Kenny stood upon the ledge of a bank building, watching the streets of Denver. They bustled far beneath him, cars zipping past in bright streaks. He was twelve stories up, at least: some risks couldn't be taken with both feet on the ground.

It was a cold night, and a haze of mist hung over the streetlights, ringing each with a fuzzy halo. But Kenny's trusty purple bed-sheet cape wrapped around his neck and kept his body heat close. Looking down began to make him dizzy, so Kenny backed up as far as he could—all the way to one edge of the building, like a slingshot pulled taut. Then he took off. His boots pounded the gravel as he flew at top speed, a blur across the rooftop. When he reached the ledge of the building, he took a flying leap. Kenny's limbs pin-wheeled wildly in the air, and for a moment, his heart stopped. All he could hear was the sound of his cape unfurled behind him, billowing and flapping. He imagined people below, looking up at his boot-soles, and rubbing their eyes in confusion. He grinned. Gravity did not exist; he was fucking soaring.

Kenny landed hard on the building opposite him. Ripples of shock rang through his legs, and he mitigated the impact by rolling to his feet. He began to laugh with relief as he stood from a crouch. His blood still sang with fear-spiked staccato, and when Kenny looked over his shoulder, he could still see the partial shoeprints in the dust from his failed attempts. He knew all too well that the difference between going home for dinner and kissing Jesus hello was no more than a couple inches. It was a margin of error no less significant than the difference between tumor sizes—a couple swollen cells could end anyone's life, just like landing just a little bit too close to the edge.

Kenny didn't much bother with precise safety calculations. He often found that danger and fun lay nestled side by side on the knife's edge between life and death, and to get to one, it was hard (impossible) not to risk the other. Kenny was more likely to stay bored than stay dead. So, he spent more time exploring the edge than making calculations.

Well, that wasn't so hard, he thought as he dusted bits of dirt from the front of his costume. It only took twenty two times. "Fuck yeah!" Kenny raised a fist in victory, "There is no ledge Mysterion cannot conquer!" He jutted his chin out and pointed to space between the buildings with a condemning finger, a cocky grin splitting his face under his mask. That was his gap now. He'd made it his bitch.

Belatedly, he realized that he'd forgotten to do the voice again. "Shit," he coughed, looking around to make sure no one had heard. "I mean," he lowered his voice to the appropriate gravelly tone, "There is no ledge Mysterion cannot conquer." Much better. He wondered if Batman ever got that shit twisted up, and if anyone ever called him on it. Why're you talking like that, Bruce? Got the flu or something? He chuckled at the thought. A pretend chest-cold, for Batman, was part of a secret identity, not just a ploy to get out of gym class. Superheroes, Kenny knew, only pretended to have mundane little lives.

He began the climb down to the ground level, to look for more trouble. He grabbed hold of a water pipe and used his boots to provide traction as he shimmied his way down. For a moment, Kenny felt like a fireman, or possibly a stripper. He slipped a half-inch before catching himself, a very un-heroic yelp escaping him. The green gloves did a spectacular job of protecting his hands, he noted, but weren't so good for grip. He'd have to find a pair with non-slip finger-pads or something if he wanted to continue climbing in tricky places. Ugh, he thought. Spiderman never had technical difficulties like this. Admittedly...Mysterion's resources were less than glamorous. A graying pair of hand-me-down briefs, "borrowed" belt from Kevin's drawer, and a headless purple Lycra suit from were the best Kenny could do. But wasn't there some old adage they told to little kids—it's what's on inside that counts? And inside? Kenny was all guts, both the literal and figurative. Not everyone could bounce back from becoming a bloody splatter on the pavement, after all. But more importantly, not everyone would want to get up after that, much less with both fists raised. Kenny did though, every time. He knew, it was getting up that made him a hero, and it counted. If they were right, anyway.

After Kenny got down to the pavement, he continued his patrol. Denver at night was usually pretty quiet. He didn't exactly expect a scuffle. It was more likely than in South Park, however, which was exactly why he'd expanded his operation to the city (at least on weekends). Too many boring nights in a row made Kenny antsy. Like a heroin addict with an itch under his skin, Kenny wandered the streets looking for a hit. Or more precisely, someone to hit. Kenny generally left the dirty, chemical highs found at tip of a needle to his parents and brother these days. Kenny wanted to be someone who lived a life so big and grand that people drew him in primary colors and dressed up like him on Halloween, just hoping Mysterion would reach through their dull lives and pull them straight out of the third dimension. That was the kind of thing he jones'd for, and unfortunately, a person couldn't just snort that shit.

The benefit of the quiet was it gave him a chance to practice his free running. Kenny punctuated the thought by using the back wall to leap on top of a large trash bin. The garbage rattled beneath him, and Kenny grinned to himself and stood astride the open top with his legs apart and his hands on his hips—the quintessential badass pose. Soon, he'd be able to do all sorts of cool ninja shit. Then, criminals would see his motherfucking assassin moves, jumping around all slick-like in the shadows, and they would crap themselves out of fear.

It's gonna be sweet, Kenny thought, and whistled to himself as he hopped off the trash bin and continued down the sidewalk. Mysterion would be so legit if he kept it up at this rate.

Then he heard a scream, and his self-congratulatory mood shattered. Kenny snapped to the ready, every nerve standing at attention as he swiveled his head around, listening. The unmistakable sounds of a violent scuffle—groans and grunts; bodies, fists, and pavement colliding in various painful permutations—made Kenny rub his hands together in anticipation. But it sounded fairly far off. He had to hurry if he wanted a piece of that action. With that in mind, he took off running towards the noise. As he ran, he pulled his Taser from his utility belt and caressed the trigger. Bring it on, he thought, weapon drawn. An electric chill skated up his spine at the feel of his thumb against the plastic: a little preview of things to come.

Kenny whipped around a corner and spotted four figures at the end of the street. They stood under a sickly orange cast of the street lamp. Their long shadows splayed out behind them in a half circle, like a Stonehenge of scumbags. Kenny sprinted in their direction and squinted ahead, trying to make out what was going on from a distance. But three of the four had their backs turned and mostly obscured the fourth from view.

"Greetings, citizens. How can I be of assistance?" Kenny intoned, with a small salute. He displayed his weapon at his hip: a subtle threat. On the ground lay a man. He seemed to be in pretty bad shape, if the missing thumbs were an indication. The three attackers turned around, startled, when Kenny alerted them of his presence. Kenny was proud to note that they hadn't noticed his approach. He'd grown quite adept at making his footsteps silent. It made for a more dramatic entrance if they never saw him coming. Nothing, and then...WHAM! Lights fuckin' out.

"Screw off," a woman in a purple midriff supplied. She eyed the weapon in Kenny's hand a moment. "Mind your own business."

"Crime is my business," Kenny growled. He smiled at his own snappy comeback. "And looks like you're my first customers of the night." BAM! He was two for two; Kenny was on fire tonight with the witty banter! He thought it was a shame no one was recording this shit.

The thumb-less man moaned, curling into himself. He was pale from blood loss, chest rapidly rising and falling as he took in tiny sharp breaths. Kenny winced in sympathy, and hoped he didn't accidentally step on the poor guy's severed digits during the fight. Fucking gross...and lame for the guy, of course.

"You talk weird. What's wrong with your throat?" Purple Midriff wondered. "And what's the ‘M' stand for, anyway? Momma's boy? ‘Cause someone should tell her you're wearin' her panty-hose." She chuckled at her own stupid joke, and the other two snorted along with her. Kenny glared at them, and crossed his arms a little self-consciously over his chest.

"It stands for Mysterion," Kenny informed her through clenched teeth. He pressed the button the Taser, and it made a high pitched little whine as it powered on. A tiny, crackling, arc flashed between the electrodes. "So you can fucking tell the pigs who sent you."

"Hey, kid, just walk away," an older gentleman with a goatee and neck tattoo suggested. "Nothing to see here."

Kenny clenched both fists—one around his weapon—instead, and hunkered down stubbornly. "Not a chance."

The three began to circle around Kenny then, their bared teeth sharp as shark fins in the water. The girl broke off to his left, the goateed man to his right. The third—a burly dude with a gold left upper incisor and right lower canine—stood in front of Kenny, between Kenny and the victim. When the triad effectively surrounded Kenny, they began to close in on him. Goatee reached ominously for his back pocket. Kenny felt his pulse quicken, and he grinned back at them. Something feral and fiery coiled up in his belly, and all the sounds in his head went quiet. His pulse thumped wetly in his ears, and Kenny guessed no one had told these douchebags that backing a wild animal into a corner was dangerous. Game on.

Subtly, as his soon-to-be-attackers positioned themselves, Kenny reached for his Mystery-phone (an old Nokia he'd painted purple with green question marks—for flair) and dialed 911. Then, not so subtly, he lifted the phone to his ear and said in a loud, staged voice: "Hey, Denver Police? This is Mysterion..." One of the attackers snarled through his metal teeth and reached for the phone, but Kenny ducked out of the way.

"Yeah. I'm on the corner of Colorado and Seventeenth. There's a guy out here who is going to need medical attention right away. Three assholes cut off his thumbs." Purple Midriff aimed a kick at Kenny's leg and lunged at him. He stepped back just in time to avoid the first blow, and twisted out of reach of the second.

"Send at least two ambulances, though," Kenny said, "Pretty soon, three more are going to need medical attention here, too." He hung up the phone.

Goatee smacked the phone out of Kenny's hand. Gold Teeth tried to grab hold of Kenny afterward, but Kenny drove a hard elbow into his gut—producing a harsh, sudden gasp. Then, Kenny made taking the knife out the picture a priority. Getting stabbed sucked. He was in no mood for a slow bleed-out tonight. After busting Gold Teeth's airbag, Kenny snatched Goatee's wrist. Goatee struggled to pull out of Kenny's grip, but Kenny bent his hand back until the guy had no choice but to drop the weapon in order to squirm away. Then Kenny spun out of reach, just in time to feel the full force of the Gold Teeth's right hook drive straight into his jaw. Kenny's vision went white for a moment. His ears rang, brain clanging around in his skull like a frightened bat in a bell-tower.

"Not so smug now, are you, you little bastard?"

Kenny heard the thugs laughing, but their voices sounded very far away. He heard them as if standing on the other side of a tunnel. Kenny struggled to stay on his feet. As the shock dissipated, pain blossomed on the side of his face. It took every ounce of will power not to crumble to the sidewalk. He tasted the metallic tang of blood on his tongue and spat it out.

"First one's free," Kenny informed them gruffly, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist, "Don't get used to it."

Then he sprung at Purple Midriff. She hadn't been expecting it, obviously, and simply had no time to react after Kenny charged her. Her eyes were ringed with clumpy mascara and badly applied purple eye shadow—framing her surprise with smeary drug-store makeup. Kenny delivered a judicious uppercut to her chin, knuckles dusting her jawbones. He both felt and heard her teeth slam together. She tumbled backwards with a breathy cry, and in the next second, Gold Teeth was on Kenny again. Gold Teeth threw himself forward and grabbed Kenny around the waist. Kenny's knees began to buckle under the weight, but before he lost balance, he jammed the Taser directly into the juncture between Gold Teeth's neck and shoulder. The rippling crackle as Gold Teeth seized made Kenny cringe with unwanted sympathy, even as Kenny shook loose of Gold's hold.

Two down, one to go. Kenny tossed the Taser over his shoulder, holding Goatee's gaze as he disarmed. He cracked his knuckles, and the sound of popping joints joined the clatter of plastic against the cement. That's right, bitch. I don't need toys to bring you down. Then, he made a ‘come hither' gesture and cocked his head, Bruce Lee style. Come and get me, motherfucker.

Goatee was a little smarter, and didn't try to rush Kenny the way his friend had. Instead, he prowled around in a little half circle, forcing Kenny to reposition to prepare for attack. They danced around each other for a while, and Kenny smirked. "I got all night, Twinkle Toes." He feigned a yawn, and raised it a cocky smirk. Goatee feinted forward, and Kenny flinched, falling back a step. He immediately regretted it. He'd lost the staring contest just then, and Goatee's smug expression told Kenny it wouldn't be forgotten.

Meanwhile, Gold Teeth stayed on the floor, but Purple Midriff got back to her feet. Kenny flicked his gaze back and forth between the two of them. He wondered which of them would strike first; it wouldn't be him. Kenny was patient. He, as he always did, would let the bitches come to him. He didn't have to wait long. Purple Midriff and Goatee, by some silent agreement, assailed Kenny at the same time. Midriff distracted him by leaping directly at him, lunging with hands outstretched to choke her revenge from Kenny's waiting throat. Kenny dodged, but while he focused on Midriff, in a flash, Goatee dashed forward and grabbed his arms. He pulled them unforgivingly up behind Kenny's back. Kenny was taken off his feet in a moment of blinding pain, suspended by the sheer grace of his screaming joints. Midriff took the opportunity to knee Kenny in the groin.

Kenny choked on a pained gasp, and his body doubled forward involuntarily. His stomach rocketed up in his abdomen, and he felt his dinner crawl up his throat as he coughed bile. The inside of his eyelids looked like backlit bruises, and his knees clenched together as he hissed out an agonized stream of air. His eyes rolled back as he groaned, slumping.

"Ch-cheapshot," he panted, "So...fucking lame. Cocksuckers."

Midriff cackled, cruelty making her piggish features light with glee. She stepped away, and flicked her tongue out over her thin lips. Then she pulled her arm back, bracelets jangling, and prepared to lay into Kenny once again. But before she could manage it, Kenny slammed his head backwards. His skull rammed into Goatee's with a satisfying thump. Goatee cursed and yelped, voice sounding nasally and thick. With any luck, Kenny thought, he'd broken the asshole's fucking nose.

As Kenny had hoped he would, Goatee relaxed his grip on Kenny's arms. One of Goatee's hands flew up to clutch at his damaged face, and that was all it took. Kenny wrenched his way free and kicked straight out at Midriff. The steel toe of his boot smashed into her skinny shin, and Kenny knew from the angle and force of that kick that Midriff would be walking with a limp for at least the next month. She squealed and hopped back, hands fluttering like anxious moths over her already-bruising ankle. This gave Kenny enough room to reach around behind himself and grab one of Goatee's arms. Kenny hauled Goatee's shoulder joint over his back, twisting it enough to make the big guy more cooperative. He then bent his knees to leverage Goatee's weight, putting tension on the joint. Goatee tried to pull away, but the increased strain only made matters worse. Finally, Kenny gave a mighty tug across his body and flipped the big bastard over, dropping Goatee backside down onto the pavement. Whoomf! Kenny felt a bolt of pure satisfaction when Goatee's arms flopped uselessly at his sides. It was a gesture of defeat. No way could Goatee stand after a hit like that. Kenny had flattened his big ass.

So, Kenny straightened up and looked to Midriff, a savage twinkle in his eye glinting from behind his mask. "Sorry, sweetheart, too rough for you?" Kenny cooed.

Midriff looked like she was about to run. She limped backwards a few steps before Kenny caught her by the throat. "Hey, I heard a joke once," Kenny said, almost conversationally. "How is sex like air?"

The woman's feet scrambled beneath her, and she clawed desperately at Kenny's hand. Her eyes bugged out of her head, fishlike as she gaped for oxygen.

"It's no big deal, unless you're not getting any." Kenny chuckled, "Geddit? Oh, come on, this is some of my best material!" He threw her down, and she landed directly on top of Gold Teeth. Gold Teeth had previously been trying his damndest to get back up, heels and palms scrabbling against the concrete as he attempted to gain enough leverage to push himself upright. So far, his limbs had given out every time, causing him to twist around like a paraplegic who'd fallen out of his wheelchair. He oof'd when Purple Midriff flattened him, and she coughed, winded. Finally, Gold Teeth stopped struggling.

Kenny would've felt sorrier for them if they hadn't held him down and kicked him in the nuts.

A few blocks away, the shrilling of sirens in the distance signaled that it was time for Kenny to make his exit. He took a pack of plastic zip-ties from his belt pouch and knelt beside Gold Teeth. Gold Teeth exhaled sharply through his clamped teeth and tried to roll away, but Kenny didn't let him escape. Instead, he yanked up Gold Teeth's hands roughly and zipped his wrists together. Then Kenny did the same to Gold Teeth's feet. He looked distinctly less threatening when trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, Kenny decided with contentment.

"Now, you sit here nice and pretty for the cops," Kenny cupped the man's chin. "They'll get you situated in a cozy little cell with some guy who calls you Buttercup while he does you in the ass."

"," Gold Teeth wheezed.

"Same to you, Buttercup," Kenny snickered as he bound Midriff and Goatee and set them up back to back on the sidewalk. He really deserved a medal for all the trash he picked up and left for easy pick up. Kenny allowed himself to picture Mayor McDaniels presenting him with it, "for courage in the face of danger, extraordinary heroic deeds, and surprising compassion for the glorified garbage men—ahem, the police." People applauded and everything. It was a sweet ass image.

The sirens drew nearer. Kenny got to his feet. Blood leaked in a thin rivulet from his lip, and his head throbbed. Besides that, his nuts seemed to have taken up permanent residence inside his body. The fight over, adrenaline began wearing down to aching, and Kenny sighed. He wiped the sweat on his brow with the back of his hand. He needed to get out of here before he lost too much momentum to make his escape.

"Been fun, girlies," Kenny blew a kiss at the group of grumbling thugs. "Sorry about your thumbs," he told the bleeding victim as an afterthought, "I...uh. Hope they can sew them back on." He nudged one closer to the man with his foot as an encouragement.

He then turned sharply, so his cape twirled dramatically behind him like the curtain after a show, and fled the scene as fast as his feet could carry him. On his way out, he scooped his Taser and phone; equipment didn't grow on trees, after all. He could hear the cops behind him as he scaled a back ally wall to make his escape.

"Goddamnit it, guys, that's the fifth time this month. This Mysterion guy is running us out of the job..."

Kenny grinned; all in a night's work.

Kyle woke up to the sound of tapping on his window. He didn't go to open it right away, half-hoping that it was just the wind. But the tapping grew louder and more insistent, a tattoo beaten into the glass that rattled the wooden frame. Eventually Kyle could no longer ignore it without risking awakening his parents. He sighed, rolled over, untangled himself from the blankets, and put his feet on the floor. After rubbing at his eyes, he muttered irritably, "All right, all right, I'm coming."

Kyle trudged sleepily to his bedroom window. He grabbed hold of the sash, and yanked it open. Kenny, predictably, sat on the outside sill. Though still in his Mysterion gear, Kenny had removed the mask, and pushed back his hood. His face was pink from the cold, eyes bright and dancing in a way Kyle knew resulted only when Kenny had just finished doing something exceptionally stupid. Kyle was smart enough to know this unmasking was strategic. Kenny was resourceful, and knew how use his scarce assets to the fullest of his ability—on Kyle, if need be. Kenny wasn't above using his pretty face to make Kyle forget his legitimate reasons to be angry. The knowledge that this was exactly what Kenny was trying to do right now, however, did not make Kyle immune. Not totally.

"Hey, dude." Kenny grinned lopsidedly, and hair sticking up every which way. He leaned in close to Kyle, as if telling a secret. Worse, Kyle leaned in, eager to hear it, as if it would be anything but the usual destructive bullshit.

"Can I come in?"

The words were whispered-soft in Kyle's ear, and Kenny was near enough that Kyle could smell Kenny's sweat and cigarettes. But Kyle wouldn't let Kenny win so easily, with his proximity or his nowhere-I'd-rather-be-than-at-your-window smile.

"It's three AM," Kyle complained, looking down. He bit his lip as he struggled for some ground in this losing fight. "Some people sleep at this hour." He crossed his arms over his chest, and his oversized pajama sleeves flopped over his elbows. Kenny snickered at the sight, before schooling his features into an apologetic grimace.

"I know; I'm sorry." Kenny scratched the back of his head, contritely. "But, I was just thinking that, if I come home like this...Karen doesn't like to see the blood, and—yeah. I can go, if you want. Sorry." Kenny pulled an exceptionally pitiful expression, and Kyle faltered, gaze fixed on the bruises along Kenny's jaw and the trickle of blood coming out of the corner of Kenny's mouth. They made Kenny's ploy for sympathy a little more convincing, admittedly. Kyle, without thinking, reached out and brushed his thumb to Kenny's chin.

"You keep doing this," Kyle's voice was softer than he intended it to be, concerned rather than scolding. He swallowed, and tried to look anywhere but Kenny's face.

"I-I'm sorry." Kenny lowered his eyes slightly at Kyle's touch. He reached up to hold Kyle's wrist, but loosely. He didn't try to stop Kyle from wiping the blood away.

"But you're okay?" Kyle asked, because it was the only thing that really mattered, in the end.

"Yeah," Kenny assured him, seriously. "I didn't come to worry you, dude. I...really only came ‘cause I just wanted a shower." He looked away and did a very good impression of appearing embarrassed about it. Good, but not perfect—Kyle caught the hint of a victorious smile in Kenny's eyes, a glimmer of amusement swimming in the dark wide-blown pupils, and Kyle knew him too well to be fooled.

Kyle scoffed and withdrew his hand immediately; Kenny knew very well he would not be sent away. That was simply how this game worked. Kyle found the effort on Kenny's part to pretend otherwise to be extremely irritating. He also had to admit to himself that he was having a slightly difficult time not picturing Kenny in the shower, and that made sending him away even more difficult.

"Well, I have a history test tomorrow," Kyle said, obdurately—mostly just to spite the distinct feeling in his gut that Kenny had his number from the start and was just playing him like a sad, predictable instrument. "I need my rest."

"I'm sorry, man. I'll leave, I swear. I just wanted a quick shower, is all. I wouldn't even ask, but you know. I mean, they shut off the water at my place. And the heat. Also, we don't have soap, because Dad blew all our money on cigarettes again. But I can just use the neighbor's hose, that is, if they don't chase me off with the rake this time..." Kenny blinked innocently at Kyle, and Kyle seriously considered slamming the window right in Kenny's stupid face. Kyle would play no more; he now knew that when Kenny said he was high strung, Kenny meant to treat him like an instrument—to saw sad tunes out of him with a bow and a well-practiced hand. He fucking always did this. Kyle had to be wiser than to keep falling for it.

"My parents will be so pissed if they find you here. I'll be grounded for a month." Kyle stood firm, blocking the open window with his body.

Kenny made as if he were about to hop off the windowsill, leaning away and ready to disappear into the night again. "I'm sorry, Kyle. I'll just go home now. You go back to sleep, dude. I'll just sneak back into my room, and wash my face with cat piss or something." He put his fingers to the scratches on his cheek, blood leaking through his fingertips. His eyes never left Kyle's as he spoke. "Stings like a bitch, but I wouldn't want to get you in trouble, or make you fail your history test. Plus, it's a good high, right? I mean I'm trying to quit, but I can always—"

"Stop it; just stop it! I'm fucking sick of this!" Kyle exploded. He shoved Kenny hard, but grabbed Kenny's shoulders too, so as not to outright send him toppling off the windowsill. He was angry, not homicidal—and moreover, wanted a moral victory, where Kenny admitted he was wrong voluntarily and ended the game, not an absolute victory where Kenny would never play again. Kyle held Kenny tightly in his grasp, and shook him a bit. "Give it a rest! I'm not falling for it this time! This has to stop! Do you expect me to keep helping you while you're off beating people up in the middle of the night? You are going to get killed! I'm not fucking kidding, Kenny! How many times do I have to tell how dangerous this Mysterion thing is? It is actually insane! How much longer until—"

A finger landed on Kyle's lips. Kyle glanced up, wild-eyed and confused. Kenny ignored him, and looked around quickly, and then made a shushing gesture. Kyle detected the faintest hint of a smirk, still on Kenny's lips like a stubborn apple on the end of a branch long after all the leaves had died. The asshole was fucking mocking him! At a time like this!

"You're shushing me?" Kyle's already shrill pitch rose by several octaves and he swatted Kenny's hand away. "Fuck you, Kenny! I've had just about enough—"

Kenny interrupted by covering Kyle's mouth with his hand. He grabbed Kyle's head, turned Kyle around, and then held him in a vice grip to keep Kyle from wriggling out of his grasp.

"Shhhhh! Jesus Christ, Kyle, you have to be quiet!"

Kyle squirmed and made indignant, muffled protests. "Unngh! Mmmf! Nnnggh!"

"Hey, you sound like me." Kenny laughed, softly into Kyle's ear, and Kyle shuddered involuntarily. "Calm down, dude. We're gonna get caught."

"Fnnk mmmm! Lmmm nggggn!"

The audible outrage in Kyle's otherwise incomprehensible noises, Kenny reflected, was actually pretty entertaining. When pawing at Kenny's hands and trying to pry them off failed, Kyle began to flail about with his arms, swinging backward at Kenny. Kenny had to jerk his head out of the way in order to avoid one particularly viciously swung fist. He chuckled in Kyle's ear, "Feisty," and then used his free arm to wrap around Kyle's torso and restrain him. In response, he felt Kyle try to bite him through the glove.

"Don't wake your parents up," Kenny instructed in a low voice. "C'mon, Kyle. I really don't want you to be in trouble because of me." Kyle continued to fight him, struggling violently in Kenny's arms. It was a losing battle, however, because Kenny was significantly stronger than Kyle, and they both knew it. It took a few minutes, but Kyle eventually exhausted himself, and went limp in Kenny's grasp. Kenny held him there longer than was strictly necessary, just listening to Kyle's heavy breathing.

Finally Kenny let him go, and Kyle immediately pulled away from him. Kyle took several steps backwards from the windowsill and straightened his rumpled pajama shirt.

"Fuck you, Kenny," Kyle repeated, spitting the words with utter venom. Kenny recoiled, the three words striking truer than any well-constructed argument Kyle might've been saving for him. Kyle was red in the face, eyes flashing dangerously, a triangle of skin visible where the top button of his shirt had come apart. Kenny let his gaze linger there a moment, and then up the line of Kyle's pale neck.

"...Kyle, I'm sorry," Kenny whispered and held his hands out in a placating gesture. "Look, I'll just leave now. I won't bother you any more after tonight, I—"

"Good," Kyle slammed the window shut and turned away. It was the deciding blow of the night. Kyle won the game. He seemed to take no pleasure in his victory, however, as he got back into bed and jerkily pulled the covers over himself, pointedly facing away from Kenny.

Kenny waited at the window, watching Kyle through the glass panes until it became clear that Kyle wasn't coming back any time soon. Then, Kenny sighed, and jumped down off the ledge. As he did, he only narrowly avoiding decapitating a few of Mrs. Broflovski's window-box begonias.

Sometimes, Kenny decided, licking his lips, Kyle was a total tool-bag.

Kenny got home around four AM. He snuck around the back of the house in order to climb in through Kevin's bedroom window. As he swung his legs over the back fence, the first rays of morning made the sky a rosy, soft blue. Fuck, Kenny realized he would have to wake up for school in just about two hours. Running around on low sleep was something they didn't cover much in the comic books.

He leapt down from the fence, then stood and compressed himself along the side of the house. But as he began to inch along towards Kevin's window, someone let out a long, loud whistle. Unfortunately, that someone wasn't a little bird, singing to wish him good morning. Kenny knew this, because no bird ever sounded so sarcastic. With a sigh, Kenny poked his head around the corner of the house.

"Well, well," Scott Tenorman crossed his arms. He grinned at Kenny from his perch on the ledge outside Kevin's window, one leg dangling inside Kevin's room, and the other hanging outside the house. "Someone's preparing for his circus audition. Nice tights, man."

Kenny came out from around the side of the house. Scott's eyes blinked uncoordinatedly as he watched Kenny, one lid timed slightly after the other. It was off in the way Scott was always off. But Kenny was used to it by now; Scott was a freak, with more tics than a clock. Kenny scowled at him. "The fuck are you doing here again, Tenorman?"

Scott shrugged. "Hanging out. Why're you getting in so late? And what's with the costume?"

Kenny grunted instead of answering. He attempted to shove past Scott, into Kevin's room. He was in no mood to discuss his double life with his brother's asshole best friend. He just wanted to get some sleep. Scott moved aside to let Kenny by him.

"It's for a school project," Kenny muttered, half-heartedly.

Scott raised his brows, but to Kenny's relief did not make any further comment. Kenny sidled Scott and went inside. Without a backwards glance, he disappeared through Kevin's bedroom door and through his own.

Not ten minutes later, Kenny passed out still wearing his costume.

Monday at school passed in a blurry daze. Kenny was so fucking tired he could barely see straight. He felt as if he were in slow motion while the world whirled by him at top speed. He would have to restrain his patrols to Friday and Saturday nights, because kicking ass ‘til the sun rose was exhausting.

Kenny, Eric, Stan, and Kyle sat together in the cafeteria as per usual. Cheesy, politically correct and racially diverse health promotion posters plastered the walls. Smart Kids Eat Their Veggies! Those brightly colored poster made Kenny feel particularly cynical sometimes. He supposed the school thought the students could just eat taglines and good intentions.

The room was busy, bustling with the shouts of students and the clatter of industrial utensils against industrial plastic trays. The acoustics of the place weren't exactly state-of-the-art, either. Thus, the clamor of the cafeteria echoed off the ceiling, which was still splattered with pasta sauce from the last school-wide food fight. Despite the noise, Kenny's own table was very quiet.

Kyle sat to Kenny's left. He studiously ignored Kenny, fully immersed in his Biology textbook. This was unlikely to change anytime soon; Kyle was legendary in his grudge-holding capacity. Likely distracted by the all-consuming task of pretending Kenny did not exist—Kyle, Kenny observed, did not eat much of his cold mystery meat. So Kenny helped himself to it.

"So, dude," Kenny flicked his wrist to point his plastic fork across the table, in Stan's direction. Bits of grayish meat skittered across the table like tiny heralds of the good word. "I heard that if you smoke enough crack, it fucks up your nerves. So check this out. There's a lady in Wisconsin or some shit—and the doctors say that smoking too much crack caused her to have spontaneous orgasms. All the fucking time. Without anyone even touching her."

Stan looked up from under a fringe of inky black hair. His sunken shoulders hunkered low to the table, as if some invisible hand were perpetually pressing down on him. "The real drugs," he said, voice low, "Are the commercials on TV and the Disney lies. Promising happiness in exchange for conformity is just the way we delude people into rejecting their inner darkness."

Kenny sighed. "Never mind, man. Just eat your Jell-O."

And that left Eric as Kenny's only option for conversation. Fucking beautiful. As if on cue, the man in question came waddling up to their table, tray loaded down with what looked like every option offered by the fine establishment (sans salad, of course).

"You catch the last episode of Walking Dead?" Cartman asked around a mouthful of his garlic bread as he plopped down. Kenny had to scoot over a little to avoid being pressed uncomfortably against Eric's overly warm side-rolls.

"Nah," Kenny shrugged, "Cable's out this month at my place. Mom had a bad trip and smashed the cable box."

Trailing after Eric, Butters carefully set his apple, Saltines and vegetable soup down. He smiled brightly at the other members of the table. "Well, hiya, guys!" Butters sat next to Eric. "What's up?"

Kenny jerked a nod towards Butters with a little smile. "Yo, Butters. The usual, man. Can you believe they gave us fruit cups instead of dessert again? Shit, I'm all for fighting obesity or whatever...but, I mean. We used to have pie and shit."

"Well, I have an extra cookie," Butters already began fumbling with his backpack, pulling at the zippers. "I made ‘em last night. If you want—"

"Oh, look, Kenny. Your boyfriend is happy to see you." Eric drawled, and followed the statement up with a loud slurp of Diet Dr. Pepper. Beside him, Kenny felt Kyle tense up, and he grinned. He prodded Kyle's ankle with a sneaker under the table. Kyle's eyes slid reluctantly over in Kenny's direction for half a second.

Then, Kyle scowled back into his textbook, the tips of his ears turning pink. "Butters, give him a cookie, and he'll shut up."

Butters blinked at Kyle for a moment, but then shrugged. From the front pouch of his Hello Kitty backpack, he retracted pink-frosted sugar cookies in a plastic Ziploc baggie. He handed one to Eric and one to Kenny, before offering the remaining two to Stan and Kyle.

Stan took his silently. Then, he broke the heart-shaped cookie in half. He placed the halves on opposite sides of his lunch tray. Then he looked up at Butters, and held the gaze until Butters began to fidget uncomfortably. Kenny ate his own cookie as he watched the exchange, restraining the urge to laugh. Stan needed to pull his own head out of his ass...but until he figured that out, Stan was accidentally pretty fucking amusing. Damn, that kid was a walking Addams Family special.

"No thanks," Kyle held up a polite hand when Butters offer the last cookie to him, matched with a grateful but firm smile. "Diabetes. Gotta watch the blood-sugar levels.

"Aw," Butters was visibly unoffended, cheery smile still settled easily across his sunny, boyish features. He patted Kyle's arm sympathetically. "I'm real sorry about that. I shoulda remembered. I'm pretty thoughtless sometimes."

"That's all right," Kyle smiled back at him, "Don't beat yourself up, dude."

Butters slid the extra cookie to Eric, and Eric plucked it up between his large fingers. "You need a manlier hobby, Butters," he decided, "Baking is for women and Mexicans. You are never going to get laid at this rate." He took a bite of the cookie, and crumbs and frosting hung on his lips as he spoke. "Speaking of. Did you see Jessie's ass today? I mean, hard to miss, when she's got it bling'd up like that, but man. I'd tap that shit."

"Me too," Butters agreed immediately, his brow furrowing. "Though, I think she's Jimmy's girlfriend, since Thursday."

Eric looked expectantly to Kenny. Kenny smirked and looked around the cafeteria, and spotted Jessie by the cashier, paying for her lunch. She dropped a stack of napkins, and bent down to retrieve it. The word "Juicy" was, true to Eric's words, bedazzled across her blessedly tight jeans, and Kenny thought that no woman who wore sequins across her butt like that could ever blame a guy for staring at it. He opened his mouth to voice this opinion, vociferously, but stopped himself a microsecond before he actually formed the words. He stole a look over at Kyle and sighed. He was so not in the mood for one of Kyle's rants on objectifying women today.

"She's hot," he said in a cool tone. "But you know. I'm more of a tits man myself."

"Oh, man," Eric nearly hopped up from his seat to agree. "Bebe was wearing this sweater today, I swear to God, I almost—"

"Shut the fuck up," Stan gritted out, his voice harsher that Kenny had heard it in a long time, "About Bebe Stevens. I don't want to hear that name." He glared furiously at Eric, the hard blue slant of his eyes highlighted by his dark eyeliner.

Even Kyle emerged from his book at that point. He reflexively played the part of supportive best friend, piping up his two cents in Stan's defense. "C'mon, dude," he scolded Eric, "You know how he gets. Just don't go there."

"Oh get over it, hippie," Eric drawled. He stuffed ravioli in his mouth as he did so, and sprayed bits of food when he spoke. "You guys banged when you were what, fifteen? It's been three years, you bleeding-heart moron. Your injured poet crap isn't cute anymore."

"Like you," Stan stood forcefully, causing the table to quiver, "Would know ANYTHING about banging, you fat virgin!"

Eric turned bright red. "Yuh-huh. I would! I'm practically drowning in pussy these days. Girls are always all over my fine hockey body!"

"Could everyone please calm down? Jesus, let's not relive the drama of freshman year. It was bad enough the first time." Kyle put down his textbook and looked pointedly to Stan, with an expression that Kenny was sure read clearly from a thousand miles away. Drop it.

"You don't play hockey, Eric," Butters ventured, after a beat.

"I could! The coach says I'd be first string, if I wanted to!" Eric slammed a fist on the table. The items on the tabletop jumped at once, as did several of the students at the surrounding tables.

"And you know what else?" Eric glared at Stan, his pudgy face squeezing his eyes into malicious slits, "You can just ask your precious Bebe Stevens what a virgin I am!"

Stan turned paler than usual. He looked to Kyle first, and then without a word, he exited, scooping his black satchel from the bench and turning swiftly on his heel. Kenny saw his shoulders hitch as he strode out of the cafeteria double doors.

Kyle immediately frowned at Cartman over the top of his book.

"Seriously?" he asked. "That's a really fucked up thing to say, dude."

"He can go cry if he can't handle the truth," Eric crossed his arms smugly. He always loved winning an argument. "Besides, it's about time he stopped with that virgin bullshit. Fucking kike."

"I'm gonna, uh," Butters rose nervously, leaving his tray on the table. "I'm just...gonna go to the bathroom. I'll see you guys later."

Kenny scrutinized Eric carefully as Butters hurried for the exit. Over the years, (for the sake of survival), he'd come to recognize several of Eric's "tells" for when he was lying. When he was lying, Kenny knew Cartman's ever-present over-confidence swelled to unbearable levels. Cartman's eyes shifted. His pits sweated in double-time. But none of those things seemed to be happening. Sure, Cartman was defensive, but that only meant he was touchy about the issue. Kenny didn't like it.

"Super-Tits-Stevens? Seriously?" Kenny asked. He leaned over his folded hands, and gave a very intentional impersonation of being impressed, rather than appearing disbelieving or prying. He didn't want Eric to put up his guard. If Eric gave him an honest answer, it would be all too easy to see. Eric nearly crowed when genuinely bragging. There was simply no substitute for the outright glee in Cartman's stupid smile when he got to report something cool he'd done or that had happened to him.

But Kenny didn't quite believe Cartman had sealed the deal with a girl, let alone a popular pretty girl like Bebe. Mostly because Kenny knew how badly Cartman wanted to. Hah, a desperate guy might as well just wear pussy repellent instead of cologne.

"Oh, yeah," Cartman nodded. The pride was unambiguous, twinkling in his dark eyes like a pair of sinister stars. "She so wanted it."

There was a barely perceptible wrongness in Eric's tone and body posture, and Eric's strange smile made Kenny's stomach curdle. Kenny wanted to question Eric further, but at that moment, the school bell rang. The cafeteria became a sea of students cramming things into backpacks and groaning displeasure for having to return to class.

The last student to rise was Wendy Testaburger. She sat a few tables over, alone as usual. Kenny would not have looked twice at her, except for the terrifying look on her face. Her gaze pierced the back of Eric Cartman's head with such focus and intent that Kenny was surprised Cartman didn't fall over dead from the laser-like intensity. She threw her fist into her palm, scowling. Kenny's brows lifted in surprise.

"Are you actually going to English class today?" Kyle asked, and Kenny ripped his stare away from Wendy to answer. It seemed Kyle's cold-shouldering had ended. ‘Bout time.

"Oh, yeah," Kenny rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Can I borrow your notes again?"

Kyle sighed, but handed them over to Kenny. "You're hopeless."

"Thanks, dude." Kenny grinned, falling into step beside Kyle, bumping shoulders as they left the cafeteria together. Eric remained a few paces ahead, chatting with Patty Nelson. Patty kept looking over her shoulder, clearly hoping to find a savior from his company. Kenny pitied her. Cartman was pretty well known for making girls uncomfortable.

Kenny spared one more glance behind his shoulder to check for Wendy's death-stare. But by the time he looked back, she was gone.

The mystery of the missing welcome-mats went unnoticed by most of the denizens of South Park. Considering J-mart sold the things for about fifteen dollars and change, most people found the disturbance more annoying than upsetting. No one really even took note of how many mats actually went missing that February in South Park, much less filed a complaint with the police department. No one asked questions. No one noticed.

No one, except of course, for Mysterion.

Kenny stood on the stoop in front of Jessie Rodriguez's house. There had been light rainfall the night before, which had slightly darkened the all concrete. But just outside the front door, there was a perfect dry rectangle, the cement a slightly lighter shade than the rest. The theft was recent. Kenny doubted the Rodriguezes even knew they'd been robbed. But they were the fifth house this week. Too many to be a coincidence. Kenny's purple cape fluttered behind him in a cold passing breeze, and he bent down to examine the crime scene with careful scrutiny.

This, Kenny thought, had Professor Chaos' modus operandi written all over it. Petty-but-conspicuous-theft was second in Butters' list of most common nefarious plots only to schemes-unlikely-to-actually-end-the-world. Kenny was almost a hundred percent sure the Professor was behind this, and he intended to make an inquiry. All Kenny needed to do was find him.

Kenny wandered around South Park for a while, checking all of Butters usual haunts. The Bennigan's parking lot was empty, and so was the swing set by South Park Elementary. Kenny checked the Nerf dart isle at Toys R Us, and the discount movie theater lobby where Chaos and his sidekick sometimes liked to give innocent moviegoers direction to the wrong theater numbers. But all those places turned up no sign of the nefarious duo, and Kenny was just about to give up as he walked down Main Street, and saw a flash of metal atop Tom's Rhinoplasty building.

"Soon, soon my lovelies," Kenny heard from above. "Soon the world shall know of my deeds. Any moment now, Chaos will reign!"


Kenny snuck around the back, hanging in the shadows. Then, quietly, he scaled the building next to Tom's. He backed up to the far edge, and started running at top speed. He leapt.


Butters' terrified scream rang out when Kenny landed on the rooftop. Kenny rolled to his feet and stood, hands on his hips as Butters steadied himself.

"Why big sneaky...sneak!" Butters exclaimed, indignantly. Then he lowered his voice and adjusted his helmet. "...Here to foil my plans again, Mysterion? Well, you're too late. I've already stolen the welcome-mats. Soon, no one will be welcome anywhere anymore! Fights will break out, as people become less neighborly, and instead start acting all mean and stinky! There will anarchy in the streets! Muahahah! Hah!"

The little redhead kid who followed Butters' evil alter ego around everywhere joined in the laughter, and Kenny had to work very hard not to roll his eyes.

"Nice plan," he said, making no attempt to hide his sarcasm, "Too bad I can't let you get away with it. Where are the doormats?"

"I'll never talk!" Butters declared. "You will just have to watch as South Park tears itself apart, Mysterion. You can't stop me this time."

So Kenny crouched down, fists at the ready. "Then it looks like you and I are gonna have a problem."

"So be it."

Now, Butters had swapped the tinfoil for lightweight aluminum armor, but other than that, his costume hadn't changed much. Mysterion and Chaos were impervious to time like that—their costumes and their routine remained strictly in the fourth grade. It made Kenny feel a bit foolish—especially at times like this, truth be told. But this old song and dance was a staple. Butters was the Joker to his Batman—the immovable force that shaped Mysterion by defining negative, setting the contrast.

Even two against one, Kenny managed to get the information out of Dougie and Butters. He found the doormats hidden under the recycling bin in Butter's driveway, and he got in late that night after putting them back on his neighbors' doorsteps.

Three of them, Kenny found, had already replaced the stupid things.

Later that week, when Kenny returned home from school, the house smelled much better than usual. Not that his house ever smelled good, per se. The wafting fumes from the meth lab made certain of that. But today, the thick chemical haze mingled with another, much more enticing scent in the air.

"Karen, are you cooking?" Kenny called out with wonder. He kicked his filthy sneakers across the patchy, stained with god-knows-what, green(ish) carpeting in the living room and headed for (what passed as) the kitchen. Sure enough, Karen stood in front of the electric camping stove that sat against the far eastern wall of the home. She wore a pair of white shorts with her mousy brown hair up in a messy bun. She sang loudly as she stirred a pot of something cooking on the squat stove's top.

"Hey, sis," Kenny tapped her shoulder.

"Don't wanna break your heart, wanna give your heart a break! I know you're scared it's wrong, like you— SHIT! Kenny! Don't sneak up on me like that!" Karen nearly smacked Kenny's face with the spoon in her hand. Red sauce splattered across Kenny's parka. He took a sample on one finger and then tasted it.

"Spaghetti," he declared, a smile quirking at the side of his mouth. He took a dirty dishrag from the counter top and began wiping at the sauce. "What's the special occasion, Kar?"

Karen turned a delicate shade of pink under her spray of trademark McCormick freckles. She turned her back to Kenny and stirred the pot. "None of your beeswax, Kenny," she mumbled.

"Oh, come on," Kenny probed. He snapped her with the rag, and she scampered away, laughing.

"Kenny! Stop it!"

He smiled at her fondly, and tossed the rag into the sink. "Tell me!" he insisted. He wondered if they were too old for him to tickle the answer out of her. "You must've spent your week's allowance on dinner. There's gotta be something going on here." Kenny moved to Karen's side so he could look into her eyes, "Besides," he softened his voice a few degrees, "What's so secret that you can't tell your favorite brother?"

Karen bit her lip, and Kenny knew he'd won. "Oh, all right," Karen said in a rushed voice, "There...there might be someone coming over tonight to meet y'all."

Kenny nearly choked on his tongue at the sound of her shy tone. He gaped at Karen for a moment or two. For the first time, he noticed that her movements seemed lighter, bouncier. A horrible realization began to dawn on Kenny. Shit. Shit.

"You—you have a boyfriend!" Kenny accused, spluttering.

Karen immediately turned dark red. Her eyes rolled up to the ceiling. She took a deep breath. "Yes, but before you freak out—"

"I am not freaking out!" Kenny clutched handfuls of his hair and began to pace across the kitchen floor in his socks.

Karen didn't answer. She just gave him a look.

"...If I'm freaking out, it's your fault!" Kenny babbled, his pitch unsteady, "Dude, you should've told me, so I could kick his ass!"

"Kenny," Karen interrupted. Kenny stopped pacing, and she reached up to put on hand on his shoulder. Though she was at least good foot shorter than he was, her serious gray eyes made him feel about two inches tall.

"I love you," she said, "But I really don't want you to kick my boyfriend's ass. I just want you to try to be nice. ...Please?"

Her lower lip poked out plaintively, and Kenny's tense shoulders relaxed a few degrees. He let out a slow stream of air and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Karen still watched him intently.

"Yeah, okay," he attempted a lopsided smile, "I'll try." Karen beamed radiantly, and she threw her arms around Kenny's waist with enthusiasm. Kenny ruffled her hair with one hand before he hugged her back.

"But if he seems like a creep, I'm still gonna kick his ass." Kenny squeezed Karen a little more tightly, protectively. She giggled.

"You got it, Angel," she said into his coat. "...Thanks, Ken."

Kenny looked over her shoulder. He sniffed the air. The pasta sauce had begun to boil over, and Kenny barely stifled a laugh.

"Uh, sis? Your dinner's burning," he said, and Karen immediately jolted. She pulled out of Kenny's arms and dashed to the stove; one worried hand pushed her bangs off her forehead.


Dinner was an awkward affair from the conception. Karen was nervous. She set the table five times, rearranging the mismatched dinner settings on the table again and again until Kenny stepped in to stop the madness.

"Kar, chill. It's gonna be fine."

"Oh what do you know?" Karen bit back at him. Kenny just laughed in response. Damn.

The McCormick parents even cleaned up their act for the night. They made the tenants in the garage promise not to do any "cooking" for an hour before the dinner. Nor any during, of course, so the house had time to air out and smell less like meth fumes. Stuart took a shower, and Carol put on her Sunday dress. At Karen's insistence, Kevin changed out of his work overalls and washed his face.

By six o'clock, Karen emerged from her bedroom in a cotton sundress spotted with pretty blue flowers, her hair done in loose curls at her shoulders.

Stuart whistled when she came down the hall. "You look jest like yer mother," he said, softly.

Carol smiled, her eyes growing teary. "My baby's all grown up," she warbled. "Yer so beautiful, Karen."

Karen looked to Kenny then, her large eyes filled with uncertainty. Kenny cleared his throat and gave Karen a double thumbs up. Though he still had his misgivings about the whole thing, he would not deny her his support. Karen's happiness outranked his discomfort by far.

They all sat down together on foldout chairs around the table. Karen had repurposed Kevin's old Ping-Pong table by taking down the net and draping a clean bed sheet over it. She placed a clear water glass full of daisies from the neighbor's yard at the center, and all in all, the McCormick living room never looked so welcoming. Kenny and Kevin sat at opposite ends of the table. Stuart and Carol sat next to each other on one long side of the table, and Karen sat next to the auspiciously empty seat-of-honor on the other.

Time ticked by.

"Can we eat now?" Kevin complained, slouching in his seat. "When's this asshole comin' anyway? I smell spaghetti, and I'm fucking hungry!"

Kevin's enthusiasm for good food did not seem to amuse Karen. She kicked him hard under the table.

"Ouch! Hey!" Kevin yelped, "Why, you little bitch; I oughta—"

A knock sounded at the door. Everyone at the table collectively turned to face the front entry. Kenny's stomach tightened, and he struggled to calm himself. He promised Karen that he would be nice. Maybe the guy would even be cool. Or a eunuch. Maybe Kenny wouldn't hate him. Maybe—

The door swung open, and Karen squealed with delight.

"I'm so glad you came!"

"Hey, Karen." Scott Tenorman bent down to give Karen a long hug, "I'm sorry I'm late. I had to pick up some flowers for your folks, and I got stuck counting cracks in the sidewalk—"

Kevin interrupted loudly, "Not now, Scott. We're a-waiting for Karen's boyfriend to show his rat-face ‘round here for dinner! An' he better hurry up, too. We're havin' spaghetti!"


"No, Kevin," Karen took the roses from Scott before she turned to Kevin to retort. "Scott is my boyfriend."

Kenny felt his hands curl into fists under the table. Scott's left eye half-blinked even as he gazed affectionately down at Karen. What a creep!

Scott sat down at the dinner table. The McCormicks ate in silence for a time, and forks scraping against dishes were the only sounds. Kenny glowered down at his plate, appetite lost the second Scott stepped through the door.

"So, Scott," Stuart asked after awhile, "What is it exactly that you do?"

"He means other than commit in felonies involving children." Kenny smiled in a forcefully sweet manner at Scott across the table.

Scott gave a somewhat nervous laugh and scratched the back of his head. "I work up at J-mart," he answered, looking directly over to Stuart as he did. "Assistant manager."

"That's wonderful!" Kenny's mother supplied. "I bet you're real good at your job, young man."

"Not THAT young." Kenny mumbled, but loudly enough.

"Kenny!" Karen scolded him, a hurt and angry scowl on her face.

"It's all right," Scott reached over to give her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "Sometimes I do feel pretty old. I really have to figure out how to file my taxes. I'm pretty sure I'm paying too much, just ‘cause I'm not sure I sent in all the right forms."

"I'm not surprise you feel pretty fucking old, considering the company you keep." Kenny glared at him. Stuart interfered this time, his voice a level warning growl.

"Watch your mouth, boy," he said, and Kenny stared at him, totally befuddled. Stuart was Karen's father. He should be on Kenny's side on this, not motherfucking Scott's! The fact that Scott refused to be goaded also didn't set right with Kenny. Just whom did this guy think he was, waltzing in his he had done nothing wrong, sitting there innocently at the dinner table? It made Kenny unreasonably angry, seeing him sitting there like everything was just fucking peaches.

"Um. Anyway," Scott cleared his throat. "The other day, we had this customer who wanted to know if we carried pianos. I mean, granted we got a lot of shit in the store, but I had to tell her—"

Kenny pushed his food away, and stood abruptly. There was no way he could eat at a time like this. Everyone at the table glanced up at him when he did this, staring down the length of the table.

"I'm not gonna pretend I'm okay with this," Kenny said flatly. "What is wrong with you guys? NO ONE is gonna say anything about this? He's way too fucking OLD for her!"

Karen shot Kenny a look that was both furious and devastated. "You promised!"

"That was before you brought home this piece of shit!" Kenny spat. Scott's shoulders bunched. Yeah, you better be scared, Bitch! Kenny thought, because he was just about ready to lunge at Scott and wrap his hands around the skinny bastard's neck.

Scott joined Kenny standing and held up two placating hands. "Kenny, relax, man. Let's talk about this outside."

Kenny closed the distance between them and shoved Scott's chest. Sometimes his redneck blood the better of him. "No, asshole. We can talk about it right here. Karen deserves WAY better than some—"

"Kenny, stop it!" Stuart rose as well, smacking his palms on the table. "Why, yer mother and I met when we were jes' about those ages, and lookit us now! We—"

"Are living in an old clubhouse and renting to people who deal meth out of the garage!" Kenny's fist came crashing down to rise to Stuart's level. The dishes rattled, and the glass of flowers tipped over to spill water on the bed sheet.

"Karen deserves better than that, don't you think?" Kenny pressed on, voiced edged with a cruelty, "Better than your shitty life?"

Both Kenny's parents appeared shell-shocked. They stared at Kenny with wide eyes, silently. There was no answer to Kenny's accusations, and they both knew it. He sneered at them; what had they expected? That he'd aspire to nothing more than this? That Poptarts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a drug operation in the garage, and stray dogs under the porch was what he actually wanted for the person he loved most in the world? Let alone a boyfriend who was already half-past batshit insane.

"You're ruining everything!" Karen began to cry, her tears smearing black mascara tracks down her face.

Kevin stood too. He had been silently staring at Scott since the moment Karen declared him her boyfriend. When Kevin spoke, he sounded more stunned than angry. " ‘n Karen?"

"I'm sorry, man," Scott sounded genuinely apologetic as he scratched the back of his head through his thick curls. His fingers tapped with distress against his jeans. He stared at the floor, eyes flicking back and forth. "I meant to tell you sooner. It just. Never seemed like the right time, and all. I mean. You're my best friend. I never would have made it out of rehab, without you. We've been through everyth—"

Kevin left the room without another word. The house went silent except for Kevin's bedroom door slamming down the hall.

"Why don't we all sit down n' talk about this?" Carol ventured, shooting Kenny a tentative look. "I'm shore that we kin all jest—"

"There's nothing to fucking talk about," Kenny's body trembled with rage. Even though Scott stood no less than six inches taller than Kenny and certainly outweighed him, Scott still slunk back slightly, maybe sensing that Kenny had become quite dangerous in the last few moments.

"Kenny, listen to me," Scott said, in a surprisingly reasonable tone. "You have every right to be angry; but you have to calm down, just one fucking second. You're scaring Karen. Okay?"

Kenny paid no heed. "Don't fucking talk to me, you dipshit! THIS is why you were at my house at four AM!" Kenny's voice rose. He fiercely met Scott's eye, as he dared Scott to lie to him. " sneak into my SISTER'S bedroom? You-you fucking pervert pedophile!"

Scott did not retort. He didn't say a single word, just put an arm around Karen's waist as if to protect her. Protect her. From Kenny. It was almost too damn much.

"How dare you show your face around here?" Kenny snarled, "You're twenty-fucking-four. She is FIFTEEN. What is wrong with you, you fuck? Get out; never call her again! And don't fucking let me catch you anywhere near her again!"

"Kenny, stop this right now!" Karen shrieked. She waved the roses in Kenny's face, trying ward him off, away from Scott. "You don't control my life! You're not my goddamned father!" Red petals twirled to her bare feet as she spoke.

Kenny remembered when Karen was two years old, and he'd gotten her a pair of ruby slippers for her birthday. She wouldn't take them off for two months. She wore them until all the glitter came off of them. Karen was his baby sister. He pushed her on the swings at the park. He walked her to class when she was afraid the other kids would bully her. He took care of her when she caught a cold, and snuck money out of their father's wallet to buy her chicken soup. Scott fucking Tenorman had no right—could not be trusted—was a grown-ass man, and all Kenny could see was Karen's first day of kindergarten. She'd worn Kevin's old backpack, and it had been so large it dragged on the floor behind her. Kenny had decorated it with sparkly stickers for her, to make the beat up, brown sack a little prettier.

Scott stood there, with his crazy-eyes and frizzed-up fro, and Kenny just wanted to know what gave him the fucking right.

"Kenny, listen to me. I would never hurt your sister. I—"

Kenny didn't let him finish. He elbowed Karen aside and punched Scott in the jaw with all his strength. Scott cried out with surprise and stumbled backward. Karen screamed. Bolts of pain shot up Kenny's arm, but he barely noticed. He was already prepared to do it again if Scott came at him.

"Scott!" Karen rushed to Scott's side, dropping the bouquet. She tenderly pressed her fingers to the side of Scott's face. Kenny lowered his fist, watching her bewilderedly. For a moment, he lost his bearings. The sight of Karen and Scott was so odd that all he could think was: "How had this fucking happened?"

"Are you all right?" she cooed tearfully, "Baby, I'm sorry, I didn't know they would be this way—"

"It's all right." Scott smiled, and cupped Karen's chin. "This definitely isn't the worst thing to ever happen to me, remember?"

She kissed Scott's cheek, and Kenny's fingernails dug into his palms.

"That's it. Get out." Kenny walked towards Scott, full intending to physically separate Scott from Karen. However, Kenny's father came and held him back, still silent as he restrained Kenny's arms. Kenny railed against him and lunged at Scott, who flinched a bit. Kenny felt animal, and out of control. He kept picturing Scott sneaking into their home. Into Karen's room. It was too much.

"Out! NOW! Don't touch her!"

"That's enough, boy," Stuart said lowly in Kenny's ear.

Kenny tore out of his father's grasp. Karen stared at him with red, disbelieving eyes, and Carol sniffled in the corner, clearly distraught by the whole thing.

"If I ever see you near her again," Kenny rasped, pointing up at Scott's chin, "I will tear your face off, got me? Stay. Away. From. Karen."

To his credit, Scott gently detangled himself from Karen's frantic hold and did as bid. His mouth pulled as if a smile struggled on one side of his face. He picked up the fallen flowers as he took his leave.

"Sorry I couldn't stay for dinner, Mr. and Mrs. McCormick," Scott dipped his head politely in the elder McCormicks' direction. "I hope I didn't ruin anyone's appetites. See you later, Karen, Kevin. Kenny. Have a nice evening."

Karen burst into tears. As soon as Scott was gone, she turned and slapped Kenny sharply across the face.

"I hate you." She said, wetness brimming along her waterlines. Kenny realized with shock that Karen had never said those words to him before. Not ever. Not even as kids when he'd forced her to eat vegetables or make her bed. Kenny felt shaken to the core. He touched his stinging cheek and stared helplessly down at her.

"Karen I just—"

"You are dead to me." She turned her back sharply on Kenny. He lowered his hand, outstretched to catch her, and let her pass him by. She fled into Carol's arms before dissolving into sobs once more.

Kenny felt trapped. His pulse pounded. He couldn't bear to look at his father. His mother. There was nothing to say, and he couldn't stay in this house one more fucking second. So, he stuffed his hands in his pockets, shoved his feet into his shoes, and walked out the front door.

He thought he could hear Karen's sobs all the way down the block.

Kyle was surprised to see Kenny. But the dark look on Kenny's face kept Kyle from asking too many questions. Instead, he let Kenny in without a word, and gestured up the stairs.

"We can hang in my room," Kyle said. Kenny nodded gratefully and the two went up to Kyle's bedroom, Kenny trailing silently after Kyle. The green plush carpet made their footsteps quiet. The only sounds in the familiar home were from Mrs. Broflovski, who was busy in the kitchen. Distantly, he realized he'd never actually gotten to eat. His stomach growled as if to punctuate the thought. He wondered if he'd come too late to stay for dinner.

They got to Kyle's room, and Kyle took a seat in his spinning black desk chair. He scrutinized Kenny for some sort of visible distress as Kenny took a seat on the bed. It was made, to Kenny's amusement. He was pretty sure Kyle was the only teenager in the entire world who made his bed at eighteen years old.

"So." Kyle pushed his fingers tips into a delicate steeple and peered at Kenny over it. "Are you okay, dude? You look..." Kyle seemed to fumble for the right word, "Distraught." He seemed to remember whom he was talking to, and corrected himself, "...Like, really upset. ...Did something happen?"

Kenny flopped down onto the bed. He watched Kyle's slatted ceiling and took a deep breath before launching into an explanation.

"Look, Kyle. I know you are probably still mad at me for showing up here again and...for the Mysterion thing. But, I just. I don't know. Karen brought home a guy today and I—" Kenny sighed, "I kind of lost my shit and punched him in the face. I don't know what to do. She really likes him. And she said she hates me."

The horrible words lost none of their impact when Kenny repeated them, and he cringed.

He closed his eyes and sat up to rest his forehead in his palms. "Kyle, she has NEVER said that to me. Ever. What if she means it?"

Kyle's brows lifted with surprise. After a pause, he asked in a calm, but not unkind tone, "Why did you punch him, dude? Was he really that bad?"

Kenny looked at Kyle, his eyes hard with anger. "It was Scott fucking Tenorman." The name sat bitterly on Kenny's tongue, and he rolled it around in his mouth as if trying to rid himself of the taste. "He's twenty-four, Kyle. Karen is fifteen. I damn near killed him when I found out. He's been sneaking out of our house in the middle of the night. He-he—" Kenny trailed off instead of finishing the thought, unable to continue.

"That bastard."

Kenny stared at Kyle with surprise for half a second. When Kenny finally got the wherewithal to speak, his voice sounded tentative, almost squeaky with disbelief. "You...don't think I overreacted or anything? I mean. She does like the guy and all. She was really excited to introduce him to us. She even cooked. I...sort of ruined everything."

Kyle shook his head fervently, red curls trembling with the veracity of his disagreement.

"It doesn't matter. She's a child, and he is an adult. She is too young to understand what she's doing. That's not okay, Kenny. That's rape, legally and morally."

Kyle's expression was bothered and stony. His hands throttled each other in his lap, laced tight and bloodless. Really, Kyle was fascinating to watch when he was upset about something. Kenny liked the way his bushy red eyebrows swam on his forehead, riding up and down on a particularly active worry wrinkle.

"...You have strong opinions about this," Kenny observed quietly. Kyle's back straightened, his shoulders bunching together in a defensive posture.

"Well, it's a pretty fucked scenario." Kyle huffed.

"Yeah, it is." Kenny blew out a long stream of air. There was no truer statement. "I...just want to protect her, you know? But I feel so helpless. ...Karen doesn't want to be protected from this."

"I know the feeling." Kyle's voice was so low Kenny could barely hear him. Kyle turned away, towards his desk, and Kenny stared at his back with sudden interest.

"You do?"

"Yeah," Kyle began to fiddle with his hands. His long, pale fingers drummed rhythmlessly against the grainy wood at his desktop. "I do."

Kenny let the pregnant silence that followed Kyle's admission do his prying for him.

"Ike's kindergarten teacher," Kyle said at last. His voice was livid in a way Kenny immediately found familiar. "Ms. Stevenson."

