the shoes of the talented team who perished in the factory fire.

Paul Strickland from Chicago, Illinois, inspired Bobby to remember to treat others with respect, no matter their background. Someone who faced so much fear and anger as a child when dealing with transphobia that they had to learn how to read people to protect themselves would be an asset to Owen, who needed to trust his crew’s instincts out in the field. That, plus the fact that Paul could be a role model to children going through similar circ*mstances, had Bobby grinning in relief when the firefighter finally accepted the job and agreed to move to Austin.

The last member of A-shift took a bit more convincing than the others. Judd Ryder is the sole survivor of the original 126, and he was there the night of the factory fire. From the moment he stepped into the firehouse, it was obvious the man hadn’t dealt with his grief and hadn’t let himself come to terms with the death of his crew—his family . Bobby was more than familiar with the feeling.

Their first conversation didn’t go well, nor did Bobby expect it to. There was too much change happening at once, and Judd only saw the rest of his home dismantling before his very eyes. He snarled and said hurtful things, like a wounded dog, alone and whimpering because he felt backed into a corner. After Bobby and Owen met Judd’s wife, Grace, at the local bar that evening, Bobby decided they needed to try again with the veteran firefighter.

After checking Judd’s file for his address, Bobby went to his house and, thinking it too early for the doorbell, knocked on the door. Thankfully, Judd didn’t make him wait, though the confusion on his face when he realized who stood on his doorstep made Bobby’s lips twitch in amusem*nt.

“Captain Nash? What are you doing here?”

Bobby cleared his throat, gathering courage he didn’t feel. “I thought maybe we could talk. One man who lost his family to another.”

Judd’s brows had furrowed in confusion, traces of grief etched into his expression. He stepped aside and led Bobby into his kitchen, gripping the back of a wooden chair with white knuckles. “You—your firehouse—”

The Guide swallowed thickly and shook his head. “Not my firehouse, no. About sixteen years ago, there was a fire at my apartment building. It wasn’t up to code, and it killed 148 people, including my wife and two children.”

Judd watched him with wide eyes, his jaw muscle jumping as he tried to find a way to respond.

Bobby carried on before he could, though. “I was so stuck in my grief that I pushed everyone and everything away, including the best job I ever had and the boy I loved like a son.”

The younger firefighter looked down at his kitchen table and tightened his grip on the chair. It groaned beneath the added pressure. “How—how did you move past it? Obviously, you’re—you’re fine now.”

“Honestly?” Bobby sighed, bringing up a hand to scratch at the back of his neck. “The boy—Buck—found me when he graduated high school. Gave me an ultimatum. Told me that if I didn’t clean myself up and get help, he’d make sure I’d never see or hear a single thing about him again—my last connection to the family I’d lost. I had kept up with what he’d been doing, but I was too caught up in my own spiral of guilt and grief to make contact. His visit helped me see that I was drinking myself into an early grave because I couldn’t move on.”

The two were quiet for a few minutes until Judd wiped a shaking hand over his face. “Captain Strand said that I needed to complete my CSID. I’ve never had much use for talk.”

“I hadn’t either,” Bobby admitted honestly. “And I’m a Guide .” When that pulled a small smile from Judd, Bobby continued. “Talking to a professional doesn’t make you weak, and it sure as hell doesn’t make you any less of a man or firefighter. When something so unbelievably soul-crushing happens, we can’t just push down our heartbreak and anger—we need to confront it—let ourselves feel it and then let it go. None of that means that we forget who we lost or that anyone can replace our family. It means we honor their memory by doing what we were born to do.”

Bobby inhaled a sharp breath. It was always so hard to talk about what happened to Marcy and the kids, but he was moving forward one step at a time. “What were you born to do, Judd?”

Judd’s expression shattered, and he sucked in great, watery breaths as a sob tore out of his throat. “I was born to be a firefighter.”

Bobby allowed his shields to surround Judd, encompassing him in a bubble of warmthsafetylove . He reached forward, pulling Judd into a hug, smiling gently when the firefighter collapsed against him. “Then every decision you make from this moment on needs to be in service of that. Don’t take no for an answer.”

Judd chuckled wetly against his chest. “That’s what Gracie said. She said that the man she fell in love with wouldn’t give up so easily.”

“Grace is a brilliant woman.”

“She is,” Judd agreed, pulling back and wiping his eyes. Bobby gave him some space to pull himself back together. When the firefighter looked back up at him, Bobby thought he could feel a heavy weight lifted off his shoulders. “I’ll speak with someone and complete my CSID.”

“I know you will,” Bobby acknowledged with a small nod. “I think Captain Strand deserves an apology as well.”

He looked sheepish, palming the back of his neck. “I know. I was out of line earlier. I’m sorry about the things I said.”

“You’re forgiven. I’ve been where you are, Judd. I can promise you that it gets better.”

“Thank you, Captain Nash,” Judd breathed out harshly, leading him back toward the front door.

Bobby brought him in for one last hug, clapping him on the back. “Just Bobby, please. I know you’ll keep Owen and the rest of the crew safe. Look out for them for me?”

“I promise.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

BOBBY FINALLY MEETS ATHENA! I can't even begin to tell you how much I love their relationship. They are basically everyone's parents and that is certainly true in this story also.

It's also been a while since we checked in on Owen and TK, so I wanted to make sure we figured out what they were up to - which means we've got the 126 <3

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out through this story or through Tumblr. Enjoy your week and see you Sunday!

Chapter 29

Summary:

Bobby and Athena take the next step while Eddie Diaz is welcomed into the 118

Notes:

Happy Sunday!

I'll keep this brief, so thank you to everyone who read/commented/gave kudos to the first chapter of the final part to this story! It's super encouraging that people like it and it helps me finish out this story strong.

Thank you to my beta @mugiwaraLexi for all of their hard work!

P.S. I'll probably be adding photos to the top of each chapter, so if you are subscribed, you'll be getting a few notifications this week.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (35)

Part IV

Chapter 29

“Athena, are you sure about this?”

The Sentinel in question raised her eyebrows in challenge, watching her Guide shift against the couch cushions, listening to the quick uptick of the heartbeat she’d recognize from fifty miles away.

