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Peering Through Windows

Chapter Text

He handed me a pair of pliers
and he told me to pull out his teeth,
because as long as he'd had them he'd
use them to do bad things.
You're cold on the inside,
there's a dog in your heart
and it tells you to tear everything apart.
My body's covered in teeth marks.
Your bite's worse than your bark.
You ruin everything you touch and
destroy anyone you love.
You're all over me.

- Dog Teeth, Nicole Dollanganger


 

Against his will, he began to cry.

Slow sobs that seemed to come from the very bottom of his stomach...sobs that wracked his body, and pulled the most painful emotions out of the dark tangle that made up his heart. He cried what felt like bloody tears, and they slid like knives down his cheeks to land in a pool around his knees.  

Kyle hung his head. The tears continued to fall, cutting into his skin and leaving burning trails of shame. He hated himself for crying. In fact, he hated himself for feeling anything deeply enough to make him want to cry.  

He knew he had displeased him in some way. He wasn't sure how exactly, but nevertheless Kyle knew he wasn't at all happy with him.  After getting home from work Kyle had fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room, and when he had awoken, he had been handcuffed and propped against the wall in the basement with his clothes gone, leaving him to shiver under the chilled fluorescent lighting.

Kyle's head was swimming. Feeling terribly groggy, he managed to turn his head slightly and move his arm a little. A tiny red spot hovering over a swollen vein caught his attention.

He had drugged him. Again.

With Thorazine, no doubt, he thought, tiredly. It's amazing that I didn't wake up when he injected it.  That's what I get for marrying a doctor...and a good doctor at that.

The “good doctor” had done something like this before, drugging him while asleep so he'd wake up in a completely compromised state; filled with a pervasive sense of terror. The reason for such behavior was always the same: he had “displeased” him in some fashion.

Attempting to shake the cloudiness from his brain, he tried to sit up straight; his head throbbing from the effort. A soft clucking of a tongue emanated from the doorway of the basement.  Kyle lifted his head slightly to see his husband walking towards him, his patent leather shoes clicking as he descended the steps. Involuntarily, he cringed against the cold wall; residual aches registering in his back. He gritted his teeth and could've cried from that alone; he'd been so close to being completely healed from their last song and dance, and now this.

“You seem so sad, Kyle,” his husband said, voice smooth and soothing like honey dripping from a spoon, though lacking its cloying sweetness. “Crying doesn't suit you, not at times like this. Where's your fire, huh?"

He sighed a little. In one smooth motion, he knelt before Kyle, and rested one large hand on his pale, exposed thigh.

“You're always so difficult, you know that? I feel like I've been pretty clear in what I expect from you, and you...you just don't seem to get it. Or maybe you do get it and you just don't want to play the game, which, frankly, I find even more concerning."

Kyle felt unbearably helpless in the face of his current circumstances, and as such, could only stare up at his husband with wide, fearful eyes; vague fury registering somewhere deep in his brain. Deep in the place where he was still able to muster up rebellion, but that part of himself was becoming weaker and weaker with every passing year.

Suddenly, his husband was reaching out a hand slowly, causing Kyle to recoil against the wall. Staring at it with terror, cold sweat leaked out of Kyle's pores as they regarded one another. Grey eyes studied him, eyes that were narrowed and methodical, but sudden humor ignited in them. Again, the hand drifted forward and caressed Kyle's cheek, smelling of something medicinal; most likely the soap he'd used prior to sliding his hands into a patient laid out on the operating table.

"Are you going to recite the little poem we agreed on while I correct you?" He murmured, sliding a roughened thumb across Kyle's lips.

Kyle choked back another sob and nodded his head slowly. He didn't want to, but he knew he didn't have a choice; not if he wanted to be able to walk tomorrow.

"Say it for me now," his husband commanded, standing. "I like to hear it...I love to hear your voice at times like this. It's like we can be completely honest with each other."

Trembling, Kyle closed his eyes and willed himself far, far away where misery was just another concept that didn't exist; a place where lemon drops melted above the chimney tops and bluebirds sang. Teardrops coursed down his cheeks as his tremulous voice filled the gloom, his mind working tirelessly to conjure up the happy memories before the horrors began.

"Louder, love," his husband said. "After all, this is for your own good, isn't it?"

He was readying something but Kyle wasn't going to try and piece it together in the darkness. In instances like this it was better to be surprised; usually that made it so whatever happened didn't hurt as much. He kept his eyes shut tight as he repeated himself, the words drenching the air and filling it with a light out of place in a world of such misery:

Your heart is a dish,
Fill it with joy
And it will quench sorrow.
Fill it with sorrow
And it will drown joy.

 

Chapter Text

I peer through windows
Watch life go by
Dream of tomorrow
And wonder why

 The past is holding me
Keeping life at bay
I wander lost in yesterday
Wanting to fly
But scared to try

-Someone Like You (Jekyll and Hyde)


The years had been exceedingly kind to Kyle in only very specific ways; his looks were one of them.

He studied himself in the caustic sunlight of dawn, a light that was typically unforgiving to those bathed in it; showcasing every flaw and imperfection possible. Though Kyle had his fair share of bruises that morning, he had to admit that he was otherwise very fortunate. His sorrows and fears were not etched in his flesh yet, but he had a feeling they would be before too long, if he decided to stay and endure; an option that became less appealing to him with each passing day.

Kyle had had to call out of work again, a fact that did not sit well with him, but he knew he didn't have a choice. The bruises from the good doctor's treatment were so prominent that no amount of coverup would mask them, and he couldn't exactly wear sunglasses to work, not in the small art gallery where he was employed. He had reason to believe that his husband was deliberate when placing the marks, furthering Kyle's reluctance to stray out of doors; stray farther from the ornate cage he found settled around him.

The cage was getting smaller and tighter every hour, and at times he couldn't help but feel suffocated; the walls closing in and blotting out the sunlight. He watched his reflection like he would a zoo exhibit, realizing now more than ever that he was on display; always being watched and assessed. Tiredly, he brushed his hair and tried to put it to rights, knowing that any signs of dishevelment would be frowned upon, and he fervently wished once again that his red curls would lie flat, that they could behave.

But why should they behave? He never seemed to, why else was he constantly being punished; corrected? He gazed into his green eyes like he would the ocean, but he could never find the bottom in their depths; they were filled with terror and misery, too turbulent to really understand. Sighing, he splashed some cold water on his face and tried to put on a smile, his husband wouldn't like him appearing so morose. The thing is, Kyle knew that his husband was aware of how unhappy he was, but he didn't want to see it. So long as the truth was swept under the rug, order, or some semblance of it, could be maintained within their household.

Everything had to be just so everyday.

Kyle would wake at 7 am on the nose, regardless of whether or not he was going to work, and he would slip on his robe and house shoes, taking care not to disturb the doctor (if he was home, of course. There were certain times that he was on call at Hell's Pass; called away to attend to one emergency or another, quite frequently in the middle of the night. It was during those times that Kyle actually got to sleep soundly). He would proceed into the kitchen where he would brew that morning's coffee: hazelnut grounds, exactly 4 and a half scoops, no more, no less. He would prepare his husband's mug to his exact specifications: two teaspoons of raw sugar and a titch of cream. Kyle never measured the cream, he knew the amount by heart at this point. He had learned very quickly just how creamy the coffee should appear; a medium, toasty brown.

He would fry up the turkey bacon and scramble a few eggs, and then he would set the table with a single red rose from the garden in a crystal vase. He'd open the blinds to let in the light, and then he would go and rouse the doctor, but never before 7:30. To awaken him any sooner or later would be a travesty, which would elicit a punishment. He couldn't be sure if it would be an involved affair or a quick smack, but he did everything in his power to avoid finding out.

The doctor would be stretched out in their murky bedroom in the king sized bed, strong chest rising and falling in languid dips, and Kyle would always have to take a deep breath before kissing him awake. He always had to kiss his husband awake, it pleased him; it spoke of intimacy and affection that didn't exist, not in the true sense. The doctor had no trouble believing the lie, so long as it made him happy. Sometimes he'd want to have sex and Kyle would allow himself to be thrown across the bed and taken, but more often than not his husband would rise and stretch, ready to meet the day; in absolute control of his surroundings.

They would dine together while his husband would read the paper, perfectly made cup of coffee languishing in his hand as he complained about the state of the economy and how poorly the Broncos were doing that season; during summer it was baseball, and then it was the Rockies who were the subject of his scrutiny. Kyle would pick at his food and wait anxiously for his husband to finish, sitting on the edge of his chair the whole time as he waited for the other shoe to drop. He supposed that was part of the reason he found the whole situation intolerable; it wasn't the physical aspect so much as the emotional warfare. Who could say what was going to happen next?

After finishing breakfast, his husband would bathe and dress, coming out of the bathroom smelling like pine and other wild things; earth and musk and oceans, and Kyle could almost remember the man he used to be. He'd watch with large, waiting eyes as his husband readied to leave, and it wasn't until he heard his husband's car pull off that he'd be able to take a deep breath and just think. That was another hard part of the situation, he never felt like he was allowed to simply think, because to think too deeply about his circumstances was a recipe for madness; absolute insanity.

The morning after his punishment his husband wasn't home, and that's why Kyle had been afforded the opportunity to study himself in the mirror. He'd be home any moment, though, and he waited with baited, painful breath, not wondering what was going to happen next, but when was it going to happen. Something similar occurring again was an inevitability, he'd come to accept that, it was not knowing when that truly killed him.

Kyle often wondered how his life had come to this, this dark place that drifted just on the fringes of reality, but he still couldn't piece together an acceptable answer. He was almost positive there wasn't an acceptable answer for what his life had become, and even if there were, it could never satisfy him.

Looking up, Kyle realized he was no longer alone in the bathroom, that his husband was behind him and watching him in the glass; cold, grey eyes lingering and rendering their verdict. He shuddered  inwardly, but he managed to keep the smile in place, even if it did slip slightly.

"Sitting like a princess perched on her electric chair*," his husband smiled, coming over and draping his large hands on Kyle's shoulders. "How are you feeling this morning? Sore?"

Kyle nodded, his eyes straying downward as he worried his hands.

"A little."

"Poor baby. I'll take care of you once I've had a chance to decompress," he murmured softly. He paused for a moment, then:

"Aren't you going to ask me how work was?"

Dragging together all of his courage and determination to survive, Kyle turned to his husband and brought his hand to his mouth, kissing the knuckles slightly.

"Of course," he replied, static smile on his face.

"How was your day, Craig?"

Chapter Text

Dear diary,

Did you miss me? I'm pretty sure you didn't, considering I wrote in you less than 9 hours ago, but I'm sure you'll forgive me for bothering you so much. Look, there I go anthropomorphosizing you again - that word doesn't look right, can you use it like that? I'm sure it's totally wrong, but whatever. Once again, I'm sure you'll forgive me, right? I hope you will...sometimes it feels like you're the only real friend I have left.

So, I'm sure you'll be happy to know that I was actually able to go back to work today. The bruises around my eyes faded enough that a little coverup was enough to do the trick, so I'm pretty sure Wendy and Butters are none the wiser; at least I hope that's the case. Who can really say? I've missed so much work over the years that I'm sure they're suspicious at this point, they're just too nice to say anything. Not that I'm complaining, I could never hope to explain my situation...not to anyone. God, what could I even say?

That's why you're so important to me, diary. You were there the first time the doctor grabbed me and left the bruises on my arm...the first time he used the cigarettes...hell, you were there the first time he took me to the basement. You've been there through everything. Honestly, I don't think I could've survived so long if you hadn't let me pour my heart into you...what little is left, anyway. Okay, I know that was corny but I'm sure you don't mind, right? You'll forgive me anything, even if the doctor can't do the same.

Right now things are okay, I guess. I mean, he was in a good mood during breakfast this morning (for him, anyway). He even said the coffee tasted okay, even though I made it the same way I do every morning...every single morning...for five years.

You know, I look at that in writing and it's staggering to me. Five years. That's a lot of coffee. Christ, that's a lot of trips to the basement.

I can't be exactly sure what set him off the last time, and the trip to the basement is really hazy because of the Thorazine, but I think it had to do with coming home late from work. He always expects me to call him as soon as I get home (by 4:30 at the latest) if he's working, and I did, or at least I tried. There was traffic and then my phone died on the way home, so I had to charge it...by then it was already 4:35. I tried to explain but he doesn't appreciate apologies. He thinks I'm adopting the mindset that it's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and that would never ever sit well with him.

Then I made the mistake of falling asleep on the couch even though I should've been awake and waiting, but I was so tired, diary. He'd kept me up all night doing...well, I think you know what we were doing so I'm not going to go into excessive detail. I will say that handcuffs were involved; two sets. Two sets of silver handcuffs and -

See, there I go going into detail even though I said I wouldn't. Where's my head, diary? What am I even thinking these days? Am I even thinking at all anymore? Between the basement and the medication I take, everything is a haze...but maybe it's better that way? What do you think, diary?

I'm ashamed to admit that I cried last night when I managed to find a moment alone. But you know what? I didn't cry about the things the doctor's done to me, no, I cried remembering the nice things he used to do for me. You remember, don't you? Of course you do...they're all written down on your pages...every surprise weekend trip and little present, every thoughtful word and compliment. They're all here and I miss them so much, because they rarely happen anymore.

Really, most people would be willing to throw in the towel at this point but not me, diary. If anything, I know I need to try harder. Don't I? If I try harder he won't need to correct me...he won't need to punish me anymore. I've been slipping lately, haven't I? I've been careless and thoughtless...I haven't put him first the way I'm supposed to....

I'll do better, diary. How does that sound? Do you think I can do it?

Well, I better get back to work...Wendy's giving me one of those looks. You know the ones I mean, I've described them to you before. I don't mind, of course; Wendy always means well.

Just like Craig. I know he loves me. I know you love me, diary; and I love you, too.

Forever and always,

Your Kyle

-----

Kyle sighed as he slammed his diary shut, feeling slightly embarrassed at the prospect of somebody seeing that he wrote 'dear diary' at the beginning of each entry; feeling sure that he'd be regarded as having the emotional maturity of a teenage girl. He couldn't help it, though. He hadn't been one to keep a diary or a journal when he was a kid, but when he started dating Craig he'd changed. Suddenly Kyle needed a place to vent, to put his thoughts, because before too long his outlets had been cut off from him, one by one; his husband had seen to that. He tucked the book into his bag and made a mental note to hide it as soon as he got home. It wouldn't do for Craig to find it...no, that would be catastrophic.

Glancing around, Kyle saw that Wendy was still watching him from across the gallery, arms crossed and violet eyes narrowed. Their eyes met, and all at once she was coming toward him, black high heels clacking against the wood floor.

"Everything okay?" She asked, approaching Kyle's corner and frowning a little. "You were writing again. I know you always write when you're upset."

"Must you watch me during my lunch break?" Kyle sighed, crumpling up the remnants of his lunch and tossing them in the trash.

"Kyle, you were gone for a week," Wendy replied, voice softening a little. "I was worried. Stan was worried. Christ, we're still worried! Can you blame us?"

Kyle shook his head a little, a small smile playing over his lips though he tried to fight it. He hated showing how starved he was for this sort of concern, it made him feel so weak. Craig already made him feel that way most of the time, he didn't need it from outside sources, too; even if they were well-meaning.

"How is Stan, anyway?" Kyle asked, fondness seeping into his blood. He hadn't seen Stan in ages, what with his job at the gallery and attending to his husband's needs. It didn't help that Stan worked such long hours as a vet tech, though he had to admire his dedication; Stan had always loved animals.

"Oh, he's fine," Wendy said, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear, one eyebrow cocked. She knew Kyle was trying to distract her, clearly. "We're both running a little ragged what with the baby still not sleeping through the night."

"Hmm," Kyle smiled, even more fondness filling him now. He glanced at Wendy covertly, thinking once again that no one would have ever believed that she'd had a baby less than a year ago, her figure having snapped back to its curved slenderness almost immediately. "I'd like to see Molly soon, if I can."

"Kyle, you know you're always welcome," Wendy replied, almost like she was exasperated. "We're always inviting you over but you never accept."

Kyle flushed a little, looking down at a painting he'd been in the process of framing. He couldn't let Wendy see his eyes in that moment, they would've revealed too much. Craig didn't like going out more than was absolutely necessary, and even then it was usually for a charity event or work affair; conferring with colleagues and schmoozing. They'd attended maybe 2 or 3 parties that their friends had hosted in the last year and a half, and Kyle had been amazed at even that small amount.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, stroking a finger along the frame's gilded edge. "I'll talk to Craig, I'm sure we can agree on a time soon."

Wendy was silent for a moment, her shoe tap tap tapping against the floor; worrisome little noises that plucked at Kyle's nerves. Finally, she cleared her throat.

"You know, you don't have to bring Craig if he doesn't want to come," she said, slowly; voice careful.

Kyle's gaze immediately shot up, terror gripping him just at the prospect of going to a social affair without Craig. It'd been so long since he'd done anything like that on his own, he wouldn't even know what to say; how to act. Besides, Craig would never let him do that, not in a million years. He quickly shook his head.

"No, of course he wants to come, Wendy. Don't be ridiculous!" He tried to smile, but he knew it looked pained.

"Right. Because Craig has always been the social type. I forgot." She peered at him. "Kyle, are you sure you're okay? You've been so...god, what's the word? Quiet lately? Just...thoughtful, like your head isn't really here. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Kyle smiled softly, loving Wendy for her meddling concern even though it made his anxiety increase dramatically. He shook his head slowly.

"Nah, I don't think so, but," he added, almost feeling shy. "Tell Stan I miss him, okay? Ask him if he can stop by here sometime so I can talk to him."

"Why don't you just call him -"

She broke off, clearly deciding that the question wasn't going to get them anywhere; not at the moment, anyway. Instead, she nodded her head a little, cheeks flushing prettily.

"Sure, yeah," she said. "I can do that."

Rubbing her hands, she glanced at a stack of photos that Kyle had framed for the newest exhibit; the far wall empty and ready to be adorned. She picked one up, a lighthouse in stark black and white with waves crashing behind it. She smiled, but it was of a whimsical nature; eyes far away as they studied the picture in her hands.

"This makes me feel so lonely," she said, setting it back down. "But not in a bad way, you know? It makes me want to go out and explore...like I'm yearning for places I've never been to. Does that make sense?"

Kyle studied the photo as well. It had been his favorite in the collection the photographer had sent over. It spoke of wild places and freedom, of throwing your arms wide as the sun rose over a new day and you had nothing but open possibilities. It almost hurt him to look at it.

"That makes perfect sense," he replied, softly. "All the sense in the world."

******

Kyle stood back and studied the canvas stretched before him, cocking his head. He just wasn't sure where to start with this one, though he'd thought he had an idea; a good one, even. Now the canvas mocked him though, and his mind was hatefully blank, all inspiration flowing out of him at once. He sighed and threw down his paintbrush, frustration making him feel cross.

He sat on the floor of his studio and just stared at the whiteness spreading out like snowfields before him; reminding him of just how hatefully empty his mind was at the moment.

"I hate you," he muttered, bending his legs and propping his chin on his knees. He was clothed in his usual painting attire: an old white button up shirt of Craig's, his legs bare save for his boxer briefs. Kyle liked to be almost naked when he painted, there was less clean up and he liked to think that bare flesh made for an open mind.

The job at the art gallery had afforded Kyle a plethora of advantages, some of them more obvious than others. It gave him a place to go to everyday (so long as he was healthy enough), it provided social interaction, and it'd opened him up to a side of himself he hadn't even been aware of; the artistic side. At first he had taken the job because it seemed harmless enough, and since Wendy owned the place he already felt comfortable with her, and most importantly -

"Craig said I could," he said, softly; voice carrying through the studio and dying away.

That had been the deciding factor, after all. Craig hadn't wanted Kyle to work at all, had wanted him safe at home and waiting for him; attending to him. He'd made the very valid point that Kyle didn't even need to work, that his salary as a cardiologist made enough for them to live well and then some. If anything, they lived in such opulence that most of the time Kyle could barely comprehend it. The room he was sitting in, his gigantic art studio, was a testament to how well they were doing financially.

Kyle had been terrified to even mention the possibility of taking the job to Craig at first, but eventually he had thrown caution to the wind and asked hurriedly over dinner one night, when his husband had been in a particularly good mood.

"A job? You?" He'd asked, setting down his glass of wine and peering through the candlelight at Kyle; grey eyes hard and studying him closely.

Kyle had nodded and looked down at his plate, perfectly prepared Beef Wellington sitting untouched before him.

"It'd only be part-time, and it's at Wendy's gallery, so -"

"Who else works there?" Craig had asked, cutting him off.

Kyle had shrugged, already feeling like he was losing the fight. Most likely he'd lost even before he'd begun.

"Butters. Oh, and Stan helps out on occasion. And a few -"

"Stan."

It hadn't been a question, and Kyle had gulped, waiting for the tirade to begin; but it'd never come. Silence had stretched between them for an almost unbearable amount of time.

"Fine, but I want to check out this place before you start. Okay?" Craig had picked up his fork and started eating again before Kyle could answer.

"Y-yes, of course," Kyle had stammered, hardly daring to believe his good fortune. "Are you sure, I mean -"

Craig had cut him off with a look, his eyes having the uncanny, unsettling ability to inspire fear almost without effort. Kyle had quickly gone silent, picking at his food carefully; trying to hide the smile that wanted to bloom on his mouth.

"Thank you," he'd whispered, softly.

"Eat your food," Craig had replied, brusquely. "It's getting cold."

It hadn't been too long after that that Craig had done exactly what he'd said he'd do, coming down to the gallery and appraising it for himself. He'd met with Wendy and rolled his eyes at Butters, making sure to meet the other people Kyle would be interacting with when he wasn't able to watch. After he'd given his blessing, Kyle had started shortly thereafter, learning to frame and prepare the paintings and photographs gracing the walls. He'd help set up art shows and galas, and he couldn't believe how breathlessly happy he'd become just from having something to do.

For awhile after they'd married, Kyle hadn't really been allowed to do much of anything outside of caring for the house and garden; making sure that Craig's needs were seen to. It had eaten away at his soul because he'd gone to college, had even gotten his actuarial license, but he'd never gotten to use it. Craig wanted him at home, so he'd stayed home. Even now, he viewed getting the job at the gallery as one of his biggest achievements, and this knowledge filled him with a strange sort of shame.

Kyle had been at the gallery for a little over a year when he'd started doodling and sketching in his downtime, garnering inspiration from the art swirling around him. He had dabbled in art as a child but he'd never taken it seriously, but being surrounded by it constantly fed a need in him he hadn't realized he'd had. Like his diary, he'd found it to be a very worthwhile and needed outlet, so he drew and created; not really thinking much of it beyond enjoying it.

"Hey, you're actually pretty good," Wendy had commented one day, glancing over Kyle's shoulder before he could hurriedly cover up the apple he was sketching; a byproduct of his uneaten lunch. Glancing around, she'd plucked up a tiny frame and handed it to Kyle.

"I've had this frame lying around for ages and I never have anything that really goes with it," she said. "Why don't you draw or paint a little something and we can display it? I think it'd be fun for the patrons to see what the employees produce."

Kyle had been reluctant to accept the frame, pretty and white and delicate, but eventually he'd caved and taken it home. He'd hidden it from Craig in the back of the closet and didn't think much about it for a couple of weeks. It wasn't until he was digging through the closet, trying to unearth his husband's heavier winter parka, that Kyle had found the frame and held it for a moment, suddenly wanting to try and fill it with something.

The next week he'd brought it back to the gallery and had shyly given it back to Wendy, a watercolor scene sitting behind the glass of koi fish swimming.

"Oh, Kyle," she'd breathed, eyes shining. "This is lovely. You're getting so good."

She had hung it with pride right next to Kyle's corner where he worked on framing and other incidentals. Wendy had smiled at him with admiration and affection.

"Maybe someone will buy it," she'd teased, winking.

Kyle had just laughed.

"I doubt it."

It wasn't too long after that that Kyle had displeased Craig in some fashion and earned a trip to the basement. He'd been out of work for several days and by the time he came back, he'd completely forgotten about the little painting. Until -

"Do you notice anything different?" Wendy had asked, appearing slightly mischievous.

Kyle hadn't taken the bait, too tired and still too sore to play guessing games. He'd just cocked a brow and waited. She'd sighed, annoyed that he wouldn't play along.

"Your painting!" She'd gushed. "It was sold! Someone bought it!"

He'd just stood frozen for a moment at that bit of news, having to take a seat on his stool; eyes wide with surprise.

"R-really?" He'd asked. She had to be lying to him. There was just no way. Why would anyone buy something he'd painted? Craig had made light of his efforts, calling them cute but otherwise unremarkable.

"Yes, silly! Isn't that great?" She'd replied, smiling widely. "Now you need to paint another!"

Now Kyle was just sitting in front of the blank canvas and wondering if he'd ever come up with an idea. Usually they came to him just out of nowhere, not when he actively called for them, but he'd wanted to paint for some reason; it always helped him relax.

"There you are," a low voice spoke behind him, startling Kyle and making him turn.

Craig was standing in the doorway, dressed in his scrubs and watching him with his fathomless eyes. Kyle quickly stood and went to him, obediently kissing Craig on the lips; entire body on edge because he always needed to be on edge with his husband.

"You're home early," Kyle said. "I thought I'd have time to paint before you got here. I'm sorry, I haven't made dinner yet, I -"

Craig shushed him with a gentle finger on his lips, smiling a little now.

"I came home early so I could take you out to dinner," he explained, pulling Kyle close and kissing his neck softly. "Would you like that?"

"O-of course, but why? It isn't a special occasion," Kyle replied, allowing Craig to kiss along his throat without protest; not that he would ever protest his husband.

Craig shrugged, sharp teeth nipping at Kyle's skin.

"I felt like making it a special occasion, so," he smirked, looking down at Kyle in the oversized shirt and his legs bare. Desire flared in his eyes, making Kyle's heartbeat increase. "But first, let's go to the bedroom. You know I can't resist you when you're working on your little paintings."

Kyle suddenly became aware that Craig was slowly unbuttoning the shirt, exposing his pale skin to the sunlight glimmering through the studio's windows.

"I'll be waiting," Craig said, kissing Kyle's neck one last time and opening his shirt completely; large hands sliding over bruises still lingering on Kyle's skin. "Don't be long."

He turned and left, not bothering to look back. Kyle watched him disappear down the hall and then stood for just a moment, shirt hanging open and the dust motes dancing in shafts of light. He wasn't particularly in the mood for sex, but when had that ever mattered?

Rubbing his hand across his eyes, Kyle turned back to the canvas and slowly picked up a can of red paint, his hand trembling slightly as he raised it.

"Well, at least it isn't the basement," he whispered, heart racing as he swung the can and drenched the canvas; streaks of paint falling in trails like fresh bloodshed along the white.

Chapter Text

Dear diary,

Hey, it's me again. (I don't know why I wrote that. Of course it's me, who else would be writing in you? You're a one-man diary, aren't you? Unless diaries can be sluts in which case - wait, what the fuck am I talking about? I've barely started and I'm already getting away from my point.)

I swear I have a point, diary, let me just try to think of it.

Oh, yes, that's right. I wanted to talk to you about classical music and why I hate it so much. Okay, maybe I don't hate it but it does scare me. It was playing the first time Craig hurt me, and now it always runs through my mind whenever he starts to...lose control of himself.

Although, it's odd. I don't really think Craig loses control of himself when he does what he does. If anything, he's the sort of person who's always in control. Of everything. Including me. I think that's why we've had so much difficulty over the years, diary. If you'd known me before I'd been with Craig you would understand. I was a different person a long time ago, but I've changed...maybe not completely, but enough so that I don't really recognize myself anymore. I'm really not sure if that's a good thing. It's really hard for me to judge myself and my situation...I guess I'm just too deep in it, you know? It's hard to assess your own life while you're living it, or rather, trying to survive it.

But, yes, I was a different person, diary. Once upon a time I had a lot of plans for myself. I wanted to be an actuary and I wanted to travel, too. I wanted to see the whole world and I wanted to be in love with someone who loved me back.

Don't be like that, diary. Don't be like that, Kyle. Craig does love me. He does. Why else did he come home early last night to take me out to L'Auberge for absolutely no reason at all? Why did he buy the most expensive champagne on the menu and tell me that I looked nice, that he couldn't believe that I belonged to him?

I wanted to think that's sweet, diary. I mean, I do think it's sweet, but it also makes me think and that's always a dangerous thing, isn't it? To think too much?

I belong to him. This is the truth. He doesn't view me as a partner so much as an acquisition. Craig likes to own things, and people, it would seem. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I suppose I could live with it a little easier if the basement didn't exist...if Craig's temper was just a little longer, more forgiving.

But, I digress, back to the classical music. I can't say I was ever a huge fan of it, but I didn't mind it, you know? Craig, on the other hand, loves it, so we listen to it all the time. Chopin, mostly. He can't get enough of his nocturnes, and I can't say that I blame him. They're frenzied and gorgeous and sad and slightly violent...

God, they're a lot like Craig, aren't they? Tumultuous and unpredictable, but they have the capability of being so unbearably sweet.

Like I said, classical music was playing the first time I caught a glimpse of Craig's...other side. Yes, that's what we'll call it, for lack of a better term. The side that only I get to see, I guess. How lucky am I?

We hadn't been dating very long, just a few months actually, but I'd already really started to fall for him, you know? It's strange, we'd never been close as kids or teenagers, but after we met up again after becoming adults, there was just something about him. It drew me in, diary, almost like he'd become irresistible. There's something to be said for someone with confidence and drive and just an edge; a personality that clearly states that it knows what it wants. Craig had always been so stoic and short on words, and he still was when we started dating, but his quiet nature wasn't off-putting...in my head it made me think of a still water that runs deep. It gave me the impression that if I dug deep enough, Craig would have so much to offer.

And he does, I just didn't realize that for all the good things he has to give, there are so many bad things to come along as well...whether I want them or not.

Anyway, as I recall it, and you must forgive me because time and injury have made my mind a fuzzy place, but I'll tell you what I can recollect. We were in bed at the time in Craig's little apartment. He was still in residency at Johns Hopkins and I was visiting him for the weekend, and we'd spent most of our time in bed, even though I still wouldn't let him, well, you know. I remember getting a call and when I looked at my phone I guess I looked really happy so he asked me who it was. I told him it was Stan and that I was happy because I hadn't heard from him in awhile, what with him having gotten married to Wendy recently.

I can just remember this strange look coming over Craig's face, like he kind of temporarily stepped out of his body. Do you know what I mean? That blank quality people get when they're trying to process something, or they can't believe what they're seeing or hearing? I guess you could describe Craig's eyes as being cold most of the time, but in that moment they looked...remote? Yes, that's the word. I didn't recognize him for a moment, but I brushed it off. Why wouldn't I? It was just a phone call, after all.

I told him that I'd be right back and went to get out of bed, but Craig...he grabbed me. He grabbed me really hard. I know this is strange, but I can recall gasping because it hurt so much and because I was so surprised. He wrapped his fingers around my arm and squeezed, and when I tried to pull away his fingers just got tighter. I told him he was hurting me and to stop, that I needed to answer the call but he wouldn't let go.

What's crazy is that even though he was hurting me, the remote look kind of left his eyes when I spoke up and then he just looked sad, almost apologetic. He still held onto me but he loosened his grip, not enough for me to break away, but enough so that he wasn't hurting me anymore. He just seemed so melancholy in that moment, and I couldn't figure out what had changed so quickly, and just because of Stan calling me. I'll never forget what he said next, diary...to this day, I'll remember every word because it was just so unexpected:

"You love him, don't you?"

It was by that time that my phone had stopped ringing and the call went to voicemail. It was silent in his apartment because a new nocturne was readying to play, and I could hear the little 'ping' sound when a message was left, but I couldn't even think about listening to it at the time. I just couldn't believe what Craig had asked me.

Let me be honest with you, diary (I mean, i have to be honest with someone, don't I? You're all I have!) I may have harbored deeper feelings for Stan when we were teenagers, but I always knew that Stan didn't like guys. I never pushed him, I never approached him...I guess you could say I loved him from afar, but I never once told anyone what I felt. What was the point? It's not like I could do anything with the feelings anyway. Eventually, they died down and became bearable. Hell, I was even his best man at his wedding! (Which is a story for another day because, really, that's when everything started.)

I'd never given Craig any indication that I had romantic feelings for Stan in any capacity, so I don't know why he asked me that. I don't know why he grabbed me like that. I still don't get it, diary, and I've been hashing this shit out for years now.

I told Craig that I didn't love Stan like that, that I cared for him like a best friend. Craig still looked so sad, but there was something else in his expression that I just couldn't read. I realize now that it was his anger rearing its head, I just couldn't see the signs back then. He was thinking. He was plotting.

He was waiting.

Afterward, he did calm down and he apologized for what he did, and I forgave him, of course. He explained that he'd developed stronger feelings for me than he'd anticipated and he just felt a little jealous and that it was a knee-jerk reaction. I told him not to worry about it...that I understood, but I didn't, not really. I can remember him being extra sweet for the rest of my trip, and he even took me to a really nice restaurant even though residents make so little (in comparison to what they make when they're fully licensed, of course). He wined and dined me (although, unlike Alanis, he did not 69 me, diary. Sorry, that was my lame attempt at humor) and made me believe what had occurred was just a fluke.

Of course it wasn't, but you already know that. Throughout the entire scenario Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor could be heard, frantic piano music being played by Craig's favorite pianist (Arthur Rubinstein), and it filled up my head. Now, whenever we go to the basement or Craig has an attack of temper, I hear that discordant music play and it fills me with so much terror.

The bruises on my arm didn't show up until a day or so later, after I'd already flown back to Colorado and left Craig behind on the east coast. I caught sight of them in that horrible caustic light that comes with early morning, when all of your secrets are laid bare and you have to face them. Instead of facing them, I ignored them, though. It wasn't too long after that that Craig asked me to move in with him, and I did. I moved into that tiny apartment and played house with him until he finished his residency.

But you, diary. Well, I bought you right after those bruises appeared. And we've been together ever since, you and I...

...and Craig, of course.

Whoops, there's Butters calling to me for help...I better go. This was getting a little heavy handed anyway, don't you think?

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: Do you think I should give you a nickname like Anne Frank gave her diary, Kitty? I always thought that was really nice but I can never think of a name...I guess I'll have to marinate on that, won't I?

PPS: Wait never mind. I thought I wanted to say something else but I forgot...it'll come to me later, I'm sure. (Isn't that always how it goes?)

---------

"Does this look alright?"

Kyle glanced up from his diary as he shut it slowly, his mind coming back to the present after becoming bogged down in the past; the strange, muddled past. Butters was staring at him, blue eyes bright with anxiety as he worried his hands. He was busy trying to hang up the photographs that Kyle had framed, the lonely lighthouse among them, black and white waves crashing behind it in violent streams. Standing, he came over to study Butter's efforts.

"It looks good," he said, moving to adjust one of the pictures that was slightly askew. He looked for the lighthouse picture and picked it up, gazing at it for what felt like the millionth time in the last few days. "Where are you going to put this one? I think it's the best in the collection."

Butters shrugged, the anxiety still registering in his eyes as he looked at the picture. He was still the nervous little thing he'd been in childhood, albeit a little plumper and with a tad more backbone, but not much more. Kyle enjoyed working with him for the simple fact that there was nothing to fear in Butters, what you saw was what you got, and he knew the guy would never hurt a fly, let alone another person.

"Why don't you hang it up, Kyle? You always have such an eye for these things," Butters said, smiling a little. He ran a hand through his thinning, bright hair and regarded Kyle with an odd sort of reverence he didn't feel he entirely deserved, not if Craig was to be believed.

"Well, okay. Why not?" Kyle glanced at the wall, at the other photographs that spoke of wild, out of the way places he could only dream of, and he instantly decided this picture needed to be in the center of it all. He was just glad that the pictures were being hung right across from his workstation, where he could still gaze at the pretty, otherworldly slices of a life he could never hope to live.

"Right there," he murmured, hanging the picture right in the middle and standing back to admire it. He was silent for a moment, mind wandering and taking him far from that gallery, far from South Park, far from everything.

"Gosh, they sure are pretty, aren't they?" Butters asked, breaking into Kyle's reverie.

Kyle nodded, swimming upward from flights of fancy. He looked at each of the pictures in turn, a small detail he'd noticed before jumping out at him again.

"There aren't any signatures on any of them," he commented, pulling out his phone and checking the time. It was nearly time for him to leave. "Don't you think that's odd, Butters?"

"I suppose," Butters shrugged. "Wendy said they came in the mail awhile ago, no note or nothing. She just figured they were an anonymous donation or something."

"But, still," Kyle said, eyes drifting once again to the lighthouse. Where was it located? "To take such wonderful pictures and not ask for recognition or money. It's so strange."

"You don't sign your paintings, Kyle," Butters pointed out, making Kyle grin.

"Why should I? No one needs to know my name," Kyle said, softly. He reached out and brushed a finger over the lighthouse. "Maybe the person who took these is a kindred spirit or something."

Butters stared at him for a moment, still worrying his hands. Glancing at his watch, he nervously tapped Kyle, pulling him from his thoughts.

"K-Kyle, it's already 4:10. Don't you need to get out of here? I know how punctual you like to be getting home." He looked at him with admiration. "You're so good to Craig, always home on time to make supper. He's lucky to have you."

"Oh, shit. You're right," Kyle said, hurriedly turning away and deciding to ignore Butter's comments. If he only knew. Walking to his corner, he grabbed up his bag, making sure to stuff his diary in the secret pocket he'd created in the side.

"I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" He said, practically running for the exit. He needed to be home by 4:30, no question.

"Bye, Kyle!" Butters called, going back to hanging the pretty photographs, smile faltering a little as Kyle rushed outside into the bright, summer sunshine.

"If I hit all green lights and the traffic is light, I should have more than enough time," Kyle muttered to himself as he slid behind the wheel of his silver Lexus, a birthday present from Craig from just a few months ago. He'd hardly believed his eyes when his husband had led him outside and revealed the beautiful car, a giant red bow adorning its hood. Craig had just smiled and kissed Kyle's temple, telling him he was worth more than all the cars in the world to him.

Kyle found himself becoming warm at the memory until he went to turn the key and nothing happened. He tried again, still nothing.

"No, no, this can't be happening," he said, trying to start the car yet again and still garnering no response. "Fuck!" He slammed his hands down on the steering wheel, feeling the stirrings of a panic attack coursing in his chest; heartbeat rising as his palms began to sweat.

"Maybe I can call him," he whispered, picking up his phone and staring at it. "I'm sure he'll understand. I'm sure -"

But, no. That wouldn't do. That would never do. Kyle knew this, knew this as surely as the sun would rise tomorrow. If he got to see it, of course. Frantically, he tried to race through his options. He had limited knowledge of cars, but he wouldn't be surprised if it was simply the battery had died, so he just needed a jump. But who could jump it? He could ask Butters or Wendy but he didn't want to alarm them with his growing hysteria, besides, Butters would take forever and a day to do anything even remotely mechanical.

Maybe he could call a cab? Or an Uber?

"No, that would take fucking forever," he said, hating the tears that started plucking at the corners of his eyes. Fighting them back, he picked up his bag and got out of the car, shading his eyes against the harsh sunlight filtering down in yellow streaks. It was in that moment that he decided to just walk, no, run home. Kyle couldn't imagine being still in that moment, anyway, not with his anxiety on the rise and his fear almost strangling him. No, he needed to be moving, and quickly.

He started down the road, breaking into an awkward jog before he began running outright, his shoes slapping the pavement and his breaths already coming fast. He was hardly dressed for exercise, having worn his normal gallery attire of slacks and a dress shirt, loafers on his feet. He hadn't made it very far before he was slowing down to take quick, ragged breaths.

"I'm never going to make it," he whimpered, sweat coursing down his face and salting his lips. "I'm going to be late and then...and then...."

He shook his head. Better not to think of such things at this juncture. The basement was always present in his mind, its clinical aspects stark in his thoughts, but he didn't want to think of it while standing in the strong sunshine. Darkness like that didn't match up with a summer's day. Feeling his strength beginning to fail him, residual soreness from so many old injuries dragging him down, Kyle didn't have it in him to run, so he began to walk as quickly as he could; the cars rushing along the road beside him. A warm breeze kicked up and ruffled his hair, cooling his sweaty face.

I'll make him something really delicious for dinner, he thought, keeping his eyes on the ground. Maybe that'll make things okay. Maybe then...

Kyle wanted to cry but he wouldn't let himself. Not out here, not in front of God and everyone. He almost had to laugh at that thought, though. God? Where the fuck was He, anyway? Where had he been while he'd ignored Kyle's suffering for all these years?

Oh, get a grip, drama queen, he chastised himself. You're hardly suffering just because you fight with your husband on occasion. There are plenty of people out there that have it much worse. You know this.

He was in the process of telling his chattering, nagging brain to shut the fuck up when all of a sudden a dingy blue pickup stopped along the side of the road, blocking his path. Instant wariness overtook Kyle and he stopped in his tracks, fearful of what was about to happen. Why would anyone stop? He wasn't a hitchhiker, had given no indication that he was looking or hoping for a ride. His apprehension really ramped up when the truck's door opened, and a leg appeared, clad in jeans and a cowboy boot on its foot. Then another leg appeared, and a tall, lean man was getting out, hair appearing tawny until the sun splashed over it, turning it to burnished gold.

Kyle stopped in his tracks and held his bag in front of himself, fearful and looking around for an escape, but he was surrounded by the road on one side and a ditch on the other. The driver had angled his car just so and made it so Kyle would have to wade through tall grass and briars to go around. The only option to him was turning back, and he sure as hell wasn't going to do that. His fear of his husband outweighed any fear he might have had for this forward stranger.

"I-I don't need a ride but thanks anyway," Kyle stammered out as the man started toward him, looking almost like a panther in his black t-shirt; his sinewy muscles glowing under his tanned skin. For a moment, Kyle found himself staring at them, at the tattoos winding their way around the man's arms, but he stopped, berating himself for looking at someone other than Craig.

The man didn't respond as he advanced, and finally Kyle was able to lift his eyes enough to study the stranger's face, a familiar pair of blue eyes looking back at him, a smile from the past pulling him backward through the years. He just stared, transfixed and disbelieving.

"Kenny?" He breathed, still clutching his bag like a lifeline. "Kenny, is that you?"

The man pulled a hand through his wind-roughened hair and his grin grew, stopping for a moment and just gazing at Kyle like he was a newly discovered creature. After a few seconds, he laughed, and it was as bright as the sunshine pouring over the both of them.

"I thought I recognized that red hair," he said, his voice husky, possibly from smoking but who could say? Kyle hadn't seen his friend in years. He peered at Kyle, studying him.

"If you don't need a ride then why are you walking out here in those nice clothes? And in 90 degree heat. Cut the crap, Kyle."

Kyle recoiled at Kenny's direct words. What could he possibly say? Kenny spoke the truth, had always had a habit of shooting from the hip.

"You got me, man," he conceded, smiling as well. "I do need a ride, but I don't want to bother you, so -"

He started to walk but Kenny grabbed him by the arm, making Kyle wince involuntarily as the man's fingers pressed against a healing bruise.

"Hold up, where are you headed?" He asked, loosening his grip but keeping his hand on Kyle's arm. "There's no way I'm going to make you walk, Kyle. Get in the truck and I'll drive you."

"N-no, you don't have to do that, Kenny. Really, I'm fine," Kyle replied, trying to pull away unsuccessfully.

Kenny chuckled and dropped Kyle's arm.

"You always were so fucking stubborn, dude," he sighed. "Just get in the truck, okay? Do it for me. I won't be able to look myself in the mirror if I let you go back to walking. Besides, you look like you're about to keel over, and -"

He reached out and tapped Kyle's cheek, making him flush and flinch at the same time.

"You're getting a sunburn, daywalker," he laughed. "Now come on. I won't take no for an answer."

Kyle still hesitated, desperately wanting to accept the ride but terrified of the offer. The whole situation was grossly unfair. Craig demanded he be home by a certain time but he would also be infuriated if Kyle accepted a ride from another guy, even if it was an old friend.

"I don't know, Kenny," Kyle finally said, hating the hitch in his voice. "I just -"

"Kyle, what's wrong?" Kenny asked, looking at him even closer now, blue eyes bright like an ocean lagoon. "You're acting weird, like you're scared or something." He stopped, frowning. "Are you scared of me, dude? Seriously?"

"No, of course not! God, I don't fucking know what to do!"

Kenny softened and gestured to the truck, his entire stance suggesting warmth and safety. Or maybe that's just what Kyle wanted to see? He dropped his eyes to the ground and tried to think pure, rational thoughts; the same thoughts he tried to conjure up while in the basement.

"Just let me give you a ride, okay? Please, Kyle. It isn't that big a deal."

But, it is. It is! You just don't see it!

"Fine, sure," Kyle finally gave in, stalking toward the truck. "If I'm going to Hell, I might as well be driven there."

*******

 "Where are you and Tucker living nowadays?" Kenny asked, adjusting the vents so the air conditioning poured over Kyle, reviving him somewhat.

"Oh, up near Token's parents' place, in the estates," Kyle replied, leaning against the seat and trying to appear calm, though on the inside he was falling apart. "Just drive in that direction and I'll guide you once we get closer."

Kenny whistled, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. Deftly, he slid one out, produced a lighter from the middle console and lit it, throwing the pack and the lighter in a cup holder. Sucking on the cigarette, he blew some smoke out the window where it faded into the sunshine.

"Tucker must be doing pretty well for himself, getting you guys a place up that way," he replied, turning up the air so it blew stronger against Kyle's sweaty skin. "Are you cool enough? I can turn it up more."

"No, that's okay. I'm fine," Kyle assured him, smiling at the tiny gesture. He frowned when Kenny's cigarette smoke drifted toward him, though. "Um, do you have to smoke, Kenny, I -"

"Yeah, I know it's an awful habit. I keep meaning to quit," Kenny cut him off, taking another drag before grinding out the cigarette and tucking it behind his ear. "Sorry."

Kyle just nodded, not wanting to tell Kenny that he was more concerned about Craig smelling the smoke on him, but he kept quiet. Instead, he groped for something to ask Kenny.

"Where have you been?" He blurted out, flushing a little at the forcefulness of his tone. It had been so long since he'd had the opportunity to just sit down and talk with one of his old friends; especially Kenny.

"Around," Kenny said vaguely. He didn't offer up additional information so Kyle let it go. Something Kenny had said jumped out at him.

"Craig is doing well, by the way," he said, softly. "He's one of the top heart surgeons at Hell's Pass. I'm really proud of him."

Kenny snorted a little.

"Is that so? I always thought it was odd that Tucker would want to work with hearts, considering he doesn't have one to begin with."

Kyle was startled at his words, having never expected them. Kenny had never been especially close to Craig, but he almost sounded like he actively disliked him.

"What?" He asked, toying with the strap of his bag, almost feeling afraid that Craig would find out someone else was talking shit about him. But that was crazy, right?

"Nothing, don't mind me," Kenny replied, turning the truck and coming upon the cluster of estates where the upper echelon of South Park called home. "Okay, man. Start directing me here."

"Um, take a left here," Kyle said, pointing. "And then take your first right. Yes, that's us. Right there."

Pulling his bag onto his shoulder, Kyle placed his hand on the door handle, ready and waiting to jump out as soon as Kenny stopped the truck in front of the ornate black gates standing between the road and his home.

"Wait," Kenny said, taking hold of Kyle's arm again and detaining him. Kyle looked back at him fearfully, his eyes drifting to Kenny's hand gripping his skin. He looked up at him, his entire face awash with questions.

"I'm going to be in town for awhile. Did you want to get together? It's been so long, you know?"

Just the suggestion produced raw terror in Kyle's heart, but he kept his face passive.

"Sure, that sounds nice," he smiled. "Let's talk about it later, okay? I really have to go." Almost losing his composure, Kyle wrestled with the door until it finally opened, and he got out, forcing Kenny to relinquish his arm.

"Can I just stop by here?" Kenny called, cocking an eyebrow. "You didn't even give me your number or anything."

"No!" Kyle replied, louder than he'd intended. He backtracked when he saw the surprise registering in Kenny's eyes.

"I mean, just stop by my work," he said, trying to remain calm. "I'm there almost every day."

He turned, trying to nonchalantly sprint to his home. He stopped when he heard Kenny calling out to him. He looked over his shoulder.

"Where do you work? I might need to know that if I'm going to come by," Kenny laughed, leaning across the cab of the truck.

"Oh, right," Kyle replied, feeling stupid as he brushed wayward curls from his eyes. "I work at the art gallery downtown. You can't miss it, it's the only one in South Park."

Without offering further information, Kyle ran up to the gates and punched the pass code in, nervously tapping his foot as they slowly swung open. Glancing back, he saw Kenny still sitting there, watching him. He waved and darted inside the parted gates, vaguely aware of the sound of a truck pulling off behind him. He was still reeling from seeing Kenny again, and slightly aggravated that his old friend hadn't offered up more details about where he'd been, but he waved those thoughts away. Right now he needed to focus on getting inside and calling Craig, then he needed to -

He stopped abruptly when he saw a familiar black Jaguar sitting in the circular driveway, its paint glossed to a high shine and almost looking like an instrument of torture in the blazing sun; Craig's car.

But that couldn't be, could it? Craig was working the later shift today, he'd had a case scheduled for 5 pm that was supposed to last at least 2 hours. Kyle slowly walked toward the house, sudden nausea flaring in his stomach. Before he could even make it to the door, it flew open, and Craig was standing there. Kyle stopped to see him, to see the look in his eyes; that awful, remote look he'd seen so many times before. He was also aware of a Chopin nocturne drifting out of the house and wafting around him.

"Well, you're on time, Kyle, but," Craig said, turning his neck a little and making it pop. "But I see you didn't drive yourself home. Now, why is that?"

"Craig, my car died, so I had to -"

"Get in the house," Craig said, calmly. Too calmly. "We'll talk about this inside, okay?"

He turned away, leaving Kyle to shiver even as copious amounts of sunshine poured over him like syrup; chills coursing through him even in the face of a 90 degree day.

Chapter Text

Dear diary,

Sorry, I still can't think of a name for you. I'd like to think that most things seem to name themselves, but I'm at a loss when it comes to you. It's times like this I wish my mother had been more open about me having pets as a kid, I could've had practice naming things, but I wasn't even allowed to have a fucking goldfish, so...

Anyway, once again I'm going off on a tangent (what else is new?) and that's an issue because I really don't have a lot of time to write. Craig is in the shower and my hands have finally stopped shaking enough so that I can actually write.

You may be surprised but I'm actually exceedingly grateful right now, diary. When Craig caught me getting a ride home from someone else I thought for sure I'd be spending the rest of the evening in the basement, but he was lenient this time (which is more than I deserve, honestly. What was I even thinking getting into Kenny's truck? I must be out of my fucking mind!) He only made me kneel on rice this time, and not for very long either; only an hour. I mean, I had to give him a...well, I had to 'service' him too, if you know what I mean. I really don't like getting into those sorts of gritty details when I write in you diary, but I think you can figure out what Craig made me do while I was on my knees.

The rice typically isn't that bad, so long as I can go to the special place in my mind that helps me forget where I am. I call it my garden and it's usually pretty easy to get to, especially when I've transcended the initial terror and I'm in the middle of the punishment, you know? I'm sure I'm not making a whole lot of sense but trust me, my garden has saved my ass more times than I can count. It's almost like another world inside my brain...a world where the wind always smells like perfume and the sky is that perfect pinky orange that comes with a tropical sunset. Just think of the sun going down beyond the ocean and there's palm trees rustling...that's kind of what it's like. And you know what's really nice about it? The nocturnes can't follow me there, diary; it's blissfully silent save for the wind.

I guess Craig decided to take it easy on me because I was able to explain what happened with my car and, well, I kind of sort of lied to him.

Just hear me out, diary, before you start judging me, okay?

The great thing about our driveway is that it's super long, so Craig couldn't see who dropped me off, just Kenny's blue truck. I told him that a nice older woman saw me walking along the side of the road and offered to drive me the rest of the way. He still wasn't happy that I'd accepted a ride from a stranger (he told me that's a great way to become a lampshade in someone's apartment) but at least I could get him to calm down a little...but of course I still needed to be punished, which I can understand. I mean, Craig has made his rules pretty clear, hasn't he? Really, when will I ever learn?

But, gosh, it was nice seeing Kenny again, diary. I haven't seen him since Stan's wedding almost 6 years ago. He was a groomsman and it was bizarre seeing him in a tux, but he pulled it off, you know? He needed a haircut but the pictures turned out fine. Wait, there I go, off on another tangent.

The remarkable thing about Kenny is that he has kind of this...timeless quality, you know what I mean? Sure, I saw some little laugh lines next to his eyes and he seemed a bit thinner than the last time I saw him, but other than that, he was just the same Kenny. Although, I think he may have started working out, and he definitely had a few new tattoos on his arms.

Wait, why did I even notice that? And I have to be fucking demented to write Kenny's name in this diary, but I have so many hiding places I highly doubt Craig is ever going to find you, diary. Besides, everyone needs secrets, don't they? Craig is very much against me having a private life to myself, but what he doesn't know won't hurt me, right?

I can only wonder about where Kenny has been. After Stan's wedding he kind of disappeared. We were facebook friends until Craig made me get rid of mine, and I had his number in my phone for years until that too was purged by the Tucker Inquisition. Kenny was always kind of short on words so I'm not surprised he didn't go into details when I asked him where he'd been, but he could've given me something, don't you think?

I did something profoundly stupid, too, by the way (right, I know. what else is new?). I told Kenny where I work and I told him it was okay for him to stop by. What was I thinking? I must have been -

Hold on. I heard the shower stop. I have to go.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: I'll keep ruminating about a nickname for you, okay?

PPS: Goddamn, my knees hurt - but I can still go to work tomorrow! That's a plus, right?

-----

 Kyle hurriedly tucked the diary under the mattress before Craig could see what he was doing, making a mental note to retrieve it after his husband had gone to sleep so he could slip it back into his messenger bag. Craig emerged from the bathroom, shirtless and clad in grey pajama pants, a towel thrown around his neck. He continued to dry his hair as he watched Kyle, who was laid across the bed in only his boxer briefs, trying not to move so he wouldn't aggravate the wounds on his knees; a riot of tiny rice-shaped cuts speckled across his skin.

"I'll clean those up," Craig said, throwing the towel in the hamper and coming over to Kyle's side, his lean torso illuminated by the bedside lamp. Leaning down, he gave Kyle a quick peck on the forehead, his large hand lingering on his cheek for a moment. "How are you feeling?"

Kyle shrugged a little, leaning into Craig's hand and kissing the palm softly.

"It hurts," he said, voice subdued and docile. "But I'll be okay."

"I'm sure you will be," Craig replied, pulling away and sliding open the drawer of the bedside table. He methodically pulled out peroxide, cotton balls, and antibiotic cream, as well as bandages and gauze. "Really, this is pretty tame, all things considered. I still can't believe you got into a stranger's car, Kyle. You're just asking for trouble. I would've come to get you."

"I know but I didn't know you were home," Kyle said, softly, wincing a little as Craig dragged a peroxide-saturated cotton ball across his knee; the wounds bubbling up slightly. "And I was just so focused on making sure I made it back on time...I guess I wasn't thinking straight."

"Hmm." Craig's eyebrows narrowed as he continued to attend to Kyle, first with the stinging peroxide and then by dabbing small amounts of the cream over his knees, its coolness providing much needed comfort. Finally, he wrapped his knees with layers of gauze, Kyle's eyes following the movement of the bandages as Craig wound it round and round.

"There," he murmured, patting Kyle's knees softly and dropping a kiss on top of each of them. "Doesn't that feel better?" He grinned at Kyle, almost appearing boyish.

Kyle nodded his head and managed to smile back, a sickening feeling welling in his belly for a number of reasons. He always felt weird during these sessions, the aftermath of the punishment, when Craig came back to himself and cared for Kyle so tenderly. He always seemed so happy while doing it, almost like he was in his element, and Kyle had to wonder if Craig didn't get off on putting him back together after systematically attempting to break him down. The other thing that disturbed him was how much he actually enjoyed being doted on by his husband like this, the little kisses, the gentle hands, the soft, kind eyes....

"You're calling out of work tomorrow, right?" Craig suddenly asked, putting away the first aid supplies in Kyle's bedside table. They had started keeping them there, always at hand, about a year or so after they'd moved in; just in case. "There's no way you can walk around all day with your knees like that."

The sickening sensation intensified in Kyle's belly when Craig said this, but for a much different reason. He knew he had to tread carefully, lest he suffer through round two. There had been nights where Craig had punished him up to five or more times, and he just didn't have it in him to endure such a trial.

"I-I actually still wanted to go," he said, meekly; eyes drifting away so he didn't have to see how his husband's face changed when he heard Kyle's response. "Wendy's really cool about me kind of staying in one place when I'm not...feeling well." He winced at the words, supremely disturbed that his employer had to make long standing concessions due to his many physical limitations.

Craig was silent for awhile, the only sound in the room the classical music playing softly in the background; another Chopin nocturne. Kyle's stomach clenched and he hurriedly sat up, biting back a groan when he knelt in front of Craig; knees aching terribly. Craig just stared at him, eyes faraway and inscrutable as he watched Kyle, still sitting on the floor next to the bed.

"But I'll do whatever you want me to do," Kyle said, reaching out his arms and wrapping them around Craig's neck. Usually affection helped to appease his husband, the more intimacy the better; it seemed to somewhat gentle him, as did outright capitulation. "Just don't be mad, okay?"

Craig sighed and wound his arms around Kyle's waist, pulling him close as he lay his head against his shoulder. Kyle could feel warm lips being pressed against his neck.

"I'm not mad, Kyle," Craig murmured, continuing to languidly kiss him. "I was just worried, you know? I saw you getting out of a stranger's truck and I was terrified. They could've taken you away from me, they could've -"

He stopped, hugging Kyle even closer.

"Just promise me you won't do that again, okay? If you need a ride, just call me. If I'm not in the middle of a procedure, I'll pick up; I promise. Hell, even if I'm with a patient, I'll step out of the room and take your call. Do you understand?"

Kyle just nodded, sinking into Craig's affections and concern, desperately wishing it could be like this always. Whenever his husband was so loving he could forget about the dark basement, could forgive him absolutely anything. Once again, he had to wonder how Craig could be such an enigma to him; so kind on the one hand and so monstrous on the other...he just never knew what to expect.

"I'll have to drive you," Craig said, still kissing along Kyle's throat, nipping teeth making him gasp lightly. "I wonder what's wrong with your car. It just wouldn't start?"

Kyle shook his head, easing off of his aching knees and away from Craig's embrace. He expected this to annoy his husband but Craig just draped his hands on Kyle's waist, pressing slightly.

"I think it's the battery," he said.

"Did you leave the lights on again?" Craig groaned, rolling his eyes. He reached up and rubbed Kyle's hair, tousling his curls. "When are you going to learn, baby? And why would you try to walk home when it was so hot today, you know you don't handle the heat very well."

I didn't want to piss you off.

"I panicked," Kyle replied, simply. It was partially the truth, at any rate.

"Why didn't you take your medication?" Craig asked, cocking a brow. "You have Klonopin, just for that very reason." He sighed. "Maybe you should just stop working. I've noticed it's not helping with your stress levels at all."

Kyle reached out and pressed his hands to Craig's chest before he could stop himself, his eyes wide.

"No, no," he said. "I'm fine, I promise. Please, don't make me quit, okay? I need that job, I need to go there everyday, I need -"

I need to feel somewhat normal sometimes.

Craig regarded him with suspicion for a moment, but then he softened a little; the ice in his eyes melting. He took one of Kyle's hands in his own and kissed it softly.

"I get it," he said. "You want to feel like you're contributing, don't you? Kyle, don't you realize just being here and taking care of things, of me, is doing more than enough? It's all I've ever wanted from the person I love." He looked at Kyle, his eyes darkening back into the remoteness again; briefly.

"Doesn't that make you happy, Kyle? Taking care of me?"

Kyle could only pray that his husband didn't notice the minute tremors beginning to quake his flesh, but he kept his voice steady when he answered:

"Of course it does, Craig," he practically whispered, looking down at his hands. "You're right, I just want to feel like I'm giving something back to you...you've already given me so much; more than I deserve."

Softly, Craig placed a finger under Kyle's chin and tipped his head back, forcing him to meet his gaze. Thankfully, he was smiling.

"You're so sweet and good," he murmured, leaning forward and kissing Kyle's cheeks. "That's why I got you a surprise."

"Surprise?"

Craig nodded, looking overwhelmingly pleased with himself.

"Well, I remembered how much you wanted to see Hamilton, so I got us tickets to go see it in Denver next month. What do you think? Does that make you happy, too?"

He waited, face awash in boyish joy; looking so young and innocent it made Kyle's heart ache. He bit his lip, trying to stop it from trembling.

"Yes, very happy," Kyle said, smiling genuinely now. How could he help himself when Craig was being so sweet? "You didn't have to do that, Craig."

"I know," Craig replied, coming to lay on the bed and pulling Kyle down against his chest; settling his head right over his steadily beating heart. He ran his hand through Kyle's curls slowly. "But I wanted to. Besides, it's been awhile since we've gone away. I thought we could stay at a hotel, too. A really nice place."

"That'd be nice." Kyle laid his hand flat against Craig's taut skin, almost mustering up a modicum of desire. If his husband stayed like this, he might want to make love that night, though his husband preferred rougher, darker thrills; pain and gasping breaths, handcuffs flashing and Kyle begging.

"What's your favorite song again? I can never remember," Craig said, voice hushed.

Helpless, Kyle thought, but he didn't want Craig to know that. It was too personal.

"Satisfied," he said, sinking into the sound of his husband's whooshing heartbeats, flush against his ear; the wild scents of his shower gel practically putting Kyle to sleep.

"Sing a little for me," Craig said, winding a curl around his finger. "You have the cutest voice."

"No, I don't," Kyle said, flushing hotly. He always felt shy when Craig put him on the spot like this.

There was a sharp tug on his curl and Kyle knew Craig wasn't really giving him an option. He cleared his throat and began to sing softly, feeling foolish and exposed.

"A toast to the groom,
To the bride!
From your sister
Who is always by your side
To your union
And the hope that you provide
May you always...
Be satisfied."

 "See? So cute," Craig said, grinning while continuing to stroke Kyle's curls; softly now. Kyle flushed hotter at the compliment, though he couldn't help being a little pleased, too. He always was when his husband paid him a compliment, though he wasn't appreciative of being forced to perform at a whim.

"That raises a good question," Craig continued, stroking a hand down Kyle's back and slipping his finger under the waistband of his boxer briefs.

"Hmm?" Kyle asked, raising his head a little to stare at his husband, though he was acutely, painfully aware of Craig's fingers working his boxers down. He gritted his teeth.

"Are you?"

Now his boxer briefs were slipping over his hips, and he wanted to curl up but he didn't dare. Instead, he tried to stay focused on what Craig was asking him, though he was confused.

"Am I what?"

"Satisfied?" Craig smirked, gripping Kyle's backside, squeezing roughly and making him yelp.

For a moment, Kyle forgot himself, taken aback at Craig's question as well as his strong fingers pressing into his still-tender flesh; old bruises still healing from his last spanking. Oh, that's right, he'd accidentally burned one of his husband's shirts when he was ironing. Craig had laughed when he'd turned Kyle over his knee, had thought he was being playful, but it had hurt, it had hurt so badly -

"W-what kind of question is that?" Kyle gasped as Craig flipped him onto his back, yanking his boxer briefs all the way down and tossing them over the side of the bed. Craig stared at him in a coldly clinical fashion for a moment, almost like Kyle was a patient and he was deciding where he should make his first incision.

"A valid one," he replied, reaching over to his bedside table and sliding the drawer open. He rooted around and after a moment produced a set of handcuffs. Slipping them around Kyle's wrist, he pulled his arm over his head, wrapped the cuffs around a slat in the headboard, then fastened the other cuff around Kyle's free arm. When he was done, Kyle's arms were pinned above his head, immobilizing him.

"Now," Craig said, drifting a finger down Kyle's bare, narrow chest. "Answer the question, baby."

"Satisfied," Kyle breathed, closing his eyes because he couldn't bear to look at his husband any longer. He'd been so sweet, so tender, but whenever the handcuffs came out, Kyle's mind went to the basement, and now he was scrambling for his garden; desperate for perfumed winds and ocean skies.

"I can already tell I'm losing you, Kyle," Craig said, leaning down and kissing Kyle's throat and down over his clavicle, skilled, surgeon's fingers gripping a delicate hip and tightening; eliciting a small cry from the captive trying to will himself away. "Now answer the fucking question before I lose my temper."

With that, Craig bit down on Kyle's nipple, making him shriek and arch up from the bed, terror arresting him even as fine threads of arousal wound through his blood.

"Yes! Yes!" He screamed, when Craig bit down on the opposite bit of erect flesh, strong teeth clamping down and making Kyle pant through the agony.

"Yes, what?" Craig asked, kissing down along Kyle's abdomen; his fingers were still gripping Kyle's hips and holding him still.

"I-I'm satisfied! Satisfied!" Kyle practically cried, tears already building as he threw his head back, Craig laughing and keeping him in place easily.

"There was that so hard?" He asked, wrapping his hand around Kyle's cock, an erection growing that filled him with caustic shame. "Hmm, look what else is hard. You kinky minx, Kyle; I'm so glad you like it rough."

No, I don't...right? Do I actually like this? How crazy am I?

"Are you going to lay back and think of England while I fuck your brains out, baby?" Craig asked, getting between Kyle's legs and spreading his thighs.

No, Kyle thought, turning his head against the pillow and already beginning to drift.

I'm going to go to my garden.

*******

Dear diary, (cont.)

It's 3 am and the moon is right outside my window, practically resting against the glass. It's so pretty I can almost forget about the pain, but not completely.

Craig held me so tenderly after we...made love...fucked. 

We fucked, diary. Craig hasn't made love to me in so long, but he still has the capability of being so soft, I swear. He even got me tickets to see Hamilton, and I know he doesn't give a crap about that show; he did that just for me.

For me.

I'm sitting here and I'm still drifting, diary. It always takes me awhile to break away from the nocturnes and the garden, but I'm coming around. Craig is fast asleep and I thank God that he's a deep sleeper. Usually, once he's out, he's out. I should be out, too, but I struggle against the weariness. Craig even watches me as I take my Ambien, makes sure I swallow it...I'm surprised he doesn't rub my throat to ease the pill down, like you would a feisty cat or dog. I'm so tired but I'm fighting, diary. I'm always fighting.

Craig is always chastising me for not taking my anxiety meds, but I don't want to be doped up. I don't want to be in the fog all the time. I'm starting to think Craig would prefer I always be in the fog, then I'd be more pliable; easier.

But I'm already easy, aren't I? I don't protest him the way I used to. I used to be so strong...I used to stand up to him...I used to fucking say something in my own defense.

When did it all change, diary? Do you know? What was the tipping point? I can't pinpoint the moment it all changed, and I can only figure that it was the culmination of events. I let things slide a few times and eventually it became easier to let everything slide, right? Isn't that how these things usually work? You look away for a moment and when you finally wake up everything's changed, and usually not for the better.

I used to be so passionate, diary. I never let anyone mistreat me, I always tried to do the right thing, for myself and everyone else.

But Craig changed all that. He kind of...seeped into me like a poison, like heroin, and the highs he could make me feel outweighed the pitfalls, you know what I mean?

God, this is what I get for getting drunk with him at Stan's wedding reception. He just looked so lonely and dejected (handsome, too) sitting there by himself, Tweek nowhere in sight.

Oh, that's right. We don't talk about Tweek. We haven't talked about him in years. That's dangerous territory; the killing floor.

But I remember sitting down next to him, already pretty tipsy, and just talking to him, you know? At first I kind of wanted to fuck with him because he'd always been such a prick in school, but he was different somehow. He explained how he was studying to be a doctor and I just felt so -

Helpless.

Yes, helpless. I still feel that way, albeit for a much different reason.

And he suddenly wanted to know everything about me too, diary. It was crazy! He sat there and drank glass after glass of champagne and asked me all about my actuarial exams and college and just....life. He wanted to know all about my life. I can't say that I fell in that moment, but the alcohol and the wedding and seeing Stan finally get hitched to Wendy, well, I guess it put me in a vulnerable place, and I was -

Helpless.

Before I knew it, I was back in Craig's hotel room and we were kissing and he wanted to fuck make love, but I told him no. I couldn't do that with him, with anyone, until I was absolutely ready. I was a virgin.

Craig was my first. He's been my only. Can you believe that?

But he didn't pressure me, diary; not that night. That wouldn't come until later. No, that first night we just lay in bed watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone and drinking those tiny bottles of booze in the little fridge...he played with my hair and he kept asking me about myself. It was nice, diary. I felt safe. I felt -

I'm not saying it again. You know how I felt.

Hold on, I think I heard something. I think Craig's calling for me. I have to go.

(This has certainly been a night of abrupt entries, but I can't let Craig find me; not with you.)

Good night,

Your Kyle

PS: Maybe I should name you Kenny? Haha, just kidding. The Ambien is kicking in and it makes me so loopy...I'm surprised I was able to write anything!

PPS: Maybe your name should be Helpless? Nahhh.

Chapter Text

The sky was dark this morning
When I raised my head
I stood at the window
Darkness was my bane

Suddenly a sunbeam arch

Thrilled me to my weary heart
It was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen

I knew I had to keep my love

Keep my love alive
Keep my love keep my love alive

  -Heart, Love Alive


Dear diary,

Sorry, love, still no name ideas. You know, you could help me out...it is your name, after all. Oh, lord, when am I going to break this habit I have of personifying you? Probably never, let's be honest. You're my best friend, aren't you? Possibly the only real one because I can actually be 100% honest with you, and isn't that what true friendship is all about?

Anyway, the birds woke me this morning around 6. They were so loud, diary, and I knew they were little buntings. They're so fluffy and cute but god they're so fucking loud. They cut through my brain when they chatter, almost like the nocturnes. They nest in my head and then I can't even think about going back to sleep.

I wasn't sleeping very well anyway. My sleep is usually pretty disrupted, all things considered. Nightmares and such. My teeth are constantly falling out in my dreams, or I pull on them and they get longer and longer and longer. I've heard that those sorts of dreams are a byproduct of stress and feeling like your life is out of control, but I beg to differ. My life is completely in control, and that's part of the problem.

Craig did call out for me last night, diary, but he was asleep when he did it. He sleeps heavily but he's prone to night terrors himself, though we never talk about them. Usually he holds me in a death grip while we sleep, but last night I was able to slip away and come meet with you. I sat next to the large windows in the living room and watched the moon pass behind the clouds, and I'm doing the same thing now; though the moon has gone to sleep and the sun has taken its place. I like the way the sun catches the clouds on fire, burning them up like red tissue paper...it's all quite romantic.

I suppose I'm in a romantic mood this morning because I went and visited the garden before I decided to write in you. I'm still feeling very sore and a little dazed, my knees are throbbing and it hurts to walk, but when I went out to see the roses I began to feel better. I like to stand among the bushes and just get lost, feeling the wind pass through and scatter the petals, ruffling my hair. The roses smell like the garden I go to in my brain when Craig is being savage. It's odd, you wouldn't think the ocean and roses would go together, but it's perfect when it's inside my head. We all have secret worlds inside our brains, don't we, diary?

I've been keeping the garden for as long as we've lived in this house. At first, I didn't think I could handle it, but Craig wanted a garden, diary; he wanted roses. I told him I've never been good at keeping plants alive - I even managed to kill a cactus I brought back from a trip to Arizona! But he insisted, and when Craig insists upon something, I comply. We started with a few bushes on the west side of the house, damask and cabbage roses, pink and fluttering and very intimidating. They were expensive, and I knew that Craig would be angry if they died, so I obsessed over them.

Over time, tending to the roses became less of a chore and more of a pleasure, so I added more bushes; yellow sunsprites and Ingrid Bergman tea roses. Every morning I try to get up early and take care of them, weeding and pruning and watering. I like seeing the roses in the morning most of all, when the dew is clinging to them and they're opening to take in their first drink of the sun, which glows on them and makes them shine.

I sound horribly whimsical right now, don't I? That's what being in this house does to you, diary. This is what being with Craig has done to me. He changed dramatically when he left Colorado for the east coast to go to medical school and finish his residency. It's like he had a brief taste of elegance, of the finer things, and he's been preoccupied with recreating it here in this small mountain town; and in me. I'm an ornament to him just like anything else, and I must be perfect.

But I'm far from perfect, diary. You know that, I know that. I'm sure Craig knows it too, why else would he go to the trouble of creating the basement? It's almost like his own personal operating room. I'd describe it to you but I'm sure you'd only vomit if you had the faculties with which to do so.

Anyway, the Craig I had come to know as a child all but disappeared when we became adults. He was sophisticated, refined, almost like he shed his childhood persona like a snake would shed its skin. Now he wants to listen to classical music and drink cognac instead of rocking out to the Raging Pussies and throwing back Pabst Blue Ribbon. I guess being around other successful doctors and their wealthy families, seeing what they had and what he lacked, put a hunger in his blood. I was not aware of this when I sat down next to him at Stan's wedding reception, diary.

It would seem that along with this drive for sophistication came a need to have things just so, too. Craig was always kind of the controlling sort, but now his rules and dictations are the cornerstone of our lives. Let me explain, okay? I'll start with the single red rose I put in a specific crystal vase every morning.

That started as soon as we were married, even before I had the garden. You see, Craig proposed to me with roses which I found terribly sweet but also slightly odd. Sometimes Craig has a habit of treating me like a woman, which isn't a bad thing, mind you; I love women. I mean, I don't want to sleep with them, of course, but my mother raised me to respect them. But, diary, I'm not a woman, clearly. I don't think Craig has really gotten the memo about that, because he really enjoys feminizing me. Does that make any sense? No? Well, I guess we'll just have to push onward.

So, like I said, Craig proposed to me during a summer night in Baltimore, right after he'd been offered a job in Hell's Pass and we'd decided to move back to Colorado, to our roots. He took me out to a beautiful dinner at a place called the Rusty Scupper, which overlooks the Inner Harbor, a bustling place full of shops and a giant clipper ship resting in the green (horribly polluted, I'm sure) waters. Well, in the midst of golden candlelight and my eyes being full of stars (night had just fallen and the view was spectacular, diary), Craig gets down on one knee, and a server comes out with this huge bouquet of red roses and settles them in my arms, and then, then -

God, I want to cry every time I think about this story, diary. It was so sweet, it was so perfect...how often do you get to say that about a memory?

Craig pulled out this little black box and snapped it open, revealing this lovely, understated ring (I came to find out later it was platinum and of course, very expensive) and I can remember the candlelight being caught in his eyes, and for that moment they looked so open, so pure, so -

Alive. You know what I mean? I almost felt like I could see all the way into his heart, and then he asked me to marry him with very little fuss. He didn't make some grand speech or anything, but I was touched, you know?

When I finally stopped crying, I said yes, diary.. He stood and kissed me as I held onto those red roses, and now he wants to see a red rose every morning. It's his small way of recreating that moment for himself, when I became his; when he -

No, I'm not going to ruin this story by being cynical. I actually think it's pretty sweet, don't you? See? Craig can be nice when he wants to be. In fact, he's far nicer than I give him credit for, diary, but I have a habit of putting the bad times in you more than the good, but I suppose that's just human nature, isn't it?

Oh, god. Look at the time...it's nearly 7 and I still have to bathe and get breakfast prepared in time to wake up Craig. And then he's driving me to work today, which I'm sure will be hell on earth just fine, so...best get moving.

Always and forever,

Your Kyle

PS: It's fitting that Craig would love flowers that are studded with thorns, now that I think of it. I have a habit of catching my fingers on their spikes and Craig loves bandaging me up. Are you surprised? I'm not.

PPS: There I go being negative again. Really, when will I learn?

PPPS: Should your name be Rose? I think that's rather sweet. Hmm...

********

"It's unusual for you to take a bath in the morning," Craig said, coming into the bathroom where Kyle was in the process of rinsing out his hair. He sat on the edge of the tub and watched, eyes still heavy with sleep and his hair mussed. After a moment, he reached out and drifted a finger along Kyle's exposed shoulder, dabbing at a bit of froth.

Kyle's entire body tensed when his husband walked in, but when he saw how tender Craig was being, he allowed himself to relax somewhat. His reasoning for taking a bath was quite simple: it hurt to stand up for very long. His knees were raw and puffy, and he hadn't wanted to deal with taking a shower. He of course didn't say this, or else Craig would've had ample reason to forbid him from going to work.

"I'm sorry," he said, picking up a sponge and starting to wash his front. "Did the water running wake you up? I should've taken a bath in the guest room, -"

"Stop being silly," Craig interrupted, taking the sponge from him and beginning to gently wash Kyle's back. "Lean forward a little."

Obediently, Kyle complied and almost sighed as the warm water cascaded over his neck and shoulders. The sweet smell of apples wafted around them, coupled with vague splashes of spice. Craig preferred that he smell a certain way, so he always chose Kyle's body washes and products for him. He didn't like anything floral, opting for fruitier scents, almost like he wanted to eat Kyle alive.

"You're up early," Kyle murmured, shivering a little when he felt Craig's hand settling on his bare back; large and strong and full of so many capabilities, both good and bad. "I don't want you to be tired. You can go back to sleep for a bit while I make breakfast."

Craig leaned over and brushed a kiss against Kyle's temple, lingering for a moment and seeming to breathe in his freshly-cleaned scent.

"Let's spend the morning together," he replied, pulling away and wringing out the sponge. "Are you done in here?"

Kyle nodded, beginning to rise, water sluicing over him. Craig watched him with what Kyle considered famished eyes, the morning sunlight pouring over them both from the skylight above. He wanted to cover himself in that moment but he didn't dare, knowing that his husband liked to see him, all of him; whenever he wanted. Kyle's body was a book that was always meant to remain open, Craig choosing to close it when and if he saw fit. He usually didn't.

"They're healing nicely," Craig commented, passing a finger over ghostly bruises on Kyle's abdomen and thighs, byproducts of punishments Kyle couldn't even recall anymore. There were scars on his back but of course he couldn't see what those looked like, and he wasn't about to try finding them in the mirror. Craig's hand strayed to Kyle's wrist and he lifted his arm, appraising it.

"You'll have to wear long sleeves today. And," he studied Kyle's knees, the multitude of tiny cuts. "These don't look too bad, actually."

Kyle nodded, watching as Craig lifted a towel from the counter and began to dry him off, buffing his skin softly. Glancing down, he looked at his wrists as well and saw the raw marks from the handcuffs, red and pink and almost resembling burns.

"You'll wear your green shirt, I think," Craig said, helping Kyle step from the tub and leading him into the bedroom. "With your tan slacks. What do you think?"

Kyle replied by wordlessly going to the closet and pulling out the articles of clothing Craig described; holding them up for him to see.

"Yes, exactly. Put them on."

Kyle complied, slipping on his boxer briefs, pants, and shirt while Craig watched him, almost like he was observing a play. Or an autopsy. Coming over, he adjusted Kyle's collar and kissed his forehead.

"I love seeing you in green," he said, grinning. He twiddled one of Kyle's moist curls. "It goes so well with your hair."

Kyle looked down at the floor, Craig's fingers still working their way through his hair. He knew that this was how Craig showed his affection, by controlling every little aspect of his husband's life, but it became almost unbearable at times. Kyle often associated his husband's attentions to ongoing suffocation, every day his air was cut off a little more.

"Aren't you going to dress me?" Craig teased, though Kyle knew he meant it. Immediately, he went to the closet but stopped, peering back at Craig who was watching him.

"Are you seeing patients today at your office, or are you -"

"You should know my schedule by now, Kyle."

Kyle winced. He thought he knew Craig's schedule, but it had been a little erratic lately; he just didn't want to make a mistake.

"You have a case this morning, don't you?" He asked, tensing and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"A bypass," Craig replied, dryly. "Triple."

"Right, a bypass," Kyle muttered, turning to the closet and grabbing his husband's scrubs from the shelf. Turning, he brought them over to Craig and held them out, beginning to tremble slightly.

Craig was silent for a moment, just looking at Kyle in that clinical way he had. Then, abruptly, he smiled.

"Perfect, thank you," he said, reaching out and taking the scrubs. He cocked a brow. "What about my coat?"

Kyle flinched a little and ran back to the closet, lifting Craig's white lab coat from a hanger and bringing it back; "Craig Tucker, MD" prominent on the fabric, with "Cardiology" underneath, all in blue stitching.

"All pressed and ready to go, wonderful," Craig praised him, making Kyle flush slightly. He couldn't help it when his husband complimented him, it was almost like a sedative seeping into his blood, calming him.

Kyle sat on the edge of the bed and watched his husband dress, marveling once again at how well Craig Tucker had turned out. He'd shot up during high school, having reached his final height of 6'3, and while he was gangling and somewhat awkward back then, he'd grown into himself in the ensuing years. Now he possessed a lean strength that Kyle had to admit he found appealing, hardened and shaped by running and weightlifting. Craig would never admit it, but he was rather vain about his appearance, meticulous about getting a haircut every six weeks, his sleek, black hair cut short on the sides but longer on top, swept off of his forehead. He also had a habit of letting some stubble grow in between shaving, but Kyle liked it; it made him look like a panther, almost; rugged but refined.

His eyes lingered on his husband's bicep as he pulled his scrub pants on, on the 'K' etched there, tattooed very shortly after they'd gotten married. Kyle peered down at the 'C' he had tattooed on his ankle, the place that his husband had chosen because he thought it would be cute. Kyle had thought it a tad feminine, but he didn't argue. He never argued if he could help it.

"How do I look?" Craig asked, shrugging on his lab coat and looking to Kyle for his approval. Kyle smiled softly, feeling affection for Craig in his doctor's garb, adoring the success he'd made of himself even if he couldn't understand all of the pieces that made up his personality.

"Wonderful," Kyle said, honestly. He'd always found Craig attractive, there was no denying that. It was his actions that made him take pause. Sometimes it was hard to separate one from the other, especially when his husband was looking at him so openly and bathed in the light of a new morning. At times like this, it was almost like the basement had never existed, could never possibly exist.

"You haven't told me you love me yet today," Craig chastised, playfully; a wry smile quirking his lips. "You know that isn't very nice."

"My apologies," Kyle laughed, coming over and wrapping his arms around Craig's waist.

"I love you, Craig."

******

"Is this one of your Ingrid Bergman's?" Craig asked, fingering the lovely red rose in the cut-glass crystal vase. He had just finished up his plate of eggs and turkey bacon, staying to linger over his perfectly made cup of coffee. He glanced at Kyle, who was hurriedly washing up the breakfast dishes, catching his eye.

"Yes, it is," Kyle replied, lifting the coffee pot and going over to the table. Without being asked, he poured some more into Craig's cup. "Hold on, I'll get the cream and sugar for you."

"Thanks, love," Craig said, crossing his legs and smiling as he watched Kyle mill about the kitchen, the diligent little hausfrau. He was quiet for a moment as Kyle came back with the cream and sugar, doctoring Craig's coffee and stirring it a little for him. Craig lifted the mug to his mouth and drank deeply, smacking his lips a little when he drew the cup away.

"Perfect," he grinned before pausing for a moment. He picked up his paper and glanced at it before setting it back down, his eyes sliding to Kyle though he didn't turn his head; tone conversational when he spoke next. "I just don't understand why you insist on going to work everyday when you don't have to. That's always bothered me, you know?"

Kyle groaned inwardly, having not expected this line of discussion so suddenly. He kept his face passive though.

"I like having something to do," he said, carefully. He began loading the dishwasher.

"You have plenty to do," Craig said, taking another sip of coffee. "Taking care of the house, tending to the roses." He brushed a finger over the red rose again then glanced back at Kyle.

"That should be enough for you."

Now they were treading into dangerous territory. Kyle made a mental note to watch every word that passed his lips like his life depended on it; oftentimes, it did.

Why must our discussions always turn into minefields?

"The thing is, I don't work that many hours, Craig, so..." he trailed off, groping for something to say, something that wouldn't lead to the basement. Kyle took a deep breath, mustering up a little gumption.

"I feel like I can handle having a part-time job and taking care of us."

Taking care of you.

Craig's eyes narrowed slightly, which immediately put Kyle on edge, but he didn't look especially angry yet. Clearing his throat, Kyle tried to appeal to his husband's better nature.

"Besides," he continued, closing up the dishwasher and starting it. "I get lonely being by myself, you know? This place is so big and sometimes it just feels so..."

Suffocating. Stifling. Terrifying. Like it's eating me alive.

"....quiet."

"Quiet," Craig said, running his finger along the rim of his mug, eyes drifting away. "Lonely." He cut his eyes back to Kyle, and he was taken aback at the remoteness, the sterile quality of them; it was like viewing a planet turning in empty, dark space. He stood from his place, slowly. Coming over to Kyle, Craig backed him up against the counter.

"What are you lonely for, Kyle?" Craig asked, looking down at him with his dead eyes, leaning forward and placing his hands on either side of Kyle, locking him in so he couldn't move away. "Another guy? Is that it?"

"N-no, of course not," Kyle stammered, gazing up at him with a small animal fear, body already beginning to tremble. Clearly, he'd said the wrong thing. "I just meant -"

"I give you so much," Craig said, almost like Kyle hadn't been speaking in the first place. "So much." He looked around, taking in the grandeur, the opulence of their surroundings, then glanced back at Kyle. "Why isn't this enough for you, Kyle? Huh?"

"Craig, you know -"

"Quiet," Craig said, and it was almost like he'd placed a finger against Kyle's lips. "Now, I want to know something, and I want you to tell me the truth. The complete truth, not just parts of it. Do you understand?"

Kyle nodded, eyes wide with growing fear; heart pounding and palms sweating. Craig was getting into his murderous element, the quiet anger filling him up like a poisoned reservoir; altering him.

"Have you been unfaithful to me?"

Kyle opened his mouth but Craig gave him a look, a look that plainly said to keep quiet.

"I don't just mean have you let another guy fuck you, Kyle, because I know you'll never be the one doing the screwing," Craig continued, calmly. "No, I mean have you thought about stepping out, have you talked to someone...have you even fucking considered it. That's what I'm talking about. Tell me."

Kyle stared up at him, not knowing where this was coming from but also knowing at the same time. For all of Craig's confidence and strength, he was also vastly insecure when it came to anything related to Kyle, and he'd never been able to figure out why. He could only figure that it had to do with Tweek, who'd done something years ago that put some of the poison in Craig's blood, though they'd never gone into the details. All at once, Kyle could only think of the laugh lines around Kenny's blue eyes and the tattoos winding around his arms, and then his mind felt like a jumbled mess, utter chaos gripping him in its bloody fist.

Does he know? Kyle thought frantically, reaching back and gripping at the counter to keep himself from falling. He has to know I got a ride from Kenny, right? Why else would he be questioning me like this? But if he knew he would've taken me into the basement already. I wouldn't even be able to stand up today.

"Silence speaks volumes, doesn't it?" Craig mused, still staring at Kyle with his surgeon's eyes, methodical and cold.

"I-I'm just not sure how to answer because I haven't done anything, so I'm..." Kyle stammered, looking down and feeling the tears start to collect, hot as they burned his eyes. He looked up, silently pleading for his husband's understanding.

"I've never even considered being unfaithful to you, Craig. Never. I've always tried to show you how much I love you." Kyle could feel himself breaking now, the stress and the tension building until he thought he would shatter. "I don't know how to make you believe me. I don't even know if I can."

Kyle stared at Craig, not caring that he was begging with his eyes, with his whole being, for him to be kind; to believe him. It was the truth, after all. He'd only accepted the ride from Kenny because he'd been pushed to the wall, it wasn't as if he harbored any ideas of escape or falling into someone else's arms. At least, he didn't think he did, but the heart and mind were a vast forested tangle; who knew what secrets existed he couldn't even conceive of?

Thankfully, Craig softened at these words, and the relief Kyle felt bordered on being overwhelming, causing him to sag against the counter; nearly feeling boneless. His husband must have noticed and he smirked, wrapping his arms around Kyle and pulling him close.

"You seem tense," he commented, nuzzling against Kyle's hair. "I don't know why you're always so on edge, love, but you do have medication for that. Why don't you take something before we leave?"

Relief made Kyle foolish and he didn't automatically go to retrieve his bottle of Klonopin from his bag. He laughed instead.

"Right, so I can fall asleep as soon as I get there? I'm sure Wendy would love that."

Craig's arms tightened, making Kyle squeak softly, heartbeat rising steadily. What he'd said could certainly be misconstrued as mouthing off, but that hadn't been his intention.

"I don't give a fuck what Wendy would like," Craig said, holding Kyle tightly. It made him think of when they were in bed at night, the way Craig would wind his arms around him until it felt like chains holding him down. "I care about you, Kyle. You're my focus, not her, and I think it would behoove you to take your medication."

"You're right, Craig. I'm sorry," Kyle said, softly. He hated the dead quality that stole into his voice when he surrendered but it couldn't be helped.

"Unless you want to stay home," Craig continued, letting him go and staring down into Kyle's face. His eyes were coming back to themselves, no longer cold objects orbiting far beyond the earth. "I can go either way but I think you know what my preference is."

"I-I'll take my medication," Kyle replied, slowly going to retrieve his bag, feeling for his diary tucked safely away in its secret pocket on the side. Pulling the Klonopin bottle out, he opened it and pulled one tiny blue pill out. He slipped it into his mouth and swallowed it dry;  he'd become an expert over the years. Who even needed water anymore?

Craig nodded, smiling, then checked his phone.

"Time to skedaddle," he said, warming up almost immediately. Rapid mood shifts were a hallmark of his personality. "Are you ready, babe?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Kyle sighed, pulling his messenger bag onto his shoulder.

*******

A Schubert serenade was still wafting through Kyle's brain when he and Craig walked into the gallery shortly thereafter. He'd been surprised when his husband opted for something other than Chopin while they rode in the car, but he wasn't complaining. Trips to the basement very rarely involved Schubert.

"Well, at least there wasn't anything wrong with your car that a little jump wouldn't fix," Craig said, his tone light and playful. He was close on Kyle's heels, looking around at the hushed gallery still in the process of coming to life.

"Kyle, good morning!" Wendy said, coming out of the back and smiling warmly, a smile that faltered slightly when she saw Craig. "Oh, Craig. Hello..."

"Morning," Craig replied curtly. Kyle could practically feel the ice coating his husband's voice. There was that changing on a dime quality again he loved to adopt at a whim.

Wendy glanced at Kyle, violet eyes watchful.

"I was worried about you," she said, coming closer, her boots striking the floor with little clacks. "I noticed your car was still here when I left. Is everything okay? I would've called, but -"

She looked at Craig for a moment, a tiny muscle in her jaw jumping slightly.

"I didn't want to bother you," she finished.

Kyle didn't reply, waiting for his husband's inevitable handling of the inquiry.

"Everything's fine, Wendy. The battery died but it's been handled." His tone still had the ice in it which didn't surprise Kyle. Craig had never been overly fond of Wendy.

"How did you get home, though?" Wendy continued, flying in the face of decorum and openly choosing to ignore Craig's abruptness. She had nothing to fear, after all; the basement wasn't a part of her life. "Did you call a cab? I would've driven you, Kyle."

"He tried to walk," Craig said, simply. "But he managed to get a ride with someone who wasn't a serial killer, so." He placed a hand on Kyle's shoulder, almost making him wince but he caught himself just in time.

"All's well that ends well, right?" Craig said, but now the ice was disappearing. Even he could play nice on occasion, especially if it would shut someone up; especially a nosy busybody like Wendy. Kyle knew he couldn't stand her prying.

"I suppose," Wendy replied, slowly; carefully. "You're okay, right, Kyle?"

Kyle nodded, Craig's fingers tightening on his shoulder. It was in that moment that his knees openly throbbed, and he grimaced slightly; the Klonopin winding through his blood like a hazy ribbon. He just wanted to sit down and be alone for awhile.

"Wow, did you get some new stuff?" Craig suddenly asked, taking his hand away from Kyle's shoulder and walking across the room to the photographs adorning the far wall. Kyle and Wendy exchanged a look as Craig appraised the pictures, hands jammed into the pockets of his lab coat.

"These are actually pretty good," he said, leaning forward to peer at a cityscape flush with the newly rising sun. "Nice balance, very clear."

Wendy sighed softly, so softly that only Kyle could hear. He knew that Wendy found Craig very trying, and it also annoyed her that Craig didn't really have a lot of respect for the arts unless he could dissect what he was appraising. She walked over and studied the photographs as well, the sun falling through the windows and highlighting her rich, dark hair, her tailored white blouse and black pencil skirt.

"I'm very fond of this collection," she said, a finger drifting over a picture of mesas silhouetted against a dramatic starscape. "They make me want to travel."

"Yeah, like that's ever going to happen," Craig replied, straightening up and glancing at her in his impassive way. "Good luck traveling with a kid."

Wendy bristled openly at this comment, but she remained composed.

"Children grow up, Craig."

"Is that so? Will wonders never cease," he said, glancing back at Kyle and rolling his eyes. He was clearly done conversing with Wendy and wanted his husband to intervene. Kyle came over after setting his bag on the counter, trying to hide the way he was limping.

"Which one is your favorite?" Craig asked, wrapping his arm around Kyle's shoulders and pulling him close.

Kyle flushed, once again hating how his husband enjoyed putting him on the spot, even when it came to simple things. He was silent, trying to decide whether or not he should tell the truth about the lighthouse. It just seemed too personal, something he wanted to keep to himself, much like his diary.

"Maybe I can guess," Craig mused, kissing Kyle's temple. "Would you like that?"

Kyle glanced at Wendy, who was watching this exchange with raised eyebrows, a mixture of interest and confusion clouding her features. Finally, he nodded his head slowly.

"Yes, please," he murmured. "Try to guess."

"Well, I'd like to think I know you pretty well, Kyle, so," Craig said, looking around at the array of photos. "Let me see." He tapped his chin with his finger, ruminating. Finally, he snapped his fingers. "That one."

Kyle almost shivered when Craig zeroed in on the lighthouse, despising the way his husband could crawl inside of his brain and see everything, but also admiring him for his uncanny ability to sniff out the truth. Still, he didn't want Craig to know how much he admired the lighthouse. He couldn't say why but it was just how he felt. He dared to contradict his husband.

"Nope," he said, laughing lightly. "Try again."

Craig was silent for a time, the atmosphere shifting enough that Kyle just wanted to fade away, almost wishing he'd just told the truth. All at once, the little bell over the door chimed to indicate that someone was entering the gallery. They all turned to see an older woman standing there, her blue rinsed curls stark in the morning sunlight. Kyle could hear Craig groan slightly, could feel him stiffen up beside him.

"Mrs. Goldfein," he said, his voice smacking of false enthusiasm; obvious to Kyle but not to anyone else. Craig finally relinquished his hold on Kyle's shoulders and went to the woman, offering his hand; the older woman shook it gratefully. "How's Harry doing?" he asked, smiling widely. Kyle almost shuddered to see it, that masquerade of a grin.

"Oh, Dr. Tucker, you're just the person I wanted to see," Mrs. Goldfein said, holding onto Craig's hand. "It's so funny I should run into you here, isn't it? I was just stopping in to check on the painting I was having framed and here you are! It's a small world, isn't it?"

"It certainly is," Craig smiled, his eyes crinkling up warmly. He almost looked like a completely different person. "And you know, I was just thinking about you and Mr. Goldfein just the other day. You must bring me more of that peanut brittle you make. Only eating it once a year is killing me."

"Oh, you're so naughty, Dr. Tucker," the older woman laughed, blushing slightly. "But you know I can't refuse you. I'll bring some by the next time Harry's in the office. But I still needed to speak with you about his Plavix. I have some concerns."

"Well, by all means, I'm all ears, Mrs. Goldfein," Craig replied, taking her arm. "Accompany me to my car and I'll answer any questions you have." He turned back to Kyle, and while he was smiling it didn't reach his eyes.

"I'll be home a little later than usual tonight, love," he said, grey eyes delving into Kyle's; a tundra of secrets and concealed rage. "I'll bring sushi. How does that sound?"

"Perfect," Kyle said, almost reaching the end of his endurance, what with his knees screaming at him and the Klonopin throwing him off-balance. "That'd be great."

"Wonderful," Craig smirked, still holding Mrs. Goldfein's arm. "Be good."

Kyle could feel himself blanching, but he held onto his smile and waved, feeling Wendy's eyes boring into the side of his skull.

"Oh, you two are just adorable," Mrs. Goldfein gushed as Craig opened the door for her. "I was just telling Harry the other day that...."

Her voice faded away as the door shut behind them, and for a moment Kyle watched the pair head across the parking lot toward Craig's black Jaguar. He glanced at Wendy and saw that she was watching as well, arms crossed and a tiny frown on her face.

"You know, he reminds me of those dolls," she said, almost like she was talking to herself.

"Dolls?" Kyle asked, turning away and trying to walk as normally as possible to his corner; Wendy in tow.

"Yeah, you know, those Russian nesting dolls?" She leaned on the counter as Kyle settled himself on his stool, taking a deep breath. "The ones you pop open and a smaller one appears and so on and so forth?"

"Matryoshka," Kyle said, idly. He'd often had the same thought, so he knew exactly what she meant.

"Why do you even know that?" Wendy laughed, resting her face in her hand.

Kyle shrugged, pulling out Mrs. Goldfein's painting so he could show it to her when she wandered back into the gallery.

"Why wouldn't I?" He asked.

"That's fair, but still, you know what I mean, right? It's like he has a face for every occasion," Wendy said, tapping her finger on the counter.

"Don't we all?" Kyle replied, not really wanting to broach this subject, not with the Klonopin settling into his blood and making him drowsy.

Wendy was silent for awhile, watching Kyle as he worked, her finger continuously tapping on the counter and putting him on edge.

"Was he right?" She finally asked.

"Hmm?"

"About the picture," she said, her finger finally stopping its incessant tapping. "Was he right?"

"Wendy, I have a lot of work to do and you know how picky Mrs. Goldfein is, so..." Kyle trailed off, just wanting some quiet, some respite. He had to deal with Craig living inside of his head, he would appreciate just a little distance in that moment, if only for a little while.

"Right, yeah. Sorry, I was being nosy again, wasn't I?" Wendy straightened up and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, smiling softly.

Kyle didn't say anything, only gave her a tiny quirk of an eyebrow; that seemed to say enough. She laughed.

"Alright, well, I'll leave you to it, huh? I'll be in my office making a few calls. Tell Butters to come see me when he gets in, okay?"

"Sure," Kyle said, listening to the clacking of her heels as she retreated into her inner sanctum. Finally, there was silence and he could relax a little. Not completely, of course, but enough. Idly, he reached over and flicked on the radio, classic rock oozing out of the speakers and filling up the morning. Kyle smiled.

"Fuck Schubert and Chopin," he murmured, settling down to work. "Give me Heart any day."

*******

"Nice day, huh?"

Kyle glanced up from the sandwich he'd been eating, pulling one of his earbuds out while his eyes adjusted to the sunshine making it so the person speaking to him was in silhouette. He was disoriented for a moment, pulled from his thoughts. He'd been readying himself to write, his diary sitting on his knee and waiting.

"What?" He asked, eyes finally cooperating and bringing the owner of the voice into focus. "Kenny?" Hurriedly, he pulled out his other earbud and set his phone aside, brushing some crumbs from his lap. "What are you doing here?"

Kenny laughed and tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looking very much the same as he did the day before: tight t-shirt hugging his torso, dark jeans, and cowboy boots on his feet. Kyle's eyes lingered on his strong arms for a moment, cataloguing the tattoos etched into Kenny's tanned skin. For some reason he wanted to be able to remember them.

"You told me I could drop by, remember?" He glanced at Kyle's sandwich. "Whatcha eating? Can I have some?"

Kyle scrambled to remember what he was eating, the food tasting like sawdust in his mouth. Food had kind of lost its flavor over the years, as far as he was concerned. At this point he was just eating to survive.

"Black forest ham and Gouda on artisan something or other," he said, holding it up. "I'm not really hungry, anyway. Go ahead."

Kenny just stared at him, the wind ruffling his hair as it passed through, summer sunshine pressing down and shadowing his eyes slightly. Kyle had opted to sit outside of the gallery to eat his lunch that day, enjoying the sun and the quiet as Wendy entertained some clients and Butters playing gopher for her.

"Since when do you eat froufrou bullshit like that, man?" Kenny finally asked, reaching down and taking the sandwich anyway. He took a quick bite, not even bothering to avoid Kyle's bite marks. He chewed for a moment then made a face.

