The third morning of his Fall semester, Sophomore year, Kenny had a "feeling." He woke up with The Feeling, and he could almost smell it in the air. The air was cool, the trees had not yet begun dropping their leaves, and Harbucks was marketing their "Harvest Fun Latte" again. Kenny put on a long sleeve shirt under his jacket and two pairs of socks. All was as it should be, but The Feeling followed him to school. It hung over his head, echoed in the chatter of his scarf-clad classmates, and shimmered in the dust kicked up by girls in their stylish non-snow-proof boots. Kenny tried to fog out The Feeling with his vape pen. But it was no use: the high just made him a little paranoid. Kenny felt jumpy, as if he'd sharpened the edge on The Feeling, rather than dull himself to it.

The Feeling hounded Kenny, right up until he walked home after sixth period band practice. As he finished crossing the street to the bus stop, a toilet seat went flying off the back of a dumpster truck and bashed his skull. Kenny was dead in seconds. The cold blue sky above faded to black, and Kenny was really glad he was high as shit, because he felt hardly any pain at all. He was also annoyed, however, because he had an Algebra test to study for, and a trip to Hell tended to eat up his free time.

When Kenny woke up, there was a rock poking his butt. He heaved a deep sigh. Kenny sure as hell didn't know what the meaning of his life was, or what his purpose was. But it seemed clear that the Universe's purpose was to fuck him. The Feeling was just foreplay.

"Kenny!" Satan's cheery voice called from the kitchen. Kenny had woken up in Satan's back yard this time, right next to the barbecue. Satan opened the back door and stuck his head outside. Kenny saw red, figuratively and literally, when Satan's face popped into view

"What a surprise!" Satan waved an oven mitt at him. "Come on in! I made apple fritters!"

'It's not a surprise at all, you magnificent red asshole,' Kenny thought spitefully. He resolved not to move from his spot, and to pay penance for whatever sins had cursed him with life after death via rock in ass.

"Hi, Satan." Kenny said unhappily. He instinctively rubbed the spot at the back of his head where the toilet seat had brained him. He no longer had a physical body, and it still seemed tender to his touch.

"Aw, what's got you down?" Satan pouted. He came over to gaze down at Kenny, lying there in his backyard. Under his apron, Satan wore a fedora and what appeared to be waistcoat. This was Satan's party outfit, if Kenny were not mistaken. The next natural deduction irritated Kenny: he really wasn't in the mood.

"A toilet seat." Kenny responded, glib and resentful. The hard ground pressed to the back of his head and was giving him a headache. For some reason, the screams and tortured moans he could always hear in the distance in Hell didn't sound as soothing and familiar as usual.

"That's awful." Satan affected his most maternal pity-smile and extended a hand down to Kenny. "Come on. I'll pour you a glass of milk, and you can tell me all about it."

"No offense, Satan, but fuck off." Kenny turned his head so that his cheek was on the ground. He tried to become one with the dirt. Dirt never died, after all. Dirt stayed dirt.

"I just don't understand it." Satan sounded hurt as he talked to no one in particular. "Maybe it's just how all teenagers are. Damien is certainly down in the dumps these days." He sighed, tragically. "What's the matter, Kenny? You look so...miserable." Satan frowned and retracted his hand.

"And you look so...dapper," Kenny deflected, spitefully. He also made a double-clicking sound by sucking the insides of his back teeth, the way he might call a horse. "Snazzy as fuck. Special occasion?"

"Thanks for noticing! It's Damien's birthday!" Satan gushed. He seemed more than happy to overlook Kenny's tone in order to change the subject. Then, he hesitated a moment, and he continued in a slightly scripted voice."What a coincidence you're here. I was going to send him alone, but now you can stay for the party, and...maybe escort him?"

Kenny was not going to let Satan off the hook so easily. If Satan wanted a favor, he had better damn well ask for it. Kenny wasn't going to pretend it was his fucking idea. "Where am I escorting Damien, exactly?"

Satan avoided Kenny's eyes. "Oh you know, wherever he ends up."

Kenny's lids lowered to half-way, and his mouth became a short, taut line. His pointed his unamused expression straight at Satan, and he said nothing. Satan shuffled awkwardly. He wiped his hands on his apron and tried desperately not to meet Kenny's eye for too long. 'Good,' Kenny thought. If Satan was going to inconvenience him this way, Kenny was going to make him feel bad as shit for it first.

Finally, the rock in his ass was becoming too much to handle. Kenny groaned and rolled over onto his stomach.

"Fuck me," he muttered.

Satan blinked, "You're a little young for me, I'm afraid."

Kenny waved his hand dismissively, pressing his face into the ground. This was his home now. He was not leaving Hell this time. There was less to deal with here.

"You best be able to, like," he said in the dirt, "Give my parents amnesia or something. Because they're gonna be rightfully pissy about this. We literally don't have food. Unless y'all are able to donate to the McCormick Toaster Strudel Fund. We take cash or check only. Or Venmo."

"Oh, don't worry about that," Satan placated. "Damien can be sustained by absorbing the negative energy of those around him. That's one of the reasons why I wanted him to stay with you."

"Fantastic." Kenny said listlessly. "I've always wanted an energy-feeding demon living in my closet."

"You wouldn't do that to him. Would you?" Satan fretted. A distinctly parental-concern frown pulled between his fangs. "Never mind, I'll make sure I send a bed."

"Very thoughtful of you." Kenny wondered if this could be the beginning of a bad sitcom. Two people from different worlds (but not really) living together. What wacky adventures would they have? In his mind, Damien shouted "Kenny, I melted your toothbrush again! I guess now you'll have to use it as floss!" He then held up a palm full of dripping plastic, and the studio audience recording burst into delighted laughter. Lame. Two stars on Netflix, tops.

Kenny wondered if a simple "no" could deter Satan. He doubted it. Stan was a pushover, but Kenny understood the power of status. Satan was still the Lord of the Underworld—it seemed likely he would just pull rank. There was really no point in arguing.

"Okay. But no imps, Satan." Kenny really did have to put his foot down somewhere. "Damien's in, but no legions of evil camping out in my backyard, you heard?"

Satan nodded. "Very reasonable."

"And I want a piece of information." Kenny stuck out his lower lip and pouted. "A good one. One that I'm not supposed to have. You owe me one sneak peak into the future, if you're gonna saddle me with this huge unexpected imposition, dude."

Satan looked troubled, and he scratched behind one of his horns pensively. But he only hesitated a short while before going:

"Very well. I shall grant you a small inkling of events to come. Events that have to do with your two friends, Kyle Broflovski and Craig Tucker, and some close acquaintances of mine..."

And that was how Kenny found himself introducing Damien Thorn to his friends the next morning.

Kyle, Wendy and Stan, Kenny gathered on Kyle's doorstep to watch Damien uncertainly. Their group vibe was definitely "what the hell." (They did not know that the answer to that question was literally: "the Prince of Hell"). Kenny kept a hand on Damien's shoulder, in case he found the tepid greeting offensive.

"Welcome to South Park," Wendy greeted graciously. She knew the advantage of refusing to flinch. "My name is Wendy Testaburger, debate team captain and sophomore class president. I am also planning to be editor and chief of the school paper by the end of the year, so if you have any questions at all, I can probably help you out."

Stan and Kyle stared at Damien, then each other, then at Damien again. "Dude, I think I know that guy," Stan said lowly, though not so lowly that anyone had trouble hearing him.

Damien eyeballed them in return. "Thank you for your welcome," he said in his stilted voice. "Your mortal time is short, and so every second you waste gabbering in front of me must seem a heavy price."

Kenny smelled roasted pork, and a split second later, realized that his hand was starting to burn on Damien's shoulder. He casually put his burnt hand in his pants pocket.

"...What a kidder, huh?" He nudged Damien with his elbow. "He's in the middle of an existential crisis. He's still working on the gallows-humor thing."

Kyle frowned. After making familiar, friend-telepathy eye contact with Stan, he had become very dedicated to answering text messages. But now he looked up, and scrutinized Damien with a suspicious squint. "You do look familiar."

"I was here in third grade." Damien responded. "We moved." Kenny wondered why Damien did not notice how loudly he spoke. Why did he think he needed to project for an audience that was less than three feet away?

"...You blew up the British kid." Kyle's eyes lit in recognition. He immediately looked over to share the revelation-moment with Stan. Stan had the same instinct, apparently, because he met Kyle's eye with the a matching both-terrified-and-annoyed expression. The South Park community park had just installed new equipment. If Damien destroyed it, they'd have to endure Mayor McDaniel's Walk-A-Thon charity event to raise money to replace it, and they all knew how that had gone the last time.

Kenny watched the two of them have this silent conversation, perfect clarity obvious in their communication. He rolled his eyes. Oh yeah, they'd definitely stay mad at each other. They'd never figure this thing out. Their friendship was definitely dead. They weren't practically psychically-fucking-bound or something.

Kenny also noticed that Wendy, Stan and Kyle seemed entered together in a strange, silent stand off. The whole thing was like watching Animal Planet. Observe, Kenny thought, as Wendy reaches and squeezes Kyle's hand. The Female Alpha gives a warning to her mate. Specimen Stan watches exchange attentively. He does not interfere because he knows that in a battle for dominance, he would certainly not emerge victorious. Alien species Damien does not know how to communicate with members of the pack. They assess him from a safe distance, trying to ascertain the threat.

But regardless of rank, Specimen Stan seemed pretty salty, to Kenny. Stan was obviously trying to play it cool, but he was also obviously pretty ready to shove his Breast Cancer Awareness bracelet right down Wendy's throat. Kenny wondered if he was gonna have to do crowd control and nearly whined wordlessly at the thought. For a kid who already owned literally no possessions, people sure seemed determined to drain him fucking dry.

Damien noticed Stan's surliness too, but he had a different reaction. "You and I will become great acquaintances," he said to Stan. He pointed too, because apparently he did not trust his audience to know to whom he was speaking.

Stan tore his eyes away from where Kyle and Wendy were touching to raise an eyebrow. "What? Okay. Why?"

Damien said in a tone that implied that he was paying Stan a compliment: "You have the optimism of road kill."

Stan was offended, Kyle went expressionless, and Wendy bit her lip to hold back a laugh.

"Jesus Christ." Kenny interjected before Stan could attempt to throttle Damien, "I'm sorry, he's also autistic. Just, ugh, let's go."

"Differently abled," Wendy corrected, immediately. "Damien is differently abled. Don't be a sack of shit, Kenny. You don't have to speak for him and call him names."

"I am not! Defame me again, mortal, I dare thee!" Damien shouted. He raised his hands, and the sidewalk cracked open. The sky darkened. Minions of Hell peeked from the rift in the cement, tiny dark horns poking from the yawning fiery crevice.

"Holy shit!" Stan hopped out of the way, behind Kyle. "What the fuck??"

"...It's actually not an insult," Wendy put a hand on her hip with irritation and shouted to be heard above the Satanic chanting and whipping wind. "There's nothing wrong with being differently abled!"

Lightning cracked across the sky, but Damien paused to looked at Wendy for a moment. He lowered his hands. The Gregorian Hell's Choir ceased, and the ground shook as it sealed up again.

"Fair enough, I suppose," Damien conceded with a shrug.

Watching Cartman try out for the football team was like watching a chihuahua try to hula hoop. Some people even filmed it, and put it on the internet hoping for comments consisting of the words: "HELP HIM" and "AWW NO."

They had all been little wary about Cartman's request to have an audience for tryouts. The only reason anyone even responded to his text blast ("u guis shuld come seeh me crush it be there or i kill ur grandma") was Butters. Butters promised homemade cookies and relief from a relentless guilt trip. It proved far more convincing—even Wendy seemed to cave.

Stan, Kyle, Wendy, Kenny and Damien walked toward the football field together after offering their student ID's to the ticket taker for attendance. Wendy proudly sported Kyle's Academic Decathalon jacket around her shoulders. Stan could not stop scratching the tattoo of birds in flight he'd gotten on the inside of his wrist, despite Kyle's admonitions that getting visible tattoos made him less employable. Maybe "because of Kyle's admonitions" was a better way to describe what had actually happened.

"You're gonna get an infection," Kyle sniped.

"What's one more disease, crawling through my system," Stan muttered. He grabbed hold of his tattooed wrist and gripped it tight. "It may as well consume me."

"Give me a goddamn break." Kyle growled. Wendy soundly ignored the both of them to greet Bebe, who broke from the cheerleaders' huddle to come and regroup with her bestie.

"Whatever, Kyle. I don't need this from you. I didn't even want to come tonight!" Stan's voice gave the impression of disproportionate amounts of hurt feelings.

But Kyle was having none of that shit. "Yeah, we all have to deal with stuff we don't want to sometimes, Stan." His lip curled with disdain. "It's called being there for someone. It's called being a good friend."

"I knew you were still pissed at me for the party!" Stan kicked a rock angrily, and it went skittering. "That's why you've been acting like such a pissant bitch lately!"

"Ooh, playing the victim again! Original!"

Damien leaned over to Kenny and whispered gleefully. "There are so many negative feelings." His face twisted into what Kenny suspected was supposed to be a smile, but was more of a snarl. "I can't believe Father kept me from such horrible creatures for so long."

Kenny groaned. "Only you would be happy about Stan being a pussy."

On the field, Cartman ran at the back of the pack. He visibly panted, and when it was time to get water, he had to double over to catch his breath. Then, he waddled ahead and tossed whoever was in his way out of it to get to the Gatorade jug.

"I want to throw popcorn at him," Stan said wistfully, "I think food would encourage him."

"You want to throw popcorn at the fat kid." Kyle stifled a grin. "Dude, look. He's been practicing really hard," he paused. "Let's not rag on him until he fucks up."

"You guys are great friends," Wendy said dryly, but with amusement, "Such a solid support system for each other."

"Is this some sort of friendship ritual?" Damien asked loudly, "My Father said cruelty is not a tradition in friend-making."

Stan looked at Kyle for help and mouthed disbelievingly, "My Father." Kyle nodded slowly, eyes wide with the realization of exactly who Damien had to be talking about.

"Hey, Damien, you would do well in a sociology course," Kyle said lightly, smirking, "They say sociology writers study social interaction because they're incapable of it."

"Kyle," Wendy chastised, and nudged his arm with her shoulder, "It's not a snappy insult if it's obvious."

Damien sniffed, scowling, "I suppose you would relate to 'they' more than the ones attempting to dissect cause and effect. Perhaps that's too advanced a study for a peon such as yourself."

Stan's jaw dropped, and he muttered, "oh shit" behind his hand. Kyle's eyebrows reached his hairline. Stan loyally sat up straighter beside him, looking ready to pounce at Kyle's first move. Kenny and Wendy watched nervously, while Kyle sized up Damien.

"...Well then," Kyle replied, shoving his hands into his pockets, "I guess I just got put into my place." Damien was short, but intimidating in his own scowly way. Plus, he could call the powers of Hell to his aid. A truce was probably the best option for. Smart kid, Kenny thought. He also noticed that Stan looked disappointed, for whatever reason. He probably just wanted Kyle and Wendy to stop holding hands, even if it ended with Kyle's hand being obliterated. At least it wasn't touching Wendy.

Wendy's little nod of approval in Kyle's direction let Kenny know that Kyle was double-smart. He was so scoring points for holding back. It was nice to see a guy use his brain for what was really important.

"You certainly did," Damien scoffed, "Now let us witness the spectacle of this alleged fatass."

Spectacle indeed. Cartman was easily the largest kid on the field despite his best efforts over the previous months. Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Wendy cheered from the bleachers whenever he jogged nearby them. But they stopped after a while because it seemed sad and condescending to cheer for the kid in last place. By the end of it, Cartman's t-shirt was drenched with an impressive amount of sweat. Even Kyle couldn't partake in heckling.

"We should leave soon." Damien reported at the start of the second hour. "I have finished feeding. The amount of misery emanating from the large one could feed Hell's entire reserves."

Wendy squinted so as to better watch Cartman attempt a single push-up. "Just a little longer. He'll reach optimal levels of low self esteem in a few minutes."

"I knew someone like you back home." Damien told her.


"Yes. His name is Azazel. He is a dear friend." Damien's voice was filled with a certain amount of respect and approval. "And he is Chief Torturer now."

"Hi fellas!"

Everyone looked over when the bleachers echoed. Butters climbed towards them, hiking the seats like stairs. He wore the blue and white of Park County High, the word "BULLS" stitched in black across his chest. Damien visibly recoiled when he got too close.




"Go away!" he commanded Butters in an imperious shout. "You burn my very essence! Away, mortal!"

Butters hesitated. "Aw, geez. I wore the strong deodorant today, I swear. But I guess my uniform does have a sorta lack of ventilation."

"You remind me of a boy I turned into fireworks." Damien massaged the sides of his head miserably.

"Hey, Marjorine! They already gave you a uniform?" Wendy asked, "I thought cheerleading tryouts were today."

"Butters today! And they were," Butters chirped happily, sitting next to Wendy. He warily (and thoughtfully) gave Damien a few feet of buffer space. "I was pretty much guaranteed to be on. Trisha Kelly's been courting me for the team since the summer. They went ahead and special-ordered the boy uniform so I wouldn't have to wait. Now I just gotta wait on my girl-uniform; hey, didja know? I already made varsity, so I get the white skirt instead of the blue one!"

"Cool." Kyle interjected uncertainly. He wished he had something more productive to add, but his opinions on skirt-colors were fairly limited.

"How is Eric doing?" Butters asked him, leaning forward a little to get a look for himself.

"Terribly." Stan said, his elbows on his knees, face in his hands. He wasn't amused, "I'm embarrassed watching him. He must wish he were dead."

"Not everyone wishes that, Stan." Kyle muttered under his breath. Stan cut him a nasty glare in response, which Kyle pointedly ignored.

"Oh no," Butters was sweaty, still breathing heavily into the warm summer air. He fanned himself, eyebrows knitting with worry, as he searched the field for Cartman. "Well, I sure hope he don't give up. Coach really likes him."

"What?" Kyle turned on the bleacher seat to engage Butters better. "Why?"

The five teenagers all turned to listen. Butters ran a hand through his bangs absently, "I shouldn't be saying so, but Eric went to some of the drills last year. He didn't want anyone to know 'cause, ya know. He's still kind of pudgy and all."

"Kind of" was too kind, in Kenny's opinion. But he admired Butters' attempt to be diplomatic. It was about time someone made an effort in that direction, he thought.

Butters laughed, "Coach likes him because he has, uh. Spunk. You know Eric. He can be charming, when he wants to be. Kinda."

Stan made a face, and Kyle imitated Stan. "Ew," they said simultaneously. Kenny glared tiredly into space: these fucking guys. Really.

For a while, the bleacher crowd ignored Cartman chattered amongst themselves. It was just as well. Cartman's jumping-jacks were more like flap-jacks. No one needed to see that (except Damien, who seemed riveted). Forty-five minutes later, Cartman trudged toward them—sweating, red-faced and beaten. If they had mocked him, he might have agreed. No one did.

"I'm not going into the locker room with a bunch of sweaty, stinky fags," Cartman gritted, "My shower at home doesn't smell like balls."

The "I wanna go home" and "please don't laugh at me" was heard by all, and the six teens merged into seven. Cartman ran into the locker room long enough retrieve his things.

"How are we gonna put a positive spin on this?" Kyle wondered, utterly bewildered. The moment Cartman had left, his friends simultaneously called an impromptu emergency conference. Kenny was kind of impressed, actually. Sometimes his friends gave a shit, they just sucked at showing it consistently.

"Maybe we shouldn't bullshit him." Kenny suggested this without much hope of being taken seriously. "Just, help him laugh it off and move on."

Wendy hummed. "Wow, Kenny. That's really smart and sensitive advice." She sounded sweet as honey-and-milk when she said it. "But my question is, why are we tiptoeing around Eric Cartman's feelings? Did you all collectively just forget who we are dealing with here? Like he'd do any of us the same courtesy."

"Aw, come on Wendy." Stan took a puff of his e-cigarette and exhaled. Vapor drifted over his face, then dispersed. "It's fun to rip on Cartman. But, like. No one wants to see him cry. Again."

Torn, Kyle looked between Stan and Wendy. Then he pleadingly looked to Kenny, who shook his head with a little laugh before swiping Stan's vape pen. He blew a ring in Kyle's direction, then snapped through the middle of it to produce a heart-shape. It drifted in Kyle's direction before dissolving.

"I just think we oughta be nice," Butters added, though no one was really listening. "Eric tried real hard out there today. And gosh darn it, I'm proud of him."

"That's nice, Butters," Stan said, and rescued his pen back from Kenny. It was as much acknowledgement as Butters was going to get.

"...Well, what do you think, Kyle?" Wendy asked, like Kyle had been dreading she would. "What should we do?"

Damien piped in, luckily, to spare Kyle the dilemma. "Let the fool suffer," Damien suggested—though, really, it seemed more like a command. Kenny wondered if maybe he just wasn't used to talking to anyone that wasn't technically subject in his kingdom.

"It is of no use to protect the fat one's feelings." Damien went on. "His humiliation was thorough. There is nothing more we can do to him now."

"I agree," Kyle added, lamely. It was the mostly neutral option. "Let's not make it worse, directly. But there's no reason to act like his mother died or something."

"Conformist." Stan fake-coughed.

"Excuse me?" Kyle's face flushed a shade redder, temper flaring up immediately.

"The Kyle I know wouldn't compromise just to make his new girlfriend like him." Stan adopted a very superior expression, likely learned from the Goth kids. It was uncannily like the ones they wore during STAR classes.

"I'm not—"

"Ehy, faggots." Eric emerged, gym bag over his shoulder. His hair was plastered to his forehead, and he was still panting. "Are you guys stalking me or something? Why are you still here? Jesus Christ, don't any of you losers have lives?"

Wendy, Kenny noticed, wore a very obvious "I told you so" on her face.

"Don't look so sad, Eric." Butters tried to comfort as they walked on the sidewalk back to Cartman's house. The sun was setting. The sprinklers dotted the pavement with wetness that evaporated almost as soon as it landed on the cement. "You looked real good out there."

"Of course I did," Cartman scoffed unconvincingly, "I totally ran those pansies into the ground. I'll make that pigskin my bitch."

"Of course you will." Kyle said in an unimpressed tone.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Cartman snapped back.

"Nothing." Kyle sighed. Apparently, "not actively making it worse" meant "passive aggressively making it worse."

Kenny wondered what was wrong with Kyle today. He was being strangely combative—Kyle always had a temper, but looking for fights was something else. Kenny glanced at Stan. Stan had to be the source of Kyle's distress; they'd been going at each other all day. But Stan looked the same as ever: surly, tired, somewhat itchy, distant, and trying to ignore Wendy's participation in any conversation.

It was the very definition of a disaster waiting to happen, especially with Damien's penchant for pointing out the obvious, to exacerbate Cartman's already problematic lack of any filter whatsoever. The responsible thing to do was stay and play mediator.

"I think I'm gonna skip out." Kenny announced. He stopped walking, shoving his hands into his pockets. The others slowed to regard him.

Cartman glared mildly, "Why? My mom's ordering pizza. Free dinner, po' boy."

"Tempting. But I'm gonna get stoned." Kenny said, "Maybe later."

"Have fun buttfucking Craig." Cartman said. He seemed to be aiming for "mocking" but landed soundly on "whining."

"Aw shoot, don't be jealous, babe. Look, I even left you a replacement," Kenny clapped Damien on the shoulder. Damien's thick brows inched together. Kenny thought he almost looked distressed at the idea being abandoned. Maybe.

"As you wish, Kenneth. I will continue to honor you all with my dark presence," Damien said to the group in what was supposed to be consoling tone. "Besides, I have never had this, 'pizza.' I am here to participate in mortal culture. We could start with that."

Butters couldn't hide his confusion. "Huh? Are you like, gluten free or lactose intolerant or something?"

"He's European," Kenny lied easily, "Look, feed him pizza. I'll see you guys later," with the dismissal, Kenny whirled around and departed. It was really time to peace out of the angst-fest before it proved to be contagious.

"But, um. ...Italy is in Europe." Butters' voice was edged with inconvenient and irritating tones of rationality. "I'm pretty darn sure they have pizza in Europe."

After a block Kenny sensed he was being followed. He glanced over his shoulder to see a Stan-like figure trailing after him, not quite trying to catch up. He stopped walking and took the time to light a cigarette. It was gone by the time Stan reached him.

"Not interested in a free meal?" Kenny asked.

"I couldn't stand watching Cartman feel sorry for himself," Stan said tiredly. He paused a moment, and seemed to assess Kenny for a moment. His expression softened and Kenny guessed he had passed the "still a good enough friend to be vulnerable around" test.

Stan took a deep breath ."And also, I don't know. ...Kyle and Wendy are being all..."

"Coupley?" Kenny finished. He dug in his pockets and fished out another cigarette, "Yeah, man. It's pretty gross." Kenny was just trying to be on Stan's side; in actuality, he was all about public displays of affection and making out on lawns. That shit was hot.

Stan's shoulders slumped. "No, I'm glad they're happy. I just... I dunno."

Kenny reached to squeeze Stan's shoulder before he started walking again, leaving a smoke trail for Stan to follow. Unsurprisingly, Stan did so.

"Feel left behind?" Kenny prompted patiently. He wasn't the one with whom Stan wanted this conversation, but Kenny was kind of used to be the substitute friend by now.

"You aren't. Even if he wanted to, Kyle couldn't cut you off." Kenny shook his head slightly. It was both true and what Stan wanted to hear. Kenny just couldn't understand why Stan didn't see it for himself.

Stan made a dismissive noise that fooled no one and fell in step slightly behind Kenny. Their shoes padded against the sidewalk and provided the only noise for awhile.

"By the way, are you really going to smoke, or were you just trying to ditch your cousin and dump him on us?"

Kenny smiled humorlessly, "A little bit of both. I got an appointment."

Stan didn't comment but looked at Kenny curiously.

Kenny stayed quiet (he enjoyed being mysterious) and led the way past his house. There was a thin smattering of woods in the area surrounding to his clubhouse-residence. Kenny whistled as they walked into it, and setting sun stretched the shadows of the trees before them like prison bars. Stan had a feeling he knew what was about to happen. The feeling was a little bit like nausea: nothing good ever happened to teenagers who went into the woods at dusk.

After wandering down a well-worn path, two other boys became visible. As they got closer, Stan recognized them as Fosse and Bill. Rumor had it, they'd been held back four times since the fifth grade, and it did not help that they were extremely tall to begin with. They appeared as giants amongst men, even beside Kenny. Their bulk seemed to stretch out their expensive sweaters, and because they were always together, they resembled like an over-dressed pair of bouncers. Or Crabbe and Goyle.

"Huh, we thought you were gonna puss out McCormick." Fosse said nervously as Stan and Kenny approached. "That would have been gay."

"Yeah, gay." Bill chimed. "Like you guys."

Kenny rolled his eyes, and Stan watched the transaction from a few paces back.

"Uh huh, gay. Show me the money, and I'll measure it out here." Kenny pulled out a small digital scale from his back pocket. Casually, he took a seat right there in the middle of on the trail. "I'm waiting, ladies. Pay up."

"We ain't ladies!" Dumb (of Dumb and Dumber) fished around in his pockets and handed Kenny forty dollars nonetheless. Kenny accepted the cash. Then, he weighed and tied the weed in a baggie. It was all very efficient and professional, Stan thought. It occurred to him that this certainly wasn't the first time Kenny had done something like this.

The two customers scurried away, and Kenny watched them, still sitting on the ground. After a time, he looked up and finally noticed the odd expression on Stan's face.

"What?" Kenny asked.

"I don't know how to feel about this," Stan said plainly, scuffing at the dirt path with his sneakers.

"Then don't," Kenny shrugged. Being dead inside was Stan's gimmick now, wasn't it?

"I need money, and state weed is too overtaxed." Kenny tried not to sound bitter and defensive, but he realized he probably did anyway. All the part time gigs he found barely covered groceries. Hard work didn't pay worth spit.

Stan was quiet. As they stood there together, the summer warmth was lessened by the trees' shade. Specks of light flitted across Stan's cheeks.

"Don't get in trouble," Stan said quietly.

"Like I need you lecturing me on trouble," Kenny bit, recalling a hungover Stan from last year. He stood and dusted off his pants, pocketing his wares, "C'mon. Let's go get you blitzed." He walked past, purposely pushing his shoulder into Stan's.

"Besides, dude," Kenny ran a hand through his hair. The color was such that it was hard to tell if it was dirty or the dishwater shade was natural. "You were my first customer, remember?"

Stan didn't have much to protest afterwards.

"What are you still doing here?" Cartman frowned, suspicion slitting his eyes. Butters had just gone, Kyle before him. That weird kid with the eyebrows barely made it back to Cartman's house before denouncing their company as "below him."

That left only Wendy. She munched a slice of pizza and kicked her feet up on the coffee table like she fucking owned the joint. It pissed Cartman the fuck off. This was his home, goddamnit. She was violating sacred TV watching, pie-eating place by getting her hippie stink all over it. It was unacceptable.

"I thought we should talk," Wendy replied, shrugging. She crossed one foot over the other on top of the table. "Take a seat, Cartman." She patted the cushion next to her.

"It's my goddamn house! You don't get to invite me to sit!" Eric crossed his arms and remained standing out of principle. That pissed him off even more, because after the day he'd had, he really needed to fucking sit down.

Wendy rolled her eyes. "Have it your way." She held her palms up and swept them out to demonstrate her indifference. "But we have some unfinished business to discuss. So. If you wanna do it standing, that's fine. Might be more comfortable on the couch though."

"If you're trying to seduce me, you sneaky succubus, it won't work." Eric made a "yick" sound to demonstrate. "My standards aren't as low as Kyle's."

Wendy actually laughed, a little. While she calmed herself, Eric seriously considered hitting her with a bat. Bitch deserved to become a CNN story.

"Yeah, no." Wendy said when she'd calmed. "I just assumed you reconsidered my offer to be my debate partner."

"I reconsidered deez NUTS, all over your face!" Cartman grabbed his to demonstrate. "Didn't your feminist blabbing teach you anything? No means no! Jesus Christ, ho, take a hint."

Wendy closed her eyes tightly and shuddered. "Wow."

"That's what I said, ho." Eric crossed his arms over his chest and struck a pose. "You dig? Now get the fuck outta here, before you lose all control and throw your body at me, like. Take me, Eric, ooooh, please, taaaaake me!" He imitated her voice and fluttered his eyelashes. Then he added in some kissing noises and moans for good measure, running his hands up and down his opposite elbows as if holding an invisible person in an intimate embrace.

"Fucking bell hooks, stop it!" Wendy put her hands up as if warding him off. "Ugh, gross! I did not need that in my life."

"And I don't need your gay little glee club in mine!" Cartman declared. He was happy; he felt like he was winning this battle. "So you should run home and go back to you poncho weaving."

"It's debate club! And I am not leaving here until you say yes!" Wendy dug in. At first, it seemed she'd only been somewhat determined to sign Cartman onto her project. But now, Cartman could see she'd gotten fixated. Her little fists clenched, and her eyes narrowed, and she looked ready to fight him. He was very familiar with her "take Cartman down at all costs" stance. He was kind of flattered, really. But of course she wanted his presence to brighten up her putrid, vegan little life.

"Never gonna happen," Cartman sing-songed. "Heh heh heh heh heeeehhh hehhhh! You caaan't maaake me!"

"Do you think I want to have to ask you?" Wendy burst out, finally getting to her feet—thank Jesus for that, at least. She was that much closer to leaving when she wasn't planted in Erics spot.

She continued to yell, however and that cancelled out any good feelings Eric might have developed about the situation.

"Do you honestly think I want to spend any more time with you than I absolutely have to?" she demanded, "like fuck I do! But you're my only option, Cartman! I'm here because I have no other choice!"

"Oh cry me a river, Poke-Me-Oh-Hontas." Eric scoffed. "Get your ass-loving boyfriend to carry your pompoms for you. I have more important shit to do, like pick the lint out of my belly button, count termites, and chug paint thinner!"

"Ugh!" Wendy stamped her foot on the carpet, and the glasses on the coffee table moved a little. "You don't think I tried that? No one is dedicated enough—no one is smart, and focused, and insane enough—to do this with me. We have no funding, no coaches, no alumni! We have no competitive edge at all! It's gonna be an uphill battle every step of the way, and no one wants anything to do with it, but silly me! I thought it might be exactly your cup of tea!"

She flopped back down. Cartman figured it was because all that screeching made one of her lungs collapse. A man could dream.

"Whatever." She concluded as she blew a strand of hair from her face. "Gimme a straight answer, will you or won't you, and then I'll go, I guess."

Eric hesitated. He very much wanted to tell her to get fucked. But what she'd said before almost sounded like a compliment, and he wanted to hear more.

"Why did you think it was my kind of thing?" he asked. He took a few steps closer, so he could see her face better. He wanted to know if she was full of shit, and the best way to do it was to straight look into her piggy, beady, shrew-eyes.

