Chapter 1: A Small Favour
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Eric finished his Martini with a demure sip, leaving only the faintest stain of scarlet lipstick on the rim. He had turned a few heads upon his entrance to the hotel bar, ambient shadows concealing lust and envy... to the untrained eye at least. The ability to read people, anticipate their next move in order to influence their next one was an essential part of the con, the grind of the grifter. Eric saw the haze of arousal descend over irises, the jealous, narrowing eyes of others, and offered them an easy, confident smile. Served up with an extra swing in his hips, posture corrected and extenuated by his modest, sparkly kitten heels. He ignored them now, he had his man in his sights and had ensnared him too.
Andrew Mitchell. An English gangster who six nights previously had taken a precious, sovereign ring from Eric's 'boss', Folke. He had called Eric, incensed, already booking his flight to Amsterdam before Eric could tell Folke not to call him at such an ungodly hour. Eric had little time to prep, and even though it was admittedly a personal job, a favour, he didn't like to slack. He knew where his mark was staying, forgoing sightseeing so he could follow his daily movements, feel out his routine - like when he retired to the hotel bar for a drink. Instead of visiting the museums Eric instead toured the hotel, locating every fire escape, service stairwell, restroom, elevator, and of course he had to stop off for some lunch in the kitchen. A speedy, effective exit was arguably the most crucial aspect of any job. Eric preferred slipping through the mundane, pedestrian cracks in the walls.
Evenings were spent doing more intimate research on his mark. His history, his hobbies, his tastes. Eric learned that Andrew Mitchell had been married three times to tall, curvy blondes, and so he transformed. Tumbling, bleached blond locks hid his chestnut hair, and he wore a mask of winged eyeliner, shimmering blush, and blood red lips. He had attempted contouring too, to achieve a more feminine bone structure. For once in his life, his babyish face with little to no stubble actually felt like a blessing. He only needed to wax his armpits, forearms, and legs, and they were painful enough endeavours. He had fashioned a convincing pair of breasts out of a push-up bra, chicken fillets, and a contoured cleavage spilling out of his almost obscenely tight black leather mini dress. It gleamed alongside his red acrylics, and with its jagged, creased edges it was both an alluring, and formidable garment, daring anyone brave enough to attempt to tame the wearer. And with the help of some suffocating spanx Eric spent an undignified amount of time wriggling into, promised tantalising, voluptuous rewards.
Eric stopped admiring his reflection in the aureate drenched bar when he noticed his mark smiling at him from the other side. Flirty, cocky, lecherous, greedy. Like Eric was another pretty, shiny something he could snatch from someone's else grasp. Of course that's what Eric wanted him to think tonight. But he wasn't for keeps. He returned the smile, lowering his chin and fluttering his false, feathery eyelashes. He plucked the wet, discarded olive from the glass, placing it on his tongue before closing his mouth around the green, gleaming bulb and sucking it from the tiny stick.
Andrew's smile quirked, jolted by Eric's coy yet provocative display as though it were electric. He fidgeted, shifted in his seat, and Eric wanted to snicker, self-satisfied, at what was probably going on south of Andrew's belt. He ushered the bartender over to him, leaning in to murmur his order. The bartender nodded, and soon went about making his drink.
"A Dirty Martini, Miss?" the bartender said, sliding the glass in Eric's direction. "From the gentleman across the bar."
Eric batted his eyes, mimicking surprise. He arched a pencilled eyebrow at Andrew, with a humbler smile.
"Thank you," he replied to the bartender, before lifting the glass to his lips.
He kept his eyes on Andrew, daring him to come over by the time he finished his sip.
Five, four, three, two-
"Excuse me, miss?"
Andrew was approaching him now, shyer in the shrinking distance between them.
Eric placed his drink back on the bar, giving Andrew his full attention.
"I don't normally buy drinks for beautiful strangers but I 'ad to make an exception for you," he continued, gloating at his attempt at smoothness. "You are..." he raked his pale blue gaze over Eric, shyness forgotten. "Absolutely stunning."
Eric snickered, head bowed as he played with a platinum curl.
"Well, it's not often I get blokes buying drinks for me," he replied, slipping into a girlish English accent. "Who said romance is dead, eh?"
Delight lit up Andrew's face, and in the space between his lungs and the waistband of his spanx Eric found a tiny, relieved breath. It seemed like his binge-watching of The Only Way is Essex in the name of prep had paid off.
"And you're a Brit too!" Andrew grinned, taking a seat beside Eric. "It can't get any better."
"Oh, I don't know," Eric mused. "The night is still young..."
With that he crossed his leg, dress riding further up his smooth, bare thigh. Andrew gulped, fidgety once more and Eric swore he saw sweat glistening on his well-lined forehead.
"So where you from, then?" he asked, perhaps in an effort to cool down.
Andrew peeled back a grin.
"Shoulda known you'd be an Essex girl."
Eric laughed, the sound tinkling, and rolled his eyes.
"And I suppose you're a..."
"An East End lad."
"Of course you are..." Eric chuckled, lidded eyes roaming over Andrew.
Andrew chewed his lip, hazy and thoughtful, with a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. He soon remembered himself, back to forced pleasantries when he no doubt had decidedly less pleasant, and more tawdry things in mind.
"I'm sorry, I didn't give you me name," he said, extending his hand to shake. "Andrew Mitchell." he smiled. "Andy."
Eric shook his hand with less pressure than usual.
"Nice to meet you, Irene," Andy said, low, hand still gripping Eric's.
"You too, Andy."
Eric was the one to let go, swishing his hair over his shoulder to reveal brilliant, diamond earrings that cascaded to his shoulders. Andrew... Andy... was a magpie, drawn to jewellery, and so Eric had decked himself out in a few trinkets. A cat collar-like choker with a diamond pendant clutched his neck, and his fingers shone with rings slender and stacked, shimmering and bulbous. He even wore his own sovereign ring, daintier than the one he was sent to retrieve, but just as tacky.
"Those are cracking earrings..." Andy commented.
"Thank you," Eric replied. "I do love my bling!"
"And a sovereign ring? You don't see a lot of birds wearing 'em these days..."
Eric held out his hand, fingers splayed, pretending to admire the gaudy ring on his finger.
"Oh, I love 'em!" he gushed. "Me old man used to wear bloody stacks of 'em on his fingers. He loved his jewellery, fancied himself as a bit of a Pearly King, if I'm honest!"
"I'm partial to a bit of jewellery." Andy nodded. "In fact, I've just got meself a new sovereign ring."
Eric gasped, hand pressed to his chest.
"Really?" he squealed, reaching for Andy's hand. "Let me see!"
Andy chuckled, swiping his hand from Eric's grasp, and pleased with his enthusiasm.
"It's in my room, I'm afraid..."
"Oh, that's a shame..." Eric sighed, reaching for his drink and taking a sip. "I'd 'ave loved to see it..."
He took another long sip of his drink as Andy deliberated an invitation. Desire swallowing his inhibition.
Let him think he's going to lose you.
"You could always come up and take a look, if you want?" Andy asked, trying to be cool when his rushed question was anything but.
Eric flashed him a pleased, flirtatious smile.
Despite being located on the fifth-floor, Eric stepped into a larger than average hotel room, all cream and gold, with gauzy curtains shielding the tall windows, and a handsomely decorated living area leading into a just as handsomely decorated bedroom. The door clicked shut behind him, and no doubt Andy was admiring how Eric's hips swayed in his dress while he admired the plump throw cushions, and polished fittings.
"Gorgeous suite..." Eric said, hand running along the top of a plush couch. "I wish my room was as nice as this!"
Not entirely disingenuous. Eric had sprung for a suite in his own hotel, and he couldn't help but feel ripped off.
"Maybe if you asked nicely you could get an upgrade?" Andy asked, voice dripping with innuendo.
"I've done a lot more to get inside a swanky hotel room," Eric replied with a wink.
Andy gulped, smug smirk wavering and he smoothed down his shirt.
Eric sighed, placing a hand on his cocked hip.
"So where's this ring, then?" he asked, with a smidge of impatience.
"Right here..." Andy grinned, gesturing to a cream cabinet.
Eric sauntered over to him, so quiet and delicate that he practically slithered. And like a snake, he wrapped himself around his mark. Head resting on his shoulder, tilted slightly to show affection, over-familiarity, a forwardness that Andy would clearly appreciate. Eric's manicured hand slid up Andy's back to rest on his opposite shoulder, giving it a gentle, coaxing squeeze. He could practically feel Andy relax under his touch, his charms, trusting him already because Eric was only offering him an illusion of what he wanted, a gold dust trail that led to nowhere. And because he believed in Irene, trusted her, wanted to fuck her, he let Eric watch him enter the combination to his safe.
Right 40. Left 50. Right 30.
The safe opened, revealing stacks of Euro notes - no doubt the payout of illegal or at least morally repressible business dealings - and a sovereign ring. Andy pulled it out of the safe and held it up to the warm, low light of the room at evening. Real, glinting silver.
"Oh my god..." Eric gasped. "It's just like the ones me old man used to 'ave!"
"Yeah, it's quality." Andy replied with a sigh, before placing the ring back in the safe. His gaze trailed over Eric, and his breath was coming terse and heavy in the small space between them. "I seem to be encountering a lot of beautiful things lately..."
Eric pursed his lips, feigning coyness. Blond curls fell in front of his face, concealing a possible blush when a hand roamed from his waist and on to his ass... or that's what he'd at least let Andy think was happening behind his wig.
"Is there anything else you'd like to see?" he asked, voice ragged.
Lifting his head, Eric met Andy's eyes with a wicked smile. He moved his hand to the nape of his neck.
"Hmm... there is one thing..." Eric replied, playing with dark brown curls, greasy with product. "But if I told you, you'd might get the wrong idea..."
Eric glanced at Andy's crotch, his bulge obvious in his jeans. Andy didn't need another hint, he lunged forward and claimed Eric's lips. Hard, wet, and open-mouthed, and suddenly the hand that was at his ass was squeezing him and another arm was wrapping around his waist.
Fucking chill, dude!
It wasn't long before Eric felt Andy's burgeoning erection against his thigh, and so he decided to return the kiss, to give as 'good' as he was apparently getting. A pleading whimper escaped his lips, and he tilted his head as he shoved his tongue into Andy's mouth. Thoughts of slobbery kisses and an alcohol soaked tongue were replaced with the exhilaration of walking out of there with the ring in his possession, and the look on Andy's face when he opened his safe to realise it was gone.
Eric felt Andy stiffen when he grabbed him by his belt, leading him to the bed. Andy pawed desperately for control, fingers skidding over the leather of Eric's dress, resistant to traction, and tugging at curls hard enough to make Eric nervous. He diverted any rough tugs and squeezes by pulling Andy's jacket off his shoulders, throwing it to the floor.
That was his cue.
Eric gasped, sharper than glass.
"Oh my god..."
Andy moaned, pleased. His lips had migrated to Eric's neck and were peppering kisses there.
"No, no, wait!" Eric pleaded, wrestling out of Andy's grip. "My jacket!"
Andy lifted his head, face pinked and pupils dilated. He was collecting his breaths, trying to follow this new, unwelcome trajectory of conversation.
"Eh?" he asked, brow furrowed.
"My jacket!" Eric fretted. "I left it downstairs! Oh, I only got it the other day!"
He pouted, lower lip wobbling as he forced petulant tears into his eyes. He tucked some hair behind his ear before Andy stepped in to do it for him, fingers brushing against his cheek.
"It's alright, love, I'll go get it..." he said, smiling.
Eric batted wet, doe eyes at him.
"Would you, really?"
Andy didn't seem so sure. He sighed to himself, smile fading into an impatient frown.
"If it's that important-"
"It is!" Eric nodded frantically. "Oh, what if someone's pinched it?!"
Andy sighed once more, as if he were dealing with a child.
"No one's pinched it," he assured. "I'll run down and get it for you right now."
Eric smiled, hands clasped at his chest as he watched Andy leave.
"Aww, you're such a gentleman!" he gushed.
"Am I gonna get something in return for my chivalry?" Andy asked over his shoulder, stood by the open doorway. His eyebrow was arched and he was practically drooling.
Eric snickered, and lowered his chin. He fiddled with the zipper at the front of his dress.
"Maybe..." he smiled, biting his now smudged lip. "How 'bout I make myself comfortable while you fetch my jacket?"
Eric gave the zipper a tug, exposing more of his fake cleavage. Andy swallowed thickly, eyes following Eric's fingers as if they could finish what Eric had started. He shook his head before he rushed out of the room, door slamming shut behind him.
Now alone, Eric fixed his zipper and grimaced.
He returned to the cabinet, grabbing the clutch he had dropped on the coffee table and tucking it under his arm. He opened the safe, grinning triumphantly at the ring just waiting for him. He tried to slip it on his index finger, but it was tighter than the fucking spandex. Getting all dressed up and part-way seducing a man to get to this damn ring was one thing, having it surgically removed from his finger was another. Instead, he tucked the ring inside his purse and was out the door.
Leaving the room, he checked the coast was clear of any horny Englishmen and made his way to the service stairwell situated at the far end of the corridor. He eyed the elevators as he slipped off his kitten heels. Modest they may have been, but it would be a much simpler jog down the stairs if he was barefoot.
Lacking in central heating, it was a cold descent to the ground floor, and even the pattering of his feet seemed to echo in the hollow stairwell. Flushed with sweat and panting by the time he reached the bottom, he was delighted to see that his white faux-fur jacket was still waiting for him next to a florescent yellow bucket, and not snatched by some maid or waitress who liked expensive clothes and stealing just as much as he did.
