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- - - - - -

 

Carlos doesn’t think it’s too dramatic to say that Austin Fire Department budget cuts have effectively ruined his life. 

 

It’s a Tuesday when he and his entire station are pulled into a meeting with the city’s fire chief who tells them that, within the month, their company will be disbanded and their jurisdiction divided up among the three larger stations nearby. 

 

Carlos gets it - he’s not blind to their numbers over the past year, or to the small size of their crew - but it still hurts. He’s been with Station 98 since he graduated from the academy five years ago, and it’s his home. It hasn’t always been easy, especially when he refused to hide his sexuality, but it’s become a place that he’s made his own. 

 

And now, it’s just gone. 

 

They’ve all been assured that they aren’t being fired. Instead, they’ll be divided among the other ladder companies in Austin. The bulk of the team is going to the three stations nearby, but when Carlos gets his reassignment, he realizes that the same is not true for him.

 

In fact, when Carlos reads the three black, printed numbers on his paperwork, he forces himself to bite his tongue, lest he say something that might lose him his job. 

 

Ladder 126 has become something of a modern AFD legend, its journey over the past few years the talk of the whole town. From the house being shuttered for six months following the tragic deaths of the entire team, to the reopening and rebranding at the hands of a fancy New York fire captain (complete with a team almost entirely made up of transplants), Carlos finds that people just cannot stop talking about the 126 and all of their wild, daring rescues.

 

To make matters worse, the new team seems to get off on all the attention.

 

He’s known Judd Ryder, the only original member of the 126 crew, for years, and he has a lot of respect for the man. But, he doesn’t know how the tried-and-true Texan finds it in himself to work with a team full of narcissistic, showboating attention-seekers.

 

Carlos still remembers helping them on a call only a few months after their new company opened, their crews brought together to respond to a major traffic emergency in the heart of Austin. The day had been crazy, with him moving from car to car as fast as possible, pulling out victims and passing them off to the medics, one right after another.

 

At least, that was the case until he came upon a car with a woman trapped between her steering wheel and the back of her seat, jammed all the way forward by the force of the crash. Two of the 126 members - Marwani and Strickland, according to their turnout coats - stood to the side, arguing about who should take the lead on the rescue. Carlos, passing by, saw red, pushing through them with a “She’s not gonna make it if you two don’t shut the hell up and get to work!” He’d taken the lead, the three of them working to remove the woman from the car in under ten minutes. When they were done, Carlos had thrown them a glare before moving on, barely hearing their apologies and thanks shouted after him.

 

Following that, along with Judd's past complaints about the nepotism of his new boss hiring his son, he’s done his best to avoid the 126 completely. 

 

Until now. 

 

Nearly four weeks later, Carlos steps through the doors of the modern-looking station, his duffle bag slung over his shoulder. He takes a deep breath, tightening his grip on the strap, before moving further inside, his eyes moving around the space to take it all in.

 

He hears laughter off to his right, and heads towards the noise, circling around the corner into an open kitchen. What looks like the entire team is gathered there, around the island, laughing as someone tells a story. He’s spotted almost immediately, a loud “Hey, he’s here!” ringing throughout the room. All heads turn towards him.

 

“Ah, Firefighter Reyes, you found us!” 

 

Carlos recognizes Captain Strand as he makes his way towards him, holding out his hand. He takes it in his own, giving it a firm shake, his heart beating a little faster in his chest at being the new center of attention. 

 

His new captain introduces him to the group, with Carlos taking in familiar faces. They all seem happy to see him, each of their greetings enthusiastic and welcoming.

 

“Let’s do a quick tour,” Captain Strand says when everyone has dispersed, off to finish their morning assignments. He points to Carlos’s bag. “I’ll show you where you can get changed, and then we’ll chat in my office, go over some paperwork and the protocols that we have around here.”

 

Carlos nods, swallowing nervously as he follows him up the stairs, Captain Strand already launching into what sounds like a well-rehearsed orientation focusing on the architecture and design inspirations of the firehouse.

 

Thirty minutes later, Carlos stops outside the door of the captain’s office, now changed into his new 126 standard uniform. He hesitates when he sees that the captain has company, another man sitting across the desk from him, his back to the door. Carlos’s hands begin to sweat, the familiar feeling of recognition coursing through him as he takes in the short, brown hair and wide shoulders of the newcomer.

 

“Ah, Reyes,” the captain says, spotting him out of the corner of his eye. “Good, I’m glad you’re here.” He jumps up from his desk, gesturing to the other man in the room. “I want you to officially meet the last member of our team. TK, this is Carlos Reyes. Reyes, this is my son, TK Strand.”

 

Carlos sucks in a breath when TK turns towards him, his green eyes wide and bright as they run up and down Carlos’s body. He watches as TK bites down on his bottom lip before meeting his eyes, his expression softening as he takes a step forward.

 

“We’ve met,” TK admits, holding out his hand.

 

“Though it’s been a few years,” Carlos agrees, his voice shockingly steady as he reaches out, pressing their palms together to shake TK’s hand.

 

A full-body shiver runs through him, his mind momentarily flashing back to the last time he felt TK’s hands on him: behind a bar, TK reaching into his pants as Carlos mirrored him, both sharing breath as they each chased after the dirty, fast, and fun high of their joined ecstasy.

