This fic has its background in the entirety of the AAGS series, but particularly Falling Into Place, and both contains spoilers for and will not make sense without that work. You should read that work first.
They'd told him that he didn't need to go. Adam and Cass, in particular, had said they were worried he wouldn't be able to take it. Still, he'd insisted, needing to see the evidence for himself.
As he stands there now, looking over the crumbled cement and twisted metal beams that had once been a hospital, he thinks to himself that they were probably right.
He finds himself wishing, with every fiber of his being, that Nick hadn't picked that day -- of all days -- to visit his med school friend. He wishes he hadn't made the suggestion that Nick reach out when John had come up in conversation earlier in the month. He wishes Mother Nature hadn't chosen that day to release the pent-up energy in the San Andreas Fault. He wishes the architect of the tower next door hadn't built it so close, or built it stronger, or done anything differently so it didn't topple during the largest tremors.
He wishes he had agreed to come with Nick instead of kissing him at the door of their condo with promises of freshly-baked scones when Nick got home the next morning. Then maybe he could have done something. Or at least they'd be buried under the rubble here together.
Carlos turns toward a man, dressed in a jumpsuit and a bright, reflective vest. He doesn't even realize he's been crying until he needs to wipe his eyes to bring the man into focus.
"That... that's me," he manages, the name that he'd been so excited to take all those years ago feeling like a curse now.
"These are what we were able to recover," the man says, holding out a large, clear ziploc baggie in Carlos' direction. Inside, Carlos can make out Nick's wallet -- dusty and ripped, but still clearly identifiable -- alongside his keys and phone.
He takes the bag, hands shaking so hard he drops it. He jumps at the feeling of a hand on his shoulder, relaxing again only as he turns to see Adam there, eyes about as red as Carlos imagines his own are, at the moment.
"I'm so sorry, Eddy," Adam says, as Carlos kneels and picks up the bag from the ground, dusting it off.
"You too," Carlos says, realizing maybe for the first time how hard this had been on Adam, as well.
His fingers run over the plastic and the old, lovingly worn leather within. He'd held out hope, somehow, until this moment that Nick had, by some miracle, survived. That he hadn't been in the building when the tower fell down on it. That the week with no word, no phone call, and no Nick showing up suddenly at their condo with apologies on his lips for making Carlos worry so much, had been nothing but a fluke that the two of them would laugh about years later.
The last threads of hope holding him together break, and he breaks, collapsing against Adam and crying until he thinks there's probably no liquid left anywhere in his body.
"How about this one?"
Carlos looks over at the bag of cheese his husband Dwayne holds out toward him. He tries to remember whether cheddar would make a reasonable substitute.
"That's probably okay," he says, watching Dwayne toss the bag into their grocery basket. "How is a grocery store out of mozzarella? Even the shitty bagged kind?"
Dwayne shrugs and kisses Carlos' cheek. "Are you sure you don't want me to ask them if they have anything in the back?"
Carlos shakes his head, ticking through his mental shopping list. "No. This should be okay. Do you want to grab the yeast while I run to the cereal aisle?"
"Sounds like a plan," Dwayne says, and Carlos' phone vibrates with a phone call.
He pulls his phone out as he watches Dwayne walk off. It's Adam, and he frowns at the screen, wondering why Adam was calling him on a weekend when he was supposed to be working. "Hello?"
"Carlos," Adam says, and the unusual greeting sends a chill up his spine, for some reason. It takes him a second to realize it's Adam's tone of voice. "Are you busy?"
"Dwayne and I are at the grocery store," Carlos says, anxiety starting to build in his chest. "Why? Are you okay? Did something happen?"
"I'm okay," Adam says, and despite the words, it doesn't make Carlos feel any better. "But I think we need to talk."
"You're scaring me," Carlos says. He doesn't mean to put it so bluntly, but Adam's voice is so guarded that he really isn't sure what to think. "What happened?"
"I'm okay," Adam repeats. "But come by the hospital? Now?"