He shouldered open the heavy door, and was greeted by a welcoming breeze and a not so welcoming smell of garbage as he stepped out into the alley. He slipped his jacket on his shoulders and his shoes on his feet. Emerging from the alley he then hailed a cab, and breathed a content sigh when one soon pulled up beside him.
"Hallo," he said, as he slid into the back seat.
At least he could brush up on his Dutch whilst in Amsterdam.
"Hallo," the cab driver replied. "Waarheen?"
"Hyacinth Club, alsjeblieft."
"Dank je," Eric replied, sinking into the seat.
The cab pulled away, and out the window the Amstel was illuminated by the city lights. Eric reached into his clutch, pulling out lipstick and a compact, wiping away the stain of Andy's eager kisses.
The Hyacinth Club was a members only establishment that any decent person wouldn't want to be a part of. Despite the elegant piano tinkling in the distance, the waiters' chins and trays held high in the air, and the crushed velvet and gleaming satin in blacks and dark purples, it catered to a delinquent underbelly, a criminal elite. Escorts sat on the laps of sleazeballs like the guy Eric just conned, and men and women dressed in dark colours leaned in close to have murmured, clandestine conversations. They often turned their heads to guard their chatter, paused when their waiters who had taken an oath of discretion approached their tables, and eyed each other warily when they were sure they weren't looking. In this world, trust was earned through dangerous, sacrificial initiation, and suspicion was never truly discarded. If you had lived in it long enough, you simply forgot how to trust.
"Good evening, Miss," the Maitre d' greeted him as he approached his desk.
"Good evening," Eric replied. "I'm here to meet Mr Nilsson."
The Maitre d' smiled and nodded.
Folke was taking a long sip of wine when Eric reached his table, narrowed eyes trying to peer through the opaque drapes.
"Your guest has arrived, sir."
"How it's going, Folke?" Eric asked, dropping his feminine, English accent.
Folke's green-grey eyes followed the sound, and twitched only slightly in surprise.
"Thank you," Eric said to the maitre d', flashing a grin.
He left, and Eric pulled up a chair. Folke watched him with a crease in his brow, and lips quirked in what looked like amusement. When Eric was first approached by Folke in college it seemed like his face was set in concrete, or perhaps alabaster. Emotions buried and bubbled beneath the surface, barely stirring his hardened features. Perhaps his stony expression was due to his accident, but Eric could never imagine his features ever stretching in laughter.
"Well?" Eric asked, still grinning. He flicked his long, blond hair dramatically over his shoulder. "What do you think?"
Folke eyed Eric up and down.
Eric fought the urge to roll his eyes. Didn't anyone appreciate showmanship anymore?
"Wow, I thought your English was better than that. Don't you mean 'impressive?'"
"No, I mean it is too much," Folke replied, humourless. "This was only supposed to be a small job, Mitch."
"Come on, we all want to play the chick once in a while, right?"
Folke blinked, perplexed and unamused.
Eric sighed, figuring he should move on and get down to business.
"Besides..." he reached into his clutch and pulled the ring out. "The mark totally fell for it."
Folke smiled then, actually showing his teeth.
"Excellent," he replied, plucking the ring from Eric's gasp.
He inspected it, before tucking it in the inside pocket of his jacket.
"So what's the deal with the ring?" Eric asked, arms folded and elbows resting on the table. "I didn't even know you liked jewellery."
"It's not about fashion, Mitch."
"Clearly..." Eric murmured.
"I may not wear the ring, but I carry it with me every day," Folke continued. "It has been in my family for generations. My grandfather gave it to my father, and my father gave it to me. It is a symbol to remind me how important family is." He tilted his head downwards and glared at Eric across the table. "You would do well to remember that too..."
Eric shrugged, unperturbed. What was the point in remembering when 'family' was a notion he had deserted long ago? When he had so little of it? His mom had been a hindrance for most of his life, and he had no idea what the hell the friends he had spent most of his childhood with were doing now. It was ridiculous to even ponder it, but that still didn't stop him from doing so when he found himself bored and alone.
"I don't have a family to remember..."
"You have us," Folke pointed out.
It was harder to resist rolling his eyes then. For as long as Eric had been working with Folke and his crew, the idea that they were all a 'family' had been drummed into him. Folke had tried to bind them all together with a sense of duty, unite them with a feeling of belonging. Maybe Folke thought it would dissuade them from turning against him? It was an admirable attempt at manipulation, but Eric knew it was futile when the nature of the business they're in forced them to have a dagger up their sleeves, ready to stab each other in the back for a bigger payout, or a head-start if they had to flee. They were colleagues, nothing more. But perhaps even that was pushing it. Accomplices, at the least.
"Yeah, well, I don't think-"
"Would you like to order a drink, Miss?" a waiter cut in.
"Yes, I'll have a Dirty Martini," Eric said with a smile.
"Certainly." The waiter nodded.
"Anyway, back to the ring," Eric said when they were alone. Anything to divert them from the topic of family. "If it's so precious to you how did Andrew Mitchell get it in the first place?"
Folke sighed, staring into his glass and watching the wine swirl.
"I lost it. In a poker game."
Eric blinked, brow furrowed.
"Wait, you actually fucking bet it?"
"I had no choice," Folke snapped. "Putting everything out on the line is a sign of confidence. I thought I could win."
"You told me he stole it." Eric frowned.
Eric's frown melted into a smirk. He arched an eyebrow at him.
"Sounds to me like you're a sore loser..."
"You're mistaken," Folke replied, serious as ever.
"Your Martini..." the waiter announced, approaching their table.
"Thank you..." Eric replied, as his drink was placed in front of him.
"I have a job lined up in two weeks in St Tropez," Folke said when they were alone once more. "Would you be interested?"
"Depends. What is it?"
"Sophia and Pierre Bisset, wealthy French socialites, are holding an auction at their family's St Tropez property."
"Jewellery, mainly," Folke replied. "Their family is infamous for owning some of the finest jewels in France. But Sophia and Pierre are very self-conscious of their privilege and their family's past, their ties to colonialism. Their ancestors acquired a lot of the jewels in Africa. They want to, uh... 'wipe the slate clean.' Start over. Have you ever heard of Le Grand Arc-on-ciel?"
Eric shook his head, taking another sip of his drink.
"It's one of the pieces that will be auctioned. The most valuable piece, and on the black market I believe it would sell for more than it's estimated value. I'll split the profits between all of you."
"All of us?" Eric asked. "You mean..." he groaned, his enthusiasm plummeting. "Ugh, those dipshits are coming too?"
Whenever Eric could run a job without Folke's troll-like lackeys he was glad. They may have had the muscles, and intimidating scowls perfect for a job that required some brawn, but Eric had little patience for their idiocy.
"It's a big operation," Folke replied, growing snippy. "I need all the help I can get."
Eric huffed, slouching in his seat a little.
"So you're coming, then?"
"Yeah, of course," Eric replied. "It's fucking St Tropez! And if this rainbow diamond goes for as much as you're saying it will - and if we actually pull it off - then it's a payout I can't refuse."
"I'm glad..." Folke murmured to the rim of his glass.
"You'll need one well of a hacker though," Eric pointed out. "I imagine the mainframe is gonna be a tough one to crack... and I know I'm good, but that techy stuff isn't my thing. I could try, but-"
"I've got it, uh, 'covered,' as you say," Folke cut in, almost excitably. Almost grinning.
"What's with the smirk?" Eric asked, chuckling a little nervously. Before it dawned on him. "Oh, shit..." he said, all humour fading. "Have you found them?"
Folke simply nodded.
Eric had taken a sip of his drink while he waited for Folke's reply. Unwise. He choked on surprise, forced to spit out the drink before it came out of his nose. He coughed uncontrollably, eyes watering.
"You're... y-you're seriously?" Eric asked, rasping. "You've got Glitch?"
"Yes, I am..." Folke paused, grimacing. "Seriously..."
"You know I've been trying to track them down for years, to recruit them," Folke replied, tone cool and smug. "They're very in demand. It was only a matter of time before I found them though. It's a freelance job but still..." he flashed his teeth again. "I've finally got them."
Eric nodded, his coughing fit subsiding. Folke had been talking about Glitch for as long as they'd worked together, had tried to draft them into every con where they needed somebody with tech know-how. But Glitch had always evaded him, whether because of lack of contact, lack of availability, or their retainer was too high and Folke was too proud to pay it. They had become legendary now, almost mythic within their crew, and Eric was often in awe and in doubt of their supposedly brilliant abilities. How much better could Glitch be than the other hackers Eric had worked with, after all? He often found himself simmering in jealousy when Folke's attention was so consumed by them (Eric's need for validation and praise did not discriminate, much to his occasional annoyance); growing cynical when Folke had failed to recruit them yet again; and lost in silent reverence when he considered just how skilled and formidable Glitch could be.
"Shit, well... they better be as good as you've always said they are," he replied with a wry smile. "I wouldn't want you to get your hopes up."
Eric took another sip, and wondered how he would react upon meeting Glitch. If they showed up at all. What was to stop them from bailing at the last minute? Would he be starstruck? Irritated? Would they clash, or would they gel? Eric couldn't contemplate it further. Sitting in a seedy club in Amsterdam, it just seemed too surreal and faraway.
Chapter 2: Of All The Cons In All The World
A shorter update this time around, but hopefully an enjoyable one. Plus, it's on Kyle's birthday! I hope you guys enjoy, and I'd love to hear your thoughts! Thank you for reading!
St Tropez, French Riviera
A warm breeze blew off the gentle azure sea and floated all the way to the open sliding doors of Kyle's hotel room. The biscuit coloured curtains fluttered, and it was as if the cool air was pleading with Kyle to head to the beach. Empty sun loungers and sugary white sand was beckoning, but Kyle had no time. He was here on business. Criminal, morally bankrupt business, but business nonetheless. It stole the sparkle from the rolling waves, made the distant laughter from tourists and locals alike sound as hollow as a seagull's caw. But this would be the last time such a beautiful location left him with a bittersweet taste in his mouth. No, Kyle was determined this was his last job. He'd transfer some of his payout to Ike, head home, destroy any digital speck he left behind (if he could say so himself, 'Glitch' was too meticulous and good at what he did to leave fingerprints of any variety), and move his accounts around. Maybe he would move out of his Manhattan loft, find somewhere smaller, suburban, find work that was fulfilling and legal. Perhaps he would return to St Tropez one day? With a loving wife or husband on his arm, and adorable kids in tow?
Kyle could actually feel himself enjoying the sea breeze and the crash of waves again, before his phone started to buzz in his shorts' pocket. His personal phone, not his burner one. It could only be one person. He pulled the phone from his pocket and smiled despite the impending possibility of an emotionally fraught conversation. They had been occurring more frequently as of late. He tried to swallow the dread that had welled up in his throat, and answered the phone.
"Hey, man," Ike replied. Kyle wondered if he was just as anxious. "How it's going?"
"Good, good. You know, busy as usual..."
"How are you?" Kyle asked, feet digging into the terrain of light conversation. "Are you having a good semester?"
"Yeah, it's been fine, I guess. I've been kind of tired lately though, and sluggish, and-"
"Hungover?" Kyle teased. A small smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.
"Maybe," Ike replied, grin evident in his voice. "I'm still crushing my classes though so it's cool."
Kyle chuckled, fond.
"So, hey, uh, I was just calling to say thank you for the cash you sent me..."
"No problem. And you're saving it, right?" Kyle asked. It was so easy to slip into big brother mode, even after all this time. "I want you to be able to pay off your loans, not use it as a party fund."
"Kyle, I promise I'm not touching it until I graduate."
"Well... good. I don't wanna lecture you, but-"
"You love lecturing me," Ike cut in, full of mirth.
He supposed Ike wasn't wrong. It's not that he loved lecturing him, but he just couldn't help it.
"Yeah, I guess that's kinda true... " he conceded a little sheepishly.
The dread in Kyle's chest actually started to thin and wane, floating out onto the horizon like a paper boat until it shrank to an insignificant nothing. Never could he imagine a conversation with his brother going quite so well.
"Listen, I know you're always crazy busy and you practically live in work but... I was wondering if you were free and in the area then maybe you could come visit?" Ike asked, the hope in his voice was piercing. "I could show you around campus, and I could introduce you to my friends?"
Kyle's shoulders fell. He spoke too soon. The dread was slowly rising up inside and threatening to drown him.
"Oh, Ike, I don't know, man," he replied, hating every word. "Now's not really a good time..."
"Or I could come to you?" Ike continued, undeterred. "It's only a couple of hours from Ithaca to Manhattan?"
"Well... I-I-I'm actually not home right now."
Kyle winced, finger tracing the polished wood of his dresser.
"Where are you?"
Kyle sighed, frowning.
"Seriously? You're in fucking France now? Shit, I had no idea IT involved this much travelling..."
"Well, the company operates all over the world, Ike." Kyle was unable to stop the testy reply.
"Okay, then... when are you home?"
Kyle smothered a desperate huff, eyes rolling to the heavens for some guidance.
"I don't know, in a week or so?" He replied. He could feel his sweaty palm stick to the phone. "B-b-but still, I don't know if it'd be a good idea then either, I'm swamped and-"
"Forget about it, Kyle," Ike cut in, no mirth and no patience.
Kyle couldn't blame him. He sighed, hanging his head.
"Ike, I'm really sorry..." he mumbled.
