This is a sequel to last year's fic, How Long Till Your Surrender? Thank you to julads for beta reading!


Kyle has lived alone since he finished college, with the exception of a few extended periods when Stan slept on his couch, and he's never given much thought to his vulnerability. It's a bit absurd to think that anyone would stalk him, a doughy man in his early forties, but when the hang-ups on his cell phone escalate into calls that include heavy breathing and, at one point, eerily soft weeping, he starts to think about buying a large dog. Not wanting to pay the pet deposit, he calls Stan over to keep him company after the eerie weeping on the other line.

"You didn't have to run," Kyle says when Stan arrives, breathless.

"Are you okay?" Stan asks, and he hurries into Kyle's apartment, looking around, as if Kyle might have missed a lurking intruder. "You sounded scared."

"Well, I was. Someone called me crying, and I've been getting these calls for weeks, and, it's just." He doesn't want to sound pathetic, but it's late, almost midnight, and he's just come off a long shift that left him rattled. "I had a kid tonight," Kyle says, and Stan turns from his examination of the main sitting room. "An emergency surgery."

"Oh - dude," Stan says, coming toward him.

"He didn't die," Kyle says, perhaps a little defensively. "He should recover, but. He's been through a lot, you know, and he's only six, his mother was a crackhead-"

Stan's arms go around him then, and Kyle huddles into the clumsy warmth of him. Once, drunk, he described Stan as a human blanket, but that's not really fair, because he's pretty sure that he's the only one who discreetly prods Stan into coddling him like this. Or maybe it's not so discreet.

"You and your crack babies," Stan says, cupping the back of Kyle's head. "I know they get to you."

"I don't appreciate being shoved into a position as a pediatric specialist," Kyle says, and he pulls away from Stan, feeling childish. "But that's what they're doing. Do you want something to eat?"

"Sure," Stan says, and he follows Kyle into the small but stylish kitchen, which is open to the rest of the apartment, aside from the two bedrooms down the hall. "Smells really good, what'd you make?"

"Stan, please," Kyle says, because Stan knows he doesn't cook. "I got this from the hospital cafeteria, actually. They have weirdly good garlic bread. And this is yours," he says, pulling the top off of a tupperware container full of marinara that he'd left thawing in the fridge. "From last time you made it." Kyle pokes at the sauce with a wooden spoon. It's still a little icy in spots, but he can microwave it. Stan is already getting a box of linguine from the pantry. "It's been a while since we had a meal together," Kyle says, still feeling tender and a little anxious, glad to have Stan here.

"Yeah, truly," Stan says. "You're always working." He fills a pot with water for the pasta, and Kyle hovers, wondering if he could find curtains big enough to cover the huge floor to ceiling windows that comprise the entire west-facing wall of his apartment. Has he been careful enough about walking around naked? Probably not, but who would want to look in at him?

"I can't believe I've been at WHC for fifteen years," Kyle says, mumbling. "And I'm still not department head."

"Only cause Crump refuses to retire," Stan says, and Kyle grins at him. He wonders if there's anyone else in his life who knows the name of the head of cardiology who has blocked Kyle's promotion. Cartman certainly doesn't. Kyle hasn't seen him in months, and he's conditioned himself not to care, but he's so lonely that he keeps noticing Stan's smell. It's nothing too distinct, just the smell of another person, a man: sweat-laced deodorant that's wearing thin at the end of the day, and the cheap detergent Stan uses at the laundromat near his apartment.

"You know you can do your laundry here," Kyle says, feeling itchy just thinking about that stuff. Stan shrugs.

"I can't expect you to come by and let me in every time I need to do a load," he says. "Can I put salt in this, or are you still on your no salt thing?"

"Put it in," Kyle says. "I don't care anymore. I'm forty-two, Stan."

"So?" Stan says, and he laughs. "Me too."

"So, just. I mean, I might as well eat what I want. Who've I got to impress?"

"I don't know," Stan says, and he salts the water liberally. "Cartman, I guess." There's an awkward pause. "How's that going?"

"Same as ever," Kyle says. "In the sense that it's not. Going anywhere. But I've always been fine with that."

"Yeah," Stan says, sounding skeptical. "Well, look, I get you. I hate going out, trying to get laid. It's so empty."

"You could have a girlfriend, a real one," Kyle says. "Women love you."

"Uh," Stan says. "Not really."

Kyle knows he's thinking of Wendy, but he's tired of talking about her and he lets the subject drop. Stan and Wendy almost got married eight years ago, when Stan got her pregnant, but it fell through in the third trimester, and now they're raising their son together but from separate living situations. Wendy has a stately home in Fairfax, and Stan shares an apartment in Foggy Bottom with three roommates. When he has weekends with Grady, they stay at Kyle's apartment, Grady in the spare bedroom and Stan on the couch.

"When's your next Grady weekend?" Kyle asks, only for the sake of cheering Stan up. Kyle has them all marked on his calendar.

"He's coming on the twenty-fourth," Stan says. "You'll be here?"

"Stan. I'm always here. That is, unless this weeping person on the phone comes to kill me."

"Can't you trace the call?" Stan asks, and Kyle snorts.

"How? It just says 'private number' every time. I suppose if things get worse I could go to the police." He groans, imagining the hassle of trying to file a report based on a vaguely threatened feeling.

"Get worse like how?" Stan asks. "Don't wait until there's some maniac at your door. What if it's someone who blames you for something that went wrong at the hospital? That kind of stuff happens!"

"I thought of that," Kyle says. "Well, I mean, Stan, what can I do? I lock my door, I don't open it for strangers. The hospital has security."

"But you come home so late," Stan says.

"The water's starting to boil," Kyle says, waving him off. "Don't worry, I can take care of myself."

They eat together in front of late night TV, bowls of pasta in their laps. Between the two of them, they finish the entire half-loaf of garlic bread, and Kyle feels like an anchored ship after eating, unable to even get up and put his bowl in the sink. Stan seems similarly exhausted, his eyelids heavy as he stares at the TV.

"Want to sleep here?" Kyle asks, as if he's doing Stan a favor. He doesn't want to be alone tonight, with the thought of grieving loved ones coming to kill him over the loss of a patient. Stan turns his head on the couch cushion and smiles sleepily.

"Yeah," he says. "Of course."

When Grady isn't present, Stan shares Kyle's bed. It would be too hard to explain to a seven year old, the intricacies of friendship that have led two grown men to continue sharing a bed into their forties. For Kyle, it's never needed any explanation, and he's endlessly grateful that Stan views things between them as simply as he does. They've always given each other what they've needed, no questions asked, and tonight Kyle needs to be held while he sleeps.

"Maybe I should move," Kyle says when they're under the blankets together, Kyle's head resting on Stan's bicep, Stan's arm snug around his back.

"I don't know," Stan says. "I like this place."

"The windows are kind of big, though, don't you think?"

"Mhmm, yeah, but I like that. The windows at my place are small and dirty, and Phil always keeps the blinds shut."

"What does Phil do? Does he work? How does he pay the rent?"

"His foot got run over by a mail truck like twenty years ago, so he's on disability. That's how he gets government pot, too, for pain management or something. But he's pretty cool."

"Stan, he's not pretty cool! That guy is sad. I wish you could afford your own place."

"Yeah, me too," Stan says, and he sighs. The usual awkward silence between them descends. It does seem odd to Kyle, at times, that Stan doesn't live in the guest bedroom across the hall. He's not sure why Stan has never broached the subject. Kyle's reasons are selfish and weird: if Stan lived across the hall, he'd have his own bed, and it would be harder to ask him to climb into Kyle's. Or maybe it wouldn't, and that would be weird on another level. Kyle rolls over, pressing back against Stan, assuming the usual spooning position. He freezes when he feels something that usually isn't there.

"Sorry," Stan says, shifting away from him. "That's not. It's not for you."

"I know," Kyle says, though he can't really make sense of a random erection otherwise. "Um. If you need to go beat off, I don't care."

"No, it's fine." Stan is quiet for a moment, and the air in the room gets heavy. "I need to talk to you," he says.


"But you're tired. We can talk later."

"About what? Your dick?"

"No." Stan sighs. "Sorta, I don't know. I'm kinda going through some stuff."

"What kind of stuff?" Kyle rolls onto his back. Stan's face is half hidden in the pillow that he's clutching.

"I shouldn't have brought it up," Stan says.

"Well, it was up. Your dick, I mean. Why?"

It feels like a pushy question, but Stan is the one who allowed Kyle to encounter his arousal. It's happened before, of course, but only in the morning, when erections are automatic. Stan groans and hides his face entirely.

"I'm just lonely," he says, his voice muffled.

"Jesus, I know," Kyle says. He moves over to put his chin on Stan's shoulder, glad to be closer to his scent, warmth, the feeling of having another person to flop against. It is alarming, however, to consider that his human blanket has an erection, especially considering the fact that Stan is straight. "I mean, I'm lonely, too," Kyle says. "I need this, too, I really do. But you're." He hesitates, not wanting to be insensitive. "How long has it been since you were with someone?"

Stan shrugs. "I'm too old for casual sex," he says. "It makes me embarrassed."

"Stan, you're not old, okay, forget what I said about being forty-two. It's one thing for me to be in my forties, another for you. You're handsome, you don't look your age. You'll be fine, just. Don't despair."

"Don't despair?" Stan looks up from his pillow, and Kyle wonders if their faces are too close. "Kyle, I spent half my life chasing Wendy, the other half having bad sex with women who didn't measure up to her, and now I can't even get a boner for porn."

"Then what's this one for?" Kyle asks. "If not me? I don't get it."

"It's for—a guy!" Stan says. He growls at Kyle's bewildered expression and rolls away from him. "Never mind," he says. "I'm delirious, I've been up since six in the morning."

"So you're just tired, that's all? That's why you're telling me you're attracted to men all of a sudden? Which guy, exactly, did the caress of my pillowy ass call to mind?"

"Nobody," Stan says. "Just, generally. I've been wondering. Curious."

"Oh, Christ." Kyle can't deal with this; he needs Stan to remain uncomplicated on at least one level. "You're just disenchanted by the women you've met recently. You want to fall in love. That's what you get boners for, true love. You're so romantic, that's why you couldn't let go of Wendy-"

"Right, and you're not romantic at all," Stan says. "You haven't held onto Cartman or anything."

"Held, ha! He does whatever he wants! We just have sex when he's in town."

"Okay, Kyle, whatever. Go to sleep. I'm tired."

Kyle rolls away from him, deeply annoyed. He's facing the windows now, which are open to the glitter of the city. His apartment is on the sixth floor, so any onlookers would have to be devoted enough to purchase spying equipment. He pulls the blankets up over his shoulder and tries not to think about Stan's cock, hard over there, irritatingly invested with new meaning. Kyle doesn't believe that Stan could be happy with a man, but if he's going to have a crisis about his sexuality, it's not exactly shocking that he's attempting to adopt Kyle's. He came to D.C. only because Kyle did, preferring to affix himself to someone else's life decisions rather than be forced to make his own. Stan likes to have a mandate, a game plan that was not designed by him. He would have loved a life spent taking directions from Wendy, but she was always attracted to more ambitious men, despite a weak spot for Stan that ultimately resulted in their son.

Kyle wakes hours before his alarm to the sound of Stan showering. He tries to sleep again but can't. He hasn't had a real fight with Stan since high school, only petty disagreements that were easily resolved. He's not sure that they're fighting now, but he feels as if he wants to go to battle against Stan's supposed epiphany. It's actually rather selfish of Stan to muse about being gay just because he's bored with porn and the sort of women he can fuck without fear that they'll hurt him. He's protected himself from feeling anything for anyone ever since it ended with Wendy, and he'd done so before then, too, all based on the fact that he'd been too much of a mess in high school to keep her. It's completely unfair for Stan to compare his crippling fixation on her to Kyle's convenient arrangement with Cartman.

Kyle gives up on sleep and gets up to dress in sweats, not bothering with an attempt to tame his hair. He doesn't have a shift for five hours, but he checks his phone for urgent messages and groans when he sees that he has a text from the 'private number.'

"Someone texted the word slut to me," Kyle says when Stan emerges from the bedroom, dressed in some clothes that he's helped himself to from Kyle's drawers. The shirt he's wearing is actually one of Cartman's, left here years ago, but Kyle decides not to mention it.

"What?" Stan says. He comes to Kyle, who is sitting at the breakfast bar with his sliced strawberries and yogurt. Stan frowns and examines the text when Kyle hands him the phone. "Is this from that same number?"

"I guess so. It's private, whatever number it is."

"Why would someone call you a slut?" Stan asks.

"I don't know," Kyle says. "It's such an antiquated insult. Everyone these days is a slut by the old standards, aren't they?" Since Cartman and Ike's time travel technology introduced universal STD inoculations and retroactive cures, sex has become 'fun again,' or so Kyle has read. For Kyle, the widespread availability of ass only makes going out in search of it that much more intimidating.

"You're not a slut," Stan says, and he gives Kyle a hug.

"Thanks." He knows that he's not, but he's oddly uplifted by Stan's reassurance. He watches Stan go to the fridge, wondering if they're going to talk about last night. Kyle isn't sure he wants to.

"I jerked off in your shower," Stan says, examining the contents of the fridge.

"So?" Kyle says. "I don't mind. As long as you don't pee in there."

"What's the difference?" Stan says, and he looks angry when he turns. "I mean, it washes down the drain either way. Why doesn't come bother you? It's gross, too."

"See!" Kyle says, pointing at him. "You're not attracted to men. If you think come is gross, forget it."

"I don't think all come is gross, but random come is gross. Mine should be gross to you."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Kyle asks, increasingly alarmed. "Don't tell me what to think of your come!"

"I can't be around you right now," Stan says, and he slams the fridge shut, heading for the front door.

"Fine, asshole!" Kyle calls. "That's Cartman's shirt, by the way!"

"Gross," Stan says, but when he leaves he's still wearing it.

Kyle spends the rest of the day in a funk, and when he gets a text from Cartman halfway through his rounds, he's not sure how to feel about it. Usually it's a combination of excitement and shame over that excitement, but at the moment he's mostly feeling judged by Stan, though Stan isn't here to discover that Cartman has contacted him about future sex.

coming to town short notice. when are you home tonight

Not until 10, Kyle sends, and he knows that won't be a problem. Cartman has paid him visits later than that. He operates on his own depraved schedule. A few minutes later he's sent a response:

fine see you then

Most of the time Cartman at least greases his texts with some banter or innuendo to discreetly convey his own excitement about seeing Kyle, but these seem perfunctory, even bored. Kyle is in a shitty mood for the rest of the day, awaiting an apology from Stan that doesn't come. His six-year-old patient is stable but still under a critical watch.

"Have you ever gotten harassing phone calls and texts from a private number?" Kyle asks his favorite nurse during dinner break. Her name is Jessica and she's sixty-eight years old. Kyle has personally encouraged her not to retire, because she's still sharper and more attentive than most of his staff, including some surgical interns.

"I don't think I have," she says after some consideration. They're in the cafeteria, Kyle making a meal out of garlic bread and grapes. "Someone bothering you?"

"I think they must have the wrong number," Kyle says. "It sounds like a scorned lover or something, and I don't have any of those."

"How can that be true?" she asks. "You must have scorned someone, at some point. You're forty!"

"Forty-two," Kyle says, frowning.

"Even so," she says. "You might not have known it, but I'm sure you've done some scorning."

"I really haven't! The only person I've ever really been with on a regular basis still has — access. I'm seeing him tonight."

"Executor Cartman."

"Yes." Kyle rolls his eyes. Jessica doesn't know about Cartman because Kyle has confided in her—the whole hospital became aware of Kyle's involvement with the famous time travel CEO when pictures of them were published on gay gossip blogs years ago. "And don't call him that. Not that I'm offended on his behalf, but he gave himself that title, you know. It doesn't even make sense. He's so dumb, in a way. Ugh, what am I doing with my life?"

"Saving other people, mostly," Jessica says. "And that's okay. I never married."

"I know," Kyle says, mumbling.

"It's not as bad as it looks from where you're sitting."

"It's not that I want to marry," Kyle says. "I just want someone to hold me when the windows in my apartment start to freak me out."

"Sweetie," Jessica says. She seems to have no follow up to that endearment, just sad eyes, so Kyle makes an excuse about work and finishes his meal quickly, leaving the crusts and a half a tub of grapes.

The train is late, and Kyle barely makes it home by ten o'clock, feeling jumpy about how dark and quiet his street is. He's glad for the doorman and the security of his lobby, but he forgoes the mail, not wanting to linger outside the locked door of his apartment. His skin prickles with alarm when he puts his key in only to discover that the door is unlocked.

"Hello?" he calls, pushing it open with his knuckles. The hallway is empty and glaringly silent, not even a dog barking or a TV blaring. The walls in this apartment building were appropriately marketed as thick. Kyle could be murdered, screaming, and none of his neighbors would hear.

When Kyle nudges the door open enough to see inside, he discovers a hulking man standing at the windows, looking out at the city. It only takes him a moment to recognize Cartman's bulky shoulders and fat hands, which are clasped behind his back in a somewhat menacing fashion.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Kyle shouts, and Cartman actually startles, as if he was deep in thought. "You scared the shit out of me, and you left my door hanging open!"

"It wasn't hanging open, Kyle. It was slightly ajar for purposes of easy access. I was doing you a favor."

"Oh, were you?" Kyle had almost forgotten what a bad mood he's in. He walks inside, shuts the door and bolts it. "Yeah, thanks for leaving my home open to any murdering psycho who happened by."

"As if a murdering psycho would be any match for me," Cartman says, and he crosses the room toward Kyle. "You seem feisty this evening," he says. "I approve."

"I don't need your approval," Kyle says. He goes to the fridge, wishing for a beer, but Stan finished his last one the night before. "I'm going to have a drink," he says, opening a high cabinet and groping for the gin. "And frankly, I'm not sure I'm up for sex tonight, so maybe I should've just told you not to come."

"You wound me," Cartman says, and he fetches the out of reach bottle for Kyle, who is annoyed by the gesture. "I came here for conversation, actually."

"Yeah, right. Do you want a drink or not?"

They drink their martinis there in the kitchen, Kyle sitting on the counter and Cartman lurking around, poking into cabinets and the fridge. Kyle waits angrily to hear his attempt at conversation. It's not that they don't usually talk, they do, but it's always in bed, after, naked.

"You seem a little on edge," Cartman says when he turns from pretending to examine the recycling pickup schedule that Kyle has pinned to his fridge with a Broncos magnet. "Any reason for that?"

"Work," Kyle says. "I'm overloaded, like always."

"You're usually kind of giddy when you come off a shift," Cartman says, studying him with narrowing eyes.

"I'm never giddy."

"Oh, Kyle. Who do you think you're talking to? I've seen you with your ass in the air after you'd snorted pixellite, so high you thought I was already fucking you. You were giddy. I've seen it all! What's up? Something's wrong, I can tell."

"Don't remind me about that fucking night," Kyle says. It was one of the few times Cartman was able to talk him into taking a designer drug he'd smuggled back from the future, and though it was true that the thing left him with no hangover, the experience of being on it was frightening in immediate retrospect. Kyle had decided the sound of breaking plates was extremely erotic, and he'd goaded Cartman into nearly destroying his entire kitchen, all the while having painfully stacked orgasms just from the sound of shattering dinnerware.

"It was a little fucked up, I'll admit," Cartman says. "But you were so open to me, Kyle, it was beautiful. Now you're pissed off just because I took the security of your apartment upon myself for ten minutes. Look, I'm tired, too. I didn't expect to have to make this trip."

"So sorry you had to bother," Kyle says, hurt. Cartman walks over and puts his hands on Kyle's knees, sliding them apart until Cartman can fit between them. It makes Kyle's hips ache a little, being spread open after a long day of work, but it also makes his cock stir.

- Kayotics -

"You don't know the stress I've been under," Cartman says.

"Don't act like I can't relate to stress."

"I know you can," Cartman says, and his eyes slide down to Kyle's crotch. He smirks when he sees Kyle's pants tenting. "Look, don't misunderstand, I'm happy to be here, looking forward to plowing your ass. But shit has gotten weird for me lately."

"I'm sure," Kyle says. He tends to stay out of the details of Cartman's political intrigue. Mostly he doesn't like being reminded how powerful Cartman has become due to his ownership of Ike's technology. "You haven't figured out how to go backward, have you?" Kyle asks, his stomach dropping. It would change everything, the whole landscape of the world, and Kyle has begged Ike not to reveal the discovery if he ever makes it. He hasn't gotten as far as begging Cartman not to use it for his own gain, a request that would probably be futile.

"No, no," Cartman says, and he rolls his eyes. "Nothing that dramatic. Are you sure you don't want a nice, relaxing anal massage?" He brings his hand to Kyle's crotch as he asks, rubbing him with pressure that's both just enough and not enough. Kyle's mouth gets wet, and he swallows, not sure what he wants. No, he knows: he wants to go to bed with Cartman and be mindlessly pleasured for ten or twenty minutes. What he doesn't want is to lie there afterward thinking about what Stan said to him yesterday in that same bed, or what Stan would say if he could see Kyle slobbering for the chance to be Cartman's fuck toy for the night.

"What am I to you?" Kyle asks, thwarting Cartman's attempt to kiss him.

"Oh, Jesus," Cartman says. He tips his head back and regards the ceiling in disbelief. "Are you drunk or what? You really want to talk about this kind of shit instead of fucking? Can we at least do it after?"

"I appreciate your pragmatic approach," Kyle says, honestly. "I do, it's just. I'm getting old, and that's irrelevant to you, in terms of what your options for companionship will be, but it's not to me. I'm not saying I want any sort of commitment, I'm just—"

He's interrupted by angry pounding on the door. Instinctively, Kyle grabs Cartman's tie and pulls him closer.

"Fuck," Cartman mutters. He sounds more annoyed than surprised about this intrusion.

"What's going on?" Kyle asks.

"Hello!" the knocker says, shouting. It's a man, a youngish and slightly effeminate one by the sound of it. "I know you're in there, I saw your fucking car outside. You have to deal with me, Eric! I could fucking sue you, okay, I could ruin you, you have to deal with me!" There was more frantic knocking then, with what sounded like both fists.

"Ugh," Cartman says. He's flushing, tugging at his tie. "Excuse me for a moment."

"You're not letting that person in here!" Kyle says when Cartman goes for the door. Kyle slides off the counter and adjusts his pants, his erection rapidly wilting. "Cartman! Stop! Take your bullshit elsewhere, I didn't sign up for this!"

"Bitch, will you unclench?" Cartman says, and for a moment Kyle assumes Cartman is talking to him, but he's addressing the person on the other side of the door. Ignoring Kyle's pleas, he unlocks the dead bolt and reaches for the knob. "You're out of control!" Cartman shouts at the person who is standing on Kyle's doorstep.

"So why don't you fucking fire me, Eric?" the man outside asks, and he pushes in past Cartman easily, though he's half Cartman's size. For a moment, Kyle thinks he's hallucinating some vision of himself from the past. The person who just walked into his apartment looks remarkably like him at first glance: red hair, pale face pinched in anger, jutting hips, and that's pretty definitely Kyle's post-surgery nose.

"What the fuck," Kyle says, boggling. It's not even a question. He backs up until he hits the kitchen counter.

"Yeah, drink it in," says the man — or kid, really, since he looks about twenty years younger than Kyle, despite all other similarities. "You can imagine how disturbed I was when I saw your picture for the first time. Eric is a fucking pig, psycho, sociopath—"

"Okay, yeah, we're real impressed," Cartman says, reaching for the kid's shoulder. "If I'm such a fucking lunatic why don't you just quit?"

"Because I love you, shithead!" the kid says, and he knocks a basket full of paper napkins off of the bar that looks into the kitchen.

"Hey!" Kyle says. "Stop, what — what is this? Who is this?" he asks, looking to Cartman. His heart is pounding, vision beginning to tunnel, as if he's been poisoned by the sight of his doppelganger. Then there are the more insidious implications: what is Cartman doing, exactly, with a Kyle-like person who is shouting that he loves him?

"This is Auden," Cartman says. He's red-faced, visibly sweating. "My assistant."

"His fuck toy," Auden says, and he knocks a stack of coasters off the bar with a vigorous slap, sending them flying into the living room area.

"Stop wrecking my shit!" Kyle says. "Cartman, what the fuck is wrong with you?" Kyle's fingers are beginning to tremble. This kid might not be a kid precisely, but he can't be more than twenty-five, and he looks too much like a younger version of Kyle for his hair color, nose, or hips to be a coincidence.

"I have a type, okay!" Cartman says. "Jesus, it's not like I promised either of you a fucking rose garden."

"You promised me that you weren't fucking anyone else on a regular basis!" Auden says. He punches the counter this time, sparing Kyle's salt and pepper shakers. "Including and especially not this fucking slut cardiologist!"

"You're the one who's been harassing me?" Kyle says. "You called me a slut?"

"Whoa, what?" Cartman glares at Auden. "When?"

"Ugh, I was drunk," Auden says. There's something about the way he moves that reminds Kyle of himself in a grotesque way, like the disconnect he experiences when he sees video of himself performing surgery, or hears a recording of his own voice. It's there in the way Auden pushes his wavy curls off his forehead, too, as if he's studied Kyle's gestures and adopted them as his own. "I'm here to tell you both that this ends or I quit," he says, directing this mostly to Cartman. "And I'd be quitting in my capacity both as your assistant and as your sex slave, Eric."

"Get the hell out of here and wait for me in the car," Cartman says, pointing toward the door. "Now."

"Nope," Auden says, and he starts walking around Kyle's living room, examining the artwork. "Not leaving until I get an answer."

"I'll call the cops!" Kyle says. "Both of you, really, get the fuck out. Cartman, you're sick."

"Sick? Why am I sick?" Cartman is so red that Kyle is beginning to worry that he'll have a heart-related episode of some kind. He's imagined what it would be like to have to do an emergency surgery on the man he lost his virginity to, and the thought is horrifying. "You should take this as a compliment!" Cartman says. He's keeping one eye on Auden as he speaks, as if he's afraid Auden will start breaking things in the living room. "I mean—ah! I like the way you look. Both of you. So fucking what?"

"Get out," Kyle says. "And take this sad child with you. I hope to God you didn't have his nose done."

"Please," Auden says, swiveling from his examination of Kyle's view. "I don't need surgery to fake good proportions. My face was always symmetrical."

"He's not even Jewish!" Cartman says. Kyle picks up the empty gin glass and throws it at Cartman, intentionally missing him. It thunks onto the carpet in the living room, melted ice sloshing out.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Kyle asks. "He's not Jewish—so? What? No, I don't care—you're sick, I'm sick for putting up with this for as long as I have. Get the fuck out!"

"We'll talk later," Cartman says. "When you've cooled off." He turns to Auden and whistles. "Get your ass over here before Kyle calls the cops. He'll do it, he's pissed."

"I'm not pissed, I'm sickened!" It's something deeper than that, actually, more personal and heart wrenching. He's been such a fool. "Get out!"

"Fine," Auden says, prancing toward the door, which Cartman is holding open for him. "I'll consider this your resignation. Eric only fucks me now, you understand? I don't come from some dirty mountain suburb. I don't share my things."

"Get your ass moving," Cartman says, and he nudges Auden out into the hallway. He casts a pathetic look back at Kyle, who picks up the other glass. This time, he'll aim to strike. "Kyle," Cartman says, inching away nervously. "Look, uh—"

"Out!" Kyle screams, and he hoists the glass. Cartman ducks out of the way quickly, shutting the door behind him.

Kyle doesn't actually throw the glass. He holds it, breathing heavily, listening to Cartman and Auden's receding footsteps and bickering conversation until the elevator arrives to whisk them away. Only then does he put the glass down, and he retrieves the one he threw. He's having a hard time processing what just happened. He feels as if he's asleep, but he can't ignore the very real physical pain in his gut, a tightening of his organs that works itself all the way up to his heart. It's the sort of thing he should have expected, that Cartman would comb the world to find someone who looks like him after Kyle refused the opportunity to join him on his travels. Unless he's acquired a Kyle impersonator by some other, more devious means?

Kyle can't call Stan, too humiliated by this farce to try to explain it to him yet. He finds his phone on the sofa and dials with shaking fingers, praying that Craig will answer. If Kyle is left alone with his initial thought process about what he just witnessed, he feels like he might go insane from trying to understand it on even the most basic level.

"What's wrong?" Craig asks. He sounds like he's at home, thankfully.

"Are you alone?" Kyle asks. "Can you talk?"

"No, but yes," Craig says. "Daniel is here. He's sleeping."

"Who the hell is Daniel?"

"I told you, didn't I? We go running together. I don't even know what he's doing here, I thought he was straight. I'm actually glad you called. I'm having an existential crisis. Well, I don't know if existential is the right word, but I'm drunk, so it'll have to do."

"What's your crisis about?" Kyle asks, going for the gin. This happens more often than not when he calls Craig to vent: he ends up being on the receiving end of Craig's venting before he can get two words in.

"I don't know if I like bottoming anymore," Craig says. Kyle thinks of Stan's tepid sexuality reconsiderations and decides not to mention it to Craig yet.

"Well, that's rough," Kyle says, annoyed. "Meanwhile, Cartman has a twenty-year-old doppelganger of me that he may have genetically engineered, and it appeared at my apartment this evening to try to break all my stuff."


"Yeah, you know, no big deal, just another night in the life of Kyle Broflovski. I feel like I'm in the fucking Twilight Zone, like. He had my nose."

"Who did?" Craig asks, as if Cartman might have stolen it off of Kyle's face.

"This kid!" Kyle drinks some gin and realizes that he's explaining this poorly. "Cartman's assistant. He's been harassing me, texting the word 'slut' to me and hanging up when I answer the phone, and now he's come to my apartment and flung coasters everywhere. Fuck! How am I actually this pathetic?" He's on the verge of crying, thinking about how infrequently Cartman has visited in the past few years, presumably since he found a new, younger model.

"You mentioned a doppelganger?" Craig says.

"He looks like me, Craig, like a young me. Jesus, keep up! He had red hair, curly hair, only it wasn't gross curly like mine, it was, ugh—I bet Cartman has a personal stylist who travels with them just to do that little troll's hair. I should have expected this from him. That's the thing that always gets me, Jesus. He keeps taking me by surprise when I know him so fucking well."

"I've been telling you that you're too good for that cock since senior year, so I don't know what you want me to say. Cut all ties, clearly."

"Right, sure, of course, but then what do I have? Huh? I'm forty-two, Craig." He's getting really tired of saying this, but he can't seem to stop. "I haven't had sex with anyone other than Cartman since my mid-fucking-twenties, okay, so don't even act like I shouldn't be freaking out a little."

