Actions

Work Header

Winter Butterfly

Chapter Text

I’ve been hearing symphonies
Before all I heard was silence
A rhapsody for you and me
And every melody is timeless
Life was stringing me along
Then you came and you cut me loose
Was solo singing on my own
Now I can’t find the key without you

 -Symphony, Clean Bandit


Upon awakening, the first thing Kyle saw was Stan's face; deep, blue eyes studying him. He was speaking, clearly, because his lips were moving, but he couldn't make out the words. Blearily, he shifted his focus for a moment, a half-drunk glass of red wine glowing in the winter sunlight; almost resembling a perfect ruby. He smiled slowly, enjoying this imagery, this thought; it struck him as being particularly romantic. It didn't hurt that soft violin music was filling up his mind.

"Dude, will you please take these things off while I'm talking to you?" Stan's voice finally broke in, cutting through the music and romanticism respectively. Kyle looked up and saw that he'd removed his headphones, bringing the muted noises of the apartment into stark focus. He groaned.

"God, what time is it?" Sitting up, he stretched, enjoying the pops running up his spine; the lengthening. He'd only intended to close his eyes for a few minutes, but it would seem a few minutes turned into a few hours.

Throwing the headphones aside, Stan sighed as he studied Kyle's face; his disheveled appearance. He'd intended to take a shower before shutting his eyes but that had fallen by the wayside, and now the afternoon had completely gotten away from him. Taking note of the clock over the stove, he saw that it was already past 5; he'd slept for three fucking hours!

"I thought you were going to make something for the baby shower tonight," Stan said, cocking a brow. "We promised Bebe. Remember?"

Kyle rolled his eyes and stood, pulling down his yellow t-shirt and not caring that it clashed with his hair. He also didn't care that it was the shirt he'd woken up in. Going into the kitchen, he plucked up a plate of Rice Krispy squares and held them out for Stan to see, feeling weirdly triumphant.

"I even added chocolate chips," he boasted, pointing to the neatly cut squares, all covered over with plastic wrap and ready to go. Setting the plate back down, he leaned against the counter and covered his face with his hands, groaning. "Besides, I don't even want to go to this. You already know that."

Stan was silent for a moment, but Kyle could feel his eyes boring into the side of his skull. He could also feel his disapproval, which only furthered his agitation.

"You promised," Stan replied, simply. "Not just Bebe, but me. You promised me, dude."

"It's not like any of this matters," Kyle said, pulling his hands from his face and slumping a little, hoping that he was the very picture of put upon misery. Stan just stared at him impassively before he rubbed a hand through his hair, looking around.

"What did you do today?" He asked, unzipping his coat and opening it. "Anything?"

"I made those fucking Rice Krispy treats for a baby shower I don't even want to go to," Kyle snapped, walking past Stan and back toward his desk in the living room; pressed up against the large windows overlooking the town. He'd placed it there because he thought it might help with inspiration; so far, that had not been the case.

"I didn't mean it like that," Stan said, softly. "I'm sorry if it came across another way."

"If you're asking whether I wrote anything, I didn't," Kyle said, rubbing his arms and looking down at his laptop; closed up and essentially useless. It would've served more purpose as a paperweight at this point, but Kyle was too proud to admit that. Too proud and too ashamed. Reaching down, he picked up his glass of wine and swirled it for a moment, staring into space; dust motes dancing through drafts of late afternoon sunlight.

"I'm sorry," Stan repeated, though Kyle knew he meant it in a different way; a way that only compounded his shame. Annoyed, he took a sip of the wine and made a face.

"Why do I have to be social anyway?"

"You spend too much time by yourself, Kyle. It'll be good for you to get out and see other people." Stan slid off his coat and tossed it aside, revealing his powder blue work shirt; bits of soil lodged under his nails. Kyle's mouth moistened slightly as he watched Stan's hands, knowing they were roughened and calloused from his job; the thought turned him on a tad even though he was on the fast track to becoming seriously annoyed.

"Like I want to see these people," he scoffed, finishing off the wine in his glass and rubbing his mouth. It was slightly sore from being so dry, his lips cracked even though he routinely drank a metric fuck ton of water along with his booze. "I still can't believe Bebe's being so cool about all of this, by the way."

"She's doing it for Heidi, mostly," Stan replied, beginning to unbutton his shirt now. "She doesn't give a fuck about Cartman."

"Can't blame her for that," Kyle said, his eyes sliding over Stan's undershirt after his work shirt was thrown aside; muscular arms darkly tanned and impressive. Now he was really getting turned on, and he caught himself biting at his bottom lip, sore thought it was. "Nobody gives a fuck about Cartman; that's part of the reason I don't want to go tonight."

"You care about Heidi, though," Stan reminded him, slipping his undershirt off. Sighing, Kyle could only stare at him for a moment, wondering if Stan was trying to openly tease him or did he just not realize how fucking hot he was? He was so preoccupied by Stan's abs that he almost didn't hear what he was saying. Shaking his head, he tried to think pure thoughts, even though he could vividly imagine being bent over his neglected laptop and fucked while the sun continued to fall toward the horizon. He nearly sighed at the notion before coming back to the conversation at hand.

"Yeah, I care about Heidi, but I can't say I'm thrilled about some of the choices she's made," he frowned, worrying at the hem of his shirt as Stan started to unbutton his pants. Okay, now he was convinced that he was being teased.

"It's all water under the bridge at this point, dude," Stan said, unzipping his fly. "They're married, they wanted a kid, Bebe was cool and hooked them up...end of story. I'm gonna take a shower, okay? The party starts at 7 so we should probably leave around 6:45."

"You want company?" Kyle asked, coming over and gently moving Stan's hands aside so he could continue the delicate process of removing him from his pants. Standing on his tiptoes, he reached up and kissed Stan's neck, his heartbeat picking up its rhythm. "We have time, after all."

Pulling away slightly, Stan grinned down at Kyle before softly pecking him on the nose; the action chaste and not at all what Kyle had in mind. He was envisioning being pressed up against the slick tiles in the shower and fucked into oblivion; being kissed on the nose like he was a pure, woebegone maiden did not mesh with his fantasies at all.

"Maybe when we get home, baby," Stan said, taking over the pants situation; his plaid boxers peeking through and openly taunting Kyle. "I'm just so tired right now, you know? It was a really long day."

"Right, yeah, I get it," Kyle pouted, taking a step back and almost shaking with need; realizing his response was dramatic but he couldn't help it. There was so much locked up inside of him, in his head, and he just wanted to be with his boyfriend; relieving the pressure somehow. Sometimes he felt like he was going to crack if he didn't have some sort of outlet, and more often than not Stan was tired or just wanted to cuddle...but Kyle needed something slightly more profound. He conceded, though, knowing he wasn't in any sort of position to make demands; at least not at the moment.

"I love you," Stan said, brushing Kyle's face with the back of his hand before retreating toward the hallway and the bathroom beyond. Kyle could only sigh as he watched Stan walk away, desire filling him up but becoming diluted by desperation and a quiet sadness.

He plopped down on the couch, lifting a leg to rest his foot on the coffee table. A wine bottle, nearly empty, sat next to a stack of magazines and unopened mail; catching his eye. He studied it for a moment before the sound of the shower starting up caught his attention, and almost on auto-pilot he passed up the booze; opting instead to snake his hand into his boxers. Slowly, he began to stroke himself to the thought of Stan in the shower, slicked over with water and soap; dark hair plastered against his forehead. This thought alone, coupled with his longing, was enough to get him close to the edge before he was imagining himself in the shower as well, back cold against the tiles as Stan made love to him; hot lips clashing as they furiously kissed.

------

"This is hardly the night to be having a party," Kyle said as he looked out the window; the thick snowfall coming down in sugary droves. It was piling up and muffling the world, creating an insulated atmosphere that made sounds muted and faraway. It made Kyle lonely just to look at it; lonely and cold, but the sensation reached his bones, nearly hollowing him out. "It isn't safe to be out on the roads in weather like this."

Stan just chuckled softly and reached over to squeeze Kyle's thigh, taking care not to upset the plate of Rice Krispy treats on his boyfriend's lap. Kyle wished he wouldn't just squeeze his leg for a fraction of a moment...he would've preferred that Stan's hand lingered for the rest of the ride, but that didn't happen. As quickly as Stan touched him, he was drawing his hand away and resting it on the steering wheel as he carefully maneuvered his truck through the wintry haze.

"Do I need to remind you that we live in the mountains, dude? We've been dealing with this bullshit since we were babies and besides, this truck can handle anything. You know that. Stop trying to find an excuse not to go to this; we're almost there, anyway."

Rather than answer what was probably a very thoughtful, sensible response, Kyle decided to turn up the music so conversation became an impossibility. As they rolled up to Cartman and Heidi's lavish home, violin music filled up the car and transported Kyle far, far away; to a place where he could write and think, where he could breathe. Just listening to Carnival of the Animals made him feel a pain in his throat, like he wanted to cry but the tears just wouldn't come out, and he clutched at the plate on his lap until his hands ached.

"Don't you listen to this while you write?" Stan asked, parking the truck and shutting it off. He looked over at Kyle, his eyebrows raised. "Isn't it Joshua Bell?"

"I listen to him while I try to write," Kyle muttered, turning away and studying the home laid out before them; sprawling and ostentatious. He rolled his eyes. Leave it to Cartman to have a ridiculously oversized home for two people; soon to be three.

"I'm sorry you're having so much trouble lately," Stan said, softly. Reaching over, he squeezed Kyle's leg again and this only reinforced the ache inside of him; drawing just a few tears to the surface. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Yeah, there is," Kyle replied, swiping a hand across his eyes quickly. "You can stop apologizing all the time...it just makes me feel worse. I'm so pathetic."

"I'm not going to listen to this," Stan said, taking his hand away and opening the door. "You aren't pathetic, Kyle. You're just going through a rough patch."

Kyle snorted, opening his door as well; albeit much more reluctantly than Stan had. He slid a leg out, his sneakered foot coming to rest on gathering snow. He nearly shuddered, anticipating the wet snowflakes striking his skin and dampening his coat; God, he hated winter, and it seemed to get longer every year.

"This isn't a rough patch, Stan," he said, stepping out while holding the plate carefully. "Rough patches don't last for two or three years at a time."

"Maybe they do for some people. Everyone's different."

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," Kyle muttered, allowing Stan to take the lead as they traipsed to the large front door. "Let's just get through this so we can leave, okay?"

Stan sighed as he rang the doorbell, bumping Kyle a little with his shoulder.

"Lighten up. You might have fun tonight."

"Doubtful," Kyle replied, staring down at the desserts clutched in his hands. At least he'd accomplished one thing that day, though it wasn't even a complicated confection to make; but still....

After a moment, a slender, brown haired woman opened the door, her face more girlish than anything else; soft, green eyes lighting up when she saw them. She smiled, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear, where a diamond stud glittered. It was almost as impressive as the wedding ring glowing on her finger.

"Stan, Kyle! I'm so glad you two could come!" She said, throwing the door wide and gesturing them inside. "It's awful out there, please come in so you can warm up."

"How's it going, Heidi?" Stan asked, pressing his hand to the small of Kyle's back and making him flush slightly; his social anxiety already beginning to kick in. He allowed himself to be led into a large living room where their friends had already assembled. The room was tastefully decorated in shades of cream and light blue, with large floor to ceiling windows that showcased the falling snow outside perfectly.

"Oh, we're stressed but so excited," Heidi replied, looking effortlessly elegant in a little black cocktail dress and kitten heels. She'd grown into a pretty woman with a soft spoken nature, though she'd managed to retain her independent nature; even after marrying Cartman. Kyle had always had a certain amount of respect for her strong morals and intelligence, though he could never understand why she'd gone back to Cartman.

"That makes sense," Stan said, nudging Kyle toward the refreshment table where a myriad of dishes were already placed: cupcakes, chips and dip, meatballs, a bowl of punch. Feeling timid, he went to place the plate on the table when Bebe accosted him, almost looking like a wrapped present in her flowing maternity blouse; a large bow resting on top of her swelled, round belly.

"I was hoping you'd come," she smiled, touching Kyle's arm for a moment. She was positively glowing in the soft lighting of the Cartmans' living room; the gold catching the flaxen highlights in her wavy hair. "Stan told me you would, but I couldn't be sure, you know?"

"I know," Kyle sighed, setting the plate down tiredly. "I haven't been great about getting out of the house lately, I guess."

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a homebody," Bebe said.

What about being a shut-in?

"Thanks," Kyle replied, trying to smile but failing. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Stan getting them some punch, his disarming, cheerful grin practically lighting up the room. Why couldn't he be that relaxed when they were out?

"I still can't believe you published a book while you were still in college," she continued, practically gushing now. "I just think that's so amazing."

Now they were straying into territory that had the potential to completely destroy Kyle's mood, so he attempted to keep it light; responding with what he hoped was levity instead of outright hostility.

"Oh, please, Bebe. It was just one book, you know? And I got incredibly lucky being able to publish while I was still so young. It's not like I'm S.E. Hinton or anything."

She looked at him with vague confusion, one eyebrow raised.

"S.E. Hinton?"

He stared at her for a moment before collecting himself. He shook his head.

"You know, the author of The Outsiders? She published the story while she was still in high school. That's something to brag about...my accomplishments pale in comparison."

"Why are you always so hard on yourself?" She asked, bringing a hand up and running it over her belly. A wistful look passed over her face as she did so, her blue eyes softening along with her expression. "I read your book, Kyle. It was wonderful and romantic and..." she trailed off, glancing over at Stan for a moment. "It seemed so happy."

"Well, I was happy when I wrote it," Kyle replied, shrugging. It was the truth, after all; he had been happy while writing that fateful book. If anything, his novel highlighted the happiest, brightest period of his life, when he and Stan were falling deeper and deeper in love; when anything had seemed possible and the world was so open.

"What are you working on now?" She asked, rubbing her belly with both hands now. Wincing, Kyle wondered if she was going to ask him if he wanted to feel the baby move or something; the idea making him acutely uncomfortable.

"Nothing worth talking about," he replied, honestly; just wanting this line of questioning to stop. Shifting gears, he decided to retaliate with a question of his own. "How are you feeling nowadays? You're pretty far along at this point, aren't you?" He gestured to her belly.

"Yep," she said, her expression becoming one of pride. "I'll be 38 weeks along in just a few days so I'm in the homestretch. I'm set to start my maternity leave next week."

"You're working at the urgent care clinic, right?" Kyle asked, trying to grope through his mind for this bit of information. He was honestly surprised he remembered that much.

She nodded, her eyes brightening with a strange enthusiasm that made Kyle slightly uneasy.

"I actually wanted to talk to you about that," she started, her focus flicking to a point behind Kyle's shoulder, making him turn. All at once, Stan was there holding out a cup of red punch to him. He rolled his eyes.

"Sorry it took me so long, I got caught up in conversation with Wendy," he said, taking a sip from his own cup. "Something about hymenoplasties and genital mutilation in other countries."

"It doesn't take her very long to jump into the deep shit, does it?" Kyle asked, wryly. He took another sip of punch, disappointed that it didn't seem to have any alcohol in it.

"We actually refer a lot of patients to her," Bebe interjected, nodding her head to Wendy who was talking to Heidi now. She had grown into a striking beauty, her dark hair piled atop her head and dressed in a silver gown; her swan-like neck accentuated by a string of creamy pearls. If Kyle didn't admire her so much, he would've hated her; for her success, for her confidence. "She's making huge strides in cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries for women."

"Bebe, do you have to talk shop all the time?" Another voice rung out from behind Kyle, and he almost shuddered to hear it; nasally and slightly snobbish. He'd know that voice in an instant, mainly because it was so distinctive; not to mention grating.

Turning, Kyle took in the sight of Craig Tucker, his stomach sinking to see him looking as dashing as Wendy was gorgeous; almost like the two could be complementing bookends. He'd always gotten the impression that they'd be a perfect match if Craig wasn't gay as a fucking picnic basket. His eyes flitted to Tweek, who stood at Craig's side, clinging to his arm and practically trembling; always on edge and oh so delicate. His fluffy blonde hair had been somewhat tamed for the occasion, but not by a lot; he still appeared to be always on the verge of breaking apart. He caught Kyle's eye for a moment and smiled, a tremulous gesture that touched Kyle's heart, mainly because Tweek seemed even more uncomfortable than he did.

"Excuse me, Dr. Tucker," Bebe replied, quirking a brow. "I was actually trying to help you out right now, but if you're going to have that attitude..."

"What are you talking about?" Craig asked, coming over with Tweek in tow; still clutching at Craig like he was a lifesaver. Craig was dressed in a charcoal colored suit complete with a Prussian blue skinny tie; impeccably styled black hair swept off of his forehead. Tweek was looking sweet and fetching in slacks and a mint green shirt, his head not even clearing Craig's shoulder.

"Well, you still need someone to replace me while I'm out," Bebe said, stroking her belly in a fashion that would seem she was emphasizing her point. "I was just about to ask Kyle if he'd be interested."

"Wait, what?" Kyle asked, completely taken aback by this statement; feeling blindsided. "Bebe, what the hell are you talking about?"

"Yeah, what are you talking about?" Craig asked, giving Kyle a dismissive look. "There's no way Broflovski could do your job."

"Hey, what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Kyle turned to him, his hand clenching around his cup of punch.

"Calm down, guys," Bebe broke in, rolling her eyes. Turning to Kyle, she smiled kindly. "I'm going to need someone to take over for me while I'm out having this here baby," she stroked her belly again. "I thought you'd be perfect. You're so organized and you really pay attention to details."

"Hey, that sounds perfect for you," Stan added, having stayed silent and watchful during this entire exchange. "You should do it, Kyle."

"Hold up, you guys are moving too fast for me," Kyle said, putting up a hand while trying to get a handle on his growing discomfort. God, he hated being the center of attention, especially now that his world had become so small and quiet. "I don't even know what you do, Bebe."

"She keeps my clinic running smoothly, that's what she does," Craig said, raising an eyebrow in Kyle's direction. "Takes care of the paperwork and the patients."

"Your clinic?" Kyle asked, biting at his bottom lip; tasting blood after he'd managed to dislodge a piece of skin.

"Yeah, Craig owns the urgent care center," Stan supplied, softly. "You didn't know that?"

"Kyle's too stuck in his own head to know anything," another voice cut in, making Kyle's blood boil instantly. All at once, Cartman was there and smirking at Kyle with open dislike; his fat face slightly flushed as he drew Heidi to his side. "Besides, he'd never be able to work with the public; he thinks he's too good for it."

"That isn't true," Kyle seethed, managing to hold back the insult on the tip of his tongue out of respect for the occasion; a baby shower was hardly the place to unload a string of obscenities. "You don't even know what you're talking about, Cartman, so butt out."

"You're telling me to butt out of a conversation in my own house, during my own baby shower? I don't think so, Kyle." Cartman kissed Heidi's cheek before reaching out and touching Bebe's belly, showing a staggering amount of softness for him. "Besides, tonight isn't about you...it's about little Mel here."

"Eric, we've talked about this, we aren't naming the baby after Mel Gibson," Heidi said, looking at Bebe's belly fondly.

"You'll learn to love the name, babe; you haven't even given it a chance."

"Anyway," Bebe sighed, rolling her eyes as she turned back to Kyle. "What do you think? I mean, I know you're usually busy writing but the job wouldn't be for very long; just a couple months."

Before Kyle could reply, Craig was interrupting once again.

"Bebe, you don't even know if Kyle can handle this. He's not exactly the most," he broke off, studying Kyle for a moment; grey eyes looking him up and down. Just this gesture was enough to make Kyle feel too hot inside of his clothes, and he began to squirm. "Welcoming person," he finished, pressing a kiss against Tweek's temple. Tweek, for his part, merely stared at Kyle with blue-eyed curiosity.

"Like you're one to talk," Kyle snapped, forgetting about his anxiety and discomfort in an instant. He wasn't about to stand there and be insulted by the most standoffish, unlikable person on the planet; Kyle didn't give a fuck if Craig was a doctor, he was still insufferable. Looking at Bebe, he made a brash, thoughtless choice, not even giving himself a chance to really marinate on his decision.

"I'll do it," he announced, giving Craig a dirty look.

"Great," Bebe said, appearing so grateful and relieved in that moment that Kyle almost had to take a step back. What the fuck had he just gotten himself into?

"Why don't you drop by tomorrow and I'll show you the ropes?"

"I guess I can do that," Kyle replied, already kicking himself for being impetuous; God, why did he always get like this when people baited him? He was just so fucking easy. Glancing at Craig, he flushed hot, noticing that he was watching him with his fathomless eyes, appraising him outright and making no attempt to conceal it.

"This is gonna be good for you, babe," Stan said, wrapping his arm around Kyle's shoulders and holding him close; smiling indulgently at him in much the same fashion Craig gazed at Tweek. This thought, this similarity, only made Kyle more irritable but he shoved it down, trying not to squirm under Craig's scrutiny.

"I'll give you a chance," Craig announced, almost like he was bestowing a gift of unimaginable magnitude upon Kyle. "But don't get too excited, you don't have the job yet."

------

"I don't think I can do this," Kyle said, softly. It was hours later after the party had ended and the revelry had been had; everyone congratulating Cartman and Heidi and Bebe in equal measures; the crowd cooing over tiny baby clothes and sweet, precious articles. Kyle had sat off to the side beside Stan, clutching at his cup of punch and catching Craig's eyes on occasion, a blush cresting his cheeks at the open challenge in them.

"Of course you can," Stan replied, pulling Kyle onto his chest and laying his head over his heart. They were lying in the hushed darkness of their bedroom as the traffic rushed by outside, the window open a crack because Stan loved the cold winter air filtering into the room; it always helped him drift off to sleep. Kyle liked to hear the cars going by as they moved away down distant roads, going to places he could only dream of as he flitted between the waking world and the one comprised of dreams. They'd both opted for an apartment in the heart of town, wanting to feel a part of things but not wanting to commit to anything too permanent.

Stan ran a hand through Kyle's curls slowly, winding a thick lock around one finger.

"You need to keep yourself open to possibilities, Kyle."

Kyle snorted as he stared off into the gloom, breathing in Stan's earthy scent as it became lost in the frigid wind trickling through the room. The combination was wild and made him melancholy even as he reveled in Stan's unrelenting, reassuring warmth.

"I don't know why I should," he finally replied, feeling shame for his petulance but not enough to change his attitude.

Silence descended over them save for the distant traffic, but after a moment Stan was pulling him closer and sighing against his hair. Kyle contemplated trying to take things a bit further but he refrained, knowing on some sad level that Stan wouldn't reciprocate; if he'd wanted something he would've made an overture by now. This knowledge made Kyle even more morose, missing the days of passion that they'd experienced in the beginning; back when his writing had seemed like second nature. Those had been the golden days, he was starting to see, and he missed them most during times like this.

"We wouldn't be together if you didn't have an open mind," Stan murmured, his voice thickening as he started to drift off to sleep. He always seemed to fall asleep long before Kyle did. "You weren't exactly receptive to me when I first approached you. Remember?"

Kyle couldn't help but smile at the memory, only able to accept it because they'd finally ended up together in the end. Reaching up, he took a hold of Stan's hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing his knuckles tenderly.

"Yeah, I remember." He ruminated for a moment, knowing Stan was going to be slipping into sleep soon and then he'd lose him for another night; realizing he had to be quick with whatever he needed to say before the opportunity disappeared. "Fine," he sighed. "I'll go, and with an open mind, okay?"

"Good," Stan sighed, his voice fading. "That makes me really happy, actually. You know how much I worry about you."

"I wish you wouldn't."

"I know, but I can't help it. You're all I've ever wanted," Stan said, finally turning away and settling his cheek against the pillow. His breaths were evening out and becoming longer, much like the hours stretching ahead of Kyle as he struggled to fall asleep as well. Before too long, he could sense the shift in the air and he knew that Stan had fallen over the precipice.

Sighing, Kyle managed to slide from Stan's arms without awakening him, watching with all the tenderness he could muster as he covered him with a blanket. He stood for a moment in the darkened bedroom, shadows looming as his eyes adjusted to night gathering. For a reason he couldn't understand or articulate he suddenly wanted to cry, but he choked it back, opting to steal from the room on kitten feet; the sounds of Stan's deep breaths sending him off.

Walking into the moon-glazed living room, Kyle regarded his laptop for a moment, once again hating it and wanting it in equal measures. He just wanted to find the spring inside of himself that would enable him to write, to create again, but it kept eluding him; no matter what he did.

"It's just you and I again," he murmured, going to the wine bottle still on the coffee table. He lifted it and brought it to his lips, drinking deeply. A copy of Ethan Frome sat on the table as well, and he picked it up, going to a page he'd dogeared; mainly because it contained words that he'd always kept close to his heart, and always would. When he and Stan had been in the dawn of their relationship and everything felt so raw, Kyle had read this very book to him out loud; a little bit every night before they fell asleep in each other's arms. One line, more than the others, had always stood out to him, because he felt like it encapsulated their relationship, their seemingly unbreakable bond.

His thoughts were with Stan as he read the words to himself, even as fear and an almost breathless curiosity rose within him. Kyle couldn't help but remember the way Craig had watched him for the remainder of the evening after he'd agreed to take over for Bebe, and he couldn't help but feel like it was predatory; almost hungry. Pushing the memory away, he repeated the words again, almost thinking of them as a talisman that would protect him from the unknown; even as he decided to break from his isolation and wander back into the world:

“They seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods."

"You could write something like that, you know," Stan had said upon hearing the line for the first time. He'd been holding Kyle tightly as he'd read, both of them naked after getting done making love. "You're amazing, Kyle. You could do anything you wanted, honestly."

Kyle had only smiled and pressed a kiss against Stan's forehead, nearly euphoric just because he finally had him in the way he'd always wanted.

"You need to stop putting me on a pedestal, Stan," he'd murmured, though a small part of him had believed Stan's words at the time. After all, everything was so new, and there were just so many possibilities for them. "You'll only be disappointed."

"Never," Stan had argued, turning his face away. "What we have is unconditional."

 

 

Chapter Text

"Dude, how many times are you going to watch this show before you're sick of it?"

Groaning faintly, Kyle could hear a voice breaking through the last vestiges of sleep as he struggled to open his eyes. His lids were glued shut with sleep dust, and he could already feel a headache beginning to pound behind his temples. In the background of everything, he could hear children's voices; soft but distinct.

"Please don't tell me it's morning already." Finally able to open his eyes, he blinked them against the white sunlight pouring through the living room windows as he attempted to sit up. Pressing a hand against his forehead, Kyle found himself looking into Stan's face, his expression rife with low-key amusement. Glancing at the TV, he saw Stranger Things playing, an episode he'd already seen countless times.

"I didn't plan on falling asleep out here," he muttered, picking up the remote and turning the TV off; Eleven's stricken face disappearing into blackness. He tossed it aside and looked at Stan, who was still watching him; a smile quirking his lips.

"I had a feeling you didn't," Stan replied before reaching out to smooth some hair from Kyle's forehead. "There's coffee if you want some."

"Oh, thank God," Kyle said, managing to stand shakily. Brushing against the coffee table, he almost upset the empty wine bottle, and just seeing it in the light of morning was enough to fill him with a slow shame. He sighed. "I should probably take some Ibuprofen, too."

"Breakfast of champions," Stan said, playfully. Leading the way into the kitchen, he snagged two mugs from the cabinet and set about preparing their coffee: black for himself and Kyle's doctored with Splenda and almond milk creamer. Pushing it across the counter, Kyle gratefully took it into his hands, relishing the warmth warding off the lingering chill of the apartment.

"You were reading Ethan Frome again, huh?" Stan asked, peering at Kyle over the rim of his cup as he took a slow sip. "It's almost like you enjoy making yourself depressed."

Kyle rolled his eyes as he fished the bottle of Ibuprofen out of the cabinet above the sink. He popped the top and shook four pills into his palm.

"I wasn't making myself depressed, Stan. You'll notice I was drinking wine...when I want to make myself depressed I read Ethan Frome and drink whiskey; you know the rules."

"Oh, right. Silly me." Stan lapsed into silence as he watched Kyle finish his usual breakfast of pain killers and caffeine; a fleeting expression of sadness overtaking his features. He leaned against the counter, still dressed in his sleeping garb; a long t-shirt and his boxers. "Are you excited?" He suddenly asked, catching Kyle by surprise.

"Excited?"

"Yeah," Stan shrugged. "About today?"

Kyle had to stifle a sudden, almost hysterical, peal of laughter at Stan's question. Trying to remain composed, he set down his mug of coffee and gave Stan a look before walking away toward the balcony, opening the door wide and ushering in cold currents of air. They felt smooth as glass against his sleep-warmed skin as he stepped outside, the sun having already risen completely but seeming to balance on the horizon. Wintertime had the power to mute the sun's light, he'd noticed, and it fell through the air in creamy yellow streaks. He could feel Stan watching him as he appraised the bird feeder, taking note of the tiny footprints that had been left in the snow since the previous day.

"Needs a refill," he muttered, reaching around Stan to pick up a bag of seed. Filling it, he turned to Stan. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't started with this whole feeding the birds thing. Now they're starting to depend on me."

"What kind of birds even live around here?" Stan asked, scanning the sky; one hand shading his eyes.

Kyle could've hugged him for being so indulgent, and for not pressing about his impending adventure. Stan had always been exceptionally kind when it came to giving him space; something he was eternally grateful for. Looking toward the sky, Kyle thought for a moment.

"Oh, jays and chickadees, mostly," he replied, setting the bag aside after making sure the feeder was full nearly to bursting. "Oh, and Bushtits, of course."

Stan started to laugh so hard that he had to clutch at the railing, one hand on his stomach. Kyle only rolled his eyes as he stepped back inside, already beginning to shiver.

"Dude, are you for real? Is that really the name of a bird?"

"Yes, Stan. It is. Bushtits...titmice," he sighed, picking up his mug again and taking a quick sip. He raised an eyebrow at his boyfriend, who was still laughing. "Are you ever going to grow up?"

"Nope," Stan replied, grinning. "And you still haven't answered my question."

"Why the hell would I be excited about this?" Kyle asked. "I mean, maybe I won't even go."

"What?" Stan asked, the laughter dying abruptly. "Are you serious?"

"Sure," Kyle shrugged, swallowing his last bit of coffee before pouring more into his mug. "What's the point? It's not like I want to work in the healthcare industry."

Stan rubbed a hand across his mouth, eliciting a raspy scratch as his skin connected with the stubble there. Kyle watched with interest, always enjoying the way Stan looked before shaving. Sometimes he wished he'd just grow a beard so he could run his fingers through it...feel it brushing against his neck when they fucked. The idea was decidedly erotic to him.

"That's not a good enough reason not to go, Kyle," he said, continuing to rub his face. "You always talk yourself out of doing anything that might force you to leave your comfort zone. Have you noticed that?"

"Can you blame me?" Kyle asked, stirring his coffee more aggressively than was really necessary. "Would you want to work for Craig, Stan? Oh, I'm sorry," he added, pressing a hand to his chest in mock alarm, "I mean, Dr. Tucker?" He rolled his eyes.

"That's fair," Stan conceded, handing his cup to Kyle. "I know he's not the easiest person in the world to deal with but I think that's good for you, too. You need to get used to people again."

"Easier said than done," Kyle said, pouring more coffee into Stan's cup before handing it back. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair, grateful that he'd managed to go out last week and get it cut; at least now it was slightly easier to tame. "Fine. Fine, I'll go, okay? But I need an incentive."

Stan smiled now, coming over to Kyle and placing his hands on his hips; he drew him close.

"Oh, what kind of incentive, huh?"

Kyle smiled cheekily before wrapping his arms around Stan's neck.

"Surprise me," he replied, biting his bottom lip. "Just make it worth my while, okay? Because I seriously do not want to do this."

-------

"Hey, you're right on time," Bebe smiled at Kyle as she stepped from her car, holding onto the door tightly as she maneuvered her heavy belly; ice lacing the pavement beneath her boots. Hurriedly, Kyle rushed toward her.

"Hold on, let me help," he said, taking a hold of her arm as she swung the door closed; a to-go cup of coffee clutched in her other hand.

"Thanks," she replied, crunching over the salt and ice as she led Kyle toward the clinic's entrance. She sighed, and somehow Kyle could feel her weariness just from the sound alone. "My center of gravity is seriously off these days; as you can plainly see."

"You don't say." Still holding her arm, Kyle glanced around, taking note of a couple cars already in the lot even though the clinic didn't open until 8. "I thought you said you're always the first person here."

Rolling her eyes, she pulled a set of keys from the pocket of her fluffy, white coat; looking around as well.

"I am," she said, slipping a key in the lock. Even before she'd turned it, a car door was opening and a man was stepping out. He began making his way toward them. Huffing, Bebe glanced at Kyle and spoke softly. "This shit happens every morning so you have to be ready for it."

"What do you mean?" Kyle asked, watching as the man approached them; hands jammed in the pockets of his parka.

"You'll see," she said, turning the key and opening the door. She began to walk inside, bringing Kyle with her who kept tabs on the man in his peripheral. Bebe stopped and turned, an eyebrow raised; facing the man directly.

"We aren't open yet," she said. "Come back in half an hour, okay?"

With that, she pulled Kyle alongside her and shut the door, locking it again. The man continued to stand there, eyes slightly wider but not turning to leave. Kyle just stared for a moment before looking at Bebe, his eyebrows raised in question.

"You'll learn very quickly that working with the public can be very trying," she said, by way of explanation. "Most of them don't know how to read signs, or they plain just don't want to; be prepared to explain the same things over and over."

"Are you seriously telling me people try to walk in with you when you first get here? Even before the place is open? Every morning?" Kyle could hardly believe it, glancing at the man again who was still waiting; stiff, cold winds blowing his hair around. After a moment, another person, a woman came to stand beside him, and she too stared at the door; almost like she could make it open with her mind.

"Yup." She flipped on the lights, illuminating the room so Kyle could see it properly. As she peeled off her coat and got situated, Kyle looked around, taking note of his surroundings; having never been to Craig's clinic before.

He had to admit it was handsomely decorated with dark hardwood floors and nondescript paintings on the walls; green ferns situated strategically and rows of black leather chairs lined up neatly. A black leather couch that complemented the chairs was pressed against the wall, and two flat screen TVs were on opposite sides of the room; hung on the walls. The check-in counter was curved and topped with black marble, and it was open to the room; the counter and work space not closed off with a door or any sort of partition.

"Isn't that kind of dangerous?" He asked, drawing close and studying the area Bebe was bustling around in. She was clad in Hello Kitty scrubs that were magenta and accented with little hearts; cheerful and cute in comparison to his somber dark slacks and sweater vest, a long sleeved white shirt beneath.

"What?" She looked at him as she placed her coffee on the counter. It was littered with personal effects that were clearly hers, pictures of she and Kenny with their arms around each other; another of them with their two children, all wrapped up in sunshine and looking so happy. A tiny plush Dr. Zoidberg sat perched next to the computer monitor and just seeing it made Kyle feel slightly less nervous, oddly enough.

"I mean, it's so open," he said, gesturing at the long counter with two computers set up. Behind them another counter ran along the wall, where a third computer was perched; a number of cabinets hanging above it. "Don't you worry about people coming back here and messing with you? With all this stuff?"

Bebe shrugged a little as she seemed to consider this. Before answering, she tugged on Kyle's coat lightly.

"Hey, take this off and get comfortable, okay? I'll answer all of your questions as soon as you assure me you aren't just gonna run away."

"Sure, fine," Kyle sighed, removing his green jacket and hanging it over the back of a rolling chair; he placed his messenger bag on the counter. "Is that better?"

"Much," she grinned, pushing some hair behind her ear. "To answer your question, yeah, I used to be concerned about that, but I don't really worry about it anymore."

"How long have you worked here?"

"Oh, since it opened four years ago," she replied, airily. She studied Kyle for a moment, her eyes taking in his clothes. He looked down at himself, feeling weirdly exposed.

"What? What's wrong?"

"You need to get some scrubs," she said, waddling past him and toward a door situated next to the back counter. "But what you're wearing should be okay for today; no worries. Come on."

"Scrubs? Why would I need to wear those?" Kyle asked, following her as apprehension started rearing its head in his gut. He hadn't anticipated having to do anything clinical or even remotely close; he wasn't trained for such things and what's more, he didn't want to deal with blood or even worse, urine. He shuddered just at the thought.

She smirked and glanced over her shoulder before hitting another light, bringing a large, white room into focus. There was yet another counter running the length of the wall closest to them with two computers sitting on it; along with racks to hold paperwork and folders. Jars of cotton balls, tongue depressers, and other clinical tools sat in the center, along with bottles of hand sanitizer and boxes of rubber gloves. Along the far wall were multiple doors and a large printer, and off to the side in either direction were hallways, a small workstation set up right around the corner with another computer.

"You never know what'll happen," she explained, going over to the printer; Kyle following along and starting to feel like a homeless duckling. "This job can be messy on occasion and besides, it's like wearing pajamas to work. What's not to like?"

Kyle didn't have the heart to tell her that the prospect of wearing pajamas to work wasn't exactly a thrill for him. He practically lived in his sleep clothes these days; if anything, being able to put on regular clothes had been more of a draw for him. At least it forced him into a pattern of normalcy, such as it was.

"What are you doing?" He asked, wanting to avoid the topic of clothing for awhile; he wasn't even sure he was going to stay.

"Oh, just printing out charts," she replied, tapping a couple of buttons and bringing the printer to life. After a moment, it began spitting out paper, one right after the other. "I try to print out a ton first thing in the morning so we don't run out during a rush."

"What are they, exactly?"

"Registration forms and clinical shit for the doctors. You know, the stuff they fill out while examining the patients. Speaking of which," she checked her watch and cocked a brow. "We should be having company in the next few minutes."

"Who?" Kyle asked, that same apprehension plucking at him more noticeably now.

Before she could answer, the door opened and Craig strode in, dressed in a dark jacket and light blue scrub pants; a silver coffee cup in his hand and a bag on his shoulder. He stopped when he saw them, looking Kyle up and down much like he had the night before.

"Why isn't he wearing scrubs?" He asked, not bothering to address Kyle directly.

"We've already had this conversation," Bebe replied, gathering up the pages the printer had spit out. "He'll wear them tomorrow."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Craig replied, shifting his bag on his shoulder before walking past them, leaving the aroma of spicy cologne in his wake. It only served to make Kyle more nervous, not to mention irritated; the day had barely begun and Craig was already being a prick. "We don't even know if he'll make it through today."

"You know, you can speak directly to me," Kyle cut in, unable to downplay his annoyance. "I am right here."

"What an honor," Craig said, not bothering to turn around. He'd walked down the hallway to the right, and Kyle dared to follow him while Bebe continued to sort through the charts. Looking down the corridor, he saw that it opened into yet another room with a computer, counter, and numerous cabinets on the wall. Craig set his bag down along with his coffee before shrugging his coat off; he slung it over a chair before turning back to Kyle.

"Have you ever worked in a place like this before?"

Kyle shook his head as he looked around. Much like Bebe's desk, Craig's had personal touches as well; pictures of he and Tweek together, Tweek smiling and Craig looking hopelessly somber. Along with these pictures were framed sketches of birds, done in black ink and wonderfully lifelike and full of exquisite detail. Before he could stop himself, Kyle came over and lifted one, wanting to see it in the light, harsh though it was.

"This is beautiful," he murmured, studying it with pleasure. "It's a snow bunting, right? You know, I -"

"Give me that," Craig snapped, plucking the picture from Kyle's hand before putting it back on the counter; adjusting it so it was in the exact spot as before. "Don't touch my things, got it?"

Residual notes of Craig's cologne wafted around Kyle as he just stared at him in shock. He could feel his cheeks flushing, and he knew that Craig could see that he'd gotten to him. Stepping back, he rubbed at his arm, feeling thoroughly humiliated and chastised; not wanting to meet Craig's eyes again. He could hear Craig sigh before sitting down in his rolling chair. He picked up his coffee mug and tapped it against the counter, eliciting a metallic thump that filled up the awkward silence.

"You can make coffee, right?" Craig finally asked, continuing to tap the cup incessantly.

Kyle snapped his eyes up and scowled, wanting nothing more in that moment than to tell Craig to go fuck himself and storm out. Instead, he nodded his head; there was no way he was going to let Craig get his goat so quickly.

"Fine, go make some," Craig said, turning away and openly dismissing him. "Bebe will show you where everything is."

Without another word, he turned on his computer and waited, acting like Kyle wasn't there at all; successfully freezing him out with very little effort. Feeling like a chastised dog, Kyle turned away and walked back down the hallway. When he returned, Bebe wasn't there, but Heidi was. She was dressed in pink scrubs and a white lab coat, and was busily setting up her place at the workstation to the left of the main door; round the corner. Looking up, she smiled warmly when she saw Kyle approaching.

"I was hoping you'd take Bebe up on her offer," she said, looping a stethoscope around her neck. On her lab coat Kyle could see her name stitched in navy blue lettering, followed by the letters 'CRNP'. Her hair was drawn off of her face and pulled into a soft bun, little wisps falling in front of her ears where the diamond earrings from the night before glittered.

"Yeah, I figured I'd check it out," Kyle replied, jamming his hands in his pockets and still feeling embarrassed from his run-in with Craig. He gestured back toward his corner and rolled his eyes. "I was just having a delightful chat with the owner."

She laughed softly and glanced toward Craig's hiding place as well, her eyes fond.

"He's a brilliant doctor," she said, taking Kyle by surprise; not just at her words but the admiration lacing them. "If I ever go for my MD I hope I can be half the doctor he is."

"Have some confidence, Heidi; you're already wonderful at what you do," Craig said, strolling into the room before disappearing into one of the doors along the wall. After a moment, he stuck his head out and caught Kyle's eyes directly. "Where's the coffee, Kyle?"

"I'm going," Kyle replied, gritting his teeth. He breathed a sigh of relief when Craig retreated into the room and shut the door. Face flaming, he turned back to Heidi who regarded him kindly. "Where's the stuff to make coffee?"

"In the break room," she said, pushing her chair back and going to stand before a dark haired man walked into the room, his eyes falling on the pair of them. "Oh, Pete," she said, sitting back down. "Can you show Kyle where the break room is? Dr. Tucker wants him to make some coffee."

"Anything for you, Heids," Pete replied, watching Kyle with obvious interest. "Just let me set my stuff down."

"Of course," she said, glancing at Kyle. "He'll take care of you, hon."

"Right, thanks," he said, starting to back away before she reached out and took a hold of his arm for a moment; softly.

"Good luck," she said, the fluorescent lights catching her diamonds again and making them sparkle.

------

"So, you're the new guy, huh?"

"I guess so," Kyle replied, watching as Pete got out the supplies to make coffee: filters, a tub of Folgers, the coffee pot that was sitting cold and empty. He also took this opportunity to look around the small break room, just as white as the back of the clinic had been, with a flat screen TV on the wall and a small table set before it; complete with four chairs. There was another counter with cabinets running along the side of the room with a microwave, sink, and the aforementioned coffee maker. Next to one of the windows sat a water cooler with large blue jugs of water on the floor beside it.

"Well, welcome aboard," Pete said, placing the filter in the basket and preparing to open the Folgers.

"You don't have to go to all this trouble," Kyle spoke up, feeling strange about Pete making the coffee. What if Craig walked in and barked at him for getting someone else to do his job? "I'm fine to make it, I just didn't know where everything was."

"It's cool, I don't mind." Pete smiled cheekily at him as he poured the grounds into the basket. Kyle tried to study him as covertly as possible as he worked, secretly glad that Pete had seen the light and stopped wearing his hair over part of his face, though he was still dying it black. The color appeared garish under the harshness of the overhead lights, but it didn't take away from his angular cuteness. It also clashed with the pale nature of his skin, but it seemed to enhance the soft blue of his eyes.

With a little flourish, Pete popped the basket into the machine and went about filling it with water. After a moment, he flipped the switch and before too long the sounds of the machine could be heard, filling up the silence of the room.

"Thanks," Kyle said, brushing a curl behind his ear; a nervous gesture he'd adopted long ago and couldn't seem to break. He also couldn't understand why he should feel nervous in the first place.

"No problem," Pete said, turning and leaning against the counter; lanky body clothed in black scrubs. "It'll be fun having a new person here for a change," he added, catching Kyle's eyes and holding them. "Especially another dude, you know? Right now I feel like I'm swimming in estrogen."

"What do you do, exactly?" Kyle asked, breaking their gaze when he started to feel slightly uncomfortable.

"X-rays," he said, simply; eyes lighting up slightly. "I get to look inside of people, man. My dreams are coming true."

Not sure what to do with that statement, Kyle flicked his focus to the maker; noticing that the pot was already half full. Groping for something to say, he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"Honestly, you're kind of giving off a Jeffrey Dahmer vibe right now, dude. Did you know that?"

Pete just stared at him for a moment before he threw his head back and laughed, taking Kyle by surprise. Looking forward, his smile widened, suddenly becoming more genuine before he reached out a fist. Kyle just looked at it for a second before tentatively lifting his own fist; they bumped, though he had no idea why they were doing that.

"Dahmer's my jam," Pete said, becoming more animated. "Him and Bundy, man; they're fascinating, don't you think?"

Kyle had to think for a moment before he truly understood the question, having a vague recollection of true crime and serial killers. He nodded, slowly, heartened by Pete's enthusiasm but also slightly put off by it. He supposed it made sense, though; Pete seemed like the perfect type to be into infamous murderers.

"Sure," he replied, looking at the coffee pot again and praying for it to be done. "They're, uh, they're great. That looks just about done, right?" He pointed to the pot.

Pete looked behind him and nodded.

"Yeah, should be good," he said, turning back to Kyle and straightening up, standing a little closer to him than he would've preferred. Kyle didn't want to appear rude, so he didn't move back, though he could suddenly smell the toothpaste on Pete's breath coupled with something else; most likely Axe body spray. "Hey, we should eat lunch together. What do you think? I brought a bento, dude; I'll share."

Taken off guard, Kyle could only nod his head as he began backing toward the door. It wasn't that he disliked Pete, he was just putting off a vibe that he found mildly disconcerting. Not wanting to make waves on his first day though, he just decided to go along with it.

"Yeah, we can do that," he said, resting his hand on the doorknob. "Hey, I should probably go get Craig's mug before he comes looking for me."

"Oh, right," Pete replied, rolling his eyes but still grinning. "Wouldn't want to tick off Dr. T on your first day, right?"

"Too late," Kyle replied, letting out a long breath as he opened the door. Feeling relieved, he turned away and rushed back toward Craig's out of the way corner.

Craig wasn't around when Kyle returned and he immediately felt on edge. The silver coffee cup was sitting on the counter and fairly calling to him but after he'd been yelled at for touching the bird picture there was no way he was just going to reach out and take it. Instead, Kyle worried at his bottom lip and waited, feeling anxious and slightly annoyed because Craig had already managed to get into his head. After what felt like an eternity, Craig finally showed up and took a seat. He looked at Kyle, not bothering to mask his obvious irritation.

"I, just, uh," Kyle stammered, gesturing to the cup. "I made the coffee, so -"

"Take it," Craig said, curtly; cutting him off. He pushed the mug into Kyle's hands, letting out an exasperated breath when he almost dropped it. Kyle turned away, just wanting to put as much distance between him and Craig as possible when he felt pressure around his wrist. Looking back, he saw that Craig had taken a hold of him, his cool fingers tight on his skin.

"Two Splenda and vanilla creamer," he said, before letting Kyle go.

Still reeling from being grabbed so suddenly, Kyle could only stand there for a moment, his face so hot it felt like it was on fire. Craig glanced at him and now his irritation was on full display.

"In my coffee? Which you're supposed to be making right now?"

"R-right, yeah," Kyle replied, almost wanting to cry at this point. "T-two Splenda...vanilla creamer..."

"Remarkable memory," Craig muttered, turning away. "Oh, and Kyle?"

Kyle just held his breath, waiting for Craig to tear into him again. Instead, his voice was soft when he spoke again.

"You were right. It's a snow bunting. Now go."

-------

When Kyle finally returned to the reception area after dropping off Craig's coffee he was surprised to see a couple people in the waiting room. All of the lights were on and Butters was sitting at the computer opposite Bebe's, dressed in powder blue scrubs and looking fresh-faced even at 8 o'clock in the morning.

"Hey, Kyle!" He chirped, turning in his chair and smiling his brightest smile. "I heard you're gonna be takin' over for Bebe while she's out. I'm excited that we get to work together, buddy!"

"Of course you are," Kyle sighed, catching Bebe's eye before coming over to her and plopping into a chair. "Sorry I was gone for so long, by the way. Craig had me running errands."

"Let me guess, he wanted coffee," Bebe replied, looking over a chart before pressing a label on it; a whole string of similar labels clutched in her fist. "Two Splenda and vanilla creamer?"

"You got it," Kyle said, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling before slumping in his seat. Sighing, he glanced at Bebe who was watching him sympathetically. "Is he always like this?"

"Like what? Exacting? Aggravating?" Bebe asked, finishing with the labels and paperclipping the stack of papers together before handing it off to Butters. "Yeah, I'm afraid so, but he's been like that since we were kids, unless you forgot."

"No, I didn't," he muttered, watching as Butters took the bundle of papers and tucked them into one of the folders sitting on the edge of the counter. "It just seems like he has something against me, like on a personal level, you know?"

"I'm sure it's all in your head," Bebe replied, clicking a button on her computer. After a moment, the door to the back opened and a blonde haired woman stepped out, dressed in mint green scrubs; her face perfectly done up and her hair in a cute, bouncy ponytail. Picking up the chart Butters just placed in the folder, she stuck it on a clipboard and began filling it out before she finally noticed Kyle, her blue eyes widening slightly.

"Hi there, sugarplum," she said, her brow knitting. "Why do you look so familiar?"

"Mercedes, you know Kyle," Bebe interjected. "Just think of him as a byproduct of your Raisins' days."

A look of recognition came over her face at Bebe's words and she smiled slowly.

"Oh, right," she said, giving him a warmer look. "How's it going, Red? This your first day?"

"I'm afraid so," Kyle replied, before he could stop himself. He gave Bebe a quick look of apology. "Sorry."

"Well, welcome, either way," she laughed, turning back to her clipboard. "I'm already thinking about lunch. Are you guys ordering out today or what?"

"I brought my lunch," Butters piped up, holding up a blue and silver bag.

"I'm ordering out," Bebe said, patting her belly. "This kid likes Chinese but I'm open to suggestions."

"Dr. T wants Thai," Mercedes said, tapping her pen against her cheek. "Which I'm not opposed to as a general rule." She glanced at Kyle. "What do you think, hon?"

Before Kyle could answer, Pete was sticking his head out of the door, his eyebrows raised.

"What's taking you so long, Mer?" He asked. "Room 2 is ready for you and I'm pretty sure you're gonna need me so let's get moving. I don't want to get backed up before the day's even really started."

"We're talking about lunch, Pete," she replied before turning to the waiting room. "Angela?"

A woman who had been waiting in one of the black leather chairs set her magazine aside and stood, walking over to Mercedes.

"You can come on back," Mercedes smiled, turning toward the door that Pete was holding open for them. Before following behind them, he glanced at Kyle and winked.

"Don't forget we're eating together," he said, closing the door softly behind himself.

"What was that?" Bebe asked as soon as Pete was out of sight, her entire expression radiating extreme interest. She didn't seem to notice or care that Kyle was blushing so hotly that he was pretty sure he was going to melt into the floorboards.

"I don't know," he moaned, covering his face with his hands. "He helped me make coffee and then he started talking about serial killers, and somehow that turned into us eating lunch together."

"Well, naturally," Bebe snickered, placing a hand on Kyle's arm and squeezing softly. "See? Everyone already likes you, Kyle. Doesn't that make you happy?"

"Ecstatic," Kyle replied, not wanting to bring up the fact that Craig clearly didn't like him - at all. He'd already made it abundantly clear that he didn't think Kyle could handle anything. At least he'd softened a little about the snow bunting but that didn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, though.

"Can I eat with you and Pete?" Butters asked. "I usually read during my lunch break but I think it'd be more fun to join you guys."

"For the love of God, yes," Kyle said, lowering his hands and gripping at the arms of his chair. "You can run interference for me, Butters."

"I'm great at that!" Butters chirped, appearing elated just by being included.

"What, you don't want to talk about Dennis Rader while eating Thai food? Kyle, I'm surprised at you," Bebe grinned.

"Dennis Rader?"

"Oh, if you don't know who he is already you'll know soon enough," she replied, pulling herself up to the computer and beginning to type. "Believe me, we've all spent our breaks with Pete and he's incredibly...informed."

"Is that a fact?" Kyle sighed, rolling his chair up beside hers. "Whatever, I don't want to talk about this anymore. Are you going to show me what the hell I'm supposed to be doing?"

"It'd be a pleasure," Bebe replied, bumping Kyle a little but still smiling cheerily.

-----

The rest of the morning passed easily enough, with Bebe showing Kyle the ropes and getting him acclimated to how the clinic should run. It didn't take him very long to figure out what was expected of him, and soon learned it was incredibly repetitious; paperwork, filing, making appointments, registering patients, helping the clinical staff and the providers. After awhile, he stopped feeling so out of sorts and almost came to enjoy the mindless nature of most of the work. He quickly saw that the tasks that would become his responsibility were things he could do in his sleep, and he found himself becoming less intimidated.

Bebe also explained to him everyone's role in the clinic, and he had to admit that Craig had fostered and built a very well-oiled machine; every person clicking into place like pieces in a puzzle.

"There's always two providers on staff," Bebe said as she watched Kyle finish entering a patient's demographic information into the computer. "In case we get busy, you know, and then there's a nurse, a radiologist, and us." She gestured to the three of them, Butter's off to the side scanning in completed charts.

"Craig's system seems a little outdated," Kyle commented, watching as the pages passed through the scanner. "Why is he using paper charts? Can't this all be done electronically these days?"

"Sure," Bebe shrugged. "And believe me, this is a conversation I've had with him a million and one times, but you're going to learn pretty quickly that Craig is hopelessly old fashioned."

"He's a good doctor, though," Butters said. "I went to him when I had the flu and he made me feel so much better."

"I find that hard to believe," Kyle replied, raising an eyebrow at Bebe. "I can't imagine his bedside manner being all that great."

"What can I say?" She asked, turning away and picking up a stack of referrals. "Craig is rough around the edges, Kyle, but Butters is right; he's a really good doctor. He took care of me when I had this horrible toothache, and it turned out it wasn't my tooth at all...I just had a really bad ear infection. My PCP couldn't even figure out what was wrong with me but it only took Craig five minutes."

"Well, I'll believe it when I see it," Kyle replied, stubbornly. He'd managed to avoid Craig for most of the day, only passing by him on the way to the bathroom. Craig, for his part, only gave him an impassive look before calling to Mercedes about a urine culture.

Just then, the door opened and an older man walked in, looking unsure and slightly out of place. Calling across the room, he took off his hat and worried it in his hands.

"You guys got a wheelchair? I got my friend in the car and he can't walk too good."

"Of course we do," Bebe replied, hauling herself out of her chair and starting to walk toward the back. "Hold on a minute."

Feeling guilty, Kyle exchanged a glance with Butters before he jumped up and hurried over to Bebe, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Dude, you're two seconds away from giving birth," he said. "Let me get the wheelchair. Where is it?"

Taking a deep breath, she placed a hand on her belly before gesturing vaguely behind her.

"It's at the end of the hall in the supply closet. Just ask anyone back there and they'll show you." Taking another long breath, she closed her eyes for a moment. "I need to go sit back down."

"You do that," Kyle said, opening the door to the back and walking through. He almost groaned when Pete was the first person he saw, but he was also immensely glad it wasn't Craig; in this case he'd take the lesser of two evils.

"What's up?" Pete asked, coming over to him. Kyle took a step back before he could get too close.

"I need a wheelchair," he said, noticing movement in his peripheral. Craig was watching from across the room, grey eyes intense.

"What's wrong?" He asked.

"I-I don't know," Kyle replied, hating the stutter in his voice; hating that Craig always made him nervous. "A guy said that he has someone in the car and they can't walk very well; they asked for a wheelchair."

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Craig snapped. "Get it."

"Come on," Pete interjected, softly. He caught Kyle's eyes for a moment and his look of clear compassion made him feel guilty for being so put off by him earlier. "I'll show you where it is, okay?"

"Okay," Kyle said, biting his lip and allowing himself to be led to the supply closet. Deftly, Pete rolled out the wheelchair and opened it.

"Let's go," he said, beginning to roll it down the hallway. "We can go out the side door."

Feeling useless and out of his element, Kyle followed behind Pete as he showed the way to the side door. Running ahead, he pulled it open and held it for Pete to pass through, looking around for the man from earlier.

"Over there," he said, pointing to the man. He was standing beside a tan Corolla, the passenger door open wide. Kyle could see another elderly man sitting there, dressed in jeans and a coat much too light for such a cold day. Pete rolled the wheelchair over as Kyle shivered beside him, his hands tucked in his pockets.

"Thanks," he said, quietly as they approached the car. "I appreciate it."

"No biggie," Pete smiled. "It's all a part of the job, you know? And besides, I had to save you from Dr. T, didn't I?" He laughed lightly.

"Right," Kyle sighed, looking into the car before turning back to the older man. "Does he need help getting out of the car?"

"Yeah, he can't walk too good," the man repeated, looking increasingly nervous. "There's something wrong with his leg, I think."

"Here, you hold the chair," Pete instructed, holding onto it while Kyle took his place. Coming around, he approached the old man sitting in the car and started speaking to him in a hushed, kind voice. "I'm just gonna help you out of the car, sir. Is that okay?"

The man seemed disoriented as he nodded, and before too long Pete was easing him out of the car and into the wheelchair; the winter chill enveloping all of them as mournful winds passed through.

"Get the door," Pete said, grimly, taking over for Kyle. "Once we get inside I'm gonna run to the back and get Dr. T."

"Okay," Kyle said, feeling strange and out of place as he opened the door, watching with rising anxiety as Pete guided the wheelchair back into the warmth of the clinic. Once inside, he rolled the man up to the reception desk and disappeared into the back, the door closing behind him quietly.

Rising from her place, Bebe looked over the counter and smiled kindly at the elderly man and his friend.

"Have you been a patient with us before, sir?" Reaching over, she started gathering papers and placing them on a clipboard.

The man just shook his head, still appearing confused. Glancing down, Kyle looked at his legs to see what the issue was; his eyes catching on a growing, dark stain on the man's left pant leg. It was around this time that he noticed an odd odor permeating the air, and when he looked back toward the entrance he saw black puddles scattered over the wood floor.

"I'll just need your photo ID and your insurance card," Bebe said, coming around the counter with the clipboard. She paused when she saw the puddles as well, and she looked at Kyle quickly, her eyes widening significantly.

"I don't know," Kyle mouthed, feeling helpless. All at once, the odd odor from before hit him like a tidal wave, and he had to stop himself from gagging; clutching at his nose and mouth. Bebe must have smelled it too because her expression changed, her features scrunching up as she handed the clipboard to the man's friend.

"Here's his cards," he said, holding them out to Bebe and accepting the clipboard. "I'm just his friend, by the way. His family couldn't bring him in but he's been complaining about his leg for the past week so I figured it was time to check on it."

"O-of course," Bebe replied, backing away but taking care not to step in the black puddles. "Uh, just fill out the form as much as you can and we'll take it from there."

The man nodded before taking a hold of the wheelchair and taking it over near one of the couches. He sat and started to fill out the form, the elderly man with the growing stain on his pant leg sitting beside him and staring off into space.

"He's in a bad way," Bebe muttered, taking a hold of Kyle's arm as they went back around the counter; the man's cards clutched in her hand. "Is Pete getting Craig?"

"Yeah," Kyle replied, trying not to breathe too deeply. The stench was growing with every passing moment and it bordered on being unimaginable; thick and strange and sinister. He'd smelled something similar to it once long before, when he'd been walking along a stretch of road in Nevada; his car having broken down in the middle of nowhere and having to make a trek to the nearest gas station. He'd come upon a decaying, flattened armadillo that had been hit by a car, its guts splayed out and breaking down in the unforgiving sun. He'd caught a whiff of it before he could turn away but it was an odor that had always stayed with him. In many ways, the stench of death was a smell that wouldn't allow itself to be forgotten.

"Mommy, what's that smell? Something smells bad," a little girl spoke up, sitting off to the side of the waiting room with a woman who was discreetly trying to cover her nose. She shushed her, glancing apologetically at the elderly man.

"Quiet, remember your manners," she hissed.

"We're going to have to sanitize the floor and the wheelchair," Bebe said, softly. "I'm sure you've already figured out what's on the floor, right?"

"Blood," Kyle replied, faintly; gripping at the counter and trying to keep it together. It wouldn't do to pass out on his very first day on the job.

"What's going on out here?" Craig asked, suddenly coming through the door to the back and striding across the floor; his expression never changing. Pete came out behind him, holding the door open and catching Kyle's eye for a moment before turning back to Craig and the man in the wheelchair. Going directly to the man, he leaned down and placed a hand on his shoulder, his expression becoming so kind and gentle that Kyle couldn't believe it.

"We're just going to take a look at your leg, sir," he said, softly. "Is it okay if I take you into the back so I can get you taken care of?"

"Yes, that should be fine," the man replied, looking at his friend with muted eyes. "Can my friend come?"

"Of course he can," Craig said, beginning to roll him toward the back; deftly sidestepping the black puddles. "Whatever makes you more comfortable."

"Thank you kindly," the man's friend said, trailing along behind them and still holding onto the clipboard. He stopped at the counter, appearing uncertain. "I haven't finished yet."

"Take all the time you need," Bebe said, waving him away. "There's no rush, and I'll bring you his cards when I'm all done with them." She held them up.

"Thank you," the man repeated, disappearing into the back; Pete still holding the door open. Before he could follow behind him, Craig came back out; his expression having already morphed from warm kindness to a clinical coldness. He stopped beside Bebe and touched her arm for a moment.

"Call for an ambulance," he said, quietly. "We're going to need it."

------

"Are you going to be alright?"

Kyle looked up from his perch on the far side of the building, a spot he'd managed to find that was mostly out of the wind. The sky was nothing but grey, drab clouds and the winds were rolling in stronger, bringing with them the promises of more snow and ice; winter gripping South Park in its unrelenting fist. He was almost entirely numb at this point but he didn't care, he'd had to get out of the clinic for awhile; the stench of necrotic flesh seeming to cling to everything. The only remotely good thing about the whole affair was that he had the perfect excuse to skip out on lunch with Pete and Butters; opting to go outside instead and try to collect himself.

"Yeah," he said, leaning his head back against the cold bricks of the clinic as he regarded Bebe. "I'm just glad this place was built next to a field; it gave me plenty of places to throw up." He pointed toward the expanse of land beside them, the stripped, dead grasses and brush stretching away.

"You didn't," she replied, coming to stand beside him and out of the wind.

"A little," he admitted, sighing a little as he stubbed out his cigarette; not wanting Bebe to breathe in the fumes. Lifting his arm, he sniffed at his sleeve, recoiling a little. "I'm pretty sure that smell is going to be in my clothes for the rest of my life. I'll probably have to burn them, honestly."

"See, that's why you need to wear scrubs," she laughed a little. "You won't care what happens to them."

Standing, Kyle glanced at her and frowned, the act of moving slightly unsettling his stomach again.

"Please don't tell me this is an everyday thing."

"Not by a long shot," she said, tucking her face into her scarf; her voice becoming muffled. "This is the first time anything like this has ever happened, actually. I guess you're just lucky."

"Right, lucky, that's what we'll go with," he groused, wanting to light up another cigarette but refraining for her sake.

"You're luckier than that old man," she said, her tone becoming somber. "Craig said he's probably going to lose that leg. At least part of it."

"What was wrong with it?" Kyle asked, shuddering at her words.

"Oh, the usual, plain old fashioned neglect," a nasally voice supplied before Bebe could speak. They both turned to see Craig rounding the corner, clad in his dark jacket; one eyebrow raised. "Bebe, Butters is wondering where you are; something about needing a certain mop to clean the floor."

"I swear, he's helpless," Bebe sighed, pushing away from the wall. She stopped and turned to Kyle, her voice becoming stern. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

"I'm fine," Kyle reassured her, his hand already crawling into his pocket to retrieve his cigarettes. "Promise."

"Why wouldn't you be okay?" Craig asked, watching as Kyle shook a cigarette from the pack. "Hey, can I get one of those?"

"You smoke?" Kyle asked, completely taken aback. He handed the cigarette he'd intended for himself to Craig.

"I've got news for you, Kyle; most doctors smoke," Craig replied. "We're some of the most unhealthy people on the planet. Can I get a light?"

"Yeah, sure," Kyle muttered, reaching up and holding the lighter to Craig's cigarette; almost feeling hypnotized when he puffed on it a few times to get it going. Craig was angular in the same way Pete was, but he wasn't cute; not by any stretch of the imagination. No, his high cheekbones made him seem dangerous, almost like a handsome predator. The stubble on his jaws just seemed to complete the effect. Kyle could feel himself becoming warm just by noticing this, his hands shaking slightly as he lit his own cigarette.

"You didn't answer my question," Craig said suddenly, wisps of smoke escaping from his mouth. "Why wouldn't you be okay?"

Kyle could only stare at him, wondering if he was trying to be funny.

"That old man," he managed to say, taking a deep, cleansing drag. "His leg...God, the smell..."

"You don't know the half of it." Leaning against the wall, Craig looked up at the sky as the cigarette languished in his hand. "There were maggots in his skin, Kyle. Maggots."

"But, how? How could that even happen?" Kyle asked, not even trying to cover up how appalled he was.

"Like I said, neglect," Craig said, his voice taking on a muted, faraway quality. "What started out as a small problem turned into a big problem because no one was looking after him. His family failed him."

"Still, I don't see how things could get that far," Kyle replied, forgetting about his cigarette entirely now.

"I'll lay it out for you then," Craig replied, sucking on the cigarette before continuing," he had a small cut that nobody took care of, okay? Fast forward to a picnic and he's left by himself where flies could get into the wound and lay eggs. Fast forward a few days, nobody's taking care of the guy so no one noticed what was going on, the eggs hatch and bam, you've got maggots eating up a living person." He finished the cigarette and dropped it on the ground, stamping it out under his shoe.

"So, this guy's friend finally gets tired of him talking about the 'critters moving around in his leg at night' so he brings him to me, and I get to be the person that tells him there's a real possibility he'll become an amputee." He turned to Kyle, his grey eyes burning with a strange, caustic light. "But let's talk about whether or not you'll be okay, Kyle; shall we?"

Feeling ashamed, Kyle stared down at the ice littering the pavement, crunching it apart with his shoe. He wasn't even sure what he could say to that, nor did he think he had the strength to face Craig's unrelenting gaze again. He shrugged, feeling helpless.

"I didn't mean it the way it sounded," he practically whispered. "I wasn't trying to be cruel, it's just...I've never seen anything like that, Craig. My heart hurts for that guy and I don't even know him, you know?"

He expected Craig to tear him apart again but it didn't happen, a deep silence settling over them instead; so heavy it seemed to weigh Kyle down. Timidly, he glanced at Craig out of the corner of his eye, surprised to see him still contemplating the sky; his eyes now appearing lost.

"I know," he said, softly; blindsiding Kyle further. "And it never gets any easier, Kyle; it really doesn't."

All at once, a shrill sound cut through their conversation and the shrieking winds respectively; almost making Kyle jump. Letting out a long breath, Craig pulled his phone from his pocket and studied the screen, the word 'Duckling' running across the display along with a picture of Tweek. Kyle couldn't be sure but he thought he noticed his shoulders slumping a little before he turned to Kyle, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

"I've gotta take this," he said, gesturing to the phone. "Thanks for the smoke, by the way; I seriously needed it."

"Anytime," Kyle replied, unable to explain the flush that was crawling upward from his neck or the way his heartbeat increased out of nowhere. He watched Craig disappear around the corner of the building, the winter winds ruffling his hair as lingering cigarette smoke faded away into the cold.

-------

The rest of the day passed with very little incident, a fact which Kyle couldn't be happier about. With Bebe's assistance, Butters was able to clean the floor though the smell of decay still rested in the air. Bebe opened the windows, allowing the frigid breezes to blow through and carry the stench away, but Kyle was convinced that it wasn't just in the air, but inside of his nose. The thought continuously made him nauseous but he tried to remain strong, thinking of other things as he continued to learn his new responsibilities.

Pete had been dispatched to sanitize and clean the wheelchair, which he did after rolling it into the side lot away from prying eyes. Mercedes was tasked with scouring the exam room the unfortunate elderly man had been taken to, which took the better part of the afternoon. Bebe went on with her work and attempted to keep things light, smiling at Kyle and expressing her gratitude that they weren't particularly busy that day. Kyle, for his part, found himself becoming just a little bit more comfortable with the idea of staying, having found the experience of working at the clinic different than how he'd thought it would be. If anything, it was preferable to the pervasive silence of the apartment, where his laptop mocked him and the wine usually flowed from noon onward; Stranger Things or Joshua Bell filling up the background when the quiet became overwhelming.

By the time closing time rolled around, Kyle was feeling even more at ease, though he couldn't say for sure why that was. He still couldn't say that he was overly interested in working in healthcare and wasn't particularly fond of the fussy nature of office work in general, but it was nice to be among people again; eccentric as they were. Pete had even started to grow on him as they all readied to leave, Bebe having locked the door and shut the windows; the waiting room empty and quiet with the TVs turned off.

"You wanna smoke before you head out?" He asked, watching as Kyle shrugged his coat on and gathered up his bag. "Which car is yours, by the way?"

"Oh, I didn't drive here," Kyle replied, ignoring Bebe's raised eyebrows at his admission. "I walked. I live like ten minutes away at most."

"I was wondering about that," Bebe interjected, crossing her arms and giving Kyle a look of displeasure. "I just figured Stan dropped you off or something. Kyle, how the hell could you walk here? It's freezing outside!"

"So? I like to walk, it helps clear my head," Kyle said, rolling his eyes. The last thing he wanted was a lecture.

"I can drive you," Pete chirped, making Kyle shoot Bebe a secret, dirty look. "I wouldn't mind at all."

"Perfect," Bebe said, giving Kyle a smug look. "Thanks, Pete."

"Hey, hold up. I didn't say I wanted or needed a ride!" Kyle said, following behind Bebe as she led the way to the exit. She unlocked the door and held it open, watching as everyone trooped outside; the keys clutched in her hand.

"Nonsense," she said, shutting the door and locking it. "It's way too cold for you to walk home, and besides, it's dangerous to walk alone after dark."

"Okay, mom," Kyle sighed, rubbing a hand over his face before looking back into the clinic, surprised to see a light still on. "Hey, is there someone still inside? I thought we were all leaving together."

"Craig," Bebe replied, simply. "He always stays late to tie up loose ends."

"He's a workaholic," Mercedes added, adjusting her purse on her shoulder before turning away. "Night, y'all. See you guys tomorrow!"

"Jesus, the dude's a fucking machine," Kyle commented, waving to Heidi and Butters as they walked away toward their cars. He turned back to Bebe, who was watching him closely. "What?"

"So?" She asked, her expression and tone expectant.

"So?" He repeated, raising his eyebrows.

"You're coming back tomorrow, right?" Pete asked, already pulling his cigarettes from his pocket and taking one out. "I'm pretty sure that's what she means."

Bebe tapped her nose as she shifted her eyes back to Kyle, waiting. He shrugged and accepted the cigarette Pete handed him, clenching it in his fingers.

"I gotta ask you something that's seriously been bothering me," he said, sidestepping the question. "And if I don't ask, I'm gonna go crazy."

"What?" She asked, wrapping her arms around herself against the chill.

"What's it like carrying around Cartman's spawn? Like, is it similar to incubating the antichrist or what?"

She could only laugh, the sound cutting through the night and making Kyle grin as well; Pete chuckling as he lit Kyle's cigarette. Shaking her head, she reached out and punched Kyle's shoulder before turning away to head towards her car.

"Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you all about it," she said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "Those are my terms."

"I might have to take you up on that," Kyle said, taking a pull on his cigarette and waving as she climbed into her car; a silver Sonata. As she pulled out of the lot, Kyle glanced around, noticing that only a black Jag and a yellow Smart car were left. He didn't even need to ask which car belonged to Pete, reading the tiny car's license plate and stifling a laugh to see that it said 'MRPETE'.

"So, you don't live too far from here?" Pete asked, gesturing with the hand holding the cigarette toward the road. He was quiet for a moment when Kyle nodded, almost looking shy when he spoke next. "So, who's Stan? Is that your boyfriend, or...?"

"Boyfriend," Kyle supplied, smiling at him kindly. "We live together."

"Oh, that's cool, that's cool," Pete said, jamming his hand in his pocket and looking down at the pavement like it was the most fascinating thing in the world; rocking back and forth on his toes and heels. Seeming to brush off this bit of information with unnerving swiftness, he bumped Kyle with his shoulder. "Hey, I was thinking."

"About what?" Kyle asked, nearly done with his cigarette now. Weariness was beginning to pluck at his nerves, and more than anything he just wanted to be home so he could take a hot shower. He wondered idly what Stan was going to provide as an incentive for him going to the clinic. Anticipation rippled through him, making his heart pick up its rhythm.

"You don't have any scrubs, right?" Pete asked, suddenly reaching out and plucking at Kyle's sleeve.

"Oh, shit," Kyle groaned, slightly annoyed at Pete's disregard for his personal space but choosing to overlook it. "I don't, and I'm pretty sure any store in the area that has them will be closed by now. God, Craig's gonna be all over my ass tomorrow."

"I have some extras in my car," Pete said, grinning widely. "They might be a little long on you but they should get you through tomorrow. What do you think?"

"I think you're way too nice," Kyle replied, once again berating himself for being so mean to Pete in his head. "I really appreciate it, man."

"It's nothing," Pete replied, throwing his cigarette down and stamping it out. "You about ready to leave?"

"Yeah, just let me -"

"What are you two still doing here? It's too cold to be out here for very long," Craig cut in, walking up beside them. Once again, he was dressed in his dark jacket and had a bag slung on his shoulder, the silver coffee mug from hours before clutched in his hand. It was almost like the day was starting all over again.

"I was gonna give Kyle a ride home," Pete said, once again bumping against Kyle; Craig's eyebrows raised at the sight, and he turned to study Kyle's face.

"You walked here? Why isn't Stan coming to pick you up?"

None of your fucking business, Dr. Tucker.

"I don't live far," he replied, feeling annoyed that he even gave Craig that much information; refusing to even mention Stan in his explanation. It would seem that the fleeting softness he'd seen earlier in the day was just that; fleeting. Craig was already back to his usual, derisive self.

Craig looked behind him and toward Pete's car, almost resembling a giant roller skate and looking positively ridiculous next to Craig's stately Jag.

"And you're comfortable riding home in that? It looks like it should have a giant key on the back."

"Hey, don't mess with Carlos," Pete said, striding over to the car and throwing his arms over it. "You'll hurt his feelings."

"I'm sure," Craig said, turning back to Kyle. "If you need a ride that badly I can take you myself, if you want."

Once again, the inexplicable flush started crawling up Kyle's neck and he was frantically shaking his head, already backing away toward Pete and Carlos. Craig continued to study him with his special brand of intensity, grey eyes narrowing with every step Kyle took away from him.

"That's okay," Kyle said, nervously tucking that one stray curl behind his ear. "I don't want to put you out and Pete already said he'd take me, so..."

"Fine, go ahead," Craig replied, almost like he was giving him permission. "I'll see you tomorrow, then?"

Now the flush had reached his cheeks and Kyle was extremely grateful for the frigid winds tearing across the town. He nodded, pulling at the door and almost wanting to scream when it wouldn't open. He just couldn't understand why Craig made him feel so fucking uneasy; all of their interactions just put him on edge until he was rendered nearly dysfunctional.

"Sure, yeah," he said, glancing at Pete and practically pleading with his eyes for him to open the door so his exchange with Craig could end. "I'll be here."

"I'll start celebrating now," Craig said, dryly, though he finally managed a small smile; a smirk, really. "Be safe going home, gentlemen." He glanced at the Smart car and shook his head before holding up his key fob and unlocking the Jag. Climbing in, he gave Kyle one last look before turning on the car and pulling away and out of the lot, his tail lights two red blurs as they faded into the darkness.

Pete finally unlocked Carlos and they both got in, Kyle hunkering down against the persistent chill even as his face continued to flame. Pete lit up another cigarette and offered it to Kyle who waved it away. He clamped it between his teeth as he turned on the car, glancing at Kyle for a moment; seeming perplexed.

"Did you guys used to date or something?"

"Huh?" Kyle asked, so unprepared for the question that he couldn't even attempt to be eloquent. "What are you talking about?"

"You and Dr. T. Were you guys like a thing at one point?"

"N-no fucking way!" Kyle practically yelled before crossing his arms angrily. "Why the hell would you even think that?!"

"Hey, calm down, dude; I didn't mean to offend you or nothing," Pete said, reaching out and placing his hand on Kyle's leg. When Kyle raised his eyebrows at it he quickly pulled away, smiling sheepishly. "I just got a vibe, you know? Like there's some tension there or whatever."

"There's tension alright," Kyle muttered, turning to look out the window. "Not the good kind, though."

"I know what you mean," Pete said, pulling out of the space and going to the lot's entrance. "Sexual tension can be amazing, don't you think? Which way, man?"

"Left," Kyle replied, choosing to ignore Pete's comment about sexual tension. He didn't want to discuss anything sexual with the guy, though he had a feeling Pete was going to make that difficult until he opened his mouth and told him he had a snowball's chance in Hell with him. That was a conversation for another day, though. For now, he just wanted to get home, take a shower, and then get nasty with Stan; he owed him.

Less than ten minutes later, Pete was rolling up in front of Kyle's apartment, yet another cigarette dangling from his mouth. He appraised the building for a moment before turning to Kyle and smiling.

"Nice place," he commented, reaching behind him and fishing something from the backseat. "I live on the other side of Stark's, where the new complexes have gone up. You know it?"

"Can't say that I do," Kyle replied, sudden exhaustion drenching him as he accepted the scrubs that Pete handed him. They were black, because of course they were. He was grateful, though, and he told Pete so.

"No problem at all, man," Pete said, looking at Kyle like he almost wanted to fall into him. Kyle took that as his cue to depart which he did, wrenching the door open and quickly stepping out.

"Thanks for everything," he said, looking back one more time before slamming the door shut. Moving quickly, he skirted around the car but didn't make it very far before he heard Pete calling to him. Sighing, he turned back to see that his window was down and he was hanging out of it, the cigarette still lodged in his mouth even as he grinned at him boyishly.

"You need a ride in the morning? I actually drive by this place, it wouldn't be out of the way."

Of course it wouldn't be, Kyle thought, and even his inner voice sounded beyond done.

"Sure, why not?" He conceded, no longer having the strength to put up a fight. He cocked a brow, suddenly unable to stop his next question. "Dude, didn't you used to be hardcore goth or something? What the hell happened to you?"

Pete just laughed before taking a long pull on his cigarette; he flicked it away.

"I grew up," he said, easily. "See you in the morning, Ky! I'll be here around 7:30!"

With that, he rolled up the window and with one last wave, he pulled away from the curb; his tiny car nearly being blown away in a sudden gust of wind. Kyle watched until it rounded a corner, almost feeling like the weight of the world was descending on his shoulders in that very moment.

"This has officially been the longest fucking day of my life," he sighed, going to the stairs and beginning to climb; his apartment never looking more beautiful to him than it did in that moment. "Now I can eat, take a shower, and then..." he trailed off, unlocking the door and stepping inside, fully prepared to be accosted by a scantily clad and raring to go Stan. Instead, he was met with silence and a snoozing boyfriend, sacked out on the couch with the TV playing softly in the background.

Dropping all of his stuff, Kyle went over to Stan and nudged his shoulder; faint irritation already stirring in his stomach.

"Hey," he said. "Wake up. You promised me an incentive!"

Stan's eyes fluttered open for a moment before he smiled and turned away, his hands curling up next to his face.

"Mm, welcome back, baby," he replied, groggily. "Let me just get five more minutes and then I'll rock your world; promise."

"Right, five minutes." Kicking off his shoes, Kyle angrily went to the kitchen and snatched out a bottle of wine from the fridge door; not even bothering to grab a glass as well. Instead, he drank straight from the bottle and plopped down in a chair, reaching for the remote and turning on Stranger Things. He glanced at Stan as he continued to sleep from time to time, and pretty soon 'just five minutes' turned into two hours, and Kyle couldn't even think of keeping his eyes open another moment.

"Come on, let's go to bed," he said, pushing on Stan's back again before turning and retreating into the dark bedroom. He didn't bother to turn on the lights as he undressed down to his boxer briefs and undershirt, making the snap decision to bathe in the morning; wanting more than anything just to crawl under the covers. He waited for Stan to come into the room for a few minutes before he turned on his side and shut his eyes, feeling equal parts frustrated, sad, and disappointed.

"Some fucking incentive," he muttered, knowing that he wouldn't have any problem falling asleep that night; the day's events playing through his head like a bizarre movie as exhaustion saturated him. It'd been so long since he'd gone out in the world and been among people; he'd forgotten how completely draining it could be. He sighed and tried to empty his mind but it proved to be impossible; the last things he remembered as he drifted away into nothingness being remote grey eyes and elegant hands; sketches of birds taking flight and black puddles covering a dark hardwood floor.

Chapter Text

  • I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
  • I think Pringles' original intention was to make tennis balls... But on the day the rubber was supposed to show up, a truckload of potatoes came. Pringles is a laid-back company, so they just said "Fuck it, cut em up!"

    - Mitch Hedberg


 

Kyle had never really been a morning person, though he'd tried to deny this fact for years. It wasn't until he was in his mid-twenties and his sleep patterns had gotten horribly offtrack that he finally admitted the truth to himself: mornings sucked, and by extension, morning people were even worse.

Which was fortunate for him, because Stan hated mornings just as much as he did. They had many a discussion and bonding moment over their mutual hatred for what they considered the worst part of the day, and their relationship had only grown stronger as a result.

That's why Kyle was even more surprised than he normally would've been when he awoke the next morning with someone's head between his legs; his boxer briefs pulled down and a warm, tantalizing wetness engulfing his cock. His eyes popped open as he gasped, and suddenly he was aware that he was being forced awake by a blow job, and an exquisite one at that.

"J-Jesus Christ," he moaned, arching on the bed as Stan took him particularly deep, and he clutched at the blankets as his eyes momentarily closed against the sensation of being serviced so skillfully. "Stan, w-what the hell are you doing?"

Easing his mouth off of Kyle's erection, Stan gave him a cheeky, sleepy smile as he held his thighs; dark hair slumber-mussed and oh so fetching in the early morning sunlight. Kissing the inside of Kyle's leg, he leaned his head against the soft skin for a moment. He shrugged.

"I owed you an incentive, didn't I? I always pay my debts; you know that."

"Mm, I can't remember the last time you woke me up like this," Kyle sighed, leaning his head back as Stan lapped at the head of his cock, his thighs beginning to tremble. Stan had always known his way around fellatio, his ministrations always on point.

Dragging his tongue along the underside of Kyle's shaft, Stan gripped his skin a little harder as he chuckled low in his throat.

"Just lay back and enjoy it, baby."

"With pleasure." Turning his head on the pillow, Kyle lifted his arms and gripped at the headboard, already feeling close even though Stan had truly just begun. He was always so sensitive in the morning, and to be awoken this way was such a turn on he could barely stand it. At the beginning of their relationship, morning blowies had been pretty typical, but over the years they had tapered off significantly, so he wanted to enjoy the occurrence completely.

"God, you taste good," Stan said, slipping his mouth over Kyle's cock and swirling his tongue around the head, hot and wet and perfect; so, so perfect. Kyle's cheeks were becoming flushed with every pull of Stan's lips, and he could already imagine coming in his mouth...or maybe Stan would turn him over and start fucking him from behind and then finish him off with his hand? God, the possibilities were endless!

Sliding his hands up Kyle's thighs, Stan splayed his fingers across his backside, spreading him slightly while continuing to lavish attention on Kyle's aching cock. He paused for a moment, making Kyle lift his head in question; hating that he'd stopped.

"You want me in here, hmm?" Stan asked, grinning a little; blue eyes shaded and full of need. Spreading Kyle further, he pressed a finger against his entrance gently.

"Yes, God, yes," Kyle said, reaching over and fumbling in the bedside table for lube. Holding it up, he began handing it to Stan when he stopped, cocking an ear. "Hey, do you hear something?"

Appearing confused, Stan tilted his head and waited. After a moment, a faint beep could be heard drifting through the cracked window. It sounded like a car horn, but it came across as exceedingly faint and pathetic.

"Dude, what the fuck is that?" Stan asked, taking his hands away from Kyle's ass and rising from the bed to peer out the window. What he saw made him bust out laughing. "Oh, my God, you should see the ridiculous car sitting outside; it's hilarious."

Kyle's stomach began to sink as he glanced at the clock next to the bed, groaning when he saw that it was only 7 o'clock.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," he muttered, lifting himself from the bed as well and looking out into the parking lot. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw Pete's yellow Smart car sitting idling at the curb. "He's early! Why the hell is he early?! He said 7:30!"

"Who?" Stan asked, sitting back on his heels and staring at him. Kyle groaned to see him looking perfectly scrumptious in his plaid boxers and nothing else; tanned skin practically glowing in the morning sunlight. He almost drooled at the sight of Stan's tattoos, a black 'K' etched on his rounded bicep among them.

"Pete," Kyle seethed, falling back against the pillows and crushing the blankets in his hands. "He works at the clinic."

"Okay, but why is he here?"

"It's a long fucking story," Kyle replied, giving him an annoyed look. "One that you'd already know if you hadn't fallen asleep on me last night."

"Yeah, sorry about that," Stan said, sheepishly; rubbing the back of his neck. "I had a couple of beers when I got home and they hit me kind of hard."

"Clearly," Kyle said, pushing him with his foot before sitting up, his cock still hard and glistening with Stan's saliva. "I'd ask you to finish really quick but I don't want to cheapen the experience." He smirked.

"He's the one that chose to show up early," Stan said, cocking a brow. "That's on him, not you."

"True, but I still need to take a shower," Kyle said, rolling over and pressing his feet to the floor, already berating Pete inside of his head. "And besides, he's just trying to be nice, you know?"

"Right," Stan said, huffing a little and running a hand through his hair. "Just so I'm understanding you correctly, we're talking about goth kid Pete, right? Hair flip guy?"

"The one and only," Kyle replied, glancing out the window again as he stood, stretching his arms above his head and feeling unbelievably frustrated. "He even lent me some scrubs."

Stan just stared at him for a moment.

"Why do you need to wear scrubs? I thought you were just doing paperwork and stuff."

"I am, but -" Kyle broke off and shook his head. "I'll explain everything when I get home tonight, okay? I need to get moving before that guy comes pounding on our front door; I wouldn't be surprised if he figured out which apartment was ours."

"I don't get it," Stan said, watching as Kyle pulled a pair of boxer briefs and a thermal undershirt from out of a drawer; gathering up the scrubs he'd discarded on the top of the dresser the night before. "Why's he picking you up? I thought you wanted to walk to work."

"Oh, you know how Bebe is," Kyle replied, vaguely; not wanting to touch on the fact that he was pretty sure Pete had some weird thing for him. Although, he could be wrong; he'd never been the best at reading people. Either way, he didn't want to talk about it that early in the morning. "She got on my case for walking in the cold and after dark and blah blah blah."

"Then why isn't she picking you up?"

"Can we talk about this later?" Kyle asked, stopping in the bathroom doorway and cocking an eyebrow. "I'm already running late."

Stan opened his mouth but quickly shut it, shaking his head. Sitting back against the pillows, he flopped out like a drowsy starfish and sighed a little.

"This is going to take some getting used to," he said.

Kyle shrugged, turning away.

"Hey, you're the one that wanted me to get a life."

-----

Less than fifteen minutes later, Kyle was showered and dressed in his new scrubs; the scratchy material rough against his skin in the places his thermal didn't cover. Pete had been right about their length, too; they were far too long, but Kyle supposed they would do. At least wearing them would keep Craig off his ass until he found something else to bitch about.

"You look so cute," Stan said, following Kyle out of the bedroom as he shrugged his coat on; his ushanka already nestled on his curls. "How do you feel?"

"Like I'm playing dress up for a doctor with an attitude problem," Kyle replied, scooping up his bag and looking around for his laptop; seeing that it wasn't in its usual place. Spying it on the couch, he picked it up, giving Stan a questioning look. "Were you using this?"

"Oh, yeah," Stan replied, leaning against the sofa. "I wanted to check our account balance and I know you have everything saved; it makes it so much easier." He cleared his throat, rubbing a hand through his hair. "So, Craig's giving you a hard time, huh?"

Kyle slipped the laptop into his bag, contemplating the idea of actually attempting to write during his break at work. Maybe being in a new environment would inspire his creativity and possibly provide a reasonable barrier between him and Pete if they happened to eat at the same time. He rolled his eyes at Stan's question as he hefted his bag onto his shoulder.

"You know he is," he said, slipping his phone into his pocket. "Craig's always had this weird vendetta against me, don't you think?"

"I think you're paranoid," Stan laughed, waving the idea away.

"Yeah, well, it doesn't make dealing with him any easier," Kyle muttered, moving towards the door. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder, annoyed to see Stan not making any move to follow him. "What, I don't get a kiss or anything before I leave?"

"You would've gotten a decent fucking if your little coworker hadn't shown up early," Stan replied, wryly; making his way over.

"I would've gotten that last night if you bothered to keep your promises," Kyle said, accepting Stan's kiss with a little huff. He felt slightly guilty at the way Stan's face fell but he ignored it, giving him a quick hug instead. "Relax, I was just joking."

"Sure, yeah," Stan said, still looking downtrodden. "Have fun, okay? Text me, maybe?"

Kyle had to laugh at the prospect of having fun at Craig's clinic, deciding that Stan deserved another kiss for being so effortlessly sweet and clueless.

"Mm, I love you," he said, tapping Stan on his nose before opening the door. "I'll text you throughout the day, no worries, and hopefully you'll be awake enough tonight to finish what you started, hmm?"

"Absolutely," Stan replied, starting to perk up again. "Say hi to Pete for me."

"I'm sure he'll love that," Kyle said, holding back another laugh at Stan's confused expression as he closed the door behind him.

-----

"Good morning," Pete smiled as Kyle climbed into the car, still feeling frustrated but also slightly charmed by Pete's obvious enthusiasm to see him. "Sorry, I'm a little early. I woke up before my alarm so I figured we could stop for coffee or something on the way. What do you think?"

Kyle nodded, glad that he was nursing only a very minor hangover headache that morning despite the half bottle of wine he polished off the night before. He didn't think he'd even need his usual Ibuprofen.

"That sounds good. Where do you usually go?"

"Tweek Brothers," Pete said, pulling away from the curb; a cigarette burning in his left hand. The window was open a crack, letting in the fresh morning air. Rather than finding it unappealing, Kyle welcomed it; cooling his shower-flushed cheeks. "They have the best dark roast, man."

"I like their lattes," Kyle replied, wondering idly when he'd last gone out for coffee. It seemed like forever. Really, it felt like it'd been forever since he'd really done anything that involved leaving the apartment; unless you counted the baby shower, of course.

"Oo, fancy," Pete teased, offering his pack of cigarettes. Kyle waved it away, rolling his eyes but feeling otherwise amused. It would seem that Pete was a morning person, which he never would've figured in the past. That would take some getting used to.

"Stan says hi, by the way," Kyle said, keeping his face straight though it took some effort.

Pete was quiet for a moment, whether because he was concentrating on the road or because of Kyle's statement he couldn't tell. He did notice a little muscle jump in his jaw, though.

"You know, I thought about it after I got home last night," he finally said, stopping at a red light and leaning his head back against the seat, gazing at Kyle. "I remember that guy...he hung out with us for awhile, didn't he?"

Kyle groaned, remembering Stan's foray into the Goth lifestyle; back when he still thought he had a penchant for vagina. That had not been a good look for Stan; the black clothing and Wendy on his arm, respectively.

"Yeah, he can be pretty angsty when he wants to be." He winced, giving Pete an apologetic look. "Sorry, I wasn't trying to be rude."

Pete just laughed as he accelerated, the tiny car showing a surprising amount of pickup. Kyle noticed he had very nice teeth, almost resembling a finely sculpted row of pearls.

"Hey, I can't get mad at you for speaking the truth. I mean, I know it was a ridiculous phase of my life in retrospect, but at the time it made a lot of sense. I had some good times with those guys, you know?"

"Do you ever talk to them?"

"On occasion, but we're all scattered to the four winds nowadays. Henrietta went to New York to be a designer, and Mike completely sold out and became a corporate attorney," Pete snickered as he pulled into the Tweek Brothers parking lot. He parked and glanced at Kyle again, a sudden sadness passing over his features. "We don't know what happened to Firkle, though; he just kind of disappeared after high school."

"Wow, that's too bad," Kyle replied, trying to remember Firkle; a sudden memory of a scrawny kid with huge eyes coming back to him in stages. He'd always seemed a little more out there than the other Goths, though he'd never really had a chance to get to know him. "I hope he's okay, wherever he is."

Pete shrugged as he stubbed out his cigarette, opening the door. Kyle stepped out as well, his teeth chattering as a glacial wind tore across the lot; somewhere, a flag snapped in the breeze.

"He got into heroin during his senior year," he said, leading the way to the entrance. He held the door open, his hand very close to the small of Kyle's back as he passed through, making him duck inside quickly. "So, who can say where he ended up? I remember trying to help him but he wasn't ready to listen to me. You know how it is."

Kyle didn't, not really, not in the sense that Pete was talking about, but he nodded anyway. He could relate to not being receptive to intervention in certain situations, but he'd never really known anyone with a true drug problem, nor had he really dabbled himself.

"We're getting into some depressing shit pretty early in the morning, aren't we?" Pete asked, rubbing his hands together. "Let's change the subject."

"Sure," Kyle said, glancing up at the menu and zeroing in on the lattes.

"Kyle, hey!"

Blinking, Kyle looked away from the menu and came face to face with Tweek, who was standing behind the counter, one hand on the register. He was dressed in a cream-colored striped sweater and brown corduroys with a green apron over top. A black pen was tucked behind one ear, and his hair was as wild as ever, his thin cheeks flushed. Surprised but pleased to see him, Kyle came forward with Pete trailing behind.

"Good morning," he said, noticing that Tweek seemed in far better spirits that day than he had at Bebe's baby shower. Something about him seemed less timid, not as fragile. At the party, he had clung to Craig like a burr but here he seemed animated, his blue eyes furiously bright. "So, you're helping out today?"

"Yup," Tweek chirped, grinning as his mom walked by holding a tray of bagels. She nodded her head at Kyle as she started sorting them into various bins, their yeasty smell filling the air. "There was a call-out so my folks asked me to step in."

"I don't know what we'd do without you, honey," Mrs. Tweak said, giving her son's bony shoulder a pat. "You're a lifesaver."

"Hey, I'm just happy to have something to do," Tweek replied, running a trembling hand through his hair, "but, thanks."

Kyle raised his eyebrows at this statement, a sudden thought coming to him.

"If that's the case, why didn't Craig ask you to take over for Bebe while she's out?" Kyle asked, moving away from Pete; suddenly noticing that he was standing particularly close. Or at least close enough so that he could smell the Axe body spray he seemed to enjoy spraying all over himself.

"Oh, he'd never let me do that," Tweek replied without missing a beat. The way he said it so matter-of-factly made Kyle feel stupid for asking in the first place. "So, what can I get you guys?"

Pete had been scouring the menu while standing too close to Kyle so he had his order ready, not hesitating at all.

"Extra large dark roast and an everything bagel with chive and onion cream cheese, please," he said, pulling out his wallet. "Oh, and toast the shit out of it, will you?"

"Do you want it, like, burned?" Tweek asked, looking up from the register, one eyebrow raised. In the early morning light, his blonde hair looked especially fluffy, and Kyle could kind of see why Craig had nicknamed him 'Duckling' in his phone. He was also burning with curiosity as to why Craig wouldn't let Tweek work at the clinic but he held himself back from asking; practically biting his lip.

"I want it right on the brink, man," Pete said. "Don't set it on fire or anything but get pretty close, know what I mean?"

"Gotcha," Tweek said, twitching a little. It would seem some of his childhood tics had carried over, though now they just seemed endearing instead of jarring. "Anything else?"

"Only what Kyle wants," Pete replied, bumping Kyle a little.

"You're not paying for me," Kyle replied before he could stop himself. He cleared his throat, trying to smooth over his abruptness. "I mean, it's okay. I'll pay for myself."

Pete's face fell, only serving to make Kyle feel guiltier for being so reserved about his excessive friendliness.

"It's only fair, since I invited you, and showed up early and everything."

Kyle bit back a retort about unfinished blow jobs, smiling instead.

"Really, it's okay. If anything, I should be treating you for giving me rides and lending me clothes." He looked down at his scrub pants, the black fabric pooling around his shoes.

"They look good on you," Pete said, blushing suddenly before stepping back a little. Kyle stared at him a moment before turning back to Tweek, who had been watching the exchange with quiet interest.

"Uh, I'll take a large vanilla latte and that's it," he said, pulling out his own wallet and handing over his card before Pete could intercede. "Credit, please."

"Coming right up," Tweek said, running the card and holding it out; his fingers stained with what looked like black ink. "Is this for here or to go?"

"To go," Kyle said, quickly. He had a feeling Pete wanted to linger, but things already felt so awkward that he couldn't imagine sitting down together. "Thanks, Tweek."

"Welcome." Turning away, Tweek pulled on some gloves and went about grabbing Pete's bagel. Not wanting to meet Pete's eyes, Kyle made a point to take as long as possible putting his card back in his wallet, and then carefully tucking it into his jacket pocket. Finally, when he couldn't stand it anymore, he glanced up to see Pete looking away, the blush still on his cheeks. He also noticed a small patch of stubble on Pete's jawline he'd clearly missed while shaving, which made him feel kind of embarrassed, though he couldn't say why.

"Look, uh," he started, tucking that one wayward curl behind his ear, "thanks for picking me up and offering to pay, really. I appreciate it, okay?"

Pete turned to him then, his eyes wide but the wounded look filtering out of them. All at once, he looked like his old self again, a fact which pleased Kyle but also set him on edge. He could already tell he was going to have to walk a very fine line with Pete, and sooner or later they were probably going to have to have an awkward, weird conversation. He gulped just thinking about it.

"So, they fit okay?" Pete asked, beginning to infringe on Kyle's bubble again, looking down. "I was right about the length, huh?"

"Yeah, they're a little long," Kyle sighed, taking note of the fact that Pete was probably right around Stan's height though not as tall as Craig. This thought made him take pause, though, because why the fuck would Craig even filter into this situation at all? He shook his head, trying to get his mind straight.

"Are you excited about your second day?" Pete continued, jamming one hand in his black jacket as he accepted the coffee Tweek slid across the counter. "You did really well yesterday, I noticed."

"Oh, like when I almost passed out in the waiting room because of that guy's leg?" Kyle replied, taking his latte and bringing it to his mouth; grimacing when he burned his lips.

"Dude, you should've seen what it looked like after Dr. T cut the pant leg open. Those things went flying off when he poured peroxide on it. It was crazy."

"Those things," Kyle repeated, regretting the fact that he had a mouthful of latte when Pete said that. All at once, the phantom odor of decay came alive in his nose and he had to take a deep breath, drawing the cup away so he couldn't smell its sweet aroma.

Showing a surprising amount of shrewdness, Pete seemed to pick up on Kyle's response and he clapped a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, I'll stop." Taking his hand away, he accepted the bag that Tweek was handing to him. Looking inside, he smiled widely. "Man, this is perfect! Double toasted and everything!"

"I'm glad it's okay," Tweek said, looking genuinely pleased with Pete's praise. "Is everything okay? Is your latte sweet enough, Kyle?"

Kyle just nodded, still trying to grapple with his unsettled stomach.

"Hey, you're coming out with us this friday, right?" Pete asked Tweek, throwing Kyle an apologetic look. "It's Bebe's last day so we wanted to send her off in style."

"Oh," Tweek said, his face falling. "Craig didn't mention that to me. Is he going, too?"

"Of course," Pete grinned. "He said he'd buy a round for everyone."

"Are you going, Kyle?" Tweek asked, beginning to appear anxious.

"This is the first I'm hearing about it," Kyle replied, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Whoa, we need to get going, Pete. I told Bebe I'd be there no later than 7:45 to help her get everything together."

"Oh, right," Pete said, waving to Tweek. "Hope to see you this Friday, Tweekster. Thanks for the bomb ass bagel, by the way!"

"Anytime," Tweek said, still appearing deflated as he waved them away.

Kyle felt a little less nauseous by the time they made it back to Carlos, the little yellow car providing a much-needed sanctuary from the bitter winds. Kyle hoped Pete would refrain from smoking during their short jaunt to work, but he held back from saying anything. After all, Pete was doing him a favor in the first place, and he was suddenly glad that he hadn't tried to walk to work in this weather. Pete took a long sip of coffee, a look of pleasure flitting across his face.

"Heaven in a cup," he said, depositing his coffee in the cupholder. He pointed to it. "You wanna try?"

