Summer vacation sucked.

Kyle wasn't sure what he expected. The fact was: Stan had been a raging asshole for the majority of eighth grade. At the Promotion ceremony (after Wendy's commencement speech), Stan swivelled around—squeaking in his plastic chair—to say to Kyle:

"They want us to be happy we're going to high school? Dude. It's like telling a cow to be excited about a bright future of becoming hamburger meat."

Kyle sighed. "I'm just glad we survived."

A few days later, Stan flung an air-hockey puck (with satisfying accuracy, Kyle had to admit) straight at Cartman's head. To be fair, Stan and Kyle had just lost fourteen games consecutively, and it was unclear whether those losses were coincidental or by Cartman's petty design. Still. Kyle had been pretty fired up too, but even he understood that they were supposed to be having fun! And for fuck's sake, Shakey's was a goddamned pizza parlor, not the site of The Air Hockey National Championship.

Trying to explain this to Stan produced few results. He'd already "come down" by that time, so when confronted, all he had to say for himself was:

"I know. It's all pointless anyway."

Kyle was barely able to tolerate the mood swings. He attributed the volatility to the fact that Stan was thirteen. For this reason, Kyle decided that Stan deserved his patience (limited though it was). He'd definitely grow out of it.

Middle school was rough for everyone, anyway. The budding hormones brought years of awkward boners, fluctuating tempers, an obscene amount of food consumption, and gallons of acne which absolutely no one appreciated, least of all Kyle.

In a cruel twist of fate, God (who seemed to love Cartman) blessed the boy with his mother's clear skin. It was something Kyle resented everyday—not that Cartman let him forget it much. "Heh heh, nice pizza-face, Jew. Looks like my skin is waaaay more kosher than yours!"

For some reason, Kyle had imagined ninth grade would magically reveal him to be some sort of Sex God after the cocoon of summer, which would make the previous three years of suffering worth the wait. Unfortunately, fourteen (almost fifteen, dammit) was still not a great age for anyone, and Kyle was no exception. Stan did not help matters by being unstable.

The problem of Stan-being-a-raging-asshole peaked for Kyle when Stan barricaded himself in his room for the majority of the summer before Ninth Grade. Stan gave no explanation for this, but he periodically emerged...generally to bitch about how horrible everything was.

Kyle only mostly succeeded in distracting him. Even that much required the full use of Kyle's facilities, and more often than not, exhaustive late-night talks about the meaning of existence (mainly that it had no meaning) and hope (or lack thereof) for the future.

It was a lot for a fourteen-year-old to handle. Eventually, Kyle's sense of self-preservation was greater than his desire to humor Stan's unpredictable bouts of ennui. Kyle stopped trying, and it was unclear whether it made Stan better or worse. Mostly, things stayed the same, and that made Kyle even angrier. He'd put in so many hours, and now he couldn't even tell if it had changed anything.

(Truthfully, Kyle would have given up long ago if not for Stan's inconsistency. The problem was, (though the bouts seemed to last for longer and longer stretches), out of nowhere, Stan would be okay for a few days. Then Kyle would be reminded of why they were friends. That would buy Stan a few more weeks of patience, so the vicious cycle continued.)

Between serving as part-time mood-manager for Stan, Kyle played video games with Kenny. He would have tried to make other friends, but it turned out that everyone had their own lives and families during summer. Kyle found that he resented every single one of those people who dared to exist outside of school. ...Almost as much as he resented Kenny, who outscored him, had a better kill-to-death ratio, outranked, finished before, and generally out-performed Kyle in every digital venue—with the occasional exception of Guitar Hero (suck on that, Kenny).

Stan's obliviousness pissed Kyle off the most. When Stan greeted Kyle on the first day of classes, Kyle was in a dour mood. Stan didn't seem to take note; of course not. Stan never noticed anything on the outside of his stupid, thick skull. He just acted like everything between them was normal. 'Stan was the empathetic one,' Kyle thought angrily. 'Stan was supposed to pick up on things.' Yet, Stan had developed the personality of a dirty jockstrap—and he didn't notice how much Kyle hated it.

So now, Kyle was here, bumping into fellow confused freshmen. Stan was at his side and behaving in mostly-tolerable fashion. Kyle fumed silently and looked for an opportunity to lash out and air his grievances once and for all.

In spite of this, he thought he could be ready to let the whole summer go for the sake of their history....provided that Stan continued putting on a normal front. Maybe.

They walked together down the bustling hallways to their lockers. Students milled around, talking over each other. Somewhere, a girl with an obnoxious laugh burst into giggles that seemed to echo off the ceiling. Kyle tried to tune it out as he searched for an optimal, torso-level locker sufficiently far from hers.

"Did you finally get your ginger spots?" asked a familiar voice. "Oh no, they're still just pimples."

Kyle hunched over and put his face inside the locker he had chosen for the year. It was a sad attempt to hide, but he was still disappointed when it didn't work. 'Just ignore him,' Kyle thought, bitterly, 'Cartman feeds off negative energy. Ignore him, and he'll go the hell away.'

"Fuck off," Stan snarled from the locker he chose beside Kyle's. This, unfortunately, effectively nulled Kyle's avoidance strategy.

"We went all summer without seeing you. It was great." Stan fixed his lock on the door and sneered.

Kyle peeked out just in time to catch flash of something crossed Cartman's face. It was then that Kyle remembered Cartman might actually have feelings. Possibly.

"Well, hello. And fuck you too," Cartman huffed and heaved his backpack strap over one shoulder. "I see your periods have synced."

"...Uh, hey, dude," Kyle offered in a half-hearted mumble. He carefully arranged his notebooks in his locker so that the spines faced the door. This way, he could easily grab them between classes. "How have you been?"

Cartman's mood immediately improved. His scowl dissipated, and his choke-hold on his backpack strap loosened—all together, he looked decidedly less like the Stay Puft ghost. A little attention, Kyle noticed, went a long way with Cartman.

"So, I got laid," Eric preened. "Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh, girls like me more than you guys!"

Kyle felt the familiar irritation flood him. But he welcomed it; Kyle's annoyance with Cartman was still better than his waning tolerance for Stan. Wanting to slug Cartman felt less like a betrayal or a personal failing. Blood pumping, Kyle finally emerged from his locker.

"No, you didn't," Kyle snapped. "You just made out with Heidi Turner. Then you tried to touch her boob, and she kneed you in the nuts!"

Cartman reeled for a moment before scoffing dismissively, "...But I got to touch a boob."

Kyle rolled his eyes, though he actually felt a smile ready to pull across his face. This was the first normal conversation he'd had in months with anyone other than Kenny (and with Kenny, normal had to be redefined).

"You mean one other than your own? It doesn't count, Fat Boy."

"Does too!"

Stan slammed his locker shut. "Are we going to do this? Your...Cartman-and-Kyle thing? Jesus Christ, you guys—we're in fucking high school now."

The voice of understanding that Kyle had been consulting for three months died a gloriously bloody death. The voice threw its hands in the air, packed its bags, and left for Haiti. All that was left was Kyle's temper.

"...Okay. No. You're right, Stan." Kyle whirled on his heel. "Cartman."

Cartman seemed tempted to jump away when a suddenly-out-of-fucks-to-give Kyle turned on him.

"Sorry we ignored you all summer. I really only hung out with Kenny because someone was too busy keeping his head up his ass." Kyle ignored the upset splutter from Stan and kept his eyes trained on Cartman. "You'll come over tonight, and we'll play video games to make up for it."

Cartman glanced between Stan and Kyle before shrugging. "Pfft. I don't know if I want to hang out with you gaywads anymore. I've moved on to bigger and better things."

"Whatever," Kyle snarled, "do or don't. You have my cellphone number." He slammed his locker shut and stalked off to his homeroom class.

Cartman and Stan watched Kyle's retreating back for a moment. As soon as Kyle was out of sight, Cartman turned to Stan, grinning maniacally. "Goddamn, dude. So you two are like, having a domestic dispute? What the fuck was that?"

Stan was too stunned to be properly angry. "I don't fucking—" the whole scene caught up with him in a single, blinding moment of clarity. He flushed and stood on his toes to shriek—his hands cupped around his mouth—after Kyle:


Several people stopped mulling in the hallways to stare. There was a lull before distant running could be heard. Following that, Kyle's fury-red face poked out from around the corner, and he waved his middle finger at Stan.




Stunned (and a little winded from how fucking fast things had turned to shit), Stan thought wildly that at least his tears weren't black and heartless like the ones Cartman squeezed out from laughter.

"Well good morning, Star-Shine," Kenny said, when Kyle violently sat next to him for history class.

"The Earth says 'hello,'" Kenny continued in sing-song. Kyle did not appreciate this, and he rewarded Kenny's efforts with a snide half-squint. Then, Kyle dropped his face back into the crook of his elbow to wallow.

"I have two friends, Kenny," Kyle said morosely. He rolled his eyes towards the ceiling long-sufferingly in a plea that God would finally have mercy on him and stop shitting on his life. "You and Cartman."

Kenny absently rolled a sheet of paper into a long, skinny funnel. He remained entirely unimpressed by Kyle's dramatics. His knees bumped awkwardly against the underside of his desk as he fidgeted; Kenny was another of the few, the proud, who'd made it out of puberty with clear skin, but he also had an awkward growth spurt. He towered over everyone, looking malnourished.

"So make new friends," was Kenny's advice. It made enough sense that Kyle felt stupid for not having thought of it.

"...It's not that easy," Kyle mumbled into his arms, stubbornly.

Kenny was an expert mumble-translator. "Yeah it is. People like you. ...When you're not being bitchy." Kenny stuck the paper in his mouth and started chewing. He resisted adding 'à la Sheila Broflovski' purely for Kyle's benefit.

"And, since you're mostly like that around Stan, well," Kenny added, carefully neutral, "it's not rocket science, dude."

Kyle peered over his arms and watched Kenny play with his now-slobber-covered paper. Kyle tamped the instinct to scold Kenny for making a disgusting mess.

"Are you trying to say...that I should spend less time around Stan?" Kyle asked, though it was mostly rhetorical. He just wanted to hear Kenny say out-loud what he had thought for a long time.

Kenny smiled dryly. "I think Stan has some shit to sort out, and he's dragging you down. My professional opinion is that y'all would both be benefited from some time away."

(Kenny, as it happened, had also spent the summer listening to Kyle's Stan-woes. Kyle was not the only one tired of the circular Stan-rhetoric-of-misery).

Another familiar voice came from beside Kyle and Kenny: gentle and strong simultaneously and very auspiciously belonging to Wendy. She sat down beside Kyle, and immediately, he felt warmer.

"Oh my Friedan, does this mean you two are breaking up?" Wendy was also blessedly acne-free. Kyle took some pleasure in knowing she hadn't been last year, and she had also worn a retainer that gave her a horrible lisp. This year, she had the beginnings of her hips but was still flat-chested. ...The remarkable part, to Kyle, was how little any of that seemed to bother her.

"What you mean?" Kyle snapped irritably, "Jesus Christ. Everyone makes it sound like we were dating."

"You kind of are," Kenny and Wendy said unanimously. They glanced at each other and both held back laughs. Kyle sulked: unfortunately, the implied laughter was not lost on him.

"Oh my god," Kyle shoved his face back into his arms, "... friend-breaking up. A friend-break? I dunno. I guess...we're on a break."

"I see," Wendy acknowledged him, and seemed to affect an understanding tone. That was, until she added: "Are you sure about that, Ross?"

Kyle had the grace to let this go with a slight scowl. "Yeah, well. Rachel is being a fucking asshole."

Kenny had to cover his mouth this time to disguise his amusement. He felt a little bad about how funny he found the whole thing. Still, Kyle sat like a sad salt pile next to him, and eventually, Kenny took pity. Kenny lay his head down on his desk to get on Kyle's level. He reached over to poke Kyle's arm.

"Hey, genius. I'm gonna repeat it, so get some new ears or something. Make some new...haha. Friends," Kenny urged. Wendy snickered and tried to play it off like she was just wiping at her nose. Kyle peered up from the crook of his elbow and noticed chipped purple polish on her nails.

"Hey, you can have some of mine," Kenny offered, cheerily winking. He reached over to pluck at a red curl sticking out from under Kyle's hat. Sproing.

Wendy smiled and leaned on her elbow. "Kenny and I talk to the same people. In fact, I formally invite you to partake in our friendship rituals during the lunching hour."

Kyle finally smiled and looked over at Wendy. "Are there sacrifices? I mean, that's my favorite part." He grinned lightly, "But word gets around. I can't be part of blood rituals. I'm a Jew after all; there might be a riot. Cartman would start it."

"The only sacrifices are the ones we make in the name of gossip," Wendy said, grinning prettily, "I think today's topic is 'Red wore the wrong concealer.' Clashes with her hair."

"No!" Kyle mock-gasped. "Us pasty redheads have to stick together."

Wendy laughed outrightly, and Kyle couldn't help but feel a little better for being the cause.

But he also felt like a zoo animal as Kenny watched the exchange with interest. (Kyle needn't have felt self-conscious, however. Kenny was the last person to be surprised that a pretty girl made good sense sound more convincing).

The next week, Kyle walked to Token Black's house with Kenny. Kenny graciously volunteered for escort duties, because he knew more concretely where Token's house was located. Kyle hadn't been there in a long time, and Kenny didn't want him to have any excuse not to show up.

"You should go inside with me," Kyle said flatly, a symptom of his mild terror at entering Token's rather intimidating gated community. He made a pleading face at Kenny, and a rent-a-cop eyeballed them both distrustfully.

"I need backup," Kyle begged, pride breaking at last.

Kenny rolled his eyes, rocking on his heels as he looked at the looming black gate. "You're just nervous because you're facing actual competition for Wendy this way."

Kyle ground his teeth to avoid pouting. "Ugh. Why did you walk me here if you weren't going to come inside with me?"

Kenny cheerfully shoved his hands in his pockets. "To watch you quake."

Kyle sniffed. "Quake," he repeated tersely, "that's a good word."

"Yeah, it is," Kenny replied. He promptly turned on his heel, marking the end of his usher-job. "Have fun, y'all, you heard? And remember: you're the one who said you needed to get out."

"You're a bad parent," Kyle called listlessly, "I'm an orphan."

Kenny laughed and waved over his shoulder as he became smaller on the sidewalk. "I'll let Sheila know."

Kyle approached the security guard and told him whom to buzz. He waited a moment before the intercom fizzed to life. "Is that Kyle?"

Kyle leaned into the intercom. "Yeah. Um. Hi."

"Hold on, I'll be down there."

Kyle shuffled awkwardly and shifted his books. He wondered if he were being cruelly pranked—maybe Token and friends were going to just leave him out there and laugh behind his back. He stewed in his slight paranoia until he saw Token jogging down his driveway to the front gate.

"Hey," Token greeted. "Everyone else is here. Come in."

Kyle felt both silly and relieved as he followed Token down his driveway. He fought to keep his voice steady and even so as not to betray his previous misgivings...and also so that he wouldn't sound like a broken, adolescent harmonica. 'The voice-change period was just a universally unattractive thing,' Kyle thought.

"Hey. Sorry I'm late, dude." Kyle scratched the side of his head. He wasn't really late, but it was the first thing he could think of to say.

"No worries."

Token opened the door for him, and the moment Kyle stepped through the door, he was blown away by the insides of the house. There were actual chandeliers—fuck-a-duck, he'd never seen so much shiny-and-ornate in one damn place.

"Holy shit," he said, "your ceilings are like a mosque or something." He had read a lot about Russians a few years ago because he had been curious about Communists and how their mindset could have infiltrated the culture. Russian architecture could be beautiful, though it often was designed the intention of reminding a person they were small and insignificant. He didn't want to assume that was the Black family's intention. The house had that effect anyway.

"Hah, yeah," Token agreed easily. Their voices echoed in the entryway. "It's all my parents', of course. I just get to look at it."

From that, Kyle knew Token was eager to dispel any presumptions about his wealth—so Kyle would try not to be too impressed. He wondered if being impressed by things was just generally uncool at this age. Shit, Kyle didn't know. Worse, he felt like a jerk for having known Token most of his life and still not having a clue how to act around him. 'Oh, god,' he panicked internally, 'I am doomed to social leprosy. Doomed!'

If Kyle betrayed any of his fears, however, Token ignored them and led Kyle to the second floor to his room. When they got there, Kyle couldn't help noticing that Token's room was large enough to comfortably fit the ten teenagers sitting in a circle. He made a mental note to himself to stop noticing things. It really wasn't helping his anxiety.

"Hey, Kyle." Wendy greeted. She sprawled on her belly with her books open and some notes spread before her. Her long hair framed her face, and Kyle couldn't help but think (again) that she was very pretty: it was the cheekbones, and the pointy chin, probably. He tried not to look too long, as he was sure the red on his face would stand out like a notice sign and mark him as socially awkward and easily excitable kid.

Though, Kyle was relieved that they actually seemed to be studying and not partaking in some awkward game. Bebe Stevens and Red sat to one side of Wendy, and they quietly conferred over what appeared to be biology notes. They smiled when Kyle entered the room with Token, but then they returned immediately to their work.

"We just ordered pizza." Token said as he made his way to the spot in which he clearly intended to sit. He hovered there a minute to check his phone. This left Kyle to find his own spot—he ultimately opted to sit between Clyde Donovan or Jimmy Valmer. Kyle picked his way through and set his books down, and Jimmy and Clyde made room for him to get comfortable. As soon as Kyle was situated, however, Token frowned.

"Shit, you're Jewish aren't you? We ordered sausage and pepperoni..." Token looked up uncomfortably, and he rubbed the back of his neck. He lingered on his feet, as if he were ready to sprint down the hall in an instant and correct the problem. Kyle understood the need to play a good host, and so he tried to appease Token's anxiety the best he could.

"No, it's fine," Kyle said as he settled next to Jimmy, "we're not that dedicated."

"Are you sure?" Token still did not make to sit down. He held his phone aloft in a "threat" to call the pizza place and change the order, and he squinted suspiciously at Kyle.

"Yeah, dude," Kyle insisted. "I eat pepperoni all the time!"

"Well, Ok." Token finally dropped down and reclaimed his seat at Bebe's other side. But he gave Kyle one last stern look that warned: "I will order you a whole pizza if you so much as breathe a word of wanting pepperoni-less snacks, I swear to God." Kyle smiled back; Token's mother had clearly attended the same teach-your-son-to-be-a-good-little-host course than his own mother had.

"So. Is it weird?" Red asked as she chewed absently on her pencil, "being like, the only Jewish kid in town?"

"W-wow," Jimmy said, "t-tactful, friend."

Kyle smiled placatingly at Jimmy. "It's fine," he shrugged, "Christmas used to suck, but not really anymore?"

"Huh." Red seemed as if she had expected this response, but she visibly cataloged Kyle's answer. Kyle got the feeling from her that she was perpetually engaged in some game of social chess. Admittedly, it made him wary. Red was strikingly pretty, especially as puberty hormones had given her a puffy moonface. The roundness suited her though she seemed to try to disguise it under layers of coverup and strategic makeup to emphasize bone-structure. She was, Kyle thought, like Strawberry Shortcake in an espionage film.

"How do you go to church?" Bebe asked from across the circle. She sat with her legs under her, as if posing for a photo-shoot, "Or, uh, whatever it's called..."

"Synagogue." Kyle corrected, a little annoyed, but he understood that they were curious. He fussed with his backpack—he pulled the zippers open and rummages around to give his hands something to be busy with.

Kyle realized, as he sat there amongst Kenny and Wendy's friends, that he wasn't at all used to having to explain himself. Kyle's friends just knew these things through context. Increasingly, Kyle felt badly for staying in such a tight social bubble. He wondered if it had stunted him developmentally. There were a lot of people (nice people, cool people) he had never hung out with because he'd never needed to.

'Until Stan went emo,' Kyle thought bitterly to himself. He tried to suppress that line of thought, to put it out of his mind—Stan wasn't going to spoil this for him, too.

"Well, uh. There's one in the next town we go to on Saturdays for Sabbath. They're more Orthodox than we are, but Mom insists," Kyle rattled this off mechanically, complete with a fake laugh to make it seem less forced. Talking helped force him out of his own head, at least.

"Shah-baht." Clyde repeated. He had his socked feet under a textbook, and he rocked the book absently with his toes. "I've never heard it pronounced that way. I thought it was Sabbath?"

"These are the worst questions," Annie Faulk protested from beside Bebe. "Welcome to our group." She rolled her eyes, "Tell us about Jews, oh Representative of Israel."

Kyle laughed again, more genuinely this time. Annie smiled conspiratorially in his direction, and Kyle appreciated her more in that moment than he could communicate with the smile he returned.

"Do you speak Hebrew?" Clyde blurted, despite Annie's attempt to sidetrack them.

"Hah, no." Kyle shifted so he could sit cross-legged and leaned back on his hands, "My mom can. Dad can read."

Wendy, always the straight-shooter, seemed to feel the need to interject definitively in Kyle's defense at last: "The thing is," as usual, her speech was exacting and cool, "We're all just really psyched to get the chance to ask you these questions in person. My friends are happy, you know? It's good to finally get a chance to really talk to you."

Kyle cursed his ancestors because he actually blushed. He grinned, too. Everyone went quiet for a moment of collective happy-embarrassment, and Kyle was wonderstruck. Suddenly, he felt wanted there. Just the other day, he'd counted Cartman as one of his only options for friends. Now, a whole new world of socializing awaited him.

"Also, Sheila brought the most amazing cupcakes to the parent-teacher's meeting." Bebe deftly broke the quiet, twirling her pen, "I think she was trying to bribe the teachers. Do you have the recipe, Kyle? I'd totally love to, like, reproduce them."

"Sheila doesn't need to bribe anyone." Wendy piped in, loyally. "Kyle's smart."

Kyle's little grin became an unrestrained smile. Being happy with a compliment was probably uncool, but it was hard to resist. Wendy thinks I'm smart. He wanted to look at her again but didn't.

"Nah, sorry," Kyle told Bebe, and he lifted his shoulder in an apologetic shrug. "I could ask her later, if you want."

Before Bebe could answer, Token took a break from staring intensely at his notes to pipe in: "Man, actually also—we were stuck on this biology thing. Respiration, ugh." Token frowned down briefly at his book. "Wendy says you're good at science; maybe you can explain it?"

Kyle did know about respiration and photosynthesis too (Wendy thinks I'm good at science!). Inspired, he proceeded to prove her right when he managed to explain.

All told, the assignment took the collective group a solid two hours (they kept getting distracted and having side-conversations). Still, somehow, they achieved their goals, even though their papers ended up covered in pizza grease stains. But the best part was, Kyle didn't feel alone for the first time in months.

At around 8:30PM, Annie was the first to leave. After Jimmy made his exit with a bad joke ("What did the duck say when he bought lipstick?" Jimmy asked, "Put it on my bill."), the rest gathered their things to follow suit.

A burst of bravery welled in Kyle's chest as he watched Wendy neatly file and tab her assignments.

"Can I walk you home?" Kyle asked Wendy as she packed her books. He watched Bebe and Wendy share a glance which seemed to cause a devious grin to spread across Bebe's face. Kyle wondered if there was a special secret-girl language in which they were communicating, or if Bebe and Wendy's connection allowed them to simply understand each other. Kyle remembered that he and Stan used to communicate similarly, and he winced. As he shouldered his backpack, he resolutely forced himself not to dwell on the thought.

"Sure, Kyle." Wendy said as she bid her farewell to Bebe, "let me get my jacket."

Night had fallen, but the air was warm. Wendy and Kyle fell into a comfortable silence once outside the gates. Their feet crunched against the loose asphalt on top of the road, and Kyle let Wendy lead (since he didn't know which direction to take to get to her place from Token's house).

"I'm glad you came," Wendy said after a few minutes as she clutched her books, "I thought maybe you wouldn't. You've been kind of down."

"I guess." Kyle responded. He peered over the neatly cut rich-people-hedges. Fittingly, he was just starting to understand how little Wendy beat around the bush. It was a good change. "No, it's kind of know everyone already? I feel bad riding your coattails."

"Nah, I'm glad to do you the favor." Wendy watched a car drive past before grinning, "Ride 'em any time you like." She paused, cheekily. "That's not an invitation, though."

Kyle's face flushed, and he hoped the street lamps were dim enough that Wendy couldn't see. "Oh, I didn't..."

Wendy nudged him with her shoulder playfully. Kyle stumbled as she took him by surprise.

"Kate Chopin, calm down," she snorted and rolled her eyes. "Yes, Kyle. Women are crude, too. Don't be so shocked! You boys can be so sensitive."

"...Kate Chopin?" Kyle tried to regain his bearings. Wendy seemed to have a way of neatly setting him off-balance.

"Famous feminist," Wendy waved a hand dismissively. "The Awakening? Yeah. I'm all for blasphemy, but I don't stand by rhetorically endorsing patriarchy. You understand."

Kyle blinked at her. "Sort of?" After gathering his balance, he shoved his hands in his pockets and exaggerated a pout, "And...we men are not sensitive," he dodged a bush on the sidewalk. "We're manly as hell and are trying to be aware of your delicate female sensibilities."

