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You Can Learn to Love (Again)

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This is not how he had wanted to start his first day. He had been hoping to make a good impression, maybe make it through the first week without drawing too much attention to himself. 

 

The universe had other plans, it seemed. 

 

It had started with the traffic. He was still new to the area and had severely underestimated how heavy traffic was in this city (really, who knew?) Thankfully he had been nervous enough that he had left his apartment almost an hour earlier than he should have had to for a 4-mile drive, which had gotten him here with about 10 minutes to spare. 

 

If it had just been that, it would have been fine. He could have shaken it off, gotten into his classroom and been ready to face the day with plenty of time before his students showed up. But no, it couldn’t be that simple. Instead, he was stuck here, in his current predicament. 

 

By the time he arrived there was not a parking spot to be found. He had anxiously circled the parking lot twice before spotting an empty space miraculously close to the front doors. He thought maybe his luck had finally changed - until he tried to open his door. The car next to him was parked so close that he could barely even get his door more than an inch let alone wide enough to get out. He glanced over to the passenger side to find that car was almost as close. He banged his head against the steering wheel in frustration. Of course. Of fucking course - he had moved across the country, managed to get a job in one of the best high schools in the state, and now he was going to blow it because he was trapped in his car. Typical. 

 

He forced himself to take a deep, calming breath before examining the situation again. There might just be enough room on the passenger side to open the door and squeeze out. Then he would just have to wait long enough that the other cars would be gone before he tried to leave at the end of the day. Totally doable — he just had to climb over the center counsel. He examined the layout and sighed. There was no way to do this gracefully. He took a silent moment to mourn his nice professional wrinkle-free first-day outfit before he resigned himself to the inevitable. 

 

He had known it was not going to be a graceful process, but he had still underestimated exactly how awkward it would be. He cleared the counsel and got one foot on the ground outside the passenger door before carefully sliding himself out, careful not to let his door hit the car beside him. Once he had both feet on the ground he reached back in to grab his bag, which he pulled out before closing the door and walking to the back of the car. Once he was free of the confined space he took a deep breath as he smoothed out his clothes, wiping away any wrinkles. 

 

“That was pretty impressive,” someone noted, voice full of amusement. 

 

TK spun around to find an incredibly attractive man standing behind him, looking him over with a raised eyebrow. TK wanted to shoot back something clever but instead he tripped over his words, stuttering through half-formed thoughts before he blurted out “thanks.” 

 

Inwardly, he groaned. Because this morning hadn’t been bad enough - now he was a stuttering mess in front of this guy who possibly had the most gorgeous eyes TK had ever seen and had just used those eyes to watch TK climb out of his own car like a contortionist. He was really winning today. 

 

“Anytime,” the stranger returned with a grin. They stood there, not saying anything for a few more moments until the stranger continued, “Well I guess I should,” he trailed off gesturing towards the building. TK nodded vaguely before a glance at his watch pulled him back to reality, “Oh, yeah. Me too.” 

 

“Well, I hope you have a good first day. My name is Carlos, by the way.” 

 

“TK,” he offered, plastering on what he hoped was a charming smile. 

 

Carlos grinned at him, “I’ll see you around, TK.” 

 

And with that, he was gone. TK watched him walk away until the snap of the door closing behind him dragged him back to the present. He glanced at his watch again only to see that he only had two minutes before he would officially be late for his first day. 

 

Shit ,” he muttered to himself before hiking his bag up in his shoulder and sprinting towards the door. 

 


 

“Don’t forget to get those syllabi signed!” TK called to the retreating backs of his second-period freshman class.  “Whether or not you think it’s stupid does not change the fact that it is an easy grade!” 

 

This earned a few chuckles from the students still gathering their things and he flashed a grin at them. Despite the rough start, the morning has actually gone pretty well. His first two classes had gone smoothly and the kids seemed like a good bunch. He was optimistic about the year. Now he was looking at his first prep period of the day and since there was no grading to tackle yet he figured this was as good of a time as any to try to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Plus, he needed to find the copier. He had printed out the syllabi for the first day on his home printer but there was no way he was going to keep doing that. He fully intended to use the school provided resources, thank you very much. 

 

He was just about to grab his ID and keys and head out in pursuit of a copy machine or faculty room when someone stepped into his classroom. TK recognized him but couldn’t put a name to the face. 

 

“Hey Mr. Strand, I just wanted to stop by to see how your first day was going. I’m Judd Ryder, one of the Assistant Principals.” 

 

TK smiled at him, crossing over to shake his hand, “I remember you, you were on my interview committee, right?” 

 

He nodded, “That’s right. I was pretty impressed by you, I think you’ll do great things here.” 

 

“That’s very kind of you to say, I hope I can live up to it,” TK responded, a little taken aback by the praise.

 

Mr. Ryder shrugged, “I was impressed by your thoughts on curriculum, but really I think you’re going to do a good job connecting to the students. You’ve got the freshman this year and they need that. That connection might be the difference between failure and success for some of them.” 

 

TK nodded, unsure of how to respond. He fiddled with his lanyard for a moment before the AP laughed, shaking his head; “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump all that on you - my wife is always telling me I don’t need to voice every thought that pops into my head and, well clearly that’s a problem for me.”

 

TK relaxed and smiled at the older man, “It’s fine, it’s nice to hear such good things, it’s just the first day and all—a lot to take in, you know?”

 

Ryder nodded, “I hear that. Anything I could help with?”

 

“Actually, yeah—any chance you could point me towards a copier? My printer at home will never recover if I try to do much more with it.” 

 

“Sure thing, I’ll take you there. It’s on my way anyways,” he said over TK’s protests, “no trouble at all.” 

 

They step into the hallway and once TK is sure the door to his classroom is shut and locked behind him they move down the hall, back towards the main hallway. Judd keeps up a steady stream of conversation all the way and TK nods and makes noises of agreement where necessary. It’s not that he doesn’t like Judd, he’s just not used to such an amicable relationship with administrators. It had never been like that in any of his previous schools. He liked the feeling of familiarity but knew that it would be a while before he ever completely bought into it. He was much more likely to err on the side of polite professionalism. 

 

They had arrived at the faculty room now and as TK went to open the door it swung open as another teacher stepped out. He was a little older than TK and his eyes went wide as he halted inches from colliding with him. Judd laughed from behind TK, “Well I was going to say you two should meet at some point, so I guess now is as good a time as any. TK Strand, meet Paul Strickland, one of our Earth Science teachers. He’s also your neighbor.”  

 

Paul grinned and stuck out his hand, “it’s good to meet you, man. I was going to stop by later on, but bumping into each other works too I guess.” 

 

TK chuckled and took the offered hand, “I suppose it does. So you’re my neighbor, huh?” 

 

Paul nodded, “And part of the grade level team. You’ll actually be seeing the rest of us in a bit—we have common planning 5th period.” 

 

TK nodded, he had noticed that on the schedule. “Cool, well, I’ll see you then. In the meantime, I should get some copies done while I have a chance.” 

 

“Don’t use tray 3—it always jams.” 

 

“Thanks for the tip.” 

 

“Don’t mention it; I know how much it sucks to have to spend your entire prep clearing out a paper jam.” 

 

“Still, I appreciate it.” 

 

Paul nodded and then with another smile and a wave to Judd, he was gone. They watched him go for a second before Judd spoke again, “You have a solid team to work with in your wing, I’m sure you’ll all get along fine.”

 

“I think you might be onto something,” TK agreed. Then, with another thanks, he stepped into the faculty room, leaving the Assistant Principal behind.  

 


 

Two periods later and TK was starting to remember how exhausting the first week of school was. The endurance it took to do this all day was nothing to scoff at, and each year in September it needed to be built up again. Somehow each year, he managed to forget that. As the last of the 4th-period stragglers filed out he sank into his desk chair and leaned back, allowing himself to take a deep breath. All he wanted to do was sleep for a week, but he still had common planning, hall duty, one more class, and an apartment full of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Sleep was a luxury he couldn’t afford right now. 

 

A knock at his door wrenched him from his fantasies of peaceful sleep. He jumped to his feet, blinking the exhaustion out of his eyes as he looked towards the door to find Paul and two others standing on the threshold.

 

“The first week is always the hardest, isn’t it?” Paul noted as he invited himself into the room, the other two at his heels. 

 

TK nodded, only cutting off for a yawn, “You could say that,” he finally got out. 