"Dude, you need some actual fucking food." He handed the sandwich back and rubbed his hands together. "No wonder you're so damn skinny."

Kyle looked down at himself, surprised. He'd always been on the slight side but he didn't think he looked any skinnier than usual. Although, how would he know? He usually avoided his full reflection, choosing instead to keep tabs on his weight based on how his clothes felt. Craig preferred him thin, so he was ever vigilant. Did it look bad, though?

"I can already tell you're overthinking things," Kenny said, shaking his head a little. "Did you want to head up the street a ways, maybe get a hot dog or something? You know, real food?"

Kyle had to laugh now.

"Hot dogs aren't food in any sense of the word, Kenny, but sure." He stood, straightening his clothes and jamming his uneaten lunch and diary into his bag; slipping his phone and earbuds inside as well. He stopped for a moment, though, looking around the street warily. What if someone saw? What if Craig found out he'd eaten lunch with Kenny?

"You okay?" Kenny asked, eyeing him closely.

"Of course, I was just getting my bearings," Kyle replied, ignoring the stutter in his voice. He fell into step beside Kenny as they walked up the street, passing little shops as they went. "Sorry, I guess I'm kind of in my head today."

"You've been in your head for the last twenty plus years," Kenny said, brushing hair out of his eyes. "I didn't expect that to change so don't apologize."

Kyle frowned, hardly able to make heads or tails of Kenny's words. Since when was he so observant?

"What'd you want?" Kenny asked, stopping in front of a little dive on the corner. "I'm buying."

"You don't need to do that," Kyle sighed, pulling out his wallet.

"Put that shit away, please," Kenny said, pulling a toothpick out of his pocket and placing it between his teeth. "I invited you so I'm buying, end of story. This place," he continued, pointing to the little restaurant, "has fucking amazing hot dogs. Best kielbasa I've ever had, even better than the ones you get from those little carts in New York City. What do you think?"

Kyle put his wallet away slowly, watching the way Kenny worked the toothpick between his teeth, almost feeling hypnotized.

"You've been to New York City?"

"I've been to a lot of places, Kyle, but that isn't the point right now," Kenny said, reaching up and twisting the toothpick. "The point is food. Man food. Food that'll put some meat on your scrawny ass."

"K-kielbasa sounds fine, sure," Kyle stammered, suddenly blushing though he couldn't have said why. He tucked an errant curl behind his ear and looked at the pavement; tiny specks of shiny rock glimmering in the sun. "Whatever you think is best, that's what I'll have."

"How very demure of you," Kenny said, dryly. "You wait here, okay? I'll be right back."

It wasn't too long before Kenny returned with the food and two cups as well, filled to the brim with sweet, tangy lemonade. They sat in the sunshine at a little picnic table and Kyle couldn't believe how wonderful the kielbasa tasted, almost groaning when the delicious lemonade poured over his tongue, practically tasting of summertime.

"This is amazing," he breathed, taking another big bite, peppers and spice mixing together in his mouth along with the smoky meat. "And this place is right down the street? Why haven't I eaten here before?"

"You're too busy eating artisan bullshit," Kenny snickered, taking a long sip of lemonade and sighing a little. "Food doesn't have to be expensive to taste good, Kyle. You should know that."

Kyle shrugged, toying with his straw for a moment before taking another drink; the liquid resting on his tongue and becoming so vivid he couldn't believe it. It was almost like his taste buds were waking up after being put under a spell.

"Try telling Craig that, won't you?" He said before he really thought about it, regretting his words immediately.

"I had a feeling Tucker was the driving force behind the pretension," Kenny commented, popping the last bit of his kielbasa into his mouth; eyes squinting against the sunshine. "He was always a small town boy with big city aspirations, huh?"

Kyle chose to ignore that question, noting again the seeming dislike that registered in Kenny's tone when it came to Craig.

"When were you in New York?" He asked, finishing off his lemonade and immediately wanting more.

"Here, have some of mine," Kenny said, passing the cup over; almost like he could read Kyle's mind. He watched closely as Kyle took a long sip, blue eyes still squinted but otherwise amused, almost appearing fond. 

"To answer your question, I've been to New York tons of times, Kyle," he continued, resting his arms on the table, muscles bunching up under his skin. Kyle watched them but his eyes flitted away quickly.

"Did you like it?" Kyle asked, trying to make conversation but feeling like he was failing abysmally. He hadn't had to make this sort of small talk in so long. "I didn't really care for it beyond the Broadway District, but I'm just a tourist. What do I know?"

"Welcome to my life, sunshine," Kenny laughed, muscles flexing slightly; making his tattoos jump. "I'm a tourist everywhere I go. I don't have any roots, except for here, of course."

"Why did you come back?" Kyle asked, taking another small sip of Kenny's lemonade. Vaguely, he was aware that his lips were resting in the same place Kenny's had, and this knowledge kind of thrilled him.

"You're just full of questions, aren't you?" Kenny asked, waving the cup away when Kyle tried to pass it back. "By the way, I hated New York. Too loud. Too big."

"Sorry, I'm just -" Kyle broke off, not sure what to say. There he went, overstepping his boundaries and becoming as nosy as Wendy.

"I'm not used to you apologizing this much, dude," Kenny mused. "It's kind of weird. When did you start being so," he thought a moment, arms continuing to flex and distracting Kyle terribly, "careful? You're so careful. Did you notice that?"

"I think most people would call it polite," Kyle replied, arching a brow. "And since when is that a crime?"

"See, there's the Kyle I remember," Kenny said, nodding his head. "I knew he was in there somewhere, behind the Ralph Lauren and Gouda cheese."

Kyle couldn't help but laugh, gazing at Kenny with irritation mixed with affection.

"Were you always this much of a smart ass?" He asked, playing with the empty lemonade cup and feeling weirdly shy. "Or am I just lucky?"

"I have a feeling you could use some luck," Kenny countered, becoming slightly serious but it cleared quickly; almost like the sun had been covered by clouds that were swiftly burned away. "I'm back in town to look after my mom," he added, suddenly. "She's on dialysis these days and she doesn't get around too great, so I'm stepping in to help. Karen can't do it all by herself, not with all the kids she up and had."

"God, I haven't spoken to Karen in ages," Kyle said, getting lost in his thoughts for a moment. He was also slightly disturbed by Kenny's comment about him using some luck. What the fuck did that even mean?

"You haven't really spoken to anyone in ages, dude," Kenny said.

Kyle glanced at him, eyes sharpening.

"What does that mean?"

Kenny shrugged a little, and now Kyle was becoming exceedingly annoyed with how preoccupied he was with his biceps. Craig lifted but his arms didn't look nearly as big, as refined. He was still strong, though; too strong.

"I was talking to Wendy and she said you've really kept to yourself in the last couple of years," he replied. "Ever since you married Tucker."

"Wendy likes to talk, doesn't she?" Kyle muttered, looking down at his hands. They'd begun to tremble.

"Stan said the same thing," Kenny said in an offhand manner. "I got to see Molly, by the way. She's just the cutest little thing, isn't she? He and Wendy sure make cute babies."

"I have to go," Kyle said, standing suddenly and wincing before he could hide it, his knees throbbing from the sudden movement. He sat quickly, rubbing at the aching flesh.

"Hey, are you okay?" Kenny asked, concern threading through his voice as he stood and came around the table. He reached out a hand but Kyle flinched away, warding him off.

"I'm fine," he explained, voice faltering slightly. "I was working out and a I pulled a muscle in my leg. No big deal."

"Are you sure? I mean, I could -"

"No," Kyle cut him off, standing again and gritting his teeth through the pain. "I'm fine, okay? Besides, I need to get back to work. I've been gone too long."

Kenny watched him for a moment, summer sunlight making him glow but also washing away the years until he looked like a boy of 17 again.

"Is it okay if I stop by again sometime? You seem kind of pissed off."

"Do what you want," Kyle replied, beginning to walk back toward the gallery. "You know where to find me."

"I'll take that as an emphatic yes," Kenny called behind him, some of his old bravado leaking into his voice and making Kyle smile against his will.

Reaching up, he flipped Kenny off as he continued to walk away, the sunshine dazzling his eyes as the flavors of lemonade rested on his tongue, sweet and tart all at the same time.

*****

"Aren't you hungry?"

Kyle glanced up from his plate of sushi, a glass of chardonnay languishing in his hand; forgotten.

"Huh?" He asked, pushing away thoughts of summer sunlight and blue eyes, tattoos settled into tan, almost golden, skin.

Through the candlelight, Craig was watching him, hair still damp from the shower he'd taken after coming home. He'd handed the bags of sushi to Kyle before kissing him softly on the mouth, whispering that he'd missed him. Kyle had smiled and leaned into the kiss, his mind a quagmire he couldn't even hope to understand.

"You've barely touched your food," Craig said, studying Kyle's plate; shiitake mushroom rolls still laying in neat lines, salmon avocado untouched as well. "Don't you like it?"

Kyle took a slow sip of the wine and grimaced at its bitterness, suddenly wanting lemonade more than anything in the world. Who cared if this stuff was fifty bucks a bottle? It didn't taste good in the slightest. He didn't say that of course. He arranged his features into a mask of extreme docility, just wanting to go along to get along.

"I'm a little tired, I guess," he offered by way of explanation, setting down his glass of wine and picking up a roll. He carefully dipped it in some soy sauce then brought it to his lips. Kyle popped it in his mouth and chewed slowly, smiling brightly at his husband. He swallowed, suddenly recalling the flavors of spicy sausage and peppers vividly. Peasant food, Craig would call it.

"It's delicious, though," he added quickly, reaching out and taking a hold of Craig's hand; squeezing it lightly. "Thank you for picking it up. I know you're tired after being with patients all day."

"Tell me about it," Craig replied, taking a long sip of his own wine, setting the glass down with a clunk. "Fucking Gladys Goldfein, she never shuts up. Wanting to fucking talk about her husband's medication before I've even had a chance to wake up, and then a goddamn bypass with incompetent -"

He stopped, picking up a roasted eel roll, a quail egg balanced precariously on the top. He slid it into his mouth and chewed, eyes closing with pleasure. They popped open a moment later, registering faint anger and something else, an emotion Kyle couldn't pinpoint but it made him nervous anyway.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Kyle asked, obediently picking up another shiitake mushroom roll and dunking it in soy sauce. It wouldn't do not to clear his plate, not after Craig had gone to so much trouble.

"Yeah, you can get Wendy to back the fuck off and mind her own business," Craig snapped, pouring more wine in his glass. "She's always fucking sticking her nose into stuff that doesn't concern her, mainly anything having to do with you. I'm sick of it."

Kyle sighed inwardly. So, this was how their evening was going to go. Unbidden, thoughts of Kenny's casual banter and lazy drawl filled his mind, and it was almost like he was back at that rickety picnic table, the summer wind flush against his back.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, eyes cast downward. This was not the first time they'd had this conversation. "I'll talk to her, Craig. She means well, you know."

"You always say that," Craig replied, voice becoming dangerous. "You're always defending her, Kyle, when really you should be defending me; your husband. Unless you forgot."

Kyle looked up at him, heart thumping in his chest as sweat collected on his brow. They were quickly straying into basement territory.

"Of course I didn't forget," he stammered. "I defend you all the time, I -"

"So, you need to defend me, huh?" Craig cut him off, voice softening but still dangerous. "What are you telling these people, huh?"

"N-nothing, Craig, I just meant," Kyle broke off, groping for words; desperately backpedaling. "What do you want me to say here? I never tell them anything bad about you. You know that."

"I don't know anything that goes on in that place," Craig sneered, sitting back and swirling the wine in his glass. "That's part of the problem, isn't it? Anything could be going on over there and I'd never fucking know. Do you think that sits well with me?"

"Please, honey," Kyle pleaded, standing and coming around the table slowly. Suddenly, he didn't want to be still. He could never stay in one place when his anxiety spiked. "I don't want to fight with you, okay? We're having a nice dinner...we've having a nice evening...let's just keep it this way."

"Nice," Craig repeated, gazing up at Kyle for a moment. Slowly, he set his wine glass down again and reached up to take a hold of Kyle's arm, yanking him onto his lap; eliciting a small yelp from the redhead.

"You think this is nice, being here with me?" He asked, bringing his hand up to settle on the back of Kyle's head.

"Of course I do," Kyle said, not resisting when Craig pulled him forward, kissing his mouth roughly.

"Know what else would be nice?" Craig breathed, breaking away and gazing at Kyle with predator's eyes, almost resembling a wolf feasting on a lamb. "Fucking you over this table. That would be perfect, actually. Don't you think?"

Kyle couldn't help but whimper, still feeling sore from the rough treatment he'd suffered the night before at the hands of his husband. Craig didn't seem to notice his hesitation, though. Rather, he stood, dragging Kyle with him.

"It'll be okay, baby," he said, pulling down Kyle's pants and instructing him to bend over the cherry wood table, pushing some of their plates out of the way. "This is exactly what we need, don't you think? It'll be nice."

"Craig, please, I can't -"

Kyle stopped when he felt Craig violently thrust into him, pushing him up against the table and making the glassware shiver, the candlelight wavering with every movement. He clenched his hands into trembling fists as his husband brutally fucked him, the sushi forgotten in the onslaught of Craig's voracious sexual appetite.

"How do you manage to feel better every single time?" Craig gasped out, voice ragged as he slammed into Kyle's aching form. Suddenly, he brought down a hand and slapped Kyle's ass, making him shriek. He laughed, leaning down and kissing Kyle's lower back, making him shiver like he was drenched in cold rainfall.

Kyle didn't answer, face becoming slack as Craig continued to consume him, eyes nearly fading out as he watched the trembling candlelight. All at once, all he could see in his mind's eye were Kenny's tattoos, and as he shut his eyes he tried to remember each of them in turn, black ink leaking across sun-dappled, golden skin; becoming lost in an endless summer day tasting of lemonade.

******

It was after 3 am when Kyle was finally able to break away from Craig, his soft breaths wafting into the quiet bedroom and fading away. He hadn't taken him into the basement but the handcuffs had come out again, as did the belt, among other articles Craig used when he was in a mood. Kyle had endured it all, only crying once when the buckle caught his skin, red oozing up through the bruised whiteness.

He didn't know why Craig was in a savage place, but Kyle hadn't fought. He'd suffered through the brutalization and the aftermath, Craig holding him closely and bathing him in the large master bathroom, the skylight resplendent with stars as warm water washed over aching flesh. He hadn't apologized, of course, because in his mind he hadn't done anything wrong, but Kyle didn't mind; Craig's careful, healing fingers represented an apology that was never going to come, and he could live with that.

"I love you so much," he'd said as he tucked Kyle into bed, having administered Ibuprofen and peroxide swabs, patching Kyle up and kissing him on the forehead. Craig had lay beside Kyle and held him close, running his fingers through moist, red curls until Kyle had finally fallen asleep, fitful dreams seeping into his brain like subtle, gentle poison.

Kyle decided he didn't want to write in his diary that night, opting instead to steal through the dark corridors of the massive house until he found himself in his studio, the large painting he'd been working on waiting for him in silent repose. He stood before it for a moment, just studying the canvas as the night wheeled around him, caustic stars shining against the panes of glass; the moon a coin tossed into the endless fountain of the sky.

He was dressed just in his boxer briefs and nothing else, white bandages adorning his knees and antibiotic cream smeared across the wounds screaming through his back. Kyle could feel the waiting bruises pulsing on his hips from where Craig had gripped him, winced at the throbbing in his backside and all through his bones. His body was a war zone as he regarded the painting with shaded, weary eyes. At first he didn't think he'd continue with the canvas he'd covered in red paint, but now he realized that he identified with it. Weren't they almost one and the same?

"I know exactly what I'm going to call you," he murmured as he picked up another can of paint, a bright crimson that would contrast nicely with the dark red already splashed over the white. Drenching a large paintbrush with it, he began to slash at the canvas like the brush was a knife and he was stabbing someone incessantly; ceaselessly.

Rage, he thought, savagely; the anger building in him until he thought it was consuming him like a fire.

I'm going to call you 'Rage.'

Chapter Text

Dear Rose,

Okay, I'm already rethinking the name, how about you? It just doesn't look right. Then again, I'm probably overthinking things, which I have a habit of doing, but you knew that already, didn't you? This entire diary is the end result of my overthinking, isn't it?

Things became ugly tonight, Rose. Not as ugly as they could've been, but ugly nonetheless. I don't know what happened, honestly. We were sitting there, eating the lovely dinner that Craig brought home, and then he...he....

Can you tell me something, Rose? How do you know when you're having a breakdown? Are you actually cognizant of it while it's happening, or does it happen while you aren't paying attention? If you have the presence of mind to notice it, does that mean you aren't having a breakdown at all? Do you have to become completely insane for it to occur, or can it happen in stages? I'm asking for a friend, naturally.

There's been a slight development, a change, if you will, Rose. How can I explain it? After Craig finished with me tonight and I fell asleep with him holding me, I woke up feeling less broken and more...what's the word I'm looking for here? No, of course you wouldn't know. You only know what I do, right?

Rose, I woke up feeling angry. So angry I could barely breathe, I could hardly see straight. I went to my studio and I attacked my painting like I was murdering someone, tearing another person apart with my bare hands, with a knife, with every weapon I could imagine; dream up. I could taste the blood in my mouth and I liked it, I wanted more.

I still want more. But it isn't just the violence I thirst for, Rose.

I barely sound like myself right now, huh? Who is this person writing such vitriol, such caustic ugliness? Surely it can't be me, not sheltered, meek, woebegone Kyle; the prisoner locked up in the castle and forgotten by the world. How is it I could go to sleep as one person and wake up as someone completely different? Or is this angry, vengeful person the truth and the weak willed, retiring Kyle the lie? Maybe I'm both.

Maybe I'm nothing.

I feel like nothing, Rose. Did you know that? I'm a ghost, a lost boy, a forgotten loose end tucked away in a junk drawer. I'm the button or key that someone finds but can't think of a use for.

I went into the garden tonight and it was so strange. I'm used to seeing the roses in daylight, but they're just as captivating by moonlight. They just seem different, quieter, almost poisonous. The thorns are more sinister under the stars, and I managed to catch my fingers on them, and the pain was the same as it is during the day.

But, still, there was something frightening about leaving the house at night. And the thing is, I wasn't afraid of the dark or the potential for coming across a stranger, all the million other things one can fear after the sun goes down. I was terrified that Craig would find me and punish me for daring to get out of bed and stray outside, because of course he would worry and wonder and come looking for me.

But, why? Why am I afraid of something like that? You know you've completely lost control of your life when you're almost too terrified to walk outside of your own house after midnight; unafraid of the monsters but fearing the one who's supposed to love you.

I stood under the stars and just breathed in the night air, Rose. You should've seen the sky tonight, it was almost like I'd never seen it before; like I was seeing it with new, opened eyes. I'm sure I made a pretty picture, standing under the Milky Way streaking, no tearing, across the blue ceiling, there among the roses and just wondering where the fuck I can go from here. What are my options here, and how do I live with this growing rage? I looked to the sky and the stars sure as hell didn't have any answers; silent and cold and silver. It's like they weren't just hanging in the sky, they were dripping across it.

I almost wish something had found me in the garden, something awful, something with claws and red eyes that would tear out my heart before Craig could find me again. But that's crazy, isn't it? Sure, the wolf is always at the door but that doesn't mean I have to invite it inside...although I'm pretty sure I've already done that, haven't I?

What am I even talking about right now, Rose? Anything at all?

I'm almost certain I won't be able to go to work tomorrow. Not with the bruises on my face, not with the way my hands continue to shake. I feel like I'm always shaking, like I have a constant chill that sits in my bones. Although, I did notice it disappear for awhile recently, Rose. Think: lemonade and a picnic table...arms covered with tattoos....

Now I know I'm losing my mind. How could my brain even take a turn like that? Just because someone showed me some kindness? Am I that starved, that terribly hungry? I think it's just seeing Kenny again, you know? His face and voice just pull me backward through the years, to better times, when anything seemed possible.

You know, this is off topic but I just remembered something I hadn't thought about in ages.

Kenny didn't come to our wedding, Rose. He sent me a letter (not even an email, an actual letter!) apologizing about being unable to attend, that his job had called him away and he wouldn't be back in time, and he sent a check that Craig rolled his eyes at, but I've always held onto the letter. I have it in a stack of papers in the study, things I haven't gone through in ages. I remember being sad about him not being there, I'd actually wanted him to be a groomsman (Stan was best man, of course), but I understood, you know? I was also so caught up in getting ready and being in love that I didn't dwell on it.

But now it feels different and I don't know why. Maybe it's because I know he doesn't like Craig. It isn't even a suspicion, Rose. I can feel it as surely as I can feel the bruises on my skin, the cuts from the roses on my hands. I'm overthinking things again, aren't I? Besides, Craig doesn't like him either...but Craig doesn't really care for most people.

Which brings up another point, Rose. Craig borders on being a misanthrope so I often wonder why he's so preoccupied with me. It's like he sank his teeth into me almost 6 years ago and he hasn't let go since...I don't think he ever will. Honestly, I don't think he can. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only thing keeping him from becoming completely -

But he isn't crazy, Rose. I am. I have to be, right? I looked across the garden tonight, and I could see the iron gates and I wondered, why? Why can't I just walk across the grass and open those gates and leave? What's holding me here? Love?

I do love Craig; I do. I have to. If I didn't than none of this would even have a point, right? Does anything even have a point, though? Kenny seemed like he had a point, Rose; a purpose. I mean, he didn't explicitly state it. Hell, I don't even know what he does for a living...it was just there in his demeanor, the way he spoke. It all seemed so healthy.

God, I hope he doesn't go to the gallery tomorrow to see me, because I won't be there. I don't think he'd worry or anything, but I don't want him to waste his time.

I can see dawn now, Rose. I need to pull myself together so I can see to Craig; he'll be expecting me.

I wouldn't want to disappoint him.

Always and forever,

Your Kyle

PS: I'm still not feeling your name. Sorry, sunshine...this is actually important to me, so it needs to be perfect. At least I have a say over something, small though it may be.

PPS: God, I'm pathetic. Forgive me.

********

"More coffee?" Kyle asked, holding up the pot for Craig to see; hand still trembling slightly.

Craig nodded, pushing his cup in Kyle's direction and watching closely as the dark brown stream flowed into the mug; its fragrance drifting around them both and filling up the chilled kitchen with a modicum of warmth. Kyle almost flinched when Craig reached up and brushed a hand over his cheek.

"They aren't as bad as I thought they would be," he commented. Pulling away, he waited for Kyle to add the raw sugar and cream to the steaming coffee; he smiled lightly, tenderly.

Kyle put the pot back and came to the table, carrying his own mug. He was amazed that he hadn't spilled anything yet, what with how shaky he still felt. The trembles always persisted for awhile after Craig punished him and today was no exception. He sat at the table and placed his cup down, taking care not to disturb Craig's sprawling newspaper. Reaching up, he rested a hand against his slightly swollen cheek.

"No, they aren't. I was surprised," Kyle replied, voice soft. "I don't think I'll even have a black eye this time, so, there's that."

"Did you already call work?" Craig picked up the newspaper and turned to the sports' section.

Feeling the faint stirring of anger, Kyle bit the inside of his cheek and reached out to draw the red rose toward him; perfect and sweet-smelling in the crystal vase. Wordlessly, he began to caress the petals, admiring just how velvety they were.

"Kyle?" Craig asked, lowering the paper slightly; Kyle watched in his peripheral, not looking at his husband directly.

"Yes, I called," Kyle whispered, somehow managing to keep the bitterness from his voice. He'd spoken to Wendy briefly on the phone; stomach upset, no big deal. She'd told him she hoped he felt better and that she'd (hopefully) see him on Monday. Have a nice weekend, she'd added at the end; Kyle had had to bite back crazy laughter at the notion.

"Good." The paper went back up, Craig's large hands gripping it lightly. Kyle didn't care about any of it, didn't follow any teams or scores. He pretended to care for Craig's sake.

"What are your plans for today now that you have some much-needed free time?"

Kyle finally looked directly at his husband, the flame of anger intensifying as he began to worry the rose; red petals coming off in his fingers where he shredded them. Bits of the flower began to fall to the table in confetti strips, staining his skin red to match the wounds from the thorns.

"I already took care of the garden this morning but I'll..." he trailed off, plucking off another petal and tearing it into pieces. "I might plant another bush. Spice Twice. That's what it's called."

"Hmm, that sounds nice," Craig replied, turning a page. "What color is it? Red, I hope."

Fuck your red roses, you sadistic -

"They're a pinkish orange," Kyle said, tearing another petal; the flower was starting to become noticeably leaner, its flesh littering the table. "I'm sorry, Craig. I should've gotten red but I liked the name."

"Don't apologize over something like that," Craig smiled, finally putting the paper down and gazing at Kyle with adoration until he saw the state of the rose in the crystal vase. "What are you doing?"

Kyle looked down and feigned complete shock at what he'd done to the rose, quickly beginning to gather up the petals so he could throw them away.

"I-I'm sorry," he stammered, but he wasn't; he wasn't sorry at all. For the longest time he'd loved the symbolism behind their morning red rose, but with every bruise and strike of the belt he was growing to hate the idea, the lie. "I wasn't paying attention. I'll get another one from the garden."

Reaching out, Craig took the decimated rose into his hand and stared at it, hard eyes softening slightly.

"Don't bother," he said. "The damage is done, I guess. Besides, there'll be a new one on the table tomorrow, right? We'll just start again."

These words rang through Kyle's head like a death knell, the finality of them coupled with their long-standing implications...he shuddered openly.

"Craig," he whispered, hardly believing what he intended to ask, to say. Kyle hadn't spoken out of turn in years, not like this anyway. Not wanting to be still, he scooped the petals into his hand and went to throw the remnants away; taking care to keep some distance between himself and his husband.

"Hmm?" Craig was still staring at the rose, nothing in his posture or bearing suggesting he was angry. If anything, he just seemed lost.

"Why?" Kyle asked, gripping his long shirt in his hands and crushing the fabric. "Why did you...why did you punish me last night? What did I do?"

Craig threw the rose down and pushed himself away from the table, turning to stare at Kyle with empty eyes. For a moment they resembled one of Kyle's canvases before he'd drenched it with paint.

"What kind of question is that?" Craig asked, clasping his hands together; hands capable of caring for Kyle as well as breaking him down. Hands that had reached into the chests of countless patients and repaired their hearts, even as he destroyed his husband's.

"I just need to know, Craig," Kyle replied, coming forward on bare feet. Grey shadows were falling across the kitchen floor, a summer rainstorm having started less than an hour before. Suddenly he could imagine roses drenched like fragile crepe paper, little dewdrops sliding down the green leaves; the smells of the musky earth filling him up and bringing him fleeting peace.

"I'm trying to get myself into a mental place where I can fucking do a heart transplant this morning, Kyle," Craig replied, the angry edge finally showing up in his voice and making Kyle want to retreat to safety; not that it truly existed. "It's a procedure that takes, at minimum, four fucking hours, and you want to bother me with this bullshit? Seriously?"

Ordinarily Kyle would've stepped down, would've folded, but he just couldn't this time. The rage was spurning him on, as was the ongoing confusion of why? If Craig loved him the way he said he did, then why did he hurt him? Kyle couldn't possibly be that bad, could he? He just wanted to know what he was doing wrong so he could stop, so this wouldn't continue to happen; the basement, the belt, the other shoe always preparing itself to drop.

"I-it isn't b-bullshit," he stammered, trying to even out his voice. "I always feel like you're angry with me, even when things seem like they're okay. I just need to know what I can do to make you happy so you don't have to -"

He stopped, clenching his still shaking hands into trembling fists at his sides.

"So you don't have to keep hurting me. Just tell me, Craig, and I'll do whatever you want. I promise."

Craig stood and slowly walked over to Kyle, almost appearing a stalking predator and Kyle had to admit that in a lot of ways that's exactly what he was; a wolf, a shark, a monster walking through nightmares. He stopped before him, and for a moment it seemed like he was tensing up. Kyle waited, either for a word or a strike, his breath trapped in his lungs.

But neither came, instead Craig gathered Kyle into his arms and held him close, pressing a kiss against the redhead's messy curls. All at once, Craig began swaying slightly, taking small steps around the kitchen, Kyle still nestled against him.

"Remember on our honeymoon when you tried to teach me how to dance?" He asked, laughing a little. "I'm still hopeless at it, aren't I? I was never meant to dance, Kyle; not like you, anyway. I remember watching you dance at Stan's wedding and you looked so happy...you waltzed Wendy across the floor and I couldn't take my eyes off of you. Did you know that?"

"Really? You watched me?" Kyle asked, looking up at him; falling into step as Craig danced him around the room, the cold tiles pressing against his feet. "I never knew that. Why didn't you tell me?"

Craig shrugged, holding Kyle closer and sighing a little; whether from happiness or sadness Kyle couldn't tell.

"There are a lot of things I don't know how to say, so I guess that's when I," he became quiet, tensing up in Kyle's arms. "Sometimes I feel like you're actively trying to get away from me, Kyle. You wanted to work so I let you work, you wanted a life outside of what we have together, and I allowed that, too." Becoming still, he gazed down into Kyle's eyes and he was surprised at how much sadness was there; those grey eyes that resembled a cold sea lapping a remote, out of the way beach.

"Haven't you ever felt something that was too big for you to handle? Like if you didn't act on it it would tear you apart? That's how I feel when it comes to you, and sometimes it becomes overwhelming. It's almost like I become this other person and when I come back to myself I look around and I find you crying or bleeding or..."

"In the basement," Kyle murmured, closing his eyes so the tears wouldn't start to fall. "Are you saying that you hurt me because you love me, Craig? I still don't understand."

"You have a way with words," Craig replied, brushing some hair from Kyle's eyes. "I don't, I never have. When I can't find the words I usually rely on actions. It isn't always the best way to be, but it makes sense in the moment. Sometimes it even feels right."

Kyle pushed away, eyes still closed. He gripped Craig's shirt and shook his head, not wanting to believe that the punishments stemmed from love; couldn't possibly accept that.

"Where is all of this coming from, anyway?" Craig asked, still holding onto Kyle though they'd stopped dancing. "You've never once asked me about any of this, Kyle. Do I need to be concerned?"

"Do you remember the first time you hit me, Craig? Like, really hit me?" Kyle asked, countering with a question of his own; finally opening his eyes. It was almost like he was waking up from a dark enchantment, a spell breaking apart. He couldn't say what had been the catalyst, though he had his suspicions, or maybe his brain just wouldn't allow him to disregard reality anymore.

Craig let go of him, eyes narrowing, and while they were still sad they were becoming calculating, too. For a moment, they flicked in the direction of the basement door.

"Yes, I remember," he murmured. "It was also during our honeymoon. You flirted with the waiter."

"I didn't flirt with him!" Kyle shouted. "I thanked him for being so attentive, so on top of things! I was giving him a compliment!"

"Right, a compliment," Craig sneered. "You practically gave him the key to our room. I'm surprised you didn't ask him to join us."

"So, an idle comment was enough reason to leave me covered with bruises? I had to wear a shirt into the ocean for the rest of the trip."

"That's fine with me," Craig replied, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle again; yanking him close. "I'm the only one who should be looking at your body anyway. Don't you think? Unless of course you've been letting someone else in here when I'm gone, showing them what you have to offer."

"I've never done that!" Kyle cried, trying to struggle away. "Why are you so convinced that I want to cheat on you, Craig?! I've never given you any indication that I want to leave, that I've ever been interested in anyone else!"

"That remains to be seen." Craig hugged him, swaying slightly now; humming softly in the back of his throat. "God, I wish I didn't have to leave. Suddenly I'm feeling kind of aggressive. Can you tell?"

Wincing, Kyle could feel Craig's erection resting against his naked thigh, could practically taste his husband's arousal and imminent rage. It always came back to this, this unholy fire that seemed to burn in Craig's psyche; the part of him that thirsted for Kyle's body and obedience. He also knew that this was usually the precursor for the basement, and he could hardly believe how provocative he'd been; he'd pulled the lion's tail and now he was paying for it.

"Why did you notice me at Stan's wedding?" Kyle whispered. "I'm a horrible dancer and you know it, Craig; I don't have any rhythm whatsoever." He didn't ask the questions he really wanted an answer to: why did I seek you out at Stan's wedding? Why did I sit down next to you? Why did I start all of this?

"I noticed you long before that, Kyle. Even when we were kids, but I never thought I had a chance." Craig was kissing Kyle's throat now, his hands pushing under Kyle's shirt and coming to rest on his scar-covered back.

"But you had Tweek," Kyle murmured before he could stop himself. All at once, Craig was pushing him away so hard that he collided with the counter, eliciting a pitiful yelp before falling to the floor. Looking up, he didn't have time to move away before Craig was kicking him in the stomach, making him gasp wordlessly against the pain; clutching at himself and curling into a ball.

"I told you never to mention that fucking name, Kyle," Craig seethed, reaching down and taking a hold of Kyle's shirt, yanking him up and close to his face. He shook him slightly. "What's gotten into you today? Huh? Do you want me to punish you? Do you fucking get off on it or what?"

"No, I don't," Kyle sobbed, going slack as Craig continued to throttle him. "But I know y-you do, don't you? You always have."

Abruptly, Craig dropped Kyle to the floor with a thud and he stood, glaring down at him.

"Usually I can't get enough of your fire, Kyle, but this won't do; at all. I refuse to live in a house filled with discord, so you better fucking straighten up by tonight. Do you understand?"

Kyle refused to respond, biting his lip and fighting the urge to rub his throbbing back. All at once, Craig took a hold of his hair and yanked on it, forcing Kyle to look up and regard him.

"I asked you a question," Craig said, eyes blazing. "I expect an answer. Now."

He shook him again, still holding onto Kyle's curls.

"I understand," Kyle bit out, angry tears forming in his eyes and falling.

"We seriously need to discuss that job of yours, Kyle. We need to discuss everything, don't we? I'm noticing a change in your attitude lately and honestly, I'm not thrilled about it. At all." Letting go of his hair, he caressed Kyle's cheek with so much softness it almost made him want to scream; what was the truth?! What was the lie?!

He moved away, still staring at Kyle while loosening the belt on his robe.

"I need to go take a shower and start moving or I'm going to be late," he said, rolling his eyes. "Get yourself together and take your medicine, okay? I think you need to sleep for awhile because you aren't acting like yourself. I'll be home late tonight but we'll still have time to eat dinner and have a little talk. A nice, long talk." His eyes strayed back to the basement door and Kyle began to tremble openly.

"How does that sound?"

Kyle could only nod his head, shakily beginning to collect himself before reaching up and using the counter to pull himself up. Craig went to Kyle's messenger bag on the counter and Kyle had to fight back the urge to lunge at it, not wanting him to discover his diary in the secret pocket. Instead, Craig lifted out his Klonopin and set it down next to one of Kyle's trembling hands.

"Take it," Craig instructed, beginning to turn away. "You need it."

******

The scent of Craig's body wash had barely disappeared by the time Kyle was stepping out of the house and into the mid-summer drizzle; steam rising faintly from the grass. The sky was white and grey with gathered clouds but he didn't want to stay in the house for another moment. He'd also forgone Craig's command that he take his medication and go to sleep. Kyle didn't want to be doped up, he didn't want to sleep; he wanted to be awake and out in the world.

Craig had pressed a hard kiss against Kyle's mouth before leaving for the hospital, had looked into his eyes and had almost appeared repentant, but it was temporary. Everything was temporary when it came to Craig, other than his anger, his need for control. On some level Kyle believed that Craig's love was also eternal, at least what he considered love, and its strength was just part of the problem; it was the driving force behind all of the misery.

Kyle scooped up the Twice Spice bush and carried it to the corner of the garden in need of being filled, and he lay it down carefully. Standing there in his old jeans and light t-shirt, sunglasses on and gloves on his hands, he almost felt normal for a moment. Breathing deeply, he took the scent of rainfall, grass, and turned earth into his lungs, wishing he could bottle the aroma and carry it with him always. He always derived comfort from the fruits of the earth, its quiet stillness, its strength that didn't need to be destructive in order to make a point. The earth simply was, and it was okay to just be when you stood surrounded by nature.

Getting to work, Kyle began digging a nice-sized hole, turning the soft earth over and becoming elated that his thoughts were quieting. The house was full of dead, static air and more often than not there was nothing to fill up the emptiness, but that didn't stop Kyle's thoughts from screaming at him a lot of the time. Sometimes he needed to think, to ruminate, but more often than not his thoughts turned down dark alleys and he just couldn't stomach what he stood to find. The mind was truly a dangerous neighborhood, and he just couldn't stand facing it alone.

He didn't want to think about Craig's words, his promises, of the impending trip to the basement because he knew it was coming. Craig hadn't explicitly stated it, but he knew; they both did. For a lot of people the roads of destruction led to drugs or alcohol, to self-mutilation or dangerous choices, but Kyle's road led down dank steps and into the clinical whiteness his husband had built; silver trays holding instruments that in the right hands, could heal the body, but in the basement they mended secret horrors.

Almost without thinking about it, Kyle reached up and rubbed at his back, easing the ache there as well as the ghosts of the past. No one ever saw him with his shirt off anymore (except for Craig, of course) but if they'd been able to they would have so many questions, questions he could never find the words to answer without becoming sick. Idly, he pushed thoughts of the basement away, of Craig's unsettling explanation for his behavior, and just became loss in the act of tending to the garden; hands deep in the fragrant earth. The rain continued to fall steadily, but it was bearable, providing a refreshing backdrop that smacked of renewal.

He worked until he started to notice faint hunger pangs, having not really had anything for breakfast other than coffee. Kyle usually couldn't stomach too much of anything the morning after a punishment, so by the time lunch rolled around his appetite was out in full force. Standing back, he admired the pretty Twice Spice bush, its blooms small but holding intense promise, the petals a soft orange pink almost resembling a sunset.

It's like the garden in my head; the sunset over the ocean, he mused, admiring his work. The garden I'll be visiting again before too long.

Turning, he noticed that the rain had finally abated, and he removed his gloves, throwing them down in the soft grass. He'd go inside and have a sandwich before coming back out, his eyes straying over the other rose bushes. Kyle had pruned them that morning but he really needed to attend to the weeds, which were cropping up in droves. The latest rainfall certainly wasn't going to help that situation.

He'd nearly made it to the door when he heard something, a voice calling, and he looked around; startled.

"Kyle! Over here!"

Kyle's eyes widened behind his sunglasses to see Kenny standing at the gate, waving to him. His truck was parked behind him, idling at the curb. Almost feeling like a shy, skittish animal, Kyle slowly started walking toward the gate, suddenly remembering how he'd contemplated doing that very thing the night before. Just walking to the gate and passing through, escaping. He waved the idea away, the very insanity of it. Coming close but not daring to approach the gate proper, he stopped.

"What are you doing here?" He asked, brushing curls from his forehead. Kyle hadn't felt the need to greet Kenny, not with the fear sinking into his blood and already making him feel weak.

Kenny just stared at him for a moment, dressed in a hoodie and dark jeans. Kyle almost flushed to notice that he wasn't wearing cowboy boots this time, a pair of Adidas on his feet instead. Why had he even noticed this small detail?

"You weren't at work," Kenny said, reaching up and taking a hold of the gate, almost looking like he was a prisoner in an old-fashioned jail. Kyle almost wanted to laugh, but he couldn't bring himself to. "So, I thought I'd drop by."

"I'm sick," Kyle said, simply.

"You don't look sick," Kenny countered, peering at Kyle with shrewd blue eyes. His tone wasn't combative, merely observant.

Kyle snorted, already beginning to feel annoyed - and cornered. He hated feeling cornered.

"Sorry, dude. If I could I'd throw up right in front of you, but I can't just do it on a whim."

"Wise ass," Kenny snickered, still holding onto the gate. He studied Kyle for a moment, smiling a little as the sun broke from the clouds and washed over them both; shafts of light trapping themselves in Kenny's hair and making it gleam.

"You still haven't told me what you're doing here," Kyle said, daring to come just a little bit closer. He desperately hoped the bruises on his face weren't immediately obvious. He hadn't looked that bad this morning, and Craig had even said they looked okay, but still -

"Did you want to go grab some lunch?" Kenny asked, abruptly. "I'll even let you buy this time, and you can pick the place."

Kyle was momentarily still, just mulling the suggestion over. Every rational, sane part of his brain preoccupied with self preservation told him to say no but the hungrier parts, the angry parts, told him to say yes; just go, be free for a moment. He recalled the rage he'd felt while he worked on his painting, as he stood in the nighttime garden...the fire that had become present in his blood as he questioned Craig that morning, and all at once he just wanted to throw open the gate and run. Instead, he remained in the same place, feeling the cool winds ruffling his hair.

"Really? I get to buy?" He finally asked, smirking a little.

"Sure, why not? It doesn't look like you're hurting for cash," Kenny commented, glancing behind Kyle and taking in the expansive grounds, the lavish, gigantic house.

"What an artless thing to say," Kyle frowned. "I'm surprised you'd want to eat anything that was purchased with Craig's money."

"Then we won't use his money," Kenny replied, shrugging. "We'll use yours, the money you make at the gallery."

"Fair point," Kyle murmured. "Fine, I guess that'd be okay, but I have to be home before too long, okay? I still have to -"

"Relax, Cinderella," Kenny cut him off, holding up a hand. "I'll have you home from the ball before too long, okay? Prince Charming will never even know you were gone."

That's what I'm banking on, Kyle thought, finally closing the gap between himself and the gate; tentative feet carrying him closer to Kenny.

******

"So, you like to garden?"

Kyle glanced up from his latte, the creamy tan liquid steaming fragrantly as he blew on it. Kenny was sitting across from him, elbows on the table as he rested his cheek in his hand, a cup of black coffee sitting before him; steam curling upward. They were sitting in a small cafe that Kyle was particularly fond of, the atmosphere quiet and intimate as people spoke in hushed voices. Vaguely, he was aware of Peggy Lee playing over the sound system, singing about someone's kisses being like honey and sweeter than wine.

"It passes the time," he finally said, glancing out the window. It had started to rain again, but he could tell that the sun was waiting in the wings; getting ready to shine. The raindrops slid down the glass and he watched them, placing a finger against the chilled surface.

"Passes the time, huh?" Kenny replied, taking a sip of coffee. "Aren't roses hard to grow, though? That doesn't just seem like a casual hobby."

"It's casual enough."

Kenny was quiet for a moment, taking a bite of the most rugged thing on the menu: ham and cheddar on country white bread. He chewed and swallowed, peering at Kyle with curious eyes.

"Aren't you going to take your sunglasses off?"

"Why does it matter?" Kyle sighed, picking at his salad; chicken Caesar, no croutons.

Kenny shrugged, taking another bite of his sandwich.

"I was looking forward to seeing your pretty green eyes. Is that a crime?"

Kyle blushed before he could help himself, dropping his fork and taking a tremulous sip of his latte; burning his tongue. He winced a little. Kenny laughed lightly.

"Sorry, didn't mean to catch you off guard there."

"You aren't sorry at all," Kyle replied, sitting back and crossing his arms. "You're a shameless flirt, though."

"Guilty as charged," Kenny conceded, finishing off the sandwich and licking his fingers. "But I meant it."

"I'm sure you did," Kyle muttered, picking up his fork and stabbing a piece of chicken. He brought it to his mouth and chewed slowly, eyes straying back to the window for a moment. Sighing, he finally reached up and removed his sunglasses, setting them aside. He waited with baited breath, his heartbeat picking up, for Kenny to make a comment. He'd suffered through a multitude of clueless, well-meaning comments over the years; what was one more?

"That's better," Kenny grinned, looking into Kyle's eyes and appearing genuinely pleased. "I was starting to feel like I was eating lunch with Roy Orbison." He studied Kyle for a moment. "They're even prettier when you blush. Did you know that?"

Kyle could only stare at him, completely taken aback that Kenny hadn't said something about the bruises on his face. They were obvious, weren't they? The whole fucking world could see them, why else would he be wearing sunglasses in a cafe?

"Cut the crap, Kenny," he said, gripping the table until his hands ached.

Kenny blinked, surprised.

"What?"

"I'm married, okay?" Kyle said, holding up his hand so his wedding ring was on full display. "Why are you flirting with me? Complimenting me? Why do you keep seeking me out? Huh?"

Kenny leaned forward and took a hold of Kyle's hand, the contact making him blush hotter. His finger strayed over the platinum ring, catching the weak sunlight finding its way through parted clouds. Kyle had expected his questions to make him angry, but instead he just appeared thoughtful, pensive.

"Craig Tucker," he murmured, inspecting the ring; rough hands clutching Kyle's with a surprising amount of tenderness. "I never understood that, you know; you two together."

"Is that why you didn't come to our wedding?" Kyle asked, pulling his hands away when he couldn't stand the contact anymore; couldn't handle how warm it made him feel.

"Partially, I guess, but I also had to work," Kenny replied, eyes lingering on Kyle's wedding ring. "I told you that in the letter, Kyle. What, did Craig not let you read it?"

"Of course he let me read it. What does that even mean?"

"Think about it," Kenny said.

"I am, and it still doesn't make any sense." Kyle clenched his hands around his coffee cup, staring into the liquid like he thought the answers were swirling in its depths. He wasn't used to this observant, ambiguous Kenny. Where was the goofy pot head he'd known so long ago?

"They're worried about you down at the gallery," Kenny said. "Wendy, Butters, Stan...they just want you to be okay."

"I am okay."

Kenny nodded, placing his hands flat on the table; studying them. Kyle stared at them too, admiring how tan they were, how sturdy. They appeared strong like Craig's but in a different way, calling to mind Kenny's salt of the earth personality; how he gave off the vibe that he chopped wood every morning before breakfast. The idea made Kyle smile against his will.

"What do you think of those photos you got on the wall there?" Kenny asked, still looking down at his hands. "Wendy told me you got a random shipment awhile ago, and those photos were inside."

"I love them," Kyle replied without hesitation, genuine enthusiasm leaking into his tone. He was anxious to talk with someone about the photos because he admired them so much, but he'd never been able to do that with Craig. What was the point? Craig could be indulgent but Kyle also knew he thought of the arts as being mostly derivative. Besides, his love for the photographs was so personal; there was no way he could share that with his husband, he'd just find a way to sully it, discredit it. That's why he hadn't been able to reveal his favorite when he'd been asked.

"Really?" Kenny grinned, leaning forward a little. "Which one's your favorite?"

"The lighthouse, no question," Kyle said, becoming animated; having absolutely no issue with displaying his inner-workings to his old friend. He always became excited when he talked about something that had touched him on a personal level, and the lighthouse had spoken to him; something profound waking up in his numbed mind. "It makes me want to run away somewhere, if that makes any sense. I just wonder where the picture was taken. If I knew, I'd go there." He laughed, tucking a curl behind his ear. What was he even saying?

"Les Eclaireurs," Kenny said, softly.

"What?"

"Les Eclaireurs," Kenny repeated, eyes becoming faraway. "The lighthouse at the end of the world. It's off the coast of Argentina, near the southernmost city in the world."

"How do you know that?" Kyle asked, eyes widening with surprise and secret, growing charm. Kenny just seemed to be full of surprises.

"Easy," Kenny shrugged. "I took the picture, Kyle. I took all of those pictures."

"No way," Kyle breathed, hardly able to comprehend what he was being told. Kenny, his Kenny, the perverted kid with the weird sense of humor and inability to ever take anything seriously, had taken the photographs he'd fallen in love with? The idea was too surreal for him to even make sense of it. Pushing his food away, Kyle reached out and this time he took a hold of Kenny's hands, startling him.

"Why didn't you sign them, Kenny? Why didn't you ask for payment? They're beautiful, you deserve recognition!"

Kenny looked down at Kyle's small hands gripping his own and he smiled slowly, blue eyes filling up with so much tenderness they nearly seemed to change colors.

"I think this is all the payment and recognition I need," he replied, almost appearing shy in that moment. "I was hoping you'd like them."

"I don't understand."

Kenny looked sheepish for a moment, though the soft look in his eyes didn't fade away.

"I've kept in touch with Stan for years, Kyle. I knew a long time ago that you were working at the gallery, so...I wanted to send you something."

"Those were for me? But...but you asked me where I worked. You acted like you didn't know."

"I didn't want to weird you out by letting you know I was kind of sort of keeping tabs on you. That's part of the reason I didn't sign them, but I also didn't need anyone else to know I'd taken them, you know? They're for you."

"Why didn't you just -" Kyle stopped, fading away. He was going to ask why Kenny hadn't just mailed them to his home, but he thought he already knew the answer. He shook his head, trying to take all of this information in.

"Why have you been keeping tabs on me? You didn't need to do that, Kenny."

"Stan and I disagree, Kyle," Kenny replied, drawing away and crossing his arms; his expression hardening until he almost resembled Craig when he was working himself into a rage. "We aren't blind, you know, and we aren't stupid, even if Craig would disagree."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kyle replied tremulously, standing abruptly from the table. He ignored the pain radiating through his back and stomach, not wanting to arouse Kenny's concern like last time. "I'm ready to go. I need to go. Now."

"Okay, okay. Relax," Kenny said, standing as well and holding his hands up in a placating gesture; almost like he was gentling a startled animal. "It's okay. We can go."

Hurriedly, feeling like he was almost coming out of his skin, Kyle rushed out of the cafe and over toward Kenny's truck, pulling at the handle and becoming nervous and angry when the door wouldn't open. Leaning against the truck, he covered his face with his hands and had to stop himself from crying, counting backward from ten as the Chopin nocturnes filled up his brain; convinced that everyone passing by, even Kenny, could see into his thoughts and figure out the truth; the horrors waiting there.

"Kyle, calm down," Kenny said, putting a hand on his shoulder and making him recoil. "Hey, wait! Did I hurt you? I'm sorry."

"No, no. Of course not. I'm fine. Fine," Kyle said, faintly aware that the rain had died down and the sun was shining at the same time; rainbow weather. "I just need to get in the truck, please. I don't want to be out here anymore."

"Sure, hold on." Kenny quickly unlocked the door and opened it for Kyle, who slid in and huddled in the seat, shivering slightly. Kenny went around the truck and got in behind the wheel, turning to Kyle with a look of utter compassion and confusion on his face. He held up Kyle's sunglasses. "You forgot these on the table."

"Thanks," Kyle said, softly; taking the glasses and slipping them back on, almost wishing he could disappear into the darkness. "I'm sorry I left so suddenly, I just..."

He looked down at his hands, fighting back the tears burning behind his eyes.

"I don't know," he whispered, unable to offer up a better explanation.

"Hey, Kyle. It's okay. I promise. Everything is okay. You don't need to keep apologizing to me."

"Craig said the same thing, about the stupid roses. The fucking red roses," Kyle seethed, unable to stop himself from letting out some of the bitterness. He slapped a hand over his mouth, his voice muffled when he spoke again.

"Don't listen to me. I sound crazy, don't I? I should probably take something." Fishing in his pocket, Kyle withdrew the bottle of Klonopin. Just because he'd been defiant and hadn't taken it when Craig wanted him to, didn't mean he could disobey completely. But wasn't that exactly what he was doing anyway? Being out with Kenny like this? Suddenly everything was too surreal and topsy turvy, and he was hurriedly opening the bottle and swallowing a yellow pill; the bitterness barely touching his tongue.

"He's got you taking pills?" Kenny asked, eyeing the bottle with extreme distaste. "Kyle, you don't need -"

"Don't fucking tell me what I need, Kenny! I don't need that from you, too!" Kyle suddenly yelled, almost feeling like he was coming unglued. He was just so tired of being told what to do, even by the people who meant well. He didn't need it, he didn't want it. He wanted to be free, he just wanted to -

Kyle checked the positioning of the sun, fear flooding him in a poisonous tide.

"I need to go home," he said, turning to Kenny and clutching at the front of his shirt. "Please, please just take me home!"

Kenny peered out at the sun too, which was finally breaking away from the clouds even as smatterings of rainfall fell softly.

"We've barely been out for an hour, Kyle. Just relax, it's going to be -"

"No, it isn't going to be okay! Stop saying that! You have no idea what you're talking about!" Hunching forward, all of the terror converged on Kyle at once and suddenly all he wanted was to be at home among the roses, lost in the silence and waiting for Craig to come back. Even if they went immediately to the basement, at least Kyle wouldn't feel so horribly afraid, because he'd know what to expect. Out here, with Kenny, he didn't know what was going to happen, and he hated it.

Kenny didn't speak, opting instead to settle a gentle hand on Kyle's aching back, and it was this small bit of softness that pushed Kyle over the edge. Without warning, he started to cry quietly into his hands. He wept about the pain, the fear, the unknowns...he wept over the lonely lighthouse Kenny had brought him, the years unfolding and drenched in blood and quiet desperation; he cried about it all, and once he started he couldn't stop.

"Just take me home. Please," he whispered, hating himself for his vulnerability; his weakness. In that moment, Kyle hated everything about himself.

"Okay," Kenny murmured, starting the truck; his hand never leaving Kyle's back as he continued to sob.

******

"We're here."

Kyle looked up, almost sagging with relief to see the house looming before them, the roses fluttering in the early afternoon breeze. His home had never looked so beautiful to him, and he turned to Kenny with a smile of gratitude; buoyed by the fact that Craig's car was nowhere to be seen.

"You must think I've completely lost my mind," he said, resting his hand on the door handle. "I promise I'm not always this emotional. I'm just having kind of a weird day."

Kenny studied him for a moment, his hand still lingering on Kyle's back; fingers bunching up in the material of his t-shirt.

"I don't think you've lost your mind, Kyle," he said. "I just think you're afraid."

The Klonopin was seeping into his blood now and making him loose, slightly off-kilter, and Kyle couldn't help but wave away Kenny's words.

"I'm not afraid of anything. You should know me better than that."

"I used to think I knew you pretty well," Kenny replied, taking his hand from Kyle's back and tracing a finger over his cheeks; across the bruises resting there. "But now I'm not so sure."

Kyle was tired of being serious, of focusing on the awful things in his life. Instead, he tried to move the conversation in a different direction; ignoring the questions in Kenny's eyes. He didn't want to talk about the bruises, anyway. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to pretend that they didn't exist in the first place.

"Do you take photos for a living? Like, for a magazine? Is that why you were in New York City, too?" Kyle asked, becoming excited even as his brain lapsed into the fuzzy, muted quality it assumed when Klonopin was careening through his system.

Kenny laughed lightly, touching the bruises one last time before taking his hand away; gazing at Kyle with an easygoing expression that took him to the past, when things were safe and simple.

"I do a lot of freelancing, Kyle, but yeah, I've worked for a couple magazines. National Geographic, Time, whatever. It isn't any big deal."

"It's a huge deal! Are you crazy? What you're doing with your life is amazing, man! You should be so proud," Kyle gushed, smiling openly now. "I'm proud of you. Did you know that?"

"It's all I ever could've wanted," Kenny quipped, flushing a little even though his smile grew exponentially. He almost appeared bashful, which amused Kyle to no end.

"I've got you blushing, dude," he teased, poking Kenny in the side and making him arch slightly. "Look who's shy all of a sudden."

"Who's shy?" Kenny groused, rubbing his side and blushing an even deeper shade of red.

"Will you take me to that lighthouse someday?" Kyle asked playfully, reaching out and poking Kenny again and making him yelp. "I want to see it in person."

"Hey, cut it out," Kenny said, wrapping his arms around himself so Kyle couldn't poke him in the ribs again. "Besides, you can only get there by boat."

"Is that a fact?" Kyle said, thinking of the idea and automatically falling in love with it; a lonely lighthouse perched on an island somewhere, waiting for curious onlookers to arrive at its shores. It was almost like a siren sending out its call to the universe. "The lighthouse at the end of the world," he murmured, the klonopin winding through him in chemical ribbons and rendering him pliable and sleepy. "What a lovely idea. I'm so glad you brought it to me; I never even knew it existed."

"I guess you could say I wanted to show you the world," Kenny said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking so young and suddenly unsure that Kyle could feel himself becoming even more relaxed; the feeling not even the byproduct of his anti-anxiety medication.

"How did you get to be so sweet? Huh?" He asked, reaching up and boldly pushing some of Kenny's hair off his forehead. He studied him for a moment. "Someone needs a haircut, by the way."

"Sweet? Me? Hardly," Kenny scoffed, trying to assume an air of toughness and failing terribly. "I'm a bad boy, Kyle. You know that."

"Right," Kyle replied, rolling his eyes. "Only a sensitive soul could take such beautiful pictures. I know this for a fact."

"I don't doubt it." Kenny gazed at him for a moment, and all at once Kyle found his heart pounding wildly, and suddenly the cab of the truck felt far too small. Fumbling for the door handle again, he opened it up and began to slide out.

"I should probably be going. I wanted to weed the beds and I still have to make dinner. Craig'll be home before too long, so -"

Kenny climbed out as well and came around the truck, his hands tucked in his pockets as the wind blew his hair around; leaving it a wild mess that Kyle wanted to pass his fingers through again. He ignored the impulse, chastising himself for being so reckless, even if it was just in his head.

"I'll stop by again soon. If that's okay," Kenny murmured. "Will you be at work on Monday?"

"Definitely," Kyle replied, though he couldn't be sure. Depending on Craig's temperament that evening, he had no idea what shape he was going to be in when Monday rolled around. Kenny didn't need to know that, of course. Besides, just the thought of having a visitor filled him with a raw hope that was almost painful, even though he knew on a rational level that he should be terrified. A sudden thought struck him as he gazed across the grounds, at the roses glowing under the sunshine breaking through.

"Hold on, I'll be right back," Kyle said, going to the gate and punching in the pass code. He glanced back at Kenny and grinned to see him watching him curiously. Finally, the gates parted and he ran across the grass, snagging a pair of garden shears and quickly snipping a few of his favorites, including the largest of the Spice Twice's. Coming back, he shyly held out the colorful bouquet to Kenny, waiting for him to rip into him for giving him flowers.

Instead, Kenny took them into his hands and held them so gently you'd think he was nestling a baby bird across his palms.

"I can keep these?" He asked, looking up at Kyle with admiration. "Really?"

"Well, sure. Yeah," Kyle replied, placing his hands behind his back and kicking at the ground. He smiled with pleasure, feeling warm and pleasant and safe; the sunshine striking his hair and shoulders. "Do you like them?"

"They're beautiful," Kenny said. He lifted them to his face and breathed deeply. Turning, he opened the door to his truck and laid the blooms carefully on the seat. Kyle came over to peer behind him, touched that Kenny was being so gentle with the flowers. Kenny glanced at him and before Kyle could respond, he was running his fingers through Kyle's windswept curls.

"I'll take you to Les Eclaireurs someday, by the way," he murmured. "If you really want to go."

"You promise?" Kyle asked, hardly recognizing his voice; it's soft, almost sensual quality. What was happening right now?

Suddenly, Kenny was putting his hands on Kyle's waist and pressing him up against the truck, backing him into the cab where the roses lay; their fragrance rising in a cloud around them when Kyle's weight settled against them. Kyle stared up at him with wide eyes, Kenny's own looking at him with such raw need, such open, needful intent that he almost became breathless.

"What are you doing? Kenny," Kyle said, reaching up and pressing his hand against Kenny's chest; pushing him back. He shook his head.

"I can't do this, Kenny. Please understand. Please." He looked at his old friend with beseeching eyes, fear borne in his brain from what he'd almost allowed to happen.

For a moment, only a second really, Kyle almost thought that Kenny was going to continue anyway, his hands still pressing into Kyle's skin and holding him close. Oddly enough, he didn't feel any fear of this, though a deep pervasive shame bloomed in his brain; how the knowledge of his betrayal would destroy Craig completely.

"I'm sorry, Kyle," Kenny said, pulling away and rubbing his face with his hands; relinquishing his hold on Kyle's waist. "I don't know what I was thinking."

"Don't apologize, please," Kyle replied, sliding down from the seat and looking back at the roses, trying to arrange them so they wouldn't appear so flattened down. "I'm not mad, okay? Please come back to see me."

"I'll come tomorrow, if you want."

Kyle began to back toward the gate, which was still open and waiting to swallow him up. He shook his head, thoughts of the basement's horrors waiting for him in the dark tangle of his grey matter. He wouldn't be able to receive visitors the next day, he already knew that, and even though Kenny seemed to have a vague understanding of the deeper implications in all of this, he didn't need to see the extent of Craig's potential savagery.

"Come visit me at work on Monday," he said, smiling as the sunshine finally came out in full force; lighting up the world until it almost burned. "I promise I'll be there. Waiting for you."

******

Dear Rose, (I'll stick with the name for now, okay? Maybe I'll get used to it.)

This entry won't be long, mainly because Craig will be back before too long (he's in the shower; I guess he worked up a sweat...among other things) and it's hard to hold the pen for very long; everything hurts. We went to the basement tonight, just like I knew we would, but that isn't important right now, Rose.

I wanted to tell you that I fell asleep in the sunshine after Kenny left, just laid down in the grass and closed my eyes (only for a moment!) and before too long Craig was waking me up and bringing me into the house, the smell of the grass in my clothes and hair covering up Kenny's cologne...at least I hope it did. He was none the wiser about my outing today (thank God) but it left me breathless, Rose. For a moment I felt so happy (and so afraid) that I couldn't wait to tell you. If I hadn't been so loopy from my medicine I would've already written everything out, but as it stands, I won't have time until tomorrow.

Rose, I think Kenny wanted to kiss me, but I stopped him. Can you believe that? I have no idea where any of this is coming from, but he looked at me like he wanted me...I know that look, or at least I think I do. Craig still looks at me like that on occasion. It isn't predatory, just sweet and full of longing, but I never would've expected it from Kenny McCormick of all people.

Hold on. The shower stopped. I need to go, Rose.

Always and Forever,

Your Kyle

PS: I know this is crazy, but I kind of wanted Kenny to kiss me, Rose.

PPS: God, I wish I had let him kiss me.

PPPS: Maybe next time?

PPPPS: Will there be a next time??

Chapter Text

Dear Rose, (I'm starting to warm up to the name. What about you?)

I have to apologize in advance, love; I didn't get a chance to write in you yesterday for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Craig was home all day, and he was being very...attentive, so I really didn't have enough time to myself to attend to you the way you deserve, and secondly, I was just too shaky still; and the pain just wouldn't let me concentrate. I'm feeling better today and Craig is working out right now, so I finally (finally) have a moment to stop and reflect.

I should explain my comment about Craig being attentive, shouldn't I? I mean, I've touched on this in the past, but Craig is very doting after a basement trip. Whether it's from guilt or just wanting to be close to me, to see to my needs, I'm not sure. I'm thinking it may be a column A, column B situation, but at any rate, Craig is practically attached to my hip the day after intense punishments (or 'corrections' as he likes to call them). He also wasn't on call this weekend, so...he has a lot of free time on his hands, and when he has free time that basically means he's on me like white on rice.

I mean, I'm not complaining, of course. Craig is so wonderfully sweet after he's gotten the poison out of his system. I almost think of it as him having his humors balanced. He'd think I was crazy for even writing that, after all, from his clinical point of view that point in history where people thought the human body was comprised of 4 substances that needed to be balanced through bloodletting (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) was rather a dark period in medicine (though western medicine is still very focused on balance, which can be somewhat attributed to humorism) - but, no, I really do think that when Craig takes me to the basement he's able to purge himself of something foul, so he can begin again (and by extension, so can I).

That's not to say I enjoy going to the basement. Quite the contrary, actually; it's hell on earth. I keep thinking that if I go down there and start searching I'll find the gateway to Hades or something, but that would just be crazy, right? I've never really gone into excessive detail about what goes on down there, and I probably should so you'll know what I've endured, and will continue to endure. Honestly, I'm pretty proud of myself...at least I know what I'm capable of, and it's a lot! I really don't want to drench you with the violence I've suffered through, so I'll break it down to a level I can stomach, how's that?

Imagine an operating room, okay? Sterile and white and hushed, white floor, white walls...just whiteness all around, and there's an exam table in the center; fluorescent lights above, caustic, cruel lighting that cuts through your eyes even when they're closed. Everything must be just so, and Craig makes sure it's always stocked with clean instruments on silver trays, and the kidney shaped bowls shine so brightly, sitting on the rack that's easily wheeled around the room. It's all very impressive, really, and I'm amazed that Craig put it together almost entirely by himself. I mean, he had contractors set up the bare bones of the basement but the rest, the rest he did all on his own.

There are restraints, of course, on the exam table and on the far wall. Sometimes we start on one side of the room and work our way over to the table; in fact, that's usually how it works. He'll start with the whip or whichever device he feels is appropriate and then we move to the clinical side to repair the damage. Does that make sense? I feel like I'm not doing the process justice, but how can I really explain something that's so personal, so completely unto itself?

Depending on his mood, Craig may or may not use anesthesia (never IV, that would be too involved, don't you think?); typically lidocaine (always local, of course - really, it's the most painful part of the whole process because it has to be injected inside of the wound). Usually he does use it, but if he's really trying to make a point he doesn't, and then my recovery time seems to take twice as long...I can hardly describe that sort of agony, Rose. Imagine fire burning your skin. That's what a needle passing through flesh feels like without aid of being numbed first; I don't recommend it to anyone. (Naturally. What sort of person would I be if I did? I mean, okay, I have masochistic tendencies but Craig takes this sort of thing to the next level, but I'm sure you've already figured that out.)

My first trip to the basement happened 3 years, 10 months, and 19 days ago, Rose, but I'll never forget it...after I woke up, of course. It was a Thorazine situation and I hadn't even realized Craig had been working on such a project, his personal operating room, until I opened my eyes and found myself propped against the basement wall wearing the handcuffs. I resisted at first, of course, completely out of my mind with terror, until Craig very calmly explained to me what was about to happen. (So much like a doctor, Rose; he acted like I was one of his patients ready to go under the knife, and I suppose in a lot of ways that was the case.) That's not to say I wasn't still horribly afraid, but somehow, over the years, he's been able to convince me that all of this is necessary. I disobey, Rose, and I must be brought to task. Right?

That first time happened because I hung out with Stan without Craig's knowledge or permission. We hadn't been married for very long and I still thought things were a certain way, when in actuality they were something else entirely. That was before I truly understood the parameters of our relationship, but I was a quick study, Rose; a very quick study.

I know exactly what you're thinking, Rose. It's written all over your pages, your imaginary face, that one lingering, very important, monumental question:

Why haven't I left?

Even after all of the basement trips, being all but cut off from my good friends and family, just everything...why am I still here? Well, that is a fucking fantastic question, isn't it? Usually when I come back to this inquiry (which I do - often), I remind myself of a number of quotes by Sigmund Freud:

“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.”

"Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

And lastly, possibly the most important:

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

Doesn't paint a very pretty or flattering portrait, does it? At the end of the day I think that encapsulates my personality, and my ongoing devotion to a person that most people would call a monster (myself included, depending on the day). Essentially, Rose, I am a frightened, vulnerable person...I'm vulnerable because I am in love with Craig, almost irrevocably so, and I can't say why that is. Is it because there's something in him that I see that no one else can, or is it because I know the person he could be if all of the poison was leeched from his blood? I think a lot of my love stems from the glimmers of good that I see in him, and there's quite a bit, Rose; there really is. 

One might say that I'm even preoccupied or obsessed with my own suffering, and maybe, just maybe, on some level I kind of get off on being perceived as this tragic, woebegone figure that must do battle with evil on a regular basis. I was always prone to having a Messiah complex, especially in my younger years...I had to save everyone, which is pathetic considering I can't (won't) even save myself. I have to be somewhat strong though, right? A weak person couldn't survive all of this and find a reason to keep going, or am I wrong? (I usually am.)

The overarching aspect of this that keeps me chained down is the fear, really, but it isn't so much the fear of Craig. No, Rose, it's fear of the outside world. A prisoner can't help but fall in love with their prison at some point, and my cage is so beautiful when you really look at it. I live in a comfortable home with acres of roses and gardens, lots of room to roam, my own art studio, a kitchen that Martha Stewart would envy, a California king bed to sleep on and a million other creature comforts. If I were to leave what would there be for me? A studio apartment filled with nothing but echos and IKEA furniture?

And what about all of the people I'd have to get used to? I'd have to get used to everything again. There's no way my job at the gallery would pay all of my bills, so I'd have to get a different job...I'd have to go to an interview and meet so many new people, people that would take one look at me and know that there was something wrong with me. I've worked so hard to cover up my reality to the outside world but I always feel like people know; somehow, they can look at me, look into my eyes, and know the truth; I'm battered, I'm terrorized -

And I've become accustomed to it, as odd (as sick!) as that is. Am I insane? Am I just a terrible, spoiled person to feel the way I do? Am I wrong for loving my husband? He's so accomplished and handsome and loving when he wants to be...how can I throw away the good with the bad? I love the good too much, and I want to change the bad with every fiber of my being. They say love conquers all, but is it powerful enough to change another person on an almost cellular level? Who knows, right? Only time can tell, and I have plenty of that, don't I?

Unless of course Craig just completely loses control one day and...and -

No, we won't go there, will we?

You must excuse me, Rose. I always lapse into a brown study after I emerge from the basement. It just gives me so much to think about. I will say there was something different about our trip this time, though. The anger that's starting to thread its way through my blood is still present, and growing stronger, and when I grit my teeth against the pain and closed my eyes this time, guess whose face I saw in the darkness? Think: blonde hair, blue eyes, tattoos on strong arms...

I didn't just think about his characteristics, Rose. No, I could remember the way he held me as he pushed me into the cab of his truck, the smells of sweet Twice Spice's surrounding us...the aroma transporting me back to a moment when I was afraid but for a good reason, a beautiful one.

He told me he wanted to take me to the end of the world. Me, Rose. Poor, pathetic, confused Kyle. He wanted to kiss me, I know it; I can feel it. It's almost like this knowledge rests in my bones, along with the chill that comes with the idea of the basement; of Craig's easy cruelty. We stood in the sunshine and he wanted to kiss me, but I couldn't let him do it. I still don't know if I could, but I think I'd like it if he did.

I just wouldn't like the guilt that would inevitably follow. Say what you will about my weaknesses, but I still wouldn't want to hurt Craig if I could absolutely help it.

Does that make me crazy? Probably so.

Kenny, what are you doing to me? How could you come out of nowhere and drop into my life like this? How could you change things so quickly, like a stone being thrown into a pond and creating so many ripples? You sent me those gorgeous photos from parts of the world I could only dream of, and it's almost like you've woken me from a hundred years' slumber; you barely had to do anything and you've already changed me. Are you responsible for waking up the rage, too?

What am I going to do?

I have to go, Rose; Craig is done. I'll find you again, soon enough. Wait for me.

Always and Forever,

Your Kyle

PS: Please don't think less of me for what I've written today. It would hurt too much.

********

Slowly, Kyle slipped the diary under the couch cushion and waited, knowing that Craig would walk into the room at any moment. Craig always finished his workouts with a brisk walk on the treadmill, and as soon as he heard it stop, he knew that his husband would be joining him in the living room; he was not disappointed.

"Just relaxing?" Craig asked, walking into the room and appearing cutely disheveled, black hair tousled and slick with sweat, and his workout clothes fairly drenched. He lifted his shirt to wipe his face, revealing a flat, pale abdomen; Kyle's eyes trailing over the little birthmark right next to his navel.

Kyle was making sure to sit up so he didn't need to put any pressure on his back, and when Craig spoke, he quickly dropped his eyes to the floor; reaching out and picking up the book he'd set aside when he'd started writing in his diary.

"I'm trying to," he replied, stiffly.

Craig frowned a little, but it wasn't the expression he wore when his anger was mounting. They had a pattern, a routine, that they fell into after a particularly brutal basement session, and Kyle was just keeping up his end of things; becoming distant, aloof. Craig, for his part, became coddling and sweet; especially indulgent until he decided he'd given Kyle enough leeway.

"Let me take a look at your sutures," Craig said, coming over and picking up a bottle of hand sanitizer off the coffee table. He squirted some into his hands and rubbed them, cocking an eyebrow at Kyle expectantly. Sighing, Kyle lay his book aside and obediently turned, waiting for Craig to lift his shirt and study the state of his back.

"Now, let's see here." Sitting behind Kyle, Craig kissed his neck lightly before slowly pulling up Kyle's shirt, his warm, newly cleaned fingers barely brushing over the black threads weaving their way through Kyle's skin. Holding his breath, Kyle waited for Craig to make the wrong move and hurt him, but it didn't happen; rather, he was so gentle that it was almost like he wasn't touching Kyle at all.

"They look good," Craig murmured, ghosting a hand over Kyle's aching flesh. "You can take a shower today, but we'll be mindful that the spray isn't too strong, okay? They aren't too red, no pus...I think you're going to make a full recovery." Kyle could hear the smile in his voice as Craig pulled his shirt back down, placing a gentle hand on the slope of Kyle's back.

"What a relief," Kyle replied, rolling his eyes and not bothering to keep the snap out of his voice. Turning, he looked at Craig, his hands clasped loosely in his lap.

"Now don't be like that," Craig said, putting his arm around Kyle's shoulders and pulling him close; his fingers winding their way through his curls. Leaning over, he placed a kiss on his temple. "I hate when you get like this, all sullen and quiet; let's be friends again, okay? Besides, you'll only need to have those stitches in for a couple weeks...then I can remove them and you'll be good as new."

"That's easy for you to say," Kyle replied, looking down at his hands; his bottom lip beginning to tremble. "Your back doesn't look like a fucking patchwork quilt."

"And neither does yours, Kyle." Craig pulled him closer and placed a hand on his thigh, rubbing the bare flesh. He preferred for Kyle to wear just his boxer briefs and t-shirt when he was lounging around the house; it made it easier to undress him when he was in the mood. More often than not, he was in the mood; like now, Kyle could already tell.

"I think every part of you is amazing, beautiful," Craig murmured, wrapping both of his arms around Kyle and kissing his throat, tipping his head back so he had full access to his neck. "I can't get enough of you...I'll never be able to."

"Then why do you cut me open?" Kyle asked, voice tremulous as Craig nipped at his skin, making him gasp lightly. "Why do you make me bleed?"

"I could ask you the same thing," Craig said, pulling away and looking into Kyle's eyes; his own a muted pewter color. They weren't cold today, if anything they were unbearably warm, practically burning Kyle as they studied his face. "Whenever you act like you want to leave, like you don't love me anymore, I feel like you're tearing my heart out. Did you know that?"

"I only asked why you punished me, Craig," Kyle sighed, allowing Craig to pull him to his feet so he could lead him into the hushed, darkened bedroom. "I never said I didn't love you; not once."

"You didn't need to say it," Craig replied, taking his shirt off and throwing it in the hamper. He carefully removed Kyle's shirt as well, taking care not to catch the fabric on his sutures. Backing Kyle toward the bed, he held him close and kissed his panting mouth, warm lips meeting in furious, hungry kisses. "I saw it in your eyes, Kyle; they were accusing me of something; of everything. I don't need you to question the things I do, I just need you to understand that I'm doing them for your own good; for our own good."

"That's not what I was trying to do," Kyle whimpered as Craig pushed him down, arching his back as it came into contact with the bed.

"Poor baby," Craig soothed, helping him turn over. "There, get on your hands and knees, that's better." Gently, he eased Kyle's boxer briefs down and threw them aside, laying a hand on Kyle's hip and squeezing gently. Leaning down, he kissed Kyle's cheek and whispered in his ear, making him shiver:

"Do you want me?"

Kyle couldn't help but nod his head, shutting his eyes tight and biting his bottom lip; hating himself for giving himself over to Craig so easily. He hated himself even more for actually being aroused by his husband, especially after what had transpired in the basement, especially after everything. He couldn't help it, though, not when Craig was being so tender, so wonderfully sweet; he was always like this after an impromptu operation.

"Good," Craig said, softly; pulling his shorts and boxers off. "I love it when you want me, Kyle; I can't tell you how happy it makes me feel."

"I'm glad," Kyle said, hanging his head and keeping his eyes tightly closed. Easing onto his forearms, he could hear the telltale sound of a dresser drawer opening and closing.

Please not the handcuffs, he chanted inside his head. Please, please, please not the handcuffs. I couldn't take it. I couldn't -

"Why are you shaking like that? I'm not going to hurt you," Craig said, placing his hand on Kyle's lower back. "Be still, okay? I want to make you feel good."

Kyle just nodded his head again, waiting, and then he could hear the snap of a bottle being opened and then the feeling of warm, wet fingertips gliding over his backside; making him moan slightly when they entered him; filling him nicely. Craig soothed him with quiet, gentle reassurances the whole time, his expert fingers sliding in and out of Kyle; preparing him for what was to come.

"You like that, baby?" He asked, voice husky as he slipped another finger into Kyle's aching orifice; slick and almost ready. "You should see your face. You look so fucking sexy, Kyle; I can barely stand it."

"Don't say things like that," Kyle said, smiling despite himself; cheeks flushing from such a salacious compliment.

"Why? Are you feeling shy even though I'm finger fucking you right now? Don't you think that's kind of silly, Kyle?"

Kyle didn't respond, opting instead to hide his face in the blanket; his skin growing even hotter as Craig continued to prepare him slowly and carefully. Unbidden, thoughts of Kenny's honest blue eyes filtered through his mind, and all at once he was clutching the sheets in his hands; moaning loudly as his husband worked him over with deliberate care.

"Someone's ready, I think," Craig announced, pulling his fingers out of Kyle and leaning on the bed, placing a hand on Kyle's hip; steadying him. After a moment, he was rubbing his slicked up cock against Kyle's opening, finally pushing into him slowly; sinking into the trembling redhead's body inch by agonizing inch. Finally he was inside of Kyle completely and he stayed still for a moment, gripping his hips as Kyle waited; baited breath caught in his lungs.

Why does it have to feel so good when he's like this? So tender...so soft...why can't it be like this all the time?

Kyle's thoughts were interrupted when Craig began to thrust into him, every movement exquisite and precise, his skills working Kyle into a writhing, panting mess; every nerve on fire as Craig's cock pumped in and out. Kyle had never been with anyone else, had only experienced sticky fumblings in backseats and awkward, regrettable petting with his past lovers, so he had nothing to compare his husband to in terms of his sexual prowess, but he had to admit that Craig knew how to touch him; he knew how to work Kyle into a salivating, sex-hungry harlot; gasping and pleading for more.

"Please," Kyle cried out, arching upward when Craig hit his sweet spot; drool sliding over his lips and wetting the blanket beneath him. "Please, god, please don't stop!"

"That's right, Kyle," Craig groaned, lightly slapping his ass; his pace increasing. "Fucking beg for it like the little cock-slut you are...tell me to fuck you harder...!"

Kyle became silent, wordlessly straining against the beauty unfolding in his blood, nearly overcome by just how amazing Craig could make him feel, before he felt his husband gripping his hair and pulling his head back; sharpened breath eking through his lips.

"I told you to beg for it, slut," Craig seethed, yanking harder. "Now, do it. Beg me to fuck you harder or I'll stop completely."

"N-no, don't stop, please," Kyle whimpered, melting into the feeling of pain mixing in with his pleasure; Craig's large hand gripping his hair. He would never openly admit it to anyone, not even his husband, but his savagery in the bedroom was actually something he enjoyed; so long as the handcuffs and biting were kept to a minimum.

"Please fuck me harder, Craig," he cried out, his husband's thrusts coming hard and fast; his hips coming into contact with the backs of Kyle's thighs and creating a delicious slapping noise.

"Say you're my slut, baby," Craig growled, gripping Kyle's hair harder. "Tell me what a cock-slut you are...say you love it when daddy fucks you."

Now they were bordering on dark territory again, and while Kyle didn't really mind being treated like a slut when his husband fucked him, it was this degrading habit he had of putting him on the spot, of making him perform that completely disarmed Kyle; making him seize up slightly. Yelping, he cringed when Craig thrust into him in a particularly brutal fashion, no doubt leaving bruises where his strong fingers dug into Kyle's delicate hip.

"I-I love it when daddy fucks me," Kyle whispered, humiliation washing through him as he heard the words leak from his lips; he hadn't seen his father in over a year. "I-I'm your little cock-slut."

"Yeah, that's it...that's perfect," Craig breathed, releasing Kyle's hair and holding his hips so tightly Kyle almost screamed; hard thrusts coming so fast and frenzied now that Kyle could only lie limply on the bed as his husband brutalized him; finally reaching a feverish crescendo and grunting as he came. Searing heat poured into Kyle's spent body, and he quickly reached back and grabbed Craig's hand, leading it to his own aching cock.

"You want daddy to finish you off, baby? Huh?" Craig purred, rubbing his lube-slick hand around Kyle's erection, working him with languid pumps and causing Kyle to push back against him; sliding his cock in and out of Craig's hand as he brought him to his climax.

"That's it," Craig murmured, leaning down and kissing Kyle's wrecked back. "Just let go, Kyle...just let go."

Before too long, Kyle was whimpering softly, his orgasms always muted even as they tore through him; afraid to make a loud noise that could lead to violence. Craig had never mistreated him while he was in the throes of ecstasy, but that didn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things; really, anything could happen when it came to his husband. Gently, Craig continued to stroke him until he was finished, and he was shaking like a wounded animal; Craig still draped across his back and buried deep within his heat.

"Perfect, so, so perfect," Craig sighed, almost dissolving as he hummed, clearly still floating somewhere above the earth as they both floundered in the tides; the aftermath of an afternoon fuck that almost had the power to defy mere words. Sliding out, he lay on his back and pulled Kyle onto his chest, kissing his sweaty temple and rubbing his aching head.

"How was that?"

Kyle stretched luxuriously and folded into Craig's touch, nearly forgetting the horrors of the past few days and getting lost in the glory of what could be; what if it were always like this, rough but pleasurable? God, what a life that would be!

"Amazing," he answered honestly, still not too keen on calling Craig daddy but willing to play the game if it got his husband's rocks off. "I have to admit you know what you're doing in the bedroom," he added, grinning as he ran a fingertip over Craig's strong chest, suddenly feeling carefree and playful.

"Might I offer a caveat? A very important one, might I add," Craig replied, smiling as he wound one of Kyle's curls around his fingers.

"Sure, why not?"

"I know my way around the bedroom when it comes to you, Kyle; you're the only person I want. Now and forever."

Kyle blushed, grinning like a love-struck fool even as his back throbbed faintly. He sat up, staring down at his husband.

"How do you do that?"

"Do what?" Craig asked, raising his eyebrows.

"It's almost like there's more than one person living inside of you, Craig. How do you change so quickly?" Kyle lay his head on Craig's chest, listening for his heartbeat and almost sighing when he found it; faint whooshes filling up his eardrum.

"I'm a mirror, Kyle. I only give back what you give me. You should know that."

Feeling suddenly uneasy, already seeing that this was a trail that could lead to a battle, Kyle decided to backpedal.

"Do you remember the first time we had sex?"

Craig laughed, and it was genuine, deep and building low in his stomach; Kyle loved to hear it. He adored his husband when he was actually happy; the anger dying down and only the good taking its place.

"Of course I do," he said, nuzzling Kyle's hair, taking a deep breath and sighing into his scent. "You were so shy. It took almost an hour just to get you to take your clothes off."

"I'd never been completely naked with another person," Kyle grinned, falling into the memories but not becoming lost. Rather, he wanted to walk through them like one would a winding country road; almost feeling like he was going home again. "And I wasn't sure you'd like what I, you know, had to offer."

"I don't know how you could ever feel shy around me," Craig said, lapsing into a more serious tone; arm tightening around Kyle's body and drawing him closer. "I love you. I've loved you for so long I almost can't remember what life was like before you and I."

"You romantic thing, you," Kyle teased, eating up every word. "I know it was horribly cliche, but do you remember what I said after we did it that first time?"

Craig became quiet for a moment, fingers tangling in Kyle's curls as he stared at the ceiling, his whole body relaxing; all tension leaking out of him.

"Yeah," he replied, softly. "I'll never forget it, actually. That was the first time you told me you loved me."

*******

"That's interesting."

Kyle glanced over his shoulder and stepped back from his painting, a brush clenched in his hand as he waited for Craig to come closer. He'd been quietly working on the canvas for the better part of the afternoon, after they'd relaxed in bed for awhile; Craig deciding he wanted to have sex once more before setting Kyle free.

Actually, it was almost like making love, Kyle smiled, leaning into Craig as he wrapped his arms around Kyle's shoulders; continuing to study the painting. Craig had been soft when he'd taken Kyle the second time, slipping into him gently and slowly; kissing his mouth and cradling Kyle in his arms like he was a priceless objet d'art. Lord, how he loved days like this; days spent happily at home, just being kind to one another. A pervasive sadness gripped him at the thought, knowing on a deeper level that golden days like this only came about after the dreaded darkness; he willed the thought away, sinking deeper into his husband's embrace.

"I don't get it," Craig said, kissing Kyle's shoulder after pulling his shirt aside just a tad. He pointed at the painting. "What does it mean?"

Kyle regarded the painting for a moment, brilliant late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows and illuminating the canvas, saturated in various shades of red; streaks of paint etched through and practically shouting at the onlooker. He shrugged.

"Do you know who Jackson Pollock is?" He asked, not wanting to go into the deeper meanings of the painting; how he sometimes imagined the red wasn't paint at all, but rather his husband's blood drenching the rough fibers. To Kyle the painting spoke of rage and confusion, of reaching one's limit and not really knowing how to proceed but having to continue anyway. Every time he looked at the painting it seemed to reinforce and echo his growing desperation; his relentless misery.

Craig thought a moment, still clinging to Kyle and smelling of his expensive cologne and something faintly fruit-laced; almost like an apple pie baking. Kyle kissed his arm, fairly becoming lost in being near to him when he was being so dear and loving.

"I think I do," he finally said. "Didn't we see one of his paintings at the Met? It was all drippy and frenetic."

"Autumn Rhythm," Kyle murmured, fondly remembering the whirlwind trip they'd taken two years before to New York City; Craig surprising him just out of nowhere. "Abstract expressionism, that's what he was really known for."

"So, is this abstract expressionism, too?" He gestured toward the painting.

Kyle snorted and rolled his eyes.

"I don't know what the fuck this is, Craig," he sighed, staring at his painting with critical eyes. "I was just hoping to capture the immediacy of my feelings."

Of my rage.

"The immediacy of your feelings, huh?" Craig asked, his tone becoming faintly amused. Kyle tensed up to hear it, knowing ridicule would probably be forthcoming. Instead, Craig lapsed into silence, still gazing at the canvas.

"I'm pretty simple when it comes to art stuff, Kyle, but when I look at this," he paused, kissing Kyle's shoulder again, "I see bitterness. But I'm probably completely wrong, right?"

Startled, Kyle pulled away to look at Craig's face.

"Really?" He asked. "You mean it?"

Craig stared at him, face impassive. He shrugged.

"I mean, I guess. Is that what you were going for?"

"Among other things," Kyle said, tucking a curl behind his ear and looking away; not wanting to reveal anymore through the look in his eyes.

"What do you have to be bitter about?" Craig asked, pulling on the back of Kyle's shirt, making him arch slightly; he squeaked when his sutures were disturbed.

Pulling away, Kyle went to lay his paintbrush down, bare feet ghosting over the studio's wooden floor. Once again he was in his white button up shirt and boxer briefs, slender legs naked and slightly chilled. For the first time that day, he could feel the anger working its way through his veins, spurned by Craig's dismissal of his feelings. He knew very well what Kyle had cause to be bitter about, at least he should; he was far more perceptive than most people would think.

"Well, are you going to answer me? It was a simple question, Kyle," Craig asked, watching Kyle move around the studio; putting things away.

"Nothing, Craig. I don't have anything to be bitter about, okay?" Kyle replied, opening a can of paint thinner, wrinkling his nose at the odor. "I don't want to talk about this."

"Wrong answer," Craig said immediately, advancing on Kyle and automatically making him back up; leaving the brush and paint thinner behind. "You don't get to take a pass like that, Kyle. You can't dismiss my question just because you don't feel like answering."

"Why not?" Kyle asked, immediately regretting his words as soon as they left his mouth. His eyes widened, watching Craig with growing apprehension. "Sorry, I didn't mean -"

"You know, ever since you started working at that fucking gallery you've become pretty snobby, Kyle," Craig cut him off, eyes narrowing. He'd stopped walking toward Kyle but his stance was becoming decidedly tense, almost like he was growing larger as every minute passed. "I'm sorry I didn't know who the fuck Jackson Pollock was right off the top of my head, but you could at least pretend to give a shit about my questions. Christ, I'm just fucking trying to get to know you better."

"I-I know that, Craig. I wasn't trying to -"

"Why do you shut me out whenever you can? Like when we were at the gallery and I asked you which of those photos was your favorite. I saw your face when I pointed to the lighthouse; it's your favorite, isn't it? Well? Tell me!"

Kyle winced when Craig's voice became louder, bordering on a yell but not quite there yet. Desperately, he tried to keep the conversation from lapsing into an argument; they'd been having such a nice day. It didn't help that fleeting thoughts of Kenny were assaulting him again, how easy he'd been when he'd asked about the photos he'd taken; never pressing Kyle for more information than he was willing to give.

"You're right," he replied, faintly; staring at the sunshine-covered floor. "It was my favorite."

Abruptly, Craig strode over to Kyle and gripped his arms tightly. Kyle immediately went slack, the old, familiar terror seizing him and making him withdraw; retreating into himself where tenuous safety could be found.

"Why did you lie to me then? Why?" Craig asked, shouting now while shaking him like a rag doll.

Biting his lip, Kyle closed his eyes, the pain in his back reaching a hectic fever-pitch.

"Why did you want to know what my favorite was in the first place, Craig?" He finally asked, not even caring at this point if Craig struck him. What did it matter? He'd find a reason to be angry no matter what, he may as well have something of a say. "You don't care about art, and I know that you hate that I paint. I know you think my paintings are worthless."

Craig stopped shaking him, taking a hold of Kyle's face.

"Open your eyes and look at me," he said, no longer shouting; his voice taking on a broken quality Kyle hadn't heard before. Opening his eyes, he stared up at Craig and waited, completely at a loss.

"How could you say that, Kyle?" Craig asked, grey eyes searching his face; flicking quickly like a hummingbird. "Why do you assume I think your paintings are worthless? I never once said that."

"You didn't need to," Kyle said, dropping his gaze and hating the burn gathering in his eyes. Why did he always have to cry so quickly? Why did Craig make it so easy? "I just know, Craig."

"There's a difference between thinking something's worthless and not understanding it," Craig said, letting him go. "Have you ever stopped to consider that maybe I'm proud of you, that I think it's amazing that you have the ability to create?"

Kyle shook his head, the tears beginning to fall now. He'd never once considered that possibility, not in a million years; not with his husband's dismissive attitude.

"Well, did you ever even think of asking me? How am I supposed to defend myself or fight against your assumptions if you won't even talk to me? God, I'm screwed before I even begin."

Staring at him, Kyle couldn't comprehend what he was hearing; Craig had never spoken like this, assuming a vulnerability that was so contrary to his personality that Kyle couldn't even formulate a response.

"Fine, that's just great," Craig said, speaking after the silence had stretched on for an almost unbearable length. He turned away, glancing back; eyes having lost their vulnerability and becoming remote again, his basement eyes. "Keep me in the dark if that's what you want."

Striding toward the door, he spoke without turning again:

"I came to tell you dinner's ready. I made your favorite, not that it matters at this point."

******

They were in the dining room, candlelight flickering as the tinkling sounds of clinking cutlery pervaded the room; Chopin playing quietly in the background. The meal was lovely, country pot roast with roasted carrots and potatoes, rugged food that Kyle adored and Craig merely tolerated; he'd prepared it just for Kyle, to make him happy. He had a habit of cooking a special meal for Kyle after taking him to the basement, and this time around was no exception.

"This is wonderful," Kyle murmured, breaking the silence that had developed between them. Craig had been distant, sullen, since their exchange in the studio; sitting across the table and sipping on his Merlot more than he ate. He grunted in response to Kyle's compliment.

Taking a deep breath, Kyle decided to try again. Usually he'd be on edge because he wouldn't know where Craig's dark mood was coming from, but this time he had a pretty good idea.

I think I hurt his feelings, Kyle thought, setting his fork down quietly. I didn't even think that was possible.

"I ate this exact same thing on our first date. Remember?" He smiled hopefully, alternating between apprehension and vague irritation; annoyed that he had to attend to Craig's wounded feelings even after everything that had happened in the past couple days. He pushed the irritation away, though; unable to overlook the guilt he felt at making his husband upset. Wasn't he trying? Wasn't it sweet that he wanted to know everything about him?

Craig didn't answer for a moment, reaching over and picking up the wine bottle. He poured some into his glass while watching Kyle out of the corner of his eye, face stony and giving back absolutely nothing. Over the years, Kyle had noticed that Craig had become an expert at artfully shutting him out, keeping him at arms' length until Kyle couldn't help but fold; begging him to just talk to him so the awful tension would dissipate. He had reason to believe Craig was doing this now, and it hurt so badly because they'd been having such a wonderful, calm day.

"Yes, I remember," he finally replied, setting the wine bottle down carefully and picking up his glass; swirling it gently. "Why do you think I made this for you, Kyle? Heaven forbid I actually put some thought into something, right?"

Kyle sighed, stomach clenching up painfully. He needed to tread carefully, very carefully; if he didn't, he could kiss going to work the next day goodbye. He remembered his promise to Kenny, that he'd be waiting for him, and he steeled his resolve; assuring himself that he would endure whatever was about to happen. Maybe he could even rectify the situation.

"You put thought into everything you do for me, Craig; I know that," Kyle murmured, eyes downcast as he studied his plate; tender pot roast swimming in a fragrant gravy. Right now he didn't think he could eat a bite, not with so much worry flooding his mind. "I'm sorry I made assumptions about you. I wasn't being fair."

"You mean that?" Craig asked, voice sharp. Kyle couldn't help but feel slight elation, though; at least Craig was being somewhat receptive.

"Of course I do," he replied, looking up and catching Craig's eyes with his own. The candelabra sat between them, shifting and throwing shadows across the lace tablecloth; Craig had gone all out with the dinner preparations. Kyle suddenly felt almost painfully tender towards his husband. Standing, he came around the table and approached Craig like he would a tensed cobra; just waiting for him to strike.

Craig set his glass of wine down and pushed away from the table, arching an eyebrow and waiting.

"I should've told you about the lighthouse." Kyle stole closer, already beginning to shake but trying to keep the tremors out of his voice. "Can you forgive me? Please?"

Craig just stared at him for a moment, face still awash in candlelight and suspicion, but there was a slight change; ice cracking and falling apart. Wordlessly, he patted his leg and like a whipped puppy, Kyle gladly came to him and sat in his lap; nuzzling close to him and resting his face against his husband's cheek.

"I just want to know everything about you, Kyle. I feel like you resent me for that," Craig said, wrapping a strong arm around Kyle's waist; his hand coming to rest on his thigh. "Isn't it normal to want to know the person you love completely?"

Kyle nodded, continuing to rub his cheek against Craig's, breathless euphoria overtaking him at his triumph; he'd managed to avoid the cataclysm!

"Sometimes you feel so unreachable, did you know that?" Craig asked, drawing Kyle's lips to his own and kissing him softly, his hand cupping Kyle's face. "I have you here in my arms but you're so far away, almost like you aren't even real."

Kyle pulled back, studying his husband's face; not really sure how to respond. Craig had a tendency of becoming pensive, almost morose, after the tension reached its zenith and they were picking their way through the aftermath; clearly, that was the case here.

"Did you know that all of my favorite words start with the letter 'C'?" Kyle asked, wanting to lighten the mood while he still had a chance. "Calliope, cacophony, catacomb -"

"Craig?" He smirked, cradling Kyle's face in his hands, almost like he was holding a fragile butterfly; alternating between wanting to cherish it and resisting the urge to tear off its wings.

"I was working up to that," Kyle replied playfully, leaning forward and resting his forehead against Craig's. "But, yes. Craig is one of my absolute favorite words."

"Now you're just blowing air up my skirt," Craig said, rolling his eyes but looking so pleased it touched Kyle's heart. He kissed Craig's cheek, almost wanting to cry because this was the person he loved, the boy who could be so blissfully sweet and vulnerable. Where did he hide when the monstrous doctor appeared?

"No, I'm not," Kyle said, and it was the truth; when Craig was like this, he was Kyle's favorite person in the world. When he disappeared he couldn't help but mourn the loss, almost like he was grieving over someone who had passed away.

"Why is it your favorite, the lighthouse?" Craig asked, voice soft.

Kyle shrugged, feeling shy and on edge again. Mostly, he tried to keep their exchanges on the surface; it's when they delved into the profound that they got into trouble. Or he did, at any rate. It couldn't be helped, though; they'd already come too far in this line of questioning and confession.

"It's wild and lonely, all at the same time," he said, looking away; he didn't want Craig to see his face as he spoke. "It's a part of the earth but not of it, all at once. Does that make any sense? It's almost like it seems sad, or lost."

"I think so," Craig said, hugging Kyle close though he didn't force him to look in his eyes; something Kyle was eternally grateful for. "Maybe you identify with it on some level."

"What do you mean?"

Craig was silent for a time, the nocturnes rushing in and filling up the empty spaces in the room. Suddenly, Kyle was aware that his heart was thumping swiftly in his chest, a restless rabbit running, running.

"Let's just say your eyes give away more than you think," Craig finally said, reaching out and grabbing his glass of wine. He took a long sip, continuing to hold Kyle close. Pressing a wine-scented kiss against Kyle's cheek, he sighed softly.

"I know you like to think that you aren't transparent, Kyle, but I think you should realize something." Reaching up, he turned Kyle's face, their gazes once again converging. "You can't keep anything from me, no matter how hard you try. Eventually, whatever it is, I'll figure it out; just remember that."

******

It was raining again the next day, the weekend's sunshine disappearing overnight and giving way to grey skies that dripped steadily over the muted town. Kyle couldn't help but heave a sigh as he sat in his corner of the gallery, attending to a particularly ornate frame but his mind drifting constantly. His back was aching and Craig had been kind enough to give him some Tylenol-3 just in case the pain became too great, but he didn't want to take it while he was at work. Besides, it wasn't like he couldn't deal with discomfort; he'd certainly had plenty of practice.

They'd had a pleasant enough breakfast that morning, free of tension or discord though Craig made it abundantly clear that he wasn't thrilled that Kyle was going back to work so soon. He'd wanted his husband to stay home and rest but Kyle had told him he'd be just fine, that having something to do actually helped him forget about the throbbing wounds. Craig had just rolled his eyes and gone back to his paper, reaching out to touch the customary red rose in its crystal vase on occasion.

They were safely, or at least comfortably, ensconced in the honeymoon period where everything was so sweet and serene that Kyle could almost allow himself to be lulled into his stupor again. But something was different this go around, and he was just about to pull out his diary and write out his conflicting feelings when the bell tinkled above the gallery's front door, causing him to look up; broken from his rumination.

"I was hoping you'd be here," Kenny grinned, walking across the gallery, but he wasn't alone. Stan was with him, baby Molly nestled in his arms and straining to get down like a typical toddler. "Are you feeling better?"

Kyle waved the question away, getting up slowly from his stool and coming around the counter with his arms outstretched; blissful excitement waking up in his blood and pushing his melancholy away.

"Can I hold her? Please?" He asked, gazing at the little one with adoration. Kyle couldn't help but love Stan and Wendy's daughter, who seemed to be the perfect combination of her parents: dark hair and serious eyes, the same cobalt blue as Stan's, but sharp like her mother's.

"Hey, if you can keep her from trying to make a break for it, more power to you," Stan said, gratefully handing the toddler over and grinning as Kyle took her into his arms.

"She's getting so big," Kyle said, hugging Molly close and breathing in her milky, baby scent; so soft and innocent. He nearly sighed, vivid memories of holding Ike like this when he was little coming back to him in a flood.

"And smart," Stan said, pride threading through his tone. "She's already trying to walk, can you believe that?"

"I can completely believe that. Do you remember me?" He asked, looking into Molly's bright eyes. Molly just smiled, reaching up and taking a fistful of Kyle's hair; yanking on it and making him yelp.

"She definitely remembers your hair," Stan laughed, turning to Kenny. "She's always had a thing for Uncle Kyle's curls."

"Can't say that I blame her," Kenny said, watching with fondness as Kyle held the child close, closing his eyes for a moment and just reveling in how healthy and normal it felt to hug her; to see his friends again.

"What are you doing here?" Kyle asked, opening his eyes and peering at Stan. "Don't you have to work?"

"He's finally taking some time off," Wendy said, coming into the room and smiling brightly to see Molly; who squealed loudly and immediately held her arms out to her mother. "Come to mama, baby girl. Did you miss me?"

