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A/N: Hi everyone! I'm hoping this fic doesn't contain too many typos and I hope someone enjoys it. Please drop me a line either way. Obviously this will be eventual Stenny. There might be other couples. I don't even know. Title named after the song by Starset.

August had come quickly to the small yet growing mountain town of South Park. Golden and bright red leaves were starting to cover gutters and sidewalks. It was the first day of school for the students of South Park High School which included the seventh through twelfth grades. It wasn't ideal and a lot of parents disliked their seventh grade girls being around older male teenagers but budget cuts had caused many of the regular middle schools to close down.

The halls were buzzing with activity. New students scrambled around trying to memorize the hallways, younger students nervously glancing around hoping hazing rumors were just that, teachers and other staff members frazzled with the stress of starting a new year and the many deadlines to meet before October. Stan and Kyle were among the students that were less frazzled and used to the usual routine as it was their sophomore year so they had become quite familiar with the school.

"What teacher do you have for homeroom?" Stan asked Kyle as they met each other in the cafeteria, standing in line to get some food for breakfast. The cafeteria had a lot to offer for lunch but breakfast was a different story. Only two places were ever open so the lines were usually long. Stan and Kyle had learned a long time ago to get there early, bring your breakfast, or eat at home.

Both boys had grown and Stan was just slightly taller than his friend by maybe two inches almost reaching six feet. Stan was more muscular as he was on the track team and enjoyed running. His hair was short jet black and always a little messy. Kyle's hair was a red, curly afro that he still tried to hide under a hat. Kyle mostly kept to studies choosing to avoid sports which was no surprise to anyone that knew him. He had played basketball in the seventh and eighth grades, but last year during tryout season he'd caught the flu when he skipped out on the flu clinic to watch a game. His mother had not been happy, she'd forbidden him from trying out sophomore year so he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into his studies.

Kyle glanced at his paper again as if he still wasn't sure he had read it right. "It says I have... Mr. Garrison..."

"What?" Stan asked, not quite sure he had heard right.

"It says Mr. Garrison. I guess he teaches high school now? He wasn't here last year."

Stan shrugged and shook his head a little, "I guess whatever works. I have some lady, uh, Mrs. Beltshower."

"That's a real name?"

"Yeah, sounds like a porn star name."

Kyle nodded, about to add something else but some activity caught his and Stan's attention before he could. Someone was waving frantically at them from across the cafeteria. "Butters?" Kyle said in surprise. The little blonde had always been excitable in the past, but he was practically bounding through the cafeteria. Butters had grown as well but still didn't quite reach Kyle's height. He still wore the same hairstyle he had in elementary and all his peers assumed that was his mother's doing.

Stan shared a confused look with Kyle. "I hope all that excitement is for you and not me," Stan said. "I don't have that kind of energy."

Before Kyle could retort, Butters rushed up to them, still bouncing on his heels excitedly. "Stan! Kyle! Did you hear?! Did you hear?!"

"No, what?" Stan asked. Neither him nor Kyle were prepared for their friend's answer. Both were stunned silent for several long moments.

"Kenny! It's Kenny, he's back!" Butters exclaimed. "He's back! Can you believe it?! I just heard from Eric. He's here at the school." Both stared wide eyed and open mouthed unable to form a response. None of them had heard or seen Kenny since sixth grade.

It had been nearing the holidays when tragedy had struck South Park, more specifically Kenny's house. Someone had gone through and shot everyone in Kenny's house, no one had ever been arrested and no motive could be determined; nothing had been stolen. It was still an unsolved case and the house sat abandoned now with younger kids believing it to be haunted. The cops were unable to name a person of interest after much investigation.

Kenny had been the sole survivor, no one was sure how he had survived. Some rumors had put him as the person that should be investigated or was investigated depending on who spun the tale. Kenny never returned to school after that.

Stan and Kyle remembered seeing Kenny twice after the murders, the first time Kenny had been unresponsive to anyone or anything and the second time was the same and then he had vanished. Some thought maybe whoever had killed his family had come back for him and others thought that maybe he had just gone and killed himself. Only Eric Cartman seemed to think that he was still around but had been unsuccessful in locating him even after enlisting Butters' help in his quest. It had been frustrating and taken years but apparently they had finally succeeded in their mission. It made sense that Butters would be the one to spread the news.

"What?" Kyle asked through his stupor. His brain wasn't able to process it as good or bad news; it was just that: news- shocking news for sure.

"Kenny!" Butters clapped his hands lightly in excitement, "He's here, I can't wait to see him."

"You haven't seen him yet?" Stan asked, starting to wonder if Cartman was playing some cruel prank on them. Like the others Cartman had grown and was about the same height as Kyle. He had lost his weight and was in good health and even played on the football team. Stan and Kyle were pretty sure he had dreams of being the captain one day and believed it would mean he could rule the school. That guy was incapable of sating his thirst for power.

Butters shook his head, pulling his cell phone surreptitiously out of his pocket; phones could get confiscated if teachers caught them. They weren't in class but some teachers would have little power trips of their own and Butters was still petrified of being grounded even as a high schooler.

"Eric told me over the weekend but wasn't sure if he would be able to get him to school. He texted me just a few minutes ago and I spotted you two fellas and wanted to let you know. I was about to text him to find out where they were..." There had been some commotion escalating not too far from them across the cafeteria near the entrance. The three had ignored it but now it had become impossible to ignore as the noise escalated and Butters' voice was lost in the shouting of a few particular students. Butters turned to see what the other two were staring at beyond him.

"How dare you show your face here?!" A girl screeched loudly. "How dare you?!" She looked ready to attack. She and several of her own friends had formed a ring around none other than Kenny himself.

Stan, Kyle, and Butters recognized him immediately. He was almost reaching six feet himself so he was likely to be eye level with Stan. He was skinnier than ever and still wore a parka, just with the hood hanging down. Greasy blonde hair hid most of his face and he refused to look at anyone, only looking downward at the floor. A few older kids had noticed the commotion and also gathered, joining the younger group that circled him.

"Why are they so pissed at him?" Stan asked in wonderment. He just assumed everyone would be as overjoyed as Butters. Butters looked on in disbelief. The wheels in Kyle's brain shifted and he realized exactly what was happening.

"It's Karen and Kevin's friends. They think he killed them." Even as he spoke the words they sounded weird and almost like a foreign language coming out of his mouth; he had never once given any weight to some of the rumors that had spread around about the murders.

"What?!" Butters yelped.

"But that's ridiculous," Stan protested. Before much else could be spoken one of the girls let out a shrill scream and launched herself at Kenny, knocking him down to the floor A few others closed in and the three could no longer see their long-lost friend in the flurry of activity. Kyle's brain kicked into high gear with horror.

"Holy shit, we gotta help, he's not defending himself." Kyle started moving quickly in that direction when another voice cut through the air.

"What the fuck!? Get off of him you assholes!" None other than Cartman's indignant voice filled the air, alerting the attention of some staff members on duty to the mob that had formed around his friend. "Get the hell away!" Cartman ranted as the angry students began to disburse especially as teachers and other staff members came over demanding to know exactly what had happened.

Kyle made it over to Kenny around the same time as Cartman as Stan and Butters had stared in stupor for a few seconds longer before forcing their feet to work. Cartman looked down at Kenny and shook his head slightly before squatting down in front of his friend. "Hey, Kinny, you know you could do more than just lay down and let people kick you."

"What the hell?!" Kyle demanded, feeling more confused than ever. "Where did they even come from?!" He glanced around wildly trying to spot out the one girl who had initiated the entire thing but she was long gone and the staff seemed more confused than anyone else as most students were unwilling to rat out any of the ones that had been involved. Kyle's brain was on overload so many things were happening at once.

Kenny was still on the floor laying on one side, face facing towards Cartman, but eyes still cast downward. His hair was longer and messily splayed out no longer obscuring his face. Kyle knelt next to Cartman and looked down at his old friend. "Kenny, I didn't think we'd ever see you again," he said feeling pity and dismay and anger.

It was déjà vu all over again as Kenny made no response. It was like Kenny was frozen in time emotionally even though his physical body had grown. At least grown some Kyle thought sadly as he took in just how skinny his friend had become, talk about skin and bones. It was a miracle Kenny had grown at all but he definitely had.

"Oh my god, Kenny!" Butters' voice startled both Cartman and Kyle and they looked up to see Stan and Butters standing on the other side of Kenny both looking nothing but horrified. "Did they kill him?! I didn't even get to say hi!"

Cartman face palmed. "No, Butters, he's not dead, Jesus, don't be so dramatic."

"Good, good!" Butters said. "Kenny, can you get up?"

"Just give him some fucking space you guys, okay?" Cartman bit out. Stan and Kyle exchanged a glance clearly weirded out before each nodding. Kyle slowly stood up but kept his eyes on his fallen friend.

"It's good to see you again, Kenny," Kyle said as warmly as he could manage after everything they had just witnessed. No response from the boy as he had suspected. Kyle looked away trying not to let his disappointment show in case Kenny should glance up at him.

Stan nodded and walked around Kenny to join Kyle and Cartman hoping for some eye contact with the friend who had vanished into a void. "Yeah, dude, glad you're back. You should, uh...eat lunch with us or something," he finished lamely still trying to overcome his shock. He didn't receive the eye contact he was hoping for but kept staring at Kenny as if he would vanish again if he looked away.

A teacher was near them suddenly and broke into the conversation. "The nurse is on her way. You kids need to get to class, the bell rang a few minutes ago."

Butters jumped at her voice and stuttered, "W-w-whaat?! It did?! Oh my god, I don't want detention, I'll get grounded for sure," and he sped off frantically.

Kyle watched Butters take off while Stan kept his eyes on their old friend. His brows drew together at Kenny's reaction to Butters' familiar hysteria. Had Kenny almost... smiled? Cartman did not look amused as he addressed the teacher.

"Can the nurse get here any faster? You have total animals in this school attacking people unprovoked. Don't you know what bullying is? How could none of the teachers see this?" He ranted. The teacher assured Cartman that the nurse was coming as quickly as possible in attempts to assuage his anger.

Kyle was gaping at Cartman's rant. Since when was Cartman so overprotective of anyone? What did he think was? Kenny's parent? Stan looked just as confused and the two both decided to slowly leave, obviously believing Kenny would be okay with Cartman.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Stan bit out. "What the hell was that? Did all of that actually happen or did I just have a really trippy daydream?"

"It really happened," Kyle said affirming reality.

"But that was so horrible," Stan whispered trying not to let his voice waver.

"It was," Kyle agreed, having completely detached himself from the situation, it was too weird and too sad to mull over. Classes had already begun and he was late on the first day of school. At least the first few days everyone overlooked tardiness. He turned to Stan whose eyes still betrayed how shocked he was. "Dude, are you going to be okay? My class is in the other direction." Stan blinked hard a couple times as if just waking up and nodded slowly. His stomach grumbled at him as they had never gotten their breakfast but Stan ignored it.

"Yeah, yeah, class. Got it, see you." He turned and started walking back in the direction they came.

"Stan," Kyle said. Stan turned back around. "You're going the wrong way." He motioned to the stairs they were near. "Your homeroom is downstairs in another hallway. You're heading back to the cafeteria."

"Right. Right. Stairs," Stan said going to the corridor and descending the staircase, fingers tightly gripping the bannister. Kyle shook his head and went to his own class.

Ω

Lunch time came a little too soon for Stan. He opened the locker he shared with Kyle and dumped his books inside. He had sat through three classes, maybe four, he wasn't sure. His mind wasn't really registering anything anyone had said to him since that morning. He knew he had stood up a couple times and stuttered his introduction; the first time in his life he was glad his town was a bit of a sleepy town even with gentrification. Most everyone already knew him, he'd been here since seventh grade and most of his fellow classmates had been in grade school with him.

People were more concerned about him than finding his strange behavior funny. No one laughed at him and he kind of wished they would. Were they all also in shock about Kenny? Shit, was Kenny IN any of his classes? He hadn't noticed but then he wasn't sure if Kenny had even been in a good enough state to go to class. And what the hell was with Eric Cartman fretting over the other boy?

"Stan," a familiar voice greeted from behind. Stan spun around to find a friendly face, a tall, lanky boy in nothing but blue. Like Kyle, he still chose to wear a hat, dark hair peeking out from it.

"Craig, hey," Stan said with a smile. He never thought he would find the presence of his near emotionless friend so comforting. "What's going on?" Things were normal enough with this friend.

"It's crazy in here this year, isn't it?" Craig asked, eyes widening just slightly as he tilted his head a bit. "All this stuff with Kenny. I can't believe it."

And just like that the normalcy evaporated as Stan's face fell back into shock tinged with sadness. This was just like sixth grade all over again.

"Ohmygod! This is just like sixth grade all over again! Ahhh!" A frantic voice shrilled and soon a blonde boy with hair spiked in every direction materialized by Craig. He was shorter by several inches. "This is crazy!"

Stan realized he should be more concerned that Tweek Tweak of all people had basically voiced his exact thoughts. Tweek had simmered down a bit around Craig but he was still a spaz. Craig and Tweek seemed destined to be together. It kind of weirded everyone out a bit if they were all honest. No other couple had lasted this long, not even Stan and Wendy.

Wendy had been the one to break it off two years ago, not in a mean fashion but it was becoming clear that just because you were boyfriend and girlfriend as kids didn't mean you had to be as teens. Stan still found her very attractive for sure. Actually, Stan was beginning to realize he found almost everyone attractive to a degree but it was something he had decided to ignore and not address for the last year or so. He was fairly certain that wasn't entirely normal but at least it was easy enough to hide. Wendy and Kyle had both expressed some concern over his total lack of interest in dating but neither pushed him about it. Wendy still remained a good friend and Stan suspected the two of them might even have had a little crush on each other but Wendy was currently dating Token. And Stan, while not overly jealous, wasn't sure how much he'd like his best friend dating his elementary school girlfriend. Just thinking about it made him feel all weird.

"Yeah, it is crazy," Craig readily agreed with his boyfriend bringing Stan back to reality. "I haven't actually seen Kenny, though, have you?"

"Ah! NO! No, I haven't seen him!" Tweek exclaimed looking around wildly as if Kenny would just appear by them talking about him. "Is he even really here?!"

Stan nodded. "Yeah, I saw him this morning."

"You did?!" Both Craig and Tweek asked in unison.

Stan shifted his weight uncomfortably, you'd think he just said he'd seen an alien or Bigfoot. "Yeah, this morning in the cafeteria. A group of kids started fighting him." More like just beating on him but Stan didn't want to get too detailed.

"That actually happened?" Craig asked, shaking his head a little. "I"d heard that some of Karen's friends were angry but I didn't think they'd actually did anything."

"They did." Three heads turned to see Kyle coming up to them. "Speaking of cafeteria, are you guys ready for food? I know I'm starving."

There was a chorus of yeses and everyone followed Kyle to the cafeteria. He stopped at the entrance and Stan gave him a questioning look. "Why are we stopping here?"

Kyle scanned the cafeteria then looked down the hall. "We're going to wait and see if Kenny comes. We're not letting that happen again. I doubt he would have went home. I heard some people complaining about Cartman threatening to kill people in my last class." As if on cue, Cartman's voice was heard from further down the hall.

"What are you looking at it?!" he barked, glaring murderously at anyone that dared to even glance in his or Kenny's direction. Cartman seemed attached to Kenny like some kind of bizarre bodyguard. Kenny was taller but Cartman was definitely no slouch either. Kenny only looked at the floor never even glancing up at anyone Cartman insulted or threatened. He stopped when he reached Kyle, Stan, Craig, and Tweek. "Hey guys."

"Hey Cartman, hey Kenny," Kyle greeted.

"Hi," Craig greeted in his best monotone though surprise still got through. Even Craig couldn't remain completely detached when staring at what was pretty much a ghost from their past. Kenny still said nothing; he might as well have been a ghost.

"Kenny! I can't believe it! You're alive, this-this-this is crazy! I'm so happy!" Tweek nearly burst with happiness and threw his arms around their old friend. Air left the room as everyone held their breath waiting for the response. Time crawled by even though everything happened pretty quickly. Kenny stiffened at the contact and rigidly returned the hug, still saying nothing. Tweek sensed the contact had bothered Kenny and quickly shot backwards, grabbing Craig's hand for more welcome contact. "So-sorry," he whispered.

Cartman rolled his eyes, "It's fine. Let's get food, you guys, I'm famished." Cartman was still always hungry; some things never changed. Kyle was surprised he wasn't bigger, the dude ate all the time.

The cafeteria in their school was rather wide and had various places a student could go to get food especially during lunch hours. It was set up in the same style as a mall food court but on a smaller scale and with the regular cafeteria tables found in most schools. They all wound up in different places to get food. Stan followed Cartman and Kenny out of some morbid curiosity; not only was it shocking that Kenny was here but Cartman's behavior was getting harder and harder to comprehend. Kyle wound up with Craig, Tweek, and Butters at a place to grab burgers.

Stan was in line with Cartman and Kenny at a pizza place. Things were getting stranger and stranger by the moment. Cartman kept talking to Kenny but the blonde never responded. Yet Cartman kept talking to him and even acting like Kenny was totally talking back.

Stan could only stare and offer nods or "yeah, dude" when Cartman seemed to remember he was there and decided to include him. Stan also found himself extremely self-conscious of just how close he was to Kenny. He knew he shouldn't feel weird about it but he hadn't seen him in four whole years and was now standing super close to him while waiting for some students on lunch duty to cut up pizza slices. Cartman had led the group with Kenny in tow with Stan following which is how he had wound up behind Kenny in the first place. He should have known Cartman would pick a pizza place. Sure he had said, "Kenny wants pizza!" But Stan was beginning to wonder if Kenny even ate at all.

Cartman moved up in line some and Kenny stayed where he was unaware that a gap had formed between him and Cartman. Stan gently touched Kenny's hand. "Kenny?" Kenny stiffened at the contact and Stan jerked his hand away like he had touched fire. So stupid of him, hadn't he just seen what had happened with Tweek? Kenny realized why Stan had touched him and moved to catch up with Cartman. He had finally made it to the order window.

"Hey, I want meat lovers. Kenny, Kenny, what do you want?" There was no response which didn't seem to faze Cartman in the least, "My friend here wants cheese." The student behind the counter glanced between Kenny and Cartman confused. He looked to Stan who shrugged just as confused, maybe even more confused. Did Kenny even talk at all? Was he just totally mute? Or did he just not want to talk? Cartman acted like Kenny would start talking any second. Stan supposed if he had had several students surround him and start kicking him and accusing him of murdering his entire family he might not be in the mood to speak either.

The student behind the counter waved his hand at Stan. "Hey! Hey! Man, I said what do you want?"

Stan looked up at him surprised. Kenny and Cartman were both standing by the cashier holding their trays waiting for Stan to get his food. "Hey, Stan, are you going to order or what? Our pizza is getting cold," Cartman complained.

"Uh, the vegan special please," Stan said. He was sure Cartman rolled his eyes. Stan had become a vegan about two years ago, he believed in being kind to animals. Cartman always ripped on him for it. Kyle understood the sentiment but refused to join him. It was okay, Stan felt good about his choices.

He stole a glance at Kenny and was stunned to see that Kenny had actually glanced up at him, their eyes met for a moment before Kenny broke contact and looked back at the floor. Once Stan had his tray in hand he and Kenny followed Cartman to a table. Kyle, Butters, Tweek, and Craig were already sitting there deep in conversation. When they approached all became quiet, it was obvious that Kenny had likely been the topic of conversation.

Stan didn't say anything as he sat by Kenny, Cartman taking the seat on the other side of Kenny. He watched as Kenny took tiny tiny bites of his pizza. Stan was pretty sure he'd seen Kenny lift the pizza to his mouth three or four times and bite into it but it looked like none of the pizza was even gone. His own pizza was nearly gone and everyone else quite happily devoured their food trying to figure out ways to ease the tension in the air. Lunch had never been so awkward.

Butters had talked some about his classes and how everyone seemed so nice and he was happy with all this teachers, he was going to get all straight As this year so he wouldn't get grounded. Stan had stolen another glance at Kenny when Butters said this and saw the same reaction he had earlier when Butters had freaked out. It wasn't a smile but that look, that look someone gets when they realize some things never change.

"So, Kenny, who is your homeroom teacher? Were you at another school? " Craig asked out of the blue. Craig would be the one to just cross the bridge that everyone else was avoiding. Stan had been sure Kyle would beat him to it but lunch wasn't over yet.

Kenny didn't respond and Cartman answered for him. "Garrison. And, yes, he went to an online school."

"Goddammit, Cartman, let him answer! He can answer the questions himself!" Kyle protested.

"Jesus, Jew, will you tone it down? Maybe he just doesn't want to talk today, okay?!"

"He can tell us that himself! What are you, some kind of psychic?!" Kyle demanded. "Kenny, where the hell have you been?" Kyle asked blatantly, voicing the question everyone else had been too intimidated to ask. Damn, Stan thought Craig had been brave asking about homeroom and another school, Kyle was demanding to know what the hell had happened these last four years.

Cartman rubbed his temples in frustration, "Damn it, Kyle, do you need to always know every single thing?"

Kenny suddenly pushed his plate away from him and stood up. Kyle shook his head. "Where are you going, Kenny? You can't just run away forever."

Cartman moved to get up and follow him but Kenny rested a hand on his shoulder briefly and he understood it meant for him not to follow. Kenny walked off and Cartman angrily shoved some of Kenny's pizza in his mouth. "Kyle, you stupid Jew, you better hope he doesn't just disappear again for another four years." Stan's stomach plummeted, he couldn't eat anymore.

"What?!" Kyle demanded getting more and more agitated. Stan swallowed the last of his pizza and stood up himself.

"He doesn't want to be followed, Stan!" Cartman spit out also getting agitated. Stan was beginning to realize why some people thought Eric and Kyle might make a good couple, talk about a couple of stubborn guys.

"I'm not following him, I'm going to class," Stan said tapping his finger on his watch. "Lunch is almost over anyway."

"What?!" Tweek shrilled. "But I feel like we just started eating."

"I gotta eat faster," Butters cried stuffing more food in his mouth. Kyle and Cartman each watched Stan suspiciously as he dumped his trash and walked in the opposite direction of his class. Of course he was going to follow Kenny! After he was sure Cartman and Kyle couldn't see him anymore he took off running hoping to catch Kenny before he disappeared. Through the throng of students, he glimpsed the orange that told him he was going in the right direction.

As he tailed his friend, he became increasingly aware of the whispers that floated in the hallway. "It's him, the guy that killed his family." "He's Karen's older brother, that bastard killed her." "Hey, it's Kevin's psycho brother, man, can't believe they let him in here. I thought he'd been admitted into a mental institution."

Stan felt his stomach drop further and further. Had Kenny heard all of this as well? Probably so, Stan wasn't even trying to eavesdrop and had heard so much. A lot of people had wondered if Kenny had been in a mental institution but Stan and his friends had never been able to find out; if their parents had known they had kept their mouths shut about it. What if Kenny disappeared again? What if he didn't see him again for another four years?

Stan fought down the panic that was rising, threatening to consume his entire being. He hadn't even really thought about Kenny that much yet after seeing him this morning the thought of not seeing him again for years was too much to bear.

Finally catching up, he reached out and tugged on Kenny's sleeve, hoping to stop him. They were practically the same height. Kenny's whole body went rigid at the touch. Stan was becoming braver by the moment. Either that or crazy. He stood in front of Kenny and grabbed his hand for a second time that day. If possible, Kenny seemed to get more rigid like a statue in a garden. "Kenny, please look at me."

Kenny slowly looked up from the floor, eyes just pools of sadness and weariness. He still said nothing, waiting for Stan to continue. Neither seemed to be conscious of any of the other students around them.

Stan stared at him for a few moments trying to see into his soul. "Please don't leave again. We don't want you to disappear. I don't want to spend four more years wondering what happened to you or if you're okay." Stan squeezed Kenny's hand, afraid to let go. "Please don't leave," he repeated. He was starting to understand Cartman's bizarre actions- was Cartman also scared of Kenny vanishing back into the mysterious pit of the unknown? Time paused for Stan as he waited for a response from Kenny. He wasn't expecting anything but he also couldn't move or let go of his hand until he got a response.

Finally, Kenny squeezed his hand back, trying to be reassuring. A very hoarse, "I won't" was heard and Stan thought he might keel over from joy. His friend could still talk! Maybe Cartman had been right. Cartman had actually been right in a fight with Kyle?!

Stan squeezed the hand back even harder, "Good, good," he said letting his whole body relax, he hadn't realized how tense he had been. Kenny was looking at the floor again and not responding to Stan's hand any longer. Stan let go and smiled. He was so relieved.

Cartman's voice cut through the air again. "Kenny! We have to go to class!" Stan watched as Kenny glanced up at him one more time before turning around and going back in the direction of Cartman's voice. It took Stan a minute but he began to realize just how close to one of the exits of the school they had been. If Kenny had left would he have ever come back? What about the end of the day? Would Kenny be back tomorrow. Stan was becoming more and more unsettled.

"Dude, Stan, are you okay?" Kyle's voice brought Stan out of his reverie. Butters was also peering up at him.

"Yeah, Stan, you look pretty shaken, are you okay?" Butters looked at the exit. "Are you planning to skip out early?"

Stan found his voice again and shook his head. "No, I'm not but Kenny was. He stayed though. He went off with Cartman." Stan debated a moment whether he should say what he said next but forged forward with it, "He said he wouldn't disappear again."

"Wait, what? Cartman was right? He just doesn't want to talk?" Kyle asked doubtfully. The concept of Eric Cartman being right about anything was completely foreign to Kyle.

Stan nodded his head. "I definitely heard him speak."

"That's great news, Stan!" Butters exclaimed cheerfully. He clapped his hands, excited. "Wow, this is turning out to be such a great day, Kenny's back and can talk and I didn't get a detention. It's going to be a great year!"

Chapter Text

Stan found himself in the second to last class of the day. He had just claimed a desk of his own. He didn't recognize most of his classmates but this was an elective class so the freshman and upper class men were mixed in. He knew none of the seventh or eighth graders could take the class until their ninth grade year.

Still he wasn't quite prepared when he saw Kenny and Cartman walk through. They all instantly spotted each other and the other two made their way over while Stan silently wondered if Cartman and Kenny had every single class together. He couldn't bring himself to ask, he was too weirded out. Stan was thankful this teacher didn't make them all stand up and introduce themselves. He wondered if that was because of Kenny's presence or was this art teacher just eccentric enough to not really care what everyone's names were.

"Stan, you would take art," Cartman teased shaking his head.

"What the hell does that mean? You're here, too." Stan shook his head not really understanding what Cartman even meant. He looked over at Kenny who had been staring down at the desk but was startled when he met his eyes. The intensity couldn't be missed, Stan's spirits lifted, if only a little. This was progress as far as he was concerned. This morning Kenny couldn't even look at him but now he had looked at him three whole times today! And even spoken two words to him!

Stan looked down suddenly realizing how totally bizarre his internal monologue had become. He wasn't sure how long he stared at the desk but he was brought back by a gentle kick to his feet. His eyes snapped up to meet Kenny's concerned ones. He realized they each had a blank sheet of paper in front of them, Kenny and Cartman had already been working on theirs while Stan's was blank. Stan offered a half smile to Kenny and grabbed his pencil to start creating his own work. It looked like they were just making nameplates. He guessed the teacher did need to know names after all.

Ω

"Hey man," Kyle greeted his friend as he approached Stan at their locker. "Have you seen Cartman?" Stan shook his head in response.

"Not since art class. I'm not sure what his last period was." Stan paused for a second before asking, "Do you know if, like, do Cartman and Kenny have every class together?"

Kyle raised his eyebrows before frowning and shrugging. "Who knows, dude? At this point, I wouldn't be surprised. It's like Kenny just came back from the dead. A lot of people are pretty freaked out about it. Even some of the teachers seem really weirded out by it."

"Really?" Stan asked adjusting his book bag.

Kyle gave him an odd look. "Yeah, haven't you heard some of the stuff people have been saying? It's really terrible. A lot of Karen and Kevin's friends are still super fucking angry. I'm worried for him with what happened this morning," Kyle said glancing down the hallway as if he was concerned that someone might be eavesdropping.

Stan fiddled with the straps on his book bag thinking back to earlier in the day the words he had heard in the hallways. Would that constitute as bullying? Would it matter if it did? Some kids had already attacked their friend and it didn't seem like a whole lot had been done to his knowledge. What could the one school counselor do and the dozens of unsure teachers that didn't want to lose their jobs and probably had to hop over a million hoops to get anything done. If someone reported all this to children's services would Kenny be put in a foster home again? Would a social worker even bother? Where did Kenny even live? A hand appeared inches away from Stan's eyes, snapping its fingers.

"Earth to Stan!" Kyle exclaimed snapping his fingers. "Are you with us?"

Cartman seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. "Stan, you must be the world's biggest space cadet."

The insult from Cartman brought Stan back and he blurted the first thing that came to mind, "Take me to your leader!"

"What the fuck, Stan?" Kyle asked rolling his eyes. "Don't feed into him."

Cartman rolled his eyes, too. "Have you two seen Kenny?"

Kyle looked ready to reply with a snide comment but bit his lip. Stan shook his head. "Not since art."

Cartman shrugged. "Okay, I guess I'll make sure he's not still here then head out."

Kyle inhaled sharply, no longer able to bite his tongue. "What is he? Like your pet? Are you his social worker that you need to be attached to him? The dude just appeared out of nowhere in four years and you're his personal bodyguard?" Kyle was confused, it was like the world had been turned a little upside down. He liked order and this was causing a lot of disorder.

"Oh, Kahl, I didn't know you cared so much. You're so jealous!" Cartman beamed obviously enjoying the attention. "It's okay, I'll still make time to rag on you and your Jewness."

"Fuck you, Cartman."

Stan had started zoning out again before tuning back into what was going on around him. God, maybe Cartman was right about him, too. Hearing Kyle rapid-fire question Cartman reminded him of his own question. "Cartman, where is Kenny living? With you?"

"No," Cartman said. "I offered but he usually just hangs out behind the old Target building where some of the hiking trails are." The Target had closed some years ago and nothing had been done with it.

"And some other homeless hang out," Kyle added. "How long have you known where he was?"

"Just a couple weeks," Cartman insisted getting annoyed at Kyle's accusatory looks and tone. "I haven't known for the past four years if that's what you're getting at." He paused, thinking of something. "I'm scared if he disappears again it will be forever. He's my best friend," he said showing the rare vulnerability that sometimes shone through his sociopathic exterior at times and made some second guess if he actually was a sociopath.

"Only a couple weeks ago?" Kyle asked skeptically.

Cartman put his hands out in a defeated manner. "Yes. Do you always have to think the worst of me? I think he was living in the woods before that, I'm not really sure."

Stan didn't really pay attention to anything else as he turned around and started towards the main exit.

"Stan! Where are you going?" Kyle called after him.

"Leave him alone, Stan!" Cartman shouted interrupting Kyle mid-sentence.

"I'm going home!" Stan yelled over his shoulder, picking up his pace before they intervened and stopped him.

"Liar!" The other two called out in unplanned unison. Stan simply help up a hand and waved. Imagining Kenny hanging out behind the desolate old Target building was saddening. What was he doing there? Why wouldn't Kenny want to stay at Cartman's?

Stan could understand not being able to handle Cartman all day and then at the house afterwards but, damn, even Kyle would probably choose staying in a house with Cartman than behind an old building with no water, air conditioning, heat, bathroom, food... what was Kenny eating? Grass? Could you even eat grass? There were hiking trails near the Target building so maybe there were berries there? There couldn't be that many plants sprouting out of the cement parking lot that was rarely used save for kids just learning how to drive or kids screwing with skateboards.

Ω

Stan made his way through downtown South Park at a brisk pace. He was worried for Kenny. Cartman's words still rang in his ears. I'm scared if he disappears again it will be forever.

And then he shuddered when he recalled the next words. I think he was living in the woods before. Had Kenny really been just a stone's throw away all these years? Why had he allowed Cartman to find him? If he didn't want to be found Stan had no doubt that he wouldn't have been found.

His feet brought him to the parking lot Cartman had talked about. He went around to the back of the building and found Kenny laying on the bench of one of the run-down picnic tables that employees had likely used for breaks. He was laying on his back, eyes staring up at the clouds. Stan slowly approached him not wanting to frighten him. "Kenny...?"

Kenny turned his head a little but said nothing turning his attention back to the clouds in the sky. Stan inched closer since Kenny hadn't made any protests and even seemed to expect him to. He got closer and closer finding himself more and more concerned with how skinny Kenny was.

There were also a few other things that set off alarm bells in his head. The needles that littered the blacktop being the number one thing but he couldn't tell if they were from Kenny or if some junkies had been in the area. Or maybe Kenny was a junkie, too? Stan didn't know but right now he didn't care.

His shadow loomed over Kenny and he looked down at his friend who met his eyes. It was much easier to see Kenny's face now, with his hair behind his head, hood off, and no one around to distract either of them. The clouded blue eyes, the mouth quirked down, the bags under his eyes, the sallowness of his face. Stan wasn't sure what to say but as he mulled over everything that had taken place that day one thing stuck out to him the most: the way Kenny reacted to human contact.

Stan steeled himself and hoped he was asking the right question. "Kenny, before today when was the last time someone hugged you?" He recalled Tweek's hug and Kenny's stiff reaction. Kenny's face contorted into anguish and Stan felt ice in his heart at the response.

"Karen."

Stan found himself staring down at his friend in shock and horror, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. Tears were already sliding down his friend's cheeks. It took a few moments before Stan could find his voice. "Oh, Kenny, I'm so, so, so sorry, I'm so sorry," Stan apologized as he reached down to pull his friend up into a hug. No wonder Kenny had responded so strangely to the contact.

Kenny allowed himself to be pulled into the hug as Stan sat on the bench to more comfortably pull him into a much needed hug. Kenny's whole body shook and he clung tightly to Stan burying his face against his shoulder. The clothes on his shoulder were getting wet and Kenny's crying only got louder and worse. Stan had never felt so helpless and he rubbed his friend's back hoping it was comforting, painfully aware of the bones he could feel beneath the fabric of the parka. Stan heard himself saying, "I'm here now, I'm here now, I'm so, so sorry I wasn't before but I'm here, I'm here," he kept repeating quietly hoping Kenny could hear him through the pain.

Kenny's sobs became wails for a minute before turning into sobs again and suddenly he was stuttering through the tears. "They're- they're gone, they're gone," his voice was so raspy and Stan wasn't sure if it was from the tears or disuse or most likely both. "It still hurts, it hurts so much," he cried. "I can't- I can't find them anywhere, I looked, I looked everywhere. It hurts, it hurts," and the voice vanished into the sobs. Stan squeezed him a little harder understanding now why Kenny couldn't talk at school. Was Kenny trying to fend off this kind of breakdown every day? Had he been this close to breaking down every minute of the day at school?

"I'm here, I'm here now," Stan assured not really sure what he meant except just that. He was there to help, to comfort, to do anything that his friend needed. He didn't understand but he knew the skinny blonde in his arms needed someone, anyone. Was that why he had allowed Cartman to find him? Had the bottled up grief finally pushed him to the breaking point so much that he let himself be seen?

Seeing Kenny so vulnerable and their close proximity was doing other things to Stan's body that he wasn't exactly proud of and fought off. How embarrassing, he hoped Kenny wouldn't notice. He doubted Kenny would notice anything or anyone at this point, he was so far gone already unable to stop the shaking or tears or clutching his friend desperately as if he might disappear from him as his family had. Kenny's sobs had quieted down and Stan realized he had dozed off, his head still on Stan's shoulder. Stan stayed like that for hours. Oh, Kenny.

Chapter Text

Stan's feet dragged as he walked home much later than he had anticipated. Midnight was fast approaching and he hoped that he wasn't missed. He had texted his mom that he was hanging out at Kyle's playing video games but had gotten an angry text and phone call almost an hour ago demanding he come home as it had been too long. His mom had called Sheila who had been confused about Stan claiming to be there.

The phone call had woken up a sleeping Kenny who was both surprised and embarrassed to still be clutching onto a statuesque Stan. He moved away slowly in the fog of sleep and mumbled an apology. Stan had assured him there was no need to apologize and offered Kenny shelter at his house. Stan had been hoping Kenny just didn't want to spend more time with Cartman but he had refused Stan's offer, too, so this was deeper than just wanting to avoid Cartman. Kenny assured Stan he'd see him at school tomorrow and insisted he leave.

Stan looked up at the stars that twinkled brightly down on the town even through the light pollution. If only there was a way to get them to talk, I'm sure they've seen so much, Stan thought rather resignedly.

He found himself at his doorstep and was met with an angry mother and a confused father. Randy didn't understand why he wouldn't have at least bothered to corroborate his story with Kyle before using him as his alibi for whatever he had been doing. Stan accepted his punishment with little protest.

Being grounded for a few days from video games hardly seemed a like an issue compared to what he had just witnessed. His whole chest ached. He fell into a fitful sleep thinking of Kenny on a picnic bench outside behind a building that no one used anymore, the blacktop littered with used drug needles. Morning couldn't come soon enough.

Ω

The next morning Stan practically ran to school not even bothering to text anyone with a car to ask for a ride. He arrived at school before the buses even went to the stops. His whole body was twitchy as his nerves were on edge.

He hoped Kenny wasn't weirded out by him and he oh so hoped said teenager would show up to school. It wasn't lost on him that Kenny had easily vanished for four years and, like Cartman feared, could easily do so again and maybe forever. Stan suspected he was starting to fear this more than Eric Cartman.

He wasn't sure how long he stood by his locker scanning the hall. He figured Kenny might be sharing a locker with Cartman but couldn't be sure. And he sure wasn't just going to lounge in front of Cartman's locker. Kyle's voice snapped him out of his reverie.

"You're here early."

"Yeah."

"Dude, what happened yesterday? My mom said your mom called looking for you. Sorry, I didn't even realize until after it happened otherwise I would have tried to cover for you."

"Don't worry about it."

"Okaaaaay. So what happened?"

Stan crossed his arms already sensing that his answer wouldn't be all that acceptable. "I went to see Kenny."

Kyle facepalmed. "Dude, we told you..."

"What am I supposed to do Kyle?! Just leave him alone?!" He leaned closer to his friend to whisper, "He sleeps on a run down picnic bench that's probably full of fucking termites. I'm pretty sure he doesn't eat and there were needles everywhere. I'm just not going to leave him alone and hope for the best!"

Kyle exhaled trying to hide how disturbed he was. "Just don't push too hard, Stan, don't push him too much."

"What are you two homos doing?" Cartman asked approaching them with Kenny in tow. "Lover's spat so you have to be all secretive about it?"

"Goddamnit, Cartman," Kyle hissed, turning to glare at their friends. His eyes softened a little when he spotted Kenny who actually met his eyes for once, "Good morning, Kenny."

"Oh sure, no good morning for me, whatever," Cartman mumbled. Kenny simply nodded in response. Stan's heart raced as he turned to look at his two friends. Cartman was still rolling his eyes but Kenny was looking straight at Stan. He gave a small nod but didn't turn his gaze away. Stan simply mirrored his friend and looked back. Kenny's hair was still greasy and most of his face was obscured, including most of one eye but he held Stan's gaze despite it.

Kyle and Cartman exchanged odd glances with each other. Kyle hit Stan on the shoulder lightly while Cartman chose to shove his friend to snap him back to reality. "Seriously, what the fuck is going on," Cartman muttered confused before walking away from his friends' locker. Kenny followed after giving one last nod to Stan and Kyle. Kyle watched them disappear into the crowd of fellow students before turning his attention back to Stan.

"What the hell was that? You really are turning into a space cadet."

"Huh?" Stan started, totally lost in his thoughts. Kyle hung his head and shook it, the disbelief clear in his eyes.

"Seriously, dude, what the fuck is up with you lately? You've been acting really weird since Kenny came back." Kyle paused and quirked his head to the side another thought occurring to him. "You're not-you're not scared of him...right?"

Stan's eyes widened in disbelief. "What, hell no! Why would you think that?!"

"You've just been acting really weird dude! What am I supposed to think?"

"I'm just worried about him."

"He can take care of himself, Stan, he has for the last few years..."

"Barely!" Stan protested. Now Kyle was giving him a completely different look and Stan couldn't get a read on him.

"Stan," Kyle started slowly trying to sound as delicate as possible, "I know you like to save things, people and animals included but sometimes..."

"Sometimes what?! What, Kyle?!" Stan exclaimed upset, voice rising. "It's Kenny! Of course I'm going to try to save him!"

Kyle put his hands up in the classic sign of surrender. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm down. Of course it's Kenny and he's our friend and I want him to be okay, too. I'm just saying for your own sake to be careful. Four years is a long time, Stan. And we don't know what he was doing or why or where. Just don't charge into things. I'm just saying is all."

Stan could still hear Kyle's warning ring through his ears as he walked to his class. Yes, of course, Stan wanted to save Kenny. Was there something wrong with that? Why did Kyle act so strange about it, didn't Kyle also want to save Kenny? Frustration welled up within him to the point it was overwhelming all other emotions and he couldn't justify that he was being fair to his friend.

That passion that drove him to want to save things, people, and animals was coursing through his veins like fire, it was just a part of him to want to look out and help and protect and save. Kyle was one who saw the world as it was and wanted things to be right and just. Cartman saw the world how he wanted to see it and twisted things to make them fit into his world. Stan saw the world as an opportunity to be kind or at the very least save others from the depression and misery that threatened to consume him at times. He saw the world as a place that was fucked up beyond all repair, but there were things in it that could be saved if someone reached out.

He realized he had no idea how Kenny saw the world, as kids he figured that Kenny saw the world as a playground with lots of titties. He kind of doubted Kenny saw the world like that anymore, he sure as hell didn't see it as a playground at the very least.

Still, he knew that Kyle meant well, trying to warn him not to get too passionate or too involved as Stan had a tendency to throw himself into things whole-heartedly and usually came out with his heart banged up from the experience. It's how he wound up in an animal rights protest that involved fake blood and other images that Cartman had been kind enough to upload to the internet with a funny jingle to match the slide of pictures. Of course, several million people had seen it, but hey in the global world economy of over nine billion what was a mere several million? At least that's what Stan's therapist had said.

His passion also led him to protest deforestation with some other "tree-huggers." That had not gone over well. The best experience was definitely when he had gone to a protest for human rights and against racism. That protest had gotten rather violent fast and landed him and several others in jail until late the next morning. He wasn't quite sure why but he had definitely spent the night on the concrete floor with bars.

He realized Kyle was totally justified in his concerns but dammit if he wasn't going to completely ignore those concerns in favor of saving Kenny. There were some causes that Stan felt were worth being humiliated on the internet, ragged on by peers, or spending a night in jail for. Kenny was definitely worth all three of those consequences plus more that Stan would happily suffer through if it meant getting Kenny off that picnic table in the old parking lot gleaming with dirty needles.

Ω

It was only the second day of school for everyone but it did not feel that way. Stan was becoming more aware of the anger and fear Kyle had mentioned to him yesterday regarding Kenny. Some of the kids that had known Karen and Kevin felt emboldened yesterday but today it seemed they had filled their friends in who might not have known the late siblings. It was much easier to hear the whispers in the halls now, they weren't even whispers, just everyday talk.

It was becoming horrifyingly clear to Stan that he and his friends, Kenny's friends, were clearly in the minority with regards to the student population's reaction to Kenny's return. Kenny's friends were literally the only ones happy to see him and that put them at what- maybe fourteen students of a couple thousand. Kenny was hated and it wasn't just some students, even some of the staff seemed unhappy and irritated when they saw him. Stan hadn't seen it yesterday, he had been so wrapped up in just seeing Kenny. He re-adjusted his book bag and continued walking towards class when he heard Kyle.

"Stan!"

Stan stopped and turned around a little confused. "Didn't I just see you at our locker like two minutes ago?"

"Yes, I heard some kids in the hall, though. We have to get to Cartman's locker." Kyle paused a beat. "He's sharing it with Kenny."

Their friends' locker was on a different floor. Cartman was shaking his head and speaking angrily to a staff member and a security guard while Kenny simply stood nearby looking at their locker. "Redrummer" was sprayed in red on the locker. They could hear bits of Cartman's conversation, "I can't believe this, our locker was vandalized in broad daylight! What are you people even paid for?" No one bothered to correct Cartman that the vandalism had likely taken place the evening before.

Kyle and Stan stood on opposite sides of Kenny looking at the graffiti. Kyle kept squinting at it as if he was expecting it to change and make sense. Stan just looked at it confused and waited for Kyle to explain. Kyle finally shook his head. "What the fuck. Our literacy rate must be going to hell if someone thinks that translates to murderer."

"Yeah," Kenny's quiet voice caused both boys to jump. It was still gravelly and hoarse. "That makes it better." The tone filled with sadness.

"Kenny…." Kyle whispered glancing at his old friend. "Don't give them that kind of power. Just don't." Kenny said nothing and neither did Stan.

Cartman was suddenly in front of all them, grabbing Kenny's arm. "Kinny, we're going to class." He started pulling him along before looking back to the staff members. "When we get back to our locker this better be gone or I'm going to get my mom in here and who knows who else about this bullying problem." He left, Kenny following along willfully.

The two staff members watched the two disappear and were either totally oblivious to Stan and Kyle's presence or just didn't care if they heard. One staff member muttered, "It's the second day of school. Second day."

Her co-worker nodded and mumbled, "Going to be a long 180 days. 178 to go."

Kyle and Stan left the two as they went about cleaning the locker. Stan shook his head. "Kyle, I don't know if Kenny can survive 180 days of this."

"Only 178 to go after today," Kyle pointed out trying to lift his friend's mood. Stan stopped and looked at the redhead.

"No, I'm serious. Maybe Kenny should keep doing online school."

"Do you think he even actually did online school? Where? At the public library? On a smartphone he didn't have? I don't think Cartman was exactly being honest."

"But he's in the same grade as us. That means he had to do school at some point, right? I know Cartman thinks he was just living in the woods but he had to be doing something in the woods right?" Stan did feel a little silly even as he said it. If he was living in the woods, school would probably be the last thing on his mind.

Kyle shrugged. "Who knows, Stan? Maybe he actually was at an institution or even juvenile detention- let me finish," he said cutting off Stan's protest. "I know he didn't do that to his family but the evidence doesn't favor him. Or maybe Cartman's right and he was in the woods. Maybe when they went to enroll him he was given or had an IEP or something or maybe he tested into the grade. We won't know unless he tells us and he's not exactly talkative, never has been."

"You're right," Stan conceded. "I'm going to class. I'll leave the worries of the school and nation's literacy rate to you," he added with a smile.

Kyle grinned back. "Redrummer! Who does that?" The two were soon laughing before parting ways to class.

Ω

Stan threw all his stuff onto his desk rather unceremoniously. He should have left his backpack in his locker and he knew the teacher would scold him for it, but he already knew he wouldn't have the time he needed to get to his locker and the next period after this one unless he planned to be tardy on a daily basis

"Geeze, what'd your book bag and book ever do to you to deserve that?" a familiar monotonous voice asked from the next desk over.

"Craig?" Stan asked surprised. "I didn't know we had this class together."

"Yeah, I know. You were totally zoned out all day yesterday. Just an fyi we have two other periods together, too. I know I'm just background noise in your life but I'm happy you're acknowledging me today in class."

A stunned Stan stared at him. "Didn't I eat lunch with you yesterday?"

"For like five minutes, yeah."

"I have three classes with you?"

Craig's brows were drawing closer together with concern. "Yes. Are you okay? I know things have been pretty weird what with Kenny."

"Wait- is this my first class with you?"

"Dude, it's like the first class of the entire day." When Craig got no response he added, "So yeah, it's your first class with me. The other two are after lunch."

Stan shook his head still trying to process everything. He was guessing the final bell hadn't rang as some classmates were still straggling in. "Craig, do you have any classes with Kenny?"

"Two, you?"

"I only have one. I think Cartman is in all his classes."

"Good, probably for the best. Have you heard some of the stuff some people are saying about Kenny? It's awful."

Suddenly Stan's fists were clenched. "Yes," he hissed, "I've heard." Craig gave Stan another odd look but said no more as the final bell rang and class officially began.

His other classes before lunch didn't have anyone else in them that he was good friends with. Stan knew most of the class as most knew him but none of them were Kyle, Craig, Butters, Tweek or Cartman. Not even Wendy, Token, or Bebe were in any of his morning classes. He was starting to think maybe he'd try to switch out a class to be with friends; he was beginning to feel like a lone wolf. The bell signalling the lunch period finally rang and Stan couldn't get to his locker fast enough. Kyle was already there.

"Man, I'm still bummed out that I can't see Ike at lunch. It's been awhile since we were in the same school building together," Kyle greeted him.

"Yeah, good to see you, too," Stan said putting his things in the locker, grabbing a book he knew he'd need for the period after lunch. "Craig's in my homeroom, I didn't even realize that yesterday."

Kyle rolled his eyes unsurprised. "Right. Because you were a total space cadet because of Kenny."

"I was just- just surprised!" Stan shot back, cheeks turning a faint pink.

"It's fine, we all were. I'm just teasing you." He nodded towards the stairs after closing their locker and making sure it was locked. "Let's get food. I'm famished." Stan nodded completely agreeing.

Tweek, Craig, Butters, and Clyde were sitting at a table already with food. Stan did a quick scan of the cafeteria and saw Kenny and Cartman in one of the lines.

"You going to join them, Stan?" Kyle asked. Stan shook his head.

"No, I packed today. I'm guessing Cartman is the one buying Kenny's lunches."

"I'm sure buy is a loose word for it, he's probably telling them that he has a running tab or something and never plans to pay it."

"Wouldn't they hold his diploma?"

"Do you think Cartman cares about that? Or even Kenny? Because I seriously doubt they do."

Stan shrugged and sat at the table with their friends.

"Hey Stan!" Butters happily greeted followed by Tweek and everyone else.

Stan smiled in greeting before unpacking his lunch and biting into his black bean salad. Kyle had taken off to get his own lunch as he hadn't packed. Stan listened to the conversation going on around him. It mostly seemed to be Butters speaking about how nice the teachers were and how he was sure he would get all As this entire year so he could get by without being grounded. It was Butters that greeted Kenny and Cartman when they sat down.

Stan glanced up and realized they were sitting across from him, Kenny directly across from him. Great, he glanced to his side and realized that meant Cartman and Kyle would be across from each other, that inevitably meant a fight. He debated switching spots but looked at Kenny and any thought of moving vanished. Kenny had been looking right at him but quickly averted his gaze when Stan looked up. Stan noticed the red that was coloring his friend's cheeks. Was he embarrassed about his breakdown yesterday?

Stan shoveled some more food into his mouth and decided that must be it. After all, most people would be embarrassed even if there was no reason to be embarrassed. Stan felt embarrassed he hadn't tried harder to find Kenny these last few years, maybe they wouldn't be eating lunch in awkward silence- or maybe they would be, who knew. Stan risked another look at his friend. Kenny was still looking down and had hardly touched his food again. Cartman had already almost finished his meal by the time Kyle joined them.

"Jeezus, Jew, did you grill every place to find out if the food was kosher or not? It only took you like ten years to get food."

"Fuck you, Cartman, the line was long."

"Keep lying," Cartman muttered, finishing off his food. Stan was practically done with his but paused when he saw Cartman eyeing Kenny's food. For several long seconds. Cartman then looked at Stan for a minute then back to Kenny's food. Finally Cartman sighed drawing it out for dramatic effect. "Kenny."

Most of the conversation at the table fell to whispers as everyone waited for Kenny to acknowledge Cartman. Kenny turned slightly towards his friend but said nothing. Cartman went on, "Kenny. You have to eat." Kenny looked back to his food refusing to make eye contact with anyone. He made no response to Cartman who sighed again. "Kenny. You didn't eat breakfast. I know you didn't eat dinner and we all know you ate nothing yesterday at lunch. So you. Need. To. Eat."

Lunch at the table had suddenly become an awkward affair as even the whispers had given way to silence. Everyone waited for Kenny to speak or eat, for Cartman to start yelling or even for Kyle to start yelling as he sometimes would if Cartman spoke too much. And Cartman had certainly just said a lot. When Kenny still made no acknowledgement, Butters piped up. "Maybe Kenny's not hungry, Eric. Kenny, it's okay if you don't want to eat. Look!" Butters pulled a food container out of his lunch box. "I have an extra container for leftovers. You can put it in here and save it for later if you like."

Kenny nodded still refusing to look at anyone. He took the container from Butters and started to put his uneaten spaghetti in it. A fist banged on the table. "Stop," Cartman demanded. "Butters, Kenny needs to eat food now. He can't just not eat."

