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Years Go By

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He was nine, and revealing his identity hadn't impacted his life as much as he would have expected. It was in the newspaper and mentioned on the news, but it turned out there really weren't all that many kids at school who paid attention to either of those. Wendy, who'd never really paid much attention to him even when they were both hanging around Stan at the same time, stopped him with a smile to let him know she thought the things he'd done were really great, and for a few weeks Kyle picked him instead of Stan whenever everyone had to pair up for a school assignment, but that was the only change. For a little while everyone kept gossiping about who Mysterion could be like it was still a mystery, then time passed and they all just seemed to forget about it.

Mysterion only came out when his parents needed a quick reminder that someone was watching them, or Kevin looked like he might be falling into the same type of bad habits they had and needed to be scared back onto the almost straight and narrow, or he heard Karen crying herself to sleep and appeared to comfort her. Small, personal acts of heroism that no villain would ever care about, or even notice. Aside from that he was fully prepared to let Mysterion vanish for good.

Until the day that Cartman suddenly ran up behind him and Stan at the bus stop in his stupid Coon costume and rasped "Stan Marsh, I've--"

"What the hell are you wearing, Cartman?" Stan cut him off.

Cartman's eyes narrowed, but amazingly for him he managed to keep his composure instead of rising to the bait. "I don't know who this Cartman is, but you must think he's a seriously awesome guy if you thought he could be me. Stan Marsh, I am The Coon and I've come to offer you an opportunity you won't want to pass up on; a place in the brand new superhero group Coon and Friends. As a founding member you'll get a whole .05% of the profit from any merchandise sells!"

"So, you're saying you want to play superheroes tonight?" Stan looked thoughtful for a minute, then asked, "Did you get Mysterion for your group?"

Kenny grinned under his hood as Cartman obviously snapped. "No, Stan, I did not get fucking Mysterion for my group! Mysterion's just a no-good quitter who gave up and went into hiding when the going got tough, which is part of why the Coon is a way better hero in every way!"

"Hey, man," Kenny protested, but went unnoticed.

"Do you really think you'll find anyone who wants to be part of a superhero group without Mysterion in it, Cartman?"

"God dammit, fine!" Cartman whirled towards Kenny, who he'd been completely ignoring until then, his hands curved like he wanted to claw him in the face, but he spat out, "Kenny, do you want to be a member of Coon and Friends?"

Kenny shrugged, but couldn't help noticing Stan was staring at him like he'd just done something amazing.

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He was thirteen, and one of the only ones who still 'played' superhero regularly. Toolshed was the only one who still always joined him, and because Stan was there Kyle was the only one who came along anywhere close to often though he'd changed his costume when he'd gotten too big for his kite and had never bothered coming up with a new name. Even Cartman had stopped trying to find a way to get money out of The Coon name.

Oh well, Kenny knew that he'd always been the only one to take it seriously. Even Stan seemed more and more likely to back out every day, as helping grannies cross the street and holding bake sale fund raisers for charity turned into beating down drug dealers and patrolling the park at night for the type of sleezebags who only came out in the dark. They weren't little kids any more, and they couldn't hold themselves back to a little kids level of heroism. He was going on there and really making the world a better place, and he was the only McCormick who could say that.

He'd even quit doing drugs at the same age when most of his classmates were first trying them out, because he knew he'd be a complete fucking tool if he ran around shutting down every crackhouse he could find then sat down and got high the minute he was out of costume.

But heroing wasn't his whole life. During the school day was back in home-ec class, and loving it even more than the last time since there wasn't a bitch teacher trying to force him out just because he didn't have the right parts to be a trophy wife. At least every couple of days he'd have a plate full of food to sneak home and share with Karen so their stomachs would be full even if their mom served nothing more than a spoonful of mashed potatoes for dinner. He learned how to patch up his clothes, so if he ever tore something he couldn't replace Cartman wouldn't have a chance to be an asshole at him about wearing something with a hole in it. He got to be surrounded by girls every single day.

And this time he got to have a buddy who wasn't a girl around, as Stan had actually listened to him when he went on about how great the class was and signed up too. They goofed off together, and stuffed themselves on class potluck day together, and it was basically the best class he'd had in his life. But he hadn't thought Stan had signed up for anything other than the food and the girls that Kenny had sold the class to him on, not until Stan invited him home the afternoon after their final exam.

"Close your eyes, dude, I've got a surprise for you," he said as soon as the door shut behind them. Kenny had been friends with Cartman to ever trust a command to shut his eyes, but he mentally told his paranoia to fuck off and did it anyway; Stan wasn't Cartman, he wouldn't pull some shitty prank the minute Kenny made himself the tiniest bit vulnerable. He heard Stan moving around the room, rummaging around in his closet, and then his bedsprings briefly squeaking before Stan finally said, his voice more nervous than it usually got, "Okay, man, you can open them."

