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Cardinal Rule

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Evan Buckley doesn't make a habit of indulging his other sense much.

He doesn't. Really. He has vivid recollection of the consequences--and a couple scars to prove it.

But get this: there are spirits in the cemetery near his home that like to harmonize some super chill 1950s Doo-wop melodies.

It's super cute, and super adorable, and really all around just--swell.

He's never wanted to communicate more.

He doesn't, of course.

But if in the evenings he finds himself seated on the bench beneath an aging willow, staring out at particularly nothing over the rows of gravestones, well, he's not always the only one.

He tries not to get in the way of any live visitors, respectful of their grief and only lingering for a few minutes on those days. He does wish they could hear it too, because it always uplifts him after a particularly bad day, and is soothing, regardless.

As for the other visitors, well, he's old hat at ignoring them, so when a tiny apparition sits next to him, he doesn't react. The eyes boring into his skull don't feel malicious, so he's content to leave it. The thin little legs he can just see from the edges of his peripheral, swinging in time with the whistling melodies, are enough to melt his heart in any case.

It doesn't leave, though.

For weeks, without fail, the tiny apparition will pop in next to him, no matter when and which seat he takes in the cemetery, and just stare.

He hasn't even gotten a good look at the kid yet, just a quick impression of messy locks and those ever so frail limbs. The curiosity itches beneath his skin. He's dying to know, if he does say so himself.

It's still unsettling enough that he takes to strolling along the winding, manicured paths. He's seen more of the cemetery than he has in months. He doesn't have to look back to know there's a lonely little waif trailing him.

And the thing is, it still doesn't feel threatening. A mild curiosity maybe, and, weirdly enough, happiness.

He should know better than to relax around spirits, though. They're always unpredictable.

There's wailing tonight, angry and anguished and wholly discordant with the usual harmonies. It's enough to raise every single strand of hair on his body and set his teeth on edge.

He frowns as he enters the cemetery but sits on his favorite bench anyway, puzzling over this new development.

It's such a surprise when a tiny finger touches him that he jumps, eyes flickering sideways before he corrects himself.

It's too late.

Interest is a sharp, heavy stillness pressing down on him.

He is stunned. His skin is crawling. The back of his neck prickles.

How had that happened?

He forces his muscles to relax, exhaling slowly and rubbing his arm as though perplexed. He pops his neck and lets his head fall back so the sky can fill his vision instead of the unwavering gazes of the restless dead.

It had touched him. Actually touched him. That only usually happens on--

Oh. Oh no.

Digging into his pocket, his phone lights up and illuminates the current date and time.

Ah, fuck. Fuck.

Halloween. The singular day when the veil is nearly at its thinnest, and the spirits, more. More numerous, more restless, more corporeal.

Ah, he's almost thirty years old, why is he so dumb?

Slowly, he puts his phone away, and when he can no longer stand it, he stretches and climbs to his feet. His eyes sweep the clearing nonchalantly, channeling blind-as-a-bat, nothing-to-see-here, before he ambles back towards his car.

It takes everything he has not to run; the shuffle of footsteps behind him are numerous, and the weight of a lot of eyes is a panicked vise around his chest that he has to breathe carefully through.

It's a relief when he gets to his car, even if his eyes meet and immediately look away from those of an unwelcome passenger in the back. He struggles not to flinch, to keep his eyes on the goddamn road, when there's a breath of air across the back of his neck.

He lets out another long, slow exhale when he passes the gates and the presence in his car disappears; shudders to try and dispel the goosebumps pebbling his entire body.

"Fuck," he curses softly, hands starting to shake as he directs his car towards home.

Too close. So stupid.

And then something pops up behind his seat.


Buck screams, hands convulsing on the steering wheel. The car swerves wildly.

Giggles sound from the backseat.

He pulls completely over, fighting to draw air into tight lungs. Stiff fingers flex on the steering wheel, and he blinks and blinks to dispel the black dots crowding into his vision.

"I knew it."

The voice is low and sweet and utterly smug.

His heart slams painfully against the wall of his throat. He almost died. There's a ghost of a kid in his car that he just reacted to. Twice now.


He jerks the car back into drive, the urgent need to make it to safety, to home, surpassing all else.

He barely remembers to lock his car before he's running up three flights of stairs, keys jangling in shaking hands as he ignores the kid now standing by his door.

Slamming the door shut, he presses his sweaty forehead against it. Fingers on both hands trace over the sigils carved onto both sides of his door frame again and again.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

He turns to scowl at the little spirit who is now inside his protections.

It's a contrite picture; the hanging head and clasped hands.

He exhales long and loud. It's okay. It's just a kid. He'll be okay. He rolls his neck to loosen the tightness in his shoulders.

Kids should be easy, right?