Wendy arched an eyebrow. Her steps were small, but she walked in an undeviating beeline. "I've been dealing with at least one vagina for years. How many have you dealt with?"

"You've dealt with at least one?" Kyle countered. He was blushing again but laughing regardless. "So you and Bebe..."

"Well," Wendy hummed thoughtfully. "Sometimes you've gotta share the goods."

"What?" Kyle was confused.

"Yah know, do each other favors," Wendy continued lightly.

Kyle felt his brain short-circuit. Zzzztt. "What...what are you even talking about?"

"Sometimes we ask each other for pads and shit." Wendy covered her mouth and muffled a giggle. She looked up at Kyle mischievously—her cheeks turned pink when she laughed. "I'm sorry. I'm embarrassing you."

Kyle grinned as he found his rhythm once more, "I could even the score and tell you about how we used to play nut-ball in sixth grade."

"Oh no, what's that?" Wendy's eyes went wide and curious. Then her expression shifted to something more impish. "Go on, I can probably guess."

"It's what is sounds like." Kyle put his arms out for balance as he traversed the edge of the curb like it was a tightrope. "We hit each other in the nuts. First person to wuss out loses."

"That sounds needlessly painful and stupid." Wendy snorted lightly and tucked a hand in each of her pockets.

"It was," Kyle confirmed. He looked down at her, and she seemed cheerful. Her cheeks were still flush from the chill, all the smiling. "Are you planning on joining clubs this year?"

"Nothing except the debate team." Wendy shook her head. "I'm going to focus on grades and tournaments, and then I'll join or start some other things next year. There are not a lot of interesting options for freshmen."

"It'll be easy." Kyle said, "The homework is easy."

"For now." Wendy frowned, "I have to stay ahead of the game. Who knows when they'll throw a question at us we didn't study for, or run a case based on obscure literature I haven't prepped out for." She looked up at Kyle with a playful gleam in her eyes. "Extra credit. Fight, fight! Win, win! I have to scout out my competition."

Kyle laughed. "I don't think you're joking."

"I don't play at being successful," Wendy said, voice too grave to be serious. "I'm gonna take home at least one big trophy by graduation, and I'll be drowning in the college offers and scholarships by senior year," she added more convincingly. Then, she frowned a little. "I just need a partner who can keep up."

"I'm sure you'll find one," Kyle said. He was energized just being around her. Wendy, unlike certain people, was definitely focused on moving forward.

They said good night in front of Wendy's house. Kyle lingered for just a minute to make sure she got inside before heading toward his own home (a habit he picked up from his parents: they always waited for him to go inside Stan's house after dropping him off). As he started toward his own house, he pulled out his phone and texted Kenny.

KB: Token's house is ridiculous

KM: howd it go

KB: Alright

KM: good for u

KB: We missed you there

KM: ofc bby

Kyle thought the rest of the year wouldn't be so bad. Wendy seemed to like him, and who needed someone who sucked the fun and energy out of life anyway? Not him, that was for sure.

Stan was unhappy. Just weeks into high school, and he had gotten himself ostracized. He knew his problems were his own damn fault, but he couldn't stop being angry with Kyle for having a blossoming social life (not that he was paying attention to what Kyle did, tch) and abandoning him. Social lives were for people too unhappy to spend time alone anyway. Kyle was clearly the more miserable of the two of them.

In spite of their growing differences, Kyle still tried to talk to Stan in the morning sometimes, to both Stan's dismay and relief. When Kyle did, Stan usually grunted and went on his way. They had little interaction outside of Stan's near-ritualistic spurning of Kyle's attempts. Their class schedules didn't match except for English which was only twice a week. Then, Stan started finding ways to avoid partnered projects. With an odd number of students in the class, it was easy: he volunteered to be the odd-man-out. 'It was better,' Stan thought, 'to be alone.'

A shining beacon of light came in the oddest form when Henrietta Biggle approached him after English. He hadn't spoken to her for a long time, but he found he didn't mind the incongruency. Her presence was as abrasive as it was familiar and comforting.

"Hey, uh." Henrietta jutted her hip out and crossed her arms in a way that was probably supposed to portray indifference, "So like, I like your poetry from this section. I was telling my guys about it, and they wanted to know if you wanted to join us for a slam session."

Stan slowed his gait in the hallway so he could look at her. Lime-green highlights in her bangs and black lace—she was pretty, Stan thought, in a weird, unsettling way.

He scowled suspiciously at her. "Is this some misdirected attempt to get me to talk to people? We're not really friends anymore."

"God, no." Henrietta scoffed, tossing her head, "friendship is just a social construct to distract unhappy people from their unhappy lives, anyway. ...Bitch, move!" Henrietta barked at some girls crowding the hallway. The girls gave her a dirty look as Henrietta and Stan pushed through the crowd. 'Henrietta always knew what to say.' Stan almost a smiled.

"Besides," Henrietta continued, "if you want to wallow alone in your misery, that's Goth. There are just not a lot of people who can write, and the ones who can, talk about Ken-and-Barbie-Malibu-dreamhouse-happily-ever-after love bullshit. Gross. You're clearly deeper than that."

Stan tried not to visibly light up at her praise. Who cared if Henrietta thought he was deep? Stan didn't need others' approval. Even so, he was not immune to flattery. His (not-so-stealthy in spite of his best efforts) smile gave him away, and Henrietta smirked knowingly at him.

"Sure," he tried to say coolly. "Whatever. Tell me when."

"We go over to Harbucks after school. Tweek gives us free espresso sometimes. He's another unhappy soul," Henrietta sighed, making a gesture like she wished she had her cigarette holder. "And hey. Like. Bring your guitar. You still play, don't you?"

"Yeah." Stan stopped in front his locker. He pretended not to notice Kyle eavesdropping (good, let Kyle see that Stan didn't need him, either!). "I'm not very good anymore, but I'll bring it."

"Hardcore." Henrietta had a way of making every word sound like a rhetorical question. After a second, she leaned against the lockers and lowered her voice. "...Hey, can you, like. Get Kenny to score us some weed? We, like, don't know anyone else, and we're looking to numb the pain, you know?"

"Uh." Stan leaned back. He was a little surprised. "Maybe? I'll let you know." He knew for a fact Kenny stole weed from his parents, but Stan wasn't sure Kenny would give it to him. He and Kenny hadn't spoken for a while—Kenny probably sensed the void Stan's soul had become and knew better than to get too close.

"Killer," Henrietta said in deadpan and turned to leave, "so, like, see you later, Raven."

Stan didn't respond, but Kyle blatantly stared at them. Stan stared back defiantly until Kyle spoke first. The passing period crowd rushed around them in a hurried stampede.

"Really, dude?" Kyle asked in disbelief, "Henrietta Biggle?"

Stan rolled his eyes, "Wendy-Fucking-Testaburger, you fucking traitor?" Stan countered spitefully. The spite surprised even Stan. He liked Wendy. He didn't know why he was so angry. "Go back to your little prep club, Kyle. You clearly don't need me around."

"No, I don't," Kyle snapped, "Because I'm not a dependent bitch like you."

Stan's chest hurt, and he knew the hurt flashed on his face before he could hide. "Well you're—" Stan stuttered. He was furious and becoming upset besides which made it harder to form coherent thoughts, let alone words. Kyle's eyebrows rose, waiting.

"...You ...I hope Cartman breaks your stupid nose!" Stan spat at last: a desperate, pathetic attempt.

Kyle just sneered and shut his locker. "...I'm done here."

He turned, and Stan watched the back of Kyle's head meld into the crowd until even his blaze of red hair was indistinguishable. Out of touch, out of reach.

Stan slumped. His exhaustion finally settled in, and he felt himself give way to it. He wouldn't meet Henrietta and her posse today—later, maybe. But not fucking today.

Stan and Kenny sat on the porch of Kenny's house. They hid from the sun in the overhang—where the meth lab had once resided. There wasn't actually any flooring. Instead rotting wood boards covered the stretch of dirt. The boys sat on overturned milk crate and bucket. Kenny's house, Stan reflected, was like a world post-apocalypse. Forgotten, at the edge of a ruined world.

"You want me to sell you weed?" Kenny stated. He appeared to be befuddled but considering the offer. Then, he shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I'd share it with you if you'd like, be my friend again, but..."

"It's not just for me." Stan said and took a drag off a cigarette he had snuck from Ted. For someone with a voice box, Ted didn't do a good job pretending not to smoke anymore. "The Goths wanted some, so I said I'd try."

Kenny held out his hand for a drag, and Stan passed it to him. This felt normal. Stan wondered why he hadn't at least talked to Kenny the last few weeks. Maybe they were kindred tortured spirits.

"You're with them again, huh?" Kenny said around the filter. He gazed vacantly at the shitty house across the street. "Guess that makes sense."

Suddenly, Stan remembered why he didn't often talk to Kenny: Kenny was too perceptive. A thing like that was hard on Stan's self-preservation.

Stan scowled. "What the fuck does that mean?"

"Dude, chill." Kenny rolled his eyes, "They're like, your default when you're like this."

"Like what?" Stan glared at Kenny. What a judgmental prick.

Kenny regarded him in an unruffled manner. He breathed deep from his cigarette and exhaled a nicotine-laced plume into Stan's face. Stan cringed but didn't cough.

"When your puberty-inspired angst smacks you in the face with its underdeveloped dick," Kenny said lightly. Stan winced at the imagery.

"You are so fucking immature, Kenny," Stan whined. He meant to sound cutting and harsh, but Kenny just blinked at him with an annoying amount of patience before changing the subject.

"Kyle's been upset because you've been treating him like crap." Kenny rolled his shoulders like he was preparing for an unpleasant chore. "He's trying to patch it up between you guys. You act like you've got some blood grudge. I don't mean to cast no stones, but who's the immature one here, really, Stan?"

"Kyle's fine." Stan said sullenly. Feeling guilty, he nudged at a rock with his shoe. "He's disloyal."

Kenny raised an eyebrow and seemed to decide to finish the cigarette for himself. "Kyle will be fine. Though you really picked the wrong part of that information to focus on, dude. If you're dodging, you're not subtle." Kenny sighed and paused for a beat. "...But I know he misses you."

"I don't want to be around people who don't need me," Stan hissed. His back hunched as if he were trying to shrink away. Nobody needed him. He gazed longingly at the cigarette in Kenny's hand but was too prideful to ask for it back.

"Yeah well," Kenny said, "that's unhealthy too."

"So is that cigarette." Stan felt his resentment rub up uncomfortably against his apathy, and he just wished Kenny would fucking leave him be like everyone else did.

"Oh, suck me," Kenny shot back.

"Alright," slipped from Stan. It was meant to be sarcastic but came out too flat.

Silence fell between them, and Stan belatedly realized what he'd said. He turned shakily at Kenny, who studied Stan with a blank expression. The short, awkward quiet between them was practically tangible. Then Kenny's expression shifted so suddenly that Stan didn't have a chance to gather himself.

"Dude." Kenny laughed. "You know what? I could actually use the money. Hold on, I'll go swipe my dad's stash."

Stan rubbed his face in his hands when Kenny disappeared and actively chose not to think too much about the exchange. He reached into his pocket and fumbled for some cash he had earned helping his Uncle Jimbo maintenance his cabin over the summer. (Ted was still spry for someone wrecked as he was, but he had a bad shoulder and couldn't climb like Stan could. Ted had been a part of Stan's life for a long as he remembered, and it hurt to watch him deteriorate with old age. All things decayed.)

Later that day, Stan skulked to the Harbucks storefront around 8 p.m. with his guitar case slung over his shoulder and unsure if he would even see the people he'd come to meet. Maybe he'd gotten the wrong day or he'd dreamed the whole thing, or something. Increasingly, Stan's memory felt foggy and blurred. He stood outside the shop for a few moments and tried to muster up the energy and will to go through it.

When he walked into the shop a last, the first impression he received was the potent scent of coffee beans, then the noticeable mass of black-clad teenagers huddled in a corner of the small shop. The place was less posh than its more competitive derivative; Harbucks was smaller and drabber in all things from the faded upholstery to the off-brown floor tiles. There were more people than Stan expected. He swallowed and approached, and the weed he had scored from Kenny made a bulge in his pocket.

"Raven." Henrietta raised a perfectly-plucked eyebrow, "didn't think you'd, like, deign to join us."

"Well, I had other things going on before," Stan lied. He stepped close to Henrietta for a moment and pressed a baggie into her palm. She gave him a confused look before clenching a fist, and the corner of her mouth quirked. She nodded minutely as Stan stepped away and pulled a chair from an unused table and sat at the edge of the group. As he took his seat, he got a few strange looks from the other Goth kids, but he ignored them. He was a misfit amongst misfits.

Another quick glance at the group revealed more than the Goth kids. Apparently a few of the Vamp kids had emerged from their coven with black and moleskine notebooks—they were all together a clashing but also somehow complementary mishmash of black and neon highlights. ...And also Tweek Tweak and Craig Tucker?

He glanced uncertainly at Craig, feeling as if he were looking at the one red tulip in a field of yellow tulips. Craig fixed Stan with a short, blank look in return, but then went back to ignoring him. 'Hello, strange Tulip,' Stan thought bemusedly.

"Pete was just about to share or whatever." Henrietta announced, leaning back into her chair like a queen. "He was actually, like, the reason I asked you to bring the guitar."

Pete flipped his hair out of his face and took a long draught of coffee. "Actually, I'll wait if Stan can like, read music?"

Stan blinked, and flexed his fingers against his guitar case. "Yeah, dude. I can."

Pete appeared pleased though it could also have been a grimace. It was sort of hard to tell sometimes, with Pete.

"Killer, I wanted to try something." Pete put down his coffee cup to fish for his notebook before proffering it to Stan. "Here. Third page."

Stan gingerly took the spiral bound issue from Pete. "Um. All right. I'll take a look."

"H-h-hey, Stan!" Tweek called from beside Craig. Tweak's hands (seemingly involuntarily) clenched at his jeans. "D-did you w-want anything?"

It was then that Stan realized he was hungry. "Do you have those cranberry muffins still?"

"Yeah!" Tweak jumped up to run behind the counter. Stan wondered how anyone could have so much energy. Wasn't just waking up hard enough? Increasingly, Stan felt barely capable of even that. He tucked the notebook under his arm and slowly followed Tweek to the counter. He dragged his feet beneath himself, and Pete trailed behind them with his empty coffee cup dangling from one hand.

"Cranberry muffins," Pete mused quietly. He waited beside Stan as Stan paid. "That's like, funny."

"How's that funny?" Stan frowned. He had not entirely paying attention to Pete since the music hand-off and was somewhat surprised to hear his voice.

Pete shrugged. "It's like, normal. Cranberry muffins. The rest of us just get coffee. Black. No sugar or cream or anything to make it less dark and bitter." He held up his mug, as if to demonstrate before setting it on the counter for a refill. "Plus it's only sixty cents, so it's less of a contribution to the corporate machine, and like...we can afford it better with our allowances."

Stan's expression was a mixture of boredom and contempt. "I guess you could say I'm a non-conformist."

Pete smirked. "Guess that makes sense. Though, like, everyone was kind of weirded out that Henrietta wanted you here," he said. "You seemed too normal. I guess you're having another moment?"

As they watched Tweek pull the tab on the silver canister to refill Pete's coffee, Stan remembered late night talks. When Stan initially made friends with his fellow black souls, he discovered that Pete shared his insomnia. Pete called after midnight, and they often had weird, sleep-deprived conversations about the kind of stuff it was hard to talk about in the sun. Later, the phone calls became sleepovers in Pete's trailer home—which shifted slightly every time there was a gust of wind.

That had been a long time ago, but Pete still had both the pitting from his acne scars and this weird way of making Stan feel that Pete understood way more than he ever let on.

"Oh yeah." Stan answered absently. He tried to avoid Pete by keeping a good few feet of space between them. "It's different now, I guess. Whatever."

Pete turned just enough to show Stan his raised an eyebrow but didn't respond otherwise. Semi-separately, they walked without talking back to the group. Tweek came on their heels, and as he skittered to join them, he wiped his hands needlessly down his apron.

Stan flipped open the notebook to peruse the task he had been given. It turned out that Pete could read and transcribe guitar tabs, but he didn't play well. Stan wasn't sure he was any better, but he wanted to prove himself. He felt the need to not fail, just this once; it was getting hard to look at himself in the mirror. He wanted to live up to expectations, and so even though the effort seemed monumental, Stan buckled down and tried to pluck out the scrawling melody Pete had put down.

"Didn't Michael play piano when he was eight or something?" Stan asked when he became frustrated with a surprisingly complicated part. He was too tired for this.

"Michael doesn't want everyone to know his parents were rich enough to pay for piano lessons." Pete said with the tone of someone who felt such a sentiment was dumb. They had taken over some chairs away from the main group to practice before the actual "show."

"Besides, I listened to it with the piano. Doesn't sound right ... hey, you're, like, pretty good or something." He seemed surprised, watching Stan work.

"I'm rusty." Stan huffed out a belabored stream of air to disguise the way his voice threatened to sound pleased. (The compliment was deeply reassuring.) "This sounds like crap."

"Whatever. Perfection is a concept the conformists cling to. They can't face the fact that it's all a void anyway."

Stan was right; they sounded like...well, a bunch of teenagers trying to make amateur music, but he found he didn't mind. Everyone listened to Pete warble over Stan's clumsy plucking, and their audience snapped politely when the song finished. It was nice. For a moment, Stan was what-could-almost-be-called-happy for the first time in over a month.

"Did you write anything you wanted to share?" Henrietta asked later, when the group started to disintegrate.

"Um, no." Stan thought of the notebook lying in his guitar case. "The playing was embarrassing enough."

"Well, whatever," Henrietta said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "You'll turn over eventually," she offered him a sharp, wry little smirk.

Stan stayed longer, mostly because he was curious about Craig Tucker, still on Tweek's left. Stan's unusually well-developed sense of irony couldn't not help but to be piqued by Craig, who tried so hard to remain un-extraordinary, and thus was noticeable. Stan noted that Craig had become extremely tall, in sharp contrast to Stan was still on the short side, especially for a guy. Falling behind, as usual.

"So why do you come here? Doesn't seem like your group of people," Stan asked while he took his time packing his guitar.

Craig looked up from his phone as he waited for Tweek to finish cleaning. He stared for a moment, which might have been off-putting, but Stan knew Craig just well enough to know that Craig was processing the question.

"Why not." Craig said more than asked. Stan frowned, not certain as usual if Craig was serious, or if he was being a big asshole. Stan just hummed noncommittally in response, and clasped his guitar case closed. He guessed that was as much conversation as he was gonna get out of Craig, so he didn't press the point.

"...What about you?"

Stan paused, surprised that Craig was the one to pick up the conversational thread. "What?"

"Why are you here?" Craig looked back at his phone and resumed scrolling, "not that I care. But. It's weird."

"What is?" Stan drew himself up, defensive. "It's not!"

"Seeing you without Kyle." Craig finally looked up from his phone, though his pitch and tone remained nasal and disinterested. Ugh, Stan had never liked Craig; what a dick! "And yes, it is."

Stan frowned. "It's not! Kyle just...became a conformist, that's all! I don't have time for his...his, um, suburban concerns anymore!" He knew Craig was right, though. Kyle's absence made everything else in the world seem off-kilter. The gap was fucking with him, like learning to walk without a foot. The truth of that, however, just made Stan more eager to argue about it.

"Whatever." Craig didn't seem too interested in debating the subject (or in anything, really). He returned to ignoring Stan and doing whatever he was doing before on his phone, in an attempt to close the conversation once and for all. But this time, Stan was not inclined to humor him.

"I'm not the only one who changed," Stan insisted, roughly, turning away. "Kyle did. He's the one making things weird."

Without looking up Craig quirked an eyebrow and smiled faintly, though he might have seen something on his phone.

"Ok," he placated, appeared to want to add something but stopping himself. "...Bye," he said, instead. And then he walked out the door without anymore preamble.

Stan grunted, unsettled. He swung his guitar case over his shoulder, and paused in his escape from Harbucks only to leave Tweek a tip. Mood flattened, Stan felt himself sink back to his low. The heavy feeling in his chest was almost comforting after a couple of hours being uncharacteristically uplifted. Stan decided to mentally thank Craig Tucker and his stupidly incorrect assessment of him, and for crushing his spirits. Thanks for nothing; it's all the world has to offer.

Kenny McCormick liked strange things. There had been too many strange things in his life and deaths for him not to regard them without a healthy dose of curiosity. He had too many questions, and had endured too many cosmic mishaps to accept that the answer to these questions was merely "coincidence."

One cosmic mishap was Craig Tucker, who seemed to be but one unhappy victim of fate—and incidentally, one who kept getting dragged into Kenny's orbit in one way or another. They had both acknowledged as much a long time ago. The realization brought them a strange but easy friendship. Together, they wasted small-town time, talking about extraordinary things, normal things and nothing (especially the nothing).

Craig came over on Saturdays, and they got stoned like they had since eighth grade. Craig was a refreshing breeze of normalcy, in Kenny's opinion—he was so normal, it was weird. The weirdest thing about Craig (well, besides the one time he went raving on about laser beams) was that he was the only dark-skinned, dark-haired member of his family. Otherwise, Craig's main interests seemed to be Red Racer reruns, astrophysics, and small furry creatures. He wasn't exactly a rare human specimen, except in South Park, and Kenny appreciated that.

"Your boy talked to me," Craig noted, absently, lounging on Kenny's stripped mattress.

"My boy?" Kenny blinked up at the ceiling, confused. He didn't have boys; he had girls, but... "Dude, it's like a timewarp back to the nineties when you're stoned, you know that? No one says 'your boy' anymore."

"Time travel backwards is not a thing," Craig watched the ceiling as if trying to focus his eyes. "Like. Mathematically one can go backwards or forwards in the three spatial dimensions. But time doesn't share this multi-directional freedom. I guess it's theoretically possible to manipulate the flow of time using relativity, but travelling backwards in fixed time is impossible."

"Nerd," Kenny poked Craig's side, which was disappointingly unticklish. "...What were you talking about before though? Which boy?"

"On of your boys," Craig said again, "you know, the four of you. The...Weirdo Wizards, The Bitch Brigade, The Confusing Cunts."

"These are good band names," Kenny drawled. He looked at the glass pipe is hand and thought about taking another hit. He didn't, but he thought about it. "You and I should start a band, Craig."

"Pass." Craig glared. He took the pipe back, and quite pointedly veered the subject away from any entrepreneurial endeavors Kenny might've been contemplating. "You could probably get Stan to join, though. He and Pete are writing songs together now," he put the piece to his mouth, inhaled, held it. Then he let it go. "I saw them. That's when Stan talked to me."

"That's cute," Kenny responded. His pocket vibrated, and he frowned. Being pressed up against the side of the bed made it hard to get to his phone. Craig watched him struggle, and he made no attempt to move over and make it easier.

"Are you four split up?" Craig asked, and it might have sounded tactless to anyone who didn't know him. But Kenny knew that Craig asking about his circumstances at all meant he cared.

"Not really," Kenny said, looking at a text, "they're just figuring shit out."

Craig had no comment on that, for which Kenny was relieved. He wasn't Kyle and Stan's goddamn press-relations-secretary, after all. After thumbing a reply, he looked up at Craig: blue eyes and black hair. He was too pointy-faced and skinny to look remotely like Stan.

"Why are you so invested in this? You like, hate my friends," he asked, squinting. "Are you having some sort of teenaged crisis that makes you suddenly care what other people are doing?"

Craig rolled his eyes, "I'm worried about the rest of us. Mostly about me. You four were what shit revolved around." He gestured vaguely with his hand. "Without a center of mass, there is no orbit. This is like...this is the unknown. ...I don't like surprises."

Kenny snapped his phone shut and grinned. "Then you should stop coming out when we call 'All hands on deck.'" He stood shakily and leaned over Craig.

Craig made an annoyed sound, blowing a huff of air through his teeth. "I don't. I avoid your friends at all costs. I hate those guys."

(Kenny deliriously thought Craig had main character potential.) "Nah, man. Your problem is you want adventures without the commitment. You're too smart to not ask questions, but you don't actually want the answers because then you're involved."

Craig let Kenny get a little too close. Kenny touched a lot, but he knew Craig could—and would—knock his lights out the moment it wasn't okay. Craig scowled—Kenny backed away.

"C'mon." Kenny grinned. He was wild, inspired, and looked it: hair a greasy nest, flat at the back from laying down. "We have to go save a princess."

Craig huffed, but followed, as Kenny had predicted he would. They stumbled across the remains of SoDoSoPa and then past the trailers resting amongst the weeds. As they travelled, they watched the landscape even out: from the jagged skyline cast by questionable shacks amongst what used to be storefronts into the uninterrupted geometric pattern of well-built cookie cutter houses. But eventually, the shrubbery got neater, the sidewalk better kept, and the mailboxes began to look the same.

"Why are we on this side of town?" Craig asked. He took a drag off a joint Kenny had passed him.

"The princess is in another castle." Kenny giggled, wavering. He barely looked back.

"Hey." Craig frowned, and waited for Kenny to look at him before continuing. "Clyde asks questions. He asks questions all the time."

