Wendy sat in front of her mirror braiding so her long hair created a crown extending from her temples. She carefully applied some eyeliner and mascara, thinking of it as her warpaint along with her concealer. She couldn't the masses know there were lingering flaws and scars after all.

Double-checking that she had enough new folders and notebooks in her Wonder Woman backpack that was a little too small, she grabbed her car keys before setting out to the battlefront. It was the beginning of junior year and big things were on the horizon. She was halfway through high school and that wasn't something to scoff at.


Driving the familiar route to Kyle's, she felt a little tired already, wondering how much any of this mattered. The big picture. Kyle would probably have an appropriate book to address her questions but she found his taste in philosophical reading a little too rich-white-male. She wanted to know what lay over that horizon for her, not a narrow viewpoint of humanity.

Kyle was waiting on his doorstep for her when she rolled up. He had taken to cutting his hair shorter to keep its frizz at bay, and it made it redder in the process. It suited him, Wendy thought. She hoped he never shaved it.

"I'm not stopping." She yelled out of her window as he walked to the sidewalk. He rolled his eyes as she stopped anyway. When he reached for the door handle she released the brake and inched forward, surprising him into stumbling. They played this game three more times before Kyle punched the side of her car and she let him in.

"How's Stan?" Wendy asked as they took off.

Kyle was still shifting his backpack into the passenger seat, "I'm great, thanks. Great summer. Thanks for asking." He was smiling even with his head down, fussing with his backpack.

"Shut up, I saw you last week."

"He's fine, Wendy." Kyle sat up and made himself comfortable, finally getting to locking his seat belt. The sun was shining in their eyes but the Rocky Mountains were visible before they took a turn at a stop sign toward Stan's house. Kyle was wearing some new deodorant that was a little strong but wasn't overpowering. She sort of liked it.

Wendy gripped her steering wheel. Stan wasn't outside when she pulled up to his house so she lay on the horn a few times. Stan came stumbling out with a stack of bread folded in paper towels in one hand and his backpack thrown over the opposite shoulder. He stumbled into the backseat.

"Sorry, sorry." He mumbled. Wendy immediately started driving. They were cutting it close. The scent of eggs and toast took over the car. "I asked mom to make you guys egg sandwiches." He finally sat forward and passed Kyle two sandwiches – toasted bread with over-hard eggs sloppily staining some paper towels.

"Sweet." Kyle's face lit up. He set one in the center console for Wendy – she couldn't eat and drive at the same time.

By the time they got to the school, the student parking was full except for two spaces. Another student driver nearly took out Wendy's front lights to get the second to last space, sending her into a frenzy of swearing that had Stan and Kyle laughing. She got the last space though. The driver she nearly took out flipped her off but Wendy just showed them the air soft gun she had taken to keeping beside her. Kyle and Stan didn't ask questions.

Wendy was in all AP courses so she parted ways with the boys in the junior hallways. They had already chosen their lockers the week prior so they headed to the homeroom that they had managed to get together.

Homeroom was in a mutual science class that had pictures of kittens with beakers and safety goggles all over the walls. They had a few minutes so Stan and Kyle talked quietly in a corner.

"Dad wants me to intern at his office." Kyle announced, voice flat and unenthusiastic.

Stan's eyebrows rose as he listened attentively with his chin in his hand, "Isn't that a good thing? You're good at that stuff."

Kyle huffed. "I hate it. The lawyer crap." He stared wistfully, "I decided to become an artist."

Stan laughed loudly, a smile taking over that Kyle saw rarely. He couldn't help but grin in return. "You've never done anything artistic in your life." Stan informed him.

Kyle pretended to be hurt, "Crack Baby Basketball was an art, come on."

Stan scoffed, "That was Cartman's idea, and you did finances. That's what you're good at."

Kyle lolled dramatically in his desk, long legs stretching and threatening to kick the person in front of him, "I can't be around you." He groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. "You're uninspiring."

"Oh my god," Stan reached to punch Kyle's shoulder, "Go join a sports team or something."

Kyle paused, expression shifting as though he remembered that he hadn't told Stan. "Actually ..."

Stan was listening but the teacher came in before Kyle could finish. He had a good idea of what Kyle was going to say and his chest throbbed but for a reason besides jealousy; After Kenny died he hadn't progressed at all. Sophomore year Kyle had kept him afloat academically but Stan hadn't pursued anything besides plucking away at his guitar in the depths of his room. Here Kyle was, probably doing something great ... without him.

Stan thought about his class schedule and made the quiet resolution that this year was going to be okay. This year was going to change things.

The first school day passed quickly, the juniors long-accustomed to a syllabus they would never use, the quick introductions and not really paying attention due to the lack of an actual class. Wendy gathered everyone who would be bumming a ride. Bebe called shotgun before anyone else was present. Stan found himself quiet after the initial scuffle with Kyle of getting to the backseat first – loser had to rearrange Wendy's stray stuff.

He listened to Bebe's prattling for a few minutes – she was in the running for head cheerleader - Before Wendy could take him home he asked her to drop him off at a stoplight. Wendy looked into the rear view mirror, curious, "You okay, Stan?"

"Yeah." He gave her a tired smile, "I'm just gonna walk to my Uncle Jimbo's house."

"I can take you there."

"Nah, I need the walk."

He kind of did need the walk, having not been participating in sports for the last two years, but they all knew that's not what Stan meant. Kyle gave him a concerned look but Stan ignored him. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and took a few minutes to dig out his headphones to use his phone as an mp3-player. The summer air bordered on humid and he wished he'd brought a water bottle for the twenty-minute walk. He trudged ahead.

He reached Uncle Jimbo's house – a run-down cabin on the edge of town with overgrown weeds and two rusted trucks (One serviceable, the other having been categorized "I'm gonna repair it" but never getting there). Jimbo saw Stan coming before Stan was anywhere near hearing range, and waited on the porch on what used to be a dining room table chair.

"Well hey there, Stanley." Jimbo greeted, lounging in his chair. "What brings you out here?"

Stan grinned and hooked his thumbs in his backpack straps, "I wanted to see if you and Ned needed help with anything. It's been awhile since I've been around."

"It sure has." Jimbo eyeballed Stan in an assessing manner, "You sure you up to hard labor? Looks like you lost some weight since I last saw ya. But shit." He laughed from his chest, "You got taller. How tall you now?"

"Five six." Stan said proudly. "Finally catchin' up with dad."

"You sure are." Jimbo stood, struggling for a moment as he used his own leg to brace himself.

His knee is getting worse, Stan thought sadly. He tried not to let it show on his face.

Jimbo was getting fatter too, although muscular in a way that showed that he still did a lot of heavy lifting and ate just as much to make up for the exercise.

"Come on. I got some lights been need fixin' for a few weeks. Just some basic wiring stuff, but it's up in the attic and them ladders kill me now."

Stan walked inside, immediately hit with a damp musk that wasn't unpleasant but simply old. A lot of the furniture looked it was from the '70s and the whole house was in some shade of brown, including the deer antlers on the wall. Stan breathed deep, having once hated the smell, now just glad he was still welcome inside.

He hadn't talked to Jimbo since he apologized for stealing his truck.

"How's Ned?" Stan asked. He threw his backpack on the couch and followed.

Jimbo shook his head. "Gettin' worse." He said, voice tinged with barely-hidden heartache. Stan winced, wondering if he should have asked. "He's sleeping right now. Should be up in time for dinner, the lazyass." Jimbo chuckled in a flat way that tore at Stan.

Jimbo stopped under the attic door, reached up and pulled down the hatch. Dust tumbled out of the attic, sending them both into coughing fits.

"Let me get you a flashlight." Jimbo said, after they wiped the dust from their eyes. "I'll show you where you'll be at, too."

A few hours and couple of shocks later, Stan climbed out of the attic filthy, but the ceiling lights in the second bedroom worked and Jimbo seemed happy. Ned was watching television in the living room when Stan walked out to dust himself off.

"Hello. Stan." Ned greeted from the couch in his mechanical voice.

"Hey Ned. Good to see you awake." Stan gave what he hoped was a perky wave. He was exhausted, but Ned looked more so. Ned had always been skinny, but his face looked downright skeletal.

"Couldn't sleep. With the racket. You two were. Making."

"Aww, sorry."

"Don't you take him seriously." Jimbo yelled from the kitchen. "You wanna stay for venison chili? I'm heating it up."

"Yeah! Let me call my parents."

Near the end of dinner Jimbo disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a twenty dollar bill. He set it in front of Stan while Stan was still cleaning out the last of his bowl, spoon partway to his mouth.

"Oh, no." Stan nearly spat all over their tables. "I can't. I —"

I stole your truck and you're giving me money.

"Now here, Stanley." Jimbo slapped his hand over the bill before Stan could push it away. "You're a good kid and you were going through some stuff." Stan started to protest again but Jimbo stopped him with a "look" that reminded Stan that Jimbo Kern and Sharon Marsh were related. "You apologized, but I can't pretend to understand what you're going through. You've always been a sensitive kid. I was more hurt that you didn't come around until now."

Stan set his spoon into his bowl, looking down.

"Whatever's got you feelin' so guilty, put a stop to that now. I forgave you a while ago, and you just did some work for me that I can't do anymore. So take my damn money or I'll be insulted."

Ned's hand went to his voice box, "Don't insult. A man. In his own house."

Stan's mouth pulled into a shaky smile and he took the twenty from under Jimbo's hand. Jimbo grinned brilliantly and slapped Stan on the back, nearly knocking him into the table.

Jimbo gave Stan a ride back home, the sun having fallen a long time ago. He stopped for a few minutes to say hi to Randy and Sharon, proudly telling them about the work Stan did for him but not mentioning the money.

"I daresay," Stan overheard Jimbo saying as he ascended the stairs, "You get that boy on a track for electrical work or plumbing, he'd be damn good at it and make some money too."

"He's always been smart about that stuff." Sharon said, her voice carrying upstairs. "I'm not sure that'd make him happy though."

Stan's heart plummeted, remembering that things like "serious jobs" were close in his future. He threw himself on his bed, burying his face into his pillow, rubbing his face into the clean pillowcase. He tried to lift his spirits by remembering that his volunteer work at the animal shelter was going to count for school credits, and fell asleep dreaming of puppies wearing birthday hats.

"So, how have you been doing since we haven't been meeting as much lately?" Mrs. McIntyre sat with her hands folded on her lap, a pencil and notepad beside her, but rarely used unless Stan said something particularly concerning. She always made sure he knew that she was simply taking notes, he appreciated that.

"Um. Okay, I guess." Stan shuffled in his seat, habitually rubbing his elbow out of nervousness.

"You guess?" She cocked her head, brown hair pulled into a neat, professional bun that was wavy and a bit frizzy. She was rather young, attractive without makeup but her attractiveness was something Stan tried to ignore. She seemed the best at talking to him compared to some of the old men he'd been recommended to over the last few months. He liked her office too; Soft lighting with a single plush chair for her clients. It was a snug office, but with enough space between that he didn't feel like she was too close. She had a picture of her husband on her desk, and a small plush toy.

"I guess, it's weird being around everyone again. Kyle helped me catch up the last of the year I missed this summer, so I haven't been around many people." Stan wrinkled his nose, "I feel like a specimen. Everyone keeps asking me how I'm doing."

Mrs. McIntyre nodded, "Isn't that good? People were worried."

"Not really." Stan sniffed, "I mean, like, Clyde stopped by once, that was cool I guess. Everyone else just wants to gossip."

"Who's Clyde?" She asked.

"Oh, um. He was a football buddy of mine in junior high. We stopped hanging out after I was ..."

Stan hated the word "committed". It made him sound crazy.

"Drinking buddy?"

"No. I mean, he came to parties but usually stood around with a Coke in a glass." Stan paused, "He never told anyone. He liked to pretend to be drunk. He's loud."

Mrs. McIntyre let Stan go quiet for a moment before pushing further, "How has the drinking been going?"

Stan flinched. "I had a shot a couple of days ago."

Mrs. McIntyre sighed, picking up her pen beside her and scribbling a quick note. She turned her eyes back to him, and Stan slumped, seeing the concern. "And why was that?"

"I dunno. I was just." Stan felt very small, "It was right before school and I was just like. Fuck, another day of talking to these people that I don't hate, but don't care about, learning stuff that won't matter in the big picture." He trailed, mumbling, "You know. Typical, depression stuff."

"So you took the shot to start the day off more tolerably?" Mrs. McIntyre asked patiently.

"Yeah." Stan kept his eyes on her tastefully-picked carpet.

"You know, you've done very well the last few months." She twirled her pencil in her hand, crossing her legs carefully, "One relapse is forgivable." She shot him with a pointed look, "Were there more?"

Stan shook his head, still hunched into himself. He wasn't being entirely honest. He took a couple more sleeping pills than he should have, but he had really needed them at the time.

Mrs. McIntyre smiled gently, "Tell me something you're proud of, from this week. No matter how small, what made you feel good?"

Stan pressed his lips together, biting back a snide comment and focused on her good intentions.

"I." Stan fidgeted, feeling stupid, "I picked up a candy wrapper off the ground and threw it away." Well, she said a small thing.

Mrs. McIntyre's lips twitched into a shallow smile, "Very good. I'm proud of you." She reached onto her desk and pulled out a book, "Today we're going talk about management skills ..."

"Drink." Cartman said flatly. Butters and Kyle both threw back heavy swigs of their fruity mixes of whiskey and Mountain Dew. On the television screen in the Cartman residence's basement, Hello Kitty tumbled along her adventures, making cat puns and meeting her multi-colored friends. They drank to the cat puns, the only way Butters was able to get Cartman to watch Hello Kitty with him.

"Oh, hahhah." Kyle giggled in a totally manly fashion, "I like the penguin."

Butters grinned, "He's a bad penguin. 'Badz-maru', I think it's a pun."

"Gay." Cartman drawled, drinking again for the hell of it.

Kyle grumbled when he felt his pocket vibrate. "Ah." He frowned at the screen , "Stan needs to talk."

Cartman rolled his eyes, "Gayer."

Kyle felt himself bristle at the implied 'yes, go respond to your master's call at a moment's notice.' Cartman had been surprisingly patient about the whole "Stan's gone crazy" thing, but as was with Cartman, there was only so much humanity to go around.

Besides, Cartman had his hands full with a depressed Butters as it was.

Kyle stood, wobbling. Butters looked up with concern, "You shouldn't go out. What if the cops see you?"

"Meh." Kyle had something more eloquent to say about cops but the words weren't quite forming. "Stan hasn't had a freak out in a few weeks. He's due for one." He turned and slammed his foot into the couch that had been moved into what was now Butter's room, cringing. "See ya."

Cartman grumbled and Butters waved good bye as Kyle climbed carefully up the stairs. Thankfully Mrs. Cartman was asleep on the couch (He wouldn't be able to say 'no' to her. "If you're going to drink, I'd rather you do it here." She'd say. She had provided them the whiskey).

Kyle shivered after he carefully closed the front door, the temperature having dropped as the weather tried to prepare itself for Fall. Kyle liked this weather the best; It gave him a sense of change, as things died or prepared to sleep for the winter in order to bring new life to next year. Nostalgia without the heartache.

Kyle felt like the last few years, he hadn't been an active part of the change around him - simply going along for the ride while everyone's chaos dragged him along. When had that happened? Stan used to be the one dragged along. Perhaps not so much dragging, as getting caught up and stumbling behind Kyle, desperately trying to catch up.

He thought he felt the same as Cartman, to a degree, a sentiment that Cartman had confided in him a couple of years ago; He was tired of fighting.

No. Tired was the wrong word.

He was ready for something different. Something normal. Dating Wendy had been refreshingly normal. Why had that fallen through?

Kyle shivered and rubbed his arms against the chill, long legs carrying him steadily to Stan's familiar backyard.

He knew the answer at heart. Wendy was fun, smart, nice, honest, and not afraid of pushing limits. She was perfect ... but Kyle still didn't feel as close to her as he did with Stan. He wouldn't drop everything for Wendy like he did Stan, at least. Kyle was still waiting for Stan to come walking out of his fog of depression, ready to fight a normal, boring fight with him.

Kyle smiled. Nice and boring. He was starting to sound like Craig.

He snuck quietly into the Marsh's backyard, peering around to see if Stan had climbed out the window. He hadn't - Kyle would have to knock.

When he looked at the closed curtains, he remembered when Stan would sneak out to Kyle's house because Stan couldn't sleep. Not much had changed, really.

Kyle took a breath, and vaguely wondered why the thought made him sad. He knocked on Stan's window, and heard a quiet, muffled, "Kyle?" On the other side.

Wendy was distracted. And she knew why: It was those stupid boys' faults. Selfish, stupid, oblivious boys. They were reaching the one year anniversary of Kenny's death in one month. She hadn't been very surprised when it happened; Kenny had told her some things that she didn't think he'd meant to share. He'd been trashed out of his mind at some girlfriend's party that she hadn't really been interested in, and Kyle had declined to join her. She couldn't really blame him, considering what had happened at the last party he'd attended.

Under Kenny's vie la vie exterior, he had been hurting. She wasn't sure why she hadn't noticed. They drifted among the same people, but rarely talked outside of class, or outside of anything concerning Stan and Kyle.

She had been sitting on her friend's front porch while building the energy to leave. To her surprise Kenny had stumbled out of the house, giggling, eyes bloodshot and face flushed. His eyebrows raised in surprise when he saw her leaning again the porch railing.

"Wendy! Winifred! Wendell." He slid into place beside her, legs sliding underneath the railing to hang into some tulips. "Why so glum, chum?"

He reeked of weed, but in a warm way she didn't really mind. She smiled tiredly at him, "Oh nothing. I'm just getting ready to leave."

"Yeah?" He pressed his head against the railing in a way that didn't seem comfortable, "Wanna tell me about it?"

Wendy snorted, "There's nothing to tell. I'm just not in the mood." Nothing had happened in all honesty.

Kenny smiled shallowly, "I get it. Just checking I guess. If I had to kick someone's ass for you, I would."

She released a breath through her nose, not quite a laugh, "Thanks Ken. No, nothing dramatic." She let a silence fall between them as they sat, staring at cars passing in the night. Kenny seemed distracted, like he wanted to talk but didn't want to force it on her. She sighed internally, done with the night, but curious despite herself. If she was honest, she was feeling nosy about what could have Kenny so down, but she wasn't sure she was in the right level of friend to ask.

"You okay?" She asked anyway.

Kenny didn't respond immediately, a breath sucked through his nose the only indication he had heard. He eventually turned his head just enough to look at her, "Ah, yeah." He said without conviction, "Sorry, I sat down to check on you and now I'm all sulky." He grinned.

"It's fine." She said, looking at the street again, "Are you high?" She asked.

"So fucking blazed." He laughed. Kenny leaned more forcefully into the railing like he was having trouble staying upright, still chortling, "Okay. Okay. I tell you a secret, you tell me one. Got it?"

"Oh my god, no." Wendy giggled, a little irritated but also amused, "This is like seventh grade all over again."

"Nah, I wanna find out just how incestuous this town is." Kenny snickered, glazed eyes finally gleaming impishly, "Stan and I made out once."

If Wendy's eyebrows could have packed up and left town, they would have. "Oh. My." She covered her mouth in shock, before shaking her head. "You volunteered that." She said with disbelief. Wendy was grinning despite herself, not entirely surprised, "I didn't ask. You gave that to me."

"Now tell me something." Kenny leaned toward her, nudging her gently with a warm arm. She felt her face flush. "I'm high as fuck. I'm not going to remember."

"This is unfair." She rubbed her face in her hands, "How do I top that?" She muffled into her palms.

"You don't have to top it, just say something."

"Um." Wendy thought for a moment, secrets jogging across her memory. She picked some she was willing to share. "Kyle has an average-sized dick?"

"Hah!" Kenny snapped his fingers, "Knew it."

"You never looked?"

"Nah." He rubbed his nose, realizing how unlikely that sounded, "Honestly, I was traumatized when I saw Clyde's monster."

"Clyde?" Wendy squinted at Kenny with doubt.

"Yeah. Can't give you inches but uh." Kenny made an estimate with his hands. Wendy's eyes got big. "Uncut. It's kinda scary to look at, honestly."

"Who'da thought." Wendy mused. She grinned, "Okay. You again."

"Okay." He nodded, "You know my cousin? Damien?"

Wendy made an affirmative noise.

"He killed the neighbor dog because it wouldn't stop yapping."

"Oh, no!" Wendy recoiled, mortified.

"It was a mean little fucker anyway." Kenny mused. "Bit everyone that came near it. Don't worry." Kenny seemed a little embarrassed when he saw Wendy's expression, "He buried it. Didn't like, leave it on the owner's doorstep. Really, they're terrible people."

"Still." Wendy huffed. "How many horrible secrets do you have?"

"A lot." Kenny answered, "I've died five-hundred and eighty-six times keeping them."

"Don't try to make it poetic." Wendy frowned. She wondered if he was referencing something.

"I'm not." Kenny said flatly. He tried to shift back to a positive expression, "Anything else you want to share?"

Wendy thought for a moment, "Bebe has a clit piercing. She showed it to me."

"Hot." Kenny beamed.

"Not really my thing, but it's pretty to look at." Wendy said, meaning the piercing.

Kenny looked at Wendy conspiratorially, "So, Bebe's ... uh."

Wendy took a moment before she realized what Kenny was about to ask, "Hanging labia." She said in a matter of fact tone.

He grinned, "Figures." He considered Bebe's hanging labia, "Easier to suck on I bet."

Their conversation started to taper. She watched Kenny absently, his pensive expression still apparent. "Your turn." She offered quietly. He made a curious noise beside her. "You obviously have something on your mind."

Kenny was quiet for a few long moments. He turned to her, "I just have a question. If you don't mind."

Wendy squinted at him, uncertain. Kenny's mood was strange that evening, "Depends on the question, I guess."

"Do you ever notice, like, weird shit around here?"

Wendy drew a blank, confused by the inquiry, "What like, here the house?" She gestured to the porch on which they were sitting, "Or like, in general ...?"

"Here. South Park. Everywhere, the people you talk to and grow up with." Kenny rubbed the back of his neck with a long-fingered hand, frustration glazing his eyes. "Fuck. I dunno."

Wendy was struck with a feeling that wasn't quite deja vu, but more like she was forgetting something. A memory right on the edge of her memory - Presque vu.

Something about it made her uncomfortable. "I. Don't know." She tried to smile more out of habit but could feel the smile straining, "Weird is subjective, probably."

Kenny snorted and turned to look at the street again, "Trust me. You'll know this kind of weird when you see it."

Wendy had told Bebe about the conversation. Bebe had written the whole thing off, while filing her nails on Wendy's bed.

"Sounds like a normal Kenny conversation, to be honest." Bebe said, "He fine to hang around until you try to get to know him. He's the weird one, if you ask me."

"Maybe, but I just got a feeling about that night." Wendy scowled, staring at her ceiling, "If you see anything that stands out, maybe tell me."

"Sure, whatever." Bebe shrugged, blowing the dust off her fingers.

Then she had forgotten about the whole uneasiness up until the night they were being chased by zombie scarecrows. That had been strange. Kenny's kind of strange, she suspected.

Meanwhile, she couldn't shake the feeling that she could have done something a little more. Far be it for Wendy to feel responsible for other people's' situations (And Kenny being from a redneck family, which was different than just being poor, was a situation that was out of everyone's hands but his own). She still felt like she could have helped with the weirdness. Maybe the weirdness had something to do with her - why would he mention it to her in the first place?

The fact was, Kenny was dead, and not around to answer her questions. She should really let the whole thing go. She still wasn't entirely sure what he may have been asking about.

But maybe, just maybe, the thing that broke her heart was that she had never told him that everyone had been rooting for him. He had friends that wanted to see him crawl out of the rubble of his birthright, and shine more brightly than Stuart's alcoholism and Kevin's criminal record.

Wendy didn't think about these things often, but near the one-year mark of Kenny's death, she couldn't help but feel a little heavy.

|Ike slipped through the dark, carefully nudging his feet against the debris in the McCormicks' backyard. Every time he came to visit he held a concern that he may contract tetanus from the smallest scrape, but somehow he always made it out mostly free of dirt. Thank goodness for small blessings.

He hovered outside Karen's window, which used to be Kenny's window, hesitating for the first time since he had been paying her visits. She had been more and more moody as the anniversary of Kenny's death crept near, but he knew her well enough to know she had probably reached full sulk after the last couple of weeks.

He was trying to be understanding, he really was.

Ike knocked quietly on the window, though he normally let himself inside. The most recent entering resulted in him getting a lamp thrown at his chest and 20 minutes laying on the ground. When Karen aimed, she aimed to kill.

Karen peeked past the ragged curtains, dirty-blonde hair falling over her shoulders. She scowled, and cracked the window open from the bottom, "Wudya wunt?" She snapped.

Ike huffed, trying not to laugh at her. She only talked like her parents when she was upset. "I was checking on you," He said quietly. "I'll leave if you want."

He saw the flash of conflict, and the just barely-there smile before she nodded and pushed the window up. There was no point to keep the window quiet - either the McCormicks didn't hear because they were too blasted, or they didn't care.

When Ike was finished climbing through the window, Karen was sitting on her bed, which she had moved to the opposite wall. She had done her best with Kenny's room - covering the peeling wall-paper with her own posters, and pushing all her bedroom furniture against the wall to hide the water stains, along with Kenny's old dresser and toy box. Ike knew for a fact that she didn't have enough stuff to fill the drawers, but kept Kenny's things in the room to make it feel less empty. She had taken down Kenny's Maxim pinups and put them on the closet door, too, as part of a memory.

He slipped beside her on her bed, her skinny shoulders hunched over and eyes pink. Her lip was swollen like she had been chewing on it again. Nervous habit.

"You alright?" Ike asked, making sure his voice was gentle and patient.

"No." Karen said shakily. Without looking at him, she leaned over and pressed into Ike's side. Ike wrapped an arm around her waist, hand light and non-obtrusive.

"It's almost time." She warbled, "And my parents haven't said anything. It's like they didn't even notice him die."

Ike let her talk.

She talked about everything. She talked about her oblivious parents, about Kevin's call from prison, about the school sending flowers a month early, about Martha Chavez making fun of her recent demeanor, and the three-day suspension from breaking Martha's nose.

She talked about the spoiled milk and that she had to ask the City Wok guy for end of the night throw-outs because she hadn't eaten in three days. She talked about giving half her portion to one of the crack heads that hung out at the storage unit place to thank him for stabbing a guy with a needle when a creeper tried to flash her.

When Karen stopped crying, she talked about the red-breasted robin she saw across the street, and that six-year old Sophie's dad fixed and repainted a bike for her.

When Karen stopped talking, Ike sat with her in silence, feeling her sag with exhaustion. His shoulder was starting to get stiff and he wanted to shift, but he was afraid she would pull away. He turned his head, and propped his chin on top of her.

She sighed.

"But you know what gets me?" Karen asked. She paused like she was actually waiting for an answer.

"What?" Ike asked, to let her know he was listening.

"Kevin, fucking Kevin." She sniffled, "Is the only one out of my family who thought to ask if I was doing okay this month in particular."

"Kevin." Ike responded gently, "Who is in prison and has nothing else to think about."

"Yeah." Karen laughed, a little roughness in her throat, "Still. It's like with two boys out of the house, they forgot about me."

"Still." Ike agreed. They sat in silence, Karen's words still weighted but not as much as when she started. Ike eventually made a noise when he thought it was appropriate to change the topic, "So, I have a weird question for you."

Karen stirred, like she had been dozing against his shoulder, "Yeah?"

"Did you have a cousin, Damien?"

He felt her face shift when she frowned. Karen shook her head once, "No. I don't think so. Sounds kinda familiar."

"Ah. Okay." Ike briefly squeezed her with one arm, "I just saw someone with your last name, so I was wondering."

"Common name." Karen shrugged.


The talked quietly, until Karen started dozing again, eyes still puffy. Ike carefully set her up on her bed, letting her curl into her pillow, and switching off the light so she didn't wake with a headache from sleeping with artificial lighting.

After climbing out and shutting the window, Ike leaned his palms against the shabby wood paneling of the house, flexing his fingers with a frown.

Collective amnesia had seemed to hit everyone that hadn't been directly involved with the night year ago, mostly regarding Damien's existence in general. Some of the elementary teachers remembered Damien. Kyle certainly remembered, and Sheila seemed to recall a friend Ike had over often a year ago. He was certain that given time, she would barely remember the summer at all.

Ike sighed, and turned around, looking at the stars that were surprisingly visible over South Park's nighttime. With only street lights to light the night, and the Rocky Mountains a black mass to the west, the stars were sharp.

He let himself out, feeling a sense of loss over Damien's absence. He had lost a friend and was just now realizing that there was an empty space beside him where there had been none. He understood Karen's, pain in terms of loss, although he was not particularly heartbroken over Kenny. The darker, guilty part of his heart admitted that he had been relieved that he didn't have to go through Kenny to ask Karen out anymore - Kenny who had been one of very few people who were protective and kind toward Karen, the other being Kevin.

Kevin was an asshole, but never to Karen.

Ike rubbed his arm, frustrated that he had no explanation for Damien's disappearance, for anything that had occurred over the last few years, and more selfishly, that his primary source of information to the strange goings-ons in South Park was gone. This last year had been disappointingly normal, and very few seemed to notice.

Ike stopped walking on the street, the darkness covering his shadow, and tilted his head to the sky.

I guess, He thought, This is it. For now.

He went home.

Sometimes Butters had surges of energy that reminded of himself before he was living in Cartman's basement. He would chatter again, and Eric would listen placidly, occasionally grunting over whatever they were eating and offering a comment.

Mostly, Butters was in a full slump.

There was one day their junior year though, he woke up and felt a little better. He still flinched when he thought about his parents - his father in particular - but the emotional hit wasn't as hard. More like a thump than a stab.

Butters thought, Everything will be okay. When the cloud of misery and doubt, that he had nicknamed Professor Chaos, didn't come to taint his tiny glimmer of optimism, he thought he could do this. He could succeed.

That day Butters climbed up the basement stairs to see Eric already eating cereal, Liane at the counter putting jam on some bread. There was an extra bowl and spoon sitting at an empty chair. A chair for him to fill.

Butters smiled.

His smile must have radiated; Cartman glanced up from his food, scowling and confused. "What?" He asked.

"Nothing." Butters responded cheerily. He sat down with Eric and poured himself some cereal - Eric's favorite, off-brand Coco Puffs. Butters didn't mind, but the sugar was a little too much in the morning.

That's when a light bulb went off in Butters' head. He looked at the chocolate sphere floating in a spoonful of milk, and set the spoon down gently. Cartman was blankly chewing his breakfast, staring at nothing. Liane sat down with them with her toast and coffee.

"M-mrs. Cartman?" He asked.

Liane looked up, half-holding that day's newspaper. She smiled in acknowledgment, "Yes, sweetie?"

"C-can we get Chex? I don't really like Coco Puffs in the morning." Logically, Butters knew that even if she said no, Liane rarely raised her voice, she would never raise her hand, and she would never belittle him for asking for something different than what was provided.

But he could still hear his father screaming about his ungratefulness, about this breach in the household norm. Butters was terrified.

Liane's smile shifted to something more earnest, "Of course sweetie, I'm going shopping this Wednesday."

Eric grunted, "I thought you liked these."

And that was the end of the conversation. No one was hurt. Stephen Stotch didn't come through the front door and push Butters' nose into the milk as punishment.

Butters felt like he could fight the world.

Eric of course, noticed the sudden change in Butters' demeanor. He didn't say anything, asked Butters' opinion a little more on what Butters wanted in the house. The questions still made him nervous - he didn't want to be too demanding in another's home. As usual, Eric seemed to pick up on his unspoken concerns and addressed them one night.

"Look." Eric said, as they played Nintendo in the (Butters') basement, "I know you're all skiddish, you need to stop."

"S - sorry?" Butters was startled, and his character died on screen.

"You live here. There's only gonna be one thing that my mom hasn't brought up." Eric sat, staring at the reload screen, hands that weren't quite so chubby clutching the control, "If you're gonna be here after high school, you need to get a job."

Butters flustered for a moment, mostly at Eric's surprisingly reasonable request being suggested in such an aggressive way. Then he beamed. "Of course Eric. I ain't expectin' your mom to put me through college."

