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Between Two Lungs

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TK was hot.

And not in a ‘Carlos took his shirt off let me readjust my pants’ fun way.

Sweat was dripping down his back, the air humid and tacky. Marjan, Paul and Mateo didn’t look much better, Mateo’s usually bright outlook dampened by the stifling heat, and it wasn’t even breakfast yet. They all sat and watched the clock as it ticked over, finally indicating the end of shift.

“Oh my God, I thought that shift would never end,” said Paul, peeling himself off the leather lounge.

“It’s not even ten yet, how is it so warm?” asked Marjan, fanning herself with her hands.

“Well, we’re off the clock now, what are we going to do? Normally I’d suggest sleep, but if you can sleep in this you’re insane,” said Paul, grabbing a cold bottle of water from the fridge.

“I have an idea?” offered Carlos from the doorway. He smiled at TK, genuine and warm, and TK felt his face flush in a way that had nothing to do with the ambient heat.

“I’ll take anything,” added Mateo from his place draped over the couch.

“Barton Springs is open, and it’s still early. We could head down there, go swimming for the day, hang out,” suggested Carlos.

“God, yes, let’s do that. Meet you there?” replied Paul.

“That place is on my to go list from when I moved here, I’ve just never had the chance," piped up Marjan.

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll meet you in the carpark, bring a blanket, some snacks, swimwear, whatever you think you might want,” answered Carlos. Mateo, Marjan and Paul darted out of the firehouse, leaving TK to stand with Carlos.

“Hey you. That’s a great idea,” said TK, kissing Carlos on the nose.

“Ulterior motive. I just wanted to see you without your shirt on,” replied Carlos huskily. TK snickered, before pulling away.

“Come on, let’s get going, I already feel like I’m sweating to death. A fire would be cooler than this heat,” said TK wearily.

“I already packed our stuff, it’s in the Camaro. I had this planned last night after I saw the weather reports.” TK smiled at Carlos, laying a gentle hand on his cheek.

“This is why you’re my favourite,” said TK, grinning.

“I’m your favourite because I can cook, and it means you won’t die of starvation. You can’t even cook toast TK,” jested Carlos.

“Not just for your cooking. You’re also good at driving, and did I mention I kinda want your body? Like, you’re good at sex and you’re totally hot,” said TK, ducking away from Carlos as he launched at TK, both laughing.

“Is that all, is it? TK, I’m hurt,” replied Carlos, feigning a broken heart. TK allowed himself to be pulled in close to Carlos, and met his lips gently.

“Of course not you goose. Come on, as much as I’d like to stand here and stroke your ego, I am dripping in sweat, and am definitely looking forward to cooling off. And I haven’t seen Barton Springs before,” admitted TK.

“You’ll love it. It’ll probably be busy though, fair warning,” said Carlos, taking TK’s hand and leading him out of the firehouse. They got into Carlos’ car, TK sinking into the soft seats as Carlos cranked the aircon. He pulled away from the fire station, making small talk with each other as they headed out, the trip only taking fifteen minutes. TK had heard Carlos talk about it before, one of his favourite places to go when the weather was hot, and TK had been begging to go with him when their shifts aligned. Carlos kept the conversation up easily, clearly excited to be taking TK to one of his favourite places, pulling up and parking a few minutes later.  

“You really love this place, don’t you,” said TK. Carlos was practically vibrating with excitement, and was out of the car before TK could even unbuckle his seatbelt. TK climbed out of the car, watching as Carlos unpacked a cooler and beach bags, ever prepared. Paul, Marjan and Mateo pulled up next to them, Mateo looking just as excited as Carlos.

“Probie didn’t shut up on the trip over, this place had better be amazing,” said Marjan. She pulled out a small marquee in a bag, her own tote over her shoulder, and the group of five entered the grounds, following the path around to the flatter grassed area. Marjan took no time in setting up the shade tent, then spreading out blankets underneath, stretching out.

“You coming for a swim Marjan?” asked Mateo, stripping off his shirt, dumping it on top of his shoes.