So why did people think Clyde was stupid, and not me? Was Craig's unspoken inquiry.

Kenny's lips curled into a gue, unsettling grin. "Clyde doesn't think about the answers. No offense, dude, but I'm not sure he thinks at all."

"Me neither," Craig shot back, stubbornly—it was his response to either or both statements. But Kenny ignored him. Craig was not the only person disinterested in bullshit.

When they reached their destination, an unfamiliar car was already parked across the street. Kenny's brows pressed together with concern. He wordlessly discarded the burned-down joint, and scaled the waist-high fence that led to the back of the Stotch's house. Craig imitated him, less gracefully. Goddamnit, he was too high for this.

They found Cartman in the Stotch's backyard, irritably pacing with his cellphone pressed to his ear. For a moment or two, Cartman didn't realize he had company.

"Well, this is a weird group," Craig deadpanned. If he'd felt more considerate, he would have lowered his voice. As it was, he didn't much care if he made Cartman jump.

Cartman finally noticed Craig and Kenny there, and as predicted, he startled. "What the fuck?" Cartman gathered himself enough to scowl at Craig.

"I see Butters summoned everyone. What the fuck is he doing here?" Cartman looked to Kenny and jerked his head toward Craig.

Kenny shrugged and started fishing his pockets for a cigarette. "Curiosity killed the Craig?"

"Hey," Craig protested weakly, flatly.

A window from the top floor opened, and three boys looked up. Butters poked his head outside, his voice sounding soft and shaky. "I'll be down in a moment, fellas," he hissed.

The awkward company waited as bid, but no one could think of anything to say. So they stood around like a bunch of assholes, and Kenny picked up whistling "Folsom Prison Blues" just for something to do.

Ten minutes later Butters emerged from the back exit, shouldering a dufflebag. He made a beeline for Cartman, and then hugged and buried his face in Cartman's shoulder. Cartman glanced around sheepishly as he allowed this, awkwardly patting Butters' back.

Craig and Kenny exchanged a glance. Craig didn't bother hiding a small snort.

"So..." Kenny started uncomfortably.

"I-I'm sorry," Butters sniffled, "I'll explain. Well, can I stay with one of you guys tonight?" He finally noticed his third caller. "Oh, hiya, Craig."

Craig silently gave him a two-fingered salute.

They unanimously decided to walk to Kenny's, since his parents would be less inclined to ask questions. Liane would try to mother them once she realized she had guests. Even without an explanation for Butters' distress, they were tired of all forms of parenting for the night.

"My dad," Butters started to explain. "He, uh. Found my girl-clothes. He wasn't happy one bit, no sir."

Butters wasn't exactly effeminate. His jaw started to become sharper, limbs lankier and bonier, but the baby fat on his face still softened and made him look a few years younger than he was. A little makeup would take care of any hard angles he grew into, though he didn't need it yet. He still looked twelve instead of fifteen.

"Isn't your dad still a closet homo?" Cartman asked (crassly, Kenny thought. He clenched a fist and fought the urge to punch Cartman). Craig gave a little nasal laugh.

Butters let a bitter smile slip. "Yeah. That's why he was so upset." He held up his fingers for quotation marks. "'Caught my disease,' he said. He wouldn't listen to me after that."

"So, he didn't tell your mom?" Kenny asked.

"No, and he ain't going to," Butters said. He made his voice as determined and chipper as possibly, but Kenny could hear his sadness.

"...But he h-hit me." Butters added this quietly, and Kenny felt as if his veins all simultaneously constricted tight.

"Jesus Christ, Butters," Kenny leaned so he could check Butters' face, "That's not—"

"It wasn't hard or nothing!" Butters protested. He quickly covered his cheek with one hand as if to hide it from Kenny's prying gaze. "More like a slap. I was surprised more than anything, I guess. Why, he hasn't hit me for years."

Cartman's expression darkened. Only Kenny caught the shift. "For years?" Cartman asked, lowly.

"It's no worse than the shit you've put me through, Eric!" Butters snapped irately. Cartman promptly fell silent.

"It's different." Craig spoke at last. "Cartman isn't your father."

Kenny was grateful for the chance to piggyback. "What if your dad decides to 'beat the homo' out of you?" He made grim finger-quotes, in imitation of Butters earlier.

"He won't," Butters said confidently, "my dad loves me. Everything he does, he thinks is for the best a-and I," Butters swallowed, and his eyes hardened with determination, "I think my parents know what's best for me. And when they see that-that this makes me happy, why...a'course they'll let me h-have it."

Kenny sincerely hoped Butters was correct.

Kenny also wished there wasn't a semi-truck barreling toward him at 3 a.m. He was glad, at least, that the other three had crossed the sidewalk ahead of him.

Wearily, Kenny sighed, and watched as the grate of the semi came at him. He could hear Butters gasp, as huge tires turned Kenny into little more than a smear on the ground. At least someone reacted, thought Kenny, which was gratifying. The thought was impressive in itself—a brain that was more smear than wrinkle should not think in the first place.

"Oh, hello there, Kenny," said a mildly surprised voice.

Kenny woke to the familiar smell of brimstone. He likened the scent to warm, welcoming incense at the church in his hometown. He wasn't afraid.

"Hi, Satan," Kenny said groggily. He sat up and looked around. He'd woken next to Satan's throne this time. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to where Kenny woke up in Hell. Once, he'd come-to on the luau buffet table, right next to the suckling pig. Another time, he opened his eyes to find himself eye-to-eye with a low-level demon feasting on Walt Disney's face. ...It had been awkward, to say the least.

Now, Satan looked down at him, resting his chin on a fist in a sympathetic posture. "So, what happened this time?"

"Truck," Kenny said, flexing his fingers. The messy deaths always left him feeling a little scattered. He cracked his neck, and Satan winced at the sound. "Man, that hasn't happened in a while" Kenny noted, scratching at the back of his neck.

Satan's face lit. "You do look older," he fawned. "It's been a few years, hasn't it?"

Kenny looked up grinning, and shifted so he could put his chin on his knees. "I'm fifteen now. I was almost starting to miss you."

Satan laughed from deep in his chest, "Oh, you're at that age now. So is Damien. Speaking of. ...DAMIEN!" Satan called.

A crackle sounded like a gunshot, and Kenny flinched. He had lots of negative associations with sudden, loud noises. And guns.

"Yes, Father?" Damien asked with the tone of perpetual rage he never quite abandoned, even when it seemed likely that he wasn't actually angry. Damien glanced down and noticed Kenny sitting by Satan's feet.

"Greetings Kenneth McCormick," Damien said, tensely. He clasped his hands together as if he weren't quite sure what else to do with them.

Kenny smiled and waved. "Yo."

Satan clapped once. "Damien, weren't we just talking about you returning to South Park next year? After your human sixteenth."

"Yes, Father," Damien said dryly. He looked reluctantly to Kenny. "Father thinks it would be best for me to associate with the humans. Allegedly, half my nature is mortal."

Kenny's eyebrows raised before he reached up and lightly slapped Satan's gigantic hand, "Satan, you old dog." Kenny grinned. "Isn't that like, Greek god shit right there?"

Satan might have blushed if his natural, resting state weren't completely red. "Well," Satan pressed a hand to his own cheek and shot Damien a wary glance. Damien's scowl deepened, impressive eyebrows merging on his forehead into a singular fuzzy-black caterpillar.

"Damien's mother is mortal, but a little sensitive about that." Satan said this gently, Kenny noticed. Then, Satan nearly whispered the next part: "But, um. I would be careful about using the 'D' word around the subject of Damien's mother. He gets a little cranky."

"The 'D' word?"

"Yes. He doesn't like it when anyone refers to his mother as a D—"

"Mortals get cranky," Damien protested. "I am filled with the rage of the Seventh Circle. My anger knows no bounds. Fear me!"

He pointed at Kenny, who held his hands up in surrender and valiantly held off a giggle.

"...Damien, we talked about threatening the incomings," Satan sighed, wearily. Kenny subconsciously edged away from Damien, who practically radiated angst. What was worse, Kenny knew Damien wasn't above roasting nearby denizens of Hell in the midst of a temper tantrum. Kenny wanted to avoid that, thank-you-very-much.

"We did not talk, Father," Damien retorted, sharply. Damien dared Kenny to comment to that with a pointed gaze, but Kenny was too surprised. Kenny's eyebrows shot up, but he didn't react beyond that. This seemed to satisfy Damien enough, and so he continued: " You babbled and I pretended to give you audience to appease your need to ramble like a fool!"

"Now, Damien, it hurts Daddy's feelings when you speak to him that way." Satan rubbed his temples just below his horns. The words, to Kenny, sounded very well-used.

"I care not for your pathetic emotions! You disgust me with your weakness, Father! One day I will rule Hell, and then I will put you in the dungeons to rot with the rest of the low ones! I am Wrath! I am Fury! I feel nothing!" Damien's eyes ringed with red, and Kenny thought he could hear the ominous choir-voices, resonating from some invisible, mysterious source.

"...I told you he was moody," Satan sighed as he apologized to Kenny. "Damien. Calm down and behave in front of our guest, or I will change the Netflix password."

To Kenny's surprise, Damien actually lowered the imp-minion he was in the midst of tearing to bits midair with his weird shadow-kinesis.

"...Well, shit, son," Kenny let out a low whistle to break the tension.

Satan glanced to the side, attempting to segway subtly, "I think he just needs to be socialized. ...Perhaps you could keep Damien company next year, while he's getting adjusted?"

"Do not speak of me as if I were not present!" Damien insisted and hurled a chunk of rock at the cave wall. Instinctively, Kenny ducked.

"Damien! What did I just say?" Satan scolded. "What am I going to do with you? Where did I go wrong? Maybe the Republicans were right. Maybe you need a mother."

Damien merely scowled at the floor, but Kenny wasn't too put off. He did hope that whatever Damien seemed to be chanting lowly to himself was not some Demonic blood-curse or something. The silence grew awkward, and Kenny decided to try one more time to lighten things up...before it got too Dr. Phil in here.

"...Shoot, sure thing, he can stay with me. Anything for an old friend," Kenny already regretted this as he tilted his head toward Damien. "I seem to be in the business of getting people to make friends lately anyway."

'Curse my need to please others,' Kenny thought to himself. 'Curse it with the inability to die and Cartman's lifelong friendship!'

"I do not desire friends," Damien deadpanned. He was still frowning. "I desire to move amongst the humans unnoticed."

Kenny bit his lip to keep from laughing. "Not likely, babe. Well, we'll try, anyway."

Satan smiled at last. "We both appreciate it."

"Am I not needed?" Damien asked impatiently. "Have I fulfilled my social obligation to call upon my father's acquaintances?"

Satan rolled his eyes and waved Damien away dismissively. "Sure. Go mope." He leaned to Kenny, as if telling Kenny a great secret. "I hope he'll even out eventually. All the literature says so."

"No doubt," Kenny responded and winced again when the crack of Damien's exit vibrated through the air. Kenny thought he smelled especially of sulfur lately.

Kenny waited for the smell to dissipate before letting himself think about what had been bothering him. There were few people Kenny could talk to when he was alive, but Satan understood his nature. Perhaps more as a mentor than a confidante so far, but Kenny found that he did consider Satan a friend. Moreover, he was one of the few people with whom Kenny could be completely honest. "Hey, Satan, can I ask a question?"

Satan raised an eyebrow as he looked up from his book (Parenting the Anti-Christ: Pot, Porn and Plagues). "Of course you can. But whether I answer depends on the question, Kenny."

"Well, you're like, about the temptation and pain, right?" Kenny tugged on his hair, trying to think of how to word his question properly.

Satan grunted a little, but he nodded patiently.

"Can you maybe, tell me who I'm gonna have to do damage control for?" Kenny asked with exasperation. "I sense it coming. Pain for everyone. Forbidden temptations and shit. Oh, and probably a lot of big, gay, rainbow tears."

Satan blinked. Then, he leaned back with a hearty laugh. "I didn't expect that," he chortled. Kenny sucked the backs of his teeth and sheepishly waited for Satan to calm himself and finish his thought. It took a while, so Kenny sat, crouching amongst the stones.

"But Kenny," Satan said when he'd gotten a grip—he had been not quite bent over with laughter but definitely amused, "I can't meddle. Answering your question would certainly be meddling."

Kenny sighed and rubbed his cheek on his knees. "Don't you have like, a super gaydar? Superdar? Gay-sup-dar?"

Satan finally calmed, and he watched Kenny fondly. He rested his chin in his hand. "Of sorts, maybe. But I could only speculate."

"I don't believe you," Kenny said and narrowed his eyes. He knew he was probably right when Satan simply hummed at him and raised his book. The sound and gesture were too noncommittal to be anything but an affirmative. Nonetheless, that was clearly all Kenny was going to get out of Satan as far as confirmation. So Kenny sighed and let it drop.

After a slight pause, Kenny decided to keep testing his luck.

"...Hey, here's another question," Kenny rocked back on his heels and peered at Satan pointedly, "will I ever get my resolution?"

Satan frowned at the sudden transition. He set his book down on the arm of his throne. Then, for a moment, he just looked confused, but finally he seemed to understand.

"...I don't know, Kenny. It depends on what you're looking for." It was a mysterious answer—not satisfying at all. Kenny sighed again, feeling weary and sleepy.

"I want to be the main character for once," he complained. "I'm sick of this side-gig thing."

"Ah," Satan smiled. "None of us are. ...Oh!" He blinked and leaned back to study Kenny. "It looks like you're leaving."

Kenny looked at his hands and saw that he was indeed fading. He grinned and offered a wave. "We'll talk more next time I die," he warned. "Later!"

"Be careful!" Satan afforded, and Kenny's vision went black.

When he woke, someone was shaking him violently.


"Buhwah?" Kenny sat up groggily, feeling like he had a hangover. Minus the aftertaste of vomit, and the lack of pants. He was in his room, in his bed. Stan grabbed his shoulders so hard it hurt his neck.

"Oh Jesus, thank God," Stan cried hysterically. Abruptly he calmed, confused by his own behavior.

"What's going on? What's wrong?" Kenny asked, only muddily alert. He had gone through this scenario too many times to be alarmed.

"I... Don't know," Stan stated, bewildered, "I just had this really bad feeling about you, and I had to..."

Kenny knew exactly what happened. Stan's concern touched him; it wasn't reasonable, but even now, Kenny had to admit to himself that he craved reassurance that his friends did indeed care—even if they could not possibly know what caused their concern in the first place.

"Panic attack? Thanks for checking on me, bro." Kenny patted Stan's cheek. Stan was a good egg.

"Um, yeah," Stan looked at Kenny's side and frowned. "What's Butters doing here?"

Kenny looked down and saw Butters sleeping like the dead, wrapped in Kenny's one and only comforter. His face was puffy as though he had been crying. Kenny smiled wryly.

"Just some shit went down. He spent the night." Kenny looked at Stan, who was still working through his confusion. "What day is it?" Kenny asked, yawning.

"Sunday, dude," Stan answered. "...I should not be awake this early on a Sunday."

"You're telling me." Kenny realized Stan hadn't moved his hands. "You're wearing black nail polish."

"Oh, um." Stan sat back,propped on the end of Kenny's bed. His hair had also been cut to spike in the back. Kenny was 100% sure Henrietta had participated in the hair gel.

"Yeah. New look. I don't know if I like it." Stan sniffed self-consciously, and he crossed his arms in a defensive pose. He searched Kenny for a sign of approval.

Kenny rolled his eyes. "Whatever, man." He slipped out of bed, careful not to jostle Butters, although Butters didn't seem bothered by much of anything. "Wanna smoke or something? Sunday Funday. Or did you have something planned?"

Stan definitely perked. "Yeah, why not? Let's get trashed."

"I think I'm gonna join the football team next year," Cartman said through a mouthful of Cheesy Poofs.

Kyle quirked an eyebrow doubtfully. The Madden they played while sitting on his couch had probably been Cartman's source of inspiration for the comment. As always, Kyle thought....Cartman was probably fishing for praise.

"Okay?" Kyle said. "You know they'll probably let you do their training routines with them. If you're like, not a dick."

"Hmm," Cartman frowned thoughtfully. Then he seemed to remember who he was, and he affected his usual disgusted-with-everyone-and-everything tone. "Pff. I don't need some pussy with a whistle telling me what to do. I'm like, naturally gifted or something. Runs in my fucking blood." His pocket buzzed, and he paused the game.

"Dammit! I was about to score!" Kyle complained. He glared suspiciously at Cartman. He was half-sure the phone-call was strategic. In Kyle's experience, there was no such thing as paranoia when it came to anticipating the lows Cartman would stoop to in order to avoid a minor loss. Old reflexes all demanded an interrogation, and Kyle had to actively remind himself that he no longer cared about Cartman's bullcrap.

"Aw, fuck." Cartman scrolled over a text. "Ugggh. Whatever. Heh. Saved by the bell, huh Kyle? Duty calls. You were gonna lose anyway, so thank Moses or something."

Kyle huffed and threw down his controller. He lazily stretched his shoulders while he waited for Cartman to leave. "Dude, whatever. Rematch later. ...And you're still invited to study nights on Wednesday," he said.

Cartman stuffed some books and his half-eaten bag of Cheesy Poofs into his backpack. "Like I need to partake in your queer-ass weekly orgies at Token's. ...They don't like me anyway. Assholes." He said the second part with a slight frown, Kyle noticed. Occasionally, Cartman was so transparent.

"The invitation is still extended," Kyle said firmly because he knew what Cartman wanted to hear. "Whenever you get over your victim complex."

"Is this your way of saying you want to spend more time with me?" Cartman stood and batted his lashes, "Why Kaaahl, I didn't know you cared," he drawled thickly. It was stupidly sarcastic, but Kyle could see that Cartman was actually pleased.

Kyle rolled his eyes. "More like my efforts to reform you into less-of-an-asshole. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here. Don't prove you're actually a hopeless case, dude."

"I'm perfectly charming and acceptable in all company," Cartman countered. "And I don't fucking need charity you no-doubt squeezed painfully out of your tight-wad Jew ass." He shouldered his bag and shuffled to the front door. "Have fun with your orgy. Remember, there's no such thing as too much lube, especially for a penny-pinching sphincter like yours. Heh heh heh."

As Cartman trudged home, he reflected—not meditated, because meditating was for hippies. But it was useful to take the time to strategically regroup sometimes.

He started with the facts: Cartman knew what Kyle was doing, of course. Kyle was not trying to sign them up for the best friends club together—of course not. Kyle was just perturbed that Cartman had been quiet the last few years. He had mistaken the quiet for some fundamental change. Oh, foolish Heeb. Hardly. Cartman still felt the same way about minorities and shit; he was just biding his time.

...He could also admit he was tired of waging war against the world, for now. He needed a break and a new strategy. It seemed his opinions weren't so popular amongst the small-minded plebeians these days. After middle school, everyone figured out once and for all that they weren't obligated to speak to him. Truthfully, Cartman hadn't counted on his classmates having this epiphany again so soon. No matter, they would all come to appreciate his awesomeness eventually. Cartman just needed time (and possibly some better advertising); that was all. And the time would come, certainly.

As he passed Stan's home, Cartman frowned. He had undeniably fallen out with Stan—not that it could be counted as a loss. Stan sucked way more lately; he was practically a vegan, ugh. So Cartman's friends were Kyle and Butters. Actually, Butters was more of a pathetic underling than a friend. A servant, if you will. A snivelling sycophant put on God's earth to do do Eric's bidding. Servants had to be cared for, if the master expected lifetime loyalty (which, obviously, Eric did). That's why Cartman was always there when Butters really needed him to be. No one was allowed to break in Eric's beasts of burden but Eric Himself.

A prickle of annoyance arced down Cartman's spine. He drew closer to the Stotch's home—he could see their cow-shaped mailbox about a hundred feet ahead. Just looking at it, Cartman felt irate enough to stuff that mailbox full of minor explosives (later, for sure). ...Butters' parents were pieces of utter shit. Cartman received panicked texts asking for company at least once a week. Talk about high maintenance, Jesus Christ!

There was something about Butters crying for reasons unrelated to himself made his stomach turn. It was disturbing. The sensation was almost unsettling enough to ruin Cartman's appetite. To resolve his own discomfort, Cartman had offered to turn Butters' parents into fair food a few times, but Butters always foolishly declined. The offer was still available, of course.

Besides that, Cartman always figured that one day, he'd take matters into his own hands whether Butters liked it or not. Spineless idiots needed the executive decision making skills of genius-badasses like Eric, after all. It was practically Eric's civic duty to have a long-term contingency that involved painful humiliation, torture, death—and possibly forking over their 401k's—for Butters' butt-fuckers-for-parents. The thought comforted Eric when Butters touted more obvious signs of damage, psychological or otherwise.

Ugh. Someday.

Cartman knocked heavily on the door of the Stotch's home.

Stephen Stotch answered the door, visibly less-than-pleased to see Eric, but resigned to being polite. Eric relished his obvious discomfort, and he leaned smugly against the doorframe.

"Oh, hi, Eric," Stephen said curtly. "Can I help you?"

Eric smiled sweetly. "Why hello, Mr. Stotch! Butters and I had studying planned tonight. Science test coming up this Friday, as you know. Poor Butters struggles with biology, so I've very graciously been helping him—"

Stephen interrupted, "I don't think—"

"Hi, Eric," Butters pushed his way past his father, backpack thrown over his shoulder. "Goodnight, Dad. I'll be staying at the Cartmans' house tonight."

"Butters!" Stephen yelled, but Cartman and Butters were already power-walking away. Butters clamped his hands over his ears: a relatively new nervous tic he'd developed now that his parents were fighting again.

Stephen's protests faded into the background, and Cartman examined Butters superficially. It wasn't all that reassuring that Butters seemed to lack injuries. Cartman didn't trust Stephen Stotch not to hit Butters where the bruises couldn't be seen.

He did, however, notice the lip gloss. Cartman cleared his throat, "Marjorine?"

She sighed, but her shoulders relaxed. "Yeah."

Cartman fell silent the entire walk to his house. He tried to sneak them inside, but Liane Cartman was watching television in the living room.

"Oh, hello, Butters," Liane greeted kindly.

"It's Marjorine right now Mahm," Cartman corrected irritably as he flung his coat so it landed just two inches from the coat stand.

"Oh, hello Marjorine," Liane deferred. She smiled and stood, walking over to press a kiss to Marjorine's forehead, who gave her a watery smile. Liane turned to hug Cartman and pat his shoulder.

"I'll make baked pasta tonight. You like the one with the cheese, right, Sweetie?" Liane asked Marjorine. Marjorine nodded and turned to scale the stairs to Cartman's room.

Cartman rubbed the back of his neck. "Do we have those cream sodas?" He asked. "She likes the vanilla ones."

"There's a few left," Liane said, "Don't worry, Sweetiekins. Mommy will buy some more."

When Cartman entered his bedroom, Marjorine was furiously dumping out her backpack and fishing for the wig of which she normally took meticulous care. She had packed in a hurry.

Cartman sighed and took the wig away from Marjorine's shaking hands. "Here, give me that shit," he said.

Marjorine let Cartman fuss over her like a doll, arranging the wig so it sat correctly. Once Cartman was pleased, he started combing out the tangles carefully with a brush Marjorine had packed.

"Your mom is too kind," Marjorine sniffled eventually.

Cartman grunted. "She's pretty much a hippie."

"And caring, and nurturing and calm," Marjorine added wetly. "Why, just like you. Uh. Sometimes."

"She loses her temper," Cartman snorted. He carefully avoided addressing the mushy part of what Marjorine had said. "She shrieks like a freaking banshee when she's worked up. Christ."

"Well, I s'pose everyone does," Marjorine rubbed at her eyes, ducking her head down. Cartman waited for her to rearrange herself before resuming untangling the wig.

"Dad found the lip gloss tonight. I wasn't even doing nothing else this time." Marjorine looked guilty as she said it, but shocker there. She always looked guilty.

Cartman frowned and stayed focused on the wig. He kept his thoughts to himself for once. Marjorine sensed them anyway.

"You, uh, think I'm pretty darn stupid for antagonizing them," she stated, dryly.

Cartman thought about his words before speaking. (It was an effort). "I think you're a queermo whose parents act like they hate her, even though you say you feel more confident or some shit."

Marjorine shifted her head to look over her shoulder. She looked surprised. "Well. You accepted me."

Cartman stopped his brushing, an uncomfortable feeling twisting his guts, "I have not, Dyke Queen! I—" He stuttered uncertainly. "The cross-dressing is...fucked up and stuff," he settled.

Marjorine smiled like she knew something he didn't.

Cartman decided he was satisfied with the state of the wig, but not the conversation. He felt increasingly like the butt end of a terrible joke. He didn't like that. He liked to be the one making the terrible jokes. It was time to change the subject.

"...We should fuck up your parents' house." Eric was, of course, always delicate in his social maneuvering.

Marjorine smiled. There was a glint of what could only be described as chaotic in her eyes. It made Eric's heart pick up speed by a beat or two.

"Not tonight," she said, a grin spreading across her face. "But in a few weeks. H'yeah, I have an idea."