Carlos thinks that request makes him feel worse, and tries to think about why Adam would be asking such a thing. "Is Cass okay? Vi? Edward? Robin?"
"Carlos." Adam's voice is strained now. "No one you know is hurt. There's just something we need to... talk about."
"Okay," Carlos says, heading in the direction of the baking supplies to find Dwayne. "Let us check out and we'll head that way."
"See you soon," Adam says before the call disconnects.
Adam doesn't look injured, Carlos thinks to himself as he and Dwayne approach the building. Adam's standing near the entrance, looking a combination of worried and relieved that Carlos doesn't think he's seen before.
"Hey," Adam says as they stop in front of him. Carlos grabs Dwayne's hand, who squeezes it reassuringly.
"What's going on?" Carlos' voice wavers more than he thinks it should.
Adam seems to hesitate for a moment. "I'm not sure how to break it to you gently, but I need your help with this one, so... I'm sorry."
"Okay?" Carlos really isn't sure what's going on now, but he's pretty sure it isn't good.
"Um... Connor?" Adam says as he turns toward the corner of the building and a man -- presumably Connor walks around it
It takes Carlos a second, but then his knees are weak. "...Nick?!"
"I'm sorry," Nick -- or Connor -- says. "I really don't remember any more than that."
Carlos sits across from the man, his hand firmly grasping Dwayne's, wondering if all of this was a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. His husband's hand in his feels real enough, and he isn't sure if that makes him feel better or worse.
"That's plenty, Connor," says Adam's colleague Stacey. "Can I summarize to make sure we have it down correctly?"
"Please do," Nick says, looking at Carlos and smiling softly in a way that gives Carlos flashbacks to quiet evenings together in their living room.
He shudders and tears his gaze away from Nick's eyes.
"The first thing you remember is waking up in a hospital. They told you that someone had brought you there after pulling you out of the Fresno medical center when the quake first started. You had been hit in the head by falling debris during the incident, and were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and, subsequently, retrograde amnesia."
"That's right," Nick says.
"You weren't carrying any identification on you at the time you were admitted," Stacey continues. "But you made subsequent visits to the area surrounding the medical center to see if you recognized anything, or if anyone recognized you. When you didn't have any success, you took advantage of the government's quake survivors fund and settled in the area."
"That's also right," Nick says. "This is my first trip up to the city. I hadn't really had time before to make the trip."
"And then you ran into me, on break," Adam says. "And here we are."
Nick nods. "And here we are." He stops and looks at Adam with curiosity. "Sorry, you and... Carlos, was it? Were calling me 'Nick'?"
"Nicholas Edward Price," Carlos says, quietly, expecting Nick to flinch in the way he always had in the past at the mention of his full name. Instead, Nick just smiles at him, and that does more to convince Carlos of the realness of the current situation than listening to Nick recount the past 5 years of his life had.
"That's a nice name," Nick says, and Carlos resists the urge to laugh at the statement. "We were... colleagues, you said, Adam?"
Adam nods. "And best friends. You were... are... godfather to my kids."
"Does that mean I'm a mob boss?" Nick says, laughing, and Carlos hates the feeling he gets at it. He squeezes his eyes shut and leans against Dwayne, instead. "Sorry," he hears Nick say, guilt in his voice now.
"Victoria Price Prewitt-Davis," Carlos says, not sure why his mind is focusing on names at the moment, but he thinks that they at least are straightforward, unlike the current situation and his current feelings. "Edward James Prewitt-Davis. Robin Denise Prewitt-Davis." He swallows heavily at the last one that jumps into his mind. "Eddy Rodrigo Price."
Nick doesn't say anything, and when Carlos opens his eyes and looks at him, Nick's frowing.
"Why does that name sound familiar?" Nick says. "Is that my... brother?"
Adam shakes his head, looking over at Carlos with such sympathy that Carlos can't stand it. Carlos squeezes his eyes shut again.
"No. That was your husband." Carlos takes a deep breath. "That... was me."
"We really don't have to do this, Carlos," Nick says. "I can see that it's making you uncomfortable."
