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Technicolor Reverie

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In Denver, there were no nights like this. There was never a time where he could freely venture out into the world, plodding all by his lonesome down a stretching sidewalk. There was a perpetual tension trying to ignore the never-ending line of cars zooming by, each bursting with the vibrations of piston engines tutting away, music blaring from cheaply installed speakers projecting from overpriced satellite radios. They would rocket right on past without a care in the world for the pedestrians moving alongside them, zipping by in blurs of red, white, gray, red, blue, black, beige, red. Kyle often wondered what the fascination with red cars was, that maybe drivers considered it an intimidation tactic. It's the color of fresh blood, of warning, of impending danger. It's the sound of a shrieking budgie, of treaded shoes slipping gracelessly across a polished gymnasium floor.

Or, at least, for him it is.

But Kyle doesn't know their reasoning towards their choices, nor does he care to hear it. People talk for far too long. Their syllables clutter amongst each other, every other word an unnecessary addition to their point. He would never get so simple an answer as 'I like it'. No, he would be subjected to a harrowing tale for a good three minutes of how they resonated so deeply with red because of the accented border of a handmade afghan their mother had strewn across the back of their sofa throughout their childhood. That they found such comfort in the hue and it felt like home. Kyle had found over time that everyone, even the proclaimed 'shy' populous, loved the sound of their own voice. They bathed in their personal prosody, made movements when they wanted to be sure that you heard the inflection in their tone. They wanted every ounce of the listener's attention.

And Kyle had realized when he was fourteen years old, just barely reaching the crest of the hill to start that climb towards adulthood, that that was why he found himself feeling so isolated.

His attention could never rest on one mere element, it had to zip about to everything in the surrounding area. A conversation could begin decently enough; he would stare at their face, watching their lips move, seeing sparks of color blasting across his eyes in transparent blurs. But those colors wouldn't quite fade, he'd have to adjust himself to remain in his fixed direction, try not to follow the figures flittering across his vision. But those colors led to more sounds, those sounds led to more distraction. So, he'd try to push that away, his focus unwillingly falling elsewhere for a moment, maybe picking up the sound of a fan whirring away in the foreground and unable to tear himself away from it. It'd lead to more color sweeping along before him, trying to dominate over the voice of his companion who would be happily chatting away. They would flick their wrist up in emphasis and straining green eyes would catch the glint of a golden wristwatch, and he would be assaulted with the burrowing noises of rodents scratching away at the inside of a wall. A minute scritch scritch scritch would dominate his attention, only looking to find the person opposite himself staring, awaiting response to a statement he never caught as he continued to swim in a soup of sensations he could never articulate.

With such daunting truths hanging over a consistently pounding head, Kyle wonders why he agreed to tonight's plans. Why he let himself be persuaded by a coworker to hang out. Kyle frowns. He knows why. Because regardless of the mess he is, regardless of the pain they tend to unwittingly throw onto his neck, he needs interactions.

Besides, he reminds himself, Stan seems nice enough. He'd been the first to welcome Kyle into their company, into South Park in general. He had been the first in Kyle's few months amongst their peers to recognize that Kyle needed him to speak a little softer. With a voice that could easily boom across their cubicles should he want it to, Stan managed to see the box of Imitrex Oral that Kyle kept by his computer monitor, taking the initiative and Googling just what the hell Kyle was dealing with, immediately beginning to lower his timbre. Kyle had found it both endearing and aggravating at the time, cursing himself for leaving his medication so plainly out for people to see and get nosy over.

But, it had its benefits as well.

Stan had slipped around the office to their coworkers, muttering to them about chronic migraines and explaining that that was why Kyle kept so quiet and locked away in his space. Why they would occasionally walk by and he had earplugs. Why he would wince when they got the rare chance to talk to him. Opinions had shifted on a dime, and Kyle had gone from the snobby Bachelor degree-holding city slicker who thought he was too good for their redneck town to a poor guy just trying to keep his aching head up over the course of an eight-hour day and trying his damnedest to still contribute.

Kyle sighs, the barest essence of his voice slipping out and bringing a long streak of mauve sliding across his peripheral. That one is easy enough for him to bypass. It's his one constant, one of the smoother, subtler ambiances to manage. He continues moving along the sidewalk, the quiet, steady tap tap tap of his work shoes against the cement in the still night echoes, brings rings of powder pink. A traffic light to his side turns, he flinches at a glowing green emphasized with a crackle of hail pounding on glass. A deep, purposeful breath slides through his mouth. He hums, trying to let that mauve take control again. It's tuneless and droning, a coping mechanism with maybe a twenty percent success rate. It brings Kyle no amount of surprise when the patters don't stop until the light is well behind him, still set straight and true towards the end of the road where Stan requested to meet.

He doesn't like bars. He never has. They're noisy, they're crowded, they cost too much and everyone wants to make with the chitchat. Glass clinks and chairs scoot, there's almost always music playing through a static speaker or a television blaring with the sounds of game announcers and thralls of cheering people. Things break, people yell, there's always movement to draw his attention and isolate the sounds. Pennants and pictures line the walls, a vast array of brightly colored liquor bottles always linger within view.

Kyle shakes his head at himself, already feeling overwhelmed with the impending torment he's leading himself towards. Stan had given him an out that afternoon, telling him that if his head hurt too much that it was no problem to not do anything. Kyle doesn't want that, doesn't want to shove himself into another box devoid of other life. He's done it far too many times already, finding himself alone and spiraling into depression on top of his already tumultuous problems. He's moved too many times, he's been called too many awful things for just trying to protect himself. He can't do that anymore. Migraine or not, he's making himself go through with this. Twenty-seven years of learning to maneuver through his issues was plenty enough to make just one outing doable, even if only for ten minutes, he'd promised himself before leaving the safety of his apartment. Ten minutes and he'd accomplished his goal. The effort was what counted here, not the duration.

Of course, that was his doctors' theory as well, and he considered all of them to be nothing more than lying quacks that he paid far too much for as little as they had helped him. Didn't matter how long he'd seen any of them, complaining of his issues since he was a babbling toddler unable to form fully cohesive sentences as he tried to catch the fleeting images playing before him. What mattered was how accurate he was. He couldn't even get medication until he was nearly thirteen and finally finding a semi-competent physician. After all, his condition was rare. None of them had a handle on it. And those familiar with the terms in turn wouldn't believe his plight.

"No, Mrs. Broflovski," one had explained to his mother at her wit's end trying to help her teenage son find a way to function as he sat on the examination table, holding his head and rasping for air, trying not to look at the multicolored tiles or the 'soothing' artwork lining the walls as his temples pounded. "He needs tested to see if he's telling the truth."

"He's been tested. Since he was four! And every year since then! Why will none of you help him?!"

"If he does have chromesthesia, then it's one way or the other, Mrs. Broflovski. It's either he sees and hears or hears and sees."

"Do you not see him?! He's always hurt! He's always crying! He can't walk or see half the time! He hasn't had a full night's sleep in years! Give him something to help; I'm sick of you people only saying to give him Advil and hope it solves itself! I can't give that to him every day, he already only has one functioning kidney! Why are you trying to kill my son?!"

Since she'd threatened with a lawsuit and finally gotten him a prescription with a concession for doctors to keep their eyes on him, Kyle's been all but declared a sensory anomaly. He still gets tested biennially to be allowed to stay on his prescription, doctors waiting for him to 'slip' and prove him for a fraud. After all, a low B-natural gives him evergreen, and a B-flat shows him a rich navy. And if they play that flat and he sees green, then they caught him in the act. It's pressuring, having to prove how sick he is time and again, knowing that one slip because he was tired and can't differentiate between cream and ivory can get his medication ripped away from him. But he can't risk that, he can't go back to how he was with carefully spaced out doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen that barely keep him from simply passing out every day. So, he takes the blood tests and the CAT-scans and the demeaning comments with a grain of salt. He knows it's worth it in the end if it keeps him able to take these chances of communication. Tolerable beatings against his skull are more favorable than crippling agony, after all.

He squints as he approaches a magenta neon sign reading 'Skeeters' and he cocks his brow, doing his best to ignore the echo of a high-pitched metallic clang. "The fuck kinda name is that," he murmurs. In his few months residing in the sleepy mountain town, he's discovered that he doesn't quite understand a majority of the things they do. They have town meetings regarding new buildings coming in, they have a community where everybody knows everybody. It's bizarre but charming, confusing but delightful. But it's Kyle's own catch-22. He wants to be integrated with these people, wants to be known and have people quietly wave to him like they do Stan when they make lunch runs for the office. But he doesn't want them to know he's in perpetual pain, doesn't want them to see how his eye twitches at certain people's voices. But he also does want them to know, to lessen the chance of hurt feelings by a smidgeon at least. He's tangled in the web of suburban life, wanting both the privacy of a white picket fence and the potluck block parties.

He puts a shaking hand on the door handle, wrapping slowly around the metal and taking a deep breath. 'Ten minutes, Kyle. At least ten,' he goads himself onwards. He permits himself a confident nod, slight regret hitting as his head throbs upon returning upright. Ripping the door open, he forces himself to step into the fray, stomach dropping at once as he's assaulted with an array of clustered sounds and taupe walls. Cranberry booths jut from all sides, waxed oaken tables accompanying them and catching the vibrant glare of the overhead lights. Kyle winces and glances towards the ceiling, whimpering to himself at the fixtures themselves made of cages of multi-colored glass and filled with the tiny noticeable specks of expired bugs lying in the bulb housing. He gulps, looking back to the flooring beneath him, relieved to find a solid periwinkle tile. He avoids the areas coated in spilled beer and barbecue sauce remnants from dropped chicken wings, trying to hone in on just the one thing, let himself be annoyed with the mere sound of a hissing tea kettle instead of the grandiose marching band surrounding him.

"Kyle, over here!" a voice manages to break through his concentration.

Unwillingly, he forces his sight back upright, nearly stumbling over as his vision crosses at the influx of activity surrounding him. Green eyes narrow behind curved lenses as he scans for familiarity, he's inundated at the whole crowd of maybe forty spread across the establishment. A plethora of different voices smash into him, picking up single words and noises at a time and flooding his eyes in a kaleidoscope of shapes and tints. He wonders if maybe he should've popped an extra pill, his body accustomed to being home by now and able to let its guard down. Finally, he catches a mop of black hair and dark blue eyes that stand out through the chaos trying to weigh him down waving from a booth across the room.

He breathes every few steps towards the table, trying not to get his attention drafted to the other patrons as they flail about and bellow with laughter. 'One, two, one, two,' he guides himself through calculated walking. The closer he is to his target, the closer he is to something to focus on. He can find a color, fixate, and let Stan's voice work its way through the mess. 'You got this,' he promises himself.

Stan smiles at him, bright as the cruel bulbs hanging above their heads. Kyle can read relief in his stare, possibly from wondering if Kyle had bailed on him. He can't say he'd be surprised at such a case, he tends to get to places a bit late from being so distracted. He attempts a smile back, wondering if it comes off anywhere near convincing, if Stan can read the vicious frustration he feels etching itself into his brain. The walk seems to span for eternity, Kyle picking up on the subtle clack against the tiles, the murmurs surrounding him. He's a mess of dissonance already. 'Maybe ten minutes was a bit of a stretch,' he thinks in exhaustion, wanting nothing more than to run back home and crawl under his quilt into utter darkness.

Finally, he finds himself sliding into the seat beside Stan, wanting to dramatically flop down onto the table in weariness and triumph like a marathon sprinter. He deserves a gold medal for this, he thinks. Stan watches him with a slightly tilted head, that beaming smile fading just a tad. "Dude, head?"

A quiet sigh before a nod, Kyle taking the effort to finally lock eyes with him, hating that doting stare. He despises pity, is repulsed by sympathetic pats and condescending claims of "There there, it'll get better". Reminded him far too much of the first doctor to introduce a term for his condition into his life when he was eight. The way that synthesia and his personal subset slipped off his tongue with a vague promise of "Eventually you'll get used to it; it'll all be nothing but white noise to you." Nearly two decades later and Kyle was still waiting for that glorious promise of a better future to come to fruition.

That damn commiseration of Stan's remains steady. "I told you we didn't have to come out," he reminds him with an edging of guilt.

"I need out more," he finally manages a full-fledged sentence, fighting back the urge to cover his eyes to hide from the bustling pallete engulfing them both.

Stan gives him a small chuckle, a tiny non-physical pat on his back of support. "I kind of figured, half the reason I invited you out."

"Only half?" he repeats, a bit too proud for managing to keep his focus on one of Stan's eyebrows. Dark enough to not overwhelm him, close enough Stan would believe he was making eye contact. It was the subtlest of things that kept him going in the world, he'd found. There were nuances to learn to avoid someone becoming aggressively offended, not that Kyle ever thinks for one moment Stan would be one to act out on him for being a little off-kilter. He'd already seen Kyle staving through some awful days, knows only the barest of reasons as to his condition and accepts it at face value. After all, as Stan had told him a few months prior, he wasn't his doctor, his health business is his own. But still, he offers a hand, gives Kyle rides home when he just can't make that ten-minute walk, brings him water or crackers if he's shaking. They do nothing, but Kyle always appreciates the gesture.

Stan gives him a sheepish shrug, shaking a near-emptied beer bottle, "I'm also a low-key alcoholic. So, we both win." Kyle lets out a tiny huff of a laugh, and Stan brightens for managing to rid him of his pained expression for even the briefest of moments.

"What can I get ya, Hon?" a voice appears, sending a wriggling neon flash of lemon through Kyle's peripheral. He squints a bit, turning his attention to a woman staring at him with a notepad in her hand and the expression of hours of underpaid work slapped across her face. Her hip cocks, feet shifting to try to take advantage of standing still for a moment.

He considers, running himself through the copious warnings slapped onto the side of his prescriptions, knowing that he runs the risk of exacerbating his hallucinations. But there's a chance of lessening them as well. It's a cruel game that his body loves to play, a constant round of Russian roulette with the odds so rarely in his favor. But he doesn't want to drink water, watch Stan progressively lose inhibitions while he wonders throughout the night if he pulled the trigger at the wrong chamber. "Um, just a vodka and Coke would be great."

"Got it," she nods sharply, glancing at Stan. "You want another beer?"

"Please."

"I'll be right back for ya," she smiles in exhaustion, writing as she turns on her heel and heads towards the bar.

Stan turns to Kyle with a chuckle, "Vodka huh?"

"Beer tastes like piss, Man. Some of us have standards." Stan laughs, flicking his arm as Kyle turns his attention back to rest on his face, hone in on his tenor. Sharp bursts of dodger blue flicker in and out with each rise of his voice, dissipating to spread across the board, and Kyle wonders for a moment if he'll drown in the saturation. But no, Kyle realizes with passing sparks, Stan is no flood. Noah didn't lead the animals through patches of land to guide them to safety. Stan is his own form of independence in Kyle's eye, droplets that strayed from the waterfall to make a new path, to make their own ripples amongst the few others who managed to escape the conforming box where Kyle had placed all the "normal" people.

Unfair, perhaps. But Kyle learned early that he had to do what was necessary so he didn't spend his life in a hospital. Sometimes that meant shoving people back a bit if they lacked any hint of patience with his illness, which, he had unfortunately found, accounted for the majority. The world is sharp, full of angles that threaten Kyle always. He plays a cautious game, seesawing between sensations, finding the few that fit his comfort zone. Sometimes it meant compromise, and Stan had become his prime example, a golden standard. His voice grates, it can be painful and put Kyle's nerves right on the edge if he's having a particularly vibrant day. But it's tolerable, is associated with the securities of what he supposes he can now consider an actual friend. It's worth staving through a handful of burning pinpricks against his brain for such a rarity.

He ponders if Stan's the first actual buddy he's had in his adult life that didn't disregard him within a few weeks. He knows he's certainly the first to leave any hint of an impact since elementary school before his peers learned just how different he was. He's been one of the firsts to not prod as to the specifics of what he deals with. Kyle sighs to himself, wondering what Stan would do should he learn. He speculates how Stan would handle such knowledge, if he would continue his support or follow the example of so many others and slowly but surely begin drawing that distance between them. Kyle doesn't want that. He's let far too many people know in his life already and lost them all.

South Park is his canvas, for once he controls just how much vividness appears before him. Doctors and his boss, that's all that need to know in his eyes. Just the ones that take care of him and the one he needs to understand why some things may take him longer. Everyone else can deal with his ambiguity, his quiet claims of "no one knows why; I'm just unlucky I guess". They could listen to that and he could give vague answers to their typical follow-ups: "Are you sure it's not a brain tumor or something?" "Have you tried holistic medicine, there's essential oils that are great for headaches I use them all the time!" "Maybe get some more sleep, it's probably just exhaustion." "Well, were you vaccinated as a baby? That mercury in them will mess you up, I can't believe your parents hurt you like that!" "Okay, but have you tried weed? That'd help with the pain no doubt, I could hook you up." Stupid queries that Kyle would politely bat off while attempting to stop the agonized quavering of his voice. It was an arduous routine, but necessary for minute degrees of societal acceptance.

Stan stares at him, biting his lip in concern at the purple under Kyle's eyes seeming so much more prominent than they appear in the office. He looks lost in a void that he can't escape, only able to cling weakening fingers around the edges for a minimal amount of enjoyment in life. Stan tries to count how many times he's seen Kyle not forcing an unsteady smile onto his face, is confident that he could tally the number on his hands alone. "It sucks you get those so often," he finally speaks.

Kyle lets out an exhausted laugh, eyes focusing back into the moment and shrugging. "'Sucks' is putting it pretty mildly, Stan."

"Sucks ass?" he offers.

"Better," he nods, looking nearly lucid with slow, purposeful bobs of his head. Stan can only think of how his father looked when he got wasted on their couch throughout his youth, how Stan would come to him with a question and get that same nod. The one that says "I can't say I'm sure, but I don't have the words or comprehension to actually disagree". Bright red splashed through Kyle's sclera sing the same tune as his father's did, just in a separate octave. His father willingly gave up control over his body, Stan wonders if Kyle ever had it to begin with.

"You're sure you're all right?"

Kyle rolls his eyes a bit, shivering at a dizziness trying to wash over him. "Stan. If I wanted to go home, I would." Stan seems to accept this, finishing off the last of his dwindling beer and sliding the bottle towards the edge of the table for pick-up. Kyle takes a deep breath, forcing himself to initiate a topic for once, "So, I'm guessing this is the only place to really talk to people in this town?"

Stan chuckles, a part of him embarrassed at the lacking livelihood of his hometown. "Unfortunately. Unless you got a thing for mingling in a J-Mart."

He catches the slight shame and offers him a kind smile, "Nothing wrong with that, Man. Small places are better anyway."

"Ah, spoken like someone not from a small place," he smirks. "The quaintness wears off real quick. You get stuck here."

Kyle raises his brow, "Stuck?"

"We've called it South Tar before," he says dryly, both glancing at drinks sliding onto their table and thanking the waitress before turning back to each other, Kyle battling another round of unexpected colors. "All but maybe three from my graduating class are still here.," Stan continues. "You get locked in and you can't function in a bigger, better place. Hell, I went to school in Boulder and came right back after I graduated."

He hums a bit, blindly gripping his glass and letting himself focus on the deep brown coloring of his fizzing drink, sighing with slight relief at a soft, low droning like a distant lawnmower. It's steady; he can latch onto it with ease. "Better than fluidity, honestly," he says, a certain sadness in his tone.

"You sure about that?"

Kyle allows himself to look at him for another moment before dropping back to his comfort zone. "I would think it'd be nice to have things worth staying for. You're talking to someone who's moved about eleven times in their life, Dude. I can pack up and leave and no one even remembers I was there to begin with."

Stan cocks his head in concern, but with a string of amusement playing on his face. "How emo."

He chuckles, "Okay yeah. That came out pathetic as fuck, but unfortunately I'm not exaggerating." He takes a sip of his drink, sighing at the bite against his tongue redirecting some of his attention for a moment. One of the few luxuries in life: Carbonation, spicy foods, and pieces of pizza that were still too hot. Anything to divert the senses. A few seconds of bliss here and there was sometimes all he needed to get through the day, to remind himself that there was still more to him than what he could see and hear. His drink drops back down, his gaze following and misting over with hard truths that Stan both wants to hear, and wants to wait until he's too drunk to remember them. "Things are rough when you don't have an actual 'hometown'. People ask me and I have to tell them to specify an age."

He blinks, "I mean… can't you just use where you were born for that?"

Kyle shrugs, looking at the clash of his white drink stirrer against his alcohol, barely able to smash down its noises and let the humming continue. "Sometimes I do. But some people think it's where you started to grow up and comprehend things. I didn't comprehend shit in Jersey. Well, to be fair, most people don't comprehend anything from there regardless of age," he scoffs.

Stan breaks into laughter and Kyle smiles through the dips and curves of blue slipping by. He takes a sip of his beer and nods, still giving quiet chuckles. "Fair enough. Careful though, this place may grab you by the roots."

"Well, it'd be nice to finally have some roots," he admits with a sheepish shrug. "I've lived in one other small town but it wasn't like this. Not this… erm…"

"Rednecky?" he guesses with a smirk.

He snorts, sparing him another look. "Well it was in Tennessee, so it was pretty Hick Central. Rude as shit, though."

Stan props his cheek in his palm, watching him with interest. "I wouldn't figure you of all people would've lived in cities with as many headaches as you get."

Kyle winces, knowing just how much sense his quandary made. It's often a tough one for him to explain away without people pressing farther. "Um, well, cities have, you know… better medical facilities. Better doctors for the most part."

"True," he agrees. "But then why'd ya come here?"

"Hell's Pass has a doctor that's fairly familiar with the kind of issues I have," he answers slowly, trying to pick his words with precision, to tie off loose ends a securely as he could manage. "So, I got both things I needed. Quiet and at least one somewhat competent person to give me my medications." A bit of a lie, he hates his doctor here. Doctor Kels had met him before he made the transition into town and promised he'd take care of him, only for Kyle to be handed off to residents anytime he schedules a consultation. He's already sick of being shuffled from doctor to doctor, having to explain in extensive detail what his ailment consists of, his dosage needed, and their comments of "…Huh. We never learned about that in school."

But, his money is tied into his apartment, and he's at least managing to convince the physicians that, yes, he really does need his pills. At least with the help of a confirmation call to his testing center. For now, he feels rocky, but settled. He doesn't have to fall asleep to the blaring of a car alarm every night, no longer does he have to hide with his head under the covers suffocating because the city never goddamn sleeps and continues to shine. Here, the nights are tepid, only the occasional rush of audible heat soaring through and disrupting him. He appreciates it. He doesn't love it, and he's not sure if Stan's right that he'll be kept here, but there's a level of fondness he's found already for their tucked-away borough.

It's more than he can say in regards to his ten previous homes at the very least.

Kyle flinches at a song starting above their heads from the radio, blaring aggravating rock music, assaulting him with unseen Fenders. A soft groan leaves him before he can stop it, cupping the side of his head and pressing his fingers to the base of his skull. The tempo grinds, rasped vocals collaborating in a frenzied mess to envelop him in a tangled onslaught. A drum kit bashes on, a violent boom ratata ratata boom ratata tish swirls a confusing mixed signal to his nerves, brain both painting a picture and telling him that he needed to run from this sadistic assault.

