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un secreto perdido al calor de tenerte

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[august, 20th. 7:59 am]

Welcome to Austin High, all new freshmen! This will be your home for the next four years, and we hope you enjoy your time here and add up to the ongoing streak of gossip and news on this very same blog!

Like every other year, here at Austin High Secrets, we will be making a background check on the hottest new people! Keep an eye out for updates!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[august, 31st. 2:46 pm]

Here we are, one more day, with a new background check on the hottest people among the freshmen! Today we’ll be talking about TK Strand.

No one knows his real name, and we all fancy a mysterious guy. Green eyes to die for, a witty sense of humor, and he plays basketball! We bet he has perfect abs and a V-cut to worship. Beware, seniors! This hottie has come to stay in our court and in our hearts!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[september, 1st. 10:29 am]

Here at Austin High we’re all for inclusivity and representation, but one thing is to be aware of the diversity of students roaming our halls, and another completely different is to allow one of them to dictate how we do things around our school.

Why would we let the lonely Muslim girl mandate on school hours and breaks? Because she says she needs to pray? Maybe she should try and do it in the intimacy of her house, just like every other student does. Or have you seen anyone else complaining that the school doesn’t allow them to pray? No, and you won’t, because we normal students know our boundaries and how and when to worship our God.

But not happy with trying to disturb our religious peace, Marjan Marwani (guess what? I’m going to call names! She deserves it!) wants the cafeteria to stop serving pork. Just bring your own lunch from home if you’re so exquisite! You know, Marwani, when you go live to a country that’s not your native one, you should adapt to the culture, not the other way around!

Who agrees with me?

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[september, 2nd. 5:09 pm]

Has anyone noticed how hot Carlos Reyes has become? I swear he wasn’t this attractive last year! One could say that high school has done wonders on him. Any girl would be lucky to walk around holding hands with him, and I bet he has tons of cheerleaders rooting for him when he scores for our soccer team.

Any volunteers to tell us how good his kisses are?

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[september, 5th. 3:58 pm]

How cool is that our librarian is also our Sex Ed teacher? We stan one Zoe Kinsey! Make sure you have all your questions ready for tomorrow’s session on safe sex at the theatre hall right after lunch. All students are welcome!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[september, 7th. 11:23 am]

After the backlash from our latest post on a student, we have received several emails and submissions asking us to apologize, but we won’t. Since when is it a crime in this country to speak your mind? Everyone accusing us of racism and misogyny should know that we are nothing like that! You’re all a bunch of haters, that’s what you are.

For those of you who have shown support and love, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We will keep up with our duty of informing everyone — haters or lovers — about the latest juicy gossip in Austin High!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[february, 22nd. 10:19 am]

We’re on a roll this year! You all know by now our green-eyed TK Strand, but what you probably don’t know is that his father is the Fire Captain who will be coming tomorrow to talk about safety in schools and do some drills with us!

Captain Strand has been decorated for saving thousands during 9/11, so we will be welcoming a true hero to our school. We have been told that TK has inherited his father’s looks, so it doesn’t hurt that our personal hero is also a hot one! Get ready for a treat tomorrow!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[april, 14th. 9:26 am]

Rumor has it that our very own Judd Ryder might not be single anymore! We’re still investigating who might be the lucky girl, but he’s been seen leaving a yellow rose in one of the freshmans’ lockers. Will keep reporting!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[april, 15th. 6:58 am]

You will not believe it! We already know the identity of Judd Ryder’s secret girlfriend! It’s none other than ebony goddess Grace Haley. She’s the little sister of Hope Haley, our beloved senior cheerleader that will leave school at the end of this year to attend UT. Congratulations on the new couple!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[august, 21st. 7:47 am]

Welcome to a new year at Austin High! Some things are changing, but others remain the same. Judd and Grace are still an item, and there’s a new guy in town! Let’s all welcome newcomer Mateo Chaves, coming right in from Amarillo!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[september, 10th. 4:12 pm]

Power twins Josie and Alex Macon have made it their purpose to make everyone feel welcome in our school. Please make sure to drop by the late summer fair this afternoon and pick up one of the paper flowers they will be handing out at a booth the whole time. If you wear it tomorrow at school, we will know you’re one of us, out and proud!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[august, 23rd. 8:01 am]

One more year, and who would have thought our soccer star Carlos Reyes would become captain of the team during his sophomore year? No one! But we’ve always rooted for him, and we’re happy to see him leading our team to the highest ranks in the championship!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[february, 14th. 8:12 am]

Happy Valentine’s Day! We’ve heard there might be an a capella group wandering the halls to sing to unsuspecting students as a gift from their Valentines. Will you be one of the lucky ones? I hope as all hell my crush likes me back and chooses to show it with an a capella song.

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[august, 25th. 8:16 am]

We are happy to announce that Alex Macon will be one of our Mods from this year on. Given that today marks the start of his junior year at high school, he will be signing some of the juiciest goss around the school. As you all know, he’s one of the hottest guys around, and one of the best students. He’s rumored to be valedictorian next year!

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[november, 29th. 3:57 pm]

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone! It seems that we have a new face in town! Coming right in from Chicago, we have Paul Strickland rushing into junior year. He seems nice and he’s hot enough to warm up the whole school with a smile.

Bets on who’ll be the girl to snatch him?

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[january, 3rd. 9:13 pm]

Who would have thought Grace Haley would be such a disappointment? After Marjan Marwani has tried, once again, to shake up the already working system at school, Grace has taken her side.

Good thing it’s your junior year at school, Grace. I don’t think anyone would want to see your face for longer than strictly necessary.

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[march, 17th. 6:27 pm]

Have you ever kept a secret so big that it eats at you from the inside? I have, and the feeling isn’t as good as movies tell us it is. It’s corrosive, and it takes away every single moment of happiness that I could have had, because I was too scared to speak up.

I have a secret. But I don’t want it to be a secret any longer. I can’t keep it inside anymore.

I am bisexual. And luckily, I have friends and family who are supportive enough to help me take this big step and shout it out into the world. I am bisexual.

And I’m proud.

Posted by Alex Macon.

[april, 22nd. 7:14 am]

Rumor has it that heartthrob Alex Macon is already ready for the dating pool again. Beware, ladies and gents of Austin High, because our very own heartbreaker is back in the game and willing to try new things after coming out as bisexual last month!

Who will be the lucky one?

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[april, 29th. 1:03 pm]

Austin High Secrets is smoking! Newcomer Paul Strickland and hottie Josie Macon are rumored to go on a date this evening at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Village. Watch out, you popcorn eaters, because it seems that Shutter Island is the movie of their choice! Does this mean that Josie will allow Paul to hold her hand throughout the scariest parts of the movie? But, more important — will there be a kiss by the end of the night?

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[april, 30th. 2:38 am]

At Austin High we value telling the truth at all costs. That’s why we have this blog, so everyone can know the truth about others. Even if sometimes it’s a bit of unflattering goss and the people get mad, I feel like we need to tell the truth.

We have a liar among us. And not just someone who’s cheated on an Algebra test (because, honestly, who hasn’t?) but someone who’s been lying about who he is and why he came to Austin in the first place. How can someone be so much of a fraud at sixteen? How can someone break hearts in millions of pieces and not give a single damn about it? You know who I’m talking about. You know him. He’s already broken our very own Queenie Josie’s heart.

Paul Strickland isn’t who he says he is. In fact, he isn’t even a he. It’s so disgusting, I have no words. How does it feel to lead someone on for fun? How does it feel to make someone fall for you only to laugh at her?

You’re a big fat liar who lies, Paul Strickland. Or should I say Paula Strickland?

Yeah, you all read that right. As much as Paul claims to be a guy, she was born a girl, and she’s been lying to all of us the whole year.

So, if you support her, you’re basically saying that she’s got a right to lie. And if you knew and said nothing, then you’re not better than she is.

Beware of Strickland and her gang. They’re only a bunch of baddies who want to mock all of us.

Posted by Anonymous Mod.

[august, 24th. 7:54 am]

Welcome to a new year at Austin High! This will be my last year here, and I can’t be more excited. Changes are looming on the horizon, but together we will face them! Mr. Maroo will cheer some of us for the last time, but it’s a moment to celebrate and not to be sad. Let’s start this senior year with the hope that we will be entering a whole new world once it ends, but enjoying every second of our last moments here!

Posted by Alex Macon.

Chapter Text

—hands roam over his body, fingertips grazing the skin here and there, alternating between pinching nipples and caressing the hard planes of his abdomen, he’s writhing underneath the ministrations, his whole frame shaking with want and desire, as the fingers move impossibly closer to the waistband of his boxers, as that mouth is climbing up his chest and finding his own lips, and then one hand sneaks underneath his underwear and closes around him and everything explodes—

Sweaty and panting, Carlos opens his eyes three minutes before his alarm blares off, the blinking green numbers mocking him when he checks the time. He groans.

He’s been having these dreams — wet nightmares as Iris has already called them — for longer than he’s willing to admit. It’s always the same dream, over and over; hands that touch him and drive him toward release, the same smile and the same eyes and the same hair fawning over him as though he’s some sort of deity worthy of worship. He wants back to his dream, back to this universe where everything is allowed and he doesn’t feel guilty for wanting — because in real life he’s too much of a chicken to even think about these dreams that breathe life into him.

The alarm blasts off before he can even turn around.

Carlos throws an arm over his eyes, grumbling as he chases the feeling of freedom his dreams give him. It is unsuccessful, anyway. He can’t slack off in bed any longer, and once he gets ready for his day he will have to hide his feelings away under seven locks for fear anyone finds out.

He’s utterly terrified that anyone who’s not either Iris or her sister Michelle discovers his deepest secret — and the identity of the person he’s had a crush on for years. That would be a disaster, he thinks to himself in the last effort to keep his sanity before he ditches his fantasy.

He sits up on the bed, not at all ready for the first day of school. He’s promised Iris that this year he will ride with her — despite her track record at parking awfully wrong every single time. Therefore, he needs to be ready beforehand, and that means waking up a good half hour earlier to get ready. He makes the bed hastily before he jumps into the bathroom. He doesn’t want Alejandra to sneak in the shower before he gets the chance to even set foot inside the bathroom.

Carlos is lucky enough that he manages to lock the door before his younger sister’s alarm can be heard on the other side of the corridor. He opens the screen and sets the water running before stepping beneath the spray and allowing the grime of the night to wash off him. He tries to keep his mind blank, but there’s no way he’s going to forget the dream he’s had so soon — the soft locks and almost translucent eyes — so all he can do is take matters into his own hands before things get out of control.

He still has a lot to get done before Alejandra will, invariably, try to tear down the bathroom door in her haste to get ready for her first day of freshman year — he’s heard all about makeup and fashion and all the other stuff his sister has insisted is essential for her to make the best possible first impression now that she’s a high schooler.

Carlos is still thinking about the smile that haunts his dreams even as he steps out of the shower and his thoughts get tangled with Alejandra’s words about being a grown-up now, making for a jumbled puddle of nonsensical stuff in his brain. He shakes his head in an attempt to clear his mind, and he manages to scare away the thoughts that could only torture him until there’s only worry about Alejandra.

He’s toweling off his hair when, surely, a knock on the bathroom door comes followed by his sister's voice calling out, “Carlos, I need in! I’m already running late as it is! ¡Vamos, vamos!

He rushes out, barely in time to see the blur of dark curls sliding inside the bathroom and the door locking up from the inside. He sighs.

Mijo,” his mother says from the master room. “Are you already up? I need you.”

Carlos doesn’t waste much time getting dressed — his soccer shirt and a pair of sweatpants — before peeking his head into his parentsʼ room. “Do you want me to get you breakfast?” he asks in a soft voice in the general direction of the bed, where he can see the lump that's his mother beneath the covers, just the tip of her own curls peeking out.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” his mother tells him. He canʼt see her, but he can hear the soft attempt at a smile in her voice. “Iʼm in the mood for pancakes.”

“Pancakes it is, then!” he chirps, feigning a cheerfulness he doesn’t feel. He gets back to the corridor and walks the short distance to the small kitchen in their tiny apartment.

It’s been hard for him — for everyone in the family, after all — to fall back into a healthy pace after the hell that his parents’ messy divorce has been for the past months. Carlos reflects on what has been happening — on the yells and the fights and the discovery that there was another family somewhere else — and how everyone has reacted to the news that made his little bubble implode barely half a year before.

Alejandra has been the one to take it better, as it seems. Carlos has seen her grow a little bit wilder, but he has also blamed it to her being at that age. His mother, though — his mother didn’t react quite well at all. Carlos thinks that he would have also lost his mind, had he been in her shoes; but he’s been leading their newly found journey for six months now and he’s pretty tired. Now that he’s back to school — now that he can’t take care of his mother and make sure she gets out of bed and watch her eat something at literally any given moment of the day — Carlos is worrying that she might fade away completely. He doesn’t think he’d survive losing his mother as well.

Losing his father to his new family — to the blonde younger woman and the toddler who have been his father’s secret for so long — has been hard enough on Carlos. Remembering his father’s lectures on how to be a decent man still hurts Carlos deep inside; he can’t dissociate his father’s words from his father’s actions, and it pains him to understand that what his father meant by being decent was that Carlos shouldn’t leave the path that God had paved in front of him, never astray for one second. His father never said anything about leaving one path to join another, unless it was to leave in sin with another man.

Carlos’ father has always been very vocal about his blatant homophobia, which Carlos finds deeply contradictory — and it would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that it’s actually harmful — since his father had been lying to them for years before getting caught.