Kenny's mouth popped open briefly in his surprise. He remembered the scandal; it had been all over the news. "Alcoholic Small Town Teacher Sleeps with Kindergarten Student. Kills Herself." But they'd never published Ike's name, likely due to Mr. Broflovski's lawyerly influence.

"But—Ike couldn't have been older than—"

"Five," Kyle finished for him. "I told the police. They wouldn't do anything. The luckiest kid in the world, they called him. The luckiest kid in the world, Kenny. Fuck."

Kenny immediately felt terrible, because at the time, he had also made comments along those lines. "Aw man, I wanna be in her class."

"Kyle, that's—that's unbelievable. I'm so sorry. I—I can't imagine."

"He was so angry when I walked in on them," Kyle shook his head, a humorless smile curling on his lips. "And madder still when I told our parents."

"You're dead to me," Kenny quoted, wincing at the memory, "That's what Karen said to me, when I punched Scott in the jaw. ...Did—did Ike ever forgive you?"

To Kenny's unabated relief, Kyle nodded.

"Ike said exactly the same thing, when he found out I'd told my parents on him. But yeah, he forgave me, eventually. We never talked about it, but I think he realizes I did what was best for him." Kyle rested over his open knees, his upper body balanced on his elbows. He raised his folded hands to his chin, and touched his knuckle to his mouth before his spoke, as if remembering physically pained him. "She was preying on him, Kenny. She was a predator. I couldn't just—"

Kenny cut Kyle off by hugging him. Kyle allowed this, his arms only somewhat stiffly wrapping around Kenny in return.

"That sucks," Kenny mumbled into Kyle's coat; Kyle smiled, because this muffled voice was so familiar.

"Weren't you the one who showed up here needing a shoulder to cry on?" Kyle pulled back after a lingering moment. Kenny snickered, and resumed sitting on Kyle's now-slightly wrinkled blankets.

"Yeah, well," Kenny smirked, "One of us is definitely the bigger pussy."

"Oh, fuck you, dude." Kyle laughed, "...You're incredibly resilient, you know?"

More than you know. "Hey, thanks, man." Kenny smiled back. "But I thought you of all people would know this by now. After all, you've been trying to get rid of me for how long now? And I just keep coming back."

"I haven't," Kyle said, quickly. "I...just don't like you sneaking out at night to hurt people, Kenny. You could get hurt. Or arrested. Or...or killed. I don't agree with vigilantism in general...but I really don't want to lose my friend."

Kenny was afraid of exactly none of the potential consequences Kyle had listed, but he was touched by the revelation that Kyle's anal-retentiveness was a symptom of feeling protective. Of him. No one ever tried to protect Kenny. It was a distinctly warm feeling to have someone look out for his wellbeing.

"Don't worry, Kyle." Kenny smiled in a cocky manner, "I'm careful. And I don't do anything illegal. I just disarm dangerous people—and am allowed to protect a third party if I use reasonable means—as in, I can't shoot anyone or maim them permanently. I can't interfere in a real police investigation, etc. etc. They'd search for me much harder if I did that stuff."

"You've researched this!" Kyle accused, sounding comically (and a little insultingly) shocked. He seemed particularly impressed that Kenny had gotten the legality of it correct.

"Of course I have," Kenny scowled. "I'm not an idiot, y'know!"

"I never thought you were," Kyle rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "I just thought the Mysterion stuff was a thrill-seeking thing. Like huffing cat piss or autoerotic asphyxiation, only more dangerous. I didn't think it was the result of careful planning."

Kenny struggled a moment. Kyle wasn't wrong, exactly. But Kenny didn't like to hear it put that way. And he certainly wasn't going admit to an accusation like that.

"It started as a way to protect Karen," Kenny said instead of answering to Kyle's assessment directly.

Kyle's face lit with understanding, instantly becoming more sympathetic. "Ah."

The room was awkwardly quiet for a few long ticks. Kenny picked at his dirty, torn thumbnail, and Kyle moved some papers around his desk.

"I don't think she needs Mysterion anymore." Kenny said, mostly to himself.

"Yes, she does," Kyle said seriously, and moved to sit next to Kenny on the bed. "She always will. You're her older brother. She'll always need you."

Kyle sounded so sure that Kenny couldn't help feeling somewhat better. He offered Kyle a little sideways smile.

"I just don't trust Scott to take care of her," Kenny tried to explain the knotted panic he felt at the idea. He searched Kyle's face for understanding, and to his relief, found it. It had definitely been the right decision, Kenny realized then, to come to Kyle, and not Stan or Cartman. Kyle understood what it was like to have a younger sibling.

"Why not?" Kyle asked, not as an attack, but in attempt to understand, "I mean, other than the age thing. Is he otherwise an okay guy?"

"Are you kidding me?" Kenny laughed, harsh and sullen, "He met my brother in rehab when they were sixteen! He's beyond fucked up, all twitchy and shit. Mad sketchy. Who can blame him, right? He's seen some shit, and he is definitely not okay."

"Wow," Kyle put a hand on Kenny's shoulder sympathetically, "No offense, but your sister sure knows how to pick ‘em."

Kenny socked Kyle in the arm. "Not helpful, man."

"I'm sorry." Kyle did a good job looking passably contrite. "I am, Kenny. I know, unfortunately better than most, how much this sucks. Scott's a douchebag, plain and simple. You want me to help you whack him?"

"Kyle Ne'er-Do-Wrong Broflovski, offering to help me commit murder?" Kenny was deeply entertained by the idea. He pulled a considering expression and paused a moment. "...Hmmmm...All right. What kind of timeframe do you think we should go with for this? My vote is immediately. Before he can sneak in through her window again."

Kenny allowed himself to picture waiting in Kevin's room, his father's shotgun in hand. It was undeniably a satisfying image.

Kyle saw the look on Kenny's face and looked genuinely alarmed by it. "Kenny! I was kidding! We can't actually kill your sister's boyfriend!"

"I know, I know," Kenny shook his head, dog-like, as if to break the alluring grip of fantasy.

"We can't kill him...but we can call the cops." Kenny didn't say anything. He knew Kyle was right, but he kept picturing Karen's face.

"You're not going to do it, are you?" Kyle said in response to Kenny's silence. "Goddamnit, Kenny, you're just gonna let Scott keep manipulating her like this?"

"Karen is smart," Kenny flung an arm over his head and dropped back onto the mattress, "I have to at least give the guy a chance, don't I? It's a little shitty of me to automatically assume she's a victim, I think."

"She can't even legally drive yet," Kyle argued, "What if he gets her pregnant, Kenny? It could happen! Is that what you want for her?"

"No!" Kenny pressed his palms to his temples, as if to confine his overwrought brain to his head. The image of a pregnant Karen nearly made him change his mind on the spot and reach for his phone. "Of course not, Kyle! But don't you think it's a little extreme to call the police? Where I'm from, ratting to the pigs is worse than murdering someone! I don't want to lose her, Kyle. I can't."

"Ike was mad at me too!" Kyle stood, knocking his chair aside. "But he got over it! You know what he wouldn't have gotten over? Fatherhood! Missing out on his teenaged years because he'd be too busy taking care of a kid of his own! It wouldn't have been his choice, Kenny, because he was too young to understand the consequences of his actions!"

"Ike was too young to have gotten her pregnant—and Karen is older than he was anyway!" Kenny rose to meet Kyle, eyes flashing. "She's gone nights without eating. She grew up never knowing if we would be taken from our home and put in the care of some stranger! She watched Kevin overdose in his bedroom, Kyle! She drove him to the hospital, at twelve years old, because I was fucking dead, our parents were too drunk to get off the couch, let alone drive a car. She's not a child, even if she looks like one. My mother was her age when she got pregnant with Kevin. I don't want to tear my family apart over this!"

"You were dead?" Kyle repeated skeptically. His superior tone was particularly irritating to Kenny.

"Yes," Kenny growled, "Dead. I die all the time, Kyle. I wish someone would fucking remember."

"That's a little melodramatic, don't you think?" Kyle was outright mocking now, a tactic Kenny had heard him use many times when Stan's fits of depression made Stan become unreasonable. It didn't work so well on Stan, either.

"Fuck you," Kenny said, though it had a defeated sound to it. He'd lost the fight the moment he allowed himself to grow upset over the simple fact that no one remembered his deaths. There was no arguing with that.

"You know," Kyle wasn't done, however. "I bet Scott played you. He's cut from the same manipulative, scheming genetic cloth as Cartman, you know. I bet he fucking set you up, so you'd end up looking like the goddamned bad guy—even though he's the one dating a fifteen year old!"

Kenny froze, the implication churning in his mind. He had to admit it was slightly possible. That smooth, evil bastard! But he was too angry with Kyle to admit that he might be right.

"I'm gonna leave," Kenny said instead. He put up his hood and yanked on the strings and reached for the door of Kyle's bedroom. "Thanks for all your help, Kyle."


"Fine." Kenny hesitated, and looked back at Kyle. Kyle, however, had turned his back on Kenny in a rather petulant manner, so Kenny rolled his eyes and continued on his way out.

"You know Kenny, if you don't call the cops, maybe I will!" Kyle threatened just as Kenny reached the top stair. "At least one of us cares about Karen's future enough to do the right thing, you stupid asshole!"

"You wouldn't." Kenny took a menacing step towards Kyle. "It's none of your business, dude. I confided in you. You can't fucking stab me in the back like that."

But Kyle slammed the bedroom door, and Kenny heard the click of the lock behind it. It was only as Kenny headed out into the cool night air that he remembered he officially had nowhere to go. And to make things worse, he'd missed out on two dinners now.

Oh man, life sucked balls.

Kenny was in a bad mood, which made his walking patrols feel more tedious than usual. Downtown Denver on a Wednesday was quiet as shit, and spending the last two nights at Stan's had left Kenny feeling particularly bleak. Count on Marsh, Kenny thought, to make his gloomy mood feel positively oppressive. He would have skipped vigilante-ing all together, but he needed an excuse to get the fuck out of Stan's faggy goth den of self-pity.

His city didn't seem happy to see him. Billboards of the scantily clad girls—which Kenny had always loved—suddenly looked underfed and under-aged to him. He wondered what their brothers thought of the million guys who jerked off to their sisters every day. Kenny had to look away then; it felt dirty to ogle someone's sister.

Shadows of the buildings rose along the sides of the street, menacing and sharp against the pavement. To Kenny, they seemed like accusatory fingers, all pointing towards him. The streetlamps seemed like search lights. The sirens in the distance were coming for him. Or for Scott, to Karen's horror, if Kyle lived up to his threat.

If something didn't distract him soon, Kenny thought, he was going to lose his mind. Luckily, at the tail end of that thought, Kenny heard an all-too-familiar cackle.

"Muahaha! Fear the wrath of Professor Chaos! The world shall burn!"

Kenny looked up. Butters stood on a hanging balcony, about three floors up inside the Denver Performing Arts Center inner strip. People paused to regard him, eyes worriedly turned towards strange boy in the metal helmet. Butters laughed maniacally as he peered down on the denizens below.

In his nefarious clutches, he carried a brown and white puppy. Not even the dog appeared too scared; it kept trying to lick Butters' face under the helmet. And so Butters' delighted giggle occasionally broke through his evil cackle.

"B-bad Boy! Hehe, that tickles! The Professor commands you to behave, Mortal—haha! Aww, who wants a treat?"

Kenny cleared his throat and assumed a fighting stance—knees apart, fists raised. "What have you done this time, Chaos?" he demanded in his most menacing growl.

Butters tried to calm the yipping dog in his arms to address Kenny, with minimal success. It continued squirming, tail wagging as the dog whined with happy enthusiasm. "Wouldn't you like to know, Mysterion? My dastardly schemes are beyond your pitiable imagination!"

"Did you steal a puppy from some little girl again and then post a ransom note for the family?" Kenny asked. Butters visibly faltered, and the dog took advantage of the moment to lick his nose. Butters set him down at last. The dog responded by rolling onto its back, tongue flopping out playfully.

"Th-there's nothing more evil than kidnapping a puppy, Mysterion!" Butters insisted. "It's the epitome of-of bad-guy-dom to be m-mean to dogs—aw, c'mon Spotty, I'm in the middle of an evil monologue; I don't got time to rub your belly right now! Kneel, underling!"

The dog let out a pitiful little whine, and Butters acquiesced, bending down to one knee to scratch the dog's soft, white underbelly.

Kenny tried not to be annoyed with the display.

"Really dude?" Kenny's rumbling Mysterion voice sounded as irritated as Kenny felt. "This is the best you can do? What kind of a super villain finishes up an evil monologue by rubbing his captive's belly?"

Butters appeared affronted, but did not stop his ministrations to Spotty as he addressed Kenny.

"Clock's ticking, Mysterion. Spotty's family will be home around 9:00PM from their trip to Connecticut! Then they will discover their dog is missing! Imagine the misery! Imagine the sadness! How will young Rebecca study for her Chemistry test, knowing her best friend is in peril?" Butters began laughing maniacally again, and Spotty cocked his head in reaction to the odd sounds Butters made.

Kenny wanted to be inspired. Butters had chosen a rather poor moment to enact his "evil" scheme. Any other night, Kenny would've sprung into action, had an epic fight with Butters on the balcony, and climbed down, puppy in hand to uproarious applause. But now...he kept thinking of stupid Kyle. Was Mysterion really just some childish game Kenny played to chase thrills? What had Mysterion accomplished, really? This routine with Butters was getting old; Butters wasn't a real super villain, and a superhero was only as great as the villain set against him. Butters' greatest crime was absolutely sucking at committing crimes.

What did that make Kenny, exactly?

"C'mon dude," Kenny began to climb the stairs, towards Butters. "Let's just get this over with."

Butters stood, eyes glinting with anticipation behind the visor of his helmet. Kenny and Butters weren't exactly friends in the "civilian" world, but for a moment, Kenny wondered why Butters did this. A substitution for real endeavors—like college applications and relationships? Why did they keep playing this game? What purpose did it serve? Had it always been this pointless?

Kenny reached Butters, and Butters greeted him by sprinting across the balcony.

"You've foiled my plans for the last time, Mysterion!" he declared, and swung a fist at Kenny's head. Kenny evaded it easily, side-stepping the blow. Spotty began running circles around Kenny's feet, barking loudly.

At least the attack woke Kenny up, a little. Reflexively, Kenny prepared for a counterstrike. He grabbed Butters by the back of his shirt and spun him around, slamming him against the wall of the building. He hauled Butters' arm up behind him, and twisted—not too hard, but hard enough to make Butters mewl a bit in pain.

"Give it up, Chaos," Kenny said in his ear before releasing him, "Really. This isn't fun anymore. Just...give it a rest."

Butters pulled away from Kenny and took a few steps back. The conflicted look on his face made him appear especially like a confused boy playing dress-up.

"B-but we're destined to do this forever," Butters insisted, none too assertively, "Like, ah—Batman and Joker. Spidey and Doctor Octopus. L-lex Luthor and Clark Kent! You can't just tell me to give up, Mysterion! I...I'm onto you!"

There was an expectant gleam in Butters eye. He clearly hoped that perhaps this was all part of some plot of Kenny's to outwit him. The realization made Kenny immeasurably sad: did Butters really need this so much? It also made Kenny even more sure their little number was up.

"We're eighteen, not eight," Kenny sighed. He didn't even bother to do the voice. The annoying little dog kept yapping, and the high-pitched noises it made started to grate on Kenny's nerves. "Don't you think it's about time we act like adults instead of children?"

"It's not fair!" Butters burst out. "You can't j-just quit! I kidnapped a puppy and everything! You can't just-just leave me! Why-why you're the only person who ever paid me no-nevermind, Mysterion! How'm I s'posed to be a super villain if I ain't got no hero to fight?" His voice quavered, and Kenny thought he might be on the edge of tears. A touch of guilt crept into Kenny's heart; maybe he should've been gentler about this. Who knew why Butters needed it? Kenny's troubles did not give him the right to be cruel; he knew that.

"Look, Butters—"

"Chaos! It's Professor Chaos to you, Mysterion!" Butters shrilled. "We-we're not friends! I don't want you to call me that!"

"All right," Kenny held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Professor, then. Just hear me out—"

"No!" Butters seemed to wobble on his feet. He came at Kenny, hands uncertain and outstretched, half-pleading and half-demanding. "You can't do this to me, Mysterion! P-please..." Butters stopped, and pressed his knuckles together. "...I need this. It's the only time in my life where I-I feel powerful. Otherwise it's like...ah, it's like I don't even matter."

"I'm sorry," Kenny said. He truly was. He was sorry to disappoint Butters, to let him down. He was sorry that none of this had ever meant anything. Sorry the whole rotten world had conspired against Butters, so that dressing up like someone else was the only way he could get anyone to give a facsimile of caring for him. He was sorry he didn't really care if Butters was lonely, not enough to do anything about it, anyway. It was terminally unfair, and Kenny could do nothing about any of it.

Kenny turned to leave. As he stepped down the top stair, he stopped to half-heartedly pat the small dog on the head. The creature had finally quieted down. Butters on the other hand, had not. Kenny only got the third stair before something rammed into his back. Butters had charged him, and the force of his tackle took Kenny off his feet. Before he could blink, he and Butters tumbled down the flight together. The sound of Butters helmet flying loose and then rolling down the cement stairs clanked loudly in the stairwell.

It had never been like this before, Kenny thought bewilderedly. Butters was dependably a weak opponent. Kenny never had a hard time gaining the upper hand over him in the past, because Butters' reflexes were wrong for fighting. He focused too much on defense and never exploited Kenny's weaknesses. He seemed to come to fights prepared to lose them. But this time, the intensity of Butters' assault scared Kenny a little.

"If this is to be our final battle," Butters declared when they reached the bottom of the stairwell, "Let it be a fight worthy of reckoning!" Butters hit Kenny harder than Kenny had thought him capable. Kenny was still in shock when Butters wrapped one spindly arm in chokehold around Kenny's neck.

"Get OFF me, Butters!" Kenny flailed, but Butters had caught him by surprise. Therefore, Butters had the advantage. He flipped Kenny over, pinned him down and rained blows on his face, chest, wherever he could reach; Kenny could do little more than hold up his forearms and try protect himself, blocking the worst of the punches.

The dog started barking again. People a few stories down murmured as the boys fought. Kenny was only distantly aware of the noise, most of his attention focused on the infuriated Butters currently trying to smash his nose in.

"P-puny human! Quiver before me! And admit you have been defeated by evil!"

At this, Kenny started to get pissed. Had he not just explained that he didn't want to do this anymore? Was it so hard to understand that he was over the pretend-superhero thing? Butters couldn't make him keep it up! He just wanted to be left alone, for fuck's sake.

Butters continued to hit him, and the pain made Kenny's thoughts scatter. He wasn't in the mood to be reasonable anyway. He leaned over and bit Butters' hand. Butters cried out and pulled away. Kenny took advantage of the moment of respite, and squirmed so that at least his arms were free.

Butters attacked him again, and something in Kenny's brain flipped a switch. Suddenly, Kenny was genuinely angry. He was angry at Butters. At Scott. At Karen. At fucking Kyle for having so many goddamned expectations of him. What Kenny wanted didn't matter, but if he crossed someone else's agenda, well—he could expect to get the shit kicked out of him, both emotionally and physically.

"For the last time," Kenny growled. He pushed against Butters' palms and tried to sit up, but Butters forced him backward, a determined look on Butters' exertion-reddened face.

"I'm done. With. This. Shit!" Kenny redirected Butters' weight then, shifting Butters off to the side. The sudden change caused Butters to fall forward, face first. Butters tried to roll over and grapple with Kenny, limbs swinging wildly and ungracefully in Kenny's general direction. But Kenny kicked him aside easily, causing Butters to stumble as he fell back. Butters made a sound of surprise, but that didn't stop him for long. He issued a loud cry and then threw himself at Kenny once again.

The attack came from above. Butters tried to pounce on top of Kenny, but Kenny anticipated this. He caught Butters' midsection with one foot and Butters chest with the other foot. For a split section, Butters' hung suspended in the air, a look of surprise in his wide, gray-blue eyes. Then, Kenny threw him over, bent legs kicking out and altering Butters trajectory mid-flight. Butters let out a muffled shriek. Kenny heard a sharp, worrying crack when Butters landed. He turned his head at that, and the sound he'd heard became more worrying still as Butters toppled limply down the stairs behind Kenny, no longer shouting threats and epithets.

Kenny hurriedly got to his feet. But Butters did not move. Kenny flew down the stairs towards him, his heart in his throat. Something heavy and thick filled his chest; it felt hard to breathe through it. He could hear his heartbeat thumping in his ears, louder than the commotion in the streets. Butters did not stir. He just lay there at the bottom of the stairwell; his body was splayed out in what Kenny instinctively knew was an unnatural position. Butters had cracked his head open on one of the stairs, and a trickle of blood eked out from the cut on his forehead.

"Fuck! Fuck, Butters, I'm so sorry. I didn't—I didn't think. I just—please, dude. Fucking...move! Please! Do-do something to show me you're not—that I didn't—"

Tears of blind panic fogged Kenny's vision. He knelt at Butters side to check for a pulse, but hardly dared touch him. Shit. What if he'd broken his neck? Wasn't there a rule about not jostling someone who'd suffered spinal injuries? Kenny thought he remembered something like that, from health class, but he wasn't sure. He wished he'd paid attention now. He wished he'd never put on the stupid cape. He wished Butters had never attacked him, had given it up when Kenny had asked him to, instead of losing his fucking mind! God, Butters wasn't moving. Why wasn't he moving? Why wasn't he moving?

"Move! I'm a medtech!" A young woman in a Slayer t-shirt Kenny came up the first flight of stairs to bend down and examine Butters' face.

"Get back! You can't crowd him. I need to see if he hurt his neck!" she said. She gently braced Butters head on either side so she could watch his eyes. His lids fluttered open, and she peered into his pupils. Butters clenched and unclenched his hands. Then to Kenny's relief, Butters issued a soft groan. He wasn't dead.

"Easy," the woman muttered in a comforting, clinical tone, "Don't move too much, little buddy. You'll hurt yourself. We're gonna get you some help."

Kenny backed away. He hoped he was dreaming, that none of this was real.

"His neck isn't broken, that I can tell. But he hit his head really hard. It's got to be a concussion, at least. Probably spinal trauma. Call an ambulance!"

Kenny's fingers felt numb as he dialed. The sounds around him seemed to bleat in and out, the world swirling in confusing patterns of light and pressure.


"Hello, you've reached Emergency Services. Are you in any danger?"

" friend fell down some stairs. He hit his head. I-I—he isn't moving. I think he's hurt real bad."

"Stay calm, sir. We're sending ambulances right now. Where are you?"

"Denver Performing Arts Center."

"Try not to move the victim while you wait for the paramedics."

"I know. There's a medical technician here who's with him right now. She won't let anyone touch him."

"That's good. Try not to panic, sir. Do you want to stay on the line until the ambulances arrive?"

"No. No, I have to go. I have to..."

Kenny hung up. He took another look at Butters, whose feet were curled under him strangely. The stupid dog started whining and panting; the lady held him back when he tried to lick Butters still, pale face.

Kenny had done this to him. If Butters never walked again, it would be his fault. It was all because of this stupid game, where the two of them had pretended to be more important than they were. This game may very well have paralyzed Butters for life. Now neither of them would ever walk away from this. Neither of them ever could.

Kyle was right. He was been right about all of it. Why did Kenny never listen?

It wasn't the proudest moment of Kenny's life, but at the time he didn't know what else to do. Butters lay there, still and silent, but Kenny couldn't help him. He needed to get away, couldn't deal with any of it for a second longer. He heard the sirens, and he started running. Kenny didn't stop until he reached the train tracks, where he promptly doubled over and threw up. Even after there was nothing left in his stomach, he continued to sob and dry heave, tears dripping into the vomit as he wretched and wretched and wretched.

Kenny didn't know how long it took for him to get a hold of himself. But by the time he could lift his head again, the first streaks of orange dawn colored the sky. Kenny felt dizzy; he realized dully that he was probably severely dehydrated. His legs felt like water, wobbly and unable to properly support his weight. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten to where he was. Denver Union Station was a ghost town; the trains stopped running after midnight. The newly refurbished station still smelled of woodchips and fresh paint. Kenny sniffed, taking in a bracing gulp of the cool, still-lingering night air.

He looked up at the stars. They were fainter over the city than they usually were over his hometown. He couldn't see the gauzy wisps of cloud that hung over the swathes of individual stars from here, only a few solitary points of light in an otherwise murky blue sky. Kenny had no idea what to do or where to go. The world seemed too big, ready to swallow him whole.

"Well, well, what do we have here?"

Kenny's spine stiffened. That familiar voice was the very last thing he wanted to hear.

"Guess who made bail?" Gold Teeth grinned. His friends snickered as if he'd said something clever. Purple Midriff had acquired what Kenny thought from a distance looked like knuckle dusters, and Goatee seemed to be carrying a rather menacing-looking aluminum bat balanced over his shoulders, his hands draped over either end to hold it in place.

They closed in on Kenny from either side: Gold Teeth from his right, and Midriff and Goatee from his left. Kenny flicked his gaze about, searching for an exit route. He probably couldn't outrun these thugs in his state. Besides, they were armed and he wasn't. Fuck, he should've been paying better attention, he thought. Stupid, stupid to get caught like this, so utterly unaware and unprepared.

"We was just wandering all over Denver looking for you," Midriff cackled. When she grinned, Kenny could see that she was missing some teeth, and the black gaps in her smile were somehow quite menacing. "Good thing you turned up, or we woulda had to pay you a home visit."

"You're bluffing," Kenny said, his Mysterion voice even hoarser than usual.

"No I ain't, am I Homer?" Midriff turned to her cohort smugly.

Goatee (or Homer, apparently), nodded solemnly. "Why, no you wasn't. But imagine our luck bumping into you here...Kenny McCormick."

Kenny's heart stopped altogether. If they knew who he was, they probably could find out where he lived. And more importantly, where Karen lived.

"How-how do you know—"

"We gots friends in high places," Homer waved a hand dismissively. "And you're about to get some as well. Very high places."

He pointed up to the sky, and his friends guffawed on cue once again, apparently amused by the idea of murdering a teenager.

Kenny reached for his Taser. Adrenaline filled his veins. These kinds of low lives had hard-ons for human misery, he knew. And to make matters worse, he'd given them a reason to hate him in particular.

He would figure out how to protect Karen later. After he died and woke up at home, he would find a way to change his name, and move his family somewhere safe. Then he would stop being so stupid, take off the cape and bury it in the closet forever. He promised himself right then that he would never endanger anyone he loved again so he could play hero.

All he could do for now was go down swinging. Kenny wasn't gonna make killing him easy for these fuckers. He was gonna leave a few bruises in his wake. Nut up or shut up.

"You talk a big game for someone with pubes growing out of his face," Kenny sneered to Homer. "Hey, Brains-of-the-Operation, are these guys your friends or just your inbred sibling-lovers?"

Kenny's delivery was less convincing only because his voice shook, just a little bit. This would hurt. He knew they would make it hurt.

It wasn't a good sign that his jeering seemed humorous to the three.

"He's just begging for a beating," Gold Teeth commented. "Let's give it to him."

"Me first," Midriff insisted, and the steel covering her fingers flashed. "I really owe him, after what he did to my leg. Didn't anyone ever tell you how to treat a lady, boy?"

"You're a lady?" Kenny backed up a few steps, trying to keep his distance from the three. They altered their course enough to pursue him, undeterred. "I thought you were chimpanzee. You oughta try shaving your legs."

"That's it! Now you done it! I'm gonna—"

Kenny didn't find what she was going to do, exactly. She never finished that particular thought, because in the next second, she fell over, a twelve-inch throwing knife embedded in her back at a gruesome angle.

Kenny watched her collapse as if in a dream. He couldn't make sense of it. One second she stood there, threatening him, and the next—

"What the hell?" Homer shouted. He took a small step to the right, searching for the perpetrator, so that he was no longer directly in front of Kenny. "Erna! What the fuck—"

Before he could finish asking what exactly was going on, Kenny heard a click and then the slightly muffled, but unmistakable sound of a gunshot. Homer's hands fell lifelessly to his sides, and he looked at Kenny with wide, disbelieving eyes. Homer dropped to his knees and buckled, face planted at Kenny's feet. Red blossomed against the blue of his work shirt. Blood, Kenny realized. Homer's blood. Someone had shot Homer in the back.

Kenny looked around frantically, his triplicated pulse hammering against his ribcage. More bullets whizzed by. Kenny tried to dive for cover, but Gold Teeth rushed over, crouching and darting as he dodged the invisible projectiles. He grabbed Kenny around the waist and ducked behind him.

"Listen here," he said in a wild, fearful tone. "If you shoot me, you gotta shoot the kid too!" He put a knife to Kenny's neck, and Kenny struggled backwards, trying to avoid the press of the blade to his jugular.

A dark blur emerged from behind a pillar on the other side of the station and darted across the tracks. It moved so fast and the light was so dim out that Kenny couldn't keep track of it at first. But as it got closer, Kenny realized the blur was a person. And the person seemed, (if Kenny weren't just seeing things, which he honestly wasn't sure of at the moment), to be wielding a sword. A fucking sword.

The pit next to the station made it impossible to see the swordsman for a moment or two. But then, a gloved hand appeared over the ledge. The person was up and over in a single, graceful motion, and Kenny was stunned by how quickly he vaulted the wall. Gold Teeth was too, judging by the way he dragged Kenny backward, trying to get as far away from the petrifying gatecrasher as possible.

Kenny felt Gold Teeth try to watch the oncoming, sword-wielding danger by peering out from behind Kenny's head. Kenny felt the strangest urge to warn Gold Teeth to run, but found he could not actually form the words or move on his own. He was helpless to do anything but watch as the figure got closer and closer.

Gold Teeth tried to use Kenny as a buffer between the assailant and himself, but Kenny had no intention of cooperating. The accoster slowly circled around Gold Teeth. Kenny used his free arm to slam an elbow directly into the distracted Gold Teeth's solar plexus. Gold Teeth issued a surprised wheeze and Kenny broke free, twisting away from him and leaving him open to the mystery person's attack. Kenny focused all his energy on getting out of the way.

Gold Teeth got a moment of wherewithal just before the attacker was upon him. He grabbed Homer's fallen bat, and held it up just in time to defend himself from the downward swing of the mystery person's sword. Kenny winced as the sound of metal colliding rang throughout the empty station. Gold Teeth fell over backwards, stumbling, crab-like, away from the guy.

Girl, Kenny realized belatedly, through his daze of surprise. The attacker was a girl, which he could now tell that he got good look at her. Her dark hair in a tight bun at the base of her neck gave it away, presumably held in place by a trench knife pierced through the center of it.

The girl paused and inspected her sword for damage, seemingly unhurried. She wore dark goggles over her eyes and a black bandana over the lower portion of her face. This made it impossible to see her expression. But Kenny imagined she probably looked bored as she carefully ran a gloved hand along the length of the blade. Gold Teeth took advantage of her dithering to stand up and run at her with the bat. For a moment, Kenny was certain Gold Teeth was going to smash her head in whilst she wasn't paying attention.

But as Gold Teeth approached, she deftly twirled out of the way of the down-swinging bat. Clearly she saw the attack coming. Her hand extended after her, almost as an afterthought, to block Gold Teeth's path as he barreled forward. He made a gurgling sound as her fist made contact with his chest. She lowered her hand and revealed a little switchblade, driven deep into Gold Teeth's sternum by the momentum of his charge. The girl took another graceful sideways and, as if choreographed, Gold Teeth fell over directly where she'd just been standing.


The girl sheathed her sword at her hip. She turned towards Kenny. He felt a tremor of fear twist in his stomach.

"You fucker." Erna's voice sounded inordinately loud. But it wasn't half as loud as the gunshot that followed. It seemed Erna had been packing heat, because while the girl faced Kenny, Erna, unnoticed, had taken a handgun from her purse. She pointed it at the girl and fired. The girl tried to jump out of the way, but she was half a second too late.

The girl sprawled forward, apparently shot in the back. She lay still for a moment or two before stubbornly getting to her hands and knees. Her black beret tumbled off her head as she struggled. Erna coughed a laugh, and then went quiet, probably too injured to move much more.

Kenny turned his gaze back to the girl. Though the girl's face was hidden from view, it was clear she was in pain. Kenny heard her swear under breath. "Shit, shit, stupid, so stupid." Kenny frowned; the voice sounded oddly familiar. Though where he'd met her eluded him. He was fairly sure he didn't know anyone capable of triple homicide.

As he watched the girl suffer, Kenny really thought she was dying. Feeling her impending death was somehow his fault, he wanted to apologize for getting her involved in this mess. Though he still didn't know why she'd felt the need to defend him. He didn't even know if she had meant to help him. Maybe her intervention was a coincidence. Maybe she was simply a crazed serial killer, and Kenny would've been next. He thought he would be the only person to leave the train station unharmed and alive. More irony, Kenny thought: it wouldn't have mattered if he'd been the only one to die.

He started to take a few steps towards retreat, shock wearing off to sheer desire to get the fuck out of there. But to Kenny's utter amazement, the girl got back up to her feet. She must've been wearing something bulletproof, because she didn't seem too much worse for the wear. She scooped up her beret and turned towards Erna with decisive intent. Kenny felt a bit scared for the misguided woman, even if she had both kicked him in the balls and tried to kill him. The girl jerked her hat back on, and Kenny knew in his gut that Erna was fucked. It was written in every deliberate step the girl took towards her.

Erna saw the girl's boots approach, and Kenny watched as she tried to crawl away. At the last minute, Erna raised the gun again to defend herself, but the girl instantly kicked it out of Erna's hands. Then the girl placed a foot on Erna's neck, pushing Erna's face down against the floor before reaching down and taking hold of the blade she'd put earlier in Erna's back. She twisted. Kenny recoiled in horror, and Erna screamed. She struggled, but the girl held her down with her boot until Erna went still. Only then did the girl remove her foot from Erna's neck.

Kenny knew he was done for. He should've run while she was preoccupied with the others. It was too late now. He didn't know who this girl was or why she'd executed those three people, but he knew without a doubt that he could not stop her from killing him, too. He held his hands up as if to say, "I surrender." He closed his eyes, and hoped she would make it quick.

But minutes passed, and nothing happened. The train station remained silent as the seconds ticked by, and finally Kenny could stand it no more and opened his eyes.

He scanned the station, which was just beginning to fill with misty morning light. His breathing was wild with fear, palms sweating as he awaited the terrifying sight of the violent interloper. But he found nothing. He kept looking for a while, but saw no trace of her besides the three bodies she'd left in her wake. The girl had vanished.

Who are you? Kenny wondered to the open air. Why did you save me? But the answers to those questions were not to be found in the station, and soon the passengers would start arriving. All there was left to do for Kenny was head home.

When Kenny got home, he climbed in through Kevin's bedroom. Patrols usually left him feeling physically exhausted, but spiritually energized. He usually felt self-important, excited, and proud by the time he got to bed. He'd put his cheek to the duffle bag stuffed with socks and underwear that doubled as his pillow and dream peacefully, knowing he'd saved his city for another night in a row. The city didn't seem like his benevolent damsel anymore. felt hostile. As if it had chewed Kenny up and spat him back out again. My city is afraid of me. I've seen its true face.

Tonight, he felt so disillusioned and traumatized, he wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out. He was just so tired. Too tired to crawl back to Kyle's house and try to explain why he was covered in dirt and blood. Too tired to shower off the grime and gore, or even to strip off his costume. He wanted to lay face down on his mattress and sleep for a thousand years. He wanted not to be for a while.

But waiting in Kevin's room, sleeping beneath the window was a sight Kenny had not witnessed for a long time. Karen used to sleep there all the time. She would pray to her guardian angel, and simply pass out by the windowsill waiting for him to answer her. Kenny usually did; he made special effort to be there whenever Karen needed to feel like someone was watching out for her. But she hadn't needed that for a long time now. Karen had grown up in the same circumstances as Kenny, and had grown up faster because of it. She was not a child anymore. She didn't need guardian angels to keep her safe at night.

Yet here she was. Kenny wondered if she'd waited for him all night like this. The sight of her curled up under a tattered blanket from the couch in the early morning light made him so nostalgic, that in his battered state, Kenny thought he might cry.

"Karen?" he asked softly, after quietly prying the window open. "What are you doing down there?"

"Angel?" she muttered, still half asleep. Kenny had to smile.

"I'm here."

Karen's eyes slid open, and she took in the sight of her brother. From her peaceful dreaming state, she awoke into a nightmare; Kenny could see the realization of it color her face. The dried blood from Butters head injury and Homer's bullet splattered across the "M" on Kenny's chest. Dirt from the fall down the stairs smudged his face, caked into his sweat. There were holes in Kenny's tights, and a long tear in his cape that he did not remember getting. Kenny knew that his lip was swollen from a wild punch Butters had thrown, and somewhere he'd lost a glove. He was a mess; there was no hiding it.

"What happened to you?" Karen asked, her face going white as a sheet.

"Nothing," Kenny reassured her, and in a way it was true. Those around him had suffered much worse. "I'm fine."

"Is that blood?" Her voice sounded soft and scared, and Kenny hated himself for worrying her that way.

"Not mine," Kenny replied gently, honestly. "I got into a fight. It's all okay now, though. Nobody's gonna come back here looking for me."

Kenny was grateful that Karen did not to ask if Kenny had killed anyone to assure that promise. He was even more grateful that it hadn't occurred to her to ask. He was glad she did not even subconsciously think him capable of such a thing.

"Kenny, where were you?" she asked. "You've been gone for two days now! Why didn't you come home?"

"I was with friends," Kenny said. He hopped over the windowsill and into the bedroom. He guessed Kevin was out late (again), because the room was unoccupied with the exception of Karen. That was why this bedroom made the best entry point after a long patrol night. Kevin was often either out, or too "indisposed" to notice someone sneaking in and out of his window.

Karen shut the window after Kenny. It was remarkable how much she resembled Stuart when she made her "disapproving" face. Her sharp, square jaw, straight, pointed nose, irrepressible freckles and dark brows mirrored her father's exactly. The only trait of her mother's that she inherited was the eyes, gray and serious—unlike the cool, translucent blue Kenny inherited from Stuart.

"You should have come home." Karen crossed the room and sat on the bed. "You really worried me. And besides, you know we need to talk about Scott."

"I'm tired," Kenny yawned for emphasis. "Can we talk about it later?"

"We absolutely cannot." Karen crossed her arms, and Kenny knew his stubborn baby sister would not be denied. He sighed and removed his mask. He pushed his hood back.

"You don't sound very angry," he commented, tiredly. "I thought you hated me."

"I am mad at you, you asshole!" Karen snapped. She looked about quickly, listening for whether she'd accidentally woken up their parents with her outburst. There was no sound of stirring, (or Stuart's angry swearing), so she continued: "You were completely unreasonable! But I don't hate you, you idiot. You're my brother! I could never actually hate you."

Those words brought him so much relief that Kenny nearly choked on the lump that rose in his throat. He quickly moved to sit beside Karen, and pulled her into a long hug.

"I'm sorry I hit Scott and ruined your dinner," he said in her hair. She still smelled the same: like baby powder, and freesia, and home. Kenny held onto her a little too tightly before letting her go. "I just couldn't—couldn't stand the thought that—"

"I know," Karen interrupted, softly. She put her small hand against Kenny's cheek. "You were just protecting me, like always." She tugged at Kenny's cloak meaningfully and smiled at him.

Kenny smiled back at her, weakly. "You don't need me to protect you much these days, do you?"

"Yes, I do," Karen managed to make this sound obvious. "You've always taken care of me and protected me, Kenny."

The lump in Kenny's throat swelled. "And I always will take care of you and protect you, Kar."

"I know," Karen took Kenny's hand. "But you don't need to protect me from Scott."

Kenny stiffened when she said Scott's name, and his hand unconsciously curled into a fist in his lap. Karen, of course, noticed this and sighed.

"Kenny, I know you don't trust him." Kenny started to interrupt, but Karen held up a hand. "No, hear me out." Karen met Kenny's eyes, and he could see her determination there, reflected in the glistening points beside her pupils, "I am quite capable of figuring out who really cares for me. I've had plenty of experience with people who don't give a shit. I know the difference."

"I know you know the difference," Kenny told her honestly. "But Scott is a lot older than you are. And he doesn't have the cleanest record or best reputation. It's hard not to assume the guy is up to no good. Especially after I caught him sneaking out of here at four AM."

"That's none of your business." Karen sounded deeply offended by the implied accusation. "I don't ask about your sex life. Mine is off limits too."

Well, Karen had a point there: he­ really didn't want to know.

"And also," Karen said, "You shouldn't judge Scott by his past, or by his age. That's not fair. Neither of those things are his fault. He's had it rough. He's a good guy now, Kenny. And more importantly...he-he makes me happy."

Karen's cheeks turned pink. "He's the first guy to ever make me feel...pretty, you know? I'm not much to look at; I know that. And I can't afford to make myself look better with makeup, or nice clothes. I gave up on that a long time ago...but Scott genuinely doesn't care about that stuff. When he looks at me..." Karen shook her head, a secretive little grin on her face. "And he needs me, Kenny. It's nice to be needed; did you know that? No one else needs me like he does."

"You ARE beautiful," Kenny protested; he hated hearing about all the things he couldn't give to Karen. "You don't need some guy to tell you that! I'll beat up any guy who says different! And of course Scott needs you! You're special and wonderful, and anyone would be lucky to have you! Don't just...give everything to the first guy to notice what an amazing girl you are, Karen! That's stupid!"

Karen shook her head and stood. "I knew you wouldn't understand, Kenny." She hugged her arms around her torso. "Why can't you just be happy for me?"

"Because you're making a mistake!" Kenny felt himself growing angry again. But quickly, the anger tired him. He'd been through too much to fight Karen in the same night. "...I can't support this. He's too old and too dangerous, Karen. And you're too important to me."

"Can you support me and my decisions, at least?" Karen asked. Tears started trickling down her cheeks, and Kenny instantly felt the gut-wrenching guilt that always accompanied them. "Because I'm your sister and you want me to be happy, even if you don't agree with the ways I choose to make myself happy?"

"I—don't know." Kenny admitted. He rubbed at his temples vigorously, trying to will away the oncoming pressure headache building there. "I don't know if I can stand to see you with him. I know he's going to hurt you. To—"

"Try?" Karen begged. "Kenny, would you just try? For me? Just give him a chance. I promise, you'll be surprised. It would mean absolutely everything to me...if you'd just try not to judge Scott before getting to know him, because I love him, and I love you, and it would mean the world to me if the two people I loved most could at least attempt to get along."

"I don't know. I...just..." Kenny repeated, but at the heartbroken look on Karen's small face, he felt his will give out. "...Okay. Okay. I'll try. For you. But I can't promise I won't—"

Karen's arms around him interrupted once again. Though Kenny knew it was a mistake, and he hated Scott no less than he had ten seconds ago, he was spent. He'd seen too much in too short a time to do anything but welcome the warm rush that accompanied Karen's embrace, and then to let that be the last word of the night.

He would worry about the rest later, he promised himself.

P.E. was not Kenny's favorite subject on his best days. Not being able to afford the school uniform meant Kenny was stuck wearing hand-me-downs foraged from the Lost and Found. They did not fit him in the slightest and smelled strongly of mildew. The gray, stretched-out shirt was so large on him it nearly reached his knees. "Mutch" was the faded name written in Sharpie on the white space meant for student identification. The green shorts were covered in pilling, and were so large that they required Kenny to pull the drawstring very tightly to keep them up around his hips, despite having an elastic waistband.

Today, to make things worse, Kenny felt more drained than usual. So, when the coach announced the beginning of volleyball week, Kenny wanted to kill something. Or someone. Preferably the coach. Or whoever had invented volleyball. Or both. The gray morning climate seemed to agree with him: the faint drizzle and persistent dreariness outside matched Kenny's attitude nicely. As the students trudged outside in their soon-to-be-soggy sneakers, Kenny wondered if a rainstorm was too much to hope for. It would be an excuse for them to stay indoors at any rate.

They were given numbers and assigned to twelve teams. Each team was assigned to one side of each of the six volleyball nets. Kenny received number seven. He and numbers four, nineteen, twenty-one, and thirty-two were assigned to the farthest net, playing on the eastern side of the net. Because it was before noon, they would have the advantage of the sun on their side. It would've been a plus, if Kenny cared at all about "winning." But all he cared about at that moment was getting through the day and back to bed as soon as possible.

As the students arranged themselves behind their respective nets on the patchy grass field, Kenny felt the missing presence of Butters acutely. He'd hoped, foolishly, that Butters would be back in class today. He'd hung onto the faint chance that Butters hadn't actually been damaged in any significant way, and in the light of day that everything would reset from the night before. Though if Kenny's wishes regularly came true, he supposed he would be living in a mansion with a lifetime supply of pizza and Playboy bunnies to feed it to him.

It was hard to think about anything else, hard not to focus on the gnawing in his stomach as he wondered if Butters would ever wake up or walk again. Hard not to feel like an asshole for fleeing the scene like some fucking convict. It was harder still not to think about Butters lying there in his cape and gauntlets, eyes fluttering open and then closed, legs twisted beneath him...

Something flew towards Kenny and hit him squarely in the head. He yelped when he felt the stinging impact and jumped back. As Kenny rubbed the sore spot on his head and glared at his laughing classmates, Clyde Donovan shouted:

"Hey, McCormick! Pay attention! Getcha head in the game!"

"Shut up, Clyde!" Kenny snapped.

"Don't get mad at him; you're the one who just lost us a point," Craig pointed out in a flat, condescending tone. Ugh, Kenny hated that asshole. Of course he got stuck on a team with him.

"It doesn't even fucking matter, Craig. Who's keeping score? It's just a stupid P.E. activity." Kenny walked the ball to the back line to serve. He tossed the ball and whacked it with all the force he could muster. It sailed over the net in a lazy arc.

Millie deftly caught the ball mid flight, bumping it with her wrists and setting it up nicely for Kevin Stoley to spike. He did, and though Wendy dove for it—and managed to save it from hitting the ground—Mike Makowski couldn't be assed to make the assist and push the ball back over the net. He hissed at his angry teammates when they began to berate him.

"Oh, come on! I did all the hard work! All you had to do was set the stupid thing!" Wendy complained.

"You guys all suck." Craig said it like a statement of fact, and flipped them off for good measure.

"Volleyball is for plebeians with nothing better to do," Mike sulked, "And the sunlight is making me weak."

"But, like, you're not really a vampire," Clyde pointed out. "Just some faggy kid."

"Do not question what is beyond your ken, peon!"

Kenny filtered out the bickering for the most part, choosing to hang back and think about his own problems. He thought about what he'd promised Karen, and whether he'd be able to make good and give Scott a chance. He wasn't sure he could get around the obvious things, or even that he should. Karen was clearly in the midst of a future regret. And yet, she'd sounded so reasonable. It was the reason he'd agreed in the first place—that, and not wanting her to hate him forever for calling the police on her boyfriend.

As he thought about these things, he watched Wendy's ass. She was bent over in the "ready" position as she prepared for the next point, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Kenny wondered how he'd missed the fact that her butt was actually quite nice before. It was shapely, on the small side, but perfectly respectable nonetheless. Her dive had caused a muddy scrape on her left knee, and her shirt had ridden up a little in the back. She arched forward when Clyde served the ball into the net, and her shirt hitched up even more. Kenny noticed a large, ugly looking welt on her lower back. It was angry and swollen reddish-purple, clearly still a new wound. He wondered how she could've gotten an injury like that. It looked as if someone had aimed a tennis ball machine at her and shot her with—

An image of the female killer from last night flashed unbidden into Kenny's mind. The soulless black goggles, peering at him over the bandana like some terrifying insect. She'd been shot in the back just the night before, Kenny remembered in a burst of crazed insight.

But it couldn't be. He struggled to come up with reasons why it couldn't, but only managed to remember the fact that Wendy was relatively the same size as the attacker had been, and had black hair, just like the girl did.

Mike ignored the ball when it came his way again. Wendy, quick as a whip, shoved him out of the way and leapt up to return it. She smacked the ball out of the air, and it zoomed over the net at a dangerous speed. Clyde jumped aside to avoid being hit, and Kevin Stoley caught the ball in his hands on the first bounce. Then he just held it for a moment, looking stunned. Wendy went back to her spot without so much as a glance over her shoulder at Mike. Mike glowered at her turned back, rubbing his arm where she'd elbowed him.

"Point," Wendy said. And the others seemed too shaken to argue with her. "2–1, you guys."

Craig muttered, "Wendy, you take this game way too seriously."

"Sports are for shallow, pedantic souls of no substance," Mike pouted.

Kenny stared at the back of Wendy's head. He was too disturbed by his revelation to even watch her ass. Could Wendy really be the mysterious mercenary who had saved his life? If she were, Kenny, realized, the girl who stood not five feet from him had not only rescued him, but she had also murdered three people. She'd done it like a pro, too. Kenny would bet money he didn't have that it wasn't the first time.

He was so disturbed that he missed the ball when it came to his corner. It bounced to his feet, air singing inside the rubber as it ricocheted up from the ground. The sound startled him out of his epiphany.

Wendy turned around, "3–1. Focus McCormick! You're going to lose us the game if you keep daydreaming."

Kenny flinched and instinctively took a few steps back when she addressed him. She frowned at his reaction, but did not comment. She faced back towards the game, and Kenny breathed a sigh of relief, glad to no longer be the subject of her attention.

"Your serve, McCormick."

Kenny swallowed, and picked up the ball, which had rolled a few paces away. After that, he gave his full attentiveness to the game, too scared to zone out. If they lost, knowing what he now did about Wendy, Kenny wasn't too sure any of them would make it out alive.

Kenny thought about Wendy all day. The more he puzzled it through, the more it made sense. Wendy was always a little unhinged. Certainly, she'd never backed down from a fight in the past. But he still had a hard time picturing Wendy doing the things he'd seen the sword-wielding person do. He kept remembering the bullet hole through Homer's chest, and the gloved hand reaching down to twist the knife in Erna's back...

Wendy had some temper issues; that was common knowledge at South Park High. Kenny remembered that during their freshman year, she'd given Tweek Tweak a black eye for calling her a feminist bitch in World Civ. She sat alone at lunchtime, and to Kenny's knowledge didn't hang out with any group specifically. He'd always just assumed she was weird and asocial, not an outright homicidal sociopath.

But maybe that wasn't giving her enough credit, he mused during his Calculus class. Wendy had saved his ass. Still, that begged more questions than it answered. He didn't know why she had done that, especially as he'd been dressed as Mysterion, who Wendy had no way of knowing was actually Kenny. And even if she had known, Kenny and Wendy weren't close. He couldn't see her risking her life to rescue an old school acquaintance. Maybe she was a Russian spy, Kenny thought. Her get-up certainly indicated the possibility of that. And maybe the three guys she'd taken out were actually American operatives. Unlikely, but this was South Park. Anything could happen, Kenny guessed.

Maybe, he thought, she'd saved him because she'd been stalking him before. Maybe that was how she had "coincidentally" ended up at the right place at the right time.

Kenny grinned to himself, flattered by the thought of such a dedicated stalker.

"Now, the first thing we need to do is express this factorial in its simplest form," Mr. Forester droned on. Kenny copied the notes down from the board without paying much attention to what he was doing. Kyle, on the other hand—who sat directly to Kenny's left—seemed totally immersed in the lecture. He raised his hand to ask a question. Meanwhile, Kenny struggled to look like he, too, was thinking about factorials and stuff when the teacher glanced in their direction to address Kyle.

"Is a recursive factorial just expressed as 0!=1?" Kyle inquired. The teacher nodded the affirmative. Kenny also nodded as if he knew what was going on, and nearly breathed an audible sigh of relief when the teacher turned back towards the board. He really had to start sitting farther away from Kyle.

Kenny doodled in his notebook as he thought some more. He'd gotten somewhat better at imitating the human form on paper—his voluptuous female representations, for example, had entire faces, and anatomy discernable from their breasts. He liked the comic style of drawing: ladies with six packs, gravity-defiant assets, and extremely flexible spines. He didn't think he could draw Wendy like that, however. First, he worried she would somehow find out what he'd been up to and castrate him.

And secondly...nice butt aside, Kenny couldn't imagine her in a skin-tight leather cat suit. He couldn't picture Wendy Testaburger in star-spangled hot pants. He tried anyway, but instead found himself awaiting a sharp smack across the face for attempting such a thing. Mission abort.


Kenny began to draw without having decided to. He sketched the dark, black goggles and bandana. He penciled in black beret on her head, and then went to work drawing her combat boots. He put her sword in her hand, and drew her ready to cut up some guy with it: the weapon raised over her head, a pistol in her other hand. The outfit she wore was harder. Heavy-duty black overalls, much like the kind a firefighter might wear. There were many pockets on the ensemble, probably, Kenny reasoned—filled with useful items such as the throwing knife Wendy had plunged into Erna's back, or the switchblade she'd used to kill Gold Teeth. He drew her long sleeves; the black under armor turtleneck she wore beneath the jumpsuit. He drew the holsters on her legs, the thick utility belt around her waist. He even tilted the character's head, so he could hint at the trench knife she used as a hair accessory. He drew the sheath for her sword at her hip.

The bell rang, and he finally got a moment to examine his drawing. It was a decent enough representation of what he'd seen that night. He couldn't help that Wendy was intimidating and larger than life. But looking at the drawing, Kenny realized why she had saved him. It became clear in an instant as he took in the pose, the thick, comic-book line style in which he'd drawn her.

Wendy was a vigilante, just like him. It hadn't mattered who he was. She'd seen him in trouble, and she'd saved him. Just as Mysterion would've done for anyone he came across who was in danger.

Only, Wendy had killed the guys, which Mysterion had never done on purpose. The worst he'd ever done, Kenny realized, was put poor Butters in a fucking coma.

Kyle seemed less than thrilled to find Kenny waiting for him by his locker. In fact, he tried to push right past him.

"I'm late," Kyle spun his combination, and addressed Kenny in an aggravated tone. "I don't have time to talk."

"So don't talk," Kenny leaned against the locker next to Kyle's as he spoke to him. "I just wanted to apologize, dude."

Kyle paused at that. "What?"

"Yeah," Kenny quirked a tiny smile at Kyle. He shook hair out of his eyes before continuing. "I shouldn't lay all my problems on you, dude. And...and, uh, if you really feel it's for the best to report Scott to the police...I understand."

Kyle shoved his books into his open backpack, and then zipped it up. He studied Kenny's face, perhaps to ascertain whether he was joking. Kyle kept his own face smooth and unreadable. "Really? What changed your mind?"

Kenny shrugged, one foot kicked back against the wall behind him. "I just know I can't stop you," Kenny said. "And that you'd only be doing it because you care and shit."

Kyle stopped packing his things. He shouldered his bag, and stared at Kenny, green eyes skeptical, disbelieving. Kenny held his gaze, meeting it evenly. When Kenny didn't back down, Kyle visibly softened.

"I—all right, then." He sighed. "I wasn't gonna tell, Kenny. I just wanted you to do it, because that's what I would've done for my own brother. were right. It's none of my business. I don't even really know either of the parties involved."

Kenny slapped a hand against Kyle's back, and the two began to walk together towards Kyle's English class. "Thanks, man," he smiled at Kyle, genuinely.

The desire to ask whether Kenny really would report Scott struggled on Kyle's face, but Kenny watched him suppress it and swallow it down. Neither of them wanted to break the tentative peace they'd just established, at least for now. Instead, Kyle shoved his hands in his pockets, looking somewhat nervous.

"Listen," he said, and peered around the slowly emptying hallways, aware that the time for class was upon them, and obviously not wanting to be late, "It's been a long time since we all hung out. You know. The four of us."

Kenny nodded with understanding. It certainly had. He hadn't kept track of it, but he realized Kyle probably had. The measurements of things were important to Kyle, and friendship could be measured by frequency over time.

"I thought we could all hang at my place Friday night." Kyle rocked a bit on his toes, hands still deep in his pockets. "Like old times, maybe. We can do a Game of Thrones marathon, or something."

"Free food, and Her Majesty Daenerys, the Rightful Heir to the Iron Throne?" Kenny elbowed Kyle playfully, a bright grin splitting across his face. "I'm so in. Just make sure there is enough food to placate the fat ass."

"Great," Kyle smiled back, and for the first time in a long while, Kenny felt Kyle wasn't simultaneously holding back the urge to beat him to death with a shoe. It made Kenny feel warm inside. "I'll see you then."

Kenny gave Kyle a small salute. Kenny began to split off to find his Spanish class (which he would definitely be late for, but luckily, the Senora was not immune to some good old fashion McCormick charm). As he went, Kenny whistled a happy tune that reflected his improved mood.

"Hey dude?" Kyle paused at the door to call back to Kenny.

Kenny looked to Kyle over his shoulder. "Yeah?"

"I'm sorry I locked you out," Kyle said, "You know. After I threatened to report your sister's boyfriend. It was shitty of me to leave you on your ass like that."

"It's cool," Kenny assured him with a laugh. Because it really was. Kyle did annoying things like that because he cared, and Kenny was grateful, in a weird way, for Kyle's anal-retentive approach to "parenting" him. Not many people in his life bothered to worry for Kenny's wellbeing, and Kenny was slowly learning that complications caused by people who loved him were actually pretty important factors in his life. Lack of these factors, he believed, was called loneliness. Or neglect.

Kenny spotted Wendy at her locker later. He watched her from afar for a little while as he tried to gather the courage to approach her. Wendy had tape wrapped around her knuckles. She wore and oversized, open plaid button up thrown over a white t-shirt and baggy jeans. She wore not one stroke up makeup, and to Kenny's amusement, she had wore a gold ring pierced through just one ear, like a motherfucking pirate. Other than that, she wasn't at all impressive or extraordinary. Kenny was disappointed. She just looked like a tiny girl in oversized clothes and a pissed-off look on her face.

But he still remembered her from the night before and couldn't help but be impressed. He'd never met another vigilante before, and Wendy was basically the closest thing he'd ever met to a real superhero. He wondered if anyone else knew what a badass she was. Probably not explicitly, he thought, but people did seem to avoid her for the most part. Maybe that was because on some subconscious, instinctive level, she was strictly not-to-be-fucked-with, and people sensed this.

Kenny deliberated another second before approaching her, catching her just a moment before she slammed her locker shut and headed for class.

"Hey, Wendy, wait up!" Kenny called out, and she halted. She turned to face him, slowly, and lifted an arched, incredulous brow in his direction.

"Yes?" she asked, holding a single backpack strap over her shoulder with both hands.

"Can we talk?" Kenny jogged up to her, and grinned as they fell into step.

Wendy didn't answer. She simply blinked at him slowly, as if to say, "asked and answered, asshole. We are talking."

Kenny smirked. Apparently, Wendy's sass levels were high. This was gonna be fun.

"Okay, so," Kenny hurried on, not wanting to lose her attention. "I wanted to thank you, first, for the other night. You saved my ass."

Wendy tensed. It was almost imperceptible, but Kenny saw her eyes open wider and felt the waves of stress emitting almost tangibly from her.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said in monotone. She shoved him with her shoulder and tried to move past him.

"Oh, come on." Kenny hustled forward and stood in her path. "I know, Wendy. I'm not gonna tell anyone. I just wanted to talk to you about it."

Wendy glared. Her flinty blue eyes were like splinters of ice, and Kenny nearly fell back a step, confidence flagging under the sheer power of her scowl.

"Fine, Kenneth," she gritted out. She looked left and right to make sure they didn't have any eavesdroppers. She looked distinctively like a cornered animal. "Let's talk. But make it quick. I don't want to be too late for class. And please," she added, though it didn't really sound like a request, "keep your fucking voice down."

Kenny cocked his head towards the janitor's closet. It was the only place they would get a moment of privacy. She rolled her eyes, but followed him there. Kenny made sure to lift his brows suggestively as she swept past him through the closet door.

Now, Kenny had been in this closet plenty of times, with a series of paramours. It smelled musty, like dust and industrial strength cleaners. An old paint bucket sat overturned in the corner, and the shelves were filled with half-empty bottles of whiteboard solvent and toilet bowl fresheners. It was hardly a respectable setting, particularly for so important a conversation, but it would have to do. He doubted Wendy would give him another opportunity to confront her.

He could feel the anxious vibes radiating off Wendy. Probably, it hadn't been a good idea to get in a confined space with her, where no one could hear him scream. But Kenny had always been a danger junkie. He was excited to be standing so close to a bona fide mercenary. Also, he was deeply curious about her. He was willing to take on quite a risk margin for those reasons.

"Okay, talk," Wendy ordered. "What did you need to say to me so desperately that you felt the need to drag me into a janitor's closet in the middle of a school day to say it?"

"You're a fucking vigilante!" Kenny exploded with the giddy glee of the realization. Though what she'd done was horrible, it was still cool. Kenny couldn't repress the child-like wonder that came with meeting someone who was basically a real-life Batman. Or maybe, Kenny corrected himself, more like Punisher, Rorschach or Wolverine—or any superhero that wasn't so strongly against murder.

Wendy frowned. She didn't answer directly or admit to anything, probably because she was fucking smart and therefore wary of being entrapped and answering loaded questions. "Tell me what you know," she instructed instead.

Kenny dug around in his pockets and eventually came up with his drawing. He handed it to her, an expectant smile on his face.

"That's you, isn't it," He said more than asked. The more he looked at her, the more obvious the answer became. He was surprised no one else had caught on to her little secret. The vigilante he'd seen had to be Wendy. Why else would she agree to come with him into the closet? Kenny highly doubted Wendy wanted to fool around with him in sight of the mops and brooms.

Clearly, she was hiding something that she was worried he'd ferreted out. And he had. Wendy was the fucking Merry Murderess who had crashed the party last night. Every second he spent around her, he became surer of this.


Wendy was quiet for a long time as she examined the drawing. "This is really good," she handed it back to him, a small smile on her face. She tilted her head flirtatiously. "You're talented, y'know."

"Thanks!" Kenny grinned, genuinely pleased by the compliment. But he wasn't too distracted; Wendy wanted to play games, but Kenny had something way more fun in mind. "But that's you, right? You came in and killed all those guys last night at the Denver Train Station? That's how you got that scary looking bruise on your lower back, right? Erna shot you while you took out Gold Teeth!"