Stan watches guiltily as he wades through the cruelty of Classic Rewind, shifting in his seat. "Ky, if you wanna go, we can go."

His eyes open in slight shock at a sobriquet finding its way so casually out of Stan's mouth. He's never had that. He's always just been Kyle, or Mr. Broflovski, or Freak. This is unfamiliar territory, Kyle doesn't know how to approach such a drastic shift in dynamic. He glances up through throbbing eyes to see Stan cringing, as though he believes he said the exact wrong thing. Kyle gulps. He has to answer him. He has to do it fast before he messes this up. A weak smile crawls up his face, struggling to keep it looking passable. "Dude, I'm fine," he fibs. "It's a small one, not like I'm not used to 'em."

He looks at him, wincing with uncertainty, "Are you sure?"

He manages a casual enough looking shrug, shaking his drink a bit. "We gotta pay for these whether we finish 'em or not. And I don't waste vodka. So, I think we don't have a choice here."

Stan relaxes in the slightest and Kyle follows suit, holding back a whine as tints pulse before him. "So long as you're positive you're okay."

"Absolutely," he assures him, hoping Stan didn't notice the subtle crack of his voice. "It's all good."

He nods slowly, taking another sip of his drink. "Well… I say we call it after this one unless you're feeling better."

Kyle frowns, "Stan. I'm a grown man. I think I know how to take care of myself."

Stan holds up a defensive palm, patting it against the air. "I didn't mean it like that," he winces. "I mean that… I kind of picked the worst place for you to be stuck."

He blinks. Well. He's not wrong. Regardless, he gives him another shrug, "Well, I don't want to linger around J-Mart aisles, and I doubt they'd let us drink in there."

Stan lets out a small huff through his nose, "I dunno, Man. In this town, it's a coin toss."

"See, perks to small places," he tips his glass towards him in a small salute before taking a long drink, struggling as he brings the container back to the table not to break into a violent coughing fit. He tends to forget how little he drinks out of his paranoia, and blocks out the always-present fact that alcohol burns. He shudders as it roars its way down his trachea, putting the back of his hand against his lips and stifling a choke.

He watches him with a barely-contained cackle. "For a liquor drinker, you sure can't hold it," he teases.

Kyle calms, eyes shifting towards him shadily and his middle finger making itself well known, Stan losing his reserve and busting out in laughter. "Lotta talk comin' from a man drinkin' a four percent bitch beer," Kyle drawls.

"It is six percent, thank you," he feigns offense. "And I can down enough of these to equal yours before you can finish half at the rate you're goin'."

Kyle smirks, "Some of us have something called self-control."

"That's a nice way of describing 'talking too big a game you can't live up to'."

A scoff leaves his lips, breath catching a wisp of curled carmine hair hanging over his forehead to flop back down languidly. "You're one to talk, Mr. Budget."

Stan pouts, tapping his finger on his bottle. "Okay but… that's the only reason we got you so… silver linings?" he winces.

Kyle grants him a small chuckle and agreeing shrug. It's true, Kyle had only been permitted to move from working Denver's sister branch because Stan had severely overestimated accounts to be taken in for the year. Someone had to come in and tear everything apart down to the last digit to rebalance the company before it went under, and Kyle had been dubbed the right choice to do so. Kyle still holds a lingering suspicion that he was only offered the position due to his previous coworkers despising him but unable to fire him as he kept up on his quota and caused no trouble. He supposes it doesn't matter anymore. He doesn't report to them any longer, more than likely never has to speak to them again. He's found himself a new burrow of fellow number crunchers that, at the very least, tolerate him and his "quirks" as it had so nicely been dubbed by his last company. It's only a two-year contract, but Kyle more than figures it'll be extended with the way their boss comes to him with any and all financial questions that trip him up. A part of him hopes his supposition holds true, he actually gets included in the damn company coffee runs here.

His eyes scrunch as a guitar solo wanes on overhead, an aggravated groan vibrating through his throat as the world warbles around him. A particularly long chord voicing strikes him off-guard, a G, C, and D meshing together as a triad of luminescence flittering between tangerine, buttercream, and cyan. A sharp inhale, his throat clenches, his leg bounces. 'God, stop. Stop,' he begs.

Stan watches him with caution, "Are you gonna be okay if I leave you long enough to hit the bathroom?"

"I'm fine," he nods, a quick, firm jerk that he hopes speaks of more confidence than anguish. "Go on, Dude. I'm not the hall monitor." Stan smiles sadly, patting his arm and moving to slide out of the booth.

Kyle finally creaks his eyes back into the light as the damn note fades off, replaced with another pounding set of drums. He groans to himself. This is why he doesn't go anywhere without his earplugs, and he wonders if it would be uncouth for Stan to come back and find him relishing in silence with two bright yellow foam stubs shoved into his ear canals. Probably. Besides, he doesn't want to give himself an escape only to cruelly deprive himself moments later. Drastic fluctuation was almost as awful as being shoved into a damn crowd.

He digs his nails into his palms, pressing the heels against his forehead and shoving his glasses down the bridge of his nose as he tries to lead himself through a round of deep breaths. A saving grace comes in the form of fading vocals and the radio falling silent with an audible pop of a knob twisting off. "Thank you," he whispers, forcing away a sniffle and shifting his shoulders, trying to release a degree of tension.

Momentary bliss dwindles with the sound of a microphone, his body stiffening on cue, knowing the volume was about to turn up, that feedback and voice was about to dominate the room. A few people chatter excitedly as Kyle hears shuffling through the speaker, someone fumbling and prolonging their cruel and unusual punishment against him. "'Bout damn time!" a woman's lightly mocking voice pipes from behind him, a streak penetrating his retinas.

A smooth voice picks up through the subtle echo of the microphone, "Mm, I know. Just ain't the same without me, is it?"

Kyle nearly jerks out of the booth, closed lids flooding with an ocean of burnt orange. He allows himself to look again, see if his headache is just warning him that it's about to get much worse. "I know I'm runnin' just a lil late," the voice continues to tease, Kyle's jaw shaking at the room's alterations. An entire overlay of this warm translucent hue is here to greet him. A soft, muted tone that he's never experienced. Angles seem rounder, the world isn't spinning out of his control. His throbbing head is both trying to settle and rushing in utter befuddlement. He's never seen this before, and he doesn't know how to react.

His head slowly pivots, strained pupils scanning the room until landing in front of the window, staring blatantly at a man perched upon a swiped barstool, acoustic guitar in hand. Faraway eyes twinkle behind hanging blond bangs, a charming smile dominates Kyle's world as he wanders lost through this fire-glazed tone. Kyle's breath staggers at a soft brush against his six strings barely producing noticeable distraction along the edge of his vision, still locked down in this gift he's stumbled upon. The man smiles a little wider, and Kyle's heart pounds as he gives a sheepish shrug and a lazy wink. "Sorry for keepin' ya waitin'."

Chapter Text

Kyle can't control the trembling of his hands; he can't seem to absorb the entirety of what's happening around him. The world looks lit anew. 'Maybe I'm dying,' he thinks, feeling a drastic tremor roaring up his spine. He can't tell if he's being overdramatic or not; he's more than once imagined that this is what Heaven is like. Maybe not this hue, perhaps not this clement, but always this steady. A world crafted just for him, where sounds and variations are nothing but that white noise he was promised so long ago. Where things are slow and allow him to enjoy a moment without bracing for the next change to rip him from his comfort zone.

The blond man is unaware of what he's done, a nonchalant aura about him as he rolls his shoulders back and releases a sigh up close to his microphone. His breath alone radiates a pleasant pulse through the airwaves that rush around Kyle, and the room seems to seep towards his dumbfounded immobility. For once, he's being swaddled, being told that he's safe, that he's allowed to take a breath. But even with such consent, he can't seem to follow through as he remains caught in the stranger's trance. Kyle wonders how the rest of the bar isn't as enveloped as he is, or maybe they are and he just hasn't taken notice, not able to take his eyes from the slow brush of knuckles down bronze-plated strings. Fingers unconsciously clutch around the glass in front of him, a dry gulp rolling down his throat. He can feel his drink shaking in his overwhelmed palm, ice cubes clinking against the innards of the cup. They don't even reach his radar, their subtle sounds drowning in the cellophane sea of sienna.

"Just play already," a monotonous voice breaks from the bar, Kyle noting a smoky muted blue, like a January sky, streaking diagonally through the wonder trying to fade with the lack of this magic man's voice. It's nothing but an extra, a character thrown into the fray for balance, but unable to fully take from the focal point. He's found himself staring through a fading vignette in a cinnamon border, the main star unaware that it's his cue.

He finds the script and Kyle is captivated once more, thrown back into the pool with no more than a slight scoff from across the floor. "It's called keepin' 'em in anticipation, Craig," the man drawls. Kyle melts in this newfound luminosity, watching the subtle rise of a thick, pale eyebrow, the teasing twitch of a smirk Kyle is sure is a common expression for him as natural as it looks. "S'also called my fingers are cramped from tunin' in yer shitass closet. Gimme a sec, damn."

His twang slips through the air like worn burlap, and Kyle wonders why more people in this town don't carry the accent as often as he's heard them refer to themselves as rednecks. This man seems to scream of the stereotype with his slouched posture and cocky statements, and Kyle imagines he smells of tobacco leaking through slightly discolored teeth. He thinks it would fit him, that he must be one who gives off the aroma of naturality, one that eats and breathes God-given simplicity to gift him so homey a color.

Kyle's breath shakes with a long strum of an acoustic chord, the air rippling enough to pique his attention, but not keep it. But one note quickly turns to several, a marbled green pick slipping over treble nylon strings and calloused fingers sliding along a scuffed neck. An involuntary whimper ekes through Kyle's throat as the measures begin to take control again, viciously bashing their way through his cozy haze to remind him of his reality once more. Peeks of vibrancy splice only to tear apart on a mission to make themselves known in shapes that he can't comprehend. They swarm and cloud, the coating losing the battle as harmonics dominate the scene.

The rest of the bar remains calm, unaware of the war raging inside Kyle's mind, the heightening of his breathing and the way his nails delve deep enough into his palms to leave stark indentations in their wake. The blond simply strums away in an unadorned melody, a worn, dust-stained tennis shoe bouncing in time along the support rail of his barstool. Kyle's eyes slam shut once more, head bowing and awaiting the inevitable brutality surrounding him like vultures, just biding time for that first weakened stumble to swoop down and gnaw away at his skin.

And then, the wake is startled away in a blast of heat.

Sung words begin to escalate over the guitar, and Kyle's foe is vanquished. Like steam drawn into a vent, the glow takes back what it claimed: The tumultuous land that Kyle is more than willing to hand over. Kyle shudders, looking at the man yet again, glassed eyes full of gratitude but echoing with a confusion that he can't get a grasp on. The phrases leaking from his savior's lips take no meaning, Kyle far too focused on the timbre he assumes was crafted by the Mousai themselves. His drawl is all but gone, lost in a soothing tune propelled by a rich, honeyed voice. Each new chord pulses separate areas of the fog in subdued tints, letting Kyle breathe in the sensation of vocals alone and wade through a balmy essence.

Slowly, he leans back into the booth, exhausted but entranced as he's guided through the storm by an unknown hand. He thinks of that swig of vodka that nearly doubled him over, how he yearned for the tingle along his palate to last, how he so desperately wanted that distraction to hold onto. This is it, he realizes, teeth gliding over his bottom lip. This is what he's been searching for, what he's been wondering since he could form a full thought if it even existed.

Comfort. Reassurance. Tranquility.

Kyle wonders if this is how everyone else experiences music. If they all fall so deeply into a chasm that won't let them go, that they don't want to be released from. He's had countless people over the years coming up to him, babbling on and on about how they 'can't believe you haven't heard this song, it's all the stations will play!' Too many times he's had to feign a smile and a nod, pretend he's heard anything. Pretend that sure, he has that CD. And of course he's seen that movie, he'd have to be crazy not to have. Media is a temptress for him, trying to lure him in with a misleading promise of letting him escape from the real world. Maybe that's the case for everyone else, not for him. He must stick to only the occasional worn book, where pages tinted with age provide him with a subtle enough resonance for him to somewhat concentrate. He can handle the metronomic swish swish swish of a working broom much better than he can a television blaring with far too many stimulations for any ounce of comprehension.

But this voice, this must be what people mean. This must be what they feel when they tell him how they can't look away from the screen, that a simple three-minute song sticks in the back of their mind all day from its astute connection. This is why people break the ice with these topics, this is why stores are built just for forms of entertainment. Kyle gulps, watching pink lips move along and nestling into the atmosphere they share.

'Is this what it's like to be normal?' he questions, eyelids drooping in relief as he prays that it's true, prays that he's been given a chance to see from the other side at long last. A vibrato springs from the man's throat, and Kyle can't help but smile as his novel protection remains true through his wavering. Sometimes he could lose that with a voice. Stan's sharp prisms of blue could distort if he raised an octave in excitement. His mother's tendency to go shrill on a dime could all but cripple him with as much as her colors tended to fluctuate like strobe lights.

But here, it doesn't seem to be the case.

Even as the blond man's pitch rises and falls with the beat, through staccato and legato alike, the sienna remains firm. A lyrical phenomenon, Kyle decides. His own personal anomaly. His heart pounds as his head attempts to settle into this new dwelling, trying not to recall that it would have to end eventually, that this stranger couldn't lull him down for eternity. If God wanted to strike him down at any time, he thinks, now is that time. Let him leave with a smile on his face and a feeling of liberation he thought to be unattainable.

He barely notices the movement of Stan sliding back into the booth, watching him with a raised brow and a questioning smirk. "You all right over there?"

Kyle can't tear his eyes away to look at Stan, terrified he'll lose what he's found. Stan's own voice is nearly muffled, only the slightest spark of blue catching the corner of Kyle's eye. 'Maybe because he's close to me,' he assumes, staying silent, but offering him a nod of confirmation.

Stan looks between the man and Kyle and chuckles. "'Bout time Ken got a fan."

A name breaking through the barrier finally forces Kyle's eyes to slide towards his companion in interest, relieved to see him caught in the endless firelit glow, almost appearing fuzzy to his softened vision. "You know him?" he speaks with quiet caution, wants those vocals to remain the orchestra to their measly duet.

Stan nods with a small grin. "Yeah, that's Kenny. We've been buds for… way too long," he rolls his eyes, both looking back to the front of the room as the tempo picks up a few beats, that pick still strumming as naturally as wind catching reeds. "Known him since preschool. Great guy. Sometimes," he amends with an amused huff through his nose. "He can take some getting used to."

"Don't we all," Kyle replies mindlessly, tilting his head in the slightest. Just Kenny's first words had painted him in the light of easy-going, of the capability of being anyone's friend. Kyle bites his cheek, considering that he may have just been lost in a rare string of endorphins and didn't notice something reading as possibly unapproachable. He's never been the best at interpreting personalities regardless, always trapped in the automatic assumption they'd distance themselves from him after one too many unintentional balks at their voice. "Didn't peg you as someone with musician friends."

"Well, you didn't see my douchebag guitar player college days," he rolls his eyes at himself and offers a small shrug. "He only does this on the side anyway."

"Huh," Kyle nods, letting himself hone back in on Kenny, the way his head bobs in the slightest with the beat, how his eyes stay half lidded, peering at his microphone. Kyle wonders if he's shy, or if he just doesn't know where to look when he plays. Or maybe it's for concentration. He doesn't know, doesn't know if he truly cares for the reason, so long as he keeps doing what he's doing and filling the air with such quietude it's nearly overwhelming. He permits himself to pick up a few words, piecing together no more than a melody of gaining back what once was lost. Kyle releases a wistful sigh, wishing that this moment was his own rediscovery, not just his maiden voyage. Closing his eyes, he takes a long breath, still seeing his new coloring and wondering if he's ever felt this serene. Even in the dark still of night tucked away in his room, there was always still something. Owls outside his window, crickets, noisy neighbors and passing trucks. But all else seems melted away here, only himself and Kenny's voice. His lips curve into a small smile.

His tranquility is disrupted with a small poke on his arm, turning to look at Stan and fighting to not glare at him for ruining his moment. Stan watches him in amusement, "Did you hear me?"

"No?"

He jerks his head back towards the performer. "I said this is just his hobby and a way to get a little extra cash. He's a firefighter regularly."

Kyle blinks, looking at the singing blessing and cocking his head. He lets his eyes drift, riding the unnoticed toning of golden-skinned arms and defined shoulders prodding through a shirt that's perhaps just a smidgeon too tight. He swallows down a mouthful of salivation, not knowing how he missed such crucial details. 'Oh god, this guy will kill me, won't he?' Kyle thinks, heart picking up speed. "Whoa," seems to be the only thing his brain will allow him to say, too lost in the flexion of muscle and the strumming of calloused fingers playing as mere shadows in the meadow of soothing pitches.

Stan snorts, shaking his head. "Don't be too impressed. This town has like, six fires a year, we're pretty small, keep in mind."

"Still, more impressive than cubicle workers," he murmurs, leaning his cheek into his palm and staring off and away, unwilling to look at his companion anymore and deprive himself of another moment that the universe had created just for him.

"I would take that as an insult, but since you're in the same category, I guess I'll begrudgingly agree," he concedes.

Kyle doesn't move a millimeter, completely swept away by the majesty of music. He's all but physically gone, just wants everything around him to disappear, let him have this moment all to himself. His peripheral catches people chatting with one another from their seats, and he feels a string of disgust. They don't know what they're ignoring. They don't know what a gift they're being given, the privilege that they're taking so heavily for granted. Kyle supposes he can't be shocked, that if he were one of them, he might be doing the same. Might be doing nothing but laughing and throwing pretzels at Stan, all but ignoring the man across the room. Given… he sweeps his eyes over him once more and a small shudder rolls down his spine. Maybe that's a bit of an assumption.

A small hum leaks out of him with a sigh, seeing pleasantly subtle color pulses riding through shockwaves of cinnamon. He had once talked with his family about his ailment when his little brother had turned nine and wanted to know why they had to keep moving for Kyle's sake. Kyle had had to sit down and explain what he heard and what he saw. He told him of random noises that may or may not be association-based that never ceased. He told him of the bafflement of seeing colors, but seeing the colors that were actually there through them as well, his brain constantly struggling to figure out what to focus on. Ike had listened, nodding slowly before asking "So… it's like seeing through mesh?" Kyle had never had that comparison to make, never took in the full scope of how the world looked through loosely woven material. But their parents had concurred, all three of them trying to find the best way to describe and compare the visuals, running him through a list of materials that fell into the same category, so maybe they could better understand.

This burnt orange is a veil of voile, remembering his mother lifting the edge of their sheer eggplant drapes and demonstrating holding it over her eyes. "So, you can still see our colors underneath the others?"

"Yeah… is that what you see?"

She had nodded, both his dad and brother following suit and pressing the material to their eyes. His father had brought down the fabric after a good thirty seconds of being so distorted and blinking, eyes glazing over with sympathy at his eldest child. "All the time?" he'd asked.

"All the time," he'd confirmed quietly, twisting his fingers in discomfiture. His family had looked from him to the cloth in their hands, feeling helpless in knowing that just their brief exposure to his sight had been enough to strain them. Even with Kyle only seeing streaks at a time, it was still impossible to imagine how he dealt with such eyesores set on a constant assault.

Kyle doesn't know if it was truly the same, just never having the ability to confirm their theory, but this moment seems to fit the bill: Just a sheer shroud that dominates, but leaves Kyle enough room to pick up on the polished maple of the guitar, the slight discoloring of Kenny's t-shirt along the hem. But, more importantly, he can see his notes. They just don't scream at him here, they politely sail along, letting Kyle know that yes, they're there, and they're available for attention should he yearn to grant it. Nothing but subtle transparent acrylic droplets splashing beneath the top layer of watercolor.

He wants this immortalized, wants such minimalism concocted into physicality. He's never seen them in this light, didn't know that they could actually be accents and not the entire picture. They don't have to take over the scene in its entirety, they can just linger around, there if one wants to see them but demanding no attention. It's amazing, it's wonderful, it's perfection…

His face falls in devastation as the voice and notes leave him all at once, heart dropping.

It's over.

A small scattering of applause rings through the bar, and Kyle is once more forced to remember that a world exists outside of what he was given. 'Oh god, please don't stop,' he begs, hoping to some degree Kenny can hear him. 'Please, please let me have just one more minute!'

A distressed whine leaves him as Kenny merely shoots a particularly rowdy table a prominent wink and slides off his stool, guitar left to lean against the seat. Stan watches Ken walk away before looking back at Kyle still staring at the pallet-constructed stage. "Didn't think Ken would finally get a listener that wasn't wasted," he teases.

"Where is he going?!" Kyle asks, eyes wide and panicked as murmurs of conversation and the clinking of glass picks right back up where they left off, his reprieve rapidly losing way to another rainbow of disaster.

Stan gives him a small shrug, "He only plays like, once every ten minutes. Gets him more listeners over the night and people don't get annoy- Wait, where are you going?" he blinks, watching Kyle scramble out of the booth and nearly tripping over himself as soon as his shoes hit the tile. "Kyle, wait!" he huffs, attempting to slither out with him, Kyle already stepping off in a rush, trying not to get lost in the jungle of sensations as he hurries towards Kenny plopped down at the end of the bar talking with the bartender.

His chest heaves, fingers twitching with nerves. He can't lose this. He can't. Not yet. He's found a potent drug, and he'll be damned if he's already being forced through involuntary withdrawal. He's lost too much in his life. Too many opportunities, too many things to do and things to see, too many relationships and just too much life. He can have it, he thinks. He can get it. He just needs the unknowing man listlessly reading over a menu with a dulled expression plastered on his face. His salvation is here for him at long last, and he isn't letting it slip out of his fingers.

Kyle steps up beside of Kenny, poking his arm with rapidity a good four times and almost doubling back as his head twists, finding himself locked in dazzling bright blue eyes. Tweedias, Kyle recalls, growing in his mother's garden in Tennessee. The way they stood starkly against background butter-yellow carnations. How they seemed to reflect the summer sky. Kyle hears the calls of a balmy dawn, the song of an American robin that perched its nest on the sprawling white oak outside his bedroom window. It should be the more fitting pumphandle call of a blue jay, Kyle thinks. He wonders if someone with scent-based synthesia would catch the subtle whiff of those tweedia bushels, maybe the aroma of a shimmering spring lake when the last of the thaw has finished and the algae begins to bloom once again.

"Hey there," that voice comes back and Kyle's legs nearly buckle, the pacification intensifying with such direct contact. Kenny offers him an inviting, crooked smile and a slightly tilted head, not expecting an encounter with a stranger while waiting for his beer. "What's up?"