 

He swallows, pushing the long-forgotten memory to the back of his brain where it belongs. 

 

“Well, who doesn’t like a reunion?” Captain Strand pipes in, a wide smile on his face.

 

“We’re really happy to have you here, Reyes,” TK says, and Carlos spots the way that he’s suddenly avoiding eye contact.

 

“He’s right,” his dad agrees, stepping back and gesturing for Carlos to take a seat. “I’ve looked at your record, and you’re a damn good firefighter. We’re lucky to have you on the team.” He leans back in his chair, leveling Carlos with a curious look. “I have a feeling you’re going to fit right in.”

 

Carlos hears the words, his mind racing with all of his own doubts and expectations. He slides his gaze over to TK, who’s still standing near the desk. The other man glances his way, a nervous smile on his face.

 

“Yes, sir,” Carlos says, burying everything that he’s been thinking for four weeks, ever since he got his assignment. “I’m excited to be here.”

 

“Well, then,” Captain Strand says, clapping his hands before he leans over the desk. “Welcome to the 126!”

 

- - - - - -

 

It takes Carlos a little under two months to realize that he’s almost completely misjudged the 126 team. 

 

In his defense, his opinion was formed from those initial meetings, way back when the crew first moved to Texas, along with Judd’s early frustrations. Following that, Carlos had mostly tried to forget the 126, only hearing about them when they managed to perform some daring, heroic act that sounded - to Carlos, a by-the-book rule-follower - needlessly reckless and dangerous. 

 

But, in the two years since all of that, it seems like the team has settled into the world of Austin, Texas, becoming truly worthy of the reputations that they’ve earned.

 

Carlos learns that Paul is absolutely incredible at his job, his observation and problem-solving skills so sharp they don’t even feel real sometimes. Marjan is both energetic and hilarious, and Carlos finds her a true match for his own sarcasm and snark. While she’s definitely still competitive, always happy to duke it out with her team members, she’s also honed her focus while on calls, leaving her ego at the door in the face of those that need her. Mateo is incredibly eager to please at all times, teasingly called the “little brother” of the group. He and Carlos have really bonded in the time that they’ve worked together, and he thinks Mateo even considers him a bit of a mentor. He’s happy to share what he knows, including everything he’s learned from the mistakes he’s made.

 

Carlos has known Judd for almost five years, but he is beyond happy to be working at the man’s side. The man’s heart is the size of Texas and he provides an authoritative, comforting presence on every call. Not only that, but he’s married to the greatest woman in the entire world, and Carlos has loved getting to know Grace outside of the dispatch radio; she reminds him of his older sisters, and he’s more than happy when they begin to develop a close relationship during after-work parties.

 

Captain Strand, too, is an incredible force to be reckoned with, and Carlos is surprised to learn just how overqualified he seems for this job, having come from New York and California. He leads the team with a gentle hand and a humorous spirit, and Carlos really grows to respect him. 

 

The only person he doesn’t really click with is TK.

 

To be clear, he doesn’t hate the man. Carlos was raised to find the good in most people, and he lives by that. Even those he doesn’t agree with, Carlos tries to make a connection. Well, unless they’re trying to take away people’s basic rights; he doesn’t want anything to do with those people.

 

But, certainly, TK isn’t evil like that. Far from it, actually.

 

In fact, he seems like a really nice guy. The team loves him, and when they’re all together, he adds so much light and spirit to the room. His relationship with his dad makes Carlos mourn for the loss of his own father and everything that they could’ve been together, and even Judd loves the guy like a brother. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch them together, their gentle ribbing providing quality entertainment.

 

As for TK and Carlos, their spiky relationship builds from a lot of smaller things, until they merely share space at the firehouse.

 

At first, Carlos sort of avoids one-on-one time with TK, just because of their history. It’s not that he’s still hung up on the fact that they hooked up after hours of fun, sexy dancing, or the fact that he gave the other man his number and then never heard back from him again. It’s been years, and Carlos has moved on.

 

Except, well, it’s maybe a little bit of a pride thing. He’s tense around TK during those first few weeks, wondering if the other man is going to mention what happened between them. When he doesn’t, instead basically avoiding talking to him one-on-one, Carlos follows TK’s lead, and they form a professional, working relationship. Nothing more to it than that.

 

Weeks turn into a month, and Carlos knows that the team has questions. He’s noticed Paul staring at them during mealtimes, trying to solve the puzzle that is TK and Carlos and the awkward, tense atmosphere that exists between them. He never asks, but Carlos knows he wants to, and he’s sure the same is true for the others.

 

In the end, Carlos feels way more settled with the 126 than he ever would have imagined, and he’s managed to form friendships that he knows will last a lifetime. The thing with TK is what it is, but everything is fine. 

 

Or, at least, it would be, if they weren’t fundamentally different firefighters.

 

Carlos knows that he’s as by-the-book as they come. He believes in following the rules, for the safety of everyone involved, including himself. It doesn’t mean he’s emotionally-disconnected on calls; it just means that he’s able to channel his desire to save everyone into rational processes. His reputation precedes him, and Carlos knows that he does his job well. Not only that, but he does it correctly, the way it’s supposed to be done.

 

TK is, oftentimes, the exact opposite.