Wendy's brow furrowed. She dropped the coy act immediately, fixing Kenny with a frustrated look. When he persisted, holding out a hand as if to collect her owed response, she looked supremely uncomfortable.

"I have to go." She reached for the door handle, and Kenny leapt forward and grasped her wrist to stop her.

She turned on him sharply, and Kenny immediately retracted his hand, flinching. Maybe Wendy wasn't as smart as she thought she was...but Kenny hadn't forgotten how quickly she was capable of sending him to Hell's door.

"Wait, dude," he insisted. Man, Wendy was slippery. He supposed she had to be. She could definitely go to jail for what she'd done, not to mention the tons of people who were probably on her ass. "I—me too. That's what I wanted to say. I'm a vigilante too."

Wendy sighed, and swiveled around to level with him. "No, you're not."

Kenny was affronted. He crossed his arms. "What? Yes, I am! I'm Mysterion! I'm South Park's famous caped crusader!" He smirked at Wendy, sure she'd be impressed by the revelation, but wilted somewhat at the blasé expression on her face.

"Yes, obviously." She waved a hand as if this information had not been news to her. "Can I go now? I am going to be late."

Kenny shook his head disbelievingly. "You knew?"

"Everyone with the faintest power of deduction knows, asshole," Wendy sighed. "You suck at hiding your so-called ‘secret identity.' And if I hadn't already known, telling me that you were at the train station last night would've amounted to a confession to the same thing."

"You're not so hot at hiding it either, genius!" Kenny pointed at her. "I figured it out in just one day."

Wendy blanched, looking genuinely displeased by Kenny's valid point. "Yeah. But I know how to keep a low profile. Your stupid celebrity status makes you ridiculously easy to trace. If I hadn't saved you last night, you wouldn't even know I exist."

Kenny was stunned; he'd never thought about it that way. He wondered if he were putting Karen in danger by not laying as low as he should have been. It seemed he was. The three thugs last night threatened him by name explicitly.

"I need your help, Wendy," he blurted. He hadn't planned on asking her for help, but as he thought over the identity dilemma, it seemed the obvious thing to do. "I think we should work together."

"You're fucking kidding me." Wendy tapped her foot impatiently on the floor. "No."

"We should totally be a team," Kenny rushed on, ignoring her. Belatedly, he remembered the promise he'd made to himself. He'd promised to hang up the cape and give up the superhero gig forever. He'd meant bury Mysterion with Professor Chaos. But standing so near to Wendy reawakened the spirit that had inspired him to create the costume and walk the streets at night in the first place. The thrill seized him, and he felt powerless to resist such a delicious high.

"Kenneth," Wendy rubbed two fingers to her temple as if she were a teacher with an oncoming headache from explaining something quite simple to a particularly dull student. "You run around in your mother's pantyhose and an old bed sheet. You almost got me killed last night because you let yourself be taken captive by three fucking cast members of The Hills Have Eyes. As I said, you're not a real vigilante. You take too many unnecessary risks. It would be more costly and dangerous to take you on than it would ultimately benefit me."

Kenny turned red, and spluttered indignantly. "I was having an off-night!" Wendy had inadvertently hit a little too close to the bone. His original Mysterion costume had been made from an old dance leotard of his mother's, and the bed sheet thing was still true.

"Point is," Wendy continued lightly. "You and I are fundamentally different. No offense, Kenneth, but I'm not in the habit of taking on needless liabilities. You have already proven yourself worse than useless. I see no value to this arrangement."

She pulled open the door to leave once more. Kenny felt a stab of panic, not unlike the panic he felt when he accidentally spilled a bag of weed, or that time he dropped an E tablet through a gutter drain. Instinctively, he reached around her and closed the door to block off her exit.

"The benefit is," Kenny called out in low voice, "You and I would be awesome together. You could teach me some stuff, and I'd have your back."

"Let me through, Kenneth," Wendy warned.

"No, Gwendolyn," Kenny shot back. "Not until you agree to this. We'd be the best team ever. Sherlock and Watson. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. Goku and Krillin!"

"Pinky and the Brain?" Wendy issued a tiny, sardonic smirk. "Yeah, I don't think so. As I said—"

"Just hear me out," Kenny ignored his danger instincts and grabbed Wendy by the shoulders. She was surprisingly compact. He felt he could lift her straight up from the floor. "I'm a fast learner. And I have actual—" he nearly said ‘superpowers,' but thought better of it. He wanted her to take him seriously. "—experience in this field. Give me one chance. I won't be a liability; I promise. Two heads are better than one, right? Not even you can be everywhere at once."

Wendy held Kenny's gaze unblinkingly. The way she looked at Kenny was somewhat scary, so gradually, he released her, withdrawing his hands.

"No." She showed not even the slightest hint of being moved. "That's my final answer. Leave me alone. And don't touch me again, or I'll break your fingers."

"What if I make you a deal?" Kenny scrambled for the upper hand; he was hyper-aware that she was bringing this conversation to a swift close much sooner than he'd hoped. "You agree to team up with me, and I won't give the police a little tip about the triple homicide I witnessed last—"

A lightening fast interruption by Wendy's fist cut off the end of his statement. She stormed out of the closet and slammed the door on Kenny before he could follow her.

Kenny rubbed at the spot where she'd hit him, sure she'd dislocated his jaw. In hindsight, it probably hadn't been the best idea to threaten the person who'd made her debut into his life by charging at him with a sword.

Stan and Kenny visited Butters at Hell's Pass after school. They'd asked Cartman and Kyle to come along, but Cartman had refused because he had "better things to do than cry over some pussy." Kyle had an APUSH test to study for. That, unfortunately, left mopey, doom-and-gloom Marsh as Kenny's escort.

"Stotch is in the west ward," a matronly nurse in a white smock told them when they approached the front desk. "You and your girlfriend can wait here in the waiting room while they finish running some tests. We'll let you know when he's ready for visitors."

Kenny stuffed a knuckle in his mouth to keep from laughing. Stan glared darkly at the nurse as the two went to sit in the designated area.

"Why does everyone think I'm a chick?" Stan complained. He lounged in the uncomfortable, poorly padded waiting-room chairs. He kicked out his black creepers in front of him; his spindly legs looked even spindlier in his skinny black jeans. Kenny snorted, because Stan had probably actually bought those pants from the girls' section at Hot Topic.

"I think it's the eyeliner, dude," Kenny chuckled at the cross look Stan sent in his direction. "And maybe the long hair. And the girly black hat. You have to admit, you've got that androgynous thing going on."

"I do not!" Stan crossed his arms over his thin chest. The silver crucifix he wore ironically around his neck dangled into the crevasse of his bony elbow. "The Conformists and their fucking need for labels is the heart of oppression."

"Whatever you say, dude," Kenny shrugged. "It's a compliment, anyway. Means you're pretty enough to be my girlfriend."

"Shut up, asswad." Stan swatted Kenny's arm.

Kenny grinned and picked up a magazine from the small, white side-table and absently flipped through it. He fucking hated hospitals. The hushed anxious that emanated from the hospital staff that rushed by on their rounds made him feel on edge. The air smelled like sterilizing agents and sick people. And the white halogen lights made everything look washed out and alien. Kenny wanted as little to do with this place as possible. A pang of guilt crept into his stomach when he considered the fact that he'd put Butters in here. Would a place like this become Butters' new home? This was no place to die, let alone live.

"Your pensive silence informs me that you just went to a dark place," Stan observed quietly. "Something troubling you?" He took out a long, silver E-cigarette and took a long dreg, before blowing it out again in a single, perfect ring of vapor.

"You can't smoke in here," a fellow waiting room patron reminded Stan in a nasally, superior tone.

"Bite me," Stan blew another ring in her direction. "It's called vaping, Conformist, and it's perfectly legal."

The woman looked deeply offended. Angry redness colored her already splotchy, discolored face (measles? Ugh; Kenny hoped not; he hadn't had that one yet, nor gotten his shots).

"Anyway," Stan regarded Kenny from behind a veil of cherry scented vapor. "What's creating a vortex into the shadow world for your soul, Kenny? Something about Butters, I presume?"

"Oh god, do not start with that Goth crap, please," Kenny begged him. "I cannot handle it right now. Nothing is sending my soul into vortex of pain or whatever. I'm just worried about Butters. I..." he sighed. "I think it's kind of my fault that he's here."

"You do?" Stan responded to the heaviness in Kenny's tone, and he sounded, for a moment, just like his old self—curious and invested in his friend's wellbeing. Behind the pretentious Goth crap, Kenny thought, was a person he genuinely liked. "Why, dude? You didn't beat him up or anything, did you?"

"Not exactly," Kenny gave up trying to focus on the magazine and put it away in favor of playing with the drawstrings of his hoodie. "I told him I wanted to give up the—" Kenny looked around a moment, and lowered his voice, "—Mysterion crap, and he lost his shit and attacked me. He wouldn't fucking stop, dude. He was out of his mind. I told him to give it up, that I didn't wanna do this, but he wouldn't let up. I guess I accidentally took it too far, and I threw him down some stairs by accident."

Kenny worried the plastic aglet at the end of his hoodie string between his fingers. "I tried to walk away, Stan. But he kept coming at me. Wh-what was I supposed to do?"

"Nothing," Stan met Kenny's eye seriously. "There was nothing you could've done, it sounds like. Butters did this to himself."

"If I'd never put on the cape—"

"We can't control how others will react to what we do," Stan shook his head. His kind, handsome face was inexplicably comforting in its warmth and understanding. Kenny had no idea why Stan disguised his conventional attractiveness beneath a layer of badly applied pale makeup and unsymmetrical eyeliner. He could totally get all the pussy he wanted, if he played up the all American boy angle a little.

"Thanks, man," Kenny told Stan, and reached out to grip his shoulder for a moment in expression of his gratitude. The beauty of small towns, if nothing else, was that it made growing apart more difficult. He didn't know if he would've stayed close to Stan if there were any other real options for friends—but in moments like this, he was glad he had. Stan was a sensitive pussy and one weird dude, but Kenny sincerely hoped Stan was just going through a phase, and that he'd turn out all right in the end.

"You two can come see Mister Stotch now," the nurse from the reception desk interrupted.

"C'mon, babe, let's go," Kenny teased Stan. Stan responded by flipping Kenny off. He also paused to take another deep puff from his E-cig and exhale it, to the obvious annoyance of the outspoken fellow-waiting-room occupant.

"You can't smoke that near the patients," the nurse informed Stan. He glared at her, but she was not moved. Kenny sent Stan an imploring look. He didn't want to be barred from seeing Butters on account of Stan's recent need to be special-and-different. He needed to see Butters, just so he knew for sure he wasn't fucking dead.

Luckily, Stan put away the E-cig with little more than an eye-roll and some angry muttering. "You owe me," he said to Kenny under his breath.

The halls of the hospital seemed unending and maze-like. The uniformed, flecked tile floors went on and on. If Kenny and Stan weren't following the nurse, Kenny was sure they'd be lost. They passed so many nurses, pushing trolleys filled with food trays and medical supplies, and teams of hurried doctors and emergency personnel rolling occupied gurneys. The hospital, it seemed to Kenny, was a place of silence with bursts of activity. The silence seemed to go on forever, as if they were in a vacuum, or an echoing chamber in a church or a sacred place. That was, until it was interrupted by a flurry of noise and rushing when someone was first rolled in, or started having a heart attack or whatever. For a few minutes, sound and chaos erupted—and the quiet was broken. Then, nearly as soon as it started, the noises were swallowed once more by the prevailing hush of the place. It was spooky.

Butters was at the end of a corridor. The nurse pulled the curtains back to reveal him, and the sight of him made Kenny feel nauseated. Tubes came out of Butters nose, and a machine seemed to cause his chest to rise and fall at slow, measured intervals. An IV drip was attached to Butters' wrist. A beeping sound measured his heartbeat. Kenny could see the bandage, which probably covered stitches in Butters' forehead from his fall.

Stan was nice to say otherwise, but somewhere Kenny knew this was his fault. Looking at Butters now, it seemed undeniable. Butters' was the face of justice, and Kenny knew which way the scales tipped.

Kenny knelt by Butters side. "H-hey, little buddy," he murmured, uncertainly. "Are you doing all right...?"

"He hasn't been awake since he got here," the nurse supplied, and Stan silenced her with an icy-cold look.

"He doesn't look all that bad," Stan comforted Kenny, and the nurse took this as a cue to leave them be. "He's got...good color, it seems like."

"He's in a fucking coma, Stan," Kenny's vision blurred with the sudden rush of hot tears. "I put Butters in a motherfucking coma."

"You didn't," Stan reminded him gently. "He did this to himself. You wanted out of this. He's the one who couldn't let go."

Kenny thought guiltily about his encounter with Wendy. Had he really wanted out of this? Or had he let his bad mood get the best of him, and forced Butters to pay the price? Maybe he'd intended to hurt Butters. Maybe for a moment, Butters had represented all that was wrong in Kenny's world.

"I just want him to wake up," Kenny confessed, gripping Butters unmoving hand. It was chubby, soft. Not the hand of someone who wanted to strike anyone. "I don't want this to be real."

Stan didn't try to argue anymore after that. He simply sat by Kenny's side, listening to the whole story from Kenny's perspective. He was quiet: a presence more than a person, but Kenny found the company really did make him feel better.

"Thank you, Stan," Kenny smiled as they exited. The sky had gotten dark, and Kenny hoped the hospital scent would come out of his clothes as they walked around in the fresh, evening air. "I...don't think I would've dealt with that very well, without you there."

Stan just hummed, the dark eyeliner beginning to smudge around his eyes from a long day's wear, and an evening of to listening to Kenny's troubles. "Anytime, dude."

Kenny wondered if he were more or less stubborn than Wendy Testaburger. He hoped for more, honestly. Time would tell if he could wear her down, but he knew he had the advantage. She wouldn't get rid of him if he didn't feel like being gotten rid of. She could kill him if he irritated her too much, but even that wouldn't stop him. Kenny would just be back again the next day with that stupid grin on his face, ready to harass her some more.

The more she resisted, the more determined he became. In her, he sensed the opportunity for the most powerful and satisfying high he'd ever known. Kenny knew from experience that close encounters with death were often the greatest rush—he'd strangled himself to death when he'd discovered autoerotic asphyxiation, and it had, in fact, been what inspired him to continue wearing the Mysterion cowl. He'd died dressed as Batman, and it had felt better than anything. Nothing more was needed to convince Kenny of the value of risking one's life by putting on a cape.

Despite the consequences—consequences that unconscious, hospital-bed-ridden Butters constantly reminded him were very real—Kenny couldn't resist. Wendy's refusal was like dangling a cookie in front of him, and then denying him the opportunity to eat it. Rather than deter him, the process only convinced him more of the cookie's deliciousness. Such was the power of negative suggestion.

"Hey, Wendy!" he caught up with her on her morning run, which he had recently discovered was always the same. According to the nice old lady whose house she habitually passed, the old guy who sat the park and fed the pigeons, the hardcore backpacker who frequented South Park's trails for practice, and the old janitor—she always went four times around Starks, down the eastern hiking trails behind the park, up Miller's hill, through the school's back parking lot, and home. Kenny staked out her routine, and waited for her at the pond. She tried to run faster when she caught sight of him.

"Screw off, McCormick," Wendy puffed white condensation into the morning air. She was the only person Kenny knew who ran without headphones, and that was to his benefit. It made him harder to tune out.

"Did you give the partner thing any more thought?" Kenny asked. Their sneakers squelched in the mud around the pond, but there was no answer forthcoming to his question. Wendy had the personality, he decided, of the pond itself: frozen over with an intimidating layer of ice, and chilly beneath that, but not impossible to crack if he applied enough pressure.

"You know why I'd be an awesome partner?" Kenny kept pace with her for the first lap or so, but found it hard to make conversation while running. He was already somewhat out of breath. "Because...god, could you slow down a minute...? No? All right...Well, it's...because I am loyal as fuck."

Wendy didn't answer. She stared resolutely ahead, determined to pretend Kenny didn't exist.

"Come on...seriously," Kenny gasped for air between words, "I...would hard as you...wanted me to...Please Wendy, slow down for just a minute so we can talk!"

Wendy sped up in response, making her final lap around the pond. Bitch had stamina.

"I have good credentials!" Kenny gave up, and bent over, hands on his knees as he panted. "Think about it!"

Wendy flipped him off as she left him in the dust. He sighed and watched her pony tail bob as she disappeared down the foggy road. He'd convince her yet, he thought to himself. Everyone succumbed to Kenny eventually. The harder she made it for him, the more exhausted she would be when she finally came around in the end.

Kenny made a point to sit next to Wendy in English class. There were two benefits to this, really. The first was it gave him a chance to bother her about being superhero partners. The second was that she muttered the most amusing things during lectures.

"Today, we are going to be reviewing the readings I assigned from A Day No Pigs Would Die," Ms. Peterson told them.

"Today we're going to listen to you complain about your husband through thinly veiled literary references," Wendy rolled her eyes and said so quietly most everyone missed it. Everyone but Kenny. "What else is new?"

"Does anyone have any idea what Pinky could represent as a metaphor in Chapter Seven?"

"Your marriage—full of hope and innocence but doomed to ultimately culminate in death and physical consumption of all that used to be good and sacred?" Kenny heard Wendy reply. He grinned and raised his hand. The teacher acknowledged him with a slight nod.

"I think it represents the innocence of a young relationship," Kenny said out loud. "Though it is eventually doomed, as the naïvely loyal and unthinking pig gets eaten by the person who is supposed to love and take care of her."

The teacher smiled, and her face lit. "Very good, Kenny. I think that analysis is quite merited. In fact, when my husband, excuse me—my EX husband—and I first got married..."

Wendy's eyes narrowed in Kenny's direction. He shrugged at her, and winked. He could almost physically feel her irritation with him, as well as her visibly apparent desire to murder him, judging by the chokehold she kept twisting around her unsuspecting #2 pencil. But instead of shoving it through Kenny's eye socket, she just scooted a few inches further away and determinedly refused to look at him.

"Can anyone tell me what they think the rescue of the two baby bulls means?" the teachers asked the class.

"Uhm, could it be the bullshit your husband said, which gave you hope, but ultimately lead to your decisions to cannibalize your marriage?" Wendy whispered to no one. Kenny put his hand up.

"Yes, Kenny?" the teacher looked quite pleased with Kenny's sudden apparent desire to participate in class lectures.

"False expectations of hope and new beginnings," he said, "Totally."

"Interesting, Kenny!" Ms. Peterson beamed. "I think someone's been doing his homework!"

Kenny sent Wendy a smug look. She slammed her book shut and put her hand up.

"Did you have something to add, Miss Testaburger?"

"Actually, I have to use the bathroom." Wendy told her in a polite tone. "Please."

The teacher dismissed her, and Wendy made her retreat. It felt like a victory to Kenny however. He was getting to her.

"Choose a partner for today's drill," Kenny's P.E. teacher told their class. "We're going to practice passing. So, after you've chosen a partner, get across from each other on opposite sidelines of the court. We'll start with chest passes on my whistle."

Wendy tried to pair with Craig for the exercise. Kenny saw her turn towards him and open her mouth to ask. But that was as far as she got before Kenny's arm was looped through hers.

"Back off, Tucker," Kenny grinned down at Wendy. "Testaburger's mine for today."

"Whatever," Craig said in deadpan. He moved off to pair with Stoley, making sure to give Kenny and Wendy a wide berth.

Wendy pointedly stomped on Kenny's foot as hard as she could. He yelped, and began to hop about, but did not release her arm.

"Ouch! You wound me with your cruelty, Wendy," Kenny made sad-eyes at her as he hauled her over to pick up a ball from the rack. "They'll never understand our love if you continue to treat me this way!"

"Fuck you," Wendy mumbled, her shoulders bunched tightly. "Why don't you just leave me alone, Kenneth?"

But Kenny refused to let his good mood be deflated. "'Cause that's what friends are for."

"We're not friends." Wendy shook her head. "You don't even know me."

"And whose fault is that?" Kenny nudged her with his elbow teasingly. "Now, get on the other side of the court like a good partner. Ooh, I like the sound of that, don't you? Partners?"

Wendy stalked off to her side without replying. But Kenny thought he heard the words "Gonna snap and make him eat his fucking underwear; I swear to god," muttered angrily as she went.

Kenny heard the whistle, and bounced the ball in Wendy's direction. It came back almost immediately, before the coach had even blown the whistle a second time. He highly doubted Wendy understood the concept of a chest pass, because instead of pushing it forward and allowing it to bounce off the hardwood and into Kenny's hands, she hurled it straight back at his head. Hard. She missed him by a hair's breadth; Kenny only barely managed to duck in time.

"Testaburger!" the coach cried out, "Go easy, there! You almost took McCormick's head off!"

"Yes, Coach," she said, in a sinisterly pleasant tone. "Sorry, I must've slipped."

Kenny went to retrieve the ball. The sound of rubber hitting the floor, and sneakers squeaking against the wood varnishing filled the gymnasium. He glanced over his shoulder to see Wendy on the other side of the court, her hand on her hip and eyeing him in a menacing fashion.

He snickered to himself as he returned to the sideline and held the ball up to his chest to pass it back to her.

"Yo, Testaburger," he said as he threw it. He then pointed to his own head, "You missed."

Friday rolled around, and Kenny arrived on Kyle's doorstop only a few minutes later than the indicated time. He brought his ratty sleeping bag tucked under one arm, and a bag of barbecue pork rinds in the other, as his contribution to the festivities. Kenny rang the bell, and Kyle answered.

"Oh, you're the first one here," Kyle blinked at him. "Uh, come on in, Kenny."

Kenny did so. He even took his shoes off, though he wasn't sure how much good it did, as his socks weren't significantly cleaner than his boot soles. But he made the gesture in any case. It was the thought that counted, he supposed.

"Where should I put this?" Kenny held up the sleeping bag. The Broflovski home always struck Kenny as the most stereotypical suburban home one could possibly imagine. It was childproofed—still, though Ike had long grown past need of rounded corners and toddler-safe, padded furniture. The posed, professional pictures of Kyle and Ike, chronological family portraits, and mismatched antiques were like props, selected by a director who wanted to recreate a lived-in home, but had never actually been in one. It was all too neat, too sanitized, and too perfect in non-cohesive but utterly sensible design. Kenny could never feel at home in a place like this. It was weird enough to be in a home with regularly working appliances and functional utilities.

"My room." Kyle nodded up the stairs. He gave Kenny a long-suffering look. "You know where that is. But use the stairs, dude."

"Aw, but I so enjoy climbing the trellis," Kenny gave a mock-sigh of exasperation. "This evening is going to be no fun if you keep cramping my style."

Before he headed up, he tossed the pork rinds to Kyle.

"What's this?" Kyle frowned, and sniffed the package.

"Something to keep the fatass's mouth busy," Kenny smirked.

"Good call."

Kenny threw his sleeping bag into Kyle's room, leaving it in the middle of the floor. He reflected that it was odd to be the first one to arrive. He would've thought Stan would beat him for sure, if only for the fact that the short period in Stan's childhood spent obsessing over Wendy had drilled punctuality into his mind from an early age. Cartman's tardiness was no surprise. He liked forcing people to wait for him; Cartman never skimped on an opportunity to power trip.

When Kenny got back down stairs, Kyle already sat in front of the TV. The best thing about spending time at the Broflovski household when actually invited was the fact that food would be amply provided. An assortment of snack bowls sat on the coffee table, filled with everything from popcorn, to Doritos, to trail mix. Kenny was pretty sure that this set up made Kyle's home significantly better than Heaven.

Scratch that, he thought, he was definitely sure. Heaven was filled with morons—ahem, Mormons. The company was better here, AND there was food.

Immediately, Kenny dove into the food. He decided to monopolize the trail mix. He knew no one else would really want it when other, tastier options were available, and it had the most protein. As someone with low calorie intake, Kenny had to make smart food decisions like that, when he could.

Kyle and Kenny sat by side on the couch, waiting for the others. Kenny crammed his face full of M&M's, cashews, almonds, peanuts and dried cranberries—a task which consumed all of his attention and disallowed conversation. Kyle picked sulkily at the crochet couch coverings. He, Kenny realized, was building up a righteous temper tantrum at his friends for being so late. Punctuality was one of the primary virtues in a household like the Broflovski's.

But minutes ticked by, and to avoid the silence becoming too awkward, Kyle turned on the TV. They started the Game of Thrones marathon without Cartman and Stan, deciding that if the other two were butthurt about it, they had only themselves to blame for being late. Kyle was stonily quiet throughout the entire 61:35 running time. Kenny, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was even better because Stan and Cartman weren't there! Much as he loved Stan, it was no fun to watch stuff with the guy. Stan was prone to long bouts of overanalyzing the death of the soul through pop-culture. And Cartman insisted on making racist comments and bragging to the room about the girls he'd banged every time they showed boobs on screen. Really, Cartman was king of over-compensation, in Kenny's opinion.

But though Kyle was quiet, he was the most fun to watch things with. He rooted for all the right characters (Ned, Tyrion, Arya and Dani, obviously), and hated the right ones the appropriate amount. He laughed when suitable, gasped when merited, and did not talk through any of the important bits. He also didn't eat anything, which left all the snacks to Kenny. To Kenny, not eating when there was food seemed criminally wasteful of the opportunity, but some people just didn't know how to appreciate what they had, Kenny supposed.

"I want a direwolf," Kyle commented passingly.

"If you had one, what would you name it?"

"Hanky," Kyle said immediately. Kenny smirked, because that meant Kyle had given this thought beforehand. Of course he had.

"After that piece of Christmas shit?" Kenny wrinkled his nose, "Gross, dude!"

"Hey, I dog sat my cousin's puppy once. And I watch Sparky all the time. Dogs LOVE shit. Sometimes they roll in it. Or EAT it. There is no better name for a dog." Kyle shuddered. "Disgusting creatures."

"Then why do you want a direwolf?" Kenny laughed around another mouthful of trail mix. Gross shit-talk or no, he wasn't gonna pass up an opportunity for food.

"Because fuck you, Smart-ass," Kyle threw a handful of popcorn at Kenny. "You never see Jon Snow clean up after Ghost! Maybe they are magic dogs that don't do that!"

"Magic dogs that don't take shits? Do you think they still eat them or roll in them, then? Or does the magic just make them shit-resistant in general?"

"Shut up," Kyle glared at him. They were quiet for a while after that, watching the TV as the sun went down. Soon, the flickering light from the screen was the only light in the room.

Kenny genuinely enjoyed himself. He could not remember the last time he'd had so much fun hanging out with anyone. His belly was full, he'd seen Daenerys Targaryen naked, and he'd ended up getting the whole bag of pork rinds to himself. He lay out on Kyle's couch, comfortable and content

At the end of the first episode, however, it became deeply apparent that neither of the other two boys was coming. Kenny couldn't care less, because those assholes would've made the evening a lot less fun. But Kyle was clearly hurt by it.

"They could've at least called," he complained, and shut off the TV. "I knew this was a stupid idea. Why do I even bother?"

Kenny noted the genuine stress in Kyle's voice. Kyle began to pace the room. Kenny rolled over on his stomach and rested his chin on his hands to watch Kyle pace.

"Because you care, dude." Kenny said simply. "You wanted this to be like old times. Stan and Cartman were douche bags to bail."

"I'm just an idiot," Kyle ranted, partially to himself, "I'm always the last one who cares. I should just let it go, friendship's long over anyway. Not one except me gives a shit anymore."

"Hey, hey now," Kenny interjected. "There's nothing wrong with caring about people."

Kyle scoffed. "That's rich, coming from Mr. Hit It and Quit It McCormick."

Now, Kenny knew Kyle was only being like this because he was hurt. But he didn't think that assessment was quite fair. Also, it stung a little. Kenny was promiscuous, but that didn't make him insensitive, or a bad friend.

"Kyle, I showed up," Kenny replied seriously. "Obviously I care."

Clearly, Kyle wanted to disagree, but Kenny was in the right. So Kyle struggled not to admit that, and Kenny just watched, amused by the clear distaste for losing the argument in Kyle's face.

"Yeah," he admitted at last, "You did. Thanks, Ken. You're a good friend. can go now, if you want, though." Kyle's shoulders drooped. He flopped down onto the couch and watched the ceiling. "No one else is coming, and you don't have to hang around and stay for my pity party. Sorry this evening blew."

"Nah," Kenny reclined beside Kyle, feet splayed out in front of him. "Think I'll chill here for awhile. Scott's probably at the house anyway. I'm trying to avoid contact."

Kyle would never admit it, but Kenny knew he was grateful. He could see it in Kyle's tense posture, which had relaxed the smallest bit when Kenny announced he was staying. Kyle had been bracing himself for disappointment.

"...How's that going, dude?" Kyle asked after a beat. " okay about things? Is Karen?"

Kenny scratched his head, kind of wishing he'd never brought it up. "It's going," he said. He wiped at his forehead distractedly. "I...guess I'm okay. Scott and Karen seem...happy. I mean. She says she is. So."

Kyle did a very good job restraining himself from once more suggesting Kenny simply be rid of the problem by reporting Scott to the authorities. Instead, he just nodded, tightly, and said nothing except, "I'm sorry you have to go through that, Kenny. It probably won't last. Karen will wizen up, or Scott will get bored, or whatever. I think if you stay low-key about it, the drama will wear off, and it won't be exciting anymore for them."

"That's good advice," Kenny blinked, sincerely surprised by this. "Hold up...are you giving me actual, sensitive advice instead of threatening to call the cops or your mother?"

Kyle huffed in an offended manner. "I can be sensitive!"

"Hardly," Kenny smiled, but there was no real bite in the jibe. "It's okay, Kyle. Thank you. What you said just then was nice. This is nice. You and I don't hang out much like this anymore. We should! And not just at night, when you're yelling at me for waking you up again."

Kyle smiled at Kenny somewhat crookedly. "It is nice. And the yelling is justified! You fucked up my sleeping schedule, dude. I can't sleep through the night anymore, because I'm too used to being woken up at two AM to the sound of rocks thrown at my window!"

Kenny put his fingers in his ears. "What? Can't hear you, Kyle; you blew my eardrums out with all the YELLING!"

Kyle laughed. Genuinely laughed. It was somewhat shocking to Kenny, who'd rarely seen Kyle do anything but yell, stress, study, or lecture. Kyle's face actually relaxed, and his squinty, skeptical eyes unsquinted. It felt weirdly good to make Kyle laugh, kind of like an accomplishment.

"Oh, man," Kyle shook his head. "You should've been there when I tried to explain to my mother why her window box flower bed had boot prints in it!"

"What did you tell her?" Kenny asked, "I hope you told her you have a stalker, who likes to watch you while you sleep. And that every night, some creepy guy with binoculars just sits there on your window sill and stares into your room."

Kenny made his hands into mock-binoculars and peered at Kyle through them to demonstrate. Kyle reached over and grabbed one of the couch cushions before whacking Kenny upside the head with it.

"Stop it, dude," he snickered, "I just told her I put my shoes there to air them out after school, so they wouldn't start growing bacteria."

"My story's better," Kenny insisted, "Drama, unrequited love, stalkers! You have to admit, it's more interesting than shoe-germs."

"Mine's more believable," Kyle arched a brow high. "And it's less likely to make my mother install metal bars outside my bedroom window."

Kenny decided he wanted to see Kyle laugh again. He took a moment to think of how he might accomplish that. So, he did an impression of Kyle's mother, affecting a her thick accent and heightening his pitch, "Kyle!" he said, drawing the name into two syllables so it sounded like a warbled ‘Ky-ohl!' "I don't want strangers peering in through your window, young man! You shut your curtains after midnight night like a good boy! What if that UPS man comes back?"

Kyle did laugh, to Kenny's delight. "Oh, my god. Dude, you sound just like her! Don't do that! It's creepy!" he choked out. When he got a grip, he wiped at his eyes. "And you realize the UPS man was just my dad, right?"

"Even worse!" Kenny continued to talk like Mrs. Broflovski, wanting to make Kyle laugh some more. "Kyle! Your father is a very sick man. I don't want him peering through your window either! You could develop a complex!"

Kyle had a hard time scolding Kenny through his laughter, so he just hit him with the pillow again instead. "Stop! She-she'll hear you, Kenny!"

"Don't tell your mother what to do, Kyle!" Kenny put his hands on his hips, "It's disrespectful."

"Ahem." Mrs. Broflovski interrupted, standing in the living room doorway. She did not look amused. "...Dinner is ready, boys. I hope you didn't ruin your appetites with all that snacking."

She turned around and hurried back into the kitchen. Kenny felt a pang of guilt; there was no way she hadn't overheard them. He looked at Kyle's pale face, and he was clearly thinking the same thing, perhaps coupled with, "My mom is going to KILL me." An awkward silence fell upon the room for five seconds after she was gone. Then, Kenny and Kyle burst into hysterical laughter, unable to contain themselves.

"You," Kyle gasped between giggling seizures, "Are horrible, Kenny. I am never inviting you over again."

"You're unbelievable," Kyle marveled as he and Kenny headed back to his room after dinner. "You eat a whole bowl of trail mix, a bag of pork rinds, and most of the Doritos...and still go back for seconds at dinner."

Kenny dusted off his shoulders and then rubbed his own belly proudly. "What can I say? I have the stomach of a Russian circus strong man."

"Are you sure you didn't just eat a Russian circus strongman and accrue his powers of eating by osmosis?" Kyle entered the room first. Kenny followed him, and then set about laying his sleeping bag out on the floor.

"You know, I think I'd remember something like that." Kenny looked mock thoughtful as he pretended to ponder upon the predicament. He removed his parka, and folded it up to serve as a makeshift pillow at the head of his sleeping bag.

Kyle shook his head. "Also, how the fuck do you do that thing?"

Kenny arranged himself, cross-legged, on top of his sleeping bag. He shot Kyle a bemused look. "What thing?"

"You know," Kyle tried to explain, poorly. He seemed at a loss of words, simply staring at Kenny expectantly while he made circular motions with his hands, as if that somehow made it clearer. "...That thing! My mother thinks you are a bad influence, dude. She says all the time to be careful about spending time with you. Not to mention that she caught you doing a stupid impression of her just hours ago! So explain to me why she ended up asking you to come along on our next family vacation by the end of dinner!"


"I dunno," Kenny's eyes flickered with amusement. "I'm just a charming bastard, Kyle. No one can resist me."

"Did you drug my parents?" Kyle seemed legitimately worried about this for a moment. "Not cool, Kenny. If you put something in my parents' drinks—"

"Dude, calm down," Kenny held his hands up with a laugh. "No, I didn't drug your parents. I just know how to talk to people."

"Hah. That must be nice," Kyle sighed. He pulled his knees up to his chest.

"It is," Kenny agreed easily. "But not as nice as working appliances, I think. Speaking of which..." Kenny nodded towards Kyle's bathroom door. He smiled apologetically. "Would you mind if I took a shower, or...?"

Kyle waved Kenny off. "Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out. Clean towels are in the linen closet; you know this already."

"Fuck yeah," Kenny hopped to his feet. "You're the best, man."

"You only like me for the food and utilities!" Kyle called after Kenny, "I think you paid a little too close attention in that Home Ec. Class, pretty boy!"

Kenny shouted something like, "Up yours, Jew!" through the wall, and Kyle couldn't help but laugh. Kenny had been right about one thing, at least. This was nice.

Kenny returned to Kyle's bedroom. At the sight of Kenny, however, Kyle half-tumbled off the bed.

"Dude, put on your clothes!" Kyle turned bright red and averted his eyes. "You can't just waltz down the halls in nothing but a towel. What if my parents saw you?"

"They'd have only themselves to blame," Kenny shrugged. He had a towel draped carelessly around his hips. Drips of water from his hair glistened on his shoulders and chest, trailed in rivulets over the map of scars and bruises that covered over so much of Kenny's skin.

"When I got out of the shower, my clothes were gone. I think Sheila threw them in the wash. Thoughtful of her." Kenny sat down next to Kyle. Kyle seemed uncomfortable with the arrangement and retreated to the other end of the bed.

"Don't call my mom ‘Sheila,'" Kyle shuddered, "It's too weird. And...I'll just give you some of my clothes, to wear while yours dry. Just...hold on."

"Whatever makes you feel more comfortable." Kenny ran a hand through his still wet hair, causing a few licks to stick out around his ears.

Kyle dug through his drawers. He wasn't sure why he felt so very disoriented. Probably because it was so much more of Kenny than he was used to seeing. The orange hood seemed as much a part of Kenny as his two arms or his legs. Kenny and his parka were permanently associated with each other in Kyle's brain. Thus, Kenny seemed like a different person without it.

And Kyle had never realized how...battle-scarred Kenny was. He should have, probably. He knew Kenny got into trouble on the streets on a regular basis. There had to have been injuries. But Kenny seemed less, whole. Less...solid. More fragile, somehow, without his orange wrappings hiding the purple of deeper lacerations, the pink of barely-healed scrapes on Kenny's very-pale skin. But at the same time, they made Kenny look more dangerous, too. But with no hood to obscure it, the bruises on Kenny's face painted a fairly clear picture. Kenny had fought someone, and survived.

Had Kenny always been so boney? Kyle wondered as he dug through his pajama drawer. He felt eager to cover Kenny up, to make him less...visible. Less present. Kenny's collarbones protruded at sickly angles that would have hurt Sheila's motherly impulse to keep young people well fed. Kenny was surprisingly lanky, almost gangly—his long limbs, thin chest, and countable ribs were so unexpected to Kyle. He missed the shapeless jacket. Kenny's true shape was so much...more. More human. More real. Had the orange always been a vibrant distraction, concealing Kenny and making him seem untouchable? At this moment, Kenny suddenly seemed much more touchable.

It all lent to the idea of Kenny's...breakable-ness. Kyle pictured Kenny in his Mysterion costume, standing in front of a much bigger, scarier person. He thought about the scars, the fragile bones underneath the costume. Kyle's face went white, and he froze for a moment.

"Uhm, are you good?" Kenny asked, interrupting the petrifying thought, to Kyle's relief.

"I...yeah. Here you go." Kyle hastily threw his old, blue South Park High Walk-A-Thon T-shirt at Kenny, as well as a pair of clean, checked boxers. Kenny caught them before they smacked into his face.

"Thanks," Kenny grinned. He slipped the shirt on, and the material instantly became spotted from the dampness of his skin. He stood, and turned around, facing away from Kyle. He then stepped into the boxers, and pulled them on underneath the towel. Kyle noted, as Kenny bent forward, the faint spray of acne across Kenny's shoulders. It made Kyle strangely uncomfortable to know that Kenny had acne, too. Probably more to do with how human Kenny was quickly becoming.

Kenny pulled the boxers up, discarded the towel, and turned back to face Kyle, arms open at his sides. The shirt was huge on Kenny. Kenny was a little taller than Kyle was, but far less substantial. Kyle's shirt hung scarecrow-like on Kenny's frail frame. Kenny's boney knees were visible beneath the hem of the boxer shorts, blonde hairs slicked to his pale legs from the shower.

"You look weird without the orange." Kyle frowned. "Or you know, a cape. I don't think I've ever seen you wear normal-person clothes, Kenny."

"I can put the hood back on, if you want," Kenny reached for the parka, currently utilized as a pillow beside his sleeping bag.

"It's all right," Kyle muttered. "It doesn't matter. It's just surreal."

Kenny cocked his head, as if to inquire further, but he didn't say anything more. He left the parka on the floor, and retook his place next to Kyle instead, on top of Kyle's blankets.

"You should pick up the towel," Kyle wouldn't look at Kenny, kept his eyes down on the woven pattern of the bedspread. "If you leave a damp towel on the floor, it'll get mildew."

"Will you sit here squirming all night thinking about that?" Kenny teased. "Just thinking of the fungus growing in the folds of that towel on your bedroom floor? How will you sleep, thinking about that, dude? What it gains self awareness, and in the middle the night, starts to creep towards—"

"Stop it," Kyle said, quietly, closing his eyes.

"Seriously, Kyle. Are you okay?" Kenny leaned over to examine Kyle's troubled expression, "We were just having fun, dude. Where'd you go?"

"No where, Kenny. I'm right here." Kyle retorted, more harshly perhaps, than he had intended. Kenny immediately retreated, and blinked back at Kyle with surprise.

"Okay. Whatever." Kenny got down off the bed. He climbed into his sleeping bag, and to Kyle's relief, mostly covered himself up in the depths of the patched, horrible thing.

Kyle rose and shut off the light without saying anything more. But he lay in bed on his back, covers up to his chin, unable to shut his eyes.

"You could die out there." Kyle said softly, after a long time. He wondered if Kenny were already asleep.

He wasn't, apparently, because he heard Kenny rolled over, towards him. "I know," Kenny replied, matter-of-factly. "I'll come back."

Kyle felt himself get angry. He thought about Kenny's protruding bones, the angry welts and marks mottling the pale expanse of skin across his ribs. "It's not funny, Kenny. I worry about it all the time. You aren't immortal. You're just arrogant. And stupid. Someone could hurt you!"

"People get hurt all the time," Kenny sounded so far away. It was the most discomfiting thing about him: Kenny was at once worldly, and out of touch. Sometimes, he talked like he knew something everyone else didn't. It was infuriating.

"Not you," Kyle insisted through his clamped teeth. "I...I don't want it to be you."

Kenny didn't respond immediately. The silence seemed overwhelming and oppressive, filling the room like water and leaving very little space to breathe. Kyle almost said something, when it became unbearable, but then, he heard Kenny get up. For a moment, he thought Kenny was going to walk out of the room. However, in the next moment, Kyle felt Kenny get into his bed, and wriggle next to him under the covers.

Kenny was warm, and he smelled like Kyle's shampoo and the detergent Kyle's mother used to wash the clothes. Up close, Kyle could see the flecks of light reflected in Kenny's eyes from the window. He wondered, distractedly, if Kenny had brushed his teeth, and if he had, if he'd used Kyle's toothbrush. The thought was both gross and appealing, somehow.

"Let's stay up," Kenny said, and grinned. "Let's not sleep." He had brushed his teeth, Kyle noted from the minty, cool flavor of his breath.




Kyle fought the urge to squirm, unused to having someone so physically near. "I...what do you want to do?"

"Talk," Kenny smiled in that crazy, mysterious way of his. Kenny, to Kyle, seemed forever entertained by some untold, private joke. Perhaps Kyle just wanted to be let in on it, as if learning to understand Kenny meant that he too could laugh at whatever seemed so perpetually amusing to his friend.

"About what?" Kyle asked, though he didn't care, not really.

"Everything." Kenny whispered. "Let's talk about everything in the world. I'll even tell you stuff about the next world, if you want."

It was a strange answer, but that fit the moment. In the low light, without his hood, Kenny looked like a stranger. And yet he was deeply familiar, a voice and pair of bright blue eyes Kyle had known all his life. Shadows dipped into the lines of Kenny's face, sharpened his features, washed him out. He was like something out of a fevered dream, disconnected from the reality Kyle knew, but somehow part of Kyle's subconscious all along. A feeling bubbled up in Kyle's stomach, nameless and irresistible.

And he didn't know if they'd manage to talk about everything. Not even everything in South Park, let alone the world. But everything except for Kenny felt very far away, and Kyle felt reckless, nose-to-nose under the blankets with this not-stranger.

"Thanks for coming tonight," he said, something catching in his throat. He swallowed, thickly. "Kenny. I'm glad you did."

"Me, too."

And they stayed up just talking like that. Kenny told him about Karen, and what it was like, growing up and trying to shield her from the worst of it. Kyle told him about the insecurities he obsessed over but never spoke about. Kenny told him about his horrifying encounter with the three thugs at the train station. He told Kyle about Butters, still unconscious in the hospital. They didn't quite get around to talking about everything. They never breached the subject of Scott, for example.

But by the time the sun rose, and the boys fell asleep, Kyle knew he'd never see the parka again, or the cape. He'd see Kenny beneath them, and probably wonder how he'd ever missed him before.

Scott and Kevin stood on the front porch when Kenny got home from school that following Monday. He'd spent the weekend bouncing between Kyle and Stan's, but he figured he'd have to face the music eventually. Karen would worry. But she would probably also understand. Kenny had promised not to judge Scott, and that was a whole lot easier when he didn't also have to be around Scott.

Kenny considered sneaking around the back in order to avoid having to look at Scott's stupid face up close, but Kevin spotted him before he could make his escape.

"Git over ‘ere, Ken," Kevin ordered across the yard. "We're havin' a real interestin' conversation. You should probl'y hear this."

Kenny glared at Kevin and slung his sleeping bag over his shoulder. He saw little choice but to oblige, however. It would look stupid to sneak around the back now that he'd been seen. So, grudgingly, Kenny made his way over to the two.

"'Sup," Kenny greeted, and stared at his sneakers. His sock was beginning to poke through a hole near the laces of his left shoe.

"Hey," Scott said. He sounded irritatingly cheerful and normal. Kenny chanced a look at his face, and was pleased to note that he'd left a bruise along Scott's jaw, which had turned brownish, with a faint green outline as it began to heal. "I was just telling Kevin here how great I think your sister is."

Kenny fought not to spit in Scott's face. He didn't care what Scott thought of his sister. In fact, he would rather Scott not think about his sister at all. The only thing keeping Kenny from curb stomping the bastard was his promise to Karen to give Scott a chance.

So Kenny said nothing. He continued to stare at his shoes. They were filthy, and about two sizes too small. Good Will didn't have any in his size the last time he'd gone.

When the silence became awkward, Kevin cut in, clearing his throat.

"Yeah, well. Kar's a good kid," he said, tucking his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans. He leaned back on his heels. "An' I been thinkin'. Why'm I pissed iff'n my best friend wants to rub uglies with my kin? Who better? T'Least it ain't some stranger. I know Scott's good people, ‘n that's good enough fer me."

"You met Scott in rehab, Kevin. They locked him up in an asylum for years, ‘cause he was too unstable and dangerous to be around civilized society!" Kenny growled, barely containing himself. Out of everyone, he'd counted on Kevin at least to be on his side. "Does that sound like ‘good people' to you?" Kenny spared Scott a quick look. "...No offense, dude."

"Kenny," Kevin adopted an annoying scolding tone. "Ain't right to judge people thataway. Scott went through the program same as me."

"Karen got to you, too!" Kenny accused. "She made you say that!"

"Nah, she didn't make me," Kevin folded his arms over each other. "She's jest right. And she loves him, Ken. T'aint' nothin' we kin do about it."

"Why don't you let Scott speak for himself," Kenny barked irritably. "I've already heard this little spiel once. I don't need it again from you, Kevin."

Scott had been hanging back as Kenny and Kevin argued, unnoticed. He said remarkably little in his own defense, choosing instead to sit on the porch stoop and keep to himself. At the mention of his name, he turned around to regard the McCormick brothers with a small smile.

"It's nice of you to look out for your sister," Scott told Kenny. "She obviously cares about you, too. She talks about you all the time. Worries, mostly."

Kenny looked down at Scott. He used to feel sorry for the kid. Cartman had done a fucked thing to the guy; in truth, Kenny didn't really blame him for losing his mind over it. Kenny was sure most anyone would have done the same. He knew on some level, it was unfair to hold that against him now that the circumstances had changed.

Scott was still nothing to look at. Kenny had no idea what Karen saw in him. The guy had droopy, sleepy looking eyes, crazy red hair that rivaled even Kyle's, and a small, mean looking mouth with thin, pale lips. He was gangly, so tall and thin he looked as if he'd been stretched out on a rack. And Kenny would bet money that Scott still cried like a pussy every time he heard a Radiohead song play.

"Karen wants me to get to know you," Kenny told Scott. He scratched the back of his head with one hand, looking sheepishly off in a different direction. "I don't know if I can do that. I told her I would try."

"Iffen I can, you can," Kevin supplied, unhelpful as usual. "I'm the one who should feel betrayed n' all. Seein' as screwin' your best bro's lil' sis breaks the dude code."

"I'm sorry for that, Kevin," Scott sighed, "I never planned for this. It just sort of happened—and I wouldn't have let it, if I didn't genuinely care for her. You know that."

"I do," Kevin shrugged. "I was pissed as hell. Now, I'm cool with it."

Kevin reached down to bump fists with Scott, as if the matter were settled. Kenny was bewildered by how easy Kevin made it look.

"I...just need time, I think," Kenny felt quite tired by the whole conversation. "I guess I'm not as...evolved, as my brother is. I still think twenty-four-year-olds should stay the fuck away from fifteen-year-olds, but that's just me. And the law." Kenny's voice became hard and angry, but he relaxed it again in the next moment with a deep, gusty sigh. "But Karen's serious about you, so I'm going to have to get over it, I guess. Dude...just don't let me catch you sneaking out of here at four AM again, and we're cool, ‘kay?"

Scott nodded, evenly. "Means a lot. To both Karen, and me."

"Whatever. Excuse me," Kenny hurried ahead, and closed the screen door behind him. As he headed to his room, he heard Kevin say:

"Donchu worry ‘bout a thing, Scott. Kenny's jes' got a stick up his ass, is what. He'll come around."

Kevin, being older, had long tortured Kenny with tales of how the real world was. Kevin was a cynical person, who'd told five-year-old Kenny what a hooker was, and how to get a girl to give him a blowjob. He told Kenny that they lived in a dead-end place, that no one ever escaped South Park, not really—and that they, with no money and statistical disadvantages, were especially fucked; Kenny might as well get used to it. Kenny made a religion out of doubting Kevin. He hoped Kevin was wrong so often, it became Kenny's default to fight against anything Kevin told him, and rail against all that Kevin held to be true.

But now, in this one instance, Kenny hoped Kevin was right. For Karen's sake.

Pestering Wendy came with certain risks. Kenny was willing to take them, however, because he figured, hey. What was the worst she could do? Kill him? Kenny wasn't scared of dying, anymore than he was of putting on shoes or taking the bus; she'd have to do better than that if she wanted to shake him. Kenny was more tenacious than a dog with a bone when it came to a particularly good high. He'd follow her to hell and back. Literally, if need be.

And follow her is what he did. After school that Tuesday, he trailed her through the school parking lot as soon as the bell rang. He followed her when she got on a bus to the other side of South Park. He laid low and hung back at a safe distance, hiding behind a copy of Playboy magazine so she wouldn't see his face. She made no indication that she noticed her tail. So, Kenny kept following her when she got off the bus, and walked until she arrived at the burned down Wall-to-Wall-Mart site.

Kenny hid behind some bushes as she marched across the charred lot. He watched with interest as Wendy checked the area quickly, to see that she was alone. When she apparently thought that she'd made sure she was, she bent down over a couple of broken, blackened boards. She kicked them aside, and lifted up a trapdoor from the ground. She propped it up, and then crouched. Then she disappeared, presumably into wherever the trapdoor led, and closed the door after her.

"No way!" Kenny rushed out from his hiding spot excitedly. "A secret hide-out! This is so fucking legit!"

He debated going in after Wendy for a moment. On the one hand, how could he not? Wendy had a fucking secret headquarters underground! The awesomeness levels were too high not to investigate. But on the other hand...If Wendy discovered that Kenny had followed her, it might lessen her trust in him, and hurt his chances of convincing her to let him partner with her.

Kenny thought on the issue for a full thirty seconds before deciding Wendy wasn't too keen on him as a partner anyway. He was already on her shit list; he doubted he could make it worse, or inspire Wendy to dislike him more than she already did.

Besides, he had to see the hideout. It was probably full of sweet weapons and shit! He couldn't just walk away from an actual secret mercenary studio!

So, Kenny—like Wendy before him—checked to make sure no one was watching him and lifted the door from the floor. He looked down into the hole, and found it was way to dark to see anything. He flung the door back, and plunged in. He grabbed a rope attached to the bottom as he went down, slamming the trapdoor shut behind him.

Kenny landed on his knees in the dirt. He could smell that he was underground; the air was damp and cool, somewhat stale. For a moment, Kenny could not even see his hand in front in front of him. As he rose, he felt along the walls to try to gain his bearing.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the light, and he saw that he was in a tunnel that led in only one direction. Wendy was nowhere to be seen, so he assumed she was at the end of it. He followed the pathway somewhat blindly, stumbling along as he felt his way down the wall.

At the end of the tunnel was a door. Kenny felt around until he touched the handle. He pulled it, and immediately, his vision flooded with light. He squinted as he entered the brightness. But no sooner had he turned to shut the door to the tunnel than something tackled him from the side, and pushed him to the floor.

Kenny cried out with surprise. But he barely had time to take a breath before someone flipped him over with his arms splayed out and pinned down on either side of him. On top of him hovered a very irate looking Wendy Testaburger.

Kenny grinned up at her. "Hey, dude. This is a sweet place!"

It really was. The chrome-y walls were sleek, rounded and futuristic. The place was equipped with punching bags and training equipment, and a row of large storage cabinets that Kenny would bet his left nut were filled with all sorts of cool weapons. A big computer sat in one far corner, where Wendy had obviously been working. The screen was on, and papers strewn all over the desktop, a pair of reading glasses perched atop a stack of files. A mat and wall-sized mirror occupied the other far corner of the rather impressively sized single room.

"Why were you following me?" Wendy hissed down at him.

"Because you won't talk to me," Kenny said patiently, "Obviously. Do you always keep this place unlocked?"

"Of course I don't leave it unlocked! I knew you were following me, so I was waiting for you to show yourself! And I won't talk to you because there is nothing to talk about!" Wendy got off of Kenny. She stood, disentangling herself from him with a look of disgust on her face. "We are not going to work together. And you have to stop following me! You're going to blow my cover!"

"I won't," Kenny argued, visibly offended. "I'm stealthy!"

"Oh, please," Wendy examined her fingernails, "I would know; you're about a stealthy as a thirteen year old storing porn mags in his pillowcase. Which you probably actually do."

"Come on, Wendy," Kenny balled his hands up with frustration. "You could teach me stuff! I'd be a GREAT partner! Why won't you give me a chance? You know I'm not going to leave you alone until you—"

"Fine," Wendy interjected curtly. She stared intently at Kenny's face, her brow raised a few millimeters in a distinct challenge. "You can be my partner—"

"Fuck yes!" Kenny pumped his fist in the air, "Woohoo! You won't regret this, Wends, I'll be the best—"

"—If," Wendy cut him off again, "You can hit me just once."

"What?" Kenny frowned, confused. "You want me to hit you? Why?"

"You want to be my partner," Wendy bent her knees and prepared herself. She did not appear to be kidding, and Kenny felt distinctly as if he were being bated. "That means we'd be equals. I need to know if you're capable of matching me. I need to know I won't be stuck picking up your slack."

Wendy finally smiled, but it was far from comforting. In fact, she looked distinctly frightening instead. "Come on, Kenneth. Hit me with your best shot."

Kenny was at a loss. He was sure this was some kind of trap. But, he also figured he didn't have a choice. Wendy was giving him just one chance to get what he wanted. He had to take it, if he wanted her to take him seriously. So, he rolled up his sleeves.

"All right, dude. But I warn you, I hit pretty hard." Kenny approached her somewhat gingerly. He half-hoped the willingness to do it would be enough.

"Whatever." Wendy rolled her shoulders, loosening them. "Shut up and hit me."

Kenny faltered, but took another obliging step forward. He aimed a straight jab to her gut, which she blocked deftly. He followed it up with a second jab to her chest with his other fist, but she deflected that as well, swatting the hand away before putting her guard back up. Kenny tried to finish the combo with a hook to the side of her head and a near simultaneous uppercut to the jaw. Wendy, however, swung her arm up to fend off the first, and grabbed Kenny's wrist and twisted it to prevent the second.

She bent it back with a small frown on her face. Kenny yelped, and tried to pull away, but she twisted harder, manipulating the limb so that Kenny had to bend at the knees and hold still to prevent further injuring himself.

"You're slow," Wendy informed him. "Your reflexes are poor, and you throw predictable combinations. It's taken me less than five seconds to make you my bitch. Try again."

Wendy released Kenny, and he backed up, rubbing at his wrist. Then, he buckled down, a look of determination spreading across his features. So, she wanted to play hardball? He could do that. Kenny approached slowly this time. He stayed just out of range, before ducking in, faking to the left, and then throwing a centered blow aimed straight at Wendy's throat.

Wendy reacted by whirling so that her back faced Kenny. The blow missed by inches, and Wendy stomped on Kenny's instep, and then caught his diaphragm with a jab from her elbow. When he doubled forward, she jumped up and slammed the heel off her palm into the flat of Kenny's back. He went down with a surprised grunt, and immediately felt her foot on the back of his neck. He didn't dare move.

"That's two-nothing," Wendy informed him. She removed her sneaker, and stepped away. "Again. Really try this time, Kenneth."

Kenny sprung to his feet. His abdomen, foot and back fucking hurt where she'd hit him, and he could not put full pressure on his foot. He started to feel angry, now. Wendy thought she could push him around? Well, he'd show her! He'd been fighting in the street for years. Maybe he couldn't beat Wendy in a hand-to-hand fight, but he could certainly hit her. It was time to play dirty.

Kenny let out a sharp growl and charged her. He attempted to get an arm looped around the back of her neck, so he could hold her down and wrestle her to the floor. But putting his arm around Wendy's neck turned out to be a mistake. She quickly wound her arm along the inside of Kenny's. She stood firm, so Kenny couldn't use his weight to pull her down, and from her new position, turned so her shoulder was directly in Kenny's armpit. This meant that Kenny's arm was at full tension, extended over Wendy's upper back, and with her arm leveraged around his the way it was, a simple twist would dislocate Kenny's arm from his shoulder.

Kenny didn't even struggle. He just went limp, knowing she had him at her mercy.

"For future reference, Kenneth, this exercise is just a test. You should know that fighting is not really about hitting," Wendy barked at him. She tugged gently on his arm, and it hurt so much Kenny cried out. She released him then, and crossed her arms in a displeased manner. "It's about disabling your opponents, so they can't hit you back. Break their limbs. Cut their tendons. Don't wait for them to figure out a way to hurt you, Kenny. If you want to win a real fight, you have to make sure your opponent stays down."

Kenny panted, somewhat out of breath. "Maiming people..." he said. "Seems unethical."

"Only if the person doesn't deserve it," Wendy retorted. "You still haven't hit me, though. What are you waiting for?"

Kenny decided to go for her shins this time. He made to throw a punch, but instead, he ducked low and aimed a sweeping kick at her ankles.

Wendy leaned away from the first anticipated blow, and then jumped easily to avoid the kick, as if skipping rope. She landed a few inches from Kenny's extended leg.

"Don't ever do that!" Wendy scolded him, "What are you, stupid? That move is useless unless you're in a bad action movie! If I had jumped on top of your leg just then, it would be broken in two places! End of fight. You lose. THINK about how your moves position you for the next one, not just about what they might do to the opponent!"

Kenny glared at her and got back up to his feet. He ran at her without warning, intending to straight tackle her to the floor and simply overpower her. Wendy stepped forward, angled the left side of her body towards Kenny, rammed her elbow into his sternum, and caught him by the throat. Her thumb pushed Kenny's chin upward, middle and index finger bracing his jaw, as her other hand held him steady at the shoulder.

"And now you're dead," Wendy said, softly. "If we were in a real fight, from here I'd simply break your neck."

Kenny ripped out of her grasp and stepped clear of her. He perspired, and bits of sweat-darkened blond hair stuck to his forehead. "Fuck you," he spat. He felt so humiliated; all these years of fighting, and here he was: completely outmatched by a girl.

"You're giving up, then?" Wendy asked. She was distinctly free of perspiration, and her cool demeanor made Kenny even angrier. "You don't want to be partners anymore?"

Past planning, Kenny rushed Wendy with his fist raised instead of replying. He made a long, animalistic cry and threw all his energy into forcing himself towards her.

Wendy leapt, spinning on one foot, and tucked her right arm into Kenny's left. Simultaneously, she extended her own left arm out across Kenny's throat. In the next second before landing, she detangled her right arm from Kenny's left. Her own extended left arm cut off Kenny's airway when she landed behind him, and Kenny began to choke for the sudden lack of oxygen. Then Wendy bent forward, and the momentum took Kenny off balance. Kenny gasped as he flipped and tumbled headlong over Wendy's bent back, legs flailing about as he fell through the air, until he landed flat on his face behind her.

It all happened so fast that Kenny scarcely had time to blink. He coughed and lay out on the floor, stunned.

"Don't waste your movements, Kenneth." Wendy instructed, peering down at Kenny from above. "Every movement should connect into the next one. Use your momentum, and set up your next move. You should always be thinking ahead, of what both you and you opponent will do next."

Kenny coughed again and sat up, slowly. He shook his head. His body was in shock at the beating it had just taken, and his ears rang in protest from being dropped the way he had been. It was hopeless, he realized. He couldn't hit her.

Sighing with defeat, Kenny rose and headed for the door. "You're right, Wends," he rubbed the back of his head dazedly, "I'm not a fit partner for you. I'll leave you alone."

He reached for the door handle, and was halfway through the exit when Wendy's voice stopped him.

"Oh, goddamnit; hold up," she called out to him in an exasperated voice. "Come back tomorrow, Kenneth. We'll do this again. And get something decent to eat, please. Training is HARD on your body, and I don't want you passing out on me."

Kenny grinned to himself, but didn't quite turn around. "Partners?"

"Shut up."

Kenny found that his relationship with Kyle had fundamentally altered. He wasn't sure there was a title or a label for what they had now. They'd crossed some invisible boundary, somewhere. Kyle had functioned as Kenny's de facto conscience for so long that he basically ceased to see Kyle as anything but an extension of himself. Perhaps that was the downfall of having long-term close friends. Once Kenny knew someone too well, the lines between who-was-who began to blur.

But Kyle was interesting in his own right, and it was fun to observe him in an individual capacity. Kenny was quickly discovering just how poor a judgment call it had been to make Kyle his conscience. Kyle was far too interesting to be anyone's conscience. Also, he wasn't strictly a good person (no one interesting, in Kenny's experience, was).

For example, today, Kyle and Kenny sat in the library (which had a penetrating stale smell, and perpetual feeling that one was breathing dust—the books were in terrible condition, thanks to education budget cuts). But Kyle practically lived here, and so Kenny started to appreciate it. The library was hushed and serious. It had an ancient sense of importance. Kyle, Kenny found, fit in here perfectly—with the silent thoughts of so many dead guys, the air of somber drudgery.