"Yeah, you've said that the last fifty times I've tried to meet up with you..."
Something stirred in Kyle then. Anger, fuelled by exhaustion. He was tired of letting his brother down, tired of lying to him, and tired of feeling so fucking guilty and awful every time they talked. He gritted his teeth, lips pulling taut.
"Hey, Ike, I can't help having a busy schedule, okay? I need to have a job-"
"Yeah, Kyle, I get it but you also have a fucking family!"
"Quit being so self-righteous, you asshole! I care about our family! I'm looking out for you-"
"Don't hold that over my head, man! I appreciate everything but that doesn't make up for the fact that I haven't had a conversation with you, face-to-face in what? Four years? I don't even know your fucking address! And how long has it been since you've had the fucking courtesy to even call mom and dad?"
That indignant spark petered out, plunging Kyle into darkness and guilt. He may have been doing his best, but it wasn't good enough. In fact, he wasn't doing any good at all.
"You... you haven't told them about all the money, have you?"
Kyle hadn't talked to his parents in four years, and hadn't seen them since his graduation ceremony. In his line of work, he told himself it was for the best when really he couldn't bear the disappointment and sense of betrayal he would have to deal them. He had tried to stay away, but after unceremoniously moving to New York after a couple of successful jobs, he decided to get in contact with Ike. Their conversations were rare, but Kyle always gave Ike a chunk of his payouts under the condition they were to go towards his future after college... and that the money and Kyle's whereabouts were kept secret from their parents.
"Ike?" Kyle pressed, when the silence grew unnerving.
"No..." Ike sighed. "No, but only because I promised I wouldn't."
Kyle exhaled shakily too, rubbed his tired face and ran a hand through his hair.
"I'm sorry, Ike. Really. I'll... I-I-I'll try to be better, I promise." He frowned. "I'll call you when I get home, okay?"
Kyle looked at his watch. He had to leave soon.
"I have to go," he said apologetically.
"Ike, I... I love you."
He waited for Ike's reply, not caring if it made him late.
Ike hung up without another word. Kyle threw his head back, eyes closed as he rode out the nauseating wave of guilt, and tried to figure out what to do now. Go to his meeting. Get through the next forty eight hours. Finish the job. Go home, and start over.
He hauled himself off his bed, and headed out the door.
Sunbathing on his hotel's private beach, Eric wondered how many people his age could afford to do this? Had a job that granted them this sort of luxury? Sure, it was a scary profession sometimes when the con was fraying at the edges, or the people you were working with wouldn't hesitate to put a metaphorical or literal knife in your back; and lonely when relationships of any sort were a liability, a dead skin you had to slither out of in order to let your new, toughened skin show. At least it was never boring. Sure, Eric could skydive, or bungee jump, or stand idle in a cage while sharks circled him but what was the point? This was a rush of adrenaline, flooding his veins, and he got paid for the privilege. Besides, it was way more glamorous than any of that harness and oxygen tank stuff. The sun warming his skin, and the smell of champagne and sun lotion in the air brightened the scary, seedy, and depressing memories where Eric feared he would lose the mark, the job, his life, and whatever fucking dignity or humanity he had left.
Eric peered over his sunglasses, trying to spot his waiter so he could order another cocktail. He saw bronzed women wearing huge sunglasses - and even bigger hats - stroll down the beach with sarongs swept up in the breeze; and busy, metropolitan parents watching their children play with their nannies in the surf while they tried to get some work done on their Riviera getaway. He wondered if they noticed him at all? This lone guy lounging on the beach, hands tucked behind his head as he smiled up at the sky, at no one. If they suspected at all the things he had done, and if they would be interested, or indeed impressed by his escapades. If Eric - by some strange turn of events - ever wanted a boyfriend, wanted to give domesticity a try, he would have the best end-of-the-day work stories ever. Because even if he did find someone he wanted to hold on to, no way would he give this job up. He was too good at it, and he didn't even have to try.
He almost gave up searching for his waiter, until red curls caught his eye. A guy, just like him, sitting alone and sipping at a bottle of water whilst reading a book. Even when he knew it couldn't possibly be Kyle, even when the shade of his hair was just a tad off, and this guy was just an attractive mirage, Eric still brimmed with a hope and eagerness that was frightening in its ferocity. He may have thought it pointless to dwell on thoughts of his childhood best friends, but Kyle, as always, was the exception. Not even his new bruised, hardened skin was impenetrable to innocent late night imaginings of Kyle's life, fleeting reminders of him, and fantasies of meeting each other again. He bled and ached, little by little, but those scars were easy to conceal, those aches easy to numb with a new job to complete, a new place to go, and occasionally a decoy redhead to flirt with. It was a pattern he had been familiar with for as long as he could remember. Burying his feelings in a shallow grave, suffocating and stamping them out like a habit he wished he could kick.
Before he could approach the gentleman sat alone, his phone buzzed on the small table beside him. A reminder that his meeting with Folke, the gang, and fucking Glitch was in half an hour and that he wasn't even ready for.
"Shit!" he muttered to himself, finding his shirt and slipping it on.
He gathered his belongings, and rushed to his hotel room to get changed.
Sat in an abandoned warehouse in one of the coastal town's backstreets Kyle felt further from the seaside idyll of St Tropez than ever. Kyle sat with his shoulders hunched as the hulking criminals he was introduced to sniggered behind him and engaged in deep, throaty conversation in a language he couldn't understand. Kyle hadn't done enough jobs in Europe to pick up phrases in any language. If it wasn't the company making him uncomfortable, then it was the lack of air conditioning. His skin prickled with sweat, and his throat felt coarse with growing dehydration.
"Where the hell is Mitch?" One of the tall, brutish guys asked.
Kyle jolted at the question being asked in English, albeit in some sort of thick Scandinavian accent.
"I'm sure he's on his way," Folke replied, poised in front of a projector like some fishy sales representative about to con them into a time-share... but ten times more menacing. "He knows better than to upset me."
A guy Kyle remembered was called Klaus shook his head, and spat on the grubby floor.
"Typical arrogant American..." he grumbled. "Thinks he can show up whenever he wants..."
"Yeah, it's bad enough we have to work with one, and now you're making us work with two?" Another guy replied, gesturing to Kyle dismissively, like he had already made his mind up that he was no use to them.
Kyle gritted his teeth. It was bad enough to be in a situation he didn't want to be in, but even worse when nobody was showing him any fucking gratitude. He didn't care that this guy towered over him and probably had a fist the size of his head, he wasn't going to be talked about like he was a piece of trash.
But before Kyle could open his mouth to say anything, Folke scowled and hobbled over to the guy so irritated by Kyle's presence. His gleaming black cane made Kyle wince as it clacked on the faded tiles and echoed in the large, hollow space. And even though Folke was so much shorter than him, and older than him with his silvery five o'clock shadow and limping gait, the formidable gangster shrank in his seat, eyes blown wide with fear. Folke leaned in close, unperturbed.
"Can your pea-sized brain hack into a security mainframe and disable a laser system?" he asked.
No answer, even his voice had shrank. He shook his head.
"No!" Folke barked. "So keep your mouth shut!"
Kyle pursed his lips, suffocating the smug smile threatening to stretch across his face. Folke growled, making his way over to the projector once again, hurried and impatient.
"If Mitch isn't here in five seconds I'm going to go to his hotel room and drag him here by his-"
Folke was interrupted by the sound of the door being flung open, the startling sunlight pouring in.
"It's okay!" An all too familiar voice called out. "I'm here! We can start now!"
In the oppressive heat, Kyle suddenly froze. His mind willed him, screamed at him to run away, scream, hell, even fucking throw up but he couldn't, paralysed by a panic attack. All he could do was turn his head, to confirm that this horrifying, impossible encounter was actually true. He hated with every inch of his being that Eric fucking Cartman, the boy he thought he had escaped from a life left behind was now striding towards him. As if he couldn't feel like he had sunk any lower. He turned back around, head bowed to disguise his racing breaths. If only he could disguise himself, disappear, so Cartman wouldn't notice him and acknowledge that this was actually happening.
"It's about fucking time..." one of Cartman's comrades snapped.
"Nice to see you too, Anders."
"Mitch, where have you been?" Folke asked, already displeased with whatever answer Cartman had to give.
His footsteps were drawing closer. Kyle daren't look up from his lap.
"Sorry, man, I got held up at the beach and..."
As if Cartman wasn't going to notice him after all this time, all they had been through, all that was missing that had led them to this most extraordinary point... committing a crime together in a foreign country. Kyle winced, squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to alleviate the agonising silence, to prepare himself.
He looked up, and saw Cartman stood in front of him. Slack-jawed, and his stare was as calculating and intense as ever. Kyle couldn't believe that he never thought he'd see it again. A loathsome grin spread slowly across Cartman's face.
"Holy fucking shit..." he murmured.
Kyle didn't reply, unsure if he could.
He noticed Folke glancing between the two of them. There was a small dent in his brow that cast a hard shadow over his eyes.
"Something wrong, Mitch?" he asked.
Cartman shook his head, grin wavering but eyes never leaving Kyle. He soon blinked, the haze dispersing, and he turned to Folke.
"Huh?" he asked, before clearing his throat. "No, no, I'm just, uh, excited to meet the infamous 'Glitch'..." he smiled again. "After all this time..."
Cartman extended his hand for Kyle to shake.
"Mitch Conner," he said, goading beneath the charm.
Kyle scowled, and stood up. His hand was still shaking as he returned the handshake.
"Nice to meet you..." Kyle replied, trying hard not to grit his teeth again. "Mitch..."
"Likewise..." Cartman grinned, not letting go.
Eric tried to concentrate on the meeting, on the bare-bones profile of the Bisset siblings, the blueprint of their seaside mansion, on the twinkling photo of the multi-faceted, multi-coloured, multi-jewelled Grand-Arc-en-Ciel. The Grand Rainbow; the necklace set with stunning examples of inky blue and sumptuous violet onyx, striking verdant emerald, regal blue sapphire, honeyed yellow topaz, and blood red ruby; earned each one of its eye-watering ninety carats. Its dazzling extravagance, and the hefty price tag it promised, was only slightly more alluring than Kyle, a phantom from his past life, materialising in a fucking decrepit warehouse in the middle of St Tropez.
"... so we'll meet at the Bisset mansion at eight pm tomorrow. You're all adults so I'll let you run point on this. As you know I expect a high level of professionalism..."
Ever the theif, Eric attempted to steal quick glances of Kyle. Curious, 'pinch-me' glances to convince himself this was actually real (brimming with giddy shock when he told himself it was), and longer, greedier stares when he considered that Kyle was in front of him now, actual flesh, and warmth, and presence. They could talk to each other, and stand next to each other, and breathe each other in, and Eric could admire his green-blue eyes, and his lean biceps peaking out of his shirt, and what was that smell when they shook hands? Coconut. Definitely coconut shampoo. God, Eric was jealous of whatever lucky bastard got to bury their nose in those curls-
"Mitch?" Folke's sharp voice forced him out of his daydream. "Are you listening to me?"
Eric's gaze collided with Kyle's, and Eric ripped it away. His mouth felt heavier all of a sudden.
Folke's eyes narrowed, stony and displeased.
"I said I expect professionalism," he replied, calm but not comforting. "No more tardiness."
Eric chuckled, shaking his head. Once Folke knew you were scared of him, you were practically placing your balls under his polished black shoes.
"Come on, you know I'm never late for a job..."
"No, I don't know that. You still have plenty of opportunity to disappoint me." He tilted his chin slightly, a menacing eclipse over his moon-white face. "And you know what happens to people who disappoint me..."
Eric held his darkened stare and nodded, confident and matter-of-fact. Folke tilted his chin upwards again, breaking them out of their stalemate.
"Alright," Folke addressed the group. "We're done here."
Eric tried to keep his attention on Kyle. Not just for the sole purpose of drooling over him, but because he knew Kyle would fucking bolt as soon as he had the chance and he couldn't let that happen. He had to talk to him. He did, Eric not Mitch (although it was often hard to distinguish between the two), and get answers somehow.
As expected, Kyle leapt out of his seat and marched to the door. Among the lumbering stroll of Anders, Bode, Klaus and Gunner filing out, Kyle flew out of the warehouse like a rocket. Eric's chair screeched in displeasure as he rose from his seat, the legs dragging along the grimy floor. He almost tripped over it as he tried to catch up to Kyle. Eric had just pushed past Gunner and Klaus as Kyle was slipping out of the door and into the sun-drenched street.
The degenerate group parted ways, with Kyle marching up one end of the street with hunched shoulders and a hurried stride, and Folke's Neanderthals dragging their feet towards a bar further down the road. Eric jogged to catch up with Kyle, eager for a private conversation.
"Hey!" he called out, panting. "Hey, wait!"
Kyle spun around, scowling.
"What?" he hissed, wide eyes restless as they tried to spot any eavesdroppers.
After all that, Eric had no idea what to say. What the hell could he say? So he laughed, breathless and laboured. He threw his hands up in the air.
"What the fuck are you doing here, man?" he asked, still chuckling in disbelief.
Kyle folded his arms, and Eric watched his jaw tighten. His eyes roamed the old pavement for answers, but there appeared to be none.
"I have to go, Cartman..." he murmured, before rolling his eyes. "I mean, Mitch..."
Before Eric could protest, Kyle had turned back around.
"Wait!" Eric panicked, grabbing Kyle's arm.