“On with the pancakes,” he mutters to himself as he putters around the kitchen, taking out pans and pots until he finds what he’s looking for. He’s going to make the best pancakes in the world, if only because it’s the first real thing his mother has desired in months.

He sets to work as his mind races through the most painful memories.

He’s been stuck the whole summer in Austin, taking care of his mother, while Alejandra was forced to spend those weeks with their father in his new house, a two-story building in the nicest part of Austin. Alejandra had bitched the whole time, either through text messages or during their FaceTime sessions. Carlos hadn’t had the heart to tell her that she wasn’t supposed to hate spending time with their father.

He knows he would have loathed every single second of it.

Carlos has seen how the situation has destroyed his mother — how the happy woman from his childhood had become the shadow of depression that she is these days. How she can’t get out of bed long enough to cook or sit on the couch with them. How she’s missed Alejandra’s performance at the school’s spring festival and his very own championship match in May. How she’s just slipping through the cracks of an existence she wasn’t supposed to experience.

“You making pancakes?” Alejandra startles him, showing up out of nowhere. When he looks at her, he’s greeted with red lips and golden eye shadows, and a dress that’s impossibly short. “What?” she dares him when she notices his gaze lingering on her a little too long.

“Are you sure Mom would be comfortable knowing you’re going to school like that?”

“Mom isn’t here to complain, and I doubt she’ll even see me,” Alejandra retaliates, snatching a few grapes from a bowl in the middle of the kitchen table. “And you’re not Dad, you can’t say anything.”

“I can say whatever I please,” Carlos tells her. “I just think you should dress more, ehm, conservative.”

“Don’t start that bullshit, you too, Carlos,” she warns him. “I’m already fourteen. I’m almost a grown-up.”

“What about a compromise?” Carlos offers as he keeps whisking the dough. “What about you wear that dress to school, but tone down a bit on the makeup?”

“Would that make you stop harassing me into fitting whatever ideal of Latina you have in your mind?”

“Don’t be cheeky on me,” Carlos points at her with the mixer. “It fits the ideal of my little sister who I don’t want growing up.”

“You old sap,” she teases him, swatting him on the arm before sitting down on a chair to wait for the pancakes to be done.

It still takes him some time, but he's become a professional at breakfast food — it's the only thing he was able to cook at the beginning of this half0life they're all living through — so he has the pancakes in a couple of plates soon enough. He sprinkles powdered sugar over half of them, and pushes the dish toward Alejandra; for the others, he rummages through the cabinets until he finds the syrup. He pours a generous amount of caramel over them before placing the plate on a tray.

“Iʼm taking these to mom,” he explains. “When I come back, should I expect you ready for school, face freshly washed?”

Alejandra tsks. “Hey!” she calls out when heʼs halfway through the corridor. “You didn't save any for you!”

“Iʼve had some fruit before you came out of the shower,” he lies over his shoulder. Now is not the time to explain that heʼs got no appetite whatsoever — and after having gone over their monthly payments, Carlos has found out that they could be a hundred bucks short, so heʼs kind of cutting off on some things, including his own food intake for as long as he can without being caught.

He’s already thought about leaving the soccer team this year and finding a part-time job. As much as he wants to go to Cornell on that full scholarship heʼs been promised, Carlos is aware that leaving his mother and his sister in this situation isn’t advisable.

“Mom,” he calls out, entering the room through the door heʼs left ajar before. He hasnʼt knocked, hoping that his mother is still willing to eat.

He’s met with a deep silence only broken by soft snores coming from the general direction of the bed. Carlos sighs. He navigates the space in the darkness, leaving the tray on the nightstand by his motherʼs side, fingers grazing the bottle of pills that she keeps close to her at night.

He exits the room holding back tears. When heʼs back outside, he closes the door entirely and rests his head on the wood. Carlos tries to catch his hitched breath and calm himself down — heʼs of no help if he canʼt control his emotions. But he canʼt stand the fact that his mother doesn’t feel like she can live without sleeping pills and Brintellix.

Carlos takes a few moments to compose himself back before exclaiming, “Alejandra! Grab your bag and get ready! Iris won't wait for us!”

He rushes back to his room to pick his backpack and plasters on a fake smile when he meets his sister by the entrance door.

“Let's go,” he says, nudging her out of the house before she can ask about their mother.

He has to be the strongest out of the three of them. He needs to.

It has to be enough until they all are back on their feet for real.

The first day of school is always cathartic for TK. It marks the end of the summer — the end of his trip back home to New York City with his mom — but this year it also marks the beginning of his last months in Austin. By this time in twelve months, TK will most likely be immersed in his college classes up at New York University, just like he’s always wanted.

Only, he hadn’t expected to start his senior high school year wishing it would never end.

As he grabs the keys to the tartan vehicle he calls car, TK reflects on the months passed and the experiences he’s lived through, and he shivers. There’s so much going on right now in his life, so many things he would love to share with his friends now that he’s back — now that he’s been back for almost a week — but they all will have to wait. There are so many things he can’t talk about right now, as much as he loves his friends.

Alex Macon is one of those secrets.

“TK, have you had breakfast?” he hears his father rummaging around the kitchen. He sighs.

“I’m already running late, Dad!” he calls out, hoping that the threat of being late to school on his first day will help his case. His father has always been a sucker for punctuality — that’s probably the only thing he has in common with his ex-wife.

“Surely you can spare ten minutes to eat a healthy snack before starting your last first day of high school!”

Reluctantly, he makes his way back to the kitchen, dropping the keys into his front pocket. “I’ll be late,” he grumbles as he takes a seat on one of the stools, his father already pushing a bowl with cereal and some red berries in front of him.

“You’re running like, half an hour earlier than usual, son,” his father chuckles. “I can see someone’s eager to start his last year.”

“I’m just impatient to meet my friends,” TK tries to explain, spoon in hand and halfway toward his mouth. “I’ve been back a week already, but everyone’s been too busy to meet and I’ve just missed them.”

“Sure you did, TK,” his father coos. “It’s a good thing that some of them are moving upstate with you, then.”

“Paul is going to Columbia, and Carlos got a full ride to Cornell thanks to his soccer performance,” TK explains around a mouthful of cereal. “Gosh, Dad, this is so good! Which brand is it?”

His father chuckles again. “Your favorite,” he says. “Now, c’mon, let’s get ready!”

“You said I was half an hour early!”

“I lied,” his father urges him. TK checks the clock, realizing that he is, in fact, almost late to pick up his friends, and he jumps off the stool.

“Thanks, Dad,” he jabs back at his father. “Now Marjan will tease me endlessly today about being a slowpoke.”

He doesn’t even hear his father’s reply, too busy picking up his backpack and rushing outside, where the car he inherited a year and a half ago is waiting under the first sunrays. Despite knowing that he’s running a little late, he can’t help the cheery feeling in his gut. Today’s gonna be a great day, he thinks to himself as he hops into the car and starts the engine, maneuvering to get it out of the parkway and into the road.

The first he picks up is Mateo, who happens to live across the street from Paul. TK drives right beside his yard, pulling the car up in front of Paul’s house, and waits until both of them open the doors and get inside the vehicle. As always, Paul takes the passenger’s seat while Mateo chooses to ride in the back seat. They both buckle themselves among laughs while TK veers the car back into the traffic and toward Sorrento’s, their favorite drive-through coffee shop before they pick Marjan up.

“One Americano, one latte, one caramel macchiato with almond milk and an extra of caramel flavor, and one hot tea,” TK orders, their different choices for morning beverages already memorized after so many months of shared caffeine-induced trips to school.

“Add a pinch of milk to the tea and make it a chai latte,” Mateo pipes in.

“Since when do you have Marjan’s order so on point?” Paul questions as TK adds that last bit to their order.

“Itʼs not so difficult to remember a bit of milk, now is it?” Mateo shrugs. TK glimpses back at him through the rearview mirror in time to see him blushing slightly, but he doesn’t think anything of it.

“I see,” Paul says, mostly to himself.

“Stop doing your thing,” TK tells him. He stretches out to grab the paper tray with their drinks. “Man, I should learn to pull up closer.”

“Yeah, you should,” Paul agrees as he takes the tray off TKʼs hands. “And Iʼm not doing anything.”

“It sounded a lot like you were trying to read too much into Mateo’s words,” TK admonishes his friend with a scoff. “And I don’t want to listen to that. Iʼm dying to hear all about your summer shenanigans!”

He manages to divert their attention back to their holidays and what theyʼve done — it's not that he's been out of reach for two months, but it isn’t the same to FaceTime with his friends. He’s missed their banter and their jokes; he's missed Paul teasing Marjan and Mateo, and heʼs missed the way everything falls into place when they’re together.

“What do you think it's going to be the biggest goss this year?” Paul asks as TK is pulling up near Marjan’s building, the girl already waiting for them outside the front door, one hand playing with her hijab. “Iʼm more than ready to give up my throne,” he continues, making full air quotation marks.

“Hey, guys!” Marjan greets upon opening the door and hopping into the back seat almost colliding against Mateo. “Long time, no see! I've missed you while I’ve been in Florida!”

“Here, have your drink,” Mateo says shyly, picking the tea out of the paper tray that Paul is already offering from his seat.

“That’s a tea latte,” TK explains. “Somehow Mateo remembers you like it like that.”

“That’s so sweet, Mateo,” she coos. TK can see her sipping from her cup through the rearview mirror as he maneuvers backwards and sets the car towards the school. “And it's not tea latte, it’s called chai, you dorks!” she jabs at them.

Mateo blushes by her side; Paul snickers as he too sips from his paper cup, and TK laughs openly while he drives them to their first day of school.

The rest of the ride is a nice change of pace from missing his friends, TK realizes. The easy back and forth in their chatter, the lightness that fills him whenever heʼs around them, those are the feelings that settle in his soul along with the heaviness of all the secrets he canʼt tell them.

They laugh about their summers — Marjan having come back from Miami three days before, Paul having enjoyed a full month back in Chicago and Mateo having spent the whole summer helping his abuelos around the house — and TK keeps his own retelling of his holidays in a light tone. He talks to them about being back in the city after so many months and he even expresses his grief at the fact that his old friends have moved on after so many years of only seeing him once in a blue moon. He talks about the walks along the lake in Central Park and about the new ice cream parlors he’s visited these past weeks.

He conveniently forgets to tell them about who he would have loved to share those moments with. He never tells them who his heart would have wanted by his side all those months in New York City the same he doesn’t tell them about the real reasons why he left Austin in a hurry after school.

TK hasn’t had the best couple of years of his life. Ever since his mother definitely gave up her custody rights, when he was around fifteen, in favor of his father — because she worked abroad more than she would have wanted to, and she couldn’t take care of her son as well as she was expected to — TK has felt oddly out of his depth. Up until then, he’d been attending high school in Austin and visiting with his mother during holidays or whenever she was free long enough to travel south and spend some time with them. But once Gwenyth Strand gave up on her son, TK hadn’t felt like he belonged anywhere. It was as though he’d always been between two worlds, and when reality crashed in, TK wasn’t ready for the collapse that realizing his own mother didn’t want him had been.

Objectively, he’d always known that his mother was the busiest one out of his parents. While Owen was a firefighter — and the best at it, after having survived his whole team back when the towers fell and having rebuilt a station from scratch in Austin — Gwenyth was a really demanded lawyer with tons of clients overseas. TK never stood a chance to remain in the city with his mother.

But when pushes came to shoves, TK found refuge in dangerous activities. And that’s when he’s crossed paths with Alex Macon. He had been loitering around some neighborhood or another, looking for another fix, when he’d stepped against some sturdy surface that was made of flesh and bones. When he’d looked up, he’d seen his reflection in those eyes that had been haunting him for months at school.

TK has always known heʼs attracted to other boys. He’s just never talked about it with anyone. He doesn’t think it's anyoneʼs business, and he still doesn’t understand why he has to come out when straight people don’t need to. But he felt like he had been run over by a truck upon seeing Alex. He’s had the longest crush on Austin High bad boy — alabaster skin and brown eyes that dig deep into TKʼs soul — and he wasn't about to miss his chance.

What started as a funny secret — TK wasn’t out and didn’t have any interest in publicizing his relationship status on Austin High Secrets — evolved to become something that TK couldn’t control. Just as the drugs he’d been snatching to feel better slowly overcome his senses, his relationship with Alex separated him from everyone he knew. He began withdrawing from his usual gang until Carlos was just a distant memory in the rearview mirror of his childhood. When Paul entered the picture, TK was so far gone that he almost didn’t recognize himself in the mirror any longer.

Good thing Paul Strickland wasn’t like most people, and he could see through TK’s antics.

It doesn’t matter anymore, TK thinks as he drives. After being found out by his father in May, bottle of pills in his hand and mind completely blown, TK has been under watch for months. Only Paul knows half of the story — the half that’s about drugs and addiction and almost overdosing — and he isn’t about to explain the full story to anyone else.

He’s already spent his whole summer messaging with Alex after a big fight that threatened to tear him in two, and he can’t help the rising bubbles of butterflies in his stomach whenever he thinks he gets to see Alex on a daily basis again. Still, he doesn’t think he can tell his friends now, after all — not without disclosing the other big relationship in his life. He doesn’t want things to change between them — and he knows they wonʼt judge him, if how things went down with Paul last year are any indicator on their stance about the queer community.