That was when he realized he still had dreams. He wanted the things his parents wanted for him, but not in the same way. It was the difference between wanting a dog for a dog-fighting ring, and wanting a dog for a pet.

And gosh, Butters felt like he had been fighting.

A year after leaving home, he sometimes desperately missed his mother. He saw her at the grocery sometimes. His heart hurt.

Eric, fronted the money for him to get the new cheerleader uniform. Where Eric got the cash, Butters didn't know, but when Eric presented an envelope to him Butters broke out in tears, standing in the Cartmans' kitchen.

"I asked the bitch cheerleaders how much it should cost for the year." Eric looked away, rubbing his nose and uncomfortable with Butters' ugly sobs, while the much smaller blond boy clutched the envelope. "Of course they were all over my dick 'cuz I'm on the team. Anyway, they said you could come in late as long as you worked hard to catch up on the routines. Mom said she'd drive you to Denver to pick up the male uniform so you don't ha—"

Butters flung himself at Eric, wrapping his arms around Eric's thick although not quite fat, waist, "Shut up Eric!" Butters sobbed. "You did this for me! I'm gonna do this to thank you!"

Eric put his hands on Butters' shoulders and pushed, but Butters clung harder. His face turned red, "Don't hug me, that's gay."

Butters laughed through his snot.

He was woefully out of shape and did an extra workout to catch up with the girls. Everyone was happy to see him rejoining society. He was talking again. He was laughing earnestly again.

Butters finally started noticing other people outside of the Cartman residence - primarily Kyle, who had joined the basketball team. A junior joining so late was odd, but Kyle had continued running with Cartman, who, with weight-lifting, had caught up to Kyle in terms of fitness. Butters hadn't inquired into Kyle's life the last year, despite visits to play games and watch tv. Butters had been too deep in his own slump to think to ask. All of Kyle's life seemed to revolve around Stan anymore, if Eric's updates were anything to go by.

Butters suspected they weren't.

Cheer leading and the basketball team were sharing the track and soccer field, and Kyle noticed Butters outside for the first time. Butters had forgotten how tall Kyle had become over the summer, although Butters was keeping up in terms of growth spurts. Kyle was three inches taller at six feet. Butters wasn't towering over Eric yet, but Eric seemed more prone to grow out than up.

During a brief break, Kyle came over, sweaty and chugging his water bottle.

"Butters." He said, more of a wheeze. Butters was sitting on the bench, alternating between stretches and water. It occurred to him how sweaty he was.

"Hey, Kyle." Butters smiled.

Kyle sat next to him, hunching to prop his elbows on his knees. "I didn't realize you got back on the cheerleading squad."

"Yeah. Couldn't grow mold in Eric's basement forever." Butters said. The airy way he said it implied that crawling out of the pit of his misery hadn't been a major feat, but he knew Kyle knew better. Kyle's placating smile told Butters that he indeed knew better, but talking about this in front of two sports teams wasn't a good time to go into details.

"Any tips for me to pass onto Stan?" Kyle asked. There was some good-natured exasperation in his voice. 'What are you gonna do?' kind of attitude. It bothered Butters. It seemed unlike Kyle.

"Oh, geeze." Butters looked back at the track, watching his teammates begin to regroup. "I kinda had my 'come to god' moment, to be honest." He glanced at Kyle, who was openly listening. "It was either, I was gonna make things better, or things wouldn't get better."

Kyle nodded and looked away, frowning. He took a drink from his water.

"That's probably not the answer you were looking for." Butters said with regret.

The corner of Kyle's mouth quirked, "No. It's okay. I think Stan's depression is different from yours."

Butters thought for a moment, "I think." Butters said carefully. Kyle looked at him again. "Stan is trying, from what I see. And that has to be enough. He'll give himself goals, and all you can do is be there for him." Butters nodded to himself, "It's all in your head, and eventually things have to click on their own. Even that is kinda an epiphany in itself."

Kyle nodded and stared at the track field. "Thanks." He eventually sighed. "It's different hearing it from someone I guess." He looked back at his team, "I go back. I'll see you around."

Butters grinned and nodded, "See ya Kyle!" He raised his hand in a half-wave until Kyle turned his back. His fingers curled as he lowered his hand, mouth pressing into a slight frown, "I wonder if anyone in our year is going to prom?"

You tell a kid the stove is hot, and they understand. Kyle thought, as he jogged to Stan's house. But they won't understand how hot the stove is, or how much it burns until they touch the burner.

That's how life was, and epiphanies were, Kyle mused. How did he get Stan to keep moving forward?

No, he was thinking about this backwards. Stan had improved exponentially. The question should be, what next?

He tried to think of Stan's depression like art. The artist could be the most skilled, but there would always be the next step. Art was not something that remained stagnant or consistent. Furthermore, Kyle would be the first to admit he didn't understand art or depression. Had he been dealing with anyone except Stan, he wouldn't have stayed in that person's company. Butters had been annoying enough.

Kyle squinted when he saw a figure sitting on Stan's doorstep, a trail of smoke drifting upward. Stan hadn't quit cigarettes. Sharon had given Stan a token scolding, but she would rather him be sucking down nicotine than whiskey. Kyle wrinkled his nose when he got close enough to smell the smoke - Stan looked at him placidly from his huddle on the doorstep.

"Watcha doin tonight?" Kyle asked, running in place.

"I'm still mad at you." Stan sulked. He made a double-take and looked at Kyle's hair, "You look like Richard Simmons."

Kyle had put a sweatband on mostly to keep his hair out of his face, making his hair poof more than usual. He grinned, "Way better looking. You can't still be mad."

"I lost twenty bucks because of you."

"Stop betting on the Broncos." Kyle stopped jogging and scooted Stan over so he could sit beside him.

Stan edged away on the step, and covered his nose with his smoking hand, "Ug. You reek."

Kyle snorted, "So do you."

"What did you want tonight?"

"Actually, not tonight. This weekend? It's late for your birthday but I thought we could do something."

"Can't." Stan said through half a cigarette drag, "Gotta help Jimbo move some logs or something."

"Doesn't matter, really." Kyle glanced at Stan with some hesitation, "I was thinking we could drive to Denver and, I dunno, look at the stadiums or something."

Stan thought for a moment, raising his eyes to the sky. "There's probably a baseball game or something."

Kyle hated baseball. He nodded. "Yeah, probably." He rubbed the back of his neck, "I know it's only an hour and half away, but we could rent a room or something. You're probably sick of Shelly after spending all summer in the house."

"Actually, Shelly's chilled out a lot." Stan shrugged, "She's never home. She found a boyfriend at college. Dad's not too happy she's pretty much moved out, but whatever."

"Do you guys even still talk?"

"We text sometimes." Stan said, voice drifting in a distracted way. He glanced at Kyle again, "Go home, you fucking smell."

"Thanks." Kyle leaned back onto palms, "That's the smell of testosterone and man."

"That's the smell of an dirty gym locker." Stan scoffed, rubbing his arms against his nose. "I don't know how I tolerated football practice. Ug."

"You should join again." Kyle said, not looking at Stan, "If fatass was able to get on, you probably still have a throwing arm."

"Whatever." Stan looked away, uncomfortable, "I'm taller than I was, but I'm like, half the mass. Fatass could probably knock me out."

"Nah, he can't do push ups. I saw him at practice." Kyle snickered quietly.

Stan grinned shallowly, flicking his cigarette away that had burned out a few minutes ago."Why did you decide to to basketball so late?"

"I wanted to. And studying leaves me with a bunch of energy."

"Weird." Stan said doubtfully.

"Maybe." Kyle agreed. He offered Stan a look, "Still think you should do something."

"Stop trying to get me active in the community." Stan shot Kyle an irritated expression, "I still write songs. And. Stuff."

"You were crying over dogs two weeks ago." Kyle grinned. "I'm not sure that's improvement."

"You don't know me." Stan said in a deadpan voice, "Animals are but a glimmer of light in the blackness of my heart. A beacon of hope in an ocean of-"

"Oh my god shut up." Kyle laughed and punched Stan's shoulder.

After talking sports statistics and about a new video game that was coming out of the end of the month, Kyle took his leave. His run was a little slower on the way back, something he was trying to change. He needed to work on his pacing.

Some niggling in the back of his mind bothered him as he returned home, knowing he'd be welcomed with dinner and prodding to take a shower. The niggling stopped when he realized he'd forgotten to ask what they were going to do about Kenny's death day.

Kyle felt worse that he wasn't extremely upset about the anniversary approaching. He had a feeling that Kenny might be better off - that wasn't to say Kyle was happy Kenny was dead, far from it. But Kenny didn't talk about things very often, which made it hard for Kyle to extend a personal connection to that Kenny was actually gone. There would be weeks when Kyle wouldn't hear from Kenny, months weren't that much of an extension.

Kyle stopped in front of his house, sweat cool as the sun set. A pang of guilt struck him, and he wondered if feeling the way he did about Kenny made him cold. He wondered if trying to soften the point with his positive attributes made him selfish.

His shoulders sagged, and he wondered if he'd act the same way if Stan ever died.

A moment of panic and thought to the possibility, and Kyle shook his head of his thoughts and decided no - Stan dying would not be the same, and not having a complete emotional breakdown over a death didn't make him a bad person. Things would hit him later. Kyle knew his personal well-being had always taken priority over others. That didn't make him a bad person. He hadn't grieved properly, yet.

Kyle thought about what Butters said earlier, and knew the grieving process would happen in its own time, just like Stan healing would.

Kyle went inside his home for dinner.

Stan lay in bed, twirling a pink envelope between his fingers. There was a little heart sticker on the flap where the envelope folded shut. He had cut the top open with his dad's letter opener. He had meant to mention the letter to Kyle when he had come by earlier, but he got distracted.

A senior girl had asked him to prom. But the request had been a little backhanded.

She was a lesbian and wanted him to be her fake date. She'd buy the tickets. She listed the guys she had asked the same question so there weren't any hard feelings.

He couldn't explain why her asking him bothered him. The cockier part of him wanted to believe Henrietta had gone around and bragged about what a rock star he was in bed (Which he knew absolutely wasn't true. A boy could dream), then he remembered the girl was a lesbian. Sex was the opposite of what she wanted.

Linda Triscotti. He barely remembered her throughout school. He thought he remembered her from when Randy had decided the whole family was Catholic. At least that one had lasted a couple of years.

Skimming over the names of the other male contenders, he knew they were all boys that Henrietta hung around. He could already imagine that conversation between Linda and Henrietta. Someone who can clean up well. Someone with a sense of discreteness. Someone who could keep his mouth shut. Linda was putting a lot of faith behind asking him in a letter. He could show it to her parents.

Of course Stan wouldn't - what kind of prick would that make him? And a hypocrite, additionally.

He was bothered; He could only think of a handful of seniors to which he had talked. Michael would be graduating. Everyone else he knew was in his grade or below.

He didn't want to go unless Kyle was going. And wasn't prom supposed to be this big "coming of age" thing? Everyone got drunk and lost their virginity for the same time. Hopefully no one died in a car wreck. Parents got to swoon over their children growing up so fast.

Prom really wasn't his scene.

Stan picked up his phone, which flashed at 9% battery.

Bringing up Kyle's contact in his address book, he typed rapidly with his thumbs.

SM: got something to show you n talk about

He waited, dozing on his bed, the pink envelop conspicuously on the pillow beside him. Part of him hoped that Randy would walk in and intercept the whole situation. 'No son of mine is going out with a dike.' That sort of thing. Randy might be relieved that Stan got asked out in the first place.

KB: ?

SM: in person n't worry not a big htinkg

Kyle would get the point. Stan groaned and got up to shove the letter into his underwear drawer.

Wendy heard about Linda Triscotti through Bebe, who heard it from Red, who heard it Jenny Simon, who heard it through Nichole who heard it because she accidentally heard Linda Triscotti talking to her best friend, Martha Aherne in the locker room.

That was, Linda was the only known lesbian in school. While that was perfectly okay with everyone who knew, the girls' need to see her happy, with someone, inevitably led to a well-meant gossip chain. Sadly, Linda's plan to sneak her lesbianism past her parents backfired (surprising no one) when one of the boys who had received her letter was passing the letter around his group his friends to get a good giggle.

So, Martin Dubois, who received a letter from Linda Triscotti told his friend Josh Myers, who told his friend Baahir Hakeem, who told Mark Petuski, who told Tommy Turner, who told Pete Melman, who told Pete Mullen, who told Token who eventually told Wendy about the letter and that Stan's name was on the list of people Linda Tiscotti had asked to prom.

Wendy, who had her hands full with student council duties, studying, and worrying about personal upcoming dates, couldn't quite find the tact to gently broach the subject with Stan. Rather, she stalked up to Stan after lunch period, her arms full of books and cornered him between herself, his locker door.

"Why didn't you tell me Linda Triscotti asked you to prom?" She demanded.

Stan stared her with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, resembling one of the scared puppies of which he was so fond. Lenny Haywright was in the locker behind Stan's, openly listening.

"Lord in heaven save me." Stan rolled his eyes to the ceiling, "Forgive me for my transgressions, for I have angered thee and Wendy Testaburger, so help me." He held a hand to his chest, putting on a great show of being near fainting, practically falling into his locker.

"Shut up." Wendy shook his free arm, a little taken aback when Stan shot her a genuinely peeved expression. She gathered herself, releasing Stan, "This is a big deal." She said in hushed tones. "Especially to Linda. You've got to know that."

"Why are you whispering? The whole school knows since I got the letter yesterday." Stan forcefully shut his locker, turning full-body to Wendy.

They froze when they heard Clyde Donovan's voice echoing from down the hall.


Wendy clicked her tongue irately, "Now everyone knows."

Stan rolled his eyes and hoisted his bookbag over his shoulder, "Right now's not the right time to talk about this. Wendy." He looked at her pointedly.

Wendy mimicked Stan's body-language in an exaggerated way, "When do you propose we do, Stan?"

"How about never?"

"You're funny."

"Drop me off last or something and I'll tell you about it in the car." Stan started walking and Wendy followed.

Wendy nodded in acceptance, only pausing at the fork in the hallway where Stan's classes and her's would be in different sections of the school, "Does Kyle know?"

Stan sniffed, "Who knows. I haven't mentioned it to him yet, if that's what you're asking. He might know by now." He thought for a moment, "I'll tell Kyle in the car too."

"Okay." Wendy frowned, "Later."


"I'm just trying to understand," Kyle groaned, his head pressed against the back of the headrest of Wendy's car, "Where I care about the intricacies of this entire situation?"

"I've been drug in." Stan wheedled, "I'm involved now, and so-"

"Dragged, and I'm involved by default?" Kyle sighed.

"It's not that," Wendy interjected, tone sympathetic, "We're just all wondering what to do."

The three teens sat in the parking area of Stark's Pond - sunset reflecting off the water in pinks and purples, specks of white glimmering as the water shifted. Kyle's stomach turned when he remembered the sensation of something alive curling around his legs. He had been uncomfortable around pools since a couple of years ago.

"I dunno, the whole thing sounds stupid." Kyle groused.

"Will you just-" Stan started to snap, before pausing and visibly regathering his train of thought. He leaned over Kyle and Wendy's seats, fingers hooked behind the headrests, "I don't know what to do. I barely know this girl."

"So don't go." Kyle snapped.

"But I can't just leave her in a situation like that. At least I know I won't be a prick about it."

"So go. It's like fucking Heather, all over again."

"I'm asking you because I thought you could help you fucking cow fucker."

Wendy sat in the driver's seat, staring at the pond intently, visibly considering Stan's, and probably Linda's, options. A glare from Wendy stopped Kyle in mid-insult, her patience waned. "Look," Wendy said curtly, "I'm not sure if you guys know Linda's situation, but the short version is that her parents have suspicious of her being a lesbian for years, and have threatened to send her to one of those Christian conversion camps. I know this beca-"

Kyle's face fell - he waved a hand, "I really don't want to know how you know."

Stan chewed his lip, "Like Butters' dad was threatening?"

"Yes." Wendy said with finality, "Like Stephen. I'm not close to Linda, but I do remember her. She was with us until seventh grade, when she skipped a grade." She turned to face Stan more directly, "The only reason I have an opinion about this, is because like you said, you wouldn't be a prick about it. And I don't want a classmate to get hurt. In the end, it's your decision."

Stan nodded quietly, and Kyle released a breath through his nose.

Wendy looked at Kyle, "Do you have anything useful to add?"

Kyle pressed his lips together as he tried to form a valid opinion on the matter. Mostly, he was annoyed that he felt like he was being forced into this whole situation. The rest of him was just worried about with what Stan was getting involved.

"I think," Kyle said carefully. The sun was going down quickly now. The sky was mostly dark blues and purples. "That you have enough going on without getting some hero complex about a real situation. This isn't like when we were kids." Kyle turned his head more directly, and was a little startled at Stan's close vicinity. Stan was listening, and his blue eyes were bright with earnestness. "But I also know you still have a hero complex and probably want to help her out. Just be careful. That's my opinion."

Stan nodded, looking between Kyle and Wendy. Wendy huffed, barely smiling.

Kyle added, "Also I think you should probably at least get to know Linda. So if you have to meet her parents, you can like, fake caring about her, or something."

Wendy adjusted in her seat, crossing her arms around her middle, "That reminds me." She started, frowning deeply, "I'm a little worried about that Linda sent out those letters. Now there's several physical trails for her parents to locate."

Kyle mimicked her expression, glancing back at Stan, "And there's already so guys going around telling everyone. For some big secret, word got around fast."

Stan sighed and flopped back into the backseat, throwing his head back onto the back dash. "I'll think about all this. Basically, if I get involved, I'll be picking up a bunch of extra work. Or I can burn the letter, stay out of it, and call it a day."

Stan had a habit of not taking the easy way out of things. He thought about all the trouble everyone went through to find him a year and half ago, and for all the dissimilarities, Linda's situation wasn't unlike Butters'.

He tried to put Butters' face on this faceless girl and imagined; If Marjorine had come to him a biological female (Or even as Butters for that matter. He'd picked Butters up off the streets before), with the same request, would he help?

Yes. Stan knew he would.

He groaned, "I'll think about it for a few days."

Kyle grumbled from the front seat, "Big damn hero."

Wendy laughed.

Two days later, Stan was mustering up the nerve as his class walked to the cafeteria, to approach Linda Triscotti in the lunchroom. Part of asking her to prom in such a public area had two functions:

1. Stan would never see her anywhere else, and Wendy found out for him that Stan came into the cafeteria right when Linda would be leaving.

2. By making his proposal a public spectacle, there would be no room for rumor whether or not Stan asked Linda out or not, regardless of the letters. A junior asking a senior to prom? Not unheard of, but unusual.

Wendy was really worried about the letters. She was hoping asking Linda out would make its way back to her parents, and null any rumors about the letters. That was three reasons for him to be going "on stage." Stan had never been an actor.

Stan was too busy trying not to puke at the thought of putting on a performance. At this point, he wouldn't be feigning nervousness. The fact was, he'd always had a weak stomach, and the buildup to getting involved in such drama was a little much.

He was alone right now, staring at the back of a classmate's head. His pocket vibrated and he quickly fumbled to pull out his cellphone.

WT: Gonna do it?

SM: do i have to

WT: No.

You're gonna tho

Stan smiled shakily and swallowed, re-pocketing his phone. Wendy had texted him a Facebook picture of Linda that was just her face, and told him where she usually sat (He assumed Wendy had connections in all the grades. The only explanation) She was pretty in a bland way, brown hair, grey eyes, and enough makeup to tell that she had mastered contouring a few years ago. She might be hard to pick in a crowd, mostly because Stan didn't talk to the seniors.

When he walked into the lunch room, he scanned the mass of kids, seniors standing up to empty their trays. His vision found her almost immediately - the seniors were allowed to leave the school for lunch, and a lot of them did, so the lunch room wasn't nearly as crowded as the other grades.

Stan tried to turn his brain off and moved on autopilot, feeling disembodied from his motions. Moving quickly, he saw that she was gathering her trash up onto her tray and came to a halt, half-squeaking, "Excuse me."

No response. He wondered if he should tap her shoulder, but he wasn't really much for touching strange people.

He wanted a drink.

After another try, one of the other girls at the table glanced at him and gestured to Linda to look behind her.

Linda turned around, curious, unsmiling and looking Stan up and down like a strange statue. Her eyes weren't bland grey at all, they were very bright and intense and Stan was terrified.

"Ah. Ah." Stan needed to spit it out. He was pretty sure he was standing in the military "attention" position, "I was wondering." He croaked. He cleared his throat, watching the other girls at the circular table giggle at him. "I was wondering." He tried again, voice back to normal, "If it's not too late, if you would go to prom with me."

He should have said 'If I could go to prom with you' since it was technically her prom. Wow he was fucking this up, wow. Wow fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

"Sure." She said. Linda glanced at the clock on the cafeteria wall, "I'll meet you after school so we can talk. I have class now."

Stan remained motionless until he realized her response required an answer, "Great. Yes. Cool. Back of the school. Great."

He turned around, heart racing and blood running out of his face. He put himself at the end of the lunch line, the cafeteria quickly getting noisy and full.

The boy in front of him turned around, "Did you just ask Linda Triscotti out?" He asked.

"Yep." Stan squeaked.

"You know she's a lesbian, right?"

"She said yes." Stan said to the faceless boy. He didn't actually remember the rest of lunch, although he was pretty sure it involved fishsticks.

"I can't believe you did it." Kyle said in a deadpan, sucking on an apple juice carton during the final ten minutes in his and Stan's history class as well as the school day. "Actually." He amended in a bored tone, "I can. You can't not help a damsel in trouble."

Stan was sure his soul had separated from his body during lunch period. Even Kyle's voice wasn't quite bringing him back. "Shut up." Stan said without conviction, sprawled in his desk, "I've been getting shit from Cartman all afternoon."

Kyle raised an eyebrow, "How? You don't have classes with him."

"Magic." Stan said flatly.

Kyle snorted and shoved his empty juice box into his backpack. "You know Butters has already posted you asking on Facebook?"

Stan groaned and leaned his head back further, "I'm not surprised."

"Pretty sure Cartman's going to make an autotuned version for Youtube."


Kyle tapped his fingers on his desk, smirking in an amused way, "Also I'm deeply, madly in love with you, and exceedingly jealous you asked Linda Triscotti out."

Stan didn't even look up, "Great. When's our wedding?"

The dismissal bell rang and the juniors returned to their seats to wait for their turn, having already packed to leave. When Kyle and Stan left the room, Wendy was waiting for them in the hallway.

Wendy grinned at Stan, "You're doing a good thing." She praised, "I'm proud of you."

The three walked in a group to Stan and Kyle's lockers. Stan rubbed his neck tiredly, "I wish people would stop crowing about it. God forbid I get a real girlfriend."

Wendy scolded him lightly, "Hush, you'll be news of the week quick enough. We'll talk about this la-"

Clyde's voice reverberated down the hallway, "STAN MARSH." He shoved his way through the mass of students with a shit-eating grin, holding his smartphone up to show Stan, "Did you see this?" He yelled to be heard, "Butters posted you looking like you're about to shit your pants."

"FUCK OFF CLYDE." Stan yelled, mostly to be heard, and he felt like screaming into the abyss of high school.

Wendy pat Stan's shoulder sympathetically and Kyle peeked up from a few lockers down, pulling out his gym bag.

"I have some things I want to talk to you about." Wendy said. "Later, in private."

Stan nodded, and Wendy was blindsided by Bebe, the two leaving to head to Wendy's car.

Stan and Kyle made their way to the front of the school. Toward the cafeteria tended to be emptier during that time of day.

Kyle paused when they reached a point to part ways. The cacophony of high schoolers was a dull murmur where they were. "I'd go with you but I have practice." Kyle adjusted his gym bag over his shoulder, hesitating when he remembered something. He offered a weak grin, "I know you have a girlfriend and all now, but are we still going to Denver in a couple of weeks?"

Stan blinked, nearly having forgotten about Denver in the frenzy of everything, "Yeah, of course. This doesn't change anything." Stan looked up and down the hall. "I'll let you know what happens."

"See ya, dude." Kyle turned to head toward the gym.


Making his way around the outside of the school wasn't hard — everyone was waiting for buses and parents in the front. He belatedly realized that he had told Linda to meet him back here without actually consulting her. Was that a faux paus? Probably. He was a damned idiot.

She was there though, messing with her phone, her messenger bag at her side. One look at her told Stan she was taller, and that irritated him. He realized he hadn't looked at Linda's face, just her eyes, and avoided any other glance at her person out of personal discomfort - like when you never actually look at the waitress then don't know which one to flag when you need something. He was a pro at looking like a jackass.

Now that he was paying attention, Stan understood why Linda was friends with Henrietta.

She looked like she belonged in an Avril Lavine album.

Avril Lavine was too old a pop reference. Linda looked like she told Miley Cyrus the tongue thing was a good idea, and that Miley would totally live down the 2008 Grammy's. Linda looked like she single-handedly inspired Iggy Azeala to pursue a music career then belittled the people whom Iggy based her music on.

Perhaps not that bad. But Linda had a sour expression and wore skinny jeans, canvas shoes and an ironic baby blue shirt with a unicorn jumping over a rainbow.

Stan had to laugh a little - he thought he understood. He used to be Catholic after all, and didn't respond well to being told he was wrong.

Nothing about her screamed "lesbian", but her body-language came off aggressive. He suspected she'd been on the defensive since the letters were exposed to the rest of the school.

"H-hi." He said quietly, sitting on the step beside her.

Linda looked at him in an assessing manner, hunched over her legs, hands inside her knees. She had her long brown hair partially down, partially pulled into a ponytail that wrapped around either side of her head toward the center. "Is the stutter natural, or are you just nervous?"

"Ah." Stan wasn't accustomed to dealing with women this blunt. Even Wendy and Henrietta minced words most of the time. It made him uncomfortable. "Nervous, I guess." He looked away from her, not sure what to do with the direct eye-contact. "This whole thing makes me nervous."

"Tell me about it." Linda seemed to relax a little, turned her grey gaze away, looking with Stan at the treeline behind the school. She started bouncing her leg, "Are you responding to a dare or something? The whole fucking school knows and thinks this is hilarious."

"Well. Sending physical letters-" Stan started to try to joke, but received a glare that could've incinerated, and said Linda was well aware of her mistake. Stan cleared his throat, "No. I decided on my own. I wanted to help."

"Why?" Linda demanded.

She was making that eye-contact again. Stan felt his stomach squirm; He was getting irritated, and rubbed a hand on the back of his neck.

"I don't fucking know." Stan said irately. "Help a fag in need, or something. I have a friend in a similar situation and know it sucks. Is that cool? Did I need to write a goddamn essay before I said anything to you?"

Linda looked at the treeline again. "Five pages." She said in a deadpan. "Single-spaced. Monday."

Stan felt his eye twitch and stood. "Okay." He snapped, "Fuck you too. Enjoy fucking anti-dike camp, or whatever you're trying to avoid." He turned on his heel and started to storm away when he felt himself jerk backwards at the tug on his shirt.

"Stop it you fucking queer." Linda said, biting back a smile. Stan bristled instinctively at being called a queer but didn't pull away. She released his shirt and turned her back to him. "I was joking. Sit down, unless you don't want to."

Stan took a breath and prayed to whatever god was listening that he didn't kill this girl.

He sat next to her.

She didn't look at him. "I'm not usually like this." she said, "I've been on edge for a few weeks now."

Stan didn't say anything - She was choosing what to say.

"I need to make sure you're not here to fuck with me. There's a lot at stake for me." She continued. "Henrietta suggested you when I was coming up with this idea, and a few others. Not all of them have been what she said. I kinda asked for it, I guess."

Stan frowned, a whole spiel rearing its head about how she didn't "ask for" anything, but he supposed she meant she was going about this the wrong way. She was being a little vague.

Linda sighed, "I just need someone to pose as my boyfriend for a few months, go to prom. Then you can move on. I don't even expect you to like, do boyfriendy things, especially since we're in different grades. Meet the parents, whatever, and wear a tux once."

Stan went over the things Wendy and Kyle talked to him about when Linda seemed done talking. He cleared his throat, glancing sideways at her. She was flicking her fingers and cracking her knuckles.

"Can I like, show you to my parents?" He asked tentatively.

Linda looked at him, a mildly surprised expression like she hadn't considered he might have to cover his own half of the situation. Stan shuffled uncomfortably, "Just like, so if your parents want to meet mine or whatever? I keep hearing your family's super conservative. Or." He rubbed his neck, "Whatever."

"Yeah. No. That makes sense." Linda said, still wide-eyed.

"And." Stan added hurriedly, "I think we should actually go on at least one uh, date." He grimaced at the word and Linda's face flickered with discomfort. "Just to get to know each other. Favorite colors. Foods. We can bring our friends if it'd be less weird."

Linda nodded, lips pressing together in a way that reminded Stan of Kyle. "I'll think about that." she agreed tentatively. They looked away from each other, the awkward tension reverberating between them. "You're really going to do this?" She asked in a small voice.

Stan felt his eyebrows raise, the tension leaving his shoulders. She was nervous too. And scared, probably. This could end messily, or just as planned.

"Yeah." Stan smiled, looking at the treeline. "I am."

Kyle was going to kill Wendy.

He was feeling less patient; Wendy was normally his source of sanity, his pillar, his rock, and today she was being a flighty broad.

He was sure she would destroy him for calling her a flighty broad in his head, regardless of frustration levels. Unless she could read minds. Could she? Probably not.

"Why are you making that face at me?" Wendy asked from across his kitchen table.

Kyle realized he was squinting at her with increasing intensity, trying to discern if she was receiving the images of Courteney Cox he was projecting at her from that gossip mag he found under the kitchen sink. He was pretty sure it was his dad's. Some of the pages were more wrinkled than called from water damage.

"I'm trying to figure out why you're so flighty tonight." Kyle said with a tinge of annoyance. He was allowed impatience this time. Give him this one, Wendy.

Wendy sighed, laying down her pencil on her math homework. She leaned into the chair and stretched her back. Kyle couldn't help it; Wendy's boobs had finally started filling in. They were nice.

"I'm just worried about Stan." She said.

"What about him?" Kyle started scrubbing at a mistake he had made on his English homework. He wasn't sure what the answer was.

"Those letters."

"What about them?"

Wendy frowned, "What if Linda's parents get a hold of them? What if one of the guys she sent them to tries to blackmail her or Stan with them?"

"For what?" Kyle squinted at the sentence structure he was supposed to be graphing. "Their millions? 'Cause last time I checked, Randy was still paying for a margarita mixer."

"People are spiteful." Wendy picked up her pencil and flicked at the lead irritably. "People are mean and like seeing others suffer."

"Are you?" Kyle asked, still not looking up.


"Would you go out of your way to make someone suffer after they confided in you and were recommended by," He scrunched his nose distastefully, "Henrietta Biggle. Okay. Not the best source of information. Either way, she was confided personally and I'm pretty sure her friends are the zipped lip types."

It was Wendy's turn to squint at Kyle. She leaned her cheek into her hand, watching Kyle's hunched body-language. "What do you have against Henrietta?"

"I dunno. I just don't like her." Kyle shrugged. "I don't get why you and Stan and half the school get along with her."

"They had sex, ya know."

Kyle froze, staring blankly at his homework, "Wuh?"

Wendy made a hand motion of an index finger going through a circle made with her other index and thumb. "They did the sex. She told me when Stan disappeared." Wendy laid her hands down on the table, watching Kyle carefully. "I think Kenny knew too. I might have told him? You were in psycho mode so we didn't get a chance to say anything."

Kyle frowned, "He didn't tell me." He started bouncing his eraser on the table, "It's just weird he didn't say anything."

"He knew you don't like her?"

"I think it's just..." Kyle sighed and pushed his homework away, sprawling back into his own chair. "Every time something fucked up happened with Stan, the goth kids were nearby and I don't trust them." Kyle shrugged, "I'm doing my best to be patient with him, and someone like Henrietta reminds me that Stan being at his worst wasn't that long ago." He glanced at Wendy, expression questioning, "Why? Are you two besties or something?"

Wendy snorted, smiling, "Hardly. I think we agree to stay out of each other's' ways. The girls in school have their own dynamics." She leaned her head to the side to crack her neck, "That's why I'm worried about Linda. She's one of us."