Craig should have known better than to think he could avoid chain reactions in South Park. Twenty minutes was a long stretch of uninterrupted road by car. He had hoped the distance would separate him from the people with which he had grown.

South Park was a black hole, Craig decided. A little region of space where if you fell in, you were never seen or heard from again. If a person got too close, they got bombarded by lethal radiation and died in agony. Black holes were a sign that there'd been life once, but it had died and collapsed until even neutron degeneracy said "fuck it, there's nothing I can do here" and everything just fell in on itself and left nothing but blackness, misery and death.

Craig thought it was a good metaphor. Or, maybe a huge magnet with a very slow decay process would work better. Craig could not wait for the people of South Park to stop sticking together.

At any rate, the bullshit alarms he had developed failed him spectacularly when he walked over to the King Soopers, where Clyde worked. Craig realized this late—way too late.

Clyde seemed to be in the middle of a conversation with Butters Stotch and Eric Cartman. Clyde didn't seem to be engaged in anything intense and/or abnormal, so at first, Craig didn't worry. Their social groups had been somewhat jumbled since high school started, anyway. The boys were a little more than halfway through the semester, and as freshmen, they were all still figuring out where they stood with each other.

And yet, after all this time, Craig still had no desire to interact with Kenny's shitty associates. He took his time meandering. Butters and Cartman had scurried away by the time Craig reached the cash register, and that was by design. Craig thought he'd avoided any interaction with them at all, and it made him so happy.

"Ready?" Craig asked, and Clyde nodded.

"Wassup, my man?" Clyde finished counting the bills and close the cash drawer with a cheerful ping. Craig shrugged, so Clyde continued talking without breaking stride. "There's apparently a party happening next week." He illustrated the point by pumping his hips with the accompanying "cha-ching" hand gesture.

Craig rolled his eyes. "Neat."

Clyde finished closing up, turned the "Open" sign over, hung his apron and made for the door. Craig trailed behind him, eyeing the shelves.

"I'm pretty sure only annoying people are gonna be there," Craig responded, as they started walking to Harbucks to pick up Tweek and Token. "Even some of the goth kids are going."

"Really?" Clyde's nose wrinkled, "...Man, those dudes need to melax."

Craig repeated, without inflection "Melax?"

"Yup. It's a classic word collab by yours truly." He flourished a double thumbs up. "You like?"

"But. There is already, like. Chillax." Craig pointed this out matter of factly, but Clyde looked visibly crushed.

"Ah, man. I guess you're right. I didn't think of that," Clyde heaved a tragic sigh moved on quickly, the disappointment passing like a cloud over the sun. His smile soon returned, poking through the cheery spray of zits on his chubby cheeks. "...And how come you know about all the cool parties before I do, anyway? You don't even like parties!"

"Information sources," Craig recited. "Normal ones. The human kind." All the weird shit in South Park, and he felt the need to clarify. Especially after the last time.

"Christ," Clyde laughed, and shuffled his fingers through his bangs. "I wouldn't repeat that shit to Tweek, dude. ...He is still suspicious that Heidi got her information on Roswell from a source other than Instagram. He'll trip balls."

"I won't." Craig frowned. He also took the advice and refrained from further comment. Clyde was right, after all. Just the word "gnomes" was enough to summon Tweek; hell, sometimes even words that sounded like gnomes could do it. The week Clyde got excited over his new combs, for example, had been rough.

A cluster of bells tied to the door jingled when Clyde and Craig walked inside Harbucks. Harbucks was nearly empty except for Token, Wendy and Kyle clustered in a corner, pouring over some books. There was some big upcoming English assignment—Craig would try remember to work on the project. Maybe he'd get to it. It was a stupid subject, anyway.

Token was the first to look up. "Hey guys," he greeted and turned to Wendy and Kyle. "That's my cue. Later."

Wendy and Kyle took a moment to realize they were being addressed. "Oh, bye Token," Wendy said, "And don't forget to get back to me about the debate team thing, ok?"

Token visibly blanched, but turned his back so that Wendy could not see. "Yeah, sure."

Kyle just grunted something before jotting a note. Wendy cut him an aggravated little glance, and Kyle elbowed her in return. Craig noticed they were pressed shoulder to shoulder as they exchanged their unspoken little repertoire. Well, who didn't see that coming?

Tweek came out of the back, shaking, but the perpetual bags under his eyes seemed lighter than usual, "H-hi guys. Ready to go?"

"Yup. Let's go, daddy-o," Clyde said. Token and Tweek joined the pack and the four of them left as a unit.

"So you won't believe what I found," Token said, grinning widely.

Craig sighed, but there was no real aggravation in it. This was simply the part of the week where they tried to upstage each other: it was routine, predictable, perfect.

"W-what?" Tweek asked, wringing his hands.

Token puffed his chest and shifted his book bag, "I found my old motorized toy boat. I thought we could see if it still works."

"That doesn't fit the game, does it?" Clyde frowned. "We already know it floats."

"I thought we could put stuff on it," Token said.

"I have firecrackers tonight," Craig said, "if your goal was to ruin it."

"Cool!" Clyde's hands bunched into happy fists, which he used to punch the air in his enthusiasm.

"Yeah, all right. ...Let's blow some shit up," Token agreed with a wicked smile.

As kids, they would play "does it sink or does it float" by bringing their old toys to Stark's Pond. It was a game Clyde had invented after dropping a cooler filled with cans of soda into the water while on a fishing trip with his dad. The regular soda cans sank; the diet floated. When he repeated the exercise in order to demonstrate to his friends, the phenomenon inspired fascination. ...Well, it was something to do when their mothers forced them to stop watching TV and play outside, anyway.

Since then, many a battle had been enacted at Stark's Pond, with casualties of tiny army men, toy cars and countless combinations of sticks and rocks. With school and sports, they had a hard time getting together now, but sometimes one of them remembered their game.

When they got to Stark's Pond, Token pulled out the toy boat to test its functionality, complete with batteries and controller. It puttered along the surface of the water, emitting a cheery little electric whine.

"Let's see how many rocks it can take before it sinks," Clyde said. Of the four, he was the most excited. His round face was flushed with giddy excitement, hands swinging at his sides. But Token and Tweek both craned their necks to watch the little boat, and even Craig hadn't rolled his eyes for several minutes.

Clyde dropped to his knees to root in the muddy pond banks for stones to pile upon the tiny ship. The toy couldn't take too much of a load because it went lopsided. It fared better with sticks, and toppled over after a few feet, but even so, they were able to bring it back with the remote. It was a tough tiny tugboat.

"Wanna wreck your childhood memory?" Craig asked eventually. He had grown bored. He scratched at fresh, red mosquito bites on the nape of his neck, and his shoes were wet from sitting too close to the large rocks on the pond's shoreline. Tweek shivered violently beside him—he was practically vibrating but uncomplaining. A weeping willow shaded the boys damply.

"Yeah," Token agreed. As an afterthought, he unwound his scarf and offered it to a grateful Tweek. Token then passed the remote to Clyde for a turn.

"We can go to my place after," Token said as he rubbed his hands together. He blew into them briefly. "I can get us some hot chocolate."

"Cool. Now, let's see if we can get the boat to the center of the pond before the firecracker goes off," Craig said. Clyde contributed by making motorboat noises and pressing on the joystick of the controller as if it were a gas pedal.

"No, Bond! You're a mad man! You can't do this!" Clyde affected a high-pitched southern drawl. Then he dropped into a mock-baritone. "Baby. The fate of the world depends on me. I'm sorry we never got to see Paris."

"Oh Jesus." Tweek yanked agitatedly at Token's scarf so that it covered his mouth, where he seemed to chew it. "Nngh! Bond's girlfriend never had a Southern accent!"

"Oh, Bond! You're so brave! I looooove you! Why do you always have to be the hero??" Clyde ignored Tweek as he brought the boat back to shore for Craig to load the dynamite onto it. It made a triangle of merry ripples on ponds surface as it returned to them.

"What can I say? I'm agent 007. And it's what I do." Clyde clicked his tongue and winked at no one in particular. Token scoffed.

"Why don't they just let you just write the next movie?" he wondered. He rolled his eyes heavenward.

As they bantered, Craig rubbed the explosives against the sap of a tree so they would stick, before pulling his Zippo to light the firecrackers and glue them to the boat. He stepped away while Clyde navigated the boat back out to "sea."

Clyde affected nasally trumpet noises that were probably meant to sound like Taps. "It's been an honor serving with you boys," he said in his Bond voice. "Martinis in Hell. On me."

The boat only got a few feet away before the firecrackers lit with a ringing pop.

The four watched it go off together. Clyde saluted, then handed the controller silently back to Token. Tweek made an upset noise but peeked at the ashy debris of their vandalism through his fingers.

"Awesome," Token said breathlessly, and everyone exhibited a certain amount of surprise that he'd beaten Clyde to it.

"Mint-awes!" Clyde added. His friends cut him three very strange looks.

"What?" He held out his hands defensively. "It's a word combo! 'Mint' and 'awesome!' ...Aw, Come on, you guys! I didn't even make that one up. It's like, slang. In Australian!"

No one answered. They merely looked at each other, tiredly.

"...Hey. Are you okay?" Craig asked the obvious party. Tweek nodded, silently fidgeting, pulling bits of skin from his cuticles. Craig shrugged and turned to watch Token make the boat drive in circles.

"Dude, it still works? Let's do it again." Craig pulled another firecracker from his pack.

"How many do you have?" Token asked, bringing the boat back to shore to load up again. His eyes shone with a rare, childish jubilance.

"Three more in my bag. Twenty back home. I've been saving them."

"Clearly." Token laughed and shook his head twice.

"All right! Bond lives on to see the sequel through," Clyde was practically dancing and tugging at Token's sleeve for another turn at the controls. He croaked in a very bad Russian Accent, "Not so fast, Mr. Bond! Nuclear annihilation still awaits if you do not destroy the control room! Hurry, 007, tick tock!"

He looked pointedly to Craig. "Come on! Hurry! Before the counter reaches zero!"

Craig sighed, but he had to wince a little and roll his shoulder to disguise a tiny little smile as he complied.

Their game continued until their attention was diverted. A string of fireworks lit from across the pond: a string that they did not light themselves from Craig's stash.

"They're stealing our idea," Clyde whined. As Token had finally ceded to him another turn with the boat, Clyde directed it to "investigate" the site of the explosions.

"Roman candles?" Token said. He squinted to view across the lake. "It's like they're sending us a signal." He waved both arms to signal back.

"Ah." Craig wasn't worried about wasting firecrackers; he could get more easily. He knew a guy. In fact, he was pretty sure the other people setting off poppers knew the same guy.

"It's too dark for that. They probably can't see you. Here." Craig set his remaining reserves off and sure enough, the Roman candles lit again. It was too dark to see who held the match.

"Let's go see," Clyde said. "Maybe they want to party. Maybe there are girls! Or beer! ...Or girls!"

"Oh, Jesus," Tweek sounded alarmed, but he didn't elaborate. His friends ignored him.

"Adventures?" Token raised an eyebrow. He looked to Craig for the final word on the subject. They weren't "Craig and those guys" for nothing after all.

"I think I know who it is," Craig sighed, unhappily. He felt the familiar pull of that sinister foreign gravitational well that seemed to be the focus of all orbits in South Park—the well into which everything would one day decay and burn. He regretted flaring. He regretted it with all his soul; there had to be some dimension where he wasn't stupid enough to invite these kinds of run-ins.

Token and Clyde seemed eager to see who was signaling them, and Tweek had apparently no vote to offer. So Craig's reservations were overruled, and he didn't want to argue with the whole group. Unwisely (he knew it was deeply idiotic; going along with assholes made you an asshole too. It was like a law of nature), he followed.

Their "adventure" started out as a test of patience: Craig made a slightly masochistic game out of seeing how long he could tolerate climbing over prickly bushes and brush. The other side of the pond only took ten minutes to reach, and the boys were covered in stickers by they time they did.

"What if there are tiny microphones?" Tweek muttered quietly, as he frantically peeled them off, one by one. The task seemed to consume him. "CIA could hear everything. Even when we pee. Nngh!"

At least that's what it sounded like, Craig thought. It was hard to be sure. Tweek became increasingly incomprehensible as his panic levels rose. There was nothing except to let Tweek ride it out, unless it got bad. He turned silently to help Tweek be rid of the stickers, though he knew no amount of thoroughness would convince Tweek they were all gone.

"Whoa," Clyde said when they reached a clearing, "It's like some vampire coven."

"We are not faggy vampires!" Firkle's still pre-pubescent voice rang out in the darkness. He was as indignant as he was condescending, and it inspired those around him to roll their eyes (Craig and co. in annoyance, the goths in solidarity).

"I forgot you guys were here," Craig sighed when they came upon their bonfire. It smelled suspiciously like Oregano. He guessed they'd had some trouble getting their hands on sage. He approached Henrietta, who was lounging against a boulder like a queen.

"Yeah well, like," Henrietta took a drag from her cigarette, and she flourished her holder, twirling it between two fingers. "We told you last week. We're holding a séance at midnight."

Tweek made a choking sound and stepped toward Clyde. Clyde absently patted Tweek's shoulder.

"Why tonight?" Craig asked. He stood next to Henrietta's shoulder, but Clyde plunked himself right down next to her.

"Does anyone have any hotdogs to roast over this thing?" He looked around hopefully. "Or some sticks to, uh, hah—stick 'em on?"

Henrietta scooted away from Clyde a few inches, lip curled. Michael looked at Clyde as if he'd suggested they eat live grub worms and squish guano in their eyes. "Tch" was all he said. Pete put in two cents right after, in agreement with Michael's "tch,": "Totally."

Michael and Pete went back to what looked like a silent game of Cat's Cradle between the two of them. Except, of course, the shoe string was black, and they appeared to be trying to create a pentagram instead of a kitty hammock.

"Soooo, that's a no?" Clyde looked disappointed. Tweek and Token took seats on either side. Craig remained standing, a silent sign of his hope that they could get the fuck out of there soon.

"Sorry, man." Token consoled Clyde half-heartedly. Then he turned to their company, and attempted some small-talk. "Hey, you never told us. Why tonight?"

"It's supposed to be a full moon, you guys," Henrietta said this as if it was a fact that should have been obvious. She waved a hand dramatically. "And Halloween is coming soon, so we thought we'd practice." She smiled at Tweek and chuckled at the terrified peeping sound he made in response.

"Halloween is the best time to summon vengeful spirits," Firkle added, a little too cheerfully. Tweek cringed down further.

"I thought the best summoning time was three in the morning," Token said musingly, trying to break up the mood. "Isn't that when the moon is brightest?"

"The illumination of the moon never actually changes. Unless there's an eclipse. Also. The full moon was yesterday." Craig reported this with no satisfaction. "Now we're on waning gibbous."

Henrietta sniffed disdainfully and very pointedly turned to Token. "Some of the posers here actually care about going to bed in time to wake up for school." She apparently had no comments on her bad reading of the lunar cycle. She did, however, have a rather nasty look for Craig, veiled behind a ring of slow-dispersing cigarette smoke.

"I don't!" Firkle reported, almost smugly. "...But my parents will kill me if I sneak in past curfew again. Fucking fascists." He reached over and tugged Henrietta's lacy sleeve. "Hey, do we have any of Kenny's pot left?"

"How come Kenny never gives us any pot?" Clyde wondered, lower lip poking out with a touch of petulance. "Isn't he your friend? Sharing is caring!" He looked up at Craig with accusation gleaming in his eyes. Tweek, at some point during this conversation, had taken to building a simple, Lincoln-logs style structure on the ground out of twiglets. Token silently helped him by feeding him bits of sticks he foraged from the immediately-nearby forest floor. It was a good way to distract Tweek from his persistent need to pluck nonexistent burrs from his coat.

"Kenny is a douchebag," Craig told Clyde. This was the only way Craig could think to describe his and Kenny's "friendship." He handed Token a twig.

"Sorry, kid." Henrietta shrugged at Firkle. "Pete smoked the last of it at the NIN concert last week. Remember?"

"That's so not-goth," Firkle's head drooped a little. "But I guess I can't blame him. There were a bunch of Barbie freaks at the show."

"Yeah, remember the guy in the Fall Out Boy T-shirt? Ugh." Pete shuddered as if the cold hand of Death Itself slid up the back of his patch jacket. The movement made his various pins clink together.

"Ohhhh my god, it's Craig Tuckeeeeeer."

The night had already been thoroughly ruined, but it was about to get ruined on the next level of ruination; Craig felt it like a premonition. For a moment, the only thought in Craig's head was, "Oh come-fucking-ON!"

Sure enough, like a weird-in-the-unpleasant-way-dream, Craig looked up to see Stan Marsh stumbling over to him. He reeked of whiskey, of course. Craig's mental dialogue evolved enough to include the phrases: ""this is great. Just fucking great."

Heedless, Stan lumbered up beside him, grinning maniacally. "You!" Stan said, "You're a cool dude. I like you. You're great. You're fucking great." He slung an arm around Craig's shoulder and pulled him close, buddy-buddy. Stan's commentary "greats," Craig couldn't help but notice, did not contain a matching amount of irony.

Craig raised his eyebrows, and could see Token looking over from the bonfire, mildly concerned.

"Thanks," Craig said. Stan's very-white smile was way too close, and it did not at all improve Craig's mood. He not-so-subtly pushed Stan off, but Stan didn't seem bothered by even Craig's most irritated shove. He merely hiccuped. At least he removed his arm, so Craig didn't have to tilt under his alcohol-leadened weight.

"I see you're feeling better?" Token was remarkably diplomatic and non-judgemental in the question, considering. Of course, Stan's depression and breakup with Kyle were common gossip by now, and Token was always up on gossip. It came in handy during moments like this, (read: moments during which Craig needed a distraction in order to plan an escape).

"Better?" Stan slurred, "I'm great! I'm always great. Great like Henri here," he nodded at Henrietta, "She dragged me here. Now I'm 'that guy' with the guitar. It's kind of awesome."

"Stan's going to need to go home soon," Henrietta said. She eyed Stan with what might have been concern, but who knew whether the goths were being ironic or earnest? "I don't think he'll make it to midnight."

"None of us will, if we manage to successfully summon Belphegor!" Firkle's face appeared downright menacing for a moment, which appeared to deeply concern both Michael and Pete. They exchanged a quick look between them that could only be described as the physical embodiment of a mutual sentiment between them: "oh god not again."

Craig felt his heart stop. His brain froze for a second, then triggered red alert and raised shields to maximum.

Hell. No. Craig could smell a plot line from the next galaxy over. Cthulhu had been bad enough. The universe felt mal-aligned, and now, Stan (one of the four known harbingers of all South-Park-related disasters) was involved. Like fuck Craig was hanging around now.

Craig stood and dusted off his jeans, "I'm off, if you need me I'll be around Capella—"

"Capella?" Stan wondered, slurring a tiny bit. "Like, a-capella?"

Craig sighed longsufferingly and turned slowly to him. "Capella, like, the four star system that's a nice comfortable thirteen parsecs away from your sorry a—"

"...Craig? Are you ok?" Tweek wondered. Of course, he was the only one paying enough attention to notice the sudden reversal of Craig's willingness to put up with any of these people. Tweek frowned at the defensive posture Craig had taken—knees bent, body poised for escape.

"Yes. I'm fine. I just think we should leave. Right now." Craig's eyes shifted left, then right. His voice remained level, but then, it always did.

"How come?" Clyde wondered, but he stood now and prepared to do what Craig had asked. Tweek followed suit.

Now Token looked up too. "Yeah, I don't know, dude, you look—"

"Oh, wait. Token! I, yeah, I have some...questions for you." A new note of liveliness colored Stan's voice. It made everyone uneasy.

Stan's eyes wheeled slightly, and he didn't seem in full control of where he put his feet or hands. He staggered over a step or two to hover over Token, who got to his feet after a moment of awkwardly craning his neck to make eye-contact. He brushed some dust off his jeans and affected a neutral but pleasant greeting smile.

"...Yeah, Stan." Token looked briefly over to Craig. "We can talk at school. I mean, I would love to chat, but it seems like my friends want to— "

"—Token! You! Yeah, you're cool. Token, but I have to ask you something. Right now. It's important." Stan wavered on his feet a little and sniffled. The dusty, dry air around the bonfire must have triggered his asthma. The goths watched the exchange with their usual looks of disdain, but were quiet, as if compelled to witness a strange and sad little theater show.

'DON'T DO IT', Craig's mind screamed the moment Token's mouth opened to answer Stan, but Craig didn't react fast enough. Craig's feet, unfortunately, had moved instead of his mouth. Craig took one useless, shuffling step forward as if to physically stand between Stan and Token. Now he had to watch helplessly as Token's good upbringing forced chit chat out of him...and inevitably, involvement. So much for Craig's well-intended "heroics": Token was once again a victim dragged into the plot.

Token looked at Stan patiently but warily. "...Ok?"

Stan stood next to Token , a little too close but too drunk to realize. His face was red, and his hair was a little damp as if he'd been sweating. "Is Kyle okay? I know he's been going to your study thing every week."

Token's expression softened, "Kyle's good, yeah. He and—um, no, he's fine. Busy lately. He and Wendy are cramming for the early AP qualifying exams."

Stan smiled brilliantly, but just as quickly his expression changed and the gears started turning, "Oh woah, what about Wendy? How is she? Are she and Kyle actually..."

Nope nope nope nope. Craig zipped toward Token and tried in earnest to get between them this time. He'd put his hand over Token's mouth if he had to, to stop the words. But Craig was sometimes picked last in gym class, so Token had already answered by the time Craig was in position.

"She and Kyle are close now, yeah," Token reported, a little sheepishly, with one hand scratching at the back of his neck, "Sorry, Stan." His foot scraped a furrow in the dust and disrupted Tweek's little structure. It made no sound as it collapsed.

"Hey," Firkle whispered (but not too quietly) to Pete. "Could this count as the blood sacrifice? 'Cause..."

Fuck. Craig grabbed Token's jacket sleeve and started pulling. Even Clyde caught the urgency; his usual cruising-pace quickened. He began the process of ushering Tweek back towards the prickly woods. ("But, ggghhnn! That's what they want us to do!")

"We gotta go, guys," Craig said without waving before he turned. "I'll see you around, Marsh." If I am extraordinarily unlucky.

Stan nodded but was dejected, looking at his hand and flexing his fingers, "I need another drink," he mumbled, and turned to leave them.

Craig knew it wouldn't be that easy. Still, perhaps futilely, he herded his friends away from the goth's circle like he was trying to break the warp barrier.

Monday at school, Craig could see the chain reaction occurring.

"I was telling them," Clyde was saying to Token. They stood together at Clyde's locker (a fact made obvious by the huge bumper sticker pasted by the vents, featuring a very buff Pikachu. It read "Chu lift bro?"). "I could get them a discount, but since we're not actually friends, I want something in return."

"So you offered to help them?" Token said doubtfully, "Clyde, you dunce. What's the damage?"

"No way, no damage. Just to our social lives if we miss out on this." Clyde shook his head. He appeared quite passionate about his position. He only stopped to sweep his Bieber bangs out of his face once. "It's the event of the year." He pouted then, obstinate.

Craig could see exactly where this was going, "I have a riddle for you guys," Craig said. He didn't, really. It was more like the world's easiest fill-in-the-blank. "Get a bunch of drunk fifteen-year-olds together, and what do you get?"

Clyde wrinkled his nose and Token seemed to be bracing himself. "I dunno," Clyde said, "A party?"

Craig glowered, "Arrested, probably."

"It's a senior party," Token protested quietly, "There won't be a lot of freshmen, with exceptions. This is an opportunity!"

"I don't care." Craig was resolute.

"But people talk, and it's homecoming," Token said irritably, "And yes, the cool freshmen got invited. I'm one of them. And if you'd quit your unaffected hipster shit, you'd notice that people think you're cool too, but they're too afraid to approach you. Have fun for once."

"Let them know that sweet, warm, fun-loving Craig we do!" Clyde added. He put an arm around Craig's shoulder and squeezed. No one else could or would say such a thing without sarcasm, but Clyde was 100% honest. And also smelled so strongly of Axe body spray that Craig had to breathe exclusively through his mouth. His next words were all the more nasal for it.

"I have plenty of fun without being part of the plot," Craig snapped. He could feel himself begin to warm up, like phasers about the fire. He shook off Clyde and turned to plead with him directly. "Don't go get stupid at some stranger's house. We can get drunk at my place."

Clyde frowned at him, "...The plot?

Craig made a frustrated noise, "Yes, the plot. You can't see it, but I can. None of you ever can. Dammit," Craig jammed his hands in his pockets and grit his teeth, hard. "You're already part of it. You talked to them," he insisted. "Trust me. Those four jerks are gonna make things weird around here again."

It was the most Craig had said in months. For a moment or two, his friends were stunned into quiet. They watched Craig, and he averted his eyes. Great. Now he was a raving spectacle, and it was all Stan and those assholes' fault.