Bobby’s lips twitched at her response, and he reached out to take hold of her hand. “I know you wouldn’t say so if you weren’t sure, but meeting your kids is a big step for us. For me.”

Athena’s gaze softened as she realized the real reason Bobby was nervous. They’d been dating for nearly six months, and while they were serious about one another—how could they not be after finally finding their counterpart—Athena had yet to introduce Bobby to her children, Harry and May. The two of them had agreed to keep their relationship to themselves for a while, to be selfish in the best way possible and figure out what their bond meant to each other.

But it was time to take the next step, and Athena found herself surprised at Bobby’s reluctance. She would have thought he’d be chomping at the bit about finally getting to tell the 118 and their families. Of course, everyone suspected, but neither Bobby nor Athena ever came right out and confirmed the theories Hen and Chimney liked to throw out every other week.

“It is,” she agreed, squeezing his hand and pressing their knees together in a quiet show of comfort. “It’s been six months, Bobby. Time to let the cat out of the bag and let our families in on the fun.”

Her Guide swallowed thickly, his Adam's apple bobbing with the movement. “I agree. There’re just—there are some things I haven’t told you.”

“About what?” She asked gently. Athena was a Sentinel and a damn fine police sergeant; her job was to be observant. Of course, she’d known Bobby kept something back during their relationship, it was one of the first things she’d noticed about him, but Athena was also a patient woman. She needed to let her Guide open up of his own accord.

The two of them were silent for a few moments before Bobby turned his attention back to her, a steely determination igniting his gaze. Her heart swooped in pride. She loved him for so many reasons, but his courage is what inspired Athena the most. “Okay,” Bobby nodded stiffly, his grip flexing in hers. “If you really think we’re ready to bring our families into this relationship, then you should know about mine.”

“I’m here to listen,” Athena urged, pressing a kiss to Bobby’s cheek before leaning back and letting him speak.

Almost an hour later, she reached up and wiped the tears from his eyes, pulling him into a hug and rubbing her hands across his back. “That must have been so hard to tell me, Love. Thank you for trusting me with that—with you .”

Her Guide sniffed and rubbed at the redness in his eyes, but the tense line of his shoulders had, thankfully, relaxed. He must have really needed to get that off of his chest. Athena now understood why neither Bobby nor Maddie and Daniel spoke much about Buck’s life or his job. They sang his praises, that much was certain, but they never delved deeper, always finding a way to change the subject or looking away with a painful smile they couldn’t keep off their faces. She and the 118 assumed the young Guide traveled for work or lived across the country, but the reality of his situation sparked a protective cord in Athena’s chest.

“I love you, Athena.”

“I love you too, Bobby,” she smiled at him, cupping his face and kissing him again. “And I can’t wait to meet Buck. He sounds like the most amazing young man.”

Bobby chuckled wetly; the pride shining in his eyes made Athena want to hug him all over again. “He really is. You’ve already met Maddie and Daniel, so you know the Buckley siblings are special people, but Buck is—he’s my son . If you’re ready for me to get to know Harry and May, then I want you to be involved in Buck’s life as well.”

“I’d like that a lot, Bobby. I’m ready for it all.”

Her Guide leaned forward and wrapped his strong arms around her, pulling her against his chest and kissing the top of her head. “Then I am too. I’m ready for everything with you.”

XX

Bobby announced their relationship to the knowing smiles of the 118, Maddie, and Daniel and was subsequently introduced to Athena’s kids, fifteen-year-old May and nine-year-old Harry Grant. He’d fallen in love with them immediately, seeing Athena’s strength and wisdom shining so brightly, and later, once he got to know Athena’s ex-husband as well, Michael’s joyfulness and caring nature in every step they took.

Three months into his integration into the Grant family way of life, Bobby decided to spoil his crew with his famous creamy bacon mac and cheese recipe. Of course, they only had it for special occasions, but Bobby was in too good of a mood after a successful dinner at the Grant Household to cook just any meal for his team. Plus, they were supposed to get a new recruit today; Eddie Diaz was a former army medic who graduated at the top of his class at the fire academy. Multiple stations clambered to bring the powerful Sentinel onboard at their station, but, thankfully, his interview with Bobby went well enough that he accepted his job offer with a grateful smile and a hearty handshake before they parted ways.

As anticipated, Hen and Chimney led the pack of vultures, hovering around the kitchen as he stirred in the bacon. Tommy even set the table without being asked, keeping his wide, excited gaze on the dish as it came out of the oven.

When they sat down to eat, his team sang his praises, laughing without restraint and grinning at the shared jokes, feeling more and more like a family with each passing day. As they dug in, Chimney nudged his elbow and nodded towards the stairs, where Eddie Diaz was running a hand over his hair and watching them nervously.

“Hi, Captain Nash.” He offered his hand, which Bobby shook with an amused smirk when Eddie greeted the rest of the team. “Eddie Diaz. New recruit.”

Bobby reached over to pat the top of the chair beside him. “Take a seat, Eddie.”

Eddie gave him a grateful smile and set his duffle bag down before taking the offered seat. Chimney scooped up a double portion of mac and cheese for Eddie, whose grin widened even further. “Wow, this looks amazing. Is it always like this?”

Hen handed him the salad bowl and nodded, a pleased look gracing her features. “Always.”

“Well,” Chimney corrected. “When Bobby is in the captain’s chair, anyways.”

Eddie looked down at his meal, his lips twitching upwards. “Then I might be in the right place.”

Bobby gently clapped him on the back, letting a blanket of safety and security brush over his team. “I think so too, Eddie. Welcome to the 118.”

XX

Eddie shuffled his feet, rubbing his hand over a wrinkle in his collared shirt and tried to keep from fidgeting further. He’d grown to like his coworkers at the 118 over the past month; Hen and Chimney were an excellent team, moving in tandem on calls and knowing what the other needed without even speaking. Bobby was an exceptional captain, directing his team with a gentle but stern authority that he obviously earned by the love and loyalty given to him by his crew. He’d paired him off with Tommy, a talented firefighter as well, though they weren’t quite in sync the way Hen and Chimney were. Nor did Eddie expect them to be; he’d only just started out and was still getting his footing.