"Because. It's impossible." Wendy's eyes were large to begin with, but now they were fully widened. She was like an owl as she sat there on his couch. Unfortunately, she still wasn't particularly readable. Cartman could only tell she was watching him as closely as he was watching her. And he couldn't exactly blame her for that. His perfectly sculpted body and glittering personality made him pretty irresistible. And she'd just watch him run around and sweat in the hot sun all day. Eric didn't think he'd be able to look away either.

"And you make impossible shit happen all the time," Wendy gestured demonstratively with her hands. The admission was sweet, because it sounded as if it pained Wendy to say so. After a day of ego-beating, ass-kicking humiliation, her words were exactly what the doctor ordered.

Cartman finally waddled to the couch and took a seat next to her. "Oho. So what you're saying is, you need me. You can't do it without me."

"I already said that!" Wendy said, flatly. Her obvious annoyance was the greatest thing. Cartman wanted to bathe in it.

"You neeeed me, Wendy. You need me so bad, you want to beeeeg me." Cartman felt downright gleeful.


"Well, too bad, bitch!" Eric turned on the TV and took the last slice of pizza from the box. "Cause I can think of ten million things I'd rather do that sit around with a bunch of zit-faced nerds and talk about weed and penises and healthcare for the homeless!"

"That's not what we— "

"I don't care! Get out, Wendy! I said, screw you AND your little team, I'm never, ever ever fucking joining. Not until they elect an openly gay guy as president, and make an interesting movie with a lady lead character! Never, ever ever! So THERE!" He pointed to the door, and to his astounded joy, she obeyed. As she stomped out, Eric congratulated himself.

"Ugh! Fuck you, Eric! You're the WORST!" she slammed the door, and the noisy bang reverberated through the house.

It was a glorious sound. Eric Cartman had been losing all, day, but now? Hell yeah, he'd just won the game.

Kyle paced his room, a bundle of nervous, unspent energy. He couldn't really explain, but he was restless. He was also having a hard time venting, even to Kenny, which was an unusual problem. He wondered if this was how Stan felt. He decided it couldn't be, as Kyle had no urge to wear all black and scribble morose poetry beside his Algebra notes.

Most of the time, all Kyle wanted to do was break Stan's nose. ('Take that for making cracks about his facial features, Stan!' Kyle thought, 'Seriously, get better insults. There is a line!'). Kyle had settled for picking what he knew were stupid fights as the only real channel for his aggression. He couldn't explain; he just wanted to fight someone. The need was like an itch, and Kyle had no emotional Benadryl.

Well, except for Wendy. She could usually calm him down when she was around, in more ways than one. ...Kyle recently discovered that he liked touching her. She was soft. And when she couldn't calm him down, she could hold her own in an argument. If Kyle started shit with Wendy he knew he wouldn't hurt her feelings. His own feelings (and pride) were another matter. He mostly avoided going that route.

Kyle stopped pacing in front a small dorm mirror he had stuck to the back of his door. His acne was clearing finally, just like his dad had promised. ("Don't worry about it, stop picking Kyle, you'll just make it worse, and those scars will never go away! I would know! At your age, I looked like my face was being eaten by fire ants, and I didn't do myself any favors by fussing with it!").

He had some definite craters that used to be bumps. He wondered if someday he could grow some manly scruff to cover them. But he didn't want to look homeless, so maybe it wasn't a realistic save.

As he combed his fingers through his hair (trying to decide if he could pull off a shorter haircut, or if his old mop really was the best look for him), Kyle did some mental comparisons.

Height-wise, he had officially reached gangling, towering over Stan and Wendy and having an inch on Cartman. Kenny was taller, but barely. Stan complained that Wendy was getting taller than him, although she hadn't. Stan always saw the glass as half-empty. Kyle wished Stan would stop hunting for the worst case scenario (Just occasionally? Once in awhile? That was probably too much to ask).

Thinking about Stan's shortcomings made Kyle's anxiety worse. He had to stop grooming. It wasn't a very good distraction, and if he got too agitated, he would probably pick a fight with Ike. That was just unfair. Ike, like Wendy, was better at petty arguments—what's more, he had a penchant for accurate, devastating characterization of any given situation. Kyle wanted to avoid any instance that made him question himself, if he could.

So, as Kyle plucked up his old Nintendo DS, he thought purposefully about Wendy's breasts. They were finally starting to fill in, judging by the way that she'd rub her chest periodically. She didn't seem to notice what she was doing most of the time,not that Kyle minded. He liked watching her touch them. When he saw Stan looking though, Kyle would get possessive in a way he couldn't quite explain (those were HIS, dammit).

Kyle mashed buttons on the DS and made Link chase some chickens. He decided not to get too angry at Stan for looking. All Stan could do was look, after all. That was punishment in and of itself (those breasts were wonderful, after all, AND HIS).

Still he, was angry. The anger was uncomfortable: Kyle scratched the back of his neck and fidgeted in his seat. He wished for a justified place to pin his anger, but the lack of one only irritated him more. The best he could come up with was that his current grounded-situation was, at least indirectly, Stan's fault. Stan did this to him. So he was angry with Stan.

With his somewhat spiteful thoughts, Kyle felt a little guilty. For someone who was supposed to be Stan's best friend, he was awfully vindictive. The problem was, he still didn't know how to make Stan better, and in fact, such a feat seemed so far out of his league he couldn't bother to think of a solution. Friendship was supposed to be the all-encompassing power, right?

But, Kyle's friendship seemed more like a contract that Stan begrudgingly kept, rather than a super power. He didn't make Stan feel better; he could tell. He knew his presence only forced Stan to act normally. Stan pretended, he didn't drag Kyle down too. And over time, Kyle could see Stan's efforts tiring him out.

Fuck, now Kyle really was feeling bad. He needed a real distraction. He tossed the game onto his bed and started pacing again, this time with his phone out. Callbacks for football hadn't happened yet, and Cartman was moping. Kyle called him. If there was anything Cartman was good for, it was talking too loudly for Kyle to hear his own internal monologue.

"Hey fatass," Kyle greeted when Cartman answered, "Get your shorts on, we're going for a run."

Ike Broflovski knew some strange things were afoot when he watched Kyle jogging alongside a huffing and puffing Cartman. For lack of friends to hang out with or after school activities, Ike lurked in the elementary school's play set. This was where he used to play pirates and held hands with his first girlfriend, and when he felt morose or sentimental, it seemed like a fitting place to go. It was also an ideal place to spy on his brother, which was a definite benefit. The smell of sawdust was nostalgic and eye-watering. Or maybe that was just his allergies talking; Ike had never done well with dust.

Kyle barely looked winded, while Cartman wheezed unhappily. Ike peered at them from between the plastic bars. It occurred to him that this would be a good place for sniping wayward joggers. It was, he also noted, the kind of thought that made people think he was secretly a psychopath. Ike could kind of see where they were coming from, and made a note not to voice those kinds of observations. The young genius thing was already off-putting enough to his peers. It wasn't like he needed to give them more reasons to avoid him, (such as fearing for their lives).

He was pondering this when he heard someone's feet shuffling wood chips behind him. Ike shuffled to the other side of his hiding spot. Being twelve, he more than took up the circular post which used to be his crow's nest. From his position, Ike could clearly see a boy about Kyle's age, with scary-looking eyebrows and black hair, stalking beneath the jungle gym. The stranger stopped just a few feet from Ike and peered around like a predator.

"I sense your mortal presence," the boy announced, "you may emerge."

Ike stayed silent and watched from his safe-hold. If the other boy was bluffing, Ike was calling it.

"You're quiet. I like that in people," the boy said after moment. "Underlings should be seen, not heard. Which is why for full approval, you must reveal yourself." He spared a knowing glance in Ike's direction, but then he continued his seemingly idle playground wanderings.

Ike watched the boy survey the playground, as if he owned it and was merely taking inventory. Ike concluded that the boy had to be either delusional or an actual big-deal who somehow was in fact as entitled as he acted. Either way, he wasn't a direct threat, and being on his good side seemed like a smart plan. Ike decided to approach.

When the boy was several yards away, Ike shimmied down from his spot and followed. He walked to the swing set, which was in dire need of new chains. There was something, Ike thought, that was familiar about this person, but Ike wasn't sure what it was. His voice and the sinister way he carried himself rang a bell, Ike thought. He watched and waited for the answer to come to him as the boy traveled to the tetherball. The pole lacked a ball since the school was closed for the summer. The boy stopped just outside the drawn circle, which was odd, Ike thought as he sat on the swingset and observed.

The boy finally looked over his shoulder at Ike directly.

"I went to school here for a brief time," he said, "I felt like seeing it again." He stepped inside the tetherball circle and reached to touch the pole. Ike had not asked for an explanation for his presence, but the fact that the boy seemed inspired to offer him one was interesting.

Ike remained quiet and started swinging, creaking the old rusted chains. He wanted to know what else the boy would feel the need to tell him unprompted.

"It's smaller than I remember," the boy added. "Though nothing significant has changed. Only myself— I am the only thing that changed. The past seems like a dream, like it didn't happen to me. I suppose that's why."

Ike nodded, to show he was listening. He thought, somewhat bitterly, that by the time he was old enough to remember things from the long-term, everything interesting would have happened already. He would just have been there to witness the aftermath. Kyle, like a war survivor, had always been protective of Ike. Sometimes, Ike appreciated it, but other times, he just felt left out.

"You're making me uncomfortable," the boy said. "It's not custom to respond to an invitation for conversation with silence. Can you not speak?"

"Sorry," Ike finally said. "I don't really know you."

The boy slowly paced the perimeter of the play yard with his hands clasped behind his back. "That's fair. I am new here. I'm staying with the McCormicks," he offered. "It's paradoxical. You do not want to speak with me because I am unknown, but in order to know me, you must converse with me. Is there a way we could, perhaps, meet in the middle? It would require a certain amount of trust, but at least it would be quid-pro-quo."

Ike's lips quirked. He was a little bit impressed. "Kenny? Yeah, I'm friends with his sister, sort of."

"A coincidence." The boy said lightly, "Who are you to know the McCormicks?"

"Ike Broflovski. Kenny's friend's little brother." Ike turned his head to watch the boy's progress around the play yard. He never seemed to hold still.

"Another coincidence." The boy nodded. His path led him to stand by the swing set as he spoke to Ike. "I met your brother, Kyle? A few weeks ago. Terrible experience."

Ike grinned. "He can give that impression."

"An impression of being terrible?" the boy asked, looking genuinely bemused. "Back home, that would be a compliment paid amongst friends. But I have been given to believe that amongst humans, 'terrible' is a quality attributed only to enemies."

Ike wondered if the boy were European. "No. I just know that Kyle gives the impression of being a prick sometimes. But he's alright most of the time. I think so anyway. ...He is just going through a hard time right now."

"Judgment of character is subjective," the boy dismissed. "Our meeting was not pleasurable. I do not desire more data to correct my initial evaluation, whether it is wholly correct or not."

"I don't blame you. Second impressions should be earned." Ike shrugged. Before the boy could respond, Ike asked, "What's your name?"

"Damien Thorn."

"Ah," Ike nodded. "You look like a Damien."

"Do you know other Damiens?" Damien sat one swing over from Ike.

"Not personally." Ike smirked. Ike's straight black hair had grown into a messy shag. It was starting to get greasy. Ike didn't like how his hair-oil clouded his glasses; he carried a cleaning rag everywhere. As he swung, he polished self-consciously.

"You are young." Damien observed as Ike put his glasses back on. Ike blinked at him, warily.

"I'm very smart," Ike said, just a little bit defensive. "I was almost put into genius school."

"Quite the achievement," Damien said dryly.

Ike sensed the sarcasm. "Don't do that," he scowled, "Now that you see how young I am, you're talking down to me."

Damien seemed mildly surprised. "My apologies, young Ike Broflovski. I too know what it is to be overlooked due to age and inexperience, despite possessing a superior intellect. It won't happen again."

"Yeah, well," Ike looked up at the swing's bar, still rocking enough to make the chains squeak slowly and loudly. "You wanna play video games?"

"I'm not familiar with those," Damien twisted in his swing, so the chains twined together.

Ike raised an eyebrow; Damien definitely wasn't European, just weird. "Come to my house. I'm not doing anything right now. My social calendar is kinda empty." He admitted, ducking his head a little.

"Something else we have in common," Damien said evenly. He let the swing spin out slowly and then started to stand. But he hesitated as soon as he did with his hands on the chains. "Is there a chance we will speak to your brother?"

Ike shrugged. "Yeah. He lives there. But he's usually out."

"Ah." Damien frowned, then shrugged. "Never mind. Show me your games."

Ike and Damien wandered off together, leaving behind the wet, earthy smell of wood chips and sharp metallic scent of old swing chains.

If Stan hadn't been high as a kite at the start of summer, he would have been more concerned that Kyle seemed to have developed the territorial instincts of a badger in heat. However, Stan had substituted drinking in favor of smoke-related inebriation, and he wasn't concerned with much outside of the pretty patterns he saw when he closed his eyes—when he pressed down on his eyelids with his fingers, it was like looking at a kaleidescope that was directly against his eyeball.

"I know what we're going to do." Kyle declared when he burst into Stan's room, unannounced one Friday afternoon. His eyes were wild as his hair. ...Overall, Kyle was far too energetic for Stan at the moment. Stan rolled on his bed, blinking slowly. In his current state, Kyle could pass off as a pretty decent clown, Stan thought. That was pretty creepy, so Stan resolved to stare at the ceiling instead, so as not to trigger the occasional paranoia that crept into an otherwise decent high.

"Dude, calm down," he moaned lazily. "What's even up?" Stan was somewhat embarrassed to be caught blazing in his pajamas, but at least Kyle didn't seem too angry. Stan guessed it was because his being high involved almost no vomiting. Kyle's conscience and clothing would most likely come out of this encounter cleanly.

Kyle shut Stan's door and slipped down to sit. "Fuck, you're so stupid when you're high." He sounded irritated, but Stan could tell he was in a good mood. Kyle kept smiling at his phone. Stan did not want to think about who was on the other line.

Stan laughed, rubbing his face into his pillow, "I got more, if you're feeling left out. And Kenny has this good shit right now. It's so awesome." Stan peered up at Kyle, and he hugged his pillow.

"No, dude." Kyle waved a hand impatiently. "Come on! Get dressed!"

"But if you're not here to smoke with me, why are you, like. Here?" Stan asked. He did not move to obey Kyle's edict. It was cruel and unusual in his opinion to make someone wear pants on a Saturday.

"You know what? Fuck getting dressed. Get your ass up," Kyle grinned. "We're gonna throw shit off the bridge."

"Dude." Stan laughed, "Dude." He might have had questions, concerns. But as Kyle pulled him out of bed and began to push him towards the stairs, all Stan could do was alternate between giggling, and smiling. He was happy Kyle wanted to go to a bridge with him. It was the first time Stan could remember in...months? Maybe a year?...that Kyle had ever dropped by without calling ahead, for no real reason except to chill. Stan hummed between bouts of laughter as Kyle dragged him. They were buddies again, he thought. What else mattered?

Sharon on the other hand, seemed rather concerned at her son's cackling. She gave him a strange, concerned-motherly appraisal as he passed her in the hall.

"Stan, honey, are you alright? I just did a load of laundry, and..." She finally noticed Kyle, and noticeably brightened. "Oh, hello, sweetheart. It's good to see you around here. We're having lasagna tonight. Are you boys going to be around? Do you want to stay for dinner?"

"Oh, hey, Mrs. Marsh." Kyle greeted, making eye-contact and fully pausing to engage her. It was moments like this that Kyle could not escape nor hide his good upbringing. "Yeah. Stan and I are just gonna go out for a little bit, but we'll be right back. I'd love to stay for dinner, thank you!"

"Lasagna is great, dude," Stan laughed. "So, so great."

"That's nice, honey. You boys be careful out there." Sharon shifted the laundry basket onto her hip and continued past them, reassured.

"Will do!" Kyle called after her. Stan and Kyle glanced at each other briefly. It felt like a more narrow escape that it actually had been. Stan broke into another fit of giggles, and he stuffed his fist in his mouth to try to stifle it. Kyle rolled his eyes and dragged Stan out by the wrist.

They walked for about half a block before it seemed natural to pick up conversation again. Stan noticed that they did actually seem to be headed for the walking bridge over the freeway, just about half a mile from the high school. They'd recently put up netting to catch the jumpers. There had been a record number in the past few years, and the spot of choice seemed to be the bridge.

Another day, this fact might have gotten Stan down. Not today. Today the world was bright, Kyle actually wanted to hang out with him, and they were going to the suicide bridge to fucking bond. The sun was shining today, Stan thought, right on him.

"Don't people like," Stan drawled, basking in the summer breeze, "Die, from people dropping shit from overpasses?"

"Well, shit like bricks." Kyle said dismissively. His t-shirt was a size or two too small for him. The way it clung to his upper arms was vulnerably personal somehow, like Kyle's childhood had not quite let go of him yet. "Not shit like shit."

"Ok. But, like. Kyle? Why do you want to do this?" Stan asked, fumbling in his Terrence and Phillip pajama pockets as they walked down the sidewalk in the general direction Kenny' house. If they continued from the footbridge, turned left and passed the pond, they could be there easily. "I thought you were all mature this year."

"Obviously, because I care about our relationship." Kyle said, looking straight ahead with seriousness. "I thought we could renew the passion with mutual shit-throwing experiences."

Stan had been trying to light a small glass pipe he'd finally managed to pull from his pocket as they walked, but he burst out laughing again at that. He nearly dropped everything, he laughed so hard. Kyle was lying. He was obviously lying, and Stan had no idea why. For whatever reason, Stan found that the fact that he was too stupid to figure out what Kyle was lying about to be really funny.

"Okay, okay." Stan agreed through peals of laughter. "I care too, Kyle. I care so...haha! Much!"

"Give me that," Kyle said, pretending to be lofty about how sober he was. He dropped the act only seconds later. He lit up, and he put on the sort of voice usually reserved for great ceremony. "Today is the day for remembering that we forgot everything."

"You... know how to do that?" Stan asked, bewildered. He chuckled a little bit through his confusion. Being unsure of what was happening, exactly, was really fucking hilarious. "How?"

"I smoked with Kenny in middle school." Kyle said in the cool/self-conscious manner of someone who had only done it once. As if to prove the point, Kyle began hacking. He nearly doubled over with the force of his coughing, and as soon as it passed, he handed the pipe back to Stan. Kyle's mouth squished into a defensive scowl, and Stan couldn't take the pipe back from him for several moments. He just laughed at Kyle until both their eyes were red and watery: Stan's from laughter and Kyle's from an agonizing wheezing fit.

"Shut up, dude," Kyle complained. He shoved at Stan with his shoulder.

"Haha! No, you shut up, dude. You pansy!" Stan giggled and shoved him back. Before long, they were bumping into each other, trying to shove each other into the street as they walked along. It was a reckless sort of game. But luckily for them, it was the weekend, and the streets were quiet.

"I'mma call Kenny," Kyle announced, pulling out his phone.

"Dude, we're here," Stan said. Indeed, they now stood in front of Kenny's house. They hadn't noticed, which was strange. There were certainly enough dead lawns and trailers around to tip them off.

"It's rude to drop by unannounced," Kyle sniffed defensively, and Stan fell into giggles again. Kyle pointedly ignored him and lifted his phone and dialed anyway, a stubborn look on his face. He visibly brightened when Kenny answered.

"Kenny! We're picking up dog shit. Come with us!"

There was a nice little outcropping of conifers off to the east side of Kenny's street. It was fertile land for having to scrape dog shit off shoes—perfect for gathering the stuff. Kyle gazed in the direction of the trees, and he realized that he hadn't planned very well ahead for this. They did not have bags.

"And could you bring some plastic bags out here?" Kyle added, quickly before Kenny could hang up. "A bunch of them."

"Oh my god." Stan sat down on the cracked pavement and kept laughing.

"What the fuck you guys," Kenny's voice could be heard from the phone even from where Stan was sitting. Then, the front door swung open. Kenny appeared in his front entryway with his flip phone next to his ear. The annoyed expression he had almost immediately went away in favor of an amused smile when he saw Kyle and Stan acting like fools.

"Dude, you guys are gone," he hung up and pocketed his phone. "I'd love to party with y'all, but right now's a bad time."

"Nooo," Stan whined from his spot on the sidewalk. He took a break from plucking at crab grass to pout and make grabby hands at Kenny. "Come with ussss."

"Ugh, can't," Kenny said, with a little, envious groan."Cousin's here and demands to be entertained."

"Oh, speaking of! Dude, your cousin," Kyle wavered in his spot as he made air quotes around the word "cousin." He still managed to look intimidating, though. His body was poised as if ready to take Kenny into custody, and though his eyes were unfocused, they were shrewd.

"He like, made friends with my brother. That's so weird." Kyle squinted at Kenny, accusatorially. "Is he a pedophile?"

Kenny bit back a laugh. "Not the last time I checked." Although, he thought, maybe it probably wouldn't hurt to check again. He doubted they had a registry in Hell, but Satan knew everyone's business. Kenny could ask. After a moment lost in his thoughts on how to politely approach the subject ("Hey, is your son into weird animes? 'Cause..."), Kenny looked up, switching gears.

"Hey, also. What the fuck are you guys doing with dog shit?" Kenny directed the question to Stan, because then Kyle couldn't forcibly steer the conversation back to Damien.

"Gonna throw it at cars," Stan said happily. "Or like. Drop it. From a bridge. Like we're big, angry birds."

"Sounds fun. What, you're not going to ask Wendy to come?" Kenny snickered.

Kyle looked mortified at the suggestion. He shook his head at Kenny as if to say "nuh uh, dude, don't go there," and put his hands in his pockets. Stan just grimaced and pulled out a pluck of crab grass, so the thick roots came out too and dirt sprayed out over the cement.

Kenny laughed. They were both so emotive when they were stoned. "Why don't you ask Cartman? Dude needs a little somethin' somethin' to cheer him up, right?"

"I did," Kyle whined, stomping a foot impatiently. Kenny eyed Kyle indicatively, crossing his arms, and waiting for an explanation. Kyle hopped right into one—he was all too happy to give it.

"He said," Kyle took a deep breath, and launched into an impression of Cartman which was born of too many years of knowing each other, "'Ah can't be seen with you stoner pussies when I'm so close to making the team. Go suck a dick Kahl.' Like fatass could ever make the football team with his weak little girl arms."

"I knew it!" Stan interrupted from the ground. He sat up straighter and pointed at Kyle accusingly. "You didn't believe in him. You're a fucking liar!"

"I was being supportive," Kyle countered defensively, "Like I was when you were convinced that Sparky got the boy dog next door pregnant."

"I was high on meds from getting my teeth pulled!"

Kenny rubbed his face into his palm. He was still smiling but unable to deal with them anymore.

"There's a pooper scooper in my back yard. Unless y'all want to pick up dog shit with your hands," Kenny segued his exit with some friendly advice. "Happy poop party."

With the dismissal, Kenny slammed the door shut. Kyle and Stan stared quietly for several moments. The sun would set in a few hours, and they could already feel the heat migrate to the backs of their necks. Kyle would have a sunburn the next day, and he scratched at it preemptively.

"You were gonna pick it up with your hands, weren't you?" Stan asked, smirking a little even as they stared at the closed door.

"I didn't think that far ahead." Kyle admitted, "Nope."

Rummaging through Kenny's backyard took longer than it should have, but they found the pooper-scooper and a few stray plastic bags to cover their hands. They also managed to find a big black trash bag in which to stockpile the goods. Finding dog poop wasn't a challenge, luckily; people brought their animals to the woods for walks all the time and didn't often clean after them. It felt just, in a way, to profit off of assholes. Doggie patties were plentiful.

They searched through the underbrush, wresting poop from difficult tangles of weeds as the sun set. The shadows of the trees lengthed, and Stan stopped filling the trash bag to stare vacantly into the horizon. Damn, he'd overslept. He hadn't figured he'd slept past noon, but they hadn't been out for more than three hours.

"It's getting dark," Stan said, hazily. He felt his high become a low, and with it, his mood dipped as well. It was bad enough when this happened with chemical pick-me-ups in play. Flying solo was more like sinking.

"All the better," Kyle grinned, oblivious. "They won't see us."

Stan tried to smile in return, but his muscles were soft. His body was stiffly uncooperative, craving his bed and unconsciousness. He continued to fill the trash bag with poop, but it no longer seemed rebellious. Instead, Stan just felt ironic and sad. The pair huddled beside the bridge to smoke a little more before heading over the overpass. Stan had fallen quiet, but Kyle didn't press him. Even when Stan felt the high fill his brain with fuzzy light and unfocused numbness, the weight did not shift. Stan felt himself apathetically settle down to the bottom of the sea.

Still, after a little while, Stan and Kyle climbed—ammunition in hand. The bridge's road ran east to west, leading out of South Park, while the road beneath them ran north to south. Stan thought his place was perfectly dead-center, with no direction at all.

"Hey, Kyle? Why are we here?" Stan asked a second time. The night chill was starting to set, blowing Stan's bangs out of his face as they watched a few stray cars drive beneath.

"I don't know," Kyle admitted. He watched the road, "Reliving our childhood or some shit. I've been kinda restless lately."

"Dude," Stan nodded, "Retrospect is the only kind of happiness. Henrietta says that all the time."

Kyle rolled his eyes and leaned against the bridge railing. "Deep. She also said, during English class, that Hamlet is a homoerotic murder fantasy. Maybe you shouldn't listen to her so much."

For some reason, those words in Kyle's mouth made Stan shy. He cleared his throat and went quiet again, though he knew it made him a traitor not to stand up for his friend. She'd understand. Failure to meet expectations was just another way to thwart conformity, after all.

"...So, I heard you punched that kid, Dougie, in the face." Stan glanced at Kyle in his peripherals.

"Ugh. Has Butters been talking shit?" Kyle sucked some air between his front teeth. "Gossipy fucking garbage."

"Jesus Christ, dude." Stan blinked. "No. Kenny told me, 'cause Butters told him. They're friends. They talk. Especially about stuff like face-punching."

Kyle rolled up his left sleeve and shifted on his feet. Stan was gratified to see his guilty grimace under the scowl Kyle pulled up to cover it.

"Dougie is just dumb." Kyle used his arguing voice, though Stan had raised no actual objection. "He wouldn't fucking shut up about Eric's football tryout. I warned that kid. I warned him."

"You don't even like Eric," Stan noted quietly.

"He's still my people," Kyle snapped. Stan remembered that Kyle's temper was the worst when he was in moral crisis. He also knew that arguing would make it even worse. He decided to just let Kye rant instead.

"He's your people too," Kyle turned on Stan, bitterly. "Or he was, before you decided you were too fucking good for us."

Stan was taken aback but realized Kyle likely would not respond to more guilt. Citing Stan's own abandonment would not calm Kyle down.

"Maybe it's, like. Just hormones talking," Stan looked back to the road and sulked, "Why don't you talk to Wendy about this? She starts fights sometimes, too. Like with that guy on the track, when he said that thing about gay people. Maybe you two could go to like, Ragers Anonymous, or something."

It was meant to be a joke; Stan even offered a little sardonic smile. But Kyle did not seem to take it that way.

"What the fuck did you say about Wendy?" he demanded.

Stan pressed his face into his arms against the metal. He mumbled, "I'm too high for this conversation." Then he took a deep breath. "But. Come on, Kyle. You know she even doesn't like that chivalry bullshit. And it's me, man. You really think I meant to diss Wendy? Cut it out. "

"You're always too something for anything anymore," Kyle complained. He very obviously intentionally dismissed Stan's valid point about Wendy. Stan could tell that Kyle knew he'd lost the argument by the unhappy set of Kyle's shoulderblades, bunched together in the middle of his back. In a clear ploy to change the subject, Kyle reached for the poop bags. He wrapped his right hand in a mostly clean bag, looked squarely and Stan, and said with manic determination:

"Whatever. Let's do this."

With that, Kyle plunged his covered hand into the trash container full of shit, grabbed a ripe one, and dropped a turd on the next car that drove underneath the pass with a satisfying splat.

"Aw, sick!" Stan laughed. He leaned over the railing to better see the road below, and then pressed his body forward to better watch the shit-covered car pull out of sight.

"Sweet, dude!" Kyle exclaimed, seeming surprised at himself. The light in his eyes was interesting to Stan. It made Kyle's face look older, but not in a bad way. It was kind of like getting to directly watch Kyle grow up and learn things. Stan could see information register in Kyle's mind, could almost track exactly how it would register, how Kyle would think about it later. Or, at least, Stan thought he could. A morose afterthought naturally shadowed, and Stan wondered if he were just seeing what he wanted to see, and if Kyle were a stranger to him, now. Stan knew he couldn't make those kinds of assumptions about a stranger.

The damper on his mood made Stan feel angry at the world. He too now needed an outlet.

"Here, give me a wet one," Stan said when the car had fully disappeared into the horizon. He snagged a bag and covered his hand before accepting the trash bag from Kyle.

"You gotta time it right," Kyle advised as Stan dug around for ammo. "Drop it just before the hood of the car fully appears from under the bridge."

"Okay." Stan tried to get his wool-covered brain in-focus. It felt as if it were wandering in ever widening circles, and Stan was having trouble pulling it back to the center.

Despite Kyle's advice, between the two of them, they mostly hit the roofs of passing cars. They just dropped the poop a second or two too late. Still they laughed hysterically if they did manage to get the poop to land on a windshield, even though it occurred to Stan that it was probably kind of dangerous for the drivers below.

In the end, Stan decided to be selfish. It was just that it felt so good to laugh about anything. He'd take it, even at someone else's expense.

"Fifty points for front windshields," Stan declared, after Kyle had pulled off a particularly impressive window-splat on a big pick-up.

"Sixty if the windows are rolled down, twenty for the roof, ten for the back windshield." Kyle added, nodding with enthusiasm. It was good to be on Kyle's team again, Stan thought. Kyle's body was primed forward, as if he were a spring-loaded toy, ready for action. Stan could not help but note Kyle's new lankiness. He was big and wiry, now. Stan wasn't great with change—he liked to know the things he depended on stayed in one place. So Kyle's teenaged body made him a little nervous: the exposed extra inch of uber-white leg— his shorts had grown just a little too small—or even the way Kyle's shirt now hiked up to cover his clavicle bones, too tight around Kyle's neck. Kyle's voice was even starting to sound different. Sometimes, Stan would look at the person who wasn't quite his best friend and just feel lost.

"Sounds good." Stan agreed. He had to pause the shit-throwing to light up his pipe. He wondered when the high would kick in and stop feeling like a dip.

Neither boy really kept score. But they continued dropping their bombs onto unsuspecting drivers until their sack was nearly empty. Their game lost its novelty after an hour or so. When they agreed it had grown boring—they could no longer even smell the shit, they'd been tossing it so long—Kyle chucked the bag into the bushes.

"Let's go. Your mom will probably have dinner ready just about—" Kyle started to say, when he was interrupted by a pair of lights, shining bright in their eyes, glaring at them from the darkness.

"Aw, fuck. Party lights." Stan shielded his eyes, trying to make out the car.

A South Park police car was pulling close to them, and there was nowhere to run. The woods were too far. They could not outpace a car, and they both knew it. Stan and Kyle looked at each other, fearfully. The police car lights flashed on to let them know they were the ones the car wanted. Stan could see Kyle swallow, hard, as blue and red traded places on his face.

Officer Barbrady pulled over and climbed out of his car, fatter than ever. He paused to get his citation clipboard out, then waddled confidently to the two boys. Stan wondered, too late, if he should have tossed his baggie and pipe over the bridge or something before Barbrady got to them.

"Why hello there Stanley, Kyle," he said. His voice was, as always, too loud and weirdly lacking in inflection. His aviators seemed too small on his large, round face, and they sat crookedly on his nose.

"Hi, Officer Barbrady." They responded simultaneously. Both their pitches were up, high in their throats.

"I hear you boys are throwing things off the bridge again," Officer Barbrady said, dutifully. He was definitely the sort to take his job too seriously. Stan just hoped that if they played the role of respectful-of-authority kids, he would let them off easy.

"We were just taking a walk," Kyle lied quickly, nervously. He still wasn't very good under pressure, which made Stan want to sigh with impatience. Kyle was visibly sweating, even shaking a tiny bit. Stan would have told him to be cool but that probably would have made the lie even more obvious.

"You could hurt someone like that, you know," Barbady droned, glazed eyes bouncing from the face of one boy to the other. Stan thought that Barbrady always appeared to be staring off into space, even when he gazed directly into someone's eyes.

"...Which is why we would never do something like that." Stan responded, hoping to appeal to Barbrady's stupidity. "Like Kyle said. We were walking. Um. Enjoying nature, and stuff."

"That's funny." Officer Barbrady said, genuinely stumped for a moment. He scratched his head. "'Cause we got an anonymous call from Mister Garrison. He said he'd recognize that ginger and the emo-failed-quarterback from miles away. Hey, weren't you boys in his class?"

Kyle and Stan shared a glance, mutual rage and hatred passing between them. Miles away in a BDSM club, Mister Garrison was laughing in delight of his deeds over a strawberry daiquiri, Stan was sure. God, he fucking hated that guy. And now they were so busted. The cops would totally tell their parents. As if knowing his thoughts, Kyle made a little choking sound, strangling a whimper.