"What are you talking about, Craig? This is some Tweek-level shit, here." Token gave him a motherly, concerned once-over, and then checked to make sure Tweek hadn't actually heard him make the reference. Once he seemed secure that Tweek hadn't infact overheard, Token addressed Craig once more. "Is this like the time you were convinced you could shoot laser beams out of your eyes when you came back from Peru?"

"Yes, it's like that," Craig said, morosely.

Clyde and Token gave each other slightly worried, slightly amused looks (differentiated only by how reserved their respective personalities actually were). Craig caught this, and gave up trying to avert tragedy. He knew then, it did not make a difference what he said or did. There was no avoiding this sinister tractor beam. For all he knew, they were already in holding. God. Fucking. Damn. It.

And then, Craig's very shitty day went up a standard deviation of shit.

Through the morning shuffle of students and chatter, Craig felt a presence at his back.

"Hey," Stan Marsh interjected himself into their half-argument, clutching his backpack straps like a lifeline. Huge black circles loomed under his eyes, and his hair was stuck in clumps to his forehead. He squinted his bloodshot eyes as if the light in the hallways pained him. "Sorry about any weirdness this weekend. Just...sorry."

"It's fine—" Token started to say, but Craig interrupted.

"Go away," he said without a pause. "You're part of the plot line. We want nothing to do with it, or you."

Token rolled his eyes and elbowed Craig in the side. "Come on, man. Give it a rest," he muttered, not even very quietly.

But Stan blinked at Craig slowly, and his eyes grew bigger, like a confused cow. "The plot line?" he repeated dully, "You mean when everything comes together in a formulaic scenario?"

Token and Clyde stared openly; Clyde even dropped his vinyl, taco-shaped pencil bag. It was open, and colored pencils, white-out pens, and highlighters went rolling down the hall. Neither Token nor Clyde seemed to notice, not even when a sophomore girl in braids slipped on a pencil and crashed into a nearby locker.

"Fucking assholes!" she screamed, which broke the trance. Token remembered not to be a gaping dick and went to help the girl, and Clyde waded through the other students in the hallway to gather his school supplies. His only comment was a long look at Stan, followed by a "dude."

Stan shrugged at Clyde. "Yeah. I don't blame you," he said to Craig. He was apologetic and exasperated all at once. "It sucks pretty hard when shit like that starts to go down."

Stan smiled wearily and offered Craig a pat on the back. "I gave up fighting it a long time ago. Best if you just let it run its course. Sometimes it's fun. Mostly it sucks. Anyway. I'll see you around, dude."

The rage that Craig was filled with was so encompassing that he just groaned and accepted its flames. Stan was right of course, but Craig found it hard to hear. There had to be a way out of getting involved. There just had to be.

The oddness about South Park wasn't necessarily the events that took place, Craig decided, but a matter of scale.

The thing about black holes, too, was they acted as lenses. If there was anything bright behind them, the light would be bent and twisted until one object could serve as five or six distinct images—for example, Einstein's Cross. Black holes could multiply the things that passed through them, if one were to take a more two dimensional look at the celestial sphere.

It certainly seemed the case with the black hole that was South Park; Anything remotely odd was guaranteed to multiply and warp, until it became a crisis of epic proportions. Craig learned that South Park was unique in this, just as he always suspected, when he was talking to Cindy Rodriguez at lunch one day.

"Oh my god," Cindy recoiled when Craig told her that he was from South, not North, Park, "What is actually wrong with you people? It's like you guys are the epicenter, and everyone else rides the waves."

Craig enjoyed usually analogies, and he found Cindy's to be apt. South Park was its own special breed of Roswell. However, he was tired of feeling like one of the freak government experiments Tweek was always raving about.

Then again, Tweek always suspected conspiracies. An unfortunate trait, Craig thought. The most obvious paranoia was contagious. This fine day, Tweek was "sneezing" all over the place.

"You guys," he caught up to Craig and Token as they strolled together after lunch, towards Geometry. He tugged on his hoodie strings 'til the hood bunched around his neck. "Did you hear? There was a mass shortage of toilet paper! It's spread to North Park now!"

Token tilted his head (inclined in the direction of potential gossip, of course). "Yeah? Where'd you hear that?"

Tweek made a little squealing sound in his throat. It was impossible to tell whether this was a voluntary action. "From Bebe! I heard her tell her friends that her dad and the other cops are investigating...or something." By the end, he'd trailed off to chew on the already teeth-distressed aglets dangling off his hoodie strings. They appeared right on the edge of falling off entirely, leaving the bare strings.

"Huh," Token said. It was a sound of courteous interest. His levels of anxiety did not appear to fluctuate over this information. He was the odd man out.

"What?" Craig demanded. He was so upset by the news that he experienced his first preteenaged voice-crack. Tweek looked at him quickly, like a rabbit poised to flee at a sudden sound.

"...Yeah, man." Tweek said, uncertainly, after a moment or two. He fiddled with a fingernail as if to pop it off like the cap of a pen. He began chewing a flake of skin from his bottom lip. His increasingly quick intake of air indicated that he was about to launch into a speech in double-time.

"Um." Tweek's eyes flit to the left, then the right. "She said they have. Nngh. Reports, of South Park's Park County High students traveling to North Park to buy cheap, single ply toilet paper. Lots of them, apparently. It's like a migration. Maybe the CIA is sending out radio waves, and making people—"

"Oooh, sounds dishy! Asses are going unwiped, vulvas left slightly moist with residue. Unrelated to sex, of course." Clyde (fresh out of lunchtime detention), joined them jovially. He swung himself between Craig and Tweek, one arm flung over each of them. Tweek startled, but couldn't jump too much under Clyde's warm and familiar weight.

"The world is in chaos and yes, Canada is still actually a real country," Clyde continued. He was practically in sing-song. "Really. South Park is receiving care packages from those cool cats right now."

"I see you've been paying attention during Health Class," Token laughed. They were close to room 204 now, and the bell was about to ring for Geometry. The halls were more vacated by the moment. Craig watched Token and Clyde grin at each other, in good spirits about the upcoming party. But Craig's experience felt much more comparable to Tweek's. (Tweek, incidentally, looked ready to yank out large chunks of hair in his confusion and terror). His habitual plucking grew frantic. Craig had to forcefully remove Tweek's hand.

"Use the rubber band," he reminded Tweek. Tweek silently complied, snapping the band furiously against his inner wrist.

"What's going on? You guys are in the loop? Is it the government? Are they—"

"God, no, you need to melax," Clyde half-groaned and punched Tweek in the shoulder. "Seriously. It's a part-ay. And we're all invited."

Tweek looked at Craig, and Craig looked at Tweek, and between the two of them, the consensus was that this was not particularly good news.


Craig was powerless, except to watch. Tweek was right. This was all the government's fault. That or Klingons. Not being trained in mok'bara, all Craig could do to fight the system was to get high as shit. After all, weed was legal in the state of Colorado (which, incidentally, was the one thing about the state Craig believed did not actively suck). At least it wasn't government mandated bloodwine.

Way back when, on one unfortunate night, Craig had found himself high and punching out a swing set—it had looked at him funny or something. In the process of "telling" it, he split his knuckles and nearly broke a finger. For this reason (and a few later incidents involving an ice cream truck, a mailman, and a very confused/amused senior citizen), Craig found himself on the doorstep of the only person he thought might be able to diffuse his panic.

He also happened to be the only person that Craig—with his secondhand paranoia and chemically-induced, proactive aggression—believed could stop what Craig perceived to be the oncoming Apocalypse.

Craig was easily able to pin Kenny to the wall with an arm to Kenny's throat when Kenny answered his door.

"Keep your friends away from my friends," Craig snarled. He let Kenny go, and Kenny turned to face him blearily rubbing his face. He blinked at Craig, eyes focused but lids sluggish.

"Whoa, dude," he drawled, "If I recall, Clyde made his own choices." He smiled, sloppily, more with one side of his face than the other and for too long.

Craig backed away, not really wanting to hurt Kenny or even fight him. He just wanted it to stop. "How the fuck do you know that?" Craig asked hysterically, "Do you even still talk to Cartman?"

"I talk to Butters," Kenny responded coolly, hand rubbing his throat, "and I talk to Stan. He said you were the one raving about plot lines. People exist off the pages, dude; I have a social life."

"HERE WE GO WITH THIS META BULLSHIT AGAIN!" Craig screamed, fingers burying into his hair and pulling. He caught himself and abruptly shoved those hands into his hoodie pockets. ...He probably needed to hang out with Tweek less.

"You started it," Kenny pointed out, annoyingly calm in juxtaposition to Craig's decided un-calm-ness. "Trust me, I'm no fan of the Plots That Be Either. I think the writers are assholes." He said this loudly, and seemingly to no one in particular, glaring into middle-space.

"I just want to be left out of it. If things would stay nice and boring," Craig said morosely, almost whimpered, "I would be so happy."

Kenny's lips curled mischievously, teeth sharpening into a real grin even as he stayed slouched against his living room wall, "I hate to break it to you, Brosef, but you're an interesting person. Ain't a sideliner."

"Take it back!" Craig stalked back to Kenny and jabbed a finger into his chest, "my friends are involved which means I'm involved. Get me uninvolved, asshole! You owe me, or something."

Kenny shrugged, hand reaching up to grab Craig's wrist to pull it away, "It's too late. And stop that, you're hurting me."

Craig groaned, turning to press his back against the wall and slide to the floor. Kenny watched Craig curl into himself, and took a moment to fish his pockets for a cigarette.

"You done?" Kenny asked around the filter. Craig nodded miserably into his knees. "Look, don't worry about it," Kenny said through his exhale, "I doubt you'll be too affected. It's not like you're gonna end up smeared on some truck-driver's windshield alongside her Vote for Clinton sticker. Or eviscerated by a prehistoric bird." He looked up resentfully at the heavens. "And you're making it worse by caring, dude."

"There's a statewide shortage of toilet paper because Butters is organizing a TP party for homecoming, and the goths are trying to summon yet another preternatural demon from beyond," Craig recited, blandly (a little muffled), "And you're implying that I'm overreacting."

Kenny smiled. "That's just Wednesday around these parts." He poked his tongue through the gap in his front teeth and flicked his lighter on with lazy fingers. He lit up and inhaled, and Craig enviously watched the smoke curl into nothingness. Kenny seemed to think Craig was watching him, or specifically his mouth. He winked, and Craig dropped his eyes to glare at the floor. Fucking asshole.

Craig deigned not to reply to Kenny's disturbing little aphorism, reaching into his hoodie pocket to find a baggie filled with green. He stood. A parting gift was usually a good way to end an uncomfortable conversation.

"I was going to shove this up your ass but. Here, I owe you for smoking me out last week."

"Careful, I might like the former too much," Kenny said, accepting the bag. "And didn't you just say that I owed you?"

"Stop being a smartass. And stop hitting on me." Craig said this humorlessly, his high already wearing into sleepiness.

"If you want."

"Fuck you."

Kenny took one last drag of his cigarette before snuffing it on the wall, adding to the other burns of his dad's shitty house, "Nah." Then he gave Craig a once-over, and sighed. "Hey. Wanna crash on my couch? You look dead on your feet, dude."

Which reflected Craig's sentiments exactly. He assented.

"Because it's stupid," Kyle complained into his phone, sprawled on his bed. He balanced his socked-feet against the wall he shared with Ike, one foot braced on either side of MC Dreidal's insignia. ...God, he needed new posters; this level of un-coolness, he decided, was terminal.

"How is it stupid?" Wendy countered, "C'mon, you hang out with like, two people. Don't you want to expand our horizons?"

"Three," Kyle interrupted. Arguing with Wendy gave him a little bit of a jolt; it made him quicker. He could feel a competitive edge prickling along the left side of his spine, widening his eyes and tightening his grip on the phone.

Now, he could practically hear Wendy's eyes roll over the phone, "Cartman doesn't count. As a friend or a human being. ...Come to the thing, and if you hate it we can leave. Give me one good reason not to give it a try."

"I don't want to," Kyle said simply. He tried not to sound like he was taunting her (verbal sparring with Cartman had trained some bad habits into him), but she had the harder battle on her side.

Wendy went quiet for a moment, presence only as a buzz on the phone, "That's actually a good reason, but you should go because...please."

Kyle snorted, flexing his fingers against his bed's comforter. His pride bubbled rosily as she ceded to his point. "Also, high school parties are pretty much guaranteed to be the lamest thing ever. How did you even get invited?"

"Because I'm super cool and mature and people like me," Wendy said, smug. She was apparently too secure to worry about losing a minor argument, but Kyle liked that about her. He'd never met someone so respectable. She was joking about being mature, but it was obvious her boast was merited.

She continued then, lightly, "If you would stop being self-conscious about some pimples, which everyone has by the way, and over-thinking about whether or not you may or may not run into Stan, I think people would like you, too. More people than just Kenny and I."

"I'm not—" Kyle stopped; no, he was completely self-conscious. He was also totally over Stan abandoning him. He totally didn't care that it was common knowledge the goth kids were going to this lame high school party. Thus, he didn't care he ran a high risk of running into Stan. It didn't matter if he did run into Stan! Even though their lockers were still next to each other, Kyle and Stan had mastered avoiding each other since the second week of school. Stan didn't run his life! Kyle could go wherever he wanted!

"...You know what?" Kyle scowled, irritated that now Wendy was winning, and winning by knowing him too well, "I'll go for like fifteen minutes, and then will you let me go home?"

Wendy squealed, and Kyle pulled the phone away from his ear. Girl had a voice high-pitched enough to break glass.

"Thank you! Now, Kyle look," Wendy started, "I'm really not trying to force you into anything, and I just want you to try something new. I don't mean to pressure you. If you don't want to go, don't. Really. But you have got to admit, this could be great for you. You don't want to restrict yourself to hanging out with the same people all the time!" She added then, more quietly, "And, you know. I like that you're all independent and stuff, especially lately."

Kyle tried not to be too pleased with the compliment. "Um, thanks, I guess," he said uncertainly, "I like that about you too."

Wendy let out an awkward laugh, "I'll see you later."

"Later," Kyle turned off his phone. He stared at it for moment, letting himself grin fondly before turning to his door, "...I know you're there, Ike."

A whine similar to a dying whale vibrated through the door. Kyle waited patiently as the door squeaked open slowly and Ike inch-wormed himself across the floor in his best impression of The Blob.

"Kyyyyyyyyle," Ike whined, "you never do anything with meeee."

Kyle raised an eyebrow and sat up on his bed, "What do you want?"

Ike rolled onto his back and stared up at him. "I need to tell you something," he said seriously. He folded his hands over his belly and regarded Kyle upside down.

Kyle remained unimpressed, setting his foot on his knee and assuming the most shrink-like pose of which he could think.

"It's totally gay that you have a crush on Wendy," Ike said with the seriousness of an eleven-year-old. "Especially since it's keeping you from being cool."

"It's gay. To have a crush on a girl." Kyle said this perfectly matter of factly, and Ike reached out and swatted at his pant leg with impatient fingers.

"It's lame," Ike insisted. His glasses were askew from his antics on the floor, freckles an upside-down map of the constellations. "Super-duper laaaaame, Kyle. You should stop being lame, and be cool instead."

"By 'cool,' you mean 'give you my undivided attention?'" Kyle said flatly, "Hah. Hah. Hah. Dude. Get out of my room."

Ike didn't move. "What happened to Stan? I liked him. He didn't kick me as a child."

"You're still a child," Kyle retorted, "I'll kick you now, if you don't get out of my room."

"What happened to Staaaan?" Ike asked again. He pouted. "Talk to me, Kyle! Taaaaalk to me!"

"Stan's a dick," Kyle said plainly. He wanted Ike to shut up and lately, he could not voice this sentiment enough. "I had to make new friends because he's a whiny emogoth kid, and I can't stand his self-pity anymore."

Ike's mouth quirked in a half-smile, "Firkle said Stan drinks whenever there's a bunch of them. And writes shitty conformist lyrics."

Kyle chose to be purposely oblivious to Ike's attempt to update him, "What the fuck is a Firkle?"

"He's a kid in my grade," Ike said, "he likes to kill small rodents as blood sacrifices, and I think he tattooed a bar code on his wrist with a quilting needle and a jar of ink. Stick-and-poke style. Kind of fucked up, huh?"

"Jesus," Kyle couldn't help the disgust on his face. With this expression, he resembled his mother to a comical degree that tempted Ike to both laugh and cringe.

"You hang out with him?" Kyle asked, still a Sheila-deadringer. 'It was freaky,' Ike thought, shuddering.

Then, Ike started to say something, but backtracked with a smirk. "Why? Will you save me from the bad people around me? I'm younger than everyone and easily influenced."

"For a genius, you're really transparent," Kyle sighed, "And bad at manipulation. ...What do you want?"

Ike looked genuinely sad for a moment, eyebrows squinching together and mouth getting small. "I want to do something totally lame and brotherly with you. Ever since Stan left, you're never around, but you're going to some stupid party this weekend."

Kyle felt a pang of guilt, and shifted to set his chin in his hand. "It's not my fault. Wendy blackmailed me," he argued.

Ike rolled his eyes, "No, she didn't. You think she's pretty, and you want to impress her with your social prowess." He stuck his tongue out and made a face, proving once and for all that he was indeed eleven years old.

Kyle tried not to be amused that Ike was completely correct. Freaking smartass miniature genius. Kyle put his dirty-sock-clad foot on Ike's lolling tongue. "What did you have in mind?"

"Ppfpfffhhhfff!" Ike sat up and brushed frantically at his face. "Kyle! Ew! Sick!" He used his hands to scrape his tongue, spitting and shaking his head. "I hate you," he whined. "You're soooo gross!"

Kyle cracked up. Messing with his little brother was probably his favorite bonding activity. "Sorry," he managed. "But seriously, what do you want to do?"

Ike pouted, but then shrugged—appeased that he was getting his way. He mock-spit one more time and made a grossed-out face, and then he rolled again to sit cross-legged and look Kyle directly. "I dunno. Museum. Game arcade. Let's go to Denver and get lost for like an hour."

Kyle sighed, "All this takes money, and transport, and Denver sucks."

Ike grinned. "Mom and Dad would totally be willing to drive us if they got a few hours of alone time."

Kyle's nose wrinkled. "Um. Ew? Look, how about a movie? Maybe I can shake dad down for arcade and food money in the name of bonding. Next weekend though. I promised Wendy."

"That's good too," Ike seemed happy, and stood to leave. He paused at the door on his way out. "Oh, you might wanna warn your friend Butters."

Kyle frowned. He had barely spoken to Butters all semester. He was surprised Ike even remembered Butters. He shouldn't have been though, probably, he thought. Ike's eidetic memory was something Kyle had envied all his life.

"Warn Butters about what?" Kyle asked. Ike grinned, self-important and proud in his annoying-little-brother-way to know something about Kyle's social circle that Kyle did not know.

"There's totally gonna be a riot at his house," Ike bragged, "not like a death riot, but his toilet paper thing has kind of gotten out of hand. Like, everyone knows."

"Huh," Kyle said musingly, "I'll remember then."

After Ike skipped off, Kyle forgot of course, and all warnings went unsaid.

"Try to dress up a little," Wendy had told him, "But don't look like you tried too hard."

Kyle picked his least dirty clothes and fussed with his hair for two minutes before giving up and finding his old hat. He hadn't been wearing it as much (the lack of ventilation exacerbated the forehead-acne problem), but it was a comfort blanket. He wasn't comfortable with tonight; his gut told him something was going to go wrong. Logically, Kyle knew that his hat had never protected him before. But for some reason, wearing it made him feel a little less like a kid playing dress-up at a grown-ups party.

When the doorbell rang, Kyle ran down the steps leading to the second floor, two at a time. The thundering sound shook the house, almost as much as Sheila's cry from the kitchen: "BUBBELEH, DOOR!"


Wendy, Kyle was very aware, looked fabulous in the low lighting of his front doorstep. Her ponytail and jeans were strategically casual, but the fitted top she wore under her jacket dressed her up just enough for a party. Her lip gloss that made Kyle turn a shade of pink, thinking how he wanted to lick it off her bottom lip. He stared at the lamp post on the sidewalk behind her to avoid staring at her mouth.

"Hey, you." She smiled, and her retainer caught some light.


For a moment they were quiet and unsure of what to do with themselves. Then they started talking again simultaneously.

"You look—"

"—Oh, really?" Wendy huffed in exasperation when she saw the ushanka framing Kyle's face. Kyle closed his mouth to swallow the compliment and deferred.

"...That brings back memories," she added, a touch sarcastic but mostly teasing. "Seems a little regressive."

Kyle nervously tugged the flaps, "Give me this one, Wendy. I don't even want to go."

Wendy's face was speculative, which didn't help with Kyle's self-consciousness. There was a shrewdness that no amount of her youth or lipgloss could soften. She leaned against his doorframe and crossed her arms, and in the dusky light, she lingered outside. Kyle knew that if he were minding his manners, he would have invited her inside. He didn't feel like it.

"...You know people are going to pay more attention to you with it on, right?" She, of course, did the cruelest thing by calling Kyle on the obvious, and blood rushed to his face. Perhaps she didn't mean it, but the effect was the same: Kyle didn't appreciate her bringing attention to something he was self-conscious about since grade school.

"At least they won't see the abomination," Kyle groused. He mostly just wanted to diffuse the subject of the conversation, so it would no longer be entirely focused on him. "And people like my hat. They compliment it."

Wendy smiled at his biting tone. "It's still the worst shade of green."

"That's a matter of perspective." Kyle was happy that even through his haze of embarrassment, he could keep up their banter.

"No, it's literally the worst," Wendy continued to tease, tossing her head prettily and smiling, "Like, bad songs and bad people. That is the worst hat."

Kyle sniffed haughtily for effect, looking down his nose at her. "And this is the worst party."

He wanted to get this over with so he could come home and read that new philosophy book he'd bought. Or finish his replica of Saint Peter's Basilica on Minecraft. Really, the important part was, Kyle could put on his pajamas and not worry about what he was wearing. But it was too late to turn back now; there was no way Wendy was going to let him retreat.

"Come on. Your dad is waiting," he said to her. He sounded cheerless, and Wendy rolled her eyes at him. It was a reaction, not a response. Kyle only caught it in his periphery. It made him feel worse. For that reason, he did not offer Wendy his arm as they walked to Mr. Testaburger's car.

As Wendy and Kyle climbed into the backseat, (Kyle politely held the door open for Wendy before climbing into the other side), Wendy's father eyeballed Kyle distrustfully. Kyle thought this was a little unfair, as Mr. Testaburger had known Kyle for the majority of Kyle's life. Kyle had never done anything to merit an unhappy once-over! Well, nothing that could be proven in a court of law.

"I see neither of you dressed up for this dance." Mr. Testaburger frowned.

"It's casual," Wendy spoke in a half-truth, as she buckled herself into the back. Kyle followed suit."I mean, it's just homecoming, not prom."

"Well then," Mr. Testaburger relented. He started driving. Kyle noticed he didn't use his turn signal before pulling into the road. "And you're going to Bebe's after?"

"Yes, Dad." Wendy sounded a pinch irritated. "And no, Kyle's not coming to that. Girls only."

Mt. Testaburger looked into his car mirror at Kyle, scowling, "And you, do you have a ride home?"

Kyle shrunk at the fatherly glare and tried to act contrite. That glare was familiar, and even on Wendy it sort of scared him—let alone on her much larger father.

"Yessir. I have a friend with a car." Kyle cleared his throat. "And a license. A real one. I promise."

Mr. Testaburger finally seemed satisfied. He sighed heavily, shoulders slumping, "Kyle Broflovski," he said wistfully, watching the scenery as he drove. "And my baby. You've both grown up so much."

"Dad," Wendy gave her father a 'look'. "No pictures. Come on. You swore." Wendy's embarrassment at the behest of her nostalgic parent threatened to engulf the car. Kyle didn't think he—or Wendy for that matter—could turn more red.

"Well excuse me," Mr. Testaburger huffed, "My baby is going on a 'date'. I want to document it!"

"Dad no," Wendy protested weakly. She offered Kyle an apologetic glance. "It's just homecoming. There're gonna be a whole bunch of us. You can document prom all you want."

"You say that. But you're just going to be my little Iron Jawed Angel and ditch out because it's patriarchal or something." Mr. Testaburger sounded paradoxically exasperated and proud. "My feisty girl-power fighter."

Wendy smiled. Kyle saw her try to resist, but apparently, she couldn't help it. "Am I a cliche already, Dad?"

"Never. You're an original." Mr. Testaburger just sounded pleased now. But quickly, his attention turned to Kyle again. His fatherly glow dipped into the red zone, and Kyle felt heat rise under his collar.

"Think you can keep up with her, son?"

Kyle sunk into his seat, desperately wanting to hide. Between Wendy vehemently denying any dating status (It was kind of a date, Kyle thought. A pre-date maybe. He didn't know how these things worked), and her father's obvious assumption that it was a date, Kyle wasn't sure how to play it to avoid angering them both.

"I'm. Um. I'm gonna try," Kyle volunteered. He sounded squeaky, so he cleared his throat. "...Sir."

Mr. Testaburger just grunted. Kyle wondered if that meant it was an acceptable answer. Wendy appeared deep in thought as she peered out the window, so Kyle figured he was mostly in the clear with her at least.