"How'd you get rid of the child-Kyle?" Craig asks. "Did he break all your stuff?"

"No, he mostly attacked napkins, and Cartman was here, so he took the abomination with him when I threw him out."

"Are you crying?" Craig asks. He sounds more sympathetic than judgmental, which makes Kyle cry harder. He holds the phone away until he's got his dry sobs under control.

"No," he says, his voice still all cut-up. "I'm just upset. This is upsetting. Not because of Cartman, but because of me. Because of the choices I've made."

"Well." Craig is silent for a while. He doesn't like dealing with crying people. "I'm not going to say I told you so or anything like that, so calm down. I'm sure you've already gotten enough of that from Marsh."

"I haven't told Stan yet." Kyle bends down to retrieve one of the scattered napkins and blows his nose into it.

"Interesting," Craig says. "Though, I guess I could see why. Look, man, don't freak out. This is a good thing. You'll see that soon. And you're not bad looking. Some other dork who works all the time will happily cohabitate with you if you'd just put some effort into meeting people for once."

"But I don't want to," Kyle says, wibbling. "I don't like people. And I don't have any real pants."

"Christ, are you still wearing scrubs to the grocery store?"

"Yes, Craig, God! I'm always coming from work, what do you want from me?" He also wears them around town sometimes, but only the gray pair that can sort of pass for linen pants.

"I'll come to town," Craig says. "I've got vacation saved up, and you need a new wardrobe. We could make this fun. We'll get you one of those divorce cakes."

"Divorce cakes?"

"Yeah, my mom's girlfriends got her one when she left my dad. It's like, a bride figurine pushing a groom figurine off the top of a cake, presumably to his grisly death. We'd have to alter this for your situation, of course—"

"Do come," Kyle says, feeling intensely lonely. "Please, yes, that would help. I can't lean on Stan right now."

"Why not? Christ, is he back with Wendy?"

"No." Kyle hesitates, but there's no sense in hiding this from Craig, especially since Craig is the only person he could really discuss this with. "Stan is. He said something weird the other night. And he got hard."

"Hard? What, his dick?"

"Yeah, Craig, his dick, and I asked him what was up with that, and he said he's lonely and thinking about dating men."

There's a long silence from Craig.

"Hello?" Kyle barks, irritated; he can hear Craig breathing with measured agitation.

"Listen, Kyle," Craig says. "Listen to me closely. Do not fall for Marsh's shit, not while you're vulnerable like this. He just wants to cement your lifelong worship of him by getting you to suck his cock. Then he'll refuse to reciprocate, cry, and you'll be crushed anew. Don't do it."

"You are totally misunderstanding the situation," Kyle says. He thinks of Craig's long-standing feelings for Clyde, but doesn't dare mention them. "He wasn't propositioning me. He was talking about men, generally."

"Right, while he was in bed with you and erect. Okay. Fuck, I saw this coming ten years ago. Surprised it's taken this long."

"Saw what coming? Huh?"

"Stan's mid-life crisis, and exactly how he would involve you in it. You're too good to be playing along with these assholes we knew in high school, Kyle. Just nod politely and let Stan have his little gay crisis with some twink who looks like you, Cartman-style."

"You're so fucking cruel," Kyle says. "And Stan would never. It's not like that."

"Uh-huh. Okay. Look, we've always agreed to disagree on Stan's merits or lack thereof. I'm booking a flight to D.C. for two weeks from now. Will you be able to entertain me then?"

"Sure," Kyle says. "Yeah, sounds good."

"I'll bring the taste in men's fashion, you bring the vodka," Craig says. He sighs. "Well, no. You drink gin now, don't you?"

"It's less fattening," Kyle says.

"Who on earth gave you that idea? Alright, well, drink all the gin you like, and don't you dare lay a finger on Marsh's cock before I get there."

"You're being ignorant," Kyle says. "You know Stan is like my brother."

"Yes, Kyle, because so many brothers in their forties spoon each other after they've had a bad day."

"Only after I lose a patient!" Kyle says, lying, though nights like the one before are rare except in extreme circumstances. Or, they used to be. Lately they've both been—lonely. "I have to go," Kyle says. "I'm going to go shave my head so I look less like that kid."

"Don't!" Craig says, and the sheer terror in his voice makes Kyle grin.

"Only joking," he says. Craig huffs.

"You'd do well not to joke about your looks in such a grisly fashion. Take this seriously, Kyle, and I can get you a real man."

Kyle is able to sleep for an hour after he hangs up with Craig, but he wakes in the middle of the night with a headache and a sense of overwhelming, general illness, as if seeing that Auden person was a terminal diagnosis. When he can't get back to sleep he checks his phone, expecting a message from Stan or at least some groveling from Cartman, but there's nothing. Even his mother has stopped calling him, possibly because he was so rude to her the last time he visited South Park. He just can't take any more of her presidency of the Ike Broflovski fan club. He can't take much of anyone these days, outside of the quiet sanctuary of an operating room.

Newly upset, he gets out of bed and goes to his closet. It's two o'clock in the morning, he feels like shit, but if he's not going to get any sleep, he might as well try an experiment. He'll show Craig, and Stan: he'll go out to one of the all night gay clubs, and no one will approach him. This will make him feel like shit, but he needs to feel like shit for some reason more legitimate than being heartbroken by evidence that Cartman has replaced him. He'd always thought he had such ironclad barriers to prevent any attempt at heartbreak by Cartman.

He dresses in his gray scrub pants and a sweater that is artfully fitted, or so he hopes. He brushes his teeth, splashes water on his blotchy face, and tries to do something with his hair. It looks so stupid now, in contrast to Auden's beautiful waves. It's not that Kyle can't afford to get his hair treated, it's just that he's got too much real life responsibility to put aside the time. How pathetic it would be, even with the best possible hair care, to serve as Cartman's assistant and then service him under his desk? Though he's become a pathetic figure in his own way, the reason that Kyle has never accompanied Cartman on his adventures is that turning into that sort of petulant kept boy is his worst nightmare.

As soon as he's downstairs in the florescent lights of his lobby, he realizes this is a bad idea, but he has the doorman get him a taxi anyway. He doesn't want to go to one of the bars he used to be seen at with Cartman, so he picks one in Chinatown that's been in the news recently on the few gay gossip blogs that Kyle follows. He mostly frequents them for news of Cartman's various one night stands, and he's never seen Auden in any candids. So how close can they really be? Kyle puts his elbows on his knees, head in his hands, and reminds himself that it doesn't matter. He had never considered how much it would hurt to hear Cartman berating a competing love interest. It bespeaks a certain amount of intimacy.

It's late enough that there's no line at the door, but the bouncer still eyes Kyle skeptically, as if he's too old for this place. The bar is too cool to have an 'official,' name, but it's referred to as Purgatory on the blogs. Kyle forgets why, if there even is a reason. It's not the sort of place Cartman would enjoy, despite its trendiness: the crowd is packed in, the music is blaring and there's nowhere to sit. Kyle stands at the bar, waiting to get the bartender's attention. Twenty minutes later he has a gin and tonic.

The music is bad, and Kyle has only ever danced in public while drunk out of his mind with Cartman. It had felt appropriate, then: if he was indulging in alcohol and sex with an asshole, why not dance idiotically, too? He feels lost without Cartman's overwhelming physical presence, and he hunches with his elbows on the bar, finishing his drink too quickly. His head still hurts, and everything aches. What is he doing here? Nothing productive, but he orders another drink.

He's finding it hard to get drunk, too anxious or too far past the ideal threshold that he crossed earlier. Getting the bartender's attention is impossible, and he's thinking about leaving without paying for his drinks when a guy sidles up next to him and grins.

"You look so miserable," the guy says. He's cute, dirty blond and a little short, too young for Kyle—maybe some type of grifter? "You get dumped or something?" the guy asks, speaking close to Kyle's ear to combat the noise of the club.

"No," Kyle says. He's going to tell the guy to mind his own fucking business, but isn't this what he came here for? To get talked up and ultimately rejected, or something like that? "I'm Kyle," he says, and he puts out his hand, not sure if people shake pre-hookup. The kid grins like maybe they don't, but he takes Kyle's hand and gives him a weak but friendly handshake.

"Brock," he says.

"That's your name?" Kyle asks, perhaps more drunk than he'd realized.

"Uh, yeah. That's my name."

"It's just that you don't look like a Brock."

"Who do I look like?"

"A little like my friend Kenny, actually," Kyle says, though he hasn't seen or spoken to Kenny in over twenty years. "He's tall, though."

"I like your hair," Brock says, ignoring the comment about his height. "Do you want to go somewhere we can talk?"

"Like where?" Kyle asks, relatively certain that this kid will pull a knife on him as soon as they're alone.

"Like the back rooms," Brock says. "They have stalls."

Kyle grunts. He knows what 'stalls' are, though he's never been in one. Ever since STDs were eliminated, bars have been combating a huge increase in bathroom stall sex by building sex stalls in the back hallways. This way, people who actually need the toilet don't have to wait.

"I'm too old for you," Kyle says, beginning to feel nervous. Brock laughs.

"I think you're younger than the guys who usually fuck me," he says.

"Well, I'm not that into topping," Kyle says, and he can feel his blush starting. "So. If you're looking for some daddy action—" He cringes at his choice of words, because that can't be the right term for it.

"I could blow you," Brock says. He glances out at the crowd like he's growing bored with this already.

"Okay," Kyle says, because if Cartman can get his dick sucked by some fresh-faced young thing, Kyle can, too. Apparently. "Is this really how people do it?" Kyle asks, shouting this question as he follows Brock toward the back of the club. "You just see someone and ask?"

"At three in the morning, yeah," Brock says. "If you haven't gotten laid yet. I gotta go to work at ten."

"I can't believe no one's asked you," Kyle says. "You're cute." He's holding on to Brock's arm as they move through the crowd, feeling like a little old lady who is being helped across the street.

"Thanks!" Brock says. "So are you."

"I don't know," Kyle says, and he rolls his eyes at himself. Now is not the time to discuss his insecurity with this twenty-something who wants to either suck his dick or steal his wallet, maybe both. "Where do you work?" he asks.

"Pita Palace."

"Oh. Cool." Kyle had a pita palace wrap once, with hummus and red peppers. He feels hungry, remembering this, and wonders if he'll soon be having a meal of some stranger's come. He can't even decide if he wants to touch this kid's dick or not as they make their way past noisily occupied sex stalls. "How old are you?" Kyle asks.

"Thirty," Brock says.

"You are not!"

"I know I look young." Brock grins and opens the door of an empty stall, gesturing for Kyle to go in first.

"Are you going to stab me or something?" Kyle asks.

"No," Brock says, and his response is so bland and unsurprised that Kyle is convinced.

"I'm from another generation," Kyle says once they're closed into the stall together. Next door, someone is grunting unattractively while getting fucked. "You know, um. We didn't grow up with time travel. Without STDs, I mean. With sex stalls."

"Must have been lame," Brock says. He reaches down to unfasten Kyle's pants, and looks confused when he finds a drawstring instead of buttons.

"I'm a doctor," Kyle says, to explain the scrubs.

"No way," Brock says. "That's cool. Did you come here from work?"

"I did not. Actually, you were right. I came here from getting dumped. Maybe we shouldn't—"

"Aw, here." Brock drops to his knees and pulls Kyle's underwear down. His dick is soft, and his pubes are out of control, badly in need of a trim. "This will make you feel better," Brock says, speaking to Kyle's cock as he attempts to stroke him to hardness. "Wow, I love redheads," he says, rubbing his fingers through Kyle's sizable bush. "You're like magical creatures, you know?"

"No," Kyle says, wanting to run. It's so odd to have unfamiliar hands down there, and he feels somewhat attacked. "Look—"

And then his cock is in the guy's mouth, still soft, though he's definitely feeling rumblings in his ball-area now. The rumblings aren't entirely due to arousal. There's a kind of ball-deep repulsion that he's experiencing, too, because he grew up in a world where a stranger's mouth was always a potential hotbed of festering STD germs, and it's weird to have his dick sucked while standing up, and somebody in the stall next to them smells really ripe.

"Wait," Kyle says, putting his hands on top of Brock's head. His hair is silky and soft, which gives Kyle pause, but only for moment. "I can't do this, I'm sorry."

"You can't get your dick sucked?" Brock asks, quirking an eyebrow. "You're getting hard," he says, which is true. Kyle's dick is now pointed at Brock's attractive face, and it's a nice visual, but his arousal feels sticky and uncomfortable.

"I'm too—sheltered," Kyle says, though he's pretty sure that isn't the right word. He's also sure now that he's drunk, because what the fuck is he doing in a sex stall? "I'm weird, trust me. You don't want to swallow my come."

"Do you get off on a being a tease?" Brock asks, and when he stands again, Kyle suddenly feels small, though they're about the same height. "I'm so over this fucking scene," Brock mutters before Kyle can refute his tease accusation. Brock leaves the stall, banging the door shut behind him. It doesn't close fully, and someone out in the corridor stops to stare at Kyle's erection as he pulls his scrubs up over it.

"Get lost!" Kyle shouts, and the voyeur flees.

The club is not as densely packed on his way out, and the music is more subdued. Bartenders are shouting for last call. Kyle waddles out with both hands over his crotch, suppressing the urge to cry.

At home, he does cry, but it's only a little sniffling in the shower. He stands under the hot water for an indeterminate amount of time, surprised to see that the sun is rising when he emerges. He's got to work today, but not until noon. He'd planned on sleeping in with Cartman and maybe having breakfast together in town. The whole evening with Cartman and the kid who looked like him seems like it took place weeks ago, in some alternate dimension.

He sleeps for two hours, then wakes and resumes fretting. So sex is available to him after all, and even with attractive partners. But it's not what he wants, and he knew that before he arrived at the club. He wants someone truly lovable in bed with him right now, snoring and warm, a heavy arm draped over his side. He thinks of Stan and gropes for his phone, but there's still nothing from him, and Craig was right about one thing: Kyle can't involve himself in whatever Stan is going through. It would have the potential to become clumsily sexual, and another friends-with-benefits situation is the last thing that Kyle needs, especially because Stan will probably only indulge this phase for a few weeks before he meets a twenty-year-old barista and impregnates her.

Kyle feels a bit guilty, thinking of Stan this way. He knows Stan wants to settle down with a woman who will whip him into shape and possibly give him more children, and that the prospect of putting himself 'out there' on that level is what's terrifying him into hallucinating a crisis of sexuality. When Stan got Wendy pregnant he was ecstatic, and Kyle was depressed. It wasn't something he'd anticipated, and at the time he'd decided it was jealousy: Stan was going to have a real family, something concrete that Kyle would never be a part of. He didn't want to lose his sometimes-roommate and best friend to an alien life of fatherhood and matrimony. Part of him had been relieved when Stan and Wendy couldn't even make it to her due date without ending their engagement, but he'd also been crushed on Stan's behalf. It had been one of the worst stretches in Stan's long history of bad spells, but Kyle had nursed him through it, and he'd been there at the hospital when Wendy gave birth and Stan met his son. Kyle had taken pictures, glad to be included.

On the way to work, he gets a message from Cartman and tries to ignore it, but is only successful in doing so for two seconds.

can we meet for dinner tonight so I can explain this shit?

Kyle types a bitchy response before he can consider his strategy properly:

I doubt your lover would appreciate being referred to as 'this shit.' Have a nice life with that lunatic, and don't you dare think of me when you're fucking him. I feel violated

He deletes I feel violated before sending. He doesn't get a response until he's getting off the Metro.

why can't you just take this as a compliment? I miss you, you won't travel with me, so I compromised

Enraged, Kyle forces himself to wait until he's in the men's locker room at the hospital before responding, from the privacy of a bathroom stall.

You fucking idiot. Someone who looks like me is not a COMPROMISE. He is nothing like me. You are sick, and this is degrading to everyone involved. I'll be blocking your number as soon as someone explains how to do so. Goodbye, and thanks for nothing.

His thumb hovers over the send button, his heart pounding. He's afraid to hurt Cartman's feelings, even now. Irritated by this realization, he hits send, then wishes he'd deleted 'thanks for nothing.' He waits for a response, but nothing comes, and he's shaking as he rises from the toilet seat to wash his hands and begin his rounds.

The week passes in a lonely slog, and Kyle resorts to arguing about bad medical advice on internet message board as post-work entertainment. He also drinks quite a bit, and by Friday he's drained the bottle of gin. He's preparing to go out and get another when there's a knock on his door. Expecting Cartman, and somewhat heartened by the idea that he's finally shown up to try to fight for him, Kyle yanks open the door with a defensive scowl. His expression drops into embarrassed surprise when he sees Stan and Grady standing in the hallway, carrying their overnight bags.

"Oh, sh— shoot," Kyle says. "It's — I totally lost track of what weekend it was. Where have you been?"

"The same place I always am," Stan says. He seems angry, his fist tight around the strap of his shoulder bag. "Can we come in, or are you in the middle of something?"

"Of course you can come in," Kyle says, and he touches Grady's head reassuringly as he walks into the apartment. He's got a mop of shiny black hair, more like sleek than Stan's, which still hasn't been cut and is curling a bit over his ears. "How did your field trip go?" he asks Grady, who flops his backpack onto the dining room table.

"Good," Grady says. "I got fried ice cream."

"Did you also learn about Latin American culture?" Kyle asks, watching Stan from the corner of his eye. He's at the fridge, eying the contents as if looking for clues about what Kyle has done wrong recently.

"I guess," Grady says. "We had to speak in Spanish all day."

"That's excellent," Kyle says. "I wish they'd forced us to learn a foreign language. It would be so convenient to be fluent in Spanish."

"Wendy's trying to teach him Japanese, too," Stan says, muttering.

"You sound like you don't approve," Kyle says. Grady is already bored with them, heading for the TV.

"It's a lot for a kid his age," Stan says. He comes toward Kyle, lowering his voice. "He needs time to just goof off and play, like we did." He studies Kyle's face for a moment, frowning. "What's wrong?" he asks.

"Nothing," Kyle says. "I'll tell you later."

"Are you okay?"

"Yes! What should we do for dinner tonight?" Kyle asks, approaching Grady.

"Hot dogs," Grady says. It's one of the foods Wendy forbids.

"I think that can be arranged," Kyle says.

"Food cart ones!"

"No," Stan says.

"Dad." Grady has his feet up on Kyle's coffee table and the remote on his stomach, and everything about his posture is so Stan that Kyle almost feels emotional, looking at him. He's got Wendy's sharp gray eyes and wheedling confidence, but the rest of him is straight from the past, a little Stan who has time traveled. "They've never made me sick!" he says.

"You don't know what's in those things," Stan says. He goes to the couch and flops down beside Grady. "You're supposed to be eating organic."

"Just don't tell Mom," Grady says, boggling at Stan like this is the obvious solution.

"Yeah, no kidding," Stan says. "I won't tell her you ate an all-beef hot dog from Whole Foods."

Next comes Kyle's favorite part of a Stan and Grady weekend: grocery shopping, and planning their meals and activities as they browse the aisles. Solitary trips to the grocery store have become uncomfortably emblematic of his loneliness. The brightly lit aisles make him feel anxious and exposed, especially when he pursues the ready-made, one serving meals at the deli. He has spent some time imagining that people who see the three of them together might assume that Kyle is Grady's other father, and that those times when they've seen Kyle alone at the store—because the Whole Foods cashiers are certainly keeping track—he was only shopping alone so that Stan could stay home with Grady and help him with his homework.

"Can we go see the golden lions?" Grady asks as they're browsing the pasta aisle, another delicacy that Grady only eats when he's with Stan.

"Sure," Stan says. "Tomorrow, though."

"That sounds great," Kyle says, to make sure he's invited. He doesn't always join Stan and Grady on their father-son outings during the weekends when they crash at his place, but the golden lion tamrins at the D.C. Zoo are Grady's new obsession, and Kyle has a fondness for them, too, though mostly he enjoys watching Stan and Grady watch them and comment on their behavior. Stan is a good father, and Kyle is suddenly misty-eyed, thinking of this. He examines a store-brand pasta sauce while he gets his emotions under control. He's looking forward to gushing about Cartman to Stan later, and is annoyed with himself for pridefully postponing the confession all week.

"Hey," Stan says, easing the jar of sauce from Kyle's hand. "Don't bother with that stuff. I'll make something."

"You don't have to," Kyle says. He knows Stan can see how torn up he is; his expression has softened, and he's giving Kyle that look, searching and understanding at the same time.

"I like cooking in your kitchen," Stan says. He touches Kyle's arm and puts the jar of sauce back on the shelf. "Mine's always dirty, at the apartment. I can't control those guys."

"God," Kyle says, barely stopping himself from begging Stan to just move in with him. The timing couldn't be worse for something like that. "Okay, just. I'll get a can of tomato puree, um. Unless you were thinking of some other sauce?"

"Cheese sauce!" Grady says, and Kyle touches his stomach. He always gains weight during these weekends.

Back at the house, Stan makes a vegetarian chili to go with the hot dogs, which Kyle is in charge of boiling. They watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Stan fast-forwards past the scary parts. Grady doesn't protest: he's like Stan, afraid of snakes and uncomfortable watching people who are in pain. Kyle actually loves the heart-out-of-chest scene; he's sometimes wondered if his childhood fascination with that particular gore was inspiration for his career.

"They got married in real life," Kyle says when Indy kisses Willie.

"No, no," Stan says. "She married Spielberg. The director," he says, to Grady.

"She should have married Indy," Grady says. He looks at Kyle. "How come you aren't married?" he asks.

"Honey," Stan says, and he glances at Kyle. "Mom and I explained about that."

"Can't you marry a boy, though?" Grady asks.

"Marriage isn't for everyone," Kyle says.

"I know," Grady says, seeming a bit irritated that he needs to tell Kyle so. "Like Mom and Dad."

"Exactly," Stan says. "Let's go to bed."

"Mom has a boyfriend, though," Grady says.

"I know," Kyle says. He's heard a lot about Everett. "I had one, too. But we broke up." He glances at Stan, who rolls his eyes, which hurts.

"How come he was never around here?" Grady asks.

"I didn't want you exposed to his bad influence," Stan says, as if that's the reason Cartman never spent much time at Kyle's place. "C'mon, let's get ready for bed."

"Why was he bad?" Grady asks, turning to look back at Kyle as Stan leads him from the couch.

"It's a long story," Kyle says.

"He's was a bully," Stan says.

"It's not that simple," Kyle says, feeling humiliated, and rethinking his plans to confide in Stan about exactly what happened.

"Right," Stan says, and he scoffs.

"Are you mad?" Grady asks, whispering as they head down the hall toward the guest bedroom.

"No," Stan says. "Everything's fine. C'mon, get your PJ's on."

Kyle puts the kitchen in order and heads toward his own bedroom, calling goodnight to Grady on the way there. He's in a bad mood as he dresses for bed, changing from his activity scrub pants to the ones he sleeps in, leaving his t-shirt on. He listens to Stan puttering around in the living room, setting up the couch for sleep, and wonders again if he should tell Stan the truth. Stan isn't Craig; he takes Kyle's heartbreak personally. He might call Cartman up and chew him out, or worse. Kyle pretends he doesn't like the idea, and then pretends to be reading The Economist when Stan finally enters the bedroom.

"So?" Stan says, shutting the door behind him quietly. "What's happened now? It's really over?"

"Yeah," Kyle says. He lowers the magazine, resting it over his stomach. "It's okay. I'm fine."

"What happened?" Stan asks. He kicks his shoes off and crawls onto the bed, stopping short of pressing himself to Kyle's side. Kyle rolls against him, greedy for intimacy, the magazine crumpling between them. Stan gives him a one-armed hug and moans sympathetically. "He's an asshole."

"I was an idiot," Kyle says. "You told me so."

"Yeah, well. Look at me, look at my pathetic track record and awful choices. I can't tell anyone shit about their relationships. Did you guys fight?" He sounds a bit eager to know the gory details. Kyle sighs, his eyes shut against Stan's shoulder. His shirt smells like hot dog water and cilantro. Kyle feels his tear ducts grow heavier, not because he's mourning Cartman; he's always had a hard time taking his feelings for Cartman seriously in the presence of Stan. He's simply reached the point where this kind of comfort is upsetting, a reminder something he doesn't really have.

"He replaced me," Kyle says.

"He couldn't," Stan says, and the hair-petting begins, his fingers stroking through Kyle's curls. "Maybe he pretended to."

"No, he really did. He brought that—thing here. Unintentionally. He looked like me, Stan, only twenty years younger. He had my nose."

"Wait, seriously? Which nose?"

"This one!" Kyle says, pulling back to glare at him. "The improved one!"

"Oh," Stan says, and he does look truly upset, vaguely disgusted. "He had someone get plastic surgery to look like you? Jesus, I feel like I should have expected that. He's disgusting on inhuman levels."

"He claims it's naturally occurring," Kyle says. "The nose, I mean. He probably dyes his hair. It was a tacky shade." Actually, it was rather fetching, soft and lustrous. Kyle groans and buries his face against Stan's shoulder again. "Anyway, he's Cartman's assistant. And they fuck, and the assistant—ugh, his name is Auden—"

"What?" Stan looks very confused when Kyle peeks at him, and mildly horrified. "Like the poet?"

"I don't fucking know! Maybe? Anyway, he's violent, this Auden person. He threw my coasters."

"Did you call the police?"

"No! Cartman whisked him away. Ugh, I'm so embarrassed. I feel like a soggy old rag."

"I'm sorry he made you feel that way. But you're not old or soggy, okay? You're - cute and cozy." Stan's face turns red, slowly, after saying so. Kyle stares at him, and there's something twitching at the pit of his stomach, curling downward. But it's nothing to do with Stan, specifically.

"He said I should be flattered," Kyle says.

"Fuck him. These are his true colors, Kyle, okay? You know him. You know he's capable of evil."

"It's hardly evil. I mean, I knew he slept with other people. But this—"

"This is sick!"

"Yeah." Kyle nuzzles back into Stan's embrace, though something in him is still on edge. "Will you sleep in here until morning?" he asks.

"Of course, dude." Stan is quiet for a moment, toying with Kyle's curls. "So you told him it's over? And he accepted it?"

"I guess he has. I thanked him for nothing. That sort of thing. And— oh, shit, will you block his number for me? Do you know how to do that?"

"I think I could figure it out."

Kyle hugs his arm around Stan, depressed to realize that he forgot to actually block the number. Cartman simply hasn't called, and hasn't sent an ostentatious flower arrangement to the hospital the way he had in the past, when they parted on weird terms or after he'd been in another country for months. There's only one conclusion to draw from this, after how things went down: Cartman doesn't care. Maybe he even encouraged Auden to stage the scene that played out in Kyle's apartment, so that he could get out of breaking it off with Kyle.

"Also," Kyle says when he's not sure that Stan is still awake, his hand heavy and motionless in Kyle's hair. "I tried to do the club thing. The sex stalls. Oh, my God. So painful."

"What happened?" Stan asks, bolting awake and shifting back to look into Kyle's eyes. It's dark in the room, but there's enough light from the city, through the giant windows, to illuminate their faces. "Kyle!" Stan says when he hesitates.

"A guy came onto me! He was cute, and young. He claimed to be thirty — I mean, he was so cute, Stan. But it just felt gross."

"What did he do to you?"

"Nothing! It was over before it began."

"But you said. You said 'painful.'"

"Yeah, emotionally. I couldn't go through with it. This cute guy has his lips around my dick, and all I can think about are germs. Jesus, maybe I'm straight."

He feels bad for the joke, because Stan looks suddenly crushed. Kyle rolls onto his back and moves away from him a little, wanting to communicate that he finds Stan's wonderings about his sexuality no laughing matter himself. It's distressing, if anything.

"I can't believe you went right from Cartman to looking for sex," Stan says, and he actually seems angry.

"Excuse me, what?" Kyle says, boggling at him. "You don't get to judge me about this! I haven't been with anyone but him in a long time, okay, and I was drunk—"



"You can't go out alone, drunk, to those kinds of places! Jesus, haven't you heard the horror stories?"

"Of course I have, but it was that or some type of other self-harming behavior, and I couldn't call you."

"Why the hell not?"

"Because we'd fought! Because of this fucking—gay thing. Are you over that now, or what?"

"You're an asshole," Stan says, but he doesn't leave the bed, just rolls onto his back huffily. They both lie there, breathing audibly and staring at the ceiling. Kyle isn't sure he has it in him to question Stan any further on the subject, but he's not totally unwilling to listen.

"I'm sorry," Kyle says, though he really isn't. "It's just hard for me to take what you said seriously when I've spent forty years watching you chase women."

"Women, Kyle? Wendy was the only one I really chased."

"Yes, and what a chase it was!"

"It was stunted and obsessive. Not normal."

"What actual person has ever had a 'normal' experience with romance? God, look at mine." Kyle rolls toward the windows, swallowing down a pang of longing for Cartman and the ease of their old routine. There are fewer Cartman artifacts here than there once were—his cat passed away peacefully years ago - but there are still pockets of him in the apartment, and Kyle hasn't thrown anything away yet. Seeing Cartman's things interspersed with his was a kind of comfort, a remainder that he was only conditionally alone. He feels mocked by them now, to the point of not being able to touch them or even look at them long enough to make plans to dispose of them.

"You want me to go sleep on the couch?" Stan asks.

"What?" Kyle looks over his shoulder. "No! Why would I?"

"Because I'm questioning my sexuality. And you object."

"It's not that I object, I just don't want to see you go down this path purely out of desperation."

"What do you care why I go down this path? Unless you think I'm just copying you."

"The thought did cross my mind."

"You still treat me like I'm this clueless toddler," Stan says. "Like I can't make decisions for myself, or really know how I feel without having someone explain it to me."

"No," Kyle says, too tired for this. He puts his arm over his eyes and groans. "I just can't see you with a man. In a club like that."

"Well, me either," Stan says, and Kyle peeks at him. "I wouldn't want a random fuck to—try it out on. So I put up a profile on a bicurious site."

"Oh, Stan." A betrayed rage bubbles up in Kyle's chest, as if Stan is trying to replace him the same way that Cartman did, though that makes no sense. "Those things are full of people just trolling for sex."

"I've noticed," Stan says. "But there are sincere people on there, too. I can tell the difference, Kyle. I'm not gay illiterate."

"What does that even mean?" Kyle asks. He can feel the ugly snarl on his face but can't seem to get rid of it.

"It means that maybe I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've just been afraid to bring it up with you, because I had a feeling I'd get this exact surly response."

"I'm not being surly," Kyle says. "I'm being skeptical. Have you been talking to people on this site? Men?"

"A few," Stan says.