“No thanks Probie. I bought a good book and the weather is nice, so you can go off and swim and get sunburned, I will be right here reading, ready to throw you your towel when you come back soaking wet,” offered Marjan, pulling a book out of her tote, laying on the thick blanket. “Besides, Nancy was talking about coming down as well once she’d gone home to grab some things, and Tommy was talking about bringing her family down as well, so I can at least tell them where we are if they message. Go, go have fun!” TK, Carlos, Paul and Mateo took no time, darting away from Marjan and over to the water. Carlos pointed out the deep end and the shallow end before sprinting off to the deep end. TK was a little slower in following him, preferring to sit on the edge, dangling his feet in the water. Mateo and Paul disappeared in the deeper water as well, laughing as they started splashing each other. TK watched Carlos’ body glide through the water, before breaking the surface near TK.

“The water’s great, you should get in,” suggested Carlos.

“And miss the view? No thanks, I am perfectly good here,” replied TK. Carlos leaned up on TK’s knees, grinning at his boyfriend, before taking his hand and pulling him into the water. TK came up for air, spluttering a little, and Carlos swooped in for a kiss.

“I promise, the view is much better down here,” said Carlos. TK couldn’t feel the bottom of the pool, treading water near Carlos, slight nerves threading through him; normally the adrenaline rush from a rescue would mean the depth of the water didn’t bother him, but right now, it was definitely making him feel uneasy.

“I’ll take your word for it. This place is really amazing Carlos, I can see why you like it,” said TK. Mateo and Paul joined them, looking around the pool.

“This place is awesome, I would totally be here after every shift when it’s this warm all the time,” commented Paul.

“Come on, you can dive down this end, the water’s deeper,” urged Mateo. Carlos swam out first, the other three following him, before disappearing under the water. He popped back up a moment later, grinning at the group. There were more people here, the water crowded. TK dove down first, trying to see how far he could swim before having to surface for air. He made it a few metres before breaking the surface, looking at his friends.

“Come on, see if you can beat that!” teased TK. Mateo tried next, surfacing just past TK, triumphantly punching the air.

“Yes! Come on Strickland, see if you can beat that!” TK shook his head, knowing that Paul would most definitely beat that, appearing nearly three metres past Mateo.

“Come on Carlos, your turn!” Carlos took a deep breath, dipping below the surface. He was one with the water, pulling himself through with each stroke. He wasn’t expecting the kick to the side of the head, nor the rock that came up out of nowhere to smack him in the face.

 

Or the darkness that swallowed him whole.

 


 

“He’s not surfaced yet,” said Paul, worry colouring his tone. Mateo glanced around, trying to see if he had appeared further away from them.

“He should have surfaced by now,” added TK, concerned.  

“I’ll duck under, have a quick look.” Paul slipped under the water, and was under for nearly a minute before he surfaced, Carlos’ unconscious body in front of him, head slumped forward.

“Shit, Carlos?” cried TK.

“He’s not breathing, looks like he’s taken a knock to the face judging by the blood. Mateo, get over to Marjan as quick as you can, let her know what’s going on and then dial 9-1-1,” ordered Paul. He started to swim back to the edge, Carlos firmly in his grip. Mateo paddled as fast as he could, getting to the edge and calling out for Marjan. Paul focused on the pull of the water, hoping they’d gotten to him soon enough to make a difference. He reached the side of the springs, Mateo and Marjan lifting Carlos’ dead weight from the water, dragging him up to the grass. Marjan quickly towelled him down before Mateo started compressions. TK didn’t even see her take the phone away from her ear, tossing it on their pile of blankets. Paul moved to help Mateo, and Marjan took TK by the shoulders.

“TK, I need you to breathe. Can you tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know, we were swimming, he was… we were trying to outswim each other under water, see how far we could go. He went under, but we didn’t see him come back up, and then it was too long, and Paul found him,” said TK, voice wavering and confused.

“He’s got signs of a head trauma, still not breathing. EMS are two minutes out,” said Paul, rhythmically working on Carlos’ chest. TK heard a crack from Carlos under Paul’s hands.