"Well, I have to take you boys in." Officer Barbrady said. He wrote some things down on his notebook, and then turned, indicating with a hand that the boys should follow him. "Come on quietly now, you're not being arrested. We're just calling your parents."

Shit, was the only thought in Stan's mind. There was no joy in being right. It was an ironic thought, and it made him laugh a bit. He had to bite down on his knuckle to stop it. Kyle seemed to be having a conversation by himself, mouthing words intensely with his brows knit together on his forehead.

Ultimately, they were just too high to really argue. So Kyle and Stan went more-or-less quietly. South Park was small, but it still felt like a very long, silent drive back to the police station.

"Ma is going to kill me." Kyle fretted. He paced the overnight cell he and Stan were placed into, and he occasionally braced himself by the palms against the wall in horrified disbelief. The officers in the station had declared them inebriated, and thus they required twelve hours in the "drunk tank" to sober before anyone could retrieve them. Their cellmate was the town's single well-known crack addict, Tommy Junior, slept quietly in the corner. The cell was a perfectly square, white room with a steel door separating them from the outside. A legless, cement bench protruded from two sides of the wall.

"Whatever. Let 'em. You'll be fine." Stan said flatly. He laid down on the bench to gaze listlessly at the ceiling. He felt himself crashing and could not bring himself to feel too concerned about their surroundings. A cage within a cage just seemed redundant, and his parents were already disappointed in him. Stan hadn't even gone out for football. He knew his father would be much happier with a different, better son no matter what Stan did now.

"At least they didn't find the weed on you." Stan added. "You're like. A victim of circumstances or something." God, he wanted his fucking pipe back. Or at least his vape. He did not know how anyone was supposed to endure jail sober.

"But they know we've been smoking!" Kyle cried, oblivious to Stan's use of verbal irony. "Ma is going to kill me, oh my god. I can't even pray that she won't answer the phone because how else am I gonna get out of here? I can't die in here! I have to go to college!" Kyle ducked his head down and buried his fingers into his hair. He sank to the floor and breathed hard.

Stan leaned into the cement wall, watching Kyle have his breakdown. The lights were too bright, and there was one lone toilet for everyone to use. The conditions were meant to be sobering, degrading—or maybe, Stan amended, more forgivingly, the SPPD was just cheap.

"Calm down," he said uselessly. "They'll yell at you, and in a month, everything will be okay."

"What was I thinking?" Kyle moaned, ignoring him, "It's so stupid, oh my god, I'm so stupid. This will fuck up my permanent record for sure."

Stan sat up temporarily, to unfold the scratchy wool blanket he'd been given and wrap around himself. He lay back down and closed his eyes.

"There's an upside," he said lightly. Kyle looked at him with watery eyes, daring Stan to give him an upside to almost being arrested.

"We got picked up together." Stan smirked. "True friendship is going down together. This'll be our go-to bar story. Free drinks for bunk buddies."

"You in a bar is a bad enough," Kyle said, immediately. "I'm not gonna help you pour free alcohol on your addiction, Stan!"

"Wow. Okay, dude." Stan propped himself back up, guilt disallowing him from becoming comfortable.

"...Sorry." Kyle sighed after a beat or two. "I'm just fucking stressed out, man. Ma is gonna be so pissed. I don't even wanna think about what she'll do to me!"

Without being invited, Kyle came to sit next to sat on the bench him. Stan didn't say anything, so Kyle went back to rocking himself. But how badly Kyle was freaking out kind of made Stan worry. So Stan scooted closer and pretended to be dozing against the uncomfortable wall. Kyle subtly (almost unconsciously) moved closer as well, until their legs touched. It seemed to soothe Kyle to be in contact at least. He settled down and fell asleep hunched over his knees. Stan wasn't sure how he could sleep in such a position.

The night passed slowly and quietly with few words between them. Stan couldn't find it in himself to feel anything. He drifted in and out of consciousness, hardly noticing the difference. Time did not seem to pass at all—existence was a single moment in which Stan passively inhabited space. He was glad, however, that Kyle was next to him. Between Kyle and the scratchy wool blanket, Stan was protected from most of the chill. The only real source of cold was the cement bench, which sent shivers up Stan's fleecy pajamas. Periodically Kyle made upset noises in his sleep, and Stan patted his head until he quieted. Their munchies-ridden stomachs grumbled uneasily, unsatisfied through the night.

Morning came, and they were fed a questionable breakfast of carton eggs and toast.

"It's like styrofoam with Playdough flavoring," Kyle complained as they scarfed it down, but Stan ate so fast he barely tasted anything.

"Yeah, gross—fuck! Bit my tongue!" Stan winced, eggs falling out of his mouth. Kyle snickered as he chewed his dry, butterless toast.

Their crack addict friend asked for their milks when it became clear neither were going to consume them.

"Don't waste it, boys. Honestly, I get arrested on purpose so I get the free food." Junior sighed, "Fifty-five hours of community service, two meals, and a couple nights under a roof with a clean blanket and flushing toilet is worth it."

Kyle and Stan exchanged an uncomfortable glance. It would be impolite to show the extreme pity they felt and just as impolite remain callous. It was a social no-win, but Stan made an effort anyway.

"That blows, dude," Stan shuffled his feet underneath himself and peeked up at the ceiling. "Um. Maybe, like. Go to the YMCA next time? Or something?"

Luckily, the drunk tank door opened then and relieved them. An officer Stan did not recognize arrived to let them out. He gave the prisoners a disinterested once-over, presumably to make sure certain no one had stabbed anyone else, and the jailbirds were, in fact, all alive. Then, with a sigh, he announced: "Boys, your parents are here."

Kyle and Stan shared a look; their parents had come together. It seemed like bad news. Still Kyle scrambled to his feet, and Stan ambled unenthusiastically after him.

Sheila and Gerald Broflovski and Randy and Sharon Marsh stood in the lobby. The bored-looking secretary at the glass checking window slipped some papers through, which Gerald signed with a pen attached to a ball-chain. The lobby itself looked somewhat like a classroom, complete with a paneled ceiling and rectangular lights, and tiny, uncomfortable chairs next to plastic waste bins. To Stan, the whole pace seemed designed to make people feel inferior. Conformists always used the mundane to reinforce misery, he thought, feeling superior and immune.

Kyle shrunk about fourteen sizes when Sheila zeroed onto him with a withering, venomous stare. Stan felt Kyle try to use him as a shield, despite Stan being half a head shorter. Randy and Sharon shared disappointed glances at Stan, Sharon more watery than Randy. Randy sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Stan glared vacantly at the sole decoration in the room: a fake potted petunia. He didn't want to look at his parents. There was no point in pretending he could change to fucking please them.

A motherly-looking policewoman sat with all six to chat as she finished with their paperwork and handed it over to the parents.

"There's no harm, no foul. No one got hurt. They were just being dumb teenagers," the woman said kindly, "We're more concerned about the marijuana, but being such a small town, we're going to let this slide. Don't think you'd get away with this elsewhere. And don't do it again, because honestly, someone could have gotten hurt, boys." She fixed Stan and Kyle with a very serious gaze. Kyle ducked his head, and nodded quickly. Stan did not react beyond exhaling heavily.

"Stanley." Sharon said sharply. Despite himself, Stan's chest tightened, and his back straightened.

"Thank you," Stan mumbled, hunching back down into himself. He cursed the pedestrian constraints society made him accept. No wonder everyone was so miserable, forced to kowtow to random authority, just so they could continue running on their hamster wheels.

"Don't push your luck," the policewoman amended sternly. "We know the Broflovski's would never approve of such behavior, but you were both nearly charged with a misdemeanor."

"Thank you, Officer. We will never let a thing like this happen again," Sheila said it to the officer, but pointed herself at Kyle while she said it. "I will die before I let my son become a miscreant. Don't you worry, Officer. Kyle has learned his lesson!"

"Stanley, too," Sharon added, putting her hand on her son's shoulder. "I don't know what's gotten into him, but this is very uncharacteristic. Stan is usually such a good boy."

Randy made a face as if he wanted to protest, but he kept his mouth shut. Stan was impressed. He wondered how much shit his mother had given Randy in the car to inspire that. Their parents thanked the police officer again, shook her hand, and then herded the boys out through the glass doors. Stan squinted into the unforgivingly bright sunlight as soon as they emerged from the overhang. Goddamn, he needed a cigarette.

Walking out of the police station into the parking lot, Sheila grabbed Kyle by the sleeve, hard.

"We're going to the Marsh's," she jerked Kyle behind her when he tried to shy away. "Don't think you're going to hide behind Stan, young man," she snapped, "I don't think you know how deeply in trouble you are!"

"Sorry, Ma." Kyle choked, sounding near tears. As for himself, Stan felt oddly free of shame or worry. He was just tired. He wanted to sleep so long the earth stopped turning. It was all he could really think about.

The six walked together to their respective cars, which were parked next to each other. The heat of the day made the air over the asphalt shimmer, slightly. It gave the lot outside the SPPD an undeserved ethereal quality, Stan thought. This was no place for mirages, only cold, hard bureaucratic reality. Though, Stan wondered if it all weren't an illusion, if reality weren't all some joke and nothing and no one was real, so of course none of it felt like it mattered.

Sharon finally spoke, breaking the quiet. She sniffled, and her voice was harsh and hoarse.

"The two of you," she said wearily, "Dog poop? Really? Are you both eight again?"

"Aw, Sharon, what's the big deal? I think it's funny." Randy leaned against the car, defiantly. He caved quickly under the sheer pressure of Sheila and Sharon's twin poisonous glares. Randy cleared his throat.

"...I mean. Listen to your mother, Stanley," he said, abashedly. He looked at both the boys together, and squared his shoulders a little. "We'll, uh. Talk about this when we get home."

"They deserve the humiliation just for what I went through when I got that phone call!" Sheila said shrilly, yanking her passenger door open, "Don't tell me when to discipline my son!"

"He wasn't, Sheila." Sharon said coolly, "We'll meet you at our house."

Stan watched Sheila usher Kyle into the family car, and he wondered whether it really was going to be all right. But he suspected that it made no difference what the outcome was. They would all die someday, no matter what happened. The world would keep spinning no matter how anyone felt about it. And though Kyle drawn face was pale and upset as he stared through the window at Stan, Stan felt only a vague sense of dread for the upcoming lecture. He just didn't want to fucking deal.

Stan assumed they were going to his house for their reaming because Ike was home. Shelly, on the other hand, wouldn't be. Stan had no idea what Shelly did all day, but she always seemed to be around. It was deeply unpleasant. She threw hairbrushes at him—she threw lots of things at him, really. Sometimes she threw him. Stan always had bruises. But today, she had an interview for a job at Wall-to-Wall-Mart. So the Marsh living room would serve as their transfer detention center, Stan guessed.

Stan sat on the familiar, battered couch with Kyle, tuning out Sheila's screaming. It wasn't particularly difficult, since screaming was something Sheila did normally. "I am so disappointed in you boys!" "You will never see the light of day again, do you hear me?" "This depraved behavior is disgusting! In all my years, I have never BEEN so disgusted!" Yadda, yadda, yadda. Randy cowered near the staircase, and Gerald stood at the front door with an expression of resignation as his wife raved. Sharon sat with the boys on the couch, nodding along with Sheila's administrations and adding vehement "Mhmmmm!'s" when so inspired.

"...Weed!?" Sheila shrieked, "I could almost believe you two were throwing...feces! Off the bridge, but you were stoned while you did it? You're turning into common criminals. When did we ever teach you such behavior was acceptable? Especially you Kyle, but Stanley, I thought better of you, too!" Sheila paced the Marsh's living room like an angry lioness. "You've never been bad kids, but together, ugh, the trouble you get into! And YOU, Stan!"

Kyle and Stan were huddled on opposite ends of the Marsh's couch, looking at their knees, Stan less contrite than Kyle. Stan was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, really. It was almost noon, and he hadn't been sober this long in months. His skin felt too tight, and his hands felt clammy. It sucked.

"We've heard about all the trouble you've been getting into." Sheila said to Stan. "But we never thought you'd drag Kyle into it! We didn't want to believe you could be a bad influence on him!"

Stan couldn't protest (just the other week, he'd gotten detention for cutting geometry class again to smoke behind the bleachers), but he didn't have to. Sharon was quick to defend her son.

"And just what is that supposed to mean, Sheila?" Sharon asked sharply. She stood up, hands clutching a cushion as she attempted to reign herself.

"Like you haven't heard," Sheila scoffed, placing her hands on her massive hips, "Everyone knows he's been hanging out with those dour, black-clothed miscreants lately. You know the ones—they set the store in the mall on fire, Sharon! And Stan's been drinking like a fish—just like Randy! And now, apparently, he's been getting high and throwing poop off random bridges! I hate to say it, but your son's on a downward spiral, and I'm not going to let him take Kyle down with him!"

Stan didn't appreciate her making seem like the poop-throwing was all his fault. It hadn't even been his idea. Sheila's precious son had already owned up to the dog turds being his plan, but Sheila seemed hellbent on pinning the crime on Stan anyway.

"They're old enough to make their own decisions. Stan isn't responsible for what Kyle does," Sharon countered. All the accusations about Stan's behavior had caused her to shift her weight onto one foot and cross her arms defensively, but the mention of Randy made her eyes flash and take an accusatory, squinting shape. "They made a bad decision, and they'll learn from it. I think it's too early to worry about them becoming juvenile delinquents, Sheila. Maybe we shouldn't be so dramatic about this yet."

"Yeah!" Randy added, from the sidelines, though no one had asked for his input.

"I'm not letting my son turn into a hooligan!" Sheila retorted, raising her voice to what could almost be called a howl. "You keep your addict away from him!"

"I've have just about enough of your 'parenting advice!'" Sharon increased her volume as she rose to Sheila. Sharon stepped in, too, chin angled forward and jaw clenched. "This wasn't even Stan's idea, and you know it!"

"Why, I ought to—" Sheila had already begun removing her earrings, and Randy whooped in anticipation.

"All right, yeah, girl fight!" He leapt over the couch to sit between Stan and Kyle. He nudged each of them with his elbows, excitedly. Stan and Kyle looked from their mothers, to Randy and then at each other in confusion and terror.

"Randy!" Sharon scolded but barely spared him a glance. She was too busy rolling up her right sleeve and cracking her neck.

"...All right, all right, Sheila." Gerald finally could not stand idly by and broke in, leaning heavily against the front door. "Come on. This is a shock to all of us, but try to remember: this was the boys' fault, not the Marsh's. We're all friends here."

"Shhh! Shut up, Gerald, God!" Randy turned around and violently waved a hand at him.

"Kyle's been going downhill since he started hanging around Stan again." Sheila whirled on Gerald, betrayal in her eyes. "Our Kyle was so happy last year."

Stan felt a pang and shot Kyle a glance. Kyle caught his eyes and shook his head subtly. Stan was absurdly grateful for this; he just wanted to reach out and take Kyle's hand and squeeze it to say thank you. This whole conversation was making him feel more like a fuck up than he constantly did. Kyle was the only one seemingly not determined to make it worse.

"Are you saying this is Stan's fault?" Sharon said through gritted teeth, "I recall there being two of them, getting into trouble together. They are both responsible for the consequences!"

"Yeah, are you saying it's Stan's fault?" Randy echoed, still convinced his participation was necessary for whatever reason.

"Well, what she's saying—" Gerald tried, but Sheila swiftly cut him off, not wanting to be spoken for.

"What I am saying," Sheila said, turning back to Sharon and puffing her chest like an angry, red chicken, "Is that I think there's no argument against the fact that Stan is a bad influence, and I think they need to be separated for once in their lives."

Sharon moved closer to Stan. She put her hand on his shoulder protectively.

"Then try," she snapped. "But you're on your own. You're not being reasonable OR fair, Sheila. Not to anyone involved in this, and especially not to Stan or Kyle." She looked down to Kyle directly, "You're always welcome in this house, sweetheart. But Sheila, I think it's time for you to leave, so you can calm down."

"Don't tell me to calm down!" Sheila shrieked, pointing up directly under Sharon's chin. "Your son is a delinquent, and he needs to take responsibility! And you need to take responsibility for him!"

Sharon looked dangerously close to taking the first swing, so Gerald finally moved from his spot by the door to gently take Sheila by the shoulders and guide her.

"Come on," he said, quietly. "Honey, we should go. It's not worth it. This is their home, and we have to leave now."

Sheila allowed herself to be lead away, but made sure to fix Stan with her dirtiest, most terrifying glare. Stan was bewilderedly angry...but also deeply hurt. Mrs. Broflovski had known Stan all her life. And now she was judging him. She thought he was one of the "bad kids," and coming from her? It felt like Stan had been deflated, stomped on, and left flat in the middle of a trash heap.

"Come on, Kyle, I'm not finished with you," Sheila barked at Kyle, who seemed conflicted but hadn't yet moved from his seat. With a reluctant look in Stan's direction, however, Kyle got up and followed, dejectedly. Stan didn't blame him. Maybe he was a bad influence, always bringing people down.

The atmosphere quieted considerably once the Broflovskis departed. A few moments after the door slammed behind them, Sharon sank down onto the couch between Stan and Randy, and she stayed by Stan's side, gently touching his hair until Broflovski's car pulled away. In a rare moment, Stan allowed himself to lean on her. He was grateful she wasn't angry with him anymore. His chest felt so hollow, and he felt so small. He didn't know if he could handle anymore criticism. Plus, the gentle fingers carding through his slightly greasy hair were deeply soothing. Stan needed the contact more than he could say.

Sharon and Randy sighed simultaneously when the last echoes of the Broflovskis had followed them out.

"What a bitch," Randy commented, pushing a hand backwards over the top of his head. "...I need a beer."

Sharon elbowed him hard in the gut, and then she silenced him with a glare before he could complain about it.

"...Stanley, honey," Sharon asked gently, "Are you hungry?"

Stan tensed, anticipating another lecture, but didn't want his mom's hand to leave.

"Not really," he said quietly, easing in closer to her. "...A little."

Sharon seemed to implicitly understand him. "Randy?" she looked at her husband, "Could you go get Stanley something to eat? There are leftovers in the fridge. Could you heat them up?"

"Uh, yeah, I'll..." Randy all but jumped up and backed away. He seemed quite grateful that he didn't have to think of a way to comfort Stan. After Randy scurried away, Sharon took Stan's hand in hers.

"Are you okay?" she asked. The tone of her voice made Stan feel very young.

"I'm—" Stan reflexively got defensive but reminded himself she was only worried. Her hand was much smaller than his. He wondered when that had happened, when he'd outgrown the ability to run to his mother to fix things for him when they went wrong.

"I'm fine," he told her, softly. Sharon's smell was the smell of home, and it made tears rise at last in Stan's throat. He felt dangerously close to just falling apart in her lap.

Sharon nodded. "We were more concerned over the weed than the poop," she admitted, reiterating what the policewoman said. "And. Honestly, baby, you haven't seemed okay lately. Is what Sheila said true?"

There was no accusation in her voice, only concern. Stan chewed his lip and leaned into the couch, relaxing and trusting that his mom wasn't going to yell at him. Her thumb stroked the inner part between his thumb and forefinger, and the tenderness of it made Stan feel honest.

"Sort of. I haven't been around the goth kids too much, since Kyle's been back. We were fighting last year. I still see them sometimes, when Kyle and I get too pissed at each other." Stan shrugged one shoulder self-consciously.

"What did you and Kyle fight about last year?" Sharon asked. She was patient and attentive, and Stan found that he needed that. He had no idea how good it felt to just be listened to like this.

"I dunno." Stan mumbled, slouching into the couch. "Stupid stuff. Um. I think he was worried about me. And I wasn't. Nice. I guess." Stan felt lame trying to put it into words, so he stopped trying. He should have known it was hopeless.

Sharon saw the struggle and tried prompting him. "Did you two fight about your new friends, the...goth kids?" Sharon tilted her head, inviting Stan to help her along. "...Or was it something else?"

"It was a lot of things," Stan answered, tiredly. His body squeezed inwardly, like it was trying to fold. His brain chugged along at a sluggish rate, and trying to pull coherent thoughts from it was like trying to yank heavy rocks from slime. He didn't have the energy to really try, so he just put his head on his mother's shoulder. Sharon put her arm around Stan then, tugging him to her chest. Stan went willingly.

"I don't want you to feel alone," she said, "And...don't worry too much. I don't think Sheila would take Kyle from you," she added, "But maybe don't expect to hear from him anytime soon. It may take some time for her to come around."

"Yeah, I know," Stan fought the urge to full-on press his face into her breast and bury his nose in her sweater like he would when he was little. "I'm sorry."

"Don't do it again." Sharon said, smacking him lightly, "You're too smart for this. I'm very upset."

Stan smiled weakly. Sharon rubbed little circles on his back, and Stan let his muscles go limp and relaxed. Randy walked in carrying a peanut butter sandwich and milk. He set the food down on the coffee table. Then, he sat—exhaling like it had taken great effort—and he looked at his wife and son.

"So," Randy started uncertainly, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm not really mad at you. And, also, Sharon...the microwave is broken."

"Randy," Sharon said as warning. Stan attempted to pull away from Sharon, but she kept her arms around him when he tugged.

"But," Randy said quickly, "Stan. You. Uh. Shouldn't follow in my footsteps. I'm, um. I'm a bad example, son."

'Definitely.' Stan thought dryly. But here he was, also making stupid mistakes—and more importantly, being forgiven rather than judged for them. Instead, he said:

"Naw. You're great, Dad." Stan was gratified to see Randy grin goofily and rub a hand over his chin-scruff, looking pleased and self-conscious.

"Yeah. I'm not sure what I was supposed to do about this parenting thing," Randy shrugged, "I guess I...always thought you knew not to do what I do, since you always called me out on my bullshit. Like your mom." Randy sighed. "But. Stan. Don't fuck up too much, and learn from this, I guess."

"That's good advice," Sharon said to affirm Randy. She squeezed Stan a little closer. "There were no real repercussions this time, but there will be in the future, okay?"

"'kay," Stan mumbled.

"Go take a shower," Sharon said, "You're not going out for the rest of the week. I'll call you down for dinner." She rolled her eyes at the peanut butter sandwich. Randy hadn't even bothered to add jelly.

Stan agreed like he was expected to, and he trudged upstairs, exhausted. He was grateful for his parent's patience and concern, of course. But as he lay in his bed, staring blankly up at the ceiling, he wondered if he would ever get up again. He didn't know if he could remember how. Everything but laying completely still in his own bed seemed too overwhelming to contemplate.

His head felt like a wheel with a broken spoke, thudding unevenly and slowly along instead of turning the way it was supposed to. His chest had been hollowed out and filled with mercury. Every time he thought about his parents faces at the jail cell, Stan wanted to melt away and cease existing. He couldn't explain why, but for some reason, he thought...their disappointment and forgiveness made him more upset than if they had waged a war like Sheila.

It was like they'd already given up on him.

"Butters" Cartman gleefully said into his cellphone, "I made callbacks."

"Aw, that's great Eric," Butters said from his bedroom, "I told ya you would."

"I think this calls for a celebration," Cartman puffed, "And since everyone else is either grounded or lame, you're gonna get Hooters with me."

"Stan isn't grounded," Butters said, "He'll go. And Kenny isn't lame."

"Maybe," Cartman said doubtfully, but after hanging up on Butters, he sent Stan a text.

EC: mad calplbacks bitch. gonna getr me some hooters with buttesr

SM: are you inviting me or telling me

EC: tellign u that youre invjted. get kenny too

KM: should i bring anything

EC: ur such a fuckign stoner

KM: bringin boos ingrate

EC: i changhed my mind ur univtied butmunch

KM: pabst

EC: FUKC YOU and ur cheap hilbilly carp

KM: ur welcum bby

Kenny and Stan arrived in high spirits and congratulated Cartman on not being as much of a fatass as he used to be.

"Yeah, well," Cartman gloated over his greasy double cheeseburger and root beer float. "Hard work and determination, you guys."

The four sat around a small, circular table with tall bar stools in the middle of Hooters. ESPN chattered in the background, along with the other guests and waitresses busily taking orders. Few places in South Park contained such a large amount of bright red polyvinyl, but Eric found he kind of liked it. He imagined that if he were Elvis, his life would be like this every day.

"Eric! Don't ruin your diet," Butters reprimanded,"You celebrate one day, but it ain't just a day. Tomorrow, you're gonna say 'just one more day.' That happens twenty times, and why, you're right back where you started." He drummed his nails along the purple varnish-and-fiberglass tabletop. His manicure, Eric noticed, for Friday night's game featured blue nails with tiny white decals. Must have been pretty fucking expensive, Eric thought—Asians were almost as good at hoarding money as Jews. Stupid Butters almost definitely got ripped off for those nails.

"Dude," Kenny snickered, swiping Stan's fries, "You're on a diet? You should try the 'po' boy' diet, you'll lose weight fast." He never made eye contact with Cartman; he was busy ogling the waitresses. This annoyed Eric, because it was a sign Kenny wasn't really paying attention to him. So, he decided to cause trouble, because fair was fair. Even God believed in an eye for an eye—Eric had read that shit right in His book.

"Is that why you're stealing Stan's fries, when he already paid for your chicken wings, Kenny?" Cartman asked, sweetly. "For shame, Kenny. Are you trying to take advantage of our friend's kind generosity?"

To Cartman's gratification, Kenny's jaw clenched, and his eyes narrowed just slightly with the sting to his pride. Stan, of course, immediately swooped in like the pandering pussy he was to smooth things over.

"Kenny gives me a ride to school like, every day, dude. If anything, I freeload off him." Stan pushed his fries loyally to Kenny's side. Kenny seemed too embarrassed to take anymore, however, and he stared vacantly through the window. In the short silence that followed, Cartman watched Stan rolled his drinking straw between his thumb and forefinger. This habit, Cartman thought, was almost certainly borne from near-constantly having something to smoke in hand. Filthy stoners always had tells that betrayed their lack of willpower.

Speaking of, Cartman then observed Stan devour his own burger. Stan was a tiny kid, scrawnier than a starving Ethiopian child's left thigh. Stan's appetite? Definitely the munchies. It certainly wasn't his growth spurt. Kid was starting to look like a little girl amongst men in their sophomore class. Cartman slid his own food closer to himself and began eating a little faster. Between Kenny and Stan, it seemed his dinner wouldn't be safe for long.

"Didn't Kyle start running with you?" Stan asked Eric through a mouthful of mushy meat, "Determination my ass."

"That was after tryouts," Eric smiled coolly, "You see, Stan, Kyle and my friendship includes productive activities that ensure better futures and healthier lifestyles for both of us. I can see how that would be a foreign concept to you, when your friendship with Kyle involves getting arrested and doing drugs on a bridge. Though," Eric paused, faux-sympathetic. "I suppose you and Kyle don't have a friendship anymore, seeing as your shenanigans got him grounded and banned from ever speaking to you again. So, I'm very sorry for being insensitive."

"We weren't arrested!" Stan spluttered. Fucking Bingo, Eric beamed. Hit the nerve just where he'd wanted to. That'd teach Stan to undermine his accomplishments.

"Eric!" Butters kicked him under the table. "We're all gathered here for a nice lunch to celebrate you. You don't gotta go aggravating people who are here to support you!"

Cartman grunted, scoffing. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I was just making polite conversation, Jesus Christ."

"Kyle and I are still friends," Stan ignored them both and spoke to Kenny, all but tugging on his sleeve. Pathetic, Eric thought. Stan had a one track mind, and it wasn't even a good track.

"I know you are," Kenny sighed, reaching over for more fries at last. "Just gotta wait for shit to blow over with his mom, s'all it is."

Before Eric could cut in with the practically goddamned perfunctory, "yeah Kyle's mom is such a bitch, what the fuck, that woman is as good at protecting her precious baby as a mamma hamster who fucking eats her own young,"Butters interrupted him. It was—annoyingly—like Butters had known what Eric was going to say, but for some reason didn't want Eric to speak the fucking truth. It was idiots like Butters who kept the welfare system alive and well.

"Hey, Kyle was really supportive of you through all this, too, huh, Eric? It's a shame he couldn't be here." Butters chimed, blithely. Sneaky bitch thought he was soooo smooth.

"I wrote a song about this," Cartman said dryly, munching at his fries, "It's called 'Jew Tortures His Super Awesome Friend and Gets Away With It Because People Still Feel Bad About The Holocaust For Some Reason But It Was a Long Time Ago So Get Over It Already.'"

Stan rolled his eyes. "Yes, Eric. The freaking Holocaust is just an excuse Kyle is using to get away with making you run laps."

"I told you," Cartman said gleefully, screening Stan's sarcasm so he could at least pretend he had semi-tolerable peers. "I'm glad someone else agrees. You were always the smart one, Stan."

"Oh my god." Stan placed his index finger and thumb on the inside tip of each eyebrow. He shook his head, and chose not to argue. Obviously, Stan did this because he knew he would lose and his fragile little ego couldn't take it. Cartman clucked at Stan, sympathetically.

The waitress walked by to refill their waters and reassure them that Kenny and Butters' wings were on the way. She had a golf pencil tucked behind her ear, and big pink hoop earrings that Cartman knew Marjorine envied greatly. He wondered how and if he could get away with lifting them from her without her noticing. And without Butters noticing. That fucking goody two shoes thought Eric was made of money or something and wouldn't accept any liberated gifts. Ungrateful dickwad.

"Can I get extra hot sauce?" Kenny asked the waitress as she poured for him.

"Sure, hon." She nodded blankly, absently. It was, Cartman thought, the best reaction Kenny could have hoped for. Women did not want to wake up and have to do their walk of shame home through the ghetto. Thus, when Kenny spoke to them, logically they could be expected to cringe.

"The hottest," Kenny insisted, grinning at her. Eric made a disgusted noise in his throat; for fuck's sake, the waitress wasn't even that hot. And she still didn't cringe. She just smiled politely and went to get the sauce.

"Don't waste my money, Kenny. If you drown your food in that stuff, you're not even gonna be able to taste it," Stan complained. A glob of grease dribbled down Stan's chin, and he blotted it somewhat ineffectively with a napkin. His chin was still shiny, and a few crumbs clinging to the sheen when he put the napkin down again. Cartman shook his head. It was really a wonder Stan could figure out how to tie his shoes in the morning.

Kenny grinned, "Don't worry, I'll find a way to pay you back." He blatantly slipped his hand onto Stan's thigh. Stan batted him away, and Kenny snickered at him. It was the gayest thing Cartman had seen since the 2006 Olympics.

"Shit. Are you ho-ing around for real now, Kenny? Where'd all that drug money go?" Cartman asked, pointedly. It was half an accusation, but also, he was curious. Poor people were awfully creative about how they wasted their savings and stayed the 99%.

"To my sister," Kenny said lightly, "Not all our mothers do movies for extra cash."

"Ey!" Cartman drew up, defensively. "My mother works at the goddamn bank!"

"The sperm bank, maybe." Kenny wiggled his eyebrows and elbowed Stan. Stan nearly spit up a bite of burger laughing, and Cartman swore on Stalin's grave he'd kill them both someday.

The waitress finally arrived with Butters and Kenny's food, so Kenny had to shut up a minute to stuff his face. Heh, no surprise there. Throwing food at them was, in Eric's experience, a pretty good way to get poor people to stop moaning about the tragedy of the commons.

"I think you're just projecting, Kenny. 'Cause you're a gigolo—a shitty, broke hooker. What's the matter? Can't deliver even when someone's paying for it?" Cartman squeezed the soda glass in his hand like it was a neck he wanted to wring (Kenny's, incidentally). Well, he thought, someone ought to have put him out of his misery by this point.

"Speaking of money," Butters cleared his throat, nervously, and smiled at Stan. "Where did you suddenly get extra cash, Stan? If you're springing for Kenny, seems like you've had some good luck lately."

Butters glanced at Cartman pleadingly and then at Kenny. After glowering fiercely for about a second, Eric decided Butters' dickless attempts to keep the peace wasn't the worst thing in the world and acquiesced. He wasn't done with his food yet, after all. If they got themselves thrown out, it would be a waste of the dinner he'd already paid for. And also, Eric hadn't gotten his dessert yet. No way was he leaving without his Oreo Cookie Surprise.

Kenny kept his cool too, but that, Cartman guessed, was because of Kenny's White Confederate Pride. Kenny was a Good Old Boy deep down. He couldn't make a scene and prove Catman was a better man. His Southern upbringing wouldn't allow it.

Stan chewed on a handful of fries and answered Butters with a full mouth. "Parents made me get a job," he said in a muffled voice, "And volunteer at the animal shelter. They said they'd hire me if I stay around long enough"

"Great," Cartman rolled his eyes, "You can stop jerking off and crying over Kyle, and jerk off and cry over puppies about to be put down."

"Eric!" Butters sounded so exasperated, but of course, he didn't do anything to stop Cartman from acting however he wanted. Butters never did anything. It was what made him an ideal minion.

Stan's eyes grew soft and sad. He swallowed, and bit his lip. "I. Not puppies, we don't. We'd never. Only if they are already suffering, and old, and sick." He looked up at Eric fiercely, the memories of the dead doggies all but welling in his sad hippie eyes. Eric burped.