Reluctantly, Kyle relinquished the baby, hardly surprised at the faint stirrings of jealously as Molly cuddled into her mother's arms, resting her flushed, plump baby cheek against Wendy's shoulder. This was what true, unsullied love looked like; a child folding themselves into the arms of their parent. He could've cried to see such unadulterated closeness, purer than air or water and just as important. His back throbbed faintly, only serving to reinforce his burgeoning discontent; the feeling of being on the outside looking in tearing at his heart.

"You ready to go to lunch?" Kenny asked, snapping Kyle out of his thoughts. "Isn't this awesome? When was the last time just the three of us were able to go out?"

"God, it's been forever," Stan said, running a hand through his hair and staring at Kyle, almost like he was seeing him for the first time. "Are you doing okay, man? I feel like I haven't gotten to see you in -"

"Three months. It's been three months, dude," Kyle interjected, walking behind the counter to grab his bag; wincing slightly when his shirt caught on a suture, tugging it slightly. "And I'm fine, Stan. Why do you ask me that every time you see me? My life is completely routine."

"Right, routine," Kenny said, glancing at Stan; the two of them exchanging a look that didn't sit well with Kyle. "Anyway, what are you two feeling? There's a great Chinese place -"

Suddenly, the bell tinkled over the door again, and they all turned to see who it was; a collective pall being cast almost immediately.

"Am I interrupting something?" Craig asked, walking into the gallery; dressed in his scrubs but wearing a light jacket to shield himself from the rain. His hair was faintly moist and he brought the scent of rainfall with him, his eyes darting around at the faces regarding him before settling on Kyle; eyebrows raised.

"Craig, hey," Wendy said, finally breaking the silence as she clung to Molly. "This is unexpected."

"Yeah, a case was cancelled because the guy failed his pre-op, so I found myself with some extra time." His eyes flitted away from Kyle and came to rest on Molly, faint irritation registering in his expression. The toddler stared at Craig for a moment before she frantically started to wiggle out of Wendy's arms, beginning to shriek.

"Molly, what in the world has gotten into you?" Wendy asked, struggling to keep a hold on the child until she finally had to give up; kneeling down and letting her daughter slump on the floor. Quickly, Molly started crawling across the gallery and straight toward Craig, stopping and peering up at him with wide eyes.

"Molly, come here, baby," Stan said, starting to come forward; eyes narrowed with obvious worry.

Instead of listening, the toddler reached out and took a hold of Craig's scrub pants, trying to pull herself up. Craig smirked, holding up a hand to Stan.

"It's okay," he said. "May I?"

Stan glanced at Wendy quickly, who nodded her head lightly after a moment's pause.

"Sure, yeah. Go ahead, man," Stan conceded, body still tensed. "I just didn't think you liked kids."

"They're okay," Craig said, leaning down and gently gathering Molly into his arms, where she immediately went still; curling into him and taking hold of his jacket. "Yours is pretty cute, all things considered."

"You're too kind," Wendy said, walking up beside Stan and taking a hold of his hand.

Holding the baby close, Craig flicked his focus to Kenny, who'd been watching the events unfolding with a firmly set jaw; moving closer to Kyle almost like he was trying to shield him. Craig arched a brow at him, frowning slightly.

"When did you come back to town? I thought you had to travel because of your job or whatever."

"I do, but I had to come back to take care of my mom," Kenny replied, deftly sidestepping Craig's question. "How have you been? I heard you're really making a name for yourself up at Hell's Pass."

"Is that so?" Craig asked, eyes momentarily drifting to Kyle before focusing in on Kenny again. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. It's nice to know I'm garnering something of a reputation."

Finally, Kyle couldn't bear the gathering tension any longer and he moved to approach his husband, finding it terribly surreal to see him holding Stan's daughter in his arms. He reached out and placed a hand on Craig's arm, wanting to placate and wish him away all at the same time.

"Is something wrong?" He asked. "Did you need to tell me something?"

Craig turned away, gaze drifting over the group again before walking over to the far wall and stopping in front of Kenny's array of photographs. Hugging Molly close, he wordlessly lifted the lighthouse picture and gripped it in his hand, pausing for a second before coming back to Kyle's side.

"I wanted to buy this for you," he said. "Since you like it so much." He glanced at Wendy. "It is for sale, right?"

"Well, sure. Of course. But if Kyle likes it so much I could just -"

"I'm not taking a handout, not for my husband," Craig cut her off, curtly. "How much is it?"

"Right, of course," Wendy replied, her usually strong voice softening slightly. "Come over here and I'll ring you up, Craig. Stan, has Molly already eaten, or..."

"I was going to feed her when we got to the restaurant," Stan replied, moving to take his daughter from Craig's arms; the child beginning to screech as soon as she was lifted away. A pregnant moment passed before Stan cleared his throat, regarding Craig.

"We were going to take Kyle out to lunch. Did you want to come with us? It'd give us a chance to catch up, especially since Kenny's back and everything."

There was a flash, a movement, in Craig's face that only Kyle had the power to see; a secret look unfolding that made his mouth go dry as he slowly began to shake. Almost feeling mechanical, he stiffly retreated behind the counter and gripped its edge, faint dizziness taking hold of him as he watched his husband consider Stan's invitation.

"It's really nice of you to ask but I only really had time to stop by," Craig said, shifting his eyes to meet Kyle's before turning his head. "I just wanted to make sure that I bought the picture before someone else did, but maybe some other time, okay?"

"Are you sure, Craig?" Kyle spoke up, almost not recognizing his voice; hearing it almost as it sounded when it ricocheted off the basement walls. "I mean, you and I could just go grab something really quickly, if you wanted."

Craig shook his head slowly, the veiled expression still evident to Kyle while becoming lost on everyone else.

"No, that's okay, baby," he replied, holding the lighthouse up and shaking it a little. "I'll see you later on at home. I'll have the picture waiting so we can hang it up. How's that sound?"

Kyle nodded, suddenly aware that everyone in the room was staring at him; feeling that same sensation of being exposed and on display.

"Well, if you're sure..."

"I'm absolutely sure," Craig suddenly smiled. "Have fun with your friends, okay? I'll see you tonight, and we can talk then. No big deal."

Chapter Text

"I've heard this place is supposed to have amazing guacamole," Kenny said as they all settled themselves in the large booth, Stan slipping Molly into a highchair at the edge of the table. She looked at him with confusion and slight irritation, a pucker of the lips and a scrunched up nose; Kyle had to bite back a laugh at her burgeoning petulance. Doubtless she was going to end up being as contrary as her mother, rather than easygoing like her father; only time would tell.

Kyle looked around at the restaurant, trying to get used to the loud music and the bustle of being surrounded by so many people. It was strange, unsettling almost, being out with his friends like this, having become accustomed to quiet and solitude; the solitary nature of his home and his job. Once upon a time this wouldn't have been a big deal, but now it bordered on being overwhelming, and Kyle could feel the vague stirrings of anxiety building up in his chest; he ignored them though.

I'm going to be normal, he thought resolutely. I'm going to sit here like a normal person and make small talk and have fun. Regardless of what's waiting for me at home. Nothing's going to ruin this for me.

They'd all decided to try a new Mexican place in the middle of town, all of them piling into Stan's Sonata and making the trek over; Molly tucked safely into her car seat. When they'd stepped outside of the gallery Kyle had tried to covertly look around the parking lot, wanting to see if Kenny's truck was there; slow terror waking up in his mind at the prospect of Craig seeing and recognizing it as the same vehicle that had dropped him off awhile ago.

"I rode over with Stan, Kyle," Kenny had said, watching Kyle with shaded blue eyes. "There's no way I'd let Molly ride around in that rusting deathtrap."

Kyle had been disturbed by Kenny's growing uncanny ability to pick up on his anxieties and inner-workings, but he'd played it off.

"I was just checking to make sure my lights weren't on. I don't need my car dying on me again." He'd laughed a little, ignoring Kenny's cocked eyebrow. "But you're right, dude; you totally need a new truck. Just saying."

"Here, babe," Stan said, handing Molly a freshly made bottle; the toddler snatching it up and beginning to drink greedily.

"Ugh, don't tell me we're watching your kid drink Wendy's -" Kenny broke off, gesturing at his chest; a look of disgust on his face.

Stan rolled his eyes, reaching out and taking a complimentary chip and dipping it in some salsa.

"Lighten up, dude. In the first place, breast milk isn't a big deal, and the second place, Molly drinks formula."

"That honestly surprises me," Kyle interjected, leaning forward and taking his own chip. "I know how...picky Wendy can be, I would've assumed she wanted to, you know, feed Molly with her -" he too broke off, gesturing at his chest and blushing hotly.

Stan laughed, covering his face with his hand; shaking his head a little.

"You two are such a trip," he said, covering his mouth as he chewed. "How can you be so shy about something so natural and basic? Babies eat, women feed them with their breasts; Wendy just chose not to after doing some research. She has nothing against breast milk and neither do I, we just decided it wasn't what we wanted to do; end of story."

"I'm sorry, Stan, it's just weird to think about Wendy, your wife, having boobs, okay?" Kenny asked, tucking into the chips as well. "Now, if she was Scarlett Johansson, boy let me tell you; that chick has got the hottest -"

Stan cleared his throat abruptly, cocking an eyebrow as he gestured to Molly, who was gazing at Kenny over her bottle.

"Cool it, man. Don't objectify women in front of my daughter."

Kenny snorted, leaning his head back.

"I'm not objectifying women, Stan. There's nothing wrong with admiring their...," he trailed off, thinking, "assets. That's it. Assets."

"You're never gonna change, are you?" Stan laughed, glancing at Kyle with a conspiratorial expression. "Dude's been a pervert since we were five; I guess I was expecting too much."

"Oh, leave him alone, Stan," Kyle smiled, bumping Kenny a little as he grabbed another chip; the flavors of salt and lemon water resting on his tongue. "Kenny's just responding to the call of the wild...his need to sow his wild oats."

"I'd prefer he keep his oats in one place," Stan replied, giving Kenny a pointed look before laughing again.

"That's not for you to say," Kenny replied flippantly before smiling and picking up his menu, studying it. "What are you guys thinking here? I'm kind of in the mood for chimichangas and a Corona."

"God, I haven't had a Corona in forever," Kyle said, studying his own menu. Craig had all but outlawed what he considered "low-brow" alcoholic beverages from their household, so Kyle had had to get used to upscale spirits: rare German ice wines, cognac, brandy, wine. He didn't care for any of it but it was important to Craig, so he'd just bit the bullet and went with it. Suddenly he wanted a cheap beer more than anything in the world.

"I'm having the burrito blanco," Stan said, throwing his menu down. "With Coke. Can't drink on baby watch, of course." Reaching out, he tousled Molly's dark hair.

"I should probably refrain, too," Kyle murmured, running a hand through his own curls. "It wouldn't do to go back to work tipsy. You know?"

Stan waved his hand, dismissing Kyle's words.

"I already talked to Wendy, Kyle. She said you can drink if you want. In fact, you can just go home after we're done here; she'll even pay you for the rest of the day."

Kyle's eyes widened and his heartbeat picked up its rhythm even though he couldn't have said why; vague annoyance working its way through his brain.

"Well, if you guys already made the decision for me," he replied, dropping his focus back to his menu and studying the spirits.

Out of the corner of his eye Kyle noticed Stan and Kenny exchanging a glance, immediately putting him on edge; it was very similar to the one they'd shared back at the gallery, almost like they were conspiring or something.

"We weren't making a decision for you, Kyle," Stan said, carefully. "It's just an option, okay? If you'd like to drink, drink...you'll be paid either way."

"I really don't feel like being paid for work I didn't do," Kyle said, hating his snobby tone of voice but not being able to dial it back. All at once he felt like he needed to be on his guard and he didn't know how to switch it off. It didn't help that he was having a very difficult time choosing something to eat; Craig always decided for him. He threw his menu down, frustration washing over him.

"I don't know what I want."

Stillness settled over the table before Kenny reached out, gently flipping the menu open and pointing to something.

"Fajitas," he said, his nail clean and short; making Kyle bite his lip just to notice such a small, unimportant detail. "You love steak fajitas, don't you? Why don't you have that?"

"Sure, that's fine," Kyle said, crossing his arms and not wanting to convey how thankful he was that the decision had been made for him. Not that Craig would've made a suggestion like that; if anything, he never would've looked twice at this restaurant, completely passing it by for something "nicer."

Trash, he would've said, rolling his eyes.

"And a Corona, right? Is that what you'd like, Kyle?" Kenny asked, closing the menu slowly and stacking it on top of his own. "Don't you like it with lime?"

"I love it with lime," Kyle said, softly; lifting his lemon-laced water and taking a careful sip. For a moment he studied Molly, who was still preoccupied with her bottle; blue eyes drooping slightly. "Stan, she's so pretty. You're so lucky."

Stan glanced at his daughter with obvious adoration, eyes softening and his face taking on an expression that Kyle had never seen before; almost like he was seeing his most vulnerable, tender side. He smiled just to see it, reaching out and smoothing some of the baby's hair from her face.

"I never could've seen myself as a father, honestly," Stan said, taking another chip and crunching on it; chewing thoughtfully. "But once she was born I don't know, it's like everything changed overnight."

"Everything did change overnight," Kyle replied, taking another sip of water. "I mean, it had to. All of a sudden it wasn't just you and Wendy anymore...suddenly you were responsible for another life. It's staggering, you know? But you guys are doing a great job."

"Hey, thanks," Stan said, grinning. "I always worry about that, actually; am I screwing her up? What am I doing wrong? But to hear someone say I'm doing okay, it really helps, honestly."

"Well, it's the truth, and it's obvious you adore her to the moon and back," Kyle said, looking up when the server approached their table. Glancing around, he suddenly felt uneasy; not wanting to go first and actually order for himself. He hadn't done that in ages and he was finding his anxiety spiking out of nowhere. Kyle looked at Kenny, arching a brow.

"You go first, since you're the guest of honor here."

"If you say so," Kenny replied, handing the menus to the server. "Chicken chimichanga and a Corona, please."

"Rice or refried beans?" The server asked, not bothering to write anything down; this only elevated Kyle's stress levels. What if the guy made a mistake?

"Both," Kenny grinned, patting his belly. "I'm super hungry today."

The server nodded his head and looked at Stan, waiting. Without missing a beat he ordered as well, asking for lemon to go with his Coke. He raised his eyebrows at Kyle.

"Your turn."

Kyle immediately blushed, knowing all eyes were on him and he was expected to perform like a normal human being. Frustration mixed in with his discomfort and he inwardly chastised himself; why the fuck was this so hard? It was almost like he didn't know how to exist without Craig pulling his strings or just speaking for him entirely.

"Uh, I'd like," he stammered, gripping the edge of the table. The wounds on his back throbbed and he could feel his mouth going dry; sweat collecting on his brow.

Just open your mouth and talk, dammit! Everyone's waiting for you; you're making a fool of yourself! If Craig were here, he'd -

Which only led to more anxiety. Kyle knew his husband didn't even want him to be there. He should've just gone to lunch with him, or actively refused the invitation to appease him. Why did he -

"He'd like the steak fajitas," Kenny suddenly spoke up, voice gentle and lacking any sort of irritation. "Oh, and a Corona with lime wedges on the side." He patted Kyle's hand. "Is that okay, dude?"

Kyle nodded his head slowly, dying of humiliation and shame on the inside while secretly adoring Kenny for being so intuitive.

"I'll need to see your ID, sir," the server said, only reinforcing his growing discomfort. Kyle cleared his throat as he awkwardly fished his wallet out of his pocket; an expensive gift from Craig from last Hanukkah. They always celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah because Craig wanted to support Kyle's heritage; his cultural background. It was really very sweet, right? Holding up his ID, Kyle studied the table as he waited.

"Okay, looks good," the server said, nodding his head and smiling. "Let me get your order in, and I'll be right back with those drinks."

Kyle began to pout as soon as he was gone.

"Why didn't he card you?" He asked, turning to Kenny with a look of mild irritation.

Kenny buffed his nails on his hoodie, appearing very pleased with himself.

"It must be all this rugged manliness," he bragged. "Naturally, I look very mature for my age."

"Goddammit, I'm fucking 29 years old. You wouldn't think I'd get carded every time I buy alcohol at a restaurant." Kyle stuffed his wallet back in his pocket, feeling supremely annoyed and agitated; his anxiety still rushing through his blood. Why couldn't he just fucking be normal, and why did he have to look like a kid?

"Dude, take it as a compliment and move on," Stan said, taking Molly's empty bottle from her, wiping some residual formula from the corner of her mouth. "You always fixate on shit like this. Who cares?"

"I don't think there's anything wrong with caring about how the world perceives you," Kenny spoke up, reaching out and grabbing another chip.

Kyle placed a hand on Kenny's arm and leaned toward him a little, elated that he actually understood.

"See," he said, narrowing his eyes at Stan. "He gets it. Thank you, Kenneth."

"Anytime, Broflovski," Kenny smirked, cramming the chip in his mouth.

Stan shrugged slightly when Kyle lifted his eyebrows in question. He hadn't been referred to by his old surname in years.

"Kenny," he replied, clearing his throat carefully. "You know I took Craig's last name, right?"

Kenny was silent for a moment, masticating. Finally he swallowed, took a sip of water, set his glass down, then looked at Kyle.

"And?"

Kyle stared at him as several seconds elapsed, not really sure how to respond. He was also slightly taken aback by Kenny's somewhat aggressive tone.

"I mean, is that a problem?"

"Of course not," Kenny replied. "But it's not like the person you were before just disappears once you take another person's name, right? On some level you're still Kyle Broflovski, aren't you?"

"Well, sure. But -"

"Even though Tucker's doing a hell of a job trying to make you forget about the person you used to be. He thinks he's so fucking smart," Kenny muttered, leaning back when the server returned with their drinks. Once he was gone, Kenny clutched at his Corona and took a long sip; smacking his lips.

"That hits every spot right there."

Kyle hadn't touched his drink though or the lime wedges. Stan was quietly squeezing a lemon into his coke while rattling a set of toy keys in Molly's face; she was not entertained, opting to stare with wide eyes at Kenny instead.

"Kenny, are you going to explain what you're talking about?" Kyle asked quietly. The music playing overhead seemed to amplify in that moment, the lights becoming slightly brighter; Kyle picked up his Corona with a shaking hand, willing himself to keep it together.

Kenny waved his hand, leaning back and taking another long drink. He rolled his eyes and tried to adopt his casual winning grin, but Kyle wasn't buying it.

"Sorry, don't listen to me. I shouldn't have said that."

"You're right," Kyle agreed, voice still subdued. "But I'd still like to know what you mean because you clearly don't like my husband. Am I right?"

Snorting, Kenny rubbed his hand through his hair and glanced away; eyes traveling up the aisle and away from Kyle's searching gaze.

"Seriously, Kyle? Don't put me on the spot like this."

Kyle cocked a brow, some of his old fire leaking back into his brain; putting snap in his retort.

"Oh, but it's okay for you to put me on the spot? It's okay for you to say rude shit but you don't have to explain your reasoning? Nice, dude; really nice."

Kenny finally looked back at him, sharp, blue eyes narrowing slightly.

"Look, it was one lousy comment, dude. Stop getting so bent out of shape."

"No, it wasn't just one comment, Kenny. You've made multiple comments, little jabs, about Craig, and I'd like to know why. What's your problem, huh?"

Kenny looked at Stan, his face incredulous. It was almost like he couldn't make any sense out of what Kyle was saying.

"Is he for real?" He asked, gesturing at Kyle.

"Kenny," Stan replied, taking a drink of his coke like he wanted any excuse to look away. When he was finished, he finally looked Kyle full in the eyes and his expression was almost pained; overwhelmingly apologetic. "Go easy on him, okay? We're supposed to be trying to help, not -"

"Whoa, wait," Kyle interjected, holding up the hand not clasped around the beer bottle. "What the hell are you talking about, Stan? Who are you helping?"

Kenny and Stan exchanged yet another furtive glance, infuriating Kyle beyond measure. He placed his bottle down with a thunk.

"You guys are seriously pissing me off right now. If you don't -"

"How's everything over here?" The server said, appearing out of nowhere; hands rubbing together as he took in the state of their drinks. "Did you guys need more chips? It won't be too long before your food's ready but I can definitely top you off."

"Sure, fine. Yeah, more chips," Stan sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Molly watched as the server gathered up the basket and walked away, she looked back at Kyle with a solemn look; almost appearing sleepy.

"Well?" Kyle asked. "Is anyone going to tell me what's going on?"

"God, I really didn't want to get into this heavy shit so quickly," Kenny said, rubbing his face; his Corona already halfway gone.

"Okay, enough of the casual swearing, you guys," Stan chimed in, gesturing to Molly. "Little pitchers have big ears. Got it?"

"What is this, little house on the fu-," Kenny broke off, covering his mouth. "I mean, sure, right. I'll watch my language, daddy."

The sound of the word 'daddy' passing through Kenny's lips made Kyle suck in a breath which promptly went down the wrong pipe; he began to hack violently.

"Dude! Drink some beer!" Kenny said, rubbing his back; causing Kyle to cringe away. He didn't want Kenny to feel his sutures through his shirt.

Hurriedly, he reached out and grabbed his beer, taking a long swig. Finally, the coughing fit subsided and he just stared at his friends, feeling equal parts anger, fear, and that horrible sensation of being cornered; how he loathed it.

"I'm fine," he choked, ingesting a fair amount of beer pretty quickly. "I just want to know why you two are ganging up on me."

"What? No, dude!" Kenny said, putting a hand on Kyle's shoulder; it took everything in him not to move away. "We aren't ganging up on you, we just want to make sure you're okay."

"I've told you before that I'm okay, Kenny. Wasn't that enough for you?"

"Frankly, no, it wasn't," Kenny said, his tone flippant. "And you're right, Kyle. I don't like Craig. I never have, but I especially don't like him now."

"I-I don't understand," Kyle replied, placing the bottle down again and then going about lining up his napkin and utensils along the edge of the table; making sure everything was in a nice, neat row. "Craig's always been really good to me. You both know that." He glanced at Stan, silently pleading for him to intervene; Stan just watched him with a resolute, passive expression, his eyes soft with what had to be pity.

"You both literally just saw him come to my work just so he could buy something for me," Kyle said, almost laughing now. "He made a special trip even though he's usually super busy with patients, just for me; just so he could make me happy." He shook his head. "But you don't like him? I seriously don't get your line of reasoning."

"So he bought you something, big deal," Kenny replied, finishing his beer and setting it aside softly. He clasped his hands together and brought them up, resting them against his mouth. "It's easy to buy someone something, but what else does he do for you?"

Kyle could only sit there for a moment, blindsided by Kenny's question but also taken aback that an answer didn't immediately jump to his mind that didn't have some negative connotation. He scrambled trying to think of something to defend Craig, and by extension, himself.

"He takes care of me, looks out for me," he said, unable to look either of them in the face. Glancing at Molly, he noticed that she'd fallen asleep slumped over in her highchair; her long eyelashes laying prettily against her smooth skin. "He wants to know everything about me...like I'm the most interesting thing in the world to him."

"There's the operative word, 'thing,'" Kenny muttered, rolling his eyes. "He treats you like you're an ornament or something; almost like you're a trophy wi-"

"Don't you fucking say that!" Kyle seethed, shifting in the booth so he was facing Kenny directly; mind awash with fury. He'd been called a trophy wife by Craig's colleagues in the past but damned if he was going to let Kenny fucking McCormick refer to him by that term. "You don't even know what you're talking about! You haven't seen me in years; you don't know anything!"

"You're right, I haven't," Kenny replied, turning and also seeming to become angry in his own right. He pointed at Stan. "But, you've seen Stan ever since you got married to Tucker, and you work with his wife; people notice more than you realize, Kyle. God, like I said before, none of us are blind!"

"It's true, Kyle," Stan murmured, finally speaking up. "We're best friends and I know when something is wrong or off with you. You've been working at the gallery for almost three years at this point and the things that make me worry just keep piling up." He started tapping his fingers, listing things off. "You've missed so many days, and then when you come back you seem so detached and gone, almost like you aren't really there at all." He shifted uncomfortably, looking away for a moment before taking a deep breath and staring directly in Kyle's face.

"And we've seen the marks, the bruises...the way you seem to be in so much pain sometimes like you can barely stand it." He studied Kyle, his frown deepening and the sorrowful look in his eyes only intensifying. "Like, right now? I can see the bruises on your face. They're faint, but they're there; you can't fool us."

"I'm not trying to fool anyone," Kyle muttered, crossing his arms and sitting back; openly fuming even as he wanted to crumble and beg for help. More than anything he wanted to open his mouth and usher in his own deliverance, but he just couldn't; where would he even start? Besides, Craig was his husband, the person he loved; there was no way he could sell him out like this. God, why couldn't people understand? Why did outsiders insist on prying?

"Not to mention the fact that I basically never get to see you anymore," Stan added, raw bitterness appearing in his voice; shredding Kyle's heart. "The only way I can see you is if I come to the gallery, and that's if you're actually at work that day. I can't just call you up and ask if you want to go do something, no, you have to -"

"Get permission," Kenny finished for him, shaking his head.

"Whatever, I didn't have to ask for permission to go out to lunch with you the other day, Kenny," Kyle scoffed, small tremors beginning to build up in his body. He felt like a skittish, terrified animal; backed into a corner.

"Yeah, but you were still a wreck." Kenny glanced at Stan. "We were out for barely an hour and then he freaked out, completely terrified."

"I'm not surprised," Stan replied, wiping his mouth with his hand. "Wendy told me he's almost had a full-fledged panic attack in the past if he doesn't leave work at a certain time. Apparently, Kyle has a curfew."

"I'm surprised that psychotic asshole hasn't just put a tracking device on him," Kenny sneered.

"Will you two please stop talking about me like I'm not even fucking here?!" Kyle finally exclaimed, "I'm not a goddamn child! I can speak for myself!"

It was after this outburst that their food finally arrived, the server appearing with a tray full of dishes. Kyle clammed up and watched as he laid out their plates, the way the steam from the fragrant food curled upward and disappeared. Crossing his arms, he could vaguely hear the server tell them to enjoy and then walk away, his thoughts a jumble as he frantically tried to alternate between devising an escape and trying to salvage the remainder of this outing. Silence lay over the table like a weighted mantle as everyone muddled through their own thoughts, Kenny finally biting the bullet and attempting to make peace.

"You're right, Kyle. We shouldn't talk about you like you aren't here; that was fucked up."

"He's right, dude. We didn't mean anything by it, we're just worried; you have to understand," Stan added, flicking his eyes to Molly briefly; she was still fast asleep.

"I guess I can understand you two being worried about me," Kyle said, softly. "You're just looking out for me, and I appreciate that, but I don't need it. I also think it's kind of screwed up that you invited me out under false pretenses. What is this, an intervention or something?"

Kenny snorted.

"Really? False pretenses? Dude, we wanted to see you, first and foremost, but we also knew that a come to Jesus talk was necessary too; especially now."

Kyle just stared at him, raising an eyebrow.

"You want to have a come to Jesus talk with a Jew. For real?"

"Quit being an ass, Kyle," Stan interjected, sounding tired. "You know what he meant."

"No, I don't! I have no fucking clue what he means! What are we even talking about right now?!"

Turning, Kenny put his hands on Kyle's shoulders, ignoring him when he flinched; green eyes wide with fear and such a tired wariness that sometimes Kyle couldn't even fathom how he kept going. Shaking him lightly, Kenny stared into his face with so much concern and sincerity it almost made Kyle want to cry.

"He hurts you, Kyle," Kenny said, his voice hitching a little. "He controls you. He intimidates you. He's changed you so much that I can't even recognize you anymore; can you?"

Staring into Kenny's honest, kind eyes proved to be too much for Kyle, and he angrily shook him off.

"I'm not going to listen to this; any of this. It's all bullshit based on assumptions and conjecture. You have absolutely no proof to support anything you're saying. If anything, I have nothing but proof supporting the fact that Craig treats me well: a beautiful home, my own art studio, a fucking rose garden, Hamilton tickets for next month in Denver -"

"I'm pretty sure you could give us all the proof we need by just taking your shirt off," Kenny murmured, effectively sealing Kyle's lips and rendering him unable to respond for a moment. Silently, he clutched at his face, covering it. Against his will, hot, angry tears started to pour out of his eyes.

"Why?" He whispered, hating his weakness and the immobilizing frustration and hopelessness that superseded everything else. "Why are you asking me this now? I've been married to Craig for five years. Why here, why today?"

Kenny looked at Stan, nodding his head a little, almost like he was silently handing over the reins for a moment.

"I know that Kenny made you aware that I've been giving him updates on you for years, ever since you married Craig," he started, tucking some hair behind his ear; the golden overhead lights becoming captured in its blue-black richness. "We've both been trying to think of a way to broach this subject with you, but we could never think of a way. Besides, it'd just be out word against Craig's, right?"

"We needed proof, and we knew you weren't going to give it to us, right?" Kenny asked, jumping back in.

Kyle just stared at them stone-faced, unwilling to be of any help whatsoever; still waiting for them to get to the point.

"Anyway, I travel for my job a lot but you already knew that," Kenny continued, rubbing the back of his neck. "It was during one of my business trips that I got into contact with someone I hadn't seen in ages. This dude had seriously just fallen off the grid and I could never figure out why."

"So?" Kyle asked, thoroughly done with this conversation. He reached out and took a hold of his fork, spearing a piece of steak.

Kenny shot him a look but went on anyway, clearly trying to keep his temper in check.

"I was honestly surprised the guy responded to me when I put a shout out on Facebook that I was in the area. I usually do that wherever I go, and more often than not there's someone close enough to go out and get drinks with. I never would've figured this guy ended up in -"

"Kenny, just get to the point. Tell Kyle who you saw and what you talked about," Stan interjected gently.

"Fine, fine," Kenny replied. Flagging down the server, he ordered another Corona. "I need to fortify myself for this," he added, grinning at Kyle who just rolled his eyes.

 "I can't believe you, Stan," Kyle said, throwing Stan a withering look. "Setting me up like this. If you had something to say, you could've done it in private. You didn't need to turn this into some stupid spectacle."

"Right, like you ever have private time anymore," Stan replied, digging into his burrito. "Like I said, the only time I get to see you is when you're at work, and I'm pretty sure you didn't want to have this conversation there."

"I don't want to have this conversation at all!"

"You don't say?" Kenny asked, accepting a fresh bottle of Corona from the server with a friendly nod. He took a long drink, watching Kyle the whole time. "Face it, Kyle; this is happening. It's for your own good."

Out of all the things Kenny could've said in that moment, that was probably the absolute worst one: for your own good. Kyle immediately went on the defensive, even more so than before; his claws coming out and his walls going up. Craig had a habit of telling him what was for his own good regularly, and he wasn't about to accept it from anyone else.

"For my own good," he repeated, almost like he was in a trance; an angry, disbelieving trance. Who the fuck did he think he was? Kyle cleared his throat, sitting back and picking up his own Corona. He took a languid sip.

"What would you even know about what's for my own good, Kenny? Really. I mean, I haven't seen you in years, we haven't even talked either, and suddenly, just out of the clear blue sky you've suddenly decided you have a say in how I run my life? That's pretty fucking presumptuous, don't you think?"

"Hey, I'm your friend even if we don't see each other all the time," Kenny said, clearly becoming defensive as well. "And who's trying to tell you how to run your life? I'm just trying to help!"

"What, you think just because you sent me some photos and took me to lunch a couple times we're suddenly super close again?"

"Case in point, the photos," Kenny replied, an edge creeping into his voice. "That fucker even needs to control those. I don't believe for one second he was buying that picture for you just to be nice."

"'I'm not taking a handout,'" Stan chimed in, mimicking Craig's nasally way of speaking. "Dude, I can't stand the way he talks to Wendy. She's nicer than I am because I would've knocked his ass out already."

"Then why haven't you?" Kyle snapped, quickly reaching the end of his rope.

"Because we're playing nice for your sake!" Stan replied, his voice rising. "We've been playing nice for years, but enough is enough!"

"Molly likes him," Kyle mumbled, beginning to detach; his typical defense mechanisms coming into play. He didn't want to be here right now, he didn't want to listen to any of this. Perversely, he would've preferred to be at home dealing with Craig's temper than sitting here having to answer for it.

"Molly's a baby, she doesn't know any better," Stan said, glancing at his daughter who continued to snooze. "My first instinct when Craig offered to hold her was to snatch her up, but once again, I was playing nice."

"Well, aren't you a goddamn saint?" Kyle asked, rolling his eyes. He pushed his plate away, his appetite completely obliterated. "I like how you can even twist a nice gesture into something negative," he added, glancing at Kenny. "Craig bought the picture for me because I told him it was my favorite. He was trying to make me happy."

"Fine, maybe I'm wrong about that," Kenny conceded. "But I know I'm not wrong about everything else."

"Whatever," Kyle replied, beginning to become even more detached, and when that happened he had a tendency to become reasonably petty. "Are you sure you're not just being pissy because I wouldn't let you kiss me the other day?"

"Wait, hold up. What?" Stan asked, eyes widening; he stared at Kenny.

Kenny blushed while pulling at his collar; Kyle smirked. Good, let him be on his guard now; see how he liked it.

"That's beside the point," Kenny finally said, refusing to meet Kyle's eyes directly. "And you know it."

"There is no point," Kyle replied, completely shutting down. "To any of this. Can we get the check, please? I'm ready to go."

"Why don't you try telling Tweek that then," Kenny said, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle's arm. "Because he seemed to think your situation is pretty fucking important."

Kyle turned to Kenny, open mouthed and completely at a loss for words. Hearing Tweek's name in any capacity was always startling, immediate apprehension cropping up in his brain. Craig never said it, and when Kyle even acted like he was going to mention his ex's name his husband immediately became enraged.

"W-when did you see him?" Kyle asked, softly; his voice just a ghost at this point, much like Tweek.

"A couple weeks ago, right before I decided to come back here," Kenny replied, running a hand through his hair. "He lives really far away, Kyle, but I'm not going to tell you where because he made me promise. He doesn't really want anyone to know where he is, that's why I was so surprised he was willing to meet up in the first place."

"What did he say?" Kyle turned, eyes widening as he alternated between dangerous curiosity and sickening apprehension. He had a feeling he was going to regret helping to open this can of worms, but Craig was so hush-hush about his past, he couldn't help wanting to learn more even if it meant hurting himself in the process.

"Well, I told him you were married to Tucker now, and you would've thought that an A-bomb went off in the bar." Kenny glanced at Stan, who was also deeply engrossed in what he was saying. "I guess you aren't friends with him on Facebook or anything -"

"I'm not on Facebook anymore," Kyle supplied, voice still quiet and tense. "Neither is Craig."

"Tweek's on like self-imposed lockdown, it seems," Kenny continued, toying with his fork. "I don't know if he's kept in contact with anyone else, he didn't really give me the details. He's also made his Facebook really hard to find. The only reason I'm friends with him is because he sent me a request awhile back; I guess he thought I could keep my mouth shut? I don't know."

"That'll be the day," Kyle said, looking away innocently.

"Hey, knock off the attitude already, okay? I don't have to put up with your crap just because -" Kenny stopped and clamped his mouth shut.

"Just because what?" Kyle asked, staring at him; daring him to just unload all of the venom he had stored away. Kenny just shook his head.

"Kyle, do you know why Craig and Tweek aren't together anymore? Did he ever tell you?"

"We don't really talk about that," Kyle said, carefully. "But he made it sound like he broke up with Tweek because he did something bad. I don't know any of the details."

"Figures he'd skew it to make Tweek look like the bad guy," Stan spoke up. "Everyone else is always at fault, aren't they? Never Craig."

"Dude, Craig didn't break up with Tweek," Kenny said, giving Kyle a pointed look. "So just forget about that. Tweek dumped Craig, but before he had a chance to leave, Craig, well..." he looked down, biting his bottom lip.

"What? What did he do?" Kyle asked, beginning to shift toward the end of the booth. Suddenly the room was becoming kind of hazy, the air becoming denser and too warm.

"Kyle, Craig hurt him. Bad," Kenny said, looking up with sad eyes; they almost appeared wet. "And it wasn't the first time. That's why Tweek finally had enough and was getting ready to leave. Craig caught him, though."

Nausea crawled up Kyle's throat at Kenny's words, almost like he had the ability to step back from his life momentarily and see it for what it was. To know that Craig had acted this way before, and with another person he supposedly loved, was too much for Kyle to bear. He clamped a hand to his mouth.

"I need to get out of here," he croaked out, starting to rise. He gripped at the table. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Whoa, hold on," Stan said, standing as well. "Just let me get the check and get Molly together, okay? Then we can -"

"No, I can't hold it," Kyle said, backing away while frantically looking for the restroom. Finally he saw the sign for the men's room back and in the corner of the room; wordlessly, he turned and ran toward it. He knew that he was going to vomit any moment, the culmination of his nerves and hearing about Tweek finally pushing him over the edge. Slamming into the bathroom, he sprinted for the first stall and barely made it before he was emptying the contents of his stomach in the toilet; terrible heaves wracking his entire body.

"Kyle?" Kenny's voice broke across the white silence of the bathroom, but Kyle couldn't even lift his head to regard him; moaning softly as he continued to dry heave. He barely had anything in his stomach to begin with, so it wasn't too long before he started bringing up burning bile.

All at once, Kenny found Kyle and stood beside him, brushing his hair off of his forehead and murmuring nonsensical words of reassurance and encouragement; this small gesture of kindness simultaneously breaking Kyle's heart and filling him with fragile hope.

"It's going to be okay, Kyle," he said, softly. "I'm sorry I had to bring any of this up, but we want to help you if we can. If you'll let us."

"I just want to go home," Kyle whispered, wiping his mouth. Shaking, he reached up and flushed the toilet; the remnants of his scant lunch and breakfast washing away in the swirl. "Please, just let me go home for now."

********

Through a herculean effort, Kyle somehow found the strength to drive himself home from the gallery, his nausea and fatigue still plaguing him relentlessly; Kenny and Stan all but forbidding him to go home to Craig, not after the discussion they'd had at the restaurant.

"I'm a grown man, you guys," Kyle said quietly, his hand resting on the top of his car for support. "If I want to go home, I'll go home. You can't stop me."

"Please, just think about it, okay?" Kenny pleaded with him while Stan hung back, holding a groggy Molly in his arms. "If you need a place to stay you can crash with me; for as long as you want! Just don't," he stopped, biting a trembling lower lip. After a moment, he found his composure. "You don't have to go back to a person that hurts you, Kyle. You have options. You don't have to do this just because it's what you're used to."

"I'm sorry about what happened to Tweek, I really am," Kyle replied, tiredly. "But that doesn't mean what happened to him is happening to me. You guys don't have the first clue about my relationship with Craig. It's all speculation."

"But the bruises, the wounds...all the time you've missed from work," Stan said, walking forward to stand beside Kenny. "Kyle, we can't just look the other way."

"Then I don't know what to tell you, because you're wrong." Kyle clenched his fists, trying to steady himself. Even he couldn't make sense of his behavior, but the deep-seated desire to protect Craig was paramount in his mind, because in a way it was almost like he was trying to protect himself as well. His entire world could implode if outsiders got involved, and he just didn't feel like he had the strength to withstand everything being uprooted. Even though his growing rage was serving to fortify him, sustain him, he just wasn't ready to take this step; it was asking too much right now. No, it was better to hide, and hide well.

"Fine, then we'll just go to your house and have a talk with Tucker ourselves," Kenny announced, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his keys. "He can't fucking write us off if we go to his house, can he?"

"No, he could just call the cops, though," Kyle said, holding onto the car for dear life; every emotion converging on him at once. For a moment he almost thought he was going to pass out, but he took long breaths, trying to steady himself. "Which he would, saying you were trespassing or whatever. Or harassing him."

"Right, we're the ones harassing him," Kenny sneered. "Meanwhile he's using his own husband as a punching bag."

"Kenny, stop," Stan said, putting his hand on Kenny's shoulder. "Rolling up on Craig's house and making a scene isn't going to help anyone, especially Kyle."

"But you just said we can't look the other way! Stan, fucking grow a backbone here, please!"

"I have a backbone, but I also don't want to do anything that'll make Kyle's situation worse," Stan snapped, Molly's head drooping onto his shoulder. "Fucking think clearly, Kenny. Don't let your emotions get in the way here."

"What the fuck ever, Dr. Phil," Kenny said, running his hands through his hair, making it stand wildly on end. "You saw the look on Tucker's face today. If we let Kyle go home that motherfucker is going to do something. I promise you."

"Kyle, please reconsider what you're doing," Stan said, glancing at Kyle. "Please. You have places you can go, and plenty of people who want to help you."

Kyle opened the car door and threw his bag across the seat, where it landed on the floor of the passenger side.

"That's great, Stan, and I really appreciate your concern, but I don't need help. Period." He glanced at Kenny, softening slightly. "Thanks, man; I mean it. Give me some space for awhile and when I'm ready, we can get together again. How long are you going to be in town?"

"For as long as I need to be," Kenny replied, deflating noticeably as he stuffed his keys back in his pocket. "Kyle, come on. You aren't being -"

"I have to go," Kyle cut him off, climbing into his car and shutting the door. Starting it, he rolled the window down. "Thanks for lunch, you guys. It was really nice getting together."

Kenny ran toward the car, taking a hold of the window so Kyle couldn't drive off.

"Listen, Kyle. Don't do this, don't be like this. We just want to make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine," Kyle snapped, putting the car in reverse. "I'm not talking about this anymore. Now let go of my car so I can go home and be sick in my own fucking bathroom!"

"Fine, but you aren't leaving without my phone number," Kenny said, reaching into his pockets. He pulled out a little piece of scrap paper and glanced at Kyle, cocking an eyebrow. "You got a pen?"

"Sure, why not?" Kyle sighed, reaching over and grabbing a pen from his bag. Reluctantly, he poked it out the window where Kenny took it, hurriedly scribbling down his number. He handed both articles back to Kyle, looking at him expectantly.

"I expect you to call me as soon as you need help. Understand?"

"Of course. It's not like I have a say in any of this anyway," Kyle replied, his tone becoming caustic. "Can I please go home so I can throw up in peace now? Or did you have some more demands to make? I swear, dude, you're just as bossy as Craig."

"I'm nothing like him!" Kenny all but yelled, making Kyle cringe against his seat. "I'll never be like him! That guy's a fucking monster!"

"Well, that's your opinion," Kyle replied, glancing behind Kenny to see that his shouting woke Molly up. She was looking around, bleary eyed and confused. Kyle smiled tenderly and waved. "Bye bye, melancholy Molly," he called, his voice garnering the baby's attention. "I'll see you soon, okay? I promise." He waved to Stan as well. "Later, man. It was nice seeing you."

"Right, yeah," Stan sighed, hugging Molly close and appearing so sad Kyle couldn't stand looking at him.

"Hit me up in a few days, Kenny," Kyle said. "I need some time to myself so I can think. Is that okay?"

"I guess it's going to have to be," Kenny replied, stepping back; blue eyes still wild.

Waving once more, Kyle started driving toward the exit, stopping momentarily with his hands clenched on the wheel; his mind awash with indecision.

Maybe I could just tell them a little bit of what's going on, he mused. That wouldn't be a big deal, would it?

Sudden thoughts of the basement and Craig's cold fury sprang to mind, coupled with those tender late-night moments where his husband held him close while they lay in bed, whispering of love and devotion. Kyle shook his head, completely at a loss as to how he should proceed, only knowing that he desperately wanted to be alone for awhile. After what felt like an eternity, he finally turned out of the lot and headed toward home, his friends growing smaller and smaller in his rear view mirror.

******

Stepping into the hushed and still house, Kyle had never felt more alone than he did in that moment. It was at times like this, when he was forced to come face to face with his own solitude, that he regarded the giant house as almost a living thing, swallowing him whole as soon as he passed over the threshold. It was with eternal gratitude for the powers that be that Kyle also noticed the absence of Craig's car in the circular drive, so at the very least he was able to catch his breath before having to face yet another interrogation. Setting his bag on the counter, he pulled out his diary and readied himself to write, laying the book aside on the kitchen table; a fountain pen sitting on its cover.

Before settling down, he changed into a pair of baggy sweats and one of Craig's old t-shirts, dropping his vomit-flecked work clothes into the hamper. He waited a moment, deciding whether or not he needed to use the bathroom again, but his stomach thankfully stayed in one place, so he swished some Listerine in his mouth to rid it of the terrible aftertaste of his own illness. Once he felt reasonably pulled together, he traveled back to the kitchen where he stared at his diary for a moment, attempting to put his thoughts in order so he could sit down to write, to rid himself of so much poison.

If I don't hurry I'll never finish before Craig comes home, he thought, toying with the pen; tapping it on the table. But I have so much to say. Where the fuck can I even start?

Kyle had the acute feeling that too much had been dropped on him at once, and now he was merely floundering in the aftermath. For so long he thought he'd been doing the perfect job of covering up his reality from the outside world, but in less than a day, an hour, really, he'd been made aware of the fact that his nightmare was on display for all to see; he hadn't fooled anyone. Unless he counted himself, of course; he was probably the biggest fool in this entire situation.

Sighing, he pushed away from the table and dropped the pen, heavy and plated with gold and platinum; yet another gift from his husband. Vaguely, he wondered if Craig bought outlandish, expensive gifts for Tweek as well, and whether or not he bought them before or after manhandling him.

No. Just because Tweek made a claim like that, doesn't mean it's true. Maybe he cheated on Craig and he got caught, so he's just trying to make up excuses so he doesn't look like the bad guy.

But on the underside of these thoughts lay something decidedly sinister, almost like if you were to flip the ideas over they'd be coated in fresh blood. The idea made the bile rise once again in Kyle's throat, and he frantically tried to clear his head. That didn't stop his gaze from drifting away toward the basement door, waiting so pristine and innocently; the white paint flawless in the face of the golden sunshine flooding the room; the morning's rainfall having abated. Perhaps there were other basements out there, long ago rooms also built by his husband for a very specific purpose; muted, sterile confines that only knew the screams of its captives. Maybe he wasn't the only one who had suffered in a room like that, perhaps there was someone else out there who could understand his misery. Why did this thought make him feel so terribly lost?

"Because no one should suffer like that," he said, his voice almost breaking apart in the monumental silence of the empty house. "Not the way I have."

Standing, Kyle flipped the diary open and tucked Kenny's number inside, closing it slowly. He doubted he'd ever use it, only really using his phone to stay in contact with Craig or listen to music. Kyle never did anything too involved with it, knowing that his husband was just going to go behind him and check his history anyway. He'd made the mistake of clearing his history once and naturally it hadn't ended well once Craig caught wind of it. Tucking the diary back into the secret pocket of his bag, Kyle put it back on the counter in its customary place; not really having the desire to write in that moment. No, he almost felt like he needed to wander mindlessly.

Almost without really realizing what he was doing, Kyle walked over to the basement door and placed a hand on its cool wood, gazing up at it almost like he'd never seen it before; almost like he'd forgotten what lay on the other side. He'd never once gone down there without being forced by Craig, usually dragged against his will, but there were other times he'd gone willingly; almost like he was a prisoner being led to their planned execution. When he was home alone he avoided even passing by the door when he could, so actually opening it up and going down the stairs was almost unheard of, so why was the draw suddenly there?

Slowly, he placed his hand on the doorknob and waited for a moment, closing his eyes; envisioning what he was contemplating walking into: cool whiteness and sterile silver, the faint scent of old bloodshed coupled with cleaner. He shuddered, but he opened the door anyway, opening his eyes and gazing down the flight of stairs. Tentatively, he reached out a foot and placed it on the top step, almost feeling like something would grab him any moment; an unearthly hand reaching up from under the stairs and dragging him to hell. Taking a deep breath, he fought through his mounting hysteria and stepped down completely, exhaling heavily as he contemplated his descent.

Against his will, the little poem used in times of punishment rang through his head, and he focused on these words as he slowly went down the steps:

Your heart is a dish,
Fill it with joy
And it will quench sorrow.
Fill it with sorrow
And it will drown joy.

Over and over he chanted the poem in his brain, until finally he'd made it to the basement proper, and he was surrounded by the clinical horrors used when Craig was caught up in his sadistic glory; the restraints waiting on the wall where Kyle was strapped in so he couldn't move. He was standing in the place where he was stripped of his clothing usually, and then Craig would lead him over and -

Unbidden, the tears he'd started to cry at the restaurant came back, and Kyle knelt down and pressed his face to his knees, beginning to sob.

What did he do to you, Tweek? Did he do the same things to you that he's doing to me? Was he just practicing on you so he'd know what he was doing in the future? Were you the first? Am I the last?

"Why didn't I let them help me?" Kyle sobbed, raising his head so he could become lost in the sterile glow of the fluorescent lighting overhead. "Why couldn't I just open my mouth and tell them the truth? What's wrong with me?"

Looking down, Kyle noticed a small mark, and getting down on his hands and knees, he inspected it.

"Blood. My blood," he murmured, passing a finger over the small red blot. "I guess even Craig can miss things on occasion."

Lying on the cold floor, Kyle curled himself up into a ball as he continued to cry, his hand resting on the tiny speck of blood; his mind spiraling as he drifted. He wondered how old the bloodstain was, he wondered where Tweek was, he wondered what Kenny and Stan were doing as he had a breakdown on his basement floor; surrounded by instruments whose sole purpose were to break him down and bend him to his husband's will. A familiar thought came to him and he wondered for the millionth time: why? Just why? Why did it have to be like this?

"I just need to learn to behave," Kyle murmured, beginning to lapse into a warm weariness that wasn't altogether unpleasant; the aftermath of being extremely upset. "As long as I do what Craig tells me to, I'll be okay for the most part. Right?"

Cold terror broke through Kyle, though; interrupting his fatigue. He still had to deal with Craig when he came home that night. No doubt he was going to be displeased about Kyle going out to lunch. Naturally, he'd assume that Kyle had no intention of telling him he'd hung out with Stan and Kenny; no, he'd had to catch him in the act. He would also assume that Kyle was going to beg forgiveness instead of asking for permission, which was clearly unacceptable.

"I guess I'll just have to take my medicine, won't I?" Kyle asked, beginning to giggle; the sounds erupting from his mouth almost against his will. He pressed a fist against his lips, continuing to laugh. A sound overhead broke into his nearly hysterical laughter, and he lapsed into wide-eyed silence.

He heard a door slamming and then footsteps, and before too long -

"Kyle? Kyle, where are you?" Craig's voice broke through the stillness, making Kyle rise and stare up the stairs, the basement door still open and throwing white sunlight into the gloom. Sudden darkness blotted out the light and Craig was standing there, staring down at Kyle with raised eyebrows; obvious surprise distorting his features.

"What are you doing down here?" He asked, slowly descending the staircase; a large box in his hands. "You told me you hate going into the basement by yourself."

I hate going in the basement even when I'm not alone. You know that.

"I-I thought I heard something down here," Kyle replied, trembling as he slowly got to his feet. "So I came to take a look, and then I started feeling sick so I just laid down for a moment." He shrugged, keeping his eyes on the spot of blood on the floor; too afraid to look at Craig directly. "I know, I'm weird."

Out of the corner of his eye, Kyle saw Craig set the box down and come toward him. He tensed up, cringing away as his husband approached.

"Hey, calm down," Craig said, reaching out and cupping Kyle's face with his hands, forcing him to look up. "You were feeling sick? Are you okay? What's wrong?"

Kyle shook his head, leaning his cheek into Craig's cool hand and smiling. He'd almost considered telling Craig what had happened at lunch, how his friends weren't fooled at all, that on some level they knew their secret atrocities; Craig's actual character, but he refrained. If he brought that up, he could see himself slipping up and mentioning Tweek too, and then he could see the evening becoming just another nightmare, and this time he would've walked into the basement of his own accord; he wouldn't even need to be dragged. He shook his head and attempted to appear at ease; normal. Their brand of normal, anyway.

"I'm okay now, promise. Don't worry."

"I always worry," he replied, staring at Kyle with his special brand of intensity; a surgeon's sharp eyes. "I can't help it. I love you."

Kyle stared at him with wide, searching eyes, hardly expecting this turn of events. Where was the rage? Where was the violence? Hadn't he disobeyed?

"You aren't mad?" Kyle asked before really thinking about it. He slapped his hand over his mouth. "I-I'm sorry, just forget -"

"Why would I be mad?" Craig asked, appearing confused. He thought a moment, then smiled slowly. "Oh, about you going out with your friends? It's okay, Kyle; I could tell you didn't really want to go. You were just being polite, right?"

Completely taken aback, Kyle found the wherewithal to nod his head slowly. He was lying, but if Craig wanted to believe that he could go along with it.

"Besides, that isn't even important right now, love," Craig chirped, pulling Kyle into a tight hug. "I have great news for you, for both of us, actually."

"W-what? Tell me!" Kyle couldn't help but laugh, getting caught up in Craig's obvious joy.

Pulling away, Craig held Kyle at arms' length, beaming from ear to ear.

"I got a promotion, Kyle! Can you believe that? It means more money for us, for one thing, but more importantly, I'll get to work in the research side of things more often. Can you believe it?"

"Wow, really?" Gazing up at him with almost painful adoration, Kyle couldn't help but feel so proud of his husband in that moment. Craig worked so hard, not just for himself, but for Kyle; for their future. Wrapping his arms around Craig's waist, Kyle pulled him close, sighing into his chest. "That's amazing, Craig. I'm so happy for you."

"I knew you would be," Craig said, kissing the top of Kyle's head. "You're so good to me...always supporting me in whatever I want to do. Don't think I haven't noticed."

Kyle's heart almost burst with joy to hear his husband say those words, and he could almost forget where he was standing; the whips lining the walls and metal manacles on chains winking dully in the white lighting. He could even forget about the needle passing over and over through his skin, burning like fire when he hadn't been numbed first. Kyle could forget all of it in that moment, so long as he could drink in instances like this; being enfolded in his husband's arms and sharing his triumphs.

"In fact, I got you a present to celebrate," Craig smiled, pulling away and going to pick up the large box. He brought it back and presented it to Kyle with a flourish; the lid emblazoned with the word "Godiva" in swirling gold calligraphy. "Chocolates! Just don't eat too many and get fat on me, okay? I like you just the way you are," Craig said while handing the box to him and sliding his hands under his shirt; his skilled fingers passing over Kyle's sutures.

"Have I ever told you I love seeing your back covered in sutures?" Craig murmured, kissing Kyle's temple. "I know it's bizarre but there's just something about seeing the black threads against your pale skin, it's almost beautiful in a way. Sometimes I feel like you're a little bird I saved, except instead of fixing your wings I tore them off so you'd stay with me." Leaning back, he gazed into Kyle's face, his eyes warm with mirth and something else; a strange, nearly crazed light. Kyle just smiled back, heartbeat picking up at Craig's bizarre admission even though he wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt; he'd meant it to be sweet, after all.

"It's just a shame that you aren't feeling well," Craig said, frowning suddenly. "I wanted to take you out to celebrate. Oh, and to go over party plans."

"Wait, what. Party? What?" Kyle asked, trying to keep a handle on everything Craig was throwing at him. "What are you talking about?"

Craig shrugged, his hands still straying over Kyle's sutures; making him shiver.

"I just think it's time we had a party, don't you? I mean, we've never had one ever since we moved in here, and now we actually have a good reason to celebrate. You can even invite Stan and Kenny; anyone you want. What do you think?"

Kyle was silent for a moment, still trying to wrap his head around what he was hearing. Never in a million years did he think this was the conversation he'd be having with Craig, at least not after what had happened at the gallery.

"A party? Us? Here?" Kyle asked, looking around with disbelieving eyes. Naturally, they'd have to lock the basement door if they were going to have strangers in the house.

"Sure. I have complete faith that you'll be able to make it perfect, just like everything else you do," Craig said, nuzzling Kyle close and dropping little kisses along his cheek. "Would you do it for me? Please?"

Now Kyle was really reeling. It wasn't often that Craig said please or asked him to do anything. Usually it was an order, a command, and Kyle didn't have any choice but to do what he was told. Having an option had become almost a completely foreign concept to him. Feeling suddenly uneasy, he nodded his head, but his muscles remained tensed and ready to go on the defensive if need be.

"Of course, Craig. I'll do anything I can to help. I just want to make you happy; you know that."

"Wonderful! Now that that's settled," Craig said, tucking one of Kyle's curls behind his ear. "Do you feel up for going out? We'll go anywhere you want."

Throwing caution to the wind, Kyle decided to test the limits of Craig's unusual good mood; clinging to him while answering slowly.

"Actually, I really don't feel like going anywhere," he admitted. "I've kind of had my fill of being social, you know? Lunch really wore me out. Is it okay if we order in or something?"

Craig lapsed into silence and Kyle immediately regretted testing him, but then -

"You know, that's actually a good idea. Let's get Indian food. Does that sound okay?"

"T-that's perfect, sure," Kyle replied, hardly believing his good luck. Hugging Craig, he'd almost fallen into a chasm of tranquility when he suddenly remembered something, and he pulled away; eyes searching Craig's face.

"The lighthouse picture," he said. "Where is it? Are we still going to hang it up?"

For a moment, a brief stillness passed over Craig's face, but it flitted away as quickly as it came; leaving nothing but calm warmth in its wake.

"Don't worry, baby," he said, beginning to lead Kyle toward the stairs. "We'll hang it up as soon as I've found the perfect spot; don't you worry."

Chapter Text

Dear Rose, (I've suddenly decided that I adore your name. What about you?)

Oh, I'm in such a good mood today, Rose. I can't even tell you how happy I am, but I'm going to try (naturally).

Craig's been so kind lately, and I think that's about 90% of why I'm so euphoric, the other 10% is planning for the party. Initially I thought it was going to be terribly stressful (which it is, don't get me wrong) but there's just something about having an event to look forward to, you know? I'm always in better spirits when I have something to look forward to, and it's been so long since Craig asked me to do something so special for him; I feel so needed right now.

I mean, I always feel needed, of course. My main purpose is taking care of Craig and seeing to his needs, but it's rare that his needs extend to the outside world. He actually wants me to invite people over, and not just his friends and work colleagues; no, he wants me to invite family and my own friends! Finally I get to have people over and really show them how successful Craig has become, and they can see my roses and my studio...it's so exciting I can barely believe it's real.

This promotion Craig received has done wonders for him, Rose. It's like night and day, I swear. He's more easygoing and patient, he's less prone to anger and fits of temper. He hasn't mentioned the basement in almost a week, and the other day when I accidentally spilled coffee on his lab coat he didn't even make a fuss; he just took it off and asked me to get him a fresh one. In fact, and it feels weird writing this out but whatever, he hasn't hit me or really yelled at me since he told me about the promotion. It's crazy, Rose. I keep waiting to wake up because surely this is a dream. Craig hasn't been this sweet and forgiving since we were dating, and even then he was apt to become short-tempered and brooding.

Naturally I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there's no way this spell of good fortune could last indefinitely, but I'm going to milk it for all its worth, and for as long as I can. Can you blame me, Rose? I doubt it. Maybe Craig's cruelties stemmed from the position he had before. What do you think? Maybe it was the stress or he just didn't enjoy what he was doing, or the people he was working with...? He told me he's going to have more opportunities to get into the research aspect of things, which he seems very excited about (something about stem cell and regenerative biology...he always loses me when he lapses into his medical jargon), so I couldn't be happier for him, Rose. Honestly, I've always considered Craig's happiness my happiness, so I'm positively elated.

I only have a few concerns at this point, Rose. I'm very worried about throwing a party that will be up to Craig's standards (which are impossibly high on his most reasonable day), and I'm not sure how to patch things up with Kenny and Stan. Thankfully, Kenny has respected my wishes and given me space since we all went out to lunch, and so has Stan, but I can tell that Wendy is keeping even closer tabs on me than she was before. I'm almost positive she's reporting back to them on a daily basis, but I haven't given her anything to work with lately. Craig's been wonderful, home's been wonderful...everything is wonderful right now, bordering on beautiful. I'm so, so happy it's almost too much to hold inside...I want so badly to tell them about Craig's promotion and the party but I wanted to wait until the invitations came back. (Craig wants it to be a surprise party of sorts, so he isn't going to announce his promotion until the actual party...we both thought that would be fun, don't you?)

Maybe I'll just call Kenny up and ask him to stop by the gallery today, if he has a moment. I'd really like to talk things out with him, smooth over the misconceptions and misunderstandings. I'm sure he'll listen to me if I speak clearly and plainly, without letting my emotions get the best of me (like that'll ever happen, right?). Kenny's a really nice guy, Rose, and it's been so great reconnecting with him...he just needs to be set straight in regards to Craig, and what better time than now? I'll tell him about the party and how Craig is treating me like gold and then...then....

Then he can finally see that even though Craig has his moments, he's really a very nice person; that he loves me completely. He'll have to see, won't he?

Wish me luck, Rose. I think I'm going to call Kenny now (not from my phone, of course...even I'm not that crazy).

Always and Forever,

Your Kyle

PS: I can't believe how happy I am!!!

PPS: Can it last forever?

PPPS: I hope this feeling lasts forever....

******

Laying his pen aside, Kyle plucked up the bit of paper with Kenny's phone number on it, just staring at it for a moment. It had been an exceptionally quiet day at the gallery, and he could see Butters out of the corner of his eye cleaning the front windows, his wispy blonde hair lit up by the mid-afternoon sun. Lifting his gaze, Kyle glanced at the empty spot on the wall where the lighthouse photo had once been displayed, and a faint feeling of worry puckered in his belly for a moment.

I haven't seen the lighthouse since Craig bought it. He hasn't brought it up since I mentioned it in the basement, and I don't want to bother him about it, but still....

Craig had said that he wanted to find the "perfect place" to hang it, but Kyle couldn't even begin to think of where that might be. He could think of a dozen wonderful places right off the top of his head, but he wasn't about to badger Craig about anything if he didn't absolutely have to. The fact that Craig had gone out of his way to buy the picture for him in the first place meant so much to Kyle, so he didn't want to ruin the gesture by becoming a nag. Besides, his husband had been in such a good mood, he hardly wanted to rock the boat over something that wasn't overly important; even though he did feel the picture's absence terribly. He'd grown so fond of it, after all.

"Everything okay?" A sudden voice came out of nowhere, breaking into Kyle's thoughts and making him jump slightly; faint twinges of pain radiating through his swiftly healing back wounds. Glancing back, he saw Wendy watching him, her arms crossed.

"Of course," Kyle replied, sighing a little. He quickly shut his diary but kept Kenny's number in his hand, still intending to call him up and make amends. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Wendy shrugged and walked around the counter, leaning on it slightly. She was wearing her hair in a loose bun that day, errant tendrils falling to frame her face. She regarded Kyle with narrowed eyes full of unconcealed concern.

"I never know," she replied, honestly. "I just like to make sure, not that you'll really tell me anything."

"There isn't anything to tell, Wendy," Kyle said, his guard already beginning to go up. "I'm fine. Everything's -"

"Fine, right. I know," she said, resting her face in her hand. "Stan was asking about you last night."

"Oh? And what did you tell him?" Kyle looked away and pulled the phone toward him, the scrap of paper crumpled in his hand. He should probably call Stan, too.

"That there was nothing to tell, really. Although, I have noticed you've been in a very chipper mood lately."

Kyle smiled softly, thinking of Craig and how nice things had been. Just that morning they'd had before-breakfast sex, right after they'd woken up together. Kyle had found himself tucked into his husband's arms but for once it hadn't felt like being chained down; no, Craig had been cradling him. He flushed at the memory, at how tender Craig had been, whispering about his love in Kyle's ear....

"I'm happy," he murmured, flashing a grin at Wendy. "Very happy, actually."

"Really?" Wendy asked, the look of worried concern disappearing from her face while genuine relief took its place. "Well, that's good, Kyle. I'm really glad to hear that. Anything you'd like to share?"

"Not yet," Kyle said, assuming a mischievous air, even though he was dying to tell someone about everything going on. "But you'll know all the details soon enough, I promise."

"I look forward to it," Wendy replied, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. She glanced at the phone. "Were you about to call someone? Did you want me to leave?"

"Yeah, I was, and could you?" Kyle winced, still grinning, but apologetically now. "Not because I don't want you to know who I'm calling, but I'm probably going to make an ass of myself, so...."

"I totally get it," Wendy said, standing up straight and waving her hands. "I was just about to send Butters to the store anyway. I'll leave you alone."

"Thanks," Kyle said, softly. He watched Wendy as she walked away, her ballet flats whispering across the floor; slender body clothed in a tank top and a wispy, fluttery skirt the color of the summer sky. In that moment he could barely contain his feelings of fondness for her, Stan's other half. Sure, she could be overbearing and pushy, nosy too, but she meant well, and that just made her more dear to him; she genuinely cared, and he loved her for it.

Slowly, Kyle smoothed out Kenny's number and lay it on the counter, his hand shaking slightly as he picked up the phone.

"Well, here goes nothing," he murmured, beginning to dial; heartbeat picking up and slight perspiration gathering on his brow.

******

"I'm really glad you called me, man," Kenny said, turning slowly and squinting his eyes against the strong sunlight pouring down. He'd been waiting on a bench on the banks of Stark's Pond when Kyle pulled up, just staring out at the water as warm winds lifted his hair. When Kyle had approached, Kenny looked so relieved to see him it honestly startled him.

"Me, too," Kyle said, sitting down beside Kenny, his messenger bag at his side. He'd had an opportunity to stop by the printers on the way to the pond, and he had a surprise for Kenny waiting in his bag; an ornate invitation announcing his and Craig's party. "We kind of parted on weird terms, didn't we?"

Kenny shrugged and lifted a bottle of water to his lips, taking a long drink. Wiping his mouth, he looked out at the calm water again; the surface rippling gently.

"I guess so. Honestly, I'm not surprised you responded the way you did, Kyle. Stan and I did kind of sneak up on you, didn't we?"

"More or less," Kyle grinned. "But you guys were just trying to help, and I really appreciate it."

"We still want to. Help, I mean," Kenny said, looking at Kyle now; his expression calm but his blue eyes intense. "You don't have to live the way you're living, Kyle. You have so many options, and all of your friends want to -"

"It isn't necessary, Kenny," Kyle cut him off, beginning to open his bag. "Everything is wonderful right now, especially where Craig is concerned. In fact," he rooted around for a moment, his hand closing around an invitation, "I wanted to give you something, here."

"What's this?" Kenny took the invitation and stared at it, his eyes widening for a moment before narrowing; becoming suspicious. He glanced up at Kyle. "Kyle, what is this? What's going on?"

"Craig and I are throwing a party," Kyle said, pointing at the swirling letters on the invitation; a tasteful motif of black and white. "I want you to come. So does Craig."

"I'm sure he does," Kenny replied sarcastically, his fingers tightening around the paper in his hand. "This is...unexpected. Not to mention weird; Craig never struck me as the party type."

"He's never been a huge fan, but he said it was about time to have our friends and family over," Kyle explained. "Besides, he wants to make an announcement but I'm not going to spoil anything; it's a surprise." Tucking a curl behind his ear, Kyle smiled hopefully. "So, can you come? I really, really want you to be there, Kenny. I want to show you my studio and my -"

"Are you serious right now?" Kenny interrupted, crumpling the invitation a little. "After the conversation we had at the restaurant, you suddenly want to throw a party with Craig?"

"Yes, I do," Kyle replied, cocking an eyebrow; tone sharpening. "Craig is my husband, Kenny, and I'm going to support him; regardless of your assumptions."

"Assumptions? How are they assumptions? I told you what Tweek said, Kyle; how can you just look the other way after hearing something like that. Christ, you're pretending like everything is totally normal, and you know it isn't!"

"Once again, I'm sorry about what happened to Tweek, okay? But that doesn't have anything to do with me. Craig treats me well, I'm happy, everything is perfect. Let it go, Kenny. If you don't, well, you can just forget about...." Kyle trailed off, not wanting to say the words that were on the tip of his tongue; they were so final, so brutal.

"Wait a minute, why does it sound like you're suddenly trying to break up with me?" Kenny asked, his voice incredulous. "Seriously, you're trying to end our friendship over Tucker? Even though he's abusing -"

"Break up? Why do you have to word it like that?" Kyle cut in, blushing furiously. "What exactly do you think is going on here, Kenny?"

Kenny was silent for a moment, beginning to turn red as well. He looked away slowly, opening up the invitation and studying it.

"Nothing," he murmured. "Nothing at all."

Kyle watched him smooth out the crinkled paper, a feeling of tenderness passing through him. Kenny had always been so sweet, so unbelievably giving.

"Then why did you try to kiss me?" He finally asked, looking down at his lap; his face burning hotter. "Or am I wrong? Oh, my God, I'm totally wrong, aren't I? I misinterpreted everything, didn't I? Christ, you must think I'm so stupid, dude; no wonder Craig -"

"Knock if off with that bullshit, Kyle," Kenny said, turning toward him and throwing his arm along the back of the bench, right behind Kyle. "Don't lump me in with Craig. I don't think you're stupid at all, I never have. If anything, I think you're fucking brilliant, and it kills me that you aren't living the life you deserve; doing everything you're capable of."

Kyle raised his eyebrows in surprise, his heartbeat thumping in his chest like a wayward bird trying to escape.

"Do you really mean that?"

"Kyle, of course I do!" Kenny groaned, reaching out and tousling Kyle's hair, sending an excited tickle through his skin that he tried to downplay. "You were always the smartest one out of all of us. God, you were even valedictorian; you beat Wendy, and we both know how competitive she can be."

Kyle smiled, brushing a hand through his messed-up curls, his mind drifting to the past; a past that seemed so far away now, almost like it had happened to someone else.

"Yeah, she is really cutthroat, isn't she? I don't know, though, I think becoming a mother has really softened her up."

Kenny sighed a little, his face relaxing into its old, easygoing expression.

"Molly is such a cutie, huh? Stan just adores her, that much is obvious."

"Doesn't he? The way he dotes on her, it's probably the cutest -"

"Hey, wait. Hold the phone," Kenny said, holding up his hands. "We're getting off topic here. Let's focus, okay?"

Kyle shrugged, looking away and across the water.

"Kenny, regardless of what you think, I'm happy. Craig has his moments, and I know he's difficult for some people to understand, but I love him. I'm not going to pretend we never have problems, but I want to work on them, okay? I don't just want to walk away without trying to do everything in my power to make things work."

Kenny studied the invitation again, his whole posture slackening like he suddenly didn't have the strength to remain so tense. He glanced at Kyle, his eyes softening and almost becoming as still as the pond.

"I honestly thought telling you about Tweek would wake you up," he finally said. "But if anything it's almost like it's made you more...stubborn. I knew I was in for an uphill battle before I even began, but goddamn, why do you have to be so hardheaded? Do you get off on it or something?"

Kyle smirked and straightened up a little, acutely aware of Kenny's arm still laying on the bench behind him.

"You said I'd changed so much you didn't recognize me, but I guess that isn't the case, huh?"

"Some things never change, I guess," Kenny sighed, bringing the invitation closer to his face; squinting slightly. "'Formal attire only?' What kind of party is this, anyway?"

"Well, Craig's a huge Truman Capote fan, and he wanted to do his own version of the Black and White Ball, so the men have to wear tuxes and the women have to -"

"Truman Capote? Black and White Ball?" Kenny interjected, rolling his eyes. "Jesus Christ, for real? Craig is so pretentious, Kyle. How can you stand it?"

Kyle gave him a withering look, some of his former mirth evaporating.

"I like Truman Capote, too, Kenny. I think it's a fun idea, so lighten up, okay?" He wrung his hands a little, worry beginning to creep into his mind. "He asked me to plan everything, dude. I don't know if I can do it, his standards are so...." he trailed off, groping for just the right word.

"Insane? Like him?" Kenny volunteered, arching a brow.

Kyle stood up and grabbed his bag, having thoroughly reached the end of his rope when it came to Kenny's snide comments.

"I'm out of here," he snapped, marching away toward his car. Vaguely, he was aware of footsteps behind him, and then a hand closing around his arm; holding him back.

"Wait, hold up," Kenny said, still holding him but not so tightly it hurt; his touch careful. "I'm sorry, okay? I'll stop being a dick, I promise; just don't go."

"You mean that?" Kyle asked, watching him with a wary expression; he was just so tired of having to defend or explain himself at every turn. "Because I mean it, Kenny. If you keep talking shit about Craig and making your little comments I'm going to leave. In fact, I won't talk to you at all anymore. Those are my terms, take them or leave them."

"Kyle, you aren't thinking straight, you're just -"

Kenny stopped and just stared at Kyle for a moment, then he slowly looked down at the invitation still clenched in his hand. Finally, he sighed in what could only be construed as abject surrender. He shook his head slightly.

"Fine. Fine, okay? I'll stop talking shit about Tucker. Just know that I'm not cool with any of this, and Stan won't be either once he hears about your plans. You feel me?"

"Yeah, I feel you," Kyle replied, gently tugging his arm away from Kenny's grasp. "I just don't want to argue about this anymore, can you understand that? I don't even want to talk about it. I just want to be happy."

"Doesn't everyone?" Kenny said, tucking the invitation in the pocket of his jeans. He thought a moment, then rubbed the back of his neck, almost appearing sheepish. "Did you need any help or anything? With the party plans, I mean? I can't exactly get on board with all of this black and white nonsense, but if I can make your life easier, I'd like to try."

Kyle slung his bag higher on his shoulder, the blush coming back to his cheeks again; a small smile of pleasure crossing his mouth. Once again, Kenny was showcasing just how kind he could be, and suddenly he remembered that he hadn't exactly answered his earlier inquiry about whether or not he'd been intending to kiss Kyle after they'd gone out to lunch together. He decided to let it go for the moment, but Kyle still couldn't deny his curiosity, or his reluctant, fledgling interest in his old friend's intentions.

"Sure, that sounds nice," he said, softly. "Why don't we meet up tomorrow around the same time? You can help me choose a caterer and stuff. What do you think? Actually," he faltered slightly, feeling timid and ridiculous. "Could you help me make some of the phone calls? I get so nervous when I have to call strangers nowadays."

Kenny watched him for a moment, a fleeting look of sadness passing through his eyes, but then he nodded, grinning.

"Yeah, sure. I can do that, man; no big deal. So, meet up tomorrow around lunchtime?" He gestured to the bench on the banks of the pond. "Right there?"

"Sounds good," Kyle smiled, his eyes resting on Kenny's mouth for a moment before quickly skipping away.

*******

Dear Rose,

Things have been so wonderful that I haven't been writing in you as much as I should, and for that I'm sincerely sorry. I guess I don't have to rely on you as much when times are good, and while I hate neglecting you I can't say I'm too upset about reveling in how smoothly everything's been going.

First of all, the party plans have been a lot less stressful than I thought they would be, but I think that's mainly due to Kenny's help. I was so worried about having to call strange people and talk to them at length, but he's done so much of the heavy lifting for me in that regard. He handled the catering call, the band (we went with a string quartet - Craig wanted something elegant - they're well-versed in Chopin nocturnes, I assure you. In fact, they even have a pianist to accompany them so we'll finally be able to put the baby grand in the great room to use), he even called the tailor for me to arrange for Craig and I's tuxedo fittings (we both have tuxes but it's been awhile since we've worn them. Naturally, Craig wanted to make sure they fit perfectly so we'll be taking care of that soon). I'm taking care of the flowers (white roses, naturally) and I've ordered the champagne (Taittinger, just like Capote), and naturally I'll be handling the cleaning but we're having a decorator come by the morning of the party to set everything up (we're renting tables and they'll have red tablecloths, just like at the Black and White Ball).

This must be all so boring to you, Rose, but to me it's been wonderfully exciting. It's almost like the cobwebs and dust have been blown off of my life and suddenly I'm looking at everything with fresh, new eyes. Craig continues to be prince charming, and if anything, he's gotten better with each passing day. Sure, he's on the phone more than ever because he's still ironing out the details regarding his promotion but that's just fine; I completely understand. He's also been spending more time in his study with the door shut, but I'm just chalking that up to his research which I know he loves. If anything it's afforded me more time to focus on getting ready for the party.

I've pretty much gotten all of the RSVPs back and almost everyone can attend, which I'm immensely happy (and nervous!) about. The party is just a week away and I feel like I'll never be ready, but I'm going to do everything in my power to make the night perfect for Craig. After all, doesn't he deserve it? And isn't it my job to make sure my husband is happy?

It's crazy, Rose. I'm going to see my family after so long. My parents are coming and so is Ike. In fact, he's flying in from Seattle to be here and I couldn't be happier. I haven't seen him since my wedding, and my father had a stroke last year so I haven't seen him in so long. With his health he doesn't like to go out much, and my mother likes to stick close to his side. Let's see, Stan is coming and so is Wendy, of course, as is Butters, Kenny, Clyde, Token, Bebe...gosh, so many others! Everyone's coming together again, Rose; almost like old times. I'm over the moon, can you tell? I almost feel delirious.

Ever since I had that talk with Kenny at Stark's Pond he's been very respectful of the boundaries I've set up. He's slipped up a couple of times but he always apologizes afterward, and I couldn't be more appreciative. He's so kind and giving and gentle and -

What am I going on about right now, Rose? I know, I know...I told you that I wish Kenny had kissed me, but I was going through a very stressful moment. Craig and I were at odds and Kenny was being so sweet, but then again he's always sweet, isn't he? Craig's been so preoccupied with his new position that I feel like I've been seeing more of Kenny than I have my own husband, but I won't hold that against Craig...he didn't become this successful because he was afraid of hard work, right?

To answer a question no one asked, no, Rose, Craig is not aware of the fact that Kenny's been helping me with party preparations. He's been in a very good mood and I'm sure he'd be okay with Kenny's involvement, but I just don't want to go down that road with him. You can understand, right? Right?

Whoops, I can hear him now. I better go.

Always and forever,

Your Kyle

PS: I still don't know where the lighthouse picture is, Rose. I'm also afraid to ask about its whereabouts, even though I'm sure Craig would be more than happy to tell me where it is, but still....

PPS: I hope it's okay. I'd like to see it again.

PPPS: Will I see it again? Should I ask him about it? What do you think?

----

Kyle was still in the process of tucking the diary under the couch cushion in the living room when Craig walked in, his eyebrows raised in question.

"Lose something?"

Nervously, Kyle tried to play it off, sitting up and smiling widely at his husband, who was watching him closely.

"I thought I lost the remote control to the TV in the cushions," he said, pretending to root around but only serving to push the diary deeper under the cushion. Kyle smiled awkwardly, praying that Craig would turn his focus elsewhere.

"It's right there on the coffee table," Craig said, pointing to the remote sitting right in front of Kyle; plain as day.

"Oh, right," Kyle replied, blushing hotly. "If it was a snake it would've bit me."

"You're so silly," Craig teased, coming over and plopping on the couch next to Kyle. Wrapping his arm around his shoulders, he smirked. "So, how's my little party planner doing? Everything going okay?"

"Everything's been perfect," Kyle said, snuggling close to Craig and laying his head on his chest. "Almost everything's been taking care of, actually, so we're right on schedule." He paused, a small ribbon of anxiety passing through him. "Are your parents going to come? And your sister?"

Craig remained chipper, even though Kyle knew better than anyone that he wasn't exactly proud of his family. They just didn't seem to fit in with his idea of success, so he usually tried to distance himself from them as much as possible. In fact, he tried to distance himself from everything related to his past; almost like he was trying to create a whole new identity.

"Yeah, they're driving in from Denver, and Tricia's driving in from Boulder," he replied, twirling one of Kyle's curls around his finger. "Everyone else has RSVP'ed, right?"

"Yep," Kyle said, counting the guest list off on his fingers. "Stan, Wendy, Butters, Kenny -"

"Does he even own a tuxedo?" Craig interrupted, a note of distaste registering in his tone. "I just don't want him to throw off the party's aesthetic."

"He's renting one," Kyle replied, nudging his husband slightly. "Don't be mean, okay? You said I could invite my friends."

"I know, I know," Craig said, kissing the top of Kyle's head. "I just want everything to be perfect, and Kenny McCormick has always been so uncouth."

"He's actually made a real success of himself," Kyle replied quietly. He knew he was asking for trouble by speaking so tenderly about his old friend, but he couldn't help it. Even with Craig's arm wrapped around him, it couldn't take away the fact that Kenny was decent and kind, that he'd tried to help Kyle as much as he could; as much as he'd let him. "I'm so proud of him."

"Is that so?" Irritation was filtering into Craig's tone now, immediately putting Kyle on edge; his arm tightening around Kyle's shoulders. "What's he up to these days, anyway? You never told me, and since you're so proud of him I'm sure you'd know, right?"

"H-he's been pretty vague about it, actually." Frantically, Kyle tried to backpedal without making it obvious that's what he was doing. Suddenly he felt so stupid he wanted to kick himself; Craig had lulled him into such a state of security that he'd forgotten himself. There's no way he wanted his husband to find out that Kenny was a photographer. With that knowledge it would be all too easy to figure out that Kenny had taken the lighthouse picture, and that would open up a can of worms that Kyle just didn't want to deal with. "He just told me that he gets to travel all over the world and he's basically his own boss. He seems really happy."

"Are you sure that's all he's told you, Kyle?" Craig asked, his voice becoming soft; making the hair on the back of Kyle's neck stand up. He hadn't heard that tone of voice in weeks, and it was almost like starting back at square one.

"Of course, Craig," he said, carefully. "If Kenny had told me anything else I would've shared it with you, you know that. I tell you everything."

"I'm sure you do," Craig replied, suddenly becoming playful. All at once, he began kissing Kyle's throat, hot breath flush against his skin. "You know how to make daddy happy, don't you?"

Kyle shut his eyes, slowly becoming faintly turned on while cringing inwardly at Craig's daddy kink. No matter how many times this exact scenario played out, he just couldn't get used to it, but he wasn't about to tell his husband that. Tilting his head back, Kyle sighed into Craig's ministrations, just wanting to get along and keep things light.

"I'd like to think so," he murmured, winding his hand through Craig's hair. "Daddy."

"God, it's so sexy when you call me that," Craig breathed, sitting up and staring down at Kyle with bedroom eyes. "Here, sit up. I want to take a look at your sutures."

There was another odd kink Kyle couldn't wrap his head around: Craig's preoccupation with seeing him covered in stitches or just injuries in general. He was always in his element when he was doctoring Kyle, and while he loved these attentions because they were usually so tender, Kyle couldn't reconcile Craig's need to injure him with the glory of patching him up afterward. Rather than fight, he turned and allowed Craig to pull up his shirt, inspecting his back.

"They look good," he said, dragging a finger slowly across Kyle's skin. "I never use dissolvable sutures, have you noticed that? There's just something about getting to remove them myself." Pulling Kyle's shirt down, he kissed the back of his neck. "I guess a trip to the basement is in order, huh? Tonight?"

Immediately, Kyle began to tremble against his will. He looked down at his clasped hands, chastising himself for making his fear so obvious.

"You're just going to remove the stitches, right? We aren't going to do anything else, are we?"

Wordlessly, Craig wound his arms around Kyle and pulled him close against his chest, kissing his temple.

"Why, Kyle? Have you done something you deserve to be punished for?"

Kyle quickly shook his head, shutting his eyes.

"No, no. I was just curious, Craig. I haven't done anything. I promise."

"Then you have nothing to fear, love," Craig said, holding him closer, his one hand drifting downward and beginning to drag Kyle's t-shirt back up. "You know, now that I think about it, I'd really like to fuck you one more time before taking those stitches out. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Kyle nodded, his eyes still shut tight. Unbidden, the nocturnes were flooding his mind even though Craig wasn't being savage, but before his husband could strip him, the doorbell rang.

"Ah, shit. I forgot all about them," Craig murmured, dropping Kyle's t-shirt and pulling away.

"Who?"

"The cleaning people. They're right on time, so I guess I can't complain too much."

Kyle stared at him, perplexed.

"Cleaning people? What are you talking about? You mean, for the party? But I thought -"

Craig laid a finger against Kyle's lips, silencing him; a grin flitting across his mouth.

"I know, you do a wonderful job of keeping this place neat, but I thought it best to bring in professionals for our little party. I'm sure you understand."

Still feeling uneasy, Kyle nodded slowly; Craig's finger still silencing him. Craig lifted it, gesturing toward the door.

"Why don't you go let them in while I pull myself together, huh?" He glanced down at his crotch, smirking. "I can't exactly go to the door while I'm so...excited, can I?"

Kyle couldn't help but laugh, standing and adjusting his disheveled shirt.

"On that note, I'll go let them in. Is there anything special you want me to tell them?"

"They're to do the entire house," Craig replied, settling back into the couch. "Except the basement, of course. I'll take care of that myself."

*******

"Dude, I look like a fucking maître d', this is never going to work," Kenny griped as he stared at himself in the mirror hanging from the back of his bedroom door, Kyle watching with amusement while sitting on Kenny's bed. Kenny glanced back at him, looking thoroughly fed up with the whole affair. "Do I really have to wear this monkey suit? Why can't we all just wear jeans and t-shirts? You know, human clothes."

Kyle shook his head and laughed, his hands clasped loosely in his lap as he inspected Kenny with appraising eyes, reasonably surprised and pleased by the change formal wear made in his old friend's appearance. He actually thought Kenny looked very handsome, even if he couldn't see it. If anything, he was more focused on and nervous about Craig finding out he'd gone over to Kenny's house instead of meeting with him at the pond like usual; not that he'd be thrilled about them meeting up at all. With every illicit liaison under his belt, Kyle had just become more and more nervous, not to mention guilty.

"Kenny, you look fine," Kyle reassured him, worrying at the hem of his shirt. "In fact, you look really handsome, and I'm pretty sure you know it. I don't know why I had to come over today to reassure you, but if that's what you need, here it is. You look hot. End of story."

"You don't really mean that," Kenny grinned, running a hand through his newly-cut hair, the blonde strands neat and very becoming, only further highlighting just how good-looking he was. "Do you?"

"Quit fishing for compliments," Kyle sighed, crossing his arms. "You know, if it hadn't been raining today I wouldn't even be here. You do realize that, right?"

"Of course," Kenny replied, adjusting his bow tie and completely messing it up. "God, I fucking hate these things. They're impossible."

"Here, let me," Kyle said, coming over and resting a hand on Kenny's shoulder, turning him away from the mirror. "Craig always asks me to tie his for him, so I've become something of an expert."

Kenny was quiet for a moment as Kyle worked, looking straight ahead; his back ramrod straight. After a moment, he let out a long breath, almost like he'd been holding it for some time.

"You're too good to him," he murmured. "I hope you know that."

Kyle rolled his eyes but continued to work on the tie, suddenly becoming very aware of Kenny's spicy cologne and just how tall he was; fairly towering over him. He cleared his throat, feeling awkward and childish.

"I just want to show him that I care, Kenny," he said, tugging at the tie one last time before pulling away; studying it. "I can't help loving my husband. I've always just wanted to love someone, you know? I like taking care of people."

"Clearly," Kenny replied, turning back to the mirror and grinning. "It's perfect, dude, but I'm not surprised. You've always wanted everything to be so perfect." He turned back to Kyle, his hands on his hips. "So, what do you think?"

Kyle shrugged, reaching up and brushing some lint off of Kenny's shoulder.

"What can I say? You clean up nice. Really nice."

Suddenly, Kenny took a hold of Kyle's hand, startling him. He held him fast, bringing Kyle's hand to his mouth and kissing the knuckles softly. Kyle didn't pull away, choosing instead to stare up at him with wide eyes, almost wanting to swoon and lean his head against Kenny's chest. Somehow, though his head was beginning to spin, he refrained.

"You wanted to know if I was trying to kiss you, the day that you gave me the roses. Remember?" Kenny asked, placing a hand on Kyle's cheek and studying his face with his honest, tranquil eyes; though his expression was unraveling, almost becoming desperate. "I never really answered you, did I?"

"No, you didn't," Kyle murmured, nestling his cheek in Kenny's hand like he always did with Craig, especially when he was being sweet and tender. It was this thought that made him pull back, shaking his head. "Kenny, I can't do this. I won't. It isn't right."

Kenny held onto his hand and watched Kyle with his stormy eyes, appearing lost and terribly sad before sobering; hardening.

"I know," he said. "I actually have to respect you for that, Kyle. You know how I feel about Craig but I know what you're like; you'd never do anything to hurt him, and you aren't a dishonest person. I'm the one at fault here, for even trying anything in the first place, but I just wanted to tell you -"

He brought Kyle's hand up to his mouth again, once again brushing his soft lips against the back of it.

"I did want to kiss you that day. It was a crazy sudden impulse, I'll admit, but you just looked so sad and sweet standing there with those roses in your hands. Suddenly I just wanted to carry you away, which I know is ridiculous, but I couldn't help it. I still can't."

Taking a deep breath, he looked into Kyle's eyes and it was like every emotion was plain on his face, his entire expression naked and clean as a day just being born.

"I really care about you, Kyle. I hope you know that."

"I do." Delicately, he took his hand away from Kenny's, the skin tingling pleasantly where he'd placed his lips, almost like the memory of them was burned into Kyle's flesh; a flower pressed between the musty pages of an old book. He shook his head, though; trying to remain on the straight and narrow. "And at one point I wanted you to kiss me, Kenny, more than anything, but..."

"But you love Craig," Kenny said, stepping back and appearing so dashing and suave that Kyle couldn't help but gaze at him with admiration.

"Very much, Kenny. I made a commitment to him, and I just wouldn't be able to live with myself if I did anything to ruin it, you know?"

Kenny nodded, biting his lip and looking down at the floor, the sounds of rainfall thudding on the roof and filling up the ensuing silence. After a few moments, he laughed, and Kyle could detect a little hitch in it, though he chose to ignore it.

"I had such a crush on you back in the day," Kenny said, smiling boyishly. "I guess you'll always be the one that got away, huh?"

"Kenny, why are you telling me this now?" Kyle asked, turning away and going to grab his bag. "I never had a serious relationship until I got with Craig, so it's not like you didn't have an opportunity."

"I know," Kenny replied, softly. "I was stupid. Really stupid. If only I'd approached you at Stan's wedding before you sat down next to Craig."

"You noticed that?" Kyle asked, glancing over his shoulder, his car keys in his hand.

"Yeah, but I didn't think it was a big deal. I just figured you'd never end up with someone like Craig Tucker. Silly me, huh?"

Kyle quickly swiped a hand across his eyes, not wanting to hear anymore; his heart couldn't take it, especially when Kenny sounded so defeated.

"I have to go, okay? The party's the day after tomorrow and there's still so much to do." Attempting to compose himself, he started toward the door but stopped, looking back at Kenny and smiling slightly. "You really do look handsome, you know." Opening the door, he pointed at Kenny, assuming a stern expression. "You'll be there at 7:30 sharp, right?"

Kenny grinned, his eyes unusually bright.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world. Promise."

*****

The day of the party finally arrived but Kyle woke up with trepidation in his heart, and he found his mind drifting all through breakfast into late afternoon, even after he'd put on his tuxedo and seen to the last minute arrangements; overlooking everything with careful, anxious eyes. Everything was working like clockwork, the caterers arriving right when they said they would to set up, the decorator putting the finishing touches on the decorations: golden candelabra festooned with white roses gracing the center of every table. The grand room that opened out onto the patio was sparkling clean, the chandelier above illuminated and throwing its golden light over everything; the french doors thrown wide open and letting in the late-summer breezes. Outside the bushes had been strung with sparkling white fairy lights, their effect making everything seem surreal and dreamlike.

Kyle wandered through all of it in something of a trance, snapping into focus when need be but lapsing into deep thought every time he had a moment; Kenny's confession playing over and over in his mind as activity whirred around him. He was having a hard time getting used to strangers being in the house, and he paused next to the locked basement door, getting lost in his thoughts; imagining the room on the other side of the white wood. Craig had removed his sutures several nights before, the tink tink tink of the tweezers clinking against a kidney-shaped silver bowl filtering through his brain now and again; almost blotting out the nocturnes.

Craig had been true to his word and hadn't done anything beyond removing the stitches, but he'd been especially aggressive that night in bed; pulling out the handcuffs for the first time in awhile and fucking Kyle until he'd nearly screamed; his husband's large hands straying over his newly-liberated back. It was almost an unspoken promise of what was to come, that more corrections were waiting in the wings, and along with their inevitability would come the basement and more sutures. Kyle shook his head against the memory, idly rubbing his raw wrists and almost feeling like the handcuffs were still winding around his arms.

Feeling like a sleepwalker, Kyle found himself in Craig's study, seated at his large cherry wood desk and contemplating pulling open a drawer full of his old papers and articles he wished to save. Very early on, Craig had insisted that he keep his important documents and personal paraphernalia in the study, just so they could keep track of it without fear of it becoming lost. Kyle's birth certificate was in there, as was his social security card and passport, pretty much anything he would need to establish his identity beyond his driver's license. He hadn't minded of course, trusting that his husband knew what was best; would always know what was best for the two of them.

Craig had spent a great deal of time in his study lately, always on his phone and keeping the door shut, but Kyle hadn't felt the need to pry. Once again, he figured it had to do with Craig's promotion, so he hadn't given it very much thought. Besides, the keys to the drawers were always in the same place: the top drawer of Craig's dresser in the bedroom. Reaching into his pocket, Kyle pulled out the key and stuck it in the lock of the lower left hand drawer; his designated spot. Sliding the drawer open, he pulled out a folder of his old papers, a fond smile appearing on his face as he started going through so many old memories; photographs, his high school diploma, even one of his old essays that he'd written in college.

"Ah, there you are," Kyle murmured, setting the folder down and picking up an old piece of paper; folded numerous times and becoming slightly fragile with being handled too much. Opening it, he smiled to see Kenny's handwriting sprawling across the page, an odd mixture of script and print, easy to read but hardly considered neat. The contents were exactly as he remembered, Kenny apologizing for being unable to attend the wedding, but offering his congratulations. Kyle couldn't help but interpret the letter differently now though, Kenny's confession still fresh and emblazoned in his brain. For a moment, his thoughts drifted and he allowed himself to wonder what his life could've been like had he ended up with his old friend instead of Craig, possibly traveling the world together while Kenny took those wonderful photos; becoming lost in one another under endless starry skies and amidst exotic, out of the way places. Closing his eyes, he lost himself in fantasy; what a life that could've been!

"What are you doing in here? The guests are already starting to arrive," Craig's voice broke into his reverie, making Kyle cry out and scramble to stuff everything back in the drawer; Kenny's letter getting mixed in with the other papers. Striding into the room, Craig stopped in front of the desk, eyeing Kyle with suspicion.

"Are you okay? Why are you even in here?"

"I was just looking for my silver cuff links," Kyle replied, standing and trying to keep the shake out of his voice. "I'm wearing the diamond ones but I thought you'd prefer the silver."

Craig stared at him a moment, face still awash in question. Sighing, he finally wiped a hand over his mouth and shrugged.

"I would prefer the silver but I suppose it can't be helped. They're in the safe in the basement, and I'm not about to go down there right now." He smiled slowly, almost charmingly. "I'm sure you understand."

Kyle nodded, a feeling of nausea building in his mouth.

"Who's arrived?" He asked, clearing his throat quickly.

"Oh, just some of my work associates, and your parents. Your brother, too." Craig ran a hand through his carefully styled hair, his tone becoming dismissive.

"My parents? Really?" Kyle said, coming around the desk hurriedly and rushing past Craig; excitement coursing through his veins. Craig reached out and grabbed his arm, stopping him.

"You're a terrible liar, Kyle; I thought it fair to let you know that," he murmured. "But it's a special night, so I'll give you a pass; just remember for the future, okay?"

"I-I don't know what you're talking about," Kyle stammered, making no move to shake his arm from Craig's grasp.

"Yes, you do, but it's alright," Craig replied, letting him go. "Go and say hi to your family, huh? It's been awhile hasn't it?"

Kyle waited for a moment, not sure how to proceed, but his excitement overcame him and suddenly he couldn't wait another moment. Quickly, he left the study, Craig lingering in his wake, eyes resting on the cherry desk.

******

The rest of the evening proved to be a hazy dream for Kyle, colored by shuddering candlelight and their friends and family dressed in their finest; sleek tuxes and black and white evening gowns milling about and raving about the food and champagne, the latter flowing like golden rivers into elegant crystal flutes. Kyle passed through it all feeling so happy he thought he might burst, surrounded by so many familiar faces that he hadn't seen in so long; taken aback at just how healthy and wonderful it felt to be lost in a crowd again, though his anxiety was always waiting to rise up and consume him. He didn't care, opting instead to imbibe on champagne and laughter, flitting from group to group and making sure everyone was having a nice time.

"You really did it, Kyle," Kenny grinned, finding him at one point and almost taking Kyle's breath away to see him looking so handsome; his blonde hair slicked back and smelling of that gorgeous spicy cologne. "Everything is amazing."

"Really? You promise?" Kyle asked, taking a quick sip of champagne and glancing around, smiling to see his parents dancing to a Chopin waltz, his father's limp barely noticeable and his mother looking lovely in white silk. "I keep feeling like something's going to go wrong any minute."

"You need to have more confidence in yourself, dude," Stan chimed in, appearing at Kyle's side and sipping champagne. He made a dashing picture as well in his rented tux, and he gestured to Wendy who was standing across the room with Bebe, both of them giggling and appearing much like they did in the old days. "Wendy said she couldn't have done better herself at planning this party, and you know what high praise that is coming from her."

"Definitely," Kyle grinned, admiring Wendy's simple white cocktail dress; a pair of black satin pumps on her feet. "She looks lovely, by the way."

"Everyone looks lovely," Ike said, coming over. "I'm glad I was able to get away from work, man. It's been too long."

"It really has been," Kyle agreed, smiling fondly at his little brother. "Although, I'm sure you had no problem getting away from work, Ike; you just don't know when to stop."

Ike shrugged, grinning. He lifted a flute of champagne to his lips and polished it off.

"Hey, I didn't become this rich by being a lazy ass."

"No, I think you became rich by being an investment banker," Kenny grinned, nudging Kyle slightly. "Right?"

"I'd say so," Kyle laughed, resisting the urge to lay his head on Kenny's shoulder and sighing. Everything was just so lovely, bordering on absolute perfection; he couldn't be happier.

"Are you going to take us on a tour of this place at any point, dude?" Stan asked, gesturing around the room. "I feel like I could get lost in here."

Kyle considered this, looking around for Craig and not seeing him anywhere in sight. He shrugged and started to back away.

"Sure, follow me," he said, leading the small group out of the main party room and down the hallway, passing by the den and into the kitchen.

"So, this is where I pretend to know what I'm doing when it comes to cooking," he joked. "Thank God for smoke detectors, right?"

"Oh, come off it," Kenny said, glancing around the room. "You were always the best in home ec, remember? You made the best fucking banana bread I've ever tasted."

Kyle blushed, setting down his now empty champagne glass.

"Well, thanks. I'll remember that the next time I set the stove on fire."

"That's never happened and you know it," Stan snickered, pushing Kyle lightly. Glancing at the basement door, he pointed to it. "Where's that go? The basement, right?"

Kyle cleared his throat, his eyes skipping over the door and settling on the floor instead.

"Yeah, we just use it for storage; nothing important. Here, follow me." Hoping to redirect everyone's focus, he started leading the way toward his studio; his stomach flip-flopping at the prospect of showing something so personal to outsiders. In a lot of ways he regarded it in the same fashion as he did the basement; the contents of the room revealing pieces of his heart, raw and pulsing. Taking a deep breath, he snapped on the light and walked into the hushed room, the windows showcasing the starry night sky outside; the faint scent of paint thinner lacing the air.

"This is where I paint," he said, opening his arms wide. He laughed, feeling awkward. "Obviously. Craig had it built for me after he found out I'd taken an interest in art."

"Wow, bro," Ike breathed, staring around the room with wide eyes. "This is amazing. I didn't know you liked to paint. What do you use?"

Kyle shrugged, blushing at his brother's obvious admiration.

"Oils, mostly. Sometimes acrylics and watercolor, but watercolor can be really frustrating." Glancing around, Stan was studying his collection of brushes but Kenny had made a beeline for the painting he'd titled 'Rage,' still in its accustomed place against the wall; he hadn't worked on it in weeks, not really having the desire what with Craig being so wonderful. Feeling shy, he came up behind Kenny, almost afraid to approach; it was almost like Kenny was looking right into his innermost thoughts.

"What do you think?" He asked, quietly. "It's ridiculous, isn't it? It lacks focus, form; don't you think?"

"No," Kenny replied, studying the painting with a somber look. "It's real, it's powerful." He glanced at Kyle, frowning slightly. "You worked on this when you were angry, didn't you?"

"H-how did you -"

"Jesus, there you are. Why do you keep wandering off, Kyle? I've been looking for you for over twenty minutes," a harsh voice broke through the moment, arresting Kyle's attention immediately. Turning from Kenny, he saw Craig standing in the doorway, watching all of them with a look of open annoyance.