"I guess." Kyle listed his head back, temporarily blinded by the LED light. He thought about Token being one of two black kids in town, and how it was never a question that the school would support him if something outside of their circles' dynamics went wrong. Parents counted as outsiders. Linda's parents were outsiders.

Kyle quirked an eyebrow and looked at Wendy a little closer, "What do you want to do about the letters?"

Wendy stared at Kyle blankly, processing that Kyle wasn't writing off her concerns. The corners of her mouth twitched, and she barely held back a grin.

"Burn them." She said, with a gleam in her eye.

For a while now, Kyle had known Wendy had a bit of a danger fixation. When they had been dating she had a habit of finding the most inappropriate places and corners to snatch him for a heavy petting session. He couldn't really complain, but it could be exhausting. That was one reason he hadn't been upset when she broke up with him. The constant risk of getting caught just wasn't ... romantic.

He had to hang his head when realized he lamented how unromantic Wendy could be. She wouldn't have mocked him for breaking out candles and rose petals. The reality was that there was at least one little brother, and four parents who would constantly be a threat to any canoodling they could safely initiate.

Well, that would have been a bonus to Wendy, except Kyle had already given up his foreskin for religion, he wasn't going to give up his balls for a female orgasm.

The whole point being he wasn't entirely surprised when Wendy came to him with a plan to retrieve and destroy the eight letters besides Stan's that Linda had distributed. He was still thinking about participating in "Operation: Deforestation" (a pun which wasn't worth explaining. Wendy had a strange sense of humor).

He had to wonder what his own motivation was for the more than 50% likelihood he would go along with Wendy's plan. He grumbled, but most of the time he could be pushed into doing things in which he didn't want to participate. Wendy wasn't even making an argument for why helping Linda and Stan not get reamed by a pair of conservative Catholic parents was morally, the better choice. He was.

And he had just been complaining to himself how he was tired of the ridiculous adventures. There was also the possibility this particular situation was a little more in the realm of reality, as compared being transported to a realm of demonic gods while existing as little more than the reactive emotion pertaining to his deepest fears.

Stan could really be hurt. If burning a few letters evaded his best friend being hurt, then dammit, he would set his hands on fire burning those letters.

He couldn't forget how Stan had beasted one of those scarecrows last year with no more than a lighter and a can of spray paint. Kyle imagined himself doing the same to those letters. Damage control wasn't a big thing to ask for - it wasn't even Stan asking for it.

He just hoped he didn't get tried as an adult for breaking and entering.

Stan knew something was up when Kyle and Wendy started sneaking around him. Wendy was a little better at being subtle, but Kyle was a horrible liar and even worse at keeping things from Stan. Most of that was that they'd never kept things from each other.

Well. Until the last couple of years.

"Are you two dating again? You need to stop whatever you're doing."

They had decided to go out for hot dogs that weekend, and were eating at Smashburger, as opposed to Whistlin' Willies which had lost its magic in recent years. Plus Smashburger had loud music over the speakers to cover the teenagers' conversation.

Kyle looked away in a totally-not-suspicious manner, "Don't know what you're talking about."

Stan stared at him, not amused and fork poised over his half-eaten hot dog (to be fair, it was a large hot dog). "You guys keep looking at each other and being like ..." he raised his hand and wiggled his fingers at them for lack of words, "Mind-read-y."

Wendy bit her lip, "You guys always do that."

Stan and Kyle looked at her simultaneously, "No we don't." They said in unison.

Wendy giggled.

Stan rolled his eyes and cut off a hunk of hot dog, "No but really." He said through chewing.

Kyle and Wendy exchanged glances and Stan scowled.

"Okay." Wendy held her hands up like she was framing a picture, "Imagine this."

Stan swallowed, "Is is aliens?" he said in a deadpan.

"No." Wendy replied with a quick nod of her head. Aliens were perfectly reasonable thing to assume in this instance, "We're going to commit, a felony."

Stan stared, expression plain and unimpressed, "No."

"Don't worry." Wendy said confidently, "Even if we're caught, we're underage, boys will be boys, all that stuff." She visibly back-pedaled, "I'm not asking you to do anything. Just telling."

Kyle was exasperated, "She asked me to do things."

Wendy grinned and elbowed Kyle in the side, "So many things." Kyle turned a nice shade of red.

Stan looked a little green, "First off, stop that. Second." He shook his head like a dog shaking off water, or the pain from a flea bite. "Why?" He held his palms out imploringly.

Wendy reached and grabbed his hand, "I want you to know that we care."

Stan stared at her hand wrapped around his, "Why did you bring me out here?" He looked between the two, "Are you two eloping? I don't think that's a felony."

It was Kyle's turn to roll his eyes, "Stan, Wendy broke up with me a while ago. No, we're gonna get those letters that Linda sent and burn them."

"Oh." Stan pinched the bridge of his nose, "Why? Exactly?"

Wendy picked up a fry and popped it in her mouth, thinking while she chewed, " I don't want Linda's parents finding out through the letters, seeing your name on them, and getting the holy Catholic ban hammer from their wrathful God, or whatever."

Kyle was looking at his phone, disinterestedly, "Mine would do that, too, ya know."

Wendy shot Kyle an unappreciative glare, "That's not the point." She turned back to Stan, expression determined, brown eyes glowing.

Stan was reminded of Linda's grey stare. He wondered if all girls did that when they were trying to look into his soul. He looked at Kyle, who was quietly watching between Stan and Wendy, and Stan thought Kyle could probably do the soul stare thing too if he wanted.

"I'm not telling you the details." Wendy paused, "It makes sense for you not to have the details. I just want you to know that this is going down. Also. I lied a bit." She watched Stan as she took a sip of her soda, "I want you to burn your copy of the letter. You don't need it now, anyway."

Stan groaned and picked at some relish that was on his hot dog, "Okay, Wendy." He said with resignation. He looked back up at her, "Can I talk you out of this?"

"Promise me you'll burn that letter."

"Yeah, I'll burn the letter. If dad finds it, it'll be trouble, anyways."

"Thanks, Stan." Wendy beamed, and took a huge bite of her food.

Kyle swore when he lost at Candy Crush.

Initially, Wendy had wanted Butters for Operation Deforestation for one main reason: He didn't have a lot of presence. At least, not when he was Butters. Marjorine was a different matter, but who she needed was Butters.

Except Wendy didn't have any leverage to persuade Butters to help her. Recently Butters had developed half a backbone. She was happy for him, really, she just could have used his pushover nature once before he developed as a person.

She didn't know who else might be the perfect amount of unnoticeable that would lend itself to breaking and entering. Sure, anyone could be quiet, but they also had to be quick-witted, used to slinking around in the background, and able to make the illusion of making themselves smaller, and someone who could keep a cool head if they got caught.

Wendy sighed. She wished Kenny were here. He knew a lot of people.

The plan was flawed in the first place. She was counting on nearly every house in South Park having the same floor plans (not an unreasonable assumption, all the houses were built by the same construction company), people having predictable sleep schedules, and that whomever she picked wouldn't snitch.

In retrospect, Butters probably wasn't the best option as far as "not snitching" and "keeping a cool head" but she trusted his sense of discretion to be able to decipher if he needed to abandon ship or simply keep his head down.

Who did she know?

Eric Cartman stood looking at Wendy Testaberger on his doorstep that weekend. She looked none-too-happy to be there and was wearing a vest, slacks and had a purse over her shoulder that looked like it could double as a carpet-bag. She looked like she was there for an interview.

"Uh." Cartman peeked out the doorway and looked both ways, scanning the area for spies, or assassins or whatever the fuck Wendy would bring with him. He had been quiet for a while now, dammit, what was she here for?

He looked back at her, Wendy's face souring. "So, uh," Cartman started in befuddlement, "If you're here for my mehm, she's out of town this weekend..."

"I'm here to speak to you, Eric." Wendy said in stiff, clipped tones. Her shoulders hunched, "If Butters isn't here, that is."

Eric didn't respond, simply turning around and leaving the door open. Wendy guessed that was permission to enter. She walked inside and quietly closed the door.

Eric stood in his living room, hands on his hips, trying to think of what to do next. He turned to look over his shoulder at the girl in his house. "Kitchen's that way." He pointed. Eric appeared completely lost.

Good, Wendy was entirely uncomfortable being here. The situation was almost laughable, but she was out of ideas. She had no more connections concerning her cause.

She sat at Eric Cartman's table while he sat on the other side. Wendy felt like she was about to propose a hit.

"So." Cartman started, eyeing her warily, "How can I help you...?"

Wendy sat straight, folding her hands on the table. "Do you know about Stan?"

Eric mimicked her posture, "You're gonna have to be more specific. Stan's had a lot of shit going on the last few years."

"Linda Triscotti." Wendy stated blandly, unwilling to play Cartman's mind games.

Cartman's face remained passive, "And how they're dating?"

Wendy matched his gaze head-on, "Do you know the nature of it?"

"Everybody does, Wendy." Cartman said with a slight sneer. "That it's a complete lie."

Wendy nodded once, folding her fingers in front of her so she wouldn't crack them out of nervous habit. She wasn't so much nervous as irritable, but she didn't want Cartman to misunderstand her. "Eric." She started evenly, "Do you care about Stan's well-being?"

Cartman's eyes narrowed, and he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and a foot over his leg. "Depends on why you're asking, I guess."

"It's a yes or no question." Wendy stared him down. "Do you care about Stan's well-being?"

Cartman grunted, eyes flickering over Wendy's face as he searched for any hidden meaning behind them. He wasn't the type of person to explicitly express worry or care about someone outside of trying to get things from them. Butters, thus far, was the only person he had gone out of his way for. He wouldn't stand for someone threatening what he considered his property. So he told himself. Cartman thought Stan was an idiot at the worst of times, and alright to watch football with at the best. They had never been extremely close, they had never had notable dynamics beside "okay with each other" (amiable might be pushing the descriptor), and Eric was hard-pressed to say he "cared" about Stan. The caring of Stan was Kyle's job.

Still. He had been shitty but understood why Kyle hijacked his mom's car. He really hadn't know Stan was going off the deep end, although he should have guessed. It wasn't his responsibility to be troubled over people who hardly bothered to talk to him.

But did he care about Stan's well-being?

"Care's a strong word." Cartman said reluctantly. "I care the same way people care about those starving African kids on the commercials." He rolled his eyes, "That's a slight damper on my otherwise okay day,they say. When's Springer coming back on?" Cartman's leg started bouncing in an agitated way, "But I guess I'd throw the kid a bread crust if he came to me personally."

It was harder to ignore what was directly in front of you. Stan was easy to ignore; He hardly came to Cartman, but Kyle was less easy to ignore when he was constantly bitching about Stan's moods.

Wendy went quiet, pulling her hands to her mouth as her eyes glazed over and she thought. Cartman remained silent, although his knee was still bouncing. Finally, Wendy looked up, eyes brown and bright.

"Do you still have connections?"

Cartman froze, face morphing into something darker. "What do you mean?"

Wendy scowled, "I need someone who will do a break-in job. It's nothing particularly valuable, but I need those letters from Linda Triscotti destroyed, for my own peace of mind." She gauged Cartman's reaction, not reading anything particularly antagonistic from him, "Stan doesn't need to be involved, but I've got Kyle and possibly one other."

Cartman unfolded his arms, leaning heavily against the table and tapping his fingers, "What do I get out of this?"

Wendy immediately reached into her slacks' pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, pushing it across the table. Cartman shot her a curious glance and reached for it, unfolding the paper. His eyebrows raised.

"Where are you getting this?"

Wendy scoffed, "Don't you worry about that. I have it in my handbag."

Cartman's cheeks started turning a shade of pink. He stared at the paper for a moment longer, before standing and shuffling through a kitchen drawer. He pulled out a pen, flipped over the paper onto the counter and scribbled something onto the paper.

He turned back to Wendy, towering over her as she was still sitting. She calmly folded her hands onto her lap. Cartman started to hold the paper out to her, but pulled his hand away at the last moment, "Show it to me." He said.

Wendy nodded and reached into her purse, pulling out a green-colored record sleeve, opened but in good edition. A signature was on the front. She pulled the black record out of its sleeve so Cartman could see.

Cartman looked like he stopped breathing.

"The name?" Wendy asked coolly.

He held the slip of paper forward. She took it between her fingers, handing the album over. They released their bounties simultaneously.

Wendy stood, straightening her vest and readjusting her now empty bag, "Pleasure doing business with you." She said. And left the kitchen to show herself out.

When Wendy was outside, she grinned when she heard Cartman's squealing from inside the house. They had what they wanted.

Cartman; A Dennis DeYoung-signed copy of Styx's "Come Sail Away" single record.

She flipped the paper open and felt her eyebrows raise.

Herself; A name written on a slip of paper - Karen McCormick.

In retrospect she should have guessed Karen would be a good candidate for stealthily breaking and entering. Not for the obvious, stereotypical reason that Karen sometimes had to shoplift to have anything to eat after school, but Kenny had kept up the Mysterion bit well into middle school. Mysterion had been one of South Park's worst-kept secrets, something the police had tolerated because Kenny had an unsurprising number of connections to Colorado's criminal rings.

Wendy supposed reaching an age where money became more desperate changed some things. The point was, Kenny had taught Karen some skills that weren't necessarily suited for poor people.

At least Wendy supposed. The walk to Kenny's (More like 'The McCormicks') part of town left Wendy thinking a little too hard. She wasn't nervous, exactly. She just hadn't built enough of a repertoire with Karen to feel justified asking for a favor.

She wasn't exactly asking for a favor - she had payment prepared, just like with Cartman, and she was pretty sure Karen would be easier to bargain with.

Wendy didn't feel any more comfortable knocking on a 15-year-old's window at 8 p.m. She could hear Stuart and Carol arguing in the living room.

Wendy waited, and knocked again. Waited, and knocked again. Somehow the possibility that Karen would be out of the house hadn't occurred to her. Wendy scowled: Nothing was going to plan and it was seriously starting to get to her. Turning on her phone, the clock said the time was 8:16, plenty of time for Karen to have answered or told her to fuck off. Wendy sighed, pocketing her phone and turning to pluck her way through the wrecked backyard.

When she turned, a small figured loomed over her. Wendy squinted in the bad light before startling, "Kare-?"

A sharp pain hit her, and Wendy's world went black.

Kyle watched Stan pace from Stan's bed. They were waiting for a text from Linda. Kyle was pretty sure he hadn't properly smelled Stan since a junior high football game, but if he tried really hard, Stan still had sweating nervously through his t-shirt down to an art. At least Stan wasn't puking, although he looked pretty damn close.

"It'll be fine." Kyle drawled. "Your parents are going to more suspicious if you act weird."

Stan shook his head, pausing in his valiant attempt to walk a hole into the carpet, "There are so many things that could go wrong." He looked at Kyle, blue eyes bright with panic, "I can't believe I let Wendy talk me into this."

"I can." Kyle said, bored. He pulled out his phone and opened a game, flopping backwards to sprawl. Stan's jitteriness was making Kyle consciously choose to be calm. Really, the more he thought about what Stan had agreed to, the more he wanted to yell at him, but what was done was done. Now they were going on a "date" and Kyle had agreed to be a spotter, essentially. He hoped Linda brought someone. If Randy got nosy they could play the evening off as a double date. Kyle also hoped Stan didn't have aspirations to be an actor, unless the play had a very specific scene where Stan needed to projectile vomit.

Kyle snickered to himself while he swiped at his phone screen. Stan stopped pacing again and squinted with suspicion.


"Nothing." Kyle lied.

"You're giggling."

Kyle sniffed, "I don't giggle, and no."

"What is it?" Stan demanded.

"Don't worry about it."

Kyle made the mistake of focusing his attention on his phone and was rudely brought back to alert when Stan bodily sat on Kyle's knees where they were hanging off the bed.

It fucking hurt. Stan was short, but heavy.

"Jesus!" Kyle swore, dropping his phone and sitting upright to shove Stan away. He sense Stan's smugness and didn't have time to brace when Stan essentially jumped backwards, twisting just enough to land an elbow in Kyle's stomach.

Kyle wheezed and swung what was supposed to be fist, but he ended up boxing Stan's ear with his palm.

What followed was a chaotic blur that ended with Kyle with a split lip and Stan several bruises on his arm. They didn't stop wrestling until Sharon came running in to see her son in a headlock but refusing to tap out.

Sharon glanced down at Stan with mild concern, determined that he was turning purple and politely asked Kyle to stop.

Sharon fought off a smile, leaning in Stan's doorway while Stan lay face down on the floor, "Do I have to separate you two?"

"No, Mrs. Marsh." Kyle grinned.

Sharon rolled her eyes. Kyle hadn't seriously called her 'Mrs.' for 15 years. She cast an assessing glance at her son who gave her a thumbs up before she backed out of the room and closed the door.

Kyle snickered, "Feel better?"

Stan nodded, face returning to a normal color, "Yeah. Actually." he said to the carpet. He huffed, finally catching his breath. Stan turned his head to look up at Kyle who was looking down at him with a thoughtful expression.

Stan squinted up at him, "What?"

Kyle shrugged, "This whole thing is fucked up." He said matter of factly.

Stan sighed, "Yeah."

Stan's phone started vibrating on his desk, buzzing a few times before falling silent. That was their cue.

Stan and Kyle managed to get out of the house with no interception. Linda had been waiting for them in her car, but Kyle caught that Sharon had been peeking out at them through the living room curtains.

Now they were huddled away in a corner at Denny's, trying to break through the awkward atmosphere. This was Kyle's first time meeting Linda. She had brought a friend, another senior named Gregoria Johnson, and now she and Kyle were staring at each other while Linda and Stan talked quietly. Gregoria was tall, pretty, and had the demeanor of a body-guard. She tapped aloofly at her phone with nails that clacked against the screen, occasionally glancing up when she sensed Kyle staring at her.

Kyle was bored out of his mind.

He tried to half-listen to Linda and Stan's conversation but it was along the lines "what should we know about each other in case our parents ask" and seemed restrained to one-worded answers. There wasn't much discussion to be had.

"So," Kyle started, having exhausted checking all the social media on his phone, "How long have you two known each other?" He gestured to Linda with his head. Linda and Stan paused in their talking long enough to realize they weren't being spoken to before continuing.

Gregoria shrugged, still not looking up, "This year."

Kyle wanted to nit-pick and tell her that wasn't really a proper response, but he guess that answered the question. He tried not to groan, "You guys close?"


It was like talking to a wall. At least Wendy wouldn't have to worry about this one ratting on anyone. Kyle started bouncing his knee. He wasn't really used to being so stagnant anymore - basketball practice seemed too far away.

"How'd you meet?"


Jesus fucking Christ.

Kyle grit his teeth, trying very hard not to throw his napkin-wrapped silverware at this girl. He tried again, "You in anything?" He started picking at his napkin irately, "I'm in basketball, so clubs, or anything?"

Gregoria glanced up with a smidgen more interest than before, "Theatre."

Theatre he could run with, "Yeah?" He pushed further, "Are you in this year's play?"

"No. I'm a backstage hand." Gregoria looked up from her phone, smirking minutely, "I'll buy your lunch if you can tell me what play it is."

Kyle felt a strained smile cross where he normally would have told her to fuck off. He didn't understand the point of quizzing him on something that had nothing to do with the situation. All four were tense, okay, pick his brain for something important. Whatever. Free lunch.

"The Importance of Being Earnest." Kyle responded. Maybe she thought him technically being a jock made him stupid. He didn't this kind of crap before this year. Maybe he should have stayed where he was accustomed and spent his weeknights loitering at Harbucks with Wendy and Token.

Gregoria's eyebrows raised in surprise, "Ah. Yeah. " She lay her phone on the table. "Have you seen it?"

Oh, finally. Gregoria was like cracking a damn code. Input the correct line of bullshit and he'd be able to find her secrets. Kyle felt like he should being wearing a Star Trek uniform. Or maybe dress as Morpheus and hack the Matrix, whatever the fuck that movie was about.

"Nah, I read it though. That, and the Picture of Dorian Gray. Have you read any of Wilde's other stuff?"


Okay, maybe the code wasn't quite right, but Gregoria hadn't reached for her phone yet, so that was a good sign.

Kyle managed to drag bits of information from Gregoria, while Stan and Linda talked for a surprisingly long time, even after finishing their food.

Gregoria met Linda on tinder when they were throwing out the worst lesbian pickup lines- they weren't actually in the same class but talked a lot anyway. Linda's parents were traditional Catholics, though they were actually pretty nice when they didn't think you were a walking pillar of sin (an oxymoron in Kyle's opinion). Linda was more likely to be kicked out or sent away than anything. Neither scenario would bother Linda except her girlfriend was in South Park, and leaving her was the last thing she wanted.

Kyle almost got the girlfriend's name before Gregoria caught herself. He supposed it didn't matter. He was mostly relieved that Gregoria was giving out too many details for the situation to be fake. He wasn't sure what was worse - Stan being roped into something for some ungodly reason, or knowing someone who was afraid of their parents.

Kyle glanced at Stan, who had also seemed to relax and was chattering in a relaxed way. Kyle thought about how Henrietta was dragging Stan into something that could potentially backfire. She had helped contribute to Stan's meltdown in freshman year, neglected to inform anyone that he had been actively suicidal, and now he found out they had —

Kyle scowled, and looked back at Gregoria, who didn't seem to mind the conversational lag. He felt a nudge at his side.

"Hey, we're going." Stan said, looking eager to push Kyle out of the booth. Stan turned to Linda and grinned, "Good meeting. Hey." Stan's eyebrows raised and he looked at Kyle with hesitation, "We're going to Denver for the weekend next week. Do you think your parents would let you come?"

Linda looked at him like Stan was crazy. Kyle resisted the urge to strangle him. "Um," Linda started, glancing at Kyle, "I'm not sure why you're inviting me ..."

Stan rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed, "I was more thinking, I dunno." He looked at Kyle for support but Kyle just frowned at him, not sure what he was thinking and certainly not wanting to encourage whatever line it was following. "You could bring your girlfriend, or whatever. And get away from South Park? We're gonna look at stadiums or something, so it's not like you'd have to stick with us."

Recognition flickered across Linda's face and she nodded, smiling thinly but earnestly. "I'll see what I can do. I appreciate the offer."

A pang was in Kyle's chest, watching Linda smile back at him. Now they were hanging out together on the weekends? This was getting way too invasive to Kyle's personal life.

But, he didn't think the girls across from them were lying. Stan was getting too comfortable with this whole situation and damn if Kyle was going to let someone hurt Stan again. At least if Stan got hurt, it should be Stan's own fault and Kyle would be there to dump ice water on Stan's head.

Smiling and polite, Kyle bid the girls goodbye, paid for his own dinner and listened to Stan talk about plans to meet Linda's parents.

The next time Stan and Kyle saw Wendy, she had a black eye. She looked rather intimidating and hardened with her face fairly black, and the crowded hallway parted for her like the Red Sea as she stalked through. Her high-headed posture didn't lend itself for people to ask questions, though the same kids who made room for her stared and muttered to each other. With whom would Wendy Testaburger get into a fight?

"Holy crap!" Stan rushed at Wendy in the hallway, leaving his locker open and backpack on the floor. Kyle reached and shut Stan's locker most of the way while he finished retrieving her things. Wendy held herself with the dignity of someone who was bracing for questions. "What happened?" Stan blustered.

Kyle finished, and when he took a closer look he felt his jaw drop, first shocked by her appearance, before it registered that someone had hit Wendy.

"Who do we have to kill?" Kyle scowled after he had locked his locker and pushed his way over to his friends. Wendy smirked shallowly, openly irritated but somehow pleased with herself. Stan tensed when she turned her bruised face to him.

"I got one of the letters." She said, barely audible over the rabble of the hallway. People had already lost interest since she wasn't encouraging interaction.

Kyle half-expected her to retrieve the letter from her pocket, but Wendy wasn't so dumb. In light of Stan's dumb, surprised silence, she added, "I burned it. And before you ask, no it wasn't one of them who got me. I'd rather not talk about it."

Stan nodded, calming and looking a little annoyed, "You really don't have to do this, Wendy. I don't really understand why you're so into this."

Wendy glanced at Kyle and shrugged. "Don't worry about it. There's six letters left," she pinned Stan with a pointed stare, "Assuming you got rid of yours."

Stan nodded, "I did." He confirmed. He gave Wendy a concerned once-over and puffed his chest, "Are you sure you're okay? You ..." He trailed off when Wendy rolled her eyes.

"Don't worry, I can take a hit." She grinned, although to Kyle it looked forced, "I've done and taken worse. Just let me know if you somehow take care of those letters." She turned on her heel, bouncing away.

Stan turned to Kyle, looking at a loss, "What do I do?" He held out his hands imploringly.

Kyle frowned, shifting his book bag over his shoulder, "I'll talk to her." He said. "You just focus on your stuff. If Wendy's decided something, then." He shrugged, "She's decided something."

Stan still didn't appear extraordinarily pleased, but finished gathering his things before heading to class.

Kyle spent a fair amount of time the rest of the day antagonizing Wendy. He shared two AP classes with her, and passed her in the hallways during passing period for a few others. English was a particular adventure, given they had been given partnered free time and Kyle chose to spend his time repeatedly asking Wendy who had given her a black eye, and breaking down for her why she should stop ignoring him. He was very scientific about the whole thing. She looked like she could murder him, and the black eye made her more intimidating.

"Listen, Kyle." Wendy hissed over her literature book. "I already got the riot act from my parents, the school counselor, and the principal. Everyone seems to be selectively forget exactly how well I can handle myself."

Kyle was a little taken aback, and silently gauged the likelihood of Wendy successfully kicking his ass. He thought he could take her. He was an athlete.

"I assure you, there's nothing to worry about and it won't happen again." She paused thoughtfully, "At least with this person."

Kyle sighed through his nose, exasperated and getting bored of trying to get Wendy to talk. He picked up one their lit books and absently flipped the pages, "Just be careful."

Wendy nodded, relief passing her expression that Kyle seemed to be giving up. "Just do that thing I asked you."

Kyle frowned, but nodded. "Yeah. On it."

A reasonable amount of Wendy's grand planning involved Kyle schmoozing with the people who had been listed. He wasn't sure where she got the idea that he would be any good at somehow just happening to casually bring up whether or not the letters still existed. Maybe she was just trying to keep Kyle busy. Kyle was busy enough, thank you.

He suspected Wendy wasn't actually banking on his espionage skills, but on the chance he could get some simple yes or no answers, he could save her some time.

Luckily, his first assignment was to accost someone with whom he had a little experience. Jonathon Li was on the softball team and they passed each other sometimes in the nurse's office to get ice packs. He was short, sort of chubby and didn't look like a junior, talk or emote much. Raking his brain, Kyle tried to think of how to approach the letter subject, and as soon as he passed Jonathon in the boy's restroom, Kyle felt like an idiot for not thinking to just ask.

So that's how Kyle found out about the third letter -standing next to Jonathon Li after sharing a peeing experience and were silently washing their hands in an otherwise empty bathroom.

"So uh, Jon?" Asked Kyle as he turned off the faucet.

Jonathon looked at him blankly, seeming startled for being addressed.

"I was wondering," Kyle wiped his hands off on his jeans, watching Jonathon's reaction in the mirror, "Did you still have that letter Linda sent?"

Jonathon's eyebrows raised, but his expression didn't flicker. He turned off the the faucet. "No." He said flatly. "I threw it out. Thought it was a joke." He moved to use the hand-dryer and looked at Kyle curiously, "Why?"

Kyle started to leave, hesitating, trying to think of an excuse, then remembered who he was talking to and shrugged, "Just didn't want something like that with Stan's name on it floating around."

"Ah." Jonathon nodded, and didn't say anything else, marking the end of their conversation.

When Kyle exited the bathroom, he allowed himself a small victory grin. That was three out of eight.

"I don't get why you're doing this." Stan grumbled as he played his PSP on the floor. Kyle lay sprawled on his stomach on Stan's bed, kicking his feet idly. "Seems dumb."

"The same reason you're helping Linda." Kyle watched the PSP's screen. "Only I make some damn sense because I know you." He had come over the next day to tell Stan about Jonathon. Kyle was a little proud of handling everything so easily. Stan had just been annoyed.

"We went on a date." Stan countered defensively. "We went on two. I even mentioned her to my parents."

"Oooh the parents." Kyle teased, "Now your dad will stop insinuating that you're a homo."

Stan didn't respond because he died on his level. He grumbled and set the PSP down with a motion that implied he'd rather throw it. He huffed and looked backwards up at Kyle, "It's stupid game. I'm bored."

Kyle leaned his chin into his hand, "My mom still thinks you're corrupting me."

"Let's go graffiti the bridge."

"See?" Kyle said with exasperation.

Stan chewed his lip as he spaced out in thought, "Did Wendy give you any other names?'

Kyle's eyebrows raised, "Yeah, one more."

Both fell silent as Kyle deigned to elaborate. Stan huffed, "Well?"

"You're supposed to be focusing."

Stan rolled his eyes, "According to Wendy's orders. You don't even care about this that much."

That wasn't entirely true. The more Kyle thought about it, the more uneasy he became with the potential, very real consequences. He thought about Butters living in Cartman's basement.

Kyle sighed and rolled over onto his back so he didn't have to look at Stan, "Wally Winston."

"Who the fuck names their kid Wally?"

"The Winstons?" Kyle scrunched his nose at the ceiling, "I think his sister is in my class. Her name is Wylma."

"Ew." Stan cocked his head to the side to look at Kyle, "People who use alliteration on their children are the worst."

"Kind of like parents who only use 'S's to name their kids? And the dog?"

"Shut up. At least our names sound different." Stan stood and stretched, raising the end of shirt with his arms. He wasn't anywhere close to fat, but had long lost the muscle definition that came with sports. Stan turned to Kyle, who continued to stare while upside down. "Well, let's go find out about the letter."

"Urg." Kyle scowled. He had wanted one night. One quiet night. "Can't we send out a mass email?" He may actually find a reason to kill Wendy. Her parents were probably spies training her to be obnoxiously proficient at finding conspiracies, overthinking and dragging innocent bystanders into her damage control plans. The damage control was probably going to do more damage than the letters themselves, Kyle worried.

Stan shrugged, "You guys decided to go all Mission Impossible. Just asking Jon worked, right?"

Kyle pressed his lips together, "Yeah, but I know him, kinda. Who the fuck is Wally?"

Stan shrugged his shoulders up to his ears, getting exasperated, "Fuck if I know. Did Wendy give you an address?"

Kyle wanted to bang his head into the wall. Of course she did, and of course Stan would think to ask. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket with the air of someone being very bothered. Which he was. He was very, very bothered. "Here."

Stan took the phone and read Wendy's text, which was just an address. His eyebrows raised, "This is Token's side of town."

"Hrm." Kyle frowned. He was starting to get a headache from watching Stan from his upside down position. "I thought it sounded familiar."

Stan nodded absently, "Let's go."

It didn't take long to reach Token's side of town. Kyle knew the way, and the address wasn't within Token's gated community - just located where Stan and Kyle felt like eyesores among the well-maintained lawns, trees, and huge houses that could probably be classified as mansions. The house was easy enough to locate, and after a moment's hesitation, Stan and Kyle walked up the driveway and rang the bell. There were two stories and what looked like the ornate window to an attic. The two boys were dwarfed by the house.

The door opened and a middle-aged man answered with a sour expression, "Yes?" He asked, "May I help you?"

Stan locked into silence with a not-so-much petrified expression, as confused. Kyle took over quickly, "Yes, does Willy live here? We stopped by to ask him something."

The man eyeballed the boys and sniffed, "Yes, just a moment." He started to turn before he paused, "What are your names?"

Kyle smiled in a way he hoped was blinding. This man made him want to commit arson, "Kyle Broflovski, and Stan Marsh. We're from school."

Stan kept silent until the door shut, "Eh." He nudged Kyle's side, "I wasn't expecting a butler."

Kyle rolled his eyes and shoved back with his shoulder. Stan retaliated, and by the time the door was opening again they were half in the middle of a contest to see who could shove the other over.

Wally Winston was an average-looking boy with a pudgy face, brown hair and beady eyes. He looked like his name, and gave Stan and Kyle an unpleasant look exactly like the one of the man who answered the door. "Can I help you?"

Stan clammed again and Kyle wondered why he bothered coming, "Hi. Uh, I go to your school..."