TK remains uncharacteristically quiet the rest of the trip until heʼs pulling up in the school parking lot. Mateo teases him about that, but TK shrugs it off. They see Carlos and Iris joining Grace and Judd by the entrance door, and they start walking their way when TK sees it.

There’s ruckus by the school gardens in front of the building, next to the Subaru that Alex drives. TK feels the beginning of a smile tugging at his lips before he can register what heʼs looking at.

There’s a crowd fawning around Alex — the Greek god that heʼs become, clad in a white t-shirt and tighter-than-tight jeans — and heʼs reveling in the attention. TKʼs mouth waters just at the thought of being able to kiss those plump lips. Alex is speaking, the crowd laughing as he moves his hands in front of his body to make his point come across. TK bites down on his lip, ignoring Paul who's trying to drag him inside the building.

And, because he isn’t expecting it, so engrossed in admiring his boyfriend from afar, the downfall catches him unguarded and agape.

Alex stops talking when Mitchell, from the basketball team, interrupts him and says something that has the crowd roaring with laughter. Alex looks at him fondly, never noticing TK in the distance, and reaches out to touch Mitchellʼs arm. The mere movement sets TKʼs insides on fire, but what happens next destroys him.

Alex leans in, slowly, deliberately, and places a soft kiss on Mitchellʼs lips — short and sweet, just a peck, but it's enough to shatter TKʼs world in a million tiny pieces.

He makes a guttural sound in the back of his throat, almost animalistic, as he stumbles over his own feet, eyes still trained to the spot where Alex is still all draped over Mitchell.

“Hey, TK, are you okay?” Paul tugs at his sleeve. “Cʼmon, man, you're staring, and you don't want Macon to come at you for that.”

“No—no, I don't,” TK manages to stammer, following Paul inside, in the wake of the rest of his gangʼs steps.

He could have never imagined that a simple peck could hurt that much — but then again, he had never had his dream come true to vanish into thin air after two months of pure bliss.

The sound of his heart breaking is the only echo he hears ringing in his ears for the rest of the morning.

Chapter Text

“Iʼm so auditioning for the fall play at the Drama Club,” Iris announces as she flops down on their table at the cafeteria. Her apple juice perilously shakes on top of the tray she’s dropped on the surface. “I can totally sing Cabaret.”

“I don't doubt it for a second,” TK tells her, looking up from his sandwich. “But there will be a lot of people auditioning, Iris. Josie has already said she’s getting the part.”

“Itʼs cute that you think she can take the spotlight from me.”

Paul shoves her playfully on the shoulder as she speaks, earning himself a glare from Iris.

Carlos snickers into his juice. He’s been listening to Iris talking about the auditions for the whole week and a half that theyʼve been attending school, heʼs tired of it but Iris is still amusing. Carlos doesn’t doubt she’s aware of how badly she sings — but Iris has decided that this year she’s going to step on Josieʼs toes just because.

Carlos knows they all want revenge for how she treated Paul last year — for the havoc that she created and the hell that she turned his life into with her selfishness. That's why neither he nor the rest speak up when Iris expresses her desire to steal the attention from Josie, or when TK gets all defensive of Paul or when Mateo and Marjan gang up to shelter Paul from the abusive dicks that still think it's cool to stomp onto his things and spread rumors about him. Grace is the one in charge of keeping Judd in line when he wants to clock some of the guys in the football team because they keep saying slurs.

“When do the auditions start?” Marjan pipes in, leaving her tray on the table and moving quickly to allow Mateo — who's always closely following her — to set his tray as well and sit down beside her.

“Thursday after third period,” Iris replies. “Michelle has already offered to help me with my chords.”

“You still have a couple of days,” TK smiles. “Youʼve got this!”

The group starts talking all at the same time just about the time when Judd and Grace show up — ever the gentleman, Judd is balancing both trays in his big hands. Carlos grins when he sees them, the very first couple out of their group of friends.

He wishes he could have something like that — a love so pure and transparent. Evidently, Carlos knows that Judd and Grace don't have a perfect relationship — the group has witnessed one too many arguments between them — but they always come out of them stronger. Carlos knows that they will be attending their wedding shortly after high school is done, even if they are all going to college.

Judd leans in to give Grace a quick peck, and the table erupts in catcalls and whistles, led by Paul. TK shakes his head and goes back to his sandwich, long fingers wrapping around it possessively.

Carlos tunes everyone else out, focusing on his friend and his plush lips closing around the bread. He gulps, trying to will away the uncomfortable feeling in his groin that makes his pants grow tighter. Those lips and those hands star in his wildest dreams — the ones that touch him and set him on fire every night —and Carlos doesn’t think he can survive the oblivious air surrounding TK Strand.

Carlos ducks his head in an attempt to hide the obvious blush that's creeping up his neck. Iris nudges him below the table, making him look up briefly and lock eyes with her; a short moment passes by while she smiles knowingly at him, teeth flashing white. Carlos shakes his head almost imperceptibly, trying to send her a message she can understand — that heʼs fine and that she can’t say a thing.

Ever since Iris and Michelle found out about him —sometime around their freshman year in high school —they have tried to set him up with different guys from all over town. They have never suggested anyone from school, fully aware that he doesn’t plan to be out until heʼs far away to college, and when he started to admit to himself that whatever he felt for his friend wasn't exactly just friendship.

Iris had arched an eyebrow at him upon finding out about his infatuation. Michelle had simply patted his shoulder. “Youʼll learn not to pine after straight guys, Reyes,” sheʼd told him mysteriously.

Carlos had dismissed those words, still not fully ready to admit to his feelings, and completely baffled that heʼs found solace in sharing his secret with people who accept and understand him.

Objectively, he knows that his group of friends would be supportive — they all closed ranks around Paul after he was outed as a trans man, no questions asked. But Carlos isn’t ready for them to know the other half of his secret.

He doesn’t know how TK would take it if he ever found out Carlos has a big crush on him that hasn't diminished with time.

Their friendship is on eggshells these days. Carlos canʼt pinpoint the exact moment when he lost his best friend of several years — the rest would argue that he hasnʼt lost TK, but his heart tells him otherwise — he's been mourning his friend for months now. He’s aware that it's partly his fault, since heʼs been withdrawing from everyone for months after his parentsʼ messy divorce.

He still misses the late nights at either TKʼs or his house, popcorn and movies queued on Netflix, curled around each other under a blanket on the coldest days of winter. He misses his motherʼs voice calling them for dinner, and Captain Strandʼs orders to go to bed early on the makeshift mattress on TKʼs bedroom floor.

But what Carlos misses the most is that real laugh that he hasnʼt heard coming from TKʼs throat in years.

TK is giving them one of his fake smiles — the one Carlos recognizes from the early days of the two stray Strands recently uprooted from New York. TK had been a shy kid with a heavy weight on his shoulders when his father all but dragged him down to Texas after winning a very difficult and very draining divorce trial. Or so Carlosʼ father had explained to him, lips quirked in disdain because God doesn’t approve of broken marriages.

Carlos wants to punch those words back into his father's mouth right now. “Hypocrite,” he mutters under his breath.

While he preached about perfect marriages, Carlosʼ father had been sneaking around with other women until he got one pregnant.

Carlos looks up in time to catch TK staring back at him, a silent question in his eyes. They hold each other’s gaze briefly before noise from the other side of the cafeteria catches their attention. Carlos follows TKʼs eyes lingering across the space until they land on Alex Macon, and TK frowns.

Carlos doesn’t understand the sudden hurt that flashes on TKʼs features, too fast for anyone to pick up on it — anyone who hasnʼt grown up getting acquainted to those impossibly green eyes and their bottomless well of emotions. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Alex’s sister dragged Paul through the mud last year and TK feels protective of his new best friend, but Carlos has the inkling that it's more than that.

Carlos looks down once again at his tray after he catches sight of Alex leaning in to touch Mitchell, from the basketball team. They have been awfully close these past days, ever since the first day of school. Officially, it’s Alex’s first relationship that's openly queer after coming out as bisexual in one of the Austin High Secrets blog posts. Maybe that's what brothers TK after all.

Perhaps TK supports his friend Paul because Paul is straight after all — a boy who likes girls, in the end. Perhaps TK has trouble reconciling the idea of gay people openly dating in front of him.

“What do you say, we go see Carlos’ practice after class?” Marjan suggests in the general direction of TK. Carlos can see him flinching back into focus, nodding shakily.

“That’s a great idea,” TK agrees. “Wasn’t Judd going to be there as well?”

Upon hearing his name, the taller boy spins around from talking to his girlfriend. “Be where? After class I have a dentist appointment, so practice for me, I’m afraid.”

“But I can go watch Carlos kick ass at practice,” Grace pipes in. “It’ll be much more fun than studying for whatever pop quiz Mr. Abernathy wants us to take tomorrow.”

“Just one week of school, and we’re already swamped up in work,” Mateo complains. “I’d rather enjoy the good weather while it lasts.”

Marjan snickers, inching closer to him. Carlos thinks that anyone should be blind not to pick up on whatever’s going on between these two. “That’s what we’re going to do later,” she explains. “Carlos’ soccer practice is in open air today.”

“Plus, we’ll get to see the cheerleaders and their own auditions,” Paul says, a little too cheerfully. Carlos pats his arm with his free hand. “Nothing like a good show to lift our spirits after a horrible day at school.”

They all agree. TK goes back to chewing on his sandwich, eyes never leaving the tray ever again until they’re all ready to get out of the cafeteria and come back to their classes — this year after lunch they always end up scattered in different classes, but it’s only a couple of hours before recess. Carlos follows Grace and Iris to their English class, since his own Chem class is only a couple of rooms over.

“Someday, Reyes,” Iris says mysteriously, stopping short of her classroom door. “Someday, you’ll grow the nerve to actually say something.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he hisses, nervously looking over his shoulder to Grace, who seems too engrossed in her phone to be paying attention. But he’s never at ease when Grace is around — she’s no Paul and doesn’t pick up on people’s emotions as far as their friend, but she can be a force of nature to be reckoned with. Carlos has seen Grace know exactly what was going on without even having to ask any question.

It’s kind of scary, if he’s being honest, that some people have the ability to read souls just like that.

“C’mon, Carlos,” Grace effectively joins the conversation. “Everyone knows you have the hots for TK.”

“Wha—Every—everyone?” he stammers. He’s so taken aback by her words that he almost drops his books to the ground. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about,” Iris points out. She’s playing with one of her long locks when Carlos gathers himself enough to actually look up.

“Did you tell her?” he hisses, pointing to Grace, who hasn’t stopped looking at her own phone screen, much to Carlos’ chagrin.

“Nobody has told me anything,” Grace explains, finally lifting her gaze from the phone. “But it’s evident, at least to me. I may have exaggerated when I said everyone, to be frank. I doubt anyone out of Iris, Michelle or myself knows.”

“Fantastic,” Carlos exclaims. “Fan—fucking—tastic. Now it’s just a matter of time that everyone knows, if it’s that evident.”

“I hope you're not going all wild on me,” Grace tells him, one long finger pointing at him. “It’s not evident,” she continues, “I am just that good at noticing things.”

“Youʼve spent way too long around Paul,” he grumbles.

“I take it you don’t want to do a Macon and come out of the closet through a post over at Austin High Secrets,” Grace says, ignoring his last words. “I’m not going to say anything, not even to Judd. Not that he would notice anyway, he’s kinda blind. But it’s going to blow up if you’re not careful, Reyes.”

Carlos nods. “I just—Iʼm still figuring everything out. And with my parents and the divorce and everything—” he trails off. It's not that he doesn’t want to be out; he knows he's not a freak, he knows it's something normal. But it still irks him to no end that he has to justify himself because his first choice is never a good girl with whom settle down and have a family.

“Your secret is safe with me,” Grace promises. “I take it you trust Iris not to say anything. You know you can trust me. I just don't want you to suffer, sweetheart. Lord knows youʼve done enough of that already.”

Carlos wants to hug her so badly that it physically pains him not to, but the bell rings and the girls enter their class before theyʼre called out for being late. He salutes them mockingly to hide his embarrassment, and rushes to his own class.

He’s only late by a few seconds, but it doesn’t really matter because the teacher enters the room right after him.

Last period is absolute torture for TK. He isn’t able to focus on anything that's not his own thoughts swirling in his mind, occupying everything.

He still doesn't understand whatʼs going on between Alex and himself, or between Alex and Mitchell. It should be evident, at least the last part — for everyone else, it’s crystal clear that Mitchell has stolen Alex’s heart and they're together. But TK would have known. He’s sure he would have known.

After all, heʼs been dating Alex for longer than anyone will ever know. He would have noticed if his boyfriend wasn't all that invested in their relationship.

It's true that they haven't talked that much this summer. After TK had to leave for New York — an imposition that his father hadn't relented about — and after his phone had been sequestered by his mother, TK hadn't really had any options there. Now, under the light of what Alex has been showing off, TK needs to talk to him.

In the week since school started, there’s never been a chance for them to be alone together long enough to speak. And, since their whole relationship has been secretive and under wraps due to TKʼs reticence to being outed, it’s not like he can grab his boyfriend and drag him to the eraser room. It would be weird.

It's weirder that Alex has been avoiding him for seven days, ignoring his messages and his calls and his attempts at mending something that he hadn’t thought was broken.

Sure, things got heated when TK lost control of what he was using and his father caught him on the verge of overdosing. Alex had blamed it on TK — for being reckless enough to allow his father to find out, and for snitching while at the hospital and saying that Alex had given him the drugs. They had started a terrible fight, but in the end they had made up before TK left for New York.