"Say, Wendy, you haven't had a real boyfriend since the Marsh kid," Mr. Testaburger continued, tapping his fingers,"What ever happened to him?"

Wendy's expression soured for a second, but then shifted into confusion. Kyle didn't fail to miss the annoyed look, and his curiosity rose. He hadn't heard about any blow-outs between Wendy and Stan recently. He was sure someone would have told him. Why was she—

"Wait, I never told you about Stan?" Wendy said uncertainly to her father.

Mr. Testaburger smiled widely. "Ten-year-olds are terrible at secrets. ...Not that he counted as a real boyfriend, since you both were so little."

Kyle thought about Ike. He still knew where Ike kept his "secret" diary" (not that he read it frequently anymore). He also knew where Ike stashed his allowance and his porn (inside a fake History of Paris book on his bookshelf, third tier). Kyle guessed Mr. Testaburger was probably right.

"How?" Wendy demanded, but she laughed through her insistence.

"Oh well you know you've got to shock the monkey!" Mr. Testaburger sang loudly, and he slammed his palms against the steering wheel.

"Oh my Mary Astell! Dad!" Wendy shrieked, giggling and thoroughly humiliation-red. She kicked the back of his seat.

"You're gonna get us into an accident, Wendy-Pendy!" Mr. Testaburger scolded, still laughing.

"Your fault!"

As they sniped, Kyle watched with amazement and...a little jealousy. He could not imagine this kind of relationship with his own parents. Wendy and her dad were almost friends. Despite this, Kyle was extremely relieved to no longer be the subject of Mr. Testaburger's attention. There was nowhere to escape in a moving car, after all.

As she settled, Wendy shook her head, amused, "To answer your question, Dad, Stan and I are still friends. Sort of. ...He's been acting weird this year."

"Ah," Mr. Testaburger said. He eyed the backseat through the rearview mirror (which had been strategically tipped down for just that purpose, Kyle noticed. He wondered what the safety repercussions of that were). "That's too bad. He was a sweet kid."

When Mr. Testaburger pulled in front of the high school, Wendy gathered a large carpet bag over her shoulder.

"Nice purse," Mr. Testaburger teased.

"Would you rather I blow my allowance on designer bags like all the other little girls?" Wendy tsked. "You raised me better than that."

"That I did," Mr. Testaburger rolled down the window, and looked over them, fondly. "Have fun, Wendy. I love you."

"I love you too." She leaned over and gave her dad a peck on the cheek. "And don't spoil the answers from Jeopardy when I come home tonight!"

"No promises! Be careful!" Mr. Testaburger waved and drove away. When he disappeared down the block, Wendy turned to Kyle with an apologetic smile. Kyle didn't know why, but he felt...fond. Wendy seemed warm and familiar to him, after watching her with her father. Kyle felt like he knew something deeper about her. It made her...human. It made her cute.

"Dear Sappho," Wendy rubbed her face in her hands, careful not to smudge her eyeliner with her fingers, "That was so awkward. I'm sorry. And everything keeps going back to Stan."

Kyle shifted, shoving his hands into his jean pockets. He didn't want to talk about Stan. He wanted to think about how pretty Wendy was and maybe kiss her later. He wanted to put an arm around her shoulder, maybe. Wendy pulled out her phone, to warn people of their imminent arrival probably. A piece of hair stuck to her mouth, and she brushed it away. Kyle swallowed, and steeled himself. Her little hands, moving across her face, decided something in him.

"Um, you know," He said hesitantly, "It can be a date. If you want," he was aware of Wendy looking at him, and so he stared in any direction but hers.

She didn't say anything for a moment, and Kyle got nervous. He backpedalled and felt the brakes squealing in his brain.

"Doesn't have to be. Just if you want. I'm cool. ...I mean I'm cool with either." God, he was horrible at this. The school was so quiet at night, nothing but the flag flapping quietly in a breeze. The lack of noise pollution just made the sound of blood beating sound louder in Kyle's ears.

Then Wendy's face bloomed into a smile. "Okay. But you have to promise to have fun tonight. No moping."

Kyle was so relieved that his knees felt like the tendons had come undone. His stupid smile seemed too big to fit on his dumb face. He kept sneaking glances at Wendy, unable to look at her too long, but just as unable not to look.

"Earth to Kyle?' Wendy stepped closer and peered up at him. She lifted a playful eyebrow. "So...?"

"Yeah," he grinned, "Yeah of course. And since when have I ever moped?" Kyle resisted adding: "who do I look like, Stan?" because he wanted this moment—just this one—all to himself.

Wendy laughed, and they headed to the football field. Or, more accurately, Kyle floated to the football field, tethered only by Wendy's hand in his.

"Do you even know where this thing is?" Cartman asked as he watched Butters' transformation. Not that he found it interesting—he'd seen it a thousand times. He just wanted to make sure the hippie didn't screw up the lipliner again. Butters sucked hard at lipliner.

"Why, of course I do, Eric." Butters said as he carefully applied gloss to his lips in Liane's vanity mirror. "Stacy Parkinson's parents are gone for the weekend, but they left so she could do this thing. She and her boyfriend just broke up, so...I guess she invited way too many people." Butters turned and grinned at Cartman. "If you ask me, she's looking for a rebound. I reckon tonight's as good as any to do it."

Cartman stared. "Since when are you a gossipy bitch?"

"Since Trisha Kelly told me they need more boys on the cheerleading team." Butters dabbed some residual mascara from his cheek with a tissue before he seemed satisfied. He chuckled. "She didn't know back then that I ain't a boy. Not all the time, anyhow. Say, help me with the wig?"

Cartman knew Butters was perfectly capable of putting the wig on himself and was trying to make him feel included in his routine. Cartman didn't know if he was irritated or flattered. Irritated, definitely, Eric decided as he watched Butters fix a bra strap that had fallen off his shoulder. Totally irritated.

"This is so gay and lame. This whole thing. Stacy Parkinson, you. You're all a buncha fucking queermos." Cartman huffed and studied Butters' sparkly hair clip selection: butterflies and ladybugs, mostly—Cartman knew Butters' favorite was a little circle of daisies with two red bugs inside it. Together, the ladybugs formed a heart. So. Fucking. Gay.

"Ah, I figure if I'm going to be called a bitch my whole life, well, I might as well own it," Butters said, in colder voice than Cartman would have expected.

"Damn, ho." Eric was, unable of course to let Butters have the last word, shock or no.

Butters sighed, but otherwise fell silent. He worked on setting a tiny drop of glue to the tip of some fake partial lashes. Cartman quickly grew bored, as Butters had given him no obvious leeway to make an offensive retort. So Eric resorted to helping the process go faster. Then he could get the fuck out of this room and Ru Butters' Drag Show. He thought he was probably starting to get high from being locked in close quarters with Butters' excessive perfume. It made Cartman hungry, too. It smelled like coconut but was tasted nothing like coconut-flavored snacky cakes. Not that Cartman had secretly tried some from the bottle or anything. That would be stupid. And somewhat painful. ...It was a goddamn tease, that's what it was.

As Butters waited for the glue on the lashes to become tacky, Eric carefully rearranged the wig so gold ringlets fell halfway down Butters' back. Butters applied a second coat of mascara as Cartman brushed the ends of the wig out. Finally, after Cartman was done fussing with the bangs, Marjorine turned and looked over her shoulder, smiling brilliantly.

"Thanks, Eric," she said happily. She puckered her lips, did a last check, and then her smile turned just a touch wicked. "Heh. Let's go fuck up this town."

Eric's heart gave a funny little lurch. He punched his chest to make it stop. Unfortunately, the gesture made him cough. The coughing seemed to inspire that douchewad, overly-caring, hippie-of-a-cunt Marjorine take his arm, which made Eric's heart do the Mexican hat dance again. Eric grew more sure every day that she was doing this to him on purpose.

"Are you ok?" She looked at him through her lashes when she asked.

"Shut the fuck up and get your tits out of my face," Cartman pulled away, and brushed off his arm as if to rid it from cooties. Marjorine didn't seem upset or even surprised.

"Okay," she said, and flounced out in front of him. Cartman most certainly did not watch her bedazzled ass sway as she all but skipped down the stairs.

As he watched most-certainly-not-her-ass, Cartman decided if he couldn't nip this thing in the bud, he would have no choice but to kill himself. Probably. In the meantime, all he could do was kill hookers in Grand Theft Auto and pretend they were all Marjorine and/or Butters.

When they had descended down the stairs, Liane heard and peered from outside the kitchen, "Oh Marjorine," Liane gushed, "You look absolutely gorgeous."

"Thank you, Ms. Cartman!" Marjorine twirled a little. Light caught on the glitter on her cheeks. "Eric helped me a whole lot."

"Yeah, whatever," was all Eric could manage, because she took his arm again right after that. Ugh. Girls and all their touchy crap—'who needed it?' Cartman wondered as he blushed.

"Let's go! It's already late." Marjorine glowed as she ushered them to the door. Cartman shuffled awkwardly at her bidding. He would have pulled his arm away, but he was too gangster to hurt her feelings. ...Or something actually believable.

Marjorine knew the way to Stacy Parkinson's house, and gave chirpy directions as Liane drove. When Liane pulled up to drop the two off, she offered a wave.

"Have fun, kids," she said cheerily, "Practice safe sex!"

Cartman turned an impressive shade of red. "Maaaaaahm!"

Marjorine laughed and wrapped her arm around Cartman's to tug him to the back gate of the house.

"Thanks for the ride, Liane!" Marjorine called behind her. "Have a safe drive home!"

"Fucking kiss ass," muttered Cartman, still bitter.

The muffled vibration of music echoed within ten feet of their approach. There was an almost-kinetic, thumping energy the moment they stepped in the backyard: at least fifty people buzzed around mingling, red solo cups and suspiciously tinted water bottles in hand. Their classmates drank illegally-obtained alcohol like the apocalypse was coming tomorrow. They laughed loudly, danced sloppily, and stood too close to each other. No one particularly noticed when Marjorine breezed in her in skinny jeans, heels and baby blue cami with a girlish sports jacket thrown over to hide her lack of chest. It was a testament to how stupid the kids in South Park were, Eric thought. They didn't even notice when the hottest girl in the room walked in.

"STACY," Marjorine crowed, and rushed over.

"You sexy bitch, get over here!" Stacy screamed back, delighted. They hugged and jumped around, voices pitched to irritate dogs. Observing them, Eric backed away slowly, and decided it was time to peace out—before they got big crushes on him, and started stalking him like the Justin Timberlake fangirls they were. He was doing them a favor by not overwhelming them with his hot body, really.

Clyde Donovan was asleep on a lawn chair, clutching a backpack. Cartman was sure he wasn't drunk, just bored. It was an opportunity Eric could not pass up. For opportunities just like this one, he kept a small felt-tip marker in his back pocket. Quiet as a fox, Eric approached Clyde's limp, sleeping body. He waited a moment at Clyde's shoulder to gauge how deeply asleep Clyde really was. He blew on Clyde's face. When Clyde didn't stir, Eric grinned. He uncapped the pen and drew in a very artful unibrow. He added a dick by Clyde's mouth, for class. With gargantuan and impressive restraint, Cartman held in his giggles until he was a safe fifteen feet away. Then, he capped his pen, and celebrated his little victory with a bout of well-deserved evil laughter. A few party-goers gave him weird looks, but they were uncreative, selfish idiots. Eric had just taught Clyde life's most important lesson: don't ever let your guard down around a bunch of hippie boozers.

As Eric wandered around, looking for a peer worthy of his time and attention, he heard a familiar, confused voice wonder out-loud: "...Is that Butters?" in the distance.

Cartman followed the sound of small-minded shock, and lo, there was Kyle standing awkwardly behind Wendy and Token. The two resident members of the Minority Geek Squad were talking to some upperclassmen. Suck ups. Eric rolled his eyes and trotted over to crash the party. You're fucking welcome, he thought loudly in the upperclassmen's direction, as he made prolonged and meaningful eye contact. He'd just saved their asses from the most boring conversation of their lives. Then, almost immediately, upperclassmen made their exit, obviously recognizing that the alpha dog had arrived and they could not hope to compete. Eric crossed his arms smugly; of course they kow-towed to his superiority and left. What else could they do to save their precious dignity?

"Ey! Jew!" Cartman bellowed. He watched Kyle cringe and turn to find the source, recognition flitting across his face before changing into something similar to relief. The relief threw Cartman so hard he forgot to follow up with the comment he'd been preparing just for Kyle all night. ("Is that a kosher salami in your pants, or are you just happy to see me?" It would have been great, Cartman thought remorsefully as soon as the moment had passed).

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Kyle said. He was holding a cup and smelled faintly of rum and punch. "I didn't think the seniors even knew who you were."

Wendy only bothered to acknowledge Cartman for half a second. She shot him her most stuck-up and annoyed bitch-pout, before pointedly turning her attention back to conversation with Token like the preppy ho she was. Eric made a mental note to put dog-poo in her binder later for the slight.

"Same for you, Kahl," Cartman puffed out his chest, trying to make himself taller. Not that it did much good, as Kyle had an inch on him. Cartman figured he'd win out in the long-haul though, when Kyle developed his miserly Jew-hunch. So Eric didn't let it get to him much.

"If you weren't so busy hiding your huge nose behind a book, you'd know I'm like, super popular." Eric bragged. "In fact, I can only stay for a hot minute. I have like, five other parties to make appearances at tonight." If he were more immature, he would have added "so there!" But Eric was beyond such petty childishness.

Kyle rolled his eyes but was smiled faintly, "Since when were you popular enough to miss Friday night game night with Kenny and me?"

Cartman huffed, "Since Marjorine apparently knows everyone." He felt an entirely-coincidental-and-not-jealous-at-all pang in his belly. Cartman took it as a sign that he ought to find a plate of appetizers before it turned into heartburn.

"I have friends in high places, Kahl. I don't taint myself by hanging out with unwashed social justice warriors and their token charity cases," he said as he scanned for food.

"I'm out," Token's resolve to pretend Eric wasn't there broke in that instant. "We'll talk later, Wendy. See you around, Kyle." He waved, and headed off—insultingly fast, Eric thought. God, no one could take a joke anymore. It was just like Eric always said: The Discourse was fucking ruining all the good parties. He hoped the hippies were happy.

"Guess there wasn't enough Black Panther in this party for him." Eric shrugged. "Poor Token."

"Shut up Cartman," Kyle punched Cartman's shoulder. But the beautiful part was, Cartman thought, that he finally had Wendy's attention. Her brows came together on her forehead, and he could practically see the steam curling out of her ears. Perfect. The best way to defeat Wendy's cold-shoulder was to get her fired up—it worked every goddamn time.

"Kyle," Wendy complained, "I thought you'd at least try to talk to someone else." Stubborn ho was still pretending Cartman wasn't there! Well, he'd show her. Eric cleared his throat.

"Oho, so. You're tired of licking vag and joining the shrewish housewife's circle at last." Eric chuckled. "I knew it. Feminists always go back to making pies and kissing their men's feet in the end."

"The whole point of this was for you to socialize." Wendy's posture was as stiff as a pedophile's dick at a Wiggles concert. Her voice was nails on a chalkboard (like that was fucking unique). But she irritatedly flicked her hair back, like a horse trying to flick off flies with its tail, so Eric knew she wasn't immune. He just needed to apply a liiiitttle more pressure.

Kyle avoided meeting Wendy's eyes, "Look, I'm drinking," he held up his very weak drink, "And, standing here," he took a sip and swallowed, "Fun."

"I see that you've already broken him in," Eric whistled. Then he made a whip-cracking sound. "This mare breaks easy, huh? Good for you, Wendy!"

Wendy's fist twitched into a ball. Kyle must have noticed it, because he immediately repositioned himself so that he was somewhat between them. It was totally weak, in Eric's opinion. Kyle didn't know Wendybitch at all if he thought she needed protecting.

"Eric. Just stop it." Kyle tried to intervene like the pussy he was, of course. "Can't you, for once—"

Two boys charged between Kyle and Eric. They wielded pool table sticks like swords, and Eric only narrowly missed being beaned in the back of the head by a haphazardly swinging cue. One of the boys sloshed something that smelled suspiciously like vodka and Hawaiian Punch on Wendy's jacket.

"Fuck me, sorry," the douche apologized. He slurred slightly, and his crew socks were fucking unnecessary, Eric thought. Asshole jocks thought the world was their locker room.

"Shit!" Wendy uselessly pawed at her wet jacket. She then took it off, and Eric watched Kyle swallow involuntarily. Man, that guy really was whipped.

"Could you hold this?" Wendy handed the sopping item to Kyle as she fussed with her outfit. Naturally, Kyle took her bullshit like the hat rack Eric knew he was.

"Aw, man, our bad." Douche 2 added. Eric took the opportunity to speak his piece.

"Hey, this is a private conversation, you twat-munchers! Go reenact Brokeback Mountain somewhere else, before you put someone's goddamn eye out!" Eric waved a hand. "Ahm-scray!"

"It was an accident," Kyle sighed, trying to make peace. He handed Wendy back her jacket after shaking it out for her. "Leave it alone, Eric. Sorry, guys."

"S'fine." Douche 1 was already beginning to stumble back into the crowd of fellow drunken morons. He dragged the pool cue behind him like a tail. "S'cool."

Douche 2 looked like he had something else to say, but only made a disgusted noise and followed after his friend. Herd animals, Eric thought, shaking his head. Of course it was too much to ask for these sheeple to think for themselves.

Eric, Wendy and Kyle watched the pair stumble and topple into drunken dancers and bystanders. A few enraged female voices cried out indignantly as Douche 1 and Douche 2 nearly bowled them over. But the mood did not tense up. People were mostly laughing. Someone was dancing on the deck's wooden picnic table.

"Take your top off!" Cartman called through his hands to the dancer. "Quick, someone tip her!"

"Eric! I swear to EMMA GOLDMAN, I said I was above your crap, but I will kick your ass right here!" Wendy scolded. The simultaneous fear and thrill Eric felt when Wendy got particularly riled made bells go off in Eric's head. Ah, the sweet and terrifying music of Wendy's PMS.

"Bring it, bitch!" Eric said, as he immediately began searching for an escape route. The a small group of freshmen just a few paces off seemed promising. Wendy would be less likely to harm younger human shields.

"Eric!" Marjorine came flying out of the crowd at the perfect moment, hair bouncing around her shoulders. She stumbled to a halt, "We're going to play Kings to get drunk, you should come!"

Kyle and Wendy stared. Enviously, Eric thought. No amount of tits or booze could make either of these two into socially acceptable human beings. But Marjorine was clearly bell of the ball, Eric thought, and was weirdly a little proud of himself for being her highest-quality friend.

"Butters?" Wendy asked. She blinked fast, and adjusted her tone immediately. "I mean, Butters! Hi! How are you?"

"Yeah, hi, Butters." Kyle added, sheepishly. He lifted his drink. "Great party."

"It's Marjorine!" Marjorine corrected cheerfully, "You guys should come too, it's mostly seniors there."

"Ah, come on, Marj, why did you have to invite these wet blankets?" Cartman whined. "Fuck them, let's go."

"Come on, no. Fellas. Eric. Guys. Wendy," Marjorine grabbed Kyle's shoulders, and that's when everyone knew she was already drunk, "We're all gonna to wait until everyone is plastered, and then we're going to my house!" She turned and grabbed Cartman's hand, "C'mon let's go!"

Kyle and Wendy exchanged a glance. They didn't follow, too busy watching Eric trail Marjorine like a balloon on a string.

"Dude," Kyle said, "Does Butters...Marjorine, have Cartman whipped? When the fuck did that happen?"

Wendy made a face, "Eww! Maybe a better choice of words. Let's not think about that."

Kyle decided he actually needed a stronger drink. The noise level was rising, which wracked increasingly against his nerves. He threw back the rest of his cup and found his way back to the rum. Someone had knocked over a bottle of Sprite all over the yard table that was being used as a makeshift drink bar. Red solo cups floated on the soda like leaves in a pond, and of course, absolutely nobody made a single effort to wipe any of the soda off. It dripped from the table down onto Stacy Parkinson's patio. Kyle could practically feel the inevitable ants crawling across his skin. The internal voice of his mother reached fever-pitch.

But more prominent in his mind was the look Wendy would definitely give him if she caught him cleaning. Cleaning wasn't fun, and Kyle was a man of his word. He'd promised to be fun. Stacy would have to deal with her own goddamn ants and stickiness. Kyle poured his drink and moved on, proud of himself. Who said he didn't know how to party? He thought, as he wove through the crowd in search of Wendy.

The night continued to become drunker, louder, and bigger. People kept leaving and showing up, and though they were still in South Park, Kyle felt like he was in a completely unfamiliar place. Wendy periodically looked over to smile at him, and the alcohol made her giggly and warm. Kyle figured it was contagious. He felt pretty warm too. Wendy had red in her cheeks from the drinking, and the sloppy way she held her cup was particularly endearing to Kyle. It might have also been the fact that he was on his third, but Kyle almost started to enjoy himself. Token found his way to them again, and Kyle liked that he had people to stand around with, pretending to belong. Maybe that's all belonging actually was.

The music changed genres. Top 40 to House music—Kyle wondered who'd swapped in their iPhone. But eventually (and who knew when; Kyle was finding it hard to keep accurate track of time. It just kind of melted, and slid by in a slurry), the music was drowned out. There were just too many people the backyard for a home sound-system to compete. People moved inside as it grew colder, and as Kyle looked around, the yard seemed full of strangers. He'd bet half these guests didn't know who Stacy Parkinson was. Hell, Kyle didn't even really know who she was!

About an hour and a half into the party (at least, Kyle thought that was how long it had been), Kyle heard the shattering of glass from the patio. The boys with the pool sticks had begun fencing again, and in the scramble to clear an area around them, someone knocked over the punch table. The air of rowdiness was as uncomfortable to breathe as ash in the air for the son of Sheila Broflovski. At the horrible sound of Eric Cartman yelling at everyone to "get their fucking hipster asses inside for karaoke!," Kyle knew it was just about time for he and Wendy to leave. He wanted to be long gone before any cops showed up, or worse, before the mosh pits started. The South-Park-crazy could be triggered by any form of chaos. Competitive karaoke with Eric Cartman was an obvious omen, and Kyle knew the signs well.

But as Kyle looked around for Wendy (when had she wandered away? And when had people begun to stand so close together? The crowd was so thick that Kyle could barely see five feet in front of himself), he instead found yet another omen. This omen was another guest, who possessed rather familiar fop of curly, dark hair. Kyle had been expecting this guest, but had (happily) avoided seeing him or any of his kin all evening. Kyle's good luck had apparently run out. The Omen towered over of his classmates, even more so than usual while standing on the picnic table—which had been used as a stage at varying points in the night. The black platform boots and dark eyeliner were unmistakable.

It was that tall goth-kid. Kyle only realized then that he'd never learned the names. The tall goth was chanting. Kyle couldn't make it out, but it sounded pretty angry. The goth-kid also held a white something-or-other, and Kyle's hazy, tipsy brain only registered it as toilet paper when the goth-kid flung into to his audience. The white paper unfurled as it sailed into enthusiastic waiting hands.

With that, Kyle could feel the mass around him shift from crowd to mob. Panic washed over him and his search for Wendy became desperate. His vision blurred, his steps were clumsy, but he managed to find her.

"Wendy!" he yelled, pushing through the crowd. He reached for her, afraid he might fall over when he lost momentum. "We need to get out of here!"

Wendy turned to him, eyes glinting and wild. She lifted her carpet bag for Kyle's inspection, and his stomach sunk. He'd forgotten about that thing. He'd thought it insignificant and eccentric. Now, it seemed sinister. (...God, it was an ugly bag, though; Kyle was kind of glad Wendy wasn't carrying it around for fashion).

"It's time," Wendy said in a voice that sent chills down Kyle's spine.

In a singular screeching moment, Kyle remembered everything Ike had told him a few days prior.

"Oh it's time?" Marjorine, blue eyes brighter than Kyle had ever seen them, appeared beside Wendy. "I should show them," she said. She looked so determined, knocking her tiny knuckles together.

Kyle was convinced that everyone in the vicinity was certifiably insane. Marjorine forced her way on top to the table with the goth. She began shouting down to the people below, giving instructions as to exactly where they should go and what they should do. Kyle was shocked. He'd expecting stuttering and apologies that were nowhere to be found in her missives.

The drunken confusion lifted like a haze. At least one person seemed to know where to send everyone; the rest followed. Butters may not have been able to command an audience, but Marjorine sure could. Kyle couldn't have left the mob, even if he had wanted to abandon Wendy (which he'd seriously contemplated, to his shame). Like a well-timed parade, the mob moved as one body and started filing from the back yard, pulling Kyle along.

Seemingly all at once, rolls of toilet paper flew like confetti. The sky whitened with wasted hygiene product, and Kyle could hardly see any blue. Kyle thought they may run out before they made it to Butters' house, but he realized later: he severely underestimated how much toilet paper was present. Any given Costco warehouse had nothing on the South Park senior class (and guests) that night.