"I'll pass," Kyle said, taking a quick drink of his latte, nearly sighing as the warmth of it bloomed in his stomach. "Some things don't change, huh?"

"What do you mean?" Pete manuevered the car out of the lot, making no move to pull out his cigarettes.

"Black coffee," Kyle said, tapping the cup. "Weren't you all about that when we were kids?"

Pete flashed him a million dollar smile but this time Kyle had to laugh, his obvious pleasure making him cuter because it was just so open.

"You remember that?"

Kyle shrugged, admiring the way the sunlight shone through chunks of ice clinging to the windshield; their sparkle dazzling him momentarily. He was also thinking about how nice it felt to have somewhere to be on a Tuesday morning, rather than sitting in his apartment and watching Stan getting ready to go off to work. It struck him as being wonderfully healthy and normal, even if it was taking some getting used to.

"God, we were all so ridiculous back then," he murmured, sipping his latte. "Sometimes I miss those days, at least parts of them."

"Oh? What don't you miss?"

He shook his head, not really wanting to expound on what he had viewed as a throwaway comment, though it wasn't; not really. He pointed to the radio.

"Did you want to listen to music? If you don't, it's cool."

"Sure, yeah," Pete said, turning it on. "I have a CD in, is it okay if I turn it on?"

"Go ahead," Kyle said, settling into his seat. "I'm all ears."

Pete hit a button and suddenly the car was filled with soft piano music, the chords hitting Kyle right in the heart, but in a nice way; bittersweet.

"Yellow Brick Road," he practically breathed. "This is one of my favorites."

"Yeah, Elton's classic, man."

Kyle nodded, his mind caught up in memories that he couldn't share with Pete, at least not this early in what could be considered a burgeoning friendship; Pete's overtures aside. He could recall those lost nights in college after he and Stan had reconnected, lying naked in bed and Stan playing this and other old favorites on his busted up acoustic guitar. Those days had been some of the most beautiful of Kyle's life, making love and talking and reading passages from Ethan Frome, all the while Stan watched him with dreamy eyes and Kyle couldn't help but feel like the most adored person on the planet. Those were the days he traveled back to when he was a bottle deep and the wine was practically splashing behind his eyeballs. Sometimes he cried about them, those times, though he was ashamed to admit it, realizing very quickly that beauty could turn into a weapon as easily as anything else.

"Are you guys really going out Friday?" He asked, turning his face so his cheek rested against the back of the seat.

"Mhmm, you should come, okay? It'd be more fun with you there."

"I highly doubt that," Kyle replied, raising his eyebrows.

"Think what you want," Pete shrugged, turning down the music just a titch. "But you totally fit in with us, dude. I can feel it."

Kyle scoffed, thinking of Craig.

"It's nice that you think that, man, but only time will tell. Don't you think?"

"Just wait," Pete smiled, pulling into the clinic's lot. "You'll see that I'm right before you know it."

-----

Kyle was surprised to see Kenny answer the clinic's door after Pete knocked, appearing scruffy but bright-eyed as he flung it open. His blonde hair was windblown and he was dressed in a heavy coat and sturdy looking khaki pants; steel-toed boots on his feet.

"Hey, long time no see," he said, reaching out to shake Kyle's hand; a gesture that always made him feel awkward. It just felt too adult, too foreign to their relationship, and it always served to remind him that Kenny worked a million and one hours for his family; welding or working on cars on the side. His hands had a salt of the earth quality, roughly callused and dry; reminiscent of Stan's.

"I'm sorry you couldn't make it to the baby shower," Kyle replied, scooting through the door and quickly closing it against the chill. "Cartman was in rare form."

"He's always in rare form," Kenny said, grinning over his shoulder as he meandered back to Bebe, who was in the process of going through a stack of intake forms. "How you been, man?"

"Okay, I guess," Kyle said, hating that question because he could never seem to come up with a serviceable answer. What could he say? I hang out in my apartment getting drunk and not writing a damn thing? "What about you?"

"Fair to middling." Kenny wrapped his arms around Bebe's shoulders, hugging her from behind. "I'm just ready for this baby to be evicted so we can get back to normal."

"I don't blame you," Kyle said, sliding off his coat and nodding to Pete as he disappeared through the door leading to the back of the clinic. "I mean, Cartman's spawn is in there, incubating, getting ready to be unleashed on the world. It's a sobering thought."

"Oh, knock it off, you guys," Bebe interjected. "It's Heidi's baby, too. She's the only reason I was willing to be a surrogate."

Kyle paused, feeling odd about going into too much detail regarding a subject he considered overly personal. He couldn't help himself, though.

"You don't have to answer this if you don't want to," he spoke, slowly; trying to choose his words carefully. "But why couldn't Heidi have the baby herself?"

Bebe glanced at Kenny, both of them adopting grim expressions. Looking back, her words were careful too; guarded.

"I don't want to go into too much detail because it's not really my place, but I was pretty much their last chance," she said, then shrugged lightly. "Me or another surrogate, I mean." Running a hand through her hair, she gave Kyle a pointed look. "Please don't bring this up to Heidi, okay? I mean, if she mentions it, fine, but just...don't. You know what I mean?"

Kyle raised his hands, shaking them a little.

"Of course not, no way. I'll just let it go."

"How do you like working for Tucker so far?" Kenny asked, clearly wanting to change the subject. "Is it everything you hoped for?"

Kyle rolled his eyes. Kenny had always been one for transparency, and he also knew that Kyle had never been overly fond of Craig in school.

"Yeah, it's a dream come true, didn't you know?"

"He's a good doctor, man," Kenny replied, shrugging a little; almost like it pained him to say it out loud.

"I keep hearing that," Kyle replied, slumping into a seat and taking a handful of papers from Bebe; he began to paperclip them together.

Kenny strolled over and stuck his hand under Kyle's nose, almost making him jump back in surprise. He pointed to a long scar on the inside of his thumb.

"You see that? Craig stitched that up for me a couple years ago, and he did a damn fine job."

Kyle thought a moment, trying to filter through memories; one of them coming back of Kenny having his hand wrapped in gauze for the longest time.

"I think I remember you talking about that," he said, sliding his chair back a little when Kenny didn't move. "I didn't know Craig took care of you, though."

"Yep, I did it while Bebe was at work so I just came here after it happened. It was the funniest thing," he began to chuckle, finally moving his hand away so he could hold it against his eyes.

Kyle just stared at him, unsure as to how any part of this story was humorous. He glanced at the pink, jagged scar again; it inched across Kenny's palm, almost resembling an earthworm.

"How'd you do it?" He asked, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Bebe was shaking her head in exasperation.

"Oh, he had a couple of beers and tried to slice up an avocado," Bebe supplied, continuing to shake her head. "He was trying to dislodge the pit with the knife, but when he went to stab it -"

"I missed that shit by a country mile," Kenny cut in, beginning to laugh harder.

"We were just lucky that the kids were visiting my folks that day," she sighed, turning back to her forms. "It was not Kenny's proudest moment, that much I can say."

"Anyway," Kenny said, taking his hand away from his eyes and giving her a look. "I walked my drunk ass over here and Craig put me back together, quick as you please."

"Did he give you a hard time?" Kyle asked, imagining Craig suturing Kenny while holding back thinly-veiled contempt the entire time.

"Not at all," Kenny replied, surprising him. "He actually thought it was pretty funny, too. He asked me if I ended up eating the avocado."

"Okay, now I know you're fucking with me," Kyle replied, going back to the forms as well; primly stacking them in the bin sitting next to his computer.

"Cross my heart," Kenny said.

Suddenly, Pete popped his head through the door and called to Kyle. He turned, giving him a questioning look.

"Dr. T wants you," he said, taking a sip from his coffee. "Pronto."

"Oh, Jesus. It begins," Kyle said, picking up his own cup and rising from his chair; ready to go to battle over whatever frivolous thing Craig wanted to pick at him about now. "Thanks for letting me know he was already here, by the way," he added, giving Bebe a deadpan expression.

"It's almost like he owns the place or something," Bebe replied, winking. "Good luck, tiger."

"Yeah, yeah," Kyle said, ignoring Kenny's smirk. "At least I have caffeine on my side." He shook his cup a little as he passed through the door Pete was holding open for him.

"He's in his corner," Pete said.

"Great, no witnesses," Kyle muttered, feeling dramatic as he made his way down the hallway leading to Craig's area; likening his mood to that of a prisoner being led to the guillotine. Annoyance washed in with his anxiety and he had to keep reminding himself that Craig was the same age as him, that they were equals aside from Craig being a doctor and his boss - his temporary boss, at any rate. There was no reason to be afraid of him. His heartbeat ignored his logic, of course; increasing with every step he took.

"You rang?" He asked, coming upon Craig seated in front of his computer, his cell phone pressed to his ear. Slowly, he turned, holding up a finger. He pointed to his phone then gestured to the counter, where his silver coffee cup and a post-it note had been placed. Kyle noticed his eyes narrowing when they caught on the Tweek Brothers cup in Kyle's hand, a quick look of irritation seeming to flit across his face before rapidly disappearing.

"Right, the culture came back positive for E. Coli," he was saying as Kyle picked up the post-it and read it, his irritation rising exponentially when he saw what it said:

Two Splenda, vanilla creamer.

"Yes, you should finish the course of Macrobid that you've already started," he continued, making a circular motion with his finger in Kyle's direction. "That should take care of the infection, which is great for you. Normally, I wouldn't want to treat these things empirically but we lucked out this time, didn't we?" He laughed a little but stopped when he saw Kyle looking at him, confused at his hand gesture. Placing his hand over his phone, he mouthed something:

"Turn it over."

Kyle did so, and he had to hold himself back from hurling his coffee cup at Craig's face when he saw the note written on the back:

Don't get Pete to make the coffee for you this time, by the way. This is your job, not his.

Looking up, he saw that Craig was still watching him, but now he smiled slowly. Kyle flushed, biting his tongue to keep himself from launching into a tirade that would make the walls shake. He almost dropped his coffee when Craig suddenly winked, the action only making his face flame hotter. Grabbing the mug off the counter, Kyle whirled around and hurried away, hardly able to make heads or tails of Craig's behavior.

"What the fuck was that?" He asked, avoiding Pete's questioning look as Kyle retreated to the breakroom. "What the ever loving fuck was that?"

Kyle's heartbeat finally started to slow down halfway through the coffee-making process. He was feeling sullen and petulant as he dumped the creamer into Craig's mug, half-tempted to add hot sauce or something equally foul just to get a little of his dignity back. Instead, he prepared it exactly to Craig's specifications, wondering how he'd managed to figure out that Pete had made the coffee yesterday. He also wondered why the hell it even mattered who made the damn coffee in the first place, so long as it was made.

When Kyle came back with the coffee, Craig was nowhere to be seen, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he placed it on the counter. Glancing over his shoulder, he checked to see if the coast was clear before taking a look at Craig's desk, inexplicably curious about his weird, little environment. He was so protective of it, though Kyle couldn't really see why that was. He admired the bird sketches again, secretly glad that he had a little more time to take in their full detail. They were so lovely and delicate, and if Craig wasn't such an asshole about everything he would've asked him where he'd gotten them.

Kyle was inspecting a photo of Craig and Tweek (posing on a sun-splashed beach; Tweek looking nervous and Craig in all of his pale, sullen glory) when a hand descended on his shoulder, making him jump back; colliding with a surprisingly warm, though sturdy, surface.

"Having fun snooping?" Craig asked, holding both of Kyle's shoulders now, his eyebrows raised. His cologne enveloped Kyle in a spicy cloud, and once again he found himself blushing furiously, absolutely humiliated at allowing himself to be caught. The heat from Craig's hands bled through Kyle's clothes, only compounding his discomfort.

Turning around, Kyle pulled himself from Craig's grasp and pressed himself against the counter. He took deep breaths, trying to get a handle on his rapid pulse. Craig watched him with mild amusement, a coy smile quirking his mouth.

"You startle easily, don't you?" He asked, reaching out and picking up his mug. Taking a deep sip, he nodded his head while appraising Kyle, his sharp eyes taking him in. "So, are you and Pete doing a twin thing or something?"

Kyle looked down at his scrubs, suddenly embarrassed at how black they were. He realized this was a crazy thought to have at the same time, infuriated that Craig could seem to make him feel unsure about the smallest, most inconsequential details.

"No, he was just nice enough to let me borrow some scrubs until I could buy my own," Kyle snapped, pulling his focus from his too-long uniform and back to Craig's open stare. "Is that a problem?"

"No," Craig shrugged, sitting down and taking another sip of coffee. "Black really isn't your color, though."

Shaking his head, Kyle realized he was staring at Craig's lips as they lingered on the rim of his mug, and he could've kicked himself for being so awkward and stupid. He also couldn't believe that Craig was commenting on the color of his stupid scrubs, like it even fucking mattered. He opened his mouth to snap back, already sick of being ridiculed when the day had barely begun.

"Look, I -"

"So, I imagine you saw Tweek this morning," Craig cut him off, almost like he hadn't been speaking in the first place. "How'd he look? Anxious? Was Tweek Brothers really busy?"

Confused, Kyle almost wasn't sure he'd heard him right, but after a moment the words sunk in. Craig continued to sip his coffee, but he seemed tense, his hand clenched on the counter. A platinum wedding band glimmered on his finger, catching the light.

"Uh, no, it wasn't busy at all," Kyle replied, slowly, studying the ring instead of looking into Craig's face. "And Tweek seemed fine, I guess. You know, he was chipper and..." he faltered, trying to find the right word to describe Tweek's spastic sweetness, "upbeat? I don't know."

"Is that so," Craig said, though he didn't pose this as a question. He sounded almost resigned, pensive.

"He was surprised to hear about Friday night, though," Kyle said, suddenly remembering Tweek's wide-eyed, almost sad expression when Pete asked him if he was going. "He said you didn't tell him about it."

"I didn't," Craig said, his voice developing an edge. "Not that that's any of your business."

"Hey, you're the one that asked about him," Kyle said, meeting Craig's eyes now and refusing to look away. He could already tell that this experience was going to be a nightmare if he didn't show a little backbone every now and again. He was surprised when Craig smiled again, some of the ice in his expression melting slightly.

"You're right," he said, taking another sip of coffee. He breathed deeply, popping his neck. "This is really good, by the way," he added, tapping the cup. "It's just strong enough without having that burned flavor, you know?"

"Oh, uh, thanks," Kyle said, flushing again at the unexpected compliment. "I'm glad you like it."

Craig just peered at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Have you ever noticed that you blush a lot?"

Kyle had no idea how he was supposed to respond to that, though he was acutely aware that the blush that had started in his cheeks was now making its way down his throat. Feeling overheated, he looked down at the floor, the silence stretching between them until he heard Pete's voice. He looked up to see him standing there, watching them both. It made Kyle feel weird, like he'd been caught doing something illicit.

"Dr. T, Bebe wanted me to let you know there's an emergent situation going on in the waiting room," he said, catching Kyle's eye before turning to Craig.

Craig sighed and set down his mug, resting his face in his hand.

"What's up?"

"A dude was trying to gut a deer and he ended up stabbing his thigh. He's bleeding pretty bad."

Craig slowly stood up and stretched, his scrub top rising slightly and exposing a sliver of pale belly. Kyle looked away quickly.

"Have Mercedes take him to room 3, I'll be right in," he said. "Did he say whether or not he was drinking when this happened?"

"He didn't need to," Pete grinned, turning away. "Home boy smells like a brewery."

"Of course he does," Craig said, beginning to walk away. He stopped, glancing back at Kyle who had finally managed to raise his eyes from the floor. "Care to join us?"

"Right, yeah," Kyle said, ignoring the way Pete was staring at him as he followed along, his face continuing to burn.

-----

The rest of the morning and early afternoon passed easily enough, the rest of the clinic's patients proving to be significantly less dramatic than the gentleman who'd drunkenly stabbed himself after drinking a six-pack by himself at 8 o'clock in the morning. Kyle was already finding himself falling into a routine, relaxing steadily as the day wore on; laughing and joking with Bebe and Butters as they registered patients and took care of finished charts. Once again, Mercedes asked if anyone was ordering out for lunch, and Bebe jumped on the suggestion like a tick on a slow-moving hound dog.

"I'm so ready to be done," she confided to Kyle as she clutched at the counter, taking deep breaths. "I'm consoling myself by stuffing my face, can you tell?"

"Hey, if I was as pregnant as you are I'd do whatever I could to survive," Kyle replied, eyeing Bebe's full stomach, her cheeks flushed as her fingers tightened every few moments. "Are you okay? You're not, like, going into labor right now, are you?"

"No," Bebe laughed, closing her eyes for a moment; her eyebrows knitted. "I'm just being hit with some Braxton Hicks, no big deal."

"Braxton what?" Kyle asked, sliding his chair back a little. He was thoroughly convinced that Bebe's water was going to burst at any moment and he'd be saturated with embryonic fluid.

"Practice contractions, basically," Heidi said, coming out of the back and smiling tenderly at Bebe, though her eyes were focused on her swelled belly. "They're getting Bebe ready for the actual performance."

"How can you tell the difference between those and the real thing?" Butters asked, watching Bebe with nervous concern.

"Oh, you'd know if I was going into labor, trust me," Bebe said, patting Butters on the shoulder. "I'd be screaming bloody murder, and besides, I've already been around this block twice; I know when shit is about to get real."

Kyle glanced covertly at Heidi, feeling strange on her behalf to hear Bebe talking about her past pregnancies. She was still gazing at Bebe's belly, but now her expression almost seemed resigned, her hazel eyes becoming slightly muted. Her hand drifted to her stomach.

"My rainbow baby," she said, softly. "Have I mentioned how much I appreciate you doing this for me and Eric, by the way?"

"Only about a million times," Bebe laughed, reaching out and taking Heidi's hand from her own belly and placing it on her rounded front. "Feel that? That's your baby kicking my bladder. This kid is going to be a handful, I can already tell."

"I just wish Eric had wanted to find out the gender," Heidi said, resting her hand on Bebe's belly. For a moment, it seemed like she wanted to rest her cheek there as well; at least, that's the impression Kyle got. He was still reluctant about touching a pregnant stomach, though Bebe had been kind and hadn't put him on the spot about it.

Bebe snorted.

"I knew what I was having each time and I still wasn't prepared," she said. "You think you're ready and then the day comes and you discover you really aren't, but it doesn't matter. You see your baby's face for the first time and everything else just kind of fades away." She became misty-eyed. "Goddamn pregnancy hormones," she sighed, dabbing at her eyes.

"Is it okay if I go eat before your food gets here?" Kyle asked, always unprepared to deal with excessive displays of emotion; hormone-driven or otherwise. "I brought my lunch."

"Sure, go ahead," Bebe sniffled, leaning against Heidi.

"Uh, where's Pete?" Kyle asked Heidi, grabbing his lunch bag and his laptop.

"Oh, he's doing an x-ray right now," Heidi replied, giving him a knowing look. "You're safe."

Kyle winced, hating himself for appearing so cruel. Wanting to offer up an excuse, he shook his laptop slightly.

"I just, uh, was hoping to get some writing done, and it's hard with distractions."

"Whatever you say," Bebe piped up, grinning wickedly. "Have fun, Sylvia Plath."

Kyle just grunted as he walked away toward the break room, looking forward to some peace and quiet so he could attempt to put his thoughts in order. Being in the clinic and around people made it feel like the cobwebs in his brain were slowly becoming dislodged, and for once he wasn't afraid to face the empty screen. Maybe things were finally turning around, and he'd be able to find the 'hole in the paper' and fall through, a term that Stephen King had used in one of his novels to describe becoming lost in a story; a secret, new world.

Feeling light, Kyle almost started whistling as he opened the break room door, until he stepped inside and came face to face with the last person he'd choose to eat lunch with. Craig was sitting at the table, one long leg crossed over the other as he looked at his phone; earbuds in his ears. A sandwich, cut into precise halves, was laid out before him on a pristine white napkin, along with a small bag of Sun Chips and a sweaty-looking can of Diet Coke. Raising his eyes to meet Kyle's, he suddenly had the acute sensation that he was being pinned to a board like a giant butterfly.

Kyle considered turning tail and walking out for a moment, but he decided it would look too obvious and weird for him to play it off successfully. Besides, he didn't want Craig to get the impression that he could scare him off just by occupying a room - though that was almost turning out to be the case. Taking a deep breath, Kyle wandered over to the table slowly and sat across from Craig, carefully laying his laptop and lunch bag on the table. Trying to ignore Craig's stare, he sat and began to awkwardly set out his lunch: a sandwich, apple, and baggy of goldfish crackers.

It wasn't until he was opening up his laptop that Kyle dared to look up, and he almost sagged with relief to see that Craig was once again engrossed in his phone. Taking the opportunity, he studied his face for a moment, taking note of the stubble on his jaws, though its presence didn't embarrass him the way Pete's had. Reluctantly, Kyle had to admit that he could consider Craig handsome in a fussy, high-maintenance way, though this knowledge only served to irritate him. He couldn't help comparing him to Stan the way people used to in school, an occurrence which used to annoy Kyle to no end; he'd never really seen their similarities. Sure, they both had dark hair but that was it. Stan's eyes were a warm, tranquil blue, sleepy and kind, whereas Craig's were guarded; icy.

Thoughts of Stan made Kyle long for him, and he pulled out his phone to text him before turning on his comp. Work had gotten hectic so he hadn't really had a chance to check his messages, so he couldn't help but smile when he saw that Stan had already sent him something:

took care of the bird feeder after you left. i know you'd never forgive me if your little bushtits went hungry, lol

Kyle read the text fondly, imagining Stan composing it and laughing when he got to type out 'bushtits.' Resting his face in his hand, he smiled as he wrote a reply:

thanks, i appreciate it. can't wait to come home and finish what we started this morning ;) well, what you started, anyway.

Kyle could feel himself blushing as he sent the message, chewing the inside of his cheek as he waited for Stan to respond. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to do it right away, but he hoped he wouldn't have to wait long. Thoughts of that morning's misadventure made his cock stir a little, though a sweet tenderness was stealing over him, too. No matter how many years passed, Kyle couldn't help but be helplessly attracted to his man; he'd always been exactly what he wanted. Sometimes it didn't feel like Stan felt the same way, especially when they went for days or weeks without really connecting the way Kyle craved, but being awoken to a blow job helped to put a salve on his wounded feelings.

"There you go blushing again," Craig suddenly spoke up, making Kyle jump. "You must be looking at something really interesting."

Setting his phone aside, Kyle gave Craig a defiant look as he booted up his laptop. While he waited, he picked up his sandwich and took a dainty bite.

"Maybe," he said, covering his mouth as he chewed. He glanced at Craig's untouched lunch. "Aren't you hungry?"

Craig shrugged before shifting his focus back to his phone.

"Not especially, no." He pushed his drink forward, leaving a streak of moisture on the table. "It doesn't look like you brought anything to drink. You want it?"

Kyle eyed the Diet Coke suspiciously before glancing up at Craig, one eyebrow raised.

"Are you serious?"

Craig responded by pushing the soda can closer to Kyle.

"Go ahead."

The password screen popped up on Kyle's laptop as he took the drink into his hand and snapped it open. He still watched Craig closely, though, once again taken aback by his sudden and unexpected moments of what could be considered kindness.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to be nice," he commented, typing in his password.

"It's a soda, not a kidney," Craig replied, eyes still trained on his phone. "Don't overthink things."

"That's more like it," Kyle said, looking at his laptop and clicking on the Firefox icon.

"Besides, you deserve a reward for actually showing up today. Don't you think?" Sighing, Craig shifted in his seat a little bit.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Annoyed, Kyle clicked the option to restore his last session. Apparently, Stan hadn't properly turned off his laptop after using it. He'd have to chastise him for that when he got home that evening.

"Oh, come on, Kyle. You have to admit you're sort of out of your element here," Craig said, sliding his eyes away from his phone to catch Kyle's. "You don't exactly play nice with other people, and you hate being told what to do. Right?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kyle said, except he knew exactly what Craig was getting at, because he was right. Kyle had interned in his father's office during his summers home from college and he'd hated it; never seeing himself as a people-pleaser or gofer. That's why he loved writing so much, it was a solitary venture he could control; become lost in, and he only had to answer to himself.

Craig smirked, readjusting his phone in his hand.

"Whatever you say."

"Hey, look," Kyle snapped. "Stop acting like you know so much about me, okay? You don't know the first thing -"

All at once, the tabs on Firefox restored themselves and Kyle was blown away to see a video of two guys fucking show up on the screen; the smaller one being plowed into the mattress by a huge, muscular man with wild black hair. All he could do was stare in shock, his eyes widening as his heart started beating frantically behind his sternum.

"What the..." he managed to say, his voice coming out as a strangled whine. "What the fuck is this?"

Thankfully, the sound on his comp was muted but that didn't take away from the horror Kyle felt at being assaulted by porno out of nowhere. Almost feeling frozen, he watched the larger guy go to town on the more effeminate one, taking a hold of his hair and yanking his head back. 

"What's wrong?" Craig asked, finally setting his phone down and pulling his earbuds out. "You look really pale all of a sudden."

Quickly, Kyle snapped the laptop closed and shook his head, barely able to formulate a response.

He said he used it to check our account balance, he thought, frantically trying to remember Stan's explanation for using his laptop. He'd been so smooth about it, so unruffled. Kyle hadn't watched porn in ages so he knew that what he'd just seen hadn't been a result of his actions, and ordinarily he wouldn't be too bothered by Stan watching it as well, but why did he lie about it? Okay, maybe he hadn't lied about it, but he hadn't mentioned it either...wasn't that almost the same thing?

And he had to have watched it before I came home yesterday. It was on my desk when I left yesterday morning, I'm sure of it.

"Kyle?" Craig asked, waving a hand in front of his face. "Answer me. Are you okay?"

"I, uh," Kyle said, giving Craig an unfocused look, almost like he couldn't really see him. "I have to get out of here for awhile."

Abruptly, he stood and rushed away from the table, leaving his lunch and laptop behind. Tears were already starting to burn behind his eyes, making him feel childish and melodramatic, but he couldn't help it.

He knew I wanted to be with him, he thought as he rushed out of the break room. Brushing past Pete, he ignored him as he called out to him, choosing instead to head outside, the cold leaving him momentarily breathless. And then he said he was too tired, because he was fucking jacking off to strangers. I bet he gave me a blow job this morning because he felt guilty!

Rounding the building, Kyle leaned against the same wall he'd sought refuge next to the day before. Slumping down, he wrapped his arms around his legs and buried his face in his knees, hating himself for being so upset over something that most people would consider no big deal. Kyle had never wanted to be the type of boyfriend that could be considered jealous or controlling, wanting to trust Stan in everything he did, but over the years he'd noticed little changes that made him feel inexplicably afraid. Stan didn't fall into him the way he used to, almost like Kyle was his refuge and just being near to him had restorative powers. There seemed to be a distance between them, abstract and vague, but Kyle could feel it. Stan used to shudder just by touching him, but he hadn't done that in so long, and he missed it; he missed it so much he could feel it destroying him.

I was in the next room, waiting for him. All he needed to do was come to me...that's all.

Now the tears were starting to fall, and they were making his nose burn as he attempted to hold them back. Crazy thoughts of those nights in college with Stan and his guitar flooded him, how he'd written page after page because love had filled him with the euphoric, unbridled need to create. They had been so happy then, and he supposed they were happy in a sense now, but things were so different, because Kyle was different; and not in a good way. He could hardly blame Stan for pulling away from him. After all, what did he have to offer? Somewhere along the way Kyle had changed, become morose and withdrawn, the words trapped inside of him. He couldn't imagine anyone being able to love him the way he was now.

"Hey," a soft voice spoke beside him, making him start. Kyle looked up, quickly wiping a hand across his eyes. Craig was standing there, dressed in his black coat and looking down at him; Kyle's phone in his hand. "Your phone went off, so I figured I'd bring it to you in case it was something important."

"Thanks," Kyle replied, accepting the phone and staring at it for a moment, almost afraid to see if Stan had responded. Finally, he sighed and turned it on, his heart almost collapsing to see what Stan had sent:

i'll definitely finish what i started, lol. have i mentioned how proud i am of you, btw? 

Then, a few minutes later:

I love you so much.

Setting the phone aside, Kyle gulped in lungfuls of frigid air, ashamed that he'd let his emotions get the best of them. Staring at the icy concrete, he almost didn't recognize himself when he spoke next.

"How can I feel so wanted and so unwanted at the same time?"

He hadn't really expected an answer, so he was surprised when Craig replied, his voice almost gentle.

"There's such a thing as being wanted too much. Or needed too much, however you want to put it." He lapsed into silence and for a moment the only thing that could be heard were the winds scraping across the icy landscape, the dead foliage rustling in the empty field just beyond them. Letting out a long breath, he slid down the wall and sat next to Kyle, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.

"Want one?"

Kyle just nodded, his cheeks still slick with moisture, though he felt like he was starting to get some of his composure back. Taking a cigarette, he leaned forward to let Craig light it, thankful that he wasn't pressing for an explanation. Rather, he just sat beside Kyle and smoked his own cigarette, his head tipped back as he contemplated the sky; the grey clouds rolling by to cover the sun. Suddenly, he fished his phone out of his pocket.

"You like Mitch Hedberg?"

"The comedian?"

"Yeah, I always listen to him when I'm bummed." Craig turned on his phone, beginning to scroll through the screens.

"Is that what you were listening to in the break room?"

Craig nodded, holding the phone up so Kyle could see as well. A scruffy looking guy with sunglasses holding a microphone was on the screen. He turned the volume up, and after a few minutes they were laughing out loud to Mitch's surreal brand of offbeat comedy. Kyle couldn't help but notice that Craig's arm was pressed against his own, and just like earlier in the day his warmth was bleeding through Kyle's clothes. He flushed, praying that Craig wouldn't notice and say something. He didn't. He also waited for Craig to ask him for an explanation, but that didn't happen either. Instead, they leaned against one another as the cold winds blew by, their laughter fading away into the relentless chill.

Chapter Text

"You sure you're okay, man? You seemed pretty upset earlier."

Glancing up, Kyle shuddered as a raw wind passed through the parking lot, scattering the smoke wafting from his cigarette as he took another pull. Shaking his head, he leaned against Pete's car as they prepared to depart, having opted to smoke one more cigarette before calling it a day. Pete was watching him with open concern and obvious curiosity, but Kyle didn't want to go into detail about how he'd overreacted earlier. He'd just been so surprised and, yes, he was hurt, too, but he wanted to give Stan the benefit of the doubt.

"I'm fine," he said, flicking his cigarette away after smoking it down to the filter. Leaning his head back against Carlos, he looked up to see that the grey clouds that had rolled in during the day were finally starting to break up. Bright, sharp stars were glittering in patches of black sky, and the moon looked like a white rock in a riverbed; slightly obscured by shifting, see-through cloud cover. Popping his neck, Kyle sighed softly, feeling exhausted and achy.

"Do you wanna talk about it?" Pete persisted, tossing his own spent cigarette aside. "I'm all ears."

"Nah, but thanks," Kyle replied, turning his head and giving Pete a weak smile. "I have a tendency of overreacting, honestly. I'm kind of embarrassed, all things considered."

"Well, if you're sure," Pete said, still appearing concerned before looking over at the clinic. The front door was opening and Craig was stepping out into the night, clad in his black jacket and holding his silver coffee cup, his bag on his shoulder. "I guess Dr. T made you feel better, huh?"

Kyle frowned to hear what he could consider jealousy in Pete's tone, but he decided to ignore it. He was probably misinterpreting things anyway. Beginning to feel apprehensive, he stood up straight as Craig approached them, his face impassive as the nights winds rustled through his hair. He caught Kyle's eye for a moment before he flicked his focus to Pete.

"I've been meaning to ask," he started, pulling his car keys from his pocket. "Have you guys decided where you want to go Friday? I'll call and make a reservation."

"We were thinking Buca De Faggoncini," Pete replied. "Does that work?"

"Works as well as any other place," Craig said, shrugging. He turned to Kyle, one eyebrow raised. "You're coming, right?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," Kyle replied, shivering as the wind kicked up again. He was also reasonably surprised that Craig was making a point to include him, but after the events earlier in the day he had to admit it kind of made a weird sort of sense. Craig was proving to be full of surprises.

"You can bring Stan if you want," Craig said, his lips quirking slightly; an action which immediately set Kyle on edge. He hadn't told Craig about what he'd seen on his laptop, of course, but there was still something in Craig's demeanor that irked him.

"Yeah, and you can bring Tweek," he said, giving Craig a pointed look. "Right?"

"Touche," Craig said while unlocking his car, the Jag's interior light coming on.

"Uh, the more the merrier, right?" Pete chimed in, sounding slightly confused. "So, you in, Kyle? It'll be fun," he broke off, glancing at Craig. "I guess."

"I'll think about it," Kyle replied, his teeth chattering. His phone trilled in his pocket, indicating he'd received a text. He pulled it out.

"It's freezing out here," Craig broke in, passing by Kyle and stopping, looking down at him with narrowed eyes. "Go home already. And you really should be wearing a heavier jacket."

"Who asked you?" Kyle retorted, becoming thoroughly done with Craig's bossy, invasive attitude. Now the moment they'd shared together that afternoon seemed to be fading away as Craig quickly devolved into his usual difficult, abrasive self.

Craig stared at him for a moment, clearly nonplussed, that amused quirk still pulling at his lips which further annoyed Kyle. Finally, he shook his head and went to his car, pulling the door open.

"Gentlemen," he said, throwing his bag on the front seat. "I'll see you tomorrow. Be careful going home." He stopped and caught Kyle's eyes again, smiling. "Hopefully you'll be in better spirits."

Kyle could feel another hateful flush starting in his neck and he quickly turned away. Pulling the car's door open, he slid inside and shut it, happy to have a barrier between himself and Craig. Now he really regretted making a spectacle of himself in front of Craig of all people, and to think he'd actually derived some comfort from him. He was also annoyed that he could still feel the way Craig's arm had felt pressed against his own, at the way his heat had ghosted through the chilled air and reached his own skin. He gritted his teeth as he watched Craig's car pull out of the lot, the tail lights fading away into the darkness.

"You guys have a weird relationship," Pete commented as he slid in beside him. "I've never seen Dr. T tease anyone. At least, not really."

"We don't have a relationship," Kyle snapped as he turned on his phone to check his texts. "And he wasn't teasing me, he was just being a dick."

"This may not be my place, but I don't really think he was trying to be mean. I mean, he did cheer you up earlier, didn't he?"

"I don't want to talk about this, okay?" Kyle replied, opening up a text from Stan. He frowned when he read it:

got called into work bc the fucking water heater blew again. it flooded one of the apartments. i'll let you know when i'm on my way home, k? Love you.

"Of fucking course," Kyle muttered, shoving his phone back in his pocket and crossing his arms. He leaned his head back against the seat, fighting down disappointment, anger, and sadness all at once. For a moment, his eyes burned, but there was no way he was going to cry again; he refused.

"What? What's wrong?" Pete asked, turning on the car and blasting the heat. He angled the vents toward Kyle, a small detail that only served to make him feel like an even bigger asshole.

"Unfinished blow jobs, that's what's wrong," Kyle said before he could stop himself. He covered his face with his hand and groaned, wanting to sink into the earth and die. "Please forget I just said that."

"That's, uh, not just something I can overlook, I'm afraid," Pete replied before he started laughing. Turning away, he rested his head on the window as his shoulders shook, his laughter coming out in little snorts.

"Oh, Jesus," Kyle sighed before he started laughing a little too, some of the tension in the car finally breaking. "It's your fault, by the way."

"Hold up, what are you talking about?" Pete asked, looking at him, his hand still covering his mouth.

"I was two seconds away, man; two seconds," Kyle replied, holding up two fingers. Vividly, he could recall the way Stan's lips had been wrapped around his cock, at the way the pressure had built up inside of him; the pressure that always seemed to be present. God, it would've felt so good to just have the edge taken off, especially after he'd been confronted with hardcore porn on his laptop out of nowhere, Craig being a confusing prick, and an acute case of writer's block. Everything was just converging on him at once, and Kyle wasn't sure how he was going to handle the blowup when it inevitably occurred.

Pete stared at him, his eyes wide.

"I still have no idea what you're talking about, Kyle. Help me out here, man."

"I'm going home to an empty apartment and I'm honestly not thrilled," Kyle said, shrugging slightly. "I was hoping to clear up a few things with Stan and he got called into work. I'm just bummed, I guess."

"Ah, that makes sense," Pete said, brushing a hand through his hair. "What's he do?"

"Oh, he's head of maintenance at the Canterbury apartments. Does some landscaping, too. He actually studied to be a CPA in college but he figured out pretty quickly that the white collar life just wasn't for him." He looked out the window, smiling against his will at the thought of Stan in his suits and ties, back when he'd still thought that office life was something he could stomach. "He was even offered a job at Legg Mason but he turned it down."

"Legg Mason?"

"Yeah, in Baltimore," Kyle replied. "We could've moved out of this town, but Stan wasn't ready. Neither of us were."

Clearing his throat, Pete lapsed into silence for a moment. Kyle glanced at him, his eyes coming to rest on the way Pete was worrying his bottom lip; pearly teeth flashing in the lights coming from the dash.

"Did you want to hang out or something?" He finally asked, rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean, if you don't want to be alone, you don't have to be. We could go get a drink or something."

Kyle smiled, feeling a sudden tenderness at Pete's offer, but he shook his head. He touched his arm lightly.

"That sounds nice but I think I'd rather just go home. I'm feeling pretty tired, you know? It's nothing against you."

"Right, yeah. No, I get it," Pete said quickly as he put the car in reverse. "I was just thinking that, well, you know -"

"I'll go with you guys this Friday, by the way," Kyle interjected, Pete's obvious discomfort becoming his own and wanting to cut it off at the pass. "Buca De Faggoncini, right? I haven't been there in forever."

"Same," Pete replied, rolling out of the lot and out onto the main road. He glanced at Kyle, trying to appear nonchalant but failing terribly. "You gonna bring Stan?"

"Who knows?" Kyle said, carefully. He folded his hands in his lap, beginning to feel drowsy from the heat pouring out of the vents and the events of the day. "I guess I'll just have to wait and see."

------

"So, I'll pick you up bright and early, huh?" Pete asked, once again hanging out of the car window, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "You wanna get coffee?"

"Why not?" Kyle replied, already pretty sure that Pete was going to show up early regardless. "So, should I expect you at 7 am again?" He smirked.

"That depends," Pete said, cocking a brow. "I'm starting to get the impression that you were trying to tell me something with that unfinished blow jobs statement. Am I wrong?"

"Let's not go there," Kyle groaned, still annoyed with himself for saying something so off-color, and to Pete of all people. "I'll just see you in the morning, okay? Actually, I'll give you my number so you can text me when you get home. I want to make sure you're okay, especially since you're going to so much trouble for me."

Pete looked surprised for a moment before he smiled, and it was so genuine and sweet that it tore at Kyle's heart. He pulled out his phone, turned it on, and handed it to Kyle. He could feel Pete staring at him as he saved his number in his contacts, their hands brushing when he handed the phone back.

"Don't forget, okay? Or I'll worry," Kyle said, beginning to turn away while hiking his bag higher on his shoulder.

"Are you sure you didn't want to just get one drink?" Pete called, making Kyle take pause; glancing over his shoulder.

"Nah, I'm good. See you later."

"Okay, well, goodnight, at any rate," Pete sighed, making no point to cover up his disappointment. With one last little wave he rolled out of the lot. Kyle just shook his head to see the tiny car driving away, once again amused at just how ridiculous it was, but it seemed to fit Pete perfectly.

Turning toward the building, Kyle's gaze fell on the apartment balcony, where the bird feeder hung; the windows dark and appearing frosted in the faint moonlight drifting through the clouds. Sighing, he made his way slowly up the steps, his body feeling heavy as he ascended. He was starting to develop a headache, his brain taking on that 'stuffed with cotton' feeling it adopted when he was becoming stressed or upset. He almost wished he had taken Pete up on his offer to get a drink but he didn't have the energy to be social. Really, all he wanted in that moment was a drink, a shower, and music.

And Stan, he thought as he unlocked the door and stepped into the hushed, dark apartment; the air feeling static and heavy. I don't even want to yell at him about the porn, I just want to understand why he didn't tell me about it.

After flipping on the lights, he set his bag down and slowly lifted out the laptop. Holding it in his hands for a moment, he finally set it down in its usual place on his desk before stripping himself of his coat and hat. Hating the silence, he quickly turned on the TV and opened up YouTube. In a few moments, Amy Winehouse was drifting through the stillness, her husky voice wrapping around him as he traipsed into the kitchen. Pouring himself a glass of wine, he sighed before rubbing his eyes and managed to drain half of the liquid in two gulps; its burn rushing into his belly and warming him.

He was nursing a pretty healthy buzz by the time he stumbled into the bathroom, stark naked with flushed cheeks as he turned on the water. Stepping into the shower, he turned his face upward, allowing the warmth to cascade over his skin as he opened his mouth slightly. The dust and worries of the day seemed to disintegrate as he stood there, the water coursing over him and the alcohol burning through his blood, and for a moment he achieved a tenuous respite; thoughts of Stan chased from his tired brain.

But when he stepped out of the bathroom, draped in a towel, he was once again assaulted by the oppressive stillness in the apartment, even though the music was still playing and filling up the silence. Hurriedly, he poured himself some more wine and gulped it quickly while sitting on the kitchen floor, his phone chirping on the counter above him. Pulling it down, he saw that Pete had texted him, just like he promised:

home safe! :) i'm glad you decided to come out w us on friday. it's gonna be a blast, man

Kyle couldn't help but smile, feeling weird about being naked on his kitchen floor and tipsy while texting Pete. He replied sluggishly, his hands becoming clumsy as the wine worked its magic on him:

i hope so. it's been forever since i went out w a bunch of ppl

He frowned, holding the phone closer to his face. As a general rule, he hated using text slang but he was feeling buzzed and lazy, so he gave himself a pass. He sent the message and then quickly knocked back the rest of the wine in his glass. After a moment, Pete replied:

you'll be fine. besides, i'll be there...i'll look out for you :D

Kyle frowned more deeply and resisted the urge to put the kibosh on Pete's enthusiasm but he refrained. He didn't want to be drunk while having that sort of conversation, and he definitely didn't want to do it through text, that would just be uncouth. Instead, he kept it simple:

thanks, man. glad you got home okay. i'll see you in the morning, alright?

There was a noticeable pause before Pete replied, but it was amiable enough when it finally came through, though Kyle sensed a deeper meaning behind Pete's inquiry:

sounds good. hey, is stan home yet?

Kyle was very careful when he composed his response this time, though he was really starting to feel fuzzy, his eyelids drooping:

no, but it's cool. i'm just gonna go to bed. goodnight.

He set the phone back on the counter and ignored it when it buzzed again. He was done interacting for the day. Deep silence passed over the apartment as one song ended and another began, but when it did Kyle couldn't help but relax against the cabinets, forgoing the wine glass and going right for the bottle this time. There was only about an inch of wine left when he finally set it aside, and his head and limbs were so heavy that he had to crawl to the bedroom, leaving his towel behind on the kitchen floor. Sluggishly, he pulled himself onto the bed and curled on his side, too tired to crawl under the covers. He shivered as a chill passed through him but he ignored it, drifting off to sleep as the alcohol made his head spin, even after shutting his eyes.

-----

When Kyle was startled awake, he couldn't be sure how much time had passed but the room was still very dark; faintly blue-tinged from the moonlight falling through the blinds. The apartment was quiet even though he'd left his playlist on when he'd gone to sleep, but he didn't have time to focus on that before he realized what had roused him. Strong arms were wrapped around his waist and he was being pulled close against a warm, hard surface.

"Went to sleep naked, huh?" Stan's husky voice brushed against his ear, making him flush and moan lightly. "I guess you wanted something to happen, didn't you?"

Kyle could only nod, all thoughts of porn and melancholy being chased from his brain as Stan held him tightly, one large hand straying to rest on his awakening cock.

"Mm, someone's excited," Stan purred, lapping at the back of Kyle's neck as he stroked him softly. "What do you want me to do to you, baby?"

Kyle was still reasonably tipsy so he didn't bother to be subdued or chaste. Besides, he needed this so badly, so he practically whimpered when he replied, voice dripping with need.

"Can you eat me out?" He asked, pushing his ass back against Stan's erection, grinding lightly. "And then I want you to fuck me on my side, but I want you to go slow. Can you do that? Please?"

"Of course, that's what I wanted to do to you this morning before we were so rudely interrupted," Stan replied, kissing Kyle's neck again before pulling away. Running his hand over Kyle's side, he made him shiver as he pulled him into the right position: Kyle on his hands and knees, ass raised in the air like an offering. He quivered as Stan spread him, his hands coming to rest on his backside and squeezing lightly. After a moment of agonizing anticipation, Kyle gasped when he felt Stan's wet tongue settling against him, swirling and licking as his hands clenched up in the bed covers.

"Yes, God, yes," he almost sobbed, easing onto his forearms so he could arch his back, pushing back against Stan's expert tongue. Moisture began to drip down his thighs as Stan deftly ate him out, his fingers sinking into Kyle's skin as his tongue sunk deeper, opening him exquisitely.

"So good," Stan breathed, pulling back before dropping kisses along Kyle's ass cheek. "Every part of you tastes so fucking good, Kyle. Did you know that?"

"Don't t-tease me," Kyle trembled, hiding his face in the pillow and waiting; agony coursing through him from the wanting, the need. "J-just keep going, okay? You're driving me crazy."

"That's the idea," Stan laughed, softly nipping at Kyle's skin before delving his tongue back inside of his heat, more wetness slipping down Kyle's swiftly weakening legs. It'd been so long since Stan had properly eaten him out like this, but he clearly hadn't lost any of his skills. Before too long, Kyle was moaning so loudly that he was sure he was going to wake the neighbors, not that he cared.

"I-I need you," he gasped, turning his head on the pillow and opening his eyes, watching as the shadows skittered on the far wall. "I just need you inside of me, Stan. Please, fuck me."

"I love when dirty Kyle decides to pay a visit," Stan replied, giving Kyle one last, lingering swipe with his tongue. Slapping Kyle's ass lightly, he helped him onto his side before reaching over to retrieve the bottle of lube from the nightstand. "To think, we could've done this 15 hours ago, but no, I had to go the whole day just thinking about it."

"You thought about this, about me?" Kyle gasped as he opened himself, feeling Stan slowly sliding into him, every inch of his cock sweet agony. This was the part he liked most, when Stan was easing into him like a hot bath, and all of the anticipation was swelling in his blood and making him so feel so full, so wanted; adored.

"I'm always thinking about you," Stan said tightly, his hand clenching on Kyle's hip when he was finally inside him completely, his groin tightly pressed against Kyle's ass; two puzzle pieces locking into place. "You should already know that."

Were you thinking about me when you were using my laptop to jack off? Feeling guilty, Kyle tried to downplay his invasive, nagging thoughts as he became lost in Stan, both of them becoming wonderfully still. 

"Don't move yet," Kyle breathed, reaching back and stroking a hand through Stan's mussed hair. "I just want to feel you for a while. I've missed this so much."

"You don't have to miss me," Stan said, kissing along his shoulder and shuddering a little when Kyle clenched around him. "I'm always right here."

It doesn't feel that way most of the time.

"I just love you so much," Kyle whispered, shutting his eyes and dissolving against Stan, almost feeling like he could break apart and become bubbles rising into the air. The sounds of traffic passed by beneath their window, ghostly and making him feel lonely, but Stan's warmth chased the melancholy away.

"I love you too," Stan replied, voice tender like a flower opening. "I always have, and I always will."

"Mm, we're going to get lost in schmaltz if you don't start fucking me, I think," Kyle said, clenching around Stan again and relishing his gasp, hot against the back of his neck. "I just love this part of it, you know? Remember when we fucked at the movies that one time? The theater was empty and -"

"You sat on my lap," Stan groaned, pulling out of him slightly before thrusting suddenly, eliciting a moan from Kyle. "We had to be so quiet, and then that usher came in, and -"

"Thank god we were in the corner." Drool was cresting over Kyle's lips now as Stan picked up a faster pace, pounding into him as they recalled the erotic escapade from their long past. "I was so happy when he finally left, but it felt so good just having you inside me, not being able to move but wanting to so badly...I felt so open, so used, but in a good way."

"You're gonna make me come if you keep talking like that," Stan said through gritted teeth, coming to a stop as he clutched at Kyle's hip, his lips settled on his nape.

"I want you to come inside me, Stan," Kyle teased, becoming playful now. "I want to feel you dripping down the backs of my legs...I want to see the come on the blanket in the morning, reminding me of how good you felt."

"Jesus, just stop. I want this to last," Stan laughed, but he sped up again, thrusting into Kyle, the moist sound filling the room; rough slaps of skin making contact. Arching, Kyle bit his lip as Stan hit his sweet spot, making him close his eyes against the sensation. "Yeah, right there, right? I can tell."

Now he was hitting Kyle's spot with every thrust, and he was burning up, his body becoming so pliable and loose that he melted against Stan's chest. Sweat stood out on Kyle's forehead and ran down his face, saturating his hair, and through the beautiful haze he could feel Stan's slick hand settling around his cock; pumping him.

"Gonna come inside you, fill you up," Stan said next to Kyle's ear, working his cock in hot strokes, up and down, up and down; squeezing just enough to make him slacken. "You want that, baby?"

Kyle mouthed wordlessly and shut his eyes, small whimpers filling up the back of his throat; moisture flooding his mouth. Swiftly, he uncoiled as he gave in completely, that gorgeous tension gathering in his body as he came in Stan's hand, fierce little spurts that wracked his body. The tension that had been plaguing him seemed to escape through his orgasm, and he was nearly shivering when he felt Stan exploding inside of him, a hot wetness pouring down his skin that made him bite his lip. He was dripping with Stan's come, how he loved that sensation.

"Is it wrong that I kind of like feeling like your slut when we do this?" He asked, trying to catch his breath as Stan gently pumped through his orgasm, soft strokes making Kyle's ass shake a little. "Like, I want to be covered in you, Stan. Is that bad?"

"Is that a real question?" Stan asked, voice ragged as he rested his sweaty forehead against the curve of Kyle's shoulder. "Like, that's super fucking hot. What guy wouldn't want to hear that?"

"Dunno," Kyle sighed, running a hand through his sweat-drenched curls. He was happy that the window was open and winter air was seeping into the room, cold like fresh water and reviving him. "I just don't want you to have a bad opinion of me."

"I never could," Stan said, kissing his neck before nibbling softly on Kyle's earlobe. "God, you've been in a pensive mood lately, dude. I thought going to work would help with that."

"I guess I'm cursed," Kyle replied, glancing at the clock and groaning. "God, it's so late and I know I'm going to have a hangover tomorrow. I already know Pete's going to show up super fucking early, too."

"7 am," Stan replied, easing out of Kyle with a wet pop, the sound unbelievably dirty in the silence of the room. "Poor you."

"Wait, how did you know that?" Kyle turned over and winced as he felt Stan leaking out of him, a nice, satisfying throb coursing through his backside.

"I checked your phone," Stan replied, rolling onto his back and pulling Kyle's close, his head resting on his chest. "You left it on the counter, and it was going off when I came in." He shrugged as he drifted a hand through Kyle's hair, twirling a curl around his finger. "That dude was blowing your shit up, Kyle. Does he have a thing for you, or what?"

"I didn't tell you you could look at my texts, Stan," Kyle replied, annoyed that Stan hadn't asked first, and even more agitated at the note of accusation in Stan's tone. "You should've asked first."

"Since when do you have an issue with me looking at your phone?"

"It's just common courtesy."

Stan snorted, continuing to toy with Kyle's curl. His heartbeat, which had been slowing down beneath Kyle's ear, was beginning to pick up again.

"I have a right to know what's going on with you, Kyle. What, do you have something to hide?"

Without thinking, Kyle yanked himself away, yelping when he felt his hair being pulled; Stan's finger having been tangled in a matted curl. Sitting up, he glared down at Stan, his mood becoming ferocious in an instant.

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me right now. Are you for real?" He asked, swiftly reaching over and turning on the lamp, flooding the room with light. Stan blinked against the sudden illumination, looking fetching and cutely disheveled, sex-wrecked hair standing up every which way. Frowning, he just stared at Kyle, looking perplexed.

"What's your deal right now?"

"I just think it's interesting that you're asking me if I have something to hide while you're keeping secrets, Stan."

Now Stan looked completely lost. He raised his eyebrows.

"Huh?"

"Just checking our account balance, huh? Is that all you were doing on my laptop?" Kyle asked, crossing his arms and waiting. After a moment, a slow realization crawled across Stan's face and he groaned, covering his eyes with his hands.

"Ugh, I should've told you," he said, voice muffled as his hands slid down to settle over his mouth. He shot Kyle an apologetic look. "I kind of looked at -"

"Porn. Yeah, I already know, Stan, and I had the privilege of finding out at work while sitting across the table from Craig fucking Tucker. I was so fucking embarrassed. Why didn't you just tell me?"

"I thought you'd be mad," Stan replied, becoming noticeably uneasy. "I didn't want to fight about it, you know?"

"I've never gotten mad at you for getting your rocks off to strangers, Stan Marsh. Who the fuck are you kidding right now?"

"And now the argument begins," Stan said, sighing. "See? This is what I was trying to avoid."

"You're unbelievable, you know that? You didn't even give me a chance, you just decided you knew exactly how I'd respond and then decided to lie to cover your ass."

"Hey, I didn't lie about anything. I just didn't mention it," Stan snapped, sitting up now too.

"Lying by omission is still lying, genius. Are we really having this conversation right now?" Kyle replied, his tone becoming cold.

"Well, you haven't exactly been the easiest person to talk to the past few months," Stan replied, his voice becoming caustic as well. "You're either drinking or brooding or both...I never know what's going to set you off."

"That isn't fair," Kyle said, feeling wounded. He knew what Stan was saying was true but it still hurt, especially since he was trying to get better. "You know that isn't fair, and don't even fucking talk to me about my drinking. You promised me an incentive when I got home the other night and guess what, you were too drunk to hold up your own goddamn promise."

"Yeah, so I wanted to have a few beers after getting home from work," Stan said, rising from the bed and glaring down at Kyle. "Is that a fucking crime? I mean, I go to work every single day Kyle and I don't expect a reward for it, so why do you deserve one? It was about damn time you got out of the house."

Recoiling, Kyle hugged himself as he looked away, sudden tears burning his eyes as he studied the bedspread. Biting his lip, he could feel himself shutting down and closing off, hurt by Stan's words and their truth. It wasn't often that they argued but when they did they both had the habit of going for the jugular. Turning away, he slid off the bed and started walking toward the bathroom, his skin hot and buzzing with shame. He couldn't even bring himself to look at Stan in that moment, the weight of their words resting in the air and making it feel dense.

"I'm, uh, gonna take a shower," he mumbled, snapping on the light and bringing the bathroom into white, dizzying focus. "Just go to sleep without me."

"Kyle, wait," Stan said, his voice taking on a broken, pleading quality. "I didn't mean to say that, okay? I was just -"

"It doesn't matter," Kyle replied, stepping into the bathroom and slowly beginning to close the door. "What's done is done. I don't want to talk about this anymore."

"Dude, stop. Just listen -"

Shaking his head, Kyle closed the door completely and locked it, shutting out Stan; really, wanting to shut out the whole world in that moment. Hot tears began to roll down his cheeks as he waited for the water to warm up, and by the time he stepped under the spray he was sobbing, hands pressed against his face. He hated fighting with Stan more than anything in the world, and desperately he tried to hold onto the memory of being in his arms instead of focusing on the hard words they'd lobbed at one another, but it proved to be almost impossible. He couldn't help but feel like he was letting Stan down every single day, but to have it thrown in his face was too much to bear.

Leaning against the moist tiles, Kyle slid down the shower and came to rest on the floor where he curled into himself; face pressed against his knees. He stayed like that for a while, even after the water started to cool and the tears stopped falling, just thinking and wishing he could be anyone but himself in that moment.

-----

Kyle woke up the next morning with a throbbing in his temples, half-undressed on the couch in the living room. Cold sunlight tore into his eyes as he blearily sat up, the whine of his alarm clock in the other room shredding the early morning silence. Groaning, he tried to swallow but his mouth was so parched that his tongue felt like sandpaper, and he winced when he stood, catching himself on the couch; clutching his head. Staggering into the bedroom, Stan was a lump under the comforter that he watched with tired eyes as he shut off the alarm, restoring blissful quiet. Stirring, he glanced up at Kyle, one eye cracked against the glare falling through the parted blinds.

"Are we still fighting?" He asked, curling into the comforter and sighing softly.

"It's too early in the morning for this conversation," Kyle replied, gathering up his clothes and turning on his heel. "We'll talk later, I guess."

Shivering lightly, Kyle quickly dressed in his scrubs out in the living room, biting back nausea the whole time. Glancing into the kitchen, he saw the almost empty wine bottle sitting on the counter next to his phone, and his irritation at Stan rekindled.

"I don't want you to go to work upset," Stan said, walking into the room in just his boxers. "That's no way to start the day, okay? Let's just talk this out."

"I'm gonna make coffee," Kyle replied, walking away from him. Picking up his phone, he checked his texts and saw that Stan hadn't been kidding; there were several from Pete. He frowned and set it aside, taking a deep breath as he started preparing the coffee.

"See? He texted you like a million times, dude," Stan said, coming into the kitchen. "What's this guy's deal, Kyle?"

"How should I know?" Kyle asked, jabbing a button on the maker and listening for the telltale clicking sounds it made when it started up. Leaning against the counter, he crossed his arms and stared at the floor. "He's just trying to be friendly, Stan. What's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong," Stan replied, stopping short while clearly trying to piece together his thoughts, "is that I think he likes you, and I want you to tell him to back off."

"I can handle my own affairs," Kyle snapped, pressing a hand to his forehead to ease the ache. Opening a cabinet, he yanked out the Ibuprofen and shook some into his palm; swallowing them down with a bit of the wine still left in the bottle, more to piss Stan off than anything else.

"Oh, so now you're gonna start drinking before going to work, too?" Stan asked, running a hand through his hair. "Seriously, Kyle?"

"Hair of the dog," Kyle replied flippantly. "Like a mouthful of wine ever got anyone fucked up, and I'll thank you to stay the hell out of my phone going forward. Understand?"

"What are we even arguing about right now, huh?" Stan asked, suddenly appearing very confused and lost; his sleepy eyes wide. "Why are we both so angry? We're never like this."

"I don't know, Stan. Maybe it's because you snooped through my phone and now you're ordering me around. Oh, not to mention the fact that you think I'm a brooding, irrational fuck-up who needed to get a life, which I'm attempting to do but now you're fucking getting on my case because someone wants to be my friend. What do you think about that?"

Stan just stared at him blankly for a moment before shaking his head.

"That...that's a lot. I never said you were a fuck-up, Kyle. It's just," he sighed, rubbing his stubble-covered jaw. "God, we never talk anymore, okay? Not about anything real, and you've just been so stuck inside your head, so -"

"So you just decided to get off to other guys on the internet and then keep it from me, got it," Kyle interjected, reaching into a cabinet and snatching out a mug. He slammed it down on the counter harder than necessary, the force reverberating up his arm. "I'm glad we're on the same page now."

"Hey, listen, don't put words in my mouth. That isn't fair."

"Whatever, I don't want to talk about this right now," Kyle replied, beginning to prepare his coffee. Feeling petty, he made a point of not offering to make Stan a cup as well.

"That's just the thing, you never want to talk about anything. You just want to wander through the days in silence, being unhappy and removed. Is that what you want?" Stan asked, coming closer to Kyle; so close that his warmth seeped into the air and pressed against Kyle. Sudden thoughts of Craig's warmth came to Kyle then, but he shook them away. That asshole was the last person he wanted to think about, given the circumstances. He also didn't want to go down the road Stan was forcing him to; he couldn't deal with it.

"How did one little thing bring up so much bullshit?" Kyle asked, stubbornly stepping away so there was distance between them. He sipped at the coffee and winced when he burned his tongue. "Like, really. I was just hurt that you lied to me, end of story. Why can't you just say you're sorry so we can move on?"

"I am sorry, you know I am," Stan replied, sagging against the counter like he was exhausted. "But there's so much we need to talk about. Don't you think? You've been closed off and you drink so much, and you never write anymore. Don't you -"

"Just let it go for now, Stan. Okay? I can't do this. I don't want to do this. Not with you."

Just then, the pathetic sound of a tiny car horn could be heard drifting through the air, making Kyle cringe. Pete had certainly mastered the art of bad timing. Looking over his shoulder, Stan glanced toward the front windows before turning back to Kyle, irritation distorting his features.

"Either you set that guy straight or I will," he said, starting to move toward the door. Frantically, Kyle reached out and took a hold of his arm.

"Stop," he pleaded. "You're going to embarrass me if you charge out there in your boxers and start going off on him. Jesus Christ, stop acting like I'm completely helpless. I can handle this on my own!"

"Promise me you'll say something, then," Stan said. "Now."

Kyle bristled before he dropped his hand. Picking up his coat, he shrugged it on before his eyes fell on his heavier jacket hanging in the hall. For a moment, he considered putting it on but decided not to; fuck Craig and his meddling, anyway.

"Quit acting like a jealous asshole," he muttered, pulling his bag onto his shoulder and grabbing his hat. "I bet you only wanted to fuck last night because you saw those texts. You wanted to fucking stake your claim, am I right?"

"You're crazy," Stan said, clearly blindsided. "You know that isn't true."

"Whatever," Kyle said, going to the door and opening it. His eyes flitted to his laptop on the desk and then back to Stan. "I'll leave the laptop home today in case you get lonely. That alright with you?"

"Okay, now you're just being a dick, and you know it."

"Well, that makes two of us, doesn't it? Have a great day." Slamming the door, Kyle marched away and quickly climbed into Pete's car, refusing to look back until they had safely pulled away from the curb. It wasn't until they were pretty far down the street that Kyle noticed Pete glancing at him on occasion, expression questioning.

"Everything okay? You seem kind of tense," he asked, knocking some ash off his cigarette; cold winds filtering in through the cracked window.

"I am," Kyle sighed, throwing caution to the wind and going for absolute honesty. Guilt was already flooding him as they moved further away from the apartment, but he was still so irritated too. Stan had always had something of a jealous streak, and Kyle had thought it was hot when they were in high school, but now it just annoyed him. It didn't help that he'd been so hands-off lately, and now he wanted to get all possessive and dominant? Jesus, what was he even thinking?

"Stan went through my phone, and he saw your texts, and...." he trailed off, not sure how to continue.

Pete became noticeably still as he stuck the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

"What's he doing going through your phone?" He asked, throwing Kyle for a loop. "Doesn't he trust you?"

"O-of course he does, it's just," Kyle cut off, trying to find the words. "He has some concerns."

"Dude, I'd be pretty offended if someone went through my phone," Pete replied, turning into the Tweek Bros parking lot. He parked and shut off the car. "Am I buying this morning or what?"

Kyle could tell that Pete was trying to smooth things over, and so casually too, but he still felt uneasy. Clearly, something needed to be said, and quickly.

"Look, Pete," he started, wringing his hands and noticing that they had begun to sweat. "I've been thinking -"

"I'm sorry that Stan invaded your privacy like that, man. Especially over a bunch of silly texts. I'm sorry if I caused any trouble for you guys, I really am," Pete interrupted while giving Kyle an apologetic look, a frown on his face. "Seriously, that wasn't my intention at all. I just think it's great that there's finally somebody I actually want to hang out with at work."

Feeling deflated, Kyle's words died on his tongue as he studied Pete's face. Okay, maybe he had wildly misinterpreted this situation, he could admit that. Perhaps Pete was just looking for a friend and he didn't know how to dial back his enthusiasm, he shouldn't be punished for that, right?

Sighing, Kyle couldn't help but smile, suddenly feeling a little less weighed down.

"I get that," he said, putting his hand on the door handle, pulling it. "And it's okay, really. Stan and I have other things going on, honestly. We were both just at each other's throats, and that just happened to get thrown out there. It isn't a big deal."

"Great," Pete smiled, opening his own door. They both climbed out and walked to the entrance where Pete held the door for Kyle. Following close on his heels, they walked over to the register, where Kyle looked around for Tweek, slightly disappointed not to see him behind the counter.

"Getting another latte?" Pete asked, pulling out his wallet and bumping Kyle a little with his shoulder. "Why don't you get something to eat, too? How do you survive without breakfast, dude?"

Kyle shrugged and tried to be casual as he moved away, the smell of Pete's axe body spray particularly strong that morning.

"I'm just never hungry in the morning," he replied, noticing Mrs. Tweak coming from the back. She smiled as she approached the counter. "Morning, Mrs. Tweak."

"Morning, boys. What can I get for you?"

"Just a large vanilla latte for me," Kyle said. "Tweek isn't here?"

Her face fell a little as she worked the register, making Kyle feel guilty for asking, though he couldn't say why.

"He isn't feeling very well today, I'm afraid," she said, tapping a finger on the counter. "Craig called to let us know but I'm sure he'll be on the mend before too long." Turning to Pete, she waited expectantly as he studied the menu.

"I'll just go with what I know," he said, grinning boyishly at Kyle. "Large dark roast and everything bagel with chive and onion cream cheese."

"Extra toasted, right?" She smiled, punching some buttons on the register. "That'll be $10.27. Is it for here or to go?"

Kyle was going to speak up when Pete cut him off, pulling out his card and handing it to Mrs. Tweak.

"For here," he said, glancing back at Kyle. "We have time this morning. It isn't even 7:15 yet."

"That's true," Kyle muttered, jamming his hands in his pockets and pulling out his phone, noticing that he'd already gotten a text from Stan:

I fed the birds after you left. :( I really don't want to fight anymore, ok? I'm sorry.

Feeling equal parts tender and sad, Kyle couldn't help but smile softly as he read the text a second time. He felt bad for being so difficult that morning, and more than anything he wanted to fall into Stan's arms and feel his fingers winding through his hair.

"You look happy all of a sudden," Pete spoke up, breaking into his thoughts as he sipped his steaming cup of coffee. "Anything interesting?"

"Oh, it's nothing," Kyle said, quickly putting the phone back in his pocket, fully intending to reply as soon as he got to work and was able to be alone for a few minutes. "Stan fed my birds, is all."

"You have birds? What's that like?"

"Oh, no, they don't belong to me. I just feed them," Kyle explained, accepting his latte after Mrs. Tweak slid it across the counter. "I was in a rush to leave this morning and I forgot to fill the feeder, so he did it for me."

"That was nice of him, even after you two had a fight," Pete said, picking up his bagel plate and leading the way to a table. They sat and for a moment, Kyle wasn't sure where to look, where to put his hands. He also wasn't sure what to say, especially since he didn't want to dwell on his quarrel with Stan.

"So, um," he said, sliding his cup back and forth across the table. "Do you like, uh, taking x-rays?"

"Sure," Pete replied, putting cream cheese on his bagel. "I think it's fun, and it actually helps people, you know?"

"Hmm, is it always what you wanted to do?"

"Nah, I wanted to be a mortician as a kid."

Kyle laughed and nodded.

"That makes sense. What, did you grow out of that dream when you stopped being a Goth kid?"

Pete grinned and gestured to the bagel, eyebrows raised.

"Want some?"

Kyle shook his head before taking another drink of his latte.

"And I'll have you know that you never truly stop being goth, Kyle. You never get away from your roots."

"Oh, is that so? Well, I'm just glad you stopped wearing your hair over your face. Seriously, what was up with that?"

"You know, sometimes I still involuntarily move my head the way I used to, like my hair is still in my face? It's almost like a phantom limb thing or something." Taking a bite of his bagel, he shrugged. "God, what a weird part of my life. I seriously miss those days sometimes."

Kyle thought a moment as he toyed with his cup, trying to remember himself as he used to be; a weird little kid with uncontrollable hair and a relentless need to be the voice of reason. He could barely recall that person most of the time, almost like the memory was a dream that receded the more he reached for it. He sighed.

"I miss parts of my childhood, but there's a lot I'd like to forget, honestly."

"That makes sense," Pete replied, tearing off another chunk of bagel. "I think everyone feels that way, once we stop looking at our pasts through rose-colored glasses." He chewed and swallowed, watching Kyle closely. "If you don't mind my asking, what would you like to forget specifically?"

Kyle snorted.

"Oh, come on, Pete. You grew up in South Park, too. It's not like living here is easy for anyone, but," he became silent, thinking. Sure, aliens and monsters and their ridiculous parents had been a trial growing up but that wasn't what he was really thinking of, but he didn't want to broach the subject with Pete. Not yet, anyway. "There are just so many unknowns when you're trying to figure out who you are, know what I mean?"

"Sure, but isn't that just life? Figuring yourself out?"

"More or less, I suppose. Not that I'm doing a very good job of it," Kyle muttered, taking another sip of his latte.

"I think you're too hard on yourself," Pete replied, finishing off his bagel and wiping his mouth with a napkin, the action creating a raspy scratch as it brushed his stubble. "And it doesn't help if the person you're with isn't giving you the space you deserve."

Kyle cocked a brow, not really sure how to respond to that statement.

"What are you talking about?"

Taking a languid sip of his coffee, Pete shrugged, his eyes drifting elsewhere.

"I just think it's fucked up that Stan went through your phone. You're taking it pretty well, though."

Rolling his eyes, Kyle had to fight back the urge to tell Pete to mind his own business. It would seem that keeping Stan out of their conversation for any length of time was going to be a trial.

"He wasn't doing it to be hurtful, Pete. Besides, it's not like he does stuff like that all the time. It was just a fluke."

Pete just raised an eyebrow while giving Kyle a passive look, a look that seriously irked him; it almost seemed smug.

"Give it a rest, okay?" Kyle snapped.

"Hey, you're the one that said you and Stan are having issues in general. I'm just going off of what you told me," Pete replied, holding up his hands in a placating gesture.

"That's true, but still, I," Kyle looked down at the table, feeling so tired, his hangover pulsing in his temples despite the Ibuprofen. "I guess I just don't want to face them, okay? So, please, can we talk about anything else?"

"Fine, I'll lay off," Pete replied, tapping his cup on the table. He seemed to perk up after a second. "Okay, here's a question. Why'd you decide to come work for the clinic?"

"Aside from the fact that Bebe can be very persuasive, I guess I needed a distraction," Kyle admitted. "At the risk of sounding like a complete pretentious asshole, I was bogged down in ennui."

Now Pete raised both of his eyebrows and silence descended before he held a hand to his mouth. After a moment, he started to laugh. Kyle frowned before he shrugged, attempting to lighten up. He'd always taken himself far too seriously.

"So, I'm a pedant. I can admit that," he said, tracing a finger along the lid of his cup.

"No, I like it," Pete replied, giving him an easy smile. "So, this ennui you're speaking of, how did this come to pass?"

"Apathy, I guess," Kyle shrugged. "You know how it goes. You get into a rhythm with your life and you think you're controlling it but after a while you figure out it's actually controlling you. Before too long it becomes a rut."

"Well, at least you took a leap of faith and you're trying something new," Pete said, leaning his face in his hand. "Most people can't even do that."

"Really, I'm just hoping that all of this will help me start to write again," Kyle replied, glancing at the clock and beginning to rise. "It's getting late, we should get moving."

Pete glanced at the clock too, narrowing his eyes and sighing. He rose as well, though with more reluctance. Grabbing his cup, he gestured toward the door.

"Shall we?"

"We shall," Kyle replied, girding himself for the frozen winds as they stepped outside. Breathing deeply, he could smell smoke from distant fireplaces in the air.

"What do you like to write?" Pete asked as they climbed into the car.

Kyle had to think a moment. What did he like to write? Mostly pensive, introspective stuff that probably bored people to tears, but provided him a strange sort of catharsis. It'd been so long since he'd been lost in a story of his own making that he could barely remember what truly thrilled him.

"Drama, I suppose," he replied. "Coming of age stuff, too."

"Can I read some of your stuff sometime? I can't write to save my life. You should see some of the terrible poetry I wrote as a kid." He snickered.

Turning his head, Kyle rested his cheek against the seat and studied Pete's profile. He had a slight bump in the bridge of his nose he'd never noticed before.

"It really isn't anything worth talking about, honestly."

"I find that hard to believe," Pete said, stopping at a red light and turning to face Kyle, who quickly looked away so Pete wouldn't realize he'd been staring at him. "Weren't you published?"

"How'd you know that?"

"Bebe told me."

Kyle groaned. Bebe had always had a big mouth, so he couldn't be too surprised at this turn of events.

"I just got lucky."

Accelerating, Kyle could hear him sigh heavily over the hum of the little car.

"You never give yourself any credit, do you?"

"As a general rule, no."

"Well, maybe you should start." Pulling into the clinic's lot, Kyle could see that Bebe and Craig's cars were already there and he sighed, choosing to ignore Pete's comment so he could begin fortifying himself against the day ahead.

"It begins," he said, climbing out. "Back to being Craig's coffee bitch."

------

After Bebe let them into the building, Kyle was able to part company with Pete and retreat into Craig's little corner. To his relief, Craig wasn't anywhere around but he'd left his silver coffee mug on the counter. Thankfully, there weren't any condescending post-it notes accompanying it, which Kyle took as a step in the right direction, more or less. Feeling less reluctant than the day before, he picked up the mug before taking a quick look around, once again admiring the lovely bird sketches before he made his way to the break room. He began making that morning's brew and was in the process of pulling his phone out of his pocket to answer Stan's text when Craig strode into the room, startling him.

"Can I make a request?" He asked, ignoring the way Kyle stared at him, wide-eyed. "Make the coffee stronger than usual this morning, okay? I really need a pick-me-up."

"Sure, I can do that," Kyle replied, adding more coffee to the basket. He glanced at Craig, one eyebrow raised. "Rough morning?"

"Yeah, I barely got any sleep last night so I decided to go for a run before coming in, you know, just to clear my head," Craig said, dropping into one of the chairs at the table. He sort of sprawled out, lanky limbs casually draped as opposed to his usual manner of sitting very stiffly, back ramrod straight. His hair looked slightly moist like he'd just showered a short while ago, and the stubble on his cheeks was longer than usual; blue violet shadows marring the skin beneath his eyes. "Now my ass is dragging."

Kyle hesitated for a moment before speaking, not really sure if it was his place to question anything Craig said, but he decided to throw caution to the wind. He also chastised himself for regarding Craig like he was somehow older than him, like he was his superior.

"Everything okay?" He asked, picking his coffee cup up and taking a sip.

Craig glanced at him and he frowned deeply, his eyes coming to rest on Kyle's Tweak Bros cup. All at once, his posture changed, and he was crossing his arms and straightening up.

"You and Pete have been pretty chummy, I've noticed," he said, taking Kyle by surprise. "How's that working out?"

The sounds of the coffee maker working filled up the silence while Kyle tried to formulate a response. He also noticed that Craig's eyes never seemed to waver from the cup as he shifted to place it back on the counter.

"I mean, it's fine," he said, not really sure why it even mattered. "He's been really cool about giving me rides and -"

"That raises an interesting point, one that I've been pretty curious about, actually," Craig interjected, finally pulling his gaze from the cup and looking in Kyle's eyes directly. "If you need rides to work, why isn't Stan driving you, and also, don't you have your own car?"

"Why do you care?" Kyle asked, immediately going on the defensive as he bristled. "And I never said that I needed rides to work, Pete just offered because Bebe was making a big deal about me walking in the cold."

"Well, she should, you could die of exposure out there if you aren't careful," Craig replied, crossing his legs now.

"Now you're just being dramatic," Kyle replied, turning his back to him and beginning to pull out the supplies for Craig's coffee. "It isn't that cold outside, and to answer your question, although I don't know why I should, I don't have my own car. I don't want one."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"It makes perfect sense," Kyle said through gritted teeth. He ripped a packet of Splenda open with vicious satisfaction. "I hate driving. I hate being beholden to something as stifling as car ownership."

Surprisingly, he heard Craig begin to laugh behind him, and then he whipped around to glare at him.

"You did not just say that, did you?" Craig asked, continuing to laugh, one hand covering his mouth.

Narrowing his eyes, Kyle decided to make a slight jab of his own, knowing in his own small way how to get Craig's goat.

"I saw Mrs. Tweak this morning, by the way," he said, casually lifting the cup so it was in Craig's line of sight again. "She said Tweek wasn't feeling well today. Is that what was keeping you up last night?"

A muscle in Craig's jaw jumped before he looked down at the floor, some of the tension seeming to leak from him inexplicably. He nodded his head, and the look of resignation on his face made Kyle feel guilty for being so petty.

"It was a long night," he replied, simply. "A very long night." Glancing up, he studied Kyle for a moment. "It looks like you had a long night too. Am I wrong?"

Not wanting to go into the details of getting wasted on the kitchen floor and then being woken up to some pretty great sex, Kyle turned back to the coffee pot, which was finally full; the brew emitting its rich, dark scent into the air. He certainly didn't want to talk about the fight he'd had with Stan, not with Craig, anyway. Not with anyone, really. He was starting to see Stan's point about wanting to pass the days in silence; it just seemed like so much effort to open up. What was the point?

"I hope Tweek's okay," he murmured, picking up the pot and beginning to pour the coffee into Craig's mug. "Mrs. Tweak seemed pretty worried."

"I imagine she is, not that she really understands what's going on. She always seems to think that she knows what's best for her son, but she doesn't; not at this point. She isn't there for the day-to-day stuff but I am." Craig sighed deeply, sounding muffled when he spoke next. "It's just a constant battle, you know?"

Something in Craig's voice made Kyle take pause as he set the pot back, once again not sure if he'd be stepping over a line if he asked Craig to explain what he meant. He was also starting to feel confused by Craig's character. On the one hand, he seemed completely closed-off, but there were other times, times like this, where he let little things slip through; his emotions finding a chink in his armor and coming to light. He found it all very perplexing.

"Either way, I'm sorry," Kyle said, going to add the cream and deciding not to pry. If Craig wanted to elaborate, that was his choice; he didn't want to overstep any boundaries.

"You don't need to be sorry, Kyle," Craig's voice spoke up very close to his side now, making Kyle jump; not expecting it. Startled, his hand upset the mug and it toppled off the counter, shattering into a million pieces and splashing Kyle with searing hot coffee. He gasped before he dropped to his knees, not even thinking before trying to gather up the shards with his hands, feeling completely humiliated; heart buzzing in his chest. Glancing up, he saw that Craig had silently made his way across the room and was standing very close, gaping down at Kyle as he frantically tried to scoop up the shattered china.

"Jesus, stop, don't touch them, for Christ's sake!" Craig yelled, kneeling beside him and taking a hold of Kyle's hands so he could pull them away. Wincing, the shock was starting to wear off and Kyle sucked in a breath when the burns started to throb. Swiftly, Craig turned Kyle's arm over, his eyes widening at the sight of blood trickling from a deep gash near the inside of his wrist.

"Your cup," Kyle said, feeling slow and stupid. He looked at the scattered remnants and waited for Craig to go off on him, nearly cringing. The blood was sluggishly oozing from the wound and falling onto the floor, dime-sized droplets marring the white tiles and mixing with the coffee.

"Come on, let's get you cleaned up," Craig murmured, gently helping Kyle rise from the floor and leading him toward the door. "And don't worry about the cup, okay? I have more coffee mugs than I know what to do with."

-----

Kyle kept his eyes focused on a riot of brightly-colored animals parading across the wall the entire time Craig patched him up, trying not to focus on the throb from his burns or the cut on his wrist. For whatever reason, Craig had led him to the room usually reserved for pediatric patients but he didn't complain; if anything, he welcomed the distraction of the garish decorations. Wanting to appear stoic and unaffected, he bit the inside of his cheek when Craig rinsed the cut with water and washed it with soap, a grim expression on his face.

"Well, it's not as deep as I thought it was initially," he said, flicking his eyes upward and catching Kyle's. Under the fluorescent lights, Kyle noticed minute flecks of green scattered among the grey. "So, you won't need any stitches, thank goodness."

"That's a relief," Kyle sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm not exactly a huge fan of needles."

"I don't really know anyone who is," Craig replied, dryly. With a soft touch, he began dabbing Kyle's wound with ointment, smirking suddenly. "You should see Tweek when he has to get blood drawn, he almost falls to pieces."

"I don't blame him." An unexpected tingle coursed through Kyle's skin when Craig's gloved hand held his arm loosely, and he was once again taken aback at just how gentle Craig could be. It just seemed to go against the grain of his personality, but it was almost like he became a different person when he was doctoring. He cleared his throat as Craig began to wind a long length of gauze around his arm.

"So, what made you want to become a doctor, anyway?" He asked, watching with interest as Craig snipped the gauze and secured it with some tape; hands deft and sure. Closer up, he could see how dark the shadows were beneath Craig's eyes, and he felt guilty, knowing he was keeping him from the coffee he clearly needed.

Glancing at him, Craig cocked an eyebrow before he started winding more gauze around one of the burns on Kyle's forearm, having already rinsed it with cool water.

"The money," he said, simply, a sudden hint of his spicy cologne wafting under Kyle's nose.

Kyle just stared at him, feeling weirdly disappointed but not sure how to articulate it. All at once, Craig cracked a smile as he snipped the gauze again and secured it with more tape.

"I'm kidding," he said, flicking Kyle's leg. "If you must know, it's because I wanted to help people, as cliche as that sounds."

"That's...that's actually really nice," Kyle admitted, his heartbeat rising out of nowhere when Craig knelt before him. He started to pull up his pant leg, eyes narrowed as he studied Kyle's leg for more burns. Dragging a finger down his skin, his eyebrows knitted together.

"You sound surprised," he said, rolling Kyle's pant leg back down. After a moment, he patted his calf. "No damage there, by the way. It looks like it mainly splashed on your arm."

Kyle nodded while appraising Craig's handiwork, the bandages neat and very secure.

"I'm not necessarily surprised," he said, watching as Craig removed the gloves and threw them away. He went to the sink and began to wash his hands. "I just like that you went into your profession because you wanted to do some good. I wish everyone had that sort of motivation."

"Me, too," Craig replied, coming to stand before Kyle. He crossed his arms as he looked him up and down. "Believe me, I've met plenty of doctors who started practicing because they wanted the prestige. Or the power, of course." He frowned as he continued to study Kyle.

"What? What's wrong?" Kyle asked, looking down at himself.

"You'll need to change your shirt, right? You can't possibly wear that for the rest of the day."

Kyle shrugged, feeling helpless.

"I don't have another scrub top, Craig. I mean, I guess I could ask Pete if -"

"You can wear one of mine. I always have extras," Craig cut in, already turning for the door. "Wait here."

Now Kyle really didn't know what to make of Craig's behavior, and he had more questions than ever regarding his relationship with Tweek. He couldn't say that he didn't still consider Craig abrasive, but he was proving to be likeable enough at times - when he wanted to be, of course.

He runs so hot and cold, he thought as he glanced down at his bandages again, vague aches creeping through his arm. I'm not even sure how I'm supposed to react to him half the time.

When Craig returned, he was holding two teal-colored scrub tops. He handed them to Kyle.

"There, those should do, and now you'll have a spare," he said. "Oh, Pete was asking about you, by the way. I let him know you'll make a full recovery." He smirked. "He was very relieved, I must say."

"He's a nice guy," Kyle replied, lamely. Holding up one of the tops, he averted his eyes when he spoke next. "Thanks. For everything."

"No thanks needed," Craig replied, smoothly. "This is my job, Kyle."

Now the blush was gathering in his cheeks again, and more than ever Kyle despised how pale he was. He probably looked like a lit match.

"No, I mean, for the tops and for yesterday," he glanced up to see Craig watching him, appearing nonplussed. "It was nice of you to just, you know, sit with me and take my mind off of things. It really helped."

"Oh, that," Craig said, waving a hand, almost like he'd already forgotten the incident. "It wasn't any big deal, Kyle."

"Maybe not to you," Kyle said, softly while looking down at his hands. He didn't want to continue, not entirely comfortable having another emotional exchange with Craig so soon. He shrugged instead, feeling too warm. Silence lingered in the room, broken only by the ticking of a clock. He could feel Craig staring at him, and this knowledge only served to make him feel warmer, his flush spreading down to his neck.

Abruptly, Craig cleared his throat before beginning to move away.

"Anyway, you'll need to change your dressings daily, okay? You don't need to use peroxide or anything abrasive like that. Warm water and mild soap will work just fine. Just let me know if the area starts to become hot to the touch or firm, or if you see any pus. You may need antibiotics, okay?"

"Right, sure," Kyle replied, still not looking up. It was becoming abundantly clear that the exchange they'd shared the previous day hadn't left the same impact on Craig, and this knowledge made Kyle feel foolish for even bringing it up in the first place.

"Kyle?" Craig asked, grabbing his focus once more.

"Hmm?" Reluctantly, Kyle looked up from his lap to see Craig watching him, his face inscrutable. He ran a hand through his hair, mussing its usual sleekness.

"Look, I -"

A sudden knock came at the door and Craig sighed before he opened it. Pete was waiting there, holding a mop.

"I cleaned up the break room, Dr. T. Too bad about your cup, huh?" He glanced at Kyle, a look of concern on his face. "You okay, Kyle?"

"He'll live," Craig said, curtly. "Are there any extra mugs I can use?"

"Sure, I have an extra."

"Fine. Kyle?"

Sliding off the exam table, Kyle looked at Craig expectantly, the scrub tops pressed to his chest.

"Once you're done changing, grab me some coffee, okay? And don't forget, two Splenda and -"

"Vanilla creamer. Right, I know," Kyle snapped, cutting him off. It didn't take long for Craig to return to the status quo. "I'm pretty sure I can retain that small amount of information, Craig."

Craig just smirked before brushing past Pete, who was watching the exchange closely, his light blue eyes slightly narrowed. Coming over to Kyle, his gaze fell on the bandages wrapped around Kyle's arm and his expression softened.

"I hope it doesn't hurt too much. What, did you burn yourself? I saw the coffee all over the floor."

Kyle nodded before plucking at his ruined scrub top.

"I'm sorry about your shirt," he said. "I'm just lucky that Craig was willing to let me borrow some of his scrubs." He held them up.

"Yeah, that was really decent of him," Pete replied, his voice noticeably tighter now. "And don't worry about the shirt, okay? Scrubs are designed to get dirty. No worries."

-----

The rest of the day passed in relative calm, though Kyle's arm throbbed intermittently, serving as a constant reminder of how clumsy he could be. He couldn't help it, though. He'd always been high-strung and it didn't help that Craig seemed to have the annoying habit of sneaking up on him.

"He's like a fucking ninja or something," Kyle grumbled as they were all packing up to leave. He was thankful that the clinic hadn't been particularly busy for the better portion of the afternoon, though they'd had a tiny rush an hour before closing. Heidi and Craig worked really well together, though, so they were efficient when it came to delegating tasks to the team and divvying up the patients. Kyle had also noticed that Pete and Mercedes had their jobs down to a science, especially when the day started to wane and it was getting closer to quitting time. By the time the door was locked, they were usually just finishing up cleaning and restocking the exam rooms.

"Who?" Bebe asked, gathering up the day's charts and handing them off to Butters, who carried them into the office where they were stored.

"Craig," Kyle replied, going over the day's receipts and making sure they matched the money in the register. Bebe had learned pretty quickly that Kyle was very proficient when it came to putting the day's deposit together, so she'd made it his responsibility very early on. "Like, he's constantly startling me. The first time was when I was looking at the stuff on his desk and then this morning he practically gave me a heart attack when I was making coffee. He doesn't make any sound when he walks."

"He is pretty light on his feet," Bebe said as she went over the end of day paperwork, tallying up the number of patients that had been seen that day and preparing the deposit slip so Kyle would have it when he was finished counting up the money. She cocked an eyebrow at him, appearing amused. "Why were you looking at the stuff on Craig's desk, huh? Just being nosy or what?"

"I wasn't being nosy," Kyle retorted, glaring at her. He paused and then thought a moment before going on. "Okay, yes, maybe I was being a little bit nosy, but I was curious about the bird sketches he has. Haven't you noticed them? They're beautiful."

Tapping her chin, she considered the question.

"Yes, I've noticed them, but I've never asked about them. If Craig wanted any of us to know about them he would bring it up himself. Just like anything else. You know how he is."

"Yeah, I know how he is," Kyle muttered, finishing up the deposit and slipping the money into an envelope. Looking down at his arm, his fingers strayed over the bandage covering up his cut. "Although, I have to admit I was wrong about something."

"Oh?" Bebe asked, standing. Slowly, she slipped her fluffy coat on and groaned as she closed it over her belly. "What's that?"

"You were right," Kyle said, slipping his own coat on and covering up Craig's scrub top, which was even longer than Pete's. It had a warm scent, Kyle had noticed, reminiscent of vanilla and Craig's spicy cologne. It made him wonder where he'd been keeping it. "He is a good doctor."

Bebe's eyes lit up when she heard that, flicking over to Butters as he came back into the room. Quickly, they returned to Kyle, and now she was smiling knowingly.

"See? I told you. Something seems to come over him, don't you think? When he's taking care of someone?"

Kyle nodded while placing his hat on his head. He gathered up his bag and draped it on his shoulder.

"I could tell he didn't want to hurt me," he admitted. "He seemed...softer. It's hard to explain."

"No, I know what you mean," Bebe replied. "And you're right. It's like he becomes a different person...almost like he's suddenly content, if that makes any sense."

Butters nodded in agreement as he shrugged his jacket on as well. The door to the back suddenly opened and Pete, Mercedes, and Heidi stepped into the room, all in coats and ready to go.

"Let me guess, Craig is staying behind?" Kyle asked, as they all made their way toward the door.

"Of course," Heidi said, twisting one of her diamond earrings and waiting while Bebe unlocked the door, holding it open for everyone. "Craig's a perfectionist, Kyle, and he likes to work. Can't you tell?"

"Yeah, I'm starting to pick up on that," Kyle replied. "But I'd think he'd get lonely staying in this place by himself. It's so quiet."

"Dr. T thrives on silence, man," Pete said, elbowing Kyle as he pulled out his cigarettes. It was starting to become customary for them to share a smoke after everyone had left, which Kyle was grateful for; it always helped take the edge off the day.

"Still," Kyle said, glancing back at the dark clinic, a faint light shining in a back window; Craig's little corner. "I'd be creeped out being alone in that place at night. It doesn't seem safe."

Bebe was giving Kyle a thoughtful look now, her eyes narrowed. Errant tendrils of hair were falling over her eyes as the raw winds passed through the lot; she cleared them away. In his peripheral, Kyle could see the others drifting toward their cars, clearly trying to escape the cold as quickly as possible.

"What?" Kyle asked, eyebrows raised. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

She shook her head before answering, fishing in her pocket for her car keys.

"Nothing, it's nothing." She glanced between Kyle and Pete. "You guys gonna hang out for a little bit before heading home?"

"Yeah, Kyle's my smoking buddy," Pete piped up, handing Kyle a cigarette.

"I see," Bebe said, glancing at Kyle again. "Say hi to Stan for me, okay? How's he doing?"

Kyle shrugged as Pete lit the cigarette, making sure to step back so none of the smoke would waft towards Bebe. After he'd changed and made Craig his cup of coffee that morning, he'd managed to find a moment to text Stan, though he'd kept the exchange brief. He was still feeling raw over their argument, embarrassed too, especially about the comment Stan had made about going to work without expecting a reward; that had really hurt. He'd been congenial enough when he'd replied, but things still felt so unfinished; tense. He sighed.

"He's doing okay, I guess. He's been working a lot."

"Yeah, I know. I see him around the complex all the time," Bebe said, tucking another wayward lock of hair behind her ear. "God, Kenny and I can't wait until we've saved up enough to buy our own house. I'm so sick of living in an apartment."

"I couldn't imagine buying a house at this point in my life," Kyle admitted, taking another puff on his cigarette. "I'm nowhere near settled enough for that."

"You'll get there," Bebe said, smiling. "Or maybe the white picket fence life isn't for you...I mean, it's not for everyone. I've just always imagined that's how my life would turn out, you know?"

"Is Kenny coming with you Friday night?" Kyle asked. "It'd be nice to see him again."

She nodded as she slowly started to back toward her car, shivering slightly.

"Yeah, we were lucky my mom was available to watch the kiddos. Is Stan going to come?"

Now Kyle could feel Pete watching him, his eyes practically boring into the side of his skull. He just hoped he wasn't going to mention anything Kyle had told him that morning.

"I don't know. I'll probably ask him tonight," he said, blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

"Well, either way, I'm glad you're coming," she said, unlocking her car and throwing her bag in the backseat. "I think all of this is really good for you, Kyle. Don't you?"

"It's been enlightening, at the very least," Kyle replied, catching Pete's eye for a moment. He smiled while sucking on his own cigarette, the smoke creating a hazy curtain between them. "You heading out?"

"Yeah, I'm about ready to drop, and it's freezing out here. I don't know how you two can stand it," she said, climbing into her car.

"No need to worry about us," Pete chirped, suddenly wrapping his arm around Kyle's shoulders and pulling him close, making him tense up immediately. "We're tough. Right?" He jostled him lightly.

"Uh huh," Bebe said, wryly. She shut the door but rolled the window down after starting the car. Her eyes lingered on the arm draped around Kyle's shoulders for a moment before she glanced at Pete again. "You bringing Katie along?"

Now Pete was so close that Kyle could smell the hand sanitizer on his skin, coupled with the ghostly remnants of his Axe body spray. The combination was not altogether unpleasant but he still could've gone without experiencing it. He squirmed under the weight of Pete's arm, vaguely detecting a slight tension passing through him when he heard Bebe's question.

"Nah, I'm not seeing her anymore," he replied, taking another drag on his cigarette. "She started getting weird on me."

"What does that even mean?"

"She wanted to move in together," Pete said, shrugging. Kyle covertly tried to move away but Pete's arm tightened, his fingers draped in front of Kyle's chest, long and pale. "And I told her she was moving too fast, so she decided to become a psycho. I told her we were done."

"You always do that, Pete. Anytime it seems like things might get serious, you always find a reason to break it off. Now, why is that?"

Pete chuckled a little before he finished off his cigarette, flicking it aside.

"Maybe I just haven't found anyone I really like yet. Who knows?"

Bebe glanced at Pete's arm again then locked eyes with Kyle, cocking an eyebrow delicately before shaking her head.

"Boy, you're a trip," she said, putting the car in reverse. "Try to stay warm, okay? I'll see you both in the morning." Giving Kyle one last pointed look, she started rolling up the window.

"Later, B," Pete said, waving a little before plopping his hand down again, his fingers dangling like skinny bananas. Beginning to feel confined and anxious, Kyle tried to shift as casually as possible before Pete glanced down at him, his expression questioning. "You okay?"

"Your arm," Kyle said, flushing with awkwardness.

"Oh, right," Pete said, not really seeming fazed while pulling his arm away slowly. "Sorry, Ky. You want another cigarette?"

"Nah, I'm good," Kyle replied, adjusting the collar of his jacket where it'd been mashed down by Pete's arm. Groping for something to say that wouldn't encourage another physical overture, Kyle plucked at the first thing that came to mind. "Who's Katie?"

"Oh, just some chick I was seeing for a while," Pete said dismissively. He shook out another cigarette and lit it up. "You probably remember her from when we were kids, but she used to go by Bloodrayne back then." He rolled his eyes.

"I think so," Kyle said, wracking his brain but also feeling immensely relieved at the same time. "So, you like girls?"

"Sure, and guys," Pete said, nonchalantly. "Really, I'm more attracted to personalities, to be honest. If someone gives off a good vibe it really grabs my attention. Gender isn't a huge deal for me."

"Is that so?" Kyle sighed, beginning to walk toward Carlos.

"Why do you ask?" Pete followed behind him, his cigarette perched in his mouth as he unlocked the car.

Averting his eyes, Kyle shrugged. Glancing back at the clinic, he saw that Craig's light was still burning, the sight of it breaking through the night making him feel oddly melancholy; lonely. Climbing into the car, he sagged against the seat, exhaustion saturating him. Pete slid in beside him and started the car. Once again, he angled the vents so the heat would be mostly on Kyle's side. For a moment, silence descended between them, and Kyle waited for Pete to goad him for an answer. Instead, Pete gently tapped Kyle's arm, taking care to avoid his bandages.

"Feeling okay?" He asked.

"Yeah, I think so," Kyle said, biting his lip and settling his gaze on the clinic again. Suddenly, he realized that he was waiting for the light to go out, half-expecting Craig to walk through the front door at any moment; bag on shoulder and clothed in his black jacket. Looking down at his bandages, he winced when a slight throb pulsed in his wounds, distracting him.

------

"Text me when you get home, okay? I'll worry if you don't," Kyle said as he shivered in the icy winds, his hands jammed into the pockets of his coat. Pete grinned and rested his head on his folded arms, leaning out of the car window just like usual. He looked up at Kyle, his expression almost sleepy but weirdly satisfied too, Kyle noticed. He took a step back.

"Are you sure? I don't want to get you in trouble with Stan again." He winked suddenly, making Kyle's breath catch in his throat.

"I already told you that's been handled," Kyle said, rolling his eyes. He gestured to his bag. "I'll wash your scrub top and return it to you tomorrow morning, okay?"

"Sounds like a plan. I'll be here bright and early."

"I'd expect nothing less," Kyle said, stifling a yawn behind his hand. "I never would've pegged you as a morning person, by the way."

Reaching up, Pete pulled the cigarette from his mouth before answering.

"I am when I have something to look forward to," he said, giving Kyle an innocent smile, almost like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

"What exactly am I supposed to take away from that statement?" Kyle asked, already beginning to turn away; Pete's coy smile plucking at his nerves.

"Whatever you want, Ky."

"Can you do me a favor?" Kyle asked, a bit of bite in his retort.

"Hmm?" Pete asked, perking up a little.

"Don't call me Ky, okay? My name is already short enough. It doesn't need to be any shorter."

Pete just stared at him for a moment before he started laughing, pointing the cigarette at Kyle when he replied.

"See, this is why I'm glad we're smoking buddies, Kyle. You seriously keep me on my toes."

"I'm sure I do," Kyle said, turning away completely now and heading for the stairs. "I'll catch you tomorrow, smoking buddy. Drive carefully."

"Later, Kyle! Let's grab coffee tomorrow morning, okay?"

Kyle just waved a hand in the air, not bothering to turn around. After a moment, the sound of Pete's car could be heard zipping away, the noise becoming lost in the rustle of the winds streaking by. Shivering again, Kyle's teeth began to chatter as he ascended the staircase, weariness loading him down by the time he made it to the apartment's front door.

"I'm home," he called, stepping into the foyer and beginning to shed his coat. Throwing it aside, he took off his hat and set down his bag. Stan was sitting on the floor in front of the TV, a number of beer bottles stacked around him and on the coffee table he was leaning against. He looked up and grinned, his eyes slightly bleary.

"Welcome home," he said, holding up the controller in his hands. "I dug the Game Cube out of the closet so we could play Wind Waker together. You in?"

"Sure," Kyle said, coming into the living room and silently counting the beer bottles, nearly frowning when he saw that Stan had already knocked back five. Not wanting to get into it, he slipped off his shoes and sniffed the air. "Did you cook?"

"Yeah, there's stew in there, and cornbread," Stan replied, turning back to the TV and starting the game again. After a moment, Kyle could hear Link grunting as he swung his sword around. "Where'd you get that shirt? You weren't wearing that when you left this morning."

"Oh, I had a little accident at work so Craig let me borrow some of his scrubs." Going into the kitchen, Kyle poured himself a glass of wine before he fixed himself a bowl of stew, its rich fragrance melting some of the chill still resting in his bones. He perched a bit of cornbread on the rim of his bowl before heading back into the living room. "Thanks for making dinner, by the way."

"No problem," Stan said, twisting to the side a little as he tried to maneuver Link out of a corner that he'd been backed into, enemies encroaching on him. He glanced over his shoulder for a moment, looking concerned and slightly suspicious. "You had an accident?"

Settling on the couch, Kyle shrugged before taking a long sip of wine, its acrid flavor mixing with residual notes of cigarette smoke lingering in his mouth.

"I dropped a cup of coffee today and it shattered." He held up his arm, displaying the bandages. "I got a cut and a couple burns. No big deal."

"Well, are you okay?"

"I'm right as rain," Kyle said, digging into the stew. "You know how clumsy I can be."

"Boy, do I."

"Quit being an ass." Kyle took a big bite, nearly sighing when the stew washed over his tongue. Stan had always been the far better cook between the two of them. "God, this is exactly what I needed."

"I figured it was the least I could do after last night," Stan said, then paused. "And this morning too, I guess."

"Well, I appreciate it. I hate when we fight."

"Same." Silence passed over the room save for the game music and Link's occasional noises, both of them sinking into a comfortable stillness. Before too long, Kyle had finished his bowl of stew and was working on his second glass of wine, a buzz blurring the edges of everything; warming him. He was cuddled up next to Stan's side when his phone chirped from his place on the coffee table. Glancing over his shoulder, Stan looked at it before giving Kyle a smile.

"Am I allowed to hand it to you, at least?"

"Smart ass," Kyle said, snatching the phone up himself and turning it on. As expected, there was a text from Pete:

Home! Hope you're having a good night so far. See you in the AM, smoking buddy! :)

Looking over, Stan frowned when he read it, giving Kyle an exasperated look.