Carlos shakes his head, reaching out automatically for Dwayne's hand as the three of them stand outside the door to Carlos and Dwayne's -- Carlos and Nick's? -- condo. Dwayne takes his hand and squeezes.
"No," Carlos says. "Stacey said it might help for you to see familiar places, and we can't exactly waltz you around the hospital, so this is probably the most familiar place of all."
Really, they should have done this already, days ago, but Carlos had needed the time to reconcile the situation in his mind. He and Dwayne had talked too on the first day, of course, and Dwayne had been more than understanding about everything, even asking point-blank at one point what this meant for the two of them in a way that had Carlos knew had absolutely no ill intent.
Still, it had paniced Carlos in a way that convinced him that Nick was his past and Dwayne was his future.
But that still didn't make things easier, now.
He takes a deep breath and opens the door, walking through first and standing in the middle of the living room. Nick follows, hand stuffed in his pockets in a way that Carlos remembers means he's nervous, and stands by the dining room table, looking around.
"Anything?" Carlos asks, not sure if he has an answer he'd prefer to hear.
Nick frowns, looking around again, then shakes his head. "No. I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry about," Dwayne says, standing now next to Carlos.
Nick shrugs, looking frustrated. "I just feel bad that I threw myself into your lives like this and everyone's been so accommodating and nothing's working."
"You didn't," Carlos says, automatically, and it takes him a bit longer to convince himself that it's true. "You're important to us, um... Connor. We're all glad you're okay."
"Yeah, well. Not completely okay, apparently, since nothing about this place is bringing back any memories."
They'd all been hopeful that seeing their condo again would have some effect, given the apparent effect that Carlos' old name had had. Carlos' mind jumps to the small box at the back of the closet. "There's some other things we can try, if you're up for it."
"As long as you are," Nick says, looking guilty again. "Really. Please don't let me intrude further into your lives."
Carlos doesn't want to think of a proper response to that, instead quickly retrieving the box and sitting down on the couch with it. Dwayne, always thoughtful, grabs a dining room chair and sets it on the other side of the coffee table as Carlos opens the box and stares at its contents.
"Thank you," Nick says to Dwayne as he sits in the chair.
Dwayne nods and kisses Carlos' cheek. "I'll be in the bedroom if you need me."
Carlos nods. They had talked about this too, and how Carlos had always considered the box of Nick's things to be a private thing he didn't really want to share with anyone, including his now-husband. Still, as he sits there now across the table from the items' proper owner, he can't help but think that it would be easier with Dwayne at his side.
But Dwayne's already disappeared, and Carlos swallows his nervousness as he pulls the first item out.
"My wallet," Nick says, and for a second Carlos wonders if it means it's jogged Nick's memory. "Sorry, I mean... I assume that's my wallet. Was my wallet."
Carlos nods. "This and your keys and your phone was all they found at the scene. I, um... threw the phone away, because it was a lost cause. The keys are our spare set, now."
"That makes sense," Nick says, surprising Carlos. "Sorry, um. The guy who pulled me out said I'd been going through security at the staff entrance at the time. I assume my wallet, keys, and phone were going through the x-ray machine, or whatever. It turns out it was just about the worst possible timing for that, since I didn't have any identification on me otherwise."
"Oh." That actually explains the biggest question Carlos had been wondering about for years: How the items had made their way to him despite the lack of a body being found. "Well, um... here they are now. The wallet, at least."
He hands the wallet to Nick, who gingerly accepts it. "Is it... okay if I open it?" Nick asks.
"Of course," Carlos says, even though he himself had never opened it again after that first day when he'd run through it looking for any clues or information someone might have missed.
He looks away as Nick does, knowing most of the contents by heart himself even though it had been years since he'd seen them. He doesn't think he could bare to see them again, especially given one of the items, hidden in one of the smallest slots and clearly never meant for anyone else's eyes, was a naked photo of Carlos from when they'd exchanged selfies during Nick's first medical conference trip.
"Oh," Nick says, and Carlos can tell he's found it. "We really were... married."