No way could this be it. No way could Eric go a whole two days before seeing Kyle again on the job, especially when they may not get a chance to talk about what had happened in these mysterious years of absence from each other's lives.
Kyle's eyes widened once more, alight with anger and horror at the fingers gripping his arm.
You're fucking scaring him, creep!
Eric's grip grew lax, not letting him go because honestly he didn't trust him not to run away. Kyle grimaced, wriggling his arm out of Eric's hold and scowling at him while he waited for an explanation.
"Sorry, wait, I just... I just wanted to ask, uh..." Eric couldn't bear to look at Kyle as he stumbled over his words like a moron.
God, you've lied to mafia bosses, and corrupt politicians, and gang leaders right to their faces but you can't ask a guy you like out for lunch?
Eric swallowed resolutely, vowing to prove the voice in his head wrong.
"Do you wanna grab some lunch with me?"
He asked the question so quickly that when Kyle didn't respond right away he wondered if he had understood.
"Lunch?" Kyle asked, arching an eyebrow like he couldn't quite believe that's all Eric wanted from him.
"Yeah?" Eric replied, grinning now, emboldened. "You know, the type of meal you'd have with a friend you haven't seen in a while and want to catch up with?"
Kyle rolled his eyes, a smile flickering in the corner of his mouth like it was muscle memory. He corrected himself, scratching the nape of his neck and sighing.
"Cartman, I don't know. I really should be-"
"Please, Kyle." Eric cut in, stepping forward, enveloping Kyle in an earnest shadow. "I need to know how the hell this has happened..."
Kyle searched his face for reassurance, or a hidden motive. Eric could tell he had cracked Kyle's hard, cynical shell, peeling to reveal a trusting, deliberating centre, one that Eric remembered from childhood. He supposed it was his actions, his violations of Kyle's trust from those many childhood escapades that had contributed to Kyle's weary scepticism. Kyle took a quiet breath, reluctant once more.
"Will it get you to stop staring at me?" he asked.
Eric flushed, stifling in the heat. He supposed he hadn't exactly being subtle in there...
"I... I-I wasn't staring at you-"
Kyle arched an eyebrow, and Eric could forgive him for making him all flustered when he fucking smirked.
Eric rolled his eyes, a helpless smile spreading across his face.
"Yes, if you have lunch with me and tell me how the fuck you wound up here then I'll stop staring at you."
Kyle fidgeted as he deliberated further.
"Fine..." he replied, checking his surroundings once again. "Let's find somewhere quick before I change my mind."
Of course they couldn't find a humble, little cafe, or a quiet coffee shop for their dreaded 'catch-up'. Of course Cartman had to drag them to a stylish, modern restaurant with tiny portions of over-priced food, just because he could. They sat in the restaurant's al fresco area, with dainty crisp parasols shielding them from the relentless heat of the Riviera sun but still filtered its rays. The sound of the waves rolling onto the shore was not too far away.
Kyle studied the menu, glad that Cartman hadn't pressed for anything too personal or revealing just yet. Although, he couldn't kid himself that he would make it out of this meal without divulging something. Kyle remembered that whatever Cartman wanted, he would do just about anything to get, and he now appeared to be making a living out of it. Whatever, Kyle would suffer through one lunch with him if it got Cartman to stop staring at him like he was a diamond to snatch, a painting to carve right out of its frame, a mark he could rob of anything he was worth. He would rather disclose some details about his life to Cartman himself and be stingy with the morsels he offered, rather than have Cartman's eyes boring into him like he was trying to fucking root the truth out of him.
"Bonjour, messieurs." A smartly-dressed waiter smiled as he approached their table.
"Bonjour," Cartman replied.
"Can I get you anything to drink?"
"Nous aurons une bouteille de votre maison blanche, s'il vous plaît?"
"Fantastique!" The waiter replied, most likely delighted to encounter a tourist speaking the native language.
Kyle's surprise, however was a little less pleasant. He looked over his menu, eyes widened and startled at Cartman's effortless French... and how it stirred something curious in him when accompanied by Cartman's bright, smug grin.
"Wait, what?" Kyle asked, tripping over his words as he tried to keep up with the conversation.
"The house white, sir?"
"Oh no, not for me, thank you. I'll, uh, have a... lemonade," Kyle replied, flushing. He gripped his menu like a security blanket. "Please?"
The waiter nodded and smiled, tapping their orders on a small tablet before walking away. Cartman was still smirking, eyes crinkled at the corners.
"Since when do you speak French?" Kyle asked, still simmering in embarrassment and the question was testier than he intended.
Cartman shrugged, unaffected. He glanced at the other glamorous patrons enjoying their meals.
"It was my major, remember? But I guess I wasn't totally fluent until I moved to Paris..."
"You've lived in Paris?"
Kyle's brow creased at the thought of Eric Cartman living in a place surrounded by so much culture, and art, and sophistication. Although from the moment he strolled into the warehouse with his hair neatly styled, and a chunky, silver timepiece hanging off his wrist, Kyle could tell he had moved on from his immature, teenage wardrobe. In fact, when the blinding panic began to ebb, Kyle considered that Cartman actually looked fucking good. God, Kyle could feel himself plummeting to newer depths when he thought he couldn't sink any lower.
"Live," he corrected. "I have an apartment there. See? This is why we needed to catch up!"
"Why would I ever need to know where you live?" Kyle asked, unconvinced.
"You may come to town and want to visit someday?"
Before Cartman could nag him into a trip to Paris, the waiter approached once more with their beverages in icy glasses.
"The lemonade for you, sir..."
"Thank you," Kyle replied as his drink was placed in front of him.
"Et la maison blanche?" The waiter turned to Cartman with a grin.
"Voulez-vous un échantillon d'abord?"
"Oui, s'il vous plait."
The waiter poured a couple of glugs of wine into Cartman's glass. He took a sip, before nodding decisively at the waiter.
"Merci," he said, as he watched the waiter fill his glass almost to the top.
The waiter nodded too, beaming before leaving the bottle in a small, silver bucket.
"This wine is really fucking great," Cartman said after he took a longer sip. "Sure you don't want any?"
"I'm good, thanks," Kyle murmured, reaching for his lemonade.
"We're not working right now, Kyle..."
Kyle rolled his eyes, irritated by Cartman's ceaseless smirking.
"I know. We're 'catching up' or whatever, so catch me up and we can get this over with."
Cartman's eyebrow arched, genuine surprise flickering across his face.
"You're really interested?"
Kyle flushed again, like he had given something away he was supposed to hold close to his chest.
"No..." he sighed, figuring he should just admit that his curiosity was growing with every moment he was spending with this flashy, French-speaking, criminal Cartman. "Yes? I guess I'm kinda intrigued how majoring in French lands you a gig as professional theif."
Cartman grinned, pleased and victorious, but Kyle couldn't be too pissed off when he was gaining something too.
"Oh, it started way before college, Kyle..." he teased.
"Huh?" Kyle asked, lost and disorientated in a timeline that was becoming murkier. "You're... you're kidding, right?"
No way could this have started while they were both still in high school.
"Nope," Cartman replied with a shake of his head. "Let's go back, Kyle..." he looked wistfully into nowhere and waved his fingers in the air like he could conjure up his story. "To before the beginning..."
Kyle groaned, burying his head in his hands. Of course there would be fucking theatrics.
"You remember when Obama got re-elected and I stole all the ballots for Romney from the swing states?"
Kyle chuckled despite himself, lifting his head from his hands.
"Unfortunately, yes..." he replied, his reminiscing coming to a jarring holt when it dawned on him. "Wait, that's when it started?"
"Sort of. It put me on the map. It got me noticed. After that, I was being sort of scouted by all kinds of criminal organisations, all over the world. They were calling me a wunderkind! Can you believe it?" Cartman asked, laughing like the title still awed him. "Anyway... I wasn't too interested back then. I mean, one-time gigs were fun and all, but an actual fucking job? Nah, I wasn't into it as a kid. But then Folke contacted me when I was in college, and lucky for him I was pretty bored, and needed a job anyway. I did one job for him back in the states, convincing some corrupt senator in New York to invest all his money into a cutting edge new tech company with a driven, no-bullshit CEO - me. The payout was incredible, and Folke was impressed. He offered me more work, and it was way more lucrative and exciting than flipping burgers like every other loser I knew in college. The only catch was they operated mainly in Europe, Folke and his whole crew are Swedish. So whatever, I quit school and moved to Paris. I lived in a grubby little shithole at first but I was soon able to rent the place I have now. I told my mom I was doing an internship as a translator for American diplomats in France-"
"And she still thinks you're doing that now?" Kyle cut in, wincing at the thought of Cartman's clueless mother all alone in South Park.
"I guess so?" Cartman replied, with a short, uncomfortable shrug. "I haven't talked to her in, like, five years."
A prickling sympathy clutched Kyle's heart.
"Well, what the hell am I supposed to say to her?" Cartman asked, testy for the first time. "What do you tell your parents?"
Kyle frowned, shoulders drawing up.
"N-n-nothing, I... I..." Kyle stuttered, choking on hypocrisy. "I haven't told them what I do either..."
Cartman folded his arms and arched a knowing eyebrow at him. Knowing because for the first time in four, isolated, ironically disconnected years in Kyle's life of computers, and coding, he was actually having a conversation with someone whose experiences reflected his. It had been so long since he had talked to somebody who knew every part of him. It was a lukewarm comfort when that person happened to be Cartman, and he could see through every self-preserving lie Kyle told himself.
"B-b-but that's different!" Kyle argued, heat crawling up his throat. "I... I don't talk to them because I wanna protect them-"
"Well, that's very thoughtful of you," Cartman cut in, sipping at his wine.
Kyle glared at Cartman across the table. At least he felt guilty about his estrangement from his family.
"More thoughtful than you, at least..."
Cartman didn't bow to Kyle's glowering look, didn't scowl. Instead, he smirked, amused as if Kyle was not even half-serious.
"Does this mean we're talking about you now?" he asked.
"No, we're still on you," Kyle replied, sipping at his drink.
"I've brought you up to speed, haven't I?"
"No. No, I still don't know..." Kyle drifted off, searching for something. He still wasn't ready, not yet. "How many languages do you speak? You say you work a lot in Europe."
"Fluently? Uhh... French, Italian, German, and Spanish..." Cartman counted each one on his fingers. "And I can get by in Hungarian, Dutch, and Swedish from what I've picked up from Folke."
"Wow, that's uh... pretty impressive." Kyle nodded, he may as well be truthful, after all. He was smiling before he could stop it.
Cartman grinned, and he straightened a slightly off-kilter fork with his index finger as his eyes roamed the table.
"It seems to have cured your xenophobia at least so, you know, one good thing..."
Cartman chuckled, shaking his head and taking a sip of his wine.
"Alright, come on, it's your turn," Cartman coaxed, warmer than before. "You said you wanted to get this over with."
Kyle sighed, he was so close to giving in, to getting this over with, to wholeheartedly leaping at the chance of a connection, even with the first person he saw, even with the person he knew he shouldn't trust in a million years. But he was still reluctant, still afraid, when it was more convenient to live this life without questioning it, without introspection, but not exactly easier, especially on the heart.
"Why are you so interested in the first place?" he asked, trying to see if he could decode any ulterior motives, to gauge if it was worth it.
Cartman chuckled disbelievingly, as if it was obvious.
"How could I not be fucking interested?" he replied. "The last time I saw you it was winter break, and you were passed out on Stan's couch on Christmas Eve!" he smiled, glancing at Kyle's drink. "Maybe it's a good thing you're on the lemonade, you always were a lightweight... and now you're fucking 'Glitch!'"
Kyle jolted at the mention of his alias, looking around at the other diners.
"What the fuck, Cartman?!" he hissed.
Cartman shook his head, snickering.
"Don't worry, Kyle, I don't think anyone is gonna rat you out to Interpol here..."
Kyle couldn't help but smirk, eyebrows raised.
"Is that so?"
"What, you think I'm gonna do it? Those bastards have wanted me for years..."
Kyle laughed, soft and exasperated.
"Computer Sciences was your major, right?" Cartman asked, luring him into spilling all. After all the things they had done, graduation seemed like a lifetime ago and he was surprised and... flattered... that his major was deemed worth remembering.
He wrung his hands on the table, still wrestling with his decision. With a deep, steadying breath, he finally relented.
"Yeah, there were, uh, plenty of job opportunities in California, but more unpaid internships and I was going on tons of interviews just to get something." Kyle began. "A friend from college was into all this 'hacktivism,' stuff but his connections were mainly shady. He asked me if I would be interested in helping a gang of art thieves operating in Philadelphia steal a piece from the Institute of Contemporary Art and the money was... it was too good to refuse. Besides, I was bored out of my fucking mind. It'd been a long time since I'd had an adventure. So I went to Philadelphia and... even though I didn't physically steal the piece, I'll never forget the rush. No matter how I feel about the jobs I've done, all the guilt and the regret, that rush was still perfect, and scary, and... addictive." Kyle breathed the word, as if it shouldn't be uttered. Despite everything, he could feel his heartrate pick up and his neurons ignite with the thrilling, stomach-flipping memory. "After all the shit we saw growing up, nothing had ever excited me more. I guess after graduating I felt so powerless, stuck in this boring, mundane routine, waiting for this uncertain future to happen and when we stole that sculpture it didn't just feel like we were taking that. It felt like I was taking control again, you know?" He shook his head, to dissuade himself from getting carried away. "But that's ridiculous. I'm not a kid anymore. I have plenty of money in my savings to just up and quit."