 

Paul gave him a sympathetic grin before turning to his two companions. “Guys, this is TK Strand, the new English teacher. TK,” he said turning to face him, “this is Marjan Marwani and Mateo Chavez, Math and Social Studies teachers respectively.”

 

TK gave them each a nod and a smile. “So, we’re the ninth grade team?” 

 

“One of them,” Marjan confirmed, settling onto one of the desks. “So you better get used to us - we’re stuck together and you get to see our lovely faces every day for this common planning period.” 

 

“Where do we meet for that, by the way?” 

 

“Your room of course,” Marjan said with a raised eyebrow, “the newbie always hosts.” 

 

Paul rolled his eyes. “She’s kidding,” he informed TK, “but we do usually meet in here because there are more tables so it’s easier to spread out.”

 

“Fine with me,” TK replied with a shrug, “you guys are more than welcome.” 

 

The others smiled their thanks before Mateo spoke up. 

 

“So TK,” he asked in what was clearly meant to be a casual tone, “how long have you been teaching?” 

 

TK raised an eyebrow, “This is my 4th year, why?” 

 

“Damn it,” Mateo swore mournfully as Marjan let out a bright burst of laughter. 

 

When TK shot Paul a confused look he stifled his own laughter long enough to explain, “Mateo here is our probie. He’s only in his second year and he’s desperately hoping to find someone lower on the totem pole than him. You being new to the district and pretty young, he thought maybe he had a chance.” 

 

Now TK grinned outright as he turned his gaze back to Mateo, “sorry to disappoint you probie, but I already put in my time as the newbie. You have my sympathies though.” 

 

Mateo pouted as the other two laughed lightly at him. TK shook his head fondly and sat on one of the desks to survey this group—his new team. 

 

As Marjan crossed to Mateo to ruffle his hair and Paul rolled his eyes at the pair while not quite being able to hide his smile, something settled in TK’s gut. They were going to get along just fine. More than that, TK had a feeling that as long as he had this group at his side he’d be fine. Maybe, despite the disastrous beginning, this year might not be the disaster he feared after all. 

 


 

After the first day, things went pretty smoothly. He’d settled into a routine and beyond the usual unpredictable nature of teenagers, he had everything under control. He was feeling pretty confident about this change—for once he may have actually made the right choice. He wanted to savor that feeling, but there was still one more unknown element to his work life that he hadn’t gotten to experience yet: the department meeting. So when Thursday rolled around he waved goodbye to the rest of his team and set off to find room 306. 

 

If his past experience was anything to go on this meeting would likely be nothing more than a waste of time. Just something they are mandated to do where they talk about goals and test scores and analyze data without actually accomplishing anything actionable. But it was still something new; a potential disaster waiting around the corner for him. He’s almost convinced that’s what it’s going to be too - everything else is going far too well. Something has to give at some point. 

 

He found the room and entered cautiously; scanning the room as he took an empty seat. Everyone else is chatting amongst themselves and while a few sent him curious glances as he entered, for the most part everyone is minding their own business. He was so focused on surveying the room that he almost jumped when the chair next to him was pulled out and someone slid into the seat beside him. He looked over to see a woman smiling at him warmly, “You must be TK Strand,” she said by way of greeting. 

 

He nodded and her smile somehow grew as she stuck out her hand, “I’m Grace Ryder, one of the 10th grade English teachers and yes, Judd Ryder is my husband,” she confirms. 

 

TK chuckled as he took her hand. Apparently, his surprise at hearing her name was more evident than he had thought, “It’s nice to meet you Grace, and I’m afraid I don’t have a very good poker face.” 

 

She laughed lightly and shook her head, “No, you do not. I can’t say I blame you though - new school, first department meeting, and someone comes up and knows your name - I’d be flustered too. But my husband has mentioned you so I figured I’d check-in, make sure you weren’t left out for the sharks. They do love fresh meat.” 

 

TK raised an eyebrow, “It’s not that bad, is it?” 

 

“They like a laugh, but from everything I’ve heard I think you’ll do just fine.” 

 

TK was going to ask what she meant by that when her expression shifted again as she spotted something over TK’s shoulder. 

 

“They’re not all bad though,” she said with a smile. “In fact, here’s one you should meet. Reyes!” The last part was directed at someone behind TK. He turned to see who Grace was intent on him meeting and froze. 

 

“TK,” Grace was saying as the man walked over, “This is Carlos Reyes, one of the Senior English teachers and an all-around good egg.” 

 

Carlos chuckled and TK felt a shock run through his body at how wonderful of a sound it was. 

 

“You’re too nice to me Grace,” Carlos was saying as he bent down to give her a quick one-armed hug.

 

Grace swatted at him, “I am exactly as nice to you as you deserve. Carlos, this is TK Strand - the new Freshman English teacher.” 

 

Carlos turned his smile on TK, who was fairly certain he was going to melt in this very spot from the warmth of it, “We’ve met, actually—in passing. I didn’t know you were in the department, how’s it been so far?”

 

“Good, it’s been good,” he managed to splutter out after a few moments and the mortifying realization that he had been quiet for too long and Grace and Carlos were both looking at him. 

 

Carlos kept smiling at him, “That’s good to hear. I’m sure I’ll see you around but feel free to let me know if you need anything. I’m in room 214.” 

 

TK nodded and then with a wave, Carlos was gone. TK shook himself from his stupor to find Grace giving him a pitying look, “Oh honey,” was all she said. Her voice was low, but it was clear she was suppressing laughter.  

 

“What?” TK demanded, even as he could feel a blush creeping up his cheeks. Grace just shook her head and let some of the laughter escape. He turned away from her petulantly but she reached out and put a comforting hand on his arm. 

 

“I’m sorry dear,” she said through her laughter, “I’m not making fun of you, really. I can’t say I can blame you either; he is quite something.” 

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responded stiffly.

 

“Yes, I’m sure you don’t,” Grace said, making an effort to match his tone. He rolled his eyes and shot her an exasperated look but she just kept chuckling quietly even as the meeting started. 

 

It was good to know he had been right about this meeting being the disaster he had been waiting for—it was just not the kind he had anticipated. 

 


 

The days marched on and more and more it felt like any other school year. TK had fallen into a routine; he had found his stride. He had found his footing with his students; he had found friends in his team. This change—the new job, the new school, the new state—was going so much better than he had anticipated. When he had sent in the application, it had been on a whim. He had been floundering in the shambles of what had been and desperate for a direction, a way out. This job had seemed like a desperate hope; a future he could only dream of surrounded by the wreckage of his old hopes and plans. He had just needed a point to aim for, an exit sign to direct him out of this mess. He had never expected it to actually work. 

 

But against all odds and his own firmly held beliefs he made it work, he hadn’t failed. It was an exciting prospect, but also a terrifying one. With things going this well, it was only a matter of time before the proverbial other shoe dropped. He does everything he can to prevent that eventuality. He works hard, throwing himself into every lesson plan and every assignment. He tackles any administrative task as soon as possible, never letting anything sit on his desk. Above all, he takes a wide berth around room 214. Carlos’s smile may live in his head rent-free, but he can’t afford a distraction. Especially not one like him —one so objectively perfect. He’s not ready for that and to be so close to the possibility would break his still-healing heart. 

 

He almost welcomes the distraction of his traditional beginning of the year benchmark essay—right up until he gets a look at the stack awaiting grading. He is in the middle of the first period’s stack when the rest of the team walked in for common planning. 

 

“It’s only the second week of school,” Mateo noted, “isn’t it a little early to be assigning essays?” 

 

“No,” TK explained, looking up from the paper he was reading, “because it’s my job to get them to high school level writing by the end of the year for the sake of all of the other English teachers and I need to know where they are at now so I know what to focus on.” 

 

Marjan leaned on the corner of his desk and poked at one of the piles apprehensively, “Learn anything yet?” 

 

TK sighed wearily as he circled yet another use of “bc” and left a comment indicating that abbreviations may have their uses, but they did not belong in academic writing. “Yes,” he said, looking up from the paper before him, “I have learned that we have a lot of work to do.” 

 

Mateo chuckled and Marjan winced sympathetically. Paul, who had grabbed one of the essays off the stack and was skimming it, raised an eyebrow. 

 

“I do not envy you, man,” he noted as he replaced the paper, “and I thought trying to hammer the format of a lab report into their heads was hard. This is next level.” 