 

Week after week, Carlos finds himself in risky situations on calls, all unexpected and all because of TK. The man charges into situations without much forethought, his tunnel vision focused on the lives he needs to save. On one hand, it’s an admirable quality, one that Carlos understands, at least on a theoretical level. But, he also knows that TK’s reckless attitude is why the man also finds himself in the back of the ambulance more often than anyone else on the team.

 

Sure, it irks Carlos that TK puts his own life in reckless danger, but it terrifies him that everyone else has to suffer the consequences of his actions. 

 

Three months in, and Carlos’s annoyance reaches a boiling point.

 

The fire engine pulls to a stop beneath the high ceilings of station 126, but Carlos barely notices. His heart has been pounding in his ears for the past hour - an angry, vengeful fire brewing underneath every inch of his skin. He honestly doesn’t know if he’s ever been this mad, and he knows the rest of the team has detected it. He stares straight ahead, his jaw clenched, but he can see the concerned looks in his peripherals, everyone glancing his way every now and then. 

 

Everyone, that is, except TK.

 

The other man sits on the other side of the truck, his own jaw clenched as he stares out the window. He’s the first one out when they stop, and the fire inside of Carlos’s chest roars to life, all of his normal rationality and professional composure consumed by the flames.

 

By the time Carlos has dismounted from the truck, TK is across the room, quickly putting his equipment away. 

 

“What the fuck was that, Strand?” he yells, his anger unmistakeable in his tone. He sees his teammates turn to look at them, surprise on every single one of their faces. Carlos never yells. 

 

Never.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” TK replies, his voice tight but loud in the now silent space between them.

 

“Bullshit,” Carlos spits back, a muscle in his jaw pulsing at the force of it. 

 

Paul steps forward, his hands out. “Reyes, why don’t we--”

 

“No!” Carlos yells, shaking his head. At this point, TK has turned towards him, his eyes wide. “No, I’m not going to walk away. I’m so fucking tired of this little shit,” he continues, pointing an accusatory finger at TK, “recklessly running into buildings, putting everyone’s life in danger, and no one says anything about it. I’m not letting it go, Strickland!”

 

“What exactly did you expect me to do, Reyes?” TK yells back, his shoulders tense as if he’s ready for a fight. “There was a child trapped in there!”

 

“I expected you to stop for a moment and talk to me, so that we could make a plan together!” Carlos yells, pulling at his hair in frustration. 

 

“By the time we did that, she could’ve died!” TK screams back.

 

“You almost died, TK!” Carlos fires back. “You ran across an unchecked floor that fell out behind you! You almost fell through!”

 

“But I didn’t!” TK takes a step closer, rising up to his full height.

 

“You got lucky,” Carlos spits, his disgust clear in his voice. “Not to mention, you took out your one escape route, forcing us to come up with another plan!”

 

“I don’t know what you’re so mad about, no one died!”

 

“IT’S NOT OUR JOB TO RESCUE YOU, TOO!”

 

TK’s jaw slams shut at Carlos’s words. 

 

“It takes everything that we have to save the people already in danger when we arrive, we can’t keep bailing you out of trouble, too,” Carlos cries, his voice still raised. “If you weren’t so reckless - if you actually followed protocol - you wouldn’t need to be saved all the damn time. You wouldn’t be putting your team’s life at risk to save your life as well as the ones we’re already trying to save!”

 

TK opens his mouth, a retort on the tip of his tongue, but they’re cut off by a new voice.

 

“That’s enough,” Captain Strand says, his voice low and heavy as he steps up to them. “Both of you, in my office. Now.”

 

Carlos turns immediately, moving towards the stairs. He removes his turnout coat as he goes, throwing it onto the chair outside of the captain’s office, his heart still performing a drum solo in his chest. 

 

Captain Strand closes the door behind him before circling to stand on the other side of his desk, eyeing the two of them. Carlos stands tall and professional, ignoring TK next to him, his focus on his captain.

 

“Listen,” Captain Strand says, his voice tight. “We run into burning buildings for a living, to save people’s lives. It’s not an easy job, but we do it, and we do it well. But, we do it best when we know that we don’t have to worry about our team, when we know that we have each other’s backs. We don’t have time to second-guess that, not when every second counts. 

 

“I know the last few months have been a difficult adjustment,” he continues, sighing. “I don’t know if you two think you’re hiding it, but I’m telling you right now, you’re not. It’s obvious to the entire team, and now it’s starting to affect your work.”

 

Carlos feels his heart climb up into his throat, not liking where this conversation is going.

 

“A team that doesn’t work well together is a team that fails,” Captain Strand continues, taking a seat behind his desk. He stares up at them. “If you two can’t figure this out, I’ll have to submit an order for transfer. I can’t take the risk.”

 

The words are like a shot straight through him, and Carlos feels his heart drop all the way to the bottom of his stomach. He knows exactly what that means.

 

Last one in, first one out.

 

“Is that understood?” Captain Strand asks, eyeing them both. 

 

“Yes, sir,” Carlos mumbles, trying to keep the tears of frustration and anger from seeping into his voice. “With all due respect, sir, may I be excused?” he asks, his voice cracking on the final word. 

 

Captain Strand gives him a look, weighing his request, before giving him a nod. Without a look to anyone else, Carlos exits the room.

 

He manages to make it to the showers before he breaks, a sob pouring from him as if he’s been wounded. He strips down, stepping into the shower. Under the water, he lets the tears fall, his mind spinning in a million different directions.