Despite his probationary status, Bobby still invited Eddie over to the monthly 118 cookout held at Bobby’s Sentinel’s house. Eddie debated for a few days before deciding he wasn’t ready to introduce Chris to the rest of the team just yet. After the disastrous fallout with his parents over his move to LA, Eddie was still overly protective of his son. He knew Chris would get along with just about anyone—he was a bright, outgoing kid who loved meeting new people—but Eddie was the one who held back when the rest of his team spoke about their personal lives.

His relationship with Shannon was complicated, especially after their divorce was finalized right before starting at the 118. Eddie didn’t even know how to start that conversation, much less off-handedly mention that his ex-wife was still helping him search for the Guide he somehow lost in the middle of a war zone. There was just too much to explain to his new team, and while he liked them a lot, they weren’t quite friends just yet.

Eddie hoped the cookout today would help get his foot in the door. He hadn’t spent much time with anyone outside of sparse dinners with Abuela and Pepa and quick lunches with Shannon during her breaks. Sure, he loved his family and his time at home, but he needed other people in his life. His therapist agreed, encouraging him to step outside his comfort zone.

The Sentinel took a deep breath, shifting the two bags of chips in his hand and finding the courage to knock on the front door. Another Sentinel, dressed in a dark blue top and jeans, greeted him with a friendly smile. “You must be Eddie. Please, come in.” She stepped aside to let him in. “I’m Athena Grant.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, Athena,” Eddie shook her offered hand and gestured toward the high ceilings and beautiful wood paneling outlining the large windows. “Your home is beautiful.”

“You’re too sweet,” she winked, leading him down a small set of stairs and out to the back patio where a crowd of people waited with drinks in their hands and sunglasses on their faces. She took the bags of chips and called out to the others. “Look who I found!”

Hen came over to hug him tight and introduce Eddie to her wife, Karen, and son, Denny. Eddie felt a stab of regret at not bringing Chris, not knowing there would be other kids to play with, and he resolved to move past his issues for the next cookout. Chimney came over next, offering him a soda and leading him toward Bobby, manning the grill.

The older Guide clapped him on the back with a welcoming smile, and they caught up for a few minutes before he introduced Eddie to Athena’s ex-husband, Michael, his boyfriend, David, and Athena and Michael’s kids, May and Harry.

They, and the rest of the 118, were all welcoming and kind, making Eddie feel right at home and grateful for choosing this firehouse. Yet, his heart constricted in his chest as he watched everyone’s families interact and bleed into one another, a pang of want and distress stirring in the back of his mind when Bobby and Athena came together like two magnets.

He hadn’t known the older Sentinel and Guide very long, but he knew enough to see the outpouring of love between them. They weren’t a bonded pair—not yet, anyway—but it didn’t make Bobby or Athena any less devoted to each other. Seeing them interacting made the memory of his own Guide flying away from him in the Valley of Death, the slack expression of shock evident on his face, even more prominent. He’d searched for so long that he knew it was time to give up hope, that the Guide might not have even made it out of Afghanistan, but something inside of Eddie wouldn’t let him stop, even when his mind told him it was the logical thing to do.

Maybe Bobby would understand how Eddie felt.

Eddie snapped back into the present just in time to see Chimney’s entire face light up when the back doors opened again to reveal a tall, handsome blonde with broad shoulders and deep blue eyes and a shorter brunette woman with a sunny smile and a light dress with a flower pattern.

Chimney lightly gripped Eddie’s arm and dragged him over to the newcomers. “Guys, I’d like for you to meet our new probie, Eddie Diaz.”

The man gave Chimney an indulgent grin and shook Eddie’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Eddie. I’m Daniel Buckley.”

“And I’m Maddie,” the woman greeted. “Daniel’s my brother.”

“It’s great to meet both of you. How do you guys fit in with the 118?”

The Buckley siblings shared an amused look, taking the offered drinks Chimney brought over for them. “Bobby is family,” Maddie explained, nodding toward the Guide making his way toward them.

“I’m glad both of you could make it,” Bobby smiled and wrapped the two in a bear hug. “And I see you’ve met our newest firefighter.”

Daniel nodded and wrapped his arm around Bobby’s shoulders. “Sure did. What brings you to LA, Eddie?”

Eddie tensed at the question, his shields going up automatically in reflex before he forced himself to relax. Daniel didn’t mean anything by his question, only wanting to make him feel welcome. The 118 was a family who cared about one another, and it was obvious they wanted to bring Eddie into the fold as well.

Eddie needed to move past his own insecurities and let people get to know him—let no one ever say he doesn’t listen to his therapist.

He licked his lips and shifted on his feet, deliberately counting his breaths. “I moved here from El Paso so my son could be closer to my ex-wife. We separated recently, and after I got my feet under me after being discharged from the Army, I brought us here.”

“You have a son?” Hen asked gently, coming up to stand on the other side of Chimney. “How old?”

“He’s almost seven,” Eddie answered, pulling out his phone to show them the photo on his lock screen.

Everyone cooed at Christopher’s bright smile as he threw his head back in laughter while Eddie held him close. “He’s adorable,” Maddie told him.

“You should bring him next time,” Bobby said as he clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m sure Harry and Denny would love a new friend.”

“You know that’s right,” Hen snorted.

Eddie couldn’t help the uptick of his lips, shrugging slightly. “Sure, I think he’d like that.” He turned toward the Buckley siblings again, fighting back a wider grin when Chimney slid up to Maddie’s other side. “So, what do you both do?”

“Maddie’s a 9-1-1 dispatcher,” Daniel explained, nudging his sister with a proud look. “And I’m an orthopedic surgeon as Cedars-Sinai.”

“We’ve got the full crew here,” Athena cut in, bringing Bobby another water. “Every step of the process.”

Eddie ducked his head. “Well, I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Bobby laughed, grinning at the small group before returning his gaze to Eddie. “We’re happy to have you.”

XX

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

Radio static echoed in Maddie’s ear as the caller panted heavily on the other line. “ Uh, I was hiking, and fell off…the cliff gave out. Can - can you hear me?

Maddie pressed her headset closer to try and parse through the static. “I can hear you, sir. I’m here. Do you know where you fell?”