"I know who you are." Wally interrupted, wrinkling his nose and glancing at Stan.

"Well then." Kyle smiled brightly, "Can we talk to you privately?"

"Is this not private enough? No one can hear."

Jesus Christ Kyle wanted to punch in the kid's face and give him a better expression. Kyle felt his face straining, "Uh yeah. Then I'll get to the point. We were wondering if you had the letter Linda Triscotti sent to everyone."

Wally inched backwards, closing the door slightly, "Why?"

Kyle started to answer but Stan finally spoke, "I'm going out with her." He said. Stan seemed to find at least enough gusto to speak with confidence. Kyle was sure he was faking, "I don't feel comfortable knowing those letters might be out for anyone to read."

"What. So." Wally sneered, "Her parents might get a hold of them and figure out what a lying sack of shit you are? Not my problem."

Kyle started to step forward, feeling himself bristle. Wally shut the door further and spoke quickly, "For the record, not that it's your business," Wally said imperiously, "I keep all my confession letters. I don't feel comfortable throwing them away. Someone put their heart into it, and it's like throwing away someone's heart."

Good lord this kid was full of shit. Linda's letter was probably the only one he had.

"We'll pay you for it." Stan tried quickly. Kyle sure as hell wasn't putting money into this.

Wally sniffed, "Like I need your money. Please leave my house." With that, he shut the door. Kyle could hear the dead-bolt turning.

"Well," Stan said flatly, "That turned out well."

Kyle stared at the pristine white door with the blank expression of someone trying very hard not to scream. He started pounding on the door.

After about 30 seconds, Wally opened the door again, "I will call the police." He said.

"What can we give you for the letter?" Kyle demanded.

Wally's eyebrows raised, expression shifting to being very peeved. "It is that important?"


"Yes." Kyle and Stan replied in-tandem.

"Well." Wally eyeballed the two on his doorstep, "I can think of one thing. It would ... amuse me."

Kyle scowled, "Name it."

Wally opened the door and stepped forward, chest puffing imperiously, "I challenge you to a shooting competition."

Kyle and Stan exchanged glances before looking back at Wally. "Excuse me?" Kyle asked.

Wally's smirk became very self-satisfied. "I am an expert marksman and have won many shooting competitions. We have a shooting range in the back. I challenge you to beat me in a duel, and I shall give you the letter as a prize."

"Dude. No way." Kyle said in a deadpan.

Stan stepped forward, bracing his arm across Kyle's chest, "We accept your challenge." He said defiantly. "But I want to see the letter first, to make sure you're not fucking with us."


Wally seemed pleased, "Like I would be so dishonorable. Please come inside."

Kyle seethed. They walked inside the house, which was about as expansive as Token's, but apparently with more land in the back. Stan shrugged sheepishly at Kyle as Wally led them through the house to the backyard, which was less of a backyard and more of a field leading into an expanse. The back of the housing edition was undeveloped; There were no structures indicating human occupation after the edition; Wild nature.

Sure enough, there were a line of targets against the treeline that divided the undeveloped land from the house's yard. Wally puffed proudly as Stan and Kyle openly surveyed the ridiculously huge backyard.

"Who will I be competing against?" Wally asked.

"Him." The boys said simultaneously. Kyle looked down his nose at Stan, and Stan glared defiantly.

"You're better with guns." Stan protested. "They make me nervous."

"Stop volunteering me!"

Wally scoffed, "I'll get the rifles while you two sort yourselves out." He turned on his heel and walked away.

When the back door shut, Kyle whirled on Stan, "What is your problem?" He hissed.

"Listen." Stan made a hand motion to indicate Kyle should lower his voice, "Either we win it fair and square, or we steal it from under his nose."

"What kind of plan is that?"

"A better one than whatever you had going!"

Kyle bristled, teeth baring into a snarl, "I swear to god, I'm going shoot you with whatever he brings."

The door slid open with perfect timing and Wally walked out, perfectly collected, "Unfortunately," He said, "I'm bringing blanks. I suppose you could still kill someone with them." A bag sagging over his forearm, and a hunting rifle in each hand, he carefully lay the firearms on a nearby wooden bench. The safeties were on and glared red at them."Who shall I be competing against?"

Kyle's shoulders sagged in defeat, "Me."

"Excellent!" Wally chirped, "You seemed to have more backbone. I shall get the targets ready."

Stan grumbled as Wally walked off to put fresh paper targets on the bulls eyes, "The only thing he's an expert at is being a prick."

Kyle clicked his tongue in annoyance, "You got yourself into this."

"Go fuck yourself."

"You first."

As soon as Wally returned within earshot, Stan crossed his arms across his chest and glared, "Did you bring the letter so we can see it?"

"Of course." Wally picked up his back and started pulling out items. He passed hearing protection to both Stan and Kyle, lay a box of blanks next to the rifles, before retrieving what appeared to be a framed picture. Upon closer inspection it was Linda's letter, neatly framed and on display.

Stan fought the urge to gag.

Wally held the frame out for Kyle and Stan to inspect, "As you see." Wally preened, "This is it. I would never throw away a lady's request."

Stan sneered, "You're not the one helping her."

Wally tossed his head, "It was an unreasonable request."

"Can we get this over with?" Kyle chided, putting the hard plastic and foam earmuffs around his neck and walking to the rifles.

Wally tsk'd but walked over, setting the frame on the bench. He reached for the box of blanks to distribute to himself and Kyle, "Five rounds." He said, "My guest is welcome to go first, of course. Unless you would prefer to go second. Do you find that agreeable?"

"Whatever." Kyle chose a rifle and accepted the rounds. "Let's get this over with."

Wally looked at Stan, who was inching his way toward the framed letter. "I would feel more at ease if you would stand over here." He gestured to a place away from the bench, and also from the marked spots where they would be standing.

Stan pretended not to be put off that Wally was keeping him within his field of vision.

Wally smiled amiably, "Thank you, Stan." He looked at Kyle, "Would you like a handicap? I can shoot from the furthest mark, and you from the closest."

Kyle gritted his teeth, "Let's use the midrange and call it even."

"Of course." Wally chirped, unworried. "That is fair. Take all the time you need."

Kyle did terribly. Even though most of his bullets at least hit the paper, they weren't worth half the score Wally got. Wally even had a whole ritual he went through before actually pulling the trigger. Kyle wondered if he could be arrested for shooting the prick in the foot.

"How unfortunate." Wally gloated. "I guess you don't get the letter."

Stan pulled his earmuffs off from where he stood, "Let me shoot." He said, eyebrows knitting stubbornly, "If I win, we still get the letter."

Wally seemed more amused than put-upon, "If that would put this whole thing to rest. I'll put up new targets."

Stan did even worse. He could barely keep the rifle straight and flinched with the rebound. Kyle watched from where Stan had stood, tapping his foot impatiently.

Wally did even better than the first round. "Terribly disappointing. At least you both tried." He crooned obnoxiously.

"Yeah." Stan sighed, lowering his rifle, and pulling off his earmuffs. "Guess you got us, fair and square." He tilted his head and looked at the side of his rifle, "Can you show me how to put this safety on?"

"Of course." Wally stepped forward. "You just—"


Kyle watched the whole thing in slow motion, as Stan raised the butt of the rifle and slammed it full force against Wally's head. While Wally stumbled, Stan dropped the rifle, the earmuffs and made a dart for the picture frame.

Kyle dropped his earmuffs and started running from the backyard to the side of the house.

"Shit shit shit." Kyle glanced over his shoulder and Stan was behind him, the frame cradled in his arm as he ran.

He was going to murder this asshole. His best friend.

They got about halfway to Stan's house when they realized no one was behind them, no one was chasing. Kyle slowed but kept walking, and Stan stumbled up behind him, face red from wheezing and exertion.

Finally they stopped walking completely, standing silently on the sidewalk. Kyle was quickly catching his breath - Stan leaned over, clutching his side.

Stan started laughing.

Kyle started laughing.

They laughed until they were both on the ground, wheezing in the middle of the sidewalk from hysterics. The universe was a bizarre place, and they were half-terrified that a gun-toting maniac was going to come after them for a high school girl's letter.

Eventually they started to calm, and Kyle stood first, reaching out his hand to help Stan stand. They made it to Stan's house in silence, the only hiccup in communication when Stan tugged Kyle's sleeve to go into the backyard.

Kyle watched as Stan opened the top of Randy's barbecue. Stan pulled the letter out of the frame, dropping the frame to the ground and stuffed the letter into the grill's railing. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Inside the cigarettes was a blue lighter. Stan proceeded to light the letter, and they watched the paper curl, burn and char until the paper disintegrated and floated away.

Stan sighed, stooping to pick up the frame. He looked at it tiredly, "Should I get rid of this?" He asked.


Stan glanced at Kyle and offered him the frame. Kyle took it, looking around. He chose to fling it against the fence, shattering the glass and breaking the fake wood into pieces. They ended up burning what they could in the grill and dumping the glass in the Marsh's garage garbage, calling it a day.

Kyle hadn't seen Stan laugh like that in a long time. Kyle decided he liked the full feeling in his heart when Stan's face was pink, when Stan grinned so wide he couldn't open his eyes.

Karen was significantly more formidable than Wendy expected. When Kenny was alive, Karen mostly kept to herself when anyone was - holed in her room, or playing Kenny's old PSP in the corner. No one had time to really get to know her past "Kenny's baby sister."

Karen was cold in the way kind people are. That element of Karen's personality was something Wendy respected even though she wasn't capable of understanding the stresses of Karen's life. Karen was someone who demanded respect, and demanded to have her respect earned.

Knocking Wendy blind was one was to do earn respect, although normally ineffectual. The first night Wendy attempted to approach Karen, Karen didn't recognize her, knocked Wendy silly with an old chair, then proceeded to wrestle Wendy to the ground and punch Wendy square in the eye.

"Wendy!?' Karen yelped, recognition dawning on her when Wendy cried out more in surprise than pain. The girl had a mean left hook. Karen scrambled off of Wendy, "Man, you can't come sneaking around like that." Karen helped Wendy stand, "I gotta know you're coming. Shit, I'll get you something for your face."

A grabbed bag of frozen snow peas was as much of an apology as Wendy received, and she wouldn't have asked for more, given why she was here.

"Where'd you learn to hit like that?" Wendy asked once she was inside Karen's room, pressing the peas on her eye.

Karen sat next to Wendy on the floor, "Kids who gave me shit 'cause Kenny was dealin' to their older siblings." She said blithely. Seeing Wendy's concerned expression, Karen added, "I never told Ken. He woulda felt like shit about it."

"He should have." Wendy frowned. Karen shrugged and pulled out her cellphone, which was a flip phone, though it looked relatively new. "So, why you here? You never come around. You must need something."

Wendy flinched at that, but Karen wasn't wrong so Wendy pressed forward with business. Karen nodded as she listened, eventually lowering her phone to take in the information attentively. Wendy could see Karen's brain working as she gave her information, taking note of addresses and names.

"That's all fine." Karen said at the end, "But how you gonna pay?"

Wendy reached into her back pocket and pushed an envelope across the floor. Karen's eyebrows raised at the cash, then she shook the envelope at Wendy, eyebrows knitting, unimpressed. "Man, this ain't shit."

Wendy sniffed, "For the first one of your choice. There's more money, and I'm willing to pay more as the stakes are raised - alarm systems and such. I was told you're about as professional as they come around here."

"Don't flatter me." Karen scoffed, "You got my name, knew I'm poor as shit and thought, ah look, someone expendable and desperate. She'll do."

Wendy hadn't thought in those words, exactly, but Karen wasn't wrong.

"Give me the addresses. I'll probably do Fred's house. Should be easy."

Wendy was taken aback when Karen stood and started changing clothes. She took the mostly defrosted pack of peas off her eye, "Now?" Wendy asked.

Karen looked at Wendy like she was stupid, "Well, yeah. You paid upfront, and it should be an easy job. Go home and I'll contact you tomorrow. Oh." Karen pulled out her phone again and threw it at Wendy, who caught it easily, "Put your number in. And don't you dare contact me explicitly through text, that shit gets you arrested."

Wendy was offended, "Of course not."

Karen smirked, "Well, you don't have the best record right now, for common sense."

Wendy's face throbbed in reminder. A person as tiny and scrawny as Karen had no right to be so strong. Wendy wasn't one to hold a grudge on other girls for being better, however, especially when Karen was waiting for her outside her house the next day, right before Wendy left for school.

"Here." Karen said that morning. She handed over an envelope to Wendy, who was slightly off-kilter. Wendy opened the letter to check, and sure enough the correct letter was inside. She hadn't expected Karen to actually follow-through so quickly. "Easy work. The next place should be easy too." Karen gave Wendy a pointed look, "I'm gonna have to ask for more though. I charge extra for dogs."

Wendy nodded, "Of course. I'll be in contact."

Karen grinned and turned on her toes, "Yup. Later."

Wendy watched as Karen got into the car with a boy Wendy thought she vaguely recognized. A pleased smirk crawled its way up Wendy's face; Karen was a force to be reckoned with, and Wendy was beyond glad.

She tore the envelope in her hands to shreds, letting the scraps of paper float away with the wind.

When Karen procured the second letter (Leaving three remaining, counting the one Stan and Kyle got together), Wendy's conscious caught up with her. Not because she was paying a middle-schooler to break into people's houses, but rather who was doing her dirty work for her. Wendy didn't think Kenny would have been happy.

"Hey, before we talk business." Wendy started awkwardly in the McCormick's backyard. Karen looked at her distrustfully, shoulders tensing. "Kenny's deathday is coming up. Do you want to visit his grave with the rest of us?"

Karen's face went from blank to unexpectedly bitter. Wendy nearly, physically back-pedaled.

"Whut?" Karen clipped coldly, "Now yu tryin' tuh be my friend? You're 'bout a year too late fer that, Testaburger."

Wendy pursed her lips together and held her ground, the letter still in hand. Karen stopped bristling and tossed her head, flipping some stray strands of hair over her shoulder, "You talk to me about that after we done. Assuming we are. I dun want no pity from Ken's friends who never try to figger out what he was goin' through."

Wendy felt herself bristling, "And did you? Ever figure out what Kenny was keeping from us?"

Karen's eyes nearly glowed, "No. But I tried. More than anyone." She turned on her heel and walked to her bedroom window, "Get outta my yard. I can't talk to you right now."

Wendy nearly thought that was the end of their agreement, but when she contacted Karen next, everything was fine, like nothing had transpired.

Mood swings. Wendy thought. Well, Karen was fifteen.

"I'm gonna have to bring outside help for the next one." Karen was saying over the phone. "I need bugs."

"Bugs?" Wendy asked dumbly. She had been spacing.

"Yeh." Karen said with a touch of impatience, "Like cameras and shit. I need to know about the layout and their routines before I can go get your shit."

Ike Broflovski was her tech guy. Wendy nearly had an aneurysm.

"Nuh uh." Wendy scowled in Karen's bedroom. The three sat in a circle on the floor, Ike looking bored, Karen irritated. "Why are you always around?" Wendy snapped at Ike. He frowned. "Why don't you do normal thirteen-year-old things like pick the wings off flies, or something?"

"Firstly, fuck you." Ike sneered, enunciating his words like the thought Wendy would understand better if he spoke clearly. "Secondly, if Karen's gonna do stuff like this, I feel better knowing someone reliable is helping her."

"And you're the reliable one?" Wendy said doubtfully.

"Thirdly," Ike continued with an ugly expression, "She's making hella bank off of you and she promised me part of the money."

Wendy realized Karen hadn't asked for extra money for bringing help. Karen stared Wendy down coldly, posture tense. "If there's a problem," Karen said, "I don't need this job. We can call it quits, 'cause if you're going to have some complex about us being younger and better at something than you, I don't need the trouble."

That wasn't it, Wendy thought. Kyle was gonna kill her. He was already part of the drama and now Ike was too, albeit voluntarily. Judging by the way Ike was bristling defensively and inching closer to Karen, Wendy had underestimated Ike's initial involvement with Karen. Oh boy, wasn't that juicy news?

Wendy groaned and tilted her head back to look at Karen's water-damaged ceiling, "How are you sneaking around Kyle and your parents? Your house is full of busybodies."

Ike relaxed and grinned, "Kyle's out in Denver, with Stan and his fake girlfriend this weekend. I managed to talk Mom and Dad into doing their own thing so I have the house to myself."

Sheila and Gerald were openly affectionate with each other anyway. Wendy shuddered thinking about them on a date night.

"Alright." Wendy conceded. She looked between Karen and Ike. "But I want to observe. You just tell me what to do and what you need."

Ike and Karen exchanged a look that Wendy wasn't entirely sure she felt safe witnessing.

The next house was in a rich area, with customized layouts because the people who built them had the funds to design their houses. More cumbersome was the security system. While easy enough to get past, the system could still be tripped if acting without care.

That's how Wendy found herself hiding in the bushes dressed in black with Ike, and communication equipment that looked like it had been built with things found in the garbage. The dirt and wood chips dug into her pants, and the shrubbery leaves tickled her nose. The moon partially grinned at them, hiding behind scattered clouds that floated past. The night was just chilled enough to make Wendy shiver in her long-sleeved, black shirt.

Wendy's heart pounded as she occasionally spotted a blob-like shadow moving around the base of the house, as Karen checked for outside life. Wendy's eyebrows raised when Ike produced a sketchy-looking set of goggles and put them on, flipping on his ear piece.

"There's five people and ..." Ike paused, focusing through his goggles, "What looks like a cat, or a small dog. It's pacing, so I think it's a cat. Everyone is stationary."

Wendy's earpiece crackled. Karen's voice was fragmented and tinny. "Fucking cats are just as bad as dogs." Karen complained.

"Let me know when to come." Ike pulled off his goggles and handed them to Wendy. She looked them and back at Ike with curiosity. Ike grinned, "Homemade infrared. They'll probably make you go blind if you use them too much, but should be good for tonight. You can't really see details, but you can see shapes."

"That's reassuring." Wendy said dryly, not bothering to hide that she was impressed. These kids were gonna pull a real heist one day. Wendy kinda wanted in. "How did you even make these?"

"Chalcogenide glass." Ike shrugged, "It's in more stuff than you think. Here's how you use them."

After he showed Wendy the goggles, they fell silent, waiting for Karen's cue for Ike to join her. Wendy was content to crouch in silence, but Ike took turns fidgeting and glancing sideways at her. Finally Wendy sighed and turned to him, unable to see his face in the dark. "What?" She asked.

Ike grunted, like he didn't appreciate being called out on his squirming. He kept his eyes trained forward, though neither of them could see Karen at the moment. "It's just that..." He started quietly, "Has Kyle been acting weird?"

Wendy fought the urge to roll her eyes, finding patience in the innapropriate moment Ike would choose to have a heart-to-heart. "Not more than usual, I guess. Why?" A breeze rustled the shrubbery around them. Wendy flinched and swiveled her head at the noises that seemed too loud.

"I dunno." Ike frowned, "I was just wondering if it was related to all this stuff."

"Likely." Wendy said flatly. Something was making the hair on the back of her neck stand. Karen should be done soon. "I'll pay more attention I guess. Let's talk about this later."

Ike nodded, right when their earpieces crackled.

"No animals or weird shit that I can find." Karen said. "Come to the back."

"'kay." Ike responded, and gave Wendy an excited grin. "Put the goggles on and watch for sudden movements."

"Yep." Wendy pulled on the goggles, fingers shaking as she watched through the lenses, Ike's red blob sneak ahead to join Karen's red blob.

The following Monday, the answer to Ike's question became apparent.

Yes, Kyle was acting pretty damn weird.

"There's only two letters left." Wendy cheerily told him during English class. Only when she was met with glazed eyes and a dumb, open-mouthed expression did Wendy realize Kyle was distracted. Kyle was a lot of things, but distractible was not one. "Kyle?" She prodded.

Kyle blinked into the present, looking at her like he forgot he was sitting in a classroom. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Awesome. Two left." He pumped a fist weakly in the air. "Woo." He deadpanned, turning his attention to the reading assignment they were supposed to be starting.

Wendy frowned, "Are you okay?"

Kyle's eyes were glazed again, and he startled. "Huh? Oh. Yeah."

Ike's inquiry resonated in Wendy's memory. She leaned forward and tilted her head to see Kyle's face. He gave a her a puzzled look. "Are you sure?"

Kyle's shoulders slumped, annoyance flickering across his expression before disappearing like smoke. "I'm just..." He rubbed his neck, "Thinking about Kenny? What are we doing in a few weeks?"

Wendy could smell a bullshit deflection when it was so sloppily presented, but Kenny's approaching deathday was a legitimate concern. During the excitement of Stan and the letters, Wendy had mostly been able to set aside Kenny-related concerns, excluding Karen.

Wendy pulled out of Kyle's bubble, "Er, I dunno. I assumed we'd visit his grave." She stopped talking when the teacher paced by them, scowling in a teacherly way at their obvious neglect of their assignment. She smiled at the teacher and waited until he had walked away. "Let's talk about that later." She said quickly.

Later didn't come. While Wendy was giving Kyle and Stan a ride home, Stan was acting stiff and flighty too, though Wendy couldn't pinpoint what was wrong. Stan and Kyle were talking. Before Stan climbed out of the car as the first stop, Wendy turned around to look at him in her backseat.

"Are you two okay?" She asked, "Did something happen this weekend?"

Stan, half leaning out of the backseat of the car looked at Kyle. They shared a mutual shrug.

"No." Stan said, "Why?"

Wendy frowned and turned to face forward, "No reason, I guess."

Kyle rambled about people on his team the rest of the drive, which wasn't unusual. Wendy decided not to worry about it, she was already worrying about them too much anyway.

The weekend had been perfectly pleasant, Linda was able to bring her girlfriend, a dark-skinned girl named Olivia. The four went to a movie before splitting ways. Kyle and Stan went back to their hotel room that Friday night for lack of any plans. They didn't know where to Linda and Olivia disappeared.

Stan threw himself on his bed, bouncing cheerily on the bed.

"So? What do we do?'

Kyle sat on his own bed, pulling off his shoes. "I dunno, to be honest. We have Coors Field tomorrow?"

"Anything else?" Stan rolled his head on the sterile-smelling but plush hotel comforter. "That'll be done by like, three."

"There's a bandstand in a park. With like, actual bands." Kyle said, "And like, a million museums, but I didn't think you'd be interested in that."

Stan raised his eyebrows, "Why? What about the natural museum? Bugs are cool."

Kyle couldn't help but grin - what a kid thing Stan would be interested in. "If you want. As long as we don't go on a goddamn nature tour."

"But Kyle." Stan's face fell serious, "I must touch a tree."

"Stan Marsh. Tree whisperer." Kyle said with the same expression as Stan.

"I'll fuck the tree."

"Stan Marsh. Tree fucker."

They ordered Chinese delivery from a place nearby, and set up Kyle's laptop to watch movies on the hotel's shitty wifi. They sat side-by-side, getting crumbs all over the bed and occasionally devolving into shoulder-punching matches while they commented on the movies.

Halfway through the third movie, partially dozing and not really paying attention, Kyle felt a weight on his shoulder. He looked down at Stan who didn't have his head on Kyle's shoulder, but had slumped into a lean, and his chin had fallen to his chest, snoring softly through his mouth.

He jostled his shoulder, and Stan grumbled, eyes fluttering open. "Hnng?"

"Lay down dude. You're falling asleep."

"Huh?" Stan raised his head, not processing Kyle's words. He glanced at the laptop, which was still playing. Vaguely confused, he looked back at Kyle. "G'night." Stan mumbled.

Then Stan leaned forward and kissed Kyle's cheek.

Kyle froze, watching as Stan shuffled down to sleep still fully-clothed and the lights on. He waited until snores filled the room, before quietly closing the movie window and slipping off the bed with his laptop under his arm, head buzzing and questions bouncing behind his eyes.

Kyle didn't sleep very well that Friday night.

Kyle woke when he heard his phone vibrating on the side table that sat between the hotel beds. He groaned and groped for his phone, unlocking the screen to see a text from Wendy. The clock read 8 a.m. He wondered if she'd always been an early riser or if she was just insane. Probably insane.

WT: How's the date going?

Kyle's stomach dropped at the wording, unexpectedly nervous from her wording. He had to search in his morning-hazed brain for why, then he remembered Stan leaning forward like it was the most natural thing. Lips on his cheek. Kyle was suddenly in a bad mood, scowling at his phone.

KB: great. we'll be holding hands and feeding each other cake soon.

He waited a minute to see if Wendy would respond. When nothing came, he sat and dared a look at Stan. Stan had moved in the night, under the covers. His black hair was the only part visible between the overly-stuffed hotel pillows.

Grumpy and sleepy, but hyper, Kyle decided to see what the hotel had for breakfast. Not bothering to change out of his sleeping pants, he pulled on his shoes and padded downstairs. A television with the news was on, and a few people sat around drinking coffee and eating cereal from those tiny plastic cereal cups. Kyle wrinkled his nose at the questionable fruit becoming overripe on the common-area's counter. There was juice, at least.

He jumped when Olivia was standing next to him while he was trying to decide if a banana was worth offering to Stan or if they would be eating cereal for the next two days. She smiled at him, awake and chipper.

"Hi. Um. Kyle? I think." She grinned.

"Yeah." He respond, putting down the banana. "Morning. When did you guys get in?"

"Late." She said easily. She reached for the overripe banana Kyle had set down, "I just wanted to thank you guys for inviting us. It means a lot to us. Me."

"Uh." Kyle felt awkward for some reason, "No problem. It was Stan's idea anyway." To bring them. The weekend was Kyle's idea. He should be happier for Olivia and Linda to have some time alone. They weren't really bothering him and Stan at all.

Kyle found himself following Olivia to the table she sat at, holding his own cup of milk and a tiny box of Coco Puffs. He watched as Olivia peeled her overripe banana and mashed it into a cup of Chex. He wrinkled his nose again.

"Hey," She said, stabbing a plastic spoon into her cereal, "You can't judge me."

"How can you eat that?" Kyle cringed. He focused on opening his own cereal and pouring milk.

"Well, it's not the weirdest thing I've eaten." She said playfully. Kyle snorted through his nose and felt a smile creeping up his face. Olivia took a bite of her Chex banana concoction and watched as Kyle carefully judged his milk-to-cereal ratio. When he went to take his first bite, she asked, "So, are you and Stan ...?"

Kyle chewed dumbly, not quite processing her question until he nearly choked on his food. What was with this morning? Kyle Broflovski and the Big Gay Conspiracy.

"N-no." He coughed, clearing his throat, "We're not a thing."

"Oh, sorry." Olivia nodded, "You guys just seemed close."

Kyle stabbed his Coco Puffs a little more violently than was necessary. "We are close." He said tersely, "Friends since birth, pretty much."

Olivia smiled, "That's sweet."

Kyle shrugged, frowning shallowly. "I wouldn't say that. Gotta a few friends like that."

Olivia laughed, "Sorry, sorry. It's too early for me to pick your brain. I'll stop now."

"It's fine." Kyle said, but was relieved when they fell into silence. Olivia left without announcing her exit. When Kyle realized she wasn't returning, he felt silly for waiting and quickly finished his food. He grabbed a couple of boxes and a cup of milk for Stan, setting the milk on ice because they didn't have a refridgerator in the room. Stan still slept soundly as Kyle climbed back into bed, hoping to sleep for another hour before really getting ready for the day.

He thought he was overreacting - Upon reflection, Stan had not been awake. But Kyle was less concerned with the kiss itself, and more concerned about the subconscious. If Stan had been full awake at least he could believe it was a joke, but Stan had been acting on unintended impulse. Maybe he thought Kyle was someone else? Kyle wanted to ask, but he didn't want Stan to think he was bothered, especially if Stan didn't remember.

Okay, Kyle was a little bothered.

People didn't just kiss each other out of nowhere? Especially, men weren't that openly affectionate with each other, even if they'd known each other for a lifetime. Even they didn't get super mushy with each other. Kyle thought it was more his own discomfort talking significantly about emotions, and less that Stan didn't want to talk. Kyle was good at logic. Emotions weren't logic.

But Stan had been with a girl before. Except Stan hadn't told Kyle about it. Maybe Stan hadn't liked it? Maybe Stan was ashamed? Besides, that the girl had been Henrietta.

Kyle buried himself in his blankets and looked at his phone's black screen, which he held in his hand.

Stan was keeping a lot of things from him, lately. Kyle supposed it was his own fault for being too matter-of-fact about things that didn't fit into the realm of logic.

Stan was chronically sad (He knew it wasn't just a matter of being sad)? Go take some pills. Pills aren't solving everything (Of course they wouldn't)? Go to therapy. Therapy feels like a token effort (Not everyone's depression was the same)? Shit man, Kyle didn't know. Kyle and Stan were alike for many reasons, but this was one thing that made them different. The more Kyle thought, the more he didn't think it was even a question of emotional stability — Kyle just didn't worry about things the way Stan did. There were bigger questions pending, like questioning the source of your existence because you were thrown into a forgotten realm of gods, or what to do after high school.

Whether or not you had the motivation to address those questions was besides the point: There were issues that needed taken care of and the world didn't stop turning because you were sad. But Stan didn't think that way. He shoved his concerns to the side. Thinking about them was upsetting and overwhelming, instead of thinking of solutions calmly and logically. Kyle had to wonder what else Stan was neglecting to address, that would lead to him subconsciously kissing him in his sleep.

Or, Kyle could be overthinking, and Stan had moved on impulse from ... sleep-walking. Moving. Sleep-kissing. Fuck, Kyle didn't know.

Kyle curled into a ball, squeezing his eyes shut in an attempt to fall asleep. He was too wound up, but kept quiet when he heard Stan shuffling awake and quietly moving. Kyle would have to rise around ten, so they could find a bus to take them to Coors Stadium. The game didn't start until noon, although Kyle wasn't thrilled about baseball and didn't care if they missed a couple of innings. Stan was excited, which had been the point in the first place, to get Stan out of the house and doing something outside of school and the animal shelter. Kyle didn't think getting covered in dog hair really counted as social interaction. This probably didn't count since it was just himself and the occasional appearance of Stan's fake girlfriend, and the fake girlfriend's girlfriend.

And best friend.

Kyle cringed as he shuffled further under the comforter, even though it was too hot to be huddled under anything heavier than a thick towel. The pipes in the walls of the hotel creaked, and the sound of spraying water hit the side of the bathroom with hollow thuds.

Kyle also didn't think a half-awake kiss that Stan probably didn't remember justify angsting. He pinched his cheeks and resolutely took a short nap, determined to move on and not flatter himself with the idea that Stan would subconsciously want to kiss him.

Kyle was acting jumpy. At first, Stan attributed to having just woke and a little startled when he came out in just a towel because he'd forgotten his boxers. Then Stan accidentally bumped elbows while they walked down the hotel hallways and Kyle about jumped a foot, which wasn't very difficult for him. It was kind of funny seeing a scrawny, six-foot-tall red head jump into the air like a frightened spider.

Then Kyle tried to put a seat between them on the bus to Coors Stadium, which just wasn't going to work on a Saturday commute right before a customer service shift change.

"You okay?" Stan asked on the bus, as they jostled together in the back.

Kyle looked down with his eyebrows raised. Sitting, there was nearly an entire head's difference between their heights. "Yeah." He looked around, eyes bright and excited, "I've never taken public transport before. It's kinda cool. Since I'm not used to it and stuff."

"I guess." Stan pulled his headphones from around his neck to his ears, Cage the Elephant overtaking the squeaks and hums of the bus.

Stan didn't notice anything else strange once they got to the stadium. The crowd wasn't enormous, but the rush of people crowding together, and retrieving their tickets which Kyle had paid for weeks ago, and Stan insisting on getting a hotdog and the resulting argument about food poisoning, overrode any other concerns.

The first inning had already begun by the time they found their seats, but there was plenty of game left to be watched. By the fifth inning Stan looked over to see Kyle had fallen asleep, head drooped against his chest and a bag of popcorn spilled in his lap. Stan snickered and snapped a picture, posting the image to his Facebook.

Kyle woke around the seventh inning, apologizing but visibly bored for the rest of the game.

The game ended a little later than expected - around 3:15 p.m. Stan stood and stretched after the teams left the field.

"I wanna get a jersey." Stan announced.

