Carlos would never admit it, but he's insecure. Insecure about everything; the way he looks, the way his voice sounds, his ability to dance, or lack thereof, his friendships with everyone, but mainly his friendship (not quite relationship) with Kendall. The words have been spoken, the declarations of mutual attraction and affection out in the open, but neither have taken that step, the step that'll take them to another level. It worries Carlos, makes him wonder if Kendall was just saying he felt the same to humor him. It's why he hasn’t allowed himself to further their relationship; he wouldn't be able to take it if Kendall suddenly didn't feel the same.
They're all sitting by the pool, having been given the day off. They’re lying in their usual sun loungers, sunglasses perched on their faces. Bored, Carlos rises from his seat and makes his way into the Palm Woods, Kendall, James, and Logan watching him walk away with looks of confusion written across their faces. Their confusion quickly fades when they see Carlos standing atop the hotel, helmet perched on his head, lips twisted into a devious smirk. He takes a step back and with a running start, he launches himself into the pool, tucking his legs into his chest, arms wrapped around them. He lands in the pool with a loud plop, a huge splash following in his wake. When he doesn't immediately resurface, Kendall flies off his lounger, kneeling at the edge of the pool, his eyes transfixed on the ripples of the water as he waits for Carlos to appear.
Carlos breaks the surface of the water, sputtering loudly as he takes in huge gulps of air. He swims to Kendall, arms resting on the ledge as he looks up at him with a dopey smile on his face. Kendall sighs and shakes his head, standing and storming off into the hotel. Carlos mentally berates himself as he climbs out of the pool, unbuckling his helmet and holding it in his hands as he drops down onto his lounger. He toys with the strap, eyes cast downward as he begs himself not to cry. It's his fault, after all.
Kendall’s hands are balled into fists at his side, his breath coming out short and uneven. It feels as though his heart is trying to climb its way out of his throat and his stomach is twisted into knots. He knows Carlos can be reckless and that this isn’t the first time he’s successfully jumped into the pool from the top of the Palm Woods. He wasn’t there the first time it happened because if he was, he’s sure he would’ve felt the same way he does now.
The moments between Carlos landing in the pool and him resurfacing were some of the longest moments of Kendall’s life. It was like his heart and breathing suddenly stopped as he leapt out of his seat and darted to the pool as he waited for any sign indicating that Carlos was in fact okay. When Carlos finally resurfaced and swam over to him with that dopey smile on his face, it took every ounce of willpower Kendall had not to yell at him for giving him such a scare.
With his heart rate and breathing finally returning to normal, Kendall enters apartment 2J and heads straight to his bedroom, flopping down onto his bed as he tries to think of anything that isn’t Carlos plunging into the pool.
After the pool incident, Carlos had calmed down some. He couldn’t bear to see that flash of worry and disappointment on Kendall’s face, especially because of him. Not to mention how much it hurt when Kendall walked away from him.
Carlos is hanging upside down on his bed when James walks through the bedroom door, a maniacal glint in his eye. Carlos knows instantly that he shouldn’t pay any attention to whatever it is James has to say, but his curiosity gets the best of him.
“So, I was thinking,” James starts, cut off by a choked laugh Carlos can’t help but let out. James sends him a disgruntled look before continuing, “I was thinking that we should take those hoverboards we never use and tie a rope to one of the golf carts and drive each other around while riding them.”
Carlos knows it’s a bad idea, but that’s what makes it all the more appealing to him. He’s bored and it’s something that’ll help pass the time. He nods quickly and flips off the bed, swaying slightly when he stands on his feet as the blood rushes down from his head to the rest of his body. He follows James out of the bedroom, moving into the living room and grabbing a hoverboard each from where they’re stored. They take the stairs and exit the lobby, heading to where the golf carts are stored.
James produces a rope from who knows where, walking up to the back of the golf cart and tying it tightly around the poles. He lets the rope hang there as he pulls the golf card out of its parking stall. Carlos drops his hoverboard to the ground, placing one foot on it and using the other to propel him forward until he reaches the hanging rope. He holds it tightly in his hands, placing his other foot on the board and giving James the go-ahead.
Kendall is lounging by the pool with Logan when he hears a shrill scream. Everyone is immediately running toward the source of the sound, but Kendall can’t bring himself to move. He knows that scream, has heard it a million times before whether it was serious or as a joke. Logan’s shoving at his shoulder, gripping his arm and pulling him from his seat. He trips over his feet, unable to get his legs moving properly.