I—I was on the San Ramon Trail, I think…Oh God, I broke my leg for sure. I—I can see the bone in—”

“I can barely hear you, sir,” Maddie grimaced, typing in the dispatch information the best she could, but the call moved in and out of range. “Can you tell me precisely where on the trail?”

The panting grew heavier on the other line. “ Vista Point. Abalone Cove. I’m bleeding, please, God, help me. Please .”

Sharp feedback sounded in Maddie’s ear, disconnecting the call and sending her heartbeat skyrocketing. “Hello?” When she received no answer, Maddie swallowed thickly and connected to the 118, giving them all the details she could to help this man.

She hoped they found him in time.

XX

Bobby fought back a frown as he stared at his computer screen. It had been a few weeks since he’d heard from Buck, and the younger Guide was usually better at keeping him updated. Sure, they’d butted heads on Buck returning to duty after finding his Sentinel out in the field. But, Buck wasn’t one to let the communication between them run dry. Ever since hearing about the diagnosis, overdose, and move to Austin, Buck demanded weekly updates from all of them, and Bobby knew neither Owen nor TK had heard from Buck in the past few weeks either.

He didn’t like being left in the dark when it came to Buck, but Bobby wasn’t sure what else he could do. Maybe he could invite Annie and her kids over for dinner to see if she’d heard anything from Deacon. Plus, Jessica and Molly were in town as well. They’d all gotten together multiple times these past few months, along with Daniel and Maddie, checking in and giving the others any support they might need.

When the alarm blared overhead, Bobby shut his laptop lid and headed out toward the truck. He barked out orders for the team, putting Hen and Chimney on the ambulance with Eddie and the rest of the crew riding in the ladder truck with him. Bobby quickly relayed Maddie’s information to the team once they all had their headsets on and were on the move.

“Looks like we’ve got an injured hiker out at the San Ramon Trail. Dispatch believes he’s fallen near Vista Point and Abalone Cove. There was a bad connection, so Maddie was only able to make out that he might have broken his leg—an open fracture.”

“Is anyone familiar with the trail?” Tommy asked as he navigated the ladder truck through traffic with the siren on.

Hen’s voice sounded in their ears. “I’ve been out there once with Karen for a small hike and a picnic, but we didn’t go that far in.”

“That’s okay,” Bobby assured her. “We’ll have a park ranger bring us to where we need to be.”

When they had their directions and were finally parked, Bobby removed his headset and led his team further in toward a sign signaling the trail closure and warnings to turn back. “The old trail should be right up there. The Park Warden said they closed it down a few years back. I guess, every once in a while, they get a thrill seeker who ignores the signs.”

Eddie sidled up next to him with everything he needed for a rope rescue, Tommy right on his heels. “Have they been able to ping the phone?”

Bobby shook his head. “No. No contact since the call was dropped.”

It took the team twenty minutes to hike up the trail and another ten to find what they were looking for.

Thankfully, Eddie’s sharp senses brought them to a cliff face. “Cap,” he signaled, gesturing for the team to follow him. A two-foot-long selfie stick with a phone attached to the end lay nestled between a bundle of rocks. “I guess this is where he went over.”

Bobby took stock of the situation and ran through what they needed. “Alright, everybody gear up. Hen, Chimney, get the winch and the guidelines. Prep a basket just in case. I’m gonna radio Aerial Recon and have them on standby.”

“Copy that,” Chimney nodded before he and Hen got to work.

“This is Captain Bobby Nash, T-118,” he spoke into the radio clipped to his uniform. “Aerial Recon to Abalone Cove in Palos Verdes.”

Copy that, T-118, ” Dispatch responded.

“Tommy, Eddie, prep to repel down. You’ll be bringing him up.”

Bobby watched his crew with a hint of trepidation but kept his shields up high and extended them the best he could to keep everyone calm and in control. The last thing any of them needed was someone panicking in the middle of a rescue. Tommy and Eddie made their way down the cliff side, and Bobby paid special attention to the older firefighter. Tommy was a good team member and always got the job done, but Bobby had hoped the two would click as a team as well as Hen and Chimney, and it was clear the dream was simply wishful thinking. They got along well enough, but Eddie and Tommy didn’t have the spark between them that made them a truly remarkable team.

Once Eddie and Tommy made it to a small landing, and the Aerial Recon was high above, Bobby checked in on his crew. “You guys see anything down there?”

Not yet, ” Tommy told him. “ Just a million dollar view.

Bobby looked out toward the coastline, soaking in the setting sun over the expanse of the ocean. Tommy had a point.

Only a moment later, Eddie chimed in. “ Cap? Found something.

“Is it our hiker?”

A hiker, ” Eddie corrected with a weird tone. “ Don’t think it’s the one we came looking for. It’s human remains, Cap. Skeletal remains.

Bobby grimaced. “Alright. Flag it, but don’t disturb it. We’ll call it in.” Athena could handle things from her end.

Cap! ” Eddie called into the radio. “ I heard something.

Bobby strained his ears, hearing nothing out of the ordinary. He figured Eddie’s enhanced senses must have picked it up. “What’s going on down there, guys?”

Hey Cap, we’ve got a live one down here ,” Tommy answered a few minutes later.

“Alright, guys. We’re going to send a basket down to you.”

Almost an hour later, they had packed the victim, Ian, into the ambulance and headed to the hospital. Bobby sent Tommy, Eddie and the rest of their crew back to the firehouse with the ladder truck while he rode with Hen and Chimney to Cedars-Sinai. While Hen stayed with their patient and Chim drove, Bobby called the hospital to give them the information necessary to help Ian, then called Daniel separately.

“We’re headed your way,” Bobby explained.

I just got the page, ” Daniel agreed. “ Tibia compound fracture, right? I’m having an OR booked now .”

Bobby nodded. “Yup. ETA is five minutes.”

Copy that.

When they made it to the hospital, he helped Hen and Chimney unload their patient and transfer him to the nursing staff. He ensured they had all the relevant information before watching the hospital doors close. He never passed through them, but he sometimes kept tabs on the calls if Maddie sent them or if they ended up in Daniel’s care.