Kyle is struck silent by that admission, and he turns toward the windows again. He can feel a sort of heat wave of emotions emanating from Stan, making his back uncomfortably warm: concern, annoyance, and embarrassment. Kyle doesn't want Stan to feel embarrassed about this, but he also doesn't want him talking to anonymous creeps on some sketchy bicurious site. Stan is too fragile to navigate those waters. Or maybe Kyle just wants him to be, because he's never had any success on those sites himself.

"I also just didn't want to make you feel weird," Stan says, moving closer. "Like. That this would change our friendship."

"Come here." Kyle reaches back for Stan's hand and pulls it around him, glad when Stan spoons up behind him eagerly. "It's fine," Kyle says. "Just don't find someone wonderful and leave me all alone. Male or female." Kyle has actually spent some time being grateful about the fact that Stan's apartment doesn't allow pets, because if Stan adopted a dog Kyle would have to share Stan with the needy beast. "Oh, God, but—it's not like I deserve to keep you like this. I'm the one who's stunting you."

"I was thinking," Stan says, and his hand slides down, slowly, until it's resting against Kyle's stomach. Stan moves his thumb, stroking Kyle's belly flab fondly, and Kyle freezes. Already he's imagining Craig watching this from across the room, narrowing his eyes and shaking his head, saying he told Kyle so. "I was thinking," Stan says, again, more softly now. "Maybe. Me and you. Maybe you could show me a few things?"

"That's a terrible idea," Kyle says, stiffening. Stan removes his hand, letting it thump against the mattress. His heartbeat is steady against Kyle's back; he's not even nervous about this. Kyle is sweating.

"Okay," Stan says. "I guess. You're kind of in bad place, like. About Cartman. So, sorry. Yeah, you're right."

Kyle has no idea how to continue. He honestly never thought he'd need to have this conversation. He shifts back, afraid he'll encounter an erection, but Stan's cock is soft. It's warm, though, conspicuously so, nestled against Kyle's ass. He thinks of that forever-ago moment on Cartman's basement couch and has to contain a whimper. Being dry-humped from behind still does it for him, especially when he's not anticipating it and suddenly hungry for it. Now he's the one getting hard. He pulls the blankets up over both of them.

"Are you mad?" Stan says, sounding a lot like Grady.

"No," Kyle says. "Just. A little overwhelmed."

"Shit. Sorry. I knew I shouldn't—"

"It's okay," Kyle says, though that's rapidly becoming less true. "Let's just go to sleep."

Stan sleeps, or seems to, and Kyle lies awake within the familiar curve of Stan's slightly larger body, trembling with fear and willing his erection to go away. It persists, because Stan smells nice, and has arm muscles that are pressing down on Kyle's side. It's just physical: a simple physical response. He closes his eyes and wonders what Cartman is doing right now. Fucking that Auden person, maybe. Probably. He's slightly comforted by the idea that Cartman would be jealous if he knew Stan was holding him, and that his embrace has at last resulted in a response from Kyle's neglected cock. In all the years that they sort-of dated, Kyle never baited Cartman with casual hints about how close he and Stan still are, but Cartman knew, and hated it.

In the morning, Kyle wakes up alone, smelling fried meat. Stan always cooks a big Saturday morning breakfast on Grady weekends, and they eat it while watching cartoons. Kyle is annoyed by the fact that Stan let him sleep in, though he needed it. He had taken a long time to get to sleep, and his dreams had been elaborately confusing. He's lost all but a few nonsensical details by the time he sits up to stretch: Cartman making love to a banana and Stan dancing in a cage at a club. In the dream these two things were somehow connected.

He's afraid things will be awkward between him and Stan, which has only ever happened a few times and is always excruciating, like breathing slightly under-oxygenated air. Stan smiles at him as he comes into the kitchen to start the coffee, and he's pleased to find that Stan has already made a pot, though he doesn't drink it himself. Grady is in the living room, cocooned in the blanket from Stan's makeshift bed, watching his shows.

"Bacon pancakes," Stan says when Kyle comes over to examine what he's making. It's almost always the same thing: Stan's famous pancakes with bits of bacon mixed into the batter. "This is the second batch."

"Fantastic," Kyle says. "Did you sleep well?" It is a bit weird to look into Stan's eyes now, already harder to know what he's thinking.

"Yeah," Stan says. "You?"

"Not really."

Stan sighs with what seems like guilt and touches Kyle's back. He keeps his eyes on the pancakes, and Kyle does the same, his stomach rumbling for them. When they're plated up he slathers them with butter and eats them at the counter, watching the TV from over the bar. By the time he's finished eating things feel normal again, as if Stan saying me and you like that was only part of his dreams.

After a bit more cleanup and the last of the cartoons they head to the Smithsonian Zoo via the Metro. On the way to the small mammal house they stop at Grady's usual favorites: stinky elephants, snobbish giraffes, noisy birds. Grady has already announced his intention to be a zookeeper. Kyle has suggested that a vet might be a more rewarding career path, with fewer cage-cleaning responsibilities.

"Mammal house!" Grady says as they approach it, and he pulls Stan forward by the hand, making him walk faster. He's crazed for these monkeys, and can sit watching them for hours if they allow it. Kyle suspects some sort of high-functioning autism, but Stan insists that it's just normal childhood curiosity. Kyle has treated enough seven year olds to know that it's not normal for one to sit still for even half an hour without televised entertainment, but all of Grady's abnormalities seem positive so far.

They make their way toward the golden lion tamarins and take a seat on the bench that faces their glass-enclosed cage. Stan sits between Kyle and Grady, yawning frequently enough to make Kyle suspect that he didn't really sleep that well. Kyle is tired, too, and wants to rest his head on Stan's shoulder, which is teasingly close and quite sturdy-looking.

- Kayotics -

"I wish we were like them," Grady says as he watches the monkeys hop from structure to structure inside the enclosure.

"What do you mean?" Stan asks.

"Like, how they all live together," Grady says. "The whole bunch of them. Like if you and Mommy lived in the same thing. And Kyle," he says, glancing at him.

"Oh," Stan says. Kyle shifts so that his shoulder is touching Stan's, wanting this to be a gesture of encouragement, or at least comfort. "Yeah," Stan says to Grady. "That'd be cool."

"I guess Everett, too," Grady says. "And Zoe."

Zoe is Everett's ten-year-old daughter, who Grady seems to both fear and worship. Wendy has been with Everett for five years now, and though she insists she'll never marry, they live together and share parenting responsibilities. Stan is frequently depressed about the idea that Everett sees Grady more often than he does, though Everett is an environmental activist who always seems to be traveling to some conference or lecture. He's fifty, balding, and nowhere near as good looking as Stan, which is something Kyle often uses to try to console him.

"South Park was kind of like this," Kyle says, hoping to lighten the mood. "The town me and your dad grew up in—and your mom, too. It was basically a big monkey cage."

"No, it wasn't!" Grady says, grinning.

"It really was," Stan says, but he's not smiling. "Everyone all squashed up together in like some big howling tribe. There were no secrets."

"So how come we can't go and live there?" Grady asks.

"You wouldn't like it," Stan says. "It's not a healthy place to grow up."

"Your mom and dad like their jobs here too much," Kyle says, growing panicked about the dark mood that Stan seems to be descending into. He's staring at the monkeys with a grim expression, eyes unfocused. "And it's cold there, the winters last forever, and—wouldn't you miss your friends?"

"I guess," Grady says. "Do they have a zoo like this in South Park?"

"Nope," Stan says. "The zoo there is really sad. No taramins. Small cages."

"Oh, then I don't want to live there."

"Let's get lunch!" Kyle says, and he's relieved when they both seem cheered by the prospect.

Grady wants junk food at the park, and Kyle takes the role of the bad guy, insisting he needs a salad after the bacon pancake breakfast. If Stan had suggested the change in dining plans there would have been whining and sulking, but there's enough neutral distance between Kyle and Grady to prevent tantrums, so Grady grumpily relents to dining outside the zoo. They're sitting down at an outdoor table at a bistro when Kyle's phone buzzes. He feels panicked when he sees that he's got a message from Cartman, and he knows he should wait to open it, but he sneaks a look at it while Stan and Grady order drinks.

where are you?

Kyle sends back Why? and rests the phone on his thigh. He asks for water, vibrating along with the phone when it buzzes again.

"Who's texting you?" Stan asks when Kyle looks at the phone again, holding it below the table.

"Work," Kyle says.

cause I'm here at your place and we need to talk I had to go out of town on business and I'm really stressed out right now Kyle I don't need this shit where are you

He's surprised Cartman could type all of that so quickly. His heart is pounding as he reaches for his glass of ice water and tries to figure out how to respond. Stan is watching him, and as soon as Kyle meets Stan's eyes it's like a confession.

"It's Cartman, isn't it?" Stan says.

"The time travel guy?" Grady says, and he starts bouncing in his seat. "Yeah, cool! I want to see him!"

"He's not cool," Kyle says.

"But you and Dad know him, he's your friend! Mom told me."

"He's not my friend," Stan says. "Here, give me your phone. I'll show you how to block his number."

"Hang on," Kyle says, because he's gotten two more messages from Cartman.

"Kyle!" Stan says. "Don't let him do this to you!"

"What's he doing?" Grady asks.

"He's always been mean to Kyle," Stan says.

"Not always," Kyle says, and he rises from the table. "Excuse me for a moment."

Stan is giving him a pleading look, but Kyle ignores it and heads into the bistro. He finds an empty hallway near the bathroom and reads the last two messages:


Kyle don't ignore me I cleared my whole fuckign schedule for this

Kyle snorts and hits the call button before he can take a calming breath, ready to explode with rage, and more relieved to hear from Cartman than he thought he would be.

"Where are you?" Cartman asks when he picks up.

"You cleared your whole schedule?" Kyle says. "Are you fucking kidding me right now? Who cleared it for you, your assistant?"

"I fired Auden," Cartman says. "He tried to stab me."


"And it wasn't the first time. Look, Kyle, I've gotten in a bad situation here, okay, shit happens, but. I'm here, at your place, where are you?"

"I'm out with people," Kyle says. "You can't be there when we get back."

"Oh, Jesus Christ. It's fucking Stan, isn't it? And Wendy's little whelp?"

"It's none of your business who I'm with. I'm done clearing my schedule to make myself convenient to you. I must have been insane."

"It's Stan," Cartman says. "Goddammit. You don't even know anybody else. Look, fuck him, you can see that mall cop anytime. I'm—I need you, I need to see you."

"Why, so you can take notes on how to style the next clone? Nope."

Kyle is proud of himself, riding the old familiar high of winning a battle of wits against Cartman. It's nice, too, to hear Cartman say he needs him. It's been a long time since Kyle heard words like that from him, or anyone.

"Please," Cartman says, and Kyle can picture him gritting his teeth, hating this part. "I'm begging you, Kyle. I don't know when I'll be able to get back to D.C."

"I'm sorry," Kyle says, and it hurts to turn him down, so much that he's thinking seriously about giving in and letting him grovel in person. But Kyle doesn't trust himself to be alone with Cartman and not buy into his old bullshit all over again. "I'm booked for the whole day. Tomorrow, too. You should have called sooner."

"I was busy!" Cartman says. "He—shit, I didn't want to tell you this, but he tied me up! He's insane."

"Then why did you employ him? Or fuck him, for that matter? Oh, wait, I'll bet I can guess. If you wanted to be with me that badly, you could have done things differently."

"How, fucker, when you wouldn't even come on a business trip with me?"

"Goodbye," Kyle says, the 'fucker' enough of a sting to get him halfway back to his senses. His vision tunnels on the way back to the table, some soft-hearted part of him that he's accustomed to ignoring conjuring an image of Cartman tied up at knife point by that nightmare doppelganger, desperate to get in touch with Kyle and unable to reach the phone.

"What did he say?" Stan asks when Kyle returns to the table. A basket of bread has arrived. Despite his earlier feelings about salad, breads sounds wonderful right now. Kyle grabs a roll and butters it, shaking his head.

"Nothing," he says.

"Is he mean?" Grady asks, gently, as if Kyle is a battered wife.

"He's a very busy man," Kyle says. "Too busy to have real—friends." He glances at Stan, who seems to have segued back into seething anger, his eyes flashing.

"He's a sociopath," Stan says.

"What's that?" Grady asks.

"A ruthlessly successful person," Kyle says. "Here comes the waitress, let's just order."

He's praying that Cartman won't be there when they return to the apartment an hour later, fearing a confrontation with Stan that would end badly for everyone. When they actually get there, a part of him is still sad not to find Cartman sitting on the floor near his door, wiping tears and bearing wilted flowers. The only time he ever saw Cartman weep was over his cat. A person can't give his life to someone who's never shed a tear over him. Kyle clings to this as they enter the apartment, Stan going for the fridge and Grady for the TV.

The rest of the evening is a typical Saturday night with Stan and Grady, and Kyle keeps one eye on his phone, expecting Cartman to call and beg again, drunk this time. He doesn't, and Kyle wonders if he's spying on Kyle's apartment with some future-originated, high-powered telescope, crying to himself at the sight of Kyle's comfortably domestic evening in with Stan. But Cartman doesn't know about Stan's sexual crisis or his proposition. Kyle had almost managed to forget about those things himself.

"I need to see about getting some giant curtains," Kyle says while the three of them are eating pasta with cheese sauce at the table. "Or blinds?"

"How come?" Grady asks.

"For privacy," Kyle says, shuddering at the thought of the many times he's been fucked by Cartman in full view of the bedroom's wall-sized window. They're lucky no one took pictures, but the paparazzi only ever seem interested in Cartman when he's in the company of someone equally famous. He had sex with a semi-famous actor once, a closeted guy, and Kyle was the only one he trusted with the details, or so he said.

"Hey," Stan says sharply, and Kyle returns his attention to the dinner table. "You alright?"

"Yes," Kyle says, annoyed. "I've just got a lot on my mind."

For a moment Stan looks like he's going to say something cutting about what those thoughts might be, but his expression softens, maybe because Grady is with them.

"I know," Stan says. "Do you like the pasta?"

"It's delicious," Kyle says. It's true; Stan is a good cook. It was one thing that could reliably impress Wendy, but Stan's willingness to cook a healthy meal every night had eventually resulted in fights about how late she came home from work, even when she was eight months pregnant. Stan had been perfectly happy to look to her as his personal authority on all things when it was just the two of them, but as soon as he had opinions about the pregnancy, some of them slightly Randy-like and paranoid, she kicked him to the curb.

Grady falls asleep after a game of LIVING, and Kyle is dragging on the way to bed, surprised when Stan follows him into the room and closes the door.

"Can I block his number yet?" Stan asks, and Kyle is so tired that he doesn't know what Stan is talking about for a moment.

"No," Kyle says. "I'm owed some fruitless groveling."

"Kyle, goddammit."

"Just leave me to my misery," Kyle says, and he crawls into the bed, flopping onto his stomach. "Go have chat room sex with your bisexual friends."

Stan goes to the big window and looks out, his hands clasped behind his back. He works as a security guard at the Air & Space Museum, and sometimes at the Pentagon City Mall on the weekends. Kyle still hasn't seen him in his work uniform, but he can picture it now, because Stan looks like he's on guard, standing between Kyle and the city. He once had to tackle someone who was trying to steal the shark repellent from the U2 survival kit display. It was in the paper, but there was no accompanying picture of Stan in his uniform.

"Am I part of the reason you put up with Cartman for so long?" Stan asks when he turns. "Because you wanted to prove me wrong or something?"

"Uh," Kyle says. "No? Get over yourself? Jesus, there was a time when you were encouraging me to go after him."

"What! When?"

"Senior year, before Token's party! You were like, oh, hey man, maybe you need closure."

"Yeah, and then Tweek came downstairs and told us Cartman had his fingers up your butt, and I changed my mind."


"Because - ah! I don't know. I hated the visual. I couldn't imagine why you'd want that, so I assumed he was attacking you."

"Yes, I remember."

They stare at each other, and Kyle thinks about the giant monkey cage that was South Park. He hasn't been back in a long time, but sometimes, when he's with Cartman or Stan, he feels like he never actually left.

"Can I rub your back?" Stan asks.

"Yeah, of course," Kyle says, surprised by the offer. There had been a time, after his stay in rehab as a teenager, when Stan had talked about becoming a masseuse. Kyle had always thought he'd be good at it, but he'd never followed through with the training. "Do you carry a gun at work?" Kyle asks.

"Yeah," Stan says, and he straddles Kyle's hips. The weight of him seems enormous from Kyle's position, face down on the bed, and it's comforting. "Why?"

"I can't picture it, you with a gun on your hip." A shiver of interest moves through him when he tries to. "I used to imagine you becoming a masseuse, or a zookeeper."

"I've never had to use the gun. Don't you want to take off your shirt?"

"Nah," Kyle says, too self-conscious about his love handles. "Mostly neck and shoulders, okay? I'm so tense."

"I know you are," Stan says, and there's something velvety in his tone that makes Kyle shiver again. The tremor travels up and down his spine in a slow wave as Stan sets in, rubbing his thumbs in tight circles up the back of Kyle's neck. Kyle tries not to make appreciative noises or drool, but he does both, and he's hard against the mattress even before Stan reaches up under his shirt to knead the muscles at his lower back.

"Have we ever done this?" Kyle asks, slightly distressed.

"No," Stan says.

"Huh. So why are we doing it now?"

Stan pauses, his thumbs dug in just above Kyle's tail bone. "Because I wanted to," he says. "And I asked if you wanted to, and you said yes. Do you want me to stop?"

"Well. No, but you should be aware that I have an erection. Purely from physical, um. From just feeling good, so don't take it personally."

"Yeah, why would I?" Stan's hands move again, upward now, thumbs pressing in hard. "It's not like I'm the one making you feel good or anything."

"Stan, it's. Automatic. What is going on? Are you trying to seduce me?"

Stan groans and slides off of Kyle, which makes him instantly regret that he said anything; that massage felt amazing, enough skin-on-skin contact to make his cock leak.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Stan says. He's sitting with his legs flopped out in front of him, back hunched, hands in his lap. "I mess everything up. I wish I was asexual. But I'm not," he adds, looking at Kyle. "I want things."

"Okay," Kyle says. He moves toward Stan and puts his shoulder against Stan's, trying not to notice that Stan is staring at his tented erection and the wet spot over the tip, easily visible through his scrubs. "You want things, I know. Me too. But I don't think it's wise for us to pretend that what we want could align, even if it seems convenient."

Stan wrinkles his nose. "You're not convenient," he says. "Maybe you were for Cartman, but not for me. I don't take you for granted."

"What are you saying?" Kyle asks, pulling his hand back, fearing a love confession. And then, worse: Stan lunges in for a kiss. Kyle can't bear to deny him, but he keeps his lips shut and motionless when Stan presses his to them.

"I could blow you?" Stan says when he pulls back to search Kyle's eyes, and Kyle thinks of that awful encounter at the club. This is different, because Stan's eyes are red and his voice is all teary.

"You don't really want that," Kyle says, and he touches Stan's face. "Just - we're both a little fucked up right now—"

"I don't feel fucked up when I'm with you. That's the not fucked up time, for me. The Kyle time."

"Yes, and vice versa, but Stan—"

"Fine, I know," Stan says, and he winces. "I know you still love Cartman, but I could do things for you, you know, and it'd be like. Practice?"

"I don't still love Cartman," Kyle says, though he suspects he probably does. Any love he ever felt for Cartman has been purposefully unexamined. "But you're more to me than like — what are you offering, exactly?"

"I need lessons in this stuff," Stan says. "The guy half of the bi thing. And I love, um. Being close with you, and I know you like it, too, Kyle. Why would having our dicks out change that?"

"You're being intentionally obtuse," Kyle says. "We wouldn't just 'have our dicks out,' like — passing in a locker room! There would intimacy, okay, even if we made rules—"

"I thought you liked being intimate with me," Stan says. "I thought that was the easy part."

"Everything's the easy part with you! Which is exactly why I don't want to complicate it by giving you gay sex lessons."

"I just don't see how having my mouth on your dick is more complicated than holding you like I do."

"Because when you — hold me, it's not sexual!"

"It's a little sexual, Kyle. Don't be delusional."

"I'm being delusional?" Kyle shouts. Stan lifts a finger to his lips to remind him that Grady is sleeping across the hall. "It's like I don't even know you," Kyle says, whispering this. "Who are you, saying these things to me? That you want to suck my dick?"

"I'm the guy who sleeps in your bed," Stan says. Something in his face has changed: he doesn't look sad now, or pleading. He looks like he knows he has a pretty good case here, and it's making Kyle want to flee, and to fling himself into Stan's lap.

"We're just — miscellaneous pieces," Kyle says. "In the sense that, that — we're not part of a matched set, so. We've ended up together, but—"

"We're not a matched set?" Stan raises his eyebrows. "Are you kidding me?"

"Do you have feelings for me?" Kyle asks, and he realizes that he's subconsciously scooted to the very edge of the bed, one ass cheek hanging off the mattress.

"Yeah," Stan says. "You know I love you, and, um, increasingly I'm curious about the rest, like, the parts of you I've never seen. I might love them, too, so. Why shouldn't we try it? I mean, if you have even a little bit of interest. If you hate it we'll quit."

"Alright," Kyle says, ready to call his bluff. He stands and shoves his pants and underwear down in one push, showing Stan the erection that has somehow persisted, and remembering the chaotic state of his pubic hair only when it's on display. The burn that colors his face is almost painful, and Stan is blushing, too, sitting on the bed like a kid, his hands on his knees. "Have at it," Kyle says, angrily.

"Oh — okay," Stan says, and he scuttles forward on all fours, stopping at the edge of the mattress to look up at Kyle in a way that breaks his heart. "You want me to get on the floor?" he asks.

"No," Kyle says, and he sits on the bed beside Stan, wanting to pull the end of his shirt down to cover himself. His cock feels like it weighs forty pounds, and he knows this is the moment when Stan decides he doesn't want to touch it. Kyle will try not to take it personally, but it already hurts, this risk Stan has taken with their weird, warm but sexless life together.

"These pubes are crazy," Stan says, touching the tips of his fingers to them.

"Are you serious?" Kyle says, and his thigh twitches away from Stan's hand. "That's what you're saying to me?"

"Sorry," Stan says, and he cups Kyle's face, trying to kiss him again. Kyle moves away this time.

"Don't do that yet," Kyle says.

"Oh — sorry."

"Look, it's fine, I'll just put it away—"

"No, please," Stan says, and he slides onto the floor, kneeling between Kyle's legs. "I want to," he says. "If you do."

"Mhm," Kyle says, not really sure, not really able to believe this is happening. He can feel Stan's breath on his cock, and then his tongue, just the tip, moving up over Kyle's cockhead, lapping at pre-come. "Fuck," Kyle says, exhaling. Stan gives him a nervous grin and kisses the sticky mess at the slit, letting it trail from there to his lips when he pulls away, not even wiping it off. He takes hold of Kyle's cock around the base, and Kyle goes fuzzy, because he's always really liked Stan's hands. "Is it the first one you've touched?" Kyle asks, beginning to breathe in a shallow pant. "I mean. Other than yours?"

"Well, no," Stan says. "But that's a story for another time."

Kyle wants to hear more, but he can't formulate a reason for this when Stan flattens his tongue against the underside of Kyle's cock and licks upward, then again, pausing between each trip up Kyle's cock to nibble at his cockhead. He's weirdly good at this, but Kyle will be worried about that later. He drops back onto the bed and lets his eyes slide mostly shut, pushing one hand into Stan's hair.

"Would you let me trim your ball hair?" Stan asks, petting it again.

"Right now?" Kyle's heart is pounding, but he's strangely calm. He's home, in his own bed, with Stan: safe.

"Not now!" Stan says. "Just some time."

"Maybe," Kyle says, and he closes his eyes, because Stan is the only person in the world he'd ever trust to bring a pair of scissors anywhere near his cock, and suddenly trusting him to swallow it down into his hot, wet mouth seems like the easiest thing ever, an effortless and perfect decision. Kyle spreads his legs, then lifts them, bracing his toes around the edge of the mattress. Stan bobs his head and digs his hands into the insides of Kyle's thighs with pressure that makes Kyle think of bruises in a positive light, happy soreness, the pleasure of being well used. He's trembling now, biting his hand, moaning low at the back of his throat.

"I'm gonna swallow it," Stan says when Kyle is so close that he's whining, shaking all over. He can't remember the last time he was sucked to completion; he'd never liked that much with Cartman, who would make hungry slurping noises around Kyle's cock the whole time.

"Fine," Kyle breathes out, a flicker of concern about Stan's experience in this arena breaking through the sex haze. "Good, yes, swallow it."

"Dude," Stan says, and he reaches up to touch Kyle's trembling stomach. "You're so red. Do you always get red like that?"

"What, my face?" Kyle says, annoyed. "I don't know, I guess! Stan, unh!"

"Okay, alright, sorry."

When Stan's mouth is on him again, all around him, so warm and soft, that tongue — Kyle lets his hips snap a few times. It's something he never dared with Cartman, because the one time Cartman tried to fuck Kyle's face he'd choked and snapped that they would not be doing that. Stan doesn't choke, maybe because Kyle's thrusts are careful, considerate, and it doesn't take much movement of his hips before he's coming. It seems years since he's even bothered to jerk off, and he's drained by the alien experience of orgasming with a new partner who isn't really new at all. When he reaches for Stan it feels like it always has: needing him, getting him. Stan is gentle and attentive, kissing Kyle's cheeks as the heat drains from them. He's hard, too, his cock pressed against Kyle's knee as they lie together, Kyle reeling while Stan hovers.

"Who did you blow?" Kyle asks, trying to come up with a reason to recoil when Stan's nose brushes his. Kyle presses into it instead, smooshing his face against Stan's, needing to be reassured: Stan is still here, it's still just Stan, not some new version of him.

"Hmm?" Stan says. His hand is up under Kyle's shirt, sweaty-palmed. "Oh, uh. It happened in the sex stalls sometimes. After, like, Wendy left me? I'd get blasted and just disappear, and sometimes when I regained consciousness, I was with a dude. It sort of happened, um, subconsciously?"

"So no one specific?" Kyle asks, thinking of Auden, and Cartman's promise — lie — that Kyle was the only person he slept with more than once.

"No," Stan says. He kisses Kyle's lips tentatively, leaving his eyes open. "You okay?"

"Yeah, ah. That was great, thank you. I'll do you."

"You don't have to!"

"I know." Kyle doesn't want to admit that he's curious about Stan's bush, not to mention his cock. "I'd like to, really. You were right — why not introduce cocks to the mix? I guess I was afraid it would change things, but I don't feel changed. Do you?"

"No," Stan says, but he swoops in for a big, sloppy kiss, and Kyle isn't sure how to respond. He opens his mouth, allows Stan's tongue to push inside, pushes back a little. It's not bad, but it makes him nervous, this kind of kissing. He's only ever done it with one person: Cartman, who would bury him with desire until he was dizzy with it, never leaving room for a coherent thought.

"It's nice," Kyle says, thinking out loud. "Um, I mean, I've missed this. Or I've never had — this, like, with him I was always a bit on edge about when he was leaving—"

"Let's not talk about Cartman," Stan says. "And you really don't have to blow me, I mean it."

"This is what's going to drive me crazy about you," Kyle says, grabbing Stan's ears. "The politeness. I'd like it if you wanted me to blow you, okay? I'd like the thought that you were hard for it."

"I'm so hard for it," Stan says, and the sincerity of it takes Kyle off guard.

"Oh, well. Good." Kyle pauses to consider this: is it good that Stan wants him to suck his dick? "Take off your pants, then, I guess."

"Are you sure?" Stan rolls away, onto his back, showing Kyle his stomach like a trusting animal. It's such a Stan move, submitting while also asking for a blow job.

"I want to," Kyle says, touching the waistband of Stan's jeans. Stan is very hard inside them, straining against the fly, angled slightly to the left. They both keep their eyes on Stan's hands as he works his jeans open, and Kyle helps him push them and the boxers away, impatient to see what's going on in there. He's seen Stan's cock before, but not since they were fifteen, when it was peeking out through the slit in his boxers one morning. He'd felt sort of protective of it then, sorry to have spied it without permission, but now he's possessive at the sight of it, greedy, and he wraps his fingers around it, testing the foreskin to hardness ratio. It's good, comfortable, only a little squishy. Kyle remembers to look up at Stan and smiles bashfully. Stan is just lying there like an overturned turtle, hands on his chest, breathing through his nose.

"Well?" Stan says. "Thoughts?"

"It's the biggest one I've ever seen," Kyle says, though it's only an inch or two longer than Kyle's, and not as thick as Cartman's monster. Stan snorts.

"No, I mean. Does this feel okay?"

"Yep," Kyle says, and he spreads his legs to show Stan his cock, which is stiffening. It takes him a while to get hard after he's already come, but he's never been completely soft with another man's cock in his hand. He just likes this feeling too much, when it's like this, when the cock in his hand is worthy and nice looking, leaking for him. "Oh, here," Kyle says, because Stan looks nervous and insecure, his blush deepening. Kyle slides his arm under Stan's neck and tucks himself to his side, still stroking him with his other hand. Stan curls against him and closes his eyes, his hips beginning to twitch.

"It's been a long time," Stan says. "Since I was with anyone."

"Mhm, well, you're doing wonderfully. Really top notch blow job, I mean it. Mine will be bad, I'm afraid. I'm out of practice."

"Cartman didn't demand them?"

"I thought you didn't want to talk about him."

"I don't, but. Now I'm curious."

"Well, he liked — no, he loved them, but the thing with me and him was that I'd only be down there for half a minute before he was, like. Switching to my ass."

"Oh, God," Stan says, and he winces, grabbing for Kyle's shoulder. "Enough. I don't want to hear any more."

"Shh, okay. Scoot back. I'm gonna kneel on the bed."

Stan's cock has a pleasant musky flavor, and he's less sweaty than Cartman in general, something Kyle already knew but hadn't considered in terms of the balls that might someday be resting under his chin. He can't help comparing the two of them in all respects, and he decides it's only natural. He likes the way Stan's thighs shake, and the way Stan touches his hair, petting him while he works. He's glad, too, that Stan barely lasts for two minutes, shooting down Kyle's throat before his jaw begins to ache, though maybe it's just that Stan is narrower and therefore less ache-inducing. Kyle wipes his chin and crawls up to lie beside him, wrapping his arms around Stan when he squirms against Kyle's chest.

"Wendy's not a cuddler," Stan says, and Kyle is hurt by the mention of her, now, just as he was beginning to lose himself in the feeling of the two of them alone together like this, sticky and spent. He supposes it's only fair, after the talk about Cartman, and he cards his fingers through Stan's hair. It's one of those things that he knows that Stan likes, and maybe he was a bit delusional to think he could know such things in a completely non-sexual way.