"Smoking buddy."

"Right, we're buddies, so chill out," Kyle said, quickly sending a text back:

Sounds good, dude. See you tomorrow. Glad you got home safe, by the way.

"See? Completely platonic." Kyle held up the phone for Stan to see, but he still looked annoyed. Pete was quick on the draw, though, sending a text back almost immediately:

Say hi to Stan for me. I hope he isn't still mad about me texting you.

"What the hell?" Stan asked, pausing the game and taking the phone out of Kyle's hands. "Dude, were you talking to him about me?"

Feeling uncomfortable, Kyle tried to take his phone back but Stan kept it just out of his reach, irking him. He sighed, becoming exasperated as well.

"I just told him we had an argument, Stan. What's the big deal?"

"Did you tell him I was jealous or something?"

"Not in so many words. Besides, what does it matter? You are jealous, aren't you?"

Stan just stared at him for a few pregnant seconds before he dropped the phone in Kyle's lap. Standing, he went into the kitchen where Kyle could hear the fridge door opening and closing. After a moment, he came back, another beer in his hand.

"Dude, that's like your sixth one," Kyle said, gently placing his phone back on the coffee table and ignoring it when it chirped again. "Maybe you should take it easy, huh?"

Stan scoffed before taking a long sip, clearly just to aggravate Kyle further. He gestured to Kyle's nearly empty wine glass, the half-empty bottle of wine sitting next to it.

"Really, Kyle? If I lit a match in front of your mouth right now you'd become a flamethrower. Don't even talk to me about how much I drink, okay?"

Abruptly, Kyle stood, just not having the energy in him that night to argue. Brushing past Stan, he headed for the bathroom.

"I'm going to take a shower."

All at once, he felt Stan's hand close around his upper arm, and he was being held in place. He looked down at Stan's hand then into his eyes, his brow knitted.

"Don't go, " Stan said, suddenly appearing so vulnerable, though his eyes were becoming glassy; the scleras shot through with red. "I don't want to fight anymore."

"Neither do I," Kyle said, his lip beginning to tremble. "Can't we just be nice to each other? That's all I want."

"Come here," Stan said, setting the bottle down and pulling Kyle into a tight hug, his arms winding around his back, one hand coming up to tangle itself in his hair. "I love you, okay? I'm sorry I'm a jealous asshole...I'm just not used to some random dude texting you at all hours."

"I'm sorry, too," Kyle said, sniffling while his eyes burned. "I don't want to make you worry, you know that."

"I thought I was prepared for you to make such a big change, going back to work," Stan murmured, holding Kyle even closer. "But I guess this is taking some getting used to. Now I have to share you with other people, and it's harder than I thought it would be."

Kyle laughed before pulling away, a wayward tear falling down the slope of his cheek; he brushed it away.

"I swear, you're the only person that wants me, Stan." Standing on his tiptoes, he pecked Stan's cheek. "And you're the only person I want, so."

"And it better stay that way," Stan replied, rubbing his cheek against Kyle's and sighing softly. "Go take a shower, huh? I'll do the dishes so you can just relax when you get out."

"Sounds good," Kyle said, kissing Stan's nose before turning away, but then he stopped. "Oh, before I forget, some people from work are going out Friday night to celebrate Bebe's last day before she starts her maternity leave. Will you go with me?"

Stan's face fell after hearing Kyle's question and he brushed his hand through his hair, chewing on his bottom lip.

"I wish you had asked me sooner, Kyle."

"Why? What's wrong?"

Looking sheepish, Stan shrugged before picking up his beer again. He took a short sip.

"I already promised some guys at work that I'd play poker with them Friday night. Like, we've been planning this since last week."

Cocking a brow, Kyle stared at him.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Honestly? I forgot," Stan replied, rubbing his arm. "Besides, I'm not used to you wanting to go out anyway...I didn't think there'd be a conflict or anything."

"I guess that makes sense," Kyle said, softly, looking down at the floor. He didn't want to show how disappointed he was, especially after he and Stan had just made up. Instead, he tried to play it off. "It's okay. You do your thing and I'll just see you when I get home, okay?"

"Are you sure?" Stan asked, coming over to Kyle and rubbing his cheek with the back of his hand. "I can totally cancel my plans, Kyle; I don't mind."

"Stop being silly," Kyle said, breaking away. "Besides, this is all part of the process, right? I need to stand on my own two feet again, right? And that includes being social without you."

"True," Stan said, his expression darkening slightly. "Who are you going to ride with, though?"

Almost like it was on cue, Kyle's phone chirped from the coffee table. They both stared at it, then at each other.

"You know, there's a possibility that that isn't a text from Pete," Kyle said, trying to appear coy and failing abysmally.

"Jesus Christ, Kyle, how can you be this dense?" Stan asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. "That dude likes you and you know it."

"That doesn't mean anything's going to happen," Kyle replied, turning on his heel and heading for the bathroom. Leaning in the doorway, he smiled cheekily at Stan who continued to watch him with that same dark expression.

"I'm telling you, dude, if that guy tries anything with you I can't be responsible for my actions," he said, knocking the rest of his beer back. "You feel me?"

"Yeah, I feel you," Kyle sighed, rolling his eyes. "I'll be out in a few, okay?"

It wasn't too long before Kyle had showered, coming out of the bathroom feeling refreshed and slightly drowsy, his eyelids beginning to droop as he padded down the hallway in bare feet and clad in one of Stan's old t-shirts. Expecting to hear the game, he was surprised when he was met with silence, but then the faint strum of a guitar flowed through the living room.

"Stan?" Coming into the room, Kyle stopped in his tracks when he saw Stan sitting in his easy chair, his old acoustic guitar in his hands. Looking up, he smiled, and it was so sweet that Kyle couldn't resist going to him. Reaching out, he touched the guitar like it was a relic of the past, of simpler, more carefree times. "Are you going to play for me?"

"Would you like that?" Stan asked, taking a hold of Kyle's hand and lifting it to his mouth. Softly, he kissed the knuckles before pressing it against his cheek.

Almost shivering, Kyle nearly dissolved when he felt Stan's lips resting on his skin. Sinking onto the arm of the chair, he curled himself against Stan's side, nestling his head on his shoulder.

"Please play for me," he murmured. "It's been so long."

"Would you like to hear anything in particular?"

Kyle thought a moment, his sluggish mind unraveling from wine and the weight of the day. Studying the bandages around his arm, an idea came to him.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," he said, plucking at the gauze. "You remember how to play it, right?"

"Of course," Stan said, beginning to pluck the strings. After a moment, the old tune came to life under his fingers, soft and bittersweet and nearly bringing tears to Kyle's eyes.

"Remember those days in college, a million years ago?" Kyle whispered, burying his face in Stan's hair, which smelled of cold air and clean sweat; a rugged, salt of the earth aroma he adored. "You used to play this for me all the time."

"How could I forget?" Stan asked, continuing to play so gently. "I wouldn't trade those times for anything. If I close my eyes I can remember every detail. Your old dorm room, the way it smelled...you in my old Broncos jersey."

"It's not too different from now, huh?" Kyle said, gesturing to the shirt he was wearing; yet another jersey that used to belong to Stan, though this one represented the Seahawks.

"No, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me," Stan murmured. "How's your arm? Is it bothering you?"

Kyle shook his head, ignoring the tiny twinge in his skin where the gash pulsed.

"Craig took good care of me, actually. I never thought I'd admit this, but I think he was meant to be a doctor. It suits him."

"Wow, listen to you. What's with the sudden change of heart?"

Shrugging, Kyle closed his eyes as the music continued to wash over and through him, Stan's warmth holding him like an embrace. All at once, the memory of Craig's scent came to him, ghostly cologne that clung to his clothes. He could also remember the note of sadness in Craig's voice when he talked about Tweek, but there was love there, too; he could feel it. Sighing a little, his thoughts drifted to the lonely light still burning in the clinic as Pete and Kyle had driven away, and he wondered if Craig had finally gone home, away from the quiet solitude of the clinic.

"I'm not sure," he finally replied, beginning to drift. "He's just different when he's taking care of someone. It's nice."

Nuzzling closer to Stan, Kyle kissed Stan's throat before settling his head on his shoulder again, his arms wrapping around Stan's and holding him close. After a few sweet moments of the music filling up the night, Stan began to sing, and it was like a lullaby sending Kyle off to slumber:

You know you can't hold me forever
I didn't sign up with you
I'm not a present for your friends to open
This boy's too young to be singing the blues....*

Chapter Text

The next day passed by almost without incident, which pleased Kyle to no end. The clinic was moderately busy but not chaotic, and while Pete continued to walk a fine line in terms of flirting, Kyle didn't make waves about it. He figured as long as he didn't reciprocate or give Pete any wrong ideas, things would smooth out eventually. He also couldn't be sure that Pete wasn't just being overly friendly because he finally had someone to talk to during work hours, so he gave him the benefit of the doubt. What kind of narcissist would he be if he just assumed someone being nice to him was the equivalent of unbridled lust? No, better to keep Pete at arms' length for a while and hope for the best. After all, this wasn't a permanent arrangement so it wasn't like he'd have to worry about the implications after Bebe returned from her leave.

Craig was preoccupied for the majority of the day, almost like his head was in the clouds. The dark shadows under his eyes had deepened and he was unusually quiet, even for him. The only time he'd paid Kyle any mind was when he'd brought him his coffee, and even then he'd seemed distracted. He'd smirked slightly at the sight of Kyle in his scrubs but he'd refrained from saying anything, but had asked him how his arm was feeling.

"Any swelling? Discharge?" He'd asked while sipping his coffee, one long leg crossed over the other; his foot bobbing up and down like he couldn't help himself.

"Nope, everything looks good," Kyle had replied while watching that restless foot, one hand wrapped around his wrist where the wound was safely covered beneath the white gauze. "I washed it this morning and redid the dressing, so..."

"Hmm," Craig had said before he'd turned away. He'd picked up one of the bird sketches and had studied it for a moment. "Tweak Bros," he'd continued, quietly. "Did you stop by on the way to work?"

Kyle had just nodded, his eyes lingering on the sketch before Craig had abruptly placed the picture back down in the exact spot it'd been before. In fact, he'd spent a couple extra seconds rearranging it so it had looked like it had never been moved.

"They were pretty busy so we didn't stay for very long. I didn't see Tweek, though."

"No, you wouldn't have," Craig had said, openly detaching as Kyle had watched. "Tweek's at home today."

"Then why did you ask about Tweak Bros?" Kyle had asked, confused.

Craig had just smiled but it hadn't smacked of anything derisive. He'd shaken his head, too.

"I don't know. I'm kind of tired right now." He'd leaned his head back to stare at the ceiling, his eyes almost appearing glazed. "We reached a compromise, you know."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, he agreed to stay home from the coffee shop today and I told him he could come out with us tomorrow." He'd straightened up, had popped his neck; wincing lightly. "So, that should be interesting." He'd glanced at Kyle, one eyebrow raised. "Stan coming?"

Kyle had shaken his head, one foot lifted to rub the back of the opposite calf.

"He already made plans for that night."

"Hmm, well, I'm sure Pete will look after you," Craig had said, nodding a little. "Won't he?"

"I don't need anyone to look after me, Craig," Kyle had snapped. He'd been so annoyed that he hadn't thought to ask Craig to extrapolate about his compromise with Tweek. Instead, he'd turned on his heel and had walked away, calling over his shoulder. "If there's nothing else."

Once again, Craig had stayed behind after everyone else had already finished, and the light in his corner window was the last thing Kyle saw before Pete's little car had turned a corner and the clinic disappeared out of sight. Pete was in good spirits on the way home, for the whole day, really, and Kyle had to figure it was because of the next day's impending outing.

"It's too bad Stan won't be able to go," he said while dangling out of the car window, his cigarette moving up and down every time he spoke. He had a habit of loitering after Kyle had climbed out of the car and tonight was no exception; the car idling in front of the apartment building. "But I'm sure we'll have fun, anyway."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," Kyle replied while stifling a yawn behind his hand. "I can't believe my first week is almost over. It feels kind of surreal."

"Think you'll be able to handle things okay when Bebe's gone?"

"More or less, I think. That is, if Craig stays off my case, like that'll ever happen." He rolled his eyes while tugging at the gauze on his arm. His wounds had started to throb over the course of the day, but he had to admit he'd been weirdly touched when Craig had asked about them. Before he'd started acting like a dick again, of course. "I've been meaning to talk to you about him, by the way."

"Oh?" Pete asked before plucking the cigarette out of his mouth, having taken a shallow puff.

"Yeah, have you noticed that he and Tweek have," Kyle stopped short, trying to find the right way to phrase his question. "They have kind of a weird relationship, right?"

Pete just stared at him, light blue eyes widening a fraction. Kyle noticed that he had really thick eyelashes, almost like he wore mascara.

"What do you mean?"

Kicking at the ground, Kyle shivered as the chill stole inside his jacket and pressed up against his skin. What did he mean exactly? Did he really think Craig and Tweek had a weird relationship or was he just responding to Craig's bizarre, off the cuff comments about his relationship? It's not like he'd seen the two of them interact very much, but something just seemed off.

"I don't know," he finally said, shrugging. "I just get this weird vibe when Craig talks about Tweek. It's almost like he's talking about his kid and not his husband."

Silence settled between them while Pete continued to suck on his cigarette, the smoke wafting upward toward the white moon and low-hanging stars that almost resembled glittering pieces of fruit.

"I don't know what to say," he replied, flicking the cigarette away. "To be honest, I've never really paid the two of them much mind. I mean, I'm cool with Dr. T for the most part and Tweek seems nice enough, but I don't really make it a point to stick my nose where it doesn't belong. That's just asking for trouble."

Now it was Kyle turn to stare at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Dude, seriously? You're constantly asking me questions about my relationship."

"Yeah, well, you volunteered the information, Kyle, so of course I'm going to take an interest. Besides, aren't we becoming friends? Isn't that what friends do, show concern for each other?" Pete smiled innocently, his chin propped on his folded arms as continued to hang out of Carlos' window.

Kyle snorted before dragging a hand over his mouth, suddenly feeling even more tired.

"You're good at rationalizing things, aren't you? And, what, are you saying you aren't friends with Craig? You've worked together for years."

"Dr. T's my boss, man. I don't think of him as a friend, that'd just be weird. It's not like we have anything in common, not really." Pete smiled wider now, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "And, yes, I'm very good at rationalizing things...within reason, of course."

"Ugh, I don't know why I brought this up in the first place. You're right, it really isn't my business and it's not like I'm friends with Craig either. Why the hell do I even care?"

"Good question," Pete replied, tapping his chin. "Maybe it's because you're kind of nosy?"

"Well, there's the pot calling the kettle black," Kyle said, coolly. Turning on his heel, he waved over his shoulder. "Be safe going home, okay? Text me when you get in or I'll -"

"Worry," Pete said, an obvious smile in his voice. "See you in the morning, dude. Sleep tight!"

Not looking back, Kyle trudged up the stairs as he chastised himself for broaching the subject of Tweek and Craig with Pete. He should've figured he wouldn't really get anywhere with him, or with anyone at the clinic, really. They all seemed content to stay out of Craig's affairs which Kyle could hardly blame them for. Craig had always been very adept at keeping people at arm's length, not encouraging familiarity or open discourse with regards to his personal life. It was almost like Craig had created an impenetrable force field around himself, and while everyone was aware of it, they didn't feel the need to talk about it. This knowledge just confused Kyle further. If his employer was so hellbent on keeping people out of his bubble, why did he keep throwing small comments out for Kyle to ponder over? Was he being baited?

"I'm home," he said, feeling subdued as he slipped his shoes and coat off. Hanging his bag on the hall tree, Kyle walked into the living room to find Stan sacked out on the couch, a couple beer bottles sitting on the floor beside him; an open bag of potato chips settled on his chest as he slept soundly. His t-shirt was pushed up slightly, exposing his tanned belly, and Kyle's eyes lingered on the patch of skin for a moment. A sudden feeling of raw, inexplicable need welled within him, and before he could stop himself Kyle was coming over to the couch and kneeling beside it.

"Stan?" Placing his hand on Stan's soft skin, Kyle's fingers drifted downward to settle on his belt buckle. Slowly, he began to undo it before he unzipped Stan's jeans, where his hand cupped his warm, boxer-covered cock. He squeezed it lightly, a rush of moisture filling his mouth as his own erection started to stir. For whatever reason, he was craving a warm closeness; Stan's mouth on his body while he held him tightly.

Groaning, Stan's eyes fluttered open, heavy with sleep and almost appearing afraid when they came to rest on Kyle, who smiled down at him cheekily.

"Hey," he said, still stroking Stan's cock. "How was your day?"

Shifting slightly, Stan sat up slowly, pulling himself away from Kyle's busy hand. Looking around, he seemed disoriented as he considered the room, his gaze flitting across the beer bottles before meeting Kyle's once again.

"My head is killing me," he said, rubbing his forehead. "What time is it, anyway?"

"A little after 8," Kyle replied, standing and beginning to gather the bottles; cheeks burning from being rebuffed. "Are you hungry?"

"Not really." He smacked his lips before looking down at his crotch, eyebrows raised. Quickly, he glanced at Kyle. "Dude, were you -"

"Forget it," Kyle snapped before turning and carrying the bottles into the kitchen. "You need Ibuprofen?"

"Sure, yeah," Stan said, sitting up and propping his arms on the back of the sofa as he watched Kyle. "I guess that's what we get for falling asleep in my chair last night." He laughed lightly, but it seemed forced. "My neck is all fucked up now."

"Hmm," Kyle said, bringing him a bottle of water and the Ibuprofen bottle. "I thought it was nice."

Stan gave him a look while popping the top off the bottle of pills.

"It was nice, Kyle. I'm not disputing that. I'm just saying, we're not 21 anymore, you know? I can't sleep in weird positions anymore without feeling like crap the next day."

"Dude, we aren't even 30 yet. Stop acting like we're both ready for a nursing home," Kyle said, going back into the kitchen to make a sandwich. He was going to put in some effort and almost reached for the Gouda and roast beef when he decided that it wasn't worth it. Instead, he slapped some blackberry preserves and some peanut butter on the bread and called it a day. Pouring himself a glass of wine, he watched Stan out of the corner of his eye, the faint stirrings of irritation taking the place of the affection he'd craved just moments before.

"So, how was your day?" Coming into the room, he settled in the easy chair, his legs folded beneath him; toes flexing inside of his socks. He took a sip of wine and leaned his head back, a cramp in his neck making him sigh softly; he rubbed at it absentmindedly.

"It was a day," Stan replied. "Nothing more, nothing less. How about you?"

"Same," Kyle said, taking a small bite of his sandwich. He offered it to Stan, who shook his head. "I'm falling into a routine there, I guess. The work is easy, it's just getting used to the people that's taking some time, which makes sense, I suppose."

"Craig still riding your ass?" Sitting back, Stan folded his arms behind his head, his jeans still wide open in the front and distracting Kyle terribly. He also flushed at Stan's choice of words, though he couldn't really fathom why.

"On occasion," he replied, setting the sandwich aside and plucking up his wine glass again. Swirling its contents, he debated whether or not he should bring up Craig and Tweek to Stan. It couldn't hurt, right? Stan was usually pretty good at providing insight. "But I can live with that because that's just Craig. What has me confused is how he talks about Tweek."

Stan gave him a questioning look, eyebrows raised.

"What has he said?"

"It's just a bunch of little things, now that I think about it," Kyle said, sipping the wine like it was a cordial instead of the cheap white zin he always bought. "Like, Tweek told me that Craig would never let him work at the clinic and then Craig seemed upset that Tweek was helping out at the coffee shop. And then, today, he said something about reaching a compromise with Tweek."

"A compromise?"

"Yeah, he got Tweek to agree to stay home from working at Tweak Bros today in exchange for getting to come out with us tomorrow night. Doesn't that seem strange to you?"

Brushing a hand through his hair, Stan thought a moment, his expression pensive. Kyle tried to focus on that instead of Stan's plaid boxers, still on full display.

"Yeah, it does," he agreed. "Very strange, actually. What do you think's going on?"

"I can't even speculate," Kyle replied, shrugging. "And just the other day, Tweek's mom said something about him being home sick...and when I asked Craig about it he just said they had a really long night." He paused, remembering how tired Craig looked, the bags under his eyes. "He looked pretty wrecked, too."

"Craig? Wrecked? Wow, I can't even imagine that," Stan replied, eyes wide. "He's like, obsessed with appearances."

"Yeah, I think that's part of the problem. They could be having major problems and no one would ever know because he wants to maintain this perfect facade."

"Well, to be fair, none of this is really our business, is it?" Stan asked before peering at Kyle closely, almost incredulously. "Why are you so interested in Craig's personal life, anyway? I thought you hated the guy."

"First of all, I don't hate him, I just vehemently dislike him, there's a difference," Kyle retorted, picking up his sandwich. "And secondly, I like Tweek, so I have some concerns. You can dislike someone and still worry for them, you know."

"You're meddling, that's what you're doing," Stan replied, grinning. "I thought you got all of that out of your system when we were kids. Kyle to the rescue, and all that."

"Would you like me better if I just looked the other way when people are in trouble, Stan?" His tone had cooled significantly, what with Stan not taking an interest in his physical advances and calling him a busybody on top of it. Stan was really batting a hundred right now as far as Kyle was concerned.

"I'll love you no matter what, brat," Stan said, nudging Kyle's knee with his foot. "I just don't think you should get involved in other people's relationships. Nothing good can come of it. Remember when you tried to get between Heidi and Cartman?"

"Yeah, they just ended up married," Kyle replied, rolling his eyes and fighting the urge to gag. "The jury is still out on whether or not that's a tragedy; only time will tell." He thought a moment, becoming even more agitated. "You sound like Pete, by the way. He told me almost the same thing."

Proving once again that Pete was the king of ill-timed texts, Kyle's phone chirped in his pocket. He groaned, trying to ignore Stan's narrowed eyes while he pulled it out. Biting his lip, he read Pete's text while feeling Stan's gaze heat up the side of his face:

Home! Can't wait for tomorrow, smoking buddy. This week has been super long...I need to unwind a little, lol.

Glancing at Stan, Kyle quickly responded before plunking his phone on the coffee table:

Same. Glad you're home okay. See you tomorrow morning.

"Let me guess, you still haven't set up healthy boundaries with that guy. Am I right?" Crossing his arms, Stan pursed his mouth in the annoying way he had when he was fixing to go on a rant.

"Do we have to go through this every time he texts me? Besides, he told me that he's just happy to have someone to talk to at work. End of story."

Rubbing his face, Stan sounded extremely drained when he spoke next.

"Don't you find it ironic at all that you can notice all this weird shit in other people's relationships but you can't even see something when it's staring you right in the face?"

Beginning to feel cornered, Kyle started tearing his sandwich into little pieces, the jam seeping out of the bread and almost resembling gore. Suddenly queasy, he set his plate aside.

"Fine, he might have a crush on me. I can admit it but it doesn't matter. He's allowed to have his feelings just like I'm allowed to ignore them and hope they go away."

"Can't you see that that's a terrible idea?" Stan asked, pulling his hands away; cheeks red. " Not to mention stupid."

"Stan," Kyle said, an edge in his voice; jaw beginning to tighten. "You might want to stop, right now."

"I'm just -"

"Now."

"See, this is what I meant when I said you never want to talk about anything," Stan huffed. Kyle's phone chirped again and he gave it a dirty look.

"Why would I want to talk to you if you're just going to end up insulting me?" Kyle asked, standing and going to retrieve his laptop from his desk. His copy of Ethan Frome was sitting next to it, and after a moment of considering it, he picked it up as well. Coming back to the chair, he plopped down. He gave Stan a coy look. "Should I be worried about turning this thing on?" He gestured to the laptop.

"No, I think you should be worried about turning Pete on," Stan countered, pressing his lips together and looking away. "Just saying."

"Oh, please. Give me a fucking break," Kyle muttered. Opening his laptop, he went through his typical routine: checking his email, their account balance, Reddit, Facebook, and finally opened up Word, the hatefully blank document openly mocking him. Meanwhile, Stan just lounged on the couch after he'd gone to get another beer, his jeans still open but now he'd discarded his shirt too, appearing effortlessly sexy as he channel surfed.

"Just be careful, okay?" He finally said, his eyes glued to the TV screen after he'd finally settled on an old episode of The Office. "Tomorrow, I mean."

"Stan, what exactly do you think is going to happen?" Kyle asked, his hands resting on the keyboard but not moving. He chewed his lip while considering his options, but all he could seem to think about was Stan's boxers (why didn't he just take off his jeans if he was going to walk around shirtless?) and the fact that they only seemed to have sex when he wanted to do it, not when Kyle initiated things. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he was also thinking about Craig and Tweek; their inexplicable mystery just creating more questions and no answers. Somewhere, on the outskirts of his brain, he was also preoccupied with Pete's annoying ability to come up with an answer for everything.

Sighing, Kyle tucked a curl behind his ear as he sipped more wine, his sandwich all but forgotten.

"Let me set the scene for you, okay?" He said, smirking a little at the way Stan still laughed about the same jokes he'd heard a million times before. They'd probably watched The Office in its entirety ten times already. "I'll have a couple of overpriced, watered-down drinks, pick at a few fried, tasteless appetizers, and listen to people rattle on at length, regaling everyone with the same tired anecdotes they probably tell every time they go out. The evening will end before 9:30, and I'll be home, in my bathrobe, in front of the TV hours before you finally roll in...drunk as a skunk and ready to pass out. Sound likely?"

"Maybe I should just cancel my plans," Stan replied, almost like he hadn't heard a word Kyle said.

Frustrated, Kyle had to refrain from launching his laptop at Stan's face. Instead, he finished the wine in his glass and stood, going into the kitchen to retrieve the bottle.

"I'll be fine, Stan. I'm a big boy, an adult even. I can handle one outing on my own. Now, you can either accept that or not, but I'm not letting you change your plans. Do with that information what you will." Cocking a brow at Stan, Kyle polished off the bottle of wine and drifted past him; intent on checking his bird feeders before turning in for the night.

"I made sure they were full when I got home," Stan muttered, following after him. On the cold balcony, Kyle looked up at the hazy winter moon and continued to sip his wine, feeling tipsy and sleepy and warm. Suddenly, Stan's arms wrapped around him and pulled him close.

"Craig treats Tweek like a child," he commented, leaning back against Stan and closing his eyes. "At least that's the impression I get."

"Yeah?"

Kyle nodded.

"Sometimes I feel like you treat me that way...like I have no sense; like I'm helpless. It hurts my feelings."

"I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, Kyle. I just worry about you because I love you." Nuzzling Kyle's neck, Stan smelled of beer and ghostly ribbons of hours-old cologne. Sighing, Kyle sunk into his aroma as he considered his words.

"I'm sure Craig loves Tweek too, in his own way. That doesn't change the fact that he infantilizes him...the way you do to me. So, as a personal favor, can you please stop?"

"God, you're like a dog with a bone," Stan said, kissing Kyle's nape and making him shiver deliciously. "Stay out of their business, dude. I'm just saying, it can't end well."

"You should take your own advice."

"Is that a fact?"

"Yeah," Kyle said, nodding before nipping at Stan's arm; kissing it quickly to sooth the teeth marks he'd left. "I can handle Pete in my own way, so let me. Okay?"

------

"Wow, this place has really changed since the last time I ate here," Kyle commented when he and Pete stepped into the dimly-lit restaurant the next day. Looking around, he tried to remember Buca De Faggoncini as it used to be, but his memories were hazy. He could recall it having an Olive Garden aesthetic back in the day but cheaper somehow. Now it smacked of the upscale, or at least South Park's version of upscale dining; the tables covered with white cloths and candles lit at their centers. Overhead, a gleaming chandelier threw golden, muted lighting over the patrons while a small group of musicians sat on a stage next to a dance floor, the sounds of violins and piano music wafting into the air.

"Yeah, they've upgraded in the last couple of years," Pete said. Craning his head, he glanced around, clearly looking for the rest of their party. He pointed to a large table in the back corner. "Over there, come on." Taking a hold of Kyle's arm, he tugged him through the dining room while dodging servers hefting drinks and large trays. The scent of garlic permeated the restaurant, momentarily obliterating Pete's Axe body spray.

Kyle allowed himself to be pulled along as he studied the assemblage of people gathered around the table. Bebe, Kenny, Heidi, Cartman, Wendy, Token, Mercedes, and Butters were already present; all of them imbibing on drinks and appetizers as he and Pete approached. Feeling shy, he nodded when everyone greeted them cheerfully (except for Cartman, naturally), and quickly took a seat, taking note of just how close Pete's chair was when he sat as well. Covertly, he slid his chair a little further away before he picked up the drink menu and perused it.

"What are you going to have?" Pete asked, studying the drink menu in Kyle's hands. "I'm the designated driver so I won't have that much, but you go right ahead."

"Thanks for giving me permission," Kyle teased as he checked the wine list. "I'll probably just keep it simple and have the house red. What about you?"

"Whiskey neat." Pete tapped the menu. "They have my brand here, so I'm set."

"Knob Creek? I'm more of a Jim Beam connoisseur myself."

Pete grinned and squeezed Kyle's arm, his eyes darkening slightly.

"Fancy-pants, huh?"

"Hardly," Kyle sniffed before shutting the menu. "Besides, I only drink whiskey when I want to nurse a bad mood."

"I bet you listen to sad music, too."

"I do, actually," Kyle said, laughing. At that moment, the server appeared to take their drink order.

"May I see your IDs, please?" She asked, raising an eyebrow at Kyle specifically. After they presented them, she nodded her head and said she'd be right back. Before Kyle could put his license away, Pete snatched it out of his hand.

"Oh, my God, you look so young," he said, bringing it close to his face. Laughing, he held it out of Kyle's reach when he tried to grab it back.

"Will you two please get a room?" Cartman spoke up as he sipped from a Mai Tai; one arm wrapped around Heidi's shoulders. "Where the hell is Stan anyway, Kyle?"

Flushing, Kyle took that opportunity to snag his ID from Pete's hand and hurriedly stuffed it back in his wallet. Glaring at Cartman, he could detect Bebe watching with amusement out of the corner of his eye.

"He's hanging out with some of his work friends, Cartman. Not that it's any of your business, of course."

"Eric," Heidi said when he began to open his mouth, a thread of disapproval lacing her tone. Picking up a glass, she smiled at Kyle. "I'm glad you could come out with us, Kyle. It makes it feel like you're really part of the team."

"How do you like it so far, man?" Kenny asked, his arm draped on the back of Bebe's chair as he toyed with a bottle of Bud Light. "Are you gonna be okay after this one finally decides to have this baby?" Smirking, he reached out and delicately pulled on one of Bebe's long curls. She rolled her eyes.

"He's going to be just fine," she said, slurping on a Shirley Temple. Dipping her finger in the glass, she fished out a bright red cherry and tipped it into Kenny's mouth. Placing the stem between her teeth, she grinned at him. "I'll make a Star of David just for you, honey."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence," Kyle said, watching as Bebe did exactly as she said. After a moment, she pulled the stem from her mouth and showed the table her skills: a lopsided Star of David shining in the candlelight.

"That's impressive," Wendy said, leaning against Token's side. She was dressed in a black cocktail dress, her hair falling down her back in shining waves. Little pearls dotted her ears. Picking up her martini, she gestured in Bebe's direction. "Remember when you got us kicked out of that bar for trying to mix a margarita in a guy's mouth? God, you were so wild back then."

"You were pretty wild yourself," Bebe said, setting her drink down and rubbing her belly. "If I recall correctly, you were the one who wanted to dine and dash when I went to visit you in DC a million years ago."

"Well, to be fair, I was still pretty drunk at the time," Wendy laughed before languidly sipping her drink. "So you had to drive the getaway car."

"Well, this is news to me," Token spoke up, looking refined and handsome in a crisp white dress shirt that was open at the throat. "You always made it seem like you were the diligent little student during your Georgetown days."

"Oh, I was, when Bebe wasn't around to distract me," she said, winking at Bebe. "We had a lot of fun, though."

"I didn't know you went to Georgetown," Kyle said. At that moment, the server returned with his and Pete's drinks. "I wasn't very far from you, Wendy; we should've met up."

"Oh, where did you go to school?" Wendy asked, her eyebrows raised. "Stan told me you went to school on the east coast but we sort of fell out of contact before he could give me the details."

Kyle nodded, remembering the falling out Stan and Wendy went through after they broke up during the first year of college. It was around that time that Stan finally admitted that he wanted to be with Kyle and no one else; his homosexual awakening, as he called it. Kyle's awakening had occurred during high school when he and Stan had finally kissed for the first time. There was no turning back after that, but Stan had fought himself for years.

"Towson University," he said, taking a small sip of the dry Cabernet; tart on his tongue. "I have family in New York City that helped me with my tuition. I'd take the bus into the city sometimes to visit them, but I could've easily gone into DC, too."

"You should've," Wendy said, swirling her drink a little. "Being there really opened up my mind to new perceptions and ideas. I mean, I was a little intimidated at first because life out there is so different from our small mountain town, but I don't regret my decision in the slightest."

"Did you go to Georgetown too, Token?" Heidi asked, the candlelight shimmering off of her silky green dress; her hair in a simple up-do. Sitting closer to Cartman, she held a pink Cosmopolitan; a curly rind of lemon dangling off of the glasses' rim.

"Nah, I went to Duke," Token replied. "That's where my dad went, so I wanted to uphold the family tradition."

"I read one of your recent articles, by the way," Heidi said, finally taking a sip of her drink. "About staghorn kidney stones? It was fascinating."

"Really? Hey, thanks," Token said, appearing genuinely pleased. "Man, I could talk about kidney stones all day, honestly. They're like my bread and butter."

"You don't know what you've started, Heidi," Wendy said, rolling her eyes. "Because, seriously, he isn't kidding."

"Don't you treat kidney stones, too?" Bebe asked.

"Yeah, but they aren't my focus. I'm really trying to move my practice in a different direction these days. Specifically, with regards to gender reassignment surgeries and -"

"As if anyone here is surprised by that information," Cartman interjected while still sucking his Mai Tai through a straw.

"Eric, hush," Heidi chastised him. "Wendy's work in the trans community is fascinating. Not to mention, necessary; especially in a backwater hub like South Park."

Cartman was clearly gearing up to go on a tirade when Craig and Tweek finally arrived, Craig appearing mildly annoyed (as per usual) while Tweek looked disheveled but in otherwise good spirits. Pulling out the chair across from Kyle, Craig waited for Tweek to sit before he took the seat next to him. He ran a hand through his hair as he caught Kyle's eye for a moment, who quickly looked away but not before he saw Craig smirk suddenly.

"Sorry we're late," Craig said, picking up the drink menu. "Sometimes it's like moving heaven and earth to get out of the house in a suitable amount of time."

Giving Craig a somewhat petulant look, Tweek looked around the table before waving. He slid his coat off, revealing a maroon-colored sweater with a white-collared shirt beneath it.

"Hey, guys," he said. "Don't mind Craig, he's just pissed off because I'm not nearly as punctual as he is."

"When I say we need to leave by 7:30, I mean it. It's called being polite," Craig said, not bothering to look up as he continued to study the menu.

"Oh, lighten up," Tweek replied before giving Kyle a conspiratorial look; a grin quirking his lips. He seemed more animated than usual, his blue eyes wide and bright. "How's your wine, Kyle? Would you recommend it?"

Before Kyle could speak, Craig was jumping in; his tone exasperated.

"I thought we agreed you weren't going to drink tonight, duck."

"Duck?" Butters asked, having all but disappeared during the course of the conversation. He was sipping on a Coke while Mercedes sat beside him, sucking on a brightly-colored drink with a lot of fruit propped on top of it.

"Oh, it's his nickname for me," Tweek chimed in, smiling lightly. "Duckling. It's because of this mess." Reaching up, he twirled some of his fluffy, blonde hair around one finger.

"That makes sense," Kyle said before he could stop himself. Feeling everyone's eyes on him, he stared down at the table. "I mean, I saw that pop up on your phone once, Craig. I was wondering where it came from, that name."

"Well, now you know," Craig replied curtly. "All that aside, I really don't think you should have any alc-"

"You never answered my question, Kyle," Tweek cut him off with a wave of his hand. "How's the wine?"

Glancing at Craig, Kyle could hardly believe what he'd just heard. Someone actually daring to interrupt Dr. Craig Tucker? Craig's expression was icy, his jaw set, but he just stared at Kyle too; seemingly waiting for his answer. He cleared his throat before looking at Pete, whose chin was propped on his hand as he regarded Kyle with a wry little smile, clearly very amused.

"Er, it's, uh. Well, it's fine," Kyle said, feeling his flush deepen and positively loathing being the center of attention.

This is why I never fucking go out, he thought. God, I wish Stan was here.

"Well, with a glowing review like that, how can you resist?" Craig asked, snapping into charm mode when the server arrived to take their drink order. "I'll take an Old Fashioned." He turned to Tweek, one eyebrow lifted. "Well?"

Tapping his chin, Tweek seemed to consider his options before pointing at Kyle's wine glass.

"I'll have what he's having."

"Very good, sir," the server said. "May I see your ID?"

"Oh, damn," Tweek said, patting his pockets. "I think I forgot -"

"Here." Pulling out his wallet, Craig produced a card and showed it to the server before she nodded and left. Putting it back, he patted Tweek's hand lightly. "I had a feeling you were going to forget your wallet. I also had a feeling you were going to want to drink, too. I wasn't wrong, was I?"

"You rarely are," Tweek said stiffly. Picking up the regular menu, he bit his lip as he looked it over.

"So, what'd we miss?" Craig asked as he glanced at his own menu. Sitting back, he draped an arm behind Tweek, resting it on his chair.

"Well, among other things, we got to hear about Wendy's sex-change operations," Cartman said while stuffing a breadstick into his mouth that he'd slathered in marinara sauce. "Believe me, it was fascinating."

Craig gave him a cool look before lowering his menu. Glancing at Wendy, Craig reached up and placed his hand on the back of Tweek's neck, squeezing softly. Tweek didn't move away as he continued to read the menu.

"It is fascinating," Craig finally said, his eyes sliding to Cartman. "It's revolutionary, actually. What, you don't agree? Let's hear your expert opinion on the subject."

Dabbing at her lips with a napkin, Heidi nudged Cartman before he could speak. Kyle was starting to notice that Heidi had grown out of her shrinking violet phase, having developed the ability to put the kibosh on her husband's inappropriate predilections. 

"Token was also telling us about an article he wrote recently," she said. "I'm sure you've read it, Craig. It was in The Journal of Urology this month."

Craig thought a moment before nodding slightly.

"Right, staghorn calcifications and your work with percutaneous nephrolithotomy. It was very enlightening."

"I'm glad you think so," Token said while Wendy lit up with a smile beside him. "I keep meaning to ask if you're ever going to, you know, branch out from urgent care. I mean, Wendy told me that your focus in school was general surgery, so I've always wondered why you aren't practicing up at Hell's Pass."

"Well, I'd like to, but the hours would be so erratic," Craig said. He took his hand away from Tweek's neck while closing up his menu. He glanced at him. "Have you decided?"

"Almost," Tweek replied. "But to he honest, I'm not that hungry."

"You have to eat, duck. You'll feel sick if you don't, especially after you take -"

"I know, I know. Just continue talking shop while I make a decision, okay?"

Sighing, Craig turned back to the group. Tweek caught Kyle's gaze for a moment before rolling his eyes.

"I just saw a niche that needed to be filled in this town, you know?" Craig asked while loosening his tie slightly. "I was tired of hearing people complain about not being able to get in to see their primary. I think if someone needs quick medical attention, or really, any medical attention, they shouldn't have to wait on the back burner."

"It is a real issue," Wendy agreed while scooping the olive from her drink; she popped it in her mouth. "And the referrals you've sent my way have been great, Craig. I feel like we're really starting to make a difference in the community."

"Well, that's what medicine is about, right? Making a difference? Trying to improve quality of life?"

"Speaking of life," Wendy said, grinning and nodding at Bebe. "How effaced are you, huh? Has your OB told you?"

Bebe groaned while cracking a piece of ice between her teeth.

"Barely at all," she replied, leaning her head on Kenny's shoulder. "Which is crazy, honestly. By this point in my pregnancy with Liam I had already had my bloody show and I was at 60%."

"Effaced? Bloody show?" Butters asked, looking slightly pale.

"It's pregnancy lingo, sunshine," Mercedes said, patting his shoulder kindly.

"Effacement is the thinning of the cervix and bloody show is losing your mucus plug, Butters," Craig said. On that note, the server arrived and grinned widely at the table while setting Craig and Tweek's drinks down.

"Everyone ready to order?"

"I was," Cartman muttered before setting down his half-gnawed breadstick.

"Oh, hush. It's all just a part of the process, babe. I'll take the linguini with clam sauce," Heidi said. "Oh, and another Cosmo, please."

"Excellent choice. And you?" She glanced at Cartman.

"Lasagna. And another Mai Tai."

One by one, she went around the table. By the time she made it to Tweek and Craig, Craig was all prepared.

"Chicken piccata, please." He handed her his menu. "Duck, you ready?"

Looking up with wide eyes, Tweek shook his head. Craig sighed softly.

"How about mushroom ravioli?" He asked, gently taking Tweek's menu from him and handing it to the server as well. "You've always liked that in the past."

Tweek just nodded while slowly sipping his wine. The server wrote the order down on her pad before turning to Kyle and Pete.

"Seafood Alfredo," Pete said. "Oh, and a Coke." He tapped his glass and leaned closer to Kyle. "Gotta keep a level head while everyone else drowns in spirits, huh?"

Craig snorted at Pete's words, making Kyle feel weirdly warm. Brushing a hand over his mouth, he suddenly realized he just didn't have much of an appetite, but that was usually the case when he was trapped in the throes of attempting to be social.

"Chicken Caesar," he said. "And more wine, please."

"Just get a bottle," Pete said, tapping Kyle's thigh under the table and making him squirm. "It's not like you have to drive."

Pulling at his collar, Kyle just shook his head. Looking up, he was horrified to see Craig and Tweek staring at him now. Craig appeared amused, one eyebrow cocked, while Tweek looked perplexed, his eyes drifting between Kyle and Pete; rapid like twin botflys.

"I'll be back with your next round of drinks shortly," the server said before smiling widely and turning to depart.

Shifting away from Pete slightly, Kyle took a long pull from his wine glass.

"I saw your mom the other day," he said, looking at Tweek. "She told me you weren't feeling well. I was sorry to hear that; how are you doing now, if you don't mind my asking?"

Tweek waved a hand and leaned forward, his cheeks a healthy carnation pink.

"I don't mind at all. I'm actually feeling a lot better, thanks." Picking up Craig's hand, he pressed the back of it to his lips. "Craig took care of me, like always."

"Did you have a cold?" Wendy asked, craning her head forward so she could catch Tweek's eye. "There's a nasty bug going around."

"Oh, no. Nothing like that," Tweek replied, smiling. "I was just -"

"Shouldn't you take your medicine?" Craig interjected, tapping Tweek on the nose. "I'm afraid you'll forget if you wait until after dinner."

"I won't, but okay. If that's what you'd like me to do, Craig." Brushing at his mouth with his napkin, Tweek began to rise while looking around the group. "If you'll all excuse me, I'll go take care of this in the restroom."

"Just go, duck," Craig sighed, picking up his drink. "We'll still be here when you get back."

Tweek opened his mouth but snapped it close, shaking his head slightly before walking away. Craig took a sip of his cocktail, his fingers tapping on the table and creating a muted thud that only served to make the tension swell that much more. After a moment, the small band began to play a slow, romantic song.

"Oh, I love this song," Wendy commented while pressing a hand to her chest. "Token, will you be a dear and dance with me?"

"Why not?" Token grinned, standing and offering Wendy his hand.

"We'll be back in a few," Wendy said, taking a hold of Token's arm as they made their way to the dance floor, already dotted with swaying couples.

"Honey?" Heidi glanced at Cartman, who merely looked exasperated.

"Fine," he sighed, getting to his feet after polishing off his drink. "Let's go."

Kenny nudged Bebe playfully and gestured to the floor. She glanced at her belly then back at him and shrugged.

"Sure you won't mind leading a semi around the floor?"

"Oh, hush. You're beautiful," Kenny said, helping her from her chair. He glanced back at the stragglers still seated at the table. He cocked an eyebrow at Butters. "Dude, are you going to ask that girl to dance or not?" He nodded his head at Mercedes.

"Er, only if she'd be interested," Butters replied, worrying his hands. Mercedes just laughed.

"Come on, sugar," she said, taking a hold of his hand and tugging on it. After a moment, the table was empty, save for Craig, Kyle, and Pete.

"So, uh," Kyle said, groping for conversation and coming up with nothing. Craig wasn't exactly helping the situation, his stoic expression unwavering as he nursed his drink. Pete had drained his tumbler of whiskey and was waiting for Kyle to speak, his face still propped in his hand. Worrying his napkin, Kyle just blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"It's been pretty cold lately, huh?"

"Really, Kyle? The weather?" Craig asked, his nasally voice cranked to its maximum level of condescension. "There has to be something more interesting for us to talk about."

"I didn't know you went to school on the east coast," Pete said, covering his mouth as he spoke, but not before Kyle saw his grin. "What was that like?"

Giving Craig a dirty look, Kyle considered Pete's question. He hadn't thought about his college days in so long, but they had been mostly pleasant; especially after he'd reconnected with Stan.

"It was different," he said, running his finger along the rim of his glass; the action creating a tiny hum. "I think my parents almost did me a disservice by raising me in a small town, now that I think of it."

"Oh?" Craig spoke up, almost appearing interested. "How do you figure?"

"Well, it's almost like we live in this insulated world that's cut off from humanity. Don't you think? Like we're in a bubble or something." Shrugging, Kyle finished the rest of the wine in his glass. "I wasn't really ready for life in the big city. It was a culture shock."

"That makes sense," Pete said while Craig merely studied him, his eyes flicking to Pete momentarily before narrowing slightly. "What made you come back?"

"Stan," Kyle replied, smiling while leaning his cheek on his hand, the wine wafting through him and making him feel a little less anxious. "He went to Colorado University because he wanted to stay close to his family, and when I graduated I wanted to be with him, so...."

"You settled," Craig muttered before setting his glass down with a clunk. He crossed his arms and leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. "You should've seen what you were capable of doing on your own before moving back here to play house with your high school boyfriend."

"Excuse me?" Bristling, Kyle clenched the table until his hands ached, his knuckles whitening. Glaring at Craig, he could practically taste every insult he'd ever wanted to throw at him as they weighed heavily on his tongue. "Who the hell do you think you are saying stuff like that? You don't know anything about me, and you sure as hell don't know anything about my relationship with Stan, you -"

"Your wine, sir," the server appeared at Kyle's side then and gently set a glass before him. Clamming up, he mumbled a tiny "thanks" as she went around the table and refreshed everyone else's libations. Glancing at Craig, she smiled, but it came across as flirtatious instead of just friendly.

"Another Old Fashioned?"

Shaking his head, Craig continued to watch Kyle instead of taking notice of the server's attentions. Their eyes locked until Kyle folded and looked away, his hand clenched around the stem of his glass.

"You okay?" Pete whispered close to his ear, making Kyle feel claustrophobic.

"I'm fine," he muttered, scooting away and taking a drink. On a rational level, he knew he should go easy on the booze but he had a feeling he was going to need a buzz if he was going to survive this evening, especially with Craig on the warpath. Kyle just couldn't understand why Craig was always so harsh towards him, and why he could never seem to find his backbone when it counted. It was also incredibly frustrating that Craig could be so fucking decent when he chose to be, and then so casual with his sporadic bouts of cruelty. Nothing about him made any sense. Almost without thinking about it, he rubbed at his aching wounds and tried to focus on Craig's past kindness instead of his present hostility.

"Are they bothering you?" Craig spoke up, forcing Kyle to look up from the table and into his eyes once more. Rolling up the sleeves of his flawless dress shirt, Craig reached out and took a hold of Kyle's arm, his gentle fingers cool against his skin. "Your wounds?"

At that moment, the music of the violins and piano seemed to crescendo in a rush as Kyle's heartbeat sped up. For whatever reason, he didn't want to pull away from Craig the way he'd instinctively wanted to move away from Pete when he got too close. Instead, he studied Craig's pale hand as it held him softly, and it was almost like the room faded away, leaving only them and the music.

"No, I'm fine," Kyle said, his mouth becoming dry. "I mean, they're sore, but -"

He broke off, feeling helpless and strangely lightheaded. At his side, he could feel Pete's warmth as he drew closer, the sense of claustrophobia encroaching on him again.

"It's okay to admit when something hurts, you know," Craig said, his tone wry but not unkind. He lightly tugged on Kyle's sleeve, the gesture almost playful. "You know that, right?"

"That's bizarre, coming from you," Kyle countered, suddenly finding his voice but not taking his arm away. "I would think you'd view that as an admission of weakness. Coming from me, anyway."

Smirking, some of the ice in Craig's expression seemed to crack apart as he mulled over Kyle's words, but then his focus was pulled away. He frowned and abruptly released Kyle's arm as he stood.

"Tweek," he sighed, rubbing his mouth. "Where did you get that?"

Glancing up, Kyle noticed Tweek approaching with a drink in his hand. Seemingly ignoring Craig, he sat sideways in his chair, his legs dangling over the arm while he smiled mischievously.

"I stopped by the bar on the way back from the restroom," he replied, slurping the drink through a straw and smacking his lips. "Can I help it if someone offered to buy me a drink?"

"Who?" Craig demanded, his face hardening again. "And why did you accept it? Is that a Long Island? You know that's way too strong for you!"

Giving Craig a defiant look, Tweek tilted his chin in an impish manner as he continued to drain his glass, his cheeks flushing from pink to red. Kyle couldn't believe what he was watching, having never seen Tweek act so brazen.

"Live a little, Craig," Tweek said, swinging his legs a little. "One Long Island isn't going to kill me and besides, I already promised the guy that I would design a tattoo for him." He shrugged. "It seemed like a reasonable trade."

"How is that reasonable?" Craig asked, sitting down heavily. "A crappy drink is not enough to trade your talent for."

"He just wants a simple Celtic knot. I could draw that in my sleep."

"But, still -"

"Hey, wait. I didn't know you could draw, Tweek," Kyle cut in. Sliding his drink aside, he leaned his elbows on the table, excited now. "And you design tattoos for people? That's so cool."

"Yeah, that's impressive," Pete chimed in, laying his arm along the back of Kyle's chair. "You must be pretty good."

"I'm alright," Tweek replied, nonplussed. Plunking his drink down, he rolled up one of his sleeves to reveal a scattering of sketchy-looking birds on his skin; threaded across his arm in black ink.

Staring at them, something suddenly clicked in Kyle's brain, and before he could stop himself he was reaching out to stroke a finger over them; mind whirring. Now things made a lot more sense, and a memory stirred, of Tweek's ink-stained fingers when he'd served them at Tweak Bros a few mornings before.

"The bird sketches," he said softly while flicking his eyes to Craig's. Craig, for his part, just continued to look annoyed. "On Craig's desk. Did you do those? The snow bunting?"

Tweek nodded, but now he appeared genuinely pleased as he smiled widely.

"You like them?"

"I love them," Kyle replied, drawing his hand back. "I wanted to ask Craig where he'd gotten them, but -" he broke off, chewing his lip. "I kept forgetting. You have so much talent, Tweek. Do you sell your art?"

"Yeah, he does," Craig said, pulling the drink toward himself slowly. "And it isn't cheap either, which is why I can't fathom why he'd give it away to a sleazy stranger."

"It's mine to give," Tweek said, softly. Reaching over, he retrieved the drink and clutched it in both hands, holding it in front of his chest like a squirrel cradling an acorn. "He wasn't sleazy, by the way. He was nice."

"I've been interested in adding to my sleeve," Pete said, his voice cutting through the tension but not helping it to dissipate. "Can you draw koi, too?"

"Oh, that'd be fun," Tweek said, eyes brightening. "We have koi in our pond at home. I sketch them all the time."

"What are your prices like?"

"Reasonable, I promise," Tweek laughed. "Especially if it's for you guys. Would you like me to design something for you, Kyle? It'd be an honor."

"What, why?" Kyle asked, taken aback. He'd never been especially close to Tweek, so he had no idea how to interpret his comment.

"I can't tell you how many times I've read your book," Tweek said. He plucked the lemon wedge from his drink and squeezed it, the juice dribbling into his glass. "I have a lot of respect for your talent so it's really flattering that you like my work too. It's validating, you know?"

"Wow, really? You read my book?" Feeling warm with pleasure, not to mention shy, Kyle studied Tweek's face to make sure he wasn't putting him on. "More than once?"

"Sure," Tweek said, shrugging. "It's so sweet...it has a whimsical quality that I don't see a lot, but it isn't overly sentimental. It has a good balance." He became silent while he took another sip of his almost-finished drink. "In fact, don't you think it'd be fun to collaborate on something? Would you ever be interested in that?"

"Are you serious?" Kyle asked, still reeling from the unexpected praise, and from Tweek of all people. He never would've seen it coming, but the elation it brought him was indescribable, especially with how difficult it'd been trying to write lately. "I would love that! What, would you want to write a graphic novel or a kid's book or something?"

"The sky's the limit, isn't it?" Setting his drink down, Tweek pulled a pen from his pocket and flipped over a cocktail napkin. He began to write quickly. "Here's my number. Hit me up if you ever want to give it a try, okay?" Grinning, he pushed the napkin across the table.

Picking it up, Kyle was charmed to see a snow bunting sketched below the numbers, plump and cute as it sat on a branch.

"Why don't you sign your stuff?" He asked, carefully beginning to fold the napkin. "Or is it just because you gave the sketches to Craig?"

"Nah, I don't sign most of my drawings," Tweek said, swiftly beginning to sketch something on the back of yet another napkin; brow knitted. "It doesn't seem necessary. Unless I post it on the internet or whatever."

"Believe me, we've had this conversation before," Craig said, still appearing on edge. "Tweek's never been very focused on protecting his interests."

"No, that's your job, isn't it?" Capping his pen, Tweek studied the napkin for a moment before nodding and sliding it across the table toward Pete. "It's rough, but what do you think of that?"

Glancing over, Kyle examined the drawing along with Pete. It depicted a koi fish with swirling fins, and he couldn't help being impressed that Tweek had drawn it so quickly; capturing small details with effortless ease.

"This is perfect," Pete said. "Make it just a little bit bigger, of course, but other than that it's exactly what I want." Nudging Kyle, he pushed the drawing in front of him. "What do you think?"

"I like it," Kyle said. "You can just tell how weightless it is." Looking at Tweek, he noticed that he'd tucked his pen behind his ear and had gone back to his drink, which was practically empty at this point. "Do you just design tattoos, or can you do them, too?"

Scrunching up his nose, Tweek shook his head.

"No, I've never been interested in that part. I don't like that much physical contact. Besides, I'd lose my mind if I screwed up on someone's skin. My anxiety just won't let me go there." Setting his glass aside, he reached out and picked up his wine.

"Babe, come on, we haven't even eaten yet," Craig said.

"Jesus, can you give it a rest, please?" Tweek snapped, almost making Kyle jump at how swiftly his demeanor changed. There was a slight slur in his voice as he stared daggers at Craig, his hand noticeably tightening around his glass. "Stop nagging me, Craig. Sometimes I feel like I'm not even allowed to breathe when you're around."

Exchanging a nervous look with Pete, Kyle picked up his own drink and took a slow sip, more to shift his focus elsewhere than really wanting it. Now there was no question about it, something was definitely going on between Tweek and Craig, though he had no clue what it could've stemmed from.

The tiniest bit of color lit up Craig's usually pale cheeks as he shifted in his seat, and it was almost like Kyle could watch his invisible walls going up as he crossed his arms and looked away. His posture stiffened dramatically, offsetting his loosened tie and somewhat mussed hair. Not for the first time, Kyle couldn't help but notice the dark circles under Craig's eyes.

"Fine, do what you want," he said, a note of finality in his voice.

"Thank you," Tweek said, taking another sip. "I don't know why you worry about everything anyway. I can handle myself."

A pang struck Kyle when he heard those words, realizing that some of his recent exchanges with Stan had sounded eerily similar. Feeling uncomfortable, he nearly yelped when he felt his thigh being squeezed beneath the table. He looked up to see Pete watching him, his eyebrows raised as he jerked his head in the direction of Tweek and Craig.

"What the fuck?" He mouthed, his eyes widening.

"I told you," Kyle mouthed back while casually crossing his legs, Pete's hand dropping away.

It was at this point that the succession of romantic songs the band had been playing finally stopped, and the people on the dance floor stilled, clapping politely as they drifted back to their respective tables. Saying a silent prayer of thanks, Kyle couldn't be happier that everyone else returned, providing a much-needed buffer from the tension gathering between Tweek and Craig, not to mention Pete's increasingly familiar overtures. He was even more grateful when the server returned with their food not too long after, a pleasant quiet settling over the table as everyone began to eat. He picked at his food, still not having much of an appetite, focusing instead on keeping his distance from Pete and finishing his wine.

"I think I'll have one more," he said, spearing a piece of chicken and studying it before setting his fork down. "Wine, I mean."

"Don't you like your food?" Pete asked, his own plate quickly emptying.

"It's fine, I'm just not that hungry." Signaling to the server, he ordered another drink.

"I'll take another as well, please," Tweek said, pushing his raviolis around, eyes cast downward. He seemed lethargic but keyed up at the same time, which struck Kyle as being a very bizarre combination; bordering on impossible.

A little wrinkle appeared in Craig's forehead at Tweek's words but he stayed quiet while meticulously slicing his chicken, his table manners almost painfully precise. He glanced at Tweek's plate, frowned, and then sighed, his eyes meeting Kyle's for what felt like the millionth time that night. They seemed restless, frustrated.

The evening waned on and seemed to smooth out, everyone wishing Bebe, Heidi, and Cartman lots of luck, which made Bebe start to cry, her tears encouraging Heidi to join in.

"I'm just so happy," Heidi said, dabbing at her eyes with her napkin. Leaning into Cartman, she rested her head on his arm. "Aren't you, Eric? Can you believe we're going to be parents? I feel like I'm caught in a dream or something."

Showing a surprising amount of empathy, Cartman wrapped his arm around Heidi's shoulders and pulled her close. He kissed her forehead, his lips lingering for a moment.

"I'm just sorry it took us so long to get to this point," he said, softly.

"But we made it," she said, smiling at Bebe who appeared wilted and spent. "Didn't we?"

"You're going to be great parents," Craig spoke up. He pushed his plate away before reaching under his chair. He drew out a gift bag. "Here, by the way. Just a little something."

Handing the bag to Heidi, she reached inside and drew out a gorgeous afghan. It was a soft, shimmery yellow.

"It's beautiful," she breathed, holding it against her face. "Is it handmade? It has to be."

Craig nodded, a smile finally taking some of the tension from his features.

"My sister likes to crochet," he explained. "So, I asked her to whip something up for you. I would've given it to you at the shower but she hadn't finished it yet."

"I love it," she said, cradling it in her arms, no doubt imagining the baby that would soon be swaddled in its folds. "Isn't it lovely, Eric?"

Cartman just grunted, but the soft look on his face spoke volumes on his behalf. He picked up a corner of the blanket, his expression almost becoming dreamy. For a moment, Kyle could barely recognize him. Finishing off his wine, he yawned as he set his glass down, sudden weariness making his eyelids feel heavy.

"Tired?" Pete asked, tapping Kyle's arm.

Kyle nodded, his eyes falling on Pete's hand. Biting his lip, he tried to keep his voice low as he leaned closer to him.

"I need to talk to you before we leave, okay?"

"Oh?" Pete asked, clearly pleased. "Did you want to smoke?"

"Sure, we can do that." Moving his arm out of Pete's reach, Kyle rubbed the back of his neck, trying to piece together what he was going to say. He knew the time for looking the other way when it came to Pete was coming to an end, but he really, really didn't want to have this conversation. He hated this sort of confrontation, and the last thing he wanted to do was hurt Pete's feelings. He was also feeling irritated too, because the whole thing could've been avoided if Pete would just take a hint and tactfully back off, but clearly Kyle's silent signals weren't getting through to him.

"I think I'm going to call it a night," Bebe said, pushing herself away from the table. She looked swollen and uncomfortable, her belly so large that she couldn't bend forward when standing. Instead, she had to awkwardly push herself up on the arms of her chair while Kenny gripped her elbow, gently heaving her into a standing position. Looking around, she smiled at the group while Kenny helped her into her coat.

"Thanks for coming out, you guys. I can't tell you how much it means to me."

"We'll miss you," Craig said. "It'll be strange showing up on Monday and not seeing you, of course, but enjoy your time off. You've certainly earned it."

"I'll keep that in mind when I'm fully dilated," Bebe said, wryly. "But, thanks. I'll miss all of you, too. Kyle?"

He glanced up, having risen from his place to pull on his own jacket.

"I really appreciate you stepping in while I'm away. You're a lifesaver."

"Don't mention it," he said, ducking his head when he felt himself becoming the focus again. "I'm glad to do it."

Amidst the flurry of everyone pulling themselves together and figuring out the bill, Kyle couldn't help but notice the lingering distance between Tweek and Craig. That didn't stop Craig from attending to Tweek, though, who remained quiet as Craig helped him into his jacket and took hold of his arm when he staggered a little. There were numerous empty glasses left at Tweek's place, his face flushed from alcohol while his eyes drooped from spirits and fatigue. Before too long, the group had broken apart and everyone was making their way for the exit, Pete sticking very close to Kyle's side.

"Well, that was interesting," Pete said while pulling his cigarettes out of his pocket. Shaking a couple out, he handed one to Kyle. "I think I'm starting to see what you mean about Dr. T and Tweek, by the way."

Nodding, Kyle allowed Pete to light his cigarette, taking a couple of puffs. He sighed as they walked across the parking lot, the winds having finally abated and leaving the night less raw than usual. The sky was unbelievably clear, the stars so close that Kyle could see them wavering; nearly trembling.

"What do you think's going on?" Kyle asked, blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth. It drifted toward the sky, toward the pulsing, white stars.

"Honestly? I get the impression Dr. T's trying to control Tweek the same way he controls everything else. Things always need to be just so." Coming upon Carlos, they skirted around the small car and leaned against its diminutive trunk. 

"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you, but that's not the impression I got," Kyle admitted. "I mean, you saw how much Tweek drank. I think Craig just wanted him to exercise a little restraint."

"Yeah, but Tweek is a grown man, right? He should be able to make those decisions for himself, especially if he doesn't have to drive home afterward." Drawing closer, Pete grinned down at Kyle, their upper arms brushing now. "His offer was pretty cool, though. About working together? Are you gonna take him up on that?"

"I don't know. I'm tempted." Moving away, Kyle took a long drag on his cigarette, the smoke making his lungs burn until he almost wanted to gasp. Apprehension was plucking at his nerves now, both from the events of the evening, being social, and having to finally tell Pete that he needed to take a step back, that the flirting was becoming excessive. Biting his lip, he stared at the ground, at the shimmering, blue-white ice frosting the lot. Reaching out, he cracked some of it with his shoe, the noise snapping in his ears like kindling being broken in half.

"I just want to write again, without obsessing about every single word I put down," he said, stepping down on the ice again and relishing in the way it broke apart. "I want to be seduced by a story, you know what I mean?" Looking up at the sky, he took in the sight of the full moon, swaying through throngs of stars. "When I wake up in the morning, I want it to be the first thing I think about...what I'm going to write next."

"What inspires you?" Pete asked, stepping up beside him and beginning to crush the ice with his sneakered foot as well. He smelled of lingering Axe and cigarettes, whiskey and the leather of his jacket. In the lights of the parking lot and the moon above, he looked handsome and almost predatory, with his dark hair and eyes in shadow. Suddenly, Kyle could almost imagine kissing him and taking him home for the night, if Stan weren't in the picture, if he wasn't so preoccupied with -

"Wait," Kyle said, moving back and crouching next to the tiny car. Reaching out, he took a hold of Pete's jacket and pulled him close, placing his finger against his lips.

"Kyle, what -"

"Shh," Kyle hushed him, moving his finger from his own mouth to settle on Pete's. "Listen."

Voices broke through the night as the pair huddled against the car; familiar and filled with anger.

"We agreed you weren't going to drink," Craig was saying, his voice becoming louder as it came closer. "You promised me, duck. Why couldn't you just refrain for one night; one fucking night?"

"No, you decided I wasn't going to drink," Tweek's thick, slurred voice floated to them now. "On your own. You're always doing that...making decisions and then acting like we made them together."

"You know that isn't true," Craig snapped. The sound of a car being unlocked accompanied his voice. "Just get in the car, okay? I don't want to argue with you."

"No, you just want to order me around," Tweek replied, his voice slightly muffled now. All at once, the sound of retching could be heard and then moans. "Oh, god, Craig. I don't feel good...I think I'm..."

"Come on, baby. It's okay. Just take deep breaths. Here."

"I-I'm sorry...I just...I just," Tweek began to sob, his voice breaking apart as he started retching again. "My brain is so loud. I can never get it to shut up, unless..."

"Don't talk anymore, duck. You don't have to explain yourself to me," Craig replied, his voice so different than usual; tender, fragile. Kyle almost felt like it was going to break apart before it reached his ears.

"Is it okay if I lie down in the back? My head is spinning." Sounding almost like a child, Tweek seemed to be fading away as every second passed.

"Of course. Here, let me put my coat down so you can lay your head on it." Silence descended for a moment, then Craig could be heard, his voice indulgent, almost fatherly. "Your medicine makes you nauseous even when you don't drink, Tweek. Why do you have to pull the lion's tail, huh?"

There was more retching and then the sound of soft laughter, so out of place that it struck Kyle as being exceptionally disturbing.

"I didn't take it," Tweek replied, continuing to chortle.

"What?"

"I didn't take that poison. I hate it," Tweek seethed, an edge developing in his voice that was sharp as a knife. Just the sound of it made Kyle shudder. "And I hate you, Craig. I hate you when you're like this."

Now the quiet stretched on until Kyle sagged against the car, the cruelty of Tweek's words making the night seem colder. Pete's warmth, his closeness, didn't provide respite, though. If anything, it made him want to run, to hide.

"Just get in the car, duck. You're splitting. That's all this is. You know that."

"Keep telling yourself that," Tweek replied, but his voice was fading away now, becoming softer. A car door being slammed shut rung through the night and before too long, an engine rumbled to life. Shortly, Kyle could hear the car pulling away, its tires rolling over chunks of ice and rock, a crunching noise announcing the Jag's departure.

Hugging himself against the evening's chill, Kyle retreated into his mind as he tried to make sense of what he'd just heard. Craig's indulgence, Tweek's cavalier cruelty; all of it. Pete lit up another cigarette, leaning close to Kyle while he idly puffed; clouds of acrid smoke circling them.

"I always thought they had the perfect marriage," Pete commented before flicking some ash off of his cigarette. "When the mask falls off it really makes a thud, huh?"

"There's no such thing as a perfect relationship," Kyle muttered, thinking of just how much he loved Stan, but, yes, even they had their issues; plenty of them. "Maybe they were just having a bad night. We don't know the whole story."

"Weren't you the one who said they have a weird relationship?" Pete asked, turning his head and letting the smoke waft from between his lips. "You were right, man."

Shutting his eyes, Kyle shook his head, trying to clear his mind; trying to forget the exchange he'd just heard.

"I didn't want to be right. God, they sounded so..." he trailed off, not sure what to say, at least not to Pete. It had seemed so easy when Tweek told Craig he hated him, but it shouldn't have been so simple, so effortless. A declaration like that should be difficult; excruciating. Shouldn't it?

"Hey, it's okay," Pete said, taking a hold of Kyle and squeezing him, his large hand nearly circling his arm. "I'm sure they'll be fine, okay? You're right, they were probably just having a bad night."

Feeling sightly nauseous, Kyle nodded before opening his eyes, and more than anything he wanted to be at home, regardless of whether or not Stan was there, too. He wanted the quiet, broken only by the music he chose, along with the familiar scents of the apartment: Stan's cologne, home cooking, the winter wind drifting through cracked windows. Trying to pull his arm away, he almost felt lightheaded when Pete's fingers tightened.

"You seem unsteady," Pete commented, pulling him closer. "Are you okay? I don't want you to fall over."

"I-I'm fine," Kyle said. He tossed his cigarette away, the lit tip hissing as it met the ice. He was feeling tipsy, off-center, but he was by no means drunk. He could certainly keep his feet and his wits about him. "I'm not going to collapse or anything," he said, laughing a little though it was brittle, but he wanted to lift the tension that was quickly building inside of him; filling the moment. "You can let me go."

Pete held on, his hand locked on Kyle's arm, squeezing him. Idly, Kyle wondered if he could feel the blood rushing through his veins, the fragile bones not too far beneath his skin. He gulped and looked down at his shoes. Unexpected fear, like dark water, started filling up his chest; making his breath come faster.

"You said you needed to talk to me," Pete said, suddenly letting go of Kyle. Instead, he settled his arm on Kyle shoulders, heavy and hot; unwanted. "Penny for your thoughts?"

Kyle tried to move away in an inoffensive way, casual, a subtle shifting of his feet, but Pete didn't move his arm. If anything, it only seemed to weigh him down more. He cleared his throat, his mind racing as he tried to choose his words as carefully as possible.

"Hey, hold up," Pete said, curling his arm around Kyle's neck. "You didn't answer my earlier question, did you?"

"I didn't?" Kyle asked, trying to remember what he'd been asked, but it was so hard to concentrate when Pete was so close. "I'm sorry, I don't remember the question."

"It's okay," Pete laughed, leaning his head against Kyle's curls. "I asked what inspires you...when you write."

"Oh, yes. That's right, you did." Chewing the inside of his cheek, Kyle considered the question. He desperately wanted to pull himself away from Pete, from his arm, from the unfamiliar weight of his head as he leaned into his curls. The gesture was so intimate, something Stan would do when he was feeling tender. With Pete, it felt different; wrong. Kyle could hardly believe that the fleeting notion of kissing Pete had passed through his head, no doubt spurned by nerves and alcohol and invasive thoughts; the ones he couldn't control.

"That's a hard question to answer, honestly. Inspiration usually comes to me when I least expect it...like when I'm in the shower, or I'm spacing out while riding in the car. Sometimes it happens while I'm listening to music." He shrugged, the sensation of being smothered falling over him and making his throat flex like it was closing up. It was almost like he was drowning in that moment, and he wanted to gasp for air.

"So, when you're letting your mind wander?" Pete asked, reaching up and tugging at one of Kyle's curls. "That makes sense. What would you say inspired you when you wrote the book that got published? Can you remember?"

Warmth crept into Kyle's cheeks as Pete continued to toy with his hair, winding a curl around his finger over and over; the gesture almost hypnotizing. He wanted to run away, to scream, but he felt so heavy, so trapped. Why did he always feel so immobilized in situations like this? It was almost like he was allowing the fear of hurting Pete's feelings to override his personal discomforts.

"Stan," he said, simply. "We...we had just gotten back together and I was so happy. It was like being in love and being loved ignited something in me. I wanted to write all the time." Looking down at his hands, he could feel tears creeping into his eyes; burning them. Stan would be so angry and hurt if he could see Kyle right now, allowing himself to be touched by someone like Pete. Shame filtered into the mix because Stan had warned him, but Kyle had been so sure that he could handle the situation.

Pete snorted, his finger still winding through the curl and tugging it softly.

"Well, that explains it. Don't you think?"

Feeling himself tense slightly, Kyle could detect a derisive note in Pete's tone now, the sound of it setting his teeth on edge. Peering up at him, he cringed when Pete wound his curl just a little too tight.

"Explains what?" He asked, finally jerking his head away, though Pete's arm was still settled around his neck, holding him close. "What are you talking about?"

"Why you haven't been able to write lately. Your muse has collapsed. Isn't it obvious?"

"No, it's not," Kyle snapped, pulling away and out of Pete's grasp. He straightened his coat and righted his curls, trying to overcome how flustered Pete's words made him feel; attempting to find his footing. "What are you implying right now?"

Pete shrugged, appearing unruffled by Kyle's reaction. Finishing off his cigarette, he flicked it away before slowly walking around Kyle, making no attempt to touch him again. Instead, he circled him, forcing Kyle to turn on his heel, his back to the car. Slowly, he advanced on him, his stature unchanged but menacing all the same. Kyle retreated until he felt his back hit the small car, filling him with a small animal fear: of being cornered; trapped. His eyes widened as Pete loomed over him, his face impassive.

"Dr. T was right, wasn't he? You settled. Admit it." Shaking his head, Pete brushed his bangs from his eyes. "It's okay, Kyle, you can tell me the truth."

Kyle's rage was instantaneous when Pete asked him that, both at his audacity and the fact that Craig had made a snap judgement like that in the first place. Practically baring his teeth, Kyle leaned forward and got right in Pete's face.

"You need to back off right now, Pete. You have no right to ask me questions like that, got it? I don't have to answer to you, and I sure as hell don't need to defend my relationship to anyone. And that includes Craig." Placing his hand on Pete's chest, he attempted to push him away, thoroughly done with being polite. Enough was enough. His blood ran a little colder when Pete didn't budge. Instead, he reached up and took a hold of Kyle's wrist, fingers locked around his arm.

"Hey, calm down, okay? It was just a question," Pete said, pushing him back against the car. "You don't need to get so defensive, just relax."

All the air seemed to be sucked out of Kyle's lungs at the feeling of being backed into the car, at the way Pete's hand was clenched on his arm. Cold sweat stood up on his forehead and on the back of his neck, trickling in between his shoulder blades. Almost feeling like he was going to start hyperventilating, Kyle tried to wrench himself free of Pete's grasp, but he held on with a dogged tenacity, only heightening Kyle's growing terror.

"L-let me go," he stammered, detesting the stutter in his voice; deeply ashamed of his obvious fear. Trying to find his courage, he took a deep breath. "This is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about, Pete."

"Huh?" Pete asked, drawing even closer. Now there was barely any space between them, and Pete's scent and heat were unbearable; suffocating. "Talk about what?"

"This," Kyle replied, pushing against Pete with his free arm. "You're always invading my space, even though I've made it pretty clear that I don't like it. You need to stop. Now."

Before he could react, Pete was taking a hold of Kyle's other wrist, and his arms were being pushed up against the car; pinned on either side of his head. He whimpered and tried to thrash, fear making him want to slacken; bones turning to water. Terror dropped like a veil around his brain, making everything foggy, but his nerves were honed to a fine edge. Now everything seemed surreal and too real at the same time, throwing his perception into chaos; senses going haywire.

"Kyle, stop!" Pete yelled, his grip tightening. "I'm not doing anything to you, okay? You're just overreacting!"

"No, I'm not! Let me go!" Kyle shouted, coming unhinged as Pete's fingers dug into his skin, making him cry out from the pain. "You're hurting me, Pete! Stop, just stop!"

"I'm not hurting you," Pete said, leaning his forehead against Kyle's, their gazes momentarily locking. "Stan's the one that's hurting you, isn't he? You told me yourself...he doesn't appreciate you. You know I'm right. I mean, Christ, he couldn't even be bothered to come with you tonight. That's pretty fucked up."

"No," Kyle sobbed, turning his head away so that his cheek was pressed to the car's cold glass. "You're wrong...you don't know what you're talking about."

"Shh, just calm down, Kyle," Pete breathed, kissing along Kyle's temple and down his jawline, his lips soft but seeming to burn his skin. "You can open up to me...I can take care of you. I'll pick up Stan's slack. Trust me."

Shutting his eyes tight, Kyle moaned in the back of his throat as he felt Pete's lips, slightly moistened, move down his face until he was a finger's width away from his mouth. Crazily, his hazy brain conjured up images of Stan and also, inexplicably, Craig as he almost allowed himself to sink into Pete's designs. At the last moment, right before Pete's lips could settle over his own, he dredged up the last of his will to fight and without thinking, brought his knee up as hard as he could; connecting with Pete's groin.

The relief Kyle felt as Pete dropped to the ground was immediate, almost making him collapse too. Instead, he sagged against the car, still feeling dazed and faintly ill, nausea climbing up his throat and into his mouth. Gasping, he clutched at his pounding heart as his ragged breaths tore through his mouth, his lips feeling cracked. He suddenly realized his body was buzzing from frantic energy, his adrenaline pumping as Pete writhed at his feet, clutching at his crotch. Rage, like a snapping dragon, came to life inside of his brain as he had to hold himself back from kicking Pete in the face.

"You better never fucking touch me again," he seethed, pushing himself from the car as he staggered away, not daring to turn his back. "You said you wanted to be my friend, you fucking prick. You're unbelievable!"

Watery noises emanated from Pete's throat as he continued to lay on the ground, curled up into the fetal position. He breathed heavily, but he couldn't seem to find his voice; eyes shut. In the sickly light of a streetlamp, Kyle could see how pale Pete was, no doubt from the pain.

"We're done," he continued, backing up now; feet sliding over the slick ice. "No more smoke breaks or riding together. Stay the hell away from me, you got it?"

Not bothering to wait for an answer, Kyle finally turned away and fled across the parking lot, nearly losing his footing once or twice but catching himself clumsily. As he sprinted away from the restaurant, his heart almost felt it was going to leap out of his mouth, his blood pumping hot and fast through his veins with every step he took. It wasn't until he was a safe distance away that he realized he was crying, the tears warm on his cheeks before the frigid winds swiftly cooled them. The flavors of wine rested on the back of his tongue, bittersweet and making him gag violently, but the thing that finally made him stop was the sudden smell of Pete's body spray coupled with the whiskey that had been on his breath; residual notes of cigarette smoke creating a horrifying cocktail. The bevy of odors filled his senses and before he knew it, he had to halt in his tracks, a hand clutched to his mouth.

"Oh, God," he moaned, his eyes burning. He caught one last glimpse of the wild, wandering moon before he had to lean over and vomit the contents of his stomach into the snow-flecked grasses; his whole body heaving as he sobbed, the world descending into darkness as he closed his eyes against the pain.

Chapter Text

 I'm going to get married today
The chapel is full of flowers and sage
He'll lift up my veil and he will say
Are you sure that you love me?
Are you sure you can wait?

He cuts into the wedding cake
And licks the frosting off the blade
He cuts into our palms
Drops our blood into the lake
We stand on the bridge and give ourselves away

I can be good, I can be true

You know I don't love anyone, but I love you
I can be good, I can be true
You know I don't love anyone, but I love you

  - Chapel, Nicole Dollanganger
 


Kyle spent the majority of the night on the bathroom floor, pressed against the cold, white tiles as he nursed tremors and nausea. Upon making it home, having staggered through the evening chill for what felt like hours, he had managed to make it to the toilet before he'd begun to heave again, but it had been close. When Stan made it home hours later, Kyle was still draped over the cold porcelain as he slept thinly, covered in still-drying sweat and flitting through strange, disconcerting dreams. The dreams (nightmares, really) parted like black water when Kyle felt hands grasping him, and he had started awake with a shout, eyes frantically flitting everywhere as he came back to himself. After a moment, he managed to remember where he was and who was touching him, but the trembles continued.

"Dude, you didn't even take your jacket off," Stan said, crouching down beside him, his eyes filled with concern. He glanced down at Kyle's feet. "Or your shoes. And you're soaked through. What's wrong? Did you have too much to drink?"

Shaking his head, Kyle tried to make sense of what Stan was asking him, but he was having a hard time coming back to reality. He felt disoriented, almost like he was in a trance, and nearly disconnected with his body. He almost felt like he was floating above himself, observing someone's else's life. Suddenly, he became aware that Stan was attempting to unzip his coat, and that snapped him out of his stupor somewhat; instant fear igniting itself in his brain.

"No! Stop!" He shouted, pushing Stan's hands away. Sluggishly, he backed away until he made contact with the wall, the hard surface only reinforcing the sensation that he was being cornered again. A faint whimper eked from between his lips as he stared at Stan, almost not seeing him for a moment. "D-don't touch me," he stammered, clutching at the zipper. "I can do it myself, okay? I've got it."

Stan watched him with obvious surprise, eyes wide. He smelled of stale cigarettes and beer, his cheeks flushed no doubt from a combination of booze and the cold. Kyle noticed his expression morphing into one of suspicion as he shakily removed his coat, his fingers so clumsy that he could barely work the zipper for a few moments. Finally, he was removing the sodden garment and throwing it aside, his shoes following soon after. As he moved, ghostly hints of Pete's scent, which bordered on being animalistic at this point, would come to him and he'd have to fight the urge to gag.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong?" Stan asked. He stood, making it so Kyle had to crane his head upward. "You aren't acting like yourself."

Memories, like the tides, drifted into Kyle's head when Stan asked him this question, of Pete holding his arms, hurting him...his lips burning his skin as he forced himself on him. He shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself, wanting nothing more than to rip out the parts of his brain that held onto the images. Shaking his head, he began to rock slowly, nausea forcing its way up his throat again. There was no way he could tell Stan what happened, not with the shame eating him alive, not after he'd insisted he could handle himself. Besides, he had the impression that talking about the incident would only give it more life and help it grow, and there was no way he could let that happen. He also knew that Stan would go ballistic if he found out, and then he'd have to worry about him attacking Pete at the first chance.

"I drank too much," he said, shrugging. "I should've had better control." Worrying his bottom lip, he stared down at the floor, feeling stupid and ashamed; weak. He would've gladly accepted any comfort Stan could provide, and he knew that he wouldn't blame him for what happened, but he just couldn't let himself open up. It was all too humiliating.

"Well, let me get you some water, okay? You need to stay hydrated, especially if you're going to be riding the porcelain bus," Stan replied, clearly trying to inject some levity to offset Kyle's obvious tension. "Hey, hold up. Are you bleeding?"

Dimly, Kyle looked down at himself, feeling vaguely shocked when he saw a rusty blood trail drifting down his hand. Slowly, he pulled up his sleeve and saw that the gauze covering his wound was saturated with red. Pete had probably opened up his wound when he'd grabbed him, but Kyle had been so terrified in the moment that he hadn't noticed.

"I guess so," he said, softly. "I'll take a shower and get cleaned up. I won't be long."

"Kyle, are you sure you're okay? Something feels off about you right now." A note of pleading was winding its way through Stan's words now, only compounding Kyle's shame.

"I'm fine, I promise." Mustering up what remained of his strength, Kyle managed to get to his feet, his hand pressed to the wall; steadying him. "You know how I get when I've had too much to drink, and vomiting just wipes me out. How do my eyes look? Are they red?"

Stan frowned while studying Kyle's face. He nodded his head.

"Yeah, you definitely busted some capillaries. Here, go ahead and jump in the shower and I'll go get you some water and Ibuprofen. I'm going to assume you didn't eat very much while you were out, right? I know how nervous you get..."

"Nah, I had a couple bites of salad but other than that, I just didn't have an appetite."

"I'll make you some toast too, then. Did you want some soup? I'm pretty sure we have chicken and stars."

"That'd be nice, actually," Kyle said, finally able to smile, though it was small. "Thanks."

Reaching out, Stan gently brushed the hair from Kyle's eyes, sweat-drenched and matted. His fingers were rough but cool, and more than anything Kyle wanted to wrap himself up in Stan's arms...wanted to wear his embrace like a garment, but he turned away, his mouth sour from bile and alcohol. Going to the shower, he turned it on, the hiss of the water filling the room along with clouds of steam as it warmed up. He started to undress but stopped when he saw Stan lingering, his nerves on edge. He suddenly realized he did not want Stan to see him without his clothes on, and this knowledge almost made him start crying again.

"You'd tell me if something was wrong, right?" Stan asked, backing toward the doorway slowly.

Flushing, Kyle ducked his head as he nodded, unable to meet Stan's gaze while giving into a bald-faced lie. Pressing a hand to his mouth, he fought back a dry heave as it erupted from between his lips.

"I'll be out in a few minutes," he gasped, clutching at the towel rack so he wouldn't fall over. "Just give me a little time, okay?"

Silence, save for the water hitting the porcelain filled the air, but finally Stan spoke, his words almost getting lost in the rush of the shower.

"Okay, just tell me if you need anything." He left, shutting the door softly behind him.

Once he was alone, Kyle let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Reluctantly, he began to remove his clothes, avoiding his reflection in the mirror over the sink as he undressed. Peeling his jeans off, he shut his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at his white skin, wanting to be come lost; to disappear. Finally, he was naked and he hurried into the shower, the water already so hot that it made him gasp, his skin on fire. Grimacing against the burn, he cranked up the temperature until it was almost unbearable, the spray nearly scalding him as he stood there and allowed the water to pelt his body. It was like a million tiny daggers flaying his skin, but he didn't budge, biting his lip as he endured. In that moment, he wished that he could dissolve under the onslaught, disappear into the heat, leaving behind nothing but his dirty flesh, where the memories of Pete's touch still lingered; destroying him.

------

The next morning dawned frigid as the sun crept across the frozen landscape, the red light seeping like bloody fingers through the freshly-fallen snow. Before too long, the clouds, heavy and dense, rolled in to cover the sky, and new snowflakes began to drift down in thick droves, obscuring the horizon; overtaking the world. Kyle stood at the window in the living room, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and watched South Park disappear into the haze, his mind sluggish and slow. He hadn't slept well the night before, even after he'd finished his soup and crawled into bed to lie beside Stan, their fingers intertwined under the covers. He'd closed his eyes and he'd managed to drift, but his sleep had been broken. When he'd finally decided to give up the fight, he'd risen in the pre-dawn hours feeling even more exhausted than before he'd gone to bed.

"You have time to check the feeder before breakfast is ready," Stan called as he bustled around the kitchen, whipping up their usual Saturday morning spread: a mushroom and spinach frittata, turkey bacon, fresh fruit, and coffee. The smells wafted through the dry air, carried to Kyle on the drafts emanating from the heater, filling him with a momentary, fleeting peace. In the background, a woman's soft voice sang romantic lyrics that didn't coincide with Kyle's mood at all:

Quiet nights 'n quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar
Floating on the silence that surrounds us
Quiet thoughts 'n quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams
Climbing hills where lovers go to watch the world below together...*

Sighing, Kyle took up the bag of seed and stepped out onto the balcony, shivering beneath his blanket as the winds whipped by; cutting, unforgiving. The tiny birds had laid siege to the feeder, nearly decimating its contents, and his heart hurt for the small, helpless creatures. They were just trying to survive a merciless world. He filled the feeder to the brim, his gaze lingering on the sharp prints left in the snow from the birds, and he suddenly thought of the tattoos he'd seen on Tweek's arm. Like a landslide, this innocuous thought brought with it the memory of Pete's indiscretions, and slowly he noticed dull fury leaking into his melancholy.

"You're going to freeze to death if you don't hurry up," Stan said, coming to the door and peering out. He was dressed in his boxers and an old Colorado University t-shirt, a garment that Kyle had worn to bed countless times. He watched the sky, his sleepy eyes taking in the falling curtain of snow. "They're calling for snow all weekend."

"Gotta love living in the mountains," Kyle muttered, walking past him. "Winter seems to get longer every year."

Shutting out the chill, Stan followed him to the table, their loaded plates waiting along with two steaming cups of coffee. Taking his place, Kyle looked down at the food, his stomach already beginning to clench. Some of his discomfort must have registered on his face because Stan refrained from digging in; an unusual occurrence for him. Instead, he placed his hand on top of Kyle's and squeezed it gently.

"Something's bothering you, I know it is," he said. "Can you just talk to me? Please?"

Piano music filled up the quiet as Kyle stared at his breakfast, the fruit glimmering as juice trails leaked onto his plate. His nerves were chewing away at him like rows of teeth, his mind churning, but he still couldn't bring himself to talk about the night before. Taking the plunge, he slipped his hand out from beneath Stan's and picked up his fork. Spearing a piece of melon, he brought it to his mouth and popped it between his lips, chewing methodically as he fought against his nausea.

"Did you know Tweek is an artist?" He asked, hoping to steer Stan's focus in a different direction. "He's actually really good."

"Oh?" Picking up his own fork, Stan cut into the frittata. "I never would've guessed that about him. I just remember him as that nervous little kid that never seemed to stop shaking."

"He's still pretty unsteady, but he's not as bad as he used to be," Kyle replied. He took a slow sip of his coffee, its warmth calming his nerves somewhat. "He designs tattoos for people."

"Are you going to get one?" Stan asked, his tone teasing. He had several but Kyle had never showed an interest.

Kyle shrugged, considering the possibility.

"Maybe. Who knows?" Grinning, he picked up a piece of bacon, toying with it. "Anything's possible, right?"

"My little rebel." Reaching out, he tugged on one of Kyle's curls, almost making him recoil. Taking a deep breath, Kyle had to fight against the urge to pull away, remembering the feeling of Pete's fingers winding through his hair. Unbidden, the rage resurfaced, becoming stronger.

"He made an interesting suggestion, too," he added, taking a bite of the bacon. It laid on his tongue like a weight. He forced himself to chew and swallow, to play the part of a normal, functioning human being. "He asked me if I'd ever want to collaborate with him on a project...his drawings, my writing."

"Hey, that's a great idea," Stan said, his eyes lighting up. They were always a dusky blue first thing in the morning, almost like his light was dimmed but became steadily brighter as the day wore on; as he woke up. Kyle loved the way Stan's eyes looked when he first woke up...sometimes he felt like he could fall into them and get lost. "What kind of book would you guys write?"

"I don't know, he wasn't very specific," Kyle admitted, sitting back in his chair, his mug nestled in his hands. "He gave me his number, though...in case I decided to take him up on his offer."

"You should call him. What do you have to lose?"

Looking into his mug, Kyle couldn't help but give into negative thoughts. He hadn't written in so long, after all; the idea of working with another person was intriguing but it was also intimidating. What if he had nothing to offer, and if he did make an attempt, what if his efforts were met with scorn? What if he disappointed Tweek, himself?

"Pete made a comment about my muse collapsing," he said, trying to sound offhand, like the words had meant nothing to him. They hadn't at the moment, not really, but upon reflection, they stung. In fact, they were terrifying, because there was a certain savage truth to them. "And that's why I haven't been able to write." He smirked humorlessly, plunking his cup down. "Maybe I should just throw in the towel and write fan fiction."

 

"I thought only weirdos and perverts wrote fan fiction," Stan replied, raising an eyebrow. "Or am I wrong?"

Kyle laughed, some of his foul mood being pushed into the back of his mind.

"We're being petty," he said, idly picking up his fork and cutting a smidgen of frittata. "I've actually read some decent fan fiction, not that that's the point here."

"And who the fuck does Pete think he is, saying pretentious crap like your muse is collapsing? Who the hell talks like that, anyway?" Stan asked, stabbing a piece of fruit with unnecessary gusto.

"Presumptuous assholes, that's who," Kyle said, some bitterness making its way into his tone against his will. He cleared his throat. "You're right, though. I should call Tweek. I mean, even if the whole thing doesn't pan out, it's worth a try, isn't it?"

"Definitely." Smiling, Stan leaned his elbows on the table, studying Kyle's face. A curious expression came and went, passing through his eyes but breaking apart like ice before he spoke again. "What is your muse, by the way? I'm curious now."

"Oh, Stan, it isn't this singular entity that I can pinpoint," Kyle replied, feeling shy all of a sudden. "It's a feeling...an undercurrent, if that makes any sense."

It's love. It's you. At least, I thought it was, but now I'm not really sure about anything anymore.

The direction of his thoughts made him uneasy so he looked away, at his full plate of food, prepared with care by the person he loved the most. The fact that there were so many things in his mind that he needed to say to Stan but couldn't was very concerning to him...agonizing, really. Once upon a time, there had never been a thought in his brain that hadn't crossed the threshold of his lips, but things felt so different now. There was a barrier between them, unseen, but undeniably present. This realization frustrated him beyond measure, but this only served to tie his tongue up further. There were so many things that needed to be said that the sheer weight of them immobilized him.

"No, I think I get it," Stan replied, breaking into Kyle's thoughts. "I know I can't understand completely because I don't write, but it's fitting that inspiration is this intangible, elusive force. It must be really frustrating."

"You have no idea," Kyle muttered. He bent his legs so his feet were perched on his chair, his knees drawn to his chest; he rested his cheek on them. Gazing at Stan, he reached out and took a hold of his sleeve, a thread of vulnerability making him crave the contact. "I love you. You know that, right?"

Wordlessly, Stan leaned forward and brushed a kiss on Kyle's cheek, the small gesture conveying everything unspoken. The ability to achieve silent communication, understanding, put Kyle at ease and he relaxed, a small pang of hunger finally breaching his nausea. Lifting his fork, he placed the bit of fritatta between his lips, chewing slowly.

"Tweek and Craig are having problems," he announced. "I knew something was off, but last night confirmed it."

Stan blinked, appearing taken aback.

"Well, that was an abrupt turn, but now that it's out there, you might as well give me the details."

"There's just so much tension between them, even though you can tell they care about each other, but they seem to resent one another at the same time." Kyle paused, chewing his lip. "Tweek even told Craig that he hated him, and he said it so easily...almost like it wasn't the first time. Don't you think that's awful?"

"I think people say stupid, thoughtless things when they're upset," Stan replied, rolling a grape around his plate with his finger. "Even we're guilty of that."

"Don't remind me," Kyle retorted, recalling their latest quarrel. "What is it you said to me? That it was about time I got out of the house, and that I shouldn't expect -"

"All that aside," Stan cut in, waving a hand, "you're probably taking what you heard out of context, Kyle. Besides, hate is just a word...it's a person's actions that matter the most."

"That's fair, but a person's words usually convey what's in their heart, especially when a person is drunk. And Tweek was obliterated, Stan...I had no idea he could drink so much."

"Reminds me of someone I know," Stan said, looking away innocently. Looking back, he held up his hands when he saw the scowl on Kyle's face. "I'm just kidding, dude. Lighten up."

"I will when you stop acting like an ass," Kyle snapped. Rubbing his eyes, he sighed. "I think Tweek's sick. They kept talking about his medication, and then he told Craig he didn't take it...that he hated it. What do you think it means? Have you heard anything about Tweek being ill?"

"Not a word," Stan said, polishing off his coffee and wiping his mouth with a napkin. "And that's some really personal, serious shit, Kyle. Stay out of it. None of this is our business."

"You always say that."

"Yeah, because I'm right. Focus on yourself. Good things are finally happening for you...a new job, you're breaking out of your rut, you're putting yourself out there. Hell, you might even start writing again. You should call Tweek today...get the ball rolling." Standing, Stan picked up their mugs and carried them into the kitchen. He filled them with more coffee. "I'm just glad Bebe actually listened to me when I suggested you take over for her at the clinic."

Kyle sat up at these words, having never expected to hear them so suddenly.

"You gave her the idea? Why didn't you tell me?"

Stan shrugged, coming back over.

"I see her all the time at the complex, so we talk pretty often, and she kept complaining about her job, so, I mentioned your name. You love fussy, meticulous stuff, Kyle, so the job sounded like it was right up your alley, and I was tired of seeing you -" he broke off, almost appearing guilty.

"Tired of seeing me what?" Kyle asked, becoming annoyed at his hesitation, not to mention being in the dark - again.

"You just seemed sad all the time, and lonely, even though you'd never admit it. I figured you could use a change of pace, we both did. I was right, wasn't I?"

"Well, yeah," Kyle conceded, "but why didn't you talk to me about it?"

"We've had this conversation, Kyle. You're not the easiest person to talk to these days."

"Well, neither are you," Kyle said, thinking of Pete again and almost shuddering. "And you're always doing this, have you noticed? Just not telling me things?" He started listing the incidents on his fingers. "Let's see, there was the porn situation, your poker game, and now this. Is there anything else that I should be aware of while we're catching up?"

"Christ, it's like you're an expert at turning a simple conversation into a staff meeting," Stan grumbled. Rolling his eyes, he threw up his hands. "Fine, I didn't want to spring this on you, but I got called into work. Some of the pipes froze in one of the buildings because of this fucking cold snap, and -"

"Don't bother," Kyle said, pushing away from the table. "Just go, okay? I'll find something to occupy my time with while you're gone, so don't worry." He snorted. "Not that you would."

"That is such bullshit and you know it," Stan replied, pushing himself up too. "I only talked to Bebe about the job because I was worried about you, but nice try. If you're mad about that, it's because you just want to be mad without having a good reason. That isn't my fault."

"Fine, that's fair," Kyle said, holding up his hands. "And I'm not even mad about you getting called into work because I know that's beyond your control, but I can't help being irritated about you keeping me in the dark about so many things...and not even important things; stupid little things. Incidentals. It's infuriating."

"Have you ever realized just how inaccessible you make yourself, huh?" Stan countered, an edge creeping into his tone. "It's like you're this fucking island and no matter how much I try to reach you, I just can't. You do this with everyone, Kyle. You pull them closer with one hand while pushing them away with the other."

"Oh, please," Kyle scoffed, turning away and crossing his arms, hugging himself. Once again, he had to admit Stan had pegged him, and he hated it. But he couldn't help but feel like he was making excuses so that Kyle was to blame for all their issues, instead of shouldering some of the load; accepting his part in things. Groping for something to say, he blurted out the first thing his mind touched on.

"If I'm so inaccessible, why are you always pushing me away when I want to have sex, huh?" Turning back to Stan, he relished the look of surprise on his face; eyes wide.

"What? What are you talking about? I don't do that."

"Oh, yes you do, Stan. Whenever you want to have sex, we have sex, but if I initiate anything and you're not in the mood, you brush me off. Do you have any idea how hurtful that is? It makes me feel so ugly...especially after I had to catch you watching porn on my fucking laptop."

Raking his hands through his hair, Stan was beginning to look wild, like he was coming to the end of his patience. All at once, he was advancing on Kyle, the look on his face making him feel decidedly uneasy; his heart pounding painfully in his too-tight chest.

"W-what are you doing?" Kyle asked, backing up, putting up his hands, almost like he was expecting to be struck.

"You want to have sex, then let's have sex," Stan replied, reaching for him. Before he could touch Kyle, he skirted away, bile already rising in his throat. "What are you doing? Why won't you let me touch you?"

Phantoms aches rose in Kyle's limbs as he retreated, pulsing in his wrists...in every place that Pete had touched without permission. The sensation of being pinned against the car, held down, powerless, encroached on him, and before he knew it, Kyle was clutching at his head, his breaths becoming erratic as he tried to bring himself back to the moment. Pete's scent forced its way up his nose, even though he knew that it couldn't be in the room with them...that it had to be miles away, left in the cold when he'd fled, but somehow it was there, almost like it had become its own entity. He gagged and leaned over while propping his hands on his knees, digging his fingernails into his skin, the pain almost providing clarity but not quite.

"I knew something was wrong," Stan said, keeping his distance but still too close for Kyle's comfort. "Talk about keeping someone in the dark." Sighing, his voice was soft when he spoke next, careful. "Kyle, what's going on? Just talk to me, baby, I'm right here. Let me help."

"I-I don't need your help, I'm fine," Kyle said, straightening up, his hands pressed to his face. "I can take care of myself. I'm not a child...I'm not a child."

"No one said you were," Stan replied, his eyes widening, almost becoming afraid. "Where is this coming from?"

"Forget it. Just go to work and I'll...I'll," trailing off, he looked around frantically for an out. Noticing his phone on the coffee table, he plucked it up, relieved that he'd put it on silent. "I'll call Tweek. You said it was a good idea, didn't you? Well, here I am, listening to you for once."

Turning his phone on, Kyle pressed the back of his hand to his mouth when he saw several texts from Pete, all of them begging him to respond, that he apologized for overstepping his boundaries; pleading with him to forgive him. There were also numerous missed calls, one right after the other. He couldn't say that he was surprised that Pete had contacted him, and so fervently, but that didn't make it any easier to handle.

"Hey, are you okay?" Stan asked, pulling him from his thoughts. "You look really pale all of a sudden."

"I'm fine," Kyle said, turning on his heel and heading for the bathroom, where his pile of discarded clothing waited in the hamper. Pulling his jeans out, he dug out Tweek's number from the pocket and came back, showing the napkin to Stan. "Here's Tweek's number." Pointing to the snow bunting, he even managed to crack a tight smile. "He drew that for me. Isn't it good?"

Sighing, Stan glanced at the napkin before rubbing his mouth, his posture slackening like sudden tension was leaking from his muscles.

"I think it's great that you're actually going to call Tweek, dude, but you're all over the place right now. Will you please calm down and just let me know what the hell is going on? You're really worrying me."

"Maybe later," Kyle said, quickly dialing the number and holding the phone to his ear. "I'm busy right now. See?"

"Kyle, seriously -"

"Tweek, hey! I hope I didn't wake you up," Kyle interrupted, taken aback to hear Tweek answer on the second ring, his voice crackly when he eked out a tiny "hello." Ignoring Stan's look of concern, Kyle turned away and went to the sliding glass doors, watching as the snow continued to fall.

"You did, but it's okay," Tweek replied, his words raspy, like they were being dragged across sandpaper. "What's up?"

"Uh," Kyle said, feeling foolish for not having a response ready, for being so impulsive. Scrambling, he decided to wing it. "So, I was, uh, giving your suggestion more thought and I..." he drifted off, watching as the winter birds came to feed, their plumage bright against the backdrop of white: vivid reds, muted browns, dusky blues, the latter reminiscent of Stan's eyes. "Well, I'm interested, I guess. So..."

