O hai guys I kind of have story ADD. I'm still working on La Cage, but sometimes it benefits me to have more than one project going so... here it goes. Un-beta'd as usual, all errors are mine as usual, I ask you to get over it as usual.
It wasn't cowardice, no matter what anyone said.
Okay, so no one was saying it was cowardice. Yeah Stan had been a little upset, and Kyle a little shocked, but both were more than their fair share of supportive. Anyone else Kenny could've told wouldn't have given two shits either way, so he'd decided Stan and Kyle were the only ones who needed to know. Karen he hadn't told in person. He'd left a note and fifty bucks in an envelope on her pillow and hopped the first bus out of South Park he could find.
Which was how he'd ended up at a greyhound bus station in Denver at midnight. It wasn't ideal, considering the fact that if he got stabbed he'd only end up right back home in his own bed. His parents would kill him if they ever saw him again; he'd taken the bulk of their drug money out of his mom's underwear drawer just in case his own stash wouldn't be enough.
The station was pretty much empty when Kenny had arrived, save for the homeless-looking man huddled in the corner and a large suitcase beside an empty seat. Kenny approached the desk, behind which sat a portly woman cleaning underneath her fingernails with a pencil. She looked up at him as though he'd invaded some fundamental sacred ritual and turned to the computer with a great heavy sigh.
"Can I help you?"
"I need a one-way ticket out of here," Kenny replied automatically, as though it was something trite and rehearsed out of a shitty movie than his actual life. The woman seemed to follow this train of thought, judging by the way her eyebrows flew up into her hairline, and typed a few things into the computer.
"And where're you going, hon?"
Fuck. Kenny hadn't given that too much thought. He'd expected a big map or a list of cities or something, but there was nothing, like people just came to the bus station with an intended destination. The woman was staring at him expectantly, thick red lips pursed in an impatient pout.
"Oh, like you have anywhere to go," Kenny scowled and looked at her nametag. Doris. What a bitch.
The voice was familiar enough to send a jolt of recognition through Kenny's bones, foreign enough to keep him from turning around right away (just in case this potential stranger was in the 'stabbing people in a bus station' mood). The stranger cleared his throat and came up right beside Kenny, a timid and unthreatening air about him.
"Kenny?" The stranger asked again, and this time Kenny had to turn around to meet his eye.
It was Butters. Super-melvin extraordinaire was at a bus station in Denver way past his curfew, and he… Goddamn, he looked like he'd been to hell and back. His blonde hair was mussed up and grungy like he hadn't showered in days, his eyes worn out and tired behind his glasses, like he hadn't slept in just as long. Most of all, his voice was thick and rough, like he'd grown up more in the last three days than in all the years Kenny had known him.
"Dude, are you okay?" Kenny asked, trying very hard not to convey too much concern. Butters just shrugged and rubbed one of his eyes.
"Fine," he yawned. "A little tired. Where're you headed?"
"Good question," the woman piped up.
"This doesn't concern you, Doris," Kenny said without taking his eyes off of Butters, who seemed to appreciate the familiar face. "Where're you off to?"
"Los Angeles," Butters yawned again. "Gonna go visit my aunt."
"I guess I'll take a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, then," Kenny turned back to Doris with a smile.
"The twelve-fifteen," Butters piped up and gave Kenny a weary smile. "I assume you're aimin' to get on my bus?"
"Yeah," Kenny nodded, unable to look away from Butters' face. Butters was normally so clean-cut and wholesome looking—he'd never be caught dead looking anything short of spic-and-span, thank you—that Kenny had always thought he could do with a bit of dirtying up, but this… this was not right.
"Hey," Doris snapped. "That's a hundred and fifty-three dollars flat, kid."
Kenny snapped back into reality and fished a wad of cash out of his pocket. He'd counted it on the bus ride up to Denver, and it had come out to somewhere around three-hundred dollars. He had just a little less than half of that in the bank, meaning as soon as he got to wherever the hell he was going he had to start working. Los Angeles, though… maybe he'd find a lucrative career in the porno industry.
Doris handed Kenny his ticket and went back to her nails just as a bus rolled up. Kenny waited patiently while Butters grabbed his suitcase and fished his ticket out of his pocket. They filed on the bus, Butters tripping up the steps as they made their way to two vacant seats. The only ones available, unfortunately, were across the aisle from a suspicious-looking fellow whose hobbies probably included luring kids into his windowless van. Kenny made Butters sit by the window.