Slowly, more than a little afraid that this was going to turn out to be a come-on, Kenny did what he was asked. But as soon as his eyes were cracked just enough to see they popped open wide with shock at what was waiting on the bed.

Superhero costumes, real superhero costumes not just whatever they could throw together out of the stuff at their houses. One for him and one for Toolshed, still with the same basic shapes and colors that they'd always worn, but a lot more pulled together. And not made out of spandex, he was glad to see, Stan hadn't gone for that embarrassing cliche. "When did you..." he started, but Stan cut him off.

"I saved the measurements I took from that day we learned how to measure on each other, then as soon Mrs. Baker taught us enough about tailoring I started trying to work out how to do them. I kinda figured, you know, if we're gonna keep this up we were getting too old to wear underwear on the outside of our clothes."

He picked up the end of his cape, looking at the way the fabric fell from his fingers. The old one had been made out of a bedsheet he'd gotten at a garage sale for a nickel, and over the years it had grown worn and the color had faded and had reached a point where it was too short for him no matter how he tried to rearrange the hood. This one was a deep midnighty purple, and he could imagine just from the way it dropped from his fingers the way it would flow dramatically in the wind. "You didn't make one for Kyle," he said, and their was a question hidden behind the statement that Stan picked up on.

"Well, yeah, you know he'd not really interested in heroing anymore," he said with a shrug, then met Kenny's eyes and added, "But if you're in this for the long haul, man, than so am I."

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He was eighteen, and dragging every night they hit the streets out longer than they ever had before, trying to wring every last bit of teamwork he could get out of Stan like maybe just the memory would be enough to hold him over once it ended. Maybe it would have been smarter to cut it down, try and ween himself off of it instead, but he couldn't bring himself to do that.

Stan was heading off to college in Michigan, of all the stupid places, a full day's drive away at least. Kenny knew that he should be happy for him; it wasn't like he'd had a ton of options and was choosing the head that far away when he could have stayed closer, The University of Michigan had been the single best school he'd managed to get an acceptance from and he couldn't turn that down. But with his partner hundreds--shit, he didn't know, maybe even more than a thousand--of miles away that would be the end of Mysterion and Toolshed. Even if Stan was willing to put his costume back on for a holiday or two, four years was a long time to expect him to stay interested.

And what were the chances he'd even move back to a shithole like South Park once those four years were up? Kenny sure as hell wouldn't if he had a chance to get away. Unfortunately with his grades, made worse than maybe the otherwise would have been by his long nights fighting, the only place he was likely to get was into a shitty job following his long line of ancestors getting equally shitty jobs.

So he pretty much spent the whole summer making himself miserable, until one day in late July when stand handed him a print out and said, "Hey, how's this apartment look to you?"

What he'd given Kenny turned out to be a couple of pages with some pictures and stats for an apartment that claimed in big letters across the top to be affordable on a student's income. Kenny had never tried apartment hunting, but he guessed it looked like an okay deal for the rent of a few hundred dollars a month. Neither the bathroom nor the bedroom were part of the kitchen/living room/(if you wanted to waste space on a table and chairs) dining room area at any rate, though both the paint job and flooring looked butt-ugly. "Fine, I guess. But weren't you planning on living in the dorms to save cash?"

Stan frowned and hesitantly said, "Well, yeah, I guess I could do that, but, I mean, you wouldn't be able to stay there with me so I figured it'd be better to find a place we might be able to afford..." Then he saw the expression of shock on Kenny's face and quickly started to backpedal, "I mean, you don't need to if you don't want to! I know we never talked about it or anything, but we're a team, man. There can't be Toolshed without Mysterion. I kinda figured you were thinking the same thing, since with all these long nights it seemed like you were trying to clean up South Park as much as you could before we left it. But if you don't want to--"

"No, I want to!" Kenny cut him off quickly. He hadn't thought about the possibility of going with Stan before, had never even imagined that Stan would want to be stuck living with him, but once the option was on the table he didn't even need time to think to jump on it. "Listen, I'll start looking for a job to help out as soon as we're out there. Fuck, I'll start tomorrow, I can do that sort of shit online."

"And then Toolshed and Mysterion will start building up their fame in a brand new place," Stan said, grinning at him. "Hey, I don't know how far the drive would be, but Detroit sure sounds like a place that could use some heroes."

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He was twenty-four, and bullets were flying all around them. The attackers were human traffickers, scum of the earth, and they'd managed to get the captives safely away but someone had found the guards they'd knocked out while they were making sure they hadn't missed anyone and sounded the alarm.