Logan drags Kendall through the crowd of people gathered in the parking lot, his grip falling away when they make it to the front. Carlos is laid out on the pavement, blood pouring from a gash on his forehead, arms and hands littered with bloody scrapes. Logan runs and drops to his knees beside Carlos, pulling his shirt off as he goes. He crumples it into a ball and presses it to Carlos’s forehead, the fabric instantly soaking with blood.
Logan’s shouting, trying to pull Kendall’s attention to him. Kendall can’t do anything but stand there and stare, cold sweat seeping from seemingly every pore on his body, his heart beating rapidly in his chest, drowning out the sound of his surroundings. He lets himself be pushed and pulled wherever he’s needed, but he can’t tear his eyes from Carlos’s form, not until the paramedics arrive, transferring Carlos’s body to a gurney before lifting and enclosing him in the back of the ambulance.
Logan is at his side once more, blue shirt stained crimson held tightly in his hand. He tugs Kendall into the lobby, pushing him down onto the sofa before disappearing from sight. He runs up the stairs and throws open the apartment door, darting into his room to grab a clean t-shirt and the keys to the car.
Kendall is sitting in the exact same position when he arrives back at the lobby, the blinking of his eyes the only movement Logan has seen from him.
“Kendall, snap out of it. We need to get to the hospital now.” Logan’s voice is loud and firm as he tries to pull Kendall out of whatever trance he’s in. “Kendall, please. We need to go. Carlos needs us.”
At the mention of Carlos’s name, Kendall takes a shuddery breath and blinks up blearily at Logan. He nods his head and rises from the sofa, following Logan closely as they exit the lobby and make their way back to the parking lot. There are blood stains on the pavement and it makes Kendall’s stomach churn. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose, exhaling loudly through his mouth in an attempt to calm his nerves.
The drive to the hospital seems like it takes a lifetime and when they finally arrive, Kendall’s not sure he’ll be able to keep himself together. He’s chewing nervously on his thumbnail as Logan pulls into a parking stall and kills the engine, turning to look at him with sympathy in his eyes.
Everyone knows how Kendall and Carlos feel about each other, but have all chosen to stay out of it, content to watch the relationship as it unfolds in front of their eyes.
Logan exits the car and shuts the door, standing at the trunk as he waits for Kendall. Kendall swallows down the anxiety racing through him as he exits the car, walking side-by-side with Logan through the hospital entrance. James is sitting in the waiting room with his head in his hands, his gaze fixated on the carpet. They quickly make their way over, sitting on either side of him, Logan wrapping a comforting arm around James’s shoulder.
James lifts his head and smiles weakly, hot tears sliding down his cheeks. “It’s m-my fa-fault. I t-told h-him we sh-should r-ride the hov-hoverboards while hold-holding onto a r-rope t-tied to a g-g-golfcart. I w-wasn’t paying a-attention to w-where I was g-going and there was a c-car and I h-had to sw-swerve so I didn’t h-hit it. C-Carlos must n-not have been able to h-hold on be-because when I turned b-back, he was on the gr-ground a-and there, there was s-so much bl-blood,” James stutters out slowly, trailing off as a sob rips from his throat.
Kendall can’t bear to hear any more. He rises from his seat, fisting his hands in his hair and tugging sharply as he turns and walks out of the hospital, the atmosphere suddenly suffocating. He knows both James and Carlos are at fault, but he can’t help but be a little more upset with James; James who knows Carlos can never say no to any half-assed idea, especially one with a threat of potential injury. Carlos is injury prone as it is, that being the reason for his constant helmet wearing. Kendall stops dead in his tracks, the image of Carlos lying on the pavement flashing behind his eyes. Carlos didn’t have his helmet on.
Kendall stalks back into the waiting room, standing in front of James and Logan with his hands on his hips. “Why the fuck wasn’t Carlos wearing his helmet?”
“Kendall, don’t,” Logan replies with a sigh, pulling James closer as another body-wracking sob tears through him.
“No. Why wasn’t he wearing his helmet? Especially when you were doing something so fucking stupid. You know how often he gets hurt. I don’t understand what was even going through your mind when you suggested doing something that idiotic.”
“I’m sorry,” James says softly, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them.
Logan rises from his seat, wrapping his hand around Kendall’s wrist tightly and dragging him away from James. “Don’t you dare pin this all on James. Carlos is just as much at fault. Can’t you see James feels horrible enough already? He doesn’t need you yelling at him and making him feel even worse. I know you’re mad and that you’re worried about Carlos, but don’t take it out on everyone else.”