"Eric, if he isn't hungry- "

"He has to be hungry! It would be impossible to not be hungry at this point!"

Kenny glanced up at Stan. Stan saw the panic starting to spike in his eyes and knew he had to act fast if he wanted to keep Kenny from having a meltdown and wanted him to keep attending school. Kenny was getting scared and he wouldn't keep returning if he didn't feel safe with his own friends especially with most of the rest of the student body ready to torch him. Stan stood up suddenly. "It's okay, Cartman, he'll eat later. Kenny come on, I have something I need to show you. Kyle, do you mind finishing packing his lunch up?"

Kyle had remained unusually quiet during the whole exchange and nodded. "I got it."

"Thanks, this way Kenny," Stan directed his friend as he joined him. They exited the cafeteria and were in the halls again. Lockers lined all the walls interrupted only by classrooms. "Just a little further," Stan assured his friend. Kenny followed behind saying nothing. They made it to an exit door.

The fresh air greeted them and Stan breathed it in still leading Kenny away from the school. He knew of a couple wooded areas nearby that hopefully were sparse with students. The bell would be ringing soon so most should be clearing out. They'd already seen a couple go past them shooting them funny looks. Finally they were far enough away that Stan thought it safe to stop and turn around. "Kenny." Kenny was still looking at the ground, blonde hair obscuring his face. "Look at me," Stan commanded.

Kenny looked up, silent tears were already shining in his eyes. Stan's face softened. "Oh Kenny," he whispered stepping forward and hugging his friend. Kenny instantly returned the embrace clinging tightly.

"I can't," Kenny ground out between deep breaths, striving to keep the tears at bay. "I can't do this."

"Yes, you can," Stan countered. "I'm here for you. Kyle is, Cartman is. Butters is with his handy food containers." Kenny let loose a quiet laugh and Stan's heart soared. It was the best sound he had ever heard and he wanted to hear more of those laughs preferably with less tears. "Kenny, you do have to eat though."

"No," Kenny disagreed breaking the hug and swiping at his eyes. "I don't need to and I don't want to."

"You'll die if you don't eat," Stan said trying to emphasize the point as best as he could. "You have to eat food, it's just basic nutrition."

"It doesn't matter."

"Kenny, please tell me you're not trying to kill yourself by not eating!" Stan exclaimed feeling fear in his bones in a way he'd never felt before. "Please."

"You don't get it, it doesn't matter. Eric knows that, he's just fucking with my head or something, I don't know."

"What?" Stan honestly couldn't think of anything else to ask; he had no idea what Kenny had just said, it made absolutely no sense to him. He grabbed both of Kenny's hands, inspecting the wrists. "Seriously, Kenny, you're not trying to kill yourself or anything like that are you?"

Kenny opened his mouth to say something but no words came out like he didn't know what to say or how to explain. Stan took this to mean that Kenny was definitely planning some kind of suicide. He looked at his friend, fear in his eyes. "Please don't, please," he pleaded.

"I can't go back in there," Kenny mumbled miserably. Stan shook his head. Maybe Kenny just needed to feel safer at school. It was only the second day, surely all this stuff with Kenny would blow over in the next couple weeks as other kids became targets. Kenny just needed to get through the next week or two.

"No, yes, you can. You know what- forget about the food, let's go back in. You can do this, Kenny, you can do this." Stan took another step back and looked at Kenny. "You can. I don't care what we need to do. If I need to get into all your classes like Cartman I'll find a way."

Stan was rewarded with a small smile for his efforts and a hesitant nod. Stan smiled. "Come on, follow me. It'll be fine, I promise."

Once they were inside, Stan realized they must have been out longer than he had planned as the halls were mostly deserted with some exceptions. "Where's your next class? I bet Cartman is there already."

"I can go," Kenny said quietly. Stan shook his head remembering the graffiti on the locker, the beatdown yesterday, and some of the hall conversation he had heard. "No way. Cartman might be crazy but this is one thing he is right about. If you run into some of these people alone they might try to hurt you or worse."

"It really doesn't matter," Kenny said tiredly.

"Stop that!" Stan exclaimed spinning around to look at him. "Yes, yes, it does matter. You matter, why don't you see that?" Kenny looked down unable to hold Stan's intense gaze.

"This way," he mumbled heading towards the next class. Stan followed him praying that Cartman was actually in the class. Kenny stopped short of the class and turned to face Stan. "Thanks for… everything," he said sincerely. Stan nodded, suddenly there was an awkwardness in the air.

"Yeah, don't mention it, just be careful please." Kenny nodded before disappearing behind his classroom door. Stan went the other direction to his own class. He walked in a good twenty minutes late but he didn't care. The teacher paused and waited for him to sit down before continuing the lesson.

Stan glanced around and nearly keeled over when he saw Craig sitting next to him, giving him a small wave. He had forgotten they had two more classes together. Towards the end of the period once the teacher had finished and left the last few minutes to the class Craig leaned towards his friend.

"Hey, what happened with you and Kenny at lunch? Is he still here?"

Stan nodded. "Yeah, he's still here. We just talked."

Craig didn't hide his surprise. "Ah, so he does speak."

Stan nodded forgetting that no one besides himself, Kyle, and presumably Cartman had actually heard him speak. "Yeah, he does." Stan rubbed his temples feeling a headache coming on. "I don't know, though, he's-he's-"

"Messed up?" Craig supplied. Stan looked guilty for even having the thought. Craig nodded. "His family was murdered. That would mess most people up."

"Right. So it's normal."

"Normal to be messed up? Yes, it's pretty common. Even more normal to be really messed up if your family was murdered so yeah." Stan nodded falling into brief contemplation over it while Craig looked on fascinated that Stan could disconnect so easily.

The bell rang. Stan stood up. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

Craig rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Stan, you really are becoming a total space case. We still have another class together today- last period, I'll see you then."

"Oh-oh yeah, okay, see you then," Stan stuttered. He had totally forgotten the last class and the amount of people telling him he was a space case was concerning.

Soon Stan found himself in his art class again. Cartman and Kenny were already there sitting at their table. Stan sat down across from them. "Hi."

Kenny glanced up but didn't say anything before looking back down. Cartman rolled his eyes. "Hi Stanley. Were you able to talk any sense into my friend here? You kept him long enough."

Kenny didn't show any signs of even hearing what had been said but Stan knew that he had. Stan nodded. "Yes, I believe I did so we're good."

"So he's actually going to eat?"

"Let's not push things," Stan warned. Cartman shook his head and muttered under his breath. Stan didn't care enough to be bothered by him at the moment. All of his attention was on Kenny who simply kept staring down as if he could burn holes into the floor. The class droned on and on, while worry dragged Stan down and tired him out. The class ended too fast and it didn't register with Stan that they were leaving until he heard Kenny's voice, quiet as always.

"Stan?"

Stan snapped to and looked around realizing it was just the three of them and the art teacher giving them an odd look from his desk. Cartman was looking down at Stan, too, actually showing a slight bit of concern which was quickly hid. "What the hell Stan? Lost in space again? Class is over, move on to the next class, thankfully the last class."

"Right, right, uh, sorry," Stan apologized grabbing his book, standing up, and pushing his chair back in. He was losing his mind. He followed behind Cartman and Kenny. He so badly wanted to say bye to Kenny and beg him to come back tomorrow. Stan suspected he'd probably visit him later as he was terrified that Kenny might actually try to kill himself. "I'll catch you guys later," Stan piped up letting them know he was taking off.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Cartman waved him off. Kenny said nothing.

Ω

Craig was sitting by him again. Stan stared at him. "Okay, I know there is no way I missed you sitting next to me in all three periods."

Craig shrugged. "You definitely did."

"What's going on with me."

"Probably shock."

"What?"

"Our friend from sixth grade just basically came back from the dead and you were close to him when we were younger so it's only natural."

"I guess."

The final bell rang and Stan was so zoned out Craig had so snap his fingers in front of his face a couple times before Stan realized what was going on. "Dude, you might want to see a doctor. Or therapist."

"I'm fine."

"Okay." It was clear Craig thought otherwise.

Ω

Kyle was already at their locker waiting for Stan. "Hey, is everything okay? I heard Kenny was still here." It was just like Kyle to totally ignore using his cellphone all through the day. Butters had texted Stan at least four times asking if Kenny was okay and to tell him to tell Kenny he could keep his food container. Kenny now had one more possession to his name.

"Yeah, he's still here. Things are still normal, I guess." Stan shrugged. "Or at least as normal as they can be for South Park."

Kyle shook his head. "Yeah, only 178 days of South Park High to go until break," he dissolved into laughter at this and Stan soon joined. Both were relieved it was the end of the day and began the walk home catching up on what had gone on in various classes. They parted ways and as Stan got closer to his house his feet suddenly decided he should go in another direction. He had to be sure.

Chapter Text

Stan briskly walked in the direction he thought Kenny would be. He had to be sure his friend wouldn't try to kill himself, the thought had plagued him all day. He was tempted to stop by Cartman's first to see if he was there but based on their interaction or lack of it at art class, Stan suspected Kenny probably went straight to the old Target building. Part of him still wanted to stop at Cartman's just to ask him to explain why Kenny had said some of the things he had said, how he had found Kenny, why Kenny refused to stay with Cartman. So many thoughts were bouncing around in his mind as he approached Kenny's stomping ground.

All the noise in his mind fell silent when he found Kenny already asleep on the bench. Stan took note of the needle on the bench, sunlight glimmering off of it making it look deceptively pretty. He sighed sadly before sitting near the blonde hair that was splayed out on the bench. He didn't really know what to do right now. Should he try to wake up Kenny? Would that be worse than waiting for him to come down from whatever high he was on?

He wasn't even sure what drug he had used, Stan really didn't know that much about street drugs, not that he was some angel. His vice was alcohol, always had been and he suspected always would be. He would give Kenny some time before he woke him up he decided. He took one of Kenny's hands in his, putting two fingers on his wrist checking for a pulse- no way was Kenny going to have a drug death on his watch.

Kenny blinked coming down from his high, it had felt so nice to just disappear into a world where he forgot who he was. He assumed he'd been out for a couple hours; he had never actually timed any of these drug induced highs. He just liked the escape.

This time was different as he had sensed another presence but shrugged it off as another druggie getting hopped up. They tended to come here. It took a couple minutes before his mind was finally able to catch up with his vision. Stan, Stan was with him, sitting near him and holding his hand- wait, was Stan checking for a pulse? Had he nearly died? Kenny suddenly shot up surprising Stan.

"Hey, welcome back to earth," Stan said with a sad grin.

Kenny looked around confused. "What- why are you here?"

"I was worried about you after today. I just wanted to make sure you weren't going to do anything stupid."

Kenny looked down at his arm where a fresh needle mark was apparent. "Sorry to disappoint," he said looking at Stan.

"I can't judge you, I have my own issues."

Kenny pursed his lips. "Really? You seem to have it pretty together to me."

Stan burst into laughter at this finding it hilarious. It took him a good minute to stop laughing. "Hey, maybe you can put in a good word for me with everyone? Even Craig thinks I've turned into a total space cadet."

"Oh. I didn't notice." Stan resisted the temptation to tell Kenny that of course he hadn't noticed because he rarely looked away from the floor when at school. Stan sensed Kenny might be baiting him though and simply shook his head.

"It's been four years Kenny. A lot of us have changed." As have you.

"Yeah, of course." Kenny agreed and then became very interested in his fingernails. Stan said nothing and silence ensued for several long minutes. Stan was starting to feel pretty comfortable until Kenny spoke up again. "Stan, you don't have to stay here. You can go home," he said looking over at his friend. The tone was apologetic.

"No, I do have to stay here," Stan said simply.

"No- you- you don't have to," Kenny stumbled with the words. He hadn't had much contact with other humans over the last few years, sure he had seen some but none he had been close too. He wasn't used to this, having to come up with excuses on the sly or making sure his assurances didn't seem empty. It had been a long time since he'd worried about any of that. He was having to essentially relearn social interaction and Stan was tripping him up. He glanced away from his friend, putting one hand on his forehead as thoughts raced through his mind. He wished he could tell Stan everything.

Stan waited a bit for his friend to continue but he didn't. Stan wasn't going to let him off easy. "Yes, I do." He said with more force in his voice. "Kenny. You just popped up after four years, you aren't eating, you hadn't even had human contact for who knows how long before yesterday, and you're out here shooting up on an old picnic table. I do need to stay here."

"Why?" Kenny asked. He deemed it unimportant to correct Stan that he had come into contact with some humans in the last four years, they just weren't exactly the kind you'd hug.

"Because I don't want you to disappear again, I want to help you."

Now Kenny laughed but it was empty and hollow. "I can't be helped, Stan, it's a waste of your time." If Stan knew the whole truth, Kenny was sure he might just agree.

"No!" Suddenly Stan was looming over Kenny, standing in front of him with his arms reaching past him, hands palm down on the picnic table. Stan squatted slightly so he was eye level with Kenny who was still sitting on the bench trying to shrink into himself unable to mask his confusion and shock. "No, it's not a waste of my time. Don't ever say that again."

Kenny was trying to look away but Stan's eyes were ablaze with passion, determination, and something else Kenny couldn't place. He wasn't sure how long he sat there astounded into silence, Stan not moving even slightly. "Answer me, Kenny," Stan demanded. There was something about Stan's tone that he couldn't ignore and felt obligated to answer even though no question had actually been asked.

"Okay, okay, I won't say that again."

Stan nodded slowly. "Good. We'll work on getting you to believe it later." Stan stood back up before sitting back down next to the shocked blonde.

It took a couple minutes for Kenny to recover before saying anything. "Damn, Stan, you have gotten really intense."

"Four years, Ken, four years."

"Right."

Silence hung over them again. Stan took out his cell phone and took note of the two missed calls from his mom and the four missed calls and three texts from Kyle. Dude, where are you? Your mom called looking. Then a second text, Seriously Stan, where are you at? Your mom is kind of freaking out, she said you haven't answered your phone. And now my mom is freaking out thinking I have something to do with it. Then the third text, Stan ANSWER the phone before our dads do something really stupid. They are talking about searching the neighborhood for you. At least text your sister or something, let them know you're ok. You ARE ok, right? They had been sent over the course of two hours.

Stan keyed in a quick reply, Sorry, dude, I'm fine, been with Kenny. I'll text my sister, thanks. He switched the contacts to his sister and started to let her know he was okay when his phone vibrated with Kyle's reply of a simple ok. Shelly wasn't exactly thrilled to hear from her brother but assured him she would let their parents know he was okay. Their parents weren't the best at texting as Sharon usually forgot to charge her cell phone while Randy usually lost his. Stan had a feeling his parents might step up their discipline; he really should have gone straight home but he didn't care. He was happy with the decision he'd made. Still, he couldn't avoid going home for much longer.

He looked over at Kenny. "You should come with me," he said. Kenny made to protest but Stan cut him off. "I'm not asking. At least just for tonight, it doesn't have to be every night, I just want to make sure you're okay."

"Stan, I can't, I just - I can't."

Stan stood up and sighed remembering Kyle's warning of not pushing him too hard too fast. "Okay, Kenny, but will you think of it at least? Even if it's not my house, maybe Cartman's? Kyle's, Craig's, anyone- just," Stan turned to look back down at Kenny who remained sitting on the bench, "just not out here for much longer." Kenny nodded.

"I'll work on it."

"You will be at school tomorrow, right?" Stan asked, vulnerability eating up his insides now that he was planning to leave. If he let Kenny out of his sight, he might never see him again. In sixth grade there was one last day they had all seen Kenny, it had never occurred to any of them that it would be the last time they'd see Kenny. Stan had honestly grown accustomed to the idea that he would never see the poor blonde boy again but here he was.

"Yeah."

"Promise?"

Kenny gave him a strange look before nodding. "Promise."

Stan nodded and turned in the direction of his house. The whole walk he felt the crisp autumn air on his skin and was relieved it was only autumn. He had to get Kenny into someone's house before winter. It would be too cold for anyone to continue living outside. He arrived at home to an irritated sister, frantic mother, and confused father. His groundation from video games had been extended. He had almost laughed that they still thought he was upset about being grounded from video games. He fell into another restless night of getting almost no sleep.

Chapter Text

Craig stood in front of Stan and Kyle's locker the next morning. He waved to Stan as the other boy approached. "Dude, did you forget to sleep last night?" The dark under Stan's eyes gave way that he was not counting sheep at night.

Stan shrugged. "Not really, just been having trouble sleeping since school started."

"Right, since Kenny returned you mean."

"Both, I guess." Stan paused and looked around noticing other students filling the halls with the conspicuous absence of a certain redhead who shared his locker. "Why are you even here Craig? Isn't your locker at the other end of the hall? With your boyfriend?"

"Tweek's taking a break from school today, it's been a lot for him to process and it's only the third day of school."

"Good thing it's Friday then," Stan said as the schools usually started on Wednesdays to give everyone a few days to adjust their schedules. "Still doesn't explain why you're here."

"Kyle asked me to keep on eye on you, he's worried about you."

"Why isn't he here?" There was silence for a couple minutes as even Craig wasn't able to hide that he was taken aback by Stan's question.

"He texted me and said he wouldn't be here today, I just assumed he would have told you that, too."

"No, he didn't," Stan said unsure what to think.

"Are you sure? You have been really spacey lately."

"Positive," Stan said pulling out his phone and shooting off a quick text to his friend. Hey, are you ok? Craig told me you weren't coming to school today? It was very disturbingly unlike Kyle to miss any school much less on the first week.

Kyle texted back immediately, Yes, I'm just not feeling well, maybe caught something. Stan frowned and shot back a reply, OK, get better soon. He put his phone away still confused. Kyle usually didn't miss school unless he was deathly ill. Not to mention why would Kyle ask Craig of all people to keep an eye on Stan. Why would anyone need to keep an eye on him anyway? He could take care of himself.

"Dude," Craig's voice cut through Stan's thoughts. "You're doing it again. I've only said your name like three times."

"What? Really?" Stan asked surprised, "I didn't hear you, really."

"I know, why do you think Kyle is worried about you?" Craig asked answering Stan's earlier thoughts.

"Right, right, makes sense," he muttered still preoccupied with worrying over Kyle. He stuffed second period's books in his book bag before throwing it over his shoulders, took his book out for first period, and started walking in the opposite direction of the class. Craig stood at the locker, arms folded across his chest, unimpressed.

"Class is the other way, Stan."

"I know, but we still have almost ten minutes. I want to check in on Kenny and Cartman. Yesterday someone tagged their locker."

"I heard." He unfolded his arms and sighed. "Guess I'll tag along."

Ω

Cartman and Kenny were at their locker, Cartman angrily snapping at some kids hanging around them. "Get out of here, we're not a freakin' exhibit, morons!"

A group of younger looking girls were near and it didn't take long for Stan to register them as Karen's friends from the other day. One girl's voice rose above the other voices in the hall. "We just want to know where he's been hiding all these years and why he's been hiding." She crossed her arms clearly not planning to leave anytime soon.

Kenny kept his head down while Cartman scowled at them. "What the hell? Are you even supposed to be in this hallway? Aren't middle schoolers supposed to stay in the middle school halls? Last I checked no one in middle school was up here except you."

"We're owed that much!" the girl exclaimed.

"You're not owed anything!" Cartman countered, "Get out!"

Craig and Stan approached the girls from behind. Craig's monotonous voice climbed a couple decibels in volume so he could be heard. "You heard him. Leave to your classes, bell is about to ring."

Stan caught on and joined the act. "Yes, security is on their way here doing hall sweeps so I'd suggest getting to your own halls before they get here."

A few of the girls nodded and broke from the group leaving just two there. The one girl who had spoken kept her eyes on Kenny clearly angry at being told to leave before she got her answers. After a couple more intense moments she unclenched her teeth. "Fine," she bit out. "But we'll be back. You can't hide behind your friends forever!" She walked past Cartman hair swishing behind her, her friend followed as well and the hall was vacant of all middle schoolers. Cartman angrily slammed the locker door shut. Stan saw Kenny jump at the sound.

"Those fucking bitches!" Cartman punched his locker door angrily. "I should go to the principal and have administration deal with them, they should be expelled!"

"It doesn't work that way," Craig pointed out. "Students just don't go and make expulsion recommendations."

"Fuck you, Craig, those girls need to be put in their place!"

"Don't," Kenny's voice joined them. Craig's interest piqued at hearing their friend; this was the first time he'd heard him actually speak. "They were Karen's friends."

"Clearly! And so?!" Cartman cried. "So what?! They can't do this, they need to be taught a lesson-"

"Don't," Kenny said again more forcefully, then lower. "Leave them alone, they've been through enough."

Cartman made a noise in protest and punched the locker again before turning and stalking off.

Craig watched Cartman leave before looking over at Kenny who refused to look at the other two still there. Craig cleared his throat, "Kenny, you've been through a lot, too. It's not fair of them to target you like this."

"It's fine," Kenny mumbled.

"No, it's not fine!" Stan cried stepping forward, grabbing Kenny by the arms and giving him a little shake. "Snap out of it!" Stan pled with his friend. Suddenly there were hands on Stan's shoulders pulling him away from Kenny.

"Stop, Stan," Craig scolded. "It's not helping anyone." He looked over at Kenny who was looking up in shock. "Kenny," Craig said trying to get his attention on him and away from Stan. Kenny looked over at Craig uncertainly. "Where's your next class? Lead the way." Kenny nodded and led them to the class without saying a word. Once there Craig waved him off before turning his attention to Stan who had also remained silent the whole walk. "Stan, what the hell was that?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you snapping and grabbing him like that. The guy probably has major PTSD, he doesn't exactly need people suddenly grabbing him and shaking him."

"Oh, guess I didn't think of it that way."

"Of course not," Craig mumbled rolling his eyes. "Just don't do it again and maybe apologize when you see him again?"

"Yeah, I will."

"Good, let's get to class now. We're late. You're late. Again."

Ω

The rest of the day flew by for Stan. He was relieved that Kenny was still at the school for lunch. They managed to eat without incident although it was an unusually quiet lunch missing both Kyle and Tweek. Cartman did ask about Kyle but Stan shrugged it off saying that Kyle had stayed home sick. Cartman had snorted clearly not buying that Kyle of all people would be sick on the third day of school. Butters and Craig mostly spoke and Stan suspected Craig was just humoring Butters and trying to keep the attention off of Kenny. It seemed Kenny was becoming more and more of an enigma to all those that once knew him, present company at the lunch table included.

During art there wasn't much said between Cartman and Stan. Cartman asked about Kyle again but Stan didn't have any more information for him. Kenny didn't look at Stan the whole time and Stan struggled to find the words to apologize if he was out of line earlier. He must have been if Craig had gone out of his way to point it out. The bell rang before Stan was able to find any words and he found himself in his last class, his mind still preoccupied with Kenny.

Craig eyed his friend with concern. It was close to the end of class and the teacher had given the last few minutes to the students. It was pretty common practice the teachers would leave the last five minutes to the class. Stan had been staring gloomily ahead the entire period, not interacting with anyone or participating in class at all. Craig was going to have to step it up if he was going to keep his word to Kyle. He leaned over. "Stan? Penny for your thoughts?" He held up a shiny copper coin.

"You're actually going to give me a penny?" Stan asked humor glinting through the worry in his eyes. Craig beamed at him happy to have lifted his friend's spirits even if just a little.

"Yup!" He confirmed and started to give the penny to him but pulled it away. "Uh-uh, you gotta tell me your thoughts first."

"I wanted to apologize to Kenny about this morning but haven't yet."

Craig raised his eyebrows. "Why not? Didn't we eat lunch together? And don't you have a class with him after lunch?" He belatedly realized he sounded harsh but he couldn't take the words back now.

"Yeah, I just-just…" Stan trailed off.

"Just?" Craig prompted.

"I don't know, just embarrassed, I guess?" Stan really didn't know why he hadn't made more of an effort to bring it up throughout the day.

"There's always the rest of the day or tomorrow," Craig pointed out. Stan nodded without saying another word. Craig easily tossed the penny onto his desk, Stan picked it up and rewarded his friend with a smile. The bell rang and both boys left the class. Craig noticed Stan walking at a faster pace than normal.

"In a hurry?"

"Yeah, I'm going to go see Kenny." He thought he also might stop by Kyle's, too.

"Okay….just be sure to think before you act," Craig advised. Stan nodded and waved at his friend before heading towards his locker. Craig watched him for a moment before turning in the opposite direction to get to his own locker. He shot off a text to Kyle. Hey, your spacey friend made it through another day. Kyle replied with gratitude. Later, Craig would regret not actually walking Stan home, but he could only do so much.

Once Stan escaped from Craig, he hurriedly dropped his things off in his locker, completely forgetting that he should take his book bag with him so he could do homework over the weekend. He went straight for the old Target building not bothering to find Kenny at the school after classes. He really didn't want to have to deal with Cartman again. So far Kenny had been alone when Stan had found him out here; granted, he'd only been by twice but he was hoping the pattern would hold up for him.

He rounded the corner of the building to find the picnic table already occupied but not with Kenny. Instead a few older kids sat there. Stan recognized two of them as seniors instantly, mostly likely friends of Kevin's. The other two looked a year or two older, also probably Kevin's friends. How did they even know Kenny stayed here, had they followed him before? Why were these kids so obsessed? The boys waited for Stan to approach them before saying anything.

"Hi Stan," one of the boys recognized him. Aaron, Stan realized he'd seen the boy at a few of Shelly's school events, he was friends with her. Stan's defenses dropped a little; Aaron had always been nice to him.

"Hey," another said, someone Stan didn't know well but knew his name. Derek. "Why are you hanging out with that McCormick kid after what he did?"

Stan shook his head. "No. He didn't do it." He was totally affronted by the fact that these people could even think Kenny would kill his whole family.

Derek and Aaron both rolled their eyes while the other two boys shook their heads. Aaron spoke up. "Come on, dude, he's the only survivor? What are the odds? Besides he was in plenty of trouble back then and it wouldn't be the first time he had messed with a gun."

Stan's whole being stiffened, all ease gone. What exactly did these guys plan to do once Kenny got there? "He wouldn't have hurt his sister," he ground out through clenched teeth.

"People say that all the time," Aaron said, getting up from the bench. "But then they do hurt their family members when drugged out."

Stan was horrified. "He wasn't drugged out! He didn't do it!" He yelled, righteous anger spilling into his words. Two of the boys had circled around and were behind him. Stan was hyper aware that there was four of them and just himself. He was alone. He kept his eyes on Aaron and Derek who remained in front of him.

"Dude!" one of the other boys shouted, "How do you know that? Maybe you were there with him?"

"What? No!" Stan cried. Hands were grabbing his and just like that he couldn't move his hands anymore.

"Get down, now," an angry whisper in his ears. Stan slowly got to his knees on the ground, half expecting one of them to pull out a gun and start pistol whipping him. This was insane. Clearly, the schools had not done well on grief counseling after the murders.

Derek towered over him, arms crossed. "Well, were you there that night?"

Stan didn't say anything until there was sharp pain in his back, no mistake a foot had caused it. His hands were pulled back further adding to the pain, and a foot stomped on his right leg a couple times. His face began to turn red as he couldn't hold in a whimper from the pain. He spit on Derek. "No! I wasn't!"

"How fucking dare you?" Derek spat, wiping the spit off his pants and spitting back onto Stan before kicking him in the chest. Stan couldn't do too much but take it as the two behind him were showing no signs of loosening their grip on him. Derek kicked him again. Aaron was looking uncomfortable as he watched Stan squirm in his friends' hold. Derek socked the younger teen in the eye. "For spitting on me, asshole." Panic was beginning to take over Stan's senses. Were these guys actually planning to kill him? Had they been planning on killing Kenny?!

"What the fuck is going on over here?!" Stan had never been so thrilled to hear Eric Cartman's voice in his entire life.

There was scuffling behind him and Stan heard Kenny's angry voice. "Get off of him!" His restraints gone Stan quickly stood up, ready to return Derek's punch. Cartman had already charged at him so Stan spun around to help Kenny. The blonde had managed to get one of the two guys on the ground and was straddling him, punching him repeatedly.

The other guy who had been knocked to the ground earlier had gotten back up and was heading towards Kenny. He spotted Stan at the ready and turned to flee. Aaron was nowhere to be found, he must have fled right when he sensed things going down unfavorably. Stan glanced at Cartman who was exchanging punches with Derek before looking back down at Kenny. It dawned on him that the teenager under Kenny was no longer fighting back, he looked unconscious but Kenny didn't realize. Stan rushed over putting his hand on Kenny's shoulder.

"Hey, hey, Kenny, stop, he's out," Stan squeezed his friend's shoulder and Kenny stopped mid-motion, yanking his fist away. He looked up at Stan.

Derek shouted at them. "You guys are insane! Keep protecting that murderer! Look, he's probably killed Liam! It's your guys' funerals!" He spat at them deciding to leave.

"Yeah, you better run!" Cartman screamed after him. "Pathetic!"

Cartman walked over to where Stan was helping Kenny back to his feet. He looked down at Liam. "Damn, Kenny, you actually knocked him out?" He pulled out his phone but stopped when he heard sirens closing in on them. "Well, I guess we don't need to call the medics."

Stan looked uncertain. "What are we going to do?"

Cartman shrugged. "We're going to tell them the truth. We sure didn't go looking for them for a fight so there's no point in leaving unless we want to look suspicious." Liam had started to stir.

Kenny shifted his weight looking more and more uncomfortable as the sirens and bright flashing lights drew closer. Cartman shook his head, taking in both Stan and Kenny's expressions. "Just let me talk, okay? Stan tell me what happened when you got here." Stan filled him in on the details. Liam had managed to stand up and had been ready to flee but stopped when he realized the police had already seen him. He shot a wary glance at the other three boys uncertain how they planned to explain this to the police.

Dread filled Stan when a police officer he didn't recognize got out of the police car. Thankfully, they weren't taken down to the station. Cartman filled the police officer in on what had happened and supplied him with both his and Stan's cell phone number. Kenny didn't have a phone but Cartman assured the officer he could reach Kenny through Cartman. The most awkward question turned out to be why on earth were there so many teenage boys hanging out in back of the old Target building after school.

Cartman had only paused for a moment before explaining that they just liked hanging out there. The officer had given them a disapproving look indicating all the dirty needles on the ground that were visible to the naked eye. He clearly thought that the kids had been arguing over drugs even after Cartman explained that the other boys had been there to attack Kenny and Stan had just gotten caught in the crosshairs.

Stan supposed that Cartman's story, while the truth, actually sounded a bit ridiculous in comparison to some boys getting into a fight over drugs. Liam made a couple snide comments about Kenny unintentionally corroborating Cartman's story for the most part. Liam accepted a ride home with the officer not wanting to stay behind alone with the other three. They were happy the officer had let them off so easily, Cartman and Kenny both were visibly relieved once the officer left.

Stan sat on the bench heaving a sigh of relief. "I am so glad you guys showed up when you did."

"Yeah," Cartman said while Kenny remained silent, his back to Stan. Cartman looked down at Stan. "What the hell were you doing here anyway Stan?"

"I wanted to talk to Kenny, to apologize for earlier today when I kind of lost it." Cartman looked confused so Stan clarified, "You weren't there Cartman, it was after those middle school girls had left."

Kenny finally turned around, pulling at his hair with one hand, the other still clenched tightly into a fist, blood smeared on a few knuckles. "You don't have to apologize for anything. I'm sorry this happened to you."

Stan facepalmed frustrated. "God, Kenny, this is why I was even here in the first place. You don't need to apologize, you didn't do anything."

Cartman nodded. "Yeah, Kenny, listen to him." Kenny said nothing and the three fell into a short silence. Stan finally broke the silence.

"Why are they so obsessed anyway? I've never seen Aaron like that… like possessed or something."

Cartman and Kenny exchanged a knowing look but Stan didn't catch it as he was still staring straight ahead. When no one responded to him, he spoke up again, looking at Kenny. "There is no way in hell you are staying here tonight. You can stay at my place or Cartman's." Kenny made to protest, but Stan quickly held up a hand signaling for him to stop. "No way in hell," he emphasized firmly.

"He's right," Cartman said with a nod. "And we're all leaving together," he added giving Stan a look. Stan stood up more than happy to get out of the area.

Kenny chose to stay with Cartman and while Stan was a little disappointed, he was also relieved. At least Cartman would only have to convince one person to let Kenny stay and Lianne would usually do anything Cartman asked of her. Stan would have had three people to convince and convincing his mom would not have gone over well. Speaking of which, he stood in front of his mother and father both looking extremely displeased.

"Where have you been Stanley?" Sharon demanded. "You were supposed to come straight home and why do you look like someone beat you up?"

Randy sat on the couch with a beer, looking his son over. "Stan, do we need to get you into martial arts? Are you being bullied?"

"What? No," Stan quickly denied without a second thought despite the fact that was exactly what had happened.

Shelly's voice startled him. He hadn't even realized his sister was in the room on the recliner. She no longer had any of the metal around her face except a small nose ring and had grown into an attractive senior student at South Park High. "It was because of Kenny. Some of Kevin's old friends found out where Kenny has been staying and went to find him. Stan found them first."

Stan glanced at his sister. Obviously Aaron had texted her. He wondered if Aaron was also the one who had alerted the police. Sharon and Randy looked at their daughter confused. She held up her phone confirming what Stan thought. "A friend texted me about what happened."

The room became quiet. Sharon finally spoke up. "Should you be hanging out with Kenny, Stan? I mean it's obviously not safe."

"Mom!" Stan protested. "It's not his fault some of the kids at school are crazy. He's the one getting bullied, they were planning to jump him and I just wound up there first. Kenny needs friends."

Sharon sighed. "I know, I just don't want you getting hurt. He did just reappear after four years. Who knows what he's been up to or what's happened to him."

"I'll be fine, Mom, I can take care of myself."

Randy shook his head and Shelly snorted. Sharon smiled at her son, concern still in her eyes. She would revisit this later; it didn't seem right to scold her son on his choices when his lip was bleeding and his eye swelling. "Well, come on, let's get you cleaned up. Looks like you'll have a shiner."


 

Chapter Text

The weekend was a welcome relief though Stan didn't do much but lay around and watch some TV. He texted both Kyle and Cartman. Kyle took longer than usual to text back but when he did he let Stan know he still wasn't feeling well. Cartman just seemed annoyed Stan was even texting him.

Stan tried to put Kenny out of his mind but found himself wanting the weekend to hurry up and be over. He texted Cartman again on Sunday seeing if he could swing by but Cartman was clearly irritated and texted back that it wasn't a good time. Stan couldn't figure out if it was actually Cartman who didn't want to see him or Kenny or both. Cartman was usually up for doing whatever so Stan was a little confused, but then Kyle usually wasn't sick this early in the school year and Kenny hadn't been around for a few years so weird was the new normal.

Randy decided to give his son some tips on fighting and Stan was pretty sure his dad had developed a new interest in wrestling just for his sake. His eye did look pretty bad and his lip was swollen; he couldn't even remember being hit in the lip but he guess he must have been at some point.

Monday morning Stan arrived at school to find Kyle already there. Both mirrored each others' face of horror and shock when they saw each other. "The hell happened to you?" they both asked simultaneously. Stan shrugged it off. "Got into a fight." Kyle didn't respond right away. His eyes had dark bags under them and Stan suspected his friend hadn't slept all weekend.

"I'm still getting over the cold," Kyle offered weakly. Stan frowned growing more concerned. Kyle didn't lie to him often but he knew when he did and Kyle was definitely lying about his cold.

"You wanna go with me to see Cartman and Kenny?" Kyle's eyes narrowed and he tried to hide the fear that flickered in his eyes but Stan still picked up on it. When Kyle said nothing, Stan asked, "Are you okay, Kyle?"

Kyle nodded. "Yeah, I'm good. I just need to get to class. I'll see them in homeroom anyway," he said gently closing their locker and walking away. Stan stared after him at a total loss. He turned to go to his friends' locker but he was disappointed to find no one at their locker; they must have left for class already.

Stan's face must have looked worse than he thought as even Craig greeted him with shock and concern. Maybe his dad was right to be giving him fighting tips.

Things would only get stranger as Stan found himself alone at his locker at the start of the lunch period. Usually he and Kyle met there. He texted his friend confused. Kyle responded right away and told him he was getting help in one of his AP classes. Stan frowned at the text his confusion blossoming into worry. Kyle never needed help in classes; he was usually the one tutoring others sometimes even upperclassmen.

Stan had gotten help during lunch periods before in classes he struggled with and probably would this year, too, but usually anyone could get through the first week or two without using a lunch period for tutoring. Stan shook his head and headed towards the table he usually sat at. Craig, Tweek, and Butters were the only people already there. Stan sat down after giving everyone a slight wave.

There was a brief pause in conversation and Craig asked, "Where's Kyle? I heard he was here today."

Stan shrugged. "He said he needed help in a class so he's getting," Stan struggled to finish through his own confusion, "tutored."

The other three fell into complete silence at this. Tweek pulled at his hair. "Kyle?! Kyle needs a tutor?!" His left eye started twitching. "This year is going to be so hard if Kyle already needs a tutor!" Craig placed a hand on his shoulder trying to offer comfort to his distressed boyfriend.

Butters swallowed the food in his mouth. "Wow, I never thought I'd hear that Kyle needs tutoring."

"Me, either," Stan agreed. Butters was too polite to ask about Stan's face and Tweek was so jumped up about Kyle he either didn't notice or was too scared to ask.

Two plates were set on the table across from Stan as Kenny and Cartman joined the group. "What are you weirdos blabbing on about?" Cartman greeted the table. "Stan, your face looks like shit."

Kenny sat quietly and shot Stan a quick worried look before looking down at his plate. Stan only met his eyes for a second before Kenny looked away. Stan frowned. Kenny's orange hood was pulled loosely over his head further obscuring his face. He hadn't worn the hood much last week and definitely not at lunch.

Stan rolled his eyes. "Thanks for noticing, Cartman."

Tweek just grunted and pulled at his hair despite Craig trying to offer comfort. Butters shook his head. "Hey, fellas, we were just talking about Kyle needing tutoring."

Cartman's fork fell from his hand and clattered to the floor. "No. Way." Joy shone in his eyes and a slow happy smile that looked insane quirked across his mouth. "That little kike is finally being knocked down a peg! About damn time! Yes!" Cartman raised his fist in victory. "I should have bought a cake, this is the best day of my life!" Stan kicked Cartman under the table hard. Cartman hissed. "Jesus, Stan, let me have my moment."

Stan shook his head unhappy. "I'm worried about him. It looked like he hadn't slept all weekend and when he gets sick it's pretty bad."

Cartman took a sip of his drink. "Aww, that's cute, Stan, you worried about your boyfriend? You guys are such fags, I swear."

Craig's hands hit the table with an unusual amount of force. "We are right here, dude. Me and Tweek are literally right here."

Cartman looked sincerely confused, whether it was actual confusion or faked, who knew. "So, what does that have to do with anything? I don't get what your point is."

"That is my point." Craig grumbled lowly sensing he was fighting a losing battle.

"Oh, get over yourself," Cartman shot back, "don't be so sensitive, you'll kill yourself before high school is over with, Craig. Or you'll become a weird ass hippie like this one here," he said pointing across the table at Stan.

Stan and Craig both made to protest while Tweek pulled at his hair some more starting to freak out that his boyfriend was about to get into a fight. Butters attempted a weak, "Hey fellas" but Kenny's voice rose over everyone's at the table.

"Stop! Please, just everyone stop." He gave the table a sweeping glance actually meeting everyone's eyes briefly before looking back down, hair and hood obscuring his face once again. Everyone was quiet, even Tweek let go of his hair and looked down unsure what to do with his nervous energy.

"Damn," Cartman grumbled, "I should disappear for a few years so everyone will just listen to me anytime I speak."

"You never shut up," Stan countered. He stood up suddenly no longer hungry and feeling unusually tired. He couldn't banter with Cartman today at least not at Kyle or Kenny's expense.

Butters looked over at Stan. "You're finished already Stan? You just got here," he pointed out. At least nothing could ever change Butters or so it seemed.

Stan nodded. "Yeah, I'm not feeling great myself," he admitted. He was being honest, he really didn't feel good. He walked away from the table not really sure where he was going to go for the rest of the lunch period. Maybe he should just go home. It was within easy walking distance.

"Whatever," Cartman waved him off.

"I hope you feel better, Stan," Butters called after him. Stan didn't turn around but lifted a hand to indicate he had heard. He didn't hear Cartman's "Godamnit Kenny." He didn't realize he had company until he had vanished from the cafeteria to the hallways. He stopped to turn around and as he suspected it was Kenny who had followed.

"Kenny?" Stan asked. Kenny only lifted his head enough so that he could meet Stan's inquisitive gaze. He sighed after a second and held his head up so that his hood fell off, he tucked some hair behind a ear, taking in Stan's face.

"Your face," he said softly. "I'm so sorry."

Stan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. If he heard Kenny apologize one more time for anything he might turn into Tweek and start screaming and kicking things in neuroticism. "It's not a big deal, really. It's not the first time I got into a fight."

"I wouldn't call that a fight," Kenny pointed out.

"Still, not the first time someone's socked me one," Stan grinned through his swollen lips. "My dad is Randy Marsh after all, what can one expect?"

Kenny returned the smile for a quick second and Stan's heart skipped a beat. What was happening to him? Kenny stuck his hands back in his pockets ignoring the scathing glares a couple students gave him as they passed by, he leaned lightly against the lockers, closing his eyes.

"You tired?" Stan asked.

Kenny shrugged. "Eric's house isn't exactly a quiet place."

Stan laughed out loud at this. "Really? Cartman? He's not quiet?"

Kenny grinned again and it was clear he knew it would be no surprise to anyone that knew Cartman that he wasn't a quiet person. Stan quieted down before looking more seriously at Kenny. "Are you okay though?"

"I'm fine," Kenny said in the most reassuring tone he could.

"You know, if you need anything I'm here," Stan offered.

"I know."

Cartman came up behind Kenny. "Seriously, Kenny, you need to actually fucking eat food before you throw it away or don't get anything. There are people starving in Alabama."

Kenny pulled his hood back over his head and looked down, the blonde strands falling forward. It was like Kenny just vanished even though he was right there. Stan said nothing as the two walked off to their own class. Maybe he really would go home. He went to his locker to see if he could catch Kyle before the lunch period was over. If he knew his best friend, Kyle would likely be getting his books out for the next class.

Sure enough, Kyle was standing in front of an open locker, reaching in for a book. Stan sped up his pace worried Kyle would vanish if he didn't catch up now. "Hey, how was….. tutoring?"

"Huh?" Kyle glanced at him confused.

"You said you were being tutored and that's why you couldn't eat lunch with us today," Stan reminded him.

"Oh, oh yeah. It went."

Stan waited for Kyle to continue but when it became clear he wasn't Stan gingerly asked, "Kyle, is everything okay? You don't usually need tutoring and I know you were sick and didn't sleep much….." he trailed off. Kyle turned back to him surprised.

"Are you okay? You've been spacing out, have a shiner, and a busted lip," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but that's not totally out of the norm for me. I've had black eyes and busted lips before. And I've spaced out before, not as badly as I have the last few days but still. You have never needed a tutor. Ever." Stan took a deep breath. "Kyle, what are you hiding?"

Kyle slammed the locker shut. "Nothing, Stan! It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does!"

"No, it really doesn't!" Kyle shook his head. "You wouldn't understand." He stalked off, clearly upset. Stan was stunned and stared after him again for a second time that day confused and sensing déjà vu. Hadn't he just had a pretty similar conversation with Kenny the week before? He scratched his head. What the hell is going on?

Stan wound up going home after all, feeling upset at everything and everyone. It turned out he was actually ill, too, as he did puke some once he was home. Maybe Kyle was being more honest with him than he was giving him credit for. Still, he knew Kyle was definitely lying about being tutored and he wasn't just sick on the weekend. There was something else.

Stan spent the next day home sick and got a few texts from several friends; he assured them he was fine, he had just gotten a stomach virus. He returned to school on Wednesday only to be surprised that Kyle was out again. The day was rather uneventful as even Cartman was a little unsettled by Kyle's unusual absences.

Stan was ready for when he saw Kyle again on Thursday at their locker before school started. "Kyle, what the hell is going on for real?" Kyle had ignored his concerned texts the day before.

Kyle shook his head. "Seriously, Stan, it's- it's not something I can really explain."

"Can you try?"

"I have been trying."

"How?"

"I just- I can't- I don't really understand it myself."

"Have you talked to anyone about it? Maybe the school counselor or a therapist or something?"

Kyle snorted, finding this notion hilarious. "Definitely not. I'd be put in an institution."

Stan's heart stopped short at this declaration. "What- what do you mean? You're not hurting yourself or anything are you?" Oh god, was Stan going to have to have this conversation with all of his friends?

Kyle was taken aback. "No, no, of course not." He finally found the book he was looking for out of their locker and closed it.

Stan gestured with his hands totally at a loss. "But- then- why- why would you be put in an institution? Unless you're planning to hurt yourself or… someone…else…?"

"What?!" Kyle screeched, insulted. "No, definitely not. I'm not hurting myself or planning to hurt anyone else. That's ridiculous!"

"Then I don't understand…"

It was Kyle's turn to gesture with his hands in frustration. "That's what I've been trying to tell you! I don't even understand it." Cartman's voice was heard from further down the hallway. Kyle looked past Stan and fear flickered briefly across his face. If you'd blinked you would have missed it. It was the second time Stan had seen that fear. "I have to leave," Kyle said hurriedly and rushed off. Stan turned and made a beeline for Cartman.

"Cartman, what the fuck? Did you do something to Kyle?" he demanded surprising both Cartman and Kenny.

"In his dreams maybe," Cartman responded. "Why, jealous?"

Stan pointed at Cartman. "Seriously, dude, leave him alone. Just fuck off." He turned around with that.

"What the hell, Stan?" Cartman called after him. "That was uncalled for, asshole!"

Stan was still fuming and didn't respond. Cartman's response wasn't exactly what he had been hoping for. It didn't confirm or deny that Cartman had a hand in causing Kyle to act so weird but it definitely made him doubt Cartman was the source of that fear.

Stan slinked into his desk and slumped downwards trying to quiet all the racing thoughts in his mind. Craig's voice brought him back to reality. "Stan, are you going to Token's this weekend?"

"Why?"

"He's having his back to school party. You know he's been doing this since we were in seventh grade. Are you going?" Craig was giving him that odd look again.

"Yeah," Stan said straightening in his desk. He loved Token's back to school parties, end of year parties, summer parties, Token just liked throwing parties; his house was big enough, his parents were out of town on business often and Token seemed to have a never ending supply of really expensive alcohol.

Holiday parties, spring parties, Token was throwing them. Sometimes they were tons of fun, other times they fizzled out fast and just found a smaller group playing video games, either way, Stan got free beer, vodka, wine, rum, tequila, whatever your poison was, Token had it. And Stan sure loved all those poisons. He wasn't really sure if Token had drugs because he was always hanging around the bar area getting drinks and getting drunk.

Kyle had only been to one party and he had left early. He was too high strung for parties. So was Wendy. She dated Token but she had only been to one party herself. Butters had been to a couple and got grounded for getting home late and having alcohol although he hadn't drank it on purpose; someone had spiked his lemonade. Even though he'd been caught Butters had never told his parents where he had gotten the drinks from or who had thrown the party.

"Good," Craig said with a slight smile. "I'm guessing Kenny will show up since Cartman's always at those parties despite never being invited."

Stan nodded and chuckled. "That's true, he acts like he's the one throwing them."

"Do you think Kyle will show up?"

Stan shrugged. "I kind of doubt it."

"Maybe you can talk him into it? Guy is acting weirder than usual and way more high strung. Needs to loosen up."

Stan certainly couldn't argue with that. He didn't see Kyle again that day as the other boy never returned to their locker. Stan sent him a couple texts but didn't receive a reply.

The next morning found Stan at their locker before Kyle. He leaned against it, waiting for his best friend. Kyle approached and looked worse than he had the day before. Stan pushed himself off the locker and gave his friend a concerned look. "You still aren't sleeping?"

"No, I just can't."

"Have you taken anything for it? Like melatonin?"

Kyle gave Stan an odd look and shook his head. "Thanks for the advice but no. I'm hoping I can catch up on sleep this weekend."

Stan laced his fingers together and clasped his hands in front of his face the classic symbol of begging if you weren't praying though he supposed the two could be intertwined. "Please, please, please, come to the party this weekend, Kyle," he blurted. "It'll be good for you and it'll probably help you sleep after." Maybe.

"Stan, you know I don't usually go to parties. I have to study and stuff."

"Please?" Stan tried to pout and look as innocent as possible. Kyle did need to have fun, Craig was right, Kyle was getting really wound up- pretty soon he would just be a red-headed Tweek. "It'll be so much more fun if you're there!"

Kyle gave a long suffering sigh. "Fine. I'll go. But just for a bit," he clarified.

Stan clapped his hands excited. "Yes! This will be awesome!"

"Also, I'm not eating lunch with you, I have to go to that class again."

"Are you serious?!" Stan asked incredulous. "Again? You haven't eaten lunch with us all week! Even the day I was out, the guys said you went to that class."

"I said I was going to the party, Stan." There was a warning in Kyle's tone and Stan knew that meant to drop it.

"Okay, okay. Got it." Stan grinned despite himself. He couldn't wait for this party.

Chapter Text

Token's house was the envy of almost all South Park residents. The stairs had red carpet, chandeliers hung in different rooms, and the house went on for days. One time Cartman had found a room that no one was using and decided to move in and was there for four days before Token found him and angrily kicked him out. The house was that big.

Stan, Kyle, and Butters entered the oversized, ornate front doors together on Saturday evening.

"I'm so excited," Butters gushed to his friends. Stan grinned in total understanding though he doubted Butters was excited about the alcohol. Stan sure was. Kyle took in the house, awestruck.

"Still amazes me every time we come here how nice it is," he commented. Token's parents were out of town for the week. He had set up everything nicely with help from Craig and a few other students who had met him earlier.

There was a bar that was set up pristinely. The red solo cups stacked on the bar next to his parents' fancy bottles looked displaced and even hilarious. More than one alcohol connoisseur would probably have a heart attack at the top shelf brands being heavily poured into solo cups. A wine connoisseur might actually attack someone at the thought of even cheap wine in a solo cup much less a very expensive fine wine in one. Even so, Token was putting out bottle after bottle of the best drinks that most people with regular jobs would never be able afford once, much less have them sitting around in a bar in a mansion.

Stan made a beeline straight for the solo cups, leaving behind Butters and Kyle who were still admiring the decorations. "Hey, Token!" he greeted.

Token smiled in response, pulling another bottle of wine out of the cupboard behind him and setting it on the bar. "Hey Stan! Glad you're here! The vodka is in the center," he said already knowing Stan's usual choice of poison. Stan nodded and grabbed the Iordanov Vodka. It was a nice clear bottle embedded with thousands of Swarovski crystals that formed a skull. Stan knew that this particular bottle sold for over $4,000 and he knew Token likely had a second bottle stashed away specifically for him. Stan was at least an honest sinner.

"Thanks Token!"

"Anytime."

Kyle and Butters found Stan at the bar. "Geeze, Stan, don't wait up," Kyle grumbled.

Stan poured as much of the vodka as he could fit in his solo cup before glancing over at his friends. "Sorry, just wanted to get the good stuff before anyone else."

"You're just going to drink that straight?" Kyle asked incredulous as he watched his best friend drink. Stan forgot that Kyle usually didn't come to these things so he mostly just saw Stan drink fruity Smirnoffs they usually swiped from Shelly's stash. Every now and then Stan was able to raid his dad's stash but none of them compared to the vodkas or other alcoholic beverages at Token's place. He was saved from having to answer by Token.

"Hey, Kyle, good to see you!" Token greeted. "Hey Butters! You two want something to drink." It wasn't a question.

"Lemonade, please," Butters requested. Token grinned and chuckled, brandishing a pitcher of lemonade from behind the bar

"Somehow, I knew you would say that so I came prepared," he teased, pouring the lemonade into a solo cup for Butters. The cheery blonde gratefully took it. "Kyle?"

Kyle didn't respond right away looking at all the alcohol. "Uh, some wine."

"Red or white?"

"Red."

"Good, I got a Lafite Rothschild bottle here," Token said brightly, happy to open the bottle. Stan figured Token likely knew Kyle had no idea the bottle was close to $1,000 if not more depending on where it was bought and what year. Stan only knew since he'd been to nearly every party of Token's save for when he was sick or that one time his family decided to have a vacation, so Stan was more than familiar with the bar. Token finished and encouraged Kyle to taste it.

Kyle glanced at the bottle again, finding the situation a bit ironic but decided not to comment on it. Kyle realized Token was still watching along with Stan and Butters. He sipped his wine. Token beamed."How is it?"