 

“Academic writing is something completely different from what they’re used to,” TK pointed out reasonably, “It’s my job to teach them how to do it,” he paused here as he glanced back down at the paper before him. “Doesn’t make it any less painful though,” he said with another sigh. 

 

The others settled down at and on the desks nearest to his and watched as he skimmed through another paper, pausing occasionally to make a comment or correction. After a few minutes he looked up at them, eyebrows raised. 

 

“Are you all just going to sit there and watch me grade these or…”

 

Mateo shrugged and Marjan grinned back at him, “We’re offering you moral support, didn’t you know?” 

 

He scowled and grabbed an old worksheet from the table beside him and balled it up to throw at her. She dodged it expertly and grinned even wider. Paul sighed from a nearby desk. 

 

“Now children,” he admonished, voice filled with exasperation as he rolled his eyes at their antics. 

 

“She started it,” TK pointed out reasonably. Paul shook his head and stood up. 

 

“I think that as long as we can agree that there are no pressing matters to be discussed we can all take this time to work on our own grading, in our own classrooms. Any objections?” 

 

Marjan looked like she was going to say something, but at TK’s narrowed eyes she sighed and shook her head. 

 

“Good,” Paul declared with a nod. “Good luck with all those, man,” he added to TK as he headed to the door. TK wearily waved his thanks and then they were gone. He leaned back in his chair and sighed, rubbing at his tired eyes. He loved what he did really, but sometimes when faced with the stack of 120 essays and the reminder that other content areas didn’t have to do this, he sometimes regretted not following his father’s footsteps. Firefighters didn’t have to grade essays. 

 

Inevitably, he would recall all of the reasons he didn’t join the family business: the long hours, the danger, the toll it had taken on his father over the years both physically and emotionally. Then he would think of all the reasons he loved teaching anyways and go back to work. This time was no exception. The only difference was that as he picked up his pen again to continue grading he felt a pang of guilt in his chest. He should really call his father. It had been too long. He knew that his dad was trying to give him space, trying to give him the time he needed to adjust on his own terms; but his dad had been the one thing in New York he hadn’t needed distance from. He was the one thing he had regretted leaving. He needed to call him - he owed him that much. More than that, it would be nice to hear his voice. After he finished this class’ essays, he promised himself, he’d take a break and call his dad during his lunch. 

 

Fate seemed to have a different plan though as the next thing TK knew students were entering his classroom. He glanced up at the clock in surprise, only to find that he had worked straight through his prep and lunch without even noticing it. He sighed and put down his pen, standing to go greet his students at the door. His dad would have to wait, it seemed. He plastered on a smile and got ready to start the lesson. 

 

At some point, Marjan appeared in his doorway, a sheepish look on her face. He nodded to her and instructed the kids to read the next section in the text on their own and be ready to share some thoughts from it before he crossed the room to meet her. 

 

“What’s up?” he asked, expression furrowed. 

 

She held up the papers in her hand, “I forgot I promised the SPED teacher I would get these 408s sighed during our common planning. I have all the documents that you can look over later, but for right now could you just sign so I can get these back to her?” 

 

He smirked at her as he took the papers; flipping through them to see what students he was signing for, “How could you have possibly forgotten? Were you so busy doing something else that maybe it slipped your mind?” 

 

“Haha,” she responded drily, expression far from impressed. He shook his head and chuckled, but pulled a pen out of his pocket and used the wall beside the door to sign his name on the appropriate lines. He went to hand them back to her, but pulled up just short and held them just out of her reach, “do I have your word that you will provide me with the proper documentation for all these students so I can be assured I did not just commit fraud by signing these?” 

 

She rolled her eyes at him, “Yes, I will bring them by at the end of the day.” With that she held out her hand for the papers, which he passed back to her. Then she was gone, and he turned back to his class. 

 

“Alright, I asked you to have things to share, so who’s going to break the ice?” 

 

There was the typical teenage silence before one of the girls in the back raised her hand tentatively, but not before glancing at her friends. 

 

“Aniyah, what do you think?” TK asked her with a grin, perching himself on his desk. 

 

“Mr. Strand, are you and Ms. Marwani dating?” 

 

TK blinked at her. He glanced around at the rest of the kids in the room, none of whom seemed surprised by the question. “No,” he answered slowly, “why would you ask that?” 

 

She shrugged awkwardly, glancing at her friends for support, “You guys just seem really close, and almost like you’re flirting?” 

 

He shrugged, “No, we’re just friends, definitely not dating—not that it is any of your business.” 

 

One of the boys in the front smirked at him, “I don’t know Mister, you two seem pretty friendly, I think maybe you’re in denial.” 

 

TK met the kid’s eyes and raised a single eyebrow as he said drily, “I can assure you she’s not my type.” 

 

Most of the kids nodded sagely, but a few seemed puzzled. He rolled his eyes and stood up, “Okay, ‘discuss Mr. Strand’s love life’ time is over. Don’t think you’re going to distract me enough that I forget about the homework. Anyone else want to share any thoughts on the reading—you know, the class work; that thing we’re here for?” 

 

A few hands raised but even as he called on them he was chuckling to himself. Marjan was going to love this. 

 


 

As time progresses TK sticks to his plan: do his work, make a good impression, avoid Carlos.  He’s successful in that last goal too, for a while. But of course, nothing good can last and one October afternoon in the faculty room, his streak is broken. 

 

He crossed the room towards the mailboxes without glancing around and didn't think to check his surroundings until a familiar voice called for his attention. 

 

“Hey TK, how have things been? You settling in alright?” 

 

He froze, slowly glancing up from the flyer about the can drive he had been reading. He knew before he saw (there was no mistaking that voice) but his heart still skipped a beat just the same. 

 

“Carlos, hey. Yeah, it’s been great actually. No problems at all.” 

 

Carlos grinned at him and TK had to remind himself how to breathe. “Glad to hear it. Oh,” he said suddenly, “this is Michelle Blake, one of the school social workers. And my best friend,” he added with a roll of his eyes when Michelle, apparently, gave him a pointed look. 

 

She grinned at his addition before turning to face TK. She looked him up and down appraisingly before speaking, “It’s nice to finally meet you TK, Carlos has mentioned you.” 

 

TK flicked his gaze to Carlos who was very intently studying the rice in his lunch and studiously avoiding both their gazes. “Nothing bad, I hope,” he said lightly. 

 

Internally, he was panicking.  

 

“Definitely not. Nothing but the truth I’m sure, and the truth was all good.” 

 

“Right,” TK said with uncertainty. He waited, but Michelle did not speak again. “Well,” he said eventually, “I should get going. I just wanted to grab these flyers and then I was going to try to use the rest of my prep to try and put together a mini-unit for Halloween.” 

 

At this, Carlos looked up, “What are you thinking?” 

 

TK shrugged, “I was leaning towards Poe. Always a classic, and in my experience, kids have always liked his stuff.” 

 

“I have some materials you could use, if you’d like. I’ve done that before, so I have most of the stuff in one of my binders.” 

 

“Really?” he didn’t even bother to hide the surprise in his voice. 

 

Carlos nodded, “Sure. You can stop by at the end of the day, if you’d like.”

 

TK hesitated. One the one hand, there was the pact he had made with himself: no distractions . On the other, there was a unit he wouldn’t have to plan. Which meant more prep time to spend on grading, which meant less work to take home.   

 

“That'd be great, thanks. Room 214, right?” 

 

As if he could have forgotten. 

 

Carlos nodded in confirmation, “See you later then?” 

 

“Absolutely.” 

 

Then with a smile to the pair, TK was gone. He didn’t realize he was still grinning until he ran into Paul outside of his classroom. The other teacher looked at him suspiciously, “what has you looking so chipper?” 

 

“Nothing,” TK said too hastily, judging by Paul’s look, “one of the other English teachers has materials I can use for a unit I wanted to do so as long as they work out, that’s an entire unit I don’t have to plan.” 

 

Paul nodded appreciatively, “That’s a lucky break.”

 

TK nodded again before excusing himself and stepping into his own classroom. The rest of the day flew by and before he knew it he was seeing his last class out the door. Once they were gone and the hallway was mostly clear of students, TK grabbed his things and headed up to room 214. There’s a trophy case down the hall and he stops and anxiously checks his reflection before approaching the door to room 214. It’s open but TK hovered at the threshold nervously, knocking on the doorframe to get Carlos’s attention. He looked up from his desk and the smile that spread across his face at the sight of TK nearly had him holding onto the doorframe for support.