 

He’s going to lose his job. It’s only been a few months, and he’s going to be sent to a new station, again. Just like that.

 

Carlos knows he should’ve kept his mouth shut and listened to Paul when he had the chance. He’s never been one to lose his temper like that, always wearing a mask of professionalism at work. He can’t believe that he let himself say those things.

 

There’s no way that TK will be transferred from the 126. Not only has he been there longer, but he’s the captain’s son. Captain Strand would never send his kid away, especially not for a man he’s only known for three months. 

 

Carlos turns off the water, letting out a sigh. There’s nothing that he can do about it, no point in begging when he knows the decision’s already been made. 

 

He’s just going to have to live with it.

 

He steps out of the shower, wrapping a towel around his waist after drying his hair. When he turns the corner, he stops in his tracks, surprised to find someone else in the locker room.

 

TK waits on a bench, his shoulders tight, his bottom lip pulled between his teeth. His gaze slides up Carlos’s body until their eyes meet, the silence between them deafening.

 

“He’s not going to transfer you,” TK says, his voice quiet as he stares back down at his fingers. 

 

Carlos scoffs, rolling his eyes as he moves over to his cubby, grabbing his clothes. He takes a seat on the other bench across the room, pointedly not looking at TK or responding to his claim.

 

“He doesn’t want to,” TK assures him, desperation seeping into his voice, as if he needs Carlos to understand him.

 

“Well, I’m sure you want him to,” Carlos says, sliding on his boxer briefs before standing to remove his towel. 

 

“I don’t, actually,” TK says quietly. Carlos spins around, watching as TK’s eyes move back up to his face. He feels heat on the back of his neck at the weight of the other man’s stare, his mouth going dry. 

 

“I like having you here, as part of our team,” TK continues, his voice small. “Everyone does, actually. You’re really good at what you do, and you’re part of our family now.”

 

Carlos is completely speechless, his mouth falling open as his mind tries to figure out what’s going on. Less than an hour ago, they were screaming at each other in the bay. Now, he doesn’t know what’s happening.

 

“You were right.”

 

Those three words stop all thought in Carlos’s mind. He watches as TK stands, taking a step towards him, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

 

“I can be reckless, and I don’t always follow protocol, and sometimes I put myself in danger,” TK admits, bringing a hand up to rub awkwardly at the back of his neck. “And all of that would be bad enough, but that also puts my team in danger. And today, I put you in danger, too, by not having a plan.” He looks up at him, his eyes wide and apologetic. “I’m sorry, Carlos.”

 

There’s a moment of silence, the words hanging in the air, and then Carlos takes a breath.

 

“I’m sorry, too,” he says, his eyes locked on TK’s green ones. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, that was unprofessional and unfair.”

 

TK shrugs, a sad smile pulling at his mouth. “It worked, though. I heard you.”

 

“Still,” Carlos says, shaking his head. He pushes forward. “I know it’s hard to pause and take a moment when there’s someone who needs help. Believe me, I get it,” he says, willing TK to understand. “But, I don’t think it’s possible to save someone else by putting yourself in harm’s way, too. That just increases the amount of people who need saving.”

 

“Yeah,” TK says, his voice small. “Thank you, for being honest with me.”

 

Carlos nods, turning back to grab his uniform shirt. He pulls it on, reaching down to start buttoning it. 

 

“I’m also sorry if I’ve made you feel unwelcome at all,” TK continues. Carlos looks up, noticing that TK’s eyes are fixed on his hands as he loops the buttons through their holes. His heart jumps unexpectedly, his fingers fumbling for just a moment. “I know I’ve been a little distant, and I hope that didn’t make it any harder to fit in with the team.”

 

Carlos shakes his head. “It wasn’t just you, TK,” he says. “I haven’t been the most open communicator, either.”

 

TK’s eyes follow his fingers up his shirt, before sliding up to his face again. Carlos notices that his pupils are a little larger than normal, along with the smile that he gives him. He’s a little shocked when TK holds out his hand.

 

“How about a fresh start?” he asks, wiggling his fingers. “Blank slate.”

 

Carlos stares at him, considering the offer. A second - well, third - chance for them. It’s more than most people get, more than most people need. But, from the first minute that he met TK, he knew their story would be a long one. 

 

And he’s more than willing to give them another shot at it. 

 

“Yeah,” Carlos whispers, taking TK’s hand in his own. A spark shoots through him, followed by a pleasing warmth. “A fresh start sounds great.”

 

- - - - - -

 

It turns out that when they allow themselves the chance, TK and Carlos make a pretty great team.

 

Their relationship doesn’t just change overnight. Much like their former animosity, their new, blank slate fills up with small, simple moments that work together to create the eventual picture of their friendship.

 

They begin spending more time together at the firehouse. TK starts to sit next to him at the dinner table, leaning over so frequently to whisper gossip and jokes in Carlos’s ear that he wonders how they ever survived with multiple people between them. They work out together in the upstairs gym, pushing each other to do the most pull-ups, spotting each other as they complete to see who can handle the most weight on the barbell. When they hang out in the common room, TK joins him at the table, asking him about the book he’s reading. He always seems really interested, and on more than one occasion, TK asks to borrow it the minute he notices that Carlos has finished it. Their ensuing book discussions become long-winded and captivating, with Paul even joining them in reading some of the books and recommending some of his own. 