Or at least that's what heʼs believed so far.

Marjan and Mateo are waiting for him at his locker when he drags himself to the spot, tired and defeated. He could chalk it up to being stressed just after a few days of their last year before college — explain that he needs better grades if he wants to snatch one of the scholarships so his parents won't have to slave themselves to pay for his undergrad education — but his friends don't say anything when he approaches them. They only stare down at him as he kicks his locker open and shoves his books inside.

“Bad day?” is all Mateo says when TK closes the door with a little more force than necessary.

TK thinks about the way Alex has been staring at Mitchell the whole day, during the classes they all share — which are a few since they had planned to spend as much time together in class as possible — and he sighs. “You could say that.”

“Let's go watch some soccer,” Marjan suggests nudging him forward. “Seeing Carlos in action has always cheered you up.”

There’s an underlying accusation there, or at least that's what TK understands. He knows it's been a couple of rough years for them all; he knows that, after he started dating Alex, he stopped hanging out as much as he did before with Carlos. TK alone had created a schism in their group; he had withdrawn from everything he ever knew and loved.

Maybe the drugs had something to do with that.

Whatever it was, TK misses his best friend. Paul is amazing, but TK misses the ease with which he could talk to Carlos — no judgment, no questions. Just them both, together, being goofy. He’s found a true friendship as well in Paul Strickland, but he knows the others still mourn the separation their group experienced.

When they arrive at the field, they don’t expect it to be as crowded as they find it. TK marvels at the sheer amount of people packing the bleachers, happy that a sport that doesn’t get as much traction as basketball or football has managed to attract so many supporters, until he sees Alex sitting down by the front, fawning all over Mitchell. His whole clique is around them, occupying half the space.

“Didn’t he have anywhere else to be?” TK mumbles, low enough for no one to pick up on it, although Mateo shoots him a questioning glance. TK shrugs and follows them to the row where Grace and Iris have already saved them some seats. Paul shows up running from the other end of the field; TK remembers that the last class of Paul’s day always runs late because the teacher loves to keep talking even after the bell has rung.

“Here!” Iris calls him, waving until Paul sees them and rushes to their spot.

“Have I missed much?” Paul asks out of breath when he reaches them.

“Nope,” Grace laughs. “The cheerleaders haven’t even started warming up. You’re in for a show. I’ve seen Nancy Gillian in the lineup.”

They all snicker at Grace’s words. Before Paul started dating Josie — before it all went down the drain in powerful technicolor fireworks — he’d had a very obvious crush on Nancy Gillian, one year younger than them and always in the shadows of everything. He pouts.

“I don’t want anything to do with—”

“Hey, isn’t that Carlos’ father?” Marjan interrupts Paul’s diatribe about whatever he was about to complain. TK has probably heard it all, anyway.

He looks toward the spot where Marjan’s pointing with her index finger, following the movement until his eyes land on an older man — probably younger than TK’s own father Owen, but still — wearing dark chinos and a baby blue shirt. He would have recognized that man anywhere, since he practically grew up in his house.

Pedro Reyes is hardly unforgettable.

TK balls his hands into fists by his sides, the more protective part of his soul raging to be let loose. He’s been angry at Mr. Reyes for the longest time, ever since word caught the town about how he’d been having an affair with another woman for years, to the point of creating a secret family on the side. TK doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive Carlos’ father for wrecking the only happiness his friend had ever had — his family was Carlos’ shelter, and his father had destroyed it that one night when truth unfolded.

TK had been too engrossed in himself — in Alex, in the drugs — to actually realize that what Carlos had needed back then had been a hug and his presence telling him that everything would be alright. But TK had been so out of it that the mere thought of crossing the street and setting foot into Carlos’ yard had felt too big. And then Carlos’ mom had moved them out of the house and into a tiny apartment across town while his father had remained in the neighborhood. TK had never thought he could despise someone so much, but Pedro Reyes is one of the few people that TK can sincerely say that he loathes.

And he’s right now at Carlos’ practice, by the benches, trying to catch his son’s attention. Whenever he isn’t waving at Carlos, or calling Carlos’ name, he’s scrunching his nose at the scene Alex and Mitchell are creating — all hands and mouths and sappy smiles that turn TK’s stomach upside down.

“Excuse me,” he mumbles, moving forward followed closely by Iris. Grace waves them off, and he can hear Marjan swearing under his breath while Mateo and Paul remain silent. TK knows they have their own opinions about Carlos’ father, but Paul is way too prudent to speak out loud, and Mateo has been raised in the belief that his elders are always right, even when they aren’t.

“I’m going to kill that son of a bitch,” Iris promises as they all but run down the stairs on the bleachers, two steps at a time. They stop close to the benches, enough to let Carlos know that they’re there in case he needs them.

By the time they reach the benches, Carlos has already noticed his father and he’s stopped warming up on the sidelines. He tentatively approaches the older man — TK can see the resemblance in their chocolate eyes and the curls that circle wildly both their heads — and he’s already speaking to him in a low voice.

“What are you doing here?” Carlos says. His voice doesn’t quiver, but TK can tell he’s tense.

“I’ve come to see my son. You know, since you’re refusing to come visit with me and your baby brother.”

Carlos stiffens. TK would have punched Pedro Reyes at that moment, but Iris places a manicured hand on top of TK’s to prevent him from moving. This is a war that Carlos needs to fight alone.

“Maybe you should reflect on why I don’t want to go with you on the weekends or the holidays,” Carlos hisses. “Now, please, could you leave? I’m in the middle of soccer practice.”

“I’m not leaving,” his father tells him petulantly. “If you don’t want to come home with me, then it’s my right to come see you at practice. I’m your father after all.”

“Such a way to show it,” Carlos finally explodes. “You went behind mom’s back for years, you cheated on her, you had a son with another woman, and then you had the guts to throw her out of her own home!”

“Are those the lies she’s told you?” his father questions. “After everything, you still believe that—”

“Don’t,” Carlos cuts him. “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want you here. But I guess it’s a free country. I can’t prevent you from attending the practice, but don’t expect me to even interact with you.”

He turns around so he can join his teammates on the field, but Pedro Reyes still has some more things to say.

“That’s what you think now,” his father calls back at him. TK is ready to kill someone right now, and the only reason he isn’t attempting murder is because Iris is already holding him back. “But you’ll change your mind, son. You’ll soon be an adult, and you’ll understand why adults act the way they do sometimes.”

“I don’t care about what you think it’s adult behavior!” Carlos finally snaps, turning around. “You aren’t exactly the model I want to look up at!”

“So long as you don’t end up like them,” his father says, making a face as he watches Alex giggling at something Mitchell has said, “I think I’ll be fine. You can change your mind about your father, and once you know the whole truth, and not what that bitch you have for mother has told you, you’ll be keener to come visit your brother.”

“What’s wrong with them?” Carlos gives in. “And never, ever, talk about Mom that way. You’re the monster here!”

“No, son,” the older man sentences. “They are the monsters. That’s so antinatural, so against everything I have ever taught you. It’s a good thing that you’re an athlete. Everyone knows athletes aren’t inverted like these two.”

There’s a snarl in Pedro’s voice that breaks some dam inside TK. He feels himself deflate as a feeling of defeat floods through him. He can’t stop the thoughts from reaching every single corner of his soul — he can’t help the fear and despair rising, but he also kind of congratulates himself on never having come out to Carlos anyway.

What if Carlos believes what his father thinks as well? What if Carlos thinks TK — and the people like TK — aren’t just lost until they find their other half, but they’re some sort of monsters who don’t deserve to be happy?

TK would never survive that.

“TK, what’s wrong?” Iris asks when he sits down on the closest bench, his wobbly legs not allowing him to keep standing up.

“I’m fine,” he mutters. “Just—”

“Reyes!” Coach Leed bellows. “I don’t care who came to visit, I need you on the field right now!”

Carlos shakes his head at his father and starts walking away. TK is too focused on breathing normally again that he almost misses the moment Carlos turns around and says, with more venom in his voice than any of his friends has ever heard coming out of him, “Don’t ever come back to see me. You’re the antinatural one!” before he joins his teammates in the center.

TK blinks back tears, and when he’s able to stand up again with Iris’ help, Pedro Reyes is nowhere to be seen, but Alex and Mitchell — and their whole clique — are staring down at Carlos and whispering. TK knows they will only fodder the rumor mill later on, and he wishes he were braver, so he could stand up for Carlos.

As it is, he walks back to their place on the bleachers and explains that he’s been stressing so much these past days, that he’s most probably suffering from a bit of dehydration, and accepts the bottle of water that Grace offers to him, ignoring Marjan’s frown and Paul’s inquisitive stare. Instead, he fixes his gaze on the field, and allows his heart to get slowly back to normal.

Chapter Text

The library is almost deserted when Carlos sets foot in it, hands nervously forming fists at his sides as he balances his backpack on one of his shoulders. He greets Ms. Kearney when he passes by her, and asks for a free computer. She points her toward the spot furthest from the door with a smile.

“I know you like your privacy, Carlos,” she says softly, her blonde locks falling softly on her back as she speaks. “Just don’t miss your next class.”

“I won’t, Ms. Kearney,” he promises. He can tell she’s not buying his words for a second — he’s already skipping class to stay here, but he can pass his Spanish class in his sleep, and since he’s been running late to his first class today, he’s decided to just skip it altogether.

“You better,” she tells him in what should sound like a threatening voice, but she’s smiling so gently that he has to replicate it.

He sits down on the chair, nails scraping at the wooden surface as he moves the keyboard and the mouse to accommodate his needs, and types down the URL he wants to check on the empty bar on top of the navigation page.

It’s been on his mind for days on end now, nagging at the back of his brain at every single second of every single day, until all he could think about was spilling his guts into some anonymous webpage that everyone in the school — and quite a few people outside it — check regularly.

The thing is, he has a secret. It’s a big one, a secret that could turn his world into upheaval and wreckage. He’s lived with it ever since he was thirteen and he realized that what he felt whenever he got lost in impossibly green eyes wasn’t some platonic, friendly feeling. It was deeper than that.

It scares him to no end that people can find out. He has a reputation to uphold — he’s a soccer star at the school team, after all — and his parents would throw a fit if they discovered about his tendencies. He’s been around enough to know his father’s thoughts on the matter — how he thinks that it’s a disease that can, and should, be cured — and he knows his mother would never contradict him, no matter what. Carlos is alone with his feelings, and he’s been at a loss as to how to act on them for the longest time.

He can’t stand the sleepless nights anymore, so he’s chosen to take matters into his own hands and unburden his soul in the best way he’s thought of.

However, now that he’s done the hardest part, now that he’s here and ready to start tying down his thoughts, suddenly his brain has gone blank and he’s breaking a sweat.

He can’t do this.

His fingers hover over the keyboard, the screen blinking back at him as he stares up at it. There are words scattering the lines of the blog he has open in front of him, letters and symbols blurred by his own unshed tears.

Austin High Secrets is his last resort, but he is desperate enough to turn to the least likely way to find help. Every day there are different posts on the blog, talking gossip about someone at the school, and they always had tons of notes and comments. Austin High Secrets is the best way to get a pulse on the schoolʼs underlying stance on anything, and he plans on using that to his advantage.

If only he could type down what his heart wants to share.

It's not that he wants help. He isn’t sure anyone can really help him with his queries. It’s more about unloading his heart and finding solace for his soul. Maybe Austin High Secrets isn’t the best place for that, but short of a therapy group, it is the most anonymous space for him to yell at the world. Since he doesn’t think he needs therapy — no matter what his father believes — the blog has ended up being the best of his options.

He sighs. There’s no one around him in the library, and the computer is shied enough from the rest of the room. He just needs to create a fake email account to associate to his post and then it's just writing words down, smashing the keyboard with his feelings.

It should be easy, but it isn’t.

He starts and scratches his words so many times that the screen becomes a blur, the pointer moving from left to right and backward so fast that he almost misses it. His fingers tremble as they rest on the keys, too tired to function properly.


He lists his fake email and allows the system to display it, just in case someone wants to talk to him. He knows there might be some insults — showing an email to contact him feels like calling for the attacks — but it’s easier to dart expletives when they’re thrown at him in a virtual environment. He’s only left with a nickname to show, a word to sign the post, since he isn’t setting it up as anonymous.

He settles for Carey, and hits the send button before he can second-guess himself. There’s a message from the blog telling him that his post is queued now and that it will show up later in the day. He breathes deeply in; he doesn’t have to be wary of how people gossip about the new post on the blog — he doesn’t have to worry about being recognized at school by the way he words his thoughts until tomorrow.

He grabs his brown backpack from the floor and flings it over his right shoulder, the bag swaying against his back as he half jogs, half walks outside of the library. When he checks the clock above the door after bidding Ms. Kearney goodbye in his best whispering voice, he realizes he’s going to be late for Algebra. He pounces into the lonely corridors, the students already getting into their classes, and he rushes through the halls until he reaches the last corner before the door to his class, where he stops abruptly when he hears vaguely familiar voices that seem to come from the other side of the corner.

He frowns, slowing down until he’s almost pressed against the walls separating him from the voices.

“That’s too bad,” one of the voices say. His frown deepens as he tries to place it in his mind. “You should learn how to lose elegantly, pretty boy. Or else.”

“Or else what?” comes another voice, and this time he has to bite back a surprised yelp because he definitely recognizes that voice.