"But you haven't..."
Kyle bristled, affronted by the sudden judgement after all that he had shared, and the doubt buried in Cartman's words.
"W-w-well, no, but I'm going to..." Kyle stammered, hating how irresolute he was coming off right now.
Kyle sat up a little straighter then, now he had a firmer answer to give, resolute once more.
"After this job has finished."
Cartman frowned, staring at Kyle like he had misheard.
"What the fu- seriously?!" he exclaimed.
Kyle's brow furrowed.
"Why the hell why would you wanna quit, Kyle?" Cartman asked, laughing incredulously. "Look around you!" He gestured to the beautiful beach and the yacht-lined sea, and all Kyle saw were tainted things he could only half-appreciate. "You really wanna give all this up?"
"Yeah, because it's not real!" Kyle replied. "It's fake, and a sham, and we're always five seconds away from the fucking rug being pulled out from under our feet! Aren't you tired of looking over your shoulder all the time? I want to relax! I want a real, normal life again!"
"And what's a 'real, normal life,' huh?" Cartman asked, eyes narrowed and question sardonic. "A house in the suburbs with a wife, and a dog, and two point five kids? Do you not see how lame that is?"
"Sounds pretty perfect to me... " Kyle murmured. "And the sooner I can have it the better." He sighed, shaking his head. "I've just got to get out, and after tomorrow night I'm finished."
"I bet you won't do it..."
Indignation welled up inside Kyle, sudden, and smothering, and... familiar. Kyle should have expected their conversation to fall in step with their habitual rhythm.
"I bet you won't do it! After tomorrow night goes well, you'll realise that nothing will ever be as exciting as this, and you won't wanna stop. One more job will turn into two more jobs, which will turn into another, what, four years, and then maybe we'll see each other again. It's like you said, you're addicted now and you can't just... quit cold turkey!"
Kyle fidgeted in his seat, as he considered that might be true. But he wasn't going to accept it, or resign himself to it as fact.
"I have to try, Cartman..."
"So tomorrow is really gonna be it, then?" Cartman asked, seeking reassurance as his own was fading.
Kyle nodded, and Cartman slowly began to copy him. A gentle bob of acceptance.
"Well, then..." Cartman lifted his glass to Kyle with a smile. "It'll be an honour to be a part of your swansong... Glitch."
A little bit of background! I hope you guys enjoyed and thank you for reading, I'd love to know your thoughts! (also, I apologise for any bad French, pfft!)
Obsessing over Cartman was a habit Kyle thought he had grown out of, and yet ever since their catch up his words, his flashy grin, and his whole persona, changed and yet familiar, had clung to his mind like sickly sweet molasses. Whereas Kyle merely existed in this criminal world, pragmatic, self-flagellating, and rejecting it, Cartman seemed to be breezing through it, a content, glamorous butterfly. His nefarious childhood exploits and Folke's tutelage had provided a steely chrysalis, Kyle supposed. But at least Cartman had that excuse, that he had started off young, when he was impressionable and didn't know any better. And even if Kyle knew otherwise, he was sure that Cartman already had that excuse up his sleeve if he found himself in trouble. Kyle didn't even have that justification, and try as he might he couldn't remember the sudden, hot feeling that had rushed into his veins when he decided he was going to take up his old college friend's offer of flying all the way to Philadelphia to commit a crime. Was it anger? Frustration at the stagnation of his life? Fiery adrenaline? Kyle wished he could remember, could rationalise it, but it was no use.
Instead of dwelling on the past, searching his memory for fleeting, visceral sensation, he focused on the present and the near future. He had pored over the detailed digital blueprint of the Bisset mansion like it was a gripping best-seller you would read poolside, and mentally earmarked what percentage of his cut he was going to give to Ike. Eighty million split five ways was enough to write off Ike's student loans and start his new life with.
But he had to get the damn necklace first.
He was sat in a rented unmarked van that was black all over, and parked on the side of a dusty road. The van was shrouded by the verdant, bulbous bushes that grew contagiously in the area, and the evening dimming without the interference of streetlights. In fact, the only artificial light was coming from the Bisset mansion only a five minute walk away. They illuminated the grand, beachside property like it was its very own jewel on display, a glowing signal for the arriving guests.
Kyle's fingers flew over his keyboard, numbers cascading down his screen as swiftly as violent rain, and windows appeared before vanishing into thin air as firewalls were breached and encryptions rerouted. The van had been custom built for surveillance purposes, just the vehicle Kyle needed to be able to monitor every security camera in the sprawling mansion. The triptych monitors soon resembled bleak, futuristic glass windows, with mundane figures moving around in monochrome. Service staff raced about holding trays high in the air, the privileged guests chuckled and sipped at champagne in the large foyer, and the vault in the basement glimmered like a treasure chest even beneath the grainy film.
The double doors shuddered as a fist pounded against it.
"You ready, Glitch?"
Kyle rolled his eyes. He knew he would have to see Cartman again tonight, but that didn't mean he wasn't dreading it any less. He leaned forward to open the door.
"Yeah, I just-"
Kyle's words flew out the door at the sight of Cartman wearing an unfairly flattering tuxedo. His pinkish sunburn was already mellowing into an envious bronze, and his slicked back hair only brightened his grin and drew Kyle's eyes to the soft, round apples of his chubby cheeks. Endearing, and boyish, and... actually fucking handsome. No wonder Kyle could barely speak, when he couldn't even admit it to himself.
"I... I, uh..."
Cartman chuckled, golden eyes twinkling like a pampered feline.
"Clean up good, don't I?" he teased, smoothing down his lapels and tilting his chin upwards.
Kyle couldn't answer. He could feel his jaw wavering, his mouth willing words but none would come.
Cartman wilted slightly, grin fading into a puzzled smirk. He arched an eyebrow.
"Dude, if I'm not allowed to stare at you then it shouldn't be cool for you to stare at me," he pointed out. "It's only fair."
Kyle's mouth clamped shut immediately, and he hoped the flush crawling up his throat was concealed by the dark, shadowy interior of the van.
"Um, sorry, I-I-I didn't mean to. I just-"
Cartman rolled his eyes.
"Relax, Ky- Glitch," he quickly corrected himself. He peeked at the front of the van, where Folke's crew were lounging against the hood and having a smoke. Cartman turned to Kyle. "Shit, I really need to watch that..."
"Yes," Kyle replied, humourless and still simmering. "Please do."
Cartman was unaffected, glancing inside the van and the glowing wall of security footage.
"What's all that?" he asked, climbing into the van before Kyle could protest.
It wasn't the most spacious of rides, after all.
"The security cameras. I need to track your movements so I know which camera to disable and when."
"You're gonna do it one at a time?" Cartman asked, crouched beside Kyle now. His face was cast in a silvery, lifeless pallor as he stared at the screens. "Won't that alert whoever is monitoring it that something's up?"
"It shouldn't," Kyle replied. "I'm recording everything simultaneously so when you enter, say, the foyer." He double-clicked and zoomed in on the footage of guests conversing. "I can take the genuine footage offline and just play pre-recorded footage. They'll be none the wiser."
Cartman's voice trailed off, saying nothing more, and out of the corner of his eye Kyle caught Cartman's reflection in the monitor. The corner of his mouth had twitched upward into a preoccupied smile, his eyes wide and fascinated as he studied the footage as if it were an oil-painting masterpiece. Kyle bit back a smile, emboldened to tease Cartman for letting it slip that he was actually impressed by him. After all these years, the urge to rip on Cartman was resurfacing, helplessly and unexpected.
He turned his head, goading remark at the ready, but was unprepared for Cartman to follow him, and remind him just how close they were in proximity. He was suddenly met with patient, attentive eyes, and flushed cheeks. Up close, he could even spot freckles coming out of hibernation on Cartman's nose.
"Umm..." Kyle whispered, unable to peel his eyes away until Cartman did.
The word - sound - escaped Kyle's mouth, warm and humid between them. Conscious of his breathing, Kyle felt it become more laboured and Cartman seemed to be copying him. The scent of his rich cologne was heady, almost intoxicating when it landed on the tip of Kyle's tongue, prickling his taste buds. Uncharacteristically, Cartman's eyes were patient and still, blurring and melding into a dangerous topaz sun the longer Kyle stared. He tried to focus on something else, gaze searching for a safer spot. His gaze followed the path of a small, button nose and down to a pair of parted, full lips.
Anywhere but there.
Kyle ducked his head, clearing his throat and turning away.
"I-I-I need to give you your EP," he stammered, clambering for the duffel bag at his feet.
Rummaging through it, he pulled out a small, flesh-coloured ear piece and handed it to Cartman. Without question Cartman slipped it in his ear, it was the first time his gaze avoided Kyle tonight.
"It's switched on already," Kyle explained, opening up the correlating program on his laptop. "Just start talking and it will register your pitch."
"Alright... let's see..." Cartman's eyes wandered the van as he pondered possible topics of conversation. "Oh, yeah! Check this out!"
Cartman reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, pulling out a crisp, lavender card.
"What is that?" Kyle asked as it was handed to him.
"It's how I'm gonna get into the party," Cartman replied, beaming.
Kyle stroked the bumpy ridges of the invitation as he read:
You are cordially invited to the Bisset Foundation's annual auction.
Hosted by Sophia and Pierre Bisset.
In aid of the Bisset Foundation's continuing devotion to the children of France and the world.
Kyle's own fascinated smile wavered and disappeared when he remembered what the point of this auction was exactly. He may have wanted to provide for his own future, and his little brother's as well, but how much help would he be denying children less fortunate than he ever was? What about their futures?
His throat clenched. The guilt was like furious, righteous fingers wrapping around his neck and squeezing. He gulped, tried to free himself. His eyes stung just as he was starting to breathe again.
Is this really worth it?
Kyle had no answer. His previous justifications were crushed by the weight of the question, damning and paralysing.
"How... h-h-how did you get one of these?" he asked, trying desperately to move on.
"An hour or so on Instagram eventually yielded results," Cartman replied. "One of the guests posted hers and it was pretty easy to find a similar paper and mimic the calligraphy."
Kyle's eyes still roamed the invitation, and he noticed a name at the top.
"Marcus Van Der Berg?" He looked up at Cartman, smiling now. "Are you gonna be speaking Dutch tonight?"
"Nah, I'm keeping it simple," he replied, taking the invitation from Kyle and slipping it back in his pocket. "Marcus is from New York." He tilted his chin once more and spoke in a fancy, mid-Atlantic accent. "Upper East Side, as a matter of fact."
Kyle chuckled, a soft, involuntary hum. He glanced at the monitors, and spotted the time.
"Shit, it's nearly eight," he said, slipping into his usual post-gig urgency. "We better run through the plan before you guys head in."
"Sure." Cartman nodded, all business now too.
Cartman jumped out the van, smoothing down his tux before rallying the rest of the guys. Kyle heard them all mumble, and he rolled his stool over to the open doors, ready to give a final rundown of the plan.
They were all in front of him now, lingering cigarette smoke mingling with Cartman's cologne. Kyle cleared his throat, before he began.
"Alright, so we know the necklace is in a vault in the East Wing with the other items up for auction, which requires an access code and a recognised fingerprint to enter. There'll be a security patrol at the top of the stairwell. The security detail as a whole shifts every hour. Their rotation is sort of anti-clockwise, so that means the perimeter patrol of the eastside of the property will be shifting to the top of the stairwell at about nine. Anders and Klaus you work the stairwell, Gunner and Bode you remain outside."
Folke's burly crew all nodded, kitted out in their mock security uniforms.
"Understood..." Anders replied, low and gruff.
"I'll be tracking everyone's movements via the security feed," Kyle continued. "I've hacked into the mainframe already so I can record footage of inactivity. It will be displayed on the monitors in the security lodge at the foot of the property, so as not to tip off the guys there when I disable every security camera. We can all communicate through the EPs, if we run into trouble. Once Mitch is inside the motion sensors that trip off the laser systems will be disabled, and he'll be free to take the necklace. You guys rendez vous at the back entrance of the house, and I'll pull up just a little ways from the gates. Are we all clear?"
Cartman nodded, eyes twinkling with impending mischief as he looked around the group.
"I think so."
"Then let's head in," Klaus said.
The crew lumbered off, with Cartman following close behind them.
Kyle was just about to the shut the doors when he heard Cartman's voice. He was grinning when he looked up at him.
Kyle returned the smile, however weakly, however hard it was to keep telling himself he just needed to get through this.
In all honesty, he just needed to get out.
"Break a leg..." he replied, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
Eric stepped into the foyer of the Bisset Mansion, and suddenly that monochrome party happening in miniature on Kyle's screen flourished into self-satisfied conversation, swishing gowns in sumptuous colours, and delicate strings. The massive chandelier made the cream coloured tiles sparkle like the jewellery adorning the ears, necks, and wrists of the guests, the reflections of the light glowing on their contented faces. A lady carved from marvel posed at the landing where the two grand staircases met. Below her, a string quartet played. The auction was scheduled to start in an hour. Eric had no time to enjoy himself like he belonged there at all.
He swiped a flute of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter. He took a long sip as his eyes scanned the smartly-dressed crowd. He soon spotted Sophia and Pierre, tentatively attempting to relax after no doubt months of planning for this event. Eric almost felt bad that he was about to wreck it all. Guilt during any of his jobs was like an annoying little housefly that was easily batted away, tiny and insignificant, and easily soothed by his payout. He took another gulp of champagne, before making his way over to the siblings.