"Fuck you, Eric! We help dogs, not hurt them," Stan gritted out, clearly working through his own self-hatred. Stan was such an obvious candidate for the newest sucker-client of a shitty New Age therapist; Cartman wondered if there were some kind of involuntary program he could sign Stan up for. Stan deserved to lose his money in exchange for useless advice about crystals and incense and shit.

"Riiiight," Eric said, leaning on an elbow. His voice was bored. It was way too easy to fuck with Stan. "Only sweet dreams now, pup. Shhhh..."

"Hey, cut it out, Stan's been great for business. I hear he's got a real way with hound dogs," Kenny smirked, bumping shoulders with him. "Don't discourage him."

"Fags," Cartman fake-coughed into his hand. "Ahem. Buttbuddies." He pounded on his chest. "I'm sorry. I'm just really allergic to unsubtle gay douchebags."

"You're an unsubtle gay douchebag," Stan grumbled back. He was too distracted to be really offended, probably. Stan was too much of a fucking hipster goth retard to get laid, so Cartman understood why any suggestive human contact would fry his teeny bug brain.

"My parents won't let me get a dog." Butters, as usual, made announcements no fucking human being gave a damn about. "They say dogs're for people with priorities. But I think I'd be a really good dog owner!"

"That's nice, Butters," Cartman nearly hurt his head from how hard he fucking rolled his eyes. Then as he had finished his burger, and he leaned out of his chair and waved at their waitress. "Ey! Can I get a menu again?"

"You're not still hungry?" Butters said, disbelieving.

"Do you see a fucking Oreo Cookie Surprise in front of me?" Cartman demanded, "And also, I'm gonna send the Jew a double ham, bacon, and American cheese sandwich, since his bitch Jew mom has him on lockdown."

The other three went silent, staring at Cartman in shock.

"Shut up, fags! Your underdeveloped senses of humor can't appreciate my sense of cruel irony," Cartman barked, despite no one having said anything. They continued to watch him blankly, so Eric acted as if he were explaining a very simple concept to a chimpanzee: he spoke slowly and loudly.

"You guys. It's ironic, because it's all pork."

"That's downright generous of you," Kenny said, just a tiny bit too sweetly.

Stan frowned and stared at his empty plate. It was as empty as his prospects in life, Cartman thought. He almost pitied Stan. Almost.

"I'll take it to him," Stan said, "I've been meaning to pay him a visit anyway."

Cartman eyeballed Stan distrustfully as he accepted a menu from the waitress, "Only if you swear you're not gonna fucking scarf it down to appease your munchies, you piece of shit stoner."

"Shut the fuck up. I'll get it to him," Stan insisted, "Later, I guess."

"I have beer at my place," Kenny interjected, "We can grab it and take it to Cartman's. Have ourselves a real party."

"Ugh, you guys go," Cartman shuddered. "I'm not going anywhere near Kenny's poverty parlor. Nuh uh, noooo way!"

"Whatever, you weren't invited anyway," Kenny said breezily. "Butters, darlin'? Wanna come help me out and keep me company?" He batted his eyes, and Butters nodded enthusiastically.

"Yeah, sure. And hey, Eric, is Liane gonna be okay with us coming over later?" Butters asked Cartman, tugging his sleeve just a little bit.

"Yeah," Cartman shrugged, "Bitch doesn't care."

Butters, Kenny and Cartman all turned to confirm their plans with Stan, and in comic synchronicity, collectively remembered why a booze party with the recovering alcoholic was a bad idea. They said nothing, only awkwardly watched Stan for a reaction.

Conflict visibly flickered across Stan's face. Eric especially watched with interest, wanting to see how easily he would break with the slightest temptation.

"I guess I'll just go straight to Kyle's with the food then," Stan exhaled, tiredly. "And, like. I don't know. Party with my vape pen while you guys relax." Butters gave him a proud little pat on the back, but Cartman heaved a bored sigh. God, his friends sucked.

"We'll bring you some sodas when we come back," Butters assured Stan, cheerily. "We'll all have a grand old time, just hanging out! I promise, none of us will get too wasted around you, buddy."

Wendy Testicle-Burger was the last person Eric Cartman wanted to see in his bedroom. The mere thought of her diseased hippie parts in the close proximity with his sheets made his fucking skin crawl. But there she was, standing there with her stupid smile, Fair Trade messenger bag over her shoulder, and smelling like a Bath and Body Works store. If Eric had done anything to deserve the vagabond queen of the lesbians in his room, he couldn't recall. Surely he deserved nothing so dire and annoying.

Without so much as a hello, Eric strolled to his bedside table, picked up his trusty Febreeze bottle and started spraying her with it like a misbehaving cat.

"What in the ever loving fuck, Cartman?!" Wendy waved at the cloud of mist like it was made of mosquitoes and backed away. Her pinched face was the picture of confusion and offendedness. It was a much better look for her than her usual superior bitch smirk, Eric thought.

"You're contaminating my safe space," Eric told her, matter-of-factly. "I must purify you. Heh heh." He squirted the bottle at her a few more times, just to watch her scramble away from him.

"Stop it!" She shouted, wincing and covering her eyes. She picked up the nearest object—which, luckily, happened to be Clyde Frog, who had previously just been chilling on the bookshelf next to Eric's clock radio—and hurled it at Eric.

Eric caught Clyde (because he had killer hand-eye coordination, obviously). He placed him carefully on the bed amongst the pillows and glared at Wendy firmly. He sprayed her with the Febreeze a few more times, scolding her.

"You will treat Clyde Frog with more goddamn respect!" he demanded. "He lives here, Wendy! How would you like it if some fucking bitch came into your home and started throwing you around??"

"He is a toy!" Wendy finally snapped. She lunge forward and snatched the spray bottle from Eric's hand. She changed the setting to "jet" instead of "mist" and pointed it menacingly. "And you're too old to play with stuffed animals!"

"Clyde Frog is not a toy! He was literally resurrected from the dead. Like fucking Jesus." Eric was frankly shocked by Wendy's blasphemy, but he guessed he shouldn't have been. Feminists were always saying ridiculous, inflammatory shit just to get people riled up for no reason.

"Please. Your mom fixed your toy." Wendy lined up her shot and squirted Eric, right in the eye. Eric howled. Luckily, he'd closed the eye in time to prevent serious stinging, but FUCKING HELL, Wendy was a bigger slutbag than he ever dreamed. It was the principle of the thing! Who attacked not one but TWO innocent people in their own home? Wendy was a goddamned monster, that's what she was.

"Get the fuck out of my home, you psychotic raging witch!" Eric wiped at his face, cursing. "My friends will be here soon, and I don't want your ass around here when we're trying to celebrate my accomplishments!"

Cartman made an "ack" sound and put his nose to his shoulder to sniff. Just great, now he'd smell like a spring breeze all damned day. It was seriously gonna fuck with his alpha cred. Wendy lowered her weapon, still angrily squinting at him. It made her even more unattractive than usual, Eric noticed.

"No." She crossed her arms. "This won't take long, and I have to talk to you, Eric."

"Well, I don't want to talk to you!" Eric whined. "I never want to talk to you, because I fucking hate you."

"The feeling is mutual." Wendy tossed her hair behind her shoulder, haughtily. "Believe me. But I have something that you want, and you have something that I want, so you and I need to work our shit out."

"You don't have anything I want, Wendy." Eric frowned. He kept a healthy distance from her, still suspicious that she was gonna whip the spray bottle out and squirt him again. It would be just like her to attack him unprovoked.

"Don't I?" Wendy's evil eyes lit up. She plucked a Hulk action figure from on top of Eric's shelf and turned it over absently, examining it. Eric didn't trust a word Wendy said, not for a hot second. But it looked like she was gloating, and that made him hella suspicious.

"No," he said, carefully. "But why are you talking like you're The Godfather and I just asked you for a favor?"

She put down the figurine and grinned. "I have your attention. Smart boy." She blinked innocently, then seemed to randomly change the subject. "So. I hear you made callbacks."

"How could you know that?" Eric's face fell. The wheels in his brain turned very fast, and in a blinding instant, things started clicking into place. Kyle was grounded. Wendy hadn't talked to him. Stan never talked to Wendy anymore, as she was in the dead-to-me zone with him, for coercing Kyle into breaking the Bros Before Hoes code, literally. Kenny wouldn't have said anything, because for all his faults, he was the only asshole Cartman knew who could actually keep his mouth shut, and Butters moved in higher social circles than Wendy could ever dream of.

Wendy watched Eric figure all this out with that ominous and smug half-smile on her face, and Eric knew nothing but cruelty and pain could result from a look like that.

"Duh? My dad is the assistant coach?" Wendy said, light as a feather. "You were the last draft pick, Cartman. How do you think you made callbacks? You were the worst one out there!"

Eric gaped at her a moment before snapping his jaw shut, abruptly. Wendy was truly a minion of Hell sent to this earth to personally torture him. But he had to admit, she was a lot hotter when she was downright conniving. Normally he thought Kyle must be legitimately retarded to want anything to do with Wendy and her vagina of sand, but in moments like these, Eric kind of understood.

And he was also righteously pissed off, which was a really unfortunate combination.

"Are you blackmailing me, bitch?" he asked in disbelief. "Seriously?"

"Don't think of it as coercion. Think of it as a two for one." Wendy examined her chipped-ass nails, casually. "You get to join the football team and the debate team."

She stopped peering at her badly applied purple polish long enough to meet Eric's eye. She extended her hand.

"Do we understand each other?" She had such big buggy eyes. Eric thought she must be part wasp. Certainly she bit and stung and dug in shit like one.

But, though the thought of bowing to anything Wendy wanted made Eric physically ill, even he could see that he didn't really have a choice. Not making the team would be beyond humiliating at this point. Kyle and the guys would never let him live it down, and worse, Butters, the world's most pathetic human being, would pity him.

It had to be done. Eric heaved a sigh, with which exited his mortal soul. It was the trade he knew he was making when agreeing to work with a harpy like Wendy.

"Alright, alright, fine. I can see that you just can't go on without me. So I'll do you this HUGE fucking favor, 'cause I'm so nice and kind and magnanimous and shit." Eric nursed his pride as best he could. "But I'm not touching your hand, bitch. Who knows when you last used it to give a Jew a handjob?"

The violated look on Wendy's face was balm on Eric's aching ego. As she sashayed out of his room at last, Cartan swore vengeance upon Wendy-Penguin-Fucker-Testaburger if it was the last goddamn thing he ever fucking did.

Kyle clicked aimlessly online, staring at pictures of cats, and flipping tabs to the occasional Facebook update. After week two of his punishment, all the energy had been sucked from him. He had been so angry—angry that Stan got off free, yet Kyle alone received Heaven's Hammer of Justice, and angry they'd gotten caught, angry he was being punished like a child. But there was nothing to be done about it, and he couldn't even blame Stan. It wasn't Stan's fault that Kyle's mother was excessively zealous in her protection of her children. Also, Kyle couldn't find it in himself to argue with his mother, especially since he had been in the wrong. He couldn't say he didn't deserve to be grounded. And talking to her wouldn't make things fairer either, because she had no say over Stan's fate. There was simply nothing to be done.

The result was a bored and frustrated Kyle with no outlet. Additionally, after weeks of a running routine with Cartman, he felt fat and stupid sitting dormant and alone. As he browsed Reddit threads, Kyle thought he must regressing to a more primal state from sheer boredom. He could almost feel his attention span shortening.

"Goddamn," Kyle groaned, leaning his forehead against his desk, "I guess I'll go to bed early," he mumbled to himself. He had started sleeping out of self-preservation. It was the only way to numb the tedium.

But instead of crawling into bed at eleven o'clock like an old man, Kyle's moping was interrupted by a light tapping at his bedroom window. Thinking the tapping was a bird, Kyle cursed at his feathered advisory and started to turn off his computer. The tapping persisted. So Kyle rolled over in his chair to see if he was being haunted, by Cartman possibly.

But instead, clutching a bag of what appeared to be fast food from Hooters, was Stan.

"Huh?" Kyle squinted at his window, and sure enough, Stan was clinging to the old tree branch that had grown to touch Kyle's window, too many times to bother cutting.

"Holy shit." Kyle looked around like his mother might jump out of the closet at any moment. He looked anxiously at Stan, then back to the door, and then he stood up. Rushing to his door, he flicked off the lights and locked his door as quietly as possible.

Obliviously, Stan tapped the window again. Even with only street lamps lighting him, he was quite visible. He looked like a huge, awkward sloth in a blue sweatshirt, barely clinging to a too-small limb. He gestured at Kyle to raise the window and nearly lost his balance. Kyle made an aggravated sound, pulled up the sash with an irritated fling, and popped out the screen.

"What the fuck?" he hissed, "I'm twelve kinds of grounded right now."

"I know," Stan whispered back, the scent of cheap beer wafting from his breath, "I read your Facebook."

Kyle's eyes adjusted to the dark. He thought he might have imagined it before, but the better a look he got at Stan, the more obvious it became: the guy was tanked. Stan's happy, drunk grin made Kyle want to rip his own hair out in frustration.

"You've been drinking," Kyle hissed, voice full of accusation and disappointment. He felt so sad and helpless that his anger came out colder, harsher.

"So have they." Stan tilted his head down to the dark ground, shaking his branch in the process. "It's their fault. I tried to say no. But I felt left out."

Kyle looked down and, sure enough, there was Cartman, Kenny and Butters at the base of the tree. Butters waved. Kenny put his hands to his mouth and cawed, "Nevermore!"

"My goth name is Raven," Stan giggled, explaining. "And I'm knock, knock, knockin' on your bedroom door."

"You're thinking of heaven's door," Kyle corrected, automatically, "And it's rapping on my chamber door. ...Dude, get out of here before you wake my parents. Are you trying to add to my sentence?"

Kyle tried to close the window. He couldn't stop tilting his head nervously to listen for the sounds of footsteps up the stairs, of his mother's voice. But Stan was not having it.

"No, no dude. Don't go! Come out," Stan insisted, "Cartman wants you to eat his meat."

"What." Kyle said in a deadpan. "No."

"Ey! Jew!" Cartman hissed in a voice that was supposed to be quiet, "Get down here. I got a present for ya. I promise it's not my tax returns!"

"No, you idiot, I have the present!" Stan shouted, waving the greasy bag. Kenny immediately shushed him, but that sent all four of them into riotous giggles, so it wasn't really an effective gesture, in the end.

Kyle raised an exasperated eyebrow at Stan, and Stan got enough of a hold of himself to offer some reassurance.

"It's good, I promise," Stan said.

Kyle looked at his door again, "Fuck," he muttered, then turned back to Stan, "Fine. Just. Toss it over here, or something."

"Nuh uh. You have to come get it, Kyle." Stan grinned, tauntingly. "You know you want to!"

Really, what Kyle wanted was for his friends to shut the hell up and not get him in further trouble. That seemed more likely if they weren't all gathered outside his bedroom window. In order to get out to them and appease Stan, however, maneuvering was required. Stan seemed to have difficulty climbing down in order to get out of the way for Kyle. It was a little concerning; Stan seemed unsteady, his feet skidding against the bark of the tree until they found purchase. But even drunk and one-handed, Stan figured it out. He had climbed this particular tree too many times to not find his footing. Eventually, Stan let himself fall the last two feet, and Kyle leapt after him with an ungraceful stumble, unable to gauge his landing in the dark.

Kenny was laughing, silhouette bent over against the lamplight. His attempts to be quiet only resulted in a "hee-haw" sort of noise that made Kenny seem as if he were sobbing and choking at the same time.

"That was the funniest shit. Stan, you are drunk." Kenny leaned against his knees, panting. "You are druuuunk!"

"You are too. You're the one who did like ten shots of tequila. You're the enabler, and a bad example," Stan mock-chided.

Kenny just threw his hands in the air, "Arriba!" he screamed into the night. "Ole, Senor Cuervo! Yeeeehaw!"

"Oh my god! Shut up! Both of you, shut up!" Kyle moaned, lowly, desperately. He frantically did a 180 degree observation of their surroundings, and his best impression of a totally still deer listening for hunters. Miraculously, there was still no intervention. Relaxing a tiny bit, Kyle offered Stan his hand to help him up. Stan took it, slapping their palms together. Stan dusted his jeans as he got to his feet.

"Here. Open your present, Kyle. It'll make you feel better!" Stan gave the now fairly crumpled bag to Kyle, grinning. He let out a few small giggles, hints at the flood of laughter Stan was barely restraining.

"This is from Cartman, dude." Stan told Kyle. "To say thanks for helping him try to look less like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

"Ey! Fuck you, Stan. And damn right, that's from me. None of these freeloaders get any credit," Cartman slapped his own chest, proudly. "You weren't there to celebrate with us, Kyle, so we brought the party to you. Especially me, 'cause I'm obviously the most thoughtful one here."

"Don't worry, Kyle. I brought y'all a better present." Kenny slung an arm around Butters' shoulder, seemingly barely able to stay on his feet. He mock-whispered: "It's weed!"

Butters nearly collapsed under Kenny's weight, he was laughing so hard. Kyle eyed them, and decided not to engage. They were clearly too gone to hear anything he had to say about not smoking near his house (his mother had the nose of a bloodhound, and she'd smell it for sure). Instead, Kyle opened the bag, too curious not to, and recoiled; the distinct smell of bacon wafted at him.

"The fuck?" Kyle reflexively took hold of the bag, and the of Styrofoam takeout boxes crinkled under his fingers.

"For the only asshole that's less of an asshole than the other assholes," Cartman said reverently. "You're welcome, Kyle."

Kyle peeked inside the bag, smelling more than seeing. He winced.

"Bacon and ham," Kyle said dryly, sighing, "Thanks, Cartman, my favorite." He made eye-contact with Cartman stubbornly as he said it. It wasn't his favorite, but Cartman could suck on his offensive stereotypes.

Kyle sat on the dewy grass, rummaging to dig out his food. He would not give Cartman the pleasure of not eating it—that would mean Kyle was offended. He wasn't going let Cartman win by succeeding in pissing him off. Also, Kyle's mother was doing the macrobiotic thing again, and if he tried to eat anymore vegetables and soy, he was sure he would rage-destroy a farmer's market.

"Hey, you said this was a party. What are we celebrating?" Kyle asked around his sandwich. He was so happy it tasted like salt and cholesterol instead of olive oil that he didn't even care that it made him feel slightly shady to eat it. His family wasn't dedicated, but this was kind of pork-overkill. He couldn't break kosher harder if he tried.

Stumbling and chuckling, the others sat with him, creating a circle.

"I made callbacks." Cartman preened. The glow of a streetlight illuminated him from behind. But after he said it, immediately he looked slightly troubled. Kyle wondered what was up with that—what could ruin Cartman's mood, when he'd gotten exactly what he wanted?

"Why didn't you put it on Facebook so you could rub it everyone's face?" Kyle frowned.

Cartman sneered and then glanced off to the side, "I. Um. I wouldn't want everyone else feeling intimidated. There's no way I won't get on the team." He ended with more bluster than he'd started with, but Kyle could see that Cartman's heart wasn't really in it. After Cartman finished talking, he looked away again—and again, that strange expression crossed Eric's face. Now Kyle knew for sure something was up. He'd have to grill Cartman about it later.

"Eric's afraid he'll jinx it, I bet." Butters said helpfully. He shivered against the night wind, but was smiling, "He doesn't want people talkin' smack if he doesn't get on."

"Bitch, please," Cartman leaned on his palms heavily. "I'm the motherfucking first draft pick."

"For what? Waterboy? Would they even let you stand that close to the snacks?" Kenny snorted.

Kyle laughed around his sandwich. He looked over his friends, observing everyone but especially Stan. Stan was watching him with a bright expression. He seemed content to sit next to Kyle. It caused a pit in Kyle's stomach to see Stan backslide, and it made it all the worse that Kenny, Butters and Eric had let—even encouraged—this to happen. But there was nothing to be done about it right then. Stan was too wasted to remember a lecture.

...Besides, Kyle had been cooped up for so long, with no company except his brother, and his brother's friend the literal Antichrist. It was too good to resist to have company his own age and species.

"Thanks for coming to see me." Kyle said quietly. He glanced at his parents' bedroom, but the window was shut. "Mom's being a bitch."

Cartman's snickered, "Let it be on the record."

Kenny squinted at Kyle in the dark, "Have you been doing something to your hair?"

"Hah?" Kyle touched his hair, having forgotten that he had been experimenting with hair gel. His face turned an impressive shade of red which he hoped no one could see in the shadows, "Oh, um. Damien's been letting me use his gel. I've been bored."

"Damien?" Stan inquired, frowning, "Kenny's cousin?"

Kenny hugged his knees and looked up thoughtfully, "So that's where he's been at."

"He and Ike are the only people I can talk to in person," Kyle said defensively, nudging Stan in the side.

Stan sulked, face drooping like a basset hound's. "Wendy said she saw you."

"Oh my god," Cartman groaned, rocking backwards, "This again."

"Once, last week." Kyle dismissed. When Stan didn't react, Kyle's eyes narrowed and he smirked deviously. "What? You afraid we're making sweet, animal love?"

The moment Kyle said it, Kenny keyed into the conversation with new attention as if he'd been summoned. His eyes gleamed wickedly, and he rolled onto his stomach, ankles crossing behind his back.

"I bet she's a monster in bed," Kenny said, dreamily. "A sexy, relentless beast."

Stan's eyes widened and he pulled away "Sick, dude!"

"Spill, Kyle; is she insane?" Kenny persisted, ignoring Stan's visible discomfort. Inspired, Kenny leaped to his feet. "Does she move her hips like this?" he wrapped his arms around himself and pivoted his hips, "Did she throw her head back like this?"

Cartman, Butters and Kyle snickered. Stan scowled and glared at the grass.

"Does she sound like this?" Cartman continued, wrapping his arms around himself like Kenny and making a ridiculous 'o-face.' "Oh! Kahl!"

"Don't talk about Wendy like that!" Stan protested, turning red. "She's like my sister." He paused, "One I don't hate."

"A sister you made out with once," Cartman snickered pointedly. Butters giggled on the sideline.

"We were ten." Stan protested, "It barely counts."

"Stan's an experienced man." Kenny grinned, "Ten years old, what a pimp!"

Stan slumped in defeat. Vindictively, Kyle thought he kind of deserved it. It was about goddamned time Stan got over the fact that Kyle was dating Wendy. It'd been months now. He had no right to act like a victim anymore.

"Aw, buck up Stan," Butters said gently, when he noticed Stan sulking. "Wendy and Kyle are happy. Ain't you happy for them?"

"Yeah." Stan said. His voice was neither sad, nor sarcastic, nor resentful. It was only empty, and that made a pang of worry echo against what was left of Kyle's guilt. He eyed Stan with concern. But Stan only pulled at his shoelaces, chin on his knee. He looked so much younger when he drank, the guardedness stripped from his face. It was harder to be petty when Kyle felt protective—he wished Stan made things easier on him.

The boys fell quiet in the dark, the moment lost. The air was damp from nighttime humidity and bugs nipped the fragrant grass. Kyle inhaled deeply, looking at the muggy night sky and his first real glimpse of freedom for weeks. It was so hard to exist in the paradoxical space between concern and resentment, he thought. He had just wanted to enjoy the moment, but the longer he sat here with Stan, the harder it became to ignore Stan's obvious backsliding.

"I gotta go inside," Kyle said drearily, "There's no way Ike's not awake."

Kenny scoffed, "Ike doesn't care."

Butters stood, still a little wobbly. "C'mon fellas, let's not get Kyle caught again."

"Yeah, whatever, partying with inmates is super lame," Cartman agreed, heaving to his feet. "Let's go back to my place and finish Kenny's cheap fuckin' beer."

"Hey Cartman?" Kenny stood with the others, pushing himself up with a hand on his knee. "I just want you to know that when you get a beer gut and die of liver failure, I'll be in Hell laughing at you."

"...That means I'm not there in Hell with you," Eric said, grinning. "Hmm. I wonder who I talked into letting me into Heaven..."

Stan stretched, hands in fists and arms flung wide. "Sorry, Kyle," he offered honestly. The slight hitch in his shoulders indicated he didn't just mean for bailing. Kyle rubbed the back of his head and nodded. It was kind of hard to look at Stan like this. Everything about Stan's posture and voice was like a sign that he was giving up, which was more terrifying than when he was angrily spiralling.

"Don't get fucked up, Stan." Kyle bit his lip and said it softly.

Stan rolled his eyes and turned to follow Butters and Cartman. "It's all fucked up," Stan answered, swiping at his nose with his sleeve. "It's okay, Kyle. We had no chance. We live in a pretty fucked up place."

Kenny and Kyle shared a glance. In Kenny's eyes, Kyle was relieved to see the missive "I'll talk to him." Then, Kenny raised two fingers in farewell, following the others.

"Peace out, Jailbird Janice," Cartman snickered. He shoved Butters along, for no reason, really—Cartman often shoved Butters for no reason. Butters stumbled a little and then retaliated.

"Feel better, Kyle!"

After Kyle scrambled back into his room (and thanked the Good Lord that his parents were still sound asleep), he signed back into Facebook and sent Kenny a message. He'd thought their eye-contact was implicitly loaded with the same sentiment, but Kenny had been drunk, and Kyle had to be sure Kenny knew.

'Watch after Stan for me. For real.'

Sending the message was only moderately reassuring to Kyle, because Kenny never responded.

Stan stood on Wendy Testaburger's doorstep, hands in his back jean pockets. He nearly blinded himself staring at her front door, the door's flawless paint glaring in the sunlight.

"You okay there, son?"

Stan jumped, fighting to keep the noise in his throat from reaching shrill levels. He wasn't sure how he had failed to notice Mr. Testaburger, standing there at the side of his house. He wore a sunhat and held a weed whacker. There was a sunburn on his nose, and his belt was too high on his waist. He smiled kindly at Stan. Stan grinned weakly back as he tried to catch his breath.

"Wendy's in there if you want to go in. Or knock. I don't think you're in the doghouse." Mr. Testaburger said, his helpful Dad-voice still an alien sound to Stan. (Randy's "helpful dad" voice was more like an angry scream when Randy was frustrated with life and felt like "parenting" to blow off steam. Or, it was a drunken ramble about Randy's childhood, experiences or hobbies).

Stan rubbed the back of his neck. "Thanks, I um. I'll knock."

Mr. Testaburger nodded, "You know you're always welcome here, Stan my man." He shuffled off to continue his yard work. "Good luck!"

Stan rang the doorbell. The sun beat down on him, making him sweat. He wished he hadn't worn a white t-shirt. Planning ahead was not his thing, lately. It was just too hard to think about anything for too long; his thoughts felt like they were moving through sludge. He wondered if he should just leave. But Mr. Testaburger had already seen him—Wendy would find out regardless.

So Stan sacked up and knocked. He wished he could take it back the second he did it, but that was probably just his flight instinct kicking in. He forced himself to remember why he'd come in the first place, and he almost succeeded in talking himself down.

But then the door swung open. Wendy's face went from blank to pleased when she saw him. Stan's face, on the other hand, went from determined to pale and uncertain. He fought to recall why he had thought this was a good idea at all.

"Stan! What are you doing here?" Wendy shook her head, self-correcting. "I'm really glad to see you! Come in. I haven't seen you in forever."

Stan shuffled uncomfortably and walked inside, and he looked around the familiar house. The Testaburgers rented furniture, and so it all matched, and felt deliberate—stylized. Despite having the same floorplan, it was unlike the Broflovski or Marsh living rooms, which were full of what could be be described as "accumulated domesticity." Wendy's home was comfortable in a much more intentional way. All Wendy's photos, hanging from the walls and framed by the piano, were posed. Their latest family Christmas card in portrait size was displayed cheerily over the fireplace. A Roomba puttered about and bumped up against against the wooden couch legs, before stopping short and detouring around the coffee table.

As Stan took off his shoes, Wendy flitted in front of him. She wore a tank top and shorts, her hair pulled into a loose bun. The house was warm, and it looked like he'd caught her in study mode. There were noise-cancelling headphones around her neck, which looked comically huge and clumsy on her. When she smiled and beckoned him to the kitchen area, Stan felt his stomach flutter. His stomach had always been unsteady around Wendy, but this time, his nerves had nothing to do with romance.

"Mom made lemonade." Wendy said, leading him to the breakfast room, "Want some? Or we have water." She wrinkled her nose, "Or that Diet Coke crap my mom insists on. I won't tell her if you wanna swipe one of those."

"Lemonade," Stan said, actually very thirsty from nerves and the heat, "Please. Thanks."

Wendy shot him an odd look but set to fetch some glasses. Stan took a seat in a dining room chair, figuring it was an open invite. Wendy had to stand on her toes to reach the cups, and when she did, Stan noticed the serious muscle definition in her calves. It was awkward to stare, so Stan looked at his surroundings instead. The kitchen was good neutral territory, he decided. It wasn't too intimate, but it was friendly. Wendy's kitchen was cheery and egg-yellow, decorated with rooster-themed wall hangings and display-only kitchenware. It was the least hostile area Stan could possibly imagine.

"So," Wendy said, setting a glass in front of him. The frosty condensation on the sides made Stan's mouth water reflexively. He picked up the drink and chugged gratefully. The tart and sweet taste had just enough bite to help ground him in the moment.

"What's up, Stan? Are you alright?" Wendy took a seat and a sip of her own lemonade. She wasn't too close, but she didn't shy away either. They seemed to be on the same page about neutrality, at least.

Stan smiled wryly and set down his glass. "I could have just come to see you."

"Bullshit." Wendy called him, tipping her glass in his direction. She took a drink and swirled what remained around in her cup.

"I bet it's about Kyle," she tilted her head forward, "Is it about Kyle?" Her tone was patronizing but patient as she waited for Stan to choke out whatever he had come to say. Still, she crossed her ankles and sat back in her chair, giving distinctly Cartman-like vibes. Stan would never admit it to Kyle or anyone else, but of all the ruthless people in South Park, he thought Wendy might actually be the scariest. She was the only one with any subtlety.

"No." Stan said irately. He fiddled with his glass, all nerves and trying to decide how to talk to his best friend's girlfriend. It did not help that she played at seeing right through him.

"I mean. Yes." Stan toyed with the edge of a decorative plaid placemat to avoid eye contact. "Um. But really, it's more about you, dude."

"Oh?" Wendy responded cooly. She waited, her hand around her glass. She did not lift it to drink again, but twisted her fingers around like she was twisting off a jar lid. Her fingertips left four clear tracks in the wet condensation.

Stan wished he could curl into a little ball. He tapped his fingers against the placemat, and forced himself not to begin undoing the blue checkered weave.

"Wendy...I'm sorry," he blurted.

Wendy's eyebrows raised, and she leaned back, wisps of hair falling around her face. Stan was kind of gratified, for the record, to have surprised her.

"Wow. Okay. For what?" Her gaze said she knew the answer, and she did, mostly. Wendy wasn't unobservant or stupid, after all. But Stan knew she had to be enjoying watching him squirm. He didn't really blame her. He'd come to her, after all. He'd fucked up and inconvenienced everyone he ever cared about. He deserved a little heat for it, probably.

"For," Stan fidgeted, "Not talking to you. For anything that might have hurt your feelings."

Wendy appeared amused. "You haven't hurt my feelings."

Stan hunched his shoulders against the table. "I've been treating you did something to me. And you didn't."

He couldn't bring himself to say "I've been taking your relationship with Kyle as a personal insult," because it was too accurate.Wendy's eyes gazed upwards, and she thought for several moments. Stan gave her the time to gather her thoughts.

"You have been distant," she said at length, "I assume you're dealing with some personal things. I haven't taken it to heart. I know it's not about me," she shrugged, "People grow apart."

Stan chewed his lip. "You're one of my best friends, though. I trust you."

"Hmm." Wendy hummed, putting her glass to her lips again.

Stan knew that was her polite way of saying that she didn't feel the same way. He couldn't find it in himself to be angry about that. It's not like he had ever made an effort to spend time with her or even to talk to her. He couldn't fault her for being less sentimental than he was. It seemed everyone was less sentimental than he was—Stan was perpetually the one, he thought, who couldn't let go.

"I just," Stan sighed, "I haven't been thinking very nice thoughts about you, and I feel bad because I didn't know if I was acting on them, and I felt like I should apologize."

"You've been thinking mean things about me...because I'm with Kyle." She looked straight into Stan's face, and he knew she was going to make him admit it. To be fair, it wasn't a proper apology until he fully owned up to what it was he'd done. But he couldn't help but feel defensive when she laid it out that way. His pride buckled like rusted metal under pressure, and it took the emotional control Stan could muster to finish what he'd started.

Stan glanced to the side. "A little," he mumbled, "...I'm jealous. I guess."

"Of whom?"

Stan blinked. "Huh?" He recovered quickly, "Of both of you, I guess. Two of my friends," he hesitated, finding the word difficult to vocalize: "Dating."

"It's barely that." Wendy put her lemonade to her lips as she talked, "The last time I saw him was last week. And his mom seemed ready to throttle me until she realized I wasn't you. By the way, since you're making apologies, you might wanna offer some sort of peace accord to Sheila. Even if you don't mean it, she's gonna take it out on Kyle until you appease her, you know."