Yet Kyle personally was neither somber nor mired in drudgery. The contrast made how easily Kyle belonged here all the more perplexing and interesting.

Stan sat nearby, but Kyle would not speak to him. It had been days since Stan and Cartman had bailed on the planned sleepover. Cartman couldn't give a shit about Kyle's cold-shouldering, so Kyle didn't bother with him. But the idea of losing Kyle was hard on Stan, as most everything was. To Kenny, it seemed Stan had been built without shock absorbers. As a result, Stan was oversensitive and insecure, and ignoring him was pretty much the worst punishment anyone could inflict on him.

So, what did Kyle do? He pretended Stan did not exist for days and days. Simply telling Stan off, it seemed, did not sate Kyle's sense of vindictiveness. Instead, Kyle subjected Stan to righteous, indignant silence, until Stan was very apparently desperate for it to end. It was pretty satisfying to watch, actually. Stan begged, apologized, swore at Kyle, and then cycled over and did all three again. But Kyle remained stalwartly unmoved. It was the clever sort of cruelty that someone with a true conscience shouldn't be capable of inflicting, especially on one's best friend.

But Kenny liked that about Kyle. He liked that Kyle was not sitting back and taking Stan's depressed shit. He was glad Kyle didn't always do the right thing. It made Kyle seem more like a separate person. And Kenny was thus able to more fully appreciate him in his own right.

As Kenny and Kyle poured over a Chemistry textbook, Kenny pretended to listen to Kyle's explanation of hydrogen peroxide decomposition. Really, he admired the execution of Kyle's specific torture. For all the world, Kyle did not seem to realize Stan was in the same room. The only clue was the slightly elevated pitch of Kyle's voice. Kyle made sure Stan could hear him, while giving the perfect impression of not acknowledging him.

Stan's pained expression as he glowered at the two of them meant it was working.

"Maybe you should ease up," Kenny suggested in a soft voice, so that Stan could not hear. He tilted his head towards Stan indicatively. "Haven't you punished the poor dude enough?"

Kyle narrowed his eyes at Kenny. "Stan pretended I didn't exist when he didn't even call to cancel plans. It was inconsiderate, and so it's only fair I refuse to consider him, or his existence."

"Oh, c'mon," Kenny tried a teasing little smile, "Do you really need Marsh to cry to make your point? Look at him; he's a fucking wreck, dude. Lesson learned. I don't think he'll blow you off again."

Kyle visibly relented. The guilt Kenny had anticipated was present in the shift of Kyle's eyes, briefly, in Stan's direction.

"Oh all right," Kyle sighed, "I guess it's not cool of me to keep freezing him out. He did apologize and everything."

"Pretty bitchy actually," Kenny put his shoes up on the table and leaned back, stretching out his spine. He hated sitting for long periods of time. He shot Kyle quick grin. "No offense."

The weird thing about the shift in he and Kyle's relationship was that Kyle no longer seemed to take the things Kenny said so personally anymore. Probably that meant they had a deeper understanding, which improved communication. Thus, Kenny thought, Kyle probably felt less defensive around him. It was helpful, because in the past Kyle would've taken the "bitchy" comment not-so-well.

However, today, Kyle just kicked Kenny under the table. But right afterward, he said, "...Maybe it was sort of an overreaction. Hold on."

Amazing. Kenny shook his head as Kyle got up to end the silence with Stan. It was possible to reason with Kyle. If one happened to be on his good side, that is. Kenny kind of liked being on Kyle's good side.

As Kyle and Stan talked, Cartman entered the library. He spotted Kenny sitting alone in the corner nook and approached. Kenny seriously considered getting up and pretending not to notice him.

Cartman hurried and sat down, closing the brief window of opportunity to avoid interaction. He had a deeply smug look on his face, which generally meant bad news for someone else.

"Uh oh," Kenny rested his chin on his palm and braced himself for whatever Cartman was smirking about. "What did you do, Cartman?"

"Oh ho!" Cartman adjusted himself self-importantly. "What makes you think I did anything, Kenneth? Why do you automatically assume the worst of me?"

Kenny could hear Cartman's heavy breathing from across the table. Cartman was perpetually out-of-breath, as if just existing were physically demanding for him. Perhaps it was; he had a lot of extra weight to lug around.

"Because I know you. And besides, that stupid look on your face tipped me off," Kenny explained, a bit sharply. "Now, spit it out, fatass."

"I just heard that your sister is banging that loser, Scott Tenorman," Cartman leered. Kenny fumed, already preparing to beat the ever-loving shit out of Cartman for daring to bring this up in front of him.

"Someone's got daddy issues, I think." Cartman mused, "Or self esteem issues. Low standards much, Karen?"

"Shut the fuck up, you tactless bastard," Kenny warned, pointing a finger at Cartman's pudgy chest as if to puncture him. "You don't know shit, so just quit talking now while you're ahead."

"Are you actually saying you approve of this train-wreck of a match?" Cartman seemed genuinely surprised, leaning forward to examine Kenny's furious expression. Kenny was tempted to smack Cartman's stupid face away. "'Cause I thought you of all people would be pissed about this."

"I'm saying it's none of your fucking business." Kenny said, too loudly. The librarian hushed them from the desk, peering sharply over her thick-rimmed glasses.

Kenny lowered his voice. "I don't want to talk about this with you, of all people. So shut your stupid, fat mouth, okay?"

Cartman appeared stricken, and Kenny hated how the flash of unhappiness that flickered across Cartman's wide, flat face affected him. Eric wasn't really soulless. He had the sensitivity and empathy of a baked clam, but he did have feelings of his own, and it was clear Kenny's comment had hurt them, at least a little bit.

"Fine; that's fine!" Cartman started getting to his feet (quite an involved process for him, of course, as it involved movement). "I'll just leave you alone, then. I was gonna tell you the news I just heard from Heidi, who heard it from Rebecca, who heard it from Lexus. But if you are gonna be such a butthole about it, I'll just keep the information to myself!"

By this point, Kyle and Stan deemed to return to the study table together. Stan looked considerably brighter, but Cartman's presence insured that Kyle did not reflect the improved nature of the circumstances.

"That's my seat, fat boy," Kyle prodded Cartman's shoulder. "Move."

"God, I hate you guys." Cartman finally managed to stand, huffing mightily between his indignant words. "You are such ungrateful, terrible friends. I bring you important news and this is how I am treated?"

"We don't care about your news," Stan added. He sucked the end of his E-cigarette, and blew a series of half-formed rings. Frustrated, Stan inhaled once more, and paused to try again. He puckered, and blew a round, soft ring that expanded till it burst.

Then, Kyle and Stan took seats on the other side of the round table. Kenny, however, already felt badly about treating Cartman like an unwanted case of hemorrhoids. Even Cartman was human. Sort of. Right?

"Okay, tell us," Kenny rubbed his forehead, already regretting his decision to hand power back to Cartman. But it worked, because Cartman automatically began smiling again, always happy to have a reason to command the center of attention.

"Well, now I don't want to," Cartman seemed to gloat. "You assholes can just sit there and wonder, and wish you were a little nicer to me!" Both Stan and Kyle shot Kenny a devastating look, which begged the very apparent question: why? Why would you encourage him?

Kenny was tempted to throw his hands up and leave it alone. The problem with Cartman was that he didn't read basic social cues. If anybody had Ass-Burgers or whatever the fuck, it was Eric Cartman. He couldn't seem to resist irritating everyone around him, because the guy didn't know when to stop.

But Kenny had asked for this, so he pressed on, despite his growing desire to throttle Cartman and leave his carcass on the library floor. "Please tell us your news, Eric," Kenny said, deadpan, to indicate that his limits were thoroughly pushed by the whole exercise (though such a message would likely be ignored). "I am begging you. Please."

"I don't know, Kenny. Maybe I don't want—"

"Tell me or get the fuck out, Cartman." Kenny put two fingers to either side of his forehead and massaged in small circles.

Kyle made a disgusted noise and went back to his studies. Stan said nothing, and continued fiddling with his vaporizer. He spared a questioning glance in Kenny's direction; they all knew that the best way to get rid of Cartman was to ignore him. Kenny had deliberately stoked the fire, so to speak, and Stan was perceptive enough to wonder why.

Kenny started to wonder himself. Especially when Cartman came back with:

"Fine. But I'm telling you ‘cause I want to see the look on your face first had, not ‘cause I like you, you poor fuck." Cartman sneered. "...Your skank sister is tying the knot with her sugar daddy."

Kenny's world crashed to a halt. He blinked, dumbstruck, and even Kyle's head shot up from his book, an alarmed look on his face.

"Don't even say that, dude," Kyle snapped. "It's not fucking funny, Cartman."

Cartman seemed to revel in the shattered expression on Kenny's face, his good mood restored. But Kenny couldn't resent him for it. He was floored, and floundered for a moment to do anything but gape in disbelief.

"No," Kenny croaked at last. "No, she-she. Can't She still, has to go to college, and—"

"She's probably knocked up," Cartman was downright gleeful now. Others' misery always brought out the best in him. "Red necks and their shotgun weddings. You know, she should probably just get an abortion, so that she doesn't pass on the ginger gene to her little brood of—"

"SHUT UP!" Kenny stood, and shouted. The librarian shushed them again, but this time, everyone ignored her. "SHUT UP, CARTMAN, STOP IT! JUST STOP—"

"Calm down, jeez," Cartman chuckled, and Kyle had to restrained Kenny from lurching across the table and knocking Cartman's face off. "Though, I don't blame you for being pissy. Scott's bad news, man. I would know."

Cartman's smug, self-satisfied smile would've spelled his certain demise if Stan and Kyle didn't have the presence of mind to double down on their efforts to hold Kenny back. Then, Stan and Kyle rose simultaneously to haul Kenny up by the arms. They began to drag him to the exit, both realizing they would be thrown out of the library presently if they did not remove Kenny from the situation.

"Not cool, Cartman," Stan hissed over his shoulder to Eric, as they dragged the insensible Kenny outside. "If Scott's bad news, it's because of you, remember?"

"Kenny, calm down. Breathe," Kyle reminded him, though Kenny was a bit beyond reasonable control of his actions.

Once outside, Kenny began to frantically gulp breaths of air. His sister, at fifteen years old, wanted to marry a mentally unstable guy nearly twice her age. He couldn't handle the idea. Couldn't begin to process how upset it made him. It was bad enough when she announced she was just seeing Scott. And now—Kenny had tried so hard not to lose her, to keep her safe. And now—

Kyle leaned closer. "We don't even know if he's right."

Kenny's panic attack rushed over him. Stan rubbed at Kenny's back with an uncomfortable look on his face.

"Yeah, Cartman's just full of crap as usual." Stan said, though he sounded uncertain.

Kenny was certain there was only one way to find out. But the idea of knowing the answer for sure sent him into a bout of wordless shouting. He screamed profanities at an unhearing sky, and Kyle and Stan stopped trying to comfort him. They both knew there was nothing they could say.

Karen entered Kenny's room that evening. Wednesday evenings, Kenny liked to surf the Net for creative pornography. It was practically a ritual. Wednesdays were his themed porn nights. Midget, hermaphrodite, glitter fetish: in Kenny's experience, porn tended to suffer from a serious case of monotony. A little depravity was just the thing to freshen shit up.

But luckily (for Karen, Kenny not so much), Wendy's training regimen left little time for that. Kenny's whole body was sore from the physical tasks she had him doing. 100 push-ups and pull-ups every day. Ten miles per week minimum. She'd emailed a whole daily schedule of exercises to him, and Kenny, at the time, half-thought she was kidding. But he had quickly learned that Wendy's sense of humor was limited, and thus a practical joke of that nature was highly unlikely.

She'd also sent him a list of katas—taekwondo patterns of movement to practice—and, in particular, quite a few bo staff exercises. Kenny realized she would probably test him on these, and so he'd done his best to memorize and practice them. For a staff, he used an unscrewed broom handle. And though it was not the staff he wanted to play with on Wednesday night, he figured it would be worth it in the end. He would prove to Wendy that he was a worthy partner.

Thus, when Karen came into Kenny's room without knocking, Kenny was practicing a basic strip-away (much less fun than a strip-tease, of course). In real time, this would entail using the weapon to hook under the opponent's staff, flip it back, and then knock it out of his or her hand. But currently, it amounted to Kenny waving a broom handle around in the air.

"Uhm, Kenny," Karen stared at the broom handle for a moment with confusion, but quickly snapped her gaze back up to Kenny's face. "Could...I talk to you if you aren't too busy?"

Kenny nodded, and wiped some sweat from his damp hairline. "Yeah sure," he replied, though he wasn't sure he really wanted to hear what she had to say; he had a pretty good idea of what it would be, and had avoided asking on purpose. "What's up?"

Karen took a deep breath, looking nervous. She still wore her ratty little bunny slippers, and for a moment, she looked just the way she did as a kid, when she'd broken one of Kenny's action figures and had come to ask forgiveness.

"Well...I made dinner," Karen told him, tucking a bit of hair back behind one ear, "And I kind of wanted to tell the whole family...would you come out and join us, maybe?"

The bad feeling squeezing Kenny's gut became much worse. Karen had cooked again, which essentially confirmed his suspicions regarding what exactly she wanted to talk to him about. However, Kenny nodded his consent to participate in the conversation anyway. He leaned the makeshift staff against his bedroom wall and followed her down the hall.

Kevin, Stuart and Carol sat around the television in the living room. Kenny's mother and father sat next to each other on the couch, and Kevin sat on a fold-out chair to their right. Another fold-out chair sat next to Kevin's, clearly meant for Kenny. Scott sat on the other side of the couch next to an empty chair, which Kenny guessed was Karen's designated spot.

The weather channel was passably visible through the snow on the screen. A garbled, tinny voice of the newscaster lady supplied white noise, and for a while after Kenny entered the room, that was the only noise.

"I'll get the food," Karen said, and gestured towards the empty seat next to Kevin. "Kenny, won't you sit down?"

Reluctantly, Kenny trudged across the room and did so. He pointedly avoided looking at Scott. Karen, meanwhile all but ran back to the kitchen to fetch their dinner. Meatloaf, if Kenny's nose could be trusted. It was one of the four things Karen both knew how to cook and could afford.

"Hiya, Kenny," Scott attempted a small wave in Kenny's direction. "How've you been?"

"Terrific," Kenny told him, "Just swell. How about you?"

If Scott sensed that Kenny was being sarcastic, he didn't show it. "I'm great; thanks for asking," Scott nodded politely, "And thanks for coming down to dinner. We have some exciting news, and I know it means a lot of Karen that you are here."

"Oh, isn't it excitin'?" Carol squeezed Stuart's upper bicep affectionately. "Honey, remember when I tol' your folks that I was knocked up with Kevin?"

"Could we not discuss Karen possibly being pregnant, please?" Kenny asked in a civil, but curt tone.

"Hah, don't worry Kenny," Scott attempted a joking smile, "If she really were pregnant, we'd be half-way to California by now."

Kenny was not amused. He looked down at the floor and counted to ten to calm himself instead of answering.

"Yeah, lighten up a spell, bro," Kevin smiled at Kenny, and it always struck Kenny as strange how different he and Kevin looked in all other respects, but how very similar they appeared when smiling. It was the only time it was so readily apparent that the two were brothers. They had dimples and crinkles in all the same places.

When Karen returned with TV trays, Kenny immediately stood to help her. Scott, he noticed, did not do the same.

"Here, let me help with that," Kenny said, taking the trays from Karen and passing them to his parents.

"Thanks." Karen went back to the kitchen for the rest of them. Kenny followed her there. As she spooned rice onto a plate, Kenny caught sight of her left hand. A sparkling band glittered on her ring finger, and Kenny was seriously tempted to re-purpose the rice cooker as a barf bag. He tried to convince himself for a moment that it was a promise ring, like the kind he and Tammy had worn.

When Kenny finally took his own tray to his seat, he tried to focus on the TV and nothing else. If he looked at Scott, he'd explode. If he looked at Karen, he'd cry. If he looked at anyone else, he'd feel betrayed. So he just stared at the grainy weather lady. He too wished he were a thousand miles away. Visibly present, but untouched by the events in this living room.

"So," Karen said, and she and Scott smiled at each other. "Scott and I have decided that we want to get married."

Carol squealed with joy. Stuart shared a beer with Scott, who then toasted with Kevin.

"It won't happen right away," Kenny heard Karen explain, though he still couldn't look at her. "We'll wait a few years, but we're saving up and planning on it already. Oh, gosh, Mom, can I wear your old dress?"

"Yes, a' course y'all can!" Carol got to her feet to wrap both Karen and Scott in a tight hug. "I'm so happy fer you, baby girl!"

Kenny wished he felt the same way. He wished more than anything that he could celebrate with his family. He wished that he could participate the way Karen wanted him to. But all he could do was watch the weather lady promise clear weather through the week.

"Are you still going to go to college after you graduate?" was Kenny's only input. He felt Karen turn to watch him, felt the dismay in her expression aimed at him.

"I, uh," Karen seemed off-put by the question. "I guess. But I was really hoping to set down and start a little family of our own after high school."

"That's what I want too," Scott said fondly, "You'd make such a beautiful mother, Kar."

"Ain't it the sweetest thing?" Carol warbled tearfully, and dabbed at her eyes with the bottom of her t-shirt. "Y'all shore are a right beautiful couple."

Kenny closed his eyes. All he'd ever wanted for Karen was to get out of South Park. He'd wanted a better life for her more than he'd wanted a better life for himself. Kenny stirred his rice around with a fork, for once completely robbed of his appetite.

"Oh, and, I have a question for Kenny." Scott turned to Kenny, scattering Kenny's thoughts.

Kenny was finally forced to look up from the TV. Scott watched him intently, eyes bright and hopeful.

I...was wondering. Since you're Karen's best friend, and we'd love to have you up there with us..." Scott paused, "Would you be my best man, Kenny?"

"Ah, hell, Scott! I'm yer best friend! Why aren't cha askin' me, huh?" Kevin protested.

Before Scott could apologize, Kenny dropped his fork down onto his plate with a forceful clatter. He stood, unable to stand anymore.

"It's fine. Thanks for asking. But Kevin can do it," Kenny muttered as he swiftly shuffled to exit the room. He paused only to look at Karen. "Congratulations."

Karen's gray eyes watched him with so much hurt that Kenny almost recanted. But he could scarcely keep his own disappointment in her from his own expression. She was supposed to be the one who escaped. She was supposed to be better than all this.

Realizing she wasn't, and letting her stay trapped in the dead-end that South Park really was, tore Kenny apart. He already had to let it happen—had to watch it happen. But he couldn't—just couldn't— participate in the happening. He couldn't celebrate it.

"I wanted so much more for you," Kenny was desperate to say. "How can this be enough for you?"

"He makes me happy," he knew she'd say. "How can that not be enough for you?"

Butters was a patient listener, at least. The fact that he was unconscious probably helped with that. Though he might've been a good listener awake, too. Kenny realized he wouldn't know. He and Butters had never really talked out of costume, besides the one time they'd gone to Hawaii together.

"I hate the guy my little sister seeing," Kenny told Butters, sitting by his bedside. "He's too old for her. And I can't do anything about it. Not a damn thing."

Butters, of course, didn't reply. But Kenny liked to think he would've looked sympathetic if he could've.

"And maybe I'm the one in the wrong here," Kenny exclaimed, shaking his head. "I mean. He's obviously got good intentions. Karen seems happy. No one has a problem with this, except me. Oh, and Kyle."

Kenny smiled at that. Kyle was on his side. It made him question his own sanity less to have at least one confirming outside source. Though the reasons why Kyle could empathize were less than ideal, selfishly, Kenny was grateful for them.

"Anyway, I came to apologize." Kenny held up a bunch of yellow daisies (the cheapest flower available) that he had purchased for Butters at the hospital gift store. "I...broke my promise. I know, I never promised you out loud, but still. After I....after I did this to you..."

Kenny closed his eyes and steadied himself. "I...well. I promised I'd never put on the costume again. Because if I never had, maybe you would be awake right now. I never wanted to hurt you, buddy. You gotta believe me."

Butters said nothing. His chest rose in fell rhythmically at the dictation of the whirring machine was hooked up to. The teddy bear someone (probably his mother) had placed by his head stared at Kenny with empty, glassy black eyes. Kenny was struck with the odd urge to grab the bear and throw it against the wall.

"God damn it, Butters. I broke my promise," Kenny clamped his hands around the railing of the hospital bed till his knuckles turned white. "But maybe the reason you're here is because I took off the cape, not put it on, you know? You freaked out ‘cause I said I was quitting. So you of all people wouldn't even want me to quit! Right?"

"They say coma patients can actually still hear you," a voice surprised Kenny from behind. Kenny turned around to face a smiling Kyle Broflovski, who held a bouquet of roses (the most expensive flower in the gift shop) in one hand, and a plastic Tupperware of his mother's lasagna in the other.

Kenny smiled widely at Kyle. He gestured that Kyle sit next to him, and Kyle obliged, looking down at Butters with a concerned wrinkle in his forehead.

"Hey, dude," Kenny greeted happily, his mood quite lifted at the sight of Kyle. "What brings you here?"

"My ma wanted me to bring Butters some gluten-free, cheese-less lasagna," Kyle lifted the Tupperware up unenthusiastically. "I tried to explain the whole coma thing to her, and how Butters won't actually be able to eat this, but it did no good. She kept insisting he'd want something to eat if he woke up, and that hospital food is full of chemicals."

"Oh, Mrs. B.," Kenny thought, "Was there anything she didn't think she could cure with a little mothering and home-cooking?"

"Ah," Kenny said, out loud. "Do you think he's really listening right now?"

Kyle shrugged. He scrutinized Butters' smooth, worriless face for a moment. "I don't know. We can ask him if he wakes up, I suppose," Kyle mused at last. "It's probably better if he's totally unconscious. It'd suck to be awake and unable to move."

"Yeah," Kenny was somewhat disturbed by the idea. He hadn't thought about it that way. But being trapped in one's own body was terrifying. Kenny knew from experience that being unable to escape from one's physical existence was a painful thing. He hoped, at least, that they gave Butters lots of morphine to compensate.

"Hey, do you want the lasagna?" Kyle held the plastic container to Kenny. "I mean, Butters isn't going to eat it. Shame if it went to waste, I guess. Though, it is my mom's macrobiotic recipe, so maybe it's better if this thing goes straight to the bottom of the garbage bin."

"Are you kidding, dude?" Kenny grabbed the Tupperware from Kyle, all but ripping it from his hands. He immediately popped the top and inhaled deeply. His training sessions at Wendy's request had left him perpetually starving, as well as sore and tired. There didn't seem to be enough food, sleep and ice in the world anymore.

"Don't you want a fork for that?" Kyle's brows disappeared into his hairline. But it was too late. Kenny was already shoveling the thing into his mouth in all its sloppy, gluten-free glory.

"Mm good," Kenny mumbled, mouth full. "Fanks nnywammph!"

"Ugh, gross!" Kyle recoiled, horrified at the spectacle of sauce and faux-cheese carnage. "Should I at least get you some napkins or something?"

Kenny nodded, and rewarded Kyle's efforts to clean him up with a tomato-red, shit-eating grin.

Kyle escaped to the halls for a while to hunt to cleaning supplies, and Kenny feasted. It was a little unfair of Wendy, he thought as he ate, to demand he eat a protein diet and work out like he was. He had no access to regular food, let alone the food needed to build up and maintain muscular structure. Luckily, he'd been doing a fair amount of running around and such beforehand, just due to the realities of vigilante-ing. So some extra exercise wasn't a total shock to the system.

When Kyle returned, the large Tupperware of lasagna was already half-gone. Kyle looked at Kenny incredulously.

"Woah. Did...Butters temporarily wake up and help you with that after all?"

Kenny shook his head, cheeks puffed with whole-wheat pasta, tofu and organic tomato paste. Kyle shook his head and looked heavenward.

"Well, I got you a roll of paper towels from the bathroom," Kyle held it out to Kenny. "Butters, you are so lucky you are unconscious right now. Trust me, you do not see this."

Kenny laughed as Kyle took his seat. Unfortunately, this resulted in second-hand pasta sauce spewing all over the front of Kyle's jacket.

"Gross!" Kyle looked so horrified, even as he laughed. "Kenny! Sick, dude! Say it, don't spray it!"

Kenny only laughed harder at this, of course. Kyle stood again, and backed away quickly to avoid further damage to his clothing.

"Kenny McCormick, you are disgusting. I am denouncing ever knowing you!" Kyle said through his helpless laughter, "Oh, my god. It's coming out of your nose, dude!"

At the end of an hour, the lasagna was gone. Kenny and Kyle left Butters in the good keeping of a nurse, who looked irritated by the amount of lasagna-laughter splatter on Butters' bed sheets.

"How do you do that?" Kyle asked as they left.

"Do what?" Kenny quirked a brow and put his hands into his parka pockets as the two walked through the hospital double doors.

"Before I came here, I was filling out college applications, and it was really I was feeling like shit. You made me laugh." Kyle shrugged. "You always do that, dude. I was just wondering how."

And it was the weirdest thing, but knowing that he made Kyle feel less like shit made Kenny feel less like shit, too.

"Move your ass, McCormick!" Wendy screeched at Kenny. He struggled to pick up his pace and oblige her, but it was difficult. Wendy's obstacle course was insane. She'd completely repurposed the South Park Elementary School playground, and it now served as Kenny's personal circle of Hell (which was perhaps too kind; Kenny had been to hell, and this was by far worse. No limbo party here, no fruity drinks or luaus where Wendy was concerned).

First, he had to hopscotch through all seven of the hopscotch squares. When he'd laughed at Wendy for commanding this, she'd told him that Roman soldiers invented hopscotch to train strength and agility, and often played while carrying heavy weights. She'd then promptly handed him a 50-pound flour sack and told him to "hop to it." Proof that she perhaps did have a sense of humor buried under there somewhere. Hah.

Then, she had him crawl under the jungle gym on hands and knees. That wasn't so bad, except there were all sorts of gross things down there (mostly chewed gum, some retainers, a few old, sticky hard candies, bits of rotting food, etc.). The Krazy Kenny Show had made Kenny mostly immune to such things, but he wasn't a particularly seasoned crawler. Babies made it look damned easy, but then again, most babies didn't have Wendy Testaburger chasing after them, screaming to "Move faster or I'll skin you alive, Kenneth! I'll salt your sorry carcass and make you roll in lemon juice! My grandma with a hip replacement could do that on her achy bones day; YOU CALL THAT CRAWLING?"

Then, Kenny had to climb the swing-set, shimmy across the bar, and then climb back down. Given that the swing set was a.) The cheap kind, made of simple metal supports which provided exactly no hand-holds and b.) Not the most stable structure ever erected, Kenny was constantly afraid of falling off, or collapsing the thing all together beneath himself. If he did either, Wendy would probably kick him instead of taking him to the hospital.

Finally, Kenny had to run four laps around the merry-go-round. He'd finish by jumping on top of it, which was harder than it sounded, because Wendy spun it while he ran. Boarding an in-motion merry-go-round was hazardous, as Kenny had learned. He'd eaten it so many times attempting the feat that he tasted merry-go-round in his sleep.

Drenched in his own sweat and bone-tired, Kenny ran the obstacle course for the fifth time. He felt he was getting more adept at the tasks, but slower as he became more exhausted. Wendy did not seem to understand the concept of exhaustion, and only became angry with him if he tried to explain that if humans did a lot of exercise they became fucking tired.

"Your times are actually getting WORSE, McCormick!" Wendy decried as she jogged along beside him, and he crawled along the bottom of the jungle gym. "Are you actually getting WORSE at this? I didn't think that was fucking possible! Move it, or I'll drag you through it by the hair!"

Kenny didn't think he'd hated another being so much in his life, and that included Scott Fucking Tenorman. The only thing he hated more than Wendy Testaburger was the stupid stopwatch she kept waving in his fucking face.

"Screw you, you roid-raging bitch!" Kenny snapped at last, before making his way over to the swing set. "I'd like to see you do this course in this time!"

"Less talking, more running! Pick up those feet!" Wendy insisted.

Kenny flipped her off. "Why did I want to be your partner again? You're clearly off your medications!"

Kenny carefully inched his way up the swing set. Though he was a seasoned climber, he'd done more raw, barehanded clinging in a single night than he'd done before in his life. He'd sprouted blisters between his existing callouses, which burst and made his grip worse and his task harder. Nonetheless, once at the top, and out of Wendy's swatting range, Kenny decided to take a well-deserved break.


Kenny would've laughed at the infuriated look on her small face when he looked down at her, but he was too wiped out from the work out. Instead, he just panted out an airy chuckle.

"C-calm down, Wends," he chortled. "I'll...come down when I catch my breath..."

Wendy turned on her heel and stalked off. Kenny thought she had simply given up him for the night.

"Oh come on, Princess," he called after her, "Come back. I'll behave. Don't go!"

He waited for her at the top of the swings set, but even after a few minutes, she did not return. Kenny knew he'd have to apologize eventually. After all, he didn't want to annoy his new cohort so much that she refused to work with him. But just as Kenny about to jump down from the swingset, Wendy reappeared.

In her hands was what Kenny instantly recognized as a paintball gun. He very much regretted his earlier urge to call Wendy back. Why had he wanted her to come back?

Kenny got to his feet and held his hands up before his chest. The look on Wendy's face, the tiny smile twisting her lips, made him sincerely nervous.

"Now, now, Gwendolyn. Let's not do anything harsh, here."

"I was just thinking," Wendy's voice was so casual she might've been having tea with her aunt. "When we're out in the field, people will probably—at least at some point—be shooting at us."

"Wendy! I am serious. Don't—"

"So. Since your times have stopped improving," Wendy tapped her finger against the gun, currently in the safety position. "I brought you some inspiration, and practice for the future."

Kenny backed away. "C'mon, dude. Getting shot by a paintball freaking hurts! You wouldn't do that to a friend, now would you?"

To answer the question, Wendy pointed the barrel at Kenny's chest and cocked the gun. "When I say go, you're gonna pick of that bag of flour and start again." Wendy smiled demurely, and appeared, for all the world, like a rosy-cheeked high school student with ambitions no grander than attending a decent university.

But the moment passed, and Wendy's smile slowly curled into something more familiar, and much creepier. "You're gonna beat your record this time, because this time, you'll have some motivation."

"And don't talk to me about pain!" Wendy added as Kenny dragged his feet to the starting line. "Erna or whatever the fuck her name was shot me in the fucking kidney with a real gun while I was trying to save your stupid ass! Even though I had the Kevlar, I pissed blood for days!"

Kenny was covered with circular bruises by the time he limped to bed that night. But, true to Wendy's promise, he did beat his best time.

Before Kenny went home after training with Wendy, he stopped at Kyle's well-visited window. He was covered in muck and dirt from crawling around under the jungle gym, paintball gunk from Wendy's crazy, and practically marinating in his own sweat. If ever he needed a shower, it was tonight. Of course, the water was still out at his place. He desperately hoped Kyle was feeling charitable, or else he really would have to borrow the neighbor's hose.

Kenny gathered a handful of pebbles from the Broflovski's driveway and began tossing them at Kyle's window. It really hurt to lift his arm, Kenny noticed; his muscles were already becoming quite sore. He could only imagine how much worse it would be when he woke up. His entirely body felt breathlessly light and rubbery, but also, he ached in placed he hadn't known could ache. For the hundredth time, he wondered if Wendy were simply trying get rid of him by exhausting him death.

Kyle opened the window, and the slightly annoyed expression on his face was one Kenny found extremely endearing. It was the first step of their familiar dance, but it was soon replaced by a new step. Kyle broke into a smile, even as he rolled his eyes.

"You again," he whispered. "Dude, Kenny, you look like shit! And you're not wearing your costume! What happened?"

"Good evening," Kenny whispered back. He bowed gallantly. "I have been training with my new co-operator. And she is a wretched bitch who shot at me with a paintball gun as I crawled around in the dirt."

Kyle looked surprised, but waved Kenny in anyway. "New co-operator?"

"I'd tell you her name, but I am pretty sure if I reveal her identity to you, she will literally hunt you down and whack you." Kenny was only half joking when he said this. He climbed up the trellis, over the begonias and through Kyle's window then. Kyle shut the window after him.

"That sounds dangerous." Kyle remarked and sounded a bit more like the skeptical voice of practical concern Kenny had grown so used to.

Kenny dismissed those concerns however, and instead held out his arms to Kyle. "Thank you for letting me in, darling. Now give us a hug!"

Kyle backed away from Kenny, shaking his head. "No, thank you."

Kenny approached Kyle slowly, arms still open and hands beckoning Kyle into them. "You know you want to."

"No way, Kenny," Kyle warned, trying to put on a stern face through an obvious warring desire to laugh. "You wouldn't dare."

Kenny cocked his head, seeming to take this as a challenge. "Oh, wouldn't I?"

"No!" Kyle laughed as he scrambled away until his back was to the door. He'd spoken a bit loudly, however and quickly looked around as if to check for the impending wrath of his parents. "Dude, we have to be quieter. It's late."

"You're the one squealing," Kenny pointed out, whispering. "Just accept my hug, Kyle. Don't fight it."

Kyle held out his hands, cornered and placating. "Now, Kenny. Be reasonable. After all, I let you in here. Why don't you just...go take your shower now, hmm?"

However, Kenny was not to be deterred. Kyle tried to turn and open the door, but Kenny was too quick. He swooped in before Kyle could so much as twist the knob. Kenny grabbed Kyle in a tight bear hug, and squeezed until he heard the air leave Kyle's lungs.

"Eww," Kyle moaned, lowly. "You smell, dude!"

Kenny released Kyle after a long moment and then stepped away from him. He smiled widely at Kyle, as Kyle distractedly brushed stray twigs and grime from his otherwise clean pajamas.

"It's my natural musk," Kenny explained. "Some people find it very attractive."

"Yeah, well." Kyle sniffed, and then wrinkled his nose with distaste. "Go wash some of that musk off, please. You can borrow some sweatpants and stuff from me again for afterwards."

Kenny acquiesced, and sent Kyle a smug look over his shoulder as he sashayed off to the restroom. "You love it," he said confidently. "You're just jealous."

"Jealous of your stench?" Kyle shot back, devastatingly incredulous.

"Of my animal magnetism!" Kenny assured him. "Obviously."

With that, Kenny pulled open the door and began to creep down the hall. Kyle stifled his outright laughter at Kenny's antics behind his hand so as not to disturb Ike, who lived in the next room.

As Kenny let the warm water ease his sore body and rinse away the dirt caked on his skin, he thought that he'd been happier than he'd been in a long. He had a badass new partner, who—though sadistic and somewhat mentally unstable—was without a doubt the best thing that could've happened to Mysterion. Wendy would raise his game, and besides, she was the most interesting girl Kenny knew. Working with her would never be predictable.

He also had a new best friend. Kenny had long ago accepted his secondary and sometimes even tertiary role in his friends' lives. He was never the first choice. It made him only a little bitter. He'd simply understood that some people got the primary focus, some people intangibly mattered for no reason other than they did, but others had to remain in the background. However, lately Kenny felt he'd emerged from the scenery. Kyle had been spending more time with him than he spent with even Stan. He felt Kyle's attention acutely, shifting the status quo in his favor.

As much as Kenny hated to care about things like that, he did. And it felt so fucking good to be noticed. To be wanted primarily, instead of secondarily. It had bothered Kenny on some level that Karen had replaced him as the Most Important Person. By the same token, he knew subconsciously he was beginning to replace Stan as Kyle's first choice.

He wondered if the Super Best bond breaking down would bother Stan, or if Stan would even notice it was happening. He wondered if it were strictly "right" to do this to a friend, to take the place Stan had depended on for so long. But it felt inevitable, natural. Kenny wasn't sure how to undo it, except to alienate Kyle, and he didn't want to do that. If that was the only way, it wasn't going to happen. Kenny had grown up without much to call his own, and thus wouldn't throw a good thing away on purpose.

The hot water began to run cold, and Kenny stepped out into the steamy bathroom. He was lucky, he thought, that Mr. and Mrs. Broflovski slept on the opposite side of the house, the farthest possible place from the bathroom on the top floor. This was the only reason Kenny got away with his midnight shower excursions (that, and the fact that Mr. B.'s sleep apnea forced him to take heavy meds, and Mrs. B. wore earplugs to block out the snoring Mr. B.'s deep, medicated sleep produced). The catch was that Mrs. Broflovski had super-sonic hearing when it came of her son's distress calls. That was why Kyle had to keep it down. Kenny was pretty sure if Mrs. B. died, and Kyle screamed for help, she'd come back from the afterlife to sue someone over it.

Kenny wiped a hand against the fogged out bathroom mirror and peered at his own reflection for a moment. It made him wince at first glance; there were so many injuries. Old and new wounds laced his skin with ugly, gray-pink blemishes. The new bruises from Wendy's paint gun added a bit of color—dark blue-ish purple, a smattering of bright red spider-veins—but the effect was hardly charming. Kenny looked chewed up and spit out again. It was really no wonder Kenny chose to hide in his coat, he thought. Injured creatures were targets; Kenny knew this.

He looked away and turned off the light. After fastening a towel from the linen closet around his waist, Kenny padded his way back to Kyle's room. He wondered if Kyle had gone back to sleep, but he doubted it. Kyle always waited up on him on nights like this, if only to berate him for the inconvenience of waiting up on him. Kenny was confident there wouldn't be any berating tonight, but he wondered if that also meant Kyle would go to bed instead of waiting for him.

But Kyle, Kenny found, had followed past dictates and waited up. Kenny felt himself smile reflexively at the realization.

"Hey, dude." Kenny greeted. The last time he'd showed up in Kyle's room in just a towel, the results had been greatly amusing. It seemed to fluster Kyle so much. And, sure enough, the hot pink blush that had spilled across Kyle's cheeks at the sight of Kenny reappeared at the sight of Kenny in his doorway.

"Oh, hey," Kyle said, staring resolutely at his lap to avoid looking at Kenny. "You can wear these. I threw your clothes in with the wash. I'll bring them to you tomorrow at school."

Kyle tossed a pair of gray sweatpants at Kenny, and a soft green t-shirt. Kenny caught them but didn't put them on right away. He wanted to do an experiment instead.

"Thanks," Kenny replied instead, and walked up to where Kyle was sitting at his computer chair. Kenny leaned against the adjacent desk and studied Kyle for a few moments, until Kyle looked up at him.

"Aren't you going to put them on?" Kyle asked, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

"Nope." Kenny's eyes flashed with amusement. "Does it bother you?"

Kyle looked uncertain as to how to respond to that. He cleared his throat nervously. "Kenny, you can't just stand there in a towel all night. Stop kidding around, dude, and put on some clothes."

Kyle stood, pushing away from the desk. He began to pace back and forth, his posture tight and his eyes fixedly down.

"It does bother you." Kenny followed Kyle, moving to stand much too close behind him. Kyle didn't notice his approach, and when he turned around, he nearly crashed straight into Kenny. Kyle startled, but didn't fall back a step.

"Why does seeing me like this bother you, Kyle?" Kenny asked softly when they were face to face. Kyle's eyes drifted down to Kenny's chest, tracing over a particularly nasty scar, the remnant of a chemical burn that ruined the skin just below Kenny's collarbone, stretching all the way down to his hip.

"I...I just." Kyle looked for a moment like he wanted to touch the scar with his fingertips, but he quickly retracted his hand as if he'd scorched it. "It doesn't bother me."

"Bullshit." Kenny retorted. Well, it was. It so obviously made Kyle uncomfortable; everything about Kyle's voice and body posture related this fact. Kyle's bunched shoulders, darting eyes, and awkward hands all spoke to the same message, and Kenny wasn't nearly dense enough to miss it.

Kyle seemed unsure where to look. He alternated flicking his gaze between Kenny, the floor and his own hands. "Stop it, dude. Just put on the clothes."

But Kenny's stubborn streak kicked in, and he couldn't let it go. He deliberately dropped the sweats to the floor, and met Kyle's eye, jutting his chin out just slightly, obstinately.

"No. Tell me why this bothers you. Is it the scars?" Kenny had very little patience for those who purposely sheltered themselves from the truth. Maybe the scars were unpleasant to look at, but they were real. If Kyle didn't want to look, that was just too bad. Kenny respected no one's denial.

"No!" Kyle bent down to pick up the clothes, while carefully avoiding touching Kenny as he did so. He clutched the clothes to his chest, nervously glancing from side to side.

"I—no, Kenny. It's not the scars. I mean. Not really. I'm's not just that. Okay? Can we not talk about this?"

"It's kind of too late at this point to avoid it," Kenny crossed his arms over his chest. He felt bizarrely insecure. Was it really so hard to look at him?

"I know, but," Kyle exhaled a long breathe though his clenched teeth, staring up at the ceiling. "...You know what? Fine. Fine, Kenny, I'll tell you. The truth is...I just don't like being reminded of how...fragile you are. Okay? I see you covered in...bruises and cuts and shit, and it reminds me that you could get hurt out there. And that scares me. Okay? Are you happy now?"

Kyle finally met Kenny's eye, his face a mixture of anger and frustration, and vulnerability. Kenny just blinked back at Kyle mutely for a few seconds.

"Why does it scare you?" Kenny asked, voice so soft it could barely be heard.

"Because I care about you, obviously." Kyle squirmed, face aflame. "...So can we not talk about this anymore? I told you; now drop it, please."

Kenny nodded. A warm feeling had taken up residency in his chest at Kyle's admission, and he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. But suddenly, dropping the subject seemed like a good idea.

"Sorry," Kenny muttered, and held out his hands for the clothes, still clutched in Kyle's grasp. "I'll put those on then. Didn't mean to be such an asshole, Kyle. I'm sorry."

"It's all good." Kyle handed Kenny the sweatpants and old t-shirt, then looked away again as Kenny yanked the shirt over his head, and turned around to step into the pants. The room felt awkwardly quiet, the only sounds the pull of fabric over Kenny's skin.

When Kenny turned around, he handed Kyle the wet towel instead of tossing it on the floor. Kyle took it, and as he did, he paused a moment, seeming to struggle with whether or not to say something. Kenny looked at him expectantly.

"Uhm," Kyle automatically began shaking the towel out in order to hang it flat. "Do you want to stay the night? You can just stay here, until your clothes are clean, I mean. My mom does the laundry in the morning."

"Sure," Kenny replied automatically. The surprise of the offer took Kenny completely off guard. Kyle had never willingly offered to let Kenny spend the night after a patrol or an evening out as Mysterion before. "Uh, thanks, dude."

"No problem." Kyle went to hang the towel up, quickly exiting the room, and Kenny just stared after him. He felt upended, like some inexorable shift had altered the paradigm of his life and replaced with something unfamiliar. It was terrifying, but somehow not unpleasant.

When Kyle got back, Kenny didn't know what to do with himself. He wasn't sure what Kyle expected from him anymore. He felt small in Kyle's oversized shirt.

"Wanna just crash in my bed?" Kyle yawned, climbing in. "Only a few hours left before we have to get up anyway."

Kenny nodded, and climbed in after him. Kyle slept on one side, and Kenny slept against the wall, their backs turned to each other. Kyle's bed was so warm and soft, and it smelled deeply familiar and comforting—like Kyle. Kenny's sore body sank into the mattress, and sleep overtook him quickly, blurring out the world in a pleasant, dreamy haze.

"Thanks, dude," Kenny slurred before he fell to unconsciousness. And it wasn't even for the shower or the place to sleep, really. It was for caring that he, Kenny, might die.

"'Sok," Kyle whispered back, halfway asleep himself. "Anytime, Kenny."

In the mail on Friday morning, Kenny received a letter. It did not have a return address. It only had his name, spelled in no-nonsense print on the front of the envelope. When Kenny opened it, it contained a typed message that read simply, "Go to a shooting range to practice today. 10 rounds, minimum." It also contained 200 cash, presumably to spend on rounds and entrance fees. Kenny didn't need to think to hard to figure out whom it was from.

So, after school, he decided to head out to Stan's Uncle Jimbo and Ned's gun shop. Before he left the school however, he shucked off his orange and tossed it in his locker. He didn't think Wendy would accept the excuse "Uncle Jimbo fires on sight when he sees my orange parka, and so I was dead" as the reason he failed to show up to training later that night. Crazy fucking rednecks.

"Hey, Kinny," Cartman greeted, just as Kenny shut his locker. Lately, Kenny noticed, Cartman had been slicking down his hair with some sort of scented gel. He reeked of it, and Kenny thought in retrospect, he probably should have smelled Cartman coming.

"What's up with your hair?" Kenny asked, cocking a brow in acknowledgement. "You smell like my uncle. And why are you wearing button up shirt, dude. Who are you trying to impress?"

"My new girlfriend," Cartman preened, unabashed. He tugged at his own lapels. "Lola totally digs me!"

"Oh. That's cool, I guess." Kenny shouldered his backpack and started heading for the exit, but Cartman would not be shaken. He trailed after Kenny without a single sign of deterrence.

"Aren't you gonna high five me or some shit?" Cartman wheedled, "C'mon, Kenny. Lola Martinez is totally hot! Did you see that sweater she was wearing today? She has the most awesome titties, man, and I get to play with them!"

Kenny wanted to hit Cartman over the head; God, he hated that whiny, smug voice. But instead, he smiled tightly and nodded a little. "Yes. Very nice, Cartman. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

"Where are you going?" Cartman continued to tag after Kenny. Kenny had to admire the guy's ability not to take a hint.

"Shooting," Kenny said, tersely. "I'm gonna see if Uncle Jimbo will let me fire off some rounds at the target range he's got in his backyard."

"That's so tits!" Cartman exclaimed, and picked up his pace to keep up with Kenny's hurried stride. "Do you think he'll really let you?"

"Well, as a kid, we used to go hunting together. He actually taught me how to shoot a gun in his yard back then, so I'm hoping he's feeling nostalgic today," Kenny didn't really know why he felt the need to explain this to Cartman at all. But Kenny's talking prevented Cartman from running his mouth. So there was that.

"Sweet," Cartman commented with enthusiasm. "Think he'll teach me too?"

Kenny bit back a rather sharp No.

"Uhm. You sure you want to come?" Kenny asked, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Don't you have, uhm. Plans with Lola or something, maybe?"

"Nah," Cartman puffed his chest out proudly at the mention on her name. "Can't seem overeager or clingy with the bitches, Kenny. Gottta let them come to you."

Kenny felt he deserved an award for holding back his dismayed groan.

Uncle Jimbo seemed quite happy to see Kenny, which was a good sign. If he allowed Kenny to use his guns and targets for free, Kenny could use the money on groceries. And ice, for the ache in his limbs that felt like it would never fucking go away.

"Hey, Kenny," Jimbo asked. "How's my honorary nephew?"

"Pretty good," Kenny reported in a chipper tone.

"I'm doing well too," Cartman added, though no one in particular had asked him.

"Well, boys, what can I do for you?" As Jimbo spoke, he carefully cleaned a disassembled semi-automatic that was laid out on a white towel over the counter. "Either of you looking to buy a gun?"

"Actually," Kenny shrugged, readjusting his backpack strap over his shoulder. "I was wondering if you or Ned would give me a shooting refresher lesson on the target range."

"And you could teach me, too," Cartman interjected, not wanting to be left out, apparently.

Kenny smiled, though all he really wanted was to strangle Cartman. He wasn't even really sure why. He just didn't want Cartman here, with him. He didn't want to be around him. It was probably shitty for him to feel that way about someone who'd supposedly been his friend since childhood. But then again, Cartman had always been an obnoxious asshole.

"Sure!" Jimbo told them. "I gotta finish cleaning the merchandise, but I'm sure Ned would be happy to take you back to the house and give you a few pointers. Both of ya."

Kenny had been half-hoping he'd send Cartman away, and felt the distant hope evaporate with Jimbo's answer. Still, Kenny had gotten what he wanted. Wendy would be appeased.

"Thanks," Kenny said. "I really appreciate it."

"No problem," Jimbo put down the buffer tube he'd been cleaning and turned away from Kenny to shout into the back storeroom. "'Ey, Ned! Get on out here! Got two boys who want to go shooting!"

Ned emerged from the back. He held a long hunting rifle in his one hand, and waved his stump to greet Kenny and Cartman when he saw them. He leaned the rifle against the wall, and then fiddled around through his pockets, in search of his electronic voice box—which he found moments later.

"Hey guys, what's up," Ned twanged. Age had not been kind to Ned; his glasses were visibly thicker and darker, his hair nearly white.

"We were wondering if you'd take us to the shooting range at your house and give us some shooting lessons," Kenny said, the polite Southern boy in him wishing for a hat to doff and hold to his chest as he made his request.

"Sure," Ned replied in his robotic monotone. "It's good to see you again, Kenny. No hard feelings about the platypus incident, I hope?"

"Of course not. Ancient histor—"

"Yeah," Cartman cut in before Kenny could answer. "We're real men, who do manly stuff like shooting. And spitting." To demonstrate, Cartman spat on the floor. Kenny could feel his embarrassment for Cartman's sake like an itch under his skin.

"Err. Anyway, no worries about the platypus thing, guys. Past is in the past. I actually just came by because I wanted to learn how to fire a semi-automatic. Could you show me how?" Kenny took a minute step away from Eric, wishing on so many levels to distance himself from his cohort.

"Yes," Ned nodded, regarding Kenny through his tinted bifocals. "I can do that. Want to go now or later?"

"Now's good, if you have time," Kenny answered. He was amazed by how few questions he'd been asked. Not a single "why do you need to learn to shoot a semi-automatic?" or "what do you need to learn to shoot a semi-automatic for?" It was almost too convenient—

"Hey, why do you need to learn to shoot a semi-automatic anyway, Kinny?" Eric asked. And if Kenny had previously had any doubts about who to award the "Bane of His Existence" title to, Eric had just resolved them.

"Because I thought it would be fucking cool," Kenny said. Subtly, he sent Eric a withering look. To most normal people, the look would've read: shut the fuck up or I'll stuff my socks down your throat. To Eric, it apparently read: please, yap some more, no one is sick of your mindless gabbing! Of course not!

"It would be cool," Eric agreed, his small, piggish eyes narrowed and suspicious, "But why now? Why are you so suddenly interested in big guns?"

Kenny felt both Ned and Jimbo's eyes on him, and he struggled to keep a calm demeanor.

"I dunno. I'm bored," Kenny shrugged lightly. "Nothing cool on TV lately."

That seemed to satisfy Ned and Jimbo, who nodded in agreement and the appropriate amount of understanding for such a dilemma. But Eric, in a heroic effort to hang onto his title, said:

"That's not true! Just last week on Game of Thrones, Oberyn—"

But Kenny kicked him so hard under the counter that Eric's statement was cut off. Eric cursed a blue streak, hopping about and clutching his shin, before turning to Kenny with accusation in his expression.

"Why'd you kick me?"

"Fucking spoilers." Kenny answered. "Also, I saw a bee." He smiled innocently.

"A bee? Where?" Jimbo grabbed a gun from the shelf and began to wave it around.

"I'll get it!" Ned took his shotgun off the wall and began blindly firing into the ceiling. The boys had to take cover, effectively (and mercifully) ending the conversation.


Ned, Kenny and Eric walked the short distance together from the shop to Ned and Jimbo's home. Once there, the boys were each given a pair of orange plastic noise cancelling earmuffs. In addition, Ned offered the boys goggles for eye protection. Kenny took both, but Eric refused them, on grounds that he did not want to look like "a nerdy fag." Then, Kenny was given a small .22 caliber 1911 semi-automatic pistol. Eric received a similar caliber revolver, which Ned assured them was the best kind of gun for beginners. The excited glint in Eric's eyes as he turned the thing over in his hands made Kenny extremely nervous.

Ned showed Eric how to hold and aim the gun, and then showed him to unload and reload. He made him to it a few times, reminding the boys that loading and unloading should become second nature, to the point where they should not have to look down to do it correctly. Cartman sucked at it. His fat fingers were extremely clumsy, and he kept dropping the magazine after he locked back the slide and tried to insert it. That, or he oriented the magazine incorrectly, and Ned had to fix it for him. Watching Eric become visibly frustrated over the loading process partially made up for how annoyed Kenny was that Cartman had come along in the first place.

After a refresher in gun safety ("Keep your thumb clear of the slide. If it gets bitten, and you drop the gun with the safety off, you could lose a nut."), a warning about ear protection ("How do you think your Uncle Jimbo went deaf in his right ear?), and recoil ("Kicks like a bitch, so get ready."), Ned left Eric and Kenny in his backyard. The place was ideal, really for a shooting range. This was firstly because Ned and Jimbo did not exactly live in town. They lived just on the outskirts, so the noise levels would not bother the neighbors. Also, they owned a lot of property, but had little to no interest in tending it. Though their stint with a successful TV show had bought them material success, neither Jimbo nor Ned had developed a matching sense of class or taste.

Thus, the yard was basically a flat dirt lot, with the odd tenacious weed poking through the dust here and there. On the far back cement wall, hole-ridden paper targets had been fastened with duct tape. About 25 yards back, a chalk line had been drawn in the dirt. Kenny and Eric stood behind it together, barrels pointed forward. Kenny clicked the safety off and aimed carefully at the target ahead.

As he did, Kenny hoped no one reported them. Technically, he had a gun permit, but it hadn't been renewed since he was nine years old. Wendy had probably wanted him to go the range for that reason—to acquire the six hours of practice at a range necessary for renewal. But Kenny did not want to take the bus to Denver to get to the range, nor pay the range fees. He would rather eat enough for once. He'd gotten so hungry that he'd considered resorting to buying to cat food.

He stood a healthy distance away from Eric, too. He did not trust Eric with a weapon. Kenny then moved his finger from the outside trigger guard and into place. He pulled the trigger, and the resounding explosion of sound that followed startled him, though he'd been expecting it.

Kenny missed the target, however, which inspired Eric to begin his stupid little taunting song.

"Nyeah nyeah nyeah nyeah nyeah, nyeaaah! You missed the little target! I am a better shooter, heh heh heh heh heh heh!"

"Shut up," Kenny snapped, lowering the gun and remaining the distance ahead. "And I can't be a worse shooter than you, dumbass, because you haven't fired yet."

Kenny adjusted his stance, and made a note not to clutch the gun so tightly next time he fired. "Steady but real loosey goosey," had been Ned's exact phrasing, "You're not trying to choke a chicken, after all."

"Oh ho, looks like someone's a sore loser," Eric mocked him. "Let me show you how a real pro does it."

With that, Eric aimed at the target and pulled the trigger. He did manage to hit it, but just barely, on the edge of the outer ring. Still, the way he crowed with delight would make someone think he'd hit a bulls-eye on the first try.

"Yes! Yes!! This. Is. Awesome!" Eric shouted. "I am ARMED! Respect my authority, Bitch!"

Ignoring Ned's instructions to keep the guns aimed down and away from them and others at all times, Eric waved the gun in Kenny's face as he bragged.

"Dude, don't point that at me!" Kenny jumped out of the way, exasperation plain in his voice. "What the fuck is wrong with you? Keep it pointed at the ground!"

"Pssh, Pussy." Eric nonetheless complied, lowering his weapon as he began to reload it

"What's up your ass, anyway, Kinny? Isn't this awesome?" Eric clicked the slide back into place and put his finger in the safety position as the spoke, looking questioningly to Kenny. Kenny took off one ear of his muffs so he could hear Eric speak more clearly. He didn't actually want to talk to Eric, but it was the only polite thing to do.

"I'm just trying to get this over with and go home," Kenny all but growled with exasperation. "I want to get a big ass dinner and then collapse on the couch. My arms are already fucking sore, and the recoil is painful as shit."

Eric regarded Kenny in silence for a moment or two. "I know what's pissing you off," he decided at last. "You're still upset about Karen and her new man candy."

Kenny could not imagine the colossal levels of stupidity required to bring up that particular topic while Kenny had a gun in his hand. "No. I wasn't even thinking about it until you brought it up, lard face."

"Well, I think it's fucked up," Eric said. He flicked the barrel of his revolver with his index finger as he spoke. "Scott's a douchebag. And isn't this like, pedophilia or something? Your sister's only, what? Fifteen? What a ginger loser! Couldn't he have found someone his own age?"

"I don't want to talk about this," Kenny closed his eyes, trying to calm himself. "I just want to want to shoot my six rounds, hit the target a couple times, and get out of here."

"Heh, heh. I just realized something." Eric said, seeming to ignore Kenny's desire to close the conversation. "Karen is marrying Scott. Scott is my half-brother. She'd become my half-sister in law! That would make you my half-brother in law! We're gonna be related! Sort of."

"Eric," Kenny's voice wavered just on the edge of a frustrated scream. "I am going to put my ear muffs on again. Do. Not. Talk. To. Me. for the rest of the day, okay?"

"Woah, chill out, literal-bro," Eric held his hands up, gun in his left pointed at the sky. "Looks like someone's on his period."

Kenny, without another word, put back on his ear protection. He clicked the safety off once more on his gun, and fired three times consecutively at the target. When he was finished, he heard Eric whistle in a low tone.

"I think you need anger management counseling Kenny," he shouted, so as to be heard through the muffs. "I'm seriously!"

Kenny walked home, and to his displeasure, Cartman followed him. Kenny knew he had only himself to blame. When he thanked Ned and Jimbo for the use of their guns and practice range, he offhandedly mentioned that he was picking up City Wok for dinner. Mentioning food around Cartman was like shedding blood in front of a shark.

Two orders of Shitty Chicken and three orders of Shitty Beef, with chow mien and a sack of fried egg rolls later, Kenny trudged back to the McCormick residence still in the company of the world's most annoying food critic.

Eric stuffed fried rice and pot stickers into his face at an alarming speed. As he ate, he talked about how crappy the quality of the food was. The quality didn't stop him from horking it down like it was his job, but whatever. Kenny wasn't the world's finest diner, either. But Eric gave even Kenny a run for his money. Heaven help whoever threw a dinner party and invited the both of them.

"So, McCormick," Eric mused as he pulled open the cellophane wrapping of a fortune cookie. "Man to man. When's the last time you got some?"

Kenny didn't really feel like discussing it with Eric, so he just shrugged. "Don't remember," he answered dismissively. "It's been a while though, I guess."

"I got some just last weekend," Eric bragged. The tone of this declaration made Kenny look up from the sidewalk. It was weird again. Off somehow. Eric was boasting, which was typical. But there was something unsettling about the way he'd said it.

"Oh?" Kenny asked, delicately. "Did you?"

"Yeah," Cartman seemed pleased to have piqued Kenny's interest. Night was beginning to fall, partially obscuring Cartman's face in shadow. "From Lola. At Patty Nelson's birthday party."

"Was it good?" Kenny asked carefully, his tone light and easy. His skin crawled as Cartman spoke, however. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he didn't like the way Cartman talked about this.

"Heh, oh yes it was," Cartman chuckled. He looked so proud of himself. "Her titties, as I said, were spectacular. And she has a little belly button ring; I fucking love those things. They remind me of Britney Spears. Oops you did it again, girl! It was sweet, dude."

Kenny laughed, but the icky feeling didn't go away. He wondered if it were just the idea of Cartman having sex that bothered him. It wasn't a very pleasant visual, after all.

"Well, tell me what happened," Kenny pried, doing an imitation of enthusiasm. His intuition needed to be assuaged before he could let this go entirely.

"She was upset that that asshole, Tweek broke it off with her." Cartman and Kenny had reached Kenny's front porch. But Kenny wanted to finish the conversation before he went inside, so he sat on the front porch step and patted the place next to him. Cartman obliged and sat down.

"So, I listened to her bitch for awhile. You know the drill. You say ‘weak' when she needs input on something lame, and ‘awesome,' when she talks about Leonardo DiCaprio or Pink Berry or whatever," Cartman clearly enjoyed the sound of his own voice as he told all this to Kenny. That was a good thing, because it was easy to keep him talking.

"Then what?"

"Well, we had a few drinks. And Lola keeps going on and on about her ex boyfriend. God, that bitch can talk," Cartman made a disgusted sound, but then shook his head with amusement. "Women, right?"

"Hah, right," Kenny nodded, playing along. The feeling his gut worsened the longer Cartman talked, and by this point Kenny was pretty sure he wasn't going to like the ending of the story.

"Girls are such stuck up sluts, usually," Cartman said, "They only wanna sleep with rich, black assholes like Token, or pretty-boy man-whores like you. They don't appreciate a real man when they see one." His voice was filled with undisguised resentment. Kenny guessed Cartman had been on the bad end of a few rejections.

"Anyway, all that changes when you get enough tequila into a chick," Cartman adopted a knowing expression. "A few shots, and any girl will spread her legs for whoever is smart enough to feed her the right lines."

Kenny wasn't sure he liked where Cartman was going with that thought, so he tried to calm his growing fears by directing the ending a little. "But it's hard to remember the lines when you're smashed yourself, right?"

"Nah, long as you make sure to drink less that she does," Cartman examined his fingernails. "Well, as I was saying, Lola started crying after about five shots, so I took her up to Patty's bedroom upstairs to calm down."

"She sobbed into my shoulder, and told me what a nice guy I was," Cartman recalled. "We sat up there for a good twenty minutes. She finally stopped crying, and was leaning against my arm. So, then I kissed her."

"And...then?" Kenny watched Cartman's face intently. It was the oddest mix of pride and defensiveness.

"She laughed that stupid way girls do, all sloppy and boozed up," Cartman's lip curled. "I told her to stop laughing, but she wouldn't. She kept laughing, and then she wanted me to take her home."

"Sounds like she was pretty fucked up, dude. Did you take her home?"

"I did. Afterwards." Cartman said, leaning back on Kenny's porch stairs. He opened another fortune cookie, tossing the slip of paper without reading it and cramming the cookie in his mouth.

"Cartman," Kenny was afraid to ask, but he had to know. "Did Lola actually say she wanted to have sex with you...?"

"She wanted it," Cartman waved a dismissive hand. "Why else would she have gone upstairs with me? Everyone saw her hanging all over me all night."

"Lola was pretty drunk, from what you're telling me." Kenny watched a beetle crawl out from under the cracks in the floorboards and march across the porch. It seemed determined to make its way to the front lawn.