His words catch midway through his larynx, pupils shrinking as he realizes that he's come up to him with no plan. Kyle stops a whimper trying to coax itself out, breath staggering. If he talks, will he shatter the illusion? There's no consistent background of Kenny's voice here to continue to focus on, only silence as he awaits a response. He wants to yell praises, wants to drop to his knees and beg him to never stop speaking, to follow him around and narrate the world so he can enjoy it for once. But, he also wants to run; he's put himself into a terrifying situation for someone with little to no experience with unrequired human contact. He doesn't know what to do or how to proceed, and so he stares, jaw shaking and lost in the trance of hypnotic blue eyes and a robin's descant.

Kenny blinks, brow cocking slowly. "Uh. Dude? You okay?" he presses, staring straight into spring green eyes that seem lost in a bewildered haze. Kenny feels awkward almost, wonders if the man before him needs help, if he's a poor mute who doesn't know how to get his assistance. "Do uh… do you need something?" he winces.

Kyle tries again to make words come out, knowing that he's looking like an idiot right now. But he just can't. He doesn't want to ruin this, doesn't want Kenny to hear his voice and internally vomit or some other ridiculous notion. He just wants him to keep making sounds, allow Kyle to nestle comfortably into the kerns of his words and make himself right at home. He never needs to speak again, no one ever does. Only Kenny, Kyle decides. He's the only noise the world could ever need.

Ken keeps staring at him before hurried movement catches his eye and he glances up, face breaking into a wide, true smile that Kyle loses his breath over. "My manny Stanny!" Kenny greets with enthusiasm. "You came t' see me!"

Stan steps up beside of Kyle and snorts. "Ken, please. You know I don't come here for you, I come for the booze."

"Oh. My heart," he sniffles, clutching a hand over his chest and letting his lip wobble. "And I'm so damn kind to you." Stan shakes his head and his pouting breaks with a laugh, glancing at Kyle and back up to Stan. "So. He with you?"

Stan looks down at the still-silent Kyle and winces awkwardly from his friend's wide-eyed gaping. "Uh. Yeah." He hits Kyle lightly with the back of his hand, trying to snap him out of it.

Kenny chuckles, looking back to Kyle and plasters on a smirk. "He's quiet. And stare-y."

He sighs, kicking Kyle's shin pointedly and Kyle hisses, coming back into the bar far too fast and having to grip his hand around the countertop to keep from toppling over. "The fuck was that for?!" he snaps up at Stan's unamused face, squinting through another wave of hues trying to sink back in.

He turns back with another tepid wash, Kenny laughing and giving a simple, "Ah. So, he does speak. And he's got a lil' mouth on him," he looks at Kyle with another dashing grin and he swallows, shying down. Kyle regathers some hint of his equilibrium, balancing back up on shaking legs. "Ya know," Kenny continues, "when someone stares at me that long, they usually gotta put a few bills inta' my g-string," he winks. Kyle's face erupts with color, hoping to God the lower lighting over the bar didn't give him away. He feels so stupid. He wants to just sink into the haphazardly mopped periwinkle tile and suffocate.

"Ken." Stan gives no more than that, a full lecture that Kyle assumes is common between them spread across the tone. Kenny gives him an innocent shrug and wiggles his brows, Stan rolling his eyes before finally gesturing to his embarrassed companion. "This is Kyle. New…ish coworker."

Kenny pauses, giving Kyle another glance before brightening up. "Ohhhh, is this the newbie genius ya told me about?"

Kyle's face twists at such a strange choice of term, looking up at Stan and silently demanding an explanation. Stan cringes, scratching at his hair and taking a sip of his beer. Kyle can't help but shake his head. He can only suppose that such a thing proves Stan to be an honest man in regards to his self-descriptors, unable to walk away from the table without his drink. "Wasn't said in a bad way," he finally assures him. "Dude, you came in at a high-ass ranking and started tearin' apart numbers like you'd worked there all your life. I was impressed, not trying to insult you."

Kenny gives a soft, genuine laugh and nods in agreement, giving Kyle's arm a soft nudge with his elbow that Kyle's heart leaps at. "Yeah, don't worry, Stan doesn't insult no one," Kenny swears. "Or if 'e tries, he sucks ass at it. Promise, I've only heard good things," he holds up a three-fingered scout's honor. Kyle smiles reticently, awkwardly folding his arms across his torso, not sure if he's trying to protect himself from more self-induced humiliation or just adding onto the temperateness that Kenny continues to flood over him. Ken leans his chin into his palm, locking his attention on the newcomer with interest. His eyes scan along a red tinge riding his cheek bones trying to mask a sprinkle of nutmeg freckles swept across his face. A full bottom lip is being assaulted with pearl teeth and those green eyes seem to want to focus on him but just can't as they dance through a miasma of novelty. He offers him a sly smirk. "So. You need somethin'? Or you just wantin' t' stare at the merchandise?"

Stan scowls, knowing just from the trailing of his gaze and that tone where his mind was headed. "Ken. Stop. You don't need to scare him away, he's still fairly new to town."

"What? I'm just askin'," he drawls. "'Sides, I'm the reason people stay." They continue to stare at each other, Kenny grinning cheekily and Stan just pinching the bridge of his nose with an elongated sigh.

Kyle gulps, oblivious to their mini war and clenching his fists. A shaking breath leaves him, finally remembering how words work and ducking his head down a bit in timidity. "Your music is really nice," he says, almost meek under all the pressure he feels to not mess this interaction up any further.

Ken's head shoots back towards him, face nearly splitting in half with a beaming smile. Kyle wonders if he could blind the city with such an expression if he held it long enough. He certainly wouldn't mind being what he tested such a theory on, his chest fluttering at such sparkles of joy crossing through those sky-blue eyes. Stan groans from beside their locked stare, shaking his head. "No no no, don't do that, Ky. Ken doesn't need any boosts to his damn ego; it's already too big for Colorado."

The two of them ignore him, Kyle shifting uncomfortably waiting for Kenny to say something, to know if he just made another example of how moronic he can be. "Really?" Kenny finally speaks, bubbling fervor lingering in his tone. "Ya like it?" Kyle offers him a smile and a subtle nod, not wanting to keep interspersing Kenny's words with his own unremarkable garbage. He twists around fully in his barstool, not noticing as a beer bottle is placed at his seat, almost as captivated with Kyle as he is with him. "Whaddya like about it?" he asks with that grin still brimming, ignoring Stan's sighs.

Kyle clears his throat, trying to remember that conversations are in fact a two-way street. God, does he wish they weren't, though. Fidgeting, he tucks a stray curl back around the earpiece of his glasses. "Um… y-your voice is… really nice," he says inelegantly, unable to understand how he's so short on vocabulary in this stranger's presence.

Kenny smiles charismatically, leaning closer with his chin still propped and humming under his breath. "Like honey. Ain't it?" he coos with half-lidded eyes, Kyle having to force himself to breathe again.

"Knock it off, McCormick," Stan warns again, halfway to forcing Kyle away from him and his sly mannerisms to take him home.

His alluring expression breaks for a pout, Kyle still caught in the aftereffects and trying to resurface as the other two look at each other. "Whaaaat?" Kenny whines. "I was just agreein' with 'im, it'd be rude not to." He looks back at Kyle and smiles, patting the seat next to him. "Si'down, Kyle, my new friend."

Kyle doesn't think twice, plopping down where specified. 'Fuckin' hell I'll do anything you want me to do, just keep talking to me.'

Kenny swipes his beer bottle, taking a long swig and keeping their eyes locked, Kyle both enraptured and wanting to run from the attention bearing down on him. He's not used to this. People usually look away from him, make excuses to head off away from his flinches. He wonders if he's ever kept eye contact with another living creature for this long. Even if he wanted to, Kyle doesn't think he could stop regardless. The bottle pops out of Kenny's lips with a relaxed sigh and Kyle gulps, not sure how someone could be so casual making conversation with a stranger. Shifting in his seat, his shoulders drop, and he wonders if he's always going to be the ungainly one in encounters. "So," Kenny continues, his bottle going back to the bar with a clunk. "What kinda music do ya like, Kyle?"

'Uh oh,' Kyle gulps. He's already being backed into a corner. Should he fib here? Should he feign his way through this conversation as he has so many others? It'd probably be easier… But something about the man before him tells him otherwise. He doesn't want to start this off with flat-out lies. He just has to play this cautiously. Twisting his fingers, he bites his lip and finally drops his gaze from Kenny's curiosity. "Um… I-I don't really… listen to music," he mumbles, barely audible enough for them to hear.

Kenny tilts his head, surprise sweeping over his face, "Wow, really? Don't think anyone's told me that before."

Kyle winces, "I-I get… headaches so I… try to avoid noise."

Pausing, he looks around the sparsely clustered room before falling back to his counterpart's fidgeting. "Then why are you at a bar? That's like… the noisiest of places you can go. I mean, aside from my place. Ain't no one quiet there," he winks.

"I invited him out," Stan interjects with a scowl, seeing Kyle growing redder and squirming. "That's why."

He chuckles, waiting for Kyle to timidly look back at him and giving him an approving nod. "Good. Stan needs some fuckin' friends 'sides me, he's a goddamn loser."

"HEY!"

Kenny doesn't give him a glance, still smiling comfortingly at Kyle, attempting to bring him a little more out of his shell. "I love 'im though. He lets me play shit for 'im to see if it's tolerable."

"Only if I'm drunk," Stan mutters with an eyeroll.

"Whatever," he shrugs, taking another sip of his beer. "It works. It… ya know… is like my audience n' whatnot." His face twists, "The fuck is the word?" He looks up at Stan who shrugs.

"Emulates," Kyle answers softly, getting Kenny's attention back on him and another grin over his face.

He laughs, "You are a smartie."

Kyle blinks, 'It was just a word, how is that smart? How bad is education in this town?' He spares a quick look around the bar, observing the slurring, clumsy mannerisms and the half-thought out quips of dialogue spewing through the air. Maybe he didn't want to know the answer to that. Turning back to the front, he heaves a deep breath, feeling Stan watching Kenny with suspicion from his peripheral. "So, um… Do you have like… CDs or anything?"

Stan cocks his brow, looking back at him with a blank stare. "Kyle, you heard one song."

Kenny slaps his hand on the counter in glee, giddy as a child. "Damn, I must be good if the smart ones love me with just one," he winks at Kyle's patient smile before he simmers into a chuckle and shakes his head. "But no, Dude. I don't. I'm sorry."

"…Oh," Kyle clears his throat, shifting down in his seat a tad. Well. He wasn't expecting a no, now wondering if he just put Kenny on the spot.

Kenny shrugs, taking another long sip of his drink and lazily letting it land back on the bar, tipping the base along the polished whitewood, a soft rolling rhythm barely catching wind under the scatters of conversation surrounding them. "Nah, I play here Wednesdays and Fridays and have some shit up on YouTube, but that's about it. You're the only one who's asked, so I haven't exactly had an urge t' go off recordin' nothin'."

Kyle winces, wondering if he'd hit a sore spot that Kenny would dwell on himself. "I… I'm sorry," he works out, tone drowning in culpability.

He snorts, waving off the notion. "Dude, seriously, I'm flattered t' shit. Just haven't really thoughta doin' that with no requests."

Stan smirks, "Remember, Ken, he doesn't listen to much music. He doesn't exactly have much to compare it to."

"Wow," he pouts. "You know what, he's my favorite listener now. Your snarky ass just got replaced."

"Ow. I am wounded," Stan drawls, rolling his eyes dramatically.

Kenny looks at an amused Kyle and jerks his thumb towards their friend. "See what I put up with? No respect."

He chuckles, "So you go somewhere to play where everyone becomes a disrespectful ass."

Returning the expression, he offers a casual shrug. "Hey, I'm playing the songs of my people for my people."

"You aren't playing anything." They all jolt at an annoyed tone breaking through their conversation, whipping around to see the bartender seeming caught halfway between a glare and a yawn. Kyle winces at piercing gray eyes sweeping over the three of them before landing square on Kenny, an unamused frown playing on his lips."Get your ass up there if you want your damn tip jar, McCormick."

Kenny rolls his eyes with a scoff, "Jesus, Tucker, fine. Didn't realize I had t' clock in."

"Just go," he says flatly, turning on his heel and walking off.

Stan watches him and huffs, "Hi to you, too, Craig!" Kyle turns to watch with them, cocking his brow at Craig's middle finger flying into the air without so much as a foot staggering.

"His customer service skills are exemplary," Kyle says with a small smirk.

"There's a reason he has to have a second job," Kenny chuckles, the two of them facing one another again. "All right, gonna head up. This one'll be for you," he winks, flicking Kyle's hand and sliding off his stool.

He and Stan observe Kenny walking off, Kyle taking a long breath, chest warmly twisting in the atmosphere he left behind. He barely realizes Stan grasping his arm and gently prying him off his seat. "C'mon," he urges. "They might take your drink if we linger." Kyle just mindlessly hums in response, still watching Kenny settling himself onto the stool as Stan leads him to their table.

Kyle moves back into his seat, blindly grabbing his glass and pulling it towards himself, heaving a deep, satisfied sigh. He never knew a conversation could be so… pleasant. Never before has he been able to keep eye contact, to so fully participate and absorb the words being spoken. A free hand cups his chin, his eyes half-lidded watching Kenny spilling more sweet, sweet sounds and visuals into the air.

"Kyle," Stan says, watching him with a worried caution. Kyle doesn't so much as move, still locked on his friend across the room. Stan winces, knowing that look from many a person Kenny had met in the past. On one too many a stranger who wasn't used to having such attention, to being charmed with Kenny's sight set solely on them. "Kyle," he tries again, putting a light grasp around his arm and shaking.

Kyle finally breaks from Kenny's spell, green eyes fluttering as he turns and tries to come back into the bar. "What?" he finally asks.

Stan bites his lip, tapping his finger against his bottle. He really hopes he's not crossing a line here. "Ky, I love Ken, don't get me wrong. He's great. But… be… careful," he says slowly.

He tilts his head, raising his drink to his lips, nose scrunching at melted cubes leaving him with a stale taste in his mouth. "What uh… whaddya mean?" he asks once he swallows down the watery concoction.

"Ken's the kinda guy who… goes after anything that moves," he winced. "Don't get too drawn in. He's a… um…"

"Heartbreaker?" he guesses, Stan giving a sheepish shrug. Kyle can't help but smirk a bit, returning the motion. "That's not a problem for me. That's not something I'm really interested in."

Stan blinks, looking at him warily. "Really? Because you sure as hell are acting like it."

He shakes his head. No. No, he doesn't want to get drawn in only to have his heart and pride destroyed, lose communication with the man with the magic voice. He sneaks another peek at Kenny's arms flexing as he plays, holding back a low groan. Maybe that's a little easier said than done. But he doesn't need more than this, doesn't need any more than Kenny's melody… He sighs, leaning his head down atop folded arms, watching him continue to grace the stuffy, undeserving bar and its patrons. Maybe. It's been far too long that he's felt any type of tolerance for anyone. But this is someone who brings him to the horizon's edge of normality, lets him forget for just a bit that there's life pulsating outside of his distorted visuals and discorded band flooding his head. This is someone who lets him, for the first time, want to be out of the safety of his home. Someone who lets him breathe.

Don't get drawn in…

Kyle gulps, fingers tightening around his lowball glass as Kenny scans about and finds his stare, shooting him yet another mesmerizing wink. He isn't going to be able to promise that.

Chapter Text

Kenny often wonders if he would've been better suited as a banker than a firefighter, always finding himself wandering through the same quandary as calloused fingers slip so fluidly along oiled, crumpled bills. He remembers nothing of algebraic torment from his high school days, he can't calculate just how much extra that 2.9 percent sales tax will tack onto his minor impulse purchases, but he can damn well plow through a stack of ones and fives with almost agitating accuracy. A few years stuck as a late-night waiter for a second job had made him beyond practiced at sifting through his tips and making change. Knowing just how much money was in his hand is a habit he still can't seem to shed, spending far too long throughout his youth pinching pennies for himself and his siblings for their secret food stash or even managing to afford the purchase of a treat for all three of them. Even with a more than comforting savings account and an easily maintained lifestyle under his belt, he can't seem to shake the rampant fears of his childhood, of overestimating just what he had and finding himself fighting for his home and few pleasantries alike.

His eye catches on a blatant scribble in pen atop a bill, halting in his counting and telling himself to remember the twenty-four dollars he'd reached before focusing back on the markings. He cocks his head with a tiny smirk, teetering on amused at the juvenile defacing of Washington with the amateur devil horns and the curious addition of dimples and a red scribble along his cheek bones. Kenny snorts, wondering if ol' George is just embarrassed that people are so willing to break the law literally in front of his face. Doesn't really matter, he supposes. At least it wasn't one of those damn 'Where's George' bills that'd circulated back into his hands too many times to count. He wonders if those notes had ever left South Park, knowing damn well enough that travelers rarely stopped along their way to bigger and better places and the citizens left so seldom they may as well be classified as a federal prison of a town.

The thought makes him sigh, a teeny part of him wishing he could take all his money out of the bank and just go on the road, make sure his own currency got out to every damn mainland state. It's nothing but leftovers from his days in high school, sitting on the bleachers with Craig and Stan and staring off into nothing, trying to keep his cigarette smoke from flooding Stan's damn asthma-infested lungs and talking droning nothings about their futures.

Stan had his hopes dug into a football scholarship that'd let him breeze through college, later getting said money and arriving at school with the startling realization that he had no idea what to do with his life. He'd always said he wanted to protect the environment, do something that meant something. Kenny can't help but tease him even still that instead of pioneering a groundbreaking alternative fuel, he'd locked down into statistical analysis. Stan hates it with a passion, always sneers at himself when he puts on work slacks and snags a bundle of reports. But it's money in the bank, and he's decent enough at it, he claims, so he can brainstorm on his downtime about ways that he can finally make that difference.

Craig had no aspirations, nothing more than 'not retail'. A smart exclusion by Kenny's measure. No, Craig had looked to the horizon and found nothing but a plethora of job sites and some freelance photography. That is until finally landing a place at Skeeter's when he was twenty-two and a "sweet grooming gig" the year following and never looking back. He was more interested in browsing pet stores and only allowing Kenny's company for the sake of getting high on the weekends than "wasting his life at a desk like Marsh" as he'd put it.

Kenny himself had no clue at the time what he'd wanted. He knew he wanted something, something that gave him reason to get his ass out of bed in the morning and face the day that wasn't merely getting the money for food. He'd announced the week before graduation that he was just going to pack up and go for a while, then come back to take care of Karen once Kevin had the funds saved to move out himself. A father's poisoned liver and a miserable mother's pill-popping depression spree only three weeks after caps were tossed had severely skewed their plans. Any spare money went to a funeral and a needed trip to rehab for their mother, the three McCormick kids finding themselves again trapped in their home and the future as dull as ever.

It still pangs Kenny, knowing that he and Kevin were both so close at one point. Eventually, they had all gotten out once Karen finished college, but it'd taken what felt like such an eternity to get there. It's a confliction, even as it was years ago. Kenny finally walked away from his childhood home for the last time, finding his new home filled with the flooding of both gratefulness and bitterness.

Now any plans of going on the road have hit a screeching halt, focus locked down on keeping up mortgage payments and trudging through twenty-four-hour work days. Firefighting had come out of necessity before anything else, never having an interest in his youth in such a dangerous profession. But schooling was quick and cheap, EMT and physical training were nothing he couldn't handle, and the pay is far more than he thought he could make with no college degree. Not the dream, but good enough for now; it's the McCormick way.

Besides, he's found his ways to even the field for himself a bit. Only two days of work a week means five to do as he pleases, and earning some tax-free tip money for a lifelong hobby is his idea of a good use of his time. Even if it's only covers he can manage, even if he sometimes gets lost when someone more knowledgeable comes up to him discussing the potential hindrance of nodules and how maybe he'd be better suited for operettas, it's a tiny portion of his life that he can take pride in. It's his own, even if his audience is nothing but drunken rednecks that often roll their eyes when he steps up onto that shoddy pallet stage. But there's always enough people that appreciate him to keep him coming back.

That and the upwards of thirty dollars a night is never too shabby to take home.

Soft noise grips his attention from his cash, eyes fluttering up to see the last party finally making way out of the bar. He glances to the analog clock on the far side of the wall, reading a marked 2:43 atop a yellowed face, a remnant of better times when Rob Reiner hadn't gotten his way and the pungent kiss of nicotine lingered around patrons in a musty haze. He smirks, looking behind him at a familiar grumbling and laughing at Craig staring daggers after the retreating customers. "Took their sweet time with last call, huh, Buddy?"

"Shut up," Craig mutters, rubbing his temple. He wanted to be home nearly an hour ago, hoping that for once people would down their drinks and get the hell out of the building so he could just go sleep. An early shift at the groomers seemed foreboding, knowing every minute was one less that he had to rest once he finally got home. "Leave," he says flatly, stepping from his station and making way to the abandoned table.

"Rude," he mocks, sliding off his barstool and standing on his toes to stretch. "I'm so loyal to you, Baby."

"McCormick. Leave," he spits. "And take your fucktoy with you," he waves his hand towards a quietly napping Stan propped up on the seat beside of him, head rested on folded arms and a finished amber bottle clutched in his inner elbow.

Kenny grins, shaking Stan's shoulder enough to rouse him out of a confused sleep, looking around to figure out just where he is as Kenny turns back to watch Craig. "C'mon, now, don't be jealous. Stan just can't get enough of my dick, not his fault."

"WHAT?!" Stan snaps, drowsiness faltering with a sharp glare at Ken laughing incessantly at his humiliated expression. "I'll rip off your dick, Kenny!"

"Can't keep your hands off me, huh, Sweetcheeks?" he winks, snagging his guitar bag and sliding it over his arm to rest on his shoulder. "You comin'?"

Craig looks at them shadily, grey eyes flashing with the impending storm of impatience, "Well, he's not staying."

Stan rolls his eyes, barely managing to stifle a yawn as he slides onto the floor and rubs under his lashes. "Again, good to see you, too, Craig."

Craig offers him no more than an irritated grunt as he wipes down sloshed beer from the tabletop, Stan and Kenny shaking their heads and turning to leave. "See ya, Craig," Kenny sings. "Don't miss us too much, now!" Another huff is all he gets, Kenny snorting and Stan sighing tiredly. Neither of them know why they continue their friendship with him, but their triad just seems incomplete without his oh-so-whimsical mannerisms.

Stan is the first to step out of the bar into the pre-springtime air, nose scrunching at a mess of cold and dampness crawling up his sinuses. Kenny follows, taking in a lungful and exhaling, wanting to fall comatose to its implications. He loves spring, loves when the snow takes on that attempted thaw crunch. The few visitors that come through their town outside of winter always comment on how strange it is, how they expected soft, powder-fresh flakes ripe for tossing into the air to flutter back in a glittering mist like a dollar store snow globe. Kenny knows better. This is the snow of childhood wars, where you can't tell if you packed a piece of ice into that snowball, but whoever you hit with it is sure as hell gonna take notice. Spring in South Park is survival of the fittest, flora and fauna alike. Birds come back later than outsiders would expect, pollen comes in one speck at a time, redistributed to turn the town into a communal sneezing fit.