“Or else everyone in Austin High will know about your little filthy secret, pretty boy,” the first voice replies, almost nonchalantly. “And I know you’re too much of a scared piece of shit to want that.”

“Wait, please!” the second voice, the one he recognizes but still has trouble reconciling in this situation, begs. “You can't do that! I—I will tell the whole school! I will tell everyone how you—you—”

“How I what? Why would I ever listen to anything you have to say, pretty boy? You're just another pretty face with a secret. Nobody would believe you, so I wouldn’t even try if I were you,” the first voice says in a final tone. He can hear rustle as though someone’s picking a backpack, the straps hitting somewhere, and that’s all the warning he has before the voices die and there’s someone turning the corner around.

He watches agape as Alex Macon struts down the corridor, not even noticing him, his hands around the straps of his backpack as he walks toward his next class. When he turns around the corner, there’s no one there, and he’s left with a weird feeling constricting his chest.

“I know I haven’t dreamed that voice,” he mutters to himself as he puts one step in front of the other and reaches the Algebra class. He pushes the door open in time to see TK Strand claiming a desk by the end of the classroom. There’s no teacher yet, for which he’s grateful. He finds a seat next to TK, and tries to focus on the task of unloading his backpack instead of giving into his desire to reach out and shake his friend.

He’s known TK Strand for the past seven years — ever since Owen Strand was offered a position at Station 126 and he brought his son with him. They’ve been close for eons; there was even a time when the rest of their group would tease them about how they seemed joined by the hip. He had been able to tell what TK had been thinking with just one glance, but way before Paul Strickland barrelled into their lives the year before, TK had drifted away from him.

And now he has something going on with Alex Macon, Austin High School’s heartthrob and known troublemaker.

Carlos shakes his head. They may not be as close as they once were, and it may be his sole fault — what with him withdrawing from TK the moment he realized the huge crush he had on his friend — but they're still part of the same group and he still cares deeply about TK.

Carlos plans on catching him after class, but when the bell rings TK grabs his things haphazardly and runs out of the classroom, leaving Carlos hanging, one hand outstretched so he could touch TK. He hears a low whistle at his left, and when he looks up he sees Paul frowning. A few desks up front, Marjan and Mateo are sharing confused looks, and even Grace and Judd — who are usually too engrossed in each other to notice anything else — seem to have seen TK thundering outside. Iris, on the other hand, is quietly inspecting her nails.

“Iʼll catch him later,” Paul promises. “I don't know what's going on, but he wasn't this upset this morning when he picked us up to come here.”

Carlos knows he should speak up. He should tell them heʼs heard Alex threatening TK, but he knows nobody would believe him. Alex is one of the most popular kids in the school — out and proud, handsome and so sure of himself, and even his grades are the best of the whole promotion. Besides, Carlos isn’t really sure about what heʼs overheard. It could be nothing, just playful banter. Maybe heʼs blowing things out of proportion.

He nods at Paulʼs words and follows his friends out of the room. He trusts Paul to find TK and talk some reason into him before lunch — ever since Paul arrived to Austin, heʼs proved to be an excellent listener and a great mind reader. He always knows whatʼs going on and he always knows what to say.

Carlos thinks it has to do with the fact that Paul grew up in a place where he couldn’t be himself, and he had to constantly watch over his shoulder to assess the situation. That had changed for a while after his brother moved them both to Texas, until Josie had gone out on a date with him and spilled his biggest secret — the one heʼd been hesitant to tell them — for everyone to know.

Paul had changed after that, heʼd become more guarded and distrustful, until they as a group had sat him down to tell him that they didn’t care about how he became Paul Strickland — they cared about who he was now.

If anyone can see through TKʼs soul, that's Paul. Carlos is sure of that.

It doesn’t help the rising dread heʼs feeling in his gut as he drags his feet to his last class before lunch.

There’s a spot under the bleachers that has become TK’s favorite in the almost four years that he’s been attending S.F. Austin High School. It’s not particularly covert, and it’s definitely muddy enough that TK always ends up with dirt up his sweatpants whenever he sits down there to escape from the noisy world around him. It’s the place that holds most of his secrets — from the different crushes that he’s had over the years to the most painful realities of his life. His friends know that it’s there where they can find him after a particularly rough basketball practice, or when Principal Marquez has been especially hard on him for one reason or the other.

They also know when to leave him alone under the bleachers, backpack askew by his side and his legs pulled up to his chest while he fixes his gaze into the vacuous space before him. Although apparently today is not the day when they will let him be, if the sound of footsteps approaching is anything to go by.

“Is there room for another brokenhearted soul?” comes a voice from above him. When he looks up, bleary eyes and quivering lips, he can see his best friend Paul standing tall against the bleachers’ structure. “Looks like misery would love the company.”

“I’m not heartbroken,” TK huffs, moving further away to make room for Paul over the less dirty patch of land. “Neither are you.”

“Let me be the judge of my own feelings, Strand,” Paul scolds him. He flops down beside his friend, dropping his own backpack next to TK’s. “Why are we hiding today?”

TK can pinpoint the exact moment when his day has gone down the drain, but that doesn’t mean he wants to acknowledge the source of his distress. Instead, he remains unmoving and silent under the bleachers, while the sounds of the cheerleaders practicing their calls fill the air with a cheerfulness he can’t share.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Paul keeps on. He pulls his legs up against his chest mimicking TK’s stance. “But I’d love to share my reason for coming here today.”

“Other than interrupting my perfectly fine alone time?” TK snaps. He kicks at the dirt with the tip of his sneakers, lifting dust around them.

“Yeah,” Paul deadpans. “Not everything is about you, Strand,” he reminds TK. “You’re lucky I love you, man.”

TK shakes his head. “Sorry, Paul. Didn’t mean to snap at you. Today’s been… not the best, to be honest.”

“I can tell,” Paul huffs in reply. “I’ve seen you rush out after Algebra.”

“Don’t really want to talk about it,” TK whispers. He can feel tears welling up again in his eyes, and he wipes at them angrily. He doesn’t want to cry, not here and definitely not in front of Paul Strickland — the strongest guy TK has ever met. “Tell me about your hell of a day.”

“Ms. Benson has put Josie and I together for the Chem project this semester,” Paul mutters. “Only three weeks in and I already want to hide for the rest of the year.”

“Oh, Paul, I’m so sorry,” TK says, sitting up and reaching out to touch his friend, all his personal problems forgotten in the wake of Paul’s more than evident distress. “Have you tried to talk to Ms. Benson and tell her that you two can’t work together?”

“No. She said there would be no changes under any circumstances, no matter how dire.” Paul laughs mirthlessly. “She was looking right up at us as she spoke.”

“She’s an old hag, that’s what she is,” TK exclaims. There’s a tinge of sympathy in his voice as he speaks. Paul nods slightly.

“Mateo’s tried to swap partners too,” he explains. “But Ms. Benson has crushed him. Said something about how mediocre students always want out of difficult tasks.”

“Such a bitch! Who has she paired Mateo with?”

“Judd Ryder.”

“And Mateo wanted to give Ryder up for Josie?” TK smiles at Paul. “That kid really loves you, Strickland.”

There’s a lull in their conversation as Paul leans into the dirty structure of the bleachers, letting go of his legs. “It just hurts, you know. She goes about her life as though she didn’t try to end mine last year, and I have to suck it up and I can't complain,” Paul whispers. TK can hear the hurt behind the words.

“I just wish you hadn't had to go through that last year,” he tells his best friend.

It had been horrible, TK recalls. He had had to sit through the entire school ripping Paul to shreds after Josie Grant had shared his most personal secret. He hadn’t been allowed to step up and defend his friend — Paul had strictly forbidden it — so the most TK had been able to do was sit around and hold Paulʼs hand whenever things got more complicated.

“Me too,” Paul sighs. “But I can't do anything about it anymore. And frankly, I am tired of fighting back. I just want this year to end so I can move on and go somewhere where being myself isn’t considered a sin.”

TK throws an arm around Paulʼs shoulders and brings him closer to his chest in a locked one-side hug that has them both laughing and covered in mud. “You and I both, Strickland. You and I both.”

They remain silent beneath the bleachers for a few moments, until Mateoʼs voice carries on through the air, calling out for them. Too much for a little time alone, TK thinks before standing to his feet. He tries to dust off his sweatpants but the motion is to no avail — there’s a suspicious stain right below his right knee that he canʼt shake off.

“Move your lazy asses out here or weʼll be late for lunch!” Marjan pipes in. TK shares a look with Paul and they both burst out in giggles. Marjan Marwani, the only girl in their group, is actually the one to keep them in check. She never hesitates in calling them out when needed, and she’s always supported by Mateoʼs presence without fail.

TK would joke about it if he didn’t feel like there’s something more to that than what he can see.

“We better go,” Paul nudges TK forward. He bends to grab his backpack and throws TKʼs his way. “I don't want to face Marwaniʼs wrath.”

“I heard you!”

TK follows Paul outside to meet his other two best friends, who are waiting for them with arms crossed and feet tapping on the ground, wearing matching mocking glares. TK is thankful every day for having met Marjan Marwani and Mateo Chavez that first day in middle school, when he was just the new kid in town. They welcomed him in, treated him well, and never questioned his weird choices. Even now, seven years and so many shenanigans later, TK knows he can trust them not to enter his little bubble when he needs to be alone.

“Do you think weʼre getting Bratwurst today?” he teases his friends when heʼs finally face to face with them.

“Knowing Tyson, there won't even be non-pork alternatives,” Marjan whines.

They start their way back to the cafeteria, where they know Billy Tyson, in charge of the lunch schedule, will most probably have found a way to offend the minorities once again. So far, in the time TK has been attending Austin High School, Billy Tyson has managed to dismiss the suggestions of three different ethnical groups regarding their needs.

Upon entering the cafeteria, TKʼs eyes begin to search the crowd scattered around the space. He tries to be subtle about it when Paul points out that heʼs staring.

“Iʼm trying to find a table for the eight of us,” he lies, gesturing toward the far end of the room where a couple of tables are still empty.

“Are you sure you don't need glasses, TK?” Mateo asks innocently. “Carlos, Judd and the girls are down there, on our usual table, waiting for us.” Mateo marks his words by waving toward the other part of their group.

“Hadnʼt seen them,” TK grumbles, rubbing at his face before taking one tray and situating himself on the queue. He canʼt confess that he was actually looking for Alex — for a sign that he hasnʼt definitely messed everything up this morning — but he doesn’t seem to spot him.

“Looking for someone?” Paul teases him.

TK shrugs. “Making sure Josie isn’t around, that's all.”

They move along the queue, picking their food as the go; they have to wait while Marjan fights, once again, with Billy Tyson because he hasnʼt prepared anything non-pork today either.

“One day, sheʼs going to combust,” Paul sighs. “I don't know why Principal Marquez doesn’t file a complaint against him. Marjan canʼt be the only one suffering his discrimination.”

“Well, she's the only openly Muslim student in the whole school,” Mateo reminds them. He grabs one of his fries and munches on it while Marjan joins them fuming.

“The nerve!” she is mumbling. “I can't wait for the year to end so I can leave this nightmare of a town.”

“Seems to be a general feeling today,” TK tries to lighten the mood. Paul shoots him a glare and he shuts up, but not before his words have carried to the table where the rest of their group are waiting for them.

“What general feeling?” Judd pipes in.

“Wanting this year to end, so we can leave Austin,” TK explains.

“I don't really want it to end,” Mateo mutters, taking a seat across Marjan and beside Grace. “I don't want us to go on separate ways.”

“Awww, someone's moody today,” Iris mocks him, flicking his ear.

“Iris!” Carlos calls her put, swatting her arm and making her stop harassing Mateo. “Heʼs not the only one who doesn’t want our little group to disintegrate. God knows I don’t, either.” He looks straight into TKʼs eyes as he speaks; TK, who has taken a seat in front of him and at the other side of Grace, and who currently has his fork halfway to his mouth, full to the brim with sausage and something that looks suspiciously like coleslaw.

TK, who's back at scanning the room until he finally spots Alex at another table, laughing around and leaning into Mitchell Callaway so hard that it seems as though Alex is trying to fuse them together.

“Teek?” Carlos questions, waving a hand before his eyes. “Are you okay? You kinda spaced out here for a bit.”

“Yeah, yeah, I am,” he rushes to reply, focusing back on the conversation around them, as Paul tells them about the disaster that Ms. Bensonʼs class has been and Judd and Mateo join in retelling how theyʼve tried to swap teams without any success. The whole group coos and supports Paul — Iris shifts her attention from the conversation to her nails at some point, clearly bored — while TK feigns an interest heʼs lost, along with his appetite, from the moment heʼs seen Alex with Mitchell.

The sound of laughter carried through the air, the shrieks and hiccups catching everyone's attention. TK has to look down at his tray again when Alex covers Mitchellʼs hand with his own. Carlos wrinkles his nose in disgust when the whole table turns to watch Alex and Mitchell putting on a full display.

“Hadn't pegged you for a homophobe, Reyes,” Paul says.

“You know Iʼm not,” Carlos is quick to reply. “I just want to eat my lunch in peace. I don't need Macon and Callaway to make it impossible for us to listen to each other.”

TK remains silent as the table around him explodes between the ones who agree with Carlos and the ones who think he's jealous because Alex and Mitchell made it to the basketball team while Carlos had only passed the soccer trials.

He can only think about how much it hurts to see Alex touching Mitchell.