"Great." Stan said dryly.

"But given time, even if you do nothing, she'll get over it. You'll see him next semester at the very least." Wendy flattened her palms against the table."Also? Apology accepted. I'm not mad at you. You should know that." She paused, reconsidering. "Okay, I'm mad at you. But not for being jealous or ignoring me."

The easy way she admitted she was angry made Stan smile. He liked that there was nothing passive about Wendy, not even aggression. It was a rare quality, and it was good for Stan's peace of mind to so easily know exactly where he stood with her. Stan relaxed a little, pushing his glass aside so he could lay against the table on his folded arms and watch her.

"Then for what?"

Wendy shot him a glare. "For nearly dying last year. I thought you were going to drown in your own vomit. You scared me, Stan. You scared all of us."

Stan sat up again; he didn't need a reminder. Stan was making a point this year to forget all his fuck ups. To even consider getting out of bed, he had to hate himself the absolute minimal amount. That meant not dwelling, and so he really didn't appreciate when people rubbed his face in his past. The restraint he'd been exercising gave out at last, and Stan's mouth formed a tight, angry line.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Wendy tossed her head. "But it's still a problem, Stanley. If you're still hanging out with Kenny, then you're still drinking. You should talk about it with someone."

Stan clutched his hands into fist. His guilt responded badly to her accurate assessment and reasonable recommendation—it was as if she'd opened the curtains on his denial to pour sunlight on his moldering internal narrative. He stared at her hatefully, and he willed her to take it back and draw the blinds again.

But Wendy was impassive as ever, and there was no trace of temper or regret in her face. "I'm worried about you, Stan. People have been telling some stories."

She paused and lifted a brow, giving him the opportunity to give his side of things. But Stan just snorted. Wendy sounded like Sheila. Stories? At least he was making people talk about something interesting outside of their boring, nuclear lives. Wendy was pretending to care about him, but really she was just judging him like everyone else. He owed her an apology, but he knew he didn't have to justify himself to her.

"I'm sorry I worried you." Stan said in deadpan. "I had no idea you were so concerned. Especially because you didn't, like. Try to help me, or call to ask how I was doing, or, you know. Do anything people normally do to express concern or whatever. My bad."

Wendy finally looked ruffled. Stan felt a little better, having turned the "blaming spotlight" onto her.

"You didn't want me there." Wendy argued, voice up ever so slightly. "You pushed me out. You pushed Kyle out. If he couldn't get through to you, how was I supposed to?"

Stan again couldn't fault her, and the fact upset him. "Yes well," he grit, "At least I'm trying to make it right."

Wendy hesitated, before reaching out to lay a hand over his fist. He un-balled his hand when she did; that contact made him realize that he didn't want to fight with her. He'd come here to apologize, he remembered. Wendy was his friend. He looked at her—a few pieces of hair fell loose at her neck. Her eyes were bright and Stan knew them as well as he knew anything in South Park. She was his first love, and his stomach still felt like a kicked hornet's nest when she touched his hand.

And she was concerned about him. She cared what happened to him, to the point that when things went badly for Stan, it upset her. Stan's guilt felt heavy in his gut. He was poison to anyone who gave a shit. He had to do better, he had to try, or else he didn't deserve anyone's patience.

"I know you're trying," Wendy said gently. "Thank you for that. I support you, you know. Kyle and I both do."

The kitchen fell silent, save for the hum of Mr. Testaburger's lawnmower. Stan's gratitude and mixed sharply with his broken pride and disappointment in himself, and stole his ability to think of a single thing to say to her. He couldn't thank her, dismiss her, or even explain himself. When she let go of his hand, Stan felt completely alone, with no one in the world to save him from drowning and pulling everyone he loved down with him.

"Let's get hamburgers." Wendy suddenly suggested, as if sensing the turn in mood. "And do stupid couplely stuff."

Stan's eyebrows rose, both with his surprise and in wariness. "Is that, like, legal, dude? Since you're with Kyle?"

"A friend-date." Wendy grinned, "You'll be my surrogate, since Kyle can't leave his front yard."

"Am I paying?" Stan asked, amused. He was so grateful for the distraction, he was almost too eager to play along.

"Nah." Wendy said, standing to get ready. "I got a job at the newspaper, and I just got my first paycheck. I want to blow it on something."

Stan agreed. He watched Wendy put the dishes away. Her movements were quick and decisive, and it dawned on Stan in a soft, hazy burst of intuition, that she was on his side. If powerful, confident, smart Wendy believed in him, and helping him, well. Stan smiled. How could he not have a chance?

"This is unacceptable." Kyle complained in Ike's doorway. Kyle was a martyr; he should not have to suffer yet he did, for Stan (because of Stan. Okay, the prank that landed him in this mess had been his idea, and he was completely at fault. But Stan had enabled him. So Kyle could still be mad at him).

Ike stared back at Kyle over the plastic rims of his glasses, unimpressed. Kyle did not appreciate the rather superior disdain in Ike's expression—it seemed wrong to Kyle for a little brother to regard his older brother in such a way.

"What's unacceptable?" Ike asked.

"You having friends." Kyle gestured unhappily at Damien, who was playing some card game on the floor with Ike. "And you getting to be around them, and shit, when I'm in isolation."

Ike's voice dropped an octave, and his nose wrinkled in an offended manner. "Oh, get the fuck out of my room, Kyle," he snarled.

"That's not how this works," Kyle whined. He sat in the doorway, crossing his arms and legs, "You bug me for attention all the time. I'm just returning the favor."

"You seem to have reversed roles. This is strange." Damien said, looking between the brothers, "Is this not strange?"

Ike laughed shallowly. "Yeah, this is strange. Kyle, get out. You creeping out my friend."

Kyle scowled and leaned against Ike's door frame, looking like a grumpy, red gargoyle. He kicked at Ike's miniature, droid-shaped trash can, which was motion sensitive and beeped like R2D2 when disturbed. It was noisy enough to satisfy Kyle's need to make a scene.

"I'm creeping him out?" Kyle gestured wildly in Damien's direction. His eyes bugged, and his voice jumped an octave with sheer incredulity at the statement. Did Ike not know who Damien was?

Ike huffed and turned back to the card game, pointedly. "Your turn, Damien."

Damien watched Kyle warily for a moment before returning his attention to the game.

"I play a land," Damien said to Ike, "And tap three to summon."

Too lonely and restless to go back to his own room, Kyle hung around and watched their game even though they both ignored him staunchly. As they played, Kyle slowly edged his way into Ike's room, until he could see and read the cards. He recognized many of them—fairly recently, Ike had inherited Kyle's entire collection, as Kyle had officially outgrown them.

It turned out, Ike was teaching Damien the rules. The game was a slow one, more of an informational session than a game. Each turn, Ike patiently showed Damien how to use his deck strategically, but Kyle was bored. He was so out-of-his-skull bored that after they started the second round, he could no longer sit passively. So, to entertain himself, Kyle started a staring contest with Damien. Damien took awhile to notice, his concentration thoroughly riveted on what he was doing. But soon, he had to look up, and when he did, it was impossible not to notice Kyle—staring straight into his eyes, challenging him.

Gargoyle was too kind. Kyle glowered at Damien with out-and-out hostility. He looked less like a still, stately guardian than an angry imp. The only thing stony about Kyle was his unrelenting aggression

"What?" Damien's imperious voice was a very telling mix of irate and threatening. Someone was used to always getting his way, Kyle thought.

Kyle's eyes narrowed. It was satisfying to get Damien's attention (and on his nerves), but Kyle did have a point beside pettiness.

"What are your intentions toward my brother?" Kyle demanded. He was gratified to see that Damien at the very least looked taken aback.

Ike on the other hand, all but threw down his cards and sat upright. Even with his crooked glasses and ridiculous pom-pom beanie, Ike managed to look righteous in his humiliated rage.

"Kyle, get out." Ike was also a martyr. Kyle knew Ike sorely wished his mother would stop being angry and would let Kyle outside by himself. But she wouldn't, and as a result, Ike's sanity wore as well as Kyle's. But just because Kyle understood why it was unfair for Ike, too, didn't mean Kyle would go easy on him. What were big brothers for?

"Hang on, Ike." Kyle kept his gaze trained on Damien. He crossed his arms. "Answer the question. What are you doing with Ike?"

Damien's thick eyebrows did a stress-wiggle on his forehead and swam together at the center. "I don't understand."

"It's weird that you're friends with him." Kyle accused. "Why don't you hang out with people your own age?"

Ike was turning red. His fury was practically fogging up his glasses. "KYLE."

"I do not understand why you believe it is strange." Damien said. "The ones our age are unpleasant to be around and smell of mortal pheromones. You are all just reaching the age of becoming—your high school is like being in a swamp full of toads in heat."

"Gross, dude!" Ike complained.

Kyle was too disturbed by the notion that he smelled to respond to the rest of it for a moment, but he soon recovered. "Come on. You're like, twice his age." Kyle scowled. "You can't have anything in common. He's just a kid."

"We both enjoy the film called Beavis and Butthead." Damien reported, testily. "And you are also twice his age, and yet you insist on hanging about, even when you are not wanted. So your original statement still doesn't make sense to me."

"...Why don't you hang out with Kenny?" Kyle pressed on, purposely addressing none of Damien's points. Let him twist in the wind, Kyle thought. Damien deserved to be confused and pissed off.

Damien turned his attention back to the card game. He set one from his hand face down before him, after pausing a moment to consider it. Then he regarded Kyle with unblinking matter-of-factness.

"Kenny does not enjoy my presence," Damien explained. His voice was more patient than Ike's face. Ike turned over his cards in such a way that recalled an angry fry-cook flipping burgers. Kyle could practically hear the vindictive sizzle.

"I wonder why Kenny doesn't enjoy your presence, Damien." Kyle snarked. "It's such a mystery."

"It may have to do with that the neighbor's demon dog." Damien supplied. Either he was being un-testy because he genuinely wasn't upset, or, Kyle thought, he was trying to get a rise out of his audience by acting above-it. Kyle decided not to give Damien the benefit of the doubt and assume the worst. Accordingly, Kyle grew angrier at Damien for being a stuck-up bitch and trying to get under Kyle's skin by outclassing him.

"It was actually a demon, despite Kenny's insistence that he had been hyperbolic when he called it a 'demon dog.' I checked." Damien shrugged. "But when I be rid of us of the problem, Kenny was distraught. It caused tension, and so I left for the day and have since been trying to give Kenny a berth even when I return to sleep at his dwelling."

"Does Kenny know you came here?" Kyle demanded. He was vaguely glad, though, that they didn't have a family pet Damien could "be rid" of.

Damien flicked his fingers, absently snapping as he considered his next play. A flame flickered on and off like he did. Jesus Christ, Kyle thought. The guy was a human pocket lighter.

"Kenny encouraged me to engage with huma—people, of similar capacity to myself." Damien examined his hand, a concerned look on his face. "So I doubt he would be surprised as to my location, no."

"A similar ca— Are you calling my brother a freak?" Kyle bristled. It was a stretch, and he knew it. But seeing Damien just sitting there on the carpet in Ike's room, right under Ike's hanging model of The Hindenburg, made Kyle unreasonably angry. Damien didn't belong here. He wasn't a friend. He wasn't even a person!

"I do not not believe so." Damien was genuinely confused. "It was meant to be a compliment."

"Yes, you did." Kyle glared. "Protip for living amongst humans? It's not a compliment to be compared to the Antichrist, Damien."

"That's it! GET OUT!" Ike flung himself at Kyle. Kyle grinned when they clashed, and eagerly engaged. He pulled Ike into a headlock as Ike took loose swipes at him, and their wrestling sent Damien scrambling to Ike's bed to avoid the fray. Ike managed to kick at Kyle's ankle hard enough to cause Kyle to buckle the knee, but Kyle kept a firm hold of Ike's head and took Ike down with him.

There was a clatter as Kyle rolled Ike into Ike's desk, sending pencils rattling and rolling under the bed. They knocked over the R2D2 trash can, too, and it made oblivious chirping beeps when it careened over onto its side. Ike yelped in pain and flung his elbow into Kyle's ribs. Kyle cried out and let him go for a moment. But immediately, before Ike could escape, Kyle grabbed at Ike's arm, forcing him backwards until he could put Ike into another headlock.

"Say, 'I eat from dirty diapers,'" Kyle cheered. "Say it!"

Ike bit Kyle's arm, and Kyle yelled and released him. When Ike started to retreat to the doorway, Kyle went after him, grabbing Ike around the waist and shoving his thumbs into Ike's sides. Ike squealed and kicked and dug his nails into Kyle's wrists as he fought back.

"You're such an asshole, Kyle! I hate you!" Ike's glasses had come off, and he tried to knock his head back against Kyle's, but Kyle was too tall. Kyle only pulled Ike's arm harder for his efforts.


The boys froze, caught. Sheila huffed in doorway, wielding her mighty wooden mixing spoon, a weapon the boys knew she would use liberally. Kyle felt a little childish; he know he probably should have been above intimidation by spoon by now. But still, he immediately released his brother and shoved him away, like distance from the evidence would decouple him from the crime.

"What's all this commotion?!" Sheila barked. Damien opened his mouth to volunteer the answer, but one look from Sheila effectively silenced him. Kyle knew—he and Ike had to be the ones to literally answer for their crimes. It was just how the Sheila Broflovski Justice System worked.

Ike immediately wibbled, and he acted like a wounded fawn who had been attacked by an unforgiving predator.

"MA, Kyle's starting fights!" Ike poked out his lower lip. "He's bigger, so it's not fair!"

Kyle glared at Ike. The kid knew just how to play it for Sheila. He could still pass off the little kid thing, and she fucking ate it up every time. Kyle wished he could get away with kicking Ike for his bullshit.

"I was just watching them play cards." Kyle tucked his hands defensively into his armpits. "That's all."

Sheila glanced between the two, then Damien, who surreptitiously pointed at Kyle. With a grateful, approving nod, Sheila stalked forward, grabbing Kyle by the ear. He cried out, pained, and was forced to follow. Damien and Ike shared a little triumphant smile between themselves as Kyle was lead away.

"Ike! Spend time with your friend, and don't get into any more trouble," Sheila said over her shoulder. Then she looked down at Kyle. Her eyes were menacing in a way Kyle had nightmares about to this day, and she said:

"And you, come with me."

It wasn't like he had a choice. Sheila dragged Kyle into the hallway, and Kyle stumbled along after her. The considerable height distance made it hard for him to keep up with her urgent pace. Kyle's heart thumped nervously as they approached his room.

"You," Sheila threw Kyle in through his doorway, and Kyle tripped inside, rubbing at his ear. "Are supposed to be grounded. That means no socializing! Not even with your brother and his little playmates."

"Ma, I'm bored." Kyle whined, slumping miserably on his bed, "It's been five weeks! Can I at least go running?"

Sheila shook her spoon at him, and bits of batter flew from it and stuck to the opposite wall. "The moment I let you go outside alone is the moment you start running over to Stanley's. I've been letting Wendy over anyway. That's a privilege, you know, not a right! And if you want to keep it, you'll behave and stop giving me lip, young man!"

'Go ahead; conjugal visits have less security,' Kyle wanted to say, but he stayed quiet. He stared at his mother unhappily instead of protesting, and wished he were still young enough to get away with pouting, like Ike did. From experience, Kyle knew it was the best way to get Sheila to relent, even a little bit. To that end, Kyle laid down defeatedly and sighed in his most sad/pathetic voice:

"I'm just lonely. And I feel like I'm not accomplishing anything." He rolled onto his side, so he could look his mother in the eye and see if it was working. "I...I just feel like I'm getting behind."

Sheila's expression softened, putting her hands on her considerable hips. "This is your punishment," she said more to herself, "It'll be over soon. And you know Ike has trouble making friends. You need to give him space to develop; it's very important for a growing boy!"

Kyle scowled at the mention of Damien. He couldn't stop himself. "I don't like that Damien kid. He creeps me out."

"He's very strange," she agreed. Sheila tapped her spoon against her hand thoughtfully before continuing. "And I don't understand why he talks so loudly—it's like he thinks we're all hard of hearing."

"Yeah." Kyle nodded, please she seemed to be on his side about this. Sheila sighed commiseratively, a concerned crease in her forehead. But after a moment or two of contemplation she seemed to resolve it for herself, and she shrugged.

"Ike usually makes good decisions," she concluded, generously. "He's very smart and mature for his age. He wouldn't hang around a hooligan."

Kyle sulked once more. He rolled onto his back, and through his wall, he could hear Ike and Damien start up a game of Dance Dance Revolution in Ike's room. Na na na na na na! Na na na na na na na na! It was like they were mocking him on purpose, rubbing it in.

"Oh, come here bubbeh. That long face is going to stick if you leave it like that," Sheila opened her arms and came to sit beside him on the bed. Somewhat stiffly, Kyle sat up and adjusted his position to sit beside her. As soon as he was close enough, she gathered Kyle in them, pressing him to her chest. When Kyle inhaled, he could smell "home." He could smell the oil from the kitchen, the lemon grass from her herb garden, and the lingering perfume of her homemade potpourri that she stuffed into old pantyhose and kept in all the drawers. It was the scent of his childhood, uber-concentrated in the person of his mother, and when Kyle closed his eyes and breathed it, it was difficult not to remember what it felt like to be a child.

"I love you very much." Sheila told him, petting his hair. It would mess up the gel, but Kyle didn't care. Who would see it anyway?

"It hurts me to punish you, you know. I don't like you see you suffer. I just want my boys to grow up right, and so sometimes, I have to be the bad guy." Sheila genuinely sounded regretful. "You're a big boy. Soon you won't need me around to guide you anymore. But right now, you're the child, and I'm the parent. I have to provide you with discipline and love, bubbala."

Kyle was embarrassed that he that he felt a little better, but he still nodded into her embrace. "I know."

Later, Kyle found himself slinking back into Ike's room. It was inevitable—there was simply nothing else to do. A person could only bump aimlessly around the house for so long. He opened Ike's door slowly, making it squeak as he peered inside.

"No," Ike scowled as he munched on Snacky Cakes. He had his laptop on the floor, and he and Damien watched Youtube videos. "Go home, Kyle. You don't live here."

Damien watched him quietly. Kyle felt like he was having a staring contest with a crow—Damien might peck anyone's eyes out unprovoked. At least, that's how Kyle thought he looked. There was also a chance Damien was holding off a sneeze.

"Help me, help you!" Kyle pleaded with Ike. He sat on the floor in what he hoped was a passive posture. He tried not to look at Damien while he did it.

"Go outside with me. Mom won't let me alone." Kyle snagged one of Ike's cakes and tore open the package. It probably didn't help with his case, but Kyle felt more included when he was also sharing their food.

Ike groaned, gloppy white paste from the center of the cake lining his mouth. "Why do I have to be your goddamn babysitter? You're the oldest."

"I never ask you for anything because I'm the oldest." Kyle argued. "So, you owe me this one."

"Perhaps you could show me the woods around Stark's Pond. I have not explored there yet. And all the excess negative energy in this household has overstuffed me. I require exercise so as to walk it off." Damien interjected. He did not look up from the video of a cat batting at a fuzzy caterpillar. Kyle didn't think Damien could possibly be serious.

Ike was no less taken aback. By the look on Ike's face, it was clear that he thought Kyle was trying to steal his friend. Which, as if, Kyle thought disdainfully. He wanted to "steal" Damien like a buffalo wanted a basket of wings.

Ike pouted. "...I guess we could take Kyle on a walk." He shot another look at Kyle, and Kyle accordingly did not so much as smile in a celebratory manner. It was a derogatory state of affairs, but Kyle was so sick of staring at the purple paint on his own walls and the smiling face of his Allen Iverson bobblehead that he was willing to suffer through Ike's power-tripping. This was how low he had sunk.

"Not all day. I have some important napping later." Ike added, in case Kyle was too happy about his acquiescence. Kyle thought he deserved a medal for not reacting to that. He really did not appreciate being referred to as some cranky animal.

When the three boys emerged from the house Kyle breathed a sigh of relief, happy to have a speck of freedom. The sun felt just like he'd remembered it. The fresh air smelled like approaching Fall—cold and dry, with the dusty undertones of mulch and wet pavement. Some neighbors were out in the late afternoon, wrapping trees with cloth and putting halved-milk-cartons over particularly vulnerable flowers to protect them from the first frosts.

Unbidden, Kyle remembered when he and Stan were children, and Mrs. Marsh gave them handfuls of salt. She sent them out into the tomato garden, and they hunted for slugs there. It was their favorite chore, and they would hurry through all their other responsibilities to get to it faster. For a moment, nostalgia seized Kyle. As the boys strolled along, Kyle couldn't help but spare a glance for the direction of Stan's house, which Ike noticed immediately.

"No." Ike snapped, "I promised to keep you on a leash, and it definitely doesn't extend to Stan's."

"I wasn't going to ask!" Kyle insisted, defensively, although he had thought about it. He wondered if Stan remembered the slugs. Stan's love for animals did not extend to gastropods (or most crawly things, really). But it did extend to the rabbits Sharon put up the chicken wire to keep out of her vegetables. One became caught by the head in it once. Kyle remembered the shockingly screeching sound it made. But more than that, he remembered how hard they had laughed, when they bugged Randy until he agreed to get it free, and the tiny rabbit bit him so hard he bled through his glove. Randy had taught them their favorite swear that day: Cunting Rabbit Cuntface.

A wild rabbit dashed across their path as they walked. Ike ignored it, but Kyle wondered if it was a relative of the one he and Stan (and Randy) had saved. As they reached paths leading through the woods and up to Stark's, Ike found a rock to kick along the dirt. Whenever it skittered too far out of range, Kyle noticed, Damien extended two fingers, and the rock tumbled back into kicking-range, seemingly of it's own accord.

Goddamn it, of course Ike had to pick a friend with the powers of Hell at his beck and call. It was perfectly safe to a little kid to be best buddies with a monster with dark demon powers at his disposal. Sure, Ike made good choices. Kyle watched the rock bounce along and wished it was Damien's head, instead, that Ike dribbled between his sneakers.

"What is there to do at Stark's Pond?" Damien asked, "I have never experienced nature in this full capacity. Back home, we have formations of brimstone and volcanic eruptions. But that is a different kind of nature, and it smells of sulphur, which displeases me."

Kyle mumbled, "Your smell displeases me." It earned him a warning glare from Ike.

"Skate rocks," Ike answered Damien. He seemed unconcerned by the content of Damien's anecdotes. "Climb trees. Mud fights. Swim."

"I was under the impression ponds are dirty," Damien said, "Why would you submerge yourself in it?"

"You're thinking of retention ponds," Ike replied. The trail narrowed as the boys plunged into the woods, and Kyle trailed behind Ike and Damien so they could walk side by side. "Stark's is a natural pond, so all the dirty stuff gets filtered."

Damien nodded. "Like the Well of Souls back home. The unclean spirits are sent to the lower Nether Realms for Purification."

The more Damien spoke, the more Kyle understood why he and Ike were well-matched. Damien needed all sorts of practical explanations, and Ike liked having someone who listened when he babbled about mundane things like the natural filtration of bodies of water. And Ike had an unusual tolerance for weirdness.

They circled the pond and listened to cicadas. Somehow the thick, buzzing sound made the hot day feel hotter. Kyle listened to Ike and Damien's conversation as a distant murmur, blending in with the crunch of dirt beneath their shoes. The longer the boys walked, the sweatier and warmer they became.

Kyle paused at a part in the trail that led to the pond bank. He glanced at the two walking on without paying him much mind, and an impulse struck him. It was a bad idea; Kyle knew it immediately. But he knew it with his rational mind.

But Kyle's brain felt mired in sticky heat, and his blood pounded. His impulse to hit things was so bad that his knuckles ached from clenching two fists. His gel made a crunchy cap that locked in steamy moisture under his hair. His rational mind was playing second fiddle.

His logic that day was this:

It's hot outside.

The pond is cold.

I am a strong swimmer.

I want Damien to drown.

Kyle barely thought twice. Ike and Damien seemed more or less happy to ignore him. Ike had a little skip in his step, and Damien's rigid posture seemed lighter, easier. Kyle wanted to change that. For the first time in Kyle's life, Kyle was the loser-dork trying to hang out with his brother's friends. It was an uncomfortable turnabout, and Kyle would not have it.

"Hey, guys?" Kyle called, "I wanna swim."

Ike and Damien paused to look back at him. Ike's suspicion was so thick it was nearly tangible—Kyle could see his pissy pout and his impatient grimace in either corner of his mouth. Damien, on the other hand, looked ready. Kyle was almost worried. Almost.

"Fuck," Ike groaned, "No... oh goddammit."

To prove his mettle, Kyle was already pulling off his shirt and running down to the pond bank. Damien came at a close clip behind him but did not remove his turtleneck. Ike followed unwillingly.

Kyle shucked his pants off, and clad only in boxers, he took a running dive into the water.

"Ew, gross." Ike wrinkled his nose as he watched Kyle splash out a distance.

"I thought you said the water wasn't dirty," Damien said. He watched the pond's edge lap at the shore, and he did not so much as prod it with his shoe.

"It's not," Ike said, "I just don't like nature in its full capacity."

Damien nodded approvingly. "Agreed."

Kyle tread water before he turned and waved at the two on the bank. "Get in! It's not cold!"

It was, actually. But Kyle revelled in it. It felt as if he'd been liberated somehow. Also, Damien was from Hell, Kyle half-hoped that he'd melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West, once exposed to water.

"YOU'RE A FREAK!" Ike yelled back. Kyle flipped him off and dove under for several moments. The water was shallow enough that the weeds brushed his legs. He floated, the water rushed in his ears, and finally, he emerged with his hair slopping in front of his eyes. He whipped it back behind his head and wiped his palms up his cheeks and eyes to remove the water.

"Damien!" Kyle smirked, dripping, "Betcha can't swim to the center!"

Damien scowled from the bank. "Is this some masculinity ritual?"

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Sure. Get in the water."

"Damien." Ike complained, "I don't know what his problem is, but he's being stupid. Don't listen."

"I can hear you!" Kyle shouted at them. He ducked down enough to fill his mouth with water, and then spat it in their direction. "Don't be a pussy, Damien! Get in!"

Damien squinted in Kyle's direction. Flames gathered at his fingertips, and his red eyes gleamed even in the harsh sunlight. "I believe he will continue hounding me in a territorial manner until I respond to his aggression."

"You're not obligated to prove anything." Ike said irately, urgently. "Kyle's being a dick. Come on."

"PUSSY." Kyle yelled from the water. He swam out further and did a backflip. "Jump in, ya fucking garbage!"

Damien's eye twitched, and he started stalking toward the pond bank. He stripped off his black shirt and flung it away; he did not particularly seem to care where it landed.

"What are the terms of our duel?" he yelled back at Kyle. The shoes came next, already muddy from pond water. Damien kicked them back like they were unwanted ghosts, reaching up from below and trying to drag him back home.

Kyle drifted closer and hovered on his back even though he could easily stand knee-deep. He laughed a little meanly. "Duel? Nah. Race me from one side of the pond and back."

"The reward?" Damien set foot in the pond, and it seemed to go oddly still where he touched it. Ike goggled at this. Damien did not create a single ripple.

Kyle on the other hand was oblivious. He shrugged, shoulders above water as he treaded. "Bragging rights."

Damien's voice took on an echoing quality that suggested supernatural amplification. Only Ike seemed to hear it, and he peered around as if checking for the source. "I suggest our eternal souls."

Kyle scoffed as he floated. "Not sure what I would do with that."

"Ritualistic sacrifices. Eat it. Torture." Damien hummed a moment. "Enslavement, if you are in need of an eternal servant."

Ike had resigned himself to sitting nearby on the dry part of the bank. "This is one of those weird things, Damien!" he called. "This is what I was talking about! Mortals don't say stuff like that!"

The more Ike talked about Damien, the more Kyle disliked him. Damien was past "awkward social tics" and straight into "this kid never should have crawled out of Satan's butthole."

"Get out here!" Kyle demanded again. The sooner Damien got to drowning, the better. Kyle was doing the world a serious favor by extinguishing this flaming jerk.

Damien stood on the pond bank in his hearts and Cupids boxers. A gift from Daddy, Kyle presumed, and he smirked at the idea of Satan pushing a cart at Target, past their Boxers 2-for-1 sale.

"Shall we start from the dock, which is not two-hundred yards away?" Damien inquired, pointing. Kyle wanted to remind Damien that he knew perfectly well where the damn dock was—he'd grown up in South Park, so it wasn't like he needed fuckign directions. But then Kyle remembered that he hadn't actually mentioned a starting point. In his rush to outperform Damien, he hadn't thought.

He sheepishly shrugged and headed for the designated spot. "Sure."

Once they met on the old dock, Kyle pulled himself out of the water. They both walked carefully in their bare feet, wary of rotting splinters and a half-submerged rowboat tied to the deck and occasionally floating in their path.

Water running down his legs, Kyle crouched at the ready and prepared to dive. Damien remained standing beside him. Kyle took heart in the fact that Damien's face was intent and serious. Hopefully, that meant Damien was intimidated.

"Ike, would you call 'go?'" Kyle asked over his shoulder.

"Don't get me involved in your stupid...stupid." Ike complained from the stairs of the deck. He went back to messing with his phone, probably, Kyle thought, deeply invested already in an intense game of Tetris.

"Clever." Kyle said dryly. Ike flipped him off, but he didn't look up.

"You may count." Damien said to Kyle. His eyes were focused on the opposite pond bank, as if he were willing himself there already.

"On three," Kyle said, grinning. He felt certain that he could out-swim Damien blind. The kid had the biceps of a baby duckling. "One, two, THREE."

Both boys flung themselves off the dock and hit the water with a mighty splash. Damien fumbled and Kyle was ahead a few yards by the time Damien recovered. Damien caught up quickly though, and Kyle had to force himself not to look over his shoulder to watch Damien's steady progression forward.

'Fuck,' Kyle cursed mentally, dangerously close to taking mouthfuls of water the further they swam out. He knew they were already at the halfway point when the water's drafts started running cold, and the weeds no longer reached their legs. Something in him knew to be afraid, but the angry streak that lit through his consciousness would not allow him to turn back or call it off. So Kyle ignored it.

Kyle was so focused on making it before Damien did that he didn't think too much when something brushed against his leg. His only thought was the opposite bank, so he kept plowing through the water— forward, relentlessly. Damien was still close behind, but he seemed to be tiring. Kyle could practically taste victory, and it propelled him forward all the faster.

Still, every time Kyle looked over his shoulder, Damien inched closer. Starting to get winded, Kyle reached a place on the opposite pond bank where he was forced to stand. He chose there to turn sharply, feet slipping in the mud and making him stumble long enough for Damien to dash past him. By the time Kyle had recovered, Damien was right on his tail.

Kyle snarled and dove back in. There was a loudbanging in his brain that would not let him yield, not to Damien. Kyle was already a quarter of the way across the pond. The idea of losing to Damien was physically unbearable—it felt like a cosmic impossibility to Kyle in that moment. As long as Kyle won by a tiny margin (at least), the universe would remain aligned.

As far as Kyle knew, the pond wasn't especially wide, but it ran deep. That's why he didn't think too much about the water being darker the further in he got. He didn't even worry when something curled around his ankle. Kyle was accustomed to fish and water plants floating around; he made a half-hearted attempt to kick it loose and kept going.

He heard Damien swear behind him, but Kyle was too focused to turn pause to see what had caused the disturbance. Damien would get behind now, Kyle thought—this was his chance! But as Kyle pulled forward, something jerked his leg hard enough to pull him back. There was a rush in his ears, and water was forced into his mouth. Kyle's arms paddled at his sides, and he tried to get free, but he could only barely get his head above water.

"What the—?" Kyle flailed, his rhythm thrown. He was submerged for a moment before he was able tread water again, shoulder-deep. Cold, slimy things coiled around his legs, and Kyle panicked as he thrashed against them. They yanked him relentlessly toward the heart of the pond...and down.

He couldn't see Damien behind him. He only saw blurry flashes of sky, or the sun through the trees. He could hear Damien screaming—Kyle didn't recognize the language; it sounded like gargling Hebrew backwards—and strangely, the screaming seemed to get louder. Kyle was beyond tracking the sound, but as he fought upwards to get a breath of air, he happened to lance upward.

Kyle's brain stuttered. The white soles of Damien's feet scrabbled in midair. A single massive, thick tentacle wrapped around Damien's waist. He screamed and cursed in the strange language, and he pulled uselessly at the slimy appendage holding him aloft. His eyes were red and glowing, and steam rose from the pond around him like they were swimming in a pot of spaghetti.

Kyle belatedly realized he was being dragged toward Damien. Instead of fear, Kyle felt rage. Rage at everything that had happened this summer, rage at being thwarted in his attempts to out-man Damien by something that looked like it came out of Kenny's hentais, rage that he might die like a scalded lobster before ever getting to third base with Wendy.

"YOU FUCKING SLUT GARBAGE I'LL KILL—" Water rushed down Kyle's throat, the sun became a wobbling mirage above, and he grasped desperately at nothing—kicking and twisting—as he tried to surface again.