"What's your name, kid?"

His first impression had been right. Messy hair and almost too thin limbs.

The kid lifts his head, and he sighs again. Wide doe eyes stare at him from that fragile fawn's body. He feels for this kid's parents, wherever they are. It must have been devastating to lose him.

"Christopher! I'm Christopher."

"How can I help you, Christopher?"

Christopher perks up visibly, excitement and happiness vibrating that little frame.

He has to smile, because God help him, but it's cute.

But then shyness enters that frame, curling it just a little as he peeks at Buck through long lashes.

"Can you take me home? I want to see my dad, please."

He's not sure what he's expecting, but it still breaks his heart just a little.

"Okay, I'll find your dad, but we have rules, okay? No more surprising me. I can see you, but nobody else can know, okay? Not even spirits."

"But why?"

The question weirdly stalls him. It's just...been a cardinal rule since childhood, before trained sensibility overtook basic fear.

"Not everyone is as nice as you," he decides on, at last. "Sometimes they want things I can't give them, and never go away unless I can make them."

Christopher nods, solemn.

"Okay, buddy, I'm gonna get something to eat and then we can get started, how does that sound? Want me to put on a movie for you?"

Christopher beams at him, nodding.

It takes him a few hours and another panic attack in the shower before he can muster up the mental fortitude to deal with this. It also probably helps that every time he passes the living room Christopher perks up with a hopeful look that is just too precious.

He resigns himself to his fate for the evening.

"So. Tell me about your dad."

Christopher smiles, wide and bright, and he finds himself helplessly returning it. Ah, he's such a sucker.

It takes a bit of questioning and a whole lot of googling, but he does manage to locate Christopher's dad.

The house is the only unlit one on the block. He avoids the giggling, costumed children running past him and makes his way up the overgrown sidewalk.

Sweeping aside the overflowing pile of mail and newspapers with a careful foot, he steps up to the door and knocks. When there's no response, he glances down at Christopher.

"There's usually a key underneath the mat," he whispers helpfully, face scrunched with worry.

"I don't think that's a good idea, buddy,” Buck murmurs. After a brief moment of hesitation, he starts pounding on the door. He doesn't stop until both an interior light and the porch light come on.

"Here we go," he mutters as the door squeaks open. "Um--h-hi!"

The stare he meets is empty and glazed. His nose wrinkles as a cloud of stale sweat and alcohol wafts out from both the man standing in front of him and the inside of the house, hanging like a particularly noxious miasma.

Eddie Diaz is clearly not coping well.

Dark hair is matted and greasy, curling around his ears. His eyes are swollen and sunken and shadowed all at once in sharp cheek bones and skin that's sallow beneath his natural tan. He's still somehow attractive, despite it all, which is a kicker.

The barest spark of impatience and anger darkens that gaze at Buck's continuing presence.

He startles out of his daze when the door starts to close. There's never really any easy way to break it, in his limited experience, so he just comes right out with it.

"Your son is looking for you."

Eddie blinks, and then his face twists into something terrifying. The door slams wide open and then he's being yanked forward and slammed back onto the porch railing.

"What did you say? You fucking asshole--"

"When he was seven," he says loudly, hands clamped firmly around bony wrists, "you read him a bedtime story called The Little Blue Tree. Do you remember what he asked you?"

The hands gripping his shirt spasm.

He presses forward. "Do you remember what you said?"

Eddie drops him, tripping backwards and sprawling on the floor. Christopher stands teary-eyed next to him, lips turned down in a sad moue.


Eddie bursts into tears. Buck crouches, squeezing his shoulder sympathetically. A ghostly little hand strokes greasy curls.

"Let's go inside and we can talk, okay?" He helps Eddie up with a gentle grip on his elbow.

The Diaz house is--well, he actually has to stop for a second when he takes in the actual damage. The only things that seem to still be fully intact are the photos.

"Uh...why don't--why don't you go shower, and I'll..." He lets his wandering gaze speak for itself.

There's a dull flush to the tips of those ears, but Eddie leaves without a word.

He takes another wide-eyed inventory of the house. Seriously...this can't be healthy. He's probably really lucky Eddie hadn't slugged him first thing, going by the kind of rage he's witnessing here.

He moves through the house, opening all the windows and tossing empty beer bottles and to-go containers and empty plates. He wants to ask the little shadow by his side how long it’s been, but sometimes they don't know and he doesn't know if that will hurt or not.

He nearly trips over air when he turns to find Eddie Diaz in the doorway.

The shower has done wonders. The flush has spread, flooding sallow skin with some color, and there's a definite spark of impatience churning in those eyes. Signs of life, either way, so he'll take it.

His eyes trace the very visible ridges of those abs through a damp shirt and wow, this is so not appropriate, Evan Buckley.