When the conversation around him resumes, TK finds himself unable to follow it. He pushes his food around, ignoring the stares that he can see Paul shooting his way, and in the end he stands up, excusing himself before running out of the cafeteria.

He barely makes it to the bathroom before heʼs throwing up.

Chapter Text

The house is a complete mess when Carlos arrives home after his practice. Heʼs been balancing his time between classes and soccer and visiting his father when heʼs due to — after he came barrelling into practice a couple of weeks before, Carlos has chosen to go to his old house, where his father still lived with his new family, instead of risking Pedro Reyes starting a new screaming match with tons of public.

He’s been overthinking everything that has happened in the past few days, the conversations heʼs overheard. He knows his father wants to sue his mother if Carlos and Alejandra don't go with him when the divorce agreement says they have to — even if Carlos knows that it’s not the way it works, he doesn’t want to put his mother through that ordeal. It would break her.

Carlos can't afford it.

But when he comes back home to a disaster — when itʼs evident that no one has taken care of cleaning up or cooking or doing the laundry — Carlos begins to think that he's some sort of antihero fighting giants. There’s no way he can win this war.

He throws his bag into his room, his phone dropping out of it and bouncing against the bed, and rushes to the kitchen. He briefly checks the calendar; it's Thursday, which means Alejandra has dance class and will have dinner at her friendʼs house. It's just Carlos and his mother tonight, and heʼs too tired to actually care to cook something complicated.

He peruses the cabinets until he finds the pan heʼs looking for, and then he moves to the pantry. Tonight he feels like grilled cheese, but he also feels like he needs to have a serious talk with his mother about everything that's going on.

They need a plan.

“Mom,” he calls out from the kitchen. He knows his mother will get out of bed if she knows there will be grilled cheese sandwiches, because they're her favorites. “Mom, Iʼm making your faves!”

No answer.

“¡Mamá!” he resorts to Spanish. “¡Venga! ¡Estoy haciendo tu cena favorita!

He can hear soft footsteps approaching the kitchen, and then his mom peeks into the space. “Mijo,” she greets him. “I hadn't noticed you were already home.”

Carlos turns to see her — her unruly curls and her exhausted face, blue bags under her eyes and creases in her forehead — and smiles. “I have just got back,” he explains. “I wanted to talk to you.”

His mother nods, taking a seat at the small table in the middle of the room. “You know I am here for you, cariño.”

“That’s the thing, mom,” he sighs into the first batch of sandwiches. “You aren't.”

“Carlos,” his mother shakes her head. “Iʼm sorry, we've already talked about this. It's—”

“—hard, I know,” Carlos interrupts. “But, mom, there’s only so much I can do. I haven't paid the fee to be on the soccer team this year yet because we don't have the money. We can barely cover the rent and the expenses!”

“Iʼm trying, Carlos!”

“No, you aren't!” Carlos exclaims, showing his frustration. “I will leave the team and find a part-time job to help with everything, but you need to do something, mamá.”

“You can't leave the team!” his mother replies, horrified. “It’s your ticket to Cornell, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to go to college!”

“Then help me not drop out of the team!” Carlos replies. “I want to help and I can help, but I can't do it on my own. I can't save this family alone, mamá. He wants full custody. Part of the reason why heʼs been chasing me is because he wants to prove that you can't take care of us. He wants to take us from you, mamá. Don’t let him.”

Carlos can see the moment his mother realizes what heʼs really saying — the terror behind his words, gripping at his heart and squeezing tight. Out of the two of them, Carlosʼ mother had been the one to leave her job upon marrying. She hasn't worked outside the house for nineteen years, and Carlos understands the paralyzing fear. But they can't afford it.

His father is out there championing for it all, and if Carlos has learned something from soccer is that unity can bring victory. It’s not that he hates his father — that's a strong word that he isn’t ready to use so freely — but Carlos doesn’t want him to win this battle. Theyʼve gone through a lot because of his father, after finding out about his other family, and Carlos wants them to stand on their own.

He doesn’t want to give in to him.

To do that he needs his mother. He needs her to be the adult she’s supposed to be — the affable woman who greeted him when he came back from school, the wise woman who helped him with his homework, the strong woman who set him straight when he wanted to go astray — and he needs her to help him save this family.

He doesn’t want to see Alejandra walk down the road toward their old house with her head down and her curls bouncing sadly at her back, because she doesn’t want to be in the same room as their father.

“Iʼm sorry I have disappointed you, mijo,” his mother says in a low voice. “I see now how wrong I have been.”

“No, mamá,” he retaliates. The sandwiches are ready, so he takes them out of the pan and into two plates as he speaks. “You haven't disappointed us. It’s been a tough year for all of us. But now it’s time to stand your ground and show him that he hasnʼt destroyed us. He hasnʼt destroyed you.”

His mother hums softly. “It’s difficult for me to get out of the house these days, you know that.”

“Then let me help you,” he offers. “We can find a way that works. We need to.”

“You shouldn’t be worrying about this,” his mother says. She reaches out and caresses his hand. “As much as I love your grilled cheese, that's something I should be doing. I should have found a job weeks ago. I hate seeing you and your sister going to him forced.”

“You can't change that, mamá, but you can improve everything else,” he reassures her. “I can help you find a new job.”

“I would love that,” his mother smiles, and Carlos thinks the whole kitchen has lit up.

He has always loved his motherʼs smile.

They keep making plans while they eat dinner — they talk about the chances of her getting a new job, and about Carlosʼ idea of finding a weekend job at their local coffee shop, and about the future and how they're going to power through everything. When Alejandra enters the apartment and sees them snickering together, she first lifts an eyebrow at him before rounding the kitchen table and hugging their mother tight.

Carlos bites down the bubbling feeling of happiness that he can feel building inside of him. They have a long and difficult path ahead but at least they're together in it.

They can do this.

Alejandra helps him clean up the kitchen and then goes to the living room to watch a movie with their mother. Carlos excuses himself out of it, because he has a lot of things to do.

The blaring of his phone startles him just as he is retreating to his bedroom. He is completely drained of energy, he doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now. So he ignores the sound while he enters the room and closes the door at his back. He can see the device on his bed, on top of the plain covers he had chosen over at Target with the tight budget they had when they first moved to this apartment.

He sits at his desk, fiddles with his laptop, grabs some sheets and pins down some notes for his debate class in a couple of days. He’s focused on his task when the phone rings again, and even though he knows it's not possible, Carlos believes the noise is even louder. He has the feeling that, whoever it is, they're not going to give up.

With a sigh, he stands up and moves to his bed. Before picking up the device he checks the screen — Irisʼ picture is lighting up, signaling that she’s the caller.

“Great,” he mutters before pushing the green spot on the screen to the center of the surface.

He doesn’t need whatever intense shenanigan Iris Blake has in mind.

“Carlos Reyes,” Iris says in a stern voice just as he picks up the phone. “What the actual fuck have you done, exactly?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says sincerely. He isn’t sure what has happened between the moment she’s dropped him off at his apartment building after soccer practice and right now, after he’s finished having dinner with his mother and his sister — with a bit of a push on their end to make his mother eat something consistent. “Could you elaborate?”

“Now you’re going to play coy and deny that you’ve posted on Austin High Secrets under the very unoriginal nickname of Carey?”

“Shit,” Carlos mutters, smacking his own forehead. He’d almost forgotten that he’d queued a post on the blog this morning — what with everything that’s going on in his personal life — and surely, as he checks his wristwatch, the post should be published by now. “I—”

“You are an idiot,” Iris scolds him. “Using that nickname is going to give you away. What’s possessed you, mister I don’t want to be out?”

“I don’t know, okay?” he tries to defend himself, knowing fully well that it’s to no avail. “I was just tired of everything, and angry and—”

“And your father has gotten under your skin again,” Iris finishes his sentence for him when he trails off. “I knew you shouldn’t go to his place, but you insisted.”

“I didn’t insist,” Carlos whines. “May I remind you of how he threatened to sue my mother for keeping both his underaged children from him? I had no choice.”

“You had the choice not to write that post,” Iris sighs. “Hopefully nobody will catch up on the nickname. Unless you, uh, want them to realize it’s you?”

Carlos muses on it for a moment. He doesn’t necessarily want everyone knowing it’s him, but it felt oddly freeing to let go of that secret somehow, even if it isn’t completely in the open. “I don’t,” he finally answers. “But I feel lighter now.”

“You’ve even added an email address for contact!” Iris cries into the phone. “Wait until Grace sees this, she’s going to freak out so much!”

“Speaking of the devil,” Carlos mutters as his phone begins beeping. When he checks it, he sees Grace’s picture on the caller ID of an incoming new call. “She’s calling, I’m adding her to this conversation. Grace?” he calls out when he picks up the new call. “You’re on a group call with Iris.”

“Good,” Grace tells him as greeting. “I was going to ask you to add her to this one. What in all heck, Reyes? Weren’t you saying a couple of weeks ago that you didn’t want to be out?”

“I know!”

“His father’s to blame,” Iris pipes in. “He’s been spending time with that homophobic son of a bitch.”

“Can we just stop this?” Carlos tells them. “I’m tired, and I’m pretty sure no one has noticed except for you two. And that’s fine. This will only be another post long forgotten by lunch time tomorrow.”

There’s a beep coming from his laptop, perched perilously over the edge of his desk. Carlos frowns at the screen, trying to understand where that ping has come from, when he sees he has a notification on his email account.

On the email account he specifically set up for the post he queued — the reason why he’s having a group call with Iris Blake and Grace Haley.

“Girls, I—I have to go,” he says hastily. His fingers are still glued to the back of his phone case, though, unable to let go of the device as his eyes scan the screen. He can only see the notification — the fact that he has one unread email — but he can’t see anything else unless he opens the email tab.

“No, no, you don’t get to—”

“What’s wrong?” Grace interrupts Iris. “Carlos, what’s wrong?”

“I’ve got an email.”

“That’s hardly relevant,” Iris scoffs. “You get emails every single day.”

“There’s an email on that email address, Iris,” Carlos huffs. “I’m sorry, I have to hang up. I need to check on it, and I sincerely don’t want any witnesses.”

“What if it’s hate, Carlos?” Grace’s voice now it’s urgent with worry. “If it’s hate you shouldn’t be alone.”

“I have the feeling it isn’t hate,” Carlos tells them. “I will let you know tomorrow. I really need to go calm myself before I open that email.”

“I don’t think I can wait until tomorrow!” Iris whines. But Grace remains silent. Carlos can hear another ping somewhere across the lines, but he can’t be sure whether it was from Grace’s end or Iris’. “Grace!”

“I think we should leave him be,” Grace says. “I have to go too. Ehm, Judd’s calling me too.”

“Ugh, gross,” Iris says dismissively. “Carlos, don’t forget to call me later and tell me everything!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Carlos says distractedly. His right hand is already on the touchpad, pointer over the correct tab. He hangs up his phone call, not even paying much attention to the fact that Grace seemed distracted as well by the end of it — he blamed it on Judd calling her.

The pointer hovers over the notification for a brief moment before Carlos breathes deep and clicks on it.

There’s a policy of open doors in the Strand household. TK should be used to it by now, but he canʼt make himself follow the rules that his father has set once TK came back from New York — even before that.

Tonight it stings especially, because once heʼs done with his homework — at the table in the living room, with no TV on and watched closely by his father — the doorbell rings when heʼs least expecting it, startling him.

“Are we waiting for someone?” he asks out loud.

“I may have forgotten to tell you we had a guest tonight,” his father says as he rushes to the door. “Are you done with your homework?”

“More or less,” TK explains, shrugging. “I’ll have to do more after dinner. Let me move this to my room.”

“Door open!” his father calls. TK rolls his eyes but obliges.

He moves his things to his room upstairs and comes back quickly, before his father has the chance to check in on him. He’s already almost fed up with this whole lack of privacy he’s undergoing whenever he’s home, but at least it’s way better now that he’s back in Austin — while in New York City, his mother insisted on accompanying him , including the restrooms every time he had to go during one of their outings.

When he comes down, he stops dead in his tracks when he sees who’s lounging in the living room while his father tries not to burn down their kitchen.

“Ms. Kinsey,” he greets, his words coming out stammered and breathy. He would have never expected to find the librarian — and current SexEd teacher at their school — checking the pictures on their mantelpiece with a glass of white wine in her hand. “I—I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I knew Owen wouldn’t have told you,” she says, smiling warmly. “You can call me Zoe, TK.”

TK smiles back. There’s a reason why he likes Ms. Kinsey — Zoe, he reminds himself — and that’s because she’s always a welcoming presence in the library. She never makes anyone feel out of place or weird, and she always has the best book recommendations for everything. She’s also very patient with juniors and freshmen during their first SexEd classes, and TK knows they all can ask her any question even when she’s not in teacher mode.

That doesn’t mean he has to like the fact that she seems to be dating his father — or else they wouldn’t be subjecting TK to a dinner at his own home where he has to entertain a guest while his dad feigns he’s making dinner.

“Uh, well, then, Zoe,” he says after what feels like a long, uncomfortable pause. “Why don’t you, eh, sit down and I go check on the chef?”

“That sounds good,” she replies, already moving toward the table and choosing one of the spots his father has set.

TK all but runs to the kitchen and jumps inside with a frown. “Dad,” he hisses, closing the door behind him as gently as he can muster. “You never said you’d invited Ms. Kinsey to dinner!”

“I didn’t think it would be important to know the identity of our guest beforehand,” his father replies from behind a pot that’s currently steaming. The low beeping of the timer on the oven tells TK that there’s something — probably fish — being slowly cooked inside. “You’d have freaked out just as much as you’re doing now.”