"'kay." Kyle seemed relieved to be doing something besides sitting. Stan found a purchase quickly enough and the boys shuffled outside with the rest of the crowd.

Stan turned to Kyle, breathing deep the summer air, "Is there anything else you wanna do?"

"Uh, yeah." Kyle said, expression like he had just remembered, "I wanna go to the Space and Air Museum real quick. After that, maybe eat."

"Huh?" Stan blinked, surprised. "You're interested in that stuff?"

"Not really." Kyle grinned, "I just wanna send a picture to Craig."

"You still talk to Craig?"

"Sometimes. We share a math class." Kyle started walking to the bus stop, "He was whining about not being able to go to the air and space museum when I said we weren't. Neither of us are really into that stuff, so I just kinda want to rub it in his face. We could've gone, but we didn't."

The trip to the museum was quick enough. The building was a half an hour to closing, but Kyle settled for taking a picture that made it look like Stan was bigger than the plane on display in front of the building. Then Stan turned around and pretended to be peeing on the plane. Kyle sent the pictures snickering to himself.

"C'mon, let's get food." Kyle said once he was done texting. "Something that's not poisonous hot dogs."

Stan scoffed, "You're just jealous you didn't get to eat a big wiener."

Kyle's expression flickered before he regained his verbal footing, "Nah, that's more your thing."

Stan felt his stomach drop, sensing some bite to the comment, although Kyle's face remained impassive. Kyle was distracted with finding nearby restaurants and didn't seem to notice how the comment stung.

Kyle made a frustrated noise when his phone started vibrating non-stop.

Stan looked at him curiously, "Your mom?"

"No." Kyle grumbled, opening texts, "Craig. He's sending me plane facts. Probably to get back at me for the pictures." Kyle read the first one and looked at Stan with irritation, "It's a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, nicknamed Big Ugly Fat Fucker, or BUFF for short, and can carry up to 70,000 pounds of weapons meant for the Cold War."

"Fascinating." Stan snickered when Kyle's phone started vibrating again.

"Can you look up some food? I think he's sending me the entire wiki page."

"Sure dude."

"Apparently it looks really good setting off flares." Kyle said flatly.

Stan laughed, and pulled out his phone to find some restaurants.

The rest of the weekend went quietly, although Kyle occasionally snapped back at what would have been innocuous jokes. Stan tried to ignore the kicked-puppy feeling every time he got shut down, more annoyed that he couldn't figure out the pattern to Kyle's tetchiness. Kyle could be having a mood swing. Stan had to concede that while the physical parts of adolescence hadn't been kind to him, Kyle had been emotionally stable for the most part.

Lucky asshole. Stan figured he was due to return the favor of tolerating unexplained bitchiness.

When Wendy asked if anything had happened over the weekend, Stan was relieved to not be the only one who noticed that something felt off. Kyle seemed to be retreating into himself, which wasn't entirely unusual but was still a little strange. Stan couldn't dwell on Kyle too much; Linda approached him the following Thursday.

"I told my parents about you." She said awkwardly in the back of the school. Stan nodded and listened as she talked. "They want to meet you. Soon."

Stan pulled his cigarette out of his mouth and let it hang from his hand, smoke hot and burning his fingers, "Can't be in two weeks. I've got stuff."

"Well, this weekend or in three weeks. I guess." Linda leaned against the school's brick wall. "Don't come over smelling like cigarettes."

"Sure." Stan said in a non-committed tone. Part of him wanted to blow this entire thing out of the water. The cigarettes could be a catalyst. No. He wasn't so mean. "How should I dress?"

The corner of Linda's mouth quirked wryly, "Like you're going to church."

Stan managed to corner Kyle right before he went to basketball practice. Kyle was being hard to track down during school. "I'm telling my parents about Linda tonight." He said outside the boys' locker room.

Kyle shouldered his gym bag, glancing behind him like he was embarrassed to be having this discussion, "Okay? Why you tellin' me this?"

Stan frowned, "I dunno. I just felt like you should know? Since you're like, a part of the whole fiasco and what-not. I'm gonna meet her parents in three weeks, too."

"Neat." Kyle replied shortly, "You tell me how that goes." He shifted feet like he was ready flee. When Stan didn't respond, Kyle asked, "Was there anything else?"

Stan felt shut down again. "No." He said with no small amount of confusion, "I'll. See you later."

"Yep." Kyle turned and practically ran into the locker room.

Stan suddenly missed Kenny.

Dear Kenny, Stan thought to himself while Wendy drove him home, I feel like I fucked up for some reason, like it's my fault, and I don't know why.

Kenny would know what to say. Maybe it wouldn't be helpful in the big picture, but at least it would make Stan feel better.

"You okay, Stan?" Wendy asked.

"Yeah." Stan sighed. "Just stuff."

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Not really." Stan said to the window glass. He turned a little to look at Wendy's profile. "Has Kyle been acting weird this week?"

Wendy's lips twitched and she smiled thinly, "That's like the third time I've been asked that. I don't know why ya'll think I know anymore than you."

Stan shrugged, "Cause you dated. And are still friends."

Wendy stopped at a stop sign and looked at Stan. They were the only car on the street. "I dunno. Maybe ask him? He's not really bothering me."

Stan slumped in the seat, glaring at the dashboard "We don't really talk about our feelings like that."

Wendy's expression shifted to something more sympathetic, "Sorry. I've been a little preoccupied so I haven't been keeping track of Kyle's moods."

Stan had the sense to be sheepish, "Sorry. You've been doing a lot for me lately."

Wendy smiled and passed the stop sign. She made a familiar turn to Stan's street. "There's only two left. You and Kyle have been doing your share of work too."

"Is Karen okay?"

"Dunno." Wendy said cheerily, "She won't let me know." She stopped in front of Stan's house, turning to look at him with an amused expression, "Pretty sure she's dating Ike though."

Stan gaped, "Nu uh." He reached for his backpack, and then the door handle, "Damn. Ike, and his older women." Stan grinned.

Wendy snickered, "Well, she's hardly a woman, by definition." Wendy would never say that to Karen's face. The girl could probably break all her ribs. "Hey, one more thing." She added before Stan exited the car, "We're having problems finding an address to the last letter. Could you ask Linda for us? I feel kinda awkward saying to her face that she was a dumbass for all of this."

Stan nodded, realizing Wendy hadn't actually met or spoken to Linda yet. How Wendy had gotten this far without her was beyond him. "Sure, everyone knows about the whole thing already anyway. I think they're just waiting for you to get caught."

Wendy tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while she thought about this, "That's part of why I'm worried. It wasn't too hard to figure out the other seven, so why this one?"

Stan nodded, realizing Wendy hadn't actually met or spoken to Linda yet. How Wendy had gotten this far without her was beyond him. "Sure. Everyone knows about the whole thing already anyway. I think they're just waiting for you to get caught."

Wendy tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while she thought about this, "That's part of why I'm worried. It wasn't too hard to figure out the other seven, so why this one?"

"I dunno." Stan said with the air of someone who really didn't care, "I'm sure it's nothing. I'll see you later." Stan quickly exited the car.

The second-to-last letter was minimal trouble; The whole family was out for the weekend. The problem came from the security system, which was bypassed by Ike using magnets on one of those door locks that had a key code. Without harming the lock, the system wasn't set off.

"Easy stuff." Ike said later, when they regrouped in Karen's bedroom.

"Should I start worrying about your life choices?" Wendy asked as she took a look at the letter.

"Probably." Ike grinned, pleased with himself. Karen sat next to him, texting on her phone.

"Any word about the last address?" Karen asked shortly.

"Not yet. I've got Stan on it."

"That's comforting." Karen said dryly, not looking up.

Wendy started to pack her things in a sports bag, pausing to look at Ike, "By the way, why has Kyle been acting like a prick lately?"

Ike gave her a look that reminded her he had essentially asked her the same question not long ago. He raised his hands instead of commenting, and shrugged theatrically, "Heck if I know. I thought balancing basketball and school was finally getting to him, but there's not really anything he needs to worry about until next year."

"Yeah." Wendy shifted on her feet, looking at Ike, who looked nothing like his family, except in his mannerisms. Right now his face was twisted into Kyle's 'I'm irritated at this discussion but also concerned' face.

Wendy's pocket chose to vibrate at that time. She pulled out her phone, and saw a text from Stan.

SM: saw linda today. address

Wendy frowned at the address, recognizing it as near the McCormick's part of town, but still a little off. "Karen."

Karen looked up, and took Wendy's phone when it was offered to her. Karen frowned, but otherwise didn't react. She texted herself the address before handing the phone back.

"Great." Karen said shortly. "Now both of you get out. I have to make plans with my parents to see my dead brother next weekend." She glanced at Wendy, "Whom you were supposedly friends with."

Wendy wanted to snap the little girl's neck, but reigned herself; Karen was hurting. It was only a year ago. "Sure. The rest of us will be visiting his grave too." Wendy prepared to crawl out of Karen's window.

Ike didn't seem particularly bothered by Karen's testiness. When Wendy's back was turned, he leaned and kissed Karen's cheek. Wendy saw it anyway, in the window's reflection, followed by a disgusted noise from Karen. Wendy threw her bag out the window before climbing.

"Sure thing babe. Text me later."

Karen mumbled an affirmative.

Wendy lurked at the dark edge of the McCormick's house, waiting for Ike to finish hopping out of the window. She wondered if Carol and Stuart just pretended not to hear them clamoring in and out of the back, if they just didn't care, or they were truly that stoned eighty-five percent of the time.

Probably all of the above.

Ah. Never mind. Wendy could hear them fucking in the living room. Poor Karen.

When Ike dusted off his pants from landing on his knees and seemed ready to leave, Wendy emerged from her hiding spot.

Ike nearly screamed, clamping a hand over his own mouth before he realized who was lurking at him. "JESUS CHRIST, Wendy. You scared the shit out of me."

"Ike." Wendy said lowly. She reached out and slapped a hand on Ike's shoulder. There was some satisfaction in still being taller, "If you ever get Karen pregnant, I will personally castrate you."

Ike's eyes got big, and he half-choked on his own saliva, "U-uh. Um."

"Kenny's not here now." Wendy continued, "And I'm not going to pretend Karen needs us. But Ike. Do not fuck up that girl's life anymore than it is. 'kay?"

Ike's eyes looked like they were crossing. "Um. Sure."

"Cool." Wendy smiled. "Use protection." She started to walk away, but Ike. Bless Ike. Was a smartass and had to have the last word.

"Did you when you were sneaking in the house to bang my brother?"

Wendy froze, eyebrows raising to her hairline. She didn't turn, risking Ike seeing her grin, "Nah. Kyle's still a virgin."

Wendy laughed when she heard Ike sputtering.

The big reveal of Linda to Stan's parents was more anticlimactic than Stan had anticipated. He wasn't sure why he thought it'd be a big deal, besides that Shelly had been visiting for the weekend so everything felt like a performance.

He told them at the dinner table, during a lull in Shelly's updates about college.

"Hey. Uh." Stan spoke up, picking at some green peas, "I got a girlfriend."

Randy slammed his fist on the table, shaking all the silverware. "Dammit!" He swore.

Sharon hissed a warning at him, "Randy."

"No, fuck you." Randy reached into his back pocket, pulled out a leather billfold and handed Sharon a ten-dollar bill. His mustache seemed to be bristling in rage. "You won this one, Sharon." He turned back to Stan, who was wide-eyed and looking at Shelly for an explanation. Even Shelly, fork still in her mouth, raised her shoulders in a 'I dunno' gesture. "What's her name, Stan?"

That's when Stan understood his father had money riding on him getting a girlfriend. He wanted to fling his fork at Randy's eye.

"Linda." He said pleasantly. "She's a senior."

"Oh-hoh!" Randy's cheeks flushed with pride, "An older woman! You get 'em, son!"

Stan suddenly felt like shit for his comment about Ike. He also felt like shit for lying. Everything was shit.

Sharon smiled in her quiet way, "Do we get to meet her?"

"Sometime." Stan said sullenly, "We're planning on going to prom."

Sharon perked, "A year early! Good for you, Stan!"

Shelly eye-balled Stan, "Is she a bitch?" She drawled.

Sharon gasped, "Shelly!"

Stan rolled his eyes, "Not as much as you."


"How much does she look like mom?"


"Does she have nice boobs?" Randy chimed in.

"Randy." Sharon actually snarled this time, and Randy shrunk away laughing.

Stan managed a weak laugh at the derailing of his announcement, glad he could count on his family to not get overwhelmed at such mundane news. The announcement felt big because it was a lie. Stan didn't normally lie to extent.

He sighed, pulling out his phone while his parents bickered about table manners, and texted Linda.

SM: told my parents about you

LT: neato

Stan flinched when her response was almost exactly like Kyle's.

SM: need to talk to you this weekend

LT: where

SM: bakc the school i guess

"Stan!" Sharon snapped, "Put your phone away! You're at dinner!"

Stan didn't argue or apologize, just shoved his phone into his back pocket.

He waited in the back of the school that weekend, like he promised, chain smoking and focused intently on not thinking of anything. He didn't notice when Linda approached him, jumping when she spoke.

"What's got you so scowly, Raven?"

"Huh." Stan turned and gaped, cigarette nearly falling from his mouth. He scowled at Linda, who was being smarmy. "God, who told you about that?"

"Henrietta." She said easily. "We were swapping Stan stories."

"The fuck." Stan pulled his cigarette out and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, "What do you even have to share?"

"Calm down." Linda sat next to him and started on her own pack, "I was just telling her how date weekend went."

"Fantastic." Stan grumbled, thinking about Kyle's totally unwarranted mood swing.

Linda quirked an eyebrow and joined him in staring, "I thought it was. I mean, I got hella laid."

"Oh Jesus." Stan managed to feel mildly embarrassed, "Don't tell me about this."

"'livia doesn't look like it, but she's wicked awesome with her tongue."

"Okay. No."

Linda snickered, "I thought dudes loved lesbians."

Stan snorted, saying sarcastically, "Sure. When they're not like. Someone you know."

"I could go on a long tangent about this, but I won't."

"Thanks." Stan smiled thinly, "You sound like my friend Wendy."

"Testaburger?" Linda asked. Stan nodded. "Yeah don't know her personally, besides apparently she's hunting down those letters for your ass." Linda sighed, "Honestly, I'd deserve whatever happened to me."

"Oh, speaking of." Stan pulled out his phone and pulled up a list of names, "We need this guy's address. He's the only one left, apparently."

Linda looked at the names, only one not crossed out being "Noah Cox." She frowned, "Oh, that guy. Yeah, I send you the address later. He doesn't actually go to our school."

Stan put his phone away, "Yeah?"

"Yeah, he's like, some college guy Henrietta knew." Linda shrugged, "I put the letter in his mailbox but never got a response. There were a couple like that."

Stan nodded and made a mental note to tell Wendy later. He remembered to send the address of course, but not to tell her the guy wasn't a high schooler. He was distracted, like their entire group was anyway.

South Park was a small town, and Kenny's death was still fresh, even for anyone that hadn't been friends with Kenny. For everyone who was, the pain from his death was still fresh enough to smell it. It was a bad week. Even Clyde approached Stan and Kyle.

"So it there like, gonna be a memorial service or something?" Clyde asked sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.

Stan slammed his locker shut, neutral mood suddenly sour, "I dunno. You might wanna ask his. I dunno. Family? Why would there be a service a year later?"

"Sorry, dude."

"Yeah, well." Stan spat, "Don't be." Clyde scurried away, much to Stan's relief.

Kyle, stood beside Stan and frowned, calmly closing his own locker. "Dude."

Stan turned on Kyle, bristling, "And where the fuck have you been?"

Kyle's eyebrows knitted, glancing around to acknowledge that they were gaining an audience. "Sorry." He said flatly. Stan's figurative feathers de-fluffed, more in surprise at receiving an apology. "It's been weird. We'll talk about Kenny later, okay?"

Stan made an affirmative noise, watching as Kyle put on his backpack and walked to his first class.

The week that followed was in general, was a bad week. Stan felt like the entire school was staring at him, which wasn't the case. Perhaps it was worse that it felt like everyone was looking and not caring simultaneously. The McCormicks were well-known, Kenny had been popular but not as someone for whom people went out of their way. The knowing-sneers and "I knew its" that followed Kenny's death were almost as bad as barely acknowledging the McCormicks as humans. Every township needed a group of people to look down upon. Stan wanted to scream at the assholes that gave Kenny's name shit that he'd been dealing drugs so the money would go to Karen when she turned eighteen. It wasn't Stan's business, though.

Stan relayed his feelings to Kyle later, when he made his way to the Brovlovski's house. Kyle had neglected to make plans with him. Kyle still seemed "off", but distracted by the upcoming Saturday. Stan assumed Kyle was being weird because of mourning, or whatever.

"Ike's doing better than us about following up with Karen, at least." Stan said from Kyle's bed. Kyle was straddling his rolling desk chair while Stan talked.

Kyle was listening but clearly distracted, "What?" He returned to Stan's half of the conversation, "Ike is?"

"Yeah." Stan lifted his head to look at Kyle's confused face, "They're dating I guess. Wendy mentioned it."

Kyle wrinkled his nose, "Haven't heard a thing." He pulled out his phone and started texting, "I'll wring it out of him later."

"I guess." Stan flopped his head back on Kyle's pillow, "Should we do something for Karen? I guess I've been so distracted with everything the past year, I haven't thought about her."

"What the fuck are we gonna say to Karen?" Kyle rocked his chair backwards, placing his phone back on the table, "Sorry your brothers are either dead or in prison. Tough break, kid."

Stan made a face, "Maybe just leave it alone."

Kyle smiled thinly, "Probably for the best."

"And what about you?" Stan rolled over onto his side so he could see Kyle more easily, "Have you been okay? Even Wendy seems more ..." He gestured vaguely, "Everywhere this week."

"Nah, I'm fine." Kyle kicked his legs off and spun in his chair, "I mean, I'm sad, remembering everything. But it's more nostalgia, or something. I guess I wasn't surprised when it happened."

"That's seems cold."

"Does it?" Kyle's spinning slowed until he pushed just enough to be facing Stan again, "I think it's kind of like when Sparky died." He quickly kept talking when Stan made a face, "Not that I'm comparing Kenny to a dog. But it felt like it was time, or something. Like I'd been expecting it to happen." Kyle sighed and leaned his cheek onto his crossed arms on the back of the chair, "Honestly, I barely remember that night last year. It feels like a nightmare."

Stan waited for if Kyle was going to continue before asking, "Do you remember what you saw ... in that place?"

Stan also had the feeling that while they shared a mutual experience, the memory of it was growing so weak, that they and everyone there wouldn't be able to say for sure that it happened in the first place. Like recalling memories from age three.

Kyle rocked the chair again, pressing further into his arms, "Confusion and uncertainty. I didn't know what was happening." He frowned, "Loss of control, I guess." He looked at Stan, "What was it for you?"

Stan's the corner of Stan's mouth curled in a smile that wasn't a smile, "Abandonment, loneliness. Nothingness."

Kyle was quiet for a moment before saying, "I hope that's not where Kenny is."

Stan laughed dryly, "Nah. I think all those feelings were more true here, for him, than anywhere else."

Wendy, was also recalling similar thoughts, though she was still frantically searching for the final letter as a distraction, to a fault.

"I don't know where else to look." Wendy said to Karen over her phone. Karen hadn't been at her house, so Wendy paced her own bedroom in irritation.

"Chill." Karen drawled. "I have a lead, and anyway, I've got more important stuff to take care of this weekend." Wendy bristled when she heard laughter in the background, like there was a large group of people with Karen. "Gotta go, later babe."

Wendy stared at her phone when it blinked that the call had been disconnected. She was gonna kill Ike for adding "babe" to Karen's vocabulary. Karen might be the party responsible for "babe". Either way, Wendy's patience ending.

She needed to talk to Bebe. For mani/pedis probably and bitch about how stupid boys were. They were. Very, very, stupid. Getting themselves killed, too.

By the time Saturday rolled around, Wendy looked like a starlet, Stan looked like he hadn't slept in five days, Kyle looked about the same as ever, more somber. The most plans they had made about Saturday was to meet around six.

Stan slept late when he wasn't working, so Kyle dragged himself out early to retrieve his exhausted friend. Stan was already dressed, but had clearly slept in his clothes. The only words they exchanged were at the door were from Kyle, "You okay, dude?" And a disgruntled mumble from Stan. Kyle almost laughed. He couldn't quite bring himself to.

The walk to Kenny's grave was quiet, Stan chain-smoking while the sun set, turning the sky oranges, pinks and purples. The light was on it way to gone by the time they reached the grave site, a cheap headstone littered amongst many others. Someone had already left a couple of cheap bouquets of yellow flowers and a few cards - Probably Karen and her family.

"We didn't bring anything." Stan said plainly while they looked at Kenny's name etched in stone.

Kyle shuffled from foot to foot, "I did." He said, looking over his shoulder. They were alone in the tiny cemetery. He pulled a joint wrapped in a baggie and a lighter from his pocket.

Stan's eyebrows raised, "Basketball?"

"Eh." Kyle sat on the ground and set to lighting the joint, "It's for Kenny."

Stan plopped next to Kyle, accepting the joint. They passed the joint back and forth, until only a small nub remained. They sat in silence, until Kyle finally realized that Stan had fallen asleep, sitting and leaning with his knees pulled to his chest, breathing evenly. At that moment, Kyle felt his chest throb, recalling that in past year Stan had shown himself at his most vulnerable. Kyle had been privy to seeing Stan ripped to shreds and put together again, exposing all the worst and best parts that gave a person life. Stan was here now, sitting where Kenny wasn't.

When Wendy arrived late, Kyle shook Stan awake. Wendy was dressed nicely like she had just come from work. She didn't say anything, just pat both their shoulders as she stood between them, observing the grave littered with flowers.

Stan carefully dug up a patch of dirt, in the ground that still felt too upturned, too barren of grass. Wendy nor Kyle commented when Stan buried the roach, hiding the bald patch under some of Kenny's cards.

A week passed with little notability. Wendy was in a frenzy, trying to find the last letter with little to no hunches, and Karen had seemingly dropped off the face of the planet. Even Stuart and Carol were absent.

When Kyle asked Ike what happened, he shrugged, exceedingly non-concerned.

"I dunno. She does this sometimes." Ike informed Kyle. "She just leaves without telling anyone. Why would she be worried about other people knowing?"

When Kyle relayed the message, Wendy looked like she was going to bust a vein.

"But the letters!" She nearly screeched at Kyle in the car. She was loud enough to make both Kyle and Stan flinch.

"Wendy." Kyle snapped, "You're literally the only one this worried about them. If shit was going down it would have happened, it would have by now. It's been like a month."

"You were nearly shot by a gun-toting maniac."

Stan spoke meekly from the back of the car, "That was my fault." If looks could kill, Stan would have evaporated into dust. He shrunk and added, "Besides, I'm meeting Linda's parents this weekend. That'll be when we know if they catch on to the bullshit or how many of the rumors they've heard. If Ike isn't worried about it, that means she'll probably be back sometime this week."

Wendy nor Kyle made any further comments, both settling into their own versions of annoyed sulking.

That weekend, Stan managed to sneak out of his house without gaining the attention of his parents. He looked like a frumpy church-goer, nice slacks not pressed, button-down dress shirt not ironed, and wearing comfortable shoes so he could walk to Linda's neighborhood. He made half an attempt to comb his hair flat, feeling like a tool the entire time.

He texted Linda that he was on his way, receiving a "k" in response. He wondered if she was as nervous as he was. He wasn't the greatest of actors.

The walk was only about twenty minutes, but by the time he found the address, he was sweating from the walk and the heat of the sunset. He hope bullshit wasn't smellable through sweat, and prayed that there weren't any stains in the long-sleeved, white dress shirt.

Linda's house was a two-story, mid sized home, that looked like most of the other houses in South Park. The lawn had a few Homeowners Association-approved bushes and some generic perennial flowers that seemed to blend with the side-paneling of the house. It wasn't an unpleasant house, just mundane and uninspiring. After getting to know Linda a little better, she didn't seem like she would fit into an exterior such as this.

Stan rang the doorbell, reminded of when he had stood on Wendy's doorstep a couple of years ago, and her father had appeared behind him, the picture of "suburban dad."

Linda answered the door, and Stan was a little startled to see her with her hair pulled into a braid, and a sun-dress with a bright yellow sunflower pattern.

She looked every bit the part of a well-behaved Catholic girl, although her body-language spoke of her discomfort. Stan wasn't sure he had ever seen her look so awkward.

"Mom's finishing the potatoes." Linda said flatly, resigned. She stepped aside for him, "Dad wants to meet you first, in the livingroom."

Stan stepped inside, peeking around to take in his surroundings. The house was meticulously clean. There was a small shelf with different shoes by the door, and a glance at the carpet made it obvious they kept the dirt off of it. With a cold chill, Stan was reminded of Butters' house. He turned to Linda, felt he was dirtying the place with his dishonest presence, "Do I need to take my shoes off, or ..."

"No." Linda glanced outside like she half-expected someone to be waiting on the street, "Let's do this."

Stan's smile was strained as Linda shut the door.

Both Wendy and Kyle were concerned when they didn't hear from Stan the weekend of Stan's big meet and greet with Linda's parents. They were both well aware it was happening; Stan had nervously rambled about it the entire week following Kenny's deathday. Wendy hadn't paid much attention because she still hadn't heard from Karen, and Stan tended to ramble anyway.

Kyle, meanwhile, didn't feel like hearing about Linda. He had tuned out all the possible scenarios being thrown at him in favor of fiddling with his phone or outright avoiding conversation by making some excuse to be elsewhere. Practice was usually a valid reason, but Kyle understood he was being very obvious when Stan started talking about Linda on a Friday and suddenly Kyle had some very important, school-related thing to take care of. On a Friday. Not that he was avoiding Stan, Kyle just didn't feel like thinking more about freaking Linda Triscotti more than necessary. Yeah.

He was regretting not paying attention to Stan's Linda-related schedule that Sunday though, when Wendy texted him asking if he had heard anything from Stan.

KB: been kinda tuning him out all week? he hasn't talked to me since friday tho

WT: Check on him maybe? He seemed really nervous

KB: sure i guess

Part of Kyle wanted to have very important Cartman business to attend to, and was a little bitter when he realized Cartman had been very reasonable and human the last few years. Fucking asshole, not being a prick when it would be convenient for Kyle.

Kyle groaned in his bed, and pressed his phone against his forehead as he willed himself to rise. At least today he had the excuse of it being Sunday to not get up until later. He even went to Shabbat yesterday, much to Sheila and Gerald's shock.

As it turned out, Stan was still hiding in his room by the time Kyle had dragged himself to Stan's house. Sharon answered the door, relief flashing across her face.

"Oh good." She said, pulling her hand to her chest in a fretful gesture, "You're here to see Stan? He's been acting weird since yesterday?"

"Yeah?" Kyle stepped inside, quietly shutting the door and aware of how much taller than Sharon he was.

"He had that date with his girlfriend yesterday?" She looked up at Kyle questioningly, trailing behind him as he walked toward the stairs. "He just won't talk about it but he's. I don't know." She made a frustrated noise, "Being too quiet about it."

"It's probably nothing." Kyle offered, laying a hand on the stair's railing, "I'll let you know if something's wrong."

"Please do." Sharon nodded, but didn't seem entirely appeased, "I don't want a repeat of two years ago."

Neither did Kyle, but he wasn't sure he had the capacity right now to deal with Stan. As long as Stan was breathing, he could report to Wendy that he did his part and let Stan stop moping on his own. This whole situation was self-inflicted and Kyle only had so much patience for Stan's brand of self-pity.

When Kyle reached Stan's room, he knocked quietly and received a dreary "Yeah?" from the other side. He poked his head inside, and surveyed the room. Stan was sitting at his desk, textbooks and window open. Kyle frowned, "Hey dude." And let himself inside.

Stan turned around and perked considerably, "Hey! What's up?"

Kyle shut the door and moved to sit on Stan's bed. "You haven't talked to anyone since Friday. You alright?"

"...yeah." Stan furrowed his brows and tapped his pen against his desk. He blatantly wanted to say more, but skipped a beat and quickly moved on, "Why? Er, you just said why."

"You usually text, at least." Kyle pulled out his phone so he wouldn't have to look at Stan and started fiddling with it. "Wendy sent me to check on you."

"Oh, yeah. I keep letting my phone die." Stan rocked his chair onto its back legs "I met Linda's parents this weekend?"

"Hmm." Kyle wanted to snark, 'yeah, you wouldn't fucking shut up about it' but settled for an uninterested nod. He didn't want to welcome this conversation, but knew he would be a jerk to say as much. He wasn't even looking at anything on his phone, just swiping the screen back and forth.

Stan hesitated, eyeing Kyle warily but continued, "It was weird. Like, they're normal. I almost feel bad for lying to them."

"I don't know what you expected, really." Kyle said curtly, staring at the backlit screen of his phone. "It's not like they were going to come out with rocks or torches or anything."

Stan's shoulders slumped as he looked at the floor, "I know. I guess I expected them to be more ... redneck or something. The mom's really nice. I mean, no different from Sheila or my mom."

Except for being a bigot, was the unspoken part, which Sheila could toe the line on sometimes. Kyle was trying to be sympathetic but found it difficult to let Stan air out his thoughts. Their conversations were always so one-sided on this front.

"So? What else?" Kyle forced himself to say.

Stan shuffled with obvious discomfort, "I dunno. It was almost nice. I felt like she'd been lying to me the whole time about how hateful her parents could be ... except there were a few comments they made that kinda like, put a crack in the mask. I dunno." Stan let his chair thump forward and lay his head on his desk, wrinkling the pages in his textbook, "Basically they're overjoyed that I'm there. They were getting worried that Linda's gay. Which she is."

Kyle breathed out in relief when a Facebook notification popped up on his phone. Now he had something to read.

"It'd be easier if they were wearing white hoods or something, but they're just like. Perfectly normal and nice."

"Well, like. It's not your dad isn't the same." Kyle said, reading something his great Aunt posted, "Casually homophobic. Doesn't that worry you?"

Stan raised his head, staring at the back of his desk, "Kyle?"

"What?" Kyle felt his stomach drop, realizing exactly what he just said.

"What are you talking about?" Stan turned too look this time, jaw clenched like he was expecting Kyle to reach out and hit him.

"What do you mean?"

Stan twisted so his body was facing Kyle more. Kyle resolutely kept his eyes on his phone. "You've been talking about something else this whole time and now you're saying ... what? My dad would care about ... what? He doesn't care if I was dating a lesbian at some point. I can just play it off like I didn't know. So," Stan's fingers curled into fists on his knees, "What are you talking about?"

You've been keeping shit from me and it's making me angry. How am I supposed to help if you don't tell me the truth about yourself? Do you think I won't understand you? Is it about my shortcomings? That I haven't always received you and your weird emotions well? Why are you afraid? Kyle finally lay his phone down, staring at the blank ceiling as his picked through his words carefully.

"Don't worry about it."


"Nuh uh." Stan bristled, "You don't get to be a prick for weeks then tell me it's not anything."

Kyle lay his hand over his eyes, feeling like a headache could come at any moment. Nature wasn't giving him the blessing of having something to blame on the brain-leaking feeling making his face hot. "I'm telling you not to worry about it."

Stan's forearms flexed as he started working himself into angry, "No way. If it's a problem with me, you need to fucking say something instead of acting like a bitch about it."

Kyle sat up, hands gripping the edge of Stan's bed in frustration, "I'm not the one being a bitch here, being dragged along like a confused animal because you can't figure out your feelings." Kyle said the last word with a high-pitched, sarcastic whine, "Poor Stan Marsh, being sad because his lesbo best friend might be lying to him and he thought he had found a companion closet case."

He was saying things he didn't mean.

"Kyle?" Stan's face had gone pale but his cheeks were turning red with rage, "What the fuck is your actual problem?"

Kyle wasn't done. He needed to stop.

"Then you have the nerve to come crying to me when things start going to shit, or you realize it's always been shit. And then I find out you've been fucking lying to me." Kyle needed to stop. He was so upset he wasn't making sense.

"When did I lie-?"

"You don't tell me you fucking banged a girl, you don't tell me you're probably gay as fuck, you don't explain why you feel so bad for this random bitch. No!" Kyle barked, cringing internally when Stan flinched, "I find out half of this from Wendy, and the other half because you fucking kissed me."