Kendall pulls his hand from Logan’s grip, falling back against the wall and sliding down to the floor. He pulls his legs tightly to him, burying his head between his knees as he fights off the impending tears.
Logan squats down next to him, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. “You know how Carlos is. He gets hurt, but recovers quickly, and before you know it, he’s out there doing something stupid that’ll end up in him getting hurt all over again. He’ll be fine.”
“Yeah…yeah,” Kendall breathes out in agreement, though it does little to quell his nerves.
Logan ruffles his hair before walking away, undoubtedly going back to comfort James. Kendall feels like a dick, knows he shouldn’t have yelled at James like that, but with Carlos lying in a hospital bed, he couldn’t help but let his fear turn to anger. He roughly presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, rising from the floor and taking a few deep breaths before following after Logan, joining them back in the waiting room.
Mrs. Knight is standing in the waiting room, a watery smile on her face as she talks to a doctor. Katie is burrowed between James and Logan, her young age making itself known as she clings to them, scared tears streaming down her face.
Kendall makes his way over to Katie, dropping to the floor and pulling her into his lap. She buries her head into his chest, sobs shaking her small body. Kendall hates this, hates how he has no idea what’s wrong with Carlos, hates that he can’t do anything to make his friends, his family, feel better. That’s his job, he’s the protector, and he’s failing at it.
Kendall whispers reassuring words into Katie’s hair, rocking her back and forth in an attempt to calm her. He wants to believe everything he’s saying to Katie, but he can’t, not yet, not until he knows how Carlos is doing.
Mrs. Knight walks over to them, wringing her hands as she stands there. “Carlos. He has a concussion, and when he hit the pavement, it cut his forehead open which required some stitches. His left wrist is broken, and he’s got cuts and bruises all over, but he’ll be just fine.”
There’s the sound of a collective breath of relief from all of them, the atmosphere seeming to lighten just a bit.
“Can we see him?” Logan asks, smiling for the first time in what seems like ages.
“Yeah, just ask the receptionist what room he’s in and she’ll give you directions.”
Logan stands, pulling a hesitant looking James with him. “Kendall, you coming?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.” Kendall doesn’t look up at Logan, choosing to keep his gaze fixed on Katie instead. Now that he knows Carlos is okay, he’s still not sure he can bring himself to see Carlos.
“Kendall, I’m going to take Katie home. Visiting hours are over soon, so you should get in there and see him before you guys have to leave since they’re keeping him overnight for observation,” Mrs. Knight says, dropping down and scooping Katie’s sleeping body into her arms. “I’ll see you at home. Tell Logan to drive carefully.” She places a gentle kiss to Kendall’s cheek before standing, holding Katie tightly to her as she walks out of the hospital.
Kendall rises from the floor and slowly makes his way to the receptionist’s desk, asking for Carlos’s room. She gives him the room number and points him down the hall, Kendall thanking her with a courteous nod of his head. He approaches Carlos’s hospital room, stopping outside the door and steeling his nerves before pushing it open and walking in.
James is sitting beside Carlos’s bed, Logan standing behind him with his hands massaging James’s shoulders. They turn their attention to the door when they hear the creak of it opening and closing. Kendall steps into the room, standing at the foot of Carlos’s bed.
Carlos’s head is bandaged, the white gauze bright against his skin. His left arm is encased in white plaster lying limply at his side. His right arm is littered with scrapes and bruises, some bigger and darker than others.
As though Carlos can sense his presence, his eyes flutter open and he offers up a timid smile. “That. Was. Awesome,” are his first words, his face splitting into a wide smile.
Kendall scoffs and backs away from the bed, turning and wrenching open the door as he storms out. He’s disgusted, appalled, at Carlos’s reaction. He’s lying in a hospital bed with a concussion, his head bandaged, a cast on his arm, and he seems so fucking happy about it. It’s like he doesn’t care to take into consideration how his reckless antics affect everyone else.
Kendall exits the hospital and sits down on the bench outside the doors, staring up at the darkened sky as he reflects over the years and Carlos’s numerous accidents.
They’re in Minnesota, fresh into their teenage years. Carlos has just turned 13, the last to do so. In honor of his birthday, his parents allowed him to have sleepover. James and Logan couldn’t stay the night, no matter how much they begged and pleaded with their parents. Though Carlos was slightly upset about them not being able to stay, he was more than happy at the prospect of it just being him and Kendall.
He loves James and Logan, he really does, but it’s different when it comes to Kendall. He feels a stronger connection to Kendall than he does with other two, and he’s not quite sure what it means, but he enjoys it nonetheless.