“Because she’s the librarian at my school, and the SexEd teacher, Dad!” TK cries, although he tries to keep his volume down enough so he isn’t heard outside the room. “You should’ve told me.”

“We’re just getting to know each other, TK,” his father explains.

“You don’t bring someone you’re beginning to know to a dinner date with your son,” TK points out. “How long have you been seeing each other?”

“I don’t think that’s important right now. I want you to behave, okay?”

“You hurt my feelings,” TK teases, frowning at his father. “I can totally behave. I can!” he exclaims when his father peeks at him over the rim of the pot. “That is burning, by the way.”

His father yelps and pays more attention to whatever he’s cooking while TK laughs and helps him by taking out the fish and plate it perfectly on a porcelain platter. TK knows they’re going to blow Ms. Kinsey’s mind with the fish, since it’s the only dish his father knows how to cook without ruining it, although whatever he was trying to prepare on the pot is completely spoiled.

“Just go with the fish,” TK tells his father, nudging him forward. “She’s going to be amazed by your cooking skills, Dad.”

“Now I know you’re mocking me,” his father laughs back, following TK out of the kitchen with the platter in his hands.

The dinner is, surprisingly, fun enough that TK doesn’t dwell too much on the fact that he’s sharing it with his high school’s librarian who happens to be dating his father. They talk about tons of things, and by the end of it TK has almost managed to convince his father about the sheer need of having a pet in the house — and how it would be great for him to have someone to take care of. They haven’t talked openly about TK’s issues and how they’re facing them because Ms. Kinsey has been around, but TK thinks he’s winning this argument. He started asking for a dog back when he was seven, and he hasn’t stopped ever since.

When dinner is over, and they’ve moved the conversation toward the living room, TK begins feeling self conscious in a way he hasn’t felt in years — although it’s not the first time he’s been the third wheel during one of his father’s dates, this time it’s weirder because he actually knows his date. He makes a feeble excuse about how he needs to go work on his school essays, but he can tell neither his father nor Ms. Kinsey really pays attention to him, too engrossed staring into each other’s eyes.

TK makes a beeline for his bedroom — door open — quicker than Usain Bolt runs the one-hundred meters.

He flops down on his bed with a sigh. He’s actually tired from dinner tonight, so instead of grabbing his backpack and rummaging through his textbooks, TK grasps his phone and fiddles with it. He uses one of his apps to play some music on the speaker he was over his nightstand, a soft tune filling the air. He’s been playing Candy Crush Saga for a few minutes when an incoming video call from Marjan interrupts his game.

“Hey, Marj,” he greets.

“Have you seen it?” Marjan asks right away, not even letting him finish his greeting.

“Seen what?”

TK’s confused. He’s been off the grid for most of the afternoon, first with homework and then with dinner, so he hasn’t seen anything out of the ordinary — unless Marjan is referring to the particularly difficult problem from their Algebra class.

“The post about the closeted gay kid at school!” Marjan squeals. “It’s all over the place at Austin High Secrets, Teek. Who do you think it is? I bet it’s that kid with rimless glasses from my Lit class. Or maybe it’s Tim Rosewater.”

TK holds his breath for a second. He doesn’t know which post she’s talking about, and a heavy weight of dread pool in his gut. He slides off his bed and sits at his chair, opening his laptop in one swift movement. He thanks the powers that be because he’s allowed to have technological devices despite everything, and he opens Austin High Secrets right away.

The post is there, the first to be checked, right on top of everything else. TK blinks at it. He can see a Ferris wheel right above the text, a mockery of colors and brightness that’s making him dizzy.

“Sorry, Marj, I—I have to go,” he tells his friend, who was still talking while he was having a meltdown.

“Wait, wait, TK!”

But he’s already hung up on her, putting his phone face down. Heʼs staring at the screen, unblinking, until the words and the images start dancing in front of his eyes. He runs a hand over his face before reading once again the message that has been posted, over and over.


“Oh, God, oh, God,” TK mutters to himself. He looks over at the door, checking in on the noises from downstairs, but it seems his father and Ms. Kinsey are having a blast, from what he can gather from their laughs.

He turns back to the message, his heart thumping hard in his chest.


The last words echo in his soul in a way TK isn’t ready to admit. He finds himself reaching out, fingers already typing before he can register the movement, and soon he's staring at an open tab with a new Gmail account to be set up. He doesn’t know what username to choose — he already has his personal account but it would give him away and heʼs chasing anonymity.

The lyrics of the song currently playing give him inspiration — he was in a mood for old rock music so he queued a playlist featuring SafetySuit — and he writes down followyourcompass before the @ sign.

Then, he only has to write what he wants to say to Carey, a feeling of vertigo taking over him. It shouldn’t be this hard, but TK doesn’t really know where to start. What does he want out of this exchange? What is it heʼs chasing?

TK doesn’t have answers to himself.

The laughters downstairs give him the nudge he needs.

He wants to have what his father has — an easy date, some fun, someone to hold hands with and share inside jokes. He wants Carey to have it too.

He wants to believe that they deserve to be happy.


He just doesn't know how to sign the email. He canʼt use his name, and he doesn’t want to give out too much detail, but he also doesn’t want to feel like heʼs lying. He looks around the desk; his eyes fall upon a picture of himself at around eleven holding a trophy he won at the local swimming championship. TK knows that the words Tyler Kennedy Strand are engraved on it.

He reflects for a moment on his name. His middle name is his father's fault — as stubborn as Owen Strand is, he wanted his son to be named after John Fitzgerald Kennedy — and then he can see the proverbial bulb lighting up in his mind.

TK is the son of a man enamoured with the idea of freedom and progress. He finds it fitting to use the nickname JFK gave his own son — John Kennedy Jr. had been known as JJ by everyone. Maybe he should sign his email like that.

Before he can give it much more thought, he clicks twice on the key and hits send. Once the email is out of his outbox, TK exhales.

He doesn’t think he's going to sleep at all tonight, not until he knows whether or not Carey has responded.

Chapter Text

When Carlos went to sleep, he hadn’t expected to wake up to his new email address smoking from all the messages heʼs gotten. He doesn’t recall falling asleep, but maybe the exhaustion of the emotions from the last part of the day caught up with him. After that first email that was hate, just like Grace had predicted, Carlos kept getting more and more, to an extent where he almost couldn't bear the constant noise of the device as it went wild with notifications, he had thrown his phone away and burrowed himself under the covers in his narrow bed, wanting to disappear for a long time. He opens his eyes with a start when the alarm blasts off, remembering the events from the night before and how he hasn’t dreamed at all. He fishes around for his phone only to not find it.

“Great,” he mumbles, sitting up on the bed and rubbing the sleepiness off his eyes. He looks around when he manages to get his eyes cracked open long enough to actually focus on the space before him, following the beeping noise of notifications from one app or the other that are most definitely coming from his phone. Which he finds mostly dead on the floor where heʼd tossed it the night before after his conversation with both Iris and Grace, the strain of showing the notifications too much for whatever little battery it had left. Carlos curses himself for forgetting to plug it in — now he will have to rely on the portable charger he has somewhere in his room.

He manages to steal a glance at the screen to see he has over thirty messages that need his attention. He bites on his lip and he checks both the time and the battery. Neither is enough to allow him even a swift peruse of his emails. He groans.

How heʼs managed to oversleep the only day he thought he wouldn’t be able to sleep escapes any reasoning.

Carlos fumbles through one of his drawers until he stumbles upon the portable battery, which luckily has enough power to last him until he gets to the school and can plug the phone into the electrical current. He picks his cord and links both devices before the phone definitely dies on him. This is not exactly how he thought the day after coming mostly out to his fellow students would start.

Carlos grabs his clothes and hopes Alejandra hasn't already claimed the bathroom as hers, but he finds out heʼs run out of luck when he tries turning the knob on the door to the left and it doesn’t budge. He groans again.

“Carlitos,” his mother calls out. “Come here and help me, please. You can shower later.”

He frowns in surprise. His motherʼs voice seems to come from the kitchen, a place where she hasn't set foot since about a week after they moved into this apartment. He follows the sound and finds her standing up in front of one of the counters, whisking some eggs. He sits down at the small table, where he can see three plates and three glasses all set, and a jug of orange juice ready to be drunk. “Mamá,” he greets softly. “You’re making breakfast.”

It comes out more like a question than a statement, and his mother arches an eyebrow at him. He can see that the bags under her eyes haven't disappeared — not that he had been expecting that to happen overnight — but he can see a fire there that he didn’t think heʼd ever see again.

“Iʼm sorry,” she tells him as she keeps working on what smells like omelettes. “I shouldn’t have allowed this to take over me.”

“Itʼs okay, mom, you know. This whole thing with dad has been overwhelming, to say the least.”

“Yes, for sure,” she acquiesces, flinching a little at the mention of her now ex-husband. “But I am still your mother, Carlos. Iʼm still the adult, and I forgot about it for so long. But that stops today.”

She places the pan where she’s been working in front of Carlos and tips it over the edge to let the omelettes slide off. “I will call a lawyer today,” she informs him. “After I call Theresa and check if her offer is still up. You know, the job she told me about a few months ago.”

Carlos remembers, of course he does. Iris and Michelleʼs mother had come to their rescue when their life had imploded, helping them to find a place to stay after his father expressed his desire to stay in their home with his new family — after all, he had been paying for the house all along apparently, if Carlos had understood correctly — and it had been her as well who had offered his mother a job in the very beginning of their quest to find their footing. His mother had refused, not feeling well enough to even get out of bed on most days, but Carlos is so happy to see rising from her ashes like the phoenix he knows she’s been all along.

“Thanks, mamá,” he whispers to her before attacking the omelette in front of him.

Alejandra chooses that exact moment to resurface from the bathroom; Carlos inhales the rest of his breakfast before hopping into the shower while his mother talks to his sister about the changes that loom over them in the near future.

His mood is so chirped all the way to school that even Michelle behind the wheel notices.

“Someone's in good spirits today,” she teases him halfway through their ride, after she’s caught him humming along with the pop song Iris has plugged in. “Such a change from these days.”

Iris eyes him from the passenger’s seat. Carlos knows she’s not going to say anything about the post or the messages heʼs received afterwards with Michelle in the car, even though Michelle can be trusted. It's just that Michelle doesn’t know about Carlosʼ secret, and while he doesn’t mind sharing it with her in due time — after all Michelle is like his older sister — he still doesn’t feel at all comfortable speaking out about his sexuality.

It's not that it's anyoneʼs business anyway.

“I guess I have reasons to be,” he settles to say, going for half the truth. “My mom has finally decided to fight back. She’s said sheʼd call your mom to talk about her chances.”

“Oh gosh, why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Iris exclaims, turning around. Michelle whoops from behind the wheel. “You should have called me straight away!”

“Dead phone, remember?” he retaliates, waving the device in front of his own face, still attached to the portable battery. “If I use it while charging off this, it doesn’t work properly.”

Michelle snickers. “And here I thought you were using it for whatever you youngsters use your phone these days. You know, porn?”

“She said as though she’s an oldie!” Iris swats her sister's arm playfully. “Carlos is too pure to use it for porn.”

He can feel himself blushing in the back seat, warmth rising up to his cheeks. “I don't watch porn!” he defends himself heatedly.

“Keep telling yourself that,” Michelle mutters among Carlosʼ spluttered excuses and Irisʼ lyrical laughter.

It’s true, for the most part — Carlos doesn’t really watch porn. It’s not like he opens a private tab on his browser and searches for that kind of video. He simply dreams of it — of deft fingers that roam over his whole body and lips that nip at every exposed patch of skin and eyes that see through him until they reach his very core.

But he can’t say that.

Instead, he rides along with the Blake sisters until Michelle drops them at school. He still wonders why she chose the Austin campus of the University of Texas when she could have attended any college in the whole country. Sometimes he thinks it’s because she wants to stay close to the remnants of her broken family after their father passed away, but other times Carlos believes that, by the time she needed to choose a college to attend, the everlasting bravery that Michelle wore like a pendant had run out and she decided to stay in Austin.

Whatever it was, it’s been giving him free rides to school for three years now, and he’s thankful for that. Michelle’s taking a detour these days to pick him up from his apartment building because they had to make do with what they had when they found themselves on the streets. She shouldn’t have to drive all the way through St. Johns but she does — and she’s never ever complained about it.

“We’re here,” Michelle says softly, taking him out of his reverie. “I bet Iris is dying to gossip with you about something I’m way too old to understand,” she keeps on. There’s a smile playing on her lips as she stares at him through the rearview window. “And for the looks of it, Grace is also in on it. They’re glaring at you from the curb.”

It’s then that Carlos realizes that his friends are both staring at him from the sideway, arms crossed and matching glares, waiting for him to jump out of the car. He hasn’t noticed the moment when Iris has left the vehicle, so engrossed in his own thoughts.

“Thanks for the ride, chica,” he says sincerely as he grabs his backpack and hops out of the car.

“Anytime, kid!”

“About time you decided to grace us with your presence!” Iris calls out, stomping her foot on the ground. “I want to hear everything, and you wouldn’t say a word with Michelle around.”

“Let him be,” Grace tries to appease her. “This is not the place for this. And if heʼs not comfortable talking about his things in front of your sister, then it's fine.”

He is here,” Carlos reminds them. “And heʼd like to move this inside.”