"Really? That's great!" Now Tweek sounded more alive, animated, which put Kyle at a reluctant, tenuous ease. "Did you want to come over today so we can talk about it? Or I can come to you, whatever works, honestly."

"Whoa, that's pretty sudden," Kyle said, having not expected things to start moving so quickly. Glancing at Stan, he saw that he was still watching him with open concern; his lips tugged into their worried pinch; pursed. "But, sure, yeah. I'll come to you, if that's okay."

"Of course it is. Here, I'll give you my address. You ready?"

"Let me get a piece of paper. Hold on." Passing Stan, Kyle grabbed a pen and pad from the junk drawer. "Shoot," he said.

Not long after, Kyle found himself seated in Stan's truck as they pulled up to the gates of Tweek and Craig's lavish estate, a sprawling residence situated among the large firs on the outskirts of South Park; far from the hustle and bustle. It had a distinct Frank Lloyd Wright* feel to it, modern and elegant, but understated; not overly ostentatious. The exterior was mainly comprised of large windows and stacked grey rock, which would've appeared unwelcoming if not for the cheery, yellow light blooming through the clear glass that reflected the trees flanking the structure.

"Wow," Stan said, putting the truck in park and peering up at the home becoming deluged in still-falling snow. "I had a feeling their place was nice, but this is something else."

"I'm just glad Tweek remembered to give me the pass code for the gate," Kyle replied, already feeling nervous as he regarded what he was about to walk into. It was almost like he was coming upon a castle in the woods, forgotten and lost in time. Glancing around, he couldn't see another house for miles. "Do you think they'll be okay out here during a storm like this?"

"I'm sure they have a backup generator if the snow really kicks up." Reaching over, Stan tugged on the flap of Kyle's ushanka. "You gonna be okay? I feel weird about going to work...I know you're upset about something."

"Stop worrying, it doesn't do any good," Kyle said, undoing his seat belt. "Besides, I'm fine. I already told you that. Okay?"

Stan still seemed unconvinced, but he finally smiled. He leaned over and kissed the tip of Kyle's nose.

"Well, have fun and call me if Craig gets fresh." He laughed at the scowl on Kyle's face. "Dude, I'm joking."

"Clearly," Kyle said, opening the door. "I bet he won't even be home...he's probably at the clinic. What do you want to bet he works weekends, too?"

"From what you've said, it wouldn't surprise me," Stan said, wryly. "The guy's definitely dedicated."

"That's an understatement." Kyle slid out, stopping to linger as he contemplated the imposing house. He glanced back at Stan, feeling uncertain. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea."

"Just go," Stan said, shooing him a little with his hand. "Have some courage. I love you."

"Love you." Slowly, he closed the door and gave Stan a tiny wave before turning away, his boots crunching over ice and rocks as he approached the gates. Taking a deep breath, he shivered lightly as a gust of wind and snow blew past him, ruffling his curls. Quickly, he punched in the code and before too long, the gate was swinging open, ready to receive him. He gave Stan one last look before he walked through, his nerves on edge as he was swallowed up by the gates, the house looming like a malevolent force in the winter-ravaged woods.

-------

Kyle was let into the house by a friendly-faced young woman who seemed unruffled by his sudden appearance. She was dressed in a grey uniform with a white apron covering the skirt, her dark hair tied back into a bun. She led him through the foyer, the large floor to ceiling windows showcasing the falling snow perfectly. The air was warm and had a spicy scent, reminding him of Craig's cologne, though there was a woody aroma underlying the spice, almost like he was walking through a forest clearing just after a rainfall. The light in the home was soft and golden, the floors covered with rich, dark wood. There was a hush about the home, a stillness.

Coming down the hallway, they passed by a staircase leading to the upper level, and then came upon what had to be the living room, a sunken area complete with a large fireplace topped with a marble mantel. Before it sat two leather wing back chairs and a black leather sofa, as well as a coffee table covered over with papers, magazines, and a bowl of ornamental fake fruit. Lit silver sconces above the fireplace filled the room with more soft light, and also illuminated a large painting of a woman sleeping, her head in her arms while clothed in a long, swirling gown that pooled around her feet.

"Nocturnal Slumber*," a voice spoke from behind him, making Kyle jump slightly. He turned to see Tweek standing there, dressed in a frail, white t-shirt and jeans, his hair disheveled like always. Smiling, he pointed to the painting. "Mucha. Do you like it?"

"I do," Kyle replied, nodding. "It's lovely."

"We have quite a few of his prints scattered throughout the place," Tweek explained, tucking his hands into his back pockets. Flickering his focus downward, Kyle noticed that Tweek's feet were bare. "Him and Waterhouse. I love them both."

"I don't know a lot about art, honestly."

"That's okay," Tweek laughed, coming forward. "Here, take off your coat and hat and I'll take you on a tour. How's that sound?"

"Sure," Kyle said, shedding his garments and laying them aside while looking around the cavernous home. "It's so impressive. I wouldn't be surprised if I got lost in here."

"Craig is big on appearances," Tweek replied, wryly. He turned on his heel, his hands still in his pockets. "Come on."

"You guys are pretty isolated out here, aren't you?" Kyle asked as they walked through what seemed like endless rooms, passing more paintings representing somber-faced women draped in elaborate gowns, windblown and surrounded with flowers or bathed in sunlight. Other paintings contained women with woebegone expressions, long hair blowing in turbulent breezes as they stared into unseen distances. The rooms themselves were opulent, the floors and walls dark, the splashes of color coming from bright oriental rugs in jewel tones: vivid reds, hunter greens, buttery golds. There were lamps covered in Tiffany glass and chandeliers throwing more golden light, that same ribbon of woody spice winding throughout.

"We are," Tweek agreed, leading him into a spacious kitchen, the center dominated by a butcher block table. The appliances were of stainless steel and the floor and black splashes were white and black tile; long shelves took up the far wall, covered with white pieces of crockery: cake stands, large bowls, plates and cups. The same woman from before was peering into the top portion of a double oven, the room filled with the yeasty scent of freshly-baked bread. "Craig wanted quiet and that's what we got, wouldn't you say?"

Going to the fridge, Tweek pulled it open.

"Are you thirsty?"

"I can do that," the housekeeper spoke up, coming over and wiping her hands on a towel. Tweek waved her away lightly.

"Don't worry about us, Linda, we'll be fine on our own. Won't we, Kyle?"

Surprised, Kyle just nodded.

"See?" Tweek asked, smiling. "Something smells great, by the way. What's for lunch?"

"Your favorite, honey wheat bread and winter vegetable soup," she replied, going to the stove and lifting the lid off of a large pot. Steam rose into the air along with the aroma of a rich broth, the culmination of scents putting Kyle at ease, almost like he was back in his childhood kitchen during a snow day. "I figured since it's so nasty outside, you all would appreciate something hearty."

"Are Tricia and Finn back yet?"

She shook her head while dipping a spoon into the pot. Drawing it back out, she put her hand beneath it while blowing on its contents.

"She said they'd be back in time to eat, but she wasn't specific."

"That makes sense," Tweek said, studying the inside of the fridge. "Would you like a mimosa, Kyle?"

Kyle raised an eyebrow at the bottle of champagne Tweek held up, remembering the way Craig had chastised him for drinking so much during dinner.

"Are you sure that's a good idea, I mean, wouldn't Craig have something to say?"

"He always has something to say," Tweek replied, plucking out a container of orange juice before closing the fridge with his foot. Taking the bottles over to the butcher block table, he plunked them down before going to the cabinet and retrieving two tall, fluted glasses. His eyes strayed to a large clock hanging above the entrance way. "Besides, it's brunchtime. What's brunch without mimosas?"

"Well, okay, but don't make mine too strong."

"I'll make it just strong enough," Tweek laughed, going to work. As he prepared the drinks, Kyle couldn't help but study his thin arms, the cluster of bird tattoos stark against his pale skin, but there were scatterings of pink scars as well, some of the punctuated with small dots; suture marks. Looking at them made him feel strange, like he was witnessing something private, and he quickly glanced away.

"Tricia," he mused, groping through hazy memories. "That's Craig's sister, right? I didn't know she lived with you guys."

"It's a recent development." Pouring a generous amount of the champagne into a glass, Tweek paused before adding just a touch more. Reaching for the orange juice, he topped it off, the mixture bubbling delicately as he slid the glass towards Kyle. "Just within the last month, actually."

"Who's Finn?"

"Her son." Biting his lip, Tweek fixed his own drink and took a long sip, smacking his lips with clear satisfaction. "Did you want a croissant? We have some leftover from breakfast."

"I'll pass. Stan and I had a pretty big breakfast before I came over."

"I bet he cooked it too, didn't he?" Giving him a knowing look, Tweek started padding across the floor. "Let's keep moving."

Passing through the doorway, they came upon the dining room with a large table running its length, the cherry wood gleaming from the white sunlight pouring through even more floor to ceiling windows. It was almost like the house was comprised of nothing but glass, forcing the onlooker to take in the sight of the frost-covered woods on all sides. Looking out, Kyle could see the snow continuing to fall, the boughs of the trees becoming weighted down, beginning to bend toward the ground. An icy creek ran beside the house, the water dark as it sluggishly struggled on its course, spots already frozen as the temperature continued to drop. The world was becoming static as winter stole through, insidious and all-consuming. Kyle shivered as he watched and sipped his drink, the mimosa slipping down his throat, tangy and crisp on his tongue.

"Not very welcoming, is it?" Tweek asked, coming up beside him. "That's why I saved the best room for last." Tugging gently on Kyle's arm, he led him away from the windows, coming to a *glassed-in area adjacent to the dining room, the inside filled with spiky green plants and bubbling water where bright koi swam. A large tree sat in the center, its leaf-laden branches stretching toward a sky light filled with more white sunshine. Breathing deeply, Kyle stepped into the room, where it smelled of fresh greenery and earth, the shadows a muted green as they fell across the bridge spanning the water. Looking around, he could see birds of all types, their plumage bright as they sat on tree branches or flitted about the room; feathers in an array of shades, reminding him of soft, pastel sherbet: mint greens, yellows, pinky reds, and sunset oranges.

"Kohaku," Tweek said, stepping onto the bridge and squatting down to peer into the water. Immediately, the lovely red and white fish with their swirling fins swarmed the surface, their large mouths gasping as if they expected to be fed. "Did you know these things can live to be 200 years old? I think that's crazy."

"This is...it's amazing," Kyle breathed, still trying to take in what he was seeing.

Eyes wide, he watched as a pair of stocky, little birds settled on Tweek's shoulders. Reaching up, he gently stroked their heads. "You might recognize these two from the sketches on Craig's desk, Kyle. Meet Cosette and Marius."

"I thought they looked familiar," Kyle said, thinking of his feeders at home, which paled in every conceivable way when compared to this place.

"They're my lovebirds," Tweek replied, standing slowly as the birds clung to his shoulders. "The first birds we bought after moving into this place."

"How long have you been here?"

Tweek thought a moment, his eyes drifting toward the ceiling where the birds flitted and chirped.

"About two years, give or take? It's hard to remember sometimes, honestly; time just seems to blend together."

"Your drawing from last night looked just like them," Kyle commented, gesturing to the koi swirling, their fins and tails transparent crepe paper undulating in the currents.

"Speaking of which," Tweek said, polishing off his mimosa, "do you have Pete's number, by any chance? I'd like to call him about his tattoo. That is, if he's still interested."

 Kyle felt the blood drain from his face at the mention of Pete's name, but he played it off, ignoring Tweek's curious expression as he set his half-empty glass aside. Digging his phone from his pocket, he nearly dropped it while scrolling through his contacts.

"I can't speak for him but sure, I have his number." Biting his lip, he felt his nausea resurfacing when another text came through from Pete, begging him to respond. Quickly, he texted the information to Tweek before he tucked the phone away, not wanting to focus on what had transpired the night before. His stomach twisted as his flesh remembered the press of unwanted fingertips...how warm Pete's hands had been when he'd gripped him. He shut his eyes and took deep breaths.

"You okay?"

Kyle could feel a warm pressure on his shoulder and he quickly nodded his head, his eyes shooting open. Tweek was studying him, the birds still perched on his shoulders cocking their heads, white rings around their eyes making them almost appear comical. There was a strange look in the depths of his eyes, and Kyle didn't want to think it was understanding or suspicion; he didn't want to speculate about deeper meanings. He wanted the surface right now, until he could collect himself.

"Well, this is certainly a surprise," a distinct, nasally voice broke through the moment, parting the bubbling of the water and the squawking of the birds respectively. Swiftly, Kyle glanced over to see Craig standing in the doorway, dressed in sweaty workout clothes; dark hair wet with sweat. "You didn't tell me we were going to have a visitor, duck."

"It was a spur of the moment thing," Tweek replied, taking his hand from Kyle's shoulder and stepping away, his arms drifting behind his back in an almost childish posture; nearly repentant. "Kyle's interested in working with me, Craig. Isn't that nice?"

"Have you showed him your studio?" Craig asked, pulling up the hem of his shirt to wipe a trickle of sweat from his face, exposing a hard, lean belly; a trail of dark hair descending from his navel down to the top of his shorts.

"Not yet, but we're getting there." Suddenly, the lovebirds took flight and flitted straight to Craig, alighting on his shoulders delicately. Coming up beside Kyle, Tweek bumped his shoulder. "They always liked him best."

"That isn't true," Craig contradicted, lightly rubbing the bird's heads, eliciting soft coos from the creatures. "Anyway, Linda sent me to tell you lunch is ready." He glanced at Kyle, cocking an eyebrow at the mimosa still clutched in his hand. "Unless you aren't hungry, of course."

"Be nice," Tweek said, walking past Kyle and skirting around Craig. "Mimosas are a Saturday morning tradition, after all."

"Maybe for you. Where's Trish and Finn?"

"Out," Tweek replied simply, already walking away. "They should be back soon."

Shaking his head, Craig turned back to Kyle, his eyes lingering on the mimosa as the little birds nuzzled at his cheeks.

"I'm surprised you want to drink so early in the day, especially after having so much wine last night. Good thing Pete was around to take you home."

"I didn't have that much," Kyle said, bristling at Craig's comment while feeling sick about hearing that name again.

"Almost four glasses."

"Why were you counting?!" Kyle snapped, his raised voice startling the birds and making them suddenly depart. They settled in the tree where they carefully began to preen. "Just mind your own business, Craig; especially about last night, okay?"

Angrily, Kyle began to stalk out of the room, stopping short when he felt pressure around his arm, holding him back. Looking down, he saw Craig's fingers locked on him, and he had to stop himself from crying out, the memory of Pete grabbing him coming back to him in a sickening wave. Against his will, he began to tremble.

"Hey, what's wrong? You're shaking," Craig said, loosening his grip but not letting him go. Stepping in front of him, he looked into Kyle's face. "Kyle?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Kyle said, looking away; heart hammering madly in his chest, not just from fear but from something else; something he couldn't pinpoint. Whatever it was, it only confused him further, a hot blush starting at the base of his throat and spreading upward.

"Talk about what? Did something happen?"

"It's none of your business! It's no one's fucking business!" Kyle exploded, having reached the end of his rope with people prying into his thoughts: Pete, Stan, Craig. He just wanted space and if he ever felt like opening up it would be because he wanted to, not because he was forced. Wrenching his arm from Craig's grasp, he moved away, their gazes locked as Craig watched him impassively, seemingly nonplussed about Kyle's outburst.

"Fine, are you coming to lunch, or what?" Craig looked around, his gaze wandering around the room. "What do you think of it? I had it built for Tweek because he loves to draw birds...and he loves having things to take care of."

"You have that in common, don't you?" Kyle asked before he could stop himself. Feeling Craig staring at him, he refused to look his way. Instead, he looked down into the green waters where the koi languidly swam, scales slick like the icy stones in the creek outside. "It's wonderful," he admitted, softly. "All of this, your home. I'm sure you already knew that."

"No, not really," Craig said, though he sounded pleased. "Well, come along. Linda will not be pleased with me if we keep lunch waiting."

-----

It wasn't until halfway through the meal that a woman and small child appeared, the former sylphlike with tawny hair swept into a braided bun atop her head. She was wearing a green pea coat and bell bottoms, a silvery scarf swathing her throat. The child clutched at her hand as he regarded the room with large eyes, his hair the same shade as the woman's.

"Take off your coat," she said, running a hand through the boy's hair. Catching Kyle's eye, she seemed to be trying to place him.

"Trish, you remember Kyle, don't you?" Craig asked, lifting a spoonful of soup to his lips, the surface speckled with Parmesan cheese. "Where have you two been?"

"In town," she replied, giving Kyle a fleeting smile of recognition. She began to remove her outer things and laid them aside, the child following suit. Reaching up, she undid her bun and Kyle almost felt hypnotized watching it uncoil and fall in a long stream over her shoulder, laying against her breast. She was wearing an airy top of creamy lace beneath her coat, and he could see patches of peachy skin among the eyelets. "We were running errands."

"Well, I'm glad you got back before the storm really picked up," Craig commented. He turned his focus on the child. "Did you have fun?"

The child shrugged and tried to hide behind Tricia's legs, his small hand pulling at his t-shirt with the Cars logo on the front. He glanced at Kyle, eyes still wide.

"Come on, love, there's no need to be bashful," she said, a small edge in her tone as she pulled the boy from behind her. Pushing him toward the table, she addressed Kyle directly. "Are you enjoying your stay at the Overlook so far?"

Before he could respond, Craig interjected, exasperated.

"I wish you'd stop calling it that," he said, frowning deeply as his spoon paused halfway between his mouth and the bowl. "It's not like we have elevators filled with blood and corpses in bathtubs around here."

"Not yet, anyway," she replied, taking a seat after maneuvering the boy into a chair. "Sit up to the table," she instructed, her voice becoming stern. "And don't spill anything."

The child continued to watch Kyle, his eyes flashing a dark green under the gold from the lights. He had a heart-shaped face and pale skin reminiscent of Craig's, his stature stockier than that of Tricia and her brother; sturdy. Kyle smiled at him, slightly unnerved by the boy's unrelenting stare, though he could hardly blame him for being wary of a stranger.

"You're Finn, right?" He asked, wanting to put the child at ease, and by extension, himself.

Finn nodded slowly but didn't speak, his expression giving off a decidedly "Village of the Damned" quality now. Feeling helpless, Kyle glanced at Tweek, who was preoccupied with making swirling patterns in his nearly untouched bowl of soup.

"Speak up," Tricia said, tapping the child's arm sharply. "You're being rude."

"Go easy on him," Craig spoke up. "He's only three. How's he supposed to act?"

"Like he has some manners," she snapped, unfurling her napkin and placing it on her lap. "That's what."

"Methinks your expectations might be a bit unrealistic," he replied, winking at Finn. "You want some soup, bud?"

Finally, Finn's somber expression broke and he smiled a little, nodding.

"I can have abble juice?" He asked, perking up.

"I think I can make that happen. Hold on." Rising from the table, Craig walked into the kitchen.

"He loves to indulge him," Tricia said, serving Finn and herself some soup. She didn't sound overly pleased.

"Butter jam?" The boy asked, picking up a piece of bread and showing it to his mother.

"No, we're having soup, not peanut butter and jelly." She pointed to his bowl then picked up her own spoon. Deflated, Finn stared at the soup before cramming the bread into his mouth, spraying crumbs everywhere.

"Here we go." Coming back into the room, Craig was carrying a sippy cup with a dinosaur on the side. "One apple juice." He handed it to Finn before he sat down and grabbed a piece of bread, spreading butter on it. Glancing at Tweek's full bowl, he sighed softly but didn't say anything.

An awkward, heavy silence fell across the table, making Kyle's appetite dissipate, not that it had been very strong in the first place. Clinking his spoon against the rim of his bowl, he searched for something to fill up the quiet, broken only by the skittering of snow against the windowpanes.

"So," he began, picking up his own piece of bread. He started tearing it into little pieces. "Are you just visiting, or..." he trailed off, glancing at Tricia as she quietly ate. Looking up, she lifted one shoulder.

"Who even knows?" She asked, quickly wiping Finn's face as apple juice dribbled down his chin. "Everything is up in the air right now."

Raising his eyebrows, Kyle caught Craig's eye.

"Trish is staying with us for the unforeseen future," he explained, taking a drink of water. "While she clears up some personal matters."

"How very diplomatic," she remarked, giving her brother an impassive look. "Why don't you just tell the truth?" Turning to Kyle, she set her spoon aside. "My child and I are sponging off of my brother and his husband because my ex-boyfriend is a lying, trashy, drug-addicted piece of shit."

"Tricia," Craig said, nodding his head in Finn's direction, who was happily playing with his soup instead of really eating it; babbling to himself. "Please."

"Oh, it's not like he's never heard a curse word before," she scoffed, crossing her arms.

"Still," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "And you're not sponging off of us...you know that."

"Whatever." She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, her eyes darting to Finn as he brought a spoonful of soup to his mouth. At the last moment, it tipped, spilling the liquid all over the front of his shirt. Instant rage seemed to overtake her as she slammed her hand down on the table, making the little boy jump.

"Didn't I tell you not to spill?!"

Wide-eyed, Finn stared at her before his expression crumpled, tears quickly streaking down his face. Beginning to sob, he clutched at his spoon as he leaned his head forward, his bangs falling into the soup.

"Stop crying! You're just making a bigger mess!" She yelled, jerking the bowl away. She started scrubbing at the front of his shirt, eliciting whimpers from him as snot and tears dripped off his face.

"That's enough!" Craig said, his voice raised from its usual monotone, taking Kyle by surprise. Rising from his place, he marched around the table and grabbed the napkin out of his sister's hand. "He didn't do it on purpose!"

"I can't handle this," she replied, pushing herself away from the table abruptly, her fingers massaging her temples. "I can barely think and my head is killing me."

"Go lie down then," Craig muttered, kneeling beside the still-sobbing boy and gently beginning to clean his face and hands. "I'll take over, okay?"

"You do that, just like always. I'm gonna go practice...keep him away from me for a while."

"Mommy, need hug," Finn pleaded, jumping up from his chair and racing to her, his arms encircling her leg. "I sorry! Need hug!"

"Finn, just stop," she said, her voice breaking a little as she pulled away. "I need some space right now. Can you do that for mommy? Please?"

"N-need hug," he howled, trying to cling to her again. She backed up, keeping herself just out of reach, a look of veiled disgust on her face.

"Craig," she said, already turning away. "Handle this. I need some time."

"It's okay, Finny," Craig said, giving his sister a look as he gathered him into his arms. "Mommy isn't feeling very good right now. Let's let her be. Can you do that, baby?"

Finn tried to strain away, clearly wanting to follow after his mother, who had already retreated from the room. He continued to cry, the sound cutting through Kyle's ears as he cringed in his place. Tweek just sat idly by, nursing yet another mimosa and staring into space like he was completely removed from the situation.

"Come on, just calm down." Voice softening, Craig held onto the child until he slowly began to quiet down, finally slackening as he leaned his head against his uncle's shoulder. "Here, why don't we go swimming. Would you like that? You can be a shark."

Sniffling, the boy nodded, his face the color of a ripe cherry. Flickering his gaze to Kyle's, Craig's face was grim before he rose, holding Finn in his arms.

"Aren't you glad you came over?" He asked before turning away, Finn watching Kyle with a muted expression as they left the room.

------

"This is my studio," Tweek announced as they stepped into the large, airy space, the white sunlight stealing through the room, the corners filled with grey shadows. He snapped on a light, causing Kyle to blink rapidly at the sudden illumination. They entered, the air filled with the scents of paint thinner and something softer, like patchouli. Kyle looked around, his focus falling on the far wall. His eyes widened, trying to understand what he was seeing.

"Is that...is that the Hindenburg Disaster?" He asked, pointing. A zeppelin deluged in flames was splashed across the wall, the words "oh, the humanity!" running beneath it. Everything was in grayscale tones except for the fire, which bloomed red and orange like poisonous flowers.

"Mhmm," Tweek replied as he walked away across the hardwood floor, stretching delicately as he went; slender arms flexing. They curved, his fingers dangling against the back of his white t-shirt, which bunched and dipped low, displaying his fragile shoulder blades. "I've been fascinated with zeppelins ever since I read about it, not to mention terrified, so I tried to work through my fear by painting it. Now I have to confront it every time I come in here." Sighing, he turned, his arms still bent over his head. "Do you mind if I smoke?"

"I didn't know you smoked," Kyle commented, thinking idly that he didn't really know anything about Tweek. They'd never really been friends.

"I don't. Not cigarettes, anyway." Sitting on the floor, he crossed his legs and casually began to roll a joint, talking as he worked. "You want some?"

At first, Kyle wanted to decline the offer, but then he thought of Pete and the unspoken distance he felt between himself and Stan. Tossing aside his hesitance, he went and plopped down next to Tweek, sprawled out on the floor, arms and legs wide like he was about to make a snow angel.

"Yeah, I'm in."

Nodding his head, Tweek made quick work of the joint, packing and rolling it with a careless grace that led Kyle to believe he'd done this before - many times.

"I bet you want to hear the dirt about Craig's sister, huh?"

Kyle studied the ceiling, considering the question, almost becoming lost in the skittering, shifting shadows that made him think of wolves stalking through snow fields. He had to admit he was curious about her outburst, not to mention the trashy ex-boyfriend she'd mentioned, but he didn't want to seem like a gossip-mongering jackal. His heart also hurt for her little boy, who was clearly caught in the tides of grownup affairs he could never hope to understand.

"I suppose, but it isn't absolutely necessary."

"Yes, but it's interesting," Tweek replied, lighting up the pot and taking a few puffs, holding the smoke in his lungs. Breathing it out, he sighed, almost like he was letting out a century's worth of tensions all at once. "His name is Danny."

"Danny?"

"Yup, and he is an addict. Prescription pain kills, mostly." He snickered. "Pills," he added, correcting himself.

"Is he Finn's father?"

"Yeah, but in name only." Passing the joint to Kyle, Tweek removed his shirt and tossed it aside, revealing a torso that bordered on emaciation. It was littered with more tattoos, mostly birds, fluttering across his stark rib cage. "They met in college."

Holding the lighter to the joint, Kyle inhaled deeply as he closed his eyes, sinking into the sensation of the acrid smoke filling his mouth and lungs. He held it for as long as he could until the burn seemed to consume him, and then he was coughing violently, tears filling his eyes. Tweek laughed, patting his back lightly before taking the joint back.

"W-what did Tricia go to school for?" He asked, trying to maintain a modicum of dignity, though it was hard. Tweek took another hit like it was his job, not coughing at all.

"It doesn't matter," he replied, unbuttoning his jeans and revealing grey boxer briefs. Kyle couldn't believe how cavalier he was about undressing in front of him, his clothing practically falling from his body like water. In fact, Tweek was so easygoing about it that it didn't make Kyle feel ill-at-ease; if anything, it almost made him want to start shedding his clothing, too. Suddenly, it seemed cloying; too heavy. "She didn't finish."

"Oh?"

"Nah, she was never interested in academics, not really. She's a dancer."

For whatever reason, this struck Kyle as being incredibly funny. Stifling some laughter behind his hand, he rolled on his side, studying the zeppelin going down in flames on the wall; almost larger than life as the inferno raged. In the corner, he saw tiny stickers spreading upward but he couldn't tell what they said. He crawled over to them, leaning forward.

"She doesn't work the pole or anything like that," Tweek said, wryly. "She's a ballet dancer."

"Are these apple stickers?" Kyle asked, pointing to the little circles, a variety of names on them: Opal, Fuji, Royal Gala.

"They're my favorite food. I eat one every day. Here." Coming over, Tweek handed Kyle the J. "Anyway, from what I understand, this dude was a real piece of work. Craig hates him."

"Was he abusive?" Taking another hit, Kyle could feel the haziness coming to settle over his brain, dense like the clouds gathered outside. He didn't smoke very often even though Stan and he didn't mind indulging on occasion; they just didn't make a habit of it. In his pocket, his phone chirped, breaking through some of his serenity.

"I'm not really sure. He's a loser, though, and he never wanted a kid, but he wouldn't let Tricia get an abortion." He thought a moment, his finger settling on his bottom lip. "She wanted one, you know. I'm pretty certain she had no interest in being a mother."

"I kind of got that impression," Kyle admitted, handing the joint off to Tweek before pulling his phone out. Yet another text from Pete popped up, filling him with unease and annoyance. Why couldn't he just stop? Suddenly, Kyle was filled with fury at himself for trying to be nice, which only made him angrier; why should he be punished for attempting to be decent?

"Something wrong?" Tweek asked, startling him. Looking up, Kyle saw him set the joint aside and pull out a large sketchbook. He flipped it open, licking one finger delicately as he turned the pages. "You looked pissed off for a second there."

"Yeah, actually," Kyle replied, the weed loosening his tongue. "I kind of want to kick someone's ass right now."

"Do tell." Setting the sketchbook between them, Tweek pointed to several sketches of koi, most of them in pencil but some having blotches of color. "What do you think?"

"They're wonderful." Studying the drawings, Kyle groped for the weed. "What, are they for Pete?"

Tweek nodded, his finger drifting over the fish, eyes downcast.

"He's cute, huh? Pete?"

Kyle could've gagged at this question, the rage building in his stomach until he almost felt like he couldn't contain it. Shaking his head, he stood, his nerves on edge as he nervously went to the windows and peered out. The sun was finally breaking from the cloud cover, its light watery and weak as the snow kept falling. Drawing the smoke into his lungs, Kyle tried to collect himself.

"He likes you," Tweek added, almost like this bit of information was common knowledge. "I could tell just from watching you two last night. Craig agrees with me."

"I don't care who he likes," Kyle snapped before he could stop himself. "And, no, he isn't cute. At all."

"Hmm," Tweek replied, giving him a thoughtful look. For a moment, it seemed like he wanted to say more, but he refrained. Instead, he rose from the floor, the fledgling sunlight dappling his skin and bringing his tattoos into sharp focus. Kyle could see more scars scattered on his upper arms and on his abdomen. "I've been meaning to ask you something, by the way."

"What?" Kyle asked, praying that the subject of Pete would be laid to rest for a while. He was also having a difficult time wrapping his head around the fact that Craig, of all people, had noticed Pete's interest in him. It just made him feel more stupid, like he was an ostrich with his head in the sand, refusing to see what was right in front of him.

"Will you sign my copy of your book? It would make me so happy," Tweek smiled, taking a hold of Kyle's arm and pulling gently. "Please?"

Kyle stared at him, having not expected this type of request. A smile tugged at his mouth, thoughts of Pete evaporating as he shrugged bashfully.

"Well, yeah. Sure. I'd love to."

"Great, come on." Tugging on him, Tweek led him through a door and into a large room, one wall completely taken over by a gigantic unmade bed. There were numerous bookshelves scattered around the perimeter, covered over with books and hundreds of snow globes, the curved orbs catching the winter light. Most of them were ornate and intricate while others were simple plastic affairs, all of them sitting in static repose, filled with all manner of creatures and tiny worlds: cabins, bears, rabbits, little people.

"My collection," Tweek commented, catching Kyle's eye. "I started as a kid. Craig gets me new ones all the time...I'm running out of space at this point, but I think it's sweet."

"I don't think I've ever seen so many of them in my life," Kyle said, looking around in wonder. The room was spacious but felt weirdly cluttered; too full of incidentals. It didn't help that the floor was littered with clothes and books and papers.

Picking up a globe, this one containing a black bear, Tweek tipped it over and allowed the snow inside to swirl and settle on the top. After a moment, he flipped it, the contents drifting around the bear in glittery droves.

"It's weird but they make me feel calm," he said, turning the globe over again. "Craig tried to get me into fidget spinners when we were kids, but they never did much for me."

Tweek's voice was so tender as he spoke of Craig, and he couldn't seem to go for very long before mentioning him, which only made Kyle more confused. How could he say he hated him when that clearly wasn't the case? He'd said it with such conviction.

"Now where is that book?" Carrying the globe, Tweek continued to absentmindedly flip it over and back as he perused the shelves. "I just saw it the other day."

"How many times have you read it?" Kyle asked, shyly. He hadn't read that fateful book in so long, mainly because it was just a reminder of how stagnant he was.

"God, I couldn't even say. There's just something about it, you know?" He kept searching, his brow furrowing. "Are you ever going to write another? Maybe a sequel?"

"I doubt it. I feel like it's impossible to write these days, honestly."

"That's a shame. I couldn't imagine not creating something...I'd lose my mind."

"Maybe I am," Kyle replied, shrugging. "I wouldn't be surprised."

"Welcome to the club," he said flippantly, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. "Seriously, where the fuck is that book? I know it was in here!"

"Relax, I'm sure it's around here somewhere." Taking a step back, Kyle was unnerved at Tweek's abrupt shift. "Here, let me help you look, okay?"

"Don't bother, I'll just find it later," Tweek replied, waving him off. The way he was manipulating the globe became more frantic now, and Kyle was afraid he'd drop it. "Sorry," he added, laughing nervously. "I'll probably fixate on this for a moment. I hope you don't mind."

"Of course not." Glancing toward the door, Kyle moved from foot to foot, suddenly very aware of his uncomfortably full bladder. He'd been wondering where the bathroom was but had been too shy to ask during lunch, not with the tension between Craig and his sister. "Can I use the bathroom?"

"No, you have to go in the yard." Tweek gave him a deadpan expression until he started laughing again. "Of course you can, Kyle. It's down the hall on the right. I'd let you use mine but it's a disaster, I can't even lie."

"Great, thanks," Kyle said as he hurriedly left the room. Once in the hallway, he took stock of his surroundings, the hush in the air as he passed more windows reflecting the winter landscape. The sun had disappeared into the clouds again, hiding its face. He passed over grey shadows lining the hardwood floor, his eyes scanning paintings along the walls depicting more women gazing forlornly away from the viewer; none of them making eye contact. As he neared the end of the corridor, he detected hints of music wafting through the stillness; orchestral and mildly frenzied, but then it became softer, almost sweet.

Bypassing the bathroom, he turned a corner, still following the music, and came upon Craig standing in the hall, arms crossed and shirtless. He was clad only in damp swim trunks, his hair beaded with moisture as he stood in a doorway. Kyle was going to turn and retreat but Craig suddenly turned his head, his eyes narrowing as they caught sight of him. He beckoned with his hand, a slow smile appearing on his face. Feeling ridiculous, Kyle pointed to himself and Craig nodded, his expression fading into one of exasperation.

"Come on," he mouthed, waving him over again. Kyle obeyed, his heart thudding in his chest out of nowhere. Approaching, Craig took a hold of his arm and pulled him gently, pointing into the room. "Look," he whispered softly in Kyle's ear, nearly making him shiver.

Kyle's eyes followed where Craig pointed, and he saw that Tricia was in the room, dancing across the smooth floor as the music continued to play, evening out and still so sweet. Her hair was down, wavy and wild as it swirled around her shoulders and along her back; fanning out with every twirl and leap. She'd changed into a black leotard and tights, delicate pink ballet slippers on her feet.

"The Firebird," Craig said, still very close to Kyle's ear. "She's pleading for her life right now."

Kyle nodded, watching as Tricia kept dancing through patches of pale sunlight. If she realized they were there she didn't show it, almost like she was caught in a world that only she could occupy.

"I saw her perform this is New York City once, a long time ago." Moving away, Craig brushed a droplet of water from his cheek. He was pale, ghostlike almost, and slim, though he had a lean musculature as well. Kyle could feel himself flushing as he tried to look away, but something held him back. He breathed deeply, taking in the scents of chlorine and that same spicy cologne that always seemed to cling to Craig's skin. "She seemed so happy then."

"Where's Finn?" Kyle asked, mainly because he couldn't think of anything else. The moment felt so surreal. It didn't help that the weed had muddled his mind, rendering him sleepy and loose. Thoughts slipped through his head like water through a sieve.

"Napping," Craig replied, simply. "Swimming always wears him out." Frowning, he studied Kyle for a moment. "You've been smoking Tweek's weed."

Pressing a hand to his mouth, Kyle giggled before he could stop himself.

"You got me," he said, the laughter almost becoming uncontrollable.

"He has a prescription," Craig said, though he was beginning to look faintly amused. "To help with his anxiety. What's your excuse?"

"I don't have one," Kyle admitted. "I just like it...it helps me slow down a little."

Craig nodded, surprising Kyle.

"I can understand that." He glanced at Tricia again, her body a blur as she pirouetted in place; over and over. The sun made an appearance again and shone through the windows, striking the teal paint of the walls and making them glow. It almost looked like she was dancing underwater. "I have to admit, it's pretty bizarre having you in my home. You realize that, right?"

"Thanks for letting me know."

"I didn't mean it as a negative thing. It was just an observation." He paused, almost like he was lost for words; a very unusual occurrence for someone so seemingly poised and self-assured. "Did Tweek show you his studio?"

"Yes, he's in there now."

"So you've seen his wall of irrational fears?"

Kyle had to think a moment and then it clicked.

"Let me guess, the zeppelin?"

"Yes," Craig sighed, rolling his eyes. "God, that wall has so many layers. Every time he finds something new to be afraid of he just covers up the old fear."

"Does that mean he's come to terms with it?"

He shrugged.

"Who knows? Maybe he just doesn't want to think about it anymore."

"Can you blame him?" Kyle asked, trying to ignore Pete's presence in the back of his head. "How does dwelling on something help? Eventually it just starts to eat away at you."

"It eats away at you either way," Craig replied, raising an eyebrow. "What are you doing wandering around the house by yourself anyway? What's Tweek doing?"

Pulling at the collar of his shirt, Kyle stepped away, beginning to retreat. Tricia kept dancing along with the music, lost to them. The sun died out again, but this time its absence created a profound lack of light that obscured the windows, almost like night was falling early.

"He's looking for a book," he said, taking another step back. "My book, specifically, so I can sign it, but he can't find it. I was just looking for the bathroom."

"Well, you're lost, aren't you?" Craig asked, smiling again, but it was strangely indulgent. He approached and placed his hand on Kyle's shoulder, gently turning him. Leaning forward, he pointed, his voice once again close to Kyle's ear, low and slightly husky. He was warm, the skin of his arms scattered over with dark hair, but it wasn't dense, not like Stan's. The spice of his scent made Kyle catch his breath, and suddenly he wanted to lean into him, wondering just how soft Craig's skin was...did it just look soft? Or did it not live up to its appearance?

"You walked right by it," he explained. "It's just around the corner there, the first door on the left. Did you need me to show you?"

Shaking his head, Kyle almost felt dizzy as he pulled away, his heart frantic now; trying to escape.

"I can find it by myself, but thanks." He glanced over his shoulder to see Craig watching him, his dark hair drying slowly; blue highlights coming back to life.

"Fine," he said, turning back to watch his sister dance, the music going on and on...violins and horns illustrating the life of the Firebird. "I'll keep an eye out for that book, by the way. Let him know I'll bring it to him if I find it."

-----

The rest of the afternoon wavered on in a quiet, relaxed fashion. As Kyle perused Tweek's many sketchbooks, they could hear the ballet music wafting down the hallway on occasion, providing a strange, almost dreamlike backdrop to the day. The sensation only intensified as the sun sank closer to the horizon, the winds shrieking around the house and threading through the music like lonely arias. The snow picked up and when Kyle looked out at one point, munching on an apple from Tweek's seemingly endless supply, the flakes were blowing sideways from the fury of the wind. Tendrils of light broke through on occasion, almost resembling juice from a blood orange streaking the landscape; quickly enveloped by the violence of the storm. Finally, the sun disappeared altogether and the world was plunged into night, the forests and even the gates surrounding the house becoming lost in the blur.

"It's like we're the only people on the planet right now," Kyle commented, rubbing his arm as he finished the apple, a honeycrisp. "I hope the power doesn't go out."

"We'll be fine," Tweek replied, lying on the floor of the studio and quickly sketching, a pile of colored pencils beside him. He'd shed his jeans by this point so he was wearing only his boxer briefs. There were scatters of scars on his thighs as well, pink and shiny. "Craig thinks of everything...I'm not worried."

"I haven't seen him in hours." Kyle plopped on the floor, still staring out at the night. "Him or Tricia or Finn. Everyone's so separated."

"He's probably in his study, working," he said, his tone dismissive. "As for Tricia, I'm sure she's in her room, and Finn....well, he could be anywhere. Probably with Linda in the kitchen, if I had to guess. He likes to help with dinner." He laughed lightly. "Or at least his version of helping."

"Dinner sounds nice," Kyle said, ignoring a growl emanating from his belly. Lunch felt like it had been ages ago, and he hadn't really eaten very much due to all the discord. It didn't help that they'd been smoking for the better part of the day, and his appetite was becoming fierce. Studying Tweek, he couldn't help but notice how skinny he was. He could remember him being thin in school, but he seemed almost skeletal these days; fragile. "Aren't you hungry?"

"Not really," Tweek replied, outlining the pencil sketch he was doing in bright red. He had a massive portfolio, Kyle had noticed, pages upon pages of drawings: birds, koi, landscapes, insects, portraits of Craig...it seemed like everything he saw in life was placed in the pages of his books. His work could be considered realistic but it had a quick feeling about it, like the subjects were moving or getting ready to move; everything immediate, never still. He'd also noticed that Tweek had a habit of fidgeting and moving constantly, like sitting still was an impossibility. Looking up, Tweek caught Kyle's eye.

"My medicines kind of kills my appetite, honestly."

Trying to downplay his curiosity, Kyle attempted to be nonchalant when he spoke next, setting aside the sketchbook he'd been leafing through.

"Medicines?" Perching his chin on his knees, he watched as Tweek continued working with the red pencil, giving the figure more dimension. "Are you okay?"

"Relatively speaking." Narrowing his eyes, Tweek didn't look up now. "They make it hard for me to work, though, so there's that, but sometimes I cave because I don't want Craig to get on my case."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, give him the chance and he'll go on for hours about my problem with cognitive dissonance." His tone changed on the last words, became mocking, like he'd heard them so many times they were the source of great irritation. "I mean, of course I want to get better, but the things I have to do to get better make me feel worse...they keep me from doing what I want to do. Does that make any sense?"

"Not really," Kyle replied, floundering at Tweek's evasiveness. He wanted to ask him to explain but he didn't want to be rude, and he knew they were broaching a touchy subject. "Is Craig forcing you to take medication?"

This question made Tweek take pause and he chewed on the tip of his pencil, his expression becoming thoughtful.

"He doesn't seem to think so," he said, softly. "But sometimes I'm not so sure, honestly. I'd like to think he'll love me either way, but Craig has a very set idea about how things should work, and I'm not always good at playing the game. It drives him crazy." He laughed and sat up, stretching his arms toward the ceiling. "I can either feel like I'm flying but I'm out of control, or I can feel like I'm walking under water...which option would you choose in my situation?"

"Neither," Kyle replied, honestly, not that he was sure what Tweek really meant. He had a vague understanding, but he didn't want to make assumptions. "Can I ask you a question? I totally understand if you don't want to answer, by the way. If I need to fuck off, just tell me."

Tweek laughed again, but now it seemed more genuine, the birds fluttering across his belly.

"Sure, Kyle. Stop worrying so much."

"Good luck with that," Kyle said, grinning. Peeling the sticker off the apple he was almost done with, he gestured to the wall where the other labels waited. "May I?"

"Go ahead."

"Well, you said something about Craig not letting you work at the clinic, a while back." Uneasily, Kyle pressed the sticker on the wall, wanting to choose his words carefully. "What did you mean by that?"

"Oh, that," Tweek said, rising from his place and slowly beginning to slide his shirt back on, his legs spindly drinking straws as he moved about the room. A long scar ran along the underside of his left arm, going upward toward his elbow. "Craig worries about my anxiety levels when I'm out in public. I don't do very well around a lot of people, so he thinks it's better if I don't voluntarily put myself in stressful situations."

"I guess that makes sense," Kyle replied, not at all surprised about Craig's tendency to exhibit control over the people he cared about. That didn't mean he wasn't put off by it, too. "Can I ask you something else, and then I promise I'll stop. Okay?"

Tweek rolled his eyes as he slid his jeans on, though he didn't button them.

"It's really hard to offend me, Kyle; you'll figure that out soon enough."

"Still, I don't want to overstep my bounds. Craig -"

"-is Craig, okay? I know he works overtime keeping people at arm's length but we aren't the same. Trust me."

"Well, okay," Kyle said, taking a deep breath. "What's splitting?"

Tweek seemed surprised at this question, as evidenced by a slight widening of his already large eyes, but he didn't seem offended. He scraped his hands through his hair, making it even more disheveled than it had been before; an impressive feat considering its constant state of general disarray.

"Black and white thinking," he replied, simply. "It's when you see a person or a situation as absolutely negative or overwhelmingly positive. It can make you feel like you suddenly hate a person or love them completely...it's usually an irrational response." Pausing, he smiled slowly at Kyle, his expression a dichotomy of playfulness and a vague maliciousness. "Can I ask you a question now?"

Kyle nodded reluctantly, though his nerves were plucked from the look on Tweek's face, not to mention the new information he was still trying to process. Tweek was proving to be a mixed bag of surprises he couldn't have foreseen.

"You didn't exactly seem thrilled when I brought up Pete earlier." He popped his knuckles and then shook his hands, long fingers flashing. Feeling nauseous, Kyle noticed they sort of resembled Pete's: pale, skinny. "Now, why is that?"

Pitching the apple core into a trashcan, Kyle stood and restlessly started moving about the room, wanting to focus on anything other than Tweek's question. He studied the multitude of canvases covered over with paint: a man in chains, a mermaid caught in a fisherman's net, a lighthouse with fields of roses at its base. One in particular caught his focus, illustrating a man standing in what looked like a basement, his back to the viewer; his skin covered with lacerations and sutures.

"This..." he said, pointing at it. "I'm not really sure how to feel about this one."

Tweek shrugged, coming over. Drifting a hand over the canvas, he traced one of the man's wounds with a finger.

"I saw it in a dream so I thought I'd paint it. It felt so real." He smiled suddenly. "Maybe I was experiencing someone else's reality while I was asleep. Isn't that an interesting idea?"

"In theory, but I wouldn't want to live this person's life," Kyle replied, turning away from the painting with a shudder. He slid his eyes over the plethora of supplies at Tweek's disposal: brushes, cans of paint, watercolors. It was like he owned his own personal art store.

"Kyle?" Tweek asked, coming up beside him. "You haven't answered my question."

"I'm aware of that," Kyle snapped before he could soften his tone. He rubbed his face. "Sorry, I just really don't want to talk about this."

Tweek was silent a moment, thinking.

"Okay, I can accept that, but I can tell something's bothering you. Would you be open to maybe, I don't know, drawing how you feel? It usually helps me work through stuff."

"Tweek, I can barely draw a stick figure," Kyle replied, rolling his eyes. "Besides, if I tried to draw my emotions right now they'd just be scribbles."

"That's fine," Tweek replied, becoming animated. Quickly, he went and retrieved his sketchbook and brought it over to his work table. "Just do the best you can."

"I really don't think this is going to work," Kyle sighed, but he picked up a black colored pencil obediently. He watched as Tweek flipped through the book, his eye falling on the koi sketches from before. Instinctively, he reached out, stopping him. "Wait," he said, slamming the book open. Rage flooded his mind when he saw those delicate fish swimming, his jaw clenched.

"Art can be about destruction too, you know," Tweek mused, leaning forward on the table. "How do these drawings make you feel?"

"You sound like a therapist," Kyle laughed, but it came out like a bark. He studied the drawings, the feeling of Pete's phantom closeness making him want to tear off his own skin. "But, fine, I can play along. They make me angry."

"So, do something about it, then."

"You can't be serious," Kyle said, staring at him. "These are your drawings, dude. You worked hard on these."

"Do what you need to, Kyle." Tweek gestured to the book. "It's not like I can't draw more, and I think you need this. Don't you?"

"Still -"

Huffing, Tweek suddenly took a hold of Kyle's hand and pressed the pencil clutched between his fingers to the paper; viciously, he forced him to begin blotting out the koi. Astonished, Kyle didn't pull away as he watched the delicate fish disappear in an onslaught of angry, dark strokes. It wasn't until they were completely covered up that he realized he was working alone now, Tweek having pulled back to watch him decimate the drawings with furious vigor. He also became aware that his eyes had filled with hot tears, his teeth gritted as he stared down at the aftermath.

"Feel better?" Tweek asked,

"Slightly," Kyle admitted, breathing a little heavier. "I'm still so angry, though. I feel..." he swiped a hand across his eyes, feeling exposed; foolish. "I feel violated and dirty and -"

"What did he do?" Tweek interrupted, his cheeks reddening. There was a furious light in his eyes now that hadn't been present before; overpowering the tranquility.

Overwhelmed by the secret he was holding, the way it just seemed to fester, Kyle opened his mouth to answer when the studio's door creaked open. Craig was standing there, dressed in casual attire for once, a t-shirt and jeans. His hair was mussed, falling over his forehead. He glanced around the room, his gaze falling on the decimated sketchbook.

"So, this is what collaboration looks like?"

"More or less," Tweek replied, shutting the book. He quirked an eyebrow at Kyle, almost like he was saying, "don't worry, your secret's safe with me." "We were just kicking a couple of ideas around."

"Well, it's getting pretty late. Are you two coming down for dinner? It's on the table."

"Sure, just give us a second." Taking a hold of Kyle's sleeve, Tweek tugged gently. "I want to show Kyle something."

Suspicion came and went on Craig's face like a cloud moving to cover the sun. He appraised Kyle, nonplussed. Kyle stared back, his eyes lingering on the dark stubble littering Craig's jaws.

"Fine, don't be long." Looking around, he retreated from the room, his hands in his pockets.

"Follow me," Tweek instructed, turning on his heel. Leading Kyle back into his bedroom, they crossed the room to a door that was slightly ajar. Stepping inside, he flipped on the light, illuminating a messy bathroom. Going to the sink, he plucked up a prescription bottle from a long row on the counter. He studied the label before nodding and opening it. He dropped a yellow pill into his palm and then offered it to Kyle.

"To help calm you down," he said, popping one into his mouth as well and swallowing it dry. "It really helps, I promise."

Kyle accepted the pill but didn't take it, cradling it in his hand as he studied the bathroom. It was large with an old-fashioned claw foot tub and a glassed-in shower, the walls covered with what had to be Tweek's framed prints; a riot of birds and lighthouses and seascapes. Trying to be covert, he read the labels on the row of medication bottles, a bevy of unfamiliar names staring back at him: Lamictal, Buspirone, Zolpidem, clonazepam, Risperdal. Under the stark overhead lights, he noticed that the bird tattoos on Tweek's arm seemed puckered beneath, like they were covering something.

"I don't know," he said, staring at the pill. "I've never really taken anything like this before."

"Don't worry, I'm not slipping you a mickey or anything," Tweek said lightly, then winced. "I'm sorry, was that insensitive? You still haven't told me what happened."

Kyle shook his head, remembering the way Pete had attempted to ply him with wine the night before. His hand clenched around the pill before he finally decided to bite the bullet. Throwing the pill into his mouth, he ran the faucet, cupping his hand under the water and drawing it to his lips. Glancing at himself in the mirror, he became aware of just how tired he looked, the circles under his eyes mirroring the ones he'd seen beneath Craig's.

"It'll kick in soon," Tweek promised, patting Kyle's shoulder softly. "You'll be okay."

------

Dinner proved to be a subdued affair, the only sounds clinking cutlery and sporadic requests to pass this or that. Tricia didn't eat much and neither did Tweek. In fact, they seemed more focused on imbibing on wine than they did touching what was on their plates. Finn was cranky and didn't want to eat what was being served, whining to his mother about wanting peanut butter and jelly until she snapped at him to eat what was in front of him or he wouldn't get anything. Craig sat at the head of the table and ate slowly, his manners impeccable as usual as he carefully ate his Swiss steak and mashed potatoes. Kyle found himself nodding off over his plate as the pill Tweek had given him worked its way through his blood, his eyes becoming heavy as he sluggishly attempted to stay focused.

"The roads are really bad out there," Craig commented at one point. He watched Kyle over the rim of his water glass as he drank. "And the snow isn't supposed to stop anytime soon. Is Stan going to be able to make his way up here?"

"I imagine so," Kyle said sleepily, stifling a yawn behind his hand. He had to admit, whatever Tweek had given him was doing the trick; he felt significantly less anxious. "He has a truck and all. He should be okay."

"You should stay the night," Tweek piped up, suddenly sounding enthused. "That way we can actually start coming up with places to start." He glanced at Craig. "We weren't overly productive this afternoon."

"Did the weed have something to do with that?" Craig asked, dropping his eyes to his plate as he cut a piece of steak with his fork.

"Most likely," Tweek replied, taking a gulp of wine. Not for the first time Kyle noticed that he couldn't seem to sit in his chair like a normal person, his legs drawn up to his chest and his chin resting on his knees. "It was nice having company, although I still can't find Kyle's book for the life of me."

"Oh, I'm sure it's stuck somewhere among the chaos," Craig said smoothly. Sliding his eyes to meet Kyle's, he raised his eyebrows. "I mean, it's up to you, Kyle. Would Stan be opposed to you staying over? There's no sense in him riding in this weather if he doesn't have to."

"I guess it'd be okay," Kyle said, the proposition striking him as bizarre. Flitting his focus to the dark windows, he could make out the snow still pouring from the sky, the glass icing over in the corners and moving inward. Pulling out his phone, he suddenly realized that even though he'd received several texts from Pete throughout the day, he'd only gotten one from Stan several hours before, just letting him know that he'd made it to work and that he hoped Kyle was having a good time. Quickly, he sent a message to Stan, asking him what he thought of the idea of him spending the night.

"You can sleep in the guest room, unless you want to bunk with Tweek, of course."

Kyle could hardly believe his ears, having to grope for the meaning of what he was hearing.

"You guys don't share a room?" He asked, gesturing between them.

"Tweek likes to have his space," Craig said, looking away again. "You know, for his books and his art stuff and all that."

Biting his lip, Kyle looked at Tricia, who was nursing a glass of wine as she studied the pair as well. Their gazes locked and she shrugged lightly but she didn't comment. At that moment, Kyle's phone chirped. He turned it on, having received a text from Stan:

that's probably a good idea, actually. the roads are awful and i'm gonna be here late. the boiler blew again. i fucking hate my job sometimes. should i come get you in the AM?

Kyle responded, slightly disappointed that Stan hadn't put up more of a fuss but it couldn't be helped. The weather was terrible and work always seemed to come first, anyway. He tapped out a simple response before setting his phone aside:

Sure. I'll text you in the morning.

"What's the verdict?" Tweek asked, pouring himself more wine. Continuing to eat, Craig began drumming his fingers on the table as he watched the swiftly-emptying bottle Tweek set aside.

"Stan thinks it's a good idea," he said, going back to his food. It tasted wonderful but he just didn't have an appetite. He couldn't really remember the last time he was hungry for anything other than wine. "Thanks for letting me stay, by the way."

"We aren't going to turn you out into the cold, Kyle," Craig said, his posture relaxing somewhat. He even managed a smile. "I'd like to think we're better hosts than that."

-----

It wasn't until well past 2 am that Tweek started to show signs of fatigue, his stamina impressing even Kyle, who had always prided himself on being a night owl. After dinner, they'd retreated back to Tweek's studio while Tricia and Finn had retired for the evening. Craig, once again proving that he was a hopeless workaholic, had excused himself back to his study to work on an article he was writing.

"Something to do with male infertility," Tweek had explained after shutting the door to the studio, stripping off his jeans and shirt as he spoke. "Sperm extraction in non-obstructive azoospermia. He's co-writing it with Token."

"It sounds interesting," Kyle had commented, even though Tweek didn't seem to share his mindset. "What does it mean?"

"I couldn't say. You should ask him sometime," Tweek had replied before settling himself on the floor, a sketchbook open on his lap. "He always loses me when he lapses into his jargon." Not looking up from his sketch, he spoke again. "Are you going to write?"

"I know this is going to sound crazy," Kyle had laughed, feeling foolish. "But I just don't feel like it, and that stuff you gave me made me kind of tired."

"Hey, you can't force creativity." He'd pointed to a stack of art books on a shelf. "Why don't you look at one of those? They always give me ideas when I feel blank."

"That's not a bad idea," Kyle had replied, going to the shelf and perusing the spines. A collection of works by Norman Rockwell jumped out at him; he'd always enjoyed his work. Picking it up, he curled up on the floor close to Tweek and started paging through the cheerful slices of Americana, warm scenes depicting normal folk navigating what could be considered the mundane yet necessary little things that made up life. Before too long, a warm tranquility settled over the room as they quietly focused on their pursuits; the snow scraping the windows as it relentlessly fell.

When they finally decided to turn in, Tweek's head was drooping over his sketchpad and his pencil was dangling from his fingers, forgotten. Kyle was sleepy but not ready to drop off, but he didn't want to keep Tweek from going to bed.

"Hey," he said, nudging Tweek softly. "Let's call it a night, huh?"

Blearily, Tweek looked up and nodded, finally setting his things aside. Rising from the floor, he delicately stretched, his body shivering as he lengthened. Clad only in his boxer briefs, a slight speckling of goosebumps littered his skin.

"You gonna be okay on your own?"

Kyle nodded, getting to his feet as well. In his head, he could envision the path to the guest room, glad that Tweek had showed him where it was after dinner.

"You can sleep in my bed if you want," Tweek said, already moving for the door as he yawned deeply. "I don't want you to be lonely."

"It'll be weird without Stan there but I think I'll manage," Kyle replied, waving his hands. "Do you and Craig ever sleep in the same bed?"

"On occasion," Tweek said easily. "When we feel like it." Opening the door, he stopped and turned. "I'll see you in the morning, okay? Don't wait for me to wake up...just come in and drag my lazy ass out of bed. If you don't, I'll sleep the day away."

"I can do that," Kyle said, beginning to back away. Gathering up the book of Rockwell paintings, he shook it a little. "Just until I fall asleep."

"Sure," Tweek smiled, disappearing into his room; the door clicked softly shut behind him.

It wasn't until he was standing in the hushed guest room that Kyle realized he didn't have any clothes to sleep in, nor did he have a toothbrush. Laying the book aside, he looked around the room, the color scheme a soft collection of creams and blues, the bed a four-poster made of dark wood; the rest of the furniture matching it. A painting of a *woman pouring out a large dish of water was hung on the far wall, her eyes once again averted from the viewer. Snapping on the lamp next to the bed, Kyle noticed an open door, revealing a bathroom. It wasn't as ornate as Tweek's, though it was still lavishly furnished with thick navy blue-colored towels, the shower curtain a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting. The sink fixture was modern, the faucet flat and the basin shaped like a clam shell.

Retreating back into the room, Kyle went to a set of drawers and quietly slid one open, suddenly terrified that Craig would come bursting through the door and demand to know what he was doing. Waving that away, he reasoned that even Craig couldn't chastise him for needing something to wear to bed. Besides, Craig had been oddly solicitous toward him throughout the course of the day, but he was starting to think that was just his personality; he just liked hiding it for the most part. Rooting through the drawer, he finally settled on a grey t-shirt and drew it out, the front emblazoned with the logo for the University of Puget Sound. It smelled like it had been recently laundered, the scent of vanilla clinging to the folds, similar to the aroma of the scrub top Craig had let him borrow.

He undressed quickly and slid the shirt over his head, its hem falling to the middle of his thighs. He glanced into the drawer again, hoping to find some pajama pants, but all he found were t-shirts.

"I guess this'll have to do," he muttered, padding across the floor in the shirt and boxer briefs. He refrained from pulling back the covers of the bed, opting instead to slide on top of the pale blue coverlet. For a moment, he just listened, taking in the unfamiliar noises of the huge house as it settled around him. He could hear water rushing elsewhere in the home, along with the wind crying outside. On the bedside table a tiny clock ticked, but mostly there was silence; a heavy silence. How could Tweek stand it, the quiet? Especially sleeping alone?

It's so lonely, he thought, opening the book of paintings and trying to concentrate on what was on the page: a man and woman tucking their children into bed. The picture made him think of Finn somewhere in the house, no doubt already asleep and dreaming the dreams of the innocent.

It wasn't until he was almost finished with the book that Kyle finally lay his head down, albeit reluctantly, his eyes burning from staying open. Curling onto his side, he allowed himself to shut them for a moment, telling himself that it wouldn't be for long, but opening them seemed to be more difficult than he cared to admit. He could feel himself tiptoeing toward the chasm, nearly falling over as his mind collapsed into vapor and nonsense, though Stan's face was paramount as he eased himself into a tenuous slumber. He couldn't remember the last time they'd slept under separate roofs, and this knowledge made him ill-at-ease. He was just about to drop off when a small thread of vanilla slid into his senses, making him smile faintly.

------

He was standing on a tiny bridge in a room filled with birds and trees. All around him, the sunlight fell, but it was too bright. So bright that everything around him looked like an overexposed photograph. His ears were filled with the sounds of tiny gurgles and the frantic chirping of the birds as they fluttered around him. Looking around, he tried to make sense of where he was, and he could see that he was in a glass box without an exit. Looking down, he could see the splashes of the koi as they moved through the water, their mouths opening for sustenance as they gasped, and he could hear them; almost like they were screaming for food and air. Without thinking, Kyle choked back a sob as his feet passed over the slick lacquer of the bridge. Nearly slipping, he pressed himself up against the glass, desperately searching for an exit, but there was nothing but its slickness beneath his fingertips.

He pounded on it and tried to scream, but nothing came out. The only screams he could hear were the ones inside his head and those of the fish. It wasn't too long before he realized the water level was rising, and in no time it had reached his knees, and then his waist, until it was converging on his chin and he had to throw his head back to catch a breath. The fish were rising along with the water, and when it finally enveloped his head, he opened his eyes to see them undulating around him, no longer screaming, almost like their mouths had been sewn shut. He could feel himself suffocating as his hands clasped at his throat, lungs burning as the water traveled up his nostrils, flooding him. The water was so high now that not even the birds could escape it, and they too were wafting through the currents; their plumage dragging them down as they flailed uselessly. The horror of seeing the birds dying around him was too much and Kyle shut his eyes, his mouth opening soundlessly as it filled with water, his senses cutting off one by one -

Kyle tore awake, his hand pressed to his neck as he tried to remember where he was, deep gasps flooding the quiet. He was met with a strange room, and for a moment the fear felt as suffocating as the water had, choking his voice. Trembling, he started to come back to himself in snatches, but it was slow. Looking down at himself, at the unfamiliar t-shirt he was wearing, he finally remembered. He was staying overnight at Craig and Tweek's, the notion so surreal that it almost felt a dream, too. It was a while before he managed to calm himself down, though he continued to shake, but when he finally got his bearings he rose from the bed and wandered into the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light.

Running the tap, he splashed his face with cool water until some of the shakes subsided. After drying himself, he came back into the bedroom but suddenly it felt stifling; too small. All he could think about was the water rising and the birds dying and he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep anytime soon. Crazily, he wondered if he should go and visit the birds, reasoning that seeing them alive and well might put him at ease. Figuring it couldn't hurt, he slipped from the room on tiptoe and stole down the shadowed corridor, thankful that his room was close to the stairs, otherwise he'd probably get lost. On kitten feet, he descended the stairs as the chilled air of the house nipped his legs. He felt foolish for venturing out without putting on his jeans first, but it was so late he doubted that would become an issue.

Moments later, he was standing at the doorway of the glassed-in aviary, and he breathed a sigh of relief to see the birds quietly sleeping in the tree and on their perches, their heads beneath their wings. The room was low-lit and tranquil, the water frothing lightly as the fish slid along the bottom. His nightmare was retreating to the dark, no man's land where dreams laid themselves to rest, some of its vividness dissipating, and he finally felt like he could truly breathe. He'd decided to go back to his room and attempt to sleep when he heard a soft voice stealing through the air, making him seize up immediately. He wouldn't have come downstairs if he'd known someone was still up!

"Baby? Is that you?" The voice called again as Kyle stepped from the small room. "Are you okay?"

Craig, Kyle thought, his eyes shooting open in panic. He looked down at himself, at his half-undressed state, his mouth going horribly dry. I can't let him see me like this!

Trying to backtrack, Kyle was halfway to the stairs when the voice cropped up again, but this time it was much closer.

"Kyle? What are you doing?" The light flipped on and Kyle could feel his pupils constricting as he held up an arm to shield his face. Standing at the end of the hallway was Craig, still dressed in the same jeans and t-shirt as before; eyes widened with confusion. "Why are you down here? It's the middle of the night." Pausing, he looked down, his gaze drifting over him. "You're wearing my t-shirt."

Kyle had to fight the urge to cover himself, a flush practically starting from the tips of his toes and traveling swiftly up his body. He couldn't help feeling humiliated being caught like this, and by Craig of all people. Somehow, the fact that it was him made it so much worse.

"I-I'm sorry, I had a bad dream and I -" he broke off, knowing he wouldn't be able to articulate his reasoning for coming downstairs to check on the birds. It would just open him up to more ridicule because he'd been acting like a child, even he could see that. "I couldn't sleep and I didn't have anything to wear to bed," he added, lamely.

Coming forward, Craig put his hands up in what could be construed as a placating gesture, the confusion fading from his expression and becoming softer. As he drew closer, Kyle could see that his sharp eyes were red and more vulnerable than usual, the smell of alcohol emanating from him.

"You don't have to apologize, Kyle, for the shirt or anything else. I was just surprised." Running a hand over his mouth, he braced himself against the wall. "I thought you were Finn or Tweek. They usually have trouble sleeping, so I try to stay up to make sure they're okay." He shrugged. "I also like to stay up late, it gives me more time to work."

"All you do is work," Kyle replied without thinking. Feeling bold, he continued. "Do you ever stop?"

"No, not really," Craig said, throwing Kyle for a loop with his lack of pretense. "Working makes me happy...I like it." He studied him for a moment, one eyebrow lifted. "Did you want to join me for a bit? I have a fire going in the den and -" he paused, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "I could use some company, honestly."

"You're kidding," Kyle asked, incredulous. "Right?"

Craig gave him a stern look, some of his vulnerability fading away. He turned on his heel and began to walk away.

"Suit yourself," he called over his shoulder. "I was just trying to be polite."

"No, wait," Kyle said before he could stop himself. Quickly, he followed after Craig, who led him into a small room adjacent to the aviary. There was a fire crackling on the hearth just like Craig said there'd be, the room drenched in firelight and dimly-lit by standing lamps of Tiffany glass. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Craig swiftly sliding something under the cushion of a wing back chair, a set of cut glass tumblers and a bottle of amber liquid sitting on the coffee table. On the floor was an oriental rug in shades of cranberry and hunter green. A couch stretched before the fireplace, the upholstery a dark green. On the mantel a clock ticked, its pendulum swaying back and forth hypnotically and on the walls were maps in gilded frames. He became aware of vague music playing in the background, though he couldn't discern what the song was.

"Did you want something to drink?" Craig asked, gesturing to the bottle. "I know you like wine, but I'm willing to share my bourbon."

"That'd be nice," Kyle said, going to the fire and standing before it, allowing its warmth to wash over his chilled legs. "I like this room," he commented, watching the clock's pendulum swing back and forth. "It's different from the other ones in the house."

"That's because it's mine," Craig said, coming up beside him and offering him a glass. He frowned when he saw the state of the wound on Kyle's wrist when he lifted his arm. Setting the glass on the mantel, he took a hold of Kyle's hand, gently turning his arm over. "This looks infected. Did you hit it on something?"

Averting his eyes, Kyle didn't want to admit that Pete had reopened the cut when he'd grabbed him. He opted for silence, shrugging instead.

Craig sighed as he continued to study's Kyle's skin. After a moment, he let him go.

"Hold on, I'll be right back."

After Craig disappeared from the room, Kyle realized his heart was running like a rabbit in his chest, and he reached up to take the glass of bourbon from the mantel. Taking a small sip, he grimaced at the flavor, but was happy to feel the burn falling down his throat. The flush from before was retreating, but he could still feel it lingering in his cheeks, warming him along with the alcohol. A moment of clarity struck him as he became hyper-aware of his current circumstances, he was standing in Craig's home late at night, wearing his shirt and no pants. How could things become any more bizarre? He doubted they could.

When Craig returned he was holding a small first aid kit and wearing gloves. Setting the kit aside, he flipped it open and pulled out a small bottle and a cotton ball.

"Peroxide," he said, saturating the ball. "Just to be on the safe side." He studied the wound again, his expression grim. "It isn't infected yet, but you're getting close. Didn't I tell you to keep this clean and covered?"

Kyle nodded, taking another sip of bourbon.

"Sorry for being an awful patient."

"You aren't the only one," Craig said, dabbing at the wound. "Does that hurt a lot?"

Shaking his head, Kyle studied Craig's face as he worked, his skin orange-lit by the fire and his hair gleaming richly. He bit his lip, suddenly wanting to reach out and touch the glossy strands, though he knew this was an insane, unheard of urge. Instead, he admired Craig's efficiency, the way he deftly cleaned the wound and covered it with more gauze. Setting his supplies aside and removing his gloves, he suddenly reached up and placed a cool hand against Kyle's forehead, making his breath catch in his throat as he found himself getting trapped in Craig's eyes. He was close, so close that Kyle could once again see those small flecks of green in Craig's grey irises.

"You aren't warm, though you are blushing again," Craig teased, taking his hand away and leaving Kyle to clutch for the mantel. "You need to be more careful, though."

"I-I'll try," he said, bringing the glass to his lips again and tipping it back, draining it. He hissed through his teeth at the burn.

Craig laughed while he poured some hand sanitizer onto his palms, rubbing them together.

"Well, you certainly know how to drink. Did you want some more?"

"Please," Kyle said, holding up his glass while Craig refilled it. He poured more into his own glass, grinning.

"Cheers," he said, tapping his tumbler against Kyle's and then taking a deep sip, clearing some residual moisture from his lips. Kyle couldn't help but notice how full they were. "So, did you want to talk about it?"

Startled, Kyle stared at him, not sure what he meant.

"Your nightmare," Craig clarified. He dropped to the floor so he was seated in front of the fire, its light reflecting off the facets in the glass and making it glimmer like a diamond. "If not, I understand. I just thought it might help."

"I mean, I guess I don't mind," Kyle said, shifting from foot to foot nervously. "I don't think I'll be able to remember most of it...and none of it made sense."

"Naturally. Here, why don't you sit down?" Reaching up, Craig tugged on the hem of Kyle's t-shirt. "You'll be more comfortable."

Dropping to his knees, Kyle made sure to keep his legs pressed tightly together as he cradled his drink in his hands. He could feel Craig watching him, but he didn't dare look up as he began to speak.

"I dreamed I was drowning," he began, rotating the glass in his fingers before he took another long drink. He could already feel the alcohol unfurling through his blood and making him pliable, some of his earlier discomfort easing, even with his close proximity to Craig. "I was trapped in this glass box, just like the room you built for Tweek? But there wasn't an exit, and it filled up with water." He shuddered, remembering the way the birds tried to fight a losing battle. "The birds were drowning all around me, and I couldn't save them...I couldn't save myself."

"That's terrifying," Craig replied, staring into the fire, his glass settled against his foot, nearly empty already. "What do you think it meant?"

"Don't tell me you put a lot of stock in dreams," Kyle asked, raising a brow. "That doesn't seem like your style."

"I'm not saying they're prophecies or anything like that, but I do think your subconscious is definitely trying to tell you something, Kyle. If I had to guess, it sounds like you feel helpless or afraid of something. Is that fair?"

"I guess," Kyle said, already trying to distance himself from the path this conversation was taking. Quickly, he knocked back his drink and asked for more.

"Fine," Craig said, pouring a little more bourbon into Kyle's glass. "But that's it, I'm cutting you off."

"Have you ever realized just how bossy you are?" Kyle asked, bringing the tumbler to his lips, his thoughts and words becoming easy and loose as inebriation set in. "You always have to be taking care of someone."

"If I don't, who will?" Craig asked, replenishing his glass before putting the stopper in the bottle and setting it aside. "Most people aren't just going to take care of themselves. Haven't you noticed?"

"Yeah, but who's taking care of you?" Kyle countered, biting his tongue and afraid that he'd gone too far. Sure, their current exchange could be considered friendly and light, but he knew Craig; he could change on a dime if something rubbed him the wrong way.

Craig lapsed into silence as he studied the jumping flames, the fire a combination of reds, oranges, yellows, and whites; its center a pulsing core of blue. The quiet stretched on until Kyle had finished his drink and set the glass aside, his body feeling pliable and heavy as he drifted, the fire and Craig's closeness lulling him. Finally, Craig spoke, and Kyle had never heard his voice sound so naked.

"No one," he said, draining his bourbon and licking along the rim. Kyle couldn't pull his eyes from that pink tongue, mesmerized. "I don't have anyone looking after me, Kyle, not with my sister going through all that bullshit with her ex, and Finn needing some kind of father figure. And, god, don't get me started on Tweek -" he stopped, almost like he was afraid he'd given too much away. "Forget I said that."

"The point is," he continued, "I can't wait for someone to swoop in and look after me. I'm not a child...none of us are. We all have to stand on our own two feet, but some of us are more capable of that than others."

"I saw the pill bottles in Tweek's bathroom," Kyle remarked, timidly. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have brought the subject up but he was feeling so open in that moment, so relaxed, and he could tell that Craig wanted to be strong and stoic like always, but he was only human, after all. No man was an island. "He's dealing with a lot of stuff, isn't he?"

"That's putting it mildly," Craig said, looking down at his hands. "I don't want to put all of his business out there because it isn't fair to him, but he can't be blamed for everything he says and does. He's struggling, just like so many other people, and..." he bit his lip, shrugging helplessly. "It kills me, Kyle. I've been able to help so many people as a doctor, but no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I can't cure him...I'll never be able to."

He covered his face, his shoulders shaking a little as Kyle tried to find something, anything, to say that would help. Instead, he tentatively reached out and placed a hand on Craig's arm, hoping that just this small amount of physical contact could provide some comfort, meager though it was. He was surprised when Craig didn't pull away, and he had to figure it was because he'd had so much to drink. Craig had never encouraged physical contact from most people, as a general rule. Finally, he pulled his hand from his face, and Kyle could see the traces of moisture under his eyes, but he didn't comment, knowing that it would only embarrass him.

"God, you're so different from how I thought you'd be," Craig said, laughing a little now, the sound coming out watery.

"What do you mean?" Kyle asked, trying not to take offense. "It's not like we've ever really gotten to know each other."

"Gotta love preconceived notions, huh?" Craig replied, going to the wing back chair and digging under the cushion. Slowly, he drew something out, keeping his back to Kyle so he couldn't see what it was. "I always thought you lived under this lucky star, that you got one book published and then walked around afterward with this undeserved, inflated ego. I just assumed you were content to ride that success while Stan worked to take care of the both of you."

Feeling like he'd been punched in the gut, Kyle groped for the words to defend himself, but he couldn't. How could he when a lot of what Craig was saying were the deepest fears he harbored about himself; the ones he carried around in his heart all the time? Retreating into himself, he drew his legs to his chest, settling his chin on his knees; the long t-shirt pulled down, covering him. It wasn't until Craig was turning back to him and holding something aloft that he lifted his gaze, his heart going haywire as the haze of the booze momentarily lifted.

"My book," he whispered, staring at it with wide, disbelieving eyes. He would've been less surprised if Craig had held up a severed head. Okay, maybe not, but still. He stared at the book, a relic of the past, and it was like the years were fading away, transporting him back to when he'd been ensconced in the creative process; the lost nights spent writing until dawn as Stan slept soundly in the bed and always close by. All of the copies he'd been left with had been tucked away in storage so he didn't have to look at them, but here it was, staring him in the face.

"The Virgin Summer," Craig said, turning the book around and studying the cover in all its blue-skied, naturalistic glory; an ocean crashing on a long-forgotten beach. "Catchy title."

"I chose it when I was in my early twenties," Kyle said, his throat dry from sudden humiliation. Standing, he went to Craig and frantically tried to snatch the book away but he kept it just out of Kyle's reach. "Give it back if you're just going to make fun of me!"

"Hey, hold on," Craig said, holding the book away. "I'm not making fun of you, Kyle, at all! I like it, dammit! Relax!"

Upon hearing these words, Kyle froze in place, which proved to be problematic because he lost his footing and fell directly into Craig's lap, his head nestled on his chest as he tried to accept what he'd just been told. What's more, he couldn't believe how happy the words had made him, sudden, almost painful elation filling him up until he thought he'd burst. Vaguely, he became aware of Craig's warmth and the thudding of his heart beneath his ear, and he gasped, drawing back quickly. They stared at each other, the clock suddenly tolling the hour: four quick chimes in succession.

"You're just fucking with me, you have to be," Kyle said, still sitting in the other's lap and fully expecting him to shove him off as soon as Craig's mind caught up with the situation. That didn't happen, forcing Kyle to crawl onto the floor and pulling the shirt down, making sure nothing vulnerable could be seen. "There's no way you liked it."

"Why?" Craig asked, nonplussed. If anything, he seemed amused at Kyle's reaction.

"B-because you hate me!" Kyle sputtered. "You've always hated me!"

"Wow, that's sound logic," Craig replied, rolling his eyes. "Because I always go out of my way to read the books of people I hate. That makes perfect sense."

"None of this makes any sense." Kyle rubbed his temples, feeling the stirrings of a headache. Once again, Craig was blindsiding him, proving that he couldn't make anything simple.

"I honestly didn't have very high expectations," Craig said, seemingly ignoring Kyle's incredulous disbelief. "But Tweek was right...it's sweet without being heavy-handed. I'm not done, of course, but I'm actually going to finish it." He smiled wolfishly, and if Kyle didn't know him better, he'd think he was trying to flirt. But then again, maybe he was? It was becoming clear that Kyle didn't know him at all. And he certainly wasn't adept at accurately reading people, if Pete was any indication.

"I need a drink," Kyle muttered, grabbing his glass and pouring more bourbon into it before Craig could protest.

"Do you really think that's the best idea? You already seem pretty wasted," Craig commented, though he slid his glass closer as well, still smiling like he was enjoying himself very much.

"I need to be wasted if we're going to have a conversation like this." Kyle refreshed their drinks, the bottle of bourbon bottoming out. "Is this all the alcohol you have?"

"As far as you're concerned, yes." Craig went back to perusing the book's cover, swirling the liquor. "I shouldn't have even invited you to drink, not after Tweek gave you something."

Kyle started, his mouth filled with bourbon. He swallowed and coughed, his hand pressed against his mouth.

"How did you know?"

"It was so obvious, I could just tell from the look on your face over dinner. He didn't give you anything else, did he?"

"No," Kyle scowled, feeling equal parts annoyed, shy, and oddly, inexplicably happy. It's like Craig had this uncanny ability to always keep him on his toes, always guessing. "So, you really liked it? For real? And why didn't you tell Tweek you took his copy? He's been looking everywhere for it."

"Yes, Kyle. I wouldn't lie about something like that," Craig replied, exasperated. "Although, I do see the irony in that statement considering I lied to Tweek about the books' whereabouts. I guess I didn't want to answer a million and one questions about wanting to read the damn thing in the first place." Holding up the book, he considered Kyle for a moment, clearly ruminating.

"What?" Kyle asked, looking down to make sure his shirt was pulled down, feeling naked all the same.

"Would you read some of it to me? Just a couple pages?"

"R-really? Out loud? My own book? I couldn't do that, I'd sound ridiculous," Kyle sputtered, nervously tucking his curls behind his ears. "You don't really want me to do that." He paused, looking into Craig's eyes, the flames popping as they regarded one another. Memories surfaced, of reading Ethan Frome to Stan, how intimate those moments had been, and suddenly he felt so breathless, so strangely, euphorically excited. He got to his feet shakily, feeling unsteady from the alcohol and something else, and in a moment he realized what it was: giddiness, almost like he was a clueless teenager again.

Craig rose as well and sat in his wing back chair, his legs crossed as Kyle approached him. He watched him, an almost hungry look in his eyes as he handed over the book, and for whatever reason Kyle almost wanted their hands to touch, but then he decided he was just too drunk to be thinking straight.

"Where did you leave off?" He asked, holding the book in his hands like it burned him, because it brought back so many memories he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on for so long.

"I marked my place," Craig replied, leaning his face in his hand as he took another sip of his drink. "Just start on that page, okay?"

Nodding, Kyle backed away and sat on the couch, his back ramrod straight as he opened to the page Craig had dogeared, his hands shaking. He was just about to start reading when Craig interrupted, his voice soft.

"Kyle?"

He looked up, eyebrows raised.

"Do you hate me?" Craig asked, but he averted his eyes when he asked the question, whether from shame or embarrassment Kyle couldn't tell. He found it weirdly charming, either way. It wasn't often that Craig Tucker didn't ask a question that wasn't head-on.

He thought a moment, having to really mull over this inquiry. Sure, he'd told Stan that he strongly disliked Craig but now he wasn't so sure that was still the case. If anything, he wasn't sure how to feel about Craig at this point. All he knew was that he was very, very confused.

"No," he finally replied, keeping his eyes on the page laid before him. "I don't. Not at all."

Chapter Text

It's a little bit funny this feeling inside
I'm not one of those who can easily hide, I
Don't have much money but boy if I did
I'd buy a big house where we both could live
If I was a sculptor, but then again no
Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show
Oh I know it's not much but it's the best I can do
My gift is my song
And this one's for you

 -Your Song, Elton John


The room was deluged in white when he opened his eyes, momentarily dazzling him before he blinked a few times. Slowly, the world came into a hazy focus, but he was still dazed and disoriented, not recognizing the room he was waking up in, a raw apprehension growing when he finally found the wherewithal to sit up. It was slow going, his head pounding like a heartbeat as he struggled to swallow, his mouth and throat so parched that it felt like his mouth was stuffed full of sand. Looking around, he tried to remember what had happened the night before, tried to piece together why his tongue tasted of old liquor.

It wasn't until he saw the bourbon bottle sitting empty on the coffee table that it started coming back to Kyle in waves: wandering downstairs in the middle of the night to check on the birds, Craig finding him, drinking together, talking -

"Oh, my God," he breathed, drawing the blanket he was wrapped in to his face; clutching it to his mouth. "He found my book...he read it." He could feel his eyes widening as he glanced at the ticking clock on the mantel, the incessant pendulum swinging back and forth. "I read to him, and then..."

It was then that his brain finally started catching up to him, and he stared at the blanket clenched in his hands.

"He covered me up," he said, feeling stupid for pointing out the obvious, but still amazed by it. He couldn't even remember falling asleep, but he knew for a fact that he hadn't been underneath a soft, green blanket when he'd drifted off. No, Craig had clearly felt the need to drape it over him while he slept, and for whatever reason, this knowledge made his chest feel tight, but in a good way. Holding up his arm, he studied the gauze wrapped around his wrist.

None of this makes any sense. The more time I spend with him, the more confusing he becomes. Just who the fuck is he?

He looked at the empty bottle gleaming on the table again, and a thought came to him. One that comforted him because it helped put things in perspective, but also made him feel inexplicably melancholy.

To be fair, we did drink a lot. Anyone would act out of character with that much liquor in their system, right?

Sighing, he tried to put thoughts of the night before out of his head as he shakily stood, though snippets of what had been discussed broke through his wall now and then. He could remember how sad Craig had looked while talking about Tweek, how obviously lonely he was, but he kept on moving forward with his usual stoic attitude. Kyle supposed it made sense...Craig had always been like that, even when they were children, so why should he change now? If anything, it made sense that he would become more set in his ways the older he got.

Kyle could feel the first stirrings of nausea as he held onto the couch, trying not to fall over as he took up the blanket and carefully folded it, laying it down softly. Backing away, he shivered as the chill met his bare legs, and he was mortified anew at his half-undressed state. He could hardly fathom what Craig must think of him, wandering around in just his t-shirt and boxer briefs. Even more importantly, what would Stan think if he could see him now, clothed in Craig's old college shirt...a garment that fell to his thighs and covered what needed to be covered, but still.

"This is officially one of the weirdest moments of my life," Kyle groaned as he staggered across the floor, his eye catching on something he hadn't noticed initially; a framed photo sitting on the table next to the chair Craig had occupied the night before. He picked it up and managed a small smile, studying it: Craig and Tweek standing in front of the clinic and actually looking happy for once, both of their faces practically glowing with excitement, which was no small achievement so far as Craig was concerned.

He wanted to believe they'd be just fine, that they were going through a rough patch like all couples do, but he couldn't be sure. Setting the frame down, Kyle made his way toward the door, finally beginning to wake up completely; coming back to himself. He worked the kinks out as he walked down the dim corridor, the light from the windows in Craig's den only falling so far, until he came upon the aviary. Stopping, he watched the birds preening for a few minutes, the sunlight pouring through the skylight and drenching their plumage a soft golden white. The water bubbled and frothed as the fish wafted through, their slick scales glazed like clean ice.

Wrapping his arms around himself, Kyle stood in the doorway and became lost in his thoughts as the birds trilled; almost feeling trapped in a world encapsulated. The home he stood in was like a palace, he had to admit, but underneath the opulence it was just so quiet...when he got past the sounds of the creatures inhabiting that room, the silence was waiting, and it was heavy. It made him think of his own apartment, how the air felt so still without the sounds of music or the TV filling it up...how it almost became a living creature, that lack of sound, taking on weight and substance as it ate up everything in its path.

"Why do you look so concerned?" A voice came from behind him, making him jump and turn. Craig was there, his hands on his hips as he watched Kyle with an impassive expression. His usually smooth hair was messy, his jaws covered in stubble; dressed in grey sweatpants and a blue t-shirt. He barely looked like himself...appearing much too casual.

Comfortable, even. Kyle could barely believe it. Frantically, he pulled his shirt down, trying to cover his naked legs.

"I need pants," he said, wincing even as the words left his mouth. God, he must look ridiculous.

Craig cocked a brow, still appearing nonplussed.

"That's what has you so concerned?"

"N-no, it's just I don't exactly feel comfortable walking around your house half-naked," Kyle replied, allowing a bit of an edge to creep into his tone. He was fully prepared to go head to head with Craig if he decided to start acting like a dick again. "I mean, doesn't it bother you?"

"Not especially, no. You don't have anything I haven't seen," Craig said, not missing a beat. Glancing down, he made no attempt to cover up his scrutiny of Kyle's scrawny, little legs, making him squirm in his place. "But if it's such a big deal, here." Turning, he went and grabbed something from the cherry wood table in the dining room: a pair of black sweatpants. Bringing them back, he tossed them to Kyle.

"I had a feeling you'd be asking for a pair. You aren't hard to predict."

Will you be able to predict when I'm going to kick your ass, because it's going to happen.

"Thanks," Kyle muttered, pulling on the pants as far as they would go. Even then, they were far too long. "Are these yours?"

"Yeah, aren't they comfy?"

Kyle stared down at the material pooling at his feet. Not wanting to sound ungrateful, he just nodded slowly. Craig continued to stare at him before he finally smiled, though it was slight.

"Cute," he said, turning on his heel and walking away. "Let me guess, you have a headache."

Reeling from Craig's comment, Kyle could only hang back for a moment before he snapped out of his shock. Waking up, he hurried after Craig, nearly tripping over the ridiculously long pants. Even though he'd rolled them at the waist as much as he could, they were still a trial. Craig had always been one of the tallest guys in their group, and Kyle had always been one of the shorter ones. He'd capped out at a diminutive 5'6, but Craig had to be over 6'3 at least. When Kyle wore his clothes, he looked like a little kid playing dress-up, which only made him feel more petulant. Fighting down his annoyance, he followed after Craig as he led the way into the kitchen, the room mostly quiet, though very familiar music was wafting from the Bose speaker on the counter; an iPod perched on top of it.

"Is that the theme to Jurassic Park?" Kyle asked, pointing to the player.

"Yep," Craig replied. Opening up a bottle of Ibuprofen, he slid a few into Kyle's hand. After a moment's pause, he took a few for himself. He gestured to a couple glasses of orange juice waiting on the counter. "Bourbon doesn't fuck around, does it?"

"No, it's out for blood."

"The way God intended." Craig made quick work of the pills and orange juice alike, far faster than Kyle, who was moving at a snail's pace. "You wanna catch up to the rest of the class, Kyle?"

"I'm trying," Kyle snapped, throwing the pills in his mouth and knocking back the orange juice. "Sorry I don't move as quickly as you...we can't all be perfect."

"What a shame," Craig smirked as he yanked on Kyle's oversized pants, snickering.

"Knock it off," Kyle said, pulling away from him to retreat to the other side of the butcher block table. "What's gotten into you, anyway? You're acting almost -"

"Almost what?" Craig asked, slowly beginning to walk around the table, encroaching on Kyle's space. He was grinning but it didn't seem mean-spirited; just carefree.

"Human," Kyle replied, darting away when Craig came too close for comfort. "You're acting like a human being right now. It's weird."

"You act like I'm some kind of robot or something. Have you noticed that?" Retreating, Craig poured them more orange juice. Kyle was silently grateful, the juice having helped to quench the arid nature of his mouth.

"Can you blame me?" Lifting the glass to his lips, Kyle's eyes trailed around the kitchen; immaculate, well-kept. They widened when he saw the clock on the wall, having ignored the one in the den. "It's only 7 am? You have to be kidding me."

"Forgive me for being a late riser," Craig replied with a straight face. Taking another drink of juice, he snorted when Kyle frowned at him, clearly not amused. "Hey, I would've let you sleep for as long as you wanted, Kyle. You woke up on your own."

"7 am on a Sunday morning shouldn't exist," Kyle muttered, pushing his empty glass away. "In fact, it should be against the law."

"I usually get up around this time," Craig said, shrugging. "You know, to work out, get some work done; that sort of thing." He thought a moment, smiling suddenly. "Not to mention, that chair isn't exactly comfortable to sleep in. My back is killing me."

"You slept in the chair?" Kyle asked, surprised. He'd just figured that Craig had covered him with the blanket and then retreated to his own room where he could sleep comfortably. It sort of warmed him, this realization, that he hadn't been left alone for the whole night in a strange place. It also made him wonder why Craig would've opted to stay with him instead of just going to bed.

"Slept isn't exactly the right word. Dozed is more like it." Leaning on the counter, Craig rubbed his hands together. He looked up, catching Kyle's eye. "You were pretty peaceful, though."

"I suppose," Kyle said, breaking eye contact. Great, now he was starting to feel too warm again. How did Craig always manage to get to him, even when he wasn't being an asshole? He was starting to get seriously tired of his body's involuntary responses to his employer's presence, innocuous as they could be. Clearing his throat, he decided to shift gears.

"I seriously need some coffee."

"Same, which makes your timing perfect, actually."

Now Kyle did look at him, eyebrows raised. The wry expression on Craig's face spoke volumes, which only served to piss him off.

"You can't be serious right now. You're going to make me your coffee bitch even on the weekend, and at your house?"

"You should be flattered, Kyle," Craig retorted, still rubbing his hands together slowly. He was starting to look more and more amused as the conversation wore on. "It's a compliment to your coffee-making skills. You get just the right flavor...not too strong, certainly not weak. It's a rare ability...not even my housekeeper can make it as well as you."

Annoyed, Kyle crossed his arms and turned away, unable to dispel the notion that he was being manipulated. Craig wasn't an idiot by any means, it's not like he wasn't capable of finessing a situation to suit his needs.

"Oh, please," he finally said, noticing suddenly that the music had changed to something bluesy and slow; trumpets filling up the kitchen. It almost sounded like sunshine*, as strange as the thought was. He shook his head. "I bet you're just too lazy to make the damn coffee yourself."

Suddenly, he felt a warmth on his arm and he turned to see Craig's hand resting on his shirt. His breath caught in his throat. It didn't help that his face was earnest now, his former amusement abating slightly.

"I mean it," he said. "I'm not fucking with you, okay? Why do you always act like I have an ulterior motive or something?"

Kyle stepped away and shrugged, wanting to forgo pretenses because he'd like to think they were past that point.

"Because you're a dick sometimes, Craig. You know that, right? Like, you can be very condescending and abrupt and -"

"Okay, I think I get the picture," he interjected, waving a hand. "I'm not like that all the time, am I?"

"Often enough to put me on edge."

Now Craig smiled cheekily, resting his face in his hands as he looked up at Kyle; dark bangs falling over his forehead untidily.

"Yeah, but you don't hate me. Remember?"

Kyle's face flamed now, and he could've kicked himself. Quickly, he walked over to the pantry and yanked it open, nervously looking for the coffee.

"It doesn't mean I like you either," he called over his shoulder as he plucked a bag of Starbucks grounds off of a tall shelf, having to practically get on his tiptoes to retrieve it. Coming back, he studied the bag and held it up for Craig to see. "I didn't know you were a Caramel Cloud Macchiato man."

"Nah, I'm not. Tweek likes it. I'm cool with it, though." He still had that knowing smile on his face, and Kyle had to fight the urge to fling the bag at him.

"Why isn't your housekeeper waiting on you like the prince you are?" Kyle muttered as he went over to the maker, finding the situation utterly surreal.

"Linda has Sundays off, Kyle. I'm not a complete tyrant," Craig replied, his tone becoming teasing. 

"Could've fooled me." He was measuring the grounds now and pouring them into the filter. Moving to fill up the pot with water, he was also acutely aware of Craig watching him closely. It made him feel like a sideshow.

"Are you going to, I don't know, make yourself useful or what?" He asked, a hand on his hip. "Do I need to remind you that I'm not your servant and we aren't at work, so," he raised his nose in the air before turning back to the coffee.

"Oh, are you saying I treat you like a servant at work?" It sounded like he was trying to stop himself from laughing, a fact that just aggravated Kyle more.

"Maybe that's too diplomatic a term," Kyle retorted as he poured the water into the maker and hit the start button. "Perhaps slave is more apropos."

There was a pause and then Craig did start laughing. Kyle whirled around, ready to lunge at him like a vengeful tiger. It seemed like Craig had two settings where he was concerned: treating him with derision or flat-out making fun of him. It made the instances where he was actually decent seem like they'd never happened; like he'd dreamed them.

"You are such an asshole!" He yelled, coming closer and gripping the counter. "Did you know that?!"

Covering his mouth, Craig clearly tried to retain his composure before he was finally able to speak. Slight color had even bloomed in his cheeks, turning them pink.

"You're just so funny and you don't even realize it," he said, pressing his fingers against his bottom lip. "Apropos. Who talks like that? Didn't you use 'beholden' during one of our conversations, too?"

"Yeah, I did," Kyle growled, the telltale clicking of the coffee machine coming to life behind him. "So what?"

"You take yourself so seriously," Craig replied, shrugging. "Why don't you loosen up a little?"

Snorting, Kyle couldn't believe what he was hearing, and from Craig Fucking Tucker of all people; Mr. Uptight, Mr. "Everything Has to Be Just So All the Goddamn Time." Who the hell did he think he was?

"You're unbelievable," he snapped, leaning forward. "Like you're really one to talk, you know that? You micromanage every single thing you do, right down to your coffee." Stepping back, he tapped the coffee maker, which was swiftly filling up. "'Two Splenda, vanilla creamer,"' he said, trying to mimic Craig's nasally voice. "Ring a bell?"

Appearing unfazed, Craig leaned his head in his hand, still smiling.

"There's nothing wrong with liking things a certain way. But, you're right. I can be pretty inflexible, huh?"

"Wait, what?" Kyle asked, having prepared himself for a battle of epic proportions. Craig wasn't supposed to fold so easily, it wasn't fair. "Are you actually agreeing with me? Seriously?"

"I can have moments of self-reflection just like everyone else, can't I?" Craig asked as he pushed away from the counter. Appearing unsure, he slowed as he walked over to the fridge. "So, what are we doing here? Did you have anything specific in mind for breakfast? What do you usually have?"

"I, uh," Kyle faltered, still trying to catch up. Just what the hell was going on right now? He was so confused. "I mean, Stan usually cooks breakfast for us on the weekends, so I'm not sure. What do you like?"

Craig frowned slightly before he opened the fridge, turning his back to Kyle.

"I like everything, honestly." He paused. "Not that I can really cook or anything. I'm actually pretty hopeless in the kitchen." He glanced over his shoulder, eyes narrowed. "Stan cooks for you, huh? Well, isn't he a man among men?"

"He's pretty good, if you must know," Kyle replied, puffing up. "Mainly because he had to pick up my slack," he added, tone softening. "I can't really cook that well either."

"Well, let's figure this out together," Craig said as he reached into the fridge, pulling out a carton of eggs. "What do you think?"

I think I'm stuck in the Twilight Zone right now.

"Sure, yeah," Kyle said, pushing thoughts of Stan away. He was almost positive he wasn't awake yet, especially if he worked late the night before. He'd considered texting him, but he didn't want to bother him so early in the morning. Besides, the situation he was in was just so bizarre...he kind of wanted to see where it was going. "Sounds good."

"Oh, and before I forget." Reaching into the door of the fridge, Craig plucked something up and held it aloft: a bottle of vanilla coffee creamer. "Think you could fix me a cup of coffee before we get started?"

"You're seriously asking for it," Kyle replied irritably, but that didn't stop him from accepting the bottle. Sighing, he just decided to let it go for the moment, ignoring Craig's smug expression. "Fine, whatever. Where are the mugs?"

It wasn't too long before their collective efforts yielded something that resembled a passable breakfast: a pan of scrambled eggs, slightly burned bacon, and a pile of toasted bagels with cream cheese. Surprisingly, Craig had deferred to Kyle throughout most of the process, after it was established that he was the superior cook, though that wasn't really much of an accomplishment once he saw how little Craig actually knew. He hadn't been kidding, it would seem; he really was hopeless in the kitchen.

"I've just never been very domestic," Craig admitted as he sipped at his coffee, his eyes closing with pleasure. "I just don't have the patience for it."

"I find that hard to believe," Kyle replied as he began lifting plates from a cabinet, already feeling weirdly at home in Craig's kitchen. "You're always looking after everyone, like a regular mother hen."

"Well, yeah, I know how to look after the day-to-day stuff, but not the fussy things like cooking and cleaning and laundry. Why do you think I hired a housekeeper?" Without being asked, he set his mug aside and gathered a handful of forks and napkins, following behind Kyle into the dining room.

"Because you're rich?" Kyle asked, laying out the plates and watching as Craig plunked down cutlery. Somehow, he even made that small gesture seem awkward. He almost had to smile at this thought, rolling his eyes when Craig set the napkins in the middle of the table instead of placing them next to the plates. He also refrained from pointing out that Craig could be pretty snobby, all things considered.

"I'm not rich, I'm well-off," Craig argued, giving Kyle a look. "You act like I'm Bill Gates or something."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I was just fooled by the gigantic house with its own aviary; my mistake." He thought a moment, tapping his chin. "And the Jag, the fact that you paid for that gigantic dinner Friday night, and -"

He broke off, checking the tag of the sweatpants Craig had let him borrow.

"Just as I suspected, Armani sweatpants. Seriously, who the fuck needs designer sweatpants?"

"Oh, please. You seem like you're sitting pretty, too." Picking up the pan of bacon and eggs, he gestured to the bagels. "You gonna get those?"

Kyle nodded, annoyed by Craig's assumption about his financial situation. How would he even know?

"Why would you think I have any money?" He asked, standing back and looking at the table once it was all set. "I'm working for you, aren't I? That should give you a clue that I'm not exactly a Rockefeller."

"Hey, I pay you really well, and besides, you haven't worked in years, right?" Craig cocked a brow as he sat at the head of the table. He snapped out a napkin and settled it on his lap, showcasing his fussy manners yet again. "Wait, hold up. You've never had an actual job, right?"

"I interned for my father," Kyle said as he sat as well, hesitating before taking the chair next to Craig's. "During my summers in college."

"So, you've been able to rely on Stan's income all this time...and why is that?"

"Fine, so I made some money off the book I published. Royalties and all that," Kyle snapped, beginning to dole out the food without being asked. He scooped up some eggs, waiting. "Is this enough for you?"

"Sure." Craig held up his plate. "Shoot, did you want orange juice? I can go grab it."

"Good idea."

After Craig returned, they silently began eating before he spoke up.

"Royalties don't last that long, do they? I mean, I don't know anything about all of this, but that's my assumption."

"My father is very good at investing," Kyle said, dabbing at his lips primly. "So, he helped me out with that. My parents always said that your money should make money."

"That sounds like something they'd say," Craig replied, slathering a bagel with cream cheese. "From what I can remember, anyway."

"Anyway, that really helped, and I've never lived beyond my means, so..." he shrugged, taking a bite of eggs. "What can I say? I try to be careful." He paused, suddenly realizing he was telling Craig far more than he'd ever intended to, and what's more, he didn't feel weird or nervous about it. "Wait, why am I telling you any of this?"

"Why not?" Raising his eyebrows, Craig took a bite of bagel, his white teeth sinking into a thick layer of cream cheese.

"Because -"

"Well, isn't this a cozy scene?" Tricia asked as she traipsed into the room, yawning as Finn followed closely behind her, clutching what looked like a ceramic dinosaur in his hands. She was dressed in a peach-colored silk camisole and matching shorts, a wispy kimono covered with delicate purple flowers wafting behind her as she moved. Her hair was up in a messy bun, little wisps falling around her ears and nape. Finn was in Spongebob pajamas, his fine hair sticking up every which way. He eyed Kyle shyly, trying to hide behind his mother when she stopped.