Spring is Kenny's reset button. Once he meandered over the existential crisis of his birthday immediately following the season's beginning, it would be smooth sailing. Occasionally he wonders if he has seasonal affective disorder, always hitting a personal slump once Halloween was done and passed. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years; every event just dragged him deeper into self-pitying pits. A cocky smirk and perverted ramblings seemed to fend off the questions he would otherwise get if he acted as he felt. The feeling was always heavy, like the painfully sharp snow beneath his feet had turned to crush him, keep him stuck and cold. He always wants to finally take that trip out, go down South where the sun would beam on his face and remind him that it was still there, it was just taking its sweet, sweet time getting back to him.

But, he always had this time to look forward to. Less darkness, more smells, more life. It was worth the wait every time. He just wishes that winter didn't start back so goddamn soon in their mountainous borough.

"How much you make?" Stan asks, looking at the stack of bills still clutched in Kenny's fingers through drooping lashes as they walk out towards the back parking lot.

Kenny looks down at the rag papers illuminated by subtle amber streetlamps and a waning gibbous moon playing peekaboo behind weighty, tarnished silver clouds. 'Twenty-four,' he reiterates, quickly making his way through the stack separated by his ring finger from the accounted. His lips move, mindlessly slipping through the numbers before hitting the end of the stack and nodding to himself. "Looks like thirty-nine," he says. "And some-odd change," he shakes his left leg pointedly, the sound of trapped coins rustling in his deep jeans pocket.

Stan nods, impressed, "Not too bad." He watches as Kenny folds his earnings and shoves them in atop the change.

Kenny looks at him and smirks, "Well, maybe your friend gave me a lil' extra, huh? Way he was starin' I thought 'e was just gonna hand me 'is credit card."

A groggy face falls into a tight frown, thick brows furrowing at the mention. He's been wanting to bring it up since Kyle had finally exhausted himself through such a lengthy trip out of his home and went to leave, caught by Kenny at the door and held hostage in his dopey state for another good ten minutes of Kenny's boisterous ramblings before finally being led out by Stan. "Yeah, we need to talk about that."

They stop at the forefront of Stan's Mazda, automatically moving to lean against it and Kenny struggling to move his guitar out of the way behind him. "Talk about what?" he drawls, crossing his arms and watching his friend expectantly.

Stan tilts his head the few inches needed to meet his stare, a steady, unamused breath seeping through his nostrils and revealing a stream of condensation in the wrought light sources. A dragon, Kenny thinks, knowing that serious expression anywhere. It was rare for Stan to direct at him, but when he meant something, he damn well meant it, and always gave him the look that fathers besides Kenny's own seemed to always carry in their back pocket. He always thinks such a stern face more than disproved Stan's theory that he'd be an awful dad. "Leave Kyle alone," Stan says simply.

Kenny blinks, "He came to me, Stan."

"Okay, yes, but I know your damn looks too well at this point," he retorts, an impatient bite in his tone. He's not sure if he believes what Kyle told him about his disinterest, that yearning, dreamy expression saying much more than Kyle's simple brush-off ever could. But no matter how Kyle may feel, Stan knows the true danger of the situation looking down at him with a baffled expression.

Ken pouts, "I dunno what you mean-"

"You know damn well what I mean," he snaps. "I thought you promised not to goddamn flirt with my friends anymore."

He scoffs, eyes rolling dramatically. "I flirt with everybody. So, I was a little friendly, so what?"

He pinches the bridge of his nose and Kenny shakes his head. He hates that habit of his, he only uses it against Ken when he's reaching the breaking point of his irritation with him. "Listen," he finally continues, dropping his hand and holding it with his fingers outstretched in emphasis. "I like Kyle. I don't want him to avoid me because you decide to fuck around with him and make him feel awkward."

He can't help a tiny snort, "To be fair, he was covering the awkwardness pretty damn well all on his own."

"He's new," Stan practically whines. "He's always sick and he's moved like, a thousand times. Just because he's not your pinnacle of social grace or what-the-fuck-ever doesn't give you permission to move in on him like that."

Kenny's face falls back into its frown, staring at his friend and heaving a deep breath. "He complimented my music. What the fuck was I supposed to do, Stan? Pat his head and shoo him away? Tell him 'sorry, we'd talk more, but Stan apparently is your chastity belt'-"

"No, that's not what I'm saying," he cuts him off. "I'm saying that you were just laying it on pretty damn thick. Expected your damn eyelid to twitch off as much as you goddamn winked at him. And then the whole dedicating a song bullshit. You aren't subtle about what you want," he reminds him.

He offers him no more than a one-shouldered shrug, head tilting further up in superiority. "He started it," he says plainly. "You saw 'im. Ain't never had no one have so much trouble talkin' t' me. Guy wants it bad."

Stan growls under his breath, wishing he could tower over him for just this instance. "You don't know that. I've lost enough people in my life because of your dick, McCormick. And I work with this one."

"He that awkward at work, too?"

He pauses, lips twisting up in thought. "Somewhat. Depends."

Kenny cocks his brow, intrigued. "On?"

"What the topic is," he shrugs. "Talk numbers and he'll keep a conversation, albeit quiet and quick as fuck. Talk about literally anything else in the world and he shuts down. You know how damn long it took me to get him to actually hang out?"

He smirks, "No, tell me, oh-so-patient one."

"He's lived here for almost six months," he sighs, eyes drooping tiredly. "I feel so bad for the guy. You can tell he wants to be included but he just can't be."

Kenny blinks, "Because of his headaches?"

"Yeah, Dude. Migraines all the damn time. He's always cringing like someone's hitting him if someone's talking to him. And it's every day. Sometimes he's like he was tonight, but he's had some awful ones," he winces. "Like, pass-out level awful."

"Jesus," he breathes, face scrunching. The notion seems almost laughable, something so simple as a headache bringing a grown man down into an unconscious heap on the ground. Kenny remembers his mother complaining now and then about so-called migraines. He'd read online that they could be crippling, that light and sound could decimate a sufferer. But, as he'd never met anyone else who made such claims, he now wonders if his mother had been exaggerating, and not just 'one of the lucky ones' as he'd previously thought. After all, she only pulled it when she was watching television and wanted to hear what was happening over her children's banter. "Figure someone like that would just stay home away from, like, everything," he remarks.

Stan nods, "Exactly. He doesn't go out like, at all, Ken. Don't fuck with him. Last thing he needs is to be upset enough to give him a reason to be a recluse."

Kenny shakes his head, "You have no faith in me, do you?"

"No. I don't."

"Wow," he scoffs, ignoring the sliver of hurt wriggling through his chest. He's long grown used to such accusations from anyone he grew up with. But it always stings when it's Stan throwing out such statements. "Listen, I won't do nothin'... 'Less he makes a move first," he amends. He looks down to see Stan's frown deepen and he shrugs, voice going cool and controlled. "What? Who am I to deny someone a ride on this train?" he gestures along his torso, cheekily wiggling his brows.

Stan's teeth grit, "Ken."

"Last time I checked, we're all adults here," he reminds him. A pause as he considers his next words carefully, deciding that Stan's insulted him enough to get a nice glimpse to know just how right on the money he is. "And fuck you, he's cute. I can't tell that face no."

"Oh my god," Stan groans, beating the heels of his palms against his forehead. "You keep depleting my goddamn friend circle outside of you."

Kenny grins, reaching over and pinching his cheek. "Let's face it, Stanny, my boy, I'm the only one ya need anyhow. 'N I wantcha all t' myself." Stan makes another displeasured noise, shaking his head as though in pain. Kenny sighs at his fussing, scratching up through his hair. "I'll be good," he drawls at last, wondering if they're halfway to having to make a damn pinky-promise the way Stan is acting.

Stan glances at him, eyes straining as they glare from the side. "You won't pull your damn one-night bullshit?"

"Only if he wants it," he snorts. "'Sides, I think he can make his own damn decisions without you."

"Kenny. Please," he begs.

Kenny narrows his eyes, curious as to his insistence on the matter. "You wantin' 'im or somethin'?"

His face screws up in distaste, "What? No! Dude, I'm with Wendy-"

"And sick of havin' a beard so you wanna snatch yerself up a lil' redhead," he teases, cackling at Stan's face contorting further. An easy blow, one that Stan took every goddamn time. Kenny flicks his arm lightly, rolling his eyes in amusement at the embarrassment on his face. "I don't think he needs you protectin' him. Why do ya care so damn much?"

Stan's expression simmers, considering his question. It's a fair one to ask, and he's not sure if he can really answer it. "I don't know," he says. "He's nice. You don't get nice people that come through here. And he's…" he hesitates, vision blurring a tad as he winces. "He's just kind of… naïve?" He's more than once seen Kyle getting coffee at the office, overhearing coworkers describing their weekend exploits in astonishingly graphic detail. One of the downsides of working alongside a good number of people they grew up with. But Kyle always seemed lost, awkward around such talk. When he'd settled into the environment and most knew him on a first-name basis, he'd been drafted into the banter, despite trying to get his creamer and escape in one dignified piece.

"How 'bout you, Kyle?" Jason had asked through a mouthful of tuna melt that penetrated the office with such a sour aroma. "You hook up with anyone yet? Been a few months since ya got here."

Kyle had subtly sunk, whisking through his drink with a stirrer far too short for his twelve-ounce mug. "I-I haven't really… settled in yet…" he'd worked out, staring at glossy French vanilla swirls twisting around his dark roast.

A senior accountant had scoffed, "It's South Park. Takes about a week to get settled, Kid." Stan still doesn't know if the man had said such in encouragement or as a full-on insult. The relationship between Kyle and the older worker was already strained at that point, Kyle practically taking over his job upon his arrival and demoting him down to mere bookkeeping.

The others gathered around the break area had laughed, agreeing in chorus at his sentiment. Kyle had done nothing but blush and quietly worm his way out of the locale, speed-walking back to his cubicle and not leaving until nearly everyone had gone home for the day. Stan's never seen someone so off about such subjects, doesn't know if it's merely an upbringing factor or something more personal. He wonders if members of this town are just foul-mouthed and have no boundaries with one another in comparison to everywhere Kyle seems to have lived. Or if Kyle's heard those questions far too many times in his life and still just doesn't have a decent response for them.

"Naïve how?" Kenny breaks through his train of thought.

Stan shifts his weight from foot to foot, dark eyes flittering down to stare at the cracked pavement doused in slush. "Maybe that's not the right word. But… I don't know. I just don't think he's really had… friends. Or attention. Just kind of gives off that loner vibe, ya know?"

Ken nods slowly, glancing to his waiting truck a few spaces down the lot and sighing. "Well… try t' bring him out more," he suggests. "Not good for a person t' be like that. It ain't that hard t' make friends in this town. We're all usually plastered," he half-heartedly jokes, both shaking their heads at the truth ringing through the allegation.

He agrees with the sentiment, but suspicion still lingers through his stare as it rises back up to Kenny. "Be cool."

"As a cucumber," he scoffs with a light smirk. "Believe it or not, Marsh, I'm pretty big on makin' sure it's mutual."

"I know," he mutters, kicking at the ground. "But then you never call them again and I get to play middleman."

Teeth lightly gritting, he forces a bubble of anger to quell. He wants to yell. Wants to hit Stan with his guitar and make him listen to his side of the damn story for once. But it won't matter. It never does. If he ends up with someone, it's all over town within hours, and everyone just shakes their head and goes 'Well, that's Kenny for ya'. The "abandoned" get sympathy and Ken gets dirty glares from their companions when he walks down the street. It's an aggravating game that seems to always be in play, but at this point, it's routine enough he takes it with a grain of salt. It keeps him busy, reminds him there's more than work and bills. It lets him live, even if only for a couple hours. "I ain't gonna hurt your damn friend," he mutters, standing up off the car. He's had enough of this interrogation. "Night."

Stan watches him tromping away, face falling back into a stern frown as Kenny fumbles with his truck keys and a pack of cigarettes, shaking his head. He always throws a mini tantrum when they talk about this, but he never changes. Whatever, Stan supposes. So long as he keeps true to his word.

Kenny manages at last to open the door to his pick-up, hinges releasing an ear-grating rusty screeeech. Clambering in, he sets his guitar on the floor of the passenger seat, looking at the neck jutting up to let the covered headstock try to see the world. He flops back against his cloth seat, seared lightly in rimmed specks from runaway cherries that the wind caught. His eye is drawn to a glimmer in his side-view mirror, watching as Stan's headlights attempt to blind him before he drives off and away. A relieved breath seeps through the side of his mouth, head shaking as he watches glaring taillights heading off and away.

Stan means well. He always does. But, he seems to have a hard time trusting Kenny over anyone else in this particular matter. One time of lying to him in high school about a fling with Annie Knitts had doomed Ken to that mistrustful glare, to Stan going out of his way to lecture a grown man on proper conduct.

Small towns breed small minds, he's learned this well enough. You do something once and no one will ever forget about it. You either steer into the skid or spend the rest of your life walking with your eyes downcast and shame lingering upon your shoulders like a chatty parrot. Kenny learned to go ahead and let the car do its thing when he was a kid, sick of making excuses for his family's reputation and deciding to just embrace their personification of the stereotypical white trash hicks.

Doesn't make it easier, though.

He shakes his head, fumbling with his crushed pack of cigarettes and swiping out one of the five stranded in cardstock prison. Need to buy more, he notes, heaving a sigh as his fingers slip around a cherry red Bic lighter, thumb gaining another irritating line of friction as it flicks along the spark wheel. A long inhale floods down his throat, a nip of menthol hitting his pharynx and a Pavlovian relaxation spreads down the length of his back. He hums, hearing his subconscious' little lectures it loved to give on how he could ruin his voice, how no one can sing with a hole in their throat. But just as quickly, he shuts it down. He doesn't care, temporary solution to a temporary problem.

The lighter in his hand catches his attention, looking at the minute tears beginning to creep up the plastic coating. Good. Red lighters are bad luck anyway. Can't force the removal, though. It must be natural, the lighter has to reject its own misfortune, has to shed the identity that society has placed upon it. His mouth quirks. If only it were so easy, to get caught on the abandoned knick-knacks of someone's pocket and begin to break from the chrysalis. No temporary solution for that, unfortunately. Only smart-ass misdirection and lathering on the trademarked charm until people forgot who they were talking to.

He shoves the cursed object back into his pocket, moving to slam his key into the lock cylinder, wincing as his truck sputters to life. Next thing that needs an upgrade, he decides. Right now, money is just a tad tighter than he prefers with an extra mouth to feed for a provisional stay. He figures it'll be simple enough to start putting back for that within the next month, giving himself a small nod of confidence.

He can't control how the town views him, can't take a hold on how quickly the sun will be back to greet him in the mornings once more… But he knows damn well what he can control: Himself.

And, as far as he was concerned, that was more than he could say for the majority of South Park.


When Kyle had gone apartment shopping in South Park, his options had been limited to say the least. Three complexes in the city, all with their own 'uniqueness', as he'd awkwardly told his mother.

The buildings on the outskirts were sketchy, Kyle had nearly fallen on his face tripping over a splintered piece of hardwood flooring. Their benefit was an allowance to do as he pleased to the walls, but little else seemed to stand out to him. And finding himself locked in eye contact with a not-so-friendly seeming group across the hall didn't seem to be his safest option. Kyle had been greeted by a manager who doused in bathroom cologne as opposed to bathing. He'd asked him upon meeting at the end of his water-stained ceiling tour if he'd be paying the cash right then and there and holding out his hand.

The lofts in the "ritzy" SoDoSoPa district had been filled with the buzzing hum of constant chatter and happenings. The windows were thin, he could easily hear the couple in the apartment across the street ensnared in a circle of arguing the health benefits of quinoa. That manager had been overly dressed, spent more time telling Kyle about the fascinating culture that surrounded them as opposed to discussing utility plans. No changes allowed made to the rooms, they needed 'kept uniform to preserve their individuality'. Kyle's head hurt enough, he wasn't going to live somewhere with that contradiction beating him over the skull.

He'd settled, albeit by process of elimination, for a complex seated in the middle of town. It suited all the needs he'd had: An ability to paint the walls, windows thick enough he could at least muffle some outside disturbance, and seated on the end of the block with only one neighbor. It was as good as he was going to get outside of finally settling and putting money down for a house.

But Kyle knows himself too well for that, knows the string of events no doubt ready around the corner. He knows he'll one day have to hire someone to paint the walls back, pack up, and move on to the next affordable option. It's only a matter of time.

But, for now, Kyle thinks nothing of that. He doesn't think about the sound of restless teenagers walking by his bedroom window, barely hidden even through his suede blackout curtains, advertised so prominently to aid in noise reduction. He doesn't think about the bareness of a room painted midnight blue, and the pleasant hum of a car engine it projects towards him. He thinks about his laptop screen with the contrast ratio so out-of-whack any normal person who looks at it complains. But, Kyle has screen calibration down to an art, hues of greys and blues and muted oranges that he can observe with minimal anguish.

A long sigh leaves his lips, eyes lingering on the search bar atop the darkened YouTube homepage. He can't fucking remember. He'd heard it twice, but was so damn lost in the Heaven he'd stumbled upon he can't seem to recall anything not said by his savior himself.

"Started with a 'Mc'…" he mutters, fingers sliding along rubber-domed keys as he types in 'Kenny Mc', watching a slew of suggestions drop down from the box. His lips twist, clicking on the first result of McIntosh. A soft noise of frustration leaves his throat at a list of what seemed to be an archive of has-been wrestler interviews.

"C'monnnn," he whines, leg bouncing impatiently as he goes back to the suggestions, head filled with desperate pleas to get what he wants. The room is a dark void around him, set atop the end of his bed and the screen's dim light hardly illuminating anything but anxious green eyes and the gleaming lenses set before them.

Not McDermont, not McAllister, not McPherson.

He's growing more and more frustrated with every hack game reviewer and animator he's wading through. These people probably have no talent. They don't deserve to come before this Kenny's name. Kyle wonders if there's a function to flag users who simply need bumped down the roster, some way to make room for the true star.

His bottom lip is sharply trapped by his teeth, finger sliding along his trackpad to click on the next one down: 'Kenny McCormick'.

'Like the spices,' he mindlessly registers, eyes widening at an array of videos all bookended with [Acoustic Cover], icons nothing more than song names. He eyes a premade playlist, the creator one 'PrincessuKenny' and bites his lip. "Please," he whispers, selecting the 'play all' option and heaving a nervous breath.

No words of introduction, nothing but what seems to be shuffling with the microphone and settling down to play. Kyle hears a foot tapping in time, counting off before a guitar comes to life, playing a soft, slow melody. He gulps. Even if this is the Kenny he's met, will hearing him through a computer change things? Will it ruin the one ray of hope he's found?

He prays not.

Kyle's face scrunches, the guitar continuing for a few measures, his body quaking with anxiety. He just needs to hear the fucking voice so he could know if he's involuntarily tormenting himself, if he can exit out of the video and try again.

He hears the subtle sound of a breath being drawn in, bracing himself, fingers clenching until they ache around his laptop and eyes unmoving from the stasis, dim screen.

And then, the world goes orange.

"Shadows all around you as you surface from the dark."

Kyle's breath releases, body racking with tremors. His head leans back, a smile playing on his lips directed towards his darkened ceiling. This is it. He's found it. That husked, angelic voice is at his fingertips. His home is safe, he's safe.

"Emerging from the gentle grip of night's unfolding arms"

Kyle wants to cry, he's never felt so comfortable in his own room. The night has always been so full of dread. Just because he sleeps doesn't mean the noises stop. An insistent cricket outside his window could launch his dreams into a hallucinogenic frenzy. He can so easily be trapped by his own mind, unable to differentiate between fiction and reality, so pained in both forms that waking is an all but impossible task.

But now, now he has this.

"Darkness, darkness everywhere, do you feel all alone?"

He can't help a coy smile. No. No, he doesn't. Not tonight. The world is warm as he checks through his mystified haze for the autoplay's positioning, popping the volume another two notches. He sets his laptop on the nightstand beside him, facing the screen away to escape the glare. He's unable to help a comforted moan as he moves to slide under his covers, drowning in his sienna paradise. This is slipping into a hot shower on a blizzardy day. This is a mother comforting her child over a scraped knee with their favorite stuffed bear.

"The subtle grace of gravity, the heavy weight of stone."

Kyle smiles, nestling down into his mattress, clutching his dark blue comforter and indulging himself in a cocoon of bliss. His eyes are heavy from the late hour and his exhilarating discovery, his body sinking out of its consistently tensed state for the first time in he didn't know how long. He watches his eyelids play their games, the subdued pulses behind Kenny's veil as he strums. So many colors he didn't know he could enjoy, so much happiness in rest that he never thought he could have. A high, joyous moan can't help itself, eking out and sending a line of mauve straight up under the mist. Even he's beneath Kenny's power, even in his dopamine-heavy state, he recognizes that this spell has him utterly trapped.

"You don't see what you possess, a beauty calm and clear."

From one prison to another, into one he will gladly settle into and allow to keep him for as long as it permits.

This is what life should be. This is perfection at its peak. This is what the world has been waiting for him to get to, to roll out the red carpet and announce his arrival, telling the rest of society to hush, let him have his moment and let it draw out for as long as he pleases.

"It floods the sky and blurs the darkness like a chandelier."

He chuckles to himself, head nestling down into his pillow and letting Kenny's voice come back to lull him further into the darkness of the night, into a lucid state outside the realm of his imagination.

He's just sorry he took so long to finally get here.

Chapter Text

Growing up, the McCormick family had no such thing as a day of rest, at least not the three children. Kevin spent the better part of his post-high school years working as much overtime as he could manage. Kenny found himself odd jobs until he was of legal age to procure some steady employment. And Karen, much to her dismay, was encouraged by her brothers not to worry about the money, but to spend the weekends focused on her studies. She had hated their insistence, felt so useless while they were paying bills and bringing home food while she did nothing but pour over her geometry worksheets.

Approaching the beginning of her senior year, her brothers had sat her down for a discussion she never expected to have: What she planned to do once she tossed her cap. She knew that others in her grade were spending that year narrowing down college choices and writing essays for scholarships, but hadn't expected to be one of them. Karen had grown up with the full intention of getting her degree and sliding herself right into a minimum wage job like the boys had both done. Kenny and Kevin had stared at her in horror, such a terrible notion for their little sister never so much as crossing their mind.

"You're the one that's gonna make it," Kenny had told her, voice ripe with a rare bite at her assertion. "Whaddya think Kev n' I've been savin' up fer?"

"…Food?"

Kevin had just sighed, shaking his head. He was twenty-four, trying to find a balance between work and a long-term girlfriend getting impatient waiting for him to pop the question and get out of the house into one of their own. It wasn't an option, he'd informed her, not until he knew how much was going towards Karen's future. After all, he and Kenny had pinky-sworn on it when they were kids. A McCormick knows better than to break that shit. "Karen, you gotta," he'd told her.

Karen can remember that look on their faces, that pure desperation for her to get herself educated and make something of herself, be the first McCormick to stand on her own two feet with an expensive piece of paper in her hand. It was an incredible amount of pressure, knowing all the way through making her decision that they were putting every spare penny into taking care of her. It'd been a challenge, having grown up with them telling her time and again, "Never take charity. We don't do that, we don't need people pitying us." She couldn't understand what made this different than someone offering her food.