Iris bugs him all the way inside as they greet other students while they walk to their locker, which are conveniently all next to each other. Carlos opens his and throws his backpack inside with a sigh. “Before you ask, the first email last night was hate,” he whispers. “I should have listened to you two.”

“The first email?” Iris questions. “Does that mean there are more?”

Carlos nods. Grace grins. Iris squeals and jabs at him.

“And?” Grace insists.

Carlos rolls his eyes, “Judd not around for you to go bother him?” There’s no real heat in his words, and Grace knows it. She laughs heartily.

“Judd won't come in today. Seems yesterdayʼs appointment didn't go down as expected, and heʼs in great pain today still.”

“Heʼs always hated dentists,” Carlos says slowly. “This is only going to fuel his fears.”

“Talking about fueling, stop changing the subject. What about those other emails?”

Carlos takes out his phone and the portable battery it's still attached to, and check the screen. “Phone died last night, didn’t charge it.”

“Itʼs charged enough now!” Iris cries out. “Let us know!”

“Projecting much, Blake?” he teases.

“Just living vicariously through you, Reyes,” she fires back.

Carlos shakes his head in amusement as he filters through his new inbox. Grace and Iris help him disregard what looks like hate until they reach the last email, received around eleven. The three of them frown at both the name and the title.

“Who in the hell is JJ and why did he think I have a secret too could be a good pick up line?” Iris huffs. She turns into her locker and grabs her books for the day. “This is absolutely bonkers.”

But Carlos isn’t paying her any attention. He’s reading the message, mouthing the words as he goes, coming back to a particular line and feeling his eyes welling up at the emotions he sees reflected behind the virtual ink.

“Carlos?” Grace shakes him slightly. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he croaks out. “This is just—it's perfect.”

“Perfect? Who is he? What does he say?” Iris tries to snatch the phone from his hands but he resists. “Hey! I want to know!”

“And you will,” he promises. “Once I know how to reply.”

Carlos tunes them out as they complain loudly, still staring down at his phone screen. There’s a myriad of questions swirling in his mind — who, why, how, when, where — but for now he should focus on his classes instead of on the warm feeling filling up every single dark and cold corner of his soul.

He doesn’t care about Grace and Iris. He barely has half a mind focusing on the reality around him — his heart is set elsewhere.

Theyʼre still teasing him loudly when TK Strand walks by, an aura of loneliness and sadness around him; Carlos can't help but notice him as he steps around the different groups in the hallway, minding his own business without the presence of the rest of the group who usually wrap around him like a blanket.

“Sorry, girls,” he finds himself saying before he can second guess himself. “Iʼm gonna be late for English if I don't move now. See you at lunch?”

He’s taking his textbook and slamming his locker closed before his friends can protest. He waves them off, gliding through the corridor until he reaches TK. He touches TKʼs shoulder gently.

“Hey, Strand,” he greets with a small smile. “Ready for English?”

TK beams at him, and Carlos feels like heʼs staring at the sun.

Maybe he doesn’t know who JJ actually is in real life —maybe he will never find out if heʼs unlucky — but he's sure about who he wants it to be.

Squashing those thoughts deep down his soul, he falls into step with TK.

It's a stressful ride to school for TK. He has to quelch the need to check on his phone every two seconds to see whether the beeping sound comes from an email notification or not. Being forced to have his two hands on the wheel and his whole attention latched onto the road prove to be an almost impossible task in the morning after he opened up to a complete stranger.

The thing is that TK didn’t feel like he was talking to someone he didn’t know — as he poured his heart on that email, TK had had the feeling that he was talking to his own reflection in the mirror. It felt like slicing himself open just for his own eyes to witness his sins.

It felt good.

“You’re distracted today,” Marjan tells him once she’s been inside the car a total amount of two minutes. She sips from her tea with a pointed look aimed at the back of his head. “Pay attention to the road, I donʼt have any interest in becoming the opening line for the news tonight.”

TK bites on his lip, keeping his teeth grazed on the plump skin. He can feel Paul staring at him from the passenger’s seat, one hand on his coffee and the other holding onto TKʼs, having snatched it after TK almost spilled it, such is his state of nervousness.

“I don’t know what's got into you, man, but you need to chill,” Paul warns him in a whisper. “Weʼre almost there,” he keeps on louder for their two friends in the back. “Weʼll be done with this soon.”

“It hasn't been that bad,” TK pouts when heʼs already parked the car. “Weʼre all in one piece.”

“That’s after you almost ran through a red light and a truck honked at you,” Mateo points out. “Iʼve never been so glad to arrive at school.”

TK pouts even more, but his friends are already walking towards the entrance hall before him, bags at their backs and laughs ringing through the space, and he needs to up his step to fall in line with them. He chances a quick glance at his phone, but there's still no notifications.

He swallows a groan.

Paul has Biology in first period, while Mateo and Marjan both share a Creative Writing class. TK is the only one from his core group in his English class, and he needs to walk all the way through the building to get to his classroom. He bumps Paulʼs shoulder in jest, and caresses Marjanʼs arm affectionately, and pats Mateoʼs head in mockery — for Mateo is the smallest of them all — before he finds his way to his own locker.

His phone remains silent.

TK sighs as he silences the device because he canʼt really use his phone while in class. He shoves it into his front pocket and grabs the books he needs for his first two periods; he only shares English with Carlos, and then he sits in an Art class on his own. Usually, TK looks forward to seeing Carlos in class — despite them having grown apart — but today he doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. Today heʼs just looking forward to an email that is surely taking its own sweet time.

With his head hung low, TK navigates the crowds in the hallways, avoiding colliding against Principal Marquez by mere inches.

“Tyler!” the principal greets him. “How are you this fine morning? Ready to take over the classrooms?”

“Hey, Principal Marquez,” he mutters. “Everythingʼs fine. I am just running late to English.”

“Far be it from me to keep you from your class! Go, go!”

TK marches on, somewhat happy to have avoided the disaster that a conversation with Principal Marquez could have been. He keeps his head low, staring at the tiles on the floor as he walks. He’s so engrossed in his own feelings — in the thoughts of having been stood up through email by someone he doesn’t even know — that he almost misses Carlos falling into step with him.

“Hey, Strand! Ready for English?”

TK finds a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth; he allows it to fully explode into a beam when he looks up and meet Carlosʼ eyes. Even after everything theyʼve been through — even after falling apart because of TK’s biggest secret — Carlos hasn't really left his side. They are still on speaking terms, even if they don’t really talk that much, and their group is still strong despite everything.

“Are you ready, Reyes?” he teases. “This is not Algebra. You have to actually make an effort in this one.”

“You wound my feelings,” Carlos jokes back. It's still a running joke between all of them — how Carlos can't get good grades in English and how TK is absolute shit at Algebra.

They enter the classroom together. TK sees Alex already sitting in the back, as though he owns the place. There’s no sign of Mitchell, since he doesn’t attend this English class, and TK feels himself relaxing a bit. They haven't spoken since that day during the first week of school, although TK doesn’t consider that conversation anything above straight-up abuse.

Without thinking, he follows Carlos to a couple of desks and flops down next to his friend, who looks up at him bewildered. “Are you serious now?” he asks. TK stares at him with a frown — it's then that he realizes the weirdness of their position. “I don't think youʼve sat with me since junior year,” Carlos continues, voicing his doubts and making TK feel self-conscious.

Which, of course, meant he becomes a little bitch and snaps at someone who doesn’t deserve it.

TK shakes his head. “Iʼd rather not talk about it,” he replies petulantly.

“Well,” Carlos says. When TK turns to him, heʼs looking serious. “Youʼve been dead set on not being seen in public with me or Iris or even Grace. Iʼm not trying to be your best friend once again, but I hope you understand that we may be a bit hesitant after last semester.”

TK sighs. He knows he should have apologized more profusely when he came back, but he didn’t even think about it — since his friends had welcomed him back with no questions, he had thought that he didn’t need to put any effort into righting his wrongs. Heʼd just sat down at their table in the cafeteria without a second thought; he had been too focused on not giving out why heʼd been withdrawing from them and getting sick from seeing Alex with Mitchell. Heʼd thought that, since Paul hadn't asked, TK hadn't needed to explain anything.

Heʼd thought that he could get away with hurting Carlos Reyes because his friend hadn't even hesitated in walking with him to class, when he should have picked up on the fact that they’re three weeks into the school year and it's the first time they have entered the classroom together.

“Iʼm sorry,” he mutters. “For all that is worth, I truly am.”

Carlos sighs. “I’m not the only person you should apologize to. But I accept your apologies, TK. Just don't ever pull a stunt like last yearʼs. We still don't know what happened to you, and I know you will tell us in time if you feel like it. But, please, don't do that again.”

TK nods stiffly. He remembers the screaming match he got into with Carlos and Judd during one of his highs right when he began losing control of his actions after using, sometime throughout the year before — it's one of the few clear memories he has of those weeks because it features Carlosʼ sad eyes on him. TK knows he hurt his friend — the one who's stood by him despite everything, and through them falling apart because of TK's own bad decisions — and he knows he's been a fool to ever think things could be back to normal.

They have no more time to dwell on what could have happened because the teacher barrels into the room and starts the class without as much as a greeting.

An hour later, TK is thankful that he chose today to sit next to Carlos — they have ended up paired for a workgroup study for an upcoming test the week before Halloween.

“What about we meet after your practice?” TK offers when they’re finally dismissed from class. “I know you're scheduled for soccer practice three times a week, but I would love to get started as soon as possible.”

“I’ll have to tell my mother,” Carlos nods. “But maybe we could meet at Nateʼs? Around half an hour after practice?”

“Tell your mother that Iʼll be driving you home afterwards,” TK continues. They have already gathered all their things and are walking out of the class. “I bet sheʼll be more willing to allow you to come home after curfew.”

“How can you remember such small things as my curfew?” Carlos scoffs. TK can hear the unspoken words — TK can still recall the details of the Reyes household, but he canʼt even think of the moment when he decided that Carlos wasn't enough for his delusions of grandeur. “Lots of things have changed these days, Strand. No curfew for me anymore.”

“Iʼll still drive you home before seven so you can have dinner with the family,” TK promises.

“Grab the best table at Nateʼs!” Carlos commands before sprinting through the corridor to his next class. TK stares at his retreating form.

He remembers the table they used to sit at when they still hung out at Nateʼs, not even a full year before. It was their favorite place in the world, and back then Michelle Blake would pick them up there after school to drive them home. Back then TK and Carlos shared much more than their love for coffee — they were still neighbors, and they were still friends, and nothing mattered except what they meant for each other.

Much simpler times, TK reminisces.

He fishes out his phone and checks it nonchalantly while he walks to his next class. He’s staring deceived at the screen and he doesn’t notice Principal Marquez until he runs into him.

“Strand,” the principal tsks. “What are the rules about cell phones at school?”

“Shit,” TK mutters. “Sorry, I will store it away.”

“Watch your language, young man. You already know that I will be keeping your phone until school is over today.”

“No, please!” TK begs. “What if my father—” He cuts himself before giving out another of his secrets; this one is not something he can freely admit, because it hurts too much. But he needs to be available in case his father needs him.

“Your father can call the school if he needs to contact you,” Principal Marquez commands. “Now, hand it over.”

TK shakes his head, mad mostly at himself. He obliges, resigning himself to a day without his phone — he will miss the email in case Carey replies. Principal Marquez grabs the phone and tucks it away. “Come to my office once the last bell rings, and I will give it back to you.”

TK is edgy and fidgeting the rest of the day. He canʼt sit still for longer than a few minutes at a time, and he earns himself a few warnings from his teachers and an everlasting glare from Paul during lunch. TK canʼt stop checking the clock over their heads while they're sitting at their usual table, Marjan and Mateo nudging at him so he keeps eating and Paul shaking his head.

“TK!” he hears, and he snaps back to reality. When he looks around, he sees Carlos with his right hand outstretched and his eyes gleaming in amusement. “You gonna eat your fries?”

“Man, what’s gotten into you today?” Paul scolds him. TK tries to ignore him as he hands his fries to Carlos — he wasn't going to eat them anyway. “Heʼs been calling you for ages.”

“I’m just distracted,” TK mumbles, back to his quinoa salad, which he pushes around in his tray. He really isn’t hungry.

“I know it sucks that Marquez took your phone,” Marjan tells him. “But you need to stop whatever has gotten into you.”

“Just let him be,” Iris says. “It’s the first lunch in a long time that I can hear my thoughts instead of his constant rambling.”

“Iris!” Grace calls her out scandalized.

But TK canʼt bring himself to care. He’s a boisterous person, always talking, always moving. He knows people can get tired of him pretty easily.

“Iʼll be by the bleachers,” he mutters, standing up and running away from his friends. He barely hears Grace telling Iris that she should go apologize. He sincerely hopes Iris doesn’t.

When the last bell rings and heʼs free to regain his phone, TK practically slides through the hallways until heʼs knocking on the principalʼs office door. He knows he's going to get some kind of lecture about being plugged and unplugged — about how itʼs better to live life without that intense dependence on mobile devices. TK couldn’t care less.

With his phone in his hand, he runs to his car. He should be getting to Nateʼs if he wants to get the best table, but he first needs to check his emails. He opens his door and jumps inside; one hand on the wheel and the other hovering over the screen, thumb shaking slightly.

There’s a small bubble of email notification popping in the middle of his screen. The name reads Carey.

There’s a honking sound startling him, urging him to move the car. TK swears but he starts the vehicle and tells himself that heʼs going to reply when he reaches Nateʼs.