Buck pulls up to Christopher's school the Friday before Halloween and immediately spots the kid across the yard, deep in conversation with one of his friends. Even from this distance, Buck recognises the way Christopher gets when he's telling a story—the intense concentration on his face, the way he gestures to emphasise his point, sometimes waving a crutch around if just a hand isn't enough to drive it home.
Buck doesn't want to interrupt him, because the story being told in the shade of the jungle gym is clearly a great epic to rival Shakespeare or Homer. The kid Christopher is talking to looks fascinated, completely engrossed, and two or three other kids are drifting closer like they just can't resist hearing the rest of the story.
Memories of school pick-ups and football games and study sessions bubble up, of conversations cut off with no consideration by the wills and whims of his mother or father, whichever got stuck driving him around on a given day. Buck remembers the way it made him feel like he wasn't even a person, like the thoughts in his head were less important than his mother's salon appointment. The way it made him stop sharing those thoughts, eventually, because it wasn't like anyone cared.
So, yeah, he doesn't want to interrupt Christopher.
He gets out of the jeep carefully, trying not to draw attention to himself, and wanders over to the teacher in charge of pick-up.
"Hi there," she says, squinting at Buck like she's trying to place him. "Who are—oh, wait, picking up Christopher Diaz, right?"
"That's right," Buck says. The teacher is vaguely familiar, like he's probably seen her before, but he can't place which of Christopher's teachers she is. "I'm Buck—uh, Evan Buckley? I should be on the pick-up list."
"Of course, yes, that's all fine," she says, not even looking at the clipboard in her hand. "Christopher is just over there, down by the jungle gym."
"Yeah, I see him," Buck says, shading his eyes with his hand to check on Christopher. He's still talking, and his audience has expanded to four kids now. "But we're not in any rush, and it looks like he's got quite the story going. I can wait."
"Of course," she says. "Sorry it took me a second, it's just been a while since we've seen you."
"Yeah, uh, we've had good shift schedules lately," Buck says. "So Eddie's been able to get to pick-up most days. But he's covering an extra shift today, so you get me instead."
"Well, it's nice to see you too," the teacher says. "We always try to encourage both parents to be involved with school things, wherever possible."
"Oh," Buck says, blinking. "Oh, no, I'm—I'm not his parent." Not really. No matter how much it feels like it sometimes, no matter that he loves Christopher like he's his own flesh and blood—more than he loves most of his actual flesh-and-blood relatives, Maddie excepted.
No matter that he loves Eddie, too, more than enough to make them a family. It's not a unilateral decision; no amount of wishing on his part can make it true, not if Eddie doesn't want it, too.
There are moments, sometimes, when he thinks maybe—when it seems like there's a possibility that Eddie wants the same thing he does. But the moments keep evaporating into the wind and leaving no concrete trace behind, and Buck keeps being too chickenshit to do anything about them, because no decision he's ever made has had this much riding on it.
"Oh!" the teacher says, surprise and embarrassment warring for real estate on her face. "I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have—I just thought—you're on the pick-up list, you're his second emergency contact, and the way Christopher talks about you... he said you're all going trick-or-treating on Sunday?"
"We are, yeah," Buck says. "It's not—I mean, I'm definitely a big part of his life, just. Not a parent, just a friend."
The distinction feels artificial sometimes, because—what even is a parent? He's definitely more of a parent to Christopher than either of his own parents ever were to him. So maybe he's not with Eddie, doesn't live in the same house or sleep in the bed—the world is full of divorced parents who don't do either. And that's not to even mention the fact that they do sleep in the same bed, sometimes, when they're crashing after a long shift and the only thing either of them cares about is the proximity of the nearest possible horizontal surface.
It's a line in the sand, the distinction between parent and something else, but it's one he needs to draw to remind himself of where things stand.
The teacher looks like she might be about to say something, but it's cut off by a loud, joyful yell of "Buck!" echoing across the schoolyard. Buck looks up to see Christopher heading over to them with the world's biggest grin on his face, and takes off to meet him halfway.
"Hey, buddy," he says, gathering Christopher into a hug and spinning him around a couple of times. "Did you miss me?"
"I just saw you yesterday," Christopher says between giggles.
"So?" Buck asks, setting him down and checking he's still got a grip on both his crutches. "I missed you since yesterday."
"Maybe a little bit," Christopher agrees, his tone magnanimous like he's granting Buck a boon.