Kyle shrugged, still conscious that he was the center of attention. "It's fine, it's wine. Thanks." He stepped away from the bar sensing that more and more people were seeming to just materialize out of nowhere, red solo cups in hand. The three boys left the bar making room for other people to get their own drinks. Music was set to make the floor vibrate underneath the party-goers' feet. The trio ambled into a room, greeting anyone that they happened to know.

"Hey daywalker!" Cartman shouted at them from across the room. Kyle rolled his eyes. Of course he would be here. Stan kept his eyes on Kyle while Butters waved happily to his friend. Stan still wasn't totally convinced that Cartman wasn't the reason Kyle had been acting strange all week. There was something that did flicker in Kyle's eyes but Stan couldn't really place it. Kyle stayed where he was even as Butters broke from the group to go say hi. Stan frowned and glanced over to where Cartman was with Kenny in tow.

"Has Cartman been bothering you, Kyle?" Stan asked concerned. Kyle looked over at his friend surprised.

"You mean more than usual? No, he's always been such a bundle of sunshine."

"That's not what I mean, you've just been acting strange lately."

Kyle frowned at him. "Been stressed, dude, Cartman has nothing to do with it."

"Well, then let's go over and say hi to him and Kenny." Butters was already across the room talking animatedly to the two. Kyle's feet remained planted stubbornly to the floor.

"No, you can. I think I'm just going to…hang out right here."

Stan raised his eyebrows sure he had to have misheard. "You just want to stand around here alone?"

"I'm not alone, there are other people here," Kyle protested waving his free hand around to indicate all the people in the room while lifting his cup to take another sip of his wine.

"Seriously, dude, what the hell is going on with you?"

"I just!" Kyle cut himself off. "I can't explain it."

"Well, Cartman's eventually going to get over here, you can't just keep running from him."

"Damnit, Stan, I'm not running from Cartman!" Kyle glared daggers at Stan.

"Then what?" Stan asked holding his hands out making sure his vodka didn't slosh around too much. "What's the big deal?" he asked again until a thought hit him. He had wanted to ask before but thought it was too silly. "Is it… Kenny?"

"It doesn't matter," Kyle stated, clearly dodging the question. Stan gave him a doubtful look, as far as he was concerned Kyle had just stated that it definitely had something to do with their blonde friend clad in orange. "I don't want to talk about it here," he whispered harshly at Stan. The other boy was puzzled, obviously Cartman was pretty much stuck to Kenny like glue so why on earth would Kyle be okay with Cartman and not Kenny? Even if Cartman wasn't around Kenny like white on rice, Stan thought that surely Kyle would prefer Kenny over Eric Cartman.

"Hey, Stan, Kahl," Cartman greeted as he, Kenny, and Butters joined them. Kenny said nothing which was expected. Butters looked overjoyed that he had united the group so they weren't on opposite ends of the rooms.

"Hey, Cartman, Kenny," Stan returned the greeting. He noticed their empty hands. "What? You two haven't gone to the bar yet?" he asked raising his solo cup. Kyle said nothing.

Cartman looked at the cup in Stan's hand. "No, we just got here. We were about to head over. Hey, daywalker, you can't say hi, you don't have time to eat lunch with us, but you got time for parties?"

"Cartman, just drop it," Stan said choosing to use a lighter tone as he knew how much Eric Cartman loved to get rises out of people.

"Ahh, sorry, didn't mean to offend your boyfriend."

"Shut up, Cartman," Kyle snapped at him.

Cartman started to say something but was stopped by Kenny. "Show us the bar?" he asked innocently, looking expectantly at the other three. Cartman looked ready to say something else but chose not to.

"Yeah, come on fellas!" Butter exclaimed, heading over to the bar area. "I need more lemonade." The three arrived at the bar area. Token had abandoned his post in favor of mingling so it had turned into self serve. They squeezed past several peers before making it to the alcohol.

"Kenny, you gotta try this vodka!" Stan said excitedly, brandishing the bottle of vodka. It was almost empty so Stan emptied the contents into a fresh solo cup and handed it over to his friend. Kenny drank while Cartman picked up some bottles trying to decide what to have. Butters found his lemonade and refilled it. Kyle awkwardly stood off to the side not engaging in conversation and just observing. Stan watched as Kenny tried the vodka, hoping he liked it. Kenny gulped some down and smiled approvingly at Stan.

"It's great, best I've ever had," Kenny praised and Stan beamed. Cartman gave each of them an odd look before shaking his head and muttering to himself. He finally selected some scotch, picking the Glenfiddich 50 Year Old bottle and pouring a generous amount into his cup.

The music had gotten louder and the group moved back into yet another room where a few teenagers had set up a beer pong table, undoubtedly all the cups filled up with copious amounts of expensive beer such as Nail Ale, Blue Ribbon 1844, Jacobsen Vintage, and, Token's favorite, Space Barley.

His parents kept a nice stash and while they really only used the alcohol for fancy dinners their son managed to use them frequently, but he was able to replace all the ones he used with the credit cards his parents had supplied him. He would usually find a way to get cash with them from an ATM and find someone who would buy the products with cash he supplied. He always told his parents the cash had gone to a charity. He viewed the parties as a good cause. The boys broke away from the bar once Cartman finished his pour. Kyle dragged behind but still stayed within earshot of the group.

"Damn fine scotch," Cartman said appreciatively sipping his drink as they walked into another room full of party-goers, choosing to skip out on the beer pong. They had gotten used to some of the underage local college kids crashing the parties as there were definitely some older kids at the party but most still under the age of 21 and unable to procure alcohol through legal means.

"Yeah, the drinks here are always so good, aren't they Eric?" Butters asked still happy with his non-alcoholic choice.

Cartman rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, Butters, amazing," he muttered offhandedly looking around the room to see who else was around.

Stan grinned over his cup at Kenny. "These parties are always so awesome man! I'm so glad you're here," he said sincerely. "I hope you're having fun." He meant what he said.

Kenny gave a brief half smile and nodded. "I am, thanks, Stan." Stan beamed proudly at him and both Cartman and Kyle narrowed their eyes at him. Both chose to not say anything and took another sip of their drinks.

Kyle's narrowed eyes turned to Cartman. Why wasn't Cartman saying anything? He wasn't make any smart remarks regarding Stan's overt attention to Kenny yet he had already made at least one crack about him and Kyle. Was Cartman actually being… nice? 

The thought made him nearly choke on his wine. Sure, Cartman had matured over the years and became less of an asshole but he was still an asshole, he just wasn't able to get away with as much due to his age. People didn't really give teenagers the same pass they might give to a ten year old. It had to be true, though, that was the only thing Kyle could logically conclude. Cartman was being nice for Kenny's sake.

As if not wanting to be left out, Butters turned to Kenny. "I'm happy you're here, too, Kenny! Cheers!" He raised his cup to his friend. Kenny smiled and this time his smile spread across his face and lit up his eyes. Stan felt his heart flutter and a pang of jealousy that it wasn't him who was the reason for the smile. He lifted his cup up, too.

"Cheers!" Kenny said, his cup meeting both Stan's and Butters'. They weren't fazed that Kyle and Cartman hadn't participated as Cartman had picked up his pace a little, and Kyle was still keeping his distance from the group though he hadn't stopped observing. He grinned a little at their good time. Leave it to Butters to make things jolly. He looked back over at Cartman who had his eyes trained on another group across the room as if debating what he should do.

Kyle glanced over and recognized one of the boys as a young college student, definitely someone that Kevin had hung around with. Two boys with him still went to high school and Kyle instantly recognized one as one of the students who had participated in kicking Kenny the first day of school. Maybe this party wasn't the brightest idea. Cartman had stopped, completely ignoring the happy chatter behind him. Stan and Kenny had convinced Butters to try their vodka.

Cartman glanced back behind him before turning around completely. "Finally gonna man up and drink a man's drink?" He teased Butter. "Let's go see if Token's hiding food anywhere in this joint," he said pointing back in the direction they had come.

"We just came from there," Stan complained, "I wanna go to the pool!" Cartman knew who all was behind him and most of the kids at the bar hadn't even noticed Kenny. However, Kevin's friends obviously had as Kyle realized they were pointing in the direction of his group of friends. He closed the gap between him and his friends immediately, choosing to stand near Cartman. There was power in numbers after all.

"Yeah, I am famished," Kyle said agreeably. "We can go to the pool some other time." Cartman glanced at Kyle surprised but his expression turned to one of appreciation.

"I'm hungry, too. This scotch," he said pointing at the solo cup.

Stan frowned at the two, irritated. Kyle sensed trouble. Stan tended to be disagreeable when he was drunk and didn't get his way. "But I want to go to the pool," he whined.

"The pool does sound fun," Kenny offered quietly. Oh, of course Kenny would decide now would be a great time to start having an opinion on how things go, Kyle thought, trying his best to hide his frustration.

Butters spoke up, "The pool sounds great, they probably have food out there, they usually do!" Kyle never wanted to throttle someone so badly. Butters wasn't even drunk.

"If I could fucking throttle you right now, Butters," Cartman whispered dangerously to his friend. Kyle looked over surprised Cartman had basically said what he'd been thinking.

"Cartman, geeze, was that necessary?" Stan demanded at seeing Butters' confused and hurt expression. Cartman opened his mouth to say something but Kyle elbowed him lightly whispering, "Too late." He glanced over his shoulder at the older boys crossing the room towards them. Cartman followed suit and sighed resignedly. The other three exchanged confused looks, they had no idea what was happening until a loud exclamation climbed over the voices and music.

"Hey! Cartman! We see you over there hiding your friend."

Cartman turned around as did Kyle. Stan looked beyond his two friends at the three older boys. Where had they even come from? He drained the rest of his drink and stole a glance at Kenny. He looked ahead, wordless distress clear in his eyes. Stan looked over at him.

"Hey," he said hoping his voice sounded reassuring. Kenny looked over at him immediately. Stan went on, "It'll be fine." Clearly Kenny doubted that as one could tell from looking at him. Butters looked on in confusion.

"Maybe they just want a drink, Eric?"

Even Kyle rolled his eyes at this. Cartman didn't turn around but growled murderously under his breath. Butters could be so charming at times but so clueless at other times. The boys stood in front of Cartman and Kyle, all around the same height.

"Why the fuck did you bring him here?" The oldest demanded. Kyle usually knew who was who in town but he had no clue who this person was. He must not have had any younger siblings. "Well?" the boy prompted again. "Kenny, stop hiding behind your friends, you piece of shit."

Cartman and Kyle both glowered and a chorus of "heys!" was heard from the younger group of boys save Kenny. It wasn't often that everyone was in agreement, but they were all equally offended except for Kenny who only became more distressed. Kyle hoped he might could find out why these people had such an obsession with Kenny. Surely, it had to run deeper, it was getting to be just downright creepy. He wondered if they were having the same trouble he'd been having.

"What the fuck gives you the right to say shit to him?!" Cartman snarled. Kyle felt chills at Cartman's tone; he was capable of anything after all and the bigger boy definitely sounded murderous.

"I can say whatever the fuck I want to say to your little boyfriend!" the older boy sneered, inches from Cartman's face.

"He's not his boyfriend," Stan countered, trying to move forward to stand with the other two but a quick tug from Kenny prevented him.

Cartman ignored Stan. "So what if he was?!" he demanded. "Either way, you don't get to say shit!" he yelled back in his face completely unintimidated by how close their faces were. They were maybe inches apart and Kyle thought Cartman might actually be enjoying this. The boy that usually made homophobic remarks seemed totally nonplussed about having a boyfriend. Kenny was sure having a strange effect on people, Kyle thought stealing a glance behind him at the blonde. Shit, he looked totally horrified.

Kyle turned back to the boys who had basically formed a circle around them. Where the hell had these other people come from?! Kyle thought wildly as he realized there were several boys that had circled them. Had they just come up out of the floor?

"Uh, fellas?" Butters asked nervously. The chatter was absent in the room as all eyes were on the two groups of boys. Music still blared almost surreally in the background. Noise and laughter could be heard from other rooms in the mansion, even splashes from the pool could be heard. It was some kind of bizarre silence within a cacophony of loud noises in this room.

Stan looked around at the older boys who had formed some kind of circle around them. Did they actually plan to just start…fighting them? Surely not. He stole a quick look over at Kenny trying to gauge his thoughts. Kenny just stared ahead with wide eyes in total disbelief and horror. Butters made a few gulping noises and Cartman taunted the one guy again daring him to try something.

Kyle tried to change the direction this was heading. He held his hands up hoping to calm down the two guys that were in from of him and Cartman. "Hey, we just came here for a good time, not looking for any trouble." It was true, they weren't looking for trouble. Cartman rolled his eyes but said nothing waiting for a response.

"Why the hell does he get to come here and have a good time? The rest of his family can't. How do we know he won't decide to off us?" The words hit Stan hard and he was spitting mad in his drunken anger. He lurched forward without warning swinging at the nearest target. The older boy grunted at the contact before returning his own punch.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity and fists were being swung at each other while curses filled the air along with sound of flesh contacting with flesh and drinks splashing to the floor. A few shouts of protest could be heard mostly from Butters and Kenny.

Kyle dodged a punch and countered with a low sweeping kick bringing the boy before him to the floor. The boy started to get up but Kyle kicked him again. He certainly wasn't going to let him get up. In his peripheral vision, he saw a fist coming towards him but easily caught it, surprising the other, countering with his own fist, and kicking him hard to the floor. He glanced around trying to get his bearings quickly while he had a second.

He spotted Stan whaling on someone in his drunken state, those two were nearly at a wall. Butters had been knocked unconscious and was sprawled on the floor, lemonade on him. Kyle assumed that the unconscious person Kenny was hitting repeatedly was the one responsible for Butters' condition. Cartman had managed to cross the room with two of the boys, fighting both. Kyle honestly couldn't tell if he was winning or losing. He was still conscious and bruised and bleeding but so were the other two. Regardless, Cartman sure looked like he was enjoying himself. It was a little unnerving.

Kyle kicked at the boys he'd taken down again to see if they were in any hurry to get back up. Low moans answered his question and he moved over to see how Butters was doing and to calm down Kenny. He was soon to find that was easier said than done.

"Kenny," Kyle said coming up beside him. His friend either didn't hear him or completely ignored him, punching some more on the hapless older boy beneath him. "Kenny! He's unconscious." Still no acknowledgement.

"Kenny!" Kyle cried, his voice rising in alarm as he realized Kenny wasn't going to stop until someone pulled him off. He grabbed at his friend's flailing arms but was easily shoved away. He didn't want to have to hurt his friend to get him to stop. "Kenny! Come on, dude!" He yelled again hoping the sound would jolt his friend.

It didn't have effect on Kenny but Kyle's voice and pleas quickly registered in Stan's mind, and he pushed the boy he'd been exchanging punches with hard against the wall before quickly spinning around to see what had caused so much concern in Kyle's voice. Kenny was hitting an unconscious boy beneath him rather hard. It was another bout of déjà vu for Stan. He watched as Kyle attempted to pull Kenny off the boy again and was shoved away, falling onto his bottom, eyes wide with shock.

Stan quickly crossed over to Kenny ignoring the taunts from the boy behind him, no longer caring to pay him any more attention. He was between Kyle and Kenny in almost an instant. He stood behind Kenny and firmly grabbed his forearms holding them suspended above the boy so Kenny couldn't make contact again. Kenny struggled to get him off but Stan tightened his grip firmly. He was becoming increasingly aware of the audience their fight had gotten. The room was starting to fill up with whispers over the music. Stan leaned forward so he could speak low enough that only Kenny would hear him.

"Kenny, it's me, Stan." Stan said. Kenny went lax at this revelation. Stan continued, "He's unconscious. I need you to stop hitting him, okay?" Kenny nodded slowly and Stan loosened his grip on his friend's forearms. "Good, good. Why don't you stand up now." Kenny nodded again and slowly rose, his eyes still trained on the bloody face he'd been punching repeatedly.

Kyle watched as Stan whispered something in Kenny's ear that instantly relaxed him and brought him back to this world. He stood up himself and stood closer to where Butters, Stan, and Kenny were since they were each occupied and he'd heard stirs from some of the boys that were on the floor near them. The boy Stan had been hitting was already heading that way and Cartman was still dealing with the two.

A loud resounding "STOP!" filled the room. Suddenly the room was in silence even the music that had been blaring was cut off. Token stood in the room looking the picture of fury.

He marched towards Cartman and the other two yelling for them to stop again. Cartman and the two disengaged each looking over at Token with surprise. Kyle wasn't sure if they were feigning the surprise or if they were truly surprised that Token would decide to break up a fight at his party. Kyle knew from others that Token did usually try to throw out people if they were fighting but he usually didn't put the whole party on pause.

The guy that had been screaming with Cartman earlier bared his teeth. "Or what? What are you doing to do if we don't?"

Token was taken aback as he hadn't expected the response. "This is my house. You can't stay if you're fighting like this."

"What about them?" the guy asked waving his hand at Cartman and the others.

"I'll take care of them."

"Oh, of course. I see," the guy snarled not happy with the response. "You're part of their little group."

Token steeled himself not liking where this was going. "I said I'll take care of it. You can't be here any longer."

"Or what?" the guy prompted again. "What are you doing to do? Call the police? How are you going to explain all of this alcohol?"

"Just get out," Token ground out between clenched teeth. "Get out now. I will call if I have to."

Cartman shot the guy a dirty look. "We'll tell them we got it from you. You must be 21 right?"

Cartman must have hit the mark because the guy paled and spewed out a few curse words before getting up and telling his friends to join. Token waited until they exited save for their unconscious friend and one who had decided to stay with him. Token then announced to all party-goers that the party was over.

Kyle was stunned. He heard the parties usually went on to clear early in the morning. He glanced at his watch and it was only nearing midnight. There were groans and boos and moans, but people started texting friends and chatting and soon there was talk of moving the party to another house in town.

Token ignored all of it and walked over to Kyle, Stan, Butters, Kenny, Cartman, and the other two guys. "Obviously, you can stay until Butters gets up," he said giving a nod to Butters. He looked at the other guy. "You too, but it would be better if we could get to separate rooms."

"We'll move Butters," Kyle volunteered. "There's more of us so it'll be easier."

Token nodded gratefully. "Thanks."

"Sorry about your party," Kyle apologized feeling bad he was caught up in it.

The guy that had been fighting with Stan earlier glared at the group clearly wanting them to get to another room quickly. He knelt down by his unconscious friend and wiped some blood off his face, shaking him lightly trying to get him to awake.

Token shook his head at Kyle. "Don't sweat it. I just want these two guys to wake up." He said indicating Butters and the other boy he didn't know.

Stan carefully hoisted Butters up with Cartman. The two had him between them, each getting an arm over their shoulder. "Can we use a room upstairs?" he called out to Token.

"Stan, what the fuck? I am not dragging Butters all the way upstairs. They have rooms down here." Cartman vented staring at Stan like he had grown a second head.

"Then lead the way," Stan said accommodatingly. He really wasn't in the mood to argue with Cartman. He shifted a little to get a better grip on Butters, who was thankfully starting to moan as his feet dragged along the floor. Kyle followed partially down the hall but stopped when he realized they had left someone behind. He quickly backpedaled not saying anything as he didn't want Stan or Cartman to suddenly drop Butters. He figured Stan might if he realized Kenny wasn't following.

Kyle found Kenny just at the edge of the hall staring numbly ahead as Token spoke to the conscious boy that had been involved in the fight. Token was speaking animatedly to the boy that must have been only a year or two older than them. Token had a smile so Kyle assumed that the conversation was going well.

He stood next to Kenny wondering how long it would take for Kenny to notice him. After a minute he decided to nudge his friend with his elbow. Kenny's eyes quickly snapped over to him. Kyle nodded down the hallway that Cartman and Stan had disappeared into. "Come on," he whispered not wanting to draw any attention to them. They really had had enough attention as it was. Kenny nodded silently and followed Kyle down the hallway saying nothing.

"Those fuckers ditched us!" Cartman's voice could be head from further up the hall. "Lazy little fuckers leaving us to drag Butters up the hallway." Kyle rolled his eyes catching a glimpse of Stan's jet-black hair before it disappeared into a room further up the hall. He heard Stan grumble something to Cartman but wasn't able to hear what was said.

"I should leave," Kenny said abruptly inspecting his knuckles that had blood smeared on them. He had spoken aloud but it sounded as if he was speaking to himself rather than Kyle. "I need to leave." He started to turn around but Kyle quickly put an end to that by hooking his arm around the other's elbow and waiting until Kenny looked back at him. When he finally did Kyle made sure to keep his voice steady and steely.

"You're not going anywhere right now, Kenny. No way, no how, not after what just happened. You're not going alone and you're not leaving us yet. We'll figure out what to do after Butters gets up."

Kyle shuddered at the response he got. Laughter void of cheer came from his friend's throat. "Kyle, there's not much to figure out, is there." It was a statement, not a question. "Butters is unconscious because of me. The whole fight was because of me. The party ended because of me. I don't think we really need to discuss it." A long-suffering sigh escaped his lips, and he blew some strands of his hair out of his face carelessly. "I told Eric going to school was a bad idea. That coming here was a bad idea."

"So this was all Cartman's idea. I figured as much." Kyle was unsurprised that it was Cartman's idea. He was surprised that Cartman had talked Kenny into all this. "What did he do, bribe you? Blackmail?"

Kenny shook his head. "No, he didn't bribe or blackmail me. He just-" Kenny cut himself off looking a little uncomfortable as if he wasn't sure if he should share the information or not.

"He what?" Kyle prompted, genuinely curious. They kept walking slowly towards the door up the hallway. Kenny took note that Kyle was a little on edge with him.

"I'll tell you when you tell me why you've been avoiding me," Kenny offered. Kyle reacted as if he'd been struck with a hot fire iron, immediately jerking his arm out of Kenny's elbow, and stepping away, coming to a complete halt. His wary eyes met Kenny's doleful ones.

Kyle absently fiddled with the ends of his sleeves, totally caught off-guard. He didn't realize Kenny could be so perceptive. It was stuff like this that reminded him that everyone was having to basically re-acquaint themselves with their old friend. So much had changed. Kenny remained quiet waiting for an answer. Kyle opened his mouth but then promptly shut it with a quick shake of his head.

"No, it's not important," he said quietly. "I'm sorry if it's come off that way. I've just been having strange dreams…" he trailed off glancing in both directions fearful someone might be eavesdropping on them.

"About?"

"Just- they're not good." Kyle sighed. "I don't really want to talk about them. Maybe another day." There was a pregnant pause and Kyle realized that if he didn't expand on his night terrors Kenny wouldn't expand on how Cartman had convinced him to re-enter their lives. Still, he wasn't comfortable revealing his nightmares as he still wasn't sure if they were only that. He was starting to suspect not but wouldn't that mean he was crazy? He couldn't make any sense of them and the source was standing before him inquiring about them. It made him shudder with exhaustion and what he hoped was misplaced terror.

"Hey are you two coming or what?" Stan was suddenly by them glancing between the two of them confused. The air was thick with tension and it unnerved him. Kyle glanced back at Kenny waiting for his response. He wondered how Kenny would respond to Stan. As suspected the reaction was worlds apart from his response to Kyle. There was a quirk at the corners of his mouth almost like he wanted to smile. His eyes brightened and he nodded.

"Yeah," he said simply, not elaborating any further. Stan smiled brightly at him. Kyle sighed inwardly. He wasn't sure he liked how much Stan was becoming attached to Kenny who had just a few moments ago expressed his desire to simply vanish back into the void he had come from. Stan's eyes flickered over to him and Kyle offered a thin smile.

"I'm coming, too. We were just having a little…chat," Kyle said.

Stan looked surprised but shrugged. "Well, come on in and chat in here unless you don't want Cartman to hear."

"It's fine," Kyle said realizing rather quickly that he and Kenny likely both did not want Cartman to know the contents of their chat, but if he knew that he would never stop until he knew why. "We were finished, we just lost sight of you so weren't sure which room you guys had gone to," he lied smoothly. Kenny didn't protest and Stan didn't question. He led the two into the room where Cartman did not look pleased.

"Where the hell were you two? Did you get lost or something?"

"Actually, they did," Stan answered with a laugh.

Cartman shook his head. "Lame," he rolled his eyes. "This is why the Jew never comes. He can't navigate his way around anything."

"Cartman!" Kyle exclaimed indignantly. "It's not our fault you didn't wait around, fatass." He knew Cartman wasn't nearly as big as he used to be, but he also knew the other hated the old nickname. Cartman didn't have time to snap back because another voice joined the group.

"Hey, guys." Four heads turned towards the doorway to see Craig there with Tweek peeking in from behind. Tweek held a roll of paper towels in his hand and offered it up to the boys who still had blood on them. It didn't help much with the clothes but at least everyone could clean the blood off their skin whether it was theirs or someone else's.

"Hey, asshole," Cartman piped up, looking over at Craig. "What do you want?"

"Token told me to come find you guys. He kicked everyone else out so you guys can come out if you want."

"Really?" Kyle asked stunned. "I thought he wanted us to all go?"

Craig shrugged. "Nah, Kyle come on, this is the first party you've been to of his in forever and this is the first big party Kenny's been to. Did you really think he was just going to kick you out?" He held a cigarette between his fingers surveying them all through an expressionless gaze as if he was just stating an obvious fact like that the Earth was the third planet from the sun.

"Fucking sweet, man!" Cartman exclaimed. "About time Token realized how much I mean to him!"

"Shut up Cartman!" more than one voice said but Cartman just shrugged already thinking of his next drink.

"Awesome!" Stan couldn't hide his excitement either. Kyle glanced over at Stan and then took a quick peek at Kenny who had said nothing. He wondered what was going through his head.

"Kyle? Kenny?" Craig questioned, his monotone actually giving way to true curiosity. "Are you two going to stay?" Stan quickly looked over to them, it hadn't occurred to him they would even consider leaving, but neither responded immediately and Stan felt his stomach sinking with disappointment. He wanted them both to stay.

"Please guys!" He pleaded. "Stay, it'll be fun! Token has an awesome gaming system we can play. Or cards or we can watch something." He sounded like a little kid begging his parents to let him stay out later with his friends. Kyle and Kenny both softened a little and each nodded their heads.

"Sure," Kyle said with a bit of resignation but tried his best not to let it show.

"Okay," Kenny said but his uncertainty was definitely not hidden at all.

"All right!" Butters' weak voice suddenly filled the air and he got a round of applause from everyone along with various, "Welcome back, Butters!" and "Are you okay, man?" After assuring everyone that he was, the group made their way back to the bar. They found Token there cleaning up. He saw them and offered up a bright smile.

"Hey, Butters!" He greeted, happy to see his friend walking around on his own. "How are you?"

"Doing much better now!" Butters' cheerful voice responded and Token looked relieved. The last thing he needed was anyone having to go to the hospital.

"Good to hear!" Token was genuinely happy that the situation seemed to be resolving itself. "Up for round two? I can pour or mix drinks or whatever. Or just the usuals?"

Cartman, Stan, Craig, Tweek, and Butters all nodded their heads and muttered, "yeah" or "the usual." Token nodded and started pouring various drinks or grabbing bottles. When Craig grabbed his rum, Token asked if he could set up the gaming system in the other room. Craig nodded. He waited for Tweek to get his drink, the Baileys Irish Cream in coffee, and then waited for Stan, too. Stan at first refused to leave with them, but Craig didn't give him much choice nearly dragging him out of the room.

Chapter Text

While pouring Butters and Cartman's drinks Token glanced over at Kyle and Kenny. "Did you two want what you had earlier or something different?"

"Same thing," Kenny said quietly.

"Yeah, that's fine with me, too," Kyle said. He realized that he probably should go with beer as wine usually had higher alcohol content but it was usually easier to nurse wine than beer. Usually.

After his conversation with Kenny, the whole bottle of wine sure looked tempting. He was feeling out of place amongst his friends, he usually skipped out on parties in favor of studying. Sure, he'd gone to one bonfire with Stan and one party because his best friend had roped him into it, but it usually wasn't his scene and his mother sure wouldn't be thrilled if she ever caught on. He wondered what was going through Kenny's mind. Did he feel totally out of place, too? Or did it just not faze him whether he was or not?

Token grinned at Kenny. "I'm guessing Stan got you to try the vodka?" he asked, pulling out the bottle he kept around for his dark haired friend. He and Stan had spent more than a few nights wasted. Kenny nodded and let Token pour some in his cup. He then began refilling Kyle's wine. Kenny sipped his drink watching Token carefully pour the wine. Cartman had wandered off to join the others, but Butters remained, patiently waiting.

Kenny finally worked up the nerve to speak to Token. "Hey, did that other guy wake up then?" he asked timidly suddenly feeling much more vulnerable than he usually did in front of others. Sure, Stan and even Cartman might have witnessed his troubling emotions but no one else really had.

Token gave him a quick glance, surprised, but his hand remained steady on the wine bottle which he generously poured into Kyle's solo cup. Kyle was sure he must have gotten an eight ounce pour at the very least instead of the standard four ounce pour. Token looked like he wanted to keep pouring but thought better of it as the cup had filled nearly to the top. Token put the cork back in the bottle upside down, the wine stained half of the cork sticking out. He looked over at Kenny.

"Yeah, man, I wouldn't have had Craig get you guys if he hadn't. They left. They all did. He was fine."

"I'm sorry to have caused a scene," Kenny apologized.

Token shook his head and shrugged. "Those guys were being total assholes. From what I heard, they initiated it. Don't worry about it." Token smiled at Kenny. "I'm just glad you're here man, it means a lot, believe me!"

Kenny offered a weak smile in return. "Thanks," he said feeling a bit ecstatic at hearing that other people had actually stuck up for him and the others telling Token who had started the fight. It didn't change the fact that he was the source of the fight but still he felt relief. It was hard not to when faced with Token's earnesty. It reminded him very much of Stan who had the habit of being just as earnest.

"Don't sweat it, man, seriously," Token insisted.

"Yeah, it wasn't your fault, Kenny," Butters offered up, grinning from behind his lemonade. Kenny started to reply but Butters cut him off, "Uh-uh, nope, you do not need to apologize to me! Come on, fellas!"

"Yeah, let's go meet the others," Token said as well, waving them forward, falling into step with Butters. Kenny and Kyle started to follow at a slower pace.

"They are right you know," Kyle said quietly. "It really wasn't your fault." Kenny said nothing and they didn't get another chance for a private conversation the rest of the evening for which both were grateful.

Kenny was rapt with attention as he was shown new consoles he'd never played. Cartman had one of the latest but Token had all the latest which included a virtual reality set. They took turns with the headsets as they couldn't do more than four players at one time in the room. They got online and invited people to join their server from other parts of the world. They played well into the night.

No one was happier than Stan who heard Kenny burst into sincere bouts of laughter more than once, his face lighting up and his eyes shining with amusement and maybe even happiness. The best had definitely been when they were among the ones left out and watched the four players together; Butters accidentally killing his teammates on more than one occasion, sputtering apologies.

Kyle had also floundered having Cartman on a one man mission to do nothing but kill him and when everyone turned on Cartman, it had been hilarious to see and hear him so riled up. Craig consistently did the best with little effort. Tweek had to quit suddenly as he was having multiple bouts of anxiety.

They played on until around three in the morning. Tweek had conked out and Butters fell asleep while still having a headset on. Craig shook his head and easily lifted his partner up and headed to a room. Butters was gently woken up and he stumbled to a room. Everyone but Kyle and Kenny were familiar with the upstairs rooms of Token's mansion.

"I guess we can head upstairs," Stan said, helping Token put up his game system away after the group had finished and started to disburse.

"Yeah, we've got plenty of empty rooms up there," Token said agreeably. He looked over at the other three. "You guys are staying, right?"

Kyle shrugged. He certainly didn't plan to sneak back into his house at three in the morning and he'd already told his mother he was at Stan's anyway. "Sure."

"No, we're going home," Cartman said nonchalantly.

Token and Stan were stunned into complete silence for a couple of minutes.

"You're going home, Cartman?" Token asked in disbelief. "Usually I can't get you out of my place for like three days after a party."

"Yeah, I've already seen everything there is to see here," was the cheeky response. Kyle and Stan each exchanged an uneasy look both realizing the show was for Kenny's sake. It didn't take long for Token to catch up. He looked over at the blonde.

"What about you, Kenny?" he asked. "You know you can stay even if he doesn't want to."

Kenny was quick to shake his head. "No, I'm good."

Token tried not to look hurt. "It's up to you guys," he said.

"I just-I just" Kenny stumbled for the right words as he tried to apologize. Token shook his head.

"No, man, don't worry about it. Next time, okay?"

Relief and gratitude shone in Kenny's eyes. "Yes, next time," he agreed.

Token turned to Stan and Kyle. "You two are staying though, right?"

"Yeah."

"Yup."

"Okay, losers, good night," Cartman waved at them before flipping them off. "See ya in school Monday."

"Bye guys." Kenny also waved at them as he followed Cartman towards the front doors.

"Be careful!" Stan called after them suddenly filled with anxiety at the thought of the two of them walking home alone after three in the morning. It wouldn't bother him except so many of Karen and especially Kevin's old friends seemed out to get Kenny.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Cartman waved his hand in the air, not really concerned. Kenny turned back to offer a sincere smile to Stan.

"We will be," Kenny assured him before turning back to catch up with Cartman. The two were well out of earshot before anyone said anything again, working on separating cords and placing things back in order; Token's parents preferred for their house to stay clean.

"Kenny must really have some trouble sleeping if he'd rather sleep at Cartman's than here," Token voiced his thoughts with a shake of his head. "Man, I feel bad for that guy." The revelation seemed to really hit Stan hard as he remembered Kenny not wanting to stay with anyone at the start of the school year.

"Really? You think that's why he doesn't want to stay anywhere else?" He turned to look at Token and Kyle when he got no answer. Both were giving him looks of incredulity. "What?"

"You knew Cartman was full of shit, right?" Kyle asked carefully. He had been so sure Stan knew their crazy friend was putting on a show for Kenny's sake.

"Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean that the reason is that Kenny's having nightmares." Stan defended himself. It did seem obvious now but he never would have known. Maybe that was why he was sometimes considered oblivious.

"I mean it could be something else," Token offered. "Trouble sleeping doesn't always mean nightmares. I guess we can't really know unless we ask Kenny but he's kind of….. intimidating."

Kyle nodded. "Yeah, I don't think he means to be, but he does come off as that. And enigmatic."

Token was quick to agree. "Totally."

Stan nodded slowly. He couldn't disagree. "Yeah," he said finishing off his last drink.

"You two can grab any room upstairs," Token told them. "Except my parents room obviously. It's locked so I doubt you'll stumble in there. I'm heading to bed myself. It's been a day. Feel free to have whatever for breakfast if you're up before me. I'm probably sleeping until like three this afternoon."

Stan laughed. "Yeah, I'll probably be up around then, too."

Kyle shook his head. "I have to be up earlier but I'll be fine." It was true, he'd stayed up late more than once studying and had been able to wake up a few hours later with little effort. Token nodded and left the two to themselves. Stan made to leave the room but Kyle stopped him.

"Wait, Stan." He figured it would be best to ask while it was early morning and he still had some liquid courage in his gut. Stan stopped and quirked his eyebrows waiting for his best friend to continue. Kyle thought carefully before voicing his question. "Stan, is there something going on with you and Kenny?"

Confusion was clear in Stan's expression. "Huh?" He asked. Kyle stared at his friend in disbelief.

"Seriously, Stan, are you really that clueless?"

"What do you mean?" Stan asked feeling like an idiot. Of course, he was thrilled when Kenny was happy but wasn't everyone else, too?

"Stan, if you're gay you know you can tell me, right? Two of our friends are gay," he said referring to Craig and Tweek.

Stan was still at a loss. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I mean, I do like girls. Like if Wendy hadn't broken up with me, I'd probably still be dating her. By the way, do you like her?"

Kyle's disbelief was only doubled. "Are you serious right now?"

"Yeah, I mean, you're both really smart and top of the class. And you both are pretty similar," he went on. He knew Token wasn't really serious about her and he got that same impression from Wendy regarding Token.

"Stan, look, I'm not really looking to date anyone right now, anyway. I'm basically dating AP classes. I'm serious about Kenny, though. Maybe you haven't noticed it but Kenny lights up almost any time you're around." Stan gaped at Kyle.

"I really doubt that."

"Then you'd be wrong," Kyle insisted. "Not only that but you light up and get all excited any time Kenny responds to you."

"I do?"

"Yeah….." Kyle said feeling a little confused himself. Stan honestly seemed like he wasn't aware of his actions or Kenny's. This conversation wasn't turning out quite like how Kyle had imagined it and now he found himself heading in a different direction with it than planned. "Look Stan, if you really are that unsure about everything, maybe you ought to just be a little more careful around him? I don't think it was any secret back in elementary and middle school but Kenny was always a very sexual being." Granted, trauma could change that but Kyle still believed there had to be something going on with the blonde and his best friend even if Stan was acting clueless.

"Yeah, he really liked tits," Stan said, still not understanding his friend. Kyle gave him another look of pure incredulity, starting to wonder if his friend had drank away some of his own brain cells.

"Dude, do I really need to spell this out?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so."

It was Kyle's turn to gape for a minute before shaking his head. "Good grief, Stan, yes, he really liked tits, he was a kid, most kids are fascinated with tits, even some girls. Yeah, he was a little overly occupied with it at the time but that doesn't mean too much given the age. Sexuality is fluid like most other things in life," Kyle tried explaining. He considered bringing up the Kinsey scale but based on the blank look Stan was giving him, it would be pointless.

"I don't really get what you're saying. Fluid sex?" Stan was not feeling very bright, granted he had downed quite a bit of straight vodka and wasn't entirely awake at this point. Why did Kyle choose right now to have some kind of lecture about sexuality?

"I'm saying that Kenny might just be attracted to you and I think you are to him!" Kyle cried out, frustrated into bluntness.

"Ohhhhhhhh!" a light bulb finally went off in Stan's head. "Oh." Stan scratched his neck for a minute and then his head as if considering this. "I mean I hadn't really thought of him that way." Kyle rarely caught him in lies, he wasn't even sure why he was lying.

"Seriously?"

"Why is that so hard to believe?" Stan questioned, getting defensive. "No, I didn't see my friend for the first time in four years and just feel sexually attracted to him. Did you?"

"When was the last time you felt attraction to anyone? Besides Wendy? Or that one night stand you had?" Shit, Stan thought. He really hadn't updated Kyle in awhile on that front, probably for the best.

Stan felt his face turning a bright red. How could he explain himself to Kyle so he made sense? He pushed forward with an attempt also finding the liquid courage to help him along. He'd had more than one refill. "Uh, Bebe… Craig…"

Kyle's face contorted into disgust. "Ugh, Stan. I'm not joking!"

"I'm not!" Stan defended himself remembering that they were in the same building as Craig.

"Okay, that's a start but both those people are in relationships. Wait, you're not one of those people who are only attracted to people in relationships, are you?" Kyle asked.

"No, of course not. I just know you wouldn't tell either one of them." Suddenly he found himself really wanting to spill his guts to his best friend. Kyle really was trying to help.

"Okay, so then you're bisexual?" Kyle summed up.

Stan shrugged. "I don't know, Kyle. I mean, I am attracted to some girls and some boys but like it kind of depends on more than just what they look like. Like what they say, how they act, stuff like that, I guess." Stan tried to explain himself. "I mean, does it really matter?"

"I know labels aren't always the greatest thing but sometimes it can help you understand yourself better, you know?" Kyle said. "And, I just don't want you or Kenny getting hurt. I'm fairly positive that Kenny is bisexual."

"What about me? Cartman? Token? You?" Stan asked. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"I'm just trying to help."

"I know," Stan said quietly, averting his eyes away from his friend. He might as well confess now while he had the urge otherwise he never would. "I lied."

"What do you mean?"

"About Kenny."

Kyle waited for Stan to elaborate. Stan drew a deep breath before explaining.

"You're right. I do get excited when I see him. The more time I spend around him, the more I want to be around him. I don't know if it's just because I haven't seen him in so long or what. Or maybe it's what you said about me before. I like to save things."

Stan paused for a long moment before looking Kyle in the eyes again. "I want to save him, Kyle. I've never wanted to save someone or something so badly in my life. I want him to enjoy life again and actually live, not just exist." Stan looked to the floor again and sighed sadly. "I just wish I could do more." He was sure it was the alcohol but he felt a little too emotional for comfort. Suddenly he really wished he was already in a bed asleep. This conversation was getting way too real for him. He hoped he wouldn't regret telling Kyle all this in the morning.

Kyle was quiet for a long moment, letting the words really sink in. "You've done so much already, Stan."

"Have I?"

"Yes. I wasn't making things up earlier when I said Kenny lights up when you're around. Maybe you don't see it but I definitely do. I think Craig does, too, and I know Cartman does."

"What?" Stan asked surprised, his cheeks heating up again.

"He doesn't light up like that for anyone else. Trust me," Kyle said wryly remembering a couple of his earlier encounters. "He mostly just seems to shut down around anyone else except you and Cartman. And he is definitely not lighting up with Cartman."

"I offered to let him stay at my place but he refused, he chose to stay with Cartman," Stan pointed out.

Kyle shrugged it off. "Probably more about comfort zone. Plus, if I were in his shoes I'd want to go to the house with less people also."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Also, I think the word you were looking for earlier was pansexual."

"What?" Stan asked again. "I have no idea what that is." He cast a glance towards the kitchen area with a raised eyebrow. Kyle burst into laughter.

"Oh my god, dude, you really are a total space case."

"What the fuck?" Stan demanded, starting to feel like the butt of a bad joke.

Kyle stopped laughing and looked at his friend, his tone and expression turning serious again. "Just remember to be careful, okay? Don't get too attached in case he vanishes again."

"I'll be fine," Stan assured him though the thought of Kenny vanishing again did leave him feeling cold. Kyle grinned at him.

"I guess it's true. Strong people attract broken people."

"Kenny's not broken," Stan tried to argue but he knew he wasn't being honest and so did Kyle.

"I don't think he's all there, like he's with us physically but his mind hasn't quite caught all the way up." Kyle expressed. "But he'll catch up. I think you'll see to that."

They had started up the stairs and Stan nodded. "I will."

Chapter Text

The rest of the weekend flew by and school was back in session a little too soon for Stan. He grimaced as his head was still pounding. He might have downed more alcohol than he had planned the day before and he was pretty sure he had never actually sobered up after the party. After his chat with Kyle, he had decided to look up some of the stuff his best friend had talked about.

Pansexuality sure stood out. When he googled it, there were so many images with pans saying, "Pansexual does not mean I have sex with pans." And why the hell were there images of people licking pans when he googled it?! If it had been anyone else but Kyle, he probably would have disregarded the whole thing as a joke.

He had stumbled into some reddit posts that he thought might describe him and he wasn't sure whether to be thrilled or terrified. He wasn't sure about anything and it made his head hurt even worse to think about it. Apparently, it had something to do with falling for people regardless of gender, gender identity, or biolgocial gender. Kind of weirded him out. Did it really matter?

He frowned, waiting around for Kyle. It was him who had put all this in his head. Kyle could at least show up to school so he could talk about it. He finally texted him asking where he was. His phone vibrated with an answer two minutes after he sent it. He frowned when he read the message.

Kyle was sick again and wasn't coming to school. Seriously, what the fuck? He thought but replied back with just a simple "OK." The day would only get stranger as he found out that Cartman and Kenny were both out, too. The morning dragged despite seeing Craig in homeroom.

                             Ω

Butters, Craig, Tweek, and Clyde sat at the lunch table with him.

"Where is everyone?" Craig asked with as much feigned disinterest as he could muster.

"This is really unlike Kyle," Butters voiced with genuine concern.

"Cartman, too," Clyde pointed out.

Tweek twitched at this. "I hope they didn't all come down with the flu!"

The table was quiet as they all realized that could very well be the case. There had been rumors that confirmed cases of the flu had been floating around their school; the flu always put everyone on edge, after all, despite such advancement in medicine there was still no cure and the best bet was to immunize yourself but the immunity was only to certain strands.

"I hope not." Craig stated.

Stan shrugged. "Kyle said he didn't feel well. I texted Cartman but he hasn't responded."

"What about Kenny?"

"He doesn't have a phone."

"Oh."

The group made small talk but it was different not having Cartman's loud voice attempting to monopolize conversation or draw others into debates. Stan couldn't help but wonder if the events of the party was partially to blame for Kenny's absence.

Stan pretty much trudged through the rest of the day anticipating leaving. He would have ditched but he had already shown up so might as well see it through. He had plans to see his friends after school. If they wouldn't come to school then he would go to them.

                            Ω

Stan ambled along the streets until his feet brought him to Cartman's place. He realized he hadn't been over since he and Cartman had forced Kenny to live there. He only had to ring the bell twice before Lianne Cartman answered the door.

"Hi there!" Lianne greeted warmly.

Stan offered up a nervous smile. "Hey, is Cartman around?" he asked. He almost asked for Kenny, too, but realized he had never found out from either if Lianne knew Kenny was there. He assumed she probably did but didn't want to be the one to spill the beans if she didn't.

"Oh, yes, he and Kenny are downstairs if you want to join them." Stan let out a sigh of relief he didn't know he'd been hiding. She knew.

"Yeah, if you don't mind, that would be great. I have some homework for them," he explained. It was a lie. He only had art with them and he didn't have any homework but it seemed legitimate enough to him. He wasn't sure why he'd lied as she had already said he could go down to the basement, but old habits die hard, he supposed. He went inside when she waved him in. Lianne wished him well and he went off to the basement.

He was on the stairwell and could hear a television on low volume but didn't hear his friends. "Hey, Cartman, Kenny," he called out quietly after he made sure to shut the basement door behind him. The atmosphere reminded him of a library and he was scared to be too loud. He descended the staircase.

It had been awhile since he'd been in Cartman's house and it looked like Cartman had done some remodeling in the basement. It was bigger than he remembered and there were a couple makeshift rooms with Japanese wall panels dividing them from each other. He could see a large television in front of a sectional couch and could see blonde hair peeking out of a blanket draped across part of the sectional.

"Stan?" Cartman was suddenly in front of him, holding up a finger to his lips indicating for quiet. "What are you doing here?" he whispered.

"You guys weren't at school today," he pointed out. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I tried texting you."

Cartman rolled his eyes. "You mean you wanted to see if Kenny was okay," he corrected him. Stan flinched remembering his conversation with Kyle at the party. Was it really that obvious to everyone except him?

"Both of you," Stan insisted. It was true, he was curious about both of them. "I'm going to Kyle's after because he wasn't there either."

"Huh, damn Jew playing hooky again," Cartman mumbled shaking his head.

"You mean like you?" Stan countered.

"Hey, I'm not the one who is sick. Kinny didn't feel well."

"Because of the fight?"

Cartman shrugged. "Yeah, part of it, anyway."

"What's the other part?" Stan asked. Before Cartman could answer Kenny's voice drew their attention away from each other.

"Stan, hey, what are you doing here?" Kenny asked as he came into full view, walking around the sectional to join his friends. Stan surveyed Kenny. He really did look sick. His face was flushed and his skin was paler than usual. His eyes looked a little glazed and his hair was matted.

"Man, you look like shit," Stan said.

Kenny laughed, amused. "Yeah, I wasn't exactly feeling too great today."

Cartman pursed his lips but chose not to add anything to the conversation.

Stan grinned. "I know it probably sounds crazy, but I'm kind of relieved. I thought you just weren't there today because of the fight." There was silence as an answer and Stan groaned. "Kenny, you are planning to come back to school when you're better, right?"

"Stan, I don't, I don't know." Kenny said through a sigh. "I've been talking to Lianne about it and trying to decide what to do." Stan was totally lost.

"Cartman's mom?"

"Yeah, she's my foster parent," Kenny stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Huh?"

Cartman gave Stan a funny look. "Stan, Kenny can't just start attending our school without a residential address or a parent to enroll. He would have just been sent to social services and put into whatever foster family so I convinced my mom to get guardianship of him."

Stan was trying to process the information. Of course that made sense but Kenny had been sleeping on a picnic bench before, how did that make any sense? Had Cartman's mom taken guardianship of him when he was still sleeping outside? "Just it's a lot to take in," he tried to explain himself, feeling like his brain was functioning slower than he would like.

Kenny cracked a dry smile at this. "Yeah, tell me about it."

"But you'll come back to school, right?" Stan asked again. "I really think it'll be better now," he went on.

"Depends on how I feel tomorrow," Kenny said tiredly. Cartman continued to remain uncharacteristically quiet during the exchange.

"Please don't let them win," Stan pleaded. "They just need some more time is all. They're going to realize you had nothing to do with it. I guess they just still…hurt."

"I know," Kenny easily agreed with a slight nod. "I know, it still hurts. I don't mind Karen's friends," he admitted. His face twisted in pain and he groaned looking like he might fall over.

Stan rushed over along with Cartman. Kenny attempted to push them away but his motions were too weak to have effect. Cartman sighed defeatedly and shook his head.

"You need to lay back down," he told him. He glanced over at Stan. "Stan, you should probably head out. I think Kenny caught something."

"I don't mind helping," Stan tried to offer but Cartman shook his head. He looked like he was about to say more but again decided not to. Kenny had already taken back to the couch and under the blanket. Stan trailed after him hoping to be helpful, but Kenny clearly looked miserable and Cartman wasn't looking particularly patient. Stan nodded, unsure how much help he could actually be.

"Fine. Bye Ken, hope you feel better," he waved his hand. Kenny lifted a weak hand up to wave. On the way up the stairs he could hear Cartman whisper to Kenny about food but couldn't make out exactly what he was saying.

Kenny and Cartman wouldn't return to school until the next week. Some students believed that Kenny had finally given up and others thought that maybe Cartman had killed him or vice versa. Or maybe they had just said fuck it and ran off. Stan heard so many rumors, his head was spinning by the end of the week. He texted Cartman each day only to get short, curt replies.

Stan wasn't able to visit his best friend but did text him about Cartman and Kenny after his visit. Kyle showed up every day the rest of that week and ate lunch with the group every single day confirming Stan's theory that whatever was bothering him had to do with either Cartman or Kenny. At the party it had sounded like Kenny was more the problem than Cartman, but Stan had been unsuccessful at getting anything else out of his best friend regarding the matter.

Kyle would usually distract him with something else and Stan wouldn't realize until later. It was the following week that Stan would find out exactly what was wrong. Kenny and Cartman had shown up in better spirits and there had been no cruel events that took place that week. Kenny was left alone.

Kyle only ate lunch with them Monday and by Tuesday he was up to his old routine of needing extra help or giving extra help during lunch, he went both ways with his cover story. It was Thursday morning and Stan found Kyle at their locker.

"Kyle, you are eating lunch with us today."

Kyle bit his lip. "I can't, you know I've been going to that class for lunch."

"You're bullshitting me, Kyle, and I know it and so does everyone else. Why don't you just eat lunch with us or at least tell us what's bothering you? Tell me what's bothering you?"

"Stan, I just," Kyle struggled with words to try to explain to his best friend why he couldn't be there at lunch. "It's just not a good idea."

"Please, just today? Then tomorrow you can get back to whatever. Just two days out of one week?" Stan begged. He missed eating lunch with Kyle. They didn't really have any classes together and while they saw each other between periods, it wasn't much. Kyle was studying more and more in the evenings or spending more time with his younger brother. Stan didn't want to say he was jealous but he didn't feel like he was asking for much. Kyle sighed defeatedly.

"Okay, just today." Kyle finally agreed. Stan would wish later that Kyle had put up more of a fight.

                               Ω

Lunch started out as usual. Everyone got their food and chowed down except the blonde haired teenager in the orange parka. Stan was sitting next to Kenny with Cartman flanking the other side. Kyle sat across from Stan, Butters next to him. Clyde sat on the other side of Butters and Craig and Tweek sat on the other side of Cartman.

There had been a lot of chatter at the table especially with Kyle there as well. Kenny was quiet as usual but that was expected. It was nearing the end of lunch when Cartman addressed Kenny with a stern voice, "Kenny. You need to eat." Cartman would do this once a week and was usually defeated into allowing Kenny to do carry out with someone's container.

"Not hungry," was the mumbled reply.

"I'm not leaving today until you eat," Cartman threatened and it didn't sound empty like his previous ones.

"Eric," Butters tried to find a way to pacify the other boy. "Kenny probably just doesn't like eating in the cafeteria. He can always eat at home."

"No." Cartman said fiercely. "He's eating here. He doesn't eat at home, either, and we're not going anywhere until he eats."

Craig rolled his eyes. "What are you going to do, shove food down his mouth?"

Clyde looked perplexed. "Aren't you hungry, Kenny?" He asked from his spot. He couldn't imagine not eating. Stan glanced over at Kyle who was closely monitoring the conversation as if he had a vested interest in the outcome.