The water was dark, and when Kyle was dragged under mid-yell, it rushed into his mouth and nose. There were streaks of blue darting across his visions, flashes in the dark. The tentacle around his leg was pulling him and Kyle frantically pounded at it with his other foot, movements sluggish from buoyancy and being suffocated, head panicking in his rage.

His last thought was that he needed to get his father to buy gym equipment. This seemed like one of those situations that could be solved by punching hard enough.

Also, he thought, this was all Damien's fault. Kyle's vision went black.

Kyle's ears rang. He was aware of motion but not enough to respond...or at least, he was until his head was dropped onto something hard. His first coherent thought was: that really fucking hurt.

Kyle's chest heaved, and he started coughing violently. His body shook, and he spat up water and what tasted like blood. For a crazy moment, he thought he was going to spit his guts, but the bloody taste was just the stress-mucus coating his raw throat. He, still struggling to breathe, rolled and collapsed on his side.

The first realization of Kyle's return to consciousness was a hard slap to his face

"Kyle! KYLE!"

Kyle glanced up hazily and saw only blue...but the blurry blue eventually materialized into a very distressed Craig Tucker.

Kyle rubbed his face and moaned. He should have been grateful to be alive, but instead, he only felt bewildered and soggy. What the actual fuck?

Kyle reached up and pushed Craig's face away.

"Stop slapping me," Kyle croaked. He sat up, shivering—from cold and from shock. It took a few seconds to stop wheezing. "What happened?"

"You drowned." Craig seemed disappointed that he no longer needed to slap Kyle in the face. He was soaking wet, and he hung back on his heels as he sat in the grass.

"Jesus fucking titty monsters." Kenny fell back on his ass and looked to the sky. He barked a short, humorless laugh and blew air through his teeth as if physically push out his stress. "Goddamn, you are sooo lucky me and Craig were nearby. You're a piece of shit, you heard? Scared me half to death, lordy."

"Kenny." Kyle said. His brain still wasn't following. They were near the pond bank, and Kyle could see that aside from some small ripples, the water looked fairly calm. He touched his ankle, which stung, and marvelled at the huge, round, red sucker prints circling up his calf.

Kyle mouthed silently a moment. The first words he found were: "What the fuck happened?"

Craig intoned dully, shaking water from his hair. "You were swimming. Then you weren't."

Kyle glared. "Bullshit. There was definitely some...thing holding Damien."

Craig made a face as if Kyle had shoved dog shit under his nose. "I didn't see anything."

Kyle snapped up and grabbed Craig's collar. He yanked him so their noses were almost touching and snarled. "Look you goddamn pissant—"


The sound of Kenny's voice made both boys look. Kenny was pale and also soaking wet. "Just. Thank fucking God, and thank fucking Damien, for saving your sorry son-a-bitch ass." He grabbed Kyle's shoulders. "You picked the worst fucking time to be a prick." Kenny said with relief. "You coulda been straight dead."

"It's not my fault!" Kyle bristled, and he was increasingly aware that he was mostly naked and his clothes were on the wrong side of the pond. "There's fucking Tales of the Abyss in the pond. This garbage," Kyle jerked his head at Craig, "Is telling me I'm delusional. And where is Damien anyway? Where's Ike?"

"They left," Craig supplied, mostly unhelpfully. He seemed preoccupied wringing water from his hat and grimacing.

Kenny's face went blank. "Kyle, what did you say?"

Kyle looked ready to lunge again, teeth practically bared. "I said, tell me what the fuck is going on."

"No, the other thing. What did you call Craig? Did you call him a...muff...cabbage?"

"Fucking garbage," Kyle growled, "Goddamn, shit, garbage."

"Oookay," Kenny glanced at Craig, who was looking between them with confusion, "Wow. Well. Let's get you home before your mom freaks and—"

"WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?" Kyle screamed. His voice echoed across the pond. He tried to stand up, but he slipped in some mud and ended up sprawled. He resembled a drowned hornet, fluttering useless wet wings in distress.

Kenny recoiled, shocked for a moment before his features evened.

"Nothing, Kyle," Kenny said flatly. "Seriously. You just got tangled in some weeds and dragged under."

Kyle tried to hit Kenny. He tried valiantly, but the outcome was more like aimless flopping than anything else. Craig and Kenny looked at each other and then at Kyle, and they both sighed as if to say 'it's definitely someone's naptime.'

Kyle woke easily from a deep sleep. He had barely made it back to his bed, and he had climbed in still grimy from pond water. He smelled like algae scum, but he was clothed and in one piece, so Kyle supposed that was really as much as anyone could ask for. His ceiling was dark from the nightfall, and only a faint pain in his tailbone reminded him that he still needed to kick Craig and Kenny's asses.

Slipping from his bed, Kyle poked his head out into the hallway. At the end of the hall was a large digital clock, nestled in the windowsill. Sure enough, the time was late, and everyone in the household was asleep. Kyle scowled; Ike had some explaining to do, so the sweet dreams would have to wait.

Kyle quietly crept down the shadowy hall and opened the door to Ike's room. Heartlessly, he shook his brother awake. Kyle was rewarded with a sharp bite to the hand.

"Brat! Ike!" Kyle hissed, shaking off his entire arm. The kid's teeth were sharp. Ike groaned unhappily at Kyle and batted in his general direction. Ike stubbornly refused to open his eyes.

"Wake up!" Kyle insisted. He yanked Ike's pillow out from under his head and tossed it across the room. Ike's cheek thunked against the sheets, and he murderously cracked open one eye.

"Urrg." Ike sat up sleepily, black hair falling into his eyes. "What. Do. You. Want??"

"What the fuck happened today?" Kyle asked, impatiently. He stayed leering and crouched by Ike's bed. Ike yawned and gurgled in a complaining tone for a little while rather than answering.

But eventually, Ike blinked slowly at Kyle, and he shuffled onto his elbows to regard his brother. "You almost drowned because you're a douche." Ike said, slowly, sleep still in his voice. "You got caught in the weeds and were pulled under."

"Then why the fuck was Damien in the air?" Kyle retorted. His hands fisted in Ike's comforter as he bristled at the obvious lie.

Ike's face went uncharacteristically blank before he responded. His eyes looked so small without his glasses. "What are you talking about?"

Kyle glowered menacingly. "You have to tell me, Ike. I swear to Abraham."

A flash of regret crossed Ike's face, and he pulled his knees up and hunched over them. "Kyle," Ike said quietly, "You shouldn't worry about today."

"I almost died! HOW can you say—"

"I won't be bringing Damien around anymore," Ike interrupted. Kyle wasn't sure how his baby brother could possibly look and sound so mature at the moment

"You get stupid when you're around him," Ike continued, and to Kyle's surprise, Ike sounded a little bit genuinely sad. "Really stupid."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Kyle groaned, and he pressed his forehead to the bedpost. Trying to get information out of his friends and family was like trying to hack into a government server. He just kept hitting walls. Worse, he felt immensely out of the loop, and Ike speaking in riddles made the world seem like a giant Rubix cube that Kyle couldn't untwist.

Ike hugged his legs. "It just...does. Hey, Kyle?"

Kyle grunted raised his head to look at Ike expectantly. He could hardly hope for an explanation, but he couldn't help thinking Ike might give him something.

"Can you just let this one go? Trust me?" Ike offered only a pleading expression with no context attached, and Kyle deflated. Of course.

Kyle was so tired. He could not afford to keep sprinting in circles tonight.

"Yeah, okay." Kyle let his eyes flutter shut. "It's South Park. I get it."

Ike smiled faintly. "I'm glad you're okay, you know." He yawned again. His pajamas were handmedowns, and when he rubbed at his eyes, one drooping sleeve covered his fist.

Kyle shook his head in defeat, and he couldn't think of a proper response. So instead he said:

"Guess so."

Craig's summer had been blessedly quiet. The most exciting thing that happened was that he, Token, and Tweek gone to a water park. The last time they brought Clyde to an amusement park, he'd cried and shit his pants, so Clyde hadn't been invited. Clyde was pretty butthurt about it when he found out afterward, but they all eventually drank some beers and laughed it off.

For the rest of July and August, Craig used his mom's old camera to take pictures. With his newly acquired driver's license, Craig transported his sister three times a week to ballet class. He didn't mind—he and his sister got along. Plus, while he waited to pick her up, he hung around the public observatory. It was a great place to get a decent look at some of the solar activity that was going on: flares, sunspots and the like. The Sun was in the middle of a maximum, after all.

It seemed as if the blue skies and smooth sailing would go on forever.

"I think Stark's..." Craig exhaled a plume of smoke from his cigarette and leaned against a mossy tree. "Is my favorite place in all of South Park."

Kenny eyed him and then hit his pipe again. It took a while for him to reply with: "Why?"

Kenny's disinterest was the only reason Craig gave him a real answer. "Nothing much happens here. It's like. A quiet zone. Like they have on trains."

"Huh." Kenny took a quick look around their surroundings. He nodded, lazily. "Guess this'd be the place then. For shit to happen when we least expect it."

"Why would you say that." Craig cut a glance over to Kenny, harshly. Those were plot-starting words; he could feel it. Goddamn Kenny was always bringing chaos into the world—he was like an unstable isotope, and Craig was just the unfortunate neighboring atom from which Kenny stole an electron.

Kenny shrugged instead of answering. Then, he said: "Hey...Craig? Also? I believe you that you have laser eyes."

Craig wanted one year. Just one normal year.

As if on cue, Kenny squinted ahead, against the sun. On the far side of Stark's was a cluster of unruly trees that cast shade into the center of the pond. That made it somewhat difficult to make out what Kenny was looking at. But Craig could see movement, and eventually, the two bodies frantically swimming in the water.

No one in South Park had hair like that except for Kyle. Craig rolled his eyes, took a deep drag of his cigarette, and then stomped it out. Two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse were present...and judging by the jet black head of the second swimmer...if Craig weren't mistaken...they were accompanied by the actual Antichrist.

Craig prepared to make a swift motehrfucking exit. It was time to make like Kirk and get Out.

"I think they are racing!" Kenny observed, grinning. Vainly, Craig hoped it was just a perfectly normal, summertime race. But Craig accidentally made eye-contact with Damien. The red eyes that blinked and glowed back at him were like a camera recorder flashing in the dark, and they caused a brick-like weight to thump down into Craig's stomach. Craig physically lurched forward.

A strange energy shot through the air. With horror, Craig recognized the electric feeling coursing through him from years ago. He saw blue—blindingly blue—light and nothing else. When he regained some of his vision, from the pond he could see bolts of red flittering into the air like thousands of fiery insects. A great and violent quake shook the area. The lake rippled—the epicenter—and two huge, grey, slimy appendages emerged from the water. They created a wave that drenched Craig, but he was spared the worst of the trauma, because—still dripping—the tentacles went straight for Damien. They lifted him from the water and dragged him by the waist into the air. Damien screamed words Craig could not understand, and flickering black shadow-figures sprung up from the earth only to be smashed down by subsequent tides of water.

When Craig tried to move, he was paralyzed and rooted by the energy coursing through him. His blue bolts met the red which had sparked from the pond. When the energy collided, flashes of blinding white light crackled across the sky. Instinctively Craig tried to shield his eyes, but he could not so much as flinch. His arms locked at his sides; he could not even scream. Whatever was in the water was drawn to the conflicting energies. Craig could feel the heat from the blasting collisions against his face. He watched the tentacles wave toward the sky and reach as if to pluck to zags and spirals of light from the air.

He could also see Kyle being dragged under.

"Here we go." Kenny muttered by Craig's side. "What the fuck." Wildly, Craig thought Kenny sounded too calm, as if he'd seen this coming. But Kenny wasn't indifferent, clearly, because as soon as Kyle's limp body disappeared under the water, Kenny sprung into action.

With a sigh, Kenny swore again, kicked off his shoes and dove in after Kyle. Craig didn't think that was the best idea, but even if Craig had been able to speak, Kenny probably wouldn't have listened to him. Kenny liked to gab sometimes about Craig's "main character potential," but Kenny was the more likely of the two of them to run into a burning building to rescue a kitten.

Morosely, Craig watched as Kenny swim towards the writing mass of certain death-by-tentacles. There was a rancid pit in his stomach, and Craig had a feeling this was all truly, (or at least partially) his fault. He hadn't asked for any of this, but he was responsible. He had power (which he had also never asked for). So maybe all Craig wanted was to go home...but he knew that it was up to him to resolve this and make it all fucking stop.

This clusterfuck was a battle of wills, and he could break the polar connection he had with the red energy on the pond. If he did that, maybe the octopus? Squid? Kraken? thing would stop attacking. He sensed it might; he had to try. He had to make the fuckery end, goddamnit it, he still had to go pick up his sister. Mentally, he planted himself, focused, and with a mighty effort, he began to pull away as best as he could.

There was too much rushing in Craig's ears to able to hear what was happening, but with a flash and a blink, Craig felt himself being jerked forward. He was helpless against the invisible propulsion, and whatever-it-was yanked him like a limp doll with his toes dragging in the mud. Then, abruptly, Craig was thrown into pond, the electric thrum in his body was gone, and the water around him rippled violently as the tentacles sunk out of sight. Craig flailed in the shallow water, and he instinctively tried to find land and get away from the blackness that threatened to engulf him. Panic came as a delayed reaction: Craig heard shouting and crying out and splashing, but it took moments for him to realize that the sounds were coming from him.

Craig got enough of a hold on himself to scramble through the mud. Heaving with the effort, he beached himself. As he panted, face resting against the bank, he noticed Kenny—swimming toward the shore with Kyle on his back. Craig refused to swim again. His arms felt like someone had torn them off with hot pincers. But he wasn't entirely heartless—Kenny looked half-drowned and seemed to be barely treading water. So, as soon as Kenny and Kyle were nearby, Craig went waist-deep and helped Kenny drag Kyle's body onto the shore.

"He'll be fine," Kenny gasped when he finally had enough oxygen to do so. Kenny choked on a breath and then rolled onto his back. He exhaled and closed his eyes. "Ugggh. I lost track of Damien and Ike. I need to check on them. Wake Kyle; I'll be right back."

Craig hadn't found his voice yet, and he certainly didn't nod. He had no intention of cooperating with anymore of Kenny's suggestions, possibly ever again. But his refusal took too long, and before Craig knew it, Kenny was up again. Kenny got up and back on his feet and kept going like it was something he had practiced.

When Kenny had disappeared for several minutes, Craig decided a good use of his time while he waited for Kenny to come back was to try to get Kyle to breathe. Luckily, as soon as Craig got Kyle on his back, Kyle hacked and spit up pond water. So he wasn't going to require mouth to mouth, Craig thought with deep relief. That was something. It seemed like everything was as normal as it could be, after a giant monster attacked and tried to drown them all.

Craig was grateful for that much, at least. Until Kenny came for them, he lay there in the mud watching the sky turn dark, charting the constellations, wishing the vast and quiet universe did not house so many breathing, unquiet things.

Kenny returned eventually, and he and Craig helped Kyle hobble to his feet. One boy put each of Kyle's arms around a shoulder, and they stumbled together in the direction of civilization.

As Kenny and Craig walked home together after depositing Kyle back home, Kenny gave Craig a debriefing—not literally (though Kenny definitely made the joke). Craig didn't ask for or want to be brought up to speed, of course. But Kenny was like a gust of wind—when he felt like chattering, he could not be stopped. Craig pulled his collar up and shuffled along as fast as he could to escape it. God, exposition was his mortal enemy. He so didn't want to know.

"So I was talking to Damien, and he said all that weird light stuff was 'cause there was an energy catalyst. He said his dark-force was countered with some light force, and it made a rip in the time/space reality and let interference from the other realms pour in for a hot second there." Kenny grinned, knowingly. "Betcha can guess who the light force was, huh?"

"It was all that Damien kid," Craig said, stubbornly. He tried to scoot ahead and give Kenny the hint to stop following him. "Or constructive interference or whatever; I don't fucking know. And I don't care."

Kenny ignored him. He sped up enough to catch up, and he looped his arm through Craig's. As they squished in their dirty, wet sneakers up the sidewalk, Kenny continued to stand entirely too close. It was bad news to be friends, Craig decided, with a guy like Kenny. Kenny invited the uncanny and uncomfortable in with a smile. Weird stuff just happened in South Park, but if anyone was asking for it to happen, it was Kenny. Craig had been fooled by the thin veneer of normalcy Kenny wore as a defense mechanism. He had been suckered in by the promise of weed and no responsibilities.

"You know what else? He was gone, Craig." Kenny looked in Craig's direction, eyes wide. His hair had dried in odd, stiff spikes, and it was likely that Kenny ought to wash it more often, Craig thought.

"No," Craig intoned. It wasn't an answer to Kenny's question: it was merely a summary of Craig's thoughts on the entire situation.

"I saw it. Kyle was gone. He just sort of blinked out of existence for a second there. Seriously! As soon as I reached him, Kyle wasn't there. What the fuck, Craig? Do you believe me? I swear that's what happened! And I may have been the only one close enough to actually see, but I don't think any of you would remember. You guys never remember." Kenny babbled and used his free hand to gesture in little circles, as if encouraging himself to bring out the information even faster.

Craig squinted and did not try to decipher Kenny's ramblings. He didn't say anything at all. He did not want to encourage Kenny to say anymore words. He hoped (probably vainly) that Kenny would just naturally run out of them soon.

"I think we're all catalysts," Kenny continued, eyes bright, "Kyle and Cartman especially, because they're volatile. Though, not Cartman so much, lately. Maybe he's done being a catalyst? Shoot, I dunno. But you know what I do know? You're different, Craig. That's why I think you are a catalyst too! You don't have a reset button."

"No," Craig repeated, weakly. He tried to pull his arm away, but he only succeeded in making Kenny switch to slinging the arm around Craig's shoulders. Now Kenny leaned on him as they walked. It was exactly what Craig hadn't wanted out of this scenario: all of it was.

"You get what I'm talking about, right dude? The reset button?" Kenny squeezed Craig closer a minute, conspiratorially. "You know what I think? I think all y'all all subconsciously remember everything that's happened, but for some reason you're all able to go back to normal like nothing happened at all. But I remember. And so do you, Craig! You remember Peru!"

Craig wanted to shove Kenny right off of him. Any other day he would have. But he felt so tired; his arms were still limp and sore. They took the turn off that lead to Turner Row which let out a street above Kenny's. Kenny kept on talking, and he remained all but glued to Craig's side. As they travelled along, the night-time world stretched out before them. Cicadas were replaced by crickets—who seemed to have more energy but less consistency. The quiet was broken apart by un-rhythm'd peeping.

With his free hand, Craig took out his phone to text Ruby. She was probably worried by now:

Running late, sorry. Car is at Kenny's. Getting it now, then coming to pick you up.

"...And you know those tentacles? Didn't they look familiar to you?" Kenny demanded, and the force of his impatient stare made Craig look up from the little lighted screen. Craig rolled his eyes.

"Not really." Craig hit send and then pocketed his phone once more. He was so grateful he'd sprung for the waterproof case. It had been the safest option, and as it turned out, he'd needed the protection.

"Aw, come on! You've seen tentacles like that! We all have!" Kenny waited for Craig to guess. He clutched Craig's opposite upper arm and shook him as they tread along the crunching gravel roads. But Craig remained stalwartly unresponsive, so Kenny blurted out the answer unprompted:

"That was Cthulhu! His beard, specifically. Cool, huh? I recognized it right away!"

"We summoned Cthulhu." Craig responded flatly, "Me and Damien served as the energy to open a portal to summon Cthulhu."

One fucking summer.

Kenny grinned, and his entire face lit with excitement—progress was finally being made. "You know, I bet more stuff is gonna happen soon." Kenny swung his free arm. He was entirely too merry, too energetic. Craig, on the other hand, kind of wanted to throw up.

"I'm gonna hang around you. You're gonna be in the middle of things. You're important to all this. I can feel it," Kenny almost breathed it, reverently. "You and me are gonna be the main characters for once. This time, it's gonna be us, Craig."

"It isn't." Craig made a beeline for his lonely blue Camaro, sitting beside the McCormick's house like a jay perched beside a bleached cow skull. He couldn't listen to Kenny talk anymore. He had that manic, knowing quality in his voice, and it scared Craig. It sent a chill of pure terror right to his marrow, and Craig shivered as he keyed the lock, and climbed inside his vehicle. For once, it didn't need to cool down, as evening had long passed. The world was cool and breezy now, post-afternoon.

Craig slammed the door shut and turned the ignition on so he couldn't hear, in case Kenny tried to reply. He just wanted to get high with his friends, go to the observatory, take his sister to ballet, maybe visit a waterpark or two. That was how normal kids spent their boring summers in a small town.

But the plot had tracked Craig down and oozed tentacles into Craig's precious pockets of quiet. He had to admit to himself that there just weren't that many places around here to hide.

Despite Kyle's visitation rights being highly monitored, Wendy still felt obligated to entertain Kyle in some capacity. Usually she would chat with him on Facebook via smartphone. But she supposed literally phoning it in all the time was probably bad girlfriend etiquette. Wanting to avoid Kyle's "bodyguard" was understandable, but Wendy knew she had to suck it up sometimes. It was only right, and she was fairly sure Kyle would do it for her.

Kyle had complained that he felt fat just sitting around, so Gerald approved the installation of a basketball hoop above the garage. So, when she visited in person, sometimes Wendy would play HORSE with him. Or sometimes, they'd play some one-on-one, and she'd even let him win occasionally.

She wasn't Kyle's only company. When Gerald and Sheila weren't home, Kenny and Cartman would come to sit in the driveway with Kyle as Kyle practiced his free throws. Stan, however, was too terrified of Sheila to attempt anymore nighttime visits, for which Wendy couldn't really blame him. It was one thing to be in Sheila's good graces and quite another to be on her shit list (Wendy was learning it was a very long list. Almost as long as her own).

In her heart of hearts, Wendy didn't think separating Kyle and Stan had been the best solution. She thought it diplomatically unwise to voice her opinion, but the fact remained that she found the mandate to be invasive. Grounding Kyle was one thing, but restricting his right of association was another Sheila never had much respect for the essential civil freedoms, however, Wendy thought with a sigh. At least Canada was safe this time.

"Hello, Wendy, dear," Sheila greeted when Wendy arrived on the Broflovskis' doorstep. "Here to see Kyle?"

"Yes ma'am," Wendy smiled pleasantly. "I brought him some materials from the library for our class project."

Sheila bustled Wendy inside. Wendy could feel the warring approval and disapproval in her smile. It was a bit insulting, really. Wendy, in her own opinion and in the opinion of anyone with half a brain, was the most sensible choice for a partner in South Park. But Wendy supposed a mother Sheila was would have trouble letting go no matter whom Kyle brought home.

"Hey, guy." Wendy poked her head in Kyle's room, and she caught him reading some sports magazine on his bed. Kyle leaned his head to the side to see her. The window was open, and he was wearing a white tank top, boxers and socks. So he had clearly not been expecting company. Wendy left the door open as per protocol, but she kind of regretted it. She sidled into Kyle's room fully, and she didn't try to hide an appreciative visual sweep of Kyle's long legs.

"Hey." He sat up and put his magazine to the side. He smiled, too, crookedly. "What are you doing here?"

"Present for you," Wendy grinned, and she held up a large box wrapped in Terrance and Phillip wrapping paper. "And also some books, but you'll probably find those less exciting, even though I did bring you Percival Everett, so it's the good stuff."

Kyle made a face but took the box. It dropped hard into his hands when he reached out to take it, as it was much heavier than he'd anticipated. He brought the box close to his face and studied it curiously.

"Why?" He asked, "...Aw, no, dude I should be getting you gifts."

Wendy rolled her eyes. "Don't give me that macho crap. I got a job and I want to spend my money on my friends. Let me."

He bounced the box in his hands some more and tilted his head to listen for rattling. Wendy liked that about him—he wanted to guess at the contents and try to figure out her game in advance before simply finding out.

"I'm super macho," he pouted. "And...friends?"

Wendy snorted and sat next to him on his bed, leaning into his side affectionately.

"About as macho as Carrot Top. You're so scrawny," Wendy teased, nudging his side. She also spared another sideways look at him; he was beginning to develop just a hint of upper body muscle. Wendy really appreciated that.

"And yes, I presume we're still friends, even if it's...more complicated than that as well," she added. There was no need to dance around what was true and apparent anyway.

Kyle turned faintly pink and picked at the wrapping paper like a curious bird. "Don't even compare me to him."

Wendy grinned and happily scrunched her shoulders to her ears. Her toes pointed inward and wiggled. She loved giving gifts; she couldn't help it. "...Unwrap it," she urged.

Kyle neatly tore at the corners. "I always feel bad ripping the paper up," he explained as he took his time, "If I go too fast I feel like... I dunno, a messy dog digging into dog food or something."

"You've been conditioned," Wendy smiled, and she watched Kyle pull the box out of the paper. She was actually impressed that Kyle wasn't defensive on the point. Wendy couldn't help but appreciate people who faced the truth unabashedly.

"...Hand weights?" Kyle questioned. He turned the boxed weights in his hands and examined the package. An anticipatory smile twitched at the corner of his mouth.

"You said you were feeling fat, so I thought these would help," Wendy explained as she watched him inspect the sides of his gift (Get PUMPED with these MUSCLE TONING WEIGHTS. Turn those sticks into MEAT STICKS).

Kyle stared at the box, and then looked at Wendy. His green eyes blazed, and it made something in Wendy's blood boil. The sheer power of it caught her off guard, and she wasn't used to that. The hand she was leaning on slipped back a half inch from him, and she blinked. She couldn't break the eyecontact. Kyle looked like he wanted to eat her or something.

"Can I kiss you?" Kyle asked. It was so earnest and unafraid that it made Wendy laugh. She had to—it was the only way to keep from stumbling again.

"Are you serious?" She recovered, still smiling. She was proud of herself for sounding so cool and unruffled. "I didn't think you'd like them that much."

Kyle set the weights on the floor, not ready to meet her eyes (See results in DAYS [results may vary]).

"Yeah, I'm serious." Kyle's voice was a little low, and he swallowed, which gave away just a touch of shyness. But he met her eyes again directly afterwards, and Wendy felt her blood pressure drop again. The look in his eyes was decisive and unrelenting, and damn, Wendy liked it. She also liked that he waited for her to say yes, but that he also let her know what he wanted. It was sexy as hell.

Wendy blinked through her surprise. She arranged her features into a pleased and devious smile. Anything else would cede the upper hand to Kyle, and sexy or not, she wouldn't give him that.

"I was wondering when you'd ask," she teased him. She narrowed her eyes slightly and angled her chin up. "Took you a long time. Should I even ask what you were waiting for?"

"I didn't want to move too fast." Kyle reached over to move her hair away from her face. It was such a stereotypical move, but his hands were gentle. Wendy tilted her head against the contact, and for a moment, her eyes fluttered shut. Kyle tucked a few strands away behind her ear, and when she opened her eyes again, he was looking at her intensely—it felt like he was trying to burn a hole through her. Wendy found wanted nothing more than to lean in and close the distance. Oldies were classics for a reason sometimes, she thought, dazedly.

Wendy moved closer and clenched Kyle's bedspread between her fingers. It was an anchor, of sorts.

"We've been dating like, four months. I wanted you to ask, you know," she murmured. She wanted to be coy, but it really sounded huskier than she'd meant it.

Kyle leaned forward enough to press their foreheads together. It wasn't quite where Wendy wanted him to lean, but it was a few millimeters closer. A breeze came through the window, but it wasn't the reason Wendy's shoulders rolled with a little shudder.

"I dunno," Kyle mumbled, "I was trying to be considerate."

Wendy nuzzled him with just the tip of her nose. "Then be considerate."

Kyle responded by finally closing the last space between them and pressing his lips against hers. His mouth as dry and a little hesitant at first, but Wendy's arms reached to wrap around Kyle's bare shoulders and press them together more firmly. That seemed to loose him up a little. It didn't take long for Kyle to have a surge of confidence and nudge her backward with a fairly hard shove.

Wendy let it happen, gladly. More than gladly, she was fucking enthusiastic about Kyle's manhandling. It was exactly what she'd wanted from him in that moment. She buried her fingers in Kyle's curls while Kyle settled on his forearms, pressing their upper bodies together. Her breasts pressed softly against his chest, which was a good situation, from Wendy's point of view. She pushed her back up to keep their bodies flush together, and he moved to the corner of her mouth to kiss her lightly and press his mouth against her lower lip. It was an inspired choice; Wendy had to hand it to him. She told him so by kissing him fully once more, wetter and wilder this time.

Kyle pulled away when Wendy peeked out her tongue, brushing his lip. The world felt fuzzy with heat, and Wendy almost whined when he stopped. She didn't—instead, she watched him impatiently. He studied her face, his eyes dancing between hers. He tried not to fixate on her slightly open mouth.

"We shouldn't do this with Ma downstairs," Kyle whispered, urgently.

Wendy huffed and leaned back her head to look at his headboard. Oh, Judith Butler, Sheila Broflovski had just officially made Wendy's shit list.

"...I could sneak by later?" she suggested. She sensed Kyle might need some encouragement, so she raised a leg to rub against his hip. Kyle was thoroughly distracted by the motion, and he looked down to watch. Wendy didn't blame him—volleyball season was starting up, and her legs were damn toned.

"Um," Kyle flushed. In his face, she could see that he knew it was a bad idea, but he also desperately wanted it to happen. It was interesting to watch the two impulses fight in his expression.

"I guess. ...Don't get in trouble." Kyle ceded at last. It wasn't his fault, Wendy thought graciously. What chance had he stood?

Wendy smirked and kissed the tip of his nose. "My parents trust me."

Kyle ducked his head and pressed his lips against her neck. "So don't ruin it," he opened his mouth and bit lightly. "Trust is a precious thing."

Wendy squirmed and tilted her head to allow access. She definitely liked the bright, challenging note in Kyle's voice.

"I won't," she mumbled, distracted. "Only ruins it if I get caught."

Kyle changed the bite into a light suck. It earned a soft moan— he decided he liked the noise and tried again, harder.

"Oh." Wendy closed her eyes, breathed deep, and pushed his head away. Her body felt tight and bothered, and she knew it was an ache Kyle had no intention of relieving any time soon.

"Don't start what you're not going to finish." She clutched his shoulders. "You wanted to stop."

Kyle pulled away. He was grinning and pleased with himself, and Wendy guess he had earned that right. She'd pay him back later, she thought to herself with a discrete, devious smile. She sat upright and took a few deep, calming breaths.

"You should go." Kyle pressed another kiss to her lips. "This could be a problem."

"You would know. You are the problem child," Wendy countered playfully, returning the kiss. "...Later," she said, promising.

"Yeah," Kyle watched Wendy stand and start to leave. He felt regretful immediately when she wasn't in touching range. "Later."

Kenny McCormick's house was filled with the lingering haze of smoke that could only be weed. The house had seen plenty of smoke in its days, but today was particularly potent.

"Oh my god, oh my god." Stan lay on Kenny's mattress, wheezing with laughter. Kenny was in a similar state, covering his face with his hands and laughing uncontrollably.

"This game was shit," Stan wheezed.

Kenny nodded in agreement, face red from laughing too hard to respond. The Terrance and Phillip GameStation game featured alien turkeys as the main antagonist. Their weapons were farts. The game had deteriorated into Kenny and Stan taking turns farting on each other's characters and wounding each other with friendly fire.

Also, every time an angry turkey came along and killed them both, Kenny made a half-gurgle-half-gobble, 100% disturbing sound. Stan nearly choked on his own tongue laughing every time he did it.

"The show was shit," Kenny laughed, tears in his eyes. "The game was shit. Holy shit."

Stan gasped out words—he was barely coherent through his laughing jag. "We need to do something else," he choked, "This is killing me."

Stan's shirt had rucked up on his stomach, and Kenny could see his ribs. They jutted out sharply along his side, and Kenny sobered long enough to give Stan a serious look.

"Hey, Stan," he said.

"W-what?" Stan calmed, red-faced but prepared to be serious.

Kenny farted.

The two boys fell back into helpless laughter.

Later, they managed to walk to King Soopers to buy Cheetos, Doritos, and Monster.

"Boondock Saints," Stan said on Kenny's couch through a mouthful of Cheetos (Kenny's parents were out for the weekend and who knew where Karen was. Damien was probably with Ike again, which was still weird but not as weird as Cthulhu monsters or Cartman running), "Is such a good movie."

"It's okay," Kenny was lighting a bong, the burble of water temporarily drowning the movie's dialog, "There's some good one-liners."

Stan stared at Kenny, eyes wide with offense, "How can you even say that?" He accused, "It's a story of brotherhood! Sacrifice."

Kenny rolled his eyes, lungs too full of smoke to reply for the moment. His chest heaved for a second before he released, "Yeah, get fucked over because of your father's life. Great moral."

Stan pouted, reaching for the bong, "They wanted it. You're missing the point."

Kenny's response was covered by, "There was a firefight," and Stan's noisy hit on the bong.

Neither made it to the end of the movie, too stoned, chatty and easily distracted to sit for long. They migrated back to Kenny's room, still smoking, still laughing at stupid jokes neither would find funny in the morning.