Once the bus was well on its way, Kenny allowed himself to look at Butters a little more closely. Even his posture had changed, now more slouched and relaxed, even though the way he picked at his nails suggested he had more to be anxious about than his cool and detached look would have anyone believe. Butters caught him staring out of the corner of his eye and smiled.
"Now, what're you lookin' at?" he asked, his accent thicker than Kenny had heard it in a good long while. Kenny folded his arms and gave Butters what he and Stan had termed the 'Broflovski Brow', reserved for times when people were being stupid, confusing, or just plain weird.
"Why do you look like you've been turning tricks for the last seventy-two hours?" Kenny asked. Butters, to Kenny's surprise, just kind of laughed and sank lower in his seat. Goddamn, how long had it been since he'd talked to Butters if he'd expected some wide-eyed emphatic denial of anything sexual?
"It's been a long few days," he said instead and turned his weary gaze on Kenny, seemingly searching for something unspoken in Kenny's face. "What about you?"
"Uh, same," Kenny shrugged and nodded. Butters nodded back and shut his eyes. It did look a lot like he'd been expelling a lot of effort just to keep them open, so Kenny didn't really want to disturb him. However, one thing was abundantly clear and Kenny couldn't keep from voicing it once he'd put all the pieces together.
"Butters, are you running away?"
Butters opened his eyes and looked at Kenny with a sort of calculating look; Kenny forgot sometimes that it was unwise to underestimate someone who'd spent most of his childhood as Eric Cartman's acting henchman. Butters' gaze then went soft, like he'd already decided that they were in 'this', whatever 'this' was, together, that they were in alliance with each other against the rest of the world. Kenny had always kind of envied his willingness to accept people on the few grounds they gave him.
"Are you?" he finally asked. Kenny shrugged.
"I prefer to think of it as 'getting out while the getting's good'," he said and gave a tight smile. "What about you?"
"Same," Butters nodded and ran his fingers through his hair in the way people did when they weren't telling the whole story. Kenny had figured that whatever was going on with Butters was pretty big, big enough to keep to himself, at least. The thing about Butters, though, was that he'd always been more than willing to talk anyone's ear off when they made the mistake of listening to him long enough—Kenny had had to endure an entire recounting of a family reunion in Florida once—which meant that Butters would talk eventually, only this time he showed signs of saying something interesting. Kenny was just going to have to wait it out.
They were about ten minutes into the bus ride when Butters piped up again.
"Hey," he whispered, "I got some cards in my suitcase. Wanna play some go fish?" Kenny snorted at that.
"Dude, you're eighteen," he said. "Go fish can't be the only card game you know."
"What about hearts?"
"You're eighteen," Kenny reiterated, "call it 'bullshit',"
"What about war?"
"Wha—No!" Kenny almost shouted, forgetting for a moment that he was on a bus well-past midnight with probably the one person he didn't like yelling at. "Goddamn, didn't anyone ever teach you a normal fucking game like gin or something?"
"Oh, I know gin, sure," Butters gave a sort of half smile and climbed over Kenny to get at his suitcase in the overhead storage. "Why, I was at a family reunion once and all I had to do was play gin with my grandma. Everyone else was playin' football, see, and I'm not that great at sports to begin with."
Kenny rolled his eyes and silently pleaded with any available gods above to spare him from any more boring-ass stories about Stotch family reunions.
"I didn't think you'd know how to play," Butters admitted as he settled back in his seat, pulling down the tray table in front of him so he could shuffle the cards.
"Yeah, Kyle's mom taught me how to play," Kenny said, unaware that his voice had wavered until Butters asked a genuine "You all right?" as he dealt the cards. Kenny hummed lightly in response, mostly trying to remember what Mrs. Broflovski had taught him nearly six years before. They played the first hand almost in complete silence, with Butters breaking to explain the rules every once in a while along the way. Butters won that round, needless to say, and had felt a little guilty until Kenny had reminded him that it was just a fucking card game.
"I don't think it's fair to play anyone in anything if they're not at your same skill level," Butters shrugged, but re-dealt the cards anyway. "Then you're only cheating yourself and not learning how to get any better."