"We could kiss now," Kyle says, because he feels a little lost. Stan arches up to kiss him without hesitating, and Kyle is grateful for his eagerness, and for the soft noises he makes when Kyle kisses him back. "You're like a kid," Kyle says, afraid that Stan will take it the wrong way. He doesn't seem upset, just kind of dazed and tired, smiling.

"Wendy used to say that. She'd say, 'don't be such a little boy.'"

"I'm just afraid we know too much about both of them and how things were," Kyle says, disheartened by another mention of her. "Wendy and Cartman, I mean. I don't want to be, like. Your band-aid over the place where Wendy was. We should just be friends who do this sometimes," he says, hurriedly, before Stan can deny his Wendy-replacement status.

"How often is sometimes?" Stan asks.

"Um. I don't know?"

"I don't want you to do it with Cartman anymore," Stan says, and sits up a little, wiping some drool from the corner of his lips. "Not if you're going to do it with me. So you have to tell me if you get back with him."

"I'm not going to get back with him. Stan, he's fucking a redhead with my nose who apparently tries to murder him on occasion. He's — it's some kind of power thing. He wants to live out his fantasy of buying me and designating me as staff. He only ever thought he liked me as prey with free will."

"Can we not talk about Cartman?" Stan asks, and he sits up all the way, looking at the windows.

"Shit, maybe this is just a bad idea," Kyle says, something curdling in his stomach when he says so. "I just. I'm so used to confiding in you with my every thought. I can't censor things for you — right? You wouldn't want that, would you?"

"I just want you to feel like I do," Stan says.

"Which is how?"

"Like that's over, the old stuff. The Wendy stuff, the Cartman stuff. But I know it just ended, for you. Um, I'm gonna go sleep on the couch."

"Stan!" Kyle gropes for him and pulls him back. Stan comes easily, flopping down onto the bed with him. "Not yet," Kyle says, feeling a bit pathetic. Stan crushes him into a hug, and Kyle huddles deeply into the possessive heat of it, glad to feel it here, with Stan's heartbeat under his cheek: wanted, he's so wanted. It's a bit frightening, considering he's not sure what he wants, but for now this is all he needs.

They both sleep deeply enough not to remember that Stan needs to sneak back to the couch before Grady gets up, and at nine AM he's knocking on the door, calling for Stan in his confused little voice.

"Shit," Stan says, and Kyle wakes to him stumbling out of bed and into his jeans, looking very sex-rumpled. Grady won't recognize that, but he'll have questions, and Kyle is too groggy from last night's revelations to deal with them. Anyway, he's Stan's kid, and Stan should handle this. Kyle flees into the bathroom and turns on the shower.

Under the blast of the showerhead, he tries not to feel panicked. Oddly, he's most worried that this confrontation with Grady will make Stan rethink his plan to — what? Take sex lessons from Kyle, ones that he doesn't seem to need? Be his boyfriend? The idea is too ludicrous to entertain, but so was the thought of kissing Cartman, once. Most ludicrous of all is that he's still shifting between the two poles of his childhood universe, far from home but being pulled to and fro by his boyhood tormentor and his super best friend.

Kyle takes his time getting ready, not wanting to face them: the united Marsh family, minus Wendy. They're at the breakfast bar, Grady on one of the tall stools, his bare feet far from the floor. He's wearing his soccer uniform, green and white. Kyle forgets the name of the team; he's only ever been to one game.

"Soccer today?" he says, eying Stan. He's in the kitchen, suddenly very unshaven-looking, his hair still a mess. Kyle wants to pat it into place, but that would be conspicuous. Grady at least doesn't seem to be regarding him with new suspicion. He's concentrating on his cereal, slurping milk from the spoon.

"Yeah, he's got a game at noon," Stan says. "Why do they schedule them at lunch time?"

"I don't care about lunch," Grady says.

"I know you don't. I mean, precisely."

"Can I come?" Kyle asks. "To the game?"

"You want to?" Stan says, eyebrows going up.

"You can come," Grady says. "I don't care."

"This is his new thing," Stan says while Kyle goes to the fridge, already aware that he's out of yogurt and grapefruit. "Not caring."

"But I don't," Grady says.

"You care about winning at soccer, don't you?" Kyle says. He takes a stack of leftover bacon pancakes wrapped in tin foil, then puts them back.

"Sometimes I care about that," Grady says. "But not today."

"How come not today?" Stan asks.

"I don't know. I just don't, today."

Kyle can't tell if the kid is upset or not; he's never been good at reading kids, and with Grady he tends to speculate based on how Stan would have felt about something at Grady's age. How would Stan have felt if he'd found his father had spent the night in another man's bed? Is that even the explanation Grady got? Kyle makes coffee, not sure why he asked to go to the soccer game. He doesn't really want to sit through an hour and a half of chaotic running children, but he doesn't want the weekend to end. He doesn't want Stan to disappear until the next one, or until the next crisis, or the next time he wants his dick sucked.

"Wendy will be there," Stan says to Kyle, quietly, as he's getting a coffee cup down.

"That's fine," Kyle says. In a way, he wants to see her, to put last night truly in perspective. Plus, he's always liked Wendy, and hasn't had occasion to see her in almost a year. He checks his phone while the coffee brews, surprised by how awful it feels to find no new messages from Cartman. Stan is staring at him when he puts it down.

"No summons from work," Kyle says, though Stan will know his real reason for checking the phone. "So, that's good."

"I'm gonna shave," Stan says. "If I can borrow a razor? I forgot mine."

"Use whatever you need," Kyle says, and they both flush as Stan leaves the kitchen, as if Kyle has said something explicit in front of the boy. When Stan is gone, Kyle looks at Grady, who is staring at him.

"Dad slept in your room," he says.

"Yeah," Kyle says. "He explained about that?"

"He says you used to have sleepovers."

"That's right. We'd stay up all night talking."

"What do you talk about?"

"Um, well, everything. Our jobs, and our friends, and things like that."

"Oh." Grady stirs his cereal. "Golden lion tamarins are critically endangered."

"Yeah? I mean, I guess I knew that, because of logging or something? I remember you and your dad talking about it."

"Sometimes I can't sleep because I think about it."

"Oh — honey." Kyle feels crass, using an unauthorized endearment on Stan's son, but for a moment it was like Grady was Stan back then, seven years old and anxious about his impact on the environment. "They'll be okay," Kyle says. "The zoos will help them, and so forth."

"It's not fair, though."

"I know," Kyle says. "I hate it when things aren't fair. It drives me nuts."

"Me too!"

Kyle rarely uses his car unless Stan and Grady need a lift somewhere, and it feels good to drive, sort of alien and special but not totally unfamiliar, not unlike the events of the previous evening, his first real taste of Stan's very familiar body. He's musing on this as they head toward the soccer field, Grady running ahead of them.

"Do you think he'll mention our 'sleepover' to Wendy?" Kyle asks. Stan shrugs, and Kyle is surprised that he doesn't seem concerned. "Was Grady — upset?"

"Nah," Stan says. "He loves you."

"He does?" Kyle isn't sure why he's surprised. He's known Grady since he was an infant, actually changed his diaper once, and is as tireless about the tamarins as Stan.

"Yeah, dude," Stan says, bumping his shoulder against Kyle's. "Of course he loves you." Something about the way he's smiling makes Kyle nervous. Stan gets almost dangerously dopey when he's happy, and he's only really happy when he's in love and making grand plans.

"Hey, it's been forever!" Wendy says when Kyle approaches her. Kyle sees her infrequently enough to always think of that awful afternoon at Bebe's house when he hugs her like this, when Stan was slumped in the passenger seat of his car and Wendy and Kyle were both on the verge of tears, having just seen him get his ass kicked and sink into a drunken puddle of his own puke. Kyle tries not to think about it. Despite the occasional dark period, Stan has come a long way, and fatherhood has provided a barrier to falling apart that he seems to have always needed.

"We went to the zoo," Stan says as the three of them watch Grady huddle up with the coach and the other players. "And—what else? Oh, we watched Indiana Jones, but not the scary parts."

"I hope you didn't let him drink milk this morning," Wendy says, eying Stan as if she knows that he has. "You know it makes him sick if he runs around after having dairy."

"Not always," Stan says, keeping his eyes on Grady. Wendy shakes her head with exasperation and looks at Kyle as if he can relate.

"I never see you, but I'm always hearing about you," she says. "I really do appreciate you letting them stay with you. I'd never be okay with him in Stan's apartment, with those—men."

"Well, neither would I," Stan says. "That's why we stay with Kyle. Hello, it was my idea."

"Kyle is allowing it, though, and I'm telling that I'm grateful for that. Okay?"

"Anyway," Kyle says. He's standing between them, increasingly uncomfortable. "How's Everett?" he asks when he can think of nothing else.

"He's well," Wendy says. "In Seattle for a committee meeting."

"What committee?"

"Some clean energy summit thing that he's spearheading."

"Everett is the kind of guy who spearheads things," Stan says, elbowing Kyle.

"Yeah, as opposed to not spearheading," Wendy says. "Which is far more noble, I guess?"

"I was going to tell you something," Stan says to Wendy. "But it seems like maybe you're in a bad mood."

"No, actually, my mood is perfectly pleasant. What's up?"

Kyle is kind of zoning out at this point, watching the kids get into their positions for the game and trying not to get sucked in to Stan and Wendy's weird energy, and he feels as if he's hallucinating when he hears Stan say:

"Kyle and I are exploring the option of being together."

"What?" Kyle says before Wendy can, boggling at him. "Huh?"

"I just want to be honest about it," Stan says. He's staring at Kyle mildly, as if he can't imagine why Kyle wouldn't want this announced to Wendy, or, really, to anyone, since it's barely a thing, still basically in the dream-state stages.

"Well, I can't say I'm surprised," Wendy says. "Just don't get Grady involved yet, okay?"

"No, yeah, no way," Kyle says, and he laughs nervously. "It's not even - it's not—"

"Kyle's having a hard time with it," Stan says.


"What? You are. He just broke up with Cartman."

"Oh, honey," Wendy says, and she squeezes Kyle's arm. He's reeling, his eyes going unfocused. He feels like a ping pong ball that they're casually batting back and forth. "That's terrific, about Cartman. That was such a poisonous situation."

"Actually, it was fine," Kyle says sharply, and he steps backward, out of her grip and away from Stan. "He wasn't — I don't appreciate being treated like a victim of that relationship, okay? I'm an adult, and it suited my schedule—"

"It suited his schedule, you mean," Stan says. "He didn't respect you."

"I doubt he respects anybody," Wendy says.

"I don't want to talk about it, please!" Kyle says. "Just. Stan and I. It's not something everybody needs to know about right away," he says, giving Stan another disbelieving look.

"This is Wendy, though," Stan says. "I tell her everything."

"It's true, he does," Wendy says. "Especially when it comes to you. I always get the Kyle report."

"Great," Kyle says, snarling at Stan. "That's great to know."

"It's nothing bad!" Stan says.

"Oh, no, sweetie, he's very — it's the kind of thing that made me wonder when he was going to try to get in bed with you, that's all."

"I think I have to go," Kyle says.

"Don't go," Stan says. He looks so broken up that Kyle groans and relents, but he's still on edge, his heart racing as he watches the game and endures Wendy and Stan's commentary. Kyle and Wendy are seated on some floppy folding chairs that she brought, and Stan is kneeling at Kyle's feet, cheering for Grady at intervals. At one point, he rests his elbow on Kyle's knee, and Kyle allows it, grudgingly. He catches Wendy smiling at him in a pitying way.

"You seem stressed," she says after the game, when Stan has joined some of the other fathers in a discussion about a bad call.

"I'm fine," Kyle says. "I wish everyone could give me a little credit, just a little. I've never been a mess. Ever! Not about Cartman, or anything. I don't know where all this protectiveness comes from."

"Just from Stan," Wendy says. "It's how he is when he loves someone. Look, I know exactly what you're talking about—it drove me crazy. Try being pregnant with him hovering around you all the time."

"No, thanks."

"I just—" She sighs and crosses her arms over her chest, watching Grady, who is partaking in juice boxes and granola bars with the rest of the team. "I don't know. I worry about him. Don't let him get too attached."

"Um. I think it's a little late for that."

"God, I know." She shifts her gaze to Stan, who looks very happy to be included in this moment of social normalcy as a dad. "He's just very fragile when he decides that he's figured something out. And he's so lonely, Kyle. He's not going to be like Cartman, dashing off to take care of business and giving you space. If you really did like that, you're not going to like—this."

"I wish he hadn't told you," Kyle says. "I don't think I'm ready for outside input." He thinks of Craig, and his forthcoming visit to D.C.

"Sorry," Wendy says. "I know you don't need me to tell you about him. I'm sure you know everything that I do. I just loved him so much, Kyle, so much, but I couldn't live with him and everything he needed from me. You and I aren't unalike."

"We're just playing this by ear," Kyle says, beginning to feel overheated from frustration and embarrassment. "I don't know what to tell you—aren't you surprised that he's interested in a man?"

"I would be if it was just some man," she says, and she grins. "But you? No, that doesn't surprise me."

Stan heads their way, and Kyle is glad to let the conversation drop. He feels an acute sense of dread as they say goodbye to Grady and head back to Kyle's car together, alone.

"You okay?" Stan asks after they've climbed in and buckled up.

"Fine," Kyle says. "Tired."

"Yeah, me too. We should take a nap when we get back. You want to?"

"Mhmm, yeah." That does sound nice, and Kyle is glad that Stan will be coming home with him, and that they didn't have to discuss it. He's always hated the end of the weekends with Grady, when Stan slinks back to his shared bachelor pad to do laundry and jerk off. Kyle wonders if he should offer to stop by Stan's place so that he can pick up his laundry, and possibly a toothbrush. He drives on when they pass Stan's neighborhood, unable to work up the nerve. Stan is mostly quiet, reaching over to rub Kyle's thigh periodically. He's usually a bit down after he has to part from Grady, so Kyle doesn't press him to talk.

"Hungry?" Stan asks as they're pulling in to Kyle's parking deck.

"Oh, God, yes." He'd been too distracted by everything to notice, which is an unfamiliar phenomenon. "I'm starving."

"Me too. I was thinking about making a frittata with that leftover pasta. I could run to the store, pick up some grape tomatoes and eggs?"

"That sounds awesome," Kyle says, and he smiles over at Stan. They're both blushing a little, and there's a palpable nervous tension between them, but it's the good kind, originating from a mutual wish to be careful with one another.

"I just," Stan says when Kyle turns the car off. "I really. Love being with you."

"I know, dude." Kyle touches Stan's cheek, caressing a spot where he nicked himself with Kyle's fancy razor. "Come upstairs. We can make the frittata later—I'll just gobble some pancakes." He really wants to get into bed with Stan, just for sleep, to languish the afternoon away with his face pressed to Stan's chest. They've both got to work tomorrow, and it will be nice to rest together after — all that. Stan smiles and nods in agreement with this plan.

As they leave the elevator on Kyle's floor, Stan reaches over to hold his hand. Kyle isn't sure how he feels about this; public displays still make him uncomfortable, and he wishes Stan would relax a little and not try so hard. But it's sweet and perhaps even uncomplicated, and Kyle is glad to have something to squeeze in horror when he sees that his clone, Auden, is seated outside his apartment door, weeping.

"Whoa," Stan says, and he squeezes back. "Is that—?"

"What the hell are you doing here?" Kyle asks. He lets go of Stan's hand for the purpose of making two hopefully threatening fists. "You're trespassing — I'll call the cops."

"Where is he?" Auden asks, lifting his tear-soaked face from his arms. Kyle can feel Stan's jolt of shock at the sight of him. Somehow he looks even more like Kyle when he's crying. "Where's Eric?"

"I don't know!" Kyle says. "Probably in Asia somewhere — he doesn't tell me his business, and I meant it when I said I'm done with this. Get out of here!"

"Are you okay?" Stan asks, and the softness of his voice makes Kyle glower. Stan doesn't seem to notice, and he walks closer to Auden. "Do you need help?"

"You're lying," Auden cries, wiping snot across his upper lip. "He's lying," he says to Stan. "Eric — he's — I can't find him, he won't speak to me."

"We don't know where Cartman is," Stan says. He kneels down in front of Auden like he's an injured bird, and Kyle hurries toward them, on guard, afraid that Auden will slash a knife across Stan's earnest face. "Do you need some water or something?"

"He needs to get the hell out of here!" Kyle says. "Stan, back away! Cartman told me he's dangerous."

"I'd never hurt Eric!" Auden says. "Why is he doing this to me? He's acting so crazy, I don't know what to do."

"It's okay," Stan says when Auden starts sobbing again. "Come inside for a minute and calm down."

"Don't invite him into my apartment! Stan!"

"Kyle." Stan gives him a pleading, slightly frightened look. "Have you ever donated sperm?"

"Hell no, why?"

"Because he looks like he's your kid."

"I'm not old enough to be his father!" Kyle says, reeling backward. He's not sure how old Auden is, but he suspects this isn't technically true. "How dare you!"

"Did you ever have sex with a woman?" Stan asks, apparently desperate for some reason to continue comforting this Kyle-like wretch.

"Stan! Fuck no!"

"Well, stranger things have happened! Kyle, look at him, he needs a friend."

"Eric hates me all of a sudden," Auden says, still sobbing. "And I didn't even do anything."

"He said you tried to stab him!" Kyle says.

"He's lying," Auden says. "Just trying to buh—butter you up, because he's obsessed with you, clearly. He's a fucking liar, he lied to both of us, and he's ruined my life."

"Sounds like Cartman alright," Stan says, and he helps Auden up. "Kyle," he says when he sees the look on Kyle's face. "People are staring."

Kyle turns to see several neighbors poking their heads out to see what the commotion is. He already has a reputation as a trouble maker in this building, because of Cartman's disrespect for the buzz-in system and frequent infiltrations.

"Everything's fine," Kyle calls, and when he turns around Stan has helped Auden up and is letting him cry against his shoulder. "Goddammit," Kyle says, going to unlock the door. "He can only come in to call a cab. He's not a prodigal son," he says, glaring at Stan.

Auden does not call a cab, but allows Stan to bring him over to the couch, where he continues crying and clings to Stan in a way that's making Kyle burn with jealous rage. Stan keeps looking at Kyle apologetically, but he can't seem to stop patting Auden's back in a reassuring fashion.

"Here," Kyle says, thrusting a glass of water at Auden. "Drink that, and then tell me who to call for you. You've got to have someone in your life other than Cartman."

"No," Auden says. He accepts the water with a shaking hand, and Kyle almost expects Stan to help him lift the glass to his lips. "My parents cut me off when I came out. I was trying to get work as an escort when Eric found me. He took me away from all of that, and we were inseparable, we were so close! I don't know why he's doing this."

"Well, clearly you weren't inseparable," Kyle says, newly jealous. "Unless he was hiding you under my bed while I fucked him."

"Hey, Kyle, c'mon," Stan says, wincing. Auden crumbles into pathetic sobs again.

"C'mon what? Stan, what are you doing? You're only encouraging this drama."

"I need you to think about something for a minute," Stan says, and he gets up from the couch, leaving Auden with a pat on his head. "C'mere."

"What?" Kyle hisses, allowing Stan to bring him into the kitchen. "Are you considering adopting him? I know he looks like me, but he's not me, goddammit! You and Cartman are making me feel so cheap!"

"Shh, no, I'm sorry," Stan says, sort of whispering this against Kyle's lips as he draws him into a little kiss. "But, um. Was there ever a chance that Cartman collected your sperm without your permission? Like, maybe when he got you drunk or something—"

"Stanley, stop it. That is not my son! You're acting like a lunatic!"

"But it's exactly the kind of thing Cartman is capable of, dude! He has unlimited funds, he could have hired a surrogate mother—"

"And raised my son in secret to become his sex servant? Yeah, I don't think so, Stan."

"Why not? It's so Cartman, it's exactly the kind of thing he'd—"

"No, it isn't, okay? You don't know him like I do!"

This silences Stan, and Kyle wants to apologize, as if he's said something cruel. Has he? No, it's simply the truth: Stan knows the little bully of their childhood and the larger than life public figure that Cartman has become since time travel was introduced. He doesn't know the Cartman who gently spoon fed his cat during her final days, or the one who nursed Kyle after his rhinoplasty, who made him feel attractive and adored when his face was full of bruises and his mother refused to look at him.

Stan returns to Auden, bringing him tissues this time. Kyle feels unbelievably hurt by Stan's sympathy for that creature, and at the thought of Cartman bringing a personal escort on his adventures in lieu of Kyle. Did he think, Close enough? Did he prefer the younger version, his unlined face and his trusting spirit? Kyle shouldn't care, but he does, and wants to hear Cartman's explanation. How differently would this weekend have gone if he'd met with him after that trip to the zoo?

Auden's phone rings while Kyle is in the kitchen, lamenting his lack of gin. His ringtone seems to be "Lyin' Eyes" by the Eagles, but maybe Kyle is hearing things.

"It's Eric," Auden says, sniffling.

"Don't answer it," Stan says.

"Why the hell shouldn't he?" Kyle barks from the kitchen, livid. "Who else is going to take him off our hands?"

"Eric?" Auden squeaks, going to the window with the phone. "Yes, I — well, where was I supposed to go? I thought you'd be here. You fucking asshole." He starts crying again, and Kyle bats Stan's hands away when he comes into the kitchen to try to hug him.

"My life has become a parody of itself," Kyle says.

"Yeah, well, whose fault is that?" Stan asks. "Mine?"

"No," Kyle says, though he was counting Stan as one of the culprits.

"It's Cartman's fault," Stan says. "You'll never be rid of him." He looks down at Kyle's chest as he says so, and Kyle scoffs.

"He's sent a car for me," Auden says, coming into the kitchen. For a moment Kyle expects to hear that Cartman wants to talk to him, but Auden is putting the phone away. "It's downstairs. He wants to see me."

"Good for you," Kyle says, hatefully. "I take it you can see yourself out."

"Thanks for being so nice," Auden says, speaking to Stan and ignoring Kyle.

"Don't let Cartman push you around," Stan says. "I have a friend who works with charities that help former escorts. I could give her your number?"

He's talking about Wendy. Disgusted with Stan's do-gooder approach to this and feeling rejected, Kyle begins to put away the dishes in the drying rack, mostly so he can look at something other than Auden.

"I think I'll be okay," Auden says. "Eric sounded really sorry."

"I think he might be losing his mind," Kyle says, unable to keep quiet. "I'll mention to my brother that he should probably have his business partner undergo a psych evaluation."

"Whatever," Auden says. "Bitter old man!"

"You should go now," Stan says, and Auden does. When he's gone, Kyle pushes past Stan, leaving the kitchen and heading for the window, which looks down on the street where Cartman usually has his driver park. Cartman's car is there, but if he's in it, there's no sign of him. The driver opens the door for Auden and shuts it behind him.

"Don't," Kyle says when Stan hovers behind him looking worried. "I cannot believe you just let that person into my home. He's an alleged stabber. Cartman is probably only recollecting him for the purpose of having his arrested."

"You can't take Cartman at his word," Stan says. "And maybe that kid is a con artist, too, but, Kyle. I couldn't just tell him to get lost. Not when he was crying like that."

"Why not? Because he looks like me? Because I'm just this hair and this nose to you two? Add hysteria and you've got Kyle, more or less?"

"No," Stan says, and he surges forward to hold Kyle by the shoulders. "I'd actually get sad when I saw redheads, when we weren't together. They were just like this reminder that I wasn't with you. A lot of things had started to feel that way."

"Yeah?" Kyle squirms a little in Stan's grip, but his heart isn't in it and he's glad when Stan holds on, undeterred. "Like what? What else?"

"Couples," Stan says. "And not just gay ones. Doctors on TV. I'll think about you at work and how tired you probably are. Everything just drags me over the coals when I'm not with you." He rests his forehead against Kyle's as he says so.

"We've come a long way from you asking me to teach you about gay sex," Kyle says. He's never been comfortable with love confessions, but he likes the way Stan is holding him, though he's still pissed off about Auden.

"I was scared to ask for the other stuff," Stan says. "The more than just sex stuff." He kisses Kyle's left eyebrow, perhaps to provide an example. "But I guess I knew it would come out if you just let me. Anything, if you let me do anything."

"How long have you been waiting to ask?"

"Uh, a while. You said — about Cartman, and. I thought I'd better try something before you changed your mind about him."

"I won't change my mind," Kyle says. "Hiring an escort who looks like me to 'assist' him—he crossed the line."

"What about me?" Stan asks, his hands flexing on Kyle's shoulders. "Gonna change your mind about that?"

"Only if you continue to suggest that Cartman stole my genetic material in order to create the ideal sex slave." Kyle frowns. "Actually, that—okay, in an exaggerated way that sounds like him, but Stan, really. He wouldn't raise a child in order to create the ideal lover. That's too gross even for him."

"I guess," Stan says. "Maybe he had someone else raise it, though, the parents who conveniently threw Auden out when he told them he was gay?"

"I will not pursue this train of thought, Stan, stop it!"

"Okay, fine, sorry. Do you still want to take a nap?"

"I'm too riled up now," Kyle says, pulling away from him. "No, let's—" He studies Stan for a moment. His hands have this quality of looking overly big when they're empty; Kyle has never seen it on someone else. "We could have sex," Kyle says. "Anal, I mean, um. Have you done that, in the stalls?"

"I never did," Stan says. "I think it requires more, um, coordination than I was capable of when I was in the stalls."

"Sure," Kyle says. He scratches the back of his neck. "So. We don't have to. Maybe you wouldn't be into that?"

"Kyle." Stan closes his eyes and takes a breath. "I would so into that. Yes."

"Cool," Kyle says, and he makes a face. "Sorry. I don't know why I said cool."

"It's okay," Stan says. He grins and comes toward Kyle, who is suddenly nervous, like maybe he forgot how to bottom. It's been a while. He tips his head back for Stan's kiss, which is maybe a little too soft for a moment like this. Kyle tries to deepen it and make it more heated, but he's never been good at taking the lead in the kissing department. "I'm gonna work on that," Stan says when Kyle pulls free. He looks kind of queasy, and Kyle wonders if he's fully resolved his sexual anxiety-related stomach issues.

"On what?" Kyle asks, though he thinks he knows.

"Kissing. I've never—I get too nervous. I over-think kissing."

"Is that Wendy's commentary? I think you're doing just fine." Saying so seems to help: when they kiss again, Stan's tongue slides against Kyle's with just enough pressure to tease him into lapping at him for more. "Oh, shit," Kyle says when he pulls back. "We should eat first. So I'm not distracted and rushed."

"Yeah. Let's not rush, yeah. You want some fancy ramen?"

"Oh, Christ, fancy ramen sounds perfect." Stan is kind of psychic when it comes to Kyle's appetite.

"I'll go to the store," Stan says. "You stay put. And bolt the door when I go, just in case that kid really is nuts."

"I can't believe you thought he was mine."

"Well, I didn't really think—it was just a hypothesis."

The corner store where Stan buys supplies for their more spontaneous meals together is only a few blocks away, but it seems to take Stan forever to return, and Kyle begins to pace. He eyes his phone, which is sitting on the coffee table, connected to his charger. He knows he shouldn't check for a message from Cartman, but he does, and when there's nothing there he types one of his own.

Kid says there was no stabbing. I'm inclined to believe him, since you're a proven liar. Well done ending up with a prostitute. I might have known you would.

He shouldn't send it, and spends some time trying to talk himself out of it, but ultimately he can't resist. Ten minutes later, his heart clenches when the apartment's buzzer goes off at the same time that his phone dings. He buzzes Stan up and hurries to read Cartman's response.

hes not a prostitute he has a fucking mfa look it up if you want auden greene at berklee. I am in fucking mumbai and its a fucking shithole i miss you and i had my driver watch your place to make sure he didnt try to hurt you and this is the thanks I get

Kyle types out the only clever response he can come up with, hands shaking, his mouth suddenly very dry.

As if you can't have an MFA and be a prostitute.

Stan knocks, and Kyle goes for the door. He's almost there when the phone dings. He hesitates, curses himself, and dashes for the phone.

a valid point but i dont need to pay for it and cant you just see this as part of my sick obsession with you please

Kyle is already composing a response in his head, but he doesn't have time to type it out. He locks his phone and goes for the door.

"Sorry," he says, the sight of Stan with his grocery bag full of fancy ramen supplies ripping his heart out. "I was indisposed."

"No problem," Stan says. "I got special mushrooms."

"Oh, Stan."

Kyle clings while Stan cooks, standing behind him with his arms around Stan's middle. Stan doesn't complain about the limited mobility that this arrangement causes. In fact he seems to like it, and he pauses to stroke Kyle's clasped hands between tasks. Kyle is thinking about Cartman in Mumbai, probably wearing some hideous white suit, sweating. Or maybe it's another lie, and he's in bed with Auden, chuckling with delight at Kyle's continued interest in contacting him. He shouldn't have sent anything; he'll never get the last word.

- Kayotics -

"You're quiet," Stan says, reaching back to scratch behind Kyle's ear.

"I'm rattled," Kyle says. "It's been a rattling week. It'll be nice, um. Some anal. It calms me down, under the right circumstances."

"I hope I'm the right circumstances," Stan says, and he turns to give Kyle a grin that does nothing to mask how sincere this remark is. Kyle nods and kisses Stan's chin.

Fancy ramen involves shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, egg, and green onions. It's one of Kyle's favorite comfort foods, but he never makes it for himself, not like this, not fancy-style. They both eat quickly, and Kyle's stomach is aching afterward.

"You can go get in bed," Stan says. "I'll wash up."

"No, leave it," Kyle says, though leaving soup bowls with cloudy broth residue in them sitting around typically sets him on edge. He places them on the coffee table and takes Stan's hands. "I wish I could see you in your work uniform."

"It's not that impressive," Stan says.

"Yeah, it is. I'm impressed by you. See?" He brings Stan's hand down to his dick, which is getting hard as he thinks about feeling full, getting stretched around a cock, and the smell of Stan's sweat.

They head into the bedroom, and Kyle closes the door for good measure. He looks at the giant window and thinks about Cartman having his driver watch Kyle's building for signs of Auden. What else might he be watching? Stan sits behind him on the bed and starts kissing his neck, sucking at spots until Kyle doesn't care about the window. Let Cartman look, if he wants to see Kyle happy, secure, in the arms of someone who doesn't lie to him.

"Don't get discouraged if I'm not good right away," Stan says when Kyle presses him down to the bed. "I'm willing to work. I'll practice."

"Stan," Kyle says, and he does that neck sucking thing to Stan, just below his jaw. He seems to like it, his hips working up against Kyle, looking for friction. "It's not a job interview," Kyle says when he pulls back. "Just relax and let me show you how to do it."