“Oh God, that’s probably a rib,” said TK, squeezing his eyes shut. He felt hands on either side of his face, soothing warmth, the water dripping from his skin making him feel chilled.

“Teo, I need you to sprint to the lifeguard tower, see if you can get their defib. TK, I know this is stressful, but I need you to focus. You can fall apart later, I promise. Right now, Carlos will need your help, we need your help.” TK nodded, opening his eyes to see Marjan’s concerned face looking at him, spotting Mateo sprinting away like the devil was after him.

“Someone swap out with me please,” asked Paul. Marjan settled in across from him, and as Paul counted her in Marjan smoothly took over, continuing the compressions like nothing had changed. Mateo came running back, a lifeguard behind him, a defibrillator on his back.

“What happened?” asked the lifeguard.

“Not sure yet, but he’s drowned. We’re firefighters from the 126, can you direct the EMS crew down here? They should be here any minute now,” answered Paul. TK moved robotically, taking the defib from the lifeguard and placing it on the ground. He pulled out the large flat stickers, adhering them to Carlos’ chest, momentarily grateful that Carlos preferred smooth skin on his chest. He flipped on the machine, Marjan starting to look exhausted. Paul readied himself to take over from Marjan. 

 

He's been down too long.

 

“Ready to shock! Clear!” TK pressed the button as Marjan’s hands came away, and watched as Carlos’ chest jumped. The defib started to recharge, still showing an unsustainable rhythm, almost right, but not quite there. Paul continued CPR, taking over from Marjan, watching Carlos’ chest being moved for him TK felt the seconds bleed into minutes as the defib recharged, before it finally beeped.

“Ready to shock! Clear!”  The charge flowed through the cables, and for a harrowing moment, TK thought they’d have to go another round.

 

He’s not going to make it.

 

Carlo’s eyes snapped open, wide with fear and terror as he coughed, water flooding from his nose and mouth. Paul pushed him into a recovery position, Carlos wincing in pain as his ribs shifted, tears streaking down his cheeks. TK took his hand, gripping it tightly as he choked on the water still trying to escape his lungs, stroking back his damp hair.

“Shh ‘Los, you’re okay. We’ve got you.” Marjan flagged down the EMS team as they appeared, and they took over. TK stood back, allowing Marjan to pull him close for a reassuring hug as he broke down for a moment. She rubbed his back gently, slow circles as he tried to bring his emotions under control, pulling away after a few minutes when Carlos raised his voice at the EMS crew.

“No. I don’t want to go, please. My boyfriend is a paramedic, I’d much rather stay with him. If it gets worse I’ll get him to take me to hospital, please,” begged Carlos. The paramedic captain ran his hands through his hair, before sighing loudly.

“Fine. You sign some forms and then you become your boyfriends problem. We’ve already got more calls today than we can handle, this is just one less hospital trip we’d need to make,” grumbled the paramedic. Carlos signed the forms, then handed them back. He looked at TK, and teared up a little.

“You should go to hospital Carlos. You’ve probably got a broken rib or two, and you swallowed a lot of water, not to mention that knock on the head,” said TK gently. Carlos reached out, took TK’s hand in his and gripped it tightly.

“I feel fine, I swear. If I don’t, I have you, and you are welcome to take me to the hospital then. But not right now, okay? Right now, I just want to sit with you here and enjoy the day,” said Carlos, voice a little hoarse. TK relented, unhappy with the decision but unable to convince Carlos otherwise.

“Fine, but no more swimming.”

 


 

 His night was filled with terrifying dreams, of crushing water, rocks, darkness.

 

A litany of can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.

 

After a few hours of restless sleep, Carlos slipped out of bed, careful not to wake TK, and headed downstairs. He popped the TV on and made a hot drink, hoping that the tea would calm his agitated body and allow him a few hours of rest. He rubbed his aching chest as he sat down, cradling the mug as he dragged a blanket over his legs, flipping on an old episode of The Simpsons.

He didn’t remember drifting off, and was surprised to see TK in front of him, concern on his face.