"Oh, Craig. I'm sorry, I -"

"He was showing us his paintings, man. Give him a break," Kenny interrupted, moving to stand between Kyle and Craig.

Craig regarded Kenny with scathing indifference for a moment before shaking his head, sighing slightly.

"I don't have a problem with that. It's just that I wanted to make a toast, an announcement, and I'd like for my husband to be present when I do it. Is that okay with you, Kenny?"

"Oh! The announcement! I totally forgot," Kyle said, slapping his forehead. "I'm on my way, Craig." He glanced at his friends, smiling widely. "You're going to love this, you guys. We have some great news we want to share with everyone. Come on."

Moments later, Kyle was back among the rest of the party goers, every person in the room clutching a filled flute of champagne and waiting expectantly as Craig stood before them, Kyle at his side and gazing up at his husband with delight and admiration; heart thudding with pride and excitement. Across the room, Kyle caught Kenny's eyes for a moment and smiled widely, holding up his glass; Kenny smiled back, though his was smaller; more subdued. Scanning the crowd, Kyle waved to his parents and Ike, feeling almost overcome with love and joy in that moment, there among so many people he cared about.

Craig waited for the tumult to die down slightly before clearing his throat, garnering the room's attention. Looking around, he smiled slowly and for a moment Kyle couldn't believe how handsome he looked, so self-assured and confident in his perfect tuxedo and his expensive patent leather shoes.

"Friends, colleagues, family," he started, glancing at his mom and dad and sister who were standing off to the side, not appearing as refined as some of the guests but watching Craig with so much pride it was almost palpable. "It's an honor to have you here in our home tonight. Kyle and I can't thank you enough for coming to our little get together. In fact, I dare say it means the world to us, right, love?" He glanced at Kyle, waiting. Blushing, Kyle looked around and nodded, moving to stand closer to Craig's side.

"We threw this party for numerous reasons," Craig continued. "To reconnect with loved ones and friends, to share our happiness and home with you, to show you that you're very much appreciated and important to us, but we also wanted to make an announcement." He raised his champagne flute, and everyone else did the same.

"It's with great pride and happiness that I announce our plans for the future, Kyle's and mine," he said, grinning widely; grey eyes warm and catching the candlelight. "But before I do, let me just grab something to help illustrate my point." Keeping his glass raised, Craig went to the sideboard where he opened a cabinet, everyone in the room watching him along with Kyle, who had no idea what to expect; they hadn't discussed any of this. Coming back, Kyle's eyes widened to see the lighthouse picture clutched in Craig's hand.

"As some of you may know, a very select few of you, actually, I've recently received a very prestigious promotion," Craig said, a tiny titter running through the crowd at his words. "It's going to give me the opportunity to dabble in research, which I've always wanted to do, but what's more, it's going to give Kyle and I a chance to see a part of the country we haven't had a chance to visit in ages."

Kyle started at these words, looking over at Craig with wide eyes; confusion and apprehension blooming in his stomach. What was Craig talking about?

Lifting the photo alongside his glass, Craig glanced at Kyle for a moment and winked, only reinforcing Kyle's sudden anxiety.

"This gorgeous photo," he continued, shaking the lighthouse gently, "is going to be the first picture we hang in our new home in Baltimore. Ladies and gentlemen, before the end of the year, Kyle and I are going to be returning to the east coast where I completed my residency, where I will be one of the newest cardiologists on staff at Johns Hopkins."

Silence descended over the room after Craig made his announcement, everyone drinking the celebratory champagne at once, but then chatter filled the air as everyone talked among themselves, though Kyle might as well have been on another planet entirely in that moment. He was still holding his glass aloft, though his hand was shaking now, and for a moment he was almost sure he was going to drop it. Somehow, he managed to come back to the moment and he stared at Craig, who was happily accepting praise and accolades from friends and family alike. Tearing his gaze away, Kyle looked across the crowded room and found Kenny immediately, who was staring at him with disbelieving eyes. Silently, Kyle shook his head, tears collecting in his eyes as he tried to convey to Kenny that no, he hadn't known anything about this turn of events; not at all. He'd been in the dark just as much as anyone else.

All at once, Kyle felt an arm being wrapped around his shoulders and he was being pulled close, Craig grinning down at him.

"See? Remember what I said before?" He asked, holding up the lighthouse photo once more. "I told you I'd find the perfect place to hang the photo, Kyle. Didn't I?"

Chapter Text

Look at me and tell me who I am,
Why I am, what I am.
Call me a fool and it's true I am,
I don't know who I am.
It's such a shame,
I'm such a sham.
No one knows who I am.
Once there were sweet possibilities,
I could see, just for me.
Now all my dreams are just memories,
Fated never to be

-No One Knows Who I Am, Jekyll and Hyde


Kyle stood among the roses and watched the moon, wild and bright, his entire body feeling like one raw, open nerve. He was still trying to make sense of Craig's announcement but he just couldn't, no matter how hard he tried. It couldn't be true, could it? None of this was real, right? There was no way Craig would ever spring something like that just out of nowhere; it was just too cruel, even for him.

The hum of the party, music and lively chatter, continued as the night winds ruffled Kyle's hair. He stood lost and alone in a sea of roses, their velvety petals illuminated by stark moonlight. He had wandered outside to be by himself after he'd endured what felt like a million well wishes and curious inquiries from their guests, his family among them. His mother had looked particularly distraught over the news, and Kyle could feel a pang of sorrow remembering how tightly she'd hugged him, making him promise to write often and to call whenever he could; that she'd come to visit whenever she had the opportunity. 

"Your father isn't much for traveling these days," she'd said, brushing the hair off of Kyle's forehead. "But I'll come whenever you'll have me."

"You're always welcome, Sheila," Craig had said, pulling Kyle close against his side; his fingers tightening around Kyle's arm. "You know that."

Mrs. Broflovski had just stared at Craig for a moment before she'd nodded, a sad look filtering into her eyes. She'd tried so hard to stay close to her son after Kyle had gotten married, but over the years she had slowly been squeezed out of the day to day affairs, before finally she'd had to concede that the relationship she'd wanted with her son wasn't going to be the one she was meant to have. Kyle had explained to her that he loved her very much, but that the dynamic had to change after he married Craig; they needed time to focus on one another. Reluctantly, she'd finally accepted the reality of the situation, even though she'd made it pretty clear it didn't sit well with her.

"We'll miss you, son," Mr. Broflovski had added, putting an arm around Mrs. Broflovski's shoulders. He'd aged poorly after having his stroke, but he held on with a firm resolve that Kyle couldn't help but admire. He'd never hidden the fact that he wasn't particularly fond of Craig, but he'd always been respectful of the lines that had been drawn in the sand. He'd reached out a hand to Craig, shaking it firmly and nodding his head.

"Good job on the promotion, Craig. Take care of each other, okay?"

"Of course," Craig had smiled down at Kyle and kissed his temple. "That's all I've ever wanted to do; take care of Kyle."

Ike had hung back, his dark eyes filled with mild suspicion and concern. Coming forward, he'd addressed Kyle instead of Craig.

"Baltimore, bro? That's a pretty big leap from Colorado."

"So is Seattle," Craig had said with a grin, his fingers digging further in Kyle's arm. "You gotta go where the opportunities are though, right?"

"That makes sense," Ike had nodded. He'd cocked an eyebrow at Craig. "Johns Hopkins, huh? Isn't that one of the best hospitals in the country?"

"It certainly is. Really, it's an honor that they're offering me the position they are," Craig had replied, becoming animated. "They're on the cutting edge of robotic cardiac surgery."

"Isn't that less invasive than traditional surgical methods?" Ike had asked, proving once again that he was well-versed in most (if not all) subjects. "Hasn't Hell's Pass gotten the memo yet that that's the future of medicine?"

Craig had shrugged, smiling casually; he'd always enjoyed talking shop, especially if it gave him the opportunity to show off. Kyle had sighed softly, already itching to break away so he could have time to think.

"They're getting there slowly. Part of the reason I accepted the job at Hell's Pass initially was because of another doctor I really respected, Dr. Lowentritt, and being able to work alongside him, but he's retiring at the end of the year, so -"

"Paul is retiring?" Kyle had interrupted, surprised. "Craig, why didn't you tell me?"

Craig had just stared at him for a moment, eyebrows raised.

"I'm sure I mentioned it at one point, Kyle. You just don't remember."

Kyle had shaken his head, refusing to accept this answer; not after all of the upheaval he'd endured thanks to Craig's announcement.

"No, I'm sure I would've remembered, Craig. You never told me."

Faint irritation had shown up in Craig's face then, and Kyle had blushed hotly. He had never openly contradicted his husband in front of his family before, not for a very long time, at any rate.

"What does it matter, Kyle? Paul is retiring. Now you know."

Kyle had glanced at his family uneasily, all three of them watched the pair with worried curiosity; brows furrowed and frowns on their faces. Kyle had smiled and laughed lightly, trying to downplay the growing tension.

"Well, that's a shame, Craig. I know how much you enjoyed working with him," he'd said while gently pulling out of his husband's grasp. "Will you all excuse me? I need to use the bathroom."

"Oh, of course, sweetheart," Mrs. Broflovski had said before Craig could respond first. "Take your time, you do look a little flushed."

"This'll give me an opportunity to grill your husband about his new position," Ike had jumped in, making Kyle eternally grateful; now he'd actually be able to have a moment to himself. "If you don't mind, of course," he'd added, glancing at Craig.

Craig had given Kyle a look that only he could interpret, a look of clear warning; though no one else would've been able to decipher it. Kyle had glanced quickly away before he'd turned to leave, already beginning to feel faintly nauseous; he just needed a little time.

Now he was out among the roses and the moonlight, and he still couldn't make sense of anything. The sky was teeming with stars but they appeared so cold and hostile to Kyle at the moment, almost like the entire world was turning its back on him as he wandered through his garden.

How could he do this to me? He has to know I don't want to do this, he thought, jamming his hands in his pockets and looking up at the endless tide of sky; deep blue and threaded through with rich violet. My entire life is here, how can I just leave it?

"Kyle?"

Startled, Kyle looked away from the sky to see Kenny and Stan standing in the garden, both of their faces registering sadness mixed with anger. He couldn't help but shrug, turning back to the unforgiving stars.

"Perfect night for a party, huh?" He asked, quickly swiping a hand across his eyes, clearing away the gathering moisture.

There was silence and then the sound of footsteps passing through grass. All at once, Kenny and Stan were beside Kyle.

"You didn't know, did you?" Stan asked, quietly. "About Baltimore."

Slowly, Kyle shook his head, fighting against the tears brimming in his eyes but losing the battle. Shutting his eyes, he lowered his head.

"No," he choked out, despising the hitch in his voice. "He just told me that he received a promotion. He didn't say anything about the east coast...I learned that part along with everyone else tonight."

"That son of a bitch made you plan your own farewell party," Kenny seethed. "That's fucking sick."

"Kyle, you can't go," Stan added, putting a hand on Kyle's shoulder. "You know that, right? It would be the worst decision you ever made."

"No, the worst decision he ever made was marrying Tucker in the first place," Kenny snapped.

Hot tears fell down Kyle's cheeks now, but that didn't stop him from glaring at his friends.

"You guys have it all figured out for me, don't you?" He asked, pulling out of Stan's grasp. "God, it must give you so much pleasure to point out all of the mistakes I've made with my life, huh? That way you can feel even better about yourselves."

Kenny and Stan stared at him in complete shock, their mouths wide open.

"Kyle, you know that couldn't be any further from the truth," Stan said. "We just care about you, and we know you don't want to do this; it's written all over your face."

"I knew as soon as Craig mentioned Baltimore that moving was the last thing you could possibly want," Kenny said. "God, everything you know is here! Your job, your friends...help, if you need it. Tucker's not stupid, Kyle. He knows exactly what he's doing. If he moves you clear across the country -"

"It'll make it even harder for you to get away if you ever decide to," Stan finished, quietly.

Kyle rolled his eyes, knowing on a deep level that his friends were absolutely right, but hating them so much for it that he could barely stand it; could barely stomach even having this conversation with them. Suddenly, all of the terrible decisions he'd made in his life flashed through his head, along with all of the atrocities he'd endured over the years for the sake of trying to be a good husband; looking the other way because he loved Craig so completely. The knowledge made him feel sick, sick and angry beyond words.

"I don't want to hear this from you guys again, okay? It's getting old and frankly, I'm sick of it. Yes, I know you hate Craig. Yes, I know you don't agree with me defending him. Yes, I know I probably look beyond stupid to you, but this is my life and it's my decision. Do you understand?" Raking a hand through his hair, he turned away; unable to look them in the faces any longer.

"I-I'll just have a talk with Craig tonight after everyone leaves and I'll tell him how I feel. If I tell him I don't want to go he'll listen to me; I know he will."

"Kyle, I don't think that's a good idea," Stan said, daring to put his hand on Kyle's shoulder again. "If he was willing to make that sort of announcement in front of God and everyone without even checking with you first, I doubt he's really going to be receptive to what you have to say."

"Stan's right, man. Listen to us," Kenny added, coming around and peering into Kyle's face; blue eyes beseeching him to see reason. "It's just going to turn ugly, okay? Who knows what he'll do when you tell him you don't want to go?"

"I'm pretty sure that's between Kyle and I, isn't it?" Craig's voice broke in, making them all turn at once; Kyle cowering behind Stan and Kenny as they presented a united front. Craig stared at them, nonplussed, his hands in the pockets of his jacket.

"What are you trying to prove right now?" He asked, arching a brow.

"We don't need to prove anything to you, Tucker," Kenny said, his hands clenching into fists. "We're on Kyle's side, and you aren't just going to move him out of state on a whim. Got it?"

Craig sighed, brushing some hair off of his forehead.

"On a whim? Are you kidding me? I've been planning this for almost half a year."

Kyle started, coming around his friends while staring at Craig in shock.

"Half a year?" He asked, faintly. "W-why didn't you tell me?"

"The plans weren't finalized until a few weeks ago, when I came home and told you about the promotion. I just didn't want to jump the gun," Craig shrugged. "Honestly, I thought the whole thing would make you happy, Kyle. You loved the east coast, didn't you? You told me you did."

"You didn't give a shit if this would make Kyle happy, Craig," Stan said. "This is all for you, and you know it."

"Right, like you really know what motivates me, I forgot," Craig replied, dismissively. "Give me a break, Stan."

"I know what motivates you," Kenny growled, stalking toward Craig. "Controlling Kyle through any means necessary. You think you've got everyone fooled, don't you?"

Craig stood his ground and glanced at Kenny for a moment, regarding him with open disdain and boredom. Looking behind him, he raised his eyebrows at Kyle.

"Kyle, what's he talking about?"

Fear, like cold water, rushed over Kyle all at once before he started to tremble; the look in Craig's eyes bringing vivid memories of the basement to his mind, the sterile, cold lighting and the whip flaying his skin. Unable to speak for a moment, Kyle looked at his husband, subliminally begging him to be merciful, that he wasn't a part of his friends' uprising.

"Oh, no. You aren't going to bully Kyle into covering up for you," Kenny said, advancing on Craig again until he was standing right in front of him. "Give it up, Craig. We know you're terrorizing Kyle, and no, he didn't have to come out and tell us. The truth is so obvious you could fucking see it from space."

Craig lapsed into silence and for a moment all that could be heard were the winds rustling the rose bushes. Somewhere in the night was the flutter of wings, a wayward bat flitting in search of sustenance becoming a dark spot in the sky.

"That's certainly an interesting theory," Craig replied. "A very interesting theory, actually, but that's all it is: a theory. What proof do you have? And on that token, why the fuck am I even listening to you? You're guests here, or did you conveniently forget that?"

"Kyle's all the proof we need," Stan snapped, pointing at him. "Look at him, asshole. You've got him so cowed and afraid that he can barely function, but I'm sure that's exactly what you want, right?"

"Right, he can barely function," Craig argued, stepping around Kenny and walking toward Kyle. "That's why he has a job, hobbies, his own fucking car. If it's so awful here with me, why has he stayed, huh?"

"Because -"

"Uh uh uh, let Kyle answer," Craig cut Stan off, holding up a hand. He glanced at Kyle, waiting. "Well, love? What do you have to say?"

Frantically, Kyle glanced between the three of them until he began to feel dizzy, sweat dripping down his face and his body trembling so hard he thought he might collapse. He hadn't anticipated this ugly scene coming out of nowhere, and he had no idea how to respond; his words dying in his throat. He looked at Craig and the fear and anxiety was so great that he almost thought he might lose control of his bladder, which had happened in the past in times of great distress.

"I-I want my medication," he stammered, his voice barely audible; the stress almost making him feel like his brain was essentially powering down. "I think I'm going to have a panic attack, Craig."

"Medication? What are you talking about?" Stan asked.

"Tucker's got him taking pills, Stan," Kenny said, staring daggers at Craig. "To make him easier to control, I'm sure."

"Oh, quit being so fucking melodramatic; Jesus Christ," Craig replied, looking up at the sky in exasperation. "Kyle sees a psychiatrist who prescribes him medication for his anxiety disorder. I wouldn't write a prescription for fucking Klonopin; he has a legitimate need for it, as you can plainly see."

Drawing closer, Craig reached out a hand toward Kyle, who couldn't help but wince before Kenny was knocking it away.

"Don't touch him!" He yelled. "You've hurt him enough, just like Tweek!"

The world seemed to collapse inward after Kenny mentioned Tweek, and now Craig's basement face was on display for the world to see, though only Kyle recognized it for what it was; building calculation and planned cruelty. All at once, he rushed around Kenny and clung to his husband, begging for forgiveness.

"Don't listen to him," he pleaded, looking up into Craig's face; voice becoming shrill with hysteria. "He doesn't know what he's talking about!"

"Out," Craig whispered, taking a hold of Kyle's jacket and pulling him behind him. He looked at Stan and Kenny, eyes unbelievably remote, almost like he'd exited his body. "I want both of you off of my property now. Before I call the police."

"Craig, no," Kyle spoke up, though the terror he was deluged in almost immobilized him; why couldn't he open his mouth and save himself? "You don't need to do that, you -"

"Quiet," Craig said, his eyes still resting on Kyle's friends. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his phone. "If you two aren't gone in less than five minutes I'm calling the police. Make your choice."

"Kyle, wake up! You can come with us!" Kenny said, pushing past Craig and taking a hold of his shoulders. "Please, for the love of God, don't fucking stay here!"

"That's it," Craig said, dialing before bringing the phone up. "Yes, hello? I need you to send someone to my home, there's a bit of a situation."

"No!" Kyle yelled, breaking away from Kenny. "You guys, just go! I'll be fine! You don't need to get in trouble for me!"

"Kyle, Craig isn't going to intimidate us so he can -"

"Just shut up and leave!" Kyle screamed, tears falling down his face. "Get out! Now!"

"You heard him," Craig said, smirking. "Now, are you going to respect his wishes or do you need the cops to remind you how to act like adults?"

"You sadistic prick," Kenny seethed. "If you fucking lay one hand on him, I swear to God -"

"Go, Kenny. Just go," Kyle whispered, turning away and beginning to stagger back toward the house; desperate to be alone with his Klonopin bottle. He didn't look back, his head filled with rushing nocturnes and the voices in his mind screaming at him to turn around and beg for help; he didn't listen.

******

Splatters of red wove their way across the canvas and Kyle almost felt like he could fall into their depths, swimming through currents of crimson and scarlet; blood sliding down his throat in metallic ribbons. He was sitting on the floor of his studio and studying his painting, his prior hysteria and panic subdued because of the Klonopin, his head heavy and beginning to nod. He'd locked himself in the room after procuring the medication bottle from his messenger bag in the kitchen; since then he'd just drifted, flitting in and out of worry and warm periods of reflection. Vaguely, he was aware of the sounds of the party dying down behind the door but he made no move to leave.

He fervently hoped that Stan and Kenny had seen reason and saw fit to leave before Craig completed the call to the police. God, what an awful scene that had been in the garden, with Kenny throwing Tweek in Craig's face just out of nowhere. What had he been thinking? Kyle cringed just remembering what was said, how the mirror of his life had been shoved in his face and he was forced to face it; everything. What was going to happen now? He could hardly imagine but he had reason to believe it was going to be awful. After all, he'd seen the cold, controlled fury on his husband's face; a million awful promises trapped in his eyes. He shuddered.

Before too long silence had descended over the house, and the shift in the atmosphere signaled to Kyle that the guests had vacated; at least he was almost positive they had. Confirmation came when he heard the doorknob rattle behind him, and when it didn't open he made no move to get up. Closing his eyes, he heard the telltale sound of a key being inserted into a lock, the twist of the knob, and then -

"I trust you're feeling better. I told everyone you weren't feeling well; they offered their deepest sympathies," Craig's faintly amused voice floated over to him, making him cringe immediately. Silently, he nodded his head but he didn't turn. Kyle couldn't stomach the idea of looking his doom in the eyes before it consumed him; he almost preferred never knowing what hit him, but moments passed and nothing happened.

"If you're worried about having a studio when we move, don't," Craig said, the sound of his footsteps unbearably loud as they passed over the floor. "You can have whatever you want, Kyle. Hell, we'll make it even better than this place, I promise."

Somehow, even in the haze of the Klonopin and fear, Kyle managed to find his voice; chastising himself for not being able to locate it when it truly mattered.

"That's not what I'm concerned about and you know it," he murmured, bending his legs and resting his chin on his knees; still clothed in his slacks and dress shirt, his feet bare. "I can't believe you didn't tell me your new job was in another state, Craig."

"What does it matter?" Craig asked, standing right behind Kyle now; his shadow falling over the red-dripped canvas. "Colorado, Maryland? What's the difference?"

"It makes all the difference in the world," Kyle whispered, hugging his legs tighter. "Everything I know is here, my job, my friends -"

"You'll make new friends, and you don't need to have a job. We've already discussed that. Besides, I'll be making more now, that's even more reason for you not to work. It's too stressful for you anyway."

"Have you listened to anything I've ever said?" Kyle asked, turning now and getting shakily to his feet; backing away from Craig and around his work table, making sure to keep distance between them. Rage and sadness were at war within him, and for now the anger was winning; spurning him on. "Honestly, have you heard one fucking thing, or do you just hear the things you want to hear?"

Craig stared at him, clearly unimpressed by Kyle's outburst. Surprisingly, he didn't even seem angry, at least not yet.

"What are you talking about, Kyle?"

"I've never once told you that working stresses me out," Kyle replied, gripping the table so hard his hands hurt. "You want to know what stresses me out, Craig? The threat of not being able to have a job, of being forced to sit around and do absolutely nothing with my life. For God's sake, I went to college! I want to use my mind, but you're always trying to stop me!"

"Oh, so I'm a bad guy for wanting you to have an easy, comfortable life? I'm terrible for wanting to take care of you?" Craig asked, voice softening to dangerous levels. "You're so ungrateful it makes me sick."

Kyle softened at Craig's words, though his hands still remained clenched on the table. He dropped his focus, studying some sketches laid out of roses and birds.

"I'm not trying to be ungrateful, Craig, and you aren't terrible for wanting to take care of me. If anything, I really appreciate it, but I still need to have a life beyond all of this," he said, opening his arms wide and gesturing around the studio. "Most of the time I feel suffocated, and I can't help wanting to get away. I want to take care of you, of us, but I need more. Can't you understand that?"

"So, you admit it then," Craig said, beginning to slowly come round the table, forcing Kyle to retreat. "You want to get away. You want to leave me. Is that right?"

"No, Craig, that's not what I -"

"It's Kenny, isn't it? He's changed you, Kyle; he's turned you against me. I know he has."

"What are you talking about? You aren't making any sense, Craig," Kyle said, finally backing up against the wall; unable to retreat any further, Craig right in front of him. He held up his arms, trying to cover his face while waiting for a blow.

"It makes sense that someone like Kenny, a fucking lowlife, would poison your mind until you couldn't see straight," Craig continued. "He's so manipulative, Kyle; can't you see that? Only trash would try to kiss someone who's married, right?"

All the sound and light felt like it was being sucked out of the room when Craig said that, and Kyle lowered his arms, staring at him with wide eyes.

"What did you say?"

Craig watched him, eyes still filled with rage but there was faint, cruel amusement quirking his lips, as well.

"Why don't we ask Rose?"

Reaching out, Kyle clung to Craig's shirt when his legs felt like they were about to give out, his breaths becoming ragged; mind racing like a frantic hamster on a wheel.

"You didn't, you couldn't..." he broke off, staring up at his husband with disbelieving eyes. "You didn't...read it, did you?"

Wordlessly, Craig reached down and took a hold of Kyle's hand, squeezing it tightly before yanking on him, leading him out of the studio, down the hallway, and into the kitchen. Flinging him against the counter, Craig went about fishing through Kyle's bag until he found the secret pocket and then he was lifting the diary out, its understated black leather cover shining under the kitchen lights. Kyle clung to the counter, shaking his head in disbelief.

"No," he whispered. "No, how could you? Those are my...my thoughts, my most private..." he trailed off, continuing to shake his head.

Then Craig did the unthinkable, something far worse than even taking Kyle to the basement, because what he was infringing on threatened Kyle's heart and soul, his very core, not just the husk that his body had become. He began to taunt Kyle with his own words, his most innermost musings; snapping the diary open and beginning to read:

"Maybe I'm nothing. I feel like nothing, Rose. Did you know that? I'm a ghost, a lost boy, a forgotten loose end tucked away in a junk drawer. I'm the button or key that someone finds but can't think of a use for."

Craig rolled his eyes, glancing at Kyle with faint interest.

"How very poetic, don't you think? I guess you fancy yourself a writer, huh? Let's see what else is in here, okay? Won't that be fun?"

"Stop," Kyle said, faintly. Somehow he managed to push himself from the counter even though he felt like he was wading through water; his entire reality becoming hazy and too real at the same time. How could he feel so disconnected and so painfully exposed all at once? "Please, don't read anymore, Craig -"

"Rose, I think Kenny wanted to kiss me, but I stopped him. Can you believe that? I have no idea where any of this is coming from, but he looked at me like he wanted me...I know that look, or at least I think I do. Craig still looks at me like that on occasion."

Craig looked up, eyes beginning to blaze in a way that Kyle had never seen, his face full of awful promises.

"So nice of you to mention me right after you talk about Kenny trying to kiss you. How very sweet, don't you think?"

"B-but I said that I stopped him," Kyle whispered. "I never let him kiss me, Craig. Not once."

"Well, you must be very proud," Craig replied, scanning the diary's page again. "Oh, but let's see here, this is very interesting." He held up the diary so Kyle could see as he read the next part:

"I know this is crazy, but I kind of wanted Kenny to kiss me, Rose. God, I wish I had let him kiss me."

"Doesn't exactly sound innocent to me. What do you think?"

"Nothing happened," Kyle said, looking down at the floor and fully expecting to see it covered over with blood; his heart feeling like Craig had taken a razor blade to it and opened it up, making its contents leak out and drench everything. "Kenny was kind to me, he just wanted to help."

"Help you with what?" Craig asked, his voice loaded with scorn. "All he wanted was to get into your pants, Kyle. He wanted to fuck you, he still wants to fuck you. Who knows what could've happened if I hadn't found this ridiculous thing." All at once, he threw the diary at Kyle so hard it made him gasp when it collided with his chest. It fell to the floor with a loud slap, right at Kyle's feet.

"W-when?" Kyle choked out, staring at the diary and almost wanting to apologize to it; for allowing it to be discovered. "When did you -"

"Trying to find the remote in the cushions," Craig scoffed. "I told you you were a terrible liar, Kyle, and I meant it. I knew something was going on, I knew you were hiding something from me. I can't believe it took me so long to figure out you've been hiding that bullshit in your bag this whole time. I always wondered why you held onto that thing even though it was falling apart, but now it all makes sense."

Kyle closed his eyes as the tears began to fall.

"I just needed a place to put my thoughts, Craig. That's all."

"Those aren't your thoughts, they're secrets; plans," Craig seethed. "There's no room for secrets in a marriage, Kyle."

"What are you talking about?!" Kyle shouted, opening his eyes and staring at Craig in shock. "You keep secrets all the time! What about tonight? What about your new job? What about fucking moving across the country without telling me?!"

"Those were surprises," Craig argued, rolling his eyes. "They were supposed to make you happy, unlike the shit you've been writing. That diary is full of you trashing me and turning me into some kind of monster. It makes you sound completely delusional, Kyle. You need a change of pace, of surroundings, that much is clear. We aren't leaving this place soon enough as far as I'm concerned."

"Delusional? Seriously? You think what I wrote makes me sound delusional?" Kyle asked, eyes widening at Craig's skewed version of reality. "Craig, everything I wrote was the truth, and I'm sorry, if it made you sound like a monster, well," he shrugged, helplessly, "I don't know what to tell you. That's between you and your conscience."

Craig narrowed his eyes, beginning to walk toward Kyle, but for once he held his ground; refusing to budge.

"My conscience and I are on wonderful terms, Kyle. At least I'm not running around with another guy, at least I'm not sneaking behind your back and fantasizing about scum like Kenny McCormick."

"No," Kyle whispered, staring him full in the face. "No, you just have someone to drag into the basement when you can't deal with your emotions, so you resort to violence. You have someone to tear apart so you can pretend you're putting them back together. You have someone to torture because you were right, Craig. You are a monster; a fucking sadistic, abusive bully!"

In less than a second, Craig had backhanded Kyle hard across the face, sending him crashing to the floor and moaning softly, his hand clutched to his bleeding mouth. He lay there for a moment, watching spatters of red dripping onto the white tile until he reached out a trembling hand, intending to scoop up his diary. He screamed when Craig stopped him, stepping on his hand with his shiny black shoe, pressing it against the floor; the tiny bones grinding together.

"You are completely out of line right now, Kyle," he said softly, his voice completely controlled even in the midst of clearly building rage. "How could you talk to me like that? All I want to do is take care of you, and this is how you repay me?" He sighed and became still for a moment, prompting Kyle to look up at him; the white light of the kitchen making Craig's deep black hair appear washed out; his skin weirdly pale, almost like a cadaver.

"It's this place," he murmured. "I swear, it's always been this place. We never should've come back but I figured I could keep a handle on things." He shook his head. "Clearly, I didn't. I looked away for too long and things went to hell, but we can still repair the damage, can't we? After all, the realtor's coming the day after tomorrow -"

"Realtor?" Kyle asked, trying desperately to pull his hand out from under Craig's shoe. "You mean, you've already started -"

"This house is going on the market within a week, Kyle. It's already been thoroughly cleaned, so now it's just a matter of time."

"The cleaners," Kyle said, eyes widening. "They weren't just cleaning up for the party. They were getting the house ready so it could be sold."

"Naturally," Craig replied. "I've already started scoping out a few locations in Baltimore, all with basements that can be renovated to suit our tastes."

Now Kyle was frantically trying to pull his hand away, almost feeling like a rat caught in a trap. The blood continued to pour from his mouth and now he could feel it leaking out of his nose, too; clearly Craig hadn't held back at all when he struck him. Whimpering, he could feel Craig stepping down harder on his hand.

"It'll be a shame having to dismantle the basement so people can view the house, but I guess it can't be helped," he sighed. "I'm thinking that we should probably use it one last time. Don't you?"

Finally, Kyle was able to yank his hand out from under Craig's shoe, the skin tearing slightly and making him grimace. A weird sort of adrenaline was coursing through him and conquering his fatigue and the Klonopin, and he quickly got to his feet, leaning against the counter.

"No," he said. "I'm not going down there, Craig."

"Excuse me?" Craig asked, advancing on him. This time, Kyle did cower, his back pressed against the counter and inhibiting him from moving further away. "What did you just say?"

Kyle cleared his throat, his heart beating unbelievably fast in his chest; almost like it wanted to escape and race around the room. His body was poised and ready for the ensuing violence, the tension making him faintly nauseous. He'd never actively refused the basement before, but something inside of him, the sane part that had been sleeping for so long, was waking up and it didn't want to stay silent any longer.

"I've done everything you wanted for years," Kyle said, trying to keep himself upright. "And it never seemed to matter. I behaved, I obeyed your rules, I endured the punishments, your corrections, but what difference has it made, huh? I'm starting to see that I could be perfect, Craig, but it still wouldn't be enough; you'd still find a reason to hurt me. Well," he shook his head, the blood continuing to flow freely as the tears ran down his face, "no more. I'm done. I'm not going into the basement, Craig. Never again."

Craig laughed a little and reached into his pocket, producing a silver key. Striding over to the basement door, he unlocked it and pulled it open with a flourish.

"Let's go, Kyle. Move it."

Kyle just stared at him and then at the darkness of the basement, feeling his pupils dilating as they tried to grope through the pitch black of that waiting room. He started backing away, his eyes coming to rest on his car keys sitting next to his bag on the counter.

"I'm not going," he repeated, slowly walking across the room toward the bag, the keys. "I'm not going, I'm not going, I'm not going..." he kept saying these words, almost like they were a mantra, a spell, that could save him; keep him tethered to reality. All at once the nocturnes were swooshing into his brain and the chattering voices, the naysayers, the creatures calling for him to submit, to bow, were converging on him; willing him to fold. He refused.

"Listen to you, you sound crazy," Craig said, shaking his head. Slowly, he started toward Kyle. "Kyle, baby, you aren't thinking straight. Let's go into the basement and we'll clear your head, okay? You'll feel better afterward."

"No, you'll feel better afterward," Kyle whispered, backing up against the counter and covertly swiping the keys; clutching them in his trembling hand. "You won't use the lidocaine, you won't use anything, will you?"

"Do you feel like you deserve it?" Craig asked, barely an arm's length away now. "Your conduct dictates your corrections. You know that."

"No, it doesn't. It never has. This is all for you," Kyle said, shaking his head. "I'm not going."

"That's enough!" Craig suddenly yelled, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle's shirt, shaking him viciously; head snapping side to side. "I hate when you won't listen to me, when you have to question every fucking thing I do! Now fucking walk to the basement before I fucking drag you!"

"No! NO!" Kyle shrieked, managing to keep a hold on the keys even though Craig was shaking him like a boneless slab of meat.

Before he could react, Craig was slapping Kyle hard across the face, over and over until his legs gave out, making him sag against the counter; the only thing holding him up being Craig and his tight hold on Kyle's shirt. Tears and blood and mucus mixed together on Kyle's face, making it almost impossible to see, so he shut his eyes; almost slipping into the abuse like he was going into a warm coma. He'd been in this position so many times it was almost like he was acting out a part in a play.

Finally Craig stopped, his breaths coming ragged and fast as he began to do exactly what he promised, dragging Kyle to the open basement door, his body slack even though his brain still screamed at him to fight. Somehow, against all odds, he'd maintained his hold on his car keys. Groaning, he tried to find the wherewithal to fight, digging his heels in, but Craig continued to yank him toward the basement and its waiting horrors.

"Now, stop acting like a fool and walk down the goddamn stairs," Craig seethed, propping Kyle on his feet and pointing into the gloom. "Or so help me God, Kyle, I'll fucking throw you down there, and I'm not taking you to the hospital if you break something; that's a promise."

Every fiber of Kyle's being knew that Craig meant what he said, that he would throw him down there regardless of how steep it was; the hard floor waiting to catch him even if it meant fracturing something, and then where would he be? Cold sweat started leaking out of Kyle's pores as he considered that scenario, laid up in bed in a cast and completely unable to get away, a glorified sitting duck for his husband to brutalize at a whim; no doubt simmering with rage because Kyle had forced his hand. Sniffling, he wiped a hand across his mouth, clearing it of some of the blood and tears.

"O-okay, but can I kiss you first, Craig? I hate when we're at odds like this. Please, just kiss me before we go down there."

Craig studied him for a moment, some of the sanity filtering back into his eyes as he considered Kyle's request. It wasn't the first time Kyle had asked for affection before making the basement trek, and he smiled suddenly, softly.

"Of course," he said, leaning down. "I don't want you to think I do the things I do because I don't love you or something, Kyle. It's the only way we can maintain order. You know that, right?"

"Yes, I do. Order," Kyle breathed, accepting Craig's kiss with trembling, blood-flavored lips. Pulling way, he looked into his husband's eyes. "I love you. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry," Craig smiled, kissing him again. "We'll burn that thing when we're done, so we can start fresh," he added, gesturing to the diary still laying on the floor. "Come on."

Kyle made a move to start his descent but taking a deep breath, he pulled on his last reserves of strength and courage and quick as a flash, rammed his shoulder into Craig's stomach and sent him careening backward, where he groped for his balance at the top of the stairs before finally toppling over and crashing down, his body thumping as it met each of the steps in turn. Standing in the doorway, Kyle watched with wide eyes as his husband finally came to a stop almost at the foot of the stairs, and for a moment he thought for sure he was dead; his tired eyes watching Craig's still, silent body. Before too long, though, a faint moan could be heard, and then -

"I'll fucking kill you," Craig said, his voice broken and coming in painful sounding spurts. "When I get my hands on you, I'm going to snap your fucking neck, you little..." he petered off, coughing in fits and starts.

Gasping for air and almost feeling like he was going to have a heart attack, Kyle backed away, alternating between elation that Craig was still alive and abject fear at what he'd done, at what Craig promised. Suddenly, he became aware of the car keys in his hand again, and in a split second a decision was made: he needed to get the fuck out of there, quick. Looking around, Kyle frantically tried to get his bearings, his whole body feeling like it was on fire as he groped for a direction, a plan. When nothing came to him except the overwhelming need to flee, he started toward the doorway, but at the last moment, something came to him and he turned back; lifting the almost forgotten diary off of the floor and clenching his fingers around it.

"Get back here, Kyle! Now! Right now!" Craig's voice traveled up from the darkness of the basement and almost stopped Kyle in his tracks, but somehow he kept going; his feet becoming swift as he ran from the kitchen, down the hall, and finally out the front door, feeling certain that Craig would catch him at any moment; ghostly hands locking around his neck and desperately trying to keep him in place.

*******

Kyle drove around for hours, alternating between sobbing and ranting with rage before he finally simmered down into a puddle of shaking, terrified confusion; almost feeling like he was going to snap at any moment and just sink into complete insanity. He was just glad that it was late and the streets were all but deserted, his silver Lexus sliding through the night-hushed streets as he passed by the same buildings over and over, completely unsure as to how he should proceed. He'd fled the house without taking anything he really needed, like his phone and wallet, but he was eternally glad that he'd remembered Rose, the diary sitting on the seat beside him; offering up undeniable comfort every time he glanced at it.

He still couldn't believe that Craig had found it, had used his own words against him, though if he really gave it a lot of thought it was completely in line with his husband's character. At first he'd merely felt humiliated and strange that Craig had delved into his most personal thoughts, but as he continued to drive bright spikes of rage began to filter into his blood as well. How could Craig do that? How could he violate Kyle's privacy in such a grossly inappropriate manner? Was it really asking so much that he have just a little corner of the world to himself, a tiny universe of his own making that no one else could see or control? Christ, Craig controlled everything else, right down to the food Kyle ate and the clothes he wore, did he really need to control his thoughts as well?

"God, just how much does he fucking want?" Kyle seethed, slamming his hand down on the steering wheel. "He already has everything I can give, doesn't he? Why couldn't he let me have this one fucking thing?!"

Kyle continued to drive until the gas gauge made it to 'E' and apprehension flooded his stomach. He didn't have a nickel to his name so there was no way he could refuel, and sudden vivid images of being trapped on a lonely country back road arrested his thoughts, filling him with slow terror. He needed to pick a destination, and fast. For a brief, crazy moment he considered just throwing in the towel and going back home but he shook his head, refusing to walk back into the lion's den without putting up a fight first. He was becoming fuzzy from fatigue as well, and tiny fireflies were filling up the car as he drove; bright lights obscuring his vision and glowing multicolored in the blue darkness.

"I guess I took too much Klonopin," he murmured, almost starting to giggle. When he'd hightailed it out of the house he'd forgotten that his Klonopin bottle was still in his pocket, and he'd taken a couple after driving around for awhile. He always knew when he'd taken too much because he started feeling faintly nauseous, and the fireflies would start flitting around, yellow, electric blue, and bright pink.

Coming to a stop sign, Kyle stopped and considered his options, even though his mind was quickly evaporating into sluggish mush. All at once, the answer was clear as a bell in his muddled brain, and for a moment he chastised himself for being so stupid that he hadn't thought of it sooner.

"Wake the fuck up, Kyle. You aren't that far gone, are you?" He asked, turning the car to the right and traveling over the train tracks that had long ago fallen into disrepair; the lawns becoming sparse and badly kept the further he drove. Before too long, Kenny's old house came into view, and Kyle was suddenly so filled with relief it almost felt like his bones were turning to water. Slowing down, he looked around though, fully expecting to see Craig's car already there. No doubt that's exactly where he'd end up if he intended to come after Kyle, especially after reading the diary's contents.

The coast was clear though, and slowly Kyle stopped in front of the little house, putting the car in park and waiting for a moment. He'd been inside the house once since reconnecting with Kenny, and he had to admit that it looked better than it had when they were kids. It would seem that over time Kenny had started to fix it up as his wallet would allow it, and now it was freshly painted and there were tasteful bushes flanking the front door; the glass in the windows repaired and the roof brand new and whole with nary a hole anywhere. Kyle smiled softly, tenderness filling him at the thought of Kenny caring for his aging mother; his father having passed years ago from the complications of spending his life sucking down alcohol and illicit drugs.

Finally, Kyle turned off the car and picked Rose up from her place on the front seat, slowly opening his door and climbing out; cool winds whipping through his hair. He regarded the moon and stars for a moment, hanging low above the modest house, hardly believing that they were the same celestial bodies he'd contemplated mere hours before; it was almost like a lifetime had passed since the party. He walked on trembling, weakened legs up to the front door, passing by Kenny's blue truck waiting silently in the driveway. Desperately, he attempted to make himself presentable before he gave it up as a lost cause, and throwing caution to the wind he rang the doorbell; waiting on pins and needles for whatever was about to happen.

He's going to call me stupid for staying, he thought, almost wincing when a front window was illuminated; golden light striking through the night. He's going to tell me to leave because he can't help me; nobody can help me. Christ, I'm probably beyond help at this point.

He could hear vague scuffles on the other side of the door before it opened slowly, Kenny appearing and looking sleepily disheveled; hair matted down in the back and a mess in the front, blue eyes partly opened. When he saw Kyle they opened wide, though, flooding with naked shock and surprise.

"Kyle?" He asked, coming forward and reaching out his hands but not actually touching him, almost like he was afraid to. "Kyle, your face," he said. "What did he do to you?"

"Don't make me go back there, please," Kyle pleaded, stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Kenny's waist; nearly collapsing against him. "Don't let him take me back to the basement, Kenny. I can't go down there again; he'll kill me this time. I know he will."

"Wait, hold up. The basement? Kyle, what are you talking about?"

Instead of offering up anymore information, Kyle sagged against Kenny and started to cry like his heart was breaking, every part of his body becoming loose as exhaustion and all of the night's trials converged on him at once; the secrets of a life lived in darkness and fear crushing him into the earth. They stood like that for several moments until Kenny reciprocated, his arms winding tightly around Kyle and holding him so closely he could hear Kenny's heartbeat thudding under his skin; his warmth bleeding through his clothes and passing into the huddled boy sobbing in his arms.

"Shh, it's going to be okay, Kyle," he whispered, stroking a hand through Kyle's hair softly. "I've got you, okay? He'll never hurt you again. I promise."

******

It was with apprehension and utter shame that Kyle regarded his reflection in Kenny's bathroom mirror, the clouds of steam slowly dissipating from the shower he'd just gotten done taking. Usually he tried to avoid looking at himself after Craig beat him, but this time he had to face it, all of it. Grimacing, he had to admit that he looked awful, and now Kenny's reaction made perfect sense when he'd first opened the door; eyes disbelieving and shocked.

Craig had slapped Kyle so hard that he'd busted some of the blood vessels in his right eye, so the sclera was blood red, and both eyes were swiftly becoming black; purple and blue shadows already staining the surrounding flesh. Both cheeks were swollen and discolored, his lips puffy and a dark red wound marring the corner of his mouth. He was honestly surprised that Craig hadn't broken his nose again, but he'd always had a tendency to develop bad nosebleeds; the appendage aching terribly. He would've liked to say that he barely recognized himself in his wrecked state but sadly, this had become his new normal over the years; appearing like he'd gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, with him always as the loser in the end.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he whispered, staring at himself; haunted green eyes looking like they belonged on a tortured refugee instead of a pampered doctor's husband. "I can't believe I let Kenny, anyone, see me like this. What am I doing right now?"

A sudden knock came at the door and Kyle almost yelled, slapping a hand over his aching mouth.

"Kyle? Are you okay in there? Do you need anything?" Kenny's voice traveled through the door, sounding unsure but so effortlessly kind it immediately lulled him.

Raking a hand through his moist curls, Kyle opened the door to see Kenny standing there, staring at him with concern; hair still cutely disheveled and clad in his sleep shirt and baggy pajama pants. He smiled slowly.

"You've already given me more than I deserve," he said, shyly looking down at the floor and rubbing the back of his neck, wincing when his fingers found yet another bruise. "I can't thank you enough for taking me in. It's just for the night, I promise."

"Bullshit, Kyle," Kenny said, drawing his focus up from the floor. "You're done with Tucker, you hear me? This is the straw that broke the fucking camel's back."

Before Kyle could answer, Mrs. McCormick appeared in a terry cloth robe, graying red hair up in a bun on the top of her head. She smiled kindly at Kyle before giving her son a look of disapproval.

"When are you going to tell this child that there's cocoa waiting for him in the kitchen, Kenny?" She asked, frowning. "What's wrong with you, boy?"

"Nothing, ma," Kenny sighed, rubbing his face. "We're just trying to have a private discussion here, so -"

"So, nothing," she interrupted, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle's arm gently. "He looks like he's dead on his feet, son. Give him a little something to revive himself and then you can jaw at him all you like. Come on, baby," she said, glancing at Kyle. "Come along now."

Grinning, Kyle allowed himself to be pulled toward the kitchen as Kenny followed behind, grousing the whole time.

"Ma, I'm not jawing at Kyle, okay? I'm just trying to -"

"Here you go, hon. Drink up now," Mrs. McCormick said, completely tuning her son out. Leading Kyle to the table, she instructed him to sit and she did the same, watching him fondly as he took a sip of cocoa.

"This is delicious," Kyle said, setting the mug down. "Thank you so much, Mrs. McCormick."

She swatted at him gently, smiling wider.

"You call me Carol now, okay? We ain't strangers, so don't act like we are; not with the way my son raves about you."

"Ma, please," Kenny said, sitting down as well and covering his face with his hands. "Don't do this to me."

"Quit bein' smart, Kenny," she said, easily, resting her face in her hand. "It's the truth, ain't it?" She turned to Kyle. "He took a shine to you ages ago. Even as far back as when you kids was in school. Gosh, you shoulda heard the way he went on and on when you was named valedictorian, you'da thought you'd just been elected president of the United States."

"God, ma, stop. I'm begging you," Kenny said, pulling his hands away and revealing reddened cheeks.

"Oh, and that painting that you done years ago?" She continued, ignoring her son. "The one with them little goldfish in that pretty frame?" She glanced at Kenny, arching a brow. "Run quick and grab it for me, will you, son? It's on my dresser in the bedroom."

"Ma, I really don't think -"

"Git," she replied, smiling warmly at Kyle, who could barely believe what he was hearing.

"Fine, fine," he sighed, rising from the table and disappearing down the hallway. After a moment he returned, holding the little watercolor Kyle had done years ago, still encased in the simple white frame Wendy had given him. His mouth dropped open when he saw it, and he stared at Kenny.

"You bought it? But how? When?"

Kenny shrugged and set the painting in front of his mom, plopping back into his seat.

"Wendy took a picture of it and sent it to me while I was out on the road," he said, studying the painting, one finger drifting over the glass. "I took a liking to it, so I told her I wanted it and to mail it to my old house. Simple as that."

"Oh, simple as that, will you listen to him?" Carol snorted. "It was one of the first things he wanted to see when he came home. "'Ma, ma! Where's the picture? Is it okay? Lemme see it!'"

"Okay, ma. Knock if off," Kenny barked, flushing even redder now. "Kyle and I need to talk about some stuff, okay?"

Reaching up, Kenny's mom smacked the back of his head lightly, giving him a look.

"I don't stand for no sass, Kenny. You know that." Turning to Kyle, she reached out and brushed a cool, soft hand against his bruised cheek. "Are you going to be okay, child? Someone hurt you terrible bad, didn't they?"

Biting his lip, Kyle nodded and looked down at his cocoa.

"I know a thing or two about that," she murmured, stroking his face but taking care not to hurt him. "And so does, Kenny; we know. It ain't any type of life for anyone to live."

Kyle looked up at these words, glancing between Mrs. McCormick and Kenny, Kenny staring at him with sad eyes. After a moment, he nodded slowly.

"You see, Kenny's daddy was not a nice man, but then again I wasn't very nice either, back in the day," Carol continued, lifting her hand from Kyle's face and taking a hold of Kenny's hand; she squeezed it. "We got wrapped up in the wrong stuff and we let the poison cloud our judgement. Eventually, I changed but Kenny's daddy didn't, and you see where that got him."

Continuing to squeeze her son's hand, she looked down at the table and took a long breath, seemingly wading through a lifetime's worth of recollections and regrets.

"There's a great deal of evil on this planet, boys, but I dare say inflicting pain on the people you're supposed to love and protect is some of the worst evil I can think of. There's no excuse for it when push comes to shove, and if you've done it, well, you spend the rest of your life trying to make up for it. It stays with you, because it stays with the people you hurt."

She gave Kenny one last long squeeze before she rose from the table, gathering the picture up and pressing it to her robe-covered breast; smiling at Kyle with eyes bright with tears.

"I just want you to know that you ain't alone, baby," she said. "Not with Kenny in your corner. He takes care of his own. Don't you, son?"

Kenny nodded, glancing at Kyle with his own haunted eyes, eyes that contained their own suffering and multitude of secret shames.

"You got a home wherever he is, no matter what choice you make," Carol said, pressing a dry kiss against the top of Kyle's hair and patting his shoulder. Slowly, she began shuffling back toward her room. "Good night, boys; don't stay up too late, you hear?"

"Right, ma. Right," Kenny sighed, watching with a gentle smile as his mother retreated into her room, the door closing softly. "Sorry about that, dude. She gets on a tear and then she can talk a blue streak, as you can plainly see."

"No, no, don't apologize. She actually made me feel a little better," Kyle said, picking up his cocoa and taking a tiny sip. Setting it down, he thought a moment. "So, about what she said -"

"Let's not talk about that, okay?" He cut in, running both of his hands through his sleep-matted hair. "I've suffered enough humiliation for one night."

"I think it's sweet," Kyle said, smiling.

"Bordering on psychotic," Kenny quipped, rolling his eyes. "God, I look like a fucking obsessed stalker or something."

Kyle shook his head, pushing the cocoa away.

"No, I've seen psychotic, Kenny. I've lived with obsession. What you've done doesn't even come close, I promise."

Kenny stared at him for a moment, the only sound in the room the relentless ticking of the clock over the stove. Scratching his arm, he finally shrugged, clearly trying to appear casual.

"So, are you going to tell me what happened tonight? Are you going to tell me anything?"

Kyle stared down at his hands, opening and closing them slowly, trying to find something to focus on other than the inevitable; the outpouring that Kenny was asking for, that Kyle needed to wade through in order to keep going. He couldn't find the words though, because there was just so much to say, so many secrets consuming him.

"What can I say, Kenny?" He asked, helplessly. "Where do I start?"

"Wherever you want," Kenny replied, reaching out and taking Kyle's hand, squeezing it; much like his mother had done to him. "I'm listening, man. You have all of my attention."

"Would you believe me if I told you I pushed Craig down the stairs before I left?" Kyle asked. He laughed but it sounded terribly bitter. "Escaped, rather."

"You didn't," Kenny breathed, admiration threading through his voice. "You really pushed Tucker down the stairs? Is he dead? Please tell me he's dead."

"Kenny, knock it off," Kyle replied, pulling his hand away and standing from the table. "That isn't funny."

"Who's trying to be funny?" Kenny asked, following behind Kyle as he walked toward Kenny's bedroom. "That dude had it coming, Kyle. If what I'm seeing today is any indication of what he's capable of, he had that shit coming in spades."

Kyle sighed and picked up Rose, cradling the diary in his hands for a moment; contemplating a monumental decision, a decision that would change everything. He was considering rocking the very foundations of his life, but he still wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do. After all, he still loved his husband dearly, almost beyond measure, and his stubborn nature and relentless pursuit of doing the right thing plagued him endlessly. He gazed at Kenny for a moment, studying him.

"Do you ever wonder about the person you could've been if your life had turned out differently?" He asked, going over to the bed and sitting down; pulling Kenny's oversized t-shirt down and tucking his legs underneath it, nearly swimming in the boxers he'd let him borrow.

Kenny gave him a questioning look before coming to sit beside him, his eyes resting on the diary in Kyle's hands.

"I'm not sure I know what you mean," he replied.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm mourning my own death," Kyle said, brushing a tear away that had started to fall. He sniffled. "I often think about the person I was meant to be if I'd never ended up with Craig, and sometimes it makes me so sad I don't know if I can keep going, but I do." He glanced at Kenny, a ghost of a smile quirking his lips.

"You want to know the whole story, huh? From the very beginning?"

Kenny nodded.

"I always have, Kyle," he murmured. "I've always wanted to know everything about you, the good and the bad."

Kyle looked down at the diary again, and before he could talk himself out of it he was handing it to Kenny.

"Well, there you go, dude. Every little detail of my life with Craig. It isn't pretty but don't say I didn't warn you, okay?"

Kenny stared at the diary for a moment and then back at Kyle, eyes wide.

"You really want me to read this? It's okay?"

"It's okay, Kenny. Is it okay if I sleep while you do it? Unless you wanted to go to sleep now, it is late -"

"No, I want to read it now. All of it," Kenny cut in. "And of course you can sleep, you don't even have to ask. Here, let me get your place set up."

Kyle stopped Kenny before he could pull the blanket back, smiling at him softly.

"Get comfortable, okay?"

Kenny stared at him, clearly not understanding.

"What are you talking about? Don't you want to get in bed?"

"Just do it, okay?" Kyle said, brushing some hair off of Kenny's forehead. "For me."

"If you say so," Kenny said, still sounding confused. Glancing around, he scooted up the bed until his back was resting against the pillows. "Now what?"

"Now I can sleep and you can read," Kyle grinned, crawling over and resting his head in Kenny's lap. "Is this okay?"

Kenny was silent for a moment, almost like he was at a loss for words. All at once, Kyle could sense the tension flowing from his old friend as he felt a gentle hand passing through his curls, almost making him sigh.

"This is better than okay," Kenny said, softly. "This is perfect."

Chapter Text

 But if someone like you
Found someone like me,
Then suddenly
Nothing would ever be the same.

 My heart would take wing,
And I'd feel so alive
If someone like you
Found me...

- Someone Like You, Jekyll & Hyde


He was wandering a lonely corridor, bare feet whispering over the cold floor. He kept walking and walking, but he never got anywhere. Where was he?

Stopping, Kyle looked around and all at once he could hear the music, the nocturnes; soft and faintly sweet, but so dark too, almost like rich, expensive chocolate. Obediently, he followed the music until he came to the basement door, but he couldn't bring himself to open it. The music was becoming unbearably loud now so he tried to cover his ears, but that didn't do a thing. If anything, the music became so loud that he was sure that it was playing right inside of his head instead of from some unseen force. Looking down at the white tiled floor, he gasped to see the red seeping out, bringing with it the stench of old coins, of despair, of utter fear and hopelessness. He whimpered, backing away.

"This isn't the truth," he whispered. "I've never been able to find the truth down there."

The red tide continued to flow from under the door and the nocturnes were cutting through his skull, drenching Kyle's brain as the blood (it had to be blood, right?) soaked his feet. He tried to run but he slipped, thudding to the floor when all of a sudden the music stopped, and the entire world became silent. Breathing a sigh of relief, Kyle tried to rise when he heard the footsteps behind the basement door, slowly ascending the staircase in discordant taps; drawing closer as he watched with growing fear. After a moment, the footsteps stopped but then there was a knock, a rap rap rap against the wood, and Kyle was sure that his heart was going to burst.

"Aren't you going to let me out, Kyle?" Craig's voice called out from behind the door. "Or are you going to leave me in here, along with everyone else?"

Kyle could only stare with bulging eyes at the door, his body giving off waves of acrid terror-tinged fear; sweat pooling on the floor along with the blood.

"Open the door, Kyle, or I will," Craig said, and then the doorknob began to twist slowly; back and forth, back and forth.

Frantically, Kyle tried to get to his feet but he kept slipping on the gore, until he was crying and desperately trying to crawl toward the door, but no matter what, he couldn't reach it.

"Wait, just wait," he pleaded. "I'll open the door, Craig; I'll open the -"

But the door was already swinging open of its own accord, and when Kyle looked up there was Craig, his head at a bizarre angle, his neck jutting like it had been broken in the fall. He stared down at Kyle with his calculating eyes.

"Can't say I didn't give you a chance," he murmured, smiling widely. "I've always given you too many chances, Kyle, but you already knew that."

"N-no, stay away," Kyle whispered, backing away now but not getting anywhere. "Stay away, Craig!"

"You belong to me," Craig said, beginning to walk toward him. "Now come and take your medicine like a good boy, then we can start again -"

"No! No!" Kyle screamed, covering his face with his hands. "No!"

------

Kyle tore awake with a shout which he quickly stifled behind his hand, hardly believing he'd made the mistake of yelling and running the risk of disturbing Craig's sleep. Frantically, he looked around, ready to appease his husband in anyway he could, reaching out a hand to lay it on his chest; placating him. His groping hand met dead air though, and he slowly realized he was alone.

"Where am I?" Kyle asked, looking around and feeling completely at a loss, aching body screaming at him; his thoughts a tangled whir. Slowly, it came back to him in muted remembrances that became painfully vivid as his mind woke up; he was in Kenny's bed after fleeing his home, and -

"Craig," he whispered, coming fully awake when he recalled what he'd done, how he'd pushed his husband down the basement stairs. Oh, God. What had he been thinking? Guilt, like a heavy tide, washed over him in crippling waves and before he could truly get his bearings, Kyle was scrambling up from the bed even though his wrecked body was imploring him to stay still and rest.

"I have to go help him," he said, trying to find a pair of shoes in Kenny's room. Vaguely, he wondered where Kenny was, and after a moment his eyes fell on Rose, who was sitting on the bedside table. Drifting a finger over the diary's cover, Kyle suddenly became aware of commotion outside, his eyes flitting to the window where dawn was breaking through the glass; golden and soft and new.

Slowly, he approached the window, the sound of shouts filtering through the early morning air, reaching his ears but indiscernible. Carefully he parted the blinds and peered out, and what he saw immediately made his heart start thumping, the last vestiges of sleep flying away like terrified birds. He could see Kenny as he stood on the doorstep, and at the curb was Craig, his black Jag blazing richly in the coming sun. He was dressed in his scrubs and his white lab coat and looking no worse for wear, which honestly amazed Kyle considering what he'd seen last night; Craig lying at the foot of the basement steps, hardly able to move. His sleek black hair was impeccably styled like always, but his face was covered with stubble, his eyes appearing wild and alive with rage.

Forgetting about the shoes, Kyle ran out of Kenny's room, down the hallway, and ripped the front door open; stepping out into the chilled morning, staring at Craig with wide, searching eyes.

"Kyle, what are you doing?" Kenny asked, staring down at him and quickly putting an arm around his shoulders. "You shouldn't be out here, you need to sleep."

"Craig," Kyle whispered, his eyes still trained on his husband; heart thumping painfully. "You're okay? I had a dream about you, I thought -"

He broke off, bottom lip trembling.

"Kyle, come home," Craig said, stepping away from his car and slowly making his way onto the sidewalk. "I couldn't sleep last night because I was so worried about you. I thought you might have gotten lost or...," he trailed off, raking a hand through his hair; studying Kyle with a stricken expression. "Just come home so we can talk about what happened, okay? Please?" He stopped, clutching at his side and wincing.

"You're hurt," Kyle said, ignoring how childish he sounded. Breaking away from Kenny, he came down the walkway on bare feet, the rough concrete scraping his skin.

"Kyle, come back here!" Kenny cried, but Kyle ignored him.

"Where does it hurt?" Kyle asked, approaching his husband and almost wanting to cry. Coming closer, he could see faint bruises on Craig's face, no doubt caused from falling down the stairs. His guilt was so profound in that moment that he could barely stand it. Just the sight of the discolored skin was enough to make him start crying, the tears leaking down his cheeks.

"I probably broke a couple ribs," Craig replied nonchalantly. "No big deal, honestly; I wrapped them, which is pretty much all you can do until they heal."

"I'm so sorry," Kyle whispered. "Oh, god, I'm so sorry!" Before he could really think about it, he flung his arms around Craig and hugged him, breathing in the scent of expensive cologne and his husband's body wash, the musk of oceans and wild things; Craig's clean, bewitching aroma. "I didn't mean to!"

"I know you didn't," Craig murmured, drawing Kyle close and running a hand through his curls, much like Kenny had done the night before; Kyle's head nestled softly in his lap. "It's okay, baby; I promise. I forgive you." Smiling, he pushed Kyle away slightly, brushing some of his hair from his face. "I can even forgive you for running to McCormick, even if something happened between you two."

Kyle froze, staring up at him with uncertainty.

"What are you talking about? Nothing happened between Kenny and I, Craig. He just gave me a place to stay."

"I'm sure he did, among other things, but like I said it doesn't matter. I'll give you a pass this time, okay?" Turning, Craig wrapped his arm around Kyle's shoulders and led him toward the waiting car, showing a surprising amount of strength considering the prior evening's ordeals. "Now, come on and get in the car. I'll take you home and then we'll come get your car tonight, right after we've had a chance to talk."

Not liking the sound of his words, of their hidden implications, Kyle dug his heels into the ground.

"We're just going to talk, right? I'm not going in the basement again. Remember?"

Craig became still for a moment, and then a slow, careful smile slid across his face. He glanced down at Kyle and he could tell that he was trying to be warm, inviting, but it came across as heavily manufactured.

"Of course I remember," Craig replied, hugging him close. "No basement, okay? I heard you loud and clear, now," he continued, nudging Kyle toward the car with a little more force, "get in the car, Kyle. I'm running late as it is and I know what's best for you, so -"

"Kyle, don't listen to him!" Kenny yelled, running up to them and taking a hold of Kyle's shirt, holding him back. "He's just telling you what you want to hear so he can get you to come home; that's all this is!"

"Oh, fuck off, Kenny," Craig snapped, tightening his hold on Kyle and yanking him away from his grasp. "Mind your own goddamned business for once in your life. Quit pushing your nose into our affairs and leave my husband alone. I know what's for his own good and you don't, so just back off already."

Quick unadulterated anger passed through Kyle when he heard the words 'for his own good' and without warning, he ripped himself out of Craig's arms. He glared at his husband and Kenny.

"Has anyone ever thought to ask me what I think is for my own good?" He asked, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. Tranquil winds ruffled his hair as he stared at Craig and Kenny, both of them appearing surprised at his sudden inquiry, though Kenny at least had the good sense to look guilty too; Craig just looked more and more peeved.

"Knock it off, Kyle," Craig said, sounding exasperated. "It's just a figure of speech so stop taking it so seriously. Besides, I always listen to you, you're the most important thing in the world -"

"I'm not a thing!" Kyle yelled, cutting him off. "I'm a person, and I don't think either one of you realizes that!"

Looking sheepish, Kenny rubbed the back of his neck, studying Kyle with worried eyes.

"Kyle, I'm sorry, that's not how I feel about you at all. I just want to help."

Kyle softened, smiling at him tenderly.

"I know, Kenny, and I appreciate it, but I need to make my own decisions, okay? Even if you don't agree with them, they're mine to make, right?"

Kenny nodded but Craig just looked increasingly agitated. Giving Kenny a snide look, he strode to his car and opened the door, pulling something out and then making his way back to Kyle. In his hand he clutched a perfect red rose, fairly shining in the orange light of the sun.

"It's our tradition," he murmured, holding it out to Kyle who took it, regarding the flower with growing remorse. "We have a whole life to live together. Don't throw it away because we had a fight. Be rational, please."

Kyle clutched the rose to his chest and sighed, slow tears beginning to fall down his cheeks. He caught a finger on a stray thorn and yelped, bringing his hand to his mouth; Craig stopped him, drawing Kyle's hand to his own mouth instead and kissing the blood away.

"I love you," he said, pressing Kyle's hand to his cheek. "You know I love you, even if I don't always know how to show you. Just come home and I promise things will change."

"Yeah, that's what they all say," Kenny said, coming over and looking at Craig with deep disdain. "Abusers always say things will change, don't they?" He glanced at the rose and rolled his eyes. "And they usually say it with flowers, too. How does it feel being a cliche, Craig? Is it everything you could hope for?"

"Don't talk to me about being a cliche, you trash," Craig seethed, his hand tightening around Kyle's until he squeaked. "Not when you've got this knight on a white horse crap down pat. What are you trying to do, anyway? Are you just waiting to catch Kyle in a vulnerable mood so you can swoop in and save the day? You just want to fuck him, let's be real here."

"You dirty son of a bitch!" Kenny yelled, stepping forward and catching Craig with a right cross against his cheek, knocking him aside; his hand relinquishing Kyle's. "Do you think you can just say whatever the fuck you want? Huh?!"

Craig smirked and wiped his mouth, smearing the red streak falling from his lips; almost laughing when he looked at his hand.

"Leave it to you to take a cheap shot," he said, shaking his head. "Fine, if you want to fucking dance, let's go."

"You better watch your ass, Craig," Kenny taunted him, bringing his fists up. "Unlike Kyle, I actually fight back."

"Keep my husband's name out of your filthy mouth," Craig snapped, advancing on him. "You're just pissed that I married him because you were too much of a chicken shit to make a move."

"Manipulated him is more like it," Kenny jeered, popping his neck. "That's all you know how to do. You definitely don't love him; quit fucking kidding yourself."

"Both of you need to stop," Kyle said, watching as the two men circled one another, tensed and ready. "This isn't going to solve anything!"

"Maybe not, but I've been wanting to lay into this asshole for years," Kenny said, grinning at him. "Now's my chance."

Quick as lightning, Craig took his chance while Kenny was distracted and landed a blow right on his temple, sending Kenny staggering and nearly falling; clutching his head and groaning.

"Craig, stop!" Kyle yelled, watching as his husband approached Kenny, who was still immobilized and unable to protect himself; hand clasped to the side of his head. "You made your point!"

"Shut up, Kyle!" Craig snapped, pulling his fist back and getting ready to strike. With a strangled yell, Kyle threw himself in front of Kenny at the last moment, taking the blow himself when his husband unleashed it, catching him on the shoulder blade and making him yelp with pain. He sounded like a whipped dog.

"Kyle!" Kenny said, catching him before he could fall and holding him close, glaring murderously at Craig. "Now look what you've done, you psycho! Like you haven't hurt him enough!"

"He knows I didn't mean to," Craig said, leaning forward and trying to put a hand on Kyle's shoulder; he recoiled, burrowing further into Kenny's arms. "Kyle, what are you doing? I just want to help!"

"You've done enough!" Kenny yelled. "Just get the hell out of here before I call the cops, Craig! They'll take one look at Kyle's face and your ass is going down to the station; don't fucking test me!"

"Kyle, Kyle listen to me, baby. I didn't mean it," Craig said, ignoring Kenny and looking into Kyle's eyes; begging him to understand. "Just come home with me and everything will be okay again. We'll talk things out, I'll -"

"Just go," Kyle whispered, turning his face away and hiding it in Kenny's shirt. "I don't want to see you right now. I need some time."

"You heard him. Get out of here," Kenny said. "Now."

Kyle watched Craig out of the corner of his eye as he backed away, face becoming hard and inscrutable as he stared at the pair huddled on Kenny's front lawn; the sun coming out in full force now and throwing its golden forks far as the eye could see. For a moment it looked like he was going to argue but then he sighed, running a hand through his mussed hair.

"Fine, I'll leave," he conceded. "But only because I have a case in less than an hour. I'll be back tonight, and then we'll talk, Kyle."

"That's what you think," Kenny muttered, hugging Kyle close and stroking his hair; trying to sooth him as the trembles broke through his body. "You aren't welcome here, Craig. Remember that."

"This is between my husband and I," Craig replied, almost sounding tired now. He began to stride toward his car. "So just mind your own fucking business. Kyle," he added, glancing over his shoulder for a moment. "Be ready, okay? You're coming home with me tonight, and we'll work things out. I promise."

******

"That fucking asshole is unbelievable, I swear to God," Kenny seethed while pushing his cup of coffee away, his entire demeanor radiating complete disgust. "Where the hell does he get his nerve, huh?"

Kyle just shook his head while he stared off into space, his trembling hands clutched around his own cup of coffee. They were sitting at the kitchen table as the morning crept up on them, its golden sunlight falling through the windows in droves now and illuminating the house; showcasing its simple decor and scrubbed cleanliness. It was a far cry from the disaster it had been when Kenny was a child, and Kyle took comfort in its modest design. His shoulder blade ached terribly where Craig had struck him, but Kyle tried to downplay it, not wanting to make a fuss after being so much trouble to his old friend.

"He just automatically assumes that you're going home with him tonight, can you believe that?" Kenny continued to rant, leaning back in his chair and slinging an arm over it; watching Kyle with narrowed eyes. "I tried to get rid of him before you woke up, but clearly I failed. I'm sorry."

Kyle snapped to attention at those words, and he stared at Kenny in disbelief.

"Kenny, don't apologize," he said. "You've already put yourself out for me so much. I should be apologizing to you!"

"There you go again," Kenny sighed, finally beginning to loosen up somewhat. "You're so hard on yourself, Kyle. In the first place, you aren't putting me out, at all, and in the second place, I want to help. You know this."

"But, still," Kyle replied, staring down at his hands and sniffling lightly. "To put you in the middle of so much drama; God, I'm so embarrassed I can barely stand it."

"What do you have to be embarrassed about? Craig's the one acting like a mental patient, not you." He sighed, rubbing his face a little; the raspy scratch of his stubble filling the quiet. "I'm not surprised he was able to figure out where you went, honestly; Craig was always pretty sharp, huh?"

"It's because of the diary," Kyle murmured, glancing at Kenny and suddenly feeling very shy. "He found it, Kenny; he read it. I mean, I'm not sure if he read all of it, but he read enough to know that you tried to," he shrugged, blushing. "Well, he knows that your intentions aren't exactly platonic, if you know what I mean."

"Great, just great," Kenny groaned, covering his face. "I'm pretty sure he was already out for my blood but now he's going to be even harder to deal with; I didn't think that was possible."

"How much of it did you read?" Kyle asked quietly, looking away quickly; suddenly unable to meet Kenny's eyes.

"Honestly, not a lot," Kenny replied, laying his hands on the table; studying them. "You'd only been sleeping for less than an hour when Craig showed up. I didn't get very far."

"Thank God," Kyle said before he could stop himself. Kenny glanced at him in surprise.

"Wait, hold up. What do you mean, 'thank God?' Don't you want me to read it, Kyle?"

Kyle shrugged and stood from the table, taking his empty coffee cup with him. Walking into the kitchen, he poured himself a little more from the pot. Then, without thinking, he automatically went to Kenny and poured more into his mug as well.

"I'll get the cream and sugar," he said, falling into his automatic habit of tending to Craig; making sure all of his needs were seen to without him asking. "Did you need anything else? Should I make breakfast? What do you want? God, I'm sorry, I should've already offered to -"

"Hey, calm down," Kenny said, staring at him with wide eyes. "What are you doing? You don't have to wait on me like this."

"God, Craig had to make his own breakfast this morning," Kyle murmured, hurriedly backtracking into the kitchen and replacing the coffee pot before going to the fridge to grab the cream. Frantically, he looked around the kitchen and retrieved the sugar. "He must've been so angry, Kenny. I always make breakfast for him, three eggs, scrambled, and turkey bacon. He likes it really crispy but if it's burned he -"

"Kyle, stop! Just stop!" Kenny practically shouted, covering his coffee mug with his hand when Kyle attempted to add cream. "Jesus Christ, does he have you working for him like a slave or something? Just sit down and relax!"

"A household can't work if it isn't run efficiently," Kyle replied, refusing to sit. That was something Craig had often said at the beginning of their marriage, when he was still establishing how things were going to be run; essentially training Kyle to obey and run their home in a very specific manner. At first, Kyle had balked, thinking that Craig would eventually loosen up and be willing to go with the flow of things, but he quickly learned that his husband had a tendency to micromanage even the smallest, most mundane details. He'd also learned very quickly that to disregard the rules was akin to asking for a correction.

"You sound like a robot," Kenny said, finally taking his hand away from his mug; quickly, Kyle dumped in the cream.

"How much sugar?" He asked, holding up the canister. "Craig takes two teaspoons, but -"

"Enough!" Kenny shouted, whisking the sugar away from Kyle. "I'm not Craig, Kyle, you don't have to do any of this!"

Kyle recoiled at his sudden outburst, backing away to the other side of the table. He watched Kenny carefully, fearful of any unexpected movements; protective instincts kicking in automatically.

"I-I'm sorry," he stammered. "I wasn't trying to annoy you. I just wanted to help."

Groaning, Kenny stood and started toward Kyle, who moved around the table; keeping himself just out of reach.

"Just stop," he pleaded, obviously guilty at frightening him. "I wasn't trying to startle you or be mean, okay? Stop acting like you're scared of me, I'm not going to hurt you!"

"I'm sorry," Kyle repeated, his eyes tearing up. Furiously, he scrubbed them away, despising how weak and foolish he looked; so afraid. "I'm sorry, I just don't know how to be any other way anymore. Just let me try to be different, okay? Just give me a chance."

Kenny stopped, staring at him with such an expression of sadness that it tore at Kyle's heart. Grasping the back of a chair, he lowered his head; messy blonde hair still matted from sleep.

"It's okay, Kyle," he murmured. "You be any way you feel comfortable, alright? I just didn't want you to think that I expect you to act a certain way. Just be yourself, that's all I want."

"You mean it?" Kyle asked, perking up a little. "So, I can make you breakfast?"

Kenny sighed, smiling slightly now but it still seemed sad. He nodded.

"Yeah, yeah, you can make breakfast if you want. If it'll make you happy."

"Great," Kyle smiled, almost feeling like pieces of a puzzle were clicking into place in his heart; making it so he could breathe a little easier. "What do you want? We usually keep it pretty simple at home but I've actually become a pretty good cook over the years." He paused, biting his lip as he looked down at his feet, bare against the shag carpet. "Not that I'm trying to brag or anything, of course."

"I know you aren't, and honestly that doesn't surprise me. You being able to cook, I mean," Kenny said, sitting back down heavily and picking up the red rose Craig had brought over. Kyle had retrieved it from the lawn before they'd made their way back into the house, laying it carefully on the table. "You can make whatever you want, dude. I'm not picky." He studied the rose for a moment as Kyle bustled into the kitchen, retrieving eggs and bacon from the fridge.

"What'd he mean when he said this was a tradition?" He asked.

Kyle glanced over his shoulder, arching a brow and watching as Kenny toyed with the rose.

"Craig likes to have a red rose on the breakfast table every morning," he replied simply. Turning away, he began to crack eggs into a bowl; readying to scramble them up, a pan already preheating on the stove. "I think it's kind of sweet, actually."

"It's hard to believe anything he does is sweet," Kenny muttered. "Did you need any help over there, by the way?"

"Of course not," Kyle scoffed, the very idea laughable. Craig only helped in very specific circumstances, usually after a punishment. "You just stay right there." Whisking the eggs, he found a thread of tenderness for his husband winding through him. Maybe it was because he'd appeared so apologetic and broken that morning, with the bruises on his face and the hopelessness in his voice as he'd pleaded for Kyle to just come home; he couldn't be sure. "Craig can be very sweet, Kenny. I don't want you to think he's all bad; that isn't the case."

"Right, I'm sure he's a regular fucking saint when he wants to be," Kenny replied, his usual stubbornness not dissipating at all.

Kyle sighed and focused on seasoning the eggs as they began to fluff into yellow mounds in the pan; choosing not to answer. He couldn't blame Kenny for not being receptive to giving Craig the benefit of the doubt; not after the things he'd seen, not after seeing the way Craig had lost control of himself that morning. He had no reason to be forgiving or compassionate, but still...he just didn't want to badmouth his husband. It's not like it made Kyle feel any better, and he'd been taught from childhood that his loyalty should be reserved for those not present. He was almost positive this mentality should apply to Craig more than anyone else in his life.

"Language, Kenny. You know better," Mrs. McCormick yawned, suddenly staggering into the kitchen in her robe and slippers; her hair around her shoulders. "What was all that hullabaloo I heard this morning, by the way?"

"That was Kyle's sweet, loving husband making a scene in our front yard," Kenny explained derisively. "He came to retrieve his property but I sent him packing."

"Ah, I see. I see," she said, sitting down at the table and smiling at Kyle when he brought her a cup of coffee. "Thank you, child. I take it black," she added when Kyle offered the cream and sugar to her. "I had a feeling something like that was going to happen."

"Well, he didn't disappoint." Kenny sat back and crossed his arms. "He said he's coming to collect tonight, almost like Kyle's a fucking piece of furniture he can move around however he wants. Can you believe that?"

"Watch your mouth, Kenny, and yes, yes I can. I'm not going to pass judgement, though," she said, sipping the coffee slowly. "It ain't my place to act like I know the whole story, I would think you'd be of the same mind."

"Are you kidding me?" Kenny asked incredulously. "Ma, the whole story is written all over Kyle's face!"

"Be kind, son," she chastised him. "We're talking about someone that Kyle probably still loves, so let's choose our words carefully."

"Eggs, Carol?" Kyle asked, coming over with the pan, fragrant steam drifting upward. "There's bacon, too."

"Please," she said, glancing at Kenny. "Go and fetch some plates, boy. I didn't raise you up to sit on your keister while someone else does all the work."

"Oh, no, that isn't necessary, I can do it," Kyle said, setting the pan down. Before he could turn away, Mrs. McCormick grabbed his hand and held on.

"I know you probably want to keep busy because it's what you're used to, but we're simple folk here," she said. "You've already done enough. Kenny can see to the rest, now sit. Keep me company."

For a moment, Kyle wanted to pull away and go about the mindless tasks he'd come to have a strange appreciation for, but he sat instead, waiting anxiously as Kenny grabbed plates and cutlery; the pan of bacon as well. Feeling beyond strange, he tried to get used to being served, almost having forgotten what it felt like. Other than Craig's special dinners after basement trips, he'd been cooking for and serving his husband for years. He watched Kenny out of the corner of his eye, smiling softly and feeling himself flush as he saw his friend moving around the kitchen. It was almost like they were playing house, aside from Kenny's mom being present as well, of course.

"This is lovely," Mrs. McCormick said after taking a bite of eggs. She smiled indulgently at Kyle. "You've a knack in the kitchen, I can tell."

"Yeah, because he's basically Craig's slave," Kenny groused, tucking into his own plate; a napkin stuffed in the collar of his t-shirt.

"That's enough, Kenny," his mother reprimanded him sharply, giving him a look. "Have some couth."

Kenny grunted, tearing into a piece of bacon. Kyle just picked at his own food, not really having an appetite; he was too worried and in too much pain.

"So, he's coming back tonight, you say?" Carol asked, taking a sip of coffee. "How do you feel about that, Kyle?"

Kyle started, unprepared for this question on a number of levels. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel. On the one hand he was utterly terrified of going home with Craig, but on the other he was nearly paralyzed at the prospect of being away from him, away from his routine. How was he supposed to cope with all of this? Unable to find the words, he just shrugged helplessly; looking down at his hands. Idly, he rubbed the back of the hand that had been torn by Craig's shoe, the skin a deep purplish blue. He swallowed a groan at the sudden, deep ache.

"Having a little time away isn't asking too much," Carol continued gently. "Everyone deserves a little space, don't you think?"

"Yeah, but Craig won't let him have space," Kenny said, tearing into his pile of eggs. "These are really good, Kyle. What'd you do to them?"

Kyle rested his face in his hand and looking at Kenny fondly as the eggs swiftly disappeared.

"Paprika and garlic salt, actually. That's how..." he trailed off, shame flooding him as Craig's name died on his tongue. "I'm glad you like them," he said instead while tucking a curl behind his ear nervously.

"You know, I bet your sister would be over the moon if you two paid her a visit," Carol said nonchalantly. "It's been a while since you stayed a spell with her, Kenny."

"Hey, that isn't a bad idea," Kenny agreed, glancing at Kyle. His cranky mood seemed to be eclipsed with growing enthusiasm. "What do you think, Kyle? Karen lives out in Grand Junction these days, in the desert."

"Grand Junction? That's kind of far, isn't it?" Kyle asked, reaching out and taking a hold of a napkin; he automatically began tearing it apart.

Kenny glanced down, watching as the napkin was slowly reduced to shreds, one eyebrow raised.

"It's about four hours away," he replied. "What do you think? Karen is out in the middle of nowhere with just the kids. Her husband's on the road most of the time."

"I just don't know," Kyle replied, continuing to tear the napkin into strips; it was unrecognizable at this point. "Craig would be so mad if I left without telling him where I was going."

"That's exactly why you need to go," Kenny said, his excitement momentarily hampered by irritation. "He's just going to keep coming over here and harassing you, Kyle; you know that. This way you'd have a chance to clear your head and get some perspective."

"It wouldn't hurt to get some clarity," Carol chimed in, polishing off the remainder of her eggs. "I wish I'd been able to do that when Kenny's daddy was still around; it would've saved us from a lot of painful times."

"Still," Kyle said, mindlessly rubbing at his aching shoulder blade while his brain went into overdrive; alternating between screaming at him to make a decision and reminding him that he needed to keep Craig happy at all costs. Finally, he shook his head, having reached his limit. "We'll do whatever you want," he whispered, glancing at Kenny. "I'm fine either way."

"Oh, come on, Kyle; don't shut down on me now," Kenny groaned, dropping his fork with a clatter. "I need you to work with me here."

"Don't you think I'm trying?!" Kyle burst out, pushing away from the table and standing up. "God, none of this is easy, Kenny! I told you, I'll do whatever you want! That's my answer so just accept it!"

Ignoring Kenny's shocked look and Mrs. McCormick's knowing expression, Kyle hurried away from the table and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The violence of it reverberated through the walls, making the kitschy paintings of big-eyed children shiver against the wood paneling. Going to the mirror, he studied his reflection for a moment, caustic rage filling him as he regarded how awful he looked; even worse than several hours before. The sudden desire to scream and throw something overcame him, and he went to the toilet and sat, covering his face with shaky hands.

"Jesus Christ, why is this so fucking hard?!" He choked out before he began to sob.  All he wanted in that moment was to disappear to a place where these awful fears couldn't follow him; wanted to wake up from a nightmare that just wouldn't seem to end.

******

"You seriously didn't need to buy me all that stuff," Kyle said, glancing at the shopping bags littering the floor of Kenny's truck; filled to the brim with clothes and various sundries. "I swear, I'll pay you back every cent. I feel so stupid for leaving my wallet and phone behind when I ran out of the house."

"Oh, come off it," Kenny replied, rolling the window down and leaning out, sunglasses obscuring his eyes. After getting the go ahead from Kyle, he was smoking a cigarette; the fumes wafting out and fading away in the fragrant summer winds. "You don't owe me a damn thing, Kyle. Besides, you'd barely let me buy you anything and we can't have you running around naked, can we?"

"I guess not," Kyle replied, adjusting his own sunglasses on his face and watching the trees whip by; the traffic light at that time of day.

"I mean, I wouldn't mind it but I'm sure you'd have something to say," Kenny quipped, grinning at him playfully.

"Oh, please," Kyle said, flushing deeply but also faintly amused; his friend's perverted predilections practically a cornerstone of his personality. He also didn't want to admit that he was flattered, but with that feeling came shame; god, what if Craig could read his thoughts? 

"You brought your diary, right? I still need to read it," Kenny asked, switching gears. "I barely made it through the beginning before that dickhead showed up."

"Yeah, I brought it," Kyle sighed, nudging one of the bags. He turned to look out the window again, frowning.

"I pissed you off, didn't I?" Kenny asked, picking up on Kyle's silent signals once again. "Sorry."

"I just don't like hearing you badmouth Craig, Kenny," Kyle murmured. "You can understand that, right?"

"Honestly, no," Kenny replied. "I can't understand it, but I'll try to respect it. Is that fair?"

"Fair enough," Kyle said, slumping in his seat; wincing openly when his shoulder blade rubbed against the upholstery.

"You're hurting, aren't you?" Kenny asked, reaching into the center console and pulling out a bottle of Ibuprofen; he handed it to Kyle. "Here."

"Thanks," Kyle smiled, gratitude filling him. He opened the bottle and poured four pills into his hand. "I wish I'd remembered to bring my Tylenol-3s; they really help."

"Jesus, Tucker's turning you into a fucking pharmacy, man," Kenny commented, offering Kyle a bottle of water.

"I guess it suited his needs, more or less," Kyle conceded, swallowing the pills down. He offered the water to Kenny, who took it; tipping his head back and drinking deeply. "I mean, I have to admit that the Klonopin helps with my anxiety, and the Ambien helps me sleep, and the -"

"Yeah, but why do you have anxiety, Kyle? Why do you have trouble sleeping? That's the shit that concerns me."

"It's not like my issues just appeared overnight, Kenny, so who's to say what caused them?" Kyle asked, knowing he was being needlessly evasive but unable to stop himself. How could he be expected to open up so easily, it was almost like having his chest cut open and all of his secrets laid bare; his entire private life on display. It didn't help that what he had to disclose was so painful; so utterly unbelievable.

Silence descended over the truck as Kenny climbed a mountain, the sky impossibly blue and perfect, no clouds breaking up its endless plane. The air that flowed through the cab was sweet and cool, vague hints of autumn ushered in with the dying summer. They'd opted to take Kenny's clunker in lieu of Kyle's Lexus, mainly because they didn't want to deal with the fallout that Craig could create.

"What do you mean the car isn't in your name?" Kenny had asked, staring at Kyle when he'd told him.

"It was a gift," Kyle had said, looking away and burning with shame.

"Some fucking gift," Kenny had muttered, snatching up his keys.

Honestly, Kyle enjoyed traveling in Kenny's truck, the cab filled with little touches that filled him with a strange, tender whimsy: the little tree hanging from the rear view mirror, Burger King napkins in the glove box, a copy of Hustler behind the seat. Kenny had just laughed when Kyle pointed it out, disregarding his disapproving expression, and after a moment so had he, feeling suddenly carefree and fearless as they rolled out of South Park proper. He'd watched the weathered town sign disappear in the side mirror and had breathed a small sigh of relief, hoping against hope that some of the memories and worries would be left behind along with his husband.

"Can I ask you a question?" Kenny asked, breaking the quiet and rousing Kyle from a sluggish, reluctant cat nap; the sun making him feel slow and relaxed.

"Hmm?"

"You said something about a basement last night," Kenny said, carefully. "About not letting Tucker take you down there again. What were you talking about?"

Kyle could feel himself blanching at the question, heartbeat picking up and almost feeling like he was considering the dark descent into Hell, Craig broken and bleeding on the steps, waiting to pull him back into the nightmare; he shook his head, trying to rid himself of the chill. Suddenly the sun didn't feel quite so warm.

"I'll let Rose do the talking on that one," he murmured, turning his head and resting his cheek against the seat so he could study Kenny's profile. Somehow, he was becoming even more tan as they drove along, the sun pouring on him through the window and picking up pale streaks in his dirty blonde hair.

"Rose?"

Kyle nudged the bag again, smiling slowly.

"The diary. Her name is Rose."

Kenny was still for a moment and then he nodded, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it up; he took a long drag.

"I have a feeling I'm going to have a lot of questions for Rose," he said, blowing smoke out the window.

"Probably more questions than answers, sadly," Kyle yawned, some of his fear drifting away as he watched Kenny smoke; his other hand draped loosely on the wheel. He smiled despite himself.

"I can't believe how cute you are, by the way," Kenny suddenly said, voice casual but he looked out the window when he said it; the cheek facing Kyle turning faintly red. "I've never been able to get over it. I don't think I ever will."

"Is that so?"

"You named your diary Rose, Kyle. That's literally the cutest fucking thing I've ever heard of," Kenny grinned. "And I don't mean that in a condescending way, so don't take it like that, okay?"

"I won't, promise," Kyle said, looking away bashfully. A thought suddenly came to him, and he glanced back at Kenny quickly. "Your face, where Craig hit you, is it okay? Do you need some Ibuprofen, too?" He went to retrieve the bottle, but Kenny stopped him; placing his hand on Kyle's; squeezing softly.

"I'm fine, Kyle. I could put up with a lot worse if it was for your sake," he added, his hand still holding Kyle's; his skin so warm and comforting that Kyle suddenly had the crazy desire to press it against his aching cheek.

"You don't really mean that," he replied, delicately extricating himself from Kenny's grasp but hating to do so; sudden guilt flaring in his heart.

"You just wish I didn't mean it," Kenny murmured, taking another deep drag of his cigarette.

Feeling awkward, Kyle gestured toward the radio, wanting to fill up the ensuing silence with something, anything.

"What did you want to listen to? I'm open to anything."

"Why don't you choose?" Kenny asked, cocking a brow; his dark sunglasses showcasing Kyle's look of uncertainty.

"No, that's okay," Kyle said. "It's your truck, you choose. I promise I'll like anything you put on."

"Kyle," Kenny replied, softly, "it's okay, really. Just choose something. The world isn't going to come to an end if you do something for yourself."

"Well, if you're sure." Reluctantly, Kyle reached out, disgust registering in his brain to feel himself beginning to shake, but he gritted his teeth, willing himself to power through and overcome his hesitance. After all, Kenny was right, wasn't he? Choosing the music for himself and another person wasn't the end of the world; it didn't need to be such a struggle. Taking a deep breath, he flipped on the radio and immediately cringed when staticky classical music flooded the cab. Biting back a grimace, he quickly flipped it to another station, the melodic strains of The Eagles filling the air. He glanced at Kenny, grinning.

"What do you think?"

"I think it's perfect," Kenny smiled, reaching out and tousling Kyle's curls playfully.

*******

It was right around suppertime when they finally pulled up to Karen's modest little home, twilight having gathered at the edge of the world; the sun's rays dying away and the stars scattered far across the desert sky. The house, a rancher, was nestled in the sandy, arid drifts, hearty plants scattered hither and yon, antique farm equipment laid out on the lawn; 4-wheelers sitting off to the side of the house. All around the mesas sat on the horizon, enfolding Grand Junction in their red rocky embrace; standing monumental and majestic in the quiet evening. Climbing out of the truck, Kyle was reluctant to leave Kenny's side, the shopping bags clutched in his hands.

"How did your sister end up out here?" He asked, glancing up at Kenny who was slowly removing his sunglasses and hanging them on the collar of his shirt. Kyle hadn't removed his yet, shy about letting Kenny's family see his badly wounded face; shame washing through him.

"Oh, she fell in love with a country boy while going to the community college," Kenny grinned, putting an arm gently around Kyle's shoulders; guiding him. "They played it fast and loose, she got pregnant, and four kids later, well," he gestured to the house, "what you see is what you get. She's happy though, so that's all that matters to me."

"You've always been protective of her," Kyle said, allowing himself to be led to the front door, his new shoes stiff on his feet; cheap sneakers purchased with Kenny's money though he'd tried to protest.

"I'm protective of everyone I love," Kenny said, then he cleared his throat abruptly, glancing away and running a hand through his hair. "Anyway, she knows we're coming so don't be shy, okay? She was happy to hear you were paying a visit."

"Well, that's good, at least," Kyle replied, blushing and smiling stupidly for seemingly no reason at all; wanting to laugh at Kenny's awkwardness but managing to stifle the notion behind his hand. Covertly, he tried to hide behind Kenny as he rang the bell, both of them waiting. After a moment, a frenzy of footsteps could be heard on the other side of the door and then it was being wrenched open, a little girl standing there and staring up at them with wide, blue eyes.

"Mama!" The girl yelled, glancing over her shoulder. "Mama, Uncle Kenny and some weird looking man are at the door!"

Before too long, another little girl with long brown hair galloped up beside the other one, pushing her roughly.

"Tag! You're it, Vivvie!" She laughed, before turning to Kenny and Kyle as well. Squealing, she ran for Kenny and jumped on him. "Uncle Kenny!!" She glanced at Kyle curiously, pointing. "Who's that?"

"Sake's alive, children, can you at least pretend to have some home training?" A slim brown haired woman emerged, brushing her bangs out of her eyes and clothed in jean shorts and a tank top. Her eyes lit up when she saw her brother and Kyle. "Don't tell me you rang the bell, Kenny? You know you can just come on in, right?"

"I was trying to be polite," Kenny replied, carrying the little girl into the house with Kyle on his heels. "But your children had other plans," he teased.

"Oh, they're no better than a pack of mangy dogs," she laughed before looking around. "Speaking of which, Stella, where's Pongo? Didn't you let him in after he went potty?"

"No, mama. He ran off," Stella replied, still staring at Kyle. "What's wrong with your face?" She asked.

Kyle could feel himself blushing to beat the band when Karen reached out and swatted the little girl on the rump, making her squeal and dart away.

"Stop being rude and go on and get that dog," she ordered, pointing toward a set of sliding glass doors on the other side of a homey kitchen with copper pots and pans on the wall. "We don't want to lose him like the last one, do we?" She glanced at Kenny and Kyle, rolling her eyes. "I must've been crazy when I let the kids keep the darn thing, but it was so sad, you know."

"Oh?" Kenny asked, setting the little girl down.

"Oh, it was just the craziest thing, Kenny," Karen said, watching as the two little girls scampered out the door, calling for the dog. "Its owner got struck by lightning so Art brought him on home from the fields with him."

"Art's her husband," Kenny supplied, glancing at Kyle. Kyle just stared at Karen, hardly believing what he was being told.

"Arthur," Karen grinned, sitting down at the kitchen table and sighing. "He hauls water so he isn't here much, but he's got a tender heart. He took one look at that pitiful mutt and hauled him on home, so now he's my problem, along with -"

"Mama, mama," a little boy toddled into the kitchen, his pants around his ankles. "I need help wiping."

"Oh, lord alive, it never ends. Will you two excuse me, please?" Standing, she turned the little boy around. "Willie, you can't just come out here naked as a jaybird, honey; it isn't decent."

"Like the McCormicks have ever cared about being decent," Kenny laughed, turning to Kyle and shaking his head. "Are you tired yet?"

"I'm getting there," Kyle replied, still trying to get his bearings while adoring the tumult of a happy, rambunctious family; very much surprised that his anxiety wasn't cropping up yet. "I thought you said there were four kids?"

"Oh, there is," Kenny replied, sitting down at the table and popping off his shoes, instructing Kyle to do the same. He started throwing out names, listing them on his fingers. "Let's see, you met Stella and Vivien, of course she goes by Vivvie, and then the kiddo with his pants around his ankles was William but he goes by Willie, and then somewhere there's a baby, Maya."

"Cute names," Kyle said, sitting and trying to remember all the information being thrown at him.

"My sister fancies Tennessee Williams and -"

"Maya Angelou," Karen interrupted, coming back into the room with the little boy in tow, staring at Kenny and Kyle with wide eyes. "I just love her poetry. Go on and say hi, baby," she said, softly nudging Willie toward Kenny who opened his arms.

"I can understand Stella and William, but I don't recall a Vivien from any of Tennessee Williams' plays right off the top of my head," Kyle said, smiling fondly as the little boy allowed himself to be hugged and pulled onto Kenny's lap. "But it's been forever and a day since I read any of his stuff, so you can't go by me."

"No, you're right, Kyle," Karen said, warmly, sitting beside him. "Vivvie got her name from Vivien Leigh, because she played Blanche in -"

"A Streetcar Named Desire," Kyle grinned. "Okay, now I get it."

"You guys are losing me," Kenny said, leaning his head against Willie's. "Are they losing you, too?" He asked the child, who nodded solemnly.

"Oh, stop trying to act like a bumpkin," Karen teased him, winking at Kyle conspiratorially. "He's a lot smarter than he wants people to believe, the sneaky thing."

"You've got that right," Kyle agreed, leaning his head in his hand and watching Kenny out of the corner of his eye; happiness filling him up near to bursting. So this is what it felt like to be among a family free of discord; it made him think fondly of his childhood home.

"Kyle, honey, you don't need to wear those sunglasses in the house," Karen suddenly said, catching him off guard. He glanced at her, heart thumping terribly but her face awash in kind understanding. "No one's going to judge you here. Go on and take them off, okay?"

"Let him alone, Kar," Kenny said, defensively. "He'll take them off when he's good and ready."

"It's okay, Kenny," Kyle said, slowly removing the glasses and blinking against the overhead lights, everything coming into focus. Before anyone could say anything, the patio door slid open and the two little girls came back in, dragging a black and white dog with them.

"We found him, mama," Stella announced, petting the dog hard on his head, his tail wagging a mile a minute. "He left a big pile on the lawn, too." She glanced at Kyle. "Mama says dogs that have beagle blood always leave big piles."

"Is that a fact?" Kyle asked, waiting for the children to say something about the state of his face; surprisingly, no one said a word.

"Uh huh," Vivvie chimed in, petting the dog as well. "Mama said Pongo's dumb because he has a pointed head. Stupid dogs always have pointed heads, right, Mama?"

Karen covered her face, sighing softly.

"I guess if I said it it must be true. Now, could you two please get a plastic bag and clean up Pongo's pile? I don't want to step on it when I go out to water the sunflowers in the morning. Like last time."

"Yes, mama," they chirped, running into the kitchen and yanking open a bottom drawer. Stella pushed Vivvie out of the way. "I wanna get it! Mama said I could this time!"

"No, mama said I could!"

"I wanna come!" Willie crowed, sliding off of Kenny's lap and racing over to the girls.

"You can't, you're too little!" Stella yelled. "Mama, tell Willie he can't come!"

Sighing again, Karen stood and stalked over to the trio and grabbed a bag, closing the drawer.

"Willie, you can go with your sisters, just stay close to them, okay? Now all of you out so the adults can hear themselves think, you hear?"

"Yes, mama!" They all chorused, stampeding out of the kitchen and back through the patio doors.

"Lord preserve me," Karen said, looking at her guests with pure exhaustion registering on her face. "I never thought I was going to be in charge of a menagerie." She rubbed her eyes. "Did you two want something to drink? We have lemonade, beer, water -"

"A beer would be sublime," Kenny cut in, glancing at Kyle. "What do you think, man?"

Kyle nodded, rising from the table and timidly approaching Karen.

"Can I help?"

Karen glanced at him for a moment, her eyes darting to Kenny quickly. Smiling slowly, she pointed to a cupboard.

"Glasses are up there unless you don't mind just drinking from the bottle. Did you want anything to eat, too? You two must be famished."

"A snack would hit the spot," Kenny said, sitting back. "We grabbed some burgers on the way but that was awhile ago."

"Well, let me rustle up a little something," Karen said, opening the fridge and grabbing out a couple Bud Lights. "Kyle, if you check in that cupboard yonder there's some crackers and chips and stuff. Let me cut up some cheese, too."

"Sounds good," Kyle said, turning to the cupboard and yelping slightly when Pongo butted into his leg, demanding affection. He grinned, looking down. "Well, hello there."

"Watch it, if you're nice to that skunky old hound he'll be on you like white on rice for the rest of your stay," Karen said, pulling out a block of cheddar and throwing it on a cutting board. She looked at Kenny with questioning eyes. "How long are you two staying, Ken? I already fixed up the back room for you so you're welcome for as long as you like." She grinned at Kyle. "It'll be nice talking to another human being about something other than Spongebob and Pongo's piles." She rolled her eyes.

Kyle waited for Kenny to answer while grabbing out a box of Ritz crackers, faint threads of anxiety beginning to wind through his blood. He'd been having such a nice time that he hadn't stopped to think about returning to reality, to Craig.

"It's still up in the air," Kenny replied, smoothly. "You know I took a sabbatical from my job and mom's doing okay, so, really, we have some time on our hands. Right, Kyle?"

Kyle didn't say anything, quietly trying to open the crackers while making as little fuss as possible; the need to be unobtrusive all but ingrained in him at this point. All at once, he felt a hand come to rest gently on his shoulder, Karen smiling at him when he looked up.