"Alcohol makes you honest, right?" Cartman said. The beetle crawled towards him, and picked its way over the bags of Chinese takeout. Its legs skittered purposefully, shuffling over the plastic takeout bags. Finally, it made it onto the first step, just a few inches from Cartman's hand.

"It also impairs judgment." Kenny scratched the back of his head, shifting uncomfortably on the step. "Maybe you should have just taken her home, dude."

"Pfft, you're such a faggot, Kenny," Cartman got to his feet. He brushed crumbs from his pants. "The whole point of parties is to fuck silly drunk bitches. The opportunity presented itself. I wasn't just gonna walk away, gaywad."

Kenny didn't try to argue that point. It was hopeless, and Cartman wasn't listening anymore, no longer interested in the conversation now that it was apparent Kenny's admiration for his deeds was not forthcoming.

"I'm gonna go rewatch Breaking Bad," Cartman stretched, yawning. "I mean the TV version, not the real time stuff happening in your mini-meth lab out here. See ya, Kinny."

As Cartman waddled off, he stepped on the beetle, crushing it beneath the heel of his shoe. It was just inches from the grass.

Kenny picked up Cartman's unread fortune from the porch. It read: "Your consideration for others will be reflected back in kind."


Kenny adjusted his mask in the mirror. He turned, checking himself out one last time to make sure everything was right. It was oddly reminiscent of getting ready for a first date. He really wanted to make a good first impression on Wendy tonight, because it was their first official patrol together as partners. He didn't want to seem unprepared by putting on his costume incorrectly. He'd been training his ass off, and now it was time to show Wendy what he could do. It was time to show her she'd made a good decision taking him as her partner, and demonstrate to her once and for all that he could hold his own in a fight.

Satisfied, Kenny left off messing with his costume and stepped out from behind the propped-up training mats Wendy had erected around the mirror for Kenny's privacy while he changed. This was going to be so fucking sweet, he thought. He and Wendy were gonna tear it up tonight.

"So, are we ready to go?" Kenny held out his arms by his sides, grinning. He always felt like a different person when he put on his costume. The cape around his shoulder made him walk taller, and gave his Mysterion persona a sense of deep importance. Even though he wore his underwear outside of his clothing, he never felt more serious than he did when in costume.

"No." Wendy stared at Kenny a look of deep disapproval on her face. "You cannot wear that when we go out tonight."

Kenny tugged at his Mysterion costume a little self-consciously. He visibly deflated under her critical gaze. "What's wrong with it?"

"It's purple, for one," Wendy frowned and shook her head. "And you're wearing fucking tighty-whities over spandex, for another. There's no way you are fighting in that thing."

"I like purple," Kenny told her defensively. "Besides, it's been working for me all these years. It'll be fine."

"That cape is utterly impractical. Do you want someone to choke you out with your own costume? And you can't wear a hood like that in a fight. How do you keep it up when you are jumping around? You can't be messing with your costume when there are higher order priorities to deal with, like not fucking dying," Wendy lifted the corner of the cape, and then let it go. "It doesn't camouflage, and it doesn't protect you whatsoever. We're gonna have to get you something else."

"This is my costume!" Kenny retorted. Was Wendy always so bossy? "I made it myself."

"Oh, yeah?" Wendy's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Well, that fucking explains it, because it looks like something a nine-year-old would design."

"Well, what's with your costume?" Kenny snapped, pointing to Wendy's chest. "What kind of superhero are you supposed to be? Your get-up doesn't inspire much recognition, dude. Do you even have a superhero name?"

Wendy stared at Kenny mutely for a full minute, disbelief in her expression. The silence was pointed and uncomfortable; Kenny wished he hadn't said anything.

"You think this is some dumb superhero game?" Wendy asked. "Is that what you think? ‘Cause if that's what you fucking think, we've got a real fucking problem."

"Well," Kenny crossed his arms stubbornly. "It is supposed to be fun. I mean, why else do it, right? The costumes are for fun."

"Wrong." Wendy took the katana from her belt and stood back. She began twirling it distractedly, parrying invisibly blows and swishing the blade through the air as she spoke. "You may be playing a grown-up version of dress-up, but I was under the impression that teaming up with me meant you were ready to take this seriously."

Wendy lunged forward, stabbing at an invisible foe with her sword. "What I do, I do because it has to be done. I'm not playing, Kenneth. This is a highly dangerous operation, and just as liable to get me killed as thrown in jail. And if just messing around is what you think we're doing here, maybe we need to rethink this partnership."

She straightened up and sheathed her sword at her hip. Kenny just gaped at her, thoroughly impressed. It was hard to stay disappointed that Wendy didn't approve of his costume, because his partner was such a BAMF. They were so going to kick ass tonight!

"Okay, but you realize that what you said just then was basically a fucking sweet hero monologue?" Kenny bounced excitedly on his toes. "Man. You are like the female Punisher. This is awesome!"

"I am most certainly not. This is real life. If I die, there won't be a rewrite. I can't afford to play games or think of cool one-liners. I have to spend all my time and energy trying to stay alive for long enough to accomplish my goals. And I suggest that you stop reading comic books and use your time more productively to train, Kenneth," Wendy turned on her heel and began walking off. She paused only to say over her shoulder:

"Ugh. And at least put on a bulletproof vest before we go. If you get shot on the job, all my effort will be wasted. And lose the cape."

It was a shame Wendy was such a downer, Kenny thought. What was the point being a vigilante if she wasn't going to enjoy the shit out of it?

"But a vest will cover the ‘M' on my chest! That's the most iconic part of my costume!" Kenny pouted.

Wendy didn't bother to address this concern, however. She left him there to settle the issue for himself. Kenny glared at the back of her head, but eventually complied with her wishes.

"Killjoy," he muttered as he shouldered on a Kevlar vest from her supply closet, and reluctantly untied his cape. He then folded it and left it on top of Wendy's desk before following her out of base.

He sighed. His partner, he decided, really needed to extract the massive stick wedged up her ass. He wondered if he could inspire her to loosen up a little. All that somber seriousness couldn't be good for her health. Wendy probably had crazy high blood pressure.

"So, I think we need to get you a badass superhero name to get you more in the spirit," Kenny informed Wendy when he caught up to her, "I'm thinking something with a formal title, like Lady. And then we pair it with something badass, like Nightspike. Ooh! I like that; what do you think, Wendy? Should we call you Lady Nightspike?"

"I swear to God, Kenneth. If you call me that, I will shank you." It was hard to tell if she was smiling under her bandana, however, and Kenny liked to think she was at least a little bit excited by the cool-sounding name.

"By the way, Kenneth," she asked after a beat, "What's with the voice?"

"Huh?" Kenny asked.

"The raspy Batman thing," Wendy imitated him, which sounded pretty weird in her high-pitched intonation, "You sound absurd."

"You do it too!" Kenny accused. "I didn't even recognize your voice when I first heard it, because you pitch it so low when you're in costume!"

"It's not a costume!" Wendy spluttered indignantly, "And I do not!"

"I'm Wendy Testaburger, and I talk like this!" Kenny pitched his voice as high as it would go. Then he dropped it to the lowest register to say: "I'm Lady Nightspike, and I talk like this."

"I told you, I'm not letting you call me that!" Wendy did chuckle this time, though Kenny heard her try to stifle it. He grinned.

"It'll catch on. You'll see."

Dusk fell, and Wendy and Kenny came upon small warehouse on the far side North Park. They hid behind a set of low bushes while Wendy gave instructions.

"Okay, here's the deal," Wendy whispered. "In there is an infamous pimp by the name of Willy Wang. Now, pimps generally move around from state to state to avoid detection. But I've been tracking this low-life for a long time. He's got three girls, ages thirteen, sixteen, and seventeen, and he refers them as his children. Far as I can tell," Wendy's expression went dark, "They aren't actually related."

Kenny nodded. His heart pounded excitedly in his ribcage. "I got this one. I'll subdue him, and you call the cops."

The corner of Wendy's mouth turned down, and her brows dipped as if he'd said something quite ridiculous.

"Are you kidding? He's been systematically raping these girls and selling their bodies to strangers. And he has a shit-ton of money, and can easily afford a good lawyer and a cushy cell. They'll probably put him back on the street in just a couple of years for fucking good behavior. We're not calling the police."

"Right, but we can't just kill the guy in cold blood," Kenny said, as if it were obvious. "So we don't have much of a choice. We gotta trust the justice system and all that."

"Uhm. The whole point of being a vigilante instead of a cop or a detective is to work outside the justice system. Our job is only necessary because the system has failed in some fundamental way," Wendy was clearly becoming aggravated with Kenny, and her voice betrayed her thin patience. "You knew what you were getting into when you signed up for this, McCormick."

"That was different. They were attacking me! This guy's just sitting around in there. No one's in danger." Kenny was distinctly uncomfortable with the prospecting of ambushing and murdering some guy without giving the dude a chance to defend himself.

"No one's in danger?" Wendy repeated back, "No one's in fucking danger? Tell that to the little girls this guy forces on a daily basis to have sex with men who might hurt them, give them a disease, even kill them! Those girls are nearly our age! They should be in high school, not on their backs for a living! Try and tell me that's not violence!"

"Okay, okay," Kenny held his hands up. He knew he could not dissuade Wendy on this point. "But if we report him, he'll go through the proper channels. Then, he can—"

"Fuck the proper channels!" Wendy spat, and laughed bitterly. "The proper channels don't do shit about guys like this. There are thousands like him in every state, and the FBI catches maybe sixteen of them every couple months, and puts even fewer of them away. Rape and coercion are invisible crimes, Kenneth. Very hard to prove in a court of law because there's no body to autopsy. Victims only die on the inside."

Just then, the man in question emerged from the building. He walked beside a girl with short blonde hair, and from a distance, they really did look like father and daughter. She was tiny, wearing a red dress made for someone much older than she was, and her face was painted with bright make up. She was smiling and laughing at something he said, and he looked fondly down at her, holding her arm almost protectively as the two got closer to where Wendy and Kenny crouched.

Something about the way the girl shuffled along, wobbling in her heels reminded Kenny of Karen. They could've been the same age, both of similar build and height. Kenny's misgiving began to erode as he watched the man. The man towered over the girl even in her heels, his hair already graying at the sideburns.

Wendy silently handed Kenny an extendable steel baton. He clutched it in his hand. Shit had just gotten real.

"Just put him down, and get the girl out of the way," Wendy said, lowly. She lifted the goggles that dangled around her neck and placed them over her eyes, and then tied her bandana over her mouth. "I'll do the hard part if you're squeamish."

Kenny emerged from the bushes without another word. He felt Wendy try to stop him, probably to insist on a more incognito approach. But Kenny wanted to look this guy in the face as Mysterion busted him. He wanted this guy to be afraid. Fighting for justice was an adrenaline rush like nothing else, and Willy Wang was a criminal who deserved the worst of fates. Tonight, Kenny played the part of Karma the Bitch herself. Kenny missed his cape—he felt commanding and fierce when he stepped out of the bushes, and it would've been nice to look the part, too.

"Hey, fuckhead," Kenny called out, standing with his hands on his hips at the center of the road. "Is that a mustache, or did you snake your bathroom drain and glue the gunk to your face?"

Willy turned around, and so did his female cohort. She looked scared, and Kenny hoped he could spare her some trauma by keeping her out of the way. She'd never asked for any of this, after all.

"Who-who's there?" Willy wavered. He clutched the girl's wrist and pulled her tightly to his body. "You a cop?"

"You wish I was a cop," Kenny took a few swift steps forward as he spoke, and Willy Wang instinctively backed away. "But you're in my jurisdiction now, bitch."

"Kenny, watch out!" Wendy's voice interrupted, just in time for Kenny to hear the click of a gun. The memory of many paint-balls to the head triggered Kenny's reflexes, and he instinctively dove for cover, just in time to dodge a bullet that whizzed harmlessly over Kenny's back and into the nearby trees.

Then, Kenny attacked. He traced the bullet's trajectory back to the shooter. A big guy standing a few yards back and holding a gun seemed the most likely culprit. Kenny stayed low, and ran at the guy before he could shoot again. The worst thing to do was hold still, Kenny knew. He had to be a moving target if he wanted to minimize his chances of visiting Hell tonight. Kenny crouched as he ran, taking an indirect, zigzagging path towards his assailant.

Eventually, the guy had to reload. Kenny was close enough by that point to rush him. The guy looked down at his gun for a split second to change out the magazine. Kenny smiled widely; Ned had told him that he should be able to reload a weapon without looking down. This guy could've used the same advice. In the moment the man took to eject the magazine and fiddle for more ammunition, Kenny charged forward and knocked the weapon completely out of the big guy's hand. Kenny then kicked it out of the way.

The big guy hardly paused before he swung his fist at Kenny's head. Kenny wanted to kiss Wendy's feet at that moment for all the times she'd beaten the crap out of him. This guy was slower and less ruthless than Wendy. He probably didn't hit as hard, either. Therefore, he didn't intimidate Kenny at all. He swung across his body at Kenny's head, and it was so predictable that Kenny could've laughed. Had he seemed this pathetic to Wendy at first? Kenny wondered, as he deftly leapt back. The big guy hit nothing but air, and growled with frustration.

Kenny was so ready for this; the hulking bastard never had a chance of laying a hand on Kenny.

"Watch this, m'Lady," Kenny winked at Wendy over his shoulder. The bastard—apparently Wang's security detail—charged him again.

Kenny could practically hear Wendy's voice in his head. Don't let him grab you. He's bigger. If he hits you, you're down.

The name of the game, Kenny realized, was "can't touch this."

So Kenny put his guard up and focused on staying out of the way. In the Super Smash Brothers tournaments he used to have with Stan and Kyle during sleepovers, Kyle would've called his strategy "playing gay." (As in: "Come on, dude! Don't play gay!"). It was one of Wendy's favorites. Kenny just had to wear the big dude down while taking minimal damage. He was smaller and faster, so he already had the advantage. When the big guy got tired, he would start fucking up. He'd make stupid decisions. He'd move slower.

And then Kenny (or Jigglypuff, during Smash) would exploit the weakness for an instant KO.

So the big guy—Hulk, Kenny thought, was a fitting moniker—came at him, and Kenny side-stepped and danced back, out of reach. Hulk swiped at Kenny with one large, hammy hand, and Kenny ducked, and hopped to his left. Hulk lunged again, and Kenny ducked under Hulk's right arm and dropped and elbow into Hulk's kidney. Kenny spun out of the way as Hulk grunted in pain. He wobbled a little, but Kenny was impressed. A hard enough shot to the kidney was no joke. Hulk was still on his feet. This guy had staying power and seriously notable pain tolerance, it seemed.

Good thing, thought Kenny, that Mysterion was a master at dealing out the pain.

But as Kenny dealt with the security, Wang made for a hasty retreat. He dragged the girl away with him, gripping her hard by the arms. Kenny couldn't deal with both Willy and his goon at once. That was the point, probably, of having a security detail. But Kenny realized presently that this was no problem, because he had backup. He smiled at this insight. Yeah, good luck dealing with the backup.

Kenny snapped open his baton in one hand. As he did so, he caught sight of Wendy, who had at some point, snuck around behind Wang. She cut his throat in one, unmerciful stroke and let him fall. The girl screamed when the guy's grip on her went limp. Blood darkened her red dress. Wendy grabbed the girl, and Kenny heard her shriek unmistakably muffled by Wendy's glove.

However, Kenny didn't have time to watch Wendy take care of the garbage. His large adversary was apparently pissed about the kidney-punching business. Though his employer was down for the foreseeable future, Hulk took no prisoners. While Kenny was preoccupied watching Wendy work, Hulk picked Kenny up around the middle, causing Kenny to drop his baton. He threw him down, and Kenny felt his back collide with the ground. The pain was instantaneous, and Kenny forgot how to move. The shock rang through his body in tremors.

Hulk seemed set to immobilize Kenny, and moreover to turn Kenny's face into a Picasso painting with those huge fists. "This is how I die," thought Kenny, "...Well, this time."

But Hulk never got the chance to smash, because before he could so much as kneel over Kenny's prone body, Wendy took her pistol from her belt and shot him through the back of the head. One moment, Kenny was looking into Hulk's eyes—though as his own were unable to focus, this resulted in three-Hulks hovering above him. The next, a look of surprise stole across Hulk's face, and the big guy fell forward. Kenny rolled out of the way to avoid being crushed. When he leapt to his feat again, he saw that the back of Hulk's head had been reduced to bloody pulp. His singed hair gave off an acrid smell. Incredible, huh Hulk?

Wendy holstered her weapon, the barrel still emitting a faint wisp of smoke from the heat. "Are you okay?"

"Y-yeah," Kenny shook himself. The girl Wang had been with sobbed disconsolately, curled in a defensive ball on the floor. Wendy did not even attempt to comfort her, which was probably to everyone's benefit. Kenny was willing to wager that that little girl was pretty afraid of Wendy. Hell, Kenny was a little afraid of Wendy.

"You fucking idiot," Wendy scolded Kenny in the same breath she used to ask if he were all right. "You realize that big person would've killed you? You were armed! What were you planning to do with that baton? Conduct a symphony? Stick it up your ass? Why didn't you hit him with it?"

"I'm...not-not used to..." Kenny trailed off, unable to stop staring at the fallen bodies of Wang and his bodyguard. They'd been alive moments ago. In their last moments, they probably thought about what they were going to have for dinner. Or what they were going to watch on TV, or where they might vacation. Kenny cleared his throat. "I don't usually fight with a weapon. Just my hands, maybe a Taser."

He looked uncomfortably at the ground, unable to bear the sight of Hulk's mangled head any longer.

Wendy looked to the fallen figures Kenny seemed fixated on and scoffed. "They're less trouble as corpses."

"I guess," Kenny shuddered. He inexplicably thought of Butters, in his Professor Chaos outfit—the sound his helmet made when it bounced down the stairs.

"Let's get the girls somewhere safe," Wendy had already moved on to other matters, "I bet the other two are in the warehouse."

Kenny followed her wordlessly and did his best not to look behind him, where the bodies lay.


Karen found Kenny on his daily run the next morning. He hadn't slept the night before. He kept having nightmares in which Willy Wang spoke to him, air whistling through the hole Wendy cut in his throat and blood down the front of his shirt, or Hulk stared at him accusingly, half-decomposed and still nameless.

Thus, Kenny probably looked as tired as he felt. There were bags under his eyes, his hair was flattened on one side from sleeping on it oddly, and his body sagged drearily even as he jogged. Karen waited for him on the bench at Stark's. His eyes peered sightlessly ahead, and he did not notice her. So she whistled, high and sharp, to get his attention. Kenny's head snapped up, and he scanned the area for a moment or two confusedly.

"Kenny!" she called out, standing. She cupped her hands around her mouth to better project her voice, and condensation for the cold curled out from inside her grey mittens.

Kenny looked at her with some surprise, but he was too tired to do much more than smile as a greeting.

"Hey, Princess," he trotted over to her. "What're you doing here?"

Karen stared a moment at Kenny's unprotected arms and unwound her scarf. She proffered it to him earnestly.

"Put this on," she insisted. "It's cold out here!"

"Winter is coming," Kenny nudged her playfully, though Karen had never watched Game of Thrones. She'd been too young when it was popular.

Karen draped the scarf over Kenny's shoulders. "You'll get sick," she said, "Just wear it for a little while?"

Kenny nodded easily, and smiled fondly down at Karen. "Of course. Now, what's up? Why'd you track me down here?"

"Well, I see you run down here all the time," Karen twisted her jacket sleeve, "I just thought we should talk."

"About?" Kenny asked, though he had a good idea.

"About Scott and me," Karen clarified. Her voice was rushed, and she sounded nervous and a bit sad. "I don't want to marry him anymore."

Kenny was torn. He watched the expression on Karen's face sink into one of utter misery and felt immensely bad for his little sister, who was clearly distraught about this. But on the other hand, he was so happy he could practically see the sun shining and the birds singing. Holy shit, she was going to stop seeing Scott voluntarily? That fucking solved ALL his problems!

"I," Kenny coughed, and tried to train his expression into one of pure sympathy. "That's too bad, Karen. I'm-I'm so sorry."

"Yeah right," Karen put her chin in her palms and rested her elbows on her knees. "You're happy about this. I know you are."

Kenny instantly felt like the worst big brother in the world. "Aw, no Kar," he tried to sound as earnest as he could. "Scott wasn't so bad. I...just thought he was a little too old for you, was all." It felt so damn good to talk about Scott in the past tense.

"I know you do," Karen's eyes filled with tears. "That's why I can't marry him. Your opinion of me is the most important thing in the world. I can't bear it if you hate me over this, Kenny."

"Karen, I love you. Period." Kenny stroked her back gently, and spoke in his most soothing tone. He was scum. He was worse than scum. He was moldy scum. Karen had been so happy, and he'd just gone and ruined it. Kenny had made Karen cry more times in a couple weeks than he had before in his entire life!

"But you hate Scott," Karen pushed the heels of her palms to her eyes. She choked up for a moment, and was unable to speak. When she recovered her voice, she said:

"And so by extension, if I were to marry him and become his partner, you-you would hate me, too. Because we'd be a team, Scott and me."

"No," Kenny shook his head. All he wanted was for Karen to stop crying. "No, of course not. I would get over it, eventually. Karen, listen to me; I'm not your father. I'm not here to tell you what to do or how to live your life. I just want what's best for you. And...if that's Scott..."

Kenny sighed. He hated himself for saying it, but it had to be said. "...Then I support your decision to marry him."

It was starting to get cold. The perspiration on Kenny's back and face sent a chill of morning air over his skin, and he shivered. But the look on Karen's face—so grateful and happy and warm—made Kenny forget about the cold for a little while.

"Do you mean it?" she asked, voice soft. She sniffled, and wiped at her little red nose with the back of her hand. "Do you really mean it, Kenny?"

"I do," Kenny told her, his voice very serious. "You and Scott have my blessing, if this is really what you want. I...I'll even be the best man at your wedding, if that's what makes you happy."

Karen hugged her brother then, and squeezed with all her might. "Oh, thank you, thank you thank you!" she squealed, "Kenny, you have no idea what this means to me."

"One condition," Kenny hugged her back, and then pulled gently away, so that he could put his hands on her shoulders and look into her eyes. "You have to go to college first."

Karen paused, all her celebrating at a grinding halt.

"Kenny, that's mean!" she accused. She looked genuinely upset and squirmed out of Kenny's grasp. "You can't hold your support for my relationship over me to try and make me do what you want me to do!"

"I'm not!" Kenny argued, "I just can't support you getting married before you get your college degree! You are too young! You have to wait anyway, at least ‘til you're seventeen. So while you do—I am saying you need to finish your education. Then you have the ability to get out of South Park, in case you ever want to leave this fucking place. I want you to keep your options open!"

"The only options up for discussion here are that I marry Scott or I don't!" Karen shouted, her face obstinate. "College has nothing to do with it!"

"Look, I just want you to have choices!" Kenny stood up. Why couldn't she understand? "I want you to be able to travel if you grow up and decide you want to! I want you to see the world! I want you to have an actual house, and food and money and everything you could ever want! I don't want you to ever be hungry!" Kenny pointed at the unforgiving gray sky above, which already posed the threat of early snow. "You need a college education to have choices. For chrissakes, Karen, you need to be fucking smart about this if you ever want to get out of here!"

"Are you saying I'm not smart?" Karen stood too, new tears threatening to start down her cheeks. "Do you think I'm stupid, Kenny?"

"I think you are so fucking smart," Kenny grasped her arms again and held onto them as if to keep her from floating up and away from him. "I think you're smart, and beautiful and have the best chance out of any of us to make something of your life. That's why I don't want you to marry Scott, baby girl. You're too good for this. For any of this. You deserve better. You deserve everything. I want you to have that."

"Scott is all I want," Karen looked away, her face giving way to another barely repressed, silent sob. When she faced Kenny again, she said, "Don't I get a say in what I deserve?"

"You're too young to know what you want," Kenny sounded as if he were pleading with her. "Please, just promise me you'll get the degree before you marry that asshole, and I'll be your best man. I'll be your fucking flower girl if you want me to, okay? I'll never say another word against Scott. Just, don't—"

"I knew you were going to be like this!" Karen stepped away from Kenny. Her green hat was crooked on her head, and one of her bootlaces was untied. She looked so small standing there in the snow with her tear-reddened cheeks and her chapped lips. She was still a girl, just a little girl.


"Don't!" Karen turned and began to stomp off, "Just don't, Kenny. Forget it. Don't come to my wedding. In fact, don't ever talk to me again."


But she went, and Kenny knew better than to follow her. Wendy was going to have to kick his ass, because there was no energy left in Kenny. He wasn't going to finish this run. He slumped down on the bench instead, Karen's scarf in his hands.

The sun rose, but it grew no warmer.

It drizzled on and off all afternoon. Kyle took the opportunity to pick up a book and read. He curled up in his father's study with a copy of Freedom by Johnathan Franzen (recommended by Oprah's reading list), and enjoyed the occasional pitter-patter against the roof. Then, he settled in for a quiet few hours.

No sooner had Kyle turned to page seventeen however than the doorbell rang. Immediately, Sheila shouted down the stairs at Kyle, "Bubbe! Could you get the door?"

Kyle sighed and tucked the book jacket into the pages of his book to hold his place. He placed it on his father's desk stood to stretch his back. Some things were not meant to be.

"Sure, Ma, I got it!" he shouted back. Though he hated communication through shouting, it was better than confronting his mother face-to-face. The sight of Kyle seemed to inspire in her a long list of previously forgotten chores and chastisements.

Kyle trudged across the living room and opened the front door. But his mood lifted when he saw the person who'd rung the bell. Kenny stood on the Welcome mat. He smiled at Kyle sheepishly and shrugged as if apologizing: "Sorry, me again." Aside from that, Kenny looked tired, but he always seemed tired lately.

"Hey, dude," Kyle lifted an inquisitive brow as he let Kenny inside. "What's up?"

"Just wanted to hang out," Kenny said. He unzipped his rain-wet parka and hung it on the Broflovski coat rack. "Is that cool?"

"Yeah, of course," Kyle said, a bit slowly. Kenny—as a general rule—only showed up when he needed something, like a meal or a shower, or alternatively, when he needed to talk about something that was troubling him. "Did you want to stay for dinner?"

Kenny nodded. He seemed distant, and he kept looking out the window. But after a moment, he caught Kyle watching him concernedly. Kenny grinned back in a reassuring manner, though he still didn't elaborate on what was bothering him, or why he'd appeared on Kyle's doorstep. It was all highly suspect.

"Kenny, really, what's—"

"Do you wanna play some Smash?" Kenny interrupted before Kyle could finish. "It's been a while. I bet I could still kick your ass."

Kyle was visibly surprised, but he soon recovered. "Uhm, sure," he said, and scratched the back of his head beneath his mass of red curls. "Do you—uh...we can set up the game right here in living room. Game Cube version, or classic Nintendo 64 version? Or...I guess we could be lame play Brawl."

"Melee is fine," Kenny walked over and sat down on the couch. He leaned forward and stared at the blank screen. "Do you need help setting up?"

Kyle had a feeling that wasn't a real offer. "Nah, I got it." He began unwinding the chords around two controllers and plugged them into the dusty Game Cube system underneath the TV. Ike preferred PC games, and Kyle hadn't played anything since his first AP class. This had less to do with workload, and more to do with the fact that Stan was disinterested in anything that didn't involve either poetry or lame coffee-shop bands. Kyle simply had no one to play with...until now, it seemed.

Kyle worked in silence to free the controllers and start up the system. After he popped the disc in, he tossed Kenny a controller.

"Dibs on Jigglypuff," Kenny insisted, and quirked a small smile at Kyle. "Legacy rules. No items. Final Destination only."

Kyle preferred to play Marth anyway, so he nodded his easy consent. "Okay, dude. Lives or timer?"

"Lives, duh," Kenny smirked. Otherwise the game would end in a draw, with neither player attaining a single kill, and then they'd have to go into sudden death. Timer was no good for a proper Jiggly avoidance strategy.

As they waited for the game to boot and selected their characters, it occurred to Kyle that his preferred character actually had a lot in common with the boy sitting next to him.

"You know, Marth wears his sister Elice's tiara into battle?" Kyle mused, and Kenny selected a flower from the palette swaps for Jigglypuff to wear. "It reminds me of you, a little. Didn't you wear Karen's tiara when we were playing Game of Thrones that one time?"

"Hah yeah," Kenny laughed, though it sounded hollow. His body posture was hunched, defensive. He had flinched at the sound of Karen's name as if Kyle had physically stricken him. That was all Kyle needed to understand what the matter was with Kenny.

Karen and Scott were getting married; the fatass had been right. Of course Kenny was upset about it.

Kyle guessed that broaching the subject would do no good. Instead, Kyle opted to distract his friend from the unfortunate situation, since Kyle could not actually fix it. He scooted close, so that he sat close enough to Kenny that they bumped hips, legs touching while they sat on the couch.

"Which fictional character do you think you're most like?" Kyle changed the subject as the Final Destination stage came on, and its epic reverie played.

"Uhh," Kenny maneuvered Jigglypuff forward—which was the wrong way. Marth hit Puff with a down aerial. All Kenny's air dodging had done was move his character out of the sweet spot at the end of Marth's sword. That meant Kenny didn't take maximum damage, at least. Better yet, he could punish Kyle for it. Kyle never remembered to L-cancel his moves with ending lag (because much as Kenny loved the guy, he sucked at fighting video games. Hard. And Kenny, of course, was God-worthy awesome. Literally).

Though, admittedly, he was a bit rusty. It really had been a long time.

"Deadpool," Kenny said at last. He hit Marth with a perfectly placed Rest while the character lagged out, and Kyle swore as his character went flying off the stage. "That's the character I am most like."

"I have no idea who that is," Kyle frowned. Marth hovered over the stage, and Kyle left him there. Kenny grinned; he guessed Kyle wasn't ready to come down and take his virtual beating just yet.

"He's this mercenary who got terminal brain cancer," Kenny explained. Kyle's character finally stopped blinking with temporary invincibility. Kenny, however, continued to hover at staggered intervals over the stage. "He volunteers for the Weapon X program, and they heal him with a serum made from Wolverine's DNA."

"Mhmmm." Kyle's tongue poked out from the side of his mouth. He made the same mistake he always made, and tried to jump up to hit Kenny in the air. Kyle was fucking impatient, and Kenny deemed that his impetuosity would be his ultimate downfall. In this game, at least.

"Anyway, the procedure works, and Deadpool gets the healing factor of Wolverine. Only, because he has to heal faster than the cancer can kill him, he becomes horribly disfigured. That's why he always hides his face in his costume," Kenny smiled as he glanced sideways at Kyle. Kyle was clearly trying to restrain himself from exploding into an angry rant, as Kenny had killed his character once again. Kyle's face turned red and everything!

"Deadpool is famous for breaking the fourth wall—talking to the audience and the narrators—and generally pretty insane. He's not afraid of anything, because nothing can kill him—and he's known for being a big perv, even though he's way too ugly for most women to be attracted to him." Kenny let Kyle beat up his character a little bit to assuage Kyle's ego. Man, Kyle needed to learn to wave-dash already. "So, yeah. We've got a lot in common."

"You're not ugly," Kyle said absently. He chewed his bottom lip, eyes on the screen as he furiously mashed buttons. Kyle had never really gotten the concept that Smash was a strategy game as much as anything else. He had decent reflexes, but the combinations and nuances of placing and match ups escaped him. But then, Kyle was always better with theoretical things than practical ones.

"Well, thanks," Kenny got tired of letting Kyle win, and started avoiding him again. "...Does that mean you think I'm attractive?" he teased.

"Calm down. All I said was you aren't ugly. I didn't exactly recommend you for a beauty pageant." Kyle's fingers pushed the buttons more frantically, his thumbs feverishly twiddling the joysticks. "Wouldn't want you to get an even bigger head, Captain Self-Esteem."

"I'm wounded," Kenny put his controller against his chest, and affected a pained expression. Kyle tried to take advantage of the pause in Kenny's gameplay, but Jigglypuff continued to float out of reach, weaving and dodging all of Kyle's aerial assaults.

"Stop playing gay, Kenny!" Kyle burst out. "God fucking damn it, I hate it when you play Jigglypuff!"

Kenny just laughed, because it was actually pretty hilarious to watch Kyle lose his temper. He went red under his hair, and sometimes, if he got angry enough—he'd adopt a faint Jersey accent. Kenny didn't plan to push him that far, though it was tempting. It was sort of a rush to see how far he could push Kyle.

"But I like playing gay, Kyle," Kenny hummed, and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "It's one of my very favorite things to do."

Kyle made a sound of annoyance and continued spamming the B button. Kenny worried he might break the controller at this rate.

"Dolphin Slash? Really?" Kenny laughed, "At least spam Marth's smashes, damn dude. You REALLY suck at this. That's like his worst move."

Kyle turned redder still, angry as hell. "STOP PLAYING GAY."

"I hardly see how I'm the one playing gay," Kenny Rested Kyle again, and Marth was flung to his doom. He would've Taunted, had Jigglypuff been awake. "You're the one taking an ass-pounding here."

"God DAMN it!" Kyle shouted. "You-you fucking cheated, dude! I want a rematch! This time, you can't be Jigglypuff!" He looked so deeply frustrated and flustered that Kenny was inspired to do a different kind of experiment all together.

Kenny just wanted to see what would happen. He wondered Kyle would do if he stretched the boundaries, just a little.

Kyle's crimson face, the way his curls practically vibrated with his ire, and those off-green eyes, flashing with righteous indignation begged a little improvised havoc. Kyle was generally so well put together. Kenny wanted to unravel him a little bit. Just to see what might happen. After all, Kenny's curiosity, once piqued, could not be sated by anything but discovery.

Kyle was so going to kick his ass for this. But Kenny figured he could handle it. His heart started pounding in the way he loved, thoughts racing and breathing accelerated. He cared—legitimately cared—about Kyle, needed him even, at least for food and free showers. There was something to lose here. This was a fucking gamble, and that made it exciting as shit.

The more Kenny thought about risks and consequences, and the angrier Kyle got, the more Kenny knew he had to do it.

"...Furthermore, it's not even fun if you play like that. It's not really a fight when you won't come down and—mmf!"


Mid-sentence, Kenny leaned in, and kissed the angry scowl right off Kyle's face.

It was a small kiss, nothing to write a young adult novel about, but it was enough. Kyle went silent as the grave, and his controller fell to the floor.

It worked to deter Kyle's rage too, because when Kenny pulled away, Kyle's face was no longer livid and murderous. He was merely surprised, staring at Kenny with uncomprehending eyes. Kenny took advantage of the moment to kill Marth again, and the sound of his character's distressed call seemed to snap Kyle out of the trance.

Kyle looked at the screen, and then back to Kenny. He looked down at his controller, but couldn't seem to pick it up. He just blinked, at a loss.

Kenny killed Marth again, winning the battle. He felt Kyle watching him, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose with this awareness.

"Kenny...Is Deadpool a good guy or a bad guy?" Kyle asked, incongruously. His voice was hoarse and raw.

Keny watched Jigglypuff celebrate her victory as her defeated combatant applauded her in the background. "He's both, sometimes," Kenny told him. "He switches back and forth. But I think he's a good guy, in the end."

"Why's that?"

"Well, he meets this girl," Kenny explained. He exited the stats screen and began choosing a new hat for Jigglypuff for the next round. Kyle picked up his controller at last to join him, though he still seemed sort of shell-shocked. "Shiklah. Sexy succubus, promised to Count Dracula himself. Deadpool falls in love with her."

Kyle turned to look at Kenny, and Kenny met Kyle's eye, a smile quirking at the corner of Kenny's mouth.

"And even though she's demon princess, I think she's gonna change him," Kenny said, with a little shrug. "For the better."


"I have a present for you," Wendy said when Kenny walked into her studio Monday evening. Sitting at the center of the floor were two plastic trashcans. Kenny eyed them warily. He wasn't sure what Wendy had planned with them, but last time, her "present" to him was a new flexibility workout, and both his body and self-esteem still hurt from that.

"What is it?" he asked her suspiciously.

"Patience, grasshopper," Wendy chided. She tied on a strip of semi-elastic hand-wrap about her thumb and began to wrap it around her hand. "First, let's see if you've been doing your homework."

Kenny stripped off his parka and tossed it into the corner. He moved to the mat area and waited for Wendy to finish protecting her hands. When she came over to meet him, he crouched into the ready position.

Wendy took a pair of purple boxing gloves down that hung from a nail next at the top right corner of the mirror. She put them on, and Kenny knew this was mostly for his benefit. Wendy always tried not to hit his face and to wear gloves when they fought, so he would go home with minimal bruising in noticeable areas. Thoughtful of her, really—though it did nothing to improve his pride, which she destroyed on a regular basis.

"Okay, Kenny," Wendy said from behind her gloves. She bounced back and forth, never one to hold still during a fight. "Tell me what went wrong with Wang."

"I-uh, took my eyes off the target," Kenny supplied quickly. "To uhm. Watch you."

He hopped around her, trying to follow her example and not hold still for too long. He focused on Wendy and trying to read her body for physical tells that indicated where she might strike. Problem was, Wendy was the fake-out queen. Her right arm and shoulder would twitch forward minutely, but in the next second, her left foot would then make contact with Kenny's temple. Though Kenny was patient, Wendy would wait around all day for Kenny to strike first. Unless that was what he was expecting her to do, in which case, he could be sure that she would flatten him in seconds, before he had time to so much as decide on a plan of attack. In a fight, she was efficient, but never hurried, and she was energetic, but never over-eager. It was beautiful, really. Wendy didn't fight so much as she flew—a blur of violence and motion.

"Yes, you did," Wendy took a half step in a frontal charge towards Kenny, and he covered his chest and neck. But she punched him in the gut—not once but twice, two consecutive, unforgiving jabs to midsection. Kenny's breath left him in one whoosh of expelled air. When he bent forward to clutch his belly, Wendy's leg arced up and slammed down over the top of his head.

Kenny collapsed onto the mat, coughing. "Easy, Tiger," he wheezed, and rubbed the back of his head. "The night's still young. We have all night to pummel me like a bloody sack."

"What else did you do wrong, during the fight?" Wendy ignored Kenny and pressed on. Kenny warily got to his feet. He got further away from Wendy this time. Goddamn the bitch hit hard.

"I, uh," Kenny wracked his brain for errors he had made, but found concentrating difficult. He was far more preoccupied with Wendy and her intimidating boxing footwork. She slid and pivoted with a dancer's precision, and never seemed to tire. He wondered how many hours she'd spent training to make it appear so effortless. She'd tried to teach him a little bit, and he knew for a fact that it wasn't as simple as it looked. Kenny fucking hated footwork drills.

"Guard up, asshole," Wendy reminded Kenny by cuffing the side of his head. He tried to deflect, but she was too fast. The goatskin of her glove skidded painfully over the shell of Kenny's unprotected ear. "Answer the question!"

"I don't know!" Kenny jogged backwards, unwilling to take any more punishment. "I don't remember! I was nervous! It was my first mission with you!"

Wendy approached, and Kenny tried to fend her off with a wide-range, high swing across the front of his body. Wendy, of course, dipped under Kenny's fist the came back up to smash her uppercut into the bottom of his jaw.

"You have a really unsteady right cross," Wendy commented as she danced back, "We're gonna have to fix that with some weight and precision training."

Kenny opened his jaw and moved it around to make sure Wendy hadn't broken it. "Girl, you need to loosen up," he said, shaking his head back and forth to try and rid himself of the ringing in his ears. "Seriously. Do you ever take a break?"

"Irrelevant. You need to explain to me why you chose an avoidance strategy in a high-tension situation, Kenneth," Wendy spun on her heel, and aimed a backwards kick to Kenny's shin. Amazingly, it missed, and Kenny took the opportunity to leap onto her back.

Wendy grunted and grabbed one of Kenny's arms. He felt her struggle, and was inordinately proud of himself. He'd gotten a lot stronger and better at throwing his (significantly heavier than Wendy's) bulk around. He also knew Wendy would try to toss him over her shoulder, and so he moved one hand to grip her waist to distribute his weight differently and make the task harder. To prevent her from stomping on his feet, he kept them apart, balancing firmly on the balls of his feet. Balls of the foot, not toes. Kenny had already learned his lesson about trying to balance on his toes in a situation like this. Suffice to say, it wasn't good for balance. At all.

"You should, at this point be able to handle, two measly guys and a hostage!" Wendy said. As she did, she jerked forward and elbowed him in the unprotected side. When Kenny baulked, she broke his hold. She backed up, and then ran at him, but instead of attacking directly, she ran past him, grabbed his arm, and stuck out her foot to catch him. This caused Kenny to fall flat on his face yet again. Quickly, she knelt down to speak into his ear, her gloved hand at his neck.

"You needed to down the big guy immediately and then move onto Wang. He would've escaped. You had a window of maybe twenty seconds. I don't know why you didn't fucking notice that," she whispered in a deadly tone. "I told you I don't want to pick up your slack. So stop fucking around, dickwad, and just—"

Kenny reached up to grab her around the back of the neck mid-lecture. He meant to pull her to his body and roll over her, pinning her and forcing her to tap out. But instead, he felt Wendy's forehead smash into his. Dazed, Kenny had little choice in the matter as Wendy slipped out of his grasp and stood, brushing off her tank top with her gloves.

"Sorry about that," Wendy pointed to the inevitably area that would bruise on Kenny's forehead. "I hate head-butts. It's one of the most costly moves you can do."

Kenny stood too. He was sweaty and sore, but those were becoming facts of his life. "It's okay. No one will see it under the parka anyway."

"I have something to show you now," Wendy turned to her computer, indicating to Kenny's relief that the physical part of his training with her for the day was over, or at least on reprieve.

"What is it?" Kenny joined her at her desktop, and peered over her shoulder at the screen. She had a video player up, and the two blurry figures that served as the thumbnail struck a chord of recognition in Kenny's mind.

"Oh my god, dude. Is that me and Hulk—I mean, the big guy from last night?" Kenny squinted at the screen, and Wendy hit play to answer him.

"You're in my jurisdiction now, bitch."

Kenny recognized his own voice and grinned. "Fuck yeah, that's me," Kenny pointed unnecessarily at his image in the small window. "I look awesome!"

Wendy rolled her eyes and fast-forwarded to the fight. Kenny noticed that she had edited in white arrows, pointing to various parts of Kenny's body and notes. Occasionally, the screen froze on a frame, and Kenny laughed—Wendy had done an angry voice-over, explaining his mistakes.

"Batons can be use to deliver single, fatal strikes to the back of the head," Wendy's voice claimed. On screen, a white circle appeared around Hulk's head and the stick in Kenny's hand. "What you needed to do was position yourself to deliver it. Instead, here you are, standing there uselessly with your stick in your hand."

Wendy paused the video and looked expectantly to Kenny.

"Did you just make a dick joke?" Kenny inquired, delighted, "You did! Oh my god, she has a sense of humor after all!"

He didn't miss the faint pink blush that flooded Wendy's cheeks. "Way to miss the point," she growled, eyes down. "Anyway, I expect you to watch this several times, and submit to me a detailed written play-by-play for how the fight actually should've gone by tomorrow."

"Can there be dragons?" Kenny sat on top of Wendy's desk, causing a stack of papers to crinkle under his butt.

"No! No dragons!" Wendy glared at him. "Take it seriously. Give yourself only the baton you actually had, and redo the fight mentally, so that you actually accomplish your directive. Without my assistance."

"I may have promised to do whatever you told me to," Kenny shrugged on shoulder and leaned back on his palms. "But my dragons made no promises."

"Okay, Khaleesi," Wendy stood from the desk. She took a flash drive from the server and tossed it up before catching it in her closed fist. She then held it out to Kenny. "Tomorrow. Get it done. No dragons."

Kenny took the flash drive and clutched it to his chest. "You know Game of Thrones?"

"I'm full of surprises," Wendy flashed one of her rare, unexpected smiles. "I used to watch it all the time with..." She trailed off just for a moment, as if the name on her tongue were too difficult to say. "...A friend. After school, when we were kids."

Wendy busied herself with something in her desk drawer, and Kenny watched her turned back with interest. Had it just been him, or had Wendy looked positively human a second ago?

"Do you still hang out with your friend?" he asked. He probably should've left it alone, he realized. But the curiosity, as always, was just too irresistible.

"No," Wendy's voice returned to its usual brisk, clipped tone. "I do not."

"Do you miss whoever it was?" Kenny pried, far more curious about Wendy's past than whatever it was she had to give him. Anyway, it was probably just a new workout regimen, ugh.

Wendy's face did not change, and her voice did not waver. "Every day."

"Who was it?" Kenny was thrilled she hadn't shut him down so far. This was the closest they'd ever had to a real conversation. "You don't have to tell me, I guess. But...seriously, who was it?"

Wendy's lips thinned, and she shook her head once. "No one. It doesn't matter. We don't speak anymore."

Kenny knew Wendy well enough to know when they'd reached the end of a discussion. So he let it go, reluctantly. If he wanted any hope to continue the line of inquiry in the future, he had to gain her trust. Pushing her to the point of anger on a sensitive subject right away could not accomplish that.

A very large portion of life, Kenny discovered as he went along, was simply patience. Good thing Wendy was stuck with him for a while. He had time.

"So," Kenny cracked his knuckles to break the awkward silence that had settled over them. "What was it that you had to give me?"

Wendy opened the top drawer of the desk and handed Kenny a pair of goggles nearly identical to her own.

"This is how I got the video," Wendy explained. "It's really are just a fancy-looking Google Glass 2. You know that technology initially started out as hands-free computer devices that projected onto the goggles of fighter pilots? But really, the information can be projected onto any type of surface. They even have Google Glass contacts now."

Kenny took the goggles carefully, turning them over in his hands. " fucking cool!"

Wendy nodded her agreement. "They can help you aim your weapon around a corner. You can shoot accurately without having to turn your head in that direction. They're a means of communication if we ever get separated. They have GPS, so you have no excuse to get lost. And I installed software that you can use during combat to remind you pressure points and weak spots on the body."

Kenny immediately put the goggles on. Though they appeared to have darkened lenses from the outside, he found that they were not actually tinted when he peered through them.

"One-way glass," Wendy smiled knowingly. "Otherwise I wouldn't have my full vision at nighttime, which is when I do most of my work."

"And you are giving these to me?" Kenny marveled. He couldn't figure out how to turn them on just yet, but it felt sweet to wear them anyway.

"So that you can record your fights on video," Wendy clarified. "Everything you do when you turn them on will be recorded and automatically sent to my computer. We'll review them together. I'm also giving you the manual, and you will have to learn to use them before you can actually go on patrol with them. That means that BEFORE we go on a mission, you'll need to figure those out. I'll test you."

Kenny nodded, still somewhat in awe. "This. Is so fucking cool!" He jumped up and struck a fighter's pose, arms raised as if he were in a cheesy karate movie. "I am Mysterion 2.0, Criminal Scum! Prepare to have your ass whooped! Wataaw!"

Kenny karate-chopped the air, and then hopped about, doing roundhouse kicks and improvising stunts. He jumped into a dive-roll on the mat, and then sprung back up to his feet, grinning madly.

Wendy watched him, a tiny flicker of amusement in her eyes. "I'm...glad you like them."

"Oh, man!" Kenny looked at himself in the mirror, shamelessly admiring his reflection. "This is sooooo legit! When do I get my own cool signature weapon, Wends? Huh?"

"As soon as you are sufficiently trained to use a real weapon," Wendy answered matter-of-factly. "Starting with a gun. That's priority one. How are the range lessons going?"

"Great!" Kenny did some more hero poses in the mirror, flexing his muscles. "Hey, do I get to test these babies out on the range, too?" He pulled the goggles out a bit and let them snap back. "Fuck! Ouch!"

"Careful! And in fact, I insist you do," Wendy went back to her computer, facing the screen. "You need to know how to use those to their fullest advantage, or there is no point."

"You're the BEST, Wendy! Kenny ran at her, and picked her up off her chair in a bone-crushing hug. "I fucking love you!"

Kenny thought that it was a testament to their successful partnership that she didn't drop him for grabbing her.

"Yes, very nice," Wendy rasped, "You're welcome. You're choking me, though. Put me down. Time for an endurance workout, and then ice-baths."

Kenny groaned, and released her as commanded. "Nooooo. I hate endurance workouts! ...What's an ice-bath? I don't think I like the sound of that, Gwendolyn."

"It's my other gift to you," Wendy said. She walked over to the mat. "We're going to fill those trashcans with ice and then stand in them ‘til our lips turn blue."


"Jekki Shodan," Wendy instructed. "Kata number one. And to answer your question, ice-baths combat microtrauma—small tears in the muscles."

"I hate you so much."

"The disciplined body reacts without need for conscious thought," Wendy assumed the starting position, hands at her sides. "So turn off your mind, and more importantly your mouth, and focus."


"Aw, come on, Kyle," Kenny whined through a mouthful of gluey cafeteria macaroni and cheese, "You've been doing this all day! What's the matter?"

Kyle did not appear moved by Kenny's appeals. He continued to stare down at his biology textbook as if Kenny hadn't said anything at all. Kenny had ripped on Stan hard for getting so upset when Kyle had ignored him. But being on the other end of that unseeing stare was damn unnerving.

Stan and Cartman had yet to arrive for whatever reasons. That left Kenny free to pester Kyle, and to inquire as to why he was being treated to the infamous coldshoulder.

"What did I do?" Kenny implored. "You can't refuse to talk to me forever, dude. Just tell me what I did wrong so I can fix it?"

"Oh, stop it," Kyle hissed, to Kenny's relief. It was the most acknowledgement that Kenny had gotten all day. "You know very well what you did. You shouldn't even have to ask me."

"Nuh uh!" Kenny tapped his sticky fork handle to his forehead, "I'm stupid, see? I don't pick up hints. Please, just tell me, Kyle. You're the smart one. You gotta help me out here." Kenny hoped a silly plea to Kyle's ego might help soften him a little bit. It did, obviously, because Kyle visibly faltered, as if finally conflicted about his imposed silence on Kenny.

Kyle's eyes slid sideways from his Biology textbook and he gave Kenny a weary look. "You shouldn't even be surprised by any of this. You started it."

"How did I start this?" Kenny asked, patiently. Kyle was gonna have to be a lot clearer than that. As Kyle spoke, Kenny continued to stuff his face with shitty caf food—limp steamed broccoli as a side dish, and lumpy rice pudding with raisins for dessert. But it wasn't like Kenny could complain. It was Kyle's food after all; Kenny hadn't paid for it.

"You-you—" Kyle turned almost purple-red and lowered his voice to an infuriated whisper. He leaned towards Kenny, eyes narrowed accusingly, "You know! You freaking kissed me! And now you keep pretending nothing happened! We never even fucking talked about it! So, I'm not the one who started the ignoring business! You did, Kenny!"

Kenny was somewhat bewildered, and looked to Kyle with shocked incredulousness. "You're mad at me for kissing you, dude?"

Kyle's eyes cast down, and his whole body adopted a tense hunched position, "Just—you know what? Never mind. Just never mind. It obviously doesn't even fucking matter to you. Just leave it alone Kenny."

"I can't," Kenny raised a brow, "Because it obviously matters to you."

Kyle glowered at his book again, saying nothing. It occurred to Kenny that Kyle must care a great deal for one little kiss to unsettle him so. But he also noted that Kyle had still gotten lunch, as he always did, even though he had no intention of eating most of it. This was done, Kenny knew, for his benefit, though he never would've asked Kyle for that kind of favor. Borrowing Kyle's shower or staying for dinner was one thing, but accepting handouts from his friends was something Kenny could not abide. Thus, the fact that it was still "Kyle's lunch" that Kenny "snuck bites of while Kyle was looking" made it seem less like charity, so Kenny could actually accept it.

It was deeply thoughtful, really. It always had been. Kyle never really ate lunch, but always bought it, and Kenny knew that if Kyle hadn't done it, there were times he would've gone to bed hungry.

With that in mind, it seemed like the only fair thing to do to reassure Kyle over the whole kiss thing.

"Ahh, I'm sorry about that, dude," Kenny rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I was just being a dumbass again. I was messing around. You know me. You looked so mad and stuff, so I just kind of wanted to see what would happen."

Kyle's head snapped up from his book, and he glared daggers at Kenny in response. Wow, one sentence, and Kenny had already managed to say the wrong thing.

"So, you didn't mean anything by it?" Kyle demanded. It sounded like a trap if Kenny had ever heard one, so he paused before answering.

"I...well. I mean you're my friend, dude. Right?"

"Do you kiss all your friends?" Kyle wanted to know, and he sounded so petulant that Kenny wanted to laugh. Kyle's obvious insecurity about the issue was actually sort of cute.

"Just the special ones," Kenny replied roguishly. He made big eyes and Kyle and play-swatted his arm. "Don't you worry your pretty little head over it. You'll always be my number-one girl."

"Fuck you!" Kyle spat. Obviously, teasing had not been the right way to go. "You know what? I don't fucking know why I bother with you. You never take anything seriously. You just play stupid mind games and don't give a shit about who you hurt."

"What are you talking about?" Kenny was completely bewildered. "You're the one giving me the silent treatment without explanation. I told you I didn't mean anything by it! If anyone is playing games, it's you! So, why don't you tell me what's really going on here, Kyle?"

Kyle looked around quickly to make sure that no one was listening still. When he had ascertained their relatively privacy, he turned back to Kenny, voice even more lowered than before. "Nothing is going on. I just think it's inconsiderate, all right? You can't just kiss people and then pretend it didn't happen! I mean, who does that?!"

Kenny's brows pressed together in his confusion. "Kyle. It really was just a kiss. You're reading too much into it. I didn't mean to play any games or whatever. I honestly just wanted to see what you would do." He tried a winning smile after that, hoping that talking over the issue had eased Kyle's irrational fears. "Okay? Can we go back to being friends now?"

"I'm gay, Kenny," Kyle said, so softly Kenny almost missed it.

"Oh," Kenny felt winded by the sudden change of subject. He struggled for a reply for a few moments. Where the fuck had that come from? "Okay. I don't think any differently of you, or whatever, if that's what you're worried about. I don't care if you like dick." Kenny gave Kyle a thumbs-up and a supportive smile.

"Maybe I want you to think differently of me," Kyle whispered, and looked down at his hands, which were balled up tightly together on the cafeteria tabletop.

Kenny was taken aback. "Kyle...I..."

Kyle shook his head. He looked so defeated and upset and angry that, though Kenny wanted to put a comforting hand on his shoulder or something, he hardly dared touch him.

"Forget it," Kyle smiled, but the smile was bitter, "Never mind, Kenny."

Kenny knew a bad route when saw one, but he wasn't sure how to steer clear. Kyle was a ticking time bomb. Kenny wasn't sure how avoid being turned into a human dartboard filled with Kyle-shrapnel.

"Kyle, no. Come on. It's—"

"I said drop it!" Kyle's voice nearly broke, and the intensity of his demand honestly scared Kenny a little bit, so he back off, shrinking.

"Drop what?" Stan interrupted, sitting down on Kyle's other side. His approach had gone unnoticed due to the intensity of the conversation, and Kenny jumped a little in surprise at Stan's intrusion. "What's going on guys?"

Kyle looked ready to snap someone's neck, so Kenny decided the only course of action was to smooth things over before they got fucking worse. Was that even possible?

"Kyle's mad at me, ‘cause I failed another essay," Kenny shrugged, schooling his features into the perfect unabashed, devil-may-care, faux-apologetic smirk that he could. He didn't even have to do much acting. He had actually failed that stupid essay.

"Aw," Stan put two fingers to the middle of his forehead and shook his head. "Did you just not turn it again?"

Kenny nodded contritely. "Kyle tried to remind me to do that shit, but I was too incorrigible."

"You know the word incorrigible, but you can't be assed to write a proper essay," Kyle added, playing along to Kenny's surprise. Subtly, he sent Kenny a grateful half-smile for the cover-up, so Kenny knew he'd done the right thing.

But as soon as Kenny tried to smile back, Kyle turned back to his book, letting Kenny know that he was not, in fact, off the hook.

"'Sup, bitches?" Cartman plunked down on the bench on the opposite side of the table from his three friends, that stupid ever-present smile on his fat face.

"Hey, dude," Kenny smiled, only a little forcedly. He couldn't help feeling weird around Cartman these days.

"What are you ladies bitching about now?" Cartman ran a hand over-top his gel-wet hair before digging into his pastrami sandwich.

"Kenny didn't do his homework, and Kyle's disappointed in him," Stan shrugged. "Same old."

"Heh, Kinny, just pay a Mexican to do it for you like everyone else," Cartman spoke between bites, mayonnaise clinging in globs to his lips. "Oh, wait. I forgot, you can't afford a Mexican. Never mind."

Past being bothered by the same tired insults, Kenny shrugged instead. "One day you are going to choke on your own bullshit, you know that? I don't want to be you when it happens, dude."

"Pfft," Cartman dismissed him with a wave of his large hand. "You keep talking, but all I hear is another whiny, entitled Child Left Behind."

Kyle's brow twitched with annoyance, but he made no comment. Stan began to smoke heavily, and Kenny wondered if Stan hoped to disappear behind a wall of vapor to rid himself of Cartman.

"Seriously, Kinny. Your people set the bar so low you can't limbo under it." Cartman patted his chest self-importantly. "Society can't advance until we get rid of Freeloaders like you."

"Stuff it, Cartman," Stan was visibly irritated, pushing the button to up the nicotine dose on his E-cig as he spoke. "I can't handle this today."

Kenny wondered what made today different than any day of Cartman's bullshit. But he was certainly on Stan's side.

"These guys aren't really in the mood for jokes today," Kenny tried a chummy instead of scolding approach, "I think they're all on their periods or something."

"Probably," Cartman conceded and proceeded to eat in relative quiet afterwards. Even Kyle looked impressed. Kenny thought he'd really missed his calling. He should've been a fucking diplomat.

"So Stan, I was thinking we have another Smash tournament this weekend," Kenny said after a nice, quiet beat. "Turns out, Kyle still sucks."

"I'm busy," Kyle retorted, flatly.

Stan gave him an odd look. "...I'd be down for that. Chance to redeem myself for ditching out last time. I'm still sorry about that, dude."

"You're forgiven," Kyle said, but he looked at Kenny when he said it, rubbing it in. Kenny rolled his eyes. Kyle could be so fucking passive aggressive sometimes.

At that moment, Bebe Stevens walked past their table. She carried her tray, and chatted with Ruby Tucker as the two strolled by. Kenny watched both Stan and Cartman turn their heads to look at her, and felt it a second before the awful moment happened, that shit was about to hit the fan.

"Bebe!" Cartman called out. She turned her head in response to her name, and Kenny saw her blanch.

Now, Kenny hadn't seen much of Bebe since she and Stan had stopped dating, except passingly. She'd always been a pretty girl, which perhaps contributed to her reputation. Kenny had always suspected jealous rivals for that one. But Bebe just seemed tired, now. Gone were the miniskirts and skin-tight sweaters. Gone were the thigh-high boots and glittery mascara. She was still a pretty girl, but no longer looked aware of the fact. She wore a plain blue button up; her hair in natural tight, fuzzy curls and cut just below shoulder length.

Kenny remembered a time when Bebe straightened her unruly hair before going to the fucking beach. He wondered if she were just depressed, like Stan. But even Stan bothered to put on eyeliner in the morning, Kenny thought with a snort.

"Hey, just let it go," Kenny leaned forward to caution Cartman. Bebe plainly didn't need Cartman's shit.

But Cartman ignored Kenny's advice, of course. "Guess what today is Stevens?"

Bebe didn't answer. She appeared frozen in place, staring at Cartman with vague, void eyes.

Stan on the other hand, had never looked so unstable. Kenny was surprised he didn't bust out the acoustic guitar and break it over Cartman's head. If Cartman noticed this, he paid it no heed. Cartman obviously didn't fear Stan, or Stan's wrath.

"It's our anniversary," Cartman said. His voice was almost sweet. It made Kenny's spine crawl.

Bebe opened her mouth to say something, but no one ever heard what that was.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Stan shrilled. "Eric, are you fucking kidding me?"

Kyle, alarmed, tried to intervene. "I'm sorry about him, Bebe. Just ignore—"

"No! He doesn't get to fucking flaunt this in my face!" Stan's voice, unused to moving above a disdainful monotone, wavered and squeaked when he got upset. "It's bad enough that he-he—"

"Stan, don't," Bebe said, gently. Probably no one else noticed, but Kenny saw her hands tremble just slightly as she held her tray. "Please. Please, don't."

"Everyone needs to calm down," Kyle insisted, putting a steadying on Stan's arm. "Let's not all get worked up over the past. Come on. This all happened three years ago. It's not worth fighting about anymore."

"Three years today," Cartman smiled at Bebe again. "It was unforgettable, baby."

She recoiled and hurried away. Ruby had long gone, leaving her alone to deal with Cartman without backup. Kenny was oddly ashamed of Ruby; he felt she should've stayed out of loyalty for her friend. Stan watched Bebe go for a moment, before turning his attention back to Cartman.

"You and me. Outside. Now."

"Oh, come on. You guys can't be serious. Fighting about this now—" Kyle tried vainly to diffuse the situation, but the proverbial genie was out of the bottle. Stan's three-year grudge (over what, Cartman sleeping with Bebe? Kenny frankly had no fucking idea. Was that why she and Stan broke up in the first place? He doubted anyone but Stan, Cartman, and possibly Bebe did) had been given just enough fuel to reach inextinguishable levels.

"I'm not fighting you," Cartman appeared oddly cool about the whole ordeal. He folded his hands and shamelessly watched Bebe leave the cafeteria. The bad feelings Kenny got sometimes about Cartman returned full force, and it occurred to him that Lola might not be the only one Cartman had ever...

"Why not?" Stan sounded so broken. Kenny had never, ever seen him so miserable in his life. He looked like he'd been hit by a truck; Kenny dearly wanted to root for Stan to finally give Cartman his comeuppance, but—

"I think we both know I have already won," Cartman said, voicing Kenny's thoughts. Kenny immediately hated himself for thinking them.