Kenny said nothing and simply stared down at the burger Cartman had decided he wanted. His hair fell over his eyes.

"Of course he's hungry!" Cartman had trouble keeping his voice down. "Eat," he commanded Kenny, his voice starting to sound a bit crazed.

"I'm not hungry," Kenny muttered again.

"I don't care, eat," Cartman repeated his command.

Stan shook his head. "Dude, if he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't have to."

"Yeah, Eric, maybe you should just leave it," Butters was cut off suddenly by Kyle who brought a fist down onto the table. All eyes went straight to him.

"Cartman's right. Eat your food, Kenny," Kyle insisted looking over at their friend. Kenny didn't respond but Cartman was totally thrilled.

"Say that again, Kyle," excitement was clear in his voice and eyes.

"No way, asshole. Eat your food, Kenny."

"What the hell is going on right now?" Craig asked no one in particular, but Butters felt the need to answer.

"Kyle said Eric's right and Kenny needs to eat his food," Butters said airily, watching the exchange in disbelief. Kenny still made no move to eat his food.

"I said eat," Cartman repeated himself his voice growing in volume. Kenny still didn't budge and this made Kyle snap.

"Eat the fucking food, Kenny!" His own voice had been loud enough to get attention from other tables. Stan looked over at Kyle horrified.

"Kyle-"

"Shut up, Stan. Kenny needs to eat his food."

"Seriously, what the fuck?" Craig's voice was heard again with Tweek making a couple of exclamations next to him.

"Why do you care?!" Stan asked Kyle incredulously.

Kyle looked over to Stan, his eyes wide with something that Stan couldn't place. They were wild and looked unhinged. Kyle's voice rose in volume again. "Because he dies of starvation all the time!" he shouted. Kenny's head snapped up and he looked over at Kyle, shocked. Cartman's mouth hung open in disbelief.

The rest of the table was stunned, too, but for a totally different reason. By now their table had most of the rest of the cafeteria as an audience whether they realized it or not. "All the fucking time, he dies."

Kyle's eyes darted around wildly and he stood up, locking eyes with Kenny. He pointed at him. "You fucking die almost every other day but then you just show up to school and no one-no one remembers."

Kyle let his arm fall to his side. He realized more than just his friends were staring at him like he'd totally lost his mind. He sighed and decided to leave with his head held high. He could already hear the whispers of "crazy" through the crowd.

The cafeteria was eerily quiet for a couple minutes after Kyle stormed out. Most still stared at the table Kyle had been at with his friends waiting for someone else to say something. All Kyle's friends looked just as stunned and mystified as everyone else.

Stan finally found his voice, "Holy shit," he said in disbelief. He was sure he should get up and run after Kyle but the shock kept him rooted to his seat. Of all the things he had thought might be bothering his friend, it had never one time occurred to him that Kyle might be hallucinating.

"What the fuck?" Craig asked the air again as if he had forgotten all other words in the English language.

"What kind of drugs is he doing?" Clyde demanded aloud.

Cartman and Kenny looked at each other before both looking at their plates. Cartman took the burger off Kenny's plate and ate it.

"Are you okay, Kenny?" Butters asked. Kenny glanced up at him confused. Cartman looked at him again.

"You're shaking, dude," he said around a mouthful of burger.

Kenny inhaled and exhaled deeply getting command over his body. He looked over at Butters and offered an apologetic smile. "I'm fine." Butters beamed at him and a wide grin broke out across his face.

"Good! I'm so relieved! I don't know if I have it in me to worry about anyone but Kyle after that." Butters still smiled, though it did falter slightly.

Kenny nodded at Butters before looking back down at his now empty plate.

Reality slammed back into Stan and he pushed his chair away from the table and shot up. He quickly went in the direction that Kyle had, not saying anything before departing. He worried that maybe Kyle had left school. Would Kyle have left being that unsound of mind?

Stan felt shame welling up within him. He had no idea that Kyle had been going crazy. There was no other explanation for it. Fear constricted his heart and turned his stomach. Would they put Kyle in an institution or residential care program? Why on earth would Kyle be having such weird hallucinations or dreams or whatever of Kenny? With a start he realized he hadn't even checked on Kenny before he'd left. He was pretty sure Butters had been talking to him but he had no recollection of what was said. He just knew he had to get to Kyle before the redhead vanished.

Kyle was kneeling at their locker stuffing some books into his book bag. Stan let out of a sigh relief he hadn't known he'd been holding at the sight of his friend still in the school. "Kyle!"

Kyle looked up, surprised to see him. "Stan, did you run here?" he asked. The darker haired boy was gasping for breath and looked winded.

"Did I?" he asked, unsure. He hadn't remembered running he'd been so focused on getting to Kyle. It would explain why he had gotten there so fast. He prayed that he hadn't ran out of the cafeteria in full view of everyone.

Kyle raised an eyebrow before shaking his head. "I don't know, I'm asking you. Looks that way." He zipped his book bag up.

"Are you leaving for the day?"

Kyle looked up at him again, incredulous. "Well I'm sure not staying after all that, Stan."

"Did you take something this morning or have you been…using?" Stan asked hesitantly, suddenly becoming extremely fidgety at the uncomfortable questions. Kyle was the last person he'd expect to be using drugs, but life sure had been full of surprises lately. He scratched his head and pinched the bridge of his nose while Kyle glared at him. Finally, Kyle rose to his full height and swung his book bag over his shoulder.

"No, Stan. I'm not on drugs or taking anything that would cause hallucinations," he said evenly, his tone deadly. Stan squirmed under Kyle's gaze. It was much more intense than it usually was.

"But back there," Stan tried to protest but Kyle cut him off quickly with a shake of his head.

"It was true." Kyle's deadly tone remained.

Stan stared at his friend wide-eyed and started slowly shaking his head. "Kyle, that- that's not possible. It's not-"

"I know that, Stan," Kyle said firmly.

"Do you?" Stan asked in absolute astonishment.

"Yes. But it doesn't change the fact that it keeps happening."

"Did Kenny trigger something in you to make you think these things?" Stan asked helplessly. He had no clue what Kenny would even be able to trigger in Kyle.

"No, Stanley," Kyle said with a low sigh. "I'm going home for the rest of today. Maybe the week." And maybe next week, he thought but didn't voice.

Understanding hit Stan like a ton of bricks. "This is why you're always avoiding us at lunch and skipping out on other things."

"Yeah, most people that die usually stay dead."

"Kenny hasn't died, Kyle." Stan felt like a fool saying it out loud, but he needed to at least attempt to get reality through to his best friend.

Kyle simply shook his head and smiled dully at him. "I'll see you later, Stan."

Stan looked at him uncertain. "Are you sure you're- you're okay?"

"I'll be okay."

"Will you at least text me to let me know you made it home okay?" Stan asked. Fear was making him worry that he might never see Kyle again. He wanted something solid that he would be okay.

"Okay," Kyle promised and started walking away. Stan watched him but couldn't fight down the fear or dread.

"Kyle, wait! I'm coming with you!" Stan jogged a bit to close the short gap between them.

"What?"

"I'm going home, too."

"Seriously, Stan, I'm fine."

"I don't care what you say. I'm going with you."

Kyle shrugged and the two walked to his house together.

Chapter Text

Kyle sighed and shut the front door of his house, leaning heavily against it, his forehead meeting the painted wood. He had finally convinced Stan to leave the house. Dinner had been awkward as all get out. Kyle had to beg his best friend not to say anything about his outburst at lunch to his mother.

It had never even crossed the redhead's mind that friends might be so concerned about his mental health they would inform his parents about his little show at lunch. He desperately wished he would have thought things through but he had just been overcome with emotion; it wasn't as if he had planned to totally lose it at lunch.

He just couldn't go through any more of Kenny's deaths. Stan was always a mess, it was horrifying. To say he was emotionally drained would be the understatement of the century. Kenny just kept killing himself by refusing food over and over. He had exaggerated at lunch that it was every other day. It was more like every couple days but it might as well have been every other day to Kyle, he couldn't get relief from everything that was happening; it was like he was drowning and he could see hands above the surface but none reached out to him and his own reach wasn't long enough to grasp any even if they did offer help. He just continued to sink.

He heard his mom calling for him and he went to her, almost feeling weak with relief that Stan had left without spilling the beans. He helped his mom with the dishes, finding peace in the routine and it's normalcy. Afterwards, he went up to his room and sat at his computer desk, already opening up the various documents he knew he needed to start scanning to accomplish his assigned work, which he had no shortage of.

It wasn't too long after that the doorbell resounded throughout the house. Kyle ignored it, figuring it was for someone else. He was hunched over his computer, quickly typing up one of the three research papers he had a deadline on from his AP classes. After all, surely Stan wouldn't have come back. At least he hoped not.

"Kyle!" Ike hollered up the stairs. "It's for you!" Kyle slumped in his chair. Had Stan really returned so soon after all? He had still been on edge even when he left, fretting over Kyle's state of mind. Kyle heard voices interacting with his brother's and the blood drained from his face.

They were definitely Cartman and Kenny's voices and not Stan's. Dazedly, he shuffled out of his room and slowly started to descend the stairs, trying not to appear too terrified. In truth, Kyle was terrified. He had never been outright scared of anyone much less someone he thought of as a friend, but he was definitely scared of Kenny. There was definitely something unnatural going on with him. Finally, he came into view of his two friends.

Cartman's grin would put the Cheshire Cat to shame. "Hi, Kahl, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost!" he got out before doubling over in laughter. Even Kenny cracked a rare wry smile. He looked up at Kyle who had stopped halfway down the staircase, not at all thrilled.

"Come with us," Kenny said. It was less a question and more a directive.

Kyle regarded him warily. "Where?"

"Stark's Pond."

Kyle didn't budge.

"It's okay, Kyle, really."

Ike was regarding all of them with a critical eye. "Kyle, is everything…okay?" he asked sensing that something was disturbing his older brother regarding the two friends but couldn't put a finger on it. Kyle was sure Ike would hear about his outburst before the week ended, he was just glad he'd gotten to enjoy one last evening of relative normalcy with his family before the fallout would undoubtedly begin.

"Please?" there was a desperate edge to Kenny's voice. Kyle finally nodded and finished descending the stairs. He made sure to stay on the side of Cartman that Kenny was not on. It was odd as usually Kyle would choose to have someone between him and Cartman. It was rare he would use Cartman as a buffer. Life was getting stranger by the moment.

"Are we really going to Stark's Pond?" Kyle asked.

"Yes," Cartman answered. "We won't be long," he said more to Ike than Kyle. Ike watched them leave still unsure why his brother was so visibly uncomfortable. It didn't need to be communicated to Ike that he cover for his brother. They always covered for each other. Still, this was one time Ike didn't quite feel comfortable doing so but still chose to in spite of his unease.

Ω

The walk started in silence until Kenny broke it once they left Kyle's street.

"How long?"

Kyle was caught off guard. "Huh?"

"How long have you known?"

Kyle halted. Kenny and Cartman walked a few more steps ahead before realizing Kyle had stopped. Both turned around, the unspoken question in their eyes. Kyle simply shook his head. He didn't know what he had expected, but he had most definitely not expected for Kenny to simply confirm that Kyle was indeed sane and grounded in reality. There had been a part of him that hoped, even wanted, Kenny to wildly deny all this and for Cartman to call him batshit crazy. Instead they were acting like he'd just figured out how to get into a secret club. "So it is all real."

Kenny nodded. "Yeah."

"How the hell did you do it, Jew? How'd you figure it out?"

Kyle gaped at Cartman astounded. "'Figure it out?' Figure out what? It just kept happening." A thought suddenly hit him. "Wait, how long have you known?"

"Pretty much since preschool. Now your turn. You never answered the question."

"About a month."

They reached Stark's Pond. Kenny sighed as they approached the familiar place, making a beeline for the bench that overlooked the pond. "I'm sorry, Kyle."

"For what?"

"This- I just- I'm sorry."

"How did this happen?" He stared at the blonde teenager ambling along, only their mutual friend between them, before another realization dawned on him,"Wait, you've been doing this since preschool?" he asked finally being able to process what Cartman had said.

Kenny shrugged. "Before then. My parents were in a Cthulhu cult when my mom was pregnant with me. So this is the result."

Kyle simply stared at him horrified before turning his attention to Cartman, his horror growing to new heights. "Wait." He steeled himself for the answer to the question he didn't want to ask. "Is he also?" The thought of an immortal Cartman made him want to puke, possibly forever.

The brunette was clearly enjoying this way too much and his grin sure didn't hide that fact. "Yup! I come back all the time, too."

Kyle's face had started to turn a ghastly green that did not suit his features. Kenny quickly shook his head, worried that Kyle might start spewing chunks into the pond. "He doesn't, don't worry," he assured his friend and then sadly finished, "Just me."

"My time will come, don't worry," Cartman reassured a now healthier looking Kyle.

"Let's hope not," Kyle muttered with a shake of his head. He paused and looked at Kenny again. "Kenny, so- did you- did you also die when your family did that night? You were murdered, too?" Kyle asked, the mystery of why Kenny was the sole survivor finally making sense to Kyle's mind.

"I was shot that night, too," Kenny cryptically replied. Cartman said nothing.

The trio arrived at the bench and Kyle fell into it. "Wow," he whispered watching his breath appear before him then fade into the cold night. He really had no words right now, it was all his brain could do to take in the information the other two were telling him.

"It's a lot to take in," Kenny said softly, sitting next to Kyle and staring out at the pond before them. Cartman chose to remain standing as if on the look-out for any would be eavesdroppers.

Kyle vaguely wondered if he and Kenny had planned this. He felt like he had been totally out of the loop for years. Cartman had known since preschool that Kenny was basically some bizarre version of a zombie. The literal walking dead. Kyle reached into the deepest recesses of his mind. He could have sworn Kenny had tried to tell him this before but it was just too unbelievable.

"It hurts?" Kyle asked.

Kenny simply nodded. "Yeah."

"I'm sorry," Kyle offered unsure what else to say. Really, what else could he possibly say to him? All of a sudden his problems seemed so small in comparison. Kenny's family had been murdered, he would die and come back from the dead and it hurt. Of course it hurt. Kyle didn't even want to imagine. As if it wouldn't hurt enough to lose your family you couldn't even escape emotional torment through death because you would just keep coming back to the living in some warped cycle.

"It's not your fault." Kenny's attempt at comfort wasn't strong and Kyle just shook his head, still having trouble processing all the information he was being fed. His systems were on overload and he feared they might fry soon. Still there was another question he wanted to ask.

"Do you see them? Your family? In the afterlife?" He was assuming there was an afterlife but he would wait and ask for a more detailed description of that another day. Right now, he wasn't sure he wanted to know much more.

Kenny looked away from him and shook his head. "No." He sighed before turning back to Kyle. "I haven't. Sometimes I see people I know, sometimes I don't. No one really tells me much about it because I'm such an anomaly." He shrugged and offered a somber smile. "I also think the powers that be like to see me squirm."

Kyle's eyes couldn't get wider if he wanted them to. This was insane.

Cartman cleared his throat. "If someone can't find his family in the afterlife maybe he should stop starving himself to death all the time. You know insanity is repeating the same thing expecting a different outcome."

"He's not insane," Kyle snapped at Cartman. After he said it he wondered if he was just programmed to counter everything the other said. It was crazy that Kenny would keep starving himself to death hoping to see his family if he never did. He studied the teenager in question next to him for a minute before asking, "Are you?"

Kenny's response was a shrug. Green eyes widened at this, full of dread, desperation, and a tiredness that dulled the once vibrant green oculi. "Kenny, really, I can't take you dying like this much more. Stan's always a mess, Butters is crying, it's awful," Kyle lamented. He glared in Cartman's direction. "And Cartman never shows up to the funeral or has any reaction." Really the brunette just wasn't around after Kenny died. Maybe it was on purpose. Cartman shrugged.

"Whatever, Jew, I always know he's not staying dead, not my fault it took you this long to catch up."

Kyle frowned and was about to return the insult with one of his own but Kenny stopped him. "It's fine, really, Kyle. If it's too draining, just ignore it. The others will forget it soon, it doesn't stay in their memory. It'll stay with you, though. Don't let it drive you crazy." There was sympathy in his eyes and voice and Kyle knew that the other was truly sorry for the situation they were in.

"Is that why you don't eat? To find your family?" Kyle asked in earnest. Kenny was spilling all his secrets tonight so he might as well try this one. He really doubted it was an eating disorder. He supposed it was possible but unlikely someone with an eating disorder would go for days without washing their hair. They were usually a little more concerned about their looks.

Maybe Cartman was right. Again. It irritated the living hell out of him, but Kyle couldn't deny that his old archrival had been right more than once regarding matters relating to Kenny. Maybe the guy really was starving himself to death so he could seek out his family in the afterlife. Still, Kyle had to believe there were easier ways to kill yourself if you had unlimited lives at your disposal.

Kenny shook his head. "We'll save that one for another day."

"But," Kyle tried to protest, but Kenny's eyes warned he wouldn't answer the question truthfully no matter how many times it was asked, at least that would be the case tonight.

"We just wanted to make sure you were okay," Kenny said breezily, standing back up, unable to disguise how tired and drained he was.

Kyle followed suit and stood up, too. "That's great except I'm pretty sure everyone will still think I'm certifiably loony tomorrow."

"You are," Cartman's face split wide with the grin he cracked, and Kyle wished he could slap it off his face. He went to do just that but Kenny caught him by the wrist before his hand could connect with Cartman's face.

"Let's not fight. Not tonight." Kenny said quietly, his gaze holding Kyle's. "I'm tired of fights."

Kyle nodded quickly understanding. Kenny smiled gratefully at him, dropping his wrist, and starting the walk away from the bench to Kyle's house, completely missing Cartman sticking his tongue out at the redhead.

"Goddammit," Kyle seethed at him through clenched teeth. He flipped the other off before both caught up with Kenny, matching his pace.

"So what now?" Kyle asked.

"What do you mean?" his blonde friend responded, having no clue what the other meant.

"I mean, have you two, like, been trying to figure out why this happens? Do you want to stop it? Is there a way to get it to stop? Are there others?" Kyle was rattling off all the stuff he could think of if he were in Kenny's shoes.

Kenny laughed humorlessly. "Oh, Kyle. I have more questions than you could ever know. And not one of them has ever been answered."

"I still don't get why the Jew knows of all people to know," Cartman grumbled.

"Should we try telling Stan?" Kyle wondered aloud. "He might believe us if all three of us are telling him the same story. He won't think I'm totally off my rocker." Again Cartman was uncharacteristically quiet, something Kyle would wish he would have noticed when reflecting back on this evening years later.

"No," Kenny was quick to shoot the idea down. "No, we're not telling Stan anything about it."

"Why not? And I kind of already did, remember?"

Kenny frowned and stopped walking waiting for Kyle to do the same. Cartman had stopped with Kenny seeming to already know what his friend was planning. Kyle was stunned, he had never realized how in sync the other two were. Kyle waited for Kenny to speak. When he did it was slow and deliberate.

"Kyle, I don't want you saying anything else to Stan. I don't want him to know or even wonder if I really die as often as I do. I just- I don't want him to go through this. At least now he has no memory of the deaths. He-he's normal, I want him to stay that way," he finished in a whisper like he was talking to himself more than Kyle. Cartman and Kyle exchanged glances, both noticing how his eyes softened and lit up when he spoke of their other friend.

Kyle sighed and shook his head. "Okay, if that's what you want."

"It is."

"But we are revisiting this not eating thing another day." Kyle was nothing if not persistent. If he could get Kenny to eat maybe he could stop all these repeated deaths. It was as if he was in some insane Shakespearean tragedy that someone had put on replay and now it was just endlessly looping.

Kenny pursed his lips but eventually nodded as they turned down the redhead's street. He knew Kyle wouldn't let up on the subject until he got the answer he wanted. They stopped short of Kyle's door. Kenny and Cartman remained on the walkway while Kyle stepped up on the stoop in front of the door. He turned, realizing the other two weren't planning to go inside. Cartman eyed him critically for a moment.

"You coming to school tomorrow?" he asked.

A sigh left Kyle's lips. "I don't know. I guess so, Stan will probably be freaking out all day if I don't." He shook his head like he still wasn't entirely sure what he planned to do. After a moment, he shrugged and grabbed the knob on the front door. "See you guys tomorrow, I guess," he said over his shoulder as he opened the door.

The other two said their goodbyes and started on their way home. Kyle paused as he could hear them both talking but couldn't make anything out. Kenny was speaking to Cartman more than he had to Kyle just now; he couldn't help but be a little jealous. Of course Kenny would likely feel more comfortable with Cartman. They had shared this incredible secret since preschool.

Ike was waiting for him. He grinned with relief when he saw his older brother. "Kyle! Was everything okay?! I was worried."

"What? Why? And yes, everything's fine."

"I just- you were acting so weird when Eric and Kenny came over, I thought they were maybe blackmailing you or something. I've never seen you so full of dread!" He glanced at his watch. "I was giving them two hours then I was going to go tell mom and dad. I was so freaked out!"

"How long was I gone?"

"Almost an hour."

Kyle's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Really?" It had felt much longer to Kyle. He still couldn't believe it. He didn't know what to do with all this information. It spun around and around in his head, not a lick of it making any sense but there it was- bright, stark, amazing, horrible reality.

Chapter Text

Dark circles accented Stan's cobalt blue eyes the next morning. Kyle took one look at his friend and felt awful. "You look like total shit," he surmised. Despite this Stan grinned, insane happiness curving his mouth into a grin that would make The Joker proud.

"Kyle! You're here!" he exclaimed, throwing his arms around his friend and hugging him. The hug was awkwardly returned.

"Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

Kyle realized his folly when Stan's face fell and worry darkened his features. "Because of yesterday…" he whispered. "You do remember what happened, right…" At Kyle's flinch, Stan quickly changed the subject, "I tried texting and calling you last night after I went home but I never got a response. Thought you'd be home today for sure."

Kyle frowned, fishing his phone out of his book bag. He was notorious for forgetting his phone in his book bag or locker so this wouldn't have been the first time he hadn't responded to texts or calls. He finally found it and pulled it out. Stan got closer to see it. "It's dead," Kyle explained, showing him the blank screen. "I'll charge it later."

Stan nodded. "I'm just so happy you're here. I was really worried after yesterday."

Kyle was quiet for a moment debating whether he wanted to convince his best friend of the truth or grant Kenny his request. He gave into the latter; after all, there was no way Stan would be able to convince him if their situations were reversed. "I'm sorry I made you worry," he apologized. "And I'm fine. I think there was something in my food yesterday or maybe Cartman snuck something into my drink."

Stan shook his head, eyes narrowing, and voice seething. "I should have known, that fucking asshole, I'll kill him."

"Stan, it's fine, really," Kyle said quickly, belatedly realizing the excuse was weak and not fair to Cartman. "I took care of it, we talked it out and all that jazz. I'm good, dude."

"You and Cartman talked things out?" Stan asked incredulous. Surely, he had misheard.

"Yeah."

"Okay." Disbelief practically dripped off the word.

They both got what they needed out of the locker and Kyle shut it. He started walking away but realized his friend wasn't following. He stopped and gave Stan a questioning look. Stan shook his head again.

"Kyle. We really need to talk about this. I don't think Cartman's been putting stuff in your drinks since school started. You avoid us at lunch all the time."

Kyle sighed, he should have known he wouldn't be let off the hook so easily. "Can we talk about it some other time Stan? When we're not here at school."

Stan looked up and down the hall, noting that the halls were thinning out as it was getting closer to the final bell to ring. "We could just skip class and you could tell me."

"Dude. I'm not cutting class," Kyle said as if Stan had just asked him to willingly amputate a limb from his body. "Not today." Disappointment was clear in his friend's eyes. Kyle knew Stan wouldn't like what was coming next but he forged on. Might as well get it out of the way now. "I'm not eating lunch with you all today either." Kenny and Cartman might have attempted to clear things up last night, but Kyle was more confused than he'd ever been.

Stan was crestfallen. "Are you going to eat lunch with us again at all? This isn't going to turn into the whole year is it, you avoiding us at lunch?" Was it possible that Cartman had been sneaking stuff in his friend's drinks since the start of the year? It sure seemed unlikely but Stan was starting to latch onto the idea since he wasn't being given anything else to help make sense of things. Or maybe it had just been yesterday and that's why Kyle had flipped his shit at lunch.

"I'm not avoiding everybody," Kyle pointed out. He was really just avoiding Kenny. And, at this point, Cartman. Last night's conversation had certainly been illuminating.

"Will you talk to Kenny again? At all?"

"Of course I will. I just don't know when."

Stan allowed a small smile. "Good! That'll be good for both of you. I can tell Kenny today at lunch." Kyle's chest tightened at this but not with panic, instead with grief. Stan really cared for Kenny, possibly more, even if he didn't realize it. But how could Stan get much closer to someone like Kenny? Someone who died practically all the time but people didn't remember the event. It would have been hard enough without adding that unique factor to it.

Stan would be good for Kenny, Kyle had no doubt about that, he did question how good Kenny would be for Stan, though. And that made his chest twist in pain because he understood now. He understood some of what Kenny must be thinking and why he was staying at an arm's length.

"Yes, please tell him," Kyle encouraged while a million different thoughts raced through his mind threatening to blurt out Kenny's secret again. He could already feel guilt settling in the pit of his stomach. It was hard to breathe, he remembered how much Stan wanted to save their friend and realized his best friend had likely lost that battle before it even began. The feel good drag was in full swing here. "I'll see you later, Stan," Kyle said in parting. He was ready to leave and forget this part of his life, calculus was much more inviting and safe.

"See ya later," Stan replied, moving in the opposite direction. Kyle debated following him or not. He was sure he was on his way to Cartman and Kenny's locker. Just as he was sure Stan would get all over Cartman's case because of his lame excuse, but Kyle was in no mood to try to assure Stan and besides Kenny would be there.

More guilt panged at him as it was his fault that his best friend would likely do something stupid, but his thoughts were racing with other things he wanted to get accomplished before the bell rang. Stan didn't know about the whole zombie thing so he wouldn't be able to relate to the fear Kyle had. Shame colored his cheeks for a brief moment as he realized he truly was afraid of their friend now. He walked in the direction of a specific classroom.

After his chat with Kenny and Cartman he had decided he was going to do a little research on cults and he knew one other person that loved research as much as him. He entered the homeroom he knew she had and easily spotted out the loose, thick braid that Wendy was known for.

She glanced up at him from her desk surprised to see Kyle as he approached. She raised her brows, clearly confused. "Kyle, I know we have almost every class together because of AP but we don't have homeroom together." She hoped he was just picking up Stan's spaciness by association.

Kyle grinned. "I know. I wanted to ask if you would mind helping me with a project after school." He lowered his voice. "But don't tell anyone."

Wendy frowned. "What's the project and why can't anyone know?"

"There's just a couple people I don't want to know."

"Kenny and Stan?" she guessed.

"Uh," Kyle paused. Really it was Kenny and Cartman but he supposed he didn't want Stan catching wind of this either. "Close enough."

"Okay. Why didn't you just ask me in a class we have together later?" Her brows furrowed as her friend was not acting like himself.

"I wanted to catch you before you heard about my lunch yesterday." He knew she had been tutoring so likely not in the cafeteria when he had put his histrionics on display for everyone.

"You know I also have friends that eat in the cafeteria, Kyle," she pointed out.

"So you already heard?"

"I got the gist of it, yeah. I'll let you tell me more later though. Bell's about to ring."

That sounded like a yes but he wanted to be sure. "Are you going to help out after school?"

"Like you even needed to ask."

Kyle smiled again, relieved. "Thanks!" He left ignoring the fact that Wendy was giving him the same odd look he had been giving Stan since school started back up.

Ω

Stan angrily made his way down the hallway seething at Kyle's earlier admission that Cartman had put something in his friend's drink to make him act all crazy yesterday at lunch. There was still that voice in Stan's head that said it really didn't make sense if he thought on it long enough. Kyle himself had basically said it didn't make sense, too!

He didn't care, though, he was just glad he had someone to take all this anger and confusion out on. Cartman and Kenny were both at the locker. Stan rushed right at Cartman and pushed him up against the locker surprising not only his two friends but himself as well.

"What the fuck, Cartman?" Stan snarled.

"Yeah, what the fuck?!" was the response. Kenny gaped, unsure what to do.

"Kyle told me what happened." Cartman was stunned. Kenny was torn between stunned, angry, and hurt.

"He…did?" Cartman questioned, honestly surprised Kyle would have said anything so soon.

"Yeah, I know you spiked his drink with something to make him hallucinate."

"What?!"

"Huh?" Even Kenny was stunned into involuntary speech at the shoddiness of Kyle's cover story.

Stan glared at Cartman. "Don't what me. I knew you did something, asshole!"

By now, some other students had decided to stop and stare while others simply ignored the commotion and went about their business. Cartman struggled in Stan's grip, starting to have trouble breathing. "Of course that Jew would say I did that, fucking kike would blame me for his insanity," he managed to get out in a strained whisper, glaring defiantly at his captor. He tried to kick at Stan but was unsuccessful.

Stan saw red and punched his friend, still keeping him pinned up against the locker. A couple students started chanting, "Fight, fight!" The sound of more voices wakened Kenny out of his stupor and he hurried to assist his locker buddy. Both of Stan's hands were around Cartman's neck by now and they tightened around him.

"Stan!" Kenny exclaimed loudly. "You're choking him!" Cartman's face had started to turn a disturbing shade of purple. The red in Stan's vision softened as Kenny's voice cut through it again. "Stan! Stop!" When the red finally fell away Stan was embarrassed and ashamed to realize Kenny was attempting to pry his hands away from Cartman's neck.

A few other students had stayed for the show, but simply watched, waiting to see what would happen next. Stan's hands fell away from Cartman and back by his side. Cartman coughed and bent over gasping for breath. Kenny held him steady with a hand on the back and Stan just stared in disbelief. He backpedaled from the other two backing right into a student that had stayed to watch. Stan spun around and sputtered a quick apology before rushing away. Kenny called for him again but Stan ignored him.

He raced down the stairs feeling his heart beat fast. What had he been thinking? He wasn't even drunk. Yes, he had been upset but Kyle had said they had worked things out and everything was fine. Still, Stan couldn't believe that Kyle would just talk things out with Eric Cartman. He was leaving, heading towards an exit door when a hand landed on his shoulder.

"Going somewhere?"

Stan's heart sank at the sound of Craig's voice. Why was Craig always just randomly popping up anyway, Stan thought annoyed. He waved the hand away. "Yes, home."

"Why?"

"I hit Cartman. And was choking him."

"What did he do to deserve that?"

Stan paused for a second, not sure he wanted to explain but did anyway. Maybe Craig could help him figure things out. "He spiked Kyle's drink or something and that's why he was so weird yesterday at lunch."

Craig raised an eyebrow. "Did he?" he asked skeptically. "Did Kyle say this?"

"Yeah," Stan confirmed. It was weird, he knew it. Craig wasn't buying it either.

Craig shook his head. "You know we need to get to class."

Stan stared at him sure he had heard him wrong. "I'm leaving. I was just hitting Cartman and choking him. He was turning purple, Kenny had to make me let go of him."

"I think you're staying," Craig said, looking at something beyond Stan. Stan turned around to see what Craig was looking at. Kenny was there gasping for breath, clearly having hurried to catch up with Stan.

"Stan? Stan, are you okay?" he asked between breaths.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Is Cartman okay?"

"He'll be okay," Kenny assured him. Stan looked at him confused.

"Why are you here? Shouldn't you be with Cartman? He's the one who got hurt."

Kenny looked at him, sky blue eyes flashing with concern. "I thought you might leave and I didn't think it would be good for you to be alone after that." Stan's body filled with something he couldn't name but he knew it felt good. He couldn't find any words. Craig realized that Stan had been stunned into silence so quickly spoke up before the air became too tense.

"That was kind of you, Kenny," he said sincerely. Kenny glanced up at Craig just realizing there was another person with them. "So Cartman is going to make it after all. Stan was pretty worried. He was on his way out the door."

Kenny looked back over at Stan, worried. "Stan? Are you leaving?" Stan locked eyes with his friend in the orange parka. Concerned blue eyes peered at him through blonde strands and Stan's breath caught in his throat, words dying on his lips. Why did he suddenly feel like puking?

"Stan?" Craig also prompted when Stan made no reply. Stan wanted to choke Craig now. Couldn't he get some air?

"I just, I just need some air," he voiced, finally able to push words through his lips.

"Okay," Kenny said agreeably. "I'll go with you." He glanced back at Craig who nodded in approval.

"See you two later," Craig waved before turning to go to his class. He figured Stan probably wouldn't make the period. Kenny and Stan were both quiet and Kenny waited a couple minutes before realizing Stan wasn't planning to move.

"Stan?" He asked again growing more concerned. When Stan made no response, Kenny grabbed his hand and pulled him to one of the exit doors. It was the same one Stan had used during one of the first lunches when Cartman had drawn attention to Kenny's eating habits or lack thereof.

Fresh air hit Stan's face and he instantly felt better and grounded again. He allowed Kenny to keep pulling him, curious as to where he was being taken. He smiled when he realized he was being led to the same place he had once led Kenny to during the lunch Butters had first offered up his food container.

Kenny finally stopped and turned to look at him. "Are you okay?" Those concerned baby blues were looking over him again and Stan was finding it hard to speak, his mouth not cooperating with the task of forming words.

"I- I'm fine," Stan attempted to reassure him. "I'm sorry that I… lost it." Kenny's mouth curved into a big smile and Stan thought his heart was going to stop.

"I think everyone knows not to mess with Kyle now," he said good-humoredly.

Stan allowed for a small smile. "Yeah, otherwise I'm coming for ya," he tried to laugh but couldn't. Kenny's smile dropped and Stan's heart did, too. He had wanted to try to keep that smile there a little longer, but Kenny must have picked up that Stan was still upset.

"Eric's fine, Stan," Kenny tried to reassure him again. Stan shook his head.

"He didn't spike any of Kyle's drinks, did he?" The words were flat.

"I can't say for sure that he never has, but as far as I know, he didn't spike anything recently."

"Kyle's losing his mind," Stan whispered looking ahead at the horizon through the trees. "I thought it was me losing my mind but I somehow didn't see it. My best friend is actually losing his mind."

Kenny shifted his weight uncomfortably, at a loss for words. He had always wanted other people to know about his recurring deaths but had never imagined it playing it out this way. He had no idea why Kyle suddenly knew, just as he had no idea why Eric Cartman knew.

According to Kyle, he had just started remembering the deaths about a month ago. And his poor best friend stood here worrying over his state of mental health. Words were racing through Kenny's mind, formulating sentences and discarding ones that he thought might not help. What could he possibly say?

"At least he doesn't think he's dying," Kenny offered weakly and immediately regretted it. That was definitely a sentence his mind had been in the process of discarding, but his mouth had just opened up and blurted those words right out.

Stan was even more horrified than he had been when they first left the school building. "Let's hope it never gets that bad. He might think he can come back to life and just live on the edge all the time." The blonde next to him stiffened at the words realizing Stan had hit the nail on the head. He lived on the edge every day because he knew he would come back to life; maybe that was just part of the deal that his parents had made within the cult.

"No, no," Kenny rushed to correct himself. "I'm sure that will never happen, Stan. I was just trying to cheer you up. It was stupid."

"I wish it was stupid," Stan said. "It's definitely not out of the question though." He looked at his friend and smiled. He watched as Kenny smiled back and Stan realized that Kyle might be losing his grip on reality, but he was right about one thing: Kenny did light up around him.

How had he not noticed before? Was he really lighting up the way Kenny was right now like Kyle had said? Stan didn't think Kyle would lie to him but he also thought he wasn't crazy until recently. While Kenny struggled to find another way to comfort the brooding boy next to him, Stan used his peripheral vision to really check him out.

He knew his body had been doing things around his long- lost friend, but he had shrugged it off as hormones. He started to reach out and grab the other's hand but stopped and let his hand fall back to his side. He could hear Kyle's voice in his mind again warning him not to push too far or too much. Besides, he couldn't assume Kenny was lighting up just for him, maybe the guy lit up for other people, too. It's not like Kyle was with the guy every second of the day to know he only lit up for Stan like this.

Kenny noticed Stan reach his hand out before it fell back to his side. Without a second thought, he grabbed the hand and squeezed it reassuringly as Stan had done for him before. "Kyle will be fine, Stan," he reassured.

Stan almost laughed. He had finally stopped worrying about Kyle for two seconds just to be back there again. He squeezed the hand back gratefully. I think I might be…. is this… As if fearful of the word itself, his mind refused to supply a particular word to any of this thoughts.

"Do you feel better, Stan?" Kenny asked hopefully. "Now that you got 'some air?'"

Stan grinned, not missing how eager the other both looked and sounded. "Yes, I do. Thank you." Kenny positively glowed and Stan felt a fool that he had never noticed what Kyle had. How many others had?

"Are you okay to go back in?"

Stan sighed and nodded. "Yes, guess I gotta face the music sooner or later." The sooner they got back in the building maybe he could get rid of the urge to reach out and kiss him. Kenny really hadn't been around that long yet and clearly still needed to work somethings out with himself. They held hands until they were back in the school.

Kenny started to say goodbye but Stan insisted on making sure he got to his class okay. Kenny tried to point out that he should be the one making sure Stan made it to class okay as he was the one who had walked right into an ambush before. However, Kenny was still the one that was escorted at Stan's insistence. Although, things had let up, Stan was not going to give anyone with ill intent the chance to encounter Kenny alone in the halls.

Chapter Text

 

The school day was over and Kyle couldn't have been more happy, practically skipping out of the building. He assumed there had been no incident at lunch. He really didn't want to know at this point if there had been. He was sure Kenny probably hadn't eaten anything, the thought made him irritated and frustrated. That would sure help things if the dude would just eat some food. Pretty easy solution Kyle figured. Then again, he wondered if Kenny would find other means to end his life.

He texted Wendy that he was on his way to her house. They had opted not to walk home or find a ride together. Kyle was determined to keep this secret. He hoped Wendy didn't think he was ashamed of just being seen with her. She had pointed out that they were friends and it's not like they were dating but he didn't want anyone getting wind of their little project especially Stan, Kenny, or Cartman.

He was positive they would know he was up to something if he was going to have "study sessions" with Wendy often; if Stan found out what the studies were for, he was sure his best friend would go to his mother in a fit of concern. Who knew what would happen if Kenny or Cartman caught wind of it.

Stan had known right away that he wasn't tutoring or being tutored so it's not like Kyle was exactly smooth at covering things up. It would just be best if there was no need to cover anything up and the only way around that was to make sure his friends just didn't know. Wendy texted back that she was already home; she'd gotten a ride and been dropped off.

Nerves were getting the best of him as he approached her house. What if she also thought he was just crazy? She hadn't given him the same strange looks others had throughout the school day. He knew he could study this on his own but he desperately wanted someone else to research as well- someone he knew that would catch things he might not or might have a better grasp of certain concepts than him and he knew Wendy was up for that task.

He'd brought his book bag with him, books on the occult he'd checked out from the public library. He'd brought his tablet as well as he understood that the internet was a valuable tool in researching even if it sometimes overwhelmed the senses with information. Finally, arriving at her door, he reached his hand up to ring the bell, but Wendy was already opening the door before he could press the button.

"Hey, took you long enough," she greeted, holding the door open and inviting him in. She immediately spotted the bulging book bag on his back and her eyes widened. "Good grief, Kyle, is that why it took you so long? Are you weight training or something?"

"No," Kyle managed while gasping for breath. He slid the backpack off and heaved a sigh of relief. "Wow, I didn't realize it was that heavy." It hit the floor with a thud. Wendy shut the door and locked it before surveying Kyle and his book bag again.

"Well, what's in it?"

"Are your parents here?"

"No, they're out for a few hours. Some sort of work event."

Kyle didn't hide his relief. He didn't want her parents thinking he was trying to recruit her into a cult. He realized most teenage boys would be more concerned that her parents would think he was trying to seduce her, but not in Kyle's life. Nope, instead he lugged around thick books on cults. He glanced at her. "I brought a bunch of books on cults."

Wendy stared at him for a couple uncomfortable minutes, shocked. "Why'd you bring that many over? We won't be able to go over all of those this afternoon." Surely Kyle remembered that she still did have a life. Right now she was less concerned about the topic and more concerned that he expected her to dedicate her life to this project.

"I was hoping we could split them up," he explained. "I figured I'd leave some with you and I'd bring some back home since this will probably take more than one day." Wendy was relieved. She should have known he would have more realistic expectations.

"Well, let's go up to my room."

Kyle hesitated. "What if your parents come home?"

"Really, Kyle? Would you rather us do this in the kitchen and explain to my parents why we're reading about cults instead of of just pretending we were making out or something?"

"Neither one of those options sounds good for me," he pointed out. Both sounded very much like ways to get in hot water with her parents.

"You didn't want to do this at your house, remember? Besides my mom will text when they're on their way back and you can just leave then, don't worry about it." He felt at ease with this information and visibly relaxed.

"Okay."

Wendy sat cross-legged on the carpet in her room, several books sprawled around her as she and Kyle had fished through his bag and determined which ones she'd be keeping for the time being. Kyle was grabbing the last few books he thought she'd need.

Wendy glanced at some of the books, she instantly recognized a couple books and the sight temporarily paralyzed her with shock. She really had no idea what Kyle was up to and worry was starting to settle in the pit of her stomach, making her second guess her decision to help out. She'd heard bits and pieces about his strange outburst at lunch but not the whole story. Something about Kyle thinking he was like the kid in the Sixth Sense or something. She had failed in getting the exact details of what Kyle had been upset about. He finally plopped down on the floor across from her, setting down the other books he'd carried up.

Wendy cleared her throat, "So we are obviously concerned about a cult. Or several cults?"

"Just one. The Cult of Cthulhu."

Wendy frowned. She had guessed as much based on the books that littered her carpeted bedroom floor. "H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu?" At the nod of affirmation, she went on, "Kyle, there's like cults within cults in that mythos. Not to mention some are real and some are totally fictional. It blends reality with fiction. You don't know what's real."

Kyle smiled, impressed. "So you are familiar with it then?" He knew she was the right person to rope into doing this project with him.

Wendy turned her head away from Kyle and picked up one of the books, casually flipping some pages. "Yes." Kyle waited for her to expand further but she didn't and he wondered why she was suddenly tense.

"What's wrong?"

Her eyes didn't leave the pages of the book she held in her lap. "Why do you want to research this?"

"I thought you heard about my outburst in the cafeteria?"

She finally put the book down and gave him her full attention again. "Only parts of it. I don't know what this has to do with that, though."

"Kenny's parents were in the cult when his mom was pregnant with him." Nothing clicked with Wendy and he frowned. "Did you not hear about how I accused Kenny of dying all the time and coming back to life?"

Wendy paled at this revelation and shook her head slowly. "No, I'd just heard you thought you saw dead people or something like that."

Kyle laughed at this. He couldn't believe it. He thought everyone would be saying much worse things about him, it was actually a relief that people weren't zooming in on Kenny. He didn't need any more attention that was for sure. "Well, I accused Kenny of dying all the time and coming back to life."

The relief was gone as he realized Wendy was studying him intently. He was getting nervous again. "What?" Of course she wouldn't believe him. He didn't expect her to, he just wanted her help with the research. "Look, Wendy, you don't have to believe me, it's fine if you don't. I know it's pretty unbelievable, trust me. I just want some help on researching the topic."

Wendy was quiet for several long minutes, the silence unnerving Kyle. He could hear the birds chirping and cars driving by, even a couple younger kids running down the street laughing loudly. His heart was starting to sink as he realized maybe Wendy wouldn't help him research this. It was silly of him to have expected her to, he could do it alone, it would just take twice as long. He definitely didn't feel comfortable asking anyone else. Wendy was the least judgmental person he knew in his AP classes and if she wouldn't help, no one would.

Wendy finally spoke, her words barely audible. "I believe you."

Kyle's eyes went wide and his mouth fell open in shock. He had not been expecting that. "What? You do?!" He couldn't believe it. She believed him! Wait, did that mean? "Do you know that Kenny dies a lot, too?"

She shook her head. "No, not him." She paused before glancing up at Kyle. He said nothing so she went on, "My cousin. She's our age. I don't see her a lot because she lives in Florida. This last year has been really strange. I've been to her funeral. More than once. But then she calls or is in the FaceTime videos when my mom's talking to my aunt and it's like no one remembers." She bit her lip for a second before exhaling deeply, happy to finally be able to confide in someone about the bizarre occurrences with her relative.

"Wow." Kyle had no other words, he was stunned. Life was sure full of surprises for him lately. Kenny first returning from the dead in the figurative sense, Kenny returning from the dead in the literal sense, Cartman actually being… concerned and caring, Stan and Kenny developing feelings for each other, Stan being way more clueless than usual, Kenny refusing to eat, Karen and Kevin's friends acting like little demons, and now Wendy admitting that she also knew someone that was popping up from the dead on a regular basis. What sort of bizarre reality had manifested itself around him?

Wendy nodded. "Yeah, I thought… that I was just losing my mind. Like maybe I was imagining all of this."

Kyle nodded. "That's exactly how I felt once I realized Kenny was dying and coming back. But no one remembers. I couldn't sleep. I thought I was having really realistic nightmares and then I thought I was just…crazy. But I couldn't tell anyone because the person that I'd seen die was right there and everyone else was just acting like everything was normal like….."

"Like you broke free of the Matrix and no one else did?" Wendy summed up with a grin.

Kyle smiled, appreciating her sense of humor. "Exactly." He was so relieved and happy. Finally, there was a sane person in his orbit. There was something else nagging at him. "How does she die? Your cousin."

Wendy shrugged. "Honestly, it's been a different way each time. Like once she got hit by a drunk driver while she was crossing the street, another time she was stung by a bee, she had anaphylaxis so it didn't end well. Another time, she was at a bank when it was being robbed and she was the only person the robber shot. She's also died during surgery a couple times. I've been keeping a journal about them. I'm afraid I'll forget one day like everyone else." Kyle nodded, that made sense to him. He had also been tracking Kenny's deaths in a journal for the same reason. There was one glaring difference between Wendy's cousin and Kenny's deaths though.

"Do you know if she ever does it…on purpose?"

Wendy shook her head. "I mean there's no way for me to know for sure without asking her. She could have killed herself before, I guess. I only recently starting realizing this was happening. This past year, she hasn't killed herself as far as I know. I mean, I suppose it's possible that my mom could have lied one or two times about how she died." She paused frowning, sensing where this was going and she didn't like it. "How does Kenny die?" She feared she already knew the answer.

"Kills himself," Kyle said simply confirming what she already suspected. "Over and over."

"How?"

"He… he just doesn't eat."

"He doesn't eat?"

Kyle nodded, surprised she hadn't heard. She was probably so focused on her studies she let the gossip in one ear and out the other or just didn't pay it any attention at all. "Yeah, he doesn't say why."

"Do you think he's anorexic?"

Kyle bit his lip; the thought had crossed his mind but it just didn't add up. "I don't think so," he said slowly. "I don't think he is. I mean people with anorexia nervosa are usually concerned about gaining weight and how they look. Kenny….. I don't think he cares about the weight and I hate to say it, but he doesn't seem concerned about looks at all. Like, I don't think he bathes on a regular basis." He paused again reflecting on all his interactions with the withdrawn blonde boy that had become a prominent figure in his life as of late. "Since he moved in with Cartman, the hygiene is better, but I honestly think that's Cartman's doing." Kyle wanted to talk more about the family aspect of it but struggled to find the words. Could Cartman have been right?

Wendy laughed despite the topic of conversation. "Leave it to Cartman." She shook her head. "I don't want to say that totally rules out anorexia. Sometimes people with it just don't like to see themselves in the bathroom mirrors or just don't want to see their bodies, so that could explain the hygiene issue...we know he isn't bulimic if he isn't eating."

"How do we know it's even an eating disorder?"

"He refuses to eat. Isn't that the basic definition of an eating disorder?"

"Well, yeah, but isn't that anorexia?" He scratched his head confused. "I guess, I guess it could be drugs."

"Even people on drugs eat food sometimes."

"I don't know why he won't eat, Wendy. And he won't tell me." He thought again of bringing up what Cartman had said about Kenny's family and the afterlife but thought it might be too much at once. Like it wasn't his to share. At least not yet.

Wendy picked up a book. "Is that the only way he's been dying since you've known?"

Kyle nodded his head. "Yeah," he said mournfully. "It's awful."

"Maybe you can work with him on that. I think that's something we won't find an answer to in these books of yours."

"Of the public library, you mean," he corrected her. "Hey, do you think your aunt and uncle were in the same cult Kenny's parents were?"

Wendy opened the book she had picked up, scanning the table of contents seeing if anything jumped out at her. She smiled up at Kyle. "I did my own research when I thought I was losing my mind and asked my mom a lot of questions about my cousin. One of the times she died my mom said something really weird. She said that she was worried her sister was going to join another cult to help her get through the grief. I asked about the other cult and that's when I found out she'd been in one here. She said the McCormicks were going, too. My aunt complained about them, I guess. Said they only showed up for the free food and beer."

"I guess that's a good of enough reason as any to join a cult," Kyle stated with a shake of his head.

Wendy flipped some pages in her book. "Looks like I'm going to be reading about the 'nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh.'" Her choice would serve her well in the future.

Kyle picked up his tablet and keyed a few words into it.

"You're not going to use a book?"

"Oh, I'm going to use a lot of books," he assured her. "I just want to pull up the archive with Weird Tales 1928, The Cult of Cthulhu. It seems like a good place to start before diverging into actual cults that formed around the mythos." Wendy nodded. She certainly couldn't argue that point. Kyle found what he was looking for quickly and cleared his throat before he read the quote prefacing the story aloud and continued on with the story, "'The Horror in the Clay. The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.'"

Wendy temporarily discarded her book, picking up up her own tablet, and easily finding the online archive her friend was using. When Kyle paused, she finished the first paragraph. "'The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.'" She stopped and she and Kyle looked at each other over their tablets, each wide eyed. "I've read it before but it's hard to get over how heavy this is. And this is just the first paragraph."

"Well, I definitely feel like I'm in a terrifying vista of reality."

"I don't want to usher in the next dark age so don't go all mad on me," Wendy said with a grin. Kyle shook his head, still impressed Wendy could maintain such a good sense of humor. They continued reading late into the evening. By the time Wendy's mom texted they had managed to get through all three parts of the The Cult of Cthulhu even while pausing many times to try to get a better grasp on what they were reading. They would need to understand the actual tale if they were to understand the cult they wanted to learn more about.

Both chose not to speak of the irony that they were curious and fascinated about the real cult of Cthulhu that had been in South Park years go while reading about a narrator that was curious and fascinated about the cult of Cthulhu in the story upon which the cult they were researching had been based on. It was hard to wrap their minds around.

Wendy pointed out the word cult was in the novella around thirty-nine times. Kyle had left half the books with Wendy and made it out of the house before her parents arrived home. She had promised to read more of the tales and books surrounding the Cthulhu mythos. It would keep them busy for quite a while as there was a lot more to read about it. Wendy listened to her intuition and continued to focus her efforts on learning more about R'lyeh.

An unsettled mood descended upon Kyle as he slowly walked home. He had definitely accomplished more than he thought he could with Wendy. He was shocked and relieved to know that Kenny wasn't the only person in the world who had this strange affliction. Part of him wanted to run and tell his friend the news. You're not alone! 

He and Wendy had spoken in length about it and agreed to hold off until they knew more for sure. After all, why hadn't Kenny or her cousin ran into each other before? If they knew of two did that mean there was more, maybe countless more? Was there some kind of club or meeting place for these people that could die but didn't stay dead? Did any of them even know that there were others? Would it be a good thing if they met or would it prove to be an ill-fated outing?

Wendy and Kyle certainly didn't know the answers to anything yet and neither wanted to use their loved ones as guinea pigs. Kyle knew one thing, he certainly wasn't telling Kenny anything about any of it until said friend explained to him why he refused to eat.

Chapter Text

 

It was late in the evening and Stan laid on his bed, staring up at his ceiling. He had texted Kyle to see what he was up to but received a cryptic reply saying something else about studying. Did Kyle really think just because people knew him to study a lot that he could use that as his excuse literally all the time? He looked at his phone, debating whether or not to text Cartman.

Really, he wanted to text Kenny. Stan had asked why he wouldn't get a cell phone and Kenny had replied that he just didn't want one. Stan supposed it was probably for the best, he had a feeling Cartman was likely fielding angry texts and calls about Kenny. They couldn't shield the mysterious teenager from much but at least he wouldn't have to worry about angry texts and calls or social media for that matter.