"Please tell me there's more coffee," she said, stifling another yawn. Glancing behind her at her son, she frowned. "Go sit down, babe. Aren't you hungry?"

Finn shook his head, his attention still centered on Kyle. He hugged his dinosaur to his chest. Tricia sighed loudly.

"Finn, I'm really not in the mood for this. I know you're hungry, you told me you're hungry. Now go sit down."

He stayed still, his face crumpling into an expression of babyish defiance.

"If you don't listen, I'm going to take your dinosaur," Tricia said before reaching out to put her hand on the figure in his hands. He immediately backed up, beginning to panic.

"No! My dino-ma! Mine!" He jerked it away.

"Then are you going to listen to me?"

He paused before nodding, though he still appeared reluctant.

"Then go. Don't make me tell you again. And it's 'dinosaur,' not 'dino-ma." We've talked about this." Pushing him forward, she looked at her brother, exasperated. "Coffee?"

"In the kitchen," he replied, his demeanor stiffening as he regarded her; back straight and his jaw tightening. "Help yourself." Glancing at Finn, he seemed to relax slightly. "Sit down, bud. You want some eggs?"

"Yeah!" Finn shouted, running over to the table and climbing into the chair next to Craig's sitting on his knees. He plunked the dinosaur on the table. "Feed him coins?"

"I think I have some pennies you can have after you're done eating," he replied, tousling Finn's hair. "How's that sound?"

"God, you spoil him so much," Tricia said as she disappeared into the kitchen. "You can't give him what he wants all the time, Craig. He'll turn into a brat."

"She'd know a thing or two about that," Craig muttered as he filled Finn's plate. "After all, she's been a brat since she was born."

"Brat?" Finn asked, picking up some scrambled eggs before studying them closely. He shoved them in his mouth.

"Use your fork, and don't repeat what I just said. I shouldn't have said that." Wearily, Craig glanced at Kyle who just shrugged, not surprised that Finn would repeat the term, almost like he knew exactly what he shouldn't be saying.

"Brat! Brat, brat, brat!" Finn yelled before starting to laugh, showing off his unchewed eggs. Kyle covered his mouth, trying to hide his amusement.

"Of course," Craig sighed.

"My little brother was the same way when he was that age," Kyle commented, taking a quick sip of coffee. "They don't want to remember the things they should, but they'll certainly hold onto the things they shouldn't."

"God, I feel like I've been hit by a train," Tricia announced as she wandered back into the room, clutching a mug between her hands. She sat down heavily in the chair next to Finn's, one leg bent as she blew on her coffee.

"You went to bed early last night," Craig said, not looking up from his plate. "I'd think you'd be pretty rested."

"Oh, I didn't fall asleep until after 3." She glanced at Finn and frowned, almost like she was disgusted by how messily he was eating. Averting her eyes, she took a slow sip from her mug.

Still not looking up, Craig slowly speared another forkful of egg.

"Oh? Insomnia?"

"Nah, I was on the phone," she replied easily. Reaching out, she snagged a piece of bacon and bit it, catching Kyle's gaze for a moment before turning away. "I guess the time got away from me."

Craig appeared to freeze before he set his fork down gently. Taking up his napkin, he settled it against his lips before he spoke.

"I see." Placing his napkin back in his lap, he picked up his bagel, but he didn't take a bite. "Am I to assume that you were talking to..."

Throwing the bacon down on her empty plate, Tricia leaned her head back on her chair, staring at the ceiling; lips twisted in obvious annoyance.

"Don't start, Craig. It's too early in the morning for your nagging."

He lapsed into silence before taking a bite of bagel, the music from the kitchen seeping into the room as the tension gathered. Kyle shifted in his chair, looking anywhere but at Tricia, though he watched Craig in his peripheral. Finally, Craig cleared his throat, wiping some cream cheese from the corner of Finn's mouth gently.

"I just don't want to see you make the same mistakes, Trish. It isn't fair to -" he stopped before nodding his head toward Finn, who continued to eat, babbling to his dinosaur every now and again. "Besides, he isn't good enough for you. You know that."

"You just never liked him," Tricia snapped. "From the very beginning...you always had something against him. You never gave him a chance."

"He treated you badly," Craig said softly, his eyes trained on his cup of coffee as he lifted it to his lips. "And I gave him a chance. Multiple chances, actually. So did you."

"Whatever," she said, setting her cup down on her still-empty plate. "You just want to control me. Just like everyone else in your life." She gave him a pointed look, her bottle green eyes bright.

"Believe what you want," he said, clearly beginning to detach, much like he'd done after Tweek had lashed out at him during dinner. "You're going to, anyway." Finally looking up, his expression hardened. "I won't let your selfish crap hurt him, though," he added, gesturing to Finn again. "Remember that."

Rolling her eyes, she crossed her arms.

"Here we go again; always trying to act like you're his father."

"Damn straight," he replied, his voice rising. "It's not like he can depend on the one he has!"

Almost like a bomb had been detonated, she turned to her brother, her face distorted with fury; cheeks red.

"Why don't you mind your own fucking business?!"

"No!" Craig shouted back in a voice that Kyle had never heard come from him; nothing but rage and clearly reaching the end of his patience. "I won't, not when it comes to Finn! I know I can't control anything you do, but if I see you not doing what's best for him, I'm going to step in every time. Don't fucking cross me!"

"It's not like you have a say," she said, sinking into herself as she looked away, her focus on the far wall where another painting* of a woman was displayed; lying in bed as the sun crested the horizon. "He's my child, Craig. Not yours."

"I'm well aware of that, but I'll get CPS involved if I need to. I've seen plenty of cases where kids needed to be taken away from their parents...too many times."

"You wouldn't."

"Not if you're doing what you're supposed to, and Danny doesn't fit into that picture at all. Wake up."

Throughout it all, Finn had been staring with wide eyes as the argument exploded, his face crumpling when he finally started to cry; his face bright red. He tried to cling to his mom who pushed him away, moving her chair so he couldn't reach her as easily.

"Mommy needs space right now, Finn. Okay? Just give me a second."

"I sorry, mommy. I sorry," he whimpered, sliding down from his chair so he could try and lay his head in her lap; she recoiled.

"Jesus fucking Christ, can't I just have a moment to myself? My head is already so loud but you make it so much worse!"

"Tricia, he needs you," Craig said, standing and going around the table. "He just needs reassurance that you aren't mad at him; that you love him. God, can't you give him at least that much?"

"I give him everything I have every goddamn day," she snapped, rising from her place and beginning to back away. Suddenly, she took a hold of some skin on her waist, though she was barely able to pinch anything between her fingers. "See? I ruined my body so I could have him, and now I can barely dance...I'm fat and old and ruined. I gave up everything I loved so I could have a baby, and now I'm trapped." Gritting her teeth, she got right in Finn's face and started screaming. "Trapped! I'm fucking trapped because of you, and you still cry and complain like your life is so hard. You have no idea how hard life is - not the first goddamn clue. I hate you, I fucking hate you!"

Craig sucked in a breath at the viciousness of his sister's words, as did Kyle, completely appalled at what he was hearing; it was like Tricia had become unhinged and couldn't control herself. Breathing heavily, she stared at her child like he was a stranger that had dared to get too close. Finn, for his part, began to sob like he'd been struck. 

"You need to stop, right now," Craig said, no longer elevated but commanding her undivided attention; his voice deadly calm. "I can't believe you just said that, Tricia... are you even listening to yourself right now?"

Her face cracked at his words, stifling a sudden sob behind her hand; eyes filling with tears. 

"Is anyone listening to me? I feel like I'm screaming but no one can hear me."

Gently, Craig gathered the little boy into his arms, holding him close while patting his back softly. He shushed him, never taking his eyes off of his sister. 

"It's okay," he murmured, over and over. "You need to get some control over yourself," he added, speaking to Tricia. "Now. You're hurting him, and you need to stop. Understand?"

"I knew I should've stayed with mom and dad," she replied, pressing a trembling hand against her forehead. "You never know when to back off. You're always like this."

"Yeah, I'm not a pushover like them." He began to rock Finn back and forth, his cries subsiding though he continued to sniffle. Kyle just watched, having no idea how to respond to any of this, knowing on some level that this was not a scene he should be witnessing; like Craig's carefully constructed façade was being cracked open in a matter of seconds. "They always let you get away with murder, and that's why you're so self-centered. When are you going to realize it isn't just about you anymore, huh? You're a mother, Trish, and you can't just pick and choose when you want to care...this is a full-time job."

"It's not the job I want," she snapped, turning on her heel. "It's not the job I fucking broke my back over, that's for damn sure."

Without looking back, she started leaving the room, her slippers whispering across the carpet. Craig glanced at Kyle before he frowned, his mouth tight; a muscle pulsing in his jaw.

"Where are you going?" He asked, but he sounded like he already knew the answer.

"To practice. If I'm ever going to get out of here, I need to practice as much as I can. You know that."

"You need to apologize to your son...can't you at least do that?" He sounded so tired now, Kyle could practically feel the fatigue wrapped around Craig's words. Out of nowhere, his heart hurt for him...for Finn, for everyone involved.

"I need to be by myself for a while," she said, her voice drifting through the hall. "I don't want to do or say anything I might regret. Let me cool off."

Sighing, Craig leaned his head against Finn's, his eyes taking on a faraway quality, like he'd stepped away from the situation for a moment. He came back after a few seconds, blinking rapidly before he spoke.

"Well, she'll be occupied for the rest of the day, I can already feel it." Pulling away, he looked into Finn's tear-stained face and tried to smile, though it was wan. "What would you like to do today? You name it, we'll do it."

Rubbing his eye, Finn was quiet before he wrapped his arms around his uncle, laying his cheek on his shoulder.

"Go outside?" He asked quietly.

"Outside?" Craig repeated, carrying him over to the windows. The snow had finally stopped, and the sun was splitting through the clouds that were still in the process of rolling away; revealing the pale blue sky. "Yeah, I think we can make that happen. Did you want to make a snowman?"

Finn nodded, his head still resting on Craig's shoulder.

"Sure. Let's get you changed and ready to go, okay?" He glanced at Kyle, eyebrows raised. "What's your plan? Were you going to text Stan?"

Slightly rattled, Kyle tried to find an answer, having not really thought much beyond breakfast. It was still really early, so he doubted Stan was awake yet. Besides, Craig just looked so lost, alone really, and he didn't think it'd be right to run out on him after such an ugly scene.

"He usually doesn't wake up until 10 on Sundays," Kyle said carefully, worrying his napkin; appetite all but gone. "I mean, I could stick around if you wanted." Flushing, he hurried on, feeling weird. "But if it'd be a bother I can definitely -"

"No," Craig interrupted, setting Finn down. "You can stay if you want." He rubbed the back of his neck, almost appearing shy. "Did you, uh, want to come outside with us, or -"

"It'd be nice to get some fresh air," Kyle replied, looking away. "Do you think Tweek would like to come? He did say he likes to sleep in, so I wasn't sure."

"I'll check on him after getting Finn together." He paused, the silence hanging heavily between them, save for the music still filtering out of the kitchen. "Did you need something to wear. I could grab you something..."

Kyle waved his hands, feeling awkward and strange, like he was just another burden for Craig to worry over. He suddenly realized that he didn't want to add to his stress, that he wanted to help him, if he could.

I'm pretty sure this situation can't get any more bizarre.

"I'll manage. Seriously, don't worry about it. You guys go and get ready, and I'll clean up. Okay?"

He looked up to find Craig staring at him, appearing surprised.

"You don't have to do that."

"I'm aware of that," Kyle huffed, picking up his plate as he stood. "But I want to, so just go."

Not long after, Kyle found himself shivering inside of his coat as the three of them trooped outside, the sun striking the snow and blinding his eyes. Craig had shoveled a fair amount of the front walkway and salted it so it made for an easier trek, but he still had to heft Finn onto his back as they broke from the path into a meadow not too far from the house; the winds frigid as they cut through the trees ringing the area. Kyle had broken down and accepted a pair of Tweek's boots once Craig had insisted, having to avert his eyes when Craig had looped a scarf around his neck out of nowhere.

"Tweek won't be needing it," he'd explained matter-of-factly. "He's not feeling well, so he's not really up to going out. He's not crazy about the cold, anyway."

"That's too bad," Kyle had replied, twisting some of the scarf between his fingers. "Is he going to be okay?"

"Oh, sure. I think he's just tired from all the social interaction he's had lately...he's not used to it."

Kyle was glad he was wearing his heavier coat as they spent the morning helping Finn build a lopsided snowman, the little boy finally starting to warm up to him as the time passed. He even allowed Kyle to accompany him as they searched for sticks and stones to construct the face and arms, leaving Craig to labor over perching the head on top of the body. At first, things had felt awkward and a little tense, but over time they all lapsed into a comfortable rhythm, and even Craig seemed to thaw out; managing a smile when they all stood back to admire their work.

"Looks good," he commented, patting Finn on the head. "A little derpy maybe, but I'm satisfied. What do you think?"

"Derpy?" Finn asked, looking up at him; eyes squinting against the bright sunlight.

"Goofy," Craig explained, grinning. "Don't worry, it isn't a bad thing." He turned to Kyle. "Any thoughts?"

"It's a work of art, clearly."

Craig rolled his eyes but he kept smiling, looking far more relaxed than he had since they'd ventured outside. It was reminiscent of his attitude while they'd made breakfast. For some reason, this knowledge made Kyle smile too.

"Why don't you go make a snow angel so I can talk to Uncle Kyle, huh?" Craig asked Finn. "You remember how to do it, right?"

"Starfish!" Finn chirped before he ran off like a spirited puppy. After bounding away, he suddenly fell flat on his back and began moving his arms and legs, laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world.

"That's what he calls lying on his back," Craig said, watching with amusement. "Starfishing."

"Makes sense," Kyle replied, pulling his scarf away from his mouth; his skin becoming moist from his warm breath. "Uncle Kyle?"

"Sure, why not?" Craig shrugged, crossing his arms. Clearing his throat, he pressed a fist against his mouth before he finally spoke, the winds rustling the hair that was peeking out from under his standard blue hat. "She isn't always like that, you know. I don't want you to get the wrong idea."

Kyle blinked, trying to figure out what he was talking about. It hit him after a moment, and he nodded slowly.

"Tricia."

"Right. She just has a lot on her plate, and she's always been so immature." The smile slid from his face as his focus slipped back to Finn, who'd abandoned his snow angel to start on another. "Honestly, she wasn't ready to be a mother, but she felt pressured...like she didn't have a choice, and I'm almost positive she thought having a kid would save her relationship."

"God, I've never understood people who have that mentality," Kyle replied, his teeth chattering. "Like a child is going to solve anything...it's just going to add more stress."

"Exactly, but she couldn't see past the short-term...and that asshole she was with didn't help. He was so fucking manipulative, he still is. I can't believe she's talking to him again." He paused before he smirked, this expression lacking any humor. "Actually, I can totally believe it. I think being a dancer for a living has warped her perception...everything has to be dramatic and overly romanticized. She needs to grow up and face reality."

"That's really hard for some people," Kyle murmured as he looked down at the slush under his borrowed boots. "Sometimes reality is too painful." He thought of Pete and almost winced, the deep feeling of shame coming back to him in a rush.

"That may be so, but there's no escaping it." Suddenly, Craig bumped him with his shoulder. "Did you text Stan, by the way? I forgot to ask."

"Oh, shit," Kyle groaned. "I totally forgot. I was so preoccupied with -"

He stopped, not really sure how to continue that thought. There was really no reason why he should've forgotten, which struck him as odd, but he tried to downplay it.

"I'll just call him when we get inside, no big deal."

"Hmm," Craig replied, his eyes narrowing slightly. He kicked at the snow. "Are you ready to get back to the grind tomorrow?"

"No, are you?"

"Nope," he said, taking Kyle by surprise. That was the last thing he expected to hear from a workaholic like Craig Tucker. He opted not comment, allowing the silence to settle over them as Finn continued to play, flinging handfuls of snow into the air and watching as they splattered on the ground. In that moment, he couldn't help but feel very peaceful, though he couldn't say why. He almost felt comfortable enough to mention the incident with Pete, how he was scared to face him on Monday, but he refrained. He didn't want to add any more drama to Craig's load.

-----

It wasn't until they'd come back inside and Finn had gone to take a nap that Tweek finally emerged, appearing sleepy-eyed and irritable as he wandered into the kitchen, wrapped in a fluffy blanket that trailed across the floor behind him. Kyle and Craig were sitting on stools at the butcher block table, sharing a plate of cookies and mugs of hot chocolate (prepared by Kyle, of course), not really making conversation; opting instead to listen to soft music as they scrolled on their phones. Kyle had called Stan when they'd gotten inside, waking him up and feeling guilty immediately. Stan had told him to put a sock in it and stop apologizing, that he'd be over shortly. Craig had just listened with amusement as he'd thrown his wet jacket and gloves aside, dressed in a dark blue sweater and loose-fitting jeans.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Craig said, exchanging an amused look with Kyle before he rose from his place. Going over to Tweek, he wrapped his arms around him as the latter stood in front of the open fridge. "Feeling better?"

"No," Tweek replied, elbowing him away. "My stomach hurts. I want a mimosa."

"Alcohol probably isn't the best idea if you're not feeling well." Pressing a kiss against the back of Tweek's head, Craig came back to the table and sat; seemingly not concerned that his affection had been rebuffed. "Wouldn't you like some hot chocolate instead?"

Tweek shook his head as he fished out the champagne and orange juice. Before too long, he was leaning on the table and sipping on his drink, his eyes still only partially open. He glanced at Kyle.

"You're wearing Craig's shirt," he commented before taking another drink. He didn't seem bothered, just pointing out an irrefutable fact. Not waiting for an answer, he looked at Craig. "Your sister's music woke me up, by the way. She must be practicing again."

"Yeah, she's in one of her moods."

"She's always in a mood," Tweek muttered, taking another sip. "At least it isn't the same music she always plays...it sounds like the Nutcracker or something."

Craig scrolled through his phone languidly before looking up at Kyle, nonplussed.

"She was the sugar plum fairy, you know. Years ago."

"That's nice," Kyle said, mainly because he wasn't sure what else to say.

"Oh, before I forget," Tweek said, going to pour himself more champagne, forgoing the orange juice entirely. "Are you feeling better today, Kyle? You know, after what we talked about yesterday?" He gave him a pointed look, his eyes finally opening up a little more.

Squirming in his chair, Kyle could feel Craig staring at him, his eyes locked on his almost-empty mug of hot chocolate. He couldn't believe Tweek was bringing this up so suddenly, but he couldn't exactly be mad; it wasn't like he'd really disclosed anything too personal.

"Uh, I guess," he said, refusing to look up. He nibbled on a cookie, not really wanting it. "I mean, for the most part."

"Is something wrong?" Craig asked, his voice a mixture of suspicion and, oddly enough, concern. "Kyle?"

"I-it's nothing." Kyle set the cookie aside as he nervously picked up his phone. He opened up the texts from Pete, dismayed to see how many had accrued since he'd last checked; a mountain of apologies and excuses. Quickly, he deleted them, almost feeling like a weight was being lifted from his chest. "I was just, you know, telling him about how nervous I'm going to be tomorrow...now that Bebe's gone and I'll be on my own."

Silence settled over the table after he spoke. Gnawing on the inside of his cheek, Kyle looked up to see both Craig and Tweek studying him, Craig incredulous and Tweek appearing apologetic. Nervously, Kyle opened his mouth to speak when the doorbell suddenly chimed, making him jump.

"That must be Stan," he said, standing. "I guess I should be going," he added, feeling dumb for stating the obvious. He plucked at the Puget Sound t-shirt he was still wearing, biting his lip as he regarded Craig. "Your shirt..."

"Just return it whenever," Craig said, waving his words away. "Come on, I'll walk you to the door. Duck?" He raised an eyebrow at Tweek.

"I'm just going to finish up here," Tweek replied, holding up his drink. He smiled, his cheeks already flushing from the alcohol. "I hope you can come over again soon, Kyle. Maybe we'll actually accomplish something next time."

"One can only hope," Kyle said, grabbing his coat and hat as he waved, Craig close at his side as they turned to leave. He also became acutely aware of his hand close to the small of his back, guiding him. Soon enough, Craig was opening the front door and there was Stan, dressed in his navy blue jacket and dark jeans, his knit cap pulled low over his ears. He smiled widely when he saw Kyle, his cheeks a rosy red.

"You ready?" He asked, nodding to Craig. "Hey, man. Long time no see."

"How was the ride up here?" Craig asked, hanging back as Kyle stepped outside. His eyes seemed to linger on Stan's arm as he looped it around Kyle's shoulder. "It looks pretty nasty out there."

"It isn't too bad. The plows are already out."

"Oh, that's good," he replied, becoming quiet, almost like he couldn't think of anything else to say. Catching Kyle's eye, his former coldness seemed to return, the camaraderie they'd developed evaporating. "I'll see you tomorrow, then?"

Kyle nodded, pressing himself closer to Stan's side, the scent of his cologne drifting to him; making him feel steadier. Even so, he couldn't help finding his current circumstances extremely surreal.

"Well, be careful going home," Craig said, leaning against the door, his hands in his pockets. "Okay?"

"Yep," Stan said, turning away and taking Kyle with him. "Thanks for letting him stay. We owe you one."

"Don't mention it."

Once they were in the truck, the heater running at full blast and making Kyle feel sleepy, Stan spoke, turning the music down slightly.

"So, how was it? About what you expected?"

Kyle considered the question as he leaned his head against the window, the cold glass sharp against his cheek. It was at that moment that he realized he didn't have an answer readily available to what should've been a simple question. Closing his eyes, he shrugged lightly, remembering the empty bourbon bottle on the coffee table when he'd awoken that morning, the way Craig had asked him to read aloud in the middle of the night....all at once, it seemed like too much to articulate, and he just didn't have the energy.

"I guess so," he finally said, tugging on the bottom of the borrowed shirt hidden beneath his jacket. "More or less."

The rest of Kyle's Sunday was uneventful, though his phone kept buzzing with texts from Pete which he continued to ignore. He also made it a point to keep them from Stan, not wanting to start a battle; knowing that his boyfriend would be livid if he found out what had happened. Growing apprehension plucked at his stomach as the day wore on, even after they'd gone grocery shopping and stopped to pick up scrubs for Kyle so he wouldn't have to keep borrowing them from other people. They spent the evening watching TV and lounging on the couch, Kyle's head on Stan's shoulder as they worked their way through the newest season of Stranger Things.

"Scoops Ahoy," Stan snorted, taking a drink of beer. "I like that, don't you?"

"It's cute," Kyle replied, feeling preoccupied and weirdly restless. He picked up his glass of wine, thinking suddenly of Tweek's fondness for mimosas. "Do you just want to order in tonight? I'm too tired to bother with cooking, aren't you?"

"Sure. What are you thinking, Chinese or pizza?"

"Indian."

"Works for me." Standing, he went to retrieve his phone. Covertly, Kyle glanced at his own phone, deleting yet another text from Pete:

Kyle, please just talk to me. I feel so bad...did you want me to pick you up tomorrow morning? It's too cold for you to walk.

That night, Kyle curled up close to Stan's side, his body tired but his mind racing; churning over everything that happened over the past few days. It wasn't until after 2 am that he finally fell asleep, and when he did his slumber was thin; unsatisfying. It felt like only a few minutes had passed before his alarm was going off at 7 am. Rolling over, he slapped the top of it, wanting to burrow back into the blankets and hide from the coming day. Stan groaned and slung an arm over him, pulling him close to his chest.

"We could both just call out and spend the whole day fucking," he murmured close to Kyle's ear, nuzzling him softly.

Kyle's eyes shot open at this suggestion, completely taken aback. Stan hadn't suggested something like that in ages, and he had to wonder what the hell had gotten into him. On the flip side, he was even more surprised that his anxiety at being propositioned was manageable, immensely relieved that some of Pete's influence was starting to abate...at least where Stan was concerned. It still felt strange being touched intimately, but being caressed by someone who cared felt cleansing in the moment; necessary. He even considered the possibility of taking Stan up on his offer of calling out, though he knew Craig would crucify him if he called in sick so soon after starting.

"You don't mean that," he replied, cuddling closer to Stan's warmth, grateful that he was like a furnace; always exuding waves of heat no matter how cold it was outside the covers.

"Oh, yeah?" Slowly, Stan reached his hand into Kyle's boxer briefs and stroked him, making him catch his breath; shivering, but it was nice. "What makes you think that?"

"I...I have to get up and start getting ready," Kyle moaned, spreading his legs slightly as Stan continued to touch him softly, almost feeling like he was surrendering to him. "I don't want to be late...especially when it's my first day on my own."

"Mmm, don't worry about that," Stan said, beginning to pull Kyle's underwear down. "I'll watch the time."

"I'm sure you will." Giggling, Kyle rolled onto his back as Stan covered him, kissing his throat gently. Unbidden, a sudden thought of Craig's face floated to him, making him pause. Stan didn't seem to notice, his hand already groping for the lube in the bedside table. He'd snapped it open when Kyle thought he heard something, a high-pitched noise that was familiar, but he waved it away, too caught up as soon as Stan's fingers were inside of him; needful and just so skilled.

"You like that?" Stan whispered, rubbing himself against Kyle's thigh as he prepared him, smelling of sleep and his cologne, faint but still clinging to his heated skin.

Kyle nodded, pressing his cheek into the pillow, almost panting with need, just wanting Stan to fill him so he could stop worrying about Pete, about everything he couldn't control. He just wanted to replace the ugliness he'd experienced with something pure; untainted.

"Wait, do you hear something?" Stan asked, pushing away, his head cocked. Sitting up, he parted the blinds and peered out. "Jesus Christ, of fucking course."

"Huh?" Blinking against the sunlight falling across the bed, Kyle looked up at him. "What's wrong?"

"Your little friend is here," Stan muttered, sitting back on his heels, his tented boxers arresting Kyle's attention before he fully realized what he was hearing. Unable to believe it, he got on his knees and looked out the window for himself, eyes widening when he saw Pete's car idling at the curb.

"It can't be," he whispered, staring at that ridiculous little smart car, little puffs of exhaust floating from its minuscule tailpipe. "There's no fucking way."

"Why do you sound so surprised?" Stan asked, running a hand through his hair, appearing supremely frustrated. "You could set your watch to that guy...I should've known better."

"Yeah, I know. It's just..." he trailed off, pulling away from the window as he tried to collect himself. He couldn't believe Pete's audacity, just showing up at his apartment after what had transpired...the guy had some fucking nerve, considering Kyle had ignored him the whole weekend.

"What?" Stan asked, cocking his head. "You okay?"

"Of course, I just didn't sleep very well," Kyle replied, trying to keep the shake out of his voice as he stood. Gathering up his scrubs, he began to dress, trying his hardest not to make eye contact with Stan, though he knew he was being watched. "And I'm nervous about today...I just don't want to screw up."

"You'll be fine, just like always." Standing, Stan pulled him into a hug. "Have some confidence, okay? You're always so hard on yourself."

Yeah, because I'm an idiot that lets people take advantage of him. Can't you see that?

Feeling guilty and trapped, Kyle clung to Stan, not wanting to let him go...not wanting to face Pete, who was clearly forcing his hand. He wanted to confess more than ever, but he just couldn't...he'd told Stan that he could handle himself, that he was an adult, it was time to start living up to his words; especially where Pete was concerned.

"You're right," he said, giving Stan another squeeze. "I'll try to loosen up."

Great, now I'm starting to sound like Craig. Why is everything so fucking weird these days?

It wasn't long before Kyle was dressed and ready to go, his bag slung on his shoulder as he pulled his hat over his unruly curls. He glanced at the laptop on his desk, practically taunting him.

"I'll just leave that home today," he said, gesturing to it. "No snark. I just don't feel like trying to write."

"It's okay," Stan said, kissing his nose. "Just try to have a good day, okay?"

"I'll try." Opening the door, he glanced over his shoulder. "Can I take a rain check...you know, because we couldn't finish this morning...?"

Stan laughed, looking so dear and lovable standing there in his blue plaid boxers.

"Of course, now go. I'll see you tonight."

Nodding, Kyle shut the door softly, his feet dragging as he made his way downstairs, keeping his eyes on the pavement as he approached Pete's car. Fortifying himself, he pulled the door open before he slid into the front seat, keeping his bag on his shoulder; perching it in his lap. He refused to look at Pete, keeping his eyes focused on the window. Soon enough, the car was pulling away from the apartment complex, and he could smell cigarette smoke; the cold air curling around him as Pete drove.

"Kyle, can you please just talk to me?" Pete finally asked, his voice coming out rough, like it was strained. "I texted you a million times this weekend...I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry I can barely stand it."

Clutching at his bag, Kyle still wouldn't look at him, firming his resolve. True, Pete had put him in a weird position that morning, but he was going to lay down the law, no matter what.

"I understand that, and I appreciate it, but I already told you where I stand," he replied, watching as scenery outside flashed by; businesses awash in the early morning sun. "We can be coworkers and that's it. That's all I can offer."

Silence, and then he could hear the flicking of Pete's lighter. After a moment, more cigarette smoke was wafting around Kyle's face.

"Then why did you get in my car, huh? Come on, Kyle. Let's just talk this out...I made a mistake, okay? I'm not perfect."

"That's for sure," Kyle retorted, finally turning to look at him. Momentarily taken aback, he was surprised to see Pete looking pretty disheveled, his cheeks covered with more stubble than usual; his hair messy. There were dark circles under his eyes, his jacket unzipped and revealing the rumpled scrubs beneath. A fleeting feeling of pity overcame him, but he pushed it away. "And I got in your car because you showed up at my apartment unannounced...I didn't want to have to explain to Stan what happened."

"Wait, so you haven't told him anything?"

"No, and you should be happy I didn't. If I had, you'd be in the ER right now," Kyle snapped, facing forward, his arms crossed over his bag. "So, just take a hint and back off, okay? I don't want to have to get Stan involved, or God forbid Craig -"

"No, you can't tell Dr. T what happened," Pete said, starting to sound desperate. Reaching out, he dared to place a hand on Kyle's thigh, squeezing him. "You know how he's like...he'd kill me and then fire me."

Curling his lip, Kyle pushed Pete's hand away unceremoniously, disgusted that he still felt comfortable enough to encroach on his personal space. It was almost like he'd have to beat him over the head with something before he'd understand the situation: don't fucking touch me; we are NOT FRIENDS.

"I'm sure you're blowing things out of proportion," Kyle said, moving to huddle closer to the door, his legs as far away from Pete's reach as possible. "Craig has a temper, but he's never unfair."

"It's different when it comes to the clinic, Pete argued. "Especially regarding the employees he really likes."

"Well, he doesn't really like me, so I wouldn't be too concerned."

Suddenly, Kyle could feel Pete yanking on his coat, and he was forced to face him directly.

"Dude, you really have to stop this 'playing dumb' act, okay? You can't seriously be this naive."

Starting to feel nauseous from the heat and ax body spray Pete was exuding, Kyle tore away, pressing himself so close to the door he nearly melded with it. Clinging to his bag, he shut his eyes tightly.

"Just leave me alone, okay? That's all I want. I'm not interested in you as a friend or anything else. Got it? What else do you want me to say?"

Sighing, Pete maneuvered the car into the clinic's parking lot, idling for a moment as he began to speak softly.

"I know this is selfish and disgusting and unfair to you, but I seriously need this job, Kyle. I'm pretty much on my own so I'm the only person I can rely on. If Dr. T finds out about what happened..." he trailed off, the sound of smoke pouring from his lips filling the air. "He'll give me the ax, no question. I'm just begging you...all pride aside...please don't throw me under the bus like that, okay? I'll do anything you want."

Gulping down some bile, Kyle pushed the door open, grateful that the cold winds obliterated Pete's odors; nearly purifying them. Stepping out, he leaned over and finally looked directly into Pete's light blue eyes, dazed and shot through with red.

"I'm not going to throw you under the bus as long as you stay the fuck away from me, you got it? Because unlike you, I don't want to create drama and problems for other people. Craig works really hard to make sure this place runs smoothly and he's got his own stuff to worry about, so he doesn't need our bullshit screwing everything up. So, you stay in your corner, and I'll stay in mine. Got it?"

Pete nodded slowly, though a strange, suspicious light filtered his eyes, putting Kyle on edge at once.

"I thought you said that you and Dr. T aren't friends."

Kyle blinked, haven't expected this line of conversation.

"We aren't? Why do you ask...?"

"It's just the way you talk about him...like you've gotten to know him pretty well. It's almost like you're trying to protect him or something." Pete slid out of the car as well but he lingered to lean on its roof, a cigarette perched between his lips. He watched Kyle closely, eyes unwavering.

Slamming the door, Kyle slung his bag higher on his shoulder as he backed toward the clinic, feeling inexplicably nervous like he was being challenged. Groping for the clinic's keys in his pocket, he managed to fish them out before they slipped through his fingers, eliciting a metallic din as they hit the pavement. He crouched to retrieve them, but all of a sudden someone was kneeling next to him, smelling cologne and vanilla and -

"Craig," Kyle said, almost falling over in surprise. "Y-you're early, aren't you? I thought you usually -"

"I thought you might need a little assistance this morning, considering you've been set adrift. Was I wrong?" Picking up the keys, Craig took a hold of Kyle's arm and helped him to his feet. He glanced at Pete, who was still hovering nearby, clearly trying to mask his suspicion and irritation.

He can't possibly be jealous, too, Kyle thought, wanting to sink into the ground and disappear. This situation just continues to get more and more out of hand...and how can he be jealous? We don't have a relationship...we aren't anything to each other, and Craig is, well, he's just -

"Have a nice weekend, Pete?" Craig asked as he led Kyle to the front doors, still holding onto the keys. "Did you get into any trouble?"

Sickened, Kyle bit his tongue as he looked at Pete, who was watching him with thinly-veiled malevolence; almost like he was daring Kyle to open his mouth and sell him out. He couldn't help but find it amazing that such a Nice Guy could flip the script so swiftly, turning from Mr. Charming to unbelievably threatening on the turn of a dime. He looked away quickly, knowing on some deep level that silence was his best friend in this situation. Just lay low and don't make waves; just survive until Bebe returned and he could escape.

"Nah, things were pretty quiet, all things considered," Pete replied as Craig unlocked the door. Stepping inside, he quickly locked it again until they were officially ready for business. He handed the keys to Kyle, watching as he tucked them in the pocket of his coat. "What about you, Dr. T? Did you do anything fun?"

Now Craig was giving Kyle a very knowing look, his expression a mixture of mirth, teasing, annoyance...almost every major facet of his personality rolled into one handsome face. Pulling away, he began retreating toward the back of the clinic, dressed in his usual sleek black jacket, his bag on his shoulder, although he was holding a different mug this time. He held it up.

"Let's try not to break this one, okay?" He asked, pulling the door to the back open. "I mean, I have tons, but you already knew that, Kyle...I'm pretty sure you went through every cabinet in my kitchen, but still, just be careful. Oh, and can you make the coffee the way you did yesterday? It was amazing." Fishing in his bag, he drew out a bag of the Starbucks grounds they'd had yesterday; tossing them to Kyle.

"Work your magic," he smirked before slipping into the back, the door closing quietly behind him.

Staring down at the bag of coffee, Kyle couldn't help but feel Pete staring at him. Sweat cropped up on his forehead and the back of his neck, sliding between his shoulder blades. Reaching the end of his patience, he shot him a look.

"Yeah, did you have something to say?"

Pete shrugged, though his mouth was twisted in an ugly way. With that look on his face, he wasn't cute at all, not by any stretch of the imagination. Idly, Kyle had to wonder if he was seeing Pete as he actually was, and the rest was just a front he put on to fool the world. 

"You went to his house over the weekend?" He asked, his bag bumping against his leg, over and over. "Did Stan go with you, or -"

"I don't have to answer any of your questions," Kyle cut him off before slamming the coffee and his bag on the counter, making folders and papers jump. "If it doesn't have anything to do with work, I don't have to give you any information. Back off."

"Oh, so you're a hypocrite," Pete sneered, taking a step closer. "Now I think I understand. So, you're into Dr. T so you can make yourself available, but if anyone else even tries to be nice to you, you just -"

"Hey, Kyle," Craig stuck his head out of the back, one eyebrow raised. "Can you make the coffee super strong this morning? I'm so tired I can barely -"

He stopped, glancing between them, clearly picking up on the rising tension present.

"Is there a problem here?"

Pete didn't respond, merely staring at Kyle with a dark, inscrutable expression; waiting. Kyle almost felt like he was going to crack apart with so much weight and tension being poured on his shoulders. He almost wanted to open up his mouth and just reveal everything, give Pete what he clearly deserved, but he didn't want to be responsible for someone's job, Craig's clinic being down an employee, adding stress to his employer's shoulders after seeing what his home life consisted of....he just didn't want to lay down the straw that would ultimately break several camel's backs.

Instead, he just picked up the coffee and smiled his biggest, brightest smile.

"Sure, I can make the coffee as strong as you want it...just give me your mug and I'll go start it now. Oh, and don't worry, I won't break anything this time...promise."

 

Chapter Text

Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It's only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost

 -Dreams, Fleetwood Mac


Kyle hated to admit it, but he was thoroughly exhausted by the time that evening rolled around. The clinic hadn't been overly busy, though Bebe had warned him that Mondays had a tendency to be a little more hectic as a general rule. Still, it wasn't the job that was tiring him out, though dealing with people could be trying at the best of times, and he didn't have the best track record when it came to patience, but he muddled through. No, registering patients and making appointments and setting up blood draws weren't the things making him drag by the end of the day, it was trying to dodge Pete and ignore his snide little looks; not to mention Craig's obvious suspicions.

"You about done over there?" Butters asked as they finished closing up that night. "I have all the charts ready to go." He held them up, smiling widely. He was proving to be a diligent worker, even if he had the tendency of prattling on, but he'd been like that since they were kids, so Kyle had learned to tune him out when necessary. Besides, he was relentlessly cheerful, which helped to take the edge off of enduring Pete's presence.

"Yep," Kyle replied, putting the finishing touches on the end of day paperwork; the deposit ready to go. "I just have to close out the credit card receipts and drop the deposit and then we can get out of here." He sighed, watching as the long strip of paper inched out of the machine, tearing it off. More than anything, he just wanted to get the hell out of there before Pete finished up in the back, but he also didn't want to make a mistake his first day without Bebe; Craig would never let him live it down.

While Butters toted the charts and the deposit to the office, Kyle wearily pulled on his coat and hat, his stomach growling as he looked over the reception area and the waiting room, making sure everything was straight. He'd barely been able to choke down any food at lunchtime, mainly because his nerves were frazzled. It didn't help that he'd decided to eat outside, huddled next to the side of the building where he took his smoke breaks; the cold winds ripping across the field stretched out before him. He'd wanted to avoid Pete and he'd succeeded, but his sandwich had still tasted like cardboard. Eventually, he'd just set it aside and chain-smoked through his break, trying to figure out his next step.

Now Kyle was feeling hungry and irritable, just wanting to get home and take a hot shower and eat. He'd texted Stan during his break but hadn't gotten a response, which also annoyed him, but he had to figure that he was just preoccupied at work.

You'd never know he tried to put the moves on me this morning, he thought darkly. Sometimes he runs just as hot and cold as Craig.

Craig, for his part, had been aloof that day, only coming out of the back when he needed to give Kyle a referral or instructions regarding a patient. He'd clucked his tongue when Kyle had appeared lost after he'd told him to set up a dry CT scan.

"Without contrast," he'd explained, cocking a brow. "Understand?"

Not bothering to hide his attitude, Kyle had turned away huffily; grabbing the order from Craig's hand.

"I think I can handle that easily enough," he'd snapped, not feeling nearly as shy about showing his displeasure as before; not after the long weekend they'd spent together. Craig hadn't replied, but Kyle was almost positive he'd seen him grinning out of the corner of his eye, which only added to his sour mood.

"Ready?" He asked when Butters had returned and drawn his coat on; gathering up his things.

"Sure am," he chirped before he paused. "Aren't we gonna wait for everyone else? I'm pretty sure Pete and Mercedes are done with the rooms, and Heidi -"

"They can let themselves out," Kyle cut him off, already walking toward the door. "Heidi told me she has a key. Besides, Craig can always lock up behind them...I'm sure he's staying late again."

Butter's fell into step beside him, Kyle's nervousness rising as he fiddled with the lock, nearly having the door open when he could hear sounds behind them. He groaned, turning slowly to see the rest of their coworkers stepping out of the back, Heidi and Mercedes talking quietly while Pete trailed behind, his gaze locked on Kyle; frowning deeply.

"You guys almost missed us!" Butters announced, waving. "Hurry up!"

Somehow, Kyle refrained from telling Butters to keep his mouth shut, his hand trembling as he unlocked the door and held it open for everyone. Heidi nodded to him as she passed by and so did Mercedes, Butters skirting through to catch up to her, but Pete hung back, just like he figured he would.

"We need to talk," he said quietly. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and held them up, shaking them a little. "You wanna smoke?"

"No, I don't," Kyle replied, shutting the door and locking it before jamming the keys in his pocket. "And we don't have anything to talk about, Pete. I said my piece this morning."

Pete lit up anyway, the glow from his lighter illuminating the pallor of his skin. He took a couple of puffs as he watched their coworkers pull out of the lot; before too long, it was just the two of them, Pete's car, and Craig's Jag left behind. The same cutting winds from earlier in the day blew past them, making Kyle shiver. He wrapped his arms around himself, not looking forward to the walk home, but steeling himself for it anyway.

"Are you seriously this stubborn?" Pete asked, smoke leaking out of his mouth. "I mean, yeah, I did a terrible thing, but I'm practically begging you to forgive me. Don't you ever let anything go?"

Gritting his teeth, Kyle had to count backwards from ten before he could answer; otherwise, he would've just laid into Pete with a string of obscenities. Not that he didn't deserve it, but he wanted to attempt to be diplomatic.

"I can let plenty of things go," he began, hugging himself tighter. "Misunderstandings, someone forgetting my birthday, being hit below the belt during a petty, little argument, but," he paused, trying to collect his thoughts, his voice becoming tighter. "I can't just let this go, Pete. You assaulted me. You didn't listen to me...it's like what I was telling you didn't matter. I can't look past that, and honestly, it's crazy that you somehow think I could."

Pete knocked some ash off of his cigarette, his expression still hard though Kyle thought he saw his lips twitch slightly. He looked at the ground, kicking at a chunk of ice.

"To be fair, we both drank a lot, didn't we? Who's to say you aren't blowing things out of proportion...and I could've misread your signals because I was tipsy. Ever consider that?"

Kyle just stared at him incredulously, his mouth hanging open. Pete couldn't actually believe the things he was saying right now, could he? Was he just that good at rationalizing his own actions, or was he honestly unaware of how reprehensible his conduct was?

"You had one small glass of whiskey," he countered, though he wasn't really in the mood to argue this point. Honestly, he wasn't interested in discussing any of this; it's not like Pete deserved an explanation. He didn't deserve anything from Kyle. "And I know," he trailed off, shutting his eyes as he considered what he was about to say; the brutal truth of the thought making him feel deeply unclean.

"What? What do you know?"

"I know you were encouraging me to drink more so you could," he cut off again, pressing a hand against his mouth. "So you could take advantage of the situation. Don't try to deny it."

There was a sharp intake of breath and then Kyle felt himself being grabbed, strong fingers clenching his arm. He gasped, his eyes shooting open as he stared up at Pete. He was clearly livid.

"Don't try to blame your getting drunk on me, Kyle," he seethed, shaking him hard. "Just how fucking diabolical do you think I am, huh? You act like I'm some kind of deranged, potential rapist or something."

For a moment, Kyle felt frozen as Pete shook him, his hand very close to the gauze covering his wound. Unbidden, thoughts of Craig taking care of him, tending to him, rushed into his mind, and he just felt so confused. Rage flooded him too, and before he knew what he was doing he was wrenching his arm away. Viciously, he slammed his hand against Pete's chest, knocking him back and nearly off his feet; sneakers slipping over stray patches of ice.

"If the shoe fucking fits," he snapped, wanting to smash his fist into Pete's mouth. "You have to admit you sound just like one...blaming the other person when you fucked up; trying to find any goddamn excuse to explain away your disgusting behavior."

Righting himself, Pete straightened his clothes before tossing his cigarette aside, its still-lit tip sizzling as it met the pavement.

"Or maybe you just like turning yourself into a victim," he said, his tone caustic. "Wanting to turn situations into something else so you can get attention."

"I never wanted that kind of attention from you!" Kyle yelled, his anger finally breaking through as all of the pain and fear obliterated his desire to stay calm. "And how the fuck can you even think something like that?! This feeling is awful...like I don't even want to be inside of my own skin, and all because you couldn't accept that I wasn't interested in you!" Holding up his hands, he could feel himself shaking as he slowly started to back away. "I can't do this...I don't even want to fucking talk to you. Stay away from me or I'll put you in the hospital myself; never mind Stan."

"And," he added, unconcerned about sinking to Pete's level of cruelty; he fucking deserved it. "I'll tell Craig everything. Everything. Got it?"

"Wait, hold up," Pete said, sounding broken now. "Look, I don't want to fight, okay? I'm sorry...I don't know why I'm acting like this. You're right, I'm wrong...I know that." He bit his lip, his expression cracking a little, like he'd been under a lot of strain, too; not that Kyle cared. Pete had put himself in the power position, why should he have any pity for him? "I just feel so stupid and awful. I don't even know what I'm saying right now."

"That's on you," Kyle said, turning away and beginning to walk. "Work through your shit on your own...it's none of my business."

"Wait! You can't walk home in this weather...it's too cold!" Now Pete just sounded desperate.

"I can deal with it," he shouted, not bothering to look back. Pulling his collar closer around his neck, he shivered as he felt his nose and fingers already becoming numb. Resolutely, he pressed on, reminding himself that his self respect was far more important than struggling through a cold walk home.

----

That evening was quiet, Kyle's mood thoroughly ruined by his run-in with Pete, not to mention Stan not getting home until late. It was just as well, he supposed...what if he'd been looking out the window and noticed that Kyle wasn't being dropped off? He'd just be full of questions he wouldn't want to answer. Instead, Kyle filled the bird feeder, ate a bowl of cereal over the sink, drank half a bottle of wine and dozed in front of the TV until he finally dragged himself into the shower and off to bed. When Stan climbed in beside him hours later his hands were cold as he pulled him close, his lips settling on Kyle's nape as he spoke sleepily into the stillness:

"Did you still want to...?"

Kyle sluggishly considered the question, remembering his rain check but not really feeling in the mood. He still felt strange about talking to Pete, about being essentially blamed for being attacked. Shaking his head, he shut his eyes but cuddled closer.

"I'm tired," he murmured guiltily, but reminded himself that there were plenty of times that Stan had turned him down. In fact, it was usually that way. "Sorry."

"No worries," Stan yawned, pressing himself against Kyle's back. It wasn't too long before he was putting his chilly feet on Kyle's warm legs.

"You're cold!" He whined, shifting away. Stan laughed softly.

"Oh, hush."

The next morning, Kyle made sure to rise earlier than usual, just in case Pete got any bright ideas about dropping by again. Hurriedly, he dressed in the half-light falling through the drawn blinds, watching Stan out of the corner of his eye; snoring softly and all curled up like a hibernating bear. It took everything in him not to crawl back in beside him, but after he pulled himself together, brushed his teeth, and tried to tame his hair, he was out the door and on his way, braving the cold that seemed relentless at that point. The sun was just coming up as the dusky blue of the sky faded into a butter yellow brilliance, sleeping stars being laid to rest one by one.

He even had time to stop by Tweak Bros on the way, surprised to see Tweek behind the counter, appearing very awake for right before 7 am.

"I didn't sleep last night," he explained as he handed Kyle his latte, his fingers once again stained with black ink; a pen tucked behind his ear. He looked cute as a button in a Chinpokomon t-shirt and skinny jeans, a little heart clip pulling one side of his fluffy hair back. "Mainly because I knew I'd be working this morning...I didn't want to oversleep."

Kyle glanced out into the parking lot, expecting to see Craig's Jag.

"Did Craig drop you off, or...?"

"Nah, I drove myself. I'm not completely helpless," he replied, winking suddenly when Kyle groped for something to say; afraid he'd offended him. "Kyle, I'm kidding. Relax." He glanced around, one eyebrow raised. "Pete isn't with you?"

Attempting to appear disinterested, Kyle sipped his drink, burning his lips in the process. He winced and rubbed his mouth.

"Nah, I'm alone. Just walking to work...I figured I could use the exercise."

Tweek studied him, eyes falling over Kyle's obvious skinniness. He didn't comment.

"It was nice having you over," he said instead. "You should come by again soon."

"I'd like that," Kyle said, realizing that he actually meant it. "I mean, your place is amazing, clearly, but it was just fun being able to get out, you know?"

"Oh, I know," Tweek said, his expression becoming wry. He looked around, his eyes lit from stray rays of burgeoning sunlight. "Believe me, I get it. Craig isn't huge on having visitors, but I think he enjoyed himself, too; which is surprising," he added.

"He was very...accommodating." Kicking at the floor, he felt awkward suddenly, but strangely warm; pleasantly so. He shook it off. "Have you found the book yet?" He dropped his focus to the floor, somehow unable to look in Tweek's face when he asked that question; remembering Craig pulling the book from under the chair cushion.

"Not yet, but I'm holding out hope." Tweek sounded amused.

After chatting for a little longer, Kyle found himself back outside and heading for the clinic, feeling a little more chipper. He was relieved to see the parking lot empty when he arrived, quickly pulling out his phone and texting Pete, just in case:

Don't bother coming by my place. I won't be there.

He opened the clinic without incident, greeting everyone as they straggled through the door; Heidi in good spirits, Mercedes yawning hugely, Butters excited as per usual; for no discernible reason other than that seemed to be his natural setting. When Pete arrived, Craig was close on his heels so he didn't have the opportunity to give Kyle a hard time, just giving him a frown as he retreated into the back. Craig, on the other hand, seemed unusually cheerful, his spicy cologne wafting around him as he stopped at the front desk, leaning on the counter.

"Coffee?" He asked expectantly.

Tucking a curl behind his ear, Kyle couldn't even be annoyed, mainly because it didn't sound like a command. Rather, Craig just seemed hopeful.

"Already made," he said, busying himself with intake forms, tapping them on the counter. He didn't look up, that warm feeling coming over him again. "Just leave your mug next to the coffee maker and I'll take care of it." Now he glanced up, smiling a little. "Two Splenda, vanilla creamer."

Craig tapped his nose before turning away, once again proving he was a creature of habit: attired in his black jacket, his bag slung on his shoulder. For whatever reason, Kyle derived comfort from these details...his natural need for order and routine kicking in as he became more and more acclimated to taking over for Bebe. It was almost becoming second nature at this point, and he couldn't help but be surprised at how quickly it had happened. Before he knew it, the day had passed, a blur of patients and responsibilities, and when the evening came, he was able to hurry Butters along so they didn't have to walk outside with the others.

"You can stay behind if you want, but I'm out," he said as he fished the keys out of his pocket. Butters had opted to leave with him and Kyle only looked back once, his eyes lingering on the light coming from Craig's corner. He'd been more social that day but not by much, lapsing into his doctor mindset when at work: he was usually all about business, which Kyle could respect.

The week drifted by in much the same fashion: rising early, struggling through the cold, Craig's morning cup of coffee, working, avoiding Pete, and then trekking home. Wash, rinse, repeat. The only thing that broke the monotony was stopping at Tweak Bros Thursday morning and seeing Tweek working again, but this time he didn't appear as animated. If anything, he looked pretty drained.

"I've had a rough couple days," he said, the dark circles beneath his eyes rather profound as he slid Kyle's drink across the counter. "I got into an argument with Craig."

"Oh?" Kyle asked, curious but not wanting to pry. "Is everything okay?"

"More or less." He shrugged. "I feel kind of bad about it, but what can you do?" He brightened, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "Hey, why don't you bring him a peace offering from me?" Before Kyle could respond, he poured some coffee into a cup and set it down. "He loves our dark roast."

So does Pete, Kyle thought as he picked it up, grossed out that he would even remember such a thing.

"I'll let him know that it was poured with love," he said, tapping the lid of the cup. "Sound good?"

"Oh, he'll love that," Tweek replied, crossing his arms and finally smiling. He gave Kyle a strange look. "Still walking to work?"

"Yup," Kyle said lightly. "I'm actually enjoying it, aside from the cold."

Craig seemed surprised when Kyle presented him with the cup of coffee, explaining that he'd already doctored it in the way he liked. Taking it into his hand, he didn't immediately drink, staring at the Tweak Bros logo as he jiggled his foot, up and down, up and down. He seemed like he was about to say something when Pete sauntered in, stopping when he saw them together. Kyle became still, almost wanting to retreat behind Craig, which he knew was a crazy, nonsensical impulse.

"Yes?" Craig asked, setting the cup aside. "What's up?"

"Heids was just wondering if you had a chance to look at the urine cytology she left for you. She wanted to call the patient this morning."

"Oh, that," he replied, picking up a piece of paper that had been sitting on his keyboard. "Yeah, I did. Tell her to swing by my desk so we can discuss it."

"Cool." Slipping his hands into the pockets of his shirt, Pete rocked back and forth on his feet, staring at Kyle who could feel his face flushing hotter and hotter. He caught Craig's eye for a moment before quickly looking away, slipping one wayward curl behind his ear yet again; his tell, his nervous gesture.

"Did you need anything else?" Craig looked at Pete before picking up the coffee, taking a slow sip.

"No, sorry. I'm still waking up."

"Same." Craig shook the cup. "Thank God for caffeine."

It was through a herculean effort on Kyle's part that he managed to get through the week relatively unscathed, though he was completely dead on his feet by the time Friday evening arrived. He was still getting used to working every day and being in charge, but it was Pete's presence and ongoing little overtures that were the most taxing: passive aggressive comments and relentless texts, the way he "accidentally" ran into Kyle several times throughout the day. He almost felt like he was losing his mind, becoming listless and forgetful, his appetite almost nonexistent; sleep patterns all fucked up.

"I told you to leave me the hell alone. What part of that did you not understand?" They'd encountered one another once again in the break room, Kyle having retreated to empty the shred bins. Pete had wandered in and opened the fridge, just staring for a moment before closing it slowly. Slamming the container down on the counter, Kyle was just too tired and emotionally spent to give him the benefit of the doubt; Pete was just too fucking obvious.

"I don't want to be at odds," Pete said, turning to him. "It's making this place unbearable...can't we just make peace? Please?"

"I'm fine as long as you stay away from me, that's all I want." Wearily, Kyle picked up his container and headed for the door, unsurprised when Pete blocked his path, though he still had the good sense to be afraid. A cold sweat broke over him as he backed away, bumping into a chair and almost yelping; nausea building in his throat. "G-get out of my way, Pete. I told you I won't tell anyone what happened as long as you give me my space. Isn't that enough for you?"

"What's going on between you and Craig? I'm just curious," Pete replied, leaning against the break room door. "I mean, I thought you guys hated each other and now you seem all buddy buddy. It's weird."

"It's none of your business!" Kyle yelled. "What the fuck is your problem?! Are you crazy or something?!"

"Jesus Christ, you seriously need to lighten up," Pete replied, eyes widening with mock innocence. "You're losing it, Kyle."

"I wonder why!" Pushing past him, Kyle hurriedly yanked the door open and escaped into the hall, dying with shame when he saw Craig walking by, a patient's chart tucked under his arm. He slowed down but Kyle didn't give him a chance to speak, his eyes on the white tiled floor as he retreated back to the reception area.

When Saturday morning dawned, Kyle wanted to cry with happiness because he didn't have to face work that day, though he couldn't help but wonder if Craig's morning cup of coffee would be satisfactory. Rolling his eyes at the absurdity of this thought, he rolled over and pulled the covers up, pressing his face against Stan's naked back. They hadn't had sex since the previous week, both of them professing that they were just too tired and stressed to even consider it. He missed the closeness, though, and he found himself kissing Stan's skin, just wanting to be held. Pete's influence was starting to seep into his every waking moment, and in the haze of dealing with him he almost started to believe that maybe he had been asking for it. He hadn't exactly been forthright in his rejection, but he shouldn't of had to spell everything out, right? Shutting his eyes tight, he could feel a burning sensation building up in his sinuses.

"You okay?" Stan asked, voice muffled beneath the comforter.

Kyle nodded his head, not surprised that Stan could pick up on his subliminal unhappiness; they'd always had what could almost be considered a strange psychic connection when it came to the other's distress. He wrapped his arm around his side, hand draped against a warm belly, rising and falling beneath his fingers.

"I'm just glad that I don't have to work today," he admitted, though he wasn't about to tell Stan why. He was an adult, he could handle this, he was going to be just fine.

"Can't say that I blame you." Stan yawned before turning over, one eye cracked. "It feels like it's still the middle of the night."

"It's 9 am, drama queen. You don't work today, do you?"

"Nah, I'm off. You wanna get up or did you want to hang out for a bit?"

Softly, Kyle nipped at Stan's arm with his teeth, beginning to feel frisky. Stan was always so cute in the morning, hair mussed, morning wood pressing against his boxers. Kyle found him pretty irresistible.

"How about that rain check?" He asked, running his hand down Stan's stomach and into the southern hemisphere, stroking him softly. "Hmm?"

Stan groaned and covered his face with his hands, a gesture which did not make Kyle feel optimistic in the slightest. His boyfriend had his tells just like anyone else...when Kyle was anxious, he messed with his hair, when Stan wasn't horny, he covered his face.

"Let me wake up a little, okay? I have a pretty bad hangover."

So do I but I still want to fuck.

Once again, Stan seemed to be calling the shots when it came to their sex life, but Kyle didn't want to make waves. After the week he had, he just wanted to be calm, get along, and fortify himself for what was coming down the pike. Resigned, he turned away and sat up, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Stretching, he shivered as the cold hit his skin, his eyes falling on a grey bundle on top of the dresser.

"I still need to return Craig's shirt." Standing, he went over to it and settled his hand on the soft material, chastising himself for walking by the garment every day for a week and still forgetting to stuff it into his bag on the way out the door. "I'm surprised he hasn't said something."

"You guys seem to be getting along better," Stan commented, sitting up as well. "Or am I wrong? You just haven't complained about him in a while."

"We're okay," Kyle admitted as they both dressed, Kyle nursing a need to get his rocks off; craving intimacy. Stan just seemed tired, absentmindedly kissing Kyle's temple as he passed by.

Saturday passed by in a comfortable fashion, comprised of TV, lounging on the couch, and just relaxing. Kyle alternated between reading and glancing up at the TV on occasion, Mystery Science Theater 3000 playing softly as Stan snoozed lightly, his head draped in Kyle's lap.

"I'm hungry," he said at one point, rubbing his cheek against Kyle's leg. "Aren't you?"

Kyle hadn't really had an appetite since he'd shared hot chocolate and cookies with Craig in his immaculate kitchen, but he didn't mention that. Instead, he brushed some hair off of Stan's forehead before setting his book aside; a dogeared copy of Summer Crossing by Capote.

"I'll fix you something. We have leftover spaghetti."

"That sounds amazing."

It was while Kyle was waiting for the pasta to heat up that he glanced at his phone, almost sagging against the counter when he saw the barrage of texts from Pete, just one right after the other; relentless, unyielding. Kyle was convinced that the dude was certifiably insane, there could be no other explanation. Swiftly, he deleted them before practically throwing his phone aside, disgusted.

"Bad news?" Stan asked from behind him, almost making Kyle screech with surprise.

"Jesus Christ, don't sneak up on me," he snapped, pressing his hand against his chest, heart racing a mile a minute. "I get that enough with Craig."

"Craig shouldn't be sneaking up on you," Stan said playfully as he wound his arms around Kyle's shoulders, squeezing. "That isn't very nice, is it?"

"Oh, he doesn't do it to be a dick...most of the time," he added, lifting the spaghetti out of the microwave; steaming gently. He stirred it before adding shredded cheese. "And to answer your question, no, it wasn't bad news. Not really, anyway."

"What do you mean?" Taking a fork, Stan started twirling pasta around the tines. "Is it work-related?"

Tapping the counter slowly, Kyle kept his face smooth as he considered the question; the need to be evasive rearing its head.

"Why do you ask that?"

"I just figured...I mean, who else is going to be texting you just out of the blue?"

"I do have friends, you know; Kenny, Tweek -"

Craig?  Could he consider him a friend? What a bizarre thought, though Kyle couldn't exactly think of him as his nemesis anymore, right? Why was that, anyway? Also, why was Craig even factoring into his thoughts at all? Pete was right on some level; Kyle was clearly beginning to lose it.

"Kyle?"

"Hmm?" He looked up to find Stan staring at him, marinara sauce on his chin. He sighed and smiled, coming over to rub the red smear with his thumb. "You're always so messy when you eat spaghetti, you know that?"

Kissing Kyle's saucy thumb, Stan gave him an exasperated look; a sudden impatience clouding tranquil eyes and features. He didn't really look like himself in that moment, at least not the Stan Kyle had woken up next to; relaxed and warm and soft. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, Kyle regarded him as Stan continued to eat, offering him a bite every now and again; he refrained.

"I know something's going on with you," he said, twirling the spaghetti into an unwieldy yarn ball he couldn't even hope to fit inside his mouth. "You haven't been acting like yourself, Kyle. You're distracted, quiet...not sullen, exactly, but you seem angry. But those aren't the things that really bother me," he added, plunking his fork on his plate and pushing it away. 

Kyle just stared at him, trying not to cry because he wanted to so badly; to relieve days upon days of built-up, unbearable pressure. He just didn't want to start sobbing in front of Stan, bringing to light his perpetual breakdown. He'd told Stan that he was an adult, that he could take care of himself, that he'd deal with Pete, and he'd failed abysmally. Now he had to find some way to make things right, even though he felt so foolish and unclean and...undeserving of his own body and skin. No part of himself belonged to him anymore, it seemed, not after Pete had decided otherwise. How was he supposed to make Stan understand any of that? It'd just burden him, just like Kyle burdened Stan in so many ways every day....

"Kyle, baby," Stan said, coming over and placing his hands softly on Kyle's hips; drawing him close. "Just talk to me, please? You're scared, I know you are. I can see it in your eyes...they take on this frantic look when you're afraid."

"I-it's just nerves from my job. This is a lot for me to handle all of a sudden...I'm still trying to figure out how I fit into everything." Drawing forward, Kyle laid his head against Stan's chest, hiding his face. "That's all."

Taking a hold of Kyle's chin, Stan tipped his face up so their gazes converged.

"Then why are you barely eating, or sleeping...you're always on edge. Not to mention the fact that you've started walking to and from work. What happened to Pete?"

"You noticed that, huh?"

"It wasn't hard to figure out, Kyle. I look out the windows in the morning and I don't see that ridiculous car...no, instead I see a redhead walking in the cold. Same goes for the evening, when I'm home anyway. I can't say I'm disappointed that you aren't riding with him anymore, Kyle, but I am concerned that you didn't tell me about it. Any reason why?"

Eyes wet, Kyle looked into Stan's face and bit his lip, shaking his head slowly.

"No, I just...I didn't want to take advantage of his generosity anymore. It wasn't right, so I told him I'd just walk. He understood."

"He understood?" Stan repeated, though he sounded incredulous. "Just like that?"

"Yes, Pete's a nice guy." Just saying those words made him feel nauseous, the bile rising up from his gut. "Besides, I need to be more independent, and I told you I can take care of myself. You need to trust me."

"Oh, yeah?" Stan asked, reaching down and beginning to kiss Kyle's neck, lips teasing as they ghosted over his throat. He pulled him closer, fingers pressing into his skin. "Then why are you falling apart like this? Why won't you just talk to me?"

There's just too much to say, and I feel ashamed and stupid, almost like I asked for what happened. What if you agree with me? You'll just tell me I should've told Pete to fuck off sooner, like you told me to do at the beginning. You'll ask me why I didn't listen, why I never listen, why I'm so stubborn and -

"Stress," Kyle said simply, pulling away and going to grab the bottle of wine from the fridge. He frowned. "We're almost out."

"I can run down to the store," Stan replied, clearly exasperated as he polished off the plate of spaghetti. "I need beer, anyway."

"Get something for dinner, too." Pouring the remainder of the wine into a glass, Kyle glanced out the kitchen window, the grey clouds soiled puffs dirtying a sanitized winter sky. The afternoon was darkening, like the light was on a dimmer switch that was steadily being turned down. He sighed. "I'm so tired of the cold."

"You know, I could just drive you to work in the mornings." Stan began dragging on his coat and hat, checking in his pockets for his phone and wallet. "Depending on my schedule, I won't always be able to pick you up, but -"

"Nah, that's okay," Kyle said, rinsing out Stan's dish. "I don't want to bother you."

"Kyle, are you for real? You aren't bothering me." He paused, his keys jingling in his hand, clinking like dull music as the water rushed; nervous, jarring noises to Kyle's ears at the moment. "I mean, we could even just buy you a car, if you wanted."

He glanced at him over his shoulder, shutting the water off; shaking the excess droplets from his hands.

"I don't want a car. You know that."

Shaking his head, Stan began backing toward the door.

"Did you want anything specific? For dinner?"

"Nah, I'm flexible. I'm not all that hungry, honestly."

They had a floor picnic that night, opting to forgo the table and settling in front of the TV instead; watching bad movies they'd seen a hundred times before. Kyle had a feeling they both needed a pick-me-up, the winter doldrums setting in as the snow kicked up outside, cascading over the muted landscape; cutting them off from humanity. It was almost like they were hanging suspended in space far away from the earth; occupying their own private satellite. Stan had picked up more wine and beer, which they imbibed on as the sun declined, and when dinner rolled around he made shrimp tacos.

"Your favorite," he commented, laying Kyle's plate on the coffee table. "With homemade guacamole."

"With garlic?" Kyle asked, swirling his wine and sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was dressed in fluffy sweatpants and an oversized hoodie; one of Stan's, naturally. The alcohol was making him sleepy, having drunk it on an empty stomach. Picking up a shrimp, he popped it into his mouth, more for Stan's benefit than his own. "Thanks."

They quietly ate, though Kyle could only manage one taco and a few bites of rice. Still, Stan seemed somewhat satisfied, choosing not to say anything. He ate his standard four and knocked back a few beers, leaving Kyle to marvel where he put it all; figuring once again that it was lingering youth and his overly physical job that kept him trim. His own thinness could be attributed to his nerves and general lack of appetite, he supposed, which made him think of Tweek and his tendency to snack on apples instead of actual meals.

"I wonder what Tweek's doing right now," he mused, pouring himself more wine. Leaning against Stan, he took a sip. "Their house is so quiet...I don't believe for a second that he isn't lonely out there on a night like this."

Sliding his finger through some residual guacamole, Stan shrugged.

"He's probably with Craig, right? And didn't you say that Craig's sister and her kid are staying there? It's not like he's alone."

"I'm not so sure about that." Curling his knees to his chest, he hugged himself. "You can occupy the same space as another person and still be pretty far apart."

"Hmm," Stan said, seeming to consider this idea. Then he was reaching into the pocket of his jeans and slowly smiling. He held up a little bag for Kyle to see. "Did I mention I ran into Kenny at the liquor store?"

"Stan Marsh, is that -" Pausing, he took the bag and studied it, an eyebrow raised. It wasn't like they hadn't smoked together before, but it'd been a while. He glanced at Stan, his eyebrows raised in question. "Kenny's still selling?"

"On occasion. Don't worry, he's careful." Taking the bag back, Stan dumped the weed on the coffee table and began methodically picking through it, plucking out stems and seeds. "Grab me a cigarette, will you? Actually, better make it two."

Kyle just sighed and grabbed the pack on the side table, shaking out two cigarettes and setting them down. Resting his chin on the coffee table, he watched as Stan carefully emptied out the cigarettes and replaced them with the weed, tamping them gently. He'd always been very adept at this process, having said in the past that he wasn't really fond of bongs or pipes. Kyle had been indifferent, mostly. He liked smoking for the most part, but it wasn't a huge concern for him.

"Did he say how Bebe's doing?" He asked as they made their way onto the balcony, the bird feeder swinging in the breeze as the snow fell fat and full; heavy flakes in bunches. Stan lit up and took a long drag, holding the smoke in for a few beats before slowly letting it out.

"He said she's probably going to need to be induced," he replied, handing the joint over. Holding up the lighter, he held it to the tip as Kyle took a hit; a much shorter one, of course. "Like, that baby doesn't want to budge at all, he said." He shuddered slightly. "Of course he had to go into detail about how they've been having sex to try and get contractions started, but no dice."

"Sounds like Kenny," Kyle laughed, handing the J back. "They're so weird together but they make sense, don't you think?"

"Yup, they're both horny all the time and low-key. They also have no filters, so." He grinned, lighting up again.

"I'm glad they're happy." Kyle took another pull when the weed was offered, going to the railing and leaning against it; knocking some snow tufts off first. He looked out at the silent town, his head beginning to swim from alcohol and weed, his body warm inside Stan's hoodie; smelling of cologne and just him. He hugged himself.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Stan asked, coming up beside him. He'd been reckless and hadn't put on a sweater, so he was dressed in his t-shirt and jeans. He didn't seem any worse for wear, though;, having always dealt with the cold better than Kyle, it would seem.

"Oh, I don't have much to say." He turned away when he said this, knowing it was a bald-faced lie. If anything, he had too much to say, but it was overwhelming and he didn't want to spoil the mood they'd cultivated; simple but needed, a quiet, uneventful evening at home. "I'm just enjoying the moment...being here with you. You know?"

"You want more?" Stan held up the joint, nearly spent.

Kyle nodded, accepting a weed-scented kiss when Stan handed it back to him, starting to feel giggly and loose; nearly defenseless. His walls were coming down, but it was okay. In that moment, he could throw off the worn skin of the day and just be, shivering in the cold but pressed close to Stan's side.

The evening passed in a haze of weed and alcohol, Kyle finally plucking up some appetite and managing to eat another taco. He even accepted Stan's offering of chocolate ice cream, both of them eating straight from the container. Before too long, they were giggling over nothing and Stan was kissing the sugar from his mouth, his tongue lingering on Kyle's bottom lip; tasting him. Kyle sighed into the contact, allowing the touch to deepen into a long kiss, Stan setting the ice cream aside and laying him back against the couch.

"Your cheeks are so red," Stan commented, pushing his hands under Kyle's hoodie and stroking his skin. "I can't tell if it's because of the cold or the wine..."

"Probably both," Kyle replied, arching his back so his body pressed against Stan's, warm and needful. "Not that I'm cold right now, of course."

"Oh, of course." Grinning, Stan dragged the hoodie up and kissed Kyle's belly, making him shiver and laugh at the same time. "Did you want to go to the bedroom, or -"

"No, right here, let's stay right here," Kyle moaned, reaching down and unbuttoning Stan's jeans. "I don't want to get back there and then you change your mind."

Drawing away, Stan stared at him, surprised.

"Why would I change my mind?"

Afraid he was already spoiling the moment, Kyle reached up and kissed him, eyes closed.

"Forget I said that. Here," he began to hum softly in the back of his throat, his hand sneaking into Stan's jeans and brushing the underside of his cock. Soon enough, Kyle was dissolving under Stan's touch, warm hands trailing over his skin as he panted against a strong shoulder; whispering Stan's name over and over inside his head. Finally, thoughts of Pete receded, almost like he was being washed clean, absolved of the things that were steadily gnawing away at him.

----

Eventually, after they'd had sex on the couch, Kyle and Stan had retired to their bedroom where they fucked again, slowly, almost like they were trying to be careful with each other. It reminded Kyle of the beginning of their relationship, lost nights filled with Ethan Frome and guitar music and the desire to be together all the time. They'd always had a hunger for each other, and at first it had almost been like they'd been feeding a mutual addiction, but that feeling had ebbed as the years passed. Still, that night, it filtered back into the way they held each other, hands straying and handling the other's body with a care that was tender and ravenous all at once.

That's why he was surprised when he woke up and found himself alone in their rumpled bed, room dark like he was locked in an airless box. There weren't even any strips of moonlight to illuminate the curves of the furniture, to give dimension to what was essentially a black canvas. Kyle sat up, the sheet falling from him, his still naked body feeling pliable from exercise; memories of Stan's fingertips still resting in his skin. He stood slowly, groping in the darkness and pulling on the first thing he found. It wasn't until he was out in the muted lighting of the living room that he realized he was wearing Craig's Puget Sound shirt, thankful for its length. He was sure that he was imagining things, but he thought he detected hints of warm vanilla settled in the fabric, but that had to be an impossibility...he'd washed it as soon as he'd gotten home Sunday afternoon.

The specifics of the living room weren't immediately obvious when he walked in, his eyes still adjusting to the sudden light, faint though it was; the bulb over the stove throwing its weak glow into the air. The TV was on as well, its glare falling over Stan, who sat on the couch in just his jeans, feet resting on the coffee table. Fleetwood Mac played in the background, more like a lullaby than anything else; rippling guitar music trickling like creek waters in the quiet. Kyle couldn't make out the song, though it felt familiar. They'd listened to a lot of older music when they'd been in college, holdovers from their childhoods; Randy Marsh's influence, mostly: Journey, Elton John, Boston, Kansas, SuperTramp, and of course sweet Stevie Nicks capping it all off with her smoky, heartbreaking voice.

"What are you doing?" Kyle asked, wandering over and slumping on the sofa, too; legs curled underneath him. He tugged Craig's shirt down, covering his unmentionables. "Couldn't you sleep?"

There was silence, save for that same familiar song playing, and Kyle caught a lyric; something about someone having dreams to sell.

Ah, now I recognize it, he thought, but that wasn't his major focus now. Stan had a strange look on his face, hard; unlike him. His lips were tugged into an unbecoming frown.

"Stan?" He tried again, suddenly feeling apprehensive. There was a heaviness in the atmosphere that reminded him of Pete's closeness; a cornered-animal tension rising in him.

"I was sleeping fine," he said lowly, his words tight like strings readying to snap. "But I came out to get some water and your phone was vibrating." He held it up and threw it on the couch between them. Not turning his head, he continued to speak, his voice somehow becoming even more taut, its scarcely-concealed tension making Kyle's heart beat faster than the sight of his phone lying in front of him.

"Pete sent you a million fucking texts, Kyle. Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on, because I feel like I'm in the dark. No, scratch that," he added, finally looking at him. "I know I'm in the dark, so now's the time to tell the truth. Don't you think?"

"Y-you went through my phone again?" Kyle asked, stalling for time and also genuinely appalled that Stan overstepped his boundaries - again. "I thought we talked about that, dude. I told you not -"

"I know what you told me!" Stan yelled, making Kyle jump to his feet, backing up so that the easy chair was between them. "I heard you loud and clear, but I knew that something was going on, Kyle. Okay, maybe I didn't really know the details, but you've been acting weird and you've been avoiding my questions, so I decided to figure shit out for myself." He stood, raking his hands through his hair. "It's a good thing I did, because that Pete guy seems like a psycho. Why does he keep apologizing to you, huh? He's begging you to talk to him but he won't say why."

Kyle gripped the back of the chair, feeling like an old weight had been lifted from his shoulders but a new one had merely taken its place. All of his emotions seemed to be rising in his chest at that moment: anger, fear, sadness, a strange euphoria at some of the secret finally coming to light, but what eclipsed them all was the anger; a deep, nearly-unbridled fury about feeling so out of control and powerless. What was so infuriating about it was that he knew he'd perpetuated some of his own misery, by being closed-off, by being silent, but he didn't want to talk about the things that were destroying him. He wanted to work at his own pace, deal in his own way, and the world just wouldn't fucking let him; people always had their own plans, pushing him in certain directions before he was ready.

"Fine," he conceded, just ready to be done because he didn't have the strength to keep hiding. Besides, if Stan was going to stomp all over his boundaries anyway, he might as well know the whole story. It's not like Kyle had a right to his own body or any perceived notions of privacy, right? Stan and Pete had both made that abundantly fucking clear. "Something might have happened the night I went out with everyone, okay?"

Crossing his arms, Stan just looked more annoyed; concerned, but more aggravated than anything else.

"Okay," he said, his eyes widening. "And?"

"Could you give me a fucking second, this is really hard!" Clenching his fingers, Kyle bit his mouth when it began to tremble. Taking a long breath, he worked up his courage, trying to ignore the sensation of being dirty and foolish.

It wasn't my fault! It wasn't, regardless of what Pete wants me to think!

"Okay, so we were walking outside," he continued, a slight break in his voice that he quickly pushed past, "me and Pete, I mean, because we were going to smoke before we left, but we heard Craig and Tweek arguing, so we hid behind his car -"

"That's...odd, but fine, I guess I can sort of see why you did that," Stan cut in, his posture relaxing somewhat. "Go on."

"I'm trying to," Kyle snapped. "Anyway, after Craig and Tweek left, Pete started talking about my muse collapsing and all of his pretentious crap. Remember, I told you about that?"

"Yeah, what a douche," Stan replied, rolling his eyes.

"What I didn't tell you, is that he...he..." Breaking off, Kyle leaned his face into his hands, not wanting to talk about any of this, just wanting it to fade and fade until it was a memory that had happened to someone else, until he could convince himself that it had been something he'd seen in a movie and confused with reality.

"What?" Stan asked, his tone softening. "Kyle, just tell me. Please."

"He pushed me against his car and he tried to kiss me, okay?!" Kyle yelled, feeling out of control, like he wanted to set a match to the world and watch it be destroyed; Pete, in particular. "He held me down so I couldn't move and I tried to get away, but he- he hurt me, and he wouldn't listen and -"

Looking up, his voice became fierce and triumphant when he recounted how he'd retaliated.

"I kneed him in his fucking balls, and he dropped like a sack of shit, and it felt so good to see him like that...to see him in pain. I wish I had kicked him in his fucking face, too. I swear to God, if I could go back in time -"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm down," Stan said, coming over to him and taking a hold of his arms, holding him tightly. "Just calm down, okay? You're going to make yourself sick."

"I already feel sick," Kyle said, pushing Stan away, not wanting to be touched; not while he was thinking about all of this. "And now I have to see him every day and he tried to tell me it was all my fault, but then he wants to apologize and...God, he's all over the map, but I know he's not really sorry. He's just pissed off that I rejected him...that I won't give him a pass. He just wants me to let all of this go, but I won't. He doesn't deserve that."

"You're damn right he doesn't," Stan replied, his tone evolving from one of aggravation to danger in a matter of seconds. "I'm going to put him in a coma, I swear to God. Come Monday morning, that motherfucker is going to wish he'd never been born."

Panicking, Kyle rushed forward, pressing himself close against Stan's chest.

"No, you can't do that. First of all, you'll get yourself arrested, and secondly, I can handle this. Just let me handle this, Stan!"

"Why should I? You kept all of this from me for over a week, and you're letting that guy terrorize you. It isn't right and you know it. No, I'm going to handle this my way."

Desperately, Kyle took a hold of Stan's wrist, squeezing it.

"Please, will you just listen to me? I don't want you rushing in like you've lost your mind and making a scene at my job. That isn't going to help, okay? That's part of the reason I didn't tell you about what happened...you can never control yourself when you're angry. You'll just get into trouble."

Narrowing his eyes, Stan glanced down at Kyle's fingers encircling his wrist, almost like he wanted to move away. He didn't.

"So, what are you going to do about this, huh? Are you just going to keep going along pretending like nothing happened, or are you going to stand up for yourself?" He paused. "Have you even told Craig about this? I'm sure he'd be very interested to know that one of his employees is a fucking sexual predator."

"No, I haven't said anything," Kyle replied, barely able to comprehend how that conversation would go. "I don't want to unload all of this bullshit in Craig's lap...he has enough of his own problems."

"Kyle, he owns the place; it's his job to know about this stuff!" Now Stan did yank his arm away, going to the coffee table and picking up his own phone. "Fine, I'll call him myself...I'm sure Bebe will give me his number. This is fucking ridiculous...you always do this whenever anything bad happens. It's like you're allergic to confrontation."

"That isn't true, I just don't like turning things into huge fucking deals!"

"Right, like sitting on that sort of secret wasn't going to turn it into a bigger problem than it already was. Are you listening to yourself right now?" Exasperated, Stan started scrolling through his phone. Becoming frantic, Kyle came over and ripped it out of his hand, hiding it behind his back.

"No, I told you not to get involved, and I mean it. I'll take care of this, but I'm going to do it on my terms."

Stan just stared at him like he'd lost his mind, which was probably the case; it was like the world was exploding all around him, and so quickly, too. Had it really just been a few hours ago that they'd been intertwined on the couch, dazed by sugar and weed and just getting lost in each other? It was almost like it'd happened in another lifetime.

"Your way of dealing with things is to not deal with them at all. You know that, I know that. Now give me my phone so I can call Craig and get this settled." He held out his hand, fingers flexing back and forth. Just the sight made Kyle even angrier.

"You aren't listening to me," he said, voice softening, almost trance-like. A number of things were clicking into place that left him disturbed, and as ever, he was starting to realize that one tiny happenstance was enough to blow the lid off of waiting, often-ignored issues. "Just like Pete, you aren't listening to me at all. I'm standing here telling you what I want, and you're just going to do what you want anyway. Don't you see a problem with that?"

"You can't be comparing me to that piece of shit right now." Stan's eyes widened, blown open with incredulity. "Are you for real?"

Kyle cleared his throat, trying to choose his words carefully because he knew he was walking through a minefield now.

"I'm not saying you two are exactly the same, but haven't you noticed you kind of...override my feelings a lot? This is the second time you've gone through my phone in less than two weeks, after I explicitly told you not to, you lied to me about looking at porn on my laptop, no, I had to find that out on my own...you forget to tell me when you're going out with your friends because you just figure I won't want to do anything anyway, I'm begging you to let me handle this whole situation on my own, and you won't let me..."

He bit his lip, bringing his hand out from behind his back, Stan's phone still clenched in it.

"We only have sex when you want to, so I feel like I'm not allowed to really ask for it when I want it, and I do want it...I want to be close to you, but I don't want to be rejected." He shrugged, his other hand clenched in the fabric of his shirt. "I just feel so confused a lot of the time, now that I really think about it. I mean, you even told me I needed to basically get a life, but now you aren't trusting me to live it the way I see fit. Yes, I know I'm going to make mistakes, but you need to let me make them. Jesus, I feel loved but unloved at the same time...unwanted, but needed...but...God, what am I even saying right now?"

Stan was silent, his eyes focused on his phone, some of the anger evaporating as he seemed to be mulling over Kyle's words.

"Fine, since we're dredging up our feelings, I can play along," he finally said, turning and going to sit on the couch heavily. "Remember what I said about you pulling people closer with one hand while pushing them away with the other? Well, this is one of those situations where you're doing exactly that...I feel like you were trying to protect my feelings and that's why you didn't tell me about Pete, because you knew it would upset me, but on the flip side, by not telling me you're making me feel like you can't trust me...like there's this wall between us that gets bigger every day. I hate that I have to go through your phone just so I can know what's going on with you...it's an awful feeling; like I'm always on the outside looking in."

He held up his hands, like he was surrendering.

"I mean, I know it's wrong and I shouldn't do it, but..." he shrugged, lowering his hands and staring at them. "If you aren't going to talk to me, I don't know if I can stop. I feel like my hands are tied in so many ways...I want to protect you, take care of you, but you won't talk to me. You want to get drunk and lapse into your moods, and that makes me want to drink and try to forget about what's happening between us, and it also makes it so I don't always want to have sex or be physically close to you. I feel...I just feel distant because there is distance between us, and I don't know how to change it."

He was quiet for some time, clasping his hands together between his knees.

"I don't know how to make any of this better," he said, sounding defeated. "This emotional crap is so beyond my scope...I just want to beat Pete's face in but I know that won't take away what he did to you, and I seriously don't have the first clue about fixing things between us."

Unable to stomach just how sad Stan sounded, Kyle couldn't help but go to him, throwing the phone aside and crawling into his lap; his arms wrapping around his neck. He nestled his head on Stan's shoulder and just began to cry, all of the weight of their circumstances descending on him until he was sobbing, hot tears pouring down his face and drenching Stan's skin. After some time had passed, he became aware of Stan's arms holding him close, of being rocked back and forth gently; crying until he was wrung out, his eyes sore and his muscles screaming for respite. He was just so tired in that moment, but he didn't want to fight...he didn't want to dwell on the realities of their situation; looming up like monsters on the horizon.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, just wanting to say the words but not absolutely sure what he was apologizing about...he just knew that he didn't want to hurt Stan anymore, but he still felt so deeply detached; so relentlessly unhappy.

So broken.

"So am I," Stan replied, stroking his hand through Kyle's hair. He pressed his face against Kyle's neck, continuing to rock him; cradling him in his lap like a baby.

Sunday was spent in a cloud of relative silence, both of them retreating to their neutral corners as the snow kept falling, covering everything. Kyle felt insulated, removed, and he spent the majority of the day lying on the couch and staring at the TV, not really seeing what was on the screen; flitting through broken naps and quickly-forgotten dreams. Pete kept texting him, his phone buzzing from its perch on the coffee table, and he couldn't ignore the way Stan gave the device death stares every time it happened. Gone was their warm camaraderie from the day before, replaced with a strange tension, like they were both waiting for something to be said or done, but neither of them trusted themselves enough to make the first move. 

All too soon, it was evening and Kyle was dragging himself into the shower, wanting to wash away the weight and dust of the day, but feeling just as heavy even after he was done. Exhausted, he prepared his lunch for the next day and got his stuff ready, crawling into bed in Craig's t-shirt, not really sure why he'd opted to wear it, but deriving a strange comfort from its phantom-vanilla scent.

"I can drive you tomorrow, if you want," Stan said as they lay in bed, the shadows crawling up the walls and eating up the moonlight. "I seriously don't mind."

"That's okay," Kyle replied, finally closing some of the gap between them, settling his head on Stan's pillow and resting his cheek against his shoulder. "I think getting some fresh air will help me clear my head, but thanks."

It was quiet for a few pregnant minutes, making Kyle believe that Stan had fallen asleep, but he spoke suddenly; voice thick.

"Why didn't you tell me? I know you said it's because I'd get mad and I can understand that, but..."

"I wanted to think I could handle things," Kyle replied, rolling onto his side, facing away. He curled up, his hands crossed over his stomach. "And I feel...dirty. I don't feel like myself. When someone hurts you like that, they take something away, I guess...and they replace it with something awful. I can't explain it, I just know that I'm different now. Everything's different."

Stan didn't speak now, though Kyle could hear him rustling behind him. After a moment, he felt a hand on his back.

"Can I hold you? Is that okay?" Stan whispered.

He considered this, almost wanting to say no, but he nodded instead, eyes shut. Holding his breath, he was slowly drawn to Stan's chest, his heart thumping steadily against his back; lulling him. It took him quite a while to fall asleep, even after he heard Stan's breaths change; deepening as the hours passed.

Chapter Text

Story of my life
Searching for the right
But it keeps avoiding me
Sorrow in my soul
Cause it seems that wrong
Really loves my company

 -Rihanna, Unfaithful


The next morning came too soon, the alarm splitting the air and almost making Kyle come out of his skin. He'd only managed to garner a few hours of unsatisfying sleep, and as he dressed his eyes felt heavy. In fact, every part of his body felt too heavy, and he moved slowly. He was already in his coat and hat when Stan staggered out of the bedroom, not appearing well-rested either. Kyle was sure that from an outsider's perspective, they both looked like zombies, fresh from the grave.

"Sure you don't want a ride?" He asked, handing Kyle his bag.

He shook his head.

"I need some time, I think."

"I can still come down there and split Pete's head open," he added, perking up slightly. Kyle couldn't help but grin, stifling a sudden yawn behind his hand.

"If I don't do it first. I pretty much told him I'd fuck him up if he kept messing with me." He opened the door, hesitating, nearly wincing when the shrill winds whistled through the corridor, ruffling his coat.

"I'd pay money to see that," Stan said, coming forward and kissing his temple. "Try to have a good day, okay? I'll text you."

Waving, Kyle pulled his coat tighter around himself as he stepped outside, feeling numb even before he'd made it down the stairs.

That Monday was much the same as the one previous, right down to the steady flow. Kyle tried to stay positive, but he was exhausted and sad, his conversation with Stan tolling through his head like incessant church bells, constant and impossible to ignore. He found himself becoming preoccupied, stopping to linger when he brought Craig his cup of coffee. Without realizing it, he gazed at the bird sketches, thinking of Tweek's tattoos, about his studio deluged in grey, lonely shadows.

"You okay?" Craig asked, sipping his coffee and clicking through a couple screens on his comp. He pulled up an xray, sitting back and studying it. Nodding his head, he caught Kyle's attention. "Check out this huge kidney stone, stuck right in the ureter." He pointed, tapping his finger on the screen, his wedding ring catching the light. "If he doesn't have hydronephrosis now he will soon. I'm referring him to Token."

"Hydronephrosis?" Kyle asked, feeling dumb and slow, his mind just not waking up properly.

"It's when your urine backs up into your kidneys," Craig replied, toying with his mug. "No fun."

"No, it doesn't sound like it," he replied listlessly. "How was your weekend?"

Craig paused, his mouth tightening.

"Uneventful, but I guess that's a good thing." He turned to him, cocking a brow. "Yours?"

Before he could stop himself, Kyle could feel his lips trembling, just wanting to open up and pour everything inside of his heart out, even if it was to Craig Tucker. Somehow, he held back, shrugging helplessly.

"Not so great," he said honestly. He looked down at his shoes, rubbing the fronts together. "But no biggy, you know? I'll figure it out."

Crossing his legs, Craig started bobbing his foot up and down, and Kyle was starting to think that's what he did when he was mulling something over.

"You've been kind of off lately," he commented, taking another sip of coffee. "I mean, I can only speculate because I don't know you all that well, but that's the vibe I'm getting. Am I wrong?"

"No, you're right," Kyle said, throwing pretenses aside and just needing to be real. So much of life was made up of covering up the way he felt, but he was so tired of running and hiding...why did he insist on suffering in silence? What was the point? "Actually, I -"

"Kyle," Butters said, coming down the hallway and looking anxious. "I need your help, we kind of got a rush out of nowhere."

"Oh, sure. Sorry." He tucked that stray curl behind his ear, avoiding Craig's eyes now. "I'll just talk to you later, I guess."

Craig nodded, his expression inscrutable. Turning back to his computer screen, Kyle noticed his foot still bobbing away, faster now.

Monday faded into Tuesday, and Kyle was already tired of the week. He was tired of walking in the cold and avoiding Pete, who was still menacing even if he was fading more into the background, mainly because Kyle very rarely gave them the opportunity to be alone together; staying close to his co-workers and racing out the door at night before he could be caught. He had a feeling he looked ridiculous to everyone else, nervous and jumpy, but he couldn't afford to care. Things at home were tense, and for once he was glad that Stan's schedule made it so he came home late from work.

"I switched shifts with another guy because he was in a bind," he'd explained Monday night, but Kyle couldn't help but feel like they were both just avoiding the situation; the potential cataclysm. This was normally how they dealt with arguments that delved beneath the surface, pretending they didn't exist until they could fool themselves into believing the lie. When it came to the simple little things, they had no problem snipping at each other, but the profound just seemed to terrify them both, rendering them speechless.

Wednesday dawned viciously cold, almost scarily so, and the thermometer next to the bird feeder showed that the temperature had dipped into almost the negative digits overnight. Kyle merely groaned and slipped into his thermals, a hoodie, woolen socks, his heaviest parka, and his most resolute attitude before heading outside. By the time he made it to work he was sure he'd shatter if anyone touched him, and he had to sit for a few minutes at his desk before he could truly begin to move, the feeling coming back into his limbs slowly; skin throbbing hot and red as the blood rushed. Annoyed, he felt itchy and weirdly sweaty under his thermal shirt, already irritated at the day unfolding even though it'd just begun.

It didn't help that Pete showed up before everyone else, knocking at the front door and looking warm enough, despite the weather. For a moment, Kyle considered just not answering but decided against it, not having the energy to make waves. He scurried back behind his desk after letting him in and locking up, focusing on getting the charts and everything ready to go.

"Don't tell me you walked in this," Pete asked, gesturing to the door. "It's, like, two below out there. You're crazy."

"It's none of your business," Kyle replied flatly. "Nothing I do is your business."

"Won't Stan drive you? He isn't that big of an asshole, is he?" Lingering, Pete leaned against the counter, one foot crossed over the other; toe resting on the floor.

Turning, Kyle had to ignore his impulse to lunge himself across the room and straight at Pete's face. Somehow, he remained calm, taking deep, cleansing breaths.

Don't kill him. If you do, you'll lose your job. Oh, and you'll go to prison, of course. What an inconvenience that would be.

"Leave. Me. Alone," he said instead, punctuating every word like he was spitting them out. He just couldn't figure out what Pete's problem was, why he needed to be so antagonizing, almost like he was physically incapable of just honoring one simple request. Kyle tried to remember if he'd been like this in school, but he kept drawing a blank; they'd run in different circles so he had to admit he barely knew the guy. "And stop texting me, okay? In fact, just delete my number."

"Mr. Ray of Sunshine," Pete muttered, finally moving away though he stopped next to Kyle's chair, looming up beside him and making the hairs on his neck rise. "You know, you're lucky you're cute, right? Otherwise, you'd just be this dude with a perpetual bad attitude."

Kyle wanted to tell him that he'd better watch his ass because he could have Stan drop by at anytime to give him the beat-down he thoroughly deserved, but he bit his tongue. He didn't need anyone fighting his battles for him. He just continued to paperclip forms together, refusing to rise to Pete's baiting.

Almost like a gift from heaven, he could hear keys jingling in the front door lock and he looked up, seeing Craig, hair unsettled by the wind.  He was wearing dark sunglasses and his standard jacket; bag settled on his shoulder. Kyle was starting to associate him with a cartoon character: always wearing the same thing aside from different-colored scrubs. In fact, he'd noticed that Craig had a tendency to wear certain colors on specific days; almost like he had a day-of-the-week wardrobe going on. It was in line with his methodical character; order and routine, he thrived on them.

Appearing animated, he came over to the reception area, giving Pete a fleeting glance before catching Kyle's eye.

"I heard from Bebe," he announced, almost appearing pleased. "She's scheduled to be induced in a few days, as soon as she hits 41 weeks."

"So, they have to do an eviction," Kyle replied, smiling against his will. "I've been meaning to text her...is she feeling okay?"

"Oh, about as well as anyone who's almost 41 weeks pregnant," Craig said wryly. "She said she's ready to be done, and I can't blame her."

"Same." They stared at each other for a moment, and Kyle almost felt like he was becoming giddy, dropping his eyes to the counter. Trying to ignore Pete's presence, he slowly stood, brushing at a curl, that one telltale curl. "Give me your mug, okay? I'll go fix your coffee."

"Oh, right," Craig fished it out of his bag and set it on the counter, finally addressing Pete. "Could you go check to see how many flu shots we have left? I don't want to run out mid-week."

"Sure," Pete muttered, turning on his heel and finally retreating into the back where he belonged. Kyle let out a long breath, suddenly realizing just how tense he'd become with having him so close. Plucking up the mug, he turned away.

"It's pretty cold out, huh?" Craig asked, his footsteps resounding behind Kyle as they walked. "I almost froze just walking to the building from my car."

"Yeah, it's awful," Kyle said, thinking of his long walk home that night, already dreading it.

That night, they had someone come in right before closing time needing sutures, having cut themselves pretty deeply while fixing dinner. The woman was apologetic as she kept her arm elevated, the area wrapped in reddened gauze, but Kyle didn't have the heart to be annoyed. It wasn't like she'd walked through the door after having the sniffles for the past three weeks; she clearly needed help, and fast. Glancing down at the nearly-healed wound on the inside of his wrist, he almost smiled; Craig having asked him about it just the day before.

"Use vitamin E oil or cocoa butter," he'd said, holding Kyle's arm and looking at it closely. "It'll help prevent it from scarring. At least, a little. Really, sometimes these things can't be avoided, but it doesn't hurt to try, right?"

Sudden thoughts of Tweek's tattoos had flitted through Kyle's mind at the mention of scars, how the areas were puckered beneath the black ink. He hadn't mentioned them, knowing that it would be in poor taste. He'd just nodded before he'd touched his wrist, had watched as Craig walked briskly away, calling to Mercedes for the result of a UA.

Lacerations were always time-consuming to deal with, so they'd all had to stay late, and then the money just wouldn't balance, so by the time he and Butters were all closed up for the night, Mercedes and Pete were already done in the back. Heidi had left a littler earlier than the others, having finished up with her portion of the patients and signed off on her stack of charts. She'd smiled cheerily as she'd walked out, looking so happy and contented, practically walking on cloud nine these days because she was anticipating Bebe's induction. She'd gushed to Kyle that she couldn't wait to be a mom, that she'd wanted to be a parent since she was a girl. Kyle had to admit she'd probably make a wonderful mother, having always been warm and nurturing. She also had to have an unnatural amount of patience if she could stand being married to Eric Cartman.

Now there was no avoiding Pete as they all made their way toward the door, Kyle dreading every step as the latter's axe body spray invaded his space; heavy and unwanted. Once again, he couldn't help being irritated that he was the keeper of the keys because he was in charge, which basically forced him to look after everyone unless Heidi was there to lock up. Craig had his own keys, of course, but he was always preoccupied at that time of night, tucked away in his little corner and grinding like life and limb depended on it.

Mercedes and Butters, being none the wiser of Kyle and Pete's secret war, blissfully said goodnight before retreating to their cars, speaking briefly before climbing in and disappearing into the night. They'd been tentatively dating off and on since the night of the dinner, which pleased Kyle even if he couldn't exactly understand Mercedes' side of the equation. Butters had always had a penchant for her type, but he couldn't fathom her interest in him, but then he felt bad for feeling that way. Butters was a good person, he always had been, but Kyle just couldn't imagine him being in a relationship, especially with someone as confident and glamorous as an ex-Raisins' girl.

"Jesus, it's even colder now than it was this morning," Pete commented, lighting up a cigarette and looking into the sky, which was clear and salted with stars; appearing sharper because of the unforgiving cold. The moon was an unblinking eye, full and ghostly-white like a wheel of platinum.

"Well, yeah, because the sun went down," Kyle replied, keeping close to the door, never turning his back to him. "Obviously."

"Obviously," Pete mimicked, taking a drag. "You gonna have some common sense and let me drive you home, or what?"

"Common sense tells me I shouldn't accept a stick of gum from you, let alone a ride." He crossed his arms, shifting from foot to foot, already losing the feeling in his nose and ears. Looking down the lonely stretch of sidewalk he shivered, just not having it in him to stomach a trek that seemed to become longer and longer the colder it became, but he wasn't about to tell Pete that.

"Come on, Kyle. Stop being so fucking stubborn. I won't try anything, I promise."

"The fact that you need to say that is so ridiculously disturbing I can barely fathom it." Feeling a little sick, Kyle waved his hand. "Just go. I'm not riding with you, end of story."

Pete groaned and rubbed his eyes, the cigarette lodged between his first and second fingers.

"You're really frustrating to deal with, you know that?"

"Then don't fucking deal with me!" Kyle yelled before he pulled his keys from his pocket. Turning abruptly, he swiftly unlocked the door and stepped back in the clinic, shutting it hard. Quickly, he turned the deadbolt before Pete could react. He stood there, staring Pete down who seemed momentarily speechless, eyes wide as he held his arms up in a "what the fuck?" gesture. Narrowing his eyes, Kyle shook his head before he pointed to Pete's car until he got the hint and looked behind himself, turning back and rolling his eyes. Finally, he threw his cigarette on the ground and twisted it out with his foot before turning away, going to his car, climbing in, and rolling out of the lot; slowly, but still leaving, which was the only thing that mattered to Kyle in the moment.

"I can't keep doing this," he whispered, settling his hand on the chilled glass of the door, resting his forehead against the pane as well. "I'm so fucking tired I can barely stand it."

Fighting back tears, he tried to fortify himself for going back into the cold, but the minutes passed and he just couldn't muster up the gumption. Really, all he wanted to do in that moment was curl up on one of the couches and go to sleep, not wanting to face the night, the empty apartment, the next day...anything.

"Kyle? What are you still doing here?" Craig's voice came to him then, making him start but not as violently as usual. Kyle should've been expecting this, honestly, knowing that he was still there...long after everyone had left, toiling away like a tireless robot.

He turned and his first impulse was to lie but something held him back, unable to pinpoint what it was; fatigue, hopelessness, fear? Kyle couldn't be sure, but he did know he couldn't go on in the same way. The days were just so long and the nights were even worse, the feeling that he was walking through the world completely alone rendering him cold and miserable, hating himself because he knew he was the driving force behind everything destroying him.

I'm tired. I'm so tired. Stan and I aren't fighting but we aren't okay, and Pete seems to get off on fucking with me...it's so cold and I never feel warm, not really. I'm lonely but I don't know how to open up to people...I don't want to be close to anyone but I want to be held. I'm falling apart. I'm losing my mind.

"It's so cold outside," he said because it was the truth, he just didn't mention that the cold was inside him, too, eclipsing everything; numbing him, just not enough. "It's just so fucking cold. Doesn't it feel like winter's been going on for years at this point?"

Craig just gazed at him for a few moments, eyes softening though they hadn't exactly been hard before, but there was a shift in them that made Kyle feel he understood the meaning between his words. At least, he hoped so, because he needed someone to understand. He needed someone to know what he meant without him having to say the words, because they were locked in his mouth along with everything else.