Stan went limp, as if someone had cut the invisible chord holding him up. He didn't move. Kyle and Kenny looked at each other, and Kenny didn't know about Kyle, but he was just glad the biggest problem between the two of them was an unclear kiss. Kenny had a lot of scars, but Stan was the one who'd been truly damaged.

As they filed out of the cafeteria in silence, Kenny caught sight of his partner. She sat in the same spot he'd seen her so long ago, before he'd discovered her superhero secret.

The moment was familiar, because she wore the same deadly look on her face, aimed at Cartman. It had always been a scary look, but now that Kenny knew exactly how dangerous she was...

He was just glad to be on her same fucking team.


On the bus, Kenny sat next to Stan. Since lunch, he'd been silent, and the only sounds he really made were to uselessly push the nicotine button on his E-cig, though the dose could go no higher. Oh, boy—did Kenny know, sometimes, there wasn't enough chemical high in the world.

"Wanna talk about it?" Kenny finally asked as the bus went over a bump. Dense trees rolled by in the window, and Stan stared at them without seeing. For a while, Kenny thought Stan hadn't even heard him. Kenny prepared to let Stan have his space, when Stan replied.

"Did I ever tell you why we broke up?"

Kenny shook his head. "You never even told Kyle, dude. And we weren't gonna ask Cartman about it."

"I got her pregnant," Stan tugged at his black wristband. "Fifteen years old, and I got her knocked up. We were so stupid."

Kenny thought about Karen and Scott, and his heart felt as if it were being pulled through his ass. Karen was fifteen. He really didn't want to imagine what that would've been like for her. The changes in Bebe's appearance suddenly made sense.

"I didn't know," Kenny said it like an apology. "I'm so sorry, Stan. I had no idea."

"It's not your fault," Stan laughed, but it sounded more like a sob: ragged, from the blood-filled bottom of Stan's chest. "No one knew, except Wendy fucking Testaburger."

Kenny blinked. The name hit him like a fist to the gut. "You told Wendy about this and not Kyle? Why? Why would you do that? I didn't even know you guys were friends back then."

"No," Stan's E-cig was depleted, but he kept sucking on it anyway, blowing out mostly air instead of thick white vapor. He didn't seem to notice. "I didn't tell her."

Kenny remembered the moment in Wendy's studio. A friend. It doesn't matter. We don't speak anymore.

He felt the pieces click together in his mind. He gaped with disbelief. South Park was a small world; it was sometimes hard to remember how small.

"I was depressed back then," Stan's lips twitched into an ironic smile, "I still am, I guess. I was drinking, hanging out with the Goth kids. Bebe probably would've left me anyway, if things hadn't been different. Wendy knew it. She knew I'd be no kind of father—worse than my own dad, probably. That girl was always too fucking smart for everyone around here."

"She is," Kenny agreed. "But—"

"Anyway, Bebe didn't tell me about the pregnancy," Stan's voice was filled with such self-loathing. Kenny could not fathom having enough energy to hate himself that much and still do other things, like go to school, or even wake up in the morning. "I-I found out later. From fucking Butters of all people; he was interning down at Hell's Pass, and called to ask if I were okay about it."

Kenny hated hearing Butters' name and Hell's Pass mentioned in the same sentence, as it made guilt roil in his gut and images of Butters' still face appear in his mind. But he pushed those thoughts back to listen to Stan. Stan had listened to him, after all, and it was Kenny's turn to play compassionate ear.

Stan pressed his hand to the glass window of the bus and watched the condensation spread between his fingerless gloves like webbing. "But you know, the funny thing was, I wasn't scared," Stan sounded almost child-like, and very far away.

"I just thought...things wouldn't be the way they were before," Stan spoke the familiar words; Kenny thought he'd heard them before. "But at least it would all be new. That was what was gonna make it so that I could keep going. For the first time in a long time...I was really excited."

Kenny blinked. Tears had gathered in Stan's tired eyes. They did not fall, but instead made his eyeliner get wet and runny. Kenny hated to ask, but knew Stan needed to finish his story.

"What happened then?" he asked, and put his hand on Stan's wrist as if to brace him through the last part.

"I wanted to be a father, Kenny," Stan sniffed, and then coughed—years of cigarettes had already tired his lungs, at eighteen. "It's stupid. I was just a kid. I would've fucked it up, but that's what I wanted. I was going to marry her and everything. I still..."

Stan held up his crucifix necklace. For the first time, Kenny noticed a thin silver ring suspended on the same chain. It hung around Jesus' neck like a tired, oversized halo.

Kenny could put two and two together. Stan wasn't a father, and he and Bebe were no longer together. Stan didn't need to spell it out for him, which was a good thing, because Stan was incapable of such a thing at the moment. He bit down on his knuckle, and tears escaped down his cheeks at last. He also kept ineffectively clicking the nicotine dosage button on his vaporizer, and the faint, repetitive sound was both plaintive and somehow apropos.

Now, Kenny understood why emo kids were said to cry black tears. Stan's tears weren't exactly black, but they were muddy with his makeup. His fucking face was going to be a mess after this.

The other thing Stan didn't need to spell out was Wendy's part in it all. Wendy never blinked when doing what had to be done, in doing what she believed was right regardless of who got hurt. Unfortunately for Stan, she was also damn persuasive, and an expert in getting the last word.

Kenny thought about Karen again. He wondered if he would want her to make the same decision that Bebe had. If Scott got her pregnant, would Kenny want him to do right by her, as Stan had been so willing to do for Bebe?

His instincts said "no."

But Stan made a sound like he was drowning in the air, choking and unable breathe. Kenny put his arm around Stan's shoulders. Stan was so thin and underfed that the feel of his bony shoulders scared Kenny a little bit. Stan was as fragile as a bird, bones protruding under his t-shirt. There, there, Raven.

"You know, what that bastard Cartman said in the cafeteria really fucking got to me," Stan said, makeup still smudged down his cheeks like war paint. "Because today is the anniversary of the day I broke up with her."

Kenny pulled Stan's empty E-cig from Stan's hand and tucked it into Stan's backpack for him. Pressing the nicotine button over and over the way he was definitely going to break the thing. Stan let Kenny do this, watching passively—disconnected.

Stan pulled down the collar of his t-shirt to reveal a tattoo, a date, written in black Roman numerals right over his collar. "So I don't ever forget," Stan said, "The day my heart went to sleep."

Kenny frowned. He didn't want to be insensitive, but he also really wanted to tell Stan that it was a stupid idea for a tattoo. Way to depress yourself, Stan. Why would you want to be reminded of something like that?

Also Kenny could hardly believe his ears. He knew Cartman was low, but this was a new level. Still, he supposed Cartman had never minded Stan's sloppy seconds (though he would never call Wendy that to her face).

"You mean that, right after you and Bebe broke up—"

"I only know what they say, and what the fatass claims happened," Stan twirled the ring around the chain about his neck. "But you know. People say lots of things about Bebe these days. I don't know what to fucking believe anymore."

Kenny, however, did have some idea of what to believe. There had been a party, some loud, booze-lubricated, illicit affair at Token Black's house to celebrate Spring Vacation. Bebe had been there, and Cartman had been there. Stan had been auspiciously absent; probably at attempting to crawl inside a bottle of Jack Daniels, smarting with the new loss of barely realized, foolish dreams of fatherhood.

"The whole point of parties is to fuck silly drunk bitches. The opportunity presented itself. I wasn't just gonna walk away, gaywad."


Kenny didn't say any of this out loud, however. Sometimes, the only kind and moral thing to do, Kenny realized—was just to not make things worse.

He instead squeezed Stan's shoulders, and shielded Stan from view as he cried.


Wendy seemed extra on-edge today as Kenny ran the course for the tenth time that night. He was so exhausted that he honestly considered impaling himself on the fire hydrant to escape the torture.

"You missed something," Wendy said, scanning the paper again as if renewing the search for whatever Kenny had missed.

"What did I miss?" Kenny tried not to sigh with exasperation.

"You missed the fact that you were supposed to leave out your excessive dialogue!" Wendy threw the printed papers at Kenny's face, and they fluttered slowly down around him like big white moths. "You actually added MORE one-liners and mini-monologues!"

"Every superhero needs witty banter!" Kenny argued, scooping his papers from the floor offendedly. He'd forgone homework again to do Wendy's assignment, and this was the thanks he got?

"You talk too fucking much," Wendy snarled. She knocked the papers out of Kenny's hands again. "Let's go run the course again until you don't have enough energy left to gab."

So, they did, or rather Kenny did. Wendy sat there judgmentally with her stupid goddamn stopwatch instead. Kenny wanted to grumble about lots of things about the situation, particularly about Wendy's lack of appreciation for the clever use of the word "cunt waffle," but it was one of those days. So he didn't.

He just couldn't get used to the goggles. The provided him with constant measurements and readouts that he didn't understand (ain't nobody had time to read that thousand page, ANNOTATED manual Wendy had given him). It was disorienting and distracting, and Kenny kept missing his jumps and running off course because he was hyper-focused on the tiny screens.

"Don't they say not to run with Google Glass on?" Kenny panted as he crawled under the jungle gym. "Not gonna lie, this is making me pretty motion sick."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you plan to just walk up to the fucking rapists you're about to kill and ask nicely for them to hold still so you can shoot them in the head?" Wendy bit back.

Kenny sighed. He got to his feet and ran towards the swing set. He jumped onto the supporting pole structure and used his feet to inch up towards the center beam. "I don't know if I can fight with these things," he said when he got to the top.

"Sixty one-handed pull-ups for all your whining! For EACH hand!" Wendy ordered him. She restarted the timer with a hated, trilling beep. "GO!"

Kenny wanted to protest, but that would make matters worse, so he carefully lowered himself, clinging to the set with one hand.

"You know," he said through his clamped teeth (both from the physical effort of his task and to restrain his increasingly rebellious tongue), "I think you should try a more Zen approach to this whole sensei thing. Maybe the silent, wise type would work for you. I could grow an awesome beard."

"If you're talking," Wendy affected an overly sweet simper, "Then you've still got enough oxygen left over to run your mouth. are not WORKING HARD ENOUGH! Move, McCormick; this is pathetic!"

Kenny expended his every effort not to make a retort. Wendy wasn't in a good mood, and in a state like this—he knew she wasn't above making him run suicides on the basketball court ‘til he threw up his dinner. If he did his pull-ups without complaint, perhaps this would all blow over.

"Run it again," Wendy said when Kenny had finished. His arms felt like spaghetti (oooh, spaghetti, what Kenny wouldn't give). Still, he made no complaint. In a mood like this, arguing with Wendy was just asking for her to call it a "Hot Yoga" night again. Kenny had learned that despite its name, "Hot Yoga" was not sexy or relaxing. It amounted to sweating, hellish nightmare-body-stretching pain while he slowly died of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Kenny was pretty sure it had to be a form of torture for prisoners of war in North Korea.

As Kenny did the course again, Wendy watched him from the hopscotch squares. She didn't yell, didn't even comment. Instead, she just watched the stopwatch around her neck, her lips pursed and one hand on her hip. Kenny didn't know whether it was a good or a bad indication of how he was doing. Bad, probably. He tripped and stumbled all over the place, and his goggles slipped down his face as he sweated underneath them.

The goggles had a thermal seeking option that Kenny accidentally activated at one point as he ran around the merry-go-round for what felt like the millionth time. When he looked at Wendy, the area around her chest glowed yellow to indicate where her heart was—the most concentrated area of heat from blood flow. But Kenny thought his goggles must be broken, because Wendy's heart was made of pure fucking ice.

To avoid chastisement, Kenny spun the merry-go-round as he ran, and then finished by hopping on top of it while it was still in motion. Having finished the course, he hopped down and walked over to Wendy, gasping for air.

"How did..." Kenny panted. His clothing was muggy, damp and uncomfortable against his skin. "...How did I do?"

"You've plateaued," Wendy said. She held up the timer. The numbers read 5:33:47, and Kenny's heart sunk.

"You haven't gotten better for five days. Your average daily has been pretty steady," Wendy went on. "You're falling behind. I think we need to get some inspiration out here."

"Oh, come on," Kenny practically begged her. "That paintball gun hurts like balls. Have mercy."

Wendy put her hand gently against Kenny's cheek. She clicked her tongue comfortingly. "Don't worry. We're not gonna use the paintball gun. I don't even think it would help you at this point. Your pain tolerance is getting so much better."

Kenny should've known better than to trust a compliment from Wendy. But he grinned in response. He finally caught his breath, and the tension in his chest unbound a bit when Wendy proclaimed there would be no bruising agony today.

Wendy reached inside the front flap of her green army jacket instead. She took out a 9mm Walther PPS and a detachable a magazine from the inside pocket.

"What are you doing?" Kenny asked, a little nervously. "Are we gonna work on shooting with the goggles?"

"Nope," Wendy reinserted the detachable magazine into the gun with an ominous clack. "You're gonna do the course again." She pointed the gun at Kenny. She clicked the safety off.

"Are you crazy?" Kenny gaped at her. "What if you...oh, I don't know...accidentally SHOOT me?"

Wendy shrugged. She then paused to attach a muffler to the end of her pistol's barrel. "Better move your ass if you're afraid of getting shot. Out in the field, people will probably try harder to shoot you than I am going to."

"You can't be serious."

Wendy arched a brow high at Kenny as if to say, "Try me."

"This has to be all kinds of illegal, Wendy."

"So is being a vigilante," Wendy said pleasantly. "Besides, nothing bad is going to happen. You're going to evade getting shot, because you've been training for this. If you keep your eyes on me, you should be able to tell where I am aiming and avoid the bullets easily."

Kenny stared at her slack-jawed. His partner had really fucking lost it.

"Ready?" Wendy asked.

When Kenny didn't answer, she fired into the air. Kenny's whole body went rigid and his eyes blew wide at the awful cracking sound. Wendy didn't fucking know he would come back if she killed him. So why was she ready to fire what he could only assume were live rounds at him?

Kenny kept looking backwards at her as he made his way to the hopscotch squares. She reset the stopwatch and pointed the gun at Kenny as she did.

"Let's get past this plateau, Kenny. Time to reach for those stars," Wendy grinned in a way that Kenny could only describe as "insane clown-like."

Kenny swallowed and nodded. His heart began pounding, body sweating with both nervousness and exhaustion. Well, McCormick. You wanted exciting. He nodded.


"WOOOHOOO!" Kenny raised Wendy's stopwatch over his head. He truly felt he had defeated the irksome little device. His hair was completely drenched with sweat, a big bloody scrape ran from his calf to his ankle, his entire body trembled with exertion, and he still couldn't get his pulse to slow down. But he wore the biggest smile he thought he'd worn in his life. His face hurt from how hard he smiled.

The stopwatch read 3:35:49. He'd beaten his best time by almost two minutes. And he was fucking alive. Even Wendy looked pleased. She let Kenny celebrate his victory without reminding him how much work they had left to do. She even did the shell clean up on the playground, (so they wouldn't leave bullets around the children's equipment), instead of making Kenny do it.

"That was AWESOME!" Kenny laughed, still unable to believe he'd made it through without a single bullet wound. "Were you even trying to hit me?"

"Of course I was," Wendy grinned. "You think the goons will miss on purpose?"

Kenny's chest swelled with pride, and another happy, disbelieving laugh escaped him.

"I can't fucking believe you actually shot that thing at me," Kenny nodded towards Wendy's jacket, where the gun had been stowed once more. "What if you'd hit me?"

"I would've yelled at you for getting hit, and then fished the bullet out myself." Wendy cut Kenny a sly glance. "No morphine, obviously, because you weren't supposed to get hit. But I know to deal with non-fatal bullet wounds, Kenny. I sort of have to. If you go to the emergency room with a bullet wound, they call the police."

"And if you'd hit me fatally?" Kenny brushed the cold strands of wet hair from his forehead as he and Wendy walked back to base. The stars were out, bright and twinkling. They looked as cheery as Kenny felt.

"Then they never would have found the body," Wendy replied. Anyone else would've been joking.


Kenny chuckled, shaking his head. "You're one crazy chick, you know that?"

Wendy issued Kenny a little sardonic smile. "Sanity is a matter of perspective."

They walked in amiable quiet for a while, until they reached base. Once inside, Kenny flopped down onto one of the mats.

"Man, I am beat," he said, though his voice was still perky and energized. "I am gonna be sore as shit tomorrow, you know that? Not even gonna be able to sit down."

"You can take the day off," Wendy told him nonchalantly as she went to clean out her gun in the one of the corners.

Kenny sat bolt upright at that. "I can?"

"Yup. I have something to do. So you just relax and do something fun. You've earned a mini-vacation."

"Sweet!" Kenny pumped a fist.

Wendy nodded in response as she dissembled her weapon and laid it out on the foldable table in front of her, on top of a dirty-looking green towel. "You've done well, Kenneth. I think someday, you're going to be a half-way decent partner."

Kenny rolled his eyes. "Just half-way decent?"

Wendy almost cracked a smile. "You're getting there."

Kenny lay back down on the rubber mats and stared contentedly at the ceiling, legs splayed and hands behind his head. He probably stunk to high Heaven (he'd ask God if He could smell Kenny from up there next time Kenny died). But he was happy as the endorphins swam in his brain from the exercise and relief at not-dying. Runner's high, he believed it was called—but more insane, ‘cause of the near-death factor. It was as good as any high, Kenny supposed, only harder won.

"So what's next?" he asked out of the blue. He just wanted to make conversation with Wendy, really. He was in such a good mood, and he felt positively warm towards his fellow man. Er. Woman. Womyn, since Wendy was a feminist, Kenny supposed. Yay, empowerment?

"What do you mean?" Wendy asked as she reassembled her weapon and went to store it.

"For us," Kenny clarified, "Or for you. You can't plan on doing this forever. What do you want to do when the vigilante gig is up? Settle down? Have some kids? Go to college?"

Wendy came to sit next to Kenny on the mat. She didn't appear defensive or angry (which was a significant difference; Kenny hardly recognized her when she wasn't screaming at him or telling him how he'd fucked something up). She simply looked pensive, turning Kenny's question over in her mind for a few moments before answering.

"I plan to do this for as long as I can," Wendy joined Kenny in looking at the white, soundproof ceiling. "I want to eventually stop some sexual trafficking by shutting down cartels in Mexico. Maybe then I'll cross the sea and stop some Asian kids from being sold into slavery. Depends on whether I'm a wanted criminal at that point, I suppose."

"Hmmm," Kenny pondered this, surprised by Wendy's honest answer. He hadn't really expected her to respond to his question. "I guess we could do that. I've always wanted to see a real Mexican donkey show."

Wendy didn't say anything, and Kenny wondered if that was because when she said "I," she meant "without him."

After a tick or two, Kenny decided to push his luck and ask another question. Wendy seemed to be in a generous mood with her words, and so he wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

" hard, killing people?" he asked, and quickly glanced at Wendy's face to see her reaction.

She didn't seem bothered, however. "No. Not when you think about it. If you kill the right people."

Kenny gave her an arch look, inviting her to explain.

"See," Wendy held out her hands in front of her, turning them over as if turning out her pockets. "People are very emotional about death. That's why the civilized countries are slowly doing away with the death penalty, you know. Obviously, it's because when you kill someone, someone else is going to be upset about it. Most everyone has a friend or relative who would mourn them if they died."

Kenny nodded along. Wendy had a nice voice, he thought. She was very exacting in her speech, as if each word had been carefully selected beforehand.

"Alternatively, some people think there's some sort of intrinsic value to the soul. Human life is the ultimate good, and so destroying it is the most extreme thing you can do."

Wendy hummed softly before continuing. From where he sat, Kenny could see the tiny brown freckle on her upper right cheek, a thin, faint white scar along her jaw.

"If we accept the second definition," Wendy continued, "Morality comes down to preservation of human life, the intrinsic good. Generally, the theory goes, the quality of everyone's life—happiness—should be held as the highest good, while suffering—or reduction of the quality of life—should be minimized."

"I think I'm following you," Kenny commented, squinting. The studio felt oddly quiet without Wendy typing, or someone hitting the punching bag or practicing on the mat. "Go on."

"And death is obviously the ultimate threat to happiness, as being alive is the necessary condition for happiness. I would also argue that rape amounts to more or less the same thing, a more subtle kind of death," Wendy leaned back on her hands and stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing her ankles. "So, morality is maximizing overall good, and reducing overall suffering."

"But," Kenny looked pointedly to Wendy, "What does that have to do with you being fine with killing people?"

"Because no matter how many rapists and murderers I kill," Wendy's voice ran colder than the approaching winter, "I reduce the total number of people who die and suffer. If one rapist rapes two people, and I kill him before he inevitably rapes, say ten in his life-time, that's three people who suffer instead of ten. Now multiply that by however many scumbags I get to in a week. Then, I've reduced the collective harm."

"But no one thinks that way," Kenny protested. "That's robot logic! You can't honestly feel better because theoretically, your can justify yourself with numbers."

"Feelings shouldn't weigh into this calculation, least of all mine," Wendy maintained a level tone, and Kenny peered at her as if she were some bizarre creature from another planet. Maybe she was. Maybe Wendy was a cyborg from another planet, or sent from the future like the motherfucking Terminator. "I feel better knowing I stopped countless people from getting killed, raped and tortured."

"But—what if you make a mistake?" Kenny demanded, and then flinched. He was half-afraid that Wendy would retaliate against an accusation of her imperfection. Retaliate—as in hit him in the head.

"Then I will still have saved more people than I have killed," Wendy's voice was firm and certain. "Mistakes happen, though I try to reduce them as much as possible. I'm not in the business of killing innocents. I have to be almost a hundred percent certain a person is guilty of a mission before I green-light it."

"And the three who attacked me?" Kenny challenged. He sat up and pulled his legs beneath his body as they talked, so as to better watch Wendy's facial expressions. There wasn't too much to watch, admittedly. "Wasn't that improvised? How do you know they were guilty?"

"I'd actually been tracking the smaller man for quite some time," Wendy responded with some amusement. "I hadn't planned on killing him that night, because I don't like to shit where I eat, you know? I prefer to kill people outside of immediate area when I can. Less chance of getting caught that way. Robert Manners is wanted for child molestation in three states. He and his friends would've gotten theirs eventually. It was a stroke of good luck that those three happened to be the ones you pissed off."

"You think the event that lead to me figuring out your secret identity and bugging you until you let me be your partner was good luck?"

"Lucky that the people I had to save my classmate from someone who deserved to die. It's much harder to disarm someone without doing more permanent damage. Especially from far away." Wendy's boots flicked back and forth in front of her as she talked, like a pair of windshield wipers. Her severe black eyebrows made sharp, inquiring checkmarks over her shock-blue eyes. Kenny wondered what Stan felt like, dating Wendy. She didn't seem like the type to want to make out on the couch or share popcorn at the movies.

Honestly, Kenny thought, it was no wonder Stan puked around her all the time. Wendy was about as cuddly as a cactus, and good luck wearing the pants in that relationship. But Kenny could also see the sort of appeal; in the same way he could see the appeal of running an obstacle course while being shot at.

If a person actually managed it, it was way fucking cooler than doing things the normal way.

"Hmm," Kenny pondered out loud, trying to test her theory, if only to irritate her a bit, "What if...someone doesn't mean to cause a lot of harm, but does anyway, and doesn't realize it? Wouldn't that person be...sort of innocent? Would you still kill that person?"

"Intent does not matter," Wendy's eyes flashed. "Only results."

"Well, then doesn't that make you...sort of in the wrong?" Kenny boldly met Wendy's eyes. "The results of your actions, whether you meant to maximize the greater good or not, are murder. That's the ultimate harm. Doesn't that basically just make you a murderer?"

Wendy tilted her head. She didn't look mad, but rather impressed by Kenny's deductions. There was a tiny, amused tremor in her lower lip.

"I'm a necessary evil," she agreed, breaking eye contact and gazing ahead, as if seeing some bigger picture ahead that Kenny could not perceive.

"Guess that makes me an accessory," Kenny chuckled, and nudged Wendy with his shoulder. "Huh. Accessory to Evil. That's a pretty good sidekick name, don't you think, Lady Nightspike?"

Wendy punched him hard in the arm. "Those sound like super villain names, dumbass."

"I think you might've missed your calling," Kenny mused, stroking his chin. "You would've made a badass dominatrix queen. All would love you and despair."

"What is it with you and fantasy queens? First Daenerys, now Galadriel?" Wendy laughed, and stood, swinging her arms back and forth to restore blood flow to her shoulders.

"I am drawn to women in power," Kenny shrugged, hopping to his feet as well. "I can't help it. They kick ass and look good doing it."

Wendy went back to her computer, so Kenny couldn't see if he'd made her laugh (or blush). "Go enjoy your break, Kenneth," was all she said.

Kenny looked down at his goggles before he left. "Oh, by the way, Wendy," he took them off and put them on her desk, "Do you think you could find a different way for me to wear these? They slip around on my face when I get sweaty, and I don't like to stop to adjust them. Maybe they just don't fit my face right?"

"On it," Wendy took the goggles and examined them carefully, "I think I have a few ideas."

"Cool," Kenny grinned. He headed off and paused to wave at Wendy over his shoulder. She waved back at him, albeit only briefly, with her fingertips before she went back to scrutinizing Kenny's goggles.

"I'll see you Thursday!" he shouted to her. Really, he couldn't wait. Wendy's workouts were brutal, but accomplishing cool stuff at her behest was like mainlining adrenaline, and he was fucking addicted.


When Kenny arrived home from Wendy's, Kyle was waiting in Kenny's room for him. Kenny was so surprised to see Kyle that he nearly fell over upon opening the door.

"What are you doing here?" Kenny asked in a mystified tone. He did not think Kyle had been to the McCormick residence since they were children.

"Do you not want me here?" Kyle crossed his arms. He sounded defensive, but looked a little worried that the answer might be yes. "I brought your Spanish textbook. You left it in homeroom again. I thought you might need it."

"Thanks, dude. And of course it's cool that you're here," Kenny spared a self-conscious glance around the squalid little room, decorated with posters taken out of magazines and a bare, unadorned mattress in the corner. Kenny's blue quilt barely qualified as a blanket; it was so faded, torn and filthy it was practically a rag. "I just wasn't expecting you."

Kyle nodded, awkwardly. The only places to sit in the little room were either on the mattress, or on top of Kenny's creaky old toy chest. Thus, Kyle stood at the off-center of the floor, hands shoved deep into his pockets. Kenny tried to hide how embarrassed he was to have Kyle in his room. He sat down on his mattress, where he noticed that Kyle had left the Spanish textbook.

"You know that bringing my textbook in no way increases the chances of my doing my homework, right?" Kenny teased. He hoped that Kyle's appearance in his shitty little home meant he'd been forgiven.

Kyle snorted. He didn't look particularly surprised by Kenny's admission. "I'll never stop hoping."

Kenny scooted over on the mattress as an invitation to Kyle to join him on the floor. It was a bit of a sad invitation; Kenny had to admit to himself. But it was all Kenny had to offer.

Kyle obliged him nonetheless, and squatted down to join Kenny on the old spring bed. For a while, they were quiet, neither knowing quite what to say.

Kenny was the first to break the silence. "Kyle, I'm sorry—"

"Look, what I really came here to say—"

They both stopped. Kenny gestured to Kyle with his hands as he might've if he were letting Kyle walk past him.

"I just wanted to tell you that I," Kyle looked down at his lap, cheeks aflame. "I'm sorry I ignored you. It was shitty of me, dude."

"And I'm sorry I kissed you and stuff," Kenny said. He and Kyle met eyes briefly, and both smiled self-consciously. "That was, uh. Lame. I didn't think about it. So. Sorry. Yeah. That was stupid."

"It wasn't." Kyle corrected. He then stared at the Nascar poster plastered on Kenny's wall, purposely avoiding Kenny's stare.

Kenny felt like the slow kid who'd only just gotten an old joke.

Oh, dude. He'd had so much on his mind lately that he'd missed the obvious. Currently, Kyle was nervously picking his thumbnail, after walking all the way over here, to the wrong side of the tracks, to bring back a textbook Kenny would never read. Kyle was too sharp to think that Kenny, who never did his homework, "needed" his Spanish textbook. It was a bad excuse, and Kenny could think of only one reason Kyle would need an excuse in the first place.

"...It wasn't stupid?" Kenny looked at Kyle suspiciously. Kyle met his eye, and they held the stare for just a beat too long, until Kyle turned away. "I win," thought Kenny.

Then Kyle nodded, eyes still fixed to the corduroy of his slacks. "I don't expect you to—"

Kenny was still so high from his high-stakes workout with Wendy, so impulsive and reckless, that he felt like he could conquer the world and make it home in time for dinner. Now was not the time for thinking or weighing consequences. Wendy might like to make calculations and act accordingly, but Kenny was the guy who did shit, and then sat back and watched what happened.

Still, even Wendy would've agreed that the odds were good for this particular decision working out well.

So, just like the first time, he surged forward and closed the space between them. This time, however, Kenny let the kiss linger for several seconds—just to push the boundary further. He slid his fingers of his right hand down along Kyle's jawbone, and wrapped his other arm around Kyle's waist.

Kenny wanted to know exactly how much he could away with. But then, Kyle opened his mouth, and Kenny resisted grinning and instead swept his tongue along Kyle's bottom lip. Yeah, Kenny was gonna get away with just about anything, it seemed.

But it was too good to last, because Kyle pulled back shortly, just enough to ask: "Just checking, but this means you're into me too, right? This isn't just another stupid test?"

Kenny wiggled his eyebrows and lowered his voice to a deep, husky growl. "What do you think, Broflovski?"

"Stop kidding around and answer the question," Kyle's eyes narrowed.

Damn it, smart people ruined all Kenny's fun.

"Yes," Kenny said without hesitation. This was not the moment to hesitate. "Yeah, I'm into you, too, dude. It's not a test. Though, if it were, that'd be right up your alley, right Nerd?"

Kyle did not look amused.

Kenny sighed. "It's not a test. I want to do this, for real. I think. I don't have to have everything figured out right this second, do I? Now can we please kiss some more? That might help me clarify things a little."

Kyle, apparently satisfied, leaned in and picked up right where they had left off.

Kenny put one hand against the bottom of Kyle's jaw again, the other carted through Kyle's hair. Kyle just sort of went limp, and Kenny took it as permission. He gently tilted Kyle's head back to change the angle of the kiss. Then, Kenny hovered over Kyle, and slid his hands down to Kyle's shoulders. Kyle kissed him back, first tentatively, and then more eagerly. It was a little precious, Kenny thought. Kyle had clearly never kissed anyone this way before; for the first couple of seconds, he just sort of sat there, open mouthed and unmoving. But after a minute or two, he was going at it like a pro. He gripped onto two handholds in Kenny's sweaty hair and climbed over him, forcing Kenny backwards onto the mattress.

The hair-tugging hurt a little, but Kenny sort of liked that. It made Kyle seem more present, more real. Then, Kyle moved down to lick at Kenny's likely very salty neck. But if the taste bothered him, Kyle didn't show it. Kenny groaned at the unexpected sensation—vaguely ticklish and very stimulating—and then couldn't resist chuckling lightly.

"Dude, you're a fast learner," Kenny said, and Kyle's hand snaked under his filthy t-shirt to tenderly feel over the mottled burn that covered half of Kenny's chest. Weirdly enough, the fact that Kyle did not flinch at the rough, leathery skin was a huge fucking turn-on for Kenny. Kenny began fiddling with Kyle's jacket, first unzipping it and then blindly pushing it down off Kyle's shoulders.

"AP student." Kyle panted. He paused to yank off his jacket before resuming sucking on the juncture between Kenny's shoulder and neck. "We're a smart bunch," he mumbled into Kenny's skin.

"I know," Kenny said, rasping and hoarse. He was surprised to find that he was breathless, back arching off the mattress and hands balled into fists in the bedspread. "Mmm...Wendy is an AP student too, and she is definitely the brains of the operation between the two of us..."

Kyle stopped short at that, and pulled back to peer down at Kenny with utter confusion.

"When did you start hanging out with Wendy?" Kyle frowned. His voice had a touch of whine to it, and Kenny had to smile at the familiar tone.

"Aw, don't be jealous," Kenny realized his mistake, and cursed his big mouth. "We're just friends."

"No, idiot," Kyle got off of Kenny and retreated to the other side of the bed. He was defensive, meaning Kenny had probably been at least a little bit on the money. "Is Wendy the vigilante lady you told me about who killed all those guys? Is SHE the one who's been beating you black and blue and working you into the ground over the past couple of weeks? Is Wendy your new partner?"

Kenny really needed to start hanging out with dumber people.

"...Yes," he told Kyle with a sigh. He dragged an exasperated hand through his hair. Things had been going so well! Ugh, Wendy was right. Kenny DID talk too much.

"You realize, that Wendy Testaburger once sent a woman to the sun for pissing her off? When she was eight years old. " Kyle was utterly incredulous.

"That was Wendy?" Kenny marveled. Wendy just kept getting more impressive. "Dude, I didn't know that was her! That's badass!"

"The person you choose to associate someone you know for a fact is a murderer," Kyle looked at Kenny as if Kenny were especially stupid. "You don't think that's even a little bit dangerous?"

Part of Kenny (the part in his pants, mostly) still hoped he could smooth things over with Kyle, and they could pick up where they left off. "Maybe. But I can handle it," Kenny reached over to affectionately tug on Kyle's earlobe. "Come on, you know me. I always land on my feet. I'm gonna be fine. I like it when you worry about me though. It's sexy." Kenny leaned forward to reclaim Kyle's lips in a kiss.

But Kyle shoved him, hard. Kenny stepped back, and scratched his head resignedly. It seemed that Kenny had shot himself in the proverbial foot.

"Have you killed anyone?" Kyle demanded, voice high and sharp. Kenny knew that voice. There would be no more kissing tonight, it seemed. Lame.

"No," Kenny exhaled in an exasperated manner. "I told you, Mysterion doesn't do that."

"But your new partner does, doesn't she? Still?" Kyle's chest moved in and out heavily still from the kiss, and Kenny would've given anything to turn the clock back just a few seconds so he could un-trip over his own tongue. He'd make better use of it instead, like Kyle had.

Kenny didn't answer. But he supposed his non-answer still conveyed the information Kyle needed to know.

Kyle got up. He picked up his jacket from the floor and took a long look at Kenny, sitting there on the bed in his rumpled work out clothes, mussed hair—and increasingly visible hickey on his neck.

"Dude, we cannot get involved," Kyle said, "If you are out in the streets every night participating in murder."

"It's not every night!" Kenny said, but Kyle slammed the door, and Kenny realized that probably wasn't the part of Kyle's statement he needed to address first.

Kenny groaned and buried his face in the mattress. Another night of beating off alone, thanks to Wendy. She was the best thing to happen to his superhero career, but definitely the worst to happen to his social life. Buzzkill.

On Kenny's day off, the first thing he did was go to see Butters. He still hoped the little dude would wake up, but each day it seemed more unlikely. Kenny hardly knew what to do, besides coming back every once in a while to check on Butters, and keep on hoping. He brought flowers again, picked from his neighbor's yard this time. Goddamn it sucked being a poor bastard.

But when he got there, Kenny was surprised to find Cartman sitting by Butters' hospital bed already. Cartman held Butters' hand in his own. His head was bowed, as if in prayer. Kenny actually thought Eric might be asleep, until Eric started crying. After hesitating in the doorway a moment, Kenny decided to wait outside the door. It was only partly because he didn't feel like talking to Cartman.

The other reason Kenny decided to hang back was that it seemed that Kenny was not the only person who liked to talk to comatose patients. Kenny didn't want to intrude on Cartman's private little moment.

"...Miss you, dude. I really do," Cartman said. Kenny heard him sniffle. "You're my only real friend, you know? You're the only one gives half a shit, and I never said thank you. Goddamnit, Butters. Why didn't I ever say thank you? I-I just want you to open your eyes, okay? Just one eye? The bad one, even, that we fucked up that day we all played ninjas? Remember? Say something if you remember! Butters, please?"

Kenny heard Cartman begin to cry again, and nothing could've made Kenny feel guiltier. Butters had been the only person in the world good enough to not only tolerate, but genuinely like Eric Cartman.

Maybe Butters was Cartman's only real friend. That would mean that Kenny had taken away Cartman's only friend. If Butters never woke up, Kenny would practically be obligated to continue hanging out with Cartman to fill the void. He tried not to despair at the idea but couldn't help sending a little mental plea to God, or Satan—whoever was listening (though Kenny knew for a fact that often, nobody was).

"God? charge of stuff up there? Please let Butters wake up soon. He's a good person, and doesn't deserve to be a vegetable. If you can't make Butters wake up again, please make Cartman less obnoxious, racist, homophobic, sexist, classist and stupid. Or at least make him smell better. Please. Amen."

"I'll kill whoever did this to you, I swear to God, Butters!" Cartman's voice echoed a bit in the hallways. Kenny heard something collide with a hard surface, causing something else to clatter to the floor. Kenny's best guess was that Cartman had punched the side table and knocked over one of many gifts people had left for Butters.

"I'll kill ‘em," Cartman repeated, softer this time. "Don't you worry about that, Butters. Remember that day we spent at Super Fun Tyme? If you wake up, we can go again. We'll split the tickets afterward. Okay? Right after I waste the asshole that did this to you. No—I'll do worse than kill him, dude. I'll make him fucking wish he were never born. You know I will."

It was then that Kenny decided to make his presence known. He felt more like an asshole with every word, and simply could not take it anymore.

"Can I come in?" Kenny held up his sad-looking bunch of flowers in one hand. Cartman quickly wiped his red face with his sleeve and nodded.

As Kenny sat down opposite him, Cartman rose.

"I should be going," Cartman muttered, staring at the floor. "I just...came to see if Butters made those freaky cow noises, like that that Terry Schiavo chick." Cartman then headed for the door, somewhat hurriedly.

"He doesn't, so it's pretty boring here." Cartman said, turning his head not quite over his shoulder. "He just sorta lays there. Fucking weak."

"Hey, don't worry about it, okay?" Kenny called out after Cartman.

Eric turned around with surprise when Kenny spoke to him.

"People come out of comas all the time," Kenny said, "I did, that one time. So did Kyle, and so did you. Remember, Bestie? Come on, your psychic powers should be telling you he'll be alright." He cracked a grin at Cartman, who smiled uneasily in return. Kenny didn't blame him for that, really. Cartman was always more comfortable with insults than affection.

"Yeah, I guess," Cartman half-chuckled awkwardly. "I'll see you around, Kenny." He then shuffled out of the room entirely. Kenny almost felt genuine pity for the guy, but just before he closed the door, Cartman said, "Well, whatever. Who cares if the little faggot ever wakes up? See ya, Kinny."

Kenny waited until Eric was gone. Then Kenny snickered, shaking his head.

"I don't know how you tolerate that guy." Kenny pointed to the door through which Cartman had just exited. "You must be a better man than I, dude. But you can't leave me with him, Butters. He needs you. I need you. I cannot go through the rest of my life hanging out with Eric Cartman. That's your job, Butters. You can't bail now."

"Yeah, okay, I'm almost there, calm down, Stan," Kenny laughed over the phone. Kenny had long ago gotten the keys to Wendy's studio in case of emergency, though he wasn't sure "Kevin is hogging the family computer for porn" counted as an emergency, technically speaking. He highly doubted Wendy minded if he hung out here, anyway. If she got mad, he'd just tell he came down to lift free weights or something.

"Dude, this was an awesome idea. We haven't played World of Warcraft in fucking forever," Kenny asked Stan, "Okay. I'm here. I'll log in and see on you online!" He hung up and turned on Wendy's computer, and he grinned when the screen lit, emitting a low electronic startup tone. When the computer booted up, Kenny typed in the passwords. Wendy was very secretive about her passwords, but he pointed out that he really needed access to the base computer if he were ever going to do sensitive research, and she had acquiesced.

WoW wasn't exactly "research." But Kenny would just uninstall it when he was finished. No harm done. Wendy had told him to do whatever he wanted on his off-day, and so she couldn't be too pissed that he'd used her computer to play WoW.

Kenny clicked Chrome icon and went to the WoW homepage to login. He then selected his account and re-downloaded the game onto Wendy's computer. Stan had paid the reactivation for Kenny so that they could play together, and though Kenny was reluctant to accept that kind of gift, he reasoned that he was watching over Stan. Stan had had it rough lately and needed to be kept company. Kenny felt that a good orc raid would be just the thing to distract Stan from his woes.

Really, it wasn't charity money. It was allowing Stan to cover the costs of Kenny's being a decent friend—while Kenny provided the services.

But before the game finished downloading, a window flashed across the screen. "Download finished," it said.

Kenny hesitated only a moment before clicking the window, finding the file and opening it.

A familiar video player popped up. The Google Glass cam automatically uploaded to Wendy's computer! Kenny remembered. He grinned; it would be fun to relieve his day on the obstacle course, dodging bullets like goddamn James Bond. It probably looked awesome on camera. Man, he wished he could upload it onto Youtube. Everyone would watch that shit.

But when Kenny hit "Play," it soon became clear that the person wearing the goggles was not Kenny. The setting was not immediately familiar. It wasn't the obstacle course, or the place in North Park where Kenny had fought with Wang. It wasn't Wendy's studio, or Jimbo and Ned's shooting range. It wasn't Kenny's usual jogging route. That covered all the places Kenny had ever worn his goggles, so the feed had to be from the perspective of someone else.

The more Kenny looked, the more he realized the place on screen was familiar. It was Eric Cartman's backyard. Kenny was surprised it took him so long to figure it out. How could he not have recognized the brown fence and the homely little shrubs he'd grown up playing around with his friends? The camera-wearer walked across the grassy, fenced-in square of property. Whoever it was breathed much more quietly than Kenny did. Even when the wearer began to scale the back wall of Cartman's house, the breathing remained even and measured. From the perspective of the goggle-wearer, Kenny was taken through Cartman's bedroom window into a darkened room.

The cameraman switched to night vision and went to stand next to the door. The view panned down as the wearer avoided stepping on Cartman's shit and picked their way across the room. Cartman, Kenny noticed, had a lot of fucking garbage in his room. Chip bags, candy wrappers, plastic containers and Styrofoam take-out boxes of every sort. The wearer carefully avoided making noise by crushing any of these variable minefields of sound underfoot. Kenny had probably watched too many "shaky cam" horror films, but he thought the green lighting that night vision provided made everything look exponentially creepier.

When the cameraman reached the door, they turned off the night vision and the screen went dark. Nothing happened for a few minutes. The person wearing the camera breathed, faintly. Kenny felt his own heart rate speed up as he watched, though he had no idea what he was watching, exactly. His game finished downloading, but Kenny ignored it and continued to watch the camera feed. He couldn't take his eyes off it. He had so many questions, but he had a feeling if he kept watching, they would all be answered.

Footsteps sounded in the background of the video. In seconds, the bedroom door opened, and the camera took a second or two to adjust before Kenny could see again. Though there wasn't much to see. The person wearing the camera was completely concealed by the door for a few moments after it was flung open.

"Any way you want it, that's the way you need it, any way you wa-unt it, duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh!" Cartman sang as he closed the bedroom door. Cartman's back faced the camera wearer as he made his way to the computer sitting on his desk. Just from looking at it, Kenny could practically smell his the gel from Cartman's slicked down hair.

Obliviously, Cartman sat at his desk and turned his computer on. "She likes to dance, she likes to sing..."

Cartman watched the computer come to life and tapped his fingers on his desk. Just as the light from the startup screen reflected on his face, he seemed to sense that he was being watched. Kenny watched him whip his head around the room to find the source of that "intruder feeling," and then Kenny saw it the moment his eyes landed on the person standing beside the door.

Cartman opened his mouth to scream, but the cameraperson leapt forward and put a gloved hand over his mouth to stop him. Cartman struggled, thrashing violently with his limbs flailing about. The wearer held him down to the chair when Cartman tried to stand up.

"Mmmfggh! Mmmm! Mggg!" Cartman fought back, trying desperately to turn the chair to face his attacker. Kenny could see how terrified he was from the up-close angle.

The intruder bent down to whisper in Cartman's ear, "Stop struggling, Eric. You'll make this much much harder."

Wendy! Kenny's mouth hung open with surprise as soon as he heard her voice. Logically, it had to be Wendy, of course. No one else had access to the camera-goggles. But Kenny had been too shocked to really think about it. But now that he was thinking it over, he realized that Wendy had probably mixed up the goggles. She had worn Kenny's on this particular mission instead of her own. They were identical after all.

On screen, Cartman obeyed Wendy as if in a trance. She removed her hand from Eric's mouth as soon as he did.

"Wh-what? Who are you?" Cartman demanded, though his eyes were large and afraid.

Then, Wendy took off the goggles and set them on the desk. This gave Kenny an off-center view of Wendy's lower body, and all of Cartman, because Cartman was sitting down. Kenny watched the screen, and fruitlessly craned his neck for a better view. All he could tell was that Wendy also took her beret off, because he saw her lower a handful of black cloth, crumpled in one fist.

Kenny also watched Cartman's face transform into an expression of utter disbelief.

"W-wendy?!" he fumbled with the words, tripping over his own surprise. "What are you doing here in my room? And why are you dressed like that?"

"Get up," Wendy commanded in a low, rasping voice. She sounded strangely hoarse, as if her vocal chords were strained from screaming beforehand. When Cartman failed to oblige, she took a menacing step forward.

"I said get UP, you son of a bitch," Wendy snarled. "Right fucking now."

Cartman hurriedly got to his feet and held his hands up as if surrendering. "My-my mom will hear if you do anything," he insisted. "You can't hurt me."

"Liane is out of town," Wendy called Eric's bluff easily. From knowing her, Kenny knew she'd almost definitely planned it that way. There was no way Eric's ploy would've worked on her.

"What do you want?" Cartman demanded again, and his voice trembled slightly. "You need to leave, right now. This is my fucking property."

"I am here," Wendy took off her sword belt and tossed it on Eric's bed, like a samurai of old preparing for hand-to-hand combat, "To kill you." Eric tried to double back at that, but crashed into his desk before he got too far. This jostled the goggles and changed the angle, so Kenny could see Wendy's face again. Her eyes fixed on Cartman with familiar, white-hot intensity.

"At least I have the courtesy to announce my intentions," Wendy commented briskly. She took a step towards Cartman (of whom Kenny could only see his hand and shirt cuff). "That's a luxury you didn't grant her."

"Who? Bitch, I have no idea what you're even talking about! You're crazy!"

Wendy's face darkened with rage. "You remembered who just a couple days ago, Eric. On your fucking anniversary, you sack of utter shit!"

Cartman began crying at that point, and Kenny felt sick inside. Normally, he would've enjoyed watching Wendy wreck face and go full Punisher on some asshole. But Eric was someone Kenny had known all his life. In his gut, Kenny knew that Wendy didn't banter idle words around. She meant what she said, and Kenny doubted very much that Cartman could stop her.

But the idea of seeing his childhood friend get murdered on screen was so horrifying that Kenny nearly closed the window. He wanted to stop Wendy, though he knew it far too late for that. He'd been in the hospital with Eric just hours ago. Kenny couldn't reconcile the idea with what he was seeing on screen.

He couldn't bring himself not to watch, however. He couldn't look away from the terrible sight. Kenny could never look away.

"You don't understand! Bebe—Bebe wanted—"

"Don't you DARE," Wendy closed the short space between Eric, crunching over the many plastic wrappers on Cartman's floor. She grabbed him by the front of the shirt. "Don't you fucking dare tell me she wanted it. Bebe had just lost everything. She was drunk out of her mind."

"So? Wendy, ask-ask anyone. She was flirting with me all-all night! We were just having a good time! Oh, god, don't hurt me, please—she went upstairs with me willingly." Cartman broke down into tears again, shielding his face from Wendy with his hands as if he expected to be struck at any moment. "Ask anyone! An-anyone who was there! Please!"

"Yeah? Willingly?" Wendy's lip curled, and her voice was eerily reasonable. "Okay, let's just suppose for a minute that I grant you preying on girls who are so drunk they can't stand up straight let alone make an informed decision is not rape."

Wendy let Eric's collar's go, and he retreated away from her, to the far corner of the room. Kenny could just see his face and a little of his body from the camera angle.

"I don't grant you that, by the way," Wendy continued in her usual matter-of-fact tone, "But theoretically."

Cartman tried to make a break for the window, but as soon as he turned his back on Wendy, one of her throwing knives embedded itself in the window sash, not an inch from Cartman's head. Kenny watched her throw it so fast, she was a blur on camera.

"Ah ah ah," Wendy cautioned. "If you try to run, I can promise you a far more painful death. I'm pretty good with these, but my aim isn't perfect."

Wendy took another Hibben from her belt and held it up for Eric's inspection. "It'd take me a couple shots to stick one right between your ribs, or properly lodged in your eye. If you really wanna feel what Butters felt when you assholes put a shuriken in his eye, then go ahead, climb out that window right now."

Cartman swallowed; Kenny could see his Adam's apple bob when Cartman turned around again, but he did not try to run a second time.

"As I was saying," Wendy put her hands on her hips, one of her thin black brows raised in a chastising manner. "Even if I grant you that it isn't intrinsically wrong to take advantage of someone incapable of rational thought...which I do not, at all—Bebe went home that night with bruises."

Wendy put her own two hands on her body—her right over her clavicle, her left over her ribs.

"Here, and here," Wendy exposed her own neck, and ran a gloved finger down the side of her throat. "And here..." She held up her wrists, and twisted them back and forth to display them, "And here, and here."

Cartman's lips moved, but Kenny could not make out what he was saying. It sort of looked as if he were praying, mumbling a desperate Novena to a deaf Merciful Mother.

"She said to me," Wendy gave a hollow little chuckle, "That she begged you not to put it there. But you didn't listen. That it hurt, and she didn't want you to. But you told her to... ‘Shut up, Whore.'"

"She said she likes it rough," Cartman argued urgently, "You weren't there. You don't know—"

The blade in Wendy's hand was embedded in Cartman's shoulder in the next second. He screamed, and buckled.

"Shut up," Wendy took another from her belt as a warning. "Whore."

Cartman stopped shrieking, but continued to whimper as he nursed his shoulder. He scampered back to a corner, out of Kenny's field of view, and Wendy walked over to Cartman so that she was in the center of the frame.

"Bebe-Bebe was lying," Cartman's hysterical voice sounded through Kenny's speakers. "She's a lying slut, Wendy! I didn't do anything! You're making a mistake! She's a lying whore! Lying...lying dirty slut! I'm seriously! You-you can't—"

"Bebe Stevens," Wendy recited, "Annie Faulk. Porche Levins. Patty Nelson. Lola Martinez."

"They're all lying!" Cartman sobbed. "Liars, all of them! You c-can't fucking do this to me!"

Wendy put the knife away and held a hand up to Cartman then. "I'm not," she pulled Cartman to his feet. Kenny could only see Wendy's back at that point.

Part of Kenny hope that would be it. He knew on some level that it was too good to be true, and that it would be too much to hope for that Wendy would just scare the shit out of Cartman and call it a day. But he hoped. He hoped desperately.

Wendy reentered the frame, crossing to one side of the room while Cartman stayed on the other.

"I am not you, Eric Cartman," Wendy gestured to herself with both hands. "I'm going to give you something you never had the courtesy to give your victims."

Wendy took the trench knife from her hair. She put it on the floor and kicked it towards Cartman.

"Pick it up," she urged, though Kenny could not see whether he did or he didn't.

"What I'm giving you," Wendy explained, "Is a chance to fight back. If you can keep me off you, I won't kill you, and I'll turn myself into the police. Alternatively, if you kill me, there's a suicide note in my handwriting in my pocket. You're creative. You figure out how to frame the incident."

Kenny's phone rang, probably Stan, calling to ask why he hadn't logged on yet.

Cartman approached slowly at first. He hesitated to pull the throwing knife out of his shoulder and toss it aside.

"You really are a stupid bitch, Wendy." Cartman sounded significantly more confident now that he had a weapon in his hand. "Goddamnit. You are sooo gonna regret not killing me when you had the chance. Wassup? Wassup?" Cartman faked to the left and then to the right, probably to try to spook her. He waved his knife in the air.

Kenny had to watch through his fingers. If Cartman thought a physical fight was going to save him from Wendy, he'd forgotten what he'd learned on the playground in the fourth grade.

Then he charged at her. Now, Kenny had spent enough time with Wendy to know what Cartman did wrong. His raised arms left his entire upper body unprotected, and Kenny also knew that during a full frontal assault, it was generally best to advance with weapons pointed out from the body, not over one's head (unless the weapon happened to be a flail, a warhammer, or some other type of bludgeon). But generally, Kenny knew that bladed weapons should lead a charge.

That was why he was so surprised that Wendy didn't immediately exploit these mistakes drop Eric within the first three seconds of the fight.

She ducked instead, dodging out of the way of Cartman's wild downward stab by a hair's breadth. He swung again, across the body and really almost hit her the second time. His fist probably wouldn't have missed if he had any conception of how to properly aim a punch.

The perplexities went on. Wendy didn't immediately disarm Eric, but instead let him slash at her few times before knocking the blade out of his hand. Then Eric grabbed her. He dragged her to the ground, and Wendy visibly struggled underneath Cartman for a while. Kenny heard her grasp for breath, saw Cartman's hands go around her neck.

It was just...weird. Kenny had never managed to wrestle Wendy to the floor, and his technique had been better that Cartman's from the start. Maybe the extra weight gave him an advantage, but Kenny would've thought that would make him much slower. While Kenny's edge in a fight was that he could take a hit, Wendy's main asset was that she was damn near untouchable. It wasn't like her to fight with heavy contact. Why wasn't Wendy dealing with Cartman, as she would have anyone else?

Wendy's legs shot up under Cartman's arms and her ankles crossed behind the back of his head. She used her lower body strength to roll forward and reverse the positions, so that she was on top. But instead of taking a knife from her belt, or twisting Cartman's neck to snap it—ending it there, as Kenny knew she preferred to do, she began punching Cartman's face.

Which was ALSO weird. Wendy always said to throw only the most necessary punches, because they were unlikely to end a fight quickly. Kenny wondered if she were throwing the fight on purpose. Was this Wendy's interpretation of suicidal behavior? Death by Cartman? Somehow, Kenny didn't think so.

Cartman took some punishment from Wendy's fists before he managed to throw her off. He actually turned the prone side of his body towards her as he got to his feet. But she didn't knee him in the kidney or the liver. She just got to her feet and waited patiently for him to attack her again.

"What are you doing, Wendy?" Kenny asked, though they obviously could not hear him.

Cartman swung, and Wendy sloppily blocked it, allow her forearm to absorb the blow rather than redirecting the force. He jabbed again, and she caught it, but did not twist his wrist once she had his hand in her control. She just...let him go. It was only when Cartman actually landed a blow (a very anticipatable left cross) to Wendy's jaw that Kenny started to understand.

Wendy was making him fight for his life, before she killed him.

It was obvious, really. Cartman wouldn't fight back very hard if it were too clear that he was hopelessly outmatched. So Wendy let him build his confidence and get a few hits in before pulling the rug out from him. She didn't just want to win. She wanted Cartman to feel overpowered. She wanted him to fight her, and lose. She wanted to draw it out, make him feel hopeful that he might get out this okay, that he had a chance. Then, she wanted to crush him, like an inconsequential beetle.

In the end, Cartman would lose. Kenny knew that. Cartman would too, soon enough. But the slow, painful realization that Wendy would get her way no matter Cartman did would be the last epiphany Cartman ever had.

What Wendy had really done was reverse Cartman's preying strategy on him. She gave him and everyone else watching the illusion of choice, the ability to change the outcome if he just tried hard enough.

But Wendy had planned his death from the start. There was no hope. There never had been. Even if Cartman somehow won the fight, Kenny was sure Wendy had a contingency plan.

Wendy seemed to submit, and took a few steps away from Cartman. She nursed the side of her face where Cartman had stricken her. Cartman saw his advantage, and became overeager to end it. Kenny could do nothing but yell at the screen as Cartman picked up the fallen knife from the floor. He slashed it threateningly in her direction before charging at her. He was so much bigger than she was, so much more imposing and threatening. He was armed, and she was not, and she'd seemingly been demoralized by the losing fight up to this point.

Anyone but Kenny would've been worried for her, but Kenny was worried about Cartman.

In the second before Eric was upon her, Wendy lashed out at him. She grabbed the arm he used to extend the knife in her direction and simultaneously, she jumped up and issued a vicious, sharp kick to his shin. The knee of his injured leg bent beneath him, and Wendy shook his arm out like a placemat from which she was shaking crumbs. Cartman's head bobbed, and the movement jerked his shoulder at an unnatural angle. He cried out in pain and would've fallen to his knees, if Wendy hadn't been holding him up by the arm. But he even as he opened his mouth to cry out in pain, Wendy ducked and wove underneath the arm, twisting it even further behind his back. He screeched, but couldn't struggle much because the position Wendy had put him in allowed very little room for him to move.

"The best holds," Wendy had told Kenny during training, "Use your opponents' strengths against them."

Wendy had him at her mercy. Cartman bent over at the waist, whimpering in pain. But Wendy wasn't done showing him how badly he'd overestimated his chances in this fight. She lifted her knee and smashed it down over Cartman's extended arm. Kenny could hear the snap of bone when she broke his shoulder, even through Cartman's shrieking. Finally, Wendy released him. She cracked her neck and sneered. Then she walked over and picked up the knife from the floor.

"Get up," she said to Cartman. "You're not gonna die until I say you can."

Warily, he did as she commanded. As he complied, she walked over and aimed the point of the neck at his throat. He started backing up; she followed him, stalking forward slowly and purposefully.

Cartman's hands felt about blindly behind him as he backed up towards the bed. Wendy chased him down, blade tip near-piercing Cartman's Adam's apple. Cartman's knees hit the mattress, and he fumbled around under the pillow. He bent slightly to the side, fishing for something. Wendy's tunnel vision to victory obscured the threat from her until it was too late.

Before Wendy could stop him, Cartman had retrieved a revolver from under his pillow. Kenny recognized it, dully, from behind his haze of shock. Cartman had stolen the gun they'd practiced with from Ned and Jimbo. Now, that same gun was pointed at Wendy's stomach. From the look on her face, this had not been in her contingency. In no scenario that she had planned did Cartman have a gun. At this stage in her plan, all he was supposed to do was grovel and then die.

Kenny's eyes widened, and he felt his heart drop. Wendy never did anything without a plan. He believed in many of her abilities, but he had yet to see her truly improvise. The closest she'd ever come was the night she'd saved him, and on that night, she'd gotten fucking shot.

Cartman knew how to use the weapon in his hand; Kenny had been there when he learned. Not even Wendy's laminated Kevlar would protect her from a bullet at this range, and if he aimed low enough—at her pelvis—she was unarmored. Half-crazed, slicked hair mussed and hanging in his eye, Cartman grinned widely at his opponent. Her lost expression, so obviously caught unawares, made the reversal all the more shocking to observe.

Cartman cocked the gun, and it was Wendy's turn to back away. He didn't relent, pushing his nose almost to hers as he backed her up, in perfect mirror trajectory to where she'd taken him at knifepoint.

"Got you now, you fucking slut," Cartman gloated. "This is for the fourth grade. They say feminists scream the loudest when they finally get penetrated. Wanna test out the theory, Testabitch?"

Kenny finally closed his eyes. He didn't want to see her die.

A moment later, however, Kenny didn't hear the gunshot. Kenny opened his eyes to discover that Cartman, in his moment of victory, had hesitated. The look on Cartman's face was unmistakable. He had Wendy by the balls (figuratively, of course), gun cocked and ready to end the threat to his life right there. But for all the evil things Cartman had done in his life...he'd never killed anyone with his own hands. All this transpired within a heartbeat; he had less than half a second to pull the trigger. But Eric just stood there, gun poised in his hand. He couldn't do it. He stood there a half second too long.

Wendy took advantage for his faltering and disarmed him. She grabbed his gun arm around the wrist with both her hands, and pulled the limb forward and away from Eric's body. Then she broke Eric's arm at the elbow by pulling it straight across her torso.

"Looks like you're the bitch."

Cartman screamed and dropped his weapon, but without the use of his arms, he had no defense. He whimpered, and she put the blade to his neck and pressed down against his vulnerable neck before he could say another word. Her hair was wild and tangled around her shoulders from the struggle, and her eyes showed no mercy or intention to forgive. She'd made a mistake, but Cartman would pay for it.

"Now, Wendy, don't do anything—Wen-Wendy, don't do this."

"I don't know, I think you were asking for it," Wendy said, her voice like ice. "Out there, doing things you knew would piss me off right in front of me. I know what you wanted. You were practically begging me to do it. I think you wanted this."

"No! No, I don't! Fuck, Wendy, stop it!"

"Oh, now you're saying no," Wendy sighed. "They always get shy right before it gets good, huh?"

"Stop. Stop. Stop. Please. Please. Please...."

"Don't beg. What's wrong with you? Have some self-respect." Wendy cut Eric's throat in one stroke, and Eric went limp in her grasp. Kenny vomited in the plastic office trashcan, emptying the entire contents of his stomach in a violent expulsion.

"Happy anniversary my ass," Wendy spat on Eric's body. She dropped the bloody trench knife too, letting it clatter near Cartman's hand. She bent down to pick up her beret, and tugged it back over her head.

She then pulled a vial of something from one of the many pockets in her pants and poured it over Cartman's prone form. She took a flare from her belt and lit it. She dropped the lit flare on the floor, and Cartman's body immediately blazed up, so bright the shot went out of focus. Wendy walked out of the room, pausing only to grab the goggles from the desktop.

All Kenny could see as she walked out the front door of the Cartman residence was smoke from the flames she left behind.


The door of Wendy's studio burst open nearly as soon as the video finished playing. Kenny leapt up and grabbed a coffee cup from the desk, wielding it like a weapon. He held it up menacingly (as menacingly as one could wield a piece of ceramic with a pink unicorn painted on it, anyway), warding off the intruder with an improvised war cry.

"Waaaaah! Stay back!" Kenny shouted, but almost immediately lowered the cup and relaxed his stance upon seeing who it actually was.

"Bebe?" Kenny asked, putting the mug back in place next to the monitor. "How-how...?"

Bebe's wild blonde curls were everywhere, a veritable woolly gold mane around her head. She was still wearing her pajamas—a blue camisole and paisley silk shorts. She looked as if she'd been dragged out of bed by a sudden fire drill and had had no time to change before leaving the house.

"Kenny? What are you doing in Wendy's secret hideout?" she asked confusedly, looking around the room, one hand posed on her hip.

"I should ask you the same question!" Kenny's heart still pumped a mile a minute, and his eyes flicked about in a panicked manner.

Bebe held her hands up, an incredulous look on her face. "Hey, relax. Wendy took me here when she first set it up." Bebe held up a set of keys. " I'm apparently always allowed here. Please put down the mug, Kenny. You look ridiculous. ...Why does it smell like puke in here?"

Kenny lowered the mug a bit sheepishly. "Sorry," he muttered.

"It's fine; hanging out with Wends puts everyone on edge," Bebe breezed. "Now, are you going to tell me why you are here?" Bebe walked over and leaned over the monitor to see what Kenny had been watching. She set the playback button a few moments from the end and watched the video from a few moments before Cartman's untimely end. As she did, Kenny accidentally got a look Bebe's shirt, from which her titties practically spilled out. It wasn't the time to notice these things, but he hadn't meant to look. And she wasn't wearing a bra, so Kenny could hardly be blamed for noticing. Goddamn, he was only human. He coughed and looked away awkwardly. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable; it was too serious a moment. Not even he could think about sex at a time like this.

As she replayed the end of fight scene, she squinted at the figures on screen, leaning on one hand over the desk. She gasped at the end, and backed away from the desk. She shook her head, as if to disagree, and undo what she had seen by her vehement refusal to accept it.

"We're—uh," Kenny shook his head and tried to focus on the conversation at hand. "Partners. Wendy and me. To answer your question from before. Lady Nightspike and Mysterion. That's why I'm-I'm here."

"Is-is this Wendy on the video, Kenny? And—and is that Cartman?" Bebe covered her mouth with revulsion.

She kept talking before Kenny could answer, horrified as she answered her own questions.

"There was a fire at Cartman's house on my block." Bebe crossed her arms over her chest, as if holding herself together. This squished her boobs close together, and Kenny forced himself to look at his hands out of respect. "Oh, my god. She finally did it.

"Yes," Kenny nodded grimly.

"Where is she now? I need to talk to her." Bebe looked around the room a bit frantically, as if talking to Wendy could somehow fix what had already been done.

"I don't know," Kenny sunk back down into the desk chair. "She's...I haven't seen her." He stared at the frozen, blurry image on screen, and felt fucking sick all over again. The idea that Wendy killed Eric Cartman was too hard to conceptualize. Kenny's system was still in shock from seeing it, and he could almost convince himself that it had all been a terrible, terrible dream.

"I should've seen this coming," Bebe buried her face in her hands, exhaling. "The night I told her, I've never seen her so angry. She threw a phonebook through the wall at my house. I tried to calm her down, but the more I said it was sort of my fault too, the madder she got. I should've called the police a long time ago, and warned them that this might happen."

"It wasn't not your fault," Kenny said, "And neither is this. This one's on Cartman and Wendy."

"But I knew she would kill him, eventually," Bebe moaned, lowly, "She started up with all this...rape-avenger stuff, and I-I...we weren't really on speaking terms. But I should've-I should've..."

"I don't know anyone who can successfully argue with Wendy," Kenny told Bebe, softly. "There was probably nothing you could've done, short of reporting her to the cops. Even then, she probably would've just skipped the country and killed Cartman in the long-game."

"She treats me like such a victim," Bebe picked up and examined the pair of weaponized, spiked gauntlets on Wendy's desk—a prototype and Wendy had been experimenting with for Kenny's specialty weapon. She seemed lost, voice soft with the shock of what she'd seen. "She...She means well, know. When she treats me like a victim, I feel like one."

Kenny nodded. That had been something he'd instinctively understood about Karen with Scott. Treating Karen like a victim by reporting Scott to the cops and ignoring her perspective on the matter had been something Kenny was unwilling to do. Much less actually killing Scott as retribution.

"Is she coming back here soon, do you know?" Bebe put the gauntlet down with an incredulous shake of her head. "I don't know if I can face her right now. Oh my god."

"I have no idea." Kenny looked around quickly. "I haven't spoken to her since yesterday. I—"

Wendy burst into the studio then, and both Bebe and Kenny turned to face her at the same time. Wendy looked back and forth from Kenny to Bebe a few times, a look of bemusement on her face. She wore civilian clothes again, a large duffle bag on her back.

"Kenny, isn't this supposed to be your day off...?" Wendy frowned. "And...hey, Bebe. What brings you your pajamas? Ugh, was someone sick in here?"

"Wendy, you didn't," Bebe immediately approached her with clasped hands, and Wendy dropped the duffle bag immediately to take Bebe's wrists.

"Didn't what, Beebs?"

"Don't do that, not to me," Bebe peered at Wendy's face earnestly. "Tell me that you weren't at Eric Cartman's house this morning." Bebe's voice trembled. "You have to tell me that you weren't."

Wendy's brows rose. "Bebe. I have never lied to you. Would it make you feel better if I did so now?"

Bebe looked pained, making a soft clicking noise behind her teeth. She began to speak faster, knotting her hands together with agitation. "I wish you hadn't. I wish you hadn't done any of it. I never wanted you to become a—a mass murderer over me. I could've handled it myself. " Bebe took her hands out of Wendy's grasp and turned away. "You're smart, Wends. I thought, after the first thing...with-with Stan, you would've learned to let me decide for myself whether I've been victimized."

Wendy's fists clenched at her sides, and she took a step closer to Bebe's turned back. "Would you have had me do nothing then? And let that pissant brag about his conquests right there in the cafeteria whenever he felt like it?"

"I wouldn't have had to deal with it forever. It's just high school. After we graduate, I'd never have to see him again. Killing him doesn't change a damn thing. Wendy, what have you done? You can't undo this! You-you—"

"If I'd left him alive, he'd still be around, hurting other people like he hurt you." Wendy paced to the desk and sent a punch straight down onto the wood top. "He never would've stopped. He never stops! He always gets worse, and no one does anything! I had to stop him."

"No you didn't!" Bebe turned around and pointed a finger straight at Wendy's heart. "We're not even friends anymore. It's not even really your business!"

"I know that," Wendy said quietly. She held her hands open at her sides. It was weird for Kenny, because Wendy did not try in the slightest to defend herself from Bebe. For all the times she'd insisted he keep his guard up...hers was auspiciously no where to be seen.

"I had to fight him, Bebe. It didn't matter if I won or lost. I refuse to let that fat lump make you feel powerless."

"Why don't you let me take responsibility for my own feelings?" Bebe jutted her chin up to meet Wendy's eye defiantly. "You think I'm some fragile—"

Wendy leaned down and placed a feather-light kiss on Bebe's cheek to stop her. Bebe stiffened, and then turned away from her to face the door, as if Wendy had struck her instead. She took a few steps away, held her hands around her abdomen, hugging herself.

"I don't. I know you're strong," Wendy said, and her eyes looked softer, full of aching as she watched Bebe's turned back. Kenny was shocked; it was the first time he realized that not even Wendy could have everything she wanted. Bebe stood a good few feet from Wendy, but it was an unbreachable distance.

But then, Bebe turned around slowly, eyes searching. She reached out to tug on Wendy's earring'd ear, gently. "You still have it," Bebe said quietly, and stared the tiny, silver stud. "I... thought you'd have let it grow in for sure; did you at least pierce the other one?"

Wendy swept her hair away from her other ear, to reveal the un-pierced lobe. "N-no way, Beebs," she smiled, unsteadily. "No more needles. I'm still traumatized."

Kenny nearly laughed; he would have under different circumstances. She attacked full-grown men wielding knives and guns, but Wendy was afraid of needles?

A second later, he realized why that sounded ridiculous. Fear wasn't what made Wendy stutter.

"You screamed so loud when I did that. You'd think I was murdering you, instead of just poking you a little." A ghost of another smile tugged at Bebe's lips.

"A little," Wendy scoffed, "You stabbed me through the ear. If I recall, I wasn't the only one screaming. And you were the one who was too scared to do my other ear."

Bebe looked to the ceiling, rolling her eyes heavenwards. "...It bled a surprising amount, for such a small hole."

They both chuckled at the memory, and for a moment, they were the two best friends they used to be: giggling, telling secrets and braiding each other's hair. But their laughter faded, and after a moment they could not meet eyes. They weren't those girls anymore, and they couldn't repair years of damage with memories. Wendy fiddled with her earring, and Bebe stared at her bare, painted toes. It was strange to see Bebe without her shoes, but most people's priorities changed as they grew up.

Kenny thought of Stan's tattoo, and Eric's open throat. Wendy's earring glinted in the studio lights. It seemed Bebe Stevens had, intentionally or not, left a mark on quite a few of Kenny's friends.

Kenny suddenly felt that his presence here was intrusive. The conversation between Wendy—with Eric's blood still on her hands, and Bebe—still in her pajamas, didn't seem like something anything but the two of them should witness. He made himself scarce, so as to escape notice.

"...I-I'm the one who is fragile," Wendy admitted, after a long pause, "To fragile to protect you. All this? This is to get strong enough, because you make me feel so damn fragile, Bebe."

Bebe touched the place where Wendy had kissed her, as if the mark had been scorched into her skin. She looked near tears, but did not cry.

"You're plenty strong," Bebe murmured, "Weakness isn't the problem, Wendy, strength is. You strong-arm everyone and everything into doing what you say, and it''s fucking destructive! It's like...all you know how to do is push, and win at all costs. You don't respect me, or anyone else enough to make decisions. You're brilliant, but you break everything you touch because you don't care about people's lives. Only some...big picture that doesn't fucking exist. But you're so willing to sacrifice other people to it; you'll do anything to get your way, regardless of-of the fucking real consequences!"

Wendy looked over to Kenny for a moment, and then turned back to Bebe to offer her a sad, crooked little smile. "I don't break everything. There are a few exceptions."

Kenny was surprised that Wendy had acknowledged him at such a moment. It was pretty lucky for Wendy that Kenny was virtually indestructible (or at least, had a particular talent for not staying gone), he supposed. In the second epiphany about Wendy Kenny had had for the night, he realized he wasn't such an unworthy partner after all. He was sort of exactly what she needed.

Bebe's shoulders bunched, and she pointed at the computer screen. "You-you shouldn't have done this, especially not for me. Why do you not understand that I didn't want this?"

"I wanted this," Wendy told her quietly, "I've given up everything to do this. I can't start listening to what everyone else says now. I have to keep fighting."

Bebe made a sound halfway between a laugh and sob, and turned around, shaking her head.

"Whatever, Wendy. I really just came to ask you if killing Eric means you're done with this," Bebe gestured expansively to Wendy's studio. "I mean. He was the reason you got into this. Now he's dead. Aren't you satisfied yet? But I guess I already know the answer to that."

Wendy looked so tired, far too tired for a teenager. "I don't expect you to understand."

"Yeah...that's what I thought." Bebe pushed her hair off her forehead and sighed. "But I...I hoped. For your sake. You really can't do this forever, you know."

"Relax," Wendy laughed, though it was a facsimile of true good humor. She looked so bitter. "I have back-up now. Kenny and I are gonna be fine."

Bebe glanced skeptically at Kenny, but didn't press the point. "It's been over, Wendy. I moved on. Why do you insist on fighting?"

Wendy replied in a low voice, with quiet venom. "Someone should."

Bebe just sighed. Kenny watched the desire to talk about it anymore die in Bebe's eyes. "...You know I won't say anything about Eric," she said as a way of ending the conversation.

"I know." Wendy nodded, eyes on her desk. "Thank you, Bebe."

Bebe didn't reply, but instead headed for the exit. "Be careful, you guys," Bebe looked specifically to Kenny. "Get out of this while you can," she advised.

"Yeah," Kenny said, his throat dry and burning with stomach acid from before. "Uhm, thanks. Nice to see you, Bebe."

Just before Bebe reached the exit, Kenny remembered something he'd been meaning to tell her.

"Hey, wait up for a sec!" Kenny said, and Bebe turned her head to acknowledge him.

"...Talk to Stan," Kenny suggested to her. "He's been miserable since, you know. But I think he still loves you."

"We'll see," Bebe's lips turned at the corners. "Thanks Kenny."

She disappeared through the door, and Wendy didn't look up until she was gone. Immediately, she began purging the video files from her system, and Kenny knew she'd probably have the whole thing destroyed and dumped somewhere, just in case. Wendy was not dumb enough to leave a digital record of her crimes. He wasn't going to get his goggles back after this.

Luckily, he didn't think he'd need them ever again.


"Wendy," Kenny said after a beat or two.

"I assume you know what happened." Wendy picked up her bag and put it on the desk. She began unpacking it, and Kenny looked away so as not to see the bloody jumpsuit, or the goggles that had been his window into watching his friend die.

"You brought the wrong goggles," Kenny explained. "I wanted to borrow the computer to play WoW on my day off."

"I see," Wendy took her sword slowly from its sheath and peered down the blade. "You don't want to be partners anymore?"

"How can we be?" Kenny stood, unable to bear how reasonable Wendy was being about things. He wanted her to get angry, so they could fight about it a little bit. "You-you—Eric and I have known each other practically since I was born, Wendy."

"As have Eric and I," Wendy re-sheathed her sword carefully. "And I still got rid of him before he could hurt anyone else. I'd do it again. That's what this is to me." She held out her weapon as a way of explanation.

"Bullshit," Kenny crossed his arms. "You didn't ‘get rid' of him. You fucking committed a brutal honor killing. You took three years of resentment and turned it into revenge. Don't try to tell me you did that for the fucking greater good. If that were true, you would've slit his throat while he was sleeping and been done with it."

Wendy considered this a moment, and then nodded. "You're right. I did."

Kenny was shocked to hear her say it, but it didn't slow the words that bubbled forth when he opened his mouth.

"You know Eric didn't know what he was doing was rape, right?" Kenny's voice rose, nearly to the breaking point. "He was an idiot, but I'm pretty sure he thought what he was doing was normal behavior. Lots of guys do it, Wendy. It's not right, but he didn't deserve to have his throat cut open for it."

"Cartman's done worse for less," Wendy waved her hand dismissively. "Just ask the Tenormans."

"Oh, no! You don't get to dodge like that," Kenny wanted to grab Wendy's shoulders and shake her, but settled with yelling in her face. He was angry, but wasn't stupid enough to fight her after what he'd seen. "You didn't kill him for Scott Tenorman. You killed him for Bebe."

"He deserved to die regardless."

"So do you!" Kenny exploded. "Yeah, that's right. By your own logic, if I kill you, fewer people will die. Therefore, killing you contributes to the greater good."

"Incorrect," Wendy remained infuriatingly calm, "Because if you kill me, all the people who I would've stopped from killing would go on to do so. So, by killing me, you'd increase the overall amount of misery."

"You don't know if those people would go on to hurt other people. Maybe you could've talked to them. You could've talked to Eric, Wendy. I could've talked to him! We could've made him understand that what he was doing was wrong. He could've been reasoned with, Wendy! You were wrong about him, like you were wrong about Stan!"

"You can't cure a rapist," Wendy's fists clenched, and Kenny was gratified to see he was getting to her, just a little bit. "There've been studies. These people are beyond reason. I have to stop them if I want them to stop, not hold group therapy sessions."

"You know, the only person I am sure will kill people is you." Kenny locked his eyes on Wendy's. "And you admitted it; not all of them will be scumbags. How many innocents do you think I'll protect just by getting rid of you?"

Wendy handed Kenny her sword. "Try it."

Kenny sneered at her. He didn't take the sword. Instead, he held his hands up and took a few steps back.

"No. Because I think your logic is bullshit, and I'm not you." Kenny exhaled. "I'm not a murderer. Kyle was right, dude. This is insane."

"Kyle? You told Kyle about this?" Wendy glared at him. "Kenny, that wasn't smart."

"Gonna kill him too? What about Stan? Why don't you just murder all my friends while we're at it!"

"You are being very, very irrational," Wendy sighed. "I wouldn't kill Kyle or Stan. They, as far as I know, don't deserve it. Though, Kyle now presents a bit of a liability. Do you think we can trust him?"

"I trust him!" Kenny thought of Kyle and wanted to cry. "He was right about you, after all."

"And I trust you," Wendy told Kenny. "So, if you think Kyle can be trusted...I will defer to your judgment."

"Thank you," Kenny felt so used up, so completely worn out and exhausted. For a while, they were both quiet, Kenny on one side of the desk and Wendy on the other.

"Wendy. Listen to Bebe. You can't solve your problems this way," Kenny peered at Wendy, the hard slant of her mouth, the defensive hunch of her shoulders. "Imagine if I took your approach to my own life, okay? I'd kill Scott for sleeping with my sister, let alone trying to marry her. She's fifteen for god's sake!"

Wendy paused. "Scott is sleeping with Karen?"

"Yes," Kenny said. "And it kills me, but I have to deal with it, because Karen loves the guy. If I killed him, it would devastate her."

"She's too young," Wendy frowned, "She doesn't know what she's doing. Scott's an adult. He's exploiting her."

"I agree," Kenny nodded, thankful in spite of everything to hear someone else voice his thoughts on the matter. "But you see how sometimes you just have to deal with things? Sometimes there's no greater good, no right answer. Sometimes it's out of your hands. All you can do is be there for the ones you love; you can't always save them. Karen doesn't want to be saved. Neither did Bebe, Wendy."

"You can't reason with rapists," Wendy said. "They don't play by the rules, so neither can I."

"For someone who reminds me thirty times a day that we don't live in a comic book," Kenny squinted at her, "You sure don't seem to understand that real people in the real world don't use goddamn philosophy to justify a three-year vengeance plot. Real people get on with their lives, Wendy. You're not Frank Castle. You need to learn to let go."

"Letting go is for people who are too weak to go out and change things. We can either let our past become baggage...or we can change it into gunpowder." Wendy's face remained hard and determined. "I will never be so arrogant as to think my experiences are just for my benefit. And if society won't fix it, I WILL."

Kenny gave up. There was no reasoning with her. Wendy would have to battle her demons her own way (literally), but he could not participate, not anymore.

"I quit," he told her, breaking eye contact at last. "I can't do this anymore."

She nodded, "All right, Kenneth."

Kenny stormed towards the exit, but couldn't help but to glance back at Wendy. She was back at her desk, sitting alone behind her computer, and for a fleeting moment he thought he probably shouldn't leave her by herself.

But the permeating smell of blood and vomit in the room reminded Kenny that Wendy was not some confused and alone little girl who'd made a mistake and needed a friend. She needed something, but Kenny wasn't sure it was a friend. He thought of Bebe—Wendy's friends always seemed to end up with an inordinate amount of destruction on their hands. Maybe Bebe was right. Maybe Wendy did break everything she touched.

Kenny had no intention of sticking around to find out.

"I'll see you," he said, though she made no indication that she heard. He closed the door.


Kyle stood at the center of Bonanza Circle watching the firefighters put out the remains of Eric Cartman's home. Charred wood and various home effects were strewn over the square where the house had stood, and firefighters tramped through it all behind a barrier of yellow caution tape. Not a single structural support had survived. The whole frame of the house had collapsed, and only litter and waste were left.

Kyle looked up, and Kenny saw that he'd been crying. "Kenny, dude," Kyle said. "They-they think they found a body. Or-or...some really charred bones. Someone-someone must've used some sort of fire accelerant, be-because it wasn't...enough to identify. ...It's pretty fucked up. Liane wasn't in t-town, but they haven't found Eric, and—I...I'm worried that—"

Kenny clasped Kyle in a tight hug, and Kyle just fell apart in Kenny's arms.

"They aren't gonna find Eric," Kenny whispered shakily. "I-I quit working with Wendy."

Kyle looked rightly horrified and drew back from Kenny. "You mean she—"

"They'll never connect her to it, Kyle," Kenny knew what Kyle was about to suggest. "There's no point in reporting it. She planned this for years. She wouldn't have left a trace. It'd be my word against hers."

Kyle choked, and put his head back on Kenny's shoulder. "He was-was such an asshole," he said, "I shouldn't fucking care. But I've known him for so long. It-it feels like part of me—part of us, part of this whole place is just—"

"Gone. I know," Kenny rubbed a small, soothing circle around Kyle's shoulder blade. "I'm so sorry, Kyle. I never, ever would've let this happen, if I'd known. I just had no idea she would ever do something like this."

"But you knew she was dangerous," Kyle said. "You knew what she was capable of."

Kenny nodded. "But I never thought it'd be, like, someone-someone I really knew. I saw her kill pimps and known rapists and homicidal muggers, Kyle. They didn't seem like people to me. They were just bad guys."

"Cartman was a bad guy," Kyle turned away to look at the house again. "He killed people and hurt people. But I don't want to be the one to tell Liane her son is gone."

"I know, Kyle, I know," Kenny watched as the coroner crouched over a smoking pile of something indistinguishable from far away, and though there was nothing left in his stomach, Kenny thought he might be sick again.

"I'm done with that now, I promise," Kenny said. "Mysterion died with Eric Cartman."

Kyle took Kenny's hand and nodded. "Rest in peace, to both of them."


Eric Cartman was buried in the rain. Liane Cartman spared no expense for the ceremony. The ostentatious mahogany coffin gleamed, and the church overflowed with the sickly scent of funeral flowers. Over half of the town appeared to pay their respects (excluding a few select people, including Karen—who resolutely refused to pay tribute on Scott's behalf). As a token of affection, most brought a stuffed animal of some sort. The altar was crowded with them–bears, dolls, and of course so many, many frogs. It seemed that this was the way people chose to remember him: Not as the victim Wendy cut open and set aflame, not as the jerk who bragged about having sex with Stan's ex-girlfriend in the cafeteria, and not the psychopathic mastermind who fed Scott Tenorman his own parents. Instead, Cartman's friends and family seemed to prefer to remember him as someone who'd held funerals for his stuffed animals as a boy, and who was now attended at his own funeral by a legion of button-eyed friends.

Surprisingly Scott Tenorman actually did attend. As Liane's last remaining sort-of family member, he stood by her side through the whole service and held her hand without a trace of resentment. Kenny observed this, and couldn't help but to feel a bit humbled by it. He himself would not have come in Scott's position, and not even softhearted Karen had been so forgiving. It was to Scott's eternal credit that he not only made an appearance but also served as a pallbearer for his half-brother, white gloves and all. He wore a somber black tux, and carried Liane's handkerchief in the front pocket. After Liane dissolved into tears during her eulogy, it was Scott who escorted her back to her seat and comforted her. At that moment, Kenny felt truly shamefaced for punching the guy in the jaw. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all.

Kyle gave the last eulogy. "I think," he cleared his throat at the end of his speech, the shimmer of tears in his eyes visible to Kenny from the front row. "I think, Cartman would've liked to see you all here. But if you were promised any favors in the after-life in exchange for your presence here by a suspicious ghost, I wouldn't stop going to church just yet." There was rumbling chuckle in response, and even Liane cracked a smile.

Kyle took his seat, and Kenny held his hand as they sat together in the pews. It was less romantic than it was to show his simple support. Kyle seemed to barely hold it together, and squeezed Kenny's hand so hard it hurt.

"You okay, dude?" Kenny whispered, bumping his shoulder lightly against Kyle's.

"Yeah," Kyle wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Good, fine. Thanks, man."

Stan, who'd been even quieter than usual, reached over and squeezed Kyle's shoulder. "Great speech, Kyle," he said, "Cartman would've liked it. You're a good friend."

Kyle and Stan shared a half-smile, and Kenny felt excluded for a moment. In this moment of greatest sadness, Stan was the one who got Kyle to smile first. Stan knew how. Kenny wondered if he would ever learn that. It wasn't the time to begrudge Kyle the comfort of his super best friend, however, so Kenny didn't allow himself to dwell on it long. They needed each other right now, without petty boundaries and sub-categories of closeness.

The funeral was closed-casket, as there wasn't much left of Eric left to bury. It was only as they all stood around the hole in the ground, ready to lower Eric's body into the ground that Kenny noticed Wendy there. She was dry-eyed, obviously, and she wore a plain, fitted black coat and pearls. She looked harmless under her black umbrella, just another mourner there to commemorate the loss of a classmate. Kenny wondered if she were there to pay respects, or—more likely—to deter suspicion about her culpability in Eric's death.

"What's she doing here?" Kyle whispered angrily as they listened to the priest give the blessing, and the funeral attendants turned the cranks that lowered the casket.

"I don't know," Kenny said, but then he noticed Bebe. She stood with her friends, on the other side of the grave, and she watched the casket disappear with a stricken expression. Her gold hair was swept into an elegant topknot, and her smeared makeup indicated that she'd been crying at some point. It was a strange sight; old Bebe always had impeccable makeup, and recent Bebe never wore any makeup at all. At once, Kenny understood Wendy's presence. Bebe thought she was responsible, and Wendy was there to remind Bebe that she wasn't. Wendy didn't approach Bebe, but she stood in place clearly and strategically visible to her. Just being here, Kenny realized, the only way Wendy could comfort Bebe.

Stan didn't know why Wendy's presence upset Kyle, but he knew what to say anyway. "Let it go; we're here for Cartman, dude."

Kyle visibly relaxed. "You're right."

Liane collapsed as the body descended, as if her legs had given out under the weight of her grief. Her wails overpowered the church choir's rendition of "Amazing Grace." Her bloated, tear-streaked face had never looked so aged; her fingers dug into the neatly kempt cemetery grass. Scott knelt by her and held his umbrella over her head. After a few moments, he coaxed her back to her feet. He supported her, propping her gently beneath her elbow, and it was the first time Liane Cartman ever seemed like an old woman to Kenny.

The mourners were then directed to line up, and each toss a handful of dirt into the grave. Liane went first. "Mommy loves you, Sweetiekins," she said, hand trembling around a handful of earth. "Sleep tight."

When it was Kyle's turn, he let the handful of dirt go without a word. But after a few moments, he said, "Shalom, fatass. We'll miss you." He sniffled, and hung his head for another moment or two, before moving aside to let the next mourner add dirt to the grave.

Stan tossed his dirt in without any ceremony. He didn't even watch it fall. "Goodbye, Cartman," he said, "See you on the flip side."

Kenny didn't really know what to say when it was his turn. He looked down the hole, the casket covered in a sprinkling of dirt already, and all he could think was that it really didn't seem like Eric was down there. In the strictest sense, he wasn't. He was dead, and so he wasn't anywhere. Kenny couldn't connect the box down there filled with burnt bones with his friend.

He dropped his handful, and watched the dirt disappear. "God fucking damn it, Cartman." Then, silently, he extracted his half of an ancient BFF medallion, and threw that in too. He heard it clink at the bottom when it hit the wood of casket, and winced. He hadn't realized until then how deep Cartman was in the ground.

After an awkward wake, where Kenny hugged a bunch of the Cartman family members he'd never met before, and heard, "Oh, Eric talked about his little friends all the time. He loved you boys so much," God knew how many times, Kenny trudged home. He was full of funeral food—they'd served all Cartman's favorites: chicken wings, pizza, fries, ice cream, cake, cookies, even a chocolate fountain. Kenny thought it was ironic, because Cartman would've hated to see a bunch of people eating his favorite food without him.

Kenny had triple helpings, and justified it by thinking to himself since Cartman couldn't be there, Kenny would eat as much as Cartman would've, if he had been able to.

Neither Kyle nor Stan had touched much of anything. But they had the luxury, Kenny supposed, of grieving in a less practical way than he could afford. There was nothing romantic about starving to death, which was an actual possibility in Kenny's world.

The three had silently walked back together. The missing presence of their fourth weighed so heavily on them that conversation was impossible. Cartman's loss seemed much more tangible when all of them were together, probably because they weren't all together. They never would be again.

They dropped Stan off first. He hugged Kenny, and then Kyle when he got to his front door.

"See you around, guys," Stan smiled exhaustedly, and held in a drag of his E-cigarette for an inordinately long amount of time, before blowing it out slowly. "I'll call you guys tomorrow and we'll hang out."

Kyle nodded, but none of them were too enthused about the idea. It was too sad to do this without Cartman, and the invisible space he was supposed to occupy seemed oppressive. He was the unspoken reason for the awkward spaces in conversation.

"See you, dude." Kyle waved, and he and Kenny began toward the Broflovski home. They didn't hold hands, and could barely stand to look at each other. Kenny thought bitterly, that people who should've been comforting just served as reminders of loss.

"This sucks," Kyle said at last, just half a block from his house. It was the first thing either for them had said since Stan's front doorstep.

"It does," Kenny agreed. "Everything is all fucked up now."

Kenny said it more angrily than he'd meant to, and unexpected tears filled his eyes. He realized dully that he had not cried yet. There was so much loss today. It wasn't just Cartman they'd buried, but a friendship that wasn't complete without all four of them. It was gone, or at least irreparably damaged; Kenny knew better than his friends did that you could never really replace someone. Things just wouldn't be the same.

Kyle stopped, and turned around. He looked at Kenny's face, and Kenny couldn't meet his eye. What he had with Kyle had never even gotten a chance, and now how could it? Did any of them have the right to be happy, now that the worst had happened? It seemed wrong to do anything that felt good; Kenny felt that the world shouldn't go on just the way it was. Things should stop, or at least pause a little while. If nothing changed when Eric Cartman died, then Eric Cartman's life hadn't mattered. By extension, no one mattered. No one was worth anything, and really, who cared if Wendy murdered a bunch of nothings?

"Kenny," Kyle interrupted these thoughts. The worry crease Kenny had always found so fascinating scrunched at the center of Kyle's forehead, and Kyle looked so serious that it legitimately worried Kenny for a moment. "We're going to be okay."

Kenny did not know how Kyle could promise such a thing without qualifications or explanation. But he looked so damned determined, so ready to fucking take on anyone who dared disagree with him...that a smile stole across Kenny's face.

"You think so?"

Kyle nodded. "Yes."

That expression of certainty: the unbending and fanatical belief that everything would be all right, for no reason at all exact Kyle said so, and would therefore make it so, was the best thing Kyle could have done to prove his point. Kenny believed in very little, but he believed in Kyle. If Kyle said everything was going to be okay, then it fucking would be. He'd never had a reason to doubt Kyle before. Existential crisis couldn't compete with Kyle—who was real and tangible and always, always right.

He stepped close to Kyle and put his arms around his shoulders, before leaning in slowly. He kissed him, gently at first. However, Kyle kissed him back fiercely, as if fighting his misery with kisses, and Kenny could scarcely catch his breath. For a while, they stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, making out after the funeral of their mutual best friend. It was weird, and probably sacrilegious, but Kenny didn't fucking care. They could mourn how they chose, and this felt more sincere than the church service they held for Eric, who hadn't been to church since he was ten years old.

When they finally pulled apart, Kenny smiled wider. When he kissed Kyle, time stopped for a moment. Kyle made things seem a little less like nothing.

Then, Kenny finally put his head on Kyle's shoulder and cried his heart out. He felt Kyle shiver, and realized that Kyle had started too, and they stayed that way until the sun went down behind them. They held each other as the world kept turning.

"You're not seriously upset about this," Kenny heard Karen say nearly as soon as he got in through the door.

Scott's disembodied voice answered her, and the sound came slightly muffled from the dining room. "He was my brother."

"Half-brother, and half-insane." Karen scoffed, and Kenny could picture her disdainful expression as she "tsked" with scorn. "He hurt you, babe. He hurt you bad. I don't think you should care that he's gone. I know it's heartless, but you have every reason to hate him."

"I was in therapy for so long," Scott sighed. "I let go of my anger a long time ago. I had to move on, so that I could be part of the only family I had left."

"I'm your family now, Honey," Karen's voice was so soft and caring. She sounded more like her mother than she ever had, and Kenny found it particularly disturbing. "We all are. Me, and Kenny, and Kevin and my parents. Eric might've been related to you by blood, but we love you way more than that psycho."

"Eric was mostly just really stupid," Scott explained in far too patient and compassionate a tone. "And spoiled. He doesn't...didn't understand limits, Kar, because no one ever disciplined him. He wasn't evil."

"I don't know how you could go through the things that you did, and still say that," Karen told him. "You're a much better person than I am, Scott. I...I'm gonna be so proud to call myself your wife."

"I'm glad," Kenny could practically hear Scott's fond smile when he spoke to Karen. "But...would you do me a favor and try not to judge my brother too harshly? If I can forgive him, so can you. He was an asshole, but hating him got me locked up in an asylum. Forgiving him got me out, into rehab where I met Kevin. And because I knew Kevin, I got to meet you."

"...I should have gone to the funeral today. I'm sorry I was hard on Eric."

"Nah, that's okay," Scott said. "Liane needed me there anyway. She's not taking this very well."

"I can imagine," Karen was grave and solemn. "Y'all can spend as much time as you need together, okay? You should take care of, I guess she is, kind of."

"Thanks, Kar. You're pretty amazing, you know?"

"I love you, Scott."

They didn't talk anymore for a while, and Kenny really didn't want to know why they were no longer using their mouths to speak. He retired to his room, closed the door, and flopped down on his mattress. A few minutes later, he heard the front door open and shut. It seemed Scott had gone home.

A knock on Kenny's bedroom sounded not too long after Scott was gone.

"Come in?" Kenny said, swiveling his head curiously towards the visitor. He smiled at the sight of Karen, upside down though she was.

"Hey Kar," he said, "What's up?"

Karen came to sit on Kenny's mattress, and he sat up to join her. She twiddled her thumbs awkwardly, and scarcely dared look at Kenny.

"Kenny, I'm sorry," she blurted out before he got a chance to ask what was on her mind. "I've been...well. Shitty. You don't deserve that."

"You've just had a lot on your plate," Kenny reassured her, and bumped his shoulder up against hers, "I don't mean to be hard on you, kiddo. I just want you to be happy. And you know what? I was wrong. I think Scott's a decent dude."

She shot Kenny a smartass grin. "I know," she said, "That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"He was really cool to Cartman's mom at the funeral," Kenny looked to Karen, so she could see that he earnestly meant the things he said. "I also sort of heard you two talking out there just now...and I think it's really awesome of him to be so chill and forgiving about...what happened to him. I'm impressed, dude."

"Scott's amazing," Karen gushed, happier than Kenny had seen her in a long while. The sight was one of his favorites. "He...still has his moments. Little panic attacks, nightmares. Sometimes, he thinks he smells chili, and that almost always triggers it. Sometimes, he just starts shaking. It's so sad." Karen drew her knees up under her. "But he's so strong, and deals with it every day, and I help him. It's beautiful to watch, Kenny. He's healing."

Kenny looked at his sister, who had become a young woman right under his nose, and felt genuinely proud of her. "I bet he feels lucky, that you're there for him," Kenny put an arm over Karen's shoulders. His throat felt a little tight; her baby fat was nearly gone, and she was already such a pretty young girl, full of life and love. When had she grown up so much?

"We're lucky to have each other," Karen leaned against Kenny's shoulder. "I...thought about what you said, and I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna go to college. Scott too. We'll go together, and dorm together, and it'll be great. We can get married after we graduate. Scott's not going anywhere. We have time, and all that matters is that we'd be together."

"That's amazing!" Kenny shook her a little bit. "Karen, that's unbelievable. I am so proud of you. Ah, c'mere, kid. I'm happy for you."

The McCormick siblings hugged, and for the first time in a very long time, there was total peace in the household.


The peace and quiet in Kenny's life that followed Eric Cartman's was quickly shaping up to be the best period of Kenny's life thus far. Currently, he was at Kyle's house. They were stretched out on Kyle's couch, Kenny's head in Kyle's lap, debating about whether Boba Fett or Master Chief would win in a fight.

"Are you kidding me? It's Fett, no question," Kyle said. Kenny liked watching his face upside down. The inverted wrinkles on his forehead looked like a crustacean with Kyle's two bright-red eyebrows forming a perfect crustacean-strong-man mustache. "Boba Fett cut down Jedi Knights and Sith Lords alike, dude. I'd like to see Master Chief take on anyone trained in the Force."

"Boba Fett dies," Kenny laughed. "Gets fucking eaten by the Sarlacc. It's not exactly the most badass monster to lose against, dude. It's just a big butthole in the sand. It doesn't move around. You'd never see such shoddy work from Master Chief."

"That's only in the movies!" Kyle argued. "He survives that in the comics and goes on to kick ass all over the galaxy!"

"Yeah well, tell that to the 99% that didn't read the comics," Kenny held out his hands to indicate a majority world of fans who did not even know a Star Wars comic series existed. "Meanwhile, everyone knows nothing will ever kill John-117, let alone some carnivorous alien asshole."

"Yeah well, at least Boba Fett has an interesting backstory. Master Chief is boring."

"He is not!" Kenny defended vehemently. "He was kidnapped as a child and replaced by a flash clone to be conscripted in the SPARTAN II program. He lost him family and his home so that he could be the greatest hero and protector the galaxy had ever seen!"

"Except for Boba Fett," Kyle's voice was pitched and heated, but he was smiling. "Don't tell me you didn't cry when he held Jango Fett's decapitated head after the Battle of Geonosis."

"I did cry, but only because I couldn't stand the sight of George Lucas fucking raping my childhood memories," Kenny said. At this point, Kyle's poker face collapsed and he started laughing, one hand on his forehead to partially cover his face. The laugh was quickly becoming Kenny's favorite sound in the world.

The moment was only somewhat ruined by the sobering realization that a rape joke was probably not in the best taste, considering what had happened to Cartman just a few days ago. Kenny stopped laughing, and tried not to let Kyle see his moment of regret and remembering. Even in innocent moments like these, Kenny sighed, there would always be shadows, clinging to the corners.

"Okay, fair enough," Kyle acquiesced, unaware anything had shifted. His spirits were still considerably high, and he didn't even seem upset at having lost the argument. "Master Chief wins by default to George Lucas' eternal suckage. But if they don't kill him off in Halo 6, I am going to write a letter of complaint."

"He needs a hero's death," Kenny agreed, smiling a little. "No hero wants to keep fighting forever, and I don't think Ol' MC is the type to go quietly, retiring at the appropriate and respectable age."

"He's the job," Kyle nodded with certainty, "He'd want to go with a gun in his hands."

"I don't think that's why," Kenny reached up and touched Kyle's cheek, briefly. Kyle stared down at him, and Kenny felt his stomach flip over. These moments were still so new. Neither boy knew how to fit them into their repertoire yet.

"Why then?" Kyle asked, his voice softer by degrees, eyes slightly unfocused.

"He doesn't have anyone to go home to," Kenny answered, his over-confident grin slowly transforming into a goofy, shy smile. "Cortana—his only real friend, died to save him. It's a little too late for him to form a real love interest. He has nothing and no one except what he does, and so when he can't do that's just fucking over. I think he knows that, on some level."

"He could still—"

"He won't, though." Kenny shook his head. "No one wants a slow fade into oblivion for Master Chief. He's lived too extraordinary a life to waste away into something less."

Kyle looked angry for a moment; a stormy struggle passed over his features. "That's a goddamned false dichotomy, Kenny. Connections to others or an extraordinary life? There's a fucking million different gradients of happy medium in between."

"Not for everyone," Kenny closed his eyes. "Not for Master Chief."

"What about for you?"

"I'm not all that extraordinary, it turns out," Kenny stretched out over Kyle's thighs, cat-like and content. "Turns out, I'm happy to sit here and talk all day about nerdy bullshit with you."

And goddamnit if Kyle's slow, irrepressible smile in response didn't make Kenny feel better than if he'd beat his best time on Wendy's death-course.

"I feel like playing Reach, now," Kenny sat up, and looked to Kyle over his shoulder with a challenging brow raised. "Mostly ‘cause I just won an argument with you and I feel like kicking your ass some more."

"Douche," Kyle got off the couch to set up the game, "You'll be kissing it afterward, when you fucking lose."

"If I'm lucky."

Kenny lay out on Kyle's bed, and Kyle sat on the floor. Kenny had invented a game that Kyle deemed too stupid to play, and instead preferred to proofread his admissions essay for the ten millionth time. Kenny, meanwhile, hung his head upside-down over the edge of Kyle's mattress for as long as he could stand it, and then sat up as fast as possible. The slightly nauseating head-rush was fucking awesome—and the objective of this game was simply to hold up upside down for as long as possible. Kenny's record was five and a half minutes. He was nearly purple by the end of it, and the head-rush afterward was accompanied with a temporary blackout.

"You should follow Scott and Karen's example and do something productive with your time," Kyle commented. He took the red pen he used to make corrections to his essay and slashed a line through something on the page. "I could help you fill out some college applications if you want. I bet if we work on your essay a little bit, we could get you in somewhere pretty decent."

"I didn't even take the stupid STTs, or whatever," Kenny felt the blood rush to his head; it made his skull feel as if it were bursting. He was determined to break his record. "And my GPA is shit. I doubt I'll even graduate."

Kyle frowned and scooted closer to Kenny. He put down his essay, that serious look on his face Kenny knew so well. "SAT. I can help you with that, dude. I'll help you study for them. You can use my old prep books. We can pull your grades up in these last two semesters."

Kenny had to smile at Kyle's optimism. This was why he liked Kyle so much. He was Sheila's son; there was no such thing as a lost cause. Going to war on poverty and oppression was where Kyle's excellence lay. He'd make a first-rate mayor or lobbyist someday. It was partially a product of being sheltered, part passion, part audacity to hope, part naiveté, part compassion—and all Kyle. Everyone had his or her neuroses, but Kyle's compulsion was to do good things, and moreover, he did not want to hurt others in order to do them. Was there any other way to be a good person? Kyle wanted to build, not destroy.

"You're kind of really awesome." Kenny grinned. He had no intention of pulling up his grades or taking the SAT, but it was nice of Kyle to fuss over him. His vision was beginning to gray out from the insane amount of pressure building behind his temples. "Hey, wanna be my Mary Jane? You have the red hair and everything. It's perfect! Get your fine ass over here and kiss me upside down."

Kyle rolled his eyes. "You McCormicks like your redheads, don't you?"

Kenny paused, ready to disagree and tell Kyle that he didn't discriminate. Kenny loved all types; he was an equal opportunities kind of guy when it came to sex. But now that Kyle mentioned it...Carol had red hair. Scott had red hair. Kyle had red hair. Maybe Kyle was onto something.

"Huh, guess you're right." Kenny said, "Wow. Looks like you just discovered the family fetish. Kinky."

Kyle's lips twisted into an amused smile as he watched Kenny's increasingly purple face, despite his valiant attempts to remain deadpan. "Your head's going to explode if you keep doing that."

"Is that a scientific fact, Mister Broflovski?" Kenny teased. "You better kiss me goodbye then."

"Dude, I'm gonna kiss you just to get you to shut up, smartass." Kyle leaned over and obliged Kenny. But after only a few seconds he withdrew.

"Wow, that's awkward," Kyle winced. "Definitely seemed more dramatic in the movie. Nose to chin action is totally overrated. ...Come on, Spiderman. Faces shouldn't be that shade of purple! Sit up!"

Kenny laughed. He did as Kyle asked and finally moved into a sitting position. Immediately his stomach flipped over, the room went dark, and he felt a weird, dizzy pressure behind his eyeballs. "Whoa, dude," he pressed his hands to the sides of his head. "Now THAT was a head-rush!"

He grinned goofily at Kyle. Kenny's hair stood on end from all the upside-down-hanging. The color still wasn't totally normal on his face. "But we should try the kiss again. I didn't even get to slip you the tongue! I have a feeling it would be a game changer!"

"Gross," Kyle shook his head, but his tone was fond. "Not even you are coordinated enough with this stuff to make upside-down kissing with tongue not-awkward."

"You underestimate me, dude," Kenny wiggled his eyebrows. "I'm as good at this stuff as you are with school shit."

"Speaking of school shit," Kyle deftly switched topics, and Kenny wanted to groan as soon as he heard the business-like tone Kyle adapted. "We should work out a study schedule for you. I think we can get you to a B average if we work extra hard in the first couple of weeks. You can take the SAT at the end of next month—we'll do a crash course, and you'll be fine."

Kenny scratched the back of his head. He thought he'd dodged this bullet, but it seemed Kyle's scholastic dogma would not be shaken so easily. " know. I think it'll be okay."

"What do you mean?" Kyle's brow arched sharply. "You can't just take the SAT cold. It's important. I mean, you can always retake it, but it's better if we can get you a decent score right off the bat. Then we can focus on admissions essays and letters of rec—"

"Stop," Kenny held up both hands, unable to handle the onslaught. He was done with this conversation. He'd never wanted to have it in the first place. "I'm not taking the stupid test, okay?"

Kyle looked injured. "Exactly how do you expect to get into college if you don't take the SAT, Kenny?"

Kenny issued a sound of annoyance, and held his hands at his sides in an exasperated shrug. "I don't. I'm not going to college."

"You expect Karen to go, but you're not going yourself?" Kyle's voice was so cynical; Kenny hated the superior tone Kyle took.

"Yes. Karen deserves to get out of this place." Kenny found it disturbing that even though he was on the bed, and Kyle was on the floor, so Kenny looked down on Kyle in a literal sense—Kenny still felt as if Kyle were shrinking him.

"So, she and Scott are out touring colleges together—because you insisted, and you're just going to sit here and do nothing?" Kyle's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Isn't, maybe a little bit hypocritical?"

"Yes. Yes it is. So what?" Kenny shot at Kyle, becoming pissier by the second. "What, is it a bad thing to want better for your little sister than you want for yourself?"

"What about what I want?" Kyle said, becoming pitchier and shriller at last. "What if I want to go to college next year with my boyfriend?"

"Dude, I'll go with you," Kenny tried to reassure him. "I just won't go to college."

Kyle blew out an exasperated stream of air. "Don't you care about your future? Karen and Scott are going to go through the whole experience together. Going to class, writing papers, applying for internships. Don't you want that? We could do it like that. Live in a dorm together. If you're just...there, but not at school, it'll be weird. We'll be on two different tracks."

"We've always been on two different tracks," Kenny withdrew, fixing his gaze to the wall. "You know we have. Nothing's changed."

"You can't expect me to you, Kenny. You have to have your own career too, someday." Kyle just would not let it go.

"Fuck you," Kenny stood, and glared at Kyle. "I never expected that of you. Way to assume I'm some freeloader, asshole."

"I never said that!" Kyle's voice rose, and he too got to his feet. "Don't put words in my mouth! It's just obvious that you don't care about your future, and I think that's bullshit! I'm trying to help you, so quit being a douche, dude!"

"I never fucking asked for your help," Kenny's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Guess why? I'll tell you. I don't want your help."

"We're supposed to help each other," Kyle argued. He'd gone bright red under his hair, heat rising in his cheeks. It was inordinately attractive. "That's what a relationship is! We help each other figure shit out!"

"I thought relationships were about accepting each other," Kenny sneered. "Well, this is me, jackwad. I don't have ambitions like you. Stop trying to change me."

"Oh, fuck you," Kyle looked dangerously close to punching Kenny in the face, fists balled tightly at his sides. "You can be dismissive if you want, but I care about your future, even if you don't, dumbass."

Kenny stormed out of the room before the last word left Kyle's mouth. He felt the discomfiting sense that what he was currently experiencing was what Karen had experienced when he'd pressured her about going to school instead of marrying Scott. He hated Kyle for being such a smug asshole about this. Not everyone was born sucking on an Ivy League educated teat.

When Kenny reached the front door, he heard Kyle start to come after him. In spite of everything, he was somewhat gratified by this. He'd been sort of worried that Kyle wouldn't care enough to follow him.

"...Hey...hey. Wait up, dude, I'm sorry," Kyle caught up to Kenny, pounding down the stairs before Kenny could so much as put his hand on the doorknob. "Don't go. Okay? I'm sorry I was a jackass. I shouldn't push you so hard. That's not cool."

He turned out his hands at his sides as if turning out his pockets. "I'll shut up about school shit, okay?"

Kenny turned to face Kyle, his expression blank. But Kyle looked so worried and apologetic, that Kenny wasn't able to hold out for long. He sighed, shaking his head a little.

"Nah, dude. I'm just an asshole." Kenny smiled a bit ironically. "Sorry."

Kyle visibly relaxed, and his taut shoulders fell into their normal positions. "So, we're chill?"

Kenny nodded, "Yeah. Of course, man."

There was a long, awkward pause. Kenny shoved his hands in his pockets, and Kyle played with the threads at the bottom of his shirt in order to avoid eye contact.

"Do you wanna go back upstairs and watch some Game of Thrones on my laptop?" Kyle asked after a while.


"Oh my god!" Karen jumped on Kenny and Kyle the moment they arrived in the Arizona State University parking lot. "You guys actually came!"

After their fight, Kenny had reluctantly agreed to tour some colleges with Kyle. Mrs. Broflovski arranged these trips for Kyle on weekends occasionally, so that he could get some idea of where he wanted to go, and she was all too happy to arrange for Kenny to go with him. It always made her nervous to send Kyle places alone.

Scott and Karen wanted to look at Arizona State University, and it was Kyle's idea to meet them there. They decided to make a weekend trip of it, and Kyle convinced Kenny to go by insisting that without Kenny, Kyle would feel like "A total third wheel."

Kenny suspected Kyle still wanted him to get excited about the whole "college thing." But in the name of compromise, he agreed nonetheless. If Kyle was willing to pretend he didn't care that Kenny refused to go to college while subtly trying to get Kenny interested anyway, Kenny was willing to pretend he was possibly amendable to college while knowing deep down that there was just no fucking way.

Kyle and Kenny drove up separately from Karen and Scott in Mr. Broflovski's car. It had been a very long drive, but the best part of dating someone Kenny was already friends with was that it meant they never ran out of things to talk about. They liked mostly the same music and had lots of experiences together to fall back on as topics of discussion if they exhausted other options. Kenny would've been happy to keep on driving forever, rather than hanging around some stuffy university.

There were four Arizona State University campuses, and today they were touring Arizona Polytechnic. The grounds were expansive, and deeply beautiful. The dry desert air and surreal appearance of cactuses growing where shrubs might anywhere else were scenic; the classroom buildings themselves were new and modern: glass panels, slatted wood, slanted rooftops.

"The traffic wasn't too bad," Scott commented, draping a casual arm around Karen's shoulder. "We made good time on the road." Karen used Scott's phone to text Mrs. Broflovski that the four of them had all made it safely. In turn, no one questioned Mrs. Broflovski's ability to relay the information to the McCormicks. She wasn't exactly known for keeping information to herself, after all.

Scott's phone vibrated as Karen typed. "Uhm, Scott? Who's Lola Martinez?"

Scott shrugged, "Just some chick from work. She probably wants me to cover her shift."

Karen hesitated a moment, but finished typing her message and then sent it. She handed Scott back the phone. "Is she pretty?"

"Who?" Scott looked confused.


"Didn't notice," Scott ruffled Karen's hair. "Only looking out for one girl these days."

Karen grinned and hugged Scott's waist tightly. "I love you so, so much."

Kyle smiled a little tightly at Scott, who looked very relieved to escape a confrontation with Karen's obvious jealousy. For Kenny and Karen's sake, Kyle had promised to behave, but Kenny caught the struggle on his face. "Uh huh. So where do you guys want to start looking first?"

"I want to see the Cafeteria!" Karen said excitedly. Kenny had to admit, he kind of liked seeing her on a college campus. It seemed right; Karen belonged in such a place.

"Sure, Karen," Kenny smiled at her enthusiasm. "We can go wherever you want."

"Where do you want to see first?" Karen looked the considerable distance up to Scott. He veritably towered over her.

"Oh, I'm kind of interested in seeing the Science department," Scott leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "I hear they have a pretty big telescope. That sounds cool. But we can do what you wanna do first."

"The Steward Observatory Mirror Lab is actually on my list too," Kyle said. Kenny saw him repress a slight grimace; Kyle was reluctant to agree with Scott on anything. It was weird how similar they were, though. Kyle's hair was a few shades more vibrant, Scott had a thick spray freckles on his face that Kyle lacked, and Kyle, of course, had unmistakably green eyes, while Scott's were a more conventional brown. Scott slouched; Kyle stood with perfect posture. Scott's entire countenance reflected tragedy and weariness, while Kyle was still fiery and idealistic. But both were tall and wiry thin. Despite the most obvious differences, the two could have been brothers. When they stood side by side, it was undeniable.

Kenny stifled a laugh at the sight. Kyle would most definitely not appreciate the comparison.

"Cool, so we'll go there after the Cafeteria," Kenny tucked his arm into Kyle's. "Can we get something to eat there?"

"Probably," Kyle shrugged. "We have to stop by the Visitor's Center first for passes, but it's likely gonna be part of the official tour."

Kenny groaned. "Your mom signed us up for a butt-fucking tour? Ugh, that's gonna be so boring! How long is it?"

"Well, how're we supposed to find out about the different departments and stuff without a tour?" Kyle countered, scowling at Kenny in an offended manner. "Besides, the tour people will have answers to all our questions about classes and such. It's useful."

Karen and Kenny shared a glance. "Don't look at me. You're the one dating him," Karen's eyes said. "Oh well. At least he's pretty," Kenny's twinkling eyes relayed back. Karen gave a little amused shake of her head and played with Scott's fingers.

"That was thoughtful of your mom," Scott offered a tentative smile to Kyle, as if trying to be respectful of Kyle's stiffness towards him. "Remind me to thank her when we get back, Karen."

"Kay kay," Karen wrinkled her nose and stood on her tiptoes to press it to Scott's cheek. "Can you see us going here when I graduate?"

"I think so," Scott squeezed Karen to his side briefly. "What about you?"

"Yes!" Karen bounced, unable to contain her energy. "Oh my gosh. This is so exciting! It's like we're all on an adventure together!"

Kyle laughed. "I wish your brother was half as excited about this."

Kenny knocked his shoulder against Kyle's. "Hey, I'm just here as arm candy. It was you nerds who wanted to go on a road trip to see a college. I wanted to go to Vegas."

"I think it's pretty cool," Scott murmured, mostly just for Karen. "I like going places with you."

The tour was every bit as boring as anticipated. Kyle and Scott asked a lot of questions about the stupid telescope, and Kenny wanted to go home long before the over-enthusiastic tour-guide in her stupid red and yellow t-shirt got through her stupid-long opening spiel about the founding of the school. ("It's not like school at all! At Arizona Polytechnic, we're a community. We're a family!"). He could not believe there was so much to say about a bunch of buildings full of books. But Karen loved it. She especially liked hearing about the sororities and social events. By the last leg of the tour, she was saying:

"I think college is going to be fun, Scott. I like it here. I want to go here someday."

So, Kenny thought it was worth it, in the end. Besides, to reward Kenny's good attitude through the ordeal, Kyle treated them all to dinner. Kenny got spaghetti, and that fucking rocked.

It wasn't the worst day.


Kenny and Kyle stayed in the motel room across from Karen and Scott. They'd agreed to start the drive back up to South Park first thing in the morning. Kenny had been tempted to suggest that Kyle and Scott share a room, while he bunked with Karen. For decency's sake. But as that almost certainly would've resulted in an argument (an accusations of hypocrisy: Kenny had no right to criticize anyone else's decency), Kenny let it go. There were some battles not worth fighting.

Kyle brushed his teeth while Kenny showered and put on pajamas. It felt good to stay somewhere with a working shower. It felt good to have a full stomach. It felt good to get into bed with Kyle like an old married couple. It felt good to see his sister so happy, full of life and excited for life's possibilities.

Life, Kenny thought as Kyle kissed his neck, was actually pretty sweet.

"You've got some serious muscles," Kyle marveled, spreading his fingers over Kenny's abdomen. "I never noticed that."

"Yeah, the Mysterion stuff was good for that," Kenny chuckled. "Wendy is insane, but she knows how to get a person in shape. Do you know she made me run miles while singing at the top of my lungs? Something about expanding my lung capacity. Heh, I always sang ‘Crazy Bitch' by BuckCherry."

Kyle frowned. He looked at Kenny, which was a shame, because it meant he quit the descent of admiring kisses down Kenny's torso, "How's she doing anyway? Do you guys still talk?"

"Fuck no," Kenny shook his head. "I told you. No more of that stuff for me. Way too fucking terrifying."

Kyle seemed satisfied with this. "That's good," he kissed Kenny's jaw, "Because, you know. From what you told me, she probably would not have been cool with Scott and Karen, if she knew about them."

Kenny froze, his whole body seizing up with the horrible realization. "Oh, shit. She totally wouldn't."

"Good thing you never told her," Kyle pulled back to watch Kenny's face for confirmation. "I mean, they aren't exactly ‘out and proud,' so I doubt she noticed unless you—"

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Kenny threw off the blankets and leapt out of the bed. "Kyle, I fucking told her. I told her right after she killed Cartman. Why? Why would I do that? Fuck, fuck, fuck! Kyle, shit—what do we do?"

"Maybe she won't do anything," Kyle raised his voice above Kenny's to try to talk him down from his anxiety. "She has higher order priorities than this, right? Like pedophiles and stuff! Besides, She JUST killed Cartman. Why would she be after Scott—his BROTHER—directly afterward?"

"To Wendy, Scott IS a pedophile," Kenny tugged handfuls of his hair with agitation, "She doesn't exactly sort by caliber of crime, in case you didn't notice. And no, she doesn't kill much in the surrounding area. But you know whom she made an exception for? Willy Wang. Robert Manners. And Eric Cartman. All men who did stuff with children."

"It'd still be too risky," Kyle gripped Kenny by the elbow, determined to calm him. "Wendy isn't stupid. Another local murder, no matter what the reason, would look—"

"Kyle." Kenny's eyes were wide. "Where are we right now?"

"Arizona, but—"

"We're not IN South Park, Kyle. This is the perfect time for Wendy to come after Scott. We're fucking sitting ducks out here. I have to—I have to—"

"That doesn't mean anything. You need to calm down, Kenny. We can report Wendy to the police when we get back, so at least they'll be keeping an eye on her. Then she'll have to lay low. Okay? She's not going to come after us here. We're in a motel, for fuck's sake. They have security cameras. People would see her. Do you really think she'd stalk us all the way out here?"

Kenny took a few bracing deep breaths. "I still want to check on Karen. What if—what if—"

"Go check. I promise you, she's fine. However, I can't promise you that you're gonna like what you see if you bust into that room."

Kenny turned a bit green at the idea and promptly yanked his hand off the motel room door. As always, Kyle was right.

No matter what Kyle said, Kenny insisted on driving home with Karen and Scott. Karen sent Kenny a dirty look when he announced he'd be joining them, but Kenny was not deterred. He felt sure, deep down, that Wendy would pop out of the shadows and waste Scott like she'd wasted Cartman. If she did, Kenny wanted to be there. He'd never actually subdued her—or even really hit her—in a fight, but he figured he could at least slow her down so Scott and Karen could get away. If Wendy killed him, it wouldn't matter. He could be the meat shield. He knew how Wendy operated; he stood a better chance than most people.

The drive from South Park to ASU was roughly thirteen hours in decent traffic. It would take all Sunday to get home. The last thing Kenny actually wanted to do was spend all that time cooped up in a small space with his sister and her older boyfriend. It was a recipe for discomfort. He had no choice, however. Until Wendy was behind bars, Kenny would be Karen's bodyguard, and by extension, Scott's too.

The first half of the drive was mostly uneventful. Scott let Karen drive. He put his feet up the dash and slouched in his seat to relax as she took the wheel. She'd just gotten her permit, and Scott was old enough to sit in the front seat as her licensed adult mentor. Kenny had enough grace not to comment on the reminder of their age gap. It was fucked up though, and Kenny made sure to sit behind Scott in order to kick the back of his chair as often as he could. Scott did not so much as turn and acknowledge him, perhaps understanding Kenny's need to lash out—or perhaps just too polite.

Karen chose bubblegum pop stations for the whole drive home. Kenny had to admire what a good sport Scott seemed to be about it. Karen liked bands such as One Direction and Cher Lloyd, and by the end of the third hour, Kenny wanted to throttle a tweeny-bopper. To his dismay, "The Best Song Ever" got stuck in his head, probably forever. It was torture, but Scott just seemed amused by Karen as she sung along, bobbing happily to the repetitive, simple beats.

"She's not afraid of scary movies! She likes the way we kiss in the dark! But she's so afraid of falling in lo-o-o-o-o-ove!" Karen was off pitch, and it sounded terrible, but Scott just laughed at her antics, and when he did, he was affectionate—not mocking. He paused every once in a while to give her driving instructions ("So, you don't wanna cross the yellow lines when you make a turn. Just pull out a little more at the intersection to avoid that. Hey! Much better. That was great, Kar"). He was very patient with her, which wasn't the easiest thing. Karen was a nervous driver. She got frustrated with her mistakes rather quickly. But Scott never rose to her occasionally sharp tone. He offered her encouragement and ways to avoid the mistakes instead.

It was sickening to watch, really. But Kenny could kind of see why Karen liked Scott so much. The way Scott talked to her was sweet, both intimate and familiar. If not for the age thing, Kenny might've approved.

About seven hours into the drive, Scott's phone buzzed in the cup holder. Karen glanced at it peripherally. They were on the highway home; it was a straight shot into Colorado on open road. Therefore, Karen had time to focus on something other than avoiding traffic accidents.

"Is that Lola again?" Karen asked, too casually. Kenny felt the climate in the car shift; it got undeniably chillier. He knew that fucking voice, though he'd never expected to hear it from Karen. Batten down the hatches, Scott.

Scott sighed. "I don't know."

Karen nodded, but her gaze flicked down to the phone again. "She texts you a lot."

"She's a flaky employee," Scott's fingers played nervously with the window controls. "She's always trying to skip the shitty shifts. Probably just wants me to work eight AM on Monday again."

Karen said nothing for a few moments, but the expression on her face did not bode well. Kenny kind of enjoyed seeing Scott in the shithouse with his sister. Karen was fucking scary, reminiscent of Carol McCormick whacking Stuart with a beer bottle in the midst of a heated argument. Kenny put his hands behind his head and prepared himself for the show.

"Didn't you and Lola used to date?" Karen asked, her voice forced-pleasant.

"Long time ago," Scott said. He tapped absently on his knees in front of him. "I told you that. We broke up like, months before I even met you. Could you relax please? What's with the third degree? It's just a text message. I'll delete it if you want."

"I just think it's weird to talk to your ex-girlfriend," Karen's eyes narrowed and her lips thinned. She turned to Kenny briefly from the front seat. "Don't you think so, Ken?"

Kenny put both hands up by his shoulders. "Oh, no. Leave me out of this. I am not getting involved. Sorry, Scott. You are on your own."

"I won't talk to her if you don't want me to," Scott sounded lost, unprepared for the onslaught of hostility. "C'mon, Karbear. You know it's nothing. You're being silly."

"Does she like you?" Karen's hands tightened on the wheel, and Kenny felt the car wobble slightly. "Like, has she ever flirted with you?"

"How should I know?" Scott stared out the window as if he wished he could jump out of the moving car. "I don't pay that much attention to fucking Lola Martinez."

Scott's phone buzzed again. Kenny had a very hard time not bursting into laughter. Oh man. This was better than TV.

"Is that her?" Karen's voice became accusatory and outright angry now. "Is she still texting you?"

"Could we not do this?" Scott sighed. He reached for his phone. If he were smart, Kenny thought, he'd probably just turn off the damn thing. "There's nothing going on between me and Lola. You're being crazy."

Karen went silent again, but it wasn't a good silence. It was the kind of silence that Kenny knew meant Karen was building up an outright tantrum. She made the same face she had when she was a kid, refusing to go to bed or do her homework. Scott had seconds to cover his ass, because all hell was about to break loose. Kenny almost felt sorry for the guy. Almost.

"I want you to fucking swear to me right now that you're not fucking her," Karen began to speed. Kenny almost interrupted to tell her that they were now fifteen miles over the limit, and he was actually a little bit scared, because she showed no indication of slowing down.

"I fucking swear—"

"No, see, because I can fucking tell you are lying to me! You're sweating and nervous instead of mad at me for talking to you like this, and if y'all don't tell me right now, I swear to GOD, I am going to SCREAM!"

Damn. Poor Scott. Kenny had been on the (guilty) end of many conversations like this, and they were never fun. He thought they should probably pull over the car, because any second now, Scott was going to get bitch-slapped. The McCormick temper ran in the family, after all, and the last time Carol accused Stuart of looking at another woman's ass, the two had ended up spending the night in jail for causing a public disturbance.

"Okay! Okay!" Scott panicked, apparently never having dealt with an outburst of this nature before. He was visibly shaken, clinging to the door handle for dear life, feet still braced against the dash. "...One time. When you and I were first seeing each other. I didn't know how serious it would get. Hell, I didn't want it to get serious! Karen, you were so young, and I—"

"You PIGFUCKER!" Karen swerved, and the car crossed three lanes. She still did not slow down. "I knew you were fucking her! I fucking knew it! Is that why she's texting y'all now? Plannin' your next lil' hook up?"

The angrier she got, the more like her parents Karen sounded. Kenny winced, and clung to the seat. They really should pull over. It was getting pretty scary to sit in a car controlled by someone who seemed intent on mowing down whatever got in her way tonight.

"Karen, don't you think we should—"

"Was she good, Scott? Did y'all like fuckin' her? Next time I turn my back, are you gonna text her pictures of your dick?"

"Karen, stop it!" Scott shouted, "I'm sorry! It was a really long time ago, before we had an exclusive deal—would you slow down please?! My brother was messing with Lola, okay? She called me to ask for help. I've been talking to her to help her with the fucked up stuff that went down with him. I didn't want to tell you because—"

"Using your dead brother to cover up for your cheatin' ass? That's low, Scott," Karen had tears in her eyes; Kenny heard her sniffle. "I-I knew it was too good ta be true. I shoulda never—"

"Karen! Watch the road!"

Karen tried to slam on the brakes, but they were going 80MPH. Rubber squealed for what felt like a long time against the pavement, screeching like nothing Kenny had ever heard. Glass shattered, and Kenny's seatbelt pulled so tightly over his chest, he thought he felt his ribs crack.

The world flipped, and the floor was on the ceilling. It was over in less than half a second, and then Karen, true to her word, started screaming.


Kenny and Karen sat in the ER waiting room together. Both of them had sustained miraculously minor injuries. Kenny had to wear a neck brace for the whiplash, and Karen had a sizable goose egg on the side of her head from slamming it against the car door. They both had various bruises, and Karen long scrape along her cheek. But other than being psychologically shaken, and quite sore, the McCormick siblings had fared as well as anyone in a high-speed car wreck could hope to. They were informed that though other driver was more critically injured—smashing her forehead straight into the steering wheel, resulting in some brain trauma—she was in stable condition.

Both cars were completely totaled. They had crashed into the car merging onto the freeway, and the majority of the impact occurred on the right side of the car. Scott's SUV had rolled onto its side afterward, requiring emergency workers to extract the three from the wreckage.

Scott had not been so lucky. His legs had been up on the dashboard at the time of the collision. When they pulled Scott out of the wreckage, Kenny covered Karen's eyes. The airbag had deployed, and the force threw one of Scott's legs through the passenger side window. When the car flipped over and skidded, the limb became trapped against the pavement, and was torn off at the knee. Scott didn't even screech when they pulled him out of the car. He was in too much shock and simply stared blankly ahead. Kenny met his eye when they put him in the ambulance. He wasn't sure that Scott had seen him; Scott stared into the abyss as if getting ready to meet it.

Now, they waited for news on how Scott had faired during surgery. Karen clung to Kenny's hand with both of hers. She hadn't said two words since the accident. She was so pale, sickly and terrified under the hospital lights. Every time a nurse walked through the doors to the patient area, she sat up a little straighter.

Liane Cartman came bustling in after they'd waited a few hours. Her worn face was tear-streaked and panicked when she gave her information to the receptionist. Upon spotting Kenny and Karen, she joined them on the small, uncomfortable, green waiting room couch.

"Do-do they know if he's going to be all right?" she asked fearfully.

"No," Kenny said, and rubbed Karen's back gently. "He's still in surgery. There was a lot of blood, apparently."

Karen shuddered.

"What happened?" Liane asked, her hands trembling. She had more gray hair, and more lines around her eyes than she did when Kenny had last seen her. The red puffiness from crying made her look older and more exhausted still.

"I crashed the car," Karen finally spoke. Her voice was low and harsh, as if instead of crying, she'd swallowed all her tears. "I was angry at Scott. I was speeding. I didn't see the other car, and we crashed right into it."

Liane was silent for a moment. "Oh, Sweetie. I'm sure you didn't mean to."

Karen did not answer. She stared resolutely at the double doors that led to Scott, her small, pointed face full of longing and fear. Liane got up after a few moments, excusing herself to use the restroom.

Kenny didn't know how long they spent like that. Hours, at least. Liane came and went, often bringing snacks and drinks for the McCormick children, though for the most part, these went untouched. A man with a pencil wedged in his eye socket sat a few seats away from them, moaning to himself at interval until they admitted him. A mother cradled a coughing baby. A girl held a towel around her wrist, which bled profusely through the terry cloth.

Karen barely stirred. It was as if she'd turned to stone. Kenny dared not disturb her. She looked so haunted, her gray eyes bright over dark bags under the flickering hospital florescent lights. The scrape on her cheek sported a clean wipe bandage, and her hair was only half-confined by her limp ponytail. Though, Kenny supposed, with his neck brace and all, he probably looked like hell, too.

The nightly news played on the waiting room television. On screen, a woman in a teal blazer warned of early snow. A commercial for baby powder showed shots of a helplessly giggling baby playing in a department store. The room was most quiet other than that. Patients filled out forms or flipped through magazines. A team of doctors rushed a man who was hyperventilating and tied to a stretcher right past the receptionist at one point. Kenny occupied himself by trying to remember all fifty states in order to keep his mind busy, and off of the unnerving questions of the moment.

Michigan. New York. Tennessee. Rhode Island. Pennsylvania. ...Was Chicago a state?

When he ran out of states, Kenny moved on to state capitals. He didn't know many of those, however, so then, he tried to remember the names of porn stars.

Linda Lovelace. Sasha Grey. Allison Brie. Rocco Siffredi. Marilyn Chambers. Traci Lords. Ron Jeremy. John Holmes...

A nurse stepped through the double doors. She was a round woman, with graying hair and kind, dark eyes. She saw Liane, Karen and Kenny and walked over to them. She removed her gloves, lowered her surgical mask. She took a deep breath.

"Are you Liane Cartman?" she asked, and Liane nodded. She stood to shake the nurse's hand.

"It's very nice to meet you." Liane murmured.

"You're Scott Tenorman's contact?"

"I am," Liane answered, and seemed dazed.

"Mister Tenorman lost a lot of blood in the accident." The nurse's voice was so soft and gentle. No good news was ever delivered so quietly. "He sustained very severe injuries. Besides the loss of his leg...his pelvis was fractured, as well as his femur. There was a lot of internal bruising besides. the end..."

Liane caught her breath; Kenny heard it hitch in her throat.

"He just...lost too much blood. We're sorry. We did everything we could."

Liane made a choking sound, and pressed her hand to her eyes. She began to cry, back hunched into the flimsy cushions of the waiting room sofa. But that wasn't the worst part. Liane made pitiful, heart wrenching sounds...but Kenny could practically feel Karen silently falling apart.

Abruptly Karen stood, looking ready to flee.

"Where is he?" she demanded, and the nurse startled, as if she hadn't before noticed Karen there.

"I'm sorry, little girl. But Mister Tenorman did not make it out of surgery."

Karen shook her head. "We have a date. We're going skiing in Aspen this Christmas. It's going to be romantic. I-I've never been skiing before," she recited, numbly.

"I'm sorry," the nurse repeated. "I'll give you some time to yourselves, now. There's some paperwork to fill out, Missus Cartman." She hurried off, and Karen watched her turned back with hollow eyes.

"Karen," Kenny stood, put his hands on her shoulders. "Come on, baby girl. Let's go home."

"No!" Karen jerked out of Kenny's grasp. "We have to wait for Scott!"

"Karen, Scott's not coming out of there." Kenny tugged on her elbow. "We have to go home. You need to sleep."

"No!" Karen twisted out of Kenny's reach again. She wandered towards the patient area, "Scott! Scott, baby, I'm right here! Scott! P-please! We can't leave with-without—"

"You can't go in there," the receptionist told her. "It's for patients only."

Kenny hurried to Karen's side. "I'm so, so sorry about Scott, baby girl, but we have to go. We're leaving now, Kar. Come on."

"No! S-Scott! I'm sorry! P-please? PLEASE!"

Kenny shut his eyes to will away the tears; Karen's heartbroken screams felt imprinted on his brain. Her high, reedy voice was panicked and desperate as she scrambled, fists pounding the double doors as she tried to get through to Scott. He grabbed her then, and though she struggled, Kenny began to drag her out. He hated to do it, but he would rather drag her out himself than have hospital security come and escort her from the premises. She thrashed and kicked, lashing out against Kenny with all her might.

"Scott! I didn't mean it! Please! Scott! I didn't mean it! I love you. Come home with me. P-please!"

Kenny got her all the way to the exit. The automatic doors opened...and they nearly crashed straight into a police officer in a standard blue uniform.

"Is this Karen McCormick?" the cop asked, peering from behind his aviators between Kenny and the increasingly frantic Karen.

"Yes," Kenny answered distractedly, still trying to restrain his sister.

"I'm coming, Scott! I-I'll bring you h-home! It'll be all right, baby, I just—"

"I have a warrant for her arrest," the officer looked apologetic as he stared at Karen, who was sobbing miserably as she punched Kenny's shoulder.


"Liane Cartman pressed charges against her three hours ago for vehicular manslaughter." The officer held out a pair of silver cuffs, still looking regretful. "I'm sorry, but she has to come with me."


"What do you mean you're waiving your right to counsel?"

Kenny stared at his sister as if he'd never seen her before. Karen wore an orange jumpsuit, but even more disturbing than her prison was the expression on her face. Her eyes were dull and lifeless and had puffy bags beneath them. Her lips sat in a thin, humorless line. Her hair was limp and unwashed around her shoulders, shoulders slumping forward. She looked so tired, as if she were barely keeping her eyes open—and her cuticles were bloodied, likely her nervous picking habit gone amuck.

"I mean that I deserve what I get." Karen's voice was unfamiliar to her brother. She'd clearly been crying, and spoke words huskily through her dry throat.

"Karen!" Kenny put his hand to the glass that separated them. Karen barely looked up from the desk. Her wrist seemed to barely support the black phone she held in order to speak to Kenny. The room was so bright: white lights on bare cement. "You're upset. But Mister Broflovski says we can build you a really good case. We can talk about how much older Scott was, and how you felt coerced into your relationship—and that was why you were stressed out and driving unsafely. I'll testify and say so. We can get you out of here."

"I'm not saying that," Karen closed her eyes. "It's not true."

"Who CARES?" Kenny demanded, and pounded his fists on the little table he sat behind. "We need to get you HOME. It's sad that Scott is dead, but we can't do anything about that. You shouldn't go to jail over a stupid accident!"

"I should," a tear slipped down the side of Karen's face. "I-I killed him."

"You didn't! You didn't fucking know this would happen! You were upset! Scott wouldn't have wanted you to go to jail, Kar; you know he wouldn't have!"

"S-Scott always wanted what was b-best for me. He wasn't even cheating! W-why couldn't I j-just—" Karen dropped her face to the crook of her arm, on top of the table. She broke down into soft, exhausted sobs. Her hand trembled. "I-I wouldn't listen. I-I—"

"Karen, Princess," Kenny scooted closer to the glass, peering at her and wishing he could hug her. "You didn't know. Please don't go to jail because you're feeling guilty. You're not a threat to society. You made a mistake. We can still fix this."

Karen did not raise her head. "Go away, Kenny. J-just leave me alone. My life is over."

"No! No, Karen, please." Kenny felt stabs of panic pressing at his temples. "Karen, you-you didn't know. But I love you. I love you so much. Please come home. Please, let me get you home."

Karen sat up and looked into Kenny's eyes. Her face blazed with a terrifying sorrow.

"Kenny, d-do you know what it's like for me?" Karen demanded. Her hand curled tightly around the phone, raw nail bits against the shiny black plastic. "I-I keep dreaming that I'll wake up, and-and he'll be fine. I keep seeing his face, just before the-the car..."

Tears leaked down the sides of her face. "Sometimes. Sometimes, I'll think everything will be okay, and then I'll hear a voice that-that reminds me of—"

She went silent, closing her eyes. She turned away from Kenny for a moment, fruitlessly hiding the fresh bout of tears from him. She made the softest whimpering sound.

"It's never going to be okay again."

Kenny felt his own throat grow thick as he watched her. There was no way to argue with her misery.

"F-for me?" Kenny asked. "Karen, will you do this for me then, if not for you?"

Karen didn't say anything for a long time. She put her face in her hands and cried.


Karen looked up at last. She shook her head. "I'm s-sorry, Kenny."

"If you don't," Kenny cleared his throat, not wanting to make her more miserable than she already was; there was simply no choice. "I will get Mom and Dad to come down here, and-and make you take an attorney. They are your legal guardians. They can probably—act in your best interests. Or something."

"If you do that," Karen said, "I'll just tell them I meant to kill him, and that's why I crashed the car. Then-then they'll put me in prison for sure. I-I'll confess to wanting to kill S-Scott over the cheating. Then I'll be in here even longer—and wh-why shouldn't I be? I was so angry...maybe I wanted h-him dead, and that's why he is."

She was self-destructing before Kenny's very eyes, and there was nothing he could about it. Kenny had no idea why she was so bent on going to jail. All Kenny wanted was to bring her home, make her tea, let her cry into his shoulder and tuck her into bed. He wanted to take care of her as he always had. But Karen's guilt seemed intent to ensure she sabotaged her own freedom and happiness to atone for Scott's death. She would not even have a lawyer try to negotiate a softer sentence for her.

"Mr. Broflovski says that Liane is suing you for criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter," Kenny's voice rose, and became almost shrill. "That could be up to nine years, Karen. You'll be—"

"Scott's age," Karen finished for him, a look of grim satisfaction on her small face, "I'll be Scott's age."


Kenny seemed so lost. Kyle was unsure how to reach him when he was like this. Kenny's expression was so walled-off, closed to the world, and Kyle felt included on wrong side of the door. It was little wonder. Kenny loved Karen more than he loved anything. Kyle could not imagine what it might be like to be so helpless to save someone he loved. It impossible to defeat an enemy of self when it came to loved ones.

"Dude," Kyle said as they approached the dilapidated McCormick home. "I'll have my dad talk to her again. We can get these charges stripped, and she's going to be fine. Don't worry."

Kyle offered Kenny a looked of unqualified confidence, and Kenny rewarded him with the smallest of smiles.

"I want to believe you," Kenny exhaled after a long pause. "But, Kyle. I don't think Karen's going to listen to anyone about this."

Kyle's mentality of reassurance faltered a moment. "You...don't believe me?"

"I want to," Kenny repeated, sadly. "But I know Karen. She has the McCormick stubbornness gene. Your dad isn't going to change her mind: she thinks she deserves this."

"She's upset right now," Kyle argued, fists clenched at his side. Kenny's smile was so despondent; it made Kyle feel more inept even than the words Kenny actually said. "She'll get some sleep, and think more clearly in the morning. Then she'll do the smart thing. Karen's not an idiot."

"She isn't. But she isn't going to feel better. Would you?"

Kyle's face collapsed into an expression of grief for a moment. "...What can I say or do to make this better, dude?"

Kenny shook his head. The evening sky above was a color between pink and blue—foggy with fading light. "I don't think you can do anything. I don't think anyone can."

"There has to be something! C'mon, dude. We can figure this out!" A strange panic seized Kyle's heart, and for some reason, the conversation no longer felt as if it were just about Karen.

"Look," Kenny met Kyle's eye. Immediately, Kyle wished he hadn't. Kenny was angry and frantic, his usually friendly eyes harsh. "You and your dad can only operate inside the rules. Karen broke the rules. She's not willing to win on a legal technicality and is bent on telling what she thinks is the truth. She's in a better position within the system to get what she wants than you guys are. I want to believe you can help...but I know you can't. She wants to go down, and you can't stop her or make her want to stop. You can't help her. Neither can I, if I follow the rules like you guys."

The unpleasant feeling in Kyle's gut soured. "Kenny. What are you saying? Don't do anything stupid! I...I don't like where you are going with this. You need to be reasonable. We'll figure something out, okay? I promise."

"I've already figured it out," Kenny shoved both hands in his pockets. He looked so determined, walking with new purpose. Kyle doubted any sight would've soothed him less.

"Kenny. Tell me what you're planning to do," Kyle demanded. "I don't like this."

"I'm going to get my sister out of there." Kenny said. He didn't pause in his steps. "I'm not gonna sit here and fucking watch her burn. I can't do that."

"You just said there's nothing we can do!"

"Right," Kenny paused to look over his shoulder. "There's nothing we can do. But I know someone specializes in the insane and desperate."

Kyle froze, and the realization made every part of muscle in his body flex as if preparing to retreat.

"You're not going to ask her." Kyle shook his head. "You fucking promised me you were done with that shit. She killed Cartman! No. No! You can't!"

Kenny offered Kyle a sad, small smile. "I'm breaking my promise. I'm sorry, Kyle."

"What about us?" Kyle didn't want to offer an ultimatum, because he was afraid to be on the losing end. But Kenny gave him little choice in the matter. "I can't support this, Kenny. I can't just turn a blind eye while you make a deal with the fucking Lilith. You know I can't. ...Please, dude."

"Karen needs her guardian angel," Kenny kept walking down the sidewalk. The sky turned a brilliant orange before him. "This is what Mysterion was born for. It's all been pointless if I can't save her now."

"So save her. Just don't go to Wendy." Kyle felt tears gather on his cheeks. "Let me help you, Kenny. We'll get her out of this, and we'll do it the right way. Together."

"I'm sorry, Kyle," Kenny truly sounded it, though he was already far away. "But I need my partner now, and she owes me one anyway. She's my best chance. She is Karen's chance. I don't expect you to understand."

The thing was, Kyle did understand. He really did. Sometimes, watching a loved one do something destructive proved impossible. As Kyle watched Kenny disappear down the street, he took his phone from his pocket. He dialed.

"Hello, South Park PD? I need to speak to Sargent Harrison Yates. My name is Kyle Broflovski. And I'm calling to warn you about a crime I suspect is in progress as we speak..."

Wendy's hideout had not changed in the few weeks since Kenny had seen it. The metal paneling on the walls gleamed under the harsh halogen lights. Wendy stood in the middle of a mat. She threw a series of combinations and danced around, light on her feet and impossibly fast as he remembered her.

The door had been unlocked. She'd been expecting him. This was also much like the Wendy that Kenny knew so well.

"I'll help you," Wendy said before Kenny was all the way through the door. "But we have to move fast."

Kenny watched her jump into the air and execute a truly impressive spinning kick. Kenny knew by now that it was far too show-offy to be useful in most street fights, but it looked awesome. Wendy always sought exercises that tested her control, but selected combat maneuvers based on pure efficiency. It was part of the reason she was so good at what she did. She knew when to hold back and take a conservative approach to reaching her goals. It was something Kenny had never quite learned.

She turned to Kenny, sweat beaded on her brow. Her knuckles bled under her bandages, and she'd taken the earring out of her ear. "The cops are already onto us. Looks like we've got a rat on our hands. Who did you tell about your plans before coming to me?"

Kenny stared at her, uncomprehending. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that they're transferring Karen to a higher security facility tomorrow," Wendy said matter-of-factly. "Which in turn means we have to act tonight."


Kenny blinked at Wendy. She always seemed ten paces ahead of everyone else; it should not have shocked him at this point that she knew things he didn't. He wished he could mistrust what she told him.

"I...Kyle wouldn't. He wouldn't do that to me. He wouldn't do that to Karen!"

Wendy unwrapped her hands, revealing the split skin over her knuckles. Sweat made her black hair stick to her neck, and made a damp-darkened "V" down the front of her t-shirt. "He likely felt he had your best interests in mind, if it helps."

"It doesn't." Kenny hung his head. "I can't believe he did that shit. He-he knows Karen will go to jail if I don't do something!"

"Perhaps he fears what will happen to you, if you do something." Wendy's face softened and she looked genuinely sympathetic. "As do I. But lucky for you, I'm going to help you anyway."

Kenny was caught off guard for the second time within such a short time span. He felt the emotional whiplash onset already. "You are?"

Wendy rolled her eyes. "Yes. As I've already told you," she softened the sarcastic slant of her mouth, and almost smiled. "We'll get her out together. Tonight."

Kenny looked at Wendy as if he'd never seen her before. Four weeks ago, she'd fired live rounds at him on the playground. Now, she claimed to be concerned with his wellbeing. Something didn't add up.

"Are you just doing this to bail Karen out for killing Scott?" Kenny narrowed his eyes at her. "Because she feels fucking horrible about that. She didn't do it on purpose. If you're just rewarding her for beating you to it, you're sicker than I thought you were."

Wendy appeared genuinely befuddled. "Why would I kill Scott?"

"Why would you—Wendy, don't play dumb. It's beneath you," Kenny's lip curled. "You thought he was a rapist. And I know how you treat rapists."

The look Wendy gave Kenny was one of both utter disappointment and incredulity. She held the expression for several long moments before responding.

"I'm not going to pretend I'm sad Scott is dead," Wendy said, "But there is no absolutely fucking reason I would kill Scott Tenorman. Firstly, killing Scott RIGHT after I disposed of Cartman? No, too risky. You do realize that Eric Cartman raped my best friend, and I waited three fucking years to get rid of him? Secondly, I have bigger things to deal with than one small-town pervert. It'd basically be a waste of my time. Scott is sleeping with Karen. He is hurting one person. If I waste him, that's one person harmed, and one saved. Zero net benefit yielded."

Kenny glared at her as she spoke. "Fuck that robot logic. You know what I think of it. What's the net benefit then, to saving Karen? She's just one person, and you and I could go both down for it."

"I have something for you," Wendy said instead of answering Kenny's question. "You quit before I could show you. But you're going to need it for tonight."

Though Kenny wanted to protest, she began to walk over to a large storage cabinet, and he came over to look at what she had to show him out of curiosity. She turned a combination lock, fiddling with it for a moment or two. Then she pulled back the cabinet doors to reveal the last thing Kenny had expected.

A dark purple body suit outfitted a Kenny-sized mannequin. It was clearly an armored design, bulky and thick in vital areas and built from sturdy-looking material. The shoulders, outer thighs, back and chest were reinforced with black outer Kevlar paneling. A heavy-duty utility belt, much like Wendy's, circled the waist. Black gloves sat folded on top of a pair of black boots at the bottom of the locker. But the most surprising parts were the cape, moderate in size and fastened to the shoulders, and the thin—but very visible—green "M" emblazoned at the center of the chest.

"You can even wear the stupid tighty-whities over it, if you really insist," Wendy grinned. "The cape's attached with magnets, so it comes off easily when tugged hard. It won't cause you to lose your balance, can't be used easily for leverage in a fight—and it is flame resistant, so sort of useful."

Kenny gaped at the costume Wendy had procured for him, beyond words. It was probably the coolest thing he'd ever seen. It was both practical, and had all the flair of Mysterion. This was some next level shit.

"Oh, and these," Wendy opened a drawer, and took out a black, molded facemask. She also held out a contact lens case. "The Google glass insert is inside the nose-bridge part of the mask," she explained. "It projects the images onto the contact lenses, the same as it would onto regular Google Glass, or my goggles. This way, it won't slip down your face. As an added bonus, you have more peripheral vision this way. Pretty genius, right?"

Kenny continued to stare at the objects in Wendy's hand and in the locker with disbelief.

"You must have been working on these for a long time," he said after a beat. "And spent like, a lot of money getting them."

"Since we started as partners," Wendy confirmed. "Also, yeah. They were pretty expensive. But it's a worthy investment; they're much more practical, and thus likely to keep you alive."

"You made them look like my Mysterion costume," Kenny sounded almost angry. "Why? You thought my costume was stupid! You said we should take this seriously, and NOT play superhero!"

"I just thought you'd prefer it this way," Wendy put the mask and lenses down on the locker's bottom shelf when it became apparent that Kenny would not take them.

She had always planned to take him with her, Kenny realized. This was too expensive an investment to make in someone involved short-term. She'd expected to stay partners. And furthermore she'd wanted him as her partner: as he was, costume and all. A lump rose in Kenny's throat.

He understood in that moment why she was willing to help with Karen. Wendy was compromising, putting herself in danger, to no aim greater than doing what Kenny needed...because they were partners. There was no greater good. He was the greater good. Wendy was doing this because they were friends.

"I—Wendy," Kenny was unsure how to respond. " too much. I—"

"You're going to need it tonight," Wendy smiled, knowingly, at Kenny's dumbstruck expression. Ready for one last run, Mysterion?"

"Did you happen to have any custom question-mark-shaped shuriken for me...?" Kenny grinned widely at her, half joking, but half actually wondering.

"Don't push it, McCormick."


"Normally, I'd advocate infiltration," Wendy tugged her boots onto her feet. She buckled on her sword belt. "A shoot out with the cops is not ideal. We would lose, and lose hard."

Kenny stared at himself in the mirror. At any other point in his career, the sight would have filled him with awe. He looked as if he'd stepped from the set of a gritty superhero reboot. The slightly metallic purple of his suit resembled true armor; the cape had an optional black hood—and its design recalled fucking Edward Kenway. His utility belt was filled with gadgets such as pepper spray capsules, knives, and pills. Kenny tucked a standard police issue Glock into his belt.

Mysterion had died with Professor Chaos. He'd died again with Eric Cartman. But Mysterion and Kenny were the same person; was it so shocking that he never stayed dead? Kenny almost smiled at the thought.

"My original plan was quite impressive," Wendy recalled, as she twisted her hair behind her head and secured it with the trench knife. "You were going to disguise as a security guard and sneak weapons into the jail over time. I was going to disguise as Karen's lawyer. Once we lulled them into a false sense of security and hid the supplies we needed at various checkpoints, we'd be mission a-go. No one would even fucking know what hit ‘em."

"Hah, you'd make a good lawyer," Kenny commented distractedly. He turned from the mirror, and the material of his cape billowed dramatically behind him.

"I wanted to go to law school." Wendy spun the barrel of her pistol to check the bullets in the chamber. "But those kinds of things just kind of became non-priorities, after I became more involved with this work."

Kenny looked at Wendy then. Her goggles and bandana hung around her neck, and she hadn't put on her beret yet. She holstered a pistol, and it occurred to Kenny that he knew next to nothing about the Wendy who'd wanted to be a lawyer. He didn't know what Wendy's dreams had been before the version of her standing before him now; it was a shame. Maybe they could've been true friends, in another life.

"What else don't I know about you?" Kenny murmured, almost rhetorically. There was a feeling in his gut, and though he knew that what they were about to do had to be done, it would be inaccurate to say fear was not a part of that feeling. His heart pounded erratically, and he was sweating beneath the Kevlar. He couldn't pretend he wasn't scared to death.

"I was named after a poet," Wendy supplied. She took her sword down carefully from its perch next to her computer. "My parents met in college while attending her guest lecture."

"Fitting," Kenny decided. "I could see you on a university campus, getting excited about poetry and academic shit."

"...I can't, anymore," Wendy tugged her hat onto her head, and pulled it so that it sat at an angle. "I don't remember how to be anything except this."

Kenny spared her a small sad smile. He imagined that was true. This life tended to eat the rest of one's priorities; it was a life of sacrifices that Kenny had never imagined. He swallowed, and tried not to think of Kyle.

"At least you're good at this," Kenny told her. "You're the best."

"I am," Wendy tucked her sword carefully into her belt, sliding it silently inside the sheath. "That's why I had a contingency plan for breaking Karen out. That's the plan we're using tonight, with some small adjustments."

Kenny gave her his full attention; he turned to face her. This was it.

"Breaking into a jail or prison is really fucking difficult," Wendy admitted, "Even infiltration plans had high failure risks. So, my back-up, in the case of unforeseen problems had to be fairly extreme."

"What do you ever do that isn't extreme?" Kenny asked. Wendy shrugged.

"Prisons and jails have notoriously poor procedures in place for criminal evacuation in case of an emergency," she explained. "Studies have shown that it would take a minimum of six hours to safely load dangerous criminals onto a bus. Lucky for us, the problem gets harder with large prison populations, and Colorado's over-stuffed the jails with prison run-off. Because keeping prisoners locked up during a fire or a flood or an earthquake has been deemed cruel by the ACLU, as prisoners are wards and thus the responsibility of the state, all holding cells these days must be equipped with an automatic system that unlocks all the cell doors in case of emergency, so the criminals aren't trapped inside."

"Okay, but we can't exactly wait for an earthquake or flood, Wendy," Kenny frowned, not following her. "Are we going to set the county jail house on fire, or...?"

"Not quite," Wendy's lips twisted a bit, into a faintly smug smirk. "I told you I had a contingency in place. If things were to go wrong on an actual mission, the contingency would have to be faster acting than a fire, which can take hours to spread, and always comes with the risk of containment. We would need a much more certain cover for escape than a fire."

Kenny said nothing, and simply waited for her to continue.

"I planted explosives underneath the building about a day ago." The subtle, maniacal glint in Wendy's blue eyes was utterly familiar. "They go off, the whole place is gonna collapse right under the pigs."

A day ago. Before he'd even asked for her help. Of course, Wendy was ahead of him on this, too. She'd known he would need her.

"But...Karen's in there!" Kenny cried out, alarmed that Wendy considered this plan "sound." It seemed anything but to him. "What if she gets hurt or killed? Wouldn't that defeat the whole fucking purpose?"

"It's the best we can do, Kenny," Wendy peered seriously into Kenny's eyes. "Our only hope of accomplishing this is to simulate a natural disaster and take advantage of poor evacuation measures. Everyone else rushes out, and we rush in. The cops are too distracted to care what we're up to. The cell doors are open. That's the reason so many prison breaks happen during natural disasters. Usually, they round up the prisoners afterward, but Karen will be long gone before they get around to that part. All she has to do is duck for cover until we can get to her. Do you trust her to do that?"

He glared at Wendy; how could THIS be her plan? She was supposed to be a tactician, an expert in cost-benefit analysis and exigencies. She was supposed to be smarter than this! Kenny loved explosives as much as the next pyromaniac—but Wendy was supposed to be the one with sense.

"This is a fucking suicide mission; do you know that?" Kenny demanded.

She just smiled, wistfully. "Better than you."

Kenny and Wendy arrived outside the South Park Police Department County Jailhouse a few hours after their conversation. They couldn't get too close at first. The place was absolutely crawling with cops. They crouched together behind some bushes that adorned front of an unsuspecting civilian's home. It was as close as they dared, and they were still about a block away. The Jailhouse was only just visible, but the proliferation of cop cars was only too apparent, even from where they sat.

"They likely upped security in preparation for whatever Kyle told them we would do," Wendy's voice was tense and business-like. "He must've given them some unreleased details about the things you or I have done in order to be taken this seriously. That means we can't get caught, Kenny. They'll nail our asses to the wall. They're looking for us."

Kenny felt so betrayed; he was wordless with anger for a few moments. "That fucker. I knew he was against this, but he didn't have to fucking burn me over it."

Wendy shrugged. "You might've done the same if you knew a friend was embarking on a mission like this."

Kenny felt the first true terror he'd felt about this at those words. " you seriously think we won't make it out of this?"

"I think it's got a pretty unacceptable number of fatal opportunities," Wendy told him quietly, honestly. "But you were going to do it with or without my help. We have a better chance at this working together."

Kenny felt his heart swell to the bursting when Wendy held up a small remote control device, her gloved finger on the red button at the center. She grinned, wide and reckless. "Now, come on McCormick. Screw your courage to the sticking place. Let's do this."

Kenny frowned a moment at her, confusion on his face.

"It's Shakespeare," she explained exasperatedly. "It means that this is not the time to be a wuss."

"Ohhh, Gotcha."

"You ready for this?"

Kenny's fear transformed into adrenaline, and he grinned back at her. "Blow that shit up, Wendy."

"I think's more appropriate to call me Lady Nightspike." She handed Kenny a pair of noise-cancelling earphones, and slipped on a pair herself. Then she held up the control, and pushed the button.

The sound of the explosion seemed to shake the earth. Even with the ear protection, pressure waves rolled out from the bombsite, and Kenny felt as if his eardrums might explode. The ground trembled, even from as far away as Kenny and Wendy were. The sound of debris falling was like rain, cement of the Country Jail cracking like thunder across the sky.

Wendy rose almost immediately. She charged forward, though fire erupted from inside the building and shattered the windows. No hesitation: Wendy barreled forward like Hell was on her tail. She pulled both pistols from their holsters and wove through the crowd fleeing in the opposite direction, towards the jailhouse. The falling darkness made her harder for Kenny to keep track of her. He dodged panicked pedestrians as he followed her, and drew his own weapon as he tried not to lose her in the crowd.

People screamed. Sirens blared, and debris rained down increasingly as they got closer to the blasting site. Kenny tossed off his ear protection, and recalled a conversation with Wendy, where he'd asked if they could ever fight with a soundtrack in the background.

"No, dumbass. You need to be able to hear what's going on around you. Your sense of hearing is a defensive weapon. If you listen to your surroundings, you can better predict what direction damage is in-coming from."

It seemed danger was destined to come from every direction, tonight. He'd need his ears working for that, though it might've been comforting not to hear the anarchic world around him. Tonight was not the night to cling to comfort.

They reached the front of the Jailhouse in minutes. The alarms blaring in the place were deafening, the structure of the building crumbling before Kenny's very eyes. The floor Kenny stood on seemed in turmoil; there were worrying cracking sounds beneath his feet as the support structure broke down. Cops pushed their way through the front double doors. In their panic, none even paused at the sight of Wendy and Kenny, at first.

Wendy turned right and beat a path around the back of the Jailhouse rather than trying to force her way through the heart of the chaos. As they got closer, the dust and debris made the air hazy and hard to see though. Kenny covered his mouth as they approached; Wendy's bandana for mouth protection suddenly made total sense to him. Practical superhero gear; Kenny would have made a note to tell Wendy that she'd been right about needing it, if they got out of this together. The explosions also made him glad Wendy hadn't let him run inside wearing very not-fireproof Lycra and bed sheets.

When they reached the back lot, Wendy holstered her weapons and jumped on the fence. She began to climb; she was unsurprisingly, quite fast. Her boots all but scampered up the tall metal fence, and disappeared into the hovering cloud of debris. Kenny followed suit, putting away his gun in order to climb the fence with both hands. But before he'd had gotten up halfway, he heard her jumped down. She hit the ground and rolled—before popping up to the standing position. She gestured impatiently for Kenny to follow.

"It's roughly twenty feet down," Wendy called to him, loudly so as to be heard over the sound of sirens. "Fall carefully. And be careful of the barbed wire on top!"

Kenny swallowed. He couldn't afford to die now. Karen still needed him. He lifted his legs carefully to avoid the barbed wire, and jumped. He felt the impact ring though his feet when he landed, but no problematic pain besides the shock of touching ground. He followed Wendy's lead and tumbled forward to spread out the impact of the fall. Maybe it hadn't been a waste of time to practice jumping between buildings.

They scarcely had time to celebrate making it over the fence. They still had to get in through the back exit and find Karen. Because of the surrounding fence, people did not make use of the back exit for escaping the collapsing building. This, Kenny realized, was probably why Wendy had chosen it as a point of entry. They wouldn't risk extra contact with law enforcement if they used the road less taken.

Wendy drew her gun again and kicked in the back door—probably to avoid touching the door handle. Offhandedly, Kenny remembered a school fire drill, where they'd mentioned something about not touching door handles in case of fire. It seemed Wendy had been paying better attention than he had. Then she hurried through the open door, and Kenny followed suit.

"Jail cells are this way," Wendy screamed at him. She pointed down a hallway. At that moment a pair of cops came running down the same passage way. They froze at the sight of Wendy and Kenny.

"Shit, it's them!" one cop—a female, pointed. She reached for her gun, pausing only to glance somewhat fearfully at the unstable walls around her. Kenny had to hand it to these policemen; they were brave to stick around to apprehend the criminals, even though their headquarters was collapsing around their ears.

"Freeze! You-you're under arrest, you two! Drop your weapons! Drop ‘em, now!"

The cop's partner mimicked her actions and took out his gun, but Kenny could see the weapon tremble in the male cop's big hands. Wendy nodded down the hallway, and Kenny understood. He mission was to get Karen, but she'd take care of the road blockage.

Kenny got behind Wendy. This had been the whole purpose of asking her to guide this undertaking; she was simply more qualified to kick ass.

Wendy held up her hands as if preparing to lower her weapon.

"Get down on the ground!" the female cop shouted at Wendy, "Put your hands behind your head. And-and your friend too! Now; do it now!"

Wendy knelt, slowly, but when she was halfway down, quick as a flash, she pointed her gun and fired straight at the female cop's knees. The female cop tried to return fire, but Wendy had been too quick on the draw. The lady cop went down, and Wendy took care of the male cop with a follow up blast to the head. The cop's neck jerked backwards, and he fell.

As Wendy got back up to a standing position, Kenny tried to reign in his nervous stomach. The whole building felt highly unsound, with the walls and ceilings literally falling apart over their heads. The sound of gunfire rattled him more than he expected it would. He forgot to move for a moment.

Wendy had no such problems, however. She barely paused before carefully picking her way round the bodies, gun raised. The lady cop moaned in pain, and Kenny tried not to look at her. He hoped someone would come and get her out before the building went down. Putting the guilt out of his mind for all the people they probably killed and injured in the execution of Wendy's plan, he followed his partner down the hall.

Wendy seemed to know where she was going, luckily. "Karen's in cell 2400K," she said, "Ground floor, not basement, which is good for us. We'll probably be able to get her out before the place collapses if there aren't too many interruptions."

Kenny nodded, tightly. He wondered how she seemed so calm. She never stopped moving; she paused only to make sure Kenny followed her.

"Kenny—watch it!" Wendy's voice shook him to the core; Kenny whirled around.


Behind him was a group of six cops. They pointed their guns at him, and Kenny's pulse ceased. He went white with fear. He reflexively held up his hands and dropped his gun.

"There's not TIME for this!" Wendy shrieked with exasperation. "This place is coming DOWN in minutes. We have to get her NOW! Goddamnit, Kenny we're gonna have to bail; I'm sorry!"

Kenny's body felt as if it were being torn in half. He looked to Wendy, already shaking his head hopelessly. "You know I can't! Wendy, you fucking know I can't!"

"I SAID FREEZE! I will put a BULLET in your fucking head! Get down on your knees!"

"God DAMN it!" Wendy shoved Kenny aside and leapt forward. Time seemed to freeze as a shower of bullets erupted from the six guns pointed in their direction. Kenny stumbled back, ducking for cover, but Wendy ran at the police full force and slammed into a smaller man standing near the center of the half-ring they formed. The cops on either side of him turned for a brief moment towards Wendy in confusion, guns ceasing fire to avoid hitting each other with bullets. Kenny stood and watched with amazement before Wendy's voice once again shook him from his revelry.


Kenny scrambled, turned the corner before the cops could regain their bearings and begin firing at him again. Behind him, he heard the unambiguous sound of gunfire, and then the even less ambiguous sound of a sword's metallic twanging as it hit a hard surface. He grinned. Close range combat with Wendy fucking sucked; he almost felt sorry for those cops.

Finding Karen was going to be a problem. Wendy likely studied the Jailhouse building layouts, but Kenny had not. He hadn't the faintest idea where he was going. The sediment in the air made things almost impossible to see. Kenny coughed; he was lucky this part of the building hadn't yet caught fire. As much fun as breathing in dust wasn't—a collapsed lung from the heat would have been much worse.

Kenny heard a noise, and turned around quickly, prepared to fight for his life. It turned out that a bit of the ceiling had simply crashed to the floor, but Kenny realized then that if a cop found him now, without backup, it would all be over. The knowledge made Kenny run faster.

"Karen! Karen McCormick!" he called out at the top of his lungs. He just hoped she was all right. He needed her to be all right. She had to be all right.


Kenny nearly collapsed with relief. He looked around frantically for the source of the sound, and finally found it. Karen crouched under a negotiations table in one of the interrogation rooms, holding onto one leg with one hand like a kid hiding under a desk earthquake drill. Her orange jumpsuit made her visible through the debris in the air. As Kenny got closer, he saw that there were tears on her cheeks, and dirt all over her face. But she seemed unharmed. Kenny had never seen a more beautiful fucking sight in his life.

"Karen!" he rushed over to her and knelt. "I'm here to get you out here!"

"No!" Karen recoiled, and burrowed further under the table. "I am SUPPOSED to die here. That's why this is happening! I-I'm not leaving!"

She was hysterical, screaming and kicking out at Kenny from the under the table. He swore loudly; they did not have time for this shit.

"Karen! Kar, calm down," Kenny tried to soothe her. He held out his arms. "We're gonna get somewhere safe. Wendy and me will make sure nothing bad happens to you. Okay? Just come out; I'll carry you."

"NO!" Karen shook her head. "No! Kenny, just FUCKING LEAVE ME HERE TO DI—


Karen went limp, and Kenny panicked for a moment. But when it he turned around, Wendy stood in the doorway. She held a thin, straw-like wand in her hand, and lowered it from her mouth.

"Tranq dart." She explained hastily. "Pick her up and let's go."

Kenny wanted to cry; he was so fucking grateful to Wendy in that moment that he was sure he would marry her on the spot if asked. Instead, he dragged Karen out from under the table by the foot. He slung her over the shoulder, and found it surprisingly easy to carry her. He didn't think it was possible to be even more grateful to Wendy than he was, but he was shocked to find that he was. Wendy's work out regimes with the hopscotch squares and the flour bags were fucking paying off after all. Convicts in orange streamed past the open door, too occupied with escape to pay Wendy or Kenny any attention.

There was no time to thank Wendy for keeping her word. There was no time to do anything but—

"Run!" Wendy ordered him, sounding like the drill-sergeant from Kenny's training he knew so well. "We have like, maybe thirty seconds. This place is coming the fuck down."

They ran. Kenny struggled to keep up with his sister over his shoulder, but actually felt safer with Wendy covering him. If any unwanted surprises popped up, he wasn't unprotected. Wendy had his back; just as he had promised her, so long ago it felt like a dream, that he would protect hers.

The reached the exit; by this point the place was clear. Everyone else had recognized the danger and gotten out. Wendy directed them to a side emergency exit, and Kenny pulled open the door.

A security detail of several officers waited for them. Wendy pulled her remaining pistol from her belt and took care of two of them before Kenny got the door all the way open.

"Stay back ‘til I get us clear," Wendy said, lowly, gruffly. Kenny nodded, and hefted Karen up to show the officers he had no intent of firing back. They didn't notice, probably because they were too occupied with the blur of black and pain that descended on them seconds later.

Wendy went down immediately and landed on one of the cop's feet with her knee. She pinned the foot down and then shoved the guy over, breaking his leg at the ankle. He squealed, and fell onto the guy next to him, who stumbled under the weight. Wendy jammed a knife into another guy's balls from her position by the floor. She flattened her body and rolled out of the way to dodge a guy who tried to step on her while she was down. She grabbed the guy's raised foot and twisted it, snapping his ankle.

Kenny stared at her. He'd never seen her really fight before. He'd seen her slaughter people. But this was something else. It was A dance, where she got every step right—and he knew she had, because she was still alive.

Before backup arrived, Wendy knelt. She crossed her arms and took out the last two cops with two shots fired at the same time. Their bodies jerked, as Wendy's bullets hit them near simultaneously in the necks.

"...Google Glass," she explained, huffing as she got to her feet. "Told you...told you it was useful. Can aim with...without looking. We gotta get out of here before they send backup for these guys."

Wendy pointed to the fallen officers. "The...confusion of the explosion will only...uhn...delay them. We have to move out."

Wendy coughed, and Kenny, for the first time, noticed the dark wetness on Wendy's jumpsuit. Her stomach area was drenched with what Kenny realized with horror, was blood. The side of her face bled too, seemingly from her ear. She also limped, slightly—trailing blood from her left leg as she ran towards the small wooded area beside the Jailhouse. Kenny followed her with trepidation.

They got clear of the Jailhouse, and the sirens seemed a little farther away with the trees around them. They tramped along for a long while; Kenny kept waiting for people to follow them, but he supposed the South Park PD had their hands full tonight. There were enough escaped convicts roaming the city due to the mass exodus they'd just caused to keep them busy for a while.

They got to a clearing, and Kenny started to feel tired. He'd done burst training with the flour bag, not distance. The adrenaline was beginning to give way to exhaustion by the time they slowed down, and Kenny started coughing. He hadn't noticed how raw the bad air had made his lungs. When Wendy stopped, he gently lowered Karen to the floor.

"Why are we stopped here?" Kenny asked Wendy, "Are we going to—"

Wendy collapsed. She crumpled to the floor, clutching her stomach. Kenny heard her make a small, pained gasp and rushed to her side.

"Wendy?" he gripped her shoulder.

Wendy didn't answer. She was drenched in cold sweat, and for a moment, she stared at Kenny but did not actually seem to register him.

"Wendy!" he shook her. "Wendy, what's wrong?"

She smiled, slowly.

"We did it, partner," she sighed. "Tolja."

Kenny frowned. She sounded so soft. He removed her goggles and bandana. His gaze roamed over her face.

"Wendy, what happened? Are you okay?"

She shook her head. She was pale, black hair in starker contrast to her skin than usual as it stuck to the sweat coating her forehead. "...Six people had their...guns on me. I dove right into the fucking middle of it. They were use guns... I'm wearing a fuck ton of protection...but do you really think every single one of them...missed?"

Kenny looked down, and saw the blood spreading out from behind her. It formed a puddle at her waist.

"No-no, dude! Shit!"

"It's fine," Wendy waved a hand. "You go. Our contact will meet you about a half mile from here. Just...just keep going north."

"Can you walk?" Kenny started pulling at her, trying to help her to her feet. "We'll stop at a hospital. We'll-we'll..."

"I can barely fucking move, Kenny," Wendy sighed. "I'm...I'm...dizzy from loss of blood. Some guy tore my calf muscle with another bullet, too. I'm not...uhn...not gonna be able to walk at all. Pretty soon, I won't even be...conscious...let alone functional."

"I'll carry you," Kenny said. "We'll get you some help. We'll—"

"Don't be an idiot," Wendy rolled her eyes. "Call emergency services, and you may as well walk your ass into a jail cell, ‘cause that's where you'll be for the rest of your life, as well as Karen. Then...all this will have been for nothing."

Kenny shook his head. "I can't—I can't leave you, dude. I can't."

"You can't carry both of us," Wendy nodded towards Karen. "They'll find this spot by the time you go and get back. You have to choose."

"I can't," Kenny clutched handfuls of his hair, tears of panic stinging his eyes. "I can't fucking do this, Wendy. I can't choose."

She took his hand. "You...already did, Kenny."

Kenny choked on a sob. "No. No, Wends. We're partners. We're friends! You-you can't just..."

"It's okay," Wendy squeezed Kenny's hand, lightly. Weakly. It broke Kenny to feel her touch him with so little strength. "Go."

She held out a tiny flash drive in a closed fist. "Give this to Bebe," she said, and Kenny took it from her.

"I will." He leaned down and kissed Wendy's temple. Then he stood, because she was right, and if he didn't get out there right now, he never would. It would be too hard. He wouldn't be able to leave her behind if he thought about it too hard. He picked Karen up again, and started north, unable to look back again.

"Wait," Wendy called out, and Kenny turned, surprised. He wondered if she'd changed her mind, and in a last moment of fearing for her life, wanted to beg his assistance. He tensed; he couldn't fucking do this. He couldn't—

He expected her to curse at him. He expected her claim he owed her a debt, or at least to blame him for what had befallen her, and express regret for agreeing to be his partner. He thought she might demand he carry on her legacy, and take out criminal scum in her name for the rest of his days in her stead. He thought she might plead, beg him to take her with him at whatever cost—to please spare her life, in payment of the many times she'd saved his.

Instead, Wendy looked at him. A bit of blood trickled from the side of her mouth. She was so soft that Kenny could barely hear her. "I'm sorry."

"Butters?" Silver gauntlets flashed around the hands that held the steering wheel to their getaway car. Butters smiled.

"Well...Wendy said you might need a ride," he said. "She got to me three days ago, when I woke up. Said we all ought to get out of this town together."

He looked around, trying to see behind Kenny and Karen.

"Uh, well. Where is Wendy, anyway?"

Kenny closed his eyes as he gently put Karen in the back seat. He got in after her and closed the door. "She's not coming, Butters."

Butters hesitated. "Ah, hamburgers. She...she said that might happen. I was just...hopin' that maybe..."

"Me too," Kenny buckled Karen in, and then himself. "Me, too Butters. Let's just...get the fuck out of here."


Stan doesn't know much about healing. He's much better versed in falling apart, but he's learning that that isn't always a bad thing. He's not the greatest at picking up the pieces, but sometimes...things fall just right. The jut-sway-jut of round, soft hips—a mouth with a pretty slant when she smiles—Stan thinks it's okay, to be perpetually floored by things like that. In therapy, they talk about healing. A man with a pair of khaki shorts and socks on under his sandals stands in front of a semicircle of sleepy eyes, and Stan thinks for the first time that it's all the medication makes him so tired.

And that makes him smile, because it used to be life that made him tired. Now he just wants his eyes open. He's done pushing that nicotine button and waiting for a high he never has to come down from.

He wrote a poem that rhymed. Maybe he'll even give it to her this time. You know. In case she needs to laugh. Stan doesn't need to be taken seriously anymore.


"ur ok, rigft bebe?"

8:00 AM

Are you sure you want to delete this message?

Message thread deleted.

"Mother fucker!"

Karen comes rushing into the bedroom. Her cheeks are dusted with flour, and her hands are still wet as she twists them into her apron. She cried the first time she saw the new kitchen, and sometimes, she still sits at the counter and admires the shiny granite countertops. That is what new beginnings are made of, she things. Fresh starts look like granite countertops that wrap like one arm over a shoulder around the whole room.

Butters looks up at her from the floor. Karen hides her smile at the sight of it: Butters, sprawled on the throw rug, feeling around for his reading glasses and swearing—actually swearing. A giggle escapes her when he glares up at her, looking very intimidating in his black turtleneck.

"I thought I could reach my book. On the bedside table. It was just there," Butters tries to explain. "But-but my darn legs can't even—can't even support my weight for one gosh darn second. And I am so...fucking...tired of it."

At Butters' frustrated expression, Karen's smile fades off her face. She knees down beside Butters, reaches under the bed. Surfacing with a thin pair of black wire spectacles, Karen gently lifts them to Butters' face.

"We'll take a nap," she promises him, softly. "You know, so you're not so tired."

Butters head drops to her shoulder, and Karen's heart squeezes until it hurts. For a moment, she can't help but remember how she learned the right words for these scenarios. But she lets it go, lets herself feel the hand slipped into her own and focuses on that instead. Warm, and gentle—this is what it feels like to hold onto something genuinely good.

It is also how healing feels, and it is always the same paradox: an act of both letting go, and holding on.

Bebe opens the drawer.

From it, she plucks a USB stick she swore to herself she'd never plug into her monitor, or open any files from. She hadn't been able to bring herself to throw it away, but she'd locked it up and figured that was almost as good. If it was just there, and nothing more, it couldn't hurt her. It couldn't, unless she let it.

The drive sits in her outstretched palm, and Bebe closes her fingers around it. She could avoid it. But part of her needs to know. Part of her is curious. Part of her thinks, if she just goes ahead and gets it over with, it will stop having the power to make her wonder anymore. It's time to clean out the drawers, so she can leave them open. Bebe is tired of locked things.

If she looks, she can finally throw it away.

So she slides the silver tip into the side of her laptop. The box appears on screen, letting her know that the device has been detected, and Bebe's heart tries to claw its way up her chest. She clicks the box, and there is only one file. It is a word document, and that should be comforting. Bebe knows Wendy could have given her many things. But very few of them would she be stupid enough to give to Bebe in an unsecured word file on a very losable USB stick.

Wendy only left her words, then. For some reason, Bebe's more afraid of that than of account numbers or grid coordinates. She thinks a set of instructions telling her to burn it all, dispose of the evidence, the bodies, the paper trail would be better than some simple words.

She opens the document, but closes her eyes. She doesn't know if she wants to what Wendy wanted to tell her—because whatever it is, Wendy knew their connection had been severed long ago. She hadn't sent Bebe an email or a letter, hoping for a reply. She'd given Bebe a word file, something to read without responding to.

It feels suspiciously like a goodbye, and there are some things that Bebe's still afraid of. There are some drawers she knows she can't leave open, because they're filled with construction paper hearts torn down the middle. Bebe used to collect them, and such a collection never really makes it into the trash. Wendy's the type to remind Bebe that she needs to keep her things tidier.

She opens her eyes.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

It's written so many times. Thousands and thousands of the same three words, over and over—eight thousand pages of the same monotonous truth and Bebe reads it until her eyes blur with tears.

But being Wendy, she isn't predictable. The last words on the last page of document make Bebe inhale a shocked gasp of air, hand fluttering to her mouth. Eight thousand pages of something Bebe already knew, and seven letters of the only thing in the world that could've made the text before it matter.

I'm sorry.

It's the first time she cries since the night now ten years in the past. Bebe's scars have grown over with skin much tougher than the protection she started with. But Wendy, Wendy was always the kind of person who knew scars were just a map, showing you where enemies had been weak in the past. She knew scars could tell you where to to stick the knife, and twist.

Bebe's chest shudders as if something inside it has begun coughing blood into the cavity behind her ribs, and she thinks she knows where Wendy hit her.

October 23, 2018

She's the only person who never uses my last name. My legacy means nothing to her. All she wanted was to know what kind of music was on my iPhone.

She asked if I liked Radiohead.

She asked because it's her favorite.

I feel like I could start over.

Holy shit.

There are no good pictures of Kenny.

Kenny didn't have a Facebook profile. Even in his school ID photos, Kenny wears his hood like a shroud around his face. His parents don't have any better ones. Stan has one blurry photo on his iPhone from Homecoming, but it's unfocused, and becomes worse when Kyle tries to blow it up and enhance it for the posters.

Worse is the realization that even if he could find a good photo of Kenny, it was unlikely people would recognize him. So few people were familiar with the sight of Kenny's face. How is Kyle supposed to find someone who could change his face as easily as he could his costume?

So he hangs a "Missing" poster featuring Kenny's yearbook photo—orange hoodie and two middle fingers up—because at least then, people will know who they are supposed to be on the lookout for. That they are supposed to be on the lookout. That anyone, anyone, with any information at all should come forward, and tell Kyle what they'd seen, just so Kyle could keep hoping that he'd get a chance.

A chance to apologize.

He tapes a poster to a streetlight, and as a stranger passes, he points at it.

"Have you seen this person?"

The stranger shakes her head, and Kyle's shoulders don't even slump anymore. He stopped expecting answers a long time ago, but he still finishes putting the poster up, and continues down the street.

Kenny has to understand, Kyle only did because he loves him. Still loves him.

That part is less important. He doesn't need Kenny to forgive him, much less return his love.

He just needs him to know he never meant to hurt him. He only ever wanted Kenny to be safe. He only ever wanted Kenny to be all right.

Mission log

****To law enforcement, should you find this log: This is not a confession of guilt. This is an account of hypothetical and fictional scenarios. Any bearing to real events is pure coincidence*****

Status: Four targets successfully hit. Disposal procedurals followed. Identity not compromised. Mission success.

Inventory: 40 rounds of ammunition used. Two 4 in. Hibbens lost on scene. 3.5 gallons of accelerant. Require new jumpsuit to avoid splatter detection in the case that hideout is seized. Blade damaged, likely necessitating extensive repair.

Damage: 3 split knuckles. Dislocated collarbone. Extensive PT pending. Will have to switch to non-impact workouts until injury heals.

Notes: Alpha Target has moved Saturday night ritual to Sunday, likely to use social gatherings as a means of acquiring prey. Surveillance necessary. Still does not suspect. Mission not compromised.

1 new message left on her voicemail. Currently 3 unanswered, outstanding emails. 2 text messages. Inquiries about whether traditional Movie Night Sleepover customs will be followed as usual thus far unanswered. Must assume status quo has shifted. Movie Night Sleepover to be removed from weekly schedule rotation.

Kenny sat in a coffee shop in California. Kenny sipped his black coffee and read the paper. He had a class to teach in twenty minutes, and he thought if he hurried, he could stop by the teacher's lounge for a donut, too. But, just as he packed his iPad into his book bag and stashed his plastic coffee mug, a man with vibrant red hair walked past the store window. It had been ten years since Kenny had seen hair like that. His heart leapt into his throat at the sight, instinctively knowing whom it was before the name even surfaced in Kenny's mind.

Kenny should have been angry. He was, sort of. Still, the word "traitor" flashed across his mind like a glowing beacon, and he considered walking off right there and never looking back.

But instead, after a long moment of deliberation, he pulled open the glass door. He stuck his head out, and called, at the top of his lungs:

"Hey! Kyle!"

The man turned around just as he was about to round a corner and disappear. Kenny grinned.

"You look familiar."





"I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,"

"Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller.

This would not have been possible without an incredible amount of writing support. I had an unbelievable team for this project. If this little part has typos in it, it's because it is un-beta'd! I wanted my tribute here to be a surprise for my writing support.

The first person I have to thank obviously is kyleisgod, who primarily beta'd this, and stepped in at the last minute to edit countless drafts, listen to my distress calls, and provide life-saving feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism throughout the final stretch. I can't really describe how vital he was, or how much I am in his debt. Everything from coaching me through self-doubt and writer's block, to obsessing with me about details no one but me cares about...You made this possible, dude. I can always count on you, and that's so RARE and helpful, and I don't deserve a friend OR a beta like you. You are the best friend (and the first true fandom friend I ever had) and beta a writer could ask for, and I know asked a lot of you. I am forever at your service. Seriously. Whatever you need.

Secondly, Mousynona deserves my gratitude, for beta'ing, but also for talking me through bouts of writer's block, brainstorming with me, and being astonishingly supportive and excited about my ideas from the beginning. You are my muse, Mousynona—not some vague metaphysical concept of inspiration. Thank you for always believing in this project and fixing SO MANY stupid typos.

Thirdly, I want to thank Caturday, for pushing me to finish, even when I snapped at you for it. You woke me up to write in the wee hours of the morning when I absolutely didn't feel like it, and forced me through the throes of insecurity into productivity. Secretly, I wrote this to impress you, Caturday. Your feedback raised my GAME (as it always does).

A thank you for Max, my roleplay buddy, who created Scott Tenorman's character (and Kevin's, a little bit). Without Max's insights, Scott and Kevin would've been flat and uninformed, and so I have to give credit where it's due. For the record, Max's character insights are always, always worth considering; no joke.

Thank you to Karina, who helped me make this story softer and sexier. You taught me how to give this story a lot more heart, and I am unbelievably grateful for that.

I also want to thank Lady Nightspike, who is somewhere out there in cyberspace. You were my first ever beta, my introduction to the South Park community, and Wendy's alias' namesake for this reason. You taught me how to write.

I want to thank the Exemplary Allies roleplay group (RIP), many of whom are featured in this gallery as my peers. The idea for this story came from you all, from our silly IC exploits. I especially owe a debt to 24601, because he thought Wendy in my original draft was too unsympathetic—which is the reason I chose Kenny and Mysterion to frame and narrate the story, with Wendy as a support character. Your tough love saved this story, dude. I am honored to know all of you.

And finally, a thank you to the SPBB mods, who granted me extensions when I needed them, and were so patient and understanding as I struggled with the deadlines. They put these amazing events (SPBB+SPRMB) together twice a year, and the fandom is a more beautiful place because you people do your thing. Thank you so, so much for what you do.

That's it! Sorry to take up so much time, but I needed to thank my friends—my peers. Writing support is the unsung hero, and I needed to heap some praise on the people I now owe. I won't pretend this happened in a vacuum; it didn't, and it couldn't have. My humble words are for you all, always.