Speaking of which, Stan had disabled his Facebook account as he couldn't deal with some of the comments people were making about his friends. At first it had just been about Kenny. Now they were about both Kenny and Kyle. Comments had always been made about Cartman. Stan had to admit he envied how Cartman was so unbothered by things. Cartman laughed the comments off and made some smartass remarks back to people. Somehow, he wasn't fazed in the least by it at all.

Stan would get so angry he had involuntarily thrown his phone more than once. When Stan had vented during a lunch period about it, Cartman had advised him to disable his account for a while. Kenny had been contrite about it much to Stan's exasperation. Craig had said social media sites weren't to be used in the fashion Stan was using them. He was supposed to take a picture of an animal and pretend to be the animal living a human existence. Stan now understood why he kept getting friend requests from various South Park neighborhood cats. Stan sat up in his bed and texted Cartman. Hey are you guys still up?

It took several long minutes before his phone vibrated with Cartman's reply. What are you like 10? It's only 8, we don't have a bedtime.

Stan read the text unsurprised. Of course Cartman's mom wouldn't give him a bedtime. He supposed his bedtime was technically later than most as his parents did allow him to stay up until eleven. He knew Kyle liked to go to bed early at around nine even though his mom would let him stay up later. Sometimes Kyle would be out by eight, already dead to the world. Stan was more nocturnal himself. He sent another text, Can I come over?

There was another long wait, longer than the last time. He knew Cartman was likely discussing this with Kenny. He watched his phone as it would show him that the other person was in the process of responding then it would stop suddenly. It was like Cartman couldn't decide whether or not to reply to his question. Finally, Stan's phone rang and he answered it immediately, expecting it to be Kenny even though it was Cartman's phone.

"Stan, why do you want to come here?" It was Cartman. He didn't sound thrilled, almost annoyed.

Stan was slightly offended at the tone being used with him. "Why can't I want to come over? Maybe we could all play video games or something? I could ask Kyle, too," he offered up, not really sure why. Cartman snorted at this.

"Oh yeah, that'll be the day. The Jew comes over to my place to play videos games on a Tuesday night when there's school the next day. Besides he's probably sleeping already."

Stan frowned, surprised that Cartman would even know Kyle's sleeping habits. He hoped Cartman didn't know so much about him. It was unnerving really.

"Well, we don't have to have four players to play a game," he pointed out. After all, it had been just him, Kyle, and Cartman for awhile with an almost rotating fourth friend throughout the years. Sometimes Butters would join them, sometimes Craig and Tweek, other times Token, a few times Wendy and Heidi had popped in, too.

"You sure you just want to play a video game?" Cartman asked skeptically.

Stan froze, his heart pounding against his chest. He remembered Kyle's words. Cartman knew Kenny lit up around Stan. He remembered this morning with Kenny outside the school building in the nearby wooded area. Shit, this morning, Stan suddenly remembered slamming Cartman into a locker. He cleared his throat. "Uh, I wanted to apologize for this morning."

"Sure," was the response. Clearly, Cartman knew the apology was an afterthought. "Stan. I know you just want to see Kenny. Why don't you just ask to speak to him?"

Stan's whole body was tense again. Why were other people so willing to talk to him about his romantic interests. Oh god, when had he started thinking like that? Was that… was that what Kenny was? His body and mind were doing things again that he was finding harder to control and he knew the answer to the question.

"Stan!" Cartman yelled into the phone. Stan almost dropped his.

"Shit, Cartman, do you need to yell at me?"

"Yeah, after the first three times I said your name, I figured I might bring you back to reality by screaming it. Stan."

"That's my name, don't wear it out," Stan said absently, remembering the old saying.

"Oh, I won't, don't worry. I'll leave that to Kenny."

"Cartman!" Stan exclaimed, heat rushing to his face. He was glad he couldn't be seen.

"Geeze, chill out. You're going to wear out my name and neither of us want that." Cartman paused before continuing, voice laced with humor. "I'm sure I know what name you'd like to wear out," he giggled at his own joke, finding it hilarious.

"Honestly, Cartman, if you don't want to play video games with me on a Tuesday night you can just say so."

"Yeah, definitely because it's Tuesday, man, you know Thursdays are my preferred days of the week to play video games with you. That th is just so much better than tu. I keep hoping you'll come around on Thursday but apparently you can only come around on weekends and Tuesdays."

Stan listened to the other ramble before it finally hit him. "So I'm good to come over?"

Cartman nodded, forgetting Stan couldn't see him. He remembered and answered into the phone, "Yeah, yeah, why not? It's Tuesday after all."

"Is Kenny okay with it?" Stan could just imagine Cartman rolling his eyes.

"He's going to have to be."

"Maybe you should ask him first…"

"It'll be fine, Stan. Either come over or don't. I don't care either way." With that he ended the phone call. Unsure what to do, Stan simply stared at his phone for a few minutes half expecting Cartman to call back. When he didn't, Stan jumped off his bed and went downstairs informing his parents he would be going to Cartman's. His mother wasn't thrilled and pointed out it was already past eight. Stan had been expecting this. He knew he could stay up late but that was only if he were in the house.

He assured his mother that he and Cartman had formed a study group and he would be back before ten. Sharon had hesitated before relenting but insisted he could only do this once during the week. Her son was totally thrilled and took off. Stan couldn't believe she had bought it. He pulled his phone out and sent Cartman another text, on my way. A simple, ok, cool was the response.

Stan made his way over to Cartman's house, glancing up at the sky on his way. He picked up his pace, worried he might get rained on, the darkening sky was overcast and he thought he had seen some lightning in the distance. Once he got to Cartman's house, he rang the bell. Cartman opened the door. "Hi, Stan." He glanced up at the sky himself. "Man, I hope you're not planning to walk back later. Looks like rain."

Stan shrugged. "It probably won't last long, you know how the weather is."

"Okay." Cartman opened the door wider and Stan stepped inside. "Kenny's downstairs and my mom is gone for awhile."

"Where's your mom?" Stan said without thinking. The glare from Cartman told him exactly where his mother likely was. "So we're going to the basement for video games?"

"Yeah," Cartman said. They had to go through the kitchen to get to the basement. While in there, they stopped and raided the fridge like it was a summer night and they were planning to stay up late and play until they conked out. Stan kept wishing Kenny would come up and help. He had wanted to come mostly to see Kenny but so far he'd only seen and interacted with Cartman. He grabbed another Mountain Dew and threw it in the bag he and Cartman had been filling up.

There was something else in the fridge. He reached for the beer but Cartman slapped his hand away. "Geezus, you alcoholic, no beer tonight, okay?" Stan looked over in surprise, Cartman had never refused him beer before. Sure, he'd called him an alcoholic before and Stan thought he might just be correct in that, but Cartman had always willingly supplied him with beverages.

"Why not?" he asked, confused.

"Because it's Tuesday," Cartman said cryptically.

"Okay," Stan said not sure what Cartman actually meant. He shrugged, he would survive, after all he was just happy to be there.

Cartman opened the door to the basement and they both descended the stairs. Kenny was setting up the game system. Stan's heart pumped a little quicker when he saw his friend. Kenny's hair wasn't greasy, it looked like it had been washed recently. He looked like he was struggling a little and Stan supposed it was because there hadn't been a lot of video game consoles out in the woods to use. He greeted him with a smile while Cartman dropped the drinks and snacks off on the coffee table. He walked over to where Kenny was to see what he was struggling with.

Stan plopped down on to a part of the sectional in front of the coffee table before reaching forward to grab the bag of snacks he and Cartman had carried down. He started taking them out and setting them up on the coffee table. Cartman and Kenny finally finished setting up the console and joined Stan on the sectional. Kenny wound up somewhere in between Cartman and Stan, considerably closer to Stan as their outer thighs touched despite there being much more of the sectional to sprawl out on. All three boys stayed relatively close to the coffee table, Cartman only a cushion away from Kenny, shooting surreptitous glances at the other two

The game was on and soon all three of them were running around trying to complete their objectives that usually involved shooting someone else on-screen. They'd hooked up to a server so didn't have to necessarily shoot each other. Not that Cartman didn't take advantage and kill Stan a couple times when he was annoyed and said it was payback for being choked in the morning. Stan couldn't exactly fault Cartman for his anger. He tried to make small talk with Kenny while playing.

"Kenny, have you played a lot since moving in with Cartman?"

"Some," was the reply.

"Not as much as we should," Cartman said grumpily.

"Oh," Stan said. "Well, you're pretty good at this game," he complimented his friend, glancing at him. Kenny smiled and Cartman rolled his eyes. Stan was very much aware that their thighs were pressing against each other and he vaguely wondered if Cartman knew. He was thankful he'd worn baggy jeans. All he needed were more comments from Cartman. About half an hour into the game Cartman suddenly stood up.

"I'm going to skip this round, guys. I think I just heard my mom pull up. I'm going to go see her." Kenny shifted like he was about to get up, too. Stan wondered if it was just an automatic reflex for him to follow Cartman around. Cartman put his hand out signaling for Kenny to stay on the couch. "Kinny, you know it's rude to leave a guest alone. He came here to play video games so play with him. I'll be back down in a little bit."

Stan sipped his soda, more than a little weirded out. Cartman was sure acting strange these days. Kenny returns from wherever he'd been, Stan turned into a space cadet, Kyle sees dead people, and Cartman acts all nice and stuff. Stan wondered what had happened to reality. It was like his life was being directed by someone he didn't know and he kept missing his cues. Kenny waited until Cartman left before speaking. "Eric's acting kind of weird."

"You know only Butters really calls him Eric."

Kenny shrugged. "I do."

"It's just. He's always been Cartman to me."

"You don't have to call him Eric," Kenny pointed out, confused. Stan nodded. Cartman had finally left the room and Stan still found a way to make things about him. Stan thought he must be losing his mind. He wanted so badly to place a hand on Kenny's thigh or squeeze his knee. He could imagine his lips on the blonde's. His thoughts were heading in a very X-rated direction.

Speaking of lips, Stan dimly realized Kenny's lips were moving. "Stan?" Kenny looked at the other boy with concern. "Stan? Are you okay?"

Stan shook his head as if he could shake the thoughts out of his mind. "I'm fine. I just," Stan looked at his friend and his heart was racing again. Kenny's hair was clean and the blonde was so much brighter now that it wasn't greasy, almost golden. His blue eyes were even more piercing with the clean hair framing them.

"Just?" Kenny prompted.

Stan figured there was no point in wasting the time Cartman had left to him. Steeling himself and gathering all his courage he reached out and pushed a stray golden lock of hair behind Kenny's ear. Kenny stiffened, unsure what was going on. He didn't protest and didn't break eye contact with Stan.

Encouraged, Stan brought his fingers down from Kenny's ear, lightly tracing a line across the cheek then lips, down his neck, collarbone, shoulder, and down to the end of an arm. Once at the end of the arm, he grabbed Kenny's hand and squeezed it. Kenny didn't look away. Stan recognized the hunger in his eyes.

Their thighs were still pressed firmly together and Stan decided to use his last bit of courage to close the gap between their mouths. Part of him feared he might be pushed away and off the couch as his lips covered Kenny's. He wasn't pushed away.

Kenny kissed back with a hunger and desperation Stan had never tasted before. Stan's eyes closed and he saw fireworks explode in the darkness. He wanted this moment to last forever. Deepening the kiss, Stan squeezed the hand again and brought his other hand up to run through the blonde strands of hair. Kenny's own free hand reached out, still hesitant, but soon Stan had a hand running through and pulling at his own dark locks.

Stan's whole body was responding to the kiss in a pleasurable fashion, his skin tingling with anticipation. His whole body went cold when Kenny suddenly pulled away and scooted away from him on the sectional until he was on the cushion Cartman had occupied earlier. Stan was sure he looked foolish as his lips were probably still puckered up in mid kiss. It took a minute for him to realize what had happened.

He looked at Kenny expectantly but the other said nothing. Just stared at him. Stan couldn't figure out if the stare was one of horror or sorrow and decided it must be a mixture of both.

Finally Stan found words since Kenny wasn't willing to fill the void with them. "Kenny, we don't have to do anything if you don't want to." Judging from that kiss and the look in his eyes earlier Stan knew that Kenny very much did want to do things. "If I came on too strong, I'm sorry." Kenny didn't say anything in reply right away and Stan realized Kenny's eyes were starting to well up. Oh, god, was he such a bad kisser that Kenny had to fight back tears?

Kenny shifted on the couch and glanced around. "I just- I-" Kenny looked down and started to pull hard at his hair with one hand. "I don't, I don't," he muttered. Stan inched closer to him. He reached up to grab the hand that Kenny was pulling his hair with.

"You'll hurt yourself," Stan softly scolded. He locked eyes with the other. "You don't what?"

Kenny's face contorted with pain. "God, Stan, I don't- I don't deserve this. I don't deserve you." He glanced around wildly. "It's not fair to them." He shot up suddenly, pulling at his hair again and pacing the length of the carpet. "It's not fair to them."

Stan was stunned for a couple minutes before also standing up. He grabbed Kenny to stop his pacing. When his friend looked everywhere but at him, Stan sighed. "Kenny. Look at me." When he didn't respond right away, Stan repeated himself. "I need you to look at me, Kenny."

Finally complying, Kenny slowly returned Stan's gaze, concerned dark blue eyes locking with scared and frantic light blue ones. "Who is it not fair to?" The answer hit Stan hard and had his heart sinking as he was finally able to grasp just how traumatized the person before him truly was.

"Karen and Kevin. It's not fair to them. They can't, they can't. It's not fair to them. They can't kiss anyone so I shouldn't be able to either." Stan's heart plunged further down into the depths of his soul as suddenly he realized and understood certain things and wished he didn't.

"Kenny, Kenny," he said softly as he reached his hand up to gently caress the other's cheek. Kenny didn't know what to do and just stared wild eyed at Stan.

"It's not fair, Stan," Kenny said mournfully. "Not to them and not to you."

Stan guided Kenny back to the sectional sofa. He sat down and pulled Kenny down with him so they were sitting side by side as they were earlier. "We won't do anything that's not fair to Kevin, Karen, or to me," Stan assured him. At this Kenny looked like he might really start to let the waterworks fall. "Listen to me, Kenny. You deserve to be happy. If kissing makes you happy, you deserve that. Even if it's not with me." He reached out and took Kenny's hand back in his. "Don't you think your brother and sister would want you to be happy?"

A sob escaped Kenny's throat and he shook his head. "You don't understand, Stan."

"Is this why you don't really eat? You think you don't deserve it because your brother and sister can't eat anymore?" Kenny nodded miserably and Stan could think of nothing else but to pull him close and hug him as fiercely as he could manage. Kenny's head dropped onto Stan's shoulder like it was too heavy for him to hold up any longer. One of Stan's hands went to the nape of Kenny's neck and he began to gently massage it, hoping it offered some comfort for the distress.

"I don't deserve you," Kenny mumbled quietly into his shoulder. "You're too good for me."

Despite everything, Stan laughed at this. "Oh, Kenny, if you only knew. I'm not too good for anyone, trust me. If anything, I'm no good for anyone." Kenny's only response was to shake his head but he didn't lift it off Stan's shoulder. "You don't believe me now, but you just wait." His one handed neck massage turned into a one handed back rub. "It's okay, Kenny, you can rest. I know you're tired." Stan felt all the tension leave Kenny's body at this and he relaxed in Stan's hold.

Cartman returned downstairs to find Stan sitting on the couch with Kenny pulled half way onto him, the blonde's feet dangling off the couch. Kenny had fallen asleep with his head on Stan's shoulder listening to Stan's reassurances that he was safe and it was okay to rest. Stan kept rubbing his back and playing with the blonde hair.

Cartman shook his head. "I half expected to come down here and find you two making out or even screwing but this is much gayer." Stan was impressed that Cartman was whispering. There was another mystery; why did Cartman care so much about Kenny. He was positive if it had been Kyle or Butters there, Cartman would have woken them up cackling about homosexuals. Even if it had been Wendy or Bebe, he knew Cartman would tease them about liking someone with a touch of autism as he'd done to Wendy more than once after his Asperger's diagnosis. Cartman's voice brought him out of his contemplation.

"Stan you know it's almost like eleven, right?" Stan shook his head, his eyes going wide. His mom was going to be so pissed. Cartman grinned despite it all. "Don't worry. I called her. It's raining cats and dogs outside and I told her our car wouldn't start. She said she'd come over but I told her you were worried about her crashing in the rain. I told her you were planning to walk in the rain just so she wouldn't drive in it. She bought it and insisted I do everything in my power to keep you at the house." Stan's mouth dropped open, stunned.

"Thanks Cartman," he managed to push through the shock to express his gratitude. Kenny started to stir.

Cartman looked at Stan and pointed upstairs. He mouthed that he was going up to his room. He pointed to one of the Japanese wall dividers in the basement and then put his hands together and pressed them up against his cheek while closing his eyes letting Stan know there was a bed behind the wall divider. Stan nodded, still surprised at how accommodating Cartman was being. Stan continued rubbing Kenny's back and offering up quiet assurances. Soon the other was sound asleep on his shoulder again. Stan stared at the wall opposite him and wondered just what he had gotten himself into.

He didn't move for a good fifteen minutes after Cartman disappeared, not wanting to jostle the other, fearing he might wake him. Kenny did finally wake up and it took him a minute to realize he was still clinging onto Stan. He let go with a mumbled apology. Stan shook his head saying for what he felt like the hundredth time that Kenny had nothing to apologize for. Kenny moved himself back into a sitting position, up and off of Stan. He looked at the vacant spot that Cartman had occupied earlier in the night.

"Where's Eric?"

"He went to bed," Stan replied.

"Oh," he said and was about to say more but kept it to himself. Stan waited to see if he'd rethink it and say what was on his mind. He wanted to push but figured he was at the pushing limit for today. Pushing limit for Tuesday anyway, Stan thought with a wry sense of humor.

"We should get some sleep, too," Stan said, getting up off the couch.

"You're going home?" Kenny asked, cocking his head. The rain was still heavy, pattering heavily against the small box windows that were scattered throughout the basement just below the ceiling on the adjoining wall.

"No, my mom said I could stay since the storm's gotten so bad."

Kenny was relieved and let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "That's good." Stan felt his heart flutter a little at the concern. Kenny looked around. "Uh, there's a bed in that other room. You can use that," he offered.

Stan frowned. "Where are you going to sleep?"

"I'll sleep in here."

Stan's frown only deepened. He was pretty sure he hadn't dreamt they had kissed or that Kenny had been sleeping on him for the better part of an hour. Now he didn't want to share a bed? It's not like Stan was proposing for them to make out and have sex. He shook his head. "No, if that's your bed, you can sleep on it. I'll sleep in here."

Kenny quickly protested. "No, Stan, it's okay really. It is my bed but I never sleep on it anyway. It'd be good for someone to use it." He belatedly realized he'd said too much.

Stan realized he could guess where this was going. "Where do you normally sleep, Kenny?"

His friend looked down at the floor, shame coloring his cheeks. "The floor," he muttered. Stan glanced towards the dividers that hid the bed and the couch Kenny sat on. He'd rather sleep on the floor than a bed or couch. Stan should have known; the guy had preferred sleeping on a picnic table until recently and that was only at Stan and Cartman's insistence he stop for safety reasons.

"You're not sleeping on the floor," Stan said firmly. "Not tonight."

"I have to," Kenny insisted.

"Why do you think that?" Stan asked, genuinely curious. "Surely, you know your brother and sister wouldn't want you sleeping on the floor, starving…"

Kenny shook his head. "Don't they, though? I mean you've seen the kids at school. I'm sure it's Kevin and Karen's spirits encouraging them. They think I deserve it." His voice dropped to a whisper. "And I do."

Stan shook his head in disbelief. "No, I don't think that's true. But if that's what you think, I can't force you to change your mind. But if they think you don't deserve to sleep in a bed then definitely don't deserve to." He sat on the floor and laid down looking up at Kenny who peered down at him from his perch on the couch.

"Stan, you don't," the word understand died in his throat as he realized he had no desire to explain himself further. He would rather die his most painful deaths ten times over than spill out any more of the truth. Instead, he finished the sentence with, "you don't have to sleep on the floor. They're my brother and sister, not yours."

Stan shrugged. "So? I'm not going to that bed unless you are, too." Stan rolled so he was on his side and propped his head up with an elbow, keeping his eyes on Kenny. "You know, maybe I'll just sleep on the floor every night at my house, too, if this is what you've been doing."

Kenny didn't hide his dismay. "Stan, I-I…" He looked down at the other, helpless.

Stan wasn't deterred in the least. "I'm happy to sleep down here."

"No, you're the guest," Kenny protested again, trying to use Cartman's words from earlier.

Stan shrugged again. "We can do this all night," was the cheeky reply.

Kenny sighed finally standing up, his feet inches from Stan. "Okay. I'll sleep in the bed. But only tonight," he compromised.

Stan grinned, also standing up. It was just one night but he was learning to appreciate the small victories with Kenny. "Good. It's a shame to waste a perfectly good bed." He said following Kenny to the bed behind the dividers.

"Lianne bought me the bed and set up the room."

Stan took the room in. He was impressed with Cartman's mom. She had bought a very nice and very big bed for Kenny. There was a nightstand on each side of the bed and a small dresser close to the wall divider opposite the head of the bed. There were walls past the wall divider as the basement had separate rooms but no doors, thus the need for wall dividers. It was definitely sparse, like a cute little guest bedroom.

Stan guessed Kenny likely didn't want to decorate it as he was sure Cartman's mom would buy him whatever he asked for. "This is nice," he said. He sat on the bed. "And it's a shame not to use this wonderful bed she bought. Is this memory foam?"

Kenny nodded. "Yeah. She was trying to….. What did Eric say? 'Entice' me. When I was sleeping outside."

"She knew you were sleeping outside?"

There was another nod. "Yeah. She didn't want to call children's services, though. She worried they'd put me in a residential facility. So she tried other ways to get me inside the house."

"I'm glad they worked."

Kenny shook his head slightly, amused. "You know they didn't work, Stan."

"Well, I'm glad she bought you this nice bed and these nice end tables. You know she deserves to see you enjoy it."

Kenny averted his eyes away, looking at the floor. "Yeah," he mumbled, "Eric's said something like that before."

Stan waited a moment unsure what to really do now. He was tempted to take his clothes off just to be more comfortable while sleeping but decided against it. He decided against, not sure if it would make Kenny uncomfortable or not. Kenny didn't look like he was planning to do much but sit on the bed. Stan got up and walked around to the other side of the bed. He pulled down the covers and slid underneath. Kenny still didn't make any movements, staring absently at the floor, back to his friend. Stan patted the pillows next to him. "Come on, Ken, lay down."

Kenny turned so his back wasn't to Stan. There was a struggle in his mind, Stan could see it in his eyes. Kenny really thought he was somehow betraying his brother and sister by just sleeping in a comfortable bed. Stan reached out and gently grabbed his arm and tugged lightly at him. "Please? For me?" Surely, Karen and Kevin would be okay with that.

Kenny didn't say anything but pushed himself off the bed and stood up. For a brief panic-stricken moment Stan worried all his work had been for naught. That Kenny was just going to walk out of the room and lay on the floor now that Stan had gotten in the bed. The feeling was short lived though, as Kenny pulled back the covers on the other side of the bed and also slid underneath the comforter. Stan's body relaxed again, relieved. Under the covers, his hand found Kenny's and he grabbed it reassuringly. "Thank you."

Kenny nodded still tense and doubtful of his decision. Stan squeezed his hand and Kenny allowed for a small smile.

"This is better than the floor, right?" Stan asked.

"It is," was the agreeable reply.

"Good, good. Go to sleep," Stan encouraged. He was fast fading away, feeling totally emotionally drained by now. Surely Kenny must be exhausted. Stan was asleep within ten minutes while Kenny stared up at the ceiling unsure what to do. He mumbled apologies to his siblings both out loud and in his head and begged them for forgiveness. It took him over an hour to fall asleep after Stan.

A loud, long wail jolted Stan out of his sleep. He awoke disoriented and confused. It took him a couple minutes to get his bearings. He was in Cartman's basement in the extra makeshift room for Kenny, sharing a bed with him. Kenny was the source of the wail. He looked over at the other boy, whose eyes were screwed shut, verbalizing his pain with the wails.

Stan felt defeat like no other as he looked down at him. He knew that you normally weren't supposed to surprise people who were sleep talking or walking but he threw caution to the wind and put his hand on Kenny's shoulder. "Kenny?" There was no response and the wails only increased in length and volume. Stan wondered if Cartman would come bursting in demanding to know if Stan was trying to kill his best friend. He didn't and Stan shook Kenny a little but still was met with no response.

Finally Stan pulled his friend up into a sitting position, whispering to him reassuringly the whole time. "Kenny, it's Stan. Wake up. I'm here." Over and over. The wails eventually subsided and turned into blubbering and sobs. Stan hugged him tightly, taking to rubbing the other's back again while doing so remembering it had helped a couple times before.

"Karen," Kenny whimpered. "God, there's blood everywhere."

Stan stiffened and his body filled with anguish at this. He hugged his friend closer to him and tears pricked at his eyes as the gravity of the situation was hitting him much harder than it had before. He had known before, but hadn't really grasped it until just now; entering a relationship with Kenny included the ghosts from his past.

 

Chapter Text

Stan tagged along with Kenny and Cartman to school the next day. He had tried to talk Kenny into staying home, worried over his friend's sleep or lack thereof. The night had gotten awkward as after Kenny had woken up from the nightmare, Stan had sadly watched him fish a needle out of the dresser and use it.

The walk to school was relatively quiet with Cartman only saying stuff every now and then, keeping himself in check, very much aware of the tension in the air. Stan kept waiting for the inevitable joke or insult to come but it never did. Once they arrived at the building, they parted ways.

Part of Stan wanted to stay with them but another part of him was relieved. He needed to talk to someone about the events of last night. He made his way over to his locker hoping Kyle was already there. When he wasn't, Stan leaned up against their locker, closing his eyes. Overwhelming emotions were starting to flood his mind as he tried to come to terms with all that had conspired last night. He wasn't sure how long he stayed that way. Kyle's voice brought him back to the present.

"Stan? Stan?" Kyle asked with concern. He was shaking his best friend's shoulder, growing more concerned with each shake. Had Stan fallen asleep standing up at their locker? "Stan!" Finally, he could see his friend's dark blue eyes darting around, confused and exhausted. Kyle frowned. "Stan, if you're sick, you should have stayed home."

Stan shook his head. "I'm not sick," he replied. I feel sick. Stan suddenly was uncomfortable under Kyle's critical gaze. He realized he was still leaning on their locker and quickly moved, allowing Kyle to open it and drop off his book bag and get his books. Stan pursed his lips. "Uh, Kyle, what are you up to after school today?" He wanted so badly to spill his guts out to his best friend right now but wasn't sure he could do so at school.

Kyle froze for a second and was glad he was facing away from Stan. He really didn't think telling him that he was going to Wendy's so they could study more about Cthulhu and try to figure out why Kenny kept coming back from the dead was a good idea. God, he'd probably drag him to the nearest hospital and they'd commit him to the psych ward.

He could just imagine his mother and Stan both looking down pitifully at him, while he was in a straitjacket, surrounded by padded walls. "I have AP lab after school," he said easily. It was true. He and Wendy both had lab after school but it was only for about half an hour. Even so, he doubted Stan had any clue how long the AP labs were as they all varied. Guilt ate at him when he saw his best friend deflate. "Why? What's up?"

"I really need to talk to someone," Stan said, desperation edging into his voice. He really wanted to talk to Kyle. He'd know what to do or have good advice, he always did.

"You can talk to me."

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

"Oh?" Kyle asked, surprised. "Why not?"

Stan fidgeted. Other than fearing he might break down and have peers as witnesses he had no other reason except he would like to keep his private life private. Which would be quite the accomplishment since Cartman was apparently privy to said private life. "I just can't," Stan muttered, agitated. He glanced around and lowered his voice making sure that only Kyle could hear him. "I spent last night at Cartman's." Kyle's eyes went wide as that was about the last thing he'd expected to hear out of Stan's mouth this morning.

"As in Cartman and Kenny?" he whispered back. Stan averted his eyes but nodded, confirming Kyle's suspicions. Kyle set his books back in his locker. "Fine. I can't do much about this afternoon but let's cut homeroom and we can talk."

Stan stared at him in disbelief. Kyle was not ever the one to suggest cutting class. "Really?"

"Yeah, come on." He'd rather hear about last night from Stan than Cartman and he was sure to hear something in homeroom or so he thought.

They went outside and went into the woods by the school. Finding a small clearing and a couple of boulders, Kyle sat on one and waited for Stan to recount the evening before. Stan paced for a few minutes trying to figure out where to start. Kyle realized this and cleared his throat. "Stan, why don't you start with how you wound up at Cartman and Kenny's last night?"

"I called and asked Cartman if he wanted to play video games."

"On a Tuesday night?"

"Yeah, why is it such a big deal it was Tuesday, does it matter?"

Kyle shook his head. "No, no, it doesn't. Just usually it's Friday. But keep going. So you went over to play video games?"

Stan nodded."Yeah, well, no. That's what I told Cartman. I wanted to see Kenny, though. Cartman knew." Kyle nodded, not at all surprised; he'd already told Stan that Cartman was onto him. Stan continued, "Cartman was really…like, nice about everything. It was really weird," he muttered remembering the boy's actions the evening before.

"What? He let you and Kenny beat him at video games?" Kyle asked unsure where this conversation was going. Playing video games was pretty innocent. Why was Stan so distressed?

Stan shook his head. "No, no. He only played for awhile but then he left me and Kenny alone." He stopped talking and looked over at the other, his eyes were wide with so many emotions flickering through them, Kyle couldn't figure out what they all were. He raised his brows that Cartman had left the two alone. He knew Cartman was well aware of what was transpiring between the two.

"What happened?" he prompted Stan when the other remained silent.

"I kissed him," Stan said quietly, shutting his eyes tightly at the memory before opening them again and looking off at something in the distance. Kyle wasn't sure at what but he did recognize the emotion now filling his friend's dark blue eyes. Pain. Heartache.

"Okay," Kyle said slowly, trying to bring Stan back from the memory. "How was it? Did you like it? Did he like it?" Judging by the way his best friend was acting, he had to imagine the end result had been less than stellar. Stan was at a loss for words. He didn't know how to describe it; it had been awesome and then terrible. He decided to tell just that to Kyle. The redhead looked expectantly at him. "How was it awesome?" he thought it might be better to start with the good stuff and go in the order Stan had described it.

"I felt like there was something there, a connection. It felt like lightning and just sparks like fireworks," Stan described the first part of the kiss easily and with fondness, the pain in his eyes morphing into something else briefly.

Kyle nodded. "That does sound pretty awesome. So why was it terrible?"

Pain returned to Stan's eyes and he struggled to explain. "Kenny, he, uh, kind of…freaked out." Kyle waited for him to elaborate because he really wasn't sure what to say. He couldn't say he was surprised, all things considering, but the way Stan was acting he could tell they were just at the tip of the iceberg. Stan drew in a breath, preparing to spill out the rest. "He said he couldn't- no, that he shouldn't be allowed to kiss."

As tempted as Kyle was to crack a joke and ask if he was really that bad, he decided to pass up the opportunity. "Why did he say that?"

Stan closed his eyes and deflated even more if possible, like he was being drained of all energy. "Karen and Kevin can't kiss so he also shouldn't be able to." It anguished Stan to even repeat the words that had really driven home to him how traumatized his friend was. Kyle looked at him, completely horrified at the words.

"What? That's awful. That's…..really what he thinks?" Kyle couldn't believe it himself and Stan's conflicting emotions were starting to make sense.

"Yes." Stan nodded. "He thinks the reason Karen and Kevin's friends are always out for him is because it's Karen and Kevin's spirits encouraging them to go after him. He thinks he deserves it." Stan closed his eyes again, not sure how much more he could tell. It was draining just to have to repeat some of this and the words hurt and the more he thought of them or said them, the more he felt like he was losing his grip on reality.

There was clarity through the pain and Stan didn't like what he saw so he kept trying to shove it away. "That's why he doesn't eat because they can't and he was sleeping on the floor instead of a nice bed and," suddenly Stan couldn't hold himself up anymore and was on his knees on the ground, pulling up at the dying grass and weeds in a fit of helplessness. Kyle jumped off the little boulder he'd been sitting on and went over to his friend, green eyes full of sympathy and concern. Stan looked up at him, feeling despair roll over him in waves. "And the nightmares, Kyle, the nightmares." Kyle knelt next to him and reached out, touching his shoulder, hoping he could offer some comfort.

"Stan…" Kyle said, unable to find any words to really comfort his friend. He truly was at a loss, he had no idea what to say or where to start. Stan looked at him and Kyle could only think to give him a reassuring hug.

"Kyle," Stan said as the hated clarity came through again. "I can't, I can't save him, can I?" It was asked as Stan fought off tears. He felt bad he was even like this after everything Kenny had been through but he had to get this off his chest. "I can't."

"Um," Kyle struggled with what to say again. It was frustrating that Stan really only knew half the story, though, damn, he was glad he'd cut class because he couldn't wait to see what Wendy thought of all this and how it might relate back to the mythos especially the stuff Kenny had said about his siblings' spirits. Was it possible that they were encouraging their old friends to go after their brother?

Stan pulled out of the hug and looked at Kyle. "Kyle, I can't save him. I don't know how I can be any good for him." He paused again, gathering up all his courage. "But I think you were right about all that pansexual stuff." Kyle tried not to roll his eyes; he thought they were way past that at this point. There was another brief pause and Stan looked over at Kyle with wide eyes. He started to say something else but quickly clamped his mouth shut before just sadly mumbling, "He's too broken." He sighed, deciding to admit what he had wanted to say in the first place, "I think I'm in love with him."

Oh, shit, Kyle thought, caught totally off guard at the confession. He supposed he shouldn't be too surprised, Stan did like to throw himself headlong and wholeheartedly into things. Still, he certainly wasn't prepared for how in-depth this conversation was becoming, no wonder Stan was acting so on edge. He was surprised at how defeated his best friend was acting. Stan would usually go to all sorts of lengths to at least attempt to save those he saw in need, especially when he was burning with love and passion for whoever or whatever it might be. It rarely ended well but he usually saw it through to the end. Now Stan just looked all sorts of defeated.

"What do I do?" Stan asked, looking over at Kyle, bringing him out of his reverie.

Kyle shook his head and scratched his forehead, really considering his words before he said anything. "Stan, you know, not everything broken has to be put back together the way it was. Haven't you ever heard of Kintsugi?"

"What?" Stan had no clue what the other was talking about. "Is this another sexual orientation I don't know about?"

Kyle laughed despite everything. "No! It's a Japanese art, repairing broken pottery with gold. The fractures and breaks are celebrated and accentuated with gold and, after the repair, the broken pottery usually looks more beautiful than it did before it broke."

Stan shook his head. "I don't know how that applies here, Kyle. I don't know how to help him, I don't have any gold to fix Kenny up with. I didn't know how-how….bad this was." Stan considered bringing the drugs up but really couldn't find a way to approach it. He was already overwhelmed as it was.

"But you're already helping him," Kyle pointed out. Stan might not have realized it but he was already using gold. Kyle wished he could make him see that.

"How?"

Kyle grinned. "Like I said, the dude lights up around you." He paused for a minute considering something else. "Do you feel better now, after having talked about all of this?" Stan looked at him in surprise and nodded. He did feel better, like a weight had been lifted off him. Like he could breathe again without it hurting. Kyle went on, "Don't you think he probably feels better, too, now that he has gotten some of that off his chest?"

Stan didn't look entirely convinced. "I guess…"

"Did he sleep in a bed last night?"

"Of course. I wasn't going to let him sleep on the floor."

"See? Already, you've gotten him off a picnic bench, into a house, and off the floor into a bed." Stan was feeling better but still looked doubtful. Kyle decided to end it with a bang. "What about the kiss? How was his response before his freak out?"

Stan smiled remembering it. "It was amazing. He was definitely enjoying it, too, until the freak out."

Kyle grinned at his friend again. "See? And you can just work on that and soon, he'll be able to kiss without freaking out. It's just going to take time, Stan. A lot of time. And energy."

Stan shook his head. "I don't think I'm that strong, Kyle." He didn't know if anyone was.

"You are," Kyle assured him. "It's up to you, Stan. No one is forcing you to do all this. If you don't want to or don't think you can deal with it, then start pulling away now before you get any deeper."

Stan carefully considered his best friend's words. The thought of pulling away from Kenny now tore at him deep down and made it hard for him to breathe just as the thought of Kenny vanishing again did. He wanted this, he could figure out how to deal, he knew he'd never forgive himself now if he up and left Kenny in the dust. And he couldn't, he didn't want to. He looked over at Kyle, finally feeling like himself again, and much stronger than when he'd woken up this morning. "I want to. Pulling away would hurt way worse than this."

Kyle nodded and stood up, not surprised. "I figured you would say that." He reached down to lend Stan a hand to get up off the ground. Stan stood up next to him. "And I'm always here for support, you know that." Stan nodded and the two could hear the bell dinging over the intercom in the distance signifying the end of homeroom. Kyle looked at him. "Did you want to go back to class? Or skip the day? I mean up until my after lunch AP classes, I really can't miss those."

Stan shook his head. "No, I don't want to skip. I don't want Kenny wondering why I didn't go to classes. Or Cartman for that matter."

"Yeah, that's another piece of the puzzle we'll have to work out later if we're going back in." The two went back to the school in companionable silence, to their locker, retrieved their books, and parted ways. Stan felt so much better and even energetic despite losing out on a considerable amount of sleep the night before. His best friend always knew exactly what to say.

Ω

Stan was surprised to find Kyle at their locker at the start of the lunch period. He raised his brows. "Are you eating lunch with us today?" he asked curiously.

Kyle smiled and nodded. There was no way he was going to let his best friend eat alone with their friends after what he'd learned this morning. "Of course." A slow, relieved smile spread across his friend's face and Kyle laughed. "Are you nervous or something?" he joked with him, knowing full well that Stan was likely on edge. Truth be told, Kyle wasn't exactly thrilled about the lunch but at least he knew where he stood with everyone and he knew he wasn't a total raving lunatic like he'd feared before. "Did you pack?"

Stan nodded. "Yeah, I did." He reached into their locker and fished around in his book bag until he found his lunchbox. He pulled it out along with a book he knew he'd need for after lunch as he doubted he'd have time to stop at his locker at the end of the period. He looked down at his lunchbox thoughtfully, biting his bottom lip as if considering something.

"What are you thinking about?" Kyle asked observing as his friend simply stared down at the lunchbox he'd placed on top of the book he held. Kyle grabbed what he needed out of the locker, he'd packed, too, as he had been skipping out on the cafeteria completely lately.

Stan sighed and looked over at Kyle. "I had thrown a couple extra things in here, but…" he trailed off.

"For Kenny?" Kyle easily guessed. "Yeah, I don't think that's a good idea, Stan. Please don't bring up food to him while we're eating lunch. He already has me and Cartman going at him about it, we got you covered, dude." Kyle laughed as he ended the sentence, very much aware of the bizarreness of it all.

"It's just so…unhealthy."

Kyle had to stop himself from saying it wasn't like Kenny would die from it because he would, he just wouldn't stay dead. God, what has happened to my life? Kyle thought to himself. Two months ago he would have laughed someone like him straight into a psychiatric ward, yet here he was becoming that very person. "It'll be fine, Stan. It's just lunch like normal. You eat lunch with him everyday."

"I know that," Stan whispered. "But it feels different now."

Kyle looked over at his friend as they began the short journey from their locker to the cafeteria on a different hall. "Well, yeah. It's going to be a little different. Isn't that the point, though?" he asked. "I mean, don't you want it to be different with him?"

Stan fell into deep thought again for a minute before nodding. "Yeah, I guess I do."

They arrived at the cafeteria and found Craig, Tweek, and Butters already sitting at their usual table. Clyde, Cartman, and Kenny were getting lunches.

"Hey," Craig greeted them. "Stan, you missed homeroom."

Stan nodded. "I know. Did I miss anything important?"

Craig shook his head and waved his hand. "No."

Butters beamed at the pair as they sat down. "Kyle!" he practically squealed. "I'm so glad you're eating lunch with us! It always feels weird when you're not here." Kyle smiled appreciatively at the smaller blonde. Butters always had such a sunny disposition, it was nice to know Kyle's less than sunny one was missed.

"Thanks, Butters. I finally got a break from that class. The teacher was riding my ass for the longest," he easily lied straight through his teeth. Butters just continued smiling.

Everyone at their table had eaten about a quarter of their lunch when their other three friends were finally able to join them. Cartman's voice naturally carried over everyone else's at the table. "What the fuck? Kahl? You ditched a class?" He glanced around wildly. "And you're eating lunch with us? Is the sky falling?!"

Kenny slid onto the bench across from Stan and Kyle while Clyde took a seat, too. Kenny offered up a tight smile to Kyle before catching Stan's eyes and his smile softened.

Kyle rolled his eyes at the show Cartman was putting on. "Shut up, fat ass," he snapped wearily. He really just wanted to be supportive of Stan right now, not really in the mood to fight with Cartman. Surprisingly Cartman did just that, plopping into place next to Kenny and starting to eat. The atmosphere of the table was quickly becoming tense as no one was speaking.

Usually Cartman would rile up the conversation regardless if Kyle was there or not. Butters frowned, glancing uneasily around his group of friends. Tweek was also glancing around nervously. They caught each other's eyes and Craig shifted uncomfortably realizing he would have to be the one to break the tension before one or both of the two nervous blondes imploded.

Only Clyde remained unaffected by the tension, eating contentedly and checking his phone, swiping between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, tumblr, and any other site he'd signed up for. Craig was surprised Clyde kept his phone in full view of anyone with some of the staff members happily grabbing phones from kids; he was starting to suspect that Clyde must have bribed or paid someone off. Either that or he had the most amazing insurance ever on that phone. Craig finally cleared his throat, hoping to alleviate the tension that was keeping everyone quiet at his table.

"So, is something going on in the mornings that we should know about?" he asked looking over at Stan and Kyle. "Are you two smoking up or something and forgot to invite us?"

Butters quickly shook his head at this. "I don't smoke, Craig. Thanks for the offer, though." He looked over at Stan and Kyle apologetically. "Sorry, fellas, I can't smoke with you in the morning."

Clyde's attention was drawn away from his phone as the conversation became more interesting. "Wait, I definitely can," he piped up, "where are we meeting?"

Stan and Kyle were both flustered by the turn the conversation had taken. Cartman stared at them with a look that neither could really figure out. Kenny stole a couple glances at them looking even more confused than they did.

"We are not smoking anything in the morning!" Kyle exclaimed. "That's ridiculous. And don't smoke, either!" Craig shrugged before pointing out he couldn't really think of any reason that both boys would cut homeroom together except to smoke.

Cartman frowned. "Wait, you two skipped homeroom together?" Stan suddenly found the floor fascinating refusing to meet anyone's inquisitive stares. Kenny also kept his eyes averted from everyone, focusing fiercely on the uneaten food heaped on his plate, swirling a utensil in it, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt.

Kyle wasn't really sure why, but his own face was starting to heat up and it's not like he even did anything except cut class. He knew both Kenny and Cartman knew he knew now and the air was even more tense than it had been earlier.

Craig cleared his throat again. "Um, is there something the four of you would like to share with the rest of us?" he asked the silent quartet.

Cartman grinned. "Why, yes, Craig, there is something we'd like to share." The knot in Stan's chest was tightening and he wasn't sure he was ready to go this far with things and as badly as he wanted to kick the loudmouth under the table, the fear of what would come out of said mouth next had him paralyzed, frozen, fork halfway to his mouth. He couldn't even bring himself to look at Kenny. Kyle had no clue what Cartman was going to say and, at this point, didn't care. He rushed to interrupt.

"We- uh, we went to the movies last night," he explained. Cartman shook his head, astounded at how bad Kyle's cover stories were getting; no wonder the guy rarely snuck out anymore.

"You guys all went to the movies?" Butters asked, clearly hurt at being left out. He looked over at Cartman. "Eric?" The usually boisterous and sarcastic teenager could think of nothing else except to shrug unsure where to go with Kyle's lie at this point. He wasn't even sure why Kyle had bothered lying. He had just been planning to tell Craig that he had beat Stan's ass in a round of video games but this was turning out to be much more entertaining. He, Stan, and even Kenny all glanced up at Kyle waiting for a more expanded version of whatever they had supposedly done so they could all get this story straight.

"Uh, okay, was the movie that bad or something?" Craig asked, still confused why the four were acting so strange. Kyle struggled to explain while Stan was finally able to sneak a peek at Kenny. He was still swirling his fork in the pile of food.

He remembered what Kyle had said about Craig being onto him. He also remembered last night and the horror that had thrummed through his entire body at some of the stuff Kenny had said. Kenny already thought he didn't deserve anything good because he thought his brother and sister thought so. Would he think Stan also thought this of him? No, Stan couldn't have that. He lightly kicked Kenny's foot and smiled faintly when he was awarded with concerned wrinkles crinkling his friend's features.

"We didn't go to the movies," Stan spoke up, not taking his eyes off Kenny, watching him closely to gauge his reaction. "I was over at Cartman's. We were playing video games and I stayed the night." He knew Craig would get the implication quickly enough. He wanted to say more but he didn't want to push too fast.

Butters frowned, not quite following. "But last night was Tuesday," he pointed out. Clyde burst into laughter at this finding it hilarious. Butters still looked hurt and even more confused. "Kyle, why'd you say you went to the movies? Did you all watch movies at the sleepover?"

Kyle cleared his throat awkwardly. "I, uh, actually wasn't there."

Clyde only laughed harder and Tweek smiled weakly while Craig gave Stan a look of approval.

Kenny kept his eyes on Stan the entire time, his face the same color as a ripe tomato. Stan offered a gentle smile and hoped against hope that he had said the right thing. His efforts were rewarded with a small smile and relief flooded Stan. Good. Butters finally noticed how bright red Kenny had turned and Stan's attention to that particular friend and his mouth formed a little 'o' as he found the same page everyone else at the table was on.

An easy grin spread across his face. "I'm glad you fellas had fun," he said with sincerity. Though Butters truly meant what he said and while it had definitely been spoken with innocence, it sent Clyde spiraling into more laughter, Kenny turned even redder, Cartman and Craig both looked smug, Kyle smiled, and Stan wondered if he was as red as Kenny across from him.

Chapter Text

Kyle stared down at the book in his lap, not really seeing any of the words. He was at Wendy's house again, her parents thankfully absent from the house, at the second part of that work event; it was the last one until next month so they needed to get as much done as possible tonight. Wendy sat on the floor across from him, absorbed in her own book, even typing notes into her tablet. He was sure if he wasn't there, she probably would have used the voice to text feature as she found things she felt she should highlight. She had been concentrating her area of study on R'lyeh, citing women's intuition.

Kyle sighed lowly, the words just blurs, his mind refusing to retain any of what he was seeing. He kept hearing Stan's strained voice from that morning repeating what Kenny had said about his late brother and sister. He remembered what Cartman had said about Kenny dying over and over to try to find his family and being unsuccessful in doing so. Wendy glanced up from her book.

"Everything okay?" she asked curiously. He had sighed quietly a few times and she suspected he was trying to work up the nerve to tell her something.

He looked up from his book and scratched the back of his neck, debating whether he should clue her in on what he knew or keep it to himself. He still didn't feel entirely comfortable sharing it, but he had already told her about Kenny's deaths and she was willing to help him research this. It was only fair of him to divulge what he knew. He sighed again, raking a hand through his hair. "Yeah, but there's something you should know."

"Oh?" Wendy asked, setting her book aside and leaning forward, elbows on her knees, hands on her cheeks as she waited for him to explain further.

"Uh, so Cartman knows about Kenny, too." She only looked surprised for a brief moment before nodding, encouraging him to continue. He swallowed. "He said before that the reason Kenny is always dying is because he's trying to find his family in the afterlife."

"Okay," Wendy mumbled, brows furrowing in confusion. "Does he see them?" Kyle shook his head slowly confirming what Wendy had suspected. The frown remained. "Aren't there other ways to die besides starving?"

Kyle nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought, too." He shifted because now he was really feeling discomfort at what he planned to say next, afraid he was betraying Stan's confidence. To his ex-girlfriend, no less. Granted, he knew they were still friends but the thought of betraying his best friend made him hesitant. Wendy noticed his discomfort immediately.

"What is it, Kyle?" she asked, her hands falling away from her face and her back straightening at how conflicted her friend looked.

He bit his lower lip, still unsure before sighing again. "It's just this next part involves Stan."

"Okay. So?"

"I just know you guys dated and don't want to….." he trailed off, scratching the back of his neck again.

Wendy cocked her head. "That was, like, forever ago and Stan and I are friends."

Kyle nodded, exhaling deeply, he knew this, of course. It still didn't make the next words he said any easier. "He just- he was, he spent the night last night…" he trailed off again and a ghost of a smile passed over Wendy's face as she realized why he was beating around the bush.

"I know he's into Kenny, if that's what you're worried about."

Kyle didn't hide his surprise. "What?"

Wendy grinned. "Yeah, it's kind of obvious. You know Stan and I still talk when we see each other at school. I've heard him talk about Kenny; he might not realize it, but he lights right up."

Kyle quirked his head to the side. "That's what I told him," he said slowly, feeling relief that Wendy was perceptive enough to have already picked up on this.

"Now that we have that out of the way, keep going," she encouraged.

"So, he spent the night at Cartman and Kenny's last night," he explained noting the way she scrunched her nose up at the mention of Cartman again. "I guess he went there to play video games or something. Anyway, with the weather, he somehow was able to stay over."

Wendy blinked, waiting for more. She was positive this would eventually loop back to Kenny and Cthulhu and that sent a shiver down her spine. "Okay, so what happened?"

"Well," Kyle scratched at his chin this time, recalling what all his best friend had told him that morning. "Cartman was super, bizarrely nice according to Stan. And Kenny…. He kissed him." Kyle kept his eyes on Wendy, gauging for a reaction. She didn't even blink and waited for him to keep going. "But he said that Kenny kind of freaked out during the kiss…" he trailed off again.

Wendy smiled mischievously, a twinkle in her eyes. "Okay, Stan is not a bad kisser, I should know. So why did Kenny freak out?"

Another low sigh from Kyle and he was starting to realize why Stan had so much trouble talking about it in the morning; it really was hard to put words out into reality that you didn't believe or want to be true. "Kenny freaked out because he thought since his brother and sister can't kiss, he shouldn't be allowed to, either."

"What?!" Wendy exclaimed in horror. "That's terrible."

"It gets worse," he warned her.

"How can you get much worse than that?"

Kyle smiled sadly before his mouth turned into a thin line. "It's also why he doesn't eat, because they can't eat and, apparently, the reason he had been sleeping outside or on the floor instead of in a bed."

Wendy's eyes were getting wider with each sentence Kyle spoke. "Wait, he does all this because he doesn't think he should because Karen and Kevin can't?"

Kyle shrugged. "Kind of. It also kind of sounds like he thinks Karen and Kevin think he doesn't deserve any of it because they can't." Kyle waited a beat before dropping the bomb, "He thinks their spirits are encouraging their old friends to hurt him and act the way they do since he came back."

Wendy's eyes couldn't be any wider if she tried to make them. "Oh my god, Kyle. That's all awful. Has he seen a therapist for any of this?" It was the first thing she could think of and then shook her head. "Sorry, I just, he, uh…" She tried to imagine how a therapy session might go with Kenny.

"He needs help," Kyle summed up dryly.

Wendy nodded. "Well, yeah, I mean that's a lot. That's just terrible," she got out through her horror. Once clear thoughts started forming in her mind again, she thought of something. "Do you think it's true?" she asked.

Kyle looked down at the books scattered around them. "I don't know, Wendy. I don't know. I mean, I wouldn't think they could possibly think any of that, but I wouldn't have believed any of this Cthulhu stuff a month ago, either. So I guess it's a possibility."

"An awful one," Wendy was quick to point out. Kyle quickly nodded in agreement. There was no denying that.

"Do you think it could be true?" he asked. Wendy let out a hum and picked up the book she had been reading, flipping through some pages, and frowning thoughtfully. "Wendy?"

"There's something I'm thinking that could….I mean, it might be kind of far-fetched but there is something I'm wondering about."

"Care to share?"

"R'lyeh. That's where Cthulhu sleeps, right?" She already knew but wanted to make sure he was following her.

"Yeah, in chains. Dreaming, if I understand it right." It was confusing, Kyle was beginning to doubt they could ever truly grasp what was truly meant in the stories unless they met with the author which wasn't possible, being that the author had long since passed on, leaving only his words and stories to remain in the world for others to ponder on, and, in this case, create belief systems around the stories.