"Just consider this your home, okay? To be honest, I've been wanting Kenny to bring you by. After all, he's always had such a huge cru-"

"Can it, Karen," Kenny interrupted, standing and grabbing a beer off the counter. He yanked the cap off and drank deeply, wiping his lips. "Why don't you go check on those three little monkeys outside and let Kyle and I finish up here, okay?"

Karen snorted, dropping the knife she'd been using to slice the cheese and brushing past Kenny, bumping him a little.

"You see?" She asked, glancing at Kyle. "He's here for less than half an hour and he's already lapsing into his big brother persona. Isn't that right, Kenny?"

"Yeah, that's it exactly," Kenny replied, rolling his eyes. "How'd you guess?"

"Some things never change," she said, sticking her tongue out and strolling to the patio doors. "You know, if you wanted a moment alone with Kyle you could've just told me."

"Get lost," Kenny said, blushing a bright red. "I'm not above giving you a Wet Willie, Karen."

"I'm sure you aren't," she laughed, opening the door and stepping out, winking at Kyle before moving out of sight.

"God, she knows exactly how to push my buttons," Kenny said, beginning to furiously hack at the block of cheddar; uneven strips falling onto the cutting board. Sighing, Kyle laid a hand on his arm, stopping him.

"Let me," he said. "You take your beer and go sit down."

"Thanks," Kenny replied, tucking one of Kyle's curls behind his ear. "I guess I'm a little grouchy. I always get like this after driving for awhile."

"I would've driven too, but I don't have my license," Kyle replied, quietly. "I'm sorry, Kenny."

"Kyle, can you do me a favor?" Kenny took a quick sip of beer, his legs stretched out in front of him as he lounged on the chair.

"Of course."

"Stop apologizing, okay? I already told you you don't need to do that."

"Oh, right. I'm so -" Kyle caught himself just in time and flushed, arranging the cheese and crackers on a plate in a pretty fan shape. He brought the plate over to the table and set it in front of Kenny. "I won't say I'm sorry anymore unless I have a legitimate need," he grinned. "Did you need anything else?"

"Yes, actually," Kenny replied, and before Kyle could respond he was pulling him onto his lap; wrapping an arm around Kyle's waist. "You need to relax, okay? Can you do that for me, too?"

For a moment Kyle allowed himself to sink into Kenny's side before vivid memories began to assault him, of being in this exact same position with Craig numerous times right before he became violent, lulling Kyle into a false sense of security before the onslaught began; dragging him to bed or the basement and -

"No, stop," Kyle breathed, seizing up and pushing away from Kenny, his breaths coming in short bursts. "Please, Kenny, please. I can't, I can't -"

"Kyle, calm down," Kenny said, eyes wide as he cupped Kyle's cheek, trying to talk him off the ledge. "I'm not going to hurt you. I promise, I won't -"

"L-let me go," Kyle cut in tremulously, abruptly standing from Kenny's lap and backing away until he hit the counter. He yelped, turning around, his eyes widening with fear when he looked back at Kenny and saw that he was slowly walking toward him; the last horrible night in the kitchen flooding his mind. Craig had approached him the same way, the basement door wide open and waiting to receive him. He cowered, throwing up his arms.

"Stop! Don't hurt me!" He shrieked.

"Kyle, please! Just calm down, it's me! I'm not going to do anything!" Kenny cried, reaching toward him and only serving to terrify Kyle more. Sinking to the floor, he covered his head with his hands, quick tears beginning to fall down his cheeks. In a back bedroom, a baby began to cry.

"What's going on? What's wrong?" Karen asked, pulling the patio door open and stepping into the kitchen, the three kids behind her and watching with large eyes. "Kyle, honey, are you okay?!"

"H-he'll be fine," Kenny said, waving her off. "Go look in on Maya, okay? I'll take care of Kyle. Where are we sleeping again?"

"The bedroom at the end of the hall on the right," Karen replied, herding her children in the direction of the back bedroom where the baby was continuing to wail. "Let me know if you need anything, okay?"

"Sure, sure," Kenny replied, kneeling next to Kyle but not touching him. "Kyle, please just listen to me, okay? No one's going to hurt you, I promise. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm sorry if I startled you, just..." his voice hitched slightly and he stopped, Kyle noticing him hurriedly raking a hand through his hair; attempting to control himself. "Just don't cry, please. I can't stand to hear you cry, it breaks my heart."

"I-I'm sorry," Kyle said, looking up at Kenny who appeared wavery in his tear-soaked state, but thankfully the fear was abating; his mind coming back to reality and assuring him that Craig was far away. "I don't know what happened, Kenny. Suddenly it felt like I was back with Craig, and he was leading me toward the basement, and I was just so scared. It seemed so real."

"I know, Kyle, I know," Kenny replied, grimly. "Do you think you can get up? Is it okay if I help you?"

Kyle nodded, his body continuing to tremble terribly. Slowly, with Kenny's help, he rose and shakily got to his feet.

"Here, why don't we go to our room for awhile, huh? We'll even bring the beer and snacks. What do you think?"

Feeling terribly childish, Kyle nodded again, allowing himself to be led out of the kitchen and down the hallway; Kenny's hand lingering softly on the small of his back, guiding him.

*****

"Are you sure you don't want to take a shower?" Kenny asked, coming into the room and toweling off his hair; shirtless and clad in his boxers. Blushing, Kyle quickly looked away, staring at the wall; he shook his head, pulling his legs closer to his chest, chin propped on his knees.

He could hear Kenny sigh behind him and then the sound of plastic bags being rooted through.

"Come on, why don't you change your clothes, at least," Kenny coaxed him. "I know you can't be comfortable in the ones you're wearing, not after traveling all day."

"Sure, okay. If you want me to," Kyle murmured, obediently standing and coming around the bed, waiting. Kenny stared at him, eyebrows raised.

"Am I in your way, or....?"

"Oh, right. I forgot," Kyle said, flushing and pulling a bag toward him. "It's just Craig always -"

He stopped, pulling out a shirt.

"Craig likes things a very specific way, including what I wear."

"Oh, gotcha," Kenny replied, watching as Kyle pulled out a pack of boxer briefs as well. "So, you were waiting for me to dress you?"

"Basically," Kyle murmured, feeling ridiculous. "Sorry, old habits die hard." He winced. "I didn't mean to say sorry, I'm so -" he shook his head. "I'll stop now."

"You aren't the one that should be saying sorry," Kenny said softly. He sat heavily on the bed and wrapped the towel around the back of his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, Kyle noticed tattoos on his chest as well, threads of black ink obscuring the sinewy muscles. Quickly, he looked away, hating himself for being so unfaithful; Craig would be livid if he knew.

"I know this is probably a dumb question, but did Craig ever, I don't know, explain why he acts the way he does? Like, I can remember him being kind of weird and abrupt in school, but his behavior nowadays is just," he stopped, shrugging helplessly, "it's fucking unforgivable, Kyle. How have you survived for so long?"

Kyle shook his head, slowly pulling his jeans off and already feeling his anxiety spiking again, what with Kenny being so close and watching every move he made.

"We never exactly talked about it, Kenny. It was kind of like the air you breathe, the way Craig is; it's just the state of things, you don't question what simply is, you know?" He paused, having stepped out of his jeans and slowly began folding them up. He thought about his back and chest and thighs, his countless scars and bruises. "Could you turn around while I finish, please? It isn't personal, I just -"

"No, I get it," Kenny replied, turning and picking up the TV remote on the bedside table. "I'll just turn something on, okay? I mean," he slapped a hand over his face. "I'll just see what's on."

"You do that," Kyle smirked, relaxing slightly. Quickly he slid off Kenny's too big boxers and tossed them in the hamper, his shirt following soon after. For the briefest of moments he caught his reflection in the mirror over the dresser and he cringed, the golden lamplight highlighting Craig's many cruelties; the scars crisscrossing his back along with the large bruise on his shoulder blade, the scars from cigarette burns littering his upper arms. Hating his body, he pulled on his clothes and tried to forget what he'd seen, promising himself that no one would ever see him naked; except for Craig, of course. It's not like he would be surprised by what he saw.

"There, that's better," Kyle said, pulling the t-shirt down over his boxer briefs, already beginning to feel slightly refreshed. Glancing at Kenny's back, his eyes widened to see even more tattoos and muscles, his mouth watering faintly. He shook his head. "You, uh, you really like tattoos, huh?"

Kenny turned to him, watching as Kyle wandered around the bed and came to sit beside him, stretching his legs out. He smirked, reaching out and running a finger over the 'C' on Kyle's ankle.

"I could say the same about you, even though I'm afraid to ask what the 'C' stands for."

"You already know," Kyle replied, rolling his eyes. "He has a 'K' on his arm, so don't think he fucking branded me or something."

"No, he's done way worse than that," Kenny said, reaching over and plucking up a beer bottle from the bedside table; he handed it to Kyle who took it gratefully. Picking up the plate of cheese and crackers, he placed it on the bed between them. "And, yes, to answer your question, I'm rather fond of tattoos. I like to get one whenever I visit a new place."

"They suit you," Kyle commented, nibbling on a piece of cheese and watching as Kenny flicked through the channels, finally stopping on an episode of the Twilight Zone. "Oh, I love this show," he said, settling deeper into the pillow and finally beginning to feel properly relaxed.

"Same," Kenny grinned, picking up a cracker and biting into it. He glanced at Kyle, almost appearing worried. "Are you okay? Did you need anything else?"

"Kenny, now it's your turn to relax," Kyle said, taking a sip of beer. "Everything's fine, I promise; I'm not going to have another meltdown. At least, not right now."

They were quiet for a moment, Rod Serling appearing on the screen and informing the viewer that they were about ready to descend into the nightmarish depths of the Twilight Zone. Feeling a little sad, Kyle remembered the way he and Craig had watched the same show so many years before; when their love affair began. He sighed.

"Do you think he's already figured out we're gone?" He asked, softly.

"Probably," Kenny said, setting his beer bottle down and scooting down, his head on the pillow. "Like I've said before, Craig isn't stupid. In a lot of ways he's just too fucking smart."

"Do you think he'll find us?"

"Who knows? I know ma won't tell him where we went, and if he tries to mess with her he's in for a world of surprise; she's a perfect shot and that house is filled with guns," Kenny said, grinning until he noticed the frown on Kyle's face. "Look, don't worry, Kyle. I'm pretty sure nothing's going to happen but if he figures out where we went I'll deal with it. I won't let him do anything to you."

"He's going to be so mad, Kenny," Kyle whispered, setting his beer bottle down too and stretching out beside Kenny, looking over at him. "I hate that I dragged you into all of this."

"You didn't drag me into anything," Kenny said, giving him a stern look. "I want you here with me, end of story." He glanced around. "Where's Rose?"

"In my bag on the floor."

"Good. I'm going to start reading as soon as you go to sleep tonight. Is that okay?"

Kyle was silent for a moment before he finally nodded.

"I know I already told you that you can read her, Kenny, just," he took a deep breath, collecting himself. "Just don't let it change your opinion of me, okay?"

"Never in a million years," Kenny replied, picking up the plate of snacks and moving it aside. Turning on his side, he watched Kyle with sleepy blue eyes. "Are you tired?"

"A little. I didn't sleep very well last night, I had a nightmare."

"You were really restless. I tried to help, but you talked in your sleep a lot, too; you sounded so afraid."

"Maybe it'll be better tonight," Kyle said, turning on his side as well and resting his cheek on his hand.

"I hope so. Kyle?"

"Hmm?"

"Did you want to put your head in my lap again? It seemed to help a little last night."

Kyle shook his head, smiling. Suddenly, he scooted closer, becoming timid.

"Would you hold me instead? I don't think I'll freak out or anything, and I totally understand if you don't want to."

Kenny smiled slowly and opened his arms, beckoning Kyle closer.

"Hush, get over here."

Wordlessly, Kyle turned so his back was to Kenny's chest, and with baited breath and a pounding heart he allowed himself to be pulled close, Kenny's arms winding around him and gently cradling him; he sighed softly. He waited for the fear to rise up and consume him, the guilt lancing through his blood and destroying everything; but they didn't come, his mind allowing him the luxury of fleeting comfort. Really, he just wanted to sink into Kenny's kindness and become lost, suddenly feeling like he'd been wandering for so long, his body broken and tired; his entire being crying out for respite.

"Thanks," he whispered.

"Shh, try to go to sleep," Kenny murmured, nuzzling his neck and holding him wonderfully close; his warmth engulfing Kyle and almost making him want to cry. "I'll be right here."

*******

He found himself in the lonely corridor again, wandering aimlessly but this time he didn't hear the nocturnes. No, instead he could hear someone crying, and he slowly walked in the direction of the sound, his heart becoming shredded by the lost and lonely noise. It almost sounded like the winter wind shrieking around the house when the night was unforgivably cold. On kitten feet, Kyle walked until he came to the basement door again, the sight of it immediately arresting him with deep fear; pervasive and all-consuming. The sobbing continued, calling to mind scared children calling out for their parents and begging for someone to save them from the monsters waiting in the slanted shadows; horrors seeping out from under the bed and crawling up the covers.

"Hello?" Kyle called out, not daring to come too close to the door. All at once, the crying stopped and then he heard footsteps on the other side; a pounding erupting as something banged on the wood. He recoiled, falling to the floor and cowering.

"No, no, please," he whimpered. "Please, not again. Craig, stay down there, okay? Just stay down there until I'm okay again."

The pounding came again, and then the doorknob started twisting slowly. Now Kyle was crying, his sobs even worse than the ones he heard before. Slowly, the door began to swing open and Kyle clutched at his head, screaming; screaming until his voice gave out, but then -

"Kyle, Kyle! Wake up! Wake up, baby." He opened his eyes and there was Kenny looking down at him, Kyle's head once again in his lap. Quickly, he sat up, looking around frantically.

"I heard crying. Someone was crying," Kyle said, suddenly terrified of the blue shadows flooding the unfamiliar room; a tiny light on the bedside table the only thing illuminating the small space. "Did you hear it, Kenny?"

"No, you were dreaming, Kyle. You were having a nightmare," Kenny assured him, but his voice didn't sound right; it sounded off. Kyle reached out to touch his cheek and was surprised to feel moisture there, his eyes skipping away and coming to rest on Rose; the diary sitting open at the foot of the bed.

"Kenny, are you -"

"Go back to sleep, Kyle," Kenny cut in, grabbing the diary and shutting it. He set it aside. "Here, lay your head down."

"But, Kenny, you were -"

"Please," Kenny said, quietly. "Just go back to sleep, okay? For me."

Wordlessly, Kyle obeyed and lay his head in Kenny's lap while slowly shutting his eyes, Kenny's gentle fingers caressing his curls and lulling him. Before too long, his heart stopped racing and he could feel himself tiptoeing toward the chasm in the ocean, the one he had to step over to fall back into sleep; the water swiftly swallowing him. Kenny held him close the whole time, his hands reassuring Kyle that he wasn't alone, that the basement was miles away; pushed back into the darkness where it belonged.

Chapter Text

A new life
What I wouldn't give to have a new life
One thing I have learned as I go through life
Nothing is for free along the way

 A new start
That's the thing I need to give me new heart
Half a chance in life to find a new part
Just a simple role that I can play

  -A New Life, Jekyll & Hyde


Dear Rose,

Long time no see, huh? Gosh, I haven't written in you since before the party, and even though the party was only a little over a day ago, it feels like lifetimes have passed since then. Can't you feel it, Rose? The shift in everything, the changes? They've already started, haven't they?

I'm having a very hard time coming to terms with the fact that Craig read you, Rose. I'm so sorry I let him find you. You were supposed to be my safe harbor, a talisman of sorts, and I wasn't able to protect you. Not that that surprises me, I haven't been very good at protecting myself for a very long time. I guess I became careless because Craig was being so kind, so loving, and I let it cloud my judgement. God, what he must think of me now, though he couldn't have read you in your entirety; our story together is so long, isn't it?

And yet, the notion of Kenny reading you doesn't make me feel uneasy at all; at least, not in a bad way. Mostly I'm worried that he'll think less of me for being so weak, for putting up with so much pain for so long. I'm sure he'll wonder why I allowed it, how strong, opinionated Kyle could fall so far. Well, that's a question I've asked myself for years and I still don't have an answer, not a good one, anyway. A good, suitable answer doesn't exist for circumstances like this. No, Kenny reading you almost feels like an honor, because he actually cares enough to devote his time to it, to us. I'm trying not to let the fact that he'll eventually read this entry as well alter the way I write but it's difficult. At any rate, I'll attempt to write as if you're still a secret, Rose. (By the way, hi, Kenny!)

I woke up early this morning, Rose, just like I would at home. Once again I was startled not to be in bed with Craig, but when I turned my head on the pillow I saw Kenny, sleeping so deeply. You were open on his chest, but he'd managed to throw his legs over mine sometime during the night but I didn't mind; I thought it was sweet. It took a few minutes to truly get my bearings, of course, and I just lay there pinned beneath Kenny's legs and I studied our room. It's simple and small, but I think it's charming how the knickknacks on the shelf have suffered some sun damage from being in front of the window; it gives it this nostalgic quality that makes me think of my room as a child.

After I came back to myself, and the nightmare that had woken me up began to recede (it was the basement door again, Rose. I have a feeling I'm going to be visiting the basement a lot in my dreams going forward. It seems no matter what I do I can't completely escape it, huh?) my thoughts immediately traveled to Craig, but they weren't negative, surprisingly. It isn't time for him to wake up yet (or maybe he never went to sleep? who knows?) but I can imagine him opening his eyes and finding himself in our big bed all alone. I won't be there to kiss him awake or make him breakfast. I won't be there to tend to the garden or cut our morning red rose...I won't be there to make his coffee or see to the multitude of tiny things I do every morning to care for him until he's on his way. It makes me wonder, is he going to wake up angry or sad, Rose? Why do I feel melancholy imagining it, that quiet house and Craig being completely alone in it? Am I crazy?

I was able to get out of bed without rousing Kenny (it would seem he's a pretty deep sleeper, and who knows what time he finally went to bed last night) and I went to the bathroom to clean myself up. No one else was awake yet so I tried to be as quiet as possible. I've actually become pretty adept at moving soundlessly (for obvious reasons) so I don't think I bothered anyone. I was able to take a shower and I noticed something bizarre, Rose; something that disturbs me a fair measure. I took my toiletries into the bathroom and I suddenly noticed that I had Kenny purchase the exact same products Craig always wants me to use. I didn't even think about it, I just did it. Like I've said before, Craig likes things to be a very specific way, even down to the way I smell; like apples and spice, feminine scents. You'd think I would've refused to use them once I figured out what I'd done, how deeply I've been programmed, but I didn't. I used them, just like Craig would want me to; his obedient, little pet. I annoy myself but I can't help it, at least not yet.

It makes me think of the shower I took the first night I ran to Kenny, and I can remember the way the blood gurgled and swirled around the drain when I washed my hair. It feels like I bathed for an hour and no matter how many times I rinsed my hair the blood kept appearing in the water, but that can't be real, right? God, how much of my blood has been washed down the bathtub drain over the years, Rose? Can it even be measured at this point? There's a drain in the basement, too; it's tasted my blood as well.

I'm lapsing into macabre subject matter, aren't I? This just won't do. Kenny won't want to read you if you're full of stuff like this, Rose; for shame. But it's the truth, isn't it, and the truth isn't always pretty. In fact, I'd argue that most of the time the truth is very, very ugly. Maybe staying at Karen's will help me escape the truth, my realities, for a little while, what do you think? I know I can't hide forever, but it'll be nice to clear my head and try to heal, at least a little. I'm just scared that Craig will find us before I've had time to collect myself. He's so smart; I know we can't outrun him forever, and what's worse...I almost don't want to. I mean, I couldn't be happier being here with Kenny, but I left my life behind...how can I help but miss parts of it? It wasn't all bad. Nothing's that black and white, Rose; nothing.

I hear someone moving around out in the kitchen so I guess I'll leave things here. Besides, I don't want to bother Kenny; he's sleeping so peacefully. Where would I be without him? Why does Kenny have to be so decent and kind? Why does he make me feel -

No. We won't go there. Not yet. Everything in its own time.

Always and forever,

Your Kyle

PS: Thank you, Kenny. For everything.

******

Quietly, Kyle set Rose back on Kenny's chest where he'd found her that morning, careful not to wake him up. He stood, watching Kenny's chest rise and fall in graceful dips, his tattoos prominent in the dawn sunlight falling through the cracks in the blinds. For a moment he could remember him as the boy he used to be, an unruly teenager that smoked pot and got into trouble in class, but was always more than willing to help someone who'd found themselves in dire straights; a true blue friend, a giver. He sighed, allowing himself a second to imagine kissing Kenny awake like he always did for Craig but he shook his head, chastising himself once again. Where was his head these days? Maybe Craig had done more damage to his brain when he assaulted him the last time than he'd previously thought.

Turning away, he studied himself in the mirror one last time before departing, tugging at his new green t-shirt and faded jeans, his face still an unforgiving wreck; bruises igniting in his flesh and looking positively ghastly in the sunlight. The swelling had begun to abate but it didn't matter, he still looked like he'd been through the wringer. Sighing, he put his sunglasses on and with one last fleeting look at Kenny he left the room, closing the door softly behind him. Walking toward the kitchen, he allowed himself a moment to study his surroundings; Karen's little home. Passing the living room he smiled to see toys scattered across the floor, some of them even strewn about the white couches accented with stitched pink carnations. There was an upright piano against the far wall and an oriental rug in jewel tones laid across the floor, a cold fireplace in the corner with framed childish paintings above it; ink-sketched children's portraits hung above the piano, calling to mind Victorian aesthetics with a turn of the century whimsy.

Coming into the kitchen, Kyle admired the puffy white curtains adorning the window over the sink, with African violets sitting on the sill; understated and velvet rich in the dawn's coming light. The walls were painted a buttery yellow, and the light struck the copper pots and pans on the walls, making them glow. Karen was bustling about, once again dressed in jean shorts and a blue tank top, her skin just as tanned and golden as Kenny's; they both looked like they lived in the sun, never in shadow. Her soft brown hair was tied back into a bun and she was busily pulling something from the oven, soft, bluesy music seeping out of a stereo on the island.

"Morning," Kyle said, watching as she stood and placed a pan on a trivet, the smell of burnt cinnamon and baking bread wafting under his nose. Surprisingly, he found his mouth beginning to water, and he suddenly couldn't remember the last time he'd had an appetite first thing in the morning.

"Good morning," Karen smiled, pulling off the oven mitts and laying them aside. She gestured to a pot of coffee. "Can I fix you a cuppa?"

Kyle laughed, going to the cupboard and getting out his own mug before Karen could.

"You've been watching too much Upstairs Downstairs," he commented, pouring the rich strong coffee into his mug; its aroma mingling with the cinnamon and only strengthening his sudden hunger.

"Nah, I'm all about Downton Abbey these days," she replied, beginning to pour icing over the rolls in the pan. "Orange roll?"

"That'd be great, actually," Kyle replied, adding modest amounts of cream and sugar to his coffee. "Can I help at all?"

"Nah, that's okay. You just sit," Karen said, getting out a plate. "After we eat you can help me outside, if you'd like."

"Oh? What do you need to do out there?" He asked, taking a seat at the table and feeling weird at being denied the option to help. It just didn't sit right with him, being idle when there were chores to be done; he swallowed down his discomfort, though. After all, he was a guest at Karen's house, she should have a say in how things were run.

"Didn't you say something about sunflowers last night?"

"I did," Karen said, coming over to the table with two plates nestled in the crook of her arm, a cup of coffee in her hand. She grinned. "I used to be a waitress when I was taking classes; can you tell?"

"I admire your skills," Kyle replied, taking the steaming orange roll into his hand and taking a tiny bite; the pastry melting on his tongue and almost making him sigh with pleasure. "This is delicious, thank you. And," he added, becoming shy and glancing down at the table, "I'm sorry about making a scene last night. I hope I didn't scare you and the kids too much."

"Not at all. Don't apologize, please." Karen took a long sip of coffee, closing her eyes for a moment; they popped open and she grinned. "This is one of my favorite parts of the day, honestly. The kids won't be up for almost another hour and I just have time to be alone with my coffee. Although I'm happy to have some company," she said, winking at him.

"I know what you mean," Kyle murmured, taking a drink of his own coffee; creamy hazelnut flavors coursing over his tongue. "I always get up early at home. I see to the roses and do some chores. It gives me a chance to kind of ease into the day."

"Roses, huh? I've wanted to try growing some out here but I don't think they'd make it. This climate can be pretty unforgiving when it comes to delicate things."

"They were a trial at first, I can't lie," Kyle replied, taking another bite of roll. "But over time I think we've gotten used to each other, though I still catch myself on the thorns every now and then." He held up his scarred hands for her to see, grinning.

She studied them for a moment but then her eyes trailed down to Kyle's wrists, where the faint scars from the handcuffs could be found; shiny and pink and unwilling to fade. Timidly, she reached out and ran a finger over them, her expression becoming somber.

"So, you married Craig Tucker," she said, pulling her hand away. "I heard he became a doctor."

"A cardiologist," Kyle said, nodding his head, reluctant pride making its way into his voice. He circled one of his wrists with his fingers, becoming lost in thought. "He has his own practice with a couple other doctors, but he has privileges at Hell's Pass."

"Yeah, our mom sees one of the doctors in his office, for her angina," Karen said, taking a bite of her own roll. "Craig's seen her before when her usual doctor was out on vacation and he was covering; she actually said he has a pretty good bedside manner."

"He does," Kyle murmured, tearing the remainder of his roll into pieces; his appetite falling away now. "His patients adore him. I don't think I've ever heard a truly negative review from one of them."

"You know, I'm friends with his sister on Facebook," Karen said, leaning back and crossing her legs. "We used to be pretty tight back in high school. She said they don't talk very much anymore."

"No, he likes to keep his family at arm's length. Craig is a very private person."

"Hmm," Karen replied, finishing off her coffee. "I bet you were surprised to see Kenny just out of nowhere, huh?"

Kyle nodded, smiling against his will; a sudden flash that was automatic.

"It had been too long, and he's done so well for himself."

"He really has," Karen agreed. "He's a different person when he has a camera in his hands, Kyle; almost like he's a man possessed. He can only think about getting that next great shot, no matter where it is. Sometimes I think he's addicted to beauty, almost like it's a drug he can inject right into his bloodstream."

"Well, his work certainly reflects that. It makes me want to leave everything behind and just travel the world."

"Why don't you?" Karen asked, catching him by surprise; he just stared at her.

"I-I don't know," he finally said. "It isn't that simple to walk away from your life, you know?"

"That makes sense," she said, smiling a little while looking around the room; her eyes coming to rest on Kyle again. "Did you want some more coffee?"

Kyle shook his head, managing to pop another piece of roll into his mouth.

"Maybe later."

"Well, the garden awaits then," Karen said, standing and taking her mug and plate into the kitchen. "I hope you don't mind getting messy."

"Not at all," Kyle grinned before draining the coffee in his mug and setting it aside; his mind going to Craig and his abhorrence for dirty things, whether they be dirt or dust in general. No, the only time he was willing to get his hands dirty was during a surgery or when they were in the basement, and then he seemed to delight in it.

"Well, come along then." Karen slipped on some Crocs and opened the sliding glass door, the smells of earth and grass wafting into the kitchen, mingling with the scents of breakfast and filling Kyle with such complete serenity he almost couldn't comprehend it. There was no fear here, none at all.

"Right," he said, standing and slipping on his new sneakers. "Let's go."

*******

Kenny found them less than an hour later, walking out of the house clad in navy blue workout shorts and a grey t-shirt, running shoes on his feet. Kyle and Karen were busily weeding the garden while gathering vegetables, large, shiny zucchini and sturdy green beans, plump, red tomatoes from the vine, and yellow squash.

"It figures I'd find you out here," Kenny said, brushing a hand through his messy hair. "Karen loves to put her guests to work."

"Kenny, this boy wanted to help, so leave us alone," Karen replied, yanking out another weed and putting it aside. "You fixing to go for a run?"

"Yup," Kenny replied, beginning to stretch out. "It's been a couple of days. I can already feel myself becoming soft."

"Really? Where?" Kyle piped up without thinking first, raising a brow. He blushed, looking back down at the zucchini resting in his hands. Kenny just laughed.

"Did you want to come along? We can bring that mangy dog of theirs so he can stretch his legs."

"Oh, that'd be a great idea, Kyle," Karen chirped, sitting back on her heels. "We're just about done here, and you can help me with the sunflowers when you get back. What do you think?"

"I guess so, but I'm not much of a runner, Kenny," Kyle replied, getting to his feet and brushing off his jeans. "Won't I just slow you down?"

"Kyle, could you please attempt to give yourself a little credit?" Kenny sighed, turning away and beginning to stride across the lawn. "You'll be just fine, okay? Come on."

"Go on, honey," Karen said, standing and picking up the baskets full of fresh vegetables. "I need to get the kids up anyway so they can have their breakfast, and Maya needs her bottle. Pongo's leash is by the front door."

"Well, okay. But don't water the sunflowers until I get back," Kyle said, biting his tongue and stopping himself from demanding to help with carrying the vegetables inside.

"I wouldn't dream of it, now go," she laughed, hefting the baskets toward the house, Kyle following behind her.

Once in the house, Kyle stripped off his work gloves and went to retrieve the leash, Pongo rocketing out of nowhere once he heard its jingle, leaping onto Kyle in excitement.

"Calm down, now," Kenny said, pulling the dog back by his collar and waiting for Kyle to attach the leash. "This pile of fur acts like he's never been on a walk before."

"Every time is like the first time for him," Karen quipped, beginning to wash the veggies off at the sink. "Have fun, you two."

"Thanks, mom," Kenny teased, opening the front door and gesturing for Kyle to leave first. "We'll be back before too long."

"Oh, before I forget," Kyle spoke up, watching as Kenny shut the door. "Can I borrow your phone? I need to call Wendy and let her know I won't be able to make it in today."

"No need," Kenny replied, leading the way out to the winding two lane road bypassing Karen's house. "I texted Stan the night you showed up at my house and told him to let Wendy know you'd be out for awhile."

"That was kind of jumping the gun, don't you think? You didn't even ask me," Kyle replied, straining as Pongo pulled on the leash.

"Were you seriously considering going to work after what Craig put you through, Kyle?"

"Well, no, but still, you could've checked with me."

"You're right," Kenny conceded, bumping him a little. "I'm sorry, okay? I just wanted to help."

"I'm starting to pick up on that," Kyle replied, grinning a little. "It's just that you criticize Craig for being so controlling, but then you turn around and make decisions for me without checking.  Don't you see the issue with that?"

"I do," Kenny sighed. "I'll reform, promise."

"See that you do," Kyle said, though he wasn't truly mad; if anything, he was touched. He knew Kenny genuinely wanted to help as opposed to Craig's need to be in control, so he wasn't going to make a federal case out of Kenny's actions. He frowned, thinking of something else.

"You didn't tell Stan what happened, did you?"

"Of course not, Kyle. I just told him you were going through something and that you'd contact Wendy when you were ready to come back. Besides, he isn't stupid, dude; he can read between the lines. I didn't need to go into detail."

"That's fair," Kyle replied, watching as Pongo stopped to sniff tufts of grass around the base of a mailbox; after a moment, he lifted his leg. "God, I'm so lucky that Wendy's been so understanding through all of this."

"You've got a lot of people on your side," Kenny said, shrugging. "You always have."

"I suppose so." They continued to walk, the morning sun climbing up the sky and bringing with it new heat, their shoes kicking up puffs of dust and sand with every step. Succulents littered the cracked earth and here and there small, brown lizards skirted everywhere, running to hide under red rocks.

"It's so quiet out here," Kyle murmured. "It's nice."

"Really gives you a chance to think, huh? I love visiting Karen out here, there's just something about the desert that puts me at ease. I'll have to take you along when I photograph the Grand Mesa."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, it's amazing, man. Here, take a look," he said, pulling out his phone. He flipped through a couple of screens and then handed it to Kyle, pointing. "See? Don't you love the colors, the layers in the rock? You should see how bright the stars are at night, you can see the Milky Way clear as anything, just streaking across the sky."

"Wow," Kyle breathed, admiring the photo. "You took this?"

"Yup, it's one of my favorite places to take pictures of."

"I can see why." Suddenly, a notification popped up at the top of the screen, alerting him to a new text; the phone number almost painfully familiar. "Hey, you got a text."

Kenny sighed, beginning to pick up his pace a little.

"I'm not surprised. Fine, go ahead; open it up."

Kyle did, his eyes widening when he read it:

I know you took Kyle someplace, you fucking asshole. Where is he? Tell him to call me. Now.

Scrolling upward, he saw that Craig had been sending texts steadily over the last day or so, each of them aggressive and angry:

Where the fuck are you? Kyle's car is still in front of your house but your mom said you weren't there.

Where's my husband? I know he doesn't have his wallet or phone, so that must mean you're the one calling the shots. You better tell me where you are, Kenny. It's not like I can't find you two.

Have Kyle call me.

I bet you aren't even telling him I want to speak with him. Now you have your chance to put the moves on him. Wake up, Kenny, he's married; he doesn't want you. He's never wanted you.

You manipulative fuck. I can't believe you're putting me in this position. WHERE IS MY HUSBAND?

Kyle looked up at Kenny in shock, the trembles already creeping into his skin as he scrolled through Craig's vitriol.

"Why didn't you tell me he was sending you all of these texts, Kenny?" He kept scrolling, overcome by just how many there were; all of them written in Craig's caustic, abrupt tone, his uncontrolled fury on full display. "I can't believe how many there are."

"I didn't want to tell you because I knew it would upset you," Kenny replied, picking up his pace again; Kyle practically jogging to keep up with him with Pongo taking the lead. "I mean, I'm not going to respond to any of them anyway. What would be the point? Craig's just trying to get a rise out of me and I'm not about to tell him where we are. He has to know that."

"No, he probably doesn't," Kyle said, reading through more texts. "He's used to getting his way most of the time." He sighed, turning off the phone. "God, this is all my fault. I kept that little scrap of paper with your phone number on it in my diary. That was so fucking stupid."

"Well, Craig's going to have to start getting used to not getting his way, because those days are over as far as I'm concerned," Kenny replied, turning off of the road and leading them through a trail cutting its way between clumps of scrub and succulents. "And Craig acting like an asshole isn't your fault, Kyle. When are you going to accept that?"

"Do you think I should call him?" Kyle asked timidly. "Maybe if I talk to him I can get him to stop sending you all of these texts."

"Fuck no, I don't want you to call him, Kyle," Kenny replied, stopping at turning to look at him like he'd gone crazy. "And I doubt anything you could say would stop him from harassing me, he seems to get off on it. It's just like when we were in school."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, he was a bully in school, too, Kyle. Maybe on a smaller scale but he's never been what I would consider a nice person. I'm honestly surprised Tweek put up with him for so long."

"I guess I just didn't see that side of him back then," Kyle replied, still holding Kenny's phone. "I didn't really talk to him very much."

"Lucky you, and besides, after reading more of Rose I can't even understand why you'd ever want to talk to him again."

Kyle froze and looked away, his mouth becoming dry.

"How far did you get?" He whispered.

"Let's just say I'm starting to understand what you said about the basement," Kenny replied, kicking at a tuft of scrub, his hands on his hips. "That shit was terrifying, Kyle. I had to keep reminding myself that this stuff actually happened, that I was reading about your life, not some made up story by Stephen King."

Kyle shrugged and began to walk, not wanting to be still anymore. Pongo joyfully bounded around, sniffing at everything and trying to chase the tiny brown lizards.

"What do you want me to say?" He finally asked when Kenny caught up to him, jogging lightly now. "It's what Craig wanted so I just..."

"Looked the other way," Kenny finished for him. "You endured, Kyle. Your life was all about survival, not living."

"Don't act like everything I wrote in there was bad, Kenny," Kyle replied, beginning to pull back, to shut down. "There were a lot of nice times, too."

"Yeah, but at what cost? So he takes you to New York City just out of nowhere, but it was right after he -" he broke off, rubbing his mouth. "Kyle, he tortured you. He fucking tortured you!"

"I don't fucking want to talk about this!" Kyle suddenly yelled. "I gave you the diary so I wouldn't have to say this stuff out loud!"

Suddenly, Kenny grabbed his arm and held him back, forcing Kyle to come to a stop.

"I get that, Kyle! God, if I were you I wouldn't want to talk about it either, but you need to! How are you supposed to heal if you won't allow yourself to see the reality of all of this?"

"I can see the reality!" Kyle shouted. "I live with the reality every goddamn day of my life, Kenny! What, do you think I'm so far gone that I can just forget about the basement and stitches and handcuffs and...and...just everything?! Jesus Christ, I'm not delusional, I know that in many respects Craig is a monster, but it isn't that simple! None of this is simple!"

"That's for damn sure," Kenny replied, and now there was a hitch in his voice, calling to mind the night before; the cries in the dark. "It's just worse than I thought it was, worse than anything I could've dreamed up on my own, and I hate it. I hate all of it! I want to kill him for what he's done to you!"

"Well, that isn't an option, okay?" Kyle said, smiling a little at Kenny's outcry; not from amusement, but because of his obvious passion. It lit up his heart even as he traveled back to the past and all of its horrors. "I'm not going to let you spend 25 to life because of me and Craig, you got it? I wouldn't be able to stand it if I couldn't see you anymore."

Suddenly Kenny was pulling Kyle into his arms and hugging him close, the vague scents of tobacco and laundry detergent flooding Kyle's senses, putting him at ease. Kenny threaded a hand through Kyle's curls, cradling the back of his head.

"Just leave him, Kyle. Please, just get away from him so I don't have to imagine you going into the basement anymore. I think of you down there, alone and afraid and being cut open and it kills me, it just fucking kills me. You don't have to be with me, hell, you don't have to be with anyone, but just don't go back to him. Please."

Ignoring the spike in his anxiety, his heartbeat accelerating swiftly, Kyle closed his eyes and tried to remember where he was, standing in the arid desert drifts as Kenny held him close, the blue sky open above them and the red rocks baking in the sun; he took a deep breath and tried to remain grounded, pushing the terror back. Reluctantly, he put his arms around Kenny and held him as well, quick tears leaking from his eyes as he considered his friends' words.

"Maybe I'm just broken beyond repair, Kenny, but I still love my husband," he whispered. "I love the parts of him that I guess only I can see, the good things. They're there, you know; I've seen them."

"They aren't enough," Kenny said, quietly. "If they were, you wouldn't be here."

"You've got a point there," Kyle said, lightly, giving him one last squeeze before backing away, tucking a curl behind his ear. "Can we talk about something else for awhile? I'm so tired."

"Sure, yeah," Kenny sighed, brushing both of his hands through his hair. "I'm ready to run, anyway. You can hold onto my phone if you want, give you something to do while I run until I can't think anymore."

"Right, thanks," Kyle said, quietly. He watched with sad eyes as Kenny started to jog away, starting out slow until he seemed to hit his stride and he was practically sprinting; his blonde hair turning to gold in the sun and his strong legs carrying him further and further away. Sighing, Kyle strolled along slowly with Pongo, who was continuing to sniff and search, lifting his leg on occasion to mark where he'd been. Finally, Kyle sat on a slab of rock and turned on Kenny's phone again, scrolling through Craig's many messages; feeling an odd mixture of sorrow and slow fury.

Glancing up, he could see that Kenny was now a small dot on the horizon, and the tenderness he felt for him in that moment almost left him breathless. He missed him even though he could still see him, a strong longing surging through his blood and making him feel slightly cold; he shrugged it away and turned back to the phone, impetuously opening up his email. Before he could stop himself, he wrote a short message to Craig:

 Craig, you need to stop sending those texts to Kenny, okay? I'm the one you're mad at, not him, and he doesn't deserve it. I chose to leave and I'm also choosing not to tell you where I am. I need some time to think and get some perspective and you're just going to have to respect that.

I'm sorry that I've made you unhappy, but things have to change. You know that as well as I do.

PS: Just know that I love you, and in my own small, meaningless way, I miss you. Please try to understand.

Beginning to shake, Kyle's finger hovered over the send button for a few moments before he finally scraped up enough courage to press it, his heart racing in his chest and sweat standing out on his brow. He almost felt cleansed when he saw that it went through, and for a fraction of a second, he was proud of himself. Barely any time passed before he received a reply:

Oh, thank God. I was starting to think McCormick was holding you hostage or something. I had every right to send Kenny those texts, Kyle. He deliberately didn't answer the phone when I tried to call him, and I'm positive he was hiding the texts I sent from you, too. What, did you have to steal the phone so you could contact me? Can't you see he's manipulating the situation, Kyle? You need to get away from him, you need to come home. You belong here with me, not him.

I only slept for an hour last night and I'm dragging today. I woke up before the sun even rose and I just wandered through the house, hating how empty it was, hating the quiet. It isn't home unless you're here. You know that, right?

I took care of the roses this morning, too. I'm sure I didn't do a very good job, not as good as you would've done, of course. I still cut the red rose and put it in the vase. In fact, I'm looking at it right now as I write this. I don't have to go in until late this morning, so I have ample time to just sit here and miss you. Jesus Christ, Kyle, I'm fucking agonizing over you right now! You know it's the truth so just stop being difficult and come home!

I can cancel my patients for later today and come get you, I promise. You give me the word and I'll jump in the car and come fetch you. I'm not even mad anymore, Kyle, okay? You don't have to be afraid, please believe me. I don't want to hurt you, I just want to talk to you and get on the same page; I want things to be alright again!

I love you. Don't do this to me. Don't do this to us. I know you think distance and time will give you perspective but they won't...they'll just break you down. They're already destroying me, can't you tell? Every moment you aren't here, every night I fall asleep without you is a moment that's killing me. I can't stand not knowing where you are...how could I help you if you needed it?

Please think about what you're doing, Kyle. I know you took your Klonopin but you didn't take any of your other medications. What if you have a panic attack? What about your anxiety? How can I look after you if you're so far away? Hell, you don't even have your phone or wallet or anything!

I noticed you took the diary, though.

Okay, so maybe I should've asked you before I read it, I see that now. But think about it, Kyle. What would you have done if you'd found something like that full of things I wrote about you? Wouldn't you want to read it? Wouldn't you be hurt if it was full of things tearing your character apart? Wouldn't that break you heart? It broke mine...I didn't even read the whole thing but what I did read eviscerated me. I know you need a place to put your thoughts but it just reinforced what I've always feared...you shut me out, you won't let me know you. How can we succeed if I'm always kept at arm's length?

Just...come home, okay? Just tell me where you are and I'll come pick you up. I'd be there in a heartbeat. You know this.

I love you. I'll always love you.

Receiving this outpouring from Craig was the last thing Kyle expected, and he kept reading the email while trying to dissect it and understand its hidden meanings. He desperately wanted to believe what his husband wrote, that he wasn't mad and simply missed him and wanted him to come home, but how could he trust anything he said? Craig was a master of twisting words and situations to yield the results he wanted, and he also knew how to seduce Kyle with momentary kindness and soft words, but he still couldn't help but smile a little at how fervently Craig desired his return.

Kyle sat there for awhile, the rising sun pouring over him and drenching him in its heat and just wondering how he should proceed; re-reading the email multiple times and growing more and more confused and agitated, hardly knowing what to do next. He couldn't deny that he missed his home and his routine, the roses and caring for things, his job at the gallery and most of all the kind parts of his husband, but there were just too many unknowns. As scary as it was to admit, he could see himself forgiving Craig and coming home but being promptly carted into the basement as soon as the chance presented itself; strapped against the wall and taking the lash of the whip until he passed out, waking up on the exam table and being stitched back together. Dread and fear washed over him leaving him cold, the sun's light fading a little; he shuddered openly.

But what about the nice times, the soft moments? They existed too, and he couldn't just ignore them, could he? Setting the phone aside, he became lost in memories of Craig bringing him little gifts on a whim, theater tickets and clothes, or when Kyle would be at the stove preparing dinner and his husband would come up behind him and wrap his arms around his waist, pulling him close and kissing his neck. He flushed, remembering this, wrapping his own arms around himself and drawing them tight, thoughts of Craig holding him close while they fell asleep after watching an old movie and drinking too much wine; of whispering in his ear and telling him how much he adored him. He shut his eyes, tears suddenly springing up.

"How can I just forget about how much he loves me?" He whispered. "He does love me. He has to."

But he had to wonder about that too, speculating about the authenticity of Craig's feelings for him. How could they exist alongside the brutality and still be real? How could he ever know if they were real, and how could he spend the rest of his life questioning them? What kind of life was that to live?

Opening his eyes, Kyle could see Kenny returning swiftly, his small form growing larger as he came closer, his shirt drenched in sweat and clinging to his body; gold hair darkened by perspiration. As he approached Kyle could feel the tension leaving his body as the distance between them closed, and he stood from his perch and smiled, waving a little when he saw how intensely Kenny was watching him, his heart practically in his eyes. His heart began to thump faster but it was pleasant, an exciting tick tock in his chest that left him feeling giddy, and he couldn't deny what was beginning to happen; the feelings that were slowly growing in the arid Colorado desert.

Suddenly, responding to Craig's email didn't seem so pressing, and he gladly handed the phone back to Kenny, gazing at him with what he was starting to realize was open adoration. When had his feelings began to evolve, and what were they becoming? He was almost afraid to give these questions further thought, knowing they were just going to complicate an already complicated situation. Instead, he fell into step beside Kenny and just enjoyed being by his side, his presence quieting the fears in his heart while reviving him somewhat.

"Are you feeling better?" Kenny asked. "I didn't mean to upset you before. I was out of line."

Kyle nodded his head, looping the leash around his hand and drawing Pongo closer. He wasn't moving as quickly now, his tongue hanging out as he panted.

"I'm feeling a lot better," he replied, pushing thoughts of Craig away. Impulsively, he reached out and took a hold of Kenny's arm, holding it loosely. "I'm just happy that I'm here with you."

Blushing, Kenny looked down at their linked arms before he smiled slowly, pulling Kyle a little closer as they walked.

"Good, I'm glad," he replied, and Kyle almost laughed to see the tiny little bounce show up in his step; almost like he was walking on air. Shyly, he hugged Kenny's arm just a fraction tighter, sighing softly.

*******

"If you want, you can look after the sunflowers during your stay, Kyle," Karen said, watching as Kyle watered the hearty yellow flowers, wafting softly in the breeze in healthy bunches. "You'd be doing me a favor."

"I'd love to," Kyle replied, admiring the honest, sturdy flowers as they trembled in the sun. They weren't his roses but he could see himself taking a shine to the sunflowers, and suddenly he wanted to grow some in his own garden, the thought bringing momentary melancholy. He didn't even know when he'd be in a position to do anything with his own garden again, especially if Craig still intended to move them away.

If I agree to go, that is, Kyle thought, darkly. I don't have to do anything I don't want to, right?

The direction of his thoughts startled him but he liked them, too. It almost felt like he was starting to remember the person he used to be, at least a little bit. He was starting to see that being away from Craig's influence allowed him to flourish slightly, that fear and tension were excellent tools to keep someone in a certain place; promoting stasis.

"Mama, mama!" Stella and Vivvie yelled, running up to their mom; both clad in wispy sundresses. "You said we could fill the hummingbird feeders today! You promised!"

"I did, didn't I?" Karen asked, tapping her chin. She glanced at Kyle. "Will you be okay finishing up here?"

Kyle looked at the fair amount of sunflowers he had left to water and he nodded, enjoying having a task to attend to; a small purpose.

"I'll be fine. Go on."

"Okay, girls. Let's get a move on, then. Where's your brother?"

"Right here, mama," Willie called, toddling out of the house and holding a Popsicle in one syrup-soaked fist. "I wanna help!"

"No fair, I want a Popsicle too!" Stella said, pouting.

"Me, too!" Vivvie chorused.

"I swear, you children have such one-track minds," Karen sighed. "Fine, Popsicles and then we'll do the feeders. Come along."

Cheering, the children followed her into the house, Kenny making his way outside and grinning down at them.

"Little hellions," he said, coming over to Kyle. "But they're fun, huh?"

"They definitely keep things entertaining," Kyle agreed, glancing at Kenny; his hair still wet from the shower he'd just taken. He was wearing low-slung jeans and a wifebeater, his nicely toned biceps tantalizingly on full display.

God, why does he have to look so good? Kyle thought, blushing and turning away.

"Do you lift or what?" He asked, moving to concentrate on another patch of flowers.

Surprised, Kenny blinked at him for a moment, then glanced down at his arms. He shrugged.

"Yeah, I like to stay in shape."

Clearly, Kyle thought, rolling his eyes.

"What, do you want to start training together?" Kenny teased.

"Nah, I think I'll pass." Kyle moved away, nearly done with the sunflowers and planning on moving to the chrysanthemums next. Kenny followed, watching.

"Good, because I like you just the way you are," Kenny finally said, poking Kyle in the side and making him yelp lightly. "Right now I could pick you up and put you in my pocket."

"I'm not that small," Kyle sniffed, though he was glowing inside from Kenny's words. He didn't let his delight register on his face though, and the guilt was quickly flooding in, hating himself for indulging in even this innocuous flirting banter; he just couldn't help it. Or maybe he could and he just didn't want to. This thought filled him with shame as well, but he ignored it.

"Oh, yes you are," Kenny said. "Why, I bet I could pick you up right now."

"You wouldn't dare," Kyle replied, turning around and threatening Kenny with the hose. "I'll spray you right in the face, so help me."

"Oh, yeah?" Kenny laughed, dodging the spray and gathering Kyle into his arms. Before he could respond Kenny was hefting him into the air and twirling him around, laughing to beat the band. "See? I told you!"

"P-put me down, you ass-hat!" Kyle giggled, pretending to put up a fight but not wanting Kenny to let him go, completely amazed that he wasn't lapsing into a panic attack. Why did he suddenly feel so safe, so warm?

"Are you two having fun?" Karen asked, standing on the porch and watching with amusement as the children stood around her, all of them sucking on Popsicles. "That's an interesting way to water the flowers, I must say."

"Err, Kyle asked me to pop his back," Kenny replied, making a show of jerking Kyle upward. "Is that better, man?"

Kyle nodded, feeling himself flushing as Kenny settled him back on the ground, Karen and the children still staring at them. Hurriedly, he turned and started watering the orange chrysanthemums, his heart still pounding deliciously in his chest. He glanced at Kenny out of the corner of his eye and felt even warmer when he saw that he was being watched, too.

"What?" Kyle asked, feeling awkward and ashamed, but secretly elated.

"Nothing," Kenny replied, jamming his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "I'm sorry I did that. I hope it didn't, you know, make you feel anxious or anything."

"No, it's okay," Kyle smiled. "Promise."

"Well, now that you two are finished dancing with one another," Karen said, coming over with the kids trailing behind her. "I wanted to let you know that Art's coming home tonight and he's bringing something special for dinner; something fancy."

"Fancy?" Kenny asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yup, salmon, in Kyle's honor," Karen replied, proudly. "We're grilling out tonight."

"You didn't have to go to any trouble for me," Kyle stammered. "I mean it."

"Oh, pshaw, just enjoy yourself," Karen said. "Allow yourself a little fun every now and then, Kyle, and let folks take care of you once in awhile," she added, glancing at Kenny quickly and smiling.

"Give it a rest, Karen," Kenny said, narrowing his eyes at her. "I know what you're doing."

"What am I doing, Kenny?"

"You know very well what you're doing."

"Hmm, no, I don't think I do. You should probably tell me," Karen smiled, winking at Kyle.

"Oh, just take care of the damn hummingbird feeders and leave me alone," Kenny muttered. "Kyle and I are going into the house to get a beer. Come on, dude."

"Mama, Uncle Kenny said a swear," Stella said, her voice hushed.

"He did, didn't he? Well, that's a damn shame," Karen said, punching Kenny on the shoulder as he passed by, Kyle on his heels. "Thanks for watering the flowers, Kyle. You two did a great job together."

*******

"Hey, I was wondering about something," Kenny suddenly said, rousing Kyle from a late afternoon cat nap he'd been reluctantly settling into; his voice breaking the quiet that had settled over the room aside from the TV quietly playing.

"What?" Kyle sat up and rubbed his eyes.

"Would you mind if I ever, you know, wrote something in Rose, too? Like a letter to you or whatever."

Kyle stared at him, still slowly coming awake and trying to comprehend the question. He shook his head, yawning suddenly.

"You want to write in Rose, too? Why?"

Kenny shrugged, setting aside the book he'd been reading, a collection of Maya Angelou's poetry that he'd borrowed from Karen.

"I don't know. I mean, I just have a hard time expressing myself when I talk sometimes, you know? I either get super angry or I can't find the words, so...I wanted to try writing out my thoughts to you, but I wanted to ask you first. Rose is yours, Kyle, all yours, and I would never want to change her if it would make you unhappy."

Kyle thought a moment, considering this. He picked up Rose from her place on the bedside table and studied the cover, passing a hand over its glossy surface. He smiled softly before handing her to Kenny.

"I'd like that, actually. A lot," he murmured. "Write whatever you like, Kenny; I give you my blessing."

"I'm nowhere near being done reading your story, Kyle, but the more I read the more questions I have; the more I have to say," Kenny replied, taking the diary and cradling it in his hands. "Thanks."

Kyle shook his head.

"I should be thanking you. For everything," he replied, softly. "I did already, actually; in the diary, but you'll get there eventually."

"Definitely," Kenny grinned, reaching out and brushing some hair out of Kyle's eyes. They stared at each other for a moment, the sounds of I Love Lucy playing in the background. All at once, Kenny's phone chirped in his pocket and he pulled it out, cocking an eyebrow. He'd told Kyle that he'd turn on the sound on his phone so he'd know if Craig texted him again.

"Hey, did you log into your email earlier?" He asked, studying the screen. "Someone sent you something." He handed the phone over.

Kyle bit his lip as he took it, feeling sheepish for not disclosing the exchange he'd had with Craig earlier. Honestly, it hadn't been at the forefront of his mind, which further enforced his growing guilt about the direction his life was taking; his growing pile of indiscretions.

"Yeah, I, uh, I emailed Craig while you were running," he murmured, waiting for Kenny to lower the boom on him. "I should've told you sooner."

"You don't have to tell me anything, Kyle," Kenny replied. "Of course, I'd like to know what's going on, but you don't owe me anything, okay?"

"Dammit, why do you have to be so sweet all the time, huh?" Kyle asked, laughing a little.

"I've always been sweet, Kyle. You just didn't notice," Kenny grinned, laying back on the pillow and opening Rose. "You do your thing. I'm going to jump back in here." He nudged the book of poetry with his leg. "I had to take a break for awhile but I think I'm ready to continue."

"Hmm," Kyle replied, smiling tenderly before opening up his email, sudden dread rushing in and blotting out his serenity. As expected, there was an email from Craig:

Kyle, your silence is very concerning. I know you can't be doing anything of any consequence right now. In fact, I can take a guess as to how you're passing your time with McCormick, but I don't want to go down that road because it'll only make me angry (and for good reason). However, if you assure me that you two aren't doing anything, I'll believe you; I promise. Just tell me you haven't let him touch you because I know he wants to. He wants you for his own, he wants to take you away...but he doesn't love you, not like I do. He just gets off on the idea of taking you away from me, can't you see that?

I sent my last email several hours ago and you didn't see fit to reply, and I have to wonder why that is. You aren't a thoughtless person, at least you aren't when you're around me. The Kyle I know, the Kyle I love wouldn't leave someone hanging and worrying unnecessarily, so I can only assume that being away from me is becoming a detriment to your personality, and so quickly, too. Can't you see that you're a better person when you're around me, Kyle? You're taking on Kenny's selfish attitude already. I wouldn't be surprised if he's talking you out of communicating with me, your husband; that would be completely within the scope of his character, the little that he has.

Look, if you wanted to make a point, if you wanted to make me suffer you've accomplished that, okay? You've accomplished that in spades because I'm falling apart right now. I keep checking my phone and praying that you've replied but nothing comes, and it makes me feel like everything we have never meant anything, and that terrifies me. I've never loved anyone like I love you, not even Tweek, and I know that I've kept you in the dark about my past with him but I'll even talk about that if you'll just reply. I'll talk about anything you want, be anything you want, change anything you want. If you wanted to make me devolve into a weak-willed, groveling pile of trash then so be it, but don't shut me out like this. It's cruel, Kyle, and what does it gain? Do you enjoy hurting me?

You must think I enjoy hurting you but I don't. I never have. I've always wanted to give you the world and I still intend to do that, but I can't give you anything when you're gone. The worst part is that you could be 10 minutes away or 10 hours away but I'd never know because YOU WON'T TELL ME ANYTHING.

Don't force my hand, Kyle. Please, just don't do it. I know how to find people and if push comes to shove I will find you, but I would prefer that you come to me on your own. That's the least that you could do at this juncture, don't you think? For Christ's sake, you could be fucking lying in a ditch somewhere or Kenny could be holding you against your will. Maybe he let you send that email before just to appease me, to throw me off the trail. Of course I can only speculate because once again, YOU WON'T FUCKING TELL ME ANYTHING.

You better respond by 10:00 tonight or I'll start playing hardball, Kyle. I promise that this will go a lot smoother if you just comply. Don't you love me?

I love you.

"Are you okay? You look really pale," Kenny said, laying Rose aside and putting a hand on Kyle's shoulder, making him jump.

"I think I should probably call Craig, Kenny," Kyle whispered, his heart racing and acrid terror-sweat dripping down his back, soaking his shirt. "He's furious that I haven't replied yet."

"Of course he is," Kenny seethed. "You're too far away to control and he hates it."

Kyle shook his head, running a hand through his curls.

"He knows how to find people," he said, softly. "You know Clyde is a police officer, right? They're still good friends, and -"

"He wouldn't sink that low, would he? Using Clyde and having him abuse his position like that? That's sick," Kenny said, disgust registering in his expression. He thought a moment, sighing. "He would definitely do something like that, wouldn't he?"

"I think so," Kyle said. "I'll just call him, okay; try to smooth things over?"

"Good luck with that," Kenny sighed, picking up Rose again. "I'll be right here if you need me, okay?"

"Sure," Kyle said, rising from the bed and walking out of the bedroom. Quietly he walked through the house and toward the front door, not wanting anyone to be present while he spoke with his husband for the first time in almost a day and a half.

"Kyle, you okay, hon? You look a little frazzled," Karen called out, startling him. He turned to see her holding a baby, the other little ones watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood in the living room while playing with their plethora of toys.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Kar," he said, shakily, trying to smile. "I just needed to make a call so I was gonna step outside."

She narrowed her eyes, patting the baby lightly on the back. After a moment she nodded solemnly.

"Just let me know if you need anything. Art should be home within an hour with the salmon and then we'll start dinner; that sound okay?"

"That sounds great," Kyle replied, meaning it. More than anything he wanted to become firmly wrapped up in this loving atmosphere instead of being pulled back into Craig's darkness but it couldn't be helped. "I shouldn't be too long."

Stepping outside, Kyle softly shut the door and contemplated the phone again, dread and fear making his fingers feel like they each weighed a million pounds. Taking a deep, shaking breath he slowly began to dial Craig's number, lifting the phone to his ear and shutting his eyes as it began to ring. Craig answered within a second, his deep voice flooding Kyle's ear.

"Are you okay? Where are you? Thank God, I was so worried -"

"Craig, Craig," Kyle said, already feeling his anxiety beginning to spike, even though Craig wasn't even yelling at him. "I'm fine, you don't have to worry."

There was a weighted silence before Kyle could hear Craig taking a deep breath.

"What do you mean I don't have to worry, Kyle? Of course I'm going to worry; I don't know where you are. Wouldn't you be worried?"

"Well, yes, of course, but I'm not in any danger, so -"

"How do you know you aren't in danger? Kyle, Kenny's using you, he just wants to fuck you, defile you, and then he'll toss you aside. Why can't you see that? He's a fucking user!"

"Stop talking about him like that," Kyle replied, an edge developing in his voice that he hadn't directed toward Craig in years. He cleared his throat, trying to backtrack. "Kenny isn't like that, Craig. He's never been like that and you know it. Where are you getting all of this from?"

"He knows you're married and he's still pursuing you, Kyle, that's where I'm getting this from. Goddammit, I read your diary and I saw the progression. Kenny thinks if he plays the long game with you he'll eventually get what he wants. Why can't you see reason here?"

"Because you aren't being reasonable!" Kyle snapped. "You're letting jealousy and anger cloud your judgement, none of what you're saying is the truth!"

"Who are you to say what's the truth and what isn't, huh?" Craig asked, his voice taking on the low, dangerous quality that quickly put ice in Kyle's blood, making him sink down and sit on the front steps, clutching at the railing and resting his face against it. "And how could you talk to me like that? Where do you get your fucking nerve?"

"Craig, I don't want to argue and I don't want to fight," Kyle whispered, feeling the tears building up; burning his eyes. "I hate being at odds with you, I always have."

"Then stop being ridiculous and come home where you belong!"

"I can't," Kyle said, closing his eyes as the tears began to fall.

"Why not?"

Kyle took a deep breath before he spoke next, knowing that his answer was going to completely infuriate his husband beyond measure, but needing to say it anyway.

"Because I don't want to."

This time the silence stretched on for an agonizing couple of minutes, Kyle clutching at the phone and almost thinking Craig had simply hung up, but he finally spoke, his voice so cold it chilled him even as he sat in the dying sun; the sky taking on a Neapolitan quality as twilight approached. 

"You know that isn't an acceptable answer, Kyle," he said, his voice like a dagger in Kyle's ear. "And you know that isn't going to fly with me, now," he stopped for a moment, allowing the tension to climb until Kyle could barely stand it, "I'll come get you if need be, so -"

"I'll call the police," Kyle whispered, cutting him off.

"What?"

"If you show up before I'm ready I'll call the police," Kyle replied, hating himself for saying the words aloud; guilt drenching him. He didn't even know if he was capable of doing what he threatened.

"You don't mean that."

"I do," Kyle said, wiping the tears away; a sob escaping from his throat and making him sound decidedly pitiful. "You need to listen to me, Craig, just this once; you need to do what I'm asking, okay? I've never asked for anything before, not really, so..." he trailed off, clenching his hand until his fingernails bit into his palm, "please, just give me some time."

"What do you need time for?!" Craig yelled, making Kyle jump. "What the fuck could you possibly be doing that you need more time?! You've already been away from home for almost two fucking days, and that's more than enough!"

"I'm not moving to Baltimore, Craig," Kyle said, knowing that he was only making things worse but needing to draw clear-cut lines in the sand. "I'm not leaving South Park and I'm not going into the basement ever again. Ever."

"We already fucking talked about the basement," Craig seethed. "I already told you we won't use it anymore, and as for Baltimore, how could you be so selfish? This is an amazing opportunity for me Kyle, for us. Are you seriously telling me to pass up the chance to work at Hopkins? They even told me I could be Chief of Cardiology one day if I played my cards right. How the fuck could I give that up?"

"Craig, I would've been more than willing to relocate if you'd bothered to talk to me about it first," Kyle replied, feeling like he was finally getting his bearings; the tears slowly dissipating. "But I don't like how you handled this situation, it doesn't feel right. I don't want to go."

"You're fucking unbelievable! So you're going to punish me for trying to surprise you? How fucked up is that?!"

"And how fucked up is it that you knew about this for half a year and then sprang it on me in front of a room full of people, huh? How fucked up is it that you stole my diary and read it without me knowing about it? How fucked up is it that you built your own goddamn operating room in our basement so you could fucking torture me?!"

"Torture you? I torture you? You've got to be fucking kidding me, Kyle. We go down there because you need to be set straight sometimes so we can have order in our household, and besides, you like pain, don't you? I know you do. I've seen your face when I've pulled your hair while fucking you, when I bite you; you love it. You love all of this because you love being this tragic, suffering caricature; you get off on it. You always fucking have and don't deny it."

Kyle couldn't find the words to respond, nausea rising up his throat at Craig's words and hardly believing what he'd heard. He crouched over, holding himself as the tears picked up again, and he was sobbing openly into the phone; pain and shame overcoming him as the sun continued to descend.

"Kyle? Kyle, baby, I didn't mean that, I'm sorry," Craig said, sudden remorse flooding his voice as he pleaded with Kyle. "I'm just angry, okay? You know I say awful things when I'm upset, just forget what I said. Please?"

"H-how could you say that to me?" Kyle finally asked, his voice broken. "How could you possibly think I like what you do to me down there? Just...how?"

"I don't, baby. I wasn't thinking and I started shooting my mouth off. I don't think that at all," Craig said, tears showing up in his voice now too. "I just hate being away from you like this. I can't stand it, Kyle. I can't eat, I can't sleep...I can't concentrate on my work. I even had to postpone a case tomorrow because I can't focus. Just, please come home. I'm begging you. I'll do anything you want, I promise. Please."

"No," Kyle whispered, surprising even himself. "I'll come home when I'm ready, and I don't know if that'll ever happen."

"It's because of Kenny, I know it is," Craig said, his voice snapping back to anger with frightening swiftness. "You're letting him fuck you, aren't you? That's why you won't come home. You want to finish off your little affair and then you'll drag your ass home and beg for forgiveness."

"I haven't let Kenny fuck me, Craig, but now I'm starting to think that isn't such a bad idea!" Kyle yelled, abruptly ending the call before Craig could respond. Amazed at his gall, Kyle stared at the phone for a few moments before it started to ring, Craig's number lighting up the display. Quickly, he sent the call to voicemail, no longer caring if his husband was angry; he was done dealing with him for awhile.

For a moment he sat and tried to collect himself, but before too long he could hear the door slowly opening behind him. Turning, he saw Kenny standing there and looking flushed and weirdly happy.

"Karen wanted to know if you'd like to help with dinner," he said, raking a hand through his hair. "Art just called her and he's about 15 minutes away."

"Yeah, sure. I'd love to help," Kyle said, beginning to stand; he froze, cocking an eyebrow at Kenny. "You didn't hear anything I said, did you?"

"Bits and pieces," Kenny replied, his eyes skipping quickly away. The flush on his cheeks deepened, highlighting just how blue his eyes were. "I wasn't eavesdropping or anything, if that's what you think."

Kyle watched him suspiciously, the phone erupting with another call coming in from Craig. Once again, he sent it to voicemail.

"I'm done with his bullshit for today," he muttered, handing the phone to Kenny. "I've just about reached my limit."

******

Dinner proved to be a boisterous affair, Karen's husband being loud and jovial and good-natured, regaling the family with stories of his travels and raving over his wife's cooking.

"I just don't know why you felt the need to buy five pounds of salmon, Art," Karen said, poking at the plate filled with plump pink fillets. "You had to know we couldn't eat all of this."

"So we'll have leftovers," Art replied, rolling his eyes and giving Kenny and Kyle a conspiratorial wink. He had a friendly, shaggy quality, almost like a free spirited husky dog, his laugh filling up the house as he knocked back full glasses of vodka like he was drinking straight water.

"Helps with the pain," he said, glancing at Kenny. "After I had my motorcycle accident I've never been the same." He leaned forward, pointing at his face. "They had to go through my eyeballs to reconstruct my face. See, you can even see the wires in the right light."

"Oh, no one wants to see your wires, Art," Karen said, swatting him on the shoulder before kissing him on the top of the head. "And go easy on the vodka, huh? I haven't seen you in a week, I'd like to talk to you before I lose you to your spirits."

"Oh, you know I have my two glasses and then I reach my ceiling, love." He drained his glass and sat back, smacking his lips. "Does a body good, that," he chortled.

"Daddy found a frozen wolf when he was my age," Stella piped up, leaning against her father and turning her nose up when Karen told her to finish her salmon. "Didn't you, daddy?"

"Sure did, kiddo," Art said, hugging her close. "I used to live in Alaska with my pap when I was a boy, and one day I come outside and find a huge wolf just frozen to the ground. Boy, that was a sight."

"Okay, I don't want to lose you to your spirits or down memory lane," Karen interjected. "Tell your children to finish their dinner, please. I have to tend to Maya." She picked up the baby from her bassinet and stuck a bottle in her mouth, cooing to her.

"You kids finish up your salmon, okay? If I have to eat it, so do you, and besides, this is the best sockeye salmon around. It was caught off the coast of Washington and everything. Nothing but the best for my family." He glanced at Kyle and clapped a hand on his shoulder, making him almost fold in two. "So, what's your story, huh? Where you hail from?"

"He grew up with Karen and I, Art," Kenny said, saving Kyle as he polished off his potatoes. He'd eaten almost three plates of food, and Kyle couldn't help but wonder where he put it all. "He's just visiting for awhile, if that's okay."

"The more the merrier," Art replied, smiling widely. "You'll have to take a ride on Elvira before you go."

"Elvira?" Kyle asked, glancing at Kenny.

"Their 4 wheeler," Kenny sighed. "They named it Elvira because it has a big-chested broad on the side."

"You can thank Art for that one," Karen said, patting Maya on the back. "That was all him."

"Uh, sure. Yeah, I'll take a ride on Elvira," Kyle said, staring down at his plate. His appetite had pretty much been obliterated after talking on the phone with Craig, and he'd taken a small amount of comfort in getting to help Karen in the kitchen while she prepared dinner. Still, he felt out of sorts, and he was sure everyone could tell. He felt bad about it, too, having immediately taken a liking to Karen's husband, his eyes a friendly blue and wearing an old plaid shirt; his hair dark brown with a bushy mustache to match.

"Are you okay?" Kenny asked quietly, lightly nudging Kyle with his shoulder. "You're so quiet."

"I don't feel so great," Kyle replied, looking down at his plate and feeling so guilty. He must seem so stuck-up and ungrateful, having barely touched his plate after Kenny's family had gone to so much trouble trying to make him feel welcome. "I'm sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry about. Hell, if you don't feel good, you don't feel good; simple as that," Art said, clapping Kyle on the shoulder again and nearly making him fall over.

"It's a nice night for a drive," Karen piped up, glancing out the window; the patio doors open to the evening breeze. "Why don't you two go out for a spell, get some fresh air?"

"But I told you I'd help you clean up," Kyle protested, already moving to pick up his and Kenny's plates. Karen nudged Art, gesturing to Kyle and raising her eyebrows. Immediately, Art reached out and swiped the plates out of Kyle's reach.

"You two get along," Art said, rising from his place. "I'll help my woman in the kitchen, if you don't mind." He winked at Karen and kissed her on the cheek, making her giggle.

"Well, if you're sure," Kyle said, still feeling reluctant about running out and leaving them with all the work. He felt like he was being the most inconsiderate person on the planet, his ego having taken a thorough beating during his conversation with Craig. He just wanted to feel like he had something, anything, to offer.

"Let's go, Kyle," Kenny said, grabbing him by the arm and gently helping him stand. "Karen's right, it is a nice night for a drive, and I know exactly where we should go."

--------

"So, this is the Grand Mesa," Kyle breathed, looking around and immediately falling in love with the quiet majesty of the imposing structure, the flat-topped mountain spreading out for miles and miles, the immense night sky opening up over top of them; scores of stars scattered like pearls in the violet and blue splendor. "It's amazing. I can see why you love coming up here, dude."

"I always have, ever since Karen moved out here and I got a chance to visit. The first photo I ever sold was of this place, Kyle. That's part of the reason I have a special place in my heart for it."

"God, I'm so fucking proud of you I can barely stand it," Kyle smiled, walking closer to the edge but keeping his distance, simply mesmerized by the beauty around him, almost feeling like it was filling and lifting him up; his spirit rising to rest among the stars. Suddenly the sadness and anger he'd been feeling seemed to be leached from his blood, and thoughts of Craig were pushed into the back of his mind where they couldn't wound him further, at least for the moment. "Thank you for bringing me here."

"Honestly, I can't think of another person I'd rather have here with me," Kenny replied, coming to stand beside him and shyly rubbing the back of his neck. "I've always wanted to bring you here, Kyle, I just never had the chance until now."

"You did say you wanted to show me the world, huh?" Kyle teased, glancing at him. Sadness passed over him as he remembered the lighthouse picture. "Craig's probably destroyed the lighthouse by now. Kenny, he was so mad on the phone today, but it was weird."

"Oh?"

"I mean, he kept alternating between being angry and sounding so sad. I couldn't even tell what he actually felt at the end. I want to believe he's acting this way because he misses me, because he wants to make things right but I just don't know. Why can't he ever make anything simple?"

"Because this isn't a simple situation, Kyle. It never has been," Kenny sighed, brushing a hand over his mouth and looking up at the sky. "I think rage is Craig's driving force, honestly. I think he gets off on it because it makes him feel powerful, controlled; it gives him a high."

"I've read that people who rage actually experience a chemical reaction or something, and it's similar to snorting coke," Kyle said, trying to remember the article he'd read. "But that isn't Craig, Kenny. He's always so focused and controlled, he doesn't froth at the mouth and lose his mind for the most part. He always seems to know exactly what he's doing."

"That makes him all the scarier, don't you think?"

Kyle nodded, feeling guilty for talking so openly about his husband's shortcomings with an outsider, but after the conversation he'd had today he needed to open up to someone.

"And I wouldn't worry about the lighthouse, Kyle," Kenny added, grinning and tousling his curls playfully. "I think it'll be just fine."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I promise. Besides, someday you'll see it in person and you won't even need a photo. Right?"

"What are you basing that on, huh?" Kyle asked, bumping into him.

"Because I'm going to take you there myself," Kenny replied, wrapping his arm around Kyle's and pulling him close, just like during their walk earlier that morning. "Either as friends or more, but I swear to God you're going to see that lighthouse one of these days."

"When did this start, Kenny?" Kyle asked, shyly. Feeling bold, he leaned into Kenny, resting his head against his arm.

"This?"

"Yes, all this," Kyle gestured with his hand between the two of them. "You know what I mean."

"Ah, this," Kenny said, clearing his throat. "It's hard to say, but I guess it all started in high school, Kyle."

"Really? That far back?"

"Yep, but I didn't realize it for a very long time. I wasn't the brightest bulb when it came to my emotions."

"But, why? I don't understand why you'd ever like me."

Kenny sighed and leaned his head against Kyle's, nuzzling softly against his curls.

"You're sweet, Kyle, and you've got a big heart. You were never afraid to take up a cause or go to bat for someone else. You care, you know? And that's a rare quality to find in another person, at least when it's genuine."

Kyle shook his head, unable to accept what he was hearing; it was just too kind. He didn't deserve it, especially not from someone as decent as Kenny.

"That can't be true."

"You always stood up for the underdog," Kenny continued, his voice softening, becoming tender. "Even to the detriment of yourself. You could be kind of overbearing about it at times, but you still did it," he added, laughing a little.

"If you're talking about that fucking ginger cow fiasco I don't want to talk about it," Kyle replied, an edge developing in his voice. "Fucking Cartman, I swear to God."

"And you have an attitude, you always have," Kenny teased, pulling Kyle closer. "You have fire in your personality, Kyle. Maybe it's because you're a redhead, I don't know. You're a brat, but I never minded. If anything, I thought it was pretty charming."

"So, you're saying you lit a torch for me a million years ago because I'm kind of a well-meaning, pushy dick?" Kyle asked, pulling away a little and cocking a brow at him.

Kenny shrugged, pulling him close again, his head once again resting in Kyle's hair.

"More or less, but it suits you, just like my tattoos suit me," he said, chuckling softly.

"Sweeter words were never spoken, I'm sure."

"They're sweet because they're the truth."

"Well, it's not like we can do anything with them," Kyle said, abruptly pulling away and going to stand a few feet away, turning his back toward Kenny. "I'm married, Kenny, and even though Craig and I are having issues I wasn't raised to just walk away from a problem when it has the potential to be solved."

"I know, Kyle," Kenny said, softly. "And that's just another reason to love you, your loyalty, your obsession with doing the so-called right thing even if it hurts you in the end."

Kenny's words caught him off guard, and Kyle could feel his heart racing like a rabbit in his chest; his cheeks burning in the cool night air. He turned slowly, glancing at Kenny over his shoulder.

"What did you say?"

Kenny just gazed at him, smiling.

"You heard me."

Suspicion flared in Kyle's brain against his will, having been conditioned to question every seeming good intention and to always flip the coin over to look for the tarnish lingering on the other side, just out of sight.

"H-how could you say that to me, Kenny, just out of nowhere? Have you lost your mind?" He asked, feeling the tears gathering in his eyes. "You're just trying to manipulate me, just like Craig said. You think if you tell me you love me I'll...I'll...."

"What, that you'll let me fuck you?" Kenny asked, walking slowly toward him, his hands in his pockets. "Baby, Craig's got you so trained to think that everyone has an ulterior motive that you can't even see honest love staring you right in the face. I don't want anything from you beyond what you're willing to give, that's it. I'll never ask for more than that, Kyle; I promise." He shrugged, almost appearing helpless in that moment. "I love you, Kyle, plain and simple. It is what it is, take it or leave it."

"You called me baby," Kyle whispered, shutting his eyes and not knowing what to believe; Craig's hateful, suspicious rhetoric flooding his mind and drowning Kenny's raw kindness. "You've called me baby a couple of times, just like him. He always calls me baby when he's trying to be kind, but he isn't kind, is he?"

"You already know my answer to that question."

Suddenly Kyle shook his head and the tears were falling now, turning everything to smudges and obscured madness. Rushing forward, he clung to Kenny's shirt, pressing his forehead against his chest.

"Why, just why? Why couldn't you have told me all of this years ago? We could've been together this whole time, Kenny; loving one another, being happy."

"I know," Kenny replied quietly, winding his arms around Kyle. "I've done you a disservice, Kyle, and I can't undo it, but I'm here now and we could -"

"No, we can't," Kyle sobbed. "Craig won't let us, I won't let us. There's just too much standing between us!"

Kenny just held him for awhile, allowing Kyle to sob in his arms as the night winds scattered the dried grasses atop the mesa, the trembling stars wavering as their light passed through the dusty atmosphere; the whole world holding its breath for a while.

"What I've noticed about situations like this," Kenny said, breaking the silence, "is that people are usually the ones standing in the way of their own happiness. It doesn't have to be like that for you, Kyle."

Kyle continued to sob but he pulled away, looking up at Kenny with his wet eyes and just wanting to fall completely; not even caring where he ended up, so long as he could live forever in this warmth, this tenderness.

"I-I'm starting to like you, Kenny," he whispered, hating and loving the words as they fell from his lips. "I think I could love you one day. Does that make me a terrible person?"

"No, it makes you human, flawed just like the rest of us," Kenny smiled, leaning down and resting his forehead against Kyle's. "You do realize you've made me the happiest person on the planet, right?"

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Kyle laughed, wiping his eyes.

"I would," Kenny replied, daring to kiss Kyle's forehead gently, his soft lips lingering for just a moment; flooding him with almost unbearable warmth.

"We can't do anything yet," Kyle whispered, wanting nothing more than to kiss Kenny full on the lips. Hell, he could imagine giving himself completely to Kenny and waking up in his arms the next morning, held close and protected. He shook his head, trying to keep his head straight. "It isn't right."

"You said 'yet,'" Kenny smiled, hugging him close. "Okay, it's official, I am the happiest person on the planet right now."

"I can't make any promises, you pervert," Kyle replied, swatting at him. "But it's definitely on my mind, okay? I have urges too, you know, desires."

"It's hard to tell," Kenny teased. "You chaste thing, you. You're like a damsel in a castle, Kyle; just waiting for your one true love to come along and ravish you."

"Oh, hush, you're being ridiculous," Kyle laughed, allowing himself to be pulled close again, fairly becoming lost in Kenny's arms as the night unfolded around them; the stars shining like new dimes up in the heavens; just for them.

******

When they returned to Karen's home the windows were dark, and the house was hushed as they passed through the living room on tiptoe, quietly stealing into their room and softly shutting the door.

"I didn't realize we were gone for so long," Kenny whispered, beginning to undress, Kyle watching him with new, hungry eyes. He paused. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'll just go change in the bathroom. I won't be long." Kyle gathered up his night clothes, stopping when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at Kenny, waiting.

"I think there's something different about this room, don't you?"

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Kyle asked, glancing around and gasping softly when his eyes fell on Rose resting on the bed, the lighthouse picture underneath her. Dropping his clothes, he bounded over and picked it up, staring at it in utter shock and delight.

"The lighthouse," he breathed. "My lighthouse. Kenny, when did you..." he trailed off, biting his bottom lip.

"I always make duplicates, Kyle," Kenny shrugged, grinning. "I was just waiting for the right time to give it to you. I figured now's as good as any other time. I just wanted to make you happy, I guess."

"You did," Kyle sighed, holding the picture close against his chest. "You always do."

"Don't go getting all sentimental on me, okay?" Kenny said, stripping off his jeans along with his t-shirt. Flicking Kyle's forehead lightly, he went and lay down, stretching out like a big, satisfied cat.

Kyle glanced around, noticing a push pin in the wall that wasn't holding anything up. He pointed to it.

"Do you think Karen would mind if I hung it up?"

"Go ahead," Kenny said, putting his hands behind his head, watching with amusement. "Karen won't care. In fact, she loves my stuff; she'd be honored."

"You better watch it or you'll start to get a big head," Kyle retorted, rolling his eyes. Studying the walls, he finally decided to hang the picture right above the TV. "There, now we can look up at it even when I'm watching something. What do you think?"

"I think whatever's good for the goose is good for the gander," Kenny quipped, winking at him.

"I don't think that saying fits this situation and besides, neither of us is a goose," Kyle replied, beginning to unbutton his jeans and slowly pulling them down.

"You act like a goose," Kenny replied.

"And you act like an ass, so we're quite a pair, aren't we?" Kyle asked, throwing his jeans aside. He noticed Kenny studying his knees and he flushed, walking round the bed so they weren't in his sight. "What?"

"I can't believe he made you kneel on rice, like he was punishing a wayward child or something," Kenny said, his voice deepening with anger. "Hell, parent's are awful for doing that to their kids, but Craig did it to demean you. I know he did."

"Kenny, let's not talk about this right now, okay? I feel good and I want to keep feeling that way."

"Fine, you're right. Don't listen to me, huh?"

"With pleasure," Kyle teased, starting to pull his long shirt up; he stopped. "Can you close your eyes?"

Kenny sighed but he complied, shutting his eyes tightly. Kyle quickly pulled off the garment and slid into the one he'd worn the night before. Jumping into bed, he snuggled close to Kenny.

"All done," he said, leaning his head on Kenny's shoulder. "Thanks."

"When are you going to let me see all of you?" Kenny asked quietly, reaching up and winding one of Kyle's curls around his finger. "What do you have to hide?"

"A lot, and I don't want to talk about this either, if you please."

"Okay, okay. Let's just watch a movie and go to sleep. What do you say?" Kenny reached over and grabbed the remote, turning the TV on.

"Are you going to read tonight?"

"Nah, I'm pretty bushed. Are you going to write?"

"Maybe, I'm still on the fence," Kyle replied, his eyes flitting to Rose before coming to rest on the lighthouse again. He smiled, feeling so wonderfully content in that moment he could barely comprehend it.

---------

Kenny was fast asleep when Kyle finally finished the movie and he studied him for a moment before pulling Rose onto his lap; opening the pages, fully intending to write a million words about how happy he was. He stopped when he saw unfamiliar handwriting. Glancing at Kenny, he began to read, his eyes drinking in the words on the page:

Dear Kyle (and Rose),

You're outside talking to Craig so I'm not sure how much time I have to write, but I apologize in advance if this is awful. You were always the best writer out of the four of us, but I'm still going to try.

It's weird thinking about those days now that so much has happened; our childhood, I mean. We survived so much and we're continuing to survive, aren't we? You, especially, Kyle; you're probably the strongest person I've ever met, and I can't help but admire you. I've tried so many times to tell you how I feel but the words never come or they aren't right or the time just doesn't call for it. What can I say? I'm always filled with excuses, aren't I?

But there isn't any excuse for the way you've been living, Kyle, and you know it. The trials you've endured, the suffering you've battled through...well, I can't make heads or tails of it because cruelty like that just shouldn't exist, period. Your hardships have been built on the back of your kindness, and I think that's the part that fucking kills me. I know you, Kyle. You stayed because you wanted to give Craig the benefit of the doubt, you didn't want to abandon him, you wanted to love him unconditionally and he capitalized on that; your selflessness, your goodness.

But I'm here to tell you that life can truly begin whenever you want it to, and I'll always be here to help get you started, whether as a friend or whatever you want: I'm here. Please remember that, okay? Even in your darkest moments when the world is cold and the night seems to go on forever, I'm here; let me be your light when you need me to be.

Well, I better wrap this up for now because I can hear Karen calling for me. Please just consider what I've written here, okay?

Forever and always,

Your Kenny

PS: I found this poem in one of Karen's books and it made me think of you. Here's some of it. Tell me what you think, okay?

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams  
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream  
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied  
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.*

--------

Sniffling, Kyle cleared the tears from his eyes before turning to Kenny, smiling down at him tenderly and wanting to wake him up so badly he could practically taste it; he refrained. Instead he leaned down and kissed his forehead, aching to kiss his lips but not having the courage. Reaching for his pen, he was getting ready to write a reply when he heard Kenny's phone chirp from the pocket of his jeans lying on the dresser. Immediate apprehension flooded Kyle as he looked at Kenny again, but he didn't stir. Getting up, he quietly went to the dresser to retrieve the phone, his hand trembling lightly as he pulled it from the pocket. Turning it on, his breath caught in his throat when he saw that it was an email from Craig, he opened it:

I'm outside and I can see a light on so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you're awake, Kyle. If you care about Kenny or Karen or any of her children, you'll come get in the car. Now.

PS: Don't even think about calling the cops. You'll only be hurting Kenny and his family. Remember that.

Chapter Text

Find me, in another place and time
If only, if only you were mine
But I'm already someone else's baby
Guess I had my last chance
And now this is our last dance
You fell through the cracks in my hands
Hard to say it's over
But I'm already someone else's...baby.

- Baby, Clean Bandit


 

Time seemed to stop dead in its tracks as soon as Kyle read Craig's email, and for a moment he wondered how the world could possibly keep turning now that his husband was waiting outside. How could the TV continue to play mindless infomercials in the background, how could the air conditioning continue to run, how could Kenny keep sleeping so peacefully, none the wiser? Kyle felt like his world was falling apart and it staggered him because just five minutes before everything had seemed so perfect, so calm and content. How could this have happened? How had Craig managed to find him?

He almost screamed when the phone chirped again, still clutched in his hand. Staring down at it with new horror, Kyle slowly read the email Craig had sent, mere seconds after the last one:

Don't make me wait, Kyle. Oh, and you'd better bring the diary with you. I know you have it. Delete these messages and log out of your email before coming outside.

Taking a deep breath, Kyle had to hold back his tears as he did exactly what Craig told him to do, shifting into autopilot obedience so easily it was truly frightening. First he deleted the emails Craig just sent, even going so far as to delete them from his trash folder, and then he logged out of his email, setting the phone aside. Glancing around, he pulled on his jeans and socks, not bothering to change out of the t-shirt he wore to bed. Glancing at Kenny, he choked down a sob as he lifted Rose from the bed and prepared to take her as well, remembering Kenny's letter to him at the last minute. Feeling awful, he tore the page out of Rose along with his latest entry, knowing Craig would be absolutely incensed if he knew Kyle had let Kenny read it; the latest passage revealing far more than he felt comfortable with. Laying the pages aside, his eyes fell on his keys sitting on the dresser; impetuously, he decided to leave them behind.

During all of this, Kenny continued to sleep soundly, his soft breaths stealing through the room and breaking Kyle's heart. He didn't want to think about Kenny waking up and him not being there, and for a moment he had the crazy impulse to just wake him up and beg for deliverance, but he didn't dare. Kyle had no idea what Craig would do to Kenny and his family if he disobeyed, and he had no interest in finding out; especially with innocent children involved. Instead, he covered his mouth with his hand as he slowly began to open the door, the tears finally falling because he just didn't have the strength to hold them back anymore. Hungrily, he tried to burn every detail of Kenny's face into his memory so he could have something to hold onto when he left, his eyes momentarily straying to the lighthouse as well, not wanting to forget a single part of it, but after just a few seconds he turned away, passing through the door and closing it quietly behind him.

The trip to the front door was both the longest and shortest trek of Kyle's life, and he took a few extra seconds slipping on his sneakers before finally, he opened the front door and slipped out into the night, leaning against the door for just a moment after shutting it; not wanting to turn around but knowing he had no choice. A sob tore from his throat when he finally did, because there was Craig, leaning against his black Jag as it idled in front of Karen's home; terribly out of place and positively horrifying. Craig was dressed in dark slacks and his black fitted jacket, his hand in his pocket as he smoked a cigarette, his cool eyes trained on Kyle as he slowly approached him, his feet dragging.

"Good boy," he smiled, going to the passenger side and smoothly opening the door. "It took you less than three minutes to come outside, Kyle. I'm impressed. Get in."

Gritting his teeth, Kyle obeyed without protest, climbing into the car and wincing when Craig shut the door. Mechanically, he put his seat belt on and waited, huddling against the door and trying to put as much space between him and his husband as possible when he climbed behind the wheel. Immediately, Craig locked all the doors and pulled away from the house, circling back and heading back toward the main road, cracking the window a titch so he could blow his smoke out into the night air.

"I thought you quit," Kyle said, softly.

Craig took a long drag and glanced at Kyle, frowning as the smoke drifted out of his mouth.

"I've recently found myself in a very stressful situation, Kyle. I smoke when I'm stressed out. Is that a problem?"

Quickly, Kyle shook his head and looked away, his eyes studying the stars as they flew by, aching at how close they seemed and remembering how they trembled as he stood on the Grand Mesa with Kenny, mere hours before.

"I trust you didn't have an error in judgement and leave a note or something for Kenny," Craig said, turning up the radio slightly; a frenzied nocturne filling up the car and making Kyle slightly nauseous. "And don't lie to me, Kyle. I'll know if you're lying."

"No, I didn't leave him a note. He doesn't know anything, Craig; he's asleep," Kyle murmured, clutching Rose in his lap.

"Give me that." Swiftly, Craig reached out and snatched up the diary, tucking it into one of his jacket pockets. "I still need to finish this."

"I thought you wanted to burn it," Kyle muttered, staring at the bulge the diary made in Craig's pocket. It almost felt like he'd tucked his still beating heart inside of his jacket like it was nothing; like it didn't even matter.

"Oh, I will, but I want to finish reading it, first. I mean, your interpretation of events is really very amusing; it'd be a shame not to read Rose in her entirety."

Kyle cringed to hear Rose's name leave Craig's lips, the word almost sounding like a curse when his husband spoke it aloud.

"Besides, it's not like you're going to tell me what you're really thinking on your own. If anything, your behavior is forcing me to read the damn thing, Kyle. You have to realize that."

"There's nothing wrong with writing down my private thoughts just for myself," Kyle whispered, beginning to shake now. He knew he was being petulant and forward, but he didn't care. Craig had already won, hadn't he? What did it even matter anymore; escape was just a fucking pipe dream anyway.

"Right, just for yourself," Craig said, taking one last drag on the cigarette and stubbing it out; he flipped the butt out the window and rolled it up. "You let Kenny read it, didn't you?"

"Why would I -"

"Of course you did, why am I even asking? And I'm sure he offered you a million and one apologies on my behalf, right? God, this shit is like blood in the water for predators like that asshole," he seethed. "It just gives him an opportunity to be a hero, but little does he realize you're just a liar, Kyle; an attention seeker and a liar."

"That isn't true!" Kyle sobbed, turning to him in utter disbelief. "You know it isn't true! Everything I wrote in the diary happened, you just don't want to accept it!"

"No, I just can't accept that you're making up this fucking nonsense and feeding it to trash like Kenny McCormick. He's fucking scum, Kyle, he's absolutely worthless."

"Stop talking about him like that! You don't even fucking know him! Kenny's a good person, Craig, he's -"

Before Kyle could finish what he was saying Craig slapped him hard across the face, brutally silencing him save for his sobs as they tore from his lips; his mouth bleeding.

"Don't fucking try to sell Kenny to me, Kyle, because I'm not buying, got it?" Deftly, Craig pulled another cigarette out and lit it, opening the window again. "Jesus, this is totally fucking up my New Year's resolution. I'm up to a fucking pack a day, can you believe that?"

Kyle didn't answer, opting instead to clutch at his mouth as he leaned his head against the window, not even wanting to look at Craig let alone talk to him. He continued to cry, his whole body shaking as he tried to stifle the sounds behind his hand. He nearly screamed from surprise when he felt a hand on his thigh, squeezing softly.

"Let's not fight, okay? I'm just happy that I have you back, and I'm pretty sure you can understand why I don't want to hear about how great Kenny is. Right?"

Wanting to avoid another blow, Kyle nodded slowly, his mouth still bleeding profusely.

"Here, wipe your mouth," Craig said softly, reaching into his breast pocket and pulling out a handkerchief; he offered it to Kyle who slowly took it, holding it to his lips. Soon it was saturated with red, and he breathed deeply of its scent; Craig's expensive cologne. "Why don't we stop somewhere so we can talk and have something to drink. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"Yes, Craig," Kyle said, his voice coming across as dead but undeniably compliant. "I'd like that."

"Not that there's anything worth talking about in this town," Craig scoffed, scanning the businesses lining the streets as he rolled into Grand Junction proper, a sneer on his face. "This place is just as backward and forgotten as South Park, Kyle. Can't you feel it dying all around you? That's why I can't wait for us to go out east, at least there's some life out there."

Kyle's heart began to pound at the mention of relocating, but he didn't dare say a word against it; not with Craig already being in a savage mood. He lapsed into his last defense: silence. Rather than reply, he watched the town flow by as Craig looked for a restaurant that was open at such a late hour, finally deciding on a Village Inn and pulling into the lot.

"Well, it's open 24 hours, at least," Craig muttered, putting the car in park and shutting it off. He glanced at Kyle, studying him. "Kyle, you're a sight, love. What the hell happened to you since you've been away?"

Kyle looked down at himself, puzzled.

"I mean, my lip has almost stopped bleeding, so -"

"No, I mean your clothes, your shoes. What are you wearing?" Reaching out, Craig pulled on a Kyle's t-shirt, an expression of disgust on his face. "I'm glad that you're wearing green, of course, but these clothes are so cheap. You'd think Kenny would at least spring for something decent." He smirked. "What, can't he afford anything better?"

Kyle's heart hurt on Kenny's behalf at Craig's callous words, and he clutched at the shirt, loving it all the more for its simplicity. Kenny had offered to buy him nicer things but he'd refused. He'd never really cared about his clothes, Craig did, so he'd just worn whatever he was told to wear. If he'd had his choice, he would've worn simple jeans and t-shirts for the rest of his life, saving his nice things for work or social occasions.

"Kenny didn't have to buy anything for me, Craig," Kyle finally said, brushing some stray tears from his cheeks. "He was just being -"

"Kind, right. Kind, thoughtful, helpful Kenny; what a fucking saint," Craig interrupted, wiping a smear of blood from Kyle's chin. "Your face is healing well, at least. The bruises are fading. Even so, wear these." Reaching into the center console he pulled out a pair of Armani sunglasses, Kyle slipped them on without protest; Craig grinned, seemingly satisfied.

"You'll do. Let's go."

******

"You aren't eating."

Craig studied Kyle's plate, his eyebrow raised as he languidly sipped a cup of coffee, his fingers tapping incessantly on the table. Kyle had looked down at the table in silence as Craig had ordered a slice of apple pie a la mode for him, along with a tall glass of milk. Now he was picking at his food while trying to fight back his growing tremors, the nausea from before still alive and well in his stomach.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, taking a small bite. Chewing, he swallowed the slice of apple and tried not to gag, quickly taking a small sip of milk. "I don't feel very well."

"You look gaunt," Craig said, appraising him with narrowed eyes. "Have you been eating at all since you've been away from home?"

"I've been trying." Reluctantly, he took another bite of pie, having no appetite for sweets but not wanting to make Craig any angrier. It also disturbed him that Craig had ordered such a childish spread for him, pie and milk, like he was a little kid receiving a reward; Craig looking on with almost fatherly indulgence. Under the table, he clutched at the hem of his shirt, crushing it with his hand from anxiety.

"Well, you look awful," Craig said, polishing off the coffee in his cup and setting it down with a clatter. Almost immediately, the waitress appeared, offering him a refill. He smiled and nodded his head, turning on the charm with almost effortless ease. "Thank you so much, Andrea," he said, giving her a warm look. Kyle almost gagged, just looking at it.

"Did you need anything else, honey?" Andrea turned to Kyle and smiled at him kindly, almost regarding him with what had to be pity. Kyle could hardly blame her, he must appear absolutely pitiful and lost to her; wearing sunglasses into a restaurant in the middle of the night and eating pie that he didn't even get to order for himself. Flushing, he glanced down at his plate quickly.

"He's just fine," Craig said smoothly, picking up a spoon and reaching over to scoop up a bite of pie, popping it into his mouth; he smiled with pleasure. "This is fabulous, by the way. I can see why you guys are known for your pies."

Andrea flushed with pleasure, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. She looked at Craig with open adoration, clearly taken in by his superficial warmth.

"We're famous for 'em," she smiled, looking down at the floor bashfully. After a moment, she reluctantly turned away. "Well, just let me know if I can get you anything else," she added, glancing at Kyle again. "Enjoy, okay?"

Kyle nodded, spooning a bit of ice cream into his mouth and immediately wanting to spit it out. She walked away, prompting Craig to roll his eyes.

"I never could've imagined I'd find myself in a dump like this, out in the middle of nowhere." He sighed, sipping more of his coffee. "Oh, the things we do for love, huh?"

"Hmm," Kyle replied, drinking some milk. He sat back, setting his glass down and clinking his spoon against a dish, wanting to fade away into his thoughts; maybe Craig couldn't follow him there, though he doubted it.

"What, cat got your tongue, Kyle?"

"No, I just don't know what to say that won't make you mad," Kyle said honestly, setting his spoon down. He pressed a hand against his aching mouth, tasting faint swirls of blood mixing with the flavors of ice cream on his tongue.

"You can't seriously be surprised that I'm angry," Craig sighed, setting his cup down. Reaching over, he slid Kyle's bowl closer to himself and picked up the spoon, taking a bite. "You ran off and to Kenny of all people, how am I supposed to feel?"

"You were trying to make me go in the basement again," Kyle replied, softly, clasping his hands together in his lap so he could stop them from shaking. "I was scared." He paused, throwing caution to the wind. "I still am."

"Nonsense, you have nothing to be afraid of, I already told you that. Open," Craig instructed, holding up a spoonful of pie and ice cream. Without thinking, Kyle obediently opened his mouth and accepted the confections, chewing and swallowing quickly. "You never made such a huge fuss about the basement in the past, Kyle. What changed?"

"Nothing," Kyle replied, opening again when Craig instructed him to, taking another mouthful of food. He swallowed while Craig watched him closely. "I just can't live with the pain anymore, Craig. It hurts so much, what you do to me down there."

"It's necessary, though. It keeps everything balanced, don't you think? You disobey, things fall out of line, and then we put them, you, back in place. It all makes so much sense when you really think about it."

"But if you love me you shouldn't want to hurt me like that. Right?" Kyle dared to ask, his voice coming across as childish and brittle.

"There's no question that I love you, Kyle. I don't understand how the two even correlate. We run our household in a way that works for us, and I'm not taking you into the basement to hurt you necessarily. It's just a reminder that you could be behaving better, and when you behave, things run smoothly. When things run smoothly, life is easier for everyone, do you follow me?"

"But I always behave, Craig. I do everything you tell me to," Kyle protested, feeling like he was drowning in the face of Craig's strange logic. He made such awful things almost make sense, always finding a way to make it seem like he was right and Kyle was always wrong.

"No, you don't," Craig replied, simply. "If you did, we wouldn't be where we are right now. If you behaved the way I wanted you to, I wouldn't have found that diary loaded with secrets and lies, and I wouldn't need to worry about you cheating on me with Kenny. Open."

Wordlessly, Kyle opened his mouth but this time he couldn't stop himself from gagging when Craig spooned the pie onto his tongue, quickly slapping a hand over his lips and looking at his husband with wide, pleading eyes. Swallowing, he dabbed at his mouth with a napkin.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that."

Craig sighed, setting the spoon down with a clatter.

"It's almost like you want to waste away," he commented, picking up his coffee and drinking deeply. "I like you thin, Kyle, but you're pushing the envelope here, just like always."

"I didn't do anything with Kenny," Kyle said, clenching his hands on his knees. "Nothing happened between us. Why won't you believe me?"

"I just know how fuckers like Kenny operate, Kyle. He preys on the easily led, the weak. I know he talked you into doing something, and I won't stop until I know what it is. I'm going to put everything to rights, I promise." He smiled and suddenly reached out, stroking a hand over Kyle's cheek tenderly. "It's only because I love you. You belong to me, remember? I don't want anyone else touching you. It'd be like fucking with our bond, you know? That's sacred to me."