Thank God they'd at least made it out of the cells before they were ambushed; back there they'd have been trapped in a dead-end hallway with no hope of escape when the guns came out, but on the main warehouse floor they had a few escape options if they could just manage to reach one. Unfortunately reaching one seemed less likely all the time, with the two of them trapped behind a forklift while the scumbags got closer every second. They couldn't even try driving the forklift through the crowd, stupid though that would have been when the sides didn't provide them with any cover, Mysterion had already checked and the key wasn't in it.

It looked like there was only one choice, unless the police showed up in response to their urgent call or the traffickers all ran out of bullets just about immediately; he'd need to die as a distraction so Toolshed could get out of there. Fuck, he hated being shot to pieces. It was better than burning, or being gnawed to death by tiny mouths, or a few other things that had happened to him, but that wasn't saying much.

He didn't put the plan into action at first, observing the gunmen in swift peeks and glimpses for as long as he could spare first, trying to get a feel for how long they could fire before reloading. Finally, when he was almost sure that a good hunk of them would be needing to reload at once when it was Toolshed's turn to run, he said, "Toolshed. I'm going to run to that shipping container as a distraction. As soon as most of them are firing at me, you make a break for the backdoor and find out what the fuck's taking the police so long." His long familiarity with death-not-so-defying stunts told him that the container was too far for him to have any hope of making it without at least one bullet finding him, but it was close enough that Stan shouldn't be able to realize that.

"No, dude!" Toolshed exclaimed, sounding frantic. "I'm not gonna let you--"

Mysterion was already off and running, not giving him any time to complete his protest. He'd gotten pretty good at dodging his death over the years. Not enough to actually save himself against that many gunmen but enough to put it off, bullets whizzing through his cape and hood instead of his body, while Toolshed might still be watching so he wouldn't be paralyzed with horror at the sight of him apparently dying when he should be running. Then, just a couple of feet from the crate, he tripped over the end of his cape and knew his time was up. Oh well, he'd made it further than he'd thought he would.

But before a bullet could strike home a heavy body was slamming into him, carrying him the last of the distance to the relative safety of the crate. "Shit," Toolshed yelped, clutching his leg, and Mysterion could see streams of blood flowing out from under his hand. He'd been hit. "Fuck, that hurts like a bitch!"

Everything else went fuzzy after that. Mysterion remembered his rage--fifteen years he'd managed to keep Stan from ever getting badly injured, letting himself die again and again so Stan could get through a night safely, and now these filthy pieces of shit had managed to shoot him--and he remembered noticing that the nearest thug was close enough that he was sure he'd be able to bash him in the head with Toolshed's drill with a hard enough throw. Then, when the man had dropped, he remembered realizing that his gun had fallen close enough to pick up. But after that, as far as he could figure, he'd kind of blacked out in a way, everything else dimming down to just flashes; his hands stinging from the force of the gun, shouts, splashes of blood, sirens in the distance then suddenly filling the air just outside the warehouse. He was able to collect himself just enough to realize that he needed to get Toolshed the hell out of there before the police came in, and that was the last thing he was really able to focus on until he was back in their shithole apartment with their first aid kit in his hands.

"Chill out dude," Stan was saying, staring at him with worried eyes even though his tone was annoyed. "It just grazed me, slap on a few bandages and keep it clean and I'll be fine in a week or two."

Sure enough, when Kenny actually looked at his wound it wasn't the gory bullet hole he'd been fearing but just a groove in his skin, bloody but not deep. And with his worry quieted his own annoyance was able to rise. "What the fuck, Stan? I told you to run for the exit! Did you want to get yourself killed?"

"Of course not! Did you? Because, like I tried to tell you before you took off, I'm not gonna let you die for me, Kenny. ...Even if you'll come back from it." And that knocked the wind right out of both their sails, Kenny too busy feeling like someone had just punched him in the stomach from shock to keep bickering and Stan apparently just realizing it was time to be serious. "Listen, Kenny, I know when we were kids we all thought it was just your make-believe power, and that when we got older we started giving you shit if you ever brought it up, but I've been thinking a lot since you seemed to bail on me in the middle of that drug bust a few weeks ago and... Well, it doesn't make any sense that most of the time you'll stick around no matter how bad things get, then suddenly you'll seem to run away the minute it gets dangerous even when there shouldn't have been anywhere to run to if I think back on it. And we've seen so much weird shit over the years that it's not like somebody coming back from the dead without anybody remembering it is that much stranger. So, I think I might believe you about that. And I don't want it happening because of me."

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He was twenty-four and a few more minutes older, and kissing Stan like his life depended on it.

It felt so fucking good to finally have someone believe him.