"It ain't charity, it's an investment," Ken had told her. "We do this, you git yerself rich and famous, n' then you can buy us dinner at Red Lobster. Even stevens."

She had never quite agreed with that ideology, but it was just enough to keep a guilty conscious from eating her alive. Her entire life plan had changed with a simple hour-long kitchen table discussion, both excited and terrified to stray so far from the path. But, to her brothers' credit, even with no college experience of their own, they'd gone above and beyond to help her figure out just what it was she wanted to do. Kevin had come home with brochures from coworkers' alma maters, Kenny taking each day he had off to get her to campus tours. They'd sat with her after her SAT scores had come back, looking at what schools would take her and compiling a three-page list of careers she thought she'd enjoy.

It had been a rough going that night, ordering pizza and spouting off any and all jobs they could think of that might pique her interest. The answer had been almost a little too simple considering how long it took to reach that point. Kenny had finally hummed after a good two hours and asked "Well, okay, what was the hardest thing in school for ya? We can at least get those outta the way."

Karen had weighed that question for a few minutes. Chemistry had kicked her ass and God knew the McCormicks were not a line made for home ec. But, those were just harder because of the material. There was one class that had stood out above the rest all four years of school. "English," she'd muttered, the boys exchanging a wincing look. Karen had no hesitations when it came to ripping on her English teacher. All four years she'd been stuck in her classroom while others were blessed with being shuffled around the department. She still didn't know what she did, but Mrs. Pennington had hated her. She'd cracked down on Karen's papers worse than any of her peers, made snide remarks if Karen gave an answer that missed the mark by just a tad. It was utterly exhausting and made Karen drag through school knowing that she was only so many hours away from being back in that same room in the front row where Pennington could 'keep an eye on her'.

Kenny remembered her well from his senior year, and Karen still wonders if he was the root cause. He had never been shy about being a troublemaker, he no doubt could've made their last name leave a bad taste in her mouth.

But those frustrations lingered even with graduation and freedom fast approaching. Karen wondered if she'd had a better instructor if she would've been able to stay more evenly focused on all her classes. She'd loved English in middle school, loved bringing home books for an impromptu library of her very own. Pennington hadn't decimated her outside enjoyment, but had brought her close time and again.

How awful it must be, she'd thought. To once-and-for-all lose every ounce of delight in something so important. Kids shouldn't have to risk that with an instructor, shouldn't go home cussing up a storm at a bombed report just because their textual interpretations didn't precisely match that of their teacher's.

As far as she was concerned, there was only one guarantee to make sure at least some kids were spared such defeat.

She'd been the last in her class to send out applications, the last outside of the general-course takers to decide her major. She'd gone simple, opting to jumpstart at Park County Community much to the financial relief of her brothers, much as they refused to admit it. It'd been more than an uphill battle from day one, but soon a two-year turned to a four-year, that four-year went to an internship, and that internship finally led her to her certificate. Tens of thousands of dollars in debt later, she'd settled back home and found herself right back in her old humanities hallway, right across the way from Pennington.

As she'd told Kenny, much to his horror, it'd been downright orgasmic seeing the old biddy's face when the department had met prior to her first schoolyear. Getting the opportunity to help kids was fantastic, without a doubt, but nothing could ever compare to that one moment of scathing resentment.

But as Karen sits on Kenny's couch, pen scribbling away within Tuesday's calendar box, thoughts of her victory are the furthest thing from her mind. No, instead she's firmly seated on the raft with Huck Finn and Jim, debating whether to put her Junior class discussion on rattlesnake bites before or after their chapter nine quiz. She glances towards the ceiling, a long sigh leaving her chest and pen cap bouncing against her lesson plan binder. She still needs to grade Freshman essays and plan her final test for her Seniors, and it's already goddamn noon. Karen shakes her head. Only another month and some-odd days and she was done, on her way out of this deadbeat town towards only one grade to handle at a time.

"Dammit," a soft voice breaks her overworked self-pity and she glances up to Kenny sprawled with a leg over the arm of his ratted recliner, pouting at his phone. She smirks. No doubt another Candy Crush downfall. He takes a rough bite of his pizza sub, darting his tongue to catch a stray dribble of marinara attempting a quick escape along the corner of his mouth.

Karen looks to the coffee table beside her at her own sandwich still wrapped pristinely in its Subway wrapper. She needs to eat, knows she's going to start dragging here soon if she doesn't, but all she can think about is maneuvering around stacks of boxes and crawling back into her bed set up in Kenny's spare room.

A temporary arrangement, enforced by both Kenny's insistence and an incoming move to Denver for a new start in a new district. Renewing her apartment lease just to pay back out in a few months would have been ridiculous, Kenny had claimed. She can't disagree, but still feels a sliver of guilt for intruding on her brother's life while he refuses to let her help pay her portion of utilities and food. But he seems more than happy to have her around, keeps the quiet away, he'd told her.

Karen questions that constantly. Kenny used to relish in nothing but silence, hiding himself away from nearly any and everyone to keep some peace in his life. But something seems to have shifted, he's made a side-job out of making noise, spends a decent chunk of his free time out with people and gets perpetually pouty when someone can't spend time with him. She and Kevin had discussed it in his last visit to town, and Kevin had just smirked.

"Lil Ken is growin' up," he'd teased.

"Whaddya mean?"

"I mean he's clawin' his way out of the damn hole he put himself into in high school. Slow as shit, but he's tryin'."

She'd narrowed her eyes, confused. "He said he was always makin' trouble in high school."

"Oh, he was," he agreed. "Needed people's approval. But he barely had any friends, you know that. Everyone else was… one-timers," he'd phrased awkwardly, getting a dramatic eyeroll from her. Twenty-five and still couldn't get her brothers to admit that she was a grown-ass woman.

"So, he fucked a lotta people once," she'd drawled, snorting at his flinch.

But, he'd nodded. "Yeah. I think he's out of that finally, or at least wantin' t' be. Don't think he's ready to admit it yet-"

"Considering the 'charming' woman he brought home last week, I don't think so," she'd shaken her head.

It worries her more than she cares to acknowledge, Kenny flipping about from person to person only to be alone the next day. He never acts as though he's bothered by it, just makes his morning coffee and asks what Karen is up to for the day, as though nothing had transpired. She just wishes she could sit him down and make him talk about it. But, he's older than her, a grown man with a career and a house of his own. She knows she doesn't have a right to interfere unless it's truly hurting him, and she just can't tell if such is the case, regardless of Kevin's theory.

"Eat up, Kiddo," his voice brings her back to the room, walnut brown eyes flickering over to see him staring right back. "You're gonna make yerself sick."

She scoffs, "Don't need babied, Ken. I'll get t' it in a sec. I wanna finish this first."

He gives her a disbelieving huff, pivoting a bit in his chair to face her more directly. "I know ya better than that, Kare. Ya say that then it's dinner n' yer dyin'. Eat."

"Jeez, fine," she rolls her eyes, reaching over and snagging her waiting sub from the table. "Didn't know you were a licensed nutritionist."

He smirks, "I have many talents. Naggin' you just happens t' be one of my strongest."

"So I've noticed," she says with a huff, taking a large bite out of her turkey and holding it on display for him, getting a chuckle. "Redirect some of that talent inta' somethin' like yer music, huh?"

Kenny shrugs, sinking back into his initial position, shoulders rolling and trying to crack his neck. "Nah, don't wanna be too good, now. I like not bein' taxed."

She laughs quietly, pushing a pickle back into place as it tries to sliver out. "How'd it go Friday, by the way since I didn't see ya?" She'd been too exhausted after a shift to stay up for him, and a surprise call-in on Saturday had taken him out for the entirety of the day. This was the first time they'd held a steady conversation since Thursday.

His lips curl softly and he gives her another shrug. "Pretty good. Made some decent money considerin' it was pretty dead."

Karen's brow raises, taking another chomp of her sub. "Yer smilin' an awful lot."

Kenny's grin turns impish, "Met me my number one fan, that was pretty sweet."

"How dare you."

He sniggers, the old chair squeaking a bit as he moves. "Number one after you. How's that?"

She nods primly, "Better. Some chick droolin' on ya again?"

"Nah, dude this time," he smirks at her brow going higher. "He's one of Stan's coworkers. Shy as fuck, though. And kept starin' at me. It was…" he pauses, looking up for the words. "Endearingly weird," he decides with a chuckle.

"Endearingly weird," she echoes. "That's a new one."

"Right?"

She hums, "That's good though. More people interested in your stuff is always good."

He nods, "Tell me about it. Wouldn't be surprised if he made up half my tip jar." She makes a small face of approval before taking another bite of her lunch. Kenny's eyes drift to the wall across from him, facing an obnoxious pastel peach he's yet to repaint since moving in. Kyle's query hasn't quite left him, wondering if he should make just a few recordings for a little bit of extra money. He isn't exactly strapped, but having even just a tiny boost of petty cash isn't anything to flat-out brush away. That'd probably take a better microphone though, probably a few more mainstream songs than a lot of the simplistic crap he'd dredged up to cover. He knows making his own is far out of the question, his writing skills on par with Craig's enthusiasm and his compositional talent matched up to that of "Hot Cross Buns".

His shoulders slump, hand raising listlessly to take another messy bite into dollar-store marinara. Maybe that's just a little too much time dedicated into something with little to no payoff. Spending four-hundred on a quality microphone and making a whopping seven dollars profit from drunken-purchase single-song downloads doesn't seem like the best financial move to be made. And four of those dollars would more than likely be from his damn sister. He pouts. Maybe he got just a tad too much of an ego boost high from Friday, had spent the majority of his shift the day prior coming back to it just for something to focus on in his downtime.

He wonders if all artists suffer through this struggle.

A quick rapping on the fiberglass front door jerks their attention away from their thoughts, exchanging a quick glance before Kenny finally sighs. Sandwich set aside on the coffee table and losing heat, he swivels up and out of his seat to make way towards the disturbance. Another impatient knock etches a frown onto his face. "Goddamn, hold yer fuckin' horses!" he shouts, his gate turning to tantrum-level stomping. "Can't goddamn teleport!" he emphasizes as he throws the door open, a long groan leaving his throat at a plump brunet staring back at him with a far-too-smarmy grin.

"Kinny," he greets, voice picked up an octave in feigned courtesy.

His eyes narrow, suspicion playing through his gaze. "Whaddya want, Cartman?"

"Nothin' much," he shrugs, not waiting for his invitation before shoving Kenny aside and making way into his home. Kenny looks after him with a scowl, giving a glance to Karen, who nods. Wordlessly, she gathers her lessons and lunch, standing and turning on her heel to head towards her own corner of the house. Neither of them want her dealing with Eric Cartman, Karen too aware of his past behaviors and Kenny adamant about keeping his brand of obnoxious tendencies out of his little sister's life. Cartman watches after her, an irritated huff running through his nose. "Hi to you, too, Karen," he drawls, getting no more than a raised hand in obligated greeting before turning to go into her room. His arms cross, eyes the shade of well-aged rum flicker back to his ungracious host. "If you were all paid for your attitudes, you would've actually had some money growin' up, Kinny."

Ken rolls his eyes, "Why the hell are you here?"

A fat hand goes against his chest, face going aghast. "Is it so wrong to want to see my friend?"

"When you make a friend, you can ask them," he retorts, voice dry as vermouth. "You never just show up. What do you want?"

Sly smile creeping up his face, Cartman shrugs, hands going to clasp behind his back. He begins to pace before the coffee table, sights locked on the stark ceiling. "Tell me, Kinny. Do you happen to know anything about the accident on Colfax yesterday evening?"

His brow raises. "Yeah? Went to check it out, everyone was fine."

Cartman hums, nodding his head. "You were leading heading to the scene then?"

"No one was leading, it was just me n' Clyde. I was driving the damn truck if that's what you mean but-"

"And just where was your chief?" he interrupts, stopping in his tracks and whirling on his heel to face Kenny head-on.

Ken scoffs, tense shoulders rolling back. "Probably at fuckin' home sleepin' since it was 'is day off, Assfuck. Why?"

A thick brow hikes high onto a wide forehead, and Kenny wonders if his face has always seemed so disproportionate. "Why did you take so long to get to the scene, Kinny?" he demands.

He frowns, knowing these fucking questions anywhere. He takes a brisk three steps, long legs carrying him right in front of Cartman and his hands ramming into his counterpart's jacket pockets. Cartman yells and tries to swat and back away before Kenny's right hand wraps around a thick device and rips it out of its hold. A simple slate gray tape recorder rests in his palm as he steps out of Cartman's reach, looking at the spinning cassette within and shaking his head, slamming the stop button. "You really need to upgrade yer equipment, Fatass."

"That is theft and I will-"

"And you'll what?" he challenges. "Tell someone that you came into my house wantin' t' conduct an interview I didn't goddamn agree to?"

Cartman scoffs, pudgy arms crossing once more. "No law against the truth, Po'Boy."

"Truth about what?" he drawls. "We got stopped by a fucking train. So yeah, took us a few extra minutes."

His lips twist, crossing behind the table and plopping down on the couch, hands folding atop his bulging stomach. "How convenient that this 'train' stops you from coming to the aid of the mayoral candidate wanting to cut your budget," he smirks.

Kenny's face falls flat, tossing the recorder lightly in his hand. "You do realize that we don't get fucking names over the call, right? Coulda been my own fuckin' mother and I would've taken the same damn amount of time."

"Like your mother is allowed to have a license anymore," he snorts, reveling in the scowl splashing across Ken's expression. "But, I must say. It's also awfully strange that the day the man with the most to lose salary-wise is out of sight of your department, this happens."

Fingers trace up to his temple and rub in grounded circles, Kenny forcing himself to take a deep breath. "She ran the light and hit someone. How the fuck would my boss've done that?" He looks back at a skeptical face and groans. "Cartman, don't you have better stories t' report on? Like, the fuckin' J-Mart robbery a few days ago or somethin'?" he stresses.

"No. Jimmy is handling that amateur hour. I'm getting the stories on the real scum of this city."

"For Christ's sake," he mutters, shaking his head. An editorial job on their high school's newspaper out of pure default had become the catalyst into the town tribune's nightmare. Or at least, a nightmare to anyone getting cornered by the most vocal and suspicious reporter their office had to offer. The department had dealt with seeing Cartman following their trucks and standing on the sidelines of their work, glaring and taking notes, trying to seem inconspicuous while he hid behind trees slimmer than his waistline.

Nothing but conspiracy theories left and right between them and the police force from Cartman's community column, tales of their friendly rivalry banter being spun into full-on wars where neither department would cooperate with the other. Once an article about Kenny's boss and Sergeant Yates being in some heated romance that spurned their feud. Most fires were somehow "linked" by about seventeen degrees of separation to a member of their team. And, for the last four months, he'd been on a tyrannical path to uncover some plot to take down one of the town's political candidates. Kenny always said he would be better suited working for the goddamn Enquirer, and his last few years have more than driven that point home time and again.

He looks again to see Cartman staring through him, demanding an explanation that he doesn't goddamn have. Kenny grumbles. "We don't care about her fuckin' budget bullshit. It'll never go through. 'Sides, McDaniels will win again, she always does."

"I think Victoria has a good chance," Cartman says haughtily.

He scoffs. "Yeah. And then I'll be governor and send every citizen a packet of pancake mix," he rolls his eyes. "You're wastin' time, Fatboy. How 'boutchya do somethin' useful with yer job n' get outta my job's hair?"

With far too casual an air for Kenny's taste, he props his feet atop his cheap, black coffee table and nestles back into the sofa cushions. "I am doing something useful, Kinny. Cleanin' up this shit town."

"Wow. Cleaning up a town with like, two hundred petty crimes a fuckin' year. Our hero."

Amber eyes flash with frustration. "You don't understand the bigger picture. How could you? All you do is take naps on the job and play your shit guitar."

"My shifts are twenty-four fuckin' hours," he reminds him, voice spiking with malice. "Yeah, we're gonna take fuckin' naps. What's your excuse for taking four hour lunches?"

He smirks, giving a one-shouldered shrug. "I'm always working. There's always something out there that needs brought to the public's attention. And I'm the only one with enough balls to get them the information they need."

"Uh huh," he huffs, moving to plop back down in his chair and snatch his sandwich back up, pouting at the lukewarm sauce and clumping cheese waiting to greet him. He carelessly tosses Cartman's recorder next to him on the couch, watching him cover his hands with his sleeves to brush off his 'poverty virus' as he'd always called it before sliding it back into his jacket. "Dude, I'm tellin' you, there ain't nothin' to talk about. How 'bout ya fuckin' talk to Victoria since she rammed into another goddamn car?"

A hand flops in the air, dismissing such a childish notion. "No one cares about a fender bender unless they're coked up."

"How do you know she wasn't?"

Cartman pauses, his hand coming back to rub under his chin, nodding in thought. "Definitely would explain her educational stance."

Kenny squints. "What? That it should be prioritized?"

"Exactly," he nods, looking back to him. "There's bigger fish to fry in this town, and she's blatantly ignoring it for her own agenda."

"What a surprise that you'd only know idioms with fried foods," he rolls his eyes.

He glares, "What a surprise you'd know a word like idiom. Get that off your word-of-the-day calendar?"

"Get yer diet plan through Taco Bell Tae Bo?"

"Clever," he drawls, getting back onto his feet and shoving his recorder back into his pocket. "What's it like to carry retorts in your wallet instead of money?"

He shrugs, taking a pointed bite of his sub. "Probably the same as it is to have Cheesy Poofs 'stead of a brain, my tubby buddy."

Cartman growls, Kenny giving no more than a smirk. Two and a half decades worth of a loosely-defined 'friendship' hasn't wavered from taking this routine, nothing but knocking down and just yelling for the other to stand themselves back up. An aggravating practice, but one that feels far too engrained for them to abandon on the mere notion of "needing to grow up".

Besides, Kenny thinks, Eric Cartman just doesn't deserve that level of effort.

His leg flinches at a vibration rocketing through his pocket, taking his stare from Cartman's opposition and snatching his phone from its confines.

Stan M
'I'm up in Conifer for a bit. Do you need anything from the music shop while I'm here?'

Kenny smiles. Stan knows just where Kenny goes for his picks and strings, has gone with him on a multitude of occasions just so he can whine and moan when he passes a clarinet and is assaulted with high school flashbacks. He definitely has his moments of getting under his skin, but Kenny at least has someone he knows is just trying to look out for him, misguided as it may be at times.

Kenny M
'Nah I should b good. Thank tho, dollface ;3;'
'What're u heading up there 4?'

"It's rude to ignore your guests," Cartman says loudly, foot tapping steadily on the carpet flattened from years of tread.

Blue eyes never leave the screen, waiting for the bubbles of Stan's reply to stop dancing. "You're the kind of guest I hire the exterminator for, Cartman. If yer done with yer dumb 'reporting', then get out." He ignores the barrage of offended huffs coming from straining lungs as a block of text swoops up in front of him.

Stan M
'Kyle needed to go up for something so I told him I'd take him.'

Kenny can't help a sly smirk at the door left wide open for him to waltz on through.

Kenny M
'Wooin' ur man, r u? Gonna make him fall 4 how u go a whole 6 miles over the limit u daredevil? ;p'

The response comes almost immediately, and Kenny breaks into a cackle imagining Stan's face from no more than a simple 'Fuck you'.

"What? What's so fuckin' funny?" Cartman demands, stomping his foot like a child.

"Nothin' pertainin' to you," he shakes his head. "Believe it or not, not everythin' is about you and yer sodium-soaked ass." Kenny turns back to his phone.

Kenny M
'Lucky u tho. Fatass came 2 my house and won't leave. Obi wan Stanobi save me ur my only hope :( :( :('

Cartman grumbles, "Guess I'll just have t' talk to Clyde about your negligence."

"Kay," he shrugs, shifting back against the armrest. "You let me know how that turns out. That mean you're leaving?"

He straightens up, chin tilting in superiority. "Maybe I need to use the restroom first."

"Destroying my toilet doesn't make me guilty of not doin' my job, Cartman," he rolls his eyes.

Stan M
'Have you tried throwing a twinkie out the door for him to chase? Tell him Kare is a hippie now and she'll wanna check his chakra or whatever.'

Ken snorts, putting his phone atop his stomach and looking back at Cartman staring at him expectantly. "Don't you need to go harass someone else? Kinda harshin' my day off."

His hands fly over his head dramatically, "Fine! Enjoy your days off while you can before you end up in prison."

Face falling wryly, he asks, "How would that happen if we're in cahoots with the cops, Fatty?"

Cartman pauses before grinning. "So you admit it!"

"Did you turn your recorder back on?" He blinks, snatching the device back out and his face falling, Kenny busting into laughter. "Guess you'll have t' try some other time," he taunts. "Go bug Clyde, I got shit t' do."

He growls, whirling on his heel and muttering profanities and some garbage Ken can barely make out regarding 'bribing his poor ass' into the truth. He watches as Cartman storms out the door without so much as a wave, grinning to himself and settling back comfortably into his seat. "It's safe, Kare!" he calls.

"Givin' it a ten-minute grace period first!" she calls back from her room.

Kenny chuckles, nodding in approval. Good. At least she's learned well enough that trying to kick out Cartman was like chopping off an anole's tail. A long sigh leaves him, taking another chomp of his now nothing-more-than pitiable sandwich. Definitely wasn't how he had planned to spend his day, but, Kenny figures, even Cartman's temporary company is better than none.

He hums, staring at soggy three-cheese bread and twisting his mouth. A part of him wishes he could've tagged along heading out to Conifer, tired of being trapped in the same damn house doing the same damn things time and again. He frowns. He shouldn't complain. It's way better than how it used to be, running himself ragged just trying to find money, doing damn near anything to find someone to spend his time with for a few hours and forget just what was going on at home. He thinks of times where he did nothing but spend days on end with Craig getting high, getting into trouble with Cartman and Stan drinking out at Starks Pond. Thinks of the years that passed him by just trying to avoid his life and hoping to grab onto an improvement.

He thinks of working himself to the bone yesterday. How every step he took seemed to be wrong to someone. He thinks of the mortgage that's robbing him blind and the electric bill that's increasing with Karen's being there. He thinks of his truck needing a tune-up. And how much money he's spending on take out. And how utterly depressing it was to walk in at seven in the morning to no one's greeting and collapsing into bed by himself.

A slight flinch rockets through him at the haunting tune of a screaming father with yellowed eyes, a crying mother with thinning hair and a split lip. The sound of three kids huddled against a wall just waiting for it to be over. He shudders, never one for wanting to pirouette his way back into the fog of misery long-since passed.

He hears the faint sound of Karen's iTunes from down the hall, glancing up at his ceiling and forcing himself through another deep breath and bite of solidified mozzarella. Kenny knows he's being ridiculous, maybe even selfish in a way. He has his house. He has a great job. He has his little sister for now, a big brother he knows he can always call, a nice handful of acquaintances to occupy his time, and a whole three close friends in his life that he can always count on to be there, even if it's just to agitate him.