For a long time before the two elder Buckley siblings moved to Los Angeles, Bobby stayed strict in his practice of never getting attached to any people they save on the job, never going beyond the hospital doors. The job’s normal whirls and waves of emotions were too overwhelming for a Guide to take on even more, especially when he didn’t know if the people they saved survived once his crew passed them off.

Fortunately, Daniel and Maddie helped him take small steps in expanding his comfort zone. They helped him learn that going beyond the doors wasn’t harmful and that it was okay to check in sometimes where a patient ended up. If they didn’t make it, then at least Bobby could be confident he and his team did everything they could to save them.

The 118 was one of the top firehouses in LA, and they saved lives every day. He trusted his team to have his back and do everything in their power to save the person in front of them. It wasn’t perfect, not yet anyway, but Bobby thought that might change soon.

At least, he hoped so.

XX

Daniel blew out a harsh breath and downed the rest of his whiskey, swallowing thickly and giving the rest of the table a slight grimace.

“Another?“ Eddie asked, clapping him on the back.

Maddie stood up and pressed a quick kiss to Daniel’s cheek. “I’ll grab the next round, don’t worry.” She turned to Shannon, who wove their arms together and led them toward the bar.

“Beer, please!” Chimney called after them.

“How are you feeling, brother?” Eddie asked, rolling his sleeves up and leaning his elbows on the table.

Daniel sighed and looked out at his friends. It had been nearly three months since Abby left for Europe on her “Eat, Pray, Love” tour after her mother died and four weeks since she last responded to a phone call, email, or text message. He wasn’t in the business of waiting around for someone to break up with him, so Daniel finally decided to move on.

When Bobby found out, he cooked dinner for him and Maddie at her apartment—the place Bobby had subleased to her when he moved in with Athena. His sister alternated between being furious at Abby for ghosting him and disappointed in herself for introducing them in the first place.

When the rest of the crew heard about his heartbreak, they all finagled their way into getting the night off on the same day he wasn’t on call and convinced Bobby and Athena to watch the kids while the rest of them set out to get gloriously drunk.

Even the ever-elusive Shannon, Eddie’s ex-wife, joined them. Eddie brought her around to the second 118 family cookout he attended, nervous as all get out about their reactions, but after the whole situation with Athena and Michael, nobody even batted an eye. Of course, it also helped that Maddie and Shannon got along spectacularly, so she never felt left out or uncomfortable.

Maybe the fact that Abby never joined Daniel at any of the 118 cookouts should have been a red flag telling him that she wasn’t the one, but he had been too enamored by her to second-guess his relationship.

“Maudlin,” Daniel answered Eddie’s question as he swirled the melting ice around in his glass. “I thought I was in love, you know?”

Eddie looked over at Shannon with a strange look behind his eyes before turning back to Daniel and shrugging. “Actually, no. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love before.”

“Woah,” Hen breathed out, finishing her own glass and setting it in the middle of the table. “Not even Shannon? I know you said you were always friends, but—”

“We loved each other,” Eddie nodded. “But I don’t think we were ever in love, you know?”

“Did you and Abby ever say the words, Dan?” Chimney asked.

Daniel shook his head, letting his feet dangle until they hit the ground. “No, I’ve never said that to anyone. I thought I felt it and was working up the courage to say it, but then she left .”

“Leaving wasn’t the problem,” Karen pointed out with a scowl. “That woman’s entire identity revolved around her sick mother. It’s fine that she left to get a little perspective; it’s the fact that she never responded to any of your messages that’s the problem.”

He hung his head and scratched at the back of his neck. Karen was right; Abby did deserve to see the world and try to find herself again after her mother passed, but completely ignoring him like they weren’t together for almost a year? Not. Cool.

His friendship with Carla was the only good thing to come out of the entire thing. They’d spent a lot of time together throughout his and Abby’s relationship, and the home health aid was incredible at her job. With Abby’s mom gone now, she would be looking for another job, and Daniel had been thinking about how he could help her. Shannon and Eddie were struggling with Christopher’s care. There was so much red tape and government paperwork to wade through, causing unnecessary stress to bleed over into other parts of their lives.

If he could make an introduction, it might work out for everyone.

“Why do I see sad faces around here?” Maddie asked, placing the new round on the table with Shannon carrying the rest of the drinks. They all nodded their thanks when she huffed and placed her hands on her hips. “We should be celebrating that Daniel’s finally free!”

Shannon bumped her shoulders against Maddie’s. “I thought you liked Abby?”

Maddie scoffed. “That was before she completely ghosted my brother. Buck would be furious, you know? He hates it when people take advantage of you.”

“He would have seen it coming from a mile away,” Daniel agreed with a twitch of his lips. Buck’s incredible ability as a Guide has saved both of them from many unnecessary heartbreaks—Doug being example number one.

Hen snapped her fingers as her cloudy gaze started to clear. “The infamous Buck! We haven’t heard much about him. When will we get to meet him?”

Daniel’s stomach dropped even further than it already had with Abby. Maddie must have felt the same way because she pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned into his side. “Um,” he hesitated, not feeling up to meeting his friends’ eyes. “I don’t know. Hopefully, one day.”

“He’s busy,” Maddie tried to play it off with a strained smile and changed the subject. “We’re here to help you get over Abby. It’s your night, Daniel. What would you like to do?”

The young doctor snorted, picking up his fresh drink and raising it toward the middle of the table. “I want to drink with my friends; is that too much to ask?”

“Definitely not,” Eddie grinned at him, bringing his glass to clink against Daniel’s. “To you, brother.”

XX

Notes:

Thoughts? Feelings?

I love, love, love Bobby and Athena! Their relationship makes me happy because they're totally Mom and Dad. And YAY Eddie is finally with the 118 and settling in <3

I'd love to hear how you liked this chapter. Have a wonderful week!

Chapter 30

Summary:

Bobby gets the phone call.

Notes:

Happy, happy Sunday everyone!

I hope you had a wonderful week and are ready for another chapter. Quick question...who remembers where we last left Buck?

*hides under desk*

I really enjoyed writing this chapter. Emotional scenes make me emotional, so I hope you like it!

S/O to my wonderful beta @MugiwaraLexi

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (36)

Part IV

Chapter 30

Bobby was alone when he got the call.