Streamers arched over trees and cars, leaving a mess of white chaos in their wake. Kyle marched along quietly, witnessing the gleeful destruction. Wendy handed out toilet paper from her bag, which seemed bottomless. The goths skulked near the fringe of the mob. Kyle kept a peripheral eye on them, though not too closely. He didn't really want to, he just couldn't help it much.

He also wondered where the police were. They were not being quiet.

He didn't know how long they traveled. The sky got darker, and the streetlights made the faces of friends and strangers unfamiliar. Kye couldn't even hear the party music after a while. It felt like they'd trek on like that forever, yelling and flinging and drinking, but then...

There was a moment of reverence for the single unsullied house before them.

"Donna Haraway, I hate this guy," Kyle heard someone murmur beside him.

"Wendy," he tried weakly. Wendy looked at him, still burning with a rage he didn't know lived inside her. The shadows seemed to darken her eyes to jet-black, and the harshness in the sharp line of her mouth was the subtlest and truest anger Kyle had ever seen.

"I'm tired of all the bystanderism," she growled, clutching a partially unwrapped toilet paper roll. "Come on, guys! Let's take it to him! Teach this asshole a lesson!" She stood her tiptoes when she yelled, and several shouts of affirmation and raised fists/rolls of toilet paper immediately followed her battlecry.

Kyle, personally, didn't think a state's supply of toilet paper was going to teach Stephen Stotch anything, but it was too late: until whatever was in Wendy's system was gone, she was going nowhere. None of them were, it seemed. Kyle could abandon them, but then he would be alone and apart. The mob was a unit, and Kyle could either be part of the organism or strike out on his own. Voices cried out around him, and Kyle felt very warm under his hat. He closed his eyes a minute, oh goddamnit, he'd just stay five more minutes. He knew they should've gotten out when they had the chance.

Marjorine did the honors. She sat on Eric Cartman's shoulders, and with a shrill scream of "FUCK YOU, DAD!," she let fly a single roll through the air. It landed on the roof before bouncing and rolling to the ground like a slow-motion bullet in a movie. A cheer reverberated, and then a hail of the toilet paper descended.

Kyle could only watch helplessly as the mass around him gave into insanity. He yelped when someone shoved past him and sent him flying into the ground. He got to his feet, palms stinging, and he hissed through his teeth as he brushed rocks from the scrapes. Immediately, he realized his hat had tumbled off during the fall, so he had to get back down amongst the dust and scuffing feet to retrieve it. Several people nearly kicked him in the nose. He only barely managed to swipe his hat from under carelessly tramping boots.

Kyle stood and dutifully dusted dirt from the soft green corduroy. When he was satisfied his hat had been restored to dignity, he jammed his hat back on his head yanked the flaps down over his ears. It was about time to leave, he thought, ruffled. Whether Wendy liked it or not—whether Wendy came with him or not—Kyle was fucking out of here. This sucked.

Unavoidably, as he scanned for Wendy, he was greeted with the sight of Marjorine. Standing at the front of the crowd, she viciously threw toilet paper rolls. Streetlights like fire backlit, and sirens from cars rang like her own hellish soundtrack. For a second, Kyle was kind of transfixed. Damn, was all he could think.

...Kyle made a noise when a roll hit him in the face. Bewildered, he looked around. Another roll hit him, this time in the shoulder. "Dude! What the f—"

"YOU," screamed a familiar voice. It was immediately sobering, and Kyle's buzz dropped unhappily dead.

Kyle found the source of his attack, and he recoiled when he saw Stan stalking toward him. The very thing Kyle had been avoiding all night had caught up with him at last. As Stan stomped in a beeline for Kyle, he plucked up abandoned rolls of paper and chucked them at Kyle with all his might.

"Stan, what the fuck!?" Kyle held up his arms under the barrage. "Stop that!" he demanded, more annoyed than anything. Toilet paper bounced harmlessly off his shirt. Stan looked ready to murder him, but it seemed to Kyle that Stan hadn't really thought that one out. Stan's weapon of choice wasn't doing the trick.

"You!" Stan cried again, "Y-you. ASSHOLE."

"Eloquent." Kyle said dryly. "Dude, cut it out!" He picked up a roll that hadn't rolled very far off and flung it back at Stan halfheartedly.

"Not cool, Stan," he scolded. "Come on. This is stupid." But Stan had no intention of a ceasefire. He walked all the way to to Kyle and stood way too close. Stan only stopped when they were literally face-to-face; Kyle could smell the whiskey on Stan's breath. When Stan attempted to make eye contact, he wavered a moment. Kyle had grown another inch and was bordering on towering over him. Stan wasn't used to the extra second it took for them to meet eyes.

"You," Stan sniffled, "You left me."

Kyle scowled. "You stopped talking to me," he countered.

"You left me! When I was sad!" Stan said tearfully, wavering on his feet and unable to focus his eyes. He kept looking at Kyle, looking at his surroundings without any apparent recollection of where he actually was. "We're super bests, Kyle. You're supposed to be there for me."

That hurt. Worse, right after Stan said it, he pressed his hands to his face and gave a couple little sobs. They shook his shoulders, and left his face a slimey, wet mess. Stan looked like a lost child, gazing around blankly as he tried to find a way home.

"I'm sorry Kyle. I'm sorry I'm so. I'm so fucked. I'm so fucked up." Stan hiccuped and swayed.

As Kyle watched Stan babble and apologize, he realized Stan was drunk out of his mind. Though annoyance swelled in Kyle's chest, but he had been patient before. And weeks of not having Stan's negativity, radiating through Kyle's life and rotting it from within, gave Kyle renewed patience. He took a deep breath.

"Look. Stan, it's okay, it's just. It's just. I don't know, man! You never tell me what's actually wrong," Kyle said slowly and softly, trying to steady him. "I don't know what you want."

Stan blinked up at him, stumbling briefly on nothing before catching himself, "I want—"

He gagged and turned a shade of green that Kyle had never seen before. Before Kyle could so much as ask "woah, are you ok, dude?," Stan vomited on Kyle's shirt. He dropped to his knees then, clutching his stomach and moaned. People gave them a wide berth after that, and the immediate area quieted as Stan wretched. No one tried to help him up, but at least no one stepped on him.

"Aw, sick," Kyle complained, holding his arms away from himself. The watery vomit dripped down the front of Kyle's party clothes, and smelled so sharp and sour that Kyle's eyes watered. ...But very soon, as he watched Stan's lids flutter, heard his hiccuping dry heaves, Kyle realized there were bigger worries. Judging by the entirely-liquid content of the puke, Stan hadn't eaten recently. He'd vomited nothing but bile and whiskey onto Kyle's shoes and coat. Stan coughed as he fell onto his side, moaning. His eyes stopped fluttering, stopped opening all together. Kyle's heart followed suit as Stan's hands went limp, body an unmoving "c" shape in the dust.

"Oh fuck," Kyle looked around wildly. The crowd was starting to thin. "Oh fuck, oh fuck."

He knelt down and tried to raise Stan to a sitting position. He shook Stan, hard, but Stan's head lolled from his neck, and drool and vomit dangled in a string from his mouth. Stan was so heavy, much heavier than he looked. His eyeliner smeared halfway down his face and he kept coughing and heaving, even though nothing came out. Kyle couldn't lift him on his own, that was for sure. But he couldn't just leave Stan here. He didn't know what to do. Stan was still breathing, but Kyle was pretty sure they needed an ambulance. Fast. But then there would be questions, and they'd all get into trouble...

"Fucking numbnuts."

Kyle looked up. One of the goth kids stood over them. Not the tall one, Kyle thought, though they were all kind of similar. This one had a red, skunky thing going on with his bangs. His acne made Kyle feel, selfishly, a little better about his own. And his presence at Stan's side brought a measure of relief. Sure, he was just some weird goth kid, but now Kyle didn't have to figure this out by himself.

"Fuck. Shit. Broflovski," the goth kid said, panicking, "We need to get him out of here. He's been drunk for three days. I told Henrietta we ought to, like. Make him stop. Ugh. I told them all the party would be a conformist cesspool, and that Raven couldn't handle it. ...This is so lame. God, it sucks so much."

Kyle felt guilty. First, because the goth kid knew his name, but Kyle wasn't even sure he'd ever known the goth's name. Second, because the goth kid probably knew Kyle's name because Stan talked about him. Which meant Stan missed him. Which meant that Kyle really had abandoned him, and this was all at least partially Kyle's fault for not doing anything, even though he fucking knew this would happen. He had KNOWN Stan would do this to him! Goddamnit it Stan always did this. Kyle was almost as pissed as he was worried, and almost as guilty as the other two emotions combined.

"What the fuck," Kyle couldn't believe this is how the night was ending. Not with kissing Wendy on Bebe's doorstep. Not with his social place secured and ten new friends But with Stan's head in his lap as Kyle tried to make sure Stan didn't die from alcohol poisoning or dehydration. Kyle wanted to be mad. He wanted to scream at Stan for putting him in this position, for ruining fucking everything. For making him feeling guilty for being pissed and pissed about feeling guilty. Kyle's stomach was in knots, and his heart thudded with frustrated rage.

But Stan was unconscious, so yelling wouldn't do any good. Kyle settled for turning on Stan's replacement friend.

"You guys are supposed to be his friends! How the fuck did you let him get like this?"

"Hey, what? Come on, Honor Roll. Tch. You're his friend too." The goth rolled his eyes, but to Kyle's petty satisfaction, he also saw a flash of regret from under the goth's unkempt bangs.

"We're taking a break!" Kyle defended, somewhat deliriously. Stan had begun shivering a little, and it was really worrisome. Kyle's worry fractured his other emotions, and he touched Stan's clammy forehead as he felt for a pulse. When he found it, it was faint.

"...C'mon, let's go or whatever." The goth looked around shiftily. "Let's. Like. Get him out of here."

"Right, right. Do you...I mean. Where should we...Kenny," Kyle's dazed realization unclenched something in his nervous system. "Kenny will take him. His parents don't care. And Kenny will know what to do. He...has experience with this shit. Probably." Kyle reached into Stan's back pocket where he always kept his things, and pulled out his cellphone. It didn't have a lock. Kyle thanked Abraham for Stan's unconcernedness for his privacy and digital security.

"Oh my Freidan, Stan!" Wendy, who'd apparently finally run out of toilet paper, knelt beside them. She looked pale. "What happened?"

She looked immediately to Kyle, her eyes shining, and for some reason, that more than anything made Kyle feel like shit. Everyone expected him to fix this, expected him to have prevented this in the first place. Why was it his responsibility? Why did people think Kyle knew what to do? Kyle had never known what to do.

The goth kid didn't leave. This was to Kyle's surprise—he thought for sure that when Stan's "real" friends arrived, the goth kid would bail. But he didn't. He quietly hovered in the background, looking scared and young. Bizarrely, Kyle kind of wished the kid would leave. He wanted, somewhere, to prove that even though he'd left Stan to take care of himself, he was still the superior friend.

The other half of Kyle's brain—the less petty side—was just glad someone in Stan's immediate circle gave enough to a shit to have even notice Stan was in trouble.

As Kyle swore under his breath and tried to stay afloat amidst his mixed feelings, Stan puked unconsciously again. Wendy started crying. Kyle wanted to cry, too. He dialed instead. Rather than focus on his worries, Kyle focused on his annoyance and his anger. These emotions were more productive, less debilitating, and helped Kyle to steady his voice.


"Y'ello," Kenny's voice answered, "Wuzzap Stanley?"

"Kenny!" Kyle yelled into the phone, "We need you here with a car, now! Stan's passed out, and he's puking all over himself. We're in front of Butters' house. He's been drunk for three days, Kenny, I'm really worried, I—"

"Fuck," Kenny ended the call.

Below, Wendy plugged Stan's nose between two fingers. This forced him to breathe through his mouth. As he inhaled, Stan regained some semblance of consciousness. He wheezed and coughed, and his eyes opened briefly, black, glazed and sightless.

"Stan, can you hear me? It's Wendy! Stay with me, Stan," Wendy's voice was comforting, but strained. "We're gonna get you some help."

"Oh fuck you," Kyle told Stan. He had to stop watching them, because he was so angry and worried and sick inside with fear and guilt that he could barely stand it. Stan probably couldn't hear him, but Kyle told him anyway: "This isn't how we were supposed to make up! It's not fair! Fuck, you, Stan!"

The crowd had thinned to nearly none. Night set in with the crickets. The party-roar became scarcely a mutter, and in tune with that, Wendy kept talking softly to Stan to keep him focused. Kyle watched for Kenny, and tried his best not to pace back and forth with uncontrollable anxiety. Moths circled the streetlights, reflective powder on their wings making them look almost like fireflies. The goth kid had a water bottle, and he tried to get Stan to drink. Kyle took it all in as if from underwater; time seemed to crawl by. He felt like no oxygen was getting to his brain. Though it had only been minutes, the longer they waited, the longer each moment felt. Just when Kyle felt ready to burst, a car came screeching beside them.

"Hey. Here, let me help you git him in." Kenny's accent was thicker when he fretted. He jumped out of the driver's side of his car, to help Kyle and Wendy haul Stan through the dirt and hoist him into the the back seat.

"You're not calling an ambulance?" Wendy asked hysterically. She pulled her weight even so. Wendy was an impressive multitasker.

The inside of Kenny's car was wrapped in toilet paper like a mummy—no one could guess how Kenny'd gotten it done so fast. Distractedly, Kyle thought the sight of it would have been funny, if Kenny wasn't currently lifting Stan by his armpits. It all might have been funny, if only it were happening to someone else.

"They'll stick him in rehab," Kyle responded. "They'll ship him off, and he'll never have a chance a fucking normal high school career—no, we can take care of this. He'll get so behind if we—goddamnit, no. His parents will kill him. They'll kill all of us. We'll fix it. We have to!" He tried to grab Stan's legs, but even though Stan was shorter, he was heavier. The goth tried to take his middle, but their lift ended up lopsided and clumsy.

"That's what you're worried about!?" Wendy grunted as they waddled Stan over to the car. His knuckles dragged limp on the floor as they moved him, but finally, they managed to at least get his head through the door.

Wendy moved up to help the goth support Stan's middle as they eased him in. She eyed Kyle critically, a few flyaway hairs plastered to her forehead with sweat from the exertion. Her face was still puffy and splotchy from crying. Kyle could only imagine how he looked.

Wendy scolded as she lifted. "Anyway, Kyle, really, I think there are higher priority—"

"What the fuck is going on here?" Cartman shoved several people aside as he made his way over, with Marjorine trailing behind. Her hands were over her ears, and her eyes were wide.

"No time! Help us get him into the car," Kyle barked.

"All right, all right, don't get your panties in a twist. Christ." Cartman took the side that the goth was holding and helped them ease Stan in. The smirk than generally twisted his doughy face intensified into a grimace. If Kyle didn't know him better, he'd say Cartman was at least mildly concerned.

"Oh, hamburgers." Marjoine tittered. She stood on her tiptoes to peer around shoulders and get a better look at Stan. "He ain't overdosing, is he?"

"Just really really drunk, I think," Kyle shuffled down a little to help transfer Stan onto the back seats without letting him drop. "Wait, shit, dude. It's just alcohol, right? You didn't see him take anything?"

"Lemme help." Marjorine grabbed a shoe and helped them lift. "There you go, Stan. We've got you."

"I don't think so." The goth kid seemed to be, to his credit, trying hard to remember. "I didn't see him, anyway. Like. I know that doesn't mean he didn't. But, as far as I know." He looked down as he helped Eric shift Stan's weight at his torso onto the seats. "...Sorry."

"Not your fault." Kyle's worry escalated to the point where he was unable to misdirect anymore anger the goth kid's way. He could almost literally feel his nerves fizzling out under all the stress. "GodDAMNit, Stan" was every other thought. Kyle fell quiet as they worked. They all seemed past conversation for awhile.

When they got Stan inside, Wendy dusted her hands down her jeans and sniffled. "Ok. What else can I do? Do you want me to at least get Shelley, or his Uncle Jimbo to come get him from Kenny's once you get some liquids into him? Can I run to the drugstore to see if they have some liquid charcoal or something? Maybe we could consult Bebe's mom. She's a nurse, and—"

"Go to Bebe's. Don't tell anyone," Kyle said wearily, stepping away from the car and heaving with effort, "There's not enough room in the car for you anyway. I'll text you."

"I know you two are fighting," she narrowed her eyes. "But don't kill him. If he needs—"

"We'll get him what he needs, Wendy! Trust me!" Kyle raised his voice just slightly. "Come on. You know I wouldn't let anything happen to him."

Wendy gave Kyle a look that told him she had quarrels with what he'd said, but held her tongue this time.

"I'm gonna go home now." Marjorine told Eric. "Could you call me later? I'm gonna get grounded if I don't get in and cleaned up, but I wanna make sure our buddy Stan don't die." She looked quickly to Kyle. "...Not that he could, or anything. You know me, always over worrying. Why, just the other day—"

"Marj!" Eric barked. "Yeah, I'll call you. Don't...risk ruining tonight with another bullshit fight with your dad. Like you need any more Daddy issues."

"Well, all right, then. You all look like you got this under control. ...But text me all the same if you need help, ok?" She waved and headed for her front door. She kept looking back, though, as she went. Her furrowed brow was full of concern, and Kyle thought, a trace of guilt. But that might have just been her face.

The door closed when Marjoine got inside, and the goth kid flipped some hair from his face. He glanced at Stan's feet as Kenny stuffed them into the car so he could shut the door.

"...I think I need a cigarette." The goth kid said it quietly, almost inaudibly. "I knew Raven was in trouble from the day he came to the coffee shop to jam with us. I'm like. Sorry or whatever. I feel kind of responsible."

Kyle, Cartman and Wendy all turned to blink at the goth kid. It seemed that under all that badly applied, drug store makeup and cheap hair-dye was a person after all. This notion made Kyle feel acutely uncomfortable, and a little bad for all the uncharitable thoughts, especially lately. He cleared his throat.

"It's not your fault, like I said. And you can go now, dude." He nodded, curtly. "We got this."

"Thanks for the help," Wendy added, a little more diplomatically. "We really appreciate you being there for him."

"Are you wearing girls' pants?" Eric wondered. "That's really fucking gay, dude."

"Conformist," the goth kid muttered, before nodding vaguely in Kyle's direction. "Sure, no problem. Whatever." He shrugged. Them he pulled a cigarette from a package he kept in his pants and put it, unlit, in his mouth as he flicked his lighter around a few times. He looked like he had something else to say. But instead of spitting out whatever it was, after a few moments, he merely lit the cigarette. He rolled his eyes heavenward as he inhaled. Then, he turned sideways, and exhaled, shuffling off. "...Later."

"He didn't even ask us to let him know if Stan was ok," Kyle whisper-complained as soon as he was out of earshot.

"Hmm." It was Wendy's only immediate comment. But then, she seemed unable to hold her opinion back anymore, and burst out with: "I still think you should call an ambulance. Will you text me updates? If he doesn't getting better in forty-five minutes, I'm calling it in." She gazed at Kenny's car, a look or disapproval diluting the otherwise fairly loving concern on her face. Kyle might have felt jealous in other circumstances. Damn it, he was still a little jealous. But not too badly. They were definitely on the same page for being worried about Stan. Her genuine concern overruled any negative impulses in Kyle's mind, and he nodded his assent fairly easily.

"Ok." He agreed, and reached out to briefly and gently squeeze her hand. "Don't worry. We'll take care of him."

"Goddamnit! Stop macking on your saggy-titted girlfriend and get your ass in the car, Heeb!" Eric (who had gotten into the car to sit and catch his breath after all the physical exertion of lifting dead-weight hippie ass) leaned over Kenny to honk the horn five times.

Out of spite, Kyle kissed Wendy's cheek briefly, before jogging around to the passenger seat.

He didn't know how long it took them to get to Kenny's after they left Marjorine's place.

"Did anyone catch that emo dude's name?" Eric asked what Kyle had been thinking all night, and Kyle elbowed him in the gut for it.

"Who cares."

Stan puke, and all the water the goth kid managed to get him to drink ended up on the car's floor and seats. Stan choked and shook, and for once, even Eric was quiet. All Kyle could think, the whole time, was that it was the first time in almost six months that they'd all been together, just the four of them. How fucked up were they, when the only good reason to hang out anymore was Stan's latest binger. It made Kyle profoundly sad. For the first time he thought, maybe things never would be the same.

The car rolled to a gentle stop so as not to upset Stan's stomach. After disembarking, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman's mission was to deposit Stan onto Kenny's bedroom floor. Kenny's parents were nowhere to be seen, but Karen caught sight of them. She took in the sight of Stan, watched them drag his limp body through the living room. She made a face when he heaved on the carpet, right by the sofa.

"What are you looking at, ho? Grab a rag or get the fuck out of here!" Cartman shot at her as he helped Stan back to his feet. He pulled Stan's arm around his shoulders, and Kyle hurried to support Stan from the other side.

Karen's face fell, and she backed away, before darting back to her room and slammed the door.

Kenny sighed, and tugged at a handful of his hair. "Come on, Eric. Don't be a dick. She's just a kid. And she lives here." He seemed to be forcing deep, calm breaths. "Ugh. Guess it's probably better she doesn't see this anyway. She gets enough of this in her regularly scheduled programming, ya feel?"

Kyle nodded, and Eric scoffed. He looked like he was about to snipe back at Kenny, but Kyle elbowed him in the gut so he coughed instead.

"Bitch," he glared at Kyle. Kyle summarily ignored him, struggling under Stan's weight as they hobbled to Kenny's room. It took some doing, but they got him to Kenny's mattress, and dumped him there at last.

Stan groaned as soon as they did. Kyle was both annoyed and relieved. At least he was still conscious. That had to be a good sign. But on the other hand he was still conscious. Meaning it wasn't so dire a situation that Kyle couldn't bear a grudge for all the hassle. He immediately began unbuttoning his soiled shirt, finally. He was so fucking sick of wearing Stan's puke. His white undershirt wasn't stylish, but it least it didn't reek.

"Sorry," Kyle muttered to Kenny after he'd stripped. He quickly bent to pick up the shirt from where he'd tossed it on the floor. "I didn't mean to. Uh. Spread Stan's sick around your room."

"It's okay," Kenny said in an attempt at humor, but came out too flat to be funny: "What's one more puke stain, anyway."

"Christ. Guess Stan bombs his audition to be one of the Kardashians." Cartman made himself helpful by leaning against the door and watching Kyle fuss over Stan. He absently thumbed in a text, presumably to Marjorine. "OD isn't sexy. Maybe if he got ass implants, he could make up for his Judy Garland moment."

"Dude. It's not fucking funny." Kyle propped Stan against the wall. Stan slumped against his shoulder, which kept him at least upright enough so that Kyle could put a trash can in his lap. A ripe, foul smell wafted from Stan that, Kyle realized with a mild horror-seizure, was certainly not puke. How had Stan's parents not noticed?

Kenny tactfully cut in before Cartman could escalate.

"I have a sixth sense about these things. He'll be fine; don't worry, Kyle." Kenny shirked nursing duty and instead messed with his currently-empty rat tank. It was full of old magazines and bits of plastic toys. Kenny fiddled absently with a Ken doll's leg and avoided eye-contact with Kyle. In Over-Anxious-Mother-Mode, Kyle was liable to send him some really annoying errands. Kenny wanted to avoid that, mostly because there was no need. "Fine" wasn't really the word to describe Stan's situation, but the vomiting had definitely slowed. Kenny could tell, that though Stan was in for a shitty night, he was also already on his way to surviving it.

Kyle began removing Stan's soiled jeans, and Cartman made an exaggerated gagging noise.

"Okay, you guys. I'm a gay executive's German sports car." Cartman announced this in a bored tone, apparently tired of supervising Kyle's attempts to keep Stan from tipping over as he shimmied him free of his clothes.

"What are you talking about?" Kyle snapped over his shoulder.

"Audi." Cartman grinned. "God, you get stupid when you're acting fucking stupid."

"Just go the fuck home, Cartman." Kyle felt the end of his patience approaching. "We've got it from here."

"Fine. Guess your sense of humor was out drinking with Stan tonight, huh Kyle?" Cartman waved as he pulled the door. "Oh, and don't forget to call your bitch, or you know she will choke you with that short leash she's got you on." With that, he exited and closed the door behind him before Kyle could throw anything.

"Goddamnit it, I fucking hate Cartman." Kyle found that it took an enormous amount of effort to leave it at that.

"Forget it. Who gives a fuck." Kenny fished for a his e-cig in his hoodie pocket. "Cartman's just acting out 'cause he'll be the last of us with descended testicles."

With that Kenny went to debrief Karen. "Watch him for a little while," he advised Kyle. "But yeah, don't worry too much."

Though it was difficult for Kyle to do so—and tacitly admit that Cartman's tactless reminder served a purpose— he dutifully texted Wendy updates about Stan's condition. In the next hour, Stan's vomiting stopped and his breathing evened out, until Kyle felt that he could lay Stan on his side and let him sleep. He was heartened when Stan finally groaned—any noise besides gagging Stan had made since fainting gave Kyle hope.