Stan's jaw dropped, disbelief flashing in his eyes, "When did —?"

"Stop fucking lying!" Kyle stood, having worked himself into a frenzy. Stan's eyes got big and he hesitantly stood also, gripping the back of his chair like a shield and weapon. "In Denver! In the hotel!"

Stan's face had truly gone white, and he looked on the verge of hyperventilating, "I don't. Kyle I don't remember? I didn't. I'm sorry?"

Why am I this upset over this? Why is he apologizing? He thinks I hate him. I've misread everything.

Kyle fucked up. Adrenaline was making his hands shake, and dread making him want to attack something just to vent everything. He put the heel of his palm to his forehead, shaking and looked at Stan, who was definitely panicking. Kyle couldn't deal with anything right now. "Shit." Kyle muttered. He turned on his heel and grabbed his phone off Stan's bed. "Shit. I'll talk to you later. Shit."

Kyle ran.

Stan picked up a can of pencils from his desk and chucked it against the wall when Kyle was gone.

Wendy didn't notice at first.

She was too caught up in worrying about contacting Karen, school, her part time gig writing for the local paper, and a million other things to pay much attention to Kyle and Stan's sudden and usually short-lived spats. She'd long resigned that they would always be melodramatic drama queens, intent on dragging everyone else into their vortex of sads. Wendy wasn't interested.

Except that she could be a nosy busybody when she emerged from her distracted headspace long enough to realize that whatever this fight had been over, it was for real.

There wasn't even the dramatic blow up from before, like during freshmen year when Stan had been acting like a prick to the general population. There was just. Nothing.

They were still riding with her in the mornings, but in absolute silence. Quiet mornings weren't unusual for them, especially since they were mostly up-to-date on each other's business. There wasn't much to talk about.

Not having completely matching schedules made observation more difficult, but she noticed something off about Kyle. By Wednesday, she realized that he wasn't talking about Stan, at all. Or to him. Kyle was good at deflecting questions, so following her after-school responsibilities, Wendy drove to Stan's house with an hour to spare before he usually went to the animal shelter on Thursdays.

She would trap him like a crocodile with its jaws around a hapless porcupine. He would never escape.

Sharon answered the door when Wendy knocked, eyebrows raised in surprise. "Oh, hi sweetie. Stan's upstairs, but I'm getting ready to take him to work."

"I won't be long." Wendy smiled pleasantly, adjusting the messenger bag she had over her shoulder. "I just came to drop off a book he needed to borrow."

Sharon smiled and let her through.

Wendy knocked on Stan's bedroom door and waited for Stan's grumble of assent to peek inside. He was dressed for work, hunched over his phone and scowling. His eyebrows raised when he noticed who was in his room.

"Wendy?" He blurted, "I'm getting ready to go, but what's up?"

Wendy shut the door behind her, standing straight and squaring her jaw, "What happened?"

"Huh?" But Stan's expression said he knew exactly what she was asking.

"You and Kyle are fighting. What happened?"

Stan stood, shuffling nervously, "I don't have time to talk about this. You can come back later and we'll—"

"Nope." Wendy puffed her chest when Stan was trying to push past her. She had to look up at him when they stood this close, but she carried herself with more confidence while he slouched. "Just tell me what happened, and this will be over."

Stan's expression soured from nervous to angry, he was not playing her game, "Move."

Wendy faltered but stood her ground, "No."

"Move. Or I'll move you."

Wendy snarled, "You won't fucking touch me. Just tell me what—"

"No." Stan scowled, "It's not your business, it never was. Now I have to go to—"

Wendy realized she was being too aggressive. She tried a different approach, tilting her head down and imploring with as much gentleness as she could muster, "Stan. I'm worried about you. The last time this happened the year ended with you choking on your own vomit." Mostly she was pissed that all her efforts to making the Linda-thing less painful were going to shit because of Stan and Kyle's self-inflicted bullshit. There was not enough energy in the universe to make these children have a stable year.

Stan's expression flickered and his posture relaxed. "Okay. Um. I'm like." Stan groaned and tilted his head back, stepping away from the close quarters he and Wendy and made. Wendy waited patiently as he tried to word things correctly. "I'm having some... thoughts about... stuff. And Kyle isn't cool with it, right now."

Wendy's nose wrinkled, "Thoughts?"

"I." Stan turned so he didn't have to look at her, hands on the back of his neck in agitation, "Like. Gay thoughts. Okay? I might be."

Two things happened in Wendy's normally analytic brain. The first was that she forgot to filter. The second was that she was so relieved at how anti-climatic Stan's confession she forgot to remember she wasn't supposed to know certain things.

"Please." Wendy snorted, "It's not like you didn't make out with Kenny."

The look on Stan's face promptly reminded Wendy that there were some things worse than death. Stan appeared to be experiencing one of those things, which was complete, total, encompassing horror that struck him in his very soul.

Wendy's face fell as she realized her catastrophic fuck-up, "I—"

"Get out." Stan's voice was steel, eyes looking like they may turn from blue to red in the sheer effort of incinerating Wendy into ash with only willpower. "Get out." He repeated.

Wendy turned and ran.

Wendy got the fuck out not because she was afraid, but because she understood.

The drive home was jumbled with excuses and apologies, before she accepted that she would just have to tell the truth: Kenny told her the information because he was high as fuck. He probably hadn't even remembered that he had said something. She didn't want to taint Kenny's memory in such a way, but the fact was that Kenny had his faults. Stan was probably thinking a lot worse things than what had actually happened.

Stan would recover.

When Wendy got home she went to her room and laughed into her pillows.

Poor Stan. He probably cared more about this than she did. Stan had always been too sensitive. Wendy was just glad he wasn't drinking again.

Wendy sent three messages - one in a final attempt to resolve whatever Stan and Kyle's problems were without actually talking to Kyle.

WT: Any idea why kyle is suddenly really good at being unreachable?

Ike responded later.

IB: not a clue

The second was to Stan:

WT: We'll talk later. I love you no matter what.

The third was to Shelly Marsh.

Stan was strangely calm after Wendy left. He was thankful that Wendy apparently hadn't left in too much of a frenzy. His mother didn't say anything. Stan went to work, pet some dogs and let his favorite pitbull snuffle at him a little more than he should. At least the animals needed him.

He saw he had a text from Wendy and ignored it; He wasn't really worried about Wendy's reaction. Stan was wondering how much Kyle knew and if that was affecting why Kyle was so angry. He had apparently kissed Kyle in Denver.

He really didn't remember.

At least that explained why Kyle had been acting so weird the last month. They were halfway through November ... all Stan could think was that Kyle had been sitting on some thoughts for a long time for him to blow up like that. It hurt, Kyle accusing him of lying. The entire week had essentially been Stan avoiding anymore attacks he wouldn't be able to handle. Every time he saw Kyle he was afraid Kyle would approach him with the announcement that they were no longer friends. This was the first time Stan had truly been afraid of the repercussions of his actions, even if he didn't remember.

Stan had to resolutely tell himself that this last year, he hadn't done anything wrong, and he couldn't shoulder the blame for something he did in his sleep. Damned though, if this didn't make him want to relapse in all his emotionally unstable glory. He thought the pills were helping: He was upset but not plummeting into despair like he would have in the past.

Then again the panic might be taking a week to settle.

How the fuck did Kyle know about Henrietta? Apparently he'd known that for a while. Stan remembered Kyle making vague allusions to her in the past. It was the possibility of being gay that made him angry. Gay with him, at any rate. Did he know about Kenny? He hadn't mentioned it. How the fuck did Wendy know about Kenny? Who else knew?

He'd received a short text a few days after Kyle's blow up and subsequent dancing around each other at school.

KB: i need to think

Stan had been relieved and angry; What the fuck did Kyle have to be angry about? The kiss, okay. That was kind of weird, because Stan didn't remember. Kyle had no place being upset over Stan not telling him about Henrietta, or probably being bi as fuck, thank you very much.

The next concern was wondering how much Henrietta had been sharing. He was glad Wendy had opened her huge mouth on Thursday; He needed to set this whole mess straight. On top of dealing with Linda, who was supposed to meet his parents in another week.

These people were driving Stan insane.

Thursday night, Stan texted Wendy back not to pick him up that morning. He wasn't going to lie about not being angry; How the fuck did Wendy know so much about his business? He didn't want to think that Kenny would tell anyone what happened, he had promised he hadn't, and Kenny had been a lot of things but not a liar. He would talk to Wendy about it later.

That Friday, Stan walked to school. He walked from school, also, which was much longer than he anticipated by nearly two hours; He went to Henrietta's house. Stan's most potent regret was that he didn't bring an umbrella when the rain started halfway through the walk. He wasn't even depressed, just annoyed.

He didn't bother trying to sneak inside, knocking on the front door. A blonde, portly woman answered.

"Can't I help you?" Mrs. Biggle asked, peeking at him warily through the storm door.

"Is Henrietta home?" Stan asked. Shivering was starting to set. He was going to die of hypothermia.

Mrs. Biggle brightened considerably, "Of course. Come in! Goodness, you don't have a car do you? Did you walk all the way here? Henrietta! Someone's here for you!"

Stan watched with amusement as Henrietta emerged from her bedroom, a cloud of smoke poofing. Her finely penciled eyebrows arched at the sopping mess that was Stan standing in her parents' living room.

"Uh. Hi Stan." Henrietta said in a put-upon tone, "Come in, I guess? I've got other company though."

Fuck. Of course she did.

Pete and Michael were over, sitting on the edge of the familiar pentagram in the center of Henrietta's room.

"Oh look." Michael drawled, "Therapy isn't working so he came here."

Stan was too tired to deal with this, "Hey, Pete. Michael, how's your parents' divorce going?"

Michael's face twisted but Henrietta interrupted, "Why are you here?"

"Uh." Stan glanced at the other two, "I wanted to talk to you privately."

"No can do." Henrietta lounged in one of her bean bag chairs, unconcerned and lighting a cigarette.

"Ug, I'll text it to you." Stan complained, pulling a pillow from beside her bed and sitting himself in part of the circle. He ignored Pete's curious glances, feeling bad for not talking to either Henrietta or Pete the last year.

Henrietta's phone vibrated, and she looked at Stan's text. Her lips curled around her cigarette, "Oh, they know." She gestured to Pete and Michael. "You can talk about it out loud."

Stan's face pinched. "The hell? Who else?"

"No one." Henrietta smirked. She acknowledged Pete and Michael's curious glances, "He wants to know if I told Broflovski about when we banged. Which is no. Why would I talk to a preppy, jock, conformist?"

"Ew." Michael sneered - Either in response to the idea of Stan and Henrietta having sex, or a preppy, jock, conformist. Who knew. Pete only nodded.

"When?" Stan groaned, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Henrietta twirled the cigarette in her fingers, "When you went AWOL last year. Testaburger asked if you had been acting weird, so I helped her out." She took a drag of her cigarette, "Bitch was going psycho."

All roads led to Wendy Testaburger. Stan was going to murder her.

"Ug." Michael interjected, looking at his phone, "I remember all that." He didn't bother looking at Stan, "But don't think we go around talking about you. You're not nearly that interesting. So whatever your little boyfriend found out," Stan bristled, Michael didn't notice, "Was through someone else."

Henrietta shrugged, "Yeah. Pretty much. I decided to forget about it."

Pete who also shrugged when Stan looked at him. "Seriously." Pete offered, "Who cares?"

Kyle, apparently. He was still trying to figure that one out. Stan slouched on his pillow, and looked tiredly at Henrietta, "Can I have one of those?" He asked.

Henrietta arched an eyebrow but handed him a clove cigarette and a lighter.

Pete was leaning against his hand, watching Stan with amusement, "We've got weed, you want some?" Michael made an annoyed noise, which they all ignored.

Taking a deep drag and exhaling, Stan nodded, "Yeah, might as well."

"I'm a piece of shit." Kyle said from Butter's couch in Cartman's basement.

"Well," Cartman said, watching Netflix on the tv, "Yeah."

Butters had been allotted to a spare chair, and was visibly put off by Kyle taking up the majority of the couch. He didn't say anything because Kyle was Having A Crisis.

Kyle rolled his head to look at the cluster of junk food at Cartman's feet, "Give me the Cheesy Poofs." He demanded.

Cartman's eyebrows raised and he gave Kyle a hard side-eye. Over Butters' "Oh dear." he said, "You hate Cheesy Poofs."

Kyle pouted, "Give me the Cheesy Poofs." He repeated. Butters stood and walked upstairs.

"No. It's a waste of perfectly good Cheesy Poofs."

"Give them to me." Kyle tried to reach for them but only flailed when Cartman nudged them out of his reach with his foot. Kyle whined, "Eric."

Cartman was unmoved, and picked up the bag, shoving his hand inside to pull out a Cheesy Poof and pop it in his mouth. "This sure is a good Cheesy Poof." He crunched loudly.

When Kyle sulked, Cartman groaned and offered him the bag. Kyle reached in, pulled one out and popped it in his mouth, immediately grimacing, "This is disgusting."

"See!" Cartman scowled, "You wasted a Cheesy Poof!"

"I wasted Styrofoam."

They stopped bickering when Butters ascended downstairs, holding two small cartons of ice cream and two spoons. He stood in front of Kyle, looking down at him with pity.

"I've got Chocolate Fudge Brownie, and Chunky Monkey." Butters said, thrusting forward both.

Kyle stared at him for a moment before saying, "Chunky Monkey." He sat to receive his ice cream offering. Butters sat next to him and opened his container. "Because I'm the dumbest fucking ape there is."

Cartman stuck his lower lip out at Butters, "None for me?"

"You have your own." Butters smirked, "Besides, you're on a diet again, remember?"

"Ug." Cartman sunk into the couch, fist against his cheek while he glared at the tv. "It's only ten pounds."

Kyle smirked around his spoon, "Ten pounds of fatass."


Both Kyle and Butters laughed, not really watching whatever movie was streaming. Kyle was too busy being sad, and Butters was visibly trying to think of how to broach said sadness. Tact had never been Butters' strong point.

"So, why are you here?" Butters asked while Kyle was still slowly eating his ice cream.

Kyle kept staring at the television, "Idunwannatalkaboutit." He grumbled around his spoon.

"Oh hell nah." Cartman glared at him, "You don't come here, sobbing your pussy eyes out, eat Butters' ice cream, then act like everything's fine."

"It's not." Kyle agreed, "I dun wanna talk about it."

Butters smiled kindly, "Maybe you'll feel better."

Kyle sulked, "I doubt it."

Cartman drawled, "Is it about why you and Stan aren't talking?"

Kyle shoved another spoonful in his mouth to buy himself time, frowning around the metal, "How do you even know? You don't even share classes with us."

Cartman scoffed, "Please. You underestimate my networking skills."

Butters nodded in agreement, "It's a small county. Everyone knows everything."

"I'm not even that popular." Kyle groaned, "What's worth talking about?"

Butters gave Kyle a pitying smile, "Oh, Kyle. You're on the basketball team, and everyone knows you're besties with Stan. So when you start sulking, all the guys on your team start bitching. It's pretty easy to keep up with you."

"It was Laurence, wasn't it?" Kyle scowled, "That gossipy little bitch."

"Sure was." Butters said brightly.

"Yeah man," Cartman said in a bored lilt, "Fuck Laurence." He obviously didn't know who Laurence was.

Butters and Kyle ignored him. Butters cocked his head and looked at Kyle imploringly, "So?"

Kyle groaned, rocking his head back to stare at the water damaged ceiling. "It's mostly my fault." He said, trying to stay vague. "I said some things, tried to blame them on Stan because that's how I felt at the moment, then I realized I was wrong. There's ... more, but I gotta work it out on my own."

Butters and Cartman exchanged glances over Kyle, not trying to be subtle.

"So like," Cartman said slowly, "You started acting all bitchy after your date in Denver."

"It wasn't a date." Kyle countered irately.

Butters bounced a little in his corner of the couch, "Oooh, you're right. Everyone was saying how moody and out of character Kyle was being."

Cartman's eyes were gleaming, openly gleeful at being onto something. "So what happened?"

This fucking prick. Kyle wondered why he bothered, "Nothing." Kyle snapped, "As far as everyone in this conversation is concerned, nothing happened."

The grin that crawled across Cartman's face was cat-like. He leaned over Kyle to look at Butters, "Gay scare?"

Butters nodded enthusiastically, "Totally a gay scare."

"Oh my god." Kyle gaped and started to stand to leave, but Cartman threw his arm over Kyle's chest to throw him back to his seat.

"He's not denying it." Cartman crowed at Butters, managing to keep Kyle in place with both arms once Kyle started fighting to stand, "I've been waiting for this day. My faggy, ginger, Jew has finally found his truest, salacious form."

Butters' eyes were sparkling. He also didn't seem put off by Kyle's vicious wriggling. Kyle was going to commit murder, and find a way to re-summon Cthulhu to sacrifice Butters and Cartman to him so no one would ever find the bodies. It occurred to Kyle that he didn't actually remember how to summon Cthulhu, or who had been involved. His struggling paused for the moment for him to ponder that.

Cartman was sitting on Kyle to keep him from running. Kyle gave up with a flop, "Cartman. Let me up." He said. "I really don't want to talk about this."

Butters gave him another pitying smile, "Let him go, Eric. He has issues to sort out. I can understand why he wouldn't want to talk about it with you."

"Why?" Eric scoffed, adjusting so he was sitting more securely. Kyle grunted - His ribs were protesting the weight, "I don't have anything against queers." Cartman gestured with his head to the flailing boy beneath him, "Just him."

Kyle wheezed, "Point made." He reached to punch Cartman in the arm none-too-gently. Cartman winced, but the position didn't give Kyle much chance to really hurt him. "Let me up before I give you a titty twister and don't fucking look at me like that, you still have boobs."

Cartman covered his chest dramatically, looking offended, but relented at another "look" from Butters. "Rude." He said.

Kyle stood, a little less embarrassed after that whole scene. He was still eager to run away for fear of the possibility that Butters would want to initiate him into some kind of queer brotherhood brigade. Before he left, he hesitated and picked up the rest of the ice cream.

"I'm still taking this." He said to Butters and fled.

Before he made it up the stairs, Cartman yelled, "Don't take my mom's silverware you fucking Jew thief!"

Kyle took the spoon just to spite him.

Most of Wendy's troubles were solved when she finally got hold of Karen. Karen was the one to text her, asking her to meet at Stark's Pond after school. Stan and Kyle were still avoiding each other, so she only had to ditch Bebe and practically flew to Stark's.

She wasn't surprised to see Ike and Karen canoodling on a bench when she pulled up. She honked her car horn before parking. They startled apart, Karen looking annoyed and Ike looking pleased. Fucking kids.

"Where the fuck have you been?" Wendy demanded as soon as she was within earshot.

"Uh." Karen scowled, leaning into Ike. "None of your damn business but." She reached into her hoodie pocket and pulled out a crumpled slip of paper, "Found it." She said smugly.

Wendy reached for letter, but Karen moved it out of her way. "You owe me extra for this one." Karen said, "This was a pain." She handed the letter over.

Sure enough, it was the letter, wrinkled and well worn. She looked between Ike and Karen, "How? We'd been looking everywhere."

Karen grinned, lounging in a way that reminded Wendy of Kenny, "Well, my brother got out of prison a couple of weekends ago. I kept looking at the name on that list and thought it sounded familiar."

Wendy sat next to Ike and Karen on the bench and listened.

Turn out, that when Linda had delivered the letters, she had put the letter in Noah Cox's mailbox. Noah Cox, who happened to be Kevin McCormick's age, and had been arrested a few weeks prior, presumably after Linda had gotten the names from Henrietta. Karen had vaguely remembered the name, and knowing Kevin was getting out, waited until he was home to ask him about Noah. Sure enough they had been in prison together.

Karen neglected to say anything; She had been overjoyed with Kevin's arrival, and she wasn't sure of her lead until she had the letter in her hands. Noah's mother had forwarded the letter to Noah, assuming it was one of his friends.

"And that's, that." Karen flipped her hair, openly pleased with herself. "Am I not the best covert-operations person?"

"Something like that." Wendy smiled, sighing in relief. She would tell Stan when he got the nerve to talk to her himself. Operation Deforestation was a success. Wendy leaned and looked at Ike, "How's Kyle?" She asked. Besides their class together, Kyle had been avoiding everyone having to do with everything. His sudden desire to be a hermit was causing a small ripple in the gossip pool, but Wendy was sure it had everything to do with Stan.

"Sulking." Ike replied cheerily. "Do you know what happened?"

Wendy frowned, "Not. Entirely." She said carefully, "And honestly, I don't care!" Marlene Dietrich's suit pants, that felt good to say, "He'll figure it out, he always does."

Ike grinned, squeezing his arm around Karen's waist, "I guess."

Wendy took that as her cue to leave, "I'll keep in touch." She nodded at Karen, "If you need a favor I can do, contact me."

"Oh don't worry," Karen smirked, "You owe me bunches. As well as the extra money."

"Of course." Wendy adjusted her jacket and walked to her car. The air was starting to get cold again at night, even though the days were warm. Once she was in her parent's driveway, she pulled out the final letter, and carefully burnt it with the car's cigarette lighter. Once the final letter flickered away, she leaned back in the driver's seat, cushy, soft and welcoming. The greatest relief washed over her like a blanket, like the world had been lifted from her shoulders. Wendy grinned.

Stan kept returning to Henrietta's. They didn't smoke weed every time, and for the first time Stan felt like he'd found some healthy medium between abstinence and not remembering entire days.

Kenny smoked to feel good, while Kyle was militantly insistent that Stan not touch anything. Knowing that Kyle sometimes drank at Cartman's made it hard to take him seriously, though Stan knew he had meant well.

Used to mean well, at least. They still weren't talking.

He was trying not to drink, though. His cheap flask was still under his bed, a filthy comfort blanket. Just in case. He hadn't had a relapse in months, and even the first relapse hadn't been life-changing. The fact that his small actions didn't change the world sometimes got Stan weepy; Only he could decide the significance of the decisions in his world. No one else had that power. If he smoked pot sometimes while listening to Goth music, he decided if it really mattered. And it didn't.

December was creeping up, Thanksgiving close. Sharon was in a tizzy over doing dinner at their house or going to her sister's.

"Jimbo's going to Flo's," Sharon fretted at Randy over dinner, "We could go to her's and do something small here? Oh, but Shelly's visiting and I'd hate to drag her around all weekend. I know how exhausting it can be. Oh!" She startled, as though something occurred to her, "Stan."

Stan looked over, raising his eyebrows in acknowledgement. He had a forkful of broccoli in his mouth.

"Will your girlfriend be coming to Thanksgiving?"

He nearly choked.

"I know we just had her over for dinner a couple of weeks ago, and my cooking is probably nowhere near that first generation Italian." Sharon smiled sheepishly, crow's feet wrinkling her eyes, "But she seems like a nice girl."

Stan could feel Randy peering at him in curiosity. He swallowed his food, "Um. No. I think she'll be doing Thanksgiving at her family's."

Sharon looked relieved, "Then maybe you'd like to go to her place this year?"

Bless his kind, well-meaning mother. Stan would remember never to put her in an old people's home, "Nah." He started earnestly, picking at his chicken. "It's not that serious. I'd rather spend it with you guys."

Sharon beamed and Randy grunted.

In the end they decided to visit Sharon's sister, Flo. A few days before break and Shelly's scheduled arrival, Stan got a phone call from his sister. He'd been relaying details to her via text, because Shelly got stressed talking to Sharon.

He had been at the animal shelter as a volunteer that day, instead of as part of the staff. His phone ringing startled him and several of the cats he was cleaning the cages. Stan pulled out his phone, frowning when he saw his sister's name. He carefully put the phone between his ear and his shoulder with his non-poop covered hand. "Hello? I'm at work."

"Take a break." Shelly said. "I need to talk to you for a minute."

"Then I don't need to take a break." He winced when the gray and white speckled cat he was trying not to disturb took a swipe at him.

"I heard you've been crying over Kyle because of abandonment issues."

"Oh my god." Stan groaned, replacing some newspaper under the cat cage, "I'm elbow deep in cat shit right now, I'll call you back in a minute."

"You'd better." Shelly said threateningly, but hung up.

Stan finished with the cage and quickly ducked out with a quick wave to the front desk. Since he wasn't technically working right now, no one cared if he left early.

When he got outside, he lit a cigarette before calling back Shelly. She picked up after a few rings.

"So," He said on an inhale, "What are you being nosy about?"

"Are you smoking?" Shelly asked accusingly.


"You'll never get a girl to kiss you like that."

Stan hummed, looking at the sky which was about to darken completely. "Tragic."

"See," Shelly, said almost immediately, "Most boys would be like, 'bitch I have a girlfriend'. Not you though. You're just like, yep. She exists, like you barely remember half the time. You know who you don't do that over?"

Stan stayed silent, Shelly didn't give him a chance to respond anyway.


Stan tapped his foot, irritation starting to set in, "And?"

"It's kind of gay."

Stan pinched the bridge of his nose, cigarette burning dangerously close to his bangs. If Shelly had been immediately involved with this year's drama he might have been offended, but he knew she was just trying to rouse him into half an argument.

"So, I'm gay because I don't find it necessary to humor some false, societal instituted form of toxic masculinity, like Dad, and act like being in a relationship defines the non-sexual relationships I have with other people? Especially regarding someone, who happens to be male, that I've known far longer than Linda?"

"Christ, have you been around Bigglesworth again?"

"Biggle, and yes. What do you want, Shelly?"

"Okay, look." Shelly seemed to sense Stan's patience was running out. "I got a text from Wendy Testaburger—"

"Jesus Christ." Stan interrupted, and started to walk around the animal shelter for something to do. "How do you girls all fucking know each other?"

He could hear Shelly's smirk, "There's like, one girl for every five boys in South Park." She said, "We all fucking know each other."

Stan groaned, and stopped to put out the stub of his cigarette.

Shelly continued, "I don't know what's going on, but she just said she was worried, that she fucked up and you wouldn't talk to her and asked if I would talk to you. I asked if it was another fight with Kyle, she said yes, but she wasn't exactly sure what happened. Blah blah blah, so I'm calling," Shelly sounded like the next statement physically hurt her to say, "To make sure you're okay and maybe to find out what happened."

"Don't worry about it." Stan said flatly. He found a spot out of the wind and sat on the ground, huddling into himself.

"Does it have to do with sex?"

Stan's voice came out sharper than he intended, more irritated than defensive, "No." He ground out. "Look." He rubbed his forehead against his knees, "I'm not entirely sure what happened." Did he say he was going to murder Wendy? "But Kyle seems to need his space right now, so I'm giving it to him. This is all on Kyle, this time." Reluctantly acknowledging the first time they nearly had a fallout was because of himself. "And I'm fine, Shelly, really. I'm."


"Annoyed." Perhaps had some toxic masculinity to work on. "But I'm not going catatonic like I was a couple of years ago. Honestly, I don't know what happened freshman year, but the pills are helping. I have friends. Kyle will come to me when he's ready." Maybe.

"You know what your problem is?" Shelly said after a moment.

"What?" Stan responded haplessly.

"You wait around for things to happen for you. It's worked out so far, for some reason, but how's it working right now?'

"What are you talking about?" He was exhausted. He felt like there was nothing else to say, yet here was Shelly, still lecturing him.

"Just." Shelly sighed, gathering her words. "I'm not saying to force Kyle into a dialog. I know he's fiercely stubborn if he doesn't want to talk, but." She paused, "Maybe you need to be the one to start things, for once."

There wasn't a hint of malice in her voice, and Stan was struck by that she was probably one person who knew him very well. She knew "how he was" and wasn't deluded by blind love or mindless hate for her opinion of him to be overly skewed.

"I'll think about that." He said honestly. "I have to go back to work."

"Okay." Shelly said easily, "And Stan?"

"Yeah?" Stan responded cautiously.

"I care about you bunches."

Stan laughed, "Yeah, same here."

Thanksgiving passed without upstart, and everyone in school was truly busy with pre-Christmas-break testing and functions. The entire school was forced to sit in the auditorium for a choir performance, which wouldn't have been too bad but the choir got nervous and croaked in several spots.

Kyle had two games before break, for which he had to travel by bus. He'd managed to avoid Stan for the most part, and anyway. Stan was actually focusing on his tests and the rest of the school was distracted enough by events to not get too nosey.

That was, until the week following midterms - a half-week. Everyone was squirrely with nothing to do and Wednesday was a half-day anyway. The only way Kyle could describe Stan's behavior was "aggressively nice."

"How'd your games go?" Stan asked Monday morning before winter break. They had their lockers beside each other still, making it hard to avoid Stan completely.

Kyle went rigid and turned to meet Stan's eyes, unsure. Stan was smiling calmly, non-aggressively giving Kyle his attention.

It'd been over a month. Kyle knew he was being a giant baby at this point. He had his time to think.

"Um." Kyle said eloquently, "Good. They were just practice games." He turned to shove a notebook into his backpack, even though there were no pending assignments, "We lost, but we're getting better."

"Oh, well." Stan also turned away, "Good." He shut his locker and hoisted his backpack over his shoulder, walking away without another word.

Kyle was nervous.

Stan greeted him Tuesday, but didn't attempt small talk.

Wednesday, Stan cleared his throat and reached into his book bag before Kyle could leave.

"Um. I got this." He pulled out a neatly wrapped package, wrapped in what looked like a paper shopping bag with a red ribbon stuck to the top. "I didn't know if I'd see you this Christmas so I thought I'd give it to you now. I don't care if you open it early."

Kyle stared at the gift, stomach dropping. Stan was looking at him squarely, jaw clenched like he was ready for the rejection.

If Kyle said no, he really was a piece of shit.

"I didn't..."

"It's fine." Stan insisted. His eyes lit hopefully and he shook the present at Kyle, "You tried to do something for me for my birthday, so I want to do something for you for Christmas."

Kyle flinched at the reminder of Denver, but nodded and took the gift. "Thanks." He said, hesitantly.

"No problem." Stan's smile was bright like summer, and Kyle felt his heart clench. Stan didn't try to pursue any more conversation besides a quick, "Merry Christmas." Before shuffling away.

Kyle looked at the brown package, weighing it in his hand. It was definitely a book. He grimaced, angry at himself. The gift found its way into his book bag, where he carefully kept checking the bow the rest of the morning to make sure it wasn't crumpled.

When he got home, he put the package in the top of his closet, debating to either save it for Christmas, or open the present early. He hadn't decided.

Stan started texting him.

The first text was a painful reminder of how Kyle had left Stan hanging with "i need to think". Kyle hadn't been lying. He'd done a lot of thinking the last over a month. The texts weren't anything major, or even words. Pictures of cats and dogs from the shelter started coming every few days. After day six Stan wrote "this is julie" with a picture of a basset hound puppy.

SM: she loves you and would like to lick your face

Kyle smiled and texted back, "hope she finds a home."

Stan didn't respond, but Kyle had a feeling Stan was happy.

A week before Christmas Kyle got a friend whom he knew was driving to Denver for last minute shopping to take him. The sheer effort of getting to Denver, he knew, couldn't be played off as "oh I just saw this at the grocery and thought you'd like it." Kyle was ready to move on. He had a good idea of what to get Stan, and tried not to fuss too much while pushing through the crowds in one of Denver's many malls. Stan didn't need much anyway. Kyle hoped the gesture would be appreciated, at any rate.

Kyle was a coward, though, and left a small, wrapped box in the Marsh's mailbox, after the mail had been delivered. He almost waited to make sure someone retrieved the mail, but decided that was too creepy and walked home, chest warm and face smiling.

At midnight on Christmas Eve, Stan texted "Merry Christmas. Thank you for the gift".

Kyle returned the text in kind, and opened the present still sitting in his closet. He laughed when saw the title; It was a history book on the life of Nietzsche. Kyle only put the book away when he realized he was falling asleep holding it. He kept the bow stuck to the front, setting the book on top of the others which lined his desk.

New Year's, Kyle sent a text from an unfamiliar rooftop, a short video of fireworks whistling from every direction. His text was one amongst a long line of cat and dog snapshots.

SM: where r u??