He glanced over his shoulder, signaling to Andrea that he was ready for the check. He looked back at Kyle, crossing his arms.

"It's sacred to you too, right? What we have together?" He cocked an eyebrow, waiting for Kyle to respond.

Hurriedly, Kyle nodded his head as Andrea dropped off the check, lingering for a moment as Craig pulled out his credit card, a platinum American Express.

"Thank you," he smiled, watching as she bustled off. He flicked his eyes back to Kyle, studying him.

"I'm too tired to drive home tonight, Kyle, and you look exhausted. Let's get a hotel room, shall we? It'll be like a little impromptu holiday. What do you think?"

I'm pretty sure I don't have a choice either way.

"That sounds wonderful, Craig," Kyle said, allowing Craig to take his hand and squeeze it softly, the flavors of blood and sweet apple-tinged sugar coating his tongue.

******

"I suppose this will have to do," Craig commented, glancing around the modest hotel room. Setting his bag aside, he turned to Kyle, silently appraising him as he waited, exhaustion and a multitude of emotions dragging him down; fear becoming predominant. "You'll need a bath before bed, of course."

"Okay," Kyle replied, just wanting the night to end with as little discord as possible. He began to undress as Craig started to put his things in order, a sharp intake of breath occurring when he saw his husband casually remove a gun from his jacket pocket; he set it on the nightstand.

"Surprised?" He smirked, glancing at Kyle whose eyes were trained on the gun like his very life depended on it. "I knew getting my permit would come in handy someday, Kyle. And you said it wasn't necessary, remember?"

"W-were you going to..." Kyle trailed off as he swallowed, his throat uncomfortably dry. "You weren't going to shoot Kenny and -"

"Of course not, Kyle, don't be ridiculous," Craig laughed, pulling out his lighter and pack of cigarettes now, setting them next to the gun. "Jesus, what do you take me for, a cartoon villain or something? I wasn't going to do anything to them, love; I just needed to use a little persuasion to get you to come outside; that's all."

"Then why did you even bring it?" Kyle whispered, too afraid to continue undressing. He hated guns and Craig knew it, knew it all too well. He considered them cruel and cowardly, always seeming to fall into the wrong people's hands, and he regarded them the way he would a cobra; tensed and unpredictable.

"A man needs to be able to protect himself," Craig shrugged, pulling off his jacket and laying it over the back of a chair. Underneath he was wearing a white dress shirt, appearing like he was getting ready to go to a business meeting instead of picking up his wayward husband in the middle of the night. He began to unbutton it but he stopped, raising an eyebrow in Kyle's direction.

"Finish getting undressed, Kyle. What are you doing?"

"I just don't like having that thing in the room," Kyle whispered, unbuttoning his jeans and sliding them down; he slipped them off. He glanced at the cigarettes, too; hating them as well. "Why did you bring those? You can't smoke in hotel rooms anymore."

"So many questions," Craig sighed, pulling his shirt off, revealing a white undershirt. "You know I don't like a lot of questions, Kyle; you're just going to have to trust me."

"Trust you," Kyle repeated, faintly. "Sure, of course."

"I can already tell we're going to have to break some bad habits you picked up while you were with that lowlife," Craig said, untucking his shirt and undoing his belt, the soft leather hissing through the loops of his slacks as he pulled it off. He threw it on the bed and Kyle stared at it with simmering fear. Quickly, Craig pulled off his slacks so he was left standing in his shirt and boxer briefs, watching Kyle expectantly.

"Do I need to come over and undress you myself, Kyle? Because you're taking forever."

"No, no. I'm fine, I've got it," Kyle replied, hurriedly yanking off his shirt and shivering a little in the chill of the room. He went to remove his boxer briefs but he stopped, somehow unable to continue. He looked at Craig with pleading eyes, surprised when his husband smiled at him indulgently.

"Here, I was saving this for later but why don't we try it now?" Craig asked, opening the bag and pulling out a leather traveling case, Kyle's bath products, and finally a bottle of champagne. He picked it up, grinning boyishly. "I thought it would be fun to have a drink to celebrate our reunion." Looking around, he found a couple plastic cups sitting next to an empty ice bucket and plucked them up. He popped the cork off the bottle easily, holding it away from himself when the liquid bubbled up before pouring it smoothly into the waiting cups.

"To us," he said, handing a cup to Kyle who took it with a trembling hand. "Cheers." Craig tapped his cup against Kyle's, the action producing a muted sound in the room, a plastic tunk; he drank deeply, Kyle reluctantly following suit. "It would've been better chilled, but whatever, let's live dangerously for awhile, huh?" He winked at Kyle.

Kyle had taken a few sips of the champagne before Craig was pulling out some prescription bottles from the traveling case. Opening them, he slipped a few into his palm and handed them to Kyle.

"Take them, they'll help with your anxiety."

Kyle stared at the pills cradled in his palm and frowned.

"I don't recognize some of these, Craig. What are they?"

"Don't worry about it, Kyle. Take them. Now."

"But -"

"Now," Craig said, giving him a look and silencing him completely, grey eyes taking on a remote, cold quality. "I'll go run your bath once you're done."

Gulping, Kyle took the pills and washed them down with the remainder of his champagne, alternating between wanting to protest and needing to get along in order to retain some sort of self preservation. Once done, Craig kissed his cheek and rubbed a hand through his curls softly.

"That's better," he murmured, running a finger down Kyle's cheek. "I'll get everything set up, you finish getting undressed."

"Right," Kyle said, watching Craig's retreating back. Walking to the bathroom, he snapped on the light and stepped inside, after a moment Kyle heard the water starting up. Swiftly, he looked around the room, his eyes falling on the gun, the cigarettes, the belt, and finally they came to rest on Craig's keys waiting on a table next to the door, and a faint spike of courage ignited in his mind. Before he could stop himself, he was walking toward them.

"What are you doing?" Craig's voice called to him, making him stop dead in his tracks. Kyle glanced over his shoulder to see his husband watching him from the bathroom doorway, his arms crossed; faint amusement quirked his lips.

"I, uh, nothing. Nothing," Kyle said, turning away and slowly sliding his boxer briefs down and off, closing his eyes and biting his lips as he stood up; naked and vulnerable in front of his husband.

"Shy little bird," Craig commented, tenderness warming his tone. "Come here, baby. Let's get you washed up."

******

Fighting back tears, Kyle endured a steaming hot bath, the bathroom filled with vapor and the scent of fresh cut apples, Craig having brought the products he wanted Kyle to use. It had taken some coaxing to get Kyle to climb into the water after he'd tested it with his hand, cringing at how scalding hot it was, but Craig hadn't given him much of a choice.

"We need to do this, Kyle. Kenny's touched you, I know he has, so we need to wash away his influence."

Biting his lips until they felt raw, Kyle tried to go to the garden in his mind as Craig thoroughly washed him, scrubbing his skin until it was bright red and screaming, whispering to him all the while that what he was doing was necessary, that it would all be over soon so long as Kyle cooperated. Leaning over, he smelled Kyle's hair before washing it himself, smiling softly.

"I can tell you used your normal shampoo while you were away. That's good, that's very good, but I can still smell Kenny on you. Jesus Christ, he's fucking everywhere. It's disgusting."

"We didn't do anything," Kyle finally sobbed, his tears falling into the bathwater and disappearing. "I told you. Nothing happened!"

"We both know better than that," Craig murmured, kissing his shoulder. "But the truth will come to light soon enough, won't it?"

"H-how did you find us?" Kyle gasped when Craig instructed him to stand, washing his legs and private areas; rough hands exploring everywhere.

"You know I'm good at figuring things out, Kyle," Craig muttered, scrubbing the backs of his thighs and up to Kyle's backside, making him cringe away. He caught Kyle and kept him still, his fingers digging into his skin. "Besides, it was just a matter of thinking like Kenny. He's simple, and he's also a McCormick; McCormicks are trash and they naturally stick together. It wasn't hard to figure out his next move and my sister's friends with Karen. I just asked her where she lived nowadays; it couldn't have been more simple."

"But, you could've been wrong, and then what?" Crying out, Kyle began to tremble when Craig started focusing in on his most vulnerable parts. "You're hurting me, Craig!"

"Hush, I'm barely touching you," Craig scoffed, continuing to clean him with clinical, cold efficiency. "That's true, I could've been wrong, Kyle, but I wasn't, was I? If I had been I would've just checked elsewhere. It's amazing the information doctors have access to, and Carol McCormick is a patient in my practice; I can access her file whenever I want. That includes her emergency contacts."

"I just assumed you were going to ask Clyde for help," Kyle admitted, sagging with relief when Craig finally seemed satisfied that he was sufficiently clean. Now he was rinsing him off, the water having cooled down until it was tolerable.

"Only if push came to shove, honestly," Craig replied dismissively, stroking a hand up Kyle's back and over his scars, lingering for a moment. "I wouldn't want to put him in that position and besides, it would just make me look suspicious." He snorted, rolling his eyes. "What a crock of shit, having to worry about looking suspicious when all I want to do is find my own goddamn husband. God, what a fucking world we live in, huh?"

"Why couldn't you let me have some time? Just a little time to think?" Kyle whispered, shakily stepping from the bath with Craig's help; his husband wrapping a fluffy white towel around him.

"You didn't need time." Sitting on the toilet, Craig began to gently dry Kyle off, no longer being quite as harsh; suddenly touching him like he was so breakable. "Why would you need time? Our lives are together, aren't they? We shouldn't be apart, it just complicates matters."

"But I don't want to move, I don't want to live like this anymore, Craig," Kyle moaned, beginning to feel woozy from what he'd endured, the heat in the bathroom, and something else; his mind becoming sluggish and slow. "I-I don't feel good," he added, pressing a hand to his forehead. "What did you give me?"

"Moving is the best thing for us, Kyle. We both need a change of pace and scenery, and what do you mean you don't want to live like this anymore? Live like what? Loved and cherished by your husband? God, what a fucking trial." Craig laughed, standing and steering Kyle from the bathroom. "I already told you, I gave you something to help with your anxiety. It's working, I can tell."

"I can't think straight," Kyle slurred, stumbling a little as Craig led him to the bed, removing the towel and throwing it aside.

"Oh, I think you'll be thinking straight soon enough, love," Craig said, cheerfully. "Lay down on your front."

"W-why? Craig, please, I -"

"Do it, and don't argue, Kyle; for the love of God. Just fucking do what I say the first time I ask." Clearly exasperated, Craig watched as Kyle obeyed, lying down on the bed on his stomach, his head turned on the pillow and his eyes focused on his husband. "There, see? No big deal." Craig removed his t-shirt and threw it on top of his jacket, revealing his lean torso, a number of bandages wrapped around his rib cage.

"Your ribs," Kyle whispered. "Are they going to be okay?"

"Yeah, as long as I don't aggravate them too much," Craig replied, lifting up the pack of cigarettes and shaking one into his palm. "I'm sore but that's to be expected. Oh, before I forget."

Going to his bag he pulled something out, Kyle's terror kicking into overdrive when he saw what it was: a pair of shining, silver handcuffs.

"No," he gasped, attempting to move but feeling like he was wading through water, his mind swimming. "No, not the handcuffs! No!"

"Shh, it's going to be okay, Kyle. Just relax," Craig soothed him, easily holding Kyle down in his compromised state. Smoothly, he slipped the cuffs around one wrist, looped the chain behind the headboard and then fastened the other cuff on Kyle's opposite arm. Now he was immobilized on the bed, face down. "There, that's perfect."

Kyle strained against the cuffs even though it wouldn't make any difference, tears falling down his face and hating that he'd found himself in this position yet again, subject to Craig's whims and furies. In his mind he desperately called for Kenny but then his eyes drifted to the gun on the bedside table again, a sob breaking from his lips at the prospect of his husband using it to get rid of his old friend forever. Crying, he pulled until he was exhausted, the chemicals and alcohol in his blood furthering his vulnerability. Finally, he settled, staring at Craig with wide eyes as he panted, his head resting on the pillow. Craig just watched with amusement, sitting on the opposite bed and smoking a cigarette, clearly not moved at all by Kyle's desperation.

"Now that you've gotten all of that out of your system," he said, taking a drag and blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth; tapping the cigarette against the rim of an unused plastic cup, "I have a couple of questions for you, Kyle, and I want answers; truthful answers. How do you feel about that?"

"I've already told you everything," Kyle said, his voice hitching as he stared at the cigarette in Craig's hand.

"No, you haven't, but now you will. So, let's get started, shall we?"

Kyle just nodded, his eyes never leaving the cigarette.

"We'll start out slow, from the beginning." Standing, Craig came over and sat next to Kyle, stroking a hand down his back until it came to rest on Kyle's backside; he squeezed it softly, making him cringe away. "Do you remember a little while back when your battery died at work and you tried to walk home?"

"Y-yes, I do," Kyle replied, uncertainly. God, how he loathed the games his husband liked to play; cat and mouse tête-à-têtes that always left him the loser.

"Now, as I recall it, you told me a nice older woman dropped you off," Craig continued, taking another puff on his cigarette. "A nice older woman who drove a blue truck. Do you remember that as well?"

Kyle nodded, hating the direction this was taking more and more.

"That was a lie, wasn't it?" Craig asked, softly. "Keep in mind I've read a great deal of Rose, Kyle."

Taking a deep, shuddering breath Kyle bit the bullet and answered truthfully, tears coursing down his face.

"Yes, it was. I lied about that."

"Good boy. See? This isn't so bad, is it?" Craig smiled, leaning down and kissing his shoulder blade. He paused, tracing a finger over the side that had the bruise from when he'd tried to punch Kenny and Kyle jumped in the way. "Poor baby, that must hurt."

Kyle just shrugged, not sure what to say.

"Okay, now we're getting to the really interesting stuff," Craig continued abruptly. "So, we've ascertained that you lied to me, and so well, too; I never would've guessed on my own. I'm actually pretty angry with myself over that." Reaching over, he knocked some ash off of the cigarette. "Who gave you a ride that day, Kyle?"

Kyle was trembling openly now, wishing himself far, far away but knowing that wasn't even a remote possibility.

"I-if you already read the diary, why are you asking me this, Craig? You already know the answer."

He squeaked when he felt his curls being yanked on, his husband forcing him to look him in the eyes.

"Because I want to hear the truth from your own lips, Kyle. Now answer me." He shook him a little.

"Fine, Kenny drove me home that day! It was Kenny!" Kyle breathed, his head throbbing from where Craig had pulled on his hair. "He was driving by and he saw me and he offered to drive me home! I didn't plan it or anything!"

"Right, you didn't plan it," Craig scoffed, letting him go. "Kenny just happened to be driving by at that exact time and he decided to stop out of the goodness of his heart, to save poor, downtrodden Kyle. Is that what you're telling me?"

"Y-yes, it's the truth," Kyle cried, pulling against the handcuffs again. "He wanted to help."

"He always fucking wants to help, doesn't he?" Craig seethed, lapsing into silence. It stretched on until Kyle could hardly stand it, the tension building in the room until you could practically sink your teeth into it. "Fine," he finally said, almost making Kyle sigh with relief. "I believe you. I don't know why I should, but I do. Did he try anything with you that day?"

Kyle frantically shook his head.

"No, nothing. I swear."

"Then something must have happened the next time you snuck off to see him."

Kyle froze, his tired mind working overtime trying to figure out what Craig was talking about; where his implications were coming from.

"I don't know what you mean, Craig. I'm sorry."

Standing, Craig stood and went around the bed to pick up his jacket. He slipped the diary out of the pocket and came back, sitting once more; he flipped it open and began to read:

I wanted to tell you that I fell asleep in the sunshine after Kenny left, just laid down in the grass and closed my eyes (only for a moment!) and before too long Craig was waking me up and bringing me into the house, the smell of the grass in my clothes and hair covering up Kenny's cologne...at least I hope it did. He was none the wiser about my outing today (thank God) but it left me breathless, Rose. For a moment I felt so happy (and so afraid) that I couldn't wait to tell you.

His voice was laced with controlled fury when he spoke next.

"You were right, Kyle, I was none the wiser about your outing that day, nor did I smell Kenny's cologne on you. So," he shut the diary with a snap, making Kyle jump, "enlighten me, please. Where exactly did you two go that day, and I swear to God if you let that filth in our house, I'll -"

"No, he never came inside the house! Not once!" Kyle pleaded. "We just went to get lunch, that's all!"

"Did you plan it?"

"N-no, I was outside and Kenny stopped by because I wasn't at work -"

"Why the fuck was he checking up on you at work, Kyle? What the fuck has been going on behind my back all this time?!" Craig yelled, making Kyle begin to sob uncontrollably. "Tell me, now!"

"We were just reconnecting because we hadn't seen each other in so long, Craig. We weren't doing anything else! We had lunch a couple of times, and then -"

"And you didn't think to ask me if I was okay with any of this? Huh? That never once crossed your mind?!"

Kyle lapsed into terrified silence, his tears still coming hot and fast as he tried to think of something, anything, to say that would save him from Craig's wrath.

"I didn't want to make you mad," he finally said, his voice becoming small and frail. "I know you don't like Kenny, and I know you worry -"

"I don't just dislike Kenny, Kyle; I fucking hate him. I hate him so much I wish I could fucking gut him like a fish. He knows what he's doing, sniffing around and trying to lure you away, well it isn't going to fucking happen. You hear me?!" Craig shouted.

Kyle didn't answer, just staring at Craig with teary eyes and shock. Craig reached out and took a hold of his hair again, pulling it viciously; he yelped in pain.

"Fucking answer me, Kyle! That wasn't a goddamn rhetorical question!"

"I'm not going anywhere, I promise!" Kyle screamed as Craig shook him, his head beginning to ache terribly. "Please, just stop!"

Craig did, his fingers releasing Kyle's hair as ragged breaths streamed from his mouth. Quickly, he took a drag on the cigarette. Flipping the diary open, he smirked suddenly.

"I see there's some pages ripped out of here, Kyle," he murmured, holding Rose up so he could see. "Care to tell me what was written on them? And on that token, you can tell me everything you've done with McCormick over the last couple of days."

"We didn't do anything, I keep telling you that, and there wasn't anything important written on those pages, just scribbles, and -"

"You're lying," Craig said, simply, almost regretfully. After a moment, Kyle felt a small movement and then he was arching upward in agony, bright pain lancing through his back before the smell of singed flesh reached his nostrils. The pain seemed to last forever before Craig pulled away, leaving him gasping and writhing against the scratchy hotel bedspread.

"Care to try again?" Craig asked, holding up the cherry-tipped cigarette and shaking it a little.

Kyle could only mouth wordlessly against the pain, the agony so excruciating that he hadn't even been able to scream; nausea climbing in droves up his throat. He stared at Craig with new terror; it'd been so long since he'd burned him with cigarettes like this.

"Well?" Craig asked, sucking on the cigarette until only the filter was left. He tossed it in the cup and pulled out another, lighting it.

"I-I don't know what you want to hear," Kyle finally choked out, sagging against the pillow as stray tears fell from his eyes; drool coursing from the corner of his mouth. "I mean, yes, Kenny might have kissed me on the forehead, but that was -"

"Kissed you on the forehead? Just kissed you on the forehead? Do you really expect me to believe that? Where did you two sleep, huh?"

"Well, Karen's house is kind of small, so -"

"Get to the fucking point, Kyle," Craig seethed, swiftly bringing the cigarette down on his back again; this time he did scream, his shriek lancing through the night. Craig slapped a hand over his mouth, stifling him though he didn't remove the cigarette.

"We slept in the same bed but nothing happened! I swear!" Kyle gasped out when Craig finally removed his hand and the cigarette. "I told him I couldn't do anything with him because I didn't want to hurt you!"

"So, he did try something," Craig said, softly, nodding his head. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth and stared down at Kyle's body, sudden desire flooding his eyes and making Kyle feel even more nauseated. Reaching out, he gripped Kyle's backside before languidly spreading him, his finger dipping inside and making him moan; straining against the cuffs as his back continued to burn.

"He didn't try to touch you here, huh?" Craig purred, sliding a finger in deeper, slowly.

Kyle shook his head, shutting his eyes as Craig continued to penetrate him. His heartbeat was nearly out of control now, his entire body awash in agony and fatigue. He wasn't sure how much longer he could last.

"Well, what exactly did he do then?" Slowly, another finger slipped inside of Kyle, stretching him further. "Tell me, Kyle. Tell daddy everything that happened, unless you'd like the cigarette again."

Groaning, Kyle felt himself unraveling as Craig continued to prepare him, his mind falling into a warm, complacent state; his need for survival already carrying him to his garden where he could be free. He turned his head on the pillow, eyes opening slowly but barely seeing anything.

"He told me he loves me," he whispered, beginning to drift now. "That he wanted to show me the world."

"How trite," Craig said, taking a deep drag on the cigarette and finally setting it aside, his fingers still slipping in and out of Kyle's stilled form. "Like he even understands anything about love. He can never love you like I can." He paused and slowly pulled out his fingers. Standing, he went to the traveling case and pulled something out, a small bottle. Opening it, he poured some into his hand, kneeling beside Kyle.

"You didn't tell him you loved him too, did you?" He asked almost casually as he slipped his fingers back into Kyle, slick and becoming more aggressive.

Kyle just shook his head, not wanting to disclose more; he'd already had his heart practically torn open. Gritting his teeth, he arched up again when he felt Craig press a finger against one of his cigarette burns. He sobbed, any fight he might've had swiftly draining from him.

"No, I didn't," he said, almost sighing and thanking Craig when he took his finger away from the burn. It slipped back inside of him, a second and third finger following quickly after. "I told him I could see myself maybe loving him someday...someday..."

"That day's never going to come, Kyle, I can assure you of that," Craig murmured, removing his hand and settling himself between Kyle's splayed legs. Leaning down, he gently kissed Kyle's aching back, making him shiver. "Only daddy knows how to take care of you, right? Say it."

"O-only daddy," Kyle managed to eke out, feeling a multitude of shame and bitterness and utter despair; hating himself for feeling minute amounts of pleasure. Maybe he really was a pain slut, just like Craig had always told him.

Lifting his hips, Craig began to slide his cock along Kyle's entrance, teasing him.

"Beg me to fuck you and I will, baby," Craig said, slapping his ass lightly. "Tell daddy to fuck you good and hard. Now."

"Please don't make me," Kyle sobbed, hiding his face in the pillow. "Don't make me say such filthy things!"

"But you love them," Craig laughed, reaching around and slowly pumping Kyle's cock, which was swiftly becoming erect in his hand. "See?"

"Please, I'm begging you, don't make me."

"Do it," Craig said, his voice becoming harsh. After a moment, he bit down on Kyle's backside, making him scream again.

"P-please fuck me, daddy! Fuck me!" He yelled, quickly meeting his limit and exceeding it, only wanting to be free of the pain and terror for awhile.

"You only had to ask," Craig chuckled, pushing into him now but not going slowly like he normally would; no, he thrust into Kyle completely, making him strain against the handcuffs. "God, you feel so fucking perfect. It's been a nightmare not being able to fuck you like this the last couple of days."

Kyle didn't respond, retreating to his garden where he could see the roses shining in the sun and the ocean lapping at the shore; quickly becoming lost. All at once, Craig pulled out of him before thrusting into him roughly, beginning a savage, rapid pace that pushed Kyle closer and closer to the headboard.

"My little slut," Craig breathed, truly in his element; his glory. "Daddy's little pain slut. I love you so much...so much..."

Sobbing softly, Kyle surrendered his body to Craig's designs even as his mind drifted away, hoping desperately that he would see Kenny waiting for him in his garden, arms open wide and ready to receive him; finally carrying him away.

*******

He came to later, though he couldn't say how much time had passed, only aware that his body seemed to be nothing but pain and his hands were free from the handcuffs, curled next to his face as he lay on his side. Opening his eyes slowly, Kyle could see Craig lying next to him, face turned away on the pillow as he slept on his front, hands clenched around the pillow. They were on top of the covers, though Craig's bottom half was covered with a sheet, his back rising and falling as each deep breath poured from him; his ribs still wrapped with the bandages. Through a part in the curtains he could see that dawn had arrived, soft sunlight breaking through the blue of night; making it appear velvety and fragile.

Groggily, Kyle carefully sat up, feeling disoriented but responding to a deep instinctual need to flee, wincing when he looked down at his legs, seeing streaks of red falling down his thighs. Craig must've fucked him harder than usual; it was very rare that he actually made him bleed like that.

I have to get out of here, back to Kenny, he thought, gingerly beginning to move toward the edge of the bed. His mind was sluggish and heavy but he still needed to move, realizing too late that it had been a terrible mistake succumbing to Craig's threats of violence and retribution; knowing now that he couldn't go on like this, not when his husband couldn't control his dark preoccupations. At the very least, he needed to be away for awhile so they could attempt to mend things, but he knew that couldn't happen so long as Craig was allowed to manipulate the situation in any way he saw fit.

It's terrifying how easily he can make me fold, with just a word, a look, he thought as he carefully sat up, his back screaming at him; his backside throbbing with a deep, shameful ache. And he knows it. He has me trained like a dog.

Kyle had to fight his mind every step of the way as he clumsily pulled on a shirt and his boxer briefs, nearly falling over when he put on his jeans; his body just not behaving the way it should. He knew it had to do with whatever Craig had slipped him, but still he continued on. Craig's lessons were deeply embedded in his brain, too, screeching at him to stop acting like a damn fool and get back into bed, but he couldn't, he just couldn't. He'd tasted what freedom could be like and he wanted more, he wanted a chance to actually know love that didn't verge on destroying him.

Feeling like his window of opportunity was shrinking every moment, Kyle frantically looked around for his shoes but couldn't find them anywhere, nor could he find Craig's keys. Nearly crying now, he glanced at Craig who continued to sleep deeply, not having stirred at all while Kyle moved around the room. Clearly he'd thought of everything, just like always.

Fine, fuck it, he decided, resolutely. I'll fucking walk back to Kenny's house.

All of his nerves were on edge when he quietly opened the door and slipped outside, glancing back at Craig one last time before shutting the door. At first he tried to run but he quickly realized that his body just wasn't capable of doing that yet, so he staggered down the hallway, his hand resting against the wall the whole time to keep him upright and steady. Finally he came to the stairs and he looked at them with frustration and hatred, knowing they were going to be yet another trial but determined to conquer them. Pushing off from the wall he clutched at the railing as he shakily began his descent, praying the whole way for strength.

It almost looked like he was going to succeed when he caught his foot on something and he fell, toppling down the last few stairs and yelping with pain when he felt his ankle twist, coming to a stop at the foot of the stairs where he bumped his head hard against the concrete; making him see stars for a few seconds. For a moment he just sat, staring at the ground and trying to make sense of what was happening, wincing when he reached back and rubbed his ankle; knowing something was off, wrong. He'd almost decided to throw in the towel when he tried dragging himself, his jeans rasping against the concrete as he attempted to get to his knees so he could crawl.

"Oh, my gosh! Are you okay? Do you need help?" A maid suddenly appeared, dressed in a brown skirted uniform with a white apron over top of it. She stared down at Kyle with brown eyes filled with concern, and for a fraction of a second he wanted to unload all of his problems on her, but he didn't dare; his tongue suddenly feeling heavy as lead.

"I-I fell," he finally said, looking down at his hands and feeling horribly ashamed, though he couldn't say why. "I think I sprained my ankle."

"You poor thing. Here, do you think you could walk if I helped you?" She leaned down, placing her hands on his arm. Kyle had to will himself not to recoil, to shy away.

"I don't know," Kyle admitted, bending his leg and pushing upward, standing shakily until he put weight on his other ankle. Swiftly, he folded, falling to the ground again. "I-I'm sorry," he murmured, fighting back tears.

"Honey, don't apologize," she said, kindly, still holding onto him. Looking away, her eyes lit up. "Carl! Carl, over here!"

Glancing over, raw terror washed through Kyle when he saw who she was talking to, a sheriff walking over quickly; his face stern.

"I'm so glad you're still here," she said, gesturing to Kyle. "He hurt himself. Can you help me get him on his feet?" She looked down at Kyle. "Where's your room? We'll take you there."

"Well, it's, uh," Kyle sputtered, not even sure what to say. On an intellectual level he knew this was the perfect opportunity to speak up and save himself, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it; feeling equal parts shame, terror, and utter confusion. It didn't help that his mind was still so murky from being drugged, and his thoughts kept straying back to the gun Craig had in the room. What if he became desperate and used it?

"Son, are you okay?" The sheriff asked, taking his other arm, one eyebrow raised as he studied Kyle's face. "Can you tell us where your room is?"

"Y-yes, it's up there," Kyle replied, shakily lifting a hand and pointing to the second floor. "I fell down the stairs, sir. I was just coming down to get something from the car and I...I tripped," he finished, lamely.

The sheriff nodded, his sharp eyes still looking at Kyle's face; he could feel himself flushing.

"Have you been in a fight, son? What's your name?"

"K-Kyle, and no, no I haven't been in a fight."

"I'm just asking because your face looks pretty banged up. Do you need me to call an ambulance? Are you here alone?"

"No, he's not," Craig spoke up behind them, making the trio turn, Kyle gaping at him with wide eyes. "He's here with me, and I was worried sick. Kyle, baby, what were you thinking? If you needed something, I would've gotten it for you." He sighed, looking at the sheriff with a little shake of the head. "He's always like this first thing in the morning because of his sleep medication."

"And you are?" The sheriff asked.

"Oh, forgive me, I'm Dr. Tucker, Kyle's husband," Craig smiled, reaching out a hand. The sheriff took it and they shook, and Kyle could see the change in the man's eyes at the word "doctor." It always happened that way, as soon as a new person heard that Craig was a doctor, they immediately changed the way they treated him, almost slipping into an odd state of reverence. He'd started noticing this attitude more and more, not just toward his husband but toward doctors in general; society almost seemed to regard them in the same vein as gods, practically infallible and beyond reproach.

"It seems he fell down the stairs," the sheriff said, gesturing to Kyle while continuing to hold him up. "We were just trying to help him to his room when I noticed the bruises on his face."

Craig sighed, looking at Kyle with open compassion and regret, brushing a hand over his mouth.

"I'm afraid my husband isn't what you could consider coordinated," he sighed. "Every time I turn around he's tripped over something or fallen somehow. He's just lucky he's married to a doctor," he added, chuckling.

The sheriff grinned, his stern visage finally softening somewhat. He glanced at the maid.

"I think we'll be okay here, Maria. I'm sure Dr. Tucker and I can manage to get this young man back to his room."

"If you say so," the maid replied, glancing at Craig with narrowed eyes before looking back at Kyle. "Are you sure you'll be okay, hon?"

Quickly, Kyle's eyes flitted to Craig before he answered, and he could see the ice collecting in them, promising swift retribution if he made a misstep. Before he could open his mouth and bring about his own destruction, Kyle nodded.

"I'll be okay now that my husband is here," he said, softly. "Thank you, though."

"Okay, then," she said, somewhat reluctantly. She stepped aside and allowed Craig to take her place.

"Is there any reason you aren't wearing shoes, love?" Craig asked, pointing to his feet and smirking.

"I didn't think they'd be necessary," Kyle muttered, allowing the sheriff and Craig to help him slowly up the stairs, his ankle throbbing terribly. "After all, I was just getting something from the car."

"Well, I'll check out that ankle once you're safely back in the room. What do you think?"

Kyle gritted his teeth, once again hating himself for being so weak and whipped, his brain screaming at him to fight and to capitulate all at the same time. It was times like this that he was sure he was simply insane, because any other explanation just didn't make sense.

"That'd be great," he replied, leaning against the sheriff as Craig fished out the key card and slid it in the slot, opening the door wide. He beckoned them in with a smile on his face, flipping on the lamp and illuminating the room. Kyle's eyes darted around searching everywhere, the gun, cigarettes, and Rose nowhere to be seen. The sheriff settled him on the bed and then stepped back, studying the room as well.

"Sir, have you been smoking in here?" He asked, cocking an eyebrow at Craig.

"Okay, guilty as charged," Craig smiled, holding his hands up. "I'll let management know and offer to have the room deep cleaned."

"See that you do," the sheriff said, seemingly satisfied with this answer; Kyle could barely believe it. It was almost like Craig flew above the normal constraints of society, and people just let him, much like himself. He bit his lip and stared down at his hands, hating himself all the more for his weakness.

"You gonna be okay, son?" The sheriff asked, breaking him from his thoughts.

Once again, Kyle glanced at Craig quickly before nodding his head, even managing to crack a timid, small smile.

"I'll see to that ankle right away," Craig assured the sheriff, leaning down and kissing the top of Kyle's head. "Thank you so much for helping him, and for your service."

"No thanks needed," the sheriff replied, heading toward the door and touching the brim of his hat. "You folks have a nice day, hear?"

"We will, once Kyle's all fixed up," Craig replied, shutting the door softly behind him and looking out the peephole for a moment, finally turning back to Kyle; eyebrows raised. "Okay, just what were you trying to pull?"

Kyle shrugged helplessly, his eyes on the floor. All at once, he noticed his shoes and socks sitting in front of the dresser; they hadn't been there before. Sighing, he waited for Craig to punish him further. Instead, Craig knelt before him and rolled his pant leg up, his skilled fingers gently feeling his injured ankle.

"How does that feel?"

Kyle winced, his hands clutching at the blankets when Craig gripped his foot and tried to rotate his ankle, making him jump.

"It hurts, please don't move it," he said.

"Well, you definitely sprained it. Just great," Craig sighed, rising and going to his bag. He pulled out compression wrap and brought it back over, kneeling before Kyle again. "You're lucky I have this stuff on hand because of my ribs." Wordlessly, he began wrapping Kyle's ankle, the pressure helping to relieve some of the ache. "About you pushing me down the stairs," he added suddenly, making Kyle's heart start thudding faster in his chest, "just what the hell were you thinking, huh? You could've killed me."

"That wasn't my intention," Kyle replied, honestly. "I just..." he shrugged helplessly. "I just couldn't face the basement again, Craig."

"God, you're so melodramatic." Craig gave Kyle's ankle a little pat when he finished wrapping it, rolling his jeans back down. He studied him for a moment. "Have I mentioned how much I hate those clothes? We're throwing them out as soon as we get home, I can guarantee that."

"Craig, I really don't think it's a good idea if we go home together," Kyle said, holding onto his shirt when he tried to move away. "We're just going to keep being at odds and nothing's going to be resolved. We need space from each other, so we can both think clearly, and -"

"No," Craig interrupted, opening his bag and beginning to pack up his things. "You're so fucking transparent, Kyle. You're just trying to rationalize running back to Kenny and sinking into his white trash paradise. God, why do you want to slum it with him so badly?"

"I don't! This isn't even about Kenny! I just think we need time to reevaluate our marriage, our relationship!"

"I don't need to reevaluate anything, Kyle. I'm quite content, and you should be too. If anything, you just need to get away from people like Kenny and places like South Park. Those are the things that are fucking with your perception. What we have is perfect."

"Maybe to you, but I -"

"Kyle, I've just about reached the end of my patience with you, with this conversation," Craig cut him off, his voice low and nearly shaking with growing anger. "On top of all the shit you've pulled lately I still have to get the house ready to be sold, and now I have to find a new home even quicker than I thought. I can't deal with your childish antics along with everything else, and now you're basically an invalid, so thanks for that."

"What do you mean, find a new home quicker than you thought?" Kyle asked, his voice beginning to tremble.

"Your conduct over the last couple of days, no, the last few weeks has proven that South Park is destroying you, Kyle," Craig explained as he started to pack up all their stuff. "We need to get the fuck out of there before there's nothing left to salvage, so I'm planning on moving as early as next month."

"You can't be serious," Kyle whispered, shifting on the bed and watching with disbelieving eyes as Craig pulled the covers on the bed back, revealing the gun and cigarettes and Rose. "But I told you I don't want to go."

"Like that matters. You'll go where I tell you to, won't you? Sometimes you take the long way but you always obey in the end. Isn't that right?" Craig picked up the gun and smiled a little, putting ice in Kyle's blood. "I'd also recommend keeping Kenny out of all of this, Kyle; I'm not afraid to use this thing to make a point."

"Have you completely lost your mind?" Kyle asked. "Are you even listening to what you're saying?"

"Lost my mind? Hardly. If anything, I'm clearer than ever," Craig replied, pulling on his jacket. "You're the one that walks around acting like they don't have any sense. What were you thinking trying to run off without even having shoes on your feet?"

"I would've worn shoes if you hadn't fucking hidden them," Kyle snapped.

Swiftly, Craig slapped him across the face, his expression never even changing.

"Knock off the fucking backtalk, Kyle. I'm sick of it. And I didn't hide your shoes, you just did a piss poor job of trying to find them."

Silently, Kyle started to cry but now they weren't just tears of pain and sadness, no they were tears of rage, too.

"I'm not going with you!" He shouted. "Not back home and definitely not to Baltimore!"

"Come off it," Craig said, slipping his cigarettes and Rose into his pockets. "If you really wanted to leave you would've opened up your pretty little mouth and told that bumbling sheriff to help you, but you didn't, did you? Makes me wonder why."

"That makes it sound like you know what you're doing is wrong," Kyle hissed, crossing his arms. "You know the way you're treating me is a fucking crime, don't you?"

"Here we go with the melodrama again." Coming closer, Craig had one hand behind his back, immediately putting Kyle on edge. Getting right in Kyle's face, he held the back of his head as he kissed him deeply, not letting him move away. He pulled away, smirking. "You love it, don't you? All of it. It makes you feel wanted, needed. You love taking care of me, and you love the way I take care of you."

"You're sick," Kyle stammered, wanting to move away but knowing he couldn't; not with his fucked up ankle. "How can you even think that?"

"I read enough of Rose to glean the hidden meaning, Kyle. You've always loved playing the victim, and now you can devote your life to it, can't you? At least in your mind, of course. I know better, I always have." Suddenly, he reached down and grabbed Kyle's arm.

"W-what are you doing?" Kyle cried, trying to yank himself away but not being able to stand up to Craig's determined strength.

"I'm in the mood for a nice quiet ride home," Craig said, bringing his other arm from behind his back and revealing what he had: a loaded syringe. "This will just help that happen."

"No! Stop!" Kyle yelled, pulling away like a flailing rat caught in a trap, his entire body waking up with terror. "You can't do this!"

"Shh, it'll all be okay in just a moment," Craig said, holding him fast and quickly sticking the needle in, pushing the plunger with mesmerizing swiftness. "Just relax, Kyle."

"H-how could you...?" Kyle asked, his words already beginning to slur as Craig sat beside him, cradling him in his arms and kissing his temple softly.

"It's for your own good, Kyle," Craig said, softly, continuing to gently kiss him. "Like I said before, you're just lucky you married a doctor."

Chapter Text

When Kyle slowly opened his eyes, he was momentarily confused when he found himself back in his bedroom at home, laid out in the giant bed he shared with his husband. Blearily he looked around for a moment, trying to get his bearings before everything crashed in on him like a tidal wave: his sprained ankle, the sheriff, Craig and the syringe, Kenny, Karen...

He shook his head, trying to come back to reality, but it was all too much to deal with. Everything that had happened over the past few days felt so monumental, so unbelievable; how was he supposed to cope with any of it? What could he possibly do now, especially when Craig had managed to find a way to drag him home, back where all the horror started and where it would inevitably continue unless he started to fight?

But how could he fight? Where would he find the strength? He'd already tried to take a stand and where had that gotten him? Back at square one, but now he was injured on top of it, and so, so tired; so unbelievably wrung out that he was unable to move for quite awhile, even though his eyes were wide open. All he could do was study the familiar bedroom as he tried to muster up the energy to rise, its furnishings made of dark, shiny wood, the bay window with the navy blue curtains, even the bed he lay on; a California king with sturdy tall posts at its four corners; a bed that had cradled him through times of pleasure and agony. He sighed and took it all in, the house bordering on silence though he could hear the nocturnes leaking into the room through the crack in the door; Craig was out there, waiting.

Tears gathered in Kyle's eyes as he looked at the window again and saw that there was bright sunshine breaking through the cracks in the curtains; clearly he'd been out for a reasonable amount of time if they'd managed to make it home. No doubt Kenny was already awake and had figured things out, that Craig had found them and managed to spirit him away. For as much derision as Craig heaped upon Kenny Kyle knew better; he wasn't stupid, not at all. He'd put the pieces together lightning quick, and then what?

"He'll come here. I know he will," Kyle murmured, slowly sitting up and clutching at the bedpost; steadying himself. He always felt so woozy and tired after Craig dosed him with the syringe. Most likely it had been Thorazine, just like all the other times. He was just surprised he hadn't woken up in the basement.

For a few moments, Kyle just sat and took deep breaths, trying to build up the courage to try and stand, his body a war zone of aches and pains and trauma; his head cloudy and muddled like moat water. Finally, he took a deep breath and stood, instantly hissing at the throbbing pain in his ankle, and he dropped swiftly to the floor, trembling lightly.

"Great, just great," he whimpered, brushing tears away while rubbing his ankle; the compression bandage still wound around it. It offered minimal relief that he was thankful for but he knew there was no way he'd be able to walk on it for awhile. Sighing, he got on his hands and knees and began to crawl toward the bathroom, needing to relieve himself. When he was finished he went to the sink to wash his hands, dragging himself up by holding onto the counter. Lingering for a moment, he stared at his reflection, taking perverse pleasure in noting that the swelling had gone down considerably even if the bruises were still there; violet and appearing less angry. His sclera wasn't nearly as red either, the vessels having begun to heal, but his mouth was wounded; a cut on his lip from the numerous times he'd been slapped. He sighed and turned away, getting back on his hands and knees.

Craig had made good on his promise of eradicating the clothes Kenny had supplied, having clothed Kyle in a t-shirt and boxer briefs; his feet bare. Nudging the door open, he crawled down the hallway, following the music as it continued to play, becoming louder and louder as he got closer to the kitchen. Coming to the doorway, he looked around, surprised to find it empty but knowing Craig had to be close; the nocturnes seeping from the Bose player on the counter.

"Well, hello, sleepy head," Craig's cheerful voice came from behind him, startling him only slightly; he'd expected it, after all. "You were out for quite awhile. How are you feeling?"

Crawling into the kitchen, Kyle slumped on the floor next to the stove and looked around, almost expecting to see his blood still littering the floor; the aftermath of the fight he'd had with Craig before fleeing. Instead, the tiles were clean and shining, almost like they'd never tasted even a drop of blood. In fact, the entire room was scrubbed and polished, almost appearing the way it had the day they'd first moved in.

"I'm tired," he finally replied, leaning against a cabinet and trying to catch his breath. Kyle was groggy and drained, and he was frustrated because he knew it would take awhile for the chemicals to truly leave his system. He watched Craig move about with sleepy eyes, stifling a sudden yawn behind his hand.

"Poor baby, you've been through so much," Craig replied, going to the table and gathering up his discarded morning newspaper. He was dressed in his workout clothes, a pair of shorts and a white t-shirt, his hair slightly mussed. "I had time to workout while you were napping," he added, smiling at Kyle indulgently. "I had a lot of aggression to get out but I feel so much better now."

"I wasn't napping," Kyle muttered, narrowing his eyes and staring at the floor. "You drugged me, Craig."

"You needed to sleep," Craig said, simply. "Look, I have our red rose on display. Things are already falling back into place." He touched the rose softly, glancing at Kyle. "I even watered the garden when we got back, since I had some time."

"Thank you," Kyle sighed, watching his husband caress the rose while trying to keep the fire in his blood; not wanting to fall back into complacency even though it would be so easy. Being back at home almost seemed to act as a sedative, he was starting to realize; the need for normalcy and routine powerful creatures he had to vanquish somehow.

"Craig, you know we need to talk. You can't just ignore the bigger issues here."

"I'm not, Kyle, and you're right," Craig agreed, picking up a coffee mug and bringing it over to the sink; he set it down gently.

Kyle just stared at him, completely taken aback.

"I-I am?" He stammered. "You really mean that?"

"Of course I do, baby." Coming over, Craig sat down on the floor next to Kyle and gathered him gently into his arms, pulling him onto his lap. He rocked him slowly, tenderly. "I can't tell you how happy I am to have you home. I missed you so much." Kissing Kyle's neck, Craig sighed softly, happily. "I love you so much, Kyle."

"How can you say that after everything that's happened?" Kyle asked, trying to pull away but failing miserably. Craig continued to kiss his neck and throat, his lips drifting upward and settling on his cheek, his arms wound around him and holding him like a baby. "Craig, you aren't making any sense. None of this makes sense."

"Love doesn't have to make sense," Craig murmured, turning Kyle's head and kissing his mouth, his tongue slipping in between Kyle's lips and tasting him. Pulling away, he leaned his head against Kyle's, taking one of his hands and holding it loosely. "Look, I know we both said some things we didn't mean. Can't we just start fresh?"

Kyle shook his head, once again unable to comprehend just how skewed Craig's perception was. He'd always assumed that his husband operated in reality, that his sanity was fully intact, but now he just couldn't be sure, not when he said things like this.

"Craig, I meant everything I said. We need to think about our relationship, okay? We need time apart to truly get our bearings and to figure out where all of this is going. Why can't you see that would be for the best?"

"How can we make our relationship better if we aren't together? That doesn't make any sense, Kyle." Craig seemed genuinely confused, and Kyle had to admit he had a point, though he couldn't articulate the way he felt any clearer. "I mean, what, do you want us to go to marriage counseling or something? Is that what you're talking about?"

"Okay, that's a start," Kyle replied, relief and sudden enthusiasm flooding him; fueling his words. "Would you be willing to do that?"

Craig thought for a moment, studying Kyle's face while he held him close.

"I guess I'm not completely opposed to it, Kyle, but I'm still not sure it's even necessary."

"Craig, you have some problems with anger," Kyle spoke carefully, his heartbeat picking up dramatically. "Like, you almost seem to forget yourself sometimes, and then..." he shrugged, not sure how to go on. Craig was so stubborn when it came to discussions like this, almost seeming to actively refuse the truth, even when it was staring him right in the face.

"Ah, now I see," Craig said softly, reaching up and stroking the bruises on Kyle's cheek. "You're talking about these." Reaching down, he lifted Kyle's shirt and settled a hand next to one of his burns, though he didn't touch it. "And these, huh?"

Kyle nodded, slow fear building up in his belly as Craig's fingers lingered close to the burn.

"I don't want to be punished anymore, Craig. I don't think a marriage should have violence in it."

"Oh, like pushing me down the stairs?" Craig smirked, leaning his forehead against Kyle's.

"I already explained why that happened, and I'm sorry. You know I am."

"You're sorry," Craig repeated, his eyes becoming faraway for a moment. "Are you sorry for fucking around with Kenny, too?"

"Craig, I didn't -"

"Uh uh uh, Kyle, none of that," Craig cut him off, laying a finger against his lips. "I read Rose, remember? I was reading her while you were sleeping, too; very interesting yarn you've penned there."

"Fine," Kyle sighed, tired of fighting against the tide of delusion that Craig seemed to be trapped in. "I'm sorry for everything, okay? Rose, Kenny, pushing you, existing, breathing, doing anything that pisses you off. I'm fucking sorry about everything. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Didn't take too long for the attitude to come out, huh?" Craig laughed, kissing Kyle's cheek again; one finger coming to rest on the crook of his arm where he'd stuck the needle in. "I just wanted you to stop lying to yourself and me, okay? You may not have let Kenny screw you but you wanted him to, didn't you? You like the attention he gives you, it inflates your ego and reinforces your fantasies."

"They aren't fantasies!" Kyle yelled, pushing out of Craig's arms and scooting across the floor. "God, I thought we were actually going to fucking get somewhere this time but you just refuse to see things for what they are!"

"And what are they, Kyle?" Craig leaned against the cabinet, his entire demeanor casual and unruffled.

"A nightmare! A fucking nightmare that I can't stand!" Kyle raked his hands through his curls, finally coming to his wits' end. "I just don't get it. You have all these amazing qualities and then we hit brick walls when it comes to shit like this. You refuse to understand that hitting me, beating me, raping me, hurting me is wrong! It's all wrong! You're wrong!"

Craig smirked and just watched Kyle for a moment, letting his words crowd the air until the atmosphere was heavy; Kyle squirming in his place. Finally, he crawled over on his hands and knees, advancing on Kyle slowly, his eyes heating up the closer he got. Frantically, Kyle tried to push away but Craig grabbed his uninjured ankle, yanking him closer.

"Okay, you want to have this conversation, let's have this conversation, Kyle," Craig said, softly, his hand crawling under Kyle's t-shirt and coming to settle around the curve of his rib cage delicately, his other hand resting on the back of his head. "I admit that the things I do, the way I treat you sometimes, isn't exactly right. I realize that."

"Y-you do?" Kyle asked, a feeling of acute surrealism saturating him after hearing Craig's admission. "Then why do you act like that? Don't you love me?"

Pulling him closer, Craig leaned his forehead against Kyle's, breathing deeply for a few moments.

"I do, Kyle, very much. But I loved Tweek too, once upon a time. Look where that got me."

"Huh? What does Tweek have to do with this?" Kyle tried to pull away but Craig kept him in place.

"Everything, I guess," Craig murmured. "I had a crush on you when we were kids, Kyle, there's no denying that, but Tweek was my childhood sweetheart. Everything I learned about love I learned while being with him, and I was stupid and assumed we'd be together forever."

"What happened? Kenny said that Tweek tried to leave, but -"

"Keep Kenny out of this discussion, for your own good, Kyle," Craig cut him off, his voice becoming icy. "That asshole has no fucking clue what happened. I don't care if he talked to Tweek about it or not, he wasn't fucking there."

"I'm sorry," Kyle whispered quickly, retreating into himself. Craig kissed his cheek, sighing.

"Anyway, Tweek and I were together all through high school but you already know that. We stayed together during college and he was even my biggest supporter when I started med school. God," he shook his head, smiling tenderly at the memories, "he was so proud of me, Kyle. I felt like I could accomplish anything as long as I had his support."

His expression changed then, his voice becoming hard and cold.

"It was harder than I thought it was going to be, and the demands were beyond what I thought I could handle, but I did because I had to. I can't tell you how many times I thought I was going to fail and then I'd think about having to face everyone as this gigantic loser that couldn't hack it." He sighed, rubbing his face. "The pressure changed me, Kyle, and it seemed to happen before I even noticed, what with the shit I was taking to help me keep going, the late nights -"

"What? What were you taking? You never told me about that."

"Adderall, Kyle, and downers. Really, anything that could give me the highs or take the edge off. I started drinking a lot too, but Tweek was a drinker so he didn't mind that. He hated the pills, though. He hated that I never seemed to have time for him anymore, and when I did have time I was irritable and tired, but dammit, there was just so much to deal with. You understand that, don't you?"

Kyle nodded, trying to imagine Craig years ago and struggling to accomplish what he'd set out to do; the late nights and the relentless barrage of expectations and worries. He could hardly fathom it, all the pressure and constantly being tested. Honestly, he couldn't blame him for turning to outside sources to cope, to find an edge.

"I've always had a temper, Kyle. Always. I know I never really showed it when we were kids, but it was always there. I look around at the world and I can't help but hate it most of the time, or just view it with this deep contempt. Sometimes I feel like it's going to consume me, but I just keep going, I look the other way."

"I know exactly what you mean," Kyle whispered, thinking of his own secret rages, though he wasn't about to admit that most of them stemmed from his husband.

Pulling away, Craig stood and started pacing around the kitchen, almost like he couldn't stand to be still.

"I can remember the first time I lashed out at Tweek. He was bitching at me about never being able to see him or something, and never returning his calls, and he just nagged and nagged and nagged until I couldn't even think straight." He glanced at Kyle, cocking a brow. "And mind you this was while I was studying for a huge test, so I was already really stressed, but he was standing there wagging his finger in my face and going on and on until I couldn't take it anymore, and I snapped; I just fucking snapped."

"You hit him," Kyle murmured, already knowing where this was going; the sadness creeping in.

"I did, hard. Right across the face," Craig replied, staring down at his hand; rotating it slowly. "And I felt so bad afterward, Kyle, but I also felt so good. It made me feel better. Can you believe that?"

Kyle looked down at the floor, nodding slowly; he could completely believe it, though he found it endlessly revolting as well.

"Naturally, we had a huge blowup over it and we almost broke up then and there, but Tweek stayed. I managed to talk him into staying, and things were okay for awhile. My grades were good, I was good, Tweek and I were just fine. I mean, yeah, I was still drinking a lot and popping pills but I thought I could handle everything, but then it happened again. Tweek started fucking shooting his mouth off and bam! I just socked him in the jaw, and he shut up. I got him to shut up, and Christ, it was almost like a drug in and of itself."

He glanced at Kyle quickly, his eyes blazing with muddled emotions; fury, desire, wistfulness.

"The sex we had afterward was amazing," he said, running his hands through his hair. "It felt so real and powerful. I never felt so close to another person in my life, and I guess that's when the pattern really started. Tweek would act up or do something I didn't like, I'd retaliate, and then we would fuck like the world was coming to an end. It was like being with him for the first time every time, Kyle. I was addicted to him, I was addicted to that feeling...the control, it was mesmerizing. I can't even begin to describe it to someone who's never felt it. It'd be like trying to describe the way sex feels to a virgin; you just can't."

"Why did he stay?" Kyle asked, his voice becoming small because that wasn't the question he was really asking; they both knew the truth.

Why did I stay?

"I thought he loved me, Kyle," Craig replied, going over to him and kneeling on the floor; he took his hand. "But he didn't, not really. I found out he had a one night stand with a co-worker and I just lost it one night." He closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath. "I beat him so badly he couldn't even stand up, but when he was able to move we made love for hours." His eyes popped open, faintly moist now. "I even cried in his arms afterward. We cried together, Kyle, and when we both finally fell asleep I thought that everything was going to be okay again. I was willing to forgive him, to keep going, but he had other plans."

"He tried to leave," Kyle whispered, remembering Kenny's words during lunch weeks ago.

"Yes, he tried to sneak out," Craig said, voice hushed and remembering memories from years ago; his eyes taking on a remote quality that didn't frighten Kyle. No, if anything it made him sad; the whole sordid story made him sad beyond words. "But I caught him, and then I don't know, I think I blacked out, because all I can remember is coming to with his blood on my hands."

He opened his hands and looked at them, almost like he was seeing them for the first time.

"I drove him to the emergency room and I stayed with him until he was admitted," he said, covering his face for a moment. "They gave him pain meds in his IV and he went to sleep after refusing to tell the doctors and nurses why he was so injured. I wanted to stay but they told me I had to leave, so I did."

"He fell asleep holding my hand, Kyle, and I wanted it to be the first thing he felt when he woke up, but I went back the next morning and he was gone," Craig murmured, eyes beginning to harden again. "They couldn't tell me anything about where he went, and he hadn't told them what happened between us. I went to his apartment everyday for weeks after that but he either refused to answer the door or he just moved away, because I never saw him again."

He glanced at Kyle, studying him.

"A couple months later you sat next to me at Stan's wedding, and that's the only reason I was ever able to get over what happened with Tweek." He laughed a little, the sound brittle as it met the air. "Not that I'm really over it, all things considered. You don't get over your first love just like that, but I had to learn that the hard way. I often wonder where he is, and I've even considered hiring a private investigator to find him, but I've refrained. You want to know why?"

Kyle just looked at him, waiting for an answer; completely exhausted and deflated.

"Because I have you, Kyle. You're all I need, now and forever," Craig said, reaching out and gathering Kyle into his arms. "You don't give up on the ones you love, and that's what Tweek did; he gave up on me. He cheated on me and I still loved him, I forgave him, but he left anyway."

"Craig, you hurt him, just like you're hurting me. That's why he left," Kyle said softly, slowly winding his own arms around Craig but not squeezing him close. "People can only take so much, they aren't bottomless wells."

"No, that isn't true," Craig choked out, shaking his head. "If you love someone enough, you can always find the strength to forgive them, to stay with them."

"Maybe you're that strong, but not everyone is."

"You are, I know you are," Craig said, pulling away and staring into Kyle's eyes; expression naked and vulnerable. Kyle could barely believe what he was seeing; Craig Tucker practically begging him to put aside the past and keep walking beside him.

"I just don't understand," Kyle said, trying to wrap his head around everything he'd been told; the mountain of new, awful knowledge laid in his lap. "You acknowledge that Tweek left because you abused him, but you're treating me the same way. It doesn't make any sense."

"Tweek and I didn't have the same rules, Kyle; we didn't have the same system you and I have," Craig explained, becoming animated. "Everything was left to chance, there was no order, but you and I -"

"Have the basement," Kyle whispered, shaking his head. "Craig, you can't rely on that anymore! It isn't an option!"

"We don't need that anymore, not so long as you behave and promise not to leave," Craig said, taking Kyle's hands and pressing them to his lips, kissing them over and over. "Promise me you'll leave Kenny behind, that you'll forget about him, and we'll never use the basement again."

"I just don't know, Craig. You're asking for so much right now, and I'm so tired," Kyle said, practically whimpering. "I'm just so tired."

"Don't give up on me, Kyle," Craig choked out, pulling him close again and hugging him; his body beginning to shake. "If you ever loved me, don't give up on me. I love you too much, it would destroy me!"

Kyle could barely believe what he was hearing, his eyes wide. Not only was Craig begging him to stay, but now he was...he was...

"Craig, are you crying?" He whispered, almost feeling like he was going to become completely undone. "You're crying for me?"

"You're the only thing I'd ever cry for," Craig whispered, holding him tighter. "You're the only person I want."

"Oh, Craig," Kyle whimpered, pressing his face against Craig's shoulder and trying to hold back his own tears. All at once, the memories of standing with Kenny in the sun and tasting a new life started to break apart, the notions disintegrating as Craig sobbed in his arms, begging Kyle to love him; to accept him, flaws and all. He was at such a loss at how he should proceed that he could barely breathe.

"Craig, you need help," Kyle said, sniffling. "You need help, baby. We both do."

"Then help me, Kyle. Please," Craig said, his voice thick with tears. "I can't do any of this by myself."

It was then that there was a buzz in the kitchen, interrupting the nocturnes and their tears respectively. Quickly, Craig swiped at his eyes and set Kyle aside, pressing his wet cheek against Kyle's for a moment before rising. He went to the intercom on the wall and pressed the button, his voice almost sounding normal.

"Yes?"

"Craig, it's me," Clyde's voice floated into the kitchen. "I'm here with another officer and Kenny McCormick. Can you please open the gate so we can enter the property?"

Craig glanced at Kyle, his expression becoming grim while Kyle's heart started racing like a small animal in his chest. Reaching up, he managed to pull himself onto a chair.

"Sure, hold on," Craig replied, hitting another button. Stepping back, he put his hands on his hips and looked down at the floor, almost appearing like a man defeated. He spoke without looking at Kyle, his voice soft. "Well, I guess this is it, huh? Do I need to be worried, Kyle?"

Kyle shrugged, feeling helpless and lost and inexplicably guilty; his entire spirit nearly cracking in two as he considered his destiny. It was almost like he'd been saddled with an impossible choice just out of nowhere, and he was left to flounder in the tides; considering an impasse filled with fire and thorns.

"Just promise me that you'll change," he whispered, hugging himself. "Promise me that everything will change."

"As long as you love me, I'll promise you anything you want," Craig murmured, raking a hand through his hair.

"I love you, Craig. I always have."

"Then that's all I need," Craig managed to smile, his eyes and cheeks red. For a moment, he looked like the person Kyle had known before the violence began; the man he'd fallen in love with. The doorbell rang and he sighed, heavily.

"Well, here goes nothing," he muttered, walking away and down the hallway, Kyle waiting anxiously from his place at the kitchen table.

What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? The same question kept running through Kyle's mind, over and over, while sweat starting falling down his back; his entire body one live, raw nerve. I can't sell him out after he begged me to help him, can I? But what about last night, the cigarettes, the handcuffs...everything? What can I possibly say? I have no idea what to do!

Nausea flooded Kyle's mouth as he waited in the kitchen, hearing voices in the foyer; Kenny's among them. He shut his eyes, trying to fight back his fear and hysteria as he scrambled for an answer, alternating between hearing Craig's voice begging him to stay and Kenny's beseeching him to leave. His entire mind was in shambles by the time Craig returned with Clyde and another officer, Kenny following close on their heels.

"Jesus Christ, Kyle!" He yelled, coming around the group and running to Kyle, kneeling beside his chair; he gathered him into his arms. "I woke up and you were gone and I knew, I just fucking knew," he stopped, glaring dagger at Craig, "I knew that fucker took you away." He looked down at Kyle's ankle. "What'd he do to you? He didn't -"

"Kenny, we're going to need you to calm down," Clyde broke in, looking acutely uncomfortable. "We have to follow protocol, okay?"

"Oh, fuck protocol, Clyde," Kenny snapped, standing. "Craig's holding Kyle here against his will, and that's after he's been abusing him for years. Just ask Kyle!"

Sighing, Clyde caught Kyle's eye for a moment, appearing very young even in his uniform, having retained his teddy bear persona; his face and eyes soft.

"Kyle," he said, nodding.

"Clyde," Kyle murmured, nodding as well. He looked down at his hands.

"This is Officer Flynn, by the way," Clyde said, gesturing to the skinny cop standing beside him; he nodded as well.

"Welcome to the party," Kyle muttered, feeling equal parts terror, humiliation, and rage; his mind quickly shutting down. God, he just wanted to sleep for a million years instead of dealing with all of this.

"Craig, what do you have to say about Kenny's accusation?" Clyde asked, glancing at Craig.

"You know what I have to say, Clyde," Craig replied, looking at Kenny dismissively, though he managed to keep the coldness out of his eyes. If anything, he appeared bewildered. "It isn't true. I'd never hurt Kyle."

"Of course he would say that!" Kenny yelled. "Ask Kyle, Clyde! He'll tell you the real story!" He put his hand on Kyle's shoulder, squeezing softly. "Tell them, Kyle. Tell them how you ran to me a few nights ago after Craig beat you. Tell them how we went to Karen's to get away from him."

"Kenny, let him speak for himself," Clyde said, quietly, walking over to Kyle and sitting at the table. He pulled out a little notebook and a pen, readying to write. "Kyle?"

Kyle looked around the room at all the people waiting for him to speak, his eyes widening as his mouth went dry; his anxiety rearing its head like a monster and consuming his courage and voice. Craig was staring at him with an impassive expression, his arms crossed as he leaned against the counter. He didn't give him any sort of signal or subliminal direction at all, merely waiting for Kyle to speak up. Glancing up at Kenny, Kyle saw how tired he looked, his kind, blue eyes trained on his face and offering him nothing but support. Shaking his head, he just didn't know what to say.

"I-I'm sorry," Kyle murmured, clenching his hands on the chair until they ached. "I'm just so tired."

"Let's take this slow, okay?" Clyde said, gently. "How did you hurt your ankle, Kyle?"

"I sprained it falling down the stairs," Kyle answered easily, mainly because it was the truth. "At the hotel in Grand Junction. Craig wrapped it for me."

"Why were you in Grand Junction?" Clyde asked, scribbling down Kyle's answer.

Kyle faltered at this question, not sure how to proceed. Clearing his throat, he spoke slowly.

"I was out there visiting Karen with Kenny."

"Oh?" Clyde asked, still writing. "Just to get away?"

Kyle bit his lip, glancing between Kenny and Craig frantically before he finally stopped and shut his eyes; trying to stay in the moment.

"Y-yes, it was just a spur of the moment little trip Kenny and I went on. You know, just for fun."

"Kyle, you know that isn't true," Kenny said, his voice loaded with disbelief as he continued to clutch at Kyle's shoulder. Coming around, he knelt in front of him. "Why are you lying, baby? Why? This is your chance!"

"Kenny," Clyde said, a note of warning in his voice. "Let him answer on his own."

"Why?! He's just going to lie for that dirty son of a bitch, though I can't understand why he would!" Kenny yelled, pointing at Craig who just looked on mildly. "He got to him, Clyde, he's making him -"

"I'm not lying," Kyle said, quietly. "I'm sorry, Kenny."

"You're sorry?" Kenny sputtered, reaching up and taking a hold of Kyle's face so he couldn't look away. "Kyle, you don't need to apologize to me, okay? You just need to open up your mouth and save yourself, for God's sake!"

Kyle just looked down at his lap, biting his lip as tears threatened his eyes. Reluctantly, Kenny relinquished his face and stood.

"Ask him why his face is all bruised," he said, lowly. "Ask him where the cut on his lip came from, too." He pointed at Kyle's scarred-up knees from the countless times he'd knelt on rice. "Ask him where all these scars came from!"

"Kyle?" Clyde asked, his voice soft.

Kyle shook his head, the tears starting to leak out now as he fell further and further from the light; his need to protect Craig like a clawing beast in his heart while his brain screeched at him to see reason, to clutch at deliverance.

You don't give up on the ones you love, he thought. Even if it means giving up on yourself.

"I'm clumsy," he whispered. "I fall a lot, and the scars are from kneeling in the garden when I'm weeding; I don't always wear jeans so it tears up my knees."

"Are you sure, Kyle?" Clyde asked, writing furiously.

Kyle glanced at Kenny with sorrowful eyes before he spoke again, silently begging him to understand. Kenny just looked at him with shock on his face, his eyes wide as he mouthed wordlessly.

"Yes," he whispered. "Craig's never hurt me, Clyde. He loves me."

"Then explain this," Kenny said, pulling some paper from his pocket and holding it up. Unfolding one of the pages, he started to read aloud:

It makes me think of the shower I took the first night I ran to Kenny, and I can remember the way the blood gurgled and swirled around the drain when I washed my hair. It feels like I bathed for an hour and no matter how many times I rinsed my hair the blood kept appearing in the water, but that can't be real, right? God, how much of my blood has been washed down the bathtub drain over the years, Rose? Can it even be measured at this point? There's a drain in the basement, too; it's tasted my blood as well.

Complete silence drenched the room after Kenny finished, everyone seemingly holding their breath while Kyle squirmed in his place. He glanced up and caught Craig's eyes; his husband was clearly shocked, grey eyes open as far as they could go.

"Let me see that, please," Clyde said, holding out his hand; Kenny placed the diary page in it. He read it for a few minutes before frowning and looking at Kyle, his eyebrows raised in silent question. "Did you write this, Kyle?"

Worrying the hem of his shirt, Kyle nodded slowly.

"Can you give us more information about what it means? Why was there blood in your hair? Why did you run to Kenny?"

"I, uh, was upset because Craig and I had an argument," Kyle said carefully, picking through a minefield as he pieced the lie together on the fly; trying to inject as much truth as possible in order to sound credible. He positively loathed himself as he spoke, though he was somewhat angry with Kenny as well for putting him in this awkward situation. Why couldn't he just leave well enough alone?!

"What did you argue about?"

"Moving," Kyle answered truthfully, glancing up at Craig. "Right?"

Craig nodded, rubbing his face.

"It was the night of the party, Clyde," he spoke up. "Kyle wasn't happy about moving to Baltimore, so we had a fight after everyone left."

"And did this fight become physical?" Officer Flynn jumped in, raising an eyebrow in Craig's direction.

"Of course not," Craig scoffed, crossing his arms again. "We just yelled. You know, typical relationship crap."

"Then why was Kyle washing blood out of his hair in my shower just a couple hours later?" Kenny snapped at Craig.

"I-I was upset and not paying attention and I fell down the basement steps," Kyle quickly supplied. "I banged up my face and my head, so I bled a lot."

"Kyle, you know that's a goddamn lie! You know it!" Kenny yelled, sounding like he was about to lose his mind. "Fine, fine," he said, holding up his hands and closing his eyes for a moment; he took a deep breath. "Check the basement," he said, his eyes popping open. "Just check the fucking basement, it'll speak volumes on Kyle's behalf."

Clyde stood, flipping his notebook closed and coming to stand before Kyle, looking down at him; Kyle reluctantly glanced up.

"Is that okay with you, Kyle? If we take a look at the basement?"

Kyle could feel himself blanching, his gaze swiftly going to Craig and pleading with him to take the reins; he nodded minutely, barely moving his head.

"S-sure, I guess so," he said, almost feeling like they were dragging a scalpel through his belly and pouring his guts on the floor. Now everyone was going to be privy to his secret agonies and shames, almost like he was a fucking sideshow. He knew that he could refuse because they didn't have a warrant, but to deny them entrance to the basement would look so suspicious; he'd just have to find a way to explain its contents away, though he didn't know how he'd ever manage to do that.

"Here, I'll help you," Kenny volunteered, coming over and offering Kyle a shoulder to lean on. "Do you think you'll be okay?"

"I think so," Kyle muttered, reaching up and putting an around around Kenny's shoulders, ignoring how closely Craig was watching them both. Standing, he pointed toward the white, basement door. "It's over there."

Slowly, the group headed toward the door, Kyle's heart beating so uncomfortably fast that he felt faint, though being close to Kenny again was proving to be a comfort. He just wished they had been reunited under different circumstances, possibly in another life where their love could've survived. He could feel Craig's eyes on the back of his head, practically drilling into his skull as he turned the knob, his hand shaking terribly.

"It's going to be okay," Kenny murmured, holding him close; his cologne wafting under Kyle's nose and making him weak.

Nodding, Kyle opened the door slowly while holding his breath, almost feeling like he was having an out of body experience as people other than Craig and himself began to descend the steps, Kenny practically carrying him down into the gloom. What he saw completely blew him away, though, his eyes traveling all around the room in utter disbelief.

The basement didn't look anything like it had the last time he'd been in its depths, the whips and manacles on the walls gone; the restraints having disappeared. The exam table had been pushed up against the wall and stripped, appearing innocuous and not out of place; all of Craig's OR equipment gone. The rolling cart that held his surgical instruments and the kidney-shaped bowls was gone as well, along with anything he used to repair the damage Kyle suffered at his hands.

In short, the basement looked like a basement, nothing more, nothing less; Kyle could hardly believe it. The only thing that was still in place aside from the table were the overhead fluorescent lights.

"What are we looking for here?" Clyde asked, looking around. "It looks like a normal basement, unless I'm missing something."

Frantically, Kenny looked all around, taking Kyle with him as he looked for anything Kyle had described in Rose, but he quickly stopped; sagging with disappointment. He turned to Kyle, his face lost and confused.

"Kyle, I don't understand," he said. "You wrote about Craig hurting you down here, cutting you, and then -"

Kyle shook his head slowly, tears burning his eyes as he watched his lies cut Kenny into pieces; each word destroying him in turn.

"I'm sorry, Kenny," he said, reaching up and touching his cheek. "They were lies, all of them; flights of fancy."

"No, I refuse to believe that!" Kenny yelled. "He got to you, he did something, I know he did!" He looked at Clyde in desperation. "Ask about the diary, dammit! Ask them where Rose is!"

Clyde looked confused, and he turned to Craig with raised eyebrows.

"Rose...?"

"Kyle's diary," Craig smiled, indulgently. "I haven't seen it in awhile, sweetheart. Do you know where it is?"

Kyle shook his head; he hadn't seen the diary since earlier that morning so he had no idea where it was.

"I don't know," he answered, truthfully. "I'm sorry."

"No, they're lying! Craig's controlling him again, just like always! I swear to God, you have to do something, or -"

"Clyde," Craig said, softly, coming over and standing beside Kyle as well; he took a hold of his arm. "Kyle isn't feeling well right now, and he really should be resting his ankle, so if there's nothing else..."

Clyde glanced at Flynn and shrugged slightly, looking over at Kenny.

"Kenny, we really can't bother them further without more proof."

"Get a fucking warrant then, get something!" Kenny yelled, trying to appeal to them; practically pleading. It tore Kyle's heart to shreds to hear it.

"We don't have nearly enough evidence to get a warrant, Kenny; you know that," Clyde sighed. "Craig, I'm sorry, man. You know we can't just look the other way on stuff like this; I hope you understand."

"I totally get it," Craig said, holding his hand up. He gently pulled on Kyle, signaling to Kenny that he needed to let go. "Now, if you'll get your hands off my husband, I'll just -"

"No fucking way!" Kenny yelled, pulling Kyle aside and punching Craig clean across the face; making him stagger to the side, gripping his mouth. "You aren't fucking going to get your way again, you psycho! You may know how to control Kyle but you don't control the entire goddamn world!"

"Kenny, that's enough!" Clyde yelled, coming over and taking a hold of Kenny and yanking him back. Yelping, Kyle fell to the floor, looking up as Clyde held onto an infuriated Kenny, who was straining to get his hands on Craig.

"I want him out of my house, now!" Craig yelled, going to Kyle and lifting him into his arms; holding him bridal style.

"Let's go, Kenny," Clyde grunted, holding onto Kenny with Flynn's assistance, both of them carting him toward the basement steps; Kenny fighting the entire way.

"You have to believe me!" Kenny yelled, practically in tears now. "Craig's hurting him, he's been hurting him for years! Kyle, tell them! I can't save you if you won't say something!"

"Calm down before I have to put the cuffs on you, Kenny," Clyde said, pulling him up the stairs. "Craig, are you going to want to press charges, or...."

"No, just get him out of here," Craig snapped, holding Kyle close. "I've half a mind to get a restraining order, but it won't be necessary. After all, we'll be moving soon so that asshole will be a nonissue."

"What, Craig I thought -" Kyle started to speak before Craig gave him a severe look, silencing him completely.

"No! You can't let him move Kyle away, then we won't be able to help him!" Kenny shrieked, fighting harder now. "He'll kill him! He'll fucking kill him! Listen to me!"

"Okay, that's it, you had your chance," Clyde muttered, pulling out some handcuffs and slapping them on Kenny before pulling him up the stairs and into the kitchen.

"Kyle, please, say something!" Kenny pleaded, his eyes catching Kyle's one last time before he was pulled away; his shouts fading as the cops forcibly removed him from the house.

"Well, that was certainly entertaining," Craig muttered, starting up the stairs as Kyle held onto him tightly. "Kenny always knew how to make a scene, huh?"

Kyle just stayed silent, drowning in remorse and shame, hardly understanding his actions even though he wanted to believe he'd done the right thing. He didn't want to give up on Craig before he'd done everything in his power to save him, but he couldn't stand what he'd just done to Kenny. His guilt was so overpowering that he could barely keep his head up, hating himself as each moment passed.

When they got to the top of the stairs Clyde appeared with something clutched in his hand, the diary pages Kyle had left behind at Karen's house.

"Here, these belong to you, don't they?" He asked, handing them to Kyle. Glancing at Craig, Clyde continued to appear extremely guilty. "I'm so sorry about this, Craig; I just don't know what got into McCormick, you know? He's practically losing his mind out there."

"He's always been pretty dramatic," Craig replied, rolling his eyes. "Don't worry about it."

"Well, you guys try to have a nice day, okay? We'll get out of your hair," Clyde said, turning away and retreating down the hallway. After a moment, the sound of a door shutting could be heard and then silence.

"I can't believe that motherfucker," Craig seethed, setting Kyle back down on a chair and then walking the floor; raking his hands through his hair over and over. "He actually got the cops, one of my fucking best friends, no less, to come in here and completely trample all over our privacy! That shit is fucking disgraceful!"

"He just wanted to help me, Craig," Kyle said, pressing his hands against his face as he started to sob. He wasn't even sure who he was really crying for, himself or Kenny; though he was pretty sure he was weeping for both of them. It would've been so easy to throw Craig under the bus and run away with Kenny, so simple that he could imagine it in his mind, but his relentless, overwhelming need to uphold his commitment to his husband practically blinded him. He just wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he'd turned his back on Craig when he needed him so much.

I deserve whatever I have coming now, he thought, continuing to sob until he started to gag; his entire body shaking. Oh, God, Kenny, I'm so sorry; I'm so fucking sorry!

"Baby, baby, don't cry. Please, just stop crying, okay?" Craig soothed him softly, wrapping his arms around Kyle and leaning his head on his shoulder. "I promise things will be better, I'll be better; I'll do anything I can to make you happy."

"Then don't make me move away from everything I care about," Kyle whispered, scrubbing the tears from his eyes even though more continued to fall. "I don't want to leave South Park, Craig."

"We'll talk about it, love; I promise. Here, you can even keep these diary pages so you can make Rose whole again. What do you think?" Plucking up the pages from the table, Craig handed them over to Kyle, who pressed them against his chest; closing his eyes.

"I don't even know where she is," he whispered, opening his eyes and gazing down at Kenny's letter; his heart splintering until it felt absolutely useless. "You took her from me."

"She's right here, Kyle," Craig said, pulling her from his pocket and handing her over. "I just wanted to read more of her so I can get to know you better. Is that okay?"

Silently, Kyle nodded his head, opening the diary to the spot where he'd ripped the pages out; he stuck them in, his eyes lingering on the bit of poem Kenny had shared with him. Quietly, he began to read it aloud:

"The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom."

What have I done? Kyle thought, already beginning to shut down in the face of so much stress and upheaval. What the fuck have I done?

******

That night, Kyle fell asleep in Craig's arms after they had slow, simple sex without any hint of aggression or violence; Craig holding him closely as he thrust into Kyle's aching body. As always, he whispered words of complete devotion and love, almost leaving Kyle breathless because Craig's version of love was so absolute. It didn't leave any room for the individual, crossing the line into obsessive territory; all-consuming and complete. Kyle had allowed himself to be taken there in the blue darkness, his hands gripping the sheets as Craig made love to his body, never realizing that his mind was miles away; traveling toward Kenny wherever he was.

Kyle was consumed with guilt to the point where he was barely able to think or function, his mind circling the same thoughts over and over. He could only keep asking himself 'why?' Why hadn't he escaped? Why hadn't he taken Kenny's hand and stepped into the sunlight? They could be together right now, slipping into a new romance free of fear and pain, but no, he'd decided to stay; he'd decided to do the honorable thing. He was starting to consider his ceaseless need to do the right thing as a real character flaw. Either way, he fell asleep with Kenny's name on his lips, and when he awoke hours later, it was still dark, and Kenny was the first thing he thought of.

Feeling like he was going to suffocate if he stayed in bed for one second longer, Kyle managed to slip away from Craig's arms and slide to the floor, his ankle paining him badly even though Craig had dosed him with a Tylenol-3 before they'd gone to bed. Kyle hadn't protested, almost welcoming the sensation of being fuzzy and loose, his brain drifting and shutting up for awhile. Crawling out of the room, he immediately headed outside, needing to be out of the stifling confines of the house and breathing the clean night air; filling up his lungs as he watched the moon with hungry eyes.

They'd spent the day being quiet for the most part; gentle with one another. Kyle had wanted to venture into the garden but Craig didn't think it was a good idea. He'd wanted Kyle to rest and take it easy after enduring so much, and Kyle had complied. Craig hadn't been cruel about it either, merely showing concern for his husband's well-being, going so far as to wait on and attend to him; making sure his every little need was seen to. He'd served him dinner in bed and bathed him in the master bath, taking care of his ankle with ice and more compression wrap; chiding Kyle to keep it elevated. Craig had been sweet and kind to him for the entire day, and while Kyle had appreciated it he couldn't help but feel that Craig was trying to lull him again; make him feel safe so he could spring another surprise on him. He felt tired and lost just thinking about it.

Feeling momentarily at peace just by being around his roses again, Kyle studied the beds, his practiced eyes seeing all of the weeds he needed to pull as soon as possible. The roses themselves looked okay, although they needed to be pruned, but over all they were lush and full; trembling slightly in the nighttime breeze. Clearly, Craig had cared for them at least a little, and this knowledge filled Kyle with tenderness, though he was still very leery about his husband's intentions; his next move. He wanted to believe that Craig was serious about changing, but who could tell with him? He could flip a switch inside of himself seemingly at random and then he turned into a different person.

I want to trust in him, though, Kyle thought, passing his hand over a cluster of night-muted roses; their petals frosted white by moonlight. I want to continue loving him. I want to give him a chance, even if it makes me a fool.

Immediately, his thoughts traveled to Kenny as his heart ached and yearned for him, remembering his look of surprise from earlier in the day; the way Kyle had allowed him to be blindsided. He had never wanted to betray him, if anything he wanted nothing more than to love him, but Craig was his husband. Shouldn't his loyalty be reserved for him?

Kenny always had your back, no matter what, his mind reminded him, a nasty little voice that made him cringe. He loves you, he wants to save you, he wants to be with you. He'd probably die for you, and you turned your back on him because you're weak; you're so fucking weak. You deserve the beatings, you deserve it all.

"No, shut up. Just shut up," Kyle whimpered, clutching his head with his hands. "I was just trying to do the right thing!"

You always try to do the right thing and look where it's gotten you, his mind continued to whisper, taunting him. You're covered in bruises and burns. Your own husband has raped you and beaten you and trapped you. He treats you like a dog and you refuse to leave. You must love it, you love it all. You're sick. You're sick. You're sick. You're -

"Shut the fuck up!" Kyle yelled, fighting back sobs as he knelt in the garden; drenched in moonlight and regret. "It isn't true! It isn't true!"

"Kyle?" A hushed voice whispered through the night, capturing his attention. Terrified, Kyle looked up, his eyes frantically scanning the yard; widening when he saw a dark figure just beyond the fence circling the property.

"W-who's there? Who is it?" He asked, his voice breaking apart. "What do you want?"

"Kyle, it's me, Kenny!" Now the figure was beckoning to him. "Come here!"

"Kenny?" Kyle whispered, complete surprise making him believe he was only hearing things. "No, it can't be."

"Kyle! Hurry!" Kenny's voice, hushed and roughened by cigarettes called to him again, making his heart pound. Elation shot through Kyle and all at once he was crawling as fast as he could to the fence, teardrops falling from his eyes from happiness. Approaching the black metal fence, he clutched at it, gazing up at Kenny.

"Kenny, what are you doing here? Why are you here?"

Kenny knelt next to the fence, eye level with Kyle. He was wearing a sweater with the hood pulled up but he pushed it back, mussing his blonde hair in the process. He grabbed at the fence as well, staring at Kyle with red-rimmed eyes.

"Kyle, what happened today?" He asked, reaching up and covering one of Kyle's hands with his own. "Why didn't you tell the cops the truth? What did Craig do to you?"

Impulsively, Kyle leaned forward and kissed Kenny's hand, his lips lingering for a moment as he closed his eyes; tears still falling freely. Pulling away, he shook his head, his eyes still closed. Somehow, he couldn't even bear to look at him, not after everything he'd done.

"Craig didn't do anything to me," he said, softly. He had no intention of telling Kenny everything that had happened in the hotel room; it would just hurt him, and Kyle wanted to avoid hurting him more than he absolutely had to. "We...we talked, and he promised to change. He wants to make this work, and so do I; I have to."

"Kyle, you don't have to make anything work! You've already tried for years, and he just keeps getting worse!" Kenny's hand tightened on Kyle's as desperation crept into his tone. "You can see the progression in Rose just as easily as I can. Things started out small but over time he became more violent and controlling. Pretty soon you won't even be allowed to leave the house!" He lapsed into silence for a moment and when he spoke again, there were tears in his voice.

"Kyle, he's working his way up to killing you. Craig is going to lose it one day and just kill you, and if that happens, I...I..." he broke off, sobbing now. "I don't want that to happen! I can't! You need to get out, now!"

"Kenny, calm down," Kyle whispered, leaning his head against the cold bars; his eyes finally opening though he still couldn't look Kenny in the face. "Craig would never do that, at least I don't think he would, but it doesn't matter; he promised to get help, counseling."

"He told you that?"

"Well, not in so many words, but -"

"Kyle, he's fucking manipulating you! He's saying whatever he has to to get you to back down! Why can't you see that?! He knows how to manipulate you, he knows what buttons to push!"

"He told me about Tweek, though," Kyle murmured, finally lifting his eyes and staring into Kenny's; this action alone was almost enough to break him when he saw how sad his friend looked. "He told me what happened, he actually opened up."

"Craig nearly killed Tweek, Kyle," Kenny said, wrapping his other hand around Kyle's; holding him tightly. "He told me everything! Craig broke his collar bone and gave him a concussion, he -"

"Stop, just stop," Kyle said, hating every word that Kenny spoke; hating them for their truth and ugliness. He hated it all. "Kenny, I need to do this. If Craig can be saved, I want to help. Why can't you understand?"

"He only opened up about Tweek because he knew he could make you feel sorry for him," Kenny seethed, refusing to give in. "He's held that information back for years so he could use it at the best time to manipulate you. He's smart, you know he is; he's fucking with your head. He knows exactly what he's doing; this whole thing is like a goddamn chess game to him."

"You didn't hear him, Kenny! You weren't there! He was crying! He never fucking cries!" Kyle yelled, becoming angry now, mostly at himself. Everything that Kenny was saying seemed so plausible, so sound, but he just couldn't accept it. To accept it would mean that he was married to an irredeemable monster, and Kyle just couldn't face that. To face a harsh reality like that would be akin to admitting that he'd wasted years of his life living in a nightmare with no payoff; no light at the end of the tunnel. The whole disgusting affair would have been an exercise in futility, a complete and utter waste of his time and youth. No, it couldn't be true.

"He cried because he knew you would respond to it! Wake the fuck up, Kyle! You're living in a fucking dream world, and you're only hurting yourself! Why the fuck don't you want to save yourself, huh? Don't you think you're worth it? I do! I always have! What the fuck is wrong with you?!"

"Let go of me!" Kyle yelled, pulling away so Kenny couldn't touch him anymore; gasping when he put too much weight on his injured ankle. "You don't know what you're talking about! You don't turn your back on the people you love, you don't just throw them away like garbage! You just don't!"

"No, you just let them treat you like garbage apparently," Kenny snapped, still clinging to the fence. "Craig is garbage, Kyle, even if you can't see it. He may be a doctor, he may be smart, he may put on airs, but at the end of the day he's just a fucking insecure bully; an overgrown kid that can't stand not getting his way. Wake up."

"Just get out of here! I don't want to see you again!" Kyle shouted, turning away and beginning to drag himself back toward the house. "Go find another cause to devote yourself to."

"No fucking way, Kyle," Kenny called, his voice a mixture of fury and sorrow. "I'm not giving up on you. I'm going to come by everyday just to make sure you're okay. I don't even care if you talk to me, I'll still be here."

"Fine, waste your time. See if I care," Kyle choked out, warmth flooding him at Kenny's words even as his mind collapsed from all the strain it was under. "Do whatever you want, Kenny, but you're wrong; I'll prove it."

******

For the next few days everything was perfect. So perfect that Kyle could barely believe it, waking up everyday like he lived in a golden dream with no end. Craig continued to care for him with love and patience, making sure that Kyle took it easy and never lifted a finger; attending to every one of his needs. He explained to Kyle that he took an extended leave from work, and when Kyle protested he put his anxieties to rest with ease:

"I never take time off, Kyle, so I've earned quite a bit of vacation time. Besides, the other doctors in the practice are covering my patients. They understand that I had important matters at home that needed to be seen to. Don't worry, okay? You're my focus right now, the way you should be."

Kyle still couldn't help but feel guilty, even though he was secretly delighted that Craig was being so loving and soft. It was truly like they traveled back to the beginning of their relationship, when things were new and fresh and exciting. They spent hours in bed just talking and enjoying one another's company; Craig holding Kyle in his arms and asking him countless questions.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," he murmured one afternoon, one finger winding through one of Kyle's curls and lulling him. "You and me together, just like this. I want to know everything you're thinking and feeling...I never want you to be sad again, okay? You need to tell me if I'm doing anything to make you unhappy."

"I promise," Kyle whispered, laying his head against Craig's chest and becoming hypnotized by his steady heartbeats. "I just want us to be okay, Craig; that's all I've ever wanted."

"So you've forgotten about Kenny? I read the letter he wrote to you, Kyle. He's in love with you, he wants to take you away."

Kyle paused, falling backward into memories and remembering the way Kenny held him the last night they were together; standing atop the Grand Mesa with the night sky all around them. He could even recall the way Kenny's soft lips had felt on his forehead, flushing softly. He would never admit it to Craig but it was a memory, a feeling, that he wanted to carry in his skin for the rest of his life; Kenny's warmth and kindness enfolding him entirely.

"Kenny's a good person," he replied, not wanting to elaborate. What else was there to say? He was a dream that couldn't come true because reality wasn't always kind; he'd learned to accept that. "I didn't deserve his kindness."

"Oh, he had ulterior motives from the beginning," Craig scoffed, lightly yanking on Kyle's hair and making him jump slightly. "Sorry."

"It's okay," Kyle whispered, feeling uneasy. "I don't want to talk about this anymore, okay? Don't be mad."

Craig was quiet for awhile, his finger twisting Kyle's hair tighter and tighter but not pulling. Finally, he sighed.

"Fine, I'll let it go. As long as he's out of the picture I'll let it go." All of a sudden, his phone rang from its perch on the bedside table. Picking it up, he sighed. "I have to take this, baby. I'll be right back."

Kyle watched him rise and throw his robe on, the sheets clutched to his chest. A sudden thought occurred to him as he watched Craig begin to stride toward the door.

"What about my phone, Craig? I haven't seen it since I've been home."

"Oh, that," Craig replied, glancing over his shoulder for a fraction of a second. "I'm not proud of myself but I destroyed it when I figured out you'd run off to Kenny's. I'll buy you another one, though; a better one. Promise."

"That was uncalled for," Kyle replied, taken aback. "But okay, I guess. Sure."

"I shouldn't be long," Craig grinned, walking out of the room. Kyle heard him answer but his voice quickly faded away so he was unable to hear the details. Stretching out on his side, he pressed his fist to his mouth as his thoughts immediately strayed to Kenny.

Kenny had been true to his word, still coming by the house everyday, sometimes multiple times, to check up on Kyle. If he was outside in the garden he would wave but he refused to come to the fence, even if Kenny beckoned him over; it was just too painful. Seeing Kenny was like being tempted with the most delicious meal in the world but Kyle wouldn't even allow himself a tiny bite; realizing that if he were to give in a little he could very quickly give in completely. He would chastise himself harshly whenever his gaze would flit over to Kenny, his entire being crying out at him to run, just run; be free. Kyle would watch Kenny with heartsick eyes from his gilded cage, feeling more trapped than ever, even though Craig seemed very open about him going out on his own.

"It's just too bad your ankle is still so messed up," he mused during dinner one evening. "You could've gone back to work by now if you really wanted to, but I don't even think you could drive yourself right now."

"It hurts too much," Kyle murmured, reaching down and gingerly rubbing it. "I must've twisted it really badly, I still can't put any weight on it."

"Sometimes sprains are worse than fractures, in terms of healing time," Craig commented, leaning back and taking a sip of wine. "Just keep icing it and keeping it elevated. It should be okay in a couple weeks."

Kyle bit his lip and looked down at his plate. Craig had surprised him and ordered his favorite, Thai; his plate loaded with red curry. For whatever reason, he didn't feel hungry, though.

"Craig, you've been spending a lot of time on the phone lately," he said, trying to sound casual. He scraped at his food with his fork, hating to spoil the mood but not being able to stop himself.

"I guess so," Craig replied, taking a bite of rice. "So?"

"I'm just wondering what the calls are about is all," Kyle said, carefully. "You always go into your study so I'm just curious what they're about."

"Work, patients," Craig said, simply. He shrugged. "Just because I'm not going into the office doesn't mean I won't get calls, Kyle; you know that as well as I do."

"Right," Kyle murmured, feeling even more uncomfortable; something just didn't wash here. "We haven't really talked about moving since, you know, everything went down in Grand Junction."

"You're right, we haven't," Craig replied, laying his fork aside. "I've put everything on hold, just like you wanted me to."

Kyle's head snapped up when he heard this, his eyes wide.

"Really? You have?"

"Well, of course," Craig smiled, reaching out and taking a hold of his hand. "I told you I would, at least until we talked everything over. I'm really trying to be better, Kyle."

"Oh, Craig, thank you," Kyle gushed, setting his fork down and bashfully pushing a curl behind his ear; his face becoming flushed with pleasure. "That means a lot to me."

"You're just going to have to trust me, baby," Craig said, picking up his wine glass again; he winked. "Can you do that?"

Kyle nodded vigorously, beside himself with relief and happiness.

"Yes, yes! I'll do anything if it means not having to leave everything behind."

"Good, then you can tell Kenny to stop patrolling in front of our house everyday," Craig said, catching Kyle by surprise, making him freeze.

"Oh, you noticed that?"

Craig just stared at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Of course I did, Kyle. What, do you think I just don't pay attention to anything? I see the same blue truck driving by our house every single day; sometimes several times. What, doesn't Kenny have anything better to do? I mean, I know he's a photographer so he does a lot of freelancing, but -"

"W-what?" Kyle breathed, staring at him. "How did you know that? I never told you that."

"You didn't need to," Craig smirked. "My sister didn't just give me Karen's address, you know. She was actually full of interesting information, now that I think of it. I should really talk to her more often."

"Oh, I-I see," Kyle stuttered, suddenly feeling mildly afraid even though he wasn't sure why. "Well, yes, he is a photographer -"

"Your reaction tells me you knew that this whole time, you just didn't see fit to let me in on the secret. Isn't that right?" Craig studied him, a casual smile flitting across his lips. "I'm not mad, Kyle. I just think it's interesting that you wouldn't share that with me. I mean, I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't; it's just Kenny's job, after all."

Kyle's mind flicked to the lighthouse picture; he hadn't seen it since he'd been home but he was afraid to ask about it. He shook his head, trying to backtrack.

"I don't know, I just didn't think you'd be interested. You hate Kenny, Craig, why would you care about his job?"

"That's fair, but still, it just makes me wonder," Craig said, shrugging a little and going back to his dinner.

"Can I get a new phone soon?" Kyle asked, timidly. "You said you were going to buy me one soon, remember? I'd drive myself to the store, but -"

Craig held up a hand, smiling.

"I was planning on getting you one next week, Kyle. Stop worrying."

The next day, Kyle took a deep breath and actually hobbled across the yard when he saw Kenny waiting at the fence; able to put a minimal amount of weight on his ankle but not being able to walk for very far before becoming completely exhausted. Kenny just watched him with a hungry expression as he approached, hands wrapped around the bars.

"You're actually going to talk to me today?" He asked, his blue eyes softening as he regarded Kyle; purplish shadows staining the skin beneath them. For the first time Kyle was able to see just how tired and worn out he looked; something that made his heart feel like it was being chewed up and spat out. He tried to stiffen his resolve, though.

"Kenny, you need to stop wasting your time like this," he said, leaning against the fence and sliding down until he was sitting in the warm, fragrant grass; the early Autumn sun cascading over them in golden sheets. Overhead the sky was a brilliant blue, almost so clear and pristine that Kyle felt like he could fall into it like a body of water.

"I'm not wasting my time," Kenny muttered, kneeling down so that he was right beside Kyle; the thin metal bars the only thing between them. Reaching out, he took a hold of the hem of Kyle's shirt. "I'm biding my time."

"Craig's really been trying," Kyle said softly, thinking of how sweet his husband had been. Just the night before they'd taken a bath together and then made love for hours, Craig cradling him close as they fell asleep together. Kyle hadn't had a single nightmare since he'd come home, not with Craig treating him like he was worth more than gold; his most priceless treasure. "I really think he wants to be a better person, Kenny; I really do."

"For your sake I hope you're right, but I know better, Kyle. I'm sorry. If you'd heard the way Tweek spoke, you'd know what I mean."

"Whatever, it isn't like Tweek is a saint or anything," Kyle replied, narrowing his eyes. "He cheated on Craig, didn't he? Craig wanted to forgive him, too; he wanted to make things work."

Kenny just stared at him, completely taken aback.

"What the hell are you talking about, Kyle? Tweek didn't cheat on Craig, you've got it all backward."

Now it was Kyle's turn to be surprised, a vague, nagging thread of doubt starting to wind its way through his blood. He shook his head.

"No, Craig said -"

"What, he said that Tweek fucking stepped out on him? That son of a bitch is unbelievable. Dude, Tweek caught Craig cheating, and this was after Craig had been beating up on him for months. It was the final fucking straw, which is why Tweek finally decided to leave his ass."

Feeling slightly nauseous, Kyle slowly began to stand, keeping a tight hold on the fence the whole time; Kenny watching him with shadowed, serious eyes.

"No, that can't be true. Craig wouldn't lie to me about something like that. He was opening up to me, he was trying to...he wanted to..." he shook his head again, trying to clear the suspicions and doubts from his brain. "I won't believe it. I can't."

"Then don't, but it's the truth," Kenny replied, standing as well and brushing the grass from his jeans. "I'm pretty sure Craig is a straight fucking sociopath at this point, so it doesn't surprise me that he's become very good at twisting things to make him seem like the good guy or the victim; whatever he wants. And you, well, you just want to see the good in people so you believe him."

"Stop talking to me like I'm a stupid child," Kyle snapped, turning away and beginning to limp back toward the house; sudden tears muddling his eyes. At one point, he missed his footing and fell to the ground, gasping as his ankle twisted beneath him again. Biting back tears, he rubbed it.

"Kyle, please," Kenny called to him, a hitch in his voice. Kyle turned back, his face burning with shame and embarrassment; at the way he had fallen, at how foolish he must appear. "Just listen to me, for God's sake. I'm not telling you to ask Craig directly because I don't want him to last out at you, but just..." he sighed, rubbing his face with his hand. "Just don't believe everything he tells you. If he lied to you about that, he's lying to you about other things. I know it."

******

"Are you sure you're going to be okay while I'm gone?" Craig asked, tucking his wallet in his pocket as he walked toward the door, his car keys in his hand. "Do you need anything before I leave?"

Kyle just smiled and shook his head, wrist-deep in dishwater as he sat at the kitchen sink and washed the dishes. Craig had wheeled his computer chair out of his study and pushed it into the kitchen after Kyle had complained that he was getting tired of sitting around; that he missed taking care of the household and doing chores. Craig smiled indulgently and watched Kyle for a moment as he diligently worked, the bubbles frothing around his hands as he rinsed the plates and loaded the dishwasher.

"I'll be fine, promise. Drive carefully, okay?" Kyle tilted his face and accepted Craig's kiss, breathing in his spicy cologne and sighing a little.

"Of course. I shouldn't be gone long, especially if I hit all green lights. I'll make sure they put extra soy sauce in the bag too, okay?"

"You better," Kyle teased, trying to ignore his sudden guilt. He wanted to pretend he hadn't had an ulterior motive for getting Craig out of the house, but he had to know. There was so much he needed to know for himself, or else he'd never have any peace.

"I'm off, then. I love you," Craig said, disappearing through the doorway.

"Love you," Kyle replied, waiting for a moment until he heard the front door open and close, and then there was silence; a deep, weighted silence. He took a long, shuddering breath before he slowly began to roll himself toward the bedroom, his body already beginning to shake at the prospect of what he intended to do.

"I'm just making sure," he murmured. "That's all. I trust Craig completely, after all."

Rolling the chair into the bedroom, he paused for a moment while trying to get his bearings, the musk of the room filling his senses; feeding sudden nostalgia. He'd known so much sweetness and pain in this room, wrapped in Craig's arms and succumbing to his whims; there was so much history in here. It nearly overwhelmed him for a moment until he remembered that he only had so much time, and then he was rolling quickly toward the dresser. Opening the top drawer, he fished around until he found the keys to the desk in the study, but instead of taking the key for his drawer, he took the one for Craig's.

Just holding the key made Kyle sweat, because he'd never dared to use it. He'd never even let himself consider using it, so just the act of removing it from the drawer was a monumental action. Trembling, he considered it for a moment before he clutched it in his hand, and then he was rolling from the room, almost feeling like a thief in his own home as he stole down the corridor, breath coming in gasps as he approached the study.

He lingered for a moment in the doorway, simply staring at the cherry wood desk and racing through his thoughts, almost talking himself out of his plan. Shaking his head, he reminded himself that this was necessary. If anything, it was good for his relationship with Craig. After all, a relationship couldn't thrive if its foundation wasn't built in trust, and how could he trust anyone if he was always wondering about their secrets? No, this needed to happen so he could lay his fears to rest once he saw that Craig had nothing to hide.

"He's always doing things for my own good," he muttered. "Well, this is for his own good. Turnabout is fair play, right?"

Silence was the only response, the hushed, still house breathing all around him like an immense, waiting creature. Approaching the desk, he had to try a few times before he was able to get the key in the slot, finally sliding it home and turning it. He still couldn't bring himself to open it, though.

He can't have anything to hide, he thought. If he did, he wouldn't have left the key where I could get it. He would've hidden it elsewhere, possibly in his office so I could never get to it. The fact that he kept it in the house means he's completely innocent.

This thought brought him momentary comfort until a deeper, more sinister voice sprang to life in his brain; speaking from the basement portion that harbored darker suspicions.