"And it's a corpse-city, remember?"

Kyle narrowed his eyes at her. "Where are you going with this?"

"Kenny can't find his family in the afterlife." Wendy gestured to her book about R'lyeh. "Maybe he's looking in the wrong place."

Kyle stared at her for a good two minutes, unsure if he was completely understanding her. "You think that his family is in R'lyeh with Cthulhu?" The stories didn't exactly paint a pretty picture of the place that imprisoned Cthulhu.

"Yeah. I mean, obviously I could be wrong, but we won't know unless we check it out."

Kyle's eyes went wide as he realized just how serious she was about "checking out" the place. "Wendy, how, we don't even know where R'lyeh is or how to get to it." If it was even truly real. Despite everything that had happened, Kyle's mind still clung onto the notion that there was some logical explanation for everything, including Kenny's strange deaths and rebirths and that logic did not include Cthulhu or R'lyeh.

Wendy grinned and held a finger up in the air. "Actually!" And Kyle found himself listening to her map out various coordinates in the Pacific Ocean at the point furthest from any land and he kept thinking that surely she was going to burst out laughing and say "gotcha" or "just kidding," but she never did and Kyle realized she was dead serious. She wanted to go to this place. She was even talking about getting Token to get his parents to charter a boat for the whole thing. She went on and on as Kyle listened numbly.

Finally, her phone went off with the familiar jingle signifying a text and they both knew her parents were returning shortly. Wendy bid him good-bye, still giddy about her plans to visit R'lyeh in the future and Kyle was starting to doubt his sanity because surely he wasn't actually going to agree to this- but he couldn't let her go alone, either, especially when he was the one who had kind of roped her into all this. Wendy had to actually be insane to want to go to this place. He had been so sure she was sane but she was turning out to be just as crazy as everyone else, maybe even moreso. Kyle was lost deep in his thoughts as he started to slowly walk towards his home; he didn't realize someone had been following him until he heard a voice.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Kyle whipped around, panicked at first, but let out a sigh of relief upon seeing who was there. "Cartman?" The other boy came out of the shadows, eyes narrowed at him, expression unreadable. Kyle rolled his eyes. "What the fuck are you doing? Stalking me?"

"Following you, not the same thing."

"Pretty sure it is," Kyle countered before sighing and shaking his head. He really didn't want to fight with Cartman, he was already feeling drained after having to deal with Wendy's bizarre proposal to go and find Kenny's family in R'lyeh, he couldn't even believe they were thinking of that. "What do you want, Cartman? And shouldn't you be baby-sitting Kenny?" he asked, realizing their friend that was usually attached to his hip was nowhere around.

"Uh, no, Stan is at my house with Kenny and I didn't want to crash their vibe or whatever people say nowadays."

"So, you thought it would be okay to crash mine?" Kyle asked dryly.

Cartman rolled his eyes. "Like you have a vibe. I want to know what you're doing. What are you up to?" He glanced back at Wendy's house. "What were you two doing? It took you forever and you guys didn't even kiss or anything."

"What the fuck, Cartman? Were you, like, peeping through the windows?!"

Cartman shrugged. "I was bored. What were you two doing, though, really? I saw tons of books." He wondered if they were into voodoo. Maybe they'd make a voodoo doll of him. The thought of Wendy with a voodoo doll of him was terrifying. The thought of Kyle with a voodoo doll of him was terrifying. Actually, anybody with a voodoo doll of him would need to be swiftly dealt with, now that he was entertaining the idea. Maybe he should get into voodoo.

Kyle glanced away, continuing his walk home and Cartman fell into pace beside him, waiting for an answer. Kyle started out hesitantly, "We were studying….."

"You have got to find another cover story, Jew, it's just getting pathetic now. We all know you can't use basketball anymore because you got too sick to tryout freshman year but really this is pathetic. No one studies 24/7."

"Fine," Kyle said with a sigh. He thought more about giving another excuse, a more viable one, but maybe he was doing this all wrong. Maybe Cartman could actually help; he seemed to think Kenny hung the moon so maybe he would be more willing to help than Kyle was giving him credit for. "We've been studying the cult of Cthulhu."

Cartman came to a halt. Kyle stopped and turned around, waiting for the other to speak. Cartman was stunned. "What do you mean? 'We've?' You and Wendy? And why?"

Kyle frowned. "Why wouldn't we? Don't you want to know a way to get Kenny to stop dying? Or at least better understand how it works?"

Cartman pursed his lips, eyes darting back and forth for a few seconds, thoroughly freaking Kyle out. As if Wendy hadn't gotten him on edge enough now Cartman was just adding to the insanity. Kyle was starting to wonder if he actually needed to get new friends like his mom always said.

Cartman shook his head slowly and his words sounded like he'd actually thought about them instead of just blurting the first thing out that came to his mind. "I don't think that's a good idea, Kahl. That stuff can get…a bit crazy and, uh…" Cartman trailed off, breaking eye contact and biting his lip, unsure how to go on. Kyle's eyes narrowed because this couldn't get any more unlike Cartman than possible.

"Do you…know something you're not telling the rest of us?" he asked. After all, Cartman had known about Kenny's deaths since preschool. What else did he know?

"What else could I know?" Cartman asked innocently. "And what do you mean, 'us?'" he asked, using his index and middle fingers to make air quotation marks. "Just how much does Wendy know? Because last I checked only me and you knew about Kenny."

Kyle shifted uncomfortably under Cartman's scrutiny. He wasn't sure what all he should tell him. Should he tell that Wendy's cousin was like Kenny? Did Cartman already know about her cousin? Had he ever done research on this matter? It kind of sounded like he had. Cartman cleared his throat and Kyle glanced back at Wendy's house. He sighed. "She knows," he admitted. "She knows about Kenny."

Cartman looked surprised for a second before his expression settled into that unreadable one that Kyle had noticed he'd adopted when speaking about Kenny at length. "And how does she know?"

It took everything for Kyle to not flinch. He really didn't want to make the claim that he had dragged her into this even if it was true. "She heard about my outburst at lunch," he half-lied. She had heard about it, granted what she had heard had absolutely little to do with Kenny but there was no need for Cartman to know that.

"And she believes it?"

"Yeah."

"And you're studying about Cthulhu together?"

Kyle cocked his head, looking a little confused. The tone Cartman was using had turned strange, almost otherworldly. He shrugged. "Yeah, what of it?" Cartman didn't respond and instead started to head towards Wendy's house. Kyle dropped his heavy bag and hurried to keep up. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

Cartman still walked on at a brisk pace. "I'm going to tell her that she needs to stop with this. Like I'm telling you now. You both need to stop."

"What? Why?" Kyle asked in mild surprise and insult, who was Cartman to make demands of anyone? "Look, dude, you're not actually in charge of Kenny, I know you seem to think otherwise. If we want to help we can."

Cartman halted suddenly and spun around. "And how is this helping, Kyle?!" he exclaimed and Kyle stared at him in silence for a few seconds, taken aback, surprised at the passion and the clear, correct enunciation of his name. Cartman was really serious. He made to turn back towards Wendy's but Kyle took advantage of the pause and rushed around so he was in front of Cartman.

"Seriously, dude, what's your deal?" he asked, holding his hands out, signalling for his friend to stop.

"You don't even know what you're getting yourself into, Jew! And you're just pulling other people down into with you?! I didn't drag any of you into it for years, did I?" When phrased like that Cartman actually seemed like the sane one and that was impossible, Kyle thought as he gaped at the other. No, this couldn't be right. Cartman went on, "I think Wendy needs to know what kind of bullshit you're pulling."

"I'm not pulling any bullshit," Kyle bit out, frustration cutting into his tone. Who the hell did Cartman think he was? And why was he so aggravated that he and Wendy were studying Cthulhu? "And we're not going to stop even if you tell us to," he added fiercely, sudden anger spiking up over his confusion. "You're not the only person who wants to help Kenny."

Cartman glared at him, unimpressed. "You don't want to help Kenny, Kahl. I'm nobody's fool. You're just worried about Stan getting caught up in all this."

Kyle frowned at the accusation. "How dare you," he seethed, remembering all the many funerals he'd been to. Granted, his eyes had stayed dry every time and maybe he truly was a colder person than he'd like to admit, but it had still been hard and, of course, he cared about Kenny.

He remembered after one funeral, one of the few that Cartman had been present at, when his friend had approached and made a comment about his detached attitude and it was just now that Kyle realized Cartman had been asking in code if he knew that Kenny would be coming back. Even the first couple times it had happened, Kyle had been in total disbelief and then showed up to school and part way through the day suddenly no one was mourning and everyone was acting like Kenny had been there the whole day and there had been no funeral, suddenly the time spent at a funeral was time at a football game or the movies or some other form of entertainment.

It's not like Kyle had been given enough time to even process his grief and he was usually the one comforting Stan or Butters because Stan had always been the most sensitive of their group and it had gotten worse as he'd grown closer to Kenny. And Butters was just Butters, Kyle was pretty sure Butters would cry at a spider's funeral. At least Craig was around for Tweek and Clyde just didn't seem fazed by anything. With a start Kyle wondered if he gave off that same nonchalant aura that Clyde did. Even if he did, it didn't mean he didn't care about Kenny as Cartman was implying; his best friend cared very much about Kenny and by default that meant Kyle would, too, even if he'd never known the guy or had history but Kenny had been Kyle's friend, too. Had Cartman forgotten that?

"How fucking dare you," he repeated, eyes blazing and his arm was suddenly out in front of him, socking Cartman in the jaw. The other teenager stumbled backwards a few steps, shocked, before quickly recovering and charging Kyle.

Kyle was quick, easily able to sidestep his charge and attempted to do the low sweeping kick he liked to use to counter, but Cartman remembered and was also able to evade. They repeated the dodge and counters, managing to dodge each other every time, each knowing too well how the other fought, having seen it too many times and been in fights with each other too many times.

Kyle wasn't sure how long they'd been trying to beat the living daylights out of each other because they were typical teenagers and Cartman and Kyle and that always seemed like the best form of communication especially when disagreements were involved. Both were panting and muttering insults and taunts at the other when another voice finally broke through.

"Just what the hell are you two morons doing out here?" Wendy's voice carried no amusement and she was giving them both an odd look as they jumped apart, shocked at the interruption. "You guys know my house has windows, right? And you two aren't exactly being quiet. My mom heard you when she pulled up and said she was going to call the police." At the panicked expressions, she held her hands out, "It's okay, I told her I knew you." There was a pause and she shot a short glare at each before going on, "Okay, so what are we fighting about this time?"

"You know," Cartman said simply.

"Do I?" Wendy asked.

Kyle shook his head slightly. "He means about Kenny."

"Oh, oh, yeah, I do know," Wendy said agreeably before she returned to confusion "Wait, is that what you were fighting about? If I knew about Kenny?" She said it as if it would be the weirdest thing in the world they could fight about, which, as far as she could tell, it pretty much was.

"No!" Cartman exclaimed. "You and Kyle need to stop with this… cult study bullshit."

"What?" Wendy murmured, her confusion only growing.

"You heard me."

"Why don't you want us to study this, Cartman?" Kyle demanded, starting to feel a little desperate for an answer. Cartman crossed his arms and frowned at the other two.

"Just stop, okay? It's dangerous and Kenny wouldn't like it."

Kyle made to say something but Wendy was quicker. "We're not going to stop Cartman, so you can either join us or just stay mad. Besides, we think we already figured something out." Kyle felt his heart beat a little faster at Wendy's words; maybe they shouldn't be so hasty in including Cartman and what exactly was Wendy talking about? Cartman raised his brows, waiting for a response so she went on, "Kenny's family. We think they are in R'lyeh."

Cartman's eyes went wide and he shook his head slowly. "I wish you hadn't just told me that," he said haltingly as if it were painful to get out. Wendy frowned, puzzled, but remained quiet. Cartman turned accusing eyes towards Kyle. "Just how much did you tell her exactly?"

"Enough."

Drawing out a long, defeated sigh, Cartman uncrossed his arms, letting them fall to his sides. "Fine," he muttered. "If you two want to fuck up your lives, don't say I didn't warn you. But I will be helping with these study sessions. And, please, don't tell Kenny." He glanced over at Wendy, "Especially what you just said about his family." Wendy and Kyle both exchanged a quick glance before each nodded in agreement.

"Okay, now that that's out of the way, you two can stop fighting and go home, it's getting late," Wendy pointed out. With a wave, she took off to her house, leaving Kyle and Cartman alone again. Kyle walked the short distance to where he'd dropped his book bag earlier and picked it up. Cartman easily kept up with him.

"What the hell, kike? I can't believe you told her about Kenny's family."

Kyle shot him a guilty look. "I didn't exactly want to, but I didn't really know who else to turn to. Something told me you would be against this as you clearly are."

"For good reason."

"Which you won't tell!" Kyle exclaimed, frustrated. "Besides, it's good to have other people look at things; maybe Wendy and I will find some stuff that you missed because you must have done this before." The way Cartman was acting he had to have done this kind of research before because he was just acting much too strange. The two were walking towards their homes, away from Wendy's, the sun having set long ago. Kyle sighed. "Why wouldn't Kenny want us to look into this, anyway?"

"It's just- he just," Cartman started and stopped, a strange expression flashing through his eyes, looking unsure if he should share any further, and Kyle felt shivers down his spine because he'd seen this expression before; he'd had this conversation before- with Kenny. At the party, when Kyle had asked what Cartman had done to get him to go back to school. That was another question that Kyle had been wanting to demand of Cartman but not in front of Kenny or Stan and he had nearly forgotten about it but it was always nagging at him, in the back of his mind, like a whisper he couldn't get rid of.

"Why- why did you talk Kenny into coming back to school, Cartman?"

Cartman glared at him. "Why? You got a problem with it?" he asked defensively. "It's not like I planned to have Stan go all faggy on him."

"Stop being such a fucking jerk," Kyle bit out, trying to keep his voice down, aware that it was late and, by now, they were probably out past curfew and they didn't need any residents complaining. Cartman was hardly in the position to be judging Stan considering who Stan was with at that moment. Kyle matched the glare with a fierce one of his own. "You know, you've lost touch at dodging questions, asshole. Why did you talk him into it?" Or the better question, the million dollar question, "How did you talk him into it?"

Cartman rolled his eyes, another sigh escaping his lips. He kept his eyes firmly averted away from Kyle. "He kept dying. So I just thought...maybe, just, like, if he was reminded that there were still people that…cared…he'd want to, you know, live." Kyle heard the caring and concerned tone and thought that maybe they had finally discovered the part of Cartman that was hidden deep within because he actually, truly cared and, from what Kyle could see, had nothing to gain from this caring.

"How?" Kyle quietly prompted again when Cartman fell silent.

"What the fuck, Jew? I mean, seriously, good fucking grief, isn't that enough?!" Cartman ranted, suddenly morphing back into the Cartman Kyle was all too familiar with. "I mean, Jesus Christ, I share my fucking feelings and your response is just 'how?' Are answers really the only thing you ever care about? No wonder you didn't even put the moves on Wendy, you probably just get orgasms from learning new information and prying answers out of people-" he was cut off when Kyle chucked his book bag at him, tired of the rant.

"Just shut up." Nothing else was said and tense silence accompanied them the rest of their way, lingering even after they parted ways.

Chapter Text

Stan sat on the sofa in Cartman's basement with Kenny. It had been weird at school. At the end of the day, Cartman had practically pawned Kenny off on him and directed Stan to keep an eye on him until he got back from wherever the hell Cartman had vanished to.

To make things even more awkward, Cartman had implied it was Stan's responsibility since Kenny was his boyfriend. And Stan tried to protest while both he and Kenny turned three shades darker than tomatoes, but Cartman wasn't having it and Kyle had vanished long ago. Of course, the one time Stan wished Craig would randomly pop up to help guide him as he'd been doing, the guy was nowhere to be seen. Still, even though Stan knew he himself was redder than a tomato, he was glad to see Kenny in that state, it was rather cute.

They had been playing a video game for the better part of an hour, both on the sectional, comfortably close like before, and Stan thought that he liked seeing Kenny so focused on something. He wanted to do more, he really did, but he decided he wouldn't unless Kenny made the first move. Of course, he wanted to kiss again but not if it ended as it had before.

He winced when he heard his stomach grumble. It was getting late; where was Cartman? Did he just plan to not come home? It was awesome how much of a wingman the guy was turning out to be but this was also starting to get suspicious.

"Are you hungry, Stan?" Kenny asked and Stan thought his stomach must be louder than he realized and he liked how much Kenny said his name. No one else was even here but he still addressed him with his name.

"Yeah," he replied with a nod. He paused the game and looked over. "Do you mind if we break for dinner?" Cartman's mom had left for the evening but on her way out stopped in and told the boys that there was food in the fridge for them whenever they got hungry.

"Of course not," Kenny readily responded, standing up and stretching out and Stan really felt it was unfair because he suspected that Kenny was not feeling all the same feelings he was at this moment. He hoped his eyes didn't look too appreciative and also stood up, heading towards the stairs. He stopped when he realized Kenny wasn't following.

"Hey, are you coming? I could use some help finding things in the kitchen." A complete lie, but he wanted Kenny with him and maybe, just maybe, he could make something happen. He remembered Kyle telling him that he and Cartman were already all over his case regarding food, but Stan still wanted to try. Kenny looked uncertain for a minute before giving in and nodding, following Stan up the stairs.

Stan smiled, proud that Kenny had given in so easily. Maybe Stan had more power than he realized. He wondered if Kenny knew how much power he had and hoped it would take him awhile to discover it because Stan already knew good and well that he was wrapped around the other's finger.

Once in the kitchen, Stan feigned ignorance of where the plates were, the silverware, and even the pantry. Based on the bemused smirks he was getting from Kenny, Stan knew that the other was onto him but he didn't care. He liked how small the kitchen in Cartman's house was; it forced them to stay in close proximity and brush up against each other and, damn, why did Cartman's kitchen suddenly seem like the best place in the world? Stan was pretty sure he'd never thought that before. The only second he wasn't thoroughly happy was when he noticed a fridge free of alcohol and he knew, he just knew, that was Cartman's doing. He'd have to have a word with him later.

Stan's hand hovered over the plates for a second, debating if he really wanted to jump headlong into this, but he was already so far deep into this, he supposed it didn't truly matter at this point. "Will you join me?" Kenny looked startled for a second, smirk falling from his face and mouth pressed into a thin line, clearly debating how to respond. Stan waited a beat before adding the innocent questions that he'd noticed seemed to get Kenny to do just what he wanted. "Please? For me?"

There was another tense minute of silence before Kenny shrugged. "Okay. Just today." Oh, they would see about that just, Stan thought rather gleefully as he pulled down two plates out of the cabinet.

"Awesome!" Stan exclaimed, grinning widely. "I don't know if you've heard but I'm pretty damn amazing in the kitchen!" He was rewarded with a laugh and just when he thought things couldn't get better, Kenny was suddenly right next to him offering help and Stan quickly agreed that he would love help; because, after all, it would mean Kenny was still in the kitchen with him. And maybe Stan hadn't been totally correct in his thoughts about Kenny earlier because the other teenager was all up in his space and Stan totally welcomed the invasion.

Soon they had to move to the table, which Stan wasn't totally thrilled about, but his stomach sure was. He had made two rather nice veggie quesadillas, cut into thirds and he was delighted with how they turned out. They steamed nicely and smelled heavenly and he hoped Kenny would at least take just one bite. Kenny sat across from him, looking at the plate in front him, while Stan looked down hungrily at his own plate. He looked up from his plate to Kenny and they locked eyes for a moment. Stan bit his lip as he realized this would be it, he could already see Kenny shuddering. "Please?" he whispered, picking up a piece of his quesadilla and biting into it.

Kenny took a deep breath and brought his hand to the quesadilla. He picked one of the pieces on the plate up with trembling fingers and slowly lifted it. He paused before his mouth, glancing around the room furtively and Stan knew he was checking to see if his brother or sister's spirits were going to show up just to knock the food out of his hand. They didn't and Stan held his breath while Kenny took a small bite, still glancing around the room until his gaze landed on Stan who stared at him with such tenderness, Kenny thought he might just stuff the whole quesadilla down his mouth if he could just to make the other happy. It was weird, he hadn't felt anything like this in ages yet he was beginning to realize that he cared very much about Stan, he was sure he hadn't cared this much about someone since his family with the exception of Eric but he was an outlier. It had been too long since he'd let himself enjoy food and Stan wasn't kidding around when he said he was a damn good cook because it was amazing. He looked at Stan who was looking at him expectantly.

"This is amazing," he complimented and was rewarded with a Stan that beamed, looking thrilled to death with the compliment. Still, it had been so long since he'd actively ate, it was hard to chew and swallow, but he'd eaten one third and was quite proud of himself. He stared at the second and third pieces, willing them to vanish, Stan had already finished his, Kenny was aware that he was eating way more slowly than any sane person. He had to finish this, though, he didn't want to insult Stan and he wanted him to be happy. His brother and sister's spirits hadn't jumped out of the walls, but he did wonder what kind of nightmares he would have later because of this. There was a hand on his shoulder and he started, not even having heard Stan move out of his chair. Suddenly there were fingers under his chin, turning his head and forcing him to look up at Stan.

"Kenny?" Stan asked with concern. Kenny had been staring at what was left of his quesadilla for a while and hadn't responded to Stan in several minutes; to say Stan was alarmed wouldn't do the situation justice. "Kenny?" he asked again and then felt relief wash over him when Kenny finally started responding and the clouded look in his eyes gave way to confusion. He smiled slightly, though concern was still clear in his eyes. "You don't have to eat anymore. You did so good, I'm so happy." He moved a little closer and wrapped Kenny up in an awkward hug since he was standing and Kenny was still sitting.

Bending down a little, Stan planted a light kiss in his hair and muttered a soft "thank you." Kenny loved the feeling and he hoped Stan held onto him a little longer and tighter, however, the wish was short lived as someone joined them in the kitchen.

"Seriously? There's a whole basement downstairs!" Cartman exclaimed, not entirely thrilled at the sight that greeted him in his own kitchen. "A whole fucking sectional, a bed, but, noooo, instead you hug and whatever at the kitchen table," he muttered as he marched past them to the fridge, opened it to poke his head in and see what was available.

It was at that moment that his mind clicked with what his eyes had just seen. He whirled away from the refrigerator until he was looking at the other two again, Stan standing behind Kenny, his arms wrapped loosely around Kenny's shoulders and Kenny with a plate of food in front of him. "Did you-are you- eating?" he asked hopefully.

Stan grinned triumphantly, proud to have been the one to get him to eat. Kenny just offered up a half-hearted smile to Cartman and nodded. Stan noticed the look the two exchanged and suddenly he wasn't so sure about Cartman, his arms tightening just a little more around Kenny. His friend didn't know why but he certainly wasn't complaining about Stan holding him tighter. He looked down at what was left of his quesadilla.

"Eric? Do you want the rest of my quesadilla? Stan made them and they're amazing!" And now Stan was definitely not sure at all about Cartman anymore because that was the most he'd heard Kenny talk at once, so at ease, and he fought to quash the jealousy that was rising up in him. Cartman was Kenny's best friend; how was this any different than how he spoke to Kyle, his own best friend? Really, shouldn't Stan feel happier that Kenny was starting to feel this comfortable around him? But, still, he couldn't help but wonder how long Kenny had felt comfortable around Cartman. The other two remained completely oblivious to Stan's inner turmoil. Cartman practically dashed to the table, wanting to check out the food that Stan had convinced Kenny to eat. He eagerly picked up a piece, inspecting it.

"It's really that good, huh?"

"Yeah, it really is!"

Cartman rolled his eyes. "I mean, you haven't had real food in forever so I'm sure anything would taste-"

"It's really good, if you don't want it, I'll finish it," Kenny declared, cutting his friend off before he could finish and Cartman frowned; everyone was interrupting him lately. Cartman was just impressed Stan had gotten Kenny to actually eat and there was another feeling that took him a few moments to figure out what it was; gratitude. He bit into the piece of quesadilla he grabbed and chewed contentedly. He doubted Kenny would actually be able to finish it even if he wanted to.

"That is amazing," he agreed with Kenny and turned his eyes towards Stan who regarded him warily. "This is damn good, hippie, I gotta say, I'm impressed."

"Thanks," Stan muttered, still not sure what to make of Cartman. Kenny must have sensed the unease because he reached one hand up to place it reassuringly over one of Stan's arms that was still wrapped loosely around his shoulders. Cartman happily took a seat near Kenny and reached over to eat the rest of the quesadilla.

"So, you staying the night, Stan?" he asked casually even though he knew there would be school the next day. He was loathe to admit it but he would rather have Stan here since he would be the one dealing with Kenny's night terrors instead of himself. The other day had been a welcome relief and Cartman was starting to feel a little too indebted to his alcoholic prone friend; he might even have to buy him a case of beer, but Cartman couldn't do that. If he was being honest, he wasn't sure how well a drunk Stan would handle Kenny during his nightmares.

Stan sighed. "No, I'm already pushing it with my mom and I don't want her to be upset," he answered honestly even though he really didn't like the idea of leaving Kenny with Cartman; he wasn't sure why, it hadn't bothered him in the least until now. It was late, though, there was no light coming into the house and he was sure that he probably should have been home an hour ago. He hadn't checked his phone in about as much time so he was sure he had some texts and calls from his mother. "I actually should be going home," he said with regret.

He so wanted to stay but he didn't want to upset his mom anymore than she might already be. He was grateful to have a good relationship with her, at least, in comparison to what he saw from his friends' relationships with their moms, he felt he got a pretty good bargain on that end. His dad was another story, but he was still his dad. He took his time sliding his hands off Kenny, making sure to give the blonde's shoulders a comforting squeeze before disentangling himself completely. He witnessed Cartman and Kenny exchange another look and Stan could have sworn that they were communicating by expression alone and, dammit, not even he and Kyle were capable of that. Kenny pushed his chair back and stood up also.

"Let me walk you to the door," he offered with a smile and Stan immediately forgot his annoyance with Cartman for the moment. Kenny slipped his hand into his as they walked out, only letting go once they reached the door; it wasn't a long walk but Stan felt pretty great by the time they reached the door and he knew it might be cheesy, but he was really hoping for a kiss. Kenny stood there, suddenly shy again. "Thanks, Stan, for the food and helping me, you know, just thanks," he tried to express the enormous amount of gratitude he felt towards the other but there were no words as far as he was concerned. He could thank Stan for every second the rest of eternity and it still wouldn't be enough. Stan offered up his own charming smile realizing this was it and he'd have to hold out longer for another kiss and it would be okay because he'd already had a taste of one to know it would be worth the wait.

He nodded. "Have a good night, okay? You know you can always use Cartman's phone to get in touch with me if you need to," he made sure to tell him because thinking of Kenny having nightmares and Cartman being the one to comfort him made him jealous all over again and he really hoped it was Lianne comforting Kenny instead, but he doubted it as Cartman's mom didn't always get home before the morning. He smiled again and walked out the door, glancing behind him to give Kenny a good-bye wave before disappearing into the shadows of the night.

Kenny sighed and shut the door once he could no longer see Stan walking down the street. Walking back to the kitchen he felt worry start to bubble up within him. Cartman was still eating the quesadilla rather happily. "Hey, can you text Stan to make sure he made it home okay in a few minutes?" he asked as he sat back down, wishing Stan's arms were around him again. Cartman rolled his eyes but agreed. It was silent for a few minutes and Cartman pulled out his phone to shoot off the text, getting a reply right away, and informed his friend that Stan had made it home just fine. After a couple more minutes of silence, Cartman finished off his quesadilla and looked at Kenny.

"Are you going to tell him?"

Kenny frowned, not liking where this was going. "Tell him what?"

"All of it? Any of it?"

"I already told you…"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you want him to stay normal, whatever the hell that even means anymore," Cartman cut his friend off. "But I wasn't talking about the whole dying and coming back to life thing though that is something you should try to address eventually. I was talking about the rest of it."

"Are you?" Kenny challenged him and now Cartman was the one frowning.

"What do you mean? It's not mine to tell…" he trailed off guiltily, immediately realizing he wasn't being fair to his best friend at all. "I mean, you know what I mean…" he finished lamely, knowing Kenny would instantly know what he meant.

And Kenny did instantly know. "Yeah," he mumbled, "I know. But, no, I don't want to tell him all of… that." He paused again and looked at Cartman, eyes full of misgiving, "Should I? Want to tell him?"

His best friend could only answer with a shrug. "I don't know, honestly." There was another pause as each reflected on what the possible consequences could be and Kenny's reflections were much darker than Cartman's. He frowned at Kenny. "I really don't think Stan would be as upset or as horrified as you think." Damn, the day had finally come. He was actually saying good things about that hippie. Kenny just looked away and it took all Cartman had not to sigh in frustration. Instead, he decided to address other things.

"Do you want me to sleep downstairs on the sectional tonight?" he asked quietly. Kenny's face turned red and he refused to look the other in the eye again but did nod, signalling he would like someone nearby. "Good, I was hoping to watch a movie tonight, anyway," Cartman said, hoping to ease his friend's discomfort and Kenny felt that fierce gratitude again. Stan and Kyle had always said they were super best friends as kids, but he suspected he got the better end of the deal even if they didn't realize. Of course, he was aware of how much it had cost to get this kind of friendship out of Cartman and he wondered what it would be like if all that had happened hadn't happened; if they would even still be friends. Either way, everything had happened and he was just grateful that Cartman was here.

Chapter Text

Kyle was surprised to find Stan leaning against their locker so early. It was becoming a bit of a weird habit his best friend was developing; used to, Stan was always running late, at least that's what it had been like for the seventh through ninth grades. Now Stan was almost disturbingly early and Kyle wondered if he realized that just because he showed up early didn't mean Kenny and Cartman would. "Hey, dude, what's up?" he greeted through his morning fog. He had showed up earlier than normal himself, having promised to tutor a peer before school started for about twenty minutes.

Stan nodded at Kyle and pushed himself off their locker so his best friend could get into it. "Hey, you're here early."

"I'm here to tutor someone."

"That again, Kyle? You really gotta start using better cover stories. It's just getting old."

"I really am here to tutor," Kyle protested as it was true. It wasn't as if he had never tutored during a lunch period before. "Why are you here early? Trying to catch Kenny before school starts?" he asked teasingly. It must have been the wrong thing to say because Stan stiffened noticeably. "Everything okay?"

Stan ran a hand though his hair. "About that. I have a favor to ask."

"Okay?" Kyle asked wearily. He wasn't so sure about this.

"You know, you know Cartman pretty well."

"What? Dude, you know Cartman pretty well, too."

"Just, can you ask him, like….." Stan shuffled about, eyes downcast as he tried to figure out the best way to ask the question.

Kyle gave his friend a strange look. "Just spit it out already, Stan, honestly."

"Can you ask him if he and Kenny, like, I don't know, were ever in a relationship or something?"

Kyle stared at him for a long moment before bursting into laughter. It took him a couple minutes to realize Stan was completely serious and he stopped laughing. "Wait, you're serious?!"

Stan glowered at him, not at all amused. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Because! It's Cartman and Kenny. Besides, why don't you just ask Kenny?" Kyle pointed out the obvious and Stan shifted uncomfortably, suddenly finding something down the hall interesting to stare at.

"I can't, it would just be weird."

"So me asking Cartman if he ever dated Kenny so I can report it back to you is less weird, how?" Stan didn't answer him so Kyle went on, "I mean imagine if Kenny asked Cartman to ask me if I ever dated you? Wouldn't that be weird instead of Kenny just asking you? It's pretty weird and unnecessary."

Stan didn't seem to hear any of the common sense Kyle presented him with, latching onto one thing only. "Wait, what? Did Cartman ask you that?" he asked, almost too hopefully. Kyle gave his friend a sidelong look.

"Stan, jealousy doesn't look good on you. And of Cartman? Really?"

"There's just-there's," Stan stammered, trying to explain, "there's something between those two and I can't figure out what it is."

"I mean, they are best friends and-"

"No, it's more than that, Kyle. There's something else, I just don't know what."

"Stan, just ask Kenny about it," Kyle sagely advised, feeling his heart sink a little at the desperation in his best friend's voice. He hoped Stan wasn't investing all of himself into this thing with Kenny as Kyle could still clearly remember Kenny telling him how he should have never come back, that it hadn't even been Kenny's idea, it'd been Cartman's. Kyle remembered Kenny's deaths he'd suffered through and how he'd had to comfort a broken-hearted Stan. With a start, he realized it had been three whole days and he hadn't had to go through that horror. Interesting. He couldn't help but wonder if this was just a doomed relationship from the start and he hoped that Stan would be able to pick up the pieces and move on when it was over.

"You won't ask Cartman?"

Kyle shook his head. "Why on earth would I, anyway? Why can't you?"

Stan balled his fists and shrugged. "I'm worried I might not like the answer and do something stupid."

"Well, I never like any answers Cartman gives me, so I'm not exactly the next best option."

"But you never do anything stupid," Stan pointed out. Kyle just stared blankly at him for a moment.

"Dude, you are joking, right?"

"I mean, okay, maybe sometimes. But please?"

Kyle shook his head, not at all swayed. "No. Ask Craig, Butters, or someone else. I'm not asking him that." He sighed. "I really gotta go, I'm running late as it is. But, really, Stan, you should just ask Kenny." With that last bit of advice, he left and could only hope Stan would seriously just ask Kenny and, for goodness sake, had he really just suggested to ask Craig? As if Stan wasn't already trying to involve too many people.

Stan watched as Kyle left, feeling disappointed. He was getting nowhere fast in his quest to figure out what was going on between Cartman and Kenny. Speaking of which, he could hear their voices from further down the hall, obviously heading in his direction.

"Good morning, Stan," Kenny happily greeted him while Cartman glanced around as if looking for someone.

He smiled at Kenny, "Good morning," he responded.

"Where's the Jew?" Cartman demanded.

Stan shrugged. "He said he had to tutor someone."

"Did he?" Cartman questioned, clearly doubtful as Stan had been.

"Yeah," Stan said with a nod, nonchalantly reaching his hand out to grab Kenny's and tug him a little closer and away from Cartman. The other teenager didn't seem to care and just rolled his eyes.

"You better make sure you walk him to class, Stan," Cartman tersely commanded.

Stan nodded, not as surprised by the demand as he felt he should have been. "Yeah, of course." No one had attacked any of them recently but there was still definitely talk in the halls and he'd already seen a couple people shoot them a funny look; he really wasn't sure if it was just directed at Kenny or him and Kenny or just all three of them in general. He didn't really seem to garner any attention unless Kenny was there. Cartman left them, heading straight towards the library where he was sure he'd find Kyle. Kenny gripped Stan's hand tighter and Stan couldn't help but smile at him. He wanted to ask if he'd slept well, but liked the smile on the other's face and didn't want it to drop. "How are you doing today?"

"Good. You?"

Stan didn't care how cheesy he sounded, he looked down at their hands and shook them a little to emphasize his point, "Much better now." Kenny gave him another one of those bemused smirks and said nothing. "Do you wanna join me in the cafeteria? I haven't eaten breakfast yet." Kenny nodded and the two went to the cafeteria, hand in hand.

Stan didn't notice anything too unusual as they entered the cafeteria but he did like how Kenny edged closer to him. He led Kenny to a table and they sat down quietly, Stan reaching into his lunchbox to pull out his breakfast. This morning he'd woken up early to throw together a veggie omelet; it wasn't his best work but he was still pleased with it. Of course he'd cooked for two and wrapped both up neatly with aluminum foil, hoping to trap the heat for as long as possible.

He knew he was probably pushing it, but he'd pushed a lot lately and Kenny rarely pushed back. "Will you eat a little bit with me? Just a little?" Kenny stayed quiet, glancing away for a moment and Stan pushed more, "Please? I got up early and made it this morning." He nudged the extra omelette towards Kenny and he picked it up gingerly, mumbling a quiet thanks and unable to hide the blush that colored his cheeks.

They were sitting at the end of a table, trying to keep separate from the rest of the student body and Stan regretted that they had chosen to sit across from each other because he really hated having to let go of the other's hand. Stan began to eat his omelette and gave his friend an encouraging smile to try his own.

Kenny offered up a weak smile, still looking unsure but went ahead and unwrapped the aluminum foil that covered the omelette and bit into it. He slowly chewed, relishing how Stan's face softened into appreciation at the sight. He would eat all day if Stan kept looking at him like that. 

Stan asked how it was and Kenny could only mumble it was good and hoped he didn't look too flustered. After he'd finished eating as much of the omelette as he could, Stan glanced at one of the clocks that hung around the cafeteria; the staff made sure to have multiple clocks, hoping to ward off tardiness. "The first bell's about to ring," he informed Kenny. "Do you need anything out of your locker?"

"Not for homeroom."

"Okay, we should probably head that way. Don't want Cartman to cut my head off," Stan tried to laugh about it, but, really, he still wanted to know what kind of history Cartman and Kenny had. Kenny easily detected the unease that settled over Stan at the mention of Cartman.

"Everything okay, Stan?" he asked as they walked to the trash cans and emptied their trash into them. Other students scraped their food off trays into the trash before placing them on the other trays already atop the trash cans. Kenny noted how much more appetizing Stan's omelettes looked compared to some of the food other students were dumping; he suspected he had actually eaten more than quite a few others in the cafeteria. He chose to keep what was left of his omelette, informing Stan he'd eat the rest at lunch. Stan shook his head and took the uneaten omelette from him, tossed it, and assured him that he had plenty of extra food for lunch. As soon as his hands were free, Stan wasted no time in grabbing Kenny's hand because if he couldn't kiss him he was at least going to hold his damn hand.

"Yeah, everything's fine. Why?"

Kenny hesitated for a second. "Just you seemed a little upset when you brought up Eric. Are you mad at him?"

"No, no, I'm not," Stan stated and he honestly wasn't. If anything he was more upset with himself for not just asking Kenny or even Cartman his question. He still wasn't sure why Kyle had so profusely refused. "I just- was thinking of something."

"About?"

Stan smiled easily, not entirely comfortable at bringing it up yet. "It's nothing, really, don't worry about it." Kenny was conflicted for a moment but decided not to push the issue; Stan would bring it up when he was ready. He wasn't exactly in any position to be upset with him for not sharing everything on his mind. "Let's get you to class." And Kenny knew he should probably be a little more upset with how both Stan and Cartman fretted over him, but he couldn't say he didn't like the attention; it was much more positive than most of the attention he'd gotten since that horrible night that his family had been killed. Once they arrived to his class, Kenny decided to place a quick, chaste kiss on Stan's cheek before disappearing into the classroom, appreciating how Stan's cheeks had heated up and the dopey smile that spread across his face before he turned to go to his own class.

Ω

"Ohmygod," Cartman cried, distressed, staring at Kyle and Wendy in the library in horror. "Are you two obsessed or something? I mean, honestly? Can't you just be into alcohol and sex like everyone else in this building?" He glared at Kyle. "And you! You told Stan that you were tutoring someone! And I know Wendy doesn't need tutoring."

"I did tutor someone," Kyle explained heatedly. "They just left already, it's not like it was going to take forty minutes to tutor him, and, besides, he got bored after fifteen minutes and left." It wasn't unusual that the tutored peers would get frustrated and leave earlier than planned.

Wendy nodded in agreement. "Besides," she spoke up, looking at Cartman, "we can't really use my house again for a couple weeks so we're trying to make do here." She shot Kyle an annoyed glance. "Not really sure why we can't use Kyle's…"

"I already told you, I don't want Stan or Kenny finding out and if we go to my house I know Ike will know and then, from there, you know, there's just too many people in my house," Kyle had started out upset but just felt defeated by the end of his explanation. He feared Ike might get wind of it and he was pretty sure Ike likely had classes with some of Karen's old friends and maybe Kyle was paranoid but people were dead and he didn't want his brother to be among those.

"Right, right, I'm sorry, I just- I feel like we're more likely to get caught here at school," Wendy pointed out.

"Yes, obviously, I'm glad one of you still has a functioning brain, I mean seriously what the hell," Cartman practically sneered at the two but the effect was a little lost due to the desperation clear in his voice. "I just don't understand why you can't drop this." His question was directed to both of his peers but his eyes locked onto Kyle's.

"Cartman, we already told you-"

"Can't you drop it for, like, two seconds?! You were just studying all this last night and the night before," Cartman's voice dropped dangerously low and Wendy had to lean further over to hear him, "Look, this has been happening forever to Kenny, you don't need to figure it all out right this second. Just give it a rest."

Kyle pursed his lips, breaking his gaze from Cartman and returning his attention to the book before him for a minute, he glanced back up at his angered friend again before glancing down to the book and closing it. He stood up and looked at Cartman. "You know something." He spoke with confidence. "Why don't you tell us what that is?" Wendy looked up from her book, more curious than ever.

Cartman crossed his arms. "We've been over this, I don't know anything that you don't know."

Kyle whispered back harshly, "You're so full of shit, you would not be acting this way if there wasn't something you didn't know."

Wendy stood up and cleared her throat, book in her hands. "Guys, I think we got some attention." Both boys looked over in the direction she indicated and noticed the school librarian studying them intently. As if on cue, a warning bell rang and the trio started to break away from the library.

"I have to get to class," Wendy said, heading in a different direction since she didn't share the same homeroom as the other two. She was a little nervous about leaving the two on their own but there wasn't much she could do.

As they walked down the hall, Kyle sighed. "Cartman, it would be easier if you just told me."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Jew!" Cartman cried, irritated. "We have to get to class, who knows how long Kenny's been in there alone?" Token was also in their homeroom so Cartman wasn't overly worried but on the off chance Token was absent, there wasn't anyone else in the class that would stick up for their old friend that Cartman knew of.

Kyle's eyes narrowed at him and he remembered Stan's request from earlier. Maybe Stan was misreading this worry as something else? Kyle simply saw it as Cartman dodging his questions. They came to to the door, Kyle remaining quiet and refusing to rise up to any of Cartman's bait. By the time they reached the door, Cartman had just about developed a twitch. "Don't say anything about this in class, especially with Kenny in there," he whispered murderously to Kyle. His friend just shrugged and nodded, only creating more tension between the two before they entered the class, barely making it to their desks before the final bell dinged over the intercoms.

Ω

Stan waited by his locker at lunch, wondering if Kyle would eat with them again. Kyle was there after a few minutes but looked irritated. "Hey," he greeted his friend. "What's up?"

Kyle shook his head. "I don't think I'm going to eat with you guys, Stan. Will you be okay?"

Stan shifted uncomfortably. He'd rather Kyle eat with them, but he couldn't force him to. "I'll survive but is this about Kenny again?" he asked, wishing his voice didn't crack with worry when he asked.

"No, no," Kyle rushed to assure him. "It's just me and Cartman, we, uh, haven't been getting along this morning and I think we could both use a long break from each other." He was worried the two would get into a fight at lunch about all this Cthulu stuff in front of Stan and Kenny which would pretty much defeat the purpose of them sneaking around behind their backs.

"That bad, huh?" Stan asked, nervously. "It wasn't because you asked about, you know…."

"Oh, no, but I'm definitely not asking him that especially now. I already told you, though, just ask Kenny," Kyle said adamantly. He grabbed what he needed and left rather abruptly. Stan shook his head and went to the cafeteria, happy to see that all his friends were already there.

Even Kenny and Cartman were already sitting, so Stan assumed Cartman must have rushed to the cafeteria or packed. There was a spot waiting for him right by Kenny, he smiled as he slid into the available space between Kenny and Clyde. He shot Clyde a grateful smile who just nodded at him.

Stan didn't care that it was obvious he and Kenny sat closer together than anyone else, invading each other's space again, his hand finding Kenny's knee beneath the table and giving it a gentle squeeze. Kenny smiled in return and waited patiently for Stan to split the salad he'd packed. Stan wished he'd taken the time to make something a little more exciting and resolved to pack a better lunch the next day. While everyone else was busy talking, Kenny made sure to eat a little bit and made sure Stan saw. Stan's face lit up in that appreciative way that Kenny loved.

"So where's Kyle now?" Craig's voice cut into their little world and Stan's head snapped away to look at their friend, much to Kenny's disappointment.

Stan looked uncertain, now that he thought about it, Kyle hadn't told him where he was going instead of eating with them. "I don't know, he just said he wouldn't be eating today. I'm guessing he probably went to that tutor class again."

"Like he tutored this morning," Cartman muttered and Stan glanced over at him, puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, he's just tutoring a lot or being tutored or whatever," Cartman growled out, stabbing at his food, a rice bowl heaped with veggies and chicken.

Butters frowned. "Well, Kyle is really smart. Maybe some of his classes are really hard so he needs help and he's helping those of us in the less hard classes," he said slowly thinking through everything.

"Make sense to me," Clyde piped up, not bothering to glance up from his phone, not finding much interest in the conversation his friends were having at the table. Cartman muttered something else but no one paid attention to him and lunch was over too soon for Stan who followed Cartman and Kenny to their class, much to Cartman's annoyance, before he left to his own class.

Craig was already in his desk and raised his brows at Stan who made it in just before the bell rang. "Did you walk Kenny to class or something? He gets two escorts now?" he asked.

Stan answered with a nod and shrug and opened his mouth to say more but the teacher started the class before he could. He glanced over at Craig throughout the period trying to figure out the best way to go about asking him what he wanted to ask. Finally, the teacher left the last five minutes of the period to the class and Stan leaned over. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

"You just did."

Stan frowned. "You know what I mean." Craig waved his hand out and away from his chest, indicating for his friend to continue. Stan went on, "So, there's something, someone that someone else wants to ask someone else but they don't know how to go about asking them. The someone else-"

"Whoa," Craig cut Stan off. "Let's make this easier. So there's something you want to ask Kenny."

"I never said it was me! Or Kenny!" Stan exclaimed but knew his face was giving him away as he could already feel the heat rising into his cheeks.

"Am I wrong?"

"Well!" Stan's eyes darted around for a moment, realizing he was trapped and Craig wasn't exactly one to go around gossiping so he might as well continue. "No, you're not wrong."

Craig nodded, unsurprised. "Okay, so what do you want to ask Kenny?"

"I want to ask him about- about if he had a relationship with someone else before now."

Craig was silent for a few moments. "Cartman?" he asked. Stan started and looked away guiltily. "It's not like there's too many other guesses, all things considered," he pointed out to Stan.

"Yeah," Stan said quietly. "I don't know how to ask him about it."

"Why do you think those two would have been in a relationship?" Craig asked carefully, eyeing Stan with some concern.

Stan rolled his eyes. "You're going to laugh at me like Kyle. He thought it was stupid."

"I don't think it's stupid," Craig said, voice remaining even. "I just think it's unlikely."

"Is it?" Stan asked, remembering how Cartman and Kenny had exchanged glances, almost like they were communicating but he wasn't part of it. "They are pretty close."

"When would they have had this relationship?" Craig asked, pointing out the first flaw in Stan's logic. After all, Cartman had only found Kenny a couple weeks before school started or so they'd been told.

"Maybe he lied about when he found Kenny," Stan said, recalling how Kyle had never once believed Cartman. "Maybe they were seeing each other before Kenny came back to school."

"Just talk to Kenny about it, Stan," Craig advised him, easily hearing the jealousy in Stan's voice.

"I don't know how to bring it up."

"Just ask him if he was dating Cartman."

"Seems easier said than done."

Craig shook his head slowly. "Aren't all things?"

Chapter Text

Kenny shot Stan more than one concerned glance during art class, noting how absorbed the other boy was in this thoughts. Stan didn't pay attention all period and even the gentle kicks from Kenny only brought Stan out of his reverie for a brief few moments at a time, teeth flashing at him each time, failed attempts at a reassuring smile. Stan pondered on Craig and Kyle's words, knowing that if he wanted an answer, he should just ask. The period ended and Stan waved the other two off, heading towards his and Kyle's locker, still lost in thought.

Stan didn't see Kenny's pensive face as he stared after him, Cartman glancing between the two, uncertain. Kyle was nowhere to be found and Stan headed home, shooting his best friend a quick text, making sure he was okay; Kyle insisted he was, just staying after hours to do a group project with classmates from one of his AP classes.

It was about two hours after school and Stan was helping his mom out in the kitchen, preparing food for dinner. He usually always helped because he wanted to and he had certain restrictives on his diet that the rest of his family didn't have. The doorbell resounded throughout the house and Shelly was hollering from the door that Stan's friends were there. He spared a confused glance towards his mother before shrugging and going to see who it was.

Kenny stood in the doorway, Cartman hanging a little further back, the definition of annoyed and put out. Stan managed a smile at Kenny, though he cast a more suspicious glance Cartman's way.

"Hey, I didn't know you guys were stopping by."

Kenny smiled though it was strained. "I was worried, Stan, you seemed distracted during art and…" he trailed off, uncertain how to explain why he was concerned.

Stan's face softened and the corners of his mouth perked up at Kenny's confession. "Why don't you come in? I'm sure my mom won't mind if we have guests over for dinner."

"Are you sure?" Kenny asked doubtfully, Cartman having already crossed into the house at hearing the dinner invitation.

"If he's staying, you have to stay." Stan shot Cartman's back a dirty look before grinning at Kenny again.

"I'm definitely staying!" Cartman exclaimed, waving one hand around, indicating he could care less what the other two did. "I got an invite and I'm here for dinner, Marsh family!" The aroma of garlic, basil, and spaghetti wafted throughout the house. It would be a nice change from the reheated fried chicken he and Kenny usually had for dinner.

"God, you turd!" Shelly shrilled at hearing Cartman, turning to glare hatefully at her brother. "Why are you just inviting random people over? Mom! I didn't get to invite any of my friends!"

Randy was there suddenly, beer in his hand, surveying Kenny with interest. "Hey, aren't you that McCormick kid that vanished some years ago?"

"Dad!" Stan cried, face turning bright red, horror, shame, and embarrassment shooting every which way through him.

Kenny's strained smile remained and he nodded. "Yes, that's me. Good memory, Mr. Marsh."

"You've gotten pretty tall. You're almost the same height as my son." Randy reached up and waved his hand above Kenny's head. His own son was already taller than him. "Your dad was pretty tall, too, now that I think about." Stan's heart about stopped, inviting Kenny in for dinner so his dad could talk about the McCormicks was not part of the plan. Silently, he berated himself, he should have seen this coming. He prayed Kenny didn't get cold feet and run out, though, he certainly wouldn't blame him if he did because Stan's own feet were screaming for him to run fast and far.

Kenny took it all in surprisingly good stride. "Yeah, he was tall," he easily agreed. Randy nodded excitedly, grinning as he took another swig of his beer, happy to have someone else to reminisce with.

"He definitely had fun in high school with his height," he said around his beer can, eyes sparkling with memories. "He really should have pursued baseball, he was good at it, but you know, love and kids always become the new, better dream."

"Was he really that good at baseball?" Kenny asked as he followed Randy to the dining area, Randy announcing to Sharon that he was adding two settings to the table. They could hear Cartman and Shelly arguing in the kitchen, Sharon's weary voice quickly losing patience with the teenagers. Stan followed behind slowly, carefully observing Kenny, shocked he was engaging in conversation so easily with his dad about his family. It was definitely a far cry from what Stan remembered happening in Cartman's basement not too long ago.

Randy beamed at him. "Son, he was amazing! You should try it out sometime, see if you picked up any of that talent. We have a baseball and bat around here you could try out. Stan is too wrapped up in track and vegetables to care about baseball."

"Dad!Stan protested with a roll of his eyes, separating from the two to see if his mom needed help putting out the food. Sharon quickly shooed him out of the kitchen stating the last thing she needed was another teenager in the kitchen, hindering her progress.

Stan sat next to Kenny, Randy sitting at the head of the table. He watched as Kenny listened, rapt, to his father drone on about Stuart McCormick and baseball in high school. It was fascinating to Stan, seeing this side of Kenny, so enthralled with Randy's musings.

Shelly and Cartman both exited the kitchen, hands full of dishes with sides, such as garlic bread and salad. Shelly darted back to the kitchen after setting out the sides to grab extra napkins and anything else she'd noticed missing from the table. Cartman followed suit, coming back out with glasses for beverages. Sharon was soon there, too, with the main course. The spaghetti doused in garlic, basil, and heaped over meatballs landed in the center of the table. Sharon sat down at the other end of the table, Shelly and Cartman plopping into the chairs across from Stan and Kenny.

"Looks amazing," Randy complimented his wife, shooting a wink in Kenny's direction. He began reaching over to heap spaghetti on his plate but Sharon tsked and he stopped.

"Grace first," she reminded her husband huffily with a roll of her eyes. Shelly groaned, somehow managing to glare at both Stan and Cartman as she begrudgingly took hold of one of Cartman's hands. Stan happily took one of Kenny's hands in his own, squeezing it reassuringly. He had always thought grace was kind of an annoying ritual until this moment, not to mention he was grateful Kenny had been eating. Maybe it was a higher power, maybe it was the universe itself, Stan didn't know or care, he just felt grateful and, at this moment, this seemed the optimum way to express it.