Sinking down, he lets his muscles relax to a simple Celtic melody, Karen's preferred wordless genre for working her way through essays, wafting its way to his tired ears. Yeah, he decides with a wistful sigh amongst the trills of flutes and blue eyes glazed over with the need to rest. This isn't the greatest. But it's much, much better.

Chapter Text

A concurrent battle of soothing lyrics and blocked Times New Roman font is waging before Kyle's eyes. Swept in a strange tide of contradictions abound, his mind is struggling in new ways to distract him from the task at hand. A timberwolf spreadsheet with cream figures from office invoices sits in wait for him, only the blinking cursor in his active cell reminding him time and again in a metronomic pulse that time stops for no man, himself included. Cramping fingers slide up onto his forehead, supporting himself on his elbows as he locks his attention down to the physical copy propped beneath his keyboard.

He squints, struggling to make sense of the numbers before him as he fights against the chant of swooshing fabric amid a fluorescent yellow. Why companies couldn't just keep to a damn plain white paper, he'd never know. Much easier to deal with fingernails rapping on porcelain than this mess. A string of guitar notes hum in his ear, left eye twitching until the sound of Kenny's voice jumps back into his measure. Kyle sighs, finding that moment of relief once again for long enough to track down the information he so needs.

He distantly wonders as he skims through purchase order numbers if he should give Kenny money for technically stealing his work. He would've bought it in a heartbeat had it been available, but he just had no other options but to go the opposite route. He had converted a good twenty-four songs to stick on his iPod, and a hasty look had told him most songs ran for $1.29 on iTunes. So, $31.86 after taxes. He wonders if Kenny would find it odd for him to drop such a specific amount into his soap-spotted tip jar. He could always round it to thirty-two, and if Kenny questioned him, he could make an excuse that he mixed up his bills but to keep it anyway.

That could work, he surmises. Unless Kenny just went for the automatic assumption that Kyle was merely creepy and exhibiting stalker behavior. That he was trying to do anything to get his attention.

The thought makes Kyle cringe into himself, and a string of guilt finds its way through his salvaging orange sea. He wonders, as he had been since Sunday night after ordering himself a secondhand Shuffle with an expedited delivery price tacked on, if what he was doing was wrong. He'd never even known all the things he could do before that night, had suffered through multicolored Google pages to find that he could in fact get music ripped and converted when all other hope was lost. He also had learned just how pricey the world of music was, wondering how the hell anyone else managed to listen to things without going bankrupt. He'd heard classmates in his youth bragging about the hundreds of CD's in their collections, and Kyle couldn't help but question how they could afford shoveling out fifteen dollars per disc when allowances only went so far.

The most music he'd listened to in full before had been his first kindergarten torture session of "Old MacDonald", where a particularly enthusiastic high-pitched "e-i-e-i-o!" had sent him into a sobbing frenzy and waving his arms trying to get the confounding colors to stop swirling around him. His family had tried now and then to find him some kind of music he could listen to. His mother had tried introducing him to classical when he was a toddler, turning it off immediately after the symphony picked up just enough instruments at once for Kyle to scream and run to hide behind their couch. Years after that they'd tried techno his dad had come across, thinking that a steady, consistent beat would keep him calm. Instead, Kyle found his head pounding in rhythm to the measure, the strange computerized harmonies meshing uncomfortably against his ear. From there, it was trackless covers, but no one seemed to sit right with him, their voice always a barrage of agonizing rainbow splatters.

His mother had told him one night after a few too many glasses of wine that it broke her heart that he'd never be able to enjoy part of the human experience. That music was one of "life's gifts", and she couldn't understand why he was being denied such a thing. That she felt like such a failure as a mother when he was an infant and her lullabies only seemed to worsen his fussing. His dad had awkwardly interjected and told him he wasn't missing much, not to be too upset over it. His father never was any good at lying.

And Ike, Ike held a grudge of sorts. Being confined to headphones alone for all his listening experiences annoyed him. After all, they couldn't really afford the quality ones, most of their spare funds going into Kyle's room, finding ways to soundproof the door and windows, buying pricey blackout fabrics and specially dyed carpet. Kyle's always wondered if Ike still holds that against him, if when he left home was a blessing to his younger brother now that he could blast his television or talk loudly on the phone with his friends without their mother screaming at him to be more considerate of Kyle's ailments.

He'd only gotten a firsthand glimpse of Ike's feelings on the matter once, when they were all locked in a fight over something regarding Ike wanting to have friends over for the night. His words still haunt Kyle, how he so easily screamed that "just because Kyle's a friendless freak doesn't mean I have to be!" Ike had regretted it immediately, swore up and down he'd only said that because he was so upset over the matter. Kyle had just forced a smile and accepted his apology, using his head as a reason to go to his room and lock himself in, avoiding his family at all costs for nearly a week. He knew Ike didn't really mean it like that, but he did know that there was definitely bad blood in the water. After all, soundproofing only went so far when living with a family with such boisterous voices. He'd overheard many a discussion over whether he should go live in some kind of hospital that could care for him better, if he'd ever be able to leave or if he'd be living off their dime for the rest of his life. He'd heard his mother crying for him too many times, his dad struggling to keep a sense of faith at times.

Kyle wonders if finding Kenny sooner would have changed all that. Maybe he could've been almost normal. Sure, he would have had to listen to his music nonstop, but what teenager didn't? Maybe he could have gone to stores with all their blaringly devious advertising. Maybe even parks with the steady thrum of people and birds and the wind in the trees. Maybe his mother could have decorated the house the way she wanted instead of having to cater to her son's tolerated color schemes. Maybes. So many maybes that he can never know the answer to.

A part of it pains him, wondering if he's missed out on so many years that could've been rectified. But, perhaps it's better this way, he thinks. He's an adult, no one has to cater to him but himself. People could stare at him for listening to his earbuds, think of him as rude, but their opinions didn't matter. No one could tell him that he had to stop. No one could tell a grown man to stop behaving like a child or that people were staring at him. Nope, they'd just have to deal with it.

Kyle glances at the small black square resting so innocently on his desk, hoping it'd last longer than his last line of cheap knockoffs. He'd only used any kind of MP3 player for ambient noise, filling his mind with the sounds of quiet rainfall or any other tolerable white noise. But, he'd dealt with them too consistently, had to have the damn thing playing for days at a time until they up and died on him. He just hopes that isn't the case here, that he hadn't shelled out seventy dollars for something he'll lose in a matter of weeks. He can only hope, he supposes. The online world was getting a bit too stimulating for him to take the time to read reviews. He had had to just go on what he'd heard coming from others in the past and the schoolyard taunts he'd suffered from not being so "hip" as to have himself an expensive hunk of metal. Hopefully he hadn't dealt with all that for nothing.

He doesn't notice as two figures enter his peripheral, too busy letting his fingers fly on their own recording the data before him. The sound of a question doesn't reach him, trying to better manage how to balance the soothing effects of Kenny's voice with the drive to complete his work. It's far harder than he expected it to be, usually on such a tightly wound precipice of disaster it encouraged him to finish as much of his task as he could manage. But now, now he's in a state of near-relaxation. He's not used to this. A part of him knows he could fall asleep if he truly wanted to, could just push his chair back a bit, rest his head on his arms, and let the sound of a decade-old country song sweep him off into his dreams…

Such an idea is thrown asunder with a gentle tap of his arm. He flinches violently, not noticing the offending hand doing the same in a somewhat panic. He glances up at last seeing Stan and Token staring at him, Stan holding up his hands in defense. Kyle gulps, ripping out one of his earbuds and trying not to focus on the ridiculous pounding of his heart. "Sorry," he breathes, swallowing a mouthful of air stale with the scent of paper reams and toner. "What's up?"

Stan blinks before his concern quirks into a grin, a tiny laugh coming out as he lowers his hands. "Must be an intense order."

Kyle smiles weakly, "Aren't they all?" He glances at Token who's oddly silent with a soft, awkward grin set on a face the dark, full shade of badious, his lips twitching nervously. Kyle takes no note of such a tic, too concentrated on calming his racing heart and lost in the battle of Stan's voice taking back his enjoyably-fogged mind.

He nods, conceding with a sigh. "True. So how come you get t' listen to music?" he teases, snapping his sight between the resting music player and Kyle's blank stare.

Kyle gulps, fingers clenching. He knows well enough that Stan means no malice in the question, that this is no more than friendly banter before the meat of their visitation matters. But he still feels cornered, can hear the angered tone of that very same question in his youth. But when he was a child, no one cared what his response was, all they saw were "perks" that no one else was allowed to participate in. They didn't care that it was because of a doctor's note.

He doubts that would fly here either. Stan and Token probably won't understand that he'd had to talk to their boss that morning to get the okay, that when he'd been hired in he'd had an extra step of having to interview his hirer back regarding their medical information secrecy. He doubts they'd be too nonchalant if they found the HIPAA note that Kyle told the boss he had to sign or he wouldn't be able to work for him. Just another matter of being catered to. Kyle pouts a bit, even Kenny's music can't save him from that.

Stan and Token are still staring, awaiting his explanation. His lashes flutter as he tries to grasp at a viable excuse. "N-not music, it's a… breathing… exercise," he lies, wincing. He doubts Stan wouldn't be weirded out if he knew just what it was he'd been lost in throughout the morning. "Something for headaches," he tacks on. Adding a known, believable connection; always a good move far as he'd learned.

Stan nods, "It helping?"

A shrug, "A bit. You guys need something?" he asks, desperate to get the subject changing as he pulls the second bud from his ear, nearly whining at losing every ounce of his protective layer. Last thing he wants is to upset some of the few kind people he'd met in his life, however. Sacrifices just have to be made.

He smiles, focus dropping from Kyle's privilege entirely. "Doin' a group lunch. Wanna tag?"

Kyle falters, tensing his leg so it stops shaking with nerves. Lunch meant people and unfamiliar places. That meant noise and colors he couldn't have some state of control over. That would mean listening to his coworkers laughing with each other, having questions directed at him that he may or may not miss in the chaos. "Um…" he tries to start, not noticing Token sagging a tad at his hesitation. "I-I mean… I got a lot to catch up on," he says. "I want to but… m-maybe not until I'm done fixing the last guy's mess?"

Stan snorts, "So, about three years from now."

"Looking that way," he mutters, eyes flickering to the row of boxes stacked over the height of his cubicle. He'd had no idea when he'd been offered this transfer just how much baggage he was taking on, but it keeps him busy and somewhat with the public, he supposes.

"Are you sure? You can't take just an hour out?" Token speaks at last, getting green eyes drawn back onto him. He purses his lips back together quickly, as though worried he's said the wrong thing. Kyle's only made conversation with Token a handful of times, he's always been nice enough and tolerable to his mind's eye. He's become what Kyle can only relate to moss, a musty hazel color that creeps almost ominously up the corner of his left eye. Not overwhelming, not someone that it's easy to convince himself to upset to get him away. Kyle sinks, guilt washing over his face and Token shakes his head vigorously. "Sorry, yeah no, you do what you think is best, Kyle. Seriously, nothing wrong with that." Kyle drops his stare and Token rolls his eyes at himself, cursing under his breath.

Stan looks at him, shaking his head and subtly hitting him with the back of his hand. "Dumbass," he lips, smirking at the glare he receives.

"Maybe when I'm caught up," Kyle reiterates, nervous fingers clutching around one another. He feels so on-the-spot, feels so fucking dumb. He can't even manage a goddamn lunch invitation without making the world feel as discomfited as he does.

"Hey, not a problem, Man," Stan assures him. "Token's right, do what you think's best. We know you're drowning in this shit." Kyle merely nods, still not looking at them. Stan glances down with an elbow nudging against his upper arm, Token tilting his head towards Kyle and his eyes widening in encouragement. "Uh, right," he mutters, shaking his head again before clearing his throat. "Hey, Ky. You know Bebe?"

The name raises his attention again, looking back and cocking his head, trying to mentally block the patterned ceiling tiles in his view behind Stan's voice. "The receptionist? Yeah?"

"She's been… asking about you," he hints.

Kyle blinks, "Whaddya mean?" Asking why he acts like he does? Asking if he's defective? Asking if he can be fired because he weirds her out? All seem far too plausible to ignore, and it wrenches his chest. She always acts so nice to him when he passes her walking into the office. Always greets him by name with a ridiculously bright smile and little forewarnings if their boss is in a mood. He should know better by now, he sighs. Always a goddamn act.

Stan watches him cringing a bit, confused at the reaction. "I mean she ya know… asks."

Slowly, he shakes his head. "I… I don't… Asks what? Did I do something?"

His brow raises, this was the last kind of confusion he'd expect out of a grown man. "Like, asking if you're single," he presses, rolling his hand between them, eyes bulging a tad in emphasis.

Kyle goes stock still, fists clenching in his lap and eye twitching. This is the last thing he needs. He has enough working against him, he can't risk this being tacked on to it. He hasn't exactly taken the time to get to know the mentality of this Podunk little town, has no clue as to whether he'll be waltzing towards just a shrug or getting run out. It always seems to be such a toss-up. But, lying his way through this situation has never aided him either.

Women are always far too bright. They're pastels and neons that all but cripple him, their voices fluctuate far too much for him to handle. They wear ridiculously complicated patterns that sound like a marching band going down with the ship, paint their faces with so many hues that it's overwhelming to hold more than a thirty second set of quips before he has to get himself away. Women just hurt, were unknowingly in a gender-wide war against him that always sent him into retreat.

Or, at least, that's been what he's convinced himself over the years.

But Kyle knows better, knows that it might not just be how guys stay fairly steady. How their colors tend to be easier on the eyes and their tones are deeper and kinder to his ears. He knows there has to be more to it, having found himself staring at male peers before they'd all even gone through puberty and hit that sweet spot of low timbre. It certainly hadn't helped him with his typically-male bullies throughout school, launching him into a years-long bout of confusing feelings and wondering if he was attracted to who he considered violent. If he'd found himself wound in an awful bout of Stockholm Syndrome.

Only one true date in his life hadn't helped him work his way through that, finding himself with a senior in his junior year who'd been new to their school and didn't know how ostracized his date usually was. He'd figured it out quickly the next Monday when he'd been informed and had broken it off with Kyle immediately, not willing to risk being dubbed a loser so quickly by his new peers. And yet, Kyle still found himself aggravatingly attracted to such a "fuckwit" as Ike had phrased it, as well as several other boys surrounding him every day. Par for the course, Kyle has since surmised. Nothing in his life is situated to ease his stress, he just has to make sure every step of his battle is a goddamn struggle.

Stan is still waiting for his response; Token's fingers are wrapping tautly around the cubicle entrance. Kyle's face heats, eyes maneuvering back to his altered screen for some sense of calm. "Uh… she's not… really my type," he mumbles.

"What are you talking about?" Stan says through a half-hearted snort. "Whose type isn't blondes with big racks?" His voice stays low, knowing well enough Bebe would never take offense at Stan of all people saying that considering how glued at the hip she was to his girlfriend, but last thing he needed was one of those not in their circle running to Human Resources and slapping a harassment suit on him. Besides, this had been Bebe's idea in the first place.

Kyle clicks his teeth, staring at that blinking cursor just waiting for him to delve back into his work and get out of this nightmare conversation. "The kind of guy that doesn't like racks," he finally works out, clawing a bit at his thighs, stressed beyond belief at being so on-the-spot.

A few agonizing moments pass while Stan realizes just how uncomfortable he's made him, giving Token a subtle glare. Token doesn't take note, too busy giving a hidden fist pump behind Kyle's cubicle wall, turning and walking away with a wide grin on his face. Stan looks back at Kyle, plastering on a soft smile. "Dude, I'm sorry, my bad. Had no idea." He'd had more than a feeling after seeing Kyle so fixated on Kenny on Friday, but then again, he's seen people he swore were the definition of heteronormative swooning for his off-beat charm. Kenny never was a good subject to draw conclusions from.

Breathing is suddenly hard, Kyle wanting nothing more than to hide himself with his music and never emerge into the light of day again. "Don't be sorry," he says quietly, wondering if he's just lost the one goddamn person he could come close to considering his friend. "If you're uncomfortable or wha-"

"No, no, no, holy shit, Ky, no," he assures him immediately, waving his hands in front of him and laughing lightly. "I just didn't know. Changes nothing, I promise."

Kyle glances at him with a wince, reading more than enough honesty in his eyes, but that cautious nature of his is just too engrained at this point. He wonders if there's a catch. "You're sure?"

Stan softens at the timidity of his tone, patting his palms against the air. "Kyle, I promise. Nothing to be worried about. I won't go telling anyone, but honestly, not many people in this town care all that much about that kind of thing. In fact, they're mostly… aggravatingly supportive, or so I've been told," he shrugs.

Kyle blinks. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," he confirms. "There's always a few bad apples in the bunch or whatever, but despite being a shit little hole-in-the-wall town, it's pretty accepting."

"…Oh," he says, tucking curls behind his ear. He can't say he was expecting that. One breath of his possible sexuality while he'd lived in Illinois had been disastrous, just another rock in the wall for peers to climb to catch and throw him from the top. Lines became blurred and he couldn't keep track of who hated him for what anymore. His mother always insisted it just seemed like so much more than before, that his mind was only playing tricks on him. He couldn't tell, and tried like hell in his adult years to not dwell on it too much and make a comprehensive list. Not like he can remember most of their names anymore anyway, only recalling sharp, dangerous hues and an overwhelming self-loathing he's had to grow accustomed to.

Stan sighs to himself, making a mental note to bitch Token out for putting him up to this and Kyle through it. "Kyle, I promise," he emphasizes. "Changes nothing. I just didn't know."

Kyle cringes, wonders if he's putting out airs of anger he doesn't even feel. "No, sorry I'm just not, ya know, used to being asked about it."

He nods, "Understandable." Subject change, he decides. Before Kyle drowns himself in gaucheness. "Want me to bring you some food?"

He shakes his head, giving him a small smile at last. "No, I'm fine. That's not neces-"

"Bullshit," he cuts him off, pivoting to the side. "You like ham, right? I'm getting you a sandwich. We'll be back soon."

Kyle opens his mouth to protest but Stan is already walking away. He pouts, moving to rest his chin in his hand and sighing. Wasn't exactly a conversation he could say he expected to have. He supposes for now it doesn't matter, seems that everything's going to be staying the status quo. That's what matters.

A trickle of color invades his eyes, the sound of distant chattering floating over cubicle walls. He swears in the jumble he can hear his name from someone other than Stan, eyes narrowing in suspicion. Toes of his work shoes pressing into the thin carpet, he wheels his chair towards the opening in his wall, peeking out and seeing Stan elbowing Token with a wide, snarky smile and his head bobbing with vigorous nods. Bebe stands beside to his opposite side, nearly a foot shorter but moving to bump her hip against him with a laugh. Kyle cocks his brow, watching them moving out with a group of their peers to head towards the front door. He stares after them until they've rounded the corner and headed off, leaning back in his seat and sighing.

With strained effort, he pushes himself back into place, somewhat disturbed at the sudden silence in their department. The sound of ever-clacking keys and office banter leave with the soft closing of the door, and Kyle's lips twist. He grabs his earbuds, shoving them back in to hear Kenny taking over his world yet again and releasing a long, sad breath. It's always going to be like this, he thinks. Always the one left behind. Always the one to deny every opportunity for something out of routine. Why it still upsets him, he's not so sure. It's not as though he hasn't spent his life buckling down into his habits. But maybe a part of him will always sting, maybe he'll always be stuck with that damn human instinct to have some varying degree of socialization.

He doesn't know, but he wishes he could just take that part of him out and stomp on it to death.

A glance down at his unfinished invoice makes his head shake, arms worming their way back up through the glow and onto his keyboard. Maybe they won't always be so chipper when he denies them companionship. Maybe they will do as all else have done and lose their sympathy in lieu of seeing him as a walking superiority complex. Oh well. At least he finally has a melodic fallback to make himself more able to communicate. At least, for now, he has his excuse and their understanding. He presumes that, as a lifelong history has shown, this is as good as it's going to get.

Chapter Text

Eyes planted on the sidewalk, the glow of neon magenta reflects oddly against the pale cement. Kyle squints, hearing that metallic interference in a distorted mess, muffled through layers of cloth but hitting a steady crescendo as each clang brings visions of a stronger, clearer pink. He shuts his eyes and takes a long breath through his nose, throat vibrating as he emits a long hum. Mauve creeps up through the explosion of floaters drifting along his lids, destroying them before they get a chance to make their own tunes. A particularly insistent string of violet tries to invade his haven, his decibels increasing and his brow scrunching in concentration. His face relaxes as it's pulled into the void of his sound, finally raising his head and forcing himself to once more look into the glass windows of Skeeters.

The panes are a mess, trickling with reflected starlight and streetlamps, trees skewed through the smudged, leftover streaks of drunken hands plastering along the glass. He takes his gaze away from the clouded fingerprints of buffalo sauce, gliding towards the empty pallet stage beyond the front window and sighing. Arms clasping around his waist, a shiver erupts down his spine in the early spring air. He can't remember if it was this cold in Denver, too, or if maybe all the buildings blocked the wind from being so brutal. Here, there's nothing but the bar and a good thirty feet of space between it and the gun shop on the right. He glances to the left, almost awestruck at the nothingness lying past the end of the sidewalk. For a moment, Kyle wants to walk into the woods with the trees still bare from the brunt anger of winter. He wants to wander through the darkness before warmth returns along with the deafening symphony of crickets and owls. He wants to be a boy, climb a tree since he was forbidden from doing so with his overprotective mother before the leaves bloom into too many shades of green for him to handle. Maybe the woods this time of year are safe, nothing but a monochromatic palette that he can revel in.

Maybe.

Or maybe it's a world of unpredictable dangers. The moonlight hitting a tree trunk just enough to illuminate a mess of browns and weather-resistant moss. Maybe some critters came back, unhindered by the cold in their quest for more food and would be singing the triumphant songs of their return. Maybe a creek would unearth beneath layers of slush, turn into that babbling brook that so many times Kyle has heard people refer to as a comforting "white noise". How people can sleep to a rhythm that's constantly shifting, Kyle will never understand.

He looks back towards Skeeters. Or, maybe he does understand.

Maybe he's found his own white noise, that constant reassurance that something is there lulling him into a protected state. Maybe everyone else isn't bothered by dips and turns in the sound of rushing water, their brains reassuring them that all that matters is the source, not the notes. Kyle figures that, perhaps they see a creek as something stable despite the tide, the same feeling he has when staring at a blank slate of color to refocus. It's something to grip onto, something to soothe and get oneself back into a steady frame of mind.

He looks again at the empty stage and heaves a deep breath, wincing at condensation flying out and back up into his face. 'Is it creepy at this point?' he wonders, shifting on his feet. His chin ducks down and he feels small and awkward all over again, cringing at rapid flashes of his first interaction with Kenny. He doesn't know if he can go through that experience all over again, but he also knows himself too well. He never leaves his house unless he has to. Every step of the way to the bar was greeted with regret, but he still managed to make the trek and find himself lingering outside the establishment. His mother always told him things would be hard for him, but if he felt like he needed to do something to feel better, then he needed to do it, regardless of how he thought others would think of him. His lips curl into a small smile, remembering shooting back with a half-dazed joke about taking up drugs and getting a swift, soft slap on his shoulder and an ensuing rant that'd kept he and his brother captive for nearly two hours.