"Oh." Stan goes very red then. "Um, sorry, I thought. Maybe I'd be doing it to you, but that's okay. I want to try it."

"What — oh, God, no, I'm not going to fuck you, not today." Kyle has to be worked into a mindless sexual frenzy to want that, and right now he's full of ramen and drooling over the thought of riding Stan's dick. "I meant, I'll show you how to put it — in. In me."

"Jesus, good," Stan says, and he beams. "That's — good, sounds good."

"It is good," Kyle says, murmuring this against Stan's lips. "It's gonna feel good, really tight and hot around your dick." Dirty talk seems weird with Stan listening, his eyes getting wide in a nonjudgmental way.

"I just want to be inside you," Stan says, with that sudden intensity that keeps taking Kyle off guard. "Deep," he says, his hands sliding down to Kyle's ass. "I hated when. Even back then, I was jealous. That night, at that party, when he had his fingers in you. I wanted to take them out."

"Fuck," Kyle says, unable to decide if it his hot or troubling. His cock is unequivocally on board, and he's dragging it over Stan's hipbone, wondering if he should come before or after Stan is inside him. "Wow," he says, newly bowled over by the thought. "We're really doing this."

"We don't have to," Stan says.

"Yeah, we do," Kyle says, and he licks Stan's cheek, where he smells like Kyle's shaving soap, citrusy. "We have to," Kyle says. "I actually can't believe we haven't before."

"I know," Stan says, his voice breaking a little. He grabs two handfuls of Kyle's ass and squeezes. "I know, I know."

"I just didn't think you were—"

"I know, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to lie to you, I was so fucking cowardly, all those nights when you would put your head on my shoulder—"

"Shh, oh, Stan. My poor Stan."

They make out for a while, neither of them willing initiate to the beginning of the heavier action. Kyle wonders if Stan is a bottom, though he seemed quite perturbed when he thought Kyle was asking to fuck him.

"Flip me over," Kyle says, hoping to spur some aggression.

"Kay." Stan rolls Kyle onto his back, and he lines their cocks up when he straddles him, then takes hold of both of them and strokes. Kyle moans and fucks up into Stan's grip, going brainless in the best way.

"There's lube in that drawer," he says, pointing.

Stan gets it, and Kyle decides he doesn't want to be on his back for this. He feels too vulnerable, afraid that Stan won't be able to handle the realities of his ass, and that this is the moment when they discover that they're not truly compatible, despite their desire to be. Kyle gets up onto his knees and takes the lube from Stan, guiding him back onto the pillows.

"Sit up," Kyle says when Stan starts to scoot down. "I'll get—in your lap, and you can just reach under me. Okay?"

"Whatever you want," Stan says. He's breathless and red-faced, his hands shaking as Kyle squats in his lap. Kyle kisses him, hoping this will calm him, and he moans when he feels how wet Stan's mouth has become.

"Tell me what you want," Kyle says.

"You. You, Kyle, I want you."

"What do you—how do you want me? How do you want me to be, for you?"

Stan seems confused by the question, but only for a moment. His hands tighten on Kyle's hips, and he drags his cock upward, rubbing it through the crack of Kyle's ass.

"I want you to be wide open," Stan says, unblinking. Kyle gulps, surprised. "For me, so I can have all of you, every inch."

"Yes," Kyle says, dumbly. He arches, humping himself back onto Stan's cock until he can feel it against his hole. He feels as if he's marking Stan with his scent, claiming that cock as his territory, and likes the thought that it's his, working for him, hard for him. "Get your — here, put this on two fingers."

Stan is careful with Kyle as he stretches him, though not as cautious and insecure as Kyle feared he would be. His fingers aren't as thick as Cartman's, but they're longer, and he has more patience as Kyle guides him toward the right spot. Kyle moans when Stan rubs his prostate — he's so generous, not even teasing, just rubbing the shit out of it until Kyle is coming all over Stan's stomach.

"Fuck, that was hot," Stan says when Kyle is trembling against his chest, his arms around Stan's neck.

"You, um, pulled your fingers out too fast," Kyle says.

"Oh, shit, sorry—"

"It's okay, I used to do that, too. Hey." He sits up and takes Stan's face in his hands. "Did you like it? The way it felt, inside me?"

"Yes, Jesus, especially when you came, Kyle—"

"Would you like — your dick in there, now? Hmmm?"

"Yes," Stan says, and when he laughs nervously, Kyle does, too.

"Sorry I'm so bad at this," Kyle says.

"At what?"

"Dirty talk, or giving directions—I don't know, I feel like I sound dumb!"

"You don't sound dumb." Stan is caressing Kyle's ass cheeks, smearing lube around. "Keep telling me what you want, please, I love it."

"I want you inside me now. And then, maybe later, you could help me trim my pubes. If you still want to."

"I'm always up for pube trimming," Stan says, and he fondles Kyle's sizable bush, reaching down to cup his balls. "Um, so. Should I just go in?"

"Yes, I'm ready." Kyle reaches back to line Stan up, nuzzling his cockhead into position. He's tingling with anticipation, feeling almost virginal. It's the way Stan looks at him, wide-eyed and amazed as he slides into Kyle. They both moan, Stan softly and Kyle with abandon. It has been so very long since he's felt this full.

"Is that good?" Stan asks when their faces are pressed together, Kyle seated in Stan's lap and reveling in the feeling of being connected to someone — to Stan. He nods languidly, his forehead resting against Stan's cheek.

"So good," he says, murmuring. Stan makes a pleased little noise and nods in agreement, his fingers skimming over Kyle's back.

"Feels really, really tight," Stan says. He shifts just slightly, whimpers. "Can't believe that doesn't hurt."

"Doesn't hurt at all." That's not entirely true; it burns, the stretch at his entrance and the pressure deep inside, but it's a good feeling, the kind of thing that Stan will learn that Kyle loves. Kyle sits back to smile at Stan, thinking this: it's just the beginning. He doubts most forty-two-year-olds get beginnings that are this good. "You've been the best thing in my life," Kyle says, dazed with gratitude. "The whole time."

"Dude," Stan says, and they kiss, both twitching their hips a bit, testing the friction. Kyle knows Stan can't say the same about him, that Grady is his best thing and always will be, but that's okay. He knows what Stan wants now, can feel it all over his skin and inside, too: Stan wants Kyle to be his person, to tell him what to make for dinner and hurry home to eat it with him. Kyle still can't believe that Stan wants this, too, to drive up into Kyle while Kyle bounces on him, and Kyle is so grateful, so happy, gasping into Stan's mouth as they both start to move faster and more desperately.

"Grab my hips," Kyle says. "Like — yeah, and pick me up and push me down on it, yeah, make me ride it, nghhh—"

Stan does one better by leaning forward onto his knees, Kyle still in his lap somehow, both of them groaning and clawing at each other while Stan pumps Kyle bodily. Stan feels so strong, so completely good, and Kyle is going to come again, but then Stan does, burying Kyle against the mattress when he tips over onto him. Kyle reaches between them to jerk himself, whining when he can't get back to where he was without Stan pistoning into him like that. Stan gives him some slobbering, half-awake kisses on his neck before he notices Kyle's frustration, and he pulls out, moving down to take Kyle's cock into his mouth. Kyle wants to fuck up into that heat, and has to make himself be calm enough not to, letting Stan do the work. When he comes it's a bit strained and unspectacular, but his ass still feels amazingly well-used, and he yanks Stan down for open-mouthed kisses, wrapping his tired legs around Stan's back.

"I love you," Stan says when Kyle drops his head back onto the mattress. Kyle has never heard that after sex. He's not sure he likes it, because it's a bit like Stan is apologizing for having treated him like a come-hungry whore just then, as if Stan feels the need to remind him that it was done out of love. Kyle doesn't mind being fucked out of purely selfish animal need, but he knows Stan just wants to make him feel — well, loved. He nips at Stan's mouth and nods.

"I have to confess," Kyle says. "That was way better than I thought it would be."

"You thought it would be bad?"

"No, just. You're new to this, and we're new to each other."

"We're not, though, really," Stan says. He gathers Kyle up in his arms and fondles his earlobe. "I used to chew on your hair."

"Ha, well. When we were like, toddlers. You can't claim that was sexual."

"It wasn't, but I always sort of vaguely wanted to have you in my mouth."

They crawl under the blankets and doze off together, and Kyle wakes with Stan spooned up behind him, heavy with sleep. It's happened so many times since he was a kid, but never before like this, with Stan's cock and Kyle's ass both sticky with come, pressed snugly together. Kyle wants a shower, but he lingers in the moment for a while, watching the afternoon light mature into early evening. Suddenly he loves his big bedroom window. The view is perfect from right here: curled up under the blankets, snug in Stan's arms.

"Going to clean up," Kyle says when he pulls free, unable to endure the sticky ass cheek feeling, which is only charming for a short time. Stan is groggy, adorably fucked out, and Kyle spends some time kissing his sleepy face before he slips away completely. He puts on his robe and goes to turn on the shower, not remembering his phone and the text exchanges with Cartman until the he's turned the water on.

Tiptoeing into the living room, he tells himself that he's only going to check his phone in case the hospital has tried to contact him. He's senior enough to have his weekends free, but sometimes he's called in for emergency surgery on one of his regular patients, and he's been very neglectful and absentminded this weekend. Normally he's always got one eye on his phone, just in case the hospital needs him. It's got nothing to do with Cartman. He's only thinking of work.

Of course there are more messages from Cartman, and Kyle thinks of deleting them, but he's not even sure how to do so without opening them. There are three:

fine you are playing hardball thats fine lets see how long you can hold out before you come after this dick

kyle did you see the part where i miss you

i made a mistake ok but its not easy to travel alone and the random sex was getting boring i still jerk off to a picture of your butt crack from when we were kids i need you that bad jesus christ answer me!

Kyle deletes all the messages, not wanting Stan to see them, though Stan isn't the type to spy on his phone and Kyle obsessively locks it. It's full of old sexts from Cartman, long exchanges where they teased each other with plans for future trysts, plus a variety of pictures of Cartman's cock in varying states of hardness. Kyle never sent pictures of his, thankfully; he doesn't like taking selfies of any kind. He did once get very excited about the cock shots that Cartman sent, and it makes him sad to think of deleting them. But he must, of course. He will. He locks his phone, replaces it on the charger and hurries into the shower.

While there, he allows a half-assed fantasy about having them both at the same time to formulate. It would be a complete disaster, but what are fantasies for if not unrealistic nonsense? He can't decide who he'd want in his mouth, who in his ass. He's ecstatic in the aftermath of discovering that Stan knows how to fuck, but he can't deny that Cartman does, too. He would feel so incredibly used between the two of them, spit-roasted, overflowing with cock, trilling like a slut while they both moaned in shameless pleasure and fucked him like they knew he could take it — and now he's hard, touching himself, though he's really too tired for another orgasm, his legs already slightly wobbly. He feels almost teenaged in this renewed lust for sex, grabbing at this neediness with both hands, and he whines happily when Stan pulls back the shower curtain and steps in with him.

"Damn, dude," Stan says, taking hold of Kyle's cock. Kyle nods and glues himself to Stan, humping him, so glad that he knows to grab Kyle's cock without pause if he should ever want to, now. "You're all worked up," Stan says, bending down to kiss Kyle's shoulder.

"I feel like I was dead and I came back to life," Kyle says. "Will you — God, this is a lot to ask, but will you eat my ass? It's clean."

"Sure," Stan says, so brightly that Kyle laughs. "What?" Stan says when Kyle looks at him, smiling.

"I'm happy," Kyle says.

"Jesus, me too. Can you put your hands on the tiles while I do it? And spread your legs, like — yeah. I love shower sex."

"You weirdo," Kyle says, because shower sex is the worst, but actually maybe it isn't, because Stan's tongue is in his ass, and Kyle is moaning against the tiles, fucking his hand, coming with surprising speed.

They order Thai food for dinner, both exhausted and unwilling to dress for shopping or dining out. Kyle still feels a bit on edge, as if Stan is going to jet off for Singapore or Montreal at any moment, because that's what he's grown accustomed to: just when things are settling into a cozy pace, his source of comfort deserts him. He's especially clingy before and after their meal, afraid to ask Stan to go back to his apartment only to collect some things.

"I have to work early," Stan finally says, when Kyle is dozing with his head on Stan's thigh while Stan watches the Nationals play the Marlins. "Like, I have to get up at six."

"Oh. Well, if you need to go."

"I'd like to stay," Stan says, drawing his fingers through Kyle's curls. "I still haven't trimmed your pubes."

"Yeah, we didn't get around to that, did we?"

"Nope. Too busy fucking and eating. My favorite kind of Sunday worship."

Kyle sits up and looks at Stan. He seems a little nervous and unsure, both thumbs twitching.

"I think you'd better stay with me for a while," Kyle says. "In case Auden comes back and tries to kill me."

Stan lets out his breath and nods. He reaches for Kyle, who dumps himself onto Stan's chest, relieved.

"I think so, too," Stan says. "I need to pack a bag, though. Will you be alright here, or do you want to come with me?"

"I'm too tired to move from this couch. I'll be okay." He thinks of Cartman's driver and his instruction to watch the building. Is he doing so now, or has Cartman secured Auden somewhere? Maybe on a plane to Mumbai? It shouldn't matter if that's how Cartman decided to handle the situation, by returning his wayward concubine to his side in some palatial Indian estate. It certainly doesn't matter that Kyle never took Cartman up on his offers of exotic travel, that he never got to find out what that felt like, traveling on the arm of a man more powerful than him. It's an essentially repulsive thought, but the sex probably would have been phenomenal in some of those settings. Kyle thinks of Cartman's messages and decides to deal with them while Stan is gone.

He waits until he can see Stan walking away from the building, heading for the Metro. Further text message exchanges will likely only result in banter, which Kyle frankly still enjoys, but hanging on to his snarky exchanges with Cartman isn't worth upsetting Stan. He calls instead, wondering what time it is in Mumbai, if that's actually where Cartman is at the moment.

Cartman surprises him by answering after the first ring. The fact that he grumbles before speaking probably means that the phone woke him.

"I take it I'm about to hear your apology," Cartman says.

"Apology? What the hell do I have to apologize for? You were cheating on me with a — no, you know what, I'm done arguing. I'm just calling to say that I'm in a relationship now, too, so let's just retire to our separate—"

"Relationship, what, how? With who?"

"Never mind who, just know that—"

"Oh, fuck, it's Stan, isn't it? Jesus Christ. That sneaky fucking hippie, I knew he'd stick his dick in you as soon as my back was turned."

"Your back was turned? What the fuck are you talking about? You're never here — I saw you like, twice last year—"

"And I'm fucking miserable about that, too, Kyle, but I have to stay moving, I've got too many enemies, and I'm not even in present history during most of my work days. I asked you to come with me—"

"Right, and abandon my career? I'm only a heart surgeon, it's not like I've worked hard for what I have or anything. Look, Cartman, whatever — it's over, and I'm sad about it, too, but—"

"I'm not fucking sad, I'm pissed off! Since when is Stan suddenly okay with his lifelong yearning for your dick? Can you say midlife crisis, Kyle? Who's going to mop up your goo when he goes back to Wendy, huh?"

"He's not going back to Wendy," Kyle says, confident about this after seeing them together at the soccer game. "Cartman, I'm sorry. Wait, why the hell am I apologizing? Enjoy Auden, if that's what you want, but I can't make this work when you're lying to me about your other sex partners and unwilling to expose yourself to your 'enemies' long enough to spend more than a weekend with me."

There's a silence on the other line, and for a moment Kyle wonders if he was actually able to get through to Cartman using logic.

"Hello?" Kyle says, afraid that he's about to hear Cartman shed tears over him for the first time. It's no longer something he's interested in.

"Are you fucking yet?" Cartman asks. "I bet his dick is small."

"Let's not do this," Kyle says, because he's got too much dignity to say, I bet Auden's asshole is loose. "We had some great times together. Some amazing times—"

"Oh, don't give me this shit," Cartman says. "You don't want to settle down with someone any more than I do. I know you're obsessed with your career, too, that's why our arrangement worked!"

"That's why it worked for a while. It's not working for me anymore, and it's obviously not working for you, if you're harvesting Kyle lookalikes to warm your bed. Stan thought he was my son, you know."

"Yes, I heard all about Stan's valiant behavior from the little shit. I can't believe he told you he was a whore. He did that to humiliate me, it's total bullshit. He plays the fucking violin."

"How fascinating," Kyle says. "I have to go."

"So what, I'm just never going to see you again?"

The horror Kyle feels at the thought takes him off guard. Cartman's appearances in his life were so consistently random that it doesn't seem feasible that they could cease forever; he was never a routine, but always a possibility.

"I don't know," Kyle says, imagining that Cartman is gloating over his pause. "I'd like to — talk, sometime, in person, but I think we both need a while to cool off."

"Fine, that's fine. I dare you to be alone with me at any point in the future and not end up on your knees, begging for my cock. You can't fight animal attraction, Kyle, not even with your loyal mall cop."

"I'm too old for this crap," Kyle says. "You never had to grow up, because everyone's always kissed your ass — including me, Jesus! And that's great for you, enjoy it. But I'm done. Goodbye, Eric."

Using his first name was intended to be a kind of insult, since Auden calls him that, but Kyle feels thrown by it after he's hung up. He waits, staring at the phone, expecting a follow up via text. Nothing comes. He wonders if Cartman just rolled over and went back to sleep.

Stan returns an hour later, carrying a duffel bag and a backpack. Kyle takes Stan's backpack, puts it on the floor and throws his arms around him.

"I wanted to ask you to move in with me so many times," Kyle says. "This place feels different when you're here."

"The windows?" Stan says, hugging Kyle tightly. Kyle pulls back to grin at him.

"Yeah," he says. "And the couch, the bed, the shower."

"You won't mind my alarm going off at six?"

"No, dude, Jesus. Maybe I'll actually get up and work out before my shift."

He doesn't, because it's just too pleasant to kiss Stan goodbye and linger in bed, knowing that Stan will be home tonight before Kyle, that he'll cook something and that will be ready when Kyle gets home at nine. And then sex, presumably: Kyle wants to be fucked from behind so badly. He hopes Stan is ready for it, and suspects that he will be. He sleeps late, hugging Stan's pillow, basking in the sex smell.

He has two surgeries during his shift, one at two and another at five. He's ravenously hungry during the five o'clock surgery, dreaming of Stan's turkey meatloaf as he scrapes at calcium deposits. It's a very delicate procedure, easy to do damage if the utmost care is not taken with the lining of the heart. Kyle somewhat resents the robotics that have taken over so many surgical tasks in his lifetime; he always does the calcium scraping by hand. The robots are precise, but there's a life-saving distinction between precision and care.

At seven o'clock he scarfs some Cool Ranch Doritos from the vending machine, and the rest of his shift is just paperwork and meetings with colleagues. He's ignored his phone all day, and when he checks it while he waits for the train he feels a bit guilty, though he knows it's silly. Stan sent him a text around one o'clock, when he takes his lunch break: Hi :)

On my way home, Kyle sends, and he doesn't expect a response, but he gets one a minute later:

Good can't wait to see you

Kyle waits to feel the kind overbearing angst that Wendy warned him about, but he doesn't. He's excited, as if anticipating the kind of date that he's never really been on, a meetup with someone he wants to know better. He's fleet footed on the walk from the Metro station, though the weather is pleasant and his feet are tired from standing through two surgeries. His back hurts, too, but the ache feels good when he considers that Stan will rub it for him if he asks.

"So your key worked," Kyle says when he comes into the apartment and finds Stan at the stove, stirring something that smells fishy. He pauses and mid-stride and grins when he sees Stan is wearing his uniform, the shirt untucked over his belt. Kyle wonders where the gun is; certainly not still on Stan's hip?

"Yep, the key worked," Stan says. He holds out an arm, and Kyle tucks himself to Stan's side, happy to at last be able to rub his face against Stan's neck in greeting. He's been lusting after Stan's scent for longer than he allowed himself to realize. "I'm making mussels," Stan says. "How was your day?"

"Perfectly fine," Kyle says. "Two successful surgeries and a bag of Doritos. I'm starving."

"Oh, good. I'm doing pasta to go with them, and a spicy red sauce, is that okay?"

"Stan, yes." Kyle is still nuzzling at Stan's neck, feeling very privileged. "Of course it's okay. Sounds fantastic. Your day was good?"

"Uh-huh, the usual Monday. Crowds weren't too bad, and I joined the lottery pool."

"Is there a big jackpot or something?"

"Yep, Power Ball's up to three hundred and sixty million."

"I didn't know you gambled."

"I don't, but it's kind of a way to bond with the other guys at work, you know? I think it'd be kind of snobby not to join in, and it's only two bucks."

"Where's your gun?" Kyle asks, feeling around his belt.

"In my locker at work. I'm special police, dude, I can't carry it off duty."

"Special police," Kyle says. He supposes he'd heard that term for Stan's museum guard job before, but he never realized how hot it was. "Officer Marsh, is that what they call you?"

"They mostly call me Stan, but you can call me Officer Marsh if you want."

"Have you got handcuffs?"

"Mhm, yeah, in my locker."

"Oh, Jesus, you're not even allowed to bring them home?"

"I don't think I'd get in trouble if I did," Stan says, and he turns from the mussels to smirk at Kyle. "Or I could just buy some recreational ones. You want to be cuffed?" He pinches Kyle's ass, and Kyle nods, sort of mounting him.

"I like rough sex," Kyle says, whispering this into Stan's ear.

"I figured," Stan says, and he gives the pot a stir.

"Why did you 'figure?' Because of Cartman?"


Annoyed by that, Kyle wonders if he should mention that he told Cartman about how things have changed between them. He goes to the fridge for his gin and tonic ingredients, moving things around when he can't find the lime.

"Did you put my lime somewhere?" Kyle asks.

"Oh — you needed that?" Stan looks up from his cooking, holding a dripping wooden spoon. "Sorry, dude, I didn't know. I used it to make guacamole."

"Ooh, that sounds good." Kyle searches the fridge for it.

"I actually finished it," Stan says. "For a snack, when I got home. It doesn't keep well, so. I'll make you some more tomorrow."

"Fine," Kyle says, and he makes his drink with an extra shot of gin, to compensate for the lack of lime.

The dinner is excellent, if a bit overly spicy, and Stan is a good listener, as always, when it comes to Kyle's gripes about work. Stan's gripes mostly involve Everett, who apparently wants to take Grady and Wendy to China for a month in July.

"Does that seem insane to you?" Stan asks. They're finished with dinner but still at the table, Kyle with his socked feet in Stan's lap, Stan rubbing them.

"It's a little insane," Kyle says. "I mean, Jesus, who has a work schedule that allows for a month of vacation, first of all?"

"Fucking Everett, since he doesn't even have a real job. He's like one of those rich ladies who does charity stuff to keep herself busy, only he makes money off of it somehow, which I find shady."

"Totally shady! But Wendy wouldn't be with him if he was really a swindler."

"True," Stan says. "I'm sorry I said that about rough sex. That was dumb."

"It's not dumb, it's astute. Sorry I was a bitch about my lime."

"You weren't!"

They smile at each other, some nervous tension diffused. Kyle slides his feet from Stan's lap and gets up to sit it in instead, straddling him. Stan is still wearing his work shirt and pants, the shirt unbuttoned. Kyle strokes the thin fabric of his white undershirt, feeling strangely attracted to it, or maybe to the heat of Stan's chest beneath it. His is not as soft Kyle's, but he's gained a little weight since turning forty. Kyle thinks it suits him, and he's always liked having some chub to pinch.

"Would you ever take a vacation with me and Grady?" Stan asks.

"Yeah, if I can get away from work. I'd love that. Where would we go?"

"I don't know—somewhere on the west coast? The beach?"

"I have money, you know," Kyle says, lowering his voice as if this is a sensitive subject; it might be. "We could do something more exotic. An island somewhere."

"That sounds more like something me and you should do alone," Stan says. He's smiling, pushing his hands up under Kyle's shirt, seemingly unperturbed by the reminder of his income. "You know, like. Sounds romantic."

"Yes, it does." Kyle isn't sure why he never allowed himself to embark on that kind of trip with Cartman. It was always on offer, but the last time they really vacationed together was Disney Gay Days in college. Remembering how blissfully unfettered they'd been on that trip, he feels a guilty pang of nostalgia, and he pulls away from Stan's kiss. "Can I examine you?" he asks. "Your heart? I was thinking about it today. You never go to the doctor."

"Yeah, I'd like that," Stan says. He's blushing, and getting hard under Kyle's ass, as if the idea of submitting to a physical exam is hot. Kyle can relate, in a sense: he wants to be handcuffed, after all. "Want me to trim your pubes now?" Stan asks, and Kyle giggles like a kid, hiding his face against Stan's neck when he hears himself. "I mean, as foreplay," Stan says, more softly. His fingers are moving on Kyle's back, gentle but wanting, and Kyle is getting hard, too.

"I would love to groom each other as foreplay," Kyle says. "Let's do it."

They establish several oddly enjoyable routines as the days pass and Stan remains in residence, shared pube maintenance being one of them. Kyle asserts his dominant side by sending Stan instructional text messages during the day, either about what to make for dinner or what to take care of around the apartment when he gets home from work. He's surprised to find that he gets off on it almost as much as he does on submitting to Stan in bed, and after some murmured late night conversation about their fantasies, he's happy to sometimes come home to Stan sitting with his dick hanging out of his uniform pants, waiting to be serviced. Long days doing complex surgeries somehow make for the perfect windup to crawling across the floor and taking Stan in his mouth as soon as he gets home. They develop a code for the days when Kyle needs this, and all he has to do is text "work pants" to Stan, who will then know exactly how Kyle wants to unwind when he returns from work. They try the handcuffs, which Kyle doesn't like as much as he expected to. He's very relieved that Stan likes taking him from behind when he's on all fours, which is an absolute must in Kyle's sexual repertoire. Stan tries bottoming and likes it, but Kyle still doesn't care much for topping.

"I top in real life, and that's exhausting enough," he explains, and he tackles Stan when he snorts.

It's fun, coming home to Stan and trying out new things with him, waking up as the little spoon and muttering together about not wanting to leave the blankets and let go of each other. Kyle doesn't think of Cartman often, but he does feel a kind of nervous twinge when he checks his phone, never quite sure what he's hoping for. He still hasn't deleted the dick pictures, and he tells himself that they might be useful blackmail someday, though he knows Cartman wouldn't mind flashing his big cock at the general public.

After two weeks of sharing the apartment with Stan, Kyle is anticipating a potentially awkward Grady weekend, and has completely forgotten about Craig. He remembers only on Friday evening, when he gets a text from Craig saying that his flight will land at two o'clock tomorrow. Kyle is on the train, headed home, and he's panicked at the thought of Craig showing up with his designer luggage and giving Kyle judgmental stares while Stan cooks steaks for the three of them. Plus, Grady would be there, and Kyle is fairly sure that Craig loathes children and would not be willing to sleep on the couch while Grady took the guest room and Stan fucked Kyle in the master bedroom. It's going to be a disaster, he fears, until he comes up with an idea and calls Craig.

"I fucked up the scheduling of this trip," Kyle says. "Stan and Grady need the apartment this weekend — do you mind staying at the Mandarin Oriental? I'll pay. We could get a two bedroom suite and do a spa weekend, or whatever you call it."

"Fine, if you're paying," Craig says. "I don't like that mattress in your guest room, anyway, it's too soft. How are you?"

"Pretty great," Kyle says. "Looking forward to some shopping and, uh. Spa."

"Sorry I've been out of touch, I had to go to Mexico for this awful coffee bean supplier negotiation, it was a nightmare — I feel like I'm running the whole fucking company. Anyway, I'll tell you all about it. You're not fucking anyone, are you? By the name of Marsh?"

"No," Kyle says, and then he feels stupid for lying. He just wants to tell Craig in person, so Craig can see how good Kyle's skin looks now that he's getting laid. "I'm, uh. I broke it off with Cartman, for good. I'll tell you all about it."

"Can't wait to hear it. See you tomorrow — shall we meet at the hotel? I'm really not interested in being introduced to Stan's offspring at your place."

"I didn't think you would be. We'll meet at the Mandarin, yeah, two thirty."

He hangs up with Craig and makes a reservation at the Mandarin for Saturday and Sunday, proud of himself for coming up with this solution. Stan can have some quality time with Grady, and Kyle can spend the weekend gushing to Craig about all that's happened, sipping fruity drinks by the pool and paying hundreds of dollars for spa treatments. He hasn't enjoyed any traditional gay culture since Cartman stopped taking him to the neighborhood bars, and he's missed Craig, who always brings the traditional gay culture. It will be a great weekend, revitalizing for all parties.

At home, he finds Stan making chicken noodle soup with the leftover rotisserie chicken that they'd picked up the night before. It's sort of an odd choice for early June, but the apartment smells nice, homey, and even more so when Kyle wraps around Stan from behind and breathes in the scent of him.

"You're always slaving away in my kitchen," Kyle says.

"I like it, though," Stan says. "It was depressing to cook for myself at the apartment. You can't really make a meal for one person, and then if I did, I felt like my roommates were mooching."

"Aren't I mooching, then?"

"Kyle. I'm living here rent free. And you're my boyfriend." Stan turns and smiles at him, and Kyle flushes happily. It's the first time either of them has said so.

"When is your lease up on that other place?" Kyle asks.

"August. I guess I'll think of it as a storage unit until then. Should I bring my furniture here when I move out?"

"What furniture?" Kyle hasn't been to Stan's apartment in over a year; he doesn't care for Stan's roommates, or the sticky surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom.

"I've got a bed and a dresser, and the table in the dining room is mine. It's a nice table."

"Mhmm," Kyle says, glancing at his own dining room table, which is a three thousand dollar piece purchased from an antique dealer who he particularly likes. "Maybe we could sell some things. The bed, at least. You like my bed, don't you?" he asks, returning his face to Stan's fragrant neck.

"I love it," Stan says. "Yeah, I guess I should just unload all that old stuff. That one guy who smoked — I feel like all my stuff still smells like cigarettes."

"This guy was a roommate, right?" Kyle asks. "Not a conquest?"

"Just a roommate. You're my only conquest."

"Well, not quite. You were married twice, and you impregnated Wendy."

"True, but those didn't feel like victories. I mean, okay, getting someone pregnant was nice. I liked that."

"I'm glad you got to experience it," Kyle says, though at the moment he's feeling jealous. Would he want Stan to impregnate him if it were possible? Probably not, but the idea of creating a person together is enough to make him a little sad that they never will. "Hey, speaking of Grady. I totally forgot that I invited Craig to stay with me this weekend. I don't want to have him hanging around and infringing on your Grady time, so I guess we're just going to stay in a hotel while he's here."