Kenny watched Stan play an old version of Soul Caliber in his room, Stan's reflexes too slow to do much more than successfully button mash. Eventually Stan sighed and leaned his head back on Kenny's bed.

"This summer has sucked," Stan announced, letting the controller droop in his hands. They were running out of distractions and getting sleepy.

Kenny sleepily met his eyes and shrugged, "I dunno, it's been going okay for me. Makin' money."

Stan nodded his head toward the extra bed in Kenny's room, which took up a great deal of floor space, not that Kenny had a lot of possessions to inhabit his room, "Even with your weirdo cousin here?"

Kenny shrugged again, "He's not so bad. Just a little, odd."

Stan raised an eyebrow, face twisting with doubt, "Are you ever going to say why he's really here?"

Kenny studied Stan's face for a moment before smirking, "He's the son of Satan, who wants him to experience humans on a personal level in order to better understand the motivations of their sins in Hell once he takes over."

Stan rolled his eyes and shook his head, "I believe you." He said flatly.

Kenny laughed quietly and reached to pluck at Stan's hair, "Are you going to share why you're still bitchy, even though you and Kyle made up?"

Stan looked away, but didn't stop Kenny from touching him, "I'm not being bitchy. I thought I was better after not hanging around the goth kids anymore." He was vaguely offended but not completely convinced of his own improvement. Tonight was the kind of night where he could be honest.

"Better." Kenny agreed. He dipped his fingers between the straight, black strands of Stan's hair, tugging until they became frizzy and upright.

"Why do you do that?" Stan asked, still looking blindly at the television.

"What?" Kenny asked back. He rubbed some hair between his fingers.

"Touch," Stan said, turning just enough to look at the other boy, "You're all touchy."

Besides the the physical loneliness that came from two neglectant parents and being the middle child who managed to be responsible for his siblings and regardless of behavior, mostly keep under the radar? Kenny just liked touching people - He didn't like being analized. "Why did you offer to suck my dick that one day?" Kenny returned, as if asking the weather.

Stan recoiled, eyebrows knitted in confusion at the question and sudden change in topic before he remembered, "Oh." His stomach flipped. "I don't know dude. I was joking."

"No you weren't," Kenny countered. He flinched when he realized how he was pushing the subject. He kept petting Stan's hair. "Sorry, it's been bothering me. It seemed out of the blue for you." Except not — It seem like the kind of thing that would Stan would have on his mind and act weird about for a year. Kenny didn't like seeing Stan like this.

"I'm not high enough for this conversation," Stan said weakly. He still didn't push Kenny's hand away from his bangs.

Kenny smiled faintly, pulling his hand from Stan's hair and leaning to retrieve his bong. "Let's fix that."

They were slow moving in packing the bowl. They ended up sitting across from each other on the floor, not so much passing back and forth as turning the heavy glass piece, afraid they would break it if they moved too much.

Stan batted his hand around, looking for his lighter before positioning the tube in front of his mouth, His voice was mumbled, sounding more like "Stembin obba" than "Standing offer," He pressed the pipe in and took a hit.

Stan had spoken softly enough that Kenny could choose to ignore him. The not-so-kind part of Kenny wanted Stan to squirm. The night could pass quietly and without any embarrassment if Kenny chose not to say anything. "Why?" he asked.

Stan looked at him lazily, "I don't know. I guess I want to know."

"Hmm," Kenny watched Stan carefully, "So you don't know?"

"No." Stan said simply.

Kenny experienced a fair amount of bullshit in his short life(s), and he was mostly sure Stan was bullshitting him, "Okay," he said, sprawling purposefully, "Find out if you're a queermo."

Stan tensed and stared at Kenny from over the bong, gauging to see if Kenny was mocking him. Kenny never would, not about something so personal, but Stan's recent dramatics was leaving Kenny impatient, especially about something so personal.

Stan sat straight and set his lighter to the side, "Sit on the bed." He said - This had turned into a bizarre game of chicken. Kenny moved slowly, mostly because he was high as shit, partially because he was busy looking at Stan in a new light. A blowjob light - Kenny kept himself from giggling.

Kenny settled himself on the edge of his bed, leaning back on his hands and casually spread his legs. Stan hesitated, but crawled forward and propped himself on his knees, still leaning away too far to really touch. Stan glanced up at Kenny expectantly, edgy and ready to get defensive at any moment, "Well?" Stan asked.

Fingers on the edge of his jeans, Kenny hesitated, giving Stan a chance to change his mind before flipping his pants button open. Shifting his hips, he didn't pull his pants down completely, but tugged them enough so his could pull his dick through the slit in his boxers, leaving his hand resting around the precious organ. Stan looked at his cock, then at Kenny's face, then back at the cock presented to him. He released an unsteady breath.

Kenny shifted to lean back on his palms when Stan finally moved, reaching to lay his hands on Kenny's hips, still staring at his cock like it was some strange sea creature.

"It's not that ugly." Kenny said quietly, unable to believe this was happening.

Stan made a small confused noise, but was otherwise preoccupied. He leaned forward, and gave Kenny's soft cock a tentative lick.

Kenny's breath hitched, and he spread his legs a little more, shivering when Stan lightly licked in response.

Lapping at the soft flesh, Stan watched Kenny's cock grow from soft to hard and upright, although not completely hard. They stayed quiet when Stan finally gained the nerve to take Kenny's mostly-hard cock in his hand and draw his tongue up the whole length, pausing at the head to take it between his lips.

He felt Kenny's tremor when he started focusing on the movements of his tongue. The absurdity of the situation blanked his mind. Kenny's musky scent, the slight pulse of his hips under his fingers and the smooth, hard softness of flesh under his tongue took over. Stan didn't try taking him deeper, but pressed his tongue under the fleshy head, earning a quiet moan above him. He opened his eyes, not realizing he had closed them and pressed again, harder, and tried pumping his hand against the length he couldn't fit into his mouth.

Such a movement required more coordination that he was capable of now, but a glance up proved that Stan didn't have to try anything fancy. Kenny was watching him with the sharp, intense arousal and short breaths that comes right on the edge of an orgasm. Stan closed his eyes again, took him a little deeper, but not enough to touch the back of his throat, and flicked his tongue experimentally around the head of Kenny's cock.

Kenny made a "hrm'p" noise and Stan tasted the salty-bitter flood of semen. He panicked for a moment, unsure of what to do but chose to swallow before he had to taste it any longer. The taste was gone almost instantly, only the residual musk of Kenny's sex lingering in his nose.

Stan fell back on his heels, shakily pressing the back of his hand against his mouth. Kenny's chest heaved as he recovered. He took a moment to remember his dick was still out and quickly tucked himself away for the benefit of Stan, who didn't know if he should cry or hurl, or both.

Kenny watched Stan evenly, reaching out to nudge Stan's knee with his foot, "You gonna puke?"

Stan silently shook his head.

Kenny was sure that if he addressed the raging erection tenting Stan's jeans, Stan would actually vomit. Kenny looked to the ceiling for advice, sighing when none came.

"Come here," Kenny said. Stan looked up uncertainly. Kenny offered him a hand, "It's late. Let's go to sleep."

Stan reacted by slowly crawling into Kenny's bed. He tensed when Kenny offered him the blankets, and there was some shuffling, as they got comfortable. Kenny shucked off his jeans, leaving on his shirt, but Stan needed to stay clothed. He was still high enough to be able to sleep comfortably anyway.

They slept, Kenny's face pressed against Stan's back, while Stan hid beneath the blankets and Kenny slept on top of the covers.

Stan woke suddenly, still prickling from his residual high. Kenny had tucked himself closer than when they had fallen asleep, arm between them, nose buried in Stan's neck. Stan was sweating beneath the blankets. The space outside Kenny's bed wasn't particularly cold or hot, but the lack of air conditioning made the air damp.

Stan's heart jumped into this throat - he needed to leave. He slipped from the covers, located his shoes, nicked some of Kenny's weed and left the house. Karen was sleeping on the couch.

Nighttime still hid the sun, and Stan shivered against the chill that was threatening to become muggy. He found a cigarette in his back pocket and started walking, letting his hair fall into his eyes. He needed something to hide behind.

He felt like shit.

Emotions bounced around in his head - conflicting excitement, shame, pride, and humiliation. He'd liked it, and Kenny hadn't really given him a reason to be embarrassed. Fuck, he'd pretty much cuddled him afterwards. That almost made it worse.

Stan stopped walking for a moment, taking a heavy drag and nearly choked on his cigarette. The stars started to wink out of obscurity for the day.

He was afraid Kenny would tell. He didn't think Kenny would say anything but things slipped out, hints. Facts hidden as jokes.

Stan didn't think he could live with the humiliation. He wished he had someone to talk to. Kyle was out of the question. He had left the goths on awkward terms. Then again he didn't think the goths would turn him away as long as he came groveling. He had already been on his knees once at any rate.

The corner of his eyes prickled.

What was the real problem? He had sucked a dick. Okay. He could play it off as curiosity, which was true enough. The things he did when he was sixteen weren't going to haunt him forever.

"Shit," Stan grunted around his filter. He had already reached the shitty-tasting part of the cigarette. He spat out the filter and reached for his last cigarette.

The sun was rising. The coolness of the night was already shifting into muggy wetness. The trees were green and loomed over him in a depressingly cheerful way - Lively, welcoming arms celebrating with annoying voices, "Congratulations, you're a fag!"

Stan wondered if he could talk to Butters before he dismissed the idea. He still wasn't sure Butters was actually gay - he talked about girls a lot in a non-platonic manner. Butters did many things that could be misconstrued, though.

Stan closed his eyes and wavered in the street, losing his sense of balance for a moment.

He could get addicted to the blank feeling he'd garnered from the act; Someone's sex in his mouth, warm and heavy smelling. Soft noises, quickened breathing.

A residual shiver went down Stan's spine and he inhaled smoke. He'd liked it - no question. He liked the sensory experience and he liked thinking about nothing. Most of the time he had too many thoughts crowding his head - Nothingness was a welcome change.

Stan stopped walking when he noticed he was at the edge of town. Something kept him from walking past the boundary.

His house wasn't too far away, but Uncle Jimbo's house was on the other side. He knew Jimbo had a tub of moonshine hiding in a shed. He made a pretty penny off it during the summer, but Jimbo wouldn't notice a flask's worth missing.

Stan quietly slipped into his sleeping home, retrieving his cheap silver flask like an old friend, before heading to pay Jimbo and Ned a visit.

Kenny felt like shit.

But he couldn't let one bad, weed-hindered decision cripple him. He knew about being crippled (and wounded and maimed) and taking advantage of a friend's vulnerability probably but him on the Things Shitheads Do list, but there was the simple matter of not doing it again. He hadn't really expected Stan to follow through, and Stan had made the decision himself. Who was Kenny to turn down a free blow job? He had been okay with dudes in a sexual sense for years, anyway.

Kenny groaned and rolled over on his side, curling into his bed.

He had let Stan leave quietly, knowing his own "vie la vie" attitude wasn't something Stan identified with at the moment. Kenny was willing to let things go. Stan wasn't.

Kenny wasn't blaming Stan, he wasn't, but Stan was making bad decisions when he was inebriated in any capacity. Kenny had been hoping it was just on alcohol but that was not the case.

'Watch after Stan for me. For Real.'

Kenny had got the message from Kyle, and had been angry. Why was he being dubbed Stan's keeper in Kyle's absence? Kenny had his own shit that no one cared to ask about. He couldn't be expected to be the stand-in of their posse of four for life.

Then he felt ashamed for feeling thus.

Once upon time, there had been a little boy who was willing to do anything for the people he cared about, to the point of being a doormat. He would have gladly taken on anyone's demons as his own, if the end result was that his friends and sister were safe – The same way Kyle was willing to sacrifice anything as long as the greater good prevailed (Then, Kyle hadn't been the greatest source of decision-making lately, either).

For once Kenny needed to act for himself. Unintentionally, he was neglecting Stan, but it was becoming more and more of a conscious choice. Kenny knew what lay on Stan's current path. Alcohol and weed had always been a matter of fact part of his life; Some kids went to church on Sundays – Kenny learned early to make sure his dad slept on his side when he came home late on Saturdays. Kenny didn't want that for Stan. He didn't know how to fix it.

Kenny realized that it was unfair of him to expect his friends to ask about him when he usually insisted he was okay. Just a day in the life of Kenneth McCormick, high, happy and going on adventures. They all had their own lives; Stan was busy being queer and depressed, Kyle was under surveillance and Cartman ... had no excuse, but since when did Cartman show concern for Kenny?

No one ever remembered him dying. As far as they knew, he was okay, selling weed on the side but okay. They had never been a touchy-feely foursome until recently, apparently.


He had finally made a step toward actually being okay, thanks to the ramblings of an extremely stoned Craig about portals and plot holes and black holes and South Park being a magnet for strangeness.

A portal made a lot of sense. It had happened before, actually. Several times. The thought had hit Kenny with a vengeance. An element in his curse that seemed feasible to investigate.

That's when Kenny had said to Craig, "I believe you that you have laser eyes."

Craig had stared at him, flew into a swearing rage and stormed away. He returned the next day, looking defeated and resigned. "What do you need from me?" Craig had asked. "Let's just make this as painless as possible."

Kenny hadn't known where to start, except that 1. They were probably looking for a portal, 2. Craig had triggered weird shit in the past, and 3. The son of Satan was living with him. Damien had been zero help, saying any travel between the underworld and South Park was moderated by his father.

Kenny didn't think Satan had anything to do with his curse, but something about Damien was starting a whole chain of events for which no one planned. Such was the nature of South Park. Plot lines. Weird shit.

Kyle's unexpected slew of dudebro aggression, was concerning, especially since last year Kyle had to be forced to talk to anyone he didn't know back in middle school. Kyle had always been aggressive in a preachy, "I know better than you" way - Picking fights with a kid he barely remembered from elementary school was different.

Kenny didn't know where Damien had been slinking off to since his ban from the Broflovski household, but he was slipping back in mid-mornings. Damien had yet to appear covered with blood or followed by police reports - Just a weirdly aggressive Kyle and tentacle monsters which apparently lurked in ponds

Even though it had been weeks since the Stark's Pond incident, a question occurred to Kenny that may or may not be related to the event, as Damien quietly shuffled around his room and the spare bed taking space.

"Damien." Kenny croaked tiredly from his bed.

Damien looked up from the backpack which he was sifting through.

"Where are you from?"

Damien frowned, "The seventh layer of Hell." He sniffed the air and looked at Kenny curiously, "I taste misery. What happened?"

Stan was really not Damien's business. Kenny laughed humorlessly and ignored the question, "No. I mean, where is located? Is it here on earth, or is it some disassociated plane of existence ...?"

"Oh," Damien understood, "New Jersey."

Kenny's brain stuttered, "What."

"Hell is located under New Jersey... on its own plane existence, I guess you could say. To accommodate the size. The physical entrance is in Greece, but I suppose you could say I'm from New Jersey."

Kenny frowned, "So Dante's Inferno and all that shit...?"

Damien rolled his eyes, sitting on his bed. "Oh, that self-satisfied prick. Yes, he was traveling through New Jersey."

Kenny hoped keeping Kyle and Damien separated would be enough.

Wendy was getting worried.

After his messy apology, she and Stan had been talking again. She gave him little updates on Kyle, excluding the late night sneakery into Kyle's room. Some nights they lay talking quietly until Wendy was dangerously close to sleep. Others, they descended into necking that left them frustrated and giddy. Wendy would slip out, rumpled, feeling rebellious and happy.

There was no point in telling anyone, especially Stan. He was sensitive, she knew. Passivity was Stan's thing, but Wendy was glad to be talking again, even if it was mostly about Kyle.

What was concerning was that he hadn't contacted her in days. The lull wasn't odd, but the stretch into two weeks was. She didn't notice at first, busy with her intern-like job at the newspaper, and being sent on errands by her parents to "practice driving" (They had shown her at age twelve, having plenty of back roads).

She and Stan were due for their weekly lunch-date. He seemed to be getting less talkative, and she had assumed he had ran out of things to tell her. Wendy could talk for days, though she was content with quiet. She and Stan were comfortable enough to not to need constant activity between them.

On a Friday, Wendy slipped into Kyle's window around one a.m. He wordlessly greeted her with his hands on her waist and a light peck to her jaw. With a slight turn of her head she eagerly met his lips and felt him smile in the dark. They migrated to his bed, cocooned by darkness, warmth and each others' arms. Even with the ever-lingering presence of Sheila, Wendy felt safe.

Still, there was a nagging feeling that something was wrong. Before Kyle could continue, Wendy shook her head and made him rearrange his arms so he held her. They settled into a spooning position, and Kyle huffed but propped his chin in Wendy's hair and got comfortable behind her.

Wendy closed her eyes and focused on the heat from Kyle's lanky body, and dozed for a while. The nagging didn't dissipate. Wendy opened her eyes and looked out into the dark of Kyle's room.

Wendy whispered, "Kyle?"

She felt his chest heave in acknowledgment, "Hmm?" He had been falling asleep.

"Have you heard from Stan?"

Kyle took a moment to process the question, slowly stirring from his comfortable half-sleep. He nuzzled his face into her hair. "Hm, no. Why?"

Wendy frowned, shifting backward. Kyle pet her belly in response. "I haven't either."

"Did you try going to his house?" Kyle asked sleepily, "You know how he gets."

Wendy squirmed, a hazy warmth taking over her as Kyle's fingers stayed around hips, stroking lightly, "When's the last time you heard from him?"

Kyle sighed and curled into Wendy, "Two weeks ago? On Facebook. We talked for a few hours but he's usually impossible to get a hold of that way. He doesn't do chats."

"Neanderthal." Wendy smiled fondly, imagining Stan as an old man, still paranoid over technology except for Smart cars and electric wheelchairs. Her smile faded, "I'm worried about him."

"Don't be," Kyle whispered dismissively, "He was fine at the beginning of summer. He'll stay fine."

Wendy wasn't so sure.

The next day Wendy went to Stan's house. Sharon answered the door looking tired but perked at seeing Wendy on her doorstep.

"Wendy, sweetie," Sharon smiled, looking at Wendy appreciatively. "You've gotten so pretty. What are you doing here?"

"Thank you," Wendy smiled back. "Is Stan home?"

Sharon's face fell, "No, he's not. He's been coming back long enough to shower and then he's out again. I haven't seen him for a few days." Sharon held her elbows in her arms and glanced around outside like Stan might appear, "I know he's been going to Uncle Jimbo's a lot lately. Wendy," Sharon turned her brown eyes to Wendy, who was getting a worse and worse feeling. "Has he been okay?"

Wendy chewed her lip, "I don't know ... have you heard from his work?"

Sharon fretted, "We don't keep a landline anymore so I wouldn't know. You're sure you haven't heard from him?"

"No, Sharon."

Sharon went grim, "Thank you, sweetie. Let me know if you hear from him."

Wendy nodded and turned to step off the doorstep, stopping on the sidewalk; She didn't know where to go next. Her heart sped with worry - She knew Sharon felt the same if not a million times worse. Something was wrong.

She'd ask the goth kids.

Wendy walked to Stark's Pond and found them in the empty bonfire grove surrounded by trees that were skinny but old. She knew they'd be lounging and listening to their boom box on battery. They were gathered around the unlit fire pit, sitting on the logs that circled the ash. They acknowledged Wendy's presence and quick steps that kicked up dirt with some disinterested glances and waited until she was closer.

Michael tapped his cane against the rocky ground, eyeballing Wendy like a strange bug. "What do you want?" The other three watched the exchange. Wendy met eyes with Henrietta before turning to Michael.

She was too worried to bother with their posturing. The goth kids weren't nearly as intimidating in the sunlight (Or at all, really — Wendy wasn't impressed with them but wasn't concerned enough with the Goths to rail against their self-made establishment. Oh, the irony). "Have you heard from Stan? He's missing."

Michael frowned. Firkle scoffed, and Henrietta and Pete exchanged glances. Wendy zeroed on the last two.

"Can't say we have." Michael sniffed haughtily, "Hasn't been around since last year."

"Poser." Firkle said distastefully, nasally with his still pre-pubescent voice.

"Look." Wendy scowled. She eyeballed Pete and Henrietta as they seemed to take silence conference with each other. "If you know something, tell me. No one's heard from him for almost two weeks."

Pete looked away from Henrietta, stared at her flatly from behind his hair. "Are you sure he didn't get tired of your preppy, mundane conversation and went looking for new friends?"

Wendy had considered the possibility. The sting from the low blow made her more irritated and she narrowed her eyes at Pete. "He's depressed, you fucking asshat. Not like your stupid pseudo-philosophical gloom. He's actually depressed and I'm afraid he went and did something stupid." She was satisfied when Pete looked taken aback at her churlishness.

Henrietta blew smoke in Wendy's direction, the cloud disintegrating before it could reach her. "We fucked."

Wendy's brain jolted to a stop. Apparently Michael, Firkle and Pete were only just receiving this news too; They all turned and gaped at her.

"Last week." Henrietta said, lounging calmly against her log. The quiet of the woods was loud. "He showed up on my doorstep last week in the middle of an identity crisis. He said he thought I'd be the least judgmental." Henrietta shrugged.

Pete stared at Henrietta in disbelief, "You fucked Marsh?"

"It's not like I was a virgin like Princess Purity over there." Henrietta rolled her eyes. Wendy filtered that comment away for later, She had more important things to worry about.

Wendy's head spun. "What kind of identity crisis?" she snapped, "When was this?"

"None of your business and," Henrietta took a drag from her cigarette, "I heard from him three days ago. He said goodbye, sort of."

Wendy's stomach dropped. "What did he say?"

Henrietta reached into her considerable bosom of her dress and pulled out her phone. She flipped through some texts, "Sorry it's been weird." Henrietta read, partially covering her mouth with her hand as she held her cigarette. The other Goths listened intently. "I went to you because I knew you wouldn't take it personally. I won't be around anymore. Thank you." She scoffed and replaced the phone, "They're all the same."

Wendy twisted her shirt in her hands and looked between the four goth kids, "Thanks." She said roughly. Turning heel and kicking up dirt in the process, she ran to Kenny's house.

He seemed like he seemed like the best person who may know where Stan was located. She and Kenny had several shared acquaintances and word traveled fast - Stan Marsh and Kenny McCormick were hanging out a lot lately..

Wendy knew it was unwise to knock on the front door and climbed through the junky backyard of the McCormicks. Kenny's window latch had been broken for years, so she pulled out the screen and climbed inside. Her shins scraped against the window pane as she scrambled inside, immediately bombarded with the heavy stench of weed.

Kenny was sitting on his knees on the floor with a map between him and Craig. They stared as she fell to the floor in an ungraceful heap, narrowly avoiding the second bed in the room that hadn't always been there.

"Testaburger?" Kenny asked, dumbstruck. He broke into a grin, eyes crinkling with amusement. "She came in through my bedroom window. Hah."

Craig looked annoyed, but he always looked annoyed so there was no real concern.

"Stan's missing." Wendy said without preamble. Kenny's amusement faded instantly. She stood, dusting off her jeans, "Apparently he fucked Henrietta Biggle a few days ago after not contacting me or Kyle for over a week. His parents haven't seen him either. I think his mom is looking for him now."

A discomforted expression crossed Kenny's face. He tapped his fingers on his knees. "I haven't talked to him for longer." Kenny said, "He's been avoiding me for a while."

Wendy frowned, crossed her arms as she looked between Kenny and Craig, "Why?"

"Reasons." Kenny said vaguely. Craig watched the exchange with a bored expression.

Something clicked in Wendy's head. She stared down at Kenny as she tried to piece together this strange puzzle. "Do you know why he's upset?"

Kenny's expression shifted and he changed the subject, rocking back on his feet like he was getting ready to stand. "He fucked Henrietta Biggle and disappeared?"

"Apparently." Wendy frowned, not appeased at Kenny's behavior, "According to Henrietta."

"And he's not answering his phone?"


"Well shit." Kenny stood, and stretched, towering over Wendy. "Let's talk to Cartman, just in case, and find Stan."

Wendy nodded urgently, hugging herself and nerves making her want to hurry. "We have to talk to Kyle. He may know where Stan went."

Kenny turned to Craig, "Are you...?"

Craig scowled, "Nope." He stood, giving a two-fingered salute. "Deuces." He gathered his map, picked up a baggie of weed that lay on Kenny's dresser and sauntered out.

Kenny's nose wrinkled, "My friends really gotta stop doing that." He looked at Wendy, who was distracted with her own thoughts. Kenny fought the urge to comfort her; He didn't think she'd appreciate his brand of comfort right now.

She bounced on her feet anxiously, worry etching her features, "What next?" She pressed.

Kenny dug out his phone from his pocket and called Cartman. "What?"'Cartman's voice could be heard past the speaker.

Ah, good ol' Cartman. At least Eric could be trusted to answer his phone. Kenny paced the dirty room, hand tugging at his blond hair. "Have you heard from Stan recently?"

There was a pause, "How recent is recent?"

Kenny was infinitely patient. He was patient to the point of sainthood, but Stan was missing and Cartman was setting off his bullshit meters — He actually growled, "Fatass."

"Okay!" Cartman huffed into his end of the line. That was easy. "I saw him three days ago. He asked if I knew how to hotwire a car."

Kenny stopped pacing and looked at Wendy, who was trying to listen. "Hotwire a car?" Kenny repeated. Wendy's eyes went big. "Do you know how to hotwire a car?"

"Of course I know how to hotwire a fucking car."

"You're a goddamn piece of shit." Kenny snapped, "Whose car?"

Cartman sniffed, the noise crackling over the speaker. "Why should I tell you? What will you do for me?"

Kenny was going to put a special word in with Satan. An eternity of some fat demon eating Cheesy Poofs in front of Cartman's emancipated body, and Cartman would never get any. "I won't kick your fucking ass and tell everyone how you still have a Justin Timberlake cutout."

Wendy raised an eyebrow, "Still?" She whispered, her lips curled into a snicker.

Kenny smirked faintly; She was cute when she was devious. Maybe he saw what Kyle saw.

"Alright!" Cartman yelled, "He took his Uncle Jimbo's truck. I don't know where - I didn't ask."

"Stan asks you to steal a truck, and you don't ask why?"

"He asked for a favor." Kenny could hear the shrug. "I figured I could cash in on it later."

"I think Stan's about to do something real stupid." Kenny snapped, "Thanks for contributing."

"Ey! Fuck you!"

Kenny closed the flip phone and looked at Wendy. Wendy chewed her lip. The sun was going down and the light illuminated her. "He's going to hurt himself isn't he?" Wendy asked, eyes misty. "Why the hell would he steal a car?"

"Let's ask Kyle where he'd go." Kenny said flatly, rubbing the back of his neck, "It's been three days since anyone heard from him. Hopefully he didn't plan this out."

Their biggest roadblock came in the form of Sheila Broflovski.

"I'm sorry kids," Sheila said, blocking their entrance. Literally, she was a large woman and put herself between them and the entranceway. "It's late and Kyle can't have visitors now."

"Please," Wendy pleaded. We don't have time for this!!! "It's important. It has to do with Stan and—"

Sheila scowled mightily, crossing her arms, voice raising to a vicious pitch. "Then I really don't want Kyle involved. Stan is a bad—"

"Mrs. Broflovski." Kenny interrupted quietly. Sheila bristled but looked at him. "We think he's going to kill himself." He nodded when Sheila sucked in a breath and went pale. "Kyle might know where he went."

Sheila clutched the doorframe, eyes wide and worried. She was a stubborn woman but she wasn't cruel. "You need to tell Sharon and Randy!" She screeched.

"Ma?" Kyle poked his head over her shoulder to see his friends. His eyes darted between Wendy and Kenny, unused to them arriving together. "What's going on?"

"Oh bubbeh." Sheila looked over her shoulder, visibly conflicted, "They think Stan's going to hurt himself."

Kyle gave the three a confused smile, like he thought they were joking, "What? Why would—"

"He stole Jimbo's truck and has been gone for three days." Kenny interrupted. Wendy tugged on her shirt nervously. "We thought you'd know where he went."

Kyle's face went blank as he processed everything. His mother went on a half-worried, half-angry tangent about helping but not getting too involved. Kyle wasn't really listening but he knew he was royally fucking pissed.

"I'm going to kill him." Kyle said over his mother's raving. Kenny and Wendy exchanged glances, Sheila abruptly stopped. "I'm going to find him, and I'll fucking tear his eyes out and feed them to him."

"Kyle!" Sheila barked in outrage and shock.

"Ma," Kyle turned calmly to the short, stout hellfire known as Sheila Broflovski, "Yer muff cabbage."

Sheila sputtered as Kyle walked out the door.

Kenny and Wendy mumbled apologies and followed Kyle down the sidewalk, as he stormed away leaving his own path of hellfire behind him.

Kenny caught up first, "Do you know where he is?" He asked, getting excited.

"Of course I do." Kyle scoffed, "The same place he goes every time he melts down."

Wendy had to jog to keep up with the boys' fast pace, "Oh." Her face lit, "OH."

Kyle nodded grimly, "We're taking Cartman's mom's car. He's going to San Diego."

Stan had been driving.

The drive to San Diego wasn't much more than a day's drive, two if you were being lazy, but Stan had managed to turn it into three. He hadn't gone past the Colorado border, though he was about to creep into Utah. He wasn't sure Jimbo's truck could handle what speckling of the Rockies were in Utah. The climb was nearly vertical in places (It was funny that he was worrying about such a detail, since it was his intention to destroy the beaten junker).

The trip hadn't been especially interesting. He hadn't even checked Google Maps - just stopped by a gas station and bought a road atlas. He stopped by a few cheesy attractions, found the appetite to eat at a wayward diner, and bought some chips that sat in the passenger seat.

Really, he was having fun. Why not? San Diego was the end of the road. Might as well make a road trip out it - he had more than enough money from work.

He might be stalling. He didn't think he was.

He knew it wasn't natural how he was calm. Half the time he couldn't bring himself to think about what he was going to do at the end of his trip. Other times he was elated.

Completely euphoric, even.

He was relieved. Once he had made the decision to drive past South Park's borders he'd felt free. The unhappiness would stop. He wouldn't be a burden anymore.

He figured he'd drive the truck off the edge of a dock. It'd make a good news headline.

The driving was giving him a chance to think, and he thought if he was truly unhappy. The decision to drive his uncle's truck off a dock hadn't come lightly; Was he being dramatic? Probably. Did he want to die?

Not actually. He liked living. There were many good things in the world, like road trips and greasy hamburgers and his friends.

Misery was outweighing the good. It wasn't that he was incapable of happiness, he just rarely felt the emotion often enough. The rest of the time his mind was jumbled with such miserable thoughts that there wasn't enough evidence to justify continuing to subject himself to being alive.

He was happy when he was drunk. He was happy when he was fucking.

The thing with Henrietta hadn't quite been a disaster. Stan was hardly experienced, but he understood something more fundamental about himself; There was comfort in skin and and heat and knowing that other people were alive and able to feel good. He hoped she had felt good.

He hadn't lasted long. That was okay - She showed him how to touch her and that was good enough. They were sixteen; the expectations weren't extremely high.

He had been sneaking into his own house at late hours to avoid his parents. The people at his dinky Taco Hut job had noticed his haggard state late, but didn't say much. He worked all of eight to sixteen hours a week — enough to appease his parents and have a little pocket cash. He'd sleep for a few hours, shower, and then wander around the outskirts of the town for the rest of the day - sometimes drunk, sometimes not. Last week he'd forgotten to tell Wendy that he was breathing.

He was having a hard time sleeping. His thoughts attacked him at night, when there were no distractions and his dreams invited his fears to take physical forms. At lot of his nightmares involved his family abandoning him when they discovered he was some sort of deviant, even though he didn't think they would. The possibility existed.

He had to leave them before they could abandon him. It would hurt less.

On his list of deviants was Henrietta, who wasn't kind, wasn't cruel, and usually level-headed. He had needed to talk to someone.

On a day where the thoughts were particularly aggressive he waited until he was mostly sober before slipping out of his room and into the dark. The summer heat was coming to an end. Breathing the night air was refreshing enough to make him wonder if he was making the right choice ("Right" wasn't the correct word. Stan knew he was being foolish).

The walk to Henrietta's hadn't taken long. Stan muttered to himself he entire way. By time he was hovering outside her window he had mostly convinced himself that talking to her was a bad idea.

She had pulled back her dark blue and black-patterned curtains before he could tap her window. She didn't look surprised, just opened the window and propped herself on her elbows.

"The prodigal son returns." She said smugly, unimpressed.

Stan hunched his shoulders like a scolded puppy, "Sorry. Can I come in?"

Henrietta raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"I'm kind of going through an identity crisis." Stan was tired, having gone over this in his head so many times that it didn't feel like the first time speaking. "I thought you'd understand."

Henrietta gave him a once-over and flicked her hand, "Sure. Enter." Like the doorman at the gates of Oz.

Stan scrambled inside once Henrietta moved, nearly dropping on her floor. She had black-lights illuminating the black-painted room. Despite the outside dark, his eyes took a moment to adjust. She still had a few emo band posters littering the wall, with a small collection of cleaned animal bones and unlit candles.