He’d recently finished a 24-hour shift and was relaxing in his recliner, one of the only pieces of furniture he’d brought over from his apartment when moving into Athena’s house. He’d dropped Harry off at a friend's house and May off at summer school for her dual credit classes, and Athena was working.

After the phone call with Owen almost a year ago, Bobby was careful not to think the “q” word even though he’d go to the grave swearing up and down that he wasn’t superstitious. It might be silly, but Bobby wasn’t interested in taking chances.

Especially when the moment he let his eyes fall shut with a relaxed exhale, his phone started ringing. Bobby let out an annoyed sigh before checking the caller ID, sitting up sharply when he realized who was calling.


Buck.

He answered immediately, unable to keep the ridiculous grin off his face. “Hello?”

Static and feedback cut into Bobby’s ear, but even with it, he could still make out the choked sob on the other line. Bobby’s heart constricted inside his chest, and every alarm bell within his mind blared in a warning. He shifted forward, on edge immediately, and gripped his knee with his free hand.

Pops?

Bobby’s breaths came in harsh pants, making it hard for him to breathe as he stumbled out of his chair, unable to stay on his feet and crashing onto the carpeted floor. “Hello? Buck? I can’t hear you. Hello?”

Everything was so loud. He could barely hear anything on the other line besides the sounds of gunfire and distant explosions. There was too much going on, and it filled Bobby with an inescapable knot of fear lodged directly in his throat.

I’m ready,” Buck whispered, making Bobby press the phone even harder against his ear, uncaring of the pain that bloomed. “I’m ready to come home.

Why…why would Buck say that? He loved his job. Bobby knew Buck would tell him when he was ready to get out, to come home, but why would Buck be so upset now? He’d finally found his Sentinel—even if he lost him a few moments later. When he got to LA, they could return to the search and get Buck started on his happy ever after. Wasn’t that the plan? To have Buck move in with him and spend as much time together with Bobby, Daniel, and Maddie as a family again?

“What?” he croaked out, fingers clinging to the soft carpet in a white-knuckled grip. If Buck was in trouble—if Buck was scared and calling him…Did that mean what Bobby thought it meant? When his son didn’t respond, Bobby tried again, his voice going hoarse. “Buck, what’s happening?”

The echoing sound of gunfire reverberating too close to the phone had Bobby pulling it away from his ear with a wince before bringing it hastily back so he didn’t miss anything.

I’m ready to come home, Pops.

No. Absolutely f*cking not. He couldn’t lose Buck like this. Buck would be fine. He was—he was—

“Buck?”

There was no response, only heavy, disjointed breathing, and Bobby thought he would lose his f*cking mind. What the hell was going on over there?

Before he could call out again, the line went dead with a sharp crack, causing Bobby to drop the phone onto the ground.

Did he just—no. No. Buck wasn’t—he wasn’t dead. His son could have just called to tell him that he wasn’t signing up for another tour, right? That he would be home soon? Buck wouldn’t call him to say goodbye, would he?

Except he would. If Buck wasn’t coming home; if he were dying out there, in the middle of the f*cking desert, he would call Bobby—because Buck loved him. He was the only man who’d ever loved Buck like a father, and it was a responsibility that Bobby never took for granted since the moment Buck gave him his second chance to act like it. If they reversed the situation and Bobby were the one breathing his last, he would want Buck there with him, to hear his voice one last time.

So the answer to that question was yes. Buck would call Bobby if he knew he wouldn’t make it home.

f*ck.

No. No, no, no.

Bobby had no idea how long he sat there on the ground, shaking and staring—unblinking—at his phone screen, squeezing the device between his hands until it cracked and praying to God Buck would call back, that he would explain what the hell just happened. The familiarity of the grief that struck him felt almost comforting. It shut down every thought in his brain as it overwhelmed his nerves, and instead of pushing it back with memories of his family and the life he built here in LA, as he normally would to get back on his feet, Bobby let it crush him. He didn’t bother to fight back against the devastating anguish that made every part of his soul crumble.

Bobby let it consume him.

Minutes, hours, or days later, someone fell to their knees by his side. Hands flitted over his face, cupping his cheeks and trying to get his attention, but Bobby was lost. He had no idea where he was or which way was up. Why should he care, anyway? His son was gone, wasn’t he? The last remaining bridge he had to Marcy, Brook, and Rob. Buck was the best part of him, and now he was gone too, so what did that leave Bobby?

Something latched on to the sinking feeling inside his chest—an anchor keeping him from falling too far under. His shields had fallen the moment the call disconnected, so there was nothing to protect Bobby from the influx of emotions crashing against him. The anchor tugged him gently away from the darkness threatening to swallow him whole, whispering soft, affectionate words and slowly bringing Bobby back to himself.

He had no concept of time, so Bobby couldn’t begin to guess how long the anchor sat with him, coaxing him back up to the surface until he sucked in a choked gasp and managed to right his shields once again. After that, everything came back to him slowly, and it took a while for Bobby to manage to open his eyes against the sun shining through their wide window panes. “Athena?”

Bobby’s voice sounded funny in his ear, and it wasn’t until Athena brought a bottle of water up to his lips that he realized that he was parched, his throat dry as a desert and his lips cracked from where he must have been biting them.

“Are you back with me, Love?” Athena asked soothingly, rubbing a hand over his back in comforting circles.

Bobby took the offered water bottle and drank some more before nodding. “I’m back.”

She cupped a hand over his cheek and frowned. “What happened, Bobby? I was at work and felt something…wrong. You were in trouble, and I had to get to you. Please tell me what happened?”

The memory of the phone call had Bobby closing his eyes again, pressing into Athena’s touch and lacing their fingers together to keep his hands from shaking. “Buck called.”

Athena stiffened against him but kept him close.

“Something went wrong,” Bobby continued hoarsely. “I think—I think he called to say goodbye.”

“Do you know for sure?” His Sentinel asked, keeping her voice low to match his own—as if speaking any louder would break the spell between them.

Bobby shook his head. “No, not for sure.”

Athena leaned back but kept her arms around him. “What do you need, Bobby?”