"Come on," he said, slowly going over to the door to the back and opening it. He waited. "You can help me finish up, if you'd like. Then I can drive you home."

Flushing, Kyle felt guilty, not wanting Craig to think he'd been insinuating he wanted a ride. He didn't want him to get the impression that he was attempting to be manipulative.

"N-no, that isn't what I meant. You don't have to do that, I was just -"

"It's okay," Craig interjected gently. "I mean it." He glanced beyond Kyle's shoulder, at the night waiting outside. "You're right, Kyle. It is too cold outside...no one should have to walk home in it."

-----

Craig's corner proved to be surprisingly comfy after the clinic was closed, low-lit and filled with soft music coming from the computer speakers. The same music was playing that Kyle had heard in Craig's kitchen, reminding him of sunshine, and Craig was patient when he explained what he was doing; working through a stack of labs that needed to be reviewed and signed off on. Handing the papers to Kyle, he tapped on them softly.

"Urine cultures," he said, pointing to the diagnosis. "Most of these are pretty straightforward, honestly. We'll just go through them and you tell me whether they were negative or positive. If they're positive, I'll figure things out from there. Easy enough?"

"Sure," Kyle replied, studying the sheet. He was just glad that Craig wasn't talking to him like he was a degenerate, not like he had in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, before he'd realized what was happening, they'd managed to work past that. "This one's negative, right?"

Craig smiled, taking the paper and placing it face-down on his desk.

"Yep," he said, turning to his computer. "Good. Now let's just knock these out."

It wasn't too long before they'd worked out a tidy rhythm, Kyle announcing the results and Craig making a note of them in the patient's account, studying the positive results and putting together a treatment plan.

"Let's see," he said, squinting his eyes at a particularly involved result, "this person's resistant to most oral antibiotics. This is going to get tricky."

"You sound weirdly excited about that," Kyle commented, looking over his shoulder, trying to resist Craig's spicy cologne but feeling oddly calmed by it. It was so different from Pete's cloying Axe, or even Stan's scent. He felt a pang in his gut but he ignored it.

"Not excited, exactly, but intrigued. I like a challenge," Craig grinned, bobbing his foot up and down.

Kyle quickly learned that Craig genuinely enjoyed this process, almost like he was in his element, self-assured and easygoing. He almost seemed disappointed when they came to the last lab and he was forced to stop, sitting back in his chair. Watching, Kyle got the impression that he was trying to figure out something else to do. Kyle glanced at his phone, eyes widening.

"Dude, it's past 9 already. Won't Tweek be worried?"

Reluctantly, Craig logged out of his computer before giving Kyle a passive look, twisting his wedding ring a little as he waited for the device to shut down.

"Nah, he's used to me working late. Besides, he's been really preoccupied with his wall of irrational fears."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, he finally painted over the zeppelin." He stood and began to ready himself, pulling on his coat. "Now he's afraid of seagulls. I'm not sure where it's coming from." Zipping up, he paused. "What about Stan?"

Awkwardly, Kyle rubbed at the back of his calf with his foot, averting his eyes.

"He's not going to be home until late. Something about the boiler at his job...that thing makes his life miserable." He tried to smile, but he knew it looked falsely-bright. "I'm on my own tonight."

Craig adjusted his bag on his shoulder before he nodded, seemingly coming to a decision inside his head.

"Then it's settled, we're going to stop somewhere before I take you home. There's a bar I like to go to on Wednesday nights." He rolled his eyes, almost appearing apologetic or shy; Kyle couldn't be sure. "They have hump day specials, as stupid as that sounds."

"You can't be serious."

"What, about the hump day specials? No, but that's their term, not mine. I think it's pretty stupid, personally."

Kyle shook his head, exasperated.

"No, I mean about stopping somewhere on the way home. You don't really want to do that, do you?"

Craig stared at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Why not? It seems like you could use it."

Craig's car was an experience, like visiting a foreign land filled with its own secret charms, that same ribbon of vanilla winding through the leather interior; bright like the sunshine-music that had been playing while they worked closely together. Kyle sank into the butter-soft seat cushion like it was his couch at home, feeling inexplicably at ease as Craig maneuvered the nearly-empty streets, the businesses passing by in a blur of browns and blues and occasional reds from unblinking lights; white smudges from streetlamps punctuating the darkness. He didn't feel tense like he had while riding in Pete's car most of the time, and he wanted to think it was because the Jag was so much more opulent, but on some level, innate and slightly shamed, he had to admit that wasn't the real reason.

Instead of cracking the window to let in the frigid air, Craig angled the vents so that the heat poured over Kyle, opting not to turn on the radio. They rode in silence, but it wasn't heavy, the tires sliding over the streets like they were comprised of glass until they arrived at the bar. It was lit up, chasing away the darkness, the parking lot not overly full but busy enough to show that business was steady that night. Almost expecting Craig to open his door, Kyle slid out before his vibe could be confirmed or proven incorrect, the smells of firewood drifting to him as he stood and regarded the structure; music spilling out of the door when a patron stepped inside.

"Did I mention they have karaoke on Wednesday nights, too?" Craig asked, coming up beside him. "It's actually pretty amusing."

"That doesn't sound amusing at all," Kyle replied, looking at the establishment warily. "It seems more embarrassing than anything else."

"That's the idea."

They were seated at a table in the corner, somewhat set apart from the crowd, Kyle's back against the wall so he could watch the scene. Craig slung his jacket over the back of the chair next to him, sitting down and giving him a look he couldn't rightly interpret.

"It's a nice place, huh?" He paused, opening up a drink menu. "Wait, have you been here before?"

Kyle shook his head, looking around. A woman with a heavily painted face was crooning something by Joni Mitchell into a mic, words slurred and peppering the dull hum and chatter of the restaurant's occupants. For all intents and purposes, the bar was typical: pool tables in the corner, Budweiser lamps comprised of stained glass topping them; dim-lighting, a long counter with stools in front, rows of spirits on shelves where a harried bartender attended to customers. On the walls were faded pictures of celebrities and pieces of random paraphernalia, an assortment of old instruments and movie posters; his eye falling on one from Gone with the Wind; Rhett Butler cradling a woebegone Scarlett O'Hara.

The table was an unadorned affair, the only thing breaking its plainness a candle in a ruby red container throwing diamond light on the dark surface; scatterings landing on Craig's bared arms. Kyle picked up his drink menu as well and perused it, going straight to the wine list.

"Their house red is good," Craig commented, not looking up from his own menu. "That's what you're going to get, right?"

"What makes you say that?" Kyle asked, beginning to feel defensive even if wasn't sure why.

"Just a suggestion. You seemed to like the red you had at the Italian place." Placing his menu down, he tapped his fingers on it while studying Kyle, his expression taking on a quality he still couldn't quite decipher. The quiet stretched between them for a moment, making Kyle's stomach clench, almost positive that Craig was about to say something cutting.

"Can I make another suggestion?" He asked instead, continuing to tap the menu; muted, little thuds that were barely heard among the painted woman's warbling.

"I guess," Kyle said warily, his eyes flitting around the lists of drinks. Maybe he should try something different, or would Craig think he was branching out just to spite him? Why did it even matter?

"For the sake of this evening, let's lay down our weapons, okay?"

Kyle snapped his head up, not sure he'd heard Craig's words correctly. The look on his face must've asked all the questions at once because Craig laughed and leaned his cheek in his hand, gazing at him.

"I mean it, Kyle. I know we've had what could be considered a...hostile relationship in the past," he paused, seemingly waiting for Kyle's interpretation. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"I've merely responded to your overt hostility, actually. I've been nothing but pleasant," Kyle replied haughtily, his nose in the air. He wasn't surprised when Craig started laughing, having expected it. He knew he sounded like a twat, but at least it was getting easier to make fun of himself.

"Please tell me you're kidding," Craig said, cheek still resting in his hand. The candlelight flickered, collapsing slightly, washing his face in shadow.

"Yeah," Kyle admitted, shrugging. "We're both good at being dicks, but let's be fair here; you started it. I mean, you weren't exactly subtle about not wanting me to work for you."

"That's fair," he conceded, leaning back when the server came over; a busty woman with dirty blonde hair pulled into a long ponytail.

"I figured I'd see you tonight, hon," she smiled, pulling out a pen and pad. Glancing at Kyle, she nodded. "And you've brought a friend finally. Well, things are looking up."

"No man is an island, I guess," Craig replied. "I'll have the usual. I don't even know why I bothered to look at the menu."

"Habit," she shrugged, not bothering to write anything down. "It's why I keep playing the lotto even though I know it's horseshit. What'll you have, babe?" she added, looking at Kyle expectantly.

It was on the tip of Kyle's tongue to say something completely off the wall (at least for him); a Harvey Wallbanger, long island, a boilermaker, but he lost his nerve and sighed.

"House red." Biting the inside of his cheek, he ignored Craig's knowing look.

"ID, please?"

Of course, he thought. Every fucking time.

Pulling out his wallet, he showed it to her. Appearing satisfied, she leaned on the table.

"Any appetizers, guys?"

"They have amazing firecracker shrimp," Craig said, appearing very sure of this opinion. "What do you say?"

"I'll defer to you," Kyle replied, pushing his menu away. "I'm not very hungry."

"We'll have the shrimp, Barb," his counterpart said to the server, all business now. "Oh, and the spinach dip."

"Sounds like a plan." Pointing to the noticeably inebriated woman still belting out songs from bygone days, she quirked frosted lips. "You gonna sing for us tonight, Dr. T?" She gestured between him and Kyle. "You two should do a duet. How cute would that be?"

"Oh, that'd just be precious. Don't you think so, Kyle?"

"I think that sounds like a nightmare, Barb," Kyle replied, ignoring Craig and looking directly at her. He smiled widely.

She blinked a few times before she started to snort-laugh, pressing on Craig's shoulder.

"Oh, I like him. He's a pistol." Shaking her head, she winked at Kyle before turning away. "I'll be right back with those drinks, you two."

As they waited, Kyle couldn't help but wonder about his companion for the evening. It was becoming more and more obvious that he didn't know Craig Tucker at all, and for every new side of his personality he saw, it was like there were several more hiding behind it to discover. But he supposed that was just human nature, knowing it was naive to think he'd ever know a person completely, or see all of the faces they were hiding; sometimes in plain sight. Pete had proven this fact, and on some level, so had Stan, which only left him feeling melancholy. Out of all the people in the world, Kyle would've liked to think he knew Stan better than anyone, and maybe he did, but that didn't make him feel any better...not at this stage of the game.

"You look sad again," Craig spoke up, startling him. Kyle had been tracing a red diamond on the table when he'd lapsed into his thoughts. Now he looked up, eyes searching. Craig was leaning forward, hands flat on the table, neat, short nails resembling tiny half-moons.

"What?"

"That's something I've noticed about you," Craig said. "Your face gives everything away, almost like you're an open book."

Tucking into himself, almost like he wanted to be protected from Craig's scrutiny, Kyle looked down; hiding his hands in his lap.

"So?"

"So...so, what can I say here?" Craig asked, almost like he was talking to himself, fiddling with his ring. Suddenly, he let out a long breath, one that seemed to have been trapped in his lungs, and he was catching Kyle's focus like he was looking at him for the first time; cracking open the tension in the moment like a ripe piece of fruit would split; rich juice running out and sweetening past bitterness. "Look, can we just be real with each other for a moment? Don't we both need it?"

"What are you -"

"Here we go, boys," the server chirped, materializing seemingly out of nowhere and setting their drinks down: a heavy wine glass for Kyle and a tumbler for Craig. "That should hit the spot on a cold night, huh?"

"I imagine so," Craig replied, taking up his drink and sitting back, crossing one leg over the other. Almost like clockwork, his foot started bobbing up and down.

"Your apps should be out soon, okay?"

"Thanks, Barb. You're a gem."

"Sweet talker," she smiled before bustling off.

"It's weird to think of you as a regular here," Kyle commented while taking a slow sip of wine, grimacing at its bitterness.

It's weird to think of you as being human in any capacity.

"Oh, why is that?"

"Dunno," Kyle shrugged, toying with his glass; sliding it back and forth. He snorted, beginning to feel playful as he slowly relaxed. "I mean, come on,  Dr. Craig Tucker, a medical corporation, being greeted at some little hole in the wall dive like he's on the set of Cheers. It's pretty bizarre, don't you think?"

Looking away, Craig sipped from his drink, adopting a nonchalant tone when he spoke next. 

"It's about as bizarre as discovering your employee wandering around your house late at night without any pants on."

Kyle nearly spat out his mouthful of wine at these words, pressing a hand to his lips as he painfully swallowed; coughing at the first opportunity. He could also feel his face flaming, annoyed that Craig had managed to throw him off guard yet again.

"I explained why that happened!" He sputtered, wiping his lips with a napkin. "How was I supposed to know you'd be creeping around your house in the middle of the night? Christ, do you even sleep?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I forgot that it's a crime to walk around your own home after a certain time. Forgive me." Covering his mouth with his hand, Craig set his glass down, one finger running along the rim. It was pretty obvious he was trying to hide some of his amusement.

"You are such an asshole," Kyle muttered, snatching up the wine and taking a big gulp. He needed a buzz if he was going to deal with Craig's sense of humor, if it could even be called that.

"You've informed me of that before," Craig said easily. "And as I recall, I did sleep that night. Just not well. In a chair...because you passed out on my couch."

"Yeah, because you made me read to you," Kyle muttered, his face hotter now.

"I didn't make you do anything, Kyle. It was merely a suggestion. Speaking of which," he trailed off while reaching into his bag nestled on the chair next to him. Drawing out Kyle's book, he held it up; a piece of paper tucked between the pages peeking out of the top. "I finished it."

He plucked out the piece of paper and set it aside before setting the book down, slowly pushing it across the table. Kyle stared at it nervously, knocking back another swig of wine.

"Okay, so you finished it," he said, raising an eyebrow. "And?"

"Now I need you to sign it," Craig replied, pulling a pen from the pocket of his scrub top. He placed it on the book. "You know, for Tweek. Remember?"

Finishing off his wine, Kyle licked the side of the glass, catching a wayward drop. Thankfully, the alcohol had hit his prac empty stomach and was already working its magic, but he wasn't nearly faded enough to deal with a book signing so suddenly. He was also amazed that Craig had finished the damn thing, though he had said that was his intention. He shrugged, staring at the ornate pen lying on the book's cover; gold-plated with Craig's initials swirling on the side in black calligraphy.

"I don't know what to write," he finally said.

Craig was silent for a time, calling to attention a new person singing; a slurred rendition of Hotel California. Kyle had to admit they weren't half-bad.

"Just write your name. You don't have to complicate this," Craig said, almost like he was confused. "You have a tendency of doing that, have you noticed? Complicating things?"

"You're one to talk." He yanked the pen up and signed his name on the inside cover with a flourish; adding "To Tweek" at the last moment. He also had to refrain from adding "screw you, Dr. Tucker" after the fact, but he was able to hold onto his grace and civility.

"There, satisfied?" He asked, pushing the book back.

"Very." Slipping the book and pen away, Craig left the folded-up piece of paper on the table but he didn't mention it. He took a drink before leaning over so he was directly in Kyle's line of sight. "Why are you so mad?"

"I'm not," Kyle snapped, trying to soften up, but his relaxation from before had evaporated as soon as he saw the book, because it made him think of Stan. It had created a chain reaction of bullshit: Stan led to Pete which led to all of the other crap he didn't want to think about. Christ, he just wanted to be free from his worries, even if it was just for one night. He shook his head, trying to clear it. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm being a dick."

"I have a proposal," Craig said, twisting his glass so it caught the ruby candlelight, tiny diamonds undulating on the smooth surface of the table.

"Hmm?"

"Let's loosen up, okay? Both of us. We don't have to talk about anything really serious if you don't want to. Let's just...I don't know, have fun? Do you think we can manage that?"

Lifting his eyes, Kyle glanced at him directly, almost not recognizing him as Craig in that moment. He sounded so different...like another person completely. Here was yet another face that Kyle had never seen, apparently. A tenuous smile curved his lips, and he found himself nodding slowly.

"Sure, let's give it a try." He thought a moment, considering. "It'll be like a social experiment, huh?"

The firecracker shrimp proved to be worthy of Craig's recommendation, slightly spicy but not lingering heavily on the palate; especially after Kyle was two glasses of wine deep. It wasn't long before the world and his perceptions were bending, edges sanded down by gentle inebriation and surprisingly easy conversation. Craig was still leaned back in his chair, legs crossed, but his foot had stopped its incessant bobbing. He nursed the same tumbler even as Kyle ordered another glass of the red, languidly indulging in shrimp and spinach dip alike. His manners were sharp and careful as always, but his attitude had blurred, becoming less harsh.

"I'm glad to see you actually eating," he commented, watching as Kyle greedily scooped up some of the sauce clinging to the greasy liner in the shrimp basket. "Usually you eat like a little bird...like a parakeet or a sparrow." He grinned, finally draining his glass and hissing softly through his teeth.

"You would notice something like that," Kyle replied, trying to downplay the subtle slur in his voice. "Just like you seem to notice everything...it's disturbing sometimes."

"I didn't become a doctor by being unobservant."

"So you're saying you pay attention to what everyone is doing all the time?" Pressing a hand against his mouth, Kyle stifled a peal of laughter, finding this notion very humorous. He tried to bite it back, knowing he was becoming slaphappy from the wine's pull. Instead, he hiccuped, excusing himself before sliding a chip through the dip, drawing out a long string of cheese. "Will you look at that? That's quality right there."

"You're a lightweight, aren't you?" Craig gestured to Kyle's glass. "One would think you're drinking straight whiskey or something."

"What was it you had? What's your usual, you never said," he replied, ignoring Craig's question. Feeling impulsive, he reached out and pulled the empty tumbler toward him, sliding a finger along the cool curve inside of it. He brought it to his mouth, wrinkling his nose when he tasted it. Craig laughed.

"Old fashioned. It's kind of an acquired taste. We've gotten used to each other over the years."

"How very Don Draper of you," Kyle said, a memory stirring. "Wait, didn't you have that at Bebe's dinner? I'm right, aren't I?"

Craig nodded, his eyes snapping in the waning candlelight.

"Good memory." Sighing, he rubbed a hand over his mouth, his shoulders suddenly relaxing slightly. "You know, I've been meaning to tell you something, but I've been having kind of a hard time."

"You?" Kyle asked incredulously, his wine glass hovering in front of his lips. "Since when do you have an issue expressing yourself?"

Craig gave him a look of utmost impatience, his foot jumping ever so slightly.

"Dealing with wise asses is never an easy task," he said. "Especially when they force me to rethink my preconceived notions."

"Oh?" Kyle sat up, interested now. "Do tell."

"Fine, I just wanted to tell you you're -" he looked away, covering his mouth with his hand as he mumbled, his words disappearing in the din coming from the karaoke machine. Kyle leaned forward, cocking his head in an exaggerated fashion. He even cupped his hand around his ear for dramatic effect.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear that. You're gonna have to speak up."

"God, you're so annoying," Craig groaned, but he was smiling, almost like he couldn't help himself. "I said you're doing a good job, okay? At the clinic."

Pressing a hand to his chest, Kyle just stared at him in mock amazement.

"Did I really just hear you say that? Dr. Craig Tucker eating humble pie? I never thought I'd see the day."

"Oh, whatever, like it's really that out of the ordinary."

"It so is," Kyle argued, swirling his wine and giving him a knowing look. "You've always been like that...you get off on being right and you know it. I mean, just because you're smart -"

"So you think I'm smart?" Craig cut in, tapping his finger against his chin. "Why, Kyle, I never would've guessed you felt that way about me."

Flushing, Kyle took a sip of his drink, watching over the rim of his glass. Now he was really starting to feel the wine, wandering into tipsy territory; dangerous, wanton country. He needed to watch himself so he wouldn't have to eat his words later, but the moment, the candlelight, the warmth seeping under his scrubs from the closeness of the atmosphere...it was all very powerful; hypnotic. It didn't help that Craig was handsome without trying, sitting so poised and self-assured, not like Kyle who always felt like he was getting ready to fall apart.

Oh, Jesus, Kyle thought, pausing like he'd been caught in a trap; stunned like a forest animal ensnared while grazing. I didn't really just think that, did I? Yeah, I already noticed that Craig was good-looking, but -

He shook his head, trying to rid himself of these invasive, crazy musings. Stupid wine...stupid late-night hour...stupid Craig for having such smooth hair and nicely-shaped hands. Why couldn't he stop staring at his hands? It had to be that ring, winking and catching glimmers of light. 

"Are you okay? You have a weird look on your face." Now Craig seemed genuinely concerned, almost like he wanted to reach out and steady him.

"I-I'm fine, I just had a chill," Kyle replied, setting his wine glass down and almost knocking it over. He righted it nervously, biting his lip. Not looking up, he felt dragged down by some unseen force, and he found himself speaking without really being careful. "Well, if you're feeling comfortable enough to make confessions...I guess I can make one of my own. It's only fair, right?" Tugging up the sleeve of his thermal, he glanced at the wound that had knitted itself after being helped along by Craig.

"Yes?"

"I used to think you couldn't possibly be a good doctor," Kyle murmured, drifting his finger over that salmon-pink skin. Soon it would be white, possibly undetectable because of the vitamin E oil that would be rubbed into it, but for now he could see it plain as day. It was a reminder of momentary kindness...kindness he hadn't expected. "I was convinced you'd have a terrible bedside manner...impatient and condescending, but you proved me wrong."

Somehow, his fingers found that one curl, the one on the left side of his face, and he was pushing it back. Warm fingers settled on his skin, and suddenly Craig was taking a hold of him, drawing his arm out so he could study the area for himself. Brushing a finger over Kyle's skin, he had to stop himself from closing his eyes and falling into the touch.

Don't do that. You have to know you shouldn't be doing that, right? Stop.

If it had been Pete, Kyle would've wanted to bite him like an animal, but with Craig he couldn't even think of pulling away. In fact, when he really stopped to think about it, every time Craig had pulled him closer like this, he'd never once thought about resisting. He'd always just allowed it, but it didn't feel like he was surrendering...he almost felt like he was subliminally offering himself. Holding his breath, he studied Craig's face while his eyes were downcast, long eyelashes settling against his pale cheeks. Kyle wanted him to look up, not so he could catch him staring, but because he wanted to see those little green flecks scattered in his grey irises...like patches of grass growing upward through ashes.

"You genuinely care, don't you?" He said. "About helping people?"

"Of course I do, Kyle," he replied, suddenly pulling Kyle's sleeve down and pushing him away, retreating into himself. "It's healing well...just keep using what I told you to, okay?"

"Does Tweek use the same stuff on his scars?" Kyle asked before he could step himself. He sucked in a breath, eyes widening with a strange fear coupled with embarrassment. Craig just stared at him impassively.

"He uses tattoos to deal with his scars," he said, shrugging and calling to Barb for another Old Fashioned, even though he'd told Kyle he'd only have one. "Out of sight, out of mind, you know?"

Nodding, Kyle could understand that mentality, the hope that the demon you were struggling with could be satiated with just enough gloss and indifference. Eventually, if you told yourself the scars weren't there enough times, over time they'd just fade, and even if they didn't, you could fool yourself into believing they'd gotten there in a different way; a less painful one.

"Confessions," he said, drawing the word out, moving from tipsy to drunk now. "Boy, we have so many confessions to make to each other, don't we?"

"I thought we agreed we would keep things light," Craig said, accepting his drink when Barb brought it by. She started to ask Kyle if he wanted more wine but Craig waved her off, making a gesture against his throat: this one's cut off for the night.

"You're right, you're right," Kyle said, holding his hands up. He stared at them, unable to help himself from comparing them to Craig's. "You have strong hands," he commented, trying to make the observation sound natural. It didn't. "Not like mine, I have these stubby little kid hands."

Taking the bait, Craig held up his own hand and twisted it back and forth, seemingly not as impressed.

"Well, to be fair, I'm like almost a half foot taller than you. That does play a factor. Besides," reaching out, he pressed their hands flat together, showcasing just how much bigger his was, "it's cute, you know? See?" He curled his fingers over Kyle's easily.

"You use that word to describe me a lot," Kyle replied, pulling his hand away in a huff. "Okay, maybe just once, but still."

"When?" Craig asked, cocking his head, confused.

"When you let me borrow your ridiculously long sweatpants. You knew exactly what you were doing, by the way."

Craig thought a moment then snapped his fingers, nodding.

"Now I remember. You did look cute, Kyle. What was I supposed to do? Let you hang out in your underwear and my shirt the entire morning?" Leaning forward, he flashed Kyle a wolfish smile. "I bet that's what you would've preferred, huh?"

"Don't be a perv," Kyle replied while turning away, demonstrating just how above this conversation he was.

"See? You're being cute right now, with your salty little attitude. You don't even realize it."

"Well, you don't realize that you're -" Kyle slapped a hand over his mouth, grateful that he still had the presence of mind not to blurt out that he thought Craig was sexy; bordering on being sexy as fuck, especially when he was carefree and teasing and more preoccupied with having fun than being an exacting prick. He was pretty sure he'd never be able to face Craig again if he said something like that, and suddenly the idea of not getting to see him seemed very unappealing. Damn, the wine was hitting him harder than usual.

"You're a shameless, unforgivable flirt, you know?" He asked, toying with a chip before crunching it in half. "You always enjoyed fucking with me, though, so I can't say I'm surprised."

"I don't fuck with anyone for fun, I can tell you that much," Craig replied, his tone becoming more serious. "It's pretty unfortunate, actually...I have a tendency to say whatever's on my mind,  almost like I can't even lie to spare someone's feelings."

"You lied to Tweek about not knowing where my book was, didn't you?"

"That was different."

"How?"

"I don't know...I just wanted to read the book and I knew he wouldn't be angry about it, but he'd have a ton of questions because I never showed an interest before. I had a feeling I'd just forgo the whole idea if I was interrogated first."

"Why did you suddenly want to read it, anyway?"

"Well, at first it was to prove to myself that you just got lucky and that you didn't have a drop of talent, but then, I don't know...your writing pulled me in. I wanted to know what would happen. I do have one critique, though."

On edge, Kyle broke another chip in half, more to have something to do with his hands than anything else.

"Yeah?"

"The ending," Craig started, seemingly trying to pick his words carefully; becoming strangely accommodating, "it's too happy. I don't think the main characters should've ended up together...I think they made more sense as a summer fling, not as a committed relationship."

"Wait a minute, why would you say that?" An edge crept into Kyle's tone, mainly because he'd based his characters on him and Stan, but Craig couldn't possibly know that, otherwise he'd never have the gall to say such a thing, right?

If Craig noticed Kyle's change in tone, he didn't show it. He took a drink, holding the liquid in his mouth before swallowing, throat flexing softly.

"Their relationship is too idealistic. Unsustainable. That sort of passion doesn't last...it fizzles out and then what are you left with? Their history was too short to really give the impression of staying power...the ability to endure the inevitable pitfalls of a serious relationship." He shrugged, shifting his glass back and forth across the table. "But what do I know? I've just been with Tweek since we were, what, ten years old?"

"Yeah, and now you sleep in separate rooms," Kyle spat, feeling savage because this line of conversation made him yearn for something he was almost certain he'd lost. But that was probably the wine making him so melancholy...making him feel everything he didn't want to in that moment, both emotionally and physically. He was too warm, his heart racing; becoming giddy and silly and angry. He covered his face, the coolness of his hands momentarily easing the heat in his cheeks. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Let's talk about something else."

There was a pause where even the music had stopped, and he could hear Craig clearing his throat gently.

"Okay," he replied quietly. "What would you like to talk about instead?"

Kyle groped for a topic that wouldn't lead them down a dangerous path where he'd have to backtrack or visit portions of his mind best left alone. Still cradling his face, he touched on a place that felt safe, at least for the moment.

"You said I'm doing a good job...what made you change your mind?"

Craig rolled his eyes but it seemed indulgent, not an expression of annoyance.

"Oh, I don't know. You're organized and efficient, you make great coffee," he grinned. "You're a quick learner, you don't argue with me over the way I want things to be run," he paused, giving him a look, "for the most part." He took another sip, the dark amber liquid in the tumbler slowly lowering while the subsequent pink flush in his cheeks rose. Almost like he hesitated to speak next, his voice lowered minutely. "You also seem to get along with everyone really well." He looked away. "For the most part."

He froze, not really liking something in Craig's tone; it smacked of secret knowledge. It wasn't exactly derisive or sneaky, but it still made him suspicious. It also seemed like Craig was deliberately avoiding his eyes now, where before his focus had bordered on being relentless; piercing.

"For the most part," he repeated, taking a tremulous drink of wine. He wanted to order another glass but he knew it'd be a mistake; he was already acting foolish.

"I've been meaning to ask," Craig started, reaching out and sliding the paper he'd set aside earlier closer to himself. Picking it up, he began tapping a corner on the rim of his glass. Kyle watched it, noticing that its edge was ragged, like it'd been torn from something. "I mean, you'd tell me if there was a problem, right? I know I'm not the most approachable person but I'd like to think you trust me enough to..." Biting his lip, he still wouldn't look Kyle in the face.

"So much for keeping things light," Kyle muttered, watching as Craig kept tap tap tapping away, the muted little thuds against the glass almost unbearably loud as the tension inside of him swelled. 

"What do you mean?"

"I don't even know, especially since you're being so cryptic."

Craig's eyes narrowed, sliding to meet Kyle's though he didn't turn his head. 

"I'm trying to be sensitive, so if you could dial back your attitude, that'd be great."

Kyle crossed his arms, adopting what he hoped was an innocent, indifferent air. 

"I thought you said you liked my attitude... that it was cute."

"It is, but it's also annoying."

"No, what's annoying is you tapping that fucking piece of paper like you're doing a drum solo," Kyle said. Abruptly, he reached out and yanked it out of Craig's hand. "What the hell is it, anyway? Clearly, you wanted me to ask because you made a point of waving it in my face. Right?"

Leaning his head back, Craig blew a long stream of air from his mouth, cheeks ballooning slightly. He stared at the ceiling as he spoke, sounding very, very tired.

"On some level, yes, I did want you to ask about it. Mainly because I'm a coward when it comes to shit like this."

"Shit like what?" Slowly, Kyle began to open up the paper, his heart and stomach sinking when he saw what it was: the sketches of the koi that he'd furiously decimated while hanging out with Tweek. He could even remember what the pencil felt like, clenched in his hand, the way the tears had gathered as he'd destroyed those delicate fish; wanting to take his anger out on Pete, for making him feel trapped and helpless. Crumpling the paper slightly, he looked up, knowing that he probably resembled a broken, pathetic creature; defenseless and afraid.

"I don't understand," he lied, but he did, and he hated it; hated it so much. "Why do you have this?"

"Tweek gave it to me. He didn't really explain why, other than saying he was worried...and he happened to mention that you became upset when he asked you about Pete." He continued to stare at the ceiling. "And...well, I've noticed the tension between you two, not that you guys have been exactly subtle." Lifting his head, he finally looked Kyle in the face. "And you've been walking to work...and home. How can you stand it? The temperatures have been out of control lately."

"You just learn to deal with stuff like that when you don't have a choice," Kyle mumbled, setting the paper on the table and gazing at it; black swirls murdering what used to be beautiful sketches. He even noticed a divot in the paper where the pencil tip broke when he pressed too hard. "You grin and bear it. You survive."

"Life isn't just about survival, Kyle," Craig replied quietly, shifting so his forearms were draped on the table, hands clasped. "Especially if someone's mistreated you." Reaching out, he placed a hand on the paper, long fingers covering part of the devastation. "Can you look at me, please?"

Reluctantly, Kyle raised his focus, wounded and ashamed. He didn't want to look anyone in the eye in that moment, even though Craig's voice was suddenly so kind...so unlike him. His face was earnest, almost sad.

"What happened? Just tell me."

Shaking his head, he could feel the hateful, burning tears forming in his eyes, the tremble of his mouth as he tried to maintain his composure. It was in that moment that he realized just how much pressure had been building in him, had been sitting on his shoulders and chest for days. He also became aware of how numb he'd become, trying to insulate himself from the world because he wanted to be strong. Keeping the secret had forced him to turn inward, making his universe even smaller than it'd already been, and he had to admit that he was lonely.

He was just so lonely.

"It was the night of Bebe's dinner," he said, his voice already shaking. "I rode with Pete and he was going to take me home."

"I remember," Craig said, nodding. "You guys seemed okay while we were all together...although I did notice that Pete had a habit of...how can I put this? Invading your personal space?"

Kyle nodded, thinking of the overtures, the glaring red flags that he had chosen to ignore.

"I tried to make it pretty clear that I didn't like him like that, you know? I mean, I never came right out and said it, but -"

"You shouldn't have to," Craig cut in, beginning to sound angry. "Your body language pretty much screamed "I'm not interested."'

"Well, I told him I wanted to talk to him before we headed home," Kyle continued, gnawing on the inside of his cheek until he tasted faint ribbons of blood. "So, we were smoking when we heard -" he stopped, not wanting to reveal that he'd heard the exchange between Craig and Tweek, the way Tweek had been so casual about professing his hate. Thinking on his feet, he decided to just gloss over that part of the story. "Well, we saw you and Tweek leaving so I became distracted, but then he started asking me about my writing and what inspired me, and everything seemed okay, but..." he covered his mouth, "how the fuck can I even talk about this? This is so hard, I hate it."

"Would it be easier if I asked you questions?"

"Maybe."

"Fine, did he...try something? Like, did he become violent?"

Kyle shrugged, not sure if 'violent' was the right description. He supposed Pete's actions could be considered aggressive, but -

"You're overthinking things, I can tell. Okay, let me rephrase," Craig sighed. "Did he touch you without your consent?"

"Yes!" Kyle practically shouted, surprised at his own forcefulness. "Yes, he did...he grabbed me and he tried to -" Now he couldn't stop the tears from rising up, and he furiously scrubbed them away. "I'm not crying because I'm sad, okay? I'm just fucking angry, and when I'm angry I can't -"

"You don't have to defend your reaction to all of this, Kyle. Just get it off your chest."

Kyle took a shuddering breath, trying to focus himself enough to not become hopelessly emotional. In many ways, recounting the incident was as bad as having lived through it. It was like opening up a closet full of monsters and asking them to step into the light; inviting his own doom into his home.

"He tried to kiss me, all while badmouthing Stan...talking so much shit," he spat. "But I was able to stop him before he could get too far...I dropped him like the sack of shit he is. It felt amazing after the fact. At the time I was terrified, though."

"I can only imagine."

"And now, well," Kyle continued, staring at his shaking hands, "now I'm just trying to deal with it, but he makes it so fucking hard."

"How so?" Craig asked, his voice hard like stone. "What's he doing?"

"That's the thing, he doesn't even need to be doing anything and he's...just, threatening. It's hard to explain. He hovers, he watches me. He told me that I can't tell you because you'd fire him, and he needs his job because he doesn't have anyone else; laid a huge guilt trip on me."

"Well, he wasn't lying. He is on his own, but that's not your problem. He should've thought of that before he attacked you."

Kyle looked up quickly, eyes widening.

"You aren't going to fire him, are you?"

Lifting his eyebrows, Craig just watched him passively.

"Don't you think I should?"

"I don't want that decision laid at my doorstep," Kyle said, horrified at the prospect. "I can't justify that sort of thing to myself...even after what happened to me."

Craig's face softened then, eyes full of understanding, warming like the sun striking pewter.

"I can't say I'm surprised about your attitude. You're obsessed with doing the right thing, aren't you? You always have been."

"Yeah, I'm a real bleeding heart. It's always served me so well," Kyle said, knocking back the rest of his wine. Plunking the glass down, he clutched the stem. "I want another glass of wine."

"Makes sense," Craig said, waving Barb over. "We changed our minds...he'll have another." After she'd bustled away, he sat back, legs crossed; foot bobbing away. "So, what did Stan say when you told him? I'm surprised Pete is still alive considering how protective Stan is."

"I'm not even going to ask how you know that, but needless to say, Stan was pissed. Is pissed," Kyle corrected himself. "I told him I can handle it, though, which went about as well as you'd expect." Slumping his shoulders, Kyle just couldn't keep up the pretenses. "It just dredged up all these other problems between us, honestly. Like, I love Stan and I can understand where he's coming from, but -"

He paused when Barb returned, setting the glass in front of him. He nodded, humiliated that he was on the cusp of pouring out his relationship woes to Craig of all people.

"I'm sorry," he said, holding the glass in both hands. "I can't believe I'm telling you all of this, not when you have your own problems."

"Don't apologize, Kyle. Jesus Christ, the last thing you need to be doing right now is saying you're sorry...especially after the shit Pete put you through."

Kyle snorted, the hum in his head building from wine and confessions, immensely relieved at finally, finally having some of the load lightened, even though he had to pile his misery on Craig's undeserving shoulders. Suddenly, he felt so guilty, and he was apologizing again, over and over. Craig took a hold of his wrist, then his hand, encapsulating it; calling to attention Kyle's overwhelming smallness. This reminder didn't make him feel lesser, though...instead he felt protected, and it was nice, because he'd felt so vulnerable since Pete had walked right through his walls; crushing them.

"You just have so much going on in your own life," Kyle said, shaking his head. "Tweek and Tricia and Finn...I wanted to keep this from you for that very reason, but here I am burdening you, too. I'm just so sorry, Craig." Sniffling, he wiped his nose, his hand still nestled in Craig's, almost like it belonged there. "No wonder you never really liked me...I'm so dramatic and helpless. I'm starting to understand why Stan wanted to come down to the clinic and just knock Pete into a wall...clearly, I'm not about to stand up for myself like that, right?"

"I'm not going to say he doesn't have it coming, but I don't think violence is going to help in this situation," Craig said, looking down at their hands. Slowly, he let go, like he didn't want to, but he was waking up to the contact and bothered by it. "I've worked with Pete for years and he doesn't respond to force, at least I don't get that impression. He's pretty crafty, sort of...manipulative. That's what I've noticed."

"He really is, and he's really good at rationalizing everything. It's pretty remarkable."

"People like him are typically very skilled at that." He shook his head. "No, I'll have to have a conversation with him."

"Do you have to? It isn't absolutely necessary, is it?"

Craig gazed at him, his expression equal parts incredulity and obvious exasperation; a touch of sympathy thrown into the mix.

"Kyle, I can't just let something like this slide; you have to realize that. First of all, you're both my employees, so it would be irresponsible for me not to step in, unethical really, and secondly," he sighed, brushing a hand through his hair and disturbing its meticulous perfection; dark strands falling over his forehead. If anything, seeing him rumpled only made him more attractive...like Kyle was witnessing after-midnight Craig; hidden behind the no-nonsense, efficient doctor. He stared, transfixed.

"Jesus, why is this so hard?" He groaned. "Normally I can say exactly what I'm thinking, no problem." He pushed his glass away, although it was almost empty anyway. "It has to be the booze."

"I'm feeling pretty weird myself," Kyle admitted, laying a hand against his head. "And lighter...I thought I was being so strong, not telling anyone about this but it had the opposite effect. I've never felt weaker."

"And Pete capitalized on that, I'm sure," Craig muttered. "Okay, I can tell you're bothered at the idea of me approaching him. So, let me ask you a question." He steepled his fingers together in front of his mouth, leaning forward. "What would you like me to do, Kyle? How would you suggest I handle this situation? I'm all ears."

Kyle blinked, not comprehending Craig's question for a moment. Not even Stan had asked him what he wanted to do in this situation, not that he could really blame him... he had every right to be hot- headed and prone to action instead of discussion; that's where he and Craig really differed, he'd noticed. 

"I, uh, don't know. Of course, I want Pete to leave me alone but I don't want to destroy his life either," he admitted. "Can you talk to him without making it obvious you're doing it on my behalf, or would that be asking too much?" He winced, waiting for Craig to say the suggestion was ridiculous. Instead, he nodded, expression becoming thoughtful. 

"I think I can manage that, if that's what you really want me to do."

"Yes, please. I just don't need things to be all dramatic and intense. I mean, you should've seen Stan after he went through my texts and saw the things Pete had sent me, he wanted to-"

"Wait a minute," Craig cut him off, making a slicing motion with his hand. "Stan went through your phone? Without asking you?"

"Well, he had a good reason. He was worried, and..." Kyle trailed off, flushing. "He didn't mean anything by it."

"Hmm." Now he didn't appear pleased, but instead of commenting, he finished his drink. Kyle wanted to defend Stan's behavior, but he just didn't know what to say. Even he wasn't happy about it, but he didn't want Craig to know that. Oddly enough, he felt ashamed for having brought it up, even accidentally. Shyly, he gestured to the paper still lying on the table between them.

"Let's just throw that away, okay?"

Reaching out, Craig slowly crumpled it, the page almost disappearing inside of his large hand.

"All I can say is that Pete's really fucking lucky that you're so forgiving," he said casually.

It wasn't long before they both agreed to call it a night, Kyle stumbling slightly when he stood from the table, Craig steadying him and resting his hand on the small of his back; he guided him out the door and into the cold.

"You didn't have to pay," Kyle commented, taking in lungfuls of frigid air, clean and pure like fresh water. "I could've picked up my own tab."

"I know," Craig said easily, opening the passenger side door. "Watch your head, you seem pretty unsteady."

Kyle wanted to ask him why he was being so accommodating, so fucking nice, but he refrained. At this point, he just had to admit that Craig wasn't easily figured out...and what's more, he was starting to enjoy what an enigma he was turning out to be. Breathing deeply of that vanilla scent, Kyle rested his cheek against the soft seat as Craig climbed in beside him.

"Do you want to smoke?" He asked, watching as Craig turned the key in the ignition. He pulled his pack from his jacket pocket. "It's the least I can do after you paid for me...and, well, all that stuff with Pete..."

"Yeah, that'd be nice," Craig replied, before pulling out onto the main road; rolling down their windows. "I haven't smoked since I found you crying in the cold."

"I wasn't crying," Kyle pouted, shaking out the cigarettes. He paused, remembering. "A lot, anyway. God, you must think I'm such a punk."

"Not entirely," he replied, grinning. "Here," he leaned over and opened his mouth. "It's kind of icy so I don't want to take my hands off the wheel, just put it in my mouth."

For whatever reason, Kyle's face flamed at these words, knowing they'd been meant to be innocent but his mind wandering into inappropriate territory regardless. Taking a deep breath, he did what Craig instructed, sliding the thin, white tube between his lips.

"Light?" Craig asked out of the corner of his mouth.

"Oh, yeah." Shakily, Kyle lit up, holding the flame of the lighter to the cigarette, Craig's eyes illuminated just like they'd been in the bar; little green flecks lost in gray irises. He stared without realizing it until Craig broke him from his reverie.

"I can pick you up tomorrow if you want," he said, the cigarette dangling from his lips, the small detail reminiscent of Pete but far more appealing.

"Oh, you really don't have to do that," Kyle said, becoming jittery as he took a drag. "You've already done enough, and..." he shrugged, overtaken by Craig's kindness...his unexpected warmth.

This isn't happening. None of this happening. It's all a dream, right? I'm having a lucid dream right now.

"Well, just let me know. Start directing me here, okay?"

"Right. Take a left up here...we live in the apartments not too far from Tweak Bros."

Soon enough, they were pulling up in front of Kyle's building, his cigarette halfway gone. Looking up at their windows, he felt a pang to see golden light present in the glass of the balcony; Stan's truck sitting in the parking lot. Craig idled at the curb, knocking some ash from his smoke before glancing at Kyle.

"Are you sure you don't want a ride? It's supposed to be even colder tomorrow."

"No, that's okay. Seriously." Kyle slid his hand to the door handle, knowing it'd look weird if he lingered but not really wanting to leave. But, still, Stan was probably waiting for him...wondering where he was. He'd texted him to let him know he'd be late but he hadn't anticipated staying out with Craig until after eleven o'clock.

"Okay, I'll take your word for it. Either way, I'll give you my number." He held out a hand, waiting. "Give me your phone and I'll add it to your contacts."

"You're so fucking bossy, you know that?" Kyle asked, handing over the phone anyway; toes curling up in his socks when their fingers brushed.

Get a grip, Kyle. This is Craig fucking Tucker we're talking about...Mr. Condescending Asshole, Mr. Nasally Voice, Mr. I Always Have to be Right Because I'm Better Than You. Remember?

Craig didn't reply, making quick work of Kyle's phone and then handing it back, little pulses of electricity flowing through Kyle's skin when their hands touched - again. He almost got the impression that Craig had done it deliberately.

"It's so late. Do you think Stan'll be upset?" He asked, smoking the cigarette down to its filter, orange light crinkling the delicate paper.

"I don't know. Will Tweek?" Kyle countered, opening the door.

"I couldn't even tell you. Tweek gets lost in his own world and then I have to pull him back into reality," Craig replied, not taking the bait. "I've just kind of learned to live with it."

Kyle watched him from the corner of his eye before sliding out of the car, detecting the little note of melancholy in his tone. He was surprised at just how concerned it made him feel, and all of a sudden he wanted to climb back in and tell Craig to just drive...drive and don't look back, until they'd left South Park behind and all of their worries with it. Instead, he leaned over and looking into the car's dark interior, the wind whistling and whipping through his clothes; he had to catch his breath.

"Thanks," he said softly. "For tonight...for not giving me a hard time about Pete. I feel better."

"I'm glad," Craig smiled, flicking the filter out of the crack in the window. "I'll wait until you're inside, okay? Just text me about tomorrow if you change your mind."

"Sure." Gently, he shut the door and skirted around the car, aware that Craig was probably watching him and trying to modify the way he moved, not wanting to look awkward because he was being observed. He could recall having the same thoughts back in school when he'd shared classes with Stan, knowing his eyes were following him and wanting to appear poised and at ease, when he was anything but...it was like being on stage, or in a movie and scrutinized constantly.

Ascending the steps, Kyle wanted to look back but he just couldn't, feeling shy; exposed. It was an exhilarating feeling but he couldn't say why. Those same little snaps were pulsing in his skin, remembrances of brushing against Craig and coming alive. He fumbled with his keys as he opened the front door, pushed it wide, and then it was closing behind him; a thin barrier between the night and that stunning black Jag. He sagged with an unsatisfying relief, boneless and spent from a tension he hadn't been aware of carrying. Looking into the softly-lit living room, he saw Stan asleep in the easy chair, head thrown back and still in his work clothes: jeans and that powder blue shirt. His soft breaths broke the quiet, and all at once Kyle found himself shedding his coat and hat and going to him. Sliding onto his lap, he curled up against him and wrapped his arms around Stan's neck, burying his face in the curve of his throat.

"Huh? Wha?" Stan asked sleepily, sounding confused; trying to sit forward.

"Shh, it's just me," Kyle murmured, rubbing his face against Stan's warm skin. "I'm sorry I'm late. Let's just stay here for a while...is that okay?"

"Hmm, sure. Yeah," he replied, his head falling back again as he settled a hand on the curve of Kyle's waist. "Where were you? I came home and you weren't here..." slowly, his voice dissolved until it almost disappeared. "I missed you."

"I'm here now," he said, guilt threading through him that he quickly downplayed. "That's all that matters, right?"

The next morning broke cold and unforgiving, orange light flooding the living room as Kyle tried to ignore the aches screaming in his muscles. He'd fallen asleep in Stan's arms, both of them waking up around 3 am and groaning from discomfort, wordlessly making their way into the bedroom where they'd collapsed, not even bothering to change. As always, Kyle's alarm had come too soon, and he'd wanted to cry when he pulled himself from bed, Stan not stirring from his place deep under the covers; only the top of his head visible. Shivering, Kyle had pulled himself together, eyes straying over Craig's t-shirt lying on the dresser, a vague feeling of excitement coursing through him before he quickly stifled it.

The walk to work had bordered on being unbearable, the cold so ruthless that Kyle thought he was going to simply keel over; every inch of exposed skin numbing itself swiftly. He'd been so miserable that he even pulled out his phone at one point to text Craig, but he'd slowly replaced it, deciding to soldier on. It wasn't Craig's job to take care of him, and besides, he could deal with this. He'd been weak about the Pete debacle, but he could handle his other affairs; he'd prove it.

By the time he made it to the clinic, the tears leaking from his eyes felt frozen on his cheeks, and he was clumsy as he unlocked the door. It wasn't until Pete was knocking on the glass that he finally started to thaw out, and he was stiff and jerky as he crossed over the floor. Averting his eyes, he let him in, praying that he'd just leave him be, that he'd finally gotten his fill of being antagonizing. Rather than walk into the back, Pete leaned against the counter and watched as Kyle went about his duties, the weight of his presence dragging him down until he could barely move.

"Can you please go away?" Kyle finally asked, keeping his back turned. "You're making me really uncomfortable, and I think you know that."

"I was just hoping we could talk like civilized adults," Pete replied, sounding offended. "I miss hanging out with you, Kyle....I really do."

"I don't care. I already told you that."

"Look, I -"

Suddenly, there was the sound of rushing wind and the door opening. Turning, Kyle felt his heart starting to race at the sight of Craig, and he wanted to go to him, but he didn't dare. He watched instead, his whole body buzzing like it was a raw nerve, and he became aware of a yearning pull, almost like his biology was responding to an unspoken, not yet discovered desire, and he knew...he just knew on a deeper level that something was beginning, something he couldn't control because it was like light falling on walls; intangible and lacking form.

"Pete," Craig said, striding across the floor and pulling off his sunglasses. He hung them on the collar of his jacket, his eyes flitting to Kyle's for a moment before he smiled quickly, almost like they shared a secret, which he supposed they did. "Can you stop by my desk after you're done getting ready? I've been meaning to talk to you about something and I just keep forgetting."

"Sure, Dr. T," Pete replied, backing away slowly, retreating toward the door before disappearing through it.

"Good morning," Craig said, reaching into his bag and gently placing his mug on the counter. He tapped it, everything about him seeming so different after the night before, but maybe Kyle was just seeing things that weren't there. "Is there coffee?"

"Yep," Kyle replied, hand straying to that curl, but before he could push it back, Craig was reaching out and doing it for him. Kyle became still, not stopping him, almost swooning into the touch and hating himself for being so easy, so hungry for this contact. It felt new, reminding him of the first time Stan had touched him, when he'd been green and inexperienced.

"Don't worry, I'll be discreet." Still smiling, Craig nodded toward the door where Pete had retreated. "Okay?"

"Still," Kyle replied, lifting the mug and cradling it in his hands. "I don't want to put you in an awkward spot, especially since this is my problem and you shouldn't have to deal with it. It's isn't fair to you...none of this is."

"Kyle."

Craig's voice was still kind in its nasally way, lacking beauty but rich with intelligence; the type that wasn't necessarily learned from books. No, he had a way around human nature, anticipating needs and what might arise; he could read people and rooms, clearly; much more adept at it than Kyle had ever been. Bottom lip trembling, Kyle looked up from the mug, emblazoned with the Space Needle on the side; Seattle splashed underneath in swirling silver. 

"Trust me," he said, drawing his hand away, having laid to rest that stubborn, misbehaving curl. Gazes converging, Craig's eyes almost seemed to plead with Kyle's, devoid of pretense or attempts at humor. "Please, can you do that?"

"I-I think so," Kyle whispered before nodding slowly. Suddenly, he wanted Craig to lean forward and kiss his mouth, right there in the middle of the room; morning sunlight gilding the dark wood floors and turning the fake plants to otherworldly gold; foliage found in make-believe worlds. Closing his eyes, he could nearly imagine it, being wrapped up in that vanilla and cologne aroma, lost in a storm with only two occupants: strong Craig Tucker and foolish, stumbling Kyle Broflovski. They'd kiss and then everything could go back to making sense, because then he'd know...he'd be able to tell himself for sure what was happening.

I think I'm falling for you, his mind screamed, though on the outside he was merely going to prepare Craig's standard cup of morning coffee. I don't know how it happened, but I can't stop thinking about you. Why are you always in my head? How did you make this happen?

Becoming still, Kyle shook his head, trying to find the silence inside of his mind that would afford him the luxury of thinking clearly. He was quaking on the inside, his foundations being ripped up while new ones were laid in place...a metamorphosis taking place before he'd been aware of it. Gasping, he felt Craig's large hand squeezing his shoulder and he looked up, feeling so tiny and wanting to be hidden away so no one could see him and his hidden, unspoken longing.

"I trust you," he murmured, slowly beginning to accept the truth of this statement. Craig had been kind to him, never pushy, and given him his choices...wanted to hear what he'd like to do. He made him feel like he had a right to his own opinion, even if it wasn't the most popular path. "I'm not sure why, but I want to trust you."

Craig pressed his fingers into Kyle's skin harder, expression not so calm and self-controlled anymore. It was like he was holding himself back from something, the tension in his bearing passing into Kyle and making him want to take care of him for a while.

"No one ever takes care of you, you said so yourself," Kyle commented offhandedly. "Maybe you should let someone look after you sometime. Don't you deserve it?"

"Are you offering?"

"I don't know what I'm saying. I feel strange."

Craig squeezed him one last time before letting go, gesturing toward the door to the back of the clinic.

"I'll be waiting at my desk when the coffee's ready. Don't forget -"

"Two Splenda, vanilla creamer," Kyle said, purposely brushing against Craig when he walked past. "I'll remember as long as you don't forget what I said a moment ago..." he stopped, giving Craig an open, pointed look, probably too needy and revealing far too much.

"No man is an island, Craig. Remember that."

Chapter Text

Wordlessly watching
He waits by the window
And wonders
At the empty place inside
Heartlessly helping himself to her bad dreams
He worries
Did he hear a good-bye? Or even hello?

- Helplessly Hoping, Crosby, Stills & Nash


Kyle was pretty sure if looks could kill, he would've died at least a hundred times by mid-day. Pete was covert about his death stares, never letting Kyle catch him directly, but he could feel the daggers being thrown into the back of his head every time Pete was in his vicinity. He didn't say a word, but there seemed to be a cloud of hostility hovering around Pete constantly, and when he was around, he made a point of slamming things down and talking with an edge in his voice, every thing about him radiating animosity.

Craig, on the other hand, was unusually cheerful, coming out of the back more often than usual with charts and orders and referrals. He didn't necessarily seek Kyle out more than normal, but his presence was more pronounced, usually when Pete was around, and then he seemed to make it a point to stand in between him and Kyle, almost like a shield. He even offered to buy lunch for everyone, leaning on the reception desk and tapping his pen on the counter.

"What sounds good to you?" He asked Butters and Mercedes, watching out of the corner of his eye when Pete came out of the back with a stack of charts. Casually, he shifted and went to stand behind Kyle, arms crossed. "I'm thinking Thai...or Chinese?"

"Chinese would be nice," Mercedes replied, glancing at Butters. "What do you think, babe?"

Butters smiled bashfully, cheeks pink.

"If you want Chinese, I'm fine with that. Whatever makes you the happiest."

Craig rolled his eyes at Kyle, but he seemed more amused than anything else.

"How about you?"

"Oh, I don't really have much of an appetite, so I'm good with whatever." Nervously, he glanced over his shoulder at Pete, who was giving off his storm cloud vibes, frowning darkly. Craig looked at him, too; jaw tightening slightly.

"Pete? Chinese okay with you?"

"I brought my lunch," he said tersely, before yanking the door to the back open. "Thanks, anyway." Stomping through, he almost ran into Heidi as she emerged.

"Whoa, sorry," she said, stepping out of the way but recovering quickly. Practically floating over to the group, she held up her phone. "Bebe's water just broke! She's on her way to Hell's Pass with Kenny right now!"

"Hey, that's great," Craig replied. "I'm sure she's thrilled."

"For the most part. Kenny told me they were walking around Ross Dress for Less when it happened...you know, just trying to get the ball rolling."

"I feel sorry for whoever has to clean that mess up," Mercedes said wryly before reaching out to pluck a piece of lint from Butters' sleeve. "What are you still doing here? Didn't you say you wanted to be in the delivery room?"

"Yes, but I'm so nervous," Heidi said, biting her lip as she moved from foot to foot, eyes bright like dimes. "I can't believe it's actually happening...I was almost hoping she'd be induced so I could, you know, prepare myself, but now...God, it's all happening so fast."

"Go," Craig said, putting a hand on her shoulder and turning her around. "We'll hold down the fort here, okay? Get your stuff."

"Are you sure...? I don't want to abandon all of you in the middle of the day."

"We all knew this was a possibility from the beginning, Heids. Everything will be fine, I promise." Walking around her, Craig went and opened the door. "Come on, I won't take no for an answer."

They had another late night because Craig had to handle the patients on his own, though he proved to be quick and efficient as always. Pete worked even faster than usual, forcing Mercedes to keep up with his pace, and by the end of it Kyle was ready to drop, not because they were busy but because the tension was overwhelming. He had to admit it was better than being harassed by Pete at every turn, but now he was consumed with a weird sense of guilt, not to mention his burgeoning awareness of Craig every time he came into the room.

There's no way I like him, he reasoned with himself, trying to ignore Craig's spicy cologne after he dropped off yet another referral. I was just grateful because he handled Pete. That's all. I can't believe what I was thinking.

"I was thinking of going to visit Bebe on Saturday, depending on how things go at the hospital," Craig said, almost making Kyle have a heart attack; forcing him from his thoughts. "Heidi's keeping me updated, and that baby is pretty stubborn so far. She's optimistic, though."

"Yeah, Kenny sent me a very unflattering photo earlier," Kyle said, holding up his phone. Kenny had managed to get a selfie of himself with Bebe, who was glaring at the camera while her clueless husband threw up a peace sign. "I wouldn't blame her if she punched him out afterward."

"Those two are ridiculous," Craig said, his voice fond. He paused, lingering for a moment. He toyed with the stethoscope looped around his neck. "Anyway, were you going to drop by, too? I'm pretty sure Mercedes is going to visit, and Butters said he's going to buy her a Yankee Candle or something."

"Oh, I hadn't really planned on it, but you're right, I should go. After all, I wouldn't even be working here if Bebe hadn't..." he trailed off, knowing Stan played a part in his circumstances, too; an unknowing catalyst for whatever was happening in his life suddenly. He gulped. "I think Stan's working on Saturday, his hours have been pretty weird lately."

Mainly because we're avoiding each other right now.

"Well, if you needed a ride," Craig said, looking up at the ceiling while continuing to twist his stethoscope around, "I could -"

"Dr. T, I need you to sign off on this KUB report," Pete said, coming abruptly from the back, not bothering to hide his scowl when he saw them. Butters was on his heels, having returned from emptying the shred bins.

"Leave it on my desk."

"Sure, whatever you say." He disappeared, shutting the door with unnecessary force.

Craig glanced at Kyle, clearly unbothered by Pete's petulance. Busying himself with balancing the money, Kyle concentrated on adding up the cash in the register. He wasn't sure where to look or what to say, only knowing that he was glad that there was a barrier between him and Pete's hostility, but completely at a loss as to how he was supposed to react to basically being in Craig's debt.

"So, you're buying Bebe a candle, huh?" Craig asked, turning his focus on Butters. "That's exciting, huh?"

"Yep, she loves Autumn Leaves," Butters chirped, scanning in a stack of charts. "Or do you think she'd like something pine-scented?"

"I'm almost positive she'll like anything you bring her. It's the thought that counts, right?"

"Hey, you're right!" Humming, Butters blissfully went back to his work. Tapping his foot on the floor, Craig turned back to Kyle, who kept his eyes carefully averted; a flush gathering in his cheeks.

"Better get back to work, huh? I don't need Pete coming out here again and yelling at me."

Kyle just nodded and bit his lip, considering what Craig had proposed before they'd been interrupted. Was he going to take him up on his offer to drive him to the hospital on Saturday? He couldn't, could he? It'd just be so weird.

No weirder than anything else that's happened lately, I guess, he thought. Laying the money on the counter slowly, he watched Craig walk away in his peripheral. Jesus Christ, what's even happening right now?

It was with supreme satisfaction that Kyle locked up that night without having to deal with Pete, fully expecting him to offer him a cigarette anyway but breathing a sigh of relief when he climbed into his car and drove away. Craig was still in his corner when Kyle and the others walked outside, his hand resting on the key as he turned it, debating whether he should go back inside and thank him for everything. The cold was cruel as he stood there arguing with himself, and he could imagine just opening the door and going to Craig, probably reviewing labs as his music played softly, and he'd just express his gratitude...it'd be so simple, and then he could lay everything to rest, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

He started walking home instead, his eyes on the sidewalk before he gazed up at the sky, clear and appearing so immense that it eclipsed his problems for a moment. Feeling small, he took his time, hands jammed in his pockets and his breaths trapped in the scarf layered over his mouth; saturated material moist against his face. He tried to think of Stan, who was probably already home and making dinner as Kyle had an existential crisis on his trek from work, but thoughts of Craig kept mixing in and distracting him.

"I'm an idiot, a total fucking idiot. Why am I even thinking like this? So, he was nice to me...big deal. He's my boss, of course he'd be bothered by what Pete did. It messes up productivity." Stopping, he covered his eyes as he craned his neck upward, annoyed with himself and his racing, churning thoughts; irritated that he couldn't control them. Suddenly, his phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out, almost expecting a text from Craig but suddenly remembering that he'd never given him his number. Instead, he saw a message from Kenny:

Bebe is like almost totally dilated dude. In a matter of hours, Cartman will have a kid and i'll have my wife back

This was a sobering thought, and he silently had to thank Kenny for bringing him back to reality. Beginning to walk slowly, he tapped out a response:

God, Cartman reproducing...I never thought I'd see the day...at least that's what I hoped for. How's she doing?

Soon enough, his phone chirped:

Pretty good. She actually said she misses work...isn't that crazy? that reminds me, is craig treating you okay? i remember you saying he was being an ass

Kyle was careful now, not wanting to talk shit because Craig had actually been decent, but not wanting to give Kenny the wrong impression...not that Kyle really had any idea what the hell was going on; not really, anyway:

we're cool...no complaints. i'm sure he'll be happy to have bebe back. Tapping the screen, he debated about the next part, but threw caution to the wind. I'll probably drop by on Saturday to see you guys, if that's okay.

that'd be sweet...the more the merrier. Stan gonna come too?

No, he'll be at work until late, but i'll figure it out.

great, i'll let baby girl know...she'll be stoked. don't forget to tell her how great she looks...she's been pretty down on herself lately

Of course. I'll bring her flowers, too. How's Heidi?

She's freaking out but in a good way, if that makes any sense. Cartman's actually the one with the level head right now

I guess there's a first time for everything, huh?

His walk home was a lot longer than normal, what with the cold and his slow place, his correspondence with Kenny making him stop every few steps to respond. By the time he got back to the apartment, it was already after 9, and as expected the lights were on in the apartment. Sliding his phone into his pocket, Kyle made the decision to act naturally and just be happy that Pete was behind him; all his confusion aside. Nothing had happened that he needed to be ashamed about, and he could hardly be blamed for having invasive, tricky thoughts that weren't the truth...no one could fault him for admiring and appreciating Craig for smoothly handling what had been a horrible situation.

"I'm home," he said, injecting some enthusiasm into his voice as he stepped inside and shed his outer garments. The aroma of Stan's cooking permeated the warm apartment, the lamps glowing golden in the living room. The TV was on, their Youtube playlist pulled up; soft music curling around Kyle as he wandered into the kitchen.

"I made chili," Stan said, glancing over his shoulder as he stirring the bubbling contents of a large pot. He was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt that hugged his strong arms, revealing his riot of tattoos. Kyle's eyes lingered on the K on his bicep before he came over and wrapped his arms around him from behind, laying his face against Stan's back. He sighed, just wanting to stay for a while and remind himself of what truly mattered; who was in his arms and should remain there. Turning his head, he smelled the air.

"Did you make brownies, too?"

"They're your favorite, right?"

"Ugh, Stan, you aren't playing fair. You're seriously trying to make me fat," Kyle pouted, eyeing the pan of brownies cooling. Stan had even added walnuts to the top because he knew Kyle couldn't resist them.

Turning, Stan pinched Kyle's scrawny side, making him yelp and back away, laughing.

"You need some meat on your bones," he commented, stirring the chili. "Especially since you haven't been eating so great...not since all that bullshit went down with..." he shook his head before lifting a spoonful of chili, blowing on it. "Here, try it."

"Mmm, perfection," Kyle sighed, licking the bottom of the spoon. "I'm gonna go change into human clothes; be right back."

"Do you wanna eat at the table or in front of the TV...we could watch a movie or something."

"I'll let you decide." Wandering into the bedroom, Kyle quickly stripped out of his scrubs and thermals before tossing them in the hamper. He pulled on some sweats and went to reach for one of Stan's old jerseys when his eye fell on Craig's t-shirt, thrown haphazardly on the dresser. Slowly, he picked it up and pressed it against his face, filling his senses with the scent of the laundry detergent Stan bought on sale at the Wall-Mart, but detecting that faint vanilla musk somewhere among the folds...it was almost like it was trapped in the threads, but Kyle knew he was just imagining things. Wishful thinking, maybe?

You're being crazy again, he chastised himself before throwing the shirt in the hamper. Plucking up Stan's Broncos jersey, he slipped it on, relishing in its familiarity...he'd worn it over a hundred times during the course of their relationship, and no doubt he'd wear it a hundred times more. Besides, he needed to return Craig's shirt...he'd been rude holding onto it for so long.

The atmosphere seemed less tense between them that night as they ate their chili in front of the TV, Kyle leaned against Stan as usual. He ate a bowl of chili and a suitable chunk of brownie, washing it all down with a considerable amount of wine. As it seeped into his blood and took away some of the weight of his thoughts, he found himself loosening up and cuddling closer. The things that plagued him during the day didn't seem as overwhelming when he was three sheets to the wind and wrapped up in Stan, so he was easier with his words.

"You should be happy, by the way," he said, tracing the K on Stan's arm languidly while they watched Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time. "Pete isn't going to be bothering me anymore."

 "Is that a fact?" Setting his beer aside, Stan pulled Kyle onto his lap where he straddled him, pressed deliciously close to his boyfriend's groin. Placing his hands on Kyle's hips, he squeezed him gently. "What happened?"

"Well, I had a talk with Craig last night when we went out, and -"

"Hold up, you two went out?" Pulling back, Stan stared at him, wide-eyed. "Since when do you guys hang out together?"

"Relax, he needed help finishing up his work and then we went out to blow off some steam. We were able to work through some of our...hostilities, and I felt comfortable enough to tell him what happened." He paused, cocking his head in confusion. "Isn't that what you wanted? For Craig to find out so he could step in?"

Stan nodded slowly, fingers pressing a little harder into Kyle's hips.

"Yeah, but you have to admit this is a weird development, you and Craig doing anything together. You guys have never gotten along, and, well...anyway, whatever." He took a deep breath. "So, he was receptive to what you said about Pete?"

"Very, surprisingly," Kyle replied before really thinking about it. "Actually, no, it makes perfect sense. Craig has this weird sense of honor, I've noticed."

Stan just stared at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Oh?"

"Jesus, we're getting off topic. Long story short, he wasn't happy about what happened and told me he'd handle it...if that's what I wanted, of course." Smiling softly, he pulled at Stan's t-shirt, sliding the material between his fingers. "He gave me a choice, which I thought was nice."

"So, I take it he didn't fire that asshole, like he deserved?" Stan asked, watching as Kyle toyed with his shirt.

"No, I told him I didn't want that to happen."

"God, Kyle, are you for real? Now you're going to have to work with the dude that assaulted you every single day! Doesn't that make you sick?" Covering his face with his hands, Stan's voice was muffled when he spoke next; sounding deeply exasperated. "I know it makes me sick, if that matters at all."

"Of course it does," Kyle said, sliding off of his lap and curling up on the end of the couch. He picked up his glass of wine. "But I don't want to send anyone to the poorhouse, regardless of how disgusting they are. Besides, it won't be for very much longer, Bebe's water broke today."

"Yeah, I heard about it on Facebook. Kenny and Cartman were blowing up their timelines."

"Naturally," Kyle smiled, taking a quick drink. "So, there's that...Bebe will recover, come back, and then I can put all of this behind me. No harm, no foul."

No more Craig. He stared at the swirling contents of his glass, suddenly feeling hollow. But that's probably for the best, right?

"I don't think it's that simple," Stan said softly. "I know you're hoping for the best, Kyle, but you seemed pretty shaken by what Pete did, and -"

"I'll deal with it," Kyle cut him off, knowing where he was going and just not wanting to hear it. "It's not like I have a choice, remember?"

The next morning, Kyle decided to stop off at Tweak Bros to grab a latte, leaving behind a softly snoozing Stan. The remainder of their evening had been uneventful and quiet, both of them lost in their thoughts as they fell asleep on the couch; movie playing in the background. Once again, they'd dragged themselves to bed in a wordless daze, the bedroom frosted by moonlight and smudged with shadows. Kyle had slept fitfully, his slumber punctuated with dreams he couldn't remember upon waking, but he felt sweaty and panicky when he opened his eyes.

Walking into the shop, he was glad to see Tweek behind the counter, but a little apprehensive, too. He couldn't pinpoint the catalyst for his unease, but he was aware of it; choosing to overlook the sensation while he ordered. At the last moment, tapping the counter, he had a sudden inspiration.

"What's Craig's favorite thing on the menu, other than the dark roast?" He asked, glancing at Tweek but not meeting his eyes; gaze focused on his tiny heart clip instead.

Tweek plucked his pen from behind his ear and rolled it between his hands, shifting from foot to foot like he couldn't keep still. If anything, he seemed unusually animated that morning, talking fast and fidgeting constantly.

"He'd probably never admit to this, but he loves our cappuccino. Why?"

"Oh, I just wanted to find a way to thank him for helping me with a problem," Kyle said casually, sipping his latte and not burning himself for once.

"I added extra milk, so you wouldn't burn your mouth," Tweek commented, pulling Kyle's focus from his hair. He was smiling impishly, eyes very bright. "Craig helped you?" He tapped his pen against his cheek methodically, a knowing look coming over his face. "Does this have anything to do with..." he raised his eyebrows and waited.

"I guess I should be thanking you too," Kyle admitted, feeling like an asshole for forgetting Tweek's part in the whole equation. "For giving him the sketch." Biting his lip, he tucked his curl behind his ear. "Thanks, man."

"Don't mention it. Honestly, I was worried I was overstepping my bounds, but I was concerned...you just seemed so upset." He kept tapping his cheek with the pen, hand trembling minutely. "You should've seen Craig's face when I brought it up to him...it was weird. He usually doesn't let his emotions really show, you know, but I could tell he was bothered."

This information made Kyle's stomach clench, but in a nice way...a feeling of warmth spreading upward and into his limbs.

"Well, anyway, I just wanted to show him my gratitude. Do you think he'll be weirded out if I bring him a cappuccino?"

"Nah, I think he'll really like it. I'm not saying he won't make fun of you, but he'll be happy either way." Grinning, Tweek turned away and began preparing the drink, tucking the pen behind his ear again.

When Kyle got to work, he just didn't have the guts to present the coffee to Craig, worried that it would invite his derision. Instead, he left the cup on Craig's desk with a little post-it note he'd scribbled a quick "thanks" on, wanting to write more but not knowing what to say. When Craig arrived and asked if there was coffee, he just told him it was already waiting for him, not looking up from his computer.

The morning passed without incident, Pete keeping his distance and everything working like clockwork. Craig brought in a PA to take over for Heidi while she was out, so the rhythm was restored and Kyle could almost sink back into his typical auto-pilot. The only time he seemed to wake up was when Craig entered the room, and then he couldn't help but watch him. Covertly, of course, but his eyes would stray to him, taking in his pristine lab coat, dark hair, the pen he had clipped to the collar of his scrubs -

Stop it, he told himself. Just fucking stop it right now.

During the early afternoon, Kenny texted him announcing that Bebe finally had the baby, after hours of pushing, screaming, and telling her husband that she was having her tubes tied - end of story. Heidi texted Craig, too, omitting the part about her surrogate's adamant raving that she was done having children for the rest of her life.

"Looks like they had a little girl," Craig said, strolling into the reception area and leaning against the counter. He was scrolling through his phone, a little smile on his face. "Heidi and Cartman are over the moon, naturally. I got the feeling that's what she wanted...a daughter."

"According to Kenny, they're naming her Polly," Kyle frowned, studying his phone as well. Looking up, he cocked a brow. "Wait, didn't Cartman have a doll with that same name? I might be remembering things wrong, but I'm pretty sure he did."

"Let's just be happy he isn't naming the poor kid after his mom," Craig replied, rolling his eyes. "Polly's a cute name, though; old-fashioned."

"Hmm." Quickly, he went back to his phone, wondering if Craig had liked the cappuccino. He cringed on the inside, just imagining how ridiculous that post-it must've appeared: disingenuous somehow, even though he hadn't meant it that way.

"Oh, she's so cute," Butters gushed, looking over Craig's shoulder, hands on his mouth in obvious rapture. Mercedes was standing on Craig's other side, glossy lips pulled into a smile.

"Newborns always look like aliens," she commented, adjusting her ponytail, "but I think she's going to look more like Heidi. What do you think?"

"We can only hope," Craig replied wryly. He laughed suddenly, turning his phone around so Kyle could see. There was a picture of a very tired Bebe splashed on the screen, looking like death warmed over. "Kenny's seriously asking for it with all of these pictures."

Snorting, Kyle shook his head, catching Craig's eyes by accident; they regarded one another before he smiled.

"Thanks for the cappuccino, by the way," he said, making Kyle's heart pound out of nowhere. "It was exactly what I needed this morning."

Pete strolled out of the back then with a stack of charts. Unceremoniously, he threw them on the counter next to Kyle, making no attempt to be gentle about the action. Kyle slowly slid his chair away, trying to appear nonchalant.

"Wanna see Heidi's daughter?" Mercedes asked, gesturing to Craig's phone. "She's pretty cute, all things considered."

"Nah, you've seen one baby you've seen them all," Pete replied, walking into the back, letting the door slam.

"He's acting so weird," she commented, giving Kyle a look. "I wonder if he's coming down with something."

Kyle and Craig just exchanged another look, choosing not to comment.

The day wore itself out in a typical fashion, a blur of patients and banality, which Kyle appreciated when compared to how it could've been had Craig not intervened on his behalf. However, when quitting time rolled around, Pete didn't take off as quickly as he had the night before, choosing to linger next to his car while smoking a cigarette. Everyone else had already cleared out (except for Craig, of course) and he didn't exactly feel comfortable walking home before he saw Pete leave, so he casually waited inside of the clinic and watched, arms crossed as tension gnawed at his gut.

"What's annoying is that I can't exactly call him out for smoking a cigarette next to his own car before going home," Craig spoke up, startling him. Once again, he'd appeared like a veritable ninja at Kyle's side, making him press a hand against his heart to help ease its sudden racing.

"Can you please stop sneaking up on me like that? You're going to give me a coronary," Kyle replied, sucking in a shuddering breath. It didn't help that Craig's hair was disheveled again, mussed from a long day of attending to other people. "And you're right...he didn't even ask me if I wanted to smoke, too. He's just...there. I mean, I'm sure he knows exactly what he's doing, but still."

"He's pretty clever, isn't he? He knows how to get to you without lifting a finger. I'd be impressed if I weren't so grossed out by it." Crossing his arms, he bumped Kyle's shoulder. "Are you sure you don't want me to fire him? He totally has it coming."

"I know, but I don't want that on my conscience." Shrugging, Kyle didn't move away, feeling Craig's warmth ghosting through the air between them. "It's crazy, but I was almost hoping he'd apologize...it'd make me feel so much better. He said he was sorry initially...but it seemed more like an excuse than anything else. More like he was sorry for being called out on his shit, not for actually doing anything."

"Yeah, that probably isn't going to happen, Kyle. If he truly apologized it'd be the same thing as admitting guilt, and then he'd have to face the fact that he's a terrible person. He isn't about to do that."

"I'm starting to see that." Fury worked through him then, making him grit his teeth. "I wish he'd just go the fuck home already...I'm sure he knows we're watching him. What a fucking asshole."

"It's not like we're being subtle," Craig replied, gesturing to the clear-glass doors they were standing behind. Sighing, he bumped Kyle again before turning away. "Come on, you can help me with my stuff again and then I'll take you home. Sound good?"

"Ugh, I really don't want to keep putting you in this position, Craig. It's isn't fair to you, and -"

"Save it," he cut him off, reaching out and taking a hold of Kyle's sleeve; he tugged gently. "I'm pretty sure we're past the point where we need to have this conversation."

Once again, Kyle found himself ensconced in that dimly-lit corner, though the music was different this time; a soft, silky woman's voice singing about preludes to love and abject longing. He wanted to know the name of the singer but he refrained from asking, barely able to focus on the stack of labs they were working on yet again; Craig's aroma nearly making him come undone. He'd taken off his lab coat so he was lounging in his powder blue scrubs, legs crossed and his foot bobbing, little movements that Kyle couldn't help but fixate on.

"Hungry?" Craig pulled out a container and opened it, revealing a stack of cookies. "Snickerdoodles that Linda made...she always packs me way too much."

"Thanks," Kyle said, taking one and biting into it, his mouth filled with the taste of cinnamon and brown sugar. "Stan made me brownies last night," he added, feeling stupid as soon as he said it; Craig couldn't possibly care.

"Oh? That was nice of him," Craig replied, nibbling on a cookie too. "Any special reason?"

"Nah, just because he knows I like them, I guess," he said quietly, eyeing the results of a patient's blood work. Shyly, he held the paper out, brushing it against Craig's arm. "Another BMP."

"Got it," he took it, chewing slowly as he studied the page. "I wish Tweek would bake me something just out of the blue. You know, he used to be pretty good about stuff like that, baking and whatever, but he doesn't seem as interested these days. He's too preoccupied with his artwork."

"That makes sense." Kyle was sure Craig had meant the comment to be offhand and not disparaging of Tweek, but it still made him feel sad. He couldn't help but feel like he took some of Stan's gestures for granted, and Craig was openly admitting that he'd be thrilled for something so small...a pan of brownies to show that someone was thinking of him. Suddenly, the cappuccino he'd bought him as thanks seemed even more pathetic than before. Opening his mouth, he was about to apologize when Craig spoke again.

"You didn't have to walk home in the cold last night, by the way. I would've driven you."

Popping the last bit of the cookie into his mouth, Kyle used it as an excuse not to respond right away, mainly because he wasn't sure what to say. How could he tell Craig that he'd wanted to stay behind after everyone left, had wanted to thank him...how could he possibly convey that he was overrun with thoughts and emotions he couldn't piece together, that one small act of kindness had flipped a switch in him and suddenly everything was so muddled? He was at war with himself, and over something that could be considered inconsequential in the grand scheme; a shifting of feelings, a slow realization.

How could he tell Craig that he was starting to look at him differently? Kyle could barely comprehend it himself, so how was he supposed to articulate it?

You're overthinking things again. Didn't you tell yourself you jumped the gun before? You did, right? Stop second guessing yourself, Kyle. That's how you got mixed up in Pete's bullshit in the first place.

"Are you overthinking things again?" Craig asked, nearly making Kyle choke on the cookie he was currently swallowing. He started coughing violently, prompting Craig to gently pat him on the back until the hacks subsided. "Sorry to catch you off-guard, Kyle. I wasn't kidding when I told you your face gives everything away...and you seem like a deep thinker. Sometimes you just drift off."

Kyle wiped his mouth, the cinnamon stinging his throat and tongue. He was annoyed that his stupid face was so open, like a book that just wouldn't close. He had to admit he was elated, though, knowing that Craig could read him somewhat, that he'd actually put in the effort to develop that ability. Once again, he chastised himself for reading into small details that probably didn't mean a damn thing.

"What did you say to him," he said instead, switching tacks because he couldn't handle the direction of his thoughts currently. "To Pete? He didn't seem too happy."

"He wasn't, but I approached the subject in a roundabout away," Craig replied. He set aside the BMP and typed something into a patient's account. "I kept things abstract, or at least I tried to. I told him that if I ever caught wind of an employee harassing another employee, even in a non-physical sense, like, through intimidation or whatever, they'd be terminated. I didn't mention you at all but he's not stupid, he got the gist. I mean, anyone with half a brain would have to figure that that sort of discussion doesn't just come out of left field, but he didn't argue." He shrugged, turning back to Kyle and giving him a passive look. "How could he? On some level, he has to know that he's wrong."

"Yeah, on some level. This one's negative," Kyle muttered, reading a urine culture before passing it over. "That's why he's loitering next to his car like a giant, creepy asshole."

"I'm sure he's left by now." He turned the paper over on his desk, waiting for Kyle to read off the next lab. "Honestly, I should've stepped in sooner, now that I think about it."

"What?"

"I could tell Pete wasn't really accepting the fact that you weren't interested, just from observing you two." He grinned, wiping his mouth. "Sorry, I know you think it's weird that I watch people like that...it's almost like I can't turn off my radar or something."

Kyle just shook his head, not overly concerned that Craig had been watching; more afraid that he'd seen him doing something foolish while being none the wiser.

"Anyway, like I said before, your body language was loud and clear: I'm not into you like that, but Pete just ignored it. I think that's what I find so infuriating about the whole situation...aside from the assault, of course," he added, rolling his eyes. "The fact that he just wasn't listening to you. He saw what he wanted to see, heard what he wanted to hear, and then...he just walked all over you. I hate people who pull shit like that; it's the mark of a predator. It's sickening."

Blinking, Kyle was momentarily silenced by the edge in Craig's voice, surprised that he felt so strongly about this subject; like it was deeply personal.

"I've seen people try to pull the same shit with Tweek, because they think he's easy, because he's vulnerable," Craig continued, the edge developing into quiet fury. "And I guess in a lot of ways he is, but that doesn't make him stupid or deserving of being taken advantage of...he's kind and he can't always advocate for himself because -"

He shook his head, accepting the lab that Kyle held out: a UA.

"Whatever. I'm just saying, some people view sensitivity like blood in the water, and they use it as a weapon against the person. I don't like it, I've never liked it, and when I see it happening, I can't help but step in."

For whatever reason, this admission made Kyle's heart drop. So, Craig had come to his rescue because he reminded him of Tweek, needing to be taken care of; attended to. Just like Stan, Craig viewed him as being incapable of handling himself, too. Poor, weak Kyle, the guy with all the bark but almost completely lacking any bite. His face colored as he came to this conclusion, suddenly feeling humiliated for having overinflated this whole situation, the hidden implications that he'd severely misread.

"I-I saw Tweek this morning," he said, scooting his chair away a few inches while staring blankly at another result. "This one's positive." He held it out, not looking at Craig when he took it.

"I had a feeling, since you brought me a drink. He's doing okay right now, for the most part. Very upbeat."

"Yeah, chipper. He helped me choose what to get for you." Ignoring the burn developing in his sinuses, Kyle took a deep breath. "Your favorite or whatever."

"Well, it was very appreciated," Craig said, either not noticing how deflated Kyle suddenly was or just choosing to ignore it. Thankfully, he didn't bring up the post-it note. If he had, Kyle was pretty sure he would've melted onto the floor in a puddle of shame.

A fucking post-it note. I have to be the dumbest person on the planet. Who thanks someone with a post-it note over something like this...after telling a would-be attacker to fuck off? Of course, he only did it because he knew I wouldn't say anything myself...because I'm too nice...too sensitive...I'm -

"About Saturday," Craig spoke up, jarring him once again. "Did you give it any thought? If Stan can't drop you by, I don't have an issue picking you up."

"Maybe I'll just take an Uber, or the bus," Kyle muttered, coming to the last of the labs; mindlessly rolling the paper into a tube. "I can't have you driving me everywhere. It makes me feel helpless...like a freeloader."

Weak. Even Tweek has his own car, doesn't he?

"Stop being ridiculous, Kyle. If I minded in the slightest, I wouldn't offer. You know that, right?"

I don't know anything about this whole stupid situation.

"Sure, yeah." Slowly, he unrolled the paper and set it on the counter between them. "Of course."

Silence rushed in, save for the music still playing softly, that same husky female voice. Now she was singing about black coffee and smoking cigarettes while pining away for a lost love.

"Hey," Craig said, suddenly reaching out and resting a hand on Kyle's arm. His skin was warm, seeping through Kyle's thermal and snapping him back into a tranquil headspace. Confusion set in too, but it felt nice, oddly enough; a warm, offsetting intoxication. He realized it was like being tipsy, when he'd had just the right amount of wine; body buzzing and mind pliable.

"Hmm?" He bit his lip, not wanting to look up. If what Craig said was true, and Kyle's face gave everything away, he certainly couldn't look at him right now; it'd be catastrophic.

"Are you okay? You seem upset or something...did I say something wrong?"

Stop being so fucking astute. Wait, don't stop, keep being just like this...or not. God, I can't take this. I can't take any of this!

"No, you're fine. I'm just tired," he said instead, tucking that curl behind his ear. He almost expected Craig to do it for him, but his hand didn't move from his arm. "What time were you thinking of going over to the hospital?"

"I'm not sure yet. I could text you to let you know...tomorrow morning?"

"You don't have my number," Kyle murmured, having mulled this point over several times. "I have yours, but. Well." Feeling warmer, he finally looked up and allowed himself to catch Craig's eyes. "Give me your phone and I'll add myself to your contacts, okay?"

When Craig drove him home that night, it was quiet, but Kyle's head was so loud the radio might as well have been switched on to full blast. He just couldn't find his footing, thoughts slipping like quicksilver through his brain, conflicting and thrilling and so hard to interpret that he was exhausted by the time Craig pulled up in front of the apartment. He wanted to jump out of the car and run away, but he also wanted to stay right where he was even if Craig didn't think of him as anything beyond a subordinate; just wanted to linger and drink up his presence. He also wanted to go to Stan and beg his forgiveness even though he wasn't sure what for, but then he'd think of Tweek and he wanted to apologize profusely...but then a strange aggressiveness would crop up and he wanted to shake Craig's other half, for sleepwalking through his relationship, for having shorted out somewhere along the way and being completely fine with it.

At least, that was the impression he got. Really, he was just an outsider peering in on so many lives, and he could barely navigate his own existence. Who was he to judge or demand anything from anyone else?

"I'm tired," he admitted when he finally came back to himself, his hand resting on the door handle. "I'm so tired I can barely stand it."

"I know what you mean," Craig replied, leaning his cheek on the seat and gazing at him. "It's been a long week, huh?"

"Longer than you realize." Finally, he slid from the car and skirted around the front, stopping by Craig's window which he'd partially opened. "Text me in the morning, okay? I mean, if you really don't mind -"

"I'm not listening to this," Craig cut him off, shaking his head. "Get inside before you freeze to death." Glancing up at the apartment, he pointed to the balcony with the bird feeders swaying in the cutting winds. "Is that your place?"

Kyle nodded, taking note of the lamplight burning in the windows and Stan's truck in the lot.

"Looks like Stan's probably home, huh? Tell him hi for me."

"Sure." Turning, Kyle slowly walked up the stairs while acutely aware of the sound of Craig's car continuing to idle at the curb. He didn't drive off until Kyle had stepped inside, safe from the ever-present chill. Stan was on the couch, drinking a beer in his lounging clothes.

"I was starting to think you'd never come home," he said playfully when Kyle plopped down next to him, not even bothering to take off his coat. "Did Craig drop you off? I think I remember seeing that car at his house when I picked you up that one time."

"He says hi," Kyle replied, looking down at his hands, slightly raw from the cold and damp. "Pete was being a dick and loitering in front of the clinic, so he took me home."

"He's turning out to be pretty decent, isn't he?" Stan commented, patting Kyle's leg softly. "Craig, I mean. Pete can get fucked, clearly."

"Clearly, but you're right...he's," he shrugged, staring off into space. The TV was on but it was muted; a movie on the screen he didn't recognize. "He's completely different from what I expected."

"I guess he just picks his spots like anyone else...Craig's always been so reserved. How were we supposed to know he's actually nice?" Tapping Kyle's thigh again, he shifted and stood, stretching his arms above his head; revealing a tiny amount of belly when his shirt rose up. Kyle watched, eyes shifting from the TV screen, suddenly hungry for this sight of skin...almost breathing a sigh of relief when the first stirrings of desire woke in his body. "Did you want some leftover chili? We have a ton."

"Sounds good. Can you also pour me some wine, too?" Exhausted, Kyle began pulling off his coat.

"Coming right up."

Soon enough, Kyle's wine glass was empty and his bowl licked clean, and he was leaning on Stan as they watched what was turning out to be a very boring movie. Kyle couldn't seem to focus on it at any rate, thoughts straying to odd details that on their own were meaningless, but put together were very telling. He tried to stay in the moment, keep his mind in the same room, but it was difficult. Feeling reckless and needful, his hand strayed to Stan's stomach, to the same skin that had been flashed when he'd raised his arms; mouth watering and fingers insistent.

"What's gotten into you?" Stan asked, panting softly after reciprocating Kyle's kiss, deep and filled with a yearning he couldn't articulate.

"I don't want to talk," Kyle whispered, knowing he sounded desperate but not caring; unraveling. "I just want you, please...don't tell me no, okay? Please."

"Shh, I won't, calm down. Come here."

Straddling Stan, Kyle pressed himself against him, wanting to feel his heat...wanting it to overwhelm him and chase his thoughts away, or at least put them to rights. He wanted things to make sense, he didn't want to be conflicted, he just wanted to feel clean...knowing exactly where he was meant to be and not questioning it. He could feel Stan pulling down his boxer briefs and spreading him, Kyle's hands straying to Stan's cock and pumping it softly, his hot breaths stroking Kyle's neck.

"Wait," he moaned, suddenly sliding from Stan's lap and getting between his thighs. Parting his lips, he took him into his mouth, tasting him, his flavor alone so erotic in that moment; Stan's hands winding through his curls and pulling softly.

They spent the rest of the evening fucking in the living room, Kyle gasping against Stan's shoulder as he pressed his knees into the couch; hot kisses passed back and forth and Stan's fingers tight on his hips. Kyle came multiple times, and with each climax, breaking like the sun over a distant beach, he whispered Stan's name like it was a mantra; eyes closed as he forced himself to stay tethered to that place; that moment in time. Even so, those little, nagging details kept breaking into the haze, arresting him and making him cling to Stan harder, not wanting to let go; green flecks in grey irises, dark hair falling carelessly, and the way Craig could read him with effortless ease, Kyle nothing but an open book that could never seem to close.

-----

"I'm just saying, you could've mentioned this before jumping my bones last night," Stan said as he sipped from his coffee, fingers lightly drumming the table next to his empty breakfast plate. He didn't seem angry so much as mildly annoyed; unhappy with not being made aware of Kyle's impending plans.

"I wasn't thinking straight," Kyle said, quickly tapping out a response to Craig's text, letting him know he'd be ready to go within the hour. Setting the phone down, he couldn't tamp down the sudden raw felicity that rose up inside of him, but he kept his face passive. "I was too turned on to think clearly. That's your fault, when you really think about it."

"Oh, yeah. I'm just so irresistible." Reaching out, he tweaked Kyle's curl softly. "You were pretty insatiable, though. I liked it."

Saturday morning was unwinding in its typical fashion, both of them rising and eating Stan's morning spread, though this time they were having omelettes and chicken sausage. They'd actually fallen asleep in bed the night before after fucking one last time over the covers, Kyle's face deep in the pillow as he bit his thumb when he came. By the end, they'd both been out of breath and too warm, but they'd still clung to one another as they'd drifted off, the cold winds leaking through the crack in the window and chasing residual heat from the room and Kyle's sweaty skin.  He'd risen with a new sense of purpose, intent on walking the straight and narrow and taking control of his thoughts, but this had proven a futile endeavor as soon as Craig had texted him; his heartbeat welling up like the organ was trying to leap from his chest.

"It's almost like I love you or something," Kyle teased, downplaying the ribbon of disquiet unwinding through his mood. He'd felt powerless and too powerful the night before, the dichotomy pulling him apart; coming alive in Stan's arms but his mind working against him. He just couldn't seem to win, no matter what choice he made. "I'm just glad you didn't turn me down."

Becoming quiet, Stan's fingers stopped drumming, eyes lifting to meet Kyle's; apologetic, sleepy.

"I never realized I made you feel that way, unwanted or whatever, but I'm starting to see where you're coming from. Believe it or not, I actually took what you said and I've been thinking it over."

"Same," Kyle admitted. "I know I talk about wanting all this closeness and then I don't really do anything to actually make it happen. I'm pretty hypocritical."

In more ways than one.

"Anyway, Craig'll be here soon, so I'd better go take a shower." Standing, Kyle dropped a kiss on the top of Stan's head, staying close for a moment. "I wish you could come along."

"I know, but I traded with another guy so I could have last night off," Stan replied, winding an arm around Kyle's waist and pulling him against his side. "I was tired of having so many late nights...I hate not getting to see you."

"Admit it, you were avoiding me for a while there."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean it made me happy."

"If that's the case, why don't you come take a shower with me," Kyle whispered in his ear, feeling coy; spurned on by Stan's adoration and change in attitude. The fact that Craig would be at his doorstep shortly had nothing to do with his buoyancy, at least that's what he told himself. "The dishes can wait, can't they?"

"Totally," Stan replied, rising and already pulling off his shirt.

Thoughts of being fucked in the shower against a white-tiled wall were fresh in Kyle's mind when he saw the Jag pull into the lot shortly thereafter. Giddily, he pulled on his coat and accepted the kiss Stan placed on his lips before he ran outside, his feet barely touching the stairs as he descended, fully prepared to slide into the seat beside Craig when he stopped short; eyes widening at the sight of Tweek leaning out the window, waving to him.

"Jump in," he said, grinning. "It's too cold to be outside for very long."

The ride to the hospital seemed to go on for ages, Kyle sitting ramrod straight in the backseat; thighs pressed together tightly. He worried his hands in his lap as he glanced out the window on occasion, annoyed and grateful that Tweek was fiddling with the radio so at least the silence was kept at bay. Still, he couldn't seem to settle on a song, so Kyle's ears were pelted with snippets of half-finished lyrics and crackly commercials. His body felt like it was on edge the whole time, eyes straying to the rear view mirror on occasion, hungrily devouring Craig's face as he drove; face impassive.

Idiot, he berated himself. You shouldn't be surprised that Tweek came along. He's friends with Bebe, too, and besides, he's fucking married to Craig. Why wouldn't he be here?

Craig had greeted Kyle nicely enough, though he seemed to have lapsed back into his typical curtness, polite but not overwhelmingly so. It was reminiscent of his attitude when Kyle had first started working at the clinic; distant, bordering on a casual indifference peppered with slight disapproval. Kyle had just nodded before clamming up, feeling like a third wheel, like he'd made a huge mistake. It was like being a star that had crashed into the earth; sure, he'd known the euphoria of rising above reality's constraints for a moment, but that didn't mean it had to last.

"So, this is exciting, huh?" Tweek said, turning and resting his chin on the seat, eyes bright like they'd been the morning before. "I can't believe Bebe finally had the baby, and that it's a girl...and Cartman has a daughter..." he giggled suddenly, appearing apologetic. "I know it's Heidi's too, but still." He paused, the weak, white sunlight striking the clip in his hair, this one a little bluebird. "I really shouldn't refer to the baby as an 'it,' huh? Isn't that in poor taste?"

"We know you don't mean anything by it, duck," Craig said, adopting his usual indulgent tone of voice when addressing his husband. "Right, Kyle?" He looked into the rear view mirror, capturing Kyle's focus.

"Right," Kyle said, shifting so his gaze was settled firmly on the shiny bluebird, outstretched wings stark against bright blonde strands. "And you're right, Tweek, this is all very...exciting. Really. Weird, but exciting."

"I can't say I'm thrilled that we're going to the hospital," Tweek continued, rushing on like he wouldn't allow himself to catch a breath. "But the maternity ward is the nicest part of the whole place, don't you think? It's happy and calm...for the most part. I know that sometimes people don't always get to take their babies home, that things happen, but -"

"Calm down," Craig soothed him, resting his hand on Tweek's arm. "You're going to upset yourself. Deep breaths, okay?"

"Oh, yeah. You're right." He turned back to Kyle. "I'm sorry. I just get kind of nervous when I think about Hell's Pass. You're the same way, aren't you? You were sick so much when we were little."

"Honey, I'm sure Kyle doesn't want to talk about all of that," Craig interjected gently. "It might make him uncomfortable, don't you think?"

"No, it's okay," Kyle said, temper plucked at hearing that pet name sliding from between Craig's lips; so casually. "I am the same way, honestly. If I never had to step foot in another hospital, I'd be thrilled."

Tweek looked genuinely relieved to hear that, bringing his hands up so he could settle his face against his fingers; head tilting slightly. He almost resembled a puppy with its head turned, energetic but nervous.

"I'm so glad I'm not alone," he gushed. "I was thinking we could stop by the gift shop to buy something really nice for Bebe, and for Polly too, of course." His fingers flexed, becoming white for a moment. "That's the baby's name, right? Polly?"

Kyle nodded.

"What do you think of flowers?"

"Flowers are perfect, and a giant stuffed giraffe or something," Tweek laughed, clearly charmed at the idea. "Like you always see on TV...whenever someone has a baby there's always a huge giraffe in the hospital room. At least, that's what I've noticed." He became still momentarily, pupils constricting as he ruminated. "I should've drawn her something...I could've painted something for Polly's room. Right, Craig? Like I did for Finn...Peter Rabbit or whatever."

"Maybe next time, duck."

As it came to pass, there weren't any oversized plush giraffes to be found in the Hell's Pass gift shop, so Tweek had to settle on a large teddy bear instead, covered over with light brown fur and with an ornate lilac bow tied around its throat. Craig bought it without question, giving Kyle a tight smile when he insisted on paying for the flowers, an involved bouquet studded with peachy roses and baby's breath, sweet and trimmed in soft satin ribbons; ostentatious and far too expensive, but it wasn't like Bebe had a baby every day, and who knew if the Cartmans would ever be able to have another child.

"It's a special occasion," he explained, holding the flowers close to his chest as they walked to the maternity ward.

"I'm not saying anything," Craig replied, starting to sound more like himself as time passed; the way he was when they were alone together. That Craig seemed much more real than the one that had sat next to Tweek as he'd rambled, fretting over hospitals and paintings and giant giraffes. "I'm sure she'll love them, either way."

Kyle had expected Bebe to look pale and drawn when they finally made it to her bedside, but she surprised him. Instead, she was sitting up in bed, clearly in good spirits as Kenny hovered nearby, tidying the room and clearly wanting to be available if she needed him. She took the roses into her arms and cooed over them, settling them on her lap as Heidi sat in a rocking chair in the corner, gazing at the baby sleeping soundly in her arms. Cartman took the bear from Tweek and grunted before plunking it down in a pile of other toys, a riot of lions and rabbits and pastel-yellow chicks. Craig lingered next to Bebe, slipping into doctor mode with astounding ease, making sure that her recovery was progressing as it should.

"I'm fine, I promise," she said, winding a long, stray curl around the bun on top of her head. "I feel like I've been hit by a train and I can barely lift my arms, but that's pretty much to be expected."

"You had an epidural, right?"

"Yep. I asked for one before the contractions really ramped up...then I was sitting pretty."

"Dude, you should've seen the monitor when one of those suckers hit," Kenny commented, bumping Kyle. "I couldn't believe it, but she couldn't feel a thing."

"I know it probably made it harder to push, but I don't regret my decision," Bebe added, nodding sagely. "I completely respect women who go the all-natural route, but give me the epidural any day of the week."

"You were amazing," Heidi breathed as she rocked the baby gently, leaning her head back and gazing at Bebe with open admiration. "I know it's an everyday occurrence, childbirth, but I couldn't believe it. You were so strong."

"It was worth it," Bebe smiled, leaning her face into the flowers. "All of it, I promise. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. For you, of course."

"Are you sure you don't want another one?" Kenny asked, tapping her shoulder before sinking onto the bed and resting his head against her hair.

"This shop is closed, Kenny," she said firmly, but smiling as she pressed a kiss against his temple.

"Would you like to hold her?" Heidi suddenly asked Kyle, catching him by surprise. For whatever reason, he glanced at Craig like he would instruct him how to respond; he just raised his eyebrows, waiting.

"I guess," he said, more because he didn't want to appear rude than actually wanting to be trusted with such a tiny, helpless creature. He came forward slowly, feeling awkward and completely out of his element.

"You better be careful, Jew," Cartman said, looming in Kyle's peripheral, vaguely threatening. "I mean it."

"Eric, hush," Heidi said softly. "He'll be just fine. Here, Kyle."

He held his breath nearly the whole time he cradled the baby, red-faced and mewling among the folds of the blanket she was wrapped in. Glancing at Craig, Kyle nodded to the blanket.

"It's the one that Tricia made, isn't it?"

Craig's eyes widened as he took a hold of the field of yellow yarn, expression softening.

"You're right, I wasn't even thinking about that...at least it's already being put to good use." He gifted Kyle with a genuine smile before Heidi spoke again, this time to Tweek.

"Tweek, hon, would you like to hold her? Don't be shy."

Tweek began worrying at the hem of his light green coat, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he stared at the baby, meeting Kyle's eyes for a moment; expression silently pleading for him to understand. Almost like a skittish animal, he retreated to Craig's side, like he was hiding himself from perceived ridicule.

"Oh, no, I couldn't do that. I'd drop her, I know I would. I accidentally dropped one of my snow globes the other day." He mimicked a tiny explosion, fingers opening and spreading outward. "It wasn't pretty...water and glitter everywhere."