Randy quickly muttered off a thanks for the food and the hands that made it before everyone dropped hands and started loading up their plates with food. Kenny took note that Stan had his own separate bowl and Stan just grinned at him, reminding him that he was vegan. His bowl had spaghetti, too, but minus the meat.

Cartman was tossing the spoon to the spaghetti at Kenny and Kenny clutched onto it tightly, hovering it over the spaghetti, suddenly unsure how to proceed. He wasn't sure how much he could actually eat, but he also didn't want to insult Stan's mother by not putting enough on his plate or not finishing what he did put on his plate.

Randy frowned, amused. "Don't be shy, we've got plenty to go around, here," he took the spoon from Kenny and scooped a generous heaping onto the plate, he dipped the spoon back into the large glass dish, ready to add more when Kenny suddenly jerked his plate away, softly apologizing, stating he was still kind of full from lunch. Randy just smiled and dumped the extra heaping onto his own plate. "Suit yourself, but don't get upset if I eat it all before you get seconds."

"Thanks," Kenny mumbled, looking down at the intimidating pile of spaghetti that had landed on his plate. There was a brief, light touch to his elbow and Kenny found Stan giving him a reassuring smile and nod. Kenny nodded back, swirling his fork into his spaghetti, the unease in him melting away at Stan's touch.

Cartman was having no issues with eating his spaghetti, having already inhaled his first serving and helping himself to seconds, only muttering darkly to Shelly when she jabbed a few insults his way. Kenny chewed thoughtfully on his first bite, listening as Randy spoke more about his father and their days in high school together; he didn't remember that his dad had ever been friends with Stan's dad. Maybe they had or hadn't, who knew, people always seemed to think more fondly of people once they were gone.

It was nice to hear someone say such positive things about his father, when he'd been alive most people were generally negative when referencing him or Carol McCormick. It wasn't unwarranted as they'd both been drug addicts and not exactly fit to be parents as Kenny had first hand experienced, but it was still refreshing to hear about this other side of one of his parents. He was aware of Stan keeping a close eye on him in his peripheral, clearly concerned about all this family talk.

Shelly was sticking her tongue out at Cartman and preventing him from getting a third helping, Sharon trying to calm the two down when Randy's tone suddenly changed, turning grievous. "I'm so sorry about what happened to your family, though. Your brother and sister especially didn't deserve that, being so young and all." The reaction was instant. Stan noted Kenny tense up, his grip on his fork loosening, spaghetti falling back onto his plate, his mouth open but no words coming out. Cartman abandoned his quest for thirds and looked sharply over to Kenny. Everyone else at the table sensed the shift in the air, tension practically visible to their sight. Randy frowned, confused and Sharon pursed her lips with concern. Shelly glanced over at Kenny, eyes curious, not asking verbally what she and so many others often wondered.

"The food is really good, Mrs. Marsh," Kenny stated haltingly, willing the topic to disappear. Stan took another bite of his food, carefully observing. So, his parents were okay to talk about. It was just Karen and Kevin that were off limits. He wondered why, after all, hadn't everyone died on the same night, the same way?

"Thanks, Kenny," Sharon quickly accepted the compliment, sensing the need to ease some of the tension from the table. Stan grinned gratefully at his mother. Sharon and Randy exchanged a quick look.

"Yeah, Mom, it's fantastic!" Stan chimed in and Sharon shook her head.

"You helped with most of it, Stan," he said through amusement before turning her attention to her daughter. "You know, it wouldn't hurt you to help out in the kitchen, Shelly."

"Ew," was the response. Soon the tension evaporated and no one else brought up Kenny's family again. Stan was thrilled that Kenny finished almost everything off his plate. Stan realized that Kyle and Craig were both right; he should just ask Kenny about Cartman. Just not right now at dinner, he would need to find a better time to do it, a time when they were alone, maybe at breakfast.

Judging by the way Kenny glanced at him throughout the dinner, he wondered if maybe he wasn't overthinking things as it were. Still, he cast another dubious look in Cartman's direction, Cartman was Cartman, so anything was possible with that guy. Dinner was over a little too fast and Stan wished he could invite Kenny to stay over but knew his mom would not go for that especially on a school night, and he worried that if Kenny stayed, his dad might bring up the McCormicks again and he didn't want a repeat performance of earlier. He walked his friends to the door, Kenny glancing towards the kitchen worriedly.

"Stan, are you sure we shouldn't stay and help with dishes?" They could all hear the sink running and the clanking of dishes coming from the kitchen along with some curses from Shelly.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Stan told him, with a slight shake of his head. "Shelly never helps out with the food so she's always on dish duty. Besides, I'll help her if she really needs any, don't worry about it."

"Well," Kenny started slowly, struggling to find words. "Thanks for the food, but…" They had never gotten to speak about what might have been bothering Stan earlier in the day.

Stan smiled brightly at him, no false pretense and Kenny was grateful for that. "Don't worry," Stan assured him, "I'm sorry if I worried you, I was just preoccupied, but I figured it out."

"Goddamn, are we leaving or what? Honestly, we can't just hang around here all night," Cartman complained, glaring at the two in the doorway from his spot on the pathway outside.

Kenny flashed Stan a smile. "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow."

"You better," Stan responded, his own smile growing. He watched as the two disappeared. He sensed his mother's presence before he felt it by him.

"Seems like he's getting along pretty well," she remarked, watching as Kenny and Cartman disappeared from view.

"Yeah," Stan murmured in agreement.

Cartman glanced behind them, noting that Stan's door had finally shut. He glanced over at Kenny who was becoming more distressed by the moment. "Do you think it's wrong?" Kenny asked suddenly, voice low while running a hand through his hair, pulling hard at some strands as he waited for Cartman's response.

Cartman rolled his shoulders and shot his friend a sideways glance. "You mean about Stan?"

Kenny stopped walking and waited for Cartman to follow suit. He nodded. "Yeah, it feels almost cruel to be involved with him." His eyes cast about the area as if wary that someone might be eavesdropping on them. Cartman attempted to keep his anger in check though he knew Kenny was already aware of the anger and frustration seeping through his demeanor.

"It's not like Stan doesn't have a choice in this," he pointed out, hoping to get the reality through to his friend. "If anything, he's the one that has gone out of his way."

"It still feels wrong, like it can't possibly be true. Because it's too good to be true."

Cartman's lips thinned into a flat line and he eyed Kenny carefully. "Stop thinking so lowly of yourself. It's not like I asked Stan to help, he wasn't part of my plan, it just happened. And there is nothing too good about that alcoholic hippie! Don't put him on a pedestal."

Kenny allowed a small smile at Cartman's outburst. "You like him, though."

"I never said he wasn't good for anything! He's at least got you staying alive."

"But still, I can't imagine any of it ending well. I'm a cruel person. I'm sure there's a much better person out there for him."

Cartman was silent for several long moments, considering Kenny's words. "Why would it not end well? You both seem to make each other happy."

Kenny picked some stray grass off his coat and tugged at his hair again. "You know why," he muttered through a defeated sigh. "Everything that's happened. I can never..." I'm not allowed to be happy. I couldn't possibly make another person truly happy.

"Stop with that. I told you already, Stan won't see it the way you're seeing it. I don't even see it that way."

Now Kenny fell quiet for a few moments before speaking up again, voice soft, mind clearly elsewhere. "Right. You were there at the end, after all."

Cartman clenched his teeth together and pushed back at the emotions he could feel starting to spill over. "I said stop. Let's not talk or think about it. Stan cares about you. Don't go be stupid and mess it up."

"He really deserves better."

Cartman shook his head and started walking again. "Maybe that's something you should bring up to Stan if you feel that way. We can turn back and go ask him what he thinks."

Kenny was quick to shake his head at the idea. "No, I just- I want him to be happy."

"Well, you seem to be making him happy," Cartman reminded him of his earlier observation.

"I've never felt this strongly, it feels almost surreal," he confided in Cartman. His friend quirked an eyebrow, waiting for Kenny to continue, though he suspected he already knew what would be said. "The last time I wanted someone to be happy like this was when…" he stopped suddenly, not sure he trusted himself to say the rest without tearing up.

"When your sister was still alive," Cartman finished for him, voice low. He stared at Kenny for a minute. "You love him." Kenny's eyes widened at this and he looked over at Cartman, shocked.

"What?" he asked, almost panicky about it. "No, I can't- that-"

Cartman watched as Kenny struggled to figure out what everyone else already knew. "It's allowed, Kenny." He ran a frustrated hand across his face. "Part of living is feeling things other than despair." He huffed, stopping himself from snapping anything cruel out and trying to make sure his thoughts wouldn't reveal too much. Dealing with Kenny could be such a draining experience and he knew he wouldn't go this far out of his way for anyone else. Sometimes it felt as though all his energy was being zapped right out of him.

"This is bad." Kenny dropped to the ground, sitting in a neighbor's yard, uncaring that he flattened the grass beneath him. Cartman sighed, looking down at him.

"You know someone could shoot you and say you were trespassing."

"You know it doesn't really matter when it comes to me."

"And you know that's not what I think."

Kenny looked up at him, eyes troubled. "How did I let this happen? He- I can't- I have to... What if he falls in love with me?"

Cartman laughed. "That already happened and the world hasn't ended."

"No." Kenny stated defiantly. Suddenly he was scared, so scared. What if Karen and Kevin were upset with him? How had he thought this would be okay? Is that why Randy had unwittingly brought them up during dinner? Were they trying to remind him that they were there, watching, always watching? Judging. Were they just allowing him to enjoy this glimpse of happiness before snatching it away later? He glanced about, squinting his eyes at the setting sun, and searching for any sign of his brother or sister's spirits, positive at least one had to be following him. Cartman dropped to the ground next to him, heaving a frustrated sigh.

"They're not here," he stated flatly, already knowing what Kenny was looking for. "They aren't out on some mission to make your life miserable. You're doing that." But Kenny's eyes were wide and unseeing, his mind having left the present, and his breathing quickening. Cartman sighed again, more defeated than anything else, and stood up, reaching down to tug Kenny up with him. "Come on, we need to go home."

Chapter Text

Kyle wasn't surprised to find Stan already at their locker the next morning. "Good morning," he greeted him. Stan grinned at him and Kyle was a little taken aback at how happy his best friend was. "Everything going well?" he asked jokingly.

"Perfect!" Stan beamed at him.

"Oh?" Kyle asked, raising an eyebrow. "So, what you asked Kenny about Cartman? Or you and Kenny kissed again?" He folded his arms across his chest, looking smug and impressed with himself as if he was positive he already knew the answer.

Stan shook his head, but his smile remained. "No, actually. But Kenny and Cartman came by last night and ate dinner. It went really well!" Kyle uncrossed his arms and couldn't help but return Stan's infectious smile.

"That's great, it's really good to hear," Kyle said sincerely, more than happy to hear that Stan was making progress with Kenny despite his own doubts regarding the two's budding relationship. He wanted to tell Stan that he was doing much more than he realized, including sparing Kyle from the horrors of multiple funerals but that would just wind up upsetting Stan and it was uplifting to see his best friend in such a good mood.

"Will you be around for lunch later?"

Kyle shrugged. "Guess it depends on how well me and Cartman get along this morning."

"I'm not going to get my hopes up if that's the case," Stan teased, still smiling. "Are you eating breakfast?"

"No, I already ate. Are you?"

"Yeah, I packed." He held up his lunchbox proudly. "I made muffins."

Kyle eyed him dubiously. "Muffins? What kind?" Stan always had interesting versions of food.

"Double chocolate beet."

Kyle tried not to look too grossed out. "Beets? In muffins? That just sounds wrong."

"They're really good," Stan insisted, snapping open his lunchbox and displaying a muffin for Kyle. "Try it. I packed extra." Kyle hesitated, eyeing the muffin disdainfully. Stan sighed. "Kenny would try it."

"Good for Kenny. But I'm Kyle." Regardless, he grabbed the muffin and took a bite into it. He chewed slowly, savoring the taste, not wanting to flatter his friend too much, fearing Stan might get a big head if he knew how good the food was. "It's pretty good," he finally stated after swallowing. "I'm sure Kenny will be impressed."

"I hope so," Stan leaned against the locker again, waiting for Kenny. Kyle stayed with him while he waited. And waited. They filled in the time with talk about classes while Kyle watched Stan become more agitated with each passing minute.

"Maybe they're absent today?" he finally offered up when it was clear that Cartman and Kenny would not be swinging by their locker as they usually did.

"Yeah, maybe," Stan agreed with worry, having long lost his appetite. "I hope he's not sick again."

"Same. The bell's about to ring so we should head to class." With that said, both headed in the direction of their classes.

Stan slid into his desk at homeroom, concern darkening his features. Both Cartman and Kenny had appeared in good health last night, he hoped none of the food had upset their stomachs. He was fine and, as far as he knew, Shelly and his parents were okay, too.

"Morning, Stan," Craig greeted him, actually showing up after him for once. "I'm surprised you're already here, you're almost always late to all the classes we have together." He waited a beat for an answer, but when he didn't get one, he went on, "So what happened yesterday? Did you ask Kenny about that stuff with Cartman?" His voice was nasally as always and though it sounded like he was disinterested, Stan knew he truly cared.

"No, I was going to ask this morning, but I guess he's absent today."

Craig frowned. "Me and Tweek saw him this morning."

Stan spun to face him fully. "What? Where?" Craig went to answer but the teacher called the class to attention and began the lesson, much to Stan's disappointment. Where? He mouthed to Craig again, unsure if he could actually wait until the end of class to find out.

Outside, Craig mouthed in answer to the question. Some of the kids would hang out outside until the first warning bell rang and they were forced to enter the building for classes.

Stan looked down at his desk, concerned. That was unusual, maybe Cartman and Kenny were just running late? Craig and Tweek usually hung around outside, quite a few couples did so he doubted they were actually late. He hoped to see Kyle at their locker after class, Kyle had both of them in his homeroom. Maybe they'd been tardy. Unease was creeping through Stan; things were going so well, was there something he'd overlooked?

Craig shot him a few concerned looks throughout class, knowing that Stan was just waiting for the period to end at this point. He kept an eye out in case the teacher called on him, but, thankfully, she never did. Class ended and Stan dashed off, not bothering to even bid him good-bye.

"Kyle!" Stan exclaimed through gasped breaths, having hurried to their locker. Kyle had just approached, apprehensively. "Was Kenny in class? Craig said he saw him this morning."

Kyle shifted from one foot to the other. "Yeah, he and Cartman were already in class when I got there." So they had not been late to school. Kyle remembered being surprised when entering the classroom to see the two already there, Token also puzzled by Cartman and Kenny's early appearance, shooting a questioning glance Kyle's way. All their friends knew the two usually went to Stan and Kyle's locker in the morning to see Stan. Kyle could only shrug at Token's unspoken question. Now he stood in front of Stan, still just as clueless. He didn't like the way his best friend's face fell at the information or the hurt that sparked in his eyes.

"Did they say why?" Stan asked, knowing Kyle would understand what he meant.

Kyle sighed. "No, I didn't get to ask, I was running late myself and then when the dismissal bell ran, Kenny kind of took off. Cartman followed him." Kyle had known instantly that this had to be Kenny's idea because Cartman himself had shot him an apologetic look, an incredibly rare occurrence.

"I wonder what happened? Maybe I upset him?"

"I doubt that." Kyle shook his head. "Maybe he's just overwhelmed. A lot has been happening. He still showed up, so that's good, right?"

"I guess," Stan muttered uncertainly.

"Either way, you'll get to see him at lunch or in the class you have with him."

"Yeah." The unease was still there and Stan wanted to go and find Kenny and Cartman and demand to know what was happening, but the warning bell was signalling for the students to go to the next period. Stan sighed defeatedly and trudged to class, resigning himself to waiting until lunch to see what was going on.

The wait was agonizing and the mystery continued through lunch. Craig, Tweek, Butters, and even Kyle all sat awkwardly at their lunch table, trying to tactfully avoid the subject of their two missing friends who were obviously in school but choosing not to eat with them. Kyle wasn't sure what to say, he'd waited at their locker with Stan and then followed Stan to Cartman and Kenny's locker, only to find no one there. Both had taken notice that there were more hateful words on it, but neither spoke of it. They weren't sure how long it'd been there as the cruel scribbling looked faded.

Kyle definitely wasn't going to let Stan eat lunch alone in the state he was falling into. Kyle sighed, having no appetite, his taco tasting like dirt in his mouth, as his fears were starting to come true. Kenny wasn't stable or reliable, one couldn't even depend on him to actually stay alive. He hated seeing Stan so agitated and hurt, even if he was all too familiar with it at this point, having experienced it too often with the funerals. This was different in a way, though, the hurt was coming from that hated feeling of rejection that nearly everyone experienced in their lifetime. Still, it didn't make the situation any easier.

Craig and Tweek exchanged a couple glances, each uncertain what to say. It's not as if they could pretend that Cartman and Kenny weren't at school. Clyde was there, but too busy on his phone to even really take note of the tension and unease in the air. Butters cleared his throat.

"I hope I didn't do anything to upset Eric and Kenny," he mumbled softly, also having no appetite, stabbing mindlessly at his teriyaki chicken. "They always eat with us." His feelings were hurt and it was obvious to everyone else at the table.

"Gah! IhopeIdidn'tdoanythingeither!" Tweek cried out in distress, right eye twitching at the thought. Craig groaned inwardly.

Kyle looked at Butters. "I don't think it's anything any of us did," he stated slowly, thoughtful. "I just think maybe he needed a break."

"From us?" Butters asked, horrified. "Eric does get mad awfully easy, but Kenny doesn't really get mad Just sad," he finished quietly before brightening a bit. "Oh! But he hasn't seemed as sad since he started hanging around with you, Stan." Stan looked over at their friend wearily. The next words surprised him. "He's even been eating the food you make him." Butters smiled at their friend. "It must be really yummy!"

Stan looked away, saying nothing and Kyle smiled sympathetically at Butters who looked even more hurt at Stan's lack of response. "It's okay, Butters, thanks," Kyle thanked him in place of Stan.

"You guys all worry too much," Clyde piped up from his seat, still staring down attentively at his phone. "If you want, Stan, I can tweet about it or make some comments on Facebook or something."

"How would that help?" Kyle demanded, irritated.

Clyde shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe people would ask around and put the pressure on and then they'd have to tell us why."

"Really? Just looks like it'd drive them further away to me, especially Kenny," Kyle pointed out. "Besides, Cartman's always on that stuff, too, anyway, he'd just head off anything you tried."

"Oh yeah." Clyde pouted for a moment before tuning his friends back out and typing something into his phone. Kyle stared at him for a moment, wondering what he was up to but decided not to press the matter.

Stan sighed and stood up suddenly. He handed an extra sandwich over to Butters. "It's avocado chickpea with tomatoes, cilantro, and green onions," he explained as Butters hesitantly accepted it, shooting everyone else at the table a worried look.

"Where are you going?" Craig asked before Kyle could.

Stan shrugged. "I don't know." With that, he turned and headed towards the exit, disappearing from the cafeteria leaving behind a very concerned group of friends. Stan wandered to his and Kyle's locker, not really sure what he would do with the rest of the lunch period. He stared at his phone, debating if he should shoot off a text to Cartman; he was so confused. Clearly, it had to be him they were avoiding. Avoidance wasn't one of Cartman's strong suits so he figured Kenny must really be pressing the matter. He sighed again, wondering where they possibly could have gone to lunch. Maybe the library? Or the other cafeteria that usually only the upper classmen used during lunch.

"Stan." Kyle was there, concerned. "You know I wasn't just going to let you hang out by yourself the rest of the lunch period, right?"

"Sorry, just trying to work out what could have happened." Stan ran a hand through his hair, distressed. "I need to find him and ask what's going on."

Kyle pursed his lips, trying to think of the best way to approach the matter. "You know there's this Yiddish proverb that I think we can apply here: 'No good comes from hurrying.'"

"What does that mean? I shouldn't go and find him?"

"No, maybe just not right now at school. You can always see him afterwards, right? If you were to find him now, he could just rush off when the bell rang."

"I hate it that you always make so much sense."

"Perks of being brilliant." Kyle grinned, happy to see a small smile lighting up Stan's face. "Besides, he might come to you before school is over. You never know." He paused. "Did you text Cartman about it?"

"I wanted to, but wasn't sure how to ask." He looked at his phone again before pocketing it. "But maybe I'll just do that. I mean, they did show up at my house last night unannounced so maybe I should return the favor."

"Don't you have a class with them?"

"Yeah, but I don't think they'll be there." He wasn't wrong as he sat alone at their table in art class, feeling more upset and disappointed than he had in a very long time. He replayed the evening before in his mind's eye, trying to determine if there was something he'd missed. Was this because his dad had brought up Kevin and Karen? Surely, that couldn't be it, but, somehow, he suspected it to be the case. They had made so much progress though, he thought dishearteningly. He recalled Kyle telling him it would take time, a lot of time.

Maybe he had been rushing, after all, even if he didn't realize it. Maybe Kyle was right and Kenny just needed a break. Either way, he would be going to Cartman's after school because he needed to know. If Kenny needed him to ease up, he would. Maybe he just needed some reassurance.

School was finally over and Stan had gone straight home with plans to go to Cartman's after. Initially, he'd planned to go right to his friend's house, but his courage ebbed away as the dismissal bell neared and once it rang, he realized he might need a minute to recoup and then head over. He wished Kyle could come, but he was busy with Ike that afternoon.

Stan stood in front of the fridge in the kitchen, the door swung wide open, his hand on the handle. Both his parents were out, he wasn't sure where to and his sister had yet to return from school so he assumed she was likely out with friends. He stared at the contents in the fridge, conflicted with himself.

He knew he should just leave and go straight to Cartman's but another part of him just wanted to grab his father's six pack and throw it back. He debated whether or not it would help if he did have one before he left, but Cartman had been acting real funny about alcohol around him, what if he smelled it? Sighing, he closed the door shut and pressed his back up against it, slumping down to the kitchen tiles. Reaching behind, he pulled out his phone that was already sticking out of his back pocket, scrolling down until he found the name he was looking for.

Wendy answered the phone almost right away; it was unusual for any of her friends to call without texting first so she usually assumed it was important if they went straight to calling. "Stan?" she asked, unable to hide her surprise. They were still good friends, but they weren't exactly phone buddies and no longer called each other often, it felt kind of like she was in middle school again.

"Hey, Wendy, can I ask you something?" Stan hoped his voice didn't sound as heavy as he felt.

Wendy waited a beat before replying. "Of course you can. What's going on?"

It was a struggle to find the words to explain his thoughts. "I know I- uh- drink often, and I have been working on it." Wendy chimed in with a quick yeah at him clarifying that he'd been working on it because it was true. He had been drinking less and less and Wendy was happy for him; the drinking had always been an issue for them. They'd recently had a brief conversation in school about it and Wendy suspected Stan was so wrapped up in the stuff with Kenny, he'd had a little less time to drink.

She encouraged him to keep talking and he went on, "Uhm, you know I've been hanging out with Kenny a lot?" Another yeah for confirmation and Stan continued, "Kenny was at school today, but he avoided me and I kind of just want to drink before I go over there and ask about it. Or just drink." He sighed defeatedly.

He knew Wendy would be honest; she knew him well enough. Unlike Kyle, she was more than aware of his past with alcohol, something Stan tried to keep hidden from his friends after his childhood experience of being excluded from the group for a bitter attitude. Wendy knew, though, and he was sure Cartman did. Cartman didn't usually care and it's not like Stan ever wanted to impress Cartman. Except for now. Because it felt like he had to be on Cartman's good side in order to see Kenny.

"Don't beat yourself up, Stan. Of course it's upsetting if someone avoids you at school, especially someone you've been getting on really well with. Most people probably would want a drink," she was quick to assure Stan. She never liked it when people were too hard on themselves; they were setting themselves up for disappointment and failure. "But, in your case, you don't like to stop."

Wendy knew that brutal honesty could hurt but it could also help and she hoped this was helpful. It did hurt Stan, but he couldn't protest as he knew she was speaking the truth. He listened as she went on. "Just go over there and ask them what's up, skip the drink." When she didn't get a response right away, she offered, "Do you want me to go with you?"

Stan considered for a minute before shaking his head and then remembering that she couldn't see him. "No, but thanks. You're right. I'll go over there now."

"Good." Wendy's voice was a reassuring. "Go over there. Let me know how it turns out, okay?" Stan assured her he would before ending the phone call and leaving out the door.

He found himself in front of Cartman's house, staring down the door, trying to work up the courage to ring the bell or just knock. Even though Wendy offered to go with him, he believed he needed to do this himself. He finally pressed down on the bell. There was some rustling around on the other side of the door and he could have sworn he heard Cartman's snippy voice muttering something on the other side of the door. Finally, it yanked open to reveal Cartman.

"Stan, hey. I figured you'd be over."

"Yeah." Stan tried to see beyond Cartman, wondering if Kenny was near the door. "You guys didn't eat lunch with us or come to art or stop by this morning."

Cartman looked grim. "About that. You'll have to talk to Kenny." So it was as both Stan and Kyle suspected, Cartman was just going along with what Kenny wanted, whatever that was. Cartman opened the door wider, inviting Stan inside. "He's downstairs," he explained when he noticed Stan looking around.

"Did I do something?" Stan stood inside the doorway, suddenly unsure if he wanted to go downstairs, finding Cartman's presence and straightforwardness to be comforting.

Cartman shrugged. "You gotta ask him. I don't get it, either, believe me. More annoying than anything else."

"Is he mad at me?" Stan didn't like how vulnerable his voice sounded even to his own ears.

Cartman shot him an amused look. "I don't think that's possible." He waved his hand towards the kitchen that led to the basement. "You know how to get there."

Stan cast a quick doubtful glance at Cartman but followed directions and descended into the basement. Kenny was there on the sectional sofa staring blankly at the television that was powered off. "Kenny?"

The other boy was clearly startled by his presence and jumped slightly, head turning to him quickly. His eyes were big and there was dismay and sorrow shining in them. Stan approached the sectional hesitantly and lowered himself to where he was sitting next to his friend. "Kenny," Stan started slowly, grasping at the other's hand and hoping that was still okay. Kenny didn't wretch out of his grip so he assumed it was. "Did I do something?" Stan remembered the last time they had been down here alone. He tightened his grip on Kenny's hand, squeezing as gently as he could.

"Stan." And for a second Kenny couldn't bear to look at Stan, looking everywhere but at him until finally dragging himself to look the other in the eyes, fearful of the words that he knew were about to tumble out of his mouth. "I, uh," he averted his eyes, finding he couldn't hold the gaze despite how much he wanted to. He curled his free hand up on his knees, wishing he could disappear into himself. He sighed, disappointed with himself and lifted the one free hand up to pull at his hair in distress.

Stan watched as Kenny started pulling at his hair, always a clear signal that he was overwhelmed and unable to think straight. He leaned closer hoping to distract Kenny from pulling on his hair. "Is this because of what my dad said last night? When he mentioned your brother and sister?" Kenny automatically stiffened and Stan bit down a sigh. Bingo.

"I'm sure they're around." Kenny's eyes cast about the room they were in, searching out his siblings' spirits with a kind of desperation Stan hadn't quite seen yet. Agitated, Kenny met Stan's eyes again. "I have to talk to them. I have to make sure it's okay- they'll be mad! They're angry about it." Stan ignored the sinking of his heart again, learning how to become numb to that sensation as he listened to Kenny babble.

"What are they angry about?"

"Cartman- he said it out loud yesterday after dinner. On our way home." His expression turned apologetic. "I'm sorry. They're probably upset with you, too, now."

"What did Cartman say?" Stan's voice remained steady and his hand comfortingly squeezed Kenny's again.

Kenny looked away and at the floor. "I'm scared to say it again," he confessed truthfully. After a couple seconds passed, he looked at Stan again. "They might hear." A whisper and Stan himself was fighting back tears because none of this seemed very fair to him. He wanted to pull Kenny in close and reassure him that he was safe, but he was scared, too. It was like he'd found a trapped animal and it was common knowledge that trapped animals ran away from rescuers, driven by their basic instinct to survive and escape any situation they might perceive as dangerous. Stan was starting to worry that Kenny might view him like that if he pushed too much right now.

"It's okay. If you can't say it again, it's fine. I just want you to feel comfortable around me."

Kenny finally squeezed his hand back and looked about the room again before locking eyes with Stan. "But I do want to say it. Cartman said it and he was right. I'm just sure they're upset about it and I'm scared for you."

"Why are you scared for me?" Stan wasn't prepared for the answer he got and it felt like he'd had the wind knocked right out of him.

"Because I love you."

Chapter Text

(A/N: Went on for a little while, but yay! We're progressing towards the next chapters! Which is the point, hahaha

Triggers: mention of suicide, drugs, alcoholism. God, it's like a trifecta nobody wants. But, first, fluff!)

Stan stared wide eyed at Kenny, positive he must have misheard, but Kenny didn't break eye contact even while discomfort reflected in his features. Despite his best efforts, Stan couldn't seem to force any words through his lips, coming up empty every time, quite literally shocked into stunned silence.

After this went on for what Stan assumed to be a few minutes at least, Kenny finally let out a tiny sigh, his features softening and relaxing while the tension around them only mounted. He tore his eyes away from Stan, wildly searching about the room for a second before returning his attention back to his stunned friend. "Did come on too strong?" he asked, a smile in his voice.

Snapping back to reality, Stan quickly recovered and shook his head; the last thing he wanted was Kenny backpedaling and he feared that's exactly what would happen if he didn't get it together as of five minutes ago. "No, no," there had to be other words, he knew his vocabulary expanded past that one word. "I'm just surprised," he admitted, having finally found the part of his mind that had briefly locked away his ability to speak.

Kenny's eyebrows raised slightly at this and he was starting to feel doubt worm its way through his body; maybe Stan didn't quite return these feelings. As if sensing where Kenny's mind was going, Stan hurriedly went on, "I just thought, for sure, I'd be the one to say that first." Stan smiled easily and watched as Kenny practically sagged with relief from the assurance. Resisting the urge to lean over and kiss those lips, he settled on tightening his grip on Kenny's hand and squeezing, it seemed to be the only thing he knew for sure that wouldn't be an issue.

"I'm sorry," Kenny apologized again, knocking Stan out of the moment and reminding him of other things that needed his attention. Kenny went on, "I'm sure they'll be angry with both of us now." I shouldn't have let it go this far.

Stan was shaking his head again, slower this time. "Don't apologize. I really don't think they are angry, but," Stan was quick to amend when he saw the reproach in Kenny's eyes, "even if they are, I don't care. They can be angry with me, too." He realized he wanted to say it plainly, so there were no doubts in the other's mind, "I love you. And if it makes them angry, I'm okay with that. I'm sorry that they are angry, though."

"It's not your fault," Kenny pointed out as he inched closer to Stan, leaning heavily against the other's shoulder, finding he was suddenly sapped of energy, the emotional drain of the day finally wearing him down, his eyes sliding shut as he soaked in Stan's presence, feeling safe in spite of his fears regarding his siblings.

Stan felt as if he had found the world as Kenny pressed close and lightly snoozed against him. Briefly, he wondered if it were possible to glow because he absolutely thought he must be glowing with the happiness that was bursting forth within, only tampered by the fact that Kenny thought his brother and sister were somehow angry about this. Which made no sense in Stan's mind, but he was sure it had to do with trauma and he didn't possess trauma-informed care training or resources.

He wanted to speak with Kyle about it, but part of him also feared talking to Kyle too much about spirits and the afterlife with whatever the heck Kyle was going through. He couldn't really talk to Cartman about…anything. If he were being honest, he really felt as if he needed to go out of his way to impress Cartman and get his approval and this was weird because just this past summer, he and Cartman were sharing beers and laughing over video games.

He could speak to Wendy but he didn't want to pester her, he already used her for his own personal interventions. Kyle and Wendy were the only people he could think of that might even be familiar with trauma-informed care resources, not that he thought they had experience in applying the resources. His other options were Craig, Tweak, and Butters. He certainly wasn't going to bother with Clyde, who never separated from the screen that was his phone. Mentally, he scratched Tweak off the list, too, because Tweak would probably get second-hand trauma and he didn't want that. Butters likely needed trauma-informed care so he wasn't the best option.

Stan really didn't want to talk to Craig again about his personal life, but he needed help. Maybe he could try to get Kenny to see his own therapist, but he suspected that might be a battle. He definitely needed to speak to his own therapist about all these new developments and he was pretty sure he had an upcoming appointment in a few weeks, anyway, he'd have to double check with his mother.

His thoughts finally died down and he listened intently to Kenny's even breathing, sending a few of his own curious glances around the room, searching out for the spirits that Kenny was so terrified of. Of course, there was nothing there. Cartman came down at some point, took a look at Stan and Kenny, only meeting Stan's eyes for a few seconds before rolling his eyes and climbing back up the stairs, muttering to himself.

The relationship between Cartman and Kenny still mystified him but he was starting to realize that it really didn't matter. If there was history between them, of course, he was bound to be a little jealous but it didn't change anything. It wouldn't change how he felt the most at peace and the happiest having Kenny up against him like this.

He wanted to run a hand through the blonde hair, but couldn't as one hand was trapped between him and Kenny, still grasping the other's hand. He didn't want to reach over with his other hand, fearing that he might jostle his sleeping friend awake and knowing how precious sleep was to Kenny and how he likely got little of it, he didn't want to risk waking him up, so he sat still as could be, hoping Kenny's slumber remained peaceful. He focused on Kenny's breathing and soon he was fast asleep, too.

Kenny slowly woke up sometime later, extremely grateful for the rest he'd been granted after having a day that had been so grating on his nerves. He felt a weight atop his head and realized Stan must have slumped over slightly and was using his head as a pillow. He couldn't move now and he quietly delighted at how this felt and how at peace his mind was.

At that thought, though, he had to fight from jumping off the couch and making sure his brother and sister's spirits weren't hanging about the room. His breath stuttered in his throat and he used all his willpower to even it back out so he didn't wake Stan. He remained like that for a few more minutes, desperately wondering what Karen and Kevin might think of this, how unhappy it was making them. He was saved from having his thoughts go in too darkly a direction by Cartman noisily making his way down the stairs.

"Hey! Gay lovebirds, wake the fuck up! It's dinner time," he all but bellowed as he climbed down the stairs again, wondering what he ever did to wind up having to spend the great majority of his time with the poor boy and the hippie. He could barely get Token's attention for longer than five seconds and these two were practically living at his house! He was surprised Stan's sister hadn't been sent to fetch him as it had grown dark out.

Stan jerked awake, surprised that he'd fallen asleep, his intention had been to stay up and simply listen to Kenny breathe while he slept. Kenny took the opportunity to stand up and stretch, getting the kinks out. Stan also stood, but didn't stretch, instead watching Kenny and waiting for him to be ready to go upstairs; Cartman had already turned back and disappeared into the kitchen. Kenny offered a timid smile and led the way upstairs. Stan entered the kitchen and frowned as he quickly came to the conclusion that there was nothing ready for dinner. He glanced over at Cartman, who sat lazily in one of the chairs in the adjoining dining area.

"There's no dinner," Stan pointed out, confused.

Cartman's eyebrows shot up and he looked like a cat that had just gobbled down a canary. "Well, no. Of course not. You were downstairs sleeping and you're the one making dinner," Cartman spoke slowly, as though he were talking to one that was much slower than himself. "You certainly didn't expect me to make dinner, did you?"

"Who said I was making you dinner?" Stan snapped and wanted to say more but quickly clamped his mouth shut, remembering that Cartman wasn't just Cartman anymore. Kenny seemed to, for some inexplicable reason, come with Cartman.

As if reading his mind, Cartman went on, "Besides, Kenny wouldn't eat my food anyway, Stanley, so get to work!" Of course, that would work every time with Stan and Cartman knew it as did Stan. If this would get Kenny to keep eating then Stan would make dinner every night even if that meant also cooking for Cartman.

Kenny stood still near Stan and had been watching the exchange with something between interest and amusement and slight annoyance that Stan desperately hoped was aimed at Cartman and not him. He looked over at Stan, who had opened the pantry and was rummaging through it to see what was there. "You don't have to, Stan."

Stan threw him a quick glance over his shoulders. "What did you eat today?" He wished he could say he was surprised when Kenny stiffened and looked to the floor, cheeks heating up in shame, but he had expected this. He glanced over at Cartman and he was positive that this was likely the reason the guy had been so insistent on him making dinner in the first place. Cartman simply looked smug, likely getting everything that he wanted and more.

Stan squared his shoulders and continued to rummage in the pantry, unfazed by either of his companions. He didn't scold Kenny, either, he didn't have the heart to. "I want to cook, anyway," he assured Kenny, who was still looking at the floor in shame and embarrassment. He found what he wanted out of the pantry and placed some of the ingredients on the counter. He moved over to Kenny and placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. "It's okay." He waited until the other met his eyes, gaze sorrowful but Stan simply grinned at him despite it. "Want to help me?" Stan knew he would want to and his guess was affirmed by Kenny's rapid head bobbing in a nod.

Cartman decidedly ignored the flirting taking place in the kitchen and resisted the temptation to make snarky commentary regarding it, if only for Kenny's sake and, of course, the sake of the food. Cartman was certainly hungry. He buried his nose in his phone, answering with exaggerated annoyance when Stan asked him questions about if he thought he'd like something.

It was sometime later that Kenny and Stan joined him at the table, having set out a dish of steaming vegan Swedish meatballs and Cartman eyed them dubiously. The only Swedish meatballs he'd had were usually at IKEA and he was certain those also had actual meat in them. He glanced at the meatballs that were made of white beans, mushrooms, olive oil, onion, and garlic cloves and wondered in bewilderment when his mother had even gotten those ingredients. Was Stan secretly stocking their kitchen? Then they were doused in the gravy that lacked dairy and Cartman tried not to look like he actually enjoyed the food, hoping grabbing a third helping wouldn't give him away. Stan only shook his head and was just thrilled that Kenny ate most of his one serving.

Somehow Stan found himself cleaning dishes in the kitchen despite having just cooked. He was positive this job should be for Cartman as he had contributed absolutely nothing to preparing dinner. He couldn't complain too much, though, as Kenny was right there, drying dishes as Stan handed them over to him. Stan couldn't bite down the silly grin on his face. He could remember not too long ago when Kenny was sleeping outside out on that old picnic bench and now he was inside, helping with dishes. The sight brought joy to him while Kenny just looked amused by the looks Stan shot him.

When they were finished, Kenny accompanied him to the door, both wishing he could stay. Stan knew his mother would not be happy and he wanted to stay on her good side. Stan suspected that Kenny still wasn't ready to engage in kissing or anything else along those lines. Kenny stood at the door with Stan for a moment before closing the gap and enveloping the other in a tight, fierce hug that Stan readily returned. He brought his hands up to play with Kenny's hair for a minute before they both let go and Kenny bid him good night. Kenny watched as Stan disappeared into the night before returning back to the kitchen. Cartman was there, rolled his eyes, and reiterated that Stan would understand.

Ω

The next day, Kyle found Stan at their locker again. He wondered if Stan even realized he was showing up earlier and earlier every day. There was a dreamy smile plastered on Stan's face and, if Kyle were being honest, his friend looked quite silly but it was a happy silly and Kyle was more than glad to see it after the previous day. "Good morning, Stan!" He greeted happily.

"Kyle!" Stan's smile was nothing but teeth and he practically bounced on his heels as he moved out of Kyle's way so he could get into their locker.

"Things went well yesterday, I take it?" Kyle guessed.

"More than well, they were amazing!"

Kyle paused for a second, surprised. He figured they'd gone decently enough especially since he'd never received a distressed text or call from his best friend. But he definitely wasn't expecting to find Stan acting like he'd just won the lottery. "'Amazing', huh? That's great! So, what was so amazing?" Kyle watched with amusement as Stan's face heated up and turned a bright red and he seemed to have suddenly forgotten how to speak. Kyle laughed at the sight. "Okay, must have been pretty amazing if you forget how to speak when you think about it."

Stan beamed at him, that grin still there, almost blindingly bright. "Yes!" He finally managed and then turned redder, wondering why on earth it was so hard to tell this to Kyle. It was just when he remembered what had happened yesterday, he could only think of Kenny telling him he loved him, everything else that happened before and after had seemed to fall away and all he could do was just grin with happiness at the memory.

Kyle laughed again, finding this to be endlessly amusing, he hadn't seen Stan this flustered in quite some time. "Okay, are you going to share?"

"Yes!" Stan repeated, though no words followed and Kyle was staring at him, wide eyed, nodding and unable to stop smiling himself, accompanied with amused laughter. Stan finally found his voice again. "He loves me, he told me." Stan was breathless and still smiling.

Kyle's own smile wavered a little and he tried not to let the worry he felt bubbling within dampen the mood. The memories of Stan crying at the funerals or, even worse, being the one to find Kenny, weren't exactly distant memories in his mind. His smile was forced and strained but he kept it there for Stan's sake.

"That's great, Stan. I'm really happy for you!" Still, there wasn't something right about this. "Is that why he wasn't here yesterday?" And even if it was, why?

Stan's smile drooped a little and Kyle immediately felt guilt well up within him. Stan answered, "Yes, he was worried that his brother and sister were….. angry about it." Stan's smile was gone now and Kyle's instantly vanished as well.

"Oh, that's not good." Kyle frowned, wondering what on earth anyone would be able to do to get Kenny to stop obsessing over his late siblings.

Stan averted his gaze, looking down to the floor now. "Yeah, I'm trying to think of a way to bring up therapy with him. Maybe if he sees a therapist they can help him with this…." Stan trailed off, not having the heart to say delusion even though that's what he thought. Kyle smiled softly, listening to Stan try to work out the best way to help Kenny. He thought again about how Stan thrived on helping others as it was clearly illustrated to him again.

Kyle himself preferred for people to learn how to save themselves which made him nod his head in agreement with Stan; after all, therapists existed to give others tools they needed to better deal with life. Still, there was the other part that Stan didn't know and Kyle was sure that the whole dying and coming back to life thing wouldn't go over well with a therapist and might actually lead to an institution. If Kenny just didn't bring up that part of his life, he should be fine. Besides, therapy might could actually help him with this bizarre sibling obsession unless there was something to the obsession like Wendy suspected. Wendy was still pushing that his family was in R'lyeh, in the company of Cthulhu. She was also still entertaining the idea of visiting the place, which Kyle still believed was absolutely insane and was doing his best to discourage that fantasy.

"Well," Kyle stated slowly, realizing Stan was waiting for him to say something, "it would be a good idea to get him to talk to a professional." There was no doubt that it could help, at least a little. "Let me know if I can help."

"Yeah, I will, I might need help getting him to agree to go." He leaned against the locker, checking the time on his phone, noticing the way the halls were filling with students.

Kyle glanced over at him, remembering the previous day all too well, where they waited for seemingly ever for Cartman and Kenny to not show up. "Are they supposed to be in school today?"

Stan shrugged, suddenly feeling ill-prepared. He had left Cartman's last night, simply assuming everything was fine and that the other two would be in school today. It hadn't even occurred to him to double check just to make sure. "I thought so." Cartman must have been on the same wavelength as them as suddenly Stan's phone vibrated with a text and, not even a few seconds later, Kyle's phone started to ring. Kyle growled at it, wishing today was one of the days he'd forgotten to charge it. Stan stared at him. "Aren't you going to answer it?"

"I don't want to talk to him!" Kyle protested, trying his best to not hurl the phone down the hallway. "Why isn't he calling you?" It suddenly hit him that maybe Cartman was calling Kyle with some information in regards to Cthulhu but Cartman hadn't exactly been forthcoming the couple times he'd been with Kyle and Wendy for their in-depth research.

"Answer it!" Stan exclaimed and looked ready to swipe the phone from Kyle and answer it himself. The text he'd received was just a simple, Won't be in today. Not exactly informative. He also wanted to know why on earth Cartman was calling Kyle, of all people.

Kyle let loose a long-suffering sigh and hit the "accept" button on his phone. "What?"

There were no niceties on Cartman's end either, not that Kyle expected there to be. Cartman was to the point, which Kyle appreciated, "Jew-boy, get over here."

"No."

"Seriously."

"Seriously no."

"Look, kike, just get over here. Kenny needs help and I don't know what to do."

Kyle glared at the phone. Of course Cartman would use Kenny, didn't he always? Still, he wouldn't be swayed that easily. "Look, Cartman, tell me exactly what you need or I'm just going to hang up."

"You're going to hang up a cell phone?" Cartman asked and Kyle frowned at the amused teasing. Saying he was going to "end the phone call" might make more sense with the cell phone but Kyle was not going to admit defeat that easily.

"Yes. I will hang up the phone," Kyle repeated firmly as Stan watched curiously, only hearing one end of the conversation but able to easily guess what was being said on the other side.

"Fine, fine, geeze, no wonder there's so much anti-Semitism in the world, you guys are assholes."

"You're one to talk."

"Kenny doesn't want to go to the hospital." Kyle stiffened at Cartman's words, suddenly concerned. Cartman went on, "He didn't want me to call you, either."

"What do you mean?" Kyle demanded. Stan recognized the concern in his best friend's voice immediately and leaned closer to him, his own concern growing.

"He hasn't died recently."

"Yes. I'm aware." Kyle frowned, not following and suddenly self-conscious of how close Stan was. "Stan is here, too."

"I don't care."

"Okay, stop beating around the bush. What's the problem?" As far as Kyle was concerned, no deaths recently was a good thing, beyond good- it was actually amazing.

"He hasn't died. He's been doing drugs."

"He has? What?" Kyle pulled the phone away from him in some surprise, glancing over at Stan. Did he know. What did Cartman mean, he was doing drugs?

Cartman was silent for a moment before going on, "Yes. What the fuck? Did you think he was going to be a normal person or something? Just la-di-da? Of course, he's doing something to cope."

Kyle felt the urge return to throw his phone. "Okay! Geeze, what does this have to do with me?" The only thing preventing him from hanging up was Stan's eyes boring into him.

"You don't want him to die anymore. He keeps threatening to kill himself."

"What the fuck, Cartman? Can you just get to the fucking point already?" Kyle's patience finally snapped.

"He's having withdrawals and usually he doesn't since he just gets new bodies but thanks to your boyfriend he's been not dying and what the fuck. Are you coming over to help or is his next funeral going to be because I murdered him?"

Kyle's eyes narrowed as he listened. He was pretty sure Cartman was trying to express that Kenny was wanting to die because he was going through withdrawal symptoms that he didn't usually experience due to dying and getting new bodies. However, Stan had been involved recently and Kenny hadn't died. And Cartman was threatening to kill him. Honestly, Cartman had no shame. "Fine. Whatever." Kyle yanked the phone away from his ear and pressed the end button with a dramatic sigh. "What a pain."

Stan was at attention. "What? What was that? What's going on? Is it about Kenny?"

Kyle looked at his best friend, conflicted. He could guess why Cartman hadn't called Stan; he wasn't aware of the repeated deaths and it probably wouldn't go over well with Stan if Kenny was begging to die so he could come back with a new body. He couldn't imagine that Kenny would want to expose Stan to that anyway. At least, he hoped he didn't. "It's okay. Cartman is just being an annoying ass. Anyway, don't worry about it. They just aren't feeling well."

"Cartman sounded like he was feeling well if he could fight with you," Stan pointed out, worried. Maybe he should skip school and go to their house and make sure Kenny was okay.

"Cartman would probably find a way to fight with me if he were comatose." Kyle waited a second for that to sink in and while Stan initially looked ready to protest, it took only a second for him to nod and mutter in agreement. Kyle continued, "Besides, it'll be fine. He was just asking a few health questions."

"Oh, that's weird but kind of makes sense." Of course, Kyle would be the one most of their friends would go to with questions though Cartman must have swallowed a considerable amount of pride to consult Kyle, which is probably why the phone call had went on for as long as it did.

Kyle nodded. "Yes. Bell's about to ring," he pointed out and the bell went off not even two seconds later. "I'll see you later, go to class, okay?" Stan was hesitant for a minute but nodded again and went to class despite his doubts. Kyle went towards his class but made a turn and left the building, shaking his head at himself. He hated skipping but he wasn't going to leave Kenny with Cartman, especially with him threatening to murder Kenny.

Ω

"Why did you call Kyle?" Kenny whined at Cartman as he tossed around on his bed, Cartman glowering down at him. "He hates me!"

"I wouldn't have to call him if you weren't a drug addict!"

"I'm not!" Kenny protested weakly, though he knew Cartman was right. "It doesn't usually matter." It was true, this was the first time in years that he'd been in one body long enough to actually experience the effects from his poor choices. "I can just die and then-"

"No!" Cartman quickly cut him off, "We're not doing that." He paused when Kenny looked up at him, sweat rolling down his face and trembling slightly. Cartman sighed and shook his head. "We're not doing that."

"What if I want to?" Kenny demanded, more fire in him than Cartman could recall in a long time. As if on cue the doorbell rang and Cartman tried not to look too overjoyed at having company to help him beat sense into Kenny. He rushed upstairs and swung the door open, relieved to see Kyle standing there, looking none too happy.

"I'm here," Kyle needlessly announced, pushing past Cartman and looking around the living area. "Where is he?"

"Downstairs, in his room."

Kyle glanced at him surprised. "In the basement? Don't you have an extra bedroom upstairs?"

Cartman shrugged. "Kenny wouldn't stay up there."

"Whatever." Kyle went to the basement without another word. He found Kenny where Cartman had said he was. Kenny stared up at him, breathing heavily, trying to still his shaking body. Kyle frowned but said nothing as he went out of the room, found a chair, and dragged it into the room, sitting next to the bed. Kenny finally tore his gaze away after a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Kyle simply watched him, waiting for him to say something, but when no words came forth, he finally cracked with a sigh. "Cartman said you were threatening to kill yourself."

Kenny groaned and turned slightly, irritated. "It's not like it would be actual suicide. I'd be back and not have to deal with," he waved one arm weakly, indicating himself, "this."

Kyle's face was grim and he was not pleased. "No, that's not going to happen." Kenny went to protest but Kyle's voice overrode his weaker one, "No, because then it'll just keep happening over and over. You'll still use the drugs for whatever reason and then when you start to have withdrawals, you'll die and it'll just keep repeating. No, if we get you through it now, you'll be okay. Just stop with the drugs."

Desperation shone in Kenny's eyes and his mouth was drawn down in pain. He stared at Kyle, trying to understand why Kyle was even willing to be there. "I can't. I need it."

"For what?"

"To sleep."

Kyle was silent for a long minute, recalling Stan's recount of Kenny's nightmares. "It's not happening," he said firmly, unaffected by the widening of Kenny's eyes or even the silent tears that were starting to leak out. "There are other things that you can take to help with sleep." Like other drugs, but he certainly didn't want to get into that argument and, besides, he was positive this went beyond helping with sleep. As if confirming his suspicions, Kenny muttered something and Kyle leaned closer, unable to hear it. "What was that?"

"It's not the same." Kenny couldn't bear to look at Kyle again, keeping his gaze averted from the stern redhead. Kyle oddly sounded like Sheila in a no-nonsense kind of way and it made Kenny feel almost like he was eight years old again, watching Cartman sing about Kyle's mom at recess only to discover Sheila right behind him, having seen the whole spectacle.

"How so?" Kyle asked, wanting to keep Kenny talking for awhile, maybe a distraction from wanting to do anything else. He caught sight of Cartman slipping into the room, water bottles deposited near his feet before the other teenager vanished from the room, not bothering to speak, only muttering a few curse words about Jews and poor people on his way out. Kenny licked his lips and looked up at the ceiling for a few minutes before meeting Kyle's eyes. Kyle waited another minute before prodding, "Well?"

"Sometimes, I just don't want to remember who I am," he explained candidly, though he would probably change "sometimes" to "always" if he were being brutally honest.

"Why?" Kyle suspected he knew but wanted to keep Kenny talking for a little bit regardless. Another part of him, the part of him he wasn't exactly proud of, also thought this would be a good opportunity to feel Kenny out for information about R'lyeh, see if Kenny knew anything about it. Another part of him, one he wasn't ashamed of, also thought this might be a good opportunity to remind Kenny that Kyle was Stan's best friend and he would put Kenny through something worse than death if he hurt him, though he suspected Kenny already thought he was being put through something worse than death.