“What’s wrong?” asked Carlos, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“I woke up and you weren’t there, I panicked a little,” replied TK petulantly. Carlos coughed a little, trying to shift the pressure in his chest before sitting up.

“Ugh. What time is it?”

“Your alarm went off for shift, that’s why I woke up. Are you going in?” Carlos nodded, pushing himself to his feet and walking up the stairs. “Are you sure you’re well enough to be going on? That gash on the head looks like you’ve been in a fight, and you’ve been rubbing your chest this whole time,” added TK.

“Tyler, I’m fine, I swear. I’m a little sore, which is to be expected. I need to go in for shift today, because I asked for someone to cover me yesterday so I could spend the day with you and the 126,” answered Carlos, voice short and temper controlled. TK backed off a little, pulling out his own uniform and getting ready for work, the silence yawning between them. Carlos opened his mouth to speak, then let his teeth clack shut, unsure of what to say. TK finished dressing, faster than Carlos, then disappeared downstairs. A moment later Carlos heard the front door slam closed, and he shut his eyes, letting his head lean against the closet door. He hadn’t meant to snap at TK, but he was right, he wasn’t feeling well, and he probably should have stayed home. He sucked in a breath, only to find he couldn’t quite catch it, feeling light headed. His knees crumbled beneath him, and he sank to the floor, holding his chest. His head ached, pain beating in time with the pain in his chest, his heart feeling like it was racing. He gave himself a moment before pushing himself back to his feet, determined to make it through the day. Getting dressed took longer than expected, and twenty minutes later he was finally dressed, albeit very untidy, shirt half tucked. He dragged himself down the stairs, seeing stars before his eyes. The Camaro felt like it was literal miles away as he shuffled his feet to the vehicle, sliding inside and slamming the door closed.

 

He knew this was crazy, knew he should call for help.

 

And he would have if he could, but his phone was upstairs on the bedside table, his foggy brain forgetting that he needed it. He was glad he only lived a few minutes from the station, blearily trying to focus while his lungs felt like he was trying to breathe through concrete, the sharp flares of pain keeping him lucid and awake. He parked haphazardly at the station, sheer willpower forcing his feet forward into the building, before he reached the locker room.

 

He needed help.

 

If he could have opened his mouth and sounds would come out, he would have called. As it was, the little amount of oxygen he was getting was clouding his mind, and he fell against the lockers, unable to stand any longer. He slid to the floor, legs splayed out, unable to do anything other than trying to breathe, a solitary tear streaking down his cheek, his world spinning out of control. He heard Williams enter the locker room, and tried to gasp out to him, to anyone. His vision was obscured by darkness for a moment, before it cleared, Williams crouched down in front of him, his voice sounding far away and panicked.

 

“Christ, Carlos, are you okay? Hannah, call 9-1-1!”

 


 

TK sat in the locker room, and glanced up as he heard Tommy Vega walk in.

“Hey TK, Marjan told me what happened yesterday. How are you doing?” she asked, taking a seat across from him.

“I’m… alright, I guess. It was scary, seeing him there like that. Carlos is usually so full of life, ready to take on the world that it seemed so out of place to see him unconscious on the ground,” admitted TK.

“From what Marjan has said, she reckoned without you pushing through to hook him up to the defib, we might have been having a very different conversation,” added Tommy. TK shrugged one shoulder.

“I was training to be a paramedic firefighter, but I stopped. The training is still there though, it’s good in a crisis,” replied TK.

“What stopped you? From what I’ve seen on calls, you’d be an ideal candidate for paramedic firefighter. You’re cool and calm under pressure, reassuring, and damn boy you’ve got a pretty face, and that definitely helps with the patients,” jested Tommy. TK cracked a smile, before turning to face Tommy.

“I was suspended from the program once they found out about my accidental overdose in New York. It’s pending a review after three years, and I’ve still got eighteen months left. I’ll see how I feel about it after that. For now, I’m happy to help out you guys where I can. According to the rules a firefighter can accompany an EMS unit if they require additional hands, so I try to sign up where I can to help out,” answered TK. The alarm in the main house blared, and Tommy sat up straight.