 

“Hey,” he said in what he prayed was a normal voice, “I was just here for those files, if you still wanted to give them to me?”

 

“Actually, I’ve changed my mind and you can’t have them.”

 

“Oh,” TK said, “I’ll just go then, sorry for—”

 

“TK, I’m kidding,” Carlos assured him as he stood up from his desk. “I offered them, didn’t I? Besides, we’re working on college essays and applications; there won’t be any time for Poe this year.”

 

“That’s a shame,” TK noted as he took a few tentative steps inside the room, “but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it when they have their applications done.”

 

“That’s the hope,” Carlos agreed, “but right now they’re not too fond of me.”

 

TK chuckled and Carlos looked up from the bookshelf he was scanning to see TK still standing a few feet from the door. “I don’t bite,” he deadpanned, “you can come in.”

 

TK laughed nervously and crossed the room, coming to a halt several feet away from Carlos. The other man continued scanning the shelf and upon finding what he was looking for made a triumphant noise before turning to face TK, holding out a binder. TK raised an eyebrow and took it, glancing over at the shelves that were filled with neat rows of binders all clearly labeled.

 

“You are aggressively organized,” he noted.

 

Carlos chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck, “Yeah. I know it looks like a lot, but after switching grade levels a few times it’s the only way I can keep anything straight anymore.”

 

TK nodded as he slipped through the binder, “That’s fair. I used to have a lot of binders like that too, but I thankfully digitized them before I moved down here. I can’t imagine transporting all those across the country would have been fun.”

 

“No, I can’t imagine it would be. Guess it’s a good thing I have no intention of leaving.”

 

TK looked up from the binder to see Carlos studying him. He smiled at the other man, who returned it before settling onto the desk across from TK.

 

“I didn’t realize you were new to the area.”

 

TK nodded, “Just moved here from NYC about 2 weeks before school started.”

 

Carlos raised an eyebrow, “that’s ambitious.”

 

TK sighed and nodded. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice, but everything happened so fast. Thankfully everything has worked out pretty well so this may not be the horrific disaster I thought it would be.”

 

“That’s optimism for you,” Carlos observed dryly. “What brought you down here, if you don’t mind me asking.”

 

TK’s hand froze in its journey down the page he was reviewing as his other hand clenched the binder tightly.

 

“Just looking for a fresh start,” he said evenly, keeping his eyes firmly planted on the page before him and praying that Carlos could not hear the racing of his heart.

 

If Carlos noticed anything odd, he didn’t let on.

 

“That’s a big change. Did you come down here alone?”

 

“Just me, myself, and my boxes.”

 

“So why Austin then? I could be wrong, but it seems like a pretty big change from NYC.”

 

“I wanted to leave the city and try something new. I saw this opening here, researched the school, and decided it was worth a shot. What about you though,” he asked, switching gears and looking up from the binder, “Austin born and raised?”

 

“Yep, go Longhorns,” he said with forced enthusiasm. TK raised a skeptical eyebrow and Carlos pushed on, “never mind. So,” he continued, and TK noticed a change in his tone that had him looking up again, “leave anyone behind in New York?”

 

There was silence for a moment as their eyes met and they both knew what was really being asked.

 

“Just my dad.”

 

“Yeah, I only have my family too. But there’s a lot of them so that’s more than enough.”

 

TK smiled in spite of himself. “My mom’s in New York too, but she’s always traveling for work so really it’s always been just me and my dad. Honestly, leaving him there was the hardest thing about this move, and the only thing I regret.”

 

He paused in the wake of his words, surprised by how much he just shared with this near stranger but before he could dwell on it Carlos was giving him a reassuring smile that set his nerves at ease.

 

“Sounds like you’re close.”

 

“We are,” TK confirmed, voice growing softer as he thought about his dad. “He’s still my hero, always has been. He’s a firefighter, and I thought I wanted to be one when I was young too. But as I got older, I saw the toll it took on him and decided to take a different path. I still love and admire him for doing it though. I couldn’t picture him doing anything else.”

 

There was quiet in the room again. TK started to panic, thinking that maybe he shared too much (he still can’t believe he said any of that), but something about Carlos makes him feel so comfortable he hadn’t even noticed until the words were already out there. He’s about to apologize when Carlos speaks.

 

“I get that. My dad was a cop and it was the same way when I was growing up. He was larger than life and my hero; I wanted to be just like him. But then I got older and decided I didn’t like the reality of law enforcement as much as I had the concept. I decided I could do more good from inside a classroom and well, here we are.”

 

“Here we are,” TK agreed, “who would have thought?”

 

Carlos laughed appreciatively and the sound washed over TK with all the warmth of sunlight. He smiled back at him before turning his gaze back to the binder. The conversation flows easily between them and before TK knew it he caught a glance at his watch and let out a curse when he realized how late it had gotten. Carlos gave him a questioning look and TK gestured up at the clock, “We should have left ages ago. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hold you up; I’m sure you have things to do.”

 

“It’s fine, this was nice. Maybe if you stop by more often, we can chat in smaller increments. Otherwise I’m afraid this is just going to keep happening—I don’t think I’ll be able to let you go quickly if I don’t think there is a chance of it happening again within the next year.”

 

TK rolled his eyes, “Well excuse me for being busy settling into a new school.” 

 

Which was a reasonable excuse. There is no way anyone would suspect he had been avoiding the other man (even though he absolutely had been).

 

Still, this had been nice.

 

He fingered the strap of his bag as he picked it up, “maybe we can continue this during lunch tomorrow? I’d like to actually ask you some questions about the materials, which is what I came here to do before we got sidetracked.”  

 

Part of TK was praying he would say no.

 

Instead, he grinned, “sure, I’d like that. Until tomorrow then, Mr. Strand.”

 

“See you then, Reyes.”

 

And with a wave, he was gone.

 

His heart was still racing as he climbed into his car. He leaned against the seat and sighed. Operation avoid Carlos Reyes had officially crashed and burned. This was a terrible idea; he should find a reason to cancel tomorrow and go back to avoiding him as much as possible. This was a risk he didn’t need to be taking.

 

But even as he sat here, he couldn’t ignore the warm feeling of the aftermath of a pleasant conversation. His mind was shouting at him that this was a terrible idea, but he was having a harder time believing it with every passing second. His rules said no dating, but there was no reason they couldn’t be friends, right?

 


 

“You mean to tell me that you actually created a Poe unit for Halloween, and you chose to use ‘Masque of Red Death’ over ‘Cask of Amontillado’?”

 

“What’s wrong with ‘Masque of Red’ death?” Carlos asked with a frown.

 

“Nothing,” TK admitted, “but ‘Cask of Amontillado’ has much better spooky vibes.”

 

“And that is something not accomplished by ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’?”

 

“Fair point.”

 

He flipped through the last few pages before looking back up Carlos, “Besides that glaring omission—”

 

“You can add it if you want it’s not like it’s set in stone—”

 

“This is a really well put together unit. It’s really impressive, if I’m being completely honest.”

 

“Thanks,” Carlos replied with a smile that made TK’s heart do somersaults.

 

“But really, no ‘Cask of Amontillado’?”

 

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?”

 

“What has more halloween vibes than murdering someone by trapping them inside a wall?”

 

“A mysterious stranger who kills rich people hiding from a plague and having a party?”

 

“Touché.”

 

As the weeks dragged on, TK spent more and more time with Carlos. Each time they spoke he felt like he learned something that made him like him just that much more; each time he smiled at him his heart tried to do acrobatics. He ignored it – they were just friends; he couldn’t afford for it to be any more.

 

They continued in this way: spending time together at work, chatting about curriculum and students and things entirely unrelated. Upon finding out that the only things TK had seen in Austin since he moved there were the school, the grocery store, and his gym, Carlos took it upon himself to show TK some of the sights. Before he knew it they were spending evenings at food trucks and shows; exploring parts of the city TK had heard of but never seen.

 

One day during common planning the story Mateo was telling about one of the students in his first class was interrupted by a knock at the door. They all looked up and TK couldn’t stop the grin that appeared at the sight of Carlos in the doorway.

 

“Hey,” he said awkwardly, “I hope I’m not interrupting anything, I just wanted to drop these off,” he held up a stack of papers like an offering. “It’s the rubric and scoring guide I mentioned yesterday.”