"Well, I'm all you've got right now so you're just going to have to deal with it," Kenny shrugged and placed a card in the discard pile. "And again, it's just a card game, dude."
Butters tried to blame his loss of their second game on fatigue. Kenny just shrugged and took the cards from Butters' hands.
"Go to sleep, then," he said. "I can entertain myself."
"Nah," Butters shook his head. "I reckon I couldn't sleep if I tried. Haven't been able to the last few days and that's been in a bed, so…"
"Too much on your mind or what?" Kenny asked, shuffling the cards methodically and trying not to appear too interested. That might deter Butters from sharing altogether, and he didn't want that now, did he?
"You could say that," Butters gave a small laugh, his big blue eyes chancing a glance at Kenny's. Kenny noticed that his left eye seemed a little off and couldn't help but stare, trying to figure out what it was. Butters just raised his eyebrows.
"What?" he asked. "Is my eye acting funky?"
"You, um—" Kenny tried not to stare as Butters rapidly blinked and tried to move what was now obviously a very prosthetic eye. "You have a fake eye?"
"I got nailed with ninja star," Butters laughed as Kenny winced. "What'd you expect? To tell you the truth, I kinda forget I have it sometimes."
"You forget that you can't see out of your left eye?"
"Eh," Butters shrugged and pushed his glasses up his nose. "Been so long that I can't really remember what it's like to have two. I mean, I can't drive or nothin', but other than that it's not too big of a deal. Just don't make faces at me on my left side."
"I had no idea," Kenny said softly, a sharp pain wrenching through his gut as he bit at his lip. "I'm really sorry." Butters just smiled and leaned back against the window.
"I know you didn't mean it," he said warmly. "I don't think I could've been mad about it this long even if you had."
If Butters could go through life tired, dirty, with one eye, as a runaway and still be as happy as he was… Either he was a living saint or repressing his anger. Kenny was betting more than anything that it was the latter and he most certainly did not want to be around when he broke down.
"I will say," Butters began, "it was kind of a party trick when I was up at school. My roommates thought it was just about the coolest thing they'd ever seen."
"Whoa, you were at school?" Kenny interjected, astounded that he hadn't known anything about this. He'd just seen Butters on Monday, for god's sake. He couldn't have been in school… right? Then again, Kenny had spent most of his time since graduation working himself to the bone to pay off his parents' credit cards and squirrel money away in an account for Karen's college fund. He'd pretty much fallen out of touch with most everything, with Stan and Kyle acting as his only contacts to the outside world.
"I went to Boulder for almost a whole semester," Butters said in a way that suggested even he knew how ridiculous he sounded.
"And you left?" Kenny asked. "I thought you were all smart and shit."
"I am," Butters beamed. "But, uh… my parents stopped paying my tuition, so I had to leave."
"Why in the fuck would they stop paying your tuition?" Kenny couldn't really fathom that. He'd assumed that, if his parents had the means and weren't on crack, they'd have sent him to school for whatever the hell he'd wanted—music or art or some shit. Stan's parents didn't care that he was majoring in music, and Kyle's parents had made peace with the fact that Kyle wanted to be neither a doctor nor a lawyer. Butters' parents, on the other hand…
"Well, they wanted me to major in economics," Butters began, "but I couldn't pass any of my exams 'cause economics is just one of those things my brain isn't good at understanding. Then they found out that I'd lied about a business class and that I was really taking theater instead and said I was just wasting their money and just… stopped paying."
He was mashing his knuckles together in the exact same way he had when they were kids. Kenny logged the behavior away for future reference.
"That's… really fucked up," Kenny said and brought his hand up to Butters' shoulder. "I'd bail if my parents did that to me too."
"Well," Butters shrugged and removed Kenny's hand, his own lingering over Kenny's just a little too long, and gave a smile. "What about you? You're obviously sore at your folks too. What'd they do?"
"Dude, what don't my parents do?" Kenny rolled his eyes. "I just couldn't stay there anymore, you know? I mean… they work and do odd jobs and everything, but it's never been enough to support all of us, you know? They made me feel like it was my responsibility to earn my keep and pay off their credit cards and all that shit even though it wasn't. The only reason I would've stayed is Karen, but… that wasn't enough, you know?"