 

On nights when it’s Carlos’s turn to make dinner, TK joins him in the kitchen, acting as his assistant. He learns very quickly how unskilled TK is when it comes to cooking, and Carlos works hard to rectify that glaring mistake in Captain Strand’s parenting style. After a month or two, TK starts taking the lead, Carlos standing close by to offer a helping hand or gentle reminder whenever necessary.

 

Naturally, they start spending time together outside of the firehouse, too. Carlos shows TK some of his favorite places in the city, surprised that the man has lived in Austin for a few years and barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. They take their cooking lessons home to Carlos’s apartment, a movie or TV binge-session following dinner.

 

They have moments where they engage in deep conversations that last for hours, sometimes until late into the night. Carlos talks about his family, and growing up gay in Texas. TK talks about his life in New York, and how he always wanted to be a firefighter, except for that time two years ago after he got shot. They talk about everything and nothing, learning each other inside and out.

 

But, there’s one topic they never touch, a single moment in their history that flashes through Carlos’s mind every so often, usually when he looks down at a sweaty TK between his legs, lifting the barbell for his second or third rep as he breathes heavily, his face flushed and his pupils dilated. He’ll feel TK’s eyes on him when they’re in the locker room together, but every time Carlos turns to face him, the other man looks away. 

 

There’s a wall still there, and neither one of them is willing to take an axe to the first brick.

 

It’s fine, though. It’s good, actually. Carlos loves their friendship, loves what they’ve built together. He’s always wanted to feel close to someone the way he does with TK, and that means more to him than any sexually-charged moment from their past.

 

Their friendship seeps into their working relationship as well, the two of them becoming an unbeatable pair on calls. Carlos learns to relax a bit; he’s still obsessed with protocols, but now he moves into them naturally, letting them guide him instead of dictating his every movement and breath. In comparison, TK has become more thoughtful, less of a danger to himself and others. He’ll consult Carlos when they have to make a decision. They find that, thanks to their closeness, it doesn’t take them too long to come to an agreement, since they’re usually always on the same page. When they do argue, it never lasts long. They’re both passionate individuals, but their respect for one another always outweighs their desire to prove that they’re right. 

 

And that makes all the difference.

 

- - - - - -

 

Carlos has just passed his nine-month anniversary of joining the 126 when they’re called to an emergency at one of the local state parks. 

 

Captain Strand explains that some guy has gotten trapped under a fallen rock on an outcropping near one of the park’s waterfalls. Judd adds that the area has been blocked off for years, the sediment there unstable due to erosion. Carlos and TK share a look, and he knows they’re thinking the same thing: damn rule-breakers. They share a smirk, TK shaking his head before he turns away, refocusing on the conversation.

 

They get the truck as close as possible to the top of the waterfall before going the rest of the way on foot, carrying the gear they’re most likely to need according to Judd’s knowledge of the area. They stop at the edge of the cliffside, the roar of the nearby waterfall providing a constant soundtrack to the high-stakes situation. Captain Strand surveys the scene, yelling down at the man trapped all alone on a small outcropping in the cliffside. He’s conscious, just his leg stuck under a large rock that won’t budge. 

 

“Alright,” the captain says, turning back to the team. “Reyes, Strand, you’re going down. Shift the rock, wrap the leg as quickly as possible, and then we’ll send a stretcher down so you can get him back up here to medical.”

 

Carlos shares a look with TK, both of their faces set, as they nod in agreement. The rest of the team moves away to get the stretcher and medical gear ready, leaving TK and Carlos to strap on their harnesses.

 

“I know you’re going to want to go fast,” Carlos says, tightening the strap across his chest before reaching for TK’s, tightening his, too. “But I think we need to be careful with our weight. I don’t want another rock to shift and fall before we get this guy back up here.”

 

TK nods, checking his other straps before looking over Carlos’s, straightening the one at his waist. “Agreed, I’ll let you set the speed, and we’ll adjust where we can.”

 

When everything is set, they begin to rappel down the side of the cliff, their team above feeding them more rope when they request it. They talk the whole way down, making sure each other feels secure, and in no time, they’re down to the outcropping. It’s shallow, but they’re able to step on it and find their footing.

 

“Sir, my name is TK, this is Carlos,” TK introduces them, the man nodding back, his face flushed and sweaty as he winces. “Can you tell me if you can still feel your leg?”

 

“Yeah, I can, and it hurts,” the guy shares, looking down at where his calve is crushed under a rock. Carlos gives it a look as well, seeing what he’s guessing is a bone poking through the skin. 

 

“Definitely broken,” he says, turning to TK. 

 

“We’ll do the tourniquet first, and then move the rock to free the leg, try to stem the bleeding as much as possible until he can get to Tommy.”

 

Carlos nods, letting TK take the lead. Once the tourniquet is in place, Carlos reaches for the crowbar strapped to his back, levering it against the face of the cliff.

 

“Sir, this is probably going to hurt a lot, but try not to move too much,” he says, waiting for the man’s nod. TK reaches for the crowbar as well, and between their combined strength, they’re able to lift the rock enough to slide the man’s leg out from under it. As soon as it’s back on the ground, TK reaches for his gauze, wrapping the man’s leg as tightly as he can while Carlos calls for the stretcher.