 

“Thanks,” TK said as he got up and crossed the room to take the papers from Carlos, “I appreciate it. You didn’t have to come all the way down here.”

 

“No trouble,” Carlos replied lightly with that glowing smile of his that did things to TK’s heart which he tried desperately to ignore. The sound of a pointed cough drew TK’s attention back to his team who were all watching the proceedings with various levels of interest.

 

“Right,” he exclaimed, “I’m being rude. Carlos, this is my 9th-grade team – Mateo Chavez, Marjan Marwani, and Paul Strickland. It’s common planning,” he said by way of explanation. “Everyone else, this is Carlos Reyes, one of the Senior English teachers.”

 

Greetings were exchanged and Carlos glanced down at his watch, “I have a parent meeting to get to, I should go. But I’ll see you later?”

 

“Absolutely. Have fun at your meeting!”

 

“Sarcasm does not become you, Strand.” Then with a wave to the rest of the team, Carlos was gone as suddenly as he had appeared. TK turned to walk back to his seat but paused when he noticed the looks the others were giving him.

 

“What?” he asked, bewildered by the knowing looks they were giving him.

 

“What do you mean what?” Marjan exclaimed, “I think that whole thing was very obvious?”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“What are we…Strickland? You want to take this one?”

 

Paul sighed and set down his pen, “Are you and Carlos dating?”

 

“What? No!” TK exclaimed, heart racing.

 

Paul studied him, then nodded. “Okay man, but he has it bad for you.”

 

“No, he doesn’t have anything for me.”

 

The others looked doubtful.

 

“I think you’d make a cute couple,” Mateo offered.

 

TK sank into his chair and groaned, “Is there anything I can do to make you guys drop this?”

 

The other three looked at each other before Marjan spoke, “You couldn’t afford us,” she declared with a grin. 

 

TK scowled at her but she just kept beaming at him. Eventually, he shook his head and turned back to his work. His team in NYC had never been this close or comfortable with each other and this dynamic was something he had come to appreciate since moving. Today though he would be lying if he said he didn’t miss the peace and quiet of his team not getting invested in his personal life. Sometimes you didn’t know what you had until it’s gone.

 

Later that evening TK and Carlos are walking away from a food truck when Carlos brings it up, “Your team seems nice.”

 

“They’re the best,” TK confirms because, despite their meddling and his frustration, it is true. “They’ve been really great to me since I started, and we all get along really well. You should stop by again,” he says before he can convince himself it’s a bad idea, “spend some time talking to them when you don’t have a meeting to run too. I think you’d all get along really well.”

 

Carlos smiled at him, “I’d like that – maybe I’ll try to do that sometime next week. Now,” he said as they finished throwing away their garbage, “how do you feel about haunted houses?”

 

TK frowned at him, “Like paranormal activity or people covered in fake blood jumping out at you?”

 

“Both, actually.”

 

“Both are fine with me.”

 

“Good, because there’s this house on UT’s campus that is supposed to be very haunted and they’re doing a guided spooky walking tour there tonight if you want to check it out?”

 

TK finished the last of his water bottle before tossing it into recycling, “Sounds like a plan to me. Lead the way, Reyes.”

 

The following day TK arrived at the department meeting and slid into his customary seat beside Grace.

 

“Good morning Grace, how are you this fine Thursday morning?”

 

Grace looked up from the stack of assignments she has been grading to give TK a skeptical look. “Are you okay?” she asked him, narrowing her eyes.

 

“Of course I’m fine, why wouldn’t I be?”

 

“You’re not normally this…enthusiastic.”

 

“Can’t I just be happy to experience another beautiful day and get to see one of my favorite co-workers?”

 

If anything, Grace looked even more concerned but any comment or question she may have had was interrupted by the arrival of another person.

 

“Good morning Grace, TK.” Carlos greeted cheerfully as he took the empty seat on the other side of TK. “How are you both doing today?”

 

Grace returned Carlos’s greeting while TK grinned at him, but when he turned his attention back to Grace, she was giving him a knowing look.

 

“What?” he hissed as the instructional coach began to speak.

 

“It’s about damn time,” she replied lightly before turning towards the speaker, leaving TK spluttering in her peripheral.

 

The meeting proceeded as normal, aside from TK’s anxious glances between Grace and Carlos and the fact that he accidentally volunteered to make charts for their benchmark testing data. As they adjourned for the period Carlos turned to him.

 

“I haven’t given my students that test yet,” he said sheepishly with a nod to the stack of papers on TK’s desk from the other teachers, “but I’ll drop the reports off to you as soon as I have them. Should be in the next few days.”

 

“No big deal,” TK assured him with an easy smile, “this will be plenty to keep me busy for a bit. No rush.”

 

He glanced back over at Grace’s seat to kindly inquire what the fuck she had meant by that only to discover that it was empty. He cursed under his breath.

 

“I’ll see you around,” he said to Carlos, quickly gathering his things, “I have something I need to take care of before my next class.”

 

“Oh, okay,” Carlos said, a note of surprise (and possibly disappointment?) evident in his tone as he watched TK stand up, “I’ll see you later then.”

 

TK nodded, and then with a wave and a smile, he was gone.

 

He stepped out into the hallway and looked around. He didn’t see any sign of her. He sighed and began to walk in the direction of her classroom, hoping that she hadn’t decided to run any errands on her way back. He spotted her as he turned the corner.

 

“Grace!” he called softly. When she didn’t turn around he sighed and tried again, voice louder, “Mrs. Ryder!”

 

That got her attention. She paused and turned to face him, a questioning eyebrow raised. TK jogged to catch up with her, ignoring the curious stares from surrounding students.

 

“What did you mean by that?” he asked when he was close enough.

 

“I meant what I said,” she replied as if it were obvious, “it’s about time.”

 

“About time for what?”

 

She gave him an incredulous look, “Do I really have to spell it out for you dear?”

 

TK could feel the heat rising in his cheeks, “We’re just friends,” he blurted out.

 

“But you want to be more?”

 

TK glanced around the hallway where a handful of students were trying very hard to not look like they were listening. “Can we talk about this later?” he asked.

 

Grace laid a warm hand on his arm, “Strickland asked me to meet y’all for happy hour Friday, we can talk then.”

 

With that, she was gone, and TK was even more confused than he had been before.

 


 

A knock at the door caused TK to look up. Carlos was standing in the doorway, holding up a file folder to show that he came bearing gifts. TK grinned and motioned for him to come in.  

 

“Class,” he said as Carlos crossed to the front of the room, “this is Mr. Reyes, one of the senior English teachers. Some of you may have him in three years, so I’d start getting on his good side now.” 

 

Carlos glanced at the rows of curious gazes. “That’s true, bribery is always accepted. I accept payment in the form of skittles.” 

 

There was appreciative laughter from the class and Carlos grinned before turning to TK, “here’s those reports for the data you’re compiling. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I was just down this way and…”

 

TK waved off his concerns, “Relax Carlos, it’s fine. Besides,” he said louder so the class could hear, “I am very sure you just got a bunch of new fans because you interrupted a spiel on citations that I know they were absolutely loving .” This earned more laughter from his students and Carlos rolled his eyes at TK. 

 

“I guess I should leave you then,” he said at the same volume, “so they can get this very important information that will be very useful to them in the future. Maybe you can mention the fact that I just had two seniors try to turn in papers without citations and they are now redoing those papers.” 

 

Then, with a pointed look and a grin for the class, he was gone. 

 

TK shook his head fondly and chuckled as he flipped through the reports Carlos had given him before placing them down on the table beside him. He looked back up at his class, ready to start the lesson again when a hand went up. 

 

“What’s up Aniyah?” he asked, grabbing his coffee mug and taking a sip.

 

“Are you dating Mr. Reyes?” 

 

TK almost choked on his coffee, coughing to clear his airway as he accidentally inhaled some of it. “No,” he said emphatically, “not that it is any of your business.” 

 

“Why not?” 

 

This question came from someone else, though Aniyah seemed to agree with the question. TK looked at them incredulously and the student in question, Ethan, shrugged unapologetically. “He clearly likes you and I’m pretty sure you like him, so why not?”

 

TK just gaped at him, and then the rest of the class as nods started to come from all corners. 

 

“No,” he declared, setting down his mug, “we are not having this conversation. This is not happening. Hey, remember MLA formatting? Let’s get back to that.”