“That’s an EMS call, and Jack’s running late. Run it past your dad, and if he says yes jump on the rig with us. If we need to drop you off later to another call out we can,” offered Tommy.

“That sounds great, thanks Tommy. I’ll be down in a moment.” Tommy nodded, and watched as TK disappeared before heading down the stairs herself, Nancy already sitting in the driver’s seat of the rig.

“TK’s coming with us, to cover Jack, who’s running late. Just watch him, give him some guidance, okay?” Nancy nodded, and glanced up as the back doors of the ambulance opened, TK nimbly jumping inside and pulling the doors closed.

“Let’s go! Do we know what we’re going to?” asked TK. Nancy pulled out of the garage, heading down the main street.

“AFD called it in, at the precinct. They’ve got an officer down, struggling to breathe. We’ve been dispatched because the 121 is already on another call, and this one takes priority, even though it’s outside of our precinct,” answered Tommy. TK felt his own breath catch, before pulling out his phone and dialling Carlos.

Hi, you’ve reached Carlos. I’m not available right now, please leave a message.” TK ended the call, shoving his phone into his pocket, and desperately hoping the mounting anxiety he was feeling was because he hadn’t been on a paramedical call in a while, not because the officer down was Carlos. Nancy deftly wove through the traffic before pulling up out the front of the precinct, leaving the flashing lights on. TK jumped out of the back, grabbing the medi-kit while Tommy grabbed the LifePak. Nancy stayed behind to get the gurney out of the rig, and TK took no notice of her as he entered the police station.

“Thank God it’s you TK, I didn’t have your number to call you,” said Hannah, falling in line with Tommy and TK. TK felt his heart sink further as he realised it was most definitely Carlos they were there to treat.

“Where is he?” asked TK.

“Locker room. We can’t get him to talk, not sure if he can’t or won’t,” answered Hannah, concern laced through her voice. TK marched ahead, having met Carlos in the locker rooms before, and found Carlos against the lockers, head lolling, lips tinged blue, Williams talking to him in a voice of forced calm. Tommy crouched down next to Carlos, brushing his hair out the way.

“Hey Carlos, heard you’re not feeling well. Mind if we have a look?” asked Tommy gently. Carlos nodded, unable to say no even if he wanted to. TK flipped open the LifePak kit, pulling out the heart monitor and pulse oximeter, attaching the equipment to Carlos, while Tommy listened to his lungs through a stethoscope, face unreadable.

“Oxygen sats are down, looks like he’s wheezing as well, heart rate is elevated,” said TK, looking at the details on the screen, tamping down his own panic and anxiety.

“Possible secondary drowning. Carlos, we’re going to put you on some oxygen and give you something to try and help, and then we’re going to have to take you to the hospital, okay?” explained Tommy. He nodded, allowing her to lift the oxygen mask over his face, securing it carefully before turning up the flow. She rattled through the medi-kit, finding the tiny bottle of pills she needed, tipping one out onto her hand. “This is Lasix, it’s hopefully going to help clear up the excess fluid that’s inside your lungs.” She lifted the mask, opening Carlos’ mouth and placing the pill under his tongue.

“Don’t swallow that, okay? It just needs to sit under your tongue, and it’ll do its job,” said TK. Carlos extended a trembling hand towards TK, and TK gripped it tightly.

“Sorry,” gasped Carlos, and TK finally looked at him, seeing the fear and panic in his face as he struggled to breathe.

“Hey, it’s okay. We’ve got you and you’re safe. You’ll be able to breathe soon, I promise, it just feels like you can’t,” explained TK. Carlos nodded, barely enough strength to lift his head. Nancy appeared in the locker room with the gurney, and with Williams help, they wrestled Carlos’ semi-conscious body on the stretcher, strapping him on and making sure his head was raised, trying to encourage oxygen flow. His colour still hadn’t returned, and he had no strength to even assist them in moving his body to the gurney, a dead weight merely focused on breathing. Nancy and TK wheeled the gurney through the office and outside into the sun, Nancy opening the rear doors so they could put Carlos in the back of the ambulance. TK glanced down at his partner, realising he’d closed his eyes against the impending tears, tears that TK was sure were there because he was frightened. They secured the gurney in the back of the ambulance, Tommy climbing in behind the pair. Nancy took the driver’s seat, pulling away from the curb.