 

In no time, they’re loading the man onto the board, their four hands working together as a unit to quickly strap him in. When they’re sure he’s secure, Carlos radios for the team to begin the lift. As he passes them, the man mutters a thank you, his voice weaker than before but his eyes still open. 

 

Carlos and TK watch as the stretcher rises twenty feet to the top, letting out a whoop when the team pulls it out of sight and over to the medical team. 

 

“Well done, Strand,” Carlos says, turning to give TK a smile.

 

“Not so bad yourself, Reyes,” TK replies, an equally happy expression on his face.

 

They’ve just started to rise back up the face of the cliff when the situation takes a turn for the worse.

 

There’s a crack above them, and Carlos looks up to see a rock above them shift. 

 

‘TK!” he yells, reaching out for the other man. He’s able to grab his arm just before the rock falls, the moment of contact a blur as their bodies swing through the air. He manages to pull them back to the outcropping, their feet planted. There’s another crack above them, and Carlos’s heart drops as he watches another rock tumble down, this one catching on the rope of his harness. With a snap, he watches it break, disconnecting him from the team above. 

 

“Fuck!” he says, checking TK’s rope. It still seems to be connected. “TK, you’re still connected,” he says, turning to face the other man. He lets out a cry, the color draining from his face as his legs go weak. “TK!”

 

The other man’s helmet has disappeared, clearly knocked off by the falling rock. Carlos can see a giant gash on his temple, blood already starting to run down the side of his face. TK’s eyes are dazed, though still open, as he looks around, trying to make sense of the situation. Carlos moves closer, wrapping an arm around his waist.

 

“I’ve got you, TK, don’t worry. I’ve got you,” he says quickly, his voice thin.

 

“What’s happening?” TK slurs, blinking a few times.


“We’re gonna find a place to sit down, okay?” Carlos says, looking around. A few feet to the right, he spots a shallow, concave dip in the side of the rock face, large enough for two men to sit and be out of the way of any falling debris. “Okay, TK, we’re going to move a bit so that we can sit down.”

 

His radio crackles to life, Captain Strand calling for a report.

 

“Cap, I’ve lost my support line and TK has a head wound and probably a concussion. We’ll need assistance to get back up to you,” he states, taking a step to the right and pulling TK along with him. 

 

It’s slow work, but he finally moves them along the outcropping to the small cavern. 

 

“Here you go, TK, sit down, right here,” Carlos guides, helping TK to settle with his back to the face of the cliff before settling himself at his side. He looks up, noticing that he can no longer see the top of the cliff above, so they should be safe from any other tumbling rocks. He turns back to TK, taking his face in his hands. “Hey, how are you doing?”

 

“I feel a little woozy,” TK answers honestly, his forehead wrinkling as he gasps in pain when Carlos presses gently against his temple. “How bad does it look?”

 

“It’s not too deep, I don’t think,” Carlos answers, examining the wound. “Do you have any more gauze?”

 

TK nods, reaching for it. Carlos carefully wraps his head. “Keep your eyes open, TK,” he reminds him, watching as the other man blinks slowly “Look right at me, don’t you doze off.”

 

TK scoffs. “I would never.”

 

Carlos huffs out a laugh. “Says the guy who can’t make it through an entire episode of television before falling asleep.”

 

TK shakes his head. “Hey, now. That’s just because you’re a really comfy pillow. Blame yourself for that one.”

 

They settle back now that TK’s head is wrapped, their shoulders brushing where their sides are pressed together. Carlos gives the team another report, with Captain Strand informing him that they’re just testing how secure the rocks are before they send someone down. 

 

Carlos looks to his right when he feels a weight on his shoulder, noticing that TK’s leaned down to rest against him.

 

“Hey, no sleeping,” he says, his voice tense as gives TK a small shake. The man sits back up, his eyes even more unfocused now. “Talk about something.”

 

“What?” TK asks, his speech slurred.

 

“Tell me something,” Carlos says, reaching out to wrap his fingers around TK’s forearm. “Something you’ve never told me before. Something that won’t make you want to fall asleep.”

 

TK stares at him for a moment, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth. It’s a nervous tick of his, and Carlos instinctively reaches out to tap the corner of his mouth, encouraging him to let it go. 

 

TK reaches up too, holding Carlos’s hand in place against his cheek.

 

“I was almost engaged once,” TK says suddenly, his words driving right through Carlos. 

 

“Oh,” he says, a flush heating up the back of his neck. “When?” he asks.

 

“Right before we moved here,” TK says, twisting their fingers together. “I thought I loved him, that I wanted to spend my life with him. And then, right before I asked him to marry me, he told me he’d been cheating on me with his fitness instructor.”

 

“Wow,” Carlos breathes out, his brain trying to catch up to all of this new information. “What an asshole.”

 

“Yeah,” TK admits, letting out a humorless chuckle. “It broke my heart, and I felt so betrayed. I felt like I was walking around in this, like, gray world. My dad got the job offer days later, and I decided to move down here with him, start fresh.”

 

Carlos nods, rubbing his thumb across TK’s knuckles. They’ve become more physically close in the past month or so, leading to cuddles and mutual shoulder rubs. Carlos can’t help but to wonder if they’re testing the waters on the way to something more. 