"Sophia!" He beamed. "Pierre! Bonsoir!"
Eric pulled them to him in a one-armed embrace, both of them receiving the traditional kiss on each cheek. They didn't protest or balk, pleasant, charmed smiles betraying any surprise. Pierre didn't even notice that the clearance pass so carelessly hanging from his back pocket had been snatched. Eric knew security was tight enough at events like these that even the hosts had to be prepared to be scrutinised by rented security detail when entering sealed-off areas. Although, he supposed people like him performing heists like these did nothing to allay such suspicion.
"Wonderful party, truly!" Eric grinned, in a blue blood drawl.
"Merci, uh..." Pierre remembered himself, brow furrowing and he tucked some sandy blond hair behind his ear. "Sorry, but I don't believe we've met..."
"Oh dear, how presumptuous of me! Forgive me, meeting the both of you is just very overwhelming, I..." As Eric patted at his lapels self-consciously, he saw the brother and sister exchange sheepish, flattered glances at one another. Eric soon composed himself, holding out his hand to shake. "Marcus Van Der Berg. I'm a cousin of Mila's?"
"Ah, it's a pleasure to meet you, Marcus!" Pierre replied, gripping his hand tightly and shaking it.
"It's a shame we haven't been introduced before," Sophia added, with a gentle handshake to match her waifish frame. "I visit Amsterdam quite often..."
"Oh, I don't live in Amsterdam. You can trace my roots there, but I live New York, as a matter of fact."
"Oh, I love New York!" Sophia gushed, with a gleam in her caramel eyes.
"Me too, it's a wonderful city. I really ought to start giving back to it like you both do for Paris... well, for the whole world!" Eric said, with a self-deprecating laugh. "Your recent interview in L'Express was absolutely fascinating."
Eric hid his smug grin behind his glass as he watched Sophia and Pierre lower their chins to conceal their own self-satisfied smiles. Flattery was a simple manipulation tactic, but one that yielded fantastic results.
"You're such an inspiration truly," Eric continued with a sigh. "I'd love to know how this all got off the ground. Sometimes I barely know where to begin with all my ideas!"
They laughed amongst each other, and all of a sudden Eric was just another socialite with a philanthropic streak, indistinguishable and invisible.
"I'm particularly interested in your funding project for inner city children to have easy access to university courses. It would be wonderful if I could set up something similar back home, especially with how expensive it is to study in the states. "
Sophia nodded, impressed and enthusiastic.
"Well, it would be our pleasure to share our insight with you."
"Oh yes, please do!" Eric gushed. "But I must ask where the toilettes is first, sil vous plait?"
"Down the hall and to your left," Sophia replied with a smile.
He slipped away from the crowd, abandoning his champagne on a stylish glass side table as he made his way down the dimly lit corridor to the washroom. Locking the door behind him, he removed his bowtie and shoved it in the back pocket of his pants. He pulled a pair of glasses and a small comb from the inside pocket of his jacket. With a pained grimace, he slipped the glasses on and ruined his slicked back hairdo, combing it into bangs that skimmed his eyebrows. He ruffled the bangs with his fingers, attempting to create the look of a frazzled, stressed out employee with responsibility teetering on his shoulders. He frowned at his reflection, but supposed he couldn't be glamorous all the time, when so often this job was anything but.
Satisfied, he slipped out of the washroom and marched brusquely down a long corridor. He passed harried catering staff, acknowledging them with quick nods. He turned his head to make sure they were out of earshot when he communicated to the rest of the crew.
"On my way to the stairwell," he murmured.
"Copy that," Klaus replied. "Heading there now."
Eric straightened his shoulders, turning a corner and striding with purpose toward the two, stern security guards perched at the top of the stairwell.
"Good evening, gentlemen." He greeted them with a stereotypically refined English accent.
"Guests are not allowed past this point, monsieur," a bearded security guard informed him, lifting his hand.
Eric frowned, brows knitting together as if he didn't expect to encounter such opposition.
"But I'm not a guest..." he replied. "Oh, of course! You'll need some identification..."
Eric reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the stolen clearance pass, plain and printed with the security firm's own logo.
"Daniel Waterston, assistant to Monsieur Arnoult at Bonchamps Auctioneers? I'm meeting him in the vault in about ten minutes, so if you wouldn't mind..."
The security guards glanced at each other, unable to argue. They both stepped aside.
"Of course, monsieur..."
Eric nodded at them with a small smile.
He trotted down the stairs, entering a narrow basement.
"God, it feels like I'm the only one who does any work around here..."
"Shut up, asshole!" Gunner snapped.
"Me and Klaus just took over at the stairwell."
"Just approaching the vault..." Eric replied, wondering if his delight was evident in his voice. "You got me covered, Glitch?"
There was no answer. Only the echo of his footsteps as he approached the vault.
"Glitch?" Eric asked.
No answer, and Eric felt an embarrassed, irritated flush rise behind his ears at Kyle's ignorance. What was so fucking hard about replying a simple 'yes' after all? Whatever, Eric guessed that's just what Kyle was like on jobs. Laser focused, and sparing with his communication. Why bother changing now? On his last ever job? Eric tried to smother the ache in his chest, the twinge of his heart pointlessly protesting against such a notion. He had only just been reunited with Kyle, and now he may never see him again. How the hell was that fair?
Eric shook his head. He couldn't think about that now. He had a job to do too, after all. He could try to change Kyle's mind when the job was finished, or at the very least beg for his address so he could plan a trip stateside.
He reached the vault, a heavy, silver shield guarding the Bisset family treasure trove, but it may as well have been made out of paper after Kyle's electronic manipulation. Grinning, Eric ignored the now obsolete infrared fingerprint scanner, and the chunky keypad and reached for the handle. But instead of opening the door to reveal the Grand Arc-on-Ciel waiting for him in all its prismatic, iridescent glory, he was met with resistance.
"What... what the hell?" Eric muttered, panic seeping out of his pores as he tried the door again with a sweaty hand.
"What's wrong?" Anders asked, taut with worry.
"What?!" Klaus exclaimed.
"The door is still fucking locked... Glitch, what the hell?!" Eric demanded, frantic. He was still trying the door, pulling and tugging at the handle like it was a stress toy for his mounting anger. "You fucking asshole, what the fuck do you think you're doing?!"
Eric froze when Kyle's voice filled his ears. He was panting as he waited for his explanation.
"Yeah, you better fucking be! Open this door right now or-"
Nausea, and fear, and confusion, and anger waged war inside Eric, grappling with each other for his attention.
His head was swimming in tumultuous panic, and a disorientating sense of betrayal he had never experience before. And still Eric was clambering for Kyle, for his reason as to why he was doing this.
"I said, I can't!" Kyle cried. Eric heard him sigh, crackly and muffled. "I... I-I-I'm sorry."
Before Eric could argue with him, plead with him, fucking yell at him some more for being the biggest asshole on the planet, there was some rustling, and a discomfiting, high pitched beep, niggling deep in his ear canal. It was followed by absolute, terrifying silence. Kyle had vanished.
"What the fuck?!" Eric yelled regardless, as if he could scream loud enough Kyle would hear him. Overcome with anger, he pounded his fist against the vault. "You're gonna fucking ruin everything! I-"
Suddenly, the hallway was bathed in red. Eric stopped, looked around and wondered if his rage was truly crowding his vision. Alarms blared, ricocheting off the walls in the small space, and Eric winced, covering his ears and tried to think of his way out above the deafening noise.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Anders and Klaus running towards him, as ferocious as jungle cats advancing on their unlucky prey.
"He crossed us!" Anders yelled, seething. "That son of a bitch fucking crossed us!"
Eric's words were stolen by Klaus, bulging arm pressed to his chest and nearly tackling him to the floor.
"We have to get out of here!" he screamed in his ear.
Eric helplessly watched the vault disappear from sight as he was dragged out of danger. It had all but disappeared from his mind too. Terrified, he could only think of one thing - finding Kyle before Folke and his gang could.
Figuring out how to end this chapter was hard. Suspense is hard. Writing Eric and Kyle having cute, blushy moments together? So easy! I hope you enjoyed that (among other things), and thank you for reading! I'd love to know your thoughts!
Chapter 5: Where Loyalties Lie
I'm placing a warning here for violent scenes ahead. Nothing too graphic or gory, but a lot of mentions of blood, and some threats of violence. Please tread carefully. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy and thank you for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Another punch colliding with his jaw pulled Kyle back from his descent into unconsciousness. He was glad for it. He had stopped wailing and groaning at the punches and kicks being dealt to him what seemed like an eternity ago. He was becoming far too desensitised, disoriented, clawing into consciousness with broken fingers. He daren't let go. After all, this was nothing compared to what they could do to him while he was out cold.
Something had cracked. His mouth filled with more blood from the stinging tear in his lip as his head was forcibly turned left by Klaus' fist. He wanted to spit before he choked, or gagged on the acrid, copper taste. But, as his lungs seemed to creak with every heaving, bruised breath, and his skull throbbed with deep, yawning pain, all he could manage was parting his mottled lips and drooling on the floor. In the dim light of the dank warehouse, the elastic trail of scarlet saliva seemed to gleam, vibrant.
"Ha!" Klaus laughed, manic with glee and anger all at once. "Look at him drooling!"
His fingers were suddenly grasping Kyle's hair, forcing his head towards him and he seethed as a few strands were pulled from the roots. Kyle squinted, his eyelids were swollen, aching curtains crowding his vision.
"Not so fucking smart now, are you?!"
Klaus yanked his hand from Kyle's hair before he could respond. His head hung limp, and the sadistic gangsters chuckled as more blood dripped from his mouth.
There was a punch to his gut that sent Kyle's stomach hurtling into his throat. His eyes widened, and he gasped desperately for air, hoarse and wheezing. Although it strained his arms already contorted into an unnatural position - wrists behind his back and bound to a chair - Kyle didn't have the strength to sit up. He sat, hunched and crumpled like an abused chew toy.
"Mitch, don't you want to get in on this?"
Kyle lifted his gaze to find Cartman standing further back than his associates, half-concealed by shadow. His arms were folded across his chest, studying the scene in front of him like it was a spectacle to be judged for his amusement. Although Kyle could remember being dragged out of the van by Folke's thugs and seeing Cartman through the blur of pounding fists and vicious snarls, looking pale, and wide-eyed, and just as terrified as Kyle had felt. He couldn't have been imagining it, could he? He couldn't tell what was real anymore, where the nightmare began, or if it would ever end. Funny to think he had dreamt of it all being over tonight...
"Nah, you guys go ahead," Cartman replied, bored. "I'm not the muscle, I'm the brains... and the face, come to think of it..."
"Come on!" Klaus barked, arms spread wide and threatening. "He lost your fucking money too!"
"Aren't you angry?!" Gunner asked, demanded.
Cartman glanced between the gang, deliberating his answer. His eyes eventually met Kyle's, and if he was trying to tell him something with his long, plaintive stare Kyle couldn't begin to decipher the message. He watched Cartman's chest rise and fall with a sigh, his eyes hardening and more inaccessible than ever. He began to nod.
"You know what? I am..."
Panic, chilling and severe, filled Kyle's veins as he watched Cartman pick up a thick, hefty plank of wood from the floor. He lifted his head, his breaths coming at a rapid, uncontrollable pace as Cartman practically strolled over to him, swinging the plank as lackadaisically as a batter stepping up to the plate. Kyle tried to silently plead, tried to twist his broken, bruised, bleeding features into prayers of mercy, but it was no use. Cartman wasn't paying any attention to him, just carefully studying his weapon of choice.
Something shifted then, his contemplative face creasing with a tight scowl, and Cartman had swung the plank at Anders. Another crack, louder than before, and Anders cried out as blood sprayed from his nose. Clutching his face, he crumpled to the floor. Kyle tried to gasp, to ask what the fuck was happening, but he could only part his lips in an attempt at sound.
"You fucking prick!" Gunner yelled, lunging at Cartman but seemingly without thinking he swung the plank at Gunner's head too.
It met the side of his skull and sent him crashing to the floor.
Kyle tugged at his bonds when Klaus leapt at Cartman from behind, arms as thick as a boa constrictor wrapping around his neck and squeezing just as tight. Cartman's eyes flew wide open, his face flushing a breathless shade of red. He dropped the plank, his arms losing all co-ordination to desperation and panic. Soon enough, his brow furrowed, determined, and he gritted his teeth and shoved his elbow into Klaus' nose. Klaus shouted, eyes squeezing shut as he loosened his hold on Cartman. Taking advantage of his shock, Cartman grabbed Klaus by his shoulders and head butted him.
It sent Klaus stumbling backwards, tripping over Gunner and landing in a sprawling pile on top of him. Cartman was stumbling too, hand pressed to his forehead as he tried to find his balance. Kyle just stared, slack-jawed and panting. Their eyes met, both of them covered in blood, and trembling. They held each other's gazes for what felt like far too long when none of them had no idea what the fuck they should say.
Cartman swallowed. A grave, uneasy seriousness clouding his blood-smattered features.
"Come on... " he murmured, making his way to Kyle.
He crouched down behind him, freeing Kyle from the rope binding his wrists together with jittering fingers.
"We have to get out of here..."
"Huh?" Kyle asked, head spinning with this unexpected rescue... among other things.
"I said, we have to get out of here!" Cartman snapped, every movement thrumming with adrenaline and panic.