"Okay, now there's no way you're holding my daughter," Cartman snapped while crossing his meaty arms. Heidi gave Tweek a kind smile before she turned to Craig.

"Craig? Why don't you hold her?"

"Sure," he replied, leaning forward and skillfully taking Polly from Kyle's arms, the contact making his breath catch in his throat; Craig's spicy cologne finding its way to him and going immediately to his head. He almost felt like he was having an out of body experience as he watched Craig softly rock the baby, his entire demeanor relaxing instantaneously.

"Duck, come here and get a closer look," he murmured, sitting on the edge of Bebe's bed and moving the blanket away from Polly's face. "It's okay, I promise."

Still giving off the vibe of an untamed animal, Tweek crept closer to his husband and looked into the bundle, his hand trembling when he touched one of her minuscule fingers.

"I can't believe how small she is," he said softly, sharing a look with Craig that nearly pulverized Kyle's heart. There was so much unspoken communication in that one glance, and it only served to remind him that they'd been together for years, loving each other despite their problems.

Leaning against the wall, Kyle stared at the floor for the remainder of their visit, only looking up when Butters and Mercedes knocked at the door. Butters had two Yankee Candles in his hands, one Autumn Leaves, the other pine-scented.

"I just couldn't decide on one," he said, nearly dissolving when he saw Polly for the first time.

After saying their farewells, they were back in the stark corridor, Tweek even more animated than before as he talked about how cute Polly was, how adorable Craig had looked while holding her.

"He's always liked kids," he commented to Kyle while holding onto Craig's arm. "But you already knew that, I guess. You've seen him with Finn."

"That's true," Kyle replied, still deflated. He walked along, slightly behind the pair, hands jammed in his pockets. He kind of just wanted to go home and drink a whole bottle of wine, then pass out in front of the TV.

"We could stop somewhere before we take you home, Kyle," Craig spoke up, surprising him enough to make him lift his head. Craig didn't look back as he spoke, appearing even taller when compared to tiny, light-footed Tweek. "Maybe to get hot chocolate or coffee or whatever. What do you think?"

"Oh, that'd be fun!" Tweek said, stopping and turning so he could take a hold of Kyle's arm as well, pulling him close. "You'll come with us, won't you?"

Kyle could only nod, feeling pleased at being invited but also immensely disturbed at nursing his bizarre feelings for Craig while Tweek walked in between them. He knew it made no sense, but he almost felt like he and Craig were the parents taking their child on an outing. Shaking his head, he tried to rid himself of this disconcerting notion, vaguely repulsed by it, but intrigued either way.

They'd almost made it out of the hospital when an older man stopped Craig, dressed in scrubs and a lab coat, a clipboard in his hands. He had salt and pepper hair and friendly brown eyes, his expression warm when he settled a hand on Craig's shoulder.

"Dr. Tucker," he said, taking his hand away so they could shake. "It's nice to see you again. Visiting someone?"

"Yup, the maternity ward," Craig said, smiling though it was reserved. Tweek still clung to his arm, his hold tightening on Kyle, almost making him wince. "Our friend had a girl yesterday so we were just dropping by to check in."

"Isn't that nice?" He replied, grinning and revealing even, white teeth. "That's the best reason to come to the hospital...I wish it were the only one."

"Agreed." Almost like he was suddenly realizing he wasn't alone, Craig gestured to Tweek and Kyle. "Forgive me, you remember my husband, right? Tweek? And this is our friend, Kyle." He glanced down at Tweek. "This is Ronald, Tweek. You met him a while back -"

"Dr. Tutrone," Tweek cut in, his demeanor impassive as he stared at the man. "Yep, I remember you. How have you been?"

"Oh, okay, all things considered." He glanced at Craig, eyebrows raised. "I'd be better if this one would finally decide to get out of urgent care and back into procedures where he belongs."

Craig ran a hand through his hair, becoming noticeably uncomfortable.

"I told you, the hours are too erratic and -"

"I know, I know, but we could really use you around here. I wish you'd think about it."

Already beginning to turn toward the exit, Craig seemed to detach.

"I do, all the time; rest assured. If I ever change my mind, you'll be the first person I call." Pulling on Tweek, he spoke softly then. "Let's go."

It wasn't until they were back in the car that Kyle noticed the tension that had settled over the pair in the front seat, Tweek once again messing with the radio while Craig carefully maneuvered the car out of the lot. The air of contentment between the two had dissipated swiftly, leaving behind a heaviness that made Kyle squirm in his seat.  His eyes darted between the backs of their heads, Tweek's fluffy fragility and Craig's dark elegance, as the silence stretched on, broken by snatches of music and more staticky ads.

"Where did you want to stop?" Craig finally asked quietly, keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

"It doesn't matter," Tweek snapped, continuing to jab at the radio like he wanted to hurt it. "Just go wherever you want, okay? I don't care."

Kyle's heart thudded to hear that same savage edge filter into Tweek's voice, the same one he'd heard the night of the dinner. He wrapped his arms around himself, squeezing tightly. In that moment, he wished he were anywhere else. Tweek kept flipping through the channels until they became one long hum, the songs indistinguishable from one another. At one point, he turned up the volume until it seemed to pierce Kyle's ears, making him yelp and press his hands against the sides of his head.

"You need to stop," Craig said, reaching out and gently pushing Tweek's hand away from the radio. "Tell me why you're upset, duck. Just talk to me."

"Don't fucking call me that!" Tweek yelled, turning in his seat and pressing his back against the door. "Not when you blame me for not being able to do what you really want to do!"

Now the silence was profound without the discord of the radio to offset it, and Kyle clutched at the door until his knuckles were white. He glanced out the window because he couldn't bear to look at his companions, dark clutches of trees frosted white fading away as the car continued rolling. The sky was grey, the clouds an unbroken sea of dingy puffs. They were calling for more snow that night, the town already deluged with several feet; what were a few more at this point?

"You know that isn't true," Craig replied, not sounding angry but not exactly serene. If anything, his tone would suggest that he was reading from a script that had been recited numerous times, and he was tired of it; playing his part. "How many times do I have to tell you -"

"'I do, all the time; rest assured,"' Tweek mimicked cruelly, his shrill voice failing abysmally at trying to adopt Craig's nasally monotone. "That's what you said, Craig! I heard you, Kyle heard you -"

At the mention of his name, Kyle looked up, coming face to face with Tweek's rage. He'd never seen him like that before, cheeks candy apple red and eyes wild; nearly unrecognizable.

"You heard him say that, didn't you?"

"I, uh, I mean, I don't -"

"Don't get him involved in all of this, Tweek," Craig said, some of his composure finally beginning to dwindle. "That isn't fair and you know it."

"No, what isn't fair is that you're sitting there lying to me! That makes all of this worse! Just tell me the fucking truth, or are you afraid that'll make me feel better; so I won't carry the guilt around all the time." He paused, his jaw tensing. "I bet that's exactly what you want...you can't get what you want but you can punish me for it, can't you? By making me wonder...making me worry because you won't just tell me how you really feel. You fucking prick, that is so sick."

Craig didn't respond as he kept driving, not even turning his head to look at Tweek, who was beginning to shake as slow tears started rolling down his face.

"Oh, so now you aren't even going to talk to me, huh? Well, that's just great. You get to be quiet and in control, and I get to feel like shit. You're just the big winner here, aren't you?"

"I don't feel like I can really talk to you when you're like this," Craig said softly. "You know that. Everything I say is wrong, so why bother?"

"That's bullshit and you know it. You just won't say what needs to be said."

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you things that aren't true just to appease your delusions." Sucking in a breath, he covered his mouth. Kyle could feel the atmosphere shift, like it was being cranked even closer toward anarchy. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded, duck. That's not the word I meant to use, okay? I just meant -"

"You just meant that I'm crazy and you know I'm crazy so that means you get to treat me like I'm crazy!" Tweek yelled, crying harder now. He snapped his focus to Kyle again, his bluebird clip knocked askew. "Hey, Kyle, did you know I'm crazy? How does that make you feel? Huh?"

Terrified, Kyle just stared at him, huddled against the backseat while frantically trying to catch Craig's eye in the rear view mirror. He wanted to be supportive somehow, and talk Tweek down from whatever ledge he was balanced on, but he had no idea what to say. A watery sound emanated from his mouth as he desperately groped for a response, but came up with nothing. He just shook his head, secretly wishing that Craig would just stop the car so he could walk the rest of the way home, but not wanting to leave him alone either.

"Baby, just stop, please," Craig pleaded, barely audible as Tweek started to sob, hands jammed against his mouth. "You're going to make yourself sick. Everything's okay, I promise. I like what I'm doing...if I wanted to do something else, I would. You have nothing to do with me not practicing at the hospital. Okay? Will you just listen to me for a second?"

"I know you don't mean it," Tweek choked brokenly, sinking in on himself like he was dissolving. "I know you secretly hate me because I make your life so hard...you don't have to say it, but I know it. I know it." Leaning over, he laid his wet face against Craig's arm, breaths and words pulled from him in painful-sounding gasps. He started repeating his words like a skipping record:

"I know it I know it I know it I know it --"

On and on, until Craig glanced over his shoulder at Kyle, appearing extremely tired and deeply apologetic. His face was like a shattered mirror, a million emotions present but broken into shards.

"I think I'll just take you home, okay?"

Kyle nodded slowly, trying to understand what he was seeing but still unable to accept the reality of it. He'd had a feeling that Tweek was having a difficult time, but he never could've seen this coming, not by a long shot.

"I don't think he slept last night," Craig added, the excuse becoming lost between Tweek's chanting and sniffles. "Did you, Tweek?"

Tweek shook his head, his sobs beginning to break apart. Turning a little, his eyes seemed to have cleared slightly, coming back to themselves, though they still seemed far too bright; magnified by unshed, resting tears.

"I'm sorry," he said, voice raspy. "I don't feel very well. I didn't mean to ruin everything."

"Please don't apologize," Kyle said, trying to make his voice as soothing and careful as possible; afraid to make even the tiniest mistake so Tweek would feel undeserved shame. "Things aren't ruined...anyone's allowed to become upset. It's just human nature."

"Human nature can fuck itself," Tweek grinned, wiping away the sheen of tears stretched across his skin. "At least, my nature can...it's never done me any favors, obviously."

"You're having a hard day," Craig said, pulling onto Kyle's street. "Anyone's entitled to a bad day every now and again."

"Not when the bad days never seem to end," Tweek muttered, though he kept smiling. "But that's my cross to bear, isn't it? It always has been."

Bringing the car to a stop in front of Kyle's building, Craig allowed the vehicle to idle.

"It isn't like you're alone, Tweek."

"I should be," he replied, fixing the bluebird clip and setting it to rights; jaunty wings proud once more. He looked at Kyle, all mirth and smiles. "It was nice seeing you, Kyle. When are you going to come and visit again?"

"Whenever I'm invited, I suppose," Kyle said, glancing at Craig as he began to slide out of the car. "I don't want to impose."

"Will you listen to him?" Tweek laughed, turning around to watch Kyle as he lingered next to the still-open door. "Worried about inconveniencing us."

"He worries about that all the time, I think," Craig replied, turning to regard Kyle as well. His face was composed again, almost like his emotions had never rested on the surface; unbroken, glassy lake water. "Even though I tell him not to."

Kyle was beginning to become unnerved at being discussed like he wasn't present, so he carefully closed the door, skin radiating with a certain unease; electrified and too sensitive. Tweek slid the window down, perching his chin on the ledge and beginning to appear sleepy; eyes heavy-lidded. He yawned.

"Maybe next weekend?" He asked, tilting his head in that puppyish way again.

Kyle flicked his eyes to Craig, waiting. He nodded, smoothing his hair back though it wasn't mussed. If anything, it was too perfect.

"I'll wait until you're inside," he said, almost like this statement solidified their future plans. It was then that Kyle noticed the dark circles under his eyes, stark like shadows on newly-fallen snow.

-----

The rest of Saturday and most of Sunday played out like a song that Kyle had heard far too many times: languishing on the couch and drinking wine while Stan was at work, flipping through Ethan Frome on occasion and then throwing it down because it hurt too much to revisit, watching TV shows and movies that bored him nearly to tears. The only things that broke up the monotony were his attempts to write (which were woefully unsuccessful) and a text from Craig late Saturday evening, the message only containing two words:

I'm sorry.

Kyle hated to admit just how much his heart fluttered when he saw the notification flash on his phone, Craig's name showing up and catching him completely by surprise. He'd cradled the device in his hands for a few moments like it was a precious creature before he'd slid his finger across the screen, and then he felt completely ridiculous. He wasn't even sure how to interpret the text, once again irritated by Craig's penchant for brevity though he had a grudging respect for his refusal to waste words. Was he sorry about dropping him off so abruptly, or was he apologizing for Tweek's behavior, or...

Or, or, or, he thought, the stupid, little word becoming a refrain. There's too many "ors'"in this situation.

On some level, he hoped Craig wasn't apologizing for Tweek's outburst because it wasn't necessary. Tweek was clearly going through something, had probably been dealing with issues for years that they'd both kept a secret for whatever reason, and Kyle wasn't going to judge him for that. How could he? That'd be cruel, and he wanted to believe he wasn't a cruel person. Did he have cruel traits sometimes? Sure, but....

I'm trying to fuck with Tweek's territory, that makes me cruel. That makes me a terrible person, doesn't it?

It was late afternoon on Sunday and he was taking a hot bath, a fogged glass of wine sitting on the side of the tub as he lounged against the heated porcelain. Stan had already texted him to say that he'd be home shortly and that he'd pick up dinner, so Kyle was trying to meditate and come to terms with the landslide of thoughts pouring through his head. He'd hoped that a relaxing soak would aid in lending him some clarity, but so far it had only made him drowsy and irritable. He'd never responded to Craig's text, which made him anxious, but he couldn't figure out what to say. He was afraid of saying too little or too much, so he opted for silence, but now he was worried that he'd hurt Craig's feelings, or made him mad, or -

There are those "ors" again, he thought, sitting up and rinsing some bubbles off of his legs. I wish he'd never texted me in the first place. I should never have given him my number.

By the time Stan arrived home with bags of sushi, Kyle was dressed in his boyfriend's old Ravens jersey and slippers, already ready to eat and just go to bed. He was tired of thinking and being alone with his thoughts, but it was weird being close to Stan, too. What if he could look at him and guess that there was something off? What if he was able to tell that Kyle's musings weren't exactly innocent?

"You're being really quiet tonight," Stan commented at one point. He dipped a salmon roll into the soy sauce, shaking it gently to rid it of residual drops before popping it into his mouth. "You okay?"

"More or less," Kyle replied, poking at his Philly roll but not overly interested in it. He sipped some wine instead before leaning his cheek in his hand. "I guess I'm just gearing up for the week ahead."

"It'll be better, won't it? Now that Pete's been taken care of?"

Kyle shrugged, not even wanting to go down that road. He knew he was reasonably protected from Pete's advances, but he still didn't want to think about him; not with everything else on his mind. He had to figure that Pete would continue to be as antagonistic as the situation (and Craig) would allow, but he'd just have to suck it up. Distracted, he toyed with his glass, pressing his fingertips against the crystal and leaving smudges.

"You didn't really go into detail about your trip to the hospital, now that I think about it," Stan said, reaching for a napkin. "How's Bebe doing?"

"She's fine, the baby's fine, Heidi's ecstatic, Cartman's an asshole." Sitting back, Kyle could hear his phone going off on the coffee table. Standing, he went to retrieve it before coming back and plunking down in his chair. "Tweek didn't want to hold her because he's...he's just Tweek, but Craig was totally comfortable."

"That makes sense, being a doctor and all...I'm sure he had to, what, work in labor or delivery or do rounds there?" Stan snorted before wiping his mouth. "Not that I even know what the hell I'm talking about."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's the case, and he has a nephew so he has experience with kids." Kyle turned his phone on, nearly upending his wine glass when he saw that it was another text from Craig:

Did you want me to pick you up tomorrow? It's supposed to be colder than usual (if you can believe that). Let me know.

Suddenly, he couldn't help but smile stupidly, trying to be slick when he covered his mouth with his hand. Laying his phone on the table, he could feel Stan watching him as he responded:

Okay.

He wanted to say more, but he couldn't think of the words. No, better to be succinct to avoid making an ass of himself.

"Anything interesting?" Stan asked, attempting nonchalance but failing terribly.

Pushing the phone aside, Kyle suddenly had an attack of appetite and heightened spirits. Continuing to grin, he uncovered his mouth and plucked up a roll. He saw no reason to lie about the exchange, especially since his phone had been a point of contention for them since their last blowup, so he didn't want to give Stan any reason to become suspicious. Besides, the text was innocent, wasn't it?

"Oh, that was Craig," he said casually. "He just wanted to know if I needed a ride tomorrow because it's going to be super cold."

"That's...unexpected." Clearing his throat, Stan picked up his beer. "And strange. I mean, if you need a ride to work I can take you."

"It's on his way, Stan. There's no reason for you to drag yourself out of bed into the cold so you can take me up the street. Right?"

"I guess that's true, but still." He shook his head and finally took a drink, large beads of moisture sliding down the bottle's brown sides.

Beginning to feel annoyed, probably irrationally, Kyle poured some more wine into his glass.

"Still, what?"

Silence descended, calling to attention the dripping faucet, the ticking of the clock over the stove, and the winds rattling the bird feeder outside. Kyle watched Stan out of the corner of his eye, tensing up but not wanting to make it obvious.

"Nothing," Stan finally said, setting his beer down with a solid, tiny thunk. "I'm just being weird, sorry. After all of that Pete stuff, I guess I'm on edge."

Softening, Kyle reached out and brushed some hair from Stan's forehead, focusing on the blue highlights lost in the messy, adorable tangle. It made him think of someone else's dark hair, mussed or otherwise. He gulped.

"Here, I'll do the dishes tonight, okay? And when I'm done, I'll rub your feet. What do you think?" He smiled hopefully.

Stan just stared at him incredulously.

"You never want to rub my feet," he said, eyes wide. "You said it makes your hands tired."

"Never mind what I said," Kyle replied, giving him a cheeky look. "You deserve a little TLC after working all weekend."

------

Monday morning dawned stark and cold, but Kyle didn't really feel the chill as as he pulled on his scrubs, having awoken before his alarm even went off. His stomach was jumpy, his skin buzzing, like his blood was filled with adrenaline. He studied himself critically as he brushed his teeth, wanting to change his unruly curls and dusting of freckles; his winter-dimmed skin, too pale unless he blushed like a fool. Sticking his tongue out at his reflection, he had a strange moment where he tried to imagine how he'd look from an outsider's perspective, the idea leaving him less than thrilled.

I'll always be a scrawny, little nerd with stupid hair and a nose that's too wide.

Frowning, he had to wonder how he'd ever snagged someone as handsome as Stan. His boyfriend was attractive from a conventional standpoint: strong jawline, high cheekbones, full lips. Very similar to -

He shook his head, his thoughts leading him down a very dangerous path, filled with shadows and pitfalls. Idly, his mind conjured up a sudden image of Tweek, which only filled him with annoyance and a strange desperation; soft, shiny hair, a button nose, heart-shaped face, and big, blue, Disney-esque eyes. Tweek was cute in the same way as a helpless, wild creature, which coincided with Craig's pet name for him.

"Duckling," Kyle whispered, still gazing into the mirror, feeling crazy. "It makes sense."

Adorable, woebegone, fragile...all of these adjectives fit with Craig's significant other, regardless of whether or not he was hiding some less than optimal qualities. If anything, Tweek's drawbacks probably just made him more attractive to Craig; interesting, unique. And there was his staggering artistic talent, too, unhampered by a lack of creativity or inspiration. Objectively, Tweek was far more appealing, wasn't he? He was almost like a tragic, misunderstood genius, akin to Plath or Pollock.

"You've been staring at yourself for like five minutes, dude," Stan's sleepy voice startled him out of his rumination, making Kyle clutch at the counter in shock.

"Jesus Christ, don't ever do that again. You scared the crap out of me," Kyle snapped, taking deep breaths. "I was just psyching myself up because it's Monday. I fucking hate Mondays."

"Whatever you say, Garfield," Stan replied, appearing tiredly amused. "Want me to check the feeders before I head to work?"

"Nah, I'll do it. I have time." Skirting past him, Kyle kept his eyes on the shafts of sunlight falling on the carpet as he walked through the living room and onto the balcony, chest tightening at the sudden invasion of cold. The town was blanketed with snow, as per usual, the orange-yellow rays of light dripping juicily over the sparkling white. A stray scattering of empty seed shells were the only clues left behind by the greedy winter birds, the feeder only a third of the way full. A pang of guilt struck him, reminding him that he'd been lax about attending to his duties; thank goodness Stan was there to pick up his slack on occasion.

Shivering, he filled the feeder to the brim, wanting to make up for the days he'd missed, that same guilt gnawing at him, but it seemed to transcend the mere act of feeding wildlife. Ignoring the ache, he stood and breathed in the bitter winds, enjoying them for being so fresh, even if they were unforgiving. Stan came to join him after a time, standing in the doorway and squinting against the light, almost resembling a Byzantine figure framed in gold. Kyle just gazed for a moment, wanting to hug him but craving distance all at once.

"There's your chariot," Stan announced, pointing toward the parking lot. "At least he didn't show up as early as Pete, huh?"

The black Jag was flawless as it idled, sleek curves rumbling with the purr of the engine. Kyle could see faint puffs of smoke emanating from the driver's side window, but he couldn't make out Craig from his vantage point. Laying aside the bag of seed, he swallowed and retreated back into the warmth of the apartment, where he donned his hat and coat, hands trembling as he lifted his bag to his shoulder. He looked at the laptop and almost had the desire to take it with him.

"Maybe next time," he said, gesturing to it, drawing Stan's focus. He just grinned before leaning down to kiss Kyle's cheek softly.

"See you tonight," he murmured, drawing back.

Biting his lip, Kyle surprised them both by getting on his tiptoes and pecking Stan's nose, the act chaste but oddly intimate. After a moment, he was out the door, down the stairs, and climbing into Craig's car, his senses filled with sweet vanilla and spicy cologne as they traversed the icy, nearly-empty streets.

----

The day passed in what felt like a cloud of surrealism, Kyle alternating between floating on air at a moment's notice and then crashing to earth; heavy and yelling at himself for bouncing all over the map. He just couldn't seem to settle, perking up when Craig came into view and deflating when he left, but then he'd read into a gesture or a word and he'd want to hide in the bathroom or go outside and chain smoke in his usual place. His pack of cigarettes was dwindling by the time early evening rolled around, a faint thread of nausea coursing through him from lack of appetite and the smoke going to his head. Pete had mostly kept his distance for the better part of the day, so he wasn't overly concerned about him, though he still made it a point to throw Kyle dirty looks whenever he could.

"Just tell me if he bothers you," Craig had said when they'd parted company that morning, right after Kyle had brought him his coffee; settling it softly on Craig's desk. "I'll take care of it."

He'd just nodded, barely able to look at Craig when he'd spoken. The ride to work had been quiet, the hypnotic voices of NPR playing in the background as Craig had smoked, languidly flicking the ash from the cigarette, wedding ring flashing like a beacon on his finger. Kyle had glanced at it quickly before he'd turned away, had declined the pack when it had been offered. He'd expected Craig to mention what had happened on the way home from the hospital, or even the brief text he'd sent after the fact, but he hadn't mentioned either matter, and Kyle was too shy to bring them up himself.

By evening time, Kyle was exhausted but in a decidedly different way than he'd been when he'd been dealing with Pete's harassment. He felt inexplicably sad but excited, hyper-aware of every little thing around him, but also getting the sensation of sinking into daydreams.

In short, he was a mess, and he felt like a mess, and he was sure that everyone else could tell he was falling apart, but if they did, no one said a word. As he and Butters closed up for the night, Kyle couldn't help but bash himself inside his head, for thinking that anyone would notice or even care about his pathetic, meaningless breakdown. He couldn't understand why he felt heartsick and strung-out, but he was tired of going in circles with himself, just ready to be away from people and back in the confines of his apartment; wine in hand and drifting into autopilot.

You told yourself that what you felt wasn't the truth, so why are you acting this way? He kept asking himself, the thought turning into a relentless, chattering voice in his head; loud, unbearable. You don't like Craig, remember? You were just grateful that he helped you, that he picked up the pieces for you...because you're incapable of saving yourself. Stop acting like an asshole!

These thoughts would lead into memories of Stan, framed in the doorway of the balcony and gilded with sunlight, his brain conjuring up what had to be romanticized versions of the truth, but they would just make Kyle feel worse until his conscience was chewing at him like rows and rows of endlessly grinding teeth. He had almost decided to just run home when Craig strolled into the reception area, reading over a chart and appearing very relaxed, right before everyone was set to leave for the night.

"Gonna stick around?" He asked, setting the document aside and forcing Kyle to look him right in the eyes. "I should be finishing up earlier than usual tonight."

"If Kyle needs a ride I can take him," Butters piped up, throwing Kyle for a loop even though he continued to watch Craig, heart beating a frantic, delicious staccato in his chest.

Flushing, Kyle could feel the rest of his coworkers staring at him as the moment became heavier, little snippets of fire working their way through his veins until they reached his toes and fingers, mouth uncomfortably dry. Craig cocked an eyebrow, expression inscrutable. It wasn't until he heard Pete snort derisively that some of Kyle's courage ignited itself, and he managed to speak with a modicum of conviction.

"That's okay, Butters. I'll just wait until Craig's done. Thanks, anyway."

The atmosphere felt strange after everyone had left, the lights doused in the waiting room and the computers in sleep mode, humming quietly and showcasing just how still the air was after the clinic closed for the night. Craig's corner seemed to be the only area in the building that held any warmth after the crush of bodies was gone, but Kyle still slid his chair as close as he dared to him as they went over labs, music playing like subtle lullabies behind it all. He nearly sighed when some of the stiffness dissolved between them, and he once again found himself dangling over the precipice, but he was slowly beginning not to fight it. As much, anyway.

"Negative," he said before handing the paper to Craig, secretly delighted that he didn't check as well; merely laying the lab on his desk, face-down. He realized this probably didn't mean anything, but it made him curl with pleasure either way. Taking up the next page, he was surprised when Craig spoke, having accepted that he just wasn't very talkative that day. He couldn't blame him, honestly; he'd probably attended to Tweek for the remainder of the weekend.

And Tricia. And Finn. God, does he ever get a break? It doesn't help that I added my drama to the pile.

"So, should I bring up the elephant in the room, or do you want to do the honors?" Craig asked, crossing his legs as he studied yet another BMP. His foot began to bob, just like Kyle knew it would, starting to anticipate his movements, the tiny gestures that seemed to be no more than second nature.

Kyle froze at these words, terrified that Craig had somehow managed to read into his reactions and could see all the way to the heart of them, the agonizing, humiliating truth. He could see the lay of the land even if Kyle couldn't accept it, cutting through the bullshit and calling a spade a spade, forcing him to answer for his nonsensical, completely unrequited flights of fancy. Craig had always been a guy who shot from the hip and didn't mince words, unafraid to put others on the spot if the situation called for it, and he was surely about to do that to Kyle, demanding how he could've misread the situation in such an overwhelmingly idiotic way?

"I-I don't think I know what you mean," Kyle replied, attempting to save face before the onslaught began, shifting his chair away to create a healthy, acceptable amount of space between them.

"I find that hard to believe," Craig said wryly, typing something into a patient's account. "Especially after what you saw on Saturday...you have to have questions, right? It'd be weird if you didn't."

"Questions," he repeated, the word not really tripping off the tongue in a satisfactory way. It lingered, dragging down his ability to articulate himself. It didn't help that he wasn't sure what was being expected of him at the moment. Groping, he latched onto the thing that could pull the focus from him, and that was obviously Tweek and his outburst, right? But how could he broach that subject? Craig was extremely protective of his husband and clearly wanted to respect his privacy and dignity, so what was safe to say, and what was off the table?

"Right, questions," Craig said, giving him a weird look. "Do you have any, or....?

"Are we talking about Tweek right now?" To hell with tact, they were never going to get anywhere in this conversation if someone didn't take the plunge.

"Yes, Kyle," he sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose, "we're talking about Tweek. About how he acted on the way home from the hospital. I just wanted to make sure I put the situation in perspective for you because what you saw isn't really Tweek. I mean, it's a part of Tweek when he becomes manic, but that's not who he actually is. Does that make any sense?"

"Kind of," Kyle shrugged helplessly, wanting to understand but still confused. "So, you're saying Tweek has more than one personality?"

"Not exactly. It isn't like he has dissociative identity disorder or something...his moods just fluctuate erratically sometimes, from depression to aggression to euphoria...sometimes he hates the things he usually loves or vice versa, or other times he falls into his valleys and he can barely function. You witnessed a manic phase that had a split thrown in, and that's why Tweek was acting the way he was."

"Splitting," Kyle said softly, remembering Tweek's explanation about seeing things in extreme shades of black and white, like grey had never existed; could never exist in that mindset. "I asked him what that was when I was visiting your home because..." he trailed off, still not wanting to reveal the fact that he'd heard Tweek tell Craig he hated him. He didn't want to wound Craig by bringing it up.

"Because?" Craig asked, turning away from the computer, legs still crossed. Resting his face in his hand, he gazed at Kyle impassively, waiting.

"I heard you two arguing, the night of the dinner," Kyle admitted, looking away and feeling vaguely shamed at having eavesdropped. "He told you he hated you, and you said he was splitting...so I asked Tweek what it meant."

"Tweek has always been very forthright about his issues," Craig mused, almost like he was saying this for his own benefit. "He isn't ashamed, and he shouldn't be...the only time he can't come to terms with them is when he ends up hurting someone he cares about. Even more so than when he hurts himself."

"You?" Kyle asked before he could stop himself, fighting the urge to rest his head in Craig's lap, wanting to show him he wasn't alone. "Does he hurt you a lot?"

"No, not really. I've learned to discern what's real and what's being prompted by chemical imbalances, a lack of sleep, or just plain old fear. Tweek's always been so afraid, you know? Ever since we were children. I just want to protect him."

"I know," Kyle said, looking down at his hands clasped in his lap. "From the world and from himself."

Because you love him. You're in love with him.

"He shouldn't have gone to the hospital with us, but he insisted," Craig continued, voice gentling. "He wanted to see everyone, Bebe, the baby, but it was more than that. It was almost like he was trying to conquer a demon, and no matter what I said, he wouldn't see reason."

"A demon?"

"Kyle, Tweek has been admitted to the Hell's Pass psych ward more times than I can remember, and every time he tells me it's going to be the last time. Hell, I tell him the same thing, but after he's discharged and sent home, even the best laid plans start to fall apart, and he doesn't want to go to therapy or take his medication. He acts out the definition of insanity to a T, doing the exact same things over and over and expecting different results." He rubbed his mouth, eyes becoming vacant as he described their ongoing, frustrating struggle, both of them wanting the same thing it would seem, but being torn apart trying to attain it; mental stability, health, the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm so sorry," Kyle said softly, detecting the burgeoning, reluctant desperation in Craig's voice, and he got the impression that this was the first time he'd really spoken about this subject at length - at least with someone not directly related to him and Tweek. No, he'd probably kept all of this information close to his heart, where it could fester and hurt him, because he clearly hated to see Tweek in pain, but he wasn't sure how to save him.

Could he even be saved?

Suddenly, Craig rolled his chair closer to Kyle's, eyes snapping back to themselves with amazing swiftness, pewter-warm and catching those green flecks in the waning light. Tilting his head upward, Kyle couldn't help but gaze at those struggling patches of green grass, and he had to stop himself from lifting a hand and resting it against Craig's cheek.

"Don't say you're sorry," Craig said, towering above Kyle who almost felt like he was draped at his feet, though they were sitting right in front of one another; legs almost touching. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, okay? This is my fuck up...Tweek having an episode in front of you, not looking after him well enough, not keeping you safe from Pete. God, how can you apologize, Kyle? Are you listening to yourself?"

"I am," Kyle murmured, shaking slightly as he draped a careful hand on Craig's knee, eyes closing at the feeling of warmth seeping upward through his thin scrubs. For a moment, he lingered before his eyes slowly slid open, and he was looking into Craig's face again. "You have green flecks in your irises."

"Why would you even notice something like that?" Craig asked, his own hand coming to rest on top of Kyle's, squeezing softly. Shuddering, he pulled him closer until they were touching; Craig's legs spreading slightly as Kyle's knee nestled between. "Huh? There's absolutely no reason for you to care about the color of my eyes."

"No man is an island, Craig. Remember?" Sighing, Kyle laid his cheek against Craig's chest, searching for his heartbeat and finding it, elated to feel it buzzing; animal-frenzied and racing. Was it because of him? He waited for Craig to push him away but he didn't, the moments stretching long as his face pressed into vanilla and cologne-scented scrubs, taking him back to the night in Craig's den, of reading to him long after midnight had come and gone.

"What are we doing right now?" Craig's voice was still husky, but it had taken on a sensual quality that Kyle assumed was accidental. "Do you even know, Kyle?"

Kyle shook his head, hiding his face in Craig's chest, suddenly wanting to cry because he knew he wasn't wanted here, and what was worse, if Stan could see him right now....

He'd be heartbroken. Kyle knew this for a fact. Pulling away, he gazed up into Craig's face, pleading with his eyes not to chastise him too harshly for being so forward, for overstepping his boundaries...like he was no better than someone like Pete. He felt boneless and utterly spent in that moment, wanting to crawl into a warm lap and be rocked to sleep, but he could never tell Craig that. He couldn't possibly understand, could he?

"Your face always gives everything away," Craig murmured, gently resting his hands on Kyle's cheeks and cupping them. "It's been giving you away for a while, and you didn't even realize it, did you?"

"Given me away?"

"Mhmm," Craig sighed, leaning his forehead against Kyle's and breathing deeply, their lips scant inches apart. Suddenly, he was reaching into the pocket of his scrubs and withdrawing a tiny piece of paper, showing it to Kyle with a slow smile.

"My note," Kyle said, flushing at the sight of it, that ridiculous bright yellow post-it, so small and meaningless; a scribbled 'thanks' on the front. "I can't believe you kept that...it's pathetic."

"I'd have to disagree," Craig replied as he carefully placed it back in his pocket, almost like it was something precious. "I can't tell you how happy I was when I found it. It was more than enough."

"How can you say that?"

"Because it came from you," Craig smiled before pressing his lips against Kyle's forehead, warm and soft and almost making him melt; his whole body an inferno that was surely going to make the building around them go up in flames. Stammering, he tried to turn away but Craig held him fast, merely resting his head against Kyle's curls and breathing deeply, like he'd run a race.

"This is happening too fast, isn't it?" Reaching up, Kyle took a hold of Craig's shirt, clenching the material between his fingers. "I didn't even think you liked me...unless of course I totally misinterpreted -"

"Hush. You never have any faith in yourself, but at least have some faith in me, okay?" Sighing, he held Kyle close for a moment longer before he finally let go, the cool air rushing in between them like glacial waters being thrown in Kyle's face. Running a hand through his hair, he leaned against the counter while staring into space.

"We've been working up to this for a while, Kyle. You realize that, right?" He smirked, but it was devoid of humor. "I wanted to kiss you the night you read to me, but it didn't feel right...and I wanted to stay out all night with you when we went to the bar, but I wanted to behave." Resting his head in his hands, he hid his face from view. "I always want to behave, don't you?"

Kyle was about to answer when his phone chirped in his pocket, breaking the moment apart, cracking it until reality rushed in and Kyle could take stock of what happened. Guilt was already drowning his elation when he saw that the text was from Stan, wondering where he was...that he was worried because it was starting to get late.

"It's Stan," he said quietly, holding up the phone. "I should probably go."

"Right," Craig said, standing but keeping his back to him, like he'd bared himself enough for one night. It just wasn't in Craig Tucker's nature to engage in grand confessions and romantic melodrama. He was methodical, careful, a man of logic and sound decisions. "Let's get out of here...the rest of this stuff can wait until morning."

The ride home was deluged in such a deep, pervasive silence that Kyle was almost certain his voice would've been swallowed up if he'd tried to speak. As it stood, he was reeling from what had occurred, his mind a war zone of euphoria, fear, longing, curiosity, and such a caustic, unyielding guilt that all he could do was stare out the window while the night rushed by; so dark that even the stars turned their faces away. Craig smoked, his jaw set as he stared straight ahead, almost acting like Kyle wasn't in the car at all.

The journey could've been ten minutes or ten years long and Kyle wouldn't have been able to tell the difference, his thoughts such a jumble that he was removed from his mind and his place beside Craig. His body, however, continued to react to the man beside him, his aroma, his dark, magnetizing presence, and he wanted to touch the skin where Craig's lips had rested, but he didn't dare. He was almost certain that when the car stopped, Craig would order him onto the pavement and to forget about everything that had happened, that it was a mistake and he hadn't been thinking clearly, but instead they sat side by side in quiet as the car idled, rumbling once again like a poised beast.

"Tomorrow morning," Craig spoke as he took a drag on his cigarette. "Should I pick you up at the same time?"

Nearly sagging with an unspoken, painfully happy relief, Kyle nodded, already moving to open the door. Before he could slide out, Craig had taken a hold of his hand and pressed it softly against his lips, dry but so warm; lingering. Kyle almost moaned from that small, nearly innocent contact, but all too soon he was slipping into the cold and away from the waiting Jag, up the stairs, and keys fumbling, let himself into the apartment. Almost like he was reliving a previous day, Stan was in the easy chair asleep. Quickly, Kyle stripped off his coat and hat and went into the cold bedroom, pulling off his scrubs and groping in the dark for one of Stan's jerseys.

Instead, he drifted to the hamper and fished through it, finally coming upon Craig's shirt, hesitating for a moment before he slipped it over his head, holding it closely about himself as he padded back into the living room. This time, instead of crawling into Stan's lap, he knelt on the floor and rested his head across his legs, closing his eyes as Stan's fingers wound through his curls; absolutely spent as he fell asleep on a pile of secrets, Craig's lips pressed like memories into his skin and continuing to burn like tiny flames.

Chapter Text

I am thinking of you
In my sleepless solitude tonight
If it's wrong to love you
Then my heart just won't let me be right
'Cause I've drowned in you
And I won't pull through
Without you by my side

-My All, Mariah Carey


The world, or at least his perspective of it, was a different color when he woke up the next morning.

Kyle couldn't say that he'd slept well, especially not curled up on the floor with his head resting in Stan's lap, but at least he hadn't dreamed, and if he had, he couldn't remember the details. They'd risen, in typical fashion, late into the night, after the chill and stiffness had settled into Kyle's muscles, and crawled under the covers of their waiting, empty bed. He and Stan hadn't exchanged any words while making the pilgrimage, but Stan had squeezed his hand under the blanket before they'd both drifted off; cold winds filtering under the propped-up window, as always. The scents had been filled with a sharp cleanliness, winter's sanitized fastidiousness, as well as the smoky, nostalgic scent of fires burning distantly. He'd breathed deeply before shutting his eyes against the late night hour, head cradled deeply in his pillow.

When his lids had parted hours later, the clock on the bedside table was fuzzy as he tried to remember who and where he was; disoriented, disjointed. He'd woken an hour before his alarm was set to go off, and on a level that knew the truth too well, knew himself too well, really, Kyle accepted that he wasn't going to be able to fall back asleep. It didn't help that the colors of the room, though they were still hazy from early morning shadow, were not as they'd been the day before. When they'd initially decorated their bedroom, they'd decided on greens and oak furniture, light but masculine. At least that's how Kyle had sold the idea to Stan, who hadn't seemed altogether concerned about the decor in the first place.

"Just do whatever you want," he'd said while he'd looked around the room, hands jammed in his back pockets. "You've always had good taste...besides, I've never really cared about stuff like decorating. You know that."

Kyle liked sparseness when it came to furnishings, mainly because he hated feeling crowded, so there weren't a lot of superfluous elements to the room: a bed with a simple, unadorned frame, dressers (two), their bedside tables. The walls had some family photos and paintings, landscapes that were impersonal; places they'd gone to together and enjoyed. There were splashes of bright green grass and mountains set against blue skies, pulsing swells of waves crashing against sandy beaches; hidden coves and starlit vistas hung over red mesas. They spoke of places far beyond South Park, and Kyle had looked at these images countless times; felt like he knew them intimately. But when he woke up that morning, the colors in the paintings and prints seemed much more vivid, almost painfully so.

Slowly, the sun leaked into the room as he lay there, dusting the furniture and striking the wood's highlights, and even they seemed new. The room smelled the same, was laid out the same, but the colors, their hues, were magnified. Kyle couldn't explain it, and he blinked his eyes rapidly to rid them of sleep dust and trickery, but when they were cleared, the results were the same.

Things were different. Changed.

He turned his head on the pillow, cheeks too warm from sleep, but the tip of his nose cold from the still-open window. The sounds of the awakening town could be heard: cars rushing past, the little birds trilling like flutes, footsteps on the pavement outside; doors slamming as engines rumbled to life and faded away. Looking at Stan, he saw that he was fast asleep with the covers drawn high; dark hair sprouting up like weeds against the stark pillowcase. Tenderly, Kyle slid his hand across the sheets and squeezed his arm, but not enough to make him stir. Moving slow, he sat up carefully so he'd be undetected, needing to be alone; hoping to make sense of the sudden, burgeoning clarity of what had once been an overly familiar room.

Standing, he glanced at the t-shirt he was wearing, and even its simple design, white letters on a grey field, seemed altered, like it was almost too real. He also allowed shame to move through him, like it'd been waiting to be noticed, at the sight of Craig's shirt in the early morning light. It made what had happened the night before real, too; the thought of it staggering. Clenching the material in his hands, he wandered out into the living room while trying to avoid his memories, but it was impossible, and they came back to him in a rush: the dimly-lit clinic, Craig pulling him close, his lips resting on his forehead. He hadn't really expected Craig to do anything like that, certainly hadn't thought they'd have that sort of contact, but even that small gesture had filled him with an almost unbearable amount of warmth.

It was like he was kissing me goodnight, he thought as he prepared some coffee, setting things down softly so he wouldn't disturb Stan. How could something so simple make me feel so out of control?

He still felt out of control, he noticed, limbs and nerves buzzing as he studied the kitchen. The fixtures were stainless steel and far too bright where the sun struck them, much like the furniture in the bedroom. The mug in his hands that he'd seen and drunk out of a million times over was glazed yellow porcelain, glowing like a jewel as he filled it with coffee. Even the steaming, brown liquid smelled stronger and richer than usual, its flavor dark on his tongue when he took a slow sip. Closing his eyes, he was back in Craig's Jag, the silence enveloping them as the night pressed on the cold windows.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't simple; that isn't the right word. None of this is simple. Still, it isn't like he frenched me or anything.

His eyes popped open at this thought, not even sure where it came from. Was he really trying to excuse what occurred because Craig hadn't slipped him the tongue? This rationalization only served to make him feel guiltier, but no less intrigued at the thought of being close to Craig; physiological responses on overdrive as he leaned against the counter and drifted; remembering. Soon, his mug was empty but he couldn't really recall having drained it, his mind elsewhere. Going to the balcony, he checked the feeder, and it looked full enough, but he topped it off with more seed anyway. This time, the little birds, some festooned with scarlet feathers, came to feed soon after he was done, and he smiled as he watched them; sparkling sunlight drenching their plumage.

"Where do you go when you aren't eating this stuff, huh?" He asked, tapping the bag that was nearly empty at this point. "Do you just hang around nearby or what?"

Little chirps answered his question, the tiny creatures hopping and bobbing their heads as they fed. Kyle envied them in that moment, their chance for transience. The sun was up in its entirety now, but he knew he still had some time to kill, though he had no idea what to do with it. Leaving the birds behind, he stepped into the living room and looked around, his eyes falling on his laptop; quietly sitting on his desk and collecting dust. His thoughts crowded his brain, too loud and much too large, and for the first time in a long while, he wanted to get them out - he suddenly felt like he might have something to say.

It wasn't long before he was sitting on the couch, headphones on and music playing, with his laptop perched on a pillow in his lap. At first, he had stared at that white, blank screen and hated it, but he finally took the plunge and began to type, not even really thinking about what he was putting down; just typing as he tried to piece through his thoughts. Soon, a stream of consciousness was laid out on the page, random snippets and worries and ponderings falling through his fingertips and making it just a little easier to breathe. It didn't make a whole lot of sense, what he wrote, but he didn't care; it was a start, and it felt good just to write without worrying about what was being written.

Becoming lost, Kyle typed until he could hear the shrill beeping of his alarm clock in the other room, somehow cutting through the cello music filtering into his ears. Almost feeling like he was coming up for air, he pulled his headphones off and looked back at what he'd written, cringing lightly. A fair amount of it was about Craig, though he hadn't referenced him directly, but he'd also mentioned his confusion and sadness where Stan was concerned, and Tweek, and just his overwhelming sense of feeling trapped in some ways but released in others. Really, it was a jumble, a mess, but he supposed it made sense. His life was certainly a mess at the moment.

Setting his laptop aside, he hurried into the bedroom where he shut off the alarm. Stan's face was still covered up, but Kyle could tell that he was beginning to wake up, his breaths not so heavy. Slowly, he slid the blanket down and blinked his eyes against the light, appearing almost confused.

"It's cold in here."

Shutting the window, Kyle suddenly felt shy, just wanting to keep things light.

"That's what happens when we sleep with the window open...the way you like it, remember?" Hugging himself, he studied Stan as he sat up, groaning. He smiled, wanting to hug him, but also thinking the idea strange in his state of mind. "Here, I'll go make you some coffee. That'll warm you up."

Squinting, Stan's expression became incredulous.

"Did you already make coffee? When did you get up?"

"Oh, I've been up for a while," Kyle replied airily before turning away. "I fed the birds, too."

He'd almost finished preparing Stan's mug when he staggered into the kitchen, his eyes still half-closed; dressed in boxers and a t-shirt. Kyle had made Stan's coffee the way he enjoyed it: a couple teaspoons of sugar and plain creamer, relatively easy and to the point. Stan had a penchant for simplicity, not like Craig and his exacting ways; fussy and resistant to flexibility. It struck Kyle as odd that a person's character could be represented by the way they took their coffee, but he had to figure that it was the little things in life that revealed the truth. Sliding it across the counter, he watched as Stan took the first sip, sighing softly as he slowly started to wake up.

"You got in late last night," he commented, clutching the mug in both hands.

"Yeah," Kyle replied carefully, picking up the sponge perched on the edge of the sink and beginning to wipe the stray sugar crystals from the counter. "I was helping Craig with some stuff." He winced, knowing he sounded evasive, but not wanting to say more than was necessary. It wasn't like he was lying, anyway.

"Stuff?"

"Uh huh. You know, labs and all. They have to be reviewed and signed off on. It's pretty boring honestly, that's probably why I haven't mentioned it."

Stan took another drink of coffee while Kyle continued to wash down the counters, probably more vigorously than was really necessary. He also got the sense that he was being watched closely, but he didn't look up.

"How do you help with that exactly?" he finally asked, though his tone wasn't accusatory; merely curious.

"Oh, I read off the results and Craig takes it from there."

"Makes sense," Stan replied. "There must be a lot of them. Labs, I mean."

"I guess," Kyle said, glancing at him and wondering where this conversation was even going. He cleared his throat. "Like I said, it isn't really that interesting."

"Hmm." Leaning against the counter, Stan nursed his coffee while glancing into the living room. He gestured to the displaced laptop. "Were you using that?"

"Yeah, actually. I wrote a little bit."

Stan set his coffee down, eyes wide.

"Really? That's great! Are you starting another book, or...?"

There was a growing pressure in Kyle's temples as he silently went to the device and plucked it up, quickly depositing it on his desk in its accustomed spot. He was grateful for Stan's interest even if it irked him slightly, that small twinge of disbelief in his tone. He also didn't want to make a huge deal out of something exceedingly small, because if they did it would probably scare him off from trying again. No, better to minimize the occurrence, that way it wasn't important if he did or didn't continue with it.

"It was just a way to pass the time," he said indifferently. "Just my thoughts, really. No form, no focus."

"But, still -"

"I need to get dressed," Kyle cut in, heading for the bedroom. "I don't want Craig to show up before I'm ready...I'd never hear the end of it."

When the Jag pulled up to the curb, Kyle was set to leave: scrubs, coat, and hat in place, Stan lingering close to him as he pulled open the front door.

"I'm working late tonight," he said, kissing Kyle's temple.

Kyle pressed his lips against Stan's cheek, suddenly wanting to stay and explain himself, but he only nodded. In a perverse sense, he was almost afraid to leave the apartment and climb into Craig's car, almost feeling like he was agreeing to an unspoken pact in this action alone; making an irreversible decision. Looking into Stan's eyes, he could see the threads of pigment winding through his irises, strikingly vivid like everything else in the world that morning; cobalt, cornflower, cerulean. They were pools he could swim in, he thought, drown himself if he wanted.

"I'll cook when I get home," Kyle replied, placing another kiss on the corner of Stan's mouth. "Have a plate waiting for you when you get in. How does that sound?"

"Nice, actually. I know you hate to cook, so it means a lot."

"I don't hate to cook, Stan. I'm just not any good at it."

"Still."

Kyle couldn't look at Craig directly on the way to the clinic, awkward and shy as the silence deepened between them. They didn't even have NPR to blot out the quiet, but Kyle kept still, not wanting to call attention to himself with even the tiniest movement. Craig smoked, the window cracked slightly as the vapor drifted out. He contributed to the lack of sound, almost appearing withdrawn and inside his head, but he wasn't giving off waves of tension or aggression, being possessed of a thoughtful demeanor, it would seem.

"Want to smoke?" he asked, making Kyle start and turn from the window, where he'd been watching the buildings flash by.

"I-I guess," Kyle replied, fumbling with his hands in his lap. "It might help." He didn't explain this statement, convinced that Craig would know what he meant by the stammer in his voice alone.

"Here." Instead of holding out the pack, he offered Kyle his own cigarette, half-smoked but still serviceable. Kyle stared at it, the simple, white cylinder, before carefully accepting it. Soon, his lips were resting in the same place Craig's had mere moments before, and he had to sigh inwardly at how much this thrilled him; this small, innocuous detail. Foolishly, he couldn't help but think of it as slightly erotic, and he had to wonder if that's what Craig had intended.

"So, about last night," Craig said as they pulled into the clinic's lot, the cigarette all but spent as Kyle sucked it softly, tendrils of smoke escaping from his mouth. He parked the car and shut it off, but he didn't make a move to get out.

Kyle shrugged, starting to feel shaky from lack of sleep and too much stimulation all at once. This moment, this closeness, was proving to be too much for him to handle so early in the morning. His hand strayed to his temple where Stan had kissed him, shame washing in as he opened the door and threw the filter onto the pavement.

"I put you in a weird position, didn't I?" Kyle asked, still unable to look Craig in the face. "I feel so stupid, honestly."

"We put ourselves in a weird position, Kyle. Why are you acting like you're the driving force behind all of this?"

"Behind all of what?"

"Will you look at me, please? It feels weird having this conversation with you staring out the window like that."

Reluctantly, Kyle turned, though he kept his eyes downcast. He stared at Craig's hands, his tapered fingers, his wedding ring. Just the sight of it made him feel sick to his stomach. Suddenly, one of those hands lifted and Kyle could feel his curl behind pushed behind his ear, Craig's cool fingertips sliding over his skin. It was electric, made his blood pulse in his veins...he almost couldn't stand it.

"We can leave what happened behind us, if that's what you prefer," Craig said, dropping his hand. "You just have to tell me what you want."

"What if I don't know?" Kyle asked, lifting his head and finally meeting Craig's eyes. Like Stan's, they were too full of rivaling colors and details for him to comprehend them fully. Covering his face with his hands, he leaned forward, confused and overwhelmed by what was being proposed; walking away or proceeding down a path he couldn't see the end of, though in the primal, curious part of his brain he wanted to know where it led.

"How can you be so calm about all of this?" Peeking through his splayed fingers, Kyle could see Craig watching him closely.

"What makes you think I'm calm?"

Craig's bearing, as always, was careful: back straight, expression stoic; clothes impeccable and hair sleekly styled. There was nothing about him that seemed out of place or unfocused, absolutely nothing to suggest that he was experiencing any sort of inner turmoil. Kyle couldn't understand how he managed it. He'd always worn his emotions on the outside, and he was almost positive that it was obvious he was falling apart with every second that passed; especially when he was so close to Craig.

"First of all, you're talking about all of this like it's no big deal, like this is any other day and we're just..." he trailed off, sliding his hands under his hat to tangle in his hair. What was he even trying to say?

"We need to be able to talk about what's going on, Kyle. We're adults, aren't we?" Craig shrugged, some of the stiffness flowing from his posture. "Besides, I'm not a complete monster, or a robot like you seem to think. I feel bad..." he cleared his throat, almost like he was tripping over that word. "But I also feel excited. Don't you?"

Kyle felt too warm now, even with the door open and the cold leaking in and under his coat. To hear Craig Tucker say something like that, expressing excitement about anything, especially something related to him...now he was convinced he was living a dream, one of the strangest he'd ever had.

"I don't know if I'm allowed to feel that way," he admitted, knowing in his gut that he did feel a raw anticipation but he couldn't say it out loud. In some ways, he felt like if he held himself back, never verbalized what he was feeling, than he could keep some of the remorse at bay. He still felt like he was being eaten alive, though.

"That makes sense," Craig replied, his fingers straying to his wedding ring and twisting it. "Maybe we should just wait and see how this plays out? Or is that irresponsible?"

At that moment, Pete's Smart Car drove into the lot, making Kyle's stomach clench up. Pressing his hands over his middle, he watched as Pete parked and slowly climbed out, a cigarette lodged in the corner of his mouth. He looked over at them, his expression a mixture of annoyance and vague suspicion. He heard Craig sigh softly.

"I guess we'll have to pick this up later." He opened his door and slid a leg out, head leaned against the seat. "I already feel exhausted and the day hasn't even started yet. What about you?"

Later, in the break room, Kyle was in the process of making Craig's standard cup of coffee when Stan texted him:

Just wanted to tell you I hope you have a nice day :)

Kyle bit his lip so hard while reading these words that he drew blood, the skin of his mouth cracked and dry from the relentless cold. It wasn't exactly unexpected for his boyfriend to send him sweet texts just on a whim, but it'd been a while since he had. He was touched, of course, but it also sent his already strained conscience into overdrive. Setting the phone on the counter, he tapped out a response as he added the vanilla creamer to Craig's mug, fully aware of the awful irony of his situation:

You too. What'd you want me to make you for dinner?

He was adding the Splenda when Stan replied, only serving to make him feel worse:

I'll enjoy anything you make. Surprise me!

When he carried the steaming drink to Craig's corner, Kyle was in a weird daze, the lights in the clinic too bright. He just wanted to crawl into a small, dark space and hide for a while, but he just sucked up his irrational impulses and set the mug carefully on the counter, drawing Craig's focus.

"Thanks," he smiled, reaching out and drawing it closer before glancing at Kyle, his expression clouding immediately. "Your mouth is bleeding. Have you been biting it?"

"A little," Kyle said, lifting a hand to his lip and relishing the sting. It was better than focusing on the fact that he was a terrible person. "It doesn't help that the weather just dries me out, you know?"

"Have you been drinking enough water?"

"No, probably not. I was doing okay for a while with that, but..." he shrugged, his hands coming to rest on the counter. "I've been distracted."

"Here," Craig said before slipping a hand into the inside pocket of his coat hanging on the back of his chair. He pulled out a handkerchief. Before Kyle could respond, he was dabbing it on his mouth, the scent of cologne nearly making him swoon. At the very least, his knees started to shake, and he had to resist leaning his head against Craig like he'd done the night before. Instead, Kyle kept his eyes trained on the floor, waiting.

"You would have a handkerchief," he commented, charmed by this small, unimportant detail. "Let me guess, it has your initials embroidered on it?"

"As a matter of fact, it doesn't," Craig replied, sounding amused. With one last gentle pat, he pulled away. After a moment, Kyle was startled to feel something cool being rubbed into his lips, the smell strong and stinging his nose. "Relax, it's just carmex." He sucked some air between his teeth as his finger strayed over Kyle's mouth. "Does that feel better?"

Kyle nodded. His whole body was waking up at Craig's touch, and now his knees felt so weak he was surprised he hadn't collapsed.

"There," Craig said. He pressed the handkerchief into Kyle's hand. "Hold onto that, okay?"

Holding up the bit of cloth, Kyle's eyes lingered on the small spots of his blood marring the white before he began to fold it up; carefully, precisely. He slipped it into his pocket before daring to meet Craig's eyes again.

"I wore your shirt to bed last night," he said, omitting the part about falling asleep with his head nestled in Stan's lap. "I've been meaning to return it, but..." trailing off, he threw caution to the wind. "I don't want to. I really don't."

Craig slid his chair forward, knees nearly touching Kyle but a few inches away. Taking a hold of Kyle's scrub top, he pulled him closer.

"Keep it," he said softly. Smiling, it almost seemed like he was going to kiss Kyle's wounded mouth, but at the last moment he leaned his forehead against Kyle's instead; closing his eyes. They stayed like that for a few seconds, Kyle's heart hammering in his chest as Craig held him close, but too soon he was pulling away. "You should probably go back up to the front," he said, twisting his fingers in Kyle's scrub top again before letting him go and reaching for his coffee mug. He took a sip and tapped the rim.

"Perfect, just like always."

The rest of the day progressed like a slow, dreamlike waltz, Kyle vaguely aware of the world around him but really only able to focus on Craig. He wanted to be close to him but he also wanted to keep his distance, and work seemed to be the perfect place to achieve that bizarre dynamic. The steady flow of patients and being interrupted by their coworkers made it so their interludes together were brief, but the moments they were able to catch seemed to be filled with an unbearable amount of meaning. Every gesture and word was taking on a new significance for Kyle, and he found himself working overtime to pick out the hidden meanings; mind working tirelessly to understand everything that was happening.

It seemed like they'd opened a door to a world that only they could occupy, and while Kyle was grappling with conflicting emotions and his body betraying him, it was like they'd let the sunlight in along with the unknown. Thoughts of Stan could be pushed away long enough for the sake of reveling in Craig's presence, but soon enough they'd come rushing back. By the end of his shift, Kyle felt like he was being torn in half, but that didn't stop him from staying behind with Craig to help him finish up.

"Can we get out of here a little earlier than usual?" he dared to ask, watching as Craig studied an x-ray splashed on his computer screen.

Craig was slow to turn, his eyes lingering on the screen before flicking to Kyle; eyebrows raised.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, I just promised Stan I'd make him dinner," Kyle replied, pressing his hands against his knees and squeezing them. "He's working late tonight, so I wanted to do something nice."

Anxiously, he waited for Craig to respond, sure he'd said the wrong thing; bringing up Stan at all. Kyle almost felt like he was playing a game that didn't seem to have any well-established rules attached; if any rules for their situation existed at all.

"What are you going to make for him?" Craig asked, taking him completely by surprise. He turned back to the computer and crossed his legs, foot bobbing slowly at first then speeding up.

"I don't know," Kyle admitted, having not expected that question. If anything, he'd assumed Craig wouldn't really want to know the details. If Craig had told him he was making dinner for Tweek, he was fairly certain he wouldn't want to know what was being prepared. If anything, he'd probably feel so jealous it would burn him up inside. "I mean, I was thinking maybe his mom's meatloaf...we have the recipe tucked in a drawer somewhere and I know it's one of his favorites."

"Meatloaf," Craig repeated, some of his old condescension leaking into his tone. He picked up the results from a UA and studied it, his foot still going a mile a minute. "Are you going to wear an apron, too? Fix him a martini and have it waiting for him when he comes through the door?"

A thread of annoyance made its way through Kyle as he tried to find an answer, put-off by Craig's change in demeanor. Clearly, he was trying to get a rise out of him, but the suddenness of it left him feeling disturbed.

"Um, no? Are you serious right now?"

"Of course not," Craig replied, laying the paper aside before he began to type. "Well, I'm sure he'll appreciate the gesture; homemade meatloaf. That's really sweet."

"Why did you ask me what I'm making if you're just going to be pissy about it?"

Craig didn't look at him when he spoke next, his expression and voice aggravatingly passive.

"Who's being pissy?"

"You are, and you're doing your foot thing," Kyle snapped, putting his hand on top of Craig's shoe. Craig glanced at his hand then at Kyle, his demeanor unchanging save for a tightening of his mouth.

"Foot thing? What are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. Every time you're...provoked or whatever, you start moving your foot up and down. You can't tell me you haven't noticed that."

Slowly, Craig slid back so Kyle couldn't touch him, his fingertips pressed together in front of his face; elbows resting on the arms of his chair. He smiled, some of the ice in his features cracking.

"I haven't, but I think it's cute that you have," he teased, becoming playful.

Kyle rolled his eyes, not amused in the slightest by Craig's quick shifts, already feeling off-balanced by the situation. He didn't need Craig confusing things further, and he definitely had no interest in him lapsing back into his asshole-persona. Staring at him, Kyle tried to decipher the change in the air between them, an odd underlying tension that hadn't been present before, at least, not for a while. A thought struck him, and it was so simple that it should've been immediately obvious, but he was still reluctant about voicing it; it would just embarrass them both.

"If you wanted," he began, rubbing at the corner of his sore mouth and trying to appear unaffected, "I could make you something, too. That is, if that's something you'd be interested in."

Delicately, Craig popped his knuckles, the sound loud and calling to attention the lack of music. Methodically, he rubbed his hands together as he seemed to consider Kyle's suggestion. Now his passivity didn't seem as genuine, almost like he was actively trying to keep his careful mask in place.

"Like what?" he finally asked.

Kyle thought a moment, hypnotized at the sight of Craig's hands working together. He wracked his brain, not wanting to admit that he wasn't even sure of the things Craig liked to eat. All he knew was that he was particular about his coffee, couldn't cook to save his life, and had fussy table manners. He hadn't exactly spoken at length about his preferences. Idly, the brownies Stan had made for him came to mind, stirring a memory of another conversation they'd had. He snapped his fingers.

"Something sweet," he said, feeling pleased with himself. "I could bake you something. Didn't you say you missed the way Tweek used to make things for you?"

A fleeting look of sadness passed through Craig's eyes, so quick Kyle couldn't be sure he'd seen it all. If anything, he probably imagined it, feeling strange for bringing up Tweek at all; especially calling to attention the things he used to do for his husband. He tried to backtrack.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. I don't even know what I'm talking about."

"No, I'd like that," Craig said softly. "A lot, actually. If you made me something, I mean." Leaning forward, he placed a hand on Kyle's cheek, his expression no longer passive, remote, or anything Kyle could interpret. He almost seemed lost, eyes searching Kyle's face before he kissed him gently on the cheek. Drawing back, he touched the corner of Kyle's mouth for a moment before going back to the stack of labs. Rifling through them, he gave Kyle a small smile, seemingly not noticing how disarmed he was from those tiny gestures.

"I'll be looking forward to it."

-----

Kyle had some difficultly finding the faded index card with Sharon Marsh's careful script on it, but he finally managed to unearth it from the junk drawer; languishing under a pile of old keys and takeout menus. Upon reading it, he was relieved to see that the recipe for her "famous" meatloaf was relatively simple, and more importantly, they had all of the ingredients necessary. After pouring himself a glass of Rosé, a divergence from his standard white zin or cabernet, Kyle began pulling everything together, his hand straying to his cheek on occasion to rub the place that Craig had kissed. Music wafted in from the living room, upbeat and not his typical after-work selection, making him almost want to dance around the kitchen, though he held himself back.

Somehow he overrode his distaste at getting his hands dirty as he mixed the meatloaf together, a combination of breadcrumbs, lean beef, spices, and eggs; a hodgepodge of ingredients becoming lodged under his fingernails and making him cringe. As soon as the mixture was in the pan and molded into a somewhat awkward loaf, Kyle scrubbed his hands vigorously, his thoughts straying to what he'd bake for Craig. He'd seemed so delighted at the prospect, meaningless as it seemed, and he really didn't want to disappoint him. It was while the meatloaf was bubbling in the oven that Kyle studied the contents of the pantry, wanting to choose something suitable but simple enough that he couldn't mess it up.

"This'll work," he said before taking another sip of his wine, his eyes catching sight of a yellow bag on the second shelf. He pulled it down and read the back, the recipe for chocolate chip cookies straightforward and too easy to ruin. At least he hoped so.

He was in the process of drinking his third glass of wine and slaving over the bowl of light brown batter that the timer dinged, the satisfying scent of meatloaf drifting from the oven when he opened the door. Almost feeling like Donna Reed, he sashayed across the kitchen after leaving his concoction to cool, carefully dolloping the cookies onto a sheet pan before they too disappeared into the oven. It was while he was chopping up russet potatoes that he had to admit to himself that he felt weirdly happy, happier than he could recall being for a very long time.

It's almost like I have a purpose now, he thought, the realization jarring. He paused, considering this. I didn't really just think that, did I? Just how sad am I, anyway?

Dumping the potatoes into a pot of boiling water, Kyle heard his phone chirp from its place on the counter. He hesitated before reaching for it, almost afraid that it was Stan texting him, and then he'd have to rethink his good mood, knowing on some level that it was predicated on something absolutely awful and lacking any sort of ethics. Instead, he was surprised (and delighted) to see that it was from Craig:

Hey, is it weird if I text you sometimes? Even if it's not related to work or offering you a ride or whatever?

A combination of wine and giddiness made Kyle respond coyly, his tongue licking his bottom lip and picking up on lingering notes of carmex:

I guess not. I mean, okay, it's weird, but I don't mind. What'd you want to talk about, huh?

Setting his phone aside, Kyle went about stirring the churning potatoes before turning on the oven light to check on the cookies. They were coming along nicely, little brown puddles slowly taking form. He suddenly thought of Craig's comment about him wearing an apron and presenting Stan with a martini when he stepped through the door. Instead of it annoying him, he could almost imagine doing that but expecting Craig home instead, and he wouldn't be wearing anything under the apron...instead, Craig would push the drink aside and lead Kyle to the couch, where he'd -

"Whoa, what am I even thinking about right now?" Kyle asked, almost startled by the sound of his own voice. He didn't even sound like himself, which made sense...he certainly wasn't acting like himself. Or was he? Was this who he actually was, this person that was turned-on at the thought of Craig laying him down and touching him all over, kissing his neck and finally putting to rest all of the tension surrounding them? It couldn't be. Did this make him a slut? Was he just a huge, cheating, untrustworthy slut?

Going to the fridge, Kyle snagged a bag of baby carrots and plunked them on the counter, his thoughts slowing down his euphoria. His mind just wouldn't let him take the happiness too far before it derailed it, reminding him of his indiscretions, how he was hurting Stan even if he was blissfully unaware of what was going on. Dumping the carrots in a casserole dish, he drizzled them with olive oil and sea salt, listening for his phone and the oven at the same time while nursing that third glass of wine. He was already feeling tipsy and loose, so he was debating whether he should have a fourth. His phone went off before the oven did, and he snatched it up:

Nothing specific, I guess. What are you doing?

He glanced around the kitchen, noticing that the timer was just about to go off. Going to the oven, he pulled out the cookies, pleased that they were a tempting golden brown, completely unburned. Feeling weirdly proud, he set the pan down before pulling the potatoes from the stove, pouring them into a colander waiting in the sink. The whole time, he tried to think of a clever and witty response to Craig's question, but when all was said and done he just kept it simple:

Cooking and listening to music. You?

Craig's response was much quicker, taking Kyle by surprise:

Working.

Frowning, Kyle couldn't help but roll his eyes while he took a drink, his wine glass pressed against his bottom lip as he typed one-handed:

You're always working. You seriously need to get a hobby.

Turning to the sink, he dumped the potatoes back into the pot and set it on the counter, all set to mash them. Before he could, his phone trilled again:

I think I already found one.

Kyle was hacking from the wine he'd sucked down the wrong pipe when another text from Craig lit up his phone, his eyes watering as he still tried to comprehend his last message:

I'm kidding, Kyle. You're overthinking things again, aren't you?

Annoyed that Craig could peg him even when they weren't in the same room, Kyle didn't hold back his irritation; it didn't help that his face was flaming hot. He couldn't even blame it on the alcohol.

K: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that? What do you even mean, anyway?

C: I'm pretty sure you know what I mean. What, was I too subtle?

K: You're being an asshole right now. You realize that, right?

C: I am? I thought I was flirting.

K: Well, you're really bad at it.

C: Huh, I guess I'm out of practice. How's the meatloaf turning out?

Not expecting that question, Kyle glanced at the loaf still cooling on the stove, waiting to be frosted with Mrs. Marsh's special ketchup-brown sugar glaze. It had turned out pretty well, but after the way Craig had responded to him bringing it up in the first place, he wasn't sure if was looking for an actual answer to that question. Rather than answering directly, he took a picture of the meatloaf and sent it to him instead. Setting the phone aside, he couldn't help but smile stupidly as he vigorously mashed the potatoes. So, Craig Tucker was trying to flirt with him, huh? That could prove to be pretty entertaining, considering how awkward he was about interactions in general.

He was adding warm milk and butter to the potatoes when Craig replied, his eyebrows raised in surprise:

C: Nice. :O 😯

Leaning on the counter, Kyle couldn't hold back when he responded:

K:I never pegged you as an emoji guy. You're just full of surprises, aren't you? 😅

There was a pause then, giving Kyle time to finish up the mash and cover the bowl. He checked on the carrots before pouring himself more wine; polishing off the bottle. Retreating into the living room, he plopped on the couch, his feet on the coffee table. His phone chirped:

C: I suppose. Or maybe you just don't know the first thing about me, so everything is a surprise. 

K: That's fair. Fine, tell me about yourself. 

C: What do you want to know?

K: What do you want me to know?

C: Are you trying to be difficult? 🙄

K: No. Okay, yes; maybe a little. Let's keep things simple. What's your favorite color?

C: What kind of question is that? Are we 12 years old?

K: Just answer the fucking question, Craig. 

C: Okay, fine. Black. I like black. 

K: Ew, like Pete?

C: Yes, Kyle, exactly like Pete. How'd you guess? Your kitchen is cute, btw. Very cozy looking. 

K: Dude, are you on something right now?

C: ... why?

K: You're being weird. 

C: I'm weird for trying to make conversation with you?

K: Yes, actually. You're usually so quiet. 

C: Maybe I just like talking to you, did you ever consider that?

K: I guess. It's still bizarre. 

C: Can I ask you a question now?

K: Depends on the question. 

C: Fine, I'll ask it and then let you decide. Are you wearing my tshirt right now?

Kyle had to press a hand against his mouth to stifle the nervous laugh Craig's question caused, staring at his phone in disbelief. It would seem texting Craig was much more bold than in-person Craig. Thumbs trembling, he tapped out his response slowly, knowing that the more he engaged in this sort of conversation, the further down an unknown path he was going. Ultimately, his curiosity superseded his feelings of guilt:

K: No, I'm not. It's in the wash. Why, are you disappointed?

C: Perhaps. I kind of like the idea of you wearing it to bed. 

K: Whoa, whoa, whoa... stop the car. Who the hell are you and what did you do with the real Dr. Craig Tucker, huh?

C: You're talking to him. 

K: Could've fooled the hell out of me. Fine, turnabout is fair play, right? What are YOU wearing?

C: Nothing special. Sweats and a shirt. I worked out when I got home. I had a lot of pent-up energy to get rid of, if you must know. 

Kyle nearly jumped out of his skin when the timer went off, signaling that the carrots were done. Carefully, he laid the phone down, still in partial shock over his current exchange. How was he supposed to interpret Craig's last text? Was he trying to be a perv or was he just really good at making mundane things sound dirty? 

Soon enough, the carrots were taken out and covered. Checking the clock above the stove, Kyle saw that it was getting close to 10:30 and chewed his raw lip. Stan would be home soon. In the past, this realization would've been met with a warm anticipation, but now he just felt strange, almost like he needed to run and hide. It was amazing to him how quickly the tides could turn when caught up in subterfuge; it truly was a slippery slope, and he was wandering in the dark like a fool. 

Going back to his phone, there was a text waiting from Craig:

C: You've gotten quiet. I guess I must've scared you off. 

K: No, I just had to finish up dinner -

He stopped, wondering just how honest he should be about what he was feeling. He didn't want to make things weird, but he got the impression that things would only become stranger if they ignored certain subjects. 

K: And, honestly, I do feel a little bit scared. I'm not sure what's happening, not exactly. Between us, i mean. God, I sound dumb, don't I? 😫

Nervously, Kyle hit send and waited with baited breath, not sure if he should be girding himself for oncoming ridicule. It was probably stupid to bare his belly so quickly, but what other choice did he have? Before too long, Craig replied, and he had to fortify himself before reading the message:

C: Well, I can only speak for myself and speculate about your feelings, but I got the impression we were starting to like each other. Right? 

Face flaming, Kyle had to set his phone down and stare into space before formulating an answer; nerves on fire and a silly grin spreading across his face as the words "like each other" chimed in his head, over and over. 

Okay, I guess it was pretty obvious that Craig kind of had a thing for me...I mean, Christ, he's kissed me and all, but still... having him admit it in a text that he can't take back... oh my God, I can't believe this. This is just too crazy to be real.

Reaching over, Kyle grabbed a pillow from the end of the couch and pressed his face into it, trying to retain his composure, but his heart was beating too fast and his mind was racing. Finally, he retrieved his phone and tried to exude an air of nonchalance when he replied:

K: Well, you're definitely different from how I initially perceived you. 🤔

Moments passed until Craig replied, and it was so in line with his character that Kyle could practically hear him saying the words aloud:

C: Quit being difficult and give me a straight answer, Kyle. You really know how to push my buttons, you know that?

K: And you love it. 🤗

C: Up to a point. 🙄

K: Maybe I don't want to show you my hand so quickly; ever think of that? 

C: It's not like you're hard to read. You don't need to spell it out for me...I already know the truth. 

K: Oh, is that so?

C: Yep. I'll pick you up at the same time tomorrow, okay?

K: Wait, are you going??

C: I have work to do. Remember?

K: Hmph. 😒😒😒

C: You can pout all you want, Kyle; I still have to go. 

K: You're like a machine, you know that?

C: Yup. Goodnight. Sweet dreams. 

K: 'Night, I guess.

C: Brat. :)

 "God, does he ever take a break?" Drawing his knees to his chest, Kyle hugged himself for a moment as he imagined Craig wherever he was; possibly in his bedroom, or his den. No, he was probably in his study, the one Tweek mentioned, though Kyle had never seen it. Drifting, he tried to guess what it might look like...dark color scheme, tons of bookshelves, a big desk, and Craig sitting behind it tirelessly toiling like always. He sighed and hid his face in his knees, suddenly very tired, but so keyed-up that he didn't know what to do with himself. He allowed himself the luxury of taking a few deep breaths before his phone went off again and he snatched it up, excited at the idea that Craig had decided to forgo working so he could talk to him instead. Remorse washed in when he saw it was Stan texting him, letting him know he'd be home shortly:

I'm looking forward to dinner. I love when you cook for me.

Hating himself more with every second that passed, Kyle texted back that he'd have a plate waiting for him when he stepped in the door. Before he could become lost in a tide of guilt, he rose from the couch and wandered into the kitchen, eyes falling on the chocolate chip cookies he'd baked for Craig before he pulled a plate from the cupboard. At the last moment, he opened the junk drawer and fished out a few  tea lights, suddenly deciding that Stan would enjoy candlelight as he tucked into his special, homemade meal.

------

As it came to pass, Kyle only had nine cookies to deliver to Craig the next morning, Stan having caught sight of them after demolishing his meatloaf and descending on the confections like a swarm of locusts. Before Kyle was able to shoo him away, three cookies had been stolen from the plate and spoken for; devoured heartily and chased by a mug of ice-cold milk. At first he'd been irritated, but after all was said and done, he'd just sat next to Stan at the table and watched him as he ate, the little tea lights washing Stan in their glow and making his hair gleam. Kyle had been overcome with fondness at the sight, almost like he was watching little boy Stan again, like they'd gone back in time, and he'd found himself leaning over to kiss his boyfriend's cookie crumb-covered mouth.

"Sorry, it was supposed to be a full dozen," Kyle explained as he climbed into Craig's car. He held up the plate, carefully covered over with saran wrap on one of his best blue willow dishes. "They aren't burned, at the very least."

Craig gave him a questioning look before he pulled away from the curb, a cigarette in his mouth that he casually offered to Kyle without a word. As Kyle took it, their fingers brushing, he saw Craig smiling out of the corner of his eye, but it wasn't a smirk. Instead, it was soft, almost like it was meant to be a secret; unseen.

Throughout the day, Kyle found little reasons to walk by Craig's corner, watching as the cookies began to dwindle; catching him dunking one into his coffee on occasion. He thought he was being slick until Craig called him out on it.

"You're being really obvious. You realize that, right?" He didn't look up as he bit into a cookie, studying an x-ray with narrowed eyes.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kyle replied, kicking at the floor and jamming his hands in his pockets.

"Uh huh. Here," Craig said, holding up the other half of the cookie. "Give it a try."

"T-that's okay."

"Kyle, quit being ridiculous. Come on."

Sighing, Kyle drew closer and reluctantly took the bit of cookie. Taking a bite, he shrugged, trying to ignore the way Craig watched him but enjoying it all the same. He couldn't help flushing, though.

"I did a pretty good job, huh?"

"I'd say so," Craig replied, reaching up and brushing some crumbs from Kyle's mouth. "Thanks, by the way. It was really nice of you to go out of your way for me."

He frowned when Kyle just looked at him in response. 

"Problem?"

"I'm still getting used to nice Craig, I guess." Kyle shrugged and popped the rest of the cookie into his mouth. "He's almost as intimidating as your Dr. Tucker side. It's like you've got a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on."

"How trite, but I guess I can see where you're coming from."

"You just can't help yourself, can you?" Ignoring Craig's smug smile, Kyle glanced at Tweek's bird sketches, some of his good mood evaporating. "How's Tweek doing? I've been meaning to ask."

"He's okay. Not great," Craig replied, his expression clouding as he turned back to his computer. "He has his highs and lows... mostly lows right now. He cheered up a little when I gave him back your book. He wanted me to thank you for signing it." Legs crossed, his foot began to bob. "He would've thanked you himself but I think he's hiding at the moment."

"Hiding?" Kyle slid his hands back into his pockets, having to resist the urge to grab Craig's restless foot. 

"Yeah, he's still embarrassed about his outburst on Saturday."

"He shouldn't be. It's not like I'm judging him for it. "

"Can you tell him that when you come over this weekend? I think that'll help him put everything behind him."

Tucking his curl behind his ear, Kyle looked down at his shoes; scuffed sneakers he'd had for years.

"Uh, sure. Yeah, I can do that."

"You're still coming over, right?"

"That's the plan. Saturday or Sunday? Which is best for you guys?"

"Either, honestly. We usually bum around on the weekends so we're pretty flexible."

"Whatever. I think you're physically incapable of bumming around, Craig; let's be honest here."

"Shush. Oh," he turned, one eyebrow raised; all mirth evaporating. "Has Pete been bothering you at all? You haven't really mentioned him lately."

"I mean, he's still doing his whole lurking around and giving me dirty looks thing." Kyle shrugged. "Aside from that, he's been giving me a pretty wide berth."

"Good. So no more annoying texts?"

"Nah. Unless we're counting the ones from you..." Kyle laughed and stuck out his tongue when Craig gave him his typical deadpan stare. Shaking his head, he poked Kyle in the stomach before turning back to his computer; foot still bobbing away like it had a tiny motor inside of it.

At this point, Kyle was able to do his job even when he was mentally checked out; acting on autopilot because everything was painfully repetitious: paperwork, registration, referrals. Every day almost felt like it was exactly the same where his duties were concerned, which he'd started to view as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it made his life a lot easier but it also made him incredibly bored. The only things that broke the natural order were his interactions with Craig and avoiding Pete, but on occasion, he also had to deal with people who were, for lack of a better term, complete and utter assholes.

Such an event happened the next day, serving to completely derail what had already become an extremely trying shift. Riding to work with Craig had been enjoyable; quiet but not awkward as they'd shared yet another cigarette. He'd felt weird when he'd first climbed into the car because Stan hadn't woken up when he was leaving, but he'd pushed the feeling down until it became bearable. Things progressed normally from there, with Kyle bringing Craig his coffee and them splitting another cookie.

"They're almost gone," Craig commented, tapping the plate. "I'm actually pretty bummed about it."

"I can make you more, you know," Kyle replied, licking some chocolate from his fingers. He stopped when he saw Craig watching him, feeling odd. "It's not like it's outside the realm of possibilities."

"We should bake something together. I actually had a lot of fun making breakfast with you that one time."

"Really? It didn't seem that way."

Suddenly, Craig reached out and took a hold of Kyle's hand; before he could respond, he licked another spot of wayward chocolate from his thumb. He grinned at Kyle's flabbergasted expression.

"Trust me. I had a good time."

Just then, Pete came down the corridor, a stack of papers in his hand.

"Dr. T, I need you to take a look at -" he stopped, eyes widening when he saw Kyle quickly snatch his hand away from Craig's. Glancing between them, he just stood there for a moment; silent.

"Can I help you?" Craig asked, leaning back in his chair and completely unruffled.

Pete started before he shook his head, a knowing expression sliding across his face as he flicked his focus to Kyle. He smirked and tapped the papers on his palm.

"Uh, yeah. Can you take a look at these reports for me?" He held them out as he came closer, his Axe body spray almost making Kyle gag.

"Sure," Craig replied, accepting them. He studied them before raising his head, face passive. "Did you need anything else, Pete?"

Pete looked at Kyle again, and now he almost gagged at how smug he appeared. Dropping his gaze, Kyle studied the floor while he filled with shame and a small, unspoken fear.

"Nah, I'm good, Dr. T. Thanks." Turning on his heel, he disappeared down the hallway.

"You okay?" Craig asked, taking a hold of Kyle's shirt and tugging on it. Instinctively, Kyle moved away so he was out of arms' reach. Craig looked up from the report he was reading. "Something wrong?"

"He saw us," Kyle said, keeping his voice low; positive that Pete was eavesdropping somehow. "He saw you -"

He stopped, unable to articulate what Craig had done, face burning. Cradling the hand that had been licked, he kept his eyes downcast, studying an imperfection in the floor.

"He saw me holding your hand," Craig replied, voice smooth and unfazed. "For all he knows, I was checking on your wrist to make sure it's healing properly. Besides, who cares? Pete tried to assault you...his credibility is pretty much worthless at this point."

"How can you say that?" Kyle asked, his voice becoming louder as feelings of hysteria and shame converged on him. "How are we any better? I mean, we're both with other people, and -" he stopped, gnawing at his bottom lip until it started to bleed again, the metallic flavor filling his mouth. "I don't know what I'm saying...I just know that I like it when you touch me, but -"

Pausing, he covered his face with his hands. He tried to take deep breaths, his chest becoming tight as thoughts of Stan flooded him; looking so content as he slept soundly in their bed. Kyle had kissed him on the cheek before he'd left, lingering for a moment before he'd finally turned away and headed for Craig's waiting Jag. Tears filled his eyes that he quickly blinked away.

"Kyle, look at me, okay?" Craig's voice was unbearably gentle when he spoke, making Kyle want to cry even more. Why couldn't he be cruel, awful? If he was a terrible person, Kyle would have an easier time resisting him. "Please?"

Reluctantly, Kyle looked up, eyes wet. He could still taste the blood on his lips, the skin stinging from where it had been bitten. Craig was watching him, everything about him soft in that moment; eyes, mouth, expression. There was a sadness in the way he looked at him too, almost like there was an unspoken longing just below the surface. It tore at Kyle's heart.

"Have you heard the saying, 'the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing*?'" Craig asked, continuing to regard him in that vulnerable way. "Every time I'm near you, or I think about you, that saying runs through my head."

Kyle just stared at him, disarmed by this confession. A warmth was rising in his stomach that made him want to rest his face against Craig's chest. In that moment, he wanted to take him by the hand and find a quiet, dark room where they could just be alone and talk...maybe even lie next to one another and hold hands until they both fell asleep; leaving the world behind.

"What about Tweek?" He whispered, reaching into his pocket where Craig's handkerchief was stowed. "I thought you loved him, Craig. You're married...you've been married for -"

Craig held up a hand, eyes closed.

"I know," he said. "Believe me, I know...and of course I love Tweek, but it isn't that simple." Opening his eyes, he studied Kyle's face as he dabbed at his torn lip; the cologne clinging to the handkerchief making him feel lightheaded. "When I first realized I was interested in you, I thought I was going crazy. I kept asking myself how it was even possible...developing feelings for someone other than my husband, but then I tried looking at the situation a different way."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I mean, I really beat myself up at first." He paused and shrugged, appearing sheepish. "Okay, I'm still beating myself up, but I asked myself, well, how happy can you be with Tweek if you're willing to even look at another person? Does that make any sense?"

Kyle nodded, having not really considered that angle before.

"I love Stan," he admitted, worrying the handkerchief in his hands. "He's my best friend, but our relationship is far from perfect...sometimes I feel alone even when we're in the same room together. Do you ever feel that way?"

"All the time. Tweek's usually in his studio and I'm in my study working or with Finn, and..." he smiled, but it was so hopeless it looked broken; like a parody of a grin. "I don't know. I'm lonely a lot of the time. I hate to admit it, but I am."

"Is that why you work so much? To distract yourself?"

Craig considered this question, his foot continuing to bounce. 

"Not entirely," he replied. "I genuinely enjoy what I do, Kyle. I like helping people... it gives me a sense of purpose, but yes, I can see how I might take it too far. I don't know when to stop a lot of the time." He paused and peered at him, his look becoming somewhat critical. 

"You still aren't drinking enough water, are you?"

Kyle rolled his eyes and waited for the impending lecture; shaking his head. He had to admit he was touched, though. 

"You need to lay off the booze, too," Craig said, dipping into his pocket. He pulled out some carmex and unscrewed the lid. "Alcohol dehydrates you like crazy."

"Excuse me, but who are-"

"You drink almost every day, don't you?" Craig cut in, dabbing some of the salve on Kyle's mouth. "I remember you saying something to that effect...at least that was the impression I got."

Tensing, Kyle just shrugged, refusing to make eye contact. He barely moved his lips when he replied, Craig's finger still gently working the ointment into his skin.

"And if I do?"

"Kyle, that makes you an alcoholic."

He jerked his head away, appalled. Logically, he knew what Craig was saying was true, but that didn't mean he wanted to hear it. Craig watched him while wiping his fingers off, face resolute. 

"I don't want to talk about this right now," Kyle snapped, backing away. "How did we even get here in the first place? I thought we were talking about being..."

Cheaters. Liars. Awful people. 

"... attracted to each other. I guess." He cringed before clearing his throat. "Can you stop being Dr. Tucker for like two seconds so we can figure out what the hell we're even doing here?"

He was surprised to see a slow, suggestive smile slide across Craig's face. Sitting back, he crossed his legs and as expected, his foot began bouncing away. Kyle groaned, annoyed by Craig's cute, little tics and intrigued by his expression, but mostly he just felt confused.

"What?" He asked. "What the hell are you smiling about? And you're doing your foot thing again."

"I know," Craig replied, still smiling.

"Don't tell me you're doing it for my benefit."

"Of course not, I just like hearing you call me Dr. Tucker. For lack of a better term, I actually think it's kind of hot."

Kyle's face flamed before he nervously jammed the handkerchief back in his pocket. He stared at Craig incredulously, wanting to snap at him for saying something so untoward so suddenly, but at the same time he was weirdly flattered. It didn't help that the way Craig was watching him, his expression full of wry amusement and something darker...needful, was causing his body to react. He'd experienced heart flutters and a feeling of weakness in Craig's presence before, but now...now -

Oh, my god. He's fucking turning me on; at a time like this. This can't be happening.

"Y-you're just fucking with me again," he stammered, backing away. "Can't you be serious? Don't you feel confused? Guilty?"

"I'm always serious," Craig said, eyes darkening slightly. "I like that I can relax around you, and, yes, I feel confused." Shrugging, he tapped the counter idly with his wedding ring. "As for guilt, well...yeah, I feel guilty. I'm only human, Kyle."

"Then why are we doing this?"

"Well, I'm doing it because I want to. I can't answer for you. Hell, I don't even know if you feel the same way."

"Oh, please. I told you that I," Kyle stopped and looked around before lowering his voice, "that I like it when you touch me. Isn't that enough for you?"

Craig shook his head, his face almost becoming somber.

"That isn't the same thing I'm talking about. You know that. If I just wanted to fuck around with someone, that'd be one thing, but I like you, Kyle. I told you that."

"I can't talk about this right now," Kyle said, beginning to turn away. "Not after Pete walked in on us...it isn't safe."

"That's fair. We can discuss this later, if you want." Slowly, Craig turned back to his computer, his foot still going. "You know where I'll be if you need me."

-----

The rest of the day proved to be a trial, mainly because Kyle was in an irritable mood; unable to focus or settle. He kept to himself, aloof and quiet, avoiding Craig and trying to ignore Pete, though the latter made it pretty difficult. Craig seemed to pick up on Kyle's signals and desire for space, so he wasn't an issue, but he couldn't help but feel like Pete was finding any reason to hover. Every time he turned around he was there, lingering in the reception area while looking over a chart or talking to Butters. Gritting his teeth, Kyle tried to ignore him and went about his work, but he had to bite his tongue; fury and worry filling him up until he could barely concentrate. He knew what Pete was doing, it wasn't like he was trying to be covert. Besides, he'd told Kyle in the past that he thought Butters was boring as hell; he usually made it a point to avoid making small talk with him.

By the end of his shift, Kyle was ready to just be done with the day. He'd pretty much decided to just walk home because he needed time to think when the door opened, sending a cold blast of wind through the room. An older man came in, dressed in a heavy coat, khakis and dirty boots, face red as he made his way across the room. Stopping in front of Kyle, he leaned on the counter and waited.

"Hi," Kyle said, attempting to be pleasant even though he was developing a nasty headache. "Have you been a patient with us before?"

"Yeah," the man replied gruffly. "I got a cold." He sniffled loudly, almost like he was trying to emphasize his point. "I need to see the doc."

"Sure. May I see your insurance card and your photo ID?"

The man fished the cards out and threw them on the counter instead of handing them to Kyle, an action that would've annoyed him under the best of circumstances. Taking a deep breath, he peeled them off the slick surface and went about checking the man in, his bad mood simmering away in his gut.

Just suck it up and get him registered...then you can get this asshole out of your face.

"Here you go," Kyle said, managing to smile tightly while handing the man his cards. "Your copay for tonight is going to be," he glanced at his computer, "forty dollars."

The man frowned deeper, his skin dry and layered with wrinkles. He looked like he spent every moment he could in the sun, rendering him crunchy-looking and browned.

"Can't you just bill me?"

Here we go.

Taking a deep breath, Kyle kept his customer service facade in check when he answered.

"We don't bill for copays, sir. I have to collect it before you can be seen."

"Well, that ain't right, is it? What if someone can't pay?"

Beginning to feel uncomfortable, Kyle glanced at Butters, who merely shrugged; eyes wide with worry. He wouldn't be any help, that much was clear. Turning back to the man, Kyle tried to inject some authority into his tone.

"I'm sorry, that's just our policy. Would you like to pay with cash or a credit card?"

You wanna go, asshole? Let's go.

Grunting, the man yanked his wallet out of his pocket again before he flipped it open, his expression a sullen mask of open resentment. Kyle had to fight the urge to roll his eyes at the man's attitude. Besides, it was the clinic's policy, not his. He just had to uphold it.

"Here," the man snapped, throwing his credit card on the counter like he'd done with his other cards.

This time, Kyle had to count to three before he reached out to take the article, his heartbeat rising as anger erupted in his stomach. He could feel himself blushing, too, which infuriated him even more. Anyone could tell this guy was starting to get to him, and he hated it; loathed being in a position where he couldn't defend himself even though the dude was acting like a shitheel. Rising, he took the card and ran it through the credit card machine, glancing over his shoulder when Pete wandered into the room, a stack of charts in his hands. Their eyes met for a moment before Kyle turned away, his patience pretty much nonexistent at this point.

"How long's the wait?" The guy barked behind him, making Kyle start. Closing his eyes for a moment, Kyle prayed for strength before opening his mouth.

"You're the next to go back," Pete jumped in, catching Kyle off-guard. Opening his eyes, he glanced at him, but Pete was staring at the man; eyebrows raised.

"Good," the guy replied. "I always have to wait when I come here; every single time."

Then why do you keep coming back?

Just then, the card machine beeped. Reading the display, Kyle's stomach sank, the words: 'TRANSACTION DENIED' showing up on the screen. Steeling himself, he looked at the man, who was still leaning on the counter while staring him down. Coming closer, he tried to keep his voice down, attempting to be discreet.

"Your card was declined," he said softly, the piece of plastic gripped in a hand that was starting to sweat.

"That's impossible. I just put money in my account this morning!" The man's face reddened, clearly becoming angrier. "Your machine has to be broken or something."

"We haven't had an issue with it all day," Kyle replied, hating the position he was in more and more. He sighed. "I can run it again if you want. Or do you have a different -"

"Just run it again!" The man yelled. "And do it right this time, Jesus Christ!"

Chewing his tongue, Kyle turned away quickly, catching Pete's eyes again and wanting to scream. Averting his focus, he swiped the man's card again, beads of sweat collecting on his forehead and upper lip. More than anything, he just wanted to go home and pour a glass a wine, which only soured his mood further; remembering Craig's words:

"That makes you an alcoholic, Kyle."

Rage coupled with a strong hopelessness rushed through him when the card was declined yet again, guilt flooding into the mix when his first impulse was to flee the room and head straight for Craig's corner. Nearly wanting to punch the wall, he returned to the man, card in hand.

"I'm sorry. Your card was declined again."

"Why?" The man asked in the most condescending, aggravating voice Kyle had ever heard directed toward him by a patient. This was enough to send him over the edge, and for a moment he forgot his position.

"I imagine it's due to lack of funds," he snapped, slapping the card down on the counter next to the man's hand.

Silence, save for the TVs playing softly, descended on the room; Butters staring at Kyle with obvious shock while Kyle held his ground, looking at the man with open defiance. The man gaped at him, lost for words until he snatched his card off of the counter and shook it in Kyle's direction.

"I want to speak to your manager!"

Kyle was about to turn on his heel when he remembered he was the person in charge; responsible for dealing with irate assholes when they didn't get their way. Wanting to groan, he fortified his resolve before placing his hands on his hips.

"I'm the manager," he announced, meeting the man's stare head-on. "How can I help you?"

"I need to be seen because I'm sick!" The man shouted, slamming his fist down on the counter. "I'm not leaving until I see the doctor!"

"You can't be seen until you pay your copay, sir. I already told you -"

"That's ridiculous!" The man spoke over top of him, eyes becoming crazed. "You can't refuse service to people! It's against the law!"

Kyle stared at him, almost not comprehending just how monumentally stupid some people could be. Mouthing wordlessly, he tried to find his bearings before Pete stepped up alongside him, his hands in his pockets.

"Actually, that isn't true," he said mildly. "This is a privately-owned business. We can refuse service to anyone we want."

"That's a lie! I've never had to pay a copay at the hospital, they just -"

"This isn't the hospital," Pete cut in, one eyebrow raised. "And you're right, they can't refuse to treat you there because it's a government-run institution, but that isn't the case here." He shrugged. "Sorry."

The man seethed, hands curled on the edge of the counter; tightening until his knuckles were white.

"Let me see the doctor!" He yelled again, spit flying from his mouth, making Kyle step back in disgust. "Now! Right now!"

"Here, do you want to talk to the owner?" Pete asked, heading for the back. "He'll tell you the same thing. Will you believe me then?"

"Fine, get the fucking owner! I want to hear that bullshit come out of his mouth!"

"Sure." Opening the door, Pete glanced into the back of the clinic before turning around. He shrugged again, but now he was smiling with amusement. "He's in a room with a patient, but you're free to wait for him if you want."

"That's it," the man said, letting go of the counter and beginning to walk around it. "I'm going back there and I'm going to find him myself. You can't treat people like this, you little pricks."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Pete replied, snapping the door shut and coming to stand beside Kyle again. "Move over," he murmured, gently nudging him out of the way. "I've got this."

"What are you doing?" Kyle whispered, terrified of the raving patient, who was clearly starting to lose his control. Turning quickly, his eyes widened when he saw the man advancing on them, his hands balled into large fists.

"If you take one more step, I'm hitting the panic button," Pete said, pointing to a tiny white switch situated under the counter. "The cops'll be here before you know it and your ass is getting arrested. It's up to you."

"You can't fucking prove anything, you piece of -"

"Security cameras, genius," he interrupted, gesturing to the cameras in the corners right behind the man. "There and there. You really want to do this?"

For a moment, the man just stood there, breathing heavily as he watched them. Butters was cowering behind Kyle while he glanced at Pete on occasion; impressed by his ability to think on his feet but still put-off by being so close to him again. Heart pounding, he waited for the man to make up his mind, just praying that he would decide to see reason and leave.

"Fine," the man seethed, finally retreating from behind the counter while stuffing his card in his wallet. "I'm never coming back to this shithole again, and I'm going to tell everyone I know not to come here; you better fucking believe that."

"Please, no," Pete said sarcastically. "Don't say you'll never come back. How will we ever survive?"

"Fuck you," the man snapped, kicking the door open, his boot connecting with the glass making Kyle cringe involuntarily closer to Pete. He didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until the door shut, the atmosphere heavy and dense, almost like the man's anger was still hanging in the air.

"Wow," he said, falling into his chair and staring into space, open-mouthed. "That...that was fucking crazy. I can't believe people...I just can't."

"You were great, Pete," Butters gushed, coming over and patting him on the shoulder enthusiastically. "You didn't seem scared at all!"

"I wasn't," Pete replied, his tone matter-of-fact. "That fucker was just a big bully. He's probably used to going to places and getting his way because he acts like a dick. People like that should never be rewarded for that type of behavior, it just encourages them."

"That is so true," Butters agreed, nodding his head. He glanced at Kyle, his voice full of concern when he spoke. "You okay, Kyle? He was so rude to you!"

"I'm fine," Kyle said, looking straight at Pete, who seemed very satisfied with himself. "Promise, Butters." Running a hand through his hair, he let out a long breath. "Can you take care of the shred bins for me? It's almost time to start closing up."

"Sure," he chirped, gathering up the containers before skirting into the back; whistling loudly as he went. With a sinking stomach, Kyle stood from his chair and slid it in front of himself, putting a barrier between himself and Pete.

"Thanks," he muttered, squeezing the back of the chair until his fingers ached. "For stepping in with that guy...I appreciate it."

Smirking, Pete tucked his hands into his pockets and leaned against the counter, crossing one foot over the other as he gazed at Kyle.

"You're welcome," he replied, licking his bottom lip before rubbing his cheek with his shoulder. "I know how much you hate confrontation, so I figured you could use a hand."

"Well, it was really nice of you." Not turning his back, Kyle went over and gathered up the stack of charts Pete had set aside. Bringing them back to his desk, he set them down, preparing to scan them in. "Honestly, I was kind of at a loss...I had no idea what that guy was going to do. I freeze when people start getting elevated like that."

"Oh, I don't know. You seem pretty good at defending yourself," Pete replied wryly.

Beginning to feel uncomfortable, Kyle slowly sat down, keeping Pete in his peripheral.

"Right," he said, picking up a chart and flipping through it. "Well, anyway. Thanks."

Moments passed and Pete continued to linger, his presence beginning to exude a faint malevolence Kyle couldn't pinpoint. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, he tried to give off a diplomatic, calm vibe, but he really just wanted Pete to leave. It wasn't like one act of kindness changed their less-than-savory past.

"Um, I bet Mercedes could use your help with the exam rooms," he commented, keeping his voice friendly. "You know, so we can all get out of here at a decent time."

"Oh, yeah. Sure," Pete replied, sliding along the counter until he was right next to him. Idly, he began bumping the heel of his sneaker against the cabinets, the rhythmic thump setting Kyle's teeth on edge. "Did you want to smoke together before heading home?"

Hardly believing what he was hearing, Kyle concentrated on the scanner as he shook his head.

"That's okay. Thanks, anyway."

"Jesus, you have to be kidding me," Pete groaned, still so close that Kyle could smell his cloying scent; could feel his disconcerting warmth. He slid his chair away. "Are you still going to hold a grudge, seriously? Even after all of that? You're the most stubborn person I've ever met!"

"I told you I appreciated what you did," Kyle said, turning away from the charts and catching Pete's focus. He narrowed his eyes, unwilling to let Pete manipulate or guilt the situation. "But if you only came to my defense because you thought it would fix everything, you're wrong. I already told you I don't want to be friends with you, Pete. You attacked me! God, would you want to be cool with someone who tried to assault you? Huh?"

"I'd probably try to give them the benefit of the doubt," Pete retorted. "Or at least a second chance. God, you act like everyone's supposed to be perfect, even though you sure as hell aren't."

"I don't want to have this conversation with you." Standing, Kyle tried to head for the back. Before he could take more than a few steps, Pete was blocking his way.