After they’ve eaten through a pizza and a half and drank half their weight in soda (which is never good; a caffeinated Carlos is just asking for trouble), Carlos decides he’s bored and watching movies just isn’t cutting it. They sit there mulling over possible things they could do when Carlos jumps up from the sofa and races up the stairs.
Kendall stands at the base of the stairs, about to ascend when he hears a loud ruckus. He makes it up a few stairs before Carlos appears at the top, his mattress resting against the wall behind him.
“I’ve always wanted to go down the stairs on my mattress, and what better time to try than the night of my birthday,” Carlos beams, jumping excitedly in place before turning around to grab his mattress, positioning it so it’ll fit the width of the staircase.
Although he’s a bit apprehensive, his conscience telling him it’s a bad idea, Kendall can’t help but feel a little excited at the idea. He descends the few stairs, standing to the side of the banister as Carlos climbs atop the mattress, one hand pressed against the wall, the other holding the railing of the stairs. He leans forward slightly, the mattress sliding down just a bit. With as much strength as he can muster, Carlos launches himself forward, the mattress sliding bumpily down the stairs.
Kendall is watching from below, a smile wide across his face as Carlos laughs in excitement. The smile and laughter quickly fade as Carlos’s body lurches forward, tumbling down the stairs with sickening thuds. The mattress slides down moments later, gliding to a halt at the bottom of the stairs.
Through the sound of hurried footsteps, Kendall makes his way over to Carlos, his heart racing. Carlos is blinking up at the ceiling, tears forming in his eyes.
“What happened?” Carlos’s parents join Kendall, kneeling beside Carlos’s body.
Carlos explains how he wanted to slide down the stairs on his mattress, looking sheepish when his parents give him disapproving looks. Carlos’s dad stands, stepping over the mattress to get onto the stairs. He beckons Kendall over, asking for assistance to carry it back to Carlos’s room. Kendall hesitantly agrees, leaving Carlos with his mom.
The mattress is rather light, so it doesn’t take much time or effort to get it back into Carlos’s room and onto his bedframe.
“I worry about that kid,” Carlos’s dad admits into the quietness of the room. “He’s quite reckless, always getting himself hurt.”
Kendall isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. He knows it’s the truth, though. Carlos is always getting himself hurt, even if it’s something as minor as a few scrapes. This time, though, watching Carlos tumble down the stairs like that, it scared Kendall, panic surging through his veins.
“I’ll be sure to keep him safe,” Kendall promises, and the moment the words leave his mouth, he realizes he wants nothing more than to do just that, to be the one to keep Carlos safe, to be his protector.
Kendall groans, mentally berating himself over the numerous times he’s failed to keep that promise. Time and time again, he’s failed to protect Carlos, failed to keep him safe. He knows there’s only so much he can do, but deep down, he knows if he told Carlos not to do something, Carlos wouldn’t do it. He refuses to do that, refuses to have Carlos stop being Carlos for the sake of his own sanity.
Kendall pulls his phone from his pocket, checking the time quickly before shoving it back in. He stands and makes his way back into the hospital, walking down the hallway to Carlos’s room. He knocks on the door before pushing it open, his heart racing with every step he takes.
“Can I-uh. Can I talk to Carlos alone?” he asks, addressing James and Logan who are still sitting beside the bed.
James and Logan both look to Carlos, receiving a brief nod of his head before rising from their seats and walking out of the room.
Kendall walks slowly to Carlos’s bedside, dropping down into the chair James was occupying only moments ago. He keeps his gaze locked on the blanket, pulling a corner into his hands and toying with the fraying edges.
“Is there a reason you wanted James and Logan to leave, or are you going to keep picking at the blanket?” The tone of Carlos’s voice is something Kendall isn’t used to; sadness and anger easily readable.
Kendall sighs, letting the blanket fall from his hands as he lifts his head and meets Carlos’s eyes. Carlos’s eyes are red-rimmed and slightly puffy, the usual happy glint no longer there.
“Why were you crying?” Kendall blurts out, wincing at his tactlessness.
“I don’t. I wasn’t,” Carlos sputters, staring at the wall behind Kendall.
“I’ve known you for how long? I know what it looks like when you’ve cried.”
“You walked away again,” Carlos says softly, every insecurity fighting its way to the surface.
Kendall feels his heart break at the utter despair in Carlos’s voice. He rises from the chair, grabbing Carlos’s right hand between his own and sitting down carefully on the bed next to him. He eyes the bruises and scrapes, fighting the urge to run his fingers over them.