 

There were groans throughout the room and notebooks were reluctantly reopened but TK wasn’t fooled. These were teenagers - this would not be the end of this. He sighed wearily to himself as he pulled up the next example slide. No, he would not be hearing the end of this for a while. 

 


 

“C’mon dude, you need to unwind! I’m not saying you have to go crazy and get stupid drunk or anything, but you need to relax and what better way to do that on a Friday night than with your best friends?”

 

“Who said you losers were my best friends?”

 

“I did because we are your only friends.”

 

“That’s hurtful, Marjan.”

 

“But accurate.” She got up from her seat and walked over to him, perching on the edge of his desk. “Please? I’m starting to get worried about you. You are on top of everything and scarily efficient with all your paperwork and grades, but if you keep going at this pace without an outlet you’re going to burn out. Would you at least consider coming out with us?”

 

TK glanced up and saw her pleading expression staring back at him. He sighed warily, “Fine,” he relented, “I’ll come.”

 

She reached over to grab his hand and squeezed it, “Excellent, you won’t regret this.”

 

“I already do.”

 

Thus, the end of the school day found him driving to a small bar not far from school. He walked in apprehensively, taking in the very stereotypical Texan décor and throwing a wary glance at the bar. Marjan had been right in her assessment: he did need to unwind a little. But though he felt secure in his sobriety, he wasn’t sure that a bar was the best location to test that feeling. Then again, he was going to 3 AA meetings a week. He hadn’t felt even the slightest urge to use or drink again in weeks. He could handle this. He spotted Paul at the bar and walked over to join him.

 

Paul grinned when he saw TK approaching, “Hey, you made it! Let me get you a drink.”

 

Paul gestured to the bartender and TK flashed her a smile, “just a mineral water, thanks.” Paul raised an eyebrow but said nothing. When the bartender finished pouring all the drinks TK helped Paul carry them back to the table where everyone else was already sitting. TK was mildly surprised to see Grace there. He distantly recalled her mentioning coming, but hadn’t thought much of it. Now, seeing them all sitting there together on one side of the table with the only available chair on the opposite side facing them, TK was seeing this all in a different light.

 

He gave the table and group a skeptical look as he set his portion of the drinks down.

“Why does this feel like an intervention?”

 

“Because it is,” Mateo explained.

 

Marjan smacked his arm and rolled her eyes, “It is not. We are just…confused.”

 

“Confused about…?”

 

“About why you haven’t asked that very attractive and sweet young teacher who is very clearly infatuated with you out yet.”

 

All eyes flicked to Grace, who shrugged unapologetically, “Y’all think it’s bad, but you haven’t had to watch them in department meetings together.”

 

“Yeah well, you haven’t heard the entire 9th grade gossiping about them,” Mateo countered.

 

The others chuckled, but TK could feel his chest tightening.

 

“It’s complicated,” he managed to get out.

 

“Complicated is just an excuse people use to get out of talking about things,” Marjan said with a wave of her hand, “c’mon TK, you can tell us. What’s the real reason?”

 

As the others talked Paul was studying him, and TK had the distinct feeling he was putting the pieces together. He wasn’t sure which was worse.

 

TK bit his lip, staring down at his drink. He liked his new team, he even trusted them. He really did see them as friends. But to open up that much, to let anyone into the mess he had been hiding behind carefully constructed walls felt too much like a risk he couldn’t take. These walls kept him safe and even the thought of breaching them was terrifying.

 

“I just don’t get it,” Mateo was saying, “he seems like a great guy and you’re clearly into him, so why not go for it?”

 

Maybe a half-truth would suffice, for now.

 

“I’m not ready,” he said finally, surprising the rest of the table into silence.

 

All eyes turned back to him and he took a deep breath before explaining. “I went through a bad breakup before I left New York,” he said eventually. “We had been together for over a year and I thought he was my soulmate, so I decided to ask him to marry me.”

 

He paused here, keeping his eyes on his drink as he continued, “He told me he had been sleeping with his trainer while I was holding the ring. It was…messy. It was bad enough that a city of 8 million people wasn’t enough distance.  It was bad enough that I moved across the country for a chance to start over; for a clean slate.”

 

He paused again and the others stayed quiet, letting him gather his thoughts.

 

“Carlos is amazing, ” he admitted eventually, voice soft. “I wish we could give it a shot, but I’m just not ready to go there yet. It’s way too soon.”

 

“I’m sorry we tried to push you,” Marjan said sadly, reaching across the table to put her hand on top of his. “We had no idea.”

 

Grace and Mateo nodded their agreement, “I’m sorry you had to go through that dear,” Grace said softly, “but I’m glad you were able to move on. That shows fortitude.”

 

Paul had remained silent and TK looked over at him. He was studying him and TK had the distinct feeling that Paul knew there was more to the story. He prayed he wouldn’t ask—there was only so much baring of his soul he could do in one Friday afternoon.

 

When Paul did speak a few moments later he didn’t ask. Instead, he offered some advice: “I get where you’re coming from TK, but maybe the best way to move forward is to move on.”

 

Paul’s words were gentle and when TK met his eyes, his gaze was sincere. He nodded, giving his friend a soft smile. The chatter around the table slowly picked up and the others were gracious enough to let TK process and pull himself back together. He was grateful for it. He didn’t regret sharing this, but it had taken a toll. He had spent so long trying not to think about it that actually acknowledging it felt like lifting a weight without stretching.

 

Maybe it had been for the best though. Maybe Paul was on to something after all. Maybe it was time to take a chance.

 


 

“I still think that whole thing was pretty uncalled for.”

 

It was Monday and TK and Paul were standing in the space between their two classrooms, supervising the transition from class to lunch for the freshman wing. Paul looked unimpressed at his comment.

 

“You’ve never had to be in the same room as you two. It’s painful.”

 

“We’re not that bad,” he objected. When he caught Paul’s exasperated expression he added, “are we?”  

 

“I don’t even know how to properly describe to you how bad you two are,” he responded. “But we meant what we said; no more pressuring you. We had no idea where you were coming from. You need to do what feels right for you.”

 

TK smiled softly, “I don’t think I ever properly thanked you all for that.”

 

Paul waved his thanks off, “no need. If we had known, it never would have gotten that far. But I also mean what I said. Have you given it any more thought?”

 

TK hesitated before answering. He would be lying if he said he hadn’t. In all honesty, it had been the only thing he had thought of all weekend. Paul was watching him expectantly and TK was trying his best to form an appropriately phrased non-committal answer when the sound of running footsteps grabbed his attention.

 

He looked down the hall to see a student sprinting down the hall towards them, frantic expression evident even from this distance. All other thoughts fled TK’s mind as the kid slid to a halt in front of them.

 

“Mr. Strickland! Mr. Strand! You need to come quick, something’s wrong with Seth!” 

 

The fear in the eyes of Ethan, the perpetual joker, struck TK like a physical blow. He exchanged a quick glance with Paul and saw his own concern reflected in his expression. Ethan started back in the direction he had come from and TK followed him without a second thought. He vaguely heard Paul behind him calling for Mateo to call admin and the nurse before he followed at TK’s heels. 

 

They followed Ethan into the boy’s bathroom at the other end of the hall. There was a form crumpled on the ground by the sinks and TK raced over, kneeling on the ground and gently turning him over.

 

His heart caught in his throat. It was Seth; he sat in the second row of his 1st-period class. He had just seen him this morning, he had seemed fine. Now he didn’t seem to be breathing. His lips were blue and his skin felt cold and clammy.

 

Something about this seemed eerily familiar and, on a hunch, he reached into the pocket of Seth’s hoodie. His dread only increased when he found the very thing he had been hoping not to: an empty ziplock bag.

 

All the signs were there. TK looked up at Paul who was crouching beside him with an expression he knew must be filled with cold dread and fear. “Tell the nurse we’re going to need Narcan.”

 

Paul looked back down at Seth’s form with a curse before getting up and rushing out to do as TK had instructed. TK’s hands were shaking as addressed Ethan, who was hovering off to the side, staring at his classmate with wide eyes.

 

“Ethan, I need you to help me move him. Can you do that?”

 

Ethan nodded and TK instructed him on how to get the other boy into the recovery position. They did and TK checked his breathing and pulse again. Both were there, but far too faint. There wasn’t much else he could do until the nurse arrived with the Narcan, which he hoped would be soon. He turned his attention to the other boy, who was pale and shaky.