He rushed over to a still unconscious Anders, rummaging his jacket pockets for a set of car keys. The gentle rustling of metal set Kyle's teeth on edge. He brought his sore, freed arms in front of him, and stared at the vicious bands of red wrapped around his wrists. Without another word, he was pulled from his chair and dragged out of the warehouse. Cartman's grip on his already tender wrist wasn't exactly welcome or comfortable, but it was firm, and secure, and it told an increasingly drowsy Kyle that he was getting out of there.
The mild evening against his sweaty, blood-stained face was a jolt to his system, as was the sight of Folke stamping on his cigarette and charging towards them.
"Hey!" he barked. "Just where the hell do you think you're going with-"
He was cut off by Cartman's fist connecting with his jaw. He lost his balance, cane slipping from his grip, and he collapsed hard onto the pavement. Kyle couldn't help but stare at the formidable Folke sprawled on the sidewalk, helplessly grasping for his cane.
He huffed as he was shoved into the passenger seat of the stolen car, trembling and aching as he waited mere seconds for Cartman to cross to the driver's seat. He sat, slumped, and before he could even muster the energy to ask Cartman where they were going, or what they were going to do now, the car lurched forward. Kyle's stomach was in his throat once more as they flew down the street, and he was hurtling into darkness again.
It was the early hours by the time they reached Paris, daylight just starting to break the evening's seal. Despite the chaos, the uncertainty, the thousand volts of panic surging through him, Kyle slept for the entire journey to Toulon airport, and the subsequent plane ride to Paris. He was only awoken from his oppressive sleep for short, hurried intervals. In his groggy, hurting state the only thing he could clearly visualise, piece together from this long, fractured night was Cartman. His wide eyes, the hushed, desperate murmurings of his name, firm, shaking hands steering him into safety. Kyle remembered Cartman muttering that everything was going to be okay as they abandoned the car ten minutes away from the airport, trudging through the unfamiliar darkness together. He remembered squinting at the bright lights of the nocturnal check-in desk, and hearing quick, quivering French pouring out of Cartman's mouth as he bought their tickets, with a broad, fake grin to allay whatever concerning looks the staff were giving this strange man and his beaten companion.
Kyle had no idea if Cartman had slept during the flight. He remembered stirring and feeling Cartman's leg pressed up against his. He had turned his head and saw Cartman preoccupied with the eerie view of black nothingness outside, and gnawing at his thumb. There was a cup of coffee that was just as black placed in front of him. Kyle was still too exhausted to begin attempting questions. It was so easy to just fall asleep again, so easy not to entertain the possibility that there was more suffering waiting for him, so easy to think he hadn't been lured into further danger. Watching Cartman beat up Folke and his crew, those he was supposed to have some kind of warped loyalty to in this business of dishonesty, Kyle had no idea what to expect of him anymore, couldn't discern his tactics or motivations. Had he even betrayed them at all?
Cartman was leading him to his apartment now, both of them trekking the winding staircase of the grand, old building. The sound of their echoing footsteps reached the dizzyingly high ceiling and swooped back down again. With every step Kyle told himself it was another chance to run, to escape, to find the nearest hospital. But it was impossible to wrench himself away from Cartman's side, his only familiar thing, his constant, for better or worse tonight. They were walking down a corridor now, Kyle's chance of escape was shrinking.
"Good thing the door is still locked, huh?" Cartman asked with a weak chuckle when they reached his front door. He cleared his throat and averted his gaze when Kyle glared at him.
Opening the door, Cartman then turned on the lights to reveal a spacious, open-plan apartment. Kyle's shoulders were being grabbed and turned toward Cartman before he could absorb his surroundings properly. Instead, he was the one being scrutinised.
"Shit..." Cartman whispered, frowning and brows knitted together as he inspected Kyle's face. "No offense, dude, but you look even worse than I thought..."
Kyle didn't know how to respond, how to feel that he was here in the first place.
He led Kyle to the kitchen, before grabbing a chair from his dining table and placing it near the sink. Kyle's movements were stiff and mechanical as he sat down, aching and wary still.
"I have a first aid kit around here somewhere..." Cartman said, as he began to search through his cupboards. "And you should have had a fucking icepack hours ago, but I was a little preoccupied getting you through the airport."
With that, Cartman reached into his freezer. The contents crunched as he rummaged around, finally removing a wet, pale blue bag. Kyle could feel his heart thudding in his ears at the uneasy image of his own body shoved into a freezer, like the unlucky souls in those gangster movies. He imagined himself blue and lifeless, all those hopes, and dreams, and aspirations for something better drained out of him. All it would take is a quick, effective blow to his head. He gulped, and felt himself start to tremble again, if Cartman wanted to lull him into a false sense of security with his chatting it wasn't fucking working.
"I had to cover your ass up to a lot of strangers," he was saying now. He shook his head. "It's actually a good thing you don't speak French."
Kyle couldn't just sit there. Fretting over the worst possible outcome without actually doing something about it. He could run, he could deal his own incapacitating blow, he could... arm himself. He looked around the kitchen for some sort of weapon, some shield. He soon spotted a block of knives. Fingers flexing he slowly lifted himself off the seat, careful to do so without a sound. His palm was damp with sweat as he grasped one, the thrilling, soft sound of metal being pulled from wood was emboldening, encouraging Kyle to grip it a little tighter... even though he had no idea what he was going to say when Cartman realised what he was doing... Kyle wasn't a hundred percent sure himself. He inched forward.
"I knew I had one!" Cartman exclaimed, finding a small first aid kit in the cupboard above him. He turned around. "You can never be too- what are you doing?"
The first aid kit was dropped on the kitchen counter as Cartman raised his arms in defence, calmer than Kyle was expecting but eyes still drawn to the blade in front of him.
"I'll slash your fucking throat if you try anything!" Kyle cried, the words fuelled his hysteria. Tears scorched his eyes. "Don't think I won't, Cartman!"
"Kyle, you need to calm down," Cartman replied, a measured request hidden in his voice.
"No! I'm not letting my fucking guard down so you can finish what Anders and those fucking thugs started!"
Cartman's face fell.
"What?" Calmness for survival's sake gave way to agitated incredulity. "Jesus, Kyle, it isn't like that! I swear!"
"How the hell do I know that, huh?!" Kyle demanded, tears sliding down his cheeks.
Cartman's face hardened then, the same way Kyle remembered it did before he struck Anders. But up close, Kyle noticed his scowl wobble, his eyes mist over like Kyle had already pricked him with the knife now shaking in his grasp. He wilted at the sight, more frightened and unsure than ever. Nausea filled his lethargic stomach.
"Why the hell would I beat those guys up, steal my fucking scary boss's car, and drag you all the way to Paris just to double-cross and kill you? What the fuck kind of reason would I have to do that?"
Kyle had no idea what to say, lost in threadbare breaths. His only explanation, drenched in panic, had been swallowed up by the night.
"I'll tell you what reason I have!" Cartman added, lowering his arms and moving closer despite the potential danger. "The real reason! It's because despite of what you think of me, what I've done with my life, what we've done to each other, I couldn't just stand by and let them hurt you! And while I was trying to think of a way to get you out of there, and I had to actually watch them hurt you, I fucking hated every second of it! It's because out of all the people I've left behind, you're the one person I think about everyday! I couldn't forget you even if I wanted to, and sometimes I wish I could!"
Kyle blinked, lowering his wrist slightly. Cartman's unexpected confession was like another punch to steal his breath and leave his head whirring.
"You... y-y-you think about me?" Kyle asked, and he knew it was lame, but he didn't care. He had to be sure he had heard correctly, because it couldn't possibly be true... after all this time...
"Yes!" Cartman cried, as it was so damn obvious. "God, I think about... what you're doing with your life, if you're happy, if you're successful, if you're in love with somebody, if you're satisfied with what you have! I remember how smart you are, and that gleam in your eye when you were standing up for yourself, or fighting for something, or even fighting with me! I think about.." Cartman's shoulders dropped, his eyes rolling to the ceiling. "Your hair, and your mouth, and the way you smell and most of all, I... I-I think about how much I regret never telling you in high school how crazy I was about you! How..." He frowned, lowered his head and took a soft, fragile breath. He was still frowning when he looked into Kyle's eyes, unrelenting and earnest. "How I was the one who saved you in San Francisco, and if it would change anything if you had known. Clearly not, because it's nearly twenty years later and I'm doing it all over again!"
Kyle's mouth opened, a shaky gasp leaving his mouth, and he wanted to cry but the shock had rendered everything in his body frozen. Cartman had been his saviour, his guardian angel when he never believed in them, and he felt cheated, and betrayed, and elated, and relieved at the revelation.
He's always been so many people... even to me...
"And even now," Cartman continued, stepping forward with enraged eyes and gritted teeth. "After you've royally fucked me over, put us in this shitstorm, and cost me millions, still the only thing I wanna do is... is..."
Suddenly, Kyle's wrist was being grabbed and lowered curtly to his side. Cartman was gripping it so hard Kyle feared he would crush his bones. But before he could protest, Cartman's mouth collided with his. His eyes flew open, his palm opening and the knife dropping to the kitchen floor with a clang. He found himself clutching Cartman's shoulder, gripping his shirt with the intent to push him away, but just as he had proven throughout their childhood, adolescence - and hell, their fucking adulthood it seemed - Cartman wasn't getting away that easily. And as always, soaring in his emotional stratosphere, Kyle helplessly pulled Cartman further into his orbit.
The kiss hurt, hard and lip-crushing, as if Cartman was kissing him with the force of all these stifled, unrequited years. Kyle whimpered, pained and tinged with a frightening, unwelcome need when blood trickled from his fat lip, warm and stinging. A string of red saliva connected their lips when they separated, stained with blood and flushed from pressure. Cartman hadn't let go of Kyle's wrist. Their bodies were thrumming with shock, adrenaline, another chemical Kyle didn't want to think about. He could feel the heat emanating from Cartman's face, and he ripped his darkened gaze away from him with a scowl.
The beat soon dragged on, leaving them panting. Cartman soon wiped his mouth, and it alerted Kyle to the blood still oozing from his split lip. Cartman looked up at him, frowning. He lifted his hand to Kyle's chin to clean up the mess but Kyle stopped him, raising his own uneasy hand to his face. The blood was smeared across his skin, but he didn't care.
Kyle watched Cartman's Adam's apple bob as he cleared his throat.
"So... will you please let me fix your face now?"
Kyle nodded, mind adrift as he sat down and let Cartman tend to his wounds in silence.
After nursing the tennis-ball sized welt on his head with an ice-pack and applying a generous amount of antiseptic to the cuts marring his face, Cartman asked if Kyle wanted or needed anything else. Kyle had arched an eyebrow at this caring, hospitable Cartman, so eager to accommodate him - that he was going to have to get used to. He searched his drowsy mind for an answer, anything he could offer Cartman that was simple, and concrete. There were plenty of abstract things he wanted; security, and home, and the confirmation that they were finally safe, but knew Cartman couldn't so easily pull that out of his cupboard, or call someone up to make it happen, or drive them there. Instead, thoughtlessly and weighted with exhaustion, he replied that a bath would be nice.
Cartman complied, and Kyle was now sitting in a lukewarm bath, knees tucked under his chin. The water was tinged a faint, rusty red from dry blood, an undesirable reminder of the bruises spanning across his chest like mould. To think, the reason Kyle had bailed on his last ever job was to prove he wasn't totally corrupted, that whatever shameful, nefarious rot festering inside him wasn't malignant. The crazy thing was he knew his actions would warrant retribution, and yet it still didn't stop him. Once a martyr, he guessed, always a martyr.
But at least he wasn't the only person making ludicrous decisions tonight. Cartman had dealt his own betrayals, risked his life... for Kyle... again. He choked whenever he thought of San Francisco, anxiety and astonishment pushing a lump into his throat. He clawed his mind for a glimpse of memory, a glimpse of Cartman in that hazy, electric storm but none would come. His brain only seemed interested in one particular, very fresh memory. Cartman's impassioned confession, his glowering stare, his hands, gaze, lips on him. Kyle lifted his hand from the water, placed wet fingers on his chapped bottom lip and pressed to coax the bruising sensation of Cartman's mouth clasping so firmly with his own.
A knock jolted him out of his haze. The water rocked as he jumped at the sound.
"You okay in there?" Cartman asked.
"Yeah... " Kyle nodded, more shrill than he would've liked. Suddenly, he was very aware that he was naked, and lost in the thought of Cartman kissing him. Even when there was a door separating them, he cringed. "Yeah, I'm uh, just getting out..."
Kyle had no intention of getting out before. But still, he had to get out at some point, may as well be now. He gripped the sides of the bath and lifted himself up. He seethed and winced as his joints cracked, and sore, tender skin was pulled taut over his abdomen. It was an arduous task to lift his legs over the rim, and he stood and gathered his breaths, body dripping. He soon grabbed the bathrobe Cartman had provided him, slipping his underwear on, and cringing as he did so. His only change of clothes was all the way back in St Tropez. The white, fluffy bathrobe skimmed the floor, the sleeves pooling at his wrists, and leaving a long, v-shaped expanse of skin all the way down to his belly, but it was warm, and comfortable, and it smelled like fabric softener. It was better than the crumpled pile of clothes in the corner of the room, stained and sweaty.
He shuffled out of the bathroom and saw Cartman waiting for him, smiling tightly with his hands behind his back.
"Hey, uhh... I made a bed for you on the couch," he said, gesturing to the makeshift bed. Cushions were stacked up neatly and a spare duvet reached the floor.
"Thanks..." Kyle nodded.