A part of him wishes she was here, could tell him if maybe he was being odd. Or at least Ike, he certainly never had an issue with making damn sure Kyle knew when he was making the world around him bitterly uncomfortable. The blessing and the curse of little brothers, he supposed.

His shoulders slump, looking at the scratched handle of the door and biting his lip. Maybe this is creepy. Maybe he should've just stayed home with his computer and the faux sensation of communication. But, he reminds himself, this is important. Going out, taking chances, maybe meeting people and pretending that he's a regular man with regular hobbies is vital. Or at least, that's what he's been taught to believe. But it's something, something that he can latch onto, something that he, for once, has the chance to ascertain. Letting this slip through his fingers and falling into another black hole of depression would be nothing but regret, he's lived through the routine too many times to think anything else would come from ignoring this. And this one isn't just finding a restaurant with a simple color scheme or people he can somewhat tolerate for a few minutes. This is as much of a chance as he's probably ever going to get. Ignoring it and hiding at home just cannot be an option anymore.

Kyle nods to himself, reaching out and gripping the handle, curling his fist bitterly along the chilled brass. Pulling it open, a rush of heat blasts against his face and he nearly stumbles, forcing himself to steady out and step inside less he draw attention to himself. Shoulders rolling back, he holds his breath, training to maintain the falsity of control as he makes way into the fray. He gulps, subtly swiping his sight over the spattering of people and sighing in relief. Wednesdays must not be hopping for business. Works for him. Less people means less noise, less obtrusive outfits, less chance of a skirmish breaking out and being surrounded by groups of cheering peers.

He winces at a loud round of laughter breaking out from a group of five in a booth to the right, awkwardly crossing his arms and trying to bash down the squiggles in front of him. Maybe coming here alone was stupid, far too conspicuous.

He glances towards the bar, seeing it lined with two other stragglers and bites his lip. Sitting there is the only hope he has of looking normal as far as he can tell. He pivots, cringing at the sound of the tile beneath his work shoes bringing squeaking streaks of cherry red soaring in front of him. 'You're fine, you're fine,' he promises himself, slowing to redistribute his steps. More with the heel is quieter, don't let your toes drag. Lessons of floor plans galore spring into his mind, a lifetime of annoyingly categorized methodologies for sneaking about trying to talk over one another. Sidewalks stay quick and light, tile and hardwood need more pressure on the heels, stay on your toes on stairs, feel free to slide your feet when on carpet, you don't mind the thick band of marigold it gives you too much.

Finally, he makes it to the bar, finding himself a worn black barstool. The vinyl padding is torn from years of denim and work overalls sliding about, from countless tired souls coming about and swiveling impatiently for their next drink. He groans under his breath, forcing his attention onto the glistening surface of the bar itself as he slides into the third seat from the end. Not too obviously separated, not too close to the others seated along the row, but not so far from the door he'd have to run like mad if need-be.

Neon beer signs reflect uneasily onto the waxed whitewood, distorted into eerie rises and falls with the stained pattern. 'My goddamn brain waves,' Kyle thinks, moving his elbows onto the bar and holding his head by the temples, drooping miserably. Such strange, inconsistent measurements, countless EEG's done and explained but never understood. "Just look at the color and your mind will do the rest," he was told time and again. "Sit in a room by yourself for hours, become subject to medical torture, just so we can publish a paper about you and get handshakes from colleagues." Exploitation, Kyle thinks. That's all it is. No one wants to offer a solution, they just want to describe how fascinating it is that his mind is so distorted.

"You shouldn't be here." A streak of familiar smoky blue creeps across his eye, Kyle's head shooting up in shock to find himself staring at the unamused bartender watching him with a degree of caution.

"I… I-I…" Kyle stammers, heart sinking. He's heard that phrase too many times to count, just never this goddamn early on living somewhere. "Why?"

Craig rolls his eyes, shoulders rolling and a tired sigh coming through his lips. "If you have a headache," he stresses just a bit, "you shouldn't come to a bar."

Kyle can't help the relieved slump he gives off, blushing at Craig's eyebrow raising in the slightest in curiosity. "I just… needed to be out," he clears his throat, eyes falling back to the bar, focusing on a solid strip of whitewood.

He just shakes his head, giving a small shrug. "Fine. Not my problem. Whaddya want?"

"Coke?"

Craig narrows his eyes, "And?"

"…Ice?" Kyle glances up again, seeing the frustration on Craig's face and cringing. "I'll still tip like it's alcohol?"

This seems to sate him enough to give him a curt nod, turning on his heel and walking to the other end of the bar. Kyle groans, putting his head down and shaking it atop his arms. Always making friends, it seems. Why he was exposing his quirks to the innocent people of this town, he hasn't the slightest idea. Especially someone like a damn bartender, a profession where, if countless novels were to be believed, their main task aside from tending to their slurring patrons was to be the hot-spot of gossip in small-bred towns.

Kyle shyly tilts his head, peeking through one hazy eye at the bored, tired expression over Craig's face as he fights with his two-liter and he hums quietly to himself. Maybe that's a bit far-reaching for someone like this guy. He seems like the last thing he wants to do is do his required talking to his customers, let alone let it spill about the new weirdo with the pulsating temples. Kyle can only hope, he supposes.

A sudden strumming of an acoustic nearly knocks Kyle out of his stool, his head whipping around to see his saving grace perched so casually, head bopping along on the countermeasures. Words begin pouring and Kyle soaks it in, a shiver rolling down his spine and his shoulders sinking immediately.

He's heard throughout his years from many a person that country is the bane of all musical genres, that it's nothing but trucks, beers, and girls. People will flinch and make disgusted noises if the subject is so much as touched upon. Kyle never understood the revile, always wondered if he would also be like that if he'd been able to partake in listening. Maybe he would be, maybe it is the death of music. He isn't exactly one to make those calls. But with the soft twang of Kenny's voice, the melodic beats of his worn guitar and thoroughly-plucked strings, the songs could literally be Kenny just repeating "tractors, trailers, guns, and bumper crops" until the rooster crowed, and Kyle would still be hanging on every last syllable.

He forces himself to look away from Kenny as his head turns slightly in his direction. Last thing he needs is to be caught ogling. His attention falls onto his hands, coated in that misty glow and a small, timid smile crawls onto his face. He splays his fingers onto the bar, letting them contact the wavering glow of the neon proclamations hanging above the cocktail rack. They're iridescent while amid the spell he's under; pretty, subdued lines just rising and falling in unrhythmic patterns. Kyle wants to melt, to slip into the ebbing of their waves and nestle in tight. A sigh escapes him, tension rolling off the back of his skull and sliding down out of his neck with each exhale.

'God, I just wanna fall asleep,' he thinks. Can't say he isn't surprised, he's already trained himself far too well. Unless he's in front of a screen typing away at work and stimulated, he's on his bed or his couch listening and drifting off. Part of him wonders if he should just go now while he's riding his high and retreat home, crawl under his covers and douse himself in mp3s and self-congratulations for gathering the nerve to brave the public world.

He barely flinches as a glass dripping with condensation is shoved between his palms, looking up to see Craig staring at him with that same look of derision. He gives him a small, crooked smile. "Thank you."

Craig's brow rises in the slightest, seeing a newfound dilation of his pupils and a loss of the pained wrinkles around his eyes. "Don't do drugs in my bar," he says sharply.

Kyle blinks, coughing out a confused chuckle, ignoring that smoky blue lingering along the top of his vision. "I'm sorry?"

"Do 'em outside, not where I can get fined."

He squints, trying to see if there's some sort of joke hiding under the layers of annoyance and impatience. "I'm sorry I… I have no idea what you're saying." He backs up slightly as Craig leans down towards his face, staring at him with intensity that he's only received from goddamn doctors. Gulping, wondering what he did wrong, he keeps his auditory focus on Kenny's voice carrying through an upbeat chorus.

Craig scans him from his eyes to his chest, huffing to himself. "You didn't do anything when I walked away?"

"Dude," he frowns. "I'm clean. Wanna get me a piss test?"

He pauses, looking back at his eyes and finally offering the slightest hint of a smirk. "So. Can't drink but you can talk like a delinquent?"

"I can drink, I'm just not up for it tonight," he drawls, snatching his Coke and taking a long sip. He hears Kenny's voice cut off with a few ending chords echoing to the sound of sparse clapping, trying to not slink from spending his reprieve dealing with a pain-in-the-ass bartender. "Forgive me, I didn't know it was against the law to not want alcohol."

"No, but it's weird to not want it in a bar," he scoffs, the frown returning full-force. "You want a soda, go to McDonald's."

Kyle frowns, "Am I really bothering you that much?"

Grey eyes roll yet again, and Kyle hears a slight patter of rain worming its way through his dissipating haze. "You are at this point," he says. "You're new to town, right?"

"Yeah?"

"Maybe look at some of the restaurants we have if you're gonna be a pain in the ass," he bites, and Kyle nearly flinches, shaking with the need to sprint away into the night and hide to not have to deal with bullying of all fucking things. He'd really hoped he'd left that all behind him.

"But then he wouldn't have the pleasure of your constant hospitality, Tucker," a smooth voice comes between their stare-down. Kyle's attention shoots over, forcing down a gulp at Kenny standing there at the end of the bar with that same damn charming smile directed towards him. "Hi," he greets, taking a small step forward and setting his guitar propped up against the counter. "Kyle, right?"

He nods, halfway between grateful for his presence and wanting to run off screaming in embarrassment for apparently being far too conspicuous in the waning crowd. "Yeah. Hi," he returns.

"Can I sit?" he asks, gesturing to the adjacent stool, not closing the distance until Kyle grants him a permissive nod. He sidles into the seat, shooting Craig a small smirk. "Beer me."

"Beer yourself," Craig scoffs, losing interest in his war with Kyle and focusing his attention on him.

Kenny pouts, "Do your damn job, Tucker. Don't make me beat ya up in front a' Kyle, here."

Craig pauses, looking between the both of them before focusing back on Kenny. "I think he has a better chance of 'beating me up' than you do, McCormick." Kenny's jaw drops for an offended retort before Craig simply turns on his heel, making way towards the fridge. Kyle can't help but laugh softly, looking down at the glass in his hands and the way his fingers press nervously on the faceted surface. He wasn't exactly expecting to be so close to Kenny at any point in the night. He isn't sure if that's good or bad, however.

Kenny shakes his head, looking at Kyle shying down and breaks into another smile, giving him a light elbow against his arm. "So. Am I gonna get t' see you every Wednesday and Friday?"

Kyle looks at him, biting the inside of his lip and gulping. If he says yes, is he a stalker? If he says no, is that going to hurt Kenny's feelings? This is just too much social pressure he hadn't been expecting when he'd made the choice to step out of his apartment.

He takes a deep breath, straightening his shoulders. "Well… maybe I come here every day regardless. You don't know."

Kenny snorts, leaning his cheek into his palm. "Oh yes I do. You ain't the bar type."

He looks at him, affronted for reasons he can't understand. "And just how do you know that?" he asks.

Offering no more than a one-shouldered shrug, he leans back a bit and cracks his neck before looking back at him with a playful spark flooding his eyes. Kyle feels entranced, wondering if it's the mere influence of his voice or if everything about him is so damn enticing. "You're a numbers guy, right?"

"Uh… yeah."

"Betcha like t' stay focused. Don't like not bein' in control of shit. Right?"

Kyle blinks, clutching around his glass. "Well… who doesn't?"

He smirks, "A lot of us. 'Sides, yer nursin' the hell outta your drink. Alchies? We don't do that."

He frowns, taking a long sip of his soda before dropping it back to the bar, looking at his grin in challenge.

A bottle slides between the two of them, Craig scoffing. "It's a virgin," he states.

Kenny leans his head back and cackles, Kyle sputtering on his words and looking to see Craig shrug at him before turning to walk away. "Forget that tip!" Kyle snaps, face burning. His head ducks down, staring at the dancing cubes in his glass and biting his lip, glancing from the corner of his eye to see Kenny still losing his shit, halfway to falling off his stool. He doesn't know how to feel, both mortified beyond belief and just wanting Kenny to keep laughing if he's going to make the world look and sound so pleasant.

Wiping a dramatic tear from his eye, Kenny coughs out a few more guffaws before taking a long, hearty sip of his beer, letting the bottle drop down with a loud clunk. "So. Not a drinker then?" he teases.

He shrugs awkwardly, "I do. I just… wasn't up for it tonight."

A limp hand waves him off, "You ain't gotta explain yourself. This isn't high school, only Craig will call ya a pussy for not drinkin'. No one cares 'bout his opinion anyway," he winks, and Kyle feels a small wave of relief. "So, Stanny not up for bein' out tonight?"

He shrugs, tucking hair behind his glasses. "Um, I dunno. I… I didn't ask him," he winces. "Should I have?"

He snorts, "Dude, I'm sure he's at home getting pegged by his girlie." Kyle's brow raises, and he clicks his tongue, looking at him impishly. "See, ya gotta be in on the jokes 'round here. First one: Stanny boy has ridiculously high homo tendencies. So far in the closet he's snortin' mothballs."

Kyle can't help but laugh, head dropping a bit and shaking. "Come to think of it, when I first met him he really did emphasize his girlfriend."

"Ah, you haven't met fair Wendy, have ya?" Kyle shakes his head and Ken chuckles. "Listen, I love that girl. She's great. Her and Stan are great. She'll talk yer ear off though." The thought makes Kyle shudder, wondering if she's as florescent as every other woman he's met in his life. Kenny takes a long, solid sip of his beer, pulling it from his lips with a satisfied sigh. Kyle's body tingles, the barest cusp of his voice slithering within the release and gracing him like a lather of warmed honey. Fidgeting, he takes another sip of his own drink, trying to stop himself from melting into a puddle at Kenny's feet. "So," that voice comes back, "you don't seem the South Park type."

Kyle looks at him, head ducking in the slightest, waiting for him to echo Craig and tell him to get lost. "How so?" he asks.

Softening at the timidity in his tone, Kenny's brow raises in the slightest, but offers him an innocuous smile. "You're smart."

The answer throws Kyle for a loop. "You literally only have Stan's opinion on that. I could be a complete moron."

Kenny considers this for a mere moment before shaking his head, nose scrunching in a way that has Kyle entranced with how his color dances along the hills and valleys of subtle skin. "Nah. You're not."

"And how can you tell?"

"Well the glasses, obviously," he teases, lightly pressing his beer to tap Kyle's elbow. "That and I know most of the people you and Stanny work with. All of 'em were talkin' 'bout you when you first got t' town."

Wincing, Kyle ducks down even further. He doesn't know how far the rumor mill spreads in this town, but he can only assume it's quick and brutal with the limited scope they have. "Um… r-really?"

"Don't worry, it was all good stuff," he promises lightly, taking another brisk swig. He licks over his lips, propping his head into his free hand and watching him squirming uncomfortably. It's odd, he thinks. Not bad odd, but odd enough it stands out. He can't remember anyone but Butters and his off-the-wall tic of rubbing his knuckles together that ever seemed so shy and worried about another's opinion. Just didn't seem to be the South Park way. "You okay?"

Kyle gulps, hearing legitimate concern in his voice and his face heats yet again. "Just… what uh… what did they say?"

He shrugs, "Just talkin' 'bout how you're so much more educated than they are," he says.

His eye twitches before dropping down to the bar, shrugging self-consciously. "Well… being the only one with a bachelor's in the building will do that I guess."

Kenny chuckles, "Hey, it's not like it was said in a bad way," he assures him. "Most of the people here just went to Park Community. We're poor as shit, we didn't have many people gettin' more than what ya need to get in the door. Why'd ya come here if you didn't wanna be the smartest guy in the room though?"

Kyle takes a long breath, staring at the fog of his vision wrapping around his ice cubes. Book smart, sure. Having no doable hobbies outside of reading would do that to a guy. What he wouldn't give to trade in some of those factoids for social knowledge, though. Especially right friggin' now. "I just… needed out of Denver."

His face brightens, "Hey, my lil sis is gonna head up there to teach."

Kyle braves another look at him and smiles crookedly. "I've heard their school systems are pretty great, I'm sure she'll love it up there."

"Well… why didn't you? Is there… somethin' I need to warn her about?" he asks, dropping his head from his hand and putting his arms on the bar, swinging around to sit parallel to Kyle's sheltered stance.

A shake of his head and another drink later, Kyle sighs. "No, I'm sure she'll be fine. It was just… me. I needed somewhere quieter."

"Ah, for your headaches?" Kenny guesses and Kyle bites his lip shyly. He remembered something said so quickly in passing. He isn't sure if he should feel as happy about that as he does, but he'll just take a momentary elation before breaking it down with another round of over-analyzation.

He nods, "Yeah. This place'll probably be a pit stop for me, though."

"Oh? Where ya wantin' to go?"

Kyle lifts a shoulder, "Ideally? Pacific northwest. Lots of rain, lots of quiet." It's been the dream, but it's been out of his price range and no one seemed to hire in his field that far out West. Rain is one of the few things he can tolerate, can cope with the large, light grey circles that sail across his vision. It was one of the first sounds he learned to use to his benefit, thanking God that he lived in a world of ambient sounds CDs with rain tracks that he could pop in when he couldn't seem to refocus. It wasn't nearly as calming as Kenny's voice, but it was one of the five specific color-sound combos that he'd learned to incorporate into his daily life growing up as a means of mere survival.

Kenny smiles, "Rain lover huh? We ain't got too much of that around here, it all fuckin' freezes. When you plan on headin' that way?"

He shrugs again, "I don't know. When I run my course here I guess, that's the routine."

His head cocks curiously, "Run your course?"

Slumping, he clears his throat, tapping his finger against the glass running condensation down his hands. "Until I annoy everyone enough to get run out."

Kenny busts out in laughter, Kyle slinking further. It wasn't exactly a joke. Kenny's eyes crack open, seeing the hurt look on his face and immediately simmering down. "Dude," his voice dropping in a promising pitch, "trust me, that ain't gonna happen. Not in this fuckin' town. Our lovely Craig down there?" he gestures towards Craig cussing out a bottle of Jack. "He's not even close to the most obnoxious weirdo in this town, and he's miles ahead of you on that train ride. Hell I'm about a mountain's worth ahead."

Kyle smiles, appreciating the kind, albeit uninformed gesture. "Well, none of you have known me for that long."

"Stan has," he reminds him. "Stan thinks you're the goddamn bee's knees. Think he's got a boner for you."

"Okay, don't drag me into the joke," Kyle drawls with a light sneer, getting another guffaw out of him.

Light blue eyes sparkle with mischief, "Ah, so you can defend yourself."

"My default setting, unfortunately," he grants himself a tired, quiet laugh. "Over-defensive and over-worried about everything."

"Nothin' wrong with that," Ken says. "Better than runnin' into the wall headfirst like I always do. I can't pick a safe option to save my damn life. Nothin' wrong with standin' up for yourself neither. You should do it more often. Good look for ya," he winks, elbowing him and grinning at the blush on his cheeks slamming back into place in the neon lights. He takes another sip of his beer and sighs, "Gonna do another song, you cool if I come back here after?"

Kyle ignores the fluttering of his heart, the tightening of his chest at the patience on Kenny's face waiting for his permission to bask in his glowing presence. "Yeah," he finally forces out with a smile. "Absolutely."

"Cool," he grins, so nonchalant Kyle wonders if the man before him is even human as he hops off his stool and snags his guitar on the way back to his rickety stage. Kyle watches him, brimming as Kenny sits and shoots him another grin before starting to lightly strum his pick along the brass. He's magnetizing, Kyle wanting to run forward and sit before him like a child during story time, just watch him in the silhouette of the hanging lights with beams catching frizzed pieces of hair like sparklers. He wants to see his colors, how they dip and curve along his rhythmic bobbing, how each hue seems as though it was crafted just to be placed on him.

He gulps, bringing his drink in front of him, unable and unwilling to tear his eyes away from the scene before him. It's official, he realizes. Stan's warning has fallen on thankfully-deafened ears. There was no chance of not being drawn in at this point, he was here, hook, line, and sinker. Kenny had his hand on the reel, and Kyle was impatient, seeing the approaching wave breaks and the sun glistening through the ebbing divide between them, just praying to be forced to breach.

Chapter Text

If there is anything that Kenny can say of his job, it's that when not on the rare call out to actual duty, it's beyond boring.

He glances down at the paper before him on the table scrawled with chicken-scratch notes from their morning training, squinting as he tries to decipher what he even wrote all those hours ago. He knows it was something from their standard operations and procedures guide, the captain grabbing a binder from their shelf at random and reviewing the basics. Unfortunately, the captain seemed to always grab the same damn binder when they did that set of training, having apparently only one damn direction his "randomly" moving hand would actually take him.

A quick rap against the table draws his attention upwards, glancing through straw bangs to find a man staring at him, finally goddamn dressed after a good twenty minutes of waiting. "Ready?" he asks.

Ken rolls his eyes, getting to his toes and raising his arms with a long yawn. A soft grunt leaves him as his back pops before settling back onto his soles and refocusing on the man. "Ya know, Clyde," he drawls, "if ya take that long t' change into yer damn suit, the whole town's gonna fuckin' go up one a' these days."

Clyde pouts, crossing his arms. "That's important," he reminds him. "This shit is not."

Kenny snorts, giving a bobbing nod of agreement. A quick glance at the clock shows it's only 5:30 in the afternoon, he still has fourteen goddamn hours to go. Routine helps, however, and he and Clyde have their methods of getting the clock rolling, even if they don't particularly enjoy it.

"C'mon," he says, jerking his head and heading out of the rec room with Clyde on his heels into the garage. He glances towards two of their brothers fussing with one of their engines, cursing up a storm as they tried maneuvering the ladder to hose down the gleaming red paint. "You guys need help?" he calls out, getting a quick look and two shaking heads before they went back to their task.

"Anything to avoid work-outs, huh?" Clyde teases.

He smirks, raising a shoulder lazily. "And you just take forever to get changed because you need to do your hair, right?"

He chuckles, "Fair."

Kenny's eyes drift as they turn the corner out of the garage and head down the white brick hallway towards the back of the building, glancing over procedural posters and safety tips galore hanging from faltering sticky-tak. His hands automatically try to dive into pockets, a pout hitting his face as he was met with no more than the slick polyester of his basketball shorts.

Every damn time.

"Who's makin' dinner?" Clyde asks through a stifled yawn.

"Uhh…" Ken starts, racking his brain through the shift names. "Not sure, let's have a look-see," he suggests, cutting Clyde off to veer towards the upcoming room on the left. Clyde stumbles, blinking quickly before regathering his bearings and trailing behind. Kenny pokes his head into the kitchen, scanning to the side wall and the dry-erase schedule plastered there, eyes squinting as he battled against the nearly transparent red of a marker far past its prime. "Looks like it's Stoley tonight."

Clyde leans his head back and groans, "God, it's gonna be chili again, isn't it?"