"Huh?" Stan turns to face him, looking like Kyle has just announced that he's having a sex change. "What? A hotel?"

"Yeah, I felt bad that I messed up the scheduling, so I offered to pay for a hotel. I figure we can have some friend time together while you hang out with Grady."

"So — wait." Stan closes his eyes and shakes his head, frowning. "Why can't you just tell him to come next weekend and let him stay in the guest room?"

"Well, because he's already bought his ticket, Stan. He's flying from Colorado. It's been so — I'd completely forgotten about him, what with everything that's going on, but he'd promised to take me shopping after my breakup with Cartman, so we're going to do, like, a gay shopping weekend, I don't know what to call it."

"But you're staying here," Stan says, gesturing to the soup pot with the spoon. "At the apartment. Right?"

"No, I got a room with two beds at the Mandarin, so I'll just stay there with him — me and Craig tend to drink a lot when we're together, so I'll want to just crash. Anyway, it will be nice, right?" Kyle is beginning to worry about the expression on Stan's face. "You'll have some alone time with Grady."

"I don't understand why you need to stay in a hotel room with Craig," Stan says, and he scoffs. "This is really weird, Kyle."

"It's not weird at all — I just explained why! He's my friend, and I haven't seen him in a year. I'm taking a weekend for myself, what's the big deal?"

"The big deal is that you're staying in a hotel room with a man who once asked you to make out with him, okay, that's the big fucking deal."

"Are you seriously getting mad about this?" Kyle asks, his expression beginning to match Stan's.

"Um, yeah? Are you seriously not understanding why? I'm not Cartman, Kyle. You can't just go fuck someone else for a weekend and expect me to be okay with it."

"What the fuck! We're not going to — you know it's not like that with me and Craig, don't be stupid!"

"You know what, Kyle, no, I don't know that. And maybe I'm being an asshole, but I feel really — fucking upset at the thought of you ditching me and Grady to go get drunk and try on clothes with Craig."

"Well, I'm sorry that you're upset," Kyle says, speaking slowly through his rage. No one has tried to tell him what to do since he left his mother's house — Cartman certainly never had permission to restrict his activities. "But you're going to have to get over it, because I really need a mini break, and I've been looking forward to seeing my friend."

"What the fuck is a mini break?" Stan asks. He's still holding the spoon, gesturing with it and splattering broth.

"It's a weekend in a nice hotel in my hometown, and maybe I'll get a facial or something—"

"A facial, Kyle?"

"A non-sexual one, obviously! Jesus, I thought you'd be happy about this! You get to be with your son and do father son things—"

"I like doing those with you, too," Stan says. "It makes me feel, like — like. Like I have a family, too. Like I'm not just this leftover spare part."

"Oh, well." Kyle deflates a little, some anger abating. "That's really sweet, I'm glad. I like being with you guys, too, but this is one weekend when I won't be. We'll take Grady to the beach together soon, or—"

"Whatever," Stan says, and he turns back to the soup. "Do whatever you want, I guess. I can't stop you."

"That's right, you can't," Kyle says. "But don't be fucking mad at me about it! I don't want to fight about this."

"I'm not gonna fight you. I'm just going to sit here all weekend feeling depressed and rejected."

"Don't fucking tell me that! You're trying to sabotage my fun, and that's really gross!"

"You know what," Stan says, and he turns the burner off. "I'm not even hungry. You can finish this if you want."

"Where the hell are you going?" Kyle asks, groaning as Stan heads for the door.

"I just need to walk or something."

"Stan, it's late, this neighborhood isn't great—"

"I'll be fine," he says, and he slams the door behind him on the way out.

Kyle waits for the fact that he knows he's right to soothe his anger and hurt, but it doesn't. He's never enjoyed arguing with Stan. It feels awful, like losing his footing, leaving him stumbling. He makes himself a gin and tonic, his breath still coming quick and hard. When Stan comes back he'll have cooled off, and they'll talk more civilly. Kyle didn't expect him to get mad about something so clearly innocuous, but he supposes that, from Stan's point of view, the innocuousness is more opaque. Kyle has told him about his failed make out session in Craig's car back in high school, and he thought he made it absolutely clear that there was no sexual attraction between them, but he would have said the same about himself and Stan, back then, so maybe Stan's anxiety stems from that. Kyle will explain when Stan returns.

But he doesn't return, and Kyle can only hold out until midnight, wracked with worry. He calls Stan, praying that he won't sound drunk when he picks up.

"Sorry I haven't called," Stan says when he answers, and Kyle is enormously relieved. He sounds level headed and sober.

"It's okay," Kyle says, a bit tightly, because he doesn't appreciate the last two hours of anxious waiting. "Where are you?"

"At home. At my apartment, I mean. I'm gonna sleep here tonight, I think."

"Why?" Kyle asks, furious again.

"Uh, I just don't want to fight about this, and if I come back, we will."

"I don't see why that's necessary. You don't trust me not to fuck around with Craig? That's really hurtful."

"It's not that, exactly, Jesus! It's just — Wendy used to do this to me, okay? Everything would be all perfect, and then she'd just have other shit that she preferred to deal with, and I was like the backup, the default—"

"Am I not allowed to have friends? Is that what you're telling me?" He holds off on mentioning that he's noticed that Stan doesn't have any and that it's troubling.

"No! Kyle, I know I'm being a little irrational, but I've always been really jealous of Craig, okay, because it's like he's your other best friend."

"So it's just Craig I'm not allowed to be friends with."

"Goddammit, Kyle, no, I'm just asking you to be sympathetic to my insecurity about this. How would you feel if I went and spent a weekend in a hotel with Wendy?"

"First of all that's not the same, and frankly I'd be fine with it, because I trust you."

"Well, I guess you're just better at this than me, Kyle, congratulations."

There's a silence then, and Kyle doesn't know how to fill it. Whenever he fought with Cartman they would both shout over each other, animated with righteous indignation. It didn't hurt like this does.

"Look, um," Stan says. "I'm gonna go to bed."

"Are you coming back tomorrow?" Kyle asks, and he can feel the shake in his voice that will be audible if he speaks again.

"I have to go pick up Grady at nine. And then. I don't know, I was thinking about taking him to Virginia Beach for the weekend."

"Without me?" Kyle says. This hurts badly, which annoys him, because it would be hypocritical to mention it. "Can you even afford that?" he asks, a low blow that he instantly regrets.

"I have to go," Stan says, and he hangs up.

Kyle feels wretched, sitting in his silent apartment, sniffling back tears. Fucking Stan and his fucking insecurity. For revenge, Kyle tries looking at some old pictures of Cartman's cock, but they just depress him, and he deletes them all. Once he has, there are only a few pictures left in his text inbox. Nine years ago, Stan sent him seven pictures of fall foliage. He'd been driving up to New York, on his way to see Wendy. Kyle is angry enough at him to think of deleting these pictures, too, but he doesn't.

He sleeps terribly, and cancels the reservation at the Mandarin, despite the financial penalty. He wouldn't be able to enjoy it, now. He texts Craig at seven o'clock in the morning about the change of plans.

Take a taxi to my place when you get here. Stan is taking his son on vacation this weekend, last minute

Ten minutes later, he gets a return text from Craig:

Something's fishy. Shall I switch to an earlier flight?

Yes, you shall, please, Kyle sends. He's so eager to see Craig and have a fresh perspective on his recently tumultuous life that for a moment he understands Stan's jealousy as something valid. He thinks about calling Stan, then decides a text message would be safer.

Heading for the beach?

Stan doesn't respond, and Kyle supposes he's sleeping in. He drags himself out of bed and into the shower, noticing his lumpiness for the first time in weeks as the water beats down onto him. Stan's attentions made him feel nice looking again, in a way that Cartman's hadn't for a long time. He keeps going over the conversation in the kitchen last night, trying to find a point at which he should have backed down, and then his anger flares up all over again: he's not wrong to want to have a weekend to himself! Especially since he's not leaving Stan alone, but with Grady. He thinks of them driving to the beach together and feels miserably lonely, imagining that he could be with them. If he's honest, he would prefer a weekend of spa sessions and alcohol with Craig, but only on this particular weekend. He'd gladly jet off to some island with Stan on the following weekend, or on some Grady-related adventure the weekend after that. There's no reason that should be so hard for Stan to grasp, whatever insecurities he developed because of Wendy's outside interests. Kyle isn't Wendy, and he doesn't appreciate the comparison. He shuts the water off, flustered, aware that he's been doing the same with Stan and Cartman since this new romance began. It's different, though, because Kyle keeps his observations to himself unless Stan inquires about them.

He checks his phone when he's out of the shower, annoyed that Stan still hasn't responded. He has a new text from Craig that says to expect him at noon instead of two, which is nice, but Kyle still has to kill four hours between then and now, and the windows of his apartment have never seemed more like two giant spotlights on his seemingly permanent loneliness. He puts on scrubs and a clean shirt and walks to a nearby bakery for breakfast, where he drinks two Milky Way lattes and eats a sausage roll and a slice of coffee cake. Thinking of how thin Craig will surely still be, he heads back to his apartment feeling miserable and wishing he could spend the weekend in bed. Craig will be such a condescending bitch when he picks out clothes for Kyle, something he's not sure why he hadn't yet anticipated.

"I'm in a terrible mood," Kyle says when he answers the door for Craig, who is dressed fashionably as always, some expensive-looking sunglasses pushed up onto his head.

"Just tell me what happened with Stan and get it over with," Craig says, waving his hand through the air as he enters the apartment, as if to clear some bad spirits. "I won't berate you for ignoring my good advice."

"How do you know I did?" Kyle asks, narrowing his eyes.

"I'm not sure," Craig says. "This place just smells like sadness and sex, and I never caught a whiff of that post-Cartman. Oh, look at you." Craig kisses Kyle's right cheek, then his left. "In sweats and everything."

"These aren't sweats, they're scrubs."

"Even worse. Here, I bought stuff for afternoon cocktails on the way over."

He picks up one of the bags he carried in, a black shopping bag from the specialty grocery store that Kyle sometimes shops at. Inside are a number of designer food items, along with a bottle of champagne and some organic cranberry juice. Craig somehow knows where Kyle keeps his champagne flutes, and he slices up an orange for garnish after he's mixed the drinks. Kyle stands there forlornly, not sure where to start.

"Here you go," Craig says when he brings Kyle his drink. "This is my new favorite. Only 90 calories."

"Hooray," Kyle says, and he gulps down half of it.

"Let's sit," Craig says. He guides Kyle over to the couch, treating him like he's an invalid, which Kyle actually appreciates. He feels ill, broken, in poor shape. "Hon, are you okay?" Craig asks when they're seated together, Craig's hand on Kyle's back. "Did he go back to Wendy?"

"Fuck no, he didn't go back to Wendy!" Kyle says, and Craig sort of bounces backward, apparently alarmed by his sudden rage. "God, don't act like you know everything just because it smells sad in here!"


"I'm sorry," Kyle says, and he finishes his drink. "I'm just. I don't know what's happened to my life." He starts crying then, but only a little, in sniffles and gasps. Craig hugs him, and leaves his arm draped across Kyle's shoulders while he tries to collect himself.

"I'm going to go get the bottle," Craig says, presumably meaning the champagne. "Then you can start from the beginning."

"Ha, from the beginning!" Kyle wipes his nose with his hand. "Well, you were there for that, weren't you? In fucking South Park. That monkey enclosure of a town."

"Well, let's begin with when you and Stan started kissing."

"God," Kyle says, and he gladly accepts a refill when Craig brings the champagne. "I guess it was two weeks ago. It seems so long ago already."

"How did it happen?" Craig asks, resuming his seat.

"I don't even know. We were talking in bed—"

"Ah, Jesus, of course you were."


"Sorry, continue."

"We were talking, and he was suggesting that he could practice gay sex on me."


"It didn't sound that bad, and he was only trying to guard himself. He has feelings for me, Craig. Really deep ones." Kyle hears himself and rolls his eyes. Craig is giving him a pitying look. "The reason we fought is because he's jealous of me spending time with you all weekend."

"Back up," Craig says. "To the sex."

"What, you want details? Seven and a half inches, average width, uncut." He feels an immediate and surprising guilt after describing Stan's cock to Craig. He always told Craig everything about his bedroom activities with Cartman, and it never seemed cruel to reveal the details; he was sure that Cartman would do the same if anyone cared to hear about Kyle. He thinks of the tender pubic grooming sessions that he shared with Stan and feels terrible. He won't spill about that, anyway.

"Hello," Craig says, snapping his fingers at Kyle. "I'm losing you."

"Sorry, I'm just exhausted. I didn't sleep well. Anyway, um, that night — I pulled my underwear down to call his bluff, but it wasn't a bluff. He was good at oral, Craig, really good. He's been doing it in stalls."

"Ew," Craig says. "A man of forty in the stalls? How pathetic."

"I went to one!" Kyle says. "And, well, yes, it was pathetic."

"So, okay. We'll discuss the stalls momentarily. Stan blew you and was good at it. I'd call that a subjective and very biased opinion, but what do I know, I've never had my cock sucked by a midlife crisis gay."

"Can you be more sympathetic, please? I mean, some people do realize they're gay in their middle age! It's a thing!"

"Mhmm, whatever. Let me guess: you offered to return the favor."

"Well, yeah, Craig. He swallowed my come! And I was up for it. So then, ugh, we went to this soccer game and Stan told Wendy."

"Told her what, that you blew each other?"

"More or less! It was the craziest thing. Maybe he did it all just to make her jealous. Refill, please."

Kyle spends the rest of the afternoon telling Craig all about the past two weeks, including the bits about Auden and Cartman. Craig interrupts frequently but is a good listener, at least in terms of how invested he manages to get in Kyle's affairs. They finish the champagne and move on to gin and tonic around three o'clock.

"So much for my shopping plans," Craig says when they're flopped onto the couch together, staring at the blank screen on the TV.

"I don't need new clothes," Kyle says. "I'm destined to remain alone, in bloodied scrubs." He remembers the text he sent to Stan about the beach and sits up with a grunt, reaching for his phone. There is a new message from Stan, and before Kyle can decide whether to open it in front of Craig, he looks over to see that Craig is already hovering, his eyes on the screen.

We're staying at the Westin, Virginia Beach. And yes, Kyle, I can afford it. You really hurt my feelings. I am sorry if I hurt yours also.

"Oh, my God," Craig says, guffawing. Kyle's eyes fill with tears of relief. "He is so uncomfortably earnest."

"Shut up," Kyle says. "What should I say?"

"Are you seriously asking me? Look, I can admit that Stan means well. But you're just too sophisticated for this relationship. Look at that message, for example. He sounds like he's still thirteen."

"I'm sophisticated? Really, the guy who can't even buy his own clothes?"

"You know what I mean, Kyle. Cartman is a disgusting boor, but at least he can keep up with you. You've got sharp edges. Stan's going to keep getting nicked by them, and you're going to find his softness quite inconvenient."

"But he makes me happy," Kyle says, staring down at the phone. Stan sent this message three hours ago. Kyle wonders if he's been picturing Craig and Kyle laughing about him while he waits for a response. There were a couple of times during Kyle's story when they did laugh, but it wasn't malicious, at least not on Kyle's part.

"You don't look happy," Craig says.

"Well, I'm not, Craig, because he's hurt and stuff."

"Precisely," Craig says. "I'm going to freshen up and unpack. I'll leave you to compose your reply in private."

Kyle doesn't want to over think this, so his thumbs start flying as soon as Craig has slipped into the guest room. He reads the message over four times before sending.

I should not have said that and I'm sorry. Let's talk when you get back. I love you.

It's the kind of message he never would have sent to Cartman: concrete evidence of his feelings, a moment of weakness, a sincere apology. Whatever happens, Kyle at least knows that Stan will never use those things against him.

Kyle and Craig nap away the later parts of the afternoon in their separate rooms, and when Kyle wakes he feels dehydrated. He checks his phone, alarmed to find no response from Stan. Out in the kitchen he gulps some water and watches the first blazing moments of the sunset through the windows. When he bought this place it was very important to him to get a westward-facing apartment. He paid an extra twenty thousand dollars for this view, but now it just makes him sad, because Stan isn't here to hug him from behind and murmur Look at that sky into his ear while they watch it together.

For dinner, Craig has made reservations at a restaurant that Kyle doesn't want to dress for, but he feels obligated to when Craig surprises him with a new outfit as a gift. It's a linen shirt, one size too big, which Kyle takes as an insult but doesn't mention. The pants are a fine khaki material and actually fit, but he's afraid he looks like Panama Jack once he's dressed in them and the shirt.

"Is this really the style?" Kyle asks.

"It suits you," Craig says. His own outfit is much more crisp and tailored, a collared shirt that's just a shade lighter than lavender, nice jeans that make him look younger than he actually is. His hair line is receding, but he has some miracle barber who manages to make this look fashionable, or at least distinguished. "And it's perfect for where we're going after dinner," Craig says as Kyle tries to adjust the shirt, which is making him look a bit pregnant.

"Oh, Craig, no. I don't want to go out."

"Yes, you do, you just don't know it yet."

Dinner is good, but Kyle is too morose and self-conscious to enjoy it; he spills tapenade on the shirt almost immediately, and the fabric pen that Craig produces to remove the stain is hardly a comfort, since it's a Cartlovski product that utilizes future-based technology. Craig does most of the talking while Kyle sulks. He's got a laundry list of gripes about working for Tweak Brothers and babysitting its emotionally unstable owner, who apparently is often bedridden with ulcerative colitis, leaving Craig to meet with bean dealers.

"I'm the only one Tweek trusts, for some reason," Craig says. "He's determined that everyone else he employs is either trying to sell trade secrets or murder him."

"Why don't you find another job?" Kyle asks at one point, tired of Craig's whining. "You're good at what you do. You could probably get more money someplace else."

"I'm sure that's true," Craig says, drawing his fingertip around the rim of his wine glass. "But I feel a kind of loyalty to the poor thing. He's the one who took a chance on me as a marketing assistant after my whole film school flop."

"It wasn't a flop, Craig. Just because you didn't become famous or something — I really liked your movies."

"Hmm, well." Craig drains his wine glass and pours more for himself. He's sensitive about the film school experience, almost as much as he is about Clyde, who Kyle never dares to mention. Clyde and Karen McCormick have four children together, the eldest two already in college. Kyle gets a Christmas card from them every year. "Here's to regrets," Craig says, and he toasts Kyle.

"How's that friend you were sleeping with?" Kyle asks. "The runner, or something?"

"Oh — Daniel? He likes being fucked, so that's been interesting. I forgot to ask you — which does Stan prefer?"


"Topping! Oh, good. Or — not? Is it over with him?"

"No," Kyle says, angrily. "We fought, that's all." He still hasn't heard back from Stan, and it's hardly a comfort to have had the last words in a conversation when those words were I love you.

"I can't envision you two fighting. Were there tears involved? Sorry, no, I'm being mean. Let's get our check before I get too drunk to enjoy the next pit stop."

The next 'pit stop' is a gay bar that Kyle has been to before, years ago, with Cartman. He doesn't mention this, not wanting to get started on the subject of Cartman. The place is much the same, the kind of bar Cartman loved to visit in summer: open in back to the Potomac, ceiling fans turning lazily overheard, pop music playing and just a few men dancing in front of an empty karaoke stage. It's an older crowd, older even than Craig and Kyle, and Kyle has to wonder if Craig brought him here to make him feel young and relatively fashionable in this linen shirt.

"What is Stan's son like?" Craig asks when they're drinking beers together on the back porch, both drunk enough now not to care about the calories involved.

"Why?" Kyle asks, surprised by the question.

"No reason, just curious. Is he more like Stan or Wendy?"

"Stan, I think. But he's got Wendy's seriousness. He's really into this particular kind of monkey."


"No, they're cute. He's cute, he looks like Stan. He has gray eyes, though, like Wendy."

"And me," Craig says, preening.

"Oh, right." Kyle hasn't ever given much thought to Craig's eye color; it's sort of a non-color, really. "Are you lonely?" Kyle asks. He fears that he's drunk, but can't retract the question now.

"I'm too busy to be lonely," Craig says, eyes cast downward. "But if I wasn't, I suppose I would be."

Kyle feels guilty for casting such a pall on their weekend, and he resolves to be in better spirits tomorrow as a taxi bears them back to his apartment. His resolution is strengthened by a text from Stan, just a little after midnight. It's a picture of Grady building a sandcastle. Shortly afterward, there's a message:

Had fun today. Miss you though.

Kyle waits until he's alone in his room to return the message, Craig retired to the guest room.

Miss you, too. Did not have all that much fun today, but I did have an excellent piece of salmon for dinner.

He feels stupid, sending this, but he does anyway, then passes out in bed, not having brushed his teeth.

The following day is indeed more pleasant: he has brunch with Craig, and they exchange gossip about former South Park acquaintances. Bebe has gotten remarried, Butters and Spike were featured on some Animal Planet show with their prize-winning Scottish terriers, and Kenny has apparently been elected as the mayor of Fort Collins.

"That's insane," Kyle says, surprised that he didn't hear this from Stan, who still talks to Kenny on occasion.

"Not really," Craig says. "He's a war hero, after all, and still good looking."

"What's his party?"

"Libertarian, I think."


They do a bit of shopping after brunch, though Kyle feels too fat, post-biscuits and gravy, to try on clothes. It's less depressing to browse in furniture stores, and Kyle finds himself examining pieces that would suit Stan's tastes. Stan likes more rustic and whimsical things, generally, and Kyle prefers clean lines and less nonsense. He buys a colorful patterned rug for the guest room, thinking of Grady, wanting to make the room more child-friendly. There's already a box of toys in there for his visits, and finding a stray match box car under the bed always cheers Kyle up, the way that Cartman's jackets hanging in his closet once did.

Craig insists on going to the Mandarin for massages, and they aren't able to get appointments until four o'clock. They kill time at the bar, and Kyle falls asleep on the massage table, then leaves an uncharacteristic thirty percent tip. He's ready to sleep again by the time they're heading back to the apartment, again in a taxi, since Craig has a very suburban opposition to public transit. They rest before shopping for dinner at the market on the corner: Craig wants taquitos, which is one of the only things Kyle knows how to make offhand.

It's the kind of frivolous day that Kyle has needed, and he's pleased to realize, as they're cleaning up after the meal, that he hasn't spent much time at all lamenting over Stan, Cartman, or any combination thereof. He's looking forward to Stan's return tomorrow, and glad that Cartman has stopped trying to contact him. That's all there is to it: things seems simple at last, nearly settled.

That is, until there is a pounding on his door, followed by an angry rattling of the knob. Kyle suspects Auden, and is almost glad for the chance to show Craig his grotesque resemblance to Kyle, but when he opens the door it's Cartman leaning against the wall outside, reeking of whiskey, his face wet with tears.

"Kyle," he says, and then he falls into the apartment, crashing against Kyle, who can hardly bear his weight. They stumble together, and finally Craig rushes over to make himself useful, muttering curses as he helps Kyle prop Cartman up. "What the hell are you doing here?" Cartman asks Craig, squinting at him hatefully. "Kyle, you dog. Are you done with the other one already? He does look like Stan, kinda. Jesus, you're just like me!"

"God, you stink," Craig says. Kyle still can't speak, too alarmed by the sight of Cartman in this state. His nose is running and his tie is hanging halfway off; if he had a suit coat he's lost it somewhere. They bring him over to the couch, where he lands with a pained grunt, his hands going to his stomach.

"What are you doing here?" Kyle asks when he finds his voice, very glad to have Craig standing at his side. "You can't just show up like this anymore. How many ways do I need to explain—"

"Oh, KYLE!" Cartman says, positively bellowing his name. He vaults off the couch and lands at Kyle's feet, nearly on them, hugging Kyle's legs when he tries to move away. "Please, I'm sorry, goddammit, you have to listen to me. I'm dying."

"Christ," Craig says, and he reaches down to claw at Cartman's arm. "Let go of him! Kyle, don't just stand there, Jesus — should I call the police?"

"I own the police!" Cartman says, beginning to sob pathetically before he can get the words out.

"You wish," Craig says, snarling at him. "Look at you, groveling like a pig. Where are your bodyguards? I could kill you myself for what you've put him through."

"Craig, stop," Kyle says, and Craig gives him a look of horrified surprise. "He's just drunk. It's okay."

"Are you kidding me?" Craig says. "Of course he's drunk, but so what—"

"Just let me handle this," Kyle says. Once, when they were seventeen, he showed up at Cartman's door in tears, in crisis, and Cartman didn't turn him away, though Kyle had recently hurt him. "Don't go anywhere," Kyle says to Craig, who is still staring at him with a combination of wide-eyed shock and pitying disgust. "Stay out here — I'm going to put him to bed. He needs to sleep it off. Where's your driver?" he asks, reaching down to tilt Cartman's chin up until their eyes meet.

"Kyle," Cartman says, whimpering, tears still streaming down his ruddy cheeks. Kyle groans and hoists Cartman up, glad when he finds footing enough to walk along with Kyle toward the master bedroom.

"I don't approve of this at all," Craig says.

"Noted," Kyle says. "Just don't leave me alone with him, okay?"

"Of course I won't!"

In the bedroom, Kyle lowers Cartman into the bed with care, not out of stale fondness so much as concern for his sheets and the chance that they might get splattered with vomit. Cartman is moaning as if he may be ill at any moment, but he manages to roll onto his side and pull a pillow over his face without retching. Kyle wonders if he'll smell Stan on the pillow and rage, like some animal whose territory has been marked by another alpha male. He doesn't seem to, and allows Kyle to prod him upward enough to drink some water when he brings it.

"Oh, God, I'm dying," Cartman says. "I've fucked up my life. It's killing me. You're killing me, Kyle, you and him."


"Yes, Auden, that cheap trick! He wasn't completely lying when he said he was a whore, you know, or — whorish, I guess. He used to play naked violin at these orgies I went to in New York. The first time I saw him there I thought it was you, Kyle, I thought you'd time traveled for me—"

"I don't need to hear this," Kyle says, rapidly becoming incensed. "You should sleep. Drink more water and then get some rest. You look like hell."

"He looked like you, the way I remembered you, when your nose was healed and you were so skinny, Kyle, I could pick you up with one hand."

"No, you couldn't. That never happened. Here, drink this."

"I want to die," Cartman says, but he gulps from the glass of water again before flopping back to the pillows. "Just let me die here, in this bed where I fucked you so triumphantly."

"I've also fucked you in this bed, asshole."

"You were never a great top, Kyle. Sorry to say."

"I'm sure Auden is a fantastic one," Kyle says, and he's glad to be able to say so without feeling any real jealousy. "Don't sleep on your back," he says, and he rises from the bed.

"Kyle — Kyle! Where are you going? Don't leave me."

"I'll be outside in the living room. You need to sleep."

There's a part of him that wants to stay and pat Cartman's sweaty forehead with a washcloth, but he can't bear to comfort another man in the bed that he now thinks of as Stan's, too. Cartman seems to have passed out, anyway, his face buried in Kyle's pillow. Kyle takes his shoes off for him, then carefully removes his rumpled tie, fearing that he might tangle it around himself and choke in his sleep. Cartman murmurs wordlessly but doesn't wake. Kyle stands back to observe him, feeling heavy with melancholic nostalgia. He's loved this moist island of a man for most of his life, and he still has feelings for him, but they are parental at the moment. He's worried about Cartman; those tears were frightening.

Out in the kitchen, Craig has already mixed him a gin and tonic. They didn't drink much with dinner after indulging at the Mandarin, and Kyle is glad for the burn of the gin and the familiar comfort of the bubbles jumping against his nose when he gulps it.

"Jesus," Craig says.

"Indeed," Kyle says.

"Please tell me you're not still in love with that sad excuse for a man."

"I wouldn't call him that. He's the richest man in the world, isn't he?"

"Kyle. Answer me. Or don't, if you're going to tell me that you still love him."

"I guess I do," Kyle says, scrubbing his hand across his face. Craig groans. "But I'm not in love with him. I actually wish he could find someone else, a real partner. It would make me happy to see him settled like I am." It's extremely vindicating to say so, and to feel how true it is.

Craig goes to bed and Kyle retires to the couch after fetching the pillow and blanket that he used to set out for Stan on Grady weekends, glad that he hasn't bothered to wash them since last time. Stan's scent is incredibly comforting, and Kyle wraps himself up in it before sending Stan a message. He wants to call, to talk to him, but he knows he'd end up spilling the news about Cartman ungracefully, and Stan doesn't need that stress now, not before he's back in Kyle's arms.

Coming home tonight or tomorrow? Drive safe

Stan doesn't respond, and Kyle assumes he's on the road or already back at his apartment, in bed. He'll have to work early tomorrow after all. Kyle sleeps surprisingly well, feeling both pleasantly independent and yet not alone, the way he once did when Stan took the couch and Grady slept in the guest room. He wakes at dawn and uses the remaining oranges that Craig brought to make himself a glass of fresh squeezed juice. Revitalized, he stares at the half-closed door to the master bedroom, stealing himself for the conversation that he's about to have.

"Hey," he says, whispering, when he slips into the room. Cartman has gravitated toward Kyle's side of the bed, and he's slumped on his side, facing the windows. "Time to wake up," Kyle says, kneeling down near his face. "Here, I brought more water."

"Don't you have Gatorade?" Cartman asks, his eyes slit open, puffy from all his crying.

"Nope," Kyle says. "I had some orange juice, but I drank it myself." He's proud about this, as if it's a step toward personal development. "Drink the water, it'll help."

"Help with what?" Cartman grumbles, but he takes it and drinks. "I've lost everything."

"You — what? The company?"

"Ike figured out how to go back in time, but he won't share the tech with anyone, not even me." Cartman slams the empty water glass down on Kyle's bedside table and hefts himself up a bit, only to drop back down to Kyle's pillow. "And I'm the one who needs it most."

"This is — horrible, actually," Kyle says, his heart beginning to pound. He's always counted the discovery of reverse time travel technology as one of his greatest fears, in terms of the implications it could have on the world. Cartman, Ike, and certain government officials can travel forward, but they have a time limit that yanks them back to their departure point. They can influence the future, as anyone in the present can, and pick and choose what to introduce to the public when they return. It's still extremely dangerous, in Kyle's opinion, but the trifecta of Ike's genius, Cartman's greed and government regulation has somehow prevented disaster so far. "I hope he's serious about containing it," Kyle says. Ike should be smart enough to know that he must, but bragging about the discovery to Cartman was his first mistake.

"He barely speaks to me and calls me his greatest regret," Cartman says. "It's a common theme in my life."

"Oh, Ike talks that way to everyone. And you're hardly my greatest regret." Kyle pauses to consider what that might actually be. Oddly, he can't come up with anything. His mistakes have led him here, and he's beginning to like where he is. "Why would you ever want to travel back in time? It's nightmarish, what might happen."