It wasn't until Butters was nodding, a sympathetic look on his boyishly handsome face, that Kenny realized he'd just said all of that out loud. Part of him supposed that one turn of sharing deserved another, that he was just giving back what Butters had given to him, but for the most part Butters was actually surprisingly easy to talk to. He wasn't afraid of Kenny like most people were; he didn't seem to judge him on what he'd heard from other people, just what he knew from his own memory. It was kind of nice.
"You know," Butters began, "It ain't a crime to put yourself first. You can't do right by anyone if you're nothin' but miserable all the time."
Kenny, unsure of how to respond, just settled back into his chair and hoped Butters would let it slide. He could see him out of the corner of his eye, could still see a sprig of innocence and warmth in that worn out, weary smile of his. Kenny bit his lip and smacked his head against his seat.
"Sorry," Butters gave a quiet laugh. "I didn't mean to upset you. I really do have a knack for sayin' the wrong thing, don't I?"
"No," Kenny shook his head. "I just don't have anything to say."
"How about a nice 'you're right, Butters'?"
Kenny laughed and looked up at the overhead.
"Okay, enough about all this shit. Tell me about school," he said, conversational vigor all of a sudden renewed. "You were there almost a whole semester longer than I'll ever be. Roommates, friends, fuck-buddies… I wanna hear it all."
Butters laughed and turned toward Kenny, slouched in his seat and looking like he was about to share his most intimate secrets.
"I really wanted to go to NYU, but my parents wouldn't let me," he admitted first. "And I got in too, but they said there was no tellin' what I'd get up to in college to begin with, let alone in another state. They made me go to Boulder instead so they could come check up on me every weekend. Crazy, right?"
"That's insane," Kenny agreed through a laugh. "Did you have any life whatsoever?"
"I did," Butters stuck his tongue out, which only made Kenny laugh harder. "Actually had a girl I was seein'—"
"A girl?" Kenny asked, just more than a little surprised. "I always thought you—"
"Liked boys?" Butters asked through a complacent smile. "I do. Who said I couldn't like girls too?"
"No one," Kenny shook his head, wishing only a little bit that he didn't feel some weird form of jealousy in the pit of his stomach. "Where'd you meet her?"
"She was in my acting class," Butters sighed, looking a little more far off in memory than Kenny would've liked. "Her name was Kate. Real nice girl."
"Tits?" Kenny asked and wiggled his eyebrows. Butters just smirked.
"She had 'em," was his only reply, much to Kenny's disappointment. "I dunno, she was just one of the kindest people I'd ever met. I was havin' trouble with a scene and all of a sudden she was right there helping me, even though everyone was gettin' kinda pissed off when I kept messin' up. She just made me feel good, y'know?"
"Mm," Kenny hummed in vague agreement. "You ever fuck her?"
"Not that it matters, but yeah," Butters rolled his eyes, amused in spite of himself. "Once or twice. We weren't really together long enough for it to pan out into much more, though."
"What happened?" Kenny asked. Butters shifted and refused to make eye contact.
"She kinda walked in on me… going down on one of my roommates a week later."
"Butters!" Kenny exclaimed loudly enough to warrant a few harsh admonishments from other passengers. "Fuck, dude… your roommate was gay too?"
"Well, we were both a little tipsy, y'see," Butters began explaining. Despite the bright red flush across his cheeks, he was holding his own surprisingly well against the return of the Broflovski brow. "He was talkin' about how this girl he was seein' was real bad at it, so I said that boys do it better anyway. You can guess where it went from there."
"I want every goddamned detail your pretty little head can remember," Kenny grinned. Butters snorted and resituated himself just a bit, not bothering to look at Kenny when he said he'd blocked most of the incident from his memory.
"Well then, I expect you to prove your claim to me at some point," Kenny heaved a sigh. "I guess we'll have to have a girl there for comparison, too. The things I do for science…"
"Oh, come on," Butters rolled his eyes (now that Kenny looked at him closely, he noticed the prosthetic eye didn't move quite as well as the other one). "You run through all the girls in South Park and now you have to prey on us poor fellas?"
Kenny just winked and sunk lower in his seat, not realizing until that moment that he was turned toward Butters, curled up so they both formed their own little world. They regarded each other silently for a while, Butters watching Kenny just as intently as Kenny was watching him. Somehow, it was okay.