Or he assumes that you don't have the guts, the balls, to ever even think of using the key. He knows you're afraid, Kyle; he knows that you won't cross him, so why should he bother to hide anything? Hell, it's even a stretch that he locks the fucking thing in the first place, don't you think?

Oh, how he loathed that voice, hated it beyond measure. It was the same voice that whispered to him in his darkest moments, the one that insisted he enjoyed the abuse, the torture, the basement visits where he screamed until his voice was hoarse. He thought it would shut up now that the basement had been conquered, Craig assuring him that he'd dismantled it because he never wanted to use it again, but no, it was still there; it'd always be there. This was the voice that reminded him how much he savored the pain and agony, being stitched together after being torn apart.

It was his hatred for this voice, this secret part, that gave Kyle enough courage to yank the drawer open, all the while holding his breath. At first, its contents seemed completely innocuous, just papers and bills and documents, nothing out of the ordinary, but as Kyle began to sift through it, a ribbon of unease began to nag at his gut.

First it started with all of the brochures of homes for sale, none of them in South Park; no, they were all located in Baltimore. He lay those aside, assuming that they were from months ago, before he and Craig had agreed that they weren't going to move; at least not yet. His suspicion spiked when he saw the dates on some of them, noticing that they'd been printed only a few days before, one of the papers having been printed that very morning.

"No, this has to be a mistake," he murmured, still wanting to give Craig the benefit of the doubt. Pausing, he lifted another glossy piece of paper out of the drawer, his mouth growing dry when he figured out what it was.

It was covered with pictures of their home, along with a listing price and all of the information pertaining to its features and history. Kyle could barely believe what he was looking at, the pictures of his garden prominently displayed; his roses and studio and kitchen screaming at him from the page. In the corner a cheerful looking woman, no doubt the realtor in charge of selling their property, smiled up at him, clearly eager to make a sale; Cummings & Co. Realtors emblazoned across the area beneath her photo. The world seemed to collapse in on him when he saw the date the house had been listened: a mere three days before, when Craig's phone calls had really started to pick up.

"He couldn't," Kyle whispered, dropping the page and continuing to claw through the drawer, becoming frantic now. Things only continued to unravel as he came across his wallet and phone, completely intact and perfect. He clutched it to his chest and began to sob quietly, his brain falling apart as he considered the ramifications of everything he was seeing. Craig had lied, he'd lied, and right to his face; repeatedly! Kyle had always known that his husband had a dark side, a mean streak, but he'd never thought of him as a liar; at the very least, he could trust him, but now even that was turning out to be vapor.

Setting the phone aside, Kyle reached into the drawer again, this time bringing up a photo album. Opening it, he nearly wretched when he saw its contents, a plethora of photos of himself in states of undress and abuse, propped up in his restraints in the basement and clearly unconscious, his back covered over with bloody red welts; completely naked and exposed. He'd never even known that Craig was taking pictures of him after whipping him, but it looked like he'd been taking them for years; the sheer volume of photos staggering as Kyle frantically flipped through the album. Craig had even taken pictures of him while he was in the process of stitching him up, his skin a latticework of black sutures; Kyle's head lolling as he lay mindlessly on the exam table.

On the verge of vomiting, Kyle's mouth tasted like bile when he got toward the end, turning the page and seeing a different person in the photos; blonde hair red with blood as he lay across a bed Kyle didn't recognize.

"Tweek," he gasped, covering his mouth and choking back the bile rising in his throat. "He fucking took pictures of Tweek while he was unconscious, too. Oh, God, he beat him just as badly as he did me, until he -"

Shutting the book, Kyle shut his eyes as he tried to stay in the moment, his mind teetering towards blackness as it finally snapped; everything converging on him in one cataclysmic, earth-shaking, mind shattering moment. He was finally waking up to the real, unadulterated truth, the reality of his situation that he'd been denying for years; that Craig was an actual monster that had managed to step from the darkness of nightmares and into the waking world. He passed through an unsuspecting society like a plague, appearing so normal and upright, when really his hands were dripping in blood; he reeked of it!

"I gave him everything, all of me," Kyle said, his voice dead and faraway; almost sounding like he was underwater. Maybe he was? Maybe he'd been drowning for years and he'd just never realized it, not until Kenny had come along and offered him salvation; the chance to breathe. Somehow, he managed to look into the drawer again, a sob tearing from his throat when he saw the lighthouse picture at the bottom, the glass shattered; the photo within nearly lost behind a spiderweb of cracks. He couldn't bear to look at it, any of it, for another second, even though there was more in the drawer to explore. Instead, he started stuffing everything back in the drawer, not caring if it was in order or in complete disarray, his shock giving way to blinding, raw fury.

I trusted him, he seethed, his brain overrun with a red fog of anger, every part of his mind rejecting Craig like he was a virus that needed to be eradicated. I let him talk me into staying. Jesus Christ, I've been his fucking punching bag for years, and I stayed! I gave up years of my life because I thought he loved me, but he doesn't fucking love anything; I don't even think he's capable of it.

Almost feeling like he was in a trance, Kyle hurriedly locked up the drawer and rolled out of the room, taking care to put the key back in the dresser exactly where he found it. Mechanically, he rolled back into the kitchen were he stared at the dishes in the sink for a few minutes, not realizing for a few moments what exactly he was seeing. Everything seemed like smoke now, smoke and mirrors and lies; he wasn't even sure he knew how to cope with all of this. All he knew was that he was angry beyond all reason; angry and fucking done, so done he could taste it. Before he even knew what he was doing, he scooted over to the knives and pulled one out, the longest knife he could find. For a moment, he just stared at it, imagining it disappearing into Craig over and over again; the thought gave him savage pleasure, and he found himself smiling.

All at once, his murderous reverie was interrupted when he heard Craig's keys in the front door, and as quickly as he could Kyle found himself rolling into the bedroom and stuffing the knife deep beneath the mattress on his side of the bed. Mere seconds later, Craig appeared in the doorway, his expression questioning.

"You didn't finish the dishes," he commented, holding up the bags of sushi he'd gone to pick up.

"Oh, yeah, sorry," Kyle grinned, pushing the chair away from the bed and over toward his husband. "I guess I got distracted."

******

The rest of the evening passed in a fog for Kyle as he tried to hold it together. He spent dinner staring down at his plate as he mindlessly ate his sushi, not tasting a single bite; every morsel passing his lips so much sawdust as he swallowed it down. Craig chattered and laughed, seemingly not noticing that Kyle was exceptionally quiet; his mood light and easygoing. After they finished eating, Craig took Kyle's hand and led him to the bathroom where they took a shower together, Craig pushing Kyle up against the tiled wall and kissing him deeply; his hands traveling over Kyle's naked flesh and making him want to vomit the entire time. He endured it all with a smile on his face, returning Craig's deep kisses even as he imagined snuffing him out with the knife waiting beneath the mattress; his visions dipped in blood.

When Craig fucked Kyle that night, he lay back and closed his eyes, imagining himself elsewhere; wanting to tear his skin off whenever Craig touched him. He couldn't even go to his garden this time around, so great was his rage and disgust as his husband claimed his body; rough thrusts rocking him up against the headboard. The only thing that kept him going was remembering the knife, its wicked, curved blade thirsting for violence and retribution. Soon it would taste Craig's flesh, and Kyle would be the one in control; finally, after so many years of bowing before a monster.

"I love you," Craig whispered as he finished, his warm breath flush against Kyle's neck; lips trailing over his throat. "God, I just love you so much."

Did you love me when you were taking those pictures? When you were lying to my face?

"Mm, I love you, too," Kyle sighed, snuggling close to Craig's side and resting his hand on his husband's chest. He felt for his heartbeat, relishing the notion of stopping it forever; a bloody clock winding down and becoming blessedly silent. He smiled widely.

"You seem pretty chipper all of a sudden," Craig said, playing with Kyle's hair languidly. "Did the earth move for you, too?"

It'll move when I finally give you what you deserve, you remorseless son of a bitch.

"You always make me feel good," Kyle said coquettishly, tucking himself under Craig's arm and nuzzling against him. "I'm just glad that we're really starting to work on our problems. Are we still gonna go to counseling?"

"Sure, whatever you want," Craig replied smoothly, kissing Kyle's forehead.

"And we really aren't going to move? You promise?"

"I already told you, Kyle, everything's on hold. I've already called the realtor and everything."

I just fucking bet you did.

"Do you think you'll be up for round two soon?" Craig asked, sitting up and looking down at Kyle with amusement. "There's just something about you tonight; I need you."

"It's so funny that you say that," Kyle said, resting his head in Craig's lap and gazing up at him. "I was thinking the same thing about you."

-----

Craig's breaths had become steady and deep when Kyle opened his eyes wide, staring at the night-darkened ceiling as shadows skittered across it; the curtains parted and revealing the silver brilliance of the moon and stars. It was a beautiful, calm night, and he could practically hear the knife calling to him from beneath the mattress; almost like it was giving off waves of heat he could feel against his back as he waited. Kyle had never felt so detached in his life, not even during the darkest of times when Craig had punished him in the basement nearly everyday. No, back then he had still tried to make sense of the entire situation; had still tried to rationalize it. That wasn't necessary anymore because he'd seen the truth.

There was just something about the chain of events that had finally woken him up from a cold stupor; the passage of years drenched in blood and agony and sacrifice. The first awakening had occurred when Kenny took his hand and led him away from the endless night, had given him a chance to have a taste of love that didn't threaten to destroy him. The second awakening had come when he'd had a chance to spend some time away from Craig. He'd been able to walk among people who cared for each other and wanted the best for one another, not because of what they could gain, but because of what they had to give. Kyle suddenly realized he'd been starving for years, fed only with Craig's table scraps and pittance, the crumbs of a life half-lived as he kept to the shadows; never knowing he was sleepwalking.

But the final awakening had happened when he'd seen for his own eyes how he appeared to Craig while in the throes of a punishment, his back torn to shreds from the bite of the whip. He'd seen himself under the clinical lights and crisscrossed with sutures, a secret experiment for Craig alone; tormented and left to weep. There was just something about seeing what Craig got to see, his flesh torn as he gasped for mercy, finally succumbing to the agony and fading into blessed nothingness. He'd always wanted to believe that Craig regretted the things he did down there, that they had a system that might make sense; that punishment was needed in order to keep the peace.

But, no, no that had never been the case. It had always been Craig's deepest preoccupation, his most consuming fetish; seeing the people he claimed to love in compromising states while he wielded the power.

Tweek, you were the first, weren't you? Just like I feared, Kyle thought, beginning to move now, almost like he was hypnotized; eyes open but not fully seeing. He seemed to be operating on instinct alone now. I'm going to make it right for you, for both of us; I promise.

Slowly, Kyle slid off the bed and reached under the mattress, acutely aware of Craig's breaths, watching as his chest rose and fell gently. He admired his untarnished skin for a moment, pretty and devoid of scars; Kyle had enough scars for the both of them. Holding his breath, Kyle's heart started thumping in delicious expectation as he pulled the knife out, its wicked edge glittering as the moon fell across it; almost glowing in Kyle's hand. For once, he wasn't trembling; this alone told him that what he was doing was right.

It's for your own good, Craig.

Climbing back onto the bed, Kyle crawled over to his sleeping husband and studied him for a moment, hating himself for thinking him handsome, even after everything. Craig looked so serene and peaceful as he slept, but Kyle supposed everybody did. He may be dreaming his little dreams but he wasn't thinking his awful thoughts or planning his next awful deed; no wonder he looked so deceptively kind. In that moment Kyle regarded him as an angel with a demon's predilections; claws and fangs soaked in blood. Any fear or regret he may have had vanished as he lifted the knife, its blade poised right above Craig's heart, and he could imagine it beating in its secret cavern; lost among bone and sinew and vessels. He could feel himself already ripping through fibers and chambers; could practically taste it, tough between his teeth.

Swiftly, he brought it down but he stopped himself at the last moment, Kenny's face of all things lighting up in his thoughts like a beacon and screaming at him to see reason. Kenny wouldn't want him to do this, would he? Could he still love Kyle if he knew he was a murderer, a coward that waited until the villain was asleep to put him out of his misery? He could see past the blood to the truth, right? Kyle had to do this, no, he needed to do this.

Kenny, please don't hate me, he thought, shutting his eyes and almost beginning to sob. I have to do this. You helped me see that this is the only way! You were the one that opened my eyes!

Desperately, he tried to hold onto the rage and anger as he continued to hold the knife steady, his eyes opening as he took deep breaths. He was past the point of caring about his soul or whether or not he could live with his decisions, he just didn't want to be alone at the end of all of this; then Craig really would win.

Now he was beginning to shake, the hateful tremors coursing through his skin as he really began to consider what he was doing. Had Craig really reduced him to this, a feral, bloodthirsty creature operating in the shadows? Is this what pain and abuse did to a person, turned them into a killer? Hadn't he always prided himself on doing the right thing, never choosing the path of least resistance? Wasn't what he was about to do something Craig would do?

I don't know! I don't know I don't know I don't know...Oh, god, I don't know....I don't know....

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Kyle froze, his entire body seizing up when he heard Craig's voice fight through the gloom. Looking down, he saw his eyes wide open and staring at him, eyebrows raised; he didn't even look afraid, only mildly annoyed. Kyle couldn't even speak, mouthing wordlessly as he continued to hold the knife, its tip only inches away from saving him from the wakened beast.

"Kyle, I asked you a question. What the fuck are you doing?"

"I...I....wanted to...I..." Kyle stammered, staring at Craig and then at the knife, his mind falling to pieces in an instant; the spell broken as reality rushed in. "I couldn't...I just...."

"Give me that," Craig snapped, sitting up and yanking the knife out of Kyle's hands. "Have you fucking lost your mind?"

Kyle only stared at him for a moment before he started laughing, truly unraveling as Craig stared at him.

"You have lost your mind," Craig said, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle's throat. "You've fucking gone crazy, haven't you?"

"Right, I'm the crazy one," Kyle giggled, reaching up and placing his hands around Craig's wrist. "Even though you have pictures of yourself torturing people in your desk drawer, I'm the crazy one. I guess I just forgot."

Craig became still and quiet, his eyes taking on their remote, dangerous cast.

"What did you say?" He asked, quietly.

"I saw them, all of them," Kyle said, continuing to laugh even though he was quickly running out of hysterical mirth. "You have Tweek in there, too; your childhood sweetheart. I'm not surprised he left you. Everyone should leave you. I should leave you, shouldn't I?"

Kyle wanted to say more but he suddenly found his airway being cut off, Craig's hand tightening around his throat until he could feel his eyes bugging out of his skull; tongue sticking out of his mouth as darkness crept into the edges of his vision.

"I should just kill you right now," Craig murmured, almost like they were having a normal conversation about the weather. "I could kill you right now and it'd be so easy, Kyle. What do you think of that?"

Kyle could only plead with his eyes as Craig continued to crush his throat, practically feeling himself slipping into the waters of eternity; almost welcoming them. Maybe then he could be free of the pain, the years unfolding as he lived under a monster's thumb. He shut his eyes, nearly coming to terms with his impending demise, when Craig released his throat; sweat, cleansing air rushing in and reviving him.

"You...you never had any intention of c-changing," Kyle gasped, grasping at his throat as his raspy breaths filled the air. "You l-lied, all of it was lies."

Craig was impassive as he laid the knife aside, almost regarding it with open disgust. He glanced back at Kyle.

"I told you what you needed to hear, Kyle. I needed your protection."

"W-what are you talking about?"

"Let's set aside the pretenses here, okay?" Craig asked, standing from the bed and quickly sliding on his boxer briefs. "What was I supposed to expect once we got back home, huh? I know how Kenny operates, Kyle. I knew it was only a matter of time before he woke up, saw you were gone, put two and two together, and then called the cops. I've told you before, he isn't hard to figure out, and neither are you."

Coming over, he took a hold of Kyle's arm and yanked him off the bed, ignoring his yelp of pain as he landed on his injured ankle; he began dragging him out of the room.

"What are you doing?! Let go of me!" Kyle shrieked, trying to pull away but failing miserably.

Craig continued to talk as he pulled Kyle down the hallway, the corridors darkened; only illuminated by faint shafts of moonlight struggling through the curtained windows. Kyle groaned as the rough carpet chafed his skin, the rasp filling the air as he fought against his husband.

"True to form, that fucker showed up with the police at the first opportunity, so I knew I was going to need to appeal to your good nature; your need to save people. I knew if I told you about Tweek you'd fold in an instant, and guess what, Kyle? You did. You did and then some."

"You fucking cheated on Tweek, you son of a bitch! He found out and he was going to leave, he never cheated on you!" Kyle yelled, managing to pull his arm out of Craig's grasp and desperately backtracking, his hands and knees burning as he raced across the carpet; Craig's footsteps right behind him.

"I gave Tweek exactly what he deserved, Kyle, but that isn't the point right now," Craig sighed, easily catching Kyle by the leg and stopping him; digging his fingers into his injured ankle; Kyle cried out from pain. "I knew if I was going to avoid dealing with the cop's bullshit, I'd need you on my side. Sure, Kenny could point out the physical evidence but it wouldn't mean a hill of shit if you didn't back him up, though I was pretty surprised about the diary pages; I never saw that coming. Kudos to him, I guess."

"You're just a fucking psycho!" Kyle sobbed as Craig pulled him roughly through the kitchen, his skin streaking across the tile; cold like ice against his front. "You never loved me, you just manipulated me and used me and beat me! All of this has been a lie! You're just a fucking lie, everything about you is made up!"

"I wouldn't go that far, Kyle," Craig said, throwing the basement door open wide. Reaching down, he took a hold of Kyle's hair and dragged him onto his knees. Before he could respond, Kyle found himself being picked up and thrown over Craig's shoulder.

"I do love you, just in my own way. I loved Tweek, too, but he left before I could really show him." Slowly, he began to descend the basement steps, Kyle writhing and thrashing against him every step of the way, his shrieks filling up the room and ricocheting off the walls.

"Help! Help! Someone fucking help me! Please!"

"Why don't you call out for Kenny, Kyle?" Craig laughed, coming to the foot of the stairs and tossing Kyle onto the floor. "Isn't he your knight in shining armor?"

Sobbing, Kyle scrambled to his knees and took a hold of Craig's briefs, tears and mucus falling down his face in torrents.

"Just let me go, please, just let me go to Kenny and then you can move anywhere you want! You won't have to deal with me anymore! Isn't that what you want?"

Craig just stared at him, his eyes flicking to Kyle's hands every now and then.

"No, Kyle, I've never wanted that. You belong with me, so you'll stay down here until we move. How does that sound?"

Kyle gaped at him, barely able to comprehend what he was hearing.

"Y-you can't mean that. You can't keep me down here, Craig! You can't do this!"

"I can and I will," Craig replied smoothly, reaching down and detaching Kyle's hands from his briefs. "You have everything you need down here, a bathroom, a bed," he gestured to the stripped exam table. "I'll even bring you a pillow and a blanket, food, whatever else you need. It won't be for very long. Like I said, I plan on moving us away early next month."

"No, Craig, you can't do this! You can't lock me down here! I hate it here, I'm scared of the basement! No!" Kyle crawled behind Craig as he swiftly climbed the stairs, easily outstripping Kyle and turning to regard him from the doorway.

"You'll be fine, Kyle. Actually, wait a moment, I'll be right back." He shut the door, Kyle quickly trying to scramble up the stairs before he returned. After a moment, he was back, holding Rose and a pen. "Here," he said, tossing the diary and the pen down the stairs.

"Now you'll have someone to talk to."

Chapter Text

I am ready for love
Why are you hiding from me
I'd quickly give my freedom
To be held in your captivity

I am ready for love

All of the joy and the pain
And all the time that it takes
Just to stay in your good grace
Lately I've been thinking
Maybe you're not ready for me
Maybe you think I need to learn maturity
They say watch what you ask for
Cause you might receive
But if you ask me tomorrow
I'll say the same thing

  - I Am Ready for Love, India Arie


Dear Rose,

So, it's just you and me again, huh? God, it's just like old times, isn't it? I can't say that I'm thrilled about it, so forgive me, please. Maybe this situation would've been somewhat tolerable a couple months ago, but now that I realize what I'm missing out on, what's waiting for me just beyond my front door, what I've been reduced to is agonizing. Right now I can barely think straight, but I'm attempting to hold it together. You'll help me, won't you?

Rose, it's so cold down here, so horribly cold and dank. Craig only had part of the basement done, the part he wanted to use, and even it's not welcoming. No part of the room I'm trapped in is welcoming or reassuring, not even the bathroom. It's just a sink and a toilet so I can't even bathe, but at least there's a mirror in there so I can look my misery right in the face; I'm overjoyed, I assure you. He brought me a pillow and a blanket like he said he would, but the only clothing I have is a long shirt of his. He wouldn't even give me underwear, just this shirt, so I'm half-naked. I'm sure it's just another way to demean me, which Craig is proving time and again he enjoys beyond measure.

I couldn't bring myself to sleep on the exam table, not with its history, so I tried to sleep on the floor but it's so hard and unforgiving. I can't be sure how long I've been down here, but I barely slept for an hour, and that's even a stretch, I'm sure.

I'm so scared, Rose, but that isn't all. I'm angry, too, angry and filled with the need to get some sort of revenge. I'm infuriated with myself for not being able to use the knife on Craig, but in a way I'm glad, too; at least I've retained some of my humanity. I can't say the same for Craig, of course, though I highly doubt he had any humanity to begin with. I've been such a fucking fool this whole time, haven't I? I read back through your pages and I see the mountain of excuses and lies I told myself, the way I rationalized Craig's brutality. I should be exhausted from all of the mental gymnastics I put myself through in order to make sense or forgive this situation and I am exhausted, Rose; tired beyond belief.

How could he manipulate me by revealing his past with Tweek? That's beyond sick, even for him. He knew that I've been wondering all these years about what happened, and he played that card when he knew it would have the most meaning, when he'd have the most to gain. That fucking prick. Why is it all of his gains have to come on the backs of my losses? Why am I losing constantly? Doesn't he love me at all? He can't, can he? It's pretty fucking clear that he doesn't have any respect for me, that much I can say.

And the craziest fucking part of all this is the fact that I still love him on some level. I still love the man, Rose, can you believe that? I'm not a child, I know that no one is all good or all bad, so I suppose I'm still enamored with the good parts of Craig, the softness I've seen, even though hate is quickly starting to muddy the waters. I can't just turn off my fucking emotions like a light switch, but I'm starting to think he can, and it's terrifying. It's terrifying and deeply, deeply disturbing. We had just gotten done making love (ha! what a joke) before I failed to use the knife, and you should've seen his face when he woke up and then dragged me down here. His face was smooth as glass, almost like if I were to open it up there would've been nothing inside; a clock without guts, a chest without a heart.

What the fuck is he, Rose? Is he just a monster, or is Craig just really good at rationalizing his own behavior? Has our entire marriage been a lie? What's the truth? Does it even exist in this situation? 

Fuck, I hear him coming and I don't want him to see what I've written.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: I should've listened to Kenny, Rose. I should've listened when I had the chance.

*******

Very carefully, Kyle tore out his latest entry, taking care not to make it obvious so Craig wouldn't ask him where the missing page was. Luckily, he'd found a hiding spot before he'd begun to write, knowing he may need to act fast when he heard his husband on the other side of the locked basement door. Hurriedly, he folded the page small and tucked it into a tear in some insulation, praying that Craig wouldn't notice the small change, knowing that he had eyes like a hawk; he thrived on small details, after all.

The door was opening smoothly by the time Kyle had curled himself up on his blanket again, pushed into the farthest corner from the door possible. With wide eyes he watched as Craig descended the steps, a tray in his hands and clothed in his boxer briefs and a t-shirt; feet bare. He was singing softly like he didn't have a care in the world, and appeared completely at ease with the notion that he'd trapped his own husband in the basement.

"Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl," he sang, grinning at Kyle cheekily as he brought the tray over and set it on the floor before him. "Nighttime would find me in Rosa's cantina, music would play and Filena would whirl...."*

"You're in good spirits," Kyle muttered, staring at the contents of the tray. It contained a plate of toast and scrambled eggs, a glass of orange juice, and their customary red rose in its crystal vase. He lifted it, cocking a brow in disbelief. "Really?"

"Why not?" Craig shrugged, sitting down and crossing his legs, watching Kyle with open amusement. "It's tradition, after all."

"So, you're serving me breakfast food," Kyle replied, eyeing the food with distaste. "It must be morning."

"There you go showing off your college education," Craig snickered, leaning back on his hands. "Yep, you made it through your first night relatively unscathed. How are you feeling?"

"Well, gosh, Craig, I feel like a new fucking man. What the hell kind of question is that?" Kyle snapped, glaring at him with defiance; not even caring if he was mouthing off. He was done mindlessly obeying.

"You look like a hundred bucks," Craig replied, looking him up and down. "And give the attitude a rest, okay? It isn't going to do you any favors."

"Whatever," Kyle said, grabbing his pillow and clutching it to his chest; covering himself. "It's not like behaving ever got me anywhere; as you can plainly see." He gestured around the room.

"Right, because trying to stab me while I'm sleeping is behaving. Silly me, I must've forgotten that," Craig said, slapping his forehead lightly.

"You deserved it," Kyle said, darkly; narrowing his eyes as he remembered the feeling of the knife in his hands. He'd been so close!

"What, just because I have some pictures in my desk? Grow up, Kyle."

"No, you need to grow up, Craig!" Kyle shouted, leaning forward and pointing at him. "In fact, you need to fucking wake up! You've been taking pictures of yourself torturing me for years! That isn't normal, you have to see that!"

Craig shrugged, plucking up the rose and smelling it, sighing a little.

"I never said it was normal. I'm just not going to apologize for it. I'm a sadist, Kyle; I can admit that. You just need to admit you're a masochist and everything will be just fine."

"But I'm not! I'm not!" Kyle yelled, clutching at the pillow; twisting it in his hands. "I never once enjoyed you whipping me or stitching me up! I hated it!"

"And yet you put up with it, for years," Craig murmured, studying the rose. He rubbed it against his cheek. "You call me daddy and come when I pull your hair. You drool when I bite you. Kyle, you're really reaching right now."

"No, you are!" Kyle shouted. "You can rationalize everything because you're crazy!"

"Nah, I'm not crazy," Craig replied, simply, laying the rose aside and picking up a piece of toast. He held it out to Kyle, his eyebrows raised. "That'd be too simple, too easy, don't you think? I just have certain tastes, that's all; no more, no less. As for being able to rationalize things, well, what can I say? There's a reasonable explanation for almost anything. You just have to be willing to look for it."

"See, you're fucking doing it again," Kyle said, staring at the toast being held before him. "What, am I supposed to open my mouth? I'm not hungry."

"Yes, you are," Craig said, rolling his eyes. "It's been hours since you last ate, and you're on a schedule."

Almost on cue, Kyle's stomach growled loudly, making him flush.

"See?" Craig grinned, waving the toast a little. "Come on, baby, open up."

"No, fuck you," Kyle replied before backing away; clamping his mouth tightly shut.

Sighing, Craig set the toast on the plate and slid the tray aside. Getting onto his knees, he leaned forward and took a hold of Kyle's shirt, yanking him close. Wordlessly, he slapped him hard across the face, making him taste coppery blood in his mouth instantly.

"I told you mouthing off wouldn't do you any favors, Kyle," he said, picking up the toast and holding it in front of Kyle's bleeding mouth. "Now open, if you know what's good for you."

Frantically, Kyle shook his head, tears already gathering in his eyes.

"Kyle, I'm warning you," Craig said, softly. "Don't push me. You'll lose. In fact, I'd say you already have; wouldn't you?"

Rage rose up within Kyle at his words and he began to struggle, thrashing around and pushing against Craig's chest, making him yell and clutch at his side; releasing Kyle.

"You little shit," he seethed, gingerly holding his left side, his teeth gritted. "Fucking ribs, they take forever to heal, and having to sling you over my shoulder last night didn't help."

Kyle just backed up against the wall again, staring at Craig with terror and fury, alternating between wanting to attack him and cowering in equal measures. He knew he couldn't hold a candle to Craig in terms of raw physical strength but he still wanted to try and hold his own; finally sick of succumbing to his abusive whims. Holding his face, he watched as Craig continued to hold his side, taking deep breaths as he clearly tried to get a handle on his pain. Finally, he looked up, his eyes glowing with new rage.

"You better not try that bullshit again, or you'll regret it."

"Oh, will I?" Kyle taunted, some of his courage failing him as he looked into Craig's swiftly cooling eyes. "What are you gonna do, huh? Lock me in the basement for misbehaving?"

"You're actually pretty lucky right now, all things considered," Craig replied, his voice softening. "Sure, you're locked in the basement but you can still move. I could fucking cuff you to the wall like an animal. You'd have to shit and piss all over yourself instead of using the bathroom like a civilized person. Hell, I could just fucking cuff your hands behind your back. It's not like you could go anywhere on your sprained ankle, and then you wouldn't even be able to write in Rose, your best friend." He laughed, exaggerating his last words.

Beginning to shake, Kyle choked back tears of fear and humiliation as he regarded Craig with incredulous hostility.

"Why are you like this?" He whispered. "Why are you treating me like this? The only thing I've tried to do for our entire marriage is make you happy. Jesus Christ, don't you care about me at all?"

"Of course I do, Kyle," Craig replied, glancing away impatiently; his hand still cradling his rib cage. "Do you really think I'd go to all this trouble if I didn't love you? You just need to behave. You need to remember your training. It's almost like we're back at square one."

"Why do I need to be trained? I'm a person, not a fucking dog!"

Craig shrugged, picking up the toast again.

"I like order. I hate chaos. Medicine has taught me that succumbing to chaos, not having a plan, can be the deciding factor in life or death. Likewise, being with Tweek taught me that I have to keep a handle on the things I like to keep close. I looked the other way and he disappeared, Kyle. He thought it was okay to up and leave, just like that," he snapped his fingers. "I won't let that happen again, not with you."

"You're mine, it's that simple. I allowed myself to love you, so," he paused, holding the toast against Kyle's lips, "I'm going to protect my interests. Do you understand?"

Kyle merely stared at him. Craig sounded so sure, so completely alright with this explanation; his way of responding to the world. How could he argue with something like that? Not wanting to be struck again, he nodded slowly; regarding Craig like he would a snake ready to strike.

"Wonderful. Now," he smiled tenderly, brushing Kyle's face with his hand. "Open, love. For me?"

Slipping back into his mindless need to capitulate, Kyle opened and allowed Craig to feed him, the now stone-cold toast like sawdust in his mouth. He chewed, wanting to appear compliant in order to survive. He was at a disadvantage right now and he knew it; it wouldn't do to fight without having a ghost of a chance at succeeding.

"Good boy," Craig said, leaning forward and kissing Kyle's aching cheek. "We'll put you to rights soon enough, won't we? It'll just take a little time and patience."

*******

Kyle was flitting between dozing and awakening the next time Craig unlocked the basement door and descended the steps. Dressed in a t-shirt and his workout shorts, he was carrying another tray holding a sandwich and a bowl of soup; a bottle of water in the corner. He grinned boyishly when Kyle struggled to sit up, his head swimming from the cocktail of pills Craig had given him after he'd choked down a couple bites of breakfast.

"For your anxiety, and to help you sleep," he'd explained, watching closely as Kyle reluctantly swallowed the pills. "I know you couldn't have slept very well last night, poor thing."

Now Craig set the tray in front of Kyle in the exact same fashion as earlier in the day, sitting beside it and tousling Kyle's curls tenderly.

"Baby, why don't you sleep on the exam table?" He asked, gesturing to the table pushed against the wall. "It has railings on the sides you can pull up so you won't roll off. It'd be a lot more comfortable than the floor."

"No, never," Kyle replied, shaking his head vigorously and regretting it immediately; the drugs wafting through his blood and making him nauseous. "I've been sewn together on that table, like I'm a fucking experiment. I refuse to use it as a bed, that's sick."

Craig shrugged, picking up half of the sandwich and offering it to Kyle.

"Suit yourself," he said, watching as Kyle took the sandwich and broke off a small piece. "It would just make more sense, but do whatever you want."

"If I could do whatever I wanted I wouldn't be a prisoner in my own basement," Kyle snapped, unable to force himself to eat. If anything, he wanted to vomit because of the situation he was caught in; rage and fear tearing his stomach apart. "On that token, I wouldn't be married to someone who treats me like a dog."

"Kyle, your tendency to lapse into melodrama really needs to stop. I don't treat you like a dog and you're only punished when you act up. You know, like trying to murder me; I'm not exactly a fan of that."

"You fucking lied to me left and right," Kyle seethed, squashing the bit of sandwich between his fingers. "You told me everything was on hold, that we weren't going to move until we talked about it. You didn't even give me a say, Craig. I had to find the truth in your fucking desk drawer!"

"Well, that's what you get for snooping," Craig replied, cocking his head to the side. "Nine times out of ten you aren't going to be happy with what you find if you go looking in places you shouldn't. Besides, moving is the best thing for us. We'll start fresh and you'll be away from bad influences."

"No one's influencing me!" Kyle shouted. "You just want me isolated so I'm easier to terrorize! No one can interfere if we're in a place where no one knows us!"

"You're partially right, I guess," Craig conceded, picking up the remaining bit of sandwich and taking a bite. "You're certainly easier to deal with when we don't have interruptions. I mean, just look at yourself, Kyle. Kenny came into your life and you're acting like you've lost your mind, trying to stab me and breaking into my personal affairs. Would you say he's been a positive addition to your life?"

"Yes!" Kyle yelled, beginning to cry now. "He's the best thing that's happened to me in years, Craig! He cares about me as a person, not as an accessory. He doesn't want to break me down or change me, he just wants to love me! He wants to treat me the way you should be treating me!"

"Whatever, he'd fuck you and then he'd lose interest," Craig said, throwing the sandwich down. "He's so simple, Kyle. He's so fucking simple that it's painful. I'm amazed that he was able to take some of those photographs, honestly. They actually showed some level of talent that is so far beyond his scope it's laughable." He paused, smirking. "Like the lighthouse. Am I right?"

Kyle paused, his eyes growing wide with shock. He scrambled for an answer but he couldn't find one, not daring to lie and running the risk of being beaten or worse.

"What, did your sister tell you he took that, or -"

"Nah, she didn't tell me anything about that," Craig laughed, running a hand through his hair. "I was just guessing, Kyle, but thank you for confirming my assumption. I had a feeling that's why you were being so cagey about the fucking thing, and it explains why you're so attached to it."

"Les Eclaireurs," Kyle whispered, fighting back a sob but it escaped anyway. "He said he'd take me there one day; he promised." Dropping the bite of sandwich in his hand, Kyle covered his face as the tears began to pour. "Why can't you just let me go, Craig? It's almost like you hate the idea of me being happy."

"He doesn't deserve you," Craig muttered, making Kyle take pause; splaying his fingers so he could watch his husband. "He never had the guts to approach you, make a move, but I did. Even though I was still trying to get over Tweek, I took the plunge with you, Kyle. I wanted to love someone again, and now I'm being told that my feelings are basically worthless because they don't coincide with society's ideal. How the fuck is that right?"

Sniffling, Kyle scrubbed the tears from his eyes, trying to wrap his head around Craig's words. Sometimes he wished his husband could just pick a path and stick to it. The way he switched from being a remorseless monster to a vulnerable man of flesh and bone was exhausting; he never knew what to expect.

"I'm not trying to discredit your feelings, Craig, and I'm sure they're real enough to you, but I can't live like this. It's cruel of you to expect me to," Kyle said, glancing around the muted gloom of the basement; the sterile, cruel lighting falling over them both and leaving their skin faintly blue. They both looked like corpses.

"Kenny does deserve me," he continued, staring down at his clasped, shaking hands. "In fact, he deserves better than me. He's better than both of us, I can admit that. He just wants to love me, that's it." He smiled sadly, remembering Kenny's kind eyes and warm arms; the sacrifices he was clearly willing to make. "It seems like such a small thing when you say it out loud, but it's not. It's the biggest thing in the world...it's everything."

"Love isn't just this little fantasy world you've concocted, Kyle," Craig replied, his voice hard. "It's also making the tough decisions, which I'm willing to do. You don't know what's best for you, but I do, even if you can't see it. You'll forget Kenny soon enough when we're gone, and in a few years this'll just be a blip on the radar for him; you'll fade. Everyone fades eventually."

"I don't think that's true," Kyle whispered, glancing at him. "Tweek hasn't faded for you. He still colors everything you do."

Craig rolled his eyes, shoving the tray toward Kyle abruptly; its edge striking his shin bone. The soup spilled, splattering over Kyle's legs; faintly warm and lacing the air with a sodium-tinged musk.

"This is rich. Are you going to analyze me now, Dr. Freud? Do you want me to tell you my parents beat me so you can stuff me in a box, so you can explain away my behavior? I've got news for you, Kyle; no one's that cut and dry. My folks never raised a hand to me, but I still think giving you a backhand is in your best interest. What do you have to say about that?"

"I think I could forgive you for that if I thought you were sorry, at least in some capacity, but you aren't," Kyle murmured, pressing a hand against his mouth as the tears fell silently. "You know what else love is, Craig? It's acknowledging the flaws in another person and being able to see past them, but you won't let me do that anymore. You've ruined us. I hope you realize that."

Amazingly, Craig seemed surprised at this, becoming quiet and still as he stared at Kyle with his fathomless eyes. After a moment, he shook his head.

"There you go again, trying to get to me with your pretty words, but they're meaningless. The only thing that matters now is action, taking charge. That's what I'm doing, Kyle. I'm going to save us."

"Is Kenny still outside? Is he still watching?" Kyle murmured, passing a finger through some of the orange soup; smearing it over his chilled skin. "He isn't just going to disappear, Craig. He told me."

"Yeah, he's still going by every now and then," Craig replied, standing. "The movers are scheduled to come very soon, and then things will really be in motion."

"What's your endgame here, Craig? You can't keep me trapped forever, you know, and I could just scream to let them know I'm down here."

"Don't be stupid, Kyle. What do you think Thorazine is for?"

Kyle sighed, expecting that answer. He nodded, a soup-coated finger drifting toward his mouth.

"What about when we're finally in Baltimore? Do you really want to go on like this? It isn't sustainable; none of this is."

"Every person has their breaking point, Kyle," Craig murmured, gazing up at the caustic lighting; his grey eyes darkened chunks of ice. He looked back at Kyle, smiling softly. "I'll just have to find yours, and then we can be happy again; like we used to be."

********

"Wake up, baby, come on," a voice broke through his watery dreams, parting them; Kyle blinked awake, his vision bleary. Craig was gazing down at him, his face tender, bordering on whimsical. "I'm glad you were finally able to really sleep, but you need to eat something. You barely touched your lunch."

Kyle managed to sit up with Craig's help, his head heavy as he tried to make sense of things. Time had passed, clearly, but he couldn't be sure how much. Craig had dosed him with something else after he'd managed to eat half of his sandwich and some soup, his mind sagging soon after as he fell into dreams. He touched his head, rubbing it against the sudden ache.

"I'm not hungry," he said, the act of speaking exhausting him. "I don't want anything."

"That won't do," Craig replied, placing yet another tray down; leftover red curry and rice sprawling across a plate. "You can't starve yourself, Kyle; I won't let you."

Kyle shook his head, fighting back sudden nausea as his mind reluctantly began to clear.

"I'm not trying to starve myself," he said, his voice frail and childlike. "I just don't have an appetite, Craig. Please don't make me eat."

"You have to." Lifting a spoonful of fragrant curry, Craig held it before Kyle's mouth. "Have just a little, and then I'll give you a sponge bath. Doesn't that sound nice?"

"No," Kyle whispered, shutting his eyes; his back cold against the basement wall. "I don't want to be down here anymore. I want to see my garden, I want -"

"You should see the way Kenny stands by the curb," Craig smirked, settling a cold hand on Kyle's naked thigh. "He stands just far away enough so I can't call the cops. He's smarter than I thought. I should've just gotten the fucking restraining order, but I just don't want to deal with it. I want to be able to focus on you."

"Just let me go," Kyle whimpered, tears running down his face as he finally obeyed, opening his mouth and accepting Craig's offering. He chewed and swallowed, wanting to retch the whole time. "Let me go and I won't tell anyone about any of this. I'll just go away with Kenny and I won't ask for anything in the divorce; you can have everything."

"Stop talking like that," Craig replied, harshly. "I'm not giving up on us, Kyle, and neither are you. Don't be weak."

"It's so cold down here," Kyle said, shivering and clutching his blanket around himself. "I don't think it's ever been warm, no matter how many times we come down here."

"You could be warm and safe in our bed if you'd just behave," Craig murmured, spooning more food into Kyle's mouth, almost treating him like a little duckling; a poor wild creature that needed tending to. "If you're good we may be able to renegotiate."

Sluggishly, Kyle swallowed, watching Craig with famished, basement-darkened eyes; vague hope threading through his fatigue.

"You mean it? I can come upstairs again? When?"

"That depends on your conduct, love," Craig smiled, kissing his cheek as he dipped the spoon into the mound of curry again. "If you can show me that you're willing to abide by the rules and accept your place in all this, I'll let you out; I promise. Don't you think I want you back upstairs with me? I miss you."

After Kyle ate enough food to satisfy Craig, he took the tray away and came back with a tub filled with soapy water; a sponge settled in its depths. Setting it down, he smiled at Kyle indulgently and reached out, removing his t-shirt and setting it aside. Kyle only shivered, wrapping his arms around himself as he stared at the basement floor, his eyes once again finding the speck of blood he'd focused on ages ago.

"My blood," he murmured, rising when Craig took a hold of his arm, leading him away from his bedding. "You missed a spot when you were cleaning. See?"

Craig looked down at the floor, eyebrows raised when he noticed the spot Kyle was pointing to.

"So I did," he said, sounding bored. "I'll have to take care of that before we move, huh? Although I doubt anyone but you would ever notice it."

"I wonder how much of my blood would be on the floor if you never cleaned up," Kyle said, nearly sighing as Craig began to gently rub him down, the soapy water sliding down his skin; tickling him lightly. "I bet you could paint the walls with it, if you could put it in buckets. What do you think?"

"I think you need to sleep some more, because you aren't making any sense," Craig replied, looking at him with narrowed, nearly worried eyes. "Just be still, okay?"

"Yes, sir," Kyle said, falling into a trance as Craig bathed him, his thorough hands gentle and slick; bubbles frothing over his skin. Once again, he smelled of apples, just like Craig preferred. "I'm waiting for you to eat me someday," he laughed, breathing deeply of the fruity, spicy scent. "You'll devour me, won't you?"

"I'll do whatever I want with you," Craig muttered, wringing out the sponge and throwing it in the tub. Picking up a towel, he began to dry Kyle; rough fibers rubbing his skin until it was soft and raw and pink. "Isn't that better?"

"I'm so tired." Kyle lay his head against Craig's shoulder, clinging to his shirt and wanting to dissolve in his arms; escaping the fear and the confines of the basement. "Please, just let me sleep again. I'll be good if you just let me sleep."

"Of course, baby," Craig said, kissing Kyle's temple. Soon enough, Kyle was dressed in his long t-shirt again and Craig was leaning him against the basement wall. "Be still for a moment, okay? I'll be right back?" He rubbed Kyle's moist curls and disappeared into the gloom while Kyle drifted, his mind flying far away; the stars and heavens circling him as he closed his eyes.

Before too long Craig was back, carrying an additional blanket and laying it across the hard floor.

"Lay down," he instructed, cradling Kyle's head as it sank into his pillow. "I'll stay with you until you fall asleep."

"Hmm," Kyle murmured, relishing the pillows softness, the additional blanket beneath him offering a plethora of comforts. "Thank you, Craig. This feels better."

Craig was quiet as he lay beside Kyle, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close; cradling him. Breathing deeply, he kissed the back of Kyle's neck.

"I can never give this up," he said, his voice taking on the same muted darkness as the basement; the lights turned down and not burning like before. "It makes me think of when you finally let me hold you like this; when you let me -"

"Don't call it something crude, I couldn't bear it," Kyle interrupted, teetering on the cusp of sleep. "It was so beautiful. I don't regret a thing."

"Neither do I," Craig sighed, managing to pull him closer, almost making it feel like they shared one body. "I could tell you were afraid because you were a virgin but you still trusted me. You let me touch you, and I'd never felt so privileged, so honored. I had to earn you, Kyle. God, you've always been so stubborn."

"Wasn't Tweek a virgin, too? He had to be." Kyle asked, groggily; his mind dissolving into fuzzy warmth. He was so tired he didn't even mind being held by Craig, though his thoughts kept straying back to Kenny. Idly, he wondered if his friend was outside at that very moment, watching the house and worrying; having no idea of the horrors unfolding within.

"Yes, Tweek was a virgin," Craig replied, kissing his neck again. "We were virgins together, so everything we did we had to learn as we went along. It was so awkward and weird at first, but over time we got used to each other, you know? Sometimes I felt like we'd been born to be a matching set. Isn't that crazy?"

Kyle shook his head, falling closer and closer toward oblivion. He managed a small smile despite himself.

"No, I think it's nice. I like the parts of you that come up with things like that, Craig. Sometimes you can be so tender, and when you're like that I can overlook anything, but when it stops...it's almost like you've passed away. I miss you when you aren't yourself." He laughed a little, snuggling closer; eyes shutting. "But I'm starting to think that this is the truth, and if it is, I'm done fighting; I have nothing left." Weakly, he lifted a hand and gestured to the basement. He sighed.

"Good night, Craig," he murmured, thoroughly ready to fall asleep so he didn't have to think for awhile.

"Good night, Kyle," Craig said, softly, his arms encircling Kyle like stifling chains. Right before Kyle fell asleep, he felt his husband kiss him once more; warm lips settling against the curve of his shoulder. "I love you."

*******

The next three days followed in much the same fashion, with Craig breaking up the monotony by bringing Kyle his meals three times a day; every morning breakfast tray ornamented with their red rose. He'd even been kind enough to bring down a large plastic cup so Kyle could keep them in water as his collection grew.

"Makes it a little more cheerful down here, don't you think?" Craig asked on the fourth morning, his finger straying over the cluster of red roses. He glanced around the room with appraising eyes. "Gosh, you must be getting tired of staring at the same four walls over and over, huh? I'm sure you'd appreciate a change of atmosphere at this point."

"Not if it means moving across the country," Kyle replied stubbornly. He was curled up on his nest of blankets while nursing a tepid cup of coffee. Craig never brought him anything that was too hot, lest Kyle try something stupid and attempt to throw the liquid in his husband's face. He didn't bring down any knives or sharp utensils either, just as an ongoing precaution.

"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it, you brat," Craig said, his voice fond; his hand still caressing the roses. Yelping, he suddenly drew his hand back and stuck his finger in his mouth, wincing. "Fucking thorns," he said, rolling his eyes at Kyle.

"Welcome to the club," Kyle replied, holding up his own scarred and cut up hands. "It's all a part of growing roses, I guess."

"There's a metaphor to be found here somewhere but I'm not in the mood to look for it," Craig said, going to pick up Kyle's breakfast tray. "Anyway, I was thinking, you've been behaving so nicely and things have finally started calming down," he paused, studying Kyle for a moment; eyebrows raised. "Would you be opposed to coming upstairs for awhile?"

Excitement lanced through Kyle at his suggestion, but it was very quickly hampered with suspicion. He'd learned the hard way that his husband didn't do anything without a reason.

"You know I want to get out of this basement, Craig, but why? You said I had to stay down here until we move."

Craig shrugged, his tone casual when he spoke next.

"I already told you, Kyle. You've been behaving so I feel like I can trust you. Besides, I miss you, and I don't enjoy punishing you beyond what's necessary. It's up to you, though. Do you think you can handle coming upstairs for awhile?"

"Stop talking to me like I'm a child," Kyle replied, gritting his teeth; his hands clutched around his mug. "Of course I can fucking handle coming upstairs, Craig. I'm not some stupid animal that isn't even housebroken."

"Dial back the attitude, please," Craig replied, mildly. He headed for the steps after plucking Kyle's mug from his hands. "I'll be right back once I've put this in the kitchen, okay? Then I'll carry you upstairs."

-------

"How's your ankle feeling?" Craig asked, kneeling before Kyle who was once again in the kitchen and sitting on his rolling chair. Craig was feeling his ankle, rotating it gently now and then, making Kyle squirm. He looked up at him with a grim expression. "It's still bothering you, huh?"

Kyle nodded, noticing Craig once again clutching at his injured ribs as he stood.

"What about your ribs?"

"Yep, they're still pretty fucked up," Craig replied. "We're quite a pair, huh?"

"I suppose," Kyle said, looking around the kitchen with starved eyes. Everything looked the same but it all seemed so new after being sequestered in the basement for so long. He never thought he'd be so happy just to see his own kitchen again, the soft sunlight pouring through the windows nearly filling him with rapture. It was like gold cascading across the floor, worth more than all the money in the world.

"So, I actually have a project for you, love," Craig announced, rubbing his hands together and capturing Kyle's attention. "You're going to be in charge of packing up the kitchen."

"Wait, what?" Kyle asked, his hands gripping the plush seat beneath him. He stared at Craig, shocked. "I didn't agree to that! Why the hell should I have to help pack for a move I don't even want?!"

Smiling, Craig advanced on Kyle, pushing the chair he was seated on until it hit the counter with nowhere to go; Kyle's back against the wall. Leaning down, he placed his hands on the counter on either side of Kyle, locking him in.

"It's either that or," he pointed to the basement door which was still wide open, "you go back downstairs. It's your choice. Honestly, I can go either way."

Kyle gaped at him, filled with disbelief and slow terror; staring between his husband and the waiting basement. There was no way he wanted to go back downstairs so quickly, not after he'd had a small taste of freedom, such as it was, but to be commanded to pack up for a move he was completely against? It was all too much, and all at once his rage resurfaced.

"You son of a bitch, I knew you had a reason for bringing me up here," he seethed, practically baring his teeth at his husband. "I just knew it. You didn't fucking miss me, you just wanted to put me to work, you fucking prick."

Craig's smile quickly devolved into a cold smirk, and before Kyle could respond he was being backhanded, the motion nearly knocking him off his chair. Whimpering, he looked up at his husband, openly cowering.

"This habit you've picked up of calling me names is going to stop, Kyle. It's trashy and beneath you, and frankly I don't want to hear that sort of filth coming out of your mouth. You sound like a McCormick, is that what you want?"

More than anything, you goddamn asshole.

Keeping his face passive, Kyle slowly shook his head, never taking his eyes off of Craig.

"Good. Now," Craig stood up and gestured around the room. "I'll pull down the stuff from the upper cabinets that you can't reach, and then you can start packing everything up. Hold on." Leaving the room, he came back after a moment carrying a stack of flat boxes and some packing tape. "Here's some boxes. You can use plastic bags and that stack of paper on the counter to wrap around the more breakable stuff. Oh, and I've already packed away the knives or anything you might use as a weapon, so don't go getting any bright ideas."

"It's nice to know you thought of everything," Kyle murmured, studying the materials Craig was giving him. "Just like always."

"It never hurts to think ahead," Craig replied, smoothly. "You can wash up the dishes in the sink too, naturally, and there's stuff in the dishwasher so don't forget about that." He clapped his hands, his expression becoming animated. "Any questions?"

Sniffling softly, Kyle quickly rubbed a wayward tears that was falling along the curve of his cheek. He looked at Craig and bit his lip.

"Can't I at least go and see the garden? I miss my roses, Craig. I have to weed the beds and -"

"No," Craig shook his head. "You aren't going outside, Kyle, not with your fucking bodyguard out there all the time. But," he sighed, brushing a hand through his hair, "you can pull back the curtain and look at them. I guess that'd be okay."

Almost feeling like he was still locked in the basement, Kyle slowly rolled his chair out of the kitchen and to the living room window where he parted the curtain just a tad. Like a starving man, his eyes hungrily roved across the expanse of lawn and settled on his multitude of rose bushes, their petals fluttering like multicolored butterfly wings in the autumn breezes; tremulous sunshine lighting them up and nearly making them transparent. He sighed just looking at their beauty, becoming captured. Tearing his gaze away, he saw a familiar blue truck driving by and this was enough to make him begin sobbing again, pressing a hand against his bruised mouth.

"Kenny," he whispered, placing a hand on the glass; wanting to crack it through sheer will alone.

"Okay, Rapunzel, that's enough," Craig said, yanking Kyle's chair away from the window and rolling it back into the kitchen. "Stop acting like you're trapped in a tower or something, it isn't that serious."

"Can't you see that it is?" Kyle sobbed, looking around at the boxes and the items Craig had already begun to pull from the higher shelves he couldn't reach because of his ankle. "I don't know why you're doing this!"

"We've already had this discussion, Kyle; I'm sick of it," Craig replied, studying the last cabinet to make sure he hadn't missed anything. "Just get to work while I start focusing on the rest of the house. I want to have everything packed up before the movers arrive in a few days."

"Please don't make me do this. Please!" Kyle pleaded, continuing to cry. Rolling over, he clutched at Craig's arm. "If you love me, don't do this to me!"

"I'm doing this because of love, Kyle. Now, for the love of God, stop acting so fucking dramatic and get to work. Now." Craig pulled his arm away, his voice beginning to carry its warning tone.

"But -"

"Now! I said now!" Viciously, Craig kicked the chair away so it went careening across the room, causing Kyle to fall off; his cheek cracking against the floor. Moaning, he just lay there, the sobs still breaking from his mouth. Sighing, Craig went to the Bose player on the counter and switched it on, Chopin nocturnes flooding the kitchen. Smiling, he closed his eyes as he began to drift his hand through the air, almost like he was a conductor.

"There, isn't that better?" He asked, glancing down at Kyle. "Doesn't it make you feel so happy you could die?"

******

"I must say, you've done a wonderful job in here, Kyle," Craig grinned, standing in the middle of the kitchen with his hands on his hips; surveying his surroundings. "Very thorough, very neat. You should be proud of yourself."

Kyle just scowled from his place on the floor, looking around as well at all of the boxes littering the floor, each of them clearly labeled with simple block lettering. The task had taken up the entirety of the morning into the mid-afternoon, his progress slowed because of his ankle and the various other aches he had to fight against. It didn't help that Craig had dosed him with Klonopin before he began, citing that it would help keep his anxiety in check.

No, it just makes it easier to control me, he thought, watching as Craig walked through the room and nodding his head with approval. That's always been the case, but I was too stupid and gullible to see it for what it was.

"You did such a nice job I think you've earned yourself another reprieve," Craig added, coming over to Kyle and helping him onto his chair. Leaning down, he kissed Kyle's forehead lightly. "You can come upstairs again tomorrow so you can work on another room."

"Don't do me any fucking favors," Kyle muttered before he could stop himself. Feeling himself blanch, he slapped a hand over his mouth and stared up at Craig in shock. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that."

"I'm sure you didn't," Craig replied, arching a brow. "Might I add I don't have to do any favors for you, Kyle; remember that. I'm responding to your conduct, which has been exemplary, aside from your sporadic smart ass comments." Slowly, he began to roll Kyle back toward the basement door. "If you can continue to show me that you can be trusted, we'll leave the basement behind forever. What do you think?"

"I can behave," Kyle whispered, his entire body already shutting down as he contemplated the basement; every second rolling him closer to its inevitable horror. "Please, I can be good. Don't make me spend another night down there."

"Mm, we aren't there yet, I'm afraid. Everything in due time," Craig said, lifting Kyle from the chair; wincing slightly. "I'm just lucky you basically weigh nothing, or else I'd never be able to make this work," he grinned, beginning to descend the steps. "You're truly my little bird, Kyle; light and transient, but I think I've figured out how to make you stay."

Walking across the chilled room, Craig settled Kyle back on his bedding in the corner and stepped back, watching him for a moment; his eyes falling on Rose.

"Have you been writing?"

Trying to keep his face impassive, Kyle shook his head.

"I'm not sure what to say," he lied, praying his husband wouldn't pick up on his subterfuge. "I guess I don't have any inspiration these days."

"I find that hard to believe," Craig said, tapping a finger against his chin. "If I had to guess, I'd say you aren't writing because you know I'm going to read it. Is that fair?"

Kyle started, taken aback at Craig's sagacious way of sniffing out the truth. Silently, he chastised himself; why did he still allow himself to be surprised? Craig had proven time and time again that he was sharp as a tack.

"That's fair," he admitted, reluctantly; there was no point in trying to lie about that point. "I still don't know what to write, though." He looked around the room. "It's not like I have anything exciting to focus on."

"Focus on the move, on a new life," Craig smiled, turning away. "I know you're nervous, Kyle, but this is all for the best. You'll see." Heading toward the stairs, he called over his shoulder.

"I'll go grab you something to eat, okay? I know it isn't dinnertime yet, but I have a feeling you're pretty tired; you'll probably fall asleep early tonight so we'll just get your last meal out of the way."

Kyle shivered at Craig's choice of words, the phrase "last meal" echoing through his brain over and over as the basement door snapped closed. It also infuriated him that Craig automatically assumed he was tired, almost like he'd cracked open Kyle's back and managed to climb inside his skin; thinking his thoughts and dictating his actions. Feeling even more annoyed, Kyle yawned, the action only souring his mood further.

"That fucking monster is everywhere, all the time," he muttered, stretching out on his side and drawing his blanket over himself. Staring across the room, his eyes drank in the empty vastness of the basement, taking everything in. Craig had left nothing to chance when he'd gutted it, so there was really nothing at Kyle's disposal that could aid in an escape. He'd tried exploring the second day of his imprisonment, but the action had only made him feel more defeated. After going through every drawer and scouting along the walls and corners, he'd come up with nothing. Craig had even cleared it of old boxes they'd been storing, leaving the entire room hatefully bare save for the exam table, some cabinets, and the tiny half-bath; the latter of which only contained a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Glancing up, Kyle's eyes fell on the plastic cup of roses, each of them a reminder of a day spent in the darkness; their red brilliance fading quickly in the basement gloom. Savagely glad, he remembered the way Craig had caught his finger on one; God, he hoped that had hurt. After a moment, his thoughts faded back to melancholy, though, the roses only driving the point home that he was a virtual prisoner in his own home, and that he didn't even have the luxury of stepping outside and attending to his garden.

"Kenny, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Kyle whispered, beginning to cry softly as he clutched his pillow. "Why didn't I listen to you?"

Quickly, he clammed up when he heard the door opening, throwing weak light into the room though it didn't travel very far. Craig began to descend, his demeanor chipper and upbeat.

"Okay, love, here we go; sandwiches and chips. Nothing too fancy, I'm afraid, not with all the dishes basically packed up." Setting the tray down, he frowned when he saw Kyle's face. "Why are you crying?"

Like you don't fucking know, you dickhead.

"I'm tired," he replied, which was the truth, though it wasn't anything worth crying over. Craig didn't need to know that, though. Christ, he didn't have the right to know any of Kyle's thoughts anymore, not that he saw it that way.

"You do have a tendency of becoming emotional when you're sleepy," Craig soothed him. "Here, why don't you eat a little something, I'll give you your bath, and then you can go to sleep. Sit up for me."

Obediently, Kyle sat up and mechanically began to eat the sandwich; not in the mood for arguing or being struck again. He stared off into space while he masticated, pretending Craig wasn't sitting there watching him like he was part of a zoo exhibit.

"You can start packing up our bedroom and bathroom tomorrow, I think. That should take you pretty much the whole day. Would you like that?"

Goody, goody gumdrops, you fucking psycho! I can't fucking wait, gee willickers!

"Sure, why not?" Sighing softly, Kyle took another bite of his sandwich.

"Your enthusiasm is staggering," Craig replied, dryly. "I'll just chalk it up to you being tired instead of you acting like a petulant child."

Kyle just nodded, not wanting to be drawn into an argument he'd end up losing anyway. As it was, he could barely eat because his face and mouth hurt so badly; the byproducts of being struck so many times by his husband.

"It's actually good that you're going to sleep earlier than usual tonight," Craig commented, idly. Reaching over, he squeezed Kyle's thigh languidly. "That way we can get up bright and early tomorrow."

*******

Dear Rose,

I'm so fuzzy and tired, so forgive me if my handwriting is a little sloppy; it's hard to hold the pen for very long these days.

Craig's already come and gone for the evening so I have some time, I think. I ate my dinner and he bathed me, and then true to form he lay with me until he thought I was asleep, but I was pretending, Rose. I needed to talk to you, so I closed my eyes until he was satisfied; now he's gone and it's just you and I again.

He made me take a double dose of Ambien (naturally) so that's why my head is cloudy but I'm going to try and write before I'm too far gone. It'll kind of be like Flowers for Algernon when Charlie started lapsing back into the way he'd been before having his operation; a plethora of misspelled words and grammatical errors. Won't that be fun?

Judging by the number of roses in the cup I can see that I've been in this situation almost 6 days; nearly a solid week of being Craig's prisoner. But it's been much longer than that, hasn't it? I just didn't realize it until it was too late, which, believe me, I'm absolutely thrilled about. Oh, I'm sorry, I'm lapsing into sarcasm and that just won't do. Mother always said sarcasm was the product of a lazy mind and I'd like to think I'm not lazy.

I certainly wasn't lazy today. Craig had me pack up the bedroom and master bath, which was certainly a trial. I worked all day and I'm still not done, but Craig is being merciful and allowing me to finish up tomorrow, isn't that just wonderful? You should've seen the way he frisked me after he came in to inspect my work, Rose. Where would I even hide anything? The only thing he lets me wear is a long t-shirt and it isn't like there's any place to put anything. Craig always did like to cross his t's and dot his i's, though, so I can hardly blame him.

I'm starting to hate him more and more, though. I suppose you're surprised, aren't you? I'm sure you thought I already hated him, which is true, that awful feeling started welling up inside of me some time ago, but the love always seemed to eclipse it; that isn't really the case anymore, Rose. The hate and the anger are finally starting to win, but now I don't know what to do with them. I had the chance to kill him, to hollow him out as he slept, but I didn't take the chance, and I keep asking myself why.

I suppose I'd like to think that it's my humanity holding me back. My toe is right on the line of passing over into Craig's brand of darkness, and I just don't know if I'm capable of that sort of brutality. What do you think, Rose? Do you think your Kyle can become a monster, too? It's not like I don't have a perfect example parading around in front of me every day.

Rose, I don't know how much more of this I can take before I snap and lose my mind. Now I'm not just contemplating how I would kill Craig, but now I'm starting to wonder if I should just do away with myself. I'm starting to think I'm broken beyond repair. Even If I were free I'm sure Kenny wouldn't like me the way I am, a skittish animal that's afraid of its shadow and too stupid to jump from the trap when given the perfect opportunity. Maybe I should just figure out a way to kill Craig and then myself; then our legacy can die with us, so no one ever finds out just how far the rabbit hole we've gone.

Oh, such ugly thoughts, Rose; such nasty words drenching this page. I think you can tell my mind is starting to unravel along with my body. I don't think I really have much time left before making any sort of decision is nearly impossible. I need to act fast if I'm going to do anything, but how can I? Craig has my hands tied in every conceivable way, and while I know Kenny is patrolling the house it's not like he can break down the gate and bust in the front door. Craig realized pretty quickly that I left my keys behind with Kenny in Grand Junction, and he's already had the locks on the house changed. He's thought of everything.

I could ask you again why Craig is the way he is and why I've been okay with it for so long, but I really don't want to turn down that alley again. Human nature is as deep as the ocean and as full of secrets as the night sky; dark matter doesn't just exist in space, it exists in the hearts of man, too.

Where will I go from here, Rose? If you have any answers please tell them to me. I'm desperate.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: I'm tucking this bit of you into the insulation again. Should I retrieve you before we move, or should I leave you for someone else to find? It could be like a mystery for them to solve. What a romantic thought.

*******

"Perfect, just perfect," Craig praised Kyle, standing in the stripped bathroom, all of their belongings neatly packed away in a plethora of boxes. Coming over, he inspected the fixtures. "And you wiped everything down, too? This is amazing, Kyle. You did a great job."

Worrying his shirt between his hands, Kyle merely nodded as he studied the carpet, waiting for Craig's next announcement. It's not like he had a say in any part of his own life anymore. Sucking in a breath, Craig was suddenly kneeling before him, his hand snaking under Kyle's shirt.

"Let's just give you a once over, love," he murmured, his cool hands passing over Kyle's flesh and making him shiver. "Good, nothing hiding anywhere; very good. You're losing weight, but we'll see to that once we're out of this hellhole."

Picking Kyle up, Craig openly winced, no doubt because of the strain on his injured ribs. Kyle had noticed that he made a face every time he had to exert himself, but he didn't complain, maintaining his typical stoic way of handling life's little discomforts. Carrying Kyle through the dismantled bedroom and into the kitchen, Craig headed directly for the basement.

"Have I mentioned how beautifully behaved you've been lately?" Craig asked suddenly, his tone conversational as he descended the steps. "I feel like we've really turned a corner here, don't you?"

"I'm not sure," Kyle replied, barely able to scrape together enough energy to answer properly. Once he was settled on his bedding again, he immediately wrapped himself up and leaned against the wall.

"Well, we have, and I think you should be rewarded for it."

"If you say so," Kyle said, laying down and sinking his head into his pillow. "I'll do whatever you say."

"See, that's why you deserve another chance, Kyle," Craig beamed, kneeling beside him and running his hand through Kyle's curls. "So, tomorrow we're going to start fresh. I'm going into the office for the next two days because I promised Brian I'd cover for him while he's out of town. I'd totally forgotten about it actually, but a promise is a promise, you know?"

"Brian? Dr. Levin?" Kyle whispered, feeling horribly drowsy from the medications in his blood and working all day. The fact that he hadn't been eating very much wasn't helping anything, but he had no appetite these days.

"Right, Dr. Levin," Craig replied, continuing to twiddle Kyle's curls. "So, I'll be out of the house tomorrow and I'm giving you the opportunity to prove yourself. I'll let you out of the basement while I'm gone."

"R-really? You'd really do that for me?" Kyle asked, almost feeling like he was hearing things. Slowly, he began to sit up but Craig gently pushed him back down.

"Of course I would, baby. Everyone deserves a second chance. Just don't make me regret it, okay?"

"I won't, Craig. Thank you," Kyle looked up at him with tired gratitude, his mind waking up slightly to the possibilities being laid before him. "I'll be good."

*******

Kyle couldn't help but feel afraid as he looked around the empty house, the dust motes wafting through shafts of sunlight as he contemplated the silence. Craig had left mere moments before, kissing Kyle softly on the lips and telling him to "stay sweet" while he was gone; that he trusted him implicitly because he loved him.

"This could be a new start for us, Kyle," he'd said, while gently stroking Kyle's bruised cheek. "Let's make the most of it, shall we?"

Kyle had only nodded from his perch on his rolling chair, his eyes traveling over the swiftly changing house. The kitchen was pretty much all packed up, save for some spare dishes used for Kyle's meals and paper plates set aside for Craig to eat off. They'd been subsisting on sandwiches and carryout for the most part, Craig grousing the whole time about missing Kyle's home cooked meals.

"We'll get back to normal once we're in Baltimore," Craig had grinned, pulling Kyle into a cologne-laced hug.

He'd kept the crystal vase out so they could still enjoy their red rose every morning, and now Kyle had quite a bouquet going, though the roses were fading as quickly as he was. He still gouged himself on their thorny stems though, but he loved them all the same. Craig had promised him that he'd have a garden no matter where they ended up, though it wouldn't be for awhile after they moved. Not wanting to wait for the house to sell, Craig had opted to move them into an apartment while the house was on the market; their surplus of belongings would be kept in storage. He wasn't happy about moving into an apartment, but Craig had proven he could be flexible when it meant getting what he wanted.

The movers were due to come in just a few days, and Kyle's terror was growing exponentially as each day passed. Everything was becoming so real and final that he could barely stomach it, especially as he passed through the house and saw just how much of their stuff had already been packed away - and he had helped! The whole situation was unbelievable, and as he tried to piece his thoughts together Kyle couldn't help but remember those few golden days he'd spent with Kenny.

I bet if I stepped outside right now he'd be waiting for me, he thought, daring to roll himself to the front door and pressing his hand against the wood. He'd open up the door of his truck and he'd lift me inside, and then we could disappear to a place where Craig could never find us.

Taking a shuddering breath, Kyle rolled away from the door and just stared at it like he would a painting. As soon as Craig had told him that he'd be out of the house and Kyle could roam about unfettered, he'd naturally assumed that he'd run at his first chance, but now something was holding him back.

"I'm too afraid to leave," Kyle whispered, tears burning in his eyes as he imagined escaping. "I'm too scared of what's beyond that door. Maybe I've been in the dark for too long."

No, it's Craig. You're afraid he'll catch you even though he's miles away. He doesn't have to be here to control you; he's in your head, sunshine. He's always been in your head, hasn't he?

"Shut up," Kyle seethed, clutching his head. "That isn't true."

Then reach out and open that fucking door, you spineless pile of shit. Do it right now, if you're so fucking brave.

"Fine, I will," Kyle said, rolling closer and placing his hand on the door knob. Slowly, he began to turn it, beginning to tremble immediately. He stopped.

"What if Kenny isn't out there, though? Where will I go? I have nowhere to go, and I don't want anyone to see me like this." Looking down, he gazed at his thin, coltish legs; his bottom half only clothed in boxer briefs. He'd pulled a pair on as soon as Craig left, nearly breathless with happiness at being afforded this small dignity. "What will people say? What will they think?"

They'll think you're crazy and stupid, that's what. They'll say you stayed for all these years because you're a professional victim, a weakling. But that's if Craig doesn't find you first, and what if Kenny is out there but he doesn't want to have anything to do with you? What if -

"Just stop," Kyle whimpered, taking his hand away from the knob like it suddenly burned him. "This is already hard enough. Just let me think!"

You are thinking, Kyle, and what good is it doing? Craig wants to take care of you for the rest of your life. If you stay with him you'll never have to think.

"But I don't want that, do I?" Kyle considered this possibility, hating it and loving it at the same time. It reinforced his need to hide his shame from the world but he wanted to contribute to society, too. He'd never been taught to sit around and let someone else do all the work.

Look, you're under too much stress right now so you won't make the best decision. You have tomorrow, too, don't you? Why don't you wait until then and then see how you feel? Isn't that a nice idea?

"Yes," Kyle murmured, staring into space. "Yes, that's the best idea. I'll do that."

Good boy. Craig would be proud of you.

"Fuck Craig," Kyle seethed, rolling away from the door and into the living room. Pulling himself onto the couch he decided to test his ankle to see how it was healing. Amazingly, he was able to put a decent amount of weight on it, staggering across the room and touching the wall. Elation shot through him, making him feel like he'd just won a gold medal.

"Well, at least I have that in my favor," he said, happily. He glanced at the patio door, a sudden thought filling his mind. "Maybe I could just step outside for a moment and take a look at the roses. I'm sure Craig wouldn't mind."

You know better than that, don't you, Kyle?

"Oh, hush. It was just a thought," Kyle sighed, actively ignoring his obvious descent into madness. He'd always had a tendency of talking to himself, but these days it was getting out of hand. It wasn't like he had anyone else to talk to, though. Climbing onto the couch, he threw an arm across his eyes, fighting back tears. "I'll just take a nap," he murmured, shutting his eyes. "There's always tomorrow, after all."

-------

Craig was over the moon that evening when he came home and saw that Kyle was obediently curled up on the couch, clutching a pillow to his chest and watching him with wide eyes. His elation even overrode his need for routine and order, and instead of starting dinner he pulled Kyle into his arms and carried him to the bedroom where he lay him down; covering Kyle's body with his own as he slowly began to strip the clothes off of him.

"You stayed," he breathed, kissing Kyle's throat, almost like he was intoxicated. "You didn't try to go anywhere, you obeyed. God, I'm so happy, Kyle. I'm so happy I can barely stand it."

Hungrily, Craig kissed Kyle's mouth like he was feasting on his flavors, his very presence, and before too long he was turning Kyle over and preparing him; sliding lube-covered fingers into his body slowly. Kyle gasped as he hid his face in the pillow, succumbing to Craig's all-consuming fire, his utter, undying obsession. Gripping the sheets, he drooled as Craig thrust into him, taking his time and forgoing his thirst for violence, every movement exquisite as evening flooded the room; the sun dying beyond the mountains.

"I love you, Kyle. I love you so much, I can never give this up; you're mine," Craig sighed as he leaned forward to kiss Kyle's shoulder, his mouth right next to his ear as he spoke. "You can sleep in here with me tonight, okay? I'll never be able to get enough of you."

------

Dear Rose,

It's so late but I still had to sneak down here to speak with you. Craig is asleep upstairs and he's letting me stay in our bed tonight, so I need to write quickly before he realizes I'm gone.

I had my chance today, Rose, and I blew it. In fact, I could probably leave right now but I'm so tired from the Ambien and being fucked for hours. When Craig came home and saw that I hadn't escaped, he was so happy, Rose, and when he's happy he usually likes to celebrate by fucking (or hitting me; really, it could go either way). I'm going to be sore tomorrow (I already am, actually) but what else is new? He just seemed so happy, nearly bordering on some strange euphoric psychosis; I can't even begin to understand it.

I talked myself out of leaving today, Rose, but that isn't going to happen tomorrow. I can kind of walk now (not very well, but it's a start!) and I'm not staying. I've been in a stupor for too long and it's time for me to go; I can't stay in this nightmare for another day, let alone a lifetime. Naturally, I'll be taking you with me, but I'm pretty much leaving everything else behind. Craig's locked up all of my stuff in his desk drawer and now the study is locked, too, so I can't get to it. Whatever, I'm just going to focus on getting the fuck out of here and then I'll figure all of that other bullshit out later.

It's crazy, Rose. At this point I don't even care if Kenny's waiting for me outside when I open that door. Even if Kenny isn't waiting for me, you know what is?

Life. Life, Rose, and I'm ready to start living mine. It's been far too long.

I probably should get back upstairs, okay? It wouldn't do for Craig to find me down here, because naturally he'll be suspicious as to why I would come back to the basement without being forced.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: Until tomorrow, love. I'm not going to be afraid anymore.

*******

The next day dawned rainy and turbulent, the clouds covering the sun with their grey solemness. Flicking the curtains open, Craig reached out and touched the rain-spattered red rose glowing on the table, just like always.

"What are your plans for today, love?" He asked, smiling at Kyle as he freshened his coffee with a drop of cream. Settling a hand on the curve of Kyle's waist, he pulled him close; wrapping his arms around him. "I want to know everything. I'm just sad I won't be here to do it with you," he smirked, resting his head against Kyle's shoulder. "That sounded dirty but you know what I mean."

"Mm, yes, I know what you mean," Kyle replied, kissing the top of Craig's head. "I'll just be seeing to a few loose ends, mostly. You know, finalizing everything for the movers."

"Wonderful," Craig said, continuing to hold him close. "We're so close, Kyle; I can feel it."

"We are, we really are," Kyle agreed, leaning into Craig and imagining his great escape; the immensity of it almost leaving him breathless. Today his life would truly begin, and he could see it unfolding before him like a dream he could hardly fathom.

It wasn't too long before Craig was pressing another kiss against Kyle's lips and opening the front door, lingering for a moment.

"Should I be worried?" He asked, taking Kyle by surprise; he didn't show it, though.

"No, not at all," Kyle said, shaking his head and tucking a curl behind his ear. He looked down at his bare feet, wondering if Craig had hidden his shoes again. Who cared if he did? He'd run away in just the clothes on his back if need be. Rolling forward, he kissed Craig's cheek, allowing his lips to stay for just a moment.

"I love you, Craig. I'll see you when you get home."

"I'll miss you," Craig murmured, touching Kyle's face one last time before turning away. "See you tonight."

After a moment, the door shut and Kyle could hear Craig's footsteps fading away, and then a car starting up. Sighing, Kyle rolled back into the kitchen, studying it as the raindrops pattered on the roof. Allowing some time to elapse, he slowly started to move, first going in search of his shoes. Unsurprisingly, they were nowhere to be found, but he was able to locate a hoodie and a pair of jeans that he'd set aside earlier; explaining to Craig that he'd need clothes when they made the cross-country drive to Baltimore. Slipping them on, he almost began to feel like a real person again.

I haven't felt real in so long, he thought, almost becoming amused. I'm a regular fucking Velveteen Rabbit these days.

Gingerly, he stood from his chair, putting a small amount of weight on his ankle, unable to trust that it wouldn't just give out on him. When he found that he was able to bear the pain, he traveled down the basement steps to retrieve Rose, his eyes trailing over the cluster of roses in the plastic cup as well as the speck of blood on the floor; his old friends.

"I guess this is goodbye," he said, clutching Rose in his hands as he slowly backed away. Taking one last long look at the basement, he couldn't help but hear his screams echoing through the years, almost sure that they'd somehow soaked into the walls. He almost allowed himself to consider just how many hours he'd spent in this room, either being punished or waiting in the darkness, but he wouldn't allow his mind to travel that road; he'd seen enough of it. The atrocities he'd been subjected to in this room were in his blood and bones, going with him wherever he went; he wasn't naive enough to think that he'd ever truly be free. At the very least, he could walk from this darkness into a new, waiting light, promising himself that he'd never once taste these sorts of fears again; he refused.

Climbing the stairs, he stepped into the kitchen and passed through it quickly, and in less than a moment, almost too quickly, he found himself standing before the front door again, but this time he was ready to open it. Placing his hand on the knob, he turned it easily, the door sliding open, and then -

"No, this can't be real," Kyle stammered, looking with unbridled fear at Craig's waiting back as he sat on the front stoop, smoking a cigarette. "You're supposed to be -"

"At work," Craig supplied, turning around and stubbing out his cigarette. Flicking it away, he shook his head while a look of complete sorrow passed over his face. "God, Kyle, we got so close. So, so close. Why did you have to ruin it?"

"I, uh, I was just going out to look at the roses," Kyle said, backing into the house as Craig advanced on him. "I swear, that's all I was doing!"

Craig shut the door behind himself, shaking his head the whole time.

"Lies, all lies," he said, slipping off his shoes and his wet jacket; clearly, he'd been sitting in the rain for some time, waiting. "It's raining outside and you don't have any shoes on. Also, you never go through the front door when you go out to the garden, Kyle. You always use the patio door. You know that as well as I do."

"W-were you just waiting out there? Did you even have to work?" Kyle broke off, the realization coming too late; just like always. "You were testing me. You didn't go to work yesterday either, did you?"

Craig smirked, backing Kyle up into the kitchen.

"Nope, I waited outside the whole day, but you were good; you behaved. I could hear you talking to yourself behind the door, but at least you were able to see reason. What happened today, huh? Were you just feeling unusually brave? Huh?"

"No, I just, I just...." Kyle felt the counter at his back and he yelped, knowing that Craig had managed to corner him again. "I just wanted to know what it's like to be free," he said, his voice beginning to falter as terror drenched him. He was already beginning to shake. "I thought this was my chance, and then I could -"

"Run to McCormick and start a new, idyllic life. God, I always knew you were a fool, Kyle, but now you're just living in a fantasy land. Kenny wasn't even outside waiting for you. How does that make you feel?"

"I would've left even if he hadn't been there," Kyle sobbed, holding up his hands to cover his face. "I just wanted to leave! I don't want to be here with you anymore! I'm not moving to Baltimore!"

Quick as a shot, Craig reached out and took a hold of the front of Kyle's sweater, beginning to shake him.

"You just never learn, no matter how many times I punish you," he seethed, rearing back and slapping Kyle across the face so hard he fell to the ground and slid across the tiles. Coming over, he kicked him in the stomach a few times, making Kyle begin to retch; clutching at himself. Shutting his eyes, he tried to keep his head above water, his mind already becoming foggy as Craig brutalized him.

"Enough is too much," Craig muttered, reaching down and taking a hold of Kyle's hoodie, beginning to drag him toward the bedroom. "Clearly I need to make a point today, even though I've been trying to make the same goddamn point for nearly six fucking years."

"S-stop, please. I won't...I won't go anywhere," Kyle sobbed, pulling against Craig's hold but already feeling terribly weak.

"That's what you said before, and look where that got us. No, Kyle, I'm not listening to you anymore, and I'm not taking anymore chances." Quickly, he began to strip Kyle until he was shivering and naked in the muted lighting of the bedroom. Rapping on the bedpost, he began giving Kyle's directions.

"Stand up and put your arms around the post. I see you can actually put weight on your ankle now; that'll make this a lot easier."

Trembling, Kyle clung to the edge of the bed and managed to pull himself up, doing exactly as Craig instructed; wrapping his arms around the thick bedpost. He whimpered when he saw Craig produce the handcuffs, almost daring to pull away but stopping at the last second. He slapped them on Kyle's wrists, yanking on them slightly.

"I think we need to use the whip today," he said, turning and disappearing into the bathroom. Upon hearing these words, Kyle nearly lost his mind with fear, pulling frantically against the cuffs, the sturdy oak not budging as he tried to escape; the post too high for him to slide his arms upward and free himself that way. He sagged to the floor when he saw Craig returning, the hateful black whip clutched tightly in his hand.

"No! No!" He screamed, cowering on the floor and trying to back into the bed, covering his posterior. "Not that! Not the whip, Craig!"

"Stop begging, it won't fucking change anything," Craig snapped, taking a hold of Kyle hair and yanking him back to his feet, ignoring the way he yelped; his ankle beginning to throb slightly. "This is going to happen, and you're going to learn to obey. Do you understand?"

"Stop! Don't do this!" Kyle shrieked, almost crumpling when he felt the bite of the whip in his skin; his mouth opening wordlessly against the pain. The first few blows were always the worst, his skin not yet numbed to the remaining onslaught. Hugging the bedpost tightly, he shut his eyes as the lashes continued, whispering Kenny's name over and over in his mind as he desperately tried to escape to his garden where the roses bloomed in the ocean breezes. The nocturnes filled up his brain until his sanity fled like frantic, scurrying birds; wings opening wide and scraping the insides of his skull.

It didn't take too long for Kyle to succumb to the fire of the whip and he was falling to his knees, fading in and out of consciousness as Craig's raspy breaths filled the room. He could smell his blood as it leaked from his back, and Kyle tried to stay awake as he lay his head against the bed, vaguely aware that the whipping had finally stopped. Along with the metallic odor he could smell his acrid terror-sweat, the odor of his own fear nearly overwhelming him. He only smelled this combination of scents in situations like this; his and Craig's horrible, nightmarish pas de deux.

"Why do you make me do this to you, Kyle?" Craig yelled, throwing the bloody whip aside and quickly undoing Kyle's cuffs; gathering him into his arms as Kyle's back burned like fire. "Do you think I like this? I hate taking things this far, but you never fucking learn!"

"I-I'm sorry," Kyle whispered, his body slackening as Craig held him up, darkness edging into the corners of his vision.

"You always beg for forgiveness instead of just obeying," Craig whispered, kissing his cheeks and forehead as Kyle continued to fade away. "Why can't you just accept that you belong with me?"

Instead of answering, Kyle finally gave into the pain and the deepest weariness he could remember, his body allowing him the fleeting respite of unconsciousness; black waters passing over his head and swallowing him completely. The last thing he saw were Craig's grey eyes, and for a moment they almost looked regretful; but Kyle knew better.

He'd always known better.

Chapter Text

I am a fire, gasoline,
Come pour yourself all over me
We'll let this place go down in flames only one more time

You kill the lights, I'll draw the blinds
Don't dull the sparkle in your eyes
I know that we were made to break
So what? I don't mind

  -Stay the Night, Zedd


He was walking through a garden filled with glowing roses; a multitude of colors surrounding him. Looking around, Kyle was sure that he could see almost every color that existed and would ever exist, laid out in a carpet of shimmering blooms. The air was filled with the perfume of thousands of flowers, just for him; the soft breezes carrying it along as he walked. The ocean was just beyond the roses, lapping quietly at the sandy shore as the sun fell further through the yellow and orange clouds. Another day was coming to a close.

Kyle was happy to be back in his garden because it meant that he couldn't feel any pain. He'd always been safe here, far beyond the agony of the waking world; a place where it was always summer and so warm. It never rained here, in fact, the clouds were never heavy or grey. Everything was light in his garden, even after the sun had set and the stars appeared. They were always close. In fact, he'd touched them before.

But this time was different, he knew it. He wasn't sure how he knew but the knowledge was there inside of him as he continued to walk. No matter how many times he'd traveled to this place he'd always stayed among the roses, but now he was breaking away from them and crossing the beach, his feet carrying him to the salty drifts of water. He passed through the surf, the wet sand clinging to his feet, and before he knew it he was out among the tides, drifting, drifting.

"Maybe they'll carry me someplace new," he mused, laying back and almost feeling like he was flying. "Maybe I'll float until I find Kenny again."

He could feel his curls loosening and becoming heavy as the water drenched them, floating around his head like stray seaweed. His t-shirt clung to his front but billowed behind him as the currents lifted it, and he stretched his arms back into the murk, his entire body light as air as it was borne aloft on the waves. Closing his eyes, he almost cried because the pain was gone and so was the fear. He was being dragged along by the tides but he felt safe, drifting further and further away from the shore. He only hoped that no one could reach him, not unless he wanted them to.

Kyle opened his eyes and the sky was pink and yellow and orange, a tequila sunset cresting the horizon, and the soft newborn stars were opals that couldn't decide what color they wanted to be; they merely shimmered as he watched. Smiling, he lifted up a hand to pluck one from the sky, laughing at himself for his flight of fancy.

"Let me stay here forever, God, and I'll do whatever you say," he murmured, drifting and clutching at the hopscotching stars. "Just let me stay and you can give my place to someone else; someone who deserves it. Someone who actually wants to live."

"Just let me stay."

*******

"Kyle, Kyle, come on. Come back to me, okay? You need to open your eyes."

He was still floating though, and he didn't want to come back. He didn't want to open his eyes because he knew, somehow, that the spell would be broken and the roses next to the sea would disappear. He could already feel the pain crashing in, throbbing, burning agony scorching the skin of his back. Whimpering, Kyle shook his head, keeping his eyes tightly closed.

"Stop being stubborn, baby. I heard you talking to yourself, now open your eyes for me. Please." Craig's voice was breaking through the water and already helping it to vanish. Kyle clung to it, wanting to be an island, wanting to drift forever.

A soft slap met his cheek, and before he could stop himself, Kyle was opening his eyes, though they were coated with tears and dust; the Sandman's influence. Blinking them slowly, he could finally see Craig, his own eyes watching him with intense scrutiny.

"You were out for a long time," he said, grimly. "Much longer than usual."

"I didn't want to come back," Kyle replied, his voice nearly unrecognizable. It was just a thread, vapor, really; bordering on being nothing. Maybe there was finally nothing left to give.

"Nonsense, you're being dramatic again." Craig's voice didn't sound right either. For once he didn't sound so sure of himself, like he was almost trying to convince himself that what he was saying was true. "You're all stitched up and clean, Kyle. You should probably eat something before you go back to sleep."

"I've been asleep for years." Weakly, Kyle pushed himself up, glancing around to see himself on their large bed instead of already being relegated back to the basement. Not that it mattered, of course; Craig had already proven that he didn't need the basement to become a monster.

"You don't sound like yourself," Craig said, studying him with an impassive expression, though his eyes contained muted concern. "I only did what I had to, Kyle. You know that."

"Whatever helps you live with yourself, Craig."

"Here it comes, the attitude, the petulance; just like always," Craig sighed, walking away and coming back with Kyle's rolling chair. Holding out his hand, he helped Kyle rise stiffly from the bed, his back agony incarnate. Even the light weight of his long t-shirt almost seemed to be too much, and he nearly stumbled.

"How many times?" He whispered, sitting down heavily and staring down at his trembling hands; the fingernails slightly blue.

"What?" Craig asked, pushing him into the dimly-lit kitchen.

"How many times did you hit me with the whip this time. I lost count."

"So did I," Craig replied, simply. "More than usual, I guess."

"I can tell," Kyle said, turning his arms over and studying the fragile undersides of his wrists; blue-green veins swimming through the skin. "What's the saying again? That it's better to travel up the road instead of across?"

"Stop talking like that," Craig snapped, pushing away and beginning to pull together the ingredients for a cold supper: bread, cheese, meat, condiments. "You wouldn't dare, Kyle."

"I'd rethink that if I were you," Kyle murmured, staring off into space; his feet already sinking back into the sand on a faraway beach. "You'd be surprised what people are capable of when they've reached their limit."

"You haven't reached yours yet." Quickly, Craig slapped a turkey sandwich together; no mustard, just mayonnaise, the way Kyle preferred. He handed it to him.

"Everyone has a breaking point, Craig. You said that yourself." Mechanically, Kyle took a bite of the sandwich, not tasting it at all; it might as well have been filled with razor blades. "Why are you so reluctant to admit that I may have reached mine? Isn't that what you want?"

"I don't want you to be fucking suicidal, Kyle. Stop acting like you're crazy." Craig leaned against the counter and covered his face, making no move to fix anything for himself.

"What, have you cornered the market on being crazy? Can't you share with the rest of the class?"

"Just finish your food so I can take you back down to the basement. I need time to think." Moving around the kitchen, he began to put things away, backing up suddenly when he dropped a plate; the shatter filling the air. Kyle didn't even jump.

"Jesus fucking Christ, of fucking course," he muttered, grabbing a broom and beginning to gather up the pieces. "If it isn't one thing it's another."

A hot, bright streak of pain lanced through Kyle, making him clench his hands around his sandwich, squashing it flat.

"You really outdid yourself this time," he said, gritting his teeth. "The pain is worse than usual; you should be proud."

Craig shot him an angry look as he discarded the shards of the broken dish.

"I'll give you Tylenol with codeine. It'll help you sleep, too."

"Angel of mercy," Kyle said, finishing up the last bit of sandwich and promptly slapping a hand over his mouth; fighting back nausea. Reaching over, he plucked a bottle of water off the counter, drinking deeply.

"Be grateful I'm giving you anything," Craig said, throwing the broom aside and rolling Kyle over to the waiting basement door. "You're the one who decided to be stupid and try running off. What the fuck were you thinking?"

"What the fuck have I been thinking for years, Craig? That's a much better question."

"Well, I can see we aren't going to get anywhere right now, not while you're in this weird mood." Hefting Kyle over his shoulder, Craig grunted softly as he descended the steps, every movement jarring Kyle and making his back scream. Gritting his teeth, he managed to hold back his whimpers. Settling him on his bedding, Craig rifled through his pocket and pulled out a pill bottle; he shook two into his hand.

"Here," he said, turning away. "I'll go grab the bottle of water."

"Right," Kyle replied, staring down at the two white pills in his hand, almost not seeing them for a moment. Glancing up, his eyes fell on the swiftly dying roses waiting in the plastic cup. Mindlessly, he stood, wincing lightly as he put weight on his ankle, approaching the flowers. Reaching out, he brushed a hand over their dried, wine red petals before settling his fingers around their clump of stems. Before he could stop himself, he squeezed, the thorns breaking through his skin and immediately filling it with fire. He grinned, relishing the burn of the thorns tearing through his flesh, dribbling of blood falling along the cracks in his hand.

"Jesus Christ, what are you doing?! You really have gone off the fucking deep end!"

He hadn't noticed that Craig had reappeared, a bottle of water clutched in his hand. He slapped Kyle's hand away from the roses and studied it, the rivers of blood appearing blue under the chilled fluorescent lighting.

"I'll wrap that," he said.

"Don't bother," Kyle said, popping the pills into his mouth and taking the bottle of water; he drank deeply. Ripping his hand away, he went back to his blankets and lay down, gathering them to his chest. "Just leave me alone for awhile, Craig. I want to sleep."

"Why did you do that?" Craig asked, staring at the crumpled roses. "There was absolutely no reason for you to do that, Kyle."

"I'm pretty sure you don't want to have this discussion, Craig; it'll just raise questions you won't answer. Just leave it alone. Besides, if you can't see the irony in this situation there's really no saving you." Sighing, Kyle buried his cheek in the pillow and closed his eyes.

"Go away," he said, sleepily. "You said you needed to think, didn't you? And I'm sure there's plenty of blood on the floor upstairs for you to clean up. Have fun."

*******

Dear Rose,

Have you ever been so tired you couldn't even think, but it's not because your body is exhausted...it's because your mind is completely gone and you can barely muster up the energy to move, let alone string thoughts together?

That's where I am right now. Rose, I think I've finally hit the fabled wall and I sincerely have absolutely nothing else to give.

But what does that mean, you know? Does it mean I'm ready to throw in the towel and stop fighting, or does it mean that I won't even respond to Craig's cruelties anymore? Does it mean both? Does any of this even have a point? I'm starting to forget what the point was in the first place. Did I even have one?

He tricked me again. I guess I have to give Craig credit for being extremely inventive when it comes to surprising me, huh? If only he put that much thought and effort into loving me; I'd be the most adored person on the face of the planet. It's hard for me to fathom him sitting outside for hours just to test me like that, that takes some true dedication, don't you think? Whatever. I was an idiot to think it would be that simple anyway. How the fuck could I think that I'd just be walking out of this situation? I acted like it was as straight forward as going to the grocery store, Rose. Like Kenny kept telling me, wake the fuck up, Kyle!

I dreamed of Kenny last night, Rose. Don't get excited, though, it wasn't anything romantic. It was more bizarre than anything else, but at least I got to see his face. I think he was younger in my dream (not as many laugh lines around the eyes...) but it was still him, so I'll take it. I'll take anything I can get these days. If you want to know the specifics I can try to remember them for you, but they're becoming fuzzy (as dreams do, you know). I want to say he was roommates with Jeffrey Dahmer but don't quote me on that, okay? If I'm going to be quoted about anything I don't want it to be for this nonsense.

It is all nonsense, isn't it? The notion that I could ever be free, the idea that Craig would ever let me go, that he could ever change...that I could ever be with Kenny and travel to that lighthouse that's almost becoming mythical at this point. Even the idea of just being on my own and trying to survive alone fades everyday. I'm fading, the roses are fading, everything's fading, Rose. If I didn't dream about Kenny he would've faded away too, but at least I have that in my favor.

It's hard for me to even muster up the same rage as before these days. I feel listless. I feel tired.

I feel broken. I'm broken. Craig fucking broke me, Rose; he finally did it.

And yet he doesn't want to admit it, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Isn't this what he wanted?

Oh, no, I get it. He wanted to break me but he wanted to hold onto some of the fire as well. Well, you can't always have your cake and eat it too, Craig. Learn to fucking live with it.

He'll be coming down soon. I better go.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle (such as he is)

PS: At least he isn't playing Chopin today, Rose. I can hear the music coming from the kitchen...it sounds like Tchaikovsky. Thank goodness for small favors, right?

--------

"Remember when we saw this at the Hippodrome? Before we moved back to Colorado? God, it feels like a million years ago now." Craig chuckled softly as he descended the basement steps, carrying a tray in his hands; the music from the kitchen following him down the stairs. "I'd never seen the Nutcracker before."

"Neither had I," Kyle replied, watching as he set the tray down before him; toast, coffee, eggs, the red rose in the crystal vase. "I'd never been very interested in seeing it, but I'm glad we did. What's playing now? I can never remember the name of it."

"Pas de Deux," Craig said, watching him with fond eyes. "Those crescendos get me every time."

"How could they not?" Kyle asked, already becoming detached and disinterested in conversation. Picking up the mug, he took a tiny sip. Glancing up at the roses in the plastic cup, he pointed listlessly. "You brought down fresh ones."

Craig nodded, studying them as well.

"Yeah, after you fell asleep last night. I had to, Kyle. You crushed the other ones; I threw them out."

"Was that before or after you cleaned up my blood from our bedroom floor?"

Craig just stared at him for a moment, a tiny muscle jumping in his jaw. Breaking eye contact, Kyle set his mug down and studied the hand he'd used to destroy the roses, noting that it was still laced with blood trails. Tiny gouges littered the flesh, red and puckered.

"After," Craig finally replied. "You forced my hand, Kyle. What else was I supposed to do?"

Kyle made a point of tapping on his chin for a few moments, drawing out the silence.

"You know, now that I think about it, I guess beating me within an inch of my life was your only option. Thank you for helping me see the light."

"Knock it off with the fucking sarcasm, Kyle," Craig said, darkly. "Don't think I won't punish you again. It's not like you're exempt just because you're healing."

Idly, Kyle reached back and softly touched a row of sutures, the threads sharp against his fingertips. He grinned, shaking his head a little.

"Healing, huh? Yeah, I guess we'll go with that."

Getting on his knees, Craig leaned forward and got right in Kyle's face.

"I said knock it off, Kyle; I'm done with your fucking attitude."

Kyle just stared at him, lifting a brow before picking up his coffee mug again and taking a small sip.

"Here, just let me get one last drink of coffee before you backhand me again, okay? It's actually really good this morning; your efforts shouldn't go to waste."

The coffee mug was still in Kyle's hand when Craig hauled off and smacked him across the face. The mug flew from his hand, sending a cascade of tepid coffee to rain over his blanket and against the wall, the mug falling with a thunk on his bedding and rolling away. Shutting his eyes, Kyle pressed a hand to his aching cheek, having to force back a laugh.

"Okay, maybe I was asking for too much," he said, a thread of amusement weaving its way around his words. Opening his eyes, he could see that Craig was watching him with a look of incredulous rage, his chest heaving as he breathed deeply. Ignoring this, he looked down at the tray.

"Am I allowed to eat my toast, at least? I can't heal if I don't eat, right?"

This time, Craig didn't strike Kyle, opting instead to get in his face again and begin shouting.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?! Why are you fucking mouthing off like this?! Do you want me to hit you? Huh?!"

Once again, Kyle merely stared at him, becoming more and more amused at the sight of Craig losing his composure. He was so used to having the upper hand, always expecting Kyle to cower and beg for mercy. He couldn't seem to deal with a Kyle that was quickly unraveling; a Kyle that had decided he had nothing left to lose. Oh, how the tables were beginning to turn.

"I think it's amusing that you reduced me to this, Craig, and now you can't accept your creation," Kyle said, shrugging slightly. "If you don't like me the way I am now, you shouldn't have pushed things this far. You only have yourself to blame."

"No, I refuse to believe that," Craig muttered, sitting back and rooting in his pocket. "You're just being obstinate because I whipped you. You're always like this after a punishment; sullen, filled with attitude. You'll be back to normal in a few days."

"Normal, what a concept," Kyle quipped, quickly reaching out and grabbing a piece of toast. He took a big bite. "Do you even know what normalcy is anymore, Craig?"

"Normalcy is having a husband that fucking behaves and does what he's told without giving me backtalk," Craig said, suddenly bringing a syringe up to the light and studying it. "At least that's the sort of normal I want, Kyle. Now, the movers are due to be here in less than half an hour; let's just get this out of the way."

Impassively, Kyle allowed his arm to be yanked out and studied, Craig flicking the crook until a nice fat vein floated to the surface.

"Perfect," he murmured, sticking the needle in and beginning to push the plunger. "I always said a blind man behind a brick wall could see your veins, Kyle. You never disappoint me in that regard."

"Let's talk about normalcy some more, shall we?" Kyle giggled as he felt the Thorazine wafting through his blood, his eyelids and head already becoming heavy.

"Hush, you'll be out in just a few moments, and then we can really start moving on from all of this," Craig soothed him, his arms cradling Kyle as he lay him on his tummy; his head sinking into his pillow as he began to drift.

"That's where you're wrong," Kyle slurred, his eyes closing as he sighed softly. "This will follow us wherever we go, Craig. Forever."

*******

Kyle was back in the salty, gentle waters as the waves carried along, his eyes open to the stars above. They were trembling, some of them falling on occasion, and when they landed they began to float; becoming icebergs. Kyle lay back and allowed himself to be carried along, almost feeling like he was a baby back in the safety of his mother's womb.

"I know I can't stay," he said, watching as the sky became an ocean as well; cerulean and navy and studded with points of salt. "But I'm glad I was allowed to come back."

Before too long, reality began to seep into his consciousness as ribbons of pain unraveled through his blood. His back was throbbing, his face was aching, his hand was on fire. There didn't really seem to be an inch of his skin that didn't hurt, and he whimpered as he blinked once, twice, three times; the basement gloom overtaking the ocean sky as he found himself staring into Craig's fathomless eyes once more.

"Good morning, starshine," he said, smiling a little. "The world says hello."

"Fuck the world," Kyle muttered, struggling to sit up and arching in pain when his back brushed against the basement wall. "It can't be morning again, can it? Not so soon?"

"Nah, it isn't morning," Craig replied, nudging the tray on the floor. "It's evening. The movers have come and gone, but they aren't done yet. I never realized we had so much crap."

"Superfluous bullshit." He glanced down at the tray, eyeing its contents. "Sandwiches again, huh?"

"We're down to bare bones living right now, Kyle," Craig replied, shrugging. "I mean, if you were capable of behaving we could go out, but -"

"I don't want to go anywhere," Kyle cut him off, reaching for the sandwich. "Not with you, at any rate."