"What might happen?" Cartman manages to sit up then, and grabs for Kyle's hands. "I'll tell you what would happen. I'd do it all different, Kyle. I'd keep you. You'd never have to settle for being the fourth person Stan divorces. Where is that bitch, anyway?"

"Never mind," Kyle says, pulling his hands free. "Let's not talk about my romantic choices. Let's talk about yours. Last night you told me you met Auden at an orgy? Violins were involved?"

"God," Cartman says, and he slumps onto the bed again, staring up at the ceiling. "Yeah, he was there, playing a violin, nude, looking like you with more well-cultivated pubes."

"What did you do, buy him?" Kyle asks, angry about the pube comment. His are very well-ordered these days, thanks to Stan. "Did that complete your fantasy about purchasing the rights to my free will?"

"No," Cartman says, glowering at him. "It was the opposite. It was lame to be able to order him around and have him be all 'yes, sir' no matter what. I mean, at first it was pretty fucking great, but then it got boring. I wanted him to be less timid in my presence, so I encouraged that, and I created a fucking monster."

"Did he really tie you up and try to stab you? Tell me the truth, Cartman."

"He tied me up, but I guess I'm into that," Cartman says, mumbling.

"So he is a better top than me."

"Kyle, for fuck's sake. A carrot would be a better top than you. No offense."

"Good to know. Then why were you always begging me to fuck you, may I ask?"

"Because I wanted you to learn to love it! But you didn't, and making you do stuff you didn't like lost its luster back in middle school."

"I didn't dislike it, per say," Kyle says, and he stands, his knees beginning to feel creaky from squatting. "But I didn't look forward to it. I guess Auden does?"

"Why do you want to know about him?" Cartman asks, eyes narrowing.

"Because it's this whole facet of your life that you were hiding from me! And I did care about you, asshole, I mean. I do, so. Tell me. Let's talk like adults for once."

Cartman is silent for a moment, as if contemplating how that might be done. Kyle sometimes wishes he could see Cartman in his business meetings with world leaders and financiers, how his petulant selfishness would translate into masterful manipulation. He's seen it in a romantic context, certainly, but in the business world things must be slightly different.

"I kept him secret because I didn't want you to think I'd replaced you," Cartman says. "And I didn't, Kyle. He's not like you."

"Yeah, I guess not. I can't envision myself as a naked violin player. Or your dom."

"He's not my dom!" Cartman sits up a little to snarl in protest. "We switch. It's — I like it that way."

"I know," Kyle says, a bit sadly, because he did try. "I don't know what I like anymore. I like being fed a home cooked meal before sex. I guess that makes me old."

"I have three chefs on staff, Kyle. I could have given you that."

"Mhmm," Kyle says, because that's not quite the same as coming home to something Stan made himself, lovingly chosen for Kyle as opposed to his employer. "I don't know, Cartman. Maybe we ended up where we needed to be. And I don't regret you. I wouldn't want you going back and changing anything. I feel like — this whole process, my life so far, it's what I needed so I could become a little better. And I feel a little better. Don't you?"

"Fuck no!" Cartman says, but Kyle doesn't entirely believe him.

"Tell me more about Auden," Kyle says. "How he's different from me. I need to hear it — seeing him was such a shock."

"He's a nuisance," Cartman says, flopping over to look at the ceiling again. "He's a musician, for one thing, and you know how I feel about creative people. And he has opinions about what I wear and put in my hair and eat, and you know I don't like that shit."

"I had opinions," Kyle says, defensively.

"Yeah, but you didn't try to enforce them! And I could say almost anything to you and you didn't take it personally. He cries and hides in my closet when I hurt his — feelings," Cartman says, shuddering at the sound of that word.

Kyle opens his mouth to make a comparison to Stan in this regard, then decides he'd better not.

"And he's a college boy," Cartman says. "Though I guess you have that in common with him — advanced degrees. He's a snob about it, though, and he reads books — fiction books! — and tries to get me to read them, and. I don't know why I can't just get rid of him."

"Do you love him?" Kyle asks. It hurts, because he thinks he knows the answer, but it's a dull pain, as if from an old injury.

Cartman just grunts and throws his arm over his face. He never told Kyle that he loved him, so it's no surprise that he can't vocalize it for another man either.

"Where is he now?" Kyle asks. It's an easier question, but the answer may be just as revealing.

"In one of my houses. I can't tell you which one."

"Why not?" Kyle hopes it's not the one in Colorado, the only one he ever visited, as if that's still his territory, his scent clinging to the sheets after fifteen or so years.

"Well, Kyle, I wouldn't want you to go murdering him out of jealousy."

"I can't even tell if you're joking," Kyle says. He's standing at the window, looking out at the sunrise. He has a shift in three hours, but he doubts this will take much longer. It's probably the first of several conversations they'll have like this, spread out over months, each one a little less raw and immediate than the last. The thought makes Kyle sad, but he can feel how things have changed between them already. The armor they're sporting for each other feels a bit more solid and real. "Did you really think I had moved on to Craig?" Kyle asks, remembering him across the hall. His flight back to Colorado leaves around the same time Kyle's shift begins.

"I don't know what to expect from you anymore," Cartman says. "You fucking lied to me all this time. You were always fucking Stan on the side, I knew it."

"I was not, and you never thought that. Your pride couldn't have taken it."

"You were in love with him, though," Cartman says. He rolls onto his side, turning his back on Kyle. "I knew that, sort of."

"It was a long developing thing, I'll give you that, but I never thought of him this way before recently. Maybe I was resisting it, but I wasn't unfaithful to you, okay? Even in my thoughts."

"Bullshit! And I never even asked you to be faithful."

"I know," Kyle says. He goes to the bed and sits down, leaving a foot or so of space between his ass and Cartman's back. "I need to find a happy medium, there. It's like — I do want someone to be afraid to trust me, because I could hurt them so badly if I wanted to, because I mean that much to them, but I want them to do it anyway. To trust me." He's thinking of Stan, and should probably reserve this conversation for him. "Anyway," he says. "Don't go back in time. Please don't." If anything were to change, altered so that Stan won't be returning to him tonight, saltwater residue in his hair, Kyle wouldn't be able to handle it. He hasn't seen his situation with Stan as ideal before now, but it is, the fight included. It's still their beginning, necessarily rocky because it's real.

"I could fix things, though," Cartman says. His voice is croaky, but he sounds more exhausted than upset. "I could."

"You'd never meet Auden, though. You'd have to give up all the good times with him." Kyle's heart is beating in this throat; what if Cartman is serious? What if he erases the way Kyle feels now, for Stan, and the past two weeks of blissful security, naked spooning, intimate grooming? He may not own the police, but he can do almost anything he wants. He could take Stan away from Kyle in any number of ways. "Cartman?" Kyle says, his throat tightening.

"I do love him," Cartman says, mumbling this. "The way, that. It's like it used to be. With me and you. Only different. It's not the same."

"I know," Kyle says, thinking of Stan. "It's a hard thing to relearn how to — do. When you thought you knew the rules."

They're both quiet for a while, and Kyle feels stupid for his panic at the thought that Cartman could hurt Stan. He's ruthless and powerful, but he's also a pile of goo, possibly in a way that only Kyle has witnessed, though he suspects Auden has seen some of it. Behind him, Cartman is breathing reedily, and he sighs when Kyle touches his shoulder.

"Is he good to you, for the most part?" Kyle asks. "He seemed nuts. You deserve someone — well. Maybe nuts works, but not if he's stabbing you."

"He never stabbed me," Cartman says. He peeks over his shoulder at Kyle, looking very young, despite his bald spot. It's the blotchy face, the red-rimmed eyes; Kyle used to make Cartman cry all the time when they were really little, eight years old. "He, uh. Shaves me. It's a thing we do. And he was pissed, so when the razor slipped on my boob I think it was intentional."

"Oh," Kyle says. He turns red, thinking of him and Stan, and of Cartman's sparse chest hair. It's odd that they've both developed this habit with their new partners. Kyle can't imagine them doing anything like that to each other, even when they were closest. "Remember Gay Days?" Kyle asks, and Cartman grins.

"Disney World, yeah. We were so high."

"It wasn't just the drugs, though. Whatever we were on, it was elevated by this natural elation. I was elated, that whole weekend. It's one of my best memories."

Cartman puts his hand over Kyle's, which is still resting on his shoulder. For as long as Kyle has known him, Cartman's hands have been slightly moist and overly warm.

"What will Auden think when he sees you've been crying?" Kyle asks.

"He won't see me for a week. I have to fly to London — shit. Can I use your shower?"

Kyle groans. "I guess," he says, remembering how he showered at Cartman's house on the morning after he'd shown up in tears. "But make it quick. Craig will probably want one before he catches his flight."

"Sure you don't want a farewell fuck?" Cartman asks, rubbing Kyle's hand against his cheek. Kyle removes it as politely as he can, and he pats Cartman's pillowy chest.

"No, thanks," Kyle says. He thinks of saying something about how he's awaiting glorious makeup sex with Stan and doesn't want to sully it, but he restrains himself from bragging. "It's better we have a clean break."

Cartman sits up with a grunt, and Kyle brings him his tie, which he'd put over the back of his desk chair the night before.

"Keep it," Cartman says. He smirks. "Don't you recognize that one?"

"Uh, no?" It's got a paisley pattern in blues and greens, and it's heavy, like all of Cartman's ties, expensive-looking.

"Kyle, you're joking! I tied you up one with that a couple of years ago. Some of our best sex ever. You were begging me to fuck you, telling me I owned your asshole—"

"Okay," Kyle says, sharply. "Yes, alright. That was good." It was, but the language feels a little atonal now; he's grown accustomed to gentler dirty talk. "Go get in the shower, I'm going to wake Craig."

Craig is already awake and dressed, in the kitchen, frowning at Kyle's selection of coffee beans. He frowns at Kyle when he comes in, too, and shakes his head.

"Tell me you didn't let him fuck you," Craig says.

"Jesus, no. You would have heard me if I had. I've told you I'm loud."

"Yeah, you have told me that. I can't believe I used to beat off to your stories about him. Unknowingly, of course."

"Of course. But no, we talked, it was good. I think he's in love with my clone." Kyle hears the shower come on, and he shakes his head at Craig's suspicious look. "I owed him one," Kyle says. "It's a long story."

"We have determined that it's not an actual clone at this point, though, yes?"

"Yes, Craig." Kyle did some internet research after Cartman texted him Auden's last name and alma mater. He's a real person, a somewhat accomplished violist with an arrest record for illicit drug use. Most importantly, he's almost thirty. Kyle is pretty sure that Cartman wasn't harvesting his sperm at age twelve, or any other genetic material. He was too busy beating off to that picture of Kyle's ass crack, still dreaming of having Kyle, specifically, all to himself.

Kyle is glad that he did. Cartman loved him; he knows that. Kyle loved him, too, but never quite as much as he loved Stan, even when he was counting that as entirely platonic. For Stan, he'd always dropped everything, to the point that he's sensitive now about being asked to drop his plans to protect Stan's feelings. He'll explain about that, later tonight. He goes to check his phone to see if Stan has sent any messages from work.

He hasn't even unlocked the phone's screen when he hears the key in the door: Stan's key. Something drops in his stomach, and it's not quite his heart — it's more like it's Stan's, like Kyle held it and has now dropped it.

Stan comes through the door with flowers: three shades of vibrant pink, they look like elegantly over-sized roses. Stan surely knows the proper name for them. Kyle is frozen as if in headlights, holding his phone. Stan smiles at him, eyes Craig with open annoyance, and looks back to Kyle.

"What's wrong?" he asks. In the bathroom, the shower shuts off.

"Um," Craig says. He's gone white, whereas Kyle has turned bright red; he can feel it.

"I thought you'd be at work," Kyle says: possibly the worst thing he could utter before Cartman emerges from the bathroom with a towel around his waist, whistling.

- Kayotics -

"Where's your shaving cream?" he asks, and then he sees Stan.

For a moment, no one moves. Kyle isn't sure what to fear, but in his gut it's more of a rift in the space time continuum as opposed to physical violence. He's afraid, too, that Stan will throw the flowers at him, or drop them to the ground in defeat: the flowers seem to suddenly be the most valuable and precious thing in the room. Stan doesn't throw or drop them, but it hurts worse when he turns, sets them carefully on the dining room table, and heads for the door.

- Nowhere -

"Wait," Craig says, before Kyle can find his voice. Cartman is just standing there blushing, probably because his hairy tits are exposed. Stan doesn't heed Craig, and he's not responsive to Kyle's attempts to chase him down the hallway until they reach the elevator bank, where Kyle is able to grab Stan's arm.

"Please," Kyle says. "He wasn't — we weren't. He was drunk last night, and—"

"Did you fuck them both?" Stan asks, and Kyle steps backward. "At the same time? I know that's one of your fucked up fantasies. What's wrong with you? What happened to you? You're barely a real person."

"What?" Kyle says, his voice breaking under the sound of the elevator bell. "Why won't you listen to me? I didn't ask him here, I didn't sleep with either of them—"

"Right, he just forced his way into your shower. You were about to call the cops. I never thought you'd be able to lie to my face the way you have."

"I never thought you'd treat me like you were always waiting for me to prove what a worthless slut I am!"

Stan holds his arm out to stop the elevator that has arrived from closing its doors. He seems stuck, breathing hard.

"I can't even look at you," Stan says, and he walks into the elevator. Kyle thinks of trying to hold the doors open, but he can't seem to move his arms. He turns, tears swelling until he can't see, and Craig is there, shushing him.

"It's an unfortunate situation," Craig says, and for once he doesn't sound judgmental, but Kyle has never cared less about what Craig thinks about anything. He blinks tears away, shaking, wanting to put his fists through glass. At the end of the hall, Cartman is peeking out from Kyle's apartment, still wearing only a towel.

"What just happened?" Cartman asks.

"Stan wouldn't let him explain that you guys didn't fuck," Craig says. He pushes Cartman into the apartment first, then Kyle. "Which, to be fair, I can't imagine why he wouldn't assume that you had. But — he'll come around, Kyle, just give him a moment."

"A moment?" Kyle says, shouting. "No, this was. No. This was my last chance. I've ruined everything."

"Good riddance," Cartman says. "Kyle, you can do better than a mall cop who doesn't even—"

"Everyone get out!" Kyle shouts — screams, more like — and he goes into the master bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

Nobody actually gets out. Kyle curls up in an angry ball on his bed, his heart still pounding. Stan didn't refute Kyle's suggestion that he sees him as whorish and out of control, secretive, a liar. Kyle is none of those things, and Stan knows that, or he should.

"I put those flowers in some water," Craig says when he slips into the bedroom. "Unless you want me to get rid of them?"

"No," Kyle says. "Get rid of Cartman. Leave the flowers."

"Um, okay. He wants to say goodbye to you, and his clothes are in here somewhere, I presume? He's still out there in a towel. His naked physique is upsetting me."

"Ey!" Cartman says, and he stomps over to the doorway. "It's better than being a lily white wafer, you pathetic excuse for a man."

"Cartman!" Kyle says. "Stop, just. Stop. Put your clothes on."

"You've done enough damage for one day," Craig says. "Be gone."

"Why don't you, Craig? You don't understand what me and Kyle shared, okay? Now give me some fucking privacy. I know you want to check out my dick and everything—"

"Ew, no!" Craig says, and he bolts from the room as Cartman removes the towel. Kyle lifts his head to look at it one last time, then feels like a slut for doing so. He buries his face against the sheets again and moans.

"Kyle?" Cartman says, shutting the door. "You alright? Goddammit, don't let Stan's bullshit get to you. It's like you're seventeen again, Jesus!"

"It's not like that," Kyle says, his face still hidden, voice muffled. "My life is over. I spent all my chances for happiness on you, and on him. It's not like I'm seventeen again — it's like I never left fucking South Park."

"Right, well, okay. Tell that to all the heart transplant fuckers you've brought back to life."

"I mean emotionally, Cartman! Don't be — intentionally obtuse." His stomach clenches when he remembers saying that to Stan, and he has to wonder if it's really those two who are guilty of this, or if he's the obtuse one.

"You can look up now," Cartman says, glumly. "My cock is concealed."

Kyle turns onto his side, meekly regarding Cartman, who is buttoning his shirt. Would Kyle like to be the one shaving Cartman's hairy tits, topping him with gusto, jetting around the world to lavish accommodations where they could hide from his enemies? No, but he's still sad about this moment, the closet they've come so far to goodbye.

"I loved your cock," Kyle says, hoping that Cartman will understand that it's only a symbol, in this context, for everything that Kyle loved, which was all of Cartman, once. Kyle can't say so now; he's already too raw, and Cartman is looking at him like he knows, anyway.

"Well, I'm glad it was appreciated — by you," Cartman says. He's glancing at the window, the bathroom door, Kyle's feet. "I, uh. You were." He met Kyle's eyes then, blinking rapidly. "I would be living in my mom's basement if you hadn't let me put my hand down your pants that day. I wouldn't have amounted to anything. You made me, like. For some reason it meant a lot to me that you liked me." He's mumbling now, his eyes drifting around the room again. "You gave me confidence, uh, so. Thanks."

"That makes me really happy, actually," Kyle says. It's a hollow happiness at the moment, because he's still reeling from Stan's exit, but he'll count helping Cartman out of his mother's basement as something worthwhile that he did with his life, an accomplishment. "It's funny you should mention that basement," Kyle says. "I still think about that — time. That first time."

"The first? Oh." Cartman grins. "You mean when I introduced your ass to the massive glory of my cock? The dry hump?"

"Yeah, that." Kyle had felt disgusted with himself for encouraging it, initially, but he'd also been changed by that moment in ways that were ultimately positive. He'd felt grown up, gifted with the dangerous but exhilarating ability to make a decision as potentially ill-informed and oddly pleasure as rubbing his ass on Cartman's dick.

"That was scary as shit," Cartman says. "Actually trying to mount you at last. It was scarier than walking through the goddamn time machine for the first time — you know that was Ike's deal, right? I could partner with him if I was also his guinea pig?"

"Yes, I know." Kyle's heart still clenches when he thinks of it. He hasn't really spoken to Ike at all since learning this.

"But goddamn, it was also like — worth the risk. Really worth it. Humping your ass, I mean. Or, uh, whatever I did, sorta, before that. Spooning you while I was hard, trying to kiss your neck and all that. That was worth it. I'm starting to have second thoughts about the time machine."

"Don't go back to the past," Kyle says. "Please, Cartman. I like the world the way it is."

"Really?" Cartman scoffed and pointed toward the door. "With drinky the drunk running out on you without letting you explain about our mostly nonsexual evening together?"

"He's not a drunk, and it was entirely nonsexual! But — God." Kyle sat up, feeling heavy and tired, already dreading the night to come, alone with his windows. "I don't know how to explain. Even though everything's fucked, ah. Well, never mind about my horrid life, you might fuck up the world in general!"

"Relax," Cartman says. He plucks his tie from Kyle's desk chair and winds it around his right hand like he's wrapping it for a boxing match. "I, uh, may have been bluffing."

"Bluffing? What?"

"He doesn't really know how to go back! Or, if he does, he hasn't told me. I just, uh. I wanted to see if you'd want that."

"And what would you have done if I had?" Kyle asks, glaring.

"I would have told you we could go back anyway! Without the machine. We could, like. Start over."

"But we can't, Cartman. Auden is waiting for you. And, I — things have changed."

"I know," Cartman says, mumbling. "Can you fucking blame me, though, if I want it both ways? Abstractly, at least? You had both of us for years."

"Both of who? You and Stan?"

"Yes, Jesus!"

"I did not! Only recently—"

"Fine, whatever, only recently did his cock work its way into your mouth, but you two always had this thing. That I wasn't a part of. It fucking hurt."

"Oh." Kyle looks to the windows. Stan said something similar to him, once, a long time ago, right after he'd learned about Kyle and Cartman's hook up. "Well, that's fair. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, God." Cartman stares down at his tie, unwinds it, then wraps it around the other hand. "You were. It was good, with you. I'm glad about it."

"Me too," Kyle says, though he's heartbroken now, left with neither of them. He gets up off the bed and goes to Cartman, who lets the tie spiral off his hand as he reaches for Kyle. They hug, hard, and for a moment — Cartman's smell, his rumpled hair, hefty shoulders, warm stomach pushing against Kyle's — but then they're both letting go, smiling sheepishly, and Kyle knows Cartman can feel it, too, the finality. "Keep in touch," Kyle says, squeezing Cartman's arm. "I love your texts. I mean, no more dick ones, please, but—"

"Not even if you beg," Cartman says, and he smirks. "Alright, I'm outta here. Are you okay by yourself here? Or with that vampiric fuck, anyway?"

"Vampiric — Craig? Yeah, of course, I'm fine."

"Kay." Cartman scratches the back of his neck, staring down at Kyle's chest. "Goddammit, Kyle."

"I know. But—"

"No more buts! I know, too. I'm just saying."

Kyle walks Cartman to the door, past Craig, who is glowering at them from the kitchen. In the doorway, they touch each other's hands, avoiding eye contact, and then Cartman is sloping away, down the hall, toward the elevators. Kyle closes the door and rests his head against it, listening for receding footsteps. He can't really hear any; the walls are too thick. He jumps when Craig touches his shoulder.

"Sorry," Craig says. "Uh. Are you crying?"

"No," Kyle says, though he is, a little. It's mostly in his nose. "You'd better get a cab. Your flight."

"I could stay one more day," Craig says.

"What about Tweek?"

"What about him?"

"Doesn't he panic when you're not around? I'm fine, Craig, I'm. I'll call Stan, we'll talk. Don't worry."

Craig studies Kyle for a moment, as if deciding whether or not he should believe him. He takes Kyle by the shoulders and kisses his forehead primly.

"You're gonna be okay," he says. "You're a superstar. I'm serious!" he says when Kyle snorts. "These assholes have been battling over you for, what? Thirty years now? Own it!"

"They haven't, though," Kyle says, muttering. "But — fine. I guess I can own a little of it, for all the good it's done me."

"Also, you're this big time heart surgeon. I admire you, alright? All I do is sell coffee and babysit a lunatic."

"Craig, you basically run the company. And I'd kill for your ass."

"What, why? This flat piece of shit? And when yours is in such high demand?"

"I hate mine! I can't even wear pants."

They stare at each other for a moment, and Kyle flinches toward Craig, still pathetically in need of comfort, but he stops himself.

"I know you're not a hugger," Kyle says, and Craig rolls his eyes, leaving them fixed on the ceiling for a moment.

"Not typically," he says, and he pulls Kyle against him. "But, here. Enjoy the warmth of my bosom."

Kyle snorts and squeezes Craig tightly, lifting his chin to rest it on Craig's shoulder. Craig has no bosom to speak of, but there is warmth in his embrace, and Kyle feels enraged at Stan all over again for not understanding his need to have a truly platonic friendship like this. He knows Craig's status as purely-a-friend is part of Stan's jealousy, because he still feels a certain ownership of Kyle as his best friend, and because for him this sort of closeness was a long transition into lovesick flower-bringing and screaming in hallways.

"I could email Stan," Craig says when he pulls back. "To plead your case."

"No, don't, that will only make it worse. I'll call him. I'm still angry, but. I'll call him later."

Craig leaves half an hour later, and Kyle spends the rest of the day wrapped in blankets on the couch, trying to pay attention to anything on TV. Mostly he just flips channels. He goes on Facebook for a while, wishing that Stan had one for stalking purposes. Cartman's is only ever updated with company propaganda. He checks Kenny's and sees that he is indeed the mayor of Fort Collins, more handsome and virile looking than ever, surrounded by his five children.

After nightfall, he can't take the isolation any longer. He's not sure how he was once so good at being alone, or how he ever resisted calling Stan up and begging him to come over and let Kyle crawl into his arms, even when Stan was married. He's surprised when he gets Stan's voice mail. Even when they're furious with each other, Stan always answers.

"Uh, hi," Kyle says. "Look, I'm still pissed off, and I know you are, too, but I don't want to go to bed without talking to you. I hate feeling distant from you, please, and this is worse than ever. Cartman came over drunk, cried for like an hour about our break up, and asked to use my shower in the morning. That's fucking all! Why can't you trust me? What did I do to deserve this suspicion? God, never mind. Just call me, please. I love you," he says, and he wants to retract it, because it came out sounding sarcastic and angry. "Bye."

Stan doesn't return his call that night, and Kyle wakes up feeling furiously angry, completely betrayed. It's as if not just Stan, but the entire order of the universe has abandoned the rules he thought he knew: that Stan would always be there, solid and uncomplicated, and that, if not, Cartman would be around for some exciting distraction. He feels as if there is some third constant in his life who he's forgetting to call, and it's not Craig. On the Metro, headed toward the hospital, he realizes that this third theoretical person is some combination of Stan and Cartman, a kind of co-support system personified, the happy medium between those two relationships that once existed. Now it's blown to hell, and Kyle is rattled as he begins his rounds, wondering if he should take a sick day.

Before he can decide, he checks in on Ethan, his recovering pediatric patient, informally known as the crack baby. He's not a baby anymore, but even at six years old he looks that way, skinny and small in the center of a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV that looks like a life-draining mechanism when it's attached to a kid. It's actually administering anti-seizure medication, and Kyle is glad to see Ethan paging through a ratty picture book from the hospital's collection of donated toys.

"Where's the nurse?" Kyle asks when he enters the room. Despite his experience with Grady, he's still bad at talking to kids. Ethan looks around the room as if searching for her.

"I don't know," he says.

"How are you feeling?" Kyle asks, consulting Ethan's monitor. "Up for some exercise today?" he asks when Ethan just stares at him, looking frightened. Normally Kyle has the nurse with him during Ethan's check-ups. He tends to make children nervous, despite his friendly-looking clown hair.

"Exercise like how?" Ethan asks.

"Just a stroll up and down the hallway with the nurse. Unless you're feeling too weak? I'm glad to see you sitting up."

"I'm not too weak," Ethan says, and he sounds a little defiant, though his voice is still shaky and small.

"Good, then we'll get you up and walking when she gets here. What are you reading?"

- Nowhere -

"It's about the Easter Bunny," Ethan says, and he shows Kyle the cover.

"Ah, alright. I know someone who knows a lot about him." He thinks of Stan hatefully for a moment, then sadly, then with longing. It's already become a routine procession every time something reminds Kyle of Stan, which is often.

"Why does he know a lot about him?" Ethan asks. He's sort of hugging the book now, worrying it against his chest, pages crinkling.

"It's a long story," Kyle says. "Me, I don't know much about Easter. Except that it's in April or something. Do you want me to find you a more timely book?"

Ethan looks confused by the question, and Kyle feels badly for his habit of brusque adult dialogue with child patients. They just make him so frazzled, these kids, especially the ones who were already downtrodden before landing in the cardiac wing. Ethan is cute, or would be, if he gained ten pounds. At the moment his face is gaunt, his skin is clammy, and his eyes look a bit bugged out. His wrists are so tiny, circled by a hospital bracelet on his left arm and plugged into the IV on his right. Kyle has to look away, suddenly overwhelmed by grief.

"I meant a book about summer or something," Kyle says. "Or just, something new. That one looks a little crusty."

Ethan smiles at the word 'crusty,' and Kyle smiles back, uplifted. He goes to the bed and slides the book from Ethan's hands so that he can access his chest.

"Sounds good," Kyle says when his stethoscope is measuring Ethan's little heartbeats. Kyle experiences another swell of emotions and knows he should go home soon; he's too wracked by that awful weekend to keep his head on straight. "You're doing so well," he says. "Let's take your blood pressure, then maybe your nurse will actually answer my page."

"I don't like that thing," Ethan says when Kyle brings the blood pressure cuff. It's really a nurse's job to do this, but Kyle doesn't have all day.

"Why not?" Kyle asks, pulling apart the velcro. "Because it squeezes?"

"Yeah," Ethan says. "Too tight."

"Well, I'm afraid it's supposed to feel that way, but it won't hurt you. Give me your arm."

Ethan just stares up at him, his eyes beginning to water, and Kyle isn't sure how to proceed. He could stomp out of the room and call for nurse, but that might only frighten the poor thing further. Kyle touches Ethan's head lightly, patting his fuzzy brown hair. He's got very light green eyes, and they're increasingly close to overflowing with tears.

"It's nothing to cry about," Kyle says, patting him again. "But, I know. It's scary. I'm a doctor, and I still hate having my blood drawn. It's nothing if it's someone else's, but when it's mine — I hate the feeling. Here, let's find you a tissue."

His hands are shaking when he brings a box of scratchy, off-brand tissues to Ethan. He's been too close to crying all day, and seeing someone else do it — a frail crack baby, no less — is about to put him over the edge. Ethan seems to notice this, and he stares up at Kyle with wonder.

"Are you thinking about your blood?" Ethan asks, as if that's why Kyle is on the verge of tears. Kyle sucks the threat of tears back with determination, a trick he learned in medical school, when he was so stressed out that he would be on the verge of wretched weeping for weeks at a time. He's never cried at work.

"I'm thinking about any number of things," Kyle says. "Now go on, take one, dry your eyes. Would you prefer to have the nurse check your blood pressure?"

"No!" Ethan says. He grabs for a tissue and wipes his face. "She's the one who does it too hard."

"We all have to do it that hard, I'm afraid." Kyle's stomach has begun to hurt. "I know it's not fair," he says, his voice only wavering a little. "What you've had to do here, in the hospital. But you've — you should be commended." He winces, hearing that. "I mean to say, you've been very brave."

Ethan says nothing, but he's stopped crying, and he holds out his arm for the blood pressure cuff.

"Can I have a medal?" he asks as Kyle wraps the cuff around him. "When I leave?"

"Yes," Kyle says, and when he goes back to his office, the nurse having finally arrived, he makes a note to find something medal-like to give Ethan, then calls Ethan's social worker to let her know that he'll be cleared for release from the hospital after three more days of stable condition.

"I'll let the center know to expect him," the social worker says.

"Which center?" Kyle asks. He's tapping a pen on his knee, staring out at the city view from his office, thinking about the view from home and his message-less phone.

"The group home."

"Oh, I. He doesn't have some sort of — foster situation?"

"No, he's not really foster-able. Most families aren't open to fostering a kid that sick."

"He's not that sick! Not post-surgery, or he shouldn't be — the septum defect was fully repaired, I did it myself." He pauses, caught up by that and not sure why; after twenty years of practicing, it doesn't often strike him that he was just speaking to someone whose heart he recently touched with gloved fingertips. "I mean, there's a chance of another episode if the aortic abnormalities worsen with age, and he'll always be asthmatic, but plenty of people who are epileptic as children grow out of it, and the anticonvulsants, well, they're expensive, yes, but can't foster families get health insurance for their kids?"