The plump couch cushions bounced beneath him as he made himself comfortable.
"You can sleep in my bed, if you want-"
"This is fine," Kyle cut in with a small, grateful smile. "Thank you."
Cartman's tight smile grew wider. It crinkled his eyes, darkened by lack of sleep. Kyle was only just noticing how draining this night was for them both.
"No problem. So I guess... good night?"
Kyle nodded, as if he were releasing Cartman from his care-giving spell.
With a small nod of his own, Cartman wandered to his bedroom. He turned the light off in the living room, only leaving the grey, early morning peaking through the windows.
Kyle settled down, pulling the duvet up to his chin and snuggling into the pillows, but he doubted sleep would come so easily.
Chapter 6: Comfort Food
A short, filler chapter admittedly, but I hope you guys enjoy! Thank you so much for reading and I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Kyle woke up to daylight splintering through the curtains and the hot smell of something sizzling on a pan. He squinted, and with a few groggy huffs managed to sit up in his makeshift bed. His body complained as he did, aches still thrumming and bruises still throbbing. He attempted to stretch, but his joints refused to co-operate, creaking with displeasure. Pulling himself up and adjusting to the sunlight spread out before him, he realised he could now take a closer look at Cartman's apartment, and it was... nothing like he could have possibly imagined.
Truthfully, Kyle didn't have a lot of time - or the inclination - to consider what Cartman's living situation would be like as an adult. Kyle had rescued himself from drowning in the stormy, guilt-ridden sea of his past long ago, feet firmly in the present and staring out into the future. That all changed when Cartman walked into a warehouse in St Tropez only four days ago... Kyle could hardly believe such a short space of time had passed. Seeing Cartman again, a boy he had known all his life, had spent practically nearly every waking minute of his ridiculous, bizarre, terrifying childhood with, had reset the clock. Without permission, had made him just Kyle again. Vulnerable, infallible, accountable. It was an exhilarating feeling, to be partially purified, to return to his old self. But sobering too, when faced with how much had changed, how much he had changed.
He had imagined Cartman's Parisian apartment to be garish, flashy, impractical. A gaming room with a glowing wall of screens instead of a living room, a refrigerator stocked with KFC, and Taco Bell imported from the States instead of an actual kitchen. Or perhaps a Sooper Phun Thyme or Casa Bonita set in miniature, because when your pay cheque was obscene amounts of illegally acquired cash why not go big? Instead Cartman's apartment was all crushed velvet furniture, egg-and-dart mouldings, mahogany side tables, and views of Paris that stretched for miles. Of course there were the typical Cartman trappings, like an obnoxiously huge TV complete with Xbox, but on the whole Cartman's apartment was elegant, and sophisticated, and actually grown up.
Kyle jumped at the sound of Cartman's voice. He looked over his shoulder and saw Cartman smirking at him from the kitchen. Damn, he forgot this living area was open-plan.
"Well, good afternoon..." Cartman corrected himself.
"Crap, what time is it?" Kyle asked, low and raspy. He sounded like he had smoked fifty a day from birth.
Cartman glanced at his phone, lying on the marble countertop.
Kyle nodded, correcting his robe when he remembered he was just in his underwear under there.
"How long have you been awake?" he asked.
"An hour? I'm starving," he replied. "Care for an omelette?"
Kyle noticed the golden omelette bubbling and sizzling in the pan, and a pang immediately yawned in his stomach.
"Yeah, thank you..."
Bracing himself on the countertop, he carefully took a seat one of the tall barstools.
"Any preferences? We've got cheese, mushrooms, peppers-"
"Just some cheese would be great, thanks."
"You got it. I can make you a glass of O.J. too, if you'd like?"
Kyle nodded, smiling. This caring, attentive Cartman may have been jarring at first, but he was warming up to him more and more.
"Thank you..." Kyle murmured, when a glass of orange juice was slid his way.
He took a long sip, grateful for the cold liquid on his parched tongue, for the sweet tang when his whole body seemed to be screaming for some sugary fix. As he drank, he thought about what he needed to say next. They could talk about omelettes, and orange juice, and Kyle could let Cartman look after him all day but that didn't make last night disappear, vanquish the threat of pissed off criminals potentially hunting them down... it didn't erase that charged, bloody, stinging kiss. Kyle couldn't forget it even if he wanted to.
"So... uh... how are you feeling today?" Cartman asked, a crease in his brow like he was dreading the answer.
"I... I don't know." Kyle sighed. "I'm still stiff, and aching, but I'm not hurting as much anymore..."
"And, like..." Cartman tapped his temple. "Up here?"
Kyle took an even bigger breath, even if it snagged on the residual ache of yesterday's beating.
"Not so good," he replied, it didn't take long for his mind to drift back to the previous night. "Everything just happened so fast..."
"I get it. Once they feel somebody has broken their trust they work pretty quickly to, uh, 'get rid of the problem'."
Kyle blinked, fear rising up inside him as something he would rather not contemplate dawned on him.
"You've seen them do this to other people?"
Cartman frowned, small and tight, as though attempting to sew his mouth shut lest he reveal any secrets... or pick apart old wounds.
"Yeah..." he nodded, not looking at Kyle. He slipped a spatula beneath the omelette and flipped it.
"But you've never..."
Kyle pleaded with his eyes that Cartman would confirm what he was praying for was true. He knew Cartman was as far from being a saint as anyone could possibly be, but he didn't know if he could move past it if the guy who had saved him, and gave him a temporary roof over his head had killed people who had been as vulnerable as him.
Cartman lifted his head, and shook it with a tiny, rueful smile.
"No. It's like I said last night, I'm not the muscles..."
Kyle nodded, glad for his answer.
"So what happens now?"
"We lay low," Cartman replied, serious and urgent. "This isn't over yet, Folke isn't the type to forgive and forget. We just need to keep our eyes peeled-"
"I can track them. If I can get my hands on a laptop, or a tablet, I can keep an eye on them-"
"You need to recuperate for now, Kyle," Cartman cut in, with a hint of condescension that Kyle didn't exactly appreciate. "Give Glitch a vacation."
Kyle snickered, shaking his head and rubbing his tired eyes.
"It's crazy to think I was gonna retire last night..."
Cartman chuckled in agreement, quiet. His gaze was on the counter separating them.
"It's crazy to think I'd never kiss you, but you know..."
Kyle's smile faded, eyes drawing to Cartman. Like the kiss itself, the mere mention of it landed in the conversation, sudden, and unexpected, and heavy.
"Sorry." Cartman frowned, cleared his throat. "I thought I'd make a joke about it."
"It's okay..." Kyle murmured.
"No, but I am sorry, Kyle," Cartman added, voice strong but wavering. His tone demanded Kyle look at him. "I don't know what I was thinking... I was just exhausted, and angry-"
"And I was pointing a knife at you," Kyle interrupted with a smirk. He could attempt to light the mood too. "It was a pretty pressurised situation."
Relief glowed, warm in Kyle's chest, when Cartman snickered, ducking his head.
"Would it be better if you didn't know?" he asked, serious and looking at Kyle now. "About San Francisco? About... how I feel?"
Kyle swallowed, pursing his lips for a second as he deliberated his answer. The overwhelming, indignant shock was starting to wane, and his incredulity that this had all been kept a secret was beginning to mellow. In its place was a burgeoning acceptance, and appreciation, and... perspective. They had bigger things to worry about now, and how could Kyle ever be possibly affronted by Cartman saving his life? In fact, it even vindicated some once naive childhood dream that Cartman would prove himself to be more than his reputation, his bravado, and selfishness. When so many people, the world, had let Kyle down as a child, it was heartening to know that the least likely person in the world hadn't.
"No... no, I actually think it's better that I do know," Kyle replied with a smile. "We could both use a little more honesty in our lives, right?"
Cartman brightened, topaz eyes twinkling.
"Exactly! Especially now. It's gonna be the two of us for a while, and it's only gonna work if we trust each other. So no more awkwardness and no more secrets. Deal?"
Kyle nodded, smile growing wider.
"Deal..." He fiddled with the over-sized sleeve of his robe. "And while we're on the subject of honesty..."
Cartman looked up from the plate of omelettes he was serving up.
"You should know that, um, I still took all the security cameras offline," Kyle rushed through the last few words, closing his eyes to get through the sentence. "In the Bisset mansion."
Cartman blinked, the first time in a long time Kyle had seen him lost for words.
"You did?" he asked. "Why?"
Kyle rolled his eyes.
"I don't know. For old time's sake?" he sighed. "Because even though I didn't want you to steal the necklace, that doesn't mean I wanted you to get caught. You're still my friend, Cartman."
Cartman nodded, a smile spreading across his face.
"Wow... well, I guess..." he looked into Kyle's eyes. "Thank you."
Kyle lowered his gaze, the bathrobe suddenly becoming stuffy under the intensity of Cartman's grateful stare.
"Here..." Cartman said, serving Kyle his omelette. "Bon appetit!"
Never did Eric think he would spend a day sat on his couch with Kyle, watching movies, complete with Kyle actually wearing one of his old college hoodies and a pair of his designer sweats. Sure, Kyle was a bit more subdued than usual, frayed, and scarred, but he was still captivating enough to draw Eric's eye over and over, even after every stern reminder to himself to stop gawking, to stop fantasising because they were just friends, and this blissful domestic scene was only surface. It concealed a reality far more dangerous and frightening.
They had eaten breakfast (well, brunch) and washed Kyle's clothes, and since they were both still shaken and depleted from last night's chaos they chose to entertain themselves with movies rather than venturing into the city. Too risky, for now. Eric had even introduced Kyle to a couple of boxsets he'd been meaning to catch up on. Even if Kyle tried to hide it, Eric could tell he was still slightly wary in his presence, paranoid and incapacitated. How could he not tell? He was used to peering into someone's subconscious, and exploiting it. It was a nice change of pace, to use that insight to comfort Kyle instead of disarm him. But Kyle's hesitation, his unsure gazes, the tiny creases in his brows were slowly being replaced by small, warm smiles, and a gentle confidence and belief in Eric was being honed. It reassured him he was doing a good job, that he was capable of inspiring more than just charm, of manufacturing deceit.
Too lazy to cook, and not wanting to be away from the couch for an extended period of time, Eric had ordered pizza for them both. He had just finished paying the delivery guy, keeping an eye out for any unwanted visitors in the hallway.
"One Parisian pizza coming up!" he announced, one hand tucked behind his back and one hand holding the pizza high in the air as he glided over to the couch.
"A Parisian pizza?" Kyle asked.
"Yep, with extra frogs legs and escargot on top!"
"What?!" Kyle exclaimed, eyebrows almost lifting off from his forehead.
Eric chuckled, holding the pizza box with both hands before it went crashing to the floor.
"I'm just kidding, dumbass. It's pepperoni." He shook his head and tutted. "Seriously, Kyle... shame on you for so readily accepting French stereotypes-"
"Shut up and give me the pizza," Kyle cut in, smiling too much for the command to have any weight.
Eric grinned, placing the pizza on the coffee table in front of them. He flopped down beside Kyle as he lifted the lid, the mozzarella-tomato aroma making his mouth water. They chose a slice each, and so began another calm, gentle dip in conversation where Eric wondered if this was the ideal time to ask the question he'd been wanting to ask all day. Hell, since he was locked out of the vault at the Bisset mansion.
"Aren't you gonna start the movie?" Kyle asked, glancing at the next action movie lined up in Eric's Netflix queue.
"Yeah, I just... there's something I wanna ask you first..."
Kyle nodded slowly, avoiding Eric's gaze as if he was already searching for an answer to the unspoken question.
"I, uhh... it's just, I've been wondering..."
Why being around you makes me blather like a moron?
"Why did you bail?" Eric asked, getting the words out like they were something foul-tasting he didn't want in his mouth anymore.
Kyle lowered the slice of pizza from his lips, like he had lost his appetite.
"I mean, you were gonna get out anyway, why blow one last heist?" Eric asked, hoping to clarify himself, when Kyle seemed to have no answers for him.
"Because maybe I realised I couldn't live with one more heist. It was the first time in years I ever hesitated during a job, and that must mean something, right?"
"Before I was pragmatic, numb, I'd trained myself to be unfeeling about it all. I convinced myself I was just screwing over bad, corrupt people but..." Kyle shook his head, closed his eyes. "I don't know, even if it was one last time, knowing I could ruin a good cause, and I was stealing from honest, innocent people - kids, even - there was just no way I could go through with it. I... I just wanted to feel like a good person again, and in the moment it seemed like the right thing to do."
"Maybe I should have expected it. It is like you, after all..."
"Screwing me over," Eric replied with a smirk.
Kyle rolled his eyes, took another bite out of the pizza slice.
"No, I mean... doing the right thing," Eric added, soft and sincere. "No matter how stupid the decision is, or how much it puts you in danger. You can't help yourself but do what you think is right."
Kyle's eyebrows quirked upwards. His mouth was full of pizza. Eric watched him swallow it, before asking with a shy smile; "is that a compliment?"
Eric shrugged, because he truly was unsure.
"An observation," he decided.
They chuckled quietly to themselves, taking bites out of their pizza where conversation should have been.
"Yeah?" Eric asked, wiping his mouth.
"I... I just wanted to thank you," Kyle said, looking into his eyes. "For everything you've done. I really appreciate it."
Eric nodded, gulping down some pizza that had somehow got lodged in his throat.
How the hell did that get there?
"You're welcome," he replied, palms sweaty and butterflies coming to life in his stomach.