The Guide took a deep breath and let Athena’s feelings of love and support wash over his shields, fortifying them, while Zeus and Artemis, Athena’s Spirit Animal—a seven-foot-long rattlesnake, pressed close around them. “I need to call Annie to see if she’s heard anything. Maybe even Jessica and Molly. And—and then I need to tell Maddie and Daniel.”

“Okay,” Athena nodded, squeezing his hands. “I think you all need to be together, so I’m going to drive you over to Annie’s. Being around the kids will help too. While you two speak with the other bonded, I’ll call Buck’s siblings and encourage them to see you as well. Do we have a plan?”

Bobby blew out a heavy exhale, closing his eyes briefly to thank God for bringing such an amazing, strong woman into his life, before pressing his lips against hers in thanks. “We have a plan.”

XX

Eddie was not having a good day.

He thought it started out fine because he managed to wake up at his first alarm (a miracle in his book), and Christopher only muttered his complaints about having to wake up for school rather than throw a full-blown tantrum. He loved his kid more than life itself, but, damn, that boy could bring the house down if he really let loose. Eddie didn’t trust himself in the kitchen, so they left the house early enough to pick up a few pastries and a hot chocolate for Christopher at their favorite coffee shop.

After dropping his son off at school, Eddie headed into work—excited at the prospect of only having three months left until he completed his probationary period. He picked up an extra shift because Christopher’s birthday was coming up, and he was obsessed with the new Lego Death Star, which meant the rest of his usual A-shift wasn’t at the firehouse today.

They didn’t have any issues with their first call—someone set off a small fire in a restaurant kitchen during the breakfast rush, but nobody died, and there was minimal damage because they got there in time, so Eddie counted that as a win.

The problem came when they returned to the firehouse.

Out of nowhere, Eddie’s heart dropped straight out of his chest, with gooseflesh breaking out across his arms until he had to flex his hands to try and dispel the feeling. He had no idea what the hell just happened, but his heart rate skyrocketed, and Eddie knew something was very, very wrong.

He managed to let the acting Captain know what was going on before he stumbled out the bay door and slid down the brick wall until he landed on the sidewalk with his legs tucked up close to his chest. Eddie held his phone up to his ear and called Christopher’s school, grateful when they picked up and reassured them that Christopher was in class, and yes, they physically checked on him to make sure. Shannon was next on the list, who was confused at the call but confirmed she was fine as well, just staying with her mother in the hospital. Unfortunately, Janet had taken a turn for the worse, and the doctors didn’t expect her to make it much longer. Her diagnosis might be what had Eddie’s skin crawling, but somehow, he thought, maybe, it was more than that.

He spent the next half-hour calling everyone he cared about, including Carla (the godsend Daniel sent their way to help take care of Christopher), his parents (no, Mom, I’m not coming back to El Paso, I’m just calling to check in, Jesus), Abuela and Pepe, who were cooking breakfast at home, Adriana, who had gotten married in the last few months and was pregnant with a girl, Sophia, who was waiting on her boyfriend to propose, and then, finally, everyone at the 118.

Hen was spending the day with Karen and Denny, no surprise there, but she also had plans to meet up with her mom for dinner. They hadn’t spoken in a while, but it seemed like Toni wanted to mend bridges and get to know her grandchild. Eddie thought his sudden bout of anxiety might reflect Hen’s but then quickly dismissed it. He liked Hen well enough, but it didn’t make any sense for him to carry her stress on himself without even knowing about it.

Chimney was sleeping in, grumbling even louder than Christopher when Eddie’s phone call woke him up, so the Sentinel quickly apologized and hung up. Tommy, who had put in his two-week notice a few days ago, was much of the same, though he was at a diner with his girlfriend when Eddie called.

Bobby didn’t pick up, not on the first, second, or sixth try. Eddie was sure he was fine, though he sent a few text messages to make sure before moving on to Daniel and Maddie—neither of whom answered either.

f*ck.

What was going on? Daniel wasn’t on call today, and Maddie’s shift ended a few hours ago. Sure, they both might be asleep, but he was certain that his repeated phone calls would clue them into his freaking out and need to ensure that all of his friends were safe.

A Million Pretty Pieces - ShesLikeTexas (37)

Thankfully, before Eddie could have a full-blown meltdown against the side of the firehouse, Athena called.

“Athena? Thank God.”

Are you alright, Eddie?” She asked, her voice pitched low with worry behind it.

He rubbed a shaking hand over his face and leaned his head back against the brick. “I have no idea. About an hour ago, my body just started freaking the f*ck out. I need to make sure everyone is okay, but Bobby, Daniel, and Maddie won’t answer.”

They’re fine,” she reassured him. “I’ve got them.

Eddie clambered to his feet. “They’re together? What happened? I can—”

Nothing for you to worry about,” Athena cut in. “At least for right now. It’s a family thing, Eddie. They need a bit of space.

He swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat, and he must have made a displeased noise because Athena’s tone was softer when she spoke again. “When things calm down, I’ll make sure they will call you and explain. They’re with some mutual friends right now waiting for news.”

Eddie’s brow furrowed as he rocked on his heels and wiped his sweaty palm against his uniform pants. “What news? Is someone hurt?

Athena sighed, and he could hear the exhaustion in her voice. “Something might have happened with Buck, but nobody is sure yet. I’ll call when we have more information, but you need to sit down and relax. I know exactly how you’re feeling right now, and hovering won’t make anything better, trust me.

“I’m at work,” he admitted. The acting captain promised to make him the man behind on any calls that came in while he went through his address book to figure out what was going on to make him so anxious and scared—something he hadn’t felt in years... “Can you promise me that you have eyes on them? Everyone’s okay? At least physically?”

Yes,” the older Sentinel consoled him once again. “Take your mind off of it for a while and get back to work. I’ll call when I have an update.

“Thanks, Athena,” he breathed out, pocketing his phone and exhaling loudly. He shook himself, willing the nervous, flighty feeling dancing just beneath his skin to dissipate before squaring his shoulders and walking back into the firehouse.

XX

Maddie had never been more grateful for the support system she and her family built here in LA. So when Athena called her, pulling her from sleep after a long night at the Dispatch Center, letting her know something happened to Buck, Maddie fought hard to keep it together while every single thought in her mind screamed, “Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead!” She couldn’t afford to fall apart when Bobby and Daniel needed her to be strong.