"What, are you going to run to Dr. T, is that it?" Pete asked, a mean edge cropping up in his tone; knowing and smug. "I bet if he'd saved your ass your attitude would be a lot different right now, wouldn't it?"

Backing up, Kyle's mouth became dry as he regarded Pete, a frantic fear building in his gut. His eyes were full of keen knowledge, information he shouldn't be privy to but had no issue exploiting if it meant getting his way.

"Leave me alone," Kyle said, backing up until his legs hit the counter. "You don't know anything about Craig and I, so just mind your own fucking -"

"Going after a married man," Pete interjected, shaking his head, tsking softly. "How do you live with yourself, Kyle? And where do you get off judging other people?"

Shame fell on Kyle like a ton of bricks, Pete's words making him feel sick because there was a grain of truth in them, as much as he hated to admit it. Quick tears sprang to his eyes. Swiftly, he swiped his arm across his face, his teeth worrying his lip until he tasted faint ribbons of blood.

"I don't know what you thought you saw," he said, his voice taking on a dead, numbed quality, "but you're wrong, and my personal affairs have nothing to do with the fact that you're a fucking sexual predator." Rage surfaced in his mind, cutting through his remorse until he couldn't see straight. Shooting forward, he got right in Pete's face, making him stumble back in surprise.

"You better leave me the fuck alone before I lose my shit and go crazy on your ass!" He shouted, jabbing his finger at Pete's chest, over and over. "Because I mean it, Pete. Keep pushing me and I'll -"

Suddenly, the back door opened and Butters stepped into the room, eyes wide.

"Hey, you guys okay?" he asked, setting the bins back in their places. "I thought I heard shouting out here."

"We're fine," Kyle said tightly, pushing away from Pete and retreating to his computer. "Pete was just leaving to go help Mercedes."

------

Kyle chain-smoked his entire walk home, still so worked up that he barely felt the cold as he left icy puffs of breath in his wake. He'd managed to slip out of the clinic before Craig or Pete could detain him, hightailing it down the block and lighting up as soon as he made it to the corner. He heard his phone chirp on occasion but he ignored it, just needing some time to collect himself after the day he'd had. He was so angry with Pete that he could barely see straight, and he was so conflicted over his feelings for Craig that he just wanted to get blackout drunk.

"Fine, so I'm a fucking alcoholic," he muttered, tossing a spent cigarette aside before pulling out another. He lit it, puffing angrily as he stomped his way through dirty ice and snow. "At least I can still function." Stopping, he covered his eyes, wanting to pull the words back into his mouth where they could die. Ashamed, he started trudging forward again, eyes squinted as the wind picked up.

I could be sitting next to Craig right now, just talking and...

Sniffling, he swiped at his nose as he tried to push his thoughts away, not wanting to admit that he regretted missing his opportunity to spend another evening with Craig. It was so bizarre. Before he'd even realized what was happening, he'd started enjoying his presence, looked forward to seeing him...missing him when they were apart. Kyle felt excited when he woke up in the morning, knowing he was going to be climbing into the Jag soon enough, and then...

But I still love Stan, he thought. I love him so much, but it's different with Craig. I don't know why and I can't explain it, but it's different. And he said he likes me...not just because he wants to fuck around, which he clearly wants to do, I think, but, ugh...this is so fucking complicated!

What were his feelings, though? It was obvious that he was physically attracted to Craig, but did he care about him the same way he cared about Stan? He had to, right? Otherwise, why would he be agonizing over all of this so much?

As he approached the apartment, he nearly folded onto the sidewalk when he saw Stan's truck in the lot; the lights illuminating the balcony door. It wasn't long before he was opening the front door and listlessly removing his coat and hat, not calling out the way he normally would, announcing his arrival.

"Hey, you're home earlier than usual," Stan said, coming into the living room, a beer and plate in his hands. He set them down on the coffee table before coming over to Kyle; gathering him into his arms and holding him close. "Mm, you feel so cold. Did you want me to fix you something to eat?"

I'd rather you put me out of my misery, because I'm a miserable, despicable, useless waste of a human being.

Kyle shook his head, burying his face in Stan's chest before pulling away, his bottom lip trembling.

"I'm gonna go take a shower," he replied, not meeting Stan's eyes as he turned away down the hall. "I had kind of a rough day."

Feeling drowsy and too warm, Kyle climbed out of the shower after hiding for as long as he could, swathing himself in a towel before wandering into the bedroom to dress. Before he could overthink things, he dressed in one of Stan's jerseys, hurriedly stuffing Craig's shirt into a bottom drawer where he wouldn't have to look at it. Checking his phone, he deleted an antagonistic text from Pete before opening up a message from Craig:

Are you okay? I heard Pete telling Mercedes that a patient gave you a really hard time, but you left before I could ask you about it.

Too tired to really bother about being evasive, Kyle decided to just be straight-forward:

I'm fine. This guy was being an asshole about his copay so Pete stepped in. I decided to walk home because I needed to think.

After a moment, his conscience twinged and he added another text:

I'm sorry I didn't say goodbye before leaving. I just needed to get out of there.

That makes perfect sense...I just wanted to make sure you were okay.

There was a pause, and then:

It was nice of Pete to help you. Did he try anything else?

Feeling like he was beginning to shut down, Kyle quickly replied:

I'm sure he thought what he did was going to smooth everything over, but I set him straight. No worries.

Did you want to talk about it? I can call you if you want.

"Kyle?" He could hear Stan's voice drifting down the hall, making him seize up as he frantically tried to type a very quick response. "Are you almost done in there? I poured you some wine, babe. I thought we could watch a movie or something before going to bed. You know, just relax."

No, that's okay. Thanks. Look, I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow.

Sure, did you want me to pick you up?

Stan made it to the doorway by the time Kyle had texted a simple 'no,' catching him just as he jammed his phone into the pocket of his sweats. He watched him, his expression questioning.

"It was Tweek," Kyle lied, hating that it was starting to become so easy, so second nature. "He just wanted to talk."

"Oh, is he doing okay?"

"Sure, just trying to keep busy." He slunk by Stan and headed for the living room, sinking onto the couch and slowly picking up his glass of wine. He stared at it for a moment before he glanced at the waiting beer bottle on the coffee table; two other empty bottles sitting next to it. He tried to remember when they'd both started drinking so much, but he couldn't really recall. Over time, drinking casually seemed to just become a part of their day-to-day, so slowly that neither of them had mentioned it; turned into a habit.

"Are you sure you aren't hungry?" Stan asked, sitting down beside him and resting a foot on the coffee table. He slung his arm behind Kyle. "There are leftovers."

"Nah, I'll pass. Guess I'll just drink my dinner," he replied, holding up his glass and trying to make light of something that was clearly a problem. He bit his lip, wincing when his teeth caught a stray piece of skin. "God, this has been such a shitty day, Stan."

"What happened?"

Slumping down, Kyle rested his glass on his leg, trying to choose his words carefully.

"This guy came in near the end of the night and he couldn't pay his copay, so he got pretty pissed that he couldn't be seen."

"It is kind of a shitty policy, not being able to see the doctor until you pay first," Stan said, leaning forward and plucking up his beer bottle. "Capitalism, huh? Don't you just love American healthcare?"

"Don't distract me, please. You know I can talk about that subject all day if you get me started, and I really just want to vent."

"Fine, sorry. Go ahead." He kissed Kyle's temple, only reinforcing his burgeoning remorse.

"Anyway, I've dealt with my fair share of jerks while working there. I mean, I've told you how nasty people can be, but this guy just kind of lost it. He came around the counter and acted like he was going to storm the back of the clinic -"

"He didn't try to hit you or something, did he?"

"No, it was obvious he wanted to, but -" he trailed off, not really wanting to recount the next part. Sure, he was grateful for Pete's help, it was his ulterior motives that made him feel nauseous. He also knew that bringing up Pete in any capacity was enough to infuriate Stan. He sighed. "Pete got him to leave."

Stan's arm tightened ever so slightly around Kyle's shoulders, his eyes trained on the far wall as he idly sipped his beer.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, he was actually pretty awesome, as much as I hate to admit it. He threatened to hit the panic button and get the guy arrested...stopped the guy in his tracks." Taking a tiny sip of wine, he raised a shoulder and let it drop slowly. "I thanked him for coming to my defense, but as expected, he just tried to manipulate the situation."

He scoffed, swirling his wine lightly.

"He actually asked me to smoke with him before heading home. Can you believe that?"

"Yeah, I can believe it," Stan snapped, his voice containing an edge that Kyle hadn't expected. "Which is why you should've had Craig fire that piece of shit in the first place."

"Hey, hold on. I was just trying to be -"

"Nice, you were trying to be nice, right? Because that's worked out so well in the past."

Pulling away, Kyle set his wine down with so much force some of the liquid sloshed out; falling in white droplets down the curved glass. Turning on Stan, he fixed him with what he hoped was his most ferocious expression.

"And what's wrong with trying to be nice, huh? Am I just supposed to turn into a dickhead because someone tried to take advantage of me? Wouldn't that mean people like Pete win?"

"There you go being black and white, Kyle. I'm not saying you need to become an asshole, but Jesus Christ, can you practice a little self-preservation, please? God, if you'd just listen to me every now and again you wouldn't have to keep putting up with this bullshit!"

"Well, excuse me for trying to think for myself! I wasn't aware that you hated it so much!"

"Only when it continuously fucks you over!" Stan shouted, standing up. The beer bottle was still clutched in his hand, jerked to and fro as Stan gestured erratically. "This played out exactly the way I said it would, didn't it? I told you that guy had a thing for you, didn't I? You told me you'd handle it and then what happened? He fucking attacked you!"

"Stan, you need to -"

"No, I need to say this!" He shouted, drowning Kyle out. "So, instead of doing the smart thing and having Craig fire his ass, you were nice and talked Craig into letting him stay, which makes no fucking sense no matter how much I try to understand. Does it make sense to you, huh? Working side-by-side with some guy who fucking tried to rape you? Huh?"

Flushing, Kyle looked down at his hands, the sensation of being tainted and unclean making him want to hide his face. Breathing deeply, he could feel his eyes beginning to burn.

"Don't blow all of this out of proportion. Pete didn't try to -"

Voice hitching, he tried to collect himself.

"Rape me. Don't say that. It makes me feel sick, and I already feel awful, okay?"

"And for good reason, because that fucking prick could've raped you if given the chance. Hell, he still could, because you've made it pretty obvious you aren't going to defend yourself."

"I did defend myself! I stopped him in the fucking first place, or did you just conveniently forget that part?!" Kyle yelled, standing as well.

Striding across the room, Stan stopped in front of Kyle, his whole body shaking with unconcealed rage; eyes red from booze and late nights.

"That fucker needs to have his ass kicked until he learns his goddamn lesson," he seethed, not sounding like himself. He was bordering on losing control; forgetting himself. In fact, something in his tone frightened Kyle, causing him to take a step back. "And I'm going to be the one that does it. I'm stopping by your work tomorrow -"

"No! You can't do that! We already talked about this, Stan! You'll get arrested, I could -"

"I don't want to hear this crap again, Kyle! And I don't give a shit if I get arrested! Christ, Pete should've been arrested the second he put his hands on you! Why didn't you fucking call the police right after it happened?!"

Dropping his focus to the floor, Kyle began twisting the jersey he was wearing in his hands, the tears that had been burning before starting to gather; teetering on the cusp of falling. He took a deep, shuddering breath, voice starting to break when he replied.

"I was ashamed," he whispered, wiping at his eye roughly. "I didn't want anyone to know what happened...that's part of the reason I didn't tell you. I felt," he shook his head, "feel so dirty. Unless you've had it happen to you, you have no idea how powerless and...soiled it makes you feel. I can't even describe it."

"What, did you think that if you pretended it didn't happen, it would just go away?"

"I don't know what I was hoping to happen. I just knew I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. Especially you, Stan. God, don't you think I feel stupid for trusting Pete, for even giving him the opportunity to try something? You standing here and throwing it in my face isn't helping...I've been beating myself up since it happened." Sniffling, he covered his mouth with his hand, the tears beginning to fall more freely. Shaking, he just shook his head, exhaustion creeping up on him as the events of the day converged all at once.

"I'm sorry, I'm just so sorry," he said, the words cracking. In that moment, he was apologizing for so much, but he couldn't bring himself to tell Stan everything.

"Oh, Kyle," Stan said softly, the harshness in his voice mellowing until he sounded like himself again; kind, understanding, loving. Placing his hands softly on Kyle's shoulders, he pulled him close and wrapped his arms around him, one hand brushing his still-moistened curls from his forehead. "It's okay, I promise. Everything is gonna be okay...I shouldn't have yelled at you...I'm the one that should be apologizing."

"He just won't stop," Kyle sobbed, pressing his face against Stan's chest. "I didn't go after him, I didn't try to get revenge...I'm trying to be nice, so why won't he just fucking stop? What does he want from me?"

"I don't know," he murmured, his tone grim as he held Kyle tighter. "I seriously don't know."

They stood there for a while, Stan cradling Kyle while he cried, wanting to explain himself but unable to find the words because there were just too many things to say. Whenever he felt he was going to retain some of his composure, he'd be reminded of Pete and what he'd seen, or what he thought he saw, and Kyle would fall apart again; knowing that what he'd witnessed, what he suspected, was the truth, and he hated himself for it. It didn't help that Stan was being so gentle with him now, even though his earlier words had hurt Kyle quite a bit.

"You need to trust me, Stan," he finally managed to eke out, breath catching as the tears finally started to slow. "I don't want you fighting my battles for me...I don't want to feel even more helpless. Pete's already made me feel that way."

"Don't you think I feel helpless, too?" Stan asked, pulling back so he could look into Kyle's face. "I'm on the outside looking in here...you've told me about all of these awful things happening to you, and you're not letting me do anything. All I can do is worry but I'm not allowed to do anything about it. I feel like I'm losing my mind."

"I never wanted to make you feel that way. That wasn't my intention...I just want to be treated like an adult, and you coming down there and making a scene just isn't going to help. It'll make everything worse, and..." he trailed off, biting his lip; wincing when he found the crack running through the skin. "If you just let me handle this one thing, I'll feel so much better about myself."

Stan gave Kyle one last little squeeze before he stepped away. He sat on the couch heavily, head leaned back as he stared at the ceiling.

"Fine, I'll leave this to you. I'm not happy about any of this, though. You realize that, right?"

"What's there to be happy about?" Kyle asked, coming to sit beside him, though he kept some space between them. He reached for his wine before reconsidering, his hand coming to settle on the hem of his shirt instead. He crumpled it in his fingers, crushing the fabric. He tipped his head back as well and sighed, exhausted. "This whole situation sucks, but I'll take care of it. I promise."

-----

Kyle rose the next morning with what he hoped was new conviction, wanting to set his life straight so he wouldn't continue to fret and hate himself. As he dressed, shivering in the weak sunlight, he promised himself that he was going to tell Pete to fuck off, and then he was going to have a difficult conversation with Craig. It hurt just considering it, especially after he'd woken up excited at the prospect of seeing him, before the events of the previous day had crashed in on him again. There was no denying that he cared about him, and the feeling was strengthening every day, but he just couldn't go on with the guilt eating away at him.

His resolve strengthened somewhat as he looked at Stan's sleeping face, sweet and peaceful. Kyle didn't want to hurt him, that had never been his intention. They had their issues but he wanted to work on them, and he felt like they'd reached a tenuous understanding the night before; Stan agreeing to let him handle his affairs and stand on his own two feet. If he could give Kyle that sort of freedom, that sort of trust, how could he continue to sneak around behind his back and harbor feelings for another man? It just wasn't right and it certainly wasn't fair.

Braving the cold, Kyle decided to stop by Tweak Bros on the way to the clinic, hopeful that Tweek might be feeling better and working the counter. Stepping into the warm, coffee-scented cafe, he was disappointed to see Mrs. Tweak at the register, harried as she attended to a line of customers. When he made his way to the counter, she gave Kyle a wan smile as he ordered his usual latte.

"I was hoping to see Tweek," he admitted as she handed it to him, the cup warm against his chilled fingers. "I've been worried about him."

"He hasn't been feeling well this week," she replied, tapping the side of the register softly. "I spoke to him yesterday and he sounded pretty tired, but he seemed in better spirits. Just keep him in your thoughts, okay? It'll help him to know that people are thinking about him."

"I'll text him," Kyle said before taking a short sip, burning his wounded mouth in the process.

As soon as he made it to the clinic, Kyle did just that, sending a short 'hope you're doing okay' text to Tweek before he settled down to work. It was easier to admit to himself that he'd been jealous of Tweek, had been willing to overlook potentially hurting him in order to be closer to Craig, now that he felt convinced that he could do the right thing. He steeled himself when Craig walked in, little twinges of weakness plucking away at him when he saw his handsome face; dark hair sleek. Pinching his leg, he dropped his eyes when he approached, his spicy cologne reaching him before Craig could. He nearly sighed, taking deep breaths to steady himself.

"Good morning," Craig said, leaning against the counter and looking down at him; his bag draped in his lap.

"Morning," Kyle replied, covertly sliding his chair away so there was distance between them; Craig's warmth ghosting through the air. He wanted to curl into it and fall asleep. God, he was so weak. "The coffee's already made."

Wordlessly, Craig reached into his bag and pulled out his mug, gently placing it on the counter.

"Are you okay?" he asked. "I pretty much take everything Pete says with a grain of salt, but from what I heard that guy was a real piece of work."

Taking a hold of the mug, Kyle gripped it in his hands, sliding his fingers over its smooth surface. He shrugged, still not looking at Craig.

"He was angry and lost control. As much as I hate to admit this, I'm glad Pete was there. I just froze up."

"He's good at handling confrontation, I have to give him that," Craig replied. "I just don't want him to think you owe him a favor now."

Snapping his head up, Kyle studied Craig's face, regretting it immediately because he just looked so concerned and open...so handsome.

When did he suddenly become so irresistible to me? How did this happen before I even realized it? It's like I'm sleepwalking through my own life.

"Let's just leave it alone, okay?" Standing, he started heading for the break room, intent on making Craig his cup of coffee and leaving it at that. "I told him that nothing's changed between us. I'm sure he got the point."

"I hope so."

"Besides, it's not like I'll be here forever," Kyle added, pulling the door open but unable to walk through. He glanced over his shoulder at Craig. "I mean, Bebe will be back soon, right? Then I won't need to see Pete at all, and I can leave all of this behind me."

A stillness settled over Craig at these words, shoulders falling as he stared down at his hands, clasped loosely in his lap. Pressing his lips into a hard line, he nodded slowly before speaking.

"That's true," he said softly. He laughed, the sound sudden and short. "You know, this is crazy, but I hadn't even thought about that...not for a while, anyway. Bebe coming back. I guess I've been preoccupied."

It took all of Kyle's strength to stop himself from going to Craig and leaning his head on his shoulder, but he managed to hold back. He cleared his throat gently before retreating through the door.

"I'll bring you your coffee in a few minutes, okay?"

The remainder of the day was lonely and strange as Kyle kept to himself, avoiding Pete like he normally did, but actively staying away from Craig as well. He half-expected Craig to make a comment, but he was starting to see that that just wasn't his style. His way seemed to be a watchful, calm patience, giving Kyle the opportunity to approach him if that's what he wanted to do. Kyle appreciated this because he wasn't being pressured or prodded to do something against his will, secretly touched by Craig's obvious respect for his space and choices, but he couldn't help wanting to be approached. He knew it was completely juvenile and contradictory, but on some level he wanted Craig to take him by the hand and demand an answer, to profess all of his deepest desires.

Thankfully, his shift went smoothly and he didn't have any run-ins with demanding patients, but he still felt drained by the end; tired of the endless round of paperwork, fake smiles, idle conversation, and the same thing, day in and day out. He wanted to patch things up with Stan, try to fix the kinks in their relationship, but he couldn't help feeling like he was living the same day over and over, the future stretching out before him like a bleak wasteland. He'd momentarily experienced some moments of change and light, but he couldn't hold onto them because they could destroy everything. Besides, how could he live with himself if his snatches of happiness were built on the backs of other people's misery; Tweek and Stan's?

He and Butters were just beginning to close up when the front door opened, taking Kyle by surprise. He groaned before he looked up, already annoyed that someone felt the need to walk in right before they were set to close. He felt his eyes widening with shock when he saw who it was, his hands clenching on the counter.

"Stan," he said, standing slowly. "What are you doing here?" I thought -"

Smiling, Stan ambled across the room, dressed in his jeans and navy blue jacket; cheeks red with cold. Little flecks of snow were already melting in his hair, which was windblown and falling cutely over one eye. He brushed it back.

"I just wanted to stop by and take you out to dinner," he said, coming up to the counter and leaning on it, his face cradled in his hand. "It's been a while since we've been on a date, don't you think?" Glancing at Butters, he nodded his head. "Sup, man? I haven't seen you in a while. How you been?"

"Just fine!" Butters chirped as he continued scanning in charts. "You know, you two should come out with me and my girlfriend sometime. We could go on a double-date or something."

"Hey, I didn't know you had a girlfriend," Stan replied, flicking his gaze to Kyle. He winked. "What's her name?"

"Mercedes," he said proudly. Just then, the back door opened and she bustled into the room, almost like she was responding to a silent cue. "There she is!"

Surprised, Mercedes came over, a stack of charts in her hands that she placed next to Butters.

"Hey, don't I know you?" Stan asked, squinting his eyes in thought. "You look really familiar."

"She used to work at Raisins," Butters volunteered, smiling up at his girl. "I always thought she was the prettiest."

"Oh, hush, sweetie," she said, rolling her eyes but giving him a fond peck on the top of the head. She smiled at Stan, her teeth so white she could've starred in a toothpaste commercial. "And what's your name, sugarplum?"

"This is Stan," Kyle spoke up, feeling more and more uncomfortable as the moments passed. He could only pray that he could get Stan to wait outside while he finished up.

"Oh, so this is your boyfriend," she said, looking at Stan with new interest. "It's about time you paid us a visit."

"I couldn't agree more," he said, giving Kyle a pointed look that almost made him cringe. "So, what do you say? Should we go out to dinner? Or to the movies?"

"I'm open to anything," Kyle replied, pushing his chair back and standing. Coming around the counter, he took a hold of Stan's sleeve. "Why don't you wait in the truck, okay? I shouldn't be very much longer."

"I was thinking Italian, but if you wanted something else I'm cool with that too." Not budging, Stan wrapped his arm around Kyle's shoulders and pulled him close. Leaning down, he kissed his forehead softly.

"Sure, that's fine." Trying to disentangle himself, Kyle attempted to nonchalantly nudge him toward the door. "Just keep the truck running so it stays warm, and then -"

"Aw, have a heart, hon," Mercedes chimed in, making Kyle grit his teeth. "Don't send your man out in the cold...Craig won't have a problem if he waits inside until we're done."

"Yeah, Kyle. You won't get in trouble or nothing," Butters added, only solidifying Kyle's growing annoyance. "Stan, why don't you sit down on the couch there, huh? It's real comfy."

"Don't mind if I do," Stan said. Giving Kyle another little peck, he sidled over to the couch and sat, legs crossed and his arm thrown along its back; appearing very relaxed. Raising his eyebrows, he waved his hand lightly at Kyle. "You just do what you need to do, okay? Act like I'm not even here."

Reluctantly, Kyle turned away, but not before giving Stan a look full of annoyed incredulity, his heart pumping madly and his palms beginning to sweat. Going back to his desk, he could feel Butters and Mercedes watching him with avid curiosity, suddenly feeling much too warm inside of his scrubs.

"It sure was nice of him to drop by just out of the blue," Butters commented softly while Mercedes nodded, pink, glossy lips catching the overhead lights. Kyle chose not to respond going back to his work.

"That's the way to keep a relationship fresh," Mercedes said, squeezing Butters' shoulder before backing away. "Take a lesson, butter bean."

"Will do, honeybun."

Pressing his hand against his mouth, Kyle had to stop himself from making a rude comment. Lifting his head, he glanced at Stan, unnerved to see him watching, appearing amused. He waved, making Kyle roll his eyes before he returned the gesture, though it lacked enthusiasm.

"Let's just get this over with," he muttered, slapping the money on the counter as he counted it.

Kyle was pretty sure he'd never done his end-of-night paperwork so quickly, hurriedly closing out the register and helping Butters scan in the remaining charts. When he went to empty the shred bins, he moved so fast it was like the devil himself was stepping on the backs of his shoes. In fact, he was moving so swiftly that he nearly barreled into Craig on his way out of the break room, yelping and jumping back before they collided. Craig held out a hand to him, watching him with concern as Kyle stood there, the bins pressed to his chest as he tried not to hyperventilate.

"Hey, calm down. What's got you so worked up?"

"N-nothing," Kyle replied, already beginning to move away; refusing to make eye contact. "I just want to get out of here."

His mind was a furious cauldron of rage, apprehension, and guilt as he put the finishing touches on the deposit slip, slapping it in Butters' hand and jerking his head toward the back.

"You just need to drop that in the office and then we can leave," he said, yanking his coat from the back of his chair. He slid it on, beginning to shake with tenuous relief. Maybe he could get Stan out of the clinic before Pete wandered out of the back. Hell, he could just let Craig lock up; he'd text him once they were safely outside. He looked over at Stan as he pulled his hat on, not in any kind of mood to go on a date. What the hell was he even thinking barging in just out of nowhere?

We talked about this, dammit. He promised me! He fucking promised!

Looking around, he made sure that they were alone before he spoke, voice low and filled with anger.

"I'm not happy about this. I hope you know that."

Blinking, Stan stood and came over, his hands jammed in his back pockets. He watched as Kyle pulled his stuff together, a little muscle jumping in his jaw like he was clenching his teeth.

"I was trying to do something nice for you. Since when is that a crime?"

"Don't you fucking lie to me, Stan Marsh," Kyle snapped, slapping his hand on the counter and making it sting. Rubbing it, he lowered his voice, practically vibrating with thinly-concealed rage. "You came down here to start something. It's so obvious you might as well be wearing a sign."

"I did not come down here to start something," Stan replied, making a face when he threw Kyle's words back at him. "I wanted to pick you up and take you out, because I thought you might like it. Maybe, just maybe," he held up a hand, emphasizing his words, "I was trying to make you happy. Did you ever consider that?"

"No!" Kyle yelled, leaning forward. "I didn't, because you're so fucking transparent it's unbelievable! Goddammit, we even discussed this, and you said -"

Just then, the door to the back door opened, making the hair on the back of Kyle's neck stand up. Studying Stan's face, the way it suddenly tensed up, eyes blazing, he knew that it wasn't Butters returning from dropping the deposit in the back office. Gulping, he turned, almost feeling like he'd been drenched in ice cold water when he saw Pete standing there, his usual casual demeanor blown apart as he regarded them both.

"That's him, right?" Stan asked quietly, his voice taking on a deadly quality that made Kyle's blood run cold. He'd heard it only a handful of times, once when Stan had punched someone out at a bar because he wouldn't leave Kyle alone, and then another time back in high school when an upperclassman had tripped Kyle and almost made him fall down the stairs. Stan had nearly broken the guy's jaw that time, having been rewarded with a nasty boxer's fracture for his trouble.

"Stan, don't," Kyle said, skirting around the counter and holding up his hands; pressing them against Stan's chest to hold him back. "You promised, remember? You told me you'd let me handle this."

"I know," he replied, never taking his eyes from Pete as he stood there, stunned like he was a deer trapped in the sights of a hunter. "I know, but...Jesus Christ, Kyle. He attacked you. He tried to hurt you."

"Hey, man," Pete spoke up, clearly trying to inject some weak machismo into his tone. Kyle cringed, wanting to turn around and tell him to shut the fuck up before he made things worse. "I don't know what you think you're gonna do, but you better stay away from me. I'm warning you."

"Oh, you're warning me? Is that what you're doing?" Stan asked, gently pushing Kyle out of his way. Slowly, he started walking around the counter, pulling his hand from his pocket as he went. Threads of nausea coursed through Kyle's belly when he saw Stan's hands clench into fists as he advanced on Pete.

Obvious fear erupted in Pete's light blue irises as he slid along the counter, trying to keep some space between himself and Stan. Rushing forward, Kyle tried to grab onto Stan's jacket, terrified on Pete's behalf. He wouldn't peg Stan as a hothead, not as a general rule, but he had a protective streak that ran deep when it came to Kyle. It didn't help that he towered over Pete, possessing muscles and strength from his job and liking to stay in shape; lifting weights pretty much every week when he went to the gym. Pete had a wiry look about him, was probably quick, but he didn't appear to have a whole lot of power in his stature.

"Stop, you don't have to do this. Please don't do this," he begged, tugging on Stan's jacket.

"I'm just going to talk to him," Stan snapped, yanking himself away. "Set him straight."

"Back the fuck off!" Pete yelled when Stan had him cornered, standing over him as he cowered against the wall, arms slightly raised. "I barely even touched him, Jesus fucking Christ!"

"The fact that you touched him at all is the problem, you little prick." Reaching out, Stan took a hold of Pete's scrub top and pulled him close so they were eye to eye. "And from what I understand, you didn't even apologize to him. Not a real apology, anyway. That isn't right, now is it?"

Pete glared at Kyle, his teeth set as he lapsed into an expression of defiance. Kyle just shook his head, feeling sick at what he was seeing. He might have liked Stan's sporadic bouts of aggression when they were teenagers, but he didn't think it was flattering now. It just made him feel like everything was out of control; disgusted with violence in general.

"I told you to apologize. Now," Stan seethed, shaking Pete like he was a lanky rag doll. His head snapped side to side, colliding with the wall next to him. "And if you keep messing with him I swear to God I'm going to beat your fucking face in!"

"Oh, hamburgers! What's going on?!" Butters gasped, coming back into the room. He looked at Kyle, clearly terrified.

His nausea was building as he heard Stan continue to threaten Pete, and before he could really think Kyle was running to Butters; grabbing onto his arm.

"G-go get Craig, now! Go!"

"Right!" Turning, he disappeared into the back once more. Before the door could close, Mercedes came out, her eyes widening with shock as she watched the spectacle taking place.

"What the...?" She gaped, her hands flying to her mouth. She stepped behind Kyle. "Kyle, what's...why...?"

"Stan, just let him go!" Kyle yelled, ignoring her. "You've made your point, so just stop!"

Kyle's outcry only seemed to infuriate Stan more, and he viciously shoved Pete backward, his head and back connecting with the wall and making a sickening crack that turned Kyle's stomach. He slid downward, appearing dazed as his feet slipped out from under him. Stan was rearing back to kick him when Craig finally appeared, Butters at his side.

"Hold it!" He barked, coming over and ripping Stan back, stepping between him and Pete. He glared at Stan, actually allowing some emotion to leak into his expression. "Stan, what the hell's gotten into you?!"

"As if you don't fucking know," Stan replied, pointing at Pete. "That son of a bitch had it coming after what he did to Kyle; what he keeps doing to him!"

"What's he talking about? Kyle?" Craig looked at him, some of his anger evaporating. "What's been going on?"

"Please, I don't want to do this right now," Kyle said, hugging himself and staring at the floor, awash in humiliation and shame. He shut his eyes, afraid that he'd lose it and break down in front of everyone; hysteria welling up inside of him. "Please."

"Stan, I think you should go," Craig said, his voice low. "Okay?"

"You need to call the police," Pete muttered, shakily standing; hand braced against the wall to keep him upright. "If you don't, I will."

"Fine, you go ahead and do that, Pete, and then you can explain to them why Stan attacked you in the first place," Craig snapped, rounding on him. "How does that sound?"

The blood was rushing through Kyle's ears when he dared to look up, nearly taken aback at the look of hate Pete was throwing his way. Feeling lightheaded, Kyle slumped into a chair, body buzzing with adrenaline and fighting back waves of growing nausea.

"You better stop looking at him like that," Stan growled. "He's the only reason you still have a job, you ungrateful piece of shit."

"Stan," Craig said, settling a hand on his arm. He shook his head before turning to Pete. "Go wait by my desk, please. I need to talk to you before you leave."

"Whatever," Pete muttered, pushing past Craig and disappearing into the back, slamming the door behind him; making the walls vibrate. The room was plunged into a deep, heavy silence, so thick that Kyle felt like it was becoming a second skin. Leaning forward, he tucked his hands between his knees and stared into space.

"You need to fire him, Craig," Stan said, just the sound of his voice making Kyle wince. "It isn't safe for him to be working around Kyle." He looked at Mercedes and Butters. "Who's to say he won't try that shit with someone else? You need to protect your employees, for Christ's sake."

"I'm well aware of that," Craig replied quietly. "And you're right, but I wanted to take Kyle's wishes into account."

"Craig, are you going to tell us what's going on?" Mercedes spoke, gesturing to herself and Butters. "I think we have a right to know."

Eyes full of apology, Craig caught Kyle's focus before looking toward his other employees. He nodded slowly.

"You do. I'll explain everything before you leave. Kyle?"

Kyle looked at him, waiting. He was deflated and lost, consumed with too many conflicting emotions at once.

"You're pretty much done, right? With everything out here, I mean."

Kyle nodded, hand pressed against his mouth to hide his shaking bottom lip.

"Why don't you take him home, huh?" Craig murmured, glancing at Stan. "I need to take care of a few things."

"Sure," Stan said, adjusting his jacket as he came over to Kyle's side. He frowned when Kyle recoiled from his hand.

"I don't need your help," Kyle muttered, standing on his own. Trembling, he picked up his bag and settled it on his shoulder, avoiding looking at anyone as he slunk toward the door. He pushed through it and went to the truck, shivering and holding back tears as he waited for Stan to unlock it.

"Here, let me take that," Stan said, opening his door and taking a hold of Kyle's bag.

Wordlessly, Kyle slid into the cab and looked straight ahead, not even bothering to buckle his seat belt. Instead, he sat in a daze, still trying to make sense of what just occurred. Stan climbed in beside him, sitting in silence for a few minutes before he turned the key in the ignition, the truck rumbling to life beneath them. He turned up the heat as high as it could go, angling the vents toward Kyle. The radio had been playing when he turned the truck on; he switched it off, leaving them with only the blowing air for background noise.

The moments stretched long as they both just sat there, Kyle lost in his thoughts and Stan waiting, hands draped on the steering wheel; head leaned forward slightly. There was an undercurrent of tension running between them, dense and thick, almost making it difficult to breathe. Suddenly, Stan coughed into his hand, making Kyle jump. He gripped his arms, trying to stop himself from shaking.

"Did you want to stop someplace on the way home?" Stan asked, his voice slightly rough. "For dinner, I mean?"

Kyle shook his head, turning to look out the window. The stars were white flecks in the darkness; threads of violet and navy working their way through the sky. The moon was waning, waxy yellow and exuding a faint light; illuminating wisps of clouds hovering around it. A screaming wind tore through the lot, rattling the truck and kicking up drifts of snow. Holding himself tighter, he swallowed a sob before it could break through his lips. Seizing up, he almost yelled when he felt an unwelcome pressure on his arm.

"Kyle, just talk to me," Stan said, gently tugging on his coat.

"Don't," Kyle whispered, shifting away. "Just don't, okay? I really don't feel like being touched right now."

Breathing heavily through his nose, Stan thumped his fingers on the steering wheel, nervous, little sounds that drove themselves into Kyle's skull.

"Will you at least hear me out before you decide to shut down?" Stan asked.

Kyle shrugged, still staring out the window.

"Go ahead."

"Kyle, I seriously had no intention of going after that fucker when I came down here. I mean it. All I wanted to do was surprise you because you've been so down lately." He sighed, the noise filled with so much fatigue that it was palpable. "You believe me, right?"

His rage quickly resurfaced at this question, rearing up from where it'd been simmering like poison in his veins. Snapping his head around, Kyle pinned Stan against the window with his look alone.

"Why should I, huh? Why should I believe a fucking thing you say?"

"Because -"

"We talked about this," Kyle cut in, feeling savage; destructive. He didn't care. He was so fucking sick of no one hearing him; overriding his wishes for the sake of their own. "I told you exactly what I wanted, didn't I? I told you to trust me...to let me take care of things, and what did you do, Stan? Tell me, what did you do?"

At a loss for words, Stan fumbled for a response. Before he could think of one, Kyle continued on, fury distorting his voice until he nearly didn't recognize it.

"You did exactly what you wanted to do, didn't you? Who gives a fuck what I think, right? Who cares what I might want? No, Stan needs to come rushing in like a fucking neanderthal and throw his weight around. Well, good job, Stan; now we both look like assholes. Are you satisfied now?"

Turning to him, Stan gripped the steering wheel, anger rearranging his features and turning him into a stranger; the same person he'd been when attacking Pete. Kyle didn't back down, though, Stan's response only lighting a fire under his own fury.

"Yeah, I am satisfied now, if you want to know the god's honest truth," Stan spat. "I know you like to think you're a pacifist or whatever, but sometimes force is necessary. Do you really think that guy was going to leave you alone if you just waited him out?"

"Well, I guess we'll never know, will we?!" Kyle yelled, riding a pendulum of rage and a sick, pervasive guilt; swinging back and forth and just begging to be done with the whole ugly business. "Because you can't keep a promise to save your fucking life!"

"I can't keep a promise like that, not if it means looking the other way while you're getting hurt!"

Kyle scoffed, knowing that Stan was trying to disarm him by playing to his emotions, but it wasn't going to work. No, they needed to have this conversation; needed to draw some lines in the sand. If they didn't, he had no idea how they could keep going.

"I don't know how I can make you understand," he started, his voice softening as he scraped together his thoughts, desperate to explain himself clearly. Maybe if he found the right words, he could finally get to the heart of their issues; the problems that just wouldn't seem to die. "What you did in there," he added, pointing toward the clinic, "that's not what I want or need from you, Stan. You can't say one thing one day and then do the exact opposite the next. That doesn't work for me. At all."

He took a shuddering breath, aware that he was walking through a minefield; certain that he'd say the wrong thing and his argument would blow up in his face.

"I'm not flattered or turned on or...grateful that you acted like that. Dammit, you could've been arrested...you could've gotten hurt." Turning to him, he tried to gentle his tone, wanting Stan to realize that his words didn't just stem from anger, they came from a place that cared too; deeply, unequivocally. "We're adults, aren't we? Doesn't that mean we should be acting like we have some sense? Shouldn't we be able to talk things out when we're upset?"

"Yeah, like you ever really want to talk," Stan muttered, slumping against the seat. "It's like pulling teeth to get anything out of you."

"I told you about Pete, didn't I? That he tried to mess with me again?"

"Why did you, if you didn't want me to do anything about it?"

"Maybe," Kyle said softly, "I just wanted to be heard. Maybe I just wanted you to listen without feeling the need to save me. Most of the time that's all I need."

"Whatever. Craig should've just fired Pete in the fucking first place. If he had, we wouldn't even need to have this conversation."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Kyle said quietly, turning back toward the window. Now the flossy clouds were working their way across the declining moon, silver-tinged and frail. He sighed, suddenly wanting to be out in the frigid, clean air, far away from everything. He wanted to stand outside in an open field as the snow fell, letting it pile around him as he watched the stars coast by.

He just wanted to run for miles, run until he found himself somewhere new. In that moment, he wanted everything he couldn't have. Carefully, he opened the door, letting in the air and allowing it to revive him; chilled currents wafting across his too-warm cheeks. He drank it in, closing his eyes while savoring the sensation of being refreshed.

"I think I'll walk home," he announced, beginning to slide from the cab. Before his foot could hit the pavement, he felt Stan holding him back. Opening his eyes, he looked over his shoulder, studying his face; blue-lit in the light pouring from the dash. Stan's expression was contrite in a heartbreaking way, bordering on fearful.

"You don't want me to drive you?" He asked, holding Kyle tightly. "It's so cold, Kyle, and it's dark, and..." he trailed off, the words dying between them. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I'm not just saying that...I really mean it."

"I know," Kyle replied, reaching up and pressing his fingers around Stan's, reassuring him. "I just need a little space. To think. Alright?"

"Are you sure?" Stan's eyes wandered to the night surrounding them. "It just doesn't seem safe."

"Stan." Kyle spoke his name like it was fragile, craving his boyfriend's understanding at least in this one instance, tiny though it was. He felt like they were teetering on an unseen cusp, treacherous and hidden until they were already upon it. For whatever reason, this moment felt crucial, and he needed Stan to feel it as well; intangible but undeniably present. He waited, his pulse rising in steady beats; becoming a hum.

Slowly, Stan loosened his hold on him, each finger lifting in succession. Soon enough, he'd shifted in his seat, his hands on the steering wheel once more.

"Fine, go," he said, a hard edge showing up in his words. It didn't cover up the hurt entirely; Kyle could still feel it. "I'll see you at home later. Just be careful."

"I'll probably take my time. If you're still up when I get in we can talk some more. Fair?"

"It's not like I get a say," Stan replied, watching as Kyle stepped onto the pavement. "So, for the sake of this conversation, sure, yeah. It's fair."

"We both need a chance to breathe, I think," Kyle murmured, beginning to close the door. "See you later." Softly, he shut it, allowing himself the luxury of lingering for a moment as he considered his next move. Stepping away, he peered back into the ocean of sky, dark tides going on forever. The stars glowed, appearing to throb as he watched, so free it made him ache just to look at them.

------

He'd only intended to have one or two cigarettes before heading home, but as he huddled next to the clinic, Kyle just couldn't find the strength to pick himself up and leave. Soon, his pack was dwindling and his fingers were numb, too clumsy to make his lighter work. Sighing, he leaned against the cold bricks, grateful to be out of the wind; hidden from sight. He'd heard engines rumbling and cars pulling away, having peeked from his hiding place once or twice until there was only vehicle left: a black Jag. Earlier, Kyle had flattened himself against the building when he'd seen Pete saunter out, grumbling quietly to himself and slamming his car door so hard he was surprised the window didn't shatter.

Stan had texted him not too long after they'd parted company, letting him know he was hanging out with Kenny at the bar; attempting to blow off some steam:

He needed to get out for a while, too. Bebe's been having a rough time since she had the baby...Kenny thinks it's post-partum. Anyway, I'm gonna try and cheer him up...I should be home soon enough.

"Soon enough," Kyle had repeated softly before sliding his phone back into his pocket. He'd peered up at the sky just as the first feathers of snow began to fall lightly; had closed his eyes and lifted his face. He'd tried to collect himself, find some inner peace, but it was elusive; unreachable.

Now he was beginning to shiver, his hand shaking so hard that it was difficult bringing his cigarette to his lips. Frustrated, he flicked it away, watching the orange tip arc and fall to the icy ground, hissing softly. The snow was picking up, becoming fierce, almost like it was trying to chase him back inside. He felt mechanical when he finally stood, his limbs aching from being still and cramped; the chill having crept into his bones and made a home there. Wincing, he slid his hand along the side of the clinic as he slowly rounded the corner, his eyes wandering across the lot and up the lonely sidewalk that stretched toward his apartment.

Thoughts of diverging paths sprang to mind as he considered the way that would lead him home, his focus straying to the clinic almost like he couldn't resist its pull. Unease crept into him along with the bite of the wind, and he could imagine Craig in his corner; could practically see him in his mind's eye. That same feeling of teetering on a fine, razor-thin edge came back to him, even as he found himself stealing over to the door and fumbling in his pocket, hands still graceless as he jammed his key into the lock and twisted it. He almost felt like he was falling when he tiptoed into the back of the clinic and approached a familiar corridor, looking around the wall and catching his breath when he saw him; back turned and none the wiser.

Craig's hair wasn't as sleek as it had been that morning, and he'd removed his lab coat and his scrub top. He sat before his computer in his white undershirt and his scrub pants, legs crossed. Soft music made its way to Kyle's ears, indiscernible but beguiling. He watched for a moment, feeling strange about observing Craig while he was unaware but nonetheless fascinated. What he was seeing had to be the truth, pretenses and facades set aside in a moment of unconcealed, barefaced nakedness. People were only truly themselves when they were alone, at least that's what he'd always assumed.

He crouched out of sight when he heard a shrill noise split the air, the breath catching in his lungs as he tried to stay as still as possible. He waited a moment before he dared to look again, seeing Craig tapping something on his phone and then setting it aside, sighing so deeply Kyle could practically feel it from across the room. It was a sound that seemed to drag out of him, almost like it was being unearthed from the deepest place in his body; full of such a pervasive melancholy he could hardly believe it had come from Craig.

He always seems so untouchable, he thought, coming down the hallway slowly, his hand twisting his jacket tighter with every step he took. Heart pounding, he approached Craig, wanting to call out to him but not wanting to startle him, beginning to feel ashamed at not announcing his presence earlier. Reaching out, he hesitated before gently tapping Craig's back, unprepared when he jumped and turned, eyes wide like saucers.

"Jesus Christ," he said, clutching at his chest. "Don't sneak up on me like that, Kyle. You almost gave me a heart attack."

"Now you know how it feels," Kyle replied, unable to hide his amusement and sudden happiness. He thought a moment, watching as Craig attempted to get his bearings. "You know, now that I think about it, this is the first time I've ever seen you scared of something. It's weird."

"Thanks for letting me know," Craig gasped, falling back into his chair, legs and arms splayed. "God, I seriously thought I was about to be murdered."

"Sorry. I wasn't trying to scare you."

"No, it's okay. I'm fine." Letting out a long breath, he ran his hands through his hair, eyes on the ceiling before they fell; studying Kyle closely. "Have you been outside this whole time? Or did you go home and come back...?"

"Outside," Kyle said, rubbing the back of his calf with his foot. "I was trying to..." he shrugged, unable to find the words to explain himself. "I just needed to be alone for a while, I guess."

Lifting a hand, Craig touched Kyle's face, frowning before pulling away. Warmth flowered in Kyle's skin at the brief contact; bright fire kindled.

"You're freezing," he said, pulling a chair over. Leaning down, he switched on a tiny space heater under his desk. "Sit down and warm up."

Without a word, he obeyed, but he did it with pleasure. He almost felt like he was being dragged into a circle of light as he sat next to Craig, arms wrapped tightly around himself as he drifted, watching him type and think and consider; the music continuing to play softly and winding around them like perfume.

Winds may blow over the icy sea
I'll take with me the warmth of thee
A taste of honey
A taste much sweeter than wine...*

"You've played this song before, I think," Kyle murmured, slowly beginning to thaw as the heater creaked. "Who sings it?"

"Hmm?" Craig glanced over at him, the side of his face washed in the glow coming from the monitor. He stilled, listening as well. "Peggy Lee. Why, do you like it?"

He nodded, leaning closer. He silently thanked Craig for not prodding, for not forcing him to talk about the nasty scene that had played out that night. This was enough to make him relax, muscles loosening one by one as he listened and sank into the heat pooling around his feet; the warmth thrown by his nearness to Craig. The guilt that wanted to turn his head, make him see reason, was quieted as he allowed himself this moment, everything that he'd been craving but hadn't wanted to admit. It was like he'd finally allowed himself to satiate a gnawing hunger, just by being in this place, next to this person...even when they weren't speaking.

It was enough.

"Your stomach's growling," Craig said idly, tapping his ring against the side of his keyboard as he studied his screen. "I bet you haven't eaten since lunch, right?"

He clutched at his middle, embarrassed.

"I didn't even have lunch."

"Kyle," he sighed, dropping his chin to his chest and shifting his eyes to look at him. He smiled softly. "Here," he added, fishing in his bag and pulling out a sandwich. "Peanut butter and jelly. It isn't fancy, but it's something."

"Thanks," he said, accepting it. Slipping the sandwich from the Ziploc, he offered half to Craig. He waved it away.

"You eat it. It's all yours."

It was remarkable how wonderful the simple combination of strawberry and crunchy peanut butter could taste when eaten under just the right circumstances. Kyle ate the sandwich slowly, wanting to savor it. All the while, Craig continued to type, seemingly lost in his work.

"What are you working on?" Kyle asked, licking the red jelly from his fingers, cheeks heated when he noticed Craig watching him out of the corner of his eye.

"Oh, just an article I'm writing with Token. Sperm extraction in non-obstructive -"

"Azoospermia?" Kyle cut in, sure that he'd butchered the word beyond recognition.

"Yes, actually," Craig said, turning to him. "How'd you know?"

"Tweek told me," he replied, tucking his curl behind his ear and looking at the floor. Craig sounded pleased, which only served to please him. He was just glad that he'd tucked the bit of information away when he'd heard it, curious about Craig's work; clearly, it was very important to him.

"You and that curl," Craig commented, taking him by surprise. "I always want to fix it for you...whenever it slips out of place."

This admission only served to make Kyle feel tongue-tied so he hid his face; studying the tiles under his shoes like they were endlessly fascinating. Why did Craig have to say things like that so suddenly, and why did they make him so happy...why did all of this make him so happy he could hardly stand it?

"Kyle?"

Wordlessly, he looked up, unable to meet Craig's eyes but hungrily looking at his face in small, brief snatches: the curve of his cheek, the arch of a brow, his bottom lip fuller than the top. The precipice he'd been teetering on opened up beneath him and he was nearly falling again. He'd plummeted like this before, could remember the thrall of it, but that had been years ago. Back then, he'd only let go after he was sure he'd have a secure place to land, but right now he was facing the unknown, the wide darkness of leaping before truly looking.

"Yes?" he finally replied, starting to feel pleasantly dizzy. It was like being halfway through a bottle of spirits; just as the world started to bend and warp.

"Are you okay?"

He considered the question, even through the fog of his thoughts. It seemed to be loaded, the words containing more than their simplicity. Maybe it was Craig's tone; careful, slightly reticent.

"No," he said, giving into honesty, cruel as it was. He lifted his eyes, unafraid of Craig seeing the truth in them. What was the point of lying or avoiding what was undeniable at this point? "I'm not, not really. I wanted to think I was...that I could figure things out and accept my life as it is, but I can't." Hungrily, he reached out and placed his hand on Craig's leg, needing the contact; the reassurance that what he was saying was being heard, even if it wasn't well-received. "Am I making any sense? I feel like everything I'm saying is completely wrong."

Turning, Craig was slow as he pulled Kyle closer to him, reaching up to cup his cheeks in his hands; cradling him. Studying his face, his eyes were in shadow and hiding the small patches of green. Grey irises moved quickly, almost like they were drinking in the sight of him.

"You're always so hard on yourself," he said, running his thumbs along Kyle's cheeks. "It's almost like you're afraid to be happy."

Sighing, Kyle leaned his face into Craig's hand, turning his head and brushing his lips softly against his palm. His eyes slid to meet Craig's again, emboldened; body waking up as he stepped up to the edge inside his mind, looked over, and with one last, halting breath -

He leapt, free-falling completely; letting go of his reservations as the blood sang in his veins, pushed along by a quick, frantic heartbeat.

"Are you sure?" Craig asked, stroking Kyle's bottom lip with a cool fingertip; making him shiver.

He nodded, tipping his head back and allowing himself to open like a rose; surrendering. Looking at Craig was too much in that moment and he slid his eyes closed, breath trapped in him as he waited, his mind affording him blissful, absolute respite when he felt Craig's lips settle on his own, needful and starting out slow; soft. Soon, the touch was deepening, like Kyle was a body of water that Craig was slowly getting used to, and then he could feel a warm tongue sliding along his mouth and he was parting his lips.

The kiss that followed was long and sweet, richer than honey as it burned him, consumed him. Vaguely, he was aware of Craig's hands slipping down his sides and finding their way under his shirt and jacket, pushing underneath the material and coming to rest on the curve of his back. Moaning, he allowed himself to be pulled closer, standing and coming to rest in Craig's lap, straddling him as the kiss continued; hard won and bringing an end to the agony of indecision.

"I didn't want to pressure you," Craig breathed, breaking away and kissing along Kyle's jaw, fingers pressed into Kyle's skin as he nipped gently at his throat; making him gasp softly. "I wanted to wait...I didn't want you to do anything you'd regret."

"I know," he sighed, pressing himself closer, tasting spearmint on Craig's tongue; the carmex rubbed into his lips. He tasted clean, reminiscent of snow and cool champagne; pure, distilled vodka and the sharp winter air. Heavy-lidded, he felt his jacket being parted by large, sure hands, head thrown back as Craig kissed the hollow of his clavicle, where the fragile bones met.

Don't let me go, he thought, closing his eyes and continuing his descent; a star streaking toward the earth. I'll be fine as long as you don't let me go, okay?

Please.

Chapter Text

From the motel window, the stars twinkle and the signs glow
I see all the places you've taken me and all the places we'll go together

- Blue Moon Motel, Nicole Dollanganger

--

Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away
I know I've dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom but I don't have much time
Faith has been broken tears must be cried
Let's do some living after we die

- Wild Horses, The Rolling Stones


He could still taste him on his lips; clean and sweet, slightly illicit.

Kyle tasted Craig on his mouth the entire way home, the Jag traveling dark roads as they rode in a sleepy, warm silence. He looked out the window most of the time, drifting on a tide of elation and a slow, creeping guilt, but he had to admit to himself that he was happy about what had happened between them.

A small part of his heart felt relieved, lighter, and on a deep level, hidden away in the caverns of him, he didn't want to leave the car. No, he was content to sit beside Craig for as long as he could, had to resist the urge to ask him to just keep going; past the city limits and into the wild unknown.

Just take me away, he wanted to whisper. Where no one knows us, where we don't have to hide.

He stayed silent, reveling in Craig's flavor resting on his skin. They'd kissed each other until they'd become breathless, Kyle cradled in Craig's lap as his hands strayed to his bare skin. He was warm in the places where he'd been touched, a raw tingling lingering in his flesh; had wanted to hold onto Craig when he'd finally pulled away. Craig had checked the time and frowned, had laid his lips on Kyle's cheek one last time before he'd murmured:

"I should take you home. It's late."

The words had been hot next to his ear, shivering through him like currents of electricity. They had brought him back to reality. He'd blinked like he was breaking the surface of a lake, unaware that he'd been floating suspended in Craig's nearness; unaware that they'd fallen together, drowning in each other.

Now they were pulling up in front of Kyle's building, his eyes straying from the window to settle on the balcony door; surprised to find it dark. He studied the parking lot, immediately noticing the absence of Stan's truck.

"He isn't here, is he?" Craig asked, glancing at him.

Kyle shook his head, threads of concern blooming in him. He'd almost been sure that Stan would be back by now. It was already past eleven.

"I guess he's still at the bar with Kenny," he replied, hands hanging loosely in his lap that slowly closed; clenching. "When they get together and start drinking, they can be out 'til all hours. I think they lose track of time."

"Hmm," Craig said, looking back at the black balcony door; the bird feeder swayed in a sudden, cutting wind. His eyes narrowed. "Are you okay to go inside?"

"I should be fine," Kyle said softly. "I've come home to an empty apartment plenty of times. I'm used to it."

"Still, I think I'd feel better if I walked you to the door."

Warmth gathered in Kyle's cheeks at these words, but it was pleasurable. Craig was concerned for him, and this knowledge made him feel precious; wanted. Protected. It was the sort of protection he didn't mind because it didn't come from a place of control, it would seem. It was gentle, not heaped upon him against his will. He nodded slowly.

"If you want," he said, looking down at his lap.

Soon enough, they were standing in front of Kyle's door as he pulled his keys from his pocket. He hesitated, worrying his bottom lip in thought. A crazy, impulsive part of himself wanted to invite Craig inside, no doubt the same part that had wanted to escape the confines of South Park. It was a vapor of a voice in his brain that spoke of things he wanted, but was afraid to truly grasp at; fantastical desires.

"I should stay out here," Craig said, making the decision for both of them. "It'd be disrespectful to come in when Stan isn't here. Especially since..."

"I know," Kyle whispered, realizing exactly what he meant.

We've crossed over a line. We can't go back now, can we?

"I'll wait until you give me the all clear, okay?"

"Sure," he replied, unlocking the door and stepping inside, acutely aware of Craig lingering in the doorway. It was surreal having him there, like he'd opened the lid of Kyle's life to peer inside; looking into a yet unseen portion of his heart. He snapped on a light, illuminating the living room.

"You have a nice place," Craig commented, glancing around; hands jammed into the pockets of his sleek, black jacket. "It's really homey."

Kyle looked around as well, taking in the sight of the flat screen, the bookshelves with their knickknacks, worn and comfortable tan sofas; Stan's easy chair. His eyes skipped away from that quickly, falling to the blue rug on the floor. Momentarily, he considered the hallway that led to the bedroom he shared with Stan, to the bed that was probably still rumbled from last night's slumber; green comforter, pillows that had lost some of their firmness over the years. He pushed the vision away swiftly. A sudden idea struck him instead, unsure if he should consider it, but when his focus strayed back to Craig, it seemed right.

"Hold on," he said, going into the kitchen and opening the fridge. He hesitated before reaching into the door, pulling two wine bottles out, the cold glass chilling his hands as he carried them over to Craig. He held them out, eyes averted. "Will you take these with you? I don't trust myself with them tonight."

Craig didn't answer for a moment, was slow to take the bottles, but eventually he did.

"You sure?" He asked quietly. "I wasn't trying to give you a hard time when I said what I did, Kyle. I'm just concerned."

"No, it needed to be said...I needed to hear it," Kyle replied, raising his eyes. He smiled. "Sometimes your bluntness comes in handy...when you use it for good, anyway."

"Well, at least I've been able to help one person," Craig grinned, lapsing into silence as he studied Kyle's face; appearing fond, almost dreamy. Looking away, he colored slightly before he spoke again. "Is it okay if I kiss you goodnight, or would it be weird right now? I mean, because of where we are and all."

"Kissing you at all is weird," Kyle said, drawing forward and taking a hold of Craig's jacket. Gently he pulled him closer, getting on his tiptoes as he kissed him on the mouth, holding the moment before sinking back down. He leaned his cheek against Craig's chest before pulling back, face burning. His lips felt swollen and sore from being kissed so much, but he liked it. The shame was bearable in the moment, but he knew it would flood him when Craig left him alone. "That doesn't mean I don't like doing it."

"How did we even get here?" Craig asked, brushing some hair from Kyle's forehead; the wine bottles tucked under his arm. "Do you know?"

Kyle shook his head, not wanting to pinpoint the moment he'd known that things just couldn't be the same between them. It was all too new, too raw. He needed time to think and come to terms with everything.

"I have a few ideas," Craig murmured when Kyle didn't speak, tucking his curl away and patting it gently. "But we can talk about them another day, I should probably go. Are you still coming tomorrow?"

"Yes, I'd like to," he replied, looking at the floor and toeing the carpet. "I'll text you, okay?"

"Please do." He stroked Kyle's cheek before turning, beginning to depart. He hesitated until Kyle looked up at him, curious. "The ride home seems longer than usual tonight. Doesn't that sound crazy?"

"No," he said, glancing back at the empty apartment. "I think I know exactly what you mean."

Kyle was slow to discard the garments he was wearing, not wanting to distance himself from the fragrance Craig had left behind; pressed into the fabric of his coat and scrub top. Winding ribbons of cologne and vanilla were specters that traveled with him through the apartment as he slowly undressed, listening to the silence that began to assume its own form, becoming another person standing in the corner and watching him. He moved like he was exploring unknown terrain, trying to see his home the way Craig had, its coziness; its simple, honest design. He realized he loved it in some way, appreciating the way it enfolded him even during his worst moments.

He lay his jacket carefully over the arm of the couch, smoothing it out; finding any reason to keep touching it. He'd touched it, had used it to pull him closer, parting the collar to gain better access. Now it was special somehow, but with the tenderness came the memory of buying the garment with Stan ages ago. He'd told Kyle how much he loved the color on him, green to match his eyes. This thought wounded him, and instinctively he moved toward the fridge, intent on grabbing the wine bottle and -

"Right, they're gone," he murmured, sitting on the edge of the couch and pressing his face into his hands. "This is going to be so fucking hard, I already know."

Maybe I could have one of Stan's beers. He wouldn't mind, and it might help calm me down.

He considered this before he stiffened his resolve, thinking of the soft touch of pride he'd seen in Craig's eyes when he'd handled the wine bottles over. Weak as it made him feel, pathetic really, if Craig believed in him, perhaps he could believe in himself, too.

Instead, he turned on some music so he could slaughter the quiet that was crowding him. He searched for something new, something sweet and soft that wouldn't overstimulate him.

Who did Craig say that singer was that he always listens to? He wracked his brain until the name came to him.

"Peggy Lee," he said, flipping through YouTube. He found a fair amount of her songs, choosing one at random:

Let me sigh
Let me cry
When I'm blue
Let me go away from this lonely town...*

He had to admit it was fitting, though it wasn't exactly comforting. He allowed it, throwing the remote aside and continuing to undress, shedding his scrubs, his thermal; leaving his boxer briefs on as he padded to the bathroom to turn on the shower. Through it all, the husky, tortured voice followed him, helping him nurse a mood of longing and quiet desperation. Before he stepped into the spray, he checked the time and frowned to see it was almost midnight. He worried about Stan, out there in the night and probably drinking too much. He just hoped that Kenny was taking care of him; not letting him come to harm. He sent a text anyway, wanting Stan to know that he was thinking of him even when they were at odds.

-----

When Stan finally staggered in hours later, Kyle was nodding over his open laptop, nestled in the corner of the couch. He'd written a little, mostly his worries and sadness, trying to keep it abstract in case Stan stumbled upon it. He hated that he had to worry about that possibility but he'd been burned twice; he wasn't about to take another chance. Idly, he tried to think of a place where he could place his thoughts where he wouldn't have to be concerned about anyone finding it, irritated that he had to hide at all. He was an adult, wasn't he? Shouldn't he be allowed a decent amount of privacy? It wasn't really asking too much.

He stirred when he heard the door slam, coming back to life slowly as he looked blearily around, blinking to clear the cloudiness from his eyes. Groggily, he checked the time, surprised to see that it was past 3 am and Stan had just now seen fit to come home. It was highly unusual for him to stay out that late, knowing that Kyle would worry; knew that he'd fret and wring his hands until Stan was safely home. Trying to downplay his quick annoyance and his lingering fear, Kyle slowly rose from the couch and came over to him, not making an attempt to touch him as Stan clumsily slid his jacket and hat off; attempting to hang them on the hall tree and failing.

Sighing, Kyle picked up the articles and hung them up, aware that Stan was leaning against the wall, barely able to keep his feet as he covered his eyes with his hand.

"Where have you been, Stan?" Kyle asked quietly, trying to keep notes of accusation from his tone. "It's after 3 am. I was worried."

"The bar," Stan slurred, pushing off of the wall and clutching at the back of the easy chair. He let out a long breath as he moved around it, slumping down into its soft confines. "With Kenny. I told you that."

"The whole time? Isn't last call 2 am?"

"Fine," Stan replied, throwing up a hand dismissively. "We hung out for a while. Kenny had some whiskey in his truck. We went to the pond."

"Isn't drinking in a public park illegal? What if you'd been caught?"

"Jesus, will you lay off?" he snapped, sitting heavily in his chair. He covered his eyes again. "Christ, it's bright in here. Why are all the lights in creation on?"

Without protest, Kyle shut off one of the lamps, plunging the room into slight shadow; the only light coming from the small lamp next to the couch. Coming around, he knelt in front of Stan and placed his hands on his knees.

"You shouldn't drink that much," he murmured. "You're going to make yourself sick."

"It was necessary. Kenny's dealing with Bebe's mood swings and I'm -" he broke off, running his hand down his face; skin rasping as his fingers scraped against his stubble. "Dealing with whatever's going on with us. What's happening to us, Kyle?"

"We don't have to talk about that right now, okay? Why don't you get undressed and you can take a shower. Wouldn't that make you feel better?"

Stan grunted, shaking his head before he groaned, rubbing his temple. Glancing at Kyle, a flash seemed to pass through his bloodshot eyes and suddenly he was gripping Kyle under his arms and pulling him onto his lap. Alcohol-scented lips came to rest on his throat as he struggled to understand what was happening. Usually when Stan was extremely inebriated he wasn't in the mood for sex or affection, just wanting to go to bed and sleep it off. Closing his eyes, Kyle couldn't help but think that there was a silent hopelessness underlying Stan's kisses, and the thought made him so sad he couldn't pull away.

"I just wanted to protect you tonight, Kyle. I wasn't trying to make you unhappy...how can I make you believe me?" he said, voice thick as he trailed his lips up Kyle's jaw. "I hate when you're mad at me...all of the pieces fall out of place when we aren't okay."

Kyle was glad that he'd bathed after coming home, washing away Craig's aromas and the lingering memories of his touches. If he hadn't, he was sure that Stan would've picked on them...somehow he would've known, and this terrified him. He'd never realized that harboring this sort of secret would be so unbearably painful, especially when he was in Stan's arms and he needed him so much; guilty because he just couldn't muster up the same sort of desire.

"Stan, please," he whispered, quieted when Stan settled his lips on his own, tasting of cheap beer and cigarettes. Most of the time he tasted so sweet, like Craig had mere hours before, but right now he tasted like a stranger; a desperate stranger. Softly, he pushed him away and looked down at his lap. "You're drunk and you don't know what you're doing. You won't remember this in the morning."

"Yes, I will. I always remember being with you, even when I'm like this," Stan replied huskily, kissing his cheek, hot breath flushing Kyle's flesh. "I want to be close to you."

"We can be close without having sex," Kyle said, gently reaching up and placing his hand on Stan's lips, shielding his face. "I don't want to do this right now. Okay?"

Stan stared at him, eyes widening as far as they could go in his drunken state.

"But, why?"

"It doesn't feel right," he admitted, shifting uneasily on Stan's lap. Laying his hand on Stan's face, he tried to smile. "Just let me take care of you. I'll get you some water and Ibuprofen...you can take a shower and get into some comfortable clothes. Doesn't that sound better?"

Turning his face away, Stan blinked his eyes rapidly, gulping and making his Adam's apple bob. He nodded before he became still, seemingly listening.

"You've never played this before," he commented, calling Kyle's attention to the music still playing; Peggy Lee's singing of being alone with the blues. "It's different from your other stuff."

"I'm just trying to branch out," Kyle said, sliding from his lap and going to the kitchen, remorse plucking him and making him burn. He retrieved a bottle of water from the fridge and the ibuprofen, bringing them over to Stan. "I'll go run the shower for you, okay? Just get in and I'll set out a change of clothes, too."

Stan didn't move, still sitting and listening, jaw set before he finally took the bottle and drank deeply. He took the pills, the smell of the bar and cold wind emanating from his pores. Kyle watched, eventually going to start the shower and fetching some clothes: a t-shirt and boxers. He laid them on the counter, lingering to stay with his reflection for a moment, skin so pale it appeared cold; wide eyes grass green around his irises and fading outward to a softer olive on the edges. They seemed scared, larger than usual; reflecting torment over his betrayal and wanting something he shouldn't have.

He almost screamed when Stan suddenly appeared behind him, his reflection towering over Kyle's, reminding him of his smallness. Dark and bright, big and tiny, tan and white. They'd always been opposites on the surface but Kyle had always wanted to believe they were same on the inside, where it counted. They still were, weren't they?

"Thanks," Stan said, beginning to remove his clothes and throwing them aside. "I'll make it quick, huh? I'm pretty beat."

"Right," Kyle said, giving himself one last look, having fully expected to look different after the events of the evening. He turned away, knowing the only irrevocable change was inside of him, hidden but wanting to come to the surface, no matter how much he wanted to conceal it; the truth beating like a heart where outsiders couldn't see.

But he felt it, becoming bigger along with the lies.

-----

"Ugh, I feel like death. I'm dead, right? There's no way I can feel this bad and still be alive," Stan groaned the next morning, propped up on the couch and swathed in a blanket; face pale and sheened with sweat as he choked down a cup of black coffee. He'd awoken hours after Kyle so it was already late morning, rushing to the bathroom where he'd promptly vomited; barely making it to the toilet in time. Kyle had just come in and brushed his hair from his sweaty face, helping him ride through the heaves until they'd become almost dry; bringing up bile as Stan moaned.

"You just need to lay low today," Kyle said, bringing him more water and dry toast, the ibuprofen bottle on the side table already. "I'm just glad you weren't scheduled to work."

"I would've called out," Stan muttered, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "I haven't had a hangover like this in forever. Now I know why I stopped drinking hard liquor for the most part. You should've seen Kenny, dude; motherfucker can drink like a fish and it doesn't faze him."

"Kenny's made of pretty indestructible materials," Kyle replied, slowly sitting in the easy chair, hands between his knees. "Sometimes I wonder if he's even human." He paused, chewing his lip, still feeling bruised from the previous night. "How much did you drink, anyway?"

"God, I don't even know. I lost track." He continued to hang his head, voice slightly raspy from throwing up so violently. "I just didn't want to think for a while, you know?"

Kyle nodded, having had this same desire many, many times.

"I know exactly what you mean. But you can't just drown your thoughts, Stan. Did it help?"

"Momentarily, but you're right. I didn't see your wine bottles in the fridge, by the way. Did you have your own little binge party?"

Bristling lightly, Kyle refrained from becoming defensive.

"No, actually. I gave them to Craig."

Stan snapped his head up, eyes narrowed.

"Craig? He drinks cheap wine? And he was over here? When?"

"Stan, calm down," Kyle said, holding up a hand. "I didn't give them to him to drink, I just didn't want to have them in the apartment because I didn't want to lose control. To answer your other question, he dropped me off last night." Hesitating, he added softly, feeling the need to explain himself. "He didn't come inside. He waited at the door."

"I see," Stan replied, still appearing slightly put-off; not angry, but annoyed. Lifting his water bottle, he drained half of it before slamming it down on the side table much harder than necessary. "So you were willing to accept a ride from him but not me. Is that it?"

"We needed space last night, both of us," Kyle countered, light droplets of sweat collecting on his upper lip and the back of his neck. "Don't you think?"

"Yeah, but I could've driven you home. You didn't need to find someone else."

"Please don't blow this out of proportion. We don't need to have an argument about this on top of everything else," Kyle sighed, curling his legs under him; hiding his socked feet. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"I told you I was sorry," Stan muttered, looking away; brow furrowed. "The way I reacted came from a positive place, and it wasn't my intention. It's just," he stumbled, staring at his hands; shaking slightly, "I saw his face and I could imagine him having you cornered and afraid, and I could see him intimidating you after the fact...smug because he'd gotten away with it and knowing you're too nice to retaliate. I just saw red. I wanted to hurt him because he was hurting you, and something inside of me snapped."

"I know, and I can appreciate that, coming to my defense, but that isn't the way to do it. Especially when I explicitly told you not to get involved. You set my feelings aside to comfort your own, and it isn't right. You need to listen to me, you need to have some kind of respect for my wishes. Otherwise, what kind of relationship is this?"

Stan shook his head like he was at a loss, laying his hands back in his lap and curling them up. He shrugged, still refusing to look at him.

"I don't know, honestly. I love you, Kyle, but sometimes I feel like I don't really know you." Closing his eyes, he became still, taking a deep breath like he needed to fortify himself for what was coming next.

"Sometimes I feel like you don't like me, either. Sure, you love me, I don't doubt that, but you don't like me. It terrifies me."

Stan's words were like a million arrows flying into his heart at once, decimating it until it had to struggle to beat. They almost physically hurt him, breath caught in his chest as he pressed his hand to himself; flat against his sternum where the pain was growing and becoming stronger.

"That isn't true," he said softly.

It isn't, is it? You like him...he's kind, he's warm...giving. He always wants to take care of you, doesn't he?

A secret part of himself, of his brain that was usually kept under wraps because it harbored the deeper, meaner parts of himself suddenly spoke up; breaking through his thoughts and refusing to be ignored.

There are parts of him you don't like and you know it. He can be controlling and bossy; thoughtless. He didn't seem to think twice when he was embarrassing you in front of your coworkers. He stayed out late last night and ignored your texts, knowing you tend to worry when he doesn't communicate. He lied to you about looking at porn and then made you shoulder part of the blame instead of admitting he fucked up on his own. He makes plans and tells you about them after the fact. He has a bad temper and can't always control it, he -

He clamped his hands over his ears, not wanting to hear anymore. He wasn't perfect either, who was he to judge Stan so harshly? What was he doing at that very moment? He'd kissed another man less than 12 hour ago and he wanted to do it again. Kyle wanted to be with Craig in that very moment, even as he crumbled to pieces in front of Stan. God, how he loathed himself, his hypocrisy.

"I like you," he whispered, ignoring the sinister little voice that should be dormant; sleeping because it only caused trouble. "We just have things we need to work on. Together. Right?"

"Where do we start?" Stan asked, pulling his legs under the blanket and leaning his cheek into the soft upholstery. He looked sleepy, eyes drooping. "I'm willing to try, but I don't know where. Do you?"

"Honestly, no," Kyle admitted, feeling his phone vibrating in his pocket and hating himself for the burst of euphoric excitement. That had to be Craig. "We'll have to take things slowly and pick our way through. Every day is an opportunity to make things better."

"Hmm," Stan sighed, nestling his face into the couch. "I'm so tired, dude. Throwing up always exhausts me. My whole body hurts."

"Maybe you should take a hot bath," Kyle said, slowly pulling his phone out, biting his lip at the sight of Craig's name flashing across the display. He wanted to press it to his heart, where the ache lingered but becoming bearable. "That always makes me feel better. Did you want me to run it for you?"

"Maybe later." His voice was starting to take on its drowsy, thick quality; telling Kyle that he was two steps away from falling into a cat nap.

Checking the text, a goofy smile crawled Kyle's mouth:

Are you still coming over?

He glanced at Stan, eyes closed and the blankets pulled up high enough to cover his mouth. Kyle cleared his throat before speaking, not wanting to startle him.

"Stan?"

"Hmm?"

"I kind of promised Tweek I'd stop by today. I can stay home if you'd like, though...I don't want to leave you alone when you're feeling sick."

Shifting softly, Stan slid his head down the curvature of the couch where it came to settle on the armrest. He cracked his eyes open.

"It's okay," he murmured before yawning widely. "I'm probably going to be out for most of the day. You should go out and have fun. I don't want to keep you prisoner here."

God, why did he have to phrase it like that? It only compounded his shame, but it couldn't hold a candle to his burgeoning excitement. He attempted to do the noble thing once more, knowing he'd hate himself more if he didn't at least try.

"Are you sure?"

"Mmhmm. Can you pick up something for dinner on your way home? I want hangover food."

"Taco Bell?"

"You know me so well," he said, turning over so his back was to Kyle. Soon, he was snoring softly, side rising up and down slowly.

With trembling thumbs, Kyle tapped out a quick message to Craig before rising, giddiness quickening his feet when he retreated to the bedroom to get ready:

I'll be over soon. Don't worry.

------

It felt bizarre driving after so long, having become accustomed to being a passenger.

It especially felt weird driving Stan's truck and being by himself inside of it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been a vehicle by himself, almost feeling like he'd never seen the inside of the cab before. His eyes strayed over the little yellow tree hanging from the rear view mirror, faint threads of its vanilla scent winding through the truck. He cringed, almost feeling like the universe was trying to send him a message, the ghostly hints of Craig's memory mixing with Stan's presence, lingering all around him.

The floor was messy as usual. It seemed no matter how many times Kyle nagged him, Stan couldn't help but litter the bottom of his truck with old receipts and food wrappers: bygone meals calling to attention his atrocious eating habits when he didn't cook: Burger King, Wendy's, the occasional Chik fil A box, greasy from the chicken nuggets it had once contained. In the back were hoodies and t-shirts that needed a good washing, an extra pair of work boots, and a sun-faded 12-pack of Coke that had expired two years ago. The place he was in had a history, and he could remember going with Stan when he'd bought the truck, nervous and giddy because they were doing something huge together: making their first serious Adult Purchase as a couple. It had been daunting but exhilarating at the same time.

He'd been pretty easygoing about the whole affair when it had happened, having not had a dog in the fight because he hadn't planned on driving whatever they bought very much. That had been back when he'd fully intended on publishing another book and soon, more than ready to stay around the apartment and write, write, write. When Stan had pointed out the truck, a shiny blue Nissan Frontier, he'd merely shrugged and told him if it made him happy, then it made him happy as well. He'd been concerned about its size, though, reminding his boyfriend that he'd once been a driving proponent behind cars that didn't make a huge impact on the environment.

"Hey, we live in the mountains and it snows like crazy," Stan had argued, sliding a hand along the truck's side; eyes shining with avarice. "We need a truck like this, Kyle. You know, just in case."

Kyle had conceded to this point and it wasn't long before they'd driven the truck off the lot, celebrating by going home and grabbing a blanket to throw in the bed. Then they'd driven to a wide-open field and parked, happy for the summer winds that had passed through and rustled the grasses while the stars, monumental above them, had shone; Kyle gasping softly when Stan had fucked him slowly. They'd always wanted to fuck in the great outdoors, had even done it on a beach once during a trip to California, and when they'd gone camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. But this occurrence had been different; they were christening the beginning of being serious, of truly growing up.

These memories were heavy in Kyle's mind as he maneuvered the truck up the road cutting through snow-laden pines; the wind and white flakes striking the windshield and forcing him to huddle close to the steering wheel. He was nervous, was always nervous driving in this weather, and it didn't help that he didn't have the best vision. Stan was the only person that knew Kyle wore glasses when he drove, had teased him for driving like Mr. Magoo, cautious and always under the speed limit, but he'd done it with affection; had never revealed Kyle's little secret.

His GPS told him that he was only two minutes away now, making him breathe a small sigh of relief before he seized up, remembering his destination: the lonely, impressive castle waiting in the woods. He tried to remind himself that seeing Craig was just a bonus, that he was truly on his way to see Tweek. He had worried for him over the past week, wanted to make sure he was okay, and he still wanted to collaborate. He had to admit that he still didn't have any ideas, but if they put their heads together he was sure they could come up with something. It would be nice just being quiet with him, too; Tweek lost to his art as Kyle looked through his books and sketches, the small lights of creativity, inspiration, igniting themselves. Hopefully, they'd amount to something this time.

I was able to write again last night, he reminded himself, easing himself to a cautious stop in front of the iron gates. I'm getting better, aren't I?

He waited a few moments before sliding from the truck, shoes sinking into deep snow as he slowly approached his destination; the house silent like a crouched, waiting creature that was holding its breath. Once again, the glass windows were warm with amber light, beckoning to him. Punching in the code, the gate swung open to receive him and he passed through, feet full of trepidation as he approached the front door. He started to ring the bell, finger curled up for a moment before it depressed the glowing round pearl; ear cocked, listening for the chimes ringing deep inside the house. Shortly, footsteps sounded on the other side of the door and then it was opening, Kyle holding his breath the whole time.

"Welcome," Linda said warmly as she ushered him into the house, dressed in faded jeans and a fuzzy, pink sweater; hair gathered into a bun on her nape. "Come along into the kitchen, I'm making some tea."

Feeling shy, Kyle followed behind her, ribbons of that rain-tinged musk, dark like earth, winding around him as they passed by the living room with the slumbering woman over the mantle; finally making their way into the immaculate black and white kitchen with the silver, shining fixtures. A comforting smell wafted in the air, making him want to curl up in front of a roaring fire on a cold day; head nestled in someone's lap as he dozed.

Going to a teapot with bits of string hanging over its rim, little squares of paper on their ends blue against the white china, Linda gestured to it.

"Earl Grey," she explained. "I was about to take some up to Mr. Tucker. He's in his study, working."

"I can bring it to him," Kyle said quickly, flushing at his obvious enthusiasm. "I mean, if it's alright with you. I don't want to get in the way."

"Actually, you'd be doing me a favor." She lifted the pot and two delicate cups onto a tray, placing a pitcher, a plate of cookies, and a little sugar bowl next to them. "I still have to finish up lunch." She smiled, going to the fridge and lifting out a clear bowl. She held it up. "We're having chicken salad."

"Sounds delicious," Kyle replied, going to the tray and beginning to slide it toward him, afraid that he'd drop it and ruin everything. Hefting it into his hands, a sudden realization came to him. "Where's Craig's study?"

"Of course," she said, slowly shredding chicken. "It's up the stairs and to the right. It's the second door on your left."

"Thanks," he said, slowly walking out of the kitchen like he was cradling a Ming vase in his hands. He was also amazed that there were still parts of Craig's home that he hadn't seen but he supposed it made sense. The place was gigantic, after all.

Ascending the steps, Kyle prayed for poise as he went, eyes straying to the pretty teapot every now and then. It had a ribbon of gold lining the circumference of its lid as well as its base; delicate pink and blue roses winding around it with green stems interlocked. Idly, he wondered why Craig hadn't opened the front door to welcome him in, but a small part of him wanted to think that Craig had anticipated this happenstance; Kyle bringing him tea while he waited in his study. He smiled at the idea, warm beneath his jacket and soothed by the scent of leaves of Earl Grey.

Soon, he was standing before the study door, studying the rich, dark wood before he finally knocked, tiny taps that sounded afraid and unsure. He waited, the tray in his hands becoming heavier until he heard Craig's voice, calm as it drifted through the barrier separating them.

"Come in."

Somehow managing to shift the tray onto one arm, Kyle clumsily opened the door and pushed it wide, eyes momentarily dazzled by white sunlight as he stepped into the room; eyes falling on the large windows before taking in anything else. Blinking, he looked around, charmed by the room, which was smaller than he'd anticipated; intimate. It was reminiscent of Craig's den: dark furniture, gold-framed atlases on the walls, an oriental rug on the floor in a riot of jewel tones. There were differences, though; bookshelves lined the walls like Tweek's bedroom, but they were stocked full of every size of book, some small and others appearing like tombs too heavy to pick up. On the wall behind Craig's large cherry wood desk were his numerous diplomas, impressive and showcasing the many years of schooling he'd gone through; speaking of his many, many accomplishments.

Craig was seated in a large chair behind his desk, face illuminated by the glow of a cylindrical lamp, its shade made of green glass. His laptop was open before him, some of its white light fighting with the golden light of the lamp. His eyes flicked upward before he sat back, a slow smile curving his mouth.

"I see you've brought me something," he commented, clearly amused. "Come set it down." Pushing some papers out of the way, he pointed to a clear spot on his desk.

Kyle did so, the china gently knocking together as the tray settled. Letting out a breath, he stood to admire his handiwork, elated that he'd managed to do this one, small thing with some semblance of grace. His feeling of triumph deflated slightly when he took a closer look at Craig, heart pumping madly in his chest; palms becoming moist.

He was smiling at him still, though it had taken on a mischievous, almost cat-like appearance; hair smooth and slightly moist like he'd recently taken a shower. He was dressed in a dark button-up shirt that was open at the throat, but Kyle could only speculate about the rest of his attire; his bottom half hidden by the expanse of the large, sprawling desk. Kyle had tried to make an effort with his appearance, an unusual occurrence for him, but he hoped that he met with Craig's approval...at least a little.

I can't believe I even care. I've never cared about this guy's opinion...especially about things like clothes. Until now, anyway.

But was that really true? Kyle could readily admit that he'd always felt a considerable amount of animosity between them, but did that mean he'd disregarded Craig completely? Or did that just mean on a deep, subconscious level that he was hungry for some sort of approval from Craig? Kyle had always been hungry for acceptance from people, wanted to be well-received and regarded...hadn't he, on some level, craved that from Craig, even if he was unaware of it; even if he didn't like him from a personal standpoint?

"Kyle?" Craig's voice broke into his thoughts, making him blink slowly as he came back into focus. "Hey, you kind of drifted away there for a second."

"Sorry," Kyle muttered, disarmed by Craig's easy handsomeness and knowing expression. He busied himself with the teapot. "How do you like it?"

"You don't have to do that," Craig said, rising from his chair and coming around the desk. He was wearing charcoal slacks, clearly tailored, without socks. Kyle studied his pale feet and felt even more out of place, having worn his relaxed-fit dark denim jeans and a green t-shirt he loved. Mainly because Stan said it went so well with his hair...which only served to make him feel even more awkward.

"Hey, relax," Craig said, taking the teapot from his shaky hands and setting it back down carefully. Reaching up, he tugged lightly on the lapel of Kyle's jacket. "Why don't you take this off, and your hat? Get comfortable." He laughed lightly. "Unless you're planning on leaving soon."

Wordlessly, Kyle slid off his coat and hat and placed them aside, still staring down at Craig's feet while he waited; currents of cologne and fragrant tea filling his senses and making him want to sleep. As nervous as he was in his mind, his body felt oddly relaxed, like he was being lowered into a warm bath just by standing in Craig's study; near him.

"That's better," Craig murmured, touching Kyle's face quickly; not drawing out the contact. He gestured to the tea service. "Would you like some?"

Kyle nodded, leaning his hip against the desk and watching as Craig poured the tea into two waiting cups; clouds of vapor curling upward.

"Milk and sugar?"

"Yes, please," Kyle said, charmed when the milk broke the surface of tea and clouded. Craig used a delicate spoon to stir the concoction; tiny clinks of metal meeting china.

Craig handed him the small cup on a saucer, hand perfectly still until Kyle received it. He was silent for a moment as he took a small sip from his own cup, long lashes brushing his cheeks when Kyle dared to look at him fleetingly.

"You look nice," Craig commented out of nowhere.

"You really think so?" Kyle asked, looking down at his t-shirt, suddenly noticing an unraveling thread in the sleeve. He set the cup down and went to grab it.

"Here," Craig said, shooing his hand away and taking a hold of the thread close to his sleeve; with his other hand he easily yanked it off without disturbing the row of stitches. "Better?"

Kyle bit his lip and nodded. Quickly, he went back to his tea because he didn't know what to say.

"Are you nervous, Kyle?"

"I guess so, a little," he shrugged, having not expected this question, or Craig serving him, or complimenting his appearance. He realized that he'd walked into this situation having been unable to anticipate anything that was going to happen; like he was wandering a completely dark room. "I'm still processing everything that happened...that's still happening. None of this makes a whole lot of sense to me."

"Me neither," Craig said. It sounded like he was grinning. The sound of tea being sipped quietly came to Kyle's ears before he spoke again. "Let's just be easy with each other, okay? We don't have to take this too fast -"

"What is this, anyway?" He looked up, his teacup clutched in both hands; fragile and warm.

Craig considered the question, his own cup held properly though he didn't have his pinky sticking out or anything. Kyle was pretty sure he'd have to make fun of him if he saw him do that.

"Why label it?" He asked, shrugging. "It's new, it's unknown...I think that's enough for now." He paused to take another drink of tea. "So, when did Stan get in last night? I hope it wasn't too late."

Kyle tried to keep the bitterness from his tone when he replied, washing some of it down with the sweet, milky tea.

"After 3 am, and he was drunk, but I'd expected that. I tried to stay awake to meet him but I finally nodded off while writing."

"You wrote?" Craig asked, eyes lighting up with interest. "That's wonderful...I know how blocked you've been."

"Oh, it wasn't anything significant," Kyle replied, waving Craig's words away though they delighted him; his obvious excitement. "Just my thoughts...I've had a lot on my mind lately." He gave him a look. "For obvious reasons."

Leaning against the desk, Craig set his cup down and poured a smidgen more tea into it, gesturing to Kyle's cup as well.

"No, thanks," Kyle declined, draining his cup and setting it down with care. "Anyway, Stan tends to get emotional when he's drunk, but he usually just wants to sleep it off, but last night..." he tapered off, feeling odd about the idea of discussing his sex life with Craig. Throughout all of their interactions they'd danced around the subject but had never landed, almost like they were avoiding it on purpose.

"Last night?" Craig coaxed him, making him start.

"Well, he wanted to...well, you know," Kyle said, blushing. "Jesus, why can't I just say this? Why is it so hard broaching this subject with you? It shouldn't be!"

Maybe it's because you want to be with him like that. You ever considered that?

"Ah, I think I get it," Craig said, nodding his head. Looking Kyle straight in the eyes, his expression changed; became guarded. "Did you?"

"Is that really your business?"

"It is if you want it to be."

Wouldn't you like it if he pushed all of the stuff off his desk and just leaned you across it? He'd yank your shirt up and unbutton your jeans; he'd unzip them, slide them down and then -

"No, we didn't do anything," Kyle said breathlessly, feeling entranced, watching his fantasies on the insides of his lids like he would a movie. His eyes roved over Craig's tall form, strong but lithe, and he could imagine the skin beneath, firm and warm and suddenly ached to touch him. "I ran a shower for him and gave him water...he fell asleep and I held his hand until he was out. I didn't fall asleep for a while after that."

Craig seemed to accept this bit of information with a still-guarded satisfaction, though Kyle couldn't ignore the seeming relief present; the way his jaw relaxed and his brow smoothed. His heart jumped out of nowhere.

"Tweek was already asleep when I came home," he said out of nowhere, anticipating Kyle's forthcoming question. "I had expected him to be. He had his meds adjusted earlier in the week, and they make him tired."

"Are they helping?"

"Only time will tell," Craig said, looking down at the carpet, his big toe tracing a swirl in the fabric. "It takes a while for them to reach therapeutic levels, but I'm hoping for the best. I'm pretty sure he's still asleep, if you wanted to look in on him."

"I will, soon," Kyle said, face coloring when he held back the rest of his words.

I want to stay with you for a while longer. Is that okay?

"I hope I didn't interrupt anything too important," he murmured, glancing at Craig's still-open laptop. "Were you working on the article you're doing with Token?"

He shook his head as he edged closer to Kyle, slowly.

"Nah, I'm doing an article on my own; laparoscopic magnetic sphincter augmentation."

Kyle stared for a moment, the words rolling around his head like foreign, confusing boulders. He cleared his throat.

"Sounds fascinating," he said politely.

"Oh, it is, but it isn't nearly as interesting as this." Reaching behind Kyle, he settled his arm around his waist, pulling him close. Stepping in front of him, Craig wrapped his other arm around Kyle, holding him close. Kyle was still for a moment, heart racing and skin warming, before he lifted his arms to encircle Craig's neck, looking up at him with half-lidded eyes.

"You like this?" He asked, voice softening until it became husky; almost sultry.

"Very much," Craig replied, dipping his head low and teasing Kyle's mouth, soft touches that felt like whispers. Soon, his tongue was brushing his bottom lip and he was being pressed against the desk as they kissed deeply, Kyle's hands coming to wind themselves in Craig's hair.

Moaning in the back of his throat, Craig easily lifted Kyle so he was sitting on the desk, spread his thighs so he was standing between them. All the while, they kissed, tongues gently exploring each other's mouths. Kyle could taste the mellow tea resting on Craig's tongue and leaned back to lap at his sweet mouth, sighing gently with the contact; sudden and needed, bordering on carnal. The longing he'd been feeling, the preoccupation that circled his mind and calling him here had become a siren's voice, but now he was back, and the doubts were easing.

Just keep going, he thought. This is all I need right now. You, just you.

Kyle almost whined when Craig pulled away, licking his lips and gazing down at him with darkened eyes, a flush riding high on his cheekbones as unexpected music was curving into the room like the aroma of something baking; ballet music, orchestral and lilting.

"Tricia's practicing," he whispered against Kyle's mouth before kissing him one more time. He tipped his head, listening. "It sounds like Romeo and Juliet...she must be in a whimsical mood."

"We don't have to stop, do we?" Kyle asked, pouting and refusing to let Craig go.

"I'm afraid so," he replied, nuzzling Kyle's neck. "You should go check on Tweek...you're here to see him, aren't you?" He leaned back and Kyle almost expected him to wink; instead, he smiled indulgently before moving away so Kyle could slide from the desk. "Don't worry, you'll see me later on. It isn't too long until lunch."

"Fine," Kyle muttered, unhappy about being dismissed. "You know, it really isn't fair to get me all worked up like that?"

"What makes you think I'm not worked up, too?" Craig retorted, skirting the desk and sitting down in his large chair once more. He took a long breath, a tinge of frustration distorting his features. "Believe me, I didn't want to stop either...but there's a time and a place for everything, Kyle. This isn't the right time and it certainly isn't the right place."

-----

The snow was still falling as Kyle passed through the white and grey corridor, clouds coming to pass over the sun and shadowing puddles of light. The paintings lining the hallway of stoic women looked away from him, almost like they were disinterested as he walked by, the music continuing to play, romantic with a tinge of melancholy.

He said it was from Romeo and Juliet, right? I guess it makes sense that'd it'd be bittersweet.

He couldn't help slowing down and peeking around the door when he came to the room where Tricia was dancing, hair up in a bun high on her head; attired in white tights and a leotard. Delicate pink pointe shoes adorned her feet, her leotard obscured by a frail, see-through camisole that floated as she moved. She seemed to be dancing with an invisible partner, holding out her hands in longing before retreating, tiny steps as she traveled over the wood floor. Her hands were gently curved, almost like she was holding pennies beneath her thumbs; precise.

Holding his breath, Kyle watched, imagining ethereal princesses waiting in castles or wandering through forests alone with flowers in their hair, waiting for someone to come and to rescue them; love them unconditionally. In that moment, he felt bad for Craig's sister. Dancing was clearly what she wanted to do, the thing that lifted her above the world, but she couldn't have it; at least, not at the moment. True, she'd made her choice to have a child, but that didn't mean she wasn't allowed to yearn for the things that filled up her heart.

The music was reaching a crescendo when Kyle was finally able to tear himself away. He hurried onto Tweek's, bypassing his studio and heading for his bedroom door. Softly, he knocked, but he was met with silence, feeling in his bones that no one was moving around inside. Quietly, slowly, he turned the knob and pushed the door open, eyes adjusting to the lack of light; cornflower curtains obscuring the windows, faintly transparent but blocking out the whiteness of the sun. Shadows fell across the floor and gigantic bed, creating curves across the small shape there; huddled under the comforter. On the shelves were Tweek's many snow globes, tiny squares of light accentuating their roundness.

"Tweek?" he whispered, shutting the door soundlessly before stealing across the room on tiptoe; socked feet avoiding piles of clothes, paper, and books. "It's me, Kyle."

There was a slight rustling under the covers, a small sound that he almost missed and then the shadows were shifting as the figure rolled; blonde hair splashed across a white, rumpled pillowcase.

"Kyle?" Tweek's voice was groggy, half-formed like it'd been ages since he'd last spoken. "What time is it?"

"A little after noon, I think."

"Mm, too early," he muttered, burrowing back into his pillow. His face was in the cave of his blanket; obscured. Suddenly, he threw back the covers, sheet and all, patting the place beside himself. "Why don't you get in?"

Coloring, Kyle could scarcely comprehend what he was hearing. Tweek was only wearing his boxer briefs, his slight body sinking into the sheets. The birds were flying across his skin and Kyle was disturbed to see a length of pure white gauze wrapped one of his thighs and around one frail arm. Unsure of what to do, he stood there, teeth biting deeply into the bottom lip that Craig had just kissed so tenderly.

What if he smells him on me? His cologne...what if he's just able to tell?

"Come on, there's plenty of room and I feel like cuddling," Tweek coaxed, running his hand over the empty space again. "I've had a hard week."

"Okay, I guess it'd be alright," Kyle conceded, though he was slow to lie down, surprised to find the bed warm as he stretched out on his side. Heart beating furiously, almost out of control, he gazed at Tweek as his muscles tensed, every part of him in a state of panic.

"That's better," Tweek murmured, covering him before slipping closer, smelling of apples and vanilla and something medicinal; peroxide, maybe? Soon, their legs were touching and Tweek was gently easing his calf between Kyle's, the bones pressing into his skin. "Doesn't that feel nice, especially when it's so awful outside? We're safe in here."

"I suppose." He was trying to relax, given the surreal circumstances he found himself in, but he couldn't settle. Kyle had never seen Tweek act like this. He wanted to be careful with him, though; not wanting to hurt him more than he already was, even if he was unaware. "It's warm."

"Mhmm, and you smell nice," Tweek sighed, his hand easing under Kyle's t-shirt; resting on his belly. "I think it's your shampoo...it kind of smells like sunshine."

"I use cheap stuff," Kyle admitted, having never really cared about things like that. "Lemongrass or something. I'm not sure."

"I like it," Tweek said, closing his eyes before they popped open quickly. He lapsed into quiet, studying Kyle's face; pupils fat like they'd been pumped full of air.

"You smell like vanilla," Kyle murmured, this knowledge wounding him, knowing that he and Craig shared a scent. "Is it your laundry detergent?"

"I think so." He listened for a moment, his warm finger tracing circles on Kyle's skin. "Tricia's dancing again. She's like Craig, she never knows when to stop; the ballerina and the doctor. They're cut from the same cloth."

"I don't know if I agree with that," Kyle said, beginning to respond to Tweek's touches, though he didn't want to do anything with them. A touch was a touch; maybe his body didn't know the difference but his mind certainly did. Besides, he didn't get the impression that any of this was even remotely sexual. He got the sense that Tweek needed to break from his isolation, reaching out of his bubble to remind himself that warmth still existed; the human touch. "I don't think Craig would sacrifice his responsibilities for the sake of his work."

"He does like to take care of people, doesn't he?"

Kyle nodded, noticing that Tweek's fingers were trailing lower, lightly brushing the top of his jeans. He resisted the urge to pull away, still convinced that the touch was innocent; naive.

"You've seen how he dotes on Finn," he commented, almost sounding indifferent. "He acts like that kid hung the moon."

Something in his tone gave Kyle pause.

"Don't you like him? Finn?"

"Of course I do, I'm just not attached to him," Tweek replied, sliding his hand upward to trace the outlines of Kyle's chest. "You're so bony. Have you noticed?"

"You're one to talk," Kyle said before really thinking. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize, please. I like it...the body is just another canvas, don't you think? You can do whatever you want with it."

Feeling uneasy, Kyle couldn't help but think of Tweek's scars, his tattoos, the gauze; ribs protruding against ivory skin.

Tweek yawned, removing his hand from Kyle and pressing the back of it against his mouth. He sighed softly before draping his arm across Kyle's middle, pulling him closer and resting his forehead against his.

"You're so easy to talk to. I don't get the impression that you want to change me...I'm okay the way I am, even if nothing I do makes any sense. It's so nice."

"I don't want to change anyone, it isn't my right," Kyle replied softly. "That's up to the person. Besides, I'm not perfect...shouldn't I work on myself first?"

"You're so talented," Tweek replied, suddenly kissing his cheek and smiling when Kyle gasped. He wiped the moisture away with his thumb. "I know you're in a place where you feel blank, unmotivated. Believe me, I understand."

"That can't be true," Kyle said, pressing his fingers to his cheek; sure he was caught in a hallucination. "I've seen your sketchbooks...all of your paintings. God, you even paint on the walls...everything you touch you change."

He snorted, rolling over and sitting up; he stretched, skinny back lengthened. His vertebrae were knobs running the length of him, sharp and obvious. Kyle stared at them and wanted to beg him to eat, to fill himself with something more than apples; something with substance.

"Let's get up," he announced, gathering the coverlet around him like a shawl and standing, the fabric trailing over the floor as he headed for the studio door. Kyle followed, feet careful as he traversed the chaos. Before exiting the room, he noticed a snow globe without a glass dome, the insides dry; a tiny black bear surrounded by small pines.

"I'm sorry," he said, pointing it out.

Tweek glanced at it and shrugged, hand resting on the doorknob. A light, like a fish lit from bio-luminescence, flitted through his eyes. 

"There were shards of glass everywhere, but I think I got them all." He held his hands up, his fingers covered in tiny cuts; the areas around them faintly pink. His fingers trailed up his arm to settle on the gauze, almost appearing absentminded.

"Craig'll just get me another one. It isn't a big deal."

Kyle glanced at the broken globe once more before following Tweek from the room, heart hurting to see a chip in the bear's nose, revealing whiteness beneath. He knew it was a stupid thing to be sorry for, that tiny imperfection, but he couldn't help it; it seemed to represent so much more than a cheap, shattered snow globe.

Upon entering the room, Tweek opened the curtains slightly but neglected to turn on the light, the room deluged in shadows. Plucking a blush-colored apple from a basket on the floor, he offered it to Kyle who declined. Shrugging, he took a large bite, gesturing to the wall where the zeppelin had once been, half-covered seagulls slowly being obscured with wide swaths of eggshell-colored paint.

"So, that's what I smelled," Kyle commented, wrinkling his nose and looking at the floor, where cans of paint and a silver tray sat; a roller waiting. "You're working on something new?"

"Yup," he said easily. Setting the apple aside and dropping the blanket to the floor, he plucked up a tiny bag and poured out its contents. "Wanna smoke?"

"Sure," Kyle replied without hesitation, needing a buzz. If he couldn't have wine, he could at least have weed every now and again. Somehow, they seemed different in his mind but he didn't know why. Frankly, he didn't want to give it a lot of thought.

While Tweek rolled the joint, Kyle glanced around at the new canvases, starting out clear and sharp and almost jumping toward the viewer. Others, though, were muddled, almost like they'd been done when Tweek was fast asleep, the most disturbing being one of a person clutching at their mouth; teeth falling into a pile in front of them.

"I paint my dreams a lot," Tweek said, coming up beside him. He sucked on the joint, closing his eyes before letting out a blue cloud of smoke. They fluttered open before he handed it over, gaze trailing over the painting. "Ever had that sort of dream? Your teeth falling out?"

"Not quite," Kyle admitted, taking a hit and holding the smoke in his lungs for as long as he could; feeling lightheaded as he released his breath. "I've had dreams where I pulled on my teeth and they got longer and longer, but they didn't fall out."

"Oh, I like that," Tweek said, taking back the J and holding it between two fingers, arms crossed. "I'll have to remember it. Thanks."

"Anytime," he murmured, that uneasy feeling coming back to him. Going over to Tweek's work table, he studied an open sketchbook. The page depicted pencil sketches of Victorian woman with her hair piled high on her head, unsmiling