"I'll take that," Buck laughs and ruffles his hair. "Do you have all your stuff?"
Christopher nods, and they start heading towards Buck's jeep. They pass the teacher Buck had been talking to, and he nudges Christopher. "Hey, say goodbye to—" he still doesn't know her name.
"Bye, Miss Stevens!" Christopher says, waving a crutch. "Happy Halloween!"
"Happy Halloween," she says, and Buck doesn't know how to interpret her expression as she looks between him and Christopher.
They're in the car and driving to the Diaz house when Christopher speaks up again. "Dad missed you since yesterday."
Buck grips the steering wheel and wonders what exactly Christopher knows. "What makes you think that?"
"This morning he talked about you like five times," Christopher says, clearly unimpressed. "He always talks about you when you're not there. Like when we drove to school a song was on the radio, and he said hey, you know who likes this song? Buck." He puts on an exaggerated, mocking tone of voice for that, and if Buck didn't know better he'd think it sounds like the voice kids use to mock crushes in the schoolyard. "I think that means he missed you."
"Huh," Buck says, turning the comment over in his mind. And over and over, the whole drive home and the rest of the evening, through the rainstorm that picks up around dinnertime, all the way until Eddie finally walks through the door sometime around midnight. He's clearly exhausted, dead on his feet and dripping even though the walk from his truck to the front door can't have been longer than fifteen seconds.
"Bad shift?" Buck asks, taking Eddie's duffel bag so he can unlace his boots.
"Just a long one," Eddie says through a yawn. "Busy. Once it started raining..."
"Yeah," Buck says. Los Angeles is, famously, a terrible place to drive, and it's even worse in the rain. He knows what rainy shifts are like, especially once the sun goes down.
Eddie frowns. "It's still pretty bad out there," he says. "You should probably just stay here." But there's something in his expression, a flick of his eyes and a twitch of his jaw—the ones that usually signal nerves, uncertainty—that makes Buck think maybe the weather isn't the only reason Eddie is asking him to stay.
Dad missed you since yesterday, he thinks.
"Yeah," he says. "Okay."
Buck spends all of Saturday with Eddie and Christopher, and only goes home for the night because he needs a change of clothes. He's back bright and early Sunday morning, ready to spend the day counting down the hours to when they can finally set off trick-or-treating. Christopher has been impatient for weeks now, and Buck doesn't imagine this final stretch is going to be any easier.
And it isn't, but the march of time is inevitable even when it is slow, and so the hour finally arrives.
Christopher has kept his costume a secret, claiming he wants it to be a surprise for Buck. Eddie has been obligingly tight-lipped about it no matter how much Buck has tried to wheedle the truth from him, so Buck has no idea what to expect once Christopher asks him and Eddie to assemble in the living room for the grand reveal.
Never mind that Eddie just helped him put the costume on and therefore definitely knows exactly what it is. Christopher is not about to let them do this in half measures.
"I didn't raise him to be this dramatic, you know," Eddie mutters as they listen to Christopher making his way down the hallway to make his entrance. "He gets this from you."
Buck turns to face him, quick and jerky like he's a marionette and Eddie's holding the strings. Which is... not untrue, on some level.
Eddie doesn't seem to think there's anything unusual about what he's just said, but something warm blooms in Buck's chest. He gets this from you. His artificial, arbitrary line in the sand between parent and not is blurring once again.
And it's being blurred by Eddie, of all people. Buck has heard the story of what happened in the suit store, knows all about Eddie's reaction to someone flinging Ana across that line. But there's no hint of panic in Eddie's features now, just the same steady fondness he gets when he looks at Christopher.
It's a lot to digest, and from the way Eddie's starting to look concerned, Buck thinks maybe he's been digesting it for a little too long. "I'm only nurturing his natural talent," he says, pulling out a grin, and Eddie scoffs.
There's a sound from the living room door, and they turn to see Christopher standing in the middle of the doorway and frowning at them.
"You were supposed to be watching me, not each other," he grumbles, and Buck thinks he does a very good job of not choking on his own saliva.
"I'm sorry, buddy," Eddie says. "Do you want to do it again?"
"Now you've both already seen it," Christopher says. "It wouldn't be the same."
"If it helps, I really love your costume," Buck says. Christopher brightens immediately, looking down at himself like he's making sure the costume is still there.