Thankfully, Athena insisted on driving them all to Annie’s house because she didn’t trust any of them behind the wheel of a car while they were still processing the bad news. So when Bobby and Athena arrived to pick her up, they both stepped out of Athena’s SUV to hug Maddie tight, with the older Guide pressing a blanket of peacelovecalm over her to chase away the gripping fear of losing her baby brother.

Daniel had been able to beg off being on call for the day after citing a family emergency, but he didn’t look as if he’d slept any better than Maddie the night before. The heavy bags underneath his eyes that she came to associate with his late nights at the hospital were darker than she remembered from his last rough shift, and he clung tight to her when he slid into the backseat of Athena’s car.

“Remember,” the Sentinel told them gently. “We don’t have any information yet. Don’t panic until we know for sure what happened.”

Daniel put his arm around Maddie, fighting off the seatbelts, and looked at Bobby. “Athena said Buck called you?”

In that moment, Bobby looked so much older than ever before. His face simultaneously appeared pinched and drawn, and every inch of him looked exhausted. “Yeah, this morning. It—it sounded like he was saying goodbye. The line cut off before he could explain.”

Maddie swallowed around a sudden lump lodged in her throat, blinking to keep the incoming tears back. “Maybe Annie will know more.”

“Maybe,” Bobby agreed with a tired huff. “Jessica and Molly are on their way as well.”

“At least we’ll find out together,” Daniel reasoned with a grimace.

Half an hour later, they were all sitting around Annie’s dining room table clutching half-empty glasses of water and coffee, staring at the circle of phones in front of them.

Maddie cleared her throat and reached her hand out for Annie’s, squeezing their fingers between hers while her friend held a sleeping Samuel in their lap. Annie’s other children were all in school, which was lucky because the last thing anyone needed was one of the kids picking up on the tense air between them all and worrying about their dad needlessly.

They chatted to get their mind off the inevitable call, catching up on their lives since the last time they’d seen each other a few months ago. Jessica had settled in at her new job as a Captain with the LAPD’s Metropolis Division, overlooking the SWAT teams, while Molly’s law firm continued to take LA by storm. She’d just recently won a criminal case against another lawyer named Chase Mackey for bribery and corruption.

“Mackey had been escalating cases against the city for his own personal vendetta. He’d won millions in the past by bribing cops for false testimonies and threatening jurors to achieve the verdict he wanted.”

Annie narrowed her eyes and shifted in her seat to get into a more comfortable position with Samuel in her lap. “What a nightmare. I’m happy he won’t be able to take advantage of anyone else.”

Molly hummed and ran her fingers through her shortly bobbed hair. “Me too.” She glanced back down at the circle of phones and frowned. “I hate the waiting; it’s the worst part.”

“Do any of you feel anything?” Daniel asked, leaning forward in his seat and pushing his water away. “You’re all bonded, so I wasn’t sure if that might help with knowing something about your Sentinels.”

Jessica raised her hand up off the table and wobbled it from side to side. “A little. I can tell Hondo is alive and a bit of what he’s feeling, but it’s extremely muted with how far away he is. Plus, he’s had years to practice blocking me out. A war zone doesn’t elicit the kindest emotions.”

“Deacon and Jim?” Bobby asked, threading his fingers through Athena’s.

Both Annie and Molly nodded. “Alive,” Annie confirmed.

“Jim’s scared,” Molly looked away, her hand balling into a fist. “Terrified.”

“If they’re alive, then Buck probably is, too,” Athena reasoned. “Let’s stay hopeful, okay?”

After a few hours, Athena convinced them all that they needed to eat something, so they ordered sandwiches from the deli down the street. It took more effort than expected to finish her meal, but Maddie did feel better after getting something in her stomach.

It wasn’t until they moved outside to the back patio for a change in scenery that their phones started ringing.

When Annie’s hand went straight to her pocket, Athena offered to hold Samuel, and Annie shot her a grateful smile. Maddie’s friend walked away to answer the call while Jessica and Molly’s phones started ringing as well.

Bobby, Maddie, and Daniel scooted closer together, eyeing their own devices with trepidation.

“Bobby?” Jessica called with a slight waiver in her voice. All three of their eyes snapped toward the Guide, and Maddie’s heart stuttered in her chest.

“Yes?” Bobby croaked before clearing his throat and standing to his feet.

Jessica came over and placed a comforting hand on his arm. “Hondo would like to speak with you.”

Maddie’s lip wobbled, and she stood as well and held Daniel’s hand while she watched Bobby take the phone with trembling fingers. Why didn’t Buck call himself? What did that mean? What if…

The breath caught in Maddie’s chest until the tense line of Bobby’s shoulders, which had crept up toward his ears, relaxed minutely.

“Thank you for the update,” Bobby exhaled with a shaky breath. “Please let me know when he wakes up.”

He handed the phone back to Jessica with a ghost of a smile before pressing a hand to the small of Athena’s back and turning to face Maddie and Daniel. “Buck’s alive.”

Maddie had no idea where the small sob that escaped her lips came from. She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and wiped the wetness from her eyes while Daniel buried his face in his hands.

“They had a close call on mission,” Bobby explained with a frown. “Hondo said that Buck over-exerted himself in an effort to bring everyone home. The doctor confirmed he’ll be out for a few days and out of commission for a while once he wakes up, but there shouldn’t be any lasting damage.”

“So he’s going to be okay?” Maddie asked, just to hear it one more time.

Bobby nodded and reached out to pull both of them in for a hug. Maddie collapsed against them, grateful that she wasn’t alone in loving Buck with her whole heart.

They lingered for about another hour until Annie needed to pick up the rest of the kids from school. The three Guides told Bobby, Maddie, and Daniel to keep them updated on what they heard about Buck, and they promised to do the same about their Sentinels.

Athena drove them all back to her house, shooting Daniel a glare when he suggested she drop him off back at home. “The three of you need to sit down and let us take care of you.”

“Us?” Bobby asked as they pulled up to the house.

They got their answer when they walked through the door. The rest of the 118, including Eddie, Hen, and Howie, waited inside for them with dinner already set out on the table.

“What is going on?” Maddie asked after a