"I wouldn't lie to you about that," Carlos says, feeling the tears coming again, and really wishing Dwayne was here.
"Of course not," Nick says, sounding guilty again. "Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you would."
He hears Nick shuffle around with the wallet a bit more, and hears him set it down on the table, and decides it's safe to look again. Nick's looking at him now, eyes filled with concern, and Carlos has to look away again at that.
"Can I give you something?" Nick asks, and when Carlos looks again, he's biting his lip in a way that's also eerily familiar.
Nick reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small plastic bag and hands it to Carlos. "I think this should probably belong to you."
Carlos accepts it, and immediately recognizes the object inside as Nick's wedding ring, and that does it. He buries his face in his hands, all of his pain and regret coming back to the surface at once, sobbing as Nick sits awkwardly across from him, looking unsure if he should comfort Carlos.
Nick seems to make a decision, because Carlos can feel him sit down next to him, and then Nick's hand is on his back, still but comforting.
"I'm sorry," Nick says, and part of Carlos' mind doesn't like how much Nick's apologizing to him today. "I didn't mean to... set you off."
"No," Carlos manages between tears. "This... would've happened anyway. It's... not your fault."
"Well, I think it is my fault," Nick says, and that reminds Carlos so much of him again that he cries harder. "But it's also kind of not, so I understand what you're saying. Is there anything I can do?"
Carlos shakes his head. "No. You can... look through the rest of the box. It's just... it's some of your shirts and ties and... and..." He trails off, not wanting to think about the last item buried at the bottom: The framed half sheet of notebook paper from Nick that Adam had given him the first Monday after Carlos and Nick had started dating, reading simply I miss you.
"I want to make sure you're okay, first," Nick says, cautiously rubbing Carlos' back.
"I... I will be." Carlos wipes his eyes. "Let's just... get through the things."
Nick nods, still seemingly reluctant, but obeying anyway as he pulls a tie out of the box. Carlos recognizes it as the one Nick had been wearing when he'd proposed to him. Nick frowns at it, as if grasping for a memory.
"This is familiar," Nick says finally, and Carlos feels his heart soar at it.
"I can't remember anything about it, but it feels important." He looks over at Carlos. "Does this... mean something to me?"
Carlos isn't sure he can answer, so he just nods. Nick seems to get the message, putting the tie down and grabbing another one from the box that Carlos recognizes as one of his Christmas presents from years ago, patterned with colorful cells and bacteria.
"I was a pathologist," Nick says. "At least, that's what Adam said. I had to ask him what that meant. I'm assuming these were a present from you."
"They were," Carlos says. "Does that mean they're... familiar?"
Nick shakes his head. "No. I'm sorry. They just don't feel like something I'd get for myself, so I assumed..."
Carlos shrugs and watches as Nick pulls out the shirts, steeling himself for what he knows is coming. He looks away as Nick sets down the last shirt and reaches into the box again.
There's silence for a bit, then Nick speaks. "This is your wedding ring?" he asks, and Carlos had forgotten that was in there, too.
"It is," Carlos confirms, still not wanting to see.
"It... matches mine," Nick says. "Sorry, it matches the one I had. That I think should be yours now."
Nick had said that already, but it really hits home this time. Carlos knows that Nick's just being respectful of him and Dwayne, but it still feels like he's being rejected by someone important to him -- like Nick's forcibly closing that chapter of Carlos' life for him, even as he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to, yet. Nick's hand finds his back again, and Carlos realizes he's sobbing again.
"We really don't have to do this, Carlos," Nick says, gently rubbing. "You've done more than enough."
"No." Carlos forces away the tears. "There's... one more thing in the box."
He sees Nick nod and pull the last item out. He forces himself to watch as Nick frowns, studying the messy ballpoint pen writing and running his fingers over the thick black wooden frame.
"This is familiar, too," Nick says, finally. "I wrote this. To you."
"You did," Carlos says, not sure how much else he'd be able to say about it.
"I... don't remember anything about it, but it feels important." Nick sets it down and stares off into space. "The only things that have felt familiar were things relating to you."