After that, Kyle slept fitfully beside Stan. His bizarre dreams involved Stan choking to death on toilet paper, and Kenny saying, over and over "Who, Stan? He just kills me, haha!" Kyle dozed until he heard more gagging. He instinctively jerked awake in time to see Stan clutching the trash can and heaving.

Over the rim of his wastebasket, Stan looked at him blearily. "Kyle?" he asked, hoarsely. But he passed out again before Kyle could respond (by kicking him repeatedly, at this point).

The sun finally showed itself, and Kyle took the opportunity to take the can outside and hose it clean before Stan woke. Kyle passed Kenny, who was soundly asleep soundly on his parents' couch. His dirty Converse shoes stuck out at two different angles on the arm and back of the seat.

The morning was strangely quiet compared to the bizarre events from the previous night. Kyle took some extra moments cleaning to be grateful for the peace. The hollow noise of the water hitting the inside of the can seemed loud compared to the waking birds. He thought to text Wendy and tell her that Stan let her know that Stan had finally gotten some sleep. His phone was nearly dead, though.

'Like the jazz age,' Kyle thought with a wry smile. He wondered if Stan would appreciate that kind of joke anymore. He did suspect his mother was exaggerating slightly when she told him that alcohol killed brain cells like a kid with a magnifying glass killed ants.

By the time Kyle returned to the McCormick house, Kenny was absent from the couch. As he stood in the empty McCormick living room, Kyle was struck with a sense of dissociation. He meandered to Kenny's room like a wandering spirit. How had he gotten here? The sight of Stan (who had rolled off the mattress) in his underwear, green and ill, flooded Kyle with profound irritation.

They were repeating themselves. It was summer all over again. Stan had called to Kyle for help, and Kyle answered at his own expense. It was their song and dance, and Kyle had fallen right into step. This time. Tonight was the worst it had ever been. The escalation only proved what Kyle had feared: they couldn't keep doing this. It would kill them both.

'I can't heal him,' Kyle thought defensively, 'I didn't even know it was this bad, and he refuses to speak to me.' Kyle unbuttoned his jeans and climbed into Kenny's bed, shirtless and exhausted. But his primary emotion was frustration. How could he feel so sad for Stan, and so angry with him all at the same time? How could he be so afraid for someone he wanted to punch repeatedly? When Kyle closed his eyes, the weight of his exhaustion seemed to drag him through the mattress, through the floor.

The sun was high and shining through Kenny's thin curtains when Kyle felt the bed shift. He smelled cheap soap. He groggily opened his eyes to see a pale shoulder. The shoulder was connected to a neck, and the neck was connected to a mat of wet, dark hair. When Kyle realized who was beside him, he made an unhappy sound. Stan should have, he thought, stayed on the damned floor. They weren't the bed-sharing-sleepover-kind-of-friends anymore.

"Are you sober?" Kyle asked, voice rough from his fitful nap.

"Mostly," Stan responded, equally tired, "Kenny let me shower. He's doing laundry now."

"I fuckin' hate you." Kyle said it while staring ahead, a white-hot feeling of pressure building at his temples.

Stan's shoulders hunched. "Can we not do this right now? I'm hungover, dude."

Kyle propped on his elbow and leaned closer to Stan's ear.

"ASSHOLE," he bellowed.

Stan groaned and shoved his fingers into his ears. He shook all over, and then released a sick-sounding burp.

"JESUS," he whined, "Fuck you man; you're going to make me puke again."

Satisfied, Kyle rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. He listened to Stan shuffle miserably next to him. Stan twisted this way and that, knees knocking into Kyle's lower back, and his weight made the mattress springs creak. It took an annoyingly long time for him to get comfortable, but finally, Stan lay on his stomach so that his arm pressed against Kyle's. Kyle allowed it, because Stan was very warm, and Kenny had not provided a blanket. ...Also, it felt pretty good. Stan's breathing steadied, and Kyle in turn felt steadier too.

He was still angry, though. Thus he waited until Stan had gone still—and was likely drifting into a nice, peaceful sleep—to interrupt.

"Actually," Kyle said quietly. He kept his voice low, but spoke deliberately into Stan's ear. "We're going to talk about this. Right now—while you're drunk off your ass—is the only time I feel like I'm gonna get an honest answer out of you."

"M'not drunk," Stan mumbled into Kenny's pillow.

"Can you say that while looking me in the eye?" Kyle challenged. He turned his head to offer Stan the chance, but as soon as Stan took him up, Kyle regretted it. It was hard to look at Stan. The bags under Stan's eyes, like two dark thumb prints, were a testament to insomnia. Stan was also skinnier than Kyle remembered—he was gaunt and sunken in around the cheek bones, and his chin seemed so fragile. Kyle watched the hollows of Stan's collar, and noted how like wingbones they looked. He could not remember the time he'd made such an intimate observation.

"...I'm drunk." Stan admitted, quietly. "I'm sorry."

Kyle's heart gave an anxious little squeeze. He forced down the flood of the motherly instinct to feed, protect, and preserve at all costs. The effort made Kyle feel bitter and resentful, so his question came out like a bullet from a gun.

"What the fuck was last night?" Kyle scowled, "I keep hearing from other people—the ones who think we're still friends—that you've been drowning yourself. What the fuck, Stan? This isn't you, dude."

Stan gave him a watery look. He seemed to contain himself, with effort. "So we're not friends anymore?"

Kyle glared at the ceiling. The plaster was peeling away. "I want to hear what you have to say before I decide."

"But you said—"

"Shut up and explain yourself, Stan."

Stan seemed ashamed. He didn't say anything for a moment or two. The malicious part of Kyle was pleased; he still at least partially wanted this conversation to be punishment. He only gave Stan a few seconds before continuing:

"The goth kid said you've been drunk for three days." Kyle looked at Stan pointedly. "What's going on, Stanley?"

Stan flinched when Kyle used his Christian name, and that made him feel good too. "It's Pete. His name is Pete." Stan groaned and mumbled into his pillow.

"If you avoid the point right now, I swear to God, Stanley..." Kyle was half naked, and it was cold outside, but he was completely prepared to walk out right then.

"Okay, okay. ...I don't know," Stan said tiredly, "Everything is shit. Life is shit. You're shit. I just want to... not. Be here."

"That doesn't tell me anything!" Kyle's patience waned at being called names. He wanted to scrape off the crumbling plaster from the ceiling; it was distracting. He was so irritated with Stan's passive moroseness, and irritated with himself for giving such a huge DAMN about Stan's moroseness.

"What the fuck do you want me to say?" Stan shot back. "I'm unhappy. Everything sucks, and I don't want it that way. Do you think I want to be lying in Kenny's shitty house, dry-heaving until I pass out over his dirty fuckin' toilet?"

"Trashcan." Kyle corrected him joylessly. "You heaved into a trashcan. I just finished hosing it off."

"Thanks." Stan snarled. "That's much better.

His had been a petty shot, and Kyle knew it, so he let Stan's snideness go unchallenged. Kyle kind of figured he deserved it. For a while, they were both quiet. It seemed as if all the air in the room had thickened and slowed everything to a painful crawl.

"Stan. I don't know what you want." Kyle said evenly, at last. "I can't figure out what...I'm supposed to do to help you."

"I just...want to be happy," Stan said it quietly. He sounded so tired. "I want all the bad things in the world to go away, and not to have to worry about anything."

Kyle felt a surge of affection, but he squashed the feeling. Stan didn't deserve his forgiveness just because he was particularly pathetic right now.

"It's not possible to have everything perfect," Kyle said pragmatically. "You have to deal sometimes, like everyone else."

Kyle's implication ("so just get the fuck over it") made Stan angry all over again. Stan wished he had more toilet paper rolls to throw.

"I fucking know that," he snapped. His stomach churned, and he took a breath, trying to calm himself. "It doesn't make me feel any better. There's starving kids in Africa, great, so I should be happy I'm not a starving African? I'm still unhappy. And I feel more like shit when I think I should be grateful for having a good family, food to eat, and a warm bed, but I'm still this fucking miserable." Stan sniffed and curled into himself. "I'm ungrateful. I'm a wreck. I don't deserve what I have," he sighed. "That doesn't make me feel better either."

Kyle closed his eyes and tapped his fingers against his stomach. He tried to dissect Stan's sad, angry words. But the misery was circular, and no matter how Kyle tried, he could not discern a source. Stan was miserable because he did not know how not to be miserable. Kyle had no idea how to break the cycle, but he could see where it ended. And the ending was bad news for Stan—Kyle could feel it like a cold stone in his gut.

"I think you need help," Kyle said plainly. He tried not to let the icy fear he felt leak into his tone. "You need to talk to someone who understands where you're coming from. A professional, or something."

"Fuck you," Stan said without any venom. He sounded both exhausted and resolute."I can control myself."

Kyle took a deep breath. He tried to focus on his anger rather than his worry, so as to remain calm and persuasive. Desperate-and-afraid would not help Stan now. Kyle needed to be the grown-up; it didn't matter how he felt. And that started with being honest, plus sharing some tough love.

"I'm going to be really blunt," he said, "I can't deal with you when you're like this. You bring me down and treat everyone like shit. I don', like I should...because you're not trying to help yourself. Whatever is going on, you're making it worse, not better." He looked Stan in the eye. "I want you to get better, but don't take whatever this is out on me. I won't let you, not if you're not even fucking trying, okay? Do you understand?"

Stan's eyes were bright under his furrowed brow as he stared at Kyle. He seemed to be trying to understand at least, to really hear Kyle for the first time.

"Yeah," Stan said quietly. "I understand. ...Don't drag you down because I'm having a shitty day. Got it. I got it, dude, I do."

Kyle thought that Stan was having more than a shitty day, or even week. "No, dude, that's not—"

Stan unexpectedly launched from the bed, and Kyle heard him dry-heaving into the trashcan. The odds Stan would even remember this conversation in the morning seemed low, so Kyle decided to go back to sleep. It wasn't quite giving up...but if really pressed, Kyle would have had a hard time identifying functional difference.

"So. You and the Jew, huh?"

Eric's special talent was the ability to gloat without saying a word. It was all in the tone. Wendy glared at him from behind her sunglasses. She worried a little bit, about the kind of message it sent to be wearing sunglasses indoors while in detention. But with her hangover, there were few options.

Once again, Mr. Partridge, who ran detention, had fallen asleep. The bright day shone in through the huge windows—that Wendy had never paid any attention to, before they began spilling light that seemed to shine straight out of the Devil's butthole—right into her eyes.

"Cartman, if I say yes, and together we're planning to take down the Masonic Order and give the Illuminati secret intel about the inner workings of our nation's last hope for true revolution, will you damn well leave me alone?" She said all this in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, so as to avoid aggravating her migraine.

"Fucking knew it." Eric's voice was both smug and wary. It was an impressive contradiction, and it was also, in Wendy' s opinion, a completely inappropriate reaction to her joke.

"Oh Jesus!" Tweek yelped from beside her. She had not noticed him there. Tweek then got to his feet and headed for the door. He muttered to the teacher that he needed to use the bathroom, and his shoulders visibly trembled as he went. ...Wendy felt a little bad. Maybe her inappropriate joke had deserved Eric's inappropriate answer. She really had to pay better attention to who was around her before running her mouth.

Wendy resolved, once again, to ignore Eric. Nothing positive could come from interacting with him; Tweek was proof. She let her head droop onto her arm to mope. She was not prone to moping, but she was sick and exhausted, and worst of all, she was at a dead end with Token. He had yet to respond to her invitation to be part of the debate team. Wendy had begun to lose hope. It seemed no-answer was actually an answer after all.

"Ehy, Wendy. Guess what?" Eric reached over to poke at her with the eraser end of his pencil.

"Fuck off." Wendy barely moved.

"Wendyyy. Guess what!" Eric poked her harder.

"I swear to Alice Paul, Cartman. Poke me with that one more time, and I will shove that pencil up your nose, and then curb stomp you until it comes out of the other side of your fat head." Wendy's threat was eerily even-keeled.

Eric blanched. "...Goddamnit, ho. I was gonna dish some gossip, but if you don't wanna hear it..."

"I don't." Wendy smacked a flat hand against the desk's top. She immediately regretted it. The sound made her stomach turn.

"Fine! I didn't want to talk to you anyway. Probably catch an STD just from breathing the same air, ew. Fucking chew some antibiotics or something, hippie, before your free-loving causes a goddamn outbreak." Eric's whiny voice sent pins of pure irritation straight into the cushion that was Wendy's emotional control.

"Shut up. Just shut up." Wendy knew talking to him would make it worse. She knew it was better to not engage. It took every iota of her control to hold back her fists and feet. At the moment, she didn't have the capacity or energy left to restrain her tongue, too.

"Heh. Can you believe we all got busted except for Butters?" Eric respected her wishes for all of two seconds before continuing the conversation against her will. "That bitch is gonna be waking up with a Dirty Sanchez on his lip tomorrow; I'll tell you what."

"...I should have taken the community service instead of detention. That was my first instinct. Always go with your first instinct. Why did I ignore my instinct??" Wendy berated herself, lowly.

"Oh, come on. Stop being a moaning whore, and man up already. It's not that bad to be stuck here with me! Lots of people would slice their dicks off to bask in my presence!"

"Name one," Wendy dared him. She really hoped the devastation that resulted from the zero-count would shut him up for good.

"Pssh. I'm not playing your games, Honorary Jewess. Your adopted people are sneaky rats! I am not falling for your attempts on my self esteem!" Eric puffed his chest, sat straighter. "...So there!"

"Oh, you sure showed me." Wendy wished she were in Barbados. Or Florida. Or anywhere that warm, quiet and far away from here.

"Damn right I did." Eric grinned, purposely misreading her sarcasm.

Wendy hoped that would be the end of the exchange. She hoped a minor concession of victory would be enough to appease him.

"Also, guess how much money I made off toilet paper last week?" Eric's outright-bragging-voice, Wendy noticed, was somehow TWICE as annoying as his usual-voice.

...Wendy wasn't sure why she kept hoping for things. "Does it make a difference to remind you that I don't fucking care?"

"Two thousand dollars." Eric sounded as if he were speaking of something holy. "What do you think of that, huh? I'm pretty fucking cool, right? Heh, yeah. I know. I'm so awesome, Wendy. I made two thousand dollars!"

"Good job, Eric." Wendy's brain felt like someone was pricking it with a steak fork.

"Know how I did it?" Eric spoke loudly enough for everyone within twenty feet to hear him. "Well, I'll tell you how I did it, Wendy. That kid who was selling toilet paper for a profit when we hit that shortage? I had him invest his profits. Heheh! Guess where I had the sucker put his money, Wendy? I bet you can't guess. In Cartman Inc., a toilet paper distributor, scheduled to go global by 2028."

Cartman then doubled over with gleeful laughter, and Wendy felt her urge to vomit intensify.

"You're a disgusting human being." She wished she could lift her head and say it with more dignity, but the truth was, she was barely keeping her breakfast toast down. "I genuinely despise you."

"Aw, don't be jealous, Wendy. If you act now, I'll sell you a share of Cartman Inc. for just two hundred dollars." He leaned in. "What do you say?"

"Eat shit and die." Wendy propped her text book off like a Japanese partitioning screen, and she sunk down behind it. She really had better things to do than parlay with the idiot next to her. For example, she had to figure out a way to convince Token, or Kyle maybe, to do the debate team with her. There was just no way around it. Policy debate required teams of two, and she didn't think she could convince the league to let her go maverick. Most tournaments didn't allow hybrids, either. Besides, she had to find someone to compete with her, if she wanted to have any hope of getting the school to fund the program. They had to have at least one actual team!

"Tick-tock, Wendy!" Eric mock-whispered. "You're gonna want to be on the ground floor for this, trust me. Your share will be worth millions by 2028!"

Desperately, Wendy cast around for a way to resolve her misery. She could commit harikari right there in the middle of the classroom, true. But that seemed drastic. She could force Cartman to commit harikari right there in the classroom. That was less drastic, but still disproportionate.

A burst of insight blinded her even moreso than the cursed sun, her current mortal enemy: she could distract him.

But with what?

"...Hey, Cartman. You like to argue, right?" Wendy peeked up at him from over her textbook. She took a deep breath, sat up, put her sunglasses on her head. She closed the book, too. She then turned and fully faced him, so she sat sideways in her chair.

"I'm way better at arguing than you!" Was Eric's immediate answer. "That's because all hippies know how to do is hold hands and sing songs about how great it'd be if John Lennon were president and stuff. Never get to the point that way. Tsk, Wendy."

Wendy had to close her eyes for a moment to collect herself. "Right." She exhaled, smoothly. "But what if we were, hypothetically, arguing on the same side?"

Stan as usual, ended up at Kenny's. He was fully committed to sulking despite the hesitant sort-of-patching of his friendship with Kyle. Kyle was so busy all the time, what with his friends, his new girlfriend, and his stupid early advance-placement qualifying tests. Stan felt thoroughly left out.

"I wanna smoke," Stan said, "I brought papers and my good grinder." He scuffed a foot against the edge of Kenny's doormat. A beetle skittered out from under it when it moved.

Kenny leaned against his front door, eyebrow raised. "Does this make me an enabler?"

Stan sighed. "It's just a cigarette." Right after he said it, he glanced at Kenny, looking for approval. Stan hated feeling so vulnerable. It was as if he were making an appearance with his probation officer or something.

"Anyway, I threw away the whiskey bottle. It was mostly full." Stan added, lamely. "So."

"That's good," Kenny said in a tone he hoped was genuinely encouraging. He took his arm down to effectively unblock the doorway and jerked a sideways nod over his shoulder to Stan. "Well, come on. You've got to be feeling like a dead man warmed over. Hah, I would know. ...Let's get you some coffee."

Stan tacitly accepted the invitation and followed him, and he shut the door behind him. "Sounds good."

He shoved his hands in his pockets and trudged over the brownish carpeting that covered the McCormick's floor. "Brownish" was honestly the only word that came close—it looked as if it had once been green, like moss. But years of filth and moisture and misfortune had rendered the appearance, smell and texture of the floor to what could best be called "yeasty."

Kenny's younger sister was watching television on the couch. "Hi, Stan," she piped up as they passed her. "Will you guys open the window this time? It always smells like shit when you try to hotbox the room. It doesn't work, so y'all need to either get a car to smoke in, or go smoke in Kenny's closet like a couple a' Catholic school boys sneaking meth and blowies."

Stan expected Kenny to argue, but he just said, "Sure." Then they went on to lock themselves in his room as promised, like nothing had happened. But as soon as they were alone, Stan let out a disbelieving hacking sound, and held two upturned palms up at his sides as if inviting explanation. There was no way he could let that pass without comment.

"Holy shit, dude. What happened to your sister? I mean, she's. Well. Dude!" Stan gestured behind himself with his neck bobbing forward and eyes wide.

"Well. Thank you for not saying 'sounding exactly like my parents,' at least." Kenny shook his head. "Don't worry. We're working on it with her. Like we're working on it with you."

He lifted a brow, and he gave Stan a crooked smirk. "But let's not take her advice." Kenny let out a small laugh and scratched the back of his head. "It don't feel like the right move to let you hide out in the closet."

Stan nodded, dumbly. "So, coffee?"

Craig sighed as Clyde wept quiet, fat tears into his hands. They walked side by side through the halls, and Craig kind of had to admire the Clyde was not embarrassed to cry in public. But Craig was also slightly embarrassed to be seen with someone who was crying in public. He tried to keep a few paces away so they didn't look too "together," and also so Clyde wouldn't try to lock him in a bear-hug.

"I was ready," Clyde said through sniffles, "I had everything. I had everything, and I slept through the whole damn thing."

Craig tilted his head in the direction of Clyde's backpack, which was brimming with toilet paper. "At least you have a month's worth." He shrugged.

Clyde sniffled, and looked at Craig tearfully. "Craig," he said, "I have a colonoscopy bag. I don't USE toilet paper."

Craig sighed. "You also still have a dick on your face."

"Hey, guys." Token interrupted, and all but skidded to a halt between them. "Hate to interrupt, but Tweek has locked himself in the kitchen supply fridge, and they need us to convince him to come out before he gets hypothermia or something."

"What, again?" Clyde's voice was reedy with petulance. "Uncoolio! Nothing is going right this week!"

"...To be fair, the fridge is reinforced metal. Tweek probably would be the only one of us to survive a real bomb threat." Craig thoughtfully supplied this as they headed for the cafeteria at a brisk pace.

"Do not say that shit in front of him," Token warned, humorlessly. "Come on, guys. Grow up." He paused. "And Clyde, seriously, wash that dick off your face."

"Wait, oh man! Craig wasn't kidding about that? Worst. Day. Ever!"

Craig could not concur. He did not say so, but he was inwardly thrilled. By some motherfucking miracle, Clyde had slept through the party. That meant Craig and all his friends were blissfully uninvolved in the drama surrounding the events that night.

Craig had escaped becoming involved in the plot. The mysterious magnetic pull of South Park had spared him at last. It was beautiful. It was glorious. Craig almost wanted to smile. But he didn't, because he knew.

There was no escaping it forever.


Kyle was surprised to find Wendy, standing outside his bedroom door. He was even more surprised that she appeared nervous, chest puffed out defensively as she clutched her purse between them like a shield. And she kept letting her gaze slip to the side, not quite meeting his eye. It was unusual for her. Kyle had it his head that Wendy got nervous over nothing, no one, ever.

Kyle's eyebrows raised. "Wendy. Hey, what's up?"

Wendy hesitated, as if she'd forgotten her line. "Hi," she said stiffly, after a moment of uncertainty.

Kyle backed up to leave room for Wendy to enter. "What brings you here?" he asked, walking to his desk. "Not that I'm not happy to see you! It's just you've been kind of. Preoccupied? Lately. We haven't talked as much as usual."

Wendy closed the door behind her. "Been kind of busy." She grimaced. "I have...some things to work out, with the school. There has been an...unplanned development, with the debate team."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that." Kyle sat, and crossed his ankles underneath himself. He schooled his features into an apologetic grimace, one side of his mouth pulling down as if in pain. It was hard to tell Wendy "no," and he wanted to put it off as long as possible. "I know I was supposed to get back to you about the debate stuff. Just, with the tests, and all. I haven't really..."

Wendy shook her head, and dusted off an imaginary shelf in front of herself with both hands. "That's okay. I found someone. Don't worry about it."

Kyle held back a sigh of relief. He was undeniably glad to be let off the hook, especially because she did not seem particularly upset or disappointed in him over it. "That's good. Hope it works out."

"Me, too." Wendy looked tired just thinking about it, so Kyle endeavored to change the subject. Her stiff shoulders were relaxing, but she still seemed on-edge.

"So, what's going on, Wendy? Did you come over to tell me that, or just to chill, or...?" Kyle could not help but feel a little bit hopeful. He was beginning to think she was avoiding him altogether. It was (tentatively) a good sign that she'd shown up all on her own.

"Ah, well." Wendy glanced around his room. She looked nervous again, like she might reflexively break someone's arm for startling her. "I...just wanted to ask you something." She sat down on the edge of his bed like asking had taken a lot out of her. She spread her hand over Kyle's comforter, smoothing the wrinkles. There were unicorns on her purple leggings. Kyle could remember how she looked as a child—juxtaposed perfectly against the young woman she was becoming.

"What is it?" Kyle fiddled with some things on his desk and neatly put away some books. Watching her squirm made him nervous, too, even though by now, he was pretty sure what this was about.

Wendy touched the purse strap on her shoulder. "So, um. I know the party didn't go the way you wanted."

Kyle frowned. That had not been what he'd been expecting her to say at all. He rocked in his desk chair with his hands clenched on his knees. The spinning mechanism in the chair's base was loose and wobbling, so he could lean back pretty far.

"I'm used to it," he said, with a shrug. "Honestly, it could have been worse."

Wendy pulled at her purse again and shook her head. "Yeah. I guess it could have. But anyway...I wanted to make it up to you." She grinned uncertainly. There was a little bit of green-something stuck in her retainer, and for some reason, it was endearing. Kyle liked the reminder that she was only human.

"I like the sound of that," Kyle admitted, returning her smile. They probably looked like idiots, for a single quiet moment, just grinning and glowing like two bashful jacko'lanterns.

Wendy cleared her throat. "Good. So. want to do a date do-over? With romance and shit?" She paused, and she turned her face to the side and angled her chin down, so Kyle got an eyeful of her tiny smirk. "Or at least...without Stan?"

Kyle let out a startled laugh, tension draining from the room and leaving a sense of happy respite. God, they had both needed to laugh about that night, Kyle realized. "Yeah. Of course. I'd...really, like that."

"Great." Wendy stood, but seemed unsure what to do with herself from there. She placed her hands behind her back and tilted back on her heels. "Yeah."

"Yeah," Kyle repeated, so that there wouldn't be an awkward quiet. He wanted to go and hug her or something, but he was kind of afraid to move, like it might spook her.

"Guess I'll go." Wendy glanced at the door. She was still blushing, Kyle thought proudly.

"Wait. Before you leave," Kyle got to his feet, too, to walk her out. " Can I ask you...Does this count as, um. I mean are"

Wendy smiled brilliantly, "We'll say we're 'going out.'"

Kyle mirrored her expression.