"Sorry I don't hold the same appeal as Kenny," Craig said, his eyes narrowing as he watched Kyle eat. Suddenly, he smirked, appearing immensely satisfied with himself. "He watched the movers all day, just like I thought he would; just stood there and watched as each box and stick of furniture was loaded onto the truck. I'm sure he'll do the same damn thing tomorrow."

These words managed to break through Kyle's defenses somewhat, the wall he was slowly beginning to build around himself in order to survive. His hands clenched around his sandwich.

"You're so cruel to him, Craig, and for no good reason. It's like you hate him for wanting to care about me."

"No, I hate him for meddling and sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong. I hate him for not respecting our relationship." Craig paused, continuing to study Kyle. "I especially hate him for getting into your head and filling it with bullshit about me. Everything was fine until he showed up."

"I would've woken up eventually, with or without his help, Craig," Kyle murmured, suddenly realizing he was half done with his sandwich but hadn't really tasted a bite. "Kenny just helped me remember that I'm worth loving, at least a little bit."

"I've loved you for years, Kyle," Craig spat. "I never once said I didn't love you."

"You didn't have to," Kyle sighed, popping the last bit of sandwich in his mouth. "Are you going to check my sutures before slapping me again?"

Craig raked his hands through his hair until it was standing on end, Kyle just sitting by and watching him impassively.

"Just a couple days," he murmured, continuing to move his hands back and forth. "All of this will be over in just a couple days. We'll be in Baltimore and you'll be away from all of these outside influences, and then...then..."

"We'll live happily ever after, right?" Kyle shook his head, plucking up a handful of chips. "Keep telling yourself that, Craig."

"Just shut up, I've had enough of your fucking backtalk for one day," Craig seethed, knocking the chips out of Kyle's hand. "Stand up and go over to the exam table. I want to check your back."

"Of course, whatever you say," Kyle said, wincing as he stood. It took everything in him not to attach the word "master" to his retort, but he managed to bite his tongue. He already knew he was on thin ice with his husband, but what did he care? What did anything matter anymore?

Kyle limped over to the table and crawled onto it, laying on his front. With a grim expression, Craig rolled him over right under the lights and carefully lifted his shirt.

"I wanted to be able to get a better look at them," he murmured, more to himself than anyone else Kyle supposed. He remained silent as he stared at the wall, waiting for Craig to finish. "They look good, a little more red than I'd prefer, but you're no worse for wear."

"What are you going to do when the movers are finally done and you actually have to transport me out of the house?" Kyle whispered, slight fear registering in him and thawing him out partially. "Kenny's going to see you carrying me out of the house, Craig. He's going to know you drugged me or whatever; he's going to know."

"If he steps one foot on my property, Kyle, if he even acts like he's going to interfere, I'll fucking shoot him in the face," Craig replied, pulling Kyle's shirt down. "And no one would convict me, either, not if Kenny's trespassing. Besides, they already think he's harassing me for no reason down at the police station."

"You wouldn't do that," Kyle cried, trying to sit up; Craig easily pushed him back down. "That's taking things too far, even for you!"

"You can blame yourself if Kenny ends up getting killed," Craig replied, smoothly. "After all, you're the one who let him get involved in our affairs."

"He only got involved because you've been abusing me for years! Years! Fucking years!" Kyle screamed, finally able to overcome his apathy at the prospect of an innocent party being killed over their hopeless, pathetic melodrama. "Any decent person would've intervened!"

"God, you throw that word around so easily, Kyle," Craig replied, his eyes lighting up, almost like he was becoming excited at finally getting a rise out of Kyle. "'Abuse.' I don't fucking abuse you, you drama queen. This isn't a goddamn Lifetime movie or something, and you aren't the hapless victim. You're so fucking ridiculous, Jesus Christ."

"Then what are you doing, huh?! What do you call this? You're inspecting my fucking stitches after you whipped me and sewed me back together. You act like it's perfectly fine for you to be Dr. Frankenstein or something, and I'm just supposed to be completely fine with being your experiment, your creature!"

"Well, I guess I should be happy," Craig sighed, pushing the table against the wall and yanking Kyle down. Roughly, he bent him over the table and quickly nudged a thigh between his legs, parting them. "I like this side of you way more than the way you were acting before. It actually gets me going."

"W-what the fuck are you doing? Stop!" Kyle shrieked, his body growing cold as he felt Craig's insistent fingers settling on his backside and spreading him. "You can't be serious, you can't possibly be doing this right now!"

"I want you, Kyle," Craig replied, his voice becoming thick as his fingers pushed inside of Kyle. "I fucking want you right now, so deal with it."

"No! No, stop! I don't want to do this! I don't want any of this!" Trying to break away, Kyle began to thrash around like a desperate, clawing animal in a trap; revulsion and abject terror flooding him as Craig held him down. "Stop! STOP!"

"That's right, fight, fight just like that," Craig said, taking a hold of Kyle's hair and yanking his head back, his other hand still working him over; dry fingers invading him. "I've always liked you the most when you're afraid, when you're not sure if you want it, but you always want it, don't you? You always want your daddy."

"NO! Stop! Stop! Kenny! Kenny, help me! Help -"

"Why don't you imagine it's Kenny fucking you instead, Kyle? Maybe that'll help get you off," Craig snickered, and then he was inside of Kyle; consuming him like he was finally devouring him, head and all. The table thudded against the wall with every violent thrust, Craig's hand gripping Kyle's hip as he held onto his hair, pulling it until Kyle's head ached.

"Kenny, oh, Kenny Kenny Kenny Kenny," Kyle whimpered, his feet cold against the floor as his husband assaulted him, his hips slapping against Kyle's thighs in a meaty repetitious manner, his occasional moans and grunts ricocheting off of the unforgiving basement walls. 

Closing his eyes, Kyle could feel the final splinter occur, and then he was drifting again, back in the vast expanse of sea. The stars were back, their pearly brilliance salting the sky. Sighing, he truly became an island in that moment, never wanting to be touched again, his shores cut off from humanity; everything becoming lost in the tides.

******

Dear Rose,

I'm sorry if this is basically illegible. My hand's shaking so badly I can barely write, but I needed to say something, anything. The words are trapped inside of my head and I have to get them out or they'll kill me.

It still feels like Craig is inside of me, Rose. I can feel the blood and come drying on the backs of my thighs and it's destroying me. He isn't here anymore and yet he is. He's always right there. If I look up, he'll be standing there, waiting.

He wanted to wash me but I refused. I just wanted him to leave, Rose. I just wanted him to go away, and finally he did. There was no way I was going to let him lie with me tonight. It's like the feeling of his hands is burned into my skin; I carry the feeling wherever I go. I want to tear off my skin. I want to rip out the parts of my brain that think of him, that won't let me forget. I'll never be able to forget, he's made sure of that.

I know he meant what he said about killing Kenny and if it wasn't for that, I would've just slipped into the waters and drowned entirely. I'd just allow myself to fall into stupid animal complacency and just go with the way of things; I'd bow and accept my part in all of this.

But, I can't, not yet, at least. I can't let Kenny pay the price for my many, many mistakes. It isn't fair. It isn't right. I'm not so far gone that I can't see the difference between right and wrong anymore, Rose. Craig hasn't shattered me completely yet, but the cracks are there, and they're so deep that I can feel them running through my bones. One more push and I'll be done, Rose. I promise.

But for now I still have to try, and I almost have a plan, but I don't know if it will work. Nothing's ever worked before, but I was never willing to actually bloody my hands (unless you count what I did with the roses, but that was entirely different. That was more of a test to see if I still felt anything, and I do, as much as I hate to admit it).

Now I'm past the point of caring, and if anything murder colors my most vivid fantasies. I'm almost excited at the prospect of having someone else's blood on my hands, Rose. In fact, I can almost taste it, that metallic, almost meaty flavor coating my tongue; pennies and flesh. It'll be glorious.

But only if I can make it work, which who even knows? I don't know anything anymore beyond the pain and the fantasies. Will I go to my garden even if I hurt someone else? Will the roses and the ocean be waiting for me then?

I know I don't have much time, Rose. Craig said that the movers will finish tomorrow and then the next day is the day. I already know Kenny will fight tooth and nail if he sees Craig carrying me to the car, and I already know that Craig will use that fucking gun if push comes to shove.

Be strong, Kyle. Be strong for Kenny even if you can't be strong for yourself.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: I would've preferred a beating tonight over what actually happened, Rose. What Craig did threatens my soul not just my body. I think he knows that, too.

*******

"Good morning, love. Did you sleep okay?" Slowly, Craig approached Kyle's corner, where he'd managed to stuff his blankets and pillow, pushing himself so far into it that he sat atop a mound; back pressed into the crack of the room. He watched Craig with tired, suspicious eyes, wide and following his every move.

Kyle didn't speak, opting instead to retreat into silence where fragile safety could be afforded. He merely nodded his head, his eyes drifting with every movement Craig made. He set the breakfast tray down, and Kyle was almost nauseated to see the rose in the crystal vase, though he was also secretly relieved.

"Come and eat now," Craig said gently, pushing the tray forward a little; trying to coax him the way he would a skittish animal. "You need to keep up your strength if you're going to heal."

Fighting back against his desire to simply kick the tray and flip it over, Kyle crawled forward and snatched at a piece of toast, taking it in his hand before quickly settling back into his corner. He chewed on it, still watching Craig.

"So, that's how it's going to be today. I should've known," Craig sighed, going to the cluster of roses in the plastic cup and inspecting them. "I bring you roses to try and brighten you up, and you're still so sullen and withdrawn."

"Thank you," Kyle whispered, finishing the toast and reaching out to snatch up the other piece. "I like being able to look at them. I appreciate it."

Craig smiled, coming over to Kyle again and kneeling before him.

"I'm glad," he murmured, lifting a hand to Kyle's curls and tousling them. "I just want to make you happy."

"When are the movers coming?" Kyle asked, allowing himself to be fondled even though the very act of being touched by his husband made him want to retch and cry; completely crumple.

"Oh, soon. Very soon," Craig replied, already fishing in his pocket and drawing out the syringe. "I'll let you finish before I give you this. How does that sound?"

"Maybe you don't need to use that today," Kyle replied, looking down at the syringe and already feeling it breaking his skin; the heat of the chemicals coursing through his bloodstream. "Maybe I can behave without it."

Craig shook his head, almost appearing regretful.

"We both know better than that, don't we? Finish eating so we can just get this taken care of."

"Yes, sir," Kyle murmured, lifting the plate of eggs and pushing back against the wall, forking them into his mouth. He studied the crystal vase. "Just promise me that you'll bring the vase and the rose tomorrow, okay? I like being able to keep up our traditions even when things have gone to hell."

"Of course," Craig said tenderly, fingering the vase. "It'll be one of the last things I pack away."

"And one of the first things I unpack when we make it to Baltimore," Kyle replied, smiling as he swallowed the cold eggs. "Maybe you're right, Craig. Maybe things will be better after we move. I'm willing to try."

"That's all I'm asking for, Kyle. Now, finish eating, okay? I want you to be asleep by the time the movers get here; it'll make me feel better."

*******

"Everything went off without a hitch," Craig murmured, carefully washing Kyle down with the sponge, the tub of water waiting off to the side. The scent of apples permeated the gloom, offering up bright splashes to Kyle's tired mind. "The truck should be in Baltimore right before us, Kyle. Everything is set for us to leave early tomorrow morning. I want to be on the road even before the sun comes up."

"Hmm," Kyle replied, resting his cheek on his folded arms and staring at his splotch of blood on the floor. Craig still hadn't wiped it away. He'd finally allowed Craig to give him a bath, almost sighing when he felt the blood and his husband's ejaculate being wiped away from his backside and thighs.

"You're being so quiet this evening," Craig commented, passing a hand over Kyle's sutures. "What's on your mind?"

"Oh, just everything," Kyle said, carefully. "I'm still trying to get used to the fact that we're leaving tomorrow, you know? That I won't be spending another night in this basement...that we're leaving everything behind."

"It's for the best," Craig assured him, helping Kyle sit up. Tenderly, he began to wash Kyle's face, pushing his curls away from his forehead. "I promise you, all of this is for the best."

"Are we ever going to come back? We grew up here, Craig, we can't pretend South Park never happened. We're sitting on our roots."

"We are, aren't we? God, I hate that idea," Craig said, throwing the sponge down and beginning to wipe Kyle down with a thin towel; buffing his flesh with the rough fibers. "I hate that we came from this place, Kyle. I don't know why you'd ever want to come back."

"You can't just turn your back on your past," Kyle said, softly.

"Yeah, but you can't go home again. That's what you're trying to do, Kyle. Just move on. There's nothing for us here."

"Was Kenny outside today?" Kyle looked down at his throbbing hand, the places where the thorns had stabbed him an angry red. When Craig didn't immediately answer, he looked up, unsurprised to come face to face with his obvious rage.

"You know he was," Craig bit, standing and gathering up the tub, the towel slung over his shoulder. Wincing, he rubbed at his ribs for a moment, an action which greatly pleased Kyle; filling him with a strange peace.

"Your ribs still hurt, don't they?"

"Yeah, Kyle, they do. You already know they do," Craig snapped, clearly becoming agitated, though Kyle couldn't fathom why. Wasn't he getting everything he wanted? Suddenly, Craig was setting Kyle's bathing supplies aside and approaching him, pushing his still naked body down on his blanket and covering him. Kyle had to fight back the urge to cry and struggle away, his destroyed back screaming as his sutures scraped against the blanket.

"I didn't want things to turn out like this, you know," Craig whispered, kissing Kyle's throat as he reached down and spread his thighs; strong fingers pressing into chilled, aching skin. "I wanted you to come willingly, Kyle; I wanted you to follow me wherever I went. I didn't want you to fight me, not like this."

"I'm not fighting you, Craig," Kyle replied, pressing his hands against Craig's chest and fighting back a sob; his eyes already filling with tears. "I'm doing everything you want me to."

"The only time I don't want you to obey is during times like this," Craig breathed, leaning back a little and staring into Kyle's terrified eyes. "I like making love to you when you have this look on your face, and I can look into those large, frightened eyes; that's when I know I own you. I like knowing you're mine. Don't you want to be mine?"

"Craig, please," Kyle whimpered, turning his face away. "I still hurt from last night. Can't you just -"

"No, I can't. I need this tonight. I need you, I always need you," Craig whispered, reaching up and taking a hold of Kyle's face; turning it toward him. "Just look in my eyes while I'm inside you, Kyle; that's all I want. It reminds me of when you were a virgin and you let me touch you for the first time. It's almost like when Tweek and I...."

He trailed off, smiling sadly.

"He was afraid the first time, too, but we were both so happy afterward. I just wanted him to be happy like that, always."

"Craig, you aren't making any sense. What are you -"

Softly, suddenly, Craig pressed his lips against Kyle's, silencing him, and after a moment he was pushing into Kyle's body, claiming him once again. Kyle's eyes widened at the sudden invasion, the sensation of being deeply dirty and sullied overtaking him as his husband pulled away; grey eyes capturing green as every thrust pushed him closer and closer to his final edge.

"Until tomorrow," Craig whispered, capturing Kyle's lips again, a needful hand bruising a delicate hip; his cock sliding inside of wrecked flesh that had wept blood mere hours before. "Everything will be perfect again after tomorrow."

******

Dear Rose,

My body isn't mine anymore. He took it again, but he won't give it back. I will never be clean again. If Kenny touches me, he'll be polluted too. Won't he?

He'll be coming to me before dawn so I have to try and get some sleep. I'll only have one shot at this and if I fail, well -

I don't even want to think about that. Let's just assume that I'll succeed, even though I probably won't.

Do you remember how I used to be, Rose? I used to have hope. I used to have dreams. That's back when I had things that belonged to me, but everything's been taken.

At least I have you. Do you still love me? I love you. So much.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

------

"Wake up, Kyle. Come on, we gotta get moving. Open your eyes."

Reluctantly, Kyle blinked his eyes apart and came back to his hateful reality. He had fallen asleep propped in the corner after Craig had finished with him, his backside aching and the feeling of being taken time and again alive in his flesh. He'd been washed after the last time but that didn't mean anything anymore. He was unclean, he was destroyed, he was -

"You need to eat quickly so we can get on the road. I have the car all set up for you, Kyle. You can sleep in the backseat until our first stop." Craig held up the syringe, almost like it was part of Kyle's breakfast, the tray sitting on the floor with the customary red rose waiting in the crystal vase. Focusing in on the vase, Kyle leaned forward and clutched at his mug of coffee.

"Oh, and as an added precaution," Craig added, pulling open his jacket and revealing the gun in its holster; filling Kyle with caustic, unbridled fear. "That's in case your fucking Prince Charming gets any stupid ideas."

"Please, don't," Kyle whispered, sitting forward and setting the mug aside. He clung to Craig's shirt. "Just promise me you won't use it. Kenny means well, he -"

"Just shut up," Craig seethed, his body tensing like he wanted to strike Kyle but it was taking everything in him to hold back. "I'll use it, Kyle, without hesitation. Kenny has it coming and you know it. I just wish I could use it without provocation, but I have a feeling he won't give me any choice."

"I don't think Kenny should have to suffer because he wanted to love me," Kyle murmured, his eyes lingering on the vase, every part of his body beginning to coil up; muscles tensed as his hands began to ready themselves.

"I tore up that stupid photograph, by the way," Craig said suddenly, ripping Kyle's hands from the front of his shirt. "That stupid fucking lighthouse. That bullshit is meaningless. Everything you shared with that asshole is meaningless."

"No," Kyle whispered, tears gathering in his eyes against his will. "Why would you do that? There was no reason to do that!"

"I had every reason to do it," Craig said, sitting back on his heels. "That was the catalyst for all of this, wasn't it? That ridiculous picture and Kenny wanting to save you. Save you from what? Where the fuck is your stupid diary? Where's Rose?"

Shaking, Kyle looked around and fetched up Rose, his hand trembling when he handed her over to Craig; supremely glad that all of his recent entries were safely tucked away in his secret hiding spot in the insulation. Craig snatched up the diary, a sneer on his face. Flipping through the pages, he derisively began to read:

"But I'm here to tell you that life can truly begin whenever you want it to, and I'll always be here to help get you started, whether as a friend or whatever you want: I'm here. Please remember that, okay? Even in your darkest moments when the world is cold and the night seems to go on forever, I'm here; let me be your light when you need me to be."

Rolling his eyes, he hurled the diary against the wall, where it struck with a slap and fell against the floor. Kyle couldn't help but stare at Rose with pleading eyes, wanting to go to her but terrified to make a move.

"Kenny's just as big of a bleeding heart as you are, Kyle, and it's pathetic. It's all so pathetic and you know it," Craig said, beginning to laugh now. "You're both so simple, no wonder Kenny wants to fuck you. If only he could see your face when you're just about to come, it's beautiful." He lapsed into silence for a moment, clearly imagining what he spoke of; Kyle on the verge of orgasm and trembling under his hands, unable to fly away.

"In fact, we probably have enough time to take care of that before we leave," Craig said, looking at Kyle with that awful light in his eyes; lust drenching his irises until he almost looked like a stranger. Kyle could never figure out where he went when he got into one of these moods, he just knew there was no way he could follow him; then they'd both be lost.

"No, I-I don't want to," Kyle said, his eyes coming to rest on the vase again. "Don't touch me, Craig. Don't touch me!"

"I'll do whatever I want, just like always," Craig said, starting to move, grey eyes already undressing Kyle; exposing him, skin and soul. It was almost like he was already bleeding and gasping, pushed onto his back and begging for mercy that never came. "Just be a good boy for me, okay? I'll make you come, and then you'll be even more relaxed when I -"

"No! NO! NO NO NO!" Kyle screamed, pushing against Craig with all of his might, knocking him backward in his surprise. Before he could respond, Kyle had yanked up the crystal vase and smashed it against the floor, leaving a jagged, sharp chunk in his hand. Standing, he brandished it like he would a sword, advancing on Craig.

"Kyle, what the fuck are you doing?!" Craig yelled, staring at the decimated vase in Kyle's hand. "That was special, that was our -"

"That was nothing! You're nothing!" Kyle cut him off, his voice echoing off of the basement and rebounding all around them; almost like he'd turned into an army. "I hate you! I fucking hate you! You're never going to touch me again! NEVER!" All at once, he reared back and slashed the sharp glass across Craig's face, catching his cheek and causing a cascade of blood to spray from his flesh.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" Craig shrieked, clutching at his cheek. "How the fuck could you do that, you little -"

"Shut the fuck up! I'm done listening to you!" Viciously, Kyle slashed at him again, the crystal slicing through Craig's opposite cheek; the smell of his blood drifting under Kyle's nostrils and almost making him want to weep with happiness.

"I'll fucking kill you," Craig said, his teeth gritted as his face wept blood; carmine trails falling over his flesh and dripping on the floor, taking the place of Kyle's. "So help me, God, I'll destroy you right now, Kyle. I should've killed you after you ran off, but I wanted to make things work. I wanted to fucking love you!"

"You've never loved me, you fucking filthy prick!" Kyle yelled, responding before Craig could stand, drawing his foot back and bringing it forward with all the force he could muster; his heel connecting with Craig's broken ribs and making him fall to his side; gasping and folding himself into the fetal position.

"H-how could you...how could you...." he choked out, brokenly, holding himself; hugging his collapsed bones. "Kyle, why...you..."

"I'm done, Craig. I'm fucking done," Kyle bit out, throwing the remains of the crystal vase down and relishing in the way it shattered into a million pieces, chunks scattering every which way as Craig writhed on the floor. "I'm not moving to Baltimore with you! I'm not going anywhere with you!"

Beginning to move, Kyle yelped when his bare foot stepped on a shard of glass, the edge becoming lodged in his skin. Leaning down, he yanked it out, almost not feeling the way his skin tore when removing it; fresh blood squelching under his foot as he brought it down again, having every intention of running away. Screaming, he felt a large, strong hand wrap around his ankle, tugging him back.

"You aren't leaving," Craig seethed, holding onto him even as his face bled like he was a stuck pig; grey eyes collapsing and becoming murderous. "The only way you're getting out of here is in a fucking body bag."

"That's what you fucking think," Kyle yelled, reaching out and taking a hold of the bouquet of roses in the plastic cup, gathering them up and shoving the thorny stems in Craig's face; rubbing them viciously as the sharp points dug into his own hands. He ignored it, taking excessive, hateful joy in hearing Craig scream. "I hope you choke on these fucking roses, you piece of shit! HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM NOW?!"

Craig couldn't respond, his screaming mouth filled with thorns and decimated flowers, his hands tearing at his face as Kyle continued to shove them against his skin. His mind was awash in a red fog until a tiny voice reminded him that he needed to flee, that there was only so much time.

"Fuck you, Craig," he bit out, dropping the flowers and turning on his bloody heel, his frantic feet almost growing wings as he fled for the stairs. He took them two at a time, nearly falling when his bloody foot gave out beneath him, his still injured ankle nearly making him fold; he ignored all of this, though, launching himself out of the basement and through the kitchen. Flying down the hallway, he could practically feel Craig breathing on his neck as he wrestled with the door, flinging it open and passing through it; soft rainfall drenching his hair as he crunched over the gravel, aching feet carrying him over the expanse of lawn, and then -

"Kenny! Kenny!" He screamed, practically falling apart to see Kenny's blue truck at the curb, his old friend standing behind the gate almost appearing like a vision from God.

"Kyle! Jesus Christ!" Kenny yelled, clutching at the bars as Kyle sprinted toward him. "What the fuck happened?! Where's -"

A shot rang through the air then, and all at once a deep, burning explosion bloomed in Kyle's side, just as he was reaching the fence. Stumbling, he reached out and took a hold of the bars, Kenny just on the other side, clutching at his hands and begging Kyle to stay calm. Folding against the bars, he gasped for air that quickly fled his burning lungs.

"Shhh, okay? Just be still," Kenny sobbed, wrapping his fingers around Kyle's cold ones, shutting his eyes as he drew out his own gun; cocking it. Looking up, Kyle could see through his wavery vision that Kenny's blue eyes were chips of granite when they opened again, trained on something just beyond them. Leaning his head down, he gasped as a familiar metallic odor overtook him. Reaching down, he held a hand to his burning side, and there was warmth saturating his fingers; so much liquid seeping through his trembling hand, staining his white t-shirt scarlet.

"Kenny, what happened...? I'm...I don't feel..." he choked out, studying his friend's face. "I forgot Rose, Kenny; I left her behind. She'll never forgive me...."

"Be quiet, Kyle. You don't need to talk anymore, I've got you," Kenny whispered, reaching through the bars and pulling Kyle close. In his other hand, he had his gun focused on -

"Just stay back, Craig," he said, his voice low and deadly. "You've done enough, okay? You've lost; accept it."

Managing to muster up some strength, Kyle looked behind himself to see Craig standing there; grey eyes wide as he stared at Kyle in disbelief. His gun was in his hands, still raised but it was obvious he was shaking.

"Kyle, I didn't mean it," he said, tremulously. "Just come over here and I'll take care of you, just like always. Okay?"

"You need to call a fucking ambulance, you psycho!" Kenny yelled, holding Kyle as tightly as he could with the bars in the way.

"Kyle, please," Craig pleaded, staring at Kyle. His face was awash in still falling blood, the rain drenching his face and rendering the scarlet a light pink; ghastly, seeping ribbons. "It's me. You can't just turn your back on me. You don't do that to the people you love. You know that."

Kyle was fading now, his body slackening as he melted into Kenny, all of the fear and pain converging on him as he bled furiously; his garden waiting in the wings as the rain continued to pour. Turning away from Craig, Kyle stared into Kenny's eyes, and he began to cry openly; not from the agony but from the kindness he found in them.

"I never wanted to give up on someone I love," he sobbed, reaching up and taking a hold of Kenny's face. Desperately, he leaned forward and placed his lips against Kenny's, kissing him tentatively, every part of his being wanting to finally become lost in him; the scents of tobacco and sunshine engulfing him.

"But sometimes that's our only choice."

Chapter Text

When I am lost
You shine a light for me
And set me free
When I am low
You wash away my tears
And take me through
The loneliness

And emptiness
Through the darkest night
Somehow I survive
Through it all
When you tell me

I'm the only one you need

-Music Box, Mariah Carey


Kyle was fading in and out of consciousness as he tried to hold onto the feeling of Kenny's lips pressing against his own, never knowing that a first kiss could be so satisfying even in the midst of so much strife and turmoil. The fire was still burning in his side and he could feel the warmth of his blood staining his fingers as they pressed down, but for a moment the only thing he could focus on was Kenny being so close again; close enough to touch, close enough to smell and cling to.

"Kenny, it hurts," he whimpered, finally managing to break away from yet another kiss. After the first one he'd gone in for another and then another; now he was losing track of them but was still hungry for more. Looking down, he could see that his t-shirt was completely saturated with blood, stark and red against the sterile whiteness; he sobbed just at the sight of it.

"There's so much blood," he said, leaning hard against the fence as cold chills coursed through his skin. He felt nauseous, he was freezing, there was darkness crawling into the corners of his vision; fear was nearly stealing his voice as he tried to make sense of what was happening.

"He shot you, Kyle," Kenny murmured, continuing to hold him close as he kept his gun trained on Craig. "Craig fucking shot you."

"It was an accident," Craig said, watching the pair with wide eyes that were no longer empty and remote; now they were an animal's eyes, clearly pondering whether he should stay or take flight; he stayed. "Kyle, you know I didn't mean to do that; I just wanted to make you stop."

"You stopped him alright, you son of a bitch," Kenny barked, raw fury lacing his voice. "What the fuck are you doing with a gun if you don't even know how to use it?!"

"I don't fucking answer to you, Kenny, so shut the fuck up!" Craig yelled, lowering the gun to his side, though his finger remained on the trigger.

"Yes the fuck you do, Tucker," Kenny seethed. "You couldn't stand the fact that Kyle wanted to get away from you, so you shot him...you could've killed him, you psychotic prick, so, yeah, you're gonna fucking answer to me. It's about goddamn time you answered to someone!"

"I told you, it was a fucking accident," Craig snapped, daring to draw closer; his steps tenuous and one hand outstretched toward Kyle. "I would never intentionally shoot Kyle, goddammit; that's fucking insane."

"You're fucking insane so I wouldn't put anything past you," Kenny replied, tightening his hold as Craig came closer. "Stay back, Craig. Unlike you, I know how to fucking use this thing." He nodded his head to the gun still held at attention in his hand.

"Oh, knock it off," Craig muttered, rolling his eyes. "I just want to check on Kyle's wound, unless of course you want to let him bleed out right here."

"I'm scared," Kyle said, clutching at Kenny's shirt. "Please don't let me bleed to death, Kenny."

"Hush, that's not going to happen," Kenny replied, softly, kissing his forehead. "I won't let it happen, Kyle; I promise." He glanced up at Craig, his eyes narrowed. "Don't try anything funny. I'm warning you."

"Back off," Craig said, coming over and kneeling beside Kyle; setting the gun aside with reluctance after giving Kenny a dirty look, making sure the safety was on. Gently, he began peeling away the blood-saturated shirt from Kyle's side, eliciting tiny whimpers of pain from him. Not wanting Kenny to see his naked lower half, he weakly tried to cover himself. "Shh, be still," Craig soothed, stroking some wet curls from Kyle's face. "It's going to be alright, Kyle, okay? I'm going to take care of you."

"I think you've already done enough," Kenny sneered under his breath.

"Quit pushing me, Kenny; I don't need your goddamn attitude right now and neither does Kyle." Gingerly, he checked the area that was bleeding, a sudden small smile quirking his mouth. "This actually isn't too bad, thank God. The bullet just grazed him so it's only a surface wound."

"Just a surface wound, huh? Well whoopee fucking doo," Kenny said, waving his hand a little before settling it back on Kyle's side. "Maybe we should have a party to celebrate."

"He'll still need to have it looked at, to make sure there aren't any debris or dirt inside," Craig murmured, clearly ignoring Kenny's sarcasm. "And he'll probably need antibiotics just to be on the safe side, but if we can staunch the blood flow I think everything will be okay. Here." Quickly, he stripped off his coat. Tugging at the hem of his shirt he took it off as well, and then he was quickly ripping it until it became a long strip. Glancing at Kenny, he frowned.

"Can you please let go of my husband? I need to wrap this around him and you're in the way."

"I'll shoot you right between the fucking eyes if you try anything; mark my words," Kenny said, reluctantly letting go of Kyle while clinging to the fence; watching closely as Craig began to wrap his wound.

"I'm tired," Kyle sighed, allowing himself to be attended to by Craig; his skin terribly cold as he flitted in and out of consciousness. "I'm so tired and cold." Retching, he began to bring up bile, vomiting it onto the lawn.

"Jesus Christ, is he going into shock or something?!" Kenny yelled. "We need to call an ambulance, goddammit!" Blearily, Kyle saw him pull his phone out of his pocket.

"He isn't going into shock," Craig said, his voice exasperated. "He hasn't lost nearly enough blood for all that. Kyle has the tendency of becoming nauseous when he's worked up, that's all this is."

"Well, I'm calling either way, and I need to get the cops out here," Kenny replied, giving Craig a withering look loaded with scorn and contempt. "For obvious reasons."

"N-no, I don't want to go to the hospital," Kyle croaked, weakly turning his head as Craig continued to wrap his wound tightly. "I hate the hospital." He glanced at Craig, his voice a whisper now. "I hate doctors, too."

"You can't be serious, Kyle," Kenny said, staring at him in shock. "You have to go to the hospital. Quit being ridiculous, and Craig needs to get his fucking ass arrested; this is the final goddamn straw."

Kyle shook his head, feeling terribly dizzy.

"No. No cops. No ambulance. If you call, I'll refuse to cooperate."

Kenny stood up abruptly, one hand clutching his phone while the other one grabbed the fence. The rain continued to fall and his hair was plastered against his head in messy streaks, turning it from blonde to brown.

"No way. I'm seriously not hearing this right now." He dragged a hand through his hair, shaking his head. "You're still fucking defending him? Really?!"

"No, I-I'm not, Kenny," Kyle gasped, holding onto Craig's arm as a tremor broke through him; both reviled by his presence and thankful for his warmth. "I just don't want to be seen like this. I don't want to be a spectacle, okay? I just want all of this to be over, and I'll never live this down if you call the cops. You can't possibly understand what it f-feels like to be in my position r-right now."

"But, Kyle -"

"I think you should listen to him," Craig interjected, standing slowly while cradling Kyle in his arms like he was weightless. "Besides, this isn't really the time to discuss all of this. I need to clean out that wound before it gets infected, and being out in this cold rain isn't doing Kyle any favors."

"I'm not going anywhere without Kenny," Kyle said, beginning to squirm. "I'll have him call the cops right now, Craig, if you don't listen to me."

Craig shook his head, clearly annoyed.

"Fine, whatever. All of my tools are on the truck to Baltimore but I can take you to my office; everything we need will be there." He looked at Kenny, grey eyes becoming cold again. "He can come with us, I guess."

"Damn straight I'm coming with you," Kenny seethed. "I'm not letting Kyle out of my sight again."

"Enough of the white knight routine," Craig sighed. "It's getting old. Fine, you can follow behind my car. I'll just put Kyle -"

"No, I'm going with Kenny. I'm not going with you," Kyle said, pushing away from him even though his strength was all but gone. "I want to go with Kenny!"

"You heard him, man," Kenny smirked. "Now open up this fucking gate and hand him over or I'll call the cops so fast your head'll spin."

"Kyle, I really think you should rethink this decision," Craig seethed, looking down at Kyle expectantly; his expression clearly displaying he expected Kyle to obey without question.

"Fuck you," Kyle bit out, sickened that Craig still thought he had the upper hand in some capacity. "I should have Kenny call the cops on your ass but I'm being merciful. Far more merciful than you ever were with me, might I add. Now open up the gate and hand me over. Now. And give him your gun, too. Clearly you can't be trusted with it."

"I don't even know why I should help you if you can't follow a simple order," Craig muttered, going to the gate and punching in the code to make it open. "You're unbelievable, I swear to God."

"Says the man that fucking shot me," Kyle replied, weakly; still managing to put some bite in his retort. Turning, his entire spirit lit up to see Kenny stepping through the opened gates and approaching them; a boyish, happy smile on his face. "Quick, grab his gun so he can't use it again," he whispered, studying Kenny's face voraciously, never wanting to forget one inch of it again.

"Right," Kenny said, going to retrieve the gun from the grass and checking to make sure the safety was on. Stuffing it in the waistband of his pants, he put the safety on his own gun; stowing it away as well. Reaching out his arms, he approached Craig. "Hand him over."

He could tell that Craig's pride was collapsing into dust as he begrudgingly handed him over to Kenny's waiting arms; his muscles tensed and his jaw set with fury. Kyle knew that all Craig wanted to do was blow Kenny away, stuff him in the backseat of the car, and get the fuck out of dodge, but he wasn't going to let that happen. Even if he wasn't going to run to the cops that didn't mean he was going to willingly walk back into the belly of the beast; he was done. He was so done he could taste it, and when he felt Kenny's arms wrap around him he almost wept with joy.

"I've got you, Kyle," Kenny whispered, kissing his face over and over, his lips finally settling on Kyle's. "I've got you and I'm never letting you go again. Never."


"I still think you're making the wrong decision," Kenny muttered, following behind Craig's Jag as the rain continued to pour in sheets; Kyle's head nestled in his lap as he drove. Reaching over, he turned up the heat until it was as high as it could go. "Why are you protecting him like this, huh? He doesn't fucking deserve it."

"I'm not protecting him so much as I'm protecting myself," Kyle replied, curling up closer to him while pulling the hoodie Kenny had let him borrow tighter around himself. He sighed when he smelled Kenny's scent, cologne and tobacco and the aroma of cold wind and rainfall. He closed his eyes, nearly overcome with sudden happiness. "I don't want to be with Craig anymore, Kenny, but I also don't want this to turn into a media circus, and it will if I get the cops involved."

"I'm sure they would keep it discreet," Kenny replied, reaching down and brushing a hand through Kyle's moist curls. "You need to tell them what happened so they can protect you. Craig deserves to be behind bars for what he's done to you."

Kyle couldn't help but laugh, the action making his side throb terribly; he clutched at it, wincing.

"Discreet? Really? There's no such thing as being discreet in a small town like South Park, Kenny; you know that as well as I do. The fact that I've lived this way for so long without standing up for myself is humiliating enough. No, no cops. I can't do it; I can't even think of it."

"Will you at least get a restraining order or something? Just something to protect you from him, Kyle. He's fucking crazy, he's just going to keep coming after you."

He thought for a moment, considering this option. Finally, he shrugged and nodded his head.

"Fine, I'll get a restraining order. That's a good idea. Besides, Craig is obsessed with appearances, Kenny. If I threaten to expose who he really is to the public it would destroy him. His reputation as a doctor would be irrevocably damaged, you know? He'd never be able to live any of this down...I think that's enough of a deterrent to get him to leave me alone."

"I wouldn't bank on that," Kenny said, squeezing the steering wheel like he wanted to strangle it. "You can't trust him at all, Kyle. He fucking shot you. Who's to say he won't try it again just to shut you up, just to make sure you'd never talk to the police?"

A sudden sob broke through Kyle's lips as he considered everything Kenny was saying, and he pressed his hand to his mouth. Everything was converging on him at once, and he could barely think straight.

"I don't know, Kenny; I just don't know. I just feel so ashamed and stupid and dirty," he began to cry, covering his face with his hands. Turning over, he pressed his face against Kenny's warm, t-shirt covered belly. "God, I'm so stupid and worthless! I have to be if I let someone else treat me like this...if I actually believed Craig loved me. I wish I was dead, I really do, I wish I had killed myself but I never -"

"Stop, just stop! Don't talk like that, I won't listen to it!" Kenny shouted, a hitch in his throat. "You're not the person in this situation that deserves to die, Kyle; that's Tucker. It's always been fucking Tucker!"

"I just wish I could fall asleep forever," Kyle sobbed, clinging to him. "I want to fall asleep until I can wake up and all of this is gone...like it never even happened, but I'll never be able to escape any of it, will I?"

"I could sit here and lie to you, Kyle, but I'm not going to do that," Kenny replied, easing the car to a stop and putting it in park; he shut it off. Sitting back, he covered his face with his hands and rubbed his eyes. Pulling them away, he looked down at Kyle and looked so terribly tired that it tore at his heart.

"Healing takes a long fucking time, okay? Probably a lifetime, if I had to guess, and you've been through a lot. Hell, I probably don't even know the half of what you've suffered, so I'm not going to tell you that everything's going to magically get better. But," he sighed, stroking Kyle's face softly, "I can tell you that I'll be here to help you in anyway I can, okay? Lean on me when you need to, Kyle. You aren't alone."

"That's all I need for now," Kyle murmured, nuzzling closer to him. In the silence, the raindrops pattered on the roof of the ancient truck, nearly lulling him to sleep. Suddenly, Kenny spoke up, startling him, but he soon relaxed in his lap again; the warmth of it like being submerged in a hot bath.

"I'm sorry I didn't protect you," he said, tears in his voice that dug into Kyle's heart. He just sounded so ashamed. "I promised you...the night you came to me the first time, and I let you down. I let him hurt you again. I'm so sorry."

"Shh," Kyle replied, reaching up and cupping Kenny's face with his hand. "None of this is your fault, at all, and you're here now, aren't you? I went with Craig willingly and I fell for his bullshit...I have to take ownership in this situation, Kenny. I'm an adult and I can think for myself."

"But, still. I was outside the whole time, just waiting like a moron while he was...God, he was..."

"Let's not talk about it," Kyle said, gently settling his hand over Kenny's mouth. He shook his head, shutting his eyes against the onslaught of memories. "It won't change anything, not right now. Let's just get through this day, and then we can go from there. For now, I need to focus on the here and now so I don't completely fall apart."


"You can put the fucking gun down, you know. It's not like I'm going to do anything stupid," Craig snapped, glaring at Kenny who stood off to the side of the exam table, his gun in his hand. Kyle was slumped on the table, still clothed in Kenny's hoodie and fading in and out from weariness and pain.

"You already did something stupid," Kenny replied, gesturing to Kyle. "You shot your husband." He thought a moment, rubbing his chin. "After abusing him for years. Yeah, I think you're more than capable of doing something stupid; the gun stays."

"I can't believe I even have to waste my time talking to you," Craig muttered, turning his attention to Kyle and frowning more deeply. "You seriously cheated on me with this guy, Kyle? For real?"

"I never cheated on you," Kyle said, brushing some curls behind his ear, his eyes trained on the floor. "I already told you that."

"Emotional cheating is still cheating. Come on, take off your clothes so I can get a better look at you."

Flushing, Kyle glanced over at Kenny but made no move to remove his clothing. Kenny raised his eyebrows, puzzled.

"You okay?"

"I just..." Kyle bit his lip, looking away and feeling deeply, deeply ashamed. No one but his husband had seen his body in years, and he'd hoped to keep it that way. He knew that his back and flesh were a nightmare, covered over with bruises and scars and the aftermath of multiple trips to the basement. Taking off his clothes and letting Kenny see everything under the cold light in Craig's old office was too much for him to even consider, but at the same time he was so desperately tired of hiding himself away.

"It isn't pretty," he finally said, gazing up at Kenny and silently begging him to be kind; to understand. "I never wanted you to see me like this."

Kenny shook his head, coming over and smiling tenderly at Kyle while stroking his cold cheek. Throwing a dark look at Craig, he dropped a kiss among Kyle's tangle of curls.

"I want to see all of you," he murmured, stepping back. "You don't have to hide anything from me. Besides, it isn't your cross to bear, now is it?" He gave Craig a pointed, loaded look, his blue eyes darkening and becoming predatory. "The only person in this room that needs to feel shame isn't even capable of it."

"As deeply wounded as I am by your nonsense," Craig replied, crossing his arms, "I still need you to take off your clothes, Kyle. Now."

"Stop fucking ordering me around, Craig," Kyle replied, gritting his teeth. "Those days are over." Reaching down, he gripped the hem of his hoodie and slowly began to draw it upward, shutting his eyes tight. Pulling it over his face, he lay it aside and waited with baited breath, the chilled air of the office striking his skin and making goosebumps rise. After a moment, he slowly opened his eyes, his gaze going to Kenny immediately as he waited.

"I told you," he whispered, dropping his focus to the floor. "I'm sorry."

"Jesus Christ," Kenny said, softly, his eyes widening to take in the state of Kyle's naked form; immediate pity rearranging his features. Slowly, he walked around the exam table while Kyle huddled in the chill, wrapping his arms around himself and despising every suture and scar, all the devastation Craig had wrought over the long years.

Suddenly, a gentle hand was touching his suture-covered back and Kyle nearly screamed, quickly covering his mouth to stifle himself.

"You whipped him again, didn't you?" Kenny asked, his voice a combination of fury and such a deep sadness it was almost palpable. "And...and you burned him? Are these cigarette burns?"

Kyle had a feeling Kenny was speaking to Craig but he nodded anyway, almost feeling like a punished child cowering before the disappointment of a parent. He shut his eyes as the tears began to fall, sliding along his nose and dripping onto his naked legs.

"How could you?" Kenny whispered. "How could you do this to him, Craig? Don't you feel bad about any of this? Jesus fucking Christ, man; what the hell is wrong with you?!"

"That's not what matters now," Craig spat, the hard edge appearing in his voice; his impatient tone. It was one Kyle knew very well, and he shivered just to hear it. "I need to clean up that wound and you need to get the hell away from me, McCormick."

"No, what I need to do is knock you the fuck out! You're a goddamn monster!" Kenny yelled, making Kyle cringe a little. Gingerly, he reached up and pressed a hand to his aching side, just wanting all of this to end so he could sleep for a million years.

"Yeah, because knocking me out is really going to help this situation," Craig scoffed. "Kyle, call off your watchdog, will you? I can't do anything with him in my face like this."

"Kenny," Kyle murmured, opening his eyes but continuing to weep quietly. "Just let him do what needs to be done. Then we can leave, okay?"

"I just never could've guessed it was so..." Kenny trailed off, coming back around to Kyle and taking a hold of his hands. "Everything's going to be fine now. I'll back off so he can help you." He snapped his focus back to Craig. "It's the least that he can fucking do for you."

Craig didn't bother to reply, opting instead to begin undoing Kyle's bandage, his hands exceedingly gentle; the hands he usually reserved for strangers under his care. The thought made Kyle unbearably bitter as he felt the bandage being lifted from his wound, hissing lightly when a stream of saline washed over it, clearing it of some of the blood crust. Craig washed it several times, the solution taking on a faint, pinkish cast.

"So, about your face," Kenny smirked at one point, still holding Kyle's hands and squeezing them reassuringly on occasion while appraising Craig's torn up countenance. "What's going on there?"

"Why don't you field that question, Kyle?" Craig asked mildly, using tweezers now to gently pick bits of t-shirt and dirt from Kyle's wound.

Wincing, Kyle shrugged lightly, feeling weirdly proud of himself even as shame filtered into the mix. He couldn't deny that he'd enjoyed attacking his husband on some level, but he didn't exactly want to gloat about it; that'd make him a monster just like Craig, right?

"I attacked him," he said, simply. "With a crystal vase."

Kenny peered closer at Craig, smiling wider.

"Damn, nice one, Kyle," he praised, leaning down and kissing his forehead. Straightening up, he cocked an eyebrow. "And the scratches?"

"I shoved roses in his face. Thorns, you know."

"Oh, yeah, they'll get ya," Kenny laughed, clearly thoroughly enjoying himself.

"That reminds me," Craig muttered, plucking out another tatter of t-shirt from the wound. "We'll need to take a look at your foot. You stepped on some glass, didn't you?"

Lifting his wounded foot, Kyle studied it for a moment. It had stopped bleeding but it still ached terribly.

"Sure, why not?" He asked, slowly becoming indifferent and detached. He was tired and his body was a wreck, his mind already pushed to the point where he couldn't deal with his own tragic circumstances. He was finding it hard to even care anymore.

"Hey, are you okay?" Kenny asked, studying his face. "You seem like you're powering down."

"He always does this when he's tired and emotional. He can only handle so much and then he just kind of shorts out," Craig supplied, washing the wound with more saline, seemingly satisfied that any stray debris had been cleaned away. Now he was patting the area dry and readying to pack it. "Kyle, we need to keep the packing and gauze clean, okay? I don't want this getting infected, and I'll write a script for some antibiotics. You need to finish the whole course. Don't be a dumb ass and stop in the middle just because you think you're better."

"I know, I know," Kyle replied, becoming wearier with every passing moment. He'd also heard Craig's antibiotic speech about a million and one times; he could recite it by heart.

"First of all, stop answering for Kyle, he can talk for himself, and what's this 'we' nonsense?" Kenny interjected. "I'm taking care of Kyle from here, Craig. You can just fuck off."

"Kyle's still my husband, Kenny," Craig snapped, winding a long length of bandage around Kyle's torso. "Regardless of what you think, so -"

"So nothing. He isn't going anywhere with your crazy ass. As soon as you're done and you've written that prescription Kyle's coming home with me."

"The hell he is," Craig seethed. "Just because we had a fight doesn't mean that we aren't leaving for Baltimore today."

"Dude, you really are just flat-out, completely nuts, aren't you? Are you even listening to yourself right now?" Kenny asked, incredulously.

"Yeah, I am, and you don't make the fucking decisions here. Honestly, Kyle isn't in any position to make choices right now either." Securing the bandage, Kyle squeaked softly when he patted his side, his strong hand settling over the throbbing warmth. Pulling away, Kyle pulled the hoodie back on before he slid off the table; going to stand beside Kenny. He swayed before grabbing onto him, feeling woozy and chilled.

"I'm going with Kenny, end of story," Kyle announced, leaning his head against Kenny's arm. "We didn't just have a fight, Craig. You can't just downplay this situation like all the others. You had me trapped in our basement, you kept me prisoner, you drugged me...you fucking shot me. I'm not going anywhere with you."

"Wait, what? Is that why I didn't see you in the garden for awhile? He had you fucking locked up in the basement?!" Kenny said, his voice ricocheting off the walls of the exam room. He stared at Craig, mouth open. "Every time I think this situation can't get any worse, you keep upping the fucking ante, Tucker."

"What happens between Kyle and I is none of your business," Craig replied, giving Kyle a warning glance; he ignored it.

"Actually, it is his business, Craig. Everything is his business now, and I'm making my own decisions from now on," Kyle said, tiredly. Taking a deep breath, he tried to collect himself. He'd always imagined this conversation turning out differently, with yelling and glasses being thrown and coming face to face with Craig's uncontrollable, violent fury. He never would've thought for a million years that the end would come in this fashion; standing in an exam room in the early morning hours and confronting his husband in a calm, controlled voice, almost like they were discussing the weather or the stock market.

"But, Kyle, all of our stuff is halfway to Baltimore by now," Craig said, studying Kyle's face. "Everything. There's literally nothing for you here anymore. Can't you see that?"

"Everything that matters is here, Craig," Kyle replied, softly. He held Kenny's arm tighter to emphasize his point. "My friends, my family, my job...everything. I don't care about our things, I never did. That's what you care about. I was always just a thing to you, wasn't I? How else could you justify all of this?"

"You aren't making any sense, Kyle. You need to rest, you need to -"

"I need to get away from you, and that's what I'm doing," Kyle cut him off, tugging on Kenny's arm. "Let's go, Kenny."

"You can't be serious!" Craig yelled, stepping swiftly in front of them and taking a hold of Kyle's shoulders; he shook him. "We're married, we have a whole life together, I've fucking done everything for you!" He shook him again, harder. "I love you, Kyle! How the fuck can you just walk away like this?! I won't let you!"

"Get your fucking hands off of him," Kenny barked, gripping Craig's wrists and flinging him off. "Touch him again, Tucker, and I'll call the cops. Don't fucking push it."

"I'm going to live my life the way I want to from now on, Craig," Kyle said, rubbing a hand against his aching head. "You go on to Baltimore or whatever but I'm not going with you. And if you don't leave me alone, I can still call the police. I'll tell them everything." He caught Craig's eyes, staring into their boundless, unforgiving depths. "Everything."

"They won't believe you," Craig argued, his tone icing up in the face of Kyle's resolve. "You told them before that I've never hurt you."

"I'll show them my back," Kyle said, simply. "I'll tell them you shot me. Kenny has your gun, Craig. They'll check it, see that it's been recently fired." He shrugged. "Maybe I won't get very far but I'll get far enough to destroy your reputation, and at the end of the day that's all that's ever mattered to you. Right?"

Craig could only mouth wordlessly, clearly completely surprised by Kyle's easy candor and casual response to the end of an era; the closure of so many bloody, pain-filled years. He shook his head.

"This can't be happening. I refuse to believe it. You can't just walk away from this so easily, Kyle; you know that."

"I can and I am," Kyle replied, taking a hold of Kenny's hand as he limped slowly from the room. "I should've done this years ago, Craig; thank you for finally forcing my hand."


Dear Rose,

It's odd, I've had you back for awhile now and this is the first time I've actually wanted to write. I mean, I wanted to write before (I guess) but I just couldn't find the energy. Hell, I still don't have the energy, not really, but Kenny's been nagging at me to get my feelings out somehow, so here I am (in some shape or form).

I guess I didn't want to face your scrutiny, Rose. I knew it was waiting. I know Kenny thinks I'm stupid (not to mention, crazy) for not filing a restraining order or whatever, but I just couldn't. Wasn't it enough that I filed a police report? I didn't give them very much information but I wanted to have something on file, you know? I told them that Craig and I had a fight and that we're spending time apart, but I couldn't bring myself to really tell them what happened. After thinking about it (ie, obsessing over it) I realized I was culpable as well. After all, I slashed his face open with a vase, Rose...I shoved those roses in his face...what if he told them about that? Wouldn't I be in trouble, too? No one's blameless here; that's what Kenny fails to understand.

But, no, he just keeps telling me that I'm staying silent so I don't have to deal with any of this. Well, what's wrong with that? I don't want to deal with this, I never have, and maybe that's why I put up with it for so long. I knew that walking away would be just as hard as staying, just in a different, almost more unforgiving way. So, what, I open up and scream to the world that my husband brutalized me for our entire marriage and then what happens? I'm either viewed with contempt for being weak or I'm pitied for the same reason. Who the fuck would want to come clean after considering those options? Is it asking too much to walk away from this situation with just a little bit of my pride intact? Kenny will never understand how this feels, as much as it pains me to write that.

Okay, so maybe he's right that going to the police or whatever would afford me more protection, but we all know what will happen. Let's just analyze this, Rose, shall we? I go to the police and make my accusation, they drag out all of the ugly, little details into the light, all but exposing my guts and heart to the world, and then it's still just my word against Craig's, isn't it? Everything is circumstantial, even my wounds. Time has passed, Craig could argue that the injuries to my back and side are from anything...how could I prove he inflicted them? Even if I give the cops the gun and they see that it's been fired, Craig could say that Kenny used it trying to frame him or something. The police are already suspicious of Kenny because of what happened before. They have no reason to believe either of us, but they have every reason to believe Craig; the saint, the good doctor, the upstanding citizen that has so much blood on his hands I don't think they'll ever be clean again.

And what will a restraining order do, huh? Anyone can walk through a fucking restraining order, can't they? Yeah, like some piece of paper and some arbitrary guidelines can keep Craig at bay; he never fucking cared about boundaries before, why should he now? If anything, the fact that I filed it will piss him off more and give him just another reason to use force and violence. Yeah, maybe they could throw him in jail for a few days (though I doubt it), but Craig has so much money; he'd be out on bail so quickly that it'd just be a fucking joke.

The whole situation is a fucking joke, Rose. I'm a joke. I'm a fucking fool and I can't stand myself.

You'd think I'd be ecstatic about being away from Craig, wouldn't you? I've been at Kenny's place for almost a week and I'm still having trouble truly breathing, if that makes any sense. The walls still feel like they're closing in, almost like I'm still in the basement on that awful, cold floor. I sleep beside Kenny every night but I can't bear to have him touch me, even now. Possibly for forever. I'm starting to think that the kisses we shared that day in the rain were the result of hysteria and shock and just...too much happening at once. They tasted so good and they made me breathlessly happy, but now the thought of being close to him, to anyone, really, just leaves me feeling breathless, and not in the good way. It's like I can't fill my lungs with enough air most of the time; like I'm suffocating.

I've retreated to my mind, my garden, so profoundly that I have no idea if I'll ever be able to escape. The place I used to go to, the ocean and the roses, is becoming a prison just like the basement was, because I don't know how to exist in reality. My reality has been shattered, Rose, and now I'm left wandering in my thoughts; alone. I just feel so alone, even when Kenny takes me in his arms (when I'll let him, of course); it's like the night won't end. Every light in the world went out at the same time, and I have no idea how to find my way from here.

I'm just glad I was able to get you back. I'm so grateful that Kenny was willing to go into the basement for me to retrieve you (he even grabbed the pages I hid in the insulation so you're still whole, love). I will never look into that room again, I swear to God.

Besides, it's still in my thoughts, isn't it? It'll always be there, and so will Craig. He watches and all I can do is try not to crumble under the strain, but it's hard. Everyday is so hard, Rose. Anyone who thinks there's a happy ending that comes with stories like this are deluding themselves. Happy endings can't exist in situations like mine because the story never ends; it goes on and on and all you can do is try to pick your way through the aftermath.

That's what I'm doing now, or at least I'm trying to; just let me catch my breath, Rose.

Let me catch my breath.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: There's no such thing as freedom, is there?

"I'm happy to see you writing again."

Kyle glanced up from Rose, shutting her slowly as he wandered out of his garden; his sluggish mind righting itself. Kenny was standing before him, the autumn sunlight dappling his skin as it fell through the leaves overhead. Kyle had picked up the habit of sitting outside to think, under a large crab apple tree in the McCormick's backyard; its leaves slowly falling off as the days passed and the season kept turning. Sighing, he breathed in the scent of frost as the wind blew around them; the drafts lifting his curls from his forehead.

"I felt bad for abandoning her," Kyle said, standing and brushing off the seat of his pants. "Rose has always been there for me, Kenny; I can't just turn my back on her."

"Did it help you feel better?" Reaching out, Kenny traced a finger along Kyle's cheek. He fought the urge to back up, his heartbeat already on the rise.

"I don't think I'm going to feel better for a very long time," Kyle replied, hating the way the words sounded but knowing they were true; hatefully true. "Besides, I really chose to write because Craig emailed me again. That's the 10th one today."

"When are you going to go to a lawyer and start the divorce proceedings?" Kenny asked, running a hand through his hair tiredly. Stopping, he peered at Kyle closely. "You still want to leave him, right? You aren't having second thoughts, are you?"

"I definitely want to leave him, Kenny; don't worry about that. I just..." Kyle shrugged, throwing up his hands; sudden frustration rising in him and making him quick to anger. "I'm just fucking tired, okay? I don't want to deal with any of this!"

"I know you don't, Kyle, and I don't blame you," Kenny murmured, looking down at his shoes, at the way the leaves gathered on the ground. Autumn was stripping the landscape of its garments, exposing the dirt and branches for all to see; the bare bones of nature laid out. "I'm pretty sure I saw his car in town today. He's back."

"I knew he wouldn't be gone for long," Kyle muttered, fear making him stiffen up; he winced. He hurt all the time now, what with the wounds on his back and side; the constant tension making him lock up and barely able to move. "I need to get out of South Park for awhile, Kenny, but I have no idea where to go. It doesn't help that I don't want to spend any of his money. He can use it against me and track me if I use my card."

"You don't need his money. You have me, and I'll take you anywhere you want to go."

Kyle shook his head, reaching out and resting his hand against the rough bark of the tree; leaning against it.

"I'm not going to use you like that, Kenny. You don't deserve that, and I don't want a sugar daddy anyway."

"I can only be a sugar daddy if you're getting some sugar from me, Kyle," Kenny replied, laughing lightly. "Besides, you can't tell me how to use my money. If I want to take care of you, I will; I want to."

"Maybe I don't want to be taken care of," Kyle said, bristling slightly at the sugar comment. "Craig wanted to take care of me and look how that turned out. I'm a grown man, Kenny. I want to take care of myself."

"I know you do, but you need to heal first; you need to deal with all of this." Sighing, Kenny rubbed his face, his shoulders slumping. Pulling his hand away, he regarded Kyle with warm, sad eyes; weariness darkening them. They were almost the color of the sky above the Grand Mesa, a memory that Kyle clung to in times of trial but became cloudier everyday. He wanted to go back someday, but he wanted to be a completely different person when he did; a person with hope and a future. A person capable of allowing themselves to be loved.

"Why don't you come inside the house? I have a surprise for you at any rate," Kenny said, tentatively taking a hold of Kyle's hand. "Is it okay for me to do this?" He asked, shaking it a little.

"Of course it is," Kyle smiled, lifting Kenny's hand and kissing it softly. Apprehension flooded him at the word "surprise," though. "What'd you do, Kenny? You know I don't really like surprises."

"Come on and see." Gently, Kenny tugged on Kyle and led him back toward the modest little house. Pushing through the front door, he swept an arm toward the table, where food was all laid out, complete with candlelight. Two filled glasses of wine were waiting as well, glowing golden in the soft light being thrown from the candles.

"Oh, Kenny," Kyle breathed, stepping toward the table and trying to fight back tears. Kenny had gone all out and made a roast with carrots and potatoes; a basket of rolls sitting off to the side. "You made my favorite," he added, glancing back at him. "You remembered."

"Of course I did," Kenny smiled, pulling out a chair and gesturing for Kyle to sit down. "I love you, Kyle; I try to remember everything you say."

"I wish you wouldn't say that," Kyle said, sitting and looking around the table with so much affection welling in his heart he didn't think he could contain it. "You know I can't say it back, at least not yet."

"I can live with that," Kenny replied, sitting and beginning to serve them, spooning potatoes and carrots onto Kyle's plate. "As long as I get to have moments like this with you, I can live with pretty much anything."

Kyle blushed but he smiled, too; bashfully picking up his wine glass and taking a quick sip.

"I never know how to respond when you start being romantic," he admitted, taking another drink; sharp chardonnay settling over his tongue. "And it's so weird to be served like this. I mean, when Craig had me trapped in the basement he brought me my meals but he never put this much thought into them."

"It's crazy how casually we can talk about shit like that, you know? Craig keeping you in the basement so you couldn't leave...doesn't it make you feel surreal?"

Kyle shrugged, setting his wine glass aside and taking a tiny bite of the roast; he nearly dissolved with pleasure.

"Normalcy is subjective, Kenny. After awhile, being hit and abused by my husband became my normal. Human beings can pretty much put up with anything as long as they can rationalize it, you know?"

"But how could you?" Kenny asked, taking a bite of a roll; his expression thoughtful. "How could you rationalize anything Craig did to you? I couldn't imagine treating another person like that. Why was it so easy for him?"

"Craig's severely damaged, even if he can't see it," Kyle said, softly; once again trying to make sense of what was essentially senseless. "He hurts on a level that he can't articulate, so he used me as an outlet; that's the only thing I can figure. As for putting up with it, I don't know what to say; I thought I was doing the right thing. Loyalty is very important to me."

"I know, and it just makes me love you more," Kenny smiled, leaning his cheek on his hand; the candlelight trapped in his eyes and softening them. Now they weren't the color of the Grand Mesa sky; they were the same shade of blue as the ocean in Kyle's garden.

"There you go being romantic again," Kyle sighed, sinking into Kenny's affections like he would an embrace; cradled and secure.


"You want to dance? Really?"

"Sure, why not?" Kenny asked, holding his arms wide and waiting; a grin on his face. "You like to dance, don't you?"

"I'm terrible at it and you know it," Kyle replied, pouting lightly but also touched that Kenny wanted to keep the romance flowing; soft music floating through a room illuminated only by candlelight. "But, if you want to..."

"I do," Kenny said, drawing Kyle close and hugging him lightly, beginning to sway slightly. "This'll make up for the dance I never got to have with you at Stan's wedding. A dance six years in the making."

"I danced with Wendy," Kyle murmured, breathing in Kenny's familiar scent: tobacco, cologne, wind. He smelled wild in a different way from Craig, calling to mind sunshine and open meadows, not the nighttime; never the darkness. "Craig said it caught his eye, made him notice me."

"You're easy to notice, Kyle. You have a way about you, and as lame as it sounds it's almost like you glow. I noticed it even when we were kids."

"That can't be true," Kyle laughed, blushing deeply as he clung to Kenny's shirt. Their shadows passed over the walls as the candlelight flickered, and he could feel his mind winding down; becoming tired as relaxation passed through him. "You always say things like that but I know it can't be true; especially now."

"Just because you can't see it doesn't make it untrue," Kenny said, breathing deeply and tightening his hold on Kyle; their footsteps whispering over the carpet. "I'm just going to keep saying shit like this until you accept it. You realize that, right?"

"Hmm, I suppose so."

"I'll never ask for more than you're willing to give, too."

"I feel like I give you so little," Kyle said, feeling guilty. He pressed his face against Kenny's chest, listening for his heartbeat. "Most of the time I feel like I have nothing left to give."

"You're more than enough, you always have been." Stopping suddenly, Kenny tipped Kyle's face upward, studying it in the glow of the candles. For a moment, it looked like he wanted to say something but then his lips found Kyle's, kissing him so softly it felt like he was whispering against his skin; his tongue licking his mouth. Sighing, Kyle opened and allowed the kiss to deepen, falling into Kenny the way he would the ocean.

Fires were gathering in Kyle's blood as he felt Kenny's fingers tangling through his hair, their lips hungrily meeting as they stood in the darkened living room; shadows playing on the walls and the orange and yellow glow of the candles softening the edges of everything. For the first time in ages, he felt desire stirring, sudden wants coming to light in his mind that he'd overlooked or flat-out ignored for so long; imagining himself being taken by Kenny but wanting to give everything he could. A dark part of his mind wanted him to surrender to Kenny's love and accept it, and in his mind's eye he could vividly bring to life the encounter; laying back against Kenny's white sheets as he feasted on his willing body; flesh being caressed and adored, only feeling pleasure and never that exquisite pain Craig always dabbled in.

But then the doubts flooded in, and Kyle could only think of betrayal and being punished for allowing himself to give into his baser desires. Fear doused the growing fire so swiftly that Kyle almost felt like he'd been plunged into cold water, and he was frantically shoving Kenny away; trembling at the prospect of Craig finding out, of making him suffer as a result.

"I can't do this, Kenny. If we do this, Craig will know, he'll know and then he'll -"

Breaking off, Kyle went to the wall and snapped on the light, its harshness destroying the soft candlelight as well as the moment. He stared at the door, practically feeling Craig waiting on the other side and hearing it all, listening in on his thoughts and knowing that Kyle wanted Kenny to have him, all of him, and hating him for it. Craig had always had the uncanny ability to look at Kyle and know his thoughts, could practically rip off his skin and crawl inside; reading into the chambers of his heart and ripping the secrets from them.

"He'll punish me again," Kyle sobbed, covering his face and going to lean against Kenny. "He'll be able to tell that we...that we..."

"Shh, it's alright," Kenny said, gathering him close and just holding him; making no move to do anything else. It seemed like he understood that Kyle couldn't go any further than this tonight, that even allowing himself to be held was already giving so much. "We don't have to do anything, Kyle. I'm not going to make you, okay? I don't want to hurt you."

"But I feel like I'm always hurting you! I'm so fucking broken and I know I'm disappointing you, Kenny! I have to be!"

"Everyone's broken in their own way, Kyle, so stop worrying about that. You're human, that's all. The only part of this equation I'm disappointed in is Tucker, honestly. He hurt you because he could and now he doesn't even have to be responsible for picking up the pieces. That's the stuff that makes me sick." He kissed the top of Kyle's head, sighing against his curls for a moment. "Can I hold you for awhile? Would that be okay?"

Kyle nodded, scrubbing a tear from his cheek.

"I want to get used to these feelings again, of wanting someone," Kyle murmured, allowing Kenny to take his hand and lead him down the hallway to his room. Entering, Kenny didn't even turn on the light, taking Kyle to the bed and laying down next to him; pulling him close to his chest and kissing the back of his neck. "I feel like I'm not allowed to want you, Kenny."

"We'll figure things out together," Kenny replied, snuggling him closer. Through a part in the curtains, a shaft of soft moonlight fell across the coverlet; almost looking like ice. "Let's just take things slow, Kyle, and learn as we go along...that's all we can do for now."

Dear Rose,

Second entry of the day, it's almost like we're back to old times, huh?

Kenny's asleep and I managed to slip away, but I'm not afraid of him finding me. If he wakes up and goes looking for me, he'll come and find me underneath the crab apple tree. I wouldn't be afraid, Rose. I'd let him kiss me under the moon, moonlight so strong and white that I can clearly see the page as I write.

I was so close to stepping over a line tonight, Rose. Kenny wanted me, he still wants me, and I want him too. When I kiss him I want more than that moment...I want more than just his lips on mine. I want him to strip me naked and carry me to his room...I want him to lay me down and take me, all of me; I can practically feel it, being claimed by him. I know he would never hurt me either, not like Craig used to do...but is it scary that I wouldn't mind if he hurt me, Rose? I wouldn't mind him biting me, pulling my hair...I respond to the pain even though I know I shouldn't. Have I been conditioned to equate the agony with love, or was I always like this? Is pain the only thing I understand anymore?

It doesn't matter because I couldn't let Kenny have me. I know that Craig is out there, waiting, possibly watching me right now as I sit under this tree and write in you. He's keeping his distance for now but I'm pretty sure this is a temporary reprieve. I know my husband too well, and I was stupid and didn't go to the police. I hid myself in my shame, and I'm sure he expected me to respond that way. My pride has always been my Achilles heel, as is my need to see the good in people. I'm sure there's still good in Craig but I'm not going to make it my mission to find it anymore. I'm done.

But, he isn't. I know he isn't. Safety is an illusion, a pipe dream. Even when I'm wrapped up in Kenny's arms I'm not safe; not from Craig and especially not from myself.

Pray for me, Rose. Please give me strength. See me through this so I can try to love again, so I can allow myself to be loved again. Carry me through a night that feels like it'll never end, okay? I used to think that Kenny would be the light that would lead me out of all of this, but I'm starting to see that I have to save myself. I've always been my own savior, I just needed to find the strength.

Give me strength, Rose.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

Chapter Text

We found love in a hopeless place
We found love in a hopeless place
We found love in a hopeless place
We found love in a hopeless place
Shine a light through an open door

Love and life I will divide
Turn away 'cause I need you more
Feel the heartbeat in my mind
It's the way I'm feeling I just can't deny

But I've gotta let it go

 - Rihanna, We Found Love


Dear Rose,

Time is passing slowly but too quickly at the same time. Does that make any sense? No, of course it doesn't. Nothing makes sense anymore.

Here, let me start again, okay? I'm trying to put my thoughts in order but it's so hard. I can barely concentrate because I'm tired, I'm anxious, I'm afraid...I'm everything. I'm everything right now. I'm feeling too many fucking things at once so trying to write out what I'm thinking is almost impossible and it's so fucking frustrating I just want to punch a wall. Okay, that looks like a run-on sentence, what do you think? What the fuck ever, it stays. It was hard enough getting this far, best keep going.

You know what I can safely say? Healing is not a straight goddamn line, Rose, and that's the God's honest truth. Healing, or whatever the fuck I'm doing right now, is a series of side streets and valleys and mountains and curves and dips...but mostly it's the valleys. I'm in the valley right now, I'm pretty sure. For a visual, such as it is, healing resembles one of those stupid Family Circus comics where the dumb little kid is wandering all over the place and you can see the black line following him everywhere...it's a jumble of lines and paths and nonsense. (What's that kid's name again? Billy? Whatever, it doesn't matter.)

I've been at Kenny's house for almost three weeks now and I'm getting on my own nerves. Actually, scratch that; EVERYTHING is getting on my nerves. I wasn't naive enough to think that things would be easy, Rose, but Jesus Christ I never thought things would be this hard either. Everyday, literally every goddamn day, is a struggle. Waking up is a struggle, going to sleep is a struggle...basically anything a "normal" human being has to do everyday to be considered functioning is a struggle: bathing, eating, talking, thinking, concentrating, playing the game.

You know what I'm talking about when I say "the game," Rose. Everyone knows about it even if they don't think of it that way. The game involves plastering a stupid smile on your face and walking through life like everything is fine, fine, fine. The Game entails saying you're fine when an acquaintance asks you how you're doing and you actually feel like shit. The Game involves not ramming into the back of someone else's car when you've been sitting in traffic for an hour. The Game dictates that you engage in stupid small talk around the water cooler even though you don't give two shits about what the other people are talking about. The Game essentially means that you go along to get along. Don't make waves, don't make a fuss, don't rock the boat...just go with it; go with the way of things.

Well, I spent the last 6 years playing The Game with society and my soon-to-be ex-husband and I'm sick of it. I can't do it anymore. I don't want to pretend that everything's fine anymore. Things aren't fine, I'm not fine...I'm...

I'm angry, Rose. I'm so fucking angry that I can barely stand being in my own skin. Everything infuriates me. Every little thing gets on my nerves, even when I try to talk myself down...just calm down, Kyle; calm down. Come on, it isn't that serious, Kyle; you don't need to be this angry.

But it doesn't work. I feel trapped but I feel lonely at the same time. I feel hungry but I don't want to eat. I'm tired but it's so hard to sleep. I want to go for a walk outside but the world just feels too fucking big. It's too big and yet I don't feel like I belong in it; I don't feel like I have a place anymore. The only routine or place I understand was being under Craig's thumb, and sure, I don't want to be in that place anymore, but where the fuck do I go from here? I feel like I'm just a freeloader at Kenny's house even though he tells me over and over that isn't the case, but he's nice, Rose; he's got The Game down to a science.

Frankly, the fact that Kenny is so well-adjusted amazes me. I know he had a shitty childhood, and even though his mom is sweet as pie these days I know his parents used to be into some hardcore shit and their children suffered terribly as a result. Kenny has scars too, Rose; I've seen them. Maybe he's doing okay because he's had more time to heal, but I don't know...I think he's just stronger than me. Problems just roll off his shoulders like water off a duck's back...I just can't bring myself to be that cavalier. Nothing just rolls off of me, Rose; it clings, and it clings until I begin to decay. Most of the time I feel like I'm just a Host for misery to infest and feed on; I can feel my spirit and mind crumbling everyday. I'm a mess, a fucking pathetic mess.

I need to get out of here, I think. I need to see if I can make it on my own, but I don't know where to go. Christ, I don't know if I could even stomach living alone, but I have to try. Besides, I want to make my own rules. I want to live by my own laws. I've lived on other people's terms for too fucking long.

God, I don't even fucking know what I'm talking about right now. None of this makes any sense, but I guess my rantings can be attributed to too much wine and too little sleep. Sleep is such an elusive, slippery creature...every time I think I've caught her she slips from my fingers. I imagine her as a little nymph with stars in her hair and a gown woven from moonlight.

Wow, now I know I need to get some rest. I'm personifying sleep. I mean, haven't we already done that? What about Nyx?

(Note to self: research Nyx in the near future)

Oh, wait. Now I remember why I can't sleep. Nightmares. Nightmares all the fucking time. I'm surprised they stop when I'm awake.

Oh, that's right; they don't. Silly me.

Jesus, I'm gonna go.

Forever and Always,

Your Kyle

PS: No, wait. Nyx isn't the personification of sleep...she's the goddess of nighttime, right? Then who the hell is the god of sleep? Why the fuck do I care?

PPS: Oh, well. At least I can manage to find the energy to care about something...even if it doesn't matter.

*******

"Couldn't sleep?"

Looking up, Kyle took off his headphones and lay the laptop aside, studying Kenny as he emerged from the hallway; sleep-disheveled and squinting against the soft light in the living room. Rose was sitting on the couch next to him, and he'd been researching random things on the internet; Kenny having been kind enough to let him borrow his old comp for just that purpose. Somewhere along the way, after writing out his thoughts and drinking two more glasses of wine, Kyle had fallen into the Wikipedia rabbit hole and lost track of time. His eyes strayed to the time in the corner of the screen: 2:38 AM.

"Yep, I had a nightmare and sleep flew out the window," Kyle replied, perching the laptop on the coffee table and leaning against Kenny's side when he came to sit beside him. "I'm sorry, I hope I didn't disturb you."

"Not at all," Kenny said, wrapping his arm around Kyle's shoulders; snuggling him close. "I guess I've just gotten used to sleeping next to you, so when you aren't there it fucks with my head. That's my problem, not yours."

"Honestly, I don't know why you want to sleep next to me at all," Kyle sighed, leaning forward and plucking up his half-full glass of wine. He took a long sip, smacking his lips a little. "It's not like I've given up the goods or anything, and I know I'm restless; I can never fucking settle."

Kenny glanced at the wine glass and frowned before looking over at the nearly empty bottle on the coffee table.

"Kyle, we've talked about this. I don't give a shit about you 'giving up the goods,' which, by the way, is a super creepy way to refer to sex; just saying. Secondly, I don't care about you being restless, okay? Do what you need to do to keep working through this. You don't have to apologize to me for anything."

"You keep saying that but I know it isn't true," Kyle replied, polishing off the wine in the glass. He went to reach for the bottle when Kenny stopped him.

"Dude, we just bought that bottle yesterday," he said, picking up the bottle himself. "Did you seriously drink all of this by yourself? Have you even eaten anything?"

"I don't want to eat," Kyle said, becoming agitated. "I'm not hungry."

"You're thirsty, though," Kenny said, raising an eyebrow. "I've been meaning to say something, but -"

"I don't want to have this fucking conversation right now," Kyle cut him off, swiping the wine bottle out of Kenny's hand. Defiantly, he didn't even bother to pour the wine in his glass, opting instead to drink straight from the bottle. "Wine takes the edge off, okay? It helps me feel less anxious."

"No, it doesn't," Kenny argued, looking at the bottle with what could almost be considered hatred. "It just makes you more irritable and you know it."

"Whatever, I'm irritable on my own," Kyle said, taking another drink. "I like being drunk at the same time, so sue me."

"Okay, that's enough," Kenny snapped, yanking the bottle out of Kyle's hand. Standing, he went to the kitchen where he started to pour the wine into the sink.

"Hey, what the fuck do you think you're doing?!" Kyle yelled, jumping up and coming into the kitchen. He watched in horror as the wine disappeared down the drain; Merlot puddles trailing away. Gritting his teeth, he had to fight back his rage as Kenny set the empty bottle on the counter and turned to regard Kyle; blue eyes resolute and still droopy with residual sleep.

"I can't believe you just did that," Kyle bit, clenching his hands into fists. "You had no right to do that, Kenny."

"I had every right to do it," Kenny replied, running a hand through his messy hair. "You've been drinking too much, Kyle. You know you have."

"So what? What's the big fucking deal?! So I drink a little wine so I don't feel like shit all the time. What's wrong with that?!"

"Because it isn't helping," Kenny said, quietly. "Kyle, I grew up with alcoholic parents and I can already see the path you're going down. It starts with too much wine with dinner and then you start taking a drink in the middle of the day, and then -"

"Oh, get off my fucking case, Kenny," Kyle snapped, turning on his heel and walking away. He went back to the couch and flopped down, reaching for his headphones. He did not want to hear the nonsense Kenny was spewing out. After all, he had no fucking clue, not even a hint, of what it felt like to be inside of his head. Sometimes the thoughts were so loud and jumbled and overwhelming that it seemed like booze was the only thing to slow things down; quiet them for awhile. How could he possibly understand that?

"Look, I don't want to fight," Kenny said, coming over and sitting beside him again. He tried to put a hand on Kyle's thigh but he moved away, making it very clear he did not want to be touched; Kenny pulled his hand back, appearing resigned. They were silent for a time, the only sound in the room the wind striking the house and the lonely ticking of the clock over the stove.

"Tell me about your dream," he finally said, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his legs; hands clasped. "Maybe it'll help."

Kyle shrugged, still holding his headphones limply in his hand. He highly doubted talking about the nightmare would help but he could play The Game if it would make Kenny happy. As irritated as he still was, he didn't want to fight either; he hated going off on Kenny. He hated himself whenever he snapped or lashed out at Kenny. It wasn't his fault that Kyle could barely function; he just wanted to help, didn't he? He sighed.

"I lit a match and threw it on top of the bed while Craig was sleeping in it," he mumbled, pulling his legs close to his chest, resting his chin on his knees. "I didn't use gas or an accelerant or anything but he just fucking went up in flames, it was actually pretty sweet now that I think about it."

"Okay, that's mildly disturbing, burning someone alive," Kenny replied, smirking a little. "Not that Tucker doesn't deserve it, of course, but that doesn't really sound like a nightmare, dude."

Kyle was quiet for a moment, remembering the dream and hearing the way Craig screamed in agony; it almost made him smile before he came to the next part.

"It was great until the scene flipped or whatever and it wasn't Craig in the bed anymore," he said, almost sounding like he was in a trance. "It changed and then it was me on fire, Kenny; my skin melting and everything. And the thing is, I didn't move or scream or anything; I just lay there and burned. I acted like I deserved it or something."

"Do you ever wish you'd done something like that? Killed Craig while he slept?"

"You read Rose, Kenny...you read the entry where I talked about trying to stab him. Clearly, yeah, I wanted to kill him at some point; I just couldn't bring myself to do it."

"I wonder why that is," Kenny mused, leaning back against the couch and staring at the ceiling. He took a long breath. "Well, at any rate, you don't deserve to burn or suffer, but you knew that already."

"I'm not so sure anymore," Kyle replied, watching Kenny's chest rise and fall hungrily, secretly enjoying studying Kenny's body when he wasn't aware. He loved that Kenny slept in just his boxers, even if he couldn't bring himself to do anything with him yet. "Things just aren't working out the way I thought they would. I'm starting to realize I was a fucking dumb ass about all of this."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, let's be real here, okay? I'm barely fucking functioning right now and you know it. I'm not doing any of the things I should be doing."

"You went back to the psychiatrist," Kenny offered tentatively. "That was a good thing, right?"

"Whatever. I went to the psychiatrist to get my anti-anxiety meds, Kenny. I haven't followed up with an actual therapist even though I know I should." He laughed, though it was extremely bitter. "It's crazy, man. At one point I hated those meds because they made me tired and slow, but now I almost feel like I love them. I love that doped-up feeling because then I don't have to think; I don't feel like I'm drowning."

He raked his hands through his hair, continuing to watch Kenny's chest like a cat would watch a canary.

"That's how I feel everyday, Kenny, like I'm drowning. I scream but my mouth is full of water...no sound comes out, and it makes me so fucking angry."

"And then you want to drink, which makes you angrier. Am I right?" Kenny's voice was gentle, something Kyle was immensely grateful for, though he probably didn't deserve his relentless tenderness.

"Everything makes me angry, honestly. Like, the internet went out the other day for less than ten minutes and you should've seen me Kenny; I almost lost my fucking mind." He paused, suddenly reaching out and trailing a hand over Kenny's skin. He almost shuddered to feel how warm it was, almost unable to conceive that this person was real, that he was right there and he wanted to love him; all of him.

"I'm losing my mind. I probably already have."

Kenny closed a hand over Kyle's, squeezing lightly.

"You just need a change of pace, Kyle. You need to get out of this house and be around people again. I'm just glad you're going back to work tomorrow." He became quiet, kissing Kyle's hand lightly. "You are still planning on going in tomorrow, right?"

"It is tomorrow," Kyle replied, popping his neck, "but, yeah. Can you do me a favor first, though?"

"Anything."

"I've had these fucking sutures in for too long, and they really itch," Kyle smiled, pulling his hand away and standing. He drew his t-shirt over his head and threw it aside. "Can you remove them for me?"

Kenny just stared him, all hints of sleep chased from his eyes at once. He almost looked at Kyle like he was crazy, which in many respects he was starting to think he was; no other explanation made sense at this point.

"Are you for real?" He asked, eyes trailing over Kyle's bared torso. "I can't do that, Kyle. I don't know the first thing about removing stitches."

"It's simple," Kyle said, waving a hand. Walking away, he picked up some scissors. "You just snip them and pull them out. I've done it before and it was surprisingly easy. It's not like my wounds are infected or anything. The antibiotics Craig gave me killed everything. Here, I'll even sterilize these before you start."

Taking a lighter from the coffee table, Kyle flicked it on and held the scissors beneath the flame, passing it back and forth until he was satisfied. When he was done, he tossed the lighter aside and looked at Kenny expectantly.

"Well?"

Kenny still seemed completely at a loss as to how he should respond, glancing between the scissors and Kyle's face multiple times. He threw up his hands.

"I just don't know," he said. "How can I possibly do this?"

"Just don't overthink it," Kyle replied, simply. He forced the scissors into Kenny's hand. "Just do it. Like Nike."

"I mean, if you're sure, but -"

"You'll be fine, Kenny. Besides, I don't want to go to work with these things in my back. I want things to be as normal as possible, you know? I already know things are going to be tense and weird, so..." he trailed off, shrugging. "This would help."

"Well, I guess if it would help," Kenny said, still appearing uneasy as Kyle turned his back toward him. "I just want you to know that this is completely fucking insane."

"Of course it is," Kyle laughed, wincing a little as he felt a suture being snipped. "Everything's insane nowadays." Lapsing into silence, he tried to focus on the ticking of the clock as Kenny continued to work. His touch was careful, timid, almost like he was handling a baby mouse. This knowledge eased some of the tension in Kyle, and a thought came to him, one that he'd been meaning to broach with Kenny for some time but had held back because he didn't want to pry.

"Can I ask you something?" He glanced over his shoulder to see Kenny laying a bit of suture aside, the jagged threads in a neat row on the side table. Catching Kyle's eye, he raised his eyebrows.

"You can ask me anything, Kyle."

"How are you so..." he trailed off, trying to find the right words. When they didn't come, he plunged ahead, just hoping he wasn't asking anything offensive or hurtful. "Healthy? Like, I know about your past, Kenny, at least parts of it. Your parents and their drinking...the way they -"

"My parents ran a fucking meth lab out of our house," Kenny said, cutting him off; the scissors slicing another suture. "The cops visited my home more than our relatives."

"Yeah, I remember that," Kyle said, his voice becoming faint as he started to regret bringing the subject up in the first place. Suddenly it didn't seem fair. Why should Kenny be forced to revisit the atrocities of the past if he didn't have to? "I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry I can barely stand it."

A gentle hand came to rest on the curve of his waist as Kyle felt Kenny lean his head against the nape of his neck, his shaggy hair tickling his skin. Soft breaths brushed Kyle's flesh as Kenny became still, his fingers tightening slightly after a moment.

"Don't be," Kenny murmured, kissing Kyle lightly and making him shiver. "It wasn't an ideal situation for anyone, Kyle, but I wouldn't change anything; not at this stage of the game."

"How can you say that?" Kyle asked, leaning back and coming to settle against Kenny's warmth. "No one's childhood should be filled with drugs and violence and...not knowing what the next day is going to bring. You must've felt like you were growing up in a minefield."

"I did, but going through all of that made it so I can almost understand what your life was like with Craig," Kenny said, kissing him again. He paused, resting his head on Kyle's shoulder. "God, I can't believe I just said that. Like I have any idea what being married to him was like. I must seem like such a presumptuous asshole right now."

"No, no," Kyle replied, reaching up and stroking Kenny's cheek. "I think you understand more than you realize. Being with Craig was terrifying because I never knew what was going to set him off. What was okay one day was a trigger the next, so I never knew how to modify my behavior to avoid making him angry. I couldn't fall into an acceptable pattern because he wouldn't let me."

"I know what that's like," Kenny said, voice softening with a new type of hurt; sounding so vulnerable, young. "My old man was a holy terror when he was drunk, and the things he was cool with when he was sober were unacceptable when he was three sheets to the wind." He shook his head, his hair tickling Kyle's shoulder. "I can remember him waking me up in the middle of the night to clean the house. And he wouldn't wake me up like a normal person, no, he'd punch me awake. God, he'd just reek of whiskey and his eyes were so blank, and I knew he didn't give a shit about the house being clean, but suddenly things like that mattered when he was drinking."

"And yet you're so kind and giving and loving," Kyle said, rubbing his eyes; blinking back sudden tears. "You grew up in such a toxic environment and you're still so...good. You're good, Kenny. You know that, right?"

Now Kenny was wrapping both of his arms around Kyle and pulling him close, his face buried in Kyle's curls. They sat like that for a while, the wind striking the house as the clock continued its relentless ticking. A sudden sniffle from Kenny broke the quiet, and it was a sound that almost cracked Kyle's heart in two.

"Hey, no, don't do that. Don't cry," he said, squeezing Kenny's arms and turning his head so he could rest his face against Kenny's cheek. "I didn't want to make you cry, dude."

"I had something in my eye," Kenny replied, gruffly. "That's all that was."

"Right," Kyle said, grinning. Breathing in Kenny's sleepy scent, hints of cologne and tobacco winding through his warmth, Kyle sighed softly. "Is that why you were so determined to help me? Because of your past?"

"Partially, I guess. I mean, I knew you were suffering, Kyle, even if you refused to admit it. How could I just sit idly by and let that happen? It wouldn't be right. Honestly, the fact that I love you was secondary to wanting to make sure you were okay. Looking the other way would've been just as bad as Craig's behavior, if not worse."

"I wish someone had helped you when you were a kid," Kyle murmured, leaning forward again as Kenny took up the scissors once more. "The world failed you, Kenny. It isn't fair."

"Well, now we have each other," Kenny said. "That's good, right?"

Kyle nodded, smiling softly. He was finally beginning to feel sleepy, Kenny's gentle hands and reassuring voice lulling him better than the wine ever could.

"Yes, we have each other," he agreed, closing his eyes and leaning his cheek in his hand. "That's all I need for now."

******

"Gosh, it's good to have you back, Kyle. How are you feeling, buddy?"

Kyle looked up from the frame he'd been working on, vaguely annoyed by Butter's question but also appreciating its honest simplicity. There was no pretense here, when Butters asked a question, there was absolutely no hidden meaning. He smiled, pushing a curl behind his ear.

"I've been better, but I'll be okay, Butters; thanks," he said, listening to the faint classic rock playing on the radio behind him; Don't Look Back by Boston. How fitting. How trite, really. He tapped his fingers on the counter, trying to line up the syllables to the lyrics on his fingers so they fit perfectly. It was a habit he'd picked up as a child, something he did when he was nervous; he was nervous all the time these days.

"I heard Craig left town," Butters said, leaning on the counter and watching as Kyle's fingers tapped.

"Yeah, he's working out of Hopkins now," Kyle sighed, tapping his finger and becoming frustrated when the lyric didn't end on his pinky finger; now he'd have to start over with a different song until he won. "He got a promotion out there so he's mainly living in Baltimore now." Kyle didn't expound on this, of course, not wanting to get Butters of all people involved in his sordid personal affairs. He didn't need to know that Kyle called Craig's new office everyday to confirm appointments for made up patients; just so he could hear his receptionist tell him that Dr. Tucker was in the office but there wasn't a patient by that name on that day's schedule. It was a little trick he'd thought up while coasting on a white wine haze one dark afternoon; a small way to remind himself that the monster was still far away.

"Are you gonna move out there too?"

Kyle's focus immediately settled on Butters at this question, not sure how to answer without sounding like a complete asshole. He was becoming irritated and anxious, but he didn't want to flip out on his first day back on the job. No, best save that for later on after he'd gotten his bearings back.

"No, Butters. I'm not. Anyway, I really want to finish this frame before lunch, so -"

"He's telling you to amscray, Butters. Besides, don't you have inventory to take care of?" Wendy came around the counter, eyebrows raised in silent question. "Let's get on it, shall we?"

"Oh, right. I'll get to it, boss lady; right now," Butters said cheerfully, finally backing off and scurrying away. Kyle rolled his eyes fondly as he retreated, very glad to be away from his questions for awhile.

"How you holding up?" Wendy asked, taking Butters' place and leaning against the counter. Her dark hair was up in a ponytail and she was dressed in a polka dotted blouse with a black skirt; ballet flats on her feet. She appeared fresh faced even though her expression was one of concern.

"I'm fine, Wendy," Kyle replied, preparing himself for yet another inquisition. If it wasn't one thing it was another, so much well-meaning concern that wrung him out; exhausted him. "I just want things to go back to the way they were, okay? Let's not make a huge deal out of all of this."

"I don't want to make a huge deal out of anything, Kyle," she replied, tucking some hair behind her ear. She too seemed preoccupied by Kyle's tapping but she didn't mention it. "Stan just told me about Craig leaving town and that you're staying with Kenny. I'm happy for you."

He paused, trying to focus in on the song that was playing now; Tom Sawyer by Rush. Oh, well, at least it wasn't overly sentimental. His fingers tapped incessantly, though.

"How much did he tell you beyond that?"

She studied him for a moment, and he suddenly realized her eyes were the same color as ripe, purple grapes; fat and full of juice. This realization made him think of wine, and suddenly he wanted a glass of it so badly he could barely concentrate.

"Kyle, I knew for years that things between you and Craig were," she faltered, rubbing the back of her neck as her hair fell onto the counter; ebony strands soft and curling into a pile. "Tense. I mean, I've never been his biggest fan, but I didn't want to pry. I just want you to be okay."

"Craig is a difficult person," Kyle murmured, shoving the frame aside and reaching under the counter to retrieve his bag lunch. "We're getting a divorce. I'm fucking over the moon about it."

"Well, it's probably for the best," Wendy said, carefully. Kyle could tell that his response was making her uneasy but he didn't know how to stop. Christ, he just didn't want to answer these questions or have this conversation, even if it was well meaning. Didn't people realize that their concern was very often as agonizing as the abuse? Each offered their own potential for anxiety and worry; the receiver frantically trying to keep it together while attempting to make the best of a nerve wracking situation.

"Right." Opening the bag, Kyle was surprised to see a scrap of paper. He pulled it out and read it:

Dear Kyle,

I just wanted to write you a little something to make your first day back easier. I also wanted to apologize for not being able to be there to eat lunch with you, but I promised to take mom to her dialysis appointment today.

Anyway, at the risk of being hopelessly sentimental, I hope you feel like I'm there with you anyway, because I am. You're always in my thoughts so I think of it as the same thing...being together, looking out for each other.

Okay, now I'm being completely sentimental. Are you sick of me yet? I wouldn't blame you if you were, but at least it comes from a good place, right? This is actually pretty fun. I always wished my mom wrote me stupid little notes and put them in my lunch bag when I was kid, but now I get to do it for you, so...

I should probably stop, huh? I hope you enjoy your lunch even if this note made you nauseous (lol). I'll pick you up when you're done, okay?

I love you. So much.

Forever and Always,

Your Kenny

PS: Have I mentioned that I miss you? Because I totally do.

"God, he's sweet," Kyle murmured, smiling softly.

"Kenny?" Wendy asked, clearly chomping at the bit to read the letter but trying to maintain a respectful distance. Kyle couldn't help but laugh a little, knowing just how hard it was for her not to meddle in the affairs of others. He folded the note and tucked it into his pocket, wanting to keep it forever.

"Yes, Kenny," he said, pulling out a sandwich and beginning to unwrap it. "I don't know where I'd be if it weren't for him."

******

Over the next few weeks things slowly began to settle down, though Kyle continued to cycle through highs and lows and in-betweens; his mood never seeming to smooth out into a predictable state. Even though he went back to work and everything was the way it had always been in the gallery, he still felt at odds with himself and the world; his anxiety spiking out of nowhere as well as his often-times uncontrollable rage. Kenny was sweet and supportive like he always was, but at the same time Kyle could tell that he was becoming frustrated as Kyle continued to drink too much and relied heavily on his anti-anxiety meds; going so far as to empty out every bottle of booze he could find before Kyle had a chance to drink it. As a result, Kyle became very good at hiding his wine and drinking it only when he was alone.

Craig continued to email Kyle incessantly, checking up on him and offering to come see him; to smooth things out. He kept telling Kyle they needed to talk but Kyle refused to even entertain the notion, answering Craig sporadically and always keeping his responses to a minimum. He wasn't ready to go there, and when Craig had the gall to suggest that they meet up, the very idea making him immediately feel nauseated, both from the prospect of being close to his husband again and also secretly missing him. It was minimal, but it was there, a weird longing for the past and the good things they'd had together, though the good seemed to fade a little everyday, only leaving the bad memories. These were the thoughts, the nightmares, that plagued Kyle endlessly and drove him to become drunk or strung-out on pills. His mind just wouldn't shut up on its own, so he forced it to.

It didn't help that he couldn't bear to let Kenny really touch him, not in a way that mattered, even though he wanted him to; so badly. Kyle often considered the scenario in his head, could imagine suddenly kissing Kenny and leading him to the bedroom; could see himself being undressed and laid back and touched all over. He could feel Kenny's lips on his skin and his hand preparing him, could practically feel the sensation of being prepared and then -

His mind would hit a brick wall, and then all he could see was Craig on top of him, spreading his thighs and thrusting into him in that carnal, predatory way he had; grey eyes devouring him whole as he gasped and begged for more. Kyle would often retreat to the bathroom and lock the door when he started having these fantasies, and as the thoughts and memories burned him he would stroke his cock until he came, immediate shame and regret coursing through him as he washed up afterward. Standing at the sink, he'd stare at himself in the mirror and ask himself 'why' over and over. Why was Craig still swimming in his blood like this? Why did he still crave his hands on his body, hands that had torn him apart and sewed him back together? Why? Why?

Kyle had also started to fuck with his healing gunshot wound, his finger straying over it and refusing to let it heal, peeling off the scab over and over until it was red and oozing; infected. He didn't care, though. Every time he had what he considered an impure, self-destructive thought about his husband he would start attacking the wound with a vengeance, opening it up and making it weep, relishing in the pain; the distraction. This was a pain he could understand, that he could control, so he didn't mind it. He'd even considered taking one of Kenny's razors to his milky thighs every now and again but he couldn't bring himself to do it; not yet, at least.

He knew that he was falling apart but he tried to keep it all from Kenny, not wanting to get him involved more than he already was. Kyle already felt like he was holding his old friend hostage with all of his problems; he couldn't bear the thought of bogging him down further in his own brand of darkness. No, it was best to try and go about this on his own; self-medicating and hiding the racing thoughts and the sleepless nights, masking the pain. Kyle had become an expert over the years at covering up the truth, even from himself, and he was relying on all of his skills these days; just trying to make it through another day of work or another pointless conversation. He felt like he'd fallen asleep years ago and for a moment he'd woken up, but the stupor was falling over him again; this time he welcomed it.

Everything came to a head one day while Kyle was at work, eating the lunch that Kenny had so lovingly packed for him, complete with another thoughtful note that made Kyle want to cry. He was sitting outside and enjoying the last gasps of the Indian Summer that had held on well into October, eating his sandwich and drifting; wanting to be at home and drinking, waiting for Kenny to return. Kenny had started itching to go back to work as well, going out and taking photos everyday while Kyle was at work; stopping by sometimes to eat lunch with him. He'd tried to give Kyle space which he was eternally grateful for, but he could tell that Kenny was becoming restless; essentially trapped in South Park with an old friend that was barely holding it together.

Kyle was lost in his thoughts so he didn't notice the black Jag pulling into the gallery parking lot, nor did he notice Craig until he appeared before him, clad in his black, fitted jacket and looking breathlessly handsome and impeccably put-together. When he finally woke up and realized what was happening, Kyle nearly choked on the bite of food in his mouth, pushing himself back until he was pressed into the end of the bench; heartbeat racing like a frightened rabbit in his too-tight chest.

"Your receptionist said you were in procedures today," he gasped, staring at Craig with relentless, unbridled fear. "She said you'd be in the OR until this afternoon. In Baltimore. Not here. What the fuck are you doing here?"

"My receptionist is trained to tell people that even when I'm not in the office," Craig replied, studying Kyle for a moment before shaking his head; appearing regretful. "You look terrible, Kyle."

"Oh, fuck you, I wonder why," Kyle snapped, stuffing his half-eaten sandwich in his brown bag and standing up. He began to back away. "I don't want to see you, Craig. I don't even want to fucking talk to you. Just go away."

"I just meant you look tired," Craig replied, keeping his distance; hands jammed in his pockets. "It makes me worry about you."

"You weren't worried about me when you were beating me," Kyle muttered, still refusing to turn his back on his husband. No, he needed to see him every moment; just to be sure. "You weren't worried when you were raping me, or keeping me in the basement. Why weren't you worried then, huh?"

"Do we really have to jump to all that so quickly?" Craig asked, taking a step toward him; his expression softening until he looked as pathetic as Kyle felt. "I didn't come here to make a scene or make you unhappy, Kyle. I missed you, okay? Am I not allowed to miss you?"

"No, you aren't," Kyle spat, clutching at his lunch bag while he studied his husband. It'd been so long since he'd seen him in the flesh, and he had to admit that he looked good; he looked healthy. Healthier than he had a right to be. This knowledge made him angrier, even though that weird, nagging longing was tugging at his belly. He tried to ignore it. "You aren't allowed to feel anything for me anymore. You gave up that right the moment you hurt me, you son of a bitch."

"Feelings don't work that way, Kyle; you know that. You don't just turn off your emotions."

"You don't even fucking have emotions," Kyle muttered. "You never felt a genuine emotion for me during our entire marriage. You just needed someone to control and terrorize. Admit it."

"I won't admit to anything if it isn't true," Craig replied, shrugging. "Anyway, I'm back in town because the house sold; I thought you'd like to know that."

Kyle stared at him, taken aback. He hadn't expected this bit of information. He tried to assume a dismissive air, though a small part of him was sad. It's not like he wanted to live in the house again, equating it almost entirely with horrible memories and pain; nightmares and agony, but still...

"My roses," he said, his heart hurting when he thought of his garden. He'd actually come to love the flowers, deriving meager comfort from their beauty. "I hope they'll be okay."

"You could have roses in Baltimore, you know," Craig said, easily; too easily.

"No. Never," Kyle said, shaking his head. "I can't believe you'd even suggest that. You're unbelievable."

"No, I just want my husband back," Craig replied, some of his composure breaking now. He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it. "I want my life back. I'm not just going to give up on all of this. I can't."

"Well, you're going to have to, Craig. I'm not coming back."

"What, do you think you'll be happy with Kenny? He doesn't get you, Kyle," Craig said, beginning to walk toward him. "I get you, I always have. I'll do anything to get you back, you know that. Christ, I've even started going to counseling, just like you wanted me to."

"R-really? You're going to counseling?" Kyle asked, eyes widening as he backed away from his husband; his whole body so tense he thought he might snap and fly through the air. "You don't mean that."

"Yup, twice a week," Craig shrugged, stopping. "She said I might have a bit of an a