"We were... close," Carlos says, not wanting to think about how close. "That seems... natural."
Nick shakes his head. "You don't understand. I met up with my parents two days ago, and nothing with them seemed familiar. None of the items they brought with them made me feel anything, and based on what they said, we were close too. Nothing Adam told me showed me was familiar, either. But that tie, and this note, and your... name. Your old name..."
Carlos isn't surprised Jon and Helen had flown into town, and he finds himself missing them, even though they hadn't spoken in years. He pushes that thought aside and focuses on Nick's words, instead. "All of those things represent important... times in our relationship," he says, not sure he'd be able to elaborate at the moment.
"I can ask Adam about them," Nick says, understanding, and gingerly starting to put the items back into the box. "Thank you for sharing them with me."
"Can we... talk about us?" Carlos asks, realizing he's still holding the bag with Nick's ring in it. He tosses that into the box too, not wanting to think about it, at the moment.
"Of course." Nick shifts so he's facing Carlos more directly and smiles gently.
"No, I meant... where we go from here," Carlos says, realizing Nick may have misunderstood and expected that Carlos wanted to run through some memories with him.
"I figured," Nick says, and Carlos thinks he should have known Nick understood. Nick always understood him, even when he wasn't Nick anymore.
"I'm... married." It comes out harsher than he expects, but it feels important to get out there, for some reason. "I... had to... get over you, um... Connor. Dwayne helped me with that."
Nick nods. "Let me be blunt for a second. You were clearly important to me, and I was clearly important to you. But I'm not Nick anymore, and you're not Eddy anymore. I would never for a second dream of asking for you back. If you were single, maybe we could try something out, but you're married, and happy... at least, you were happy until I came along this week."
"I'm not... unhappy," Carlos says, surprising himself with how true he thinks the words are.
"But you're in pain now, because of me," Nick says. "So I don't think I should be part of your life again, even as friends. Not yet. And definitely not as anything more."
Carlos had wrestled with that question himself, but thinks that the prospect of losing Nick again is worse than the alternative. "No. Not as anything more but... I want us to be friends. If that's... something you're okay with. Even if it's painful. At first."
Nick's expression doesn't change, but Carlos can tell that his statement makes Nick happy, and he feels a small burst of joy that he can still read Nick after all these years, even when he wasn't Nick anymore.
"I don't want to make things hard for you," Nick says finally, and Carlos tries not to think about how the old Nick would've read innuendo into such a statement, and then teased him about it.
"I lost you, and I made peace with that," Carlos says, instead. "But I can't... lose you again."
Nick nods, understanding. "How about this, then: I'll give you my phone number, and whatever you feel up for, whenever you feel up for it, let me know. Reach out as you feel comfortable."
Carlos nods, pulling his phone out of his pocket and handing it over, watching Nick's fingers dance over the screen.
"So, um. 'Connor'?"
"Hm?" Nick finishes typing and looks up at him, staring for a second before realizing that was the question. "Oh. Yeah. 'Connor John Doe'. Although I put 'Nick' in the contact as well, so it wouldn't be confusing to you."
Somehow, that feels exactly like the kind of name Nick would choose for himself if he had no idea who he was. "I understand the John Doe part, but 'Connor'?"
Nick hands Carlos' phone back to him. "Connor was the name of the rehab nurse who helped me through things afterward. I asked if I could take his name, and he said he'd be honored. I regret the 'John Doe' part though, because it's caused a bunch of problems with things like bank accounts." He chuckles, and the familiarity of that hurts, again. "I'd probably pick a different generic last name now, like Johnson, but it seemed funny at the time."
Carlos nods, wiping the last of his tears away and slipping his phone back into his pocket. "Can I... have a hug?"
He wonders if he's asking too much of Nick, but Nick's smile just grows bigger. "You can definitely have a hug."
As they embrace, Carlos swallows his feelings for the man that Nick was, and tries to separate them for his hopes for the future.
It feels like a new beginning, for the two of them.