KB: Queens, NY at cousin kyle

SM: wicked. Happy new years

KB: happy new years

Kyle's stomach flipped at the knowledge that New Year's would probably begin with a Talk. It would be for the best. This wasn't something he could wave off, given the way he had blown up in Stan's face. If Kyle had been mature, he would have ignored the whole thing, or simply decided it wasn't important enough to risk a friendship that had been put through enough wringers for a lifetime. Friends do stupid shit. They move on, if they're actually friends.

In way, though, Kyle was glad of the upcoming conversation. He sat on his cousin's roof, huddled in a winter coat and pulled it closer with gloveless fingers, his face barely visible under the thick ushanka he had thought to bring; New York winters were fierce. Fireworks popped from every direction, crackles of red, green and gold. Kyle grinned, feeling like he could vibrate off the roof from hope.

January saw students trudging back to class with post-winter-break hangovers, unenthusiastic with trudging through seven inches of snow. The snow was a little late this year, but it came full force, making the hallways a watery, slippery mess.

Kyle was in the middle of yawning after his mom dropped him off earlier than usual. Clyde Donovan skidded down the hallway after taking a running start to see how far he could slide. Predictably they collided.

"Mother fucker!" Kyle sat, groaning and rubbing his head.

"Fuck!" Clyde laughed rolling to his knees to check on Kyle, "You alright?"

"Ug." His pants were soaked. Kyle was just glad his books were still in his locker. "Yeah." He stood, honestly not concerned with Clyde, but helped him up anyway in a show of solidarity, "Fuck, yeah, good morning."

"Morning!" Clyde cheered, and took off around the corner to start sliding again, "Happy new year!"

Kyle grumbled and found his locker, not entirely sure he could remember his combination. He almost missed it when Stan appeared next to him, looking suspiciously chipper.

"Morning!" Stan greeted, immediately opening his locker. He gave Kyle a once-over when Kyle was still struggling with his combination, "You look like shit man."

"Woke up late." Kyle said in his not-awake haze. His locker finally opened. "No time for coffee."

"That sucks." Stan started humming something tuneless while he rifled through his catastrophe of a locker, "You gonna be okay for practice?"

"Yeah." Kyle paused when he realized this was the most they'd spoken to each other in person for a long time. He looked down at Stan in his crouched position. They could almost act like nothing happened. "Happy New Year." Kyle tried.

Stan's movements slowed before he looked up at Kyle, not quite frowned but not happy, "Hey uh."

Kyle braced himself.

"You wanna talk later? Like after practice? I'll actually be here a while. Got a teacher meeting or something."

There it was. Kyle chewed the inside of his lip, stomach wiggling uncomfortably. His voice cracked when he replied, "Sure." Kyle cleared his throat and tried again, "Sure." He was so fucked.

Stan's mouth twisted as he fought a laugh, choosing to stand. "Cool, I'll see you then."


Kyle and Stan went rigid when Wendy popped between them.

"Happy New Year!" She said, smiling brightly.

She faltered when they glared at her.

"Okay." She said, still smiling, "I get you don't want to talk to me and I fucked up but." She pulled her hands from behind her back and held out two small boxes, identical in size and decoration, "This is apology cake, and I'm not going to talk to you guys otherwise but at least know I'm sorry."

Stan hesitantly reached out first, expression relaxing, "Thanks, Wendy." He said.

Kyle took his too. He honestly wasn't sure what she was apologizing for, but it seemed important to her. He hadn't felt like dealing with her meddling the last couple of months.

Wendy looked between them gratefully, "Thank you. And Stan," Her voice turned serious for a moment. Stan nodded before she continued. "Last letter's taken care of. Thank you both for your help." She quickly turned on her heel and slid-walked down the hallway.

Kyle looked at the cake box, "Huh." He turned it in his hands, "She didn't have to do that."

Stan's face flickered angrily but he put the box in the top of his locker. Kyle decided he didn't have the right to ask, right now.

"See ya." Stan said after a moment, and turned to leave.

Kyle wanted to apologize then and there, but the halls were rapidly filling with students. He watched Stan's back retreat, before nodding to himself and deciding today was the day he was going to set things right.

Normally Kyle would have asked to go somewhere more familiar, but he had a feeling this conversation wasn't going to be smooth. As long as he got his say, he would let Stan decide from there. Kyle's shoulders bunched up to his ears, partially from the cold finding its way down the neck of his coat, partially from nerves. Kyle couldn't remember being this nervous talking to Stan in the past, but he had never fucked up this badly. He wasn't good at admitting when he was wrong - He was usually right, thank you very much.

Stan was also bundled and shivering, as they walked from the school and in a silent agreement, toward Stark's Pond. The walk was lengthy from the high school, but the roads were mostly clear since most people would have gotten a ride with someone.

Stan was keeping his eyes forward, but didn't seem uncomfortable. He was waiting for Kyle to start.

"So uh." Kyle's breath puffed into the air in a white mist, "Teacher meeting?" Coward.

"Supposed to be making college plans, or something." Stan responded after a moment, "My grades aren't really good enough for anything nearby."

That surprised Kyle, a little. He thought Stan had been trying harder, "Do you know what you want to do?"

"No." Stan said flatly, and didn't offer anything else.

Kyle adjusted his gym bag, wishing he had left it in his locker. "I um." Kyle sighed, "I'm sorry."

Stan was silent for a moment. Kyle couldn't see his face under his hood. "Normally I'd say 'okay' and move on, but I get the feeling there's more." His voice had an edge, "I don't know what I did."

I told you. Kyle thought nervously, not wanting to say all this out loud again, but knowing he owed it to Stan in certain terms. He'd demanded the same from Stan two years ago. Kyle was nothing if not fair.

"You." Kyle started, stumbling on his words. Their feet kicked up snow that hadn't been driven over yet, snow blowing in from nearby fields. "In Denver. You probably don't remember. I just realized it. Well, a couple of months ago I realized it but. Um. Guh."

Stan stayed quiet, patiently.

"I think, in your sleep, you kissed me." Kyle spat out. He was grateful he could hide in his jacket at the moment.

"You think?" Stan asked levelly, peering into Kyle's hood. Kyle looked like he wanted to sink into the ground. "That's a pretty big accusation to make." Especially since I wasn't drunk or high and would normally remember something like that.

"You did." Kyle said more confidently. They look a turn and trees started speckling their vision. The wind was harsher in Kyle's face this direction. "It wasn't like. Crazy, but you kissed my cheek and. It freaked me out. A lot."

"Obviously." Stan said dryly. He tilted his head down against the wind, voice muffling. "Was there a reason why? I mean." Stan sighed, thinking of Kenny again, "That seems like something you might tell me about then laugh it off. I dunno. If it wasn't like I was groping you or something..." His brow furrowed as he tried not to get defensive. Kyle had clearly been upset.

"No. I." Kyle hated this. "I had found out some stuff about you, that you hadn't told me about. And then, here you are, way more touchy than normal, even if you were asleep. You had never done anything like that, ya know? I mean, there'd been some spooning when we were kids but that's ..."

"Different." Stan finished, evenly.

"Different." Kyle agreed. "So it got me thinking, what else were you hiding from me? The last few years haven't been easy for me, either." There was an angry edge to Kyle's tone, and Stan glanced up at him, ready to be insulted. Kyle looked more frustrated than anything, and Stan was putting most of his normal responses on the back burner until Kyle actually said what he meant. Stan wasn't the most patient when it came to other people reacting negatively to him, but Kyle was Kyle, and he would keep quiet for now.

He didn't want to be abandoned, again.

They went quiet for a bit while they navigated Stark's Pond's barren trees and walking paths. They found a snow-covered bench that was little more than a lump before they wiped the seat. They were both cold, but so cold getting their butts wet wasn't too off-putting. The breeze from across the pond was biting. They wouldn't be able to sit for long, but the walk was exhausting and Kyle's shoulder was starting to hurt from his bag.

Stan huddled further in his coat to protect his face. Kyle could feel his lips going numb.

"So." Stan started, looking at the frozen pond, "What did you find out?"

This question, Kyle could summon his frustration for fuel, "You fucked Henrietta Biggle."


"So?" Kyle turned incredulously, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Now Stan felt like he could get defensive. He turned to face Kyle head-on, "What does it matter? It happened a year ago, and you hate her anyway."

"I don't hate her!"

"That's a goddamn lie, and you know it." Stan glared from underneath his hood. They had half a glaring match before Stan relented and deflated, "Look." He started stiffly, "The thing with me and Henri? I was trying to work some shit out and wasn't really. Acting right. You know that."

Kyle squinted at Stan while he tried to process, "So, you're ashamed of her?"

"No." Stan sulked. He really wasn't, but it was a sore subject. "But it was a private thing. Like, I didn't ask about what you did with Wendy? It was Wendy. And you don't even like Henrietta. Why would I go around bragging about it? Especially to you?"

Kyle guessed he could understand that. He was hostile toward Henrietta at the best of times. But ... "What do you mean 'work some shit out'?" He knew what that sounded like. He didn't want to make assumptions, anymore.

Stan tensed and turned away. "It's not important." He felt like if he said why, then Kyle would feel justified in freaking out in the first place.

Kyle looked like he was ready to let it go for about half a second, "No way." He said firmly, "Like, this was part of why I got mad. You act like things aren't important when they are. At least to you. And it makes it really hard to support you." Kyle flinched when Stan shot a disbelieving look at him, "I know I'm not the best listener." He really, really wasn't. "But haven't I always tried when it was actually important?"

Mostly, Stan thought begrudgingly. Kyle tried, and that was important. Still. "It was a year ago. It doesn't matter anymore."

Kyle sniffed, "I think it does."

"What the fuck, dude?" Stan bristled.

"If it wasn't important then you wouldn't be avoiding talking about it."

"Wasn't this supposed to be about why you were being a prick to me?

Kyle scowled, "It's completely related. I want to know why you would hide something like that from me?"

"I like boys, okay!?" Stan's face went white and he turned to bury his head in his gloves.

Kyle froze.

Literally he was fucking freezing.

In Kyle's half panicked mind, he was thinking they needed to start walking or they were going to freeze from mortification on this park bench. The other half was concerned that Stan was audibly wheezing into his hands.

Kyle cleared his throat, "You okay?"

Stan shook his head silently.

"Um." Kyle kept his eyes on Stan, hesitantly reaching out to pat his back. "Look, it's ... okay...?"

Stan sat rigid and turned to him. His face was red and eyes glassy, "N-no, I don't want you to think I was coming on to you. I don't remember, and like I know you don't have a thing against gays ("Stan.") but you're so freaked out over something I don't remember and you're going to hate me and everything I've ever done. I mean, Henrietta ("Stan!") was it's own thing, I liked it, okay? It's not like I think girls are gross, they're wonderful but some boys are nice to look at too, I just don't want you to think I'm suddenly going to be all over you because I'm not but it's already happened and I'm sorry I don't remember, I'm so sor—"

"STAN." Kyle barked over Stan's obvious panic. Stan stopped rambling, but his hands were shaking and Kyle almost wanted to reach out and grab them to make him remember he existed in reality, "It's okay! You're okay! I'm okay, with everything!"

Stan could feel his throat closing. He wanted his inhaler. Kyle's eyes were bright and excited. Why was he excited? "W-wa?" He wasn't even sure what he wanted to ask. He hadn't been ready. This isn't how he wanted to come out. If ever.

"It's okay." Kyle said again, "Stan, I need you to listen to me." This time he grabbed Stan's wrist, trying to reestablish a connection before Stan stood and ran away, "I was going to be okay with everything. The kiss. Everything. I just couldn't work up to it, yet."

Stan stopped breathing. He didn't believe anything was real. Except that he needed to puke. That was very real.

"I need to puke." Stan said, gently pulling his arm away. He moved slowly, because Kyle seemed uncertain that he wasn't going to run. Kyle was probably stronger and faster than him regardless.

In the most fluid motion Kyle had ever seen a panicking person move, watched as Stan stood and walked behind the bench to puke on a bush. Kyle cringed at the sounds, and waited until Stan was done and sitting next to him. Stan looked like someone had punched him.

Kyle cleared his throat, "Let's start walking. My balls are freezing."

Stan nodded, and stood to match Kyle's pace. They still had about a half an hour before they'd reach their parting point. The sun was almost down and the air colder than ever. Kyle was glad to be moving away from the pond.

They were silent for several minutes before Stan finally spoke, voice hoarse and disbelieving. "What did you mean you needed to work up to something?"

Kyle's heart pounded in his chest. He licked his numb lips. "I just." His hands were so damn cold. "If you had been hiding um. Feelings. From me." He sounded so arrogant he was going to climb a volcano and jump. At least he'd be warm. "I was willing to. Uh. Think about." He stumbled over the end of his sentence.

"Think about?"

Oh god. "Returning. Them." He didn't deserve a volcano. He deserved to hand his hands stuck to ice and someone whispering "hella" in his ear for all eternity.


That wasn't want Kyle expected. He didn't know what he expected but he'd been hoping for more. He leaned to look into Stan's hood. Stan's face was blank, like his soul had left his body and he was a walking dummy. Given everything, it was very likely.

"I mean." Kyle tried to fill the silence, "We spend most of our free time together anyway."

Finally some life came to Stan's eyes and he looked amused, "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I dunno." Kyle flustered, "It's not that big of a step."

"You didn't talk to me for two months."

"A month and a half. I was surprised."

Stan laughed. Kyle was relieved. Their friendship wasn't ruined. Stan could say no and they would move on, and unless they were struck by a meteor, the Apocalypse wasn't nigh.

They walked in silence until they had to part ways to go to their respective homes. Stan looked up at Kyle in the street lamp, looking human again.

"Let me think." Stan said.

Kyle shuffled uncomfortably, "Okay?"

"You had two months." Stan said calmly, "I've received a lot of information today. Let me think."

Kyle nodded, something wriggling in his stomach. "Okay." He said.

"And." Stan looked down, also shuffling, "If I don't bring it up again just."

Kyle's felt the corner of his mouth twitch, "Assume it's a no?"


"That's fair." Kyle said. He bunched his jacket to his neck, "It's cold. I'm going home."

"Yeah." Stan turned, pausing for only a moment, "Good night."

Kyle smiled, "Good night."

Stan was in a daze the next few days. Between miniature panic attacks while trying to think about things that needed thought about, and being thrown back into winter term, his head was a confusing jumble of information that needed sorted. He couldn't talk about this with anyone, especially since he was still kind of mad at Wendy. They were exchanging pleasantries now, but Kyle was much higher on his list of things to resolve.

Plus, the Linda thing. He hadn't really seen her since break, occasionally texting her to make sure she was still alive. As a senior she had her own schedule. Stan hadn't visited her house since the initial time. Apparently her parents approved, which was good. He guessed.

Sharon asked several times if Linda would like to come over, to which Stan mumbled something about her being busy. He didn't so much dodge the question, as twirled out of the way while singing "I don't want to talk about this." He had too much on his mind.

Apparently he wasn't as good at hiding his state of confusion as he'd hoped; Sharon started pushing to get him to talk.

A week after speaking to Kyle and scuttling away in order to avoid speaking about anything of any importance, Sharon poked her head into Stan's room while he read a magazine on his bed.



"Can we talk?"

Stan lay the magazine on his stomach, looking at her with preemptive dread. "About what?"

Sharon stepped inside looking sheepish, and moved to sit on his bed. Moved his legs for her.

"Well, it's just that." She folded her hands on lap, not looking him, "You've been acting off all week, I was wondering if everything was alright."

Stan wanted to laugh but something must have shown on his face. Sharon turned more fully to him. He sat up and threw the magazine on the floor. "Uh, yeah." He said awkwardly, "I'm fine. Why?"

"Are you sure?" Sharon pressed. She hesitated before pushing more, "It's not girlfriend problems is it? You never talk about her."

Hoo boy, Stan wished. He felt his face wobble into something resembling a smile, "Nah. Just that Linda's a senior and she's busy. And so am I. It's nothing to worry about."

Sharon didn't entirely believe him, "Well I do worry. You've been distracted all week."

"It's just getting back from winter break, and stuff."

"If you say so sweetie." Sharon shuffled a little and looked at her hands for a moment. Stan waited for her speak. "I just want you to know, I know we talked a lot about you getting out and around people again last year. You've been so much better, I'm proud of you." She paused, not finished, "But if you got a girlfriend to make us feel better, you don't have to do something like that."

Stan gaped for a moment, "Uh? No!" His spine went rigid, "I'm not with her for you!" That was true. "We've, just..."

Sharon smiled patiently while he groped for some excuse as to why he never talked about Linda. She patted his knee, "Regardless, you've had a lot going on lately and you don't have to push yourself to take on anymore than school." She paused thoughtfully, "I thought at first it was because Kenny's death finally set in, but this week made me think that wasn't the case."

Stan was confused now, "What are you talking about?"

Sharon gave him a level look before speaking, "I'm not sure myself, honey. I just can't figure out the pattern to your ups and downs, and it's very frustrating for me."

Stan's chest twinged, "I-I'm. Sorry..."

Sharon shook her head, "Don't be. I'm just talking to you to remind you that we're here, and love you no matter what." She stood and walked around the bed to lean in to hug him. Stan wrapped his arms around her shoulders, the hug a little awkward at the angle. Sharon pulled away, "If you decide you want to talk, I'm here. I think you'll be surprised at how much I understand."

He doubted it. But Stan nodded, and Sharon left him to his own devices. Once she was gone he sighed and flopped on his bed, staring at the ceiling for a while. Eventually he started rolling, first to one side, then the other, then twice to the left until he almost rolled off the bed into the corner between his window and the mattress. Then he rolled three time to the right and did fall off the bed, but it was on purpose so the fall didn't hurt. He rolled onto his stomach while on the floor and buried his face in his arms.

He needed to talk to someone.

Kyle wasn't a patient person. He was understanding and generous, at least to his friends, but once the weight of asking Stan out settled, he wanted an answer. Waiting was downright agonizing. He'd already recovered from his meltdown over not minding Stan kissing him. He had replayed the kiss in his head enough times to romanticize what actually happened (A starry night, a warm hotel room ... never mind the room smelled like pstale pizz. It was romantic). Stan hadn't had the time to recover from these ground-breaking developments. Kyle was trying hard to be respectful.

It wasn't even that he wanted to do stuff like hand-holding, or whatever. Kyle wasn't sure how to describe what he was feeling for Stan - It wasn't like the persistent lust he'd had for Wendy, or some wistful longing for someone out of reach. Stan was very within reach - the fact he hadn't said no yet was proof. And Stan liked boys. Score.

That was the other thing - Kyle didn't find boys outstandingly attractive. He tried. The gay porn scene was kind of gross, and boys in school were just.

Well, a lot of them were his friends, and others he just didn't care about.

He wouldn't mind trying things with Stan - That seemed less weird than getting off on two muscled men grunting and sweating on each other. The twinks didn't do anything for Kyle, either. No, it was just Stan, although he wasn't exactly sent into a frenzy at the idea of touching Stan's wiener.

He liked the kissing. Kissing was familiar. He'd kissed girls. They could work up to the weiner stuff.

That Kyle had already outlined their sexual future with enough to decide that he wasn't gay, but he wasn't entirely straight. Stan-sexual might be the right word. He wouldn't let Stan know he already had a word for whatever he was feeling for him (Besides "confusing"). Kyle wasn't even comfortable saying he was "in love" with Stan, although he'd loved him for a long time. He would have continued to love him if Stan had outright said "no."

That Kyle's feelings were veering sharply from platonic to physically intimate didn't feel like an unnatural turn for him (He was okay with cuddling too. They fell asleep on each other a lot. Maybe he was sappier than he thought). When he thought about it, he was glad he unquestioningly loved Stan as a friend before letting penis-related feelings get in the way. His decision to confront Stan as to why Kyle had been unfair the last couple of months was made easier by knowing Kyle loved him.

His love for Stan also made Kyle anxious to convey his anxiety, and wasn't fucking with Stan, or even pitying Stan for apparently having some pretty deep-rooted gay feelings. Bisexual feelings. Whatever, Kyle would figure out labels later, once he had an answer.

Kyle knew his anxiety was showing when he kept peeking at Stan over their lockers. Stan wasn't avoiding him, exactly, just responding with small sounds, uncomfortable with any conversation extending more than five minutes.

Halfway through the school week Kyle wondered if it was possible to woo Stan over. While Kyle didn't have a ton of dating experience, he'd never had problems talking to the person he liked. This was different because it was Stan, and Stan was a boy and maybe Kyle was supposed to handle things differently? Although Stan was a woob and probably wouldn't need much convincing if Kyle would be more proactive. He didn't want to bully Stan into a decision, though.

Fuck it. Kyle was not patient.

"Hey, Stan." Kyle said as he closed his locker.

Stan looked at him with a deer in the headlights stare.

Kyle smiled in a way he hoped was placating, "My parents are going to be out this weekend. It's their anniversary. Do you wanna come over?"

Stan looked like he'd rather crawl into a ditch, but Kyle was nothing if not determined. Kyle added carefully, "Nothing has to change, ya know? And I'm not rushing you." He was. "But like, I'd like to keep going on like normal, even if the answer's no."

Stan deflated silently and nodded, "Yeah. Sure." He said quietly. "We'll do something this weekend." He began turning to his locker but hesitated, "Sorry I've been weird. It's just..."

"Nah." Kyle hiked his book bag over his shoulder, "It's a lot to think about." He started walking to his next class, slapping a hand on Stan's shoulder, "I'll see you later."

When Kyle walked away, he squeezed Stan's shoulder before releasing him. Stan stared at his locker for a good two minutes before he heard the five-minute warning bell and rubbed the back of his neck to get the warm feeling out.

He was being such a wimp about this. Stan wanted to bang his head into a wall, but pain wasn't really his thing. Maybe Stan was being particularly sensitive, but Kyle seemed to be coming up with any reason to touch him. Sometimes there weren't even reasons. They'd always been plenty physical with each other but it was a sudden change that was downright annoying.

He did the equivalent of banging his face into a wall, and talked to Wendy.

He was still frustrated with her, but knew she had truly gone out of her way for him the past year. Additionally, his curiosity got the best of him; How the fuck had she known about Kenny? She had said "made out" though, which made him think she didn't know exactly what happened.

Stan made plans to stay over at Kyle's on Saturday, saving that Friday for a talk with Wendy. Once he was in her room he didn't waste any time asking how she knew way too much.

Wendy's face fell with regret, but it was clear she wasn't surprised by the question, "Kenny told me." She admitted, sitting on her bed. Stan took the floor, and felt his stomach plummet as he sat. "He was," Wendy sighed, "Super high. Like, super high. I don't think he remembered saying anything."

Stan pulled his knees to his chest, feeling betrayed.

"And. Like." Wendy tilted her head to the side, studying Stan, "He never brought it up again? I mean, he knew way more people than I did, but I don't think it was something he talked about. I think word would have spread a lot more quickly if he did."

Stan knew objectively she was right, but his chest still hurt. He pinched the bridge of his nose, "It still sucks."

"I'm sorry." Wendy said earnestly. She curled on her bed in a similar position as Stan. "I don't think Kenny ever meant to hurt you, or anyone."

"Well." Stan said bitingly, "Sometimes we fuck up."

Wendy kept quiet. Her first-hand experiences with fuck ups were a little different and more consciously well-intentioned than Stan's. And she couldn't speak for Kenny.

In the haze of his pessimism, a shining light stood out for Stan; Wendy wasn't asking questions. The silent, unquestioning acceptance of everything, not unlike the Goth kids, was relieving in a way Stan hadn't expected. He wasn't being rejected or abandoned, belittled or second-guessed. Wendy was just there, like she'd always been.

Stan propped his chin on his knees, looking at Wendy levelly, "Kyle asked me out."

That one warranted a double-take.


"Some stuff happened. I don't remember what I told you." His face scrunched as he tried to recall. He'd been so angry with her at the time. "But, we weren't really fighting. And. Well."

"Whoa, whoa." Wendy unfolded her legs and sat on the floor with Stan to look at him at the same field of vision, "Back up. This is coming out of nowhere for me." She looked more confused than anything, and Stan was relieved again.

So he told her, about the alleged kiss he didn't remember, Shelly's phone call and how he totally didn't appreciate that, thank you; Kyle essentially coming out to him in the most roundabout way possible and that he hadn't said no, but wasn't sure what to do next. Wendy listened and nodded while she absorbed the information, expression eventually shifting to amused as Stan finished his story.

"So." Wendy said slowly after a few moments of silence, "Do you want me to give you advice or, did you just need to talk?"

Stan groaned, rubbing his forehead on his knees, "I don't know. Talk, mostly. But ..."

"Okay." Wendy stretched out her legs on the floor; They'd been sitting for a long time, "I want to bring up one thing, it's important."

Stan's eyes narrowed.


Ah. His head started giving a long list of reasons why the Linda situation could be made into a bigger problem.

"And, I'm not going to tell you what to do." Wendy continued, "This is kind of a big deal, and it's your own decision. But." She paused while she thought of her words, "Maybe you should wait until Linda's graduated to make any big decisions."

Stan nodded, not really thinking but adding Wendy's words to the list of things to consider.

"And." Wendy continued carefully, "It'd give you a few months to really sit and think about things. I mean, a lot of things can be said for breaking it off with Linda anyway. You'll still be in high school, she wouldn't. That's easy. And anyway, a fling is one thing, but this would be for real." Wendy physically back-pedaled, "But um. That's all I really have to say on the subject. The rest is up to you."

Stan smiled tiredly, cheek still pressed on his knee, "No, these are all valid things. Thanks."

Like that, things were fixed with Wendy again. Stan still had a day to mull. Long-term decision-making wasn't his strong point, though. He was more an impulse guy, for all the good that had done.

Saturday evening came. The animal shelter closed at six on Saturdays. Stan got a ride home, took a shower and changed clothes, and was walking to Kyle's house by seven with a duffle bag over his shoulder. He rang the doorbell before letting himself inside, and sure enough the house was quiet. Stan was in the middle of taking his shoes off when Kyle's head appeared on the second floor's banister.

"Hey!" Kyle called. He had a headset on, "I've got a Call of Duty game going, you gonna join?"

"Yeah, sure." Stan looked up and Kyle grinned back down at him before disappearing. He vaguely wondered what they were going to eat that night.

Ike was home also, playing Youtube videos loud enough to be heard through his door. Stan laughed, thinking it was so typical to have the house to themselves and what do they do? Play things more loudly than normal. Kyle was cursing someone out in the headset, the other player's voices loud through his television.

Stan threw his stuff on Kyle's desk chair before plopping next to him and taking the spare headset that was actually Ike's.

"Is anyone else coming?" Stan asked he waited for the next game to start.

Kyle gave him a strange look, "No. Cartman's off doing football stuff this weekend, and Butters kinda does his own thing now."

Stan nodded and put on the headset.

Everything was normal despite the underlying feeling of nervousness. Stan felt himself relax as the hours passed. That unspoken thing was still between them though, a chore that wasn't forgotten but still needed addressed. Stan had a feeling if he didn't say anything tonight, he never would.

Kyle glanced at him a few times in the night, expression more pensive than usual. When Stan looked back Kyle would turn his head and act like he hadn't been caught.

They ordered pizza for themselves, and breadsticks for Ike. Once they ate Ike stuck his head in Kyle's room and announced, "I'm going out for a while. I'll see you tomorrow."

Kyle glanced at his phone's clock, "At ten in the evening?" He asked doubtfully. Stan had to raise an eyebrow.

Ike grinned in a smirky way, "Duty calls."

"What does that even mean?"

Ike stuck his tongue out, "Don't worry about it. I got my phone on me." With that he disappeared.

Kyle grumbled before shrugging, "I snuck out too, I guess at least he's using the front door."

Stan snickered, wiping his hands of pizza grease on the paper towels Kyle had brought from the kitchen, "You know Karen and him are together?"

Kyle stopped in the middle of drinking a soda, looking at Stan disbelievingly, "Karen? Karen McCormick?"

Stan grinned, "Yep."

"When the—" Kyle pulled out his phone and started texting angrily, "When the fuck did that happen?"

Stan was amused, "A while ago, apparently. I heard from Wendy."

"How the fuck does Wendy find out this stuff?"

Fuck if Stan knew. Wendy probably had a very promising career as an information broker. "Who knows." Stan glanced at the phone in Kyle's hand, "What'd you say to him?"

Kyle grit his teeth and threw the phone on his bed, "I told him to use a fucking condom."

Stan started snickering, before it broke into a full laugh. He wasn't sure what he found so funny, just, everything. Kyle looked at him confusion, before laughing too, because Stan was laughing and everything was so fucking funny and unimportant and stupid.

It took a few minutes before Stan started coming down, his face red and tears forming in his eyes. "S-sorry." He wheezed, "Just. Use a fucking condom. Ike's like twelve."

Kyle wiped his eyes, "I know." He breathed heavily. "Fourteen." He said seriously.

For some reason that was even funnier and Stan lost it again.

After a good fifteen minutes they calmed, surrounded by greasy paper towels, Coke cans and pizza crusts. Stan rolled onto his back on the floor, chest heaving from laughter.

"Hey. Kyle." Stan said when he could speak again.

"Hmm?" Kyle had retrieved his phone from the bed, still kneeling on the floor.

"About last week ..."

Kyle's shoulders tensed and he turned the phone off, quickly turning to give Stan his full attention.

Stan folded his hands on his stomach, still laying on his back. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, "There's a lot going on right now. Linda, mostly. And we have senior year coming up."

Kyle nodded, expression even, pulling his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. He was clearly bracing for rejection.

"I guess I'm saying I want to wait for Linda to be out of town. Go to prom and all that shit, like I promised. She told me she's planning on leaving after high school." He rolled his head to the side so he could look at Kyle's face. "I'm not saying no, though."

Kyle's brow furrowed as he thought. He was still hiding behind his knees, "That's almost five months."

Stan made an affirmative noise and sat, crossing his legs, "Yeah, but I want everything to be resolved before we bring anymore weird shit into our lives."

Kyle frowned, "Being with me would be weird?"

Stan smiled sheepishly, "A little. Yeah."

"I guess I've had more time to really think about this than you."

"You have. Yes." Stan looked up as he thought for a moment. He turned on his knees to face Kyle. Kyle raised his head to look at him, blinking at the intense look Stan was giving him. "Close your eyes."

Kyle snorted, "What?"

"Just, close your eyes." Stan insisted.

Kyle's expression flickered between amused and wanting to roll his eyes, "This is dumb."

Stan pouted, "No it's not. Just humor me."

Kyle huffed and closed his eyes, having a strong feeling about what was coming. He heard Stan shuffling closer, and responded by shifting so his legs weren't in the way. There was a pause, and Kyle was tempted to open his eyes.

Despite expecting it, Kyle still jumped when he felt Stan's hand on his cheek. Stan didn't try to rearrange him, just gave Kyle a moment's warning before leaning close, and Kyle felt a warm pressure on his lips, a little awkward, too light.

Kyle felt his stomach go warm, heat flushing to his face and neck. He turned his head just slightly so they fit together better, pressed together a little firmer. He hadn't expected Stan's mouth to feel so soft, it wasn't any different from kissing a girl, at least, not like this.

The kiss wasn't much but it felt right - The smell of Stan's shampoo filled his nose, the warmth of Stan's face gave Kyle a sense of closeness he hadn't known he'd been missing. He dared a peek, and saw Stan had closed his eyes, and Kyle followed suit again. He felt like he could startle Stan at any moment.

Stan's hand left his cheek first before he pulled away, sitting back on his knees. Kyle opened his eyes, lips quirking contentedly. Stan was watching him carefully.

Stan's voice was quiet and a little hoarse. "Was that okay?" He asked.

Kyle couldn't stop smiling, "Yeah. It was nice." He raised his fingers to his lips, "I mean, it wasn't weird, if that's what you were checking for."

Stan hummed non committed and also touched his own lips. He spaced out for a moment before he looked at Kyle, almost shy, "So, that's not a no."

Kyle was giddy, and grinned, "Gotcha." He shuffled and thought about the time, "Do you want to watch a movie before going to sleep. If we can sleep. Since we're such party animals."

Stan gave him one of the most honest smiles Kyle had seen in a long time, "Yeah. Sounds good."

"You seem more positive, lately." Mrs. McIntyre commented.

Stan picked at a rope bracelet he wore around his wrist. He'd started wearing it to these sessions because he had a habit of not looking at her face. Mrs. McIntyre embarrassed him for some reason.