"I wanted to be like you and dad," he says. He's dressed as a firefighter, and as far as Buck can tell it's just a smaller version of a regulation LAFD firefighter uniform, not one of those cheap poly-blend costumes sold in Halloween stores that start coming apart as soon as you take them out of the plastic packaging. There's even a helmet, labelled 118 just like the ones he and Eddie wear on duty.
"You are," he tells Christopher. "Just like us." Then he ducks down to press a kiss to the top of Christopher's helmet, which makes him laugh just like he'd known it would.
"So, we ready to go?" Eddie asks, and Christopher scrambles to start putting on his shoes.
"Impressive costume," Buck says. "How'd you pull it together?"
"Carla, Abuela, Tía Pepa..." Eddie says, listing them off on his fingers. "A lot of help, is what I'm saying."
"I see how it is," Buck says, putting on his best fake-offended voice. "Everyone knew about it except me."
Maybe Christopher does get some of the dramatics from him.
Eddie just laughs. "See if I ever put together a surprise for you again," he says, then nudges Buck in the direction of the door. "Now get a move on before the kid gets it in his head he doesn't need us."
Eddie turns out to be something of a prophet. At the first house they reach, Christopher turns and fixes Buck and Eddie both with a very serious look even as the brim of his slightly-too-large helmet slips lower and lower.
"You can wait here," he tells them at the foot of the driveway. "I'm nine now. I can go to the door by myself."
Eddie looks over at Buck, quirking his eyebrows like what do you think? Buck looks up and down the driveway, and none of it looks particularly threatening. Just a normal suburban driveway, almost identical to Eddie's own.
He inclines his head at Eddie. I don't see why not.
Eddie nods, and the line in the sand of Buck's mind grows fainter still.
"Okay, Christopher, here's the deal," Eddie says. "You can go up to the door by yourself on two conditions. You go straight to the door and come straight back, and you always stay where we can see you. Okay?"
"Okay," Christopher says, already turning to head towards the house.
He hasn't gotten more than five feet away when someone clears their throat. "That's such a great costume," a woman says somewhere to Buck's left. "You guys have a really cute kid."
"Oh, I'm—" Buck starts, but he's cut off by Eddie's warm and sincere thank you.
The woman smiles and moves on, and Eddie shoots Buck a curious look. "What were you about to say just now?"
The weight of Eddie's gaze feels heavier than the situation merits, and Buck frowns. "Just that I'm not actually his dad," he says quickly. "I know you don't like it when people assume."
Now it's Eddie who's frowning. "What do you mean?"
Eddie waves a dismissive hand. "That was Ana. This is different. It's—it's different when it's you."
Buck moves closer, just barely a half-step. "Why is it different?"
"You basically are his parent," Eddie says easily, like he doesn't know how much this question keeps Buck up at night sometimes. And how could he? "Ana never was."
And it still kind of makes his head spin, but Buck can accept this part. It makes sense to him. But—"What about the other part?" he asks.
"What other part?"
"It doesn't bother you that people assume we're married? One of Christopher's teachers did when I picked him up on Friday, you know."
It's starting to get dark, but in the glow of the various festive lights surrounding them, Buck swears he sees a blush spreading across Eddie's face.
"Oh," Eddie says. "Uh." Later, Buck won't be able to determine what it was exactly, but something—some sixth sense or whisper of the universe—nudges him to take another step closer, until he's right up in Eddie's personal space.
Eddie's eyes roam over Buck's face, and whatever he's looking for, he must find it, because he takes a deep breath. "I kind of like it, actually."
Buck isn't entirely sure who kisses who first, but that question ceases to have any priority the moment Eddie's lips touch his. All that matters are Eddie's hands finding his waist and Eddie's mouth on his, Eddie's jaw under his palm and the softness of Eddie's hair at his fingertips.
"Besides," Eddie murmurs when they break apart. "I know a way we can fix the false assumption."
"You could marry me for real."
Buck surges against Eddie again, and it's only the second time they've kissed but it feels like coming home.
"Is that a yes?" Eddie asks, and Buck laughs as he nods, because in what universe is there even a question?
"That's a stop being so gross," Christopher says next to them, but when they turn to face him they find him grinning, wide and joyous.
"How am I supposed to stay where you can see me if you keep looking at each other?" he asks, and Eddie laughs.
"That's a very good point," he says. "We'll do better at the next house, okay?"
"You'd better," Christopher says, trying to be serious, but all three of them are laughing when they turn to head to the next house, Eddie's hand tucked firmly into Buck's.