Actions

Work Header

Project E.R.I.C.

Chapter Text

Oxygen buzzes through tubes of malleable plastic.

The first time Kyle sees him, he knows he has the wrong place. He backs out of the room, almost stumbling on his heel, but keeping himself upright. His footsteps hollow the nurse’s station out like something from far away. His eyes buzz and his brain shakes with every step. He places a hand on the nurse’s desk and smiles at her. She smiles back and asks, “How can I help you?”

That oxygen and those tubes are everywhere.

Kyle, swallowing through a dry mouth, says, “Hi, I’m looking for Stan.” Kyle is shaking. His legs feel alright, but his hands won’t stop in their tremor. He squeezes his fists, curling his nails and fingers into the surface of the nurse’s desk. The nurse gives him the number, except it’s the wrong one again. The smile on his face widens painfully. He takes in a breath. “No, he’s not in there, I need to see Stan Marsh.”

The nurse frowns. Her eyebrows knit together on her forehead, dark brown and barely visible beneath her swaths of curly hair. Kyle would have thought there’d be a requirement for doctors and nurses to wear their hair back. The nurse taps something into the computer on her desk and checks the patient records and repeats, “Stan Marsh is in forty-two sixty-eight.”

It’s funny.

Kyle lets go of the surface of the desk. He rubs his hands over his face and through his hair, curses when his hat falls off, picks it up. His fingers refuse to close over the fabric. The item feels bigger than it is. His grip is loose. He takes a breath, but it’s empty. Less than whole. A demi-breath. Demi-oxygen. Demi-air. People don’t even breathe in pure oxygen, most of the time, it’s a mix of different chemicals and those chemicals are a majority of everything but oxygen, oxygen is just a small part of the air we breathe, isn’t that funny? Isn’t that funny?

Kyle gasps. He goes back over to the wrong room, the room the nurses are lying about, the room they say Stan is in but he isn’t, he isn’t, because that isn’t him. It isn’t. He gasps again when he sees Kenny emerge from that wrong room. He doesn’t think about where he came from, though. He doesn’t think. He grabs Kenny’s orange parka, but his fingers are still shaking and his hold isn’t tight enough, and he slips into Kenny’s chest and buries his face into the fabric.

It’s so funny.

After a second, because he can spare only so much time, Kyle pulls back. He’s still smiling. His cheeks hurt. When he breathes in, his lungs make a whining noise. Kenny is holding him up, but Kyle doesn’t need it. He fights the hold. “Tell them, Kenny,” Kyle says. “Tell them they have the wrong room number. We need to see Stan, okay? We need to find him, okay?”

“Kyle—”

“They’re telling us the wrong room number, how are we supposed to find him if they won’t tell us the room?” Kyle drops his hat. He crouches down to retrieve it. Kenny doesn’t let go of his shoulders. Kenny shakes Kyle. Kyle wrings his hat between his hands. Kenny’s eyes are blue. Did you know that? They’re blue. They’re blue. They’re blue. Stan’s are blue, too. Kenny keeps staring at Kyle. “Kenny?”

“Kyle, that’s the room,” Kenny says. Kyle doesn’t do anything for a second. Slowly, he shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “No, it’s not—”

“That’s the room,” Kenny repeats. The oxygen buzzes. Kyle breathes. It’s funny. Kyle gasps. Kenny speaks. “That’s him, Kyle, Stan’s in the room.”

“No,” Kyle says. He scratches his fingernails into the threads of his hat. Something scrapes. There are buttons. Kyle feels his face contort as he sobs. He hits Kenny’s chest: once, twice, thrice, until he forgets. Kyle drops his hat again. He doesn’t pick it up.

It’s funny.

It’s so funny.

The oxygen is buzzing everywhere, and yet Kyle can’t breathe.

Chapter Text

Early December harbors very little snow for Colorado. In South Park, at least. The rumor going around is that the northern counties have started to get hit by some hefty windchill. Although there isn’t much snow, it is still more than cold enough to render Stan and Kyle house-bound. Their plans of tossing the football around by Stark’s Pond have been canceled. Instead, they watch video clips of basketball montages to speed up the time. School starts in an hour.

“Oh, shit!” Stan says, pushing himself up from where he’d been laying on his stomach in the bed. He’s still clad in the pajamas he wore last night. So is Kyle, really— except Kyle wears sweatpants to bed. Stan relies on boxers to cover his modesty. Stan’s expression brightens distinctly, stuck between a half-wince and a half-grin of nerves. He points at the screen, balancing on his knees precariously on the mattress. “Did you see that? His ankle!”

“Yeah, I saw that,” Kyle says. He pushes himself up, too, careful not to jostle the laptop too much from its perch at the foot of his bed. “We’re watching the same video, you know that, right?”

Stan rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I know we’re watching the same video,” he says. He lowers himself to sit more comfortably on the mattress. The video still crackles in its poor audio quality through their speech. “But, I just— like, wanted to make sure, dude, because that was…”

Stan shakes his head.

“Wow,” he says.

“Elaborate,” teases Kyle. Stan kicks his shin, and Kyle returns the sentiment with a knee to the side.

“Ow!” Stan rubs the spot Kyle kneed him. “Asshole.”

“Did you seriously just call me the asshole?” Kyle asks. He pushes himself fully upright. The laptop teeters. He catches it before it can have the chance to fall. After a second, he decides they don’t need the video playing anymore. Stan’s attention span seems to have exhausted in terms of the video, particularly with that player’s painfully obvious rolled ankle. Kyle pulls the computer into his lap and pauses the video, clicking out of the tabs and beginning the slightly-grueling shutdown process. “You started it, remember, douchebag?”

The mattress shifts. Stan stands and steps over Kyle, only momentarily off-balance before managing to get to a safe place to hop off. “No idea what you’re talking about,” Stan says. Kyle rolls his eyes, mimicking Stan’s earlier expression of the same. Kyle listens to the sound of Stan mulling about his room, rustling through his stuff to find that change of clothing he brought. The laptop screen dims. It goes from blue to gray to black, and then it’s off. Kyle shuts it and scoots off of the bed. Before long, the laptop has been safely deposited back to his desk, and Stan is squirming into a pair of jeans. Kyle observes, but quickly turns away. He busies himself with finding his own outfit.

“Do you want anything specific for breakfast?” Kyle asks. Stan, in the middle of tugging his shirt on over his head, makes a weird lurch of a movement with his shoulders. That’s gotta be a shrug, right? Of course it’d be a shrug. Stan is so indecisive sometimes, it’s ridiculous. But only sometimes. He’s only indecisive with the things that don’t matter. Like the menial nature of what to have for breakfast. It’s with a quick shake of his head that Kyle decides he needs to stop thinking.

Stan has succeeded with his shirt. He pulls on his sweater, too, just for good measure. He loves that thing. Kyle can’t imagine why. If Stan went without it, he’d look much nicer. He has nice arms.

Dammit, Kyle, stop thinking, for fuck’s sake.

“Doesn’t your mom usually make breakfast?” Stan asks. It’s a rhetorical question, of course. They both know the answer to that. Mom always makes breakfast for them. Mom always makes breakfast, period. She’s likely downstairs as they speak, humming one of the songs she’s heard on the radio as she makes eggs and toast or something. That’s what it smells like it might be, at least. With both of them dressed, Kyle has opened the door. It smells like eggs and salt. Kyle is starving, and the aroma makes his mouth water.

“Yeah,” Kyle says, stepping out of his bedroom. “C’mon.”

Stan replies, “Don’t need to tell me twice.”

They head downstairs leisurely. The popping of eggs comes from the kitchen. It’s sizzling. A nice noise, something rather satisfying. Stan beats him to the kitchen. Kyle’s chest itches for something, but he doesn’t know what. He ignores it in favor of following Stan’s lead to the dining room table. It’s set with enough plates for the four of them, and there’s already a serving dish of toast and bacon. Ike sits at the table already, eyeing the plate of bacon from behind his Chemistry textbook. Ike has a weak spot for bacon— especially with maple syrup. Kyle never understood the maple syrup part. Ike must be waiting anxiously for the rest of the meal to be done, along with everyone to be seated at the table, before breakfast can officially start.

Stan and Kyle take their seats at the table next to each other. Ike perks up at their intrusion, then begins to flip through that Chemistry textbook more insistently. Kyle gives him a sideways glance. Before too long, Ike shuts the textbook and sets it down on the table, asking, “Hey Stan, do you want to know how to spell your name in the element symbols from the periodic table?”

Stan, caught off guard, pulls his attention away from where he’d been picking at the tablecloth. He glances at Kyle. Kyle only quirks a brow. What’s Stan expecting from him? He’s on his own, here. Stan clears his throat and asks, “Uh, what? Okay, sure, why not.”

“Sulfur, reverse astatine, nitrogen,” Ike says proudly. He’s grinning, and Kyle can’t help but find it a little over-the-top. Stan doesn’t seem like he understands, but nods along like it’s something cool. Kyle finds it hilarious. Stan isn’t a science guy, that much is for certain. He almost flunked physics in freshman year. Kyle was the one who saved his grade. And Kyle, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed by Ike’s little stunt.

“You can’t reverse astatine, Ike,” Kyle says. Ike makes a scoffing noise.

“Says who?”

“Says science.”

A determined expression comes across Ike’s face. He picks at the corner of the textbook, getting the look that says he’s mulling something over. Ike sits up straighter. “I,” he begins, looking Kyle dead in the eyes, “Am going to find a way to reverse astatine.”

“What’s so special about astatine?” Stan chips in.

Kyle looks over at Stan. “What do you mean?”

“Well, why can’t you reverse astatine?” Stan’s brows furrow in thought. “Something has to be special about it if you can’t reverse it.”

Kyle feels the distinct need to put his hands to his face, but he doesn’t. “Dude,” he says. “You can’t reverse astatine because you can’t reverse any element. It’s not a thing.”

Stan, realizing his mistake, opens his mouth and mutters a quiet, “oh.”

Ike picks the textbook back up and begins to flip through it. He ducks behind it, the body of it hiding his head and face from view. Kyle watches his brother read, for just a second or two, before noticing something. “Ike,” he says, mildly accusing. Ike hums innocently, tightening his grip on the textbook. “Is that my AP Chem textbook?”

Ike says, “Depends, do you want it to be?”

“Oh, don’t pull that psychiatry crap on me,” Kyle snaps. Something from the kitchen shifts. Mom turns off the stove. She approaches the kitchen table with a plate of scrambled eggs and sets it between the plates of toast and bacon. Breakfast has been served.

“Don’t talk to your brother that way, Kyle,” she scolds.

“Sorry, ma.”

The textbook is quickly discarded beneath Ike’s chair. All four of them gradually grab themselves food— bacon and eggs and toast. Butter is available for whoever wants it. Stan is the first one to go for the butter. He always has a system for this type of breakfast. Kyle can’t help it. He watches, distracted by the way Stan spreads butter on his slice of toast and puts scrambled eggs on top. Stan catches Kyle staring, and immediately jumps to conclusions. Stan’s face morphs playfully, and he kicks Kyle under the table. Kyle kicks back.

“I’m telling you,” Stan says, picking a crumb off of the side of his toast. He licks some butter off of the side of his thumb. “It’s good, you should try it.”

“Mixing all of the food?” Kyle retorts, looking at Stan skeptically. He spears a piece of egg with his fork. “Are you kidding? That just ruins the point of it all being separate in the first place.”

“Then what’s the deal with sandwiches?” Stan asks. He begins to take bites, crunching his egg-butter-toast between his teeth. He has his brows quirked, like he managed to catch Kyle somehow. Kyle can’t help it. For the second— or, maybe third— time that day, he rolls his eyes.

“That’s different, and you know it.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Stan, “How?”

“It just is, okay?”

“Whatever you say, dude.”

There’s butter over Stan’s mouth, and that makes it shine. The light is off because the sun is more than bright enough, but even still, Kyle becomes distracted by the way it catches Stan’s lips. As soon as he realizes, he turns away, ignoring the way his face heats up from embarrassment of possibly being caught out. Stan doesn’t seem to notice, though. He just keeps chewing on his toast, happy to continue eating his weird mix of a meal.

Kyle finishes his eggs quickly. He hadn’t taken many, though, so he figures that to be the reason. He doesn’t add butter to his toast, mostly because it feels unnecessary. The bread is good enough. He takes a bite, and for a moment, simply allows himself to exist at the table with Mom, Ike, and Stan. Sounds of chewing and clinking and tapping. Ike sips absently at a glass of orange juice. Mom got both Stan and Kyle glasses of water, but Stan usually doesn’t drink much at other people’s houses. Kyle has yet to figure that one out. It’s a little funny, really. They’ve known each other for so long, and yet Kyle feels a little like he hardly knows Stan.

They hang out, but they don’t really know each other as well as they used to. He hates that. He really does. He wants to change that, but he doesn’t know how.

Breakfast is over with quickly. They have half an hour until school starts. Ike and Kyle bicker over who is supposed to do the dishes. Stan volunteers to help out. They decline his offer, then go back to bickering. Mom says she’ll do it. Kyle and Stan make their way to the front door, where Stan and Kyle left their backpacks. Stan excuses himself to retrieve something from Kyle’s bedroom. His footsteps thump rhythmically up the steps as he ascends, and then disappears from the view of the upstairs hallway from the landing. Speaking of retrieving things…

Kyle, slipping his shoes on, calls, “Ike? I need my textbook, give it back, please!”

“In your dreams!” says Ike. Kyle rolls his eyes. The stubbornness of his little brother is a bit troublesome, sometimes. He knows he can be worse, and in that way, he supposes he’s a bit of a hypocrite. He doesn’t care. He needs his textbook.

“I’m not kidding, I need it! We have an open-notes test today, and that’s where the notes are.”

The conversation comes to a lull. Mom huffs a small cough in the quiet, barely audible over the running water as she cleans the dishes from breakfast. Reluctantly, Ike comes out of the kitchen, donning the textbook that Kyle needs.

“Thank you,” Kyle says, reaching out to take it. Before he can touch it, though, Ike snatches it backwards. Ike almost hits himself in the face with it, but he manages to stabilize the weight before it does so. Kyle, exasperated, rolls his eyes. “Seriously? What now?”

“I’m going to find a way to reverse elements, Kyle, I’m capable of finding a way,” Ike says. His eyes narrow and his brows knit together. His mouth is pursed, like this is something he truly believes he’ll be able to do. He’s thirteen, and while he’s technically on a higher level than Kyle, in reality, he is still a child. There are things that he thinks he can do because his brain hasn’t matured enough to understand he can’t actually do them. It’s like the teenage immortality complex. His ego has yet to be beaten down. Ike adds, “If it weren’t for the laws of physics and the police, I would be unstoppable.”

“Now where’d you pick up that quote?” Kyle asks, but Ike doesn’t respond. Ike only grins cheekily and relinquishes his hold on the textbook. Kyle takes it gratefully, if not a little dismissive of his little brother’s behavior. It goes without saying that Ike picks up on the dismissive undertone, but he doesn’t say anything about it. He turns and makes his way back into the kitchen. Mom coughs quietly again, only audible because she’s turned the sink off.

Stan stumbles down the steps, backpack over his shoulder. His hair is all mussed up, like he haphazardly tried on a hat only to take it off. Kyle opens the door, busying his hands so he won’t be tempted to fix Stan's hair, and they both leave. Stan bids Ike and Mom a thank you, and Kyle relays that he’ll be back later, even if it’s obvious.

It’s cold. Kyle buries his face into his jacket, following Stan down the driveway. They don’t say much to each other, even though they walk to school together every day. Or maybe it’s because they walk to school together every day that they do not speak. They have run out of things to say. Is it possible? Kyle has always acted under the pretense that friends always have something to talk about. If they don’t have anything— if they’ve lost topics, if they have no words… what does that make them?

Kyle grips the straps of his backpack so he won’t give in to the urge to hold Stan’s hand.

Chapter Text

One of the lights in the hallway has gone out. No one expects it to be replaced or fixed for a while— the students have gradually come to understand just how much work the school is willing to put into such trivialities. The asymmetry irritates a very small portion of Kyle’s perfectionism, but he’s able to push it away with little difficulty. There is something else, much more pressing, that agitates him in a significantly sharper way.

The bell rang only a few seconds ago, give or take some, but it’s more than enough for Kyle to trek his way through the halls. His backpack threatens to tumble from his shoulder. It’s in a haste that he readjusts the position of the strap, momentarily struggling with the weight of it. Quickly, he balances it out. He dodges and weaves through the outskirts of one of the more ostentatious cliques in the school. He reaches his goal and as soon as he does, he rests his weight on the locker immediately adjacent to his friend. Stan perks up at the jumbling noise, his eyes wide in the way they always are. Stan always has this look on his face, like he’s confused or surprised. Impossibly, his brows raise further on his forehead. He’s fumbling with something in his backpack, which is, in turn, inside of his locker.

“I thought you didn’t use your locker?” Kyle says, tipping his head to see more clearly. Stan has finished with whatever it is that he’s been up to, however, so Kyle doesn’t see much. He only catches the tail-end of Stan zipping up his backpack. Kyle backs up in courtesy as Stan pulls his backpack out of his locker and shuts the door with a slam. It’s hardly audible over the cacophony of the hallway.

“I don’t,” Stan says. Then, with a shrug, he hoists his backpack over his shoulders. “I just needed a place to set it for a second… what’s up?”

That earlier frustration washes over Kyle in a wave. He rolls his eyes and groans, expending that energy that had caught up in his nerves. His backpack threatens to fall again, and he makes an agitated, involuntary noise as he readjusts. Again. “You know what I hate?” he asks, finally tugging both straps over his arms rather than just one.

“Uh oh,” says Stan. “What?”

“I hate pussyfooting around things,” Kyle continues. It comes out a lot sharper than he’d intended, but he can’t help it. To put it rather inarticulately, he’s pissed. The energy of such a rough emotion builds quickly, and what better way to expend it than venting to Stan? He’s always been there to listen— even if it is only distantly, and even if he doesn’t actually care. He at least pretends. “And you know what we’re doing in AP Lit? We’re pussyfooting around things, and I hate it.”

Stan hums. “Yeah, I got that.”

“We’re supposed to be reading Shakespeare, did you know that?” Kyle asks, tilting his head. Stan shrugs again. “Well, now you know. Anyway, we’re supposed to be reading Shakespeare— keywords: supposed to.”

“I’m going to guess,” begins Stan, nodding Kyle along. They pull away from the locker bay and begin on their way to the cafeteria. “That you’re not reading Shakespeare.”

“Exactly! This is supposed to be AP Lit, and we’ve just been spending the last month talking about talking about Shakespeare. We’re not reading Shakespeare, we’re talking about why Shakespeare is so important to read.” Kyle can’t help it— he scoffs. “Can you believe it? A month! It’s getting ridiculous.”

“Wow, that’s gotta be frustrating.”

Stan doesn’t care about the topic. Kyle can tell. He’s got that tone, bland and disinterested, but they’re in too deep now. Kyle furrows his brows in apology, but he’s pretty sure Stan doesn’t see it. Just a few more words, and Kyle will shut up about it. Kyle will promise him that much— however silently he may do so. “You don’t know the half of it, dude,” Kyle says. They enter the lunchroom. A steady flow of students follows them. There’s a hefty gathering of people in the lunch line. “And it doesn’t help that Missus G is teaching us… I don’t think she even realizes just how condescending she is.”

“Most condescending people don’t, right?” Stan pitches in. They drop their backpacks off at their usual lunch table. Kenny has already shown up. He’s pretending to sword-fight with Butters using celery sticks. A brief intermission of a hello runs Stan and Kyle off on their way to get in line for lunch, though Kyle brought his own. It’s habit to accompany Stan through the lunch line, at this point. It’s just the way they do things. Stan continues, “Like, that secretary lady, you remember her, right?”

“Of course I remember her,” Kyle says. “Tough-love Terry.”

“Yeah, tough-love Terry…” Stan trails off. Kyle watches, observes the way Stan pushes his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. They stop at the end of the line. Stan rolls his eyes. “Tough-love my ass, though… remember when we first started going here? My locker was so fucked up, it wouldn’t open.”

“Yeah,” Kyle says.

“Yeah,” repeats Stan. “Second week, I think it was a Wednesday, I wanted to put my coat in there. Couldn’t open my locker. Went down to the office to see if I could get help, but of course, that was too big of a chore for stupid Terry.”

“She called a student aid for you, didn’t she?”

Stan nods. He lifts his hand to his face, mimicking the telephone, and begins to imitate Terry in what she’d said. “’Hello? Hi, can I get a student aid down to the main office to teach a student how to use a locker? Thaaanks.’

Kyle snorts, covering his mouth with his hand. Stan puts both of his hands back into his pockets.

“So, I learned my lesson. I don’t use lockers anymore… but she’s lucky I was high,” Stan says. He’s joking— smiling, shaking his head, but Kyle feels the instinctual pull of discomfort. Freshman year wasn’t good for Stan. They don’t talk about it, though. What’d be the point? Stan has seen a therapist, limited his smoking, started taking meds… and he isn’t mad at Kyle anymore. Is it uncomfortable? Of course. Kyle wishes that Stan would stop smoking for good. He wishes, most of all, that they could go back to the way they used to be. They’ve made strides.

It’s just… not the same.

They walk through the line. They crack jokes, they converse about the idiocy of things they’ve seen on television, they illustrate stories for each other from their mornings, but they stay quiet about the things that matter. Kyle sees the calluses on Stan’s hands, and instinctively rubs his own to get rid of the phantom feeling of the rough texture. Kyle sees the way Stan’s eyes— always, always wide like he’s surprised— close halfway as he’s punching in his lunch money account pin. The way his expression brightens when he gives that fake smile to the lunch lady. The way he’s taller than he used to be, the way he’s matured, the way he’s this, the way he’s that, the way he’s him.

They walk back to the lunch table silently.

Kyle sits next to Stan. Kenny and Butters are still celery-fighting. Butters does something, and Kenny’s celery stick flies backwards out of his hand. “En garde!” says Butters, beaming deviously. Kenny gasps, clapping a hand over his chest. He grabs the table with his other hand, playing out theatrically.

“The way thou hast slain me, dark knight!” Kenny says, groaning his defeat. He slumps forward over the table. Butters raises his fists into the air, victorious. He laughs something particularly childish about having defeated the sworn enemy of the parish, or whatever. Kyle, admittedly, stops listening. Kyle is more enthralled by his backpack, where he’s digging through it to find his own lunch. He bypasses the filler of his notebooks, his pencil case… he needs to sort his backpack. He hasn’t done that in a while. He pulls his lunch bag out of his backpack and sets it on the table. He unpacks the items his mother had carefully packed this morning. He’s told her he can make his own lunch, but she insists on doing it for him. She says she enjoys it. Kyle finds it weird, but he’s not complaining.

“Did you fellas see the Terrance and Philip episode last night?” Butters suddenly pipes up, scooting closer to the table. It wobbles. Kyle shoots him a glare. Butters, of course, doesn’t notice a thing.

“That show is still on?” Kenny asks, perking up from the table.

Butters almost appears offended. “Of course it’s still on!”

“How long has that thing been running?” Kenny asks. He glances at Kyle. Kyle can’t answer, however; he has no idea. He shrugs. No one else offers up anything of substance, and Kenny takes it in stride. Stan starts to poke his small pile of pasta.

“It was so good!” Butters adds. “They’re really bringing it back.”

“Why do you still watch that? Don’t you think it’s a little… like, crap, now?” Stan asks.

“Oh, not this again,” Kyle says. Stan’s expression twitches, and Kyle wonders, very briefly, if he’s hurt Stan’s feelings somehow. Whatever, though, right? Stan must have hurt Butters’ feelings… but it’s all in jest. They’ll both get over it. Kyle opens his container of cucumber slices.

“Right,” says Stan. “Sorry.”

They begin to eat. Kyle and Kenny do, at least. Butters is still interested in relaying last night’s episode to the group. He doesn’t notice Kenny stealing pieces of his salad— or, if he notices, he doesn’t make it known. Stan continues to poke at his food, but doesn’t eat it. Butters’ descriptions become more avid as he gets to particularly good part. Kyle nudges Stan’s elbow.

“Dude, are you gonna eat?” Kyle asks. Stan looks over like he’s been caught out. That looks is back, that normal look, the confused and surprised look. The one that makes him look… like, whatever, okay? Shut up. Kyle glances away, nodding towards Stan’s food.

“I’m eating,” Stan says.

“You’re totally not.”

“I totally am.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Kyle rolls his eyes, Stan eats a forkful of pasta, and then it’s quiet. By the time Butters has finished describing the colorful episode full of all sorts of mischievous hijinks, his salad has completely disappeared. Kenny is finishing off the last of the cherry tomatoes, which he’d stolen carefully one at a time, and how holds close to his chest. He pops them into his mouth and chews with purpose.

“Aw— hey!” Butters says. He frowns. He must not have noticed Kenny’s clever thievery, then. Butters pouts. “I like tomatoes…”

Kenny raises his brows and offers the tomatoes to Butters, but Butters shakes his head and says Kenny can have them. He still has pasta, which has tomato sauce. It’s a ridiculous argument, and Kyle can’t help but laugh a little at it. Butters is kind of stupid, but it’s Butters, so that’s not exactly a revelation.

They finish their lunches, gradually, one by one. Stan somehow manages to finish his pasta and salad, and Kenny’s cherry tomatoes disappear in seemingly a few seconds. Kyle still has a small portion of bread left over, but it’s nothing that he can’t eat later, if he so decides. He cleans up first. Stan grabs his tray and heads off to dump the remains of his scraps into the nearby trashcan and deposit the tray on the cart next to it. Stan comes back. Butters and Kenny try to sword fight with pencils. The bell rings.

Before Kyle can stand, Stan nudges him in the side with his elbow. Without thinking, Kyle returns the action, then looks up. There’s Stan’s usual expression. It’s paired with a little smile, calm and subdued. The smile widens, just a bit. “I’ll see you in seventh,” Stan says, and Kyle nods.

“I’ll see you in seventh,” he returns.

Kyle hoists his backpack over his shoulder and exits the lunch room. Stan, Kenny, and Butters split ways with him in the hallway. Students pass by him and walk ahead of him. The hallway light is still out of commission. He rubs his hands, fidgeting— trying to pretend it’s normal to stare at a friend’s lips.

Chapter Text

“You guys, I’ve found it,” Eric says, sidling up beside Kyle and Stan. Stan pushes the school’s front door open with his shoulder and holds it for Kyle. Eric tries to pass through, too, but Stan lets go and starts to walk away. The door swings shut heavily and hits Eric in the gut, forcing him to stumble back in surprise. It’s quiet, for a few seconds, and those few seconds are more than enough for Kyle and Stan to make it most of the way down the school’s sidewalk. In a matter of seconds, however, Eric worms his way right back in between them. They hear Eric jogging before they see him, not to mention the embarrassingly whining, “You guys.”

“What do you want, fat-tits?” Kyle asks.

“Nice one,” compliments Stan.

“Thanks.”

“Okay, but, you guys,” Eric says more insistently. He squirms himself more literally between the two of them and wraps his arms around their shoulders. Kyle can smell the overwhelming power of that stupid cologne he uses, and it makes his eyes water. He jabs Eric in the side with his elbow, none too gently. Eric lets go. “Fine, Kyle, you want out of the money? Seems kinda unlike you, but that’s okay with me, just means more for us.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kyle asks, turning on his heel to look at Eric. Eric hasn’t let go of Stan’s shoulders yet, still with an arm draped behind Stan’s neck. It looks uncomfortable, and Stan’s expression reads that he’s exasperated, but he’s probably figured at this point that it’s best to just ride it out. Kyle could never imagine allowing himself to simply settle for having Eric hang all over him, but that’s just one of the places where Stan and himself differ, he supposes. Stan’s douchebaggery tolerance is much higher than Kyle’s own.

“What do you think I’m talking about, Kyle?” asks Eric.

“Let me guess, your next plot to make ten—”

“To make ten million dollars,” Eric finishes, smiling smugly. “I’m telling you guys, this is it. I’ve found the thing that’s going to make me rich— and you can’t have a share, Kyle, how do you like that?”

“I genuinely don’t care.”

“I knew it!” Eric lets go of Stan, who stumbles from the literal weight lifted off of his shoulders. Kyle rights himself to face forward once more, no longer as enthralled in the idea of looking at Eric’s face as he relays yet another ridiculous plan to gather ten million dollars. “You’re jealous, aren’t you? Don’t try to hide it, you sneaky rat, Kyle, I can see it in your covetous Jew eyes.”

Speaking of his eyes, Kyle rolls them. “You’re blind as a bat, Cartman, you can’t see shit.”

“Ah—” Eric stumbles over his words. He takes a few steps ahead, now much closer to Kyle than he had been before. “I am not blind, Kyle! I can see farther than you can, any day of the week!”

“Oh, yeah?” asks Kyle.

“Yeah!”

“Then what’s that sign say?” Kyle points ahead of them, where only empty sidewalk sits. He knows Eric is squinting.

“What sign?” Eric finally asks.

“Exactly,” Kyle replies.

“Wh— ai! I told you to stop that!”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Kyle says. “I’ll stop doing it, if you stop falling for it.”

Eric smacks Kyle on the back, and Kyle stumbles at the sudden contact. “Ha!” exclaims Eric, proud in his manner. Kyle doesn’t have to turn around to know Eric is striking a stupid Superman pose. “Jokes on you, I know not to make a deal with the likes of you… that’s how you lose your soul.”

“Yes, I’m going to steal your soul,” Kyle says, making sure to lay the sarcasm on thick. “Now tell us what your stupid plan is so you can go away and stop bothering us.”

“Oh, like hell I’m gonna do that,” scoffs Eric. “I know better!”

Stan pipes up from a foot or two behind, “Then go away.”

Eric sputters much like he had earlier. His footsteps suddenly stop, but neither Stan nor Kyle cease their pace. They fully intend on walking without the intervention of Eric Cartman, of all people— though, really, they both know it’s wishful thinking. Once Eric starts, he rarely gives up, unless he becomes bored, which usually only happens with things that are not going to make him money. So, it’s likely that, unless they can somehow come up with a way to completely circumvent Eric’s plans and simultaneously make him think it was his idea, they’ll have to grin and bear the monotony of Eric’s antics. It’s just the way it is.

Eric’s footsteps start up again. When he finally speaks, he sounds significantly closer. Kyle and Stan, now walking side by side, are definitely being followed by him again.

“Okay, okay, you guys have forced my hand,” Eric says, as if they’re keeping him there against his will. Kyle picks his fingernails against the fabric of his backpack’s straps, observing the scenery they pass with mild disinterest. There’s a squirrel on a nearby tree. He watches it as they pass. It nibbles on a slightly dilapidated-looking acorn. Ridiculously enough, Kyle kind of envies that squirrel. It doesn’t have to deal with the endless complexities that come from being human. It just is a squirrel. Such a simple existence. Lovely, in a way.

Even so, Kyle doesn’t really want to be a squirrel. The idea is just a little enrapturing.

“Chocolate Twinkies,” Eric finally says.

Kyle stops walking and closes his eyes, trying to push away the sheer idiocy of what he just heard. Stan, too, has been caught off-guard by Eric’s stupidity. Stan stops walking a second or two later, mumbling, “Oh my god,” under his breath in that way that he does.

“I know!” says Eric, having grossly misinterpreted the tone. Kyle opens his eyes, just to get a look at what he’s doing, but it’s a mistake. Eric looks literally proud of himself, like he’s discovered the secret of the universe. It’d be endearing, if it were literally anyone else in the universe. Eric puffs his chest out. “You don’t have to say it, I know I’m a genius… now, we’re going to need to copyright that. Stan, you’re going to get a patent on that so no one can steal my idea, and Kyle here is going to handle the finance—”

“This hurts,” Stan says, bringing his hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “This literally, physically hurts.”

“I thought you said I couldn’t be involved,” Kyle says.

“No no no, you guys, I’m telling you…” and Eric just keeps going, keeps on rambling. “We’re going to make serious coin off of this, just think about it. Normal Twinkies? Fantastic. Trillion dollar market. Chocolate? Even better, been around forever— mix them together? Holy shit, you guys. Ten million dollars, easy.”

Kyle stares at Eric blankly. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. There’s nothing he can say, right? Surely, if he just lets Eric run off his stupid steam, he’ll burn himself out or come to the staggering realization that this is ridiculous. But he doesn’t. He won’t. He’s too stupid to fucking live— holy shit, okay. Kyle rubs his forehead, contemplating his words in the efforts of not sounding like a total moron from the shock alone. “Cartman, you’ve lost the privilege of being called a fatass,” he says. That gets Eric to shut up.

“What?” Eric asks. He appears shocked. The revelation has hit a nerve. Stan, behind Eric, nods in agreement, though he’s still pinching the bridge of his nose as if trying to fight off a migraine.

“You eat nothing but junk food, and yet you don’t know about chocolate Twinkies,” Kyle says. “This is it, Stan, miracles are real.”

“I feel like I’m going to die,” Stan says.

Kyle nods. “Yeah, me too. C’mon, man, lets go.”

Without further ado, Kyle and Stan once again begin to walk. Eric follows them, though, because peace is something fictional that apparently no one can achieve. He’s blubbering like a baby, trying to compensate for the idiocy he’s exposed them to, and failing miserably.

“They already exist?” Eric asks as they pass into the main neighborhood. They look both ways at an intersection and quickly move to cross. Eric jogs to keep up. “So, someone stole my idea? Those fucking bastards, how dare they? Fucking jeez.”

“They didn’t steal your idea, Cartman, you stole their idea,” Kyle says. Stan agrees with a grunt. There’s a silence. It’s so quiet, for so long, that Kyle has to check over his shoulder to make sure Eric is even still there. Much to his chagrin, he is. He’s still walking, taking large strides in pursuit, with a red face and that stupid letterman jacket that he bought off of a senior for cheap.

“Well, are they successful?”

“…what?” asks Stan.

“Are they successful?” repeats Eric. Kyle makes a face.

“Of course they’re successful,” Stan says. “They’re Twinkies.”

Another pause.

And then:

“You know what this means, right?” Eric asks. Kyle and Stan give each other a you have to be kidding me look. They both know exactly what Eric is going to say next, and Eric simply continues, without prompting, “That means it worked, you guys. My idea worked, you see? A genius came up with the idea of chocolate Twinkies, and they marketed it and made it huge, and I only came up with it later because I’m a genius and I’m on the same wavelength as them.”

“Oh, please,” Kyle blurts, unable to help himself. He jabs an accusing finger towards Eric, furrowing his brows in a glare. “You only ‘came up’ with the idea because you’re a fat fuck and you can’t stop thinking about food.”

“No, but, you see, Kyle, I can’t be a fat fuck, you said I’ve lost the privilege,” Eric says. Kyle decides it’s best not to respond to that one. The fight isn’t worth it. But then Eric butts in once more, with, “Kyle?”

“I said you’ve lost the privilege of being a fatass,” Kyle fights, ignoring the fact that he’s glaring intensely at the sidewalk in front of them. “I never said anything about you not being a fat fuck, because you still are a fat fuck.”

“Yeah, that’s never going to change,” Stan says.

Eric scoffs. “Okay, y’know what?” he says, shaking his head as if he’s trying to toss his hair back behind his shoulder. He has no hair to toss, though, so it looks ridiculous. Kyle can’t help but liken him to a horse trying to sneeze, or something else of a similar appearance.

They’re coming up close to Eric’s house, now. The green is obvious, even from their distance away. Kyle knows what’s coming even before Eric says it.

“Screw you guys,” Eric says, pointing with both fingers towards his house, “I’m going home, to make ten million dollars on my own, and come up with a fantastic idea, and you can’t have any share— not even you, Stan, tree-hugging circle-jerk hippie.”

The insult hangs in the air, and Eric jogs off ahead of them at a pace only he would consider fast. Kyle and Stan, now left alone to their own devices, glance towards each other with knowing expressions. It won’t be long before Eric’s next scheme. They’re lucky this one didn’t lead to anything insane as it is— hell, as far as they know, this could be the start of something extreme.

A few seconds further into their walk, Stan laughs. “Did Cartman just call me a ‘tree-hugging circle-jerk hippie’?”

“Yeah,” says Kyle, chuckling. “I mean, you have to admit, it’s an amusing insult.”

Stan shakes his head. “I can’t even be mad at it.”

Stan’s house is next. Kyle wants to touch him— like, on the shoulder, or something, just a quick farewell gesture, but he doesn’t get the chance. Stan says goodbye and waves, and then he turns up his driveway and disappears in the house, leaving Kyle standing on the sidewalk, hand raised in the air mid-wave. Kyle tries to brush it off, ignore it like it’s nothing. He changes the action to instead rub the back of his neck, which is cold to the touch from the winter weather. His chest is buzzing. He can feel it, and his stomach feels a little… warm. And it doesn’t matter, it’s really not important, but he can’t help it. He doesn’t even want to do anything, he just wants…

Like, to…

Hug…?

But it’s not because he has feelings for Stan, or anything. He doesn’t think of Stan like that. He doesn’t.

Kyle starts down the sidewalk once more, going the extra twenty feet to his own house. He treks up the driveway, digging into his pocket for his keys. When he puts them into the lock, though, he finds that the door is already open. Admittedly, it throws him for a loop. The front door is always locked. Mom is always insistent on making sure it’s locked, even when she’s staying home. Kyle pockets his keys and opens the door, slipping in without much regard to the noise level he makes. He kicks the snow off of his shoes on the welcome mat, shutting the door behind him. He drops his backpack off next to the door.

Kyle enters the living room, planning on relaxing in front of the television for a few minutes before he starts on that AP Chem homework, but he doesn’t get that far.

Dad sits on the couch. Next to him, sits Ike. There’s an empty spot next to Dad. This isn’t normal. This isn’t the way things usually go. Dad always works until at least six.

Kyle glances around the living room.

“Where’s Mom?” Kyle asks. It’s strange, how he can just tell that she isn’t there. Something isn’t right. He can feel it.

Dad frowns. He’s been frowning the whole time, really. Ike still has his uniform on. It’s blue. A suit-like thing, honestly a bit stereotypical. It doesn’t mix very well with the beige of the couch. Why isn’t anyone saying anything?

Kyle swallows, and once more, asks, “Where’s Mom?” but his voice is shaking.

Dad doesn’t say anything, not yet. Not much. But then, he pats the empty spot on the couch next to him. He says, “Come here, Kyle. Let’s have a talk, okay?”

Kyle steps forward and sits down.

Chapter Text

Ike doesn’t offer any substantial requests for dinner, so Kyle is more or less left to punt. He eventually decides for ease, because tonight doesn’t feel good enough to actually put effort into dinner. As stupid as it sounds, it feels a little wrong to eat anything that takes work tonight. If he makes the chicken in the fridge, or if he decides to bake some bread, he’ll disgrace something. He just knows it. It’s a gut feeling. Undeniable.

So, Kyle makes sandwiches. He takes the wheat bread out of the cabinet and puts extra mayonnaise on Ike’s sandwich, because that’s what Ike likes. Extra lettuce, skip the tomato, add some turkey and a slice of cheddar. He calls Ike in to eat. He doesn’t realize something is amiss until he’s finished preparing his own sandwich. By that time, the sunlight from outside has disappeared pretty much completely. The only thing that remains is the soft glow from the moon and stars. With the loss of light, the living room has fallen into shadows. The kitchen, admittedly, is no better. Empty save for himself and the two sandwiches, Kyle decides it might not be horrible if they eat in the living room tonight. He grabs the two plates and leaves the kitchen, bumping the light switch with his elbow as he passes. The light from the ceiling flicks on. It reflects in the window. He can see his own reflection, though just barely. Ike’s, too, is visible.

Slow in his movements, Kyle approaches and sits next to his little brother. The couch dips as he sits, but Ike doesn’t move. He sits firmly, his hands gripping his knees, still dressed in that uniform from the high-end school he’s attending. His posture is better than Kyle’s, and in all honesty, Kyle isn’t sure how to feel about that. In an urge of lighthearted banter, Kyle feels a little pressured to tell him to relax, but he knows it wouldn’t have the effect outside as it does on the inside. Either way, it’d be inappropriate. To tell his little brother to try and enjoy being a kid when their mother is in the hospital? Not the best idea. Where had that even come from, anyway?

“Here,” Kyle says, holding out the plate with Ike’s sandwich. Again, Ike refuses to move. He breathes and stares like a guard dog, waiting for their father to come home from the hospital, in hopes of his bearing good news— or, better yet, arriving with their mother. Kyle’s chest becomes tight at the thought. He knows bottling things up isn’t healthy, but he doesn’t want to cry in front of his little brother. He pushes the thoughts away and tries to stay strong. For Ike. Kyle nudges Ike’s arm with the edge of the plate. “Eat something.”

Ike turns his head away, stubborn. Kyle rolls his eyes. He nudges him again.

“Extra mayo and lettuce, just the way you like it,” he says, trying to tempt him into eating. It doesn’t seem to work, though. The stubbornness of his little brother has only increased as he’s gotten older— and at this point, Kyle isn’t certain whether it’s more nature or nurture. Goodness knows that Kyle is virtually the exact same way… Kyle sighs. “Ike.”

Ike shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. “I’ll eat when I know she’s okay.”

It’s an endearing thought. It should be, at least, yet Kyle can’t help but feel strangely horrified by what’s been left unsaid. They both know their mother will be fine. They know it, firmly, and they hold that close in the logical part of their brains, but at the same time… there’s this deep hole, that sucks all of the liveliness out of it. Kyle is afraid, and he’ll admit that. He’s afraid, because even though pneumonia is treatable these days, it can still be dangerous. It can still be…

“Even if it kills me,” Ike whispers.

Shocked, Kyle says, “Ike, she’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know that,” Ike says. He turns his head, staring at Kyle with an unreadable expression. He’s younger by five years, yet Kyle wonders if Ike isn’t the more mature one. “Don’t baby me, and don’t say something when you know just as well as I do that it might not be true.”

Kyle sets Ike’s sandwich down on the coffee table, close enough for Ike to reach if he so chooses. So far, it doesn’t look very promising, but Kyle can still hope, right? Besides, the longer he holds Ike’s sandwich, the longer he goes without eating. He doesn’t want to sound like an asshole, or anything, but he kind of needs to eat. He knows his body well enough to know when he needs to eat, and now is one of those times. Even if it makes him feel a little like shit. Which, he knows, it shouldn’t, he just… he can’t help it. The feelings, the thoughts, the food, the medical bullshit, their mother— he can’t help any of it.

Just for a moment, Kyle rests his own plate in his lap and runs his fingers through his hair. It’s the only way he can think of to expel all of this pent-up irritation. As temporary as he knows it is, it works. Sort of. More likely than anything else, he’ll forget about all of this in a matter of hours, and then the only thing pulling at his stupid brain will be whether their mother will be okay— which, she will be. It’s just pneumonia.

Kyle pulls his sandwich in half, even if it’s a little messy. Crumbs fall onto the plate, and the edges are significantly more jagged than they would be if he’d just used a knife when he was in the kitchen, but he doesn’t feel like leaving Ike alone right now. As much as Ike pretends to be mature, Kyle knows that he’s hurting. No one deserves to be alone when they’re hurting. Kyle sets down one half of the sandwich and slowly begins to eat the other, momentarily losing himself in his mind. The moment, of which, is not literal. He finishes his sandwich. The moonlight is even more broadly dimmer, though concentrated in one area of the sky. From where he sits, he can see it, hovering over them. He sets his plate down next to Ike’s, which still has a completely intact sandwich.

“Ike—”

The phone rings. Kyle expects Ike to shoot up at the sound, but he doesn’t. He’s still, motionless and frozen like a statue. Kyle lets the phone ring once, twice more, before standing and heading to the land line. He checks the caller ID and barely manages to stave off the urge to inhale when he sees its their father. Kyle glances over his shoulder to Ike, though he doesn’t know what he expects to see. Ike still hasn’t moved an inch. Kyle frowns. He picks up the phone. The line crackles.

“Hi, Dad,” Kyle says. Ike shifts.

Hey, Kyle, how are things going at home?

Another glance towards Ike. Ike stares at him, eyes wide, curious. Kyle picks at the receiver for a second. “They’re… going, I guess. Ike won’t eat his sandwich.”

Ike’s eyes narrow. “Traitor,” he says. Kyle rolls his eyes.

“Other than that, things are okay,” Kyle says. “How are things going… there? Is Mom okay? What’s happening?”

Too many questions at one time has never been a good idea, but Kyle can’t help it. The words just tumble. He wants to talk, to pour these phrases from his throat and pretend they’re helping. Everyone knows they aren’t. Kyle is no exception.

Everything’s okay so far. Your mother is alright, they just want to keep her overnight for observation. She seems to be getting a little better on her own. She should be back home soon.

Kyle breathes a sigh of relief. Oh, thank goodness. “When are you going to be home?”

Not until tomorrow, I’m staying the night.

The fear comes back. “I thought you said everything was going okay?”

It is, I just want to stay here for the night… can you and your brother keep the house while we’re away?

Kyle wants to say come back. He wants to ask why they’re staying at the hospital if she’s okay. He can’t really coordinate himself well enough to do that, though. He shakes his head free of the thoughts and says, “Yeah— yeah, we can… we’ll be fine here. Will you call if anything changes?”

Of course I will, Kyle. We love you both, and I’ll be home tomorrow… make sure Ike eats dinner, okay?

“Okay, I will—” something on the other end of the line clicks, and Kyle panics. “Wait, Dad!”

Shuffling. “Yes, Kyle?

Kyle doesn’t know what to say. He shuffles his foot against the carpet. “Um… can… can we talk to Mom? Is she…”

She’s sleeping, she needs rest. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to talk to her soon.

Kyle doesn’t want to accept that, but he does. This time, when their father says goodbye, Kyle doesn’t fight it. He says his own farewell, and that’s it. The line goes dead. He breathes in through his nose, deep, as he puts the phone back on its charger. He turns and makes his way back to the couch, where Ike has sat up impossibly straighter, expression confused and almost afraid.

“What’d he say?” Ike asks. “How is she?”

“He said she’s fine,” Kyle says. Ike slumps in his seat. He doesn’t look particularly relieved, though. “He said he’s staying at the hospital with her overnight, and that he’ll be home tomorrow.”

“What about Mom?” Ike asks. Kyle doesn’t know how to answer that, but he has to try.

“She’ll be home soon,” Kyle says. He hopes for the sake of his honesty that he’s right— and he hopes that Ike doesn’t see through the fact that he barely believes himself. Something just didn’t sound right over the phone. Overnight for observation? For pneumonia? If she’s getting better, and they want to keep her, then… just how bad was it? Or… how bad is it?

“Kyle?”

“Yeah?” Kyle looks over. Ike isn’t looking at him. He no longer looks stiff. His uniform has wrinkled a bit from where he slouches. He’s picking at the sleeves of the thin uniform jacket. Kyle decides it might be best to sit down, so that’s what he does. He reclaims the seat next to Ike on the couch. “Ike, what is it?”

“I…” Ike’s fidgeting increases. He’s frowning. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?”

Kyle smiles. “Yeah.”

Ike sniffs. “Thanks,” he says. Kyle nods. Then, he picks up Ike’s plate and holds it out to him.

“But only if you eat your food,” Kyle says. Ike sticks his tongue out at Kyle, but he takes the plate nonetheless. Kyle is satisfied when Ike finally starts to eat, and when he’s finished with his sandwich, Kyle takes the empty plates and tells Ike to get ready for bed. A glance at the clock has revealed that it’s nearing eight thirty, which feels strange to Kyle. How had so much time passed so quickly? But he supposes, in a way, it makes sense. He’d been rendered virtually speechless for a while after their father had left for the hospital. Ike’s state of horror had lasted significantly longer.

Ike finally stands from the couch. He heads upstairs. Kyle makes his way into the kitchen and rinses them quickly in the sink. He puts them into the dishwasher, clicks off all of the lights, and follows his brother’s earlier path upstairs. Ike has already brushed his teeth by the time Kyle makes his way upstairs. Ike leaves the bathroom, dressed in his pajamas, and Kyle makes quick work of his nighttime routine. Ike waits for Kyle in the hallway, and they enter Kyle’s room together. Kyle flicks on the light so they can see as they make their way to the bed.

“I call window side!” Ike says, hopping onto the mattress. He crawls over to the wall, and tucks himself into the blankets. Kyle smiles. The night wears on his eyes, and he would like nothing more than to crawl into bed with Ike, but… he feels a little incapable of doing so. There’s just one thing he has to do, before going to sleep. Kyle turns on his desk lamp, then turns off the main light to his bedroom, leaving only one corner of his room vaguely lit. Kyle sits down at his desk. The covers on the bed shuffle. Ike asks, “What are you doing?”

“Just have to finish some homework,” Kyle says. “Say bedtime Sh’ma, I’ll be there in a sec.”

Ike sighs in exasperation as if he expects Kyle not to be able to hear it, but he acquiesces nonetheless. With the background of Ike mumbling to himself, Kyle pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil. There’s a pre-printed date on the paper, already. The printed date is not today’s exact date, but it’s close enough, so he doesn’t care. Purposefully, he begins to write.

Stan,

Out of everyone that I’ve grown up with in this weird-ass town, I’d have to say that you’ve changed the least ’…

Chapter Text

It’s about two in the afternoon when Stan stops by with a football in one hand and his hat in the other. He’s not so much smiling as he is grinning, happy about something or other that Kyle doesn’t have information on. Admittedly, Kyle doesn’t have enough of a mind to nose around in Stan’s business. His brain is still frazzled from last night’s revelation, and the fact that his mother has yet to come home isn’t helping. His father had arrived home at about nine that morning, talking about how she’ll be home soon, but never even trying to give them a date. He says it should only be a day or two, and then she’ll be home. They just want to observe, he’d said. They want to make sure.

Kyle wants to make sure, too, but no one’s giving him the information necessary for him to do so. He’s frustrated, really— and he’s happy that Stan has come over to invite him in playing football with the gang. It’ll just be the four of them, so it’s not an official game, but it’s enough action for Kyle to feel grateful for the distraction. He leaves Stan at the door to gather his things, tugs on his coat, dismisses himself until later, and when his father asks how long he’ll be, all Kyle can say is soon. He does it out of temporary, teenage spite. His father doesn’t seem to catch it, which is probably a good thing.

“You got ready quick,” Stan says when Kyle has stepped out. Kyle shrugs, closing the door behind himself. Kyle leads the way down the driveway, zipping up his coat as he does. He almost slips on a patch of invisible ice, but manages to save himself before he tumbles embarrassingly to the pavement. Stan snorts, and in response, Kyle glares. He’s only a little satisfied when Stan shifts the football and his hat into the same hand, raising his newly freed hand into the air in surrender.

“Where are Eric and Kenny?” Kyle asks. It’s Stan’s turn to shrug, apparently, and he does so quickly, seeming not to give much thought to it. Kyle quirks his brows, giving Stan his best questioning look. Stan must ignore it, or maybe he just doesn’t see it, because he doesn’t say anything in reply for a few minutes. Kyle takes to kicking intermittent piles of snow as they pass them, tiny little anthills of white that have collected on the sidewalk. It isn’t a far walk from his house to the field, but it’s far enough that he grows bored on the lack of talking. He decides to speak. “Something—”

At the same time, Stan starts: “I think—”

They both cut off, processing each other’s words a second too late. For a beat, it is quiet. Then, Kyle decides to say, “You go first.”

“No, no,” Stan says. He shakes his head. “You started first, you go ahead.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything important,” Kyle says.

“Everything you say is important,” Stan says.

Kyle’s eyes widen, and he looks at Stan. Stan’s looking at him, too. They’re both looking at each other. While that in itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it feels absolutely revolutionary, for some reason. Stan looks more shocked than Kyle does. Kyle turns his gaze quickly away, choosing instead to stare at the sidewalk that unfolds before them as they walk. Stan’s expression is burned into his mind. It’s funny— if Kyle hadn’t known better, he’d have thought Stan was blushing. He knows he isn’t, of course. It’s just the cold.

“I mean—” Stan cuts off, then, apparently unsure of how to dig himself out of this hole. Kyle knows what he means, of course. Stan had meant it kindly, not in any flirtatious way, but Stan’s pretty awkward when navigating this sort of thing. To break the tension in the air, Kyle laughs.

“I know,” he says. Stan makes a humming noise, and as the moments pass, as they make their way further down the silence of the neighborhood, Stan laughs, too. Kyle is happy for that. It might sound really ridiculous, but Kyle’s afraid of doing… almost anything, with Stan. It’s not Stan he’s afraid of, though— not really. It’s everything else that freaks him out. He’s so afraid of messing up something that he can’t relax. He doesn’t understand it, and that’s hard for him, because he’s used to understanding things. Stan clears his throat. Kyle looks up. Stan’s gaze is turn downward, much like Kyle’s had been just a second ago. The breath from his lungs collects visibly before his nose with every exhale, before dissipating.

“I was going to say, I think they’re at the field already,” Stan says. Kyle nods, connecting that easily. It makes sense. It’s not exactly the conversation starter Kyle was looking for, but it’s better than the endless silence. He supposes it’s also a lot better than him telling Stan about last night. Now that he’s had the time to mull it over, he’s decided that he wouldn’t be able to talk about it. Besides, it doesn’t matter. His mom will be home soon.

The sidewalk splits into a small intersection, and Kyle keeps leading the way. They turn to cross the street and once they’ve crossed, they make their way over the hill and down the other side to the field. It’s behind trees, slightly abandoned and a little worn down since their childhoods. The back road a hundred yards or so from the field has been overrun by greenery with lack of use. Cracks run along the cement of the adjoining basketball court— but even so, it’s homely. Besides, they aren’t going to be monopolizing the court anyway. Their focus is the actual field, where trees mark the lines for games of football. Fun story: when they couldn’t get permission to put actual lines down in the grass, they improvised. They painted the trees that border the field, instead. A comfortable loophole that was met with a not so comfortable angry committee. But it was so worth it.

Stan was right. Eric and Kenny are already at the field, mock-wrestling through the frosty grass. It can hardly be called mock-wrestling, really, because the only thing they’re doing is ramming into each other at low speeds. More or less, they’re just practicing for the blunt-force trauma that comes with playing a contact sport. Kyle is pumped for the energy, and he’s pumped for the adrenaline. He can’t wait to get into the action. Stan finally catches up with him, balancing the football precariously in the crook of his arm as he fumbles with putting on his hat. Kyle makes the executive decision to be in charge of the ball. He nabs it from Stan without a second thought, ignoring the way Stan snorts a protest of, “Dude!”

Kyle runs deeper into the field with the football. He approaches Kenny and Eric quicker than he intends, and accidentally rams right into Kenny’s back. Kenny grunts and tumbles into Eric, who falls backwards from the shock. They topple down into the small amount of snow, which likely pads their fall, though Eric doesn’t seem to pleased to be the subject of their landing. He groans beneath them. Kyle tries to scramble up from his position, but it’s difficult to navigate with the football, and Kenny doesn’t seem keen on doing much of anything, if his laughter means anything. In fact, the only thing Kenny collaborates with is his exclamation of, “DOG-PILE!”

In a matter of seconds, Stan runs down from the top of the hill and joins them, making it even more difficult for Kyle to get out of his predicament. Furthermore, the football rolls away. Whatever. At least Kyle doesn’t have to worry about keeping hold on it as he stands, right? With his face half-buried in Kenny’s hood, he starts to laugh. Kenny keeps laughing with his own hysterics, and when Eric starts to whine, “You guys, you guys I’m seriously, oh my god…” Stan starts laughing, too.

It’s relatively short-lived, really. Eric’s complaining gets on their nerves, and they slowly get up. Stan rolls away and Kyle follows suit, scrambling over Kenny and making haste in retrieving their runaway football. Eric basically has to shove Kenny off of him, who is still pretty much debilitated by the hysterics he’s wheezing through. When Eric stands up, it’s revealed that the back of his jacket has been soaked through with slush.

“Aw, weak, dude!” Eric says, shaking his arms to get the lingering excess off of his jacket. Kenny finally finds the strength to hop up from the ground, brushing some flakes off of his cargo pants as he does so.

“That’s why you don’t wear a letterman jacket in December, idiot,” Kenny says. “It ain’t a good cover, like, at all.”

“Says the kid who doesn’t have a letterman jacket,” Eric says, scoffing.

“You think I’m gonna waste my time and money on a stupid jacket?” Kenny asks. “You can try to insult me about my fashion all you want, but it ain’t gonna work.”

Kenny strikes a pose, flipping his imaginary long hair and batting his eyelashes.

“I’m a strong, independent young woman who don’t need no man to make choices for her,” Kenny says.

Kyle looks at Stan, just in time to catch Stan rolling his eyes. Kyle rolls his eyes, too. Typical Kenny.

Eric grumbles some expletives before apparently gathering himself. He kicks some snow off of the sole of his shoe and says, “Alright, c’mon, spork-boys, lets play ball.”

“Gladly,” Stan pitches in. He gestures Kyle over, who joins without hesitation. Stan and Eric take one side, and Kenny and Kyle take the other. Naturally, since Kyle is the one with the ball, he’s the one expected to snap it first. He has no issues with it. It gets him into the mode. Kyle crouches, and Kenny gets ready behind him. Stan and Eric stand in front. He glances at Stan and glares at Eric, who glares back. He counts down in his head, contemplating and readying for the throw.

He nods, and when everyone is ready, Kyle throws the ball back to Kenny. Stan and Eric immediately circle around, going for no tackles early in their play. Good enough for Kyle, he wasn’t really prepared to hit the half-frozen ground, anyway. He follows them back. He and Kenny make eye contact halfway across the field, and Kenny raises his hand to throw it. Eric gets in the way. Kenny ducks and weaves, and once he’s in the clear, he throws it to Kyle. Kyle is entirely ready to catch it, and he raises his hands to do so, but Stan leaps up and intercepts the ball. It smacks into Stan’s chest (and he says, “Ow”, very monotonously), but he catches it.

First point ends up going to Eric and Stan. It’s their turn, now. They get back into formation, meeting in the center of the field. Stan has the ball this time. He checks, hits the ball a few times against the ground (Stan does that every time— for good luck, he says), and snaps it back to Eric. This one is close, but Kenny and Kyle end up gaining the point for game two. That leaves them at a tie so far, and they’re neck-and-neck. They all get a little competitive when they play sports games, even if it’s only them, and even if it’s just throwing the ball around. They emulate without actually meaning to.

Next start is on the shoulders of Kenny. Kyle readies himself to catch the ball, and keeps his gaze firmly on Eric and Stan. They’re giving Kenny a look, like they’re ready to tackle him, and Kyle has a firm idea on what their strategy is going to look like. He takes a step back to keep himself from the collateral that will ensue from their probable pile, though keeps close enough so he’ll be able to actually catch the ball when Kenny snaps it. Kenny calls out, rather theatrically, that he’s going to throw it. Eric kicks his shoulder. Kenny flips him off.

Kenny snaps the ball. Kyle catches it and backs up, pretty much having a heart attack when he realizes that Eric is heading straight for him. Stan is preoccupied with keeping Kenny at bay, and Kyle is totally unprepared for the possible repercussions of being bulldozed by the two hundred plus pounds that is Eric Cartman. Kyle acts without thinking, and at the first opportunity he sees, pelts the ball towards Kenny. Kenny doesn’t get to it in time, and Kyle breaks into a run to retrieve it. He doesn’t really know what happens next. Everything goes really quickly. He just knows he was running for the ball, internally cringing at the wet that flew up from the mushy field. Then, suddenly, Stan comes out of nowhere, and the next thing Kyle knows, he’s on his back in the snow with Stan on top of him and no ball in sight.

Kyle gasps for air, having had the breath knocked out of him, and in that first breath, he smells apples and… something else. It perplexes him, momentarily, until Stan pushes himself up, his hands at either side of Kyle’s head, keeping his weight off of Kyle. The apple-and-mystery smell dissipates. At that moment, Kyle realizes the smell of apples is Stan— and Stan isn’t moving. He’s hovering over Kyle, their legs still interwoven from their fall. All Kyle can see, or maybe all Kyle cares to see, is Stan’s face. Those wide eyes, the same color as the winter sky above them— his hair, strands of it falling out from under his hat. His cheeks are red, from the cold, from the windchill, from the breeze. But where they’re still touching, where Stan is sitting on his thighs, it’s almost achingly warm. Kyle’s skin tingles. His cheeks hurt. From the cold, of course… Stan’s lips are gently parted, breathing.

Pink.

They’re probably warm, too.

Is it just Kyle, or is time at a standstill?

And then he realizes Stan has been talking this whole time. “—yle? …Kyle, say something, are you okay?”

Oh, fuck. Kyle’s chest tightens significantly, and without thinking, he scowls and blurts, “You idiot, watch where you’re going.”

Stan’s cheeks turn deeper red, probably from embarrassment. Kyle feels bad, but he’d prefer the guilt over the… weird butterflies, any day. “Sorry,” Stan says.

Stan moves to stand up, but he doesn’t get very far before Eric shouts, “DOG-PILE!”

A few hours later, once they’ve recovered from the spontaneous dog-pile incited by Eric, Kyle realizes the mystery smell he’d caught from Stan had been weed. At the realization, he asks if he can spend the night.

Stan says yes.

Chapter Text

“Are you okay?”

Kyle perks up from where he sits on the bed, blinking away the fatigue that has started to gather in his eyes. He’s met with a similar gaze of Stan, though his isn’t tired. Instead, he has that confusion. Intermixed within that confusion is soft concern. It’s probably the lack of sleep talking, but Kyle can’t help but liken Stan to an adorable lost puppy. Kyle shakes his head, adjusting to sit upright with his legs spread out rather than laying on his stomach. “Yeah, man, I’m fine,” he says.

Stan doesn’t seem convinced. He frowns, just a little, seemingly caught between the conversation and the movie. Kyle and Stan had decided to move Shelly’s old television into Stan’s room so they could binge-watch eighties movies. The sound of Better Off Dead lingers in the background, in the middle of the classic post-school dance paperboy pursuit scene. Kyle is just about to settle back into the movie when Stan pipes up with, “Are you sure? You’ve seemed a little weird all day.”

Has he? Kyle hasn’t noticed. Then again, why would he notice anything wrong with himself? He is himself. He knows the bullshit that’s going on internally, and he’s almost positive that he’s been acting normal. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s dwelling. His brain feels stuck, on an endless loop of reminders. The smallest thing will remind Kyle of something that’s been ailing him. He’ll see Stan’s mother and think of his own, he’ll get too close to Stan and smell apples, he’ll remember the fact that he packed an extra set of clothing just to be prepared for smelling like weed when he gets home, or his hand will brush Stan’s hand and his skin will start to tingle like he’s never been touched before, it— it’s overwhelming.

But— and this is a big but— Kyle is fine.

“Dude, are you sure you’re okay?” Kyle asks, adding a healthy dose of sarcasm to his retort. Stan furrows his brows, which only makes him look even more… there’s no word for it. It’s just this look. It’s just Stan. He looks Stan-ly. Kyle turns back to the movie, rolling his shoulders back to keep himself awake. He can’t fall asleep yet. He has to stay up, long enough for Stan to make that decision. He has to be conscious when Stan finally can’t take it anymore, when he will undeniably crawl over to his closet and withdraw the marijuana and say I hope you don’t mind, and Kyle will say that he doesn’t, but Kyle always does. He minds. Always used to, at least. The fear would catch up with him, the weird feeling of breaking down and just trying it already. And now things have changed. Now he can’t wait for it. He’s nervously excited. For some reason, he’s certain the weed will help. Kyle rubs his eyes, trying to wake up already, Christ… had he really stayed up that late? He says, “Because I’ve been acting fine, dude, and you might be projecting.”

“You’re rubbing your eyes,” Stan says, pointing. “You’re tired, man, and it isn’t even eight yet… you, like, never fall asleep before eight.”

“I’m not tired,” Kyle protests, and rolls his eyes when Stan gives him this look. “I’m not!”

“You totally are, and nothing you say can convince me otherwise.”

“Allergies,” Kyle says. The mantra of “Two dollars!” drones from the television. Stan doesn’t laugh at it like he usually does, which means he isn’t paying attention to the movie at all anymore. Kyle hates that. He hates the fact that Stan’s attention is on him, he hates the fact that Stan has picked up on something, he hates it. But at the same time, embarrassingly, horribly, frighteningly, Kyle loves it. And that sounds absolutely awful, it does— he knows that, but he can’t help it. He just wishes the attention was from something better.

Stan reaches out to nudge Kyle’s arm. Afraid of the pins and needles, Kyle acts on instinct and slaps his hand away before Stan can touch him. Stan’s eyes widen as he withdraws. “Dude—”

“Don’t ‘dude’ me.”

Stan snaps, “Then holy shit, Kyle, what is with you?”

Kyle falls quiet. He scoots sideways, just a tinge, but then realizes that might look even worse, and quickly adjusts to brush it off as him just shifting. Fortunately enough for him, Stan doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss with his posture. Stan seems to withdraw, rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes and then pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Look,” Stan says, looking up. “Look, okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you, that was uncalled for, I’m just— y’know, you’re being quiet, and it’s kinda, like, unnerving me, dude.”

“Okay, that’s nice,” Kyle grunts. He can’t help the bitter tone. His hand is doing that tingling thing, from where he hit Stan’s hand away. He rubs at the spot with his thumb, trying to focus on the texture of his own skin. “I don’t know why it’d unnerve you, but fine, whatever.”

Stan doesn’t appear to take too kindly to that, for some reason, but he doesn’t seem all too bittered by it, either. He simply huffs, leans back on his hands on the bed, and turns his attention back to the television. The paperboy scene is long since over, and Kyle is admittedly a little upset that they missed the French food scene. He decides to say as much. If Stan’s freaked out by his quiet, then he’ll say whatever the fuck comes to mind, and he won’t give a single shit— but Kyle will say nothing about the way he wants to throw his arms over Stan’s shoulders and bury his face in Stan’s neck and drown in the scent of his apple shampoo. That’s an exception.

God, how miserable is that thought? How miserable is Kyle for thinking it? He should be ashamed of himself. He is.

He’s so fucking ashamed. He feels like a—...

“Hand me the remote,” Kyle says, leaning over Stan to grab it from its perch on the windowsill. It’s sitting next to the cinder block that Stan keeps there for his smoking habits. He usually puts it away so his parents don’t catch on to the fact that he smokes weed, but it’s still there. He must have smoked pretty recently. Or, maybe, Stan has finally accepted the fact that Mr and Mrs Marsh already know full-well that Stan smokes.

At least… Kyle’s pretty sure they know. They have to, right? Stan never was great at hiding things.

Kyle resettles himself (his entire being vibrating from close proximity) and rewinds to the scene.

“Dude,” Stan says. Kyle doesn’t bother glancing over. “Dude, what are you doing.”

“I’m baking a cake,” Kyle says sarcastically. He rolls his eyes, clicking play when he gets to the scene. “Holy shit, Stan, I’m rewinding it, what does it look like?”

“Yeah, yeah, no, I get that, but, like…” Stan cuts off. “Why.”

“Because I like the French scene,” Kyle says.

“The French scene? Uh, which one?”

“The one that’s playing, jackass,” Kyle says. He snorts, feeling a little better with the banter, and tosses the remote at Stan. Stan catches it before it tumbles onto the floor and puts it back onto the windowsill. Kim Darby has just pulled John Cusack into the dining room. Kyle scoots forward on the bed, already smiling at the knowledge of the lines. He’s seen this movie plenty of times, with and without Stan, but mostly with. It’s kind of their thing, at this point. They both have scenes they recite lines to. They rarely reference it in their day-to-day life, but when they watch it, they delve in hard.

“Kyle—”

“Shut up, she’s getting the French fries.”

Stan snorts, amused. “Holy shit, dude, actually?”

“I’m not kidding, Stan, if you don’t shut up, I’ll rewind to this scene for the next half hour and make you watch every second until you can appreciate its beauty.”

“Um, wow, was that the dorkiest thing I’ve ever heard?” Stan says, lifting a hand to his ear. Kyle turns his body just enough to kick Stan. He’s still staring intently at the television, enraptured with the French dressing, so he doesn’t see where he kicks Stan. He just feels the impact and hears Stan go, “Ow, that was my dick!”

Kyle nearly leaps out of his skin, snapping his attention over to Stan and pulling his legs away so he can’t inflict any further damage to his friend. “Oh my god, I am so sorr—”

But Stan’s just sitting there, rubbing his side and snickering like he’s made the funniest joke in the universe, and—

“You asshole,” Kyle hisses, glancing back at the television. His mouth falls open, overwhelmed in agitation at what he sees. “You made me miss the Perrier!”

“Oh no, whatevuh shall we do?” Stan asks, feigning the shittiest damsel-in-distress accent Kyle has ever heard. Stan tosses his head back dramatically, pressing the back of his free hand against his forehead. “How shall we suh-vive, without that ambrosia— the nectuh of the gods— Peru.”

Kyle kicks him and tells him to go fuck himself. Stan only reacts with a laugh, which makes Kyle kick him again, this time actually aiming for Stan’s nether regions. Stan picks up on this and immediately blocks Kyle’s foot with his arms. Kyle rights himself again, leaning over to grab the remote from Stan’s windowsill for the second time that evening. He rewinds to the beginning of the scene, and when Stan tries to fight for the remote in protest, Kyle holds it high and far behind himself. “I warned you, dude!” Kyle says, leaning back when Stan lunges for the remote.

“No, Kyle, no,” Stan laughs, once again trying to grab the remote. Kyle gets to his knees, unbalanced on the mattress, but he doesn’t care. “I’m sorry, don’t torture me like this.”

“Nope, we’re doing this.”

Stan whines, “Kyle.”

Stan makes no moves for the remote for a good minute or two, which means they watch the scene a good four or five times. Each and every time, Kyle rewinds, never getting tired of the repetition. Stan’s increased discomfort is just making this whole thing ten times better.

Finally, Stan seems to lose it. He stands up and walks to Kyle’s side of the bed, making a grab for the remote. Kyle doesn’t let him get it. He stands on the bed, because he’s not about to give up that easily. He’s having too much fun, in the moment— and Stan is still smiling, to some extent, so it’s technically not out of bounds.

“Dude, dude you’re killing me,” Stan says. The scene ends for the sixth (or, maybe seventh) time, and then Kyle rewinds. Rinse and repeat. Stan groans, rolling his head back. “Oh. My. God.”

‘Now, in honor of our special guest’…” Kyle recites, matching with the cadence of Kim Darby. Stan climbs onto the bed, apparently having had enough of the shenanigans. Kyle keeps reciting, even when Stan makes another insistent grab for the remote control. The balance is a little off, what with the fact that they’re both standing on a relatively unstable— and probably old— mattress, but Kyle doesn’t complain.

“Kyle, gimme the remote,” Stan says.

‘Frawnch fries’,” Kyle says. Stan moves like he’s going to reach, and Kyle holds the remote back— but Stan doesn’t reach. Instead, he lunges, hopping forward on the mattress to claim the remote as his. Kyle yelps, a sound somewhere between shock and amusement, suddenly caught particularly off-kilter. He stumbles forward, hitting Stan’s chest head-first. Stan drops the remote immediately. It hits his foot, but he doesn’t flinch at that impact. Kyle can feel his face start to heat up. Stan has his hands on Kyle’s shoulders, keeping him upright, and all Kyle can think about is the tingling from the contact.

“Holy shit,” Stan says. The humor is mostly gone, the smile fading from his face, and Kyle wishes it back. He knows it’s only gone temporarily, but he wishes it back so much. He grabs Stan’s arms to right himself, blinking away the mild disorientation that came from having almost fallen. For a moment, they just look at each other. Then Stan asks, “Are you okay? You’re looking a little flushed.”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says. His cheeks hurt. It’s from smiling, and he knows that, but he can’t help but think about the way his skin is warm. Stan knows. He has to. Right? The guilt of the pins and needles in his shoulders freaks Kyle out. He pulls away, slowly lowering himself down from the bed. “I’m fine, dude, you just pushed me off balance, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” asks Stan, hopping down a second later.

Kyle nods and says, “That’s all.”

Chapter Text

Kyle had been right— Stan’s lips are warm. They’re soft and smooth, present and captivating and lovely. It’s everything he’s ever wanted and more. He didn’t understand the term sparks fly in reference to romance— or, in reference to anything other than literally— but now he gets it. Electricity prickles his skin and makes the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. He craves to just be close. He craves to be held, squeezed until he can barely breathe and more. He curls his fingers into Stan’s hair, arching his back to press as close as possible. He feels Stan adjust them on his bed, sliding those fantastically rough hands over the skin of Kyle’s hips and around to cradle him comfortably. Their chests and stomachs are pushed, flush, together; their lips still locked, refusing to pull away. They are so connected, it’s enough to make Kyle cry. Thankfully, he manages to keep tears at bay.

Stan pulls away, and Kyle can’t help it. He whines his protest, trying to pull Stan’s face back down to his own and resume the kissing. Stan chuckles in that way he does, where it comes out a little like a snort at first but then tapers into glorified giggles, and Kyle can perfectly picture the face he makes when he does: the narrowed eyes and the parted lips, just open enough to reveal a sliver of the white of his top front teeth—

Suddenly, Kyle is looking into that face, and Stan is so close to him (so close so close so close). Stan adjusts again, burying his face into the side of Kyle’s neck and pressing fluttering butterfly kisses over the skin, trailing up instead of down which confuses Kyle for a second, but then Stan is kissing down instead and Kyle forgets Stan was ever doing it differently than he’d expect.

The pleasure he feels is so whole. It isn’t concentrated or quick or spiking, like it usually would be in any other situation he’s found himself in (which, assuredly, is zero with any other person). This is a rolling wave, a fantastic ache that he wants to feel more of, that he can’t get enough of, that he wants to drown in. Stan kisses him on the mouth again and it’s perfect. Kyle clutches Stan’s shoulders, curls his fingers into the sweatshirt. Kyle opens his mouth, and Stan delves in closer, caging him against the bed and making Kyle feel safe. It’s just them, here, and no one can break it. No one can ruin it.

Stan traces the sides of his fingers down Kyle’s back, and sides, and hips and thighs and they’re so close it hurts and Kyle never wants it to stop hurting and

Kyle wakes up.

He inhales sharply, eyes fluttering open into the darkness of Stan’s bedroom. He’s disoriented, for a moment, because it’s exactly where he remembers being, except the same things aren’t happening. The only thing touching Kyle is the overheating prison of the blanket, soft against the bare skin of his arms. He blinks, trying to reset his aching brain, trying to forget the dream and make sure it didn’t… like, effect him, in the real world, because Stan is right there and he… Kyle can’t do that, he can’t handle that, it’d kill him. After a quick check-in with his mind and body, Kyle comes to the conclusion that he’s in the clear. Everything is normal. Except for the terrifying memory of having such a… dream, about his best friend.

During a sleepover.

Kyle feels sick to his stomach. He feels like he broke trust, like he violated Stan somehow, even though he hasn’t done anything. He doesn’t want to feel like this anymore. Stan has a girlfriend. Kyle should, too, but he doesn’t, and he’s afraid that maybe he— maybe he doesn’t have a girlfriend because he’s—

He’s…

No.

No, no no no, not tonight. Not right now. Not ever, in fact. He can’t be. Right?

Kyle has finally managed to reorient himself by this point, and with that, he takes in the image of Stan more fully. He’s sitting next to the window, curled basically into a ball with his side against the wall, his head resting on the left side of the window’s wooden frame. That window is open, and from it blows a distinctly chilling breeze. Kyle shivers when his brain registers the cold, and that shiver turns into a shudder when he realizes what Stan is doing. Fuck. Fuck, Kyle had fallen asleep. He hadn’t even asked Stan if he could smoke weed, yet, he was supposed to stay up waiting for Stan to grab it himself and then casually ask if he could join, this— this isn’t going to plan. The joint is half-finished. Kyle has to act fast.

Stan turns. He’s high. Passably so, at least, with how languid he moves. Stan looks at him, and Kyle looks back. Slowly, Kyle shifts, pushing himself upright in a bed that’s too warm compared to the juxtaposition of the air that’s too cold. He watches as Stan rubs his nose, balancing the joint carefully between his fingers. He drops his hand again, resting it by the wall. The joint huffs smoke.

“Are you smoking?” Kyle asks, almost wincing at just how rough his voice is. He could go for some water, but at the same time, he can wait. Stan flicks the wall.

“No, I’m eating,” Stan slurs. Yeah, okay, definitely high. Kyle takes a breather, thinking his way through it. He ignores the fact that Stan has crinkled his nose, obviously not pleased with something. Stan flicks the wall again and, still staring at Kyle, brings the joint up to his lips to breathe in the smoke. The fuck, why is Stan staring at him like that?

“Dude,” Kyle says, trying to get an answer. He gets one.

“I know,” Stan mumbles, “I’m putting it out now.”

What? No, that’s the opposite of what Kyle wants. Stan shifts, and Kyle is incredibly thankful that he’s as slow as he is with the marijuana in his system. “No, man, that’s not—” Kyle cuts himself off, unsure of how he should proceed. He can’t think. He’s nervous, jittery and shaking and his muscles feel weak. Kyle pinches the bridge of his nose and shuts his eyes, trying to ignore the fact that he’s copying Stan’s usual habit. He hadn’t meant to. He’d just done it. Fuck. Fuck. It’s fine. Finally, Kyle just says, “Stop.”

The air is speeding up. Kyle can feel it. He slowly opens his eyes, dropping his hand back down to the bed. Stan sits still, holding the joint close to the cinder block, but not putting it out. Smoke drifts and dissipates.

“Can I try?” Kyle asks. Stan blinks.

“Try what?” he replies. “Putting it out? Fine, I don’t care, make like Beauty and be my guest.”

Stan reaches out to give Kyle the joint, and against all sense of better judgment, Kyle gets caught up in the message rather than the fact that Stan is literally handing over the weed without protest. That being said, Kyle slaps Stan’s hand. Stan pulls away. Immediately, Kyle realizes what he’s just done. His heart plummets. “Wait, no, shit,” Kyle says, holding his hand out as an offer of retrieval. Stan doesn’t seem impressed, though. He pulls back even further, pretty much attaching himself to the wall behind him. Then, he lifts the joint above his head. Kyle remembers watching Better Off Dead with Stan yesterday, before dinner. Kyle remembers the way he had held the remote above his head in that exact fashion. He remembers the teasing, the climbing onto the bed, the falling into Stan’s chest, the are you okay and the tingling and the dream— Kyle’s face heats up. He feels it. He’s grateful for the darkness.

“Jesus Christ, Kyle, make up your mind,” Stan says. “Do you want the fucking thing or not?”

“I do, I—” but arguing seems futile. His face heats up even more, unbearable. He’s anxious. “Just— just give it to me, dammit.”

“Okay, I know you’re a perfectionist, but I really think I can put out a joint more effectively than you can.”

Kyle blinks. “Excuse me?” he asks, scooting forward.

Stan begins to ramble. “You've only ever smoked a cigarette, and remember when you tried to put it out? It burnt the fucking school down… granted, it was pretty sweet because we didn't have school for a while, but that isn't my point.”

Oh for fuck’s… “Hey! you were there, too, you asshole,” Kyle hisses, jabbing Stan in the sternum. He huffs, “And you were the one who suggested we throw them away.”

“I didn’t mean into a dumpster full of kindling.” Stan brushes Kyle’s finger away. Kyle pretends not to notice the crappy coordination in favor of defending himself and his position, entirely certain that he was not the sole cause of that stupid fire back in fourth grade. He lowers his brows and opens his mouth to speak, but hesitates. He inches a bit closer.

“Then why were we smoking next to a dumpster?” Kyle crawls up to Stan, on all fours at this point. His hands rest, one at either side of Stan’s legs, digging his fingers into the mattress. Their faces are close. It’d be a lie to say Kyle doesn’t notice. He forces himself to stare into Stan’s eyes— not that Stan’s exactly in the best mental state to notice if he were to look anywhere else. It’s quiet— a beat. Stan lowers the joint, and Kyle thinks he might finally give it up, but he doesn’t. He just holds it out the window. What is he doing? Trying to keep the smoke outside? It’s too late for that. Kyle loses the anger immediately. Stan’s high, and Kyle… “Listen, Stan, I just want to get high.”

Stan’s eyes widen a minuscule amount, and Kyle doesn’t know what the expression means. The quiet suffocates them in rapid intervals. Kyle can feel it. The air heats, the particles are accelerating. They both look away from each other— and Kyle backs away, closing his eyes for a moment. Jesus… what was he thinking? Getting high? Is this… really a good idea? He wants nothing more than to feel relaxed, to get high and smoke, but Stan doesn’t seem too happy about it. Kyle is selfish, isn’t he?

“Sorry,” Kyle says. Stan says nothing. Kyle continues, “I just wanted to… y’know, you seem to enjoy it, so…”

Kyle’s arms are tingling, which is weird, because Stan hasn’t touched him. He rubs at his arms, trying to make the sensation go away. He wants to feel better. What else can he say?

“I mean, I'll understand if you don't want to share, it is your weed, after all, and I don't want to push you, or anything, into letting me... use it, but, um...” Kyle feels ridiculous. He feels like a moron. Is this worth it? Of course it is. He wants to. But should he? He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know— he doesn’t know anything anymore, and he just keeps talking to fill the silence, to explain himself somehow. “...you offered, once, a while ago? And I don't regret not trying it then, because we were thirteen, or something, but— I've been thinking about it, and I kind of want to try.”

Kyle is afraid. He doesn’t want to ruin anything, but he’s afraid he already has. Is it weak to say he feels vulnerable? Stan does that to him. Kyle hates that so fucking much. He lowers his head in shame of who he is. His thoughts. Kyle is gross, isn’t he? Being attracted to his best friend, that has to be fucked up, right? It feels wrong. It.

It.

Hurts?

And…

He doesn’t want to be like this.

“You sure, dude?” Stan asks, and Kyle immediately looks up. His emotions are running rampant, excluding his brain from thinking further than the automatic reaction.

“If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t be bringing it up,” he replies.

Stan looks at the joint like it’s some valuable artifact, pauses— and then he holds it out, offering it to Kyle and saying, “Okay, then.”

Kyle could cry. He could, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to be all lame like that, it’d be fucking ridiculous. He reaches for the joint— and blinks away the confusion when Stan withdraws again. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck? Stan can’t do that, Kyle’s heart feels like it’s going to explode; he’s freaking out, here. “Dude!” Kyle cries, watching as Stan raises the joint back above his head.

Stan says, “Before I give you this, I need you to solemnly swear that you won't blame me if you end up loving it, and ultimately become a total bad-boy stoner.”

what?

“Come on, man. ‘I solemnly swear’…”

“You sound like Cartman,” Kyle snaps, glaring daggers. He’s not stable enough for joking around. He doesn’t have the energy. But Stan chuckles, the same way he always does, the same way he did in Kyle’s dream, and Kyle wants to give up and break down in a puddle and die and forget anything ever existed. He’s afraid. He’s afraid for his mom, for his future, for himself, for what feels so disgusting and wrong, for wanting to kiss Stan even though he fucking hates him.

Except he doesn’t hate Stan.

He hates that he doesn’t hate him, because hating him would be so much easier. It would be so much easier than trying to force back all of this uncontrollable bullshit

Stan lowers the joint. Kyle half expects Stan to put it back out the window, but he doesn’t. He holds it out, and Kyle—

Kyle takes it without hesitation.

Chapter Text

He feels like everyone knows.

Walking through the hallways of Hell’s Pass hospital for the first time in at least a few years, Kyle feels like everyone knows. He doesn’t know anyone that he passes by, nor does he so much as look at them, but his insecurity runs deep. It’s not particularly cold today, yet even so, he’d decided to don his winter jacket. He left it unzipped so he could tug at each side, hugging it as tight around himself as possible. It condenses his chest, the plastic-like fabric— it makes him feel like he’s suffocating. It reminds him of the weed, of last night. It reminds him of Stan and the joint, of taking it too quickly for it to seem like a passing urge, of inhaling it wrong and coughing it back out. The smoke still feels like it’s stuck in his throat, charring his esophagus and rusting his lungs.

Kyle keeps rubbing his neck. He hugs his jacket around him with one hand, bunching it in his palm. With the other hand— his free hand— he presses his fingertips to his throat and rubs, counting his breaths in accordance with his steps. His shoulders are more or less relaxed. He’s okay, really. He’s just paranoid that people are watching him from— like, somewhere. It’s weird. He doesn’t usually feel like this. He’s nervous that they can smell the weed on him. He’s nervous that his father knows, even though he hasn’t made any moves or gestures to suggest such a thing. He’s just been leading Kyle and Ike up the floors and through the halls to where their mother is. They pass a nurse who pushes an empty wheelchair. She smiles at him, and Kyle coughs, once again rubbing his throat. They turn into a bay of some kind, passing a large sign that displays the fact that this is a respiratory unit. The carpet is deep brown, curling with shapes and colors and it’s seriously fucking up Kyle’s brain right now. He’s noticing everything.

Is he still high?

What? No. That’s the single stupidest thought Kyle has ever had ever. He took one drag, at two in the morning, and coughed all of it out immediately. Most of it out. Some of it out? Weed only lasts a couple of hours. The only reason Kyle is feeling weird is because he’s guilty. He’s guilty of finally saying goodbye to his stupid cleanliness. It feels… fucking horrible.

At first, it’d felt nice. Kyle hadn’t gotten high, even immediately after smoking, or whatever, but sitting with Stan and bonding in silence over something they now had both done at least once was… good. It felt like renewal. Like they could be as close as they once were. Like they can fix it.

“Kyle, what are you doing?”

Immediately, Kyle drops his hand from his throat and straightens up. He looks at his father, who stares at him a little strangely. Kyle blinks away a sudden bleariness. “Um, what?” he asks. His throat is dry. His voice crackles. Kyle clears his throat. They come to a stop outside of a room. There is a waiting area behind them, where a couple of people sit reading magazines and warming at a fake fireplace. That waiting room doesn’t matter to Kyle, though. Redundantly, there is a room. A room, a room, a room, and that room is where his mother is. He steps forward to go in, but his father holds him back, taking his shoulders and spinning him around. He fights back the urge to protest, because it’s never ended well when he’s tried to argue with his parents, and simply repeats, “What?”

“Are you feeling okay?” his father asks, looking him in the eyes. Kyle has never before been so aware of just how much he doesn’t want to be making eye contact with anyone. He blinks a few more times, opens his mouth to speak, but his father beats him to it. “Is your throat sore? Do you have a cough?”

“What?” Okay, even Kyle is getting sick of his repetitive question. “No, Dad, I’m fine.”

Kyle glances at Ike, who is staring at the two of them with apprehension. He looks like he gets something that Kyle isn’t picking up on, and it frustrates Kyle. Their father finally lets go of Kyle’s shoulders, apparently backing up from whatever he’d been possessed by. “Okay,” he says, moving to pat Ike’s back and usher him forward, closer to the door, and closer to where Kyle is hovering. “You can go in.”

Their father excuses himself to go do something or other, probably get water or use the restroom or something. Kyle hadn’t managed to catch whatever it was that he’d said before he’d just up and disappeared. Kyle swallows. He puts a reassuring hand on Ike’s shoulder, and Ike seems to appreciate it. He glances up at Kyle, and Kyle glances down at him. They nod once, exchanging a silent acknowledgment in the form of some unspoken conversation. Kyle leads the way, protective of what they might see. Their father hadn’t filled them in on what had happened. They just know that she isn’t coming home as soon as they’d thought, and Kyle doesn’t want to push Ike into seeing their mother hooked up to any machines.

She isn’t. In fact, she looks absolutely fine. The only difference is the fact that she’s wearing one of those hospital gown things, sitting in bed reading a book. The most startling thing is the oxygen mask she’s wearing. She must hear them approach, because as soon as they step in, she lifts her head and smiles. She bookmarks the page she’s on, saying, “My boys! Come here, sit.”

Her voice is muffled from the oxygen mask, but that doesn’t last long. She quickly removes it, and as Ike approaches to sit on the side of her bed, Kyle gives her a worried look. “Ma, are you sure you should be taking that off?” he asks. She waves off the concern.

“Oh, this thing?” she says, barely gesturing towards it. Ike scoots forward until he can hug her. Kyle walks forward, grabbing a chair and pulling it up to her bedside. He sits in it, shifting around a bit uncomfortably. Ike finally lets go of their mother and backs up to sit normally at the foot of her bed. He tugs at his winter hat, apparently discovering it to be a good absentminded fidget. She laughs quietly. “It’s nothing, bubbeh, don’t worry about it.”

She changes topics quickly, apparently not too keen on lingering on the sentiment of the oxygen mask. Kyle doesn’t know how he feels about the leap. She asks about school, and when Kyle says everything’s going good, Ike hops in to start rambling about the projects they’re working on at his school. He talks about the advanced mathematics classes and the project-based learning. Kyle usually wouldn’t be thrilled to listen to Ike talk about school, but right now, it’s more than welcome. Kyle is grateful for the out, he’s grateful for the monopolization. The more Ike talks, the less Kyle has to, and he likes that. He doesn’t have much to say, anyway, save for the basic niceties and sentiments of similar nature.

Kyle is contented to sit there, listening to the conversation rather than cutting in. He tries to ignore the soft noises of the hospital around them, and he tries to ignore the visuals of the outside world through the window. There’s a decent amount of space in this room, and it’s dark. The lights are off, for some reason. Kyle folds his hands in his lap, picking at his own fingers and scratching the backs of his wrists with his nails. Soon enough, Dad comes back. Ike is still talking to their mother, and Kyle is still listening. Their father pulls up a chair.

And then it’s three people in a conversation. Kyle is the odd one out. The black sheep of the family, in this situation. The quiet one, the one that looks and watches and observes. He’s still paranoid. It’s an itching in the back of his brain, telling him they know. Someone knows. Someone knows he broke the law, someone knows he smoked weed with Stan last night, someone knows he’s gay—

Not gay, he’s not...

Impostor.

He glances down; he stares at the floor.

Kyle flinches when he hears his mother start to cough. It’s rough, loud and kind of cracking, and Kyle holds his breath instinctively. He hates hospitals. He’s not concerned about catching pneumonia from his mother, but it’s reminding him of all of the other germs that are loitering around in places like these. He forces the thoughts of that away, sitting up a little straighter, ready to run in case something happens, ready to go grab a nurse or a doctor or whatever the fuck they have around here, but it doesn’t come to that. Mom stops coughing. She clears her throat, looks at Dad and asks, “I’m sorry, could you ask the nurse if I can get some water?”

“Of course,” their father replies. He stands from the chair. Ike immediately hops off of the bed.

“I’m coming too!” he says, all firm and ambitious in his tone, like this is going to be the thing that saves the world. Like this is going to be the thing that reverses astatine. Kyle can’t help but smile a little at that thought, shaking his head lightly. Ike follows their father out of the hospital room, and then it’s just Kyle and his mother.

Kyle stares at the door. For too long, maybe. He doesn’t know. He just feels kind of tired. Drained, he guesses, and a little… off? Maybe he shouldn’t have tried smoking weed. He didn’t take in very much at all, but he’s freaking out still. If he’s honest, all he wants to do is drop his head into his hands and fall asleep. But he doesn’t do that. It’d look extremely worrying, and his mother has always been kind of… doting.

“How are you?” she finally asks, her voice taking on that sweet tone that only mothers seem to be able to master. Kyle perks up, looks at her, and shrugs.

“I’m okay,” he says. He rubs his hands together, fidgeting imperceptibly. Kyle hates hospitals. He really hates hospitals. He never has good experiences in hospitals. They remind him of the worst fucking shit. He asks, “Ma, when are you getting out of here?”

“I’ll be home soon, bubbeh,” his mother tells him. And that’s it. She doesn’t elaborate. Kyle wants her to. He wants to know what’s going on, he wants to know every little detail, he wants to know why she hasn’t been able to come home yet. It’s pneumonia. Pneumonia used to be deadly, but medicine has come a long way. Now only little kids and old people get messed up by it. His mother is a healthy woman. Why is she hospitalized by it? “Don’t worry, Kyle, I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Kyle says. He feels lame for not being able to say much more. His mouth just really isn’t connecting to his brain right now.

“So, tell me, what’s new for you? Things get awfully stopped up in here, you know, it’s really driving me up the wall,” she says. Kyle smiles. He’s terrified that she can see through it, but he pushes the terror away in favor of thought. Genuine thought, not anxious freaking-out thought. There’s something pressing on him, making him feel uncomfortable and awful and like a horrible person. He wants to talk about it, but he doesn’t want to, like… talk about it.

He…

He needs to…

“Not a lot is new for me,” Kyle says, shrugging his shoulders. He sighs. He closes his eyes. He’s thinking of a way to maneuver around the topic without… making it overwhelmingly obvious. He really needs to talk to someone— and like hell he’s going to see a counselor. He trusts his mom. She’s always been there for him, even if she is a little eccentric sometimes. “I’m just a little confused, I guess.”

“What about?” she asks. Kyle starts to bounce his foot. He tries to figure out how to word it. He tries really hard.

I think I might be gay. I think I might be gay. I think I might be gay. Would you be upset if I was? If I were gay, would you be mad? Would you be disappointed? Would you hate me? Would you… kick me out?

Kyle swallows.

Just say it. It’s not that big of a deal.

Except it is.

I’m a weirdo, aren’t I?

It feels monumental, and it’s building on his tongue, and he’s about to say it.

I'm a disappointment.

He’s about to say I might be gay I might be gay I might be gay I mightbegayI

I

am scared.

“What does Ike expect to gain from accompanying Dad to go get water?” Kyle asks instead.

Chapter Text

“So, is he dead, or what?” Eric asks, leaning back in the chair.

It creaks under his weight, struggling on the two hind legs as he tips back in it. After taking a moment to rock in the weary, worn hospital chair, Kenny grabs his shoulders and pushes him forward, forcing Eric to sit in the chair normally. At the force, Eric groans, flapping his hands in the general direction of Kenny to get him to fuck off. Kenny only smacks Eric’s hands away, not bothered by the irritation. “Will you fucking stop?” Kenny snaps. “This is serious, you idiot.”

“Yeah, okay, I know it’s serious, god,” Eric replies, making a face. He leans his elbows on his knees, finally glancing towards Stan, who lays motionless in the bed. He rubs his chin. “You’re the one who isn’t answering my question.”

“That’s because your question is stupid,” says Kenny.

Eric argues, “It is not!”

Kenny smacks the back of Eric’s head. It makes a sound, a lightly audible thwap.