 

“I think about that night at the bar all the time.”

 

Carlos freezes, looking back up to find TK’s eyes on him. They look cloudier than before, and TK’s head begins to dip again, as if he’s struggling to hold it steady.

 

“What?”

 

“You and me, behind the bar,” TK repeats, resting the back of his head against the cliff. “I was still living in that gray world, even then, but that was the first time I started to feel something again.”

 

Carlos is silent, having no idea how to respond. They’ve avoided this conversation for months and now that they’re finally having it, TK is concussed and probably has no idea that he’s saying the things he’s saying.

 

“I got scared,” TK continues, his voice weaker. “I didn’t think I should be feeling so much so soon. I really liked you, but I wasn’t ready for anything more. I went behind that bar with you for an easy hookup, and then I felt all these things that were way more than casual. So, I deleted your number before I even made it home.”

 

Carlos’s mind races, his heart slamming in his throat. 

 

“And look at us now, years later,” TK laughs joylessly, his head nodding to the side. “You’re my best friend, just like I always knew you could be. One of the most important people in my life.”

 

TK leans over too far, losing his grip on consciousness. Carlos reaches for him, wrapping his arms around him. TK falls against his chest, his eyes falling closed.

 

“I’m right here, TK,” Carlos whispers, pressing his lips to TK’s hair. “I’m always going to be right here.”

 

“I was such a coward, and I lost you,” TK mumbles, Carlos barely able to hear him now. “We could’ve been so great together, and I ruined it.”

 

He falls silent, Carlos looking down to find his eyes completely closed. “TK!” he yells, trying to wake him back up. He yells again, and again, but there’s no response from the other man. 

 

A tear falls onto his cheek, TK’s words stabbing him in the chest. 

 

It’s everything that he’s been waiting to hear, but not like this.

 

“I’m not going anywhere, TK,” he says, pressing his lips to TK’s sweat-soaked hair. His radio crackles to life, Captain Strand telling him that the team is on its way. 

 

Carlos just holds TK tighter to his chest.

 

- - - - - -

 

TK takes two weeks off work to recover, and he and Carlos barely see each other during that time. 

 

Carlos and the team visit him at home a few times, and TK stops by the firehouse for a meal once, just to see everyone. But, other than that, Carlos has been at work; since they’re a firefighter down, they’ve all picked up overtime shifts to cover the gaps in the schedule. When he’s not at the firehouse, Carlos is usually asleep, or struggling to sleep, so he and TK haven’t really had a chance to talk about what happened. Not that Carlos really knows what he wants to say to the other man.

 

TK basically admitted to him that he wants to be more than friends - has always wanted that, for years - but Carlos has medical proof that he wasn’t totally aware of what was going on when he made that confession. He’s not even sure if TK remembers saying it, and Carlos is too scared to ask. He doesn’t know if his heart will be able to handle that kind of break.

 

Fifteen days after the cliffside rescue, he’s in the firehouse kitchen, preparing dinner for the team, music playing quietly through the bluetooth speaker in the corner. He collects all of the peppers off the counter, turning to rinse them in the sink, when he spots TK standing at the corner of the island, watching him with a small smile on his face.

 

“Fuck!” Carlos says, dropping a few of the peppers in his shock. He bends down to grab them, his face on fire, and when he stands straight, TK is closer, tossing a runaway pepper casually in the air. 

 

“Hey,” TK says, handing the vegetable over. 

 

“Hi,” Carlos whispers back, taking the offering. Their fingers brush, and Carlos shivers at the spark that runs through him. 

 

“It kind of looks like you could use an assistant,” TK says, gesturing to Carlos’s full hands. 

 

There’s a moment where they just stare at one another, green eyes locked on brown. 

 

“I’d love one,” Carlos finally says, TK’s answering smile causing one to appear on his own face.

 

They settle in next to each other at the counter, each working on their parts of the stir-fry. 

 

“How are you feeling?” Carlos asks, beginning to slice the peppers. 

 

“Really good,” TK answers, measuring out some of the dry ingredients. “I’m a little tired, but I think that’s just because I’m not used to being back at work yet.”

 

Carlos hums, incredibly aware of TK’s body next to his own. 

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t visit you much,” he says, shooting TK an apologetic smile.

 

“Dad said it was pretty crazy around here, so I forgive you,” TK jokes, nudging him. Then, without warning, he presses close to Carlos’s side, reaching past him to grab a piece of red pepper. Carlos follows his hand as TK raises it up to his mouth, taking a bite when their eyes meet. TK winks, and Carlos practically feels his heart melt in his chest.

 

Pain shoots through his finger, and he lets out a small cry, looking down to see drops of blood on the counter from where he’s grazed his finger.

 

“Oh, fuck,” TK cries, grabbing Carlos’s wrist and pulling him over to the sink. “Come here.”

 

Carlos lets TK manhandle him, running water over his hand before pressing a towel against it. His shivers, knowing it has nothing at all to do with the superficial injury. 

 

“Let’s get something on this,” TK says, dragging him out of the kitchen and over to the medical supply room off the bay.

 

Carlos stands still, holding the towel around his hand, as TK flits around him, grabbing what he needs. Then he’s pushing Carlos down on a stool and reaching for his injured finger.