"I guess." Stan said with a hint of reluctance. He thought for moment, "I guess things don't seem as horrible as usual."

McIntyre shifted comfortably in her seat, watching him calmly, "Why do you think that is?"

"Guh." Stan laughed awkwardly, "I hate it when you ask me that."

She smiled patiently.

He twirled the bracelet between his thumb and index, wanting to look away, "I. Someone asked me out." He said as confidently as he could manage.

"Oh?" She cocked her head, "Who is she?"

Stan hesitated a beat, "It's a boy." He gauged her face for a reaction.

She kept her features schooled - he couldn't figure out if she had an opinion. "My apologies. I made an assumption. I think you know the next question." She added with a tiny smile.

Stan relaxed a little, looking at the hem of her knee-length skirt instead of her face, "I don't know. I'm flattered, I guess."

"Do you know how you're going to respond?"

"I." Stan hung his head, giving into the urge to stare at his wrist, "I don't know."

Mrs. McIntyre kept silent for a beat before continuing, "You mentioned it after I mentioned positivity, so I assume you're happy about this boy asking you out? Correct me if I'm wrong."

"There's a lot of feelings that go with it, I guess."

"Understandable." She nodded. She leaned forward a bit, "It's okay to be happy about being asked, no matter what your answer is."

Stan's chest was a little lighter, hearing that. He looked at her and felt the smile on his face, "I guess that's true."

"Do you still talk to him?"

Stan nodded, "Everyday. We go to the same school."

Mrs. McIntyre linked her hands together, "Do you think being with this boy will make you happy on a permanent basis?"

Stan frowned, eyes narrowing, "That sounds like a trick question."

Her lips quirked, "It's just that it's common in people your age to think love will solve everything, including depression. Although support can go a long way, don't mistake what I'm saying."

"No, I get what you mean." Stan's frowned deepened, thinking of everything he'd been through with Kyle, "He's been there a long time, so it's not like I think a relationship is going to fix everything.""That's good." She seemed satisfied with that answer. Her expression shifted as she thought, "So, you've known him for a long time?"

"Y-yeah." Stan mentally backpedaled, choosing his words carefully. "Pretty old friends."

She sensed that Stan was ready to drop the subject and leaned back into her chair, "Did you have anything else you wanted to mention?"

"N-not really." Stan picked at his bracelet, "I guess, just, that it's a positive thing for me."

Mrs. McIntyre smiled, "That's good."

"Uh, hey." Kyle stopped Stan before Stan could skitter away. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a metal tin can - one of those cans that had pictures of sugar cookies on them, "My mom made a bunch of sweets 'cause of her and dad's anniversary, so I brought you some."

Stan stared at the tin for a moment before accepting. He looked at Kyle and grinned awkwardly, "Are you sure it's not full of sewing supplies?"

Kyle blinked before he registered the joke, "Nah." He laughed, "No sewing supplies."

Kyle bringing Sheila's leftovers was nothing unusual, but he usually put them in a freezer bag and called it a day. The tin was definitely his way of being fancy.

February was a month of aggressive cookie-giving that had half the school re-gifting Kyle and Stan's bake-off.

"Stan." Wendy said one morning when she picked him up for school, and Stan was carrying a small Amazon box. "You have to stop, this is insane. It's not even Valentine's anymore."

Stan sat in the front passenger seat and turned his nose up at her, "I won't have Kyle bringing me stuff like." He flustered. "Like a girl!"

Wendy groaned and drove into the sunrise, "If he gives you more of those Mexican wedding cookies you can pass them to me."

"Good to know." Stan said, keeping his chest puffed proudly. He opened the box filled to the brim with brown cookies, "Paprenjak?" He offered.

Wendy took a right turn much sharper than was necessary.

The school put a ban of bringing homemade baked goods by the end of February, claiming there was an ant problem with all the sugar in everyone's lockers. There probably was, but that was mostly Clyde shoving boxes of sweets into the vents when the theater department couldn't eat everything that was brought to them.

There was a truce called, and peace reigned for one week.

Stan thought the gift was innocuous. He found a bookmark that read, "You Kant make philosophy jokes" and bought it for $1.99 at a truck stop he was at with Jimbo.

What followed was the Great March Knick Knack War.

What started with a bookmark and some band pins turned into Broncos insignia figurines, tiny whale dolls and ceramic elephants found at the Goodwill; Lanyards with ugly patterns on them, keychains found for a $1 on Ebay and tiny magnets they would stick on each other's lockers.

It would have been cute, but by the end of March, Stan was so covered in pins, the freshmen started saying that if they could stick a pin on an article of his clothing without him noticing, they would be blessed with good grades. If someone could get a magnet or bumper to stay on Kyle's locker for more than a week, they would be blessed with athleticism.

Token said he saw Cartman putting a McDreidel bumper sticker on Kyle's locker. Cartman venomously denied the accusation.

Bebe staged an intervention when Stan looked like Hot Topic threw up on him.

"Stan Marsh." She said, backed up by five girlfriends and Butters cornering him and Kyle into his locker, "You are ugly."

"Uh." Stan gaped, offended and mostly confused. "Sorry?"

Bebe sucked in a breath and glared at Kyle, who was valiantly ignoring the posse, "Kyle Broflovski!" She barked.

He turned and smiled sweetly at her, "Yes ma'm?"

"As vice captain of the cheerleading squad, I demand that you cease and desist from giving Stan anymore pins. He is a disgrace to all fashion, an eyesore. If he were a house, he would be a house with two disassembled cars on the front yard and twenty flamingo ornaments."




Stan looked at his bookbag, which had more weight in pins than books. The problem was probably his jeans - They were sagging with pins, clicking every time he walked. He thought it was rebellious.

Butters chimed in from behind Bebe, "Also, we can hear from the classrooms when Stan walks through the hallway." He said cheerily, "It's like a cowbell."

Stan smirked into Bebe's glaring face and flawless makeup, "So, I can keep giving Kyle bumper stickers?"

"The bumper stickers are kind of cool." Bebe admitted, leaning to admire Kyle's open locker, and not so subtly, his butt, "But no!" She shook her head firmly, "If you give him more bumper stickers, he'll just want to give you more. Pins. And enough is enough!"

Her friends cheered behind her, calling for an end to the Knick Knack War.

Even Linda was relieved when Stan appeared the next day with a respectable five pins on his bookbag.

"Can't you two just make out like normal people?" She asked with amusement while they smoked.

Stan saw the humor and laughed, watching the treeline in good spirits. "I've put a ban on any potential groping until you're out of town."

Linda looked affronted, cigarette ashing without her permission. "Why would you do that? Who am I to get between budding homosexuality?"

Stan sighed from his seat on the steps, "I'm afraid we're gonna be too obvious once it starts happening."

Linda was incredulous, "And the aggressive gift-giving wasn't obvious?"

Stan's eyes widened and he spluttered over an unintelligible response.

Linda rolled her eyes, snuffing her cigarette on the building behind them, "Stan Marsh. Go make out with your boyfriend."

His boyfriend.

Stan didn't follow her advice, but once it was apparent he and Kyle were not being subtle, it became difficult to reign his curiosity. Making out with Kyle had never been on the forefront of Stan's fantasy list, he'd certainly thought about it ... but given the situation ...

Screw it, he was well past being bicurious. That was done and over with. Kyle asked him out, let him kiss him (twice), and was (im)patiently waiting for an answer while aggressively flirting in the loudest possible way. Which was like Kyle, oddly enough.

By April Stan was sneaking glances, trying to better see Kyle's features, how he'd grown, if Stan even found him attractive. He didn't know how to politely ask "hey let me see your face so I can rate you on a scale of one to ew."

The reality was he didn't need politeness with Kyle, never had, and was holding onto the last illusions of heterosexuality. Such thin, stringy illusions they were; Kyle was still lanky and growing into himself but the acne had mostly cleared, and sports were doing him a world of good, especially taming his random spouts of aggression.

Yes, Stan would kiss that, already had. Thinking about Kyle now made his breath hitch and stomach warm, fingers going cold as all the heat rushed to more vital parts of his body.

Kyle kept his promise, and waited.

As April ended, Stan was a little excited about prom, at least until Sharon started getting excited about it.

"You're going with Linda, right?" Sharon asked. Linda had been over for dinner a few times through the year, and vice versa, to keep up appearances. Stan didn't know how to feel about Linda's parents approving of him.

"Uh, yeah." Stan said from his desk, "I saved some money for a tux rental."

Sharon clapped her hands together in excitement, "Oh good! Are you doing matching colors or anything? What about flowers?"

Stan's head was spinning, "I dunno, Mom. I'll ask Linda."

"Is Kyle going with anyone?"

Stan frowned. He had assumed Kyle was going, but since their big super gay secret and Kyle's disinterest in dating in general, Stan didn't know who Kyle would go with. One of the prom-goers had to be a senior, too.

Turned out he didn't need worry. He brought up matching clothes, and after Linda stopped snickering she mentioned something else while they had their usual smoking break during lunch.

"I want to take Olivia." Linda said. She shivered — April was still damp from winter and she only seemed to own hoodies. "There's no rule saying you can only bring one partner, cause like, DD, or whatever, so I'm trying to figure this out without throwing you under a bus."

Stan sucked on his cigarette, nearly choking as he thought of something. "Did your friend I met at Denny's ever get a date?"

Linda blinked as she tried to remember, "Gregoria?" She huffed bitterly, "No. Everyone is put off because she's so tall."

Stan thought excitedly, "Well, would she mind going with Kyle? He could probably take Olivia. Then we'll just meet up and switch partners."

Linda's eyes lit as she thought about this, "It could work. I'll talk to them."

Stan was excited too, "I'll talk to Kyle. I haven't mentioned this to him."

"Why do you want him to come so bad? You could just hang out with my group. I'm sure you'd fit in." Linda look at him over her cigarette.

Stan froze at the question. He should have just said he wanted to be around someone he knew.

Linda put the pieces together very quickly. She grinned, "Oh. I get it." She laughed and slapped Stan's shoulders, "Congratulations. Welcome to the club."

"I didn't say anything!"

"Didn't need to." She laughed, and threw out her cigarette before Stan could argue.

Stan decided to ask Kyle to prom when Kyle was over at his place, out of hearing range of Sheila and Gerald. He explained the situation and ended with, "We'd all probably switching partners when we got to the school, anyway." Stan kept his eyes on his television. "So like, would you like to go with me?"

Kyle frowned, "This sounds complicated." He sighed and leaned against Stan's bed, "And I don't think my parents would buy the ticket for me on top of a last-minute, prom-season tux rental."

Stan hesitated before adding, "I'll buy your ticket. You just need to show up looking nice. And I'll need to drop Linda off at some point."

Kyle looked down at Stan, something unreadable behind his eyes, "Are you asking me to prom?"

Stan paused their game and looked back, half-smiling but trying to be serious, "Yeah. And I've got you two dates as a bribe."

Kyle leaned and kissed Stan's lips (They hadn't progressed much beyond chaste but affectionate touching. Stan knew they had the same ideas in mind, and prom night was coming up fast).

The bribe was more for Sheila and Gerald than Kyle. When Sheila heard Kyle was taking a girl from another school, she'd been beside herself with joy.

"My bubbeh is such a lady's man!" She'd shrieked while she nearly squeezed the life out of Kyle, "Why didn't you tell me you had two girls! And they know about each other!"

Kyle wheezed in his mother's arms, "Lots of people go stag, Mom. This is just a favor." He didn't miss the annoyed, disgusted and impressed look Ike managed to convey from the kitchen doorway. Kyle chose not to say anything; He was focusing on remembering how to breathe.

Cartman had been just about as annoyed as Ike, for different reasons.

"Every senior girl in the school is fucking taken!" Cartman complained. He glared at Butters, who was texting and shooting Cartman unimpressed glances, "Even Butters got a damn date!"

"I've been with this girl for like, three months, Eric." Butters said calmly. It was true. He was dating a senior cheerleader.

Kyle wasn't too preoccupied keeping up with Butters' dating life though, and raised his eyebrows, "I thought you were gay?"

Butters looked up, confused and annoyed, "No?" He paused as he realized why Kyle would have made that assumption. He smiled patiently, "My date and I are going in matching prom dresses. I'll be going as Marjorine." Which really didn't answer any questions that Kyle may have had, but he decided it wasn't his business in the first place.

Which had been a fuss for the school administration. Sheila had a lot to do with Butters going to prom. Liane Cartman had openly spoke about why she had Butters living in her basement for the past year, which meant most of South Park knew, which meant the school administration knew.

"My seventeen year old son can go to prom with two girls, and that's okay!" Sheila Broflovski shrieked at the school board. Even her supporters cringed at her loud voice. "But some tasteful cross dressing from a boy going with his girlfriend isn't? Disgusting!"

In the end, Sheila threatened to go to the national news, and Park County agreed to let Butters dress as he wanted. The whole ordeal had shaken Stan.

"Will they be as supportive with us?" Stan said to Kyle, weeks out from prom, pale and second-guessing himself. Kyle frowned and listened. "I mean, it's one thing that Butters pretty much doesn't have a family anymore, but. People are stupid."

"Who the fuck cares?" Kyle said firmly. "They can deal with you stealing a truck, but not being straight?"

"I care." Stan said morosely. "At least, I care what my mom thinks."

Kyle couldn't argue with that. He was just more headstrong about the situation than Stan. Stan could be pressured into acting a way he didn't agree, Kyle wasn't so easily convinced.

Prom night arrived. After the flurry of finals and last minute alterations to prom dress clothes and car rentals and restaurant reservations, Stan didn't have time to worry about moralistic choices in their decisions. Everything was happening.

Sharon had managed to pressure him into getting his driver's licence, after promising to pay for a car rental for the night. It was a special night.

"You have to promise though." Sharon fiddled with a yellow boutonniere in Stan's jacket pocket. It matched the yellow dress shirt and white tie, that was bright against slate gray. "You won't drink. You absolutely can't drink tonight if you're driving."

Stan was mildly horrified at the idea, but understood why she felt like she needed to mention it, "Of course not. I haven't. No. I understand."

"Good, sweetie." Sharon's eyes got classy as she admired her son, "You look so handsome."

Stan flushed, wanting to protest that felt like he looked like a bumble bee with a bad haircut. "Thanks Mom."

"Take pictures."

"Of course."

"And be careful!"

"I know!"

Once he got to Linda's, he was a little less nervous. He had met her parents enough times to know what to expect, which made picking her up less nerve-wracking. They were all waiting for him on the porch, talking quietly as he pulled up in his relatively cheap rental. He wondered how Kyle was faring between his mother and picking up his dates.

When he stepped out of the car, he saw Linda properly. She was wearing a knee-length, yellow and white prom dress. The skirt and top weren't so frilly as to be ridiculous, like a lot of prom dresses, but the skirt billowed enough that Stan was impressed anyway. She'd had her brown hair done in curls, some decorative sparkles twisting around her head.

He thought Olivia would be ecstatic.

"You look nice." Stan greeted immediately. Linda's parents beamed, and Linda seemed proud.

"Thanks." She said earnestly. She stood to give him a friendly hug, before turning to her parents, "Well my ride's here."

"I'm taking pictures!" Mrs. Triscotti announced insistently. "Hold on!"

Stan nodded at Mr. Triscotti, "Can you send me those pictures later? For my mom?" He felt a little bad, but knew she'd want them.

"Of course!" Mr. Triscotti said, pleased.

"Oh!" Stan remembered. He ran back to the car and opened the back, to retrieve a small box.

Mr. Triscotti knew immediately what it was, "Wait for Mom, she'll want a picture of you putting it on."

The corsage was white and yellow roses, to match Linda's dress. Linda and Stan held still for the pictures, standing through Mrs. Triscotti's fussing until Linda forcefully pulled them away so they could get to the school.

Once in the car, Linda relaxed significantly, fiddling with the corsage while Stan drove.

"You don't have to wear that." Stan said while they started finding traffic, "I mean. I know you had something else—"

"No, it's okay." Linda said tiredly, smiling, "You've more than done your part. It was sweet of you to buy me one. Mom was going to be upset if you hadn't but." She sighed wistfully, "We picked yellow for a reason, right?"

Stan smiled sadly, wishing his prom night didn't have to be like this, "Yeah." He was quiet for a little while, "You really do look nice. If you weren't a lesbian I'd probably be hitting on you."

Linda laughed, "Fucking bisexuals." She looked at Stan more closely, "Your suit fits good, it makes your shoulders stand out. Your hair's kinda dumb."

Stan also laughed, "Mom made me brush it back. It'll fall out by the end of the night. And I'll be sweating hair gel for the next week."


"I try."

The school was in a state of chaos. Between parking, over-excited parents, already drunk teenagers, and a flurry of sparkly, pastel prom dresses, it took Linda and Stan about forty minutes to park and find the line to enter the school.

"I'm waiting for Olivia." Linda insisted.

Stan didn't argue - He was looking for Kyle. Normally he could spot Kyle's red hair, but the whirl of bright colors made even the brightest of ginger hair indistinguishable.

Stan kept his phone so he could feel it vibrate. He sighed in relief, "They're by the flagpole." He told Linda, tugging her along.

He didn't need to tell her twice - As soon as the rest of their group was in sight, Linda squealed and took off running in her white flats. Linda and Olivia more or less collided in a flutter of sparkles and candy yellow. Stan couldn't help but smile.

Stan took a double-take when he finally spotted Kyle, standing next to Gregoria. They made an attractive couple - Gregoria was slightly taller than Kyle in heels, curvaceous and intimidating like a carefully carved statue. She was in mostly black with splashes of yellow, and all smiles also as she watched Olivia and Linda preen over each other.

Kyle had cut his hair. The cut was similar to Butters', but didn't stand out because the top was a similar color to the bottom. It looked cleaner, not as Jew-fro-ish.

"You guys seriously went with yellow." Kyle complained when Stan was within earshot.

Stan was grinning ear-to-ear as he jogged closer, "Friendship and unity and all that crap."

"I wanted powder blue, but no." Kyle was whining, but his pale gray suit and yellow undershirt looked good on him. He looked even taller, not as lanky, Stan observed.

"You cut your hair." Stan said, staring at it.

Kyle looked embarrassed and touched the top self-consciously, "Ah, yeah. Mom insisted."

"Isn't it cute?" Olivia bounded over and touched the top of Kyle's head. He had to bend for her to reach. "It's so fluffy!"

"It looks good." Stan insisted, and Kyle looked away, down at Olivia who was beaming at him.

"So like." Kyle said to Stan, "This is for the girls? We don't have to stay around after we check in, I guess."

Gregoria overheard and grabbed Kyle's other arm. "Oh hell no." She said, "I didn't spend an hour on makeup and meeting Sheila fucking Brov-however-you-say-your-name for my date to dip. I demand at least twelve dances, one spiked punch, and two shoulder leans."

Kyle was definitely embarrassed, but what boy could say no to two beautiful girls on both arms? "Let's go then." He shrugged, flushed.

Linda was glowing when she took Stan's offered arm, and the five teenagers made their way to prom night.

They all had fun. There were more juniors than Kyle and Stan had expected, making mingling rather easy. Despite the initial uproar from the parents, Marjorine's entrance was as glamorous and tasteful as anyone expected, and she only got compliments, regardless of a few uncomfortable side-eyes. Her date was just as beautiful.

Kyle and Stan were persuaded to dance, Stan lost his boutonniere halfway through the night, and Kyle giddily pinned his to Stan. Gregoria snapped a picture of the act and neither really cared. Selfies were taken. Punch was spilled. Linda and Olivia danced a lot and Stan danced several times with Gregoria, and not once with Kyle or Linda.

Around eleven they all agreed to go to Waffle House, which was a lengthy drive because there was hardly any notable chains nearby. The place was packed with high schoolers and Kyle, Stan and the girls ended up taking a booth with a group they recognized.

Linda leaned over in the booth eventually and said, "I have a one in the morning curfew. We gotta go back."

Stan acknowledged her over the table, looking at Olivia who was openly crying when she heard that Linda had to go home.

Kyle, Olivia and Gregoria had come to school in a limo, courtesy of Gerald, but the trip was one-way, and they made plans for Stan to be the driver for the rest of the night. The trip to Linda's house was tearful, and he gave them a warning to do any backseat canoodling before he rounded the corner. After seeing Linda off at the door, Olivia was next, and she was so tired that she fell asleep on Kyle's arm. Dropping off Gregoria was easier and quieter as she gave directions. They were all exhausted and it was nearly two in the morning.

Finally it was just Kyle and Stan. They sat in front of Gregoria's house for a while, just talking.

"I'm tired, but awake." Kyle said eventually. They'd shrugged off their dress jackets and ties into the back of the car, and un-tucked their shirts for comfort. The yellow was admittedly a little much by itself but they were too tired to care.

Stan smiled wearily, looking out the windshield, "Well, I got this sweet car rental..."

Kyle quietly laughed through his nose, "Are you even good to drive anymore?"

Stan leaned his head against the steering wheel and looked at Kyle quietly. His eyes lit when an idea came to him, and he reached for the keys that sat in the ignition and started the car. Kyle didn't ask anything, just watched the scenery as they drove through South Park and outside its borders, trees becoming thicker.

Kyle was half-dozing until he recognized where they were going. He raised his head from the car seat, "Won't there be a bunch of people out there?" He asked.

"You'd think." Stan replied, eyes on the road, "I never see anyone out here. If there is, I'll think of something else."

The old train station was quiet. Stan parked the car in what used to be a maintained parking lot but was now green with grass that was trying to grow through the compacted dirt. When they stepped out of the car, the vines that were starting to grow over the sides, penetrating a once stable structure brick by brick.

The boys wandered around the front to the box office, where Bebe had picked the lock a year ago. The door looked like it had been re-locked and smashed open since. Stan jingled the handle to the inside loudly before pushing the door in. Dust flew up, ruining their dress pants and sending them both into a coughing fit. Once the dust settled, they pulled out their phones to see better.

Kyle shivered when they stepped inside, not just from dampness, but the back door to the basement gave him a feeling he should be remembering something. He blinked. There was another, heavier door next to the basement door, one that led outside.

Stan busied himself trying to open the second back door. "Ah." He frowned. "This usually opens easier."

Kyle crossed his arms and watched in amusement, "You come here often?"

"Sometimes." The door finally swung open, a noisy creak in the quiet. Stan gestured for Kyle to follow.

From the parking lot, the only visible thing of the back of the small ticket station was a fence that acted as a barrier between the outside back door and pedestrians. In the darkness it wasn't distinguishable from the rest of the shadows. The fence was probably there to keep people from climbing the metal ladder which led to the roof.

Stan shook the ladder noisily to make sure it could take his weight. He grinned at Kyle, though Kyle couldn't see very well. Stan put his phone in his pants pocket before ascending the ladder, clearly expecting Kyle to follow.

Kyle looked over his shoulder at the still open back door, shivering again. He quietly shut the door for his own peace of mind. When the shadow of Stan's foot disappeared over the roof, Kyle followed.

The roof of the station was flat and cement. Debris including wine bottles, cans, chunks of cement that had been worn down by the weather, and tiny sprouts of plants that were trying to take root, littered the roof. Stan was already sitting on the edge of the building, looking over his shoulder while Kyle scrambled behind him.

Once Kyle regained his footing, he looked the direction Stan was facing and released a tiny, "Oh."

South Park was very visible from the roof of the station, the town lights speckling the landscape like a tiny blip in history. Kyle thought it was like looking down from a plane, only he could make out the roads, street lamps and parts of town in which he'd grown up.

He sat next to Stan, putting his legs over the edge of the roof.

Stan was smiling peacefully, "I like to come up here when I need it to be quiet. Without Mom hovering. It's better than therapy at least."

"It's pretty." Kyle said.

Stan sighed and leaned back on his hands, watching the view.

Eventually Kyle got a little bored, though Stan seemed contented to stay there for hours. He lay on his back with his arms behind his head, giving up his dress clothes for a lost cause and dozed. Outside was chilly but not uncomfortable, and with Stan's body heat beside him, he was plenty warm. Stan shifted beside him and Kyle peeked at him to see Stan reaching into his back pocket, keys jingling, pulling out something small.

Kyle was a little more awake.

"So." Stan said quietly. He looked at whatever was in his hand, "I haven't been wearing this. It didn't feel right when you gave it to me."

"Hmmp?" Kyle was more asleep than he thought. He sat upright, confused, "What is it?"

"Your Christmas present."

"Ah." Kyle leaned to get a better look at the ring. The ring wasn't distinctive in the dark, but now that Kyle knew what it was, he could see it. The gold glinted in parts, a Broncos emblem hidden in the shadows.

Stan slid it on his right middle finger, "Plus the dogs, there's never a good time to wear it."

Kyle was embarrassed while he watched Stan look at his hand, "That's why I got that fancy display box." He mumbled, "Don't feel obligated to wear it. It just seemed like something you'd like..." Kyle's voice trailed, explanations misting away with the breeze.

"No, I like it." Stan said, voice soft. He looked over, though Kyle was sure he couldn't see him. "How was tonight?"

Kyle sensed there was another question behind the question, but decided to take it at face value, "Good." He said, "I had fun."

"Me too." Stan looked back at South Park's lights, "Linda is going to take off after graduation."

"Ah." Kyle suspected as much. "With Olivia?"


Kyle smiled to himself, thinking about how happy they'd been tonight, "They're a cute couple."

"They are." Stan's voice had the same tone as Kyle. "Kyle?"


"After the seniors' graduation," Stan's voice wobbled faintly, "Will you date me?"

Kyle's fingers gripped the cement under them. He was breathless, "Of course." He said on an inhale.

He started coughing, ruining the moment.

Stan laughed at him, patting his back as Kyle recovered. It took a few minutes to stop choking on his own spit. "You okay?" Stan laughed.

"Yeah." Kyle hiccupped, "Just a second."

When Kyle was breathing normally and Stan stopped chortling at him they sat in amiable silence. Stan was the one to break the quiet again, voice still laced with amusement.

"Hey, Kyle."

"What?" Kyle's chest still hurt, but the atmosphere was light again. He jumped when a hand touched his face, seeking, and Stan was leaning down, carefully navigating the darkness so they didn't collide. Something in Kyle's heart flipped with happiness, as Stan pressed their cheeks together, searching until their lips were pressing, slotted in familiarity, warmth and need.




Kyle reached up to press his hand against Stan's neck and pulled him close. They breathed into each other. Stan adjusted to put a hand on either side of Kyle's head, pressing firmly, pulling away to peck at the corner of Kyle's mouth. Stan kissed him fully again, parting his own lips dryly and rubbing them together experimentally.

Kyle turned his head, "This is uncomfortable," he murmured, and sat, pushing Stan away briefly. Stan sat back on his haunches, making a surprised noise when Kyle groped blindly for his face, to pull them together more roughly than necessary. Kyle nipped at Stan's lower lip, grinning at the quiet gasp it elicited. Stan found his waist and tugged insistently, pushing forward shifting so he was half-sitting on Kyle's leg. Kyle winced, but Stan realized how awkwardly they were sitting and adjusted to push a thigh between Kyle's legs, straddling Kyle's thigh and raising his hands to cup Kyle's jaw and press their lips together again. He let his hands drop to Kyle's shoulders, grabbing like Kyle was his lifeline.

Wow, that was a lot better. Kyle grabbed Stan's hips and pulled him up roughly, fitting them together snugly. Stan made a noise, shifting with him, opening his mouth to flick his tongue against Kyle's lower lip. He tugged gently with his teeth before releasing when he heard Kyle's surprised breath, a tiny smirk on his mouth.

Kyle sensed the smugness and retaliated by lightly grabbing the hair at the base of Stan's neck to pull him down. He licked Stan's lower lip in imitation of before, heat shivering down his spine when Stan moaned and opened for him.

Kyle didn't know what he expected, having kissed Stan before, but he was startled at how soft Stan was. Their tongues met, wet and warm, but not as warm as their bodies pressing together, clothes rustling at they shifted and pet at each other. Kyle gently sucked Stan's tongue, rewarded with a strangled noise and Stan shuddering hard against his chest, rolling his hips forward once. Kyle moaned and let Stan take his tongue back, startled when Stan pressed forward and flicked his tongue inside Kyle's mouth.

Kyle grabbed at the dress shirt at the small of Stan's back, moaning as Stan licked into his mouth. His breath hitched in time to Stan's flicks, breathing with the easy rocking motion of his hips. Kyle's fingers went cold, hands shaking as heat curled hotter and tighter in his belly, need made him press into Stan's touches.

Stan pulled away, their mouths still nearly touching - he needed a moment to catch his breath, still amazed that all of this was happening. When he sensed Kyle staring at him despite the darkness, Stan tiled his head to the side and pressed an open-mouthed kiss behind Kyle's ear, nuzzling his nose into his hair.

Kyle moaned and rocked back. "We gotta stop." He groaned.

Stan pulled away, fingers trailing over Kyle's arms. "It's getting late." He agreed hoarsely. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Kyle's, "Let's keep going when there's not a rock in my ass."

"Your ass?" Kyle said in an offended tone.

Stan laughed, and kissed him again.

Senior graduation came quickly after prom. Stan and Linda announced their "break up" shortly after, and a week later the police were knocking on the Marsh's front door because Linda had gone missing.

The problem for the Triscottis was that Linda was eighteen, and had left several runaway notes. The police had a limited amount of time to pursue her.

Stan told the police in confidence that Linda was a lesbian and had been planning this for years, and that a lot of people could vouch that the most he had to do with anything was being the fake boyfriend. The Triscottis were in disbelief when they heard, and were sure Stan had something to do with the disappearance. The local police knew the Marsh's well enough to leave him alone, the state police weren't so easily convinced.

A month later, Stan received a letter from Linda, saying she was L.A. with Olivia and that she was safe. She was sorry for the trouble - She'd seen the news. Stan showed the letter to the police, and eventually they stopped calling him in for questioning. If there was any further pursuit of Linda, it was another state's jurisdiction.

By August things had calmed down, again, and probably not for the last time. Stan and Kyle weren't hiding, exactly, but they hadn't come out explicitly.

Although, Sharon had walked in on them grinding so enthusiastically they took a moment to come to their senses.

Five minutes later Stan had practically flung himself down the stairs, full of excuses, and witnessed Randy reluctantly handing Sharon $40, and his own precious mother looking too-pleased with herself. Sharon followed up her faulty parenting with a lecture about keeping the doors open from now on, and don't worry Kyle, I won't say anything to Sheila or Gerald, right Randy?

It could have gone a lot worse. Randy was a big mouth when he was drunk, and there had been an Incident involving Randy's sobs about his gay son, and let's just say it ended with second degree burns on his upper lip. Randy wasn't able to grow an even mustache for months.

Exactly zero people were surprised, though a handful were put off, including Token, who initiated another Incident during senior year that ended with Wendy permanently cutting ties with him and Craig breaking his hand from an uppercut that chipped one of Token's teeth.

The whole thing had been rather unfortunate.

By graduation, Butters was accepted into college as an accounting major and was making plans on dragging his girlfriend across the country with him. Cartman had sulked about the whole thing, but busied himself by applying to a nearby community college so he could stay with his mom.

Kyle was accepted in a university in Oklahoma, including a few other states, and Stan didn't have a clue what he was doing.

"So that's it?" Stan was sulking when Kyle had showed him his acceptance letters while they sat on Kyle's bed. "I'll just rot here in South Park while you go learn to be some big shot?"

Kyle shot him an annoyed look, "You didn't even apply anywhere, and I'm still deciding what to do. Honestly, I don't think I really want to go back to school for a year. The last four years have been insane and I want to do nothing for a while. Really. Besides, you have the animal shelter, right?"

"I guess." Stan moped.

Kyle had a new destructive weapon against Stan, that involved a lot of kissing as a distraction. It didn't always work, but was most effective when Stan knew he was being unreasonable. It made him more pliant to suggestions, especially after they realized they both had a vicious cuddling streak that usually ended with their foreheads touching and legs tangled.

"Don't worry about college too much." Kyle said quietly, after the sun had set and his room was getting darker. "We've got a lot of time to make decisions."

"I guess." Stan sighed and closed his eyes, talking more into Kyle's neck than to his face, "I feel like we just resolved everything."

Kyle smiled in understanding, "Nothing's ever resolved."

"Resolve this." And Stan leaned into him to kiss him again, and again, and again.