Eyes flying determinedly up, he pushes over a plate of scrambled eggs. It was the only thing he'd been able to find and make that wasn't expired or colonizing or booze.

Eddie opens his mouth to protest.

"Eat, and I'll tell you."

Jaw stiff, Eddie eats, and even hydrates, while his son hovers worriedly by his side. Little fingers stroke softly down one arm, unnoticed. The sight of it makes something clench in Buck’s chest.

"So," he says when the man finishes, and then stops.

There's a lump in his throat that he can't quite get the words past. A buried fear crawling up and vivid memories of fear and anger and rejection. It's not something he wants to see from this man, he realizes.

"It'll be okay, kid," Christopher says, a small hand on his shoulder.

He laughs, rubbing a hand across his mouth and then taking a steadying breath. Well, when the kid's right, he's right. The hard part was already over with. It doesn't help the restless energy suddenly surging through his veins, making him want to get up and pace and avoid that haunted gaze.

"So, my name is Evan Buckley and I see, uh--ghosts. U-usually, I ignore them, but well, Christopher surprised me, and--and well, he wanted to see you. So here we are."

"He's...he's here right now?" Eddie croaks, painfully wide eyes darting around the room.

He nods and holds his hand right over where Christopher is standing.

"Oh, oh mijo. I'm so sorry." Eddie curls in on himself, one hand reaching up across his chest to grip a shoulder. "Why...why does he want to see me?"

"I was worried," Christopher whispers. "I just didn't know how to get home."

And oh, there's another pang in Buck’s chest. He knows it's difficult, dealing with loved ones passing, but this has to be a particularly brutal kind of hell. He doesn't even know these people, and it's just--he has to swallow a couple times before he can speak, blinking away the burn of tears. "He', he's worried about you."

Devastation blooms on Eddie's face before it's wiped away.

"Listen to me, Christopher. I'm--I'm sad that you had to leave me, but I'll be fine. You can't stay here with me. It'" The stern expression fades, and Eddie looks at Buck helplessly.

"It's not healthy for you to stay here for long," Buck continues gently. "You'll eventually forget everything, even your dad, and you'll just be...lost." And super hostile, he doesn't say.

There's a stubborn set to that small face. "He's lying! He's not fine."

He glances at Eddie and shakes his head.

"Christopher, you need to go where you need to go. I'll be fine."

"You should take care of him," Christopher instructs, arms crossed now and glaring at his dad.


Christopher looks up at him, heartbreakingly earnest. "You help people, and he needs someone to take care of him."

"What? What's he saying?"

He sighs. Well, it's not the weirdest request ever.

"He says I need to take care of you."

Eddie blinks, and then he's laughing wetly as he sinks to one knee before his son.

"You don't need to worry about me, Christopher." There's a spark of mirth in those eyes now. It's...super attractive. "I promise, mijo. I promise."

Christopher's face softens, and his arms drop.

"I'm sorry, daddy."

Those wide teary eyes turn to him.

"Will you still look after him?"

He crouches down too, bracketing Christopher between the two of them. "I promise I'll do my very best to look after him."

Eddie's face twists, jaw twitching, but he doesn't say anything.

"Okay," Christopher says slowly.

"Okay," Buck repeats, gently.

"Is it scary?" Christopher whispers, now looking worried for an entirely different reason.

He smiles kindly, eyes wet despite his best efforts. "No, I don't think it's going to be scary."

Eddie has to visibly swallow a few times, blinking rapidly, before he can open his mouth. "Don't forget, mommy will be waiting for you, sweetheart."

And oh, the words pack a punch. Buck bites the inside of his lip.

"Okay," Christopher says. "Okay, I'm ready." He looks determined.

Buck reaches out to take Eddie's hand, squeezing it firmly.

"We'll see you, buddy."

"I love you, Christopher."

Christopher smiles--bright and blinding--and then he's gone between one blink and the next. The room feels immediately lighter, just the barest shift in the air.

He sags, exhaling and swiping at his eyes.

Eddie's hand in his tightens; the other covers his face as his shoulders shake silently.

He waits--one minute, five, ten, and then stands, tugging Eddie with him.

"So don't take this the wrong way," he starts, then pauses. "Or actually, I honestly don't mind if you do, but you look like you could use a break Wanna go get a coffee? My treat."

Eddie stares at him.

"I did promise your son." You did too, he doesn't say. He squeezes Eddie's hand again, fighting the urge to just hug him and then drag him out of here anyway, away from the grief and the rage and the memories of his deceased wife and child. Come on, Eddie, he coaxes silently. Let yourself breathe a little.

Eddie takes a deep, shuddering breath, lips twitching into the barest ghost of a smile.

"Yeah, okay."