 

Carlos’s heart hammers in his chest as TK wraps him up, the concern on the other man’s face clear as day. It’s just like TK, with his big heart and need to save and protect people, to overreact about a simple cut on a finger. 

 

Honestly, it just makes Carlos love him more. 

 

Because he does. Love him. He’s known it for so long, and he knows it now. They’ve been coworkers for almost a year, friends for half that time, and every day that he gets to spend with TK is a reaffirmation of those first feelings that he experienced a few years ago, when they danced together in a honky tonk bar before seeking out a private moment of intimacy. 

 

Him loving TK Strand is a certainty. An inevitability. 

 

It’s a gift. 

 

“You’ve seemed really distracted lately,” TK says, breaking the silence. Carlos blinks, refocusing on the present. TK’s fingers are wrapped around his wrist, holding his hand steady as he wraps gauze around Carlos’s cut. 

 

“Yeah, I guess I have been,” Carlos admits, his voice low. 

 

TK finishes his work. “You know, I’ve been wondering something,” TK says, the hint of a question in his tone.

 

“What’s that?” Carlos asks, his voice unsteady as TK steps even closer.

 

“I’ve been wondering,” TK says, staring down at Carlos’s injured finger, “why you haven't mentioned what happened on that cliffside.” 

 

Carlos sucks in a breath, his eyes meeting TK’s soft green ones. “I… I didn’t know if you remembered that. I didn’t want you to feel like I was expecting… that I wanted to…” He huffs out a breath, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”

 

“I think I do,” TK says, reaching down to tap Carlos’s knee. Almost by instinct, Carlos opens his legs, giving TK space to step between them. He reaches up to press his hands against TK’s hips, closing his eyes as he takes in the intimacy of the action.

 

“TK…” he breathes out, his heart pressing up into the back of his throat.

 

TK leans forward, bumping their foreheads together and wrapping his own arms around Carlos’s shoulders.

 

“Please, Carlos, tell me I didn’t ruin this forever,” TK begs softly, his breath fanning over Carlos’s face.

 

He opens his eyes, looking up at TK. He brings his own hand up to cup the other man’s cheek, his thumb wiping away a tear that he finds there. 

 

“You could never ruin this, TK,” Carlos assures him, watching as his words cause TK’s face to light up with a new kind of hope. “You didn’t ruin us then, you can’t ruin us now. We can’t be ruined.”

 

“Really?” TK sobs quietly, his arms tightening around Carlos’s neck.

 

“Really,” Carlos confirms, his vision blurring as he stares into the face of his best friend, and the man he loves. “We’re made of stronger stuff, you and I. Especially when we’re together.”

 

TK laughs gently before he presses forward, connecting their lips in a soft, but intentional kiss. Carlos breathes out through his nose, gripping the man in front of him tightly as he relearns the touch and feel of TK’s lips on his own.

 

He remembers a lot about that night three years ago, and one thing that he could never forget was TK’s passion and absolute joy about kissing him. They had laughed deliriously together, their smiles wide in the semi-darkness of the spot behind the bar. 

 

The same is true of their kiss now, Carlos unable to stop the way his lips pull up at the corners, the taste of TK driving him absolutely insane. With a moan, TK climbs into his lap, Carlos wrapping his arms around his waist to steady him as TK straddles his waist. There isn’t an inch of space between their bodies, and Carlos wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

He feels TK everywhere: his hands running through his curls, his chest pressed against Carlos’s own. Carlos runs his hands up and down TK’s wide back, his soul reminding him of how essential it feels for him to know TK in this way.

 

This closeness, this intimacy - it’s what they were made for.

 

“I love you, TK,” he gasps out when they finally separate, his heart dancing in his chest as he takes in TK’s flushed face, full lips, and bright, blown-black eyes. The man’s chest heaves against his own, their hips pressed together. He has never looked more beautiful.

 

“I love you, too, Carlos,” TK responds, dragging a finger along the planes of Carlos’s face, almost as if he’s been waiting to do it for so long. Carlos understands the feeling. 

 

They both move forward at the same time, pressing their lips together again, their tongues sliding against one another, trying to get their fill of each other. 

 

The fire between them is truly addictive.

 

- - - - - -

 

By the time they make it back to the kitchen, the team has gathered, clearly wondering why dinner isn’t ready. They all turn towards them when TK and Carlos round the corner, both of them looking significantly flushed and wrinkled.

 

It’s Judd who speaks first.

 

“About damn time!” 

 

There’s a round of cheering from all of them, even Captain Strand, who shakes his head but still smiles with everyone else.

 

“So, let’s figure out who won the betting pool!” Paul cries, and everyone gathers around him as he pulls out his phone. 

 

“Oh my god,” TK groans at his side and Carlos turns, laughing at the mortified look on his face. “That’s so embarrassing.”

 

Carlos doesn’t respond; he’s too happy right now to care that their team bet on them to get together. 

 

He pulls TK towards him, pressing a kiss to his temple. TK lets out a sigh, sinking into his side.

 

“They’re going to be so annoying now,” he whines. Then, he looks up at Carlos from beneath his eyelashes, the sight nearly making Carlos collapse where he stands. “Promise you’ll have my back about this?” he asks.

 

Carlos smiles, ducking to give him a quick kiss, just a small press of their lips together. 

 

“About this, and everything else,” he responds, holding TK close. “Always.”