Henrietta floated to her favorite bean bag chair and made herself comfortable. She picked up a book which lay beside her, flipping to a bookmarked page. The Catcher in the Rye.

Stan sat on the edge of Henrietta's makeshift summoning circle, thinking that he hadn't been too impressed with the novel.

"All I remember from that book is him being pissed that the actors didn't seem like they were acting." Stan said dryly, thinking of a proper transition to his actual question.

Henrietta shrugged, "He hates society. I enjoy his disdain."

"Isn't he supposed to be crazy?"

"Are any of us sane?" Henrietta returned.

"Some more than others, I think." Stan said, mostly joking.

Henrietta peered over her book, "So, this identity crisis? Do you think you were born with the spirit of a wolf, or some shit?"

Stan quirked a smile, "I would have thought that was up your alley."

"You're not wrong," Henrietta said, laying down her book, "Someone could have been born with the residual energy of a wolf that died. The actual spirit? No."

"So you don't believe in exorcisms?"

"Not really. I believe in negative and positive energy, good and bad juju, that kind of thing."

"So your summoning circles?"

Henrietta smirked, "That's for fun. I like freaking people out. I'm more Buddhist in nature." She stopped, and frowned, "I don't think you're here to talk about religion. Why are you staring at my window at three in the morning?"

"I..." Stan's stomach turned and he knew he needed to talk or he was going to vomit, "I ... want to die. Not be here. Everything sucks. I'm worthless. What the fuck am I doing? What's the point?"

Henrietta scoffed, but lounged as she listened. "These are normal questions for pained spirits such as us."

"Yes, but I know the answer." Stan said desperately, frustrated as the words finally found their way out of his mouth for the first time, tumbling like a bag of marbles. "There's no point to anything unless you find it for yourself. Some people turn to God for their meaning, and if that makes them happy then I'm glad for them. But I'm pretty sure my family's Catholic for the comfort of ritual and I think that's bullshit, for me, anyway.

Sometimes I feel like I can see everything. All the good, the bad, wars and people being murdered and insignificant acts of kindness that save someone's life. I see people crossing the street and the power behind figureheads, and that we don't have control over anything, not really. I see that we're a speck within space, and it's pretty amazing that we're here in the first place. Henrietta."

Stan met her eyes and was shaking, "There's so much to think and care about that I can't care about it, and because of that I'm a piece of shit. I can't handle feeling everyone's happiness and pain at the same time. It's too much. Most of the time I just want to sleep."

"You're not feeling for everyone." Henrietta said immediately, "You're letting yourself think about too much at once."

Stan groaned and buried his fingers in his hair, "But that's what it feels like. I just want to feel for myself."

Henrietta lounged further into her chair. "Sounds like you care too much. So not goth."

"Hah." Stan's laugh sounded more like a punch to the gut. "So not goth."

They fell quiet, Henrietta let Stan commiserate while she lit a cigarette and stared off thoughtfully. Stan waited until Henrietta was finished before he lay his arms on his knees and looked at her. He had calmed considerably.

"Henri," He started. She turned her eyes to him but remained silent. "Will you sleep with me?" His voice was small.

Henrietta's eyebrows raised. She twirled her cigarette holder between her fingers. "Whoa." She drawled, "Where is this coming from?"

"I think I like boys." Stan stated. "I want to make sure."

She shifted in her chair, agitated. "Look," Henrietta scowled, "I know I let you call me Henri and everything but—"

"It's not that." Stan interrupted quickly, "I just. I didn't think you'd judge me for asking. And I think you're pretty so—"

Henrietta snorted derisively.

"I do." Stan insisted. "You're smart and strong, and I respect you. So if you told me to fuck off now, I'd understand."

Henrietta watched him and stayed quiet as she considered. Stan quickly became uncomfortable but knew he was asking too much not to give her time.

She spoke at length, "You're the only one who calls me Henri." She said.

Stan glanced her uncertainly.

She shrugged. "Let's do this. Now. Before we change our minds."

Stan recoiled a little, "I uh. Don't have—"

"Condoms in my bathroom." She responded lightly. "I'll get them."

What had followed was some awkward, but not completely dissatisfying sex, as far as first times go. Stan had liked sex with Henrietta, and was left just as confused as when he arrived (And after the time with Kenny) but knowing something new; newness in itself was worth the experience. He didn't need to learn something, necessarily. He didn't regret anything.

After the giddiness wore away, Stan made his decision. Something went to his head: he was so happy he could die. He was going to die. Oh thank god he was going to die. Finally.

Stan couldn't explain why his night with Henrietta correlated with his decision. It just did. So he called Cartman, got him to hot-wire one of Jimbo's junk trucks, and drove past South Park's boundaries.

If anyone had stopped him for plainly driving illegally, he would have gone back. There was some disappointment, but once he got on the road he felt free for the first time in years.

He didn't think people were supposed to feel this way. He didn't care.

Not quite one-thousand miles to San Diego from I-15 to I-215. The route to 215 would be key; He could turn back, he could go north and delay himself again, or he could take I-15 and continue. Hell, he could go to Canada.

What was stopping him?

"Kyle." Wendy said nervously, clinging to the passenger dashboard. "Maybe I should drive."

Kyle was looking at his phone as he dialed. His sunglasses slipped down his nose, "You're too slow." He said. His three passengers sucked in breaths as he veered violently to the right lane to pass a car on the left. "If I know Stan (and he did), he'll be taking a roundabout way. Absorbing the thrills of America like a fucking douchebag."

Cartman whined from the backseat, "Then why do you have to go ninety if you know where he's going?"

Kenny looked motion-sick.

"Shut up fatass." Kyle said without venom, eyes on the road. "Ike!" He barked into his phone.

Ike's voice crackled through the speaker, and Kyle fought to focus on him between the other three's screams. "Dude, Ma's on a fucking rampage."

"Fuck Ma." Kyle snarled, "Do you still have those contacts from years ago?"

There was brief pause on Ike's end. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't fuck with me. Are you fucking with me?" Kyle bristled and the entire car swerved. Kenny, Cartman and Wendy yelled in panic. "You did some inside government job shit a few years ago and I know you know people."

"That's not—"

"I want helicopters." Kyle shrieked, doing a solid impression of Sheila, "I want them to track his number and I want them to stop him from whatever he's going to do - you're gonna use your people to find him."

In his room, Ike was pacing and running his hand through the back of his hair. He hadn't been in contact with those people for years. "What's in it for me? You're asking a lot."

"I owe you a favor. Anything." Kyle responded, "You can use it later."

"Urg, I don't—"

"IKE." Kyle barked. He nearly rammed into the back of a semi.

"Okay!" Ike pulled his phone away from his ear - God, Kyle could be shrill. "Give me a few hours." He conceded reluctantly. "I can't promise anything."

Kyle grinned and hung up throwing his phone into the center console.

The other three breathed sighs of relief - Kyle's driving immediately improved without the phone. They looked at him worryingly.

"Well," Wendy coughed, to break the awkward silence. "This reaction is unexpected." She looked ill, "Why are you this pissed?"

Kyle gripped the steering wheel as they flew down I-215, "That piece of shit promised me." He said through gritted teeth. Wendy couldn't see his eyes with his sunglasses covering his face. "He said he'd get help if he got bad again. I'll drag him to a psych ward myself if I have to."

"Is it that bad?" Wendy asked - She had only heard stories about Stan second-hand, last year. "That he can't control himself without you around?"

"Stan was fine until Kyle was gone." Cartman chimed, interrupting whatever Kyle was about to say. Kenny punched Cartman's shoulder and "shh'd" him - Cartman was in no position to be speculating on Stan's behavior.

Kenny sighed, sinking against the back seat's leather interior and looking out the window at the rapidly moving scenery. He shook his head, "No, he wasn't."

Kyle glanced into the rear-view mirror sharply.

Kenny flinched, sensing Kyle's rage. He hunched defensively in his hoodie. "Maybe he wouldn't have sunk this low, but this would have happened anyway. Somehow."

"How much do you know?" Kyle snarled.

"More than you." Kenny snapped back, not appreciating the aggression being directed at him.

Wendy frowned and looked over her shoulder, eyeballing the blond boy who was trying to make himself as small as possible. "What happened?"

Kenny was offended, "Nothing!" He snapped.

"Kenny..." Wendy said warningly - She had her own bullshit meter and Kenny was obviously hiding something.

"Look," Kenny slumped in Liane's leather seats, trying to figure a way to speak vaguely, "If he wants to talk about it, he will. I don't think it entirely pertains to what's happening now."

Wendy and Kyle paused their interrogation. Kenny watched both warily.

"Stan's an emotional twat." Cartman said helpfully, after a moment of tense silence. He had been listening with his fist pressed into his chubby cheek. "He's gone nuts before."

"Shut up fatass." The other three said simultaneously. Cartman was offended.

Stan hadn't turned on his phone in several days. He had been afraid any messages asking his whereabouts would inspire him to respond. He wanted to go out quietly.

Still, residual fear that no one noticed his absence made him turn on his phone. He found a dingy rest-stop on the outskirts of one of many national forests in Colorado. He stepped out of the truck and breathed the heavy smell of wet leaves and soil, reaching into his pocket and leaning against the truck. The phone took a moment to find a signal. His heart pounded with hope that he wouldn't be able to see the messages and fear that there wouldn't be any.

An alert tone rang as the messages came in. "23 unread 17 voicemails" flashed at him. Stan smiled.

Several from Wendy, asking where he was. A few from his mom. One from his dad. One from Henrietta calling him a bitch.

Stan's face fell.

KM: dude

He probably owed Kenny an explanation that none of this was fault (Just a long process of bad decisions and feelings that had no business banging drums in his head). Stan firmly told himself no - If he responded they would try to engage him.

Stan turned on the voicemails.

One from work saying he was late. Several from Wendy - starting calm and becoming progressively panicked.

"Stan, it's Kyle."

Stan's eyebrows raised.

"Listen fucktard, Kenny says you're gonna kill yourself and that's the dumbest shit ever. You promised, you goddamn asswipe. I'll kill you myself and piss on your body if you don't come back."

"Next. Message."

"Pick up your goddamn phone."

"Next. Message."

"I swear to God you're a fucking shitstain. A stain of shit on Cartman's tighties. Is that what you want? To be the remnants of Mountain Dew and McDonald's? You're not even a turd, you're the ghost of a turd—"

The recording cut Kyle off.

"Next. Message."

"Stan, come home."

Kyle said it angrily, but the plea was there. A pang of guilt hit Stan's stomach, but he moved to delete the message like the rest.

Before he could tell the phone to delete the message, an incoming call blinked on, and Stan accidentally hit the "answer" key.

"Fuck." Stan stared at the phone and started panicking.

"Stan?" He heard a voice call faintly. "Stan!"

Stan swallowed and pressed the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

Kyle's voice was malicious with victory over the phone, "Found you, cocksucker."

Stan hung up and turned off the phone. His heart raced and he stared at the electronic in his palm, wide-eyed.

Found him? How could they have found him? Getting him on the phone wasn't finding him. Stan paled — Kyle was probably driving to find him; Wendy had said Kyle was acting a little strange this summer. If Kyle got wind that he was missing, Stan wouldn't put it past him to find him just to resurrect his dead body and kill him again.

If anyone knew where Stan was, it was Kyle. Kyle knew how much Stan liked San Diego, how many times he'd ended there when he needed space (This was more than 'needing space,' Stan knew).

He could stay put and let Kyle find him, but that was counterproductive. He could still outrun him.

Stan swore. He had well over four-hundred and fifty miles to go, and he didn't know how close Kyle was. Stan pocketed the phone and jumped into his truck, fleeing and flying down the interstate.

Wendy wasn't sure when the screams stopped, only that she knew the only way she would ever get into a car with Kyle again was if he hogtied in the trunk. She didn't think he had been taught to drive. Well, he was doing an excellent job for someone who clearly didn't understand that you didn't have to press the gas that hard, no really.

She was sure Kenny had been decapitated while puking out the window, but Kenny didn't concern her at the moment. She was worried for the other motorists who were sparse but swerved upon seeing a junkyard car barreling toward them. The poor car rumbled protests at going ninety-five. Wendy sympathized on a spiritual level. She had never thought she would be comparing her emotional health to Liane Cartman's car, but here she was – and Kyle was looking more and more like an angry bull so lots of strange things were possible.

Wendy knew something ridiculously large was happening when she raised her gaze to the sky and there was an unmarked, black helicopter flying suspiciously low above their heads. A plane may have been ignorable. The helicopter was strangely convenient after Kyle's weird conversation with Ike. She could be paranoid after this hellish car ride.

They were well past the wooded areas and flying through the desert now. Kyle was obsessively focused. Wendy spared a glance at the gas tank — They were at less than half, and Cartman was convinced that he was about wilt away from starvation. Unlikely, but they needed to stop.

"Kyle." Wendy called quietly, "We need to stop at the next gas station. We can't continue if our tank is empty."

Cartman whined in the background, "Don't destroy my mom's car. You can't Jew your way out of that one."

Kyle grit his teeth but stayed focused on the road, "We're about to go through the Rockies. We'll get some fuel cans so we don't have to stop."

"Whose money are we using?" Wendy asked tersely.

Kyle jerked his head to Kenny. "Grab Kenny's wallet."

Cartman made a distasteful face but started rummaging through Kenny's pockets, "Kenny's dead." He announced.

"Yep." Kyle responded.

They found a gas station on the edge of the Rockies and stopped. Kyle used the self-pay and threw Kenny's bank card at Cartman, who fumbled and gave Kyle a strange look.

"Ten minutes." Kyle said, leaning against the hot car as the tank filled. He pulled away when he started burning, glaring when Cartman snickered. "I'll leave you here if you don't come back with cans and whatever you need to stuff your face."

"You're such a bitch." Cartman rolled his eyes, but hurried into the station.

Wendy finished stretching, and reached into her back pocket and pulled out a hair tie to pull her hair into a loose bun. The desert heat was more prominent outside the car, but the dusty wind was better than the weird atmosphere currently surrounding Kyle. She studied him from the other side of the car - His arms were crossed as he impatiently watched the sales meter tick away. "So," She said, "What's wrong with you, and where is Stan?"

Kyle glared at the total on the gas console, "I told you. Stan's a lying bitch."

"You didn't care this much the last time Stan was like this." She walked around the car to get closer, using a pillar as a shield against the desert wind.

Kyle glanced at her from behind his sunglasses, "I was ten."

Wendy's eyes narrowed, crossing her arms. "I'm talking about last year."

He looked away, at the hedging of desert which turned mountainous, "I cared."

"You have a hell of a way of showing it."

"I don't need lectured from you. You didn't do anything either." His red hair ruffled in the dry wind, which would have been attractive if Wendy wasn't irritated with him.

"Yeah, I had this conversation with Stan weeks ago." Wendy tossed her head and shifted her hips, hearing the crunch of sand under her shoes. "We agreed that no one wanted me around to lecture him."

"When did you talk to Stan?" Kyle shot her a slightly hurt, slightly jealous look, "He told you he was like this?"

"Not in so many words." Wendy frowned, "I didn't think he'd do something like this, but I'm not surprised."

"Why am I the one who finds out last?" Kyle's shoulders hunched - He was snapping more at the gas station than Wendy.

"Don't be stupid." Wendy scoffed, "You've known. But you don't like taking responsibility for other people's' emotions."

"Is that wrong?" Kyle gritted, "Expecting people to be fucking reasonable?"

"No." Wendy looked away, watching the patterns in the sand move on the pavement. "But you expect Stan to be fine and he's not. He-"

"I know he's not fine!" Kyle snapped. He turned his green glare to Wendy. His face was turning red from frustration - The overhang of the station was too shaded to blame his complexion on the sun. "I don't know what to do about it!"

"He loves you." Wendy finished. Kyle physically recoiled. "He relies on you for emotional stability. He needs you to listen."

"I couldn't!" Kyle was yelling. The gas station was still abandoned of other cars, and Cartman was at the cash register. "I've been locked in my room all summer – how was I supposed to know it was this bad?"

"You wouldn't have done anything anyway." Wendy watched him sharply. "What I want to know is, what changed? You've told him to fuck off with his feelings before, so why do you care now?"

"Jesus Christ, Wendy." Kyle's shoulders slumped in defeat, but he was still angry and annoyed. The gas pump clicked to halt. "I'm not a heartless asshole. I don't want him to die, okay? Even if he never talks to me again, at least he's not dead." His gaze implored her to understand.

"That's the end of your charity, isn't it?" Wendy's cheeks turned pink, "Making sure he's not dead."

Kyle's mouth opened to respond, but he stopped, eyes narrowing, and posture straightening."What did I do wrong? Why are you mad at me?"

"Because—" Wendy's jaw clenched as she thought of her words. The sun was too bright to look closely outside the gas station. "If you're never there for him, and only go after Stan when he's in the middle of a crisis, I don't think that makes you a very good friend."

Kyle nearly snarled, "What do you know about our friendship?"

Wendy gave him a disbelieving look, "I've known you both since grade school, and I know you've never been a sensitive person like Stan is."

Kyle bristled, "What does that have to do with anything!?"

"You need to make a decision!" Wendy yelled, "Christ." She reached to tug out her hair from its bun, and pulled it up again, to have something to do with her hands. She couldn't look at Kyle right now; He was being a massive prick."I love Stan like a brother, and I see that he relies on you too much. Either stop being around him and letting him think he can rely on you, or actually let him rely on you!"

"I'm not his emotional babysitter!"

"No, but you're his friend." Wendy leaned against the car, pulling back when it was too hot. She looked at the gas pump still hanging in the open fuel door. "I'm not saying you can fix him, but all you need to do is ..." She stumbled over her words, "...not act like he's a burden."

Inside Kyle's rattled brain, something clicked into place. He understood what Wendy (and Stan) was looking for – He didn't accept that Stan had a problem. Rather, he made Stan feel guilty and hide himself. Kyle was being the opposite of supportive, which was really all that was required of him as a friend.

Kyle pulled the gas nozzle out and replaced it onto the terminal. He didn't look at Wendy, "I can't be held responsible for Stan's decisions." He said thickly.

Wendy sighed, "I'm not saying that." She looked to the mountains they were about to cross. "I just want you to know. I thought you knew Stan better than ... this."

Kyle didn't respond. He didn't want to, and Cartman was returning with a grocery bag and two empty five-gallon gas cans.

"They had fruit and nasty gas-station sandwiches." Cartman announced, "I got enough for all of us." He dropped the cans at Wendy's feet, handed her Kenny's debit card and climbed into the car.

Kyle and Wendy exchanged a glance. Kyle reached for one of the gas cans and started to fill it. "People change." He said at length.

Wendy frowned, looking at the card in her hand, "What are you talking about?"

Kyle shook his head. He wasn't sure either.

(Meanwhile, in Hell, Kenny could see the train of events and was rolling his eyes and complaining loudly that only the worst friends would steal money off a corpse then dump the corpse behind a dirty gas station. Satan continued his knitting).

There was a goddamn helicopter following him.

He had thought aircraft weren't supposed to traverse through mountainous regions but the black, unmarked helicopter had emerged from the wooded national parks and was keeping a steady pace the closer he got to the desert.

The helicopter would disappear whenever another car appeared on the road with him. He tried not to be paranoid at first, but as the landscape became clearer, the helicopter had less places to hide.

He nervously checked his rear view mirror, but the helicopter was ever-present, and had been for several hours. Stan thought the helicopter wouldn't do anything, then his phone rang.

He had turned off his cellphone after Kyle caught him. Stan's heart stopped, and he spared the phone a glance before looking at the road again.

The phone rang a second time – the first rifts of Jordan by Buckethead tearing through his truck for thirty seconds until the cab became silent.

The third time the phone rang, he pulled over onto the interstate's shoulder, breathing harshly through his nose and staring out of the window. Almost as soon as the ringtone went silent, the text alarm sounded.

He turned to look at the piece of technology that seemed like it had come from a horror movie.

He picked up the phone for the text. The battery was nearly dead. The message came from a number which he didn't recognize.

2028675309: We respectfully request that you cease your escape attempts. We have been instructed to retrieve you and send you home.

2028675309: Do not be alarmed. We will not hurt you.

2028675309: We have been instructed to use persuasion as the primary method of retrieving you

Stan grit his teeth and peered out the window to see that the helicopter that flown ahead but seemed to be making a turn a few miles ahead. He send a text back:

SM: fuck off w ur borg shit whoever u are lve me alone

Stan shut the phone down again, and to his dismay, as soon as it turned off, it began to turn on again. Almost immediately a reply text flashed.

2028675309: That is unfortunate you feel that way.

Government conspiracy or no, Stan gunned the truck and prayed that there was enough gas to lose the helicopter and his pursuers in Las Vegas.

Kyle had returned to his freakishly focused state, more panicked than ever since his conversation with Wendy. He wasn't showing it – he didn't think. His primary emotions were irritation and rage (and more recently, "I want to touch Wendy's boobs," which was absolutely an emotion), and other emotions tended muddle together; He was usually well in control of himself.

The thought of Stan being gone – truly gone - was on the forefront of his mind, and a mix of possessive anger and hurt coursed through him. He didn't know what he could do besides what he had already done. Getting to Stan before he did anything irreversible was the next logical step.

He didn't hear Wendy calling for him in his state of focus until she grabbed at his shoulder.

"What!?" Kyle glared at her.

Wendy glared right back, shaking the phone at him, "It's them. Ike's people. They want to speak to you."

Kyle's stomach went heavy as he took his phone from Wendy's hand, slowing the speed of the car as he spoke. "Hello?"

"We have him, Mr. Broflovski." A polite male voice crackled over the phone. The voice was too mechanical to be natural.

"Stan?" Kyle asked hopefully. He heard Cartman stirring in the back seat: They had been driving for at least eight hours since the gas station.

"Yes. We'll be taking him to St. George. There's nothing wrong with him," The voice added, "But we are no longer in charge of him. I will text you with some details." The phone went silent.

Kyle handed the phone back to Wendy. She took it suspiciously, and glanced at the smart phone in her hand, befuddlement etching her features.

"We're going to St. George." Kyle announced. The road was dark - only the barest hints of the sunset still visible. "Which isn't extremely far. We'll need gas again."

Cartman groaned in the backseat. Wendy looked out the window; The trees from the mountains were thick and lush, even in the nighttime. "Your parents have been texting." She said.

Kyle gripped the wheel, "What? What did they say?"

Wendy sniffed and fiddled with his phone, "Just that they're on their way. They're about nine hours behind us now, I would guess."

"Ike." Kyle said, "Probably told them."

Wendy rolled her eyes, "God forbid his parents worry. Your mom is pissed, by the way. And you should really start locking your phone."

"Pissed is nothing new."

Cartman spoke sleepily, "Speaking of piss – I gotta. Pull over so I can mark a bush."

"Goddammit Cartman." Kyle sighed, but realized there would be no stops for several hours. "Fine, hurry up."

Wendy looked out the window and settled comfortably. "At least he's okay." She said.

Kyle grunted noncommittally as he pulled over onto a narrow stretch of shoulder meant for trucks. Kyle didn't leave the car as Cartman wandered off to pee and Wendy stepped out to stretch. Kyle couldn't be relieved until he saw Stan himself, then the primary thought on his mind was murder.

Stan was hard-pressed to remember what happened between the texts and the spike strip set to blow his tires. He was sure the helicopter had stayed behind him but maybe that had been a distraction. The whole chain of events was too bizarre to properly contemplate, and all that he could really process was that he was caught.

He was sitting hogtied in the back of Jimbo's truck in a junk yard. Whoever had caught him had been considerate enough to leave him in some shade. A note lay next to him which read simply "Someone is coming for you." in neat Times New Roman. The note was held down by a small package with a painted smiley face.

Stan thought "Someone is coming for you" and mystery packages sounded more ominous than encouraging, but he supposed he didn't have many options but to wait. Nighttime had fallen, and there was a scratchy wool blanket laying next to him. He wasn't sure how he was to access the blanket, but he guessed the thought counted.

He wasn't sure how long he waited. His arms and legs had lost feeling, and he occasionally shifted against the ridging in the truck, but he was bruising as a result.

Laying and waiting was certainly not how Stan expected to end his adventure. He wondered if he was being put in time-out to think about what he had done. Joke was on his captors; He'd done plenty of thinking the last year and a half. As the hours past, he dozed and wondered if he could struggle out of his ropes. Unfortunately, he had never thought to learn how to escape well-tied ropes.

In the middle of his dozing, Stan heard the crackling of wheels turning on dirt. A flash of light passed over him, and he opened his eyes slowly, shivering violently against the night chill. He hadn't realized how cold he was until he was moving.

"Hello?" He called; His voice was hoarse from laying in the night air. The lights didn't turn off, and he could hear car doors being opened and closed and some vague voices. His heart jumped when he thought he recognized the voices; He must be hallucinating.

Someone was running toward him.


Stan jolted. That was Wendy. "Over here!" He cried.

The truck bed shifted, and Wendy was pulling down the end hatch. Her brown eyes went wide at the sight of him. Stan was embarrassed.

"Oh, Stan." Wendy heaved a relieved sigh. She turned and gestured to someone to come over, "He's here! Guys!"

Stan was being stared at by Kyle and Cartman, all peering into the truck bed like he was some sort of wounded, still-breathing animal. Stan scowled.

Wendy immediately climbed into the truck and started pulling on Stan's ropes. To Stan's relief, neither Cartman nor Kyle seemed amused. Wendy announced that she couldn't untie Stan by hand and darted off to find something sharp to cut at Stan's bonds. The other two left to help her.

Once Wendy was back in the truck with Kyle and Cartman trailing after her, Stan looked at Kyle. Kyle leaned against the truck and watching like he was gearing for a very long speech. He was thinking, and making Stan nervous; He didn't know what was going through Kyle's head. Stan hardened his own expression and looked away.

Cartman was talking loudly on his phone, presumably to his mother.

After some shuffling and Wendy silently cutting away his ropes, Stan mumbled a 'thank you' and sat, rubbing at his sore limbs.

"So," Wendy said calmly, "We're going talk."

Stan's shoulders slumped, and he shifted against the uncomfortable bumps in the truck, "Not now?"

Kyle shuffled at the end of the truck and made an irritated noise, "Come here."

Stan squinted at him suspiciously. Cartman was still talking loudly. He scooted his way off the truck and stumbled onto the ground; His limbs still weren't awake.

Kyle waited for Stan to steady, and Wendy and Cartman watched, unsure of how to address Kyle's intense staring.

Stan flinched when Kyle reached forward and hugged him. He blinked, arms pinned to his sides. He tentatively raised his arms in return and lightly pressed his hands to Kyle's shoulders. Stan's chin came to Kyle's clavicle this close - he felt small right now, and tired.

"You're a fucking dumbass." Kyle mumbled into Stan's neck. He jerked Stan back by his shoulders and looked at his face. Stan looked back with bemusement.

Kyle punched Stan square in the jaw.

Not expecting it, Stan stumbled backwards and onto his butt, a puff of dust sending him into a coughing fit.

"FUCKER." Kyle yelled and lunged at Stan. Stan's eyes widened and he threw up his arms in defense. "YOU SCARED THE FUCK OUT OF ME."

"Kyle!" Wendy threw herself out of the truck and grabbed the back of his shirt. Cartman was jogging over and grabbed Kyle's arm. "Not now!"

"UG." Kyle shook Wendy and Cartman off. He looked down at Stan who was still wide-eyed. He looked around and settled on the truck as an acceptable place to hide. He walked away and climbed into the passenger seat of the truck, locking himself inside.

Cartman rubbed the back of his neck, "What the fuck." He muttered, staring in Kyle's direction. The side of Kyle's face was illuminated by the junkyard lights.

Wendy sighed heavily, and looked at Stan. She offered her hand, "C'mon. Let's take a nap in the car. Our parents should be here soon."

Stan pulled his knees to his chest, huddling on the ground. "I've been sleeping all day." He muttered.

"Jesus," Cartman huffed. He had to do everything around here. He turned on his heel and stalked toward his mom's car. "I have sandwiches."

Stan gave Cartman a strange look, but stood slowly, and followed.

Rather than sitting in the car, Cartman, Wendy and Stan found a relatively clean and smooth heap of metal. They had to climb a few feet, but they sat with some light poles against their backs so they could look down onto Liane's shitty sky-blue station wagon, and Jimbo's rusty old truck. Kyle could be seen sleeping with his head pressed against the window. Stan picked at his sandwich, but ate half of it.

They stayed quiet for a long time.

Occasionally, Cartman complained about being hungry and how gas station food was offensive. Wendy would chattered about the mundane, but most of the conversation carried between Cartman and Wendy. Stan chimed in a few times for the sake of normalcy, but the air was heavy as they waited for their parents. They didn't speak of why they were there.

Around two in the morning, two cars weaved into the junkyard; The Broflovskis and the Marshes.

Stan groaned and closed his eyes. Wendy reached for his hand and squeezed.

"Let's go." She said quietly.

They climbed from their post, descending from the lamp post lights into the dark. Stan and Kyle's families took a moment to realize where they were, but waited until they were near. Liane had ridden with the Marshes, and Randy was content to hang away from the drama with her while she fussed over Cartman.

Sharon Marsh was the first to react, "Oh my god, Stan." She immediately filled with tears and ran to her son, grabbing him in her arms, "We were so scared." She wailed, "You don't have to work if you don't want to, oh thank god. My baby."

Stan responded by hiding in her arms. He was too tired to be embarassed.

Wendy pointed the Broflovskis to the truck where Kyle was sleeping. Ike ran ahead of his parents before Sheila could have at him.

Ike knocked hard on the window. Kyle had not been sleeping heavily, rolling right away and grumpily looking at the window. His expression softened when he saw his brother.

Ike gestured to open the door. Kyle obliged.

"You're in deep shit." Ike said immediately, "But she's mostly scared. Was there a package with Stan?"

Kyle peered out of the door and watched his mother waddle over to them with an exhausted Gerald trailing behind her. "I don't know. He was in the back."

"'kay." Ike stood on his toes to see into the back, "Yeah there is. There's some drivers licenses with your face in there."

"What?" Kyle was groggy and confused - He remembered he had made the whole trip without a driver's license. Sheila was probably going to add that to her list of why she was going to destroy him.

Ike smirked, "Thank me later. Here she is."

"Kyle!" Sheila shoved Ike out of the way and grabbed him into a crushing hug, "Bubbeh!"

Sheila didn't cry, rambling about her rage instead. Her relief was obvious. Kyle let her have her way and mumbled his apologies, seeing Stan receiving similar treatment. Cartman and Wendy were being coddled by Liane and questioned by Randy, and the four standing to the side patiently.

"Ma," Kyle interrupted Sheila's fussing, "Can we get a hotel? I think Cartman's gonna turn into a puddle."

Sheila pulled away and inspected her son for permanent injuries. She settled on rubbing at some non-existent dirt on his face, "Of course, bubbeh." She said with a weary smile, "We're all tired."

Stan peered over his mother's shoulder, "I'll pay for it. I have some cash."

"No, no." Sheila said, turning and waving her hand dismissively. "Don't you worry." She hesitated before adding, "We all love you, Stanley"

Kyle frowned and looked away.

Sharon said something quietly in Stan's ear, and he nodded before they made plans to find a motel.

Kenny and Wendy went for hamburgers two weeks before school's start. She relayed the entire adventure for Kenny, who nodded and hummed as she talked and wasn't surprised by any of the story.

"Now he's seeing a therapist or something." Wendy said wearily, "And Kyle's off probation because he had a valid reason for freaking out."

"I haven't talked to Kyle for a few weeks." Kenny said around his burger. The tiny hole-in-wall place with torn benches and movie star paraphernalia was mostly void of people. Their waitress was blatantly eavesdropping in a disinterested way, "Is he still being all hyper-masculine?"

"Not really." Wendy said, twirling a fork against their table that probably dated to the 70s and had a fake wood print. "He calmed down after we had Stan under our wings. He hasn't been talking to me as much since he can see Stan again." Her voice had a miffed quality and she lay down the fork to stab a fry into some mayonnaise.

"Surprise." Kenny said in a deadpan. He cringed when he hit a wayward pickle, and paused to pull it off his burger. "You still together?" He asked.

"I guess." Wendy sighed. She put some ketchup into the mayonnaise and started mixing it with a fry. She watched her Coke perspire as she talked. "I've been going to Bebe's more and more lately. She's busy with cheerleading stuff though."

"Ya know," Kenny glanced up as he thought of his words while he chewed, "That's good for you." He lowered the burger as he talked and looked at Wendy, "Stan and Kyle aren't the best to be around all the time. They sort of drag you into their gravity field." He got that one from Craig.

Wendy didn't respond immediately but thought as she occupied herself with her fries, "Yeah." She agreed eventually, and a little sadly, "Sometimes I wish I could stop caring so much about them, but here I am. Always dragged into whatever is causing trouble."

Kenny looked at her kindly, smiling like he understood. He wiped his fingers on a flimsy napkin before reaching over the table to pat her hand, "You'll be fine."

Wendy smiled back, "Thanks. I know." She said, and popped a fry in her mouth.