 

“Still with me Ethan? You can step outside if it’s easier for you, I won’t judge you for it. It’s perfectly normal to be upset by this.”

 

Ethan pulled his gaze up from his classmate to meet TK’s, “You seem to be handling it pretty well.”

 

“My dad’s a firefighter, I’ve had responses to emergency situations drilled into my head my entire life. Don’t worry though, I’m still freaking out.”

 

Not one word of that was a lie, but it was far from the actual truth.

 

Ethan nodded and stood up, “I think I will go wait outside, I…”

 

He trailed off and TK nodded, “That would be helpful, actually. You can make sure they know where to go.”

 

Distantly he heard the sound of the PA system announcing a shelter in place. 

 

“Right,” Ethan said, voice surer than before, “I’ll do that.”

 

As soon as he was gone TK took a deep breath and closed his eyes for just a moment. He was only holding onto his composure by a thread. The sooner more help got here the better—for both of them.

 

The door behind him banged open and TK turned to see the nurse followed by Judd and Paul. He moved over to make room on the floor for the nurse and gave her the specifics. She nodded and reached into her bag, coming back out with the nasal spray which she administered swiftly. After a few tense moments, Seth’s eyes shot open and TK heaved a sigh of relief. He pulled himself off the floor, allowing the nurse the extra room to work, and crossed over to where Paul and Judd were standing. Before either of them could speak the door flung open again as the paramedics entered. Within a handful of minutes, they had Seth on the gurney and were heading back out the door, to the waiting ambulance. Judd followed behind them, only pausing to ask TK to come up to the office shortly so they could debrief about the situation. The nurse followed behind and soon it was just TK and Paul left in the first-floor boy’s bathroom.

 

He could feel the adrenaline leaving his system now. The laser focus it had afforded him was fading, allowing room in his mind for other thoughts he didn’t want.

 

“You okay man?” 

 

TK glanced over to Paul, who looked pointedly down at TK’s hands. They were shaking. 

 

TK shoved his hands into his pockets, hiding the tremors from view. He cleared his throat but couldn’t get the words out. He glanced back over at Paul who was watching him with badly concealed concern. 

 

Their eyes met and after a few moments, TK saw something click in Paul’s mind. His expression shifted from concerned to sympathetic and he placed a hand on TK’s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. TK nodded his thanks but turned away, closing his eyes as he did so. He took a deep breath, willing his racing heart to calm. The panic was right at the edge of his senses, threatening to overtake him. He took another deep and measured breath before opening his eyes and looking in the direction that they had taken Seth. Try as he might, he couldn’t ever seem to leave this part of his past behind him. It was a grim reminder: no matter how far you run, you can never truly outrun your past. 

 


 

The rest of the afternoon is spent dealing with the aftermath.

Eventually, they get the welcome update that Seth is going to be fine, but TK is certain that he has spoken with every member of the district administration in the meantime. He gives his account more times than he can count; rehashing every detail until it is etched into his skull. It was unlikely the memory of today would have ever faded from his memories if left to his own devices, but he knew with a cold certainly that it would never happen now. This was a memory that would be with him for the rest of his days.

At some point, Judd laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and told him that he could go home. He nodded and pulled himself to his feet before heading to the door. He walked back to his classroom in a daze, still reeling from the events of the past few hours. When he stepped into his classroom, he was not surprised to find it occupied.

They all turn at the sound of his footsteps and he is faced with the concerned looks of his team. He paused in the doorway and Marjan got up, closing the distance between them and pulling him into a tight hug.

“Are you okay?” she asked softly, her voice a warm balm against her neck. He shook his head and she gripped him tighter.

She released her hold on him but guided him further into the room to where the others are sitting. He gratefully sinks into a chair before putting his head in his hands. He could feel the gazes of the others on him; cautious and concerned.

“I should have seen the signs,” he said eventually.

“You couldn’t have known…”

“No,” he insisted, “I could have. I should have. How did I miss it?” He pulled his head up from his hands with a sigh, “I should have seen it.”

The others are studying him and he meets each of their gazes in turn. An understanding passes through them and he knows that they know what he is saying without him actually having to use the words. He returns his gaze to his desk, looking down at his hands instead. They’ve almost stopped shaking.

“Now you know,” he announced bitterly, “your co-worker is a fuck up.”

“We’d never think that TK,” Marjan assured him, voice gentle. “If anything, I think it shows how strong you are. It couldn’t have been easy to get past that, to move on.”

“The worst part is that even if he beats this, he’ll never be free.”

“TK…”

He continued, studiously avoiding eye contact with the others, “It will always be a demon in his past, just waiting for the opportunity to take over again. Some days will be easy, and after a while, he’ll hardly think about it at all. But then someday, when it’s nothing more than a memory, something might give, and that demon will be ready to destroy his life all over again the instant it’s given a chance. He’s going to have to live with it for the rest of his life.”

The room was quiet, and TK finally looked up. There were tears in Marjan and Mateo’s eyes. Paul was giving him a look that spoke volumes of understanding and sympathy.

“I think maybe it’s storytime now,” he said thickly in an attempt to lighten the mood. It fell flat. “I think you guys deserve the truth,” he said instead.  

“You don’t have to—”  

Paul was quick to reassure him, but TK cut him off.

“No, I think I do. I want to.”

He glanced around to see them all watching him, expression filled with concern. It was time, and he could trust these people. They were his family. They deserved to know.

So, he told them. Everything.

 


 

When TK stepped outside the school a little later, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the warm evening air. A lifetime as a New Yorker still had him doing a double-take at 70-degree weather in November. A text from his dad this morning had informed him it was in the 40s back in New York, but TK didn’t think he minded the difference. Like so many things in his new life it was different, but in the best possible way.

 

He soaked in the warmth of the rapidly fading daylight as he walked towards his car. He was still filled with worry about Seth; anxious about the best way to help. He wanted to make sure he was doing enough. He wanted to make sure that he used his past to help the kid in a way no one else but he could.

 

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice the person leaning on the back of his car until he was a few feet away.

 

“Carlos?”

 

The man in question looked up from his phone and his anxious expression seemed to thaw at the sight of TK. They stood in silence for a few seconds before Carlos spoke.

 

“Michelle told me what happened, and I just wanted to see if you were okay.”

 

TK considered that. Was he okay? He did feel better, a little steadier after that conversation with his team. He had shared some of his burden and he didn’t feel like he was drowning under the weight of it all, for the moment. His hands had stopped shaking, but he was worn; mentally and emotionally exhausted from stress and trauma and emotional labor.

 

In the end, he shrugged, and Carlos nodded. He didn’t seem surprised.

 

“Why don’t you let me drive you home, you look like you’re about to fall over so you probably shouldn’t be driving.”  

 

TK thought of his rules; of all the reasons he should say no. But he also thought about Paul’s advice and the look on Carlos’s face. So he gave Carlos a grateful smile—a small, fragile thing—and nodded.

 

They rode in silence, but there was nothing awkward about it. It felt comforting to TK, it felt safe. When they pulled up outside of TK’s apartment building he turned in his seat to look at Carlos, “why don’t you come up for a bit?”

 

“Oh,” Carlos spluttered, “I mean, I should—”  

 

“Please?” TK interrupted softly, “I don’t really want to be alone just yet.”

 

Whatever excuse Carlos was going to give died on his tongue. He shut his mouth and nodded before shutting off his car and following TK up to the front door.

 

When they reached his apartment door TK unlocked it and gestured for Carlos to step inside. He did so hesitantly, taking in the surroundings as he entered. There were still boxes scattered around, open and half full and the walls were still bare. He turned to TK with a raised eyebrow, “haven’t you been here for like, 3 months?”

 

“Yeah, but not all my stuff showed up right away,” he said defensively. He softened his tone though as he glanced around at the boxes that had been taunting him for weeks, “and there’s something about the idea of unpacking them all that scared me. I knew that once they were unpacked, it would be that much harder to run away when things went badly.”

 

Carlos was studying him, “You sound like you were sure it would.”

 

TK nodded and met his eyes, “I’ve been walking on eggshells since I got here, terrified that I would make the wrong move, and everything would shatter again. I thought it was only a matter of time and,” here he broke off with a low chuckle, “I guess I was prepping for a quick exit. I left New York without saying anything to anyone. I sent in my resignation letter to my old school without any explanation. I sent a group text to my coworkers saying that I was leaving town. Not why, not to where – just that I was leaving. The only one who knows where I am now is my dad. I was hesitant to put down roots here because it makes leaving that much harder.”