"He's got Medicaid whether he's in a foster home or the group home."

"Orphanage, you mean. That's what it is, right? That's what they're called now?"

"Yes, well — he's not an orphan, technically. He's got a father, um, let's see. He's in prison in West Virginia."

"For what?"

"I'm not at liberty to disclose that, Dr. Broflovski."

"Of course not." Kyle isn't sure why he asked. He typically tries to stay far away from his patients' personal details, to leave all of that to the social workers when necessary. "Alright, well. Three days, yes, let them know. But you should explain to prospective parents that his health problems are very manageable." Kyle is annoyed with this woman, irrationally, and he supposes she can hear it in his tone. "He's a cute kid, and he seems fairly well socialized for someone in his situation. I don't see why he shouldn't be adopted."

"I'll keep that in mind," she says, dryly.

Kyle tries calling Stan again when he gets home, enraged and insulted when there's no answer and the call goes to voicemail.

"I don't know why I'm surprised," Kyle says after the beep, eyes burning. "You sabotage every relationship you're in sooner or later." He hangs up, feeling terrible for that, but doesn't call back.

When Stan doesn't call back the following day, Kyle is sure that his stupid outburst is to blame, but every time he picks up his phone with the intent to apologize he remembers the way Stan looked at him when they were at the elevator, as if Kyle had Cartman's slime all over him, or Cartman's come dribbling from the corner of his lips. He had looked at Kyle with such deep disgust, and while it was understandable in the moment, with Cartman lurking around the corner in a towel, the fact that Stan is persisting in that impression is too hurtful and vexing to allow Kyle to sincerely apologize for his voicemail message or anything else.

Unable to find a suitable toy medal on his way to work, he recommends that Ethan stay in the hospital four more days instead of three, wanting to have time to find something really good, or to receive it via shipment if necessary. He browses on the computer in his office, looking for something with real weight that will feel significant, not like the plastic crap he found on the first sites that came up. But when he searches 'heavy toy medal for kids' the first three results are articles about dangerous metals found in children's toys.

"Medal!" he says to the computer after he's checked that he's typed it correctly. "Not metal." He doesn't use voice-activation, has always been unnerved by machine sentience of any kind, so the computer does nothing but glow unhelpfully. He has more luck when he leaves off the 'heavy,' but the one he wants is part of a set of three that costs one hundred and sixty dollars. He orders it anyway, with two-day shipping. Grady can have the other two, if Kyle is ever allowed to see him again — or, no, why not give all three to Ethan? Grady has plenty of toys.

"Do you like having your own room?" Kyle asks during Ethan's checkup. Ethan nods. "I mean, I'm — I'd like to keep you here for observation for a bit longer than I originally planned to. What do you think about that? Are you eager to get back to your — group?"

"What group?" Ethan asks.

"The center," Kyle says, and Ethan's eyes widen.

"I could stay here," he says.

"Are they nice to you there? Do you have friends?"

Ethan just stares at Kyle like he doesn't know what he's talking about, and he gives Kyle an incredulous look when he stands there expecting an answer.

"Not everybody's nice," Ethan says.

"Am I nice?" Kyle asks. He glances at the nurse, who has looked up from Ethan's monitor to puzzle at him. Bedside manner is not something Kyle is known to be concerned with. "I mean, do I seem nice? You can be honest, I won't get my feelings hurt."

"You're nice," Ethan says, but it feels little condescending and sympathetic. Kyle flushes.

"Do you think I have kids?" he asks.


"How come? Why not?"

"I don't know."

"Dr. Broflovski," the nurse says, her tone slightly scolding. "I'm going to give him his bath now."

"Do I have to?" Ethan asks, looking up at Kyle pleadingly. Kyle leans down to sniff the top of Ethan's head, which makes him laugh.

"He smells okay," Kyle says, turning to the nurse, who is staring at him like she wishes she had the authority to snarl. "I wouldn't prescribe a bath just yet."

"Yes!" Ethan says, and he does a seated victory dance, wiggling his fists around. Kyle grins. He'll bring the kid a piece of cake or something after his rounds. He could use it, for the weight gain.

That night at home, he watches the weather channel while he eats a sandwich constructed with gourmet ingredients: mortadella, gruyere, and Mayer lemon mayo on ciabatta. He's been eating like a pig, not caring. The weather channel normally relaxes him during a solitary meal, but today it's stressing him out. They're covering a massive storm system that is wrecking havoc up north and headed down the east coast, almost certain to blast its way through D.C. The hospital will be slammed in the aftermath, and Kyle isn't sure how he feels about weathering a storm alone with only the windows between him and the chaos. He eyes the windows with distrust, wondering how sturdily storm-graded they are. Feeling increasingly alone, he checks his phone. There's a message, and his heart leaps into his throat before he sees that it's from Craig.

Saw on the news that you guys are having extreme weather soon. Pack an umbrella in that hideous doctor's bag when you go to work tomorrow.

Craig has always criticized Kyle's medical bag, though it's vintage and cracked leather is eternally fashionable, as far as Kyle is concerned. He sighs and tosses the phone away, newly crushed, wondering if he should call Stan. He makes himself a third gin and tonic and falls asleep on the couch while the weather channel hosts warn about wind damage and flooding on the coast.

He dreams that Cartman and Stan are both in his surgery, chests open, hearts exposed, and that he only has the time and tools to save one of them. He wants to save Stan, but they're still fighting, and Stan is telling Kyle he doesn't want to be saved, not by Kyle, that he doesn't even want Kyle to touch him. Kyle is crying helplessly, and Cartman is berating him for not saving either of them. He wakes up with a sickening jolt and falls off the couch.

"Is there a storm coming?" Ethan asks Kyle during his rounds. They've become friends, sort of, ever since Kyle brought him a slice of chocolate cake from the cafeteria. Kyle can't wait to show him the medals: one for surviving the surgery, one for a successful recovery, and one for enduring the blood pressure cuff so many times.

"I guess so," Kyle says. "Did the nurses tell you that?"

"I saw it on TV," he says, and they both look at the wall-mounted one across from his bed, which is now muted, showing a commercial for Hamburger Helper.

"Do you watch the weather channel?" Kyle asks.

"Yeah," Ethan says, and he smiles. "I like tornadoes."

"Oh. Yeah — I like the music they play over the local forecast screens. Stan — my friend — he calls it elevator music. He says the fact that it relaxes me evidences my lack of rhythm."

"What's that?"

"It's like — coolness, sort of, I think. Going with the flow — being able to dance."

"I can't dance," Ethan says.

"Me either."

"It's for girls, anyway."

"You're — well, I'm inclined to agree, but I think we're both gender retro."

"What's that?"

"Um, it means, like — we're stuck in the past about gender roles. Do you know about time travel?"

"Yeah! I want to do it, I want to see what it's like."

"Hmm, well. I know someone who's been to the future, and I don't think — well, he still needs the present more." Kyle looks up at the ceiling, annoyed with himself for bothering this kid with his need to talk to someone, anyone. "But it's definitely cool," he says when he looks back to Ethan. The reality of a kid with health problems dreaming about the future sort of smashes him in the chest, and he has to turn to the window. "Looks like the strong winds are coming already," he says, because the cypress tree outside is being whipped about.

"I like strong winds," Ethan says.

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"They feel, like. Superheroes and stuff? Like a movie."

"I think I know what you mean," Kyle says, nodding. "That's why people get so excited — the news, and the people watching the news. It's like a movie they're going to actually be in." The way Ethan smiles at him makes him smile, too. "What?"

Ethan doesn't respond, just looks at the TV, but Kyle thinks he understands. It's probably been a while since someone really listened to what he said. He remembers having that feeling as a kid, and he thinks of Stan, who was the only one who'd seemed to care about what Kyle had to say back then.

"Should I change it to the weather channel?" Kyle asks. He hasn't touched one of the greasy hospital remotes in years.

"Yes," Ethan says, clapping twice, and they watch it together for a while, Kyle with one ass cheek on the bed, enthralled.

Kyle was hoping that the worst of the storm would hit while he was at work, but of course he's at home, just getting off shift, when the lightning starts flashing in the distance like a malevolent disco, stabbing toward earth in splintering daggers. The thunder is worse; he can feel it rattling the windows, using them as a vulnerable entry point, shaking the whole apartment like a threat.

He's going to make a loaded baked potato, the ultimate comfort food, and he's got the oven preheated, the potato forked, when the power goes out with an angry thump from the direction of his TV speakers.

"Oh, Jesus, really?" he says, to no one. Paranoid in the consuming darkness, he hurries to his phone, not sure what he's expecting to find. It's half-charged, as it usually is at the end of a shift. No messages. Lightning flashes through the black, followed rapidly by thunder. Rain slams the windows in a sudden blast, blurring the city lights like fingers smeared through paint. Kyle picks up the raw potato and stares at it angrily. Suddenly it seems to represent every failure in his life, the emptiness of the apartment, his inability to really cook. He pitches it across the living room, hard enough for it to hit the window and partially splatter before dropping to the floor. "I don't know my own strength," Kyle says, again to no one, and he gets the gin from the cabinet.

He doesn't bother with tonic or even a glass, just sits on the floor near the wasted potato and stares out at the storm, sipping from the bottle. When the thunder shakes the window, he presses his palm to the glass. Across the street, cherry trees are flexing wildly in the wind, and the windows of the houses that line the street are dark, too. Kyle has never felt more alone, like a ghost, untouched as he surveys the chaos. Even the gin seems pointless, an empty gesture, no comfort. He thinks about Ethan and wonders if he's watching that cypress tree whipping around outside, feeling just close enough to the action. Grady is with Wendy, and Stan is probably sad about that, wherever he is. Stan doesn't like not being there when Grady is frightened, and storms like this scare him. He's a child who prefers the gentler aspects of the natural world: he likes how the baby tamarins ride around on their father's backs.

"It's the dads that carry them," Grady told Kyle the first time he accompanied them to the zoo. "Not the moms, like you'd think. For them it's the dads." Stan had stayed with Kyle that Sunday night, after Wendy came to fetch Grady. Stan had been quiet, and had held onto Kyle so tightly. Kyle had stroked his hair, the way he likes, nails dragging slow across his scalp, and Stan had shivered slightly every time Kyle's fingers came to the back of his neck, his face hidden against Kyle's chest.

Kyle had liked that, had felt a little thrill for being able to make Stan shiver: how had he not known then, always, that he loved Stan more deeply than he'd ever let himself acknowledge, that he wanted Stan, and wanted to be wanted by him? It was his greatest fear as a kid, during the slow process of realizing that he was gay: was he doing this for Stan, because of him, was he doomed to grow to hate Stan when he inevitably rejected Kyle's advances? He'd decided that no, Stan was something else, a kind of love he could personally invent and properly compartmentalize, and coming to this conclusion had been such a tremendous relief. He could love Stan, hold him, revel openly in the feeling of Stan's arms around him, spoon up behind him without a word — he could have all of that and not care about kissing him. Stan had been so willing to fit Kyle's mold of platonic cuddling that Kyle felt vindicated. If Stan had progressively backed away, flinched at Kyle's constant touches and put up socially appropriate boundaries, it would have been the same sort of rejection Kyle had feared when he worried that he wanted to kiss Stan. Not kissing didn't make Kyle want him any less, and Stan had responded to Kyle's need with his own. He'd grabbed for Kyle just as often, rubbed his face in Kyle's hair, sat too close on every couch.

"God," Kyle says, and the thunder shakes the window so powerfully that he moves away from it, afraid.

He's too hungry to sleep, and the storm is too loud, unrelenting. The power is still out and the apartment is beginning to feel stuffy without the air conditioning circulating, but Kyle crawls under his heavy comforter anyway, huddles there and hides. He hasn't washed it, and it still smells a bit like both Cartman and Stan. Cartman wears pheromone-laced cologne that lingers and mixes with the smell of his sweat. And Stan — Stan just smells like home, like Kyle's belonging and his owner. He supposes that's not true anymore, that he misplayed his overdue epiphany too colossally, and he starts to shiver, feeling as if he'll be pelted by rain and struck by lightning if he peeks from beneath the comforter.

He sleeps thinly, and dreams that someone is knocking on his window, pounding it with his fists, threatening to break it and pull Kyle out into the storm. When he wakes he realizes that someone really is knocking — but not on the window. There's a persistent pounding on his apartment door, the kind of angry demand to enter that Auden unleashed on him once.

Moving to answer the door feels dreamlike, and he opens it expecting Auden, the carnival of Cartman's personal life having returned to town. The hallway is dark, illuminated only by the dim glow of some emergency lights. Maybe because of the surreal lighting, it takes Kyle a moment to process that Stan is at his door, soaking wet and breathing hard.

"You didn't have to run," Kyle says, his voice breaking apart already.

"Yeah, I did," Stan says, and he walks into the apartment, kissing Kyle before he's all the way in, kicking the door shut behind him.

"Wait," Kyle says after opening his mouth for a kiss that tasted like rainwater, only warm. He's breathing hard now, too, allowing Stan to back up against the side of the breakfast bar. "Wait, stop. Where have you been?"

"Just. Around, nowhere. That was my worst nightmare, okay?"

"What was?"

"The idea that I don't really know you, that you — laugh at me, behind my back, with those guys. With those specific guys, Kyle, and Cartman was naked."

"I don't laugh at you," Kyle says, and he kisses Stan, moaning a little at the taste of him, his perfect mouth: Kyle just didn't know how to want this specific comfort from him before, what he was missing out on by drawing the line at kissing. "And you do know me," he says, softly. "You do. He asked to use the shower after he sobered up, possibly because he wanted something like you finding him here to happen. We said our goodbyes for real. I got closure, and. I still have your flowers, see?"

Stan looks at the flowers, which are still bright and lively, in a vase selected by Craig from Kyle's rather large supply. He brings home the nice ones that people leave at the hospital. He used to get a lot of flowers, from Cartman, in lieu of his company.

"I was so angry," Stan says when he looks back to Kyle. "I can't be around you when I'm angry like that. I'd say horrible things — Wendy, ah. You wouldn't believe some of the shit I said to her when she'd hurt me. It kills me when I think about it."

"I said mean things, too," Kyle says. "To you. Oh, Stan, you're shaking. Take your clothes off, you'll get sick."

Stan steps out of his waterlogged shoes, and Kyle helps him peel off his shirt, then his pants, socks. It all goes into a wet pile on the floor, and Kyle hesitates at Stan's boxers, which are clinging to him, soaked through.

"I know you didn't do anything," Stan says. "With Cartman — with Craig. If you say so, I know. It's just that you did, once, Kyle. You let him have you, all those times, for so long. I didn't want him to have you."

"Stan," Kyle says, his voice breaking again. "He didn't — he knew I loved you. He knew it before I did, even when we were kids. He never had all of me, because I always left some of me with you."

"I want all of you," Stan says, and he steps closer, his hands going to Kyle's hips. "I think I have for a long time."

"I know. Me too."

"It was just — I knew, like. If it got messed up, it would feel like it did when I found Cartman here. Like there would be no world to go back to once you were gone, because you were the world, you were everything."

"I know, Stan, shit, God—"

They kiss again, Kyle's hands sliding up into Stan's wet hair. He's still shivering, warming up against Kyle's chest. When a thunderclap seems to originate from directly overhead, shaking the building, they both look to the window.

"I hate it," Kyle says, huddling into Stan's arms. "It's too close. I'm afraid they'll break."

"The windows?"

"Yeah. Let's get in my bed, okay? Under the blankets."

"Okay," Stan says. "Or, wait. I have a better idea. Will you make us some hot chocolate?"

"I don't think I have any. I mean, it's summer? And also the power is out."

"Oh, yeah." Stan looks around the room. "I guess that's how I got in. I thought the buzzer was broken."

"Stan, you don't have to use the buzzer. The doorman knows you. You have a key." Kyle flushes, overcome by how badly he needs Stan to live here again, to just never fucking leave him.

"How about chocolate milk?" Stan says.

"Yeah, okay. I think I have milk. I always have chocolate sauce."

"I know you do," Stan says, and he gives Kyle a soft kiss on the lips. "Sorry I disappeared," he says when their faces are still close.

"Sorry I was a jerk about Craig coming."

"You weren't — I was. Here, go make the chocolate milk. I'm going to do something in the bedroom. It'll just take a sec."

"Um, okay?"

Stan goes into the bedroom, stepping out of his boxers on the way there. He shuts the door behind him, which is odd. Kyle immediately feels vulnerable again, alone in the dark, the storm crashing around the building like an angry sea. He goes into the kitchen and gropes around in the fridge until he's found the milk and chocolate sauce, feeling guilty for letting the cold escape with the power out like this. His hands are shaking as he gets glasses down and mixes the drinks. He can hear Stan moving around in the bedroom, walking about. Is he trying to cover the window? Kyle feels like weeping desperately for a few brief but intense moments, and he has to brace his hands on the counter to combat a sudden dizziness. The thunder continues outside, incessant, and he wants to tell it to shut up, to let him think. He's afraid he's dreaming, that Stan hasn't really come back, and he's not sure how he survived the past three days with no word from him, because if it is a dream he won't be able to breathe when he wakes from it.

"Can I come in?" Kyle asks when he's standing in front of the bedroom door, holding two glasses of chocolate milk and trembling all over. He's afraid he's speaking to himself from a dream, that the only person inside that bedroom is Kyle, hiding under the blankets, still asleep. After all, what's Stan doing in there, why the closed door? It's the sort of out of step detail a dream would feature: Stan going into the bedroom alone, Stan not angry anymore, Stan being in love with him after all.

"Okay," Stan says, and he opens the door, smiling. "It's ready."

Kyle walks into the room, confused, because the window isn't covered. Then lightning illuminates the room for a flash, and he sees it near the bed: Stan has dragged Kyle's desk chair over and stretched a blanket from it over the bedside table, anchored on the bed by pillows.

"Here you go," Stan says, lifting the blanket, another lightning flash revealing a nest of others inside, resting on pillows, just enough room for both of them to curl up. "After you." Stan is wearing a pair of Kyle's briefs now, and they're too tight, a pair that's small even on Kyle, making Stan's cock seem very obvious, soft but heavy-looking. There's something sweet about it: Stan in nothing but Kyle's ill-fitting underwear, protecting him from the storm.

"You made me a blanket fort," Kyle says. As kids they made them all time, especially in Stan's basement, where they could build one around the old TV and camp out in there all day, playing video games and eating from the supply of snacks they'd dragged in with them. Kyle used to fall asleep at Stan's side during his turns on the one-player quest games. As a kid, nothing made him feel safer than pressing his face to Stan's side and feeling the twitch of his fingers on the controller buttons reverberate through his body, fading in and out of sleep with that particular sensation, knowing that the blankets were hiding them from Stan's parents and anyone else who didn't understand why some part of Kyle needed to be touching some part of Stan at all times.

He hands Stan his chocolate milk, kisses his cheek and crawls into the fort. From beneath the blanket, the lightning seems merely atmospheric, and the thunder seems farther away. The end table provides a shelf for the milk, and Stan sets his there, beside Kyle's, after he's climbed in. There's not much visibility between lightning strikes, and they have to feel for each other, moving closer with clumsy need, breathing against each other's faces.

"I'm terrible without you," Kyle says. "I threw a potato."

"What?" Stan says, and he laughs, stroking Kyle's cheek with his thumb. "At who?"

"At nobody, at the window. Stan, oh, God — are you really here?"

"Yeah, I am. I'm sorry I got mad. It was just that I'd gotten this little taste of what I've wanted from you, but without feeling like I had it for good, and that made me go nuts. You know?"

"It was bad timing," Kyle said. "Craig's visit, Cartman's — meltdown, child bride, whatever. Though actually he's thirty."

"Who is?"

"Auden. Never mind. Don't disappear again."

"I won't," Stan says, and Kyle believes him, kisses him, moves into his lap.

Kyle feels as if they've traveled back in time as Stan lays him down on the pillows, as if they're in one of their old forts, cozy enough to try kissing at last. He feels very young, younger even than he felt when he actually was a boy, so full of childish hope that he's bursting with it, breaking apart under Stan's kisses. He realizes something that he's been approaching slowly over the past few days, and keeps quiet about it for now, keeps kissing Stan.

Happily, the fort offers access to the drawer on the bedside table and the lubricant inside. Kyle needs Stan inside him and gropes for the lube during a lightning flash, pushes it into Stan's hand when the room is dark again. He allows Stan to undress him slowly, kissing every newly exposed body part. Kyle peels the briefs off of Stan, their seams straining now that Stan's cock is hard.

"It feels so big," Kyle says, stroking him, and Stan laughs. "I'm serious! Not being able to see it is just — God, you're massive, you fill my whole hand."

"Mhmm," Stan says, distractedly, popping open the lube. "Spread your legs for me," he whispers, and Kyle shudders happily, obeying.

It's been a long time since Kyle had sex in a place this dark, not being able to see much at all as the lightning recedes. It feels like they're in some magical alternate universe, Kyle blindly surrendering to Stan inside the cocoon that he made for this, a kind of mating hut. Kyle gasps and arches on Stan's fingers, both arms around Stan's neck, grinding down onto him, keening when Stan whispers shhh and replaces his fingers with his cock. He slides in slow, not as if he's being cautious but as if he wants Kyle to savor every inch of him. It can't really have been as long as it feels like it has since he was full like this, since he had Stan inside him.

"I wish I had known," Kyle says, gasping this out while Stan fucks him, Stan's choppy breath on his face.

"Known?" Stan says.

"That you would want me," Kyle says, pressing his nose to Stan's cheek. "So that I would know it was okay to want you, too."

"We did know, though. Mostly, anyway. I was never going to let you go. You spooned me on the night before both of my weddings, dude."

"Well, you were scared! You needed me."

Stan moans and kisses him, nodding. He fucks Kyle harder, groaning with approval when Kyle shouts and clenches. Kyle grabs his cock, wanting to come first, with Stan still inside him. He jerks himself with abandon, staring up at Stan, wanting to see his eyes. Lightning flashes outside, and Kyle comes all over himself when he sees Stan's expression: he looks like he's claiming Kyle a little more completely with every sharp thrust of his cock, thinking, mine. Stan comes with a growl and crumples down into Kyle's arms, panting, hips still snapping and finally just twitching, spent.

They lie there for a while, listening to the thunder become more distant. Kyle strokes Stan's damp hair, smiling and pinching his eyes shut in delight when Stan shivers. Kyle can feel that little shiver inside him, too, all the way up his spine.

"I took the liberty of including clean up supplies," Stan says when he pulls out, pressing little kisses to Kyle's face. He reaches under the bed, and puts something in Kyle's outstretched hands: a towel. They wipe each other dry as best they can, kiss tiredly, and prop themselves up on the pillows high enough to allow for chocolate milk drinking.

"I think I'm going to adopt a kid," Kyle says when they're cuddled up together, on top of the blankets since it's so warm. "Or foster him, anyway."

"Yeah? The crack baby, your patient?"

"Ethan — how did you know?"

"Just a guess."

"Oh, well. We have a kind of mutual wretchedness, this kid and me, and I think it would be good for both of us. I feel like — I don't want to lose him? But I'd need your help. It's not the kind of thing I could do alone, with my schedule."

"You're asking me to adopt a kid with you?" Stan says, and that's when the power comes back on, Kyle's electronics reawakening with irritable beeps, the bedroom lights returning.

"No?" Kyle says. He hadn't planned this, but he feels certain now. "I just want your help. If you'd be willing to help. But why shouldn't we adopt a kid together? If you look at it one way, we've been in a stable relationship for almost forty years."

"Well," Stan says, and the softness of his voice tells Kyle he's considering this seriously. "Yeah, it's something I would like. I actually — this is dumb, but I actually want to have another kid. With you, though. Like—" He winces. "Get you pregnant?"

"I don't trust that technology," Kyle says, and his heart begins to pound with a kind of weird interest. Male pregnancy is from the future, not often attempted in the present, but when it has been, the children were born healthy.

"Me either," Stan says. "And it's — it makes more sense to adopt a kid who already exists, who needs a family. Like, in my heart, that seems more right."

They talk about it a bit more, making vague plans, and when Kyle is too tired to talk anymore he rolls over, scooting back against Stan.

"There's nothing better than naked spooning," Kyle says.

"Yeah," Stan says, squeezing him. "Fucking your ass is pretty great, though."

"I'm so glad you're enjoying it."

"You want to sleep here?" Stan asks. He kisses his way up Kyle's neck, nibbles at his ear. "In the fort?"

"Mhmm, yeah. I love sleeping in your forts. Literally, and metaphorically."

They never do find curtains or blinds big enough to cover the floor to ceiling windows, and Kyle sells the apartment two years later. They move into a house not far from Wendy's — bigger, which Kyle secretly enjoys — and Ethan no longer has to share his bedroom with Grady during his weekend visits, but they usually end up sleeping in the same room anyway, or on a pile of blankets in front of the TV, amid bowls of greasy popcorn kernals and empty VitaKid bottles. They're both getting a little chubby, and Kyle enrolls Ethan in a mixed martial arts program for exercise, though he actually loves Ethan's chubby cheeks and baby fat, to the point that he gets emotional about it sometimes, remembering his skeletal state during his hospital stay.

When Stan and Kyle receive an invitation to Cartman and Auden's lavish destination wedding, Kyle can't stop laughing, and Ethan comes into the room looking confused. Kyle is at the kitchen table, still giggling madly. Stan is at the oven, squatting down to check on his chive biscuits.

"We're not going," he says.

"Not going to what?" Ethan asks, leaning onto Kyle. "What's so funny?"

"The time travel guy we grew up with," Kyle says, and he is sad, for a moment, to describe Cartman this way. They mostly fell out of touch after the sex weekends stopped, but he does hear from Cartman often enough to not be especially surprised that he's invited to this wedding, despite his eerie resemblance to the co-groom. "He's getting married on his creepy private island. We're invited."

"To Cartman Island?" Ethan says, and he starts bouncing, looking wildly from Kyle to Stan. "That's awesome, we have to go!"

"I am kind of curious about the place," Kyle says. It's Cartman's Xanadu, infamously secretive and well-guarded. He's gotten increasingly paranoid in his old age, or maybe his concerns about enemies were always appropriate.

"No way are we bringing Ethan there," Stan says. "God only knows what goes on in that place."

"What, no!" Ethan says. "I've heard he has a whole zoo of hybrid animals from the future. A hippogriff, Dad!" he says, shaking Kyle's arm. "He made one!"

"I don't know if that's true," Kyle says, though he wouldn't be surprised. "Oh — c'mon, Stan. It will be the party of the century, and I'm sure we'd be safe. Cartman Island is nothing if not secure."

"Nope," Stan says, and he turns back to the stove. Stan and Kyle's wedding was a courthouse affair, a mostly legal ceremony performed shortly after Kyle started fostering Ethan, so that they would have a year-long marriage under their belts by the time they applied to adopt him. It was difficult to explain that they'd been together much longer, and in what sense.

"Dad, please?" Ethan says, going to Stan, and Kyle leaves the convincing to him; he's surpassed Kyle in his ability to talk Stan into what he wants. "Everyone at school would be so jealous."

"That's why you want to go?" Stan asks.

"No, I want to go 'cause — ah! It's the biggest mansion in the world, and he has his own theme park, and water park—" He's ticking these off on his fingers. "—And all this crazy stuff from the future that regular people aren't allowed to have, like a food generator that can give you any food you want—"

"You're not eating from a food generator," Stan says, scoffing. "I've read some alarming articles about those things."

"But can we go, though? If I promise not to eat out of a generator?"

"Kyle," Stan says, turning to him. "Look what you've started."

"It wasn't me, it was the invite! Ethan, we'll talk about it later. Go wash up for dinner."

"I've heard he has mermaids," Ethan says, grinning like he already knows that he and Kyle will get their way; they usually do. "Real mermaids, Dad."

"Please, honey," Kyle says. "Even Cartman isn't selfish enough for that kind of unethical genetic engineering."

"How come it's unethical?"

"We'll talk about it over dinner," Kyle says, always pleased to have an ethical debate at the dinner table.

"Okay. Can Grady come with us?"

"Ha!" Stan says. "Good luck getting Wendy to entertain that idea." He turns to see that Ethan has left to wash his hands and makes a face at Kyle. "And if we do go, Grady will be jealous and cry."

"That's true," Kyle says. "Maybe we could get Wendy to let him come?"

"Fat chance! Kyle, God. Why do you even want to go?"

Stan looks very fretful about this, and Kyle feels badly. He gets up and walks to the stove, hugging Stan from behind, rocking him a little.

"I just think it would be a laugh," he says. "But maybe we could go without the kids. I would feel kind of weird exposing them to — that. Since I'm not sure what his scene is anymore."

Stan grunts and returns to cleaning flour from the stove top. Kyle kisses his neck, pets his stomach, and closes his eyes. That could have been him, imprisoned forever on exotic Cartman Island, married to his childhood sweetheart. To one of them, anyway: the other one. He can't picture it, though. It's more suited to Auden, naked orgy violinist.

"Everyone ended up with the right people," he says, thinking of Craig, who recently married a Canadian man who designs shoes. He's famous, according to Craig, but Kyle had never heard of him before he started dating Craig. Kyle was the best man for Craig at the wedding, which was a very stylish affair in Vail, on New Year's Eve.

"I just," Stan says, quietly. "It'd be weird to see Grady and Ethan all impressed with him."

"I'm not even sure children are allowed on Cartman Island," Kyle says. "I'll have to consult the instruction manual for attending that came with the invite. It's sixty-three pages long."

"Of course it is," Stan says. He sighs and turns to Kyle, tipping his chin back a little. For a moment Kyle is afraid that Stan is slipping into a bad mood, but he smiles.

"What?" Kyle says.

"Nothing. Just thinking about how I won you away from the man who has everything. Even mermaids, allegedly."

"Mermaids have got nothing on the rare and elusive Dr. Broflovski, I guess," Kyle says. He kisses Stan, pulling him forward so their hips are flush together. "He might have an island full of genetic experiments, but you built me blanket forts. I prefer those."

"I'm glad," Stan says, grinning.

At dinner, they discuss the ethical issues with mutating humans so that they'll have fish tails and gills. Kyle comes to the conclusion that this can't possibly be legal in the future, and Ethan comes to understand why doing this to someone would be cruel. Privately, Kyle simply doesn't think Cartman is that much of a maniac. There has always been a method to his madness, and he's living his dream now because of it: private island, private theme park, aura of mysterious power, and a feisty ginger who enjoys topping him, apparently. Though it would have infuriated him as a kid, from where he's sitting now, Kyle is glad that Cartman got everything he coveted. Kyle can't be bitter about any of it, since he's gotten everything he always wanted, too.