Kenny shrugs, "Probably. Only thing he knows how to make." He can't exactly find himself complaining too much, it's one more thing than he knows how to cook. When they'd started their dinner rotation a couple years back, Kenny had attempted to make the department a simple round of tomato soup and grilled cheese. The resulting jokes he'd tried to parry off his disaster with how there was nowhere better he could've started a fire did not go over well, resulting in Kenny demoted to grocery runs only and more cleaning duty than any of his brothers to keep him away from their stove.

It certainly isn't thrilling, but at least he gets free food out of it.

They step back into the hall, tennis shoes squeaking on the tile as they step towards the next door down on the right. Clyde takes the lead, grunting as he slams his arm into the tarnished metal push bar that echoes loudly down the way.

Kenny sighs, eyes scanning listlessly as they step into the cement prison of the gym. He hasn't had enough caffeine for this.

"Hey!" a voice echoes towards them, their heads swiveling towards the right end of the track to two others waving at them.

"Speakin' of chili boy," Ken murmurs, both he and Clyde pivoting to make way towards them. "Sup?" he calls.

"Can you time us?" Stoley asks, jostling a stopwatch in his hand. "Easier than the one-at-a-time bullshit."

Kenny nods, stepping up and swiping the black device from his fingers, weighing it in his palm. "Only if ya return the favor," he states, finagling with the buttons trying to reset the numbers still plastered on the screen from someone's last run. A quick glance at the residing 9:36 tells him it had to be from one of their more senior members, more than likely their captain. Being stuck spending his days doing paperwork hadn't exactly helped improve his cardio by any stretch, only making it to the gym for a half-hour per shift at most.

Clyde steps up back beside him with a dry-erase board, quickly scribbling two columns with Stoley and Burke's names. "Mile?" he asks, getting resounding nods.

Smacking his lips, Kenny's finger taps quietly against the start button, looking between the two looking just as enthused to be there as he is as they step to the starting line. "Aight, Fuckos," he says, waiting for them to press slightly on their toes and turn their attention down the track. "Aaaaand go." He and Clyde watch them take off down the painted lines, Ken sighing and moving to drape the stopwatch around his neck by the thin nylon band.

Holding it just seems like too much effort today.

Under the clatter of their shoes smacking against the concrete, Clyde's voice picks back up. "So, did I tell ya 'bout my night?" he asks, shooting Kenny a sly grin.

He smirks, quietly chuckling to himself as he moves to stretch his arms one at a time across his body. "I know that tone," he snorts, a sigh sneaking through as his right shoulder pops. "What poor woman did you trick this time?"

He pouts, "Rude. I don't trick them."

"I've seen your moves," Kenny reminds him with a scoff. "You ain't gettin' much without a half-assed story 'bout rescuin' a baby and a puppy from an explodin' gas station."

"Hey, don't bash tried-and-trues. 'Sides," he hip checks him lightly, glancing up as Stoley and Burke pass them on their first round and making tallies in each column, "don't pretend you don't do the same thing."

Kenny cocks a brow, a slight frown appearing on the corner of his lip. "I don't. Ain't got no need. 'Sides," he mocks, "I ain't gotta tell 'em I have talent with a hose like some people to get 'em into bed."

Clyde snorts, raising a lazy middle finger at him. "C'mon, not once? What else do you even have to use? Definitely isn't your smarts."

He looks up in thought, bending his left knee and grabbing his foot, pulling it up against his back with a slight scrunch in his nose. He barely takes note of their brothers making another go-round, clacking his teeth as he wonders how to approach this.

Clyde is nearly as bad as Stan, thinking every goddamn night he was "wooing" someone and taking them home only to send them out the door the next morning without as much as a Pop-tart offering. Hell, sometimes he didn't even come off that nicely. Rumors spread fast in South Park, and Kenny had more than once overheard how he'd "gotten his and that was enough" and sent them away right after the fact.

The only difference his friends have being caught in the whirlpool of the rumor mill is that Stan loathes such an idea of Kenny's never-ending hookup streak, but Clyde idolizes it.

Kenny's never had the heart to tell Clyde that half the time, he doesn't do the work so many other people need to do to get someone to tag along with them. After all, he doesn't find people, people find him. Enough fellow citizens have heard of the grossly over-exaggerated tales of his apparently continuing exploits that they track him down when they need someone for just a night. Kenny's never so much minded being a piece of solace for some people, but the morning afters always come with a heavy price. There's always regret and shame and people denying his offer to give them a ride home so they can scurry out into the cruel morning light and shower it off.

And Kenny's always just left in bed staring at the ceiling, asking himself when the fuck is someone going to stay with him for just a goddamn hour after the hormones have died down and fill the goddamn loneliness with talk other than what they just did.

He's become a nameless popularity, everyone around his age group just knowing that if someone mumbles about sleeping with someone else but avoids details, it must have been because of a night with Kenny goddamn McCormick. He's also the fallback of liars, people more easily accepting that scathing blemish on their bedpost as opposed to someone else they regrettably found themselves entangled with.

But whatever, Ken figures. Least people knew from such a repertoire that he was good in the sack, otherwise he wouldn't have them "lining around the block" as so many seem to believe.

Kenny sighs, finally lowering his left leg and wincing at the muscle strain before switching to raising his right. He glances at Clyde, still eagerly waiting for Kenny's tips and tricks as he always does, only half-paying attention to the men still running the track. He offers him a smirk and a nonchalant roll of his shoulder. "Nah, I don't pull the job card," he says. "Seems like cheatin'."

Clyde's grin falls into a twisted pout, scoffing. "How is it cheating?"

He shrugs again, dropping his leg and beginning to raise and lower himself on his toes. "Because it's cheap. We have one of four jobs that always get laid: Us, doctors, lawyers, and celebrities," he drawls.

He rolls his eyes, "We do not always get laid."

"Well. You don't," he teases, ignoring the vile taste of aggravation on his tongue and chuckling at the back of Clyde's hand slapping against his waist. "Listen, there's only one important thing you have to do," he starts, waiting for Clyde's attention to pique and his eyes to lock on him. He beams, "Get laid more than the cops. Can't let them get 'em all, Man."

Clyde gives a conceding nod, "Well, that's not too hard. Not too many people who fall for codebooks and power trips."

"Those handcuffs come in handy though," Ken says cheekily, getting a quiet laugh from Clyde before turning his attention back towards Burke and Stoley still making their way around the track. He cups his hands around his mouth as they make for the corner, "C'mon ya goddamn slow-ass fucks!" he shouts, getting both of them flipping him off with smirks. "Even the cap'n can beat ya at this rate!"

"I heard that, McCormick," a dry voice cuts through the echo of Kenny's voice, he and Clyde turning to see their captain with an open binder in his hand making way towards them.

Kenny blinks, elbowing Clyde. "Clyde! Stop mockin' me! Makin' fun of the captain wow you are the worst." He looks over to the grayed man now beside him with an amused, waiting expression. Kenny gives him a round of battering lashes and an innocent smile. "No one's ever as fast as you, Captain."

"Uh huh," he quirks a brow, looking down at the binder in his fingers, a stunted index finger tapping against the spine. He'd lost it nearly twenty years beforehand, he'd told the crew upon his assignment to their building. Wasn't paying enough attention to the weight distribution of wreckage and got it caught under a burning piece of splintered crossbeam. Unsurprisingly, the team found themselves doing pinned rescue drills more often than the surrounding jurisdictions. "You two plan on actually doing anything in here or just chatting?" he asks with a smirk.

Clyde waves the board in his hand, "We're timing them. Then they'll time us, we got a system."

"Could be doing something to pass the time," he suggests, making a small note on the paper in front of him.

Kenny leans over to take a peek at his paper, his tongue poking just a smidge out of the edge of his lips, finding a new schedule of the next month's drill exercises. His eyes hit the last entry and he scoffs. "Really? Gym training? The same thing we all do every day we're here?" he stresses, arms waving around the space between them. "C'mon, Levick give us somethin' fun."

The captain looks at him expectantly. "Well one, you're wasting time just standing here gossiping, McCormick."

"It's like, six minutes. I've been stretching," he pouts, pointing accusatorily at Clyde. "Donovan ain't even doin' that."

"Tattletale," Clyde mutters, moving to start stretching out his legs.

Levick huffs out a small laugh through his nose. "And two, not too many drills are 'fun'," he quotes.

"Exactly," Kenny nods. "We can make 'em fun." He moves over beside him and glances at the remainder of the list, crossing his arms and tapping his foot in thought. A tongue passes over his teeth and he nods, moving to point. "See? The suit-up drill? We can make that better."

Clyde raises his brow, knee popping as he moves to grab his foot. "What? Like prizes?"

"Not in the budget, McCormick," the captain shuts the notion down immediately.

Kenny shakes his head and waves his hands, "No no no you misunderstand. See, how long does that drill take?"

Levick shrugs, "If you're all actually decent at it, about a minute and a half."

He nods, "So, we can finish that up and then do the opposite." They look at him questioningly and he grins. "Who can take it off the slowest," he purrs, exaggeratingly swinging his hips and swaying his shoulders. Clyde turns to hide his snickering and Levick shakes his head, leaning back as Kenny moves up closer to him. "C'monnn," he taunts through a shimmy, "I could win, hands-down."

"Because everyone else would leave the building!" Stoley shouts on his way by.

"Nah, none of ya could take yer eyes offa me!" he calls back.

Burke scoffs, following behind Stoley's younger trail, "Like a car wreck."

Levick nods in agreement, bringing Kenny's mock-dancing to a full-stop with a large pout. "Besides," the captain shrugs, giving him a teasing grin. "You've only "won" one of our drills."

"And what was that in?" Kenny says, pointing at him. "Dexterity. Y'all can't believe how nimble and flexible I can be when my hands get goin'."

Clyde stops his half-assed stretching and looks at him with a cocked brow. "Wasn't that just picking up lug nuts with your gloves on?"

"Ay, I had t' use tools on 'em, too," he snaps, looking at him with a frown. "All you've won is the ladder drill, and that's only 'cause Mark out there slipped," he gestures towards the gym door. "If we would institute the strip-down and dancin' on the pole, I'd be way ahead of all you fuckos."

Levick sighs, bringing a hand up and rubbing his forehead. "McCormick, do some push-ups or something while you wait for the track, will ya?"

Kenny scoffs, hand going against his chest in feigned indignation. "Who are you, my army sergeant?"

"Close enough," he points at the floor with his stubbed finger. "Until they're done, go on." He watches Kenny slide down dramatically, whining all the way and lying flat against the floor. He gives a few writhing motions until Clyde lets out a mocking laugh, Levick shooting a gaze back at him. "You, too, Donovan."

"Aw come onnnn," Clyde groans, slipping down to his knees beside Kenny still face-first against the floor.

"Get to it, you two," the captain says, nonchalantly stepping over Kenny's legs and making way towards the other side of the room by the bulletin board.

Ken groans as he slips off the stopwatch from around his head beside him on the concrete, propping himself onto his hands and pressing his toes against the ground. "You just had to get 'im goin'," he scoffs.

Clyde looks at him, brow furrowing as he moves to mimic his position. "Me? The hell did I do, Sir Strips-a-lot?!"

He sticks his tongue out before starting to lower himself to the ground and push back up with a long exhale. "Not my fault none of you fucks are creative types."

Clyde rolls his eyes, sliding him the board and marker. "You got us into trouble, so you can do it one-handed, Mr. Dexterity."

"Oh, but Clyde, usin' just one hand is your specialty," he drawls back, frowning wryly at the runners making another pass. He grunts, maneuvering his left hand to support the center of his body weight and sloppily managing to make two tallies with the right. He counts only ten marks for each of them, they still have ten to go.

Watching Kenny's struggling, Clyde cracks another smirk, keeping up with him as they dip to and from the ground. "It is not, and you would know that if you let me tell my story from last night," he whines.

Kenny fights down rolling his eyes, keeping himself moving and watching Stoley nearly trip over himself running across from them. "You fucked a girl, Clyde. Congrats, you finally lost your virginity. Do you want a parade?"

"Rude," he huffs, squinting with another push of his arms. "At least it'd pass the damn time."

Ken takes a long breath, glancing up at the far-side wall with the analog clock ticking away and he frowns. 5:40. Clyde has a point. Good god did time drag sometimes around here. Kenny sighs, ignoring the irritated creak of the cartilage in his elbow as he continues in his pattern, shooting Clyde a tired, apologetic smile. "You're right, go ahead."

Clyde needs no more permission, launching into an informative spiel that has Kenny wondering if he's listening to him describe a poorly-acted porno instead of his real-life encounters. He supposes it doesn't really matter, they both win something in the end. Clyde loves to brag about his latest endeavors, Kenny likes when people take the time to actually talk to him like a human being.

Better than just doing push-ups.


Cleaning off his desk at the end of the day is never Kyle's favorite thing to do. It's a bit of a challenging game, having to keep his ears somewhat open to make sure he's not caught in a mob of people streamlining for the doors. So, he has to move slow, has to diligently pack everything up so he can both convince people he's not staying behind to earn the boss' favor and that he still wants to leave just as badly as everyone else does.

He just has to make it look like he's a little slower at it than the rest of them.

Kyle sighs, ear slightly sore from being stuffed with an earbud all day. But it doesn't matter, doesn't bother him in the slightest as Kenny's voice soars through his head, gently soothing his brain from the world of statistics and payroll figures. He's never been so productive at work as he had been the last few weeks, able to finally stare at numbers for nearly full-on hour stretches of time as opposed to his old pattern of five minutes on a screen, two minutes on a tolerably colored piece of paper set in front of him to use to refocus his eyes.

He can't help but grin to himself as he begins shutting down his computer, looking to see that oft-used piece of ivory stationary set off to the side, its services no longer needed unless he finds himself in an iPod-less emergency.

He stands from his chair, the cord of his earbud following him as he stretches with a long yawn. He doesn't understand why so many people complain day-in and day-out in this office. Work could actually be pleasant if one could do it painlessly. He rolls his eyes at himself. He knows it can get stressful, having found himself on the end of many a paperwork disaster in his time, but that damn envy still can't help itself from wriggling on in into his psyche.

Maybe if this was a permanent cure, something that could be packaged into a pill and he never had to worry about his pain levels again, he'd find himself with his coworkers before long comparing miseries. He could be like Stan, bitching over a beer about deadlines and bemoaning never finding someone rich to settle down with and take care of him. Maybe his gratefulness would fade over time if it became so standard as to be handed to him at a pharmacy, and he would find himself forgetting his lifetime of woes after the initial bliss died down.

A shudder rolls down his spine as Kenny's voice picks up a little bit of volume, tired eyes closing contentedly. It'd have to be one hell of a pill to capture this feeling, one that would sooner be passed around at a goddamn rave than it would be at CVS. One he would have to petition to get legalized and would soon have a multitude of others crawling out of the woodwork claiming they also suffered as he did, and they always had. They would be debunked, and Kyle's fight would be all the harder as he battled through those just wanting their happy little drugs trying to find himself some solace in his tumultuous life.

He laughs quietly. For now, he thinks the iPod is plenty enough.

"Hey, um, Kyle?" a timid voice breaks through his melodic escapades.

Kyle jerks up at the sudden appearance, straightening into attention at Token lingering awkwardly outside his cubicle opening. He blinks, inwardly cursing but pulling the remaining earbud from its resting spot. "Hi, Token," he says, a little worried that he'd done something goddamn annoying again. "What's wrong?"

Token's brow raises just a tad before he laughs quietly, "Nothing. Nothing's wrong. I just uh…" he falters, rich brown eyes watching Kyle thoughtfully enough to make him shift his weight anxiously.

Additional color catches Kyle's easily-diverted attention, looking past his shoulder to see Stan leaning against the opposite cubicle wall, sighing to himself as he stared at Token's head. Kyle's curiosity piques further, a tongue running over his lips. He only has a limited timespan before the afterglow effects of Kenny's voice leaves him, he needs this to just goddamn happen. "Token, what is it then?" he prompts, hoping he doesn't sound too rude.

He's not exactly on the practiced side of urging people to talk, he's always been on the goddamn receiving end.

"Do you…," he starts slowly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks, "want to… do something tonight?"

Kyle fights off a panicked wince at the notion, reminding himself that he's so goddamn tired of being a hermit. But god, doing things was like a nightmare waiting to happen without specificity. He clears his throat, still lingering in the mist and managing a quiet, "Depends on uh… what and who with," he says, cringing to himself. "I-I can't handle very much uh… noise."

Token nods, weight shifting from foot to foot. "Well I was thinking maybe… dinner… with me?" he winces.

Kyle blinks, dumbfounded; absolutely caught on the receiving end in a game he didn't even know he was playing. If he asks for clarification, would that be too awkward for everyone? Would Token bash him over the head for insinuating something he didn't actually mean to make it sound like? But what if he did mean what Kyle thinks he means? He's never been in this situation before, and he doesn't know the proper way to approach it without coming off as a needy lunatic.

Token seems to shrink a good three inches as he watches a wide-eyed Kyle staring at him, seeming lost in the maze of his own head. "Do um… If you don't wanna that's…" he trails off again, face flushing and bottom lip bit hard enough to make him nearly flinch.

"For Christ's sake," Stan mutters from the background, shaking his head.

Kyle finally finds use of his words again, still blinking rapidly. "Uh you mean like… me and you like…" he gestures between them in silence and Token nods hurriedly.

"Yeah, yeah like that," he assures him, breaking into a soft smile. "You wanna? O-or there's tomorrow night since I know it's Thursday and weird for tonight I guess but…" he stops himself from rambling onwards, gulping. Stan had pushed him to try for tonight if he could, knowing that both he and Kyle were goddamn buckets of nerves that may back out if something was planned that wasn't within the next few hours.

Kyle swallows a stilted breath.

He has options here. Far far too many options.

He can politely turn Token down, risk hurting his feelings, left forever to wonder why even the goddamn freak wouldn't go out with him. He can get mean so Token thinks he's better off without speaking to him ever again. He can awkwardly postpone him with a sick claim time and again until he gets tired of him and tells him to fuck off.

A shaky breath reverberates through his lungs, a slight anger brewing towards himself at such reluctance.

Or, he can stop making excuses and fucking deal with it.

He can try. He can attempt to make himself seem normal. He can have the first date he's had since fucking high school. He can goddamn force himself to sit somewhere and have a conversation with someone. He just had to pray for napkins or tables with solid coloring that he could home in on to keep him from floundering like a fool.

This town wasn't exactly flourishing, maybe most restaurants would be nearly dead on a Thursday night. Maybe he wouldn't have to contend with clinking glasses and muddled conversations and scraping flatware. Maybe he could look like someone who knew how to function as a human being.

Kyle bites his lip, taking another breath, knowing that every second he's weighing his options is just cruel to Token still standing there waiting for his reply. He gulps. He's nice, doesn't treat Kyle like a moron who can't do anything right. He's handsome, something that Kyle never thought he would have the pleasure of being accompanied by as he grew up. Stan is his friend and seems to hold him in fairly high regard, so Kyle can only assume he can trust Token the same way he trusts Stan.

And, most importantly in Kyle's view, Token's voice is tolerable. That mossy green isn't anything Kyle enjoys by any measure, it's blinding in his right eye as it creeps along making sporadic branching patterns. But it's tolerable.

Kenny aside, tolerable was the best kind of reaction he could ever get from someone.

"Kyle if you don't want to…" Token finally says, shoulders drooping.

Kyle looks past him to frantic gestures coming from Stan. Stan rolls his hands in front of him, telling Kyle to just make a decision.

He straightens up, painfully aware of the lack of his protective auditory barrier, but pressing through it. "Sure," he finally says with a nod and reminding himself to put a damn smile on his face. "That uh… that sounds great."

Token visibly relaxes, a grin spreading on his face that can't help but make Kyle feel somewhat flattered. This doesn't seem like a trick, it seems safe. Or at least, as safe as Kyle can figure it'll ever get. "Great. That's great," he says. "Um, wanna… meet somewhere or I could pick you up?"

Kyle winces, "Uh… I don't… have a car so-"

"I'll come get you then," he immediately offers. Kyle almost laughs at the absurdity of the situation he's found himself in, on the receiving end of Token looking like a child about to pick out his first puppy.

He nods instead, reaching and grabbing a stack of Post-its from beside his computer monitor and a pen. "What time?" he asks.

"Seven sound good?"

"Yeah that… that'll be… great," he winces to himself, wondering why the hell the concept of synonyms seemed to escape him all of a sudden. Quickly, he jots down his address, hesitating before including his apartment number and gulping as he hands it off to Token, heart beating rapidly as their fingers brush.

Token takes it with an even wider grin and gives him a bobbing nod. "All right well… I'll see you tonight."

"See you then," he smiles meekly, watching as he turns on his heel and all but skips out of the cubicle. Kyle finds himself standing locked in a stare with a grinning Stan, his face erupting in color as he hurries to plop his earbud back into place and sigh in relief at the return of Kenny's voice. He keeps trying to pack up his office, cringing as Stan steps up next to him and leans against his desk.

"Totally knew it," Stan teases, getting his attention back.

He blinks, "Knew what?"

"That you'd say yes," he shrugs nonchalantly. "Token was having a freak-out over it, so I told him to drop his balls and goddamn ask you out before I hit him with a keyboard."

Kyle looks at him skeptically, "You want to set me up with Token?"

He shrugs once more, "I mean, it was more a case of he was crushing hard and the worst thing you could do is say no and he have to get over it. Besides, you say you rarely leave your house since things are so noisy and it bugs you, but dinner with one person shouldn't be that bad, right?" he smiles softly.

Kyle forces himself to return the expression. Oh, it could be "that bad". There's so many factors to consider that Kyle knows he has to shut them down immediately before he overwhelms himself and runs after Token to call it off already. "C-can you give me a ride home today?" he stammers out, just needing some excuse to not linger on the topic at hand.

He nods with a wider grin, "Of course, Dude. Meet me out front when you're ready."

"Thanks," he murmurs, watching Stan walk off and taking a long breath, glancing down at his iPod resting on the desk and twisting his lips. Probably no subtle way to sneak it into a restaurant on a date of all things. His free ear picks up a few loud voices and he steps towards the opening in his wall, peeking around the corner to see Stan elbowing Token, the man beside him harboring a glowing smile over his face. Kyle backs up back into his space, rubbing at his arms anxiously and biting his lower lip, trying to let himself melt into Kenny's vocals again and calm down.

He groans at himself, shaking his head. This is ridiculous. He's been so goddamn alone for so goddamn long. No one but Stan has voluntarily wanted to go anywhere with him, let alone date him. He should be jumping for joy, singing from the rooftops that someone somehow isn't immediately repulsed by his tics. He feels so flattered, he wants to relish in it. He has every right to try this, he's waited for it for so long. If worst comes to worst, he gets a migraine. It's not like he isn't used to them by now…

Token lets out a laugh from down the way, Kyle watching with sinking shoulders at a determined moss crawling under Kenny's cast veil. He shuts his eyes and shudders his way through a breath.

Then again, maybe trying to sneak in his music isn't the worst idea.