“Remember your 13th birthday?” Kendall asks, swallowing nervously.
Carlos nods slowly, unsure of where Kendall is going with it.
“I-ah. When I was helping your dad take the mattress back to your room, I made a promise that I’ve been doing a shitty job of keeping.”
Carlos furrows his brows in confusion, wincing at the slight tugging sensation of the stitches in his forehead.
“Your dad was saying how much he worried about you because you were always getting yourself hurt. I promised I’d keep you safe, and clearly, I keep breaking that promise.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” Carlos says with a roll of his eyes.
“It’s stupid that I want to protect you?” Kendall asks in disbelief.
“No; it’s sweet that you want to protect me. It’s stupid that you think you can keep me safe 24/7. This is who I am, Kendall. I’m clumsy, I’m accident-prone, I get hurt a lot, I make a lot of stupid choices. Even if you’re there to keep me safe every waking second, there’s no guarantee that I won’t get hurt.”
“But this is who I am, Carlos. I’m the big brother, the leader, the protector. I’m supposed to keep all of you safe, and even though I know I can’t keep you guys from doing whatever it is you want to do, that doesn’t mean that I won’t want to try. Especially when it comes to you.”
“Because of a promise you made to my dad 3 years ago when I tumbled down a flight of stairs? That’s even stupider.”
“No, Carlos. Not because of a promise I made to your dad. It was more than that. It was a promise I made to myself. Do you have any idea how scary it was for me to watch you tumble down those stairs? Or how sickening it was to hear the sound of your body hitting the stairs? Do you know how much it hurts every single time I see you do something stupid and get injured?”
“But do you know how much it hurts me when you walk away? Do you ever stop to think for a second that maybe I make jokes out of my injuries because I don’t want you to know how bad the pain really is? Or that maybe I like doing all those reckless things because then, even for a brief amount of time, you’re actually focused on me?” Carlos is heaving for breath by the time he finishes speaking, his eyes pricking with unshed tears.
Kendall is at a loss for words, unsure of what to say to Carlos in response to the bulk of information that was just hurled at him. He opens and closes his mouth a few times as he processes everything, trying hard to find what to say.
“Just forget it,” Carlos whispers, pulling his hand from Kendall’s grip and turning away.
“Carlos,” Kendall says, hating the way his voice comes across as needy. He swallows hard, fighting off his nerves before he starts speaking again. “I’ve been in love with you since we were 13. That is why I want to protect you, why I want to keep you safe. Do you know how hard it is for me to sit there and pretend I’m okay every time you do something stupid? Do you know how scared I get that one day you’re going to end up doing something so stupidly reckless that you won’t be around anymore? And then you just laugh off every stunt or injury like it’s no big deal while my heart feels like it’s being ripped out of my chest.”
All it takes is the quiet whispering of his name from Carlos’s mouth for the dam to break, tears falling rapidly from his eyes. Carlos turns to face him, pulling him down so they’re lying side by side in the small hospital bed. He lets him cry, trying his hardest not to give into the tears that want to spill out at the heartbreaking sight of Kendall.
When Kendall’s tears start subsiding and the only sound is the occasional whimper, Carlos finally responds. “I’ve loved you since the day after my 13th birthday, when your mom picked you up and you came back an hour later with a helmet. I don’t wear it because I’m a klutz; I wear it because you gave it to me. That’s why I didn’t wear it today; I didn’t want to ruin it.”
“So why exactly do we keep doing this to each other?” Kendall asks with a sad laugh.
“Because we’re stupid.”
“Seems that way, doesn’t it? How about we start over? No more reckless stunts for you, and no more walking away for me.”
“Sounds good to me, though I can’t promise I won’t end up tripping and falling over my own two feet.”
That rouses an actual laugh from the two of them, and it sounds so pleasant to both their ears.
“Stay with me tonight?” Carlos asks, giving the best pout he can. “I don’t want to stay here alone.”
“I don’t think I can. Visiting hours are almost over,” Kendall says sadly.
“I’m sure they’ll let you if I ask. The nurses love me.”
“Should I be worried?” Kendall jokingly asks, raising an eyebrow in question.
“No; I only have eyes for you.” Carlos leans in, closing the distance between himself and Kendall. It’s sweet and chaste, their lips pressing together softly before they pull away, their cheeks tinted pink.
It might have taken them forever, and what could have been a life-threatening accident, but they finally made that next step. Kendall has Carlos wrapped safely in his embrace, right where he belongs.