“It looks like pulmonary oedema Carlos, that’s why you’re not feeling well, but we’ve already started treatment that will hopefully help, and then when we get to the hospital, they’ll take over from there, alright? We’ve got you, we’re not going to let anything happen to you, okay?” explained Tommy, voice full of reassurance and promise. Carlos nodded, and TK took his hand again, holding it close to his chest, his other hand stroking through Carlos’ hair.

“Just breathe ‘Los, we’ve got you. Just focus on breathing.” Carlos felt time slip away as they travelled, focusing on each breath of his own, trying to time it with TK’s breaths under his hand. Tommy worked around the pair, jotting down observations on a chart, while checking Carlos’ oxygen levels. Some of the colour started to come back to his face, and the heady feeling of finally getting enough oxygen made him feel nauseous and shaky. He closed his eyes as they pulled up to the hospital, TK and Tommy working in tandem to pull the gurney out and wheel him inside. He lost track of time until he felt TK’s warm hand against his cheek.

“Los, do you want me to stay?” he asked carefully. Carlos nodded, and closed his eyes, ignoring the chatter around him as Tommy and Nancy left. TK stuck by his side while he was wheeled around the hospital for various test, choosing instead to focus on TK’s hand holding his, grounding him, keeping him safe.

After several hours, Carlos was admitted to a hospital room, sleeping off the side effects of the drugs he’d been given, graduating from a full face mask up to a nasal cannula, still requiring additional oxygen. TK sat in the uncomfortable chair next to the bed, flicking through his phone while he waited for Carlos to come around again, his afternoon spent watching him drift in and out of consciousness. The nurses and doctors said he was lucky, the contusion on his head only needing a few stitches, which in TK’s opinion should have been done the day prior, if Carlos hadn’t declined medical treatment, and the water in his lungs and the fractured rib would have been addressed then, rather than it turning into the debacle it did. TK glanced up as Carlos’ heart monitor beeped, indicating an upwards trend in his heart rate, a cause for concern for TK. He set his phone down on the bed side table as Carlos bolted upright, gasping for air, terror on his face as he clutched his chest and the blanket.

 

A nightmare.

 

“Hey, you’re okay, you’re in the hospital, do you remember?” asked TK quietly, moving to sit on the edge of Carlos’ bed, holding his hand and stroking the back of it in tiny circles.

“I… I couldn’t breathe TK. I tried to call out for you, but I couldn’t get any air and then I was drowning and…” Carlos dissolved into tears, and TK pulled him close, mindful of the IV and nasal cannula.

“Shh, it’s okay, I understand. You’re okay now, I’m here,” reassured TK quietly. Carlos buried his face in TK’s neck, tears dampening his AFD shirt as he cried, TK rocking him and holding him tight. After a few minutes he pulled himself together, exhausted, and TK helped situate him on the pillow behind him.

“This is why we push for a hospital visit after a drowning. It’s to make sure you don’t end up drowning on dry land or anything, to make sure you stay alive,” said TK quietly, and Carlos could hear the hint of fear in TK’s own voice. “I came so close to losing you twice in two days Carlos. What if you didn’t make it to work? What if you’d collapsed at home and I didn’t know what had happened? I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you Carlos,” admitted TK forlornly. Carlos extended a hand out to TK, catching his fingers and squeezing them tight.

“I promise, next time I drown I will go in the ambulance to the hospital, ‘kay?” TK looked up at Carlos, a watery smile on his face.

“Please, don’t let there be a next time, I don’t think I could take it. I love you too much to lose you ‘Los.” Carlos felt his heart warm at that, turning his best smile on for TK and pulling him close for a kiss.

“I love you too much to lose you too TK.”