 

“Are you on the run from the mob or something?”

 

“Is it bad to say I wish?”

 

“Yes TK, that is bad.”

 

TK shrugged, “I’m not, but I think it would be simpler if I was.”

 

Carlos was studying him now and the yellow light of his hallway illuminated him in a way no fluorescent bulb ever should. It was as if there were a spotlight on him – the universe saying here he is; the person you’ve been waiting for. Don’t let this pass you by.

 

He thought of his conversation with his team, of Paul’s advice. He thought of how he felt with Carlos: how he could make his heart race with a smile, how they seemed to understand each other without saying much at all. He thought about the quiet comfort of the ride here, and of the fact that Carlos had waited for him, that Carlos had been there for him without being asked.

 

Sometimes the best way to move forward is to move on.

 

Maybe it was time to finally put some action behind Paul’s advice.

 

“Do you want to sit down?” he said eventually. “I’ll tell you about it, if you want.”

 

Carlos looked startled, “Oh. You don’t have to. I mean, I don’t need to know if you’re not comfortable with it. I don’t want to make you share anything you’re not ready to.”

 

“No,” TK said, a certainty that he hadn’t felt in months filling his voice, “I want to. You deserve to know. I want you to know, so you can decide what your answer will be to the question I have.”

 

He gestured to the couch and Carlos took the invitation and sank down onto the far end. TK settled onto the other side. Then he told him everything; all at once.

 

Carlos listened as he talked about his troubled teen years, about the struggle to get sober. He talked about moving on, about starting teaching, about meeting Alex. He told him about the dinner and the ring that was now sitting in a pawnshop in Brooklyn. He told him about the shame and fear of waking up in his dad’s arms to see the fear in his father’s eyes and the realization that he had thrown away all those years of struggle and that it had almost cost him his life.

 

When he was done there was quiet as TK let Carlos process. His heart and mind were racing, both desperately hoping that Carlos wouldn’t want to run away; that TK hadn’t read him wrong.

 

When he finally spoke, it wasn’t what TK had expected: “So that kid today…”

 

He trailed off and TK finished, voice low: “brought up some memories, but also helped to make some things clear.”

 

Carlos’s answering glance was curious, so TK elaborated: “Would you like to go on a date with me Carlos?”

  


 

It was several days before Seth showed up in school again. When he entered the room for English and the others turned to stare at him, TK called them back to attention. During their independent work time, he swung by Seth’s desk, not wanting to draw more attention to him than necessary.

“Can you hang out for a bit after class? I want to talk to you.”

Seth looked like he was signing up for his own execution, but he nodded and TK gave him a reassuring smile, “It’s nothing bad, I swear.”

When the bell rang and TK dismissed the rest of the class he watched as Seth took his time gathering his things, avoiding eye contact with everyone else as they filed out. Once the last curious straggler had been chased out by TK’s pointed look, he crossed the room to slide into the seat beside Seth.

“I realize you are going to be hearing this question about a hundred other times today, but I’d appreciate it if you humored me anyways: how are you feeling?”

Seth shrugged non-committedly and avoided TK’s eyes.

“That’s fair,” TK allowed. “I just wanted to let you know that you can always come to me if you have a problem. If you’re having a hard time, if you’re worried, come see me. I want to help.”

“What’s the point of trying? I’m a screw-up and now everyone knows it. You shouldn’t waste your time.”

The words were bad enough, but the way he said them struck TK like a physical blow.

“I’m not wasting my time. It’s going to be a while, and it’s going to be hard. Nothing is going to get better right away. But if you keep trying, you’ll get there. I promise you that.”

Seth scoffed, “And what would you know about it?”

“More than you’d think.”

This caught his attention and when he finally met TK’s eyes, he could see the dawning realization.

“I want to help you, Seth,” TK repeated, “don’t let shame or embarrassment keep you from asking for the help you need.”

Seth nodded and TK smiled at him, “You should get to your next class, but remember what I said, okay?”

The boy gave another nod and a ghost of a smile before he rose from his seat and headed for the door. TK watched him go, feeling a little hope as he watched him walk away. Moving here was starting to feel like less of a mistake every day. In fact, it was starting to feel a little like fate.

 


 

“Hey TK, we’re going bowling tonight, want to come?”

TK looked up from the assignment he had been grading to find Mateo, flanked by Marjan and Paul in his doorway. “Bowling?” he asked skeptically.

Paul nodded mournfully, “not my idea.”

TK bit back a smile at his forlorn expression but shook his head, “Sorry guys but, as tempting as that sounds, I have plans tonight.”

“Plans?” Marjan asked incredulously, “What plans? You never have plans.”

“That would be my fault, I guess.”

A new voice interrupted and the trio in the doorway turned to find Carlos standing in the hallway behind them. They parted to let him through, and he crossed over to TK’s desk. He stood to meet him, pressing a light kiss to the corner of his jaw before glancing at his team who were watching with expressions in various shades of joy and triumph.

“Finally,” Mateo blurted out, breaking the quiet and causing the other two to laugh.

TK rolled his eyes but Carlos chuckled lightly as he snaked an arm around TK’s waist, pulling him closer. TK gladly followed, allowing himself to melt into Carlos’s side. It had only been a few days, but it already felt like home.

He didn’t realize he had been gazing into Carlos’s eyes for an extended time until he heard a groan from the doorway.

“I think we’ve made a mistake,” Marjan said dismally, “They’re going to be unbearable now.”

TK tried to scowl at her, but he couldn’t even manage it. He was too content and happy to even pretend to feel anything else. Carlos leaned over to place a feather-light kiss on the top of his head which caused Marjan to roll her eyes anew.

“Technically, this is your fault,” TK reminded her.

She waved off his words, but she couldn’t quite manage to hide the satisfaction in her expression. They stood there for a few more moments before Paul made the executive decision.

“C’mon guys, let’s get out of here while we still have a chance to think about anything but how depressingly single we are.”

TK looked up to Carlos, “got any friends? It’s only fair that I return the favor.”

“Not on your life Strand,” Paul deadpanned. 

With a final round of waves, his team was gone and he and Carlos were alone. TK reluctantly pulled himself out of Carlos’s grasp and turned back to his desk, gathering up his papers to take home. Carlos leaned against the nearby table as he waited, watching TK as he worked.

TK looked up as he was sliding his laptop into his bag, “what are you looking at?”

“You,” Carlos answered simply. TK could feel the heat building in his cheeks. “I’m just reminding myself that this is real. Sometimes I think it was a dream, but then I see you look at me like that and I get to remember.”

“Oh, you think I’m dreamy?” TK tried for a joke, but it fell flat in the weight of Carlos’s gaze.

Carlos smiled anyways, “I think I’m lucky that I found you.”

TK zipped up his bag and pulled it up onto his shoulder before walking around his desk so he was in front of Carlos, “I think that luck goes both ways. If anything, I think I’m the luckier one. Never did I think I would be fortunate enough to find some like you.”

Instead of answering Carlos leaned forward and pulled him into a kiss. It was light and sweet, and over far too soon. The halls may be empty; but they were still in school, after all.

TK rested his forehead on Carlos’s as he caught his breath. “I think we should go, because I would very much like to try that again.”

“What about dinner?”

“It’s still early, we have time for both. If not, there’s always takeout.”

Carlos laughed deeply and TK allowed the sound to fill him. It brought on a warmth he had never felt with another person. Not one single guy he had ever dated, certainly not Alex. He couldn’t believe he had spent his entire life not knowing what love could really feel like. It may be early but he was fairly certain this was love, or at least the beginning of it. He pulled away and used their linked arms to pull Carlos with him.

“Let’s go Romeo, we have a busy night ahead of us.”

Carlos scrunched his face in distaste, “I wish you’d come up with a better term, Romeo was an idiot.”

“Just when I thought you couldn’t get any sexier, you break out the facts.”

Carlos laughed again and TK intertwined their hands as they exited his classroom, “I’ll come up with something better, we have time.”

As they exited the school hand in hand TK reflected on that fact. Time – they had so much of it before them and for once, thinking of the future didn’t fill him with fear. He thought that maybe, when they were done tonight, he might ask Carlos to help him unpack the last of his boxes. He had a feeling he’d be in Texas for a while.