Kenny looked at Kyle in shock. "'Why?'" he repeated as if he couldn't believe Kyle had actually just asked him that. "So I don't have to remember everything that's happened. I don't want to keep seeing it over and over again…"

Kyle leaned forward at this glimpse of the past that none of them knew of. "Seeing what over and over again?" And maybe Kyle was just as shameless as Cartman because he felt no shame even when Kenny looked thoroughly offended. Kenny made to protest more but it was at that moment something else flitted across his expression: fear, utter and complete fear. Kyle had never seen an emotion so easily in someone before and it clearly wasn't aimed at Kyle.

"I can't talk about it!" Kenny's voice had a sudden tinge of hysteria to it and Kyle wondered how often Stan had gone through something like this. Kenny looked about the room wildly, "They'll be angry!" Kenny's breath was coming out even quicker than before, having an obvious panic attack, grounding out between gasps, "They'll be upset."

Okay, not pushing in that direction anymore, Kyle thought to himself, waiting for Kenny's panic attack to subside and offering up a bottle of water to him. Kenny shakily accepted the water, gulping down some and coughing, Kyle warning him to drink it slower.

"Does your mind go to another world when you sleep?" Kyle asked and was met with horror on Kenny's part, disbelief that Kyle was still asking questions like this. Kyle sighed. It wasn't as if he'd expected for Kenny to say he'd been dancing in R'lyeh in his dreams, but he had kind of hoped he would. It was silent again for a long stretch of time. Kyle was sure nearly an hour must have passed before Kenny spoke up again.

"I don't see why I can't-" he stopped himself from saying die, though he knew Kyle would get the implication, "just this one time."

Kyle shook his head again. "Because it'll become more than just this one time. You'll keep doing it." He leaned forward again. "You know when you die, we all feel it, we have a funeral." Kenny nodded weakly, not liking where this was going. Kyle continued, "Since you and Stan," and Kyle didn't miss how Kenny tensed up at the name, "started getting close, it's been especially hard on him."

Kyle didn't speak again for a few minutes, letting the idea sink in. "It's really bad. When you've died since you came back, he gets so upset. He cries and cries, he doesn't want to get out of bed. His room is so dark, he won't let the sun in. He won't eat and he refuses to come to school. He just lies in his bed, crying." Kyle's own voice was heavy with emotion as he relayed the memories to Kenny, who was openly weeping now, eyes wide open.

Kyle went on, "And the funerals are a horrid affair. Everyone is so somber and Stan goes some of the time- the times I can drag him out of bed to go- and he cries there, too." Kyle heaved another sigh, feeling heavy under all the memories that would be best forgotten and he envied his past self that used to forget all these atrocities. "I'm always so worried about him, I'm terrified he might do something and-" I feel like I'm falling apart, he thought but didn't want to share so opted to say instead, "I wait and wait, hoping for the best. And then, boom, you're back."

He leaned even closer to Kenny. "Do you really want to put Stan through that anymore?" Please don't put me through that again.

Kenny made no response with the exception of a strangled, choking sound in his throat and his sobs. There was a clearing of a throat near the door and Kyle turned to see Cartman there, eyes sharp and unamused. He waved for Kyle to join him at the door. Once at the door, Cartman backed out until he was out of the room, indicating for Kyle to follow suit. Kyle rolled his eyes, but left the room as well, expecting Cartman to start yelling at him for making Kenny cry.

Instead, Cartman pointed half-heartedly at the door again and Kyle glanced behind him, exasperated with how weird Cartman had become. He started when he spotted Wendy leaning up against the wall beside the door, arms folded across her chest, and one leg kicked up behind her. Kyle immediately felt some regret about his story to Kenny, it was true but he wasn't sure he liked the idea of possibly both Cartman and Wendy having heard it, however, there was nothing he could do about it now.

Kyle looked at Cartman again, some annoyance flashing through him. "Look, if you were going to call Wendy, why bother with me? We both didn't need to miss school," he waved a hand between him and Wendy, making sure Cartman understood who he meant.

Cartman shrugged. "You didn't answer the first two times I called and Wendy said she'd come after her first two classes. I figured the more people the better."

"You don't have anyone else you could call."

"I could call Stan," Cartman pointed out roughly and Kyle sharply shook his head at this.

"No way in hell are we calling Stan over here right now."

"That's what I thought." Cartman smirked, triumphantly. Kyle pulled out his phone to make sure he wasn't being played, but sure enough, he had actually missed two phone calls earlier that morning well before he'd even met up with Stan that morning. Speaking of which, he noted the texts from Stan and shot off a quick, reassuring one and then hurriedly insisted that Stan stay at school. They were going to have to come up with something good to tell him and the sooner the better.

"So, is this basically a suicide watch slash detox?" Wendy asked, having gleaned quite a bit of information from Cartman but wanting to know what Kyle thought of it.

"Pretty much, yeah," Kyle confirmed.

"Do you want me to sit with him for a little bit?" she asked but Kyle shook his head, assuring both Wendy and Cartman that he was good for another hour or two. He did ask Wendy to look up more about drug detoxing and though they were both loathe to use WebMD, Wendy found herself on that site more than she'd like to admit. Kyle made his way back into the room and sat down on his chair by the bed.

"What's she doing here?" Kenny rasped out after a moment.

Kyle looked over at him in surprise at the tone Kenny used. "Why? Are you concerned?"

Kenny didn't answer right away. It'd been easy to hear kids in the hallways and he knew from Cartman the the only reason Stan and Wendy weren't Stan and Wendy was because of Wendy and, while he didn't want to be overly jealous, he couldn't help but feel the tendrils of concern squeeze at him at the sound of her voice. Why would she even be here? "Maybe," he finally answered Kyle.

"She's here to help with your detox and make sure you don't kill yourself. I wouldn't worry; she's moved on and so has Stan, he adores you." Kenny didn't look entirely convinced but nodded anyway. From his perspective, Wendy would clearly be the better option- less damaged, had a family, wasn't haunted, and was liked by the student body at school. Still, Kyle spoke with confidence and knew Stan better than anybody else. He didn't say anything else, either way.

Cartman, Wendy, and Kyle took turns sitting with Kenny, who mostly slept and, after the harrowing tale Kyle had shared, tried to avoid speaking with them. He squirmed about uncomfortably when Wendy was in the room and made sure to pretend he was asleep, terrified of engaging in conversation with her. He wasn't really sure why she was there, Kyle had explained it but weren't Kyle or Cartman worried that she might find out about him coming back from the grave?

Cartman was fine with her being there so it must be okay, but it still nagged at him. At any rate, he chose to keep his eyes firmly closed shut when she was in the room. Wendy might have been insulted in another situation, but she was just glad she wasn't having to struggle physically with him to restrain him from doing harm to himself.

It was Cartman's turn and Wendy and Kyle were both in the kitchen, trying to scrounge something up for lunch. Wendy found a container in the fridge and brought it out. "These must be those vegan meatballs Cartman said Stan made last night. We can heat them up."

Kyle nodded before grumbling, "I can't believe we're stuck here all day. I wish Kenny could see how much of an effect his deaths have on people. Stan really is a saint."

Wendy was quiet for a long moment as she scooped the veganized meatballs and gravy into a skillet to reheat over the stove. She reflected on the earlier story that both she and Cartman had heard, having almost stumbled into the room during it. There was still something that was bugging her, something that had been niggling in the back of her mind for a little while and she thought now would be a good time to voice it. "Yeah, Stan's amazing," she echoed Kyle's sentiment easily enough, "but, Kyle, don't you think you're being a little unfair to Kenny?"

"What do you mean?" Kyle asked, confused.

"I mean, yeah, Stan's done these amazing things for Kenny but it's not as if Kenny hasn't contributed anything."

"I don't mean this in a bad way and if Stan's happy, that's fine with me, but what has Kenny contributed?"

Wendy set the skillet on the stove, waiting for the food to heat up, stirring occasionally. "He gives Stan a reason to focus and a reason to not drink." A heavenly aroma filled the kitchen as the food continued to heat up and Kyle was excited for the food. He frowned at Wendy's comment.

"It's not like Stan drinks that much, anyway," he waved his hand as if saying the amount Stan drank was barely measurable. Wendy looked at him with just a slight amount of surprise and he detected some pity in the look.

"He's too ashamed of it and doesn't want others to know. He's scared he'll be judged and pushed away like around that time he got his Asperger's diagnosis when we were kids." Kyle felt a blush of shame color his neck and cheeks as he recalled cutting Stan off as a friend when he'd become too depressed and just so shitty but it was just he'd been so shitty. Kyle suspected he'd cut Stan off again if he became that shitty again and maybe that was the issue. Wendy waited for half a minute to make sure he was following her. "He's an alcoholic, Kyle."

Kyle waved his hand again, not convinced. "He's my best friend, I'd know." Though that would be shitty. "That goes totally against all those vegan ethical beliefs anyway."

Wendy just shook her head sadly. "Kyle, it doesn't work like that. Just because you believe something doesn't mean you're suddenly immune to your vices." She knew Kyle knew this but she also knew he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to Stan.

"Sorry, kike, but the bitch is right. He drinks all the time with me," Cartman piped up from behind them. Wendy whirled on him.

"Because you're an enabler! You've given him half the alcohol- wait a second!" She shot a desperate look at Kyle. "Why are you here, Cartman? You should be with Kenny."

"It smells so good, I had to come and get some before you two ate it all."

"The whole point is to not leave him alone!" Kyle protested before turning to practically jump down the stairs, memories of more recent funerals flying through his mind. Kenny was fine, he was sleeping but Kyle felt better sitting by the bed. Wendy brought food down to him and he ate in the room, fearful of leaving Kenny alone for a minute. At least he didn't want to until the detox was over. Wendy and Kyle had found that the detox itself wasn't too long, a few days at most and it was Friday, so this was perfect. It would be breaking the habit of dependency on the drug that would be the bigger issue. Getting Kenny past that mental block that he needed the fix for escape would be the hardest hurdle. One that would certainly not be solved in a weekend, but Kyle dearly hoped if they could at least get Kenny through the detox, he would be more willing to not reach for any needles.

He might have told the story of Stan in further efforts to really make Kenny second guess himself any time he thought of reaching for that needle. It was past lunch now and Kyle shot off a quick text to Stan, hoping to quell his friend's curiosity and keep him far away from Cartman's house for the time being.

Ω

Stan stared down at his phone, rereading the text he'd just received from Kyle, unsure if he was comprehending it correctly. It said Kenny was sick but didn't want to go to the doctor's. Apparently, he also didn't want Stan to see him so sick, vomit was involved. Stan shook his head, debating if he should just go over there, anyway.

The only reason he was second guessing going is because it was Kyle who'd sent the text. If Cartman was the one who'd sent it, he'd likely have already been at the house. Stan trusted Kyle and didn't think he would send him a text like this for no good reason, it still felt like he was being excluded, though. He wasn't entirely sure how Kyle had even wound up at Cartman's but suspected it had something to do with the morning phone call.

He worried that Kenny was sick with worry about everything that had been happening but he also knew Kyle would tell him if that were the case. Either way, once school was out, he was planning to call Kyle just for some reassurance about what was going on. As it was, he had other things he wanted to ask about. He'd made it through the whole school day and despite lunch being unusually quiet again, Stan had still been so over the moon happy, Butters had asked if he'd had sex recently, which had made Stan turn the brightest shade of red he'd been in a long time and stutter something. He couldn't quite recall what he'd stuttered out, was just grateful that whatever it was had been drowned out by Clyde's hysterical laughter.

Stan turned so he was facing Craig in the next desk over and tossed a note, asking if he could stick around after class for a few minutes. Craig agreed easily enough. Stan had filled him in during their homeroom class of all the stuff that had taken place between him and Kenny. Class ended sometime later and Craig sat patiently in his chair, listening as Stan went on about trauma and informed-trauma and the proper treatment of victims. Finally, Craig stopped Stan, unsure where all this was heading. "What exactly are you wanting to ask me?"

"Just how should I treat Kenny? Is there a particular way?"

Craig's face didn't change much though his brows might have slightly shifted downward in thought. "All that resource stuff is for professionals, like doctors, therapists, and teachers. Sure, it might be good to know but it's not your job to apply it. Stan, you should just keep treating Kenny how you've been treating him." He waited while Stan contemplated his answer, already looking deep in thought. "Don't overthink it. Just keep doing what you've been doing."

Chapter Text

Kenny smiled at the food in front of him. Stan kept making him food and Kenny thought that maybe his brother and sister must not be too angry because nothing too horrible had happened recently. His and Cartman's locker was still defaced on a regular basis and he suspected that Cartman was still receiving rude phone calls and maybe even some vandalism had taken place at the Cartman residence but neither were speaking of it and they certainly weren't sharing that information with anyone.

They were at lunch now and Stan always packed for him and made sure he ate it. Kenny usually ate most of the food, he would even if he didn't like it, just to please Stan; it was a bonus that the food was amazing and tended to melt in his mouth and Kenny very much looked forward to getting his meals now.

Kenny was quiet but that was nothing unusual. He talked more now than he had before, but it still wasn't much. He left the talking mostly to Cartman because it was just easier that way. He shot a quick glance Kyle's way to see where his attention was.

Kyle wasn't looking at him, thankfully. They had developed a bit of an odd relationship as Kyle often sought him out, demanding to see his arms, checking his veins and even demanding to check his feet at times, checking him thoroughly for any track marks that might be left behind. He was mercifully spared from having Wendy check him and Cartman either didn't seem overly concerned or knew Kyle was handling it. Kenny would heat up with shame, embarrassed he couldn't share this with Stan and wondered if Kyle had. Stan never said anything alluding to it, so Kenny's guess was that Kyle was keeping quiet for the time being.

It'd been nearly three weeks since their little drug detox weekend and Kenny had no desire to be put through that again. From the anxiety that surfaced in Kyle's eyes when he thought he saw something resembling a track mark, Kenny could easily guess that Kyle also had no desire to go through that weekend again. He was sure Wendy didn't and he knew Cartman would not be pleased. All of that didn't prevent Kenny from still managing to sneak in a couple uses here or there.

There was a light touch on his hand and Kenny glanced over to Stan, who was looking at him with concern. The chatter around their table continued, Butters was regaling the table with his adventure from last night that apparently consisted of him running into a group of teenagers in the woods; Butters still wasn't quite grasping what had happened but the others at the table were able to guess he'd stumbled into an impromptu party that involved a lot of drinking as Butters had been showing signs of a hangover all day.

Everyone else melted away and their voices became muted while he was under Stan's gaze. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Kenny vaguely wondered if he was becoming more codependent than was healthy. "Everything okay?" Stan asked quietly so as not to distract anyone from Butters' enchanting tale.

Kenny squeezed his fingers lightly, hoping his touch was as reassuring as Stan's were and gave a quick nod of his head. Stan smiled and let the subject drop, always one to take Kenny at his word and not push for which Kenny was forever grateful.

Ω

Stan grinned widely at Kenny, whom he'd talked into going to the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with him. When they'd been in elementary school together, the class would frequent the place on field trips. Stan had considered asking Kenny to join him at the theater or for dinner, but Stan wanted to interact which wasn't really feasible at the theater. At least conversation wasn't feasible at the theater and he didn't want to push his limits in any other areas. His own dietary restrictions made him nix any restaurant plans.

He wasn't really sure if this would be considered a date, but it'd probably be the closest thing. Plus, it's not as if they were trying to woo each other, he just genuinely enjoyed spending time with the other. They had spent a considerable amount of time together, just talking and playing games. Stan's only complaint was that he sometimes felt like Cartman was part of the relationship.

It would be nice for it just to be the two of them. Kenny hadn't made moves to initiate anything physical and that was fine-Stan figured the more he waited, the sweeter it'd be. He was a romantic at heart, after all. Stan spent a few nights over and Kenny's nightmares were still awful, though Stan was thrilled Kenny wasn't reaching for needles.

Simultaneously, he felt guilt because he was still hiding his own addiction from Kenny, but he was scared Kenny would push him away if he knew. He'd experienced that pushing away from Kyle, from Wendy, and he suspected a couple other friends once they realized how much he relied on the alcohol. He'd been better but knew he couldn't use Wendy as a crutch forever.

The Gardens seemed the best place to go as it was educational and Cartman would have no desire to tag along. There was an interactive exhibit that Stan was interested in checking out, he'd read good reviews about it on Yelp and heard from word of mouth that it was pretty fun.

Kenny allowed himself to be pulled through the Gardens by Stan, admiring the displays of colorful flowers, appreciative of the signs Stan read aloud that went into detail over what the specific plant was and how it contributed to the ecosystem.

Kenny was relieved that Stan simply read the signs without question. It had been horribly humiliating when it had come out that Kenny's literacy level was severely lacking. Kyle was tutoring him during study hall and sometimes after school, which provided cover for Kyle's frequent drug inspections.

They walked through a sprawling butterfly exhibit and Stan cringed when he saw the sadness in Kenny's eyes. He should have known the butterfly exhibit might remind him of Karen. He didn't ask as he wanted the outing to be remembered in a more positive light. He hurried through the butterflies and Kenny made no complaints. He'd saved the best for last or Stan hoped it would be the best part.

"I've heard really good things about this exhibit," Stan gushed, happy to be away from the butterflies and still excited he was getting to spend time with Kenny sans Cartman and nightmares.

Kenny perked up, the last vestiges of sadness from the butterflies fading quickly at Stan's excitement.

They approached the exhibit and stopped before entering it. On a small, white platform was a journal and a pen, inviting guests to write what they thought when they exited. "It's called Field," Stan explained to Kenny as they walked through the door to see the exhibit. "It's a projection and it reacts to motion." Inside the exhibit room it was dark with a long wall to one side.

"It reacts to motion?" Kenny asked, glancing around, noting a projector mounted high up, opposite of the wall they were facing. There was another projector cleverly hidden in the floor pointing upwards towards the wall as well.

"Yes," Stan said and stepped so he was right in front of the wall that both projectors were trained to. He made a wide motion with one hand, jerking it downwards in an arc and colors sprang to life in front of him. There was bright blue, pink, and purple hues. Stan waved his other arm across his body and more colors burst forth before him.

Stan grinned while Kenny laughed, pleased. Stan glanced back at Kenny, who was still hanging back. "Come on," he encouraged, beckoning with a hand, creating more swirls of color and activity from where he moved his hand. There were tulips blooming on the wall now and little butterflies and bees weaving in and out of the field that was coming to life before Stan.

Kenny joined Stan in front of the wall and moved his arms about in wide arcs, laughing again as more colors sprang to life. The bright hues began to meld into each other, more flowers forming as the two continued to move. Stan grinned at Kenny, "Hey, watch!" He took off at a light jog towards the opposite end of the wall and colors chased him as he moved.

Kenny laughed again and went the other way, a stream of colors following along. They stopped and met back in the middle, both smiling and still waving their arms, trying to get pieces of the wall they had missed, swiping down low and up high until the whole wall was dancing with the image of a vibrant, colorful field. After the entire wall was full, the projection vanished, leaving a blank wall before them again.

Both Stan and Kenny were laughing and waved their hands, creating more color. Now the colors were darker hues, red, dark blues, iridescent orange. More laughter joined them and they turned to see a family entering the exhibit, two young children running around and jumping wildly in front of the wall, delighted giggles at the images that projected onto the wall with their movement. One of them began running about, past Stan and Kenny, grinning at them. The parents shot the two teenagers apologetic looks but the teens just smiled at them. Stan was thrilled that the exhibit was as entertaining and as fun as he'd hoped. Kenny was just happy to feel some semblance of normalcy.

When Kenny and Stan left the exhibit, they stopped by the platform with the notebook. Stan looked over at Kenny. "What did you think of it?"

"Amazing," Kenny assured him with a wide smile. Stan returned a wide smile of his own and wrote that single word down in the book.

Lather that evening, Kenny stared up at the ceiling listening to Stan's rhythmic breathing. As usual, the other had made sure to grab his hand under the covers in an effort to reassure him that he wasn't alone. Kenny really couldn't figure out why Stan kept coming around; what was he getting out of this?

He was always willing to show up and just be there, no questions asked. He spent so much time with him. Yes, he said he loved him, but it kind of seemed like there wasn't much Stan didn't love or care about. Above all, he believed that Kenny was still worth something, an idea that Kenny himself had trouble grasping considering everything that had conspired regarding his family.

Even putting all that aside, Stan had gotten beaten up, teased mercilessly, involved in more than one fight, and who knows how many times he'd been in trouble with his parents. And all for what? So he could offer comfort and sanity and ask nothing in return.

Kenny's fingers slipped out of Stan's hand and he rolled onto his side and propped himself up with his elbow so he could see his friend sleeping next to him more easily. They had done nothing since Stan had kissed him, he had said they wouldn't do anything else unless Kenny initiated it.

Kenny had been surprised of all the changes that Stan had been through during those missing years. It hadn't really occurred to him the entire time he'd been away that Stan wouldn't be dating Wendy, he thought for sure they'd be together. He was also surprised that Stan even had any interest in him.

Or that he had any interest in Stan that way. And he hadn't, not initially, until Stan had gone out of his way to show how much he cared. He briefly wondered if the attraction he felt was because he felt indebted. He discarded the idea. After all, he didn't feel this way about Eric and if he owed anyone anything more than Stan, it was Eric. He guessed Kyle or Wendy could probably answer any sexuality questions he had since those two were basically walking encyclopedias but both terrified him so they were out of the question.

He never thought he'd see the day where he was actually so unnerved by someone he once considered one of his best friends. It just unnerved him so much that Kyle knew. He practically knew everything. All he needed was one or two heart to hearts with Eric Cartman and he would know everything and Kenny didn't like feeling this exposed. Not to mention Kyle was unnerved with Kenny and he always seemed angry or annoyed with him. Kenny wasn't sure if he was imagining it or not. It was like Kyle had truly morphed into Sheila in these last few years. He wondered if someone would say he'd turned out to be just like his own parents.

Wendy scared him on an entirely different level than Kyle. He knew it had been her to break things off with Stan and it didn't escape Kenny just how much more attractive Wendy had grown over the years. Sure, she was with Token, but from the conversations he'd managed to eavesdrop on it sounded like the two weren't serious and were in a more off and on again relationship, just biding their time. Token was always talking about hot chicks with Eric in homeroom so it's not as if the rumors were totally unfounded.

He refocused his attention on Stan. He stuck his hand out hesitantly barely touching the other's cheek with the back of his hand. He froze for a moment, half expecting his siblings' spirits to burst forth and threaten to torture him or, worse, Stan. He wanted so badly to show affection and more to his friend and he knew that the other likely craved it at this point. As if sensing his thoughts, Stan leaned into the touch. Encouraged, Kenny moved his hand slowly from the cheek to the forehead, twisting it so his fingers were now slowly grazing across Stan's forehead until he brought them slowly down the cheek and across the lips, imitating what Stan had once done to him.

Kenny let his fingers rest on the lips, watching the other sleep. They stayed like that for a couple minutes until Stan's mouth twitched and the tips of Kenny's index and middle fingers were against teeth. He probably should have moved them but he didn't. He watched as the other's body became more aware of something foreign in his mouth, Kenny felt the tongue through the teeth and Stan made a couple confused noises in his sleep. Kenny grinned. It wasn't everyday someone had a couple fingers in their mouth while sleeping. He debated whether taking them out and trying to go back to sleep but abandoned the idea when he realized Stan was starting to wake.

Stan managed to pry one eye open, confused as to why he had a weird taste in his mouth; he had definitely used mouthwash so this was not okay in his book. It took him a minute as he thought he was having another one of those dreams again. Kenny was looking down at him intently and there it was again; that look in those sky blue eyes that Stan recognized as a different kind of hunger. Stan realized the taste he had in his mouth was from fingers, more specifically Kenny's fingers in his mouth.

He glanced up at the other, unsure if he should move or speak. Hesitant but curious eyes peered down at him and Stan couldn't think of anything else to do except open his mouth a little wider to get more of the fingers in his mouth, first to the knuckles, and then to the base of the two fingers. He swirled his tongue around them and sucked lightly, his eyes never straying from Kenny's. He wanted to know that Kenny was okay with him. So far, he had just stared down, looking on fascinated. If this was all Stan was going to get, he was going to make the most of it. He sucked a little harder and a moan escaped his lips. He broke eye contact feeling a little embarrassed at the noise, he hadn't really meant to moan.

Stan took his mouth off the fingers and kissed them before going back to sucking on them. The lower regions of his body were definitely responding to this. He couldn't help but moan again. He looked back up only to see those blue eyes darkened with something Stan had yet to see in the other. A strangled sound came out of Kenny's throat and suddenly the fingers were gone and lips were smashed against his mouth, a tongue forcing its way into his mouth, replacing the fingers. Kenny rolled himself til he was over Stan, propping himself with one arm, the other hand finding its way into black strands.

Stan hadn't ever felt such force from anyone he'd shared saliva with before, this was even more desperate and insistent than their first kiss had been. Kenny's tongue explored his mouth, running along the back of his upper and lower teeth, feeling along the roof of his mouth. Stan was finally able to get his tongue into Kenny's mouth once he recovered from the initial shock. His own hands went up to Kenny's hair, running his fingers freely through it. There was a deep groan from Kenny and Stan shivered, enjoying the feel of it in his mouth and knowing the need that went along with it. He was sure Kenny had neglected this area of his life for the past few years, likely out of some preconceived notion he didn't deserve to feel pleasure.

There was another groan again as Kenny leaned further into Stan, choosing to drop himself over the other completely, bringing the other hand up to run through the sleek black hair. Stan sucked in a breath at the sound and the sudden weight on him. He wanted to hear that groan again and caught Kenny's tongue with his mouth, sucking on it hard. He got what he wanted, throaty groan after groan the only thing Stan cared to hear. He pressed the other closer to him, wanting him to feel the reaction he had stirred. Kenny responded by emanating more pleasurable sounds from his throat and Stan worried he might just be satisfied with the sounds alone.

After a minute, Kenny suddenly jerked away, leaving Stan cold and alone. "I can't, I can't," Kenny was muttering, his hands reaching up to pull at his hair. Stan closed his eyes for a couple minutes, steadying his breath, and trying to push aside his disappointment and worry. He grabbed Kenny's hand.

"It's okay, Kenny, it's fine. I've told you before, we don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

"They're here, they see me," Kenny stated flatly. Stan said nothing in response, just tightened his hold. Kenny was sitting up now, back to Stan as he stared into the darkness of the room before him. Stan remained laying down, unsure what to do. Finally, Kenny asked into the darkness of the room, "Don't you want to know, Stan?" He turned so he could look down at Stan, "Don't you want to know what happened?" Stan had never asked or broached the subject of Kenny's past.

Stan stared up at him, sincerity fierce in his eyes. "Only if and when you want to tell me."

"You don't want to know anything about it?"

Stan simply shook his head slightly, propping himself up on the pillow beneath him. "Like I said only if and when you want to tell me." He realized it was true and he had another thought, one that scared him deep into his core. He didn't voice it, focusing more on reassuring Kenny, "I love you."

Even if it was you, I'd still love you.

Ω

It was another day and Kyle was checking Kenny over. Kenny squirmed uncomfortably, squeezing his eyes shut like he normally did, wishing it would be over soon. Since Kyle had started officially tutoring him, Kenny was seeing even more of Kyle than he cared to. Today was their first official after school tutor session at Kyle's house. By official, Kyle would finally start getting school credit for the effort he was putting forth. Kenny had managed to evade Kyle's house for some time now, only having to do brief tutor sessions at school. Today, though, he'd had no excuse and even Cartman didn't offer him an out to escape this session.

"Okay," Kyle finally stated after a few tense moments. The air was tense but Kenny figured it would just always be tense between them. He wasn't sure why entirely. He'd just accepted that maybe Kyle didn't like him. It was fine, he was sure his siblings didn't think he deserved to have anyone like him.

"Yeah," Kenny replied, unsure what to say, pulling his sleeves back down to his wrists. He fiddled with the ends of them uncertainly. After a moment, he slid down to the floor, leaning up against the bed, waiting. Kyle moved away from him and grabbed the book Kenny had brought with him. It was an English assignment and Kenny really didn't understand much of it. He was having trouble with history. The only subject he was doing decently at was math. He wasn't stellar by any means, but he was passing.

Kyle flipped the book open and glanced at the notebook that contained some of Kenny's childlike looking handwriting. It was clear he had gaps in his years of schooling. Kenny desperately wished Kyle would say something because it was starting to feel like he couldn't breathe and maybe he needed something just to deal with being around Kyle. He fought down the urge to bolt through the door and flee from the house, wanting to get in Kyle's good graces. He was Stan's best friend, after all. Stan had made considerable efforts to impress Eric.

Some paper rustled, breaking the silence and Kyle deciphered what was written in the notebook. "All right, so," and Kyle was all friendly business about the tutoring. Kenny could see why he tutored as he was good at it, he didn't make Kenny feel stupid when he asked questions, though Kenny was always half expecting him to. He didn't belittle him for any of the questions asked or roll his eyes or anything. He simply explained and explained and didn't seem to mind to repeat himself if needed.

Kyle assured Kenny he wouldn't understand everything right away, but that was okay, that was part of being tutored. You would just have to keep at it until it sunk in and keep asking questions. As they were wrapping up, Kenny decided to try to get some things out in the open.

"I'm sorry," he said, rather lamely. He had been planning on asking why Kyle always seemed so angry or annoyed at him. But after this tutor session and Kyle's seemingly endless patience during the other tutor sessions, he just felt like he needed to apologize. He had thought of it doing so a couple times at school but feared they'd make a scene. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity.

"For what?"

"I don't know, just. That stuff." That stuff you said.

Kyle exhaled heavily. "You mean that stuff I told you that weekend?" Kenny nodded miserably, unsure what else to say. He felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes at the memory. Kyle sighed again, long and sad. His words were weary, "It's- I mean, I can't say it's okay. I didn't want to be so harsh, but…" Kyle trailed off, running a hand through his hair, knocking his hat off.

"Do you hate me?" There. He'd said it. Something Kenny had often wondered especially in recent weeks.

Kyle looked shocked for a second then shook his head, a sad smile on his lips. "No, I don't hate you, Kenny. I worry about you and I worry about Stan. And…"

"You worry that I'm bad for Stan?"

Kyle pursed his lips for a moment. "Sometimes, yeah."

"Am I?"

Kyle raised his brows at the question and shot back, "Are you?"

Kenny shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think so. He seems happy."

"He is happy," Kyle agreed. "I just…What if one time you don't come back?" Kyle asked, voicing the fear he'd had been trying to keep a tight lid on since he realized that his nightmares and reality were the same thing. "What happens when you die for real? When you stay dead?"

"I haven't died in almost a whole month," Kenny was quick to point out.

Kyle laughed a little at that, the sad laugh that one had when something heavy was weighing on their chest. After a moment, he put his hands up to his face, enclosing his nose and mouth and inhaled and exhaled deeply. The hands dropped away and he shook his head. "That… see, that is the issue, Kenny. That you even have to say something like that…"

"I can't help it," Kenny protested, starting to get offended.

"I know, I know you didn't choose to be this way," Kyle quickly cut him off. "I'm not saying that. But I am glad that you aren't dying like you were. I probably haven't said it, but thank you for that. I know the drug detox was hard and it'd be easier to just keep doing it and dying and thank you for not doing that."

"Eric has said before that the deaths are hard on him. Are they really that hard?" After all, the one dying was Kenny, not them. Kenny couldn't help but think it was a bit unfair. Kyle's reaction shocked him.

Kyle put a palm over his own mouth and then turned to look at Kenny with wide, disbelieving eyes. He blinked hard a few times and Kenny was stunned to realize Kyle was blinking back tears. He didn't think he'd ever seen Kyle falter or come across any type of way except harsh and irritated like Sheila.

Kyle let his hand fall to the floor and looked away from Kenny, eyes downcast, staring hard at the floor. "Yes, Kenny, it's really hard," he got out in a strained voice. "When you first got back, it was so good to see you. And then you died nearly right away. That was horrible, it was like you had finally come home just to die," Kyle's voice dropped lower as he spoke.

"But I'm still here."

A strangled sound came out Kyle's mouth, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Yeah, but for how long this time? Every time, I wondered if you were going to come back. At first, I thought I was crazy, Kenny. I thought- I thought I was imagining you. That maybe you really had died already and there was someone impersonating you. I was so confused. Then everyone would act like there hadn't been a funeral and that you'd never died!"

Kyle knew he probably wasn't making sense; it was hard to make any sense of that part of his life. Kyle looked at Kenny again, silent tears in his eyes, a few having already slipped out. "Kenny, what happens if Stan starts remembering all this? What then?" There was a pause and Kyle admitted through tears, "You scare me."

Kenny was gutted. He hadn't realized that Kyle was trying to keep such a tight lid on his emotions and basically trying to stay sane, it sounded. It also sounded like Kenny was partially the root cause of the imagined insanity. Not only that, but Kyle was genuinely fearful of him and what he entailed. It never once occurred to Kenny that someone might be legitimately frightened by all of this- Eric had never been frightened but Eric had known since before grade school. Kyle had only recently found out and Kenny had started dating his closest friend in the meantime.

Kenny reached out, lightly touching Kyle's arm, hoping that was okay. Kyle simply nodded his head, not trusting himself to say anything else, feeling very much on the verge of a total breakdown. A minute later, Kyle was leaning heavily against his shoulder, taking in large breaths between quiet sobs, and Kenny found himself the one muttering assurances of I'm not going anywhere and I won't kill myself again and I promise. It was an odd feeling, being the comforter instead of the comforted but it was also refreshing, a nice change of pace for him.

Kyle spoke again after several long minutes of companionable silence. "If you could change it, would you?"

"You mean make it so I'd stay dead?"

"Yeah."

"I don't know. I mean, I don't want to do this for eternity. But I'm not sure. I stopped thinking about it awhile ago."

"Oh." There was more silence and Kyle piped up, "Cartman is clearly manipulating you if he's saying your deaths are hard on him." Kenny cracked up and even Kyle smiled. Some things never change.

Chapter Text

"This is all so weird and fascinating at the same time." Wendy leaned even closer to the book she had in front of her on her bed. Kyle lounged on the floor of her room and Cartman sat her desk. Kyle was intently reading his book while Cartman flipped disinterestedly through his, rolling his eyes and sighing every now and then.

Kyle looked up at Wendy, nodding his head in agreement. "Yeah, it is." They'd all gotten together as Wendy's parents were out again and this was one of the few opportunities they had to do this in private while talking openly about everything. "R'lyeh sounds intense."

"All of it sounds intense," Wendy amended for him. "All these cults in these stories are insane. The Brothers of the Yellow Sign, the Black Brotherhood, the Chorazos cult, cult of Starry Wisdom, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." She glanced over at Kyle. She knew they'd had this conversation before, but they had both agreed to talk out loud as much as possible with Cartman to see what he'd be willing to chip in as he usually didn't contribute much at all.

Kyle perked up, catching on and added, "Don't forget the cult of the Bloody Tongue, Esoteric Order of Dragon, and Chesuncook Witch Coven." Kyle trailed off as he and Wendy both took notice of Cartman visibly stiffening at the mention of the coven.

Wendy exchanged another glance with Kyle before looking back to Cartman. "That witch coven is also referred to as the Cult of the Skull." Cartman sucked in a quiet breath and carefully flipped a page in the book he had out before him, trying to put on an air of nonchalance and still appear detached from the conversation taking place.

Kyle raised his brows at Wendy. Cartman had never shown any signs of real interest other than making it known he was very perturbed by the pair's insistence on studying up on Cthulhu. It had been a long time since he'd had an outburst and Kyle could sense the beginnings of one. Wendy frowned slightly and nodded to Kyle, encouraging him to pick up where she left off. Kyle cleared his throat. "Apparently, this cult worships Shub-Niggurath."

Cartman sighed and turned from his book. "I think we've studied enough today." His voice sounded strained, not something Kyle or Wendy were used to hearing. "You guys are totally useless, anyway," he went on, voice taking on its normal tone. "You haven't even really studied the cult that was here. You know the South Park one that caused all this?"

Wendy's frown deepened, she pursed her lips, and cocked her head at Cartman clearly curious as to why he was trying to divert her and Kyle's attention from this cult. She couldn't remember right away which god Shub-Niggurath was. She was sure she and Kyle had gone over him before, but Cartman must not have been present.

Kyle gave Cartman a funny look, too. "You're transparent, Cartman. This is bothering you."

"No, it's not." Cartman crossed his arms and shook his head.

Kyle looked back at the book Wendy had loaned him. Like Wendy, he was having trouble remembering the exact nature of this mythological figure. "Shub-Niggurath, associated with the phrase, 'Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.'" Kyle's voice was dropping as he read and Wendy tore her eyes away from Cartman to pay attention to Kyle. "Also called 'Lord of the Wood.'"

Wendy was in deep in thought as if trying to remember something. "I feel like we did some research on this back when we were kids and playing superheroes."

Cartman was insulted. "I was never playing superheroes. I am one."

Wendy rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Cartman, tell us more about this thing."

Kyle wasn't listening to the conversation, lost in his own thoughts as he recalled what Cartman had said so many weeks ago. What Stan had said. Even what he had said:

Cartman put his hands out in a defeated manner. "Yes. Do you always have to think the worst of me? I think he was living in the woods. Before that, I'm not really sure."

"I know Cartman thinks he was just living in the woods but he had to be doing something in the woods right?"

"Or maybe Cartman's right and he was in the woods."

Dizzying thoughts were flying through Kyle's mind as he processed the information. Surely, this couldn't be. This couldn't be right.

"Kyle, what's wrong?" Wendy leaned over, eyeing with Kyle with concern. He'd turned much paler than usual. "You look like you just saw a ghost."

Kyle turned to Cartman slowly. "What-what was Kenny doing in the woods, Cartman? You said he'd been living in the woods before he came back to school."

Cartman was not impressed. "Yeah. He was."

"With this thing?" Kyle waved his hand at the book he held.

Cartman shrugged and said nothing more. He looked anything but happy, annoyance clear in his eyes.

Wendy allowed for a small smile. "I think that's a yes."

"Yeah," Kyle agreed with a nod of his head. Both he and Wendy stole another glance at Cartman before exchanging concerned looks with each other.

Cartman finally sighed. "It wasn't that thing." His eyes darted around as he carefully considered his next words. "It's just as ugly, yeah. It was the kid of that thing. Nug."

"Nug?" Both Wendy and Kyle repeated in unison.

Wendy looked down at the books around her. "I haven't really seen much about Nug." She tried to recall what she had read but before she could, Cartman spoke up again.

"Yeah, the parent of Cthulhu."

Kyle wasn't convinced. "I think I read somewhere that thing had never been on Earth."

Cartman shrugged. "I'm just telling you what I know. I stopped looking at all this other stuff a long time ago."

"Why?" Kyle asked with a tilt of his head. Wendy watched the exchange, curious as to what Cartman's answer would be. He suddenly seemed more open than usual but also as if the conversation was draining him of energy.

"Ugh," Cartman ran his hand through his hair. "You guys are giving me a headache," he complained. He stood up suddenly. "I'm leaving."

Wendy panicked. "Wait. Already? But we just started talking about this Nug. Like, why's he hanging out in the woods? Are he and Kenny getting on well? Do we need to be worried that it's in the woods nearby?"

Cartman stared at her surprised. "We can talk about Nug later, Wendy. And, no, we don't need to be worried about him. I don't think so, anyway." He sighed again and Kyle noticed he was considering his words again. It was so odd to see Cartman so carefully think about what he was going to say instead of just blurting it out. He looked like he was about to say something but decided against it. "I'm leaving."

"Cartman." It was Kyle's turn now. He also didn't want to lose out on this opportunity to glean as much information from his friend as possible. "Why don't you want to talk more about this? You're treating it like it's forbidden or something. And it's really weirding us out." The honesty wouldn't hurt. Wendy nodded, indicating her agreement.

Cartman wasn't persuaded and shook his head again. "Look, I'm out for today. I know the way out." Without another word, he left the room and then left Wendy's house without a glance backwards.

Wendy and Kyle stared awkwardly at each for a couple quiet minutes after Cartman left. "That was weird," Wendy finally said aloud.

"Yeah." Kyle was on an iPad, already searching for whatever tidbits he could find on this Nug character. He pursed his lips. "Did you believe him?"

Wendy shrugged. "I mean, I know it's Cartman, but what reason does he have to lie to us about this? Besides, he seems oddly protective when it comes to Kenny."

"Right. It's just- it's Cartman, so part of me is always on the defensive, I guess."

Wendy was quiet for a few moments and Kyle glanced over at her. It was unusual that she ignored him. She was absorbed in her own iPad, having abandoned her book from earlier. She must have felt him staring at her expectantly because her head snapped up after a minute and she met his eyes. She smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, I just found something interesting."

"About Nug?"

"Yeah. This says Nug is a god among ghouls. He hangs out in graveyards and consumes human flesh." The words hung in the air and Kyle shuddered. To think that thing was in the woods wasn't comforting. He thought of Kenny and experienced a level of horror he wasn't really ready for as Wendy's last words really hit home.

"Are you okay, Kyle?"

Kyle had turned ghostly pale again and looked as though he might start vomiting any moment. He clutched at his stomach, fighting off the wave of nausea that suddenly washed over him. "Yeah, I'll be okay. I was just thinking of Kenny in the woods with that thing. It was probably consuming him."

"Oh." The realization struck Wendy and she made a disgusted face at the thought. "Well, that's disturbing."

"It is." Kyle was finally able to get his body back under control and didn't feel the need to puke any longer. "I don't know if I want to keep going over this today, either."

Wendy set down her iPad and nodded. "It has been awhile, anyway. We can always pick it up next time." She started to help him sort through the books so he could take some home, when a thought popped into her head. "Hey, I heard you've been getting on better with Kenny."

"What? From who?"

"The grapevine. Probably Clyde, but who knows for sure. I'm glad to hear it, though."

"It's not like I was being cruel or anything before!" Kyle protested, trying to keep the hurt out his voice but Wendy heard it anyway.

She waved her hand. "No one's saying that. You were just really tense and not a fan of him dating Stan. I'm glad you're getting along better now."

Kyle was silent for a minute. "Are you okay with him dating Stan?"

Wendy frowned and then laughed. "Yeah! I'm not dating him! We're friends, of course, and I'm grateful for what we once had, but it ran its course. Besides, we both know how much Stan enjoys being needed and I," she flipped her hair over her shoulder with flourish and flashed Kyle a dazzling grin, "need nothing!"

Kyle burst out into laughter at her antics. "You're stupid!" he got out in between giggles.

Wendy repeated her dramatic hair flip. "Whatever, Kyle. I know you're just jealous," she managed to get out before dissolving into giggles herself. After a minute, she got her wits back about her again. "I am fine with it, though. Really."

"That's good."

"Are you okay with it?"

Kyle's gaze dropped to the floor as he struggled to find a way to explain himself. "I am. I just wish all this other stuff didn't come along with Kenny." He scratched the back of his head. "I know he's a good person and I think he is doing good for Stan. I've just been scared of him dying again."

Wendy was sympathetic. "It's hard to go through it, I'm sure. I'm fortunate that my relatives aren't all that close. I'm sure it'd be a lot rougher if she was closer by and especially if she'd been dying on a near daily basis."

Kyle nodded. He crossed his arms loosely across the front of his body, squeezing one of his shoulders and let out a sigh. "I just don't know what's real or not anymore," he admitted. He no longer felt grounded in reality.

"You know I'm always here if you need someone to talk to."

A sad smile played on his lips and Kyle nodded with gratitude. "Thanks."

Ω

More time passed and Stan found himself staying a weekend night at Kenny's house. He had been able to frequent the place on the weekends and stay the night several other times. Kenny's nightmares were still bad, but Stan had been beyond thrilled when Kenny stopped reaching for needles, not that Stan would judge. Kenny always glowed at Stan's complimentary praise of his progress. Stan had also been happy to see his best friend and now boyfriend getting on well, something he knew would work out. He was just nervous about how long that would take, but it hadn't taken long at all.

Cartman was grinning at him, waving a controller around. "Hey, Stan, ready for me to beat your ass?" He'd been waiting for Stan down in the basement.

"Jesus, Cartman, you really gotta work on how you greet people."

"Fshaw, this seems to be working just fine."

Kenny smiled at Stan. "Eric does greet everyone like this. I can confirm."

"Somehow I'm not surprised," Stan said as he plopped into the couch, comfortably close to Kenny. Cartman had gotten used to the two's public displays of affection but he still rolled his eyes.

"Took you long enough to get down here," Cartman complained. "I've been waiting like a whole hour."

It was Stan's turn to roll his eyes. "I was cooking. You know, because you never will?"

"Hey! You should just consider it payment for me letting you play games over here and spend the night and who knows what other stuff you two are doing at night." Cartman smirked at them from his safe perch on the other side of the sectional, feeling very accomplished as both his friends' faces heated up to bright red.

"Cartman!" Stan exclaimed, hoping his face hadn't turned too bright a shade of red but he suspected it had based on Cartman's hysterical laughter. They hadn't quite progressed to the level Cartman seemed to think. Maybe one day. However, he didn't appreciate the jabs from Cartman in the meantime. Kenny must have agreed as he flung something at their friend and he promptly shut up after yelling Kenny's name indignantly. It was a can of opened soda, Stan realized. Probably not the best choice as all three spent a considerable amount of time cleaning it up, but it was definitely worth it.

Later that night, Stan laid in the bed in Kenny's room, staring up at the ceiling while listening to Kenny's soft breathing. He listened for several mesmerizing minutes taking comfort in the sound before dozing off himself, feeling completely in sync with the world around him as if this was meant to be. A small contented smile on his lips as he fell into a deep slumber.

Ω

Irritation was obvious in both Shelly's eyes and tone as she threw some papers to the ground along with her book bag, the sound making a loud thud as it met with the tiled kitchen floor. "But, Mom!"

Stan winced as he listened to his sister, dread filling him up. He wasn't sure why, but his older sister had sent him a couple looks mixed with annoyance and pity and Stan really wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve any looks like that. It was the end of a school day and around mid-week. Shelly had been in the middle of telling their mother she was going to visit her boyfriend over the weekend and maybe stay over Friday night.

Sharon didn't look amused at her daughter's display of histrionics. "Shelly, you're not staying at your boyfriend's house Friday night or any night for that matter." She looked in the direction of the living room, annoyance flashing in her eyes. "Randy, tell your daughter she's not staying over at her boyfriend's."

"Hell, no, Shelly! Listen to your mom!" Randy yelled from the living room. A sound could be heard and Stan knew his dad had popped open a can of beer. He was about to go join his dad in the living room to watch what was likely a football game when Shelly's next words stopped him dead in his tracks.

"But Stan gets to spend the night at his boyfriend's house! I should be able to spend the night at my boyfriend's house!"

Stan whipped his head around to stare at his sister, completely stunned. He'd never even told her. She shot him another one of those looks that mixed both pity and annoyance and maybe even seemed a bit apologetic.

"What are you talking about?" Sharon stopped what she was doing and stared at her daughter. She stole a quick glance at Stan. "Don't go anywhere," she warned him as he looked ready to run for the hills.

Shelly waved a hand at Stan. "He spends the night at Kenny's all the time!" When Sharon simply crossed her arms and raised her brows, Shelly expanded, "Kenny's his boyfriend! Everyone at school knows and he's always bringing him extra lunch and stuff. And getting to spend the night."

Stan felt the color draining from his face at every word Shelly said and he desperately wished she would have just talked to him first. This wasn't really how he wanted to talk to his parents about things, but he wasn't being given much of a choice at this point. He so wanted the floor to swallow him whole.

Sharon looked over at her son. There was no judgement or disappointment in her eyes much to Stan's relief. There was only concern and surprise. "Stanley? Is this true? Are you dating Kenny?"

Stan nodded, at a loss for words.

"Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you tell me?"

Stan shifted from one foot to the other and shrugged. It was hard to find the words to explain. "I don't know. It just happened so fast. I didn't really…I don't know." He tripped over himself trying to appease his mother and offer a valid explanation at once.

"They've been dating for months!" Shelley cried and Stan supposed she wasn't entirely wrong. It was nearing the holiday season, winter break was on the horizon. He still shot her the dirtiest look he could manage. Their sibling rivalry was always strong no matter what. This was certainly going to add a whole new layer to it.

"Stan, is this true? You've been spending the night there a lot. I thought you were just playing video games." Sharon stared at her son as she thought about all the times she'd allowed him to spend the night at Kenny's. "You never even mentioned to us that you were into guys that way."

Stan bit his lip and shrugged again, still uncertain what to say. "I don't know. It just kinda happened." His voice and explanation sounded lame to his own ears, but he was being honest.

"Whoa." Randy appeared in the doorway. His voice was shocked but his expression was happy. He looked over to his wife and smiled widely. "We have gay kids, Sharon. Isn't that exciting and progressive of us?" He put a hand on Stan's shoulder and squeezed it. "I'm very proud of you, son, being all gay and progressive in this world. You're making me proud."

"Randy!" Sharon exclaimed, face heating up in anger, "He's been spending the night at his boyfriend's house."

Randy made a face and his smile dropped. "Oh. Oh. Son, do we need to have a talk? Have you been having sex with your boyfriend?"

"Dad!" Stan was absolutely mortified, his hands flying up to his face and his eyes wide as saucers. "I don't want to talk about this with you! But, no! No, I haven't!"

Shelly's eyes were wide, too as she stared at their father in horror. "I don't want to hear about my brother's sex life! I just want to spend the night at my boyfriend's house!"

Stan whirled around to face his sister. "I don't want to hear about your sex life, either, Shelly! And, thanks for just… doing this! You could have just talked to me about it first!" That he'd been outed to his parents simply because his sister wanted to stay over at her boyfriend's house was ridiculous. He burned with anger towards her over the situation. At least their parents were progressive and open to new experiences. He was sure Kyle's parents would flip their shit or something. Actually, maybe quite a few of his friends' and classmates' parents would even if they claimed otherwise.

Sharon sighed through a reluctant smile. "It's okay, Stan. You know we'd accept you no matter what. I just wish you would have felt comfortable enough to tell me."

Stan squirmed, feeling shame heat up his face for another reason. He'd hurt his mother's feelings. "I just didn't know what to say," he attempted to explain.

Randy patted Stan's shoulder again. "Oh, Sharon, our son is so sensitive." He looked over at their daughter. "Hey, Shelly, try to learn a thing or two from your gay, sensitive brother okay?"

Stan pushed his father's arm away. "Stop. I'm not. I just." He looked over at his mother again. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything."

"It's okay," Sharon assured him. "But you won't be spending the night over there anymore."

"What?!"

"Stan, it's only fair. I can't let you stay the night over there. You can still go over and see him, but you can't spend the night."

"That's not fair!"

"Yes, it is. We didn't let you stay the night at Wendy's when you were dating her."

Stan crossed his arms over his chest. "Mom! Does that mean I can't stay the night anywhere?!"

"Yeah. That's exactly what it means." Sharon was firm and she had an authoritative air about her. Stan shot his sister another dirty look, Shelly stuck her tongue out at him. Sharon went on, "Stan, is it safe to be dating Kenny?" She sounded doubtful and Stan was sure she was thinking back to the time he'd been ambushed when he went to find Kenny after school.

"Yes, it's safe!" Stan glared at his sister just daring her to say otherwise.

Sharon did look to Shelly and she nodded. "It's safe," she confirmed, though there wasn't too much conviction behind the words.

Sharon took her for her word regardless. "Just please be careful. Both of you. But neither of you are spending the night with any boyfriends or girlfriends."

Randy beamed at them both. "Oh, my lovely straight daughter and gay bisexual son. I'm so proud."

Stan shook his head. "That's not- that's not. No." He tried to explain that wasn't how it worked but saw no point since his father had already left, clearly not anywhere near as bothered about the situation as the rest of the family. He wasn't sure if his father would even begin to understand other terms like pansexual. It was a miracle his dad knew what he did know.

Shelly blew bangs out of her hair and watched as their mother left the kitchen. "Ugh, this is so stupid."

Stan frowned. "Really? Thanks a lot, Shelly. You know, you could have at least given me some kind of head's up! You don't just go around doing that to people!"

Shelly was nonplussed. "What? Outing you? I've been waiting forever. You've had plenty of time. Besides, it's only fair."

"No, it's not! I wanted to tell them on my own!"

Shelly's tough exterior crumbled slightly at her younger brother's outburst. "I didn't know it meant so much…"

"Well, it did!" Stan was surprised at how angry he was. It had slowly built up as he had conversed with his parents. He would have much rather have told them himself instead of having Shelly just randomly bring it up. He stewed for a minute. "I hate you."

"Whatever, turd. Not like I care." Shelly was a pro at keeping her hurt hidden, a skill she'd learned from when she'd had so much metal all over her face in middle school. She'd been teased mercilessly and learned to throw up walls. She felt pangs of guilt gnaw at her insides as she watched Stan stomp out of the kitchen, easily able to imagine steam coming out of his ears.

She hoped she could make it up to him one day.