Kyle watches, silent. One of Stan’s hands is between his own. He rubs the skin of Stan’s palm with his thumb, hardly aware of the texture, or the fact that it’s soft against his fingertips, or the fact that it’s dry and he feels a little cold. It’s day two, of zero response, with a ventilator, but Kyle’s thoughts never linger too long on that machine. They never linger too long on the weak presence of Stan in the room, because the more Kyle thinks about it, the less he feels him there. So he focuses on other things: the way the blankets smell like plastic, and the way the curtains are drawn, and the way Kenny didn’t slap Eric nearly hard enough.

Feeling very little other than the dryness of Stan’s hand, Kyle whispers, “You didn’t hit him hard enough.”

Kenny and Eric look up. Their expressions differ, yet ask the same question. The concern from Kenny, the agitation from Eric. They’re numb static, though. Kyle blinks, refusing to soak it in, staring silently between the two of them. The door is open. It’s always open. They always keep it open, to make sure everything is okay. They being the nurses. And Kenny. Kenny has a thing against closing the doors.

“What do you have against closed doors?” Kyle asks, looking at Kenny. A strangled noise escapes Kenny, confused and lost. His mouth is open, like he’d been about to speak. Eric’s expression goes weird. Kyle ignores it. More static. Pixels. Kyle has a final due soon. No he doesn’t, that’s a lie, it’s not a final. It’s a project. He has to get the numbers from Clyde. He’s in charge of those. The numbers.

“Kyle,” Kenny says. Kyle doesn’t move. His gaze drifts to Stan’s face. To the plastic of the tubes. The plastic of his skin. He’s not moving, so he must be fake. A mannequin.

Where’s the real Stan? Kyle grips the mannequin’s hand tighter.

Kenny repeats, “Kyle,” and Kyle looks up. Look at that. Look. Kenny’s a mannequin, too. He’s a display. Something fancy in the window. Why is everyone fake? Kenny frowns, more concern, more worry, for Kyle to replace with blurry lines and static electricity and the loss of one too many valence electrons. Carbon dioxide has one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Oxygen is a diatomic element, which means it doesn’t float around on its own. It takes itself with it, wherever it goes, holding hands with a brother. Like friends. Best friends. Twins. Afraid of being alone.

Afraid.

“Kyle, hey,” Kenny says, sitting down at Stan’s bedside. Kyle feels Kenny grab his shoulder more than he sees it. It’s a firm feeling. Sturdy. Different. Kyle is afraid to lean into it, so he doesn’t. He stays stiff, starting to pet the back of Stan’s hand with his fingertips. Look at the tube. Look at the oxygen. The static. “How are you doing? Do you need a break?”

“He’s okay,” Kyle says. He examines Stan’s face. Something is keeping Kyle’s brain from processing it. “He’s alive, he’s not dead, he’s okay, it’s okay.”

It’s silent. Kyle likes it. No noises for him to become irritated by. Kenny stands, and the fabric of the blanket shifts. Kenny walks around the bed, coming up next to Kyle. He places his hands on Kyle’s shoulders, gently urging him to stand. “C’mon, man,” Kenny says, quiet. “I think it’s time for a break, okay? Come get some water with me—”

“No!” Kyle shrugs Kenny’s hands away. “I’m not leaving Stan alone with Eric, he’ll hurt him.”

Silence. Kyle scoots closer to the bed, the feet of his chair scraping the floor as it moves. He lifts a hand to brush some of Stan’s hair out of his face, away from his eyes.

Kyle looks straight at Eric, whose expression is slack. Pale.

Firmly, Kyle repeats, “He’ll hurt him.”

Kenny takes a step back and lets Kyle be.

Chapter Text

A week.

Kyle tosses the ball to Kenny, who catches it easily. It thunks hollowly in the air. Kyle hardly processes the noise. His cheeks are cold, his nose is, too. Every inch of exposed skin feels scratchy from the quiet windchill. He’s barely paying attention to the game of basketball. He doesn’t have much energy. He lost it all when he went to visit his mother this morning.

A week and she still hasn't gotten any better. Her oxygen mask had been traded for a BiPAP, which is basically an oxygen mask on steroids. Her oxygen levels haven’t been getting better, and her cough has been getting worse, and she’s been appearing more tired. The doctors are assuring them she’ll more than likely be okay, it’s just a matter of treating the infection with antibiotics and rest.

But it’s been a week.

And she hasn’t gotten any better.

Kyle intercepts the ball before Stan can make it into the net. He spins on his heel to throw it to Kenny again, but it doesn’t go down according to plan. He throws the ball, and it moves towards Kenny, but Eric runs in the middle of its trajectory, without looking, and gets hit in the shoulder with the basketball. His reaction is immediate. He spins around, rubbing his shoulder like it bruised him, and shrieking, “AY! Fucking jeez, Kyle! What the fuck was that for?”

Eric glares at him, brows furrowed and mouth pursed. The basketball rolls away from Eric slowly, bouncing down across the cement. Kyle bends down to retrieve it. “What the hell are you asking me for?” he asks, trying to force himself not to portray the pure exhaustion he’s feeling. He hops the ball between his hands, keeping himself energized and focused. “I wasn’t the one who threw it.”

He doesn’t know why he lied. He just did. It just happened. Oops. Oh well. Eric can deal.

Except Eric can’t deal.

“Oh, right, like I’ll believe that,” Eric says, scoffing. He stops rubbing his arm in favor of pointing at Kyle like he’s some sort of criminal. “Knowing you and your Jewish ways, you probably told Stan to throw it while I wasn’t looking.”

Irritability scrapes at Kyle’s bones like a surgical instrument, making him want to curl up and whip the ball at Eric as hard as he possibly can. He doesn’t, though. He holds the ball steady so he doesn’t accidentally give in to the urge to cause injury. “I did not,” he says. It comes out sharper than he means it to.

Of course, Eric escalates it all very quickly. “Fuck you, Kyle!” he shouts. “You’re a sly, daywalker bastard, Kyle!”

Kyle’s irritation increases tenfold. The names are fucking stupid. The teasing, the stupid badgering, it’s juvenile and Kyle isn’t going to take it. He squeezes the ball even tighter in his palms. He takes in a deep breath. Fuck, just count to ten. Don’t lose your shit.

Stan starts speaking, saying “Uh, guys, maybe we should, like, not—”

“I’m not a daywalker, you fat fuck!” Kyle shouts, unable to help himself. He can’t handle it anymore. Eric’s glare, the darkness of the sky, the cold of the wind, the reminder of Stan and the way he is. The dreams he keeps having. The fucking dreams, it’s too fucking much. Eric stamps his foot against the cement, and his fists are clenched. He looks like a damn toddler.

“That’s exactly what a daywalker would say, goddammit!” Eric says, because of course he does.

“God,” Kyle spits, “you’re impossible.”

“Says you!” Eric replies. “You’re more complicated than Wendy, and she’s a girl!”

Stan tenses at the comment. It renews Kyle’s fury. Jealousy slams into him like a battering ram. Why can’t he just be a fucking girl? Then maybe he’d actually have a chance. It’s with that thought that Kyle shouts, “Don’t pull that sexist crap on me, shit for brains!”

“Sexist?” replies Eric. “How was that sexist? It wasn’t fucking sexist, it was fucking true, fucking god!”

“I’d tell you to get a more extensive vocabulary, but you can’t even spell the word ‘chair’!” Kyle says. He digs his nails into the surface of the basketball, trying to hold himself back. Stan is watching. Kenny is watching, too, but Stan is watching, and he tensed all protectively at the mention of Wendy, and it hurts. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut for a moment— only a moment.

“Fourth grade, Kyle! Fourth grade!” Eric shouts. “And it wasn’t even my fault! The stupid monkey was defective! All he did was jack off!”

Fuck Eric. Fuck him. Fucking fucking fucking fuck fuck him. “What the fuck are you talking about, Cartman?

“The fucking Hooked on Monkey Fonics monkey! My mom got the Hooked on Monkey Fonics thingy and—” Eric tries to explain, like this is something Kyle was privy to, once upon a time. Like any of this makes fucking sense. Even Eric doesn’t seem to understand himself. He steps forward and shouts, “— and fuck you, Kyahl!

And that’s it.

Kyle’s body works before his brain. He doesn’t realize what he’s doing until he’s doing it, and even then he’s confused. The anger, the fear, the pain, the ache— it hurts. He grips the basketball tighter than he thinks is humanly possible, but it has to be possible, because he’s doing it.

“My name—” Kyle hisses, gritting his teeth. “—is not—”

Kyle lifts the basketball up in the air above his head.

(Better Off Dead, the remote, the fall, the dream, the joint.)

“—‘Kyahl’!”

Kyle whips the ball just like he’d wanted to earlier, putting all of his effort into it like it’ll take all of his issues away in an instant. It doesn’t, of course, but it feels good. It feels good to watch that stupid fucking basketball hit Eric Cartman in the stupid fucking face, and it’s fucking heavenly to listen to it make contact. The ball drops, bounces against the cement, and all the while, Eric doesn’t react. In the moment afterward, the air becomes stiff. It, like the ground, is frozen. Eric’s face is reddening, blushing from the impact. Kyle does not back down. He refuses. They stare each other down, breathing through seething anger and resentment for each other. Kyle wants this asshole to go down. Eric seems to be getting ready for something, and Kyle knows exactly what he’s thinking. He’s getting ready for a fight. He’s getting ready to exact revenge. Pathetic revenge, idiotic, imbecilic revenge for something asinine. Kyle could laugh, but he doesn’t.

Eric draws his hands up, entirely preparing himself for hitting Kyle. He quickly makes his way closer, speed-walking across the court and shouting, “You piece of shit! I’ll fucking kill you, Jew-boy!”

“Fuck you, fatass, I’d like to see you try!” Kyle retorts, bracing himself for the inevitability of the impact. He lifts his hands to mimic for a fight, but Eric is closer than he thought he was. Eric grabs the collar of Kyle’s jacket, tugging him close. Kyle feels his body stumble forward. Eric lifts his hand behind his head, preparing to punch Kyle in the face, but Kyle isn’t afraid. He slams his palms into Eric’s chest, and Eric jolts back, but the grip never loosens. Eric smells like salt. Like salt, of all fucking things, and it makes Kyle feel sick. Eric is looking right into his eyes. Kyle glares at him, tells him to try it through facial expression alone, but something changes. Eric’s anger simmers to something different. He’s still livid, that much is obvious, but there’s something else, there, too. Something—

Kyle doesn’t know who grabs him, at first. He just knows that someone comes up from behind him and wraps their arms around him, pulling him out of Eric’s grip and keeping tight hold on him, making sure he stays put. Kyle squirms, and the motion makes him press closer, and he smells apples. His stomach sinks and something happens behind his navel. Stan is holding Kyle back— holding him tighter than Kyle thinks he might have ever been held, and the dream comes back full force. He hardly realizes the fact that Kenny had butted between them and started pushing Eric backwards, making sure they’re distanced. Kyle’s anger swaps and flicks and clatters and makes him feel even worse. He stops struggling, catching his breath.

A noise rips from Kyle’s throat, without him telling it to come out. The fact that he was almost hit by Eric Cartman, the weird look that Eric had gained as he hesitated in hitting him, the fact that Stan is hugging him and keeping him still— Kyle’s panic reaches an unbearable high, making him want to curl in on himself and whine. But it’s just the noise, the scream of utter frustration, that makes its way through.

“Let go of me, Stan!” Kyle yells, ducking and twisting and Stan’s still not letting go. Stan grabs Kyle’s jacket. Kyle can feel it, he can feel the strength of Stan’s grip, it’s driving him mad. His skin is burning, flushed and tingling. He’s overwhelmed with the urge to beat the shit out of Eric. It’s the only way he can keep himself from giving in. The anger. The hatred. He keeps shouting, “Fuck, dude! Whose side are you on!”

“Are you kidding me?” Stan replies. His voice reverberates in his chest. Kyle can feel it. “Do I really have to answer that?”

There’s something about the way he speaks that makes Kyle want to melt. He tries to resist. “Let me hit him! God, damn it!”

Kyle inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales, watches. Kenny keeps jabbing Eric in the chest, and every time he does, Eric recoils and yelps and says something in protest under his breath. Kenny keeps silent, of course. He doesn’t usually talk when conflicts arise. Eric tries to shove Kenny back, but Kenny keeps his hold stiff, his palm against Eric’s chest, keeping him held at bay. “You wanna suffer, Kyle?” Eric is shouting. “Huh? You wanna fucking suffer? I think he wants to suffer, guys, he totally wants to suffer!”

“Cartman,” Stan says, “Do us all a favor and shut the fuck up.”

“Piss off, pussylicker!” Eric replies. “The only reason that lesbo Wendy stays with you is because you got no balls!”

Kyle’s eyes shoot wide. He starts to squirm again, ignoring the anger until he can’t anymore. It puts a hole into the wall he’s been trying to hold up for so long. “Oh, you insufferable piece of muff—”

Kyle cuts off. No fucking way. He squeezes his eyes shut and ducks his head, trying to stop himself from going there.

Eric doesn’t let it lie.

“Huh? What’s that? What is that sweet, sweet birdsong I hear? Is that a Jersey-boy?” Eric asks. Kyle refuses to look at him. He refuses to give Eric the satisfaction. “A Jersey-boy fighting his Jersey-ness, what a fun sound… and to think it’s all thanks to your bitch mom, huh, Kyle?”

Kyle suddenly doesn’t care about the Jersey shit anymore. He gets ready to lunge. “Awh, you wish, mother-fucking m—”

“Kyle, stop, let it go,” Stan says. He loosens his grip on Kyle, and Kyle automatically leaps at the opportunity to get out of that breathtaking hold. He stumbles sideways, momentarily shaking himself free of the tingling. He can barely feel his skin. He can’t fight Eric like this. Christ, Stan is his fucking kryptonite. He hates that. He hates it hates it hates it hatesithatesithates

“Let it go!” Kyle shouts. He laughs, because he can’t stop it. He can’t. “Yes, Stan, I will just let go of the fact that this asshole just called my mom a bitch. Again!”

Stan frowns. “C’mon, man, I don’t think it’s a good—”

“Oh, you don’t think it’s a good idea?” snaps Kyle. “This dick just won’t quit but, oh no, we should just call off everything because you don’t think it’s a good idea!”

Stan raises his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, jeez, I was just—”

“Alright, that’s it, everybody shut the fuck up!” Kenny shouts. Unsurprisingly, everyone does. Kyle glances up, taking in the view of Kenny and Eric. Kenny still has his palm pressed into Eric’s chest, keeping him away with that continuous, firm hold. Eric doesn’t seem too keen on attacking, though. He’s buffing his fingernails.

In the quiet, Kyle tries to catch his breath. He thinks he hears wheezing, but it’s so quiet, he is sure he’s just hearing things. Kenny finally speaks.

“Y’all are being fucking stupid,” Kenny says. “Like, full-on retarded stupid.”

Eric mutters a halfhearted comment, apparently thinking no one will hear him, but everyone does. “That’s interesting, coming from the poor white trash.”

Kyle wants to lunge, but he doesn’t. Kenny doesn’t react, so… neither should he. He shouldn’t have reacted in the first place. He was just so…

Kyle turns his gaze down towards the ground, kicking his shoes against it.

“Cartman, you’re a piece of shit,” Kenny adds. “We all know Cartman’s a piece of shit, too, and he totally deserves getting beat on with the wrath of, like, ten thousand flamin’ hot Cheetos, but— dude, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to throw people under the bus for revenge, y’know?”

That’s aimed to Kyle. He knows it. He scowls. “Who was I throwing under the—”

“Yourself, dude,” says Kenny.

Kyle lifts his head, looking at Kenny like he’s crazy. Kenny inhales.

“You gotta learn to acknowledge the fact that your body ain’t gonna just… reappear, all totally fine and shit, after you beat the ever-loving crap outta this guy, because, no offense, but… Cartman’s got, like, a hundred pounds on you? You wouldn’t expect to run up to a sumo wrestler and just be totally fine afterwards, would you?”

Kyle snickers. Stan does, too. Eric mutters, “I’m not fat, I’m just big-boned.”

Kenny ignores Eric. “The answer is no, you wouldn’t— same goes here. Cartman’s dumb, but you’re an idiot if you can’t see the harm you’re gonna cause if you try to get into fisticuffs with other dudes, and shit.”

Is he calling Kyle weak? “I’m not weak, Kenny.”

“Oh, trust me, I know,” Kenny says. He picks something out of his teeth. It’s gross. Kyle rolls his eyes. “You, as a person, are ridiculously strong… hardheaded, ‘n shit, but— man, your body would beg to differ.”

Kyle says nothing.

“Just some food for thought, man, but, hey… it’s your life, right? Go ahead and beat up as many fatasses as you want, I guess…” Kenny wipes his hand on his pants. Ew. Still gross. Kenny looks at Kyle, and Kyle stares back. Kenny nods. Kyle nods back. Kenny looks away. “Speakin’ of fatasses… c’mon, dude, we’re going to KFC and you’re buying.”

“Wh— I’m what now?” Eric asks. He’s pouting. It’s fucking pathetic. “Excuse me, when did I consent to this?”

“Just now,” Kenny says. He’s smiling, smugly. He looks at Stan. “Y’all coming?”

Kyle’s breath catches in his chest. Stan starts to talk, but Kyle blurts, “No, we’re going home.”

Kenny pauses. “Well, okay, then, suit yourself.”

And then Kenny turns, pulls Eric away for a couple of feet before Eric starts walking on his own. Seconds, and they’ve disappeared. Kyle is trying to figure out what the fuck he just did. Why— why the hell would he… say that? Why…

But he knows. He knows why. Stan wheezes.

“So…” Stan says. “I’ll see y—”

“Are your parents home?” Kyle interrupts. Stan’s expression goes confused. His already naturally-wide eyes go wider. A puppy-dog.

“What?” Stan asks. Kyle’s heart flutters.

“Your parents,” he repeats, “Are they home?”

“Uh… no? They’re at some theater… thing, in Denver this weekend, or whatever— I don’t know, I didn’t want specifics—”

Kyle reaches over and takes Stan’s sweater sleeve within his hand. He pinches the fabric, feeling like a child. He feels little. Stan is his safety. He speaks, putting up his best bravado, “Good, we’re getting high.”

Stan’s lost puppy look intensifies. “…huh?”

“You heard me,” Kyle says. “We’re going to go to your place, and you’re gonna grab your weed, and we’re gonna get as high as a fucking kite.”

Maybe if they smoke. Maybe if they smoke, if Kyle smokes— maybe he can force everything away. Maybe he can pretend he doesn’t want to bury himself in Stan’s scent and be trapped underneath him. He can pretend he doesn’t want to cuddle with him, he can pretend he doesn’t want any kisses, or anything. He can pretend it’s just a friendly, platonic love.

Friendly.

Platonic.

Plastic.

Kyle tugs on Stan’s sleeve, feeling so incredibly small.

“Now, dude,” he says. “Let’s go before we freeze our asses off out here, Stan.”

Chapter Text

This is exactly the escape Kyle needed.

“Dude,” Kyle mumbles. He doesn’t notice the fact that he’s spoken. He’s too preoccupied, observing the things that he’s never noticed before in such a calm state. The actual intake of marijuana had been uncomfortable and it definitely irritated his airways, but the effects of it taking hold more than made up for it. Never before had he ever felt so relaxed— and maybe it’s real, or maybe it’s psychosomatic, but either way, it’s true. Technicalities and other such nonsense be damned. Kyle is going to relax for once in his fucking life, and he’s going to enjoy every single minute of it.

“Yeah?” Stan says. Kyle is suddenly struck with the notion that he has no idea what Stan’s talking about, if anything. Kyle stops laughing, which he hadn’t realized he’d been doing.

“Duuude,” Kyle says. Stan chuckles. Kyle sinks lower into the couch, examining the pattern of the ceiling above them and, in all honesty, allowing himself to become quite enamored with it. The simple things are wonderful, aren’t they? How could he ever have overlooked them before? He’s not even bothered when Stan starts to rub his leg. He feels it, of course— he feels all of it. The warmth, the pressure, the tingling, the overwhelming air of it all… but it doesn’t hurt, this time, and suddenly he’s starting to laugh again.

“Kyle, are you happy?” Stan asks, and this is so ridiculous that Kyle can’t help but cover his face with his hands. It helps him calm down, allows him to feel more capable of taking deep breaths, so that’s what he does. Between giggles, he breathes, and he breathes, and he breathes, and he’s alive. He’s alive, and nothing can tell him he isn’t because he is. He is free, finally, of his brain.

“Dude,” Kyle says, and he thinks he’s already said that, but he can’t really remember. He scoots further down on the couch, pushing himself down so his thighs rest over Stan’s lap. Part of him hopes Stan will bring his touch further up his leg. It’s a thought he’d usually be overwhelmingly ashamed of, but as it is, he just lets it be. It’s a thought, and then it’s gone, and he smiles. “This is great.”

“Yep,” says Stan. “Why are you laughing, anyway?”

Kyle stretches, lifting his arms up and releasing the tension that had built up in the muscles. “This is gonna sound stupid,” Kyle says. His lips feel dry. He tries to wet them with his tongue, but it doesn’t work, because his mouth is dry, too. He blinks and goes back to what he’d been talking about. “But I don’t even remember.”

Stan hums. He tightens his grip on Kyle’s shin, just the slightest. Kyle, if sober, would be uncomfortable— but now he’s okay with it. He loves it. He wonders why Stan’s touching him like this. He’s probably just fidgeting. He probably likes the texture of Kyle’s jeans. “Hey,” Stan says, bumping Kyle’s ankle. That sensation is new, and Kyle doesn’t know how he feels about it. He grunts, draping his arm over his eyes. Stan doesn’t quit. “Hey, Kyle.”

“Huh?” Kyle replies.

“Lungs,” Stan says. “D’you think they could technically be considered bubbles?”

Kyle pulls his arm away from his face. For some reason, his brain can’t wrap itself around that. Is that a good question? That’s a good question. Shit, wait, what if Stan’s onto something? Oh, hold the fuck up, wait. Kyle pushes himself up on his elbows, looking at Stan. Stan is looking at Kyle, too. His eyes are half-lidded and casual, strange from what Kyle is used to— the lost, confused expression. “What?” Kyle asks.

Stan repeats, “Could lungs be considered bubbles?”

Oh, right, they’d been talking about lungs. Kyle blinks. Could they be? After a second, Kyle responds, “Uhh… no, bubbles are liquid.”

“Oh.”

“Mm-hmm,” replies Kyle. He lowers himself back down to lay on the couch and pulls one of the small pillows closer so he can rest his head on it. His hat didn’t like the friction between fabrics, and it slid up and then down, covering his eyes like a blindfold. Kyle would fix it, but… fuck it, Kyle reaches up and pushes his hat back into place. He allows his muscles to relax, then, feeling the way the air fills his chest so fully. Stan starts to pull at Kyle’s pant leg. The talk of lungs has brought him to air, and the air has brought him to noise. Vocal cords. Verbal things. Without thinking about it, Kyle starts to hum. He doesn’t mean for it to be anything recognizable, but it eventually falls into a familiar tune. One of the old Yiddish songs his mother would sing to him before bed, when he was little. He can’t remember the name of it. He can remember the words, visually, but he can’t make sense of them in his brain. His mouth is too dry for him to even think about saying the words in his head.

“What’re you humming?” Stan asks. Kyle stops humming.

“A song,” Kyle says.

“No shit,” Stan says. “What song?”

Kyle thinks about telling him about the song, but he can’t. “I dunno, a song,” he says. He rubs his face with his hands, trying to lick his lips again. No moisture. Dammit. “My mouth is too dry to say the words right, the weed ruined the ecosystem of my… face.”

Stan laughs.

“I’m being serious!” Kyle says, pushing himself up onto his elbows again. He sticks his tongue out, trying to see if maybe that’ll work and help him regain saliva, but it doesn’t. He tries chewing on nothing, but that doesn’t work either. He adds, “That’s a downside to weed, my mouth is a desert! My teeth might as well be fucking tumbleweeds.”

Tumbleweeds,” Stan says, laughing. “Get it, because—”

“Weed,” Kyle finishes. He shuts his eyes. “So much weed.”

“It wasn’t that much weed,” Stan says. “It was just a little, you’re a lightweight.”

“Says the guy who’s been doing this for five years,” Kyle says. “Come on, you’ve probably built up a tolerance more expansive than the Great Wall of China, but instead of keeping out the Mongolians, you’re keeping out the—… weed chemical, the… shit that gets you high.”

Stan has a weird look on his face. He says, “I thought you were in AP chemistry.”

“I am!” Kyle says. “But it’s not like we learn about weed.”

“Still,” says Stan. He starts shifting around, probably to get more comfortable, and Kyle responds by lifting his legs off of Stan’s lap to allow him room to adjust. When Stan is done adjusting, Kyle rests his legs back where they’d been. Then, Stan whispers, “Weed chemical.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“That should be your senior quote, ‘I got high on weed chemical.’”

Kyle can’t help it. He begins to laugh again, Stan’s tone echoing repetitively in his mind. He drops back against the pillow behind him. He barely hears Stan’s laughter over his own. “You’re so stupid!” Kyle says. He feels like he can’t breathe. To try and remedy this, he presses his hands over his chest, strangely convinced it will help. When he soon manages to calm, he decides that his action had, in fact, helped. To ward off the laughter that tried to kill him, Kyle keeps his hands over his chest. He breathes. He listens to himself breathe, the sheer normality of it, the quiet sentimentality of it, the liveliness and simplicity.

He wants to lay here forever.

He wonders how Stan feels. He opens his mouth to ask, but Stan speaks before Kyle can even contemplate his own words.

“Can I listen to you breathe?” Stan asks. It’s out of the blue, blunt, absentminded. Kyle furrows his brows.

“What?” he asks. His breath tries to stop again. He digs his fingers more intently into his shirt.

“Nothing, I’m high,” Stan says, rapidly dismissing himself. Shuffling begins to sound, and Kyle lifts his head to look. Stan scrubs at his face, runs his fingers through his hair. Before Stan can catch Kyle staring, Kyle lowers his head back down.

“I’m okay with it,” he says.

For a beat, there is quiet. And then: “What?”

“I’m okay with it, you have my consent,” Kyle says. “Yes, you may listen to me breathe.”

Nothing happens. For a long time, it is simply silent. Kyle’s breathing stops, he is certain, though he doesn’t laugh. The particles in the air move— he can feel them, passing his cheeks and entering his lungs, filling his body and making him survive on a couch that smells like marijuana and beer. Stan shifts again. This time, Kyle doesn’t look up. His face feels tight. Strange. Stan asks, “Are— you serious?”

“If I wasn’t serious, I wouldn’t have said yes,” Kyle says, but he doesn’t know if that’s true.

Stan whispers the quietest, “Okay,” that Kyle has ever heard, and then slowly— extremely, excruciatingly slowly— begins to move. Stan lifts Kyle’s legs off of his own, even though Kyle was already getting ready to move. Stan stands, and then Kyle is the only one on the couch, laying sprawled without the comforting touch of Stan. It’s strange, Kyle muses, watching his friend stare down at him. It’s strange, and it’s not what he’s used to. He shifts, unsure of what exactly he’s trying to do. Eventually, he decides he should move up. So, he does. Kyle sits up a bit, just enough to shift backwards, and lays back down. His neck is supported by the arm of the couch.

Stan lowers himself down over Kyle. Stan uses the back of the couch to keep from smothering Kyle, but Kyle is almost certain he wouldn’t mind it if Stan suffocated him. There’s a moment of pause, in which Kyle realizes the arm of the couch is too sharp for his neck. Somehow, Stan picks up on this. He grabs the pillow and hands it to Kyle, who pushes it between his neck and the arm of the couch. Then, Kyle settles, significantly more comfortable. Stan settles, too, shifting down until he can lay comfortably on his stomach. He turns his head, his ear pressed against Kyle’s chest.

How weird is it, Kyle wonders, that it feels so strange to breathe with Stan right on top of him like this? Not that he can’t breathe. Quite the opposite, really. It feels easier. Everywhere Stan touches him, he feels calm. The realization dawns on him rapidly. The prickling tingle of Stan’s touch had never been painful. It’d been comforting. Warm, and lovely. The fear is the painful thing, and the fear isn’t there. Kyle smiles, a little grateful that Stan isn’t looking at him. He loves this— the weight of Stan, the comfort of those tingles, the goodness of being with another person. He feels like a superhero, and in that way, he feels like he can do anything.

With that newfound superpower, Kyle begins to stroke Stan’s hair, shifting it through his fingers and playing with the strands. His hair is soft, straight and slightly-matted from the fact that he never brushes it. It’s cute. Sure, it makes Kyle want to run a comb through Stan’s hair, but it’s cute nonetheless.

Kyle’s lungs try not to breathe, but he forces them to. He does something else with his superpower.

“Have you…” Kyle trails off, though, suddenly unsure of this. He stops petting Stan’s hair, and begins again. “...ever wondered what it’d be like to kiss a boy?”

Kyle can feel Stan’s heartbeat against his stomach. For a second— just a second— he swears it speeds up. He isn’t sure, though. To keep his hopes down, he ignores it. He pretends he’s losing his mind. A few seconds later, Stan pushes himself up onto his hands and knees to look at Kyle. Kyle tries to bite back the heat in his cheeks, digging his teeth into his tongue. Quietly, Stan says, “What.”

“You heard me,” Kyle says.

“That’s really fucking gay, dude.”

Kyle’s heart gains a weight. “I didn’t mean it in a gay way.”

“Still sounded pretty fucking gay to me.”

Kyle rolls his eyes and crosses his arms over his chest, because if he doesn’t, he’ll break. His eyes feel full. His chest tries to stop breathing. His body tries to not work. “Oh, shut the fuck up,” he says, but his tone is lacking. Stan keeps staring at him. He can feel Stan’s eyes. He can see them, too, and he quickly averts his gaze. How disgusting, comes the little voice in Kyle’s head. How disgusting are you? And then the shame comes back, one drip at a time, collecting in his lungs like a puddle, pulling him downward. He can’t help but remember the field, last week. Stan had hovered over him just like this, caging him in with his arms and straddling his lap.

Kyle remembers going home with Stan. He remembers the movie, he remembers the horsing around, he remembers the dream— and Kyle, all at once, wants to go to sleep. He doesn’t want to be like this. It’s too late to back down, though, so Kyle steels himself.

“So, have you?” Kyle asks.

Dumbly, Stan asks, “Have I what?”

“Wondered about kissing boys,” says Kyle.

“No,” Stan says. Quietly, he adds, “Have you?”

Kyle jumps on the opportunity to say no. And Stan says okay. And Stan shifts. And Kyle tries to keep from bursting. And it’s quiet— too quiet, overwhelmingly quiet, so quiet Kyle can hardly see through it, and—

“You wanna try?”

Kyle’s eyes snap to Stan, who continues to gaze down at him. Stan’s mouth is still parted with the question, lips pink and warm-looking and smooth. Kyle can see his tongue, still prepared to speak, and his teeth. Kyle wants Stan to bite him. Kyle wants Stan to kiss him.

Stan’s eyes are open. That normal expression is back. The confused, puppy-dog stare. The blue. The pallor of the oceans. The slight redness of the sclerae. Kyle can smell the apple of Stan’s shampoo.

Finally, Kyle says, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

There’s a moment, as Kyle is setting the table for dinner, that he chokes on his own saliva. He doesn’t know why or how it happens, nor does he understand the significance, but it happens. Overcome with the prospect of possibly throwing up, Kyle sets the dishes down on the kitchen table and examines them. A stack of plates, identical to one another in every manner other than psychological, examines him back. It’s dark out, but the light is on. He smells the phantom odor of marijuana, even though he has taken three showers since he’s gotten home. His hair is still damp from the most recent one, not quite curling to its full extent. He’d been tempted to blow-dry it, but he’d decided against it. Blow-dryers always make him look like a poodle. He hates it.

Having recovered, Kyle moves to retrieve the plates and continue setting the table, but he changes the action quickly. Instead, he rests his palms on the hard, sturdy surface of the dining table. He’d already put out the place-mats. They match, all except one— the fourth one, that’s a muted green rather than a deep, cobalt blue. The mismatching disrupts him, forces him to pinpoint the odd-one-out. Kyle pushes himself correctly upright, wandering over to the green place-mat and picking it up. He folds it between his fingers, examining the fraying corners. There’s a stain on the back of it, Kyle discovers. He runs his fingertips over it. There is a texture on the mat that he’s unused to, smooth but covered in loose, hard fuzz. He splays his palm across the center. His eyes feel full. He decides it probably won’t be used and puts it back in the cabinet.

Kyle returns to the dishes and picks them up, quickly finishing his job of setting the table. He gets caught in the smoothness of the plates. He sits in his seat and ignores the things around him. The chair creaks softly under his weight. He fidgets with the corner of his plate. He picks up his fork and prods at the porcelain, scrapes at the design being sheltered by the shiny glaze. He muses on the fact that he could break the plate. Right here, right now, he could pick the plate up and throw it against the floor, watch it shatter. He’s afraid of himself, then. He’s afraid of what he might do. He’s afraid he might lose control. Kyle drops the fork and stands up from his chair, concluding that he isn’t safe on his own. He needs to go somewhere with other people, like his father. But his father isn’t home, is he? No, he’s not.

Not all day.

He rarely is, anymore.

Ike isn’t expecting dinner. Kyle always makes it, but Ike never expects it. Kyle wants to make something nice tonight, for the two of them. But he can’t. The fridge doesn’t have much that he knows what to do with, and he doesn’t trust himself with heat or knives, anyway. He’s not going to hurt himself. He doesn’t think. But he can’t tell. He doesn’t feel all there, really. He feels distant, a separate individual from himself, wandering through the world dumbly. His brain is foggy. He can’t see straight. He comes to realize he has started pacing around the kitchen. The counters surround him on two sides, the fridge on another, the table on the last. He remembers eating. He’s eaten already, fifteen carbohydrates to avoid an episode, enough to keep him okay, enough to keep him stable. He doesn’t feel hungry, now.

He hasn’t felt hungry in a while.

What have you done?

Kyle stops pacing, fingering the ends of his sleeves. The smell of pot comes back, strong. He makes a face, lifting his arm to sniff, and sure enough, that’s where it’s coming from. The jacket. The one he kept putting on after every shower, even though he wasn’t going anywhere. It’s the baggiest thing he has. That’s why, he thinks. That’s why he wears it. But he doesn’t know for sure. It might be because Stan touched it. No. No, that’s not it, it can’t be it. Kyle folds his hands together, scrubbing at his palms. He listens to the sound his skin makes. Abruptly, he reassures himself he is not a creep. He doesn’t fantasize about Stan, he doesn’t fantasize about his eyes or his hair or his body. He is not attracted to Stan. Stan is objectively attractive, but Kyle does not find him attractive.

But there’s something about it that hurts. His heart beats in his chest, rhythmic and constant, keeping him alive. Stan had pressed his ear to his sternum earlier, listened to his heartbeat. Kyle had slid his fingers through Stan’s hair. They had kissed. They had kissed. They had kissed. More than that. They’d basically made out. Kyle feels like everyone knows, even though he is alone. He rubs the memory from his lips. He tries to, at least. It won’t go away. It gains power, insisting attention, making his core heat and flip in a way he doesn’t like. Kyle grabs the counter, shutting his eyes as tightly as he can, rolling his shoulders to rid himself of remembering.

You are disgusting.

Kyle sinks to crouch, digging his nails into the counter. They scrape, make noise. He has to make dinner. He has to take care of Ike. He has to eat something. It’s his responsibility. He’s almost eighteen. He’ll be an adult in a matter of months, and then what? Then what does he do? If he can’t take care of his little brother, if he can’t take care of himself, he is nothing more than useless. That’s how it works. Adulthood is just around the corner. He is supposed to be mature. Afraid, Kyle assures himself that he is. He is mature. Ever since he was a kid, adults have told him he’s mature for his age.

Maybe he reached a limit. Maybe he was born as mature as he would ever be, and maybe this is it. Stan is mature. He quit drinking. On his own. Not just anyone can do that. Kyle wishes he had that self-control. He wishes he could self-regulate. He wishes, wishes, wishes, but he’s a birthday cake short, a candle is missing, and he is incomplete.

Out of control.

Kyle falls the rest of the way to the ground. He catches himself on his arms, unsteady on his feet, landing to sit on his butt. He still smells the marijuana. It clouds him, suffocates him. He’d felt so much better when he was high. He wasn’t afraid, he was calm. He didn’t even realize he was stressed until he wasn’t stressed anymore, and now he’s stressed again and he wants to not be stressed. He wants to take time. He wants to lay in bed with Stan and smoke, getting as high as possible and forgetting the world, until inhibitions self-destruct and they—

STOP IT.

Sitting with his legs crossed and hunched forward, Kyle curls his fingers into his hair. It wets his palms when he squeezes, and for a second, he thinks he can feel all of it. He can feel every droplet of water that has ever touched his skin, that he has ever drank. Saltwater pumps through his veins, stinging his arms and making him crave normalcy. He wants to get high. That’s it. Just one more time, maybe he can get high. Once more. Just one more, that’s all he’d need.

“Are you okay?”

Kyle jerks to look up, letting go of his hair. Ike stares back at him, just beside the counter Kyle had been gripping. There is a confused expression on his face. Concern laces his brows together, makes the corners of his mouth twitch down. He is frowning. That’s what that expression is called. It’s a frown. Kyle pulls himself back to his feet with the help of the counter. It sturdies him. It’s dark outside. He wants to see fireflies, but there aren’t any out around here. Not usually, at least. Breathing in, Kyle says, “I’m fine.”

There’s murmuring. Kyle tries to ignore it. He lifts a hand and digs the heel of his palm against the side of his head, the occipital bone of his skull. There’s a dent in his skull, minimal, barely there, just above his right eye. If he runs his fingers over that spot of his forehead, he can feel it. The dent. It’s tiny. Infinitesimal. Microscopic. But Kyle can feel it, and it doesn’t feel right.

Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.

“Stop,” Kyle hisses, momentarily digging his nails into his scalp.

“Stop what?” Ike asks. Kyle looks up again, and this time, Ike’s confused concern has intensified. He looks really uncomfortable, shifting his weight from foot to foot, fidgeting with the hem of his tee-shirt. He shuffles forward, slowly making his way over. Kyle forces himself not to move, even though the urge to run is almost overpowering. There’s a weird feeling starting in his neck, sourcing from between his shoulder blades. He rubs at his eyes to distract himself. Is he still high? He doesn’t know what time it is. There’s no way he’s still high, though. No way. But maybe…

“Nothing,” Kyle says. “Sorry, I’m just tired.”

Ike’s frown deepens. “If you’re that tired, you should really sleep,” he says. Kyle can’t help but agree. It’s the logical thing for him to do. Weed. He means sleep. Sleep. Not weed. He blinks the fuzziness from his eyes, tries to understand why his mind isn’t working as well as it usually does. He feels like he’s been asleep. He doesn’t even remember what it feels like to be awake. He should crawl into bed and… “Have you eaten today?”

“Of course I’ve eaten today,” Kyle says, snappish. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“No,” says Ike. “You’re not stupid, you’re just acting weird, and that’s usually the reason you act weird.”

Kyle huffs. “I told you, I’m just—”

There’s a knock on the front door. Both Ike and Kyle pause, glancing towards it. After a second, they look at each other, questioning silently on who that could be. Since Kyle is the older one, naturally, the responsibility settles on him to check out who it is. It’s almost eight o’clock. Or… seven? He doesn’t know. But it’s dark out, no one should be visiting. Kyle walks briskly out of the kitchen and into the living room, crossing to the front door. Ike follows close behind. Kyle moves over to the window and glances out. He nearly jumps out of his skin when the doorbell rings. It’s loud, lingering in Kyle’s ears like an echo. The noise is endlessly unpleasant. He shifts over a few more inches, leaning to see to the stoop.

Kyle’s gaze is met with the eyes of Eric Cartman. Kyle can see the dark of them even through the night, Eric being illuminated by the motion-activated porch-light. As soon as they make eye contact, Kyle steps back. He pulls the curtains shut with an eye roll. Idiot. Coming over so late is rude— but of course, he knows that. There’s probably a reason Eric is out there, but Kyle really isn’t in the mood to deal with it. He steps over to the door, double-checking that the door is locked. It is. Kyle glances to the window once more. The curtains remain closed. He goes back to examining the lock. It’s locked. Wait, of course it is, he already checked that.

Turning around, Kyle rubs his forehead, furrowing his brows and squeezing his eyes shut. The weird feeling in the back of his head was the precursor of a headache. It’s starting to hit him now. There’s a weird feeling that Kyle can’t explain very well, but he has experienced it more than his fair share of times.

“You were right,” Kyle says. He forces himself to not re-check the lock, instead making his way back into the kitchen to grab something to eat.

“Right about what?” Ike asks, lingering in the doorway of the kitchen.

“I’m acting weird,” Kyle answers. He opens the fridge, blinking away the harshness of the light as it flicks on. It takes him a split-second longer to process than normal.

Ike nods, all matter-of-fact. It looks weird, coming from Kyle’s younger brother. Ike says, “Check your blood sugar.”

“Yeah,” Kyle says. “Yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

Something still feels very vaguely wrong in the mind of Kyle, even come school a day later. It feels a little like something has shifted, or he’s missing something very important. It’s a strange hollowness that he can’t exactly pinpoint, and he doesn’t really think he wants to pinpoint it. He tries to ignore it, and to his surprise, it comes almost naturally, as if he’d been doing it for years. He hardly thinks as he moves on autopilot, packing his backpack and double-checking that he has all of his homework in order. Sure enough, he does. Ike comes down the steps with his own backpack in tow, his lips pursed mid-whistle. Kyle glances up at the noise, instinctively quirking a brow.

“What’d you do?” Kyle asks. Ike stops on the landing of the steps, brows lifted in a distinctly acute ‘believe me’ look. That’s what Kyle calls it, at least. It’s a trick he’s discovered, himself— raise your brows when you lie, nod, it’ll make people more likely to believe you, or consider you worth empathy, or something. If they don’t know what to look for, that is. Ike is pulling this look pretty hard.

“I didn’t do anything,” Ike says, and Kyle almost believes him. Almost. But there’s a note to his eyes, as he glances away, almost invisible in the way he’s started to rock on the balls of his feet.

“Sure,” Kyle says. “You didn’t do anything, and elements are reversible. What’d you do?”

Ike frowns. “Why don’t you believe me? I haven’t done anything, I swear!”

Kyle doesn’t reply with anything. He stays silent, making sure to harden his disbelieving look, and holds out his hand in retrieval of whatever Ike took. It’s a little bit of a bold move, to assume the thing Ike did was steal something, but it wouldn’t be the first time. He’s managed to be a bit of a klepto over the years, stealing little things like pencils and rubber bands from school. Sometimes, Kyle wonders if it’s even a conscious thing for Ike. After a long moment, Ike pouts, lowering his head down in shame. He digs into one of the pockets of his uniform, pulls something out, and drops it into Kyle’s palm. It’s weighty, cold like metal or a well-constructed fake. Kyle looks at the object.

One of their mother’s brooches. A silver flower-type design, with small gems adorning the very tips of the petals and the center of the flower, technically representing the pistil and stamens. Mom doesn’t make a habit of wearing brooches, necessarily— not in Kyle's lifetime, at the very least— but she does sometimes wear this one on particularly formal occasions. Kyle’s expression twitches down, stiffening a bit. He looks back up at Ike, who still stares at the floor, kicking his shoes into the carpet of the landing.

“She’s going to be okay, y’know,” Kyle says. Ike doesn’t take kindly to that, puffing his cheeks out and narrowing his eyes.

“That’s what you said last week!” he argues, pulling his head up to look at Kyle. Their gazes meet. Kyle can’t hold the eye contact for very long. He glances back at the brooch. Kyle closes his fingers around it, gripping it in his fist, careful.

“Here,” Kyle says. He grabs Ike’s wrist and pulls his hand up, placing the brooch carefully within Ike’s palm and closing Ike’s fingers over it. He looks Ike dead in the eye and says, “Don’t lose it.”

Without hesitation, Ike nods, bringing the hand holding the brooch to his chest, where his heart is. He lowers his head, keeping good care of it in his grasp, as he starts making his way to put on his shoes. Kyle observes. Just before Ike starts heading out the door, Kyle notices that Ike’s backpack is unzipped. Rolling his eyes, Kyle grabs Ike by the strap of his backpack and tugs him back inside. Ike stumbles, going, “Ow!” even though they both know it didn’t hurt.

Kyle zips up Ike’s backpack, almost shocked from the sheer amount of crap Ike is able to shove into one bag. “Remember to zip up your backpack,” he says, patting Ike on the shoulder once he’s finished zipping him up. Ike glances over, grinning.

“Okay!” he says. He exits, then, leaving Kyle behind in the house. Kyle kicks on his own shoes and pulls on his backpack, heading out soon after. He takes a second to lock the door, shouting at Ike to Clean your backpack, too, while you’re at it! but he has a feeling Ike is ignoring him. Whatever. If worse comes to worst, Kyle will just badger him about it once he gets home from school. He starts down his driveway, kicking at a stray pine cone on his way to the sidewalk. Someone claps a hand on his shoulder. Kyle’s instinct is to smack whoever touches him, but he manages to keep himself calm. He looks over his shoulder. It’s Stan.

“Oh, hey,” Kyle says.

“Hey,” replies Stan. He pulls his hand away from Kyle, shoving both of his hands into the pockets of his sweater. Kyle swallows, blinking at the sudden recollection of what it had felt like to kiss him. Stan asks, “Preoccupied?”

And Kyle immediately spits, “No,” turning on his heel and beginning on his way down the sidewalk again. Stan follows close behind, as always. They usually walk to school together, and they usually walk home. Sometimes they decide to take the bus, though— but only if it seems worth it, weather-wise. They manage to get halfway to the stop before Stan starts to talk again.

“You sure?” he says, jogging to walk next to Kyle rather than follow behind him. Kyle looks over. “You, like, totally bypassed me in your driveway.”

“I just didn’t see you,” Kyle says, to which Stan says, Oh. And that’s it. Kyle is grateful for the short conversation. He doesn’t know if he wants to have anymore verbal interaction with Stan right now. His attention always falls too low for eye-contact. It’d been easy to ignore before, brushing it off as just him reading Stan’s lips in the loudness of the rest of the world, wherever they may be— but now, he knows better. He knows what they feel like on his own. He knows what Stan smells like. He remembers the phantom scent of apples, from when they’d been so close. The smell of apples is absent today. Without thinking, Kyle blurts, “You didn’t shower today, did you?”

Stan’s eyes go wide, surprised. “Aw— awh,” he says, rolling his head back and hitting himself in the forehead. “I knew I was forgetting something… is it really that noticeable?”

Should Kyle be grossed out? Because he’s not. He likes the way Stan—

Oh, fuck, what the fuck? No. No. Stop it. That’s inappropriate. Kyle fucking hates this.

Kyle shakes his head and picks up his pace. “Not really,” he says, the words speeding through his mouth. Stan sighs in some weird sense of relief. They pause at an intersection, glancing around for cars before walking across. Snow slicks the cement. Kyle pays close attention to the patches of ice, under the guise of making sure he won’t slip and fall. He hasn’t slipped on ice since he was a kid. It’s cold. A wind starts to pick up, very vague and kind of chilling, but also nice in the way it keeps things moving just enough. It barely rustles the tiny branches of the trees.

They don’t talk about much on the rest of the walk to school. They dabble in little conversations about abstract things, like the game on television or a musing about hanging out to watch an eighties movie. The idea is tempting. Stan jokes around about Better Off Dead, and Kyle tries to follow through with the reference. He stumbles on it a bit, because it’s a reminder. It triggers the little switch in his mind that shows him pictures from the other night, and from a week ago, with the movie itself. The discomfort radiates low in Kyle’s body, making him feel too warm. It’s frustrating, and a little frightening, because he’s not really in control of it. Kyle crosses his arms over his chest and grabs his forearms, digging his nails into them to distract himself. He doesn’t want to feel like this anymore. He can’t. He’s going to go insane.

Kyle leads the way up to the entrance of the school, pushing the door open with his shoulder, still not trusting his brain enough to focus on normal things if it doesn’t have the stinging. It’s muffled through his jacket, of course, but it’s helping keep him preoccupied. He wonders if Stan is even thinking about it— wonders if Stan even remembers, because he’s certainly good at acting like nothing happened. Fucking fantastic. When Kyle makes it to his locker, he is almost overwhelmed by the urge to slam his head into it. He doesn’t do that, though. It’d cause a scene. But it might knock him unconscious, which, at this point, might be a good thing.

Stan is talking about something that happened in class last week. Something he’d forgotten to talk about before. Kyle listens, but the words are nonsensical to his ears. Or maybe they make sense to his ears, but won’t connect in his brain. He shoves his backpack into his locker, hanging it on the hook so he can search through it for what he needs. “So, yeah,” Stan says. “Miss K is gonna be mad, but it’s whatever, y’know? She already hates me, so it probably won’t change too much, right?”

“Right,” Kyle replies. He furrows his brows, pursing his lips, trying to find a pencil. He can’t figure out where his pencil case is. It isn’t where he usually keeps it. He rechecks all of the pockets of his backpack, but it’s no use. He must have forgotten it at home. Shit, he has no writing utensils. He sighs, looking at Stan. “Hey, do you have a pencil I could borrow for the day? I’ll return it after school.”

“Huh? Oh, sure,” Stan says. He perks up a little, the hint of a tiny smile on his face. He shifts his backpack around so he can dig into the smallest, outermost pocket. He pulls out a couple pencils, offering them up. The smile widens as he adds, “Take your pick.”

Kyle doesn’t understand why Stan looks so proud of himself. He takes a pencil, examining Stan’s face as he does. It’s cute, really. Stan bounces himself on his feet, an infinitesimal movement that Kyle wouldn’t notice if he weren’t looking for such body language. Kyle’s breath catches in his throat, pressing his lips into a tight line to force himself not to smile back. He fails at not smiling. “Wow, that excited about a pencil? Are you the one who took my pencil case?” he prods, joking. Stan snorts, putting the other pencils away and re-situating his backpack.

“Dude, no way, I just— y’know, like to help out,” Stan says. Kyle has to glance away to cool the heat pooling in his cheeks. When he looks back to Stan, he notices that Stan is looking right at him, and— is that Kyle’s imagination, or is Stan blushing? He’s adorable, Kyle decides. Stan is adorable. Stan gestures behind himself, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. “Hey, I gotta head off to class, but… I’ll see you at lunch, yeah?”

“Yeah,” says Kyle. “I’ll see you at lunch.”

Stan makes a happy humming noise. “Okay, great, seeya later,” he says. There’s a hesitation before Stan turns and starts walking away, hopping a few steps when he trips over his own ankles. Kyle can’t help it. He laughs. Stan glances back at Kyle and waves. Kyle waves back. In a matter of seconds, Stan has disappeared down the hallway. The rest of the students are dispersing, making their own ways to classes. The bell rings. Usually, Kyle would be concerned about his attendance record, but he doesn’t really have to worry about it today. He has to meet up with his counselor to discuss some of his credits. Apparently the system has been acting weird, or something, so they have to corroborate the fact that he’s taken all of his required courses. Kyle hums softly under his breath, lingering in the hallway until everyone else disappears.

Kyle leans closer to his locker, hiding himself behind the door. He brushes his fingertips over his cheek, rubbing at the muscles that are sore from smiling. The thing with Stan is scary, but it’s also good. There are moments where it feels almost worth the pain and panic— keyword, almost. It’d be better if it was actually requited. That might be the most painful thing about it. The fact that Stan isn’t gay, so therefore, probably doesn’t actually like Kyle like that. In fact, almost certainly, Stan doesn’t like him like that. He’s still dating Wendy, and… oh, fuck. Wendy. Kyle suddenly feels sick. There’s a rock in his stomach. He swallows thickly. No longer smiling, he gets back to work, removing what he needs from his backpack. He shuts his locker, taking a step back so he has the room to actually do so, and—

Kyle’s back hits a sturdy form behind him. He opens his mouth, contemplating if he should say sorry. His heart skips a beat when he thinks it might be Stan. He turns to look behind him, but he doesn’t manage to catch who it is before they move, shoving him into the lockers. Kyle stumbles, dropping his things on instinct to catch himself before his face hits the metal. He manages, but something about the way he fell against the lockers fucks up his shoulder. It’s a tiny ache.

Kyle spins around, snapping, “What the fu—”

Eric stares back at him, eyes determined. Kyle’s reflexes aren’t working as well as he would like them to. When Eric shoves him back against the lockers for a second time, Kyle is so shocked he just lets it happen. His breath rushes out of him. The back of his head hits the door of his locker. It doesn’t hurt, really, but it does stun him. Eric is suddenly too close, taking up the entirety of his vision. Kyle slams his fist into Eric’s shoulder, expecting that to end it, but it doesn’t. It only spurs Eric closer, reaching up to grab Kyle’s face with one hand, pinching his cheeks with a bruising grip.

Now that hurts.

“You think you can fuck with me?” Eric growls, eyes unblinking as he stares at Kyle. Kyle shakes his head— tries to, at least. Eric’s grip on his face is unrelenting. “Don’t lie to me, Kyle, I know what you’re thinking!”

Kyle narrows his eyes, glares, tries to ask what the fuck are you talking about but Eric is starting to dig his nails into the sides of his face. He hisses an intake of breath. Eric’s mouth twitches, still staring directly into Kyle’s eyes. They’re too dark. Too deep of a brown, too harsh. It’s too much eye contact— too much bad eye contact. It pisses Kyle off. He kicks Eric in the shin. Eric grabs Kyle’s shoulder with his free hand, the same one Kyle had messed up against the locker just a second ago.

“You’re thinking you can fuck with me, isn’t that right? You think you can throw a ball at my head and expect to get away with it, you think my chocolate Twinkies idea is ridiculous, you think I’m ridiculous, don’t you?” Eric leans closer as he speaks, rambling quickly, almost hushed. Kyle shoves at Eric’s chest. Eric shifts, but doesn’t let go. “You think I’m a joke, don’t you?”

Kyle bites back the urge to say Yeah, kinda. Being snippy won’t get him anywhere, as much as it’d make him feel better. Something shifts. Eric does something different. Something weird. A smirk spreads over his face, morphing.

“I’m gonna have fun with you,” Eric says. He drops his hand from Kyle’s face and instead gropes at Kyle’s waist, digging his fingers into the fabric of his shirt and latching onto the flesh beneath it.

That’s where Kyle draws the line at ludicrousness. With all of his strength, he slams his palms into Eric’s chest. It must hurt Eric, because he stumbles back and actually lets go. Kyle kicks Eric in the shin once more for good measure. While Eric is distracted, Kyle crouches and gathers his things in record-breaking speed.

He stands back up, backing a solid few feet away from Eric. There’s this look in Eric’s eyes, that tells Kyle to get the fuck out of here now. He has to listen to it. And he will.

“Never,” Kyle chokes, pausing to swallow through the dryness of his throat. Anger floods him, and he snarls as he says, “Never touch me like that again.”

Eric opens his mouth to reply, his own expression morphing, livid. He starts to approach. Kyle approaches him, too. He storms by Eric, shoving into Eric’s arm as hard as he possibly can as he passes. Kyle is shaking. He’s not freaked out, or anything, but he’s shocked, in disbelief at what just happened. Kyle speed-walks down the hallway, but it doesn’t feel fast enough. He needs to move. That’s what his body is telling him to do. Move.

But Kyle feels frozen.

Chapter Text

Kyle doesn’t see Eric for the rest of the day. It’s strange. Such an impromptu outburst from Eric is unlike him. He’s usually more calculated than that. Throughout lunch and whenever he enters the hallways, Kyle always double-checks to make sure Eric isn’t watching him from somewhere. The idea that Eric would freak like that and not follow up is almost scarier than what might happen if he did.

Walking to Stan’s house after school is filled with the urge to bring it up. He doesn’t, though. As strange as it was, and as weird as it made Kyle feel, he doesn’t want to start involving Stan in something that might not even be… a thing? Fuck, Kyle doesn’t know. He has no idea how to wrap his head around it. Whenever he tries to understand, his brows furrow from effort. Stan stops a few times mid-speech to ask if Kyle is okay. Even still, Kyle doesn’t talk about it. After six hours of agonizing, Kyle finally decides that it doesn’t matter. Whatever the fuck it was, whatever the hell the significance is, it doesn’t matter. If Eric approaches him again, Kyle can get the others involved. Right now, it’s not important.

Stan opens the door once they get to the Marsh house, leaving it open for Kyle. Kyle follows him in, taking care to place his shoes neatly out of the way. Stan kicks his own aside, dropping his backpack by the door. He wanders into the kitchen to grab a snack, or something. It’s usually what he does before they hang out after school. It’s a tiny routine of theirs, really. Kyle shuts the front door, setting his backpack down. Suddenly remembering the pencil, Kyle pulls it out of his bag. He unzips Stan’s backpack’s front pocket, reaching in to replace the pencil. His hand hits something smooth and plastic. Confused, he pulls it out— which is definitely rude, but whatever— to examine what the object is.

Aspirin. Oh. Okay.

Kyle replaces it and re-zips Stan’s bag. He shrugs off his coat and drapes it over the banister of the steps. Once everything is settled, Kyle begins making his way back to follow Stan. Kyle almost runs face-first into him as he emerges from the kitchen with an apple in one hand. Stan cusses, chewing a bite of apple, lifting his free hand up to cover his mouth. “Oh, shit,” he says. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off like that, dude.”

“It’s fine,” Kyle says. He moves to the right to sneak past, but Stan must have the same idea, because he moves in the same direction. At the exact same time, they duck to try to pass the other way, but they only get in each other’s way again. It’s disorienting, a loop they’re caught in, until Kyle throws his hands into the air, spins on his heel, and stalks over to the couch. “I give up!”

“Aw, what? No,” Stan says. His words are more comprehensible now that he’s swallowed the bite of apple. “Don’t give—”

Kyle plops himself down on the couch, crossing his arms over his chest.

“—up…”

It’s quiet, then. Stan walks over to the couch, sitting next to Kyle. Stan rolls the apple in his hand, examining it for something or other that Kyle isn’t sure of. He watches Stan mess with it, hopping it between his palms, playing catch with himself. Soon enough, Stan catches Kyle staring. Kyle turns away, embarrassed. He’s convinced that Stan can read his mind, or something, but it’s illogical. Stan is usually a little slow on the uptake, and now is no different.

Stan holds the apple out, offering it. “You want some?” he asks. Kyle makes a face.

“No, thanks,” Kyle says, pushing the apple back towards Stan.

“You sure? You were looking at it all, like, hungry, and shit.” Even as Stan says this, he doesn’t try again to give Kyle the apple. Instead, he takes another bite, chewing thoughtfully. Kyle closes his eyes, leaning his head against the backrest of the couch and sliding down a little, slouching.

“I wasn’t looking at the apple,” Kyle mumbles.

Stan makes a noise and says, “Sorry, what was that?”

Kyle could brush it off as nothing. He could ignore it, or say it doesn’t matter, or pretend he hadn’t said anything, but he doesn’t. He digs his fingers into his hair, scrubbing at his scalp. He tries to comb through a section, but his fingers get stuck in a snag. He winces, not expecting it, even though he really should have. Fucking curly hair and the fucking snarls. “I wasn’t looking at the apple,” Kyle repeats. He opens his eyes, gazing at the ceiling above him. He remembers staring at this same exact fucking ceiling when he’d gotten high with Stan. It stirs something inside of him. He wants to rip the apple out of Stan’s hand. He wants to climb into Stan’s lap and shove his stupid fucking tongue into Stan’s mouth. That’s what he wants to fucking do. That’s what he’s hungry for.

With his head stinging from shame, Kyle slips further down on the couch, rubbing his face with his palms. Something shifts, but with Kyle’s eyes distinctly closed, he doesn’t know what it’s from. “Oh,” Stan says, a little dumbly. There’s another pause before Kyle catches the distinct sound of Stan’s teeth digging into the flesh of the apple. More seconds, More minutes. Two more bites and three swallows later, Stan finally asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Yes. The answer is yes, he wants to talk about it. He’s wanted nothing more than to talk about it. He wants to get the weight off of his chest, to tell someone, to admit that he’s fucked up for thinking of his best friend in the way he does. He wants to cry and curl up into a ball and he wants Stan to be there for him. He wants to wrap himself up in Stan’s sweater and cuddle into Stan’s chest and try to figure out how to categorize how Stan smells. But he says, “No, I don’t want to talk about it.”

And Stan is too goddamn respectful to push it, so that’s how it’ll be. They’ll not talk about it more. The pressure will keep building, until it crushes him, and then what will happen? Kyle can’t imagine a universe where he doesn’t feel the way he does right now. Then again, maybe that’s due to the fact that it feels so all-encompassing. The only time it’s okay is when Kyle is high.

“Can we smoke?” Kyle asks, dropping his hands from his face. He looks at Stan, hopeful. Stan halts mid-bite, giving Kyle a wide-eyed stare. Pulling the apple away from his mouth, Stan chews quickly. He sets the half-finished apple onto the coffee table.

“Seriously?” Stan asks, quirking a brow.

“Seriously,” says Kyle. He sits forward, leaning his elbows on his knees, trying to give Stan the most casually-pleading look he can. Maybe he plays it up a little, however stupid that sounds— and however awful it sounds, Kyle doesn’t care. His lungs are craving the feeling of it, and his brain is craving the relaxed energy, which in itself is a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s true. Kyle goes through things to say in his mind. How can he get there, how can he manage, how can he be convincing. Kyle forces himself to pause, pressing his lips together tightly. Then, he says, “We don’t have to, if you don’t want, it’s just… y’know, it’s been nice to share something.”

Stan freezes. He’s chewing on the inside of his cheek, so maybe freezes isn’t the right word, but he’s no longer moving the rest of his body. Kyle knows he’s hesitating. He’s thinking about it, right? Kyle can’t pinpoint where the thought process had started for himself, but he’s overwhelmed with these weird… feelings. Urges. Different from the ones he’s been dealing with for years, different from the things he’d been used to. These new cravings carve into him, make his hands shake when he knows he can have it, because he can. Stan gets up from the couch and leaves the living room, making his way to the kitchen to retrieve the weed from where he stores it, and Kyle— fuck, Kyle feels relieved.

This is weird. Right? This is weird. Light sheds in from the window. It’s still early in the afternoon, hardly four o’clock at the latest, and they’re going to smoke pot. As guilty as dropping his cleanliness had made him feel at first, it’d quickly morphed into something else. Kyle bounces his leg, staring at Stan’s apple. It’s oxidizing, turning brown in the crevices of the bite-marks. The idea of all of those condensed particles enforces a fear in him, and it’s disgusting— enough to make him feel physically ill. His face burns, heart pounds heavily in his chest, grinding a paranoid rhythm of terror into his every cell.

It itches. He digs his nails into his wrists, trying to scrape it out of his skin, but it doesn’t work. The pain aids him only for a split second, before he feels like he needs more to atone for whatever disgusting thing surrounding him. Because, that’s it, isn’t it? He’s disgusted by the outside, even temporarily— and even if it is utterly unrealistic in every facet. Horrid. Sickening.

You’re sick.

Kyle shoots up from the couch, planning on running and locking himself in the bathroom to ride out this wave of fear. His chest is tight. He doesn’t have control here, does he? He doesn’t have any control here. He’s a slave to the thoughts that come to his brain, these putrid thoughts that rot him inside, that make him feel this, and he thinks—

I hate you.

Kyle walks behind the couch, grabbing onto the fabric of the backing. Something in his body stops working, something in his head stops receiving input— something snaps. He becomes enamored with the blurring outline of the stairs, where they meet the banister and where that juxtaposes with the wall. He is suddenly aware of the carpeted flooring beneath him. There’s ringing in his ears and a pressure in his skull, making his eyes want to close. Maybe…

Maybe he should go.

He doesn’t recognize himself. He doesn’t recognize anything around him. Why is he here?

You should go home.

But he can’t see straight. He can’t find the energy to grab his coat, or slip on his shoes, or exit, or— hell, even take a single step away from the couch. He feels sick, he thinks, but he doesn’t really know. Maybe this is it. Maybe he should go home. Maybe he should give up. Is this his limit? It feels like his limit. This is his limit. This isn’t real.

He feels a little like he’s watching himself. How funny is that?

Stan finally emerges from the kitchen for the second time that day. Much like earlier, he arrives with an item in hand— except, this time, it’s a joint. Kyle sees the joint sooner than he sees Stan, honestly, and he thinks that might be something concerning rearing its ugly little head, but he doesn’t care. Kyle’s hand lets go of the couch, and he steps over. He takes the joint from Stan, taking a second to admire the fact that it’s already lit. He takes a hefty drag, turning away from Stan as he does so. He pulls the joint from his lips, and holds the breath. Pause. Pause. Pause.

Kyle exhales, letting the smoke out. It feels like it coats his tongue, pressing through the air in front of him in warmth. That’s nice. He knows it’s ridiculous, but he feels better already.

“Jesus Christ,” Stan says, clapping a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle’s natural response would be to flinch, but he doesn’t. Not this time. He feels okay. The joint feels good in his hand. It feels natural against his lips, it’s right. This is right. “You really wanted to smoke, didn’t you?”

Kyle nods, humming. He rolls his shoulders, pressing the side of his head into Stan’s neck. He expects Stan to tense, or jump, or something, but he doesn’t. After a second of hesitation, Stan adjusts his grip on Kyle, wrapping his arm around Kyle’s shoulders. Kyle has his eyes closed, so he can’t see Stan, but he definitely feels it when Stan removes the joint from Kyle’s grasp and takes a hit of his own.

Stan’s hand drops to Kyle’s waist, squeezing tight, and Kyle doesn’t mind a bit

Chapter Text

He’s still high by the time he makes it home. That isn’t just the paranoia, either. He’d had a little too much, spread over a little too long, and while his brain has been slowly coming down over the past thirty minutes, there is no way he’s totally sober. The walk home, usually only thirty seconds, takes him almost five minutes. How embarrassing.

Kyle pulls his house key out of his pocket, sliding it into the lock and twisting. The metal of the door is cold against his palm, making him instinctively draw back at the temperature. His eyes keep trying to close, enthralled by too much of the same color— monochromatic monotones, whites and shades of gray. His family’s house is green, and the door on that house is brown, and the steps are similar in their shade. Kyle rests his forehead against the surface of that brown door, staring at his shoes. He’s okay, he thinks. He’s okay enough to bullshit his way through normal interactions— it’s not something he’s new to. Well, okay, he’s new to bullshitting, but he’s not new to… wait.

He’s not new to bullshitting, but he’s new to bullshitting on drugs. Weed. On weed. Weed is a drug, though, so that distinction was unnecessary. His stomach hurts. When did that start?

The door opens. Kyle almost follows it, but manages to catch himself on the door frame, his palms holding up most of his weight. His feet are heavy, unwilling to lift and bring him inside. He doesn’t know how long he stands there, but it’s long enough for his eyes to slip shut. It’s long enough for him to think he’s asleep, until he’s jolted awake by an external source. His eyes fly open and he flinches, rousing with a start. Before him stands Ike, gazing at him with a wide-eyed, furrowed-brow expression of confusion. He’s not wearing his uniform, instead donning something else that he cannot pinpoint at the moment— Kyle is able to see very little in the dim light that comes in from the house.

Kyle glances around, examining the outside. He peeks over his shoulder, where the road is empty and desolate, vaguely snowed-on. Breezes freeze between the limbs of the trees. Kyle reminds himself to breathe. He looks back to Ike, who hasn’t moved or said anything yet. Kyle feels uncharacteristically pressured to say something, and he goes with the first thought that comes to mind:

“Why is it dark outside?”

It feels like a good conversation-starter, but Ike isn’t saying anything, and Kyle suddenly has no idea how to carry this interaction. He rests his shoulder against the door frame again, pressing the side of his head into the wood. Cold. Is this his life? Is this real life? Kyle can’t help it— he snorts. To mask the noise, he claps a hand over his mouth. Ike takes a step back. Kyle takes a moment to calm himself down before he steps inside. It smells vaguely like bread, and Kyle immediately finds himself drawn to it. He’s not particularly hungry— not physically. There’s just this thing in his brain that’s telling him to, like… eat something. Maybe it’s to keep him busy, to some extent, or maybe he’s genuinely hungry and he’s just been feeling it for so long that he’s forgotten how to really feel it. Or, understand feeling it.

He loses track of his feet. His brain suddenly catches up, registering too much too quickly, and he almost runs straight into the kitchen table. Okay, that was stupid, what the hell? Kyle snorts through another round of laughs. He tries to bite them back, tries to stop them, tries to cover them up with his hand, but he can’t. He sinks into one of the chairs at the dining table. It creaks under his weight. It shouldn’t, but it does, and he can’t stop the thoughts before they come, little nagging things that make him feel bad about himself. About how this isn’t the chair that usually creaks, about how he must have done something to break the chair, about how he might have gained weight and maybe he’s disgusting.

In a matter of seconds, those thoughts disappear, and it’s just Kyle giggling thoughtlessly at the kitchen table. He sinks lower, resting his forehead against the wood. The smell of bread disappears, and with it, his sense of hunger fades. Just the thought of it is enough to make him uncomfortable. It’s conflicting, he supposes, and that makes him laugh harder.

Footsteps make their way into the kitchen. Kyle hears them approach, hears them grow closer until he can feel the presence of another person. He lifts his head from the table, looking at Ike, who watches him. Distantly, Kyle realizes that Ike is wearing pajamas.

“How dark is it?” Kyle asks, but it’s not what he means to say. He shakes his head, shutting his eyes tightly. He rests his head in the palms of his hands, rubbing his fingertips over the fabric of his hat. “I mean, how late is it?”

“…six,” says Ike. The frown on his mouth is easily heard, affecting the firmness of his voice. It feels very quiet. Still, stiff, motionless, like fidgeting would ruin something unspoken. There’s just something.

It’s so slow.

Slow.

He doesn’t know if he likes it.

Kyle’s mouth is dry. He needs water. He starts to stand up, but Ike pushes him back down. It’s weird because Ike is relatively small. Normally, Kyle could just push through, but right now, he can’t. His muscles are nonexistent, starved and gelatinous. Not literally, of course, but he’s… he’s just so… Kyle doesn’t have the strength. He simply doesn’t. There’s nothing more about it. He looks up at Ike, examining his brother’s face, watching it shift through an array of emotions. He tries to pinpoint each one, but it’s more difficult than it seems. Anger, disappointment, concern, worry, exhaustion.

“Are you drunk?” Ike asks. The expression changes again, morphs into something different, something deep and simultaneously juxtaposing in its shallowness. Kyle wants to worry about it, about how Ike looks too tired to be thirteen, but he can’t. There’s a block, or maybe it’s an excuse— the weed, maybe it’s an excuse for Kyle to give up his leadership role for just a second. He just needs a break, says something in his bones. Kyle is a little tired, too.

“No,” Kyle says. He rubs his eyes, trying to wake himself up. This isn’t the time to sulk. If this is even sulking. Moping, sulking, something in between, or nothing. Ike grunts.

“Are you… high?” he asks. Kyle opens his mouth to say no, but it betrays him, grinning wide. He slaps a hand over his mouth to hide it. He closes his eyes, reverting back to a toddler, thinking maybe Ike won’t be able to see him if he can’t see Ike. It’s stupid. He knows it’s stupid, he knows things don’t work that way, but that doesn’t stop him from trying, and maybe that’s okay.

To a very minimal extent.

“You’re high,” Ike says. He’s pouting, now, his face red. He spits the words, “You’re stupid.”

“I’m really stupid,” Kyle agrees. He can feel things start to shift. He tries to blink the world back into its rightful place, but it won’t listen. The more he blinks, the less his mind processes— the more superficial everything looks, the more cataclysmic it feels. Yet, at the same time, he knows nothing matters. He wonders if that’s cynicism, or if it’s nihilism, or if it’s just himself. He wonders on a lot of things, on doubt and decay and how beautiful the day was. He can still feel Stan’s hand on his waist. It pushes away the memory of Eric’s groping. Kyle looks away from Ike, instead busying his eyes with a blurring image of the window across the kitchen. “I’m the stupidest.”

“You smell like pot,” Ike says. He scrunches his nose up, expressing his disgust on the subject matter. Kyle hums. He’s been smiling too long. It’s starting to hurt the muscles in his face. His cheeks feel tight, like they’re going to start cramping any minute. Kyle rubs his fingers into them, trying to loosen the tension.

“How do you know what pot smells like?” Kyle asks. Ike ignores the question, meandering deeper into the kitchen.

“Stan used to smell like pot,” Ike says. He opens up the cupboard, withdrawing a mug from the bottom shelf. He fills it with water and comes back, pushing it towards Kyle on the table. Kyle takes the cup, pulling it closer to himself, rubbing his fingertips on the rim of it. “Mom would always talk about how much he used to smell like pot, and now you smell like he used to, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that you’ve been bumming drugs from the ex-stoner.”

“Big words,” Kyle mumbles. He licks his lips. Dry.

“Those weren’t big words,” Ike says. He’s still angry, glaring at Kyle with a learned expression. “Drink some water, already.”

Kyle does. He picks up the mug and takes a hearty sip, undeterred from the fact that his throat doesn’t want to swallow. He gulps it down with minimal difficulty. His mouth still feels dry. He sets the mug back down, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. It smells like weed. He smells like weed. Ike was right. Ike is right. Ike is always right, isn’t he? Always, always, always… “Why am I the older brother?” Kyle asks. He scoots down, slouching in the chair. Ike’s frown fades. Kyle lifts his arms above his head, stretching out like a cat. Once finished, he settles, slumping over the table. He presses his cheek back into the wood. He stares at the wall. Beige. Yellow. Some similar color. He’s home, isn’t he? He’s home. “You’re better than I am, I’m sorry.”

“Stop talking,” says Ike. Kyle snorts.

“You stop talking, idiot,” he says. He halfheartedly covers his mouth with his palm. “Oops, I can’t talk to you like that.”

“Stop,” Ike repeats.

“Sometimes I wonder if I should just drop out,” Kyle says. “Maybe I should become an artist or something, live on the street and— like, look for my mojo and shit.”

Kyle looks up. Ike’s expression is gone. It’s blank. In Kyle’s eyes, Ike’s face is static. Kyle starts to smile and laugh again. He drops his head back down.

“This is real life,” Kyle drones. “This is real life, we’re all real, part of real life and shit, y’know? Except sometimes— sometimes I wonder what we’re doing, in the end, because, look at it…”

Kyle swings an arm out to the side, trying to gesture at where he perceives the rest of the world to be. He quickly gives up on the sweeping motion, though, and pulls his arms back, hugging himself tightly. He laughs harder.

“We’re all wandering around, walking and talking and fucking about until we get to a place where we can check out and say, y’know, like, okay, man, I’m good here, y’know? And then that’s it, that’s—”

Kyle sits up again. He claps his hands, loud.

“—that’s all she wrote.”

Ike is just staring at him. The static has disappeared from his face. He looks lost, or maybe he’s a little afraid. Kyle feels bad, and maybe he deserves that, and maybe it’s okay that he deserves that, or maybe he’s just trying to convince himself it’s okay when it’s not. Kyle drops his head down, staring at his arms. He looks at his chest. He looks at his stomach. His thighs.

“Am I fat?” Oops. Kyle didn’t mean to ask that. Ike genuinely seems taken aback.

“No,” says Ike.

But Kyle can’t stop seeing himself differently than he used to. When he looks at himself, he just sees a big flaw, something he’s supposed to fix— or, something he can fix. Something he needs to fix or something or whatever and all that.

“Stop thinking before you hurt yourself,” Ike says, and Kyle knows that’s a joke. He laughs at it. Ike doesn’t return the laugh.

They sit in silence for a long time. They sit until the phone rings. By then, Kyle has slouched back over the surface of the table, rubbing his face into the wood grain. Once he hears the familiar briiing briiing of the land line, though, he shoots upright, almost falling out of the chair in his excitement to get to the phone. Ike makes it to the phone before Kyle can even stand up, though.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ike says, and picks up the phone. He brings it to his ear, greeting with the typical Hello, who is this? that he usually does. Kyle listens distantly, but becomes quickly distracted. He feels a little sicker. His stomach keeps trying to turn over itself. Laying down sounds good. Kyle pushes himself out of the chair, taking it slow. He keeps his hand on the wall as he makes his way to the living room. He stumbles to the couch and lays down, turning to lay on his side and stare out at the television. He feels really… weird.

It’s nice to relax, though.

“Where’s Kyle?” Ike asks, reiterating the question phrased on the other end of the line. Kyle doesn’t bother moving. He knows Ike doesn’t want him to. The attempts to intrude wouldn’t be welcomed. “He’s… sleeping.”

Kyle closes his eyes, listening to this side of the conversation unfold without thinking about the impact of it.

“He was tired, I don’t know… why? What do you mean? What does that mean? I—…an hour? Okay… okay, I’ll tell him, I will… I will… see you soon… bye.”

Cl-chkk.

Pause.

Kyle’s breathing has almost evened out by the time Ike nudges him awake. Kyle opens his eyes, looking up at Ike with a bleary expression. He doesn’t register the expression, at first. The static has returned.

“Get up and shower,” Ike says. Kyle blinks, shaking his head.

“What?” he asks. Ike frowns, furrowing his brows. He pushes Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle waves the shove away. “What? Why? What’s going on?”

“What’s going on?” Ike asks. “What’s going on is you smell like pot and Mom is in the hospital, okay? Go shower before Dad gets here.”

Kyle pushes himself up. “Dad’s not spending the night at the hospital?”

“No,” says Ike. He backs up, inviting Kyle to stand, which Kyle does. “He’s coming to pick us up.”

Kyle feels a little more sober, a little more awake. Slowly, he asks, “Why?”

Ike sniffs. He rubs his face off with the back of his arm, shaking his head. “Mom’s not doing well,” he says. Then, with more vigor: “Mom isn’t doing well, and you’re high, Kyle, I hope you’re happy!”

Kyle says nothing. Ike looks away.

“Just go shower, okay?” Ike says.

Although reluctance itches at every part of Kyle’s existence, he forces himself to begin up the stairs.

Chapter Text

She’s shaking.

Kyle leaves the room before he can think about it.

No one objects. No one has the energy to. No one thinks about telling him to stay, because no one really wants to stay to begin with. She isn’t awake, not really. She can’t talk to them, or move very efficiently. And it’s the most terrifying thing. Kyle has never been in the same room as someone who was so ill that they couldn’t stop shaking. He’s never had to see that. He’s been in those shoes, he’s been the sick one, but he’s never seen someone who was that sick. It grabs at something deep within him, conjures up the image. A repeated thing, something that makes him want to curl into a ball and hide away from everything.

Kyle pauses just outside her hospital room. He takes a deep breath. He’s trying to think his way through the heavy smell of plastic and sterile fields and skin. That’s what it smells like, in this hospital. It smells like skin. Flesh and bone and people, trying to survive, with machines beeping in an ICU that holds windows and a large desk in the center. A square thing, three tables, with three nurses and a few more scattered around visiting patients and taking vitals and writing things down on their little clipboards. The faces of the pain chart hung up in each room burn themselves into his mind. He knows he will never forget those. The smiling and frowning and crying faces, the bastardized version of animation, simplistic.

He turns down the corridor and starts to walk. He doesn’t know where. He doesn’t know why. He just knows that his feet itch to move, and his legs won’t hold him steady if he stays still. He pushes through the heavy doors that separate the ICU from the main hallway. It’s heavy against his arm, and sucks a lot of his strength out. With weak teeth, he bites at his lips, feeling the sensitive split where he accidentally nipped through the skin. It’s tender, there. Tender and a little rough against the tip of his tongue. He passes an area in the hallway that smells like stale urine, and holds his breath without thinking about it.

Empty corridors and dim lighting. Pale beiges and browns and yellows and light blues paint the walls, murals of formality, attempts at keeping people calm as they’re walked to the respective ward. No one is anywhere. Kyle turns left at the next intersection in the halls, keeping his hand on the wall even though he can’t even imagine how many germs coat them. It makes his skin crawl, to think about that. His stomach churns. The sick feeling of nausea he’d been managing to swallow back returns. The back of his throat burns. He wonders if he’s going to throw up. The feeling passes before he can think too much on it, though. The cramp dissipates. Now, he just feels shaky.

He didn’t mean to go to the elevators, but it’s where he ends up. He turns into the little area where the elevators are, the nook that holds four of them. He draws in a deep breath, somehow assured that this is a safe place. It’s quiet back here, away from the units with the people in the beds, where some people are undeniably dying. He’s easily a hundred feet away from his mother. He’d run away. How pathetic is that? His mother is in a vulnerable situation, and Kyle’s instinct had been to leave? What type of son is he? What type of person does that?

Kyle wanders to the back of the elevator nook, and faces a corner. He rubs his hands over his face. He’s trying to collect himself, but it isn’t really working. He can’t stop thinking about it, now. The way she was shaking. The way she wasn’t really aware of things. The way she didn’t really look like she was there. She was pale, or maybe it was the lighting, or maybe he was seeing things. He’d walked away. Why had he walked away? He’s a horrible person, such a horrible person, such a horrible, disgusting person…

A sob wrenches itself from his throat. He closes a hand over his mouth, forcing any other noises to stay behind his clenched teeth. He breathes out through his nose, and then breathes in. He repeats it. Breathing. In and out and in again. The rhythm seems like it might help soothe him, but his lungs want to refuse. They try to close up on him. She’s shaking. He walked away. He kissed Stan and he smoked weed and they almost made out because Kyle is gay.

And he fantasizes about his best friend when he dreams, and when he can’t control it.

And his mother is shaking. She’s shaking, and his first reaction had been to go somewhere else, where he couldn’t see. Because he’s selfish and narcissistic, or something, and absolutely grotesque. He’s disgusting. Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, dis—

“Kyle?”

Kyle wipes the tears from his eyes, and tries to pull himself tighter into the corner. If he just disappears. If he just disappears. If he just disappears. But he can’t. He takes too much space, he is too full of atoms, he is too much of a person to fade into the background, and he’d love it if it made him feel good, but it doesn’t. He just doesn’t want to be here. And, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to be anywhere, but he… and… and he thinks that’s a new feeling.

“Kyle, is that you?”

No. No, it isn’t. Go away. But Kyle can’t say that. Instead, he dries his eyes for the second time and glances over his shoulder. He didn’t expect to find Clyde here, that’s for sure. Then again, he didn’t expect to find himself here, either. Not tonight. But things don’t always go according to plan, do they? No, they don’t. They never fucking do. What’s the point of planning, then? What’s the fucking point of planning when nothing goes to plan? Why does he bother if none of it is going to happen the way he wants it to in the first place? What the fuck is this bullshit and why is everyone pretending to be okay with the way life fucks them over?

“Oh, man,” Clyde says, his brows raised in surprise. His hands are buried in the pockets of his letterman jacket. He looks too empathetic. “Are you crying?”

Kyle bites back a sob. The tears won’t stop coming, and his mouth keeps pulling itself into a frown. He entertains the thought that he probably looks really ugly like this, but he can’t help it. He hiccups, trying to cover his face by staring down at the ground and lifting an arm to guard himself from prying eyes with his wrist. He tries to brush off the action as him adjusting his hair, but it definitely doesn’t come off that way, does it? Clyde steps forward, and Kyle spins around, once again hiding himself in the corner. “Go away,” Kyle chokes. The footsteps stop, and Clyde’s presence halts where it is. It’s quiet, for a while, and Kyle is thankful for the silence. It doesn’t last forever, though. Nothing fucking lasts forever.

“Why are you here?” Clyde asks. Kyle tries to force himself to stop crying, but Clyde’s questions aren’t helping him feel any better. Kyle really just needs to be alone right now, he decides. He really just needs to be alone, where no one will confront him about the bullshit that’s going on, because he can’t even understand it. He doesn’t get why this is happening. His mom has always been so healthy. She’s always been fine. So why the fuck is she so ill from pneumonia? What the fuck happened? Why can’t Kyle fucking control it?

Kyle buries his face into his hands. The thoughts won’t stop bombarding him. Images and thoughts and questions. Statements of things he doesn’t want to acknowledge, observations that tell him he’s doing the wrong thing, prodding and angry and sharp. He can hear them. It feels like someone is trying to choke him. Clyde is trying to touch his shoulders, trying to drag his hands to the area where his shoulders meet his neck on either side. It tickles, too harsh, too much, and Kyle shrugs the touch away as hard as he can, wrenching himself to glare at Clyde. “Stop touching me,” he snaps.

It’s quiet.

When he is no longer blinded from himself, he realizes that Clyde is a solid eight feet away. Clyde looks confused, expression lost like Kyle just slapped him for no reason— and, in a way, Kyle supposes that he had. Clyde is too far away. He hadn’t been touching Kyle at all.

“Huh?” Clyde says. Kyle can’t answer. He doesn’t know. It’s just another thing he adds to the list, another thing that he can’t understand. Mechanics. Parts. Magic, maybe, since there is no explanation, a miracle in the worst sense. “Is everything okay?”

Kyle opens his mouth to respond, to say it’s just fucking fantastic, but he can’t. The words won’t come. He closes his eyes, swallowing the saliva that’s built up in his mouth. It’s such a difference to the dryness he’d been fighting just a few hours earlier. Seconds pass, or maybe minutes. Kyle opens his eyes again, and this time, he replies. Not verbally, but physically. He shakes his head. Strangely enough, Clyde seems like he gets it.

“Do you wanna, uh… talk about it?” Clyde asks. Kyle shakes his head again. Clyde nods. A weird awkwardness settles on them. Clyde digs his hands even further into his pockets, another reminder that he hadn’t touched Kyle at all. Kyle could laugh, honestly. He could laugh about the fact that he’s going crazy. Maybe he is going crazy. Maybe he’s losing it. How funny would that be? Losing his mind in a hospital next to the elevators. Clyde kicks the floor. “Look, um…”

Clyde stops talking for a second. Kyle busies himself with trying to stem the flow of tears from his eyes, which still won’t stop crying. His sleeves are wet, now. He has to wash this sweater. And he has to wash his jacket, it still smells like weed. It’s a smell that won’t come out of things, huh? It won’t come out of things. It just stays, forever. Clyde clears his throat.

“I dunno what’s going on with you,” Clyde says. “I mean, uh, obviously, but— y’know, I don’t… want you to feel all sad and stuff, so, if you ever… want to talk about it, or have a shoulder to cry on, or something, I’m… here.”

One of the lights above them flickers. It dims more thoroughly. Kyle has issues trying to take in an adequate amount of air.

“Not that you have to talk to me or anything, because, we’re not, uh… close, at all? But— just, if you want to, or if you wanna…” another pause. Clyde swallows. “Sit, and not do or say anything, that’s fine too, I get it, things can be rough without the burden of trying to… explain?”

Clyde pauses for a second, apparently thinking over what had just come out of his own mouth. The pause passes quickly, however, and once he is apparently satisfied with the way it’d come out, Clyde nods, solidifying it. Kyle nods, too. It’s a bit of a weird understanding, maybe, between them. This unspoken thing that neither of them really know how to handle, but it’s okay. The interaction is short and sweet, to the point. In many ways, it is refreshing, and Kyle appreciates the brevity of it.

“Sorry, uh, this is weird, um… do you want me to leave you alone?” Clyde asks. Kyle doesn’t say anything. His voice still isn’t working as well as he would like it to. He doesn’t trust his tongue to form coherent sentences. Instead, he simply nods again. Clyde is the one who returns it, this time. They don’t say goodbye to each other. They just nod for a third time. Clyde hits the elevator call button, enters into the first one that arrives, and disappears behind the doors as they shut.

Kyle’s episode of panic is over. To his knowledge, at least— he hopes it is. The tears are still spotting his eyes, but they no longer try to run down his cheeks. It feels fast. It was a hard, extreme wave that lasted a short amount of time. He thinks, in some ways, he just needed to cry it out. Clyde had been the one to push him towards just… letting it out. It’d been nice. Kyle appreciates it. He wishes he had the opportunity to say thank you, but the moment is over, now, and he’s not about to bring it up again. Ever. Why would he? Kyle can count the number of times he and Clyde have interacted in the past few years on one hand.

He wipes the rest of the wet away from his face and takes a minute to collect himself before heading down the hallway, walking away from the nook of elevators. A few feet down are the bathrooms. He enters the men’s restroom and stops in front of one of the sinks. No one is in here, either. He’s starting to wonder if anyone is really in this hospital. Maybe all of this is like one of those crazy cartoon theories. Maybe it’s all some weird hallucination. Maybe he went nuts years ago. Maybe he’s still in that mental ward from Mr. Hankey’s shenanigans when he was eight.

Funny.

Kyle turns on the faucet and cups some water in his hands, leaning down to splash it over his face. The water is nice and cool, allowing him to chill out. No pun intended. He leaves the water running for another second or so, looking at himself in the mirror. His face is so fucking red. That’s an obvious thing, since he’d been crying. His eyes are puffy and he looks kind of horrible. He rubs his fingers into his face, trying to make himself look more natural— or, just try and make it look like he hadn’t been crying quite as hard as he had been. He takes a deep breath. He splashes a little more water over his face, then dries it off with his shirt. Hesitantly, he breathes, wipes his hands off on his pants, turns off the sink…

Kyle looks at his reflection. Something instinctual tells him to look away. He does.

Without another thought, he leaves the bathroom and begins on his way back to his mother’s room in the ICU.

Chapter Text

The night is full of tossing and turning— much of it. They get home fairly late into the night, it nearing eleven. No one says a word to one another. It’s just another thing, something that keeps them silent in the company of their own family, whereas they usually don’t have any issues. Kyle keeps to himself. He’s gotten ready for bed and crawled in, and although he’s dead tired, it is impossible for him to get any shut-eye. At some point during the night, his phone goes off. He feels it buzz next to him, where it’s still stuck in the pocket of his sweater. His muscles are so intent on keeping him motionless that he doesn’t even bother trying to see who it might be. He watches the sun come up. Something in his eyes aches, tells him he needs to sleep. He tries as hard as he can to obey his body’s need, but the sleep won’t come. It won’t.

Kyle turns onto his other side, hoping a change in position might do him some good. Nothing feels comfortable. Everything feels wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong… he shifts again. The fact that he’d received a text won’t leave his mind. Sunshine peeks in through the windows, between the crack in the blinds, spreading over him. He doesn’t know what time it is, but he knows he probably still has a solid few hours before he has to get up. He needs to relax, for once, for fuck’s sake. He just needs to relax.

Another turn. He now lays on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He plays connect-the-dots with the popcorn of it, where creases fold in tiny patterns, where it webs in gentle designs that soothe him. It helps. His eyes fall shut, and his thoughts let him be. Barely aware of his surroundings, he breathes. He usually likes this. He can usually handle laying in bed without the thoughts of anything to bother him. But today, it feels like he’s coming down. It feels like he rode an adrenaline high, and now he’s crashing back to Earth. Strangely enough, he doesn’t know if he likes it. It’s heavy.

Maybe Stan was the one who sent the text. Maybe Stan couldn’t sleep, and was looking for some late-night company. It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d spent nights, before, just to talk to each other, messaging back and forth until they both became so tired, their conversation devolved into only stupid memes and random strings of letters.

Even if Stan wasn’t the one who sent the text, Kyle feels a pull to initiate interaction between himself and Stan. It’s a weird sort of need. Something that never leaves him alone— not really. Just like everything else. But none of that everything else matters to him, right now. For the time being, Kyle just wants to drown in the thoughts of Stan, and think about the good things they’d been through together. Like Stan kissing him, every time they hang out. The way Stan touches him, when they get high. The way Stan looks into his eyes. Kyle can picture it with ease, Stan’s face, gazing back at him with pink sclerae from the weed, half-lidded and relaxed. Kyle remembers yesterday. He remembers sitting with Stan on the couch, and then, of course, Stan looking at him. The joint was gone at that point, put out and discarded. They’d smoked most of it.

With lowered inhibitions, they made thoughtless decisions. Or, maybe it’d be best to say Kyle made thoughtless decisions. Kyle loses control when he gets high— or maybe getting high is just an excuse to lose control, he doesn’t know. But he’s almost always the one to start things. Kyle remembers kissing Stan, and although he would have been fine with just that, it ignited something in Stan. It almost always does, and Kyle loves that. The memories are hazy, but if memory serves correctly, Stan had pushed Kyle down to lay on the couch and tugged Kyle’s shirt up and spent a while just mouthing at the skin of Kyle’s stomach.

The phantom sensation sends tingles up Kyle’s spine, allowing him the ability to dwell in the warmth of it. He grabs his blanket and pulls it up to his chin, rolling onto his side, his back to the rest of his room. He curls up, pulling his knees a bit higher up to his chest. Guiltily, Kyle loses himself in a fantasy— in a slew of what-ifs and maybe-one-days and hopefully-soons. He ponders the idea of going home with someone— not Stan, specifically, he can’t sully Stan’s image like that. Stan means too much to him. But replacing Stan with a nondescript person, maybe one from a magazine or an ad Kyle had seen at some point, is enough. So, he pictures it, curling up with someone in bed. He likes the idea, and lets it roll out. He wonders what it might feel like to kiss them. He wonders if it’ll feel different. He wonders what it’d feel like to drag his fingertips up their sides, to feel their skin and pull their shirt off, and kiss over their chest. He wonders if they would make any noises.

Perhaps a bit spontaneously, Kyle’s thoughts wander to what it might feel like if they pinned him down. Would they grab his wrists and hold him still? Would they take control like that, would he…

Would she…?

Err… would she…?

Kyle squirms, tucking his face against the fabric of his blanket. No. That… doesn’t work.

What would it feel like to have him kiss his neck? What would it feel like to have him bite his neck?

The idea spreads warmth throughout every one of Kyle’s limbs, and he likes it a lot. His spine tingles again. He shivers. He curls his fingers more insistently into the fabric of the blanket, making sure he doesn’t give in to the urge to act on any of his feelings. He just wants to think about it. Thinking about it is safe. Picturing it is fine. Actually doing something with those thoughts and pictures is a different story, though, right? It certainly feels that way. Kyle doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t.

It feels like that’d be… admitting guilt, somehow. Even though it’s harmless, Kyle doesn’t like the idea of it, so he’s not going to do it. It’s not happening. Kyle bites his lip and opens his eyes, forcing away the images of men. Those phantom feelings that the images bring up dissipate, allowing him to calm down. Picking at the fabric of his bedspread, Kyle takes shallow breaths. If he inhales too deeply, he can feel it try to reignite the spark he’d struck. He spends a while just thinking about things that will make the feeling go away. Thoughts of his anxieties won’t do the trick, for some reason. It’s like the fear just makes him want to find comfort within himself, even if that comfort would make him feel worse after the temporary thing. The fix is quick but not eternal, and he’s not interested right now. He’s not. He’s not.

With a mild itch still discomforting his skin, Kyle kicks off the blanket and pushes himself upright, rooting around in his sweater for his phone. It’s basically second nature to turn on his phone, flicking past the home screen before he can read the message he’d received. It might sound stupid, but he likes to keep messages a surprise for when he opens them and can fully read them. He expects it to be from a friend. In fact, he primarily expects it to be Stan— who else would it be? Kenny doesn’t usually text unless he absolutely has to, and there’s no reason Dad would text him in the middle of the night. Unless Ike got bored and decided to try and prod Kyle awake— which, again, not the first time. But it’s none of those people.

It’s Eric.

Fatass

Today 3:44 AM
how was ur night?? ;))

Any spark Kyle might have held prior disappears completely. There’s nothing that ruins his mood faster than some ridiculous text from Eric Cartman, of all people—

And there’s something about it. Kyle knows it’s ridiculous, and he has no reason to be upset by it, but his immediate reaction is… strange. Something builds in his chest and throbs in his ears, making his face heat up unbelievably, until he’s certain he’s gone red. The ridiculous fucking emoji strikes Kyle somewhere utterly raw. He doesn’t breathe, not consciously, but he can feel it quicken in his lungs, filling him with air until he feels like he can’t get a proper breath in. Kyle throws his phone down on the bed, not caring about it still being on. He snatches a change of clothes and tries to forget while he takes a shower.

He tries to busy himself with the physical sensation of the water, with the feeling of shampoo lathering in his hair, but that just goes to irritate him more efficiently. He hates his hair, his stupid fucking hair, with its stupid, unruly curls and the ridiculousness of just how much conditioner it needs so it won’t become a tangled mess. He bites at the inside of his cheek as he suffers the remnants of the rinsing, hiding from the mirror as he towels off. He wishes he could blow-dry his hair, but it’s a mistake to do that with curly hair. He doesn’t want to look like a stupid goddamn poodle, but— fuck it. He’s not going to school with wet hair, okay? He’s not doing that today.

Kyle blow-dries his hair, and makes quick work of it, too— not that blow-drying is, in any capacity, quick work, but he doesn’t fully dry it. He just dries it enough so it looks presentable, even though he’s shoving his hat on anyway. With a sudden rush, Kyle turns off the blow-dryer and drops it on the counter, spitting, “This is fucking useless,” into the humid air of the bathroom.

The outburst passes as quickly as it had come. Thankfully, the tension relieves the slightest bit. It’s still there, gnawing at his organs, but it’s lesser. Manageable. He pulls on his clothes, putting little regard in for what he chose to wear that day. He doesn’t think, at this point, as much as he would like to. He checks his blood sugar, he eats breakfast, he packs for school, a swirl of other shit he can’t keep track of because they’re all such mundane things, he just doesn’t care. Dad is home, so he can send Ike off to school instead for once. It’s a relief, maybe, Kyle doesn’t know— he’s a little overwhelmed with how bitter he is about it.

He doesn’t… like it.

Kyle pulls his phone out of his pocket and shoots a text to Stan, already a solid fifty feet away from home.

Stan

Today 7:22 AM
I have something to do this morning. I won’t be able to walk with you today. I’ll catch up with you at lunch.

Kyle doesn’t receive an immediate response, nor does he expect to. He pushes his phone into his pocket, forgotten and to be remembered later. In his motion, the backpack attempts to slide from his shoulder. A quick shrug is more than enough to reset its posture, and he hastens his pace down the sidewalk. A section of ice glares up at him from a few feet ahead. He sidesteps it, narrowly avoiding the edge where he runs the most risk of slipping. The snow powdering the cement doesn’t help the slickness, but he manages to keep himself upright nonetheless. With his adapted speed, Kyle makes it to school in a record-breaking ten minutes. Maybe fifteen, if he cared enough to offer the limit leeway.

He pushes through the throngs of early arrivals, students who bustle around in the mild fog of the cold morning. It bites at his cheeks, the unrelenting breeze does— it cuts through his jacket and agitates his skin, makes him want to scratch and pepper himself with the crescents of his own nails to forget the feeling of discomfort. He doesn’t, though, for he has a mission. Half-baked and tumbling through his mind like a loose-lief piece of notebook paper, crumpled in a too-empty trashcan. As he nears his destination, his heartbeat picks up. Thrumming through his ribs, it’s essentially audible to his own ears, a rhythmic sensation and sound that tries to ground him and simultaneously rip him from the comfortable confines of himself and he doesn’t know he doesn’t understand he doesn’t—

Kyle comes to a hasty stop in the mostly-desolate hallways, slamming a locker shut as loud as he can. Eric, the owner of said locker, jumps back to avoid being hit in the face with the wayward door. The loud pound of a noise echoes and alerts the few people who dot the corridors. Ultimately, they stay where they are, though it’s obvious they’re curious. Kyle doesn’t care. He couldn’t care less if people watch, he couldn’t care less. He tells himself that over and over and over again, but it isn’t true.

It’s a lie.

Kyle cares.

Eric inhales to ensue on his usual berating, but Kyle doesn’t let him start. He grabs the collar of Eric’s shirt and drags him away, down to the boy’s bathroom in the other wing of the school. All the while they walk, Eric’s breath escapes him in the unfortunate cacophony that Kyle cannot fucking escape.

“Kyle, Kyle, what’re you doing Kyle, this is assault,” Eric says. Every fiber of Kyle’s being threatens to retaliate, to scream this isn’t assault, asswipe! But he doesn’t. He stays silent, biting his tongue. He tugs Eric’s collar even sharper, and Eric bends a bit to the will of Kyle’s relentless grip. They finally make it to the bathroom. Kyle shoves the door open with his shoulder. He pushes Eric towards the sinks, and with newly-emptied, trembling fingers, he flicks the lock shut and spins on his heel. The bathroom is empty. He knows it is empty, it’s always empty in the mornings— “I’m seriously, Kyle, I’m feeling mega cornered right now and you’re not giving me much wiggle room—”

—but Kyle checks anyway. He ducks into every stall, pushing each door to make sure it opens to the silence he knows is beyond. Empty. Every single one, empty— they’re alone.

Kyle wastes no time, rushing at Eric, struggling to hold himself back from ramming straight into him without regard for what might happen afterward. Once in arm’s reach, he yanks Eric down by the collar of his jacket, unbuttoned and unzipped. Their faces are inches apart, and Kyle is seething. Digging his fingers in as harsh as he possibly can, Kyle hisses a rushed phrase.

What does that mean?” Kyle snaps, breathing erratically from the effort of hauling Eric’s sorry ass in here. Eric blinks.

“What does wha—”

“I am warning you,” says Kyle, “If you pull any fuckshit on me I will fucking kill you.”

Eric’s brows raise up. Kyle knows that look. A believe me look. An I’m about to lie look. A give me sympathy look. Kyle clenches his teeth.

‘How was your night’?” Kyle asks. “What does it mean?”

The believe me look disappears, replacing itself with a twitching smirk, one that Eric doesn’t seem entirely in control of. It makes Kyle’s skin crawl. “Oh,” says Eric, starting to push forward, into Kyle’s grip. Not wanting to be any closer to Eric than he has to be, Kyle instinctively starts to back up— which is a mistake. In a matter of seconds, Kyle has his back pressed up against the cold wall of the bathroom, hard and intimidating behind him. Kyle’s heart stutters, falls to his feet— but he remains, standing tall, staring up at Eric who lingers just the slightest bit above him. “That bothered you, huh?”

Eric slides his hands over Kyle’s hips. Kyle immediately reacts, letting go of Eric’s collar to push those pudgy hands off of him. It only serves to relocate Eric’s attention, however. Undeterred, Eric grabs Kyle’s chin with one hand, his other pushing Kyle into the wall via his shoulder. It digs into a spot that Kyle hadn’t known was tender. Kyle shoves his palms into Eric’s stomach, trying to force him off. Eric moves, apparently uncomfortable by it, but he doesn’t let go of Kyle’s chin. In fact, he grips tighter, holding him with a bruising force. Kyle doesn’t want marks. He stops struggling.

“It was just a little question,” Eric says. There’s a twitch in that mouth of his, those lips quirking, parting to reveal the tongue that perches teasingly between his teeth. Kyle leans away, trying to avoid the smell of his breath, syrupy like pancakes, breakfast. It makes Kyle feel sick. “Or was it? Is there something more to it, Jew? What’s going on, huh? What pretty little secrets do you have?”

This is not happening. Kyle is not being pinned down by Eric for the second time in two days.

“I can see it in your eyes, you know, you suck at hiding secrets, which is surprising, considering your species,” says Eric. “Wanna tell me, Kyle? Wanna tell me those secrets? I’ll let you go if you do.”

Eric presses closer. Kyle tries to recoil. The wall remains immovable behind him.

“Of course you don’t wanna tell me.” Eric hums those words, pursing his lips afterward. His brows twitch upward, again, but this isn’t a believe me look. Kyle can’t place it before it disappears, narrowing into that smirk— and spreading into a grin. Cocky. The warmth is suffocating Kyle, the weight of Eric is taking up all of his personal space. “That’s fine, I don’t mind, that just makes this more fun… doesn’t it? Don’t you agree, Kyle? Guessing is more fun.”

Eric swipes the pad of his thumb over Kyle’s bottom lip. In defense, Kyle lunges to bite Eric’s hand— but his teeth close on empty air. It’s a matter of instinct, really. If this were any other situation, Kyle wouldn’t do it, but he does. Eric has withdrawn his hand, holding it away for the safety of himself. Kyle shoots Eric a glare, unrelenting and as firm as he can manage. Eric doesn’t grope at Kyle anymore. He simply pins Kyle to the wall, his hands on Kyle’s shoulders. Kyle can manage this.

“Oh, feisty, eh? The Jew bites, I see, I see…” A pause, minuscule. “So, what is it? Is it your mom?”

Kyle can’t help it; his breath catches in his throat. Eric’s eyes brighten.

“It’s your bitch mom,” Eric says. “She’s in the hospital, huh?”

Kyle squirms. Eric pushes firmer into his shoulders, digging his forearms to lay them over Kyle’s chest and render him further motionless. Kyle gasps— but he’s fine, he can get out of this, easy. Any time he wants to. Just— not yet.

Eric leans in, the heat of his breath dampening Kyle’s face. Heavily, Eric whispers, “She’s dying.”

Kyle lets out a noise, something that escapes when he tries to breathe in. That weakness is enough to tell him it’s time to regain his control. With the rest from when he last attempted escape, Kyle has enough energy to try again. He squirms and thrashes until Eric lets go, though it feels entirely deliberate. As much as Kyle hates to admit it, Eric has the advantage of mass. And that’s what it is, really— a literal sense, Eric was letting go. There’s an imbalance. Kyle can sense it. It makes his legs shake. With one of those shaking legs, Kyle kicks Eric away. Eric backs up.

Kyle scrabbles at the wall behind himself. He doesn’t know why, but with Eric no longer touching him, he feels better about being pressed against the wall. He’s okay with pinning himself to the wall. The cold, when alone and not juxtaposed by Eric’s unbearable presence, is comforting.

“What the fuck,” says Kyle, “Did you do?”

“Who’s to say I did something?” asks Eric.

“There is no way you guessed all of that shit!” Kyle says. “That must mean you had something to do with this, you—”

Kyle takes a sudden step forward, pointing with an accusing finger.

“You!” Kyle says. “You did something! What did you do, Cartman?”

No answer. No direct answer, no simple answer, nothing. Eric’s grin, already cheeky and secretive, shifts with a huff of prideful laughter. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Kyle’s attempts at keeping calm aren’t working. He borderline shouts, “Tell me!”

“The details don’t matter,” Eric says. “As much as I’d love to tell you about them, Kyle, I’m afraid I really just don’t have the patience for it.”

Eric shrugs. Kyle cringes. The cocky fuck, thinking he’s so high-and-mighty, thinking he’s so intelligent and mysterious. But he’s not. He’s disgusting.

“All you need to know is, you can make her better,” Eric says. A barely-noticeable ounce of tension lifts from Kyle’s shoulders. A desperate relief, something he needs to grasp onto, something he needs to believe, or maybe, just maybe, it’s truth. And if it’s true…

“How?” Kyle asks. That’s what Eric wants to hear. Kyle can see it in the way Eric perks up, dusting himself off ordinarily.

“I want to play a little game with you, Kyle,” Eric replies.

“What game?”

“Do what I say.”

Kyle narrows his eyes. “That,” he says, “is not a game.”

“Oh, but of course it is!” Eric purses his lips much like he had earlier, stroking at a nonexistent beard. “Think of it like Simon Says, you see? Where I am Simon, and I say for you to do things, and if you do them, you’ll get a reward.”

Silence. Kyle swallows. “A reward?”

Eric hums a confirmation. “A reward,” he says. “With every task you complete, your mom will get a little bit better.”

Eric takes a step forward. Kyle takes a step back. With just that small movement, Kyle’s back has returned to the wall.

“But if you disobey me…” Eric trails off. “Well, we both know how she’s doing right now.”

Eric takes another few steps, until he’s hardly a foot away, staring Kyle down like a mere obstacle.

“What do you say, Kyle?” Eric asks. “Do what I say to save your mom, or let her die to save yourself?”

Again, Eric has gotten too close. Kyle’s space is being encroached upon, making him struggle for breath, forcing him to grip the wall like a frightened animal, even though he assures himself with ease that he is not frightened. Kyle swallows, the saliva thick in his throat, tough to get down. Every inhale is careful, like one wrong move will mess this up.

He will mess it all up.

“I’ll do it,” Kyle whispers. He expects Eric to urge him to say it louder, to proclaim it to the world, but no such thing occurs. Instead, there is a shift. The atmosphere twitches, and Eric makes a satisfied noise.

“Good,” says Eric. “The bitch will be better in no time.”

“Don’t call her that,” Kyle says. Eric lifts his brows. Once again, not a believe me look. A controlling look.

“Jeez, you forgot already? We play by my rules, now, Jew,” Eric says. Kyle replies with silence. Eric seems content with that. “Now, lets break you in a little, shall we?”

The heartbeat returns to Kyle’s ears, his blood thundering through his veins. Eric comes forward, closing in. The space between them is essentially nonexistent and, no, no this isn’t happening for a third time. Kyle retaliates immediately, thrusting at Eric’s chest with his palms, using all of his strength. Eric stumbles backwards.

Then the shock of it wears off, and Eric barks, “Bad boy.”

Nausea threatens to double Kyle over, but he pushes it away. The term is disgusting. Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, in every way, in every shape, in every form. Eric steps forward again. In a matter of seconds, Eric has his muddy paws on Kyle’s wrists, gripping them, harsh, bitingly. Kyle struggles, pushes, presses back against the wall to retreat.

“Task one,” Eric announces, firm— newly firm, confidently firm, stupidly firm. Kyle shuts his eyes. “Do nothing.”

Kyle’s eyes immediately shoot right back open. “What?” he asks. Eric shushes him. Eric lets go of Kyle’s wrists and starts to reach for Kyle’s hat. Kyle pushes Eric’s arms away.

“Ah-ah-ah,” tuts Eric, squeezing Kyle’s wrists once, sharp. Punishment. This does not persuade Kyle to stop struggling. “Calm down, I’m not going to do anything, this is just a sample task, Jew— do nothing.”

Kyle’s tongue is frozen, forcing him into silence, an unwilling participant in muteness. He decides to let Eric… try whatever this bullshit is, at least. If anything goes wrong, Kyle can kick Eric in the balls and run the fuck away. But he can’t make any moves towards it, just in case Eric catches on. Kyle can’t hint at the card up his sleeve— the only real card he has, at this point.

For the second time, Eric lets go of Kyle’s wrists. He brings his hands up to Kyle’s hat, starts to pat the top of Kyle’s head, and— fucking hell. Kyle feels ridiculous. This is stupid.

Eric pats his hands down the sides of Kyle’s face. This is stupid.

Eric places gentler taps along the sides of Kyle’s neck. This is so stupid.

Eric grips Kyle’s shoulders. This is unbelievably stupid.

Eric slides his palms down the outsides of Kyle’s arms. This is the stupidest thing.

Eric grabs Kyle’s hips. Kyle’s breath catches. He squeezes his eyes shut, tries to ignore it. He busies himself by picking his thumbnail along a crevice he manages to find in the wall behind him. Focus on that. It’s less stupid.

Eric drags his hands down Kyle’s thighs, to his knees, down his calves, to his ankles…

Mind over matter.

Kyle breathes.

Do it for Ma.

Eric’s hands disappear. Time passes. One second, two seconds, ten seconds, a minute. More waiting. The discomfort radiates through Kyle’s body, until he gathers the strength to open his eyes. He is met with Eric’s face— drenched in a horrid believe me look— but he has taken a few steps away. A solid few steps away, actually. Eric is almost five feet away. Kyle feels like he can breathe a little easier, with the distance.

“There,” Eric says, nodding. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It was awful,” Kyle says. Eric goes silent.

Then, Eric reaffirms, “Yeah, it wasn’t so bad.”

Kyle rolls his eyes, ridiculously offended by the way he just brushes this off. Eric turns away, brushing his palms off on his jacket, like he’s the one that feels gross after that. With the immediate danger gone, the adrenaline starts to force Kyle to shiver. The remnants of what has just happened make Kyle question his reality. He’s… he’s pretty sure he’s dreaming. Right? This didn’t happen. The bathroom blurs around him, dizzy.

Confused.

What… was that?

“That’s all for now,” Eric says. He retrieves Kyle’s backpack from the floor and holds it out. Kyle…

Can’t move? Like, he’s just… his muscles aren’t… he can’t really think straight.

“Take it,” Eric says. Kyle doesn’t. Eric huffs. “You can move now, task’s over.”

“Fuck you,” growls Kyle. Another silence. No one moves, for too long, until Eric relents. He drops the backpack. It falls onto the floor between them, collapsing weightily on its face. Eric huffs an exhale through his nose.

“Whatever,” Eric says, standoffish. He waves in a dismissive gesture, shaking his head. His jaw tenses like Kyle angered him— and the only thing Kyle’s brain can come up with for that is Good. Let him be angry. Eric unlocks the bathroom door. “I was gonna let you chill for the rest of the day, but now I’m not so sure.”

Eric waits, pausing before he exits. He grips the handle on the door, about to open it, but he’s waiting for something. Kyle’s eyes, wide, try to capture every movement.

“If you tell anyone, she'll get worse,” Eric says. He flashes a smile over his shoulder— and fucking winks. “Game on, Jew.”

Eric leaves. The door closes behind him, silence following him out, yet lingering in the spaces between Kyle’s bones. The cracks in the bathroom echo with it. He wants to say he knows what will happen. Kyle wants to say he’ll be able to predict the events of the future, wants to say this is all going to be inconsequential, anyway, because— really, Eric gets bored easily. He’ll probably forget before he has the chance to follow through with too much.

Essentially, this will just be a waiting game.

Kyle crouches and retrieves his backpack from the floor, brushing off the invisible dirt— the invisible germs.

Fine.

His skin is twisting, crawling with bugs, yet weirdly numb.

But, fine.

He’ll play Eric’s stupid little game and win.

Chapter Text

Kyle turns his phone off and enters room 4268.

The weight of the book cradled in his elbow is heavy enough for him to think. Logic comes in, for once in what feels like forever. He contemplates the things that don’t matter, maybe, or he thinks about what he could say when he gets the courage to speak. He won’t, though. Not today. Missus Marsh is sitting at Stan’s bedside. She isn’t doing much. She isn’t brushing his hair, or holding his hand, or touching him at all. She’s just sitting there, staring out the window. Kyle doesn’t blame her, even though part of him wants to.

How could she ignore Stan?

But he knows she isn’t ignoring him. She’s ignoring what happened. Thinking maybe if I just don’t acknowledge it…

Kyle doesn’t know if that’s particularly motherly. He doesn’t know if he cares. It’s too thick in the air for him to think about. He feels like he’s lost some part of himself. His brain isn’t working as efficiently as he’d like it to be. His eyes are open wide but they won’t see the way they used to. His mouth tastes like cotton and his stomach feels sick all the time. There are so many reasons for things that he doesn’t know if he can even compute them all, or break them into chunks so they can be rationalized. Every time he tries, he sees Stan, and his brain asks why? But he can’t answer it. He doesn’t know.

In some ways, it’s funny.

Kyle pulls a chair up to the bed, sitting at the opposite side as Missus Marsh. He’s shy about holding Stan’s hand, when she’s sitting right there. It feels wrong, like he doesn’t have permission, or like she’ll judge him or tell him to get the hell out, don’t you know you did this to him?

Don’t you know he hates you?

“Hello,” she greets. Her voice is quiet, brittle. Kyle doesn’t like the way it sounds, fragile like it’ll break at the slightest movement. It reinforces the idea that this isn’t going to end well. He can’t indulge in those thoughts. He sets the book down beside Stan, using the surface of the bed as a table for just a second as he settles. He taps the book, hesitant.

“I just—” but his voice cuts off, breaking prematurely. He clears his throat, his face heating up in the awkwardness. “I came here directly from school, I’m sorry, I just— I have a book I need to finish, but I didn’t want to…”

Kyle glances at Stan. When he looks back up, Missus Marsh is looking at Kyle. In his general direction, at least. She won’t meet his eyes, and neither will he meet hers. He doesn’t want to. He can’t. “That’s fine,” she says, the pause drowning amid the strange agreement. She seems to understand. For the sake of himself, Kyle hopes such a thing is true. He nods, and she nods, too. She sinks back into her gaze out the window, and Kyle flips to where he’d left off in the book.

He can’t focus. He reads and rereads passages, hoping they’ll process in his brain, hoping he can chew through the entire story in the time that he sits beside Stan, but he can’t. With every mention of blood, his brain gets a little dimmer. With every brunt image of murder, his heart wants to stop. With every word that passes, with every phrase that collects on the page, with every paragraph that glares up at him, he thinks of the letters under his bed. He thinks about the box of them, the lot of them, the seven he remembers and the seven he doesn’t, the dozens of attempts that didn’t go anywhere and the millions of characters he typed out on his computer in hopes of solidifying something less fleeting.

He can’t.

Kyle shuts the book and sets it aside. He doesn’t care anymore. He’ll fail the report, for all he cares. He’ll fail the assignment and fail the class.

He takes Stan’s hand and holds it.

Keeps it still.

Waiting.

Chapter Text

Kyle chooses to stay in the bathroom until the warning bell for first period rings. Even then, he is reluctant. It feels wrong to leave the bathroom, but at the same time, he can’t stay in here. He has to keep up his attendance to get a good grade to get a good job. That’s how the world works. That’s how the world has always worked, and he knows that. It’s just strange to think about, in light of this newfound confusion. Still a little shaky on his foundation, Kyle pulls his backpack over his shoulder and leaves.

Maybe he gets a little too caught up in his mind, but he can’t help it. He stares at the pattern of the hallway as he walks, biting the tip of his tongue, small presses between his teeth, just enough to keep himself focused.

In a matter of minutes— though it feels like seconds—, Kyle makes it to his first period class. He sits in his seat, tugs out his notebook and pencil. As much as he tries to push it out of his head, he can’t. He thinks about it all morning, all through first period and all through second. Third is when he pulls his head out of the clouds and enforces the stimuli around him to make sure he doesn’t over-think any of it. By the time lunch rolls around, he feels alright. He is not shaken, he is not frightened— he was never frightened, Eric has never frightened him— and he is able to think more clearly. The adrenaline is gone, nothing but a memory of what had happened that morning— and, honestly, he’s not bothered by it.

Logic straps itself into his consciousness, reassures him automatically that everything is fine. In fact, everything is normal. Nothing happened. See? He’s fine.

The cafeteria isn’t that crowded today, and for a second, Kyle wonders why that may be. Glancing around the lunch room, he takes a seat at their usual table. Quiet. That’s fine, he can handle quiet. He takes in the scenery, observes the students as they slowly filter in through the entrances to the commons area, chattering in their groups and laughing among themselves. His fingers work mindlessly at the zipper of his backpack, opening it without thinking about it. Essentially, he’s on autopilot. That’s how normal things are. That’s how routine everything is. He’s on autopilot.

His brain itches, like he’s hearing and seeing more things than he’s used to, but he pushes it away because it’s an inconsequential detail that doesn’t matter. Overreaction is not a part of his routine. And that’s what this is, remember? Routine. Eric’s stupid game will run its course, and his mom will be fine, and she’ll get better and come home and he’ll go to college and get a good job and find a husb—

—wife and have kids and continue the bloodline, or whatever the fuck people do nowadays.

Stan enters the cafeteria. He’s holding hands with Wendy, talking to her about something and smiling. She’s smiling, too, and she says something back— Stan’s expression brightens, and Kyle can hear his laughter. Not physically, but mentally. He’s heard it enough times to know what it sounds like, the quiet intake of breath he always does beforehand, and the exhale of chuckles, the way his eyes always close halfway when he does it, the way his cheeks look brighter and his hair looks softer and his sweatshirt is unzipped today, revealing a tee-shirt, a pixel-pattern black and gray tee-shirt that Kyle has seen him wear a dozen times before.

And Stan kisses Wendy on the cheek and they part ways, and then he’s walking closer.

Kyle looks away, looks down, hopes Stan didn’t see him staring, praying, unholy, begging this uncomfortable tightness in his chest and stomach to go away. Kyle feels sick, nauseous and dizzy, like he just stepped off of a boat that was thrashing in waves or a rambunctious ocean but the feeling won’t go away. Seasick, maybe, he doesn’t know. He just knows that he can’t find his lunch. He swears it was in here this morning, wasn’t it? His mother had—

He’d…

He forgot.

“Great,” huffs Kyle, throwing his hands into the air and dropping his backpack onto the floor below the lunch table. In a fit of stress, he laughs. He has to go through the lunch line now, doesn’t he? He has to eat the crap the school sells to kids, the disgusting shit that barely resembles meals, like some sort of microwave dish gone wrong and that, on top of everything else, is stressing Kyle out. That’s it. That’s all it is, he’s stressed. The thing that didn’t happen this morning, the game with Eric, last night with his mother, class after class after class of useless information that he doesn’t want to bother doing anything with, anyway, and now his stupid fucking lunch.

He knows he’s making a big deal out of nothing, but it really does kind of feel like the end of the world.

Kyle rests his head in his hands, not giving a damn about what he looks like. The nausea thickens in his stomach, making him feel like his insides are the very ocean he stepped off of. It aches, really. It certainly doesn’t make him want to eat anything. As strange as it sounds, Kyle kind of likes the thought of not eating. Just— skipping, one meal, even though it’s literally an awful idea. In fact, it is such an awful idea, that he makes the executive decision to stop thinking. He closes his eyes, and—

“Hey, are you okay?” Stan asks, sliding into the seat directly across from Kyle. Immediately, Kyle perks up, opening his eyes to take in the sight of his friend. As stupid as it might sound, having Stan nearby is enough to help him feel better. It feels good, like attention that soaks into every crack of Kyle’s body, something that warms him up and makes him happy.

“Yeah,” Kyle says, smiling— and it isn’t a lie. Stan’s the sun, Kyle muses. And maybe, just in the reference of the metaphor, Kyle is a plant, and everything Kyle needs is within the existence of Stan as a person. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, the more Kyle thinks about it. A slippery slope of something scary, especially with just how comfortable it is, warm and bright in his chest like something precious. Kyle watches Stan dig around in his backpack.

“So, look, I saw your text this morning,” Stan says, pulling out a bag lunch. He sets it on the table, beginning to open it. “And, y’know, I know how you can get, sometimes? With stress and all that, and since midterms are kind of right around the corner, I wanted to…”

Stan trails off, looking a little awkward as he pulls out a sandwich wrapped in plastic wrap. Kyle’s eyes widen when Stan slides the sandwich across the table. It stops halfway, sitting between them, up for grabs.

“Well, I mean, I know when you get panicky you forget things, and I wanted to make sure that you had… a lunch,” Stan says. “And I know you don’t like the school lunch? So, I… made you one.”

Kyle glances up at Stan. Speechless, he can’t even make noise. Stan has never done this before. This is new, and Kyle genuinely doesn’t know how to manage, he’s… “You didn’t have to do that,” Kyle says, instinctively trying to slide the sandwich back towards Stan, but Stan stops him. Their hands touch, making contact over the sandwich. “Stan—”

“No, dude, I—” Stan stumbles over his words before stopping, pressing his lips together and furrowing his brows in thought. “I see you don’t have a lunch, and I just want to— uh, help out.”

Fuck. Stan is going to be the death of Kyle. For a second, he holds his own, maintaining eye contact even past the thresholded limits he’d thought he had. Eventually, he reaches the end of the amount he can bear, and he looks away. The plastic wrap glitters under the bright fluorescence of the cafeteria lights, making it feel a little more unreal than it probably should. Finally, Kyle nods, a minuscule motion that he thinks Stan might not notice, but then Stan pulls his hand away and they’re not touching anymore (and Kyle wants to reach out to hold his hand, that’s all he wants). To keep from embarrassing himself, Kyle pulls the sandwich closer and says, “Christ, if I didn’t know better, I’d ask if you were flirting.”

Stan laughs, pulling a second sandwich out of his bag. “Flirting? With a sandwich? C’mon, Kyle, we both know I wouldn’t stoop low enough to flirt with a sandwich.”

“Right,” says Kyle, picking at the plastic wrap. “You’re more of the 'spell out a proposal with Jello cups' kind of guy.”

“I like to think I’d get a job at a fortune cookie factory just to propose to someone,” Stan replies. He pulls the plastic wrap off of his own sandwich and takes a bite, chewing thoughtfully on it. Kyle rolls his eyes in jest, finally pulling enough of the wrap off of the sandwich to take a bite of his own. “Y’know, if they liked Chinese food, that is, because some people aren’t fans of it, which I don’t understand, but… whatever, I guess, people have preferences, it’s like sex—”

“Okay, Kenny,” Kyle interrupts, giving Stan a look. Stan’s cheeks go pink.

“I— did I say sex?” he asks, eyes wide. Kyle just deepens the look, quirking a brow. Stan slouches, setting his sandwich down and pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand. After a beat, Stan groans. “I didn’t mean to say sex, oh my god…”

“Oh, yeah?” says Kyle. “What’d you mean to say?”

“Well, I was going to say alcohol, but then I thought about…” Stan trails off, dropping his hand. Kyle catches Stan staring at him, and it makes his face heat up. His ears start to burn again, and without thinking about it, Kyle fidgets with the sandwich. He pulls some of the crust off of the side of the bread. Stan clears his throat, shaking his head. “I— I mean, I saw Wendy— uh…”

That hits Kyle in the chest, forcing the breath out of his lungs. It hurts like an arrow, an impact he wasn’t prepared for. Stan is no longer looking at him. Instead, he’s turned away, looking around at the cafeteria that surrounds them. Kyle picks at the crust a bit more vigorously, less interested in the details of whatever Stan may have been quote end quote ‘thinking about’. Or, apparently more accurately, seeing. “Whatever,” Kyle says, forcing it to sound lighthearted. He’s pretty sure Stan can tell the difference in the tone, though. Things feel stiff. “Why alcohol?”

Stan is quiet for a long time. “What do you mean?”

“You said you were going to say alcohol,” Kyle replies. “So, why alcohol? Why not ice cream? Or soda? Or shade of blue?”

Kyle knows it’s unfair, but he looks up at Stan, narrowing his eyes in a glare. Stan’s expression is red, though assuredly, it’s deepened from embarrassment, and not from being flustered. That normal face of confusion is more tense, though still vaguely puzzled. Wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights. “I…” Stan swallows. “Kyle, c’mon, I’m clean.”

“I believe you,” Kyle says. He cringes at how bitter his own voice is. His stomach churns, making him regret eating. The nausea is back, squirming in through the cracks Kyle thought he’d forgotten. “I just don’t understand why that’s the first thing to come to mind, after however long—”

“Four years,” Stan mumbles, like that makes it better somehow, like he’s trying to inject his success over the fear of his failure. Bitter thoughts start to break in, marring the niceness that Kyle had been thoroughly enjoying thus far. His instinct isn’t anger. It’s not anger, it’s not anger, it’s not. His instinct is to drop his sandwich and pull Stan into a hug and not let go until Kyle knows for an undeniable fact that he’s safe, but he can’t do that. Kyle cannot do that, because friends don’t do that. Isn’t that right?

So, just as Stan injects his success over the fear, Kyle injects his anger over the truth. “Because that makes it okay,” he snaps. Stan’s eyes are still wide. The redness of his cheeks starts to turn into a pallor. “Just how true is ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’?”

Pause. Kyle didn’t mean to say that.

Stan wheezes. Kyle’s expression immediately softens.

“I can’t…” Stan says, his voice hardly coming out above a whisper. He goes through the motion of drawing in a deep breath, but it catches somewhere. He tries to clear his throat, but that doesn’t work very well, either. He pulls up his backpack. “Look, okay, I— I can’t do that right now, I’m sorry, I just—”

Stan searches through the pockets of his backpack, but comes up dry on whatever he’s searching for. Kyle guesses he’s looking for his inhaler. Oh fuck. Kyle fucked up. Kyle seriously fucked up. “Stan, I’m so sorry,” Kyle says. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Please stop,” Stan says. Kyle shuts up. Stan tries for another deep breath, but Kyle can see the way he struggles for it. Stan laughs, quiet. “I forgot my fucking inhaler at home, great.”

There’s a moment of stillness, where Stan simply works on taking in breaths. Until, eventually, there is that telltale cough, dry, a precursor. Stan knows it just as well as Kyle does, and immediately, Stan stands up, dropping his backpack in his chair to save the seat.

“Wendy has my spare, I’ll be back,” Stan says. Kyle opens his mouth to speak, but Stan shakes his head, and Kyle is rendered mute. “It’s fine, it’s not your fault, I’ll be back, I just can’t handle that, fuck, sorry, I can’t.”

Stan leaves, running his fingers through his hair in what Kyle can only assume is an attempt at self-soothing. Now alone, the guilt creeps up on Kyle and tries to swallow him whole. Whatever nausea he’d had before has now doubled, forcing him to feel like he’s minutes away from needing to rush to the bathroom to vomit. For a moment, he simply watches, observes Stan as he crosses the cafeteria to where Wendy sits with the rest of the cheerleaders. Kyle watches Stan get there, and he watches Stan tap her politely on the shoulder, and he watches as the seconds tick by and Wendy hops up, and then they leave the cafeteria through the entrance.

Kyle did that.

Stan would be better off if Kyle just…

Normally, Kyle would push the thought away, but for now, he lets himself feel it. He wraps his sandwich back up in the wrap, putting it into his backpack just in case he needs it later. The trembling from earlier is back with a vengeance, though the cause is different. The cause this time is actually his fault. Kyle is such an idiot. Kyle pushed a boundary he knew Stan had issues with, but he still pushed it. Kyle knows better than that.

Kyle pulls his notebook out of his backpack, jots down a quick note, and leaves it in Stan’s backpack, which was left behind.

Stan,
Thanks for the sandwich. You don’t know how much I needed that.
- your super-best-friend, Kyle

Kyle dismisses himself to the bathroom.

Chapter Text

It’s in the middle of AP Chem that Kyle receives a text. His first instinct, of course, is beyond terrifying. The idea that something has gone wrong at the hospital, that his mom has—… that something happened, and Dad is sending him a message to let him know he’s going to be picked up early, or something, and— there’s a second buzz. Fuck, another one, fuck. The idea of leaving the texts for later is an impossible one. His fear surmounts his ingrained sense of following the rules, and even though this means breaking the first rule of the class, he doesn’t give a single fuck. As discretely as possible, Kyle pulls his phone out of his pocket and unlocks it, glancing down only when he needs to.

Fatass

Today 1:25 PM
NEW TASK!!!

Text back

Everything rushes out of Kyle. All of the tension in his muscles, all of the fear in his heart, all of the utter panic he’d started to feel like something physical— it dissipates in a snap. He glances up at Eric, who sits directly across from him. And he’s grinning, this smug little shit-eating grin. Kyle glares, tempted to say fuck it and ignore Eric completely. He can’t, though. There’s still that tiny voice in the back of his head that tells him, on the off chance that Eric really did do something, that he cannot take any risks. Kyle decides to disobey in a different way.

Fatass

Today 1:27
Fuck you.

Kyle hits send and looks up, his glare hardening. He watches as Eric pulls his phone out, having zero regard for the teacher, Miss James, possibly looking over and seeing. Eric purses his lips at the message, apparently unsure of the contents of it. Maybe it’s stupid, but Kyle feels like that’s a victory on his part. Loopholes are such lovely things. He has a newfound respect for them. Next time Ike manages to find one, he won’t be mad. He’ll laugh, because in a way, he gets it.

Eric taps out another message on his phone, blatant as he does so with his hands and phone out in front of him, above the table. It’s casual, and for a moment, Kyle’s glare hardens. How is Eric getting away with this bullshit? This doesn’t make any fucking sense. One glance over Eric’s shoulder reveals the answer, though. Eric has his back facing the front of the room. Kyle, on the other hand, faces the front properly. The width of Eric’s shoulders and the mass of his body must block any obvious view of what he’s doing.

Eric sends the text. Kyle’s phone buzzes.

Fatass

Today 1:28
JOKES ON JEW, KYLE, You still Answered >:o) haHa see what I Did There?

That text wasn’t worth checking. At all. Kyle rolls his eyes and shoves his phone back into his pocket— just in time for it to buzz again. This time, Kyle doesn’t check it. He doesn’t care if it’s another “task” from Eric. He doesn’t care if it’s some stupid rule or edit to the conditions. This is an elective class that Kyle is taking so he can get better credit for college and bump up his GPA. He can’t slack off, and he certainly won’t do it voluntarily without significant reason to. He turns his attention back to the lecture, although he already knows this stuff like the back of his hand. He took regular chemistry already. AP Chem is no sweat. He’s done this shit.

So, maybe, that’s what pushes Kyle into checking his phone again. Maybe it’s because he knows all this stuff, and he knows he knows all this stuff. Maybe it’s because he could do this with his eyes closed, backwards, in the dark, because it certainly isn’t because Eric is staring at him like that. It has nothing to do with Eric. It’s a completely voluntary decision that Kyle makes because he has the ability to choose for himself what he wants to do with his time. Kyle swallows and checks the text.

Fatass

Today 1:29
Next task!!!: Take it.

Kyle furrows his brows, checking the message history with him and Eric to make sure he isn’t missing anything. Take what? There’s no explanation of what “it” is anywhere. Pursing his lip, Kyle moves to put his phone away—

And almost drops it when Eric kicks his leg under the table. Hard.

Kyle tightens his grip on his phone, making sure he has a solid grasp on it so he won’t drop it and give away the fact that he’d taken it out in the first place. He glances at Miss James, like she knows something about this, but it’s obvious she doesn’t. She’s still talking, avid about the concept of VnTP tables, explaining quickly and efficiently the elaborate process of multiplication and division and Eric kicks him again.

With a quiet intake of breath, Kyle closes his eyes and comes to the abrupt conclusion that this is what Eric meant. This is the “it” that had previously gone uncertain, mysterious under the guise of an ambiguous pronoun. Whatever. The kicks are fine, Kyle can manage. He’s dealt with worse— much worse, significantly worse. He pockets his phone and grabs his pencil, resuming his previous note-taking. Eric kicks him for a third time. It’s not nearly as hard this time. Or, maybe Kyle has already gotten used to the ache. It’s firm and lingering, but not nearly as awful as Kyle thought Eric’s tasks could be. In fact, this is really quite juvenile. If these are the types of things Kyle will have to put up with in order to save his mother (again, under the hypothetical that Eric is, in fact, involved), this’ll be a piece of cake. The most this will be is a minor annoyance. An irritant to the skin, rather than a blade to the vein. He can manage it.

Miss James moves on from VnTP tables, quickly chalking up the review to the basic of we’re doing this later this week. For now, apparently, they’ll be revisiting covalent bonds and chemical reactions, and balancing equations. Some wonderful things that Kyle finds— admittedly— significantly easier than VnTP tables.

Eric has started to kick him more rhythmically at this point, tapping his leg bluntly at least once every second. Kyle knows he’ll stop when he gets tired. That’s how it works. Eric will bore himself, because Kyle isn’t going to react. This is fine. Another kick, a little softer, and Kyle knows he’s correct in the assumption. Miss James tells the class that they’ll be working at their tables, and within a matter of seconds, Eric ceases the kicks. See? He became bored and gave up. Thus is the monotony of such a mundane task.

Miss James hands out the worksheets that they’re supposed to work on as a table, and as soon as Kyle’s table receives them, he passes them out. One to Butters, who sits directly next to him, one to Clyde, who sits across from Butters, and one reluctant shove of a paper leaflet at Eric. The force with which Kyle threw the paper at Eric catches the attention of Butters, who chuckles like it’s funny. In some ways, Kyle supposes it is. It certainly must be amusing to outsiders, huh?

Kyle sits back in his seat and starts to work, piping in to answer anyone who has questions, though they rarely do. They’re the table who knows how to do shit right. In many ways, they’re a bit infamous for that. People from other tables sometimes ask them for clarification— particularly Clyde or Butters. Clyde may not look it, but he certainly knows his shit. He’s not great with the numbers part of things, but he can figure his way around element charges and equation balancing like a master. Butters is the best in the class with numbers, though. He’s basically the human calculator.

“Uh oh,” Clyde voices. He’s always rather loud when he finds something he can’t magic his way through. He perks up like a prairie dog, eyes wide and mouth slightly pursed. He starts to tap on the surface of the table with the hand not holding his pencil. “Guys, quick, I need the molar mass of oxygen!”

Kyle opens his mouth to respond, as this is something he knows well, but he’s startled out of his coherency by a particularly sharp, harsh pain on his leg. Fuck. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his lips together into a tight line as he pushes away the urge to vocalize his surprise. Eric just kicked him again, and this time, it was much harder than he’d been doing before. That hurt. Almost certainly, it will leave a bruise. Kyle isn’t thrilled for that. He isn’t thrilled at all.

“Fifteen point nine nine!” Butters says, sing-song and borderline lyrical. He continues to work on his own worksheet. He has the paper tilted slightly to the right so he can see it better. At the response, Clyde snaps his fingers in appreciation, pointing at Butters with both hands.

“You’re the man, Stan!” Clyde says, quickly going back to the problem he was having issues with.

All Butters says to that is a soft, happy, barely audible, “My name is Leo.”

Kyle glances at Eric. The smug expression is back, but he isn’t directly looking at Kyle anymore. He’s staring at his own worksheet, doodling on the edges to make it look like he’s actually doing shit. With anger threatening to bubble up from his chest, Kyle resumes his work. Whatever. That was probably it— and if it wasn’t, Kyle can handle it. The pain has faded, more or less, and although there’s still a soft ache that pats from his muscle, he has no issues with Eric kicking him again. Technically, at least. It’s still tame. Manageable.

It’s only a matter of time before Clyde finds another issue, though.

“Shit!” he says, gasping dramatically. Kyle sighs.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at Clyde. Clyde has a hand on top of his head, apparently trying to think.

“Aw, man, what the hell is the symbol for sulfate?”

Kyle furrows his brows. “Dude, where’s your equation sheet?”

“I forgot it at home,” Clyde whines. “It was right on my desk, I swear I was gonna grab it!”

“Okay, okay, wow, calm down,” Kyle says. “It’s S-O—”

Eric kicks him again. Kyle has to actively bite back a grunt, his face scrunching up in pain without him giving it express permission to do so. Once he recovers and opens his eyes, the embarrassment starts to leak through. Clyde is staring at him, this confused expression on his face. “Dude,” Clyde says, frowning. “Are you all good, there, bro?”

“I’m fine,” bites Kyle. “It’s S-O subscript four, by the way.”

Theres a second of silence. Kyle ignores it, decides it doesn’t matter, tries to think of a way out of the awkwardness he’d just pushed into the situation. He hopes Clyde will leave it be, but that’s wishful thinking. The look of confusion turns to one of skepticism. Clyde asks a question he should know the answer to. “What’s the charge of sulfate?”

Kyle shoots Eric a glare. A don’t you dare glare. Eric holds his hands up, feigning innocence. Clyde glances over. Kyle begins, “Negative t—” but that’s all he gets out, before Eric kicks him again. The soft ache starts to turn into a more moderate wave. The repetitive trauma of the same spot isn’t good for his shin. Kyle pulls his legs back, scooting back a bit in his chair. Trying to, at least. Eric hooks his ankle around one of the front legs of Kyle’s chair, holding him in place. A silent command to stay right where he is. Kyle takes a deep breath and scoots back in. His face is warm as he corrects, “Negative two.”

“Oh,” Clyde says. And that’s it, for a while. A relief, a respite, a tiny break. But then the continuation of never-ending questioning picks back up. This is like an experiment for him, it must be, that’s the only logical explanation. Why else would Clyde be looking at him like that, and why else would he be asking so many questions to see the reaction? A tiny part of Kyle tells him that Clyde knows something. That, maybe, just maybe, Clyde is in on it. That Clyde is getting some sick humor out of this. Kyle’s stomach does a flip. “What’s the charge of Oxygen?”

Kyle is anticipating a different question— no, he’s anticipating the kick, and anticipating the pain, anticipating the undeniable hurt that comes with answering correctly. It’s strange, but he’s almost certain, that if he answers wrong, Eric won’t kick him. But that’s a lie. A fairy-tale, something to explain away the reason he gives the wrong answer. “Six,” Kyle whispers, and fails to bite back the split-second whimper that Eric forces out of him with a series of kicks to his leg. After a second of processing, breathing through the pain that lingers in his shin, thrumming up his leg and keeping him stiff, he realizes that he gave a very wrong answer. It’s not six, it’s—

“Negative two,” Clyde says. He furrows his brows and narrows his eyes, glancing between Kyle and Eric. Kyle turns his gaze down for a second, trying to sink into the chair or something. He was so certain he’d get through this without any issues. He was certain he could be better than to react to Eric’s prodding. Suddenly, Clyde leans in, whispering, “Are you two doing the gay stuff?”

Immediately, Eric bursts into laughter, doubling over the table and resting his forehead against the surface of it. Kyle’s face heats further, his cheeks pounding the warmth in an uncomfortable rhythm that matches the beat of his heart. The pressure builds in his chest until he can’t hold it back anymore, hissing, “I’m not gay.”

“‘The gay stuff!’” Eric is wheezing under his breath, slapping the table with his palm. “‘The gay stuff’! Oh my god, you guys, I’m seriously!”

This isn’t happening. It isn’t happening, it isn’t happening, it isn’t. Kyle grips the main body of his pencil, scraping his fingernail against the paint until it sheds off, revealing the pale wood beneath. His brain tells him to look at Clyde, because he can feel him staring, but the embarrassment is too much. Kyle can’t look up— no, he won’t look up. He tries to ignore everything around him, simply thankful that the rest of the class is too involved in their own bullshit to notice the issues at their table. It feels like his brain isn’t working, though, and as Kyle tries to connect the dots on the next chemical equation, he finds that he can’t. The symbols that used to make so much sense no longer process. They’re just lines, blurring around the edges and burning into his eyes until he needs to close them.

Eric kicks him again. He numbs himself to it, bites the inside of his cheek, tears at the thin layer of skin, tries to override the feeling. He pulls his leg back, but Eric steps on his foot. The instinct to kick back hits him hard and sudden, but he doesn’t acquiesce to it. It’s tempting, almost violently so, but he can’t. The fear is still there— and with the instinct of fear overrides the instinct to fight back. A few kicks later, Kyle opens his eyes. Eric is looking at him, leaning forward just enough to reach. The rest of his posture is relaxed, his hands folded in front of him like a pathetically stereotypical evil villain. It’s such a simple thing.

And yet it makes Kyle feel…

a little helpless?

Lost.

He wonders how Mom is feeling right now. She’s certainly hurting more than he is. He cannot complain. He refuses to.

Kyle swallows, straightens up in his chair, and tries to go back to work.

“But maybe we are, huh?” Eric says, his hushed tone cutting in suddenly. Kyle doesn’t react. He stares at the unbalanced equation before him, the black letters on the colored paper, the dark lead on the pale background, the contours and the shapes, and the kick to his shin hurts. “Maybe we are doing the gay stuff.”

“We’re not,” Kyle says, firm. He does not look up at Eric.

“Maybe we’re playing a game,” Eric hums, resting his chin in his palm. Kick, kick, kick. Stupid idiot fuckhead. “Maybe we’re playing footsie under the table, or maybe I have a vibrator in your ass.”

All of the breath rushes out of Kyle’s lungs from shock of the words. Quickly, his airways refill with anger. Kyle growls, “That’s the most disgusting—”

“Maybe I’m in control,” Eric interrupts. “Maybe I have the switch, or maybe it’s mental... maybe you’re mine, hmm?”

“You sick—”

“Don’t talk back to me,” Eric quips, firm in his tone. Kyle opens his mouth to protest, but he doesn’t have the energy. “Be a good boy and I’ll be a good master.”

Kick, kick, kick— why, at this point, does Kyle fight back? It comes up with no positive results, it’s only beating him down further, ruining the positive image he thought he’d had of himself— kick, kick, kick— but he will not give up, he will not give in, he is stronger than this, and Eric will not win this sick “game”. He will not. Kyle says, “Shove it up your ass.”

Smug, Eric replies, “It’s already up yours.”

“Eric,” Butters says, finally piping up from his spot beside Kyle. The unexpectedness of it forces Kyle to flinch, almost dropping his pencil on the floor in the process. He’d forgotten that there were other people here. For a moment, it’d just been Eric and himself, facing off in a silent battle, staring each other down and waiting for the loser to claim the failure. But no one had budged, and thus the referee pitched in. Butters. The kicks soften. They keep coming, but they soften. Kyle exhales. He glances at Clyde, whose expression has gone tight, disturbed.

“What do you want, Butters?” Eric asks. Butters smiles brightly.

“Stop kicking Kyle under the table, please,” he says, sweet, almost saccharine. He picks up his worksheet and flips it around, displaying it to Eric. Butters points to his writing, which has wavered in places. “You’re messing up my penmanship.”

For some reason—

For some fucking reason

Eric obeys Butters without any protest.

Chapter Text

Dealing with an aching leg for the rest of the school day is unfavorable, to say the least. Stack that on top of the fact that Kyle feels strangely absent, and there’s an efficient recipe for disaster. As strange as it is, however, the rest of the day is silent. Eric doesn’t text him, nor do they run into each other in the hallway or anywhere else they might run risk of meeting. Kyle’s brain keeps on the lookout. It forces his eyes open, even when they’re so unbelievably tempted to close. It makes him glance up at the noises he usually wouldn’t notice. The colors of the items around him burn into his memory. He latches onto the image of the white board in his final period class. He stares at the red marker. He stares at it like that’ll fix the weird disconnect forming in his mind. By the time the final bell rings, fatigue is so intimately interlocked with the tangles of his mind, that he hardly has the energy to gather himself and start the walk home.

Every step fills his leg with a rush of something tender and unpleasant. It’s like he can physically feel the blood pooling, collecting to form the bruises he knows are there, being created under the skin. He hates the imagery of it. It makes him cringe, but he can’t really stop thinking about it. A weird masochism, maybe. He doesn’t really know. How lame is that?

He intends to walk home alone, but it doesn’t work that way. He pushes the front door of the school open and immediately finds Stan leaning against a tree. Kyle tries to ignore him, to pretend he doesn’t see him, but Stan isn’t going to let him off that easy. He never does. Stan’s like that. He’s a lost puppy, sometimes, just waiting to follow people around, happy when he can occupy the company of someone else and not be a burden in the process. Kyle thinks it’s cute. It makes him smile. Stan pushes off of the tree and starts heading over, waving as he does. Kyle waves back, but doesn’t stop walking. That’s okay, though, isn’t it? Because Stan will follow no matter what. Stan proves the point by jogging up the rest of the way, not slowing until he can walk beside Kyle, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, dude,” Stan says, this soft grin on his face that parts his lips and shows his teeth, the soft pink of his gums, the inside of his mouth… Kyle knows what it feels like. He knows what Stan’s tongue feels like. It’s not as soft as it looks. It’s rough, kind of like a cat, but in a good way, and— Kyle needs to stop thinking about that. He really needs to stop thinking about that.

“Hey,” Kyle says. “What’s up?”

“Not a lot,” Stan replies. “And yourself?”

So proper. Kyle rolls his eyes. “Everything’s really boring on my end,” he says, hoping that if he’s casual enough, it’ll come true. Things don’t work that way, though, do they? It’s unfortunate. It’d be really convenient if things could go away with just a hope. He and Stan push through a group of freshman, giving them glares for taking up the entirety of the end of the sidewalk. The freshmen, of course, don’t notice the intrusion whatsoever. Typical. Kyle and Stan continue on, marching slowly down the path that takes them home. The soles of their shoes crunch against the pebbles and dirt that have been kicked up, and mush in the lingering remnants of snow. It’s trying to melt again, but it’s likely that the season won’t let it. It’ll snow again soon, assuredly, bastardizing the work that the water has tried so hard to achieve.

“You’re limping,” Stan says.

“You’re hallucinating,” Kyle says, not looking up.

Stan doesn’t respond to that.

And maybe Kyle is grateful for that.

Step. Step. Step. Every maneuver onto his leg forces him to think about walking straighter, walking taller, walking normally. It’s harder than it seems. Every time he tries to apply his full weight, he has to close his eyes. He thinks, maybe, he should just bear that pain. Maybe it would teach him a lesson, or maybe it would help make him stronger. The logic behind it doesn’t make sense, certainly, but that’s never stopped him before, has it?

Kyle’s head hurts. He needs to stop thinking.

His hand brushes Stan’s, maybe halfway into their walk. Kyle’s fingers itch to hold it, to lace their fingers together, to memorize the feeling of Stan’s skin and grasp, to feel the way it’s so warm against his own and understand the way Stan works to a deeper level. Thoughts start to surface. Of the other day, of when Stan wrapped his arm around Kyle’s waist, of when Stan kissed him and mouthed at his stomach. Something sparks, and Kyle shoves his hands into his pockets to push it away. Stan has a girlfriend. Stan has made it abundantly clear that he still loves Wendy, and Kyle doesn’t want to get in the way of that. It hurts to see Stan with someone else, though, and the minute he takes his eyes away from the sidewalk to glance at Stan, he finds himself falling down a rabbit hole of urge. He doesn’t even know what he wants, anymore, there’s just this physiological, automatic need that swarms in his blood. This I need I need I need that won’t stop thrumming. His lungs itch to take in heavy air, to feel the weightlessness of marijuana and sink into the heaviness of the calm, to stare at a wall and imagine nothing while wasting time, just to get through it.

Weed would help, right? It always helps. It always blanks Kyle’s mind, forces away the improper, immodest, lurid temptations. It dulls the hurt. Maybe it’d help his leg.

Stan always kisses him when they get high.

“So,” Kyle begins, nervous in every sense of the term. Stan perks up, brows raised, receptive. Kyle knows the answer before he even asks the question, but he can’t stop the words from tumbling out anyway. It’s… weird, this… something, that refuses to let him have real control even though he’s making these decisions. A creeping, distorted, distant… quiet. He chuckles, because that makes it seem less important than it really is. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into a weed session tonight?”

Stan laughs, too, picking up the lighthearted tone where Kyle leaves it. “Sorry, dude,” Stan says, shaking his head. “I got shit to do tonight, pharmacy and stuff… you know the deal.”

Kyle does know the deal. He’s been there since the start of that deal, the one with the refills and the prescriptions just to keep Stan from going off the deep end again. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, shrugging, trying to push it off, even though the disappointment physically hurts. It’s an escape he needed. It’s something that he’s worried to go without. Not afraid, not panicked, not upset, just… a little nervous. Jittery, maybe— if you want to stretch it, of course, because Kyle can deal with his shit without the crutch of something external. He does it all the time. He’s done it since he was a kid. He’s able to compartmentalize and process and deal with his shit, healthily, on his own.

So why is he bothered by this?

Stan sniffs. Kyle is reminded of the cold air. He’s reminded of the airways. “Hey,” Kyle says, keeping his tone soft. He looks over at Stan, who looks back at him, a soft acknowledgment on his face. Kyle swallows. “Do you— uh, have your inhaler, or whatever?”

Stan’s brows twitch downward. “Yeah, I got it back from Wendy,” he says. “Why?”

“I just wanted to make sure,” Kyle says. “Look, okay, about earlier…”

“Kyle—” begins Stan, but Kyle shakes his head quickly.

“No, I’m serious, okay? Let me talk for a second, please,” Kyle says. “I just wanted to apologize, I was seriously out of line, and—”

“Okay, okay,” Stan says, cutting Kyle off. He’s quick, almost snappish, and it throws Kyle for a bit of a loop. For a second, the moment is palpable. Stan is holding his breath. Kyle can tell, based on the quiet. Stan exhales. “I’m sorry, I just can’t do that right now, okay? I didn’t—”

Quiet again. Stan runs his fingers through his hair, another repetition of the self-soothing behavior. Kyle remembers it from the lunchroom.

“Look, I didn’t—” but Stan cuts off again. Kyle waits, patient and silent, listening. Stan finally mutters, “I wasn’t able to take my medication today, okay? That’s why I’m busy tonight, man, and I hate it, but I can’t— like, talk about that shit right now, it makes me freak, I don’t want to—”

Silence. Kyle’s leg shoots a particularly painful throb through him. He ignores it, and finally stops trying to avoid the limp. He was probably failing, anyway.

“I don’t want to lose control,” Stan says. “Not again, and I can’t be sure I won’t if we keep talking about it, okay? We can talk when I take my next dose but right now is really not a good time if you don’t want me to flip my shit.”

Stan looks over. His eyes are soft, a little damp, but not from sadness. From something else. Kyle has seen it before, but he hasn’t seen it in a while. He doesn’t remember what the name of that emotion is.

“Okay?” Stan whispers the word. Kyle frowns.

“Okay,” he says. Stan breathes a sigh of relief.

“Okay,” he repeats. He turns away, ignoring Kyle’s gaze. “I’m gonna forget this conversation happened, okay? For the sake of my stupid sanity.”

And Stan laughs at that. Kyle smiles, but doesn’t make a noise.

His vocal cords, strained with the effort of trying to keep himself calm, refuse to work for the rest of the walk. Stan’s house comes up quickly, and their goodbye is virtually nonexistent. It’s a minuscule wave, really, something that could be missed if not for the activeness with which Kyle is searching for it, for something to latch onto and remember and feel for the rest of the night, just something to keep him company in the dark of his bedroom, or the cold of the car if they go visit Mom tonight, or to fill the air with something other than stale oxygen.

Kyle unlocks the front door and steps in, shedding his backpack and shrugging off his coat with a particular malaise. He goes to kick the door shut behind him, but stops short, wary of the fact that he only has one good leg. It stings, now, a brisk grasp of the limb is heating the skin. He pushes the door shut with his elbow, instead, locking it as quietly as possible. He takes a step towards the kitchen.

Stops short.

Glances at his shoes and backpack.

They’re strewn, a little haphazardly, in the corner. He… no, he can’t leave them like that, it’d be irresponsible. Bad luck. He needs to be better, he needs to—

Kyle crouches, fixing his shoes and his backpack so they’re settled neatly and symmetrically next to the front door. He stands back up, taking care not to put too much unrestricted pressure on his injured leg. There. See? Look at that, all neat and tidy, now. Keep doing that, it’ll make things look nicer and that’ll make everything feel better. Cleaning can do wonders for the psyche, he’d read that somewhere. Being in a clean environment is important.

He heads into the kitchen and opens the freezer, removing an icepack. It’s cold, numbing his fingers immediately. Relieved, he shuts the door to the freezer and grabs a towel to wrap the icepack up in. He’ll need that to make sure he doesn’t freeze his skin. That’s not what he’s trying to do. He just needs to make sure his leg heals as fast as possible. He can’t risk getting more injuries on top of this one, and he can’t risk being incapacitated for too long. He has to stay strong for Ma, and he can’t show weakness to Cartman. It’s basically lifeblood to the sociopath, the misery of others.

With a sigh, Kyle meanders back into the living room, using the wall to support his aching path, trying not to aggravate the already angry bruises. He can feel them. He hasn’t seen them, hasn’t pulled up his pant leg yet, but he knows he’ll have marks there for a while. He sits down on the couch and turns, laying along the length of the couch. He pulls up his pant leg, biting his lip in preparation of the moment of truth.

Red. Lots of red, and ferocious hues. It flowers up, blood underneath the skin. It’s hot to the touch, and it hurts with pressure. He hisses, trying to ignore the fact that there are some places that are starting to darken to a very simple shade of lilac, spotting just barely. Oh, fuck…

Kyle wraps the ice pack in the towel and rests it on the injury, making sure to keep his touch mild and calm. For a second, it hurts, and the throbbing feels a little more like squeezing, or punching. The numbing scratch of the ice has him cold in a matter of moments, though, and he catches up with himself quickly. His mind is starting to reel, now, with the reality of something so physical reigniting the frozen discomfort that had dug itself a home deep within his stomach. He leans back, propping himself up with a couple of the pillows on the couch.

Fuck.

Breathe, fucking breathe. It’s fine.

He’s fine.

Kyle reclines for a long time, mulling over the details of the things he doesn’t want to think about. The ice melts a little, but not significantly. He rests, keeps himself from giving in to the pounding pressure that has started to surface in his chest. A strange mild tapping of his heart, something he can feel quite well. But he’s fine. He breathes through it, thinks about good things, like rabbits and ducks and dogs and Stan’s puppy dog eyes. The way they redden when he’s high— fuck, stop.

He rubs his eyes, trying to wake himself up, trying to get a grip on the bullshit he’s spiraling into. He’s fine. Everything is fine. He doesn’t need anything, he can compartmentalize, he can fix, he can repair, he can understand and control and he can get his shit together, okay? He’s in control. Breathe.

Breathe.

Breathe.

There’s a tapping. What’s that tapping?

Wait.

There are footsteps heading down the stairs, and immediately, Kyle sits up. He removes the icepack from his shin and struggles with pulling down the leg of his pants. He turns to sit normally, ignoring the way it aches to move. Not his leg, his leg is numb, but the rest of him aches with the sudden burst of energy. He rubs the back of his neck, where it has become stiff from his relaxation. He shuts his eyes against the offending light.

“Kyle?” Ike asks. Kyle glances up, squinting as his eyes readjust to the brightness of the outside that sheds in from the window. Ike stands, having just stepped off of the landing a moment ago. There’s something about the way he holds himself, casual yet formal, like he’s in a mode he can’t quite crack. Or… wait, hold on. Kyle rubs his eyes again, trying to force away the strange film that has collected over his vision. His brain has fogged up. Something in him snapped. Turned off. A light switch was flicked, powered down, and he’s hardly there at all.

It feels funny.

He feels vaguely high, but not really.

“Hi, Ike,” Kyle says, sitting up a little straighter where he sits. He fidgets with the icepack in his hands, brushing the pads of his fingers over the fabric of the towel it’s wrapped in.

“What’s with the towel?” Ike asks. Kyle glances down.

“Well, if you look closely, it appears to be a towel,” Kyle deflects. Ike frowns.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Nothing,” Kyle says.

“Uh huh.” Ike glances down, his gaze fixed on the specific spot where the ice pack had been resting on Kyle’s shin. Self-conscious, Kyle reaches down to rub the spot. He almost gasps when he feels skin rather than the fabric of his jeans. When he looks down, he finds that he’d completely failed to pull the leg of his pants down all the way. Most of the injury is hidden, but there’s certainly enough for someone to become suspicious of something happening. Kyle yanks the pant leg down the rest of the way, brushing off some imaginary dust. “You’re being stupid.”

Kyle looks over. Ike glares.

“What’s going on with you?” Ike asks. Although Ike’s not hostile, Kyle can’t help but be bitter.

“Nothing’s going on with me, it was a basketball mishap,” he says, standing up from the couch. “Just don’t worry about it.”

“Well, if nothing’s going on, I shouldn’t have to worry,” Ike says. Kyle rolls his eyes. Smartass. Kyle says as such.

“Smartass.”

Ike just smiles.

Kyle doesn’t have the energy to naturally smile back, so he has to force it. Although it’s obvious that Ike doesn’t buy it, he doesn’t say anything. Kyle is grateful for that. He grips the icepack tighter, holding it close to his body, where it cools a spot against his stomach. “Will you be okay down here by yourself?” he asks, trying to make sure he takes care of his brotherly duty. Ike makes a face, probably inquisitive of why he’s asking such a thing, which spurs Kyle to reply, “I’m tired, and I’d like to take a nap.”

Hesitantly, Ike says, “I’ll be okay, you go do that.”

But he’s fidgeting, and Kyle doesn’t like it. “Ike, I can stay down here if you want me to.”

“No,” Ike protests, his voice firm. He pouts. “I’ll be fine, I’m old enough to handle myself!”

“Okay,” Kyle says. He rubs the back of his neck with his free hand, tempted to call it a day on the couch rather than suffering the stairway. He’s not going to do that, though. If he did, it’d only give Ike more fuel to become picky. The last thing Kyle needs is Ike dragging Dad into this, when it’s unnecessary. Nothing’s even happening. Kyle is fine, he’s holding things together on his own. Dad doesn’t need to take all of the stress. Kyle can bear some, too.

“Go nap,” Ike commands, pointing sharply at the steps. Kyle rolls his eyes, waving Ike’s gesture off dismissively.

“Right, okay,” he says. He starts up the steps, holding back the natural wince that comes with unintentionally leading with his injured leg. He pushes through, taking the steps one at a time. The feeling has returned by now, and it’s sharp, unpleasant. Very unpleasant. Kyle tries to hide whatever limp might be peeking through, but he doesn’t know if he’s succeeding. He makes it to his room, pushing the door shut behind him.

Dizzy, Kyle sinks to the ground. He crouches, dropping the icepack and gripping his shin with one hand, covering his mouth with the other, squeezing his eyes shut as tight as he can. He tries to force it back, and he succeeds. The burning of his eyes threatens him, but he keeps himself from indulging in the urge to cry. The stinging goes away, and when he’s out of the woods, he blinks his eyes open. They just want to close again, but he won’t let them.

The dizziness that had forced him to his knees is mild, barely able to be called dizziness. More than anything, it’s just disorientation, making him feel like someone is grabbing his head and forcing him to look places, rather than him genuinely controlling his own body. It’s like his brain isn’t getting enough oxygen. With the thought, he draws in a deep breath, inhaling until something in his chest pulls tight. He coughs, once, quietly, until that tightness goes away.

He’s fine.

He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine.

His mother is not fine.

She could die.

She could be dead, right now, and he wouldn’t know until Dad called. Or the hospital, or whatever— he wouldn’t know.

He should—

Pray, maybe, or something. He should pray, a conversation in hopes of her to be safe, or healthy, or just be okay wherever she ends up going, if anywhere. He knows he’s not supposed to feel so crushed by this, since death is a part of life and a natural thing, but it’s so suffocating. His eyes are burning again, forcing him to blink back the blur of tears, biting his lip. He knows that whatever is going to happen will happen, and he knows that he shouldn’t fear that, and he knows he should let it fall into the hands of—

he can’t, fucking fuck, he can’t even think about it.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

How does the rest of it go?

It’s a psalm. He’s heard it before, he knows it, he knew it, and he’s always felt like it was special. Like it deserved attention, even though that might sound weird. He’s felt connected to it, maybe a little overly, or maybe he’s overestimating it in a time of need, but he doesn’t care. He feels the urge to read it, to know it, to hold it in his hands and look at the words and be able to keep it together.

To be better.

He should know it. It’s weird, but it’s a distinct feeling. He should know it, just in case. He could laugh. In case of what? What would he need it for? He doesn’t know. But he’s afraid.

No, he’s not.

Yes, I am.

Kyle claws at the carpet, balancing himself and slowly standing, pushing himself upright. He limps over to bed, not realizing he forgot the icepack on the floor until he’s already sitting on his mattress. At that point, he doesn’t care enough to go back for it. Kyle takes a deep breath and opens his bedside drawer, pulling it out all the way until he can reach the copy of the JPS Hebrew-English Bible (which may-or-may-not have been, uh, "permanently borrowed" from a certain large department store a while back) that he keeps back there. He hasn’t used it much; he doesn't really have a reason to. It’s more of a comfort of the presence thing than something he reads, anyway. He pulls it out when he needs to not be alone.

Does that sound stupid?

He closes the drawer and sets the book beside him on the mattress, slowly laying down. He pushes his extra pillow under his leg, keeping it elevated, though he would prefer the ice. He retrieves the Bible and opens it, slowly and carefully flipping through until he finds the place he’s looking for.

Psalm 23.

Chapter Text

He can’t remember it.

He spent all night trying to memorize it, and all morning trying to recall it. His head hurts in the wake of such an effort, it straining just behind his eyes. With every step to AP Chemistry, Kyle pretends the pain in his leg is the same pain in his head. A punishment, maybe— something he can indulge in based on his disappointment. He catches himself inflicting it multiple times throughout the day. During particularly agitating moments of exasperation, he’ll rub absently at the bouquet of bruises which he sports.

It’s funny.

He entertains the idea of telling someone, but then the reminder of the fact that this is stupid comes back, and he’ll try not to laugh at his own idiocy. He double-triple-quadruple checks his pant leg, making sure it’s pulled down. He knows from experience that teachers always read way too much into things— particularly in the moments where it doesn’t matter.

That, too, is funny.

So, so funny.

Ha ha.

See? He’s laughing.

Kyle slips into his seat, tugging his textbook and pencil out of his backpack. He settles, then after a moment, withdraws his notebook. He mindlessly doodles. That’s what he would call it: mindless doodling. Like he’s scribbling little hearts or something, but he’s not. He jots down words, sounds out sentences, chops up phrases and makes new, nonsense words out of alphabets he wishes he were less familiar with, if only to save himself the pain of having to gaze into that language as it laughs. Because that’s what it’s doing, isn’t it? It’s laughing at him, with open letters and large loops, circles on G’s and wide-based A’s…

Abruptly, mid-sentence, he switches alphabets. He prefers the Hebrew alef-bet to the English letter system, anyways. It’s always been more pleasing to his eye, not to mention a bit sentimental. There’s something calming about its presence, like that’s enough for him to feel okay. In some ways, he supposes, it awakens something deep in his soul that reminds him of who he is, and who he’s always related to.

מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.

Mizmor leDavid: yevah roi lo achsar.

A psalm of David. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.

(And with that, an affirmation: I will not fail.)

Kyle hardly hears Miss James as she speaks. He hardly heard the bell ring for the start of class, actually. The thing that gets him to perk up is the movement— the way the seat across from him shifts, and the way Eric sits down in it. A sudden thunk, haphazard and utterly uncaring. He has his phone in his hand, Kyle notices. He picks up on the detail, zeroing in on it like a hawk. When Eric glances up at him, Kyle glances away. Kyle thinks he saw a smirk, but he’s not interested in testing the theory. He pulls his notebook closer to himself, trying to be casual in the way he covers the contents of the paper with his arm.

Miss James announces that they’re taking a test. In that moment, Kyle feels lost. He’d not been… expecting it, which is unlike him. He’s usually on top of those things, preparing and studying for them as soon as they’re brought up the two or so weeks in advance. Discombobulated, it’s all Kyle can do to refresh himself. He’s been doing fine in class thus far, so the odds of him having any issues with the test are slim. He puts away everything other than his equation sheet, calculator, and pencil. The rest of the class follows suit quickly, the rustles of their hands digging into their backpacks overriding Miss James’ voice for a few seconds. Once the ruckus dies down, she begins speaking again.

“This test will cover what we’ve been learning over this unit, and the final section of the last unit,” she says. She shuffles through some papers on her desk, withdrawing the packet of tests. Kyle tries to watch, to pay attention, to observe the way he’s always been used to, but something catches him. Eric shifts, the chair squeaks, and Kyle snaps his attention over, examining his posture to make sure he’s not about to start kicking again.

Eric isn’t even looking at Kyle. He’s watching Miss James.

Kyle takes a second to recuperate, swallowing down the strange lump that had hardened his throat. It’s easy to push away, and he finds himself absent in his observations within a matter of seconds. His thoughts try to bother him, but he doesn’t let them. He shoves them away, forces them to hide until he doesn’t even remember why he was so irritated in the first place. Miss James begins to hand out the tests, starting at the front, rounding each table to give each student their test individually. Kyle isn’t nervous. “So, as long as you have been paying attention,” Miss James begins, glaring at a student who is notorious for sleeping through class, “You should have no issues with this test.”

She makes it through the next few tables, shushing a few kids who try to hold conversations about their fun on the latest social media craze. Kyle taps the eraser of his pencil against his table’s surface, fighting off the urge to doodle on the pale portions of the plastic. Doing that would be immature, and he remembers the lectures he’s gotten from teachers for doing exactly that: don’t draw on the tables, you’re ruining them.

Kyle’s phone buzzes in his pocket. His first instinct is to just ignore it, but it doesn’t work like that. Not anymore. He glances up at Eric, who still isn’t looking over. This time, though, Kyle can see the smirk that threatens to part Eric’s lips. A snicker, in some ways, he supposes— though it’s being held back, stifled in favor of… what? Seeming aloof? Uncaring? Whatever it is, Kyle doesn’t care. He glances up, making sure Miss James is busy in her own thing, before withdrawing his phone and checking the message, as fast as possible.

Fatass

Today 1:16 PM
NEW TASK!!: fail the test. ;)

With his face heating up, Kyle tucks his phone back into his pocket. He wills his brain to forget about it, but the more he tries not to care, the more of the opposite affects him. He fidgets, scraping the tip of his pencil with his thumb nail, watching the shavings of graphite shed onto his skin and smear from contact.

He has to fail the test. It’s for his mom, right? He’ll do anything to make sure she’s okay.

Kyle sets down the pencil and rubs at the shavings, rubbing them across his fingertips. They’re stained, now; his fingerprints are vaguely gray in the corners. His own skin is strange to touch, almost waxy, but too dry to truly be so. He remembers seeing a dead body, but the specific circumstances for which he saw it are unclear. He just remembers the way it looked. Waxy, dead, unmoving, like a mannequin. A figure.

Miss James hands him his test. He simply stares at it. The thing, the test, the piece of paper— it’s alien, foreign, something he can’t pinpoint or comprehend right in this moment. There are words on the page, but his brain won’t connect the dots. English and questions, pictures of particles and atoms and things he knows how to do. His heart sinks. It thumps in his chest, that beat. It radiates in his stomach, something frightening. He picks his pencil back up and writes his name at the top of the test, in the preprinted blank. In a frozen nausea, Kyle finds that he might really fail the test. Not just because Eric told him to, but because the language isn’t making sense.

2 H2S + 3 O2 —> 2 SO2 + 2 H2O

He latches onto the numbers.

2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2

And one by one

H
S
O

The letters start to make sense.

It’s like he’s waking up. It’s what he understands. It’s the thing he’s okay with, the subject he’s most comfortable hiding in. The whole reason he’s studying in the first place refreshes itself, and in that moment, he can think clearly. He glances up at Eric for only a second, and since Eric isn’t paying attention to him, he doesn’t fight back the way the corners of his lips twitch upward. Even so, he rubs his mouth, hiding the smile from the public view and trying to make himself look like he’s thinking, instead. By no means is Kyle a good actor, but he doubts anyone is paying enough attention to him to really notice much. The test is enrapturing to the students, save for the kid who has decided to give up on staying awake in the corner.

Kyle makes a decision.

An affirmation: I will not fail.

With almost five minutes under his belt already, Kyle begins working as swiftly as possible. He completes problems without issue, having found genuine joy in Chemistry as a subject. Maybe he works too quickly, or maybe he doesn’t work fast enough— he doesn’t know. But something feels off. He knows it’s just his imagination, but it still feels real. As the preset time for the test runs out, Kyle turns off his calculator and pockets his things. In some minutes, class will be over. He does a quick once-over of his answers, making sure that he did them all correctly.

To his knowledge, he did well.

It’s stupid, really, but it feels like a success.

It’s a victory. A little rebellion liberates him, something he never thought he’d find himself happy with. Stan often said Kyle was a stickler for the rules, and sometimes Stan says Kyle has a stick up his ass about doing things correctly— and it’s stupid (it’s so stupid), but Kyle has to fight back another smile, because he did it. He did the test correctly, against Eric’s orders, and as the time passes today, he will come to find that Eric isn’t in charge. He will come to find, in fact, that Eric was never the one in charge.

The bell rings. Kyle packs up his stuff and brings his test to the front, giving it to Miss James as he exits the classroom.

Now free, Kyle can’t help but chuckle. Jesus, how stupid has he been? Actually believing that Eric Cartman had some secret remedy for his mom’s health? Assuredly, that was just Eric exploiting Kyle at a weak point. In retrospect, it’s utterly obvious— painfully so, in fact. His chest fills with discomfort, and he bites back a cringe at his gullibility.

Seriously, he’s known Eric for his whole life. How the hell had he fallen for such an idiotic lie? Something so blatant in its exaggeration, something so utterly fucking ridiculous to every extent?

Kyle slips past a group of seniors, then rounds a gaggle of wide-eyed, stressed-out freshmen. He remembers being a freshman. He hadn’t minded it, really. He just hated the fact that everyone else hated him, simply because he was a freshman. That seems to be a common theme in high school. The upperclassmen always seem to have a weird distaste towards the lower. Honestly, Kyle wonders if it’s just a natural learned behavior… he certainly has caught himself in the midst of an irritation towards freshmen.

“You’re dead.”

Kyle startles, almost choking himself with the strap of his backpack as he spins around. His breath struggles to catch up with his heart, which has jump-started with adrenaline of the scare. He stumbles to a stop, his back hitting the wall, only breathing a minuscule sigh of relief when he sees it’s Stan.

Stan, with his wide eyes and look of concerned shock, asks, “Whoa, man, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says, quick in his assurance, though the pain, always lingering, reiterates itself in a constant ache up his leg with the stumbling. He ignores the urge to rub at the area, distracting himself by asking, “Why am I dead?”

“…what?” Stan asks.

“You said I’m dead,” Kyle says, quirking a brow. He crosses his arms over his chest. “So, what’d I do this time?”

With an antsy expression, Stan glances down the hallway. “Uh,” he begins, choking on the syllable. His cheeks pink up. “I didn’t say you were dead, I… didn’t say anything, actually…”

There’s a split-second of stiffness, before Stan gives a hesitant grin, snorting in amusement.

“You’re losing it,” Stan says. Kyle rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” Kyle says. He must have overheard someone else’s conversation and overreacted. It’s not the first time that’s happened. He beckons for Stan to follow, starting to walk again. They have next period together, so walking like this isn’t uncommon. “At least I don’t use girl’s shampoo.”

Stan laughs and prods at Kyle playfully. “Jesus, dude, you’re such an idiot.”

Kyle can only agree.

Chapter Text

An exhaustion had started to tug deep in Kyle’s brain, sometime between the start of final period and after the end-of-school bell. He had plans of walking home with Stan today. In fact, they still do have plans to walk home together.

But before they’d decided to head out, Kyle had needed to excuse himself to the restroom. As Kyle did so, Stan piped up with his decision to stick near the entrance and wait for Kyle to come back, as is routine if one of them needs to make a pit-stop.

It’s essentially a soft torture just getting to the boys’ bathroom in the East wing. Before Kyle even enters the restroom, he can’t stop himself from rubbing at his eyes, trying to rouse his sleepy brain from whatever funk it’d fallen into. There’s still graphite stuck to his skin, and he makes note to wash that off before he rinses his face. He stops at one of the sinks, reaching for the soap, but he stops short. Glancing at the stalls, Kyle contemplates a pee break. With a shrug, he decides it couldn’t hurt, and leaves his backpack next to the sink he’d previously occupied.

In the thirty seconds or so it takes him to take care of business, no one enters the bathroom. The door stays shut the whole time; Kyle kept an ear out for the telltale squeak, just in case he had to suddenly start panicking about anyone trying to steal his backpack. Ultimately, though, that dormant fear doesn’t have to come into play. He exits the stall and resumes his position at the sink he’d lain claim to via his backpack, quickly pumping some soap into his hand and running his elbow under the tap to get the water started. Sensors are quite helpful, aren’t they? It certainly limits the amount of germs he has to come into contact with, even though he knows technically that phones and keyboards are more dirty than even a toilet— not that he would even dare consider trusting a school toilet more than his phone, considering, well… just ew.

Kyle rinses the lather off of his hands, and once that’s done, he glances at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t pay much mind to his reflection, though, hardly giving it the time of day before ducking and splashing some cold water over his face. He digs the heels of his palms into his eyes, trying to initiate the feeling of being awake. He thinks his exhaustion might be due to his state of borderline relaxation after AP Chemistry today. He’d been weirdly calm. With the realization of Eric’s threat being empty, he’d accepted the fact that things would be okay.

Kyle withdraws from the sink, flicking the excess water from his hands and reaching for a paper towel. He squints, keeping the water out of his eyes as he moves—

hands

on his waist

pin him to the sink, thrust him forward until there’s no room, until he drops the paper towel on instinct and reaches up, supporting himself with a loud clamor of noise, against the mirror. His hips complain, unfamiliar with the sensation of being pressed against the ceramic. He shifts, kicks his leg back to fight off the attacker, his eyes still shut to fight off the lingering threat of water getting into his eyes, but it doesn’t help that he can’t see. His body reacts. He shoves his hands, digs them into the wall at each side of the mirror, trying to push back against whoever is pinning him. The wide frame of the guy is telling, though. Kyle opens his eyes. He barely catches a glimpse of Eric before he’s shrouded in darkness. Pressure over his eyes, a thick hand keeping him blinded.

He can feel the way Eric is pressing against him, into him. His arms struggle with the bearing of the weight. He kicks again, more intently, and he thinks he lands a couple of them, but he doesn’t know for sure. He’s too stuck in his head to feel if he makes contact. His nerves try to defend him, to pay attention to the cold on his palms rather than the heat of Eric’s chest and stomach and hips and—

Don’t say anything,” Eric says, his breath hot and spidery in the shell of Kyle’s ear. A shudder bolts his spine stiff, makes him dig his fingertips into the surface of the wall. Kyle’s heart doesn’t pound, it flicks— patting his ribs in rapid rate, something that makes his head feel dizzy and his feet feel light. Kyle needs to fight back. That’s what he needs to do. He moves to do so, but when he shifts, Eric pushes forward, leaning everything into Kyle’s back. If Kyle lets go of the wall, if Kyle stops bracing himself, he’ll hit face-first into the mirror.

Not gently.

His hips hurt, aching and tense. The adjust in position increases the amount of pressure bearing into his bruised leg. Kyle sturdies himself, steels his nerves, wonders if he told Stan which bathroom he would be using, but he doesn’t know. To that, he wonders if he can even care. It’s a passing thought, just a what-if. For now, his brain is on repeat, telling him things he knows while blasting him in the face with blatant clarity.

Dark. That’s all he sees. And Eric’s weight, the grip of that hand over his eyes, the arm wrapped around his waist.

Stay calm.

Kyle opens his mouth to speak, not thinking.

Eric digs his fingers into the flesh of Kyle’s stomach. Kyle tries to recoil, but that only forces him closer to Eric’s looming body, the overwhelming burning that keeps him still. Kyle squirms, biting his tongue at the awful atrocious bad feeling that comes with all of the contact, the nonstop pressure and reminder that Eric is right there, and he’s not leaving.

Be quiet.

“Read the Bible, Jew?” Eric asks, curling the words over his tongue like ribbon, his teeth snipping them free in lengths too short for the necessity. Kyle swallows thickly, unsure of himself and what he’s supposed to do. He simply stays silent, waiting for something else to happen, waiting for the little shift— that’s all he needs, one little shift and he can shove backwards with all of his might and run. But he has to save his energy. Eric chuckles. Kyle goes still, huffing for air. Eric’s breathing goes from his ear to his jaw, then trails back, to the nape of his neck. Chills pepper themselves over Kyle’s skin. He shies away on instinct, but Eric refuses to allow Kyle, firming his grasp over Kyle's eyes. Eric whispers, “I have an issue.”

Pressing.

“I know what you did, Kyle...”

(It’s not real.)

“...you disobeyed me.”

Stop it

Kyle bites the words back. Eric asks—

—“Feel it?”

Stop it—

“Don’t worry, I won’t make you do anything.”

DON’T MOVE.

“I have a different idea,” Eric says. All at once, the hand disappears from Kyle’s eyes, and he’s faced with blinding white. The bathroom, tiles and mirror and lights and all, fades into focus, going from blurred to sharp in a matter of seconds. He feels a shift, and he thinks this might be his chance, but the opportunity is gone before Kyle can even think about it. Eric wraps his now-free hand around Kyle’s neck, bearing strength into the grip, the joint of his thumb choking against Kyle’s pulse point. Kyle coughs against the pressure, and Eric finds that amusing. “Look at yourself… look at you.”

Eric pulls Kyle’s head up from where it had naturally fallen, forcing him to look at himself in the mirror. He struggles with the eye contact of himself, swapping between each eye, confused by his own reflection like he’s never seen it before. The outline of Eric’s hand contrasts with Kyle’s skin. It’s only a split shade darker, only a hair’s difference, a minuscule diversity that sticks out, painful in its obviousness given the situation. Kyle’s face has gone so pale, his lips darker than he’d thought they were. Hazel, hazel, hazel, those are his eyes. Hazel. He tries not to look at Eric in the mirror. He doesn’t want to know what Eric’s face looks like, holding him so firmly, regarding so much control. He doesn’t want to see the brown of Eric’s eyes.

Kyle focuses on the reflection of the scuffed bathroom tiles, counting them, paying attention to the numbers even as Eric snakes that horrid hand underneath the hem of Kyle’s shirt, even as he starts squeezing into the flesh of Kyle’s stomach. The air rushes out of Kyle’s lungs.

Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six...

“Are you gaining weight?” Eric asks, peeking just over Kyle’s head. Kyle refuses to glance up, refuses to look at him, refuses refuses refuses.

Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four—

What are you doing? Counting? Fight back.

Kyle wrenches his head down, working to escape the grip. Eric immediately adjusts, grabbing Kyle’s jaw to force him to look up again.

“Oh, you didn’t like that, did you?” Eric hums. Kyle scowls at his reflection. Scowls at the tiles. Thirty-five. “What about it didn’t you like?”

Eric pulls Kyle’s head up higher. Kyle stares at the ceiling, refusing to give in and make eye contact. Eric huffs.

“Don’t like being fat?” Eric asks. “Don’t like that idea, don’t like going soft? Afraid you eat too much, or move too little?”

Don’t listen to him.

Eric tugs Kyle’s head back down again. Kyle tries to turn away from his reflection. He doesn’t want to look at himself anymore. He doesn’t want to see the wide-eyed stare of his own face. He doesn’t want to. “You hate me,” says Eric, his tone seething with poison, a venomous concoction of air and saliva that clicks in Kyle’s ears. “You hate me so much, you can’t handle the thought of being close to who I am, isn’t that right? You don’t want to be me, isn’t that right? Kyle?”

Don’t talk.

The grip on Kyle tightens, and Eric barks, “Speak!”

Kyle whispers, “Don’t give yourself so much credit.”

His throat is raw, rubbing painfully as he talks, a reminder of the way Eric had grabbed his neck just seconds ago. Eric seems pleased with the answer nonetheless— as pleased as he can be, given the words that had come from Kyle’s mouth. Eric’s dull, thought-bitten nails pinch and scratch at Kyle’s stomach, catching at his navel. Kyle chokes out a growl.

“Not everything revolves around you,” Kyle spits, newly confident. It proves vaguely in the ballpark of hubris, however, as Eric reacts none-too-kindly. He pulls Kyle away from the sink in such a rapid movement that Kyle doesn’t have time to process. He just knows that, one moment, he’s grasping the wall— the next, he’s gripping the sink, more doubled-over than he’d like to admit. Eric remains, front pressing into Kyle’s backside. This… this is a good opportunity. Kyle can run. Eric doesn’t have as much high ground here. But if Kyle wants this to work, he needs to find a good opening before he moves.

“You don’t think so?” Eric asks, removing his hand from Kyle’s jaw and trailing it, instead, down the line of Kyle’s spine. When he reaches Kyle’s waistband, Eric moves back up, taking the hem of the shirt with his hand. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his teeth. Without thinking, he sucks in and holds stiff. Eric snorts. “If not everything revolves around me, why is everything happening while I’m around? Huh?”

Eric walks his fingers down Kyle’s exposed ribs— 

“Why am I there with the bitch?”

—counting them, tapping the skin of Kyle’s back— 

“Why am I there in your class...”

—he stops over Kyle’s right kidney— 

“...why am I at your house, and why am I…”

grabbing him

“…here?”

Immediately, Kyle tenses, holding the sink with a white-knuckled grip. When Eric smooths both palms around to fidget with the scar, Kyle’s brain short-circuits. Memories, old and new, all horrible, explode in his skull. His reaction is based purely on instinct. He kicks Eric, aiming for the knee but hitting the shin, and twists. The shock of the pain is enough to get Eric to startle— the squirming seals the deal. Without a second thought, Kyle bolts, tugging his shirt down and snatching up his backpack as he absconds.

His brain catches everything. Every movement around him, every sound nearby, every glitter of light from the window or jimmy of a faraway handle as a janitor starts sweeping the halls.

Everything.

Chapter Text

As the smoke fills Kyle’s lungs, overriding everything he’s built for himself thus far, he tries to pretend their newfound routine has nothing to do with himself. Suggestions are just that: suggestions. Whenever he gives Stan a look, there’s still an option. Whenever he asks, it’s still a question. They wouldn’t do it if Stan didn’t want to do it, too. That’s what Kyle says. That’s what Kyle thinks.

That’s what Kyle hopes Stan knows.

He leans back against Stan’s headboard, contemplating the outline of his hand against the wall. Just as such, he tries to understand the difference between the joint and his flesh.

As far as he’s concerned, there is none.

As, as, as.

What a wonderful world.

Another draw— the smoke pulls into Kyle’s mouth, curls down his throat, little teasing tendrils he can’t help but imagine. He wonders how much he would have to smoke before he became part of this, too. The smoke. How much could he take in without disintegrating? How much could he take in before the bonds of his skin started to replace themselves, swapping with smoke and air, until he became a pile of dust and ash?

Particles fall from the tip of the joint. They make homes in the little cracks of the cinder block in Kyle’s lap. He doesn’t remember grabbing the cinder block off of Stan’s windowsill, nor does he remember putting it in his lap. He hardly remembers arriving here, or climbing into the bed. There’s a section of life that he just doesn’t remember, doesn’t recall, and no matter how much he tries, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a fall, not something he minds too much. He lowers the joint, pinching the sides and feeling the heat that creeps from the end.

Skin.

Soft, unmarred, untouched.

Kyle had taken off his jacket, at some point. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up, revealing his wrists and forearms.

Is it funny?

The way he remembers the things he doesn’t want to? The way Eric’s hands feel, creeping up his back? The way his shirt feels, being pulled up to his neck? The way his hips feel, being pressed into the sink? The way his face looks, when he’s afraid?

Is it comedic?

The way Kyle isn’t there, the way he’s alone in the worst of it, the thick of the forest and the way those hairs on the back of his arms stand up— do you see that? Thin, light, lighter than his hair, hardly noticeable if you don’t look for them, look.

And his skin is so soft. It better be, he uses lotion, he takes care of himself.

But he doesn’t like it.

The burning end of the joint creeps closer to Kyle’s forearm. That skin, the miles of it, the stretch of his arm, where the bone and muscle and flesh and fat reside, the fact that there’s too much of it, maybe. The fact that he exists. Is this real life? He might need to pinch himself. Just pinch the skin, the bone the muscle the flesh the fat, curl it between his fingers or mar himself through his own doing. Voluntarily.

Look at it.

The joint.

Creeping.

A hand that isn’t Kyle’s own wraps around Kyle’s wrist, forcing his movement to stop. Kyle looks up, blinks through the gradual blearing of his gaze, where Stan’s face rests just an inch too far away. His hair is caught, shining in the light that comes in from the window, illuminating it like there’s a halo, a beautiful fractal of brightness that Kyle doesn’t want to let go of.

“Don’t do that,” Stan says, eyes half-lidded. “It hurts.”

“How do you know?” Kyle asks, quiet. Stan seems caught on this, his teeth chewing on something that isn’t there. Stan looks down, at where they’re touching, at the joint that spits smoke, at the thing that muddled their brains so acutely, the thing that Kyle loves.

But Stan’s the addict.

How sour a thought. Kyle can taste it. He needs another hit. He kisses Stan, meeting the corner of his mouth rather than the center, but he doesn’t care. Stan’s the one that fixes it. Slowly, he turns his head, languid as he presses forward. His fingers catch in their grasp on Kyle’s arm, sliding the contact down to Kyle’s wrist. Kyle doesn’t know how, but Stan manages to retrieve the joint and put it out on the cinder block in Kyle’s lap without looking.

Or maybe he did look, and Kyle just didn’t notice. He doesn’t care.

Stan leaves the remnants of their drug on the cinder block and sets it back in its rightful place on the windowsill. Kyle won’t let go of Stan’s hand, the one that had previously been grabbing his wrist. It’s okay, though, since Stan doesn’t seem keen on letting Kyle fall too far, anyway. They’re in a pool, Kyle concludes. Even as Stan tugs Kyle down by his hips, having him lay down on the bed, they’re underwater. That’s why the visuals are unclear, and that’s why everything looks so much more beautiful. Who is to say that the air isn’t water in its own right? Maybe science has it wrong. Liquids are solids and solids are gas and gas is liquid.

Stan kisses him, and Kyle kisses back, curling his fingers into Stan’s shirt, grabbing him and pulling him down, closer. Stan smells more like the joint than the joint itself, smoky and deep, a trench that Kyle can’t help but fall into. Those hands of Stan’s, they roam. Pressing skin licks against Kyle’s waist. He slips the fingertips beneath his shirt and lets them settle, linger there, his thumbs at either side of Kyle’s stomach, rubbing above his hips.

And is it funny?

That when Stan does this— when Stan touches him, so gentle— Kyle can only fear it?

It storms in his stomach, a weather pattern brought on by a loss of control, something supposedly temporary.

And, as they continue, as they kiss and taste each other’s mouths, as they understand the way each other’s enzymes comprehend the components of smoke, as they arch against each other and giggle together like it’s a joke, is it funny?

And if it is, why is Kyle not happy?

Maybe.

Kyle’s muscles quiver, try to turn to mush, and Stan supports him. He loops a gentle arm beneath Kyle, reaching with his other soft hand and cradling the back of Kyle’s neck with it. Kyle rises with it, wrapping his arms over Stan’s shoulders and starting to sit up, because he wonders if it’ll feel different. Stan pulls him, sits back until Kyle can slip into his lap and kiss at Stan’s mouth and cheeks and face and nose, looping his fingers through the thick hair atop Stan’s head, trying to cover him with the affection that Kyle craves having with someone who actually loves him back.

But for now, it’s just Kyle’s love, and the lust of Stan as he’s pulled along, unable to resist the idea of it, maybe. The taboo, or the thrill of getting caught, or something less satisfying than the idea that Stan actually might like Kyle the same way Kyle likes Stan.

Stan tries to pull away, duck his head back from Kyle’s mouth, and embarrassingly, Kyle chases it. He doesn’t want to let the moment go, he doesn’t want to fuck this up. His hands aren’t as strong as he wants them to be, his muscles aren’t as sturdy as he’d like them to be, his skin is a little too squishy and maybe he is getting soft, and maybe Stan finds him gross.

Kyle backs off. He tries to get up, but Stan doesn’t let him. Stan grabs his waist and holds him down, holds them together, holds them sturdy. They look at each other, silent, until Stan whispers the word, “Fire,” like that answers something beyond the universe itself.

“Ice,” Kyle whispers back, finding a game in it, but Stan shakes his head.

“Fire,” Stan repeats. He coughs, clearing his throat. There’s a smile on his lips, those beautiful lips, beautiful. Kyle traces the pad of his thumb over the partition of them. Stan draws Kyle’s thumb into his mouth, going the extra mile and sucking so gently on it, flicking his tongue along the crease of his knuckle. Kyle exhales, enraptured and awestruck. Stan lets it go, and Kyle pulls his hand away. Stan smiles, wider, his cheeks pink, his eyes glossy. “That’s how I know it hurts, because it’s fire, and—”

Kyle snorts, saying, “Fire bad.”

Stan starts to laugh. Kyle does, too. They fall into a tight hug, encasing each other in warmth as they bundle under the uncontrollable giggling. Stan has his arms wrapped so tightly around Kyle’s waist, Kyle wonders if he’s going to be able to breathe through it. He can, of course, but there’s that catch in his throat. Stan lays on his back on the bed, and Kyle naturally follows over him, pressing his face into Stan’s neck on the way down.

It’s funny.

It’s so funny.

And Kyle can’t help but lose himself in it, the unfocused panic of his chest constricting, the way he’s out of control. He thinks about the fire, and he thinks about the joint— he thinks and thinks and thinks, until he’s in a circle, imagining those hands and his shirt and the scar and the quiet.

Stay calm.

Be quiet.

Don’t move.

And it’s scary, but at the same time, it’s funny. It’s funny, funny, funny— ridiculous, because it doesn’t make sense. Why would Eric do that?

“Kyle?” Stan whispers, but Kyle doesn’t respond. He can’t. He gasps for breath, shuddering with his next exhale, a mess of giggling that sounds more like sobbing as the tears start to prickle, as the saliva starts to gather, as he chokes through swallows and starts to whine instead of chuckle. He tries to lose the scent of school soap and heat by taking in Stan’s scent, the smoke and sweat and apples, artificial and tangy from the day of work and school. Fingers curl through Kyle’s hair, a grounding sentiment, something that helps him come back down from his loss of control. His emotions, for a moment, had run rampant— Kyle takes in breaths, lets them out, settles in the midst of this place. It feels like ash, breathing it in. Stan keeps petting Kyle’s hair. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s funny,” is all Kyle says after a pause. He’d needed to rehearse that phrase, repeating it over and over and over in his mind until it felt like a language he understood. The way Stan shifts frightens Kyle, makes him fear loss, makes him fear the world and all the scary things inside of it. Without thinking, he says, “Hold me tighter, you idiot.”

Nothing happens. Until Stan does. He pulls his hands from Kyle’s hair and wraps his arms around Kyle’s waist, tugging him as close as possible. Kyle matches the feeling, nuzzles down, settles. He syncs his own breathing with Stan’s, meeting with every inhale and sinking with every exhale. It’s the way their bodies move, closed-eyed and resting, tangled together a little messily. They can say it’s the thought that counts, but they both know this was thoughtless. So what does that make them?

Kyle tries to lose himself on a cloud of ecstasy, but there’s only so much that a joint can do for him. He should ask for more. “Stan,” he says, quiet. He lifts his head, just enough so they can make eye contact. Stan hums, blinking through a mild irritation.

Those lips of his, so soft.

Kyle forgets his urge for more marijuana. The distraction is enough, for now. He kisses Stan, a pleasurable roll of a shiver stepping down his spine as Stan kisses back.

But the “for now” is just that: temporary.

He feels ashamed when he whispers the question of another joint.

Chapter Text

Kenny and Butters are pretend sword-fighting with plastic forks stained with the acid from tomato slices. Kyle thinks he finds it funny, but at the same time, he doesn’t really know. He’s mid-conversation with Stan about something they both found funny at one point. It feels different, he guesses. Something lost that he’s mourning for, to some strange extent that refuses to apply connections in his brain. Synapses try to understand him, or maybe he tries to understand them— the places where he used to be a person feel a little strained. He’s okay, he really is, he’s just tired. He didn’t sleep well enough last night, because he couldn’t relax. The weed wore off before he could pass out in bed. He wouldn’t say he’s a naturally anxious person, because he doesn’t like the way that makes him sound. Anxious, anxious, anxious. Anxiety. Everyone has anxiety. People just deal with it. He just deals with it.

He picks at the corner of a carrot slice with his nail, shaving little orange bits off of it that he tries to smear against his skin. He imagines it leaving a stain like the lead did when he was in AP Chemistry yesterday. But carrots don’t do that. The carbon from graphite leaves marks on the paper, revealing itself in writing that will likely never be read later. Carrots are food, something he’s supposed to eat, something that has vitamins and minerals and calories and water, fiber, maybe, antioxidants or whatever the terms are. It’s something he’s supposed to put into his mouth and chew and chew and chew and swallow. Then it goes down his esophagus, into his stomach, to be digested, and that’s energy and sugars and water and all the other dietary needs he’s supposed to consume throughout the day. That’s the way it works. That’s the way eating works.

But somewhere along the way, it’ll catch. The carrot slice, the sandwich, the bread— it’ll catch, and make a home in him, and be a part of him, and he can’t have that right now. Too many things are trying to make homes in him, too many things are trying to get his attention, too many things ache for the pieces of him he’s slowly running out of. The more he thinks about it, the funnier it is. The more logic he applies to it, the less it makes sense. He needs something to go his way for once.

It’s stupid, but he thinks that, maybe, this is the thing he’ll be able to keep as his own. Just a little, maybe, because he doesn’t want to die. He needs energy to take care of his family, and he needs energy so he doesn’t become paralyzed when he smokes with Stan, and he needs energy to keep playing sports with the guys, and he needs energy to understand Chemistry and get good grades and go into college, but maybe.

Maybe.

He doesn’t need as much energy as he’s supplying his body with.

Maybe.

“Huzzah!” exclaims a victorious Butters, raising his red-stained fork into the air above his head. Kenny has been caught up in the details of the game, too, gasping and playing out another forgettable death. For some reason, Butters gets caught up in a speech— something funny, maybe, because Stan’s attention withdraws from Kyle completely and turns to Butters and Kenny’s theatrics. He’s chuckling, snorting quietly with his eyes narrowed and his mouth smiling and his cheeks pink. Kyle smiles like he’s listening to the stupid thing, but he’s not. He’s too busy, quickly and quietly sneaking his food back into the bags it came in and slipping it into his lunch box. He doesn’t manage to pack all of it, but he gets most of it.

Kyle decides he’s being stupid, and starts to eat the carrots. He keeps the bread within reach, just in case he wants to nibble on it or something. After giving his brain time to ride out the sudden emotion, he realizes the utter fucking stupidity of the idea. Is the weed ruining him? It’s tearing apart his brain and making him think he’s invincible, isn’t it? That’s what it must be doing. These thoughts aren’t Kyle’s own, they’re from the weed.

Or maybe

(frighteningly)

They’re from the lack of it.

It’s sudden. A single thought is enough to throw him back to when he woke up in Stan’s bedroom to see him smoking. To the burning choking aching heave of the first drag, to the attempts and pain of the second and third attempts, to the gradual ease he’d come to accept the joints with. His head is dizzy, and his eyes won’t focus, like he’s actually still high or something. As his brain struggles to catch up with everything going on around him, he begins to pick at another carrot slice. He picks and picks and picks, scraping orange shavings into a pile on the tiny plastic bag he’d brought them to school in, staring at it like it’s the fix.

But weed is the fix. It helps him feel better. It’s associated with nothing but good things, happy memories, stress-free thoughts and actions and feelings of relaxation and glee. Pathways inside of his brain try to connect, but they can’t. He’s in a loop, but the loop is pinched at one side, and he can’t force his way through it to keep going without effort— and he just doesn’t know if he has the effort.

Y’know, when he’s not high.

Stan is saying something about sheep when Kyle kicks him softly under the table—

( kick kick kick

[the gay stuff]

Kick kick kick

[maybe I’m in control]

Kick kick kick. )

— and Stan glances over, allowing Kenny to take the conversation into his—

[maybemaybemaybe I’M in control]

—control, spewing nonsense about some dirty magazine he found at the park yesterday. Kyle isn’t paying attention, unsurprisingly, and neither is Stan. They look at each other, and Kyle bites his lip, maybe a little obviously. Stan gets it. He looks Kyle up and down, glances away, and then nods without a word. A nonverbal agreement to meet up later and talk about doing it again tonight, like every other night. It’s commonplace. They’ll do it.

The tightness in Kyle’s chest— one he hadn’t even realized was there in the first place— starts to dissipate now that he knows he can smoke tonight.

A buzzing erupts from Kyle’s pocket. It makes no noise, but it startles him out of his focus. He drops the slice of carrot he’d been picking at, and it rolls into his lap only to bounce onto the floor. He stares at it, for a second, wondering if he has the will to pick it up rather than just leave it for whoever sweeps the floors in the cafeteria after the lunch periods. He can’t do that, though. He can’t not pick up after himself. Kyle scoots away from the table and leans down, grabbing the carrot slice and standing, making his way over to the trashcan to throw the now-filthy thing away. On his boring journey, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and checks the text.

Fatass

Today 12:18
NEW TASK!!;; meet me into the lunch room bath room. ;))))

Kyle halts, mid-drop of the carrot. It falls into the trashcan. He glances up, double-checking to make sure this is the compost. With a sigh of relief, he realizes it is. He hesitates next to the bin, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one is confused about his whereabouts. Kenny, Butters, and Stan are all engaged in a discussion on something or another— Kyle is too far away to hear. Just as such, he must be too far away for them to notice. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Silent, Kyle slips into the boys’ restroom.

It feels the same as the one in the East wing. There’s an equal number of stalls, an equal number of toilets, an equal number of sinks and mirrors.

He pauses, hesitant. His instincts tell him to get the fuck out of there. His feet itch to move. His hands want to be washed. Everything is the same, his brain concludes. Everything is the same, and that means everything else is going to happen again. Three sinks, three stalls, three mirrors, all that work and all that are functional— the mirrors reflect Kyle’s image, every one of them. He checks, steps in and out of the sight of them. He looks the same in every one and for some reason, he can’t stop seeing his face go pale with uncertainty. He’s not making that face, is he? No, he’s not, he looks normal. The mirror lies.

Kyle pockets his phone and starts to pace, from the first sink to the third and then back to the first, crossing his arms over his chest and ducking his shoulders like he’s trying to make himself smaller, but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s cold, he thinks. It’s cold in here, and he left his jacket at the table. And he’s annoyed, he thinks, because Cartman is pulling him away from eating to talk about whatever bullfuckery they’re going to be talking about this time and the bathroom is the same, why is the bathroom the same?

He rubs his hands together, stands leaning against the back wall, and pays attention to the things that aren’t the same. He plays spot the difference with the vivid image within his brain. He picks out the things that are wrong, or missing, or extra, and it grounds him. Helps him feel less agitated.

One of the paper towel dispensers doesn’t work, one of the soap dispensers is empty, one of the sinks has a stain in it that looks suspiciously like blood, the first stall doesn’t have a door and someone coughs in the third— and, possibly most importantly, Kyle isn’t alone.

The toilet in the third stall flushes, and soon, the occasional coughs stop. There’s a pause, some shuffling, and then the stall door opens and out comes Clyde Donovan, dressed in his usual attire of a letterman jacket and jeans that are only slightly too long. When he sees Kyle, his eyes widen, vaguely caught off-guard, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He gives Kyle that I’m-popular-and-I-know-everyone look, and says, “Hey, how’s it going?” all casually, like they’ve been friends since kindergarten. Kyle can’t help but feel skeptical, even as Clyde goes about his business and washes his hands at the sink. He knows Clyde won’t say anything— he hasn’t said anything, at least, and they have sixth period together—, but Kyle still can’t get the image of Clyde approaching him at the hospital out of his head. The way he’d looked so concerned, like he genuinely cared, or like he got it, even though Kyle didn’t say what was going on.

Clyde whistles as he rinses his hands free of soap, some tune Kyle isn’t familiar with. Clyde turns off the sink and tries to get some paper towels out of the broken dispenser. Clyde doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, even as no paper towels come from it. He just keeps trying.

“Dude, I asked you a question,” Clyde says, this dopey grin on his face.

“It’s going fine,” Kyle finally answers. Clyde elbows the paper towel dispenser, apparently displeased with the lack of paper towels, but he doesn’t stop smiling. Kyle eventually gets annoyed, grabs a paper towel from the other dispenser, and hands it to Clyde. Clyde’s eyes go wide, but this isn’t a caught off-guard wide, it’s a happy-surprised wide. Clyde takes the paper towels.

“Thanks, dude!”

Kyle only shrugs and goes back to leaning against the wall. Clyde purses his lips, tossing the used paper towel into the trash. He leans against one of the sinks. Kyle rolls his eyes when he realizes Clyde is getting hunkered down for a conversation. Clyde pulls a pack of gum out of his pocket and takes out a piece. He holds the pack out to Kyle.

“You want one?” he asks. Kyle, although he really doesn’t want one (nor should he have one), doesn’t have time to say no. Clyde is already stepping forward, shoving a stick into Kyle’s hand before returning to his spot at the sink.

Exasperated, Kyle mutters, “Sure,” because it's already in his hand. Clyde grins, unwrapping his own piece of gum and popping it into his mouth. He begins to chew it.

“So, what’s up?”

“Not much,” Kyle replies, trying to be polite. He examines the wrapped stick of gum in his hand. The scent of mint hits him as soon as he starts to really pay attention to the thing. Kyle pockets the gum stick, making a note to remind himself to give it to Ike later, or something. He looks up at Clyde. “What’s up for you?”

“Not a lot,” answers Clyde. Oh, what a fun conversation. He points at Kyle’s pocket. “So, you’re not gonna actually chew the gum?”

Kyle sighs. “Look, I—”

But Kyle doesn’t finish. The door opens before he gets the chance to, squealing as the next person comes in. The wide frame of Eric Cartman bears a letterman jacket similar in style to Clyde’s, but different enough in a vague way that makes it distinguishable. It’s an older style, that’s for sure, but only by a couple of years. Eric doesn’t look very happy, but at the same time he looks the way he always does. Calm and weirdly composed, even though he is a childish asshole. “Heeey!” exclaims Clyde, startling Eric enough to make him flinch. Clyde grins. “It’s the Cart-man!”

“Go away, Clyde, no one likes you,” Eric says, exasperated. Clyde snaps his fingers, giving a bastardized version of finger guns, before obeying and slipping out of the bathroom. The silence that follows his leave is deafening, something that makes Kyle feel irate. That’s nothing new, of course. Eric doesn’t move from his spot, just a couple feet away from the door. Kyle doesn’t move from the wall, even though he wants nothing more than to kick Eric in the testicles and follow Clyde back into the cafeteria.

Eric turns around and locks the door. It clicks, unsatisfying, sharp, hoarse in the air. Kyle imagines all sorts of things, in the moment, and his immediate reactions override everything else. He stiffens, going so far as to take a step forward, saying, “You can’t do that.”

“Fuck you, Kyle, I do what I want,” Eric replies through a sigh, making it sound like he is utterly sick and tired of pointing it out all the time. He tries the door to make sure it won’t open. It doesn’t budge, stiff in his grasp. The mechanism works. Kyle could easily slip past Eric, unlock it, and leave. He could easily do it. But he doesn’t. He stays still, silent and waiting and watching and hoping and maybe, just maybe, he’s praying to some extent. Eric turns around, a look on his face. Unreadable.

Slowly, Eric approaches. One step at a time, he gets closer, advancing and closing in. Kyle refuses to slouch, or back down, or back away. He refuses to duck himself against the wall. Not again. Not this time. Kyle, with his lungs feeling too big in his chest, straightens his posture to take Eric head-on, if he has to.

“You’re lucky, you know,” Eric says. “With the way you acted, I should have punished you.”

Kyle bites back the retort of Isn’t that what you did yesterday?

“You’re disobedient,” Eric says. “You only get in the way, you know that, Jew? And, quite frankly, I don’t think you grasp the seriously-ness of this situation.”

Eric stops, six inches away. Kyle can already feel his breath, the way the air moves around him, the way his body takes up space. He can feel the phantom hands of past Eric Cartmans, grabbing his hips or his face, running his hands down his thighs and tapping over the scar on his stomach. It makes Kyle’s skin crawl. It makes him feel sick to his stomach with anger. He bites back the urge to spit into Eric’s face.

Something in Eric’s expression changes as he whispers, “Unless you do.”

Eric takes the final step forward. He lifts a hand and traces the backs of his fingers down Kyle’s cheek. It’s such a gentle motion that Kyle doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think. He just knows he dislikes it. He leans away, out of the touch, tipping his head to the side. Eric follows with his hand. Another attempt to shy away is met without success, but Kyle refuses to give in. He pushes Eric’s hand away. Eric’s smile doesn’t leave.

“You know what I’m doing to your mom,” Eric says, “And yet, you still keep disobeying… maybe you like it.”

Kyle freezes.

“Oh, is that it?” Eric asks. Another step forward. Too close. Kyle pushes against Eric’s chest. Predictably, Eric doesn’t back up. He leans in, bearing his weight into Kyle’s attempts to shove him away. Kyle can’t help it. He stumbles back until he’s pressed with his back against the bathroom wall. Distantly, Kyle wonders how many times he’ll be in this position. How many times will he have to be pinned before his mother recovers? How many times will he be controlled? How many times will Eric force himself on Kyle before he’s satisfied, how many times? How many? “Do you secretly want your mom to die, Kyle? Is that it?”

“No,” Kyle says. Eric pulls his hands away. He doesn’t touch Kyle, at all. He just stands there. Kyle keeps his hands against Eric’s chest, trying to keep distance between their bodies.

Again, Eric says, “You’re lucky.”

“Fuck you,” Kyle says, his face contorting with anger. Eric doesn’t like that. He grabs Kyle’s shoulders, hard, shaking him and pulling him closer. The eye contact is forced. Kyle doesn’t look away.

“I wonder what your tears taste like,” Eric says. The shock of the statement alone, the pure disgust it holds, makes Kyle fall utterly still. Eric leans closer, until their foreheads are touching. Kyle doesn’t like it, but he’s pressed against the wall. He tries to turn his head. Eric’s nose bumps his cheek. His breath is hot, too hot, and it smells like the hamburger he must have eaten for lunch. Kyle holds his breath. “I wonder…”

Eric lowers his head, pressing his nose into the place under Kyle’s jaw, against his pulse. His mouth opens, he speaks, and his breath heats up Kyle’s skin. Wet. Humid.

“…what your skin tastes like, when you get scared, when you sweat,” Eric says. He inhales. Kyle can hear it, deep, right under his ear. Kyle stares at the light fixture above them, where a bug keeps running into the bulb, landing and taking off repeatedly. Tiny thuds, little thunks, click click click

( kick kick kick )

“And I wonder,” Eric hisses, rubbing his cheek up Kyle’s neck, to his jaw. He pulls back an inch, breathing shakily directly against the shell of Kyle’s ear, “What your face looks like when the bitch is dead.”

When Eric pulls away, Kyle is shaking. He doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t feel fear, necessarily. There’s a crawling urchin of disgust under his skin, pushing at his every pore, but he’s not afraid. He will not admit such a powerful emotion, nor will he collapse under the so-called "control" of Eric. He isn’t afraid.

So why is his stomach flipping? Why won’t his lungs work? Why isn’t he leaving? Where did his voice go?

Because there’s no way Eric is really in control of his mother’s condition. It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t.

“Do you understand?” Eric asks. To Kyle’s surprise, Eric doesn’t look pleased. His expression is dead, set and stony. Eric shoves his hands into his pockets, rolling his shoulders back and widening his stance in dominance. Kyle swallows. Eric snaps, “Yes or no, Kike, do you understand?

Against every fiber within Kyle’s being, he nods. His throat tightens.

“Tell me your next task,” Eric says.

“Meet you in the bathroom,” Kyle says. Eric tenses. He pulls his hand out of his pocket and slams it against the wall. Kyle winces at the noise.

“I said tell me your next task, idiot.”

Kyle wonders how Eric’s voice stays calm when the rest of him doesn’t. Unwilling to let this go, Kyle allows the aggression to come out. He snaps, “Fine, I’ll fucking fail the next stupid test.”

Because Kyle isn’t afraid of being hit, and Eric is a coward.

Eric seems pleased with this. His expression doesn’t change, his posture doesn’t change, but he puts his hand back into his pocket.

“You can go,” Eric says. Permission. Juvenile. Stupid. Kyle doesn’t need permission to do something.

( kick kick kick

[I AM IN CONTROL]

Kick. Kick. Kick. )

Kyle slips past Eric, making sure not to make contact with him. He doesn’t want to involve himself in anything physical. He doesn’t want to spark any ideas in Eric’s brain. Kyle isn’t afraid of being hit, but he’s afraid of something else he can’t explain. The power dynamic is nonexistent, he tells himself, and maybe it’s to make himself feel better. His mom will be fine. He will be fine.

“If you don’t fail the test,” Eric says, bored, “I’ll kill her.”

Kyle doesn’t reply. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. He pauses just in front of the door, mid-reach for the lock. He has two weeks until the next test. Surely, Eric isn’t going to keep his mom sick that long. Surely, his mom will get better before then. It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Kyle unlocks the door. He grabs the handle. But he doesn’t turn it. He doesn’t leave.

“Lunchroom and bathroom are both just one word,” Kyle says. He hears Eric turn around. He can feel the dead-eyed glare, the firm spine and sturdy stance twisting.

“What?” Eric asks.

“Your text,” Kyle says. He stares at his hand, where it touches the door handle, where he could leave. He thinks about the permission. He should leave right now.

Eric grunts. “What about it?”

Quiet.

Feel the air.

Oxygen.

It buzzes everywhere.

“You put spaces,” Kyle says, “but they’re both just one word.”

The bell rings, and Kyle leaves. He thinks of little victories. The war he might not win, but the list of battles he will complete. Kenny and Butters are gone, but Stan is still at the table. Kyle approaches, maybe a little out of it, but he won’t admit it. He cleans up his spot quickly, his stomach protesting silently at the sight of food. After packing everything up, Kyle pulls his backpack over his shoulder and leaves the cafeteria with Stan.

“Are you okay?” Stan asks. “You were in there a long time, I got kinda worried.”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says. He wants to cringe at the fact that his tone is so stiff, but he doesn’t. He makes it seem purposeful. Tries to. Stan doesn’t look convinced, but he doesn’t look unconvinced, either. They split ways.

In the middle of AP Chemistry, it hits Kyle that Eric might not be making her sick.

But he doesn’t have to be the one making her sick, does he?

He could still kill her.

Maybe that’s the point.

Chapter Text

Before Stan even comes back with the weed, everything starts to feel funny. With the world distorting around him, Kyle sinks into the mattress of Stan’s bed and stares up at the ceiling. His fingers, numb with a feeling he’s not used to, pick at the edges and length of his sleeves. The world is too sharp. It has too many things, with too many visuals and colors and lights. Simultaneously, his brain won’t think. It won’t conjure images that he’s used to fighting off, it won’t tell him things he wants to forget. It is silent. He’s left bare, open to the world, drowning in a room where the only sound he can hear is the ringing in his ears. It’s simultaneously too loud and too quiet, a tinny beep of a noise that pressurizes in his skull and makes his eyes feel incredibly forced to close. His limbs, heavy as pure burden, stop moving. His fingers stop picking, his lungs ache to breathe. He takes in oxygen, but it doesn’t feel like it’s coming in. His incessant attempts at breathing deeply do nothing for his need for air. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, anymore, and pieces of him start to disappear. The pieces of him that were conscious attempt to viciously clear, but they don’t succeed. They stay, as fighting pokes of what his brain is supposed to feel like. The ones that do leave go silently. They leave so quickly, so quietly, that he doesn’t even realize what he’s missing. He knows he’s missing something, but he doesn’t know what. He just knows that it was there a second ago, and now it’s not.

And now he’s staring up at the ceiling, with eyes burning and vision darkening because he refuses to let himself blink, and he doesn’t understand how he got here.

He tries to tell himself to breathe, but the thought of such a thing flits away into silence. The ringing in his ears remains. It’s a constant, he supposes, though he doesn’t know if he wants that to be the only constant he’s capable of owning. It irritates him, maybe, or it makes him feel agitated or angry. Or, maybe, that’s what he wants it to make him feel. Because he doesn’t. Feel, that is. He doesn’t feel.

That’s a new sensation. A loss, an empty, a blank. He is a slate, something he can’t even comprehend. He doesn’t feel inside of himself. He’s just a character, watching everything happen around him, waiting for something to happen. He is a puppet, waiting for the next forsaken task from Eric, waiting for the humiliation of the thoughts of Stan or the beating hurt inside of his chest for his mother, who lays sick in a bed and he can’t save her. He can’t save anything. And he wonders, maybe a little unjustly, if he even exists— and, if he doesn’t exist, is it worth it to entertain the thought that he should keep up the illusion? If he closes his eyes, and doesn’t move and doesn’t think and doesn’t talk and doesn’t breathe… will he go away? Will it all go away?

Another piece of himself fizzes out. It’s the piece of him that knows who he is. It’s the piece of him who gets it. He always thought that piece of him was gone, but apparently it wasn’t, because he suddenly knows it isn’t there anymore. Click, click, click. Pieces break off and fall into an abyss he hopes will vanish.

Why is he sitting here? What is he doing? Where is he?

Stan is back in the room. Kyle doesn’t know how he knows, because he can’t really see that well. He doesn’t tear his gaze away from the corner of the ceiling, where a cobweb rests, dusty and abandoned. He just knows Stan is there.

Maybe it’s his presence. Maybe it’s a soul thing.

“I don’t think I consist of anything,” Kyle says, maybe a bit abruptly. The thing that characterized Stan’s existence flickers. Kyle wants to feel concern— about the fact that Stan suddenly feels less bright, or the fact that Kyle can barely hear himself over the empty heavy ringing in his ears— but he doesn’t. He just breaks his mouth into a stupid grin, enjoying the way it feels to say that. It gives his entire chest a certain realm of lightness, like saying it is enough to help him feel better. But it’s an action with no thought.

“What?” Stan asks, and Kyle doesn’t know how to answer. His body, loose, rolls onto its side.

Kyle isn’t in it anymore.

Kyle isn’t in it at all.

“Pieces,” Kyle’s mouth concludes. Stan gazes at Kyle, his eyes confused. But instead of being wide, like normal, they’re narrow. Stan’s confusion is to a depth Kyle’s eyes have never seen before. It’s funny, says the heart in Kyle’s chest, and his body responds to the feeling by beginning to laugh— just a little. His hand comes up to push his hair away, even though it wasn’t getting in his eyes or anything. His body is light. Heavy, but light. Easy to move but hard, like a dream. That’s it. That must be it. He’s dreaming. “But they’re gone, okay? They’re gone, that’s all, it’s just not there like it used to be.”

Kyle concludes his mouth works better when he’s not in control of it.

Stan frowns. He straightens up from where he’d been, huddled at his desk rolling a joint. Kyle’s eyes observe. Stan hesitates— one minute, two, three, or maybe they’re seconds?

Stan rubs his palms on his jeans and steadily steps over, more in-control than Kyle’s brain ever has been, and crawls up onto the mattress next to Kyle. There’s a split-second of distance that Kyle gains, in that moment of closeness. His body is calm, and won’t move. Stan presses the back of his hand over Kyle’s forehead, as if feeling for fever. “Kyle, are you okay?” Stan asks. Kyle’s head turns, looking up at the face he’s been in love with for all of these years. At the face he wants to hold and be held by. Kyle’s hand pats Stan’s cheek. He feels good, but it’s a weird kind of good. A wrong kind of good. Why?

“I’m not real,” Kyle’s mouth says, but this time, he doesn’t want to say it. The lightness hits something higher, a lither note, until he feels like he’s suspended in the air by threads sturdier than the trunks of youthful, strong trees. “I don’t feel real, this doesn’t feel real.”

Concern takes over Stan’s face even more, and that frown deepens, creating this expression that Kyle’s eyes don’t enjoy looking at. Stan smooths back Kyle’s hair, being gentle like Kyle’s body will break. Stan shifts so he’s laying next to Kyle rather than hovering over him. The next thing Kyle’s body knows, Stan is talking— he’s speaking, muttering, saying something, but Kyle’s attention drifts. Kyle’s head turns and his eyes take in the image of Stan looking at him. Another wash of calm kicks in. Kyle just lets it happen. Kyle’s fine with what will happen if he lets it happen. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he’s not afraid of it like he wants to be.

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” Kyle’s mouth says. Then, it won’t stop speaking. Rambling. His throat keeps chuckling, and his mouth keeps smiling. “This doesn’t feel real, it’s so weird, I feel like I’m dreaming.”

“I know,” Stan says. He grabs Kyle’s hand, lacing their fingers together. His skin is warm, Kyle thinks, but most of all, it’s mildly rough. It’s not dry, like Kenny’s, and it’s not soft as a girls’, like Butters’, and it’s not cold or sweaty or burning aching angry like Eric’s. Kyle is weirdly okay. For some reason, Stan’s eyes go soft. “Hey, Kyle, you seem a little distant there, what’re you thinking about?”

Kyle’s shoulders shrug, awkward.

“You don’t know,” Stan says, a repetition or confirmation. Kyle doesn’t answer. Stan tightens his grip. “Okay, I want you to pay attention to my touch, alright? Just focus on me holding your hand, dude, just think about that.”

“Why?” Kyle’s mouth asks. The question feels foreignly easy. Stupidly childish, like he should already know the answer, but it’s a ridiculous notion that he should understand it already. He hardly knows what’s happening around him. He knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t really know, y’know?

How funny is that?

“Because I think you’re doing that space-out thing,” Stan says. He’s calm. Like this is simple, like everything is okay, like this is a normal thing he’s dealt with hundreds of thousands of times before. Kyle can’t find it in himself to care. He feels high and dopey and stupid.

“That’s bullshit,” Kyle’s mouth says. Stan laughs, but it’s hollow. Kyle’s ears don’t make the connection. He laughs with Stan. He withdraws his hand from Stan’s, rolling onto his back. After a second, he rolls onto his other side. He gazes at the weed supplies still sitting on the desk. “It’s getting late, we have to smoke.”

“Kyle, I don’t think it’s a good idea to smoke right now,” Stan says. Kyle’s body doesn’t make any moves to look over. “I don’t know why this is happening, like, maybe it’s stress from midterms coming up, or maybe the myths are actually true and it’s the weed making you get memory-high, or whatever, but I don’t think adding drugs on top of this is a good idea.”

“Of course you don’t,” Kyle mutters. It’s sharp, barbed— something he doesn’t know if he means. For a moment, Stan is quiet.

“What?” he asks.

“You’re being paranoid,” says Kyle. His arms push himself up, and his feet bring him over to the desk. He examines the joint Stan had been working on and tries to put the pieces together of how to fucking do this shit. All it achieves is him staring blankly at the table, though. Stan comes up behind him a few seconds later, gently pulling him back by the shoulders.

“I’m not being paranoid,” defends Stan. “If you wanna get technical, you’re the one being paranoid, but I don’t think that’s a line we want to touch right now.”

Kyle picks out the texture of the desk. The pattern prickles details into his eyes. He blinks it away, but the memory of it still lingers. It swirls in the blank gray of Stan’s wall as he gazes at it. He glances at the window, at the door, at the ceiling, at the floor.

One.

Two.

Three?

The dizziness of the dream fades away a little, and Kyle finds the energy to pull himself out of Stan’s grip. Stan reaches out again.

“Kyle—”

But Kyle spins around and snaps, “Don’t!”

Stan falls silent. The narrow of concern is no longer there. It’s replaced with the wide of the confusion, the gaze of trying to understand what’s been going on. Kyle hates that look, he decides. He tries to blink away the rest of the issues within his sight, tries to take in enough air to get his head to start thinking straight. He still doesn’t know if he’s here, but he’s aware enough to know this is different. Slowly, to what he can only assume are his own efforts of deep-breathing, he starts to understand where he is and why.

“I said I wanted to smoke,” Kyle says, firming his voice. Stan’s brows twitch downward. Kyle ignores the expression, glancing at the forgotten weed. He doesn’t remember touching it, but there’s some on the floor next to Stan’s desk. Not a lot, but a little. Just enough to be noticeable. Like a tiny bit of lawn clippings, or crumpled and rotting paper.

He looks back up at Stan, furrowing his own brows so Stan knows he’s not fucking around. Kyle is sick and tired of not being taken seriously, for fuck’s sake. He’s never good enough for the people around him. They don’t let him make his own goddamn decisions. Why can’t they leave him be?

“Can we just smoke, Stan?” Kyle asks, sarcastic and sardonic and so distant, buzzing, ringing, he cannot hear or see or smell or taste, he just needs. “Do we have your permission to do that? Or do I have to promise we’ll do the mushy feelings stuff? Because I’m honestly half-tempted to grab the weed and just leave.”

Stan, with a mildly panicked expression, silently acquiesces.

Kyle fears himself.

And, lost, Kyle realizes that he doesn’t care.

Chapter Text

The first thing Kyle asks when he enters is, “Why is he intubated?”

It feels like a slap in the face. An image his struggling brain lacks the tools to fully comprehend, something he could only wish to perceive with the clarity he once took for granted. Now, in the midst of the muddled, he stumbles, surrounded on all sides with walls that do nothing to hold him upright. In the dark, he is alone. In the quiet, he is forgotten.

In the stillness, he is dead.

Someone’s there. Rustling and shuffling with the blankets stuck in the shelf on that stupid dresser unit that no one’s actually using for anything. Something rises in Kyle’s chest, a protectiveness, a sensitivity that urges to rip his insides from the outside to the center.

The hospital room smells like cleaner and tape, the glue from envelopes and weak paste. Brownies that taste like salt with flavorless attempts at peanut butter sandwiches, a horrifically concentrated mixture of particles that he wants to scream at, to yell at the top of his lungs GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!

“Kyle?”

Kyle doesn’t look at the person, the husk of a human being, the twisted figure, because it doesn’t exist. His vision remains strict on the form of Stan so comfortable in the too-soft hospital bed. The lights are off, all of them. The only illumination sheds in from the mild glow of the nurse’s station just outside the room. It’s fucking depressing in here. It’s dark and fucking depressing.

“Kyle.”

Oh, and don’t forget the machine in the corner. The one with all the numbers, with the color-coded vital signs, the blood pressure and heartbeats and oxygen levels. Kyle is a liar, did you know that? He said there were no lights in this room, but there are… that’s not right, now, is it? He can’t be a liar, he can’t be, you don’t understand, okay? Because if he’s a liar about this, what’s to stop anyone from saying he’s a liar about other things, too? About the crushing terror, and the way he wakes up choking at night? Liar, liar, liar—

Kyle.”

Hands wrap around Kyle’s wrists, pulling him backwards, away from the colors. It’s just dark, then. Just a deep gray hospital room, full of the thickness that comes with nighttime. He wants to succumb to it. He wants to give in to it, to allow it his body as a vessel, just so he won’t have to be a part of it all anymore. He doesn’t care if his consciousness is taken up with vibrations and meaningless darkness, he just wants it to stop. He just wants the pain to stop. He just wants it to…

“Kyle— Kyle, stop.”

Kyle is turned around, pulled into the crushing hold of the stranger. The stranger, they smell like mint. Like overpowering chewing gum, flavored without sugar and branding proudly without the particles. Under the mint is the smell of bleach and baking soda. When Kyle’s eyes finally open to the world around him, he sees the red of their high school’s letterman jacket. His hands, dry, claw at the fabric, not caring if he ruins the jacket of the stranger. In fact, he wouldn’t mind tearing the jacket to pieces. The stranger doesn’t seem to mind, either. The stranger just holds him, the stranger just— the stranger…

Is Clyde.

“You can’t do that, dude, you can’t touch the machines,” Clyde mutters, walking backward slowly. Kyle, still clinging tight, follows. In a matter of seconds— blurring before his eyes, confusing him—, Kyle and Clyde are seated on the floor next to the window. Light from the full moon comes in, peppering the floor with reflections. Kyle counts them among the tiles. Clyde does not let go of Kyle's wrists, keeping his hands immobile. Tight. Kyle thinks.

“This isn’t neurology,” Kyle whispers, forcing his gaze down, unwilling to see the laminated posters about stroke scales and brain bleeds that the doctors use for diagnosis and informative communication and care. “This isn’t neurology, he didn’t have a stroke.”

There’s a second of quiet before Clyde says anything. “It’s okay, Kyle,” he says. Kyle looks up, eyes unfocused in the mix of stimuli— or lack of it. Clyde stares back at him, his brows furrowed and mouth gently smiling.

“Stop trying to reassure me,” Kyle snaps.

Clyde’s hopeful expression remains.

Chapter Text

The two weeks between tests is up too quickly. With an overfilled backpack and a number two pencil, Kyle fails the next AP Chem test as instructed by Eric. Maybe it’s a little strange, or maybe it’s just him over-thinking things, but either way he stares at the test he will get zero percent on. He thinks not on the things he thought he might. He barely acknowledges the fact that his stomach hurts, and he barely realizes just how much his grade will get hit by this. Instead, the thing he focuses on is what Ike’s going to do for dinner tonight.

Kyle is sleeping over at Stan’s this weekend. They’re going to smoke weed and watch eighties movies until their lives make sense. That’s Kyle’s plan, at least. He came up with it when Stan admitted his parents were going out for most of the weekend. A guilty part of Kyle wants to just forget about his family— goodness knows it won’t make a difference if he’s home or not, anyway. He still worries, though. He frets over his brother’s safety. He fears doing something different in the name of his own relaxation, and he fears indulging himself in such selfishness.

Miss James takes the tests away, one at a time, individually. She barely even glances at his test as she picks it up, but even so, his heart tries to leap out of his throat. It’s pounding, silent as it is. He lacks the breath necessary to deal. The everything hits him suddenly, like a baseball to the chest. He thinks, in some way, it hurts. It squeezes and aches in a nonphysical way. It makes his throat constrict like he’s going to scream, but he refuses to do that. In defense from the outside world, Kyle squeezes his eyes shut. He rubs at his forehead. He could guess at what he feels, but he doesn’t really know. He just needs to smoke.

A B A A C D A D A C C D B B B. Those were the correct answers on the test.

Eric kicks him underneath the table, but Kyle hardly feels it. He feels it, of course, but he doesn’t feel it. He expects Eric to get angry at the lack of response, but there is no follow-up. It was just the one kick. And, maybe, Kyle is relieved about that. But he doesn’t know. He just doesn’t.

He spends fifteen minutes trying to bite back the urge to pick at the skin on the inside of his mouth with his teeth. He’s already created a tiny scrape on the inside of his left cheek. He’s trying to stop biting it. He’s trying hard. It’s not easy. He can’t stop. He hates the taste of blood, but at this point, it’s comforting. He’s been chewing on his cheek since he was a kid. It bleeds when he bites it, now, and although the metallic taste of blood never fails in nauseating him, it’s also something he’s gotten strangely used to.

Bitter.

Sharp.

Ouch.

The kick Kyle was waiting for. The one that tells him how Eric is feeling. He glances up, to look at Eric and gauge his reaction to whatever it is he’s reacting to, but there’s nothing. Blank. Eric’s face, turned down to examine the brightly-lit screen of his phone. Kyle looks back down at the table. He counts the stripes in the artificial wood grain. He bites his cheek. Picks at the skin. Thinks of holes and crevices, places he can fill with the things he wants to hide or where he himself can hide. He gulps at the intrusion of blood. The imagery of it is gone, something he can’t picture, yet it’s exactly the way he remembers.

Bitter, sharp, salt.

Kyle feels like he’s going to throw up. Nausea grips his stomach, makes his chest go cold and lips go numb. He’s shaking, and he might be pale, but he doesn’t know. He remembers every other time he vomited. The casual illness and the more serious things. His kidney and Eric’s kidney inside of his body and milk and a hand on his stomach. The scar tingles, triggering his body to react, instinctive in clenching his abdominal muscles to ward off the phantom ticklishness. Without thinking about it, he rubs the spot, replacing the ghost hand with his own, recalibrating his own brain’s natural reaction to external sources by a futile attempt of self-correction. It’s just his hand. His own hand.

He must look pretty awful, because Miss James comes up to him. She places her hand on the table surface in front of him, urging his attention without making sudden movements or saying much of anything. He looks up, politely turning his attention to her. For a second, he’s afraid. She saw his test, she saw that he failed, she saw the zero and now she’ll be so disappointed that she fails him and he’ll have to repeat the class or he won’t graduate on time and he has a lot riding on this fucking class, he can’t handle that. He breathes in, silent. She’s frowning.

“Kyle,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, “Are you okay?”

There isn’t much time left in class. He knows he can make it, if he really wanted to, but he doesn’t. There’s a tense, yet gaping feeling in the pit of his stomach, out of breath as if he’d just run a mile. He shakes his head, swallowing, muttering an apology as he asks if he can go to the nurse. “I’m not feeling well,” he says, like this is just a random bout of illness that he’ll be over in a matter of hours. But he’s starting to psych himself out, and he can’t flip his shit in class. His instinct to bail overrides his instinct to stick it out. Thankfully, she nods, writes him a pass, and sends him on his merry way.

His legs are shaking as he walks the hallway, taking the route to the nurse’s office like he’s actually sick. He’s not. But then that feeling comes back, that I’m going to throw up feeling, the same one that clenches his gut and heats his throat and numbs his lips, except it spreads from his mouth to his entire face, and he can’t.

He ducks into the first bathroom he finds, and almost loses it when he sees the sink he was pinned to around two weeks ago. He hadn’t realized it, but he hasn’t stepped foot in this bathroom since that incident. He blanks his mind and takes sturdy strides forward, locking himself in one of the stalls and dropping his backpack on the floor. He stares at the toilet. At the water. Looking at it makes him think of illness. Of all of it. Everything.

And he pays attention to the particles. He contemplates the looks of them, the anatomy and makeup of the water. H2O.

Sickeningly, his thoughts turn to food. His jaw follows the strange feeling in his lips. The idea of eating is so disgusting, so horribly atrocious, that he can’t handle it. So many particles in one area. Too many things condensed into a single form of matter, which is ingested and turned into energy and waste and it’s disgusting. He doesn’t want to think about it, but he can’t stop it. He rubs at his face, trying to regain the feeling of being in his own head. He glances at the ceiling, expecting to find cameras, expecting to find eyes, someone watching, but there’s nothing. Just pale, just white, just light just bright just too much too much too fast and he can’t

Stop thinking.

He presses the fingertips of his left hand against his lips, settling on the surface of them, where they’re rough and slightly chapped and maybe a little broken from the biting. The nausea threatens to double him over, but his stomach is settling and he knows his body won’t do it on its own.

His phone buzzes. He pulls it out of his pocket, examining the text from Eric, where it sits just below the one from this morning.

Fatass

Today 6:22 AM
TRYING AGAIN!!!;; Fail. The. Test.

Today 2:42 PM
Good boy ;))) 

He breathes, blinks, focuses on the way his head is trying to make him drop. Fall, collapse, faint, whatever. He doesn’t. He pushes his phone into his backpack, forgets. Forgets about it. All of it. Everything.

More particles. More food. More thoughts.

It feels like it’s coming from behind him. A whisper. External. He doesn’t look over, because he knows he’s alone, but he still feels like it’s talking to him rather than in him.

...no, he can’t do that.

He can’t.

It’s his own brain. He’s telling himself to do something he doesn’t really know if he wants to do.

And maybe he isn’t thinking straight.

Something in his vision shifts, blurring the lines like his eyes are coated in water.

He lowers himself to his knees in front of the toilet. As disgusting as it is, it’s like he’s submitting to it. Such a horrid thought. Just another thing to add to the list. Just another thing to try and ignore. Just another guilt trip he’ll force himself through later, where thoughts worm in and tell him he’s the most despicable person.

He leans forward, bracing himself with one hand on the back of the toilet, because like hell he’s touching that fucking seat. With his free hand, he prepares, unsure of how he’s going to go about this. He’s never self-induced vomiting before, so he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Kyle assures himself that no one is watching, that no one is judging him, because he is alone in this bathroom, and for once he doesn’t need to worry about what other people think.

This is entirely him.

Feeling a little better, a little more calm, a little more quiet— Kyle opens his mouth and places two fingers in, slow in the movement of inching them back. He feels nothing, at first, just the presence of his fingers against his tongue, but then something shifts and he hits the limit of his gag reflex. Out of pure instinct, he yanks his fingers out of his mouth and doubles over the toilet bowl, coughing something harsh. Nothing comes up. It’s just him choking, gasping for breath, recovering from a strange dry-heave that did nothing to soothe the ache deep within himself. His eyes water.

Fuck. Okay, this time I’ll get it out.

He shifts to try again.

The bell rings.

Sounds of students hurrying, stampeding out of their classrooms in a rush to the doors to get home for the weekend. There’s always an influx of people heading towards the bathrooms after class lets out. He shoves himself up, stumbling to his feet and flushing the toilet just to make it sound like he did something normal, or at least got a product out of it. The door to the bathroom swings open, and in walks another guy. Kyle swallows his nerves— an ironic idea, all things considering— and pushes his way out of the stall. He’s shaking, quivering like he actually threw up, even though he very much didn’t.

As awful as it sounds, he is disappointed in himself.

Kyle sidles up next to the sink, squirting (one two three four pumps) a bit of soap into his hand. He waves his hand under the sensor of the tap and starts lathering, trying to scrub the invisible evidence of his idiocy out of his skin.

“Oh, hey, dude!”

Kyle flinches, looking up. Stan gazes back at him, this casual smile on his face. Kyle returns the smile, but he doesn’t feel it. “Hey,” he says. “Small world.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Stan says, huffing a laugh. “Jesus, man, just what the hell were you doing?”

Blood runs cold. Tastes sharp in his mouth. Remembrance of his own gagging, the way it felt to choke and have no tangible result. A horrible thought that makes no sense, and feels utterly fucking stupid now that he’s out of the heat of the moment. He clears his throat, asking, “What?” as cautiously as possible.

“That’s a fuck ton of soap right there,” Stan says, gesturing to the (admittedly, insane) amount of suds bubbling up under the water stream. Stan settles at the sink next to Kyle, just lingering. Existing. Being friendly. “You jerk off in here or something?”

“Oh wow, creative,” Kyle says. He rolls his eyes, but he’ll admit, he’s relieved. The tension leaves his shoulders. He rinses the rest of the soap off (you’re not clean enough) and grabs a paper towel. Stan snorts, lifting his hands into the air like he’s innocent.

“Dude, just saying, lots of soap.” Stan drops his backpack on the ground, overly confident that nothing will happen to it in the meantime as he wanders over to one of the urinals. “You ready for Better Off Dead tonight?”

“Hell yeah,” Kyle says.

Stan starts undoing his fly. The situation suddenly clicks in Kyle’s mind, and he makes a face.

Ew,” he says. Stan startles, halting.

“What?”

I,” begins Kyle firmly, pulling his backpack more thoroughly over his shoulder, “Will be waiting at the front door for you, goodbye.”

“Oh,” says Stan, teasing, “Is it the pee thing again?”

Kyle waves, reiterating “Goodbye!” when he pushes the door open.

He can’t help but cringe with Stan playfully calling, “It’s just pee!” as he leaves.

Chapter Text

Coming back from the hospital is difficult for everyone tonight. Mom is doing a little better. She isn’t shaking as much, and she’s coherent enough to talk, even if it’s a bit difficult to hear her— but Dad is stiff and silent as soon as they exit her room, and Ike stares at the ground for the entirety of the time they’re out and about. Kyle doesn’t know what he’d been doing, himself. He’s still reeling, unsure of how his body takes up the space around him. It’s weird to think about. He tries not to. They climb into the car. It starts, and the car creeps out of the parking ramp. His gaze, not unlike a stare, focuses on a spot on the window.

Allowing a loss of himself, his brain wanders to memories of this morning.

[ “Why? What's different about me?”

Anger. The most distinct thing inside of him at that moment was anger. An all-encompassing heat that tried to push him up and out the door, but he refused. Kyle stayed, stiff and still in that kitchen chair, as he waited for Stan to stutter out his response. “I don't mean—” Stan cut off. “I just... you're Kyle—”

“Thank you, captain obvious, for teaching me my fucking name,” Kyle snapped, agitated by the nondescript response. “What's that got to do with anything?”

“You're my best friend,” Stan said, like that explained something monumental between them that Kyle had been missing. There was a sense of believe-me, and something else that he couldn’t place. Infuriating. It hurt Kyle, but Stan kept talking. “And— I mean, kissing can be platonic.” ]

His mom might die.

Is it weird to say it doesn’t evoke a reaction from him?

He loves her, and the idea of her just… not being there is impossible to comprehend. It’s so incomprehensible, in fact, that he can’t wrap his brain around the feelings he’s supposed to be overwhelmed with. He’s seen movies, and he’s seen shows. He’s read books. People cry about this sort of thing— and he has, he cried. As of now, however, things are stagnant. She isn’t recovering. She isn’t getting worse, but she isn’t getting much better, either. And maybe, in a way, it’s like he’s already lost her.

He comes home every day wanting to talk to her about his day, but she isn’t there.

[ “Are you planning on telling Wendy?” Kyle asked, withdrawn.

Stan paused. “Of course not.”

“Why not?”

A look crossed Stan’s face, tense. Kyle watched it as it left. Stan attempted an explanation, saying, “I don't want to hurt her, I—”

But Kyle cut him off. “What about this would hurt her?” Kyle asked. He wanted to get this through Stan’s stupid thick skull, but he was starting to doubt. He tried to silently ask, tried to convey his frustration, but Stan just stared, wide-eyed and fearful, inside of himself. “It was platonic, right, Stan?”

Stan's mouth lingered open, though they both knew he had nothing to say. His face was red, embarrassed, maybe. Stan brought his hands up to his hair, carding his fingers through the strands and locks. “It... but— it doesn't mean anything.”

Stan said it like he was trying to convince himself. ]

And the house is silent, y’know? Like there’s a massive amount of foundation missing, or there’s a hole in the air, and he doesn’t even remember what it felt like to have it there in the first place. It’s January, for fuck’s sake. A month. Is that really how long it takes to recover from pneumonia? Is there something he’s not getting?

The car bumps and growls, a false floor beneath Kyle. Among the hundreds and thousands of other things that are uncertain, he is more aware of everything that exists.

Why else would he feel the car so acutely? Why else would his eyes go from full screen to wide screen? His peripheral vision is more pronounced, more vivid. He rubs at his eyes to get the strange panning-sensation of them away, as if they’re cameras with smudges. The car shakes. That’s what it is. It’s shaking, unsteady as the wheels fly haphazardly across the highway, lights poking out through the cover of darkness. He can’t make out the distinctions between which lights come from where.

In this car, Kyle is not safe.

[ Kyle always knew this wouldn’t work. He didn’t even know why he liked Stan so much, sometimes. “What doesn't mean anything?” Kyle asked. Stan shook his head, but the movement was so minuscule, Kyle had to wonder if Stan even noticed himself doing it.

“The kisses, and shit, I mean— it doesn't mean anything, right? So, it doesn't count.”

It doesn’t count.

Of course it doesn’t count, why the fuck would it count? ]

They’re going too fast down this highway, aren’t they? Kyle doesn’t look away from the window, so he doesn’t know what the speedometer reads, but he doesn’t care. The number is a liar. Numbers always lie. Why else would he feel like they’re going eighty? Why else would he feel like the date doesn’t matter? Why else would he look in a mirror and see nothing but fat and too much and places where he could slim down, but when he steps on the scale he only sees 135?

[ Kyle was just a puppet to Stan, too. His throat threatened to voice that. Kyle opened his mouth to speak, though he only ended up closing it without saying anything further. It’s not like there were actually two parts to this equation. Kyle thought about his cup, thought about the water, thought about the toilet. He thought about all of it. He swallowed. And then, he opened his mouth again, though he said something different than what his brain had been urging him to.

We shouldn't do it again.” ]

Because numbers lie.

Because the speedometer is broken.

Because the scale is off by twenty pounds.

They always lie.

They’re going too fast.

He’s too big.

Too many particles in too little space, a container full of volume that he can feel and see and understand— something a scale can’t possibly realize, because it’s an inanimate object. There is no sentience, there is no common sense, there’s just a program that comes up with a digital number that, at some point, decided to start subtracting twenty from the real sum because because because it is a program, made up of numbers.

Numbers lie. Averages mean nothing. 135 is 155, and 155 is too much. He needs to get down to 115 on the scale if he wants to be average. Because the scale is off by twenty pounds. It has to be. He needs to get rid of twenty pounds.

Kyle is nauseous. With the return of the nausea, comes the return of the thoughts.

Get it out.

[ It was laughable. Stan sounded hurt, muttering, “What?” ]

It’ll help.

“Dad,” Kyle says, glancing over to his father. Dad hums, his gaze still tight on the future of the road ahead of them. Kyle doesn’t reply for a second, putting effort into swallowing the saliva gathering in his mouth. There’s too much. Particles and enzymes and food to be broken down, a rolling heaviness in his soul but not in his body, he whispers, “Can we pull over?”

It’ll make you feel better, get it out.

“No, why?” Dad asks. Kyle feels his heart sink, a panic.

“I feel sick,” Kyle replies. He’s trying to put it as delicately as possible while still getting the message across, and he thinks it works. Dad glances over to him, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Oh,” Dad says. There’s a second where no one says anything. “I’ll pull over when I can.”

Kyle just has to trust him. He goes back to the window, staring at the horizon as they approach but never reach it. Rolling down a highway where nothing around them is populated scares Kyle. If they were off near the shoulder, he could hop out and puke, but he can’t. Too many cars blur past, boxing him in, caging him. Eventually, hints of civilization start to come into view. Stop lights and signs, busy intersections and buildings with parking lots.

Dad pulls into the parking lot of a nearby strip mall. As soon as they’re parked, Kyle unbuckles himself, slowly getting out of the car as to not agitate the heaviness in his stomach.

The nausea will go away, get it out.

“I’m going to go walk for a bit,” Kyle says. He shuts the car door behind him. He walks through the divider of grass that separates the main road from the parking lot. He finds a tree, halting next to it, gazing out at the traffic and pauses and lulls, little cars following slow semis, the common SUV.

He decides it’s too bright. He grips the front of his jacket and starts walking again, meandering down as far away as possible, into the dark beyond the stores where it’s just a section of undisturbed trees that are looking utterly bare from the winter.

[ “Kiss— or anything else, for that matter, we shouldn't do anything else… it was a dumb mistake, anyway, right?” Kyle stood from the kitchen table, the fingers of his right hand clasping the mug through its handle. ]

Kyle finds a good place and settles, hiding himself from view as much as possible with the widest tree he can find— a naked, shaking oak. He stares at the ground, at the dirty snow and dead grass poking up through the occasional miserable lack of white. It’s unclean, a sludge of mush and nature. His stomach starts to calm.

And Kyle starts to panic.

Because he needs to—

[ Mid-walk toward the sink to dump the rest of his beverage— ]

GET IT OUT

[ —the mug snapped. ]

Kyle sticks his fingers into his mouth, barely noting that it’s not as weird as it’d been yesterday at school. Maybe it’s funny that he’s doing this outside.

[ Sciences and particles exploded, a combustion where ties were severed and materials were shattered. ]

There’s a sweet spot in the back of his throat that gets him close to the result he needs. He coughs and sputters, accidentally scraping his knuckles between his teeth as his jaw tries to clench in reflex.

[ Kyle cussed, but he didn’t know what he said. ]

He makes a choking noise, but he’s too deep in his own head to hear it.

[ His attempts to catch the mug failed, a miserable drop in his reflexes, something that made his entire head hurt. ]

Another quick adjustment and he pulls his hand away, doubling over to vomit into the filthy snow at the base of the tree.

There goes dinner.

[ It felt like the planet quaked. When the mug disintegrated into puzzle pieces of porcelain, he was inclined to tremble. ]

With a flushed, overheated face and a sensitive, aching stomach, he grasps at the tree. He stares at the vomit. They had chicken and rice for dinner. It looks the same coming up as it did going down. How disgusting. So disgusting, but it’s true.

His throat burns, and his mouth tastes like acid and sour. His stomach churns, threatening to puke again just from the sensitivity that stems from an unnecessary induction, but he doesn’t care. He spits.

[ One thing after another after another, all going wrong and splaying in directions surrounding him, on the floor at his feet, crushed like a piece of paper in a trash can, ripped like an old love note. His chest burned. His heart throbbed. It was too much. ]

Kyle whispers, “Fuck,” his voice quivering and dry.

[ Kyle lowered himself to his knees, none too gracefully, trying to sweep up the shards of a possession he’d ruined. The sharp edges of the pieces bit into his skin, but he didn’t dare hold them tight enough to cut. He picked the pieces up one at a time, brushing extra dust into his palm, and he knew his hands were shaking. He could see them shake. He didn’t know when Stan had stood up, but at some point, he had— and he helped, aiding Kyle in cleaning the mug.

“I’m so sorry,” Kyle said, the words tumbling, too loose from his lips, “I didn’t mean to drop it—”

“It’s fine,” Stan interrupted. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it, we have a lot of these, so it doesn’t matter.” ]

Kyle kicks snow over the evidence, but it’s messy work and it’s not doing much other than dampen his shoes with frozen water. Every limb is shaking. His eyes won’t stop tearing up. He takes a step back. He wipes his mouth with the back of his jacket sleeve. It smells like weed. There’s saliva and vomit on the fingers he used. He meanders a few feet away and crouches, rubbing his hand off in a patch of new snow, trying to get it clean.

[ Love notes and heartaches. Shattered porcelain mugs of water and toilets, expanses of clean skin and questions that were too dirty, Kyle lost something. ]

And Kyle is ashamed of what he’s done. He knows it’s wrong. He feels guilty, bombarded by thoughts.

[ He stared at the shards in his hands, where he cupped them in support, kept them from falling back to the tile. ]

But those thoughts are quieter, now.

As Kyle looks over at the snow, the base of the tree, the specks and flakes and dead things and putrid aftermath of mistakes, he feels strange. He feels sick, and he’s tired, and…

[ “Oh, right,” Kyle said. He felt like he was going to puke. “You have more than one, so it doesn’t matter.”

Maybe he was proud of the fact that his statement got Stan to fall still. Kyle’s lungs ached to gasp. He coughed once through it, his eyes burning at the realization that Stan wasn’t denying any of it.

“This one doesn’t mean anything, anyway, isn’t that right, Stan?”

He wasn’t denying any of it.

He was just sitting there.

Silent. ]

…he’s in control.

Chapter Text

Kyle made the mistake of counting the calories of his lunch.

410.

He ate 410 calories, and he can’t stop thinking about it.

He can feel every single speck. Every single particle, chewing him right back, gnawing on his stomach and digging a hole in his very being. It’s uncomfortable. Heavy and distressed, he adjusts, trying to focus on the worksheet that Miss James handed out at the beginning of the hour. For the most part, chemistry is mind-numbing. It flips the switch that allows him to blur out the rest of the world. He can balance equations and put together the particle diagrams and forget everything except for the concepts, jotting down the law of conservation of mass, theoretical yield, limited and excess reactants—

But he ate 410 calories for lunch, and 95 for breakfast this morning, and the thought is enough.

505 calories.

Disgusting, despicable, atrocious, get it out, get it out, get it out.

Kyle, swallowing down the nausea that he knows isn’t real, finishes the front of the worksheet and flips it over. The room, while not silent, is quiet enough for him to recognize most everyone is actually working. The occasional table of people who don’t really care about chemistry are goofing off, tossing balls of paper at each other and laughing about sexual encounters they had in the backs of their cars. Someone talks about an incident that occurred with weed, gossiping about themselves to their friend, but Kyle doesn’t focus on that.

He categorizes the numbers on the page. Into pockets of prime and lines of integers. He picks out the points, adjusts them to fractions, calculates the masses of moles and elements and understands the grams but still it isn’t enough to allow him to forget.

The urge is still there, to dismiss himself quickly and duck into the bathroom and stick his fingers down his throat to get it out, and—

The thought, frighteningly explicit, suddenly builds pressure in his throat. His gag reflex threatens to trigger without external involvement. It startles him, because he suddenly can’t tell if he’s genuinely sick or not. He can’t think about it, though. His saliva sticks in his throat somewhere, making him start to cough through it. He tries to do so quietly, but it’s difficult to recover his breath from the momentary choking. He presses his hand to his mouth, doing his best to stifle the sound. But, of course, the room falls quiet.

Maybe it sounded like he was going to puke. Maybe they’re afraid he will. Maybe he’s afraid he will take advantage of that.

“Dude,” Clyde mutters, leaning over the table. He scoots into Eric’s seat, to be closer to Kyle so they can whisper more effectively. Eric isn’t here, today. Kyle hasn’t seen him all day, and in some ways, that does freak him out. Finally managing to catch his breath, Kyle lowers his hand and dips his attention back to the worksheet. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says. He takes deep breaths, forcing his body to calm down when he really doesn’t want it to. The only thing he wants to do is walk right the fuck out of there and find comfort in the bathroom. He doesn’t want the nausea to go away, as weird as that sounds, because he’s afraid that it’ll make the actual puking part of the equation more difficult to induce. Then he’ll just be left with this horrible pit in his stomach, and what is he supposed to do with that? Live with it? He can’t do that, he’s already insanely uncomfortable.

“You sure?” Clyde asks, and Kyle can’t tell if he genuinely cares or just doesn’t want to deal with the possibility of a puking classmate. Kyle certainly can’t blame him for the skepticism. Kyle himself hates sickness. Which, he supposes, makes this all a little ironic.

“I’m fine,” Kyle says, maybe a little more snippy than he’d like to admit. Clyde gets the message and backs off, but he doesn’t go back to his usual seat. Instead, he pulls his stuff over and continues his work. Kyle feels a little like his personal space has been violated, but he pushes it off in favor of finishing the worksheet.

He taps his pencil down on the paper when he finishes. Repeatedly. He presses the lead to the center, watches the carbon leave little marks, doodles useless little designs over the corners. He loses himself, spaces out from his boredom, knowing that only ten minutes or so remain of class. Without thinking, he starts to write. Scribble, more like, jotting down the words and numbers that haunt him in a way he’s comfortably unused to.

505 cal.
> 140
> 90
> 90
> 90
> 70
> 25

Kyle scribbles out the abbreviation, because he doesn’t want someone noticing. As it is now, with just the numbers, he feels safer. He can brush it off. Say it’s a score for a game I’m playing or I’m just practicing basic addition.

Kyle stops scribbling, finding no reason to keep filling up the corner of the paper. He has to turn this in at the end of the day. What if Miss James sees it and starts asking questions? He can’t do that. He won’t be able to balance the pressure of being questioned. It’ll break him. Without a second thought, he erases the list of numbers. When the marks are gone, he looks at the indents and remnants of the lead. He scribbles as hard as he can over where the list was, hoping to get rid of any and all evidence, even ghosts of numbers. He erases the mess of black at the corner of his paper, only to fill it in again and repeat the process.

With the corner of the paper thoroughly messy with dark remains of his pencil, blackened from his effort, he decides that’s enough. He can’t see it anymore, the pressure-marks from the numbers are gone. Drowned out from the rest of the divots, from the scribbles. His head hurts from staring at the contrast.

Even though he can no longer physically see the numbers, though, he still knows full well that he can’t forget them. They’re buried somewhere in his brain, in the thickets of his thoughts. They tease him. A collection of literal things that exist, being digested right now and he hates the thought. He doesn’t want his body to be full of anything.

He tells himself he won’t throw it up.

He shifts.

It’s quiet.

But maybe what he tells himself isn’t true.

Because there’s this thing in his head that makes him fear not being able to do it.

Like, if he doesn’t do it, something bad will happen.

He doesn’t know what the something bad is, though.

It’s just going to happen.

And, well, he feels sick anyway. Maybe he really does just need to get it out. Maybe, if he gets it out, he won’t feel so ill anymore. If he just makes himself puke this one last time, he can reset himself and his body and everything in it, and it’ll be like nothing happened.

But he can’t. If he does, he’ll smell like vomit for the rest of the day. What if someone notices? What if someone tries to send him home sick? What if someone calls his dad, and then his dad will know that he made himself puke, and then everyone will think he has an eating disorder or something stupid like that.

And then, to top it off, maybe they’ll be convinced to put him into therapy or some sort of inpatient treatment somewhere, or something. Then he won’t be around to finish school, even if he wanted to. He wouldn’t be able to smoke with Stan, or save his mother from Eric, or keep everything from falling apart at the seams, and it’ll be all his fault. He can’t let that happen.

The bell rings. Everyone starts to pack up their things immediately, creating a storming whirlwind of students attempting to get the hell out of the classroom without causing themselves injury. Kyle lingers, even as he watches Butters and Clyde exit into the hallway, jabbing at each other jokingly like sports players, which has always been Clyde’s thing, not Butters’.

Kyle grabs his stuff and tucks it into his backpack. He doesn’t put the worksheet in his backpack, though, because he has to turn that in. He stands from the chair, pushing it in with his hip, and walks to the front of the room. He hands the paper to Miss James, who takes it without hesitation. Kyle avoids looking at her face. He turns on his heel, hoisting his backpack over his shoulders, making to leave.

“Wait, Kyle.”

Kyle stops. His heart freezes in his chest, a precursor to panic— ice cold and with a body that threatens to tremble, Kyle turns, wringing his hands. Miss James is looking at him, this vague look on her face. She looks older than he remembers her appearing before. He doesn’t know what to feel about that. As normally as he can, he asks, “Yeah?”

“I’d like to talk to you quickly, if you don’t mind,” she says. She phrases it as a question, but Kyle knows it isn’t negotiable. Adults do that. They pretend like they’re asking questions, giving people choices, but they’re not actually giving out options. They’re just trying to make it seem like they actually care about what someone younger than them thinks. It’s with that thought that Kyle becomes a little irritated. He walks over. She gestures to a chair nearby, and with reluctance, he pulls it up to sit down.

She’s staring at him, her glasses falling down her nose, like she expects him to say something. He has nothing to say, though. He stays silent. She gets the hint.

“About your last test,” Miss James says, and Kyle’s heart starts speeding. He glances away. “You got a zero.”

“Guess I’m not good at it,” Kyle lies, his tone fake in its nonchalance. She frowns. She starts to shuffle through some papers at her desk. For a second, he wonders if she’s going to present him with the failed test, but she doesn’t. She just keeps shuffling, adjusting things like it’s a nervous habit.

“We both know you understand the material,” she says. She pulls up the worksheet he just handed in, resting it on the desk space between them. “I don’t even have to look that closely at this to know you got these answers right.”

“Oh,” Kyle says, because he doesn’t know what else she expects. She sighs. She leans forward, resting her forearms on the surface of her desk. Kyle scoots back.

“Kyle,” Miss James begins, “Is everything alright?”

He wants to say he’s fine, but it’s harder than it seems. The pressure hurts. He rubs his arms, like he’s cold, but brushes off the action as him crossing his arms. It’s uncomfortable, being forced from his discomfort with the natural anxious response of his body, but he won’t let himself leave the position. “Yeah, everything’s going great,” he says.

“Really?” she asks, like this is unbelievable to her. Kyle’s first response is to be offended. She notices, but doesn’t back down. “You seem significantly more distracted in class, and I’m getting concerned.”

Kyle shrugs, assuring, “Everything’s fine.”

“Nothing going on at school?” she asks, prying. “No one’s picking on you?”

You don’t know the half of it, says his brain, but his mouth replies, “No.”

She frowns. “How are things at home?”

Well, lets see. My dad’s rarely home anymore, my mom very possibly might die, and I’m in charge of caring for my little brother, but since I’m so useless, he basically has to take care of himself… you should really be concerned about Ike, Ma’am.

But Kyle shrugs. He pushes his hands into the pockets of his jacket, trying to make himself look more casual than he feels.

“They’re good,” he says.

“They’re good,” she repeats. Again, her tone is full of concerned disbelief. But he doesn’t care. He can’t find it within himself to risk what will happen if he tells someone about what’s going on. There’s a part of him that wants to get help, of course. There’s a part of his brain that’s stuck in the back, screaming at him to tell her! Tell her, for fuck’s sake, tell her! She can help you! But he buries it down.

Because that voice, that tiny little inkling of a thought, is a Number— and Numbers will always lie.

“And how are you feeling?” she asks. The question catches him off guard. He pushes his hands deeper into his pockets, and almost startles when he feels his right graze against something that’d been buried. He pulls it into his hand, feeling the shape of it, running his fingers over the texture of the wrapper…

Gum.

It’s the mint gum he got from Clyde over two weeks ago. The stuff that was overwhelmingly strong in its scent. Shit. Shit, wait.

Wait a second. If he has gum…

He’s been quiet for far too long, and Miss James becomes skeptical, her brows furrowing. “Kyle?” she asks, soft, and he snaps out of his head as much as is possible. It’s hard for him to focus, at this point. There’s something new inside of him, controlling and telling him things he doesn’t want to hear.

She doesn’t care about you.

And cologne in his bag—

She can’t help you feel better.

She isn’t speaking.

Kyle asks, “What?” just to get her talking again, so he’ll have an excuse to stay silent. An excuse to stay in his brain, to think through his next move. Even without the thinking, though, he knows exactly what he has to do.

You know what will help you feel better.

“How are you feeling?” she repeats, a question he doesn’t feel like he deserves to answer honestly.

You know what works.

“I’m okay,” he says. “I really am.”

If it worked before, it’ll work again.

He keeps talking. “I was probably just having an off day,” he says. “I can come before or after school to make up the test.”

Get it out of you.

Kyle swallows, still grasping the stick of gum in his hand. “Look,” he says, standing up. He lets go of the gum and pulls his hands out of his pockets, pushing his chair back into the table he’d taken it from. “I really appreciate you being concerned, but I promise that everything is okay.”

He looks at her, right at her, hoping the eye contact will convince her of something he doesn’t even believe himself. She still doesn’t look happy with the way their conversation went, but he doesn’t care. She looks like she’s about to keep talking, but students are starting to file in for the next class, and neither of them want to have this sort of conversation with other people around. Miss James sighs, apparently giving in. She pulls out her stack of hall pass notes, writing one up for him, because they both know he won’t make it to final period before the bell rings.

Miss James gives him the pass, and he takes it with an almost silent “Thank you,” before squeezing his way out of the flock of students that have started to congregate near the entrance of the classroom. He examines the hall pass. He has a freebie. He has an excuse not to make it to class on time. Now he doesn’t have to worry about being marked tardy without a note.

Kyle doesn’t walk to class. He makes a beeline to the bathroom, unwilling to waste any more time. He’s shaking, and his stomach starts to ache in knowledge of what he’s about to do, but he can’t not do it. He assures himself that this is the last time, that he won’t do it ever again after this. He convinces himself that rediscovering the gum in his pocket is a sign that he should do it, just for today. It doesn’t make sense, even to himself.

But he doesn’t care.

Not about that.

Chapter Text

Kyle tells himself he will never do it again.

His face still buzzes with the feeling, heat in his cheeks and a soreness in his jaw. His entire torso feels heavy, and he wants nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep. He chewed the gum as long as he could before he got to class. His mouth still has the taste of it, and after double-triple-quadruple checking his breath, he knows it’s mostly just that mint that lingers.

Paranoia, although edging through his body as soon as he sits in his seat, isn’t nearly enough to keep him awake. His eyes hurt, sensitive to the lights in the room. He’s able to pay attention to the lecture for a while, but his attention quickly fades, and he finds himself scribbling to stay awake. He jots down doodles of the things that come to mind— loops of Terrance & Philip episodes, little badly-drawn comics that don’t make much sense outside of his own head. He counts down the minutes, subtracts the amount of time he has before the end of school, doodles more, scribbles more, writes from memory the words that make him feel a little more human, a little more courageous or whole or something.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.

Words and phrases and sentences, commas and dashes and semi-colons… strictly planned, attempts at remembering the thing he thought he knew, but the more he writes, the less he’s sure. Does this word go here, or does it go over there?

He knows this. He knows this. He knows he knows this. It shouldn’t be this difficult to remember.

But it is. Why can’t he remember?

Kyle, frustrated, stops writing. The lack of movement is a recipe for disaster— and, in many other ways, failure. The exhaustion trickles in from seemingly nowhere, finally taking hold of him until he can’t keep his burning eyes open anymore. He rests his chin in his hand and, for a second, relaxes.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep. He hardly remembers anything. It’s just black.

But something happens—

DANGER I’M IN DANGER

—and Kyle reacts immediately, eyes tearing open as he retaliates, shoving out at the offending thing, whatever it had been. His body can’t even process, it just tries to fight. Kyle hardly recognizes Stan’s hiss of pain when he throws his elbow straight into Stan’s side.

“Dude!” Stan exclaims.

Panicking and unsure of where he is, Kyle replies, “Fuck you!”

“Language, Mr. Broflovski,” says the teacher. Right. The classroom. He’s in the classroom.

Kyle shoots a glare to Stan, examining where he stands beside Kyle at the table. “Sorry, ma’am,” Kyle says, though it’s a bit unfeeling. The memories of the afternoon are coming back to him. He drapes his arm protectively over the writing in his notebook, hiding it as he flips it shut, trying to be discrete about the contents. Every so often, he intensifies the glares that he gives Stan. He pushes himself up, hooking his backpack over both shoulders, and nudges the chair in with his knee.

It’s automatic, at this point. They leave the classroom together, as always. Sometimes they talk, other times they don’t, like it’s some sort of mutual agreement that they don’t have to converse in order to know they’re there. It’s just the two of them, in the quiet, and as they head down the hallway, surrounded only by their own footsteps, Kyle is completely comfortable doing the silent thing today.

He contemplates. He wonders if the gum was enough to get rid of the smell of vomit, he wonders if he washed his hands thoroughly enough, he wonders if the hand sanitizer helped, he wonders if the cologne did anything to mask it. He wonders if the guilt will ever leave him alone, and when he finds himself concluding with I don’t know, he discovers that he’s afraid of that. There’s a weird, morbid piece of him that wants to ask Stan if he smells anything. Just to make sure he’s covered on all facets, he wants to casually bring up the idea of something smelling off.

But at the same time, there’s this fear of outing himself. He doesn’t know how Stan would react to finding out about what Kyle did— or, has been doing, more rather. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? He’s been doing it, recently. And he has complete control over it. It’s something he decides to do. He assures himself of that, so it must be true, right? Whether it’s purposeful or not, though, isn’t the point. The point is that he’s been making himself do something… wrong.

It’s bad for him to do it, and he knows that. It makes him feel sick and tired and lethargic and, in all honesty, a little bit dizzy. The logic of it doesn’t really ring true to him, though. Sure, he feels awful afterward, but at the same time, he doesn’t really feel like he’s hurting himself. It feels like just another necessary evil, just another little thing he has to do. And maybe—… maybe it’s okay?

Like, it’s not as if he’s doing this for no reason. He’s seen himself. He’s stood in front of the mirror and examined his body. He’s pinched and prodded at those problem areas: the too much of his thighs, the suck it in of his stomach, the not thin enough of his arms. He needs two hands to fully wrap around a bicep. Well, more like a hand and a third, really, but that’s still too much, right? He honestly has no idea why it took him so long to realize he needs to lose a few pounds.

For a long time, Kyle completely forgets where he is. His anxieties create a pit in his core, and he can’t stop staring down at himself as he walks. He only manages to snap out of it when Stan blurts, “I have three proficiencies.”

Kyle looks at Stan with confusion, caught off-guard. “Huh?” he replies. He picks out little things about their surroundings; the tiles of the floor, the lockers on the walls, the pattern of the ceiling above them, little squares that break sometimes for seemingly no reason. Fluorescent lights that attract bugs.

“Proficiencies,” Stan clarifies, a certain levity in his tone. “I have three of them unfinished.”

Kyle rolls his eyes, asking, “You've been absent three days in a row?”

“No.”

“Holy shit, you got a zero on all three?” Kyle asks, honestly shocked. Stan doesn’t reply, which is usually not a good sign. Kyle groans. “What the hell happened to all of the study material I gave you?”

Stan clears his throat. “The— the what?”

“Study material,” Kyle repeats, giving him yet another glare. “Y’know, the study guides? That literally told you, step by step, how to do it?”

“Oh,” Stan says, but Kyle can tell Stan is just going through the motions. Such a thing is only confirmed when Stan says, “That.”

“I swear to all that’s holy,” Kyle begins, “If you say—”

“I lost it.”

“Oh my fucking—!” Kyle doesn’t even bother completing the sentence, stopping dead in his tracks. He brings his hands to his face, and digs his fingertips into his brow to urge away the frustration. Kyle could totally slap Stan, and he would only slightly regret it. He begins to count backwards, even though it’s never helped him much before— it’s just something for his mouth and brain to focus on as he figures out this shit.

Stan makes the stupid decision to try talking. “Um—”

“You're coming over,” Kyle says, just barely making the decision before he says it aloud.

“...what.”

Kyle lifts his head out of his hands and repeats, “You’re coming over, right now, after school—” and when Stan starts to look like he’s going to interrupt, Kyle swaps trains of thought quickly. “I don’t care if you have plans, you’re canceling them, we need to fix your bullshit.”

Stan glances around the empty hallways, a strange look on his face. “Uh—”

“Nope, nope, nope, nope— there's no fucking way I'm standing idly by, while your sorry ass—” Kyle jabs a pointer finger accusingly towards Stan, “—heads towards flunking at the speed of fucking light...”

Kyle glances down and just a tinge to the side. There’s a piece of paper sticking out of Stan’s backpack, he notices, and he suddenly can’t remember what he was talking about before, more interested in this new topic.

“And your stupid backpack is unzipped!” he says, barely managing to stave off the urge to throw his hands into the air.

With an angry growl, Kyle shoves Stan’s shoulder to turn him around. Thankfully, Stan obeys Kyle’s motions without fight. Kyle is already running extremely short on patience, and he hopes that fact doesn’t display itself in the rushed fumbling of his fingers as he pushes the stupid paper back into the pocket.

“You don't sort anything other than your dumb bedroom,” Kyle snaps. He grunts with an attempt to shut the pocket around the miscellaneous crap Stan keeps in it. “Your backpack looks like my brother’s, and he’s twelve.”

Or... is he thirteen, now? Why is it so hard to remember?

Stan snorts, something soft under his breath, and Kyle knows what’s coming before Stan even says it. “Are you calling me a genius?”

“You wish!” Kyle scoffs. With one final tug, Stan's backpack finally relents. It closes with a sharp ziiip. “There! Christ, we’re sorting through this bullshit when we get to my place, too.”

“Dude,” Stan says, “Why are you so mad?”

“I'm not mad,” Kyle replies. And that, for the most part, is true. In the purest form, at least. He glimpses the dark hair of his little brother, the thoughts of Ike still fresh. He brushes the wrinkles out of Ike’s uniform jacket...

Kyle withdraws his hands when he realizes what’s happening. Stan turns to look at him, and the expression on his face is utterly confused. His brows have furrowed mildly, a small hint of a frown at the corners of his lips. In all legitimacy, Kyle is confused, too.

“Sorry— sorry, habit,” he says. He rubs his hands together, trying to get rid of the physical memory. His heart is beating, a soft upset in his chest, and without thinking, Kyle says, “I’ve been sending Ike off to school these past few weeks.”

“Oh,” Stan says. He’s watching Kyle, and Kyle can’t help but feel self-conscious, like Stan knows something that Kyle knows Stan definitely doesn’t. There’s no way Stan knows about Mom, there’s no way Stan knows Kyle made himself puke—

Kyle clasps his hands together, and brings them up to his mouth. Stan doesn’t think Kyle’s fat, right?

“Doesn’t your mom usually do that?” Stan asks, and Kyle barely hears him over the sound of his own thoughts. Of course Stan doesn’t think Kyle is fat. Stan knows Kyle is fat. He has eyes, you know.

“Yeah,” Kyle mutters. He lowers his hands, brushing them against the front of his jacket. He glances down at himself, examining just how obvious his body is. His brain hardly has time to panic over the idea of Stan finding out about his mom. Numbly, Kyle says, “But she’s been... busy, lately.”

It’s so nondescript of a statement, that Stan’s furrowed brows are justified.

Kyle tries again. “I mean—”

But he can’t. God, look at him. Just fucking look at it. He fights the urge to hide himself, to hug himself and find a way to be as small as possible.

Kyle forces himself to try ignoring it. He lifts one of his hands up to his mouth again, picking at a chapped area of his lips. He says, “She’s been... she’s been offered a really big job opportunity,” and the lie hurts his teeth. “She’s been away trying to work things out… you know how it goes.”

Stan, for too long, is quiet. “Right,” he finally says. “Yeah, of course.”

Kyle doesn’t want Stan to come over anymore, but he doesn’t have the option to back out. Instead, Kyle nods. He pinpoints the shapes; the walls, the ceiling, the twitch of Stan’s bottom lip, the floor… a crumpled, torn, and slightly dirty piece of notebook paper lies beneath Stan’s foot. Paper-thin. Ha. Kyle gestures to it. “So... is that yours?”

“Oh— jeez, yeah, probably…” Stan lifts his foot and picks up the piece of ruined paper. He unfurls the corners. A look crosses Stan’s face, tight and intrigued. “Or not.”

Kyle nods again. “Then we should throw it away—”

“It's Cartman’s.”

Every cell in Kyle’s body urges to react. To curl him in, to hunch his shoulders, to vomit what little he has left in his stomach— if anything, at this point. Kyle swallows and mutters, “Huh?” hoping he’d misheard Stan.

“It's Cartman’s,” Stan says. “Cartman wrote it, this is his handwriting.”

Kyle’s throat wants to close up. With difficulty, he says, “Burn it.”

“What?” Stan asks, confused in an amused way.

“Burn it,” Kyle snaps. “I don’t care what it is, he doesn’t need it.”

“Or...” Stan looks back at the very piece of paper in his hands. Kyle feels angry at the disregard. Stan says, “We could read it.”

Kyle wants to rip the paper out of Stan’s hands and shred it, no matter what it is, but he thinks that might be a little over-the-top.

.If you tell anyone, she’ll get worse

What if the paper has some information about what Eric is doing?

“Or we could do that,” Kyle says, reluctant in all senses. A familiar dizziness takes hold. “C’mon, read it as we walk.”

Stan nods, much happier with this idea. The two of them begin on their way down the hall again. Amid the taps of their feet, and the sounds of a meeting being held in one of the nearby offices, Stan begins to read directly from the paper in his hands. “‘Guess what motherfuckers?’— and then in parenthesis, ‘What Eric?’

Kyle heaves a sigh, finding this a good place to insert his let’s not do this anymore in any way he can. “I regret this decision already,” he says, but Stan doesn’t pick up on the hint. Stan never was very good with hints.

‘Well, Polly Prissy Pants’— oh, Jesus, it’s one of these,” Stan mutters. When he goes quiet, Kyle is hopeful that he won’t read anymore, but that’s not the case. He’s simply looking away from the paper long enough to hold the school’s main door open for Kyle, and while Kyle appreciates it, he’s upset by the fact that he’s still going to be subjected to the words from someone who made him feel so… “‘Well, Polly Prissy Pants, I just got offered a full ride to NYU’—”

“What?” Kyle hisses, looking at Stan incredulously.

‘Oh wow Eric’—” Stan continues, not regarding Kyle at all. His eyes dart over the words on the page as he reads them. “This is in parenthesis, by the way— ‘that is so awesome’…”

Kyle wants Stan to stop reading. Please, just stop reading.

‘You are so smart and cool and totally not fat at all’…”

.Stop. This isn’t safe

‘Everyone is so proud of you and that jew Kyle won’t know what hit him when he sees you there’— end parenthesis— ‘Thank you, Polly Prissy Pants. Kyle will be sooo pissed off. Maybe he’ll cry’…”

—kick kick ki]
I wonder
—ck, kick, kickkickkick—
what your tears
?taste like
BREATHEBREATHESTOP
[kick

‘Nya nya nya nya nyaa nya... ha ha ha ha haa ha’.”

?do you see him]
                          I see him, I think I see him
?Back there
Kick kick kick
I don’t know what’s going on
                                            ?Of course you do are you crazy
Stop kicking me please
                                   ?It hurts
LOOK AT YOURSELF
                              ?Feel it
inthemirror
Maybe I’m
Kick kick kick
                      [?in control

“Um... Kyle?”

Kyle’s body itches. His hips hurt; they’re pressed against the sink.

No, they’re not. He’s fine. He’s outside, see? Look at the trees. Breathe in the oxygen. The atmosphere is thick, even in the winter— or perhaps, especially in the winter. With the stillness of the atoms and molecules and particles, whatever differences they hold for each other. He glances at the fading monochrome of the sidewalk and the blinding white glitter of the snow. The sun is hardly there, but if he focuses, he can see it poking through a thick sheen of foggy clouds. He’s fine.

“He didn’t,” Kyle says, grounding himself with his voice.

Stan shifts, fidgeting slightly absently with the piece of paper. It makes a mild amount of noise— slightly irritating, really. Kyle wants to rip the paper away from Stan and bury it in the snowbank. “Didn’t what?” Stan asks.

And just like that, Kyle’s entire face heats, blood flushing his skin with a vengeance. “Get a full ride,” Kyle snaps. “He’s a liar, he’s a fucking liar and a fucking thief, and a fucking cheater, he will never succeed that way, it can’t be possible— so, I’m telling you, there is absolutely no fucking way he got a full ride to NYU, there's no way.”

Stan looks at the crumpled piece of paper. “I don't know, man, this is Cartman we’re talking about.”

—Stop please I need reassurance that he’s notrightthere

Kyle looks around the view of the neighborhood. The streets and driveways are lined with a moderately thick blanket of snow. Kyle’s gaze suddenly glues itself in the direction of the basket ball court. He thinks he sees the outline of someone much further down the sidewalk, so far away only their silhouette is visible, but he can’t really tell, so he pretends he doesn’t see a thing. “Do you think he’s there?” he asks, trying to get the reassurance. And maybe. If he goes there and sees Eric is there. Maybe Kenny? And if he says it, if he tells them what happened, they can make sure Eric doesn’t—

PLEASE GOD DON’T KILL HER I NEED MY MOM

The thoughts, they take the air away, and he wonders if he’ll ever be able to breathe again.

“Where?” Stan replies, and his voice is too calm. A sound of realization cracks the air. “The court? Oh, hell no, you’re not seriously thinking about confronting him about it, are you?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Kyle snaps. How dare Stan, with his assumptions and stupidity, he knows nothing. “If he was planning on ruining the entirety of your—” life “—educational career, wouldn’t you push for answers?”

What a convenient lie.

Stan rolls his eyes. “If by ‘pushing for answers’ you mean ‘beating the ever-loving fuck out of him’, then no, I wouldn’t.”

“Well—”

.Stan’s not on your side

Kyle shoots a lasting glare towards the hill. Just beyond the trees.

?I need something. What is it? What do I need

“Dude, Kyle, no,” Stan says.

“But—”

“No, it’s not worth it, trust me on this.” Stan grips Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle wants, more than anything, to pull away. He doesn’t. “We’ve been through so much Cartman bullshit, I’m honestly really confused… why is this the thing that pisses you off?”

.STAN ISN’T ON YOUR SIDE

“Because he’s always there!” Kyle says, desperate. “He’s always there! Things are changing, and I don’t want him to be the only constant in my life! I don’t want him to be everywhere I am, is that too much to ask?”

...He won’t be satisfied, it’s a plan, he’s going to follow me and kill me and then he’ll kill Mom and Ike and Dad

“No, of course not,” Stan says, and he appears… agitated? “But immediately jumping on his back about it isn’t going to help, if anything, it’s just going to convince him to pursue it even more— seriously, dude, don’t.”

.I don’t want him to rule over me

Kyle's face flushes a deeper shade of red. He can feel it. The way his jaw hurts. “I don’t want to go to college with him.”

“Then don’t!” Stan says, all happy, like it’s an easy fix. His puppy-dog mannerisms are resurfacing. “You could always go somewhere else, you’re smart enough to get into any school you want to… okay?”

They make full eye contact; Stan leads it. After a few seconds, Kyle gives a gentle nod.

“Okay,” Kyle says, even though his body wants to start screaming. He has—

kickickick]
Maybe I’m in control
Kick
[?Feel it

—control, though. “Yeah.”

[.I’ll kill her]

Kyle draws his bottom lip between his teeth. He chews on the skin of it, tastes blood. It hurts. It distracts him from—

the bug hitting the ceiling light]
Click click click
Kick kick kick
[STOP IT STOP OKAY STOP I GET IT STOP IT STOP IT STOP

—the fact that he’s looking at Stan’s bottom lip.

.He’s not on your side

But that thought is stupid, and Kyle knows that.

Stan drops the piece of paper— it flutters down, out of sight out of mind. Kyle finds himself pulled in. Stan has his own gravitational pull, it seems like that sometimes. It’s no surprise that, when Stan lifts his other hand to Kyle’s other shoulder, Kyle allows it to happen. Stan’s grip on his shoulders is heated, smooth yet firm yet gentle and kind. Kyle steps closer. He wants to sit here, staring. He wants to look into Stan’s eyes forever. There’s this comfort in his chest— not really inside of him, but just ahead of him, and he wants to chase it before it disappears, even if that scares him.

Kyle doesn’t care. He wants comfort. He yearns for it. Hurts for it.

For care.

But Stan pulls away, and the movement is enough to shock Kyle out of his daze. Their hearts are pounding and their minds are reeling at the thought of what could have just happened. Kyle…

Stan loves Wendy.

And if Kyle kissed Stan, then he—

[————thesoundofcontrol————]

—might find out.

“Sorry,” Stan mutters, holding himself tightly.

“It’s fine, let’s just... let's go to my place now,” Kyle says. “Okay?”

“Actually—”

HE’S NOT ON YOUR SIDE I TOLD YOU

Stan’s eyes widen, like he knows. Stan quickly adds, “Could we stop at my place first? I gotta grab something real quick.”

.No, I told YOU that he IS on my side

Kyle grits his teeth. After a moment of pause, he allows himself to continue with the conversation. “Sure, I guess...” When Stan begins to walk, he follows. “What do you need to grab?”

“My textbook,” Stan says.

Kyle could laugh, but he doesn’t. He just says, “You’re shitting me.”

Stan laughs at it like a joke, and that helps lighten things up a little.

Maybe.

Kyle can’t really tell.

How funny is that?

Chapter Text

“Wait, hold on,” Stan says. “Kyle, explain this to me again.”

“Dude, it's really not that hard to understand,” Kyle says. He doesn’t look up from his own work— a remnant from the class he shares with Stan, what he’d managed not to do thanks to the fact that he fell asleep. With one final mark on the paper, Kyle adjusts his attention to look at Stan. Stan’s expression is utterly lost. “Genes have alleles, alleles decide traits, traits show up in babies from the genetics of the parents.”

Stan rolls his eyes. “No, I understand that,” he says. “What I don't understand is the whole deal with... co-dominance, or whatever the fuck.”

Kyle sets his notebook aside on his desk and rolls his desk chair over to where Stan is seated. The textbook (and easily six different papers, none of which were related) Stan has been studying is sprawled out on Kyle's bed, and just as such, so is Stan. He sits with his legs crossed, a pillow in his lap to hold his notebook. What an awful substitute for a real desk. Kyle offered to share his work space with Stan, but Stan had refused, for whatever reason.

Admittedly, Kyle has a feeling he knows the exact reason.

After the split-second of criticizing Stan's workplace layout, Kyle leans forward in his desk chair and rests his elbows on his knees. His shins press awkwardly against the side of his mattress. He tries to figure out the logic behind Stan’s study guide layout… it’s completely random. “The hell are you even working on right now, dude?” Kyle asks. “I can't tell which paper you're looking at.”

“Well, I mean, technically, I'm looking at all of them,” Stan answers, completely unhelpful. He reaches out to scrape one specific paper off of the bedspread. He waves it in a relatively grand gesture through the air as he adds, “But this is the one… jeez, Kyle, I would have thought you'd know which paper was which… y'know, considering you made these, and all.”

“I think it makes sense that I don't know which one is which, y'know, considering I don't use them, and all,” Kyle quips. Needless to say, Stan shuts up pretty quick after that. He goes back to studying the guide in-hand. Kyle allows Stan a few seconds to study, though there’s this look on his face that Kyle recognizes as Stan’s “I have no fucking idea what I’m looking at right now” look. Kyle removes the paper from Stan's hands. Kyle begins to read through the study guide, trying to figure out what was giving Stan so much trouble. “I don't get it, what're you having issues understanding?”

“Did I literally not just say 'co-dominance'?”

“No, I know what you said,” Kyle says. “I just don't get why it's so hard for you to understand it.”

“Okay, fine, it says—” Stan furrows his brows, taking the study guide back from Kyle. Quickly, Stan finds his issue and jabs his finger at the line. “Here, see? It says, 'in codominance, no dominant or recessive alleles are present’, but, then, how the hell is something going to present either trait at that point? Like, if there are no markers, it's nothing… right? Is it just gonna be a total coin toss? Like, is it a wild card?”

“No, Stan,” Kyle sighs. “It's not a wild card— and everything in genetics is technically a coin toss.”

“Stop with the technicalities, dude,” Stan groans. “Just explain the stupid thing so I can pass the proficiencies.”

“Okay, okay, damn.” Kyle rolls his chair backwards so he has enough room to stand. He quickly moves to sit next to Stan on the bed, pushing a few papers and study guides aside so he won't crush them as he settles. He takes the study guide out of Stan's hand, and sets it down on the bed before both of them. Kyle turns to face Stan. “Alright, so, I can empathize with the fact that co-dominance can be kind of confusing at first, but it's honestly not complicated,” he begins, even though he genuinely has never had an issue understanding this stuff. It’s just an excuse for him to prepare his thoughts. “Basically, co-dominant alleles means there's no one marker that rules over all others; the one example in humans is blood type.”

Kyle knows what’s coming even before he finishes speaking. Stan’s eyes go blank, kind of glazing over like he’s spacing out. And then, of course, the classic: “What.”

Kyle sighs. Okay. Take two. “Blood type,” he repeats. “If both parents pass down just the i allele without the predetermining A or B markers, the i allele causes the baby's blood type to be O— this is because there was no dominant or recessive A or B mixing in with the i… does that make sense?”

“Um... sure?” Stan says. Okay, that’s a blatant lie, but Kyle’s going to pretend it’s not.

“Okay,” Kyle says. “So, if the exact opposite happens, and one parent passes down an IA allele, while the other parent passes down an IB allele, their baby will have the AB blood type.”

Something clicks. Kyle doesn’t know what about the explanation does it, but he connects something. Stan makes a noise of understanding, nodding his head as the information processes. He lowers his head, jotting down notes in his composition notebook. “So…” Stan trails, pausing. “A kid with two IA alleles would have blood type A?”

Kyle can’t help it; he smiles. “Exactly! And the opposite is true with IB.”

“What other things have the whole, uh— co-dominance thing?” asks Stan. Kyle is quiet for a second, pursing his lips in thought.

“Well, a lot of different species of plans and animals experience co-dominance in their genes, but one example I like to use is in flowers, since it's a visible display of co-dominance in the colors of their petals,” Kyle explains. “It also ties in later with incomplete dominance, but we don't have to get into that right now if this is still confusing—”

“Wait, wait, wait, let me get this straight!” Stan blurts, dropping his pencil and holding up both of his hands. A second later, Stan claps them both together and gestures towards Kyle with them. Kyle makes a face at the gesture. “You have the AB blood type, right?”

“Um... yeah?”

“So that means you have a co-dominant trait,” Stan says.

What the fuck is he…? “Yeah?”

“And flowers have co-dominant traits,” Stan adds. Kyle narrows his eyes a little, having a distinctly weird feeling about where this is going. Stan raises his brows, urging a reply. Kyle repeated his previous affirmation. Proudly, Stan finishes, “So, vicariously, you are the blood-relative of flowers.”

What…

…the fuck? What does that even—

Immediately, Kyle drops his head into his hands and groans. “You did not just call me a flower.”

“No, no, no, hear me out,” Stan quickly insists, which is usually never a good sign. “I'm serious! You have a co-dominant trait in your blood! Flowers don't have blood, right, but they have co-dominant traits based on their colors— you're already, like, ten percent more related to flowers than you are to me.”

“That's not how it works,” Kyle mutters. “That's literally not how it works.”

“Listen, listen, listen, it makes sense, I swear!” Stan removes the makeshift pillow-desk from his lap and sets it aside on Kyle's bed. Free from the pillow, Stan turns to face Kyle fully. “It would explain why your hair looks like a dandelion.”

Kyle groans loudly, allowing his shoulders to slump with the exasperation. Kyle bites back the urge to slap Stan when Stan decides it’s a great idea to flick at Kyle’s hair.

“I mean, where did it even come from? Neither of your parents have curly hair.”

“What!” Kyle lifts his head from his hands, almost embarrassingly flustered. “Have you actually never met my dad? His hair is almost as curly as mine.”

There’s a second where Stan doesn’t do anything, to which Kyle is relieved. But then, Stan draws in a long breath, proceeding to push it out in a heavy sigh. He reaches over and pats Kyle's shoulder. The look on Stan’s face is ridiculous, morphing almost idiotically in faux-sympathy.

I swear to god, if he—

“I'm sorry, Kyle,” Stan says, “But your dad is a dandelion.”

Kyle stares at Stan incredulously. He hardly blinks in the moment after Stan finishes speaking. The ridiculousness, however, is too much for Kyle to bear. He tries to stifle it, but he can’t. He starts to laugh. “What the hell!” he exclaims, bowing his head as he tries to regain control of himself. “Are you high? Did you medicate before you got here? Is that why you're being so weird? Is that why you took so long to get your stupid textbook?”

“What? No!” Stan replies. He withdraws his hand from Kyle's shoulder. Kyle misses the touch immediately, but forces himself not to think about it. Kyle sits up more fully, breathing through the remains of the giggling. Stan asks, “Why would I smoke before I came over? And I told you, it took so long for me to get it, because I couldn't find it.”

“How do you lose a biology textbook? It's literally over a thousand pages of information. Have you seen this thing?” Kyle gestures towards the aforementioned textbook, affirming his point. “It's huge.”

“Yeah, it's huge— and are you kidding? Information my ass! It's over a thousand pages of bullshit, that's what it is,” Stan says. He lifts up the biology textbook, making a show of how heavy it is— affirming his point. He groans, dramatic. “Oh man, dude, it's so heavy, it's gonna kill me!”

“Then set it down,” laughs Kyle, batting at Stan's arm. Stan only ignores him, continuing to complain about its weight.

“Holy shit, it's like trying to carry Cartman,” Stan says.

[maybe] Kyle’s lungs [I’m in] draw in such a [control] tiny inhale, Stan doesn’t seem to notice it. But he can’t be sure, and if he can’t be sure— Kyle blinks his eyes, trying to clear his head.

“I can't take it anymore,” Stan complains, really milking the joke. Kyle’s stomach feels unwell. “It's gonna crush me, I'll be splattered all over your bed, it'll look like something straight out of Mars Attacks— but red.”

“Gross,” Kyle says. He hates how his voice lacks its usual power. “I hated that movie.”

“Would you rather I compared it to Chopping Mall?” Stan asks. He shifts the textbook in his grip, moving so he’s holding it against his chest rather than balancing it on his palms in the air. “Deadly Friend? Scanners?”

“Dude, stop listing eighties movies to me,” Kyle says. He jabs Stan in the side with his elbow, causing Stan to startle and drop the textbook into his lap. It’s an accident, and Kyle immediately feels bad about it— especially with the unfortunate way it lands in Stan’s lap. Stan winces when it topples and hits him in the stomach, too. He flops backwards on the bed, the textbook forgotten and sliding slowly off his torso.

“Christ,” Stan mutters. “Ow.”

“Oh, come on, it didn't hit you that hard,” Kyle huffs. He goes so far as to push the textbook fully off of Stan. When Stan does little other than make another soft groaning noise, Kyle jabs his fingers into Stan's ribs. That action makes Stan react: he heaves a laugh and rolls over onto his side. He curls in on himself. Kyle snorts.

“Don't poke me like that,” Stan complains, though he’s lighthearted about it. He pushes himself up using his arms, keeping himself propped with his palm pressed against the mattress. There’s a little smile on his face, one that Kyle could get lost in. One that Kyle has gotten lost in.

You’re really lovely, Kyle thinks, but he says, “You're an idiot.”

“Yeah, well...” Stan shrugs, adjusting himself to sit regularly. He crosses his legs, comfortable. “Like father like son, I guess.”

Kyle, reminded of the last time they smoked, finds himself feeling guilty. His brows furrow. Self-deprecating humor is only funny when it isn’t so internalized like that.

They look each other in the eyes, in this moment, and something frighteningly whole rears its ugly little head into the atmosphere. Both of them are trying to push it away— they are trying so desperately to make things go back to the way they used to be. They are trying so hard to make everything fall back into its easy little place, like when they were kids and they melted plastic toys using a magnifying glass and the sun's rays.

This is risky, Kyle realizes. It’s risky to sit here like this, staring at each other like they could read each other's thoughts. It’s risky, because they've been to places in their own psyches that neither had ever dared to imagine just weeks ago. A piece of Kyle feels torn apart. It feels burning, like the light, and Stan is the stupid toy, being destroyed by the intensity of it. There are affects that Kyle feels like he has, that are toxic, life-ruining. He wants to bury himself away from Stan. He wants to save Stan from the pain he could possibly cause, because he’s afraid…

If he can’t keep Stan far enough, Eric will hurt him.

The way Stan is looking at Kyle is scary. It’s new, and it’s unfiltered through the lenses of a drug-induced haze of lust and thoughtlessness. Seeing Stan like that, so close, with eyes reflecting so brightly— like those eyes are on the verge of tears, wet with the water of their own color, Kyle fears.

Maybe that's where the thought comes from. A needy part of Kyle that can’t stop the reminders— even in the face of someone so close, so nice, so perfect. Whatever the reason, it has devolved into something incomprehensible. Strings of thoughts and mindless mush, where Kyle is trapped.

Where he is not safe.

Where he feels the heat from the sun coming in through the window, but it feels like the stifling choke-hold of Eric. Where he feels the seat beneath him, but he can’t differentiate that from the way the wall would feel behind him, or the way Eric caught him against the sink. Where Kyle sees the blue eyes of Stan, but all he processes are the hazel that can’t fight back without fear of hitting the mirror in front of them.

Something in Kyle's hips began to ache. It’s harsh, uncomfortable in one of the most indescribable ways. His brain works in overdrive as he counts the tiles on the bathroom floor, and the seconds before he’ll have enough energy to run, and the words that Eric is breathing against is ear. He wants to say firm things like Get off of me, you freak! and You’re not in control of me! and You’re so disgusting!

A snap, and Kyle has been spun around, facing the predator, and Eric leans in to kiss Kyle, and his heart almost stops when he can’t make sense of it anymore.

“No, stop,” Kyle says, turning his head away and pushing into the— the…

Kyle’s fingers curl in Stan's shirt, holding him at arm's length. Disoriented, Kyle keeps his hold firm. He tries to figure out what just happened, but he… he can’t. There’s nothing in his brain, there’s no category that he can put this under. It’s new, and Kyle is afraid of the fact that his body still can’t tell the difference between the then and the now. Desperate to coordinate himself again, Kyle turns his head to look at Stan—

And he needs an excuse. His mouth draws down in a scowl as he hisses, “I'm still fucking mad at you.”

Even though that’s a lie.

How funny is it that Kyle is pushing the blame for his own bullshit onto other people?

Stan exhales. He backs up, allowing Kyle his space. Kyle thought he’d be grateful for that, but he just regrets it. “I'm sorry,” Stan says, but just the idea of such an undeserved sentiment is enough to make Kyle’s body threaten to break down. Kyle turns his back to Stan, taking a few minutes to sit in silence.

To… recover?

That silence breaks when the house's front door opens. Immediately, Kyle stands, brushing the lingering feeling of Eric’s stupid hands off of him as discretely as possible. “That's probably my dad,” Kyle says, except he doesn’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. He can’t tell if he’s lying. He can’t fucking tell. “He was planning on getting groceries today, I'm gonna see if he needs help.”

Without waiting for a response from Stan, Kyle exits his bedroom and heads down the hall. He clings to the sounds of his own footsteps, and he clings to the way the carpet looks, distinct without the brightness of the sunlight that he’ll be faced with in the living room. He squints when he makes it down, entering the kitchen so he can get out of the offense from the window. The tiles of the kitchen stick out to his brain, and he instinctively tries to count them.

Ike is sitting at the kitchen table. His expression is tight, tense and angry, as he grips Mom’s brooch between his hands. Kyle only knows it’s Mom’s brooch because he came in just as Ike was snatching it up from the table. Something about it glints differently, in the split-second frame that Kyle sees— though that might just be the fact that Ike reacted so quickly.

“Ike?” Kyle asks, concerned at the distress that Ike is radiating. Ike only glances up. The glare, however minimal, is so intense, that Kyle gets the hint that he should back off. Instead of speaking, Kyle decides to grab himself a glass of water. He fills a cup and takes a sip, though he can only manage a small amount before the feeling of being too full keeps him from hydrating further. The excuse of being downstairs feels… useless. Kyle glances over his shoulder. Finding that Ike isn’t watching, Kyle slowly pours the water down into the sink, being quiet about it. He’s such a pussy. It’s just water, for goodness’ sake. He can’t handle just water?

But he can’t help it. It hurts, it’s disgusting, he can feel it, and he hates it.

Water weight.

There’s a noise that comes from the kitchen table, then. Kyle turns around, immediately looking at Ike. Ike, hunched over as he is, shields his face with the way his hair falls like a curtain. That doesn’t stop the quiet sound of him crying from reaching Kyle’s ears, though. Concern blossoms up in Kyle’s chest. He sets the empty cup down onto the counter and walks over, pulling up a chair to sit with his brother.

“Ike, what’s wrong?” he asks, though he has a feeling such a question is borderline offensive. At this point, what isn’t wrong? As awful as it is for Kyle, he has to realize that Ike is probably taking everything much worse. He’s still a kid. No kid deserves to have their mom taken away.

Ike sniffs, shaking his head. He mumbles, “Go away,” the same way he used to when he was little, trying to be firm in his underdeveloped angry-toddler tone. Except this time it’s not based on his age, it’s based on him trying to hold himself together because he just can’t anymore. Kyle can feel his heart breaking.

“Ike, look at me,” Kyle says. He ducks his head to try and meet Ike’s downtrodden gaze, but Ike only shakes his head, squeezing his eyes shut. “Ike—”

Ike looks up.

The lights above them catch the way Ike’s cheek is an abnormal red. Kyle, in that moment, is speechless.

Did someone…?

Ike,” Kyle hisses, taking Ike’s chin in his hand and turning Ike’s head to get a better look at the mark. A scrape, over his left cheekbone. Some pinpricks of blood come to the surface. The areas where the skin has actually broken are few and far between. That doesn’t make it any better, though, does it? “What happened to you?”

“I fell,” Ike says, but Kyle doesn’t believe that for a moment.

“No, you didn’t,” Kyle says. He lets go of Ike’s chin and stands up, making quick work of wetting a towel with warm water so he can clean up Ike’s face. There isn’t much blood, but it’s still there, and Kyle doesn’t want Ike to go around with an untreated open scrape on his face. He comes back to the table. Sitting down once more, he instructs Ike to look to the side so he can gently dab the injury with the damp area of the towel. More insistently, Kyle asks, “Who did this to you?”

“I don’t know,” Ike mutters. He sniffs again. “I was walking home and someone pushed me and I fell on the curb and—”

Ike’s voice breaks, and he starts to cry again. He tries to hold back, but the only thing he manages to keep at bay are the quiet sounds of sobbing. The tears gather in his eyes and fall. Kyle hates seeing his brother like this. He wants to protect Ike from the world. He really does.

“—and they stepped on Mom’s brooch,” Ike says. Kyle’s blood runs cold. For some reason, that little detail tips him off to who it was.

Eric.

The cold running through Kyle’s veins explodes into a heavy boil. Infuriated, it’s all Kyle can do to hold back the frustrated scream.

Ike’s crying starts to harshen. He opens his palms, allowing Kyle to see the damage done to the brooch. It’s definitely broken. The main body of it has been cracked, and some of the gems have fallen out, leaving empty pockets of silver. Kyle doesn’t know how he hadn’t realized earlier, but the pin of the broach has been completely detached; it lays on the surface of the table, glinting in an engraved line on the wood.

“I couldn’t protect her,” Ike whimpers, his face reddening. Kyle pulls the washcloth from Ike’s cheek, using a dry corner to wipe away some of the tears that are falling. “If she dies, it’ll be all my fault.”

“Oh, Ike,” Kyle whispers. He sets the towel down on the table, scooting close enough so he can pull Ike into a hug. He gingerly takes the pieces of the brooch out of Ike’s hands, setting them next to the separated pin. With the objects taken care of, he focuses his energy on calming his little brother. “It wasn’t your fault, none of this is your fault.”

“But it is,” Ike whines. “I had pneumonia first, I gave it to her, and now she’s going to die.”

“Ike, listen to me, this is not your fault.”

Ike buries his head into Kyle’s chest, clinging to Kyle’s shirt. Kyle allows him to do whatever he needs to do. He combs his fingers through Ike’s hair, the way he’d seen Mom do to the both of them. He doesn’t know if it helps or hurts. He really doesn’t. But he’s trying, and all he can do is hope that Ike’s crying harder because he’s allowing himself to let it out, and not because Kyle’s unintentional reminders were too painful.

They sit like that together for a long while. Minutes and minutes, an amount of time that Kyle wouldn’t dare count in his head even if he wished to. Such a thing is unimportant, in the grand scheme of it. He forgets, for a bit, that Stan is upstairs waiting. That, too, is unimportant.

When Ike calms down, he pulls away, looking up at Kyle with red eyes. Ike has his brows furrowed. He mutters, “You smell a little weird.”

The fact that Stan is upstairs is suddenly very important.

Kyle pulls away, retrieves the pieces of the brooch, and tries to brush off Ike’s statement with a quick, “Chemistry was eventful today.”

Chapter Text

Stan’s not nearly as good at hiding things as he thinks he is. As soon as Kyle returned to his bedroom, he knew something was up. The way Stan awkwardly maneuvered through the rest of their afternoon together was more than enough to convince him that he’d gone and involved himself somewhere he likely shouldn’t have. Although at first concerned about what might have happened, Kyle ultimately manages to push those feelings away until Stan heads home for the night.

By no means is Kyle his brother, but it doesn’t exactly take a genius to know that whatever Stan had gotten himself into was somehow related to Kyle’s dresser. That is where Kyle caught Stan lingering, after all— not to mention his awkward exchange in relation to a pencil he apparently needed. So, yeah, Stan needs an upgrade in the lying department, but that’s the least of Kyle’s worries. The thing Kyle is most concerned about at the moment is figuring out specifically what Stan was doing.

Now alone in his bedroom, Kyle takes it upon himself to start snooping. He doesn’t think it’s technically considered snooping, though, considering this is his bedroom, but that’s beside the point. He starts with the top drawer, figuring that would likely be where Stan would start, with whatever he was doing. He shuffles through his socks. It’s difficult to sort, considering he doesn’t know what he’s looking for… if anything. With the sock drawer apparently empty, he closes it and moves onto the next drawer down. He shuffles through his shirts, patting for any gaps where something might be missing, or any lumps where something might be hidden. That drawer is clean, too.

As he goes through the rest of his drawers, Kyle feels more and more unsettled. He hasn’t found anything, and at this point, he doesn’t know if he will. All he has is an intense suspicion of Stan’s weird behavior. He didn’t actually see him do anything— and… maybe Stan hadn’t done anything. Maybe Stan was looking for something, then? Or maybe Stan was telling the truth, or maybe Stan was going to do something, but didn’t have the chance before Kyle came in?

Admittedly, Kyle hesitates before opening his underwear drawer. He doesn’t really know why, but he has a weird feeling about this. There’s a strange, building skepticism that makes him incredibly uncomfortable. He hooks his fingers through the handle and tugs, just slightly, listening to the light slide of the wood frame. Surely, Stan wouldn’t go through Kyle’s underwear drawer, right? They’ve made out more times than Kyle can count, at this point— and almost gone further, once or twice— but this is a boundary that Kyle always assumed neither of them would cross.

Kyle stops with the drawer less than a quarter of the way open. His heartbeat is picking up, making his skin feel hot and flushed. His fingertips feel cold, numbing even though the air hasn’t changed at all. He turns his head away from the sight of his dresser without consciously thinking about it. He can’t pinpoint the specifics of his own thoughts, they’re just swirling. His stomach twists, and— he can’t. He can’t. He pushes the drawer shut, maybe a little harder than he meant to. If Stan messed around with Kyle’s underwear, Kyle doesn’t want to know. He’s afraid of what he’ll see, and he’s afraid of his image of Stan changing.

He pushes himself up from where he’d crouched on the floor, rubbing at a spot on his shoulder which has become increasingly more tense. Staring at the empty of his bedroom, Kyle finds himself lost. There’s all of this space around him, there’s all of this normalcy that threatens to uproot his foundations of what he’s gotten used to. It probably sounds really stupid, but it feels way too calm. Like, way too calm. It’s calm in a way where it isn’t right.

Kyle takes a single step, flinching at the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath his feet. His heart, stress-sensitive, starts to pound more insistently against the tissue of his lungs. He feels it, shaking his chest, swaying his body without him trying to move. His ears start to ring, picking up a soft tinnitus, and the corners of his vision darkens. He knows what’s happening, but at the same time, he lacks the ability to rationalize the words that come with the concept. Although the phenomenon is scary, he isn’t frightened of it. He welcomes it, the feeling of being light on his feet, the buzzing of the particles around him— which he sees bouncing, colliding with the objects of his rooms and filling the walls.

When it becomes hard to breathe, he decides it best to sit. Kyle slowly crouches, lowering to his knees and aiding his balance with his palms. Sitting does little to reorient him, though, and without a second thought, he adjusts to lay on his back. His skull pounds, an audible representation of his heartbeat. Slowly, his vision starts to brighten again. Blood returns to his brain, allowing him to process more easily. His lungs still struggle to take in a sufficient amount of air, but he knows that will return to normal in a matter of seconds.

Kyle trails the fingers of his right hand through his hair. He should shower before bed tonight. Oils are already starting to make the hair closest to his scalp feel less than ideal. He knows that washing his hair daily is horrible for his curls, but he can’t help it. It’s just so gross otherwise.

He pulls his hand away from his hair and takes another few seconds to recover. He feels more or less okay, now. There’s a new feeling in his stomach, one that he’s felt before— but never in this way. He feels empty, and while it’s not comfortable (in fact, it hurts a little), he can’t help but feel a little… proud. For a moment, he is swept. He thinks about what it’d be like to feel this liberated all the time. He wonders if he could pull it off, only eating enough to survive and nothing more. He wonders if that would slim him down, if doing so would allow him to lose the weight he needs to. He contemplates a goal, just so he can keep track.

Nothing extreme, or anything. Just five pounds. He wants to get down to an even one-hundred and thirty pounds. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, he’d be willing to argue that one-thirty is too much, itself. In fact, it might very well be.

Kyle examines the shadows collecting on his ceiling. He bites at the skin of his lip, chewing it until the thoughts calm him.

One-twenty. One-twenty is a nice, neutral number. He can lose fifteen pounds, right? No big deal. The idea triggers a gentle buzzing in his brain. Something pleasant, something soft, something kind. He likes the buzzing very much, as it leaves him feeling light. His thoughts flow easier, if not a little more widely spaced between one another. The hollow feeling in his stomach hits him a little more insistently, but he refuses to allow himself to give in to something so physical. He can control himself.

Getting lost in the ceiling, Kyle decides he might need to check his blood sugar. He’s almost certain that his dizziness had been from standing up too quickly, but he knows the importance of checking regularly, anyway. He wants nothing more than to keep laying here. He’s been up and about all day. He puked up lunch and hasn’t had anything other than gum since. He can rest a little.

 


It feels like Kyle barely closes his eyes before his door creaks open. He jolts awake at the noise, the pounding of his heart returning to the foundations of his head. He squints at the light that comes in from the hallway, barely registering the fact that all the lights in his own room are off. It’s darker than he remembers it being a second ago. He pushes himself up onto his elbow, swallowing through a dryness in his mouth that he doesn’t remember being there earlier.

Fuck… what happened?

“Kyle?” Ike asks, peeking in from the hallway. In the dark of the room, Kyle can barely see the scrape on his cheek. Before Kyle can reply, Ike is speaking again. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says, barely thinking before talking. There’s a familiar feeling. He can’t think in words, but he feels it, a lack and a heat that makes him want to fall asleep where he lays. He lets himself rest, draping his forearm over his eyes so he can collect his thoughts a little easier. With his free hand, he gestures vaguely to his desk— or, where he thinks his desk is. He’s having trouble connecting to his proprioception. “Could you grab my kit? I think I need to check my levels.”

“Jesus, Kyle, again?” Ike asks. For a second, Kyle is concerned that he’ll get a firm talking-to from his little brother, but that doesn’t happen. Not right away, at least. Ike is kind enough to allow him a few seconds as he pads his way over to Kyle’s desk. Kyle hears the footsteps, and listens to the shuffling as he works on retrieving everything. “This is the third time this month, it’s unlike you… I’m getting worried.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Kyle says.

“Well, excuse me if I’m having difficulties not worrying about you,” Ike mumbles, sarcastic. “I mean, it’s not like you just passed out, or anything.”

“I didn’t pass out,” Kyle huffs. He lowers his arm from his eyes when Ike taps him on the shoulder. He blinks his eyes open, takes the meter with a quiet thanks, and slowly sits himself up.

“How long have you been on the floor?” Ike asks, apparently full of questions today. Kyle tries to make quick work of checking his blood sugar, but it’s more difficult than it seems when his attention is so scattered.

“Just a few seconds,” Kyle says, although he has a feeling it’s been at least thirty minutes longer than that. His hands are shaking. When did that start? He pricks his finger and presses a drop of blood to the little puncture’s surface. When it comes time, he finds himself reluctant to look at the result. He does anyway, of course. He’s more immediately faced with the fact that his blood sugar is, in fact, low. Kyle can’t escape it anymore. He needs to eat something. Unable to help himself, he cusses. This concerns Ike.

“What?” Ike asks. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” Kyle replies, huffing as he cleans everything up, returning the items he’d used back into the kit. He sets it beside himself on the floor, taking another rest. “I’m just frustrated.”

“With what?” Ike asks, because of course he does. Kyle rubs at his forehead, suddenly very conscious of the fact that he exists. “Has this been happening a lot? You might wanna go to a doctor, there might be something serious going on or—”

“Oh, stop, just because Mom’s sick doesn’t mean everyone is,” Kyle snaps. Ike shuts up, eyes wide. Immediately, Kyle regrets it. How could he get so riled up like that? It’s not helping his case. It’s not helping anything. He apologizes, quiet.

Nothing is helping anything, actually, and now he has to go downstairs and force himself to eat before he goes completely hypoglycemic and finds himself in the back of an ambulance.

Though, honestly, that doesn’t sound too bad. He’s exhausted enough not to care much. Maybe it could be an escape, or maybe he could die and it’d all just go away.

He wants nothing more than to lay back down on the floor and sleep, risk the agony that’d come with not acting immediately like he knows he has to. But one last look at Ike, staring down at him with the most fearful expression Kyle has seen on him in years, gives him the push he needs to suck it up and be a man already. He uses the wall to help keep himself steady as he stands, which probably doesn’t look great from Ike’s end of things. Kyle gives him a reassuring, apologetic smile and exits his bedroom. He’s hardly aware that Ike is following.

Kyle’s thoughts are taken up entirely of food.

What he’s going to eat, how he’s going to eat it, what he can get away with and what he can’t. What he thinks he can handle and what will be easiest to force back up again, if it must come to that. It’s exhausting. It’s so fucking exhausting. He doesn’t even remember what it was like when he didn’t think so hard about what went into his body. It hasn’t been long at all, yet it feels like it’s been forever. He loves the empty feeling almost too much to let it go.

Kyle forces himself to eat as little as he can get away with. Fifteen minutes later, Kyle rechecks his levels and sure enough, he’s back in his normal range. When he sees the fact that the number has changed, he’s hit with it. It’s a good thing, he knows it is. Maybe that’s what makes him want to run to the bathroom and get it back out.

He feels full. Too full; uncomfortable. It sits in his stomach like a brick. With every passing minute, his discomfort grows. He tries to remind himself of the atrocious sick feeling that always comes after making himself vomit, and for a while, that helps him keep the urge at bay. Another thing that helps is the fact that Ike watches him like a hawk. Kyle wouldn’t be able to slip to the bathroom even if he wanted to; Ike would hover by the door and hear everything.

Maybe if you do it in the shower?

No.

Maybe if you go for a walk…

And come back smelling like puke? No.

There’s no way out, and he knows that. He’s trapped. He has to let it sit in his stomach. He has to let it digest. He hates it.

He fucking despises it.

It makes him livid.

Dad comes home around ten, telling them to go to bed. It’s late, after all. Way past their bedtime. Ike takes the bathroom first, and Kyle isn’t bothered by that. In fact, he’s fine with it. He lingers near Dad until it’s his turn, because he doesn’t trust himself enough to be alone. They don’t talk to each other. It’s stiff. The atmosphere makes his ears start to ring again. It makes the little voice in his head scream at him. It makes his internal dialogue berate him with things he knows are true. When Ike is finished in the bathroom, Kyle says goodnight to Dad and heads upstairs, pretending there isn’t a weight in his chest trying to pull him to the floor.

Kyle locks himself in the bathroom. He contemplates a shower, and after a lot of back and forth with himself, he decides he can’t get out of it. He turns on the water, strips, and climbs in, trying his hardest to ignore the drain and the way the particles hit his body. At some point, though, he can’t anymore. There’s only so much he can let himself get away with. Before long, he’s doing something different.

Staring down at himself— at every part of himself, at the way the water rolls down his skin to the shower floor— hurts. He grabs at the flesh of his arms, trailing pinches down his sides and around his waist, trying to find the worst areas of himself, the places he wants to slice away with a knife. He wraps his middle finger and thumb around his wrist. They touch, overlapping a little, but not enough. He doesn’t even bother trying to wrap his hand around his bicep. That part of himself is too big.

The water starts to run cold. Kyle hugs himself, blaming it on the chill, but knowing it’s more than that. He stares at the way the water swirls down the drain.

Overwhelmed with thoughts of snow and vomit and how much it hurts.

He feels sick.

You need to get it out.

He grabs at the skin of his sides, claws at the flesh of his stomach, tries to reaffirm the way his own hands feel against his hips. He wants it all out of him. No, he—

You need it out.

Kyle shakes his head, trying to stop thinking about that. He tries to focus on the way it hurts. He tries to focus on how utterly painful it is to vomit, how the burning wears on his throat, how his face goes unbearably flushed and how he shakes for hours afterward from the sheer trauma done to his body with such an act.

Think about
No
How it’ll feel
Stop
When it’s out
I said stop
When you’re
Stop stop it stop
Empty and one
Stop
Step
Stop
Closer
Stop!
To your
STOP

Kyle turns off the water, shivering as he steps out and wraps himself in his towel. His limbs, cold from the spray of water, refuse to work properly in the absence of the particles. His physical motivation threatens so completely to crumble. He hides himself within the towel; he doesn’t dare look himself in the mirror. His hair, wet, drips down his face and neck. He rubs the water away. He has to brush his teeth, but the towel is so warm. Against his better judgment, he takes a minute just to stand. He recovers.

Brushing his teeth, the urge is still there. His hand threatens to gag him with his toothbrush, just to get it done and over with, but he refuses. He told himself he would never do it again, and as difficult and as painful as it is, he intends to keep that one promise.

He doesn’t even know why he’s trying to stop. It helps. He misses it and it hasn’t even been a day. He’s gone longer, he knows he has, but he can’t stop thinking about it because now he no longer has the option and it’s freaking him the fuck out.

He spits out the toothpaste, rinses his mouth, and leaves. He locks himself in his room until he’s dressed. Even then, he feels frustrated and terrified of unlocking it. His chest hurts and his stomach keeps churning, angry at him for keeping something down and he can’t help it. He hates himself for it. His thoughts berate him as he tries to fall asleep. Sneaking things that strangle him, grab at his chin and keep him pulled down, out of reach, it builds and stresses and he needs out, he needs escape, he needs it out he needs it all out he needs it to get out.

Itching skin, tingling scalp, he feels dirty and disgusting and he takes up too much space— he’s fat, don’t you see? He’s atrocious.

For two hours, he tries to sleep. He succeeds, though it’s not restful. He tosses and turns and loses time more than anything else. At some point, his phone buzzes. It wakes him up.

Dazed, he checks it.

Fatass

Today 2:11 AM
wakey wakey, sleepyhead ;)) time 2 getupp

Kyle blinks, rubbing at his eyes. They water in the offensive lighting from his phone, contrasted by the pitch black of his room. By the time his focus returns, his phone has shut off. He opens it back up just in time to receive another text from Eric.

Fatass

Today 2:15
challenge time. U ready?

He adjusts himself into a more comfortable position and focuses his energy on replying.

Fatass

Whatever.

Hardly a second later, Eric sends the next text. Kyle is dumbfounded at how he typed that quickly.

Fatass

TASk 1: ARe u awake?? 10 pushUps to get the blood flowing

Fuck you.

There is no thought that goes into Kyle’s actions. He sits himself up automatically, careful with his phone still in hand. His muscles ache, willing him to go back to sleep. His eyes threaten to slip shut in the remaining dark. The parts of his room not illuminated by his phone are nonexistent. His mattress is the only thing actually touched by that superficial light, though. How ironic.

Kyle leaves his phone on his bed, uncaring about its state; it could stay on for all he cares. He lowers himself to the floor. The texture wavers in the dark, and it prickles his palms as he mentally prepares himself for push-ups so early in the morning. There’s a thickness in his throat and a rolling nausea in his stomach, shifting every time he moves. He can feel himself running off of steam, at this point. For a second, he can’t do it. He simply lays on his stomach on the floor, his arms splayed above him, his fingers gripping the coarse feel of the carpet.

When he hears his phone go off, Kyle forces himself up onto his palms and toes. He’s steady in plank position. Push-ups aren’t difficult. It’s just so late, and the room is so dark, and if he goes too fast the floor will creak and Ike or Dad will wake up, and how the fuck is he supposed to explain why he’s awake at three in the morning?

Slow, he begins, counting under his breath until he finishes with ten full push-ups. His muscles tense to allow himself to stand, but before he does, he hesitates. He’s awake now, definitely. There’s a certain energy pumping through him. A certain…

You can do ten more, easy.

Kyle does. He lowers, elbows bending, and then he pushes himself back up. He pays strict attention to the posture of his back. He pays strict attention to the tension in his core. He pays strict attention to the repetition, the way it’s so easy.

How about five more?

Kyle does. He feels the strain, now. Stan’s the one with the seemingly endless upper body strength. Kyle has a limit. Twenty-five.

Not enough. How do you expect to do anything if you give up so soon?

Kyle stares, unmoving, at the floor between his played palms. He wants to relieve himself of this position. It’s aching his feet and he feels uncomfortable, his muscles urging him to lay on the ground and stretch like a cat, but he can’t.

Five more.

Again, he lowers, and again, he pushes himself back up. He counts under his breath, the numbers swirling in his brain, clicking into place as things to remember. His weight: 135, his goal: 120, his total push-ups: 30

Five more.

—his total push-ups: 35

Five more.

—his total push-ups: 40

Five more.

—his total push-ups: 45

Five more.

—his total push-ups: 50.

Fifty.

Kyle lowers himself to the ground, even as he berates himself with thoughts of how he needs to keep going. He rolls onto his back, stares up at the ceiling. It smokes above him, a screen of wire, meshed and unfocused. He wonders if he could touch it. When he tries, his arms ache in moving. He’s too infinitesimal to touch the ceiling like that. He should know better.

Kyle forces himself upright, fighting through the warmth beneath his eyelids. He grabs his phone.

Fatass

Today 2:25 AM
WE don’t got all night, jiddische bitsch

Okay. Done.

Was that enough to get your he@rt beating?

Why the fuck does it matter?

WE both know y it matters ;))) TAsk 2: head downstairs + grab urself something 4 breakfast. Don’t eat it tho.

Kyle furrows his brows. Grab breakfast for himself, but don’t eat it? What the fuck type of request is that? Even so, he pushes himself to his feet, silently slipping out of his room and tiptoeing his way downstairs to the kitchen. He grabs something rather inoffensive: bread. He would put it into the toaster, but that particular kitchen appliance is too loud. It’d wake Ike up for sure. Dad’s a heavier sleeper.

Fatass

Today 2:28 AM
What am I supposed to do with it?

Uh bring it with duh

With WHERE?

U’L see ;)

Kyle gives the piece of bread a wary look. Maybe he shouldn’t bring this. Maybe he should grab something different. He doesn’t know what Eric intends to do, and he doesn’t want to risk… fuck, what would he even be risking? He can’t imagine anything that Cartman’s sick, disgusting brain could possibly concoct. Kyle abandons the piece of bread and grabs an apple instead. Apples are durable, and light, and safe. He won’t eat it, though. He refuses to. His phone buzzes.

Fatass

Today 2:30 AM
Task#3!! Bring ur backpack upstairs.

Although hesitant, Kyle follows orders. He balances his phone and the apple in one hand, and grabs his backpack from where he’d left it earlier near the door for school the next day. He heads upstairs, going slow and avoiding the board that creaks when weight is applied to it. He slips back into his room. Almost immediately, his phone buzzes again.

Fatass

Today 2:34 AM
Good boy. Task 4? get dressed 4 school. U can’t go looking like you just crawld out of bed, huh?

Kyle can’t explain it, but something feels off. He sets his backpack down on the floor near the foot of his bed, pushing the apple into the front-most pocket. He shoots a wary glance around his room, double-checking for anything that might look off. Everything is exactly the same as he’d left it. He rubs at his arms, suddenly chilled. He grabs an outfit and changes as quickly as possible.

There is a minute, in the quiet of his room, in the silence that he exists within, where he simply listens. He hears the distant ticking of a clock, the popping of the vent or air conditioner or something. The stillness… it aches. He keeps turning around, convinced something is behind him, convinced he isn’t alone, but every time he spins he finds himself face to face with the empty darkness that comes with being completely alone and he can’t

Wrap

His brain

Around it

This— feeling.

He nearly yelps when his phone goes off again, but manages to keep himself silent, slapping his free hand over his mouth.

Fatass

Today 2:39 AM
Mmhmm ;))) m waiting. Look outside n climb out, meyn varnitshkeleh.

Everything in Kyle’s body tells him not to, but he’s become a master at ignoring the voice of reason. He retrieves his backpack and slings each arm through the respective straps, stepping to his window and looking out over where he’s supposed to climb down. There’s nothing he’s able to cling onto, though, so he scraps the idea of literally climbing out. He turns on his heel and leaves his bedroom, carefully going right back downstairs. He unlocks the front door.

Hesitates.

Breathes, thinks, wonders, and…

Leaves.

The cold of the weather is sharp against his face, so bitter in the early morning hour. He makes sure to lock the door behind himself as he travels down the porch steps. The soles of his shoes crunch gravel, scraping on a thin layer of freezing sleet, minimal ice that’s hardly thick enough to be slick. He takes a hesitant step down his driveway, looking around for the reason Eric told him to come outside. It’s barren, though; desolate. Cold. He forgot his jacket. Fuck, he knew he was forgetting something. He should go back in and get it.

Kyle starts to turn, but stops abruptly when he notices a car at the far end of their property, just at the edge. The 2006 Ford Fusion glares at him with headlights, beady and catlike.

He can see the thick silhouette in the driver’s seat. That gives it away.

Or maybe it’s the glow of the phone screen from within the car that gives it away.

Or maybe it’s the fact that his phone goes off, and this time when Kyle checks it, the text is simple.

Fatass

Today 2:46
u coming?

A rock lodges itself in Kyle’s throat, forcing him to attempt and reattempt and re-reattempt swallowing it down. Struggling, he pushes his phone into his pocket and steels his shoulders. His muscles remain malleable from the fifty push-ups he forced from himself just fifteen minutes ago.

He walks. More crunching, false gravel and chewing leaves, hiccuping blades of dead and dying grasses as he makes his way over. There’s a tree in Stan’s yard. It’s been slowly growing for a while, now. It’s bigger than it was when they were kids, but only slightly. They always assumed that tree was a bush. It wasn’t. It was a tree.

It was always a fucking tree.

Kyle pulls open the passenger’s side door and hops in, dropping his backpack on the floor at the foot of the seat. He doesn’t just shut the door behind him, he slams it, having little regard for his own safety. Eric’s attention is turned to his phone. He’s clicking through something. Notifications, from some app, or maybe it’s a website he’s tapping at. Kyle doesn’t know, and he honestly doesn’t care. He hates the way Eric is so highlighted, the way his face is the only goddamn thing able to be truly seen.

Eric did that on purpose. Kyle is fucking certain of that fact.

They don’t say anything. Not a damned thing. Kyle wants to. He wants to ask Eric what the fuck they’re doing, what the fuck the plan is, what the fuck the point is, what the fuck is wrong with him, but Kyle doesn’t say anything. He simply follows, blind as a bat and obedient as a doll. Eric shuts off his phone— it clatters to sleep with the audible click-click— and shoves it into the pocket of his winter coat.

Eric’s not wearing that stupid letterman jacket today. Maybe it’d be ridiculous to think Eric would wear such a thing in the middle of the night, but Kyle has grown so used to it at this point that it’s almost weird to see him don a simple red coat. It reminds Kyle of when they were kids, and that makes him feel utterly nauseated.

Ck-thunk.

Eric shifts the car into drive and takes his foot off the break. The car stutters like an anxious cow, but quickly picks up speed. They take the long way out of the neighborhood, street lamps lighting their way, giving the blurred ghosts of ice at the side of the road a distinct glitter. Kyle watches those puddles of glistening wet. He watches them, and contemplates the chemistry behind it. Slow particles. They’re moving. They’re not squirming, but they’re vibrating, creating a solid. Slow particles don’t result from cold temperatures, cold temperatures result from slow particles.

They’re on a new road, now, desolate with no houses or homes to be seen. Nature is a memory of the past. It’s just snow, out here, and the street lamps are gone. It’s dark. The moon, of course, lights the surroundings to an extent. Otherwise, it’s all reliant on the headlights. Eric has the brights on, too. They blare uselessly on the stretch of tar that follows down the center, squirreling itself like a snake, curling until it eventually disappears, faded.

“How many did you do?” Eric asks, breaking the deafness that comes from the endless white-noise of tires on jagged-textured road. Kyle refuses to pull his gaze away from the outstretch of nothing before them.

“What do you mean?” Kyle replies. It’s quiet for a beat.

“Push-ups,” Eric finally says, turning off of the road to enter the highway. This, too, is empty. A lone road. Two teenage boys who hate each others’ guts are the only people out here. The metal divider demands Kyle’s attention. He stares at it, ignoring the glimpse of Eric’s profile as he does so. “How many did you do?”

“Well, wouldn’t you just like to know?” Kyle says. He crosses his arms over his chest and shifts down in the car’s seat. It’s lumpy and uncomfortable, collecting things over the years that Kyle doesn’t even want to try contemplating. His muscles ache, now that he’s not using them. His neck relaxes and his head falls back against the headrest. A heaviness in his eyes builds with pockets deep inside the core of his skull. He shoves back the tears that tell him to bail. He didn’t put on the seatbelt. As Eric picks up speed, though, Kyle realizes he doesn’t want to put it on.

Maybe he’d go through the windshield. Maybe Eric would be found guilty of manslaughter. And then it’d all be over. His own life is a small price to pay for his family’s.

Another exit. A stoplight. A green and they’re going, zipping down faster than the speed limit, and Eric is chuckling to himself like he’s a badass. Kyle finds a zone, where he is entirely neutral and his brain finds elsewhere to be, somewhere much more important than the here and now. He thinks he can see the wind with his unresponsive eyes, the same ones he can’t forget seeing the fear in, the same ones attached to the body he’s so disgusted to be inside of.

Kyle glances at his lap and wonders when his thighs got so big.

He rests his head back once more, nestling himself into the gross seat. It smells strange in here, but Kyle can’t place the odor. It’s familiar, though. His eyes fall shut, and soon, he’s rocked to sleep by the rapid bump-bump-BUMPBUMP-bump-bump of the car’s aimless journey.

 


Kyle doesn’t know when he wakes up. He doesn’t know when he fell asleep, either, though, so knowing the time at that moment would do little for him. He thinks he can see a mild brightness in the horizon, though.

Eric isn’t going as fast, anymore. They slow to what feels like a crawl in comparison to when Kyle had last been awake. The car turns left, heading into a parking lot. A large one. Kyle sits up straighter in the seat, glancing rapidly around at all the windows. The view he gets is undeniably fractured, but just to his right is white and brick and a sign:

Hell’s Pass Hospital

Kyle grabs the sides of the seat, white-knuckled in his grip. Overcome with a feeling of illness, he struggles to fight the urge to duck out of the car and puke. His control, however wavering it may be, remains. He swallows down the nausea and waits for something to happen.

Eric parks and shuts off the engine. Silence. No more rumbling, no more wheezing from the engine or other such mechanics. Eric pulls the lever to lower his seat and leans back, nestling just far enough to be able to see the vastness of the slowly-expanding hospital in its entirety. Kyle watches all the while, eyes open to every little movement as Eric lays down. Eric tucks his hands behind his head, lacing his fingers, cradling the back of his neck.

“Isn’t it just beautiful, Kyle?” Eric asks, eyes virtually unblinking as he admires the exterior of Hell’s Pass. That tongue of his, dastardly, licks away the dry scraping of torn skin that had collected on his lips. His eyes blink, too, just once. And he breathes.

Kyle stays to himself, bouncing his leg in quick movements, feeling disgusted with himself because he’s so acutely aware of everything Eric does, even when Kyle isn’t actually involved. There are just those movements he does, those habits he has, the little things that poke up to the surface as human traits, and—

Such an idea is…

Weird.

Something in Kyle’s chest hurts. His fingers itch to open the car door. He sits on his hand so he won’t make any premature movements. He doesn’t want to alert Eric to what he’s about to do— or, to what he might do in the future, if it comes to that. They’re in a public place, though. This is a hospital parking lot. There are cameras, right? There have to be. They’re safe.

“People come here to die, you know,” Eric says, all philosophical, his tone worn like he’s smoked a cigarette recently. “Here, this hospital, people come here and ninety percent of the time, they don’t fuckin’ leave— and that, Kyle, is beautiful.”

Kyle could ask so many questions. He could ponder Eric’s interest with death, or ponder Eric’s obsession with the beauty of a hospital Kyle had honestly thought they’d both come to despise. He could try to understand what the fuck Eric’s brain is trying to get Kyle to connect to, but Kyle doesn’t want to do that. Eric is not human. Eric does not deserve sympathy. Kyle asks, “What the fuck do you want from me?” and Eric turns to look at him.

And there is so much nothing that Kyle could choke on it.

Kyle can’t help the fidgeting. His leg begins to bounce harder, and the car shakes in response, a gentle quake that frightens him more than he’d like to admit.

Eric finally sits up, turning himself just enough to rest on his right elbow, staring at Kyle through the illumination of the hospital’s sign, gliding into the car from the windshield. The corners of Eric’s mouth twitch, slipping up, a grin. Kyle stares at Eric’s teeth. Predator’s teeth, with sharp canines. Kyle wonders why the memories aren’t coming when he’s faced with the idiot who made them. He wonders why they only hit him when he’s trying to be okay.

Shifting. Finally, something other than nothing. Eric reaches over and pops open the glove box. Kyle tightens in on himself, his breath catching in his throat. He doesn’t want to be touched. He doesn’t want to be fucking touched. His skin is fragile, he feels like an insect, he can’t be touched or he’ll be crushed and he can’t do that. But Eric doesn’t touch him. He’s just opening the fucking glove box… and out comes a circle of fabric, confusing in the familiarity it holds. Eric drops it in Kyle’s lap, then goes back to his elbow-side-lean. Kyle picks up the item and turns it over in his hands.

It’s…

“A yarmulke?” Kyle mutters. He smooths his fingers over the material. He doesn’t trust it. It’s strangely heavy, plain in color. Against everything and yet with all of it he wants to open the window and throw it as hard as possible until it’s so far away he can’t see it anymore. He doesn’t move, though. He picks at it, prods with his fingers, feels. Catches his breath.

“Wear it,” Eric says, tone suddenly breathless. Every single hair on Kyle’s body stands up. He glances at Eric, unable to mask the disgust in his own expression when he sees the odd look on Eric’s face.

“What do you mean, ‘wear it’?”

“Well, let me see, I probably mean wear it, ass-lover,” Eric retorts, shifting to lay normally in his reclined seat. Kyle bites at the skin of the inside of his cheek, already worn and ready to bleed from the marks his teeth have taken out of it.

“Why?” Kyle asks.

“Because I fucking said so!”

Kyle’s muscles freeze at the anger. An automatic reaction, it fades in seconds, but he’s still confused about it all. He doesn’t dare look over, even though he’s so utterly tempted. He wants to see the anger, but at the same time, he doesn’t want it burned into his brain.

“Look,” Eric says, suddenly much calmer. There’s a shuffle as Eric adjusts, but Kyle doesn’t look up from where he stares at the yarmulke, so he can’t say for sure what Eric is doing. Probably just a simple shift. “You’re a Jew, okay, and we get it, you’re prideful or whatever the fuck you dirty motherfuckers think you are.”

Kyle bristles.

“Don’t get your tefillin in a twist, Flying Kike,” says Eric. There’s a dichotomy, something juxtaposing. Angry words but calm tones, and Kyle has never been more atrociously disgusted in his life. “Fucking— whatever, okay? Don’t get me wrong, I’m gonna hate every minute you show your stupid Jew-pride with all the fibers of my being, but it’s going to be okay, Kyle, you see? You just have to trust me.”

Kyle looks at Eric, against everything in him telling him not to. Eric is smiling.

“It’s an exercise to… build character,” Eric concludes. “Like improv, Kyle, you see?”

Kyle shakes his head, but says nothing. His neck is starting to ache, urging him to lay down and sleep. His eyes are heavy, weighted by hundreds of pounds. He shakes his head again and wakes himself up just enough to push the yarmulke into his pocket. He won’t wear it, but he’ll keep it, because he’s not going to leave something like this in the hands of someone like Eric Cartman. “Take me home,” Kyle says. Eric’s smile fades away.

“Aw, so soon?”

“I’m serious, Cartman,” Kyle growls, though his voice holds no vindictiveness. “Bring me back home, it’s almost five and I need to sleep.”

“Oh,” says Eric, but the tone of it is not what Kyle wants to hear. Eric reaches over, and this time, there’s no escaping touch. Kyle flattens himself back against the seat as Eric basically crawls over the center console, his face so close to Kyle’s. Kyle doesn’t know what the fuck Eric is doing, he genuinely doesn’t— until the passenger’s seat suddenly clicks and the back lowers, and Kyle is horizontal. Eric pulls away, back in the driver’s seat, but Kyle can’t get the feeling of being pushed down out of his body. “You can sleep here.”

Kyle wants to say he doesn’t want to, but he can’t, so he doesn’t.

“Maybe if you’re good, I’ll give you a ride to school,” Eric says, like that’s something Kyle would ever find tempting. Kyle squirms, aching to sit up. He starts to do so, but then Eric says, “I’m not asking you,” and Kyle knows what that means.

Tasks.

Kyle’s body lowers back down on its own. He stares at the stained ceiling of the Ford Fusion, pretending the dust isn’t dust and pretending the glow isn’t from the hospital. He doesn’t want to sleep. He doesn’t want to let his guard down in such a vulnerable area, where Eric’s threats to his mother’s life have felt so legitimate, though Kyle knows they’re likely not.

They can’t be legitimate. They just can’t.

“What’d you grab?” Eric asks. The question does little to rouse Kyle from his silence. He grunts a questioning noise that Eric seems to understand. “The food, what’d you bring?”

“An apple, you fat fuck,” Kyle snaps. That seems satisfactory to Eric, since he doesn’t speak on it further. With the newfound quiet, Kyle is frozen in himself. It’s uncomfortable to sit in the reclined seat of a car. There’s a corner of something rough digging into the lower area of his back, his thoracic spine complaining. He uses that as motivation to stay awake. He finds a spot on the ceiling, stares at it, and remembers.

Ike.

“Do not ever touch my brother.”

Eric glances up from where he’s digging into Kyle’s backpack. Kyle just sees these two beady eyes that show little more than the darkness of the mix of pupil and deep brown iris. Although remembering plainly what Eric has done to him, and that he’s vulnerable on his back like this, Kyle feels no fear. He just feels anger, livid at the fact that Eric would dare lay a finger on any member of his family, especially his little brother. Kyle is supposed to protect Ike, and for the love of everything good great and holy, Kyle will gladly die doing so if he has to. “Okay,” Eric says, and then he goes back to his search. Kyle’s breath catches.

“Okay? Okay?” Kyle asks, sitting up. Eric moves up, having retrieved the apple. He takes a bite, and Kyle begins to speak at a more volatile register. “That’s it? Just okay? You push my brother onto the curb and break my mother's fucking brooch and all you have to say to that is okay?”

“Settle down, Jew-nerd,” Eric says, leaning back in the driver’s seat, munching on the bite of the apple. “I didn’t touch your snotty baby brother—”

One word too many, one slip past the line Kyle has set up for himself, and he loses all control. He turns in the front passenger’s seat, reaching over and gripping Eric’s throat with his right hand. Eric, surprised, chokes down the swallow of the apple. Kyle feels the way his throat tightens and moves beneath his hand. When Eric moves to push him away, Kyle tightens his grip and moves onto his knees in the seat, threatening to climb into the fucking driver’s seat with him and break his fucking neck. Eric drops the apple. It disappears into the dark recesses of the back seat floor.

Eric opens his mouth, and a noise between a gasp and a huff escapes. Is this fuck seriously trying to laugh?

Kyle climbs over the center console, applying as much pressure as he can allow without committing murder, though he genuinely has a hard time figuring out why he shouldn’t just choke him out, kick him to the curb, and run him over with the car. Kyle never took driver’s ed for fear of getting into an accident and killing someone, and he finds that ironic.

As he stares down at Eric, both of his hands wrapped around the fat fuck’s neck, straddling his lap with the steering wheel pressing into his lower back, Kyle is overwhelmed with the fact that he’s in control. He could do anything within his power, and Eric would be helpless. Look at the way he stares up at him, those brown eyes wide, collecting light from the hospital that spans the windshield’s view. A sickening excitement fills Kyle, mixing dangerously with that anger. He can see the possibility of himself digging in until Eric chokes to death. He can see the possibility of stabbing Eric with the car keys— he can see the possibility of pulling Eric out of the car and smashing his skull against the cement.

Kyle does none of those things. He just keeps his hands firmly wrapped around Eric’s neck, his thumbs pressing at the form of his trachea. Eric coughs, lets out a strange gagging noise, but Kyle doesn’t let up. “Shut up, motherfucker, I’m in control here,” Kyle hisses. Eric, heaving shallow breaths, shifts with every exhale. Kyle seems to settle a little bit more each and every time Eric does. Kyle shifts up, leaning in, intensifying the eye contact. Whatever happens, he wants Eric to remember this. He wants Eric to know just how easy it is for Kyle to overpower him.

Kyle needs himself to know how easy it is to overpower Eric.

“I’ve seen the fucking damage,” Kyle says. “I have seen the scrape on my brother’s cheek, I have seen the shattered brooch, the one that my great-grandmother bought before she immigrated from Poland, you ignorant fuckwhich I am sure you did on purpose.”

Another cut-off noise from Eric, and another round of Kyle paying no attention to it. He scrapes his nails into the skin on Eric’s neck, letting up only enough for Eric to be able to breathe. Eric inhales, grabbing Kyle’s wrists.

“Look at me in the fucking eyes,” Kyle says, “And tell me you didn’t fucking touch my brother.”

Nothing.

“Lie to me,” Kyle snaps. “I fucking dare you, lie to my goddamn face!

Eric just looks up at him. There is no reaction. Words build up in Kyle’s chest, and he lets them all out without thinking.

“You can hurt me all you want,” Kyle says. “You can hit me and break me and ruin my fucking life all you want, but if you ever so much as look at my little brother, I will not hesitate to fucking kill you, just like this, with my bare FUCKING hands— do you hear me? If you breathe in his direction, I will buy a gun just to shoot you, I will claw your eyes out and I will watch you bleed to death, I will break every law known to man if it means keeping him safe and I do not care—”

Kyle takes a breath—

“—if it fucking kills me, I do NOT care if I get put in prison for life, I do not CARE, do you HEAR ME?”

Kyle’s skin is buzzing. It’s vibrating, clawing at the flesh that sticks to his bones, making him feel alive and free to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t see a point in not killing Eric, he really doesn’t, but at the same time he can’t bring himself to strangle him. All of these scenarios surround him, each of them more grisly than the last, and yet as gruesome as they are, as horrible as his mind has suddenly turned— and as much as this obese son of a bitch deserves it, Kyle can’t.

He sees those brown eyes, and Kyle knows they can’t empathize, but they are so convincing in their deception. And Kyle swears—

—(Kyle swears on his fucking life)—

—that he sees fear.

And in a flash, Kyle sees a human being.

Kyle doesn’t remember letting his grip go slack, so it must happen without him realizing it. Eric seizes the opportunity, grabbing Kyle’s wrists within his hands and claws at the skin on Kyle’s arms, the arms that suddenly look thinner than Kyle remembers them being just a few hours ago. Eric sits up, and something shifts. It is with a chill that Kyle realizes Eric has an erection.

Suddenly, Kyle loses the ability to breathe.

He thrashes, trying to shift up and out of where he has been sitting in Eric’s lap for far too long. His entire body feels like it’s going to snap, everywhere he has touched Eric twitches and feels like it’s been clawed, the skin feels ripped to shreds even though he is in one piece. He wrenches his wrists out of Eric’s grip and in his panic, he hits the lock, kicks the door open—

Eric grabs Kyle by the waist, and with that purchase, manages to throw Kyle into the ajar door. Kyle hits it with his shoulder, tumbling sharply to the ground with an unbearable impact. The back of his head hits the pavement, his jaw snaps closed, and his lungs cannot take in or exhale air. He opens his mouth, gasping for breath, heaving a wheeze that’s deafening to his own ears. A ringing starts in the base of his skull, a numbing torrent of endless throbbing, wave after wave of heated pain prickling his scalp like a bruise is forming. He fears that he may be bleeding, and he wants to check, but he can’t move his arms. He can’t move anything.

He sees the brown eyes of Eric hovering over him, infiltrating the brilliant brightness of the moon that illuminates the shaded area of the parking lot, where the hospital lights don’t reach far enough to shine.

“Awh, see what you made me do, you poor little Jew?” Eric asks, his voice almost a coo. As Kyle fights for the breath he’s been able to regain, his airways burning from the suddenness of the oxygen, Eric traces the heart of his hand over the surface of Kyle’s right cheek. He leans down until their foreheads are almost touching. “Now you’re going to listen to me, and you’re going to listen to me good.”

Kyle couldn’t speak even if he wanted to. He gasps for breath while trying not to intake any of the scent of Eric’s cologne or the mystifying constance of Cheesy Poofs and snack cakes under it all. It’s impossible. H eyes water from the effort. Eric’s face is too pale; his mouth moves too fast, his eyes are black.

“You are going to say nothing,” Eric says. “I am going to help you up and back into the car and I’m going to be a caring boyfriend to my poor partner who got a little too animated during sex, do you hear me? Because that’s why you fell out of the car and hit your poor, aching little head… isn’t that right?”

Kyle opens his mouth, just to breathe, but Eric claps his free palm over Kyle’s nose and mouth. Kyle’s airway squeezes.

“Don’t say anything,” Eric tells him. “Poor boy fell, didn’t you? And we were just getting to the good part, too…”

A grin takes over. Kyle doesn’t dare move a muscle. Eric finds pleasure in that, Kyle knows for certain. Eric lets go of Kyle’s nose and mouth, allowing Kyle the ability to breathe again. With that arm now free, Eric uses it to usher Kyle into an upright position. For a second, Kyle is lightheaded. Sucked into the sensation of falling through space, Kyle grabs Eric’s shirt and holds on tight. The world, spinning turning and whipping around him, settles into a strange midway of static and nothing, like staring at a television with a bad signal. Next thing Kyle knows, he’s laying in the backseat of Eric’s car, all the doors shut.

Kyle doesn’t know where Eric is until the car starts to move.

The rumble of the 2006 Ford Fusion, although frightening him with the future of what might happen, soothes and simultaneously irritates the terrible pain in his head.

Kyle's hand falls from the seat, draped over the edge and brushing against the floor of the car. There's dingy carpeting, tacky beneath his touch. The car comes to an eventual stop at a traffic light, and in that lull, something round rolls across the floor and hits Kyle's knuckles. On instinct, he pulls it into his palm. He doesn't lift it up, and he doesn't grab it, he just keeps it in his hand. His energy is too far gone to do much else. The remains of his logical mind fade with the realization that this is the apple. The one he brought, the one Eric retrieved from his bag, the one Eric took a single bite out of before Kyle jumped him, and...

...with nothing else to comfort him, Kyle falls asleep.

Chapter Text

When Kyle comes to, he’s in his own driveway.

The cold soaks into the backs of his clothes. His shirt and pants are damp from the melting of a tiny layer of ice, and snow peppers his shoulders and hair. His scalp feels sensitive, and his mouth is stale. He needs to brush his teeth. He stares up at the sky, where the clouds stay and reign over the rest of the Earth, and he wonders how he managed to get here.

Unable to find a logical conclusion besides Eric must have gotten bored and dumped me here, Kyle gives up and pushes himself into a sitting position. There’s a place in his back that hurts, stiff and tender like he pulled a muscle. Whatever corner had been digging into his back must have done a number on him. He rubs at the spot, cringing at the uncomfortable feeling of mist-thickened cloth.

Kyle glances around the area, searching for something he can’t really comprehend fully. He tries to swallow through the gross taste of stale saliva that has stagnated in his mouth. He wipes at his lips, trying to make sure he wasn’t drooling or anything. He hopes it’s early enough that no one saw him asleep out here. That’d be embarrassing, and he doesn’t want to have a talk with Dad.

Kyle stumbles to his feet. His ass and thighs are numb from laying out on a cold surface for… however long. He doesn’t have a watch on him. He thought he had his phone, but when he checks his pockets for it, he can’t find it. He moves to head inside, but almost trips over something heavy in his path. Upon further inspection, he discovers it’s his backpack. He blinks at it like it’s a foreign object. He can’t really recognize it, as strange as that sounds.

God, his head

With uncoordinated hands, he retrieves the backpack. He doesn’t bother pulling it over his shoulder, though. He lacks the giveashit about something so asinine. He wonders if he’ll be able to fake sick today, but he knows that he could never get away with it. He can’t act for shit, and Dad always sees through him. It’s kind of funny, actually. He’s been sick plenty of times, yet he just can’t reenact the way being sick makes him appear. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know how he looks when he’s sick. He just knows it feels gross.

He feels weird.

Exhausted.

That was not a restful nap.

Was Eric trying to prove something? Is that why Eric wanted Kyle to go along with that? To reinstate his mark of superiority by making Kyle feel shittier than he already would under normal circumstances? Or to protect himself from legal repercussions in case someone saw the contents of a security camera from the hospital? Eric is so fucking ridiculous.

Kyle pulls the backpack up, simply adjusting it in his tired hands. His fingers don’t want to grip. They ache and try to release, but he refuses to let them. He probably looks pathetic, shuffling slowly and carefully up to the front door of his house, but he can’t find it within himself to care. His heart feels like it’s raining, heavy down to his toes, with clouds in his brain that thunder too loud for him to know what the point is, anymore. He pulls his keys out of the pocket of his backpack and steps inside, out of the sterile winter air.

The clock hung on the wall reads five fifty-two. It’s almost six in the morning, which means it’s almost seven, which means his school day starts too soon for him to sleep if he wants to consider himself officially conscious for the rest of today. He drops his backpack next to the front door and doesn’t bother taking his shoes off. They leave spots of water and snow in the frazzled carpet of the living room. He doesn’t care. He collapses into the couch and sits.

Staring up at the ceiling, popcorn texture but blurring from a film Kyle can’t remember having gathered, he doesn’t care.

With horrific clarity, Kyle comes to the realization that he could kill himself. It would be so easy to get off the couch and leave home. It would be so easy to walk the twenty-five minutes to the bridge that goes over the highway just out of town. It would be so easy to climb up that metal barrier and throw himself off and it would be so easy to just let go.

The thought frightens him, genuinely terrifies him, because he can picture the scenario so clearly in his head. He plays it over and over to himself, what it must feel like to drop and be free and not have to care anymore. It would be painful, of course. He wouldn’t die right away, would he? He would break bones and experience severe injury before eventually hemorrhaging or dying from shock or whatever. But he can’t stop thinking about it, and even when he thinks about all of the injury and possibly living through something so disgusting, he’s not afraid of it.

He’s afraid of not being afraid of it.

In fact, he’s terrified of his lack of feeling.

He’s so heavy. He’s a bag of stones. He doesn’t want to keep doing this.

Ike comes downstairs at six-thirty. He’s dressed in pajamas, still. There’s a band-aid over the worst part of the scrape he got yesterday. They told Dad about Ike’s run-in with a random asshole off the street. Dad did the protective parent thing and made sure Ike was okay. Kyle runs through it in his head. Or, he tries to. His eyes catch on Ike, and he knows it’s weird to just stare at someone, but he can’t help it. He has no energy to do anything else.

“Kyle, are you okay?” Ike asks, but there’s a certain tone to it. Like he’s given up really trying to get to the bottom of it, or like he’s annoyed and is just going through the motions. A self-hating part of Kyle loves that. That part of Kyle wants to be treated like scum and forgotten about. And in the moment, in the minute, in the second, that part of Kyle is all that is left.

“Don’t,” Kyle says. “Seriously, you don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”

Ike doesn’t say anything. He just disappears into the kitchen, and for a while, that’s that. Kyle is relieved to not have to talk to anyone, and he’s in love with the feeling of being hated so strongly. He wants to be dropped and torn to pieces and lost in the tides of it all. He wants to be told he’s an annoying dramatic fucking idiot who doesn’t deserve to be alive in the first place. He wants to leave and know that no one would give a shit.

Ike comes back with two oranges and sits next to Kyle on the couch. He holds one of the oranges out for Kyle to take, but Kyle doesn’t take it. Instead, Ike drops it in Kyle’s lap and starts to tear into his own. Kyle stares down at the fruit in his lap. He says nothing.

“Stop being like that, Kyle,” Ike says through a bite of a piece of orange. It’s slightly mutilated. Ike has never been great at peeling oranges. He always gets his hands all sticky, but he doesn’t wash them afterward. Kyle can’t imagine having tacky fingers for so long. He wants to find one of Mom’s many packages of wipes and clean Ike’s hands off for him, once he’s done. He just wants to take care of his brother. Being in charge of something else makes Kyle feel less like he’s about to jump off of the bridge outside of town. Ike finishes half of his orange and asks, “Are you depressed?”

Kyle is silent until he says, “No,” because that’s what he’s supposed to say.

Because he’s not depressed. He’s never seen a therapist, he’s never taken medication, he’s never this, he’s never that, he’s never all these things yet at the same time he feels like he can’t move. And he thinks most of him can’t find a reason to move. And he remembers, once, when he and Stan were kids… that Stan said it feels like being stuck in one of those dreams where you can’t move, no matter how hard you try. The faster and harder you try to run, the more your body works against you, Stan had said.

And Kyle, young and lacking the development of empathy, told Stan that was kind of gay and then they played video games until they passed out at two in the morning.

“Because…” Ike begins, though trails off quickly, as if thinking too hard about what he’s about to say. Knowing him, it’s entirely possible. His brain works quickly. He doesn’t hesitate when he doesn’t want to. Kyle exhales and closes his eyes against the offending interior of the place he’s always called home. Well, for most of his life. Ike shifts. Kyle listens to Ike tearing off the next section of his orange. “You haven’t been eating, you’re having issues keeping your blood sugars under control, you keep getting high…”

Kyle opens his eyes and looks over. Ike, having contemplated his words, has turned his attention fully to Kyle. They don’t speak. Clock ticking, lungs breathing, eyes blinking, they do not speak for doing so would be a sin. In the mind of Kyle, at least, and he doesn’t take such a thing lightly. Kyle turns away, looking straight ahead once more. His shoulders ache to go to bed, and his soul wishes to fall asleep.

“…are you running away from it? From her?” asks Ike. “Are you trying to distance yourself so it doesn’t hurt as much when it actually happens for real?”

Kyle whispers, “What are you talking about?”

“Mom,” says Ike. “When she dies—”

[if you don’t fail the test
You’ll kill her? I’ll kill her
I’LL kill her
YOU will kill her
YOU will
YOU]

Kyle can’t help it. It builds in his chest until he can’t anymore. He flinches, hard, gripping the fabric of his jeans, trying to ground himself to his own body. He snaps, “She’s not going to die!” and the look on Ike’s face is horrible. Kyle hadn’t seen, or maybe he hadn’t cared to notice, but Ike’s eyes are rimmed red and they’re wet in the early morning light. No response, just silence, just—

[———thesoundofcontrol———]

—a lingering.

“Why are you thinking like that, Ike?” Kyle asks. He doesn’t know how it comes across. He doesn’t know. It hurts to speak. To be meek. He rolls his shoulders and forces himself to sit up straighter. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but he does it anyway, because of fucking course he does. Ike looks down, at his lap, where the remnants of the peel sit on a spread paper towel over his legs.

“Check your blood sugar and eat the orange,” Ike says. He gathers the orange peel into a pile in the center of the paper towel, wraps it nicely, and stands. He heads into the kitchen, presumably to throw the inedible portion of breakfast away. Kyle watches, because for a moment, that’s all he’s able to do.

After far too long of no activity, he picks the orange up from where Ike had tossed it into his lap earlier. He rolls it in his hands, staring at it, feeling the texture. It’s weighty in his palm. In that moment, he can’t imagine bringing himself to eat it. Just the thought is enough to make him feel nauseous. A thickness builds in his throat, something that makes swallowing nigh impossible. He…

He can’t eat this. He can’t.

If he eats it, it’ll fill him. It’ll stick with him. It’ll digest, and he won’t be able to lose any of the weight that he carries with him, and that scares him. He goes back to fidgeting with the orange, picking at the uneven surface of the peel, trying to find an imperfection that will render it inedible for himself.

“Why aren’t you eating it?”

Kyle flinches, looking towards the voice of his brother. Ike peeks out from the doorway of the kitchen, expression neutral. Kyle shrugs off the statement, leaves the orange on the coffee table, stands, and makes his way to his backpack to retrieve his kit. He makes a show of searching for it, rustling through papers and notebooks and pockets he knows it’s not in. Guilty, he tries to stall. Maybe if he just pretends he can’t find it. Maybe Ike will walk away, or get bored, or give up.

Kyle reminds himself he’s the older brother, so technically, he doesn’t have to do anything Ike tells him to do. It’s a stupid sentiment that he doesn’t agree with, but he can’t help it. And yet here he is, searching through his backpack like he doesn’t know exactly where the kit is and he’s caught in a loop of inactive action and he can’t fucking stop.

He can’t.

He can’t eat that orange.

He cannot eat that fucking orange.

[lookathimsopathetic]

“Kyle,” Ike says, and Kyle increases the fervor of his search, trying to bury himself in the texture of his backpack’s exterior. Kyle knows Ike is stepping closer; he hears the footsteps. He hears the creaking of a floorboard. He feels Ike’s presence when he’s close enough to be felt. He feels the way Ike kneels next to him and pulls the backpack out of his grip, searching for the kit himself. He watches, frozen, as Ike opens up the exact pocket Kyle had been avoiding and pulls the kit out without a second thought. Ike holds it out. Kyle doesn’t want it.

If he takes it, he has to check—

and if he has to check, he has to acknowledge—

and if he has to acknowledge, that makes it real—

and if he makes it real, he has to eat

the fucking

orange.

You cannot eat the orange.
Don’t eat it.
Do not eat it.
Mind over matter.
Do not fucking eat it.
It’ll just make you feel sick.

“Are you okay?”

Kyle glances up, though breaks off the eye contact in a matter of seconds. He takes the kit from Ike and unzips it, going through the contents as slowly as he can get away with, but that’s a mistake. Ike is already on-edge. Kyle’s stalling is making it worse. Ike frowns.

“Kyle, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” Kyle mutters, forcing himself into autopilot as he goes through the routine of checking. Pricking, sticking, blood, tabs and the machine and the way it highlights his stupid number, and there it fucking is for all the world to see.

He wants to hide it and pretend it’s higher than it really is, because it’s low. Not dangerously low, but low, and it’s something he needs to correct as soon as possible if he doesn’t want to go into an emergency. He can’t hide it, though, because Ike has the eyes of a fucking hawk. Ike pouts like a child and grabs the orange from the coffee table, quickly returning with it. “Eat the orange,” Ike says. Kyle takes the orange from Ike and shoves his stupid kit back where it came from.

Kyle stands up and wanders into the kitchen to distract himself from his current task of peeling the orange. The rind gets under his nails, and the juice of the fruit makes his fingers sticky. He scowls at it, pausing beside the trashcan and tossing bits and pieces of the thick skin into it. From the doorway, Ike is watching, wringing his hands in an anxious stance. Kyle tries to ignore him.

Once it’s fully peeled, he grabs a bowl from the cabinet to his left and places the pieces of orange into it. They’re separated into their natural slices, damp with droplets of citrus. Bright and full of nutrients, with fiber and color and particles. He stares into the bowl, trying to forget about the fact that his hands smell disgustingly sweet.

He doesn’t want to eat it. Just the idea is enough to make him nauseous. He feels it building up, a pressure in his chest, an automatic repulsion, something he can hardly control. He picks up a piece of the orange, takes a bite. It stings the place in his mouth he’d been chewing on with stress. It’s sour and sweet and too fucking sugary, and he has to actively fight back the terror that comes with chewing it. Every fiber of his being needs him to spit it out, but he can’t do that, Ike is watching. If he spits it out, Ike will freak out and Kyle can’t have that. It hurts to swallow, it makes him feel like he’s about to puke. He doesn’t understand when this became so difficult, when he stopped being able to tolerate eating. He doesn’t get it and he’s afraid of it, torn apart because it’s comfortable not giving in to eating and he loves the way it’ll make him lose weight if he just stops but he can’t and he’s fucking scared.

Kyle finishes the orange, but he feels like he murdered a man. He wasted food. He ate it, but he wasted it, and now it’s in his stomach and his brain is exploding with thoughts that harass him because he wasn’t able to keep this under control, he was bossed around by his little brother, Ike made him eat—

That’s an excuse.

Kyle rinses the bowl out in the sink, biting back the urge to say fuck it and stick his fingers down his throat right here. He shuts off the water and leaves the bowl in the dish rack. He’s shaking. Maybe his blood sugar is too high, now. If he throws up, it’ll go back to normal. If he injects insulin, it’ll help, too, but that’s— he’d… no. That’d do nothing for the fact that he ate something and needs it out.

He pushes past Ike and wastes no time shoving on his coat. It’s early, and he knows it is, but he needs to get out of the fucking house. He needs to get away from other people, and he needs to have a place to freak out so he doesn’t do something stupid.

You ate it because you can’t help yourself.

“I’m going to head out,” Kyle says, trying to force himself into the most normal tone he can. It’s hard. He hopes Ike will brush off Kyle’s weird behavior as a hypoglycemic thing. Ike has acknowledged that Kyle gets weird when his blood sugar is low. He always has, he always will, it’s just the way—

I can’t believe you ate that.

—life is, it’s just the way Kyle’s body functions.

“Be safe,” Ike says.

“That’s my line,” Kyle retorts. Ike says nothing in return. Ike goes upstairs, presumably to change into his uniform, and Kyle leaves the house without another word. He doesn’t bother locking the door. His father will do that when he leaves for work after sending Ike off to school.

You’re disgusting.

Kyle doesn’t feel the cold. He only feels the orange in his stomach.

You’re a disappointment.

You gave in too easily.

You’re weak.

You’re pathetic.

Kyle sits himself down on the front step of the Marsh house.

Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic.

Poor baby, crying over a fucking orange.

You let yourself eat it.

You don’t have to do anything anyone tells you to do, but you did it anyway, because you’re a pig.

He digs into his backpack, trying to find his phone. It’s not where he usually leaves it, which he finds strange. He struggles to remember where he put it last night, before he got into Eric’s Ford Fusion. He can’t. His brain refuses to allow him permission to the memories. It’s frustrating, he supposes, but he gets over it quickly.

Do you even know how many calories are in an orange?

Kyle sends Stan a text.

Stan

Today 7:32 AM
Dude we’re running late. Where are you?

Of course you don’t, because you don’t care enough to find out.

Kyle waits a few minutes, staring at the screen. Why isn’t Stan replying?

Well, what are you waiting for? Fucking search it up.

Kyle opens up a web browser and types a question into the search bar.

number of calories in orange

67. It’s 67. There are 67 calories in an orange. What percentage of the recommended daily average is that? 67 divided by 2,500 is 0.03. Move the decimal to get a percentage of 3. How many oranges could he eat before he hit 2,500 calories, he wonders? 2,500 divided by 67 is 37.3… he could eat 37 oranges, technically. That’s a lot of oranges. He could never in a million years eat that much in a day, but it’s what he could technically have. Fucking hell, just the thought of that much is disgusting. Kyle tucks his phone into his pocket and hugs himself, slouching and thinking and waiting.

His stomach feels upset. He feels like he’s about to vomit. He hunkers down tighter, slouching more thoroughly, staring intently at the pattern of Stan’s driveway just a few feet away. It’s rough. He tries to come up with designs he could trace against it with chalk, but it’s difficult to do so. There’s a water stain shape where the edges of ice patches are—

Kyle flinches at the loud slam from the action of Stan coming outside. Kyle opens his mouth, saying, “Where were you?”

The glimpse he catches of Stan’s face is telling. Stan looks half dead. There’s a heaviness in his eyes as he hops down the steps and starts his way down the driveway. Stan lingers for a second at the foot of the driveway and stares at something off in the distance. Kyle frowns, pushing himself up to follow Stan with a heaviness of his own. Kyle lightly punches Stan in the back, which Stan doesn’t enjoy, if the angry noise he makes is anything to go by. Kyle skids around the outskirt of a half-invisible ice patch as he says, “Dude, don’t ignore me.”

“I’m not ignoring you,” Stan replies. He sounds uncaring, and Kyle frowns. “What, did you say something?”

Kyle narrows his eyes. “I asked where you were,” he says. “You didn’t reply to my text, and you’re ten minutes later than usual, we’re probably going to miss first period, at this rate… did something happen?”

Stan blatantly ignores the question. “You’re overreacting, we’re not going to miss first period.”

“Fine, we won’t miss first period! That doesn’t mean you’re not ignoring me.”

“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” Stan snaps.

Startled by the sudden sharp tone, Kyle stops in his tracks. The quick halt makes the slush around the cracks in the sidewalk squelch. The noise is enough to make Kyle feel ill, or maybe it’s the association of the noise. He doesn’t know, and part of him doesn’t want to. He distracts himself from the orange in his digestive system by examining the way Stan refuses to meet his gaze.

Stan’s skin, perpetually pale from staying inside for so many days in his past, has a sickly smooth look to it. There are bags under his eyes. He looks bruised. He looks… depressed.

“Have you been skipping your meds?” Kyle asks, but Stan ignores him again.

“Dude, are you wearing a yarmulke?” Stan asks. Immediately, Kyle’s muscles constrict.

“What? No!” he exclaims. He remembers a piece from last night, where Eric gave him the yarmulke and told him to wear it… oh, fuck— Kyle reaches up and feels on his head, and sure enough, there it is. Pinned in his hair, which feels shorter and more—… why does his hair feel different? Why the fuck does his hair feel different? Kyle mumbles a cuss under his breath, digging into his pockets in search of his hat. He’s stalling, he thinks, maybe— he needs an excuse, a reason why, because he can’t be honest. He can’t. Kyle swallows, stuttering, “I’m not— it’s… my mom wanted me to wear it, okay?”

“Okay, man, Jeez, I didn’t realize you were going to get so defensive about it,” Stan says, hands up in surrender.

“I’m not defensive!” Kyle snaps. He feels like he’s shaking, unsure of himself and confused, trying to remember and trying to figure out if he wants to, and— for fuck’s sake, he left it in his pocket, he knows he did— it’d taken forever to put it in there, to wrap it up so tightly it’d fit. He finds it after way too long. He manages to pull his ushanka out from his jacket pocket. He twists the hat in his hands, fidgeting and fighting the way he wants to flee. He smooths the hat out, and then reaches up to put it on—

Stan grabs Kyle’s wrist. Wide-eyed, Kyle looks at where Stan holds him so tightly. Kyle’s heart starts to pick up. He doesn’t like the feeling of being grabbed, he doesn’t like it, he wants Stan to let go he wants him to let go but he can’t fucking move he can’t he’s frozen.

“You’re totally defensive,” Stan says. “Why? Your mom wants you to wear it— I mean, I don’t get it, but I’m not Jewish, so that comes with the territory, but, like… I also don’t get why you’d wear a hat over it, if you’re wearing it anyway.”

Kyle just stares.

“Is it Cartman?” Stan asks. “Are you afraid of what he’d say—”

“I’m not afraid!” says Kyle. “I’ve never been afraid of him! I’m just— I don’t want to deal with his shit today.”

“If he finds out you’re wearing a hat over that, he’s going to have a field day,” Stan says. “He’s going to think you’re, like, self-conscious about it, and he’s going to make sure your life is a living hell for at least the next week.”

Stan finally lets go of Kyle’s wrist. Reeling, Kyle tugs his arms to his chest, gripping the hat like a lifeline.

“If he sees me wearing it, he’s going to make my life a living hell,” Kyle says, but he doesn’t know if that’s true. He’s just repeating what Stan said— isn’t he? No, wait, no, Kyle said the opposite. Is that what he meant to say? He can’t remember, but now he has to own it. What’d he say? Right, if Eric sees him wearing the yarmulke he’ll make his life a living hell— and that’s true, isn’t it? Because that’s giving in. This is giving in.

“Exactly,” Stan says. “Might as well go all out, right?”

Kyle furrows his brows. “Your logic is shit,” he mutters.

“Sure, probably,” Stan says, nonchalant. “But I don’t think you should hide the yarmulke… hell, it might give Cartman an aneurysm if he sees it.”

“Or he’ll terrorize me,” Kyle says.

“Well— yeah, okay, maybe, but…” Stan pauses, like he’s trying to figure out how to put a difficult topic lightly. “It’ll… make your mom happy, right?”

In that moment, Kyle’s heart slows to a snail’s pace. He glances down at the ground, trying to understand what’s going on. His brain won’t process anything, his head won’t think, his eyes won’t see and his mouth won’t speak and he knows he needs to say something, he… right? Oh, fuck, did he just use the topic of his mother to save himself from questioning?

Of course you did.

You’re selfish.

That’s what selfish people do, they make comparisons that are disgusting and they overeat.

The thoughts scare Kyle. He can’t stop them. Kyle looks at Stan, begging him to understand, begging him to ask more questions, begging him to say something that’ll make it all okay again but it won’t. There’s nothing Stan could ever say that would make it okay. Kyle would be happy with just a hug. Or maybe he wouldn’t, maybe he would freak out. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t fucking know anymore, okay?

He doesn’t…

He doesn’t fucking know.

Stan swallows and blurts, “I think it looks cute on you.”

He’s a liar.

He likes Wendy, remember?

He’s straight.

He’s using you to experiment.

He never actually liked you, you know that?

Besides, who could love you?

You’re disgusting.

Do you know how much fat you have?

You’re a hundred and thirty-five fucking pounds for christ’s sake.

You’re not nearly thin enough, and you ate a fucking orange for breakfast, you goddamn pathetic little—

Tension gathers. Shame and embarrassment and hurt. He ducks his head down to stare at the hat he clutches to his chest. Kyle tugs the ushanka on over the yarmulke, not caring if he messes it up since he wasn’t the one who put it on himself in the first place. He begins to walk briskly down the sidewalk, pushing past Stan with a sudden expression of adrenaline. Kyle is being petty. He knows he’s being petty, too, but he can’t help it. He’s too lost, gathered in his own thoughts as they try to rip him open and bare him to the world, as they urge him to do things he doesn’t want to do, as they tell him things that he hates hearing but he knows are true.

He hates how comforting the hatred of himself is.

He can’t hear anything around him. He can barely breathe. Crushing. He’s being crushed. He’s being crushed, by urges by symptoms by phrases, by things that tell him he can be okay if he just does things the way he knows he needs to. His thoughts aren’t his own, but they are, and he can’t fucking take it. He doesn’t want it there, he doesn’t want to look into the mirror and see something disgusting look back at him, he doesn’t want to see himself naked and only be able to pay attention to the parts that are flabby and gross.

When Kyle comes back to himself, he’s in the bathroom. The East wing bathroom, the one where Eric cornered him so many times. He doesn’t know why he’s here, but his body seems to, because he moves automatically. He drops his backpack on the ground and tears off his jacket and ushanka, dropping them beside one of the sinks. He reaches up to pull off the yarmulke, but he stops short.

Kyle fixes the yarmulke instead, breathing the still air surrounding him. It smells in here, like sweat and urine. It’s disgusting. Not just the air, but the sentiment. He examines his hair in the mirror, trying to pinpoint what looks different.

Eric cut it. It’s shorter than it usually is. Not by much, but it’s enough to be noticeable— he doesn’t know how Ike didn’t notice. Or maybe he did, and just decided not to say anything? Ike probably thought Kyle did this himself, right? Kyle doesn’t know how he didn’t notice. This is his body. For Eric to be able to cut and pin a yarmulke in his hair without Kyle noticing it— what does that say about him?

What else could Eric have done?

How didn’t Kyle wake up?

No, no, no.

He can’t take the yarmulke off. He cannot fucking do that, because that’s the part of himself that he cannot control. That is the Eric part of him. If he takes off the Eric part of him, Eric will infect the rest of him, and he can’t…

He breathes.

Kyle stares at his reflection in the mirror, and his reflection stares back at him. For a moment, he is swept up in how fast everything has been. There is no breathing room he has been given, and there is no time for him to think. Every second of every day is comprised of fearing something, and he hates that.

Eventually, he can’t bear staring at himself any longer. The longer he examines himself, the more flaws he can pick out— the way his nose is too sharp, or his hair is curly enough to be considered messy by professional standards, or the way his body isn’t thin enough. He can’t remember when these thoughts started. He can’t remember why they started, either, and he has no idea why they bother him so much. He just knows that they’re there, now, and he can’t force them away, no matter how much he wishes he could go back to not giving a shit…

Kyle grabs at the flesh of his upper arm. He measures the amount in his hand, then moves on to grab at his other arm. He adjusts. He turns himself, examining the way it looks from different angles. He turns sideways, smoothing one hand over his stomach and using the other to grab at the skin of his waist. He can’t get a decent view with his shirt in the way, but he refuses to lift it up or take it off. Instead, he grabs the fabric at his sides and pulls it back, examining his figure with it tugged tight around him.

The door to the bathroom swings open, and Kyle’s first instinct is to freeze. In a split second, he spins around and raises his hands up as if preparing to fight off a threat. When his brain catches up, however, he realizes that he has no reason to be acting so jumpy. His eyes register Clyde before his body fully relaxes, and he catches the way Clyde looks concerned about something. Kyle tucks his hands under his arms, hugging himself, trying to force himself to look natural even through the restless pounding of his heart.

“Oh, shit!” Clyde exclaims, his expression going from concerned to excited. He basically bounces where he stands, which is a strange visual for someone as sports-player-esque as Clyde. Kyle makes a face, which apparently must spur Clyde into some sort of inspiration, because he starts rambling full-speed. “Dude, I didn’t even realize I could find you ‘round, hah! Man, I came in here to take a piss because I didn’t wanna get in the center of the fight, but now that I found ya everything should be good, right?”

“I’m sorry,” Kyle says, furrowing his brows. His brain has caught on one word. “Did you say fight?”

Duh, have you not looked outsi— Mijn God, ben je van de trap gevallen? It’s cute, I like it.”

At first, Kyle thinks Clyde might be speaking in Yiddish. It doesn’t take much more than a split second of thinking for Kyle to realize such an idea made basically zero sense. The first part kind of sounded like Yiddish— the “meyn khott” was close enough to “meyn Got”, at least— but the rest of it didn’t match up with the language he thought. Kyle looks Clyde up and down, waiting for a translation of some sort, but he doesn’t get one. In fact, Clyde hardly acknowledges the brief intermission of whatever language that was. He just keeps going with his first tangent, returning to the topic of the fight. Kyle’s brain struggles to keep up.

“—sorry, I totally forgot you weren’t outside just now, but— oh, dude, you should go look!” Clyde takes a few quick steps forward, tugging on Kyle’s arm to urge him to follow. Kyle tries to pull away, not pleased with someone he barely talks to trying to touch him. Not to mention, Clyde’s grip is tight and unrelenting. It’s uncomfortable. There’s a split second of tension that crosses Clyde’s expression, for some reason. While Kyle is busy trying to decipher that, Clyde resumes the tugging he’d gotten distracted from. “Kyyyle, you need to go pull Stan off of Craaaig.”

Something clicks. Heat kicks up in the base of Kyle’s chest, just below his sternum. Clyde’s grip, although tight, is not tight enough to keep Kyle’s adrenaline-filled body submissive. He wrenches his arm away in a quick movement, pulling on his jacket and hat, all the while blatantly ignoring the way Clyde is still whining about something. “Stan got himself into a fight?” Kyle asks, taking no less than a second to decide to pull on his gloves, too. If there’s blood, he’s not letting it touch his skin. Talk about ew. “For fuck’s sake, where are they?”

“They’re out front, outside,” Clyde says. “Dude, it’s so crazy! Craig just started talkin’ to him and Stan went all fuckin’— like, psycho and shit, y’know?”

“Yeah, I get it,” Kyle says, primarily just to get Clyde to shut up. “Make sure no one steals my fucking backpack.”

“Uh— I’ll try, but class is gonna start soon and I’ve already been marked truant so I’ll stay as long as I can— are you hearing me?”

The answer is no. No, Kyle is not hearing him. He’s too busy shoving the door open and storming away from the bathroom, making his way through the stiff and abandoned hallways. As Kyle draws closer, he sees more and more light, coming from the large windows of the main entrance to the school. He pushes through those, too, hardly feeling anything other than his blood pumping on his veins. His thoughts consist only of Stan. Of how stupid he is, of how big of an idiot he is, of how impulsive he can be sometimes, and— for fuck’s sake, Clyde wasn’t kidding.

Whatever chilled temperature has settled over their little town, Kyle doesn’t feel it. He shoves his way into the circle without hesitation. There’s so much his body tries to do, when Kyle sees the position Craig and Stan are in. Snow has been kicked up, messing the previously clean-shoveled sidewalk. Craig is a tall motherfucker, taller than Stan. Such a fact is made glaringly obvious, now that he sees Craig pinning Stan into the snowbank, hovering over him and holding Stan down with a death-grip on the front of his shirt. There’s blood. There’s a couple drops in the snow. Kyle’s entire torso tries to sink into itself at the sight. He doesn’t know if it’s Craig’s or if it’s Stan’s, but he doesn’t care.

Stan reaches up to grip Craig’s sleeves, trying in vain to tug Craig’s hands away from his shirt. The anger spreading over Craig’s face is overwhelming to Kyle— a bystander, just watching this happen, at this point. Fuck, what’s wrong with him? He should be intervening— everyone should be intervening, aren’t any of them better than this?

Craig snaps, “Do not fucking hit me ever again, Marsh.”

There’s a lull, where no one does anything. Stan’s expression morphs into a do-not-fuck-with-me glare. Some kid in the back of the circle surrounding the fight shouts for Craig to “beat the stuffing out of the vegan!”, which almost makes Kyle more angry than the fight itself. Craig isn’t moving, and Stan isn’t moving.

And then Stan bucks and rolls, something they all learned in a self-defense class their parents made them take.

Things happen in snapshots. Kyle bursts into the circle, darting as quickly as possible to intervene as soon as he sees Stan’s arm go up to strike Craig. Kyle grabs that arm, pulling Stan off of Craig. Not expecting it, Stan topples backwards, the snow crunching beneath him as he hits the snowbank ass-first. Stan struggles, trying to yank away from Kyle. Kyle doesn’t let him, holding on as tight as humanly possible, glaring daggers at him. The fucking idiot. The fucking idiot.

Stan looks up, immediately falling still when he sees Kyle. His voice cracks out, “Kyle—?”

Don’t say my name,” Kyle says, his voice thick with the tension of being so livid. It licks, a fire deep in his lungs. “You’ve lost the right.”

Kyle hoists Stan off of the ground and adjusts his grip, really digging his nails in. Stan makes a pathetic little “ow” noise, which Kyle blatantly ignores in favor of dragging Stan inside. Kyle doesn’t know what happens with Craig, and quite frankly, he couldn’t give less of a shit. Kyle is pissed at himself for letting it get that far— for walking away from Stan when he had so obviously been upset about something that had happened, whatever that something may be.

Kyle pulls Stan into the boy’s bathroom, having little regard for any property (or bodily) damage that may ensue from his needless wrath. Although he tries to calm himself, it holds little reward. He knows his expression is tense and irate.

With a rush of utter frustration, Kyle shoves Stan into the unit of sinks and glares at him as hard as possible in an attempt to get him to stay right there. Fortunately, Stan stays exactly where he had been shoved.

Kyle glances around the bathroom for Clyde. He can’t find him, though. He’s gone, and now he regrets not having payed attention to whatever Clyde had been telling him before he angrily stormed out. Stan makes an odd, stifled gasping noise, but Kyle ignores it. Kyle heads down the row of stalls, pushing on each door to double-check that Clyde has cleared out of here. After successfully checking every stall— and finding zero evidence that Clyde had even been in here— he makes his way right back to the sinks. Kyle tears off his gloves, almost giving in to the overwhelming urge to throw them at the wall. He doesn’t do that, though He shoves them back into his pockets. God, this fucking jacket is so bulky and annoying…

no that's just you.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he snaps, pulling his jacket off for the second time in the past ten minutes. It’s not very efficient, but Kyle ties the sleeves of his jacket around his waist. He doesn’t want to drop his jacket onto the floor, that’d be fucking disgusting. Stan starts to say something, but Kyle cuts him off. Just the sound of Stan’s voice is enough to grate on his damn ears. “Uh-uh, don’t even speak! I don’t want to hear any of your dumb excuses for the bullshit that you just pulled, because nothing you can say will possibly convince me it was justified.”

Stan closes his mouth.

“Now get on the counter,” Kyle instructs. Stan tilts his head and gives Kyle a look. Kyle narrows his eyes, daring him to disobey. Try me, motherfucker. Stan glances towards the sink, then turns his back to it. He hops up onto it. Good. Fucking moron.

“Son of a bitch,” Kyle whispers, trying to keep his pissed-off mumbling more-or-less to himself. He snatches a paper towel from the dispenser… quickly followed by about five more. He balls them up harshly, almost ripping a few of them in the process. “Stupid idiot fuck.”

Kyle turns on the tap, checking the temperature of the water with his wrist before soaking the bundle of paper towels under the stream. Once they are thoroughly soaked, Kyle tightens his grip on the bundle and squeezes them, wringing out the excess. He pushes it into Stan’s hand so he can clean up his stupid bleeding lip, but Stan— y’know, being a fucking moron— does nothing.

“Well? What are you waiting for?” Kyle asks.

“What do you want me to do with that?” Stan replies, staring at the wet paper towel ball like it’s some elaborate medical instrument.

“What—” Kyle sputters, cutting off. Maybe a little too forcefully, he grabs the hand Stan was using to hold the paper towel and pushes it towards the raw, red-dripping split of his bottom lip. “Stop your lip from bleeding!”

The paper towel ball makes contact with the split, and Stan immediately makes a soft grunt of a noise. He winces from the pain, his eyes reflexively shutting for a moment. He tears away from Kyle’s hand, mumbling something about being fine to do it on his own, though it was extremely muddled from how quiet it was, plus his volume is minimized due to the bundle of paper. Kyle goes ahead and withdraws, guilt starting to spread through his chest. Now that there’s a breather, he’s starting to feel a little weak. He presses his lips together as tight as possible, focusing on the ache that comes from the action, bearing into the flesh with his teeth. He turns back to the paper towel dispenser, repeating the process of grabbing and wetting paper towels. This time, he wants to be neater. He hopes it’ll help him stop shaking. He folds the paper towels into a neat square, pressing it between his hands and shaking the excess into the sink basin. Drops of water fall down his palms, and a few stray down his wrists. It’s cold, this time. For bruises. To help decrease swelling and irritation…

An ice pack would be best, but they don’t exactly have one of those here, do they?

Should Kyle bring Stan to the nurse? Probably, right? Fuck, what if his lip needs stitches? It’s not bleeding a whole fuck of a lot, but it’s still very obviously lacerated. Stan can’t die from a split lip, right? No, he can’t fucking die from a split lip, that’s a ridiculous thought. Kyle sighs, knowing he’s an idiot. Birds of a feather flock together, right? They’re two peas in a pod, two stupids on a street… how many more analogies can Kyle come up with? Many. That’s how his brain fucking works.

It makes looking at the ugly things worse.

Kyle steps in front of Stan and lifts the cold, damp square of paper towels, gently pressing it to the bruise that blossoms like a slew of rouge dressed on his cheek. At the mildest of touches, Stan flinches like Kyle just burned him. Kyle reacts immediately, pulling away just the slightest to make sure he wasn’t being too harsh on skin so sensitive.

“Sorry, does that hurt?” Kyle asks. He knows what growing bruises feel like. Eric really had a field day with his leg. He remembers that like it was yesterday. Sometimes, when he’s trying to sleep, or in the middle of class, his leg starts to hurt again. Phantom pains.

“The cold is nice, but… yeah,” Stan says, still muffled by the paper towel. “It hurts.”

He’s so fucking cute.

Fuck him.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have punched a guy,” Kyle quips. He goes back to applying gentle pressure to Stan’s bruise, hoping the cold of the paper towel is enough to aid in the ache. It’s silent, and Kyle hates that.

But then Stan whispers a meek, “I’m sorry,” and afterward, Kyle is grateful to have the silence back.

Kyle furrows his brows, glancing up at Stan. Their eyes meet. It’s just a moment. A moment that would never last long enough. Kyle looks away, looks down, looks somewhere other than Stan’s eyes. He swallows, saliva thick and unmanageable in his throat. “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” Kyle grumbles, gingerly adjusting the cold towel on Stan’s cheek. Stan’s hand shifts, pressing the paper towels tighter to his mouth. Kyle wonders if that stings. Stan averts his gaze from Kyle. Kyle can feel the loss of his attention.

Everything began winding down, and with the winding down, comes the feeling of everything becoming increasingly more normal. Well, as normal as it can be. Kyle still hasn’t come to terms with exactly what’s going on with his life. It’s strange, and confusing, and he would really like nothing more than to crawl into Stan’s bed, get high off of whatever weed they left in the bag. He’d like to curl up, fall asleep together, just feeling each other radiating the natural body heat of another human being. It’s a nice visual, and Kyle doesn’t even have the urge to kiss Stan. He just wants to be close to him, to hug him and pet his hair and have him talk about his day.

Kyle could listen to Stan talk about his day forever. Stan’s voice is so nice. His cadence is so friendly, and casual. They’ve known each other their whole lives. They’ve been together forever, and Kyle draws comfort from that, because he knows that Stan will never truly judge him.

Except he might, y’know? And that’s scary.

Why can’t he trust anyone, anymore?

Stan’s body starts to shiver. Like he’s too cold, or like his blood pressure is too high, or like adrenaline is coursing through his veins at an extreme rate. Kyle picks up on it. He sees the way his arm shakes in holding the bundle of paper towels. Stan must notice his shaking, too, because he lowers the hand down to his lap. He squeezes it, tight. Water droplets shed from the towel and drip between his fingers, landing on the thigh of Stan’s jeans. Kyle watches.

“Are you okay?” Kyle eventually asks, realizing that Stan hasn’t said or done anything for quite some time. Stan startles from his intrinsic focus. He blinks a few times. Stan isn’t responding verbally, and Kyle begins to get concerned. “You’re shaking.”

Stan glances down. “I—” he cleared his throat. “I’m fine, really, I’m just— it’s… thrill of the fight.”

Moron. “I’m pretty sure the expression is ‘thrill of the chase,’” Kyle says.

“Well, yeah, okay.” Stan picks at the paper towels in his hands, apparently no longer interested with holding it to his mouth to stem the bleeding. Stan leans into the cold bundle Kyle still holds against his cheek. Kyle allows him to, keeping his hand steady. “But I wasn’t chasing anyone, so it’d be kinda… shitty, without the editing.”

Kyle doesn’t say anything to that. Fuck, Kyle could smile. Stan is such an idiot. Instead, he gently pulls the cold towel away from Stan’s face. Kyle throws the paper towels into the trashcan, drying his hands off on his pants. He gets distracted there, staring at the trashcan.

He ate that fucking orange.

Yeah .

Ate the fucking orange.

Should have puked it up again.

Should have, but didn’t.

Disgusting .

Kyle hates himself, sometimes.

Kyle turns to face Stan again.

“I want you to apologize to Craig,” Kyle says, hopping up onto the counter next to Stan. Stan scoffs. Kyle glares. “I’m serious.”

“I know you’re serious,” Stan says. “It’s just that—”

But Stan cuts off. What was he planning on saying? Definitely nothing good, that’s for damn sure. Kyle gives Stan a skeptical look, hitting Stan’s knee lightly with a closed fist. Stan doesn’t respond. There’s a look in Stan’s eyes: weighted. Lonely. That hits something in Kyle. He nudges Stan’s shoulder with his own. “Don’t just stop in the middle of sentences, man,” Kyle says. “That’s really lame.”

“Sorry,” Stan says. “I just… y’know, he… deserved it?”

Oh, hell no. Stan did not just fucking say that.

Apparently, Stan catches his mistake, but he does so too late. He stutters, “I — I mean…”

Kyle punches Stan— albeit lightly— in the side. “Deserved it?” Kyle says. “Bullshit! ‘He deserved it,’ my ass, I’d be hard-pressed to believe he did anything worse than breathe on you wrong, you’ve been touchy and emotional as all hell, dude, and it’s not cool.

I’ve been touchy and emotional?” Stan retorts. “Sorry, but have you looked in a mirror lately? You’re pretty much the definition of moody! The only reason you’re seeing me as touchy and emotional is because you are projecting.”

“Oh, don’t even start!” Kyle says, tossing his hands up into the air and sliding himself off the counter. The image of how dead Stan looked this morning comes to mind, followed in rapid succession by many others. Stan desperately trying to convince Kyle their make-out sessions were platonic, Stan breaking down into tears at the idea of having sex, Stan having an asthma attack when Kyle pushed him too far—…

All of it was Kyle’s fault, wasn’t it? Every single thing?

“I’m fucking sick of you blaming everyone else other than yourself for all your stupid baggage!” Kyle snaps, unwilling to think. “It gets exhausting to deal with after a while, you know that? People don’t want to be around downers all the time, Stan! That’s why you haven’t made any new fucking friends.”

In that moment, Stan says absolutely nothing. The atmosphere in the bathroom is so heavy, Kyle’s shoulders ache. The weight in Stan’s eyes has deepened, making him look on the verge of tears. Memories of Ike coming home from school yesterday crash into him. Who could hurt his little brother like that? Eric could. Who could hurt Stan like this? Kyle could.

“I didn’t mean to say that,” Kyle says, so quiet he barely even hears himself. He scans the bathroom, the sinks, examining the contours and shapes. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to— I— I didn’t say that, oh, fuck, I didn’t say that, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I—”

Shut up, you’re so fucking pathetic.

Kyle claps a hand over his mouth because his tongue won’t stop moving on its own. He keeps whispering apologies into his palm, lifting his other hand to cover his face fully. He tries to hide himself away, embarrassed and ashamed at how awful he is, at how he fucked everything up, at how Stan must hate him now and he can’t do that, he can’t have Stan hate him, if Stan hates him— if— if Stan stops talking to him, he’ll have no one. Eric is taking over his life and he can’t have that, he won’t be able to do it if he doesn’t have Stan, he…

“Kyle,” Stan says, quiet. “Kyle, I get it, it’s true, it’s okay, really—”

“No!” Kyle exclaims, because he can’t handle the idea of Stan just bowing down and falsely admitting to such a harsh statement. Kyle finally pulls his hands away from his face. He finds himself struck with the darkness that Stan’s eyes portray. “No, it’s not! It’s not okay! Nothing is okay! If there was ever a time in which everything was absolutely not okay, now would be that time!”

How could Kyle fucking do this to his best friend? He’s been nothing but awful since the day he was born, isn’t that right? He’s been nothing but needlessly angry and quick to judge and he thinks he hates that, too. There’s a voice again

[I hate you]

solidifying directly behind him

[can you hear me? I know you can hear me]

making his shoulders tense

[you’re horrible, lean back, feel it?]

speaking into his ear like something physical

[you’d be doing everyone a favor if you just]

an actual presence that really exists and Kyle can feel it please make it stop.

“Kyle, what’s going on?” Stan asks, and he sounds afraid. Kyle refuses to look up, because he knows that if he does, the back of his head will make contact with whoever whatever whyever however is speaking into his ear, and he can’t—

[tell him and have him leave you, you deserve it, you did it to him, didn’t you? you left him in the dust when he needed you, didn’t you? you’re horrible, aren’t you?]

Kyle contemplates telling Stan what’s going on with Eric. He doesn’t want to do it anymore. He’s hurting. But he can’t, can he?

[if you tell anyone he kills her
(if you tell anyone I kill her)]

“Nothing,” Kyle says. He feels like he can hardly catch his breath. He scrabbles and fidgets with the fabric of his jacket, twisting it with clumsy fingers. “Nothing is going on, and that’s the fucking— that’s the fucking problem, fucking dammit.”

“I don’t understand,” Stan says. “How can nothing be the problem—?”

“I’m— scared,” Kyle admits, and something happens. For what feels like the hundredth fucking time, he’s out of his own brain. An odd relaxation comes over him. The fear is less insistent, less there. He could laugh, but he can’t, because the torn pieces of him that hold on still refuse to let him forget he hates himself. He starts to lie his way out of it, but he more he talks, the less he thinks he’s lying, and the more he knows he’s telling vague truths. “I’m scared of— of growing up, it feels like I’m losing everything, it feels… like the world is spinning too fast, and everyone else is able to keep up, and I can’t— I don’t get it, and I don’t like it.”

Stan frowns. Kyle sees a glimpse of it. Stan hops off the sink, approaching Kyle with a sympathetic posture. Kyle does nothing. Stan opens his arms, and Kyle still does nothing. He stares, looks at Stan, notices the fact that he has the type of body Kyle wishes he could have. He’s reinvigorated, inspired to keep his hold firm on his goal, this fact of I can do that if I work hard enough.

Stan gestures towards himself. Reluctant, Kyle takes the smallest steps possible towards Stan. Before Kyle can think, Stan envelopes him in a hug. A real hug. Firm and comforting and—

And…

Safe.

Kyle’s muscles tense, looping around Stan’s neck and holding on as tight as possible. He felt like he was drowning, and in some ways, he still feels that way. But Stan is here, too— and maybe Stan is drowning in a different way, but they’re in it together, silently supporting one another through the issues they refuse to voice and maybe that can be enough. Kyle is afraid of letting go. He’s afraid that, if he lets go, he’ll never see Stan again, and Kyle will never feel this again— this warmth, this comfort, this safety, the way it feels so right and lovely to nestle into him, the way Stan’s arms feel so good holding him, the way it feels so Stan, when Stan nuzzles against the side of Kyle’s head, returning the sentiment.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Stan whispers, his voice soothing. “It’s gonna be okay.”

For the first time in a while, Kyle feels like he can do this.

Chapter Text

Stan isn’t around the hallways when lunch rolls around. It doesn’t take much thinking to know that’s because he was sent home for the rest of the day. That’s what the school does when students get into a fight on campus. The kids involved get kicked out until the following day. Staff say that such a rule was enacted because it served as an outlet for the students to think about what they’d done, but everyone knows they do it just so they don’t have to deal with in-school suspension any more than they already have to. Kyle is pretty sure this school’s philosophy is something along the lines of “discipline only takes place at home.”

Kyle hates this place. It has done nothing other than frustrate him to levels he thought unattainable.

Although tempted to head to the AP Chemistry classroom rather than partake in lunch, he knows he can’t do that. He has a headache, something that he only gets when he hasn’t had enough water throughout the day. Not surprising, considering he’s had nothing to drink today. Unless he counted the orange, of course, but he doesn’t want to think about that.

Kyle makes his way to the trusted table their group always sits at. Kenny and Butters are already there. For once, they’re not pretend sword-fighting. They’re just sitting there, talking to one another and sharing today’s hot lunch of fusilli pasta and tomato sauce. Butters nabbed two forks from the plastic cutlery tray at the lunch line— that’s what Kyle is guessing, at least, since they both have one of those crappy plastic forks in hand.

From a distance, Kyle scrutinizes their meal. His stomach twists itself into knots at the mere sight of it, something so carb-filled. Something very filling, certainly. That, too, makes him feel sick. Reluctant to do so much as sit near other people eating, Kyle sits at the opposite end of the table from where they are. He can smell the aroma of hot pasta. It wafts around the cafeteria, centralizing in places where people have taken it as their meal of choice. The smell is thick, and it makes his head spin. Calories are units of energy, right? Kyle doesn’t know the exact science behind it, but he knows that much.

He has to consume calories to gain weight, though, right? There’s no such thing as airborne calories… he does wonder about water, though. Not so much distilled water as un-distilled water. Un-distilled water has all sorts of metals and nonmetals in it. Chlorine and Fluorine and there’s probably some Sodium, too— Sodium Chloride? Salt. Does salt in and of itself have calories? No, right? Wait, if there are no calories in salt, then are there calories in any minerals at all? That would make un-distilled water safe.

But that pasta has calories.

That pasta has plenty of calories.

“What’d you say?”

Kyle glances up from where he’d been staring at the plate of pasta the other two are sharing. Kenny looks him up and down, brows furrowed and expression portraying a certain confusion. “What do you mean?” Kyle asks. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Yes, you did,” Butters says. He pokes and prods at the pasta with the prongs of his fork, his brows furrowed and gaze turned down in thought. “Why, I believe you said, ‘pasta has plenty of calories,’ i—if I’m not mistaken, that is.”

Kenny’s look of confusion intensifies before sliding into something more skeptical. Kyle has to fight against his natural instinct to look away. “I didn’t say that,” Kyle says to Butters. He gives glances towards Kenny, trying to gauge whether he believes it.

“Oh,” Kenny says. “What’d you say, then?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Kyle repeats. When Butters opens his mouth to speak again, Kyle shoots him a focused glare. Fortunately, that gets Butters to shut up. Butters resumes eating the pasta. Kenny, on the other hand, seems adamant in not letting the stupid thing go.

“Why do you care about calories?” Kenny asks.

“I don’t,” Kyle says. “I don’t care about calories, okay? I didn’t even say anything, just leave me alone.”

There’s a tense moment. Kenny isn’t glaring, per say, but he certainly is giving Kyle a hard stare. Like he expects Kyle to say something, or like he expects Kyle to break down and admit every sin he’s ever committed. He’s not going to do that, though. That’d be fucking stupid. “Where’s your lunch?” Kenny finally asks, after what feels like far too long of a silence. Kyle’s brain, lost in the efforts of trying to come up with a solid excuse, realizes he’s stuck.

He can’t say he didn’t have the time to pack one, because he definitely did. It was just— the last thing on his mind this morning. He can just say he forgot it. That’s not a lie. He wasn’t thinking ahead, he was too busy feeling like shit. How embarrassing is that? Kyle opens his mouth to respond, but he doesn’t manage to say anything. His phone goes off, buzzing in his pocket. He startles. His heart sinks down to his stomach, then leaps into his throat, and it’s uncomfortable to breathe.

It’s Eric. It’s Eric. It’s fucking Eric— isn’t it?

He can’t ignore it.

Kyle pulls his phone out of his pocket, checking the message.

Stan

Today 12:01 PM
hey dude I got suspended, dont wait up for me at lunch

Kyle could cry from relief. Not of Stan getting suspended, but of Eric not being the one who texted him. Without any further regard for the other two people at the table, Kyle buries himself into thoughts of how he should respond to that. He takes a second to recover, just breathing. A minute or so passes before he finally calms down enough to respond.

Stan

Today 12:06 PM
I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.

Less than a few seconds later, the bubbles signifying that Stan was typing a response pop up. Kyle watches them alternate and shift. Finally, Stan sends the text.

Stan

you said absolutely nothing about me getting suspended so you should take that back

LOL. As if.

I’m not getting caught up in the semantics of what was or was not said in that bathroom. My point is still the same.

“Kyle, are you fuckin’ serious right now?” Kenny asks, waving his fork in the air in mild gesture. He swallows through a smaller bite of pasta, in comparison to the other forkfuls he’s been helping himself to. Kyle can’t help but feel disgusted, now that he’s forced to recall where he is. He glances at his phone screen once more. The disappointment that aches in his soul feels wholly incomplete, a strange sentimentality that urges him to ditch school in favor of visiting Stan— to smoke weed.

No. No, not to smoke weed. To—…

Admit the embarrassing things, and hold Stan in his arms, and be held in Stan’s arms, and… he supposes, he’s just craving something lovely, for a change. No matter how real and honest such a thing feels for him, no matter how buried and hidden he keeps it, he can’t run from the truth.

Kyle snaps out from his distracting thoughts when Kenny says something else. Kyle chooses to try ignoring the foreign cold, the strange missing that comes from not being near someone he cares so much for. He looks up from where his gaze had fallen, once again towards the now mostly-finished pasta bowl. “Sorry, what’d you say?” he asks. That causes Kenny to frown, brows tucking and knitting for just a split second in examination of the situation. Kyle tries not to think.

“You’re serious,” Kenny says, like that’s supposed to answer the question Kyle just asked. Kenny makes an odd noise in his throat and drops the fork into the bowl, pushing himself up from the table. A weird look must cross Kyle’s face, because soon enough, Kenny has walked around the table to stand next to Kyle, obviously waiting for something. Kyle says and does nothing. He hardly looks up. But then Kenny says, “C’mon, dude, we’re gonna go grab you some grub from the quick line.”

“Hell no.”

The words come out from Kyle’s mouth before they can process in his brain. He finds himself face to face with Kenny, who has taken it upon himself to lean down and stare at Kyle like he just admitted to ruining his garden (a lesson from middle school: nobody fucks with Kenny’s potted plants). With a quirked, firm expression, Kenny asks, “Whaddaya you mean, ‘hell no’?”

What’s Kyle supposed to say to that?

He doesn’t know.

“Nothing,” Kyle says, maybe a bit too snappish. He shoves himself up from the table, straightening up and watching Kenny do the same. They make this split-second of eye contact. It’s a safe thing that makes Kyle want to confess about what’s been fucking him up so badly, but he can’t do it. His mouth aches to open and his tongue aches to spill, but his throat burns and squeezes every time he tries. The words get caught, lodged in his throat. He knows what will happen if he tells.

Except he doesn’t, and that’s the point.

“Well?” asks Kyle, beginning to grow impatient and uncomfortable with the staring match. He crosses his arms, closing himself off to anyone trying to get into his head. Kenny takes the hint and says nothing, just grabs Kyle’s sleeve and starts tugging him across the cafeteria to the lunch line.

They enter the small, closed-off area where the food lines are. The thinning crowd of students split into three lines, intermixed between different types of foods: the main lunch, the quick pick, and the salad bar. Without even contemplating it, Kyle knows that the only food he’ll grab is going to be from the salad bar. It’s healthier, and goodness knows he needs healthy right now. Meat and overly-processed carbohydrates are the exact opposite of what he should have…

Even if the sandwiches are tempting, and even if pasta doesn’t sound too bad, aside from the everything wrong with it. His sense of smell is so acute, he swears it’s more than he’s used to. He can practically taste the sauce and— fuck, he’s hungry. His stomach wills him to eat something, forcing him to feel ironically nauseous. At the same time, though, that nausea has another basis to it.

All of this food is sickening. There’s so much of it, and there’s enough money in his account that he could get something from the main line. He could get two sandwiches, technically— and that is such a sickening, disgusting, atrocious thought that he genuinely thinks he might puke. He has to close his eyes and remind himself that he’s not going to do that— that he wouldn’t do that, even if given the option— just to feel at least slightly less out of control.

Kenny tugs on his sleeve again, then switches his approach. Letting go, Kenny nudges Kyle from behind towards the main lunch line. Immediately, Kyle switches trajectories, forcing himself to go through the salad bar. He fills a bowl with lettuce and carrots— ow, fuck, and cherry tomatoes, because Kenny kicks him in the ankle when he tries to walk away with only that. Kyle pays for the salad and immediately makes his way back to the lunch table, ignoring the fact that Kenny appears dissatisfied. Kyle doesn’t care, in fact. This is Kyle’s meal and Kyle’s choice, not Kenny’s. How dare Kenny try to exhibit any control over what Kyle chooses to eat?

And yet here he is, sitting at the lunch table with lettuce, carrots and tomatoes in a bowl. He prods at it with the fork he grabbed, separating it into fourths in his mind. There is an X going through his salad, and he decides he can only eat one quarter of it. Then, he has to go grab a drink from the drinking fountain. That’s his plan. He’ll eat a fourth of the salad, drink water, and then come back to finish the second quarter, and then he’ll excuse himself to get more water… Or, maybe he should excuse himself to get water from the drinking fountain now? If he drinks water, it’ll fill his stomach with empty weight and make him feel fuller than he really is. That way he won’t overeat. That sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?

“I’m gonna go—” Kyle begins, but Kenny immediately interrupts.

“Eat.”

Kyle furrows his brows. “Dude, are you kidding me? What stick got shoved up your ass?”

“Salad?” Kenny asks, incredulous. He picks up the pasta fork, scraping some of the sauce off of the side of his and Butters’ bowl. Butters courteously left Kenny the last few bites, and Butters now has his nose buried in his AP Calculus textbook, pencil making quick work of whatever bookwork he was assigned. Kenny huffs, not tearing his gaze away from Kyle. “You always bring home lunches, with the same thing, every day, and now you’re forgetting your lunches and grabbing salads from the fucking cafeteria?”

“You’re blowing this out of proportion,” Kyle says.

“Not to mention your fucking comment about calories,” Kenny continues. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you so much as utter the goddamn word, let alone fuss over it like it’s some sort a fuckin’ tertiary shade in an abstract color-coded vagina painting.”

“What the fuck was that analogy?” Kyle asks.

Kenny snaps, “It doesn’t matter!”

Kenny drops the fork again, barely paying attention to where on the table it lands. His face has reddened, more than acute in the way he expresses his anger. With shoulders squared and hands tight, he snatches his backpack up from the floor and stands, no longer looking at Kyle.

“Whatever,” Kenny says. “It’s really not fuckin’ worth it.”

And then Kenny walks away, ignoring the angry cafeteria monitors that try to retrieve him as he storms out of the lunchroom. Kyle watches, admittedly more than a little flabbergasted at what just went down. Only a few people in the cafeteria glance up at the ruckus made by the doors opening and closing loudly from Kenny’s irritation.

Kyle picks at his salad with the prongs of his fork. He pokes at a few pieces. He sections off a smaller portion, then allows himself to eat, one piece of lettuce at a time. He doesn’t even care if it looks weird to an outsider. He tries to distract himself as he chews, hoping that’ll make swallowing easier. The more he thinks about it, the more the act horrifies him. The more it makes him want to run to the bathroom and regain the emptiness he finds so comforting.

He checks his phone.

Stan

what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom

And, wow. That’s dumb.

But it makes Kyle smile.

Stan

Today 12:18
Seriously, man? That’s so overdone.

Stan responds quickly.

Stan

idk what youre talking about, that was totally original

Kyle makes a soft noise, huffing a gentle laugh under his breath. He chews through a cherry tomato, ignoring the acidity and flavor and texture and everything. That Part of his brain still knows he’s eating, and it still despises himself to the core of every cell of his being— just the fact that he’s giving in (because that’s what this is, isn’t it? It’s giving in) is enough to make his chest hurt and tighten.

“You shouldn’t listen to him,” Butters says. Kyle glances up from where he’d been mindlessly texting with Stan.

“What?” Kyle asks.

“Kenny,” Butters says. “He’s being stubborn right now— and, well, uh, I don’t really blame him… he’s a little sensitive about this stuff, you see.”

“Sensitive?” asks Kyle. “What does that mean?”

Butters’ expression becomes shocked, almost as if he can’t believe he’s allowing himself to speak. “Oh,” he says, and for a second, that’s all there is. Kyle’s phone buzzes, and when he glances down, he sees it’s Stan replying with the stupidest, most nonsensical list of emoticons he could have chosen. The hell is a slew of multicolored triangles supposed to mean? Butters begins to speak again, and Kyle looks up. “He’s just perceptive, is all.”

And then it goes quiet.

“He cares a lot,” Butters says, as if reassuring. Kyle doesn’t need that, really, so he nods politely and goes back down to Stan’s texts.

The bell rings soon after, flooding Kyle with relief. He throws out the half of the salad he didn’t eat and swallows down some water to help himself feel more full for the rest of the day. He and Butters don’t split ways, considering they both share AP Chemistry for their next period. They don’t necessarily walk together, though, either. They’ve never been very good friends. Decent acquaintances is how Kyle would be more interested in labeling it. Butters is nice. Kind of stupid, but nice.

Kyle tugs Butters out of the way of a pillar when he threatens to walk into it, apparently distracted with his bad eye leading. Butters makes a soft, “Oh, gee!” as he stumbles from Kyle’s pull. When he realizes what’s going on, he thanks Kyle. Kyle only shrugs it off. They sit down for AP Chem without saying anything further.

With a few minutes before the official start of class, Kyle tugs his phone back out and resumes chatting with Stan. They’re in the midst of discussing the good memories from their old World of Warcraft days when a sudden force shakes the table. He doesn’t have to look up to know it’s Eric— so he doesn’t. To save himself the discomfort, Kyle keeps his attention glued to his phone.

At the end of the day, just as Kyle is packing up to leave for home, he receives a text. Stan has been adamant about their conversation, apparently, which Kyle doesn’t mind a bit. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and opens the message without thinking twice about it—

Fatass

Today 2:44 PM
NEWW TASK: drop him.

Kyle lingers in the empty classroom, half-sitting and half-standing. He glances around, looking for signs of life anywhere, but the students have fled and the teacher has disappeared. He can hear the vents, if he tries, and he can see the phantom way the carpet shuffles under the absent feet of prior students. The texture squirms in his vision like fields of bugs.

Fatass

Today 2:46 PM
What do you mean? don’t play STUPID, Kyle, you know exactly who I’m talking about.

No.

Fatass

I don’t.

I know what youve been doing all day, you know that, don’t you?

No. No.

Fatass

I see everything, didn’t you know?

now drop him, or I’ll do it for you.

No no no.

Kyle can feel every beat of his heart, every rhythmic thud against his tired ribcage, every contraction within the confines of his lungs, squeezing his flesh from the inside out.

He pushes himself up from the chair, looking over the room more thoroughly, trying to pinpoint even the slightest disturbance in the air. But there’s nothing, is there? There’s never anything. It’s just there without being. A constant presence, hanging over him like an invisible blanket, a drape or a cover. He pulls his backpack over his shoulder and leaves the classroom, typing one last message to Stan with shaking hands.

Stan

Today 2:57 PM
Call me.

The winter is colder, the trees are taller, the street is longer—

And the sun— fogged over by clouds and rained-on, misty condensation— becomes so much dimmer.

Stan

Today 3:00 PM
that’s right. I am god, Jew. You bow your head down to me. ;)

Chapter Text

Stan isn’t alone today.

Craig is in the room with him, sitting about a foot away from Stan’s bedside in one of the chairs that used to be next to the window. Kyle finds himself suddenly unsure, and in the mix of shock, he looks at Kenny. Kenny has this smile on his face, pained and attempting to keep the atmosphere light. That’s all Kyle can assume, in the minimal amount of function that his brain is capable of managing. A halfhearted attempt at not breaking down in the midst of so much bullshit. Kyle swallows.

And then he’s angry.

Kyle huffs. His expression tightens. He moves to step into the room. “What is he—”

Kenny stops Kyle, placing a hand on his chest before he can interrupt Craig and Stan in the stillness of the interaction. “Don’t,” Kenny says. “It’s okay, Craig’s safe.”

“No he’s not,” hisses Kyle. He jabs an accusatory finger at the room, though he’s still a few feet away from the door itself. It’s just the window, the partition in the curtain, the sliver of doorway he can see. He imagines himself barging into the hospital room and choking Craig like he’d tried to do just the other day. God knows he deserves it. “He’s the one who tried to fucking kill him.”

Even though Kyle knows better, even though he knows what happened, even though Eric’s pride got in the way of Eric’s wish to hide. Kyle feels sick, thinking about such a thing. He feels sick, and since he can’t blame Eric (because Eric would know, wouldn’t he?), he has to blame Craig.

Because, without Craig, Stan would never have had those stupid fucking drugs in the first place.

It’s just logic.

“He’s the one who gave him drugs,” Kyle says. “He’s the one who knew— he’s the one who fucking knew the dangers and still handed them over, he’s the one who tried to fucking kill him, Kenny, god fucking dammit.”

“Shh,” Kenny says, like that’s supposed to help, like that’s supposed to convince him. He moves to touch Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle wrenches away, unwilling to be grabbed. Kenny gets the hint. Instead, he simply gestures, pointing to where Craig is now talking. For a second, Kyle thinks Craig is talking to them, but he quickly comes to the conclusion that he’s not.

Craig is talking to Stan, and after a second, Craig drops his head, shuts his eyes, and rubs his forehead.

Kenny says, “Listen.”

And lets Kyle go.

Kyle steps in, hovering behind the curtain, feeling awkward as he eavesdrops on a one-sided conversation he was never meant to hear.

“But, um…” Craig mutters, inhaling sharply after the beginning. There’s silence, in that moment, and Kyle peeks around the curtain. He watches Craig lean forward to rest his elbows on his knees, and he observes the way Craig’s discomfort seems to excruciate his entire body. The seconds pass, and at the end of the pause, Craig scoots just a few inches closer to the bed. “But I think that’s the ironic thing? You never really meant a whole lot to me, and I couldn’t have really given much of a shit, but now that you’re not there—”

Craig’s voice cracks.

“—now that you’re not in the background, or whatever, I…”

Kyle ducks back behind the curtain when he sees the way Craig’s expression morphs, the way his eyes water. Kyle grabs a fold of the curtain, grounding himself with the texture.

“I realize just how much I miss your bullshit,” Craig says. “And how much I hate myself for… for letting this happen, I guess, I don’t— I don’t know, okay? I don’t know.”

Kyle can’t imagine. Craig’s voice goes quiet, muttering.

“Shut up, stop looking at me like that.”

Kyle genuinely has to glance out from the curtain to make sure Stan isn’t awake. It feels almost cruel to joke like that. The urge to choke Craig comes back, but it’s quickly overridden by the memory of how hurt he sounds. Like, lost.

“I could have— stopped this? I could have made sure you didn’t… I could have been more insistent, I could have punched you in the face or something, I don’t know, I don’t fucking know, and I just—” Kyle hears shuffling, but he doesn’t tear his gaze away from the curtain. He refuses to peek out again. He wouldn’t be able to handle the image. He can see the outline of Craig’s slumped figure. Craig sniffs, wet and strained and shaking. The older brother in Kyle feels obligated to comfort him. Craig tries to speak again, saying, “I just—”

But something must break, because then it’s quiet again. There’s more shuffling, and then his breaths go ragged. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut so he won’t accidentally see Craig crying.

“Everything feels wrong without you around to fuck it up,” Craig says. “And I hate you for that, you fucking idiot, I hate you, because I’m only now realizing just how much I didn’t hate you, and you might die thinking I did, but I—”

Kyle presses a hand over his mouth, trying to inhale, fighting against the burning in his eyes.

“—I didn’t,” Craig says. “I don’t, okay? I envy you because of your stupid perfect life and the way things always seemed to make sense for you, you idiot, and I hated how— how you never seemed to realize it, and I hated it because everything always seems to turn out for you, even after you’ve been halfway across the world and back, and…”

Craig stutters over that word. And. He tries a few different times, each time more desperate, each time more breathless, until he loses whatever train of thought he’d had and goes silent.

Kyle opens his eyes. He stares at the curtain, but quickly lowers his gaze to the floor. He stares at the scuffs on his shoes, at the tiles, and he thinks about how nothing makes sense, anymore. He wonders.

If…

“I know what it’s like to feel lonely,” Craig says. Kyle falls still, his breath catching in his throat. “I think I got so caught up in the fact that I was lonely, that I forgot to realize other people feel lonely, too.”

Kyle tries to think, but there’s too much noise. Too mouth background, too much breathing, too much speaking. In seconds, he finds himself peeking out from the curtain, unsure of where he should be looking even though he can’t tear his eyes away from where Craig is.

“I never wanted you to do this,” Craig says. After a pause, he scoots forward the remaining few inches and grabs Stan’s hand. He just holds it. “I’m going to stop selling.”

Kyle looks at Craig’s face, at his eyes. He tries to find a believe me look. He tries to find deception. He tries to find so many things, but all he finds are honest eyes and tear stains on his cheeks and an expression that’s shaky in its own foundation.

“I want to help people, okay?” Craig says. “I don’t want to hurt people.”

Craig stands, but keeps holding Stan’s hand. Craig cards his fingers through Stan’s hair with his free hand. It’s a familial gesture, or friendly, at the very least. Seeing it come from someone as foreign as Craig is odd. It feels intrusive. With a start, Kyle realizes he saw Craig do that exact same thing with Stan on Monday during lunch, the day he...

“It’s okay, fuzzball,” Craig whispers. He pulls away from Stan. He wipes his eyes and cheeks, drying them off with the backs of his sleeves. “You idiot.”

Kyle steps out from behind the curtain. He takes a few steps forward, but stops when he reaches the foot of Stan’s bed. He watches as Craig returns the chair next to the window. Craig turns around. He walks a couple steps forward before he notices Kyle.

They stare at each other.

Until Craig glances away.

Kyle’s chest squeezes, this lividness, this anger, this pain. How dare he? How dare he come here, how dare he speak, how dare he look away? How dare he?

Kyle takes a step forward, and Craig starts paying attention again. The movement is what gets him? What does Kyle have to do to get through to him? What does Kyle have to do to understand?

Craig is the reason Stan is here.

Kyle lifts a hand, ready to slap him, ready to hurt him, ready to fight, but Craig doesn’t react. Craig doesn’t flinch. Craig just looks at Stan, unsure and confused, with eyes that are blue.

Water.

Craig is like a child.

And with that thought, Kyle thinks of Ike.

Of Eric knocking him to the curb, of Eric hurting him, of Eric breaking the brooch.

Of Kyle himself.

Kyle can’t hit Craig. He can’t.

He drops his hand to Craig’s chest and grabs the chest of Craig’s sweater. Kyle pulls him into a hug, his grip tight and his face buried into Craig’s shoulder. The burning comes back, and he can’t hold it in anymore. He hiccups in the gentle sobs, attaching himself to the fabric of Craig’s cigarette-smoky sweatshirt. He can lose himself, in the musk of it, in the way it smells new yet old in the manner of memories. How he can’t stop thinking about the first time he smoked with Stan, about how he could have said no and maybe, if he’d tried to stop it, he’d still be…

“I’m so sorry,” Kyle whimpers, pathetic. Pathetic pathetic pathetic. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I…”

Craig moves. He wraps an arm around Kyle, pats his back, awkward and stiff, and says, “It’s okay…”

Kyle feels left out of something, like Stan and Craig know something that he doesn’t. Kyle’s throat starts to close when he realizes just how selfish he’s been.

“…it’s okay…”

Kyle didn’t know Stan, did he? Not really.

“…it’s okay…”

But Kyle still loves him.

Kyle only continues to cry. Craig lets him.

Chapter Text

Kyle doesn’t know what happens.

It’s like he was at school one second, and the next, he had appeared in his bathroom. Thinking nothing of the fact that the yarmulke and his hat have been placed somewhere he cannot recall, he strips and steps into the shower just long enough to feel the way the heat of the water burns his skin.

When he steps out, he is certain there is nothing left of the day in his bones. He dries and collects his clothes, he tosses the laundry into the hamper, and he digs into his dresser for a change of outfit. He doesn’t immediately plan on grabbing himself some socks, but he eventually decides that his feet are cold. He digs into the back of his sock drawer to retrieve the warm pair that he saves for particularly frigid winter days. He finds himself startled when he touches a hard lump within the pair. It crinkles at the touch, too. He retrieves the strange item and tugs it out from where it’d been buried in the socks. He stares at it until he can make sense of it.

Within his hands, Kyle holds a plastic bag full of smoking scraps and an old pill bottle with marijuana. The name on the bottle is crossed out in black marker, but Kyle is more than familiar enough with this bag to know exactly who it belongs to.

Stan.

Kyle sits down on his mattress, unable to tear his eyes away from what this is. His hunch that Stan had hidden something in his dresser had been correct. The sketchy way Stan had been lingering near it when Kyle came back wasn’t just a fluke of stupidity, it was nervousness from being found out.

Kyle could feel angry. In fact, he should feel angry. And in some ways, he supposes he does. He cannot, for the life of him, figure out why Stan wouldn't tell Kyle this is what he was going to do. The motivation behind this action of Stan's makes no sense to Kyle, and that triggers his brain to fight. Fight against itself, fight against Stan, fight against the concept that he might be losing his best friend tonight over things that were either incredibly in his control, or incredibly out of his control. In a moment of fear, Kyle wonders if Stan...

His phone rings.

At first, he’s shocked. He isn’t expecting a call from anyone. What time is it, anyway? He doesn’t remember; he can’t quite read the clock, the numbers are too small for his eyes to fully focus. He thinks his phone rings four times before he manages to hit the answer button. He brings it to his ear and stares, shifting the bag of weed, trying to think.

“Hello?” he asks, still not quite certain of who he’s talking to.

Hey, man,” says the voice on the other end. “It’s me.

It’s Stan.

And suddenly the name on the bottle makes sense, and suddenly his head is pounding harder, and suddenly he has to set down the bag of weed before he throws it against the wall because he remembers. He has to push Stan away, isn’t that right? He has to make sure Stan doesn’t get hurt. Drop him or I’ll do it for you. That’s what Eric said. Kyle can’t have that. But, even more than that, even further than that, why did Stan not tell Kyle? Why did he keep it secret, why did he hide it here of all places? A resumed thought from earlier: what if Stan is in on it? What if Eric is pulling more strings behind the scenes than Kyle realizes? What is he to do then? Maybe Eric's plan isn't to get Kyle to distance himself from Stan, maybe Eric is planning with Stan and they're testing him? If they're testing him, Kyle has to reverse the concept. If he reverses the concept, he can trick them. He can fix it. Right? He can fix it and they'll admit it was all just some elaborate prank and everything can go back to normal but why would Stan do that?

Kyle snaps, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

There’s a stunned silence before Stan replies, “What?

“Don’t ‘what’ me!” Kyle says. He tries to conjure up the bad things, and that isn't difficult. He finds the things that piss him off, the things that make him feel so ruined. Doing the thing Eric told him to do is how he will win because Eric is not expecting it... and from the sound of his voice, neither is Stan. “You do not get to ‘what’ me! You know just as well as I do what this is about, you’ve— I can’t believe you, I cannot believe you, Stan.

What? Calm down, what are you talking about?

Excuse, excuse, excuse...

Look at the bag.

Look at it.

That’s the reason for your downfall.

It’s not. I’ve always just been bad.

Yeah, but he can't know you're onto him, right?

So, Stan made you like this, did he?

Is it his fault?

Of course it is.

“Weed?” Kyle snaps. If he makes it about something else, it will be more successful. His plan. Success success success. Save Mom and worry about the fallout later, he can manage. His throat threatens to close. He’s so tired. He needs to sleep. He needs to rest. “You stashed weed in my dresser?”

Stan says nothing. Static. White noise.

“In what world do you think that’s okay?” Kyle asks. He needs to snap, he needs to make Stan hate him. If they hate each other, Stan will talk to Eric and Eric will stop. That's what will happen. That's the only logical explanation, because they both have to be in on it. There are too many coincidences, don't you see? Stan is there and Eric is there and in the center of it all is Kyle. That's the bottom line. Kyle's brain is jumping. “In what universe do you think that’s even remotely fine? Is that why you said we couldn’t smoke anymore? Because you didn’t even have it? Was that big, emotional speech of yours a lie? Was it a cover-up? You know what, don’t even answer that, of course it’s a cover-up.”

Please yell at me, please fight back, please hate me. But Stan doesn’t. The plan isn't working. “Kyle,” says Stan. “Please, I can explain—

Explain? Do you understand just how much fucking trouble I’m in right now?” Oh, what a liar he is— but is it truly a lie if he has physical evidence of trouble? No, it wouldn’t be, if he actually had that evidence. Eric hasn’t done anything to scar him. There’s nothing on his skin, nothing in his bones, nothing in his flesh or his teeth or his muscles. The pain isn’t real, isn’t that right? It doesn’t exist, isn’t that right? He’s fine, he can manage, just push him away just go away just hate me please this will work. “You know how my parents feel about drugs! And you decide to stash it inside of my room? Have you lost your fucking mind?”

Please—” and Stan sounds on the verge of an asthma attack. Guilt tries to creep in, but Kyle’s veins metabolize it as anger. Stan's worried about being found out. That's what it has to be. Found out. If Stan was innocent, he would have just spoken to Kyle. That's what it's about. That has to be it. The guiltless don't hide. “Please, hear me out, it’s really not what you think—

“Not what I think? Not what I think? You asshole!” So what if Kyle’s shouting? The house is empty, he’s home alone, who is here to yell at him if he’s ruining the already damaged home of his voice? “Is this what you think of our friendship? You think you can use me as a fucking storage box to keep all of the shit that inconveniences you? That you don’t really feel like keeping anymore? Did you run out of space in your locker again? Is your closet too full to handle a single fucking bag of weed?”

Please hate me just hate me just get it over with!

The plan will work, I'm telling you.

You know the plan, don't you?

Yes! I know! He needs to hate me! Shut up!

Kyle feels like there’s someone whispering into his ear. With wide, unblinking eyes, he stares at the juxtaposition of his dresser against the wall. The outline, the dark, the shadow. It’s cold, it’ll get dark soon. It’s winter. He knows it’s winter. Shut up, okay? He’s here.

They’re leaning over his shoulder and murmuring with hot breath against the skin of his neck and the shell of his ear, saying unintelligible things. He pulls the phone away from his face and thrashes back, shouting out with all the energy he has left to get them away. He knows what he has to do, so stop telling him! STOP TALKING TO HIM!

He feels like he's losing his mind.

“You’re pathetic,” Kyle says. “You’re fucking pathetic.”

I’m so sorry.

(stop talking to him) “Save it for your girlfriend, Stan, at least you can fix it with her.”

Yeah, at least she doesn’t know Stan’s a cheater. Because he loves her more than he’ll ever love Kyle, isn’t that right? Of course it is. Look at him. There’s no mirror in his room so he can’t see the way he looks fully, but he can squeeze the flesh of his legs and his stomach and his arms…

“You know what?” Kyle says, more to himself than anything else. The bag falls to the floor. He doesn’t care. He stands from his bed and walks, meandering out of his room and down the steps, only to return back up them because he forgot what his plan was. He thinks he remembers, but then he forgets, and he sits himself down on the top step. “Don’t talk to me, don’t call me, don’t text me, don’t message me— I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to look at you.”

He forgets how to breathe for a second, he thinks, but then his lungs kick in and he wonders how many breaths it’d take to fog up the living room window beyond recognition. Is it really a window if you paint over it? What makes a window a window? The material, the foundation, the function? “How long?” Stan’s voice cracks. “For… ever?

He sees Ike outside and he thinks he sees Eric but he can’t tell for sure. Eric knows. See? It's working. He knew it would work. “I don’t know,” he says, trying to be quiet so Eric can’t hear him, the attempt at quieting his excitement, the fact that he found success. A big victory, a big win, something substantial. “I just… I have to go. Goodbye, Stan.”

Kyle hangs up.

And the thumping— the familiar beating of his heart, irregular and distraught, suddenly finds a pattern that normalizes and feels like nothing.

Kyle stands and makes his way into the kitchen.

Embarrassingly, the first thing he thinks of is food. It’s always there, he supposes, this lingering worm in the corner of his brain, waiting for the perfect time to renew his love of feeling empty and the hatred he has towards the amount of space he takes up. But this time it’s different, in a frightening way. He craves comfort, and maybe in some ways it'd be a reward for him. He isn't sure. He just knows he won, and winners don't need to worry about the things he has been so freaked out by, right? He can manage for a bit on his own. He is okay.

He checks his blood sugar. It’s low. And then he stares into the refrigerator and pinpoints all of the things he could eat. He grabs an orange, because— well, he’s already had one today, he can’t go wrong with another one. Sixty-seven calories is nothing compared to the ninety in a slice of bread, or the ninety in an apple, or the seventy in a slice of cheese. Lettuce only has twelve calories per cup. He looked it up after school, he thinks— he doesn’t remember actually looking it up, but he knows the number when he hadn’t just an hour prior, so that must mean something.

He eats the orange. He waits fifteen minutes, and rechecks his blood sugar. It’s within normal ranges.

He doesn't want to do this anymore. But there’s something that aches inside of him, some strange craving that needs. He’s nauseous, and he wants to go and get it out right now, and his brain substitutes with excuses: his blood sugar would drop again, and then he’d have to eat again, so if he had another orange that’d raise his blood sugar again, and then if he went and puked his blood sugar would lower itself back to about normal ranges.

But what if it still dropped too low? What then?

So, he allows himself another orange. The guilt is already immense, but he’s gone this far with two oranges (totaling one hundred thirty-four calories) and he thinks about when he’ll eat next. He’ll have to eat dinner, won’t he? If he eats enough now to keep his blood sugar in the upper ranges of normal after vomiting, he might be able to skip. Blame it on illness? Could he do that? Could he get away with that? He’d be kept home from school tomorrow, certainly, which wouldn’t be good. That would be a win for Eric, and we cannot have that, Kyle, no no no...

Besides, when Ike finds out about Kyle being “sick” (if he goes down that route, hypothetically), he might tell Dad about Kyle’s recent run-ins with hypoglycemia. What if Dad takes him to the hospital and they run tests? What if they find out about what he’s been doing? He doesn’t have an eating disorder, okay? People with eating disorders make themselves puke after eating, sometimes, but he’s not bulimic. He’s just managing himself. He’s just coping. That’s all it is. He can stop whenever he wants to. For now it’s just comforting.

But the doctors would never think of it like that, would they? No, they would consider him sick, or mental, or something. Then what? He’d be signed up for therapy? They’d force him to eat hospital food? How disgusting. What if they think he’s bad enough to go to inpatient, or whatever? He doesn’t know how this sort of thing works, but the last thing he needs is to be sent off to some facility where they make him talk about his bullshit— or where they make him eat three full meals a day or however much else. He couldn’t do that. The thought is fucking atrocious. Food is disgusting.

It's comfortable, though.

Kyle craves a sandwich. He allows himself to make one, but he doesn’t eat it. Not right away, at least. Or, he tries not to. But it’s staring right at him and he did make it, so he can’t just not eat it, right? That’d be a waste of food, and he can’t be even more of a nuisance to his family. He’s already horrible, he’s already ruining everything, so what’s wrong with eating the sandwich he made? And what’s wrong with a handful of carrots? Carrots are healthy. He looks it up and a cup is fifty calories (adding that to be a grand total of 544). That’s less than an orange.

They have enough fixings left to make another sandwich, but Kyle doesn’t do that. He busies himself by downing a glass of water and snacking on unsalted tortilla chips, and…

…by the time he realizes what he’s done, it’s too late.

Slowly, so slowly, his racing mind settles down and he finds himself at the kitchen table, feet pulled onto the chair with him and his knees tucked up against his chest. He isn't even doing anything, he's just... eating. Everything catches up with him. His memory is fuzzy and maybe that's good, but at the same time, he's here now, dealing with the aftermath of whatever... whatever this is, whatever possessed him to zone out like that. To find excuses and use them to justify to himself that what he had been doing is a good idea. Kyle stares at the bag of chips, unsure of how full it was before he started but certain that it is now at least half-empty and the idea that he ate half the bag is the most terrifying concept in the entire world.

Kyle closes the bag and carefully stands, walks across the kitchen to the cabinet, and puts it away. He moves like one wrong twitch will kill him.

In his seventeen and a half years of living, he has never felt more guilty. He doesn’t know how many chips he ate— he hadn’t been keeping track, and that was his first mistake. But ten chips is ninety-one calories and he’s pretty sure he had more than ten chips. He’s full. He ate way too fucking much, didn’t he?

It feels like his brain is swirling, like he doesn’t understand what he’s gotten himself into or how to get himself out of it. For a second he’s unsure, nervous about what he’s done to himself, about how his body is going to react to such a horrific, careless mistake. He finds his phone forgotten on the step and walks upstairs. He wonders where Ike is. He wonders if Dad is home. He checks where he can think to, and when the house appears empty, he locks himself in the bathroom. Leaving his phone on the bathroom counter, Kyle turns the shower on full-blast, stands before the toilet, and sticks his fingers down his throat. In minutes, he’s flushing away all the evidence.

Still, it’s not enough. His mouth tastes terrible and his throat burns something fierce. His eyes won’t stop watering, his hands are shaking and his stomach is cramping and it hurts. He forces himself to gulp down water from the faucet and in a moment of weakness he goes back to the toilet and forces himself to vomit the water, because as sick as it sounds, he misses the feeling of having everything come back up again. It’s cathartic, really, because he has this knowledge that everything has left and he is empty and he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.

His head is throbbing and it feels like he can’t swallow as effectively. There are seconds or minutes or something, some amount of time where he sits next to the toilet staring at the remnants of the food he puked up because he doesn’t have enough energy to lift his hand that extra inch and flush it. Everything he once had, all of the interest in studying for the upcoming exam in math, all of the fear of losing and being lost and being in control, all of it is gone and replaced with this roaring torrent of physical hurt and exhaustion.

A split second of panic prods his chest with a very loud thought of that was not enough and he pushes himself properly on his knees, pressing his fingers as deep into his throat as he can possibly go. He gags, and spits out saliva and whatever remains, but nothing comes up. Nothing substantial, at least; just burning, just coughing and air. He digs the heel of his free hand against the bottom left portion of his rib cage, where his stomach is, hoping to get just a little more of something out.

Just bile. Kyle's okay.

Kyle sniffs and forces himself to stand, flushing the toilet and looking around himself to make sure he didn’t spill anything anywhere that he’ll have to clean up. He can’t see anything. He’s paranoid still, but he doesn’t have the mental fortitude to give much of a damn. He rinses his mouth out with water and washes his hands six times with as much soap as he can possibly use, just to get the smell out. He rinses his mouth another four times for good measure, and then proceeds with a couple rounds of mouthwash to make sure he won’t smell like vomit.

His eyes keep trying to close and he keeps coughing against the thick roughness of his esophagus. His head hurts and his stomach still cramps in waves which come and go, unwilling to soothe because of the abuse he’s given his body. He still shakes, even as he walks into his bedroom and stands in the center of it, trying to make sense of it all.

In the house, where no lights are on, lit only by the natural illumination which comes in from the windows, it is quiet. There’s this soft sound, the gentle murmur of the new generation of children running around in outdoor fields and lawns— he can exist in it, and so he does. He presses his hands together, wringing his fingers and picking at the skin surrounding his nails. He realizes that his nails look like he scraped them across the rough edge of a cinder block. And there are scabs forming on his knuckles— they’re red and particularly tender. The skin surrounding the scrapes throbs.

Sometimes, the world turns too fast. Everything happens so quickly that he can’t process, that it feels like one event after another after another, this never ending cycle of panic and yet there’s something so raw. Staring at his hands like they’re someone else’s, he cannot shake the strangeness of the fact that right here, in his own home, he feels less safe than he’s ever felt in his life. And maybe that’s the adrenaline talking, shaking through his vessels, but he has a hard time discerning whether he cares about that or not. It just is. He just is, and suddenly he’s staring at his life like it’s this massive, fucked-up project that he has no idea how to complete and all he wants to do is curl up in the arms of his mother and find comfort in the way she always knows what’s best— in the way she always knows how to fix things.

He wonders if she would ever be able to fix him. There’s a thickness in his throat, like something is caught, or like his body can’t get rid of the memory of vomiting. His stomach tightens. It’s hard to swallow. He wonders if he broke himself. He thinks, maybe, he might have overstepped a line somewhere, and now that it has been crossed, he can’t go back. That scares him, too. He is stuck, trapped in a box with no way out, dealing with feelings that he thinks may be permanent and he wonders if it’s even worth it to keep going if he’ll never get relief from any of it. If he deals with never ending nausea, is living something he wants to do? If he can’t stop these symptoms, why not stop the source?

Y’know?

It’s not worth it, is it?

Is Mom already dead? Can he even save her? If she’s already dead, what is he still here for?

Like, what’s the point?

It’s cold, so Kyle hugs himself. He rubs at the fabric covering his arms, pulling the sleeves tight over his hands. He stares down at himself for no more than a few seconds. Something new and strange has settled in; he noticed it recently. He can hardly look at himself in the mirror, anymore, and when he does he finds he can’t look away from the things that he hates because the things that he hates make up the entirety of him. There’s just something about it that hurts. He thinks the problem is that it feels too exact.

The front door opens downstairs. Kyle hears it, and he hears Ike finally coming home, shouting goodbye to one of his friends. He hears the shuffle of Ike as he kicks his shoes off and closes the door behind him. Kyle feels like he’s intruding, but at the same time, he can’t ignore the noise. He doesn’t know if it’s because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, or if it’s because he physically doesn’t have the energy to do so. With only a slight surprise, Kyle recognizes just how tired he is; his body threatens to curl up where he stands and sleep. There’s a certain feeling that your body gets when you’ve gone too long without sleep— a strange weightlessness, matched with a raw feeling in your eyes. And there’s a deep-seated pain, too. Kyle dislikes the pain the most, in some ways, though in others, it just allows him to feel.

Ike probably doesn’t think to find Kyle, not that he has to. In fact, Kyle doesn’t want Ike to notice him. Ike is still a kid. He doesn’t deserve to be upset or stressed about things. But there’s constantly more than just a childish glee inside that head of his, isn’t there? Of course there is, there always is. He’s always thinking about something. Sometimes Ike will sneak into Kyle’s bedroom just to talk about some theory he’s come up with— occasionally delving way too deeply into philosophy than Kyle’s exhausted brain can comprehend. But, of course, Kyle will nod along and ask questions if he has the ability to.

They haven’t had a good talk like that for a long time, though. Not since Mom got sick, now that he thinks about it.

Kyle shakes himself free of his paralysis. Crawling into bed is such a bittersweet feeling— the knowledge that he can just linger and lay and relax and not have to move or breathe or think is wonderful. On the other hand, his muscles are tense and his spine is rigid. He can feel his bones, attempting to shift, and the discomfort is definite. He rolls onto his side rather than his stomach, his muscles burning and his eyes watering from the pressure. Laying on his side doesn’t feel good, either. Trying to find a satisfactory position is difficult. He tosses and turns until he finds himself on his back, dozing into blank unawareness.

 

It’s almost six in the evening when Kyle is shaken awake by Ike. His vision comes in slowly. He blinks it in, trying to orient himself to the room he remembers last being in. As the waves of just a few hours ago settle in, he notices distress. He hates napping. Well, he hates waking up from naps. It always feels like he wasted time— like he missed out on something.

Ike is talking, but Kyle can’t hear him. He shakes his head, pushes himself up onto his elbows, and says, “I’m awake, I’m awake, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong,” Ike says. He thrusts an object in front of Kyle’s face. Kyle hardly processes what it is before he grabs it. The weight and shape reveals it’s his phone. Did he leave it downstairs? Why is Ike giving it to him? He starts trying to remember how to go through the motions of opening it, but he realizes that it’s already open, on the text message screen. Kyle blinks, shaking his head again.

“You know my passcode?” Kyle asks.

All Ike replies with is, “Now I do,” which is always a reassuring answer when it’s coming from a thirteen-year-old. “You and Stan fought, didn’t you?”

Kyle squints at the brightness of his phone, turning it down a few notches in an attempt at processing the screen. “What makes you say that?” he asks. He doesn’t need an answer, though, nor is Ike willing to give him one. Such a thing becomes blatantly obvious when Ike simply keeps talking, pinpointing an entirely different discussion topic.

“You smell like the bathroom, and the bathroom smells like puke, are you sick?” Ike asks. There’s this tender note of worrying undertone to it, something that Kyle would appreciate if he weren’t so assured of the fact that he doesn’t want anyone worrying over him. He just wants to be left alone. Kyle brushes the question off by ignoring it, favoring instead to read the messages that Stan has sent him— recently, apparently.

Stan

Today 5:29 PM
kyle

look look look ok I know I know I fucked up. Ok I know

but I swear man I swear I have a reason I didnt just do it for the halibut

*hell of it, jesus christ

“Is that why you’ve been sleeping so much, too?” Ike asks. “You’re sick?”

He's in on it.

They're all in on it.

Kyle quickly begins to type, just to get Stan to stop messaging him. Newly budding guilt takes over, exploring the shivering inches of his skin that he hates. He thinks about the amount of food he had earlier, and the lack of control frightens him. He mindlessly squeezes at the soft junction of his side as he sends the response.

Stan

Today 5:33 PM
I told you not to text me.

Then Ike asks, “Is that why you’re so thin?”

Without thinking, Kyle scoffs. At the silence, he looks up at Ike. Ike simply stares, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He’s frowning.

“Why’d you scoff at that?” Ike asks.

“What is this, an interrogation?” Kyle replies.

“Kinda.”

In a matter of seconds, Kyle’s phone starts to go off again. Message after message, messy and occasionally unintelligible, flood in at a rapid pace— like no thought goes into them, they’re just being sent.

Stan

Today 5:34 PM
I know kyle I know trust me I was there I remembr evry vivbly

jejnfkejfjnf

im so sorry my hands are shaking lol this is hard im sorry im sorry

but I mean anyway I remember and I just wanted to say im sorry first of all like im rly rly rlly sorry about everything I fucked up so bad I fucked it up

Im good at that I think like if there was a competition at fucking everything up I might win

I like to think maybe my legacy will be that I fucked up so badly and then when I die itll all come like a monsoon that I was the best at it.

fucking up I mean

Excuses excuses excuses, what did I tell you?

We have excuses, are we guilty?

No, no, no. All good things come in threes, though.

one two three?

one two three.

“Fucking hell,” Kyle cusses.

Stan

Get to the point.

“Fucking hell what?” Ike replies.

“Don’t cuss,” Kyle says, hypocritical. Ike gives him a look translating as such. Kyle simply rolls his eyes. His phone returns to the buzzing, more notifications keeping him on-edge. He doesn’t enjoy it. He can’t focus on both Ike and Stan at the same time— he can’t handle censoring his verbal conversation and a written one in two different ways. He’s going to slip up, somewhere somehow, and then everything will fall apart. He’ll devolve into his own apologies (he can hardly ignore the hurting, painful squeezing of his heart in his chest at just how desperate Stan is). He can’t do that. It’s a task.

A horrible, morbid task.

Stan

right right right sry

thats my point by the way im sorry im sorry im sorry im sorry

please please dont make me leave you alone kyle lplease

Kyle has to distance himself.

Stan

Is that all you have to say?

if it is?

Kyle needs to distance himself.

Stan

I’m blocking you.

He isn't going to block him.

You're not going to block him.

I can block him.

You can't. You won't. I'll do it, though. You know why?

Why?

You can't hurt him anymore.

Stan

wait wait WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT

Then stop texting me.

ok. Im sorry.

“What? Who are you hurting?” Ike pipes up. For a moment, Kyle doesn’t know how to respond to that.

“I didn’t say I was hurting anyone,” Kyle says. One look at Ike is enough to pinpoint something sharp and distraught, yet utterly buried. Ike looks tired, this exhaustion that a kid his age really shouldn’t have to deal with. Kyle wants to fix that, but he doesn’t know how. He wonders if giving him a hug would help at all— if promising to keep him safe would do much for his hope. That childish hope, the one that partners with the glee.

“‘I can’t hurt him anymore’,” says Ike. “That’s what you said, Kyle— ‘I can’t hurt him anymore’… what’s that supposed to mean? Is Stan the one you’re hurting? Is that why Stan’s freaking out?”

“It doesn’t mean anything, okay? It’s none of your business, just lay off.” Is that an insensitive thing to say? Would Ike prefer to be the one that Kyle worries about? Kyle doesn’t know. He can’t tell— he’s almost too exhausted to try. He gives Ike a testing smile, but that smile does not get returned. It gets internalized, certainly, for analysis in whatever folder Ike stores it in. Nonetheless, Ike moves on.

“How was your blood sugar today?”

“Ike.”

“I’m serious!” Ike says, tensing his muscles and standing up straighter. “I wanna know how your blood sugar was, Kyle! You’ve been having issues lately, and I need to know you’re not gonna—”

There’s a silence. Ike doesn’t finish the statement; he doesn’t have to. Kyle turns away from the way Ike stares at him. His phone screen has since shut off, leaving only black and a lingering extra layer of darkness in the already heavily-shadowed room. What time is it, six? A glance at the clock reaffirms that it’s true. Five fifty-something— he doesn’t have the strength to get the exact details from the ticking thing.

“Kyle, are you really sure that you aren’t depressed?”

The question comes out of nowhere. It’s so sudden that Kyle has no idea how to process it, much less how he’s supposed to respond to that. The answer, of course, is a simple no. He’s not depressed, he has never been depressed, he will not say he is depressed, because he isn’t. He’s seen the way it fucked Stan up.

Before Stan got his medication, Kyle remembers, to the very last detail, the way it looked to see Stan come to school in the same clothes for a week straight, not showered and unshaven. He remembers coming over that weekend to no response at the door, only to text Stan. Stan responded to that text, too. Kyle asked him what he was doing and Stan responded, “fixing it”. Kyle didn’t know what that meant, but he ran home and told Mom and Mom called Missus Marsh.

They don’t talk about it. Never once have they spoken a word on what Stan did. This was back in freshman year. Kyle and Stan have always been really close, but Stan hasn’t told Kyle what really happened that day. Not through his words, at least. Kyle just remembers seeing the occasional glimpses of scars on Stan’s thighs when in the locker room, and then Stan started taking medication. From that, Kyle can kind of piece it together.

“Kyle?” Ike asks. Kyle shakes his head and leaves it at that. He kicks the covers up from the foot of his bed and drops his phone next to him on the mattress. Entirely content to go back to sleep, he tries to do so, but Ike grabs his wrist with both hands and pulls as hard as he can. Kyle tumbles sideways, hardly managing to catch himself on his nightstand before he hurtles straight into the ground. His body complains and his brain feels buzzed, eyes wired as he wakes up a little more. His breathing has picked up. Ike lets go, and Kyle expects an apology, but Ike doesn’t give one. Ike says, “Come downstairs with me.”

“I just want to sleep,” Kyle says. “I’m fine, okay? I just had a long day and I’d really like to—”

“I know you’d like to, but that doesn’t mean you should,” Ike says. “One of the most important things for you to do right now is be social!”

“I don’t need to be social, Ike.” Kyle moves to get back into bed, but when Ike moves to pull him again, Kyle decides instead to stand before Ike can get the opportunity. Standing still feels awkward, though, so Kyle makes his way out of his room and takes the steps down to the living room. Ike follows close behind.

“You’re depressed,” Ike says, almost tripping over his own feet as they cross the living room. Kyle rolls his eyes and keeps walking, emerging into the kitchen.

“I’m not depressed.”

“Yes you are, don’t try to tell me you’re not, because you are,” Ike says. “You’ve been sleeping a lot lately, and you’ve been shutting yourself up in your room every time someone tries to talk to you, and you’re not eating.”

“I’m eating,” Kyle says. He stops in the center of the kitchen, staring at the refrigerator. He glances toward the trashcan and then examines the dining room table, like they have answers for why he chose to come here. He turns on his heel and starts making his way back to the living room, but Ike catches him before he can and pushes him back to the center of the kitchen. Ike glares firmly at Kyle, frowning.

“Then why is your blood sugar so low all the time?” Ike asks. “You’ve been able to manage yourself for years, and then suddenly you start getting all hypoglycemic once a week! If you’re not careful, you could get—”

“I know,” Kyle says. “Just leave me alone, okay? I’m dealing with it.”

“You’re not dealing with it, you’re dealing in it,” Ike argues, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re not acting yourself and I don’t want you to start trying to hurt yourself or something.”

“I’m not going to hurt myself, that’s fucking stupid!” Kyle spits the words, and if he didn’t know better, he would think them to be something physical; Ike’s reaction is enough of a tell for their power. Ike steps back, shoulders lifting and head ducking for just a second as he processes the idea of possible danger. Within seconds, however, Ike recovers, straightening back up and back to glaring. That glare has softened, though, and he has begun to fidget with the hem of his Minecraft pajama shirt. He wrings it through his hands, and as he does, Kyle watches. Kyle watches, and Kyle feels regret. Once again, his body metabolizes that regret as something explosive. He turns away forcefully, pulling open the cabinet with a certain vigor. He digs in for something— not even he knows what he’s looking for— though he eventually finds the bag of tortilla chips and tosses it onto the counter. He doesn’t turn around, even when he tells Ike, “Go get my kit, it’s in my room.”

Ike’s footsteps pad off into the living room. As Kyle listens to them, he presses his palms into the solid surface of the counter top, supporting himself with the minimal amount of strength he has. His entire body is so tired. He’s exhausted to a level he hadn’t realized he could reach. Even after playing multiple matches of basketball and running a mile in ten minutes, he hadn’t been so drained. He stares down at his feet, where his sock-clad feet contrast with the murk of the kitchen tiles… when was the last time anyone mopped these floors? When was the last time someone swept? He kicks his foot along the edge of one of the tiles, wincing at the sound of crumbs and feeling of dirt. He turns his gaze back to the bag of chips. It’s half-full. He ate some earlier, he remembers that. He doesn’t really remember it, but he remembers it happened, if that makes sense. His stomach flips inside of his torso, suddenly terrified that he’ll lose control again. He grabs the bag of tortilla chips and shoves it back into the cupboard, paying little attention to the fact that the cabinet door slams loudly shut.

Kyle grabs the broom and dustpan from the hall closet and returns to the kitchen, hasty in his movements. Without further ado, he begins to sweep, making sure to get into the little nooks and crannies of the room. He double-checks under the chairs and makes notes of the stain underneath the table. He will get that later with a sponge. The mop doesn’t work for shit, it just spreads water around. Ike comes back in when he’s halfway done with sweeping, stopping dead in his tracks before he breaches the doorway.

“What are you doing?” Ike asks, carefully stepping over the pile of dust and debris Kyle has swept. He drops the kit on the kitchen table. Kyle tries to ignore the look Ike is giving him.

“I’m sweeping, this floor is filthy,” Kyle explains. He brushes the pile into the dustpan and tosses it into the trashcan, purposefully ignoring the orange and white of the peel from the orange he’d had earlier. Again, his stomach churns, and he swallows thickly at the idea of eating. He knows he won’t, he knows he doesn’t have to, and he knows Ike won’t make him. He knows Ike can’t make him, either. Kyle is the older sibling, Kyle is in charge… though it’d be a lie to say that Kyle feels very in charge.

“What happened to the chips?” Ike asks. Then, as if thinking better of the question, he swaps to, “What happened to eating?”

“I ate,” Kyle says, and it’s not a lie since he didn’t specify when he ate. It’s true, he ate. He ate too much, too fast, and then he forced it right back up again. It’s a waste of money, it’s a waste of food, it’s a waste of time, but Kyle wasn’t in control of what happened, so he decides he’s ignoring it. He replaces the broom in the hall closet, ignoring the fact that Ike is still following him around like a lost puppy. Kyle makes his way back to the kitchen, and Ike follows him. Kyle grabs a sponge and begins to wet it in the sink, squirting some soap into the center and lathering it into the material. With a smile, he asks, “Hey, Ike, remember that copycat phase you went through when you were little?”

Ike hops up onto the counter top, sitting with his legs dangling over the edge. He kicks them in alternations, his heels hitting the wood of the bottom cabinets. “Yeah, sorta, I guess,” he says. “Why?”

“How old were you, six?”

“Something like that,” Ike says. There’s a pause before he repeats, “Why?”

Kyle shakes the excess water out of the sponge and turns off the faucet with his elbow. “All you ever wanted to do back then was follow me around,” says Kyle. He makes his way over to the dining room table and kneels below it, finding the questionable stain of some sort that has been there for so long he’s learned to ignore it. He begins to scrub at it. “Which was annoying enough, but then you started to copy everything I did, too— if I laid down on the floor, you laid down next to me; if I did math homework, you did math homework.”

“I was six, I barely had homework,” Ike says.

My math homework.”

“...oh, right, yeah.”

He can’t help it. As he recalls the memories, he smiles. The image of the simpler times, when they were both still young and reasonably naive to the bad things in the world, is enough to make him feel fuzzy inside. He remembers being eleven years old, although those memories are very vague. He blinks away a strange misty feeling and doubles his efforts in getting the stain out.

“Once, I got so mad, that I pushed you,” Kyle says. He remembers that day well, in comparison to most things. He remembers Ike was copying the way Kyle was sitting on the floor, laying on his stomach with his chin in his hands, kicking his feet in the air. And then Ma called them both for dinner, and Kyle got up, and Ike got up the same exact way— and that was it, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Kyle flips the sponge over, using the rough side instead, even though Mom would scold him for scraping up the floors.

“And you know what you did?” Kyle asks.

“No,” Ike says, slow. “What?”

Through laughter, Kyle says, “You pushed yourself right back.” He stops scrubbing at the floor, just for a second, long enough to bring the back of his hand to his eyes and wipe the heaviness from his lids. The stain, a strange gray-beige color, hasn’t lightened in the slightest. He wonders if he’ll ever get it out of the floor. If he doesn’t get it out, Mom will be mad. She likes to keep the kitchen clean. She likes to keep everywhere clean, really; she’s big on appearances. Not in a vain way. In a decency way. He thinks of the way she looked, pale and shaking in a hospital bed, and he triples his vigor in the scrubbing of the stain.

“Kyle?” Ike asks. The counter squeaks as he hops off of it, and footsteps creak the foundation of the floor as he makes his way over. Kyle doesn’t respond. He just adjusts on his knees and continues the scrubbing, flipping the sponge back over to the soft side in an effort to get more soap onto the stain. He hopes it’ll soak in and finally help it come off. Once more, he flips the sponge, circling the coarse edge of it roughly against the corners of the stain. A speck lifts; he sees it, the speck, it lifts. Renewed, he presses his palm into the sponge and leans his weight into it. “Kyle, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting this stupid stain out,” Kyle says. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

There’s an uncomfortable moment. All that can be heard is the vigorous scrubbing and the sound of suds hissing in droplets of water. The occasional whine from the floor as Kyle shifts, too, but he tries to ignore that. The edges of his vision start to darken with how much attention he’s giving the stain. He blinks some of the particles away. There’s a hand on his back; he feels Ike’s presence behind him. He continues scrubbing. The hand moves to his shoulder, gently gripping, softly urging. “Kyle, Stop.”

“I have to get the stain out, Ike,” Kyle says.

Another little tug. “There’s nothing there,” Ike whispers. “Kyle, there’s nothing there, stop.”

Out of irritation, Kyle pulls back. He gestures sharply at the stain, at the definiteness of its edges, at the dark undertones and the color and the way it is certainly there. He traces the edge with his hand. His fingers slip in the remains of sudsy water. It’s really baked into the floor deep; he feels no texture from it. “It’s right here,” Kyle insists. He presses his fingers over it, tries to feel somewhere for an outline, for a raise where there was evidence of some food having been dropped, but there is nothing. It’s flat; it feels like the floor. It feels like...

There's nothing there.

Kyle says, “Oh.”

This time, when Ike tries to pull him back, Kyle relents. He scoots away from the stain, backing up and sitting on his haunches as he considers his next move. There’s nothing else like this feeling in his gut. He’s staring at it— he can fucking see the stain, it’s right there, it’s literally right there— yet Ike is telling him it isn’t there, and he doesn’t feel anything under his hand, and it isn’t coming out… “Give me the sponge, okay?” Ike says. Kyle hands the sponge over, though his every fiber tells him to hold onto it and resume trying. He wants to curl up around the stain and point at it and say it’s there! It’s right there! but he knows better than to do that. He… he wouldn’t be able to explain it, even if he tried.

Kyle stands up when Ike tells him to, and Kyle allows Ike to sit him in one of the chairs at the dining table. As Ike returns the sponge to the sink, Kyle gives repetitive, compulsory glances down at the stain. Every single time he does, he sees it. Eventually, it burns into his memory. He sees the outline of the stain everywhere. He sees it against the table, he sees it against the wall, he sees it on the ceiling and on his arm. It’s just one splotch of imperfection among the real beauty of everything else. He rubs at his arms, feeling comfort in his sleeves even if they are damp at the ends from the water. Even if they do smell like dish soap. Kyle stares at the table, looking over the items on it. His phone, and his kit. A stray place mat from dinner last night— or… was it last week? He can’t remember. He thinks he put it out for Mom last week and never had the heart to pick it back up… or was it last night?

Ike brings Kyle a bowl of leftovers from the other day. He pushes the kit toward Kyle, and Kyle catches it with his palm. At least his reflexes haven’t failed him. Ike doesn’t have to say anything for Kyle to understand and know what to do. He isn’t stupid, he’s just reluctant. He retrieves his meter and the strips and the needle and he goes through the elaborate process of pricking his finger and checking the number and there it is. To the surprise of both himself and Ike, the number is normal.

“It’s normal,” Kyle says, as if he had expected it to be so. He packs his kit back up and discards of the strip. When he sits himself back down at the dining table, he pushes the bowl of leftovers— chicken and rice, full of uncomfortable memories— across the table to where Ike now sits. Quickly, Ike grabs the bowl and pushes it right back in front of Kyle. “Oh, come on—”

“Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean you ate,” Ike argues. Kyle glances up at Ike, just so he won’t have to stare at the reheated meal. He doesn’t trust himself. But he can’t keep his gaze averted from it for long. The protein is tempting, and he’s always been one for rice. Such a thing won’t convince him, though. “Kyle, come on.”

Kyle wonders how many calories are in this meal. He wonders how it would effect the way he looks, or how it’d change the number on the scale for the worse. He doesn’t even know how much he weighs currently. He feels a sudden compulsion to weigh himself. He’ll have to dismiss himself to do that. He has to assure Ike he ate earlier and then head to the bathroom. Would it be sketchy? It shouldn’t be, he’ll just say he has to pee. “Look, Ike, I ate, I promise I did,” Kyle says. “I had a sandwich and an orange—” and another orange and some chips “—before you got home, then I went to bed, okay?”

For a moment, Ike says nothing. He just fidgets, a look of skepticism visible in his eyes. His shirt has begun to stretch in the front from where he pulls and wrings it between his hands. The table is softly shaking, and Kyle thinks that’s because Ike is bouncing his leg. Kyle gently stands, lifting the bowl of food up from the table and ignoring the way the heat from it prods his skin. He rounds the table to Ike and sets the bowl in front of his little brother. Ike looks up at him. Kyle cards his fingers through Ike’s hair and gives him a reassuring smile.

“Go ahead and eat, okay? You need it more than I do,” Kyle says. Ike turns his attention to the bowl of chicken and rice. In the pause, Kyle fears Ike might deny the meal, but Ike does no such thing. However hesitant, Ike does pick up the fork and prod at the chicken and rice. Kyle retrieves his kit from the table, turning to exit the kitchen and head back upstairs. Before he can go, however, he hears the distinct chirp of his phone receiving another text message. Momentarily, Kyle is unsure of how he’s supposed to handle the interruption. He reels for a second, though eventually returns to the table. He picks up his phone and opens the message, just in time for the next to send.

Stan

Today 6:22 PM
yknow whats FUNNY

I thought I could keep my parents from breaking up LOL

Kyle’s heart feels ready to stop beating. It flutters in his chest, and then picks up double-time, squeezing harshly against his ribs. His fingers shake as he responds.

Stan

Today 6:24 PM
What did I say about talking to me, Stan?

He hopes that’ll be the end of it, but Stan has never been very good at hints.

Stan

I thought if I made my mom think she was losing it she would drop it and everything would be A OKAY But NO

IF ID HAVE JUST TAKN TE CONSQKQNCEs OF BEGNI A FJUCKIN STONR LIEK A MAN NON OF THJS WOLD HAV HAPNED

how FUNNYI is THAT

The sudden transfer into caps is frightening, and Kyle’s chest suddenly grips like he’s just run a mile. He can see that Stan is still typing. He doesn’t want to receive any more messages, so he attempts to send something of is own, but he doesn’t manage to concoct more than a single word before panicking and hitting send.

Stan

Stan

And then the slew starts.

Stan

I didnt even want to put the weed in ur dresser

I wanted to tell you so so so bad LOL

BUT I WAS AFRAID HAHA

U WRE RITE I AM PATHETIC

IS THAT WHT U WANT KYLE? DYU WANT ME TO CALL MUSELF PTHETIC?

IS THAT WHAT ITL TAKE 2 MAKE THINGS OK AGAN?

Kyle wants to scream, wants to say no! That won’t make anything okay! but that’s beyond the ability of his mouth. He has to shake himself out of it though he feels distinctly like he won’t be able to escape. He doesn’t remember calling Stan pathetic— did he call Stan pathetic? Kyle feels sick.

Stan

Don’t.

The next message makes Kyle’s blood run thick and cold.

Stan

BECUZ ILL FUCKING DOIIT OKAY

What does he mean? Do what?

“Kyle?” Ike asks, his voice painfully soft in comparison to the yelling that’s going on in Kyle’s head. As Kyle reads the messages, he can’t help but hear them like Stan is right beside him, breathing in heaving gasps as he breaks down. Kyle doesn’t respond to Ike, instead favoring to glance at the front door. He changes routes and types out a quick message. His ears buzz as he rushes into the living room, catching himself on the wall next to the staircase, kicking on his shoes and slipping on his coat. He hears the footsteps of Ike coming out of the kitchen, quick and concerned. Ike, panicked, asks, “What’s going on? Is it Stan?”

Kyle says nothing. He glances at his phone, and sees two new messages. He also sees that he hadn’t sent the one he typed. Without reading the other two, he sends what he’d originally planned.

Stan

ILL CALL MSYELF PATHETIC ILL SPEND MY ENTRE FKKIN LIFE SAYN IM PATHETIC IF IT MENS I MKE IT BETER

IM PATHETIC IMPATHENC IM PATHEDIC IM PADETHIC

Please stop. You’re scaring me.

Kyle waits. He stares at the screen of his phone, the only bright thing left in the house at this point with the sun having gone down completely. Stan doesn’t read the message. The read receipt doesn’t pop up, and no bubbles appear indicating a response. It’s just quiet. Ike grabs Kyle’s arm, trying to peek over and read what’s going on. “What’s wrong? Is he—”

“I don’t know,” Kyle blurts, finding that whatever Ike was planning on saying would fit with such an answer. Is he okay? I don’t know. Is he mad? I don’t know. Is he trying to hurt himself again? I don’t know.

Finally, the read receipt toggles. And Stan types a response— quick and simple, and Kyle lets out the stressed breath he’s been holding.

Stan

i

im sorry

im sorry I love u ilove u ilov u

…wait.

Stan

Are you drunk?

There is an extraordinarily long pause before Stan’s next reply.

Stan

no

plz

I love you

but duck u kyle I hate u

Oh, for fuck’s—

“He’s drunk,” Kyle growls.

Stan

You’re drunk.

“He’s what?” Ike asks, as if he doesn’t know what the term means. Kyle makes a frustrated noise, overwhelmed with the way his body processes the aftermath of such a terrifying false alarm. “He’s drunk? Are you kidding?”

Stan

ur right. Ur alwaays right.

Kyle sighs, heading to the staircase and sitting on the bottom step. Ike sits beside him, shuffling his feet against the floor. Kyle falls into the blank space of the text conversation, allowing his heart to return to a normal pace.

Stan

Go to bed.

You’re going to be miserable tomorrow.

I wanna sleep 4 ever. Do u ever wan 2 sleep 4 ervr?

That’s certainly not reassuring.

Stan

Are you going to be okay on your own?

idk r u

I can call your mom.

nonono pleas dont

Then drink some water and go to bed.

mmmmmkay

Set your alarm, too. The last thing you’re going to want is your mom waking you up when you’re hungover.

“I thought he stopped drinking,” Ike pipes up, ceasing the shuffling. Kyle looks over in time to see Ike is watching him. Kyle’s skin is rather warm, and he feels a little overheated in his jacket. Even so, he tugs the flaps tight across his torso, having left it unzipped. He considers zipping it up, but that feels a little baring. Kyle rubs the pads of his fingers under his eyes, trying to rejuvenate himself.

“Apparently he’s relapsing,” Kyle says. He tries to hide his disappointment, but he doesn’t succeed. Ike frowns and turns away. Kyle returns to his phone, and after a few minutes of no response, he sends an extra text.

Stan

Did you drink any water yet?

yes

Have you set your alarm?

I dont kno how.

help

Kyle takes a second, thinking. Quickly, he comes to a conclusion. With the conclusion, he stands, tugging his keys out of his backpack and giving a quick once-over of the mental checklist he likes to pack before he leaves the house. He has his phone, which is the main thing he hates leaving without, so everything seems okay.

Stan

Fine. I’m coming over.

Ike pushes himself off of the step, hopping to his feet quickly. “Where are you going?” he asks.

“Stan’s place,” Kyle says. “I want to make sure he’s okay.”

Ike gives a nod. Kyle turns on his heel and pulls the door open, exiting swiftly. He makes sure to be careful on the patches of ice that coat the edges of the steps and the corners of the driveway. Fortunately, he manages not to slip. His phone buzzes.

Stan

wait really

wait nnonononono I dont want you tosee me like this

You should have fucking thought of that before you got drunk.

You fucking idiot. You never learn, do you?

Im sorry

Don’t. Don’t even start.

I’m coming over to make sure you don’t do something fucking stupid. That’s it.

This doesn’t mean I forgive you, and it doesn’t mean anything between us is fixed or okay.

Do you understand?

yes

Good. You’re lucky I know where you put the spare key. Otherwise you’d be dealing with a broken door.

aw u care

Barely.

He's faking, he's faking, he's faking.

In on it, they all are.

See? You're getting the hang of it.

They all are in on it.

Everyone. Stan and Eric are partnered up.

They've done it before, you remember that?

With the dam?

I broke the dam! I broke the dam!

He broke the dam?

We all broke the fucking dam.

With that, Kyle pushes his phone into his pocket and begins on the very short journey to Stan’s house. Or, tries to— he stumbles when he runs into someone, shaken and confused from having not seen anyone in front of him. He glances down, and for a very long time he has no idea how to feel about the fact that Ike is staring up at him, eyes wide and grinning like he just did something cheeky.

“Ike, Jesus Christ, what are you doing?” Kyle asks, placing a hand on Ike’s back to make sure he’s okay. Ike remains sturdy, even as he shifts side to side on a patch of ice in their driveway. Kyle gives a glance towards home, where the front door is shut. He didn’t lock it, but his intention never really was to lock it in the first place… which calls into question why he grabbed his keys. Suddenly perplexed by the logic his brain has come up with, Kyle retreats from Ike and steps up the porch to lock the door.

“Kyle, what are you doing? You locked it already,” Ike calls. Kyle ignores him, pressing the key into the lock and turning it until click— it… turns.

Kyle freezes. The outsides of his arms feel distinctly chilled, whether it be from a sudden wind or from the realization that Ike had been correct; he already locked it. He can’t help but wonder why such a thing is so confusing to him. Maybe it’s the fact that he definitely doesn’t remember locking the door. Trying to piece everything together, Kyle goes through what he remembers doing.

Kyle stood up from the step.

Kyle grabbed the keys.

Kyle left.

Kyle texted Stan.

Kyle turned to walk away, but Ike was already…

“Hey, wait a second,” Kyle blurts, more to himself than anything else. He spins around, giving Ike a firm glare. Ike’s expression reads that he knows what’s coming next. “Why the hell are you outside? Where do you think you’re going?”

After a quick pause, Ike lifts his arms in a strange side-shrug and says, “I’m coming with!”

“You’re not coming with,” Kyle says. “Stan would be pissed if he knew I let you see him drunk.”

“I’ve already seen him drunk,” Ike says. “He came over at four in the morning one time, but everyone was asleep, so I answered the door—”

“Ike, you’re not supposed to answer the door without an adult!” And then, after doing some quick math, Kyle adds, “Especially when you were eight years old!”

Ike blinks. “Why is that the thing you’re concerned with?” he asks. “I’m telling you about how Stan got shitfaced—”

“Language.”

“—and came over in the dead of night and you’re freaked by the fact that I opened the door?”

As much as Kyle hates to admit it, Ike definitely has a point. That doesn’t mean Kyle has to be happy about it, though. He huffs and turns around again to re-lock the door. Then, without further delay, he steps back down to the driveway and begins on his way to Stan’s house. He cuts through the lawn since it’s faster, and they’ve already wasted about five minutes too many. He doesn’t have the energy to fight with Ike, particularly about something so admittedly trivial. Besides, what if Kyle needs help? Kyle has managed a drunk Stan countless times, but that doesn’t mean either of them are impervious to the things that could go wrong.

Although most of the grass is covered in snow, some blades still peak up from the cracks, breaking the dull gray of the night with patches of midnight black. When Kyle and Ike enter the strange, foreboding realm of the Marsh house, their motion-sensor porch lights flicker to life. Some moths float from one corner of the fascia to the other, peppering the lights and sticking like stains. With that thought, Kyle finds himself cold again. He rubs his arms, trying to ignore the fact that his brain has apparently taken a liking to hallucinating— and trying to ignore the fear that the moths might not be real, either.

Kyle retrieves the spare key from inside of the Welcome wreath hung up next to the Marsh’s front door. It’s cold, borderline icy against his skin, and he feels concerned at the thought that the key might not work. Even so, he tries his luck. Fortunately, the key fits and the lock turns with only minor difficulties. After checking out the area to make sure Stan isn’t drunk off his ass and dancing on the coffee table (which has happened more times than even Kyle would like to admit) or vomiting on the staircase (only happened once, thankfully), Kyle ushers Ike inside of the foyer first to get him out of the cold. The wind is biting, and the last thing he wants is his brother to get sick.

The house is dark. No lights are on— not even upstairs, from what Kyle can see— and the memory of the moths fluttering across his vision is enough to make his spine tingle. Slowly, Kyle steps in and shuts the door behind them. No sounds, for a very long time. It’s just the buzzing of Ike and himself breathing, along with the gentle pressure and ringing in his ears. He blinks through the dark as his eyes adjust, carefully taking off his shoes and setting them at the edge of the doormat. Ike follows suit in the action.

Then, the sound of retching.

Immediately, Kyle spurs into action. He shoos Ike towards the couch. Without question, Ike takes a seat. Kyle is thankful that Ike doesn’t complain about the dark, or complain about not being able to come with. There are more important things than that, and Ike is able to be frighteningly mature when he wants to be. Kyle takes the stairs two at a time as he moves, overly conscious of the sound of his own jacket in the stillness of the house. The retching has since silenced, but he still knows exactly where it had been coming from. He knocks twice before entering the upstairs bathroom, pushing the door open with his shoulder at the realization that it hadn’t been closed properly.

Lights are on, and Kyle is almost too busy blinking his eyes into readjusting to light to see Stan hunched over the toilet with his fingers down his throat. In that moment, Kyle is stunned into stillness. His eyes, wide, examine everything that the image has to offer, however disgusting and horrific it is. When Stan pulls his fingers out of his mouth, he vomits, rather violently, into the bowl. Some of it is on his fingers, and the entire room reeks of booze and sweat and stomach acid. It’s only when Stan moves to do it again that Kyle snaps out of his fear. Kyle crosses the bathroom viciously and pulls Stan’s hand down to his side. Stan hiccups, spitting some excess saliva into the toilet bowl.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Kyle hisses, crouching next to Stan. When Stan seems more or less recovered from the obvious nausea, Kyle flushes the toilet. Stan sniffs wetly, his face red and splotchy. His eyes are bloodshot and there’s a spot in the white of one of them where a blood vessel broke. Fucking idiot. How long has he been at this shit? Stan lifts a shaking hand and gropes for the toilet paper. Kyle retrieves some, wrapping it around his hand for full coverage. With his wrapped hand, Kyle wipes the saliva and vomit off of Stan’s mouth and chin. Stan’s strained eyes slip closed. His entire body is shaking, Kyle notices. Kyle bites the inside of his cheek to brave the maturity of it all. After a brief pause, Kyle drops the toilet paper into the trashcan, saying, “You’re just dehydrating yourself more, you fucking idiot, do you want to die?”

Stan laughs a genuine, low-gutted laugh. He sniffs from where his nose is running, probably from the vomiting, and reaches up to rub the snot away with the back of his sweater sleeve. The poor thing has seen better days, it’s ratty and graying in places where it used to be lighter, shredded at the very tips of the sleeves and a portion of the hood from where Sparky used to use it as a chew toy. Kyle grabs Stan’s wrist before he can ruin the fabric with any bodily fluids; it’s a miracle that it’s dry and unscathed in those regards as it is.

“Why are you doing that?” Kyle asks, a little more accusing than he means, but Stan doesn’t seem to notice. This big, dopey grin crosses Stan’s face, spreading his cracking lips as if he’s preparing for a disgusting school portrait. Soon, the red flush of his cheeks returns, and Stan starts to giggle.

“I din’ do it,” Stan slurs, trying to weakly grope towards Kyle’s jacket. Kyle keeps his grip firm on Stan’s wrist, making sure he doesn’t get slimed with the quickly-drying vomit mixture on that hand. “I, ah… I din’…”

“Okay,” Kyle says, interrupting when Stan seems like he might be about to hurl again. He pushes Stan’s face back towards the bowl. Stan’s body seems to react on instinct, latching onto the sides of the toilet for dear life with a white-knuckled grip, even though he’s not actively heaving. In the resting, Stan drops his forehead against the seat, which is… gross, but Kyle will deal with that later. For now, he needs a soapy washcloth. He pats Stan gently on the back as he scans the bathroom, pinpointing the small shelf of washcloths and the sink. He stands, careful in his movements, and retrieves a light blue one. He flicks on the tap and runs the cloth under the warm stream of water, lathering it thoroughly with soap until it’s good enough to do the job. He rinses the excess out, turns off the sink, and returns to a softly whimpering Stan.

As Kyle begins washing off Stan’s hand, Stan tries to stumble through an explanation of some sort. “Sometimes I think I… like to— uh,” Stan mutters, head lolling on his shoulders as he lifts himself to sit up more. He wiggles his fingers as Kyle scrubs between them, apparently finding that extraordinarily hilarious. He belts out another slew of laughter, breathing in hiccups between bouts. “I— d’you get scared?”

Kyle glances up at the wide, glistening eyes of his friend. The ice blue of them spears through his soul, or so it feels; Kyle turns his attention back down, trying to eliminate the way Stan is looking at him. Another wet sniff buckles in the air.

Scared, scared, scared.

He's convening.

They're convening.

All good things come in threes?

Of course they do.

He's in charge.

He'll confess.

Shut up, I don't care if he's in on it, okay?

He's hurt.

Let me help him, please.

“I like drinking,” Stan says, the K sound popping low in the back of his throat, and sounding more like a hard G. With Stan’s right hand now clean, Kyle swaps to the other one, making sure to use the portion of the cloth that he didn’t just use for the first hand. “I like… I like it? But— but I also get— ah, I get really, reeeally scared, too.”

Stan’s head flops forward, and his forehead hits Kyle’s left shoulder. He smells sharp, but it’s not just from vomit and sweat. It’s from tears, too; a foreign salt has made its home in Stan’s skin. The corners of Stan’s eyes are dry, but his cheeks are definitely holding faint tear stains. Kyle looks back up, away from where Stan is resting his head on Kyle’s shoulder. Stan makes a pitiful noise.

“Like ih’s happenin’ all ovfer again!” Stan hiccups. “Like they’re wat’shing me swallow whiskey from that machine ‘til I black out all ovfer again!”

Kyle has no fucking idea what Stan is talking about, but he doesn’t interrupt.

“I always feel wat’shed,” Stan says. “I always feel wat’shed, when I drink, and I don’ feel safe, but— but, and then, and then I keep on drinking and I feel happy, though.”

Kyle finishes with Stan’s hands and folds the washcloth, finding the opposite side clean. He lifts Stan’s head up with his free hand and uses the clean side of the washcloth to wipe everything off of Stan’s face— snot, saliva, vomit, whatever he hadn’t caught with the toilet paper earlier. As soon as Kyle finishes with that, Stan lurches. For a second, Kyle is afraid that Stan’s about to puke all over Kyle’s lap, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Stan latches onto Kyle’s jacket, burying his face into Kyle’s chest. The dam has broken; Stan sobs, and he sobs hard. Kyle drops the washcloth on the floor.

“Kyle,” Stan says, “Kyle, Kyle…”

Stan whimpers and whines, loud shaking cries coming from his throat. Kyle wraps his arms around Stan, not thinking— he just acts on instinct, and instinct tells him to comfort. He lifts Stan up a little more so they’re hugging properly. It’s a little uncomfortable with Stan’s chin digging so sharply into Kyle’s shoulder, but Kyle doesn’t care. He just trails his fingers through Stan’s slightly-greasy hair and closes his eyes and rocks in a gentle, soothing movement as Stan collapses against him. He wonders if Stan is comfortable sitting like that on the side of his thigh, with his knees to one side, but Stan doesn’t really seem to care much. So Kyle keeps up the gentle soothing.

“I’m sorry,” Stan cries. “God, I’m sorry, I’m f’ckin’ useless, I’m f’ckin’ useless, I’m f’ckin’ useless, I—”

“Shh, you’re not useless, you’re not useless,” Kyle whispers, rubbing his palm over the shaking surface of Stan’s back. He massages gently between Stan’s shoulder blades, smoothing the fabric of Stan’s sweater. “Why did you make yourself throw up, Stan? Why were you making yourself throw up?”

Stan sobs harder. “I din’ do it,” he says. “I din’ drink, I din’ do it, see? I brought it all back up again, it doesn’t count, it doesn’t count, Kyle, tell me it doesn’t count…”

“Okay,” Kyle says. “Okay, it doesn’t count, it doesn’t count, it’s okay, you’re okay.”

It tapers off slowly. First the sobbing, then the whining, then the whimpering. Eventually, it’s only Stan heaving through the thickness in his lungs, his face tear-stained and soaked. His grip has loosened, too. Although Kyle doesn’t want to let him go, he knows he has to in order to move on to the next step in taking care of Stan. He gingerly moves to his knees, taking Stan with him until they’re both standing. Kyle drapes one of Stan’s arms over his shoulders to keep him upright, then puts down the toilet lid. He sits Stan down on the toilet and gently starts to pull Stan’s sweater off. He unzips it and tugs it down Stan’s arms, revealing the old, worn, plain white shirt underneath. Kyle moves to remove that, too, but Stan flinches, pushing Kyle’s hands away. Kyle allows Stan to stop him.

“What’s wrong?” he asks. Stan shakes his head.

“Can’t,” Stan mumbles. He sniffs, frowning, and gets surprisingly teary-eyed when he says, “I got whiskey dick.”

Against better judgment, Kyle laughs. That gets Stan going again, whimpering with wide, tearful eyes. Kyle feels bad immediately and does his best to remedy the situation. “I’m sorry, aw, I’m sorry, don’t look at me like that,” he says, brushing some of Stan’s hair out of his face. In that moment, he feels a bit like he’s talking to a child. “We’re not having sex, Stan, I’m just trying to get you into the shower.”

“Oh,” Stan says. He lets go of where he’d been pushing Kyle away, allowing his hands to fall to his lap. Kyle gives Stan a look of thanks and returns to lifting Stan’s shirt up over his head. Stan helps, lifting his arms when necessary to get the clothing item off. When Kyle kneels to take Stan’s socks off, Stan bluntly says, “You said you wan’ned to fuck me.”

Kyle goes very still. He bites at his lip, trying to ignore the thoughts and memories of that day. It’d been a fucked up day, in many respects. Essentially coming out with his crush on Stan in a very uncouth manner, then being blatantly rejected and told he didn’t matter, and then going to see his mother, and then… the first time he…

Swallowing, Kyle drops Stan’s socks on the floor and stands.

“Can you get your pants off on your own, or do you want help?” Kyle asks. Stan waves it off as if that’s the stupidest question in the universe, proceeding to struggle with the fly of his jeans. Kyle gives him a minute or so to fumble before asking, “Do you want help?”

“No,” Stan pouts. More fumbling.

“Do you need help?”

“…nooo.”

“Stan.”

“I goddit, Kyle.”

Three.

Two.

One…

“I—I don’ goddit, Kyle.”

There it is.

Kyle pushes Stan’s hands out of the way and makes quick work of Stan’s fly. He helps Stan up and tasks Stan with keeping his boxers up while Kyle tugs his pants down. Once past his knees, Stan sits back down and Kyle pulls them off of his legs.

“Do you want to keep your underwear on?” Kyle asks. Stan nods, and Kyle is immediately relieved of the tiny amount of stress that had built up in his shoulders. Kyle instructs Stan to stay where he is and ducks into the shower, quickly turning the water on and adjusting the temperature. When it’s warm enough to be comfortable, he opens the shower door and helps Stan inside.

It’s messy work, and soap gets into Stan’s eyes in the process, but they eventually manage to get the smell of puke and sweat out of Stan’s skin. When Stan is fully cleaned— or, mostly cleaned, at least (Stan abruptly sobered up a bit and got really pissy when Kyle tried to wash his hair)— Kyle helps Stan out and wraps him up in the towel that had been hanging on the rack. Kyle fills a Dixie cup with water and hands it to Stan, who rinses his mouth with the water in tired swishes. He spits it into the sink and then coordinates himself enough to brush his teeth fairly thoroughly. All the while, Kyle picks up the articles of clothing from the floor and tosses them into the hamper. Stan snags his sweatshirt back and tries to throw it on while holding the towel up, which doesn’t work. Kyle tries to help, but Stan glares at him.

This is the type of treatment Kyle expects. Anger. Resentment, maybe— pure hatred, at worst, or… maybe at best. This is what Kyle gets for snapping over the phone, for yelling about the weed that he isn’t even mad for having, for calling Stan pathetic in the mess of it all, like he really needed that. But it's all for the bigger picture.

Kyle leads the way to Stan’s bedroom. As Kyle finds Stan a new pair of underwear and fresh set of clothes for bed— which look remarkably like the set from just thirty minutes earlier, considering Stan’s entire wardrobe is basically the same outfit over and over again at this point—, he finds himself stuck in a loop of silence. He doesn’t know if Stan tries to talk to him, and he doesn’t know if that bothers him or not. Stan crawls into bed and Kyle watches from afar, trying not to feel much, not that he’d have much to feel anyway.

When Stan starts to fumble with his alarm, Kyle crosses the room and retrieves it. He sets it up for Stan, who acknowledges him with a tired slur of “gesundheit” that Kyle thinks is supposed to mean "thank you".

“Do you want the covers?” Kyle asks.

“No,” Stan says, and Kyle leaves that there. He sits next to Stan in bed, just taking a moment to breathe. He’ll probably have to check the bathroom later to make sure Stan didn’t leave any drips anywhere, but that can wait. For now, he has to make sure Stan sleeps… and gets water, shit. Kyle makes to stand, but Stan catches his wrist with surprising strength and says, “Don’t leave.”

Kyle doesn’t. He calls for Ike, loud, and Ike comes barreling up the steps with zero grace and tumbles into the room head-first. As soon as he’s inside, he stands at attention and grins, then proceeds to salute the two of them like a soldier.

“Aye-aye, cap’n!” says Ike. Kyle rolls his eyes.

“Could you go grab Stan a glass of water? No ice,” Kyle says. Ike nods, spins on his heel in a bastardized version of about-face, and runs back down the steps to retrieve the water. In the stillness, Kyle flicks on Stan’s bedside lamp and turns, adjusting the pillows beneath Stan’s head.

“Wendy…” Stan mutters. Kyle is silent, respectful of whatever he’s about to say, even if it will hurt to hear. Stan would probably rather have Wendy here, isn’t that right? Should Kyle call her? Probably not, right? Stan would be so embarrassed. The last thing anyone wants is for Stan to throw up again, too. Stan closes his eyes and curls up, pulling on Kyle’s arm. “I broke up with Wendy.”

Kyle stills. Stan resumes the tugging, eventually rolling over onto his other side. Kyle has to follow, and ends up curling up in bed next to Stan just to make sure he doesn’t get his arm torn off. Stan seems to like that, letting go and turning back around to stare at Kyle. In the offending light of the lamp, however mild, Stan squints. He smells minty and clean, now, though there’s a definite undertone that probably won’t leave until the sweater gets a heavy-duty washing. It always kind of smells of Stan, now. He wears it so often it’s basically a part of him… “Why?” Kyle asks.

Stan’s eyes look more green in the dark. They’re not green at all, though. They’re blue. They’ve always been blue; this pretty, pristine color, like the sky on a clouded December morning or the shallow parts of white-sand beaches. When they fill with tears, or glaze over with memory, they look like frosted porcelain. The red surrounding Stan’s eyes has lightened in places and darkened in others; the tiny subconjunctival hemorrhage looks the same. “I broke up with her, and she said I’m gay,” Stan says. “And… I think she's maybe kinda sorta right.”

Something painful happens in Kyle’s stomach. It feels similar to when he’d been recovering from vomiting earlier in the afternoon, except it’s… different. He can’t describe it. It just feels raw, and almost tinny. His heart fills with hope but his head hurts because he knows that he can’t do anything. Even being here is a severe risk— texting Stan back will be very bad when Eric finds out about it. If he doesn't know already, and if they aren't actually... in on it together. That idea is frightening. It triggers something. That pain in his stomach turns to a sinking in his chest, frightening in its depth. Kyle wants to pull away and run, but he can’t. He doesn’t. He grabs Stan’s hand and says nothing.

Ike returns with the water. Kyle sits up and instructs Stan to follow. Kyle tells him to drink, and Stan does. He sips carefully, and when he gives the glass back to Kyle, Kyle sets it down on Stan’s bedside table. Stan lays back down and almost immediately conks out, his breath steadying. As he slips into deeper sleep, Kyle bends down and places a kiss on Stan’s forehead. Gentle.

A goodbye. Hopefully not a permanent one.

Kyle quietly opens Stan’s closet, retrieves the mostly-empty bottle of whiskey, and… he makes a decision.

“Ike,” Kyle whispers. Ike approaches. Kyle gives Ike the keys to their house and says, “I need you to run home quick, okay? There’s a bag in my room, it has a pill bottle in it with Stan’s name on it.”

“Oh,” Ike says. In that moment, Ike unzips his jacket and removes a tightly-folded-up plastic bag from the waistband of his pants. Handing it over, Ike asks, “You mean this thing?”

Speechless, Kyle stares at it. After a solid minute of nothing, he takes it and asks, “What the hell, Ike?”

“Why’d you think I wanted to come?” Ike says. “I found it when you told me to grab your kit, and I wanted to leave that here so you wouldn’t try getting high.”

“You shoved it in your pants?” Kyle hisses. Ike just shrugs. Exasperated, Kyle wraps the bag tightly in Stan’s old Toolshed outfit (a really weird place to hide a fucking secret stash of whiskey, if you ask Kyle), and goes the extra mile of leaving a note with it, scribbled on a spare sticky note he found on Stan’s desk.

Kyle re-wraps the stupid outfit and places it back where he found it in the closet. He double-checks to make sure everything is as Stan left it. Before leaving the room, he gives Stan a quick once-over to make sure he’s okay. He looks unscathed; clean, with damp hair, and no longer smelling totally gross. Kyle leaves the room with Ike, double-checks the bathroom, too, and then heads downstairs with his little brother in tow. They slip on their shoes and turn off the lights as they go. Just before exiting the front door, Kyle feels a certain pang of panic. He doesn’t want to leave Stan alone, he really doesn’t, but he can’t stay. He’s playing with his mother’s life, here, and Stan is sleeping. He’ll be okay.

Kyle and Ike step back out into the frigid winter evening. It must be nearing eight at this point, though neither checks the time. Moths dart this way and that, and one lands on Ike’s shoulder. Kyle brushes it off and tugs Ike back home quickly. He doesn’t want to linger outside, especially since Eric could be watching from anywhere. Kyle doesn’t relax until Ike and himself are back inside, with little more than cold noses and red cheeks to show for their absence. Dad still isn’t home, but neither of them have expected him to come home in a timely manner. Sometimes Dad doesn’t even call. He’s just…

Not there.

Kicking off his shoes, Kyle loses himself. He thinks about the stain beneath the kitchen table and he ponders the permanence of the moths outside Stan’s house. He catches a glimpse of the memory where he saw scars on Stan’s thighs and wonders if maybe he put them there and maybe he caused it.

Not just it, though— Stan’s relapse, too. The fact that Stan is now drunk for the first time in four years, on the same day that Kyle yelled at him over the phone, is certainly no coincidence. And in the quiet, in the silence, as he stares at the wall and shrugs off his jacket and hangs it up and breathes and breathes and breathes, Kyle discovers that he feels a certain disintegration.

And he feels. He feels, he feels, he feels…

And he shatters.

Oh, god.

Stan wasn't in on it.

Stan wasn't fucking in on it, was he?

A strangled noise escapes his throat, which embarrasses him. He claps a hand over his mouth and shudders. Tears trickle down his cheeks and drip from his chin. He grabs the banister of the stairs, then lets himself drop to the floor, latching onto the wall with inefficient claws. Kyle turns so his back rests against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut to ignore the rest of the world. He wants to hide, but he can’t. He needs an open space to sob into.

Ike says nothing. He just sits next to Kyle and curls into his side, hugging him from there.

Kyle cries.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Fatass

Today 4:14 AM
New task!! No food today ;))

Excuse me? Are you trying to kill me?

thats a very good question kyle but I have to return it your way…. Are YOU trying 2 kill you?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

we both know what it means. Don’t play stupid + don’t pretend like u don’t like it. Like ur not relieved by it. What is it to you? Is the relief because you have an excuse? If someone asks, if someone finds out abt me (which they WONT if u know what’s good for u), then u can blame me, hmmmmm?

What are you talking about?

oh, please. Didn’t I tell u not to play stupid?? Lol u kno ur bad at hiding this. Or maybe im just very good at spotting it since I’m not blind and brainwashed by your kind.

Stop being cryptic.

I always wondered, btw, whats it feel like to stick ur fingers down ur throat? Does it hurt? What type of puker are you, kyle? Do u cry? Does ur nose run, do u flush?

no response, huh? Scared bc I caught u puke-handed?

you know thats disgusting, rite? Tho I Admit it’s ironic. Funny, haha, lol. The jew overeating just to purge it. Is it in ur genetic code, I wonder?? R u overcompensating for ur ancestors? Do u have generational PTSD??

You call ME insensitive and offensive, yet YOU’RE the one spitting in the faces of those ancestors by doing that little binge/purge number of yours. You Know that?

I’m not bulimic.

oh of COURSE you’re noooot. Why, kyle, ur just ungrateful.

r u trying 2 b thin & beautiful 4 me, kyle? Do u kno what’s coming?

fine, don’t reply to me. Just starve to death like the good jew you are.

we’re lucky there isnt a gas chamber nearby… goodness knows what u would do with that, eh?

;)

Clawing himself out of bed that morning is full of reluctance. There’s moss inside of his skull and a dull feeling of naked joints throughout the rest of his body. His throat burns with every swallow and his eyes threaten to close, even though he’s kept them open since Eric woke him up three hours ago with that stupid text conversation. Barely managing to avoid choking on his own saliva, Kyle grabs the edge of his mattress and pushes himself up using the strength of his arms. He doesn’t know why he’s so tired, but he blames it on the stress, and he blames it on the lack of sleep. He crosses the hall and enters the bathroom, where he observes his reflection in the mirror.

The dark circles under his eyes look more and more like bruises every day. He rubs the pads of his fingers over the gentle swelling, the startling contrast of deep purple and fading yellow, if you look close enough. His lips are chapped, and there’s a portion of the inside of his top lip that has become tender. He wonders if he has started to chew that section of his mouth, but he doesn’t remember having taken up the habit with that particular area, and he quickly dismisses it as unimportant. He thinks he should shower, but he doesn’t have the mental fortitude to do that so early in the morning. Instead, he splashes his face with cold water, brushes his teeth, strips to his briefs and steps onto the scale.

130.4 pounds.

He has managed to lose just under five pounds. The information gives him a light soaring feeling, something pleasant. He steps off the scale, but when the number disappears, so does the feeling. He wants to feel the little high again, the little affirmation that he’s doing well at something that no one else has any control over (Eric doesn’t have any control, he doesn’t, he may think he does, but he doesn’t). In a desperate attempt at something he can’t quite explain, he steps back onto the scale and watches for the number. Again, it reads the same: 130.4. For a second, he doesn’t know what to do. His goal was to lose five pounds, wasn’t it? He remembers laying on his bedroom floor and coming up with the goal to lose five pounds… and now that he thinks about it, he can remember deciding that 120 was a better number.

Kyle steps onto the scale for a third time, as if his weight will have somehow changed in the thirty seconds he hasn’t been on the scale. It’s still the same. The happiness is replaced with a darker, morose feeling of weight. He’s reminded that he’s still technically point four pounds heavier than he would like to be before moving on, and that’s enough to make him feel irate and resentful. He kicks the scale gently under the sink, gets dressed in a new outfit, and ignores the urge to collapse down the stairs. He takes them slowly, one step at a time until he’s on the first floor and then he turns and he’s in the kitchen, staring at Ike as he struggles with the sizzling eggs he’s scrambling in the skillet. Such an image is disturbing to Kyle, and he quickly crosses to take over.

“Hey, careful,” Kyle says, nudging his brother out of the way. He takes the spatula away from Ike and grabs the hot pad Ike had been using on the handle of the pan. He fears it. The sight of it, the smell of it— though the sight makes more sense in the grand scheme of things. He wonders if he would still be afraid of it if he didn’t know what it looked like, if he didn’t know how much space it took up, if he didn’t understand the mass it held. But the very thing that ruins his appetite, holds the very thing that enforces his fear; both things are gripped in very similar claws, with the only difference being that one is in the right hand and the other is in the left. Kyle blinks away the distance and shifts his weight from one side to the other, carefully stirring the cooking eggs with the spatula. The food hisses and spits; angry.

“I was cooking,” Ike says.

“I know, I’m not blind,” Kyle says. He huffs, taking the eggs off the heat once they’re done and leaving them to cool for a minute. He retrieves a plate for Ike. “Do you want toast? I can make you some if you want.”

For a second, Ike is silent, but he eventually responds with an affirmative and takes his usual spot at the dining table. Kyle retrieves the loaf of bread from the cabinet and, after asking Ike if he wants one slice or two, places one slice of bread into the toaster. He pushes the lever down and puts away the bread. When the toast is done, he plates that with a serving of eggs and sets the plate down in front of Ike, who prods at the meal with a fork for a couple of seconds before asking, “Aren’t you going to have anything?”

Kyle mimes checking the time and says, “I think I’ll have something quick at school, we’re running a little later than normal.”

“We got half an hour,” Ike says, munching on a bite of toast.

“Half an hour to get to school, not half an hour to relax before leaving.”

“Whatever.” Ike continues to eat, quickly and efficiently packing away his breakfast. Kyle feels disgusted, being in the same room as someone who is eating. That makes him experience guilt, which renders him frozen in the thoughts of seeing Stan so broken last night. He swallows, remembering the way Stan looked— hunched over the toilet with his fingers down his throat… Kyle reassures himself that not eating is the better way to do this, anyway. He hadn’t realized how atrocious it looked from an outside perspective, and with such an image in his head, it’s… harder. To explain, to understand. It’s just harder.

Kyle paces. He absconds to the living room, and he paces. Back and forth, back and forth, rubbing his hands together and contemplating the things in his head that he can’t make enough sense of to put words to and he’s suddenly in short supply of energy. He sighs, allowing his eyes to momentarily close, but he doesn’t allow himself to sit down. He would rather keep standing. Standing is healthier. Pacing keeps him awake, and it keeps the blood flowing, and it burns calories thus shedding weight quicker and he’s fine.

Ike finishes breakfast a few minutes later, entering the living room with his backpack over his shoulder and his uniform a bit more ruffled than usual. Kyle takes the time to brush out the wrinkles and straighten out the jacket before kicking on his shoes, retrieving his backpack, and exiting the house. In a last minute decision, Kyle grabs Ike’s hand firmly in his own and holds it, tight. Just to make sure. Just to keep things safe, and contained. Left with only one free hand, he messes with his keys, which jingle as he struggles with them, suddenly finding coordination to be more difficult than normal. “Kyle, are you okay?” Ike asks when Kyle almost drops them. Kyle only gives a gentle nod and shoves the keys into the lock, turning and clicking it closed. He pockets his keys and proceeds to the driveway and on their way down the sidewalk—

“Kyle!”

That voice is unmistakable. Kyle stops right where he is out of instinct. When he lifts his head to look at Stan’s driveway— as if wondering if it’s really true— he realizes just what he’s supposed to be doing. Avoiding. The memory hurts him more than the process, and he scowls against the outdoor weather. Images, more of them— Stan sobbing into his shoulder, Stan laughing about something incomprehensible, Stan with his fingers down his throat… Stan comes to an abrupt halt a few feet away from them. “Kyle, hey—”

Before he can have the chance to say anything else, Kyle grips Ike’s hand tighter and tugs him forward. Ike stumbles, and for a second he feels bad, but that feeling passes in a rolling tumble of balling up emotions and attempting to be apathetic and unfeeling and angry. Kyle feels his entire body tense when he realizes that Stan is following after them, his gait slightly uncoordinated. He’s hungover, no doubt, and the ice probably isn’t helping his balance any. Kyle feels sick to his stomach.

“Don’t ignore me,” Stan calls, a few feet behind them. “C’mon, man, please, I know I messed up, I’ve said I’m sorry, and I— I can make it up to you, I can—”

“Stop following me,” Kyle says, trying to be firm. He can’t risk it. Why can’t Stan just mind his own business for a while until Kyle can sort everything out? Stan’s pace stutters, Kyle hears it, but Kyle doesn’t care. He keeps pulling Ike along.

The footsteps return in vigor. “Please, I’m begging you— Kyle.”

Stop following me,” Kyle repeats, significantly more insistent. “Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you!”

“But you haven’t let me explain,” Stan says, sounding frantic. “At least let me explain—”

“No!” Kyle lets go of Ike’s hand and whirls around, almost slipping on the ice. He manages to keep himself sturdy, even though his knees feel like they’re about to buckle. Stan takes a moment’s pause, swallowing and examining something about Kyle’s appearance. In that moment, Kyle knows that Stan sees every single flaw that Kyle has to hide.

“Are you… okay?” Stan asks.

Kyle pretends he’s talking to Eric. He phases Stan out of the equation and reacts like he’s facing the aggressor, the one who makes his life a living hell, the one who pointed out to no technical fault just how atrocious Kyle’s recent behaviors have been… and to think Kyle ever thought he actually deserved food. His body can’t even process properly, how wasn’t that sign enough that he shouldn’t exist? “No!” he shouts at the phantom Eric. “No, I am not okay! Do I look okay to you? Huh? Do I?”

Kyle gestures widely to himself, almost stumbling at the action, suddenly a little dizzy.

“Do you understand just how much pain I’m in?” Where am I? Oh, right. “How much pain you’ve caused?”

Stan glances around.

“I just want you to leave me alone—” Eric “—Stan!” There is something that begins to settle, somewhere deep in Kyle’s chest. Everything rushes in on him in a strange swirl of incoming motion. He stares at himself in the mirror, for a split second, little flashes and feelings of physical representation. “Is that really too much to ask?”

“Why are you antagonizing me so much?” Stan snaps back. Kyle feels the tension rise; this is what he needs, but it’s the exact opposite of what he wants. “It was just a little weed—”

“Shut up!” Kyle says, unable to stop himself. When he looks at Stan, when he sees those eyes, all he can think of is the way they bore into his soul as they sat on Stan’s bathroom floor, or the way they filled with perplexed tears as he recalled some strange, false alcohol-induced memory Kyle didn’t understand. And when he thinks of such things, when he remembers the way Stan shook, when he smells the phantom odor of vomit and sweat and the sticky salt of tears, Kyle’s instincts to protect try to kick in and he— he— Kyle blinks sharply, ignoring the urge to collapse. “Just— just shut up.

Kyle turns and takes Ike’s hand, storming off quickly towards the bus stop. Stan follows them a few more feet— Kyle hears the footsteps. As Kyle and Ike get closer to the bus stop, however, those footsteps fade, until they fall away into silence. With the silence comes a strange, fearful calm. A paradox within itself… he revels in it. He collides through the mists of fog and freezing condensation, caught in the netting of the atmosphere around them. Walking has never before felt more freeing, and as he comes to a stop just next to the small sign signaling the presence of the stop, Kyle halts.

He doesn’t think. He just crouches and brings Ike in for a hug. Without hesitation, Ike hugs back, resting his cheek on Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle feels his fingers clench in the fabric that stretches as a canvas across Ike’s back, the fluff of the winter coat covering the neat and tidy primness of Ike’s uniform. Ike returns the same sentiment, digging his nails into the fabric of Kyle’s coat. Ike nuzzles his face into Kyle’s shoulder. Beyond Ike’s shoulder, Kyle stares out at the road and thinks about the ease of the snow. He contemplates the dangers of tires finding black ice. He squeezes Ike closer to himself, gently sifting his fingers through the hair on the back of Ike’s head. He wants to turn away, wants to lift Ike up into his arms and keep running until they reach the other bus stop, the one that leaves for Denver at eight thirty. He thinks about packing up the bare minimum of his and Ike’s things, and he thinks about getting the hell out of Dodge. Starting over, someplace where Mom isn’t dying and Dad isn’t missing and Eric isn’t breathing over Kyle’s shoulder, someplace where—

Ike pats Kyle on the back, soft.

Kyle takes the hint and lets go. He gives Ike a faint smile, one that is almost impossible to perfect in the mixture of different factors. The cold, the hurt, the way the day seems to keep going at a thousand times the normal pace… Kyle bites the flesh of his tongue, digging in, ignoring the way it hurts and enjoying the way it feels. He brushes Ike’s shoulders off, ridding them of the lint and stray snowflakes. Kyle wants to say so many things that he finds himself speechless.

The bus rolls up and comes to a stop in front of them. The door opens, and Kyle pats Ike once on the back. Ike looks up at him, eyes wide, and Kyle feels like a perpetrator. He feels like he’s yelling at Stan all over again. A second later, though, those eyes are gone. Ike faces the bus and hops up the slush-slick steps, using the rail as an aid to keep himself upright. He disappears into the depths of the bus. The doors close.

“Goodbye,” Kyle says, though he knows Ike didn’t hear or see him. He waits, stares through the windows until he swears he sees Ike’s cold-flushed face through the sun-darkened windows of the bus, and when they make eye contact, Kyle mouths, “I love you.”

Kyle doesn’t know if Ike sees, or realizes, or whatever. But the bus drives off before he can contemplate it too much. Even though it’s gone, Kyle still says more things to Ike in his mind. He hopes that he can think true the sentiment of Goodbye, I love you, see you later, be safe until it sounds like a strange mantra or age-old saying. Goodbye, I love you, see you later, be safe. Goodbye, I love you, see you later, be safe. Goodbye, I love you, see you later, be safe. Goodbye, I…

Subconsciously, Kyle looks down the sidewalk, gazing back where he had come from. To his surprise— or maybe it isn’t a surprise, at this point— Stan is still there. He’s observing from a distance, staring with the most hurt, introspective expression Kyle may ever see. Coming from him, at least. It’s a relief. A flicker of hope. A small, faint, little flicker of hope, a single drop of water in the desert, an oasis— he prays it.

But it can’t be real.

Kyle turns his back on Stan and walks away.

 

Halfway through fourth period, Kyle’s stomach is eating itself and he has to dismiss himself as casually as possible to the bathroom in the middle of the lecture. He is slow in his walk, and calm on the outside, but inside he’s anything other than calm. There’s a mist of cotton, a veil inside of his head, draped over the corners of his eyes and blurring the world around him until he is certain that there’s nothing that really exists anymore. He gets a quick drink of water from the drinking fountain, but that’s a mistake. He darts into the boy’s bathroom and shoves into one of the empty stalls, kneeling in front of the toilet just in time for the water to try and come back up again. Fortunately, he manages to keep it down, but the cold of it settles like a rock in his stomach. He sits there for the remainder of the period because he doesn’t trust himself to move without vomiting.

Once the bell rings, though, he has a severely limited amount of time before people flood in to take a piss before lunch. Kyle climbs to his feet, using the walls of the stall to aid him in standing, and flushes the toilet just so it sounds like he actually did something. He finds himself reliving thoughts from the very first time he ever pushed his fingers down his throat and failed. He relives a vague, blossoming tendril of the guilt he now feels in more rough, throbbing cracks through his entire body. It heats him like embarrassment, leaves him empty with hatred. He entertains the thought of going through the lunch line and eating something (the idea is so tempting; his mouth waters), but the nausea comes back like a reminder of why he’s doing this in the first place and instead he drowns in the thoughts of shouldn’t have eaten, trying to compensate, should have said no should have just slept should have run shouldn’t have risked it should have been safer be safe be safe…

Kyle washes his hands free of the nothing that’s on them. Soap helps him feel cleaner, though the backs of his hands are dry and the scab on the final knuckle of his index finger has cracked open and started to bleed. It stings under the water and the soap flicks the stinging up to high heat. He bites back the urge to wince just as a group of boys wanders in, pushing each other into walls and snorting about how Missus Pryce has huge knockers. Disgusted, Kyle flicks the excess water into the sink basin and retrieves a paper towel. He exits the bathroom, retrieves his backpack from his fourth period classroom (which is empty, thankfully), and begins on his way to the cafeteria. It’s the last place he wants to be, but the school recently enacted a rule that no students are allowed to “eat” (whether they’re actually eating or not) outside of the lunchroom. It’s a stupid rule, but Kyle refuses to bring attention to himself by disobeying it. He contemplates sitting with Kenny and Butters, but quickly decides against it at the thought of having to ignore Stan. Kyle finds an empty table at the opposite end of the cafeteria and sets up shop there.

It’s kind of nice to sit alone. He doesn’t have to worry about anyone bothering him for not eating, and he doesn’t have to pretend to be okay when he isn’t. He can just exist, really, and that’s exactly what he needs. For a very long time, he does absolutely nothing. He just stares, examining the contrasts of the lunchroom and feeling very tranquil within it all. A buzzing begins somewhere in his heart, though, and he quickly realizes he needs to be active. In a very minimal way, at least. His hands ache to do something. He tugs a notebook and pencil out of his backpack and begins to write. In the free time he has had before bed, and in the early hours after waking, he has been able to concoct a more complete idea of the psalm he’s been doing his best to memorize. He jots it down, more acute with the concept of it.

And when he’s done, he writes it again.

And again.

His stomach, hurting and reminding him of the sharpness hunger can hold, tries to squeeze at his lungs. His throat closes and he feels like he’s swallowing down more than just saliva, but that’s just the thickness of his dry throat. The least he could have done was pack himself a bottle of water from home. He won’t try the school water again. For all Kyle knows, Eric has poisoned it. Because that’s why he almost couldn’t keep it down. That loss of control— or near loss of control— was the doing of Eric. Not Kyle. Kyle is fine.

Kyle’s eyes swap focus like a damaged camera, blurring in the places he’s trying to look and sharpening in the places he’s not too concerned about. He sees the bustling of people. Such an observation is sudden. It’s like he woke up in the middle of a bees nest or an anthill. Groups scurry and jab at each other. Overwhelmed with the realization of his loneliness, Kyle averts his gaze from the lunchroom to instead stare at the paper of his notebook. The lines, sizzling in his dim gaze, twitch in some places. He shakes his head and blinks. Is this where he is? Is this his life? At this point, it’d just be better if Kyle wasn’t here anymore.

Right?

Isn’t it funny?

It gets hard to breathe. He presses his lips together just so he can feel them, which is a strange thing to ponder. There’s a mild tingling, a strange zipping that tenses the muscles of the hand holding the pencil. He rolls his wrist, unintentionally drawing a sloppy semicircle across the corner of the page. His paper is covered in little dots. When did that happen? Fuck, what time is it? He has to… sleep, that’s what he has to do. His eyes want to close and his lungs are squeezing like he ran a mile.

Abruptly, Kyle can taste blood. It’s faint, prickling his tongue with the severity of a mild needle-tip of iron, but he tastes it nonetheless. He trails his tongue over his teeth, trying to find the source, but he can’t find it. He just tastes the faint ghost of it.

Someone touches him. There’s a hand rubbing his back, right between his shoulder blades— or… over them, near them. His spine twitches in reaction, and be blinks himself back to his body. He looks over to the left, where the person touching him hovers, leaning over and down with their face level with Kyle’s. The room is bright, Kyle knows that, but his eyes only register dark and dizzy and sleep, he… he needs sleep, he should sleep. Who’s touching him? Dark hair. Ike? Kyle wants to squint, but he doesn’t have the brainpower. It must be Ike. Ike is smiling.

“Hey,” Ike says, voice quiet. That doesn’t sound like Ike. All at once, a face registers. He knows it. He knows who this is, he knows who it is he knows but he can’t pinpoint the name. Dark hair. Blue eyes. I saw your face, I know you. The person rubs circles into Kyle’s back. It’s nice and slow, something grounding. “How are you feeling?”

Kyle opens his mouth, intending to reply, but he can’t. There’s something stuck inside of his mouth, catching his voice off until he loses it forever. He’s just this shell, confused and feeling sick like he’s underwater. He doesn’t know where he is. He looks around in an attempt at reorienting, but there’s so much sound and noise everywhere that he genuinely can’t figure out the scenery.

“Hey, Kyle, look at me,” the person says. Kyle does. Finally, he gains the energy to squint. But just a few seconds is more than enough energy to use, and he closes them. Once more, he is reminded of his need to sleep. Deprived of the rest his brain needs, he feels ready to collapse and shut down. Like a robot. Like a television. Like a computer. Like a phone. Ringing— the person touches Kyle’s forehead. It’s heat, a nice heat, a body heat, that Kyle is unsure of. The hand disappears and Kyle finds a spot on a nearby window rather interesting. Is that a tree? “Kyle, no, keep looking at me, alright?”

No, now hold on, Kyle knows who this is. He knows, just give him a second. It’s—

“Do you want to go to the nurse?” Stan asks. Kyle breathes in like it’s the first time, though it’s quiet. He furrows his brows for a second, focusing on the strange feeling in his… what’s the word? Chest. Yeah, that’s it. His stomach hurts. He should eat. He can’t eat, though, it’ll just come back up again. Fuck wait Kyle knows what’s happening. He’s felt this way before, it’s familiar. Kyle drops the pencil he had forgotten about and starts feeling around his jacket, trying to find the pocket with his… what’s the word? What are they called? “What are you doing?”

“I need…” Kyle stills, opening his eyes again at the sound of his own voice. Is that really what he sounds like? Of course it is, Christ. He’s being ridiculous. His blood sugar is low. Really low. He can feel it. It’s hard to explain but he’d be able to pinpoint this feeling anywhere. Or… maybe not, considering it took him so long to realize. Wait no, he realized earlier, didn’t he? But he can’t eat, he can’t… Kyle grabs a crease within his coat, trying again: “I need to…”

“What?” Stan asks. “What do you need to do?”

“Check in…”

Eric.

Full of adrenaline, Kyle straightens. He forgets about the low blood sugar and pushes Stan away, not caring how rough he’s being. He just wants Stan to go away. “What the hell?” he says. “What are you doing here? I told you not to talk to me.”

Stan steps backward. Kyle watches him do so, but makes a point not to look at his face. He sees the way Stan leads himself away with his left foot, the way he looks lost and perturbed and— frightened. Kyle turns away, moving to go back to the notebook, but before he can process what’s happening, the table shakes something harsh. Someone new climbs onto the lunch table’s surface, snatching up Kyle’s notebook with a certain telltale flourish as he goes. Kyle stares at the empty space his notebook previously took up. The change can’t register in his brain.

Ahem,” forces the sharp voice of Eric Cartman. Kyle refuses to look up. He refuses. He stares at the contours of Eric’s shoes, at the horribly-tied shoelaces and the slightly-baggy denim jeans, cuffs of pants.

Don’t. There’s silence. No one in the lunchroom speaks, or so much as utters, a word. Kyle hopes. Don’t.

“Hello, South Park High School,” Eric begins, taking on his well-rehearsed presenter voice. “And welcome to a live reading of the one and only Kyle Broflovski’s diary.”

At first, Kyle has no idea how to feel about that. Never before, not once in seventeen years, had he considered himself to ever have a diary. The notebook in Eric’s hands, red and worn from being knocked around in Kyle’s backpack— from recent wear and tear, he always used to be careful, but lately he has found himself caring less and less about such trivial things as the aesthetic cleanliness of notebooks— is the furthest thing from a diary.

“Now, let’s see what Kyle’s been up to,” Eric says. Kyle looks up. Numbness spreads through his chest and arms, a tingling feeling in his feet and legs. Eric flips from front to back through the notebook’s pages. It’s just full of Hebrew, full of Kyle’s attempts at memorizing psalms. Even if Eric thought such a thing was important, he wouldn’t be able to read it. That’s why Kyle writes his personal shit in Hebrew. It’s not exactly a common language to know, or to be able to read. That way no one can stick their nose into his business. It’s what makes it his. Stan moves out of the corner of Kyle’s gaze, but Kyle finds himself too distracted by Eric’s words to really understand whatever Stan is doing. “Ah, here’s a good one!”

The pages stop in their crinkling, flickering noises. Kyle doesn’t move. Kyle can’t see Eric’s face, he can only see pieces of the writing on the page. It’s just another written version of Mizmor leDavid. There’s no way. Kyle knows there’s no way. Eric is bluffing. He’s going to say some fake, improvised bullshit and that’ll be the end of it.

Mizmor leDavid,” Eric says, using one hand in a twirling motion through the air. Kyle’s eyes go wide, a cold horror gripping his throat. “Yevah—”

Eric’s pronunciation is atrocious. Kyle closes his eyes, trying to calm the way his lungs itch for repetitive, quick breaths. This is ridiculous. Fine, Eric knows the Hebrew alphabet, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about what he’s reading. That doesn’t mean he understands the words— and it certainly doesn’t mean that the rest of the lunchroom does, either, but—

Yevah roi, lo achsar…”

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.

Kyle could laugh. Is that stupid? He could laugh. Stan is still there, and Kyle looks at him. Stan has both hands resting on the surface of the table, his face pale and his eyes wide and confused. Not the normal type of wide and confused, but the scared type that Kyle has only seen a handful of times in recent years. Eric sounds smug with his horrid inability to pronounce the words correctly, and Kyle wonders if that’s on purpose or if he thinks he’s saying it correctly. “Binot dasha, yarbitseni; al-mei menuchot yenheleni.”

Stan’s expression turns to one of distress, like he doesn’t know what to do. In all fairness, Kyle doesn’t know what to do, either. He doesn’t expect Stan to do anything. He truly doesn’t. But he can’t help but see Stan, and attempt to find some sort of comfort in his presence— attempt to figure out a way Stan could help. He can’t, though, can he? What is he supposed to do? What is anyone supposed to do?

Surprise overrides him when he sees Stan move. He doesn’t move very far, nor does he make too big of a gesture, but what he does do is more than enough. Stan reaches over, grabs Kyle’s hand in his own and squeezes. Kyle glances down at where their skin contacts, and when he glances up again, Stan’s expression of fear twitches into a gentle smile. A little thing. An it’s going to be okay smile. Kyle almost tunes out Eric as he keeps speaking: “Nefashi yeshovev,” (He restoreth my soul) long, almost unbearable pause— “yancheni vemagli-tsedek, laman shemo.” (He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake).

Kyle feels like he’s going to vomit.

Stan lets go of Kyle’s hand. Stan hoists himself up onto one of the empty chairs, and then steps up onto the table. For a second, he stands next to Eric. Kyle glances up to watch, feeling the most obligated to do something rather than sit here and do nothing— but he can’t. There’s a strange stiff, pounding pressure in the base of his neck, connecting where his skull is. It’s firm, and it surrounds his eyes, making him feel on the verge of passing out. He swallows as another wave of nausea hits him.

“Quit it, Cartman,” Stan hisses. He reaches for the notebook, but Eric turns a solid ninety degrees and holds it up and out at arm’s length. Stan growls, a sound Kyle thinks he’s never heard come from his friend’s throat before. Stan steps forward, grabbing Eric’s shoulder and reaching up to snatch the notebook back with force. He doesn’t succeed.

Gem ki-aled,” Eric exclaims, a strange, excited note to his voice. “Begaya almot—”

(yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death)

[DON’T KILL HER I NEED MY MOM]

“I said quit it!” Stan lurches for Eric, both hands outstretched for the notebook. Eric steps out of the way, and with a sudden clamor of noise, Stan hurtles to the ground and

THWAK

slams into it, catching himself on his forearms. Stan makes a soft groan of pain, crumbling from the impact and taking a few seconds to recover. Kyle moves to stand, but his strength escapes him with a harsh rapidity. He grabs the edge of the table— and hardly manages to pull his hand out of the way when Eric tries to step on his fingers. Kenny comes over, helping Stan upright. Kyle stares at him, wondering when he had come over, and where he had come from. Eric grins at Kyle, and something flashes in his eyes. The lunchroom, silent, is staring— they’re all staring, watching, waiting for something to happen, and…

And…

Kyle shoves himself upright, kicking his chair back with all the strength he has. He glares up at Eric, filled with an energy for which he can’t pinpoint a source. He draws on anger, on every single thing he has had to deal with, on every bad memory, on every pain and panic and

[he’s killing her]

He inhales, clenching his fists and shouting, “Give me back my fucking notebook, fatass!”

He wants to grab Eric by the ankle and pull him to the ground, but he can’t move. He’s shaking, he feels it, and he’s going to fall if he does much more than stand there and glare and try to seem menacing. Specks appear in his vision. He blinks them away. Eric strokes the paper, tracing over the writing. The corners of his lips are turned up, his teeth more than visible in a grin. And then, Eric laughs. “Who has the upper hand now, huh, Kyle?” Eric asks, stepping as close to the edge of the table as he dares, turning the notebook around and waving it in Kyle’s face. The noise of stressed paper fills Kyle’s ears. Kyle reaches out for his notebook, and is thoroughly confused when he doesn’t make contact at all. Suddenly, he can’t see it. “What, you want this back? Kyle want a notebook?”

Eric’s tone becomes more than just taunting, it becomes condescending and saccharine in the pompous nature. Kyle tries to focus, but he can’t. Eric draws the arm with the notebook back behind himself, like he’s about to throw a pitch.

“Well? Kyle want a notebook?” Eric snaps, eyes wide. Kyle doesn’t shy away from the eye contact. He can’t really figure out the exact contours of Eric’s face, but he still doesn’t shy away. “Fine! Fetch, kike.”

Eric throws the notebook, and it flies through the air and disappears somewhere behind Kyle. Kyle wants to turn and retrieve it, but he can’t. No, he won’t. Not with Eric commanding him to do so, not with Eric looking at him like that, not with the way his head spins. Eric spins around, returning his attention to the group of high schoolers still watching the scene unfold.

“And now, I leave you with these parting words,” Eric announces. He lifts his arms up over his head, and as he says his final statement, he brings them back down, bowing at the waist like an actor at the end of a production. “Al, na refa na lah.”

Numbers 12:13
Vitsek Moshah, al-yevah lemor: al, na refa na lah.
And Moses called unto the Lord, saying: ‘Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.’

Kyle’s vision darkens. He blinks it away.

Eric hops off of the table, then, coming to a halt in all movement when he’s back on the floor. He stands directly in front of Kyle, and they stare at each other. There is a static between them: a harsh, cutting sharpness that does little other than keep them separate. The rest of the cafeteria has gone back to their own lives, though their talking has fallen from a loud chatter to a quiet rumble of voices. Standing here, with Eric so close, with Eric taking up so much in his vision

[Eric leans closer, until their foreheads are touching. Kyle doesn’t like it, but he’s pressed against the wall.]

Kyle shoves his arms out harshly, trying to push Eric away, but there is no contact. Kyle stares, puzzled. His breath tries to escape him when Eric grabs Kyle’s wrists with practiced ease, stepping onetwothree steps closer until they’re so close, Kyle can’t breathe. Kyle’s arms, bent at the elbow with his fists clenched near his face, tense and tighten and try to figure out a way to struggle free. But there’s a disconnect, and he can’t move.

“You say that to yourself every day,” Eric says, voice a hushed whisper. Kyle finds himself stiff, still and stock and frozen and staring into these deep, dark brown eyes that look like they belong to a demon or something from hell, something from an old folk tale told by his grandmother or something that he would hear about as a kid and fear for the rest of his life without realizing it— “Al, na refa na lah…

[snap feel it stop touching me let go]

“Isn’t that right, Kyle?” Eric says, a little louder. Eric digs his nails into Kyle’s wrist. Kyle winces. He tries to back away, knowing he won’t be able to squirm out of Eric’s grasp. He stumbles over his feet in his attempt, but Eric only pulls him right back, closing the distance between them. “Well? Isn’t it? Al, na refa na lah. I bet you say that to yourself every single day…”

Kyle can’t breathe. “I do not say that to myself.”

“Yes, you do, you know how I know?” asks Eric. Kyle can’t breathe. Eric leans forward, pulling Kyle even closer. Their chests touch, their fronts flush, and Kyle feels the overwhelming urge to squirm away and yelp, scream STOP but he can’t, he can’t breathe. Eric’s lips touch his ear, the heat of his breath overriding anything that demands more than surface attention. Eric, with his voice thick and low and breathless, lilting up at the end from the urge to stave off laughter— Eric— Eric says, “'And the Lord said unto Moses: if her father had but spit in her face, should she not hide in shame seven days?' And if a child spits into the face of his ancestors, should he not be stoned?”

Kyle pulls. He tugs away, shying, trying to leave, trying to run. Eric lets go of Kyle roughly, shoving him away. Kyle’s unbalanced legs force him to stumble backwards. He catches himself on the surface of the table before he collapses. Dizzy, he hardly sees much of anything. There’s a ringing in his ears, and he is completely occupied with trying to force that away. Kyle feels winded. Distant, he observes the way Eric shoves Stan, says something to him, and then walks away. Stan’s face has gone pale, Kyle realizes, but the meaning behind such a thing doesn’t click. Kenny shoves a notebook into Stan’s hands. Kyle doesn’t recognize it for a very long time. He just stares. He sees Kenny’s lips move, but he doesn’t hear any sounds. Kenny walks away. Kyle doesn’t know what was said.

Kyle’s lips are tingling. The tingling spreads from his lips to his jaw. He thinks he’s felt that before, but he doesn’t know for sure. His head is loose, making him feel light on his feet. It would be so easy to fall to the floor and let go. And just sleep. Maybe he would stop breathing, and maybe it would all be over.

But it would never be fucking over.

It feels like a flash. One moment, Kyle is alone, and the next, Stan is a few feet away and looking at him. Kyle looks up. “What?” he snaps, disturbed with Stan’s expression and the way he isn’t saying anything. Irate, he glares. “I’m not a flower, Stan, I’m not fragile, and I’m not going to break! If you have something to say to me, fucking say it.”

“Um—” Stan cuts off. He fidgets with the notebook, the one Kyle doesn’t recognize. He rubs his thumb against the cardboard. Kyle hears the sound it makes, the soft shhh-shhhh noise of skin on the rough surface of cheap cardboard. Kyle wants to rip the source of the noise to pieces. “I just… I’m sorry, I’m honestly really, really sorry—”

The bell rings, loud and annoying. Kyle flinches, momentarily unsure of what that noise means, but he quickly realizes and grabs the notebook from Stan automatically. He needs it, or else Stan’s going to keep making that stupid stupid stupid annoying noise with it. Kyle shoves it into his backpack, which he picks up from the floor and hoists over his shoulder. He begins to walk, trying to appear determined or solid or something, but that doesn’t work. He loses his breath, and his foot loses his weight. He feels light, like he’s falling. It’s only when Stan catches him that he realizes he had been falling. Kyle grunts. Stan’s hands grip Kyle’s shoulders, slowly righting him again. Kyle’s head throbs, and he tears away, shoving past Stan. His arms and his hands are shaking, and his feet and legs are so unsteady, he can hardly figure out where the floor is in relation to the rest of himself. Stan’s fingers brush Kyle’s arm. “Here, let me help you—”

“I don’t need help,” Kyle says, ripping his arm out of Stan’s reach. He loses breath. If he talks much more, he’ll stop breathing and never start again. It feels like that. His eyes strain with all of the bustling movement around them. He doesn’t exactly remember the source, but he knows he has to keep Stan as far away as possible.

Stan’s in on it.

Stan’s helping Eric.

Remember the dam?

We've been over this.

We all broke the fucking dam!

“Please,” Stan says, suddenly closer. “At least let me walk you to class, you were acting really weird, earlier, and I don’t want to leave you alone if that shit happens again.”

“It won’t happen again,” Kyle says.

“I don’t know that, and neither do you.”

“I do, actually,” Kyle says. “Now, if you would kindly leave me alone, I’d be very fucking thankful.”

Kyle halts in front of his locker, twisting in some combination that makes no sense. The locker doesn’t open. He glances at the number, and it takes him a second to know this is, in fact, his locker. He tries again, just to keep his hands busy. It works this time. “Are you kidding me?” Stan asks. “How long are you going to keep this up? You can’t avoid me forever, Kyle.”

“I can sure as hell try,” Kyle says, hoisting his backpack into his locker.

“You’re saying you seriously never want to talk to me again?” Stan asks. He sounds hurt. Kyle wants to respond, but he’s stopped short by another wave of nausea. His lips feel like they’re being prickled, numb with pins. He squeezes them together into a tight line, but that just worsens the feeling. There’s a thickness in his throat. It’s hard to swallow through. He feels winded. His eyes slip shut. He doesn’t understand what Stan is saying, but Stan’s definitely still talking. He hears the words, but they don’t make sense. “What, are you giving me the silent treatment now? You won’t even try to give me the benefit of the doubt? I made a mistake, Kyle, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time—”

Kyle is hardly conscious enough to feel alarmed. His stomach churns. He swallows. He busies himself with picking at the things in his locker that he doesn’t remember putting there. Torn pieces of paper, a stray mitten from goodness knows when, a couple broken pencils, a cap missing a pen.

“I never meant to hurt you,” Stan says, and Kyle feels like he missed a solid chunk of something. The first warning bell rings. Most everyone else has since abandoned the hallways in favor of their classrooms, yet everything feels much too busy. Kyle glances around, but doesn’t dare move. If he moves, he won’t be able to— like, Eric will see, and he’ll— something touches Kyle’s shoulder.

Kyle spins around, heart slamming into his ribs a million miles a minute. He slams his fist into Stan’s chest, but he hardly feels the contact. He can’t close his fingers; they’re tingling, and numb, and he can’t feel them. “Don’t touch me,” Kyle snaps. He looks up at Stan’s face, trying to glare hard enough to get Stan to leave him alone. Stan moves, or maybe he twitches, or maybe nothing happens at all. An odd feeling encases Kyle’s chest. He feels his heartbeat stutter. It rips his breath out of his lungs. His heart flutters. Is that a word? Flutters.

Kyle stares at the wall past Stan’s shoulders, confused. His head, too heavy on his shoulders, feels full of cotton. His eyes don’t feel like they’re really open. His vision darkens. He loosens the tension in his legs, unlocking his knees, somehow convinced that’ll help, but it doesn’t. His body tenses again, and just as the darkness collapses in on the center of his vision, just as he can see nothing but peppering static, he falls.

He doesn’t even realize he has fainted until he’s awakened by Stan, who crouches next to him on the floor and pats his cheek. Kyle feels like he’s floating. Like he’s somewhere else entirely, somewhere he has never been before, yet somewhere he’s familiar with. He still can’t breathe, even as he lays and stares at the contrasts of the ceiling and the door of his locker and another locker and another locker and Stan’s blue eyes staring down at him. Stan pulls his hand away, Kyle thinks, because the warmth is no longer on his cheek.

“Hey,” Stan says. “Hey, can you hear me? Look at me, look at me, please.”

Kyle does. And as soon as he does, he lifts his hand and tries to push Stan away from him. Gravity is naturally against him, though, and as soon as his arm falls back to his chest, Kyle recants. He forces himself to sit up quickly, even though his head spins and his chest hurts and he thinks he might throw up. His hands are shaking. He tries to stand fully, but Stan keeps him on the floor. Kyle swings at him, but doesn’t make contact. The back of Kyle’s head slams into the locker behind him. Kyle doesn’t feel it.

“Jesus, man, are you okay?” Stan asks. Kyle only glares. Stan’s expression twitches, and he looks around. After a few seconds, in which Kyle realizes he doesn’t feel any better after fainting, Stan tries to offer his hands to help Kyle stand. Kyle pushes them away. He doesn’t want to be touched. He doesn’t want to be looked at. He wants to curl into a ball on the floor and fall asleep and hopefully never wake up… “Kyle, come on. I’m trying to help you.”

“Get away from me!” Kyle shouts.

No,” Stan says, and his voice is surprisingly firm. “What the hell is with you right now? I need to take you to the nurse.”

“I don’t wanna fucking talk t’you,” Kyle snaps. Is it just him, or is it harder to talk? He swallows, moves his tongue around in his mouth, trying to loosen it to ease the ability to speak. Everything is too bright, too busy, it’s too much. The colors are everywhere, yet they’re so vivid he can’t figure out what colors are what.

“Can you stand?” Stan asks.

“No-no,” Kyle says. “You know what, I can’t— I can’t fucking stand, I can’t fucking stand you.”

Stan gives Kyle a look. Scared. Stan’s scared. But Kyle’s scared too. Kyle lives in fear and no one knows and he doesn’t WANT anyone to know, he doesn’t WANT anyone to care he wants to be buried and forgotten and he wants to move on and never have to think again. “Please work with me,” Stan says, and he sounds almost like he’s begging. “Please—”

PLEASE STOP TOUCHING ME

Kyle curls in on himself, hugging his knees to his chest and trying to fight for his body to work normally. He’s fine. He’s fine. He’s almost died before, he can deal with whatever this is. He just has to breathe. He just needs to be left alone. Okay? Do you hear him? LEAVE HIM ALONE.

Shhh shhh shhh it’s okay.

It’s okay.

Shhh.

Kyle rocks gently, afraid of the way he feels, afraid of the fact that his head keeps going to the things that he can’t understand. He just feels uncomfortable. He feels sick and tired and tired and fuck, he’s never felt this exhausted in his life. He needs to sleep. He feels sick and he needs to sleep.

Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh.

It’s okay, honey.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

You’re okay.

You’re going to be okay.

It’s all going to be okay…

Someone touches Kyle’s face. Kyle doesn’t know who it is. Convinced he’s in danger, he slaps their hand away. They recoil, pulling away. Kyle buries himself back into his little ball. He’s breaking down.

Shhh.

What’s that song again?

Hush little baby, don’t you cry, momma’s gonna sing you a lullaby—

WRONG WRONG WRONG!

On the hearth a fire burns and in the house it’s warm
(oyfn pripetshik, brent a fayerl, und in shtib is heys)

“Dude, hey, it’s me, Kenny,” someone says. Kyle immediately looks up. He sees Kenny crouching in front of him, in the exact position Stan was just a second ago. Kyle reaches out, grabs Kenny’s parka, his eyes burning on the verge of tears.

Onthehearthafireburnsandinthehouseit’swarm

“Make Stan leave me alone,” Kyle whispers. “I’ve told him so many times but he— he won’t leave me alone, I can’t be around him, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t I can’t I can’t—”

“Okay— okay,” Kenny says. He takes Kyle’s hands in his own, keeping sturdy and open and willing to help. Kyle feels safe. He thinks he wouldn’t mind dying if Kenny was there. Kenny doesn’t judge. He buries his face into Kenny’s parka, shaking with the onset of tears, of fear of fear of fear. Kenny says something, his chest rumbling with the words. “You can go, Stan, I got this.”

Stan speaks. “Are—”

“I’m sure, Stan, just go.” Stan must not leave, because Kenny repeats, “Go.”

Footsteps. They fade down the hall. As soon as they’re gone, Kyle sobs.

Guilty.

Guilty guilty guilty son of a bitch, you’re disgusting. Hurting people being awful atrocious a burden how could you?

Shh shhh shhhh it’s okay
On the hearth a fire burns and in the house it’s warm
And the rabbi teaches little children the alef-bet
(what’s the next part? What’s the next part, Mommy?)

Kenny says something. Kyle inhales, his breath stuttering and catching in his throat. Kenny gently pulls away enough so they can make eye contact, but Kyle doesn’t like it. He tries to go back, tries to claw Kenny closer again, convinced that no one can hurt him if someone stays close, just as long as it isn’t Stan or Eric because they’re out to GET HIM WHY DOES NO ONE UNDERSTAND IT?

Kenny scoots closer, but keeps his hold on Kyle’s shoulders firm. More eye contact. Kyle’s gaze wanders. He’s lightheaded. His head hurts. He has a song he hasn’t thought about in a while stuck in his head. “What?” Kyle asks.

“I think you’re having a hypoglycemic attack, do you have glucose tablets?” Kenny asks. Kyle closes his eyes against the offense of the lights. Kenny shakes him. “Kyle, stay awake, please.”

“’m awake,” Kyle mumbles. He rubs his eyes, blinking them open and glancing around. The hall around them is empty; it’s just himself and Kenny. He suddenly doesn’t remember how he got here. “Where’d Stan go?”

“He left,” Kenny says. “You really wanted him to go, so he left… when was the last time you ate?”

It’s difficult to think. More than that, it’s difficult to understand. His fingers feel like they’re cramping. He lets go of Kenny’s jacket, flexing his fingers and closing his hands into fists repeatedly, trying to urge away the pins and needles.

“Kyle, when was the last time you ate?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle says, and that’s the truth. He didn’t eat today, and he can’t remember anything from yesterday at all. Kenny’s expression changes when Kyle says that. He frowns a little, glances down the hall one way and then the other, and sits back on his haunches. Kenny digs into his coat pocket and withdraws a bottle of apple juice.

“Fifteen grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate, right?” Kenny asks. He checks the nutrition label on the small bottle of apple juice, then holds it out to Kyle, saying, “Drink about half of this, okay? It’ll help.”

Kyle stares at the apple juice bottle, watches the contents of it slosh, the burnt auburn of its color. It’s fruit. That’s what apple juice is. It’s fruit, except it has zero fiber and so much more sugar, and at least twenty more calories. He doesn’t know how he knows that, but he knows. Instinctively, Kyle pushes the bottle of apple juice away, shaking his head. It dizzies him. “I don’t want it,” he says. “I can’t, I’ll just throw it up.”

“Kyle, I know you’re probably nauseous right now, but trust me when I say you need to drink this,” Kenny says. Once more, he tries to hand the bottle of apple juice over to Kyle, and just as the first time, Kyle pulls away. “Kyle, it’s okay, just drink the juice.”

“No, I can’t, I can’t,” Kyle says. He’s hit with the urge to explain himself, but he fears that more than he fears what’s happening to him. The world spins around his head in dizzying circles. He blinks away the blurring vision, finding himself frustrated with the... consistency of it. Kyle absolutely wants to be left alone. He likes that idea. He likes the idea of being abandoned and left to die, he likes it a lot.

Just let me be.

Just let me die.

Kenny’s eyes widen. He shifts his weight, putting away the bottle of apple juice faster than Kyle’s brain can process the visual input of the movement. “What did you say?” Kenny asks. He prods Kyle’s shoulders with the palms of his hands, gently shifting him out of a haze of confusion. Kyle shakes his head. Kenny asks again, “Kyle, what did you just say?”

“Nothing,” Kyle says, though he hardly understands himself.

“Can you stand?” Kenny asks. Kyle shrugs, rolling his shoulders in a loose movement, unintentionally urging Kenny to let him go, to stop touching him. Kenny shifts to his knees, holding his hands out for Kyle to grab. Kyle tries to push him away again, mumbling something along the lines of leave me alone, idiot, but Kenny doesn’t do that. Instead, Kenny shifts next to Kyle, grabs Kyle’s arm, and wraps it over Kenny’s shoulders. Kenny helps him stand up that way, though Kyle feels distinctly like he doesn’t want to move from his spot on the floor. Kyle stumbles, grabbing at Kenny’s jacket with his free hand. Kenny catches him, saying, “Whoa, careful, I got ya.”

Kyle ignores him. “Where’re we...?”

“Nurse’s office,” Kenny replies. “C’mon.”

Kenny moves quickly, shifting and worming one arm around Kyle’s back and the other under Kyle’s knees. Kyle doesn’t recognize what’s happening until he’s being hoisted into the air, carried bridal-style by Kenny. Without anything sturdy beneath him, Kyle claws at Kenny’s parka, eventually wrapping both arms around Kenny’s neck and holding himself there as tight as his muscles will let him.

Kenny is surprisingly stable. Kyle feels horrified by the fact that he’s not on the ground, but Kenny’s grip is firm and he’s not letting go. Neither of them are. Kenny begins in long, rapid strides down the hallway, and Kyle tries to fight back the fear by closing his eyes and counting to ten and thinking about the song again and again and again. He doesn’t understand how Kenny is carrying him with such ease, and he doesn’t understand it when Kenny says, “Jesus fuck, you’re so light.”

Because Kyle feels heavier than he ever has in his life, and he is ashamed of that.

When they reach the nurse’s office, Kenny sets him down in one of the chairs near the entrance. Kenny moves to walk away, but Kyle grabs his coat and refuses to let go. He hears noises and looks up; Clyde is sitting in the office chair at the desk, spinning around like he can’t handle sitting still. But then Clyde realizes that people are in the office with him, and he stops spinning, momentarily discombobulated by dizziness. “Whoa!” he says, laughing. “Hey guys, what’s the sitch?”

Clyde spots something weird about the picture and stops laughing. He stands up from the desk, slow.

“What’s goin’ on?”

“He’s hypoglycemic and he won’t drink his fucking apple juice,” Kenny says. Clyde gives Kyle a weird look.

“The nurse is in the main office, I think she’s grabbing things from the printer,” Clyde says. “I can go run and grab—”

“No,” Kenny cuts in. He pushes Kyle’s hand off of his parka, which doesn’t take much. Kyle pulls his hands to himself, hugging his arms across his chest and pretending he’s seated next to a hearth where a fire burns. Pretending he’s listening to a rabbi teach children the alef-bet. Pretending he’s up in the clouds, staring down at everyone else. He wonders how long it would take for him to die of hypoglycemia, he wonders if he has the strength to run and lock himself in the boys’ bathroom and stop.

And just stop.

Oh, listen to all the noises.

The noises?

The noises.

They know we're here?

Everyone knows, everyone knows.

If you aren't careful, they'll hear.

Do you want them to hear?

Run.

Run run run.

breathe (hhhhhhuh uhhhhhhh)

I'm being very quiet.

Not enough not enough not enough...

move just a little, sneak outside of the room

lock them inside lock them away...

Kyle looks around the room and decides to try. With the limits of his muscles burning for rest, he pushes himself out of the chair and stumbles.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Clyde says, and Kenny lunges, catching Kyle in his arms. Kyle fights, twisting and trying to run. His feet slip on the floor with his lack of purchase, and he can do nothing else other than grab onto Kenny for dear life as Kenny replaces him in the chair. Yeah, Kyle will admit, that was kind of a stupid idea.

“I’ll run and grab her, I’m faster than you,” Kenny insists. “Besides, I think you’ll have better luck convincing him to drink the stupid thing than I can.”

Kenny and Clyde share a nod. Kenny drops the apple juice on the desk and then he’s gone. Kyle’s in the room with Clyde.

Alone.

Kyle lowers his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. He can’t stop thinking. He knows it’s himself that’s saying all these awful things, but that doesn’t help it feel any better. That doesn’t help him feel any less horrible. That doesn’t keep him from understanding the fact that those thoughts might be true.

It doesn’t stop him from crying.

Clyde comes over and sits in the chair next to Kyle. Clyde picks up the bottle of apple juice, beginning to fidget with it. Kyle tries to ignore the noise, and he tries to ignore the way his entire body is shaking. His ankle keeps twitching. Once every ten seconds or so, the muscle jumps, and his leg gently flinches. Automatically, Kyle adjusts the position of his leg, trying to figure out if it’s positional or something else entirely. Or maybe he’s just going crazy. It feels like that, sometimes.

Kyle runs out of tears to shed.

It stops.

“Hey, Kyle, can I ask you a question?” Clyde asks. Funnily enough, he doesn’t wait for a response before asking, “Why don’t you want to drink this?”

Clyde holds out the bottle of apple juice. Kyle looks away, forcing back the tears that are trying to escape again. He stares at the floor, at the tiles. But that doesn’t help. They’re too white, too marbled with gray, too perfect. He stares at the wall, which is frustratingly beige, and it reminds him of the hospital. And he sees the desk, a simple gray, and the black desk chair and the computer on that desk and the curtain in the back leading to the area with the beds. He wonders how many kids are sitting back there, sick. Usually it’s no one, but sometimes he’ll stop here for his insulin and swear he sees Craig.

“How long has your leg been twitching like that?” Clyde asks. Kyle glances down at his foot. It’s still for the moment. He rubs underneath his knee. His arm hurts.

“I dunno,” Kyle says. Clyde gives Kyle’s leg a strange look, then glances up at Kyle’s face.

“Do you have a headache?” Clyde asks. Kyle doesn’t know what Clyde’s getting at.

“Yeah,” Kyle says. Fuck, his arm hurts.

“When’s the last time you ate?” Clyde asks.

Scowling, Kyle snaps, “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“You’re diabetic, it’s kind of important.” Clyde says it with a smile, like he’s urging Kyle to do the same, but Kyle refuses. He’s not impressed. He’s just angry.

“Diabetes makes this shit so fucking hard,” Kyle says.

“Makes what shit hard?” Clyde asks. Kyle turns his head away and doesn’t answer the question. Clyde gets the hint. It’s silent for a few seconds, even though it feels like hours. Clyde is back to fidgeting mildly with the bottle of apple juice. Kyle is back to feeling dizzy. He keeps glancing at the apple juice, he realizes. It’s just right there, and even though it’s in Clyde’s hands, Kyle could easily ask for it and have some. It’s tempting. His body knows he needs it, and that makes his brain try to get on board, but there’s more to it than that. He turns his head away again. Clyde speaks. “Hey, can I be honest for a sec?”

Kyle shrugs.

“I had two burgers today,” Clyde says, and Kyle has to force himself not to cringe. “That’s six hundred and six calories and thirty grams of carbohydrates.”

Kyle knows. When Clyde next speaks, he sounds awkward.

“Look, I just…” Clyde mutters, looking away before going back for another round of eye contact. Kyle meets his eyes. They’re brown. A lighter brown than Eric’s, but brown. “If I can eat two burgers and be okay, you can drink four ounces of apple juice and be okay.”

Clyde nods. Kyle looks at the apple juice again. He’s not sure about it. Clyde says something else.

“If you don’t drink it now, we’re just going to have to inject you with glucagon once you pass out,” Clyde says. “Do you really want that? Or do you wanna be in control of it?”

Kyle feels like that disobeys the one rule he set for himself: don’t give in.

But he hates the idea of being kept in a hospital because he refused to drink some apple juice.

Kyle holds his shaking hand out for the bottle, and almost drops it. The weight is almost too much for his aching arm. He manages to keep it on his grasp. One thing he doesn’t manage to do is open it, though.

Clyde silently opens it for him.

Kyle forces himself to drink half of the bottle, as had been requested in order for him to get the fifteen grams of fast-acting carbohydrates.

It would be a lot easier to starve himself if he wasn’t diabetic.

He stares at the half-empty bottle and knows that Eric is going to be angry. He said Kyle can’t eat anything today. Does this count? Of course it counts. If it has calories, it counts. And this, most certainly, has calories.

Today’s count is up to approximately sixty.

“Thank you for drinking that,” Clyde says. Kyle doesn’t say anything; he can’t. The taste still lingers in his mouth. It’s heavenly for his body after having not eaten, but at the same time, it’s a horror for his brain because he just gave in. Eric is going to kill him, Eric is going to murder him, Eric is going to hurt him. He wants to dismiss himself under the guise of feeling better and throw it up. He wants to go to the bathroom and get it out. Pull a Stan and say it doesn't count. There’s a tension in his chest that won’t leave him alone. It won’t leave him alone until he gets it out. It’ll haunt him all day.

You know that feeling when you try really hard to be happy but then nothing turns out right?

That’s what it feels like.

Kenny comes back with the nurse. She asks him some questions. One of them is when’s the last time you ate? And Kyle holds up the bottle of apple juice and says, “Right now.”

She asks him where his kit is, and he says it’s in his backpack. Kenny leaves to go get it. The nurse calls his dad...

Kyle remembers nothing past that.

Chapter Text

Kyle wakes up to the disgusting smell of wet dogs and cat food. It’s a dichotomy he’s not used to, yet at the same time, it’s familiar to him in the same way that the hand soap at school is. He doesn’t think too much about it when he uses it. Thinking about it now, though, he finds it all a little strange, and more than a little confusing. He turns his head though he hasn’t opened his eyes yet. He feels uncomfortable, and like he’s covered in thin paper rather than clothing, and his arm feels tight. It hurts more than he remembers it hurting before. Then again, he hardly remembers it hurting much. He hardly remembers anything at all. He’s just suddenly… awake.

Everything within him needs to go back to sleep; such a feeling is deeply rooted within the very cracks and seams of his bones. And yet there’s this lingering presence hovering over him, keeping his brain from allowing his body to drift back into the nothingness of dreams and rest.

He opens his eyes. The first thing he notices is the undeniable fact that the room is darker than the outside world. That’s his hypothesis, at least, though he admits that he doesn’t exactly have a very firm understanding of how bright it is outside. He has a feeling it’s at least the early afternoon, though, right? He turns his head again, this time for the sole reason of scoping out his surroundings. His eyes try to close again. Someone grabs his hand and he wakes up a little more firmly, his gaze catching on the outline of the drawn curtains which interrupt his view of the window. A very small amount of light sheds in from beneath them, but it doesn’t reach the parts of the room that actually matter. There’s the distinct sound of a beeping machine. As he regains more of his senses, he is able to pinpoint a few different machines. He doesn’t think he’s hooked up to any of them. He hears the beeping from out in the hall.

He must have fallen asleep while visiting his mom. Kyle sweeps his right hand over the crook of his left elbow, tracing his fingers over where he feels something keeping his arm still. His fingers catch on plastic— thin plastic, a sheet of it, like tape that sticks to him but molds to his skin. He picks at the corners, his eyes slipping shut.

…beep…beep…beep…

What’s that? There’s a tube, a thin tube, and what feels like a needle. He presses at it, which stings, yet he doesn’t dare pull his hand away from the intrusion in his arm. That shouldn’t be there. He doesn’t open his eyes as he resumes picking, eventually lifting his arm just enough to get a good purchase on the tape. He needs this out, it shouldn’t be here. The nurse mistook him for a patient, that must have happened.

Just as he’s about to pull, someone grabs his hand and removes his fingers from the needle site. They’re talking to him, saying things, words that his brain can’t comprehend right now. His head hurts a little, but he has dealt with worse. He’s mostly stuck in the whirls of confusion, unsure of exactly where he is and why. His mouth opens, his lungs inhale more of the stale, soggy oxygen full of a strange stench. He thinks he makes a face, but he doesn’t know. His hand feels closer to his chest than it did prior, and suddenly he feels skin against his fingertips. It’s not his skin, it’s someone else’s skin; they’re cold, and their skin is rough. That’s a hand. He’s touching a hand, and that hand is not his own, and that hand is bigger than his own, and that hand is not trustworthy. He shoves it away, but it comes back, resting on his wrist. Again, he tries to push it away, desperate to get away from the danger.

A voice says, “Kyle, Kyle, it’s okay, it’s just me.”

Kyle’s eyes open, though he doesn’t remember closing them. He sees the faint gray-beige of a familiar room. There’s a tiny television up in the top corner, suspended by the ceiling, and it plays a muted rerun of Terrance & Philip. He doesn’t trust it. He has to get up, he has to go home, he has to—

“No, stay in bed, son,” says the voice. “You have to stay in bed, okay? Can you hear me?”

Kyle looks over at the source of the voice. He expects to see the round face of someone he hates, or the concerned expression of his best friend, or the damn-near constant grin of the idiot who won’t leave him alone, but he sees none of those. As the bleariness fades and the sensation of thick cotton distances for a second of clarity, Kyle sees the graying hair, goatee and telltale yarmulke of his father, who sits at Kyle’s bedside. “Dad?” Kyle asks, surprised by the croak of his own voice. Gerald nods, firmly rubbing Kyle’s shoulder in a familiar gesture. As the seconds draw on, Kyle finds the headache coming to the surface more sharply. He’s able to think a little clearer, but he’s still perplexed. He turns his head, examining the corner where a reclining chair sits. There’s a mussed blanket draped over it, but no one sits there. Inexplicably, Kyle becomes frightened. “I don’t— I—”

“Shh, it’s okay,” Dad tells him, still rubbing Kyle’s shoulder. “You’re just in the hospital, everything is going to be alright… do you remember what happened?”

“Eric knows, he—” and the words don’t even make sense to Kyle’s own ears, which must attest to how crazy it sounds to everyone else involved. Not that many people are here listening to his exhausted ramblings. Because that’s what he is— Kyle is exhausted. From the exertion he has put himself through, physically and emotionally, he is dead tired. He hasn’t been able to sleep well in weeks, and the evidence of his troubles has surfaced on his face and around his eyes. What’s the matter, bubbeh? You’re starting to look like a raccoon! Kyle blinks back tears that burn his eyes. “I was— Eric read…”

“You had a bad dream,” Dad says, speaking in a low, soothing tone that Kyle is unused to. “Eric wasn’t there, son, you had a hypoglycemic episode at school today and I brought you to the hospital, everything is under control.”

Kyle latches onto his father’s sleeve when he moves to pull his arm away. Dad takes the hint and allows his hand to remain on Kyle’s shoulder. Surrounded by the sights and smells of a hospital, that’s the only thing Kyle is able to draw comfort from. He remembers Eric driving him here in the middle of the night, and he remembers the ordeal. He remembers trying to choke Eric and he remembers fighting for freedom and being shoved out of the car. His head throbs, once, in remembrance. In that moment, Kyle’s eyes go wide. He disobeyed Eric. He drank apple juice and how they’re pumping him full of a saline dextrose solution and he has failed. Eric was probably trying to kill Kyle. That was probably the point. Kill Kyle to save Kyle’s mother. An eye for an eye. A life for a life.

If Eric couldn’t kill Kyle this way, then he’s going to find another way to do it— or he’s going to go through with finishing the deed and cut off Mom’s life and then there will truly be no point to existing because he’d already failed. Hot tears try to fall, and Kyle fights to force them back, but he doesn’t succeed. They fill his eyes and drip down when he blinks, creating warm, wet tracks that dry with the air as soon as they’re free of the droplets. He sniffs, mucous collecting in his airways.

“Dad,” Kyle whispers, his voice shaky and cracking. Dad just keeps rubbing Kyle’s shoulder, gives a gentle nod, signifying he’s listening— or maybe just signifying that he’s being comforting, Kyle doesn’t know. Either way, he breaks down. The walls he’d been trying to hard to stay up are navigated by his conscious. He finds a weak spot in the foundation and tries to reach through for help. “Daddy, I’m scared.”

He feels like a toddler, calling his father Daddy like that. He hasn’t said that in years— it had to have been over a decade at this point, he’d never really made a habit out of it once he got to the age of six. If he were put together enough to be embarrassed by such a thing, he wouldn’t be confessing such another thing in the first place. But sometimes, things get so tight and packed and pressed that no amount of compartmentalizing can keep them inside.

And sometimes, even the strongest need to ask for help.

Gerald hushes Kyle, the pad of his thumb working soothing circles over the bone of his shoulder. With wide, wet eyes, Kyle stares up at his father, waiting for his dad to do something like he would when Kyle was very young and afraid of mermaids crawling in through the shower drain, or when Kyle was very young and frightened because of the thunderstorm shaking the house. He waits for comfort, or for his dad to read his mind and know what to do and when to do it but he doesn’t. Because Gerald is only human, and Kyle’s call for help, however begging and pleading, is not nearly explicit enough. So Gerald does the only thing he likely feels he knows how; he keeps rubbing Kyle’s shoulder, and he places his other hand, supportive, just above Kyle’s IV, and he says, “There’s nothing to be scared of, you’re going to be okay.”

Kyle swallows thickly. He contemplates saying more. He tries to build the courage to say the things he really needs to. He thinks about the very first instance where he truly felt fearful, when Eric pinned him to a sink and made him look himself in the mirror. He can still feel it if he focuses, and sometimes he can feel it when he doesn’t focus. He wonders if that’s normal, and he wonders if Eric broke something in him. He thinks about Eric kicking kicking kicking him under the table, and he thinks about each and every time he felt the impact without the pain afterward. He thinks about Eric throwing him out of the 2006 Ford Fusion. He thinks about Eric telling him not to eat, and he thinks about the relief he had felt at the task. He thinks about Eric reading out a section of Kyle’s notebook to the entire cafeteria. He thinks about the fact that Eric has complete and utter control over Mom’s life.

His throat itches— no, burns— to speak, to be honest, to tell the truth. To say I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of living or to say Eric is hurting me or to say Eric is hurting Mom and I know it sounds crazy but it’s the truth or to say Eric pushed Ike onto the curb and hurt him and then Eric stepped on and broke Mom’s favorite brooch, the one of the flower with the little jewels in it, the one she doesn’t ever wear but she keeps in that fake red-velvet lined mahogany jewelry box.

Maybe it’s a little obvious, but he says none of that. And maybe it’s a little funny, but in the terror that he feels in the face of the ability to confess so much, Kyle discovers the courage to be open and honest about something he has been hiding since he hit puberty. “Dad,” he says, the silence immobile in the atmosphere of the hospital room. “Dad, I’m gay.”

And Dad says, “I know, Kyle, it’s okay.”

And Eric says

Good boy.

So Kyle can do this alone.

Chapter Text

The next time Kyle awakes, his father is gone and there’s a nurse prodding at the sore skin of his left elbow. He must stir obviously, as she quickly apologizes in a soft voice and fills him in on the fact that Dad left to make a call, and he would be back shortly. Kyle pays little attention to the intention of relaxation behind her words, and instead allows himself to recede into the depths of his own mind. She places a cotton ball over the little tiny, almost invisible hole that now resides in his arm, and tapes it down with a bandage. It reminds him of having gotten blood drawn— which he has had done on more than one occasion, for more than one reason— and momentarily, he is a little woozy. Since he is already laying down, there is no way for him to relax further and soothe himself out of the threat of a vasovagal or syncopal reaction. Even so, the moment of dizziness passes, and he’s awake and more refreshed than he has been in what feels like years.

“Thanks,” he says, just to be polite, though he really doesn’t know what exactly he’s thanking her for. He has a feeling she’s the nurse that’s been checking in on him, though, and for that he supposes he is grateful. She smiles at him.

“Doctor Rivera will be in shortly to speak to you and your father,” she tells him, and that gets him a little uncomfortable. Even so, he nods. That’s protocol. A hypoglycemic episode bad enough to require a hospital visit is definitely a hypoglycemic episode worthy of a consult. The last time it got this bad, he was just a kid and he didn’t fully grasp the fact that this shit could be genuinely dangerous. He got it in the little kid way, sure, but it mostly just felt like rules, and Kyle hit the rebellion phase early. Apparently a hunger strike is not a good way to go about protesting diabetes if you have diabetes. Either way, he remembers getting a visit by Doctor Rivera and getting a firm talking-to about the importance of sticking to the medication regimen and meal plan.

Kyle expects the nurse to leave, but she doesn’t. She retrieves a meter from the table attached to the hospital bed, sticks a strip into it, and the next thing Kyle knows, she’s wiping his finger off with an alcohol wipe and pricking his finger. Now that is something he hasn’t had to have done since he was really little, and now that he’s living through it again, he realizes he rather likes the independence of being able to do it on his own. A few seconds later, the ordeal is done and she has deposited the medical waste into the big scary trashcan next to the door that reads BIOHAZARD. Lovely. Now Kyle is a biohazard.

“Sorry that was sudden,” the nurse— a glance at her hospital-issued metal name tag reveals her name to be Lauren Simmons (with the very professional engraving beneath it that she is, in fact, a REGISTERED NURSE)— says, stripping off the lilac-colored latex gloves she’d apparently had on this whole time. She gives him an apologetic smile, though he’s honestly not bothered. Those gloves go into the trash, too. “I just kind of figured you knew the drill.”

“Yeah, I do,” Kyle says. “I’m going to assume the IV helped my blood sugar get out of the gutter?”

“It definitely did,” Nurse Simmons replies. She sidles up to the computer and enters in a password. He observes in a bored fashion, unsure of where else he’s supposed to look. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to mind. She has a perpetual little smile on her face, and in some ways, it’s a little sweet. It helps make him feel a little less like shit, at the very least. She types in some numbers, and he assumes that she’s recording his blood sugar in his digital chart, or something. She glances over at him, her blond ponytail shifting a little with the action. “I have to say, I rarely see teenagers come in with such low glucose levels… did you skip breakfast?”

Kyle, for a moment, doesn’t know what to say. He supposes honesty is the best policy, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to dig himself into a hole by letting everyone know he purposefully skipped eating. “Yeah,” he says, hoping his pause didn’t come off in a suspicious manner. When Nurse Simmons looks like she’s about to give him another one of those firm talking-to’s, he quickly adds: “I didn’t mean to, it just kind of happened— I had a test this morning and I couldn’t afford to be late.”

Nurse Simmons nods, seemingly understanding, and goes back to the computer. She types up something else, her fingers moving quickly over the keyboard. The clicks are loud, though she has her nails cut short and they don’t tap too sharply on the plastic. Nails tapping on things is a sure-fire way to get him annoyed, if he’s in the wrong mood. “What about lunch?” she asks, and Kyle finds himself thinking that she might just ask all the questions he expects Doctor Rivera to do later. At his silence, she glances back over. “You skipped that, too, didn’t you?”

“Well, I was nauseous,” Kyle says, and while that’s not exactly a lie, it’s not at all the reason he didn’t eat. He can deal with nausea, and he knows how to help it go away if it gets too bad. The thing he can’t deal with is the feeling of fullness that intrudes on him every time he swallows a bite of something. It’s one of those things he won’t be able to avoid forever, of course; he won’t be able to do much of anything if he tries to go for another stupid fast. He makes the decision to monitor his blood sugar closely and eat just enough to keep him from getting way too low— and only eat full meals if he absolutely has to and can’t get out of it. It’s kind of strange, really. Such a line of thought is hardly conscious, at this point. It’s just a very casual yep, that’s what I’ll do from now on.

“I’m sure you know that nausea is a symptom of hypoglycemia,” Nurse Simmons says.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t exactly thinking straight at the time,” Kyle says. “Lunch ended hardly five minutes before I passed out.”

Which is totally embarrassing, now that he thinks about it. Christ, what even happened? His memory of that situation is so foggy, and the few images and videos of the event pass by in an almost hyper-speed-esque fashion in his mind. He can’t pinpoint the specifics of what was said by anyone involved. He definitely remembers Stan walking away, though— and he definitely remembers everything Eric did in the cafeteria. His skin tingles with the memory of being grabbed; it makes him shudder.

“When can I get out of here?” Kyle asks. Nurse Simmons, finally clicking out of the computer terminal, doesn’t turn to face him when she responds.

“Doctor Rivera wants to keep you overnight for observation,” Nurse Simmons says. To that news, Kyle’s heart drops to the floor. He doesn’t want to stay here. At all.

“But my levels are normal now, right?”

“Yes, they’re normal now, but she’s concerned that they were so low in the first place,” Nurse Simmons replies. She finally turns, fully facing him, a look of sympathy on her face. “We just want to make absolute sure everything is okay before we send you home.”

“Okay,” Kyle says. “That makes sense.”

But he says so with a frown. Just because he understands where the medical professionals are coming from doesn’t mean he agrees with them, nor does it mean he has to be very happy with their decision. He knows his dad would never discharge him AMA, what with Mom going through everything that she’s going through. Kyle getting really sick at home, on the off chance that something was very wrong with him— which there isn’t, but Dad doesn’t know that— is much closer to a possible death-sentence than anyone is comfortable with. Except Kyle, probably. Kyle is fine with it.

Then again, that might be because he knows what’s going on with himself.

“How are you feeling?” she asks. “Are you nauseous at all now, or do you have a headache?”

“No, I’m feeling okay,” he says. He doesn’t know if that’s exactly the truth, though. The horrible ill feeling he’d been fighting through most of today has disappeared, of course, but there’s still this lingering, mildly nauseous feeling. After a quick check-in, though, he discovers that such a feeling is likely due to him having not eaten anything at all today, unless apple juice suddenly counts as a meal. Goodness knows it felt like it.

“Can I get you anything?” she asks. “A blanket, some water, or do you need to use the restroom?”

“Uh, no,” he replies, and this time he’s certain. Even if he did have to use the restroom, he would do so on his own without the help of a nurse. That’s where he draws the line. No one gets to hover while he’s trying to take a piss, thank you very much. “I think I can manage on my own.”

“Alright,” she says. “Just press the call button if you need anything.”

Nurse Simmons gives him a small nod, which he returns politely before she turns and leaves the room. He is alone in this monotone hospital room, surrounded only by the blank walls and a thick curtain that is bunched up, not drawn to hide the nothing that’s currently going on. For a few minutes, he simply observes the goings-on of the station outside of Kyle’s hospital room. Now with adequate time to breathe and think, Kyle finds himself a little overwhelmed at having been genuinely admitted into the hospital for something as simple as low blood sugar, even if his levels did get… apparently surprisingly low, in the amount of time before he arrived and got hooked up to a drip. His arm still hurts a little, but it’s a mild sting rather than the throbbing ache he kind of remembers from before he fainted for real. Also, there’s a different reasoning for such a pain. He still doesn’t understand the source of the earlier sensation. Ultimately, he decides worrying about it is nonessential. Kyle turns his head to look out the window.

It’s snowing. Pretty hard, too. It looks like the weather is bordering on a snowstorm.

Kyle perks up when he hears a noise at the door, not dissimilar to a knock. When he looks over, he’s met by the sight of Kenny and Ike, the latter of which runs over faster than Kyle can think. Ike dives onto the bed, attaching himself to Kyle with a harsh hug. He’s basically laying on top of Kyle, at this point, which is really not very comfortable. When Ike was little, he was significantly lighter. But he’s not a baby anymore, and Kyle can’t carry him around the way he used to. Or kick him the way he used to, not that he would ever do that today. Kyle’s ability to empathize and care for other people has definitely matured as he’s gotten older.

“Don’t ever scare me like that again!” Ike exclaims, finally sliding off of Kyle to give him a stern look. His tone is basically scolding, which is exactly the type of thing Kyle expects from his little brother. Now standing at Kyle’s bedside, Ike puffs up his chest and crosses his arms, glaring in a very overly-dramatic manner.

“Ike, calm down, I’m fine,” Kyle says, playfully nudging Ike in the forehead. Ike whacks Kyle’s hand away, though that gesture is just as brotherly. “Who brought you here, anyway?”

With that question hanging in the air, Kyle gives Kenny a questioning look. “Don’t look at me, man,” Kenny says, shrugging. “I found the li’l tyke talkin’ up a storm in the waiting room.”

Kyle makes a face. “Talking up a—?”

“I walked!” Ike says, throwing his arms up into the air in a grand gesture, almost like he’s proud of himself. In disbelief, Kyle gives Ike a once-over and sure enough, there’s snow tracks on his boots and wet spots peppering his heavy winter coat. Although Ike walked here, he still has lung capacity the size of Texas. “I got home and I called you because you weren’t there but Kenny answered and he told me you were here so I walked here because it was nice out!”

Kyle glances out the window once more. “Ike, it’s storming.”

For a second, Ike only responds with silence and the occasional blink. Then, he becomes animated again, apparently having thought up a new line to go with. “Okay, I walked here because I didn’t have a ride.”

“Jesus, Ike, does Dad know you’re here?”

Ike proudly exclaims, “Nope!”

“You’re impossible,” Kyle says with a sigh.

In the following lull, everyone gets comfortable. Ike crawls back up into Kyle’s hospital bed, but he doesn’t try to initiate another death hug. He simply sits at the foot of the bed, much like he does every time they visit Mom. Kenny goes ahead and plops himself down in the empty recliner between the bed and the window. Kyle can’t see the view of the storm quite as easily with Kenny’s head in the way, but that doesn’t matter much. Storms are storms, big or small. There’s a solid few minutes in which no one says anything, simply sitting in the quiet of the room and relaxing after the stress of such a crazy day. Kyle is still having some difficulties understanding the extent of exactly what happened. It almost feels like something out of a soap opera that’s particularly heavy on the drama. It’s kind of funny to think this is his life.

“Sooo,” Kenny eventually pipes up, drawing out the vowel. He crosses one leg over the other, leaning casually on the arm of the chair. “What’s your deal with Stan? Was that because you were lethargic, or are you two fightin’?”

Kyle sighs again at the mention of Stan and him going through something rocky. He wouldn’t say they’re fighting, exactly, but he can’t exactly say they’re not, can he? If he does, he’ll have to go in-depth about what’s going on. He can’t do that. It doesn’t feel safe. Kyle doesn’t want anyone to find out about this crap, he really doesn’t. The last thing he needs is Eric finding out other people know. Then… well, Kyle doesn’t want to think about that.

Kyle’s silence must register as conflict with Kenny— which isn’t an inaccurate assumption—, since he decides to ask: “Or is it, like, complicated? Are you two canoodling and having intimacy issues?”

Kyle leaps out of his relaxed laying position, covering Ike’s ears with his palms. Ike protests with a sharp, “Hey!”

“Kenny, what the hell?” Kyle hisses, ignoring the fact that Ike is trying to pull Kyle’s hands away. “Does everyone know?”

“Does everyone know what?” Kenny asks. “That you’re gay? Well, yeah, kinda obvious, you’re the only one who has shown zero interest in chicks.”

“I can still hear what you’re talking about, y’know!” Ike exclaims. Exasperated, Kyle lets go of Ike’s head and leans back again, crossing his arms over his chest. Ike sticks his tongue out at Kyle, and Kyle glares at him.

“Me not showing interest in one team does not mean I swing for the other,” Kyle says, maybe a little defensive— but who wouldn’t be? This is kind of personal, and it’s not like he wants to go around gallivanting the fact that he’s into… ugh, okay, stop thinking. Stop thinking.

“You’re totally right, my dude, it don’t mean shit,” Kenny says. His expression becomes thoughtful, and he makes a show at glancing up at the ceiling, stroking his chin. “I was considering the fact that you were totally ace, but then you popped one for Mister-Hot-Shot-TM back in sophomore year and I figured, yeah, he’s gay.”

Kyle stares at Kenny incredulously, his eyes narrow and mouth slightly open. He doesn’t even know how to take what he just heard. “Excuse me? I did what now?” he asks, more than a little snappish. Kenny opens his mouth to speak, but then he glances at Ike and thinks better of it. Yeah, Kyle thinks, rolling his eyes. Didn’t fucking think so.

Kenny shifts in the chair, uncrossing his legs and resting his elbows on his knees in a casual lean forward. Kyle makes a point to not look at Kenny, and instead occupies his vision with examining the door frame of the hospital room. The area outside is basically empty; he sees a nurse hovering near one of the other rooms on the opposite side of the nurse’s station, but that’s about it. “Look, Kyle,” Kenny says. “It ain’t that big of a deal—”

“Speak for yourself,” Kyle snaps, turning abruptly to face Kenny. He reacts so quickly, Kenny’s expression reads that he doesn’t fully know how to react. Kyle doesn’t care; he blurts something he hadn’t even realized he’d been warring over until the words pass his mouth and his thoughts confirm it afterward: “You’re not the one dealing with the fact that you won’t have kids of your own.”

The expression on Kenny’s face goes sympathetic. It makes Kyle angry, so he looks away again. He counts the tiles on the floor without even realizing he’s doing it. Slowly, Kenny says, “What do you mean? There’s always surrogacy or adoption—”

“It’s not the same,” Kyle says, suddenly finding that he has crossed his arms over his chest. Without thinking about it, he’s blocking himself off. The more he thinks about it, the more it bothers him; not his crossed arms, but the… kid thing. He never really considered himself to be extraordinarily passionate about having a family of his own, but with a clear head and a strange veil of safety hovering over him in a hospital with cameras and security, Kyle can’t help but feel a little… sad. Maybe that’s bad of him, or maybe it’s a stupid thing to be upset about, but he can’t help it, for goodness’ sake. He wants to find someone he loves and he wants to be able to pass down their respective family lines together. He doesn’t want to miss out on that.

It just feels so… instinctual.

But he’s just not built right.

Not that he’ll have kids, anyway. As long as Eric is around, he’ll never have children. Hell, as long as Eric is around, it might be a good idea to stay single. Eliminate all possibilities of Eric hurting any more people.

Eric won’t be satisfied until Kyle is taken care of, whether that means death or a fate worse— but Kyle refuses to give up. He will win or he will die trying. That’s the point of Eric’s game.

That fucking stupid little game…

“I had no idea you were so… like, conflicted, about it,” Kenny says, startling Kyle out of his thoughts. Kyle turns to look at Kenny, giving Ike a curious, passing glance as he does. Ike has this weird expression on his face, one that Kyle can’t really put into words.

“I’m not conflicted about it,” Kyle says. “It’s fucking plain and simple: I don’t want to be gay, okay? I didn’t ask for this crap, I didn’t ask to be unable to pass down my family line, I didn’t ask.”

Kenny has nothing to say to that, and Kyle doesn’t expect him to. Kyle takes a moment to examine the bandage over the crook of his elbow. He recalls trying to pull out his IV. “No one asks, Kyle,” Kenny suddenly says. Kyle looks up, brows furrowed again.

“Excuse me?”

“No one asks to be dealt the cards we’re dealt,” Kenny says. His words seem a little sharp, but his tone is anything but; in fact, he sounds purely comforting. “That’s why being able to roll with the punches and still stay cool is an attractive trait, dude, it’s something not everyone can do.”

Kyle doesn’t know the exact thing Kenny is trying to get at, but it still presses on a nerve somewhere that tempts Kyle’s eyes to start watering. Kyle hugs himself, remaining as silent as he can.

“Is it a romantic thing?” Kenny asks, finally changing the subject slightly. “With Stan, I mean?”

“Stan isn’t gay,” Kyle says, ignoring the fact that that may be a lie. He’s not outing his best friend. There’s quiet. A stiff quiet, an uncomfortable quiet— and Kyle is suddenly very much upset with the fact that they’re in a hospital talking about his stupid sexuality, of all things. Kyle knows it’s not something he’s supposed to be ashamed of, but it’s just a very deep-rooted hurt that he wishes someone could understand. He knows that someone out there does— that’s what they tell people who are hurting, right? You’re not alone. But Kyle can’t help but feel that way when he hasn’t met anyone who really… gets it.

Kyle really wants someone who gets it.

But that is selfish, isn’t it? Kyle has plenty of people who love and care for him, and if he tried to open up, they would be sympathetic and understanding and listen to him. But part of him doesn’t really want that. He just wants…

“You like him, don’t you?” Kenny asks, voice very quiet.

“Don’t,” Kyle says. “Just don’t.”

Kyle thinks back to when he had woken up the first time, when his father was rubbing his shoulder and doing that supportive dad thing. The way he’d been so comforting and had simply said I know when Kyle confessed to being gay. In some ways, it feels like a weight has been lifted off of him. That doesn’t mean he’s free of burdens, though. He’s still covered with a thick, weighted blanket of secrecy. It’s scary in the way that secrets can be. He fears he may overstep something and end up going into a danger zone. He’s afraid he might die, maybe, but such a fear is far away. He fears Eric, he supposes, but he refuses to let the fear paralyze him.

Kyle thinks to just before he’d fallen asleep again. Stan had texted him. Stan had asked where he was. Stan just wanted to make sure Kyle was okay, and Kyle blew him off like he was little more than a pest he found underneath his porch.

Now that Kyle fears.

In the gradually-dimming hospital room, Kyle finds that he hears noises. The beeping of the machines, certainly, and the ticking of a clock. There’s a mild ringing coming from somewhere, but it’s so quiet Kyle is certain it’s just an onset of mild tinnitus. He hears breathing. Kenny’s is almost silent, but his brother’s is less careful. Kyle feels his heartbeat, but only if he focuses on it. Then, in the quiet clamor of all of these noises, Kyle hears a shift.

And then Ike asks, “Are you anorexic?”

It doesn’t take long for Kyle to come up with an answer. “No,” Kyle says. He thinks about the time he lost control of how much he ate, which still feels weird and he can’t exactly wrap his head around it. He doesn’t understand how his blood sugar got so low after such a thing. He finds himself gazing at the outline of his arms and wrists. “That’s stupid.”

“I’m going to take a piss,” Kenny says, and he’s gone before anyone realizes he spoke.

Ike doesn’t take Kyle’s answer. “You got here by not eating,” he says. “You’re getting thin and you keep telling me you’re eating, but I haven’t actually seen you eat since that orange you had two days ago.”

“Yesterday,” Kyle corrects. “I had it yesterday morning, that was yesterday.”

Ike only frowns and asks, “Why’d you keep track of that?”

Kyle doesn’t have an answer. Fortunately enough for him, he doesn’t seem to need one. Ike seems more or less fine with the silence, though his gaze is glued to the water-peppered tiles, lingering footprints from Ike’s arrival in such dirty snow boots. Ike isn’t frowning, but he’s not smiling, either. Kyle doesn’t expect him to do either, though he does have the distinct urge to find a way to make Ike happy. He certainly doesn’t look thrilled to be here. After more than ten minutes of silence (and realizing that Kenny isn’t coming back, nor is their father), Kyle suggests that Ike can walk home if he would like to. Ike says nothing to that, which is enough for Kyle to get the hint that Ike doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

It’s somewhere within this newfound silence that Kyle daydreams. Nothing in particular comes to his mind; he simply allows his vision to fall out of focus and his eyes to gently droop. Perhaps a more accurate description of this would be dozing, but it doesn’t much matter. In fact, nothing much matters to him for a very long while. When he rouses himself from the strange half-sleep, he does so due to external stimuli. A nurse comes in, and after a few seconds of watching, he recognizes her as Nurse Simmons. Her blond hair is unmistakable. Another unmistakable thing is the fact that she brought insulin with her.

“Whoa,” Kyle says, suddenly feeling significantly more awake. Both Ike and Nurse Simmons look over at him. He smiles though he really doesn’t want to, pointing to the syringe in Nurse Simmons’ hand. “What’s that for? I came in here for hypoglycemia, not hyperglycemia.”

Nurse Simmons chuckles. “Your food will be down soon, don’t worry,” she says. She approaches with the supplies, lifting the table attached to the bed back up and resting them on the surface. Alcohol wipes, clean syringe with insulin, the whole nine fucking yards. He swallows thickly.

“What? I don’t remember asking for food,” he says. Ike gives him a look and Nurse Simmons’ smile fades just a little.

“That’s true, you didn’t ask for it,” Nurse Simmons says. “But you are on a plan, Kyle, and we need to respect that… have you been skipping nighttime meals?”

This time, she’s giving him this look. He doesn’t like that look. It’s a look that says she’s catching on, a look that says she’s suspicious, a look that’s concerned about his food intake and a look that frustrates him more than it reassures him. He decides that he hates that look. “I haven’t been skipping nighttime meals,” he says, and maybe he’s a bit more snappish than he should be, but—

“He is,” Ike blurts, startling Kyle. Almost immediately, a cold nervous flush floods through him. He doesn’t have enough forethought to glare, and maybe that’s a good thing, in some respects. Nurse Simmons furrows her brows in a very small way. Such an expression is so soft, so trained, that Kyle genuinely wonders if it was his imagination. He knows, however, that it’s not. Before she can start to ask questions, Kyle pipes up.

“I do not skip meals,” he says. “That’s stupid, I’m not trying to risk my life, here, okay? I’ve just been eating when you happen to be away.”

“That’s not—” Kyle shoots Ike a glare, hoping for the sake of his sanity that he gets the hint. Fortunately, Ike seems to, and he goes silent. Nurse Simmons does not look impressed.

“Kyle, is something going on?” she asks, because of course she does. He shakes his head and holds out his hand, waiting for her to hand over the insulin so he can inject himself with the stupid stuff. She doesn’t. She only shakes her head and purses her lips.“Unfortunately, this is something I have to do.”

“What?” Kyle asks. “Why?”

“It’s just protocol,” she says, though her mouth goes tight afterward. She asks for his arm, and he rolls up the sleeve of his shirt so she has access to his bicep. She wipes the injection site with an alcohol towelette and then there’s that familiar prick and sting.

And it’s in.

She places a bandaid over that injection site, too, though he’s almost certain that’s just a formality. She packs everything up, reminds him that another nurse will be back with the food very soon, and then she leaves. As he watches her go, he feels distinctly overwhelmed. His thoughts burst from the previous calm of being okay to the frantic knowledge of needing to eat whatever they give him. His first instinct is to say he can just dismiss himself to the bathroom, but he knows he can’t do that. He wouldn’t be able to get rid of it, at least. His head swims. He rubs at the bandaid on his arm and tries to think of a way out. Of course, there is none.

“Hey, Kyle?” Ike asks, looking at him with wide, almost dangerously curious eyes. Kyle hums, urging him to continue. “Do you… not think of me as your brother?”

To that, Kyle doesn’t know what to say. It’s such a shocking, out of the blue question that it takes a few seconds for him to get his bearings. “What? Ike of course I think of you as my brother— where is this coming from?”

“I just…” Ike says, and Kyle immediately thinks the worst. He thinks Eric found Ike and said something to him. That’s his first instinct. But then Ike says, “About the thing you said earlier, wanting kids of your own.”

That hits Kyle firmly in the heart. He can’t explain it. There’s just something weirdly painful about the fact that his first thought was to blame Eric, but it had really been himself that hurt Ike.

“I… I don’t know,” Ike says, appearing discouraged. He looks down. “Maybe I’m just being sensitive.”

Kyle frowns. “You’re not being sensitive— not in a bad way, at least,” he says. Ike doesn’t reply. “Ike, if you want to talk about it, we can.”

Ike messes with the sleeves of his jacket, pulling them down over his hands only to let the sleeves return to their original position. “I just—” but then he cuts off again, his eyes lowered and searching the air like he can’t figure something out. “I just can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if… I really belong.”

There’s silence, and Ike shifts in obvious discomfort. He looks like he’s about to get up and leave. Kyle opens his mouth to speak, but Ike pipes up before he gets the chance to ruin this by saying anything.

“And don’t tell me I do, because I know I do, like I logically know this is home and it’s never been anywhere other than home but there’s still this part of me, Kyle, and I don’t like that part of me and I…” Ike pauses to swallow, suddenly going very still and quiet. His expression gains this look, one that borders on zombie-like, one that Kyle has only ever seen on Stan. Ike whispers an admission, like he’s confessing: “I want it to go away.”

Kyle doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know how to fix it, and he doesn’t know how to make it better, and he doesn’t know what to do to make it okay. The more he thinks about it, though, the more he comes to realize that Ike isn’t looking for someone to tell him how to fix it. He’s looking for someone to talk to and vent to and listen, and hear him and be there at the very least. Kyle may not be the best at expressing his feelings, and he may not be the best at comforting people who are feeling sad, but he knows enough to understand responding verbally isn’t always necessary.

He scoots forward, ignoring the miscellaneous cords and things from the bed’s remote. Ike doesn’t look up. That’s fine, though. Kyle doesn’t need him to.

Kyle pulls Ike into a hug. Ike’s coat is still a little damp from the outdoors excursions, but the majority of the melted snow has dried by now. It takes a few seconds, but Ike eventually warms up to the hug. Ike leans into it, returning it more or less, though Kyle doesn’t mind. He just hopes what he wants to get across will get across.

When they let the hug die out, Kyle doesn’t move back up to the bed. He stays right where he is, settled next to Ike at the foot of the hospital bed. He keeps a reassuring hand on Ike’s back— not really doing anything with it, just letting it rest there. There’s a moment where they look at each other, and Kyle’s instinct to protect as any sibling would have resurrects. “I’m sorry for saying what I said,” Kyle says. Ike shrugs, obviously trying to just brush it off, but Kyle makes the executive decision not to leave it alone. “I’m serious, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s fine,” Ike says.

“It’s not fine if it hurt you,” Kyle says.

“It didn’t hurt me, you don’t hurt me.” Ike glances down again. He fidgets with the cuffs of his jacket sleeves. They’re too tight; he has to loosen them soon. Ike always forgets to do that. Kyle makes a reminder for himself to do that once they get out of here. Tomorrow, apparently. Because they’re keeping him for observation, whatever the fuck that means. They’re probably not going to even do anything, they’re just going to have him sit silently in this dull hospital room until the required twenty-four hours passes and then he’ll be kicked out. It’s just a way for the hospital to save its ass. Well, we kept him overnight and he was fine!

Kyle is shocked at his own bitterness.

“You’re not hurting anyone just by being alive,” Ike says. “You’re not a burden, and I wish you knew that about yourself.”

To that, Kyle says nothing.

A different nurse comes up with the food tray. There’s what looks like chicken and some sort of stir-fried rice type of thing. She sets it up on that little pull-up table, asks if he’d like anything else, and when he says no, she leaves. It’s just Kyle, Ike, and the plate of food.

It’s kind of strange, really. Kyle doesn’t know what to do with the meal. He just stares at it like it’s an alien and waits for it to disappear. That doesn’t happen, of course. He sits for long enough that Ike starts to nag him about the importance of eating after an insulin injection. Kyle knows. He doesn’t say anything back, but he knows how important it is. This is just one of the times he wishes he wasn’t required to monitor his food intake so strictly.

Kyle picks up the fork and carefully prods at the small pile of rice. He moves as gently as possible, like that will make him look a little less gross for eating in front of people. That’s one of his fears, he has realized. He hates eating in front of people. He feels like they’re watching him, or judging him, or waiting for him to slip up somehow. He doesn’t know what will happen if they find something to pick on him for, but it just feels like it’s dangerous.

After a few seconds of poking, Kyle nods. He holds the fork over to Ike and says, “It’s good, you should try it.”

To which Ike points out, deadpan, “You haven’t eaten any of it yet.”

Yeah. That was stupid. And yet still, Kyle tries to push it. “Okay, fine, but I’m sure it’s good, do you want some?”

“Kyle, it’s hospital food.”

“Yeah, so? Food is food, right?”

Ike gives him a weird look, like he’s not entirely sure of how to take that. In all fairness, Kyle isn’t sure how to take it, either. He just knows that there’s no getting out of it, and if there’s no getting out of it…

Kyle looks down at the platter, examining the form of the rice and what appears to be slightly-processed chicken. There’s vegetables on the side. He could have the vegetables first and drink water so he feels full and then he can use that as an excuse. Right?

Except there’s still this disgusting knowledge that once he starts he might not be able to stop until he’s eaten it all and that’s terrifying. He doesn’t want what happened the other day to happen again. He doesn’t want to blur out and eat just for the sake of some weird comfort. The portion size on this stupid plate is too big. He doesn’t like the size of the plate, he decides. He pushes half of the rice towards one end of the plate, and cuts the chicken in half. He puts half of the chicken on the half of the rice that he pushed away.

That’s more like it, right? Half of this portion is more than enough. He just can’t eat it until he finds a way to get rid of the half that he’s not going to eat. If he doesn’t get rid of that part first, he’ll just eat the whole meal. And that’s gross. He holds the fork out to Ike again. “C’mon, have some.”

Ike makes a face. “Kyle—”

“Dude, there’s enough here for two… besides, you probably haven’t eaten anything since lunchtime, right? You must be hungry.”

“You’re the one who hasn’t eaten since yesterday,” Ike says.

Kyle wants to deny it, but he can’t. Ike was there for breakfast that morning. They both know Kyle didn’t have anything. Kyle had been brought to the hospital right after lunch. Would he really have needed hospitalization if he’d have just eaten lunch? Probably not.

But it’s not that Kyle doesn’t want to eat ever, okay? He just needs to get rid of half of the plate so he can eat without feeling guilty about it. It’s very simple, really. Hell, he would go ahead and say that he’s getting better because he hasn’t even planned on where and how he’s going to puke it. In fact, he would go so far as to say he doesn’t plan on puking it. He just plans on eating half.

Even though Eric told him not to eat anything.

Another little “fuck you” to Eric, Kyle supposes. Another little victory. Another little win.

“Ike,” Kyle doesn’t even recognize his own voice. He doesn’t think about saying anything, but his mouth goes ahead and says shit anyway. Because that’s just where he is, now, apparently. Staring at a plate of food that he has split in half and saying things without doing any brain work. Not conscious brain work, at least. “I just need you to eat half, okay? I’ll eat the rest, I promise, I just can’t—”

He’s saying too much. Kyle is saying way too much and he knows that now, but it’s too late. Ike doesn’t look as alarmed as Kyle thought he might. Instead, Ike just looks a little skeptical. That skepticism changes slowly, though, adjusting into a small frown and sympathetic eyes. Kyle doesn’t like that look. He much prefers the skepticism over the concern. Dare Kyle say, the pity. “You’re anorexic, aren’t you,” Ike says, and it isn’t even a question. Kyle knows that, but he refuses to acknowledge it.

“No,” Kyle says. “I’m not anorexic, Ike, I just don’t want to eat all of this.”

“Then don’t eat all of it,” Ike says. “Why do you need me to eat some?”

“Because I—” I’m going to lose control again, Ike, I can’t do that “—don’t want it to go to waste, okay?”

And then Kyle adds, defensive:

“Why don’t you want to eat any of it?”

“Because it’s not my food,” Ike says. Of course, Kyle can’t argue with that. How could he? He might be quick to argue on a normal occasion, but that’s under average circumstances. This is not a normal circumstance, nor is his brain currently able to meld too far past the realms of logic. Some machine outside of his room beeps, and a very dim orange light flickers over one of the doors. He watches as a nurse makes her way over. The light and beeping goes away.

Kyle only has one last resort, a normally spoken, though strangely stiff, “Please.”

Ike frowns. With that, Kyle gets the hint. Through an ill-at-ease swallow, Kyle cuts the chicken into bite-sized pieces and begins to eat.

It tastes good. It’s nothing special, but it’s pleasant to eat something real with a good taste to it. Oranges and salads don’t really cut it in the grand scheme of things, nor do they really feel filling. Then again, that’s kind of why he likes eating those things. They’re simple and they’re something to eat when everyone else around him is; something to chew and swallow just to make sure his blood sugar doesn’t drop to dangerous levels, or just to avoid suspicion from other people.

He eats it all.

Kyle puts the tray on the stupid table and goes back to the head of the bed, sitting cross-legged and staring at his hands. He watches himself fidget with the bandage on his arm, he watches himself pull at the hem of his shirt just to feel like he’s actually doing something.

Another beeping, another light flickering, another pair of feet tracking the hall to the room and then it’s silent.

Ike is saying something, Kyle thinks, but he can’t hear it. He’s too busy swallowing the saliva building up inside of his mouth. He’s too busy trying to soothe the itching of his stomach, he’s too busy trying to ignore the way he’s full. He’s too busy tuning out the sounds and the noises and the things, to hear. But the pressure builds up too much, and his breathing has picked up a little. The air is too thin; it doesn’t fill his lungs. He craves home.

Kyle moves to get out of bed, but he doesn’t even swing both legs over the edge before Ike snaps to attention, asking, “Where are you going?”

“I’m gonna puke,” Kyle says, not looking up. He moves again, but Ike pushes him back into bed. Kyle flinches at the contact, eyes wide and unsure of what to do because he’s not fucking around here, he genuinely has to vomit. But then Ike comes back with that plastic bucket that’s in every hospital room and shoves it into Kyle’s hands.

“Use that,” Ike says.

Reluctant, Kyle settles with the stupid plastic bucket in his lap and stares at the bottom of it. The material is dyed a pale pink. It’s not exactly a pleasant color, and he’s not a fan. It hurts his eyes in the dim lighting. The longer he looks at it, the darker his vision gets. He blinks it away, trying to will away the static, trying to ignore and persuade the particles to go away. He thinks about Carbon and Nitrogen and Oxygen and Argon— he thinks about Helium and Hydrogen and Astatine, and he thinks about Sodium Chloride and Copper (II) Chloride and cerulean and blue and pink and the nausea fades away.

His breathing calms down, and the saliva no longer gathers at a frightening speed. He doesn’t even need to spit into the bucket. He feels more or less normal, with the only exception being the fact that he has an entire meal in his stomach, and he won’t be able to get it out. Not tonight.

Kyle closes his eyes and relaxes, tipping his head back a bit. He feels the blood rushing, throbbing in his cheeks and ears and eyebrows. It hurts.

“You’re bulimic, aren’t you?” Ike asks.

Kyle looks at him. Ike is hugging himself, rubbing his arms and rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. His expression isn’t nervous, but his actions are more than a little on the anxious side. Kyle wonders why. He opens his mouth to speak, maybe deflect with a useless question or two, maybe defend himself in an argument that would be overkill, or maybe to say no. Softly, Kyle asks, “Dad isn’t coming back, is he?”

Ike only looks down at his shoes.

It hurts more than Kyle thought it would.

Chapter Text

They send Kyle home the next day with a prescription of a glucagon injection in case of emergencies and a suggestion to pick up some glucose tablets from the pharmacy. Since Dad appeared to pick him and Ike up, Kyle couldn’t get out of it. He holds the small paper bag in his hands tightly all the way home, and he immediately brings it up to his room. He tells Dad to bring him to school, while Ike takes the excuse and enjoys a day off. Kyle walks in late, signs in at the main office, and rushes off to his fourth period class before he’s marked off for any more absences than he’s already attained. He doesn’t like to make a habit of skipping. It just pushes him further and further behind, and he really can’t have that happening to him this year. He needs to keep his GPA up high enough to successfully meet the requirements of his school choices— which have changed, since the revelation that Eric plans on going to New York.

Kyle just has to stay to himself. He has to keep it secret. He can’t write anything about colleges down, he can’t actively search up other colleges, he can’t open any e-mails from colleges, he can’t do any of that. He can’t so much as whisper the idea to a friend or a family member. He has to make sure that this decision— this one thing, this one fucking step in the rest of his life— stays his own. Running low on time, he half-asses his worksheet for fourth period and turns it in a few seconds after the lunch bell rings. He apologizes but he doesn’t wait to hear what she has to say. He doesn’t so much as make eye contact. He feels fuzzy, like he’s buzzing around everywhere waiting and watching and thinking about something that may or may not happen even though he hasn’t done anything and he doesn’t plan on doing anything. He thinks a big chunk of his fear is of what Eric might ask him to do next, but he knows that’s not the entirety of it.

He enters the cafeteria slightly later than normal and makes his way over to their usual table. Kenny and Butters are there, already, as they always are. He sits down in a chair across the table from them and pulls his lunch box out of his backpack. Kenny and Butters, sharing a bag of potato chips, glance up at Kyle as he settles. Kyle pointedly ignores the strange expression Kenny is giving him, and he even more pointedly ignores the way his hands shake as he takes out the sandwich he made himself for lunch in the few minutes of downtime before Dad took him back to school. Kyle’s arm still aches a bit from where he injected himself with insulin some minutes ago. With that knowledge deep in the recesses of his brain, he knows he can’t skip this meal. If he does, he’ll be sent right back to the hospital under another hypoglycemic attack and he really doesn’t want to have to do that. He can fix himself on his own, see?

Kyle’s eating. Kyle’s fine.

“Aw, hey, Kyle!” Butters says, leaning forward a bit in his seat. He has this big smile on his face, all sunshine-y and bright. For a second— only for a second— Kyle envies Butters’ and his apparent perpetual happiness. He tries not to think about it, of course, and decides he’s had enough of being all fucked up and sad and shit. There’s still this overwhelming sense of nothing will ever get better deep in the center of his chest, but with last night’s dinner, this morning’s breakfast, and the initiation of lunch, his brain feels a little less foggy.

“Hi, Butters,” Kyle says, returning the smile. Kenny sputters, spitting out some of the water he’d been sipping. Kyle gives him a sideways glare, finding Kenny’s abrupt action quite disgusting. “Dude.”

“Ho-ly shit, my dudes, he’s back!” Kenny laughs, leaning on the two back legs of his chair.

“Who’s back?” Kyle asks. Kenny struggles to breathe through the accidental inhalation of water droplets, coughing and hacking in raw wheezes.

“Aw, there there, buddy,” Butters says, patting Kenny on the back. Kenny raises a hand, probably as a nonverbal I’m okay gesture, but Butters doesn’t seem to get the gist. He just keeps patting, even as he answers for the question Kyle posed to Kenny. “Ken means you’re back, Kyle— you’ve been acting awful odd lately, mister, and we weren’t sure what to do… but you look okay, now! You’re smiling!”

Kyle had no idea a smile could be enough to reassure someone everything was okay. He didn’t know it had that much power. He gives the two a strange look, watching as Butters continues to pat Kenny on the back, even after Kenny has finished with the coughing fit. Strangely enough, Kenny doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Butters keeps patting him like a dog. In fact, he takes it in stride. He goes so far as to grin this stupid, bright grin, and begin patting Butters right back. Kyle rolls his eyes, but continues to watch, grateful for the happy distraction as he forces himself to eat his sandwich.

A few seconds into the silence— or maybe it’s a few minutes, considering Kyle has already managed to finish half of the sandwich—, Kenny and Butters cease their stupid brotherly-exchange-of-patting and resume their sharing of the potato chips. Kyle contemplates telling them they’re stupid, but ultimately decides against it. He has some values he would like to try and exercise today. With the reassurance of last night’s issues, he wants to make sure he’s there for his little brother as much as possible. Fighting his own brain with the logic of I need to eat to be okay is a very strange phenomenon that he doubts he will ever fully be able to explain.

“Hey, uh…” Kenny pipes up, swallowing another swig from his water bottle. Kyle looks at him, waiting for him to finish saying whatever it is that’s on his mind. Butters looks up, too. Kenny grabs a chip from the bag and picks at it, brushing some of the salt and crumbs off of it. Kenny returns Kyle’s eye contact. “I’m glad you’re eating, man, I…”

There’s quiet. No one says anything. Kyle isn’t sure how to respond, and Butters looks like he’s trying to make himself smaller. Kenny has his mouth open, like he’s trying to figure out how to continue. Soon enough, though, he finishes.

“I’m just glad you’re eating.”

Kyle and Kenny share a little nod. Kyle vaguely remembers when Kenny had stopped by last night, following a very energetic and nervous Ike. He remembers the way Kenny spoke to him about Kyle being gay, and he remembers that Kenny had dismissed himself rather abruptly when Ike blatantly came out with the question of Are you anorexic? Kyle, swallowing one of the final bites of his sandwich (and fighting back the urge to run), asks, “Hey, Kenny, how are you doing?”

Kenny, eyes wide and mouth slightly open in shock, looks like he doesn’t know how to respond to that. His cheeks pink up a bit, Kyle notices. Abruptly, Kenny glances down at the potato chip he’s still fidgeting with and says, “Eh, I’m okay.”

Kyle doesn’t know how to feel about that, nor does he know if he should believe him. He opens his mouth to press a bit more, but he doesn’t get the chance to do so. The air shifts as someone sits down next to Kyle, practically dropping their tray down on the surface of the table. Kyle, expecting it to be Stan, looks over with the words of an excited greeting on the tip of his tongue.

But the only thing he’s met with is the sight of Eric.

Kyle goes very still.

“’Sup, nerds,” Eric says, monotone and very much exasperated. Although the observation makes Kyle feel sick to his stomach, he can’t help it; he examines the way Eric’s hair is mussed, and the way there are the beginnings of dark circles beneath his eyes. Eric messily unwraps the burger he grabbed from the lunch line and starts to eat. A few seconds in, though, Eric catches on that Kyle has been staring. He stares back, swallowing his bite of burger. “The fuck you lookin’ at, Jew? The Jock not enough eye-candy for your gay fantasies?”

There’s a pause. Even Kyle is aware of it, and he’s the one who is suffering from the pure freeze of all of his muscles. Swallowing down the saliva, Kyle forces himself to respond in as harsh of a tone as he can muster, “Yeah, because I fantasize about fat pieces of shit.”

“Never know,” Eric says. He tears off a small piece of bread from the burger and throws it at Kyle. He barks out a laugh when Kyle unintentionally catches it in the palm of his hand. Disgusted, Kyle throws the chunk of bread onto Eric’s tray and wipes his hand free of the particles. That gets Eric to laugh even harder. “What, you’re afraid of fucking bread now? But God gave that to your people, Kyle, he wouldn’t want you to waste it!”

“Shut up and go back to doing the only thing you’re good at,” Kyle says.

“Oh? What’s that? What am I good at?” Eric asks. And as sarcastic as he sounds, there’s also a low note to it— like he’s genuinely interested, or something. Like he’s trying to find a way to twist what Kyle is about to say into a genuine compliment. Kyle scowls.

“The only thing you’re good at is eating, you fucking whale,” Kyle says, trying to sound as calm as possible, but it’s really not as easy as it seems. Eric’s expression turns purely amused, but Kyle pushes it off and finishes the final bite of his sandwich. He brushes his hands free of crumbs and withdraws his water bottle, taking a few sips. He has some fruit and a small bag of carrots to finish off before he feels like he’ll be able to be done, but even the sandwich is enough to tempt him into calling it quits. He refuses to, though. He can’t keep doing this. For now, however, he needs a break. The sandwich sits in his stomach like a rock; bread and thick carbohydrates feel like glue. He sets his water bottle down and looks at Kenny. “Hey, Kenny, can I talk with you outside for a sec?”

Kenny makes a soft humming noise of agreement, taking a few more chips for the road as he pushes himself up. Kyle circles the lunch table just so he can grab Kenny by the fabric of his sweater and tug him of near the doors of the cafeteria. After glancing around and making sure no one is watching— including lunch monitors— Kyle pushes Kenny out the cafeteria doors and follows closely behind. The hallway is silent; everyone is either eating or sitting in a classroom. Kenny glances around, his expression appearing more than a little confused. “Oh,” Kenny says, popping another chip into his mouth. He crunches on it loudly, his eyebrows raising in a thoughtful look. “You literally meant outside, that’s cool, I guess—”

“Where’s Stan?” Kyle asks. Kenny shuts up, even though their words overlapped a bit at the end. Kenny makes a noise.

“What? Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

“Stan,” Kyle repeats. “I— where is he? He’s here, isn’t he?”

“I… nah, dude, I didn’t see him in first period today,” Kenny says. “I haven’t seen him ‘round all day, actually, which is weird… I usually see him at least mopin’ ‘round his locker in the morning, even though he don’t put anything in that thing… you ever notice that? He don’t put shit in there but he prods at it like it’s important to him, or some shit—”

“Where is he?” Kyle repeats, uninterested in Kenny’s observations. He doesn’t want to be rude, but he’s a little… desperate? No, he’s not desperate. He just— it’s weird, with Stan not being there, and if no one has seen him all day… Kyle was a dick to him over text yesterday, and while Kyle knows it has nothing to do with Stan, Stan doesn’t know that. Stan probably thinks it’s all his fault, doesn’t he? Oh, for the love of… Kyle pushes his hand into his pocket, but stops before he pulls his phone out. He can’t text Stan. Eric hasn’t given him the go-ahead, and— for fuck’s sake, why does he care what Eric does? Kyle pulls his hand out of his pocket, though, and crosses his arms over his chest. “Is he at home? Is he— okay? Have you noticed anything recently? I think he’s off his meds, I just have this feeling—”

“Whoa, back the fuck up, bro,” Kenny says, holding his free hand up in urge of a pause. Kyle obeys, shutting his mouth and waiting for Kenny’s continuation. “He’s off his meds? Since when?”

“I don’t— fuck, I don’t know,” Kyle says, and that’s the truth. It was recently. Very recently— in fact, it was two nights ago. It had to be. It wasn’t yesterday, but it was the day before when Kyle noticed something amiss. “I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to, not to say I don’t want to, but I’m just— look, my point is, I don’t know, okay? But a couple of days ago I met him in his driveway and he looked off—”

“Why would he stop?” Kenny asks. Kyle feels a little trapped, struck by how serious Kenny looks and sounds. Kyle swallows.

“I… I don’t know, I… I called him pathetic,” Kyle says. “And I think that pushed him over the edge, I don’t… and with yesterday, I’m just—”

Kyle cuts off, unsure of what to say, until it builds up and comes out in one breath.

“I’m afraid he might hurt himself,” Kyle says. “I don’t want him to try that shit again, okay? I don’t want him to get hurt, I just want him to be safe, and I need to make sure he’s okay.”

Kyle doesn’t know where Kenny put those potato chips, but they’re not in his hand anymore. There’s a firmness in his eyes, blue and icy, dry in a very blatant way. Kenny’s expression reads as unsure; of himself, of the situation, of Stan, Kyle isn’t sure, but there’s something uncertain beneath it all. Kyle reaches out and touches Kenny’s arm. Kenny’s gaze snaps to Kyle’s.

“I can’t miss school, Kenny,” Kyle says. With that small statement, Kenny nods, this dip in his posture and adjustment in his neck, something so little Kyle hardly sees it beyond the instinctual recognition that it is, in fact, there. Kenny grabs Kyle’s shoulders firmly within his hands.

“I’ll head out,” Kenny says. “As soon as I get the chance, okay? I’ll check in on him.”

Kyle nods. Kenny pats him, twice, in an almost brotherly-manner on his shoulder. Kyle appreciates the gesture. He portrays as such with a little smile, and he hopes his nonverbal thanks will traverse the path of what’s left unsaid. They head back into the cafeteria with only a few minutes left to spare for the hour, trying to concoct a natural-sounding conversation in the short amount of time it takes them to return to their chairs. Kyle sits down and starts convincing himself it’s okay to eat a carrot, and Kenny grabs the trash from his and Butters’ shared lunch and drops it into the nearby trashcan. Eric has since finished his food, now busy with something on his phone.

The bell rings a few minutes later, overtaken quickly by the stampeding feet of high schoolers trying to assure they aren’t late for their next class. Kyle takes his time since the AP Chemistry classroom isn’t too far away. Kenny and Butters dismiss themselves, probably to walk together— Kyle swears, sometimes, that they’re a couple. They haven’t done anything too romantic or whatnot yet, but just the way they stick to each other like glue is kind of suspicious. With a soft huff of a laugh, Kyle wonders if that’s the way Kenny caught onto Kyle’s little crush on Stan.

Not that Kyle has a crush…

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Who is he kidding? He’s had a crush on Stan since he hit eighth grade and realized he could sit and listen to him talk for hours without getting bored. He should have realized he was infatuated when he couldn’t get enough of the hours they would spend, side by side on their stomachs on the living room floor, reading Calvin and Hobbes and Terrance & Philip comics silently. He should have realized something was there when he found himself increasingly aware of the way Stan’s body is put together, like some mix of athletic and lanky. His broad shoulders and sturdy torso.

A very Germanic bone structure, Kyle would say.

Then, “Jew,” and a hand on the back of Kyle’s neck, snapping him out of his thoughts. There’s no choking grip, it’s just a hand— but there is still this lingering threat of it, the pressure, the knowledge. Whatever remains of the students in the cafeteria clicks and scrapes around them; Kyle catches minimal movement out of the corners of his gaze. He stares down at his backpack, half-zipped on the lunch table. Kyle doesn’t have to look over to know it’s Eric; the voice and presence gives him away.

Eric leans in, next to his ear, far enough not to be seen out of the corner of Kyle’s eye, but close enough for Kyle to feel Eric’s breath on the outer shell of his ear. A shiver rolls down Kyle’s spine, making his hair stand on end.

“Meet me after Chemistry.”

Eric lets go. In seconds, he’s gone.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Kyle.”

Clyde slides into the seat previously occupied by Butters, his phone in hand and an earbud in one ear. He flicks through something on the screen, likely selections for music. Kyle hardly glances up from where he busies himself with the remainder of today’s review packet. They have a test coming up. Kyle is usually really good at keeping on-task, but lately he has been slipping. He can’t finish the entirety of worksheets during work time, anymore. His brain wanders too easily.

“—come with?”

Kyle looks up again, more than a little confused at where his brain decided to tune in. He examines Clyde’s expression, looking at where his brows lift in question, where his lips have parted post-speech. Kyle blinks away the slight fog, shaking his head in a gentle motion. “I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice sounds a little more tight than he’d meant it to be. “I’m kind of distracted, did you say something?”

“Oh, bro, don’t worry about it,” Clyde says, his mouth quirking in a weird friendly-type-grin. He glances back at his phone, once more flicking through whatever he’s listening to. Kyle takes the opportunity to peek over Clyde’s arm. It’s definitely music; there’s the familiar dark background of the Apple iPhone’s lock screen while someone is listening to the music downloaded to their device. Kyle watches Clyde tap the next button a few times, eventually settling on— “I’m heading out to hang with Butters later, I just wanted to see if you were interested in coming with.”

Clyde clicks off his phone, pushing it into the pocket of his letterman jacket. Kyle watches warily, subconsciously scooting to the side when Clyde’s elbow naturally gets closer with the movement. Kyle doesn’t know if it’s intentional or not, but Clyde adjusts himself like he knows he needs to back up physically. Silently, Kyle appreciates it. “No,” Kyle says, calm though confused at the offer. “I don’t mean to be, like, rude or anything, but why are you asking me?”

Clyde doesn’t appear offended in the least. In fact, if even possible, his grin brightens. He raises a hand like he’s about to nudge Kyle, but stops short. When he goes back to his original position, smile slightly altered, Kyle knows that Clyde picked up on Kyle’s subconscious discomfort with the close-quarters. “Nah, man! Not rude at all,” Clyde says. He flicks a stray sliver of pencil lead off of the surface of the table. “And I dunno, to be honest with ya, I just…”

Pausing, Clyde taps on the table with his fingertips. Kyle watches the way he alternates, chaotic in cadence yet intelligent in rhythm. That’s the only way Kyle can think to describe it: intelligent. The way Clyde keeps up the quick-paced, repetitive motion from pinkie to thumb. Like he plays piano, or something. He never drops a single beat, even when he resumes speaking.

“You came into the nurse’s office, you remember that?” Clyde says, suddenly growing much quieter. The few people lingering in the classroom after that final bell are distracted with their own shit, but Kyle appreciates the attempt at privacy even so. Clyde nods, more to himself than anyone else, it seems. Kyle nods, too. Clyde is quiet, lips pressed like he’s warring with himself. Then he says, “Never mind.”

Clyde gives Kyle another grin, stands up from the chair, and leaves the classroom. He’s likely going home, or wherever else it is that Clyde hangs out. The other students who have lingered to ask Miss James some questions start to file out, too. Kyle is the only one who remains. He keeps himself busy with the final problem on the worksheet, even though he could finish it in a few seconds if he wanted to. The interaction he had with Clyde is going to be fresh in his mind for a while. He knows that for certain— well, almost for certain. He can never tell what his mind will and will not remember, anymore.

Suddenly tired, Kyle puts his pencil down. He rests his elbows on the surface of the table and rubs his face, closing his eyes against the feeling of his palms. He has to meet with Eric, soon. He doesn’t know where, nor does he know precisely when. All he knows is what Eric told him: Meet me after Chemistry. Kyle’s plan is to stay in this classroom until he receives a text from Eric to hurry his ass up to wherever they’ll be meeting. For the sake of his sanity, Kyle hopes that Eric won’t make use of the East Wing bathroom.

With sudden uncertainty, Kyle rests faith in God and whispers a prayer. Nothing over-the-top; just simple. In the quiet, he’s allowed to have a moment of peace, isn’t he? The things he chooses to whisper aren’t even coherent, in many ways. They’re jumbled mixes of what he remembers from Mizmor leDavid, and echoes of lyrics from Yiddish songs his mother used to sing to him. They’re organic creations of what his tongue feels it necessary to say; thank you for keeping my family safe thus far, please help us find the strength to continue through these trials…

Kyle has never considered himself very religious, exactly; it’s always just been something he has engaged with because it’s the way he grew up. But as he matures, and as everything tries to fall apart at every hem, his attempts to get closer to his roots and the meaning of faith have strengthened. He’s more connected than he used to be, he’s more certain of it, and it feels like a connection he has rather than an actual feasible thing that people like to portray it as. It’s a comfort, really.

Something to keep him afloat.

The air snaps, and Kyle flinches, lifting his head out of his hands and dropping his palms onto the table. Miss James looks at him, having sat down in Eric’s usual seat. A bit uncomfortable, Kyle begins to pull together his things and pack them away in his backpack. Miss James doesn’t say anything for a moment, leading to Kyle’s stillness. It is only when he ceases all movement that she says, “You weren’t here yesterday, I noticed… were you sick?”

Kyle thinks about the stale air of the hospital and the odd stench of dog food and plastic. He thinks about eating that food and staring into the bucket as his body threatened to throw it back up. He shakes his head to rid himself of the thoughts, and resumes packing. “Yeah,” is all he says, because anything more than that would warrant an explanation, and he doesn’t have the words for such a conversation. He has to save his energy for whatever it is Eric wants to talk about. His phone still hasn’t gone off… is Eric ever going to text him? Was it all his imagination? He’d like to say that there’s no way his brain could concoct something so incredibly vivid, but he’s not sure if that thought would be true. He remembers the stain, how real it was to him— and only in recent times, in passing glances underneath the kitchen table, that he realizes it was genuinely never there.

It’s a strange feeling, to be lost in falsehood.

His phone buzzes in his pocket. Tension snaps in his spine and he flinches, startled without recognizing the pure instinct of run that initiated itself from such a thing. Calming down his racing heart, Kyle zips his backpack up and stands, pushing his chair in after him. He doesn’t look at Miss James, even as he says, “I’m sorry, I just remembered I have a thing,” and walks swiftly out of the classroom. He digs into his pocket for his phone, retrieving it quickly and flicking to his message app.

Fatass

Today 3:12 PM
behind the school NOW

Kyle pockets his phone once more, taking the moment to reassure himself Eric’s use of capital letters is pure dramatization, and not because Kyle ended up missing an important piece of instruction. He walks gracelessly down the hallway and almost falls down the stairs, but manages to catch himself quickly. The rest of the journey to the back of the school is quiet. He pushes the large, rusting metal door to the yard, and it opens with a loud shriek.

He tries not to come back here, most of the time; the alcove is cold and dark, holding the smells of the dumpster that hides the senior’s stoner cave. There’s spiders and bugs back there, and the chain link fence is more torn than worn. The gravel is sharp, too; much sharper than any of the other gravel in town. It’s almost like a sign that this place is dangerous. Everything screams secret drug-deals, even though Kyle knows for a fact that no one actually sells drugs back here. No students, at least. Homeless and non-students, maybe— and there’s the occasional weed clique that meets in the very back corner. Other than that, though, it’s dead silent.

And it smells like rotting shit.

Eric isn’t difficult to spot. The bright coloring of the letterman jacket is easy to pinpoint. Even if it weren’t, Eric wasn’t making any attempts at hiding himself. He sits out in the open, back against the corner of the dumpster. Kyle can’t imagine why he’s sitting there, of all places; the smell is atrocious where Kyle is, and they’re almost five feet away from each other. In a few seconds, Kyle’s eyes latch onto something new.

“Is that—” he tries to ask, but Eric’s snicker cuts him off. Eric pulls a lighter out of his pocket, clicking the flame on and off with quick flicks of his thumb. Kyle watches, eyes wide and unable to focus on much other than the way the flame eats the very tip of the joint as Eric lights it. Eric’s eyes, dark, swim with the threat of rain. It’s a new expression that Kyle is unsure of, and something he feels like he should pretend isn’t there. Eric waves the joint in front of himself, pinched between his forefinger and thumb. Taunting. Beckoning.

“You want some?” Eric asks, nothing but casual. Whatever controlling had been lingering in his texts has since dissipated, and Kyle can’t help but wonder if that’s from marijuana. Kyle swallows the thick urge of yes in his throat, and shakes his head. Eric huffs a laugh. “It’s clean, I promise, I got it from Kenny.”

Kyle is stiff where he stands. His spine aches from the harshness of his posture, begging to slouch just a bit, but he refuses. He closes his eyes for just a second, breathing, trying to ignore the skunk-y undertones of the pot. He wants it. No, no his body wants it— or his brain wants it, to remember the feeling, to try and float away in carelessness, recalling the way it had made him feel whenever he smoked with Stan. The loveliness of it, the niceness, the beauty of the patterns he saw and the relaxation he felt…

But those days are over. Kyle exhales a reminder of his earlier prayer and opens his eyes. Once again, he shakes his head, even more certain of his own refusal. Another hum from Eric, and he moves, spreading his legs out in front of him on the harsh gravel and wood chip chunks. His arm lowers. Another move, and the hand with the joint has moved to the bricks of the school’s outer wall—

“Wait!”

Eric halts. Kyle does, too. The joint keeps burning; smoke and animal. Eric doesn’t have to say anything, and neither does Kyle. It’s simply silent. No sounds— not even the wind— occur as Kyle steps over, sits, drops his backpack onto the ground next to him, and retrieves the joint from Eric’s hand. Eric gives it up without complaint.

As Kyle perches the joint in his mouth, as his eyes flutter closed, as he inhales as deeply as he possibly can and holds it holds it holds it in his lungs, he assures himself that this is the last time. He reminds himself that, the last time he smoked, he didn’t actually realize it was the last time. Besides, just one last hit can’t hurt, right? Kyle holds the joint back out to Eric, but Eric shakes his head.

“No, I’ve had enough already,” Eric says. He gestures to a forgotten stub of paper and ash on the ground. Through a haze and the smoky mist of his breath, Kyle understands. He settles a bit further, much more willing to relax with something so familiar in hand. He rests his back against the dumpster, side by side with Eric. They sit together, silent. Smoke drifts.

One hit turns to two. Two turns to five. Five turns to the entire joint and suddenly Kyle can’t remember why he ever turned away from this stuff in the first place. He vaguely remembers having a conversation with Stan in the bathroom a few days ago. He remembers asking Stan to smoke— he remembers that, for damn sure. And then the idiot— he fucking told him no, he told him that there’s no way they’re getting high together ever again. That Kyle could get high on his own, but Stan wouldn’t be… complicit, or whatever the fuck. How stupid is that?

As the clouds drift, Kyle does, too. He finds himself understanding the music stuck in his brain on a deeper level, with the shapes in the sky introducing him to new melodies and thoughts and feelings. Very distinct in its soothing nature, the drugs in his system work simply. He finds himself gently nodding with it, before slipping sideways. Before he realizes, he has dozed off, head resting on Eric’s soft shoulder. The entire right side of his body is cushioned by fabric and the heat of Eric. It’s nice, when he isn’t concerned by the subject of who he’s leaning into. Here, there is no feeling of overwhelming stress. Here, there is an acknowledgment of the lack of safety, but there is also an acknowledgment of the fact that Kyle doesn’t care.

Eventually, the soft warm pillow of Eric moves. Kyle sits up a bit, blinking his eyes open and trying to see through the bleary haze and mild headache he has developed. There’s a burning in the base of each eye, right behind his pupil, making it difficult to utilize his vision. Everything swims, everything glares.

There is rustling, Kyle notes, and with distance, he finds that he is watching Eric sift through a backpack. He doesn’t know whose it is, at this point. It could be his own, it could be Eric’s, it could be some random idiot who left it behind last time this place was populated with stoners… with that thought, Kyle chuckles. I’m a stoner, idiot. Maybe Eric is, too. He chuckles even while Eric retrieves a syringe. He chuckles even while Eric grabs his arm and pushes him down, flat on his back on the ground. He chuckles even as Eric crawls over him and uncaps the syringe…

Kyle pushes up against Eric’s chest, his chuckling slowing down as his brain registers something strange in the situation. The fact that he’s not with Stan is finally beginning to register. Eric grabs Kyle’s wrists with his free hand, pushes them up over Kyle’s head. Eric pins them to the ground. Kyle’s skin scratches against the icy sharpness of the gravel. Flecks of dirt and rocks and wood prick and prod at the expanses of the backs of Kyle’s hands. Where his jacket sleeves have ridden up, Kyle finds his wrists and forearms bare to the winter, splintering and aching in the cold.

Danger.

Kyle kicks, tries to buck and roll the way he saw Stan do, but it’s no use. He is a small entity beneath the mass of Eric. There’s a wild in those brown eyes, even as they gaze down at him, even as they water from drugs or tears or emotion. Even as they look human, Kyle knows they are not. He begins to struggle more earnestly, wiggling this way and that. The gravel scrapes; his jeans pick up the residue of the snow and rain from the drizzle earlier.

Cold coils over the now-exposed surface of Kyle’s stomach. It cracks over his ribs and makes him shiver; his breath collects before his eyes, mixing with the cloud of Eric’s own huffs. Kyle tugs, trying to release his hands from Eric’s unforgiving grip. He almost gasps when Eric allows him to squirm his hands free. Kyle uses them immediately, pushing at Eric’s face and shoulders and chest, trying to hit him in the stomach or kick him or roll or something. He succeeds. Kyle finds himself on his stomach, the gravel now scratching up his abdomen. His jacket bunches up around his chest. He tries to push back, to squirm more, to free himself. All he manages is to trap his hands underneath him as Eric chooses the worst time to lean down.

Eric’s elbow digs into Kyle’s spine. There’s the distinct pinch of skin at Kyle’s side, and then there’s nothing after the tip of the syringe is inserted into Kyle’s flesh. Kyle shies away, but the attempt is meaningless. The syringe disappears and Eric no longer pinches the skin of his side. There’s a scattering sound, and Kyle doesn’t have to look up to know Eric threw the syringe aside.

“Insulin,” Eric growls, voice suddenly significantly more menacing than it was earlier. Kyle’s head throbs and his stomach aches. He wants to ask Eric why, he wants to ask Eric what the point of it is, he wants to ask Eric so many questions but he can’t because his throat won’t work. His mouth is full of cotton and his throat is dry, cracked from the frozen air. Eric slips a hand beneath Kyle’s torso, fishing out Kyle’s left arm. He is not gentle; he wrenches it around to get the correct angle. Multiple times, Kyle winces and cries out, scraping at the angry ground with his knees, scuffing his jeans and hurting the phantom ache of his leg. Eric tugs Kyle’s sleeve down, making sure to keep Kyle's left arm pinned behind his back, like he's being arrested. “Now you’re gonna listen to me, and you’re gonna listen to me good…”

Where has Kyle heard that before? Kyle’s eyes squeeze shut, an attempt at keeping the particles out of his eyes in his attempted escapes. He tries to remember. He can’t, though. He can’t remember. Something shifts, and Eric has suddenly let go of Kyle’s arm completely. Eric’s hands are occupied elsewhere, and that elsewhere is not on Kyle’s body. Kyle uses the opportunity, grabbing a fistful of the razor gravel and throwing it behind him, hoping for the best. Eric cusses under his breath, flinching with whatever impact. Eric spits. It hits Kyle, wet, on the back of the neck. Kyle reaches for another handful, but Eric grabs him before he can manage.

“We don’t have much time, here, kike, so be nice,” Eric says and shoves him down, hissing out the last word, an accusation. Kyle hits the ground forcefully as Eric pushes into him and tries to shift, his face pressing against the ground, his hat acting as a buffer between the dust and his forehead. Eric retrieves Kyle's left arm and pins it behind Kyle's back once more, causing a burn in Kyle's left shoulder at the unnatural position. Something wet— a new texture, a contradiction. Dry-wet. What is that? It presses patterns into the inside of his left arm, a line of figures that Kyle is too distracted to pinpoint. Eric’s tone when he next speaks is utterly condescending, like he’s talking to a child. “When you get home tonight, I want you to cut this nice little number into your arm, okay? You can only check your blood sugar and eat once you send me a picture of my pretty artwork, okay?”

And when Kyle doesn’t answer—

Okay, bubbeleh?”

Kyle goes utterly frozen. He tries to turn, tries to peek at the message. He can’t; Eric’s firm press against his spine keeps him still. Air collects in his eyes from his lungs, particles shocked from the energy transfer, thermal raising and physical unsure of itself. Against all wills and wishes, Kyle finds himself thinking about his mother. Undeniably, that’s Eric’s point.

The pressure lifts. Eric stands. Kyle stays on the ground, pressed from an invisible lingering. He tries to convince himself to stand, but it’s hard.

In the silence, in the stiffness, in the nothing.

Kyle scrabbles at the ground. He forces himself up, onto hands and knees and gazing down at his hands, at where his sleeve has yet to slip down. He turns his arm, stares at the black ink, a messy inscription with jagged marks from the Sharpie and attempted struggle:

F-11237.

Eric kneels down in front of where Kyle recovers. He grabs Kyle’s chin with the hand not holding the marker, his eyes just as wet but his grin more distinct. “The blade,” Eric whispers, his tongue peeking out between his teeth for just a second, “is in that yarmulke I gave you.”

Eric pushes Kyle away, and Kyle catches himself awkwardly on his elbow before he topples onto his side in the gravel. The grip left a bruising hurt deep in Kyle’s jaw, something he wonders if he will ever forget. As he pushes himself up to sit, Kyle thinks to himself in roundabout intervals. He's trying. Trying to understand the meaning behind this, trying to get to the thing that will force everything into a logical light. He finds himself whispering, muttering the Yiddish and on the hearth a fire burns and in the house it’s warm

(Un der rebe lernt kleine kinderlekh dem alef-beys)

Eric, apparently done for the day and more or less satisfied, gathers his things, retrieving the syringe and the trash and tossing it into his backpack. He swings the bag over his shoulder, and makes leisurely strides over to the back entrance of the school, kicking Kyle's own backpack aside when he comes across it in his path.

“Oh,” Eric says, pausing just before the large metal door. His foot sits next to the discarded joint; it peppers the snow with debris, the weed. With his hands shoved in his pockets and his nose turned up at the disheveled crouching form of Kyle, Eric says, “You might want to get home before the insulin really kicks in, yeah?”

A grin. Slimy and wide. Another flick of the tongue.

“I’m not done playing with you, Jew.”

Eric kicks a free space of gravel. Adjusts his weight, opens his mouth— laughs.

“I’m not done playing with you at all.”

A dampness in Eric’s eyes. As Eric leaves, Kyle clings to that.

Subconsciously.

His brain latches onto the human aspect while the rest of him is sickened that someone could do this.

Chapter Text

Kyle’s head is pounding by the time he gets home— a deeply rooted ache that makes his eyes close. It’s more than just an annoyance, it’s genuine pain. Whatever pleasing experience he’d been steeped within just ten minutes ago has faded. He is still far away, still distant and unable to stitch together coherent thoughts, though at this point he doesn’t know if that’s because he’s high or because of the headache. It’s likely that the cause is both at once. He just wishes that the weed could soothe the throbbing of his head.

Fumbling with the lock on the front door is difficult. He pushes the key in and struggles to turn it, only to have even more issues trying to get the key out once the door is open. The smoothness of the doorknob is almost illegally pleasant, and in a matter of seconds, he finds himself just hanging onto it. He knows there is nothing special about it, but at the same time, as he believes and thinks and drifts, he finds a connection with the handle that’s more acute than he could perceive within himself. Like a physical representation of what he believes in, even though that is strictly not allowed. With that, he lets go of the doorknob like it’s burning his skin.

He steps inside, feet catching on the welcome mat. His lack of coordination is from the weed; that’s the one thing he knows for certain. His head hurts, which is likely caused by a mix of chemicals, cold, stress, and low blood sugar. He leans against the front door, pushing it closed with his shoulder, and willing his frozen hands to lock it. There’s a paranoia that stems from the back of his neck, something very physical, urging him that he cannot walk away from this fucking door until he locks it. His mother instilled within him a necessity for keeping things secure. Lock the door, Kyle, or anyone could walk in… close the door, Kyle, or you’ll catch a cold… close the door, Kyle, or you’ll let an animal inside…

With a nausea building in his stomach, though, Kyle can’t. He slides to the floor, crouching, a hand over his mouth to fight the urge to vomit. He told himself he wouldn’t. He promised. He doesn’t want to feel sick and achy like that anymore. Eating is hard, keeping it down is terrifying (his every fiber yells at him he needs to GET IT OUT or else something very very bad will happen), but the effects of purging hurt and ruin the rest of his day. It all ruins is day. All of it, every day. He steadies himself on the balls of his feet, pulling his hat off to card his fingers through his hair and self-soothe. He is taken over by malaise, this wish to curl back into bed and sleep. The feeling is not pleasant.

“Kyle?” Kyle looks up. Ike stands in the kitchen’s doorway, dressed in comfy clothes. His hair is damp like he has showered, and his cheeks are flushed from warm. Those comfy clothes are pajamas, Kyle realizes. Long-sleeved pajamas with clouds. They’re a nice light blue color. Kyle used to have a nice pair like that. They didn’t have clouds, they had cars… or was it trains? He can’t remember. He hasn’t seen them in years. Ike takes a step closer, head tilted like he’s trying to see what Kyle is doing, not that Kyle is doing much of anything. He’s just sitting here, hugging himself and breathing. His backpack slides off his shoulder, landing on the floor with a quiet thunk. He slips it off of his arm and pushes it away. “Kyle, what’s wrong?”

Confusion surfaces when Kyle remembers the marker-drawn numbers on his left arm. His stomach twists at the mental image, of Eric’s next task. To cut that number, whatever it means, into his flesh. That’s directly marring himself. Kyle doesn’t even want a tattoo, how is he supposed to be okay with cutting himself? Not to mention, what would his family think if they saw numbers on the inside of his left arm? They’d think he’s gone mad. They’d think he’s finally, finally lost it, that he’s convinced they’re back in the forties, or maybe they would convince themselves that he thinks himself guilty or trying to prove something. He doesn’t know. Kyle grabs his sleeves and pulls them over his hands. He contemplates telling Ike what Eric is doing, but in seconds, that idea is vetoed. He can’t do that. That wouldn’t just endanger Kyle, it would endanger Mom, and Ike, and Stan, and Dad. Kyle takes a moment, then slowly stands. “Nothing’s wrong,” he says, shaking his head and smiling and shit, he smells like weed, doesn’t he? He needs to go upstairs and shower. “It’s just been a really weird day… I’m gonna go up and shower, okay? Call me if you need anything.”

The thing he really needs is food. That’s not a hunger thing, either. He needs to eat something so he doesn’t go into another hypoglycemic attack and need to be brought right back into the hospital. If he does that again, they’re going to suspect something. That nurse was already skeptical of him. He doesn’t have the energy to keep things together if he has to be readmitted to the hospital. Kyle unzips his backpack and retrieves the pack of glucose tablets he’d brought with him to school just in case. He tries to hide them in the sleeve of his jacket in a way that doesn’t make it obvious he’s trying to hide it in case Ike sees anyway, but it probably just looks like he has no idea what he’s doing. Before Ike can say anything, Kyle darts up the stairs and locks himself in the bathroom. He showers as quickly as he possibly can while still being thorough, but it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. As soon as he thinks he has gotten everything, he’ll smell the musk again, and he’ll have to empty another handful of body wash into the washcloth and scrub until his skin is raw.

He tries to get the marker off of his arm, but he only manages to get the numbers to turn from black to gray. They’re still there, incredibly visible. He wonders where he put the yarmulke, wonders if he should retrieve it from his bedroom and see if there’s actually a blade in some weird secret pocket in it, but he eventually decides that’s a ridiculous idea. There’s no way Eric could possibly hide a fucking blade inside of that thing. It’s tiny. Besides, what if Eric is just doing this as a… a test? Not a task, but a test, to see if Kyle has fallen far enough to do anything? If that’s the case, Kyle will refuse. He will refuse to the end of the earth.

Kyle is strong.

The heat of the water starts to make his head spin. He only climbs out once he realizes he’ll pass out if he keeps standing under the burning stream. In comparison, the air of the bathroom is cold. The towel, too, has an ice-like quality of its own. He tosses his clothes— and his jacket— into the washing machine and starts it to get rid of the smell, towel wrapped around his waist.

When he finds himself in his bedroom, his head is rushing, blood pounding in his ears. His eyes try to close again. He grabs the pack of glucose tablets and contemplates chewing them, but he can’t. He sets the pack on his bed and gets dressed, instead. Those are for emergencies. This is not an emergency. He is at home. He will check his levels, drink some juice, and check them again. He might even force himself to eat an orange, just to push away the terror that comes with consumption.

Kyle grabs a sweatshirt from his closet and tosses it on, zipping it up. It’s green, and kind of faded from lack of use, but it’s fine considering he’s wearing an old tee-shirt and sweatpants. He’s not going anywhere else tonight, so he can dress as homeless as he wants to. Considering himself finished up here, Kyle leaves his bedroom. He pauses in the hallway, taking a second to gather his thoughts (and stare at a mark on the wall he can’t remember ever looking like that before). He manages to recuperate in less than a minute, though, and heads downstairs with minimal issue. He stumbles on the bottom step, but that’s not particularly criminalizing. He makes his way into the kitchen, where Ike has set up shop, working on homework.

It’s kind of weird to see how Ike’s brain works. It’s strange to see that Ike can’t focus on just one thing for more than a few minutes— more than that, it’s weird that Ike has three notebooks stacked on top of each other, flipping each closed occasionally to swap tasks. Red, blue, purple. English, math, science. That’s Ike’s system. Kyle doesn’t understand the way Ike color-codes things.

Kyle pulls the bottle of apple juice out of the fridge and grabs himself a glass. He measures out the appropriate amount of juice so it’s ready after he checks his levels. He puts everything away.

When he pulls his kit out of his backpack a few seconds later, he finds himself utterly drained.

He heads back into the kitchen, pricks himself and checks his blood sugar— fifty-four. That’s definitely low. No wonder he feels awful. He doesn’t know how low he got the day he went to the hospital, but surely it wasn’t much lower than this, right? He can’t remember the last time his glucose levels dropped so far.

There’s no way he would have been able to… do the thing Eric wants him to do, without the aid of eating something beforehand, that is for damn sure. Kyle tosses the garbage away and settles at the kitchen table, sitting across from Ike. Kyle takes swallows of the apple juice. He watches Ike work.

Ike flips the red notebook closed, but keeps the page marked with one of the seven different pencils he has managed to gather. He scribbles something in the blue notebook, which is open underneath the red one, and on top of the purple one. Once Ike is satisfied with whatever he did, he reopens the red notebook and returns to whatever he’s working on in that one.

“What’cha doing?” Kyle asks.

“I’m working,” Ike says. He frowns at the paper, poking the corner of it with the led of his pencil. Whatever he’s thinking about must come to him quickly, however, as he nods to himself and resumes writing. Ike doesn’t look up. He continues jotting things down. He doesn’t so much as pause or hesitate, which is something Kyle himself has never really been able to do. Kyle is good at keeping focused on things. Multitasking, not so much. Ike flips the red notebook shut again, back to the blue one. There’s a pause. “What’s the cubed root of seventy-four thousand and eighty-eight?”

Okay, Kyle’s good at math, but he’s not that good at math. Fortunately, Ike isn’t asking a genuine question. He’s just voicing it to better process.

“Forty... two? Yeah,” Ike says. Then, genuinely: “Thanks, Kyle.”

Kyle quirks a brow. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, I know, but… thanks, anyway.”

Then Ike returns to mathematical simplification.

Kyle finishes the apple juice. He fidgets with the glass for a moment, though quickly grows bored with such an action and stands, making his way over to the sink to rinse out the item. Just to do something, he pulls open the dishwasher and puts the already-rinsed cup inside of it.

From the table, Ike coughs. They’re not average coughs, either; they’re complex, phlegm-y and wet. He sounds the way he did back when he’d first gotten pneumonia. That thought frightens Kyle.

Kyle turns, looking at Ike, trying to find any signs of serious illness. His heart has frozen in his chest, refusing to move or beat to a regular rhythm. His headache has cleared up a bit, but the blood still flushes the sides of his head and makes his ears feel full. Abruptly, Kyle wonders if the flush of Ike’s cheeks isn’t from the warmth of a shower, but from the onset of a sickness.

“I’m okay,” Ike says, making the conscious decision not to look up. Kyle knows why he’s saying that. It’s because Ike felt the tension. Ike knows that Kyle is freaked out— he just doesn’t know the specificities of just how scary this is. Kyle finds himself thrown into memories of sitting in his mother’s hospital room. He remembers the way she gasped for air when they had to adjust her mask. A dry, sucking sound from her lungs and throat. Something that Kyle felt like he should be able to fix, but he couldn’t. He can’t.

“You’re getting sick,” Kyle says, quiet.

“No,” says Ike, shaking his head stubbornly. He scribbles more insistently in his notebook. “I’m not getting sick, I’m fine.”

“Your cough sounds like death,” Kyle says. He stalks over, hovering beside Ike and pressing the back of his hand against Ike’s forehead. The heat that radiates from Ike’s face is intense. “Ike, you’re burning up—”

“I’m not!” Ike pushes Kyle’s hand away, dropping one of the pencils on the floor in the process. Ike ducks to retrieve it, but Kyle grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him back upright. Ike glares, pouting like a child. “You made me drop my pencil!”

“You have six more,” Kyle says.

“I need seven!”

“Why do you need seven pencils? You only have three notebooks.”

Ike’s face gains a deeper flush, though this one is brought on by emotional exertion, not fever. His eyes become damp, and he blinks sharply. After a deep inhale, Ike rubs his eyes with his free hand, clearing the tears that have gathered. Kyle frowns. His brother isn’t okay. Mentally, physically, in whatever manner, Ike isn’t okay, and Kyle will fix it to the best of his ability.

“C’mon,” Kyle whispers, slowly marking each of the open pages on the three notebooks and shutting them. Ike doesn’t fight anymore. “Let’s get you to bed.”

When Kyle puts a hand on Ike’s back in usher of him standing, Ike follows, getting to his feet. They make their way upstairs and into Ike’s room. It’s messy, inordinately decorated with the occasional poser and a print-out of the periodic table he got from Kyle’s chemistry textbook.

Ike climbs into bed, but he doesn’t move to lay down. He sits upright, crossing his legs and fidgeting with the ankles of his pajama pants. Kyle kicks aside a pile of tee-shirts and nudges Ike. Ike scoots so he’s not on top of the covers, and Kyle brings them up and over Ike’s lap. “Lay down,” Kyle says.

“I’m not a child,” Ike mumbles.

“I know you’re not a child,” Kyle says. “You’re sick, Ike, so let me dote.”

Apparently such an act goes against Ike’s moral code, if his facial expression is anything to go by. Even so, Ike obeys, lowering himself onto the mattress and rolling onto his side. Kyle brushes some of Ike’s hair away from his eyes. It has dried by now, fluffy but frizzy from the lack of conditioner. It’s straight in places it usually isn’t. While Ike’s hair has never been as curly as Kyle’s— nowhere close, in fact— it has always had a small, definite wave, much more prominent in recent years. Kyle sits down beside Ike.

“You need to take care of your hair,” Kyle says. “It’s too dry, you can’t keep shampooing it every day.”

“But it’s gross if I don’t,” Ike says.

“I’m not telling you not to wash your hair, dummy, I’m telling you not to shampoo it… there are sulfates in that shampoo you use, you know that?” Kyle gives Ike a look in addition to the statement, raising his brows in silent scolding. Ike’s expression goes from stubborn to giving in a few seconds. Ike sighs.

“Fine,” he says.

“Good.” Kyle lingers; he brushes back the locks of hair that have fallen into Ike's eyes again. “Get some good sleep, okay?”

“I have homework to do,” Ike mumbles, though his tone holds no intent of actually doing it now that he’s comfortable in bed. Kyle shakes his head.

“You can do it when you’re better, okay? For now, you focus on resting,” Kyle says. “Do you need me to get you anything?”

“No.”

“Okay,” Kyle says. He runs his fingers through Ike’s hair once more— a bit upfront with the fact that he doesn’t want to leave Ike alone, here, but he doesn’t care. Kyle wonders if he could get away with staying right here next to Ike. When Ike closes his eyes, and when Ike’s breathing evens out, Kyle begins to think it possible.

For a very long time, Kyle does not move from Ike’s bedside. He doesn’t do anything, he just simply sits, watching over Ike with the knowledge that, as long as he keeps his eyes on him, nothing bad can happen. He takes a moment, at one point, to mouth another prayer. He doesn’t expect anything to come from the amount of prayer he has done today. The only thing he receives from it is a (perhaps childish) rendition of comfort. Maybe it’s desperate, but he hopes it’s a place he can draw strength from.

The sunlight fades from the sky early, deep in the corners of winter. It’s hardly five o’clock, yet it’s dark enough to be considered eight in the evening. Quietly, Kyle dismisses himself from his little brother’s room, turning off the light as he exits. He leaves the door open in case Ike needs something.

Descending the stairs, Kyle swears he hears a distinct buzzing noise coming from somewhere. He doesn’t realize what it is until he’s passing his backpack. Kyle stops where he is, and after a moment, he pulls his phone out of his backpack. He has multiple missed texts, and all of them are from the same person.

Eric.

Fatass

Today 4:45 PM
u do it yet?

Today 4:55 PM
u didn’t die did u?

Today 5:00 PM
fuck u if u died fckn weak whore

Today 5:49 PM
AY

What do you want?

JESUS CHRIST are you trying to waste my time?

Fuck off. What do you want?

answer my fkn quESTION, IDIOT. Did you do it or not?

Kyle hesitates before

Fatass

Today 5:52 PM
No.

Honesty is the best policy. Maybe it’s the lingering weed calming his usually high anxiety, but he makes the decision that he will not give in to this one. Eric can give him hypoglycemic attacks and grope him all he fucking wants, but one thing Kyle refuses to do is cut himself for the sick satisfaction that Eric will get from it. It’s fucking disgusting, the sheer audacity of him— suggesting such a thing.

Cut a number into your arm.

Yeah, just be complicit in the blatant antisemitism.

Over my dead body.

Fatass

Today 5:56 PM
And I don’t care what you say, I’m not going to fucking do that. As much as I hate to ruin your disgusting power-fantasy, you aren’t Hitler. You're just another hammy, self-hating piece of shit.

fuckn stubbrn arnt we huh jewliet

You can always go ahead and cut YOURSELF, if you're so inclined.

FINE b tht way.

TASK FUCKING RESCINDED.

There’s a moment of satisfaction, but that moment is followed by a few more of regret. There’s just something so very… strange about the whole thing. Something that feels so utterly… wrong.

Was it that easy this whole time? Say no firmly? Come back with an insult for added impact and effectiveness?

Of course it was. Kyle said it himself: with Eric, it is a waiting game. That’s what it’s always been.

Kyle turns off his phone and places it in the pocket of his sweatshirt. He makes his way into the kitchen and sits down at the kitchen table, cleaning up the remains of Ike’s homework. He stacks the books and pencils up neatly, then settles in the newly-emptied space. He pulls his sleeve up and stares at the numbers Eric wrote. They’re messy, more than just poor handwriting. The squirming, squiggling lines where Eric is usually able to pull some sort of neatness, has devolved into a chicken-scratch outline.

Remnants of Kyle’s struggling.

Kyle checks his blood sugar again. It’s at seventy-four. It’s definitely not high enough to be out of the woods.

He retrieves another glass of juice.

There are no words for just how hard it is to keep the juice down.

Chapter Text

Ike’s fever gets worse. Even so, he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t call Kyle up, at least; Kyle only found out about his deteriorated condition because he went up to check in on him and found him flushed and softly whimpering. Immediately, Kyle ran down to the bathroom to grab the thermometer and some Tylenol; Ike looked like he’d need it.

After coming back into the room and giving Ike the appropriate care— a quick temperature check (revealing a slightly-worrying 101.9) and a dose of Tylenol—, he sets the stuff down on Ike’s nightstand. Kyle has no plans of leaving, but even if he did, Ike would never let him. Kyle moves to adjust the blankets and pull the fan over, but Ike grabs his arm as tight as he can and doesn’t let go. Kyle whispers his plan of grabbing the fan, to which Ike gently lets go under the promise that Kyle will come back.

Kyle retrieves the fan, plugs it in, and sets it on cold. Afterward, he crawls into bed with Ike and rubs his brother’s shoulder and back, trying to help soothe him enough to stop the heartbreaking whimpering that fills the air with every exhale. It makes his heart hurt, listening to such noises, but he knows that Ike isn’t trying to make them. It’s likely a comfort of some sort to him, whether he’s conscious of it or not. An allowance of the ache to recede with every whine. Kyle has to actively fight back the large urge to pull Ike in close and hug him until he feels better. Close contact like that would be good for no one. Kyle isn’t afraid of getting sick, but he is afraid of making Ike feel too uncomfortable with sharing so much body heat.

At some point, Ike grabs onto the front of Kyle’s sweater and presses as close as possible, burying his face into Kyle’s chest. Kyle allows him to do whatever he needs to do, understanding that feeling of wanting to be close to another human when ill. Kyle can remember many a night when he was very little, curled up in his mother’s lap and rocking with her in the rocking chair, ill from another cold or the next flu virus. Ma always knows how to make him feel better; she has that maternal instinct, knowing what her child needs before they even say anything. It’s right about now that Kyle wishes he had that instinct. He wishes he could be Mom for Ike, but he can’t. So they settle, Kyle gently combing his fingers through Ike’s hair, and Ike clinging to Kyle like a lifeline, curled and small like he’s a young child.

And Dad still isn’t fucking home.

Dad is never. Fucking. Home.

“I want Mom,” Ike whispers, hardly audible with his face pressed into Kyle’s chest like this. Even so, Kyle understands him; growing up with muffled baby-talk and learning to understand Kenny has payed off a lot.

“I know,” Kyle says, feeling Ike’s forehead almost compulsively. He wonders if he should check Ike’s temperature again, then wonders if doing so would only hurt more than it would help. If it turns out to be the same, that would just be forcing Ike to sit up and hold it under his tongue for no reason. Kyle needs one of those forehead thermometers the school has at this point. They might not be the most accurate things in the world, but for goodness’ sake, if they aren’t handy. Ike’s body heat is uncomfortable, being so close to it. Kyle doesn’t care, though. What matters most is helping his brother feel better. Kyle would take this away from Ike if he could. He would bear every minute of it and then some just for Ike to feel better. For now, he has to settle. “I know, but it’s okay, it’s going to be okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Ike mumbles. Kyle frowns.

“Don’t you dare apologize, it’s not your fault.”

“Kyle?” Ike asks, voice weak and strained. It sounds like his throat hurts. Kyle wonders just how true such a thing would be. Kyle hums his response, pushing the covers down a bit so the fan can cool them down more. He doesn’t want to chill Ike, but at this point it’s a guessing game and an attempt at more comfort is all he can make and “Kyle, is Dad coming home?”

“I can call him,” Kyle says. “If you want me to, I can call him and tell him to come home.”

Ike whimpers a soft affirmation. It’s hardly audible but Kyle gets it. He brushes Ike’s hair out of his face and scoots out of the bed, pulling the fan as close as he can in hopes of cooling Ike down a bit more. Kyle heads downstairs to use the land line. His own phone isn’t safe to be used. He knows it’s just him being paranoid, but he can’t help but feel like Eric is watching everything he does on his own phone.

Kyle picks up the phone and dials Dad’s number. It rings a few times before Dad picks up, the line clattering with what sounds like a rush. “Hello?

“Dad,” Kyle says. There’s rustling of papers on the other end, a noise that Kyle hardly pays attention to. None of that shit matters, none of whatever Dad is working on matters— the fact that Dad is burying himself in work to avoid… what, the reality of it? The responsibility? It pisses Kyle off. His voice comes out snappish. “Where are you? Ike’s sick and he’s asking for you.”

Your brother’s sick?

“That’s what I just—” fucking “—said.”

How sick? Do we need to take him to the hospital?

“No, but he’s very uncomfortable and he wants someone with him.”

Are you going somewhere?

The pressure builds and erupts; Kyle doesn’t censor himself this time. “No, I’m not going anywhere, but I am not equipped to help him feel better! He needs a parent, God fucking dammit!”

Kyle.” Dad has the audacity— the audacity— to use a scolding tone of voice here. Kyle’s face, heated with the remnants of Ike’s fever and the generation of his anger, pulls into a harsh expression. He feels it.

“No!” Kyle says. “I will not apologize for cussing with God’s name, or whatever the hell you’re going to say to me! You’re never fucking home! Why are you never fucking home?”

Kyle begins to wonder if this is more for him than Ike. He worries he is being selfish, he worries he is being too quick to anger, he worries and worries and worries, but at the same time, it’s nice to let it all out. The building, the pressure, the contents of his gradual growing hatred, they spill from his mouth and stay in the air, stuck with pins of an ashy red. “Don’t use that tone with me, Kyle, I’m very busy at work.

“TAKE TIME OFF!” And as selfish as that might be, Kyle can’t help but feel it. “COME HOME!”

Kyle pulls the phone away from his ear and hangs up, putting it back on the charger.

All goes quiet.

His blood still boils, but it’s starting to cool at this point. While he had been livid before, it bubbles down to a pure anger, then to madness, then to agitation… and regret.

He didn’t mean to yell. Is it believable if he says that? Because it’s true— he didn’t call Dad with the intention of yelling. He didn’t call Dad with the intention of anything other than asking him to come home.

Kyle’s eyes burn. He blinks away the threat of tears, refusing to cry over this. He doesn’t have the right to cry. Not now.

Kyle makes his way back to Ike’s bedroom. Ike’s eyes are wide open, and he sits upright in bed, the blankets bundled around him like a dark blue nest. Something possesses Kyle to stop walking closer; he doesn’t know what it is, but there’s a definite tension in Ike’s expression, and he thinks that might have something to do with it.

“I didn’t want you to yell at him,” Ike says. His voice, while gravelly and muddled from ache and fever, still portrays his displeasure. The redness of his eyes contributes to such an emotion. Kyle opens his mouth to apologize, but he doesn’t say anything before Ike says, “I wanna be alone.”

And because Kyle is afraid that Ike might get worse: “Ike, come on—”

“Go away,” Ike says. His eyes are watering. When he tries to blink the moisture away, the tears trail down his cheeks. Kyle moves to grab a tissue for Ike, but Ike tells him, with a significant amount of firmness, “Go away!”

When Ike threatens to get up, Kyle holds his hands up in surrender. “Okay,” he says. Ike settles back in bed, sniffing wetly. Kyle grabs the door handle and steps out of the room. “Call me if you need anything, okay? I’ll be in my room… I’m gonna leave this open just—”

“Close it,” Ike snaps. Kyle nods, though the last thing he wants to do is leave Ike alone in the room with the door closed, with as sick as he is. Kyle exits the room and shuts the door quietly behind himself, hesitating for a moment in the hallway. He rubs his forehead, trying to clarify himself and the things he’s feeling. It’s difficult, though, and in the midst of walking back to his room, he finds himself wondering if he should call Dad back. If he should apologize— certainly he should, right? There’s no way Dad is going to let this slip by without some sort of punishment, especially if Kyle doesn’t apologize. He can only hope that Dad will understand where he’s coming from, but Kyle never really knows what’s going on with him. That might be a teenager thing, though.

Or it may be a my mom is dying thing.

Last minute, Kyle decides he doesn’t want to close himself in his own room. He makes a detour downstairs to catch his breath, cooling down even though this is the scene of the crime. He stares at the spot he stood when he yelled at their father, and he finds himself very tempted to grab the phone just to call back. To apologize. To say I’m sorry I was wrong but he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do that, because doing so would be giving in. Kyle yelled at their father, true, but it’s not like Dad is completely blameless, here. He’s avoiding home. He’s been avoiding home since Mom got sick— Kyle can basically count the amount of times Dad has been home with them on both hands, in the past month… or has it been two?

Kyle sits down on the couch, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He rubs at his forehead again. That gains him no comfort, though.

He turns on the television and reclines on the couch, trying to focus with all of the background noise. He has nothing else he really needs to do, other than homework. He should get on that. He really should. But he doesn’t have the energy. His eyes burn, urging him into a distinct tiresome lacking. Deep in his bones, harsh.

But if he doesn’t do those assignments, he will fail.

Kyle shuts off the television and grabs his backpack, making his way back upstairs to set up his desk for homework. He might surf the Internet while he’s up here, but he thinks that’s unlikely. He hasn’t logged into Facebook in a while, but he doesn’t really have the urge to check it. So he doesn’t. He kicks the door shut behind himself and plops down in his desk chair, pulling his textbook and worksheet out to resume the work he hasn’t yet finished for Math... and he has an essay he has to finish for English, too, doesn’t he?

More than a little overwhelmed, Kyle pulls his phone out from his pocket and retrieves his earbuds. Tugging off his sweatshirt and tossing it aside, he opens up YouTube and searches the name of a Yiddish Folk Song playlist he used to listen to a lot. With the music set up, he situates everything comfortably and begins working. The tunes are familiar to him in a way that feels distinctly home. When he listens to music like this, there’s something indescribable that settles in his mind. It’s a mix of homesickness and understanding. He doesn’t know how to put it into words, but it’s powerful and helps him feel more at ease.

At the same time, though, it grows to be too much very quickly. Halfway through the album, he hears the beginning words of a song his mother used to hum. Not necessarily to him, and not necessarily at night, though he wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where he first heard it. The homesickness returns, stronger, more intense. The worksheet is only half done, but he puts the pencil down and rests his head on his arms and just listens. There’s a lot going on, he thinks. There’s a lot going on at once, and none of it is helping him feel like he can do this.

Maybe it’s stupid, but he whispers the words aloud as they’re sung. He barely understands them as they pass— not an English translation, at least. He knows the language— or, maybe the song— well enough to hear the words and associate them with the pictures and feelings rather than English. The gentle thrum of a guitar echoes in the background of the lyrics, and he softly hums his breaths out with that guitar as a guide.

The guitar reminds him of Stan. He wonders if Stan might be able to play this song for him, sometime. Maybe when all of this is over, and they’re all less stupid or in college or something. When Mom is better and Eric is gone and his family is okay. Maybe Stan will be happy again. Maybe— and this is wishful thinking— even without the meds. Maybe he’ll… find something that makes him happy. That’s all Kyle cares about, really. His family being healthy, and Stan being happy.

But it feels very impossible. Very distant, at the very least. He looks into the future and sees Stan smiling and happy and… dating Wendy, or something, just— having a good life. And he pictures his parents and his little brother going off to college at, what, the same fucking time Kyle will be in college, and he sees Kenny finally moving out of that dump of a house and Eric is in prison, maybe, for some crime he has committed… but there’s something missing.

Kyle.

Kyle is in no depictions of the happy, imaginary future.

It’s pathetic, it really is. As Kyle realizes this fact, he finds that he doesn’t want to be in that future. He just wants everyone else to be happy without him, honestly. He just wants to be able to rest and be forgotten. He doesn’t even want to be missed, he just wants to be gone. And maybe that doesn’t even mean he wants to die. Maybe that just means he wants to be pushed away into a dark corner and forgotten about. Complete college, become a chemist or doctor or whatever his plan was when he outlined his high school career, and live alone and be alone and just… not exist to anyone, anywhere.

Now that future is nice.

The song ends. Kyle presses the replay button and loses himself, once more, to thoughts of the nothing for himself and the everything for everyone else.

He doesn’t know how many times he listens to the song. It’s long enough to grow tired, and it’s long enough to begin dozing.

Eventually, though, he awakens.

The album has continued to play as he drifted in mindless rest. It’s on a different song that he’s slightly less familiar with, yet still remembers. Blinking his eyes open in the closing-in darkness, he flicks on the lamp at his desk and stands up, turning off the music. He takes out the earbuds and wraps his phone up in them, keeping both things contained at the corner of his desk. The homework can wait until later. For now, he needs to sleep. Maybe he’ll be able to stay after school tomorrow. Maybe he’ll be able to catch up then. It would be nice to have some time away from home, just to chill and work on the shit he needs to get done and

Someone touches Kyle’s back, a firm hand that moves to his shoulder. Kyle’s subconscious doesn’t think to flinch, knowing the hand to belong to his father.

When he turns, though, he is met by the deep dark brown swirling eyes of Eric.

Though his heart is thundering in his chest, Kyle speaks calmly, low in his chest and firm in his question of, “What the hell?” and then when he spots his open bedroom window and the aura of cold amassing by that corner of the room and the curtains, “For fuck’s sake, can’t you use the door like a normal person?”

Eric pushes Kyle’s desk chair out of the way. It rolls silently across the carpeting, though catches and almost tips when it runs over a stray pencil. Kyle must have dropped it when he lifted and spread his arms on the table, but he doesn’t have the focus to think on such a trivial manner, even though his brain would really like to. As Eric approaches, his mind keeps hopping to thoughts of that pencil. What it might look like in the carpet. Pressed in the woven fibers. Nestled like it’s in blankets. Or pillows, maybe more accurate.

Eric grabs Kyle by the wrists. There’s something in Eric’s right hand, and when Kyle adjusts his arm, the tip of it pricks into the fleshy part of his palm. Kyle inhales sharply at the sensation, automatically trying to step back and tug his hands away, but he doesn’t succeed. Eric isn’t pinning Kyle to the desk, but he is damn close to doing so. Kyle doesn’t like the position. His spine aches from the mild lean as he tries to shy away from this— whatever this may or may not even be. His brain, of course, assumes the worst. But the blade doesn’t fit the bill, in that scenario. In a moment- in a flash of a moment- Kyle realizes he might die tonight.

Kyle’s carpeting is a faint color in the dimness of the desk lamp’s glow. Against all odds, he recalls the color of the carpeting with mild interest. Though he does not gaze at it, he finds the blue-green almost supernaturally comforting in the fact that it has always been there. For the most part, at least— did they ever remove the carpeting up here? He remembers there being a stain in that corner, the same corner with the pencil…

“Oh, you’re so very fun,” Eric hums, a quiet whisper above the heave of his breath. It feels like it collects in the shadows of the room, like each of those pockets of dark is a basket waiting for such a thing to be able to grab it and drink it in. Eric begins to walk backwards, pulling Kyle one step at a time. There is a stinging, unnerving warmth that spreads from where the blade presses into Kyle’s palm. Locked into the paralysis of his own brain struggling to process, Kyle can do little more other than follow lead.

…or maybe that stain was never really there? Maybe it was like the stain beneath the table in the kitchen. Something Kyle imagined was there, or perhaps something his brain concocted in recent moments and splashed there as a false recollection. He doesn’t know if he actually saw it or if his brain pasted the dining table stain on a memory of his carpeting, now that he thinks about it…

“I honestly think I might have to thank you,” Eric says. He pushes Kyle, and Kyle falls down onto his mattress, bouncing with the natural give of the springs. Suddenly aware of himself again, Kyle pushes himself up onto his bottom rather than his back. In a flash, from the minimal amount of light that sheds in from the corners, he sees a speck of blood that slips from his palm. Mere milliseconds pass before Kyle feels a tight grip on his ankles and he’s being pulled down his bed. He falls backward from the force of it, onto his back. When the pressure on his ankles disappears, he bends his knees to

…he’s never really had to put this much thought into stains. It’s a very strange phenomenon, Kyle muses. His lack of thought in the tiny details may have lead him into a psychological trap. He wonders if it’s normal to hallucinate about seeing stains. He has heard of people hallucinating about bugs…

try and push himself back up, and he succeeds. Kyle grabs fistfuls of the comforter and scrabbles in the mess of fabric to bolt off his bed, but Eric climbs up behind him and wraps his arms around Kyle’s waist, pulling him close so Kyle’s back is flush with Eric’s chest. Eric lets go of Kyle’s waist and takes Kyle’s wrists, instead. Kyle hisses when Eric grips the tiny nick of his palm, the blood sticking and becoming thin and brittle in the air. “At first, I didn’t even think of taking things into my own hands, but you pushed it, didn’t you? Yes, yes, you allllways push it…” Eric pulls Kyle’s hands, holding his wrists tighter, wrapping his arms once more around Kyle’s waist. The blade has been forgotten, discarded elsewhere. Kyle tries to look around, tries to find it, but the room is too dark and the single light of his lamp is behind Eric’s back. Eric ducks his head, resting it in the crook of the right side of Kyle’s neck. His breath feels thick, heady and fogging Kyle’s skin. Eric rocks forward, bringing Kyle with him, until Kyle is almost folded in half. Eric is holding him so tight, tight

…and voices, too, he has heard of people hallucinating voices, but he hasn’t heard of anyone hallucinating stains. Is that a good sign, or a bad sign? Or does it technically mean nothing? Kyle knows, with all legitimacy, that he is okay— why would he not be?— but he can’t help but wonder if it’s normal to occasionally hallucinate much of anything at all, no matter the nature of the hallucination…

enough that Kyle feels like he can’t breathe, his arms pinned across his stomach. The position is odd. Eric presses down, heavy, and suddenly one of Eric’s arms has disappeared from the odd bear-hug-from-behind. Kyle uses the moment to squirm one arm free, reaching up behind him to hit Eric on the head with a closed fist. Eric makes a growl of pain and jerks, momentarily letting go. Kyle lurches forward, crawling toward the foot of the bed. The light from the desk lamp across the room burns figures in the corner of his gaze. Run, run, run— Eric grabs the back of Kyle’s shirt and pulls him back up, though he struggles to do so, growling, “Stop moving,” with a solid, snappish voice. Kyle is pulled back until they’re in the same position from earlier, Kyle’s back flush with Eric’s front. Eric has retrieved the blade; Kyle feels it from the cold within the heart of Eric’s palm, gripping the back of Kyle’s wrist.

…Kyle has never so much as assumed what seeing unreal things would feel like. It’s very strange, now that the thought is in his head. Speaking of stains, though, Kyle remembers one time when he was at Stan’s house…

“What are you doing?” Kyle hisses, thrashing awkwardly in an attempted escape. Of course, it does very little for him. Eric’s posture and perch behind him adjusts in a very noticeable way. Eric leans forward until his mouth is pressing into the pulse point of Kyle’s throat, the heat and pressure noticeable against Kyle’s skin. Eric grabs Kyle’s left arm and forces it away from Kyle’s torso, holding it outstretched and slightly bent. In that moment, Kyle makes a connection. It’s like Eric is preparing a canvas, isn’t it? It’s like Eric is preparing a canvas.

…he and Stan were talking about— what were they talking about? The latest video-game release for the Game Sphere?— something, and Sparky came up to them and sat right in front of Kyle. Literally not an inch away from Kyle’s foot, Sparky peed right on the carpet. Neither of them realized what was happening until Kyle happened to glance down and see it. Kyle and Stan laughed about that for a very long time, didn’t they? Yeah…

Eric reaffirms his grip on Kyle’s wrist with his right hand. He can see Eric’s grasp. He watches with horror as Eric slips the blade into Kyle’s frozen hand, squeezes Kyle’s fingers shut around it, to hold like Kyle will be the one doing the cutting… but that’s not what’s happening, is it? Not really. Eric holds Kyle’s right hand like he’s instructing. Like he’s going to show Kyle how to do it while still using Kyle’s own hand and in that moment, Kyle knows that’s exactly what is going to happen. Eric lifts Kyle’s right hand, moves it to the first, water-faded number on Kyle's left forearm. The blade kisses Kyle’s skin and Kyle cannot breathe with the weight of it all. Eric tests the blade across that first number, gently scratching the straight pattern of the 1. Kyle tenses his muscles and holds back when Eric starts to press. Kyle tries to drop the blade but Eric is holding his hand so firmly in his own. “Don’t,” Kyle hisses, thrashing and throwing himself back against Eric. Eric huffs. “Don’t you do it, don’t—”

“Oh, hush hush huuush,” Eric coos, adjusting his weight and grip. That’s what it is. 1. 1. 1. 1 1 1 until it stings and scratches and hurts and burns and cuts into the flesh of Kyle’s left arm. Kyle makes a noise, he can’t help it. It’s a whine— sharp and pitiful, filling his bedroom’s silence with something more than just slightly embarrassing. Blood pools up from the single cut— Kyle can feel it, the straightness of the number etched into his arm, the warmth and heat of the bubbling red— “Do you want me to sing you a little lullaby? Shpil zhe dir a lidele in yiddishe?”

“You don’t know Yiddish,” Kyle says. His attempt at being loud is squashed by Eric’s sudden push, forcing the air out of his lungs in an embarrassing grunt. As Eric moves to carve in the next number, Kyle chokes, “I’ll scream, I will scream, stop right now or I will scream, I—”

“I don’t think you will,” Eric says. “You know how I know? Because little baby Ike is sleeping, isn’t he? And where is your Aba when you need him, hmm? Too bad he’s stuck at work, isn’t he… so you’re left with poor little baby Ike, sleeping soundly in bed, trying to recover from that poor little baby illness he caught, isn’t that right?”

“How did you know?” Kyle asks. He gasps for air, trying to gather himself in the face of everything going on. His voice is pathetically brittle in the air, coughing winter-full breezes into his room from the open window. Eric presses down again, the edge of the blade making contact with the start of the next number. The second 1. The first is already bleeding a lot, a pool collecting on the fabric of Eric’s jean-clad knee, where his left arm is resting. Kyle wants to run, but he does not dare move in the fear of shifting and feeling another erection from Eric, like the one in the car, like—

The world throbs around them.

Kyle feels the pressure of Eric guiding the blade again, and Kyle can’t help it. His voice cracks, “Don’t do it, don’t!”

“Shh, shh, shh… you’ll wake the baby,” Eric whispers, his breath suddenly hot and damp on Kyle’s cheek. The blade cuts into the next number, the faded-ink-dyed flesh parting with dangerous simplicity, with zero resistance, giving in so easily. Kyle gasps, mouth opening and throat constricting to let off another choked whimper. The pain is new to him— an indescribably horrid experience. It’s a tearing, ripping, jagged drag across the skin of his arm. If he’s quiet enough, he swears he can hear the skin layers breaking and the blood pooling… “And if you wake the baby— well, let’s just say you’re not in the best condition to help him, hmm? Oh, no no no, you aren’t, you really aren’t…”

1 1.

“…and you don’t want poor little baby Ike to meet the same fate, do you?” Eric asks. “Did you know this number is an anagram of my eighteenth birthday?”

Disgustingly, Eric lets out a laugh, however soft, it still sends frightened chills through Kyle.

“You know why? Because that's the day you'll be aaall mine!” Eric inhales, though it sounds almost like a gasp. “I could carve his eighteenth birthday into his arm, you know— mark the date I could have him, too… a calendar made of Jew skin, if you will.”

A terrified chill clatters through Kyle’s spine, forcing his eyes open and staring at the blank darkness of his bedroom, unfolding like a puzzle of patterns in the center of his gaze. He spots the wood of his door, the slight echo of light shedding beneath it. How much blood is there? It’s soaking through Eric’s pants, it’s probably getting on Kyle’s, too— he’ll have to throw this pair away but “Please, stop, Cartman, stop—” the next number starts and 2 and 2 and twisting it into his arm you cannot cut circles into skin Don’t hurt him please don’t hurt my brother—”

“I won’t,” Eric whispers, “if you stay quiet.”

The blade digs into the end of the 2 and Kyle bites down on his lip so hard he swears he tastes the same blood which leaks from his arm. He sucks the phantom flavor between his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut until he sees stars, dizzied by the impact or maybe dizzy from a perception of the blood he has lost, he’s unsure. The hand holding Kyle’s left arm still slips, and when Eric readjusts his grip, it sticks to Kyle’s arm, naturally tacky from the adhesive of drying blood. It hurts it hurts it hurts so bad so bad so bad please “Please,” Kyle’s voice is but a dry whisper: “Cartman, Cartman, stop, Eric—”

Yesss, keep saying my name like that,” Eric says, the S sound drawn out between his teeth and slipping from his tongue, a rattling snake of something separating, of the skin contracting from the tension of the blade, of the give and red and stained sheets, stained in the shape and pin of his arm, a permanent reminder and Eric pauses, licking a wet, overheated mark of breath and teasing scraping of teeth over the right side of Kyle’s neck. Kyle expects a hickey, but he doesn’t get one. Instead, he hears Eric whispering quietly to himself: “Not yet, not yet…”

The lull is over quickly.

Eric resumes, his grip unendingly bruising.

“Why are you doing this?” Kyle whispers, not daring to be louder— not that he physically can. Speaking just this loudly is a chore in and of itself. He feels frozen, useless as he endures. His eyes have adjusted slightly in the dark, and he sees a flicker, the darkness