Stan and Kyle were stretched out on the sofa in Stan's apartment watching one of Ethan's vampire movies.
This was the only place Kyle felt safe since Cartman had been showing up unpredictably lately. Not that he planned on telling Stan. It was easy to think of Cartman as a secret stash of a drug he was supposed to have gotten clean of; only there if everything else went to hell. Luckily Cartman hadn't hit him in the face since getting back together; Kyle thought it was probably out of a fear of Stan. They fucked the other day and there where bruises along his abdomen. There was something dark in the humiliation of the bruises that he enjoyed. The knowledge of how much it'd hurt Stan to see them on him felt like a poison he could crush between his molars anytime he wanted, a way to kill the relationship being rebuilt between them if necessary and to have if and when Stan decided that he was done again.
Stan strummed lightly at his guitar, tuning it as the girl on the screen behind him peered her mascara-smeared eyes through the crack in a door. "I always thought it would be better to be one the side characters that are already vampires instead of the hero who has to save them all," Stan said, craning his neck to watch her breathe in stabbing gasps. "Then you don't have to worry anymore."
"You just want to be a vampire," Kyle said. "The transformation is complete."
Stan stuck out his tongue and threw his guitar pick at Kyle who ducked but felt it hit his hair. "Ugh, it's gone forever now," he said trying to delicately extricate it from his curls.
Stan smiled and set his guitar down, sitting next to Kyle and gently untangling it from his hair. "You always called me out on my bullshit," he said. Kyle tried not to think about the way the sofa cushion was dipping to push their thighs together.
He rolled his eyes "You and everyone else, that's what makes me so charming and likable."
"I think you're pretty charming and likable." Stan traced the outline of Kyle's fingers with the edge of the guitar pick. It was hitting lightly between his fingers.
He thought about how soft and familiar Stan's lips looked, his eyelashes dark against the pale of his cheeks as he stared down at Kyle's fingers. He remembered the bruises and stood abruptly. "We should get lunch or something."
Stan blinked and stared up at him guiltily. "Yeah, sorry. I didn't know you were hungry—what do you want to eat?" Kyle could see him squeezing the pick in his fist.
"Anything," Kyle said, pulling his beanie over his hair. What he meant was anywhere. He needed to get out of the apartment.
Stan lit a cigarette on the drive to the diner. A CD was already in and playing which cut off the need for conversation on the way.
The hostess seated them in the goth's usual booth, giving them plenty of room to sit apart. But they still seemed too close. And he could feel Stan looking at him over his menu as he tried to decide between entrees. The effect seemed to render him illiterate and he stared at the pictures of on the menu and pointed to one of them when the waitress came back with the red-headed goth behind her.
"Just coffee for me," the goth said, slipping in the booth beside Stan. Kyle tried to remember his name from the other night. He looked particularly pale and unkempt, and Kyle wondered if that was the look he was going for. The eyeliner coating his eyes was smudged like it might have been slept in and then reapplied.
"Hey Dylan." Stan slid closer to Kyle to make room. "Classes let out early?"
"I'm skipping," he said quietly, pulling the unbuttoned cuffs of his sleeves over his chipped black nails.
"Dylan goes to Colorado Mountain College," Stan explained. How someone who'd spent more time in the alley smoking than in class was in college while Kyle sat at home and wrote discussion board posts was one of the great tragedies of Kyle's life. One of the many.
"Probably not for much longer," he said bitterly, pushing a few strands of greasy red hair from his eyes. "All those years of skipping classes doesn't exactly make me the smartest kid in the room." Kyle looked at the tabletop and smirked. It certainly didn't.
"You're a music major dude, that's what you've spent every minute of your life focusing on." Kyle had forgotten how supportive Stan was when he wanted to be.
"I know but I never learned to study or focus, or I don't know—it's the theory part of it—I can't sleep I'm just staring at my notes and I can't even read my handwriting," he said miserably, staring down into the coffee the waitress placed in front of him. "I don't even want this, I feel sick."
"What do you even need a degree for? You're the most talented musician I know—you taught me everything," Stan said. Kyle wondered why anyone put up with Dylan. How could you possibly complain this much when Stan was so supportive.
"What's the point anyway right? A piece of paper saying I'm smart. Obviously my high school diploma lied, what's to say a college degree would be any different? It's just a way to take my money and pat me on the back," Dylan said, more to the coffee than to Stan.
"What are you having trouble with?" Kyle asked, cutting off whatever Stan was about to say. He wanted Stan to look at him again. To think he was worth encouraging.
Dylan looked up. "Just figuring out what's important to know, I try and remember it all. God I sound so stupid when I say it out loud."
"No," Kyle said. "Academics are learned. Show me what you have and I'll show you how to figure out what's important."The words only tasted a little bitter in his mouth. That Dylan looked genuinely interested made it easier to swallow down.
"Do you think it'll make a difference?"
"Absolutely," Kyle said. "Bring your books and notes by Stan's apartment one night and I'll show you what I mean." Stan was smiling broadly at him. Kyle blushed and ducked his head, wishing it didn't feel so good.
Dylan nodded but looked back at the coffee, his hair falling back over his face again. "Thanks. But I've already skipped too many classes. I'm supposed to go talk to my advisor who I've never met."
"Aren't you supposed to be in class," Ethan said, standing at the edge of the table. The collars of his peacoat were popped up around his chin. Stan made a sort of warning head shake at him. Dylan didn't look up, and Kyle could tell that if he had to move or talk at all he'd cry.
"Hey," Ethan said confused, sliding into the booth next to him. "What's wrong?" He looked over Dylan's disheveled appearance. And when Dylan didn't respond or even look at him, Ethan turned to Stan. "What's going on?"
"School stuff," Stan said, as the waitress placed a black coffee in front of Ethan.
"I'm stupid." Dylan was so quiet now that Kyle could barely hear him. "And now I know it."
"No," Ethan said, looking hurt, reaching out to grab Dylan's hand. "Come on, you're making me PDA you."
Dylan smiled a little, still looking down, and wrapped his fingers between Ethan's longer ones. Kyle looked over at Stan, who was frowning in sympathy with Dylan, but unfazed by the affection passing between his friends. Kyle wondered how he'd never noticed the way Ethan looked at Dylan before. Had he been purposefully ignorant? It seemed like something he'd do.
"I think we should go," Ethan said, laying five dollars on the table for both of their coffees.
"See you guys," Stan said.
"How did you get here?" Ethan asked, pulling Dylan out of the booth.
"A bus," Kyle heard Dylan say as they walked. If they were still holding hands, the sight of it was lost in the folds of Ethan's coat.
"Is he okay?" Kyle asked Stan.
"Ethan will make sure he is. Anyway we have band practice tonight, so I'll check then."
"Do you guys have a show?" Kyle twisted his room temperature spaghetti around his fork.
"We're having a party at the apartment next week. You'll come right?"
"Yeah," Kyle said, feeling much lighter than he had in a long time.