strandtk · 9 months ago
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So, a Black Captain America, huh? Damn right.
ANTHONY MACKIE as SAM WILSON The Falcon and the Winter Soldier | 1.06 "One World, One People"
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rafaelsilva · 9 months ago
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owen trying to get carlos to stop calling him captain strand
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rafael-silva · 10 months ago
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CARLOS AND TK + TOUCHES | [insp: x and x]
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van-eck · 10 months ago
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taylorkellymartin · 11 months ago
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Is that --
      -- a key to a fire truck?
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zobrovic · 4 months ago
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JUDD & GRACE RYDER WEEK Day 2 ☼ “Found” Family | Poem by T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea
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graceryders · 10 months ago
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paramedic team? more like team badass 
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actuallysara · 9 months ago
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A power point guide to Tarlos by @actuallysara
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avacoleman · 18 days ago
slow dancing in a burning room || a tarlos fic
summary: After an already emotionally and physically draining day, Carlos finds himself up against an emergency he’s ill-equipped to handle. 
[3x02 spec fic]
word count: 3.4k || read on ao3
It's not a silly little moment It's not the storm before the calm This is the deep and dying breath of This love that we've been working on
Carlos rests his forehead to the steering wheel of his patrol car, taking what feels like his first real breath of this tiring day. Between arresting Marjan this morning, the collapse of the shelter, and seeing TK for the first time since they called it quits, today seems keen on throwing him into the most unexpected scenarios.
He settles himself for a moment now, attempting in vain to clear his thoughts as the heat inside the car kicks in. It’s a welcomed sensation after the hours he’s spent outside today. Austin wasn’t built for this and apparently, neither is he.
His phone buzzes in the console, stirring him from his thoughts. Nancy’s name flashes across the screen with a new message. He groans, reluctant to see what she has to say now. Given that mortifying run-in with the paramedics, he’s half expecting teasing of some kind. She’s never been shy about that sort of thing and it’s been both a blessing and curse— depending on if he’s on the receiving end of her quips or not.
He figures there’s little use in delaying the inevitable, blindly reaching for his phone to see what awaits him.
The last text from her is an invite to a 126 hangout, of which Carlos kindly declined. He’d become good friends with everyone in the station but in the end, they were TK’s team. There was no doubt his ex would be there. If their run-in earlier proved anything to Carlos, it’s that they truly are not ready to be in the same room with each other. He could barely get through a sentence after seeing TK face to face for a few short seconds. Surely an entire evening would be agony.
Carlos is expecting a follow-up message from Nancy, not so subtly prodding him to suck it up. To be the one to make amends because “somebody has to do it”. Carlos is done chasing after people. It’s a promise he made to himself even before TK came blowing through his life so unexpectedly and it’s a promise he has every intention to keep–– now more than ever.
He has half the mind to tell her just that, his thumbs already hovering over the screen when he notices the bluntness of her back to back messages. It takes him a second for his eyes and mind to sync but when they do, Carlos wishes he could will away what he’s just seen.
Nance Get to the hospital ASAP TK’s just been admitted Hurry
There’s no conscious decision, no hesitation or concern over whether he should go or not. Relationship status be damned.
It’s by a miracle Carlos gets to the hospital so soon given the extreme weather conditions outside but from the moment he arrives, he wastes no time in rushing to the small gathering of familiar faces in this all too familiar building.
Nancy is the first to approach him, intercepting him right at the nurses’ station. There must be something to him, an edge to his body that makes her regard him with such control as if preparing to talk him down off a ledge.
“How serious is it, Nancy?” he asks her gravely, not wanting some sort of preamble as he looks at her directly.
He can see it in her eyes, the flicker of uncertainty in how to tell him the full extent of TK’s injuries. The look betrays the hesitancy before the words can even leave her mouth.
“Honestly, it’s not good.”
Carlos is sure it’s more than the cold of the storm raging through Austin that makes his insides freeze up. They’ve been down this road before; this marks the third time he’s found himself at the hospital for TK. But this runs far too parallel to the very first trip, the one where TK landed in a coma and Carlos had no idea where they stood in each other's lives.
The sense of deja vu is debilitating for a moment but Carlos can’t allow himself to give in to those fears just yet. He needs to see the damage with his own eyes, even as the words shock and hypothermia get lobbed at him. He takes the hit of Nancy’s recap, torn between feeling pride at TK for stepping up like that to save a kid and anger at him for being so reckless with his own safety.
The words she says are coherent enough but, perhaps out of self-preservation, he can’t fully accept them. Nancy’s got tears in her eyes and Carlos holds on to her, still grappling to make sense of it all.
Eventually this will catch up to him, the weight of all he’s keeping at bay. Of all he has been keeping locked away for weeks now.
Once that dam breaks, there will be no turning back, he knows.
Meals at his parents house had become second nature since the fire that claimed their home. At first it’d merely been a matter of circumstance, Andrea fretting and insisting the boys have a good home-cooked meal. Even now that they’ve landed on their feet, it’s more or less tradition— much like Sunday dinners at his aunt— for Carlos and TK to dine at the Reyes family ranch every other Friday night.
It’s been nice this past year, falling into routines with TK, carving out ways for them to be together as often as their hectic lives allow them to. Trips to the farmers market, standing beside each other in the kitchen as they cooked or tackled dishes, nights spent lazing about in bed. Carlos has become addicted to it all.
Carlos sits with his father and TK in the living room as they wait for dinner, Andrea banishing him from the kitchen after his offers to help her. Gabriel keeps busy with an Astros game for company, leaving TK and Carlos to pass the time flitting through an old family album
TK rests his head on Carlos’ shoulder as he looks on.
“Of course you were the most adorable kid ever,” TK comments at a photo of Carlos at age five smiling widely at the camera.
“I really was, wasn’t I?” he muses, pressing a kiss to the top of TK’s head. “Thanks, babe.”
They comb through the album, Carlos telling stories from the different snap shots of his family’s history.
He smiles warmly at a photo of his parents on their wedding day, the sheer joy on their faces forever encapsulated.
Decades of love, cultivated like a field that has given rise to life in every sense. It’s this love that created him. It’s this love that he’s coveted all his life, just hopeful for the day he’d be able to find his person. He’s had a front row seat his whole life to what a happy, healthy union looks like and for as long as he can remember, Carlos has kept his heart open.
After years of searching and falling short, he’s felt that he’s finally gotten it right. The road with TK hadn’t always been easy but Carlos feels as if they’ve got feet planted firmly on the ground now.
“Dinner’s ready!” his mother calls out.
Carlos sets the album aside and holds on to TK’s hand as they head over into the dining room, only letting go once they’ve settled in at the table.
He and TK recount their days to his parents over his grandmother’s ropa vieja, TK still lamenting over the loss of the 126 but trying to keep his spirits up nonetheless, grateful that at the very least he still has Tommy and Nancy to offer some type of normalcy to the workday, some small comfort in the grand scheme of things.
A small dot sauce at the side of his mouth. He grins at TK, finding him impossibly endearing like this
“You’ve got a little…I’ve got it,” he says, grabbing his napkin.
Carlos wipes TK’s cheek and rolls his eyes affectionately. TK scrunches up his nose at him and Carlos fights the urge to kiss the teasing smirk off his lips.
Carlos takes a hold of TK’s hand, bringing it to his lips. TK meets his gaze, that shy half smile that Carlos can never get enough of painting his mouth. It’s always so easy to get wrapped up in it, these small moments that band together to mean absolutely everything.
Andrea sighs softly and Carlos looks away then, finding her looking between the pair of them.
“Just look at you two. Won’t be long until you’re a married couple yourself,” she says with such conviction as she adds more rice to her plate
Carlos smiles back at her; he can’t help but to agree. Just the thought alone makes something warm flare up inside him.
The feeling of joy fades quickly. Beside him, TK’s shoulder tenses out of the corner of his eye. It’s a gesture so minute it appears to go unnoticed by his mother and father who lapse into their own conversation without missing a bit but Carlos cannot unsee this. He’s far too attuned with TK now not to notice even the smallest of changes in his demeanor.
As if needing more proof, TK’s hand slips away and runs through his hair.  Carlos looks at TK in full, watches the way his knuckles whiten as he grips his fork now and avoids his gaze, the way his body leans just slightly to the left as if putting up space between them. It may as well be a wall with the way TK feels closed off to him now, hidden behind a veiled, unnamable thing.
Dinner passes far more quickly than Carlos is expecting. With his mind elsewhere, time just seems to move without his knowledge. He goes through the motions of saying his goodbye to his parents, making promises to keep in touch and see them soon.
From the moment they step foot outside, it feels as if all they’ve been keeping in now cloaks the air around them. Carlos hates the way it presses against his skin, how it seeps in like ink from a tattoo.
As they settle into the car, the silence becomes too much and Carlos refuses to have it be another passenger on their journey back home.
“You feel so far away right now.”
He doesn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation but maybe it is one.
“I’m just tired. Today’s finally catching up to me,” TK says, tipping his head back against the headrest of his seat.
The gesture feels more like the period at the end of a sentence but a conversation needs to be had tonight, for Carlos’ sanity if nothing else. If anything this is an ellipsis. A to be continued.
He doesn’t press the issue as he drives them home but his thoughts persist the whole ride over.
As they step into their apartment and he drops his keys on the small table beside the door, the words he’s been warring with begin to bubble up to the surface.
“Are you really tired or do you just not know what to say to me right now?” he asks as they enter the living room.
TK looks up from where he’s just seated himself on the couch, his brow raised. This is coming out far more confrontational than Carlos would like.
“I just…I thought you started acting differently the second my mom brought up marriage. I mean, I know we’re still in the early stages here. I’m not expecting us to run off and get married this weekend,” he jokes, hoping to lighten the mood.
However TK’s face remains contemplative and Carlos gets the sneaking suspicion that he won’t like what he has to say.
“But you do want to get married at some point though?”
Carlos’ head tips slightly as laughs a bit nervously.
“Well, of course. When the time is right. I’d want to have it all with you.”
TK licks his lips, his shoulders caving as he looks away. His eyes dart around and Carlos can’t tell if he’s staving off tears or searching for an answer on the other side of the room.
“TK?” he prompts.
At the sound of his name, TK seems to come back to himself but he’s got a far away look in his eyes still that doesn’t bode well in the slightest.
“Doesn’t that scare you?” TK asks.
“What? Knowing that I’d like to spend forever with you? No, it doesn’t. Why would it?”
TK shakes his head. “Not that part. I mean…binding yourself to another person like that.”
Carlos blinks twice. They don’t talk about TK’s ex but Carlos doesn’t see how he can avoid that particular elephant in the room.
“I don’t…I’m having a hard time understanding what you pictured would come next for us, if not this. You had marriage on your mind once before.”
TK scoffs tersely to himself.
“Yeah, and look where that got me in the end.”
Here with me, Carlos thinks. For as much as he hates the hardships TK faced, it’s what led him to Austin in the first place. But he keeps the thought to himself as TK continues.
“I found out that the guy I wanted to spend forever with was cheating me and wound up relapsing. My dad has been married and divorced. Twice. Not exactly ringing endorsements. Marriage…it’s the kiss of death,” he says, his chest rising and falling quickly.
TK stops himself then and steadies himself but Carlos feels anything but tethered right now. His mind and body are in two very different places at the moment.
“Why can’t we just enjoy this? What we have now? Can’t that be enough?” he continues, reaching for Carlos’ hand.
But Carlos can’t bring himself to look at him, let alone touch him now.
His hand balls into a fist at his side, his nails biting into his skin. Carlos focuses on the sharp sting in order to distract himself from the prickling in his eyes.
“Because I’m always going to want more for us,” he says softly. “And that will always be too much for you.”
The full scope of that comes to him in painstaking clarity.
He forces himself to look up at TK. What he finds are furrowed brows and familiar green eyes that are clouded and wet.
“I don’t want to lose us,” TK says. “I love you more than anything. You know that.”
“I do, which is why I don’t get why the thought of marriage is something you’ve apparently ruled out. I—I know you’ve been through hell and back with that guy. But I’m not Alex and we are not your parents. TK…,” Carlos stops short, swallowing hard on words he never thought he’d say to him.
TK comes closer, placing his hands on either side of Carlos’ face but Carlos can’t look him in the eyes.
“What is it? I love you, Carlos, please.”
A traitorous tear rolls down Carlos’ cheek. He can barely hear anything over the rushing in his ears, the thudding of his heart.
“I love you too. But this…,” he trails off.
TK lowers his hands at once and takes a small step back. They’re only inches apart but the distance between them runs far deeper than he could have ever imagined or even known was there.
“Are we breaking up?” TK asks, his voice barely above a whisper.
The question stops Carlos for a moment. These were words he himself had once spoken before on a different night months ago with TK at his doorstep. They’d been able to weather the fallout of Carlos working through letting his parents in on their relationship. They’ve made leaps and bounds to levels Carlos could only ever dream of at seventeen.
For all intents and purposes, it should have been smooth sailing onward to a long and happy future together. But if he’s been the only one between the two of them having this dream, what exactly would he be setting himself up for instead?
Some obstacles were just too big to get around, some matters that couldn’t be compromised. And this, the matter of a future he’s dreamed of since forever, requires a sacrifice too great.
Time means nothing in hospitals, Carlos concludes. As he sits flanked by Nancy and Tommy, hand in hand, he’s unsure of just how long he’s been seated here.
Five minutes. A lifetime. It all blurs together with his thoughts as suffocating as they are now. They’ve been briefed by the hospital staff and still, the grave diagnosis feels disconnected.
Time marches on and Carlos’ mind plays back his moments with TK like a montage, from the grand milestones to the everyday little things that he’s held just as dear.
Owen is in with him now and Carlos both dreads and longs for the moment he’s able to see TK with his own eyes.
The time comes, Owen standing before him now with the most stricken expression etched into his face. Carlos feels sick to his stomach.
“If you’re ready, you should go in and see him,” Owen says, clearly picking up on the sudden panic that’s overtaken him.
He’s not strong enough to go alone and if these last few weeks apart from TK, keeping his feelings bottled in, have taught him anything, it’s that perhaps there’s merit in admitting when he can’t shoulder a heavy burden alone.
He turns to Nancy, finding her hand already outstretched towards him. He holds on, so overrun with gratitude he can’t even get the words out. She nods once, clearly understanding.
His legs are somehow sturdy enough to carry him forward. He supposes that’s the adrenaline at play. Nancy slows down midway through the corridor and Carlos’ heart pounds hard against his chest.
He falters outside of TK’s room, almost paralyzed by the sight before him. Through the window of the room, he can see TK lying perfectly still and the eeriness is enough to take the wind out of him for a moment. Once again his mind races back to those tentative months, a relationship undefined but feelings clear as day in the aftermath of TK being shot.
Here he is now again on the fringes of TK’s life but unlike that very first time, there’s genuine history between them. Not only that, but a mutual love he knows won’t ever fade— in spite of everything.
The room is too sterile, too cold, too lacking. In warmth, in joy, in TK’s presence though he’s physically right there. It all feels so wrong, like some warped reality where everything is the opposite of how it should be.
His eyes burn with unshed tears.
This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This can’t be happening. Not again.
“Are you going to be okay?” Nancy asks, her hand gently resting on his forearm.
Carlos blinks twice, forcing his eyes away from the framed view of his ex-boyfriend just beyond the glass.
“Doesn’t matter. I just need to know that he will be.”
Carlos swallows hard and looks back at TK, trying to understand how and why TK is repeatedly at risk of being taken from him.
He takes a step closer to the window and peers inside. When he said goodbye to TK that night, he hadn’t meant for it to be a final farewell.
Time was cruel, the way it always makes a person think there’s more of it than there truly is.
He thinks back on every failed attempt from his friends and parents to get him to speak to TK again. He’d remained firm in his convictions these last few weeks, certain this was all for the best–– a firm believer that if something wasn’t meant to be, it simply wasn’t.
If only TK would open his eyes now, show some sign that things will be alright, he’d latch on to it like a life raft in this raging, treacherous sea.
It’s a strange feeling to mourn something that never got a chance to exist in the first place but the future Carlos had once seen weighed so heavily on his heart. He hadn’t stopped to consider this possibility of an even greater loss, one there’d be no coming back from at all.
His jaw clenches as he rests his head against the pane, a silent prayer spoken in his mind as he braces himself to go in.
Please let him be okay.
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dailylgbtq · 8 months ago
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BRIAN MICHAEL SMITH as Paul Strickland in 911: Lone Star S02EP14, Dust To Dust.
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alkaysani-archived · 8 months ago
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And I found love where it wasn't supposed to be Right in front of me Talk some sense to me
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strandtk · 9 months ago
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ANTHONY MACKIE as SAM WILSON The Falcon and the Winter Soldier | 1.05 "Truth"
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rafaelsilva · 8 months ago
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You called them a toxic dumpster fire. I have never been prouder of anyone in my life.
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rafael-silva · 8 months ago
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#i am looking respectfully
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van-eck · 10 months ago
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He’s not. There should be a heart behind that shield, and you’ve got a good one. 
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taylorkellymartin · 11 months ago
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You used to steal the fire truck?
                          Oh yeah, all the time.
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evanbukley · 7 months ago
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| 911 Pride Week 
» Day 2, June 8th - Favorite LGBTQ+ Character(s) 
 "And I'm just overwhelmed. But, you know, that's not new. In the past, I'd cope with these feelings in a pretty unhealthy way. So instead of calling a paramedic, I'm thinking of becoming one. That's gotta count for progress, right?"
— T.K. Strand
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graceryders · 10 months ago
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TK’s and Carlos’ journey so far…. 
🎁 for @strandtk
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tarlos-spain · a month ago
OK, so I can watch to this picture for the hole remaining week until the season premier. Can we talk about Carlos or Rafael smile. It's so real, so sincere... I can't love them more
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avacoleman · 2 months ago
i know now i found (the one i love) || a tarlos fic
summary: TK never moved to Austin, but some destinies cannot be avoided. 
On a visit to his father, he meets Carlos and sparks fly - even across the country, the chemistry is there, but TK still needs to deal with some demons of his own. As the months pass by, and his feelings blossom, TK must reevaluate just how much he can allow his past to shape his future.
word count: 27.3k || rating: e || read on ao3
And darlin', this is more than anything I felt before You're everything that I want, but I didn't think I'd find Someone who was worth the wait Of all the years of my heartbreak
TK pulls the covers over his head and tries to drown out the sound of his parents in the next room. It’s all muscle memory and the feeling of deja vu is almost overwhelming. How many nights had he spent as a child just like this, hearing the attempted diluted arguing of his parents?
He couldn’t even conceive of the number but here it was now, same as when he was a kid, his parents fighting over what they felt was best for him.
Maybe that’s part of why it’s all gone so horribly wrong for him over the years, he thinks.
TK chews at his bottom lip until the metallic taste of blood hits his tongue. He closes his eyes and tries to focus on his breathing. If he can control at least one basic thing right now, it’d be nothing short of a miracle.
TK thinks back to when he was little, how something as simple as hiding under the covers felt like enough to ward off all the bad. It’d been the perfect antidote to the monsters he once thought were under his bed. But he’s grown up harshly since then. Now he knows what he should have been fearing all along was the darkness that lived inside of him.
He feels more like a livewire than an actual human being right now. The events of today have left him on edge though it’s been hours since he was cleared to leave the hospital.
His father had asked him point-blank if he had intended on killing himself, and for a fraction of a second, TK had hesitated. No, death hadn’t been his intent, but a small part of him had to wonder if it really would have mattered if he didn’t make it.
The future he’d seen so clearly from himself, a dream life with a man he loved, had quickly devolved into a waking nightmare. What was to come next?
His father had vowed tough love from here on out, but TK couldn’t even conceptualize it at the moment. His mind was too busy conjuring up images of Alex with a faceless man, someone his heart had now chosen over TK’s.
There were no words for that, even to his mother, who had come storming into the hospital when he was released and demanded TK stay with her for at least this first night.
TK had been too tired to argue that he would be okay on his own. Half of him didn’t even believe in that defense. The thought of going back to his apartment was akin to going back to the scene of a crime.
But as his parents’ voices ebb and flow on the other side of the wall, he has to wonder if maybe he should have found a third alternative.
“He can’t stay here, Gwyn. There are too many reminders.”
“I don’t think you’re going to sell him on a vacation right now.”
“I was thinking of something a little bit more permanent than that.”
“Such as? He can’t handle any more big changes. It could overwhelm him again and then what?”
“Then he would be living under the same roof with me, working alongside me at the new station.”
TK’s heart stops. New station, he repeats in his head.
“New station?” his mother echoes aloud. “Owen, what in the world are you talking about?”
“I didn’t get a chance to say anything given everything that happened today. But I had a meeting this morning with the Department of Justice and Deputy Chief Radford from Austin. There’s a station down there that needs rebuilding, that needs healing. I turned them down but TK needs that kind of care too.”
TK’s eyes widen.
“He’d live with me. Work with me. I could keep a much better eye on him with us sharing the same spaces all the time.”
“Throwing him into the deep end to see if he swims isn’t a good solution. It’s too extreme given what he’s just gone through. My god, he’s barely been out of the hospital and you want to throw this at him?”
There’s a slam of what TK thinks might be a dresser drawer.
“This city is all he knows, Owen. He’s already lost so much. We can’t take his home away too. Besides, I’ll be here.”
“Until you're needed to hop on a red eye to Osaka or Berlin, you mean.”
His mother’s reply comes swift and sharp.
“Don’t you dare. I can do both my jobs just fine. Better than that even. If TK needs me here, then that’s exactly where I’ll be for however long he needs. He’s my number one priority. Always.”
TK can hear his father sigh deeply. And he holds his breath as he strains his ears to listen as the man’s voice lowers a bit.
“I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Gwyn, I’m just…I’m scared. I didn’t think we’d be here again. You didn’t see him lying there. I thought for sure, for a moment, that we were too late and we’d lost him.”
There’s a creak in the floorboards. Quiet falls in the other room. TK doesn’t move an inch as he takes in all that his parents have discussed. It pains him to think of what his father had walked into, certain the image would haunt the man forever. No amount of apologizing could ever make up for that.
His mother is the first one to break the silence.
“We should talk to TK in the morning and see how he feels. If…if he wants to go to Austin, I’ll support it,” she says. “We can’t force him either way and I don’t want him to feel pressured or backed into a corner.”
“Agreed. Whatever he decides, we’ll back.”
Another lull hangs heavy for a few minutes before his mother speaks. Her voice is soothing and it calls to mind the countless times she’s consoled TK over the years.
His father must be in quite the state to warrant this coddling.
“TK’s going to be okay. He takes after both of us that way. He’s a fighter. He just needs to get back on his feet is all,” Gwyn says.
TK opens his eyes again as his parents grow quiet. His head is throbbing and his throat is dry. He considers getting up for a glass of water, but that would give away the fact that he’s awake. He can’t face his parents now. It’d been bad enough at the hospital and the ride over to his mother’s apartment.
The tension was unbearable. TK had felt like his body couldn’t contain him. He’d avoided his parents’ eyes and hadn’t spoken much of a word all day.
Something feels fundamentally wrong with him now, damaged in a way TK isn't so sure can ever be mended.
He considers the pain penance for the wreckage he’s caused with this relapse. His years of progress completely wiped away thanks to one upset.
TK curls up, shrinking himself as much as he can and wraps his arms around his torso. Try as he might, he can’t shake the events of today, and he knows that he isn’t likely to anytime soon. He can still feel the material of his father’s uniform as he clutched onto him, instantly apologizing the moment he was able to speak.
His face burns with shame. If he had any energy left, he would cry, but it feels as if there’s nothing left inside of him to give.
Tomorrow will be hard too but TK is grateful for the thin walls of his mother’s home for letting him know what awaits him in the morning. His parents both made valid points, but TK knows in his heart that he can’t leave this city. Too much has been altered already.
His mother was right; TK can’t handle losing one more thing. The well has run dry.
Between recovery and getting back into the rhythm of life at the 252, namely without his father, five months have gone by in the blink of an eye.
TK’s long-awaited—and partially intimidating—trip to Austin has arrived.
The contrast between here and home had felt jarring at first, but the drive over to the station with his father pointing places out to him had felt oddly comforting.
Standing in the bay of the 126, though, can only be described as bewildering. The influence his father has had on this station is obvious to him immediately as this station looks and feels so similar to the one they once shared in New York.
TK stays close to his dad’s side as he takes him on a tour. He sees the bunks, the renovated bathroom, and the weight room where he meets the team.
He’s heard all about them over the last few months, but it’s nice being able to put faces to names he’s heard countless times. Daredevil Marjan, vigilant Paul, energetic Mateo, and Judd the straight shooter.
TK likes the way they all orbit around each other. It seems that even in a short window of being assembled from different states and walks of life, they’ve been able to carve out something familiar.
TK follows his father back down into the kitchen, spotting two people at the table. A woman with long dark hair in a ponytail and bangs sits facing him. Across from her, TK sees the broad back of a man in a light blue shirt who turns as the woman eyes TK warmly.
TK falters for a moment, finding himself locking eyes with the guy. He gives TK the friendliest smile as if the two actually know each other and aren’t interacting with one another for the very first time. TK can’t help but to smile back at him and try to remember how to breathe.
There’s something to this guy that makes TK feel instantly comforted. After spending the last five months feeling unmoored, the contrast to something clicking into place like this is a bit disorienting. But TK keeps staring back at the man until his father’s touch against his shoulder steals his attention away and makes him focus on the others in the room.
“TK, I want you to meet EMS Captain Michelle Blake. And ah, Officer Carlos Reyes. What a treat,” Owen says, coming closer to the table and shaking the other man’s hand.
TK draws nearer as well, his feet seeming to move on their own accord.
“Good to see you, Captain Strand,” Carlos says, his eyes flicking back to TK as he extends his hand.
TK looks at it for a moment before pressing his palm against Carlos’. The man’s grip is firm, but there’s such warmth to his touch. It makes TK hold on for a second longer than he probably should, but either Carlos doesn’t notice or care as he hangs on too.
“This is my son. He’s visiting from New York.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” TK manages to say, but his voice sounds strange in his own ears as he lowers his hand.
“I feel like I already know you. Your dad talks about you all the time,” Michelle says.
“Not all the time,” Owen interjects.
“A majority of the time,” Michelle counters. “But it’s sweet. Your dad really loves you.”
“He’s my one and only. He kinda means the world to me,” Owen says.
TK’s face burns with all the attention on him. Now would be a great time for the ground to swallow him whole, anything to escape this moment where he’s being doted over like a newborn.
He rubs at the back of his neck and looks around but his gaze, for what feels like the hundredth time since he stepped foot in the kitchen, lands on Carlos.
He finds the man has already been staring at him and TK’s face heats up even more at the realization. Carlos wears an amused smile, but it isn’t mocking in the least bit. Once more something feels familiar about this man who, until just a few minutes ago, was a complete stranger.
TK clears his throat and focuses back on his father and Michelle.
“Any big plans while you’re with us?” Michelle asks, spearing a piece of lettuce from her salad.
TK shrugs lightly.
“Not much aside from hanging out with my dad. I might look up a few places and see what there is to do around here.”
“Austin’s a small town but there’s plenty to do if you know where to look,” Carlos says.
It sounds like an invitation, but TK reels himself back in from making such a leap. It could just as easily be an offhand comment. And in truth, TK isn’t even sure if he would want Carlos’ words to mean more. The ghosts of his past still loom heavily. It feels dangerous to even entertain such thoughts.
Before TK can reply, the station’s alarm blares overhead and TK startles a bit at the unexpected sound.
“Duty calls,” his father says as Michelle hops off her stool.
The instinct to gear up is strong, TK finding himself taking a step towards where the rig is after his father and Michelle. TK watches as crew members race to the engine, spotting Michelle rounding towards the front of the ambulance. They all work so perfectly, a well-oiled machine.
In another life, he’d be right alongside his father now.
Just a few seconds later and both vehicles are through the bay doors and out on the city streets.
TK stuffs his hands in his pockets and looks back at Carlos. The silence now is almost as deafening as the sirens in the wake of the emergency vehicles pulling off.
He isn’t sure if he should leave Carlos to his lunch and head up to his dad’s office or leave the station altogether, but the man gestures to the vacant seat across from him.
TK smiles a bit and pushes Michelle’s salad aside, letting his arms cross on the tabletop.
“You don’t mind me crashing your alone time?” he asks.
Carlos shakes his head. “I like having company. And besides, it’ll be nice to get to know you a bit more outside of the face in the photo or what your dad has mentioned every now and then.”
TK’s brows furrow. “The photo?”
Carlos blushes a bit and runs a hand through his hair. It leaves it a bit disheveled, and TK’s hand twitches slightly with the impulse to smooth it back into place. To simply touch him.
“Your dad has a picture of you up in his office. I saw it the one time I was up there.”
Carlos had smiled at him like he knew him. It was making much more sense now.
“Hope it’s a good one at least.”
“It is. Though I can’t really imagine you ever taking a bad picture. Anyway, it’s nice that you’re getting the chance to visit. How long are you in town for?” Carlos asks.
“Just through the weekend. I head back Sunday night.”
Carlos bites back on his lower lip, a move TK is certain the other man doesn’t realize is terribly distracting.
“Would it be weird of me to offer to show you around? I mean, unless you want to stick with your dad, which I’d totally understand.”
TK smiles softly. “Well, he’s off rescuing the city so I have some time on my hands now. I mean, unless you want to go home and get some rest, which I’d totally understand,” he deadpans.
Carlos playfully rolls his eyes and laughs.
“Wise guy, huh? Alright. What do you feel like doing? Grabbing a bite? Checking out weird museums? We’ve got plenty of those.”
“How about you show me one of your favorite places?”
Carlos thinks it over for a second.
“I have an idea.” Carlos gets up from his chair, throws out the remains of his lunch and puts Michelle’s salad in the fridge.
“Right now?” TK says, caught off guard by how impromptu these plans are.
Carlos nods and takes a set of keys out of his pocket.
“I’m done for the day and you said it yourself. Your schedule is wide open at the moment, no? Unless you want to sit around an empty station all by yourself?”
TK smiles as he hops up out of his chair and lets Carlos lead the way out of the station. It’s a very short trip as Carlos walks around the front of a dark blue Camaro and unlocks the door.
TK eyes the car for a moment before catching Carlos’ eye over the roof of the vehicle. He doesn’t miss the small smirk on Carlos’ lips. As if TK isn’t already intrigued, that roguish look is enough to get him swinging open the door and settling inside.
“Where to?” he asks Carlos as he fastens his seatbelt.
Carlos simply smiles and says, “Someplace I really think you’re gonna like.”
As they pull up to the open gates, TK reads the sign: Tom Hughes Park.
Carlos parks the car and gets out, TK quick to follow.
“I visit pretty regularly,” Carlos says. “Any time I’m feeling stressed or I need to unwind, I find myself coming out here. I thought you might enjoy walking around for a bit and checking it out instead of being cooped up indoors.”
TK smiles. “I’m glad you have somewhere to go when you feel like that. Thanks for sharing your happy place with me.”
Carlos smiles back at him, and TK feels his stomach flip. Carlos seems to give his happiness away so freely. TK just wants to collect as many of these smiles as he can and hang on to them like souvenirs of today.
He clears his throat quietly and walks ahead, staying close to Carlos’ side as they enter the park.
It’s relatively quiet as they walk the grounds, and TK finds that it doesn’t put him on edge or make him feel keen to fill it. It’s enough just to have Carlos beside him.
But, he can admit, he’s quite curious about this guy that’s managing to jumpstart his heart.
“Have you lived in Austin your whole life?”
Carlos glances at him, his hands tucked into the front pocket of his dark jeans. TK’s eyes track the flex of Carlos’ tendons as he stretches out his arms a bit.
“Yeah, I have. I can’t even picture what it would have been like to grow up anywhere else.”
“New York, for example?”
Carlos smiles. “Not so sure I’d be cut out for a city like that but I truly love it here.”
TK hums thoughtfully. “My dad tried getting me to make the move with him but I couldn’t picture myself down here.”
“Should I be offended?” Carlos teases, bumping his shoulder lightly.
TK does his best to ignore the tugging sensation in his stomach at the brief bit of contact.
“Nah, nothing personal. It’s just...I needed to stay. I couldn’t make a change like that as quickly as him.”
There’s so much hidden in those words, but TK certainly can’t unload all of his baggage at Carlos’ feet now.
Carlos studies him for a moment and TK braces himself for Carlos to inquire more deeply. Instead, the man nods, more so to himself.
“It’s good that you’re going at your own pace. If moving didn’t feel right to you at the time, then staying must have been the right call.”
It’s felt like forever since someone has instantly trusted his personal decision-making, himself included. TK had spent a great deal of time in the initial aftermath of his relapse wondering if a fresh start in a new city would have been the better choice.
They continue on their trail, trading stories back and forth about what it was like growing up in their respective cities. TK is amazed to hear Carlos grew up on an actual ranch, surrounded by animals, when he’d been so unsuccessful in even swaying his parents to get him a dog.
Conversation is effortless, the two of them pouring words of their history and present into each other so easily. TK can’t remember the last time he’s had this much to say to someone.
“Do you want to see my favorite part of the park?” Carlos asks after a time.
TK nods and is led to the quaintest pond he’s ever seen. The surrounding grass and tree lines are so still, it feels like no one else has ever discovered this particular section of the park. Sunlight reflects off the surface, rich and golden like honey.
Carlos stops a few feet away from the water’s edge and takes a seat on the lush grass. TK settles beside him, holding his breath like the world around them.
TK glances to the side to look at him. Carlos’ eyes are closed, his head tilted upwards like a sunflower seeking out the sun’s rays, his arms stretched out behind him.
The first thought that comes to mind is that Carlos looks radiant. It’s not a word TK has ever used to describe anything or anyone in his life, but it hits the mark perfectly.
Carlos shifts, and TK looks away before he’s caught and studies the pond.
“The water looks amazing. I could just swim in it right now,” TK says, if only to distract himself.
Carlos hums in thought, seemingly intrigued by this statement.
“Then why don’t we?”
TK laughs and shakes his head until he looks at Carlos full on.
“Wait, are you serious?”
“Yeah, why not?” Carlos replies, standing up at once and toeing off his shoes.
TK stares up at him, one eye closed against the sunlight surrounding him.
His stomach somersaults as Carlos slips off his shirt and tosses it to the ground. His throat goes a bit dry the longer he looks at Carlos.
It wasn’t hard to guess that the man would look every bit as good with his shirt off as he did fully clothed. But seeing the broad chest and toned muscles firsthand so unexpectedly leaves TK with no other option really but to stare.
This isn’t at all a state he thought he’d see the man in—and on their first day of meeting each other, no less.
But Carlos doesn’t appear bashful in the least bit. He flashes TK a smile and heads towards the water. TK watches his figure edge closer to the pond, Carlos only stopping to remove his pants before going in.
TK’s brain quickly catches up, and a moment later, he’s stripping down to his boxer briefs and joining Carlos.
The water is much cooler than he’d been anticipating, but it’s a welcome feeling with the sun bearing down as it is now.
TK floats on his back, letting the water support him. He feels weightless as he looks up at the clear blue sky above. It’s all so perfect. This day has unfolded itself in a way he couldn’t have foreseen, but TK delights in that.
Especially if it means spending alone time with a cute guy he’s been able to have such great conversation with all afternoon.
TK’s eyes close, and he lets his fingertips skim the water’s surface. He listens to the call of birds somewhere in the distance. It’s easy to see why this place is somewhere Carlos seeks refuge. He feels like he’s on another planet entirely, or at least a remote corner of the world where no one else exists. It’s all so incredibly relaxing.
Out here in the water, over a thousand miles away from home with a possible new friend who doesn’t know of his past, it feels as if he has found a reset button.
“Looks like this could be your happy place too,” Carlos says.
TK opens his eyes slowly and turns his head to look at him.
The sunlight makes the water droplets clinging to his body glisten. This whole day has felt like something out of a dream. TK has to wonder what percentage of that comes down to the location or his company.
As Carlos keeps his warm brown eyes on him and smiles expectantly, TK knows the numbers skew heavily in the man’s favor.
“It just might be.”
TK doesn’t know how long they remain there, an hour or a lifetime. It hardly feels like it could ever be enough.
Carlos brings the car to a stop outside of Owen’s house and TK feels a pang of disappointment in knowing that their time together has reached its end.
He looks to Carlos now, takes stock of everything he can. An unruly damp curl hovers over Carlos’ forehead and TK smiles to himself at the overall look. The natural curls are definitely preferred over the slicked back style though both looks, TK can say with full assurance, are winners.
“That was—without a doubt—the most random fun I’ve ever had on my first day of knowing someone. You know how to make one hell of an impression.”
Carlos laughs heartily. “This was brand new for me too. I don’t exactly make a habit out of stripping down to my underwear in front of someone I’ve only just met, I swear.”
“Hmm, lucky me then,” TK muses before he can lose his nerve.
Carlos opens and closes his mouth, an amused smile on his flushed face.
“Do you think…could I have your number? I’d love to keep in touch, if you’re okay with that.”
TK holds out his hand, palm up, and Carlos places his phone against it. TK punches in his number and saves the contact. He hands the phone back over and meets Carlos’ eyes.
“It’s up to you now. Make good use of that thing.”
“I plan to, though you might regret giving me so much leeway. Enjoy the rest of your visit.”
TK sincerely doubts he’ll come to regret this decision, at least not in the way Carlos might be thinking.
“Thanks for giving me such a good start to it. It was really nice meeting you, Carlos.”
“You too, TK,” Carlos says, holding up his phone. “We’ll talk soon.”
That promise lodges itself in TK’s heart.
Carlos was a man of his word. Though his shifts down at the police station kept Carlos from seeing him again, TK was still able to chat with the officer steadily throughout the weekend through texts. With each message, he’s learned something new about the man or shared in a laugh. It’d come as a relief that their instantaneous connection hadn’t been a fluke and extended past that initial day.
TK shifts in his seat at his flight's gate, waiting for his section to be called to board. He watches the recently announced group line up, a few families, and some solo flyers like himself.
There’s a bittersweet feeling festering in his gut. He’d had a great time seeing his dad and meeting the crew. This weekend glimpse into a life he might have had leaves him feeling conflicted in a way TK isn’t so sure he wants to unpack right now. There’s always his therapy session in the morning.
Instead, he wants to focus on the positives of the trip and, in all honesty, that brings him back to one person in particular.
TK’s phone buzzes in his hand, pulling him from his thoughts. He takes a look at his screen and smiles at the message before him.
Carlos: Safe travels. Glad we got a chance to hang out.
TK unlocks his phone to respond but stops to watch as Carlos continues to type. The gray bubble stops and starts a few times, those three dots practically taunting him as he waits to see what Carlos will say, fearful he won’t follow through. But his worrying is for nothing as a new message appears.
Carlos: See you next time you’re back?
TK lets out an amused breath. If Carlos felt any real trepidation in asking, it’s truly for nothing; seeing him again was never in doubt. TK is quick to reply.
Absolutely. Can’t wait.
“How was it, seeing your father and being out of the city?” Dr. Stevenson asks.
TK had been anticipating his therapist would start off their session like this. Before leaving for Austin, TK had opened up to her about the trip, both his excitement in seeing his dad and his reservations about what he’d find.
“It felt good. I got a chance to see his station and meet his new crew. It made me a little sad at first which was kind of weird. I wasn’t expecting to feel that.”
“What about it made you feel that way?”
“It’s stupid but– sorry, not stupid,” he corrects. “For the first time in years, I’m not a part of his crew. They’re all awesome but the first thought I had was kind of a selfish one. Seeing him being so close to them made me feel like I was missing out on something. Like I made the wrong call in not joining him and being part of that connection too.”
TK stops then, picking at the seam on one of the cushions as he pulls together his thoughts.
“I mean, I know he’s been down there with them for months now. Of course they’ve bonded. I guess it was kinda weird to actually see it up close in real time, you know?”
“That’s understandable. It’s no longer abstract or something you’ve had to build up in your mind.”
TK’s mouth twists to the side as he thinks, doing his best to ignore the bustling sounds of Midtown outside. He’d only been gone three days and yet TK had missed the noisiness of his city.
“I think part of me is worried that the connection dad and I have can be replaced. His team here in New York was basically family. Now he’s down in Austin and had to make a family for himself there too. I dunno. Feels like I’m sharing him again. Only this time I’m on the outside of it. Is that messed up of me? It was my decision to stay here.”
Dr. Stevenson shakes her head and a knot TK hadn’t even felt before loosens in his stomach, relief immediate.
“There’s no ‘messed up’. You have a complex history when it comes to your father and his work. But remember, it is simply his job. His connections with the crew down there in no way invalidate your relationship with him.”
TK stews on that for a moment but ultimately doesn’t say anything further. Dr. Stevenson jots something down in her book, and TK knows they’re merely putting a pin in this for now and will inevitably circle back at some point.
“Tell me more about your trip and the people you met,” she says and TK latches on to this change in topic like a life raft.
He launches into telling Dr. Stevenson about the different members of the 126. They’d all been incredible, but the person who made the biggest impression of all wasn’t a member of the team.
“I did meet someone outside of my dad’s crew…still a colleague of his though. He’s an officer my age named Carlos. I– he...we, well,” TK stammers, shaking his head and laughing at himself for getting so tongue-tied.
Dr. Stevenson’s head tilts to the side.
“Carlos makes you flustered,” she observes, a statement not a question.
TK rubs his left palm against his leg.
“Sorry, I actually haven’t spoken about him to anyone yet.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s been nice holding onto something this good for myself for a little while.”
Over the last few months, TK has been actively seeking out good things to surround himself with. When it came to Carlos, he hadn’t even been trying. He’d seemingly stumbled into a bright spot.
“We spent a lot of my first day down there together and we’ve been in touch ever since. I like talking to him. But I know it’s only been a few days though so I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“Does the length of time matter all that much if you’ve managed to make a new friend? Should it?”
TK thinks it over for a second.
“Kind of, yeah. Good feelings like this usually come with an expiration date, you know? Beginnings are the easy part. It’s all the stuff that comes after that’s usually the problem.”
“Or, alternatively, having this expiration date or countdown clock makes it into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go into this with your eyes fixed on the exit, you miss the room at large.”
There’s merit to what she’s saying, he knows, but TK has been down this road before—all too recently at that.
“It just feels safer to keep my expectations low. Optimism can be a killer sometimes.”
“And other times, it can be the very thing that keeps you alive.”
TK’s session with Dr. Stevenson is still tugging at the back of his head as he settles in for a movie night with his mother that evening. On the coffee table before them sits the remnants of their takeout, both of them too full to be bothered to clean up just yet.
As his mother searches through options on Netflix, TK responds to his running thread with Carlos, checking in to hear about his day.
“You’re popular tonight,” Gwyn says as TK’s phone buzzes with a new text.
TK quickly glances at the screen.
“Sorry, it’s Carlos,” he says distractedly, firing off a quick reply before looking at his mom.
Gwyn raises a brow in question. TK does his best to seem casual as he responds.
“He’s a new friend I made in Austin.”
A slow smile curls at the corner of his mother’s mouth at this, her antenna no doubt going up.
“Ah, so he’s the reason you haven’t stopped smiling since you got back then?” she says, shifting on the couch and tucking her legs under herself.
Proving her point even further, TK laughs and bites back his smile.
“Alright, that settles it. I want to see him. Chop chop.”
TK opens up Instagram and pulls up Carlos’ account before surrendering his phone to his mom.
Her brows jump comically towards her hairline. She scrolls through, a smile painting her lips.
“Oh, wow. He sure is gorgeous, isn’t he?” she comments, scrolling through Carlos’ feed. She lingers on some photos to read the captions, smiling here and there. “He seems really sweet too.”
TK takes a peek at the screen and sees a picture of Carlos flanked by a man and woman TK assumes to be his parents. He can see traces of their features in Carlos, who beams so widely his eyes crinkle at the corners.
“He is. On both counts. We only hung out for a day and yet I feel like I’ve always known him.”
Gwyn smirks knowingly and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Fast friends. That sort of connection is rare,” she says, handing back the phone.
TK sighs and sets it down on a cushion.
“I've never clicked with someone like this before. It’s such a weird feeling but I like it.”
TK shifts and lays down, putting his head in his mother’s lap. She doesn’t miss a beat in gently carding her fingers through his hair. He smiles up at her, same as he’s done since he was a kid.
“I'm glad you had such a great time on your trip. You deserved that. So, tell me more about this guy.”
TK laughs. “Don’t you want to hear about my trip? Austin? The crew?”
His mother rolls her eyes. “I’ve gotten the rundown on all of that from your father ages ago. Carlos is something new. Spill.”
TK laughs again and tries to decide on where to begin. Once he starts, he can’t stop talking. He tells her all about their trip to the park and their time in the pond. He fills her in on how easy conversation is between them, the way they’re able to tease each other and connect. He concludes with a sigh.
“You really like him, don’t you?”
TK’s face grows pensive. He can admit he’s got a crush, though that word sounds frivolous and a bit inadequate in comparison to how incredibly pressing the draw to Carlos has been so far— as much as he wants to fight it.
“Do you think it’s too soon for me to be interested in someone?”
Gwyn’s hand stills in his hair as she looks him right in the eyes.
“Of course not, no. You’ve put in a lot of work to build yourself back up over these last few months. It’s okay to open up your heart again if you feel you’ve found someone worthwhile.”
A part of TK feels it may be too premature to think this, but he gets the sense that Carlos very well could be worth the effort and then some.
“Carlos is special,” TK says decidedly.
His mother nods and resumes stroking TK’s hair, his thoughts seemingly stuck on Carlos.
“Seems like it to me. I haven’t seen you quite this happy for some time now. He lights you up.”
One day was all it took to stir something within, to awaken a part of himself that he had put on a proverbial shelf.
TK knows her words to be true because with Carlos, it feels as if he’s swallowed the sun.
TK’s phone buzzes, and he quickly sets down the spoon in his hand, the utensil clanking loudly against the bowl. It’s truly a wonder milk doesn’t splash all over him, but the excitement over getting a text from Carlos has come to outweigh all else for him these days.
But the thrill quickly turns to dread the second TK realizes the message he’s just received isn’t from Carlos but from his ex.
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] You’ve more than likely deleted my number and I don't blame you one bit. I’ve given you every reason to hate me. I don’t really know where to even begin but apologizing seems like the best place to start.
TK feels sick to his stomach as he reads the message over while Alex continues to type. There’s a ringing in his ears that’s practically deafening.
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] I’m so, so sorry for what I did to you, TK. This is a long shot, but would you be alright with meeting up sometime soon? I’d really like to apologize face to face and see how you are. Just let me know...or I guess, if you never respond to this, that’s giving an answer too. Hope you’re okay.
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] Talk soon. Maybe. -A
TK feels shaken to his core, his eyes quickly scanning Alex’s messages. It’s been months without so much as a single word and now his ex wants to see him? TK isn’t sure what to make of this and this level of indecision feels debilitating.
He doesn’t owe Alex anything. TK has been working actively to close the door on that part of his past. But this unexpected reappearance makes TK feel as if all his progress has gone out the window. He can admit, if only to himself, that he has wondered where it’d gone wrong for them, if there was something he’d done to make Alex go looking elsewhere for love.
It feels silly now to be plagued by such questions when so much time has passed. He’s moved on. He’s grown stronger. He ought to leave well enough alone.
TK turns the phone over face down and stares at it, as if expecting the device to suddenly come to life.
He can’t deal with this right now; it’s far too early in the morning to be blindsided like this.
TK takes the remainder of his cereal and brings it over to the sink, dumping the contents of the bowl. His appetite—much like his mood— is shot to hell.
The day has only begun. TK doesn’t have the mental capacity to handle this just yet, so he simply chooses not to.
Lung cancer.
Two words have turned TK’s world upside down. They’ve been playing on an endless loop for the last twenty minutes since his father uttered the words on the phone.
Alex’s text from this morning feels like a lifetime ago and is so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Today has proven itself keen on throwing him curveballs. But this latest one has knocked the wind out of him.
Stage 1B. According to his father’s doctor, this diagnosis is the best to have. But it’s hard to take much comfort in that. TK’s mind won’t allow him to stop thinking of worst-case scenarios.
Initially it’d been too abstract of a concept for TK to really get his arms around but now, the full gravity is beginning to hit him and he’s starting to unravel.
TK closes the door to his room behind him and struggles to pick a spot to focus on. He knows this sensation all too well, and if he’s not careful, a full-blown panic attack is sure to overtake him.
He clutches onto the doorknob, his hand trembling. TK fumbles in his pocket for his phone with his other hand, almost dropping the device once it’s free with how badly his body is shaking.
TK sucks in a breath and selects the most recent name in his call log.
Carlos answers after three rings, his voice cheery and welcoming as he greets him. It fills TK with guilt knowing he’s about to drastically change the tone of this conversation.
“Hey, I was just thinking about you. How are you?” Carlos asks.
TK clings to the sound of his voice, uses it as an anchor to keep himself from drifting. His eyes close for a moment as he focuses on his breathing.
“TK? Are you there?”
TK lets out a shaky breath and sniffles.
“I’m here. I’m sorry, I’m here.”
“Are you hurt? What happened?”
TK lets out a choked sob but manages to get out the words, “My dad is sick.”
The call ends and TK pulls the phone away from his ear and looks at the screen in confusion for a fraction of a second before a FaceTime call comes in from Carlos.
Relief floods his chest as he quickly answers. Carlos’ face is the picture of concern on screen. There’s a light directly overhead, and TK realizes Carlos is inside his car as he sees headlights flash by, but Carlos isn’t moving. The thought of Carlos pulling over on the side of the road to talk to him now makes something inside his chest crack.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have hung up like that. I just thought it’d be better if we could see each other,” Carlos says. “Can you tell me what’s happening exactly?”
TK wipes at his right eye and steadies himself by leaning against the door, meeting Carlos’ eyes on-screen.
“He’s got lung cancer.”
Saying the words out loud doesn’t make it any easier to grasp. Carlos’ eyes close and he shakes his head as TK continues.
“They apparently caught it early but I’m still really scared.”
“Of course. Of course…TK, I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine…” Carlos trails off and sighs softly before he presses on.
“It’s good that they were able to get it at this stage though. That could make all the difference. Your dad is strong. He’ll get through this.”
TK nods and tries to let Carlos’ words comfort him. He crosses the room and takes a seat at his desk, propping his phone up against the base of the lamp that’s there.
“I can’t believe this is even happening,” he says quietly, burying his face in his hands for a moment before looking up.
Carlos has a frown on his face, brows tense as he listens.
“I hate that I’m so far away when he needs me. Maybe I should have moved. I should have gone with him. He wouldn’t be fighting this on his own if I’d just gone too.”
Carlos shakes his head.
“There was no way you could have known this would happen. You made a decision for yourself under totally different circumstances at a completely different point in time. You can’t beat yourself up over that, TK, and I’m betting Captain Strand would say the same.”
TK looks down at his hands, knowing Carlos’ words to be true.
“I just feel…he’s been there for me through the hardest times of my life and now when he needs me, I’m not even in the same damn time zone.”
“But you aren’t abandoning him though. You’ll be able to visit him and keep in touch constantly. I know mentally it would be a huge weight off to be here physically. I get that,” Carlos says. “But you’ll still be there to actively support him and that’s what’s most important here.”
TK searches Carlos’ eyes and lets the steadiness of his gaze settle him a bit further. TK can’t seem to stop the tears from falling, but where he feels shaky, Carlos is solid as he continues speaking.
“I promise, I’ll keep an eye on him for you. I know you want to be here but I swear, your dad isn’t alone. He’ll have me and the 126 in his corner. And you will too. We’ll hold down the fort. Whatever you guys need. Just say the word.”
TK wipes at his face again, swallowing past the lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry for dumping all of this on you...for calling you up like this. God, I’m so sorry. I know it’s a lot.”
Carlos’ brows furrow as he shakes his head.
“Stop, no. I’m glad you called me. Anytime you need someone to talk to, I’m here, okay? No matter what.”
TK takes a cleansing breath, sitting up straighter.
“Thank you.”
He rubs at the tension in his temple, groaning as the spot continues to throb. Carlos frowns.
“Of course. Try to get some sleep though, alright? I’ll check in on you in the morning. But if you need me before then, call. I don’t care what time it may be.”
TK smiles softly at this. Carlos’ kindness is unmatched and now, more than ever, TK is grateful their paths have crossed.
“I’m glad I met you. You’re a really good friend to have.”
Carlos smiles back at him, so bright and warm that in this moment, at least for a second, it feels like everything is going to be okay.
“I could easily say the same about you.”
The kind of tired TK feels now seems to permeate his bones and has simply become part of his DNA. The day had been a grueling one at work and his thoughts have been heavy since his father shared the news of his diagnosis.
He enters the kitchen to find his mother seated before her laptop, the papers surrounding her going untouched as she frowns at the screen.
“Maybe TK and I can come down and see you. Hopefully in the next two weeks, if schedules permit.”
TK comes closer quietly and catches her eye. Gwyn smiles and waves him over.
TK pulls up the stool next to her and exchanges greetings with his dad before the man picks back up the conversation.
His father is dressed in his uniform in his office, the large window behind his desk pristine as ever and boasting the Texas state flag.
“I’d love to see you guys if you’re able to manage it. But the crew’s been taking good care of me. Carlos especially.”
TK turns to look at his mom at the same time as she looks at him. TK glances back at the screen.
“What do you mean?”
Owen’s face is quizzical.
“He hasn’t told you? Yeah, Carlos has been bringing meals by the house and checking in on me every few days. I thought he would have mentioned it by now.”
His father’s words were clear enough and yet they’re so hard for TK to understand.
He sits stunned for a moment. This wasn’t what he envisioned at all when Carlos said he’d look out for his father.
His mother rubs his back, and TK blinks twice, trying to wrap his head around what he’s hearing.
“He told me he’d keep an eye on you for me but I wasn’t expecting—,” he stops short, shaking his head.
“Thank him for us, will you, Owen?” Gwyn says. “That’s very kind of him.”
On-screen his father nods, and a moment later, there’s a knock on his door.
“Look, I’ve got to run but I’ll talk to you guys soon. Keep me posted if you’re able to make the trip.”
TK and Gwyn wave goodbye and end the call. Gwyn closes the laptop and looks at TK.
“Well, that sure was something,” she says, surprise coloring her tone.
TK suddenly finds himself on his feet, reaching for his phone.
“I’ve got to make a call.”
TK paces the length of his room, trying to piece together his thoughts long enough to form something coherent. But his mind is racing far too much to string words together. What could he possibly say to fully encompass his gratitude for Carlos’ gesture?
TK selects his name and puts the phone to his ear. He listens as it rings and rings until an automated voice comes on to tell him to leave a message.
He supposes this is for the best. His thoughts are still a jumbled mess and it will be so much easier to blather on in this medium.
“Hi, Carlos. It’s me. I wanted to say thank you for taking care of my dad. He just told us about the dinners and all the check-ins you’ve been doing. I don’t even have the words to tell you how much it means to me so I’ll just keep saying thank you. I can never really pay you back for this but I’ll have to figure something out.”
He sighs, raking a hand through his hair.
“It’s been so hard being away from him. But you’ve got his back in the same way I would if I were there and that means the world to me. You keep finding new ways to amaze me, Carlos. I can’t thank you enough. Anyway, I just…I’m kind of just talking in circles here and this message is getting long. I…thank you. I’d give you the world’s biggest hug right now if I could, I swear. Just…thank you so, so much. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you. You’re unreal.”
He sighs again.
“My mom and I are heading to Austin soon, by the way. I can’t wait to see you again. Anyway, I should probably stop talking. Thanks again, for everything. It means more than you’ll ever know.”
It feels like a lifetime since he and his parents have sat around a table enjoying dinner together.
It’s worlds away from the awkward and tense dinner they’d had after TK’s relapse months ago. Tonight feels far more joyous even though the reason for their visit to Austin is anything but.
TK and Gwyn have settled in nicely for the weekend, his mother commandeering the living room to conduct business over the next few days.
Since his last trip, his father has managed to stave off the loneliness of an empty house by welcoming his “canine counterpart”. It’d been depressing at first to learn that the dog was suffering from the same lung cancer as his father but Buttercup had taken an instant liking to him since he arrived this afternoon. TK didn’t stand a chance.
At his side now, Buttercup sits up and barks once unexpectedly, looking out of the room. TK doesn’t think much of it as he reaches for the salad. But the doorbell rings a few seconds later, causing him to freeze. He and his parents look around at each other before his dad goes to answer the door.
TK continues loading up his plate until he hears the murmur of voices and footfalls drawing nearer, Buttercup leaving to investigate.
“We’ve got a visitor,” Owen says.
Carlos steps into the dining room, holding onto the handles of a large brown paper bag. He looks sheepish for showing up. But TK delights in the surprise. He sits up straighter, eyes fixed on his friend.
Carlos waves at him before looking over at Gwyn, his cheeks grower pinker.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to crash. I was on autopilot tonight and forgot you guys would be here and Captain Strand was set for dinner,” he says holding up the bag a little as evidence.
Gwyn rises from her seat and pulls out the chair beside her which happens to sit across from TK.
“That’s okay. That’s more than okay. Please, join us.”
“Are you sure, Mrs.—”
“Ms. Morgan. But, please, you can call me Gwyn. And yes, I insist,” she says.
TK can see the way her eyes are taking stock of him and clearly approving.
Owen takes the bag off Carlos’ hands and thanks him before veering off to the kitchen to store it.
“I’m the last one to meet the famous Carlos Reyes,” she continues as Carlos gets settled in. “I was starting to feel left out.”
If Carlos finds it odd that she knows exactly who he is already without a formal introduction, he does a very good job of hiding it.
“Famous, huh? I hope I don’t disappoint. I’m hardly anything to write home about.”
“Nonsense. The way the boys tell it, you’re a pretty impressive guy.”
TK’s face flushes. He wonders if he will be the first reported case of a person dying from embarrassment.
“So are they. It’s been great getting to know them both,” Carlos responds, briefly looking at Owen as he returns with a plate and glass for Carlos and to TK, who offers a warm smile in return.
Gwyn grins, visibly pleased with this response. She reaches for her glass and takes a sip of water. TK knows her well enough to clock that she’s merely gearing up for more.
“Tell me about yourself,” she says as she sets the glass down.
“Mom,” TK cuts in, perhaps a decibel higher than he intends. “Do you think we could maybe offer Carlos a drink before you cross examine him?”
Gwyn holds up her hands in mock defense, earning a laugh from everyone at the table.
“Sorry, sorry, I just wanted to learn more about the nice young man who brings my ex husband meals on Friday nights and is such great friends with my son.”
TK thinks he might have imagined a pause before the word friends. At least, he sure hopes that’s the case.
Carlos, cool as ever, doesn’t seem flustered in the slightest.
He merely smiles, flashing those perfect teeth, and says, “I’ll tell you anything you’d like to know, Gwyn.”
Dinner goes off without a hitch from there. Within minutes Carlos has his parents completely beside themselves, his mother in particular as the latest person to meet him.
Carlos is brought into the fold so easily as if he’s been a fixture in their lives for years and TK takes comfort in that, in how natural it feels to have Carlos be a part of his life like this.
The four chat about Carlos’ family, their jobs, and life in Austin. By the time they’re done with their meal and cleaning up, TK is half convinced his mother may adopt Carlos as her own.
TK leaves his folks to walk Carlos out. He’s glad to have even this small window of time with him, the two lingering at the front door. For his part, TK wants to drag this out, to keep Carlos here a little while longer. His presence tonight had been a total surprise and he dreads the feeling his absence will leave once he’s gone.
He looks Carlos over, his heart beating wildly as the man smiles warmly at him.
“I had a lot of fun tonight. Your mom is amazing.”
“She really likes you. Both my parents do, actually. And Buttercup apparently,” he tacks on as the dog quietly pads into the foyer and nuzzles against Carlos’ leg.
Carlos bends down and scratches Buttercup behind the ears for a few moments and TK can’t blame the dog for shamelessly relishing in the attention. He’d be a glutton too if Carlos doted over him like that.
“That’s almost a full set,” Carlos says as he pets Buttercup one last time before standing up again. “What about you?”
The question catches TK off guard for a second but he rallies quickly. If he could find the words, he’d tell Carlos that he likes him more than he ever thought himself capable of liking someone at this stage. He’d tell him he’s falling so hard it keeps him up most nights.
Instead he just jokingly rolls his eyes and keeps things light.
“I think you know you have my stamp of approval. You earned that the day I met you and you’ve been securing it ever since.”
Something like relief flickers in Carlos’ eyes. It makes TK curious but he certainly isn’t brave enough to push it. It’s enough to know that his response seems to have given Carlos some reassurance he may have been needing.
Carlos remains still but his lips quirk as if he’s going to say something. TK sees the thought die in his eyes before Carlos clears his throat.
“I probably should get going.”
TK’s heart sinks but quickly flies to his throat as Carlos leans in and hugs him. It stuns TK so much that initially his arms stay at his sides. They’ve never hugged before but TK is immediately a fan of it.
His arms wrap back around Carlos and he closes his eyes, letting the warmth of the other man’s body cloak him.
Carlos lets out a small breath that tickles TK’s skin as his thumb brushes back and forth along the base of his neck. The combination is almost too much but somehow TK remains standing.
Carlos’ touch is everything, both grounding and dizzying.
Mercifully he pulls away and with that, TK gulps down a fresh breath of air but he can still smell Carlos’ scent. It makes his chest ache.
“Goodnight,” Carlos says, opening the door.
An irrational part of TK wants to go with him but he stays put despite the instinct.
“Text me when you get in?”
Carlos nods, reaching for TK’s hand and giving it a light squeeze before heading for his car. TK stays at the door until Carlos drives off into the night.
A hug and innocent hand holding shouldn’t leave him so shaken and yet TK feels as if he’s had the ground plucked from under his feet.
He closes the door and makes his way into the living room. He’s unsurprised to see his mom has situated herself in front of her laptop, not missing a beat in squeezing in some work now that dinner has wrapped.
He flops onto the single seater across from her, head lobbing back to stare up at the ceiling. Carlos has only been gone for two minutes and yet he misses him desperately.
“I see why you like him so much,” his mom says casually. “He’s delightful.”
TK sits up straight at this. She hasn’t moved an inch, hands still fused to the keys of her laptop. It makes it easier to begin speaking.
“I don’t know. I feel so...different when I’m with him.”
Maybe it’s his words or his tone but this steals her attention at once.
Gwyn looks up from her screen, moving her glasses from her face to sit on the top of her head instead. She studies him for a moment and TK does his best not to look too antsy.
“Different how?”
“Good,” he settles on. “I genuinely feel good any time we talk. Even if it’s about something stupid or random, talking to him is like…taking a breath almost. I don’t know how to explain it.”
TK shakes his head.
“I don’t even know if I should be letting myself fall this hard for him. We don’t even live in the same state. And I know you said it’s okay but it feels like too much at once but I can’t help it. I wish that I could.”
“Honey, I don’t think any of us really gets a say when it comes to these sorts of things. I get the hesitation. It’s more like self-preservation after everything you went through with Alex but—,” she stops short. “That was with Alex. Carlos is someone else entirely.”
TK knows this, rationally. Carlos is the complete opposite of Alex in every sense, particularly in the ways that matter most of all.
“I’m not saying to jump in and abandon all caution, of course. But dipping a toe into the water can be nice, too,” Gwyn continues.
TK sits with her words, worrying his bottom lip as he tries to piece through all of his thoughts.
On paper and in practice, Carlos would be ideal. That, TK realizes, isn’t the problem. The main issue is understanding if he’s what Carlos could even want. Perhaps all of this is simply in his head.
There was a reason why some people loved the ocean and others feared it. Something beautiful and seemingly pure was still capable of causing damage.
He barely managed to survive the last time he was pulled under by his overwhelming feelings.
The last thing TK needs is to set himself up to drown.
“Pick a color: blue or red,” Carlos says.
TK props his phone up against the glass on his nightstand.
“Is this a Matrix situation?”
Carlos laughs and shifts on screen, half his body going out of frame for a moment before he reappears with two shirts draped over his forearm.
“No, I’m just having a hard time deciding which one of these to go with for Sunday night.”
TK feels a cold trickle at the back of his neck.
“Hot date?” he says jokingly but the unease he feels from the question settles like a weight in his stomach.
Carlos makes a show of wiggling his brows and smirking.
“Oh yeah, hot date at my tía’s house with my parents. We might have to call the 126 to put out those flames.”
It shouldn’t matter to TK one way or the other if Carlos had plans with a guy but the relief he feels is swift, a balm that soothes over the initial sting.
“I haven’t been on a proper date in longer than I care to admit,” Carlos continues.
TK’s right brow shoots up instantly.
“How is that even possible?”
Carlos’ head tips adorably to the side.
“What do you mean?”
TK scoffs. “I mean, you’re...well, you’re you,” he sputters. “I just mean, you have a lot going for you. I would think dating would be a total breeze for someone like that.”
Carlos laughs and shakes his head.
“I have a knack for going after the wrong guys, I guess. Things go well enough in the start but inevitably…” he trails off, miming an explosion before shrugging. “Never really works out in the end.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s alright. Everything in life works out how it’s meant to and those relationships just weren’t meant to be and that’s okay. If anything, I like to look at it like…leaving a space for the right guy to come along when it’s time.”
Silence falls between them as TK mulls over his words. He can’t help but to think of the ways in which the disastrous end to his relationship with Alex has seemingly defined him for the last few months. His whole world had fallen apart the second he learned of Alex’s infidelity.
That news had upended years of progress and sobriety, broken him down to his bare bones. He wishes he could have a fraction of Carlos’ perspective. Perhaps then he would have been able to weather the storm that blew through his life months ago.
It gives TK a lot to think about, far more than he can even hope to dissect tonight. For now he nods and puts a pin in this train of thought.
“You should go with blue,” he says, recentering not just the conversation but himself. “You look really nice in that color especially.”
He makes no mention of the fact that it’s the same color Carlos was wearing the first time they met. TK wonders if his last sentence is a step too far but Carlos simply smiles brightly on screen.
“Blue it is then.”
Carlos looks at him for a moment and draws in a breath.
“I should let you get some sleep. Thanks for the help and just...being here to talk to. I really like these chats.”
TK can’t help but to agree. In ways Carlos hasn’t even realized, his presence in TK’s life has felt more like a godsend. But such a declaration is too grand to make so TK goes with a simplified version.
“They mean a lot to me. Goodnight, Carlos.”
Carlos’ smile is soft, those tender brown eyes somehow managing to take his breath away through the screen.
“Sweet dreams, TK.”
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] I guess I got your answer? I was sincerely hoping we could talk but I understand. Sorry for bugging you. I really do hope you’re okay.
TK stares at his phone as he hangs about his station in between calls. He’s let Alex’s previous texts collect dust. It truly hadn’t been intentional at first but between his father’s diagnosis, heading to Austin, and the busyness of life in general, it’d gotten lost in the shuffle.
But now nothing is keeping him from making a decision one way or another here.
TK stares at the message, mind racing. He’s moved on from Alex and yet still, there’s a piece of him that wants the answers he never fully got that night. It shouldn’t matter and yet—
TK: i don’t get out of work until 6
Alex’s response is swift.
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] I can do 6. I’ll see you then.
When his shift ends, TK finds himself getting dressed a bit reluctantly but there’s no real way for him to delay the inevitable.
TK grips the strap of his bag, hitching it up higher as he draws in a breath. He reminds himself that he’s in control of this evening. If their conversation veers into territory TK doesn’t like, he has no obligation to stay. He repeats that to himself as he shuffles out of the building.
It’s jarring to see Alex now and for as much as TK thought he was prepared for this meeting, his mind fixates on the very last time they were together.
TK can feel the phantom press of the engagement ring in his hand now. He closes his eyes to the memory but it still plays back with stunning clarity.
It’s far too late to change his mind now but TK wishes he hadn’t been so impulsive in agreeing to this. It’s overwhelming to be face to face with Alex. But the man, his ex, the person he sought a future with is here now smiling tentatively at him.
TK comes closer until they’re a few feet apart.
“It’s good to see you,” Alex says, breaking the awkward silence as they stand beside a parking meter.
TK can’t lie and say it back. In truth, he feels incapable of saying anything and Alex can clearly see it.
“Maybe this was a mistake?” Alex frowns. “How about we just…walk around a bit and go from there?”
That seems harmless enough and TK is harboring enough anxious energy that moving around is actually ideal.
It’s only one word but TK can tell it relaxes Alex who draws in a breath and takes a step forward.
“So…how have you been?” Alex asks.
“I’ve been good. I was in Austin a few weeks ago. I’m thinking of going again soon if I can.”
“Texas? What’s drawing you there?”
“Visiting my dad. He moved there a few months ago.”
“No way. I don’t think he ever really liked me much,” Alex says as they reach the crosswalk and wait.
“His instincts were better than mine,” TK says without thinking.
Alex rubs at his chin as if he’s been struck.
“Alright, I deserved that.”
TK flexes the muscle in his jaw. “He’s actually sick. Lung cancer. I’ve been popping in when I can to see him.”
“Shit, that’s rough.”
Alex doesn’t elaborate any further and TK shakes his head to himself.
TK realizes they’ve subconsciously been walking towards the little park they used to frequent when Alex would swing by the station.
It makes TK feel like a ghost haunting his own past.
They enter the park and sit at one of the tables. Now that they’re seated, it seems like small talk has run its course. It’s a different beast altogether, being directly across from each other with no other distractions.
There are so many questions TK wants answers to, even after all the time.
“Why did you even want to see me? I know you wanted to apologize but why? It’s been months now. Did you and Mitchell call it quits or something?”
Alex looks down sheepishly.
“Wow. Did you cheat on him too?”
He didn’t mean for it to sound so snotty but he hardly cares. All things considered, TK thinks he’s been pretty agreeable so far. Hell, even in seeing Alex at all.
“No. He, uh, he actually cheated on me,” Alex says quietly with a terse laugh. “You lose them how you get them, right?”
If he was looking for sympathy, he’s come to the wrong place.
“I realized just how stupid I was. I’m sorry about everything. I hope you can believe that because it’s the honest to God truth. That was a really shitty thing for me to do. I knew it at the time but it’s really hitting home now.”
“So it took you getting cheated on by someone you loved to realize how wrong it was to do that to me? Is that what you’re getting at here?”
“TK, please. I’m not proud of what I did.”
“But it wasn’t enough to stop you from doing it or from even getting together with him in the first place. What are you expecting me to say? ‘Welcome to the club for guys with shitty cheating boyfriends’? You’re the reason I’m a member.”
TK draws in a breath to rein himself in.
“You really hurt me, Alex. In ways you can’t even imagine,” TK says quietly, searching his ex’s face.
“I know. I know and I’m so sorry.”
“No. I don’t think you understand at all. I almost died because of it.
Alex holds up a hand, blinking fast in confusion.
“What did you just say?”
TK opens and closes his mouth. He hadn’t meant to slip up like this, to reveal the full extent of just how badly he’d taken their breakup.
Alex looks around for a moment before leaning forward, his voice dropping.
“TK, did you relapse?”
Tears of frustration fill TK’s eyes and he swipes at them quickly. A lump has lodged itself so firmly in his throat that TK can’t make so much as a sound. But in his silence, he gives away the answer to Alex’s question.
Alex’s face is stricken, his lips parting without a single word coming out. TK knows the feeling all too well, the two of them sitting in stunned silence for a moment.
TK sniffles and the sound seems to be enough to get Alex to spring into action. He stretches his hand across the table and places it over TK’s.
He allows himself to be comforted, setting aside the implications of letting Alex get this close to him again. It simply feels good to have something to tether himself to in the moment.
“Sweetheart,” Alex says softly, “I had no idea. I didn’t know it affected you that badly. I knew it wouldn’t have been easy but I didn’t think… Well, that’s just it. I didn’t think. I’m so, so sorry. I can’t say it enough.”
Alex brushes his thumb back and forth against the back of his hand and TK hates how soothing he finds it, how much Alex’s touch still feels not only familiar but welcomed just then. Even for all the hell he’s put him through. Alex seems sincere in this, truly devastated upon hearing what happened in the wake of their relationship.
On instinct TK almost says that it’s okay but he stops himself. Instead he wipes at his eyes again with his free hand and clears his throat before speaking.
“I know you are. I’m okay now. I’ve been...going to therapy. I’ve been sober ever since that whole incident. I’m—I’m good now.”
Alex gives his hand a light squeeze and something that feels an awful lot like hope surges inside him. The soft look in Alex’s eyes is so reminiscent of the version he once knew.
TK’s brows furrow as he steadies and reminds himself of what this man has done to him, of what he had to fight tooth and nail to wade through. He pulls his hand back and lets it fall to his side, safely away from Alex’s range.
“I’m glad you’re okay, that you’re still here. If there’s anything, anything at all that I can do to help, let me know,” Alex says.
You can go to hell. You can delete my number. You can forget you ever knew me.
But TK doesn’t go with any of those initial thoughts. He feels too drained to drag this out any further so he simply replies with,
It feels good to be back in Austin again but TK knows the main appeal comes in the form of Carlos.
TK has spent the last three weeks shaking off his meeting with Alex. TK wasn’t sure how much closure he’d be able to get in seeing him but their talk left him feeling uneasy. It didn’t feel quite as final as he’d hoped it would.
Being in Austin for his dad’s treatment gives him something else to focus on. The majority of today was spent at the center with him and the pair hanging out afterwards. This city has been growing on him with each visit.
Carlos had been quick to seize an opportunity to get everyone together this evening.
TK rings the bell to Carlos’ place, his adrenaline pumping hard. While he is excited to see the 126 for game night, he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t been looking forward to spending time with Carlos most of all.
They’d been getting by just communicating through the phone but the physical distance has been taking its toll. Now, with the full knowledge that he’s just seconds away from seeing Carlos face to face, he’s completely beside himself.
The door swings open and Carlos’ arms do the same instantly as he greets TK.
TK doesn’t hesitate. He nestles into Carlos’ embrace, eyes closing. TK has spent so much of this past week aching to be near Carlos again that it’s a bit overwhelming now to be met with the real thing.
Carlos rubs his back and gives him a tight squeeze. TK wonders if the man can feel just how wildly his heart his thudding with him pressed against Carlos like this.
TK is glad this is a thing they just do now.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Carlos says against his ear.
The sentiment causes a fluttering sensation in the pit of his stomach.
“I’ve missed you too.”
TK feels the faint press of Carlos lips at the crown of his head and he’s grateful that his face is currently hidden so that Carlos can’t see the blush that’s crept into his cheeks.
Carlos searches his face as they pull apart a bit, still holding onto TK’s arms for a moment.
“It’s so good to actually see you again.”
TK’s arms fall loosely at his sides once they’re freed as he smiles at Carlos.
“I know. I can see more than your shoulders and up,” he muses.
Carlos laughs and ushers him inside. TK’s seen a bit of the interior of Carlos’ home from their various FaceTime sessions but it’s all the more impressive in person. He takes it all in as he follows Carlos through the living room and to the kitchen.
An array of ingredients sit on virtually every countertop. There’s a pot of something on the stove. It all smells incredible.
“I was meant to be on cooking duty with Paul but he and the crew are running behind at the station. Think you could help me finish up in the meantime?”
TK sways a bit in his spot. “Right, about that.
I’m not so sure how much help I’ll be exactly but I’m up for trying, if you tell me what to do.”
“That’s more than enough. I’ll make a sous chef out of you yet,” Carlos says, bumping his shoulder against TK’s.
TK bites back a smile as he heads to the sink and washes his hand. He returns to Carlos’ side as he cuts vegetables, standing perhaps a bit closer than the space warrants but Carlos doesn’t move away or seem uncomfortable.
Carlos’ phone buzzes on the counter and he quickly looks at the screen. He picks it up to read the new message, frowning as he sets the phone back down.
“Are you okay?” TK tentatively asks.
“Yeah, I’m alright.”
Carlos sighs and picks back up the knife again.
“This guy,” he says, tipping his head toward his phone, “and I went out and now he’s looking to meet up again.”
TK’s heart sinks.
“I—I thought you weren’t dating anyone.”
This isn’t his business, he knows, and yet he can’t stop himself.
Carlos shakes his head.
“I’m not. One of my colleagues thought her friend and I should get together. We went out for coffee but I don’t think I even want to see him again.”
“Did you not have a good time?”
“It was…nice. It wasn’t a bad date or anything. He was alright and everything was perfectly fine. But I want more than that, you know? I want to be excited about the guy I’m seeing. I want it to be a rush. It wasn’t like when—,” Carlos stops short and shakes his head. “Have you ever felt that?”
TK thinks of meeting Carlos for the first time. That had certainly been an instantaneous connection. But to admit to that now is probably ill-timed. He isn’t even sure if he can make something of this if Carlos were to say he felt it in the same way.
“I have,” he says simply, catching Carlos’ eye for the briefest of moments before he continues.
“I actually just got out of a serious relationship myself. It’s been a few months but it still feels pretty recent at times.”
Especially with Alex reaching out to him still but TK doesn’t want to go there with this tonight.
Carlos looks away and resumes cutting.
“Do you still love him?”
TK swallows hard and shakes his head.
“For a little while after we broke up, I still did. And I hated myself and him for it. Dating is rough. Sometimes I wonder why people even bother.”
Carlos shifts and stands up a bit straighter.
“You don’t see yourself trying again anytime soon then?”
“I’d like to but…I don’t know if I could be what someone wants. He made it perfectly clear I wasn’t enough. Either way, I’m kind of a work in progress right now. Not exactly in mint condition,” he tries to joke but his laugh falls flat.
Carlos looks at him for a moment. His face is serious. It makes TK squirm inside just wondering what he’s thinking. Carlos doesn’t keep him in suspense.
“I think you could be exactly what a guy needs. Anyone worth your while would see that.”
Carlos says it so resolutely, leaving no room for doubt that he means it sincerely. To hear such a conviction from Carlos of all people means a great deal.
“Thanks,” he says softly. “I hope you find that spark you’re looking for.”
Carlos smiles but it doesn’t fully reach his eyes. TK feels a twinge of sadness looking at him.
They fall quiet then and focus on finishing up with the meal. TK follows along to Carlos’ instructions but his mind keeps replaying the conversation they’ve just had. He knows he has no real claim to Carlos but it’s the biggest relief to know that he won’t be seeing that guy again.
Carlos tips his head towards the stove as they wrap up.
“Set it to low and let it simmer. It’ll be ready in just a few.”
The doorbell rings and it startles TK, making him jump a little.
“I’ll grab that,” Carlos says, wiping his hands off on a dish towel before leaving the kitchen.
TK watches him journey to the front of the house and does his best to pull himself back into the moment. Carlos opens the door and the 126 eagerly greets him.
Marjan is the first through the door. She catches sight of TK and flashes him a smile. TK shuts off the stove and joins the group in the living room.
Warm and boisterous pleasantries are exchanged, the crew welcoming him back and asking him how he’s been.
They aren’t his crew but they certainly feel like it. TK helps Carlos set the food out on the dining room table, the group talking over themselves as they fix their plates and get situated in the living room. It all feels so familiar in a way TK can hardly describe. He’s never hung around the 126 like this before and yet, it’s as if this is routine.
Eventually conversation turns to the real point of the night’s festivities as Marjan breaks out of a box of Catan.
TK turns to Carlos beside him.
They square off against the duos of Nancy with Marjan and Paul with Mateo.
TK and Carlos win the game in an upset of which Marjan and Nancy vehemently swear only happened because they cheated somehow.
Mateo and Paul are wise enough to stay out of the crosshairs, instead opting to watch the lighthearted bickering as they resume eating.
Marjan issues a call for a rematch. With the gauntlet thrown, TK can’t resist the challenge.
“You’re so on.”
She jokingly glares at him and crosses her arms over her chest.
“This was rigged.”
TK merely shrugs, basking in the glow of their victory.
“What can I say? We make a pretty good team,” he says, throwing an arm over Carlos’ shoulders.
“We really do, don’t we?” Carlos replies, tipping his head towards him.
TK feels a surge of pride rise up in him at the sentiment and his heart skip a beat at their proximity. He swallows hard and looks away just then, suddenly overwhelmed by what he’s feeling.
Paul looks between the two of them with a curious expression on his face that TK can’t quite decipher.
The group calls it a night shortly after but not without Marjan getting TK to swear to a raincheck for the next time he’s in town.
Carlos sees the 126 out as TK begins stacking cups from the coffee table.
“You don’t have to do that. I can clean up. It’s late,” Carlos says.
“That’s exactly why I want to help. You already cooked and hosted everyone. You shouldn’t be stuck doing this alone at one in the morning.”
Carlos hesitates for a moment but TK’s gaze is unwavering. Carlos concedes with a nod.
“That’s sweet of you. Thanks.”
“Of course.”
They bring the dishes to the kitchen and work silently alongside each other to get the space back in order.
Carlos sets the dishwasher after loading the last plate and looks at him. TK feels a buzzing sensation just under his skin. He’s officially run out of reasons to stay. He’s been here for hours and yet he doesn’t want this night to end.
“Do you want to crash here? The guest room is already set up. If you want to go to your dad’s though, I could drop–”
“No, that’s alright. Then you’d be out even later heading back here. I can...I think it’ll be easier if I stay.”
Carlos searches his eyes and TK holds his breath as he looks back.
“I think so too,” Carlos says after another moment. “Come on, let’s get you out of those clothes.”
Carlos’ eyes grow wide.
“I mean, I’ll find you something to sleep in.”
TK holds back a laugh. “It’s okay; I got you.”
Carlos’ cheeks are pink and TK finds it unbearably endearing. But his mind does wander at Carlos’ accidental phrasing.
Carlos nods once and turns towards the stairs, TK following his lead to the top floor where Carlos opens the first door they see.
“You can come in,” Carlos says before stepping inside.
He heads straight for his dresser and TK takes the opportunity to look around the room that he’s only glimpsed on FaceTime. Much like the rest of the house, it’s tastefully decorated and so wholly Carlos.
He focuses his attention back on Carlos as the man turns to him with a folded pair of gray sweats and a black t-shirt.
“Here you go,” he says, handing the stack over. TK gives him a quiet word of thanks while his mind races with scenarios where he’s brave enough to stay right where he is. Where he’s brave enough to lead Carlos to the bed and lay with him.
Instead he’s the first to break and turns towards the door and into the hall, putting distance between himself and a foolish desire.
Carlos leads him to the very next door and stops short.
“If you need anything else, just say the word; you know where to find me,” he says, tipping his head back towards his room.
More than anything, TK wishes he could tell if Carlos is just being accommodating or hinting at an opportunity. He errs on the side of caution, too fearful of getting this wrong.
“You’re a very good host, I must say.”
Carlos beams and rocks back and forth adorably at the compliment.
“I like it when the people I care about know that they’re cared for. That they feel it.”
It’s been a while since TK has felt this secure.
“Mission accomplished. Thanks for this,” TK says, holding up the folded clothes slightly before pressing them against his chest.
Carlos looks at him for a second before nodding.
“No problem. Sleep tight. I’ll see you in the morning.”
TK smiles softly and opens the door to the guest room as Carlos walks to his door. He waves at TK before disappearing inside.
TK hangs back for a moment before going into the guest room and getting settled for the night.
He doesn’t have to wait until sunrise to be met with Carlos again. TK sees him in his dreams.
TK unlocks the front door, turning back to wave at Carlos. The windows are tinted but he knows without a doubt Carlos is looking to make sure he gets in safely. He watches as the Camaro pulls off with two quick honks.
TK feels as if he’s floating. He spent the morning waking up in a room that wasn’t his but had felt comfortable and familiar all the same. Carlos' scent was everywhere thanks to the borrowed clothes he’d slept in.
Breakfast with Carlos and a peaceful morning drive, it all felt routine for something they’d never done together before. It had taken all his strength just now to even get out of the car.
But Carlos left him with the promise of going out to dinner with him later on and the mere thought of bookending the day with one on one time with Carlos makes him feel downright giddy.
TK is so lost in his thoughts that he’s surprised to see his father sitting at the island in the kitchen. He jumps, his hand resting over his quickly beating heart.
“Look what the cat dragged in. Or should I say a certain officer? I was starting to forget what you looked like,” Owen jokes.
TK rolls his eyes and smiles. “Sorry, we all stayed at Carlos’ pretty late. And I offered to help him clean up so, yeah, kinda snowballed to me crashing there.”
He’d explained this already to his dad in a text to let him know he wasn’t coming home but was still safe. It figures his dad would still take this moment affectionately tease him over Carlos.
His father takes a sip of his coffee but TK can see the smirk hiding behind the rim of his cup.
Owen lifts a hand up in defense. “I didn’t say a single word. Not one.”
“Come on, Dad, seriously.”
His father traces the curve of the mug’s handle with his index finger before looking at him.
“I can’t help but notice, you and Carlos have really seemed to hit it off.”
“Yeah, we clicked during my first visit down here.”
“So I’ve heard.”
TK groans. “Do you and Mom seriously gossip about me?”
“It’s not gossip. It’s called parenting.”
“Hard to see a difference in this case,” he grumbles, going to the fridge and grabbing a green juice.
His father chuckles and shrugs. “Comes with the territory. Anyway, word on the street is things are going well in that department. So well in fact, it could be something more than friendship. I think that’s wonderful.”
TK supposes he can give his father credit for not even trying to beat around the bush anymore but he is caught off guard nonetheless by his dad’s statement.
“You’ve never liked anyone I’ve been into,” he says, taking a sip of juice before setting it down.
“Well, if you were into Carlos, that would be different.”
TK leans against the counter, folding his arms over his chest.
“You would approve of Carlos?”
“What parent– what person wouldn’t? He’s a good kid. I work with him all the time. Not to mention all he’s done to look after me these last few months. He’s truly incredible.”
No argument there, TK thinks. He can’t imagine there’s a single person in the world who wouldn’t be absolutely taken by Carlos in some fashion if they were lucky enough like TK to know him.
“He is pretty great. But we’re just friends so don’t get too excited here.”
“Is that what you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“To be just friends with Carlos. Is that what you’re looking for? To keep it at that?”
The inquiry, on the surface, isn’t a difficult one but TK struggles to answer it immediately.
“I can’t be anything else to him. I’m lucky we even got this far.”
It had been a chance meeting. TK is sure in time he would have eventually met Carlos during one of his visits. But that immediate one on one time for hours had truly kicked things into high gear right off the bat, allowing them to become fast friends.
“He doesn’t really know about Alex or me relapsing. And sometimes I feel so guilty about that, you know? But it feels good to have a clean slate with him. I’m not some screwup in his eyes. I get to be a version of me that I’m proud of and that I actually like.”
“I’m fine. I swear.” He sighs. “I only meant that there’s no baggage with him, no ugly history. The second I tell him about everything, nothing stays the same between us.”
“Maybe not, no. But I’d think sharing those parts of yourself in time would only make this bond you guys have going that much stronger.”
Owen sighs and sits back.
“I’m not trying to stick my nose in your business or force you to make any decisions here. You’ve been through so much these last few months and I’m as proud as can be that you’ve been sticking to your sessions and are back on your feet. You’ve made such incredible strides.”
“Thank you,” TK says softly.
Owen nods. “You put in the work. You should know it’s not going unnoticed. But hard work should also be rewarded and that can take different shapes.”
“Like a relationship with Carlos?”
“In time, if that’s what you both want. For right now, I was thinking more along the lines of strengthening the friendship you’ve made. You could gain so much more with true transparency. Just something to think about.”
TK pauses for a moment and lets it sink in.
“I will. I promise, I’ll give it some more thought.”
Owen nods once and takes another sip of his coffee before speaking again.
“Anything in particular you’d like for dinner tonight?”
TK winces. “Um, could we maybe have lunch instead?”
Owen laughs, his head tipping back.
“Carlos beat me to the punch, huh?”
“Kinda…yeah. I could cancel though.”
Owen holds up a hand.
“No, don’t. We’ve got loads of time. I know the crew is meeting at our usual dive tonight. Maybe you two can swing by the honky tonk after your date.”
“It’s not a date!” TK groans.
Owen laughs again.
“Oh, my apologies. After your incredibly platonic one on one dinner with the guy you’re obviously crushing on who very clearly likes you back. Is that any better?”
“You’re the worst,” TK grumbles but even he can’t hold back in laughing too.
Dinner with Carlos had sure felt like a date and TK had spent the better part of it trying to convince himself of the fact that it wasn’t indeed one. It certainly didn’t help with Carlos insisting on paying for their meal despite TK’s best efforts to split it at the very least.
A piece of him feels selfish for wishing they could just retreat back to Carlos’ place, to continue the night with just the two of them as it had been this morning and throughout dinner. But the invite to spend time with the 126 was far too welcoming to ignore.
As Carlos parks outside of the crew’s local dive bar, TK feels mild trepidation. He hasn’t been expecting the nerves to come about. He’s been sober for months but the reality of actually being inside of a bar suddenly gives him pause.
He rubs his palm against the front of his jeans before turning to take off his seatbelt.
“Hey, you okay?” Carlos asks.
TK looks up at him, searching those brown eyes that clearly see more of him than TK even realized was possible. He finds the tension in his chest loosening the longer he looks at Carlos.
“Totally.” And it’s the truth. Carlos makes him calm.
Assured, Carlos smiles at him and gets out, TK following after.
The bar is swarming with people already, as is expected for a Saturday night. TK takes it all in, the music blasting, the sticky ground, the thick scent of alcohol and the warmth of so many bodies in such a tight space.
Carlos’ hand is suddenly in his and TK has no clue if it’s merely to keep them from getting separated, Carlos picking up on his unease, or the man seeking him out. Whatever the reason, TK is glad for it.
They weave through the crowd and towards the 126, the group easy to find in the center of the room huddled around a few tables. Carlos lets go of his hand once they arrive but he stays close.
They greet everyone and TK doesn’t miss the way Paul’s eyebrow raises just slightly at TK’s shoulder pressed to Carlos’.
“Glad you guys could make it,” Owen says.
Carlos puts a hand on the small of his back and TK fights the urge to shiver at the contact, all his attention zeroing in on that one spot.
“Sorry I stole him away this evening,” Carlos replies, hand still in place.
TK’s back practically burns under his touch. The tips of his ears feel warm and TK, either boldly or foolishly, leans back further into Carlos' touch.
He isn’t met with any change or unease. If anything, it feels as if Carlos’ press grows sturdier.
“You brought him back in one piece so, all good.”
Owen looks between the two of them and TK clears his throat, looking up at Carlos.
Carlos looks taken aback for a second and lowers his hand.
“Um, yeah.”
TK’s brows furrow but Carlos is already moving towards the bar. He follows after him, the two of them standing shoulder to shoulder once again.
“Do you want anything? A beer?” Carlos asks.
TK shakes his head. “No, thanks. I’m alright.”
He’d had an iced tea at dinner which felt easy enough to downplay but in a setting like this, he knows it has to be more noticeable.
Carlos merely nods and signals to the bartender and orders a beer for himself. Something—guilt, TK soon realizes— creeps in. This is a large part of him but TK has taken such comfort in not having this be a bullet point on the list of things Carlos knows about him.
His conversation with his dad from this morning comes back to him at once. But this isn’t the time or place. And in truth, TK simply isn’t ready yet. Things are so perfect with Carlos now. He doesn’t want anything standing a chance of messing with that.
They chat among themselves at the bar while Carlos drinks his beer. TK stuffs down all his spiraling thoughts and focuses on being in Carlos’ company. He’s glad for the music overhead and general chatter of patrons for giving him the perfect excuse to stand close to Carlos.
“Do you want to dance?” Carlos asks, leaning in closely to be heard.
Country music is most definitely not his thing but TK is fairly certain if Carlos asked him to go to the ends of the earth with him, he would say yes without hesitation. Line dancing is nothing in comparison.
Carlos grabs a hold of his hand and TK lets himself be led over to the dance floor with the rest of the crew and a roomful of strangers.
But TK doesn’t pay attention to any of them as he mirrors Carlos’ dance moves, learning the steps easily.
“You’re a natural,” Carlos says over the music, studying his hips.
“You’re a good teacher,” he calls back.
He tries and fails not to notice how Carlos’ shirt stretches across his broad chest, how effortlessly Carlos’ body moves to the music. In a word, it’s intoxicating and TK steps closer to him, drawn like a moth to a flame.
The stringed lights inside the room reflect in Carlos’ eyes. This pull he feels towards Carlos is unlike anything he’s experienced in the past.
Before he can make another move, Marjan hooks her arm through his and spins the two of them around. In the turn, TK sees Carlos pulled away in the same move by Michelle.
TK lets himself be carried away, unsure of what he would have done if he’d gotten any closer to Carlos. And he thinks maybe, this dancing in circles might be for the best.
TK sits on the fire escape and watches the darkening sky of New York overhead. His thoughts wander, as they always do, to Carlos. The waves he gets from missing his friend are all encompassing. He’s grown so dependent on their connection, so much so that even after a long day at work, he still wants to squeeze in some time to touch base with him.
He picks up his phone and taps to FaceTime Carlos. Apart from his parents, Carlos is the only person he actually deigns to FaceTime or call on the phone. Given their distance, talking through these means has been a lifesaver. Carlos’ voice in his ear or face on his device helps to ease the ache—if only marginally.
Carlos’ face fills the screen but instead of the usual background of somewhere inside his home, TK sees a pinkish sky of a sunset and lush treetops.
It throws him off guard for a second.
“Where are you now?”
Carlos smiles wistfully.
“Our happy place.”
TK laughs but quickly catches what this must mean.
“Wait, are you feeling okay? What’s wrong?”
Carlos sighs. “Yeah, I just have a lot on my mind but I’m alright. No need to worry.”
TK frowns. “Are you sure? You know you can talk to me about anything, right? You’re always there helping me. I hope you know it works both ways.”
Carlos smiles a bit at this.
“I know and I appreciate it, I really do. I don’t even know what’s really going on with me but I’ll figure it out.”
“That’s not exactly instilling confidence here, Reyes.”
Carlos laughs softly and shakes his head.
“I’m being silly. I promise, I’m not hurt or anything, seriously. It’s…,” he sighs. “It’s one of those days where my head is all over the place. But being here— and seeing you—it helps.”
TK smiles and settles back against the building.
“How long have you been there?”
This seems to stump Carlos for a moment.
“I don’t know. Two, maybe three hours? I’m not sure.”
TK feels something twist in his gut at that.
“Sounds like you need a distraction. Lucky for you, I’m feeling very chatty this evening so sit back, relax, and let me tell you all about the crazy stuff I saw today.”
Carlos laughs and dips his head a bit, giving TK the green light to start talking.
He recaps his day and all the weird and random calls he and his crew were sent on. Halloween weekend never disappoints when it comes to landing people in interesting scenarios and TK wastes no time in painting vivid pictures for Carlos.
Carlos seems amused by his ramblings if the soft smile on his face is any indication. TK has talked his voice dry but he remembers one more thing he can share.
“Oh, and Grace texted me earlier. She wanted to see if I could make it for Friendsgiving in a few weeks. Are you going to that?”
Carlos sits up a bit at this and nods. “Yeah, are you?”
“I’d like to. I may have to trade off with someone here but I’d really like to hang out for a bit. I really should just move to Austin at this point. You guys keep giving me reasons to come back,” he laughs.
Carlos gives a soft smile but, if it’s possible, he looks a bit more dejected than before.
“I hope you can make it. It’s always nice having you here.”
“I’ll do my best to head down. Even if it’s only for that one day, it’d be worth it to see you again,” he says, searching Carlos’ face.
The statement sounds too heavy.
“I mean, to see you guys. Everyone. The whole crew, you know?” he tacks on.
“Oh, man and here I was thinking I was special.”
TK stares at him for a moment.
“You are, though. That’s the thing. You really are.”
Carlos draws in a breath and looks off camera. He looks a bit tense, his jaw clenched slightly. TK wonders if he’s managed to say something wrong.
“Seriously, what’s going on?”
Carlos’ expression lightens just as quickly but TK can tell something is still troubling him.
“It’s been a long day. I’m not at my best right now, sorry,” Carlos says, rubbing at the back of his neck.
TK frowns, concern setting in but he nods.
“That’s okay. Do you just want to take some time for yourself now?”
“Yeah, I…think so. I am glad you called though. Honestly. It was great seeing you. I missed you.”
“I really missed you too.”
Carlos smiles a bit. “I’ll text you later, okay? I promise.”
“Okay, yeah. I hope you’ll feel better soon.”
TK ends the call and sets his phone down. He can’t shake Carlos’ sad look or tone either. He’d give anything to be in Austin right now to check in with him in person, to offer comfort however he can.
As if he weren’t determined before, TK will do whatever it takes to guarantee he’s back in Austin in three weeks’ time.
The Ryder house looks like something out of a magazine even before TK and his father step inside.
TK and Owen head up the walkway, TK ringing the bell. The group’s voices can be heard already and TK’s eagerness to get inside and see everyone again grows by the second.
The door swings open and it’s Grace on the other side of it, a thousand watt smile on her face as she greets them.
“So happy you guys could make it. Come on in, you two. Everyone’s here and missing you.”
As they step inside, Judd appears and welcomes them too. The party is in full swing, music playing and so much chatter over it. Everything feels so close-knit and he finds himself quickly getting worked into the fold.
TK immediately scans the room for Carlos and finds him seated in the living room having a conversation with Marjan and Paul. TK is practically frozen in his spot as he watches him. Carlos looks so beautiful tonight, impeccably filling out a maroon colored button down, his hair slicked back.
It’s a polished look but it’s contrasted by the ease to which Carlos carries himself, expression open and free as he laughs at something Marjan has just said. He shakes his head and looks away from her and it’s then that Carlos notices him.
Still coming down off his laughter, TK is met with the brightest smile from Carlos. TK feels a sharp tug in the pit of his stomach as Carlos gets up and crosses the room to him.
TK tries not to ogle him but it’s far easier said than done as he takes in the fit of Carlos’ black pants, the way they cling to his thighs. It’s just not fair the way this man seems to exist just to wreck him.
TK pulls himself together quickly enough to find the ability to speak as Carlos comes up to him and envelopes him in a hug. His fingers splay against Carlos’ back, pressing softly to hard muscle.
“I’m glad you were able to come down here for this,” Carlos says against the shell of his ear.
TK makes the mistake of breathing him in, his head instantly becoming a riot.
He pulls back and manages a smile.
“There was no way I was going to miss it.”
Carlos beams at him and TK knows his sanity is going to be fully tested tonight.
Carlos leads them back to the sofa and takes the seat he vacated, moving over enough to give TK space to sit too. It leaves TK with his thigh pressed against Carlos’, making it very difficult for him to pay attention to any of the conversation the group is having.
To his credit, he’s able to laugh or smile at just the right moments.
Judd gets everyone’s attention, not a moment too soon, and announces that it’s time to eat. He calls everyone to gather in the dining room to bless the meal.
In the shuffle of bodies, TK gets separated from Carlos but his eyes find him as they form around the table.
“Floor’s all yours, Mrs. Ryder,” Judd says with a flourish of his hand towards Grace.
“Oh, so you’re gonna make me do it then, huh?” she quips.
“Well, your name is Grace, ain’t it?” Judd teases, getting a laugh out of everyone, Grace included.
She playfully swats his stomach and Judd takes a hold of her hand, linking their fingers and bringing her hand to his lips. TK smiles softly to himself as he watches them, the familiarity and comfort to which they simply exist together.
TK’s eyes land on Carlos and he finds him looking at the couple with a fond smile on his face. Carlos looks away from them and right at TK whose face flushes from being caught staring.
Grace begins the prayer and TK knows he should be paying attention and bowing his head like everyone else but Grace’s words are more like static in his ears as his eyes seek out Carlos again.
He catches words like blessed, friends, and family. He dials back in just as Grace concludes.
“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.”
The group echoes her and immediately side conversations break out at the table.
It’s easy to picture what life could have been like for him had he moved with his father. Though he only sees this collection of people every now and then, they’ve come to mean a great deal to him.
Mateo engages Carlos in conversation and from the looks of things, the young firefighter is very excited, hands flailing about as he speaks.
Carlos, no doubt feeling TK’s gaze, gives him a small smile from across the table. TK feels his heart race as he smiles back.
“Oh my god,” Paul groans beside him.
TK’s brows furrow in concern.
“Everything alright?”
“I should be asking you that, man. If this is killing me, I know you’ve got to be suffering,” he says, loading mashed potatoes onto his plate.
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
Paul rolls his eyes jokingly and laughs.
“You and Carlos. You two aren’t exactly subtle.”
“We’re just friends,” TK says defensively.
Paul snorts out a laugh.
“Yeah, because nothing says strictly friends like exchanging heart eyes every time you’re in the same room together. You guys are practically cartoon characters.”
TK elbows Paul in the side, earning a laugh from the man. TK follows suit and begins fixing his plate.
“I know I have a talent for picking up on people’s tells but anyone could see it between you two. One of you needs to go for it. Take yourselves out of this misery and get together already.”
This now makes it three people who have voiced their suspicion that this crush wasn’t one-sided.
Either Carlos could see it too and was just scared of making a move like him or Carlos could see it too and was opting out. The latter makes his stomach turn at the mere thought.
What’s more, TK thinks, is the fact that Carlos doesn’t really know all there is to know about him. He’s been careful over the course of their friendship to shield Carlos from the truth of his very recent past.
He looks at Carlos now, this source of light at the end of a very dark tunnel he has braved these last few months. Carlos is without question the kindest and most understanding person he’s ever met but TK fears he’s kept him out of the loop for too long.
TK’s mind buzzes all throughout dinner and dessert. He continues to take covert glances at Carlos and finds the man already looking at him twice. Would he still care to look his way if he knew the whole story?
As the group moves away from the dining room and mills about the house, TK has worked himself into a small frenzy. He slips away to the bathroom and wets his face to collect himself.
The room feels too small and TK finds himself leaving, not just the restroom but seeking out the kind of space that can only be found outside.
TK slips out into the yard. The night air is a bit chillier than he was expecting but it feels good nonetheless.
Much like the front of the house, the backyard is done up nicely too with white stringed lights in the bushes. It makes the outdoors feel just as cozy as inside.
TK takes a seat on the porch swing and pulls the sleeves of his sweater over his hands. He rocks the seat back slowly and looks up at the sky.
That one refrain from Deep in the Heart of Texas comes to mind as he takes in the stars. They’re practically showing off in a way they can’t in New York. TK thinks could get used to a view like this. A life like this, surrounded by people who have welcomed him into their lives like family.
He's pulled from his thoughts as the sliding door opens. Carlos falters at the threshold, seeming unsure of himself but TK smiles at him to let him know his company is welcomed.
TK watches Carlos walk over and settle in next to him. Carlos holds out the glass in his hand that has dark liquor inside.
“Not as good as hot chocolate but it might help to keep you warm,” Carlos muses.
TK smiles and shakes his head. “None for me but thank you though. I don’t drink.”
A look of recognition flashes in his eyes.
“The night of the honky tonk. I’m sorry. I should have realized,” he says, setting his glass down on the ground.
TK swallows thickly and squares his shoulders. Carlos searches his eyes, no doubt noting the change in TK’s body language.
“No worries. You couldn’t have known. But…well, that’s sort of something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
Carlos sits up even straighter and focuses more intently. TK chews on his bottom lip and wrings his hands together. He hadn’t been expecting tonight to be the time he revealed his past but the opportunity has presented itself too greatly for TK to pass up.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” he starts out quietly. Inside the others are still chatting merrily, the crickets hidden in blades outside now chirping.
But it’s the conversation that’s taking place now between him and Carlos that gets his sole focus.
“The real reason my dad wanted me to move down here with him was because I relapsed. I’ve got...a bit of a history with substances.”
TK feels sick to his stomach, his heart racing but still he pushes on despite the tears that have formed and are falling.
“Around the time my dad got the offer to come to Austin, I was in a relationship with a guy named Alex who I thought was my soulmate. Or maybe I just wanted to believe it.”
“The ex you mentioned last time you were here?”
TK nods.
“He’d been feeling pretty distant but I stupidly thought I could bring us closer. I proposed to him and instead of either a yes or a no, he told me that he’d fallen in love with someone else.”
It’s been months but still reliving the events of that night crushes him.
“I totally lost it that night. I couldn’t deal with all that pain I was feeling and I eased it the best way I knew how.”
TK wipes at his eyes, clearing his vision enough to see Carlos’ eyes are glassy but the rest of him remains composed and still as he listens on.
“I ended up ODing. My dad is the one who found me along with our crew. If they hadn’t forced their way into my place when they did, it’s not a stretch to say I wouldn’t be alive right now. It’s a guarantee.”
TK toys with the cuff of his sleeve.
“I’ve been doing a lot better since that day. I haven’t had so much of a drop of anything. I’ve been going to therapy to work through everything. Not just that mess with Alex but all the sorta stuff that brought me to that point in the first place.”
TK sighs. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you any of this before but I liked how it felt to be kind of anonymous, you know? I felt like I had a chance to be someone else with you but that wasn’t fair. I should’ve let you know what you were really getting yourself into by being friends with me.”
Carlos shakes his head.
“It’s okay that you didn’t tell me before. This is...deeply personal. You had every right to share it when you were ready. Thank you for letting me in…for trusting me like this. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you. You made it through a dark place and you’re keeping at it. I’m really proud of you.”
Carlos takes a hold of his hand, interlocking their fingers and staring him intently in the eyes.
“I’m always going to have your back, TK. No matter what you ever tell me, I’ll always want to be your friend. I can promise you that.”
TK lets out a shaky, quiet sob in relief. For all his worrying, he should have known that Carlos wouldn’t turn away from him. Their bond was stronger than that.
“I just hope the truth doesn’t change anything between us. Like, you’ll start seeing me differently somehow.”
“I already do. I’m seeing that you’re even more incredible than I thought. To go through what you have and to be this remarkably funny and charming and kind guy…that takes true strength. Clearly more than you’re giving yourself credit for.”
With his free hand, Carlos sweeps the pad of his thumb across TK’s cheekbone.
He’s just confessed the darkest parts of himself and they’re still standing on stable ground. This friendship, quite literally from day one, has come to mean the world to him. But this final obstacle had loomed over him, living quietly in the shadows of the happiest times. And yet it hadn’t turned out to be the great threat he believed it to be.
He rests his head on Carlos’ shoulder and instantly feels Carlos’ arm wrap around his torso, pulling him in even closer. Carlos drops a kiss at the top of his head and lingers for a moment before resting his cheek there instead.
“Thank you for being here. For staying. This is what I’m grateful for this year. Being lucky enough to meet an amazing guy like you…in spite of everything,” TK says softly.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m right where I want to be.”
Today has felt off-kilter and TK doesn’t have to dig deep (or at all) to know why. He and Carlos passed like ships in the night, Carlos’ hectic work schedule keeping them from touching base for almost 24 hours.
TK shuts off the bathroom light once he’s done with his nightly routine. The apartment is silent apart from his footsteps down the hall back to his room.
Usually he’d hear the clacking of his mother’s nails on the keyboard of her laptop while she worked but TK has the place to himself for the next few days while she’s away on business.
TK enters his room and goes for his phone, plugging it in to charge. The screen lights up instantly to notify him it’s charging but TK notices something else.
A missed text from Carlos six minutes ago.
Carlos: Are you free to FaceTime? No worries if not. I know it’s late.
TK smiles and unlocks his phone, quickly opening his messages.
TK: ready whenever you are
A few seconds later Carlos calls and TK wastes no time in answering.
“Hey, you,” he greets.
Carlos looks exhausted but he gives TK the warmest smile.
“Hey. Sorry for the late call. I just wanted to see your face…hear your voice. Is that weird to say?”
TK shakes his head. “No, no it’s definitely not.”
“Good. Tell me about your day?”
TK recounts his day sharing stories of calls he and the rest of the 252 were called to. He wraps up their last call of the day at Bryant Park.
“How about you though? You seem so tired. You should be hibernating.”
Carlos chuckles. “Working a double will do that but I wanted to see how you were. We didn’t get a chance to talk today and I’ve felt kinda off because of it.”
Carlos cringes like he regrets his words.
“I swear, sometimes I feel ridiculous for how badly I miss you. I know we talk all the time but still.”
TK feels the same way too. Talking to Carlos is as much a part of his daily routine like brushing his teeth or getting dressed.
“I’ll be there before you know it. Just a few more weeks in the New Year.”
Carlos frowns.
“Sounds like forever from now but I’ll do my best to be patient.”
Carlos yawns then, a deep one that makes his body shake. As greedy as TK has become for Carlos’ attention, he can’t help but feel a bit concerned.
“Sleep. Now,” he urges.
Carlos pouts and TK feels butterflies erupt in his stomach at how impossibly cute he looks. This crush on Carlos is actually painful.
“But I don’t want to stop talking to you yet.”
Perhaps more than painful, TK laments. It’s downright torturous when Carlos says things like this so freely.
“Do you want me to stay on until you fall asleep?”
Carlos is visibly taken aback by the offer, his brows lifting.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all. Besides,” TK says with a shrug, “it’s a good view.”
TK is fairly certain he has this late hour to count for his boldness. His tongue is far too loose but there’s something liberating about making such a statement, even if Carlos probably thinks he’s trying to be funny.
Carlos smiles and shakes his head.
“You’re too much.”
“I was told honesty is the best policy. I’m just saying what I know to be true. You’re beautiful, Carlos. And insanely adorable when you’re sleepy like this,” TK muses.
“You’re lucky I’m too tired to argue this ridiculous claim so I’ll just say thank you.”
Carlos’ lips twitch for a second, his face growing a bit serious.
“But you are too, you know. That’s the first thing I thought when I saw your picture all those months ago.”
TK’s brought back to the first day they met. He’d been curious about Carlos’ mention of it, more so the fact that an image of him could stick in Carlos’ memory after just one time.
Carlos nods and rubs his left eye.
“I told you it was a good photo. It left a pretty solid mark,” he laughs though it quickly turns into another big yawn.
“Go to sleep, babe.”
The pet name comes out without TK meaning for it to. He’s ready to apologize for it but Carlos bites back a smile and appears to blush.
Warmth spreads in TK’s chest at the sight. Being able to reduce Carlos to such a state feels like a major accomplishment.
TK gets under the covers and situates the phone on the pillow next to him. It’s the next best thing to having Carlos beside him and TK wishes so desperately that he could just reach out a hand and touch him or bury in closely against him now.
He could only imagine how comfortably he would sleep against Carlos’ warm body, how at ease he would be in his arms.
TK sighs softly to himself, loathing every mile that separates them and simply watches Carlos drift off. The man’s features smooth out and relax until he surrenders to sleep just a few moments later, lamplight still on.
TK isn’t sure how long he lays there watching him. It should scare him just how hard he’s fallen for Carlos in a few short months. But he knows in his heart there was no other way this was going to end for him.
He’d been a goner since day one and each day since has only reaffirmed a truth that’s been building from the moment he first laid eyes on Carlos.
He’s been barreling headfirst into something he didn’t stand a chance against. The riptide had swept in the second he shook Carlos’ hand. He’s already been pulled under.
He didn’t dare save Alex’s number. It would have felt like laying the first brick down a very precarious road. But as TK glances quickly at his screen when his phone buzzes, he knows without reading the words who it is reaching out to him.
[UNKNOWN NUMBER] I still have a few of your things. Could you come over? I think we should talk too.
TK sighs and looks out the window. He watches the flurry of snowflakes beyond the glass. All the news stations have been reporting on is the impending blizzard poised to hit the tri-state area this weekend.
It makes him long for next week when he’ll be back in Austin and away from this crazy weather.
A New Year is fast approaching and TK would love nothing more than to enter it with a clean slate.
It’s with this logic in mind that he replies to Alex.
TK: yeah, see you soon
When he arrives, TK takes the elevator up and quickly realizes his mistake in doing so. Against his better judgement, he thinks back to the first night Alex had him over.
They’d kissed the moment the elevator doors closed, all the way up to the sixth floor. TK had been so euphoric that night and all the subsequent ones to follow.
The memories flood him as he makes his way to Alex’s floor and TK wishes he would have suggested a more neutral location. Someplace that didn’t drip with remnants of their past. He feels nothing for Alex but still, he could do without those images in his head.
TK steels himself as the elevator dings and opens. He walks down the hall, nerves on high until he’s knocking on Alex’s door.
Alex opens up a few seconds later.
“Hey. Thanks for coming.”
“Yeah, no problem,” TK mumbles.
Alex searches his face before opening the door wider.
“Come on in.”
TK steps inside and takes off his scarf, hanging it on the rack along with his coat. He slips his hands into the front pockets of his jeans as he and Alex head into the living room.
TK spots a box beside the coffee table, no doubt filled with his things. But on the table itself are two mugs of hot cider, one with two cinnamon sticks that TK knows must be for him.
It strikes him then, just how much knowledge a person can keep about another—even the little things.
TK looks away from the table and back at Alex.
“So...you said you wanted to talk?”
They end up doing just that for a little over an hour, having an honest and open conversation about their relationship, the good times and how it all went wrong. Unlike the last time they met in person, TK feels as if he’s gotten the answers—the closure—that he’s been needing.
Quiet falls between them and it’s not at all stiff or uncomfortable, just reflective as they let their conversation sink in.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Alex asks.
Instantly Carlos comes to mind but the reality sets in that they aren’t dating. But even without a title like that, the amount of joy that his friendship with Carlos brings him is worth a great deal. That alone is something to be grateful for.
“There is someone special to me, but no…not at the moment. Maybe one day, but I am really happy. I’m in a good place.”
Alex smiles a bit at this and nods.
“I’m glad to hear that. For what it’s worth, I am truly sorry, TK.”
“I know.”
TK can feel something shift between them, a lightness of sorts in his chest as they make peace.
Alex sighs softly and gets up, taking their empty mugs to the kitchen. TK hangs back in the living room, looking around this once all too familiar room with a new set of eyes.
His phone buzzes on the table and TK looks at the screen, spotting Carlos’ name on the ID.
TK gets up as Alex comes back into the room.
“I should get ahead of this thing before it picks up,” TK says, tipping his head towards the window.
Alex looks as well and nods.
“Yeah, definitely. Take care.”
Alex walks him over to the door and TK slips back into the coat before taking the box of his things. This feels final in a way their last meeting didn’t and TK knows in his bones that this is truly it for them.
TK leaves, the box tucked under his arm as he reaches for his phone and calls Carlos back. Carlos picks up after a few rings.
“Hey,” Carlos greets as TK hears a door open behind him.
“TK! You forgot your scarf. You’re gonna need it,” Alex calls out.
“Oh, are you busy right now?” Carlos asks.
TK freezes and lowers the phone as he walks back to Alex to grab his scarf. His ex gives him one final nod and quite literally closes the door on them.
“Hello?” Carlos says over the line and TK is thrown headfirst into another scenario with no time to adjust.
TK sets the phone back to his ear and clears his throat.
“Who was that?” Carlos asks.
“That was Alex.”
There’s a beat of silence that feels like a calm before a storm.
“Please tell me you have another person in your life named Alex and that wasn’t your ex.”
“Carlos, let me explain—”
“Oh my god. TK, please. Please don’t let him back into your life. Why are you hanging out with him?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like? How long have you been talking to him?”
Frustration bubbles up inside of him. TK takes a seat at the top of the stairs and sets the box down, his leg bouncing. The highs and lows of today are leaving his head spinning. To think he’s tied up a loose end with Alex and has now caused a fissure in his connection with Carlos makes TK feel sick.
“I don’t want you to judge me. You don’t understand.”
“I would never judge you, TK. This is a genuine concern. I’m worried about you. I don’t want that guy hurting you ever again.”
TK can hear the rising panic in Carlos’ voice. It’s not something he’s used to at all from a man who is usually so collected.
“Do your parents know? Does anyone?”
TK doesn’t say anything. Shame at keeping this secret burns white hot in the pit of his stomach.
“Ask yourself why that is,” Carlos says gently.
No one would be able to understand why he’s taken these meetings with Alex. They would all worry TK was letting him back into his life for all the wrong reasons, that he was probably hoping for a second chance.
TK holds his tongue and doesn’t say any of this. Maybe it was foolish to think he could successfully keep these two parts of his life separate. It simply felt safer this way. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Can I ask why you called? I know this wasn’t what you had in mind and I’m sorry about that.”
Carlos sighs softly over the line.
“I was calling to say that I was looking forward to next week and that I hoped you were staying safe up there. I was watching the news and saw you guys were expecting a blizzard. I was worried—it sounds so stupid now that I’m actually saying it out loud.”
TK doesn’t think so at all, quite the opposite in fact.
“No, it was sweet of you to check in. I’m all set here. I’ll be okay when the storm hits.”
“Right, of course. You aren’t alone. Um, I should go. I don’t want to hold you up. Stay safe, alright?”
TK opens his mouth to clarify that he and Alex aren’t bunkering down together, but the call cuts out before he can make so much as a sound.
It dawns on TK that this is their first falling out. While Carlos wasn’t mad, didn’t raise his voice or even be callous, it feels worse to know that Carlos must be disappointed in him.
TK looks at the box of his things. If he was able to figure out a way to get past one obstacle,it stands to reason he can get past this new one as well.
One more week and he’ll be face to face with Carlos again. One more week and he can put it all on the table and set things right.
Things have not been the same since that phone call and the worst part of it for TK is realizing it may just be all in his head. It’s been a week of stalled conversations and misconnections with Carlos. He thinks maybe it’s just circumstances getting in the way but given how strained their last real conversation was, TK suspects Carlos may be avoiding him.
This isn’t at all how he envisioned the lead up to this visit going. In the past, there was always genuine excitement between the two of them anticipating his arrival. It all feels so wrong now. He has to wonder if Carlos even wants to see him this time around.
It’s a thought that plagued him during his flight. He wasn’t successful at all in quelling his fears.
TK hails a cab outside of the airport, shoving his weekend bag into the backseat beside him.
“Where to?” the driver asks, catching his eye in the rear view mirror.
“540 Lynwood Avenue, please,” TK says hurriedly.
Now that he’s on the ground in Austin, he can’t spare a single second in seeing Carlos face to face–– even if Carlos probably still wants space. Either way, he needs to hear it from the man himself.
TK’s leg bounces the whole ride over to Carlos’. As if he hadn’t spent the entire three and a half hour flight thinking of what he wants to say, his mind races as they wind down the now all too familiar path to Carlos’.
They arrive in almost no time at all and TK feels his stomach fill with dread and hope as he pays the driver and gets out to see what’s coming next.
This is impulsive, he knows, perhaps even stupid but his first order of business for this visit has to be setting things right with Carlos.
TK hurries up the walkway and knocks three times on the door, worrying his bottom lip as he waits.
The door opens, a surprised and speechless Carlos before him. Carlos’ chest visibly constricts as if he’s gearing up to say something.
Fearful of an outright rejection, TK takes a step further into the house and quickly speaks.
“Please, just let me say this. I hate how things have been between us this last week and I know that it’s all my fault. Maybe I’m making something out of nothing, I don’t know. But everything feels off now and I miss us. If we could just talk, I’d really like to explain what happened. Carlos, I’m so sorry. I want to fix this. I really hope that we can. I don’t want to lose this.”
His eyes are watering and he’s sure he looks a complete mess but tension in his chest has loosened somewhat so TK takes the small victory as he can.
It is, however, woefully short lived as TK realizes Carlos isn’t alone.
He turns his head as movement catches his eye to the left of him. His heart plummets. TK recognizes these two people immediately from Carlos’ feed, the picture his mother had deemed enough to determine Carlos was sweet.
“Mom, Dad. This is my…this is TK. TK, Andrea and Gabriel Reyes,” Carlos introduces, looking rather uncertain.
TK doesn’t fare much better. He swallows hard and tries to pull himself together.
“M-Mr. and Mrs. Reyes,” he stammers, standing up straighter. There’s little else he can do to make himself presentable now. This is hardly how he could have pictured meeting Carlos’ parents for the first time.
Still, he tries to salvage the introduction as best he can.
“It’s so nice to meet you both,” he says, extending a hand and shaking both of theirs.
TK looks between the trio. Andrea smiles warmly and it makes TK’s heart twinge. That’s definitely where Carlos got his smile from. Gabriel, the Texas Ranger, eyes him and TK feels like the man can see straight through him. His gaze is piercing, much like Carlos’ is now.
“I’m sorry. I should have called or...I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck.
Andrea waves him off gently.
“Not to worry, dear. We were just on our way out anyway. It’s okay.”
She looks between TK and Carlos and pinches her lips together thoughtfully. Carlos hasn’t made a single noise since he made the initial introductions. For the life of him TK can’t make out what he’s thinking. TK knows that can’t be a good sign.
Usually he and Carlos operate on the same wavelength even from different cities. Now they’re in the same room and he has no idea what’s on his mind.
Andrea places a hand on Carlos’ arm and his mother’s touch seems to be enough to reanimate him as she speaks to him.
“We’ll leave you two to talk. But we’ll see you on Sunday at Lucy’s, okay?”
Carlos nods and gives his mother a kiss on the cheek and promises to see her then.
“Nice meeting you, TK. You take care,” Gabriel says with a slight bow of his head that TK is quick to reciprocate.
“You too, sir.”
TK moves out of the way so they can pass and an irrational part of him wants to race out the door behind them and put this awkward scene to rest.
His jacket feels too tight on him now and TK takes it off, finding it only marginally easier to breathe.
Carlos turns the lock on the door and in the silence of the house, it practically rings in TK’s ears.
TK toys with the left string of his hoodie, even more nervous now that they’re officially alone. Carlos turns to face him and it looks as if he’s aged five years in an instance.
“Your parents are nice,” he says awkwardly to fill the silence.
“TK, what are you doing here?” His voice isn’t unkind but he sounds so defeated it hurts just the same.
TK curls the string around his finger.
“I needed to see you. Really see you. I shouldn’t have ambushed you like this. It was dumb to turn up here, I know, and I’m sorry. I didn’t...I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve been feeling so sick over everything this week and I just...I’ve missed you. I’ve missed us.”
His bottom lip trembles and TK hates to think of how weak he must look now because of it. But he presses on.
“I want us to be okay and we haven’t been. We don’t talk like we did before that night with Alex.”
Carlos looks away then at the mention of Alex’s name and moves from the door.
“I’ve been…busy. With work…this time of year. It’s a lot.”
TK shakes his head, not buying it.
“Come on. No matter how hectic our schedules get, we always find time. You’re mad at me and I get it. I messed up. God, I’m so scared of screwing this up that I’m making it happen without even trying.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Carlos cuts in.
TK’s breath catches for a second.
“You’re feeling something or else you wouldn’t be dodging me like you have been all week.”
He doesn’t mean for it to come out as an accusation.
Carlos’ jaw clenches as if he’s trying to hold back his words but he speaks anyway a moment later.
“I don’t know how to be around you anymore. Things have been changing for a while for me and it’s at a point now where…I didn’t know what to do so I shut down.”
“What do you me—”
“I want you so badly, TK,” he says with a dry laugh, breathing hard.
“When I heard him, how close he sounded to you…I thought so many things. But I realized the main takeaway was that I let myself fall too hard. So no, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at myself,” he sighs and shakes his head.
“It’s not my place. I know that it’s not. I can’t tell you who you can and can’t be friends with. I didn’t mean to make things weird but I thought it’d be best if I took a step back. I was getting too close, wanting more from this friendship…seeing things that maybe weren’t actually there. I don’t know but that’s on me. And it’s why I haven’t been saying much of anything lately. I’m already saying too much right now.”
Carlos shakes his head again and TK can see the sheen in his eyes. Carlos blinks away those tears and walks past TK to take a seat on the couch. He continues to avoid TK’s eyes.
“This probably isn’t what you want to hear…not with him back in your life.”
TK blinks quickly, allowing the implication of Carlos’ words to seep in. He takes a step closer to him.
“I’m not getting back with him. Ever. Alex and I aren’t even friends, I swear. I like you so much I feel like I can barely breathe sometimes. There’s no room for anything other than what I feel for you.”
TK sits beside him and reaches for his hand.
“I let him in to let him go. I guess I just needed closure. The way things ended with us, it left me really confused. And when he first reached out, that version of me that got left behind needed to know why. I hated that I still needed anything from him. I was embarrassed for being so weak. I didn’t want to drag you through it or make you worry about me which is why I didn’t tell you he and I were on speaking terms again.”
Carlos’ face drops.
“That’s nothing to be embarrassed over. I get it completely. If anyone should be embarrassed here, it’s me for jumping to conclusions instead of just talking to you. We’ve always been really good at communicating. I should have stuck with that instead. I’m really sorry.”
Carlos interlocks their fingers and searches TK’s eyes as he speaks again.
“No one could ever describe you as weak. Getting that kind of closure takes a certain kind of strength. I’m glad you were able to get it.”
“Thank you. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen me the way you do. I’m not so sure anyone ever could.”
Carlos cups his cheek and brushes away a tear before leaning forward and placing a kiss against his forehead. TK closes his eyes and places his hand over Carlos’.
“Carlos, I—,” he starts out but TK doesn’t even know where he wants to go with this sentence.
But it hardly matters anyway because Carlos’ lips are no longer on his forehead but rather hovering over his mouth.
TK shivers at the sensation of Carlos’ breath against his skin until they’re both tipping forward and meet in the middle.
The heady rush is instant and TK is grateful for the fact that they’re sitting because his whole body feels weak as he surrenders himself fully to Carlos’ ministrations.
Carlos kisses him with such purpose, leaving no room for doubt that this is what he truly wants. His hand moves from TK’s cheek to the back of his head, fingers gripping his hair. It’s all TK can do but to match his intensity, a small whimper slipping out of him.
Carlos doubles down then and TK opens his mouth to him, rewarded immediately with the feel of Carlos’ tongue against his own. TK’s hands slip into the man’s hair in kind to keep himself from floating away.
There’s a rawness here, months worth of pent up tension finally coming to a boil. It’s obvious neither one of them is keen on holding back now.
TK shifts, rising up a bit and settling over Carlos, straddling him. Carlos pulls back just enough to look at him. TK feels a welcomed chill run down his spine at the sheer hunger and want in Carlos’ eyes.
TK cups his face, drags the pad of his thumb across Carlos’ bottom lip, taking a moment to catch his breath.
He lowers his hand after a bit and leans in, placing soft kisses along the column of Carlos’ neck. His teeth graze against Carlos’ skin before he sucks down, working to leave a mark. Carlos hisses and clutches onto his hips.
TK grinds down hard over Carlos, delighting in the moan that falls from him. Carlos’ hands are on TK’s ass at once, squeezing roughly.
“You’re starting something here,” Carlos breathlessly warns.
TK smirks, feeling the evidence of that statement hardening beneath him. He trails up towards Carlos’ ear, peppering his neck with kisses as he goes.
“Then maybe we should go upstairs so we can finish it.”
He feels like a man possessed, driven so heavily by his desires. TK is close enough to hear Carlos swallow hard. TK gets off of him and extends his hand to Carlos who accepts it at once.
Carlos leads him out the room and up the stairs to his bedroom. It’s almost funny to think about the last time he was here, how badly he wished he could have stayed the night in Carlos’ bed.
Now here he is being ushered in with Carlos’ mouth on his and being pressed up against the bedroom door. Carlos runs a hand down from his chest to the hem of his hoodie. TK reaches down between them and pulls it off altogether along with his shirt in one fell swoop.
Carlos’ eyes roam his half exposed body and TK clings to this moment as best he can, committing it all to memory the way it feels to be held in Carlos’ gaze like this.
Carlos hooks his fingers on the belt loops of TK’s jeans to draw himself closer to TK. Carlos kisses him again, deep and slow, enough to leave TK breathless. He walks them further into the room, TK’s feet clumsily moving as he’s guided over. Carlos pushes him back gently against the bed and TK’s blood practically sings as it courses through him.
He settles back, raised slightly on his elbows as Carlos undoes the button on his jeans before stepping out of them. TK swallows hard against the tightness in his throat as he sees just how aroused Carlos is, how it mirrors what he’s feeling too.
TK follows suits and rids himself of his jeans, letting them join the growing pile of clothes on the floor.
Carlos settles on top of him then and TK basks in the comforting weight of his body as he watches Carlos slip out of his shirt and toss it aside.
TK looks up at him, his eyes casting about Carlos’ frame, unsure of where to look first but wanting to simply drink it all in.
This isn’t the first time he’s seen him half naked but the context now is so entirely different. And, TK realizes belated, this time around he’s welcome to touch.
He reaches out with both hands, letting them roam Carlos’ sides. The hard lines of his body are impressive, all the more so as TK explores his pecs, thumbs brushing against his nipples. Carlos’ lets out a soft groan at that particular touch and TK stores this bit of knowledge.
His fingers journey further, tracing the peaks and valleys of his abs. Carlos is nothing short of breathtaking.
TK shakes his head, his hands trembling slightly. For months he’s dreamed about this and now, faced with Carlos in real time, it’s almost too much.
Carlos takes a hold of his left hand and places a kiss in the center of his palm. It’s grounding and so unbelievably tender it makes TK ache.
Carlos brings his hand to TK’s face and strokes his cheek and stares at him.
“What?” TK asks after a beat, his voice faint.
“You’re so beautiful. I can hardly stand it.”
TK's face is warm all over.
“Says you. There’s a mirror right on your dresser. You have to know what you look like every day. It’s just not fair.”
Carlos playfully rolls his eyes and silences him with a deep kiss. TK’s hands drag down Carlos’ body, fingertips skimming his smooth skin. He grows curious, his fingers gripping the waistband of Carlos’ boxer briefs but he stops himself.
Carlos pulls back and meets his gaze, taking a hold of TK’s hand and leading him to touch him full on.
TK feels his own cock twitch in response to Carlos flush against his palm, slick already. TK closes his eyes for a second, body trembling before he begins to move his hand. Carlos kisses him once more, a heated messy thing as his hips jerk forward to meet TK’s strokes.
The room is so warm, their bodies pressed in so tightly together that it makes TK feel as if he’s drifting. He’s hard himself, his boxer briefs wet with just how much he’s been leaking from this.
Carlos, as if reading his thoughts, runs his hands down TK’s sides and to his hips, pulling down his underwear.
TK sighs in relief of being rid of the material but his sigh quickly turns into a deep whimper as Carlos takes a hold of him. It’s dizzying, so much so that TK‘s hand stills on Carlos’ length. But it doesn’t matter; Carlos is fully in the driver’s seat now, kissing down TK’s body, leaving little bites here and there as he goes.
Every place his lips touch makes TK’s skin feel warm. Add in the feel of Carlos’ tongue on his flesh and TK’s toes are curling as he squirms against the sheets. They’ve barely gotten started and already TK feels entirely wrecked.
“Carlos,” he rasps.
“I know. I’ve got you,” Carlos promises, catching his eye.
TK holds his gaze and tries to steady his breathing, managing two quick nods before his eyes roll shut as Carlos continues to descend.
Strong warm hands push his legs apart and TK relishes in the feel of Carlos sucking softly at his inner thighs. This man is picking him apart piece by piece, effortlessly learning the terrain of his body. Carlos spends a few more seconds on him before pulling back and going for the nightstand.
If TK thought his heart was racing before, it’s nothing in comparison to the all-out jackhammering now as he watches Carlos coat his fingers with lube and begin the slow and gentle work of opening him up.
Carlos trails kisses down his body as he works a finger inside him and levels himself with TK’s groin once more. TK is so wrapped up in the steady pumping of Carlos’ finger that he’s caught off guard as Carlos’ tongue swipes against the head of his cock.
He jerks forward, inadvertently thrusting onto Carlos' finger. He bites back on his lower lip but it does very little to stifle the moan that echoes in his throat.
Carlos takes that as all the incentive he needs apparently as he slowly takes TK into his mouth. TK’s back arches a bit the moment Carlos adds another finger.
TK’s hands land in Carlos’ hair, nails scratching lightly against his scalp. Carlos is far too skilled at this, lips wrapped perfectly, his tongue dutifully lapping against the underside. TK thrust forward into the wet warmth of his mouth, against the fingers opening him up and TK knows if he’s not careful, he could just as easily finish from these sensations alone.
He looks down and this sight is one that will tattoo itself in his memories for life. There is no part of Carlos that seems shy or hesitant in the least bit. He’s clearly been wanting this just as much as TK right from the start. All he needed was permission to go for it.
“Carlos,” he hiccups, unable to say anything beyond the name of the man responsible for reducing him to atoms.
Carlos takes him in almost to the base, his fingers just as persistent as his tongue. TK shivers at the feel of it along his shaft, languidly trailing along. It’s every bit as relieving as it is torturous. Each moan Carlos makes reverberates through him.
TK can’t take his eyes off of him, downright fascinated by how much Carlos seems to be enjoying himself and just how good his technique is. He seems so adept at picking up on what TK likes best, switching it up perfectly to keep him on his toes.
Carlos’ fingertips graze so acutely against his prostate that TK cries out, his eyes watering. He fucks into his mouth twice before it’s too much to bear.
He’s at the end of his rope. He needs all of Carlos now.
“Please,” he begs.
Some small part of him thinks he ought to be embarrassed by how needy his sounds are but there’s simply no disguising how badly he wants this. Wants Carlos, and anything the man is willing to give him.
Carlos withdraws his fingers and places a kiss on hip bone. TK tries to steady his breathing during this reprieve as Carlos removes his last layer of clothing and works a condom over himself and gets settled over him.
Carlos’ eyes never leave his as he slicks himself up and enters him but they quickly drift closed as he buries himself in gently.
“You feel so good,” Carlos gasps, one hand gripping TK’s waist. His body shudders as he finds TK’s lips and kisses him slowly.
TK melts against him as Carlos rocks forward, moving his hips a bit more as he gets acclimated with Carlos inside him. He’s egged on by Carlos telling him how good he is, how well he’s taking it and it’s all TK could possibly want: to give as good as Carlos has been giving to him all evening.
Carlos fits his hand over TK and jerks him off steadily as he works himself in and out. TK kisses the side of his neck, hands roaming Carlos back as his hips snap forward to meet Carlos’ fist around him.
TK hooks a leg around Carlos’ waist, driving him in deeper. Carlos curses, his hand moving faster yet over TK’s shaft. It’s all too much in the best way possible, the scent of Carlos’ skin, the feel of his hand, the warmth of his body, the precision of his thrusts hitting him in just the right spot.
They move expertly against each other as if this is something they’ve done repeatedly. But it’s not surprising to TK to find that they excel at this too. In all other aspects, they’ve managed to be perfectly in sync.
It’s all been building steadily within TK. His breaths are shallow and rough as the pressure in the pit of his stomach mounts.
He holds out as best he can, so desperate to treasure every second of this moment where everything feels so utterly perfect.
Carlos moans his name and something about his name in that tone from this particular man is too much to bear.
TK comes hard between them with a string of curses falling from his lips, Carlos’ mouth at his neck sucking a bruising mark against his skin.
TK keeps bucking forward, feeling the tension in Carlos’ body. TK slips his hands up in the small space between to rest on Carlos’s chest, his thumbs teasing his nipples. A few beats later, Carlos is following him over the edge. TK helps him work through it, hands moving to Carlos’ hair as the man buries his face against TK’s neck. He goes still and TK kisses his curls.
“That was incredible,” he says softly, his voice shot.
Carlos shifts to look at him then, eyes dazed and a small smile on his face.
He presses his forehead against TK and TK holds him, rubbing his back gently as the man collects himself. TK breathes him in, mind still reeling from what they’ve shared.
Carlos tips his chin up just slightly and kisses him. TK will never grow tired of this, the way their mouths align so effortlessly together, Carlos’ taste, the way Carlos doesn’t hesitate to seek him out.
He sighs softly as Carlos pulls out, missing the warmth of his body as he moves away to remove and discard the condom. Carlos places a kiss on the tip of his nose.
“I’ll be right back,” he assures when TK frowns.
TK watches him walk away and out of the room, his eyes fighting to stay open. He can’t remember the last time he’s felt this blissful and sated. TK breathes in deeply, practically drowning in Carlos’ scent surrounding him. He stretches out, limbs feeling loose and weak thanks to tonight’s activities.
“There’s a sight,” Carlos says. TK peers over at him, watching him cross the room with a wet washcloth in his hands. “Are you feeling okay?”
TK looks at him and nods, sitting up against the pillows.
“Never better, actually.”
Carlos takes a seat wordlessly then beside TK on the edge of the bed. He cleans TK up, gently gliding the cloth against his abdomen.
TK studies his face as he does so, Carlos so focused on the task that he apparently doesn’t notice TK all out staring. TK feels as if he could just explode with how much he feels for this man who has quickly come to mean everything to him.
When Carlos is done, TK thanks him with a kiss and pulls him to lay halfway on top of him. Carlos slots perfectly, head resting on TK’s shoulder.
TK traces the tip of his index finger against Carlos’ shoulder blade. Carlos shivers, goosebumps rising on his skin, and TK can only stare in awe of the fact that he has this kind of effect on a guy like him. He wants this so desperately to be his life each and every day.
Carlos absentmindedly draws shapes on TK’s chest and he’s certain Carlos must be able to feel how fast his heart is racing at his soothing touch. TK sighs softly, mentally preparing himself for what he’s about to say next.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” he starts out quietly.
Carlos looks up and still his motions, giving him his full attention.
TK wets his lips. “I think it might really be time I come to Austin for good.”
Carlos’ eyes widen, his mouth parting in shock.
“I thought you didn’t want to leave New York,” he says, his voice a bit hoarse.
TK looks at him, gently threading his fingers through the back of Carlos’ hair.
“It wasn’t the right time then, all those months ago. But things are different now. I’d like to be closer to my dad again…you’re here…it just makes sense. He needs me and I need you.”
The weight of those words hangs heavy. TK chews on his lower lip for a few seconds.
Carlos doesn’t say anything and TK begins to worry. This is yet another big swing and the fear that it’s a miss trickles in. He’d done the same just a few months ago with Alex. Maybe it’s too grand of a gesture, one more colossal misstep.
“Does that totally freak you out?” he tries to say jokingly but even TK can admit he’s done a very poor job of masking his panic.
Carlos blinks twice and shakes his head. He sits up completely, eyes fixed on TK.
“Knowing that you’re serious about us? No, it doesn’t. Not one bit. God, I hate being away from you,” he says. It’s clear this is something he’s been sitting on for a while.
TK thinks back to that call Carlos answered from the park just before Thanksgiving, how off he seemed. All the times Carlos openly admitted to missing him. Their hearts have been calling to each other for months. Arguably since the day they first met.
“It’s always so hard to say goodbye every time you leave for New York. It physically hurts. I want you here so badly.. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. I just—are you sure you’d want to make that move? That you’d even want me as a factor in this?”
TK shifts and touches Carlos’ cheek.
“I can’t stand to be almost two thousand miles away from you anymore. Not when I could be here in your arms every night like this. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m sure about this. About us. Carlos, I want you. Always.”
Carlos lets out a wet laugh and TK can see the relief flood through his face.
“So, you’re really moving to Austin?”
TK smiles. “I’m moving to Austin. I’ll get a cowboy hat and everything to make it official.”
Carlos laughs and bites back on his lower lip.
“Hmm, just picturing that and…yeah, we have to make it happen.”
“Oh yeah?” TK says, raising a brow and draping his arms over Carlos’ shoulders as the man settles on top of him.
TK smirks. “I’ll really need to complete the look in that case then. Fully commit. I’m thinking flannel and ass-less chaps—”
Carlos cuts him off with a hand over his mouth as they both laugh at TK’s ridiculousness.
“My boyfriend, the menace,” Carlos says through his laughter.
TK stops laughing, his eyes widening and Carlos’ smile quickly fades. He pulls his hand back, letting it fall to the mattress.
“Was that too much? A label? I just figured that’s what we—”
TK sits up and shakes his head.
“No. I love how it sounds, hearing that I’m yours. That was…everything,” he says, reaching for Carlos’ hand and lacing their fingers before speaking again.
“In case it hasn’t been clear, I’ve been yours this whole time. I plan on keeping it that way for as long as I’m lucky enough to have it. I don’t ever want you to have to wonder what you are to me. You’re my best friend. My boyfriend. And the guy I’ve been falling in love with since the day we met.”
Carlos’ smile overtakes his entire face.
“I love you too. I kinda fell for you before we even met,” he muses. “But that first day, I knew we really had something.”
Carlos lowers his head and TK meets him halfway to kiss him. His eyes flutter closed as Carlos deepens the kiss. Carlos anchors a hand onto TK’s hip, so steady and sure, and TK is reminded once more that this is the place where he’s meant to be. This connection to Carlos, physically and emotionally, is so unlike anything he’s experienced before.
It’d felt as if his whole world had been falling apart. But as TK pulls back and looks into Carlos’ eyes, sees the unbridled longing mirrored back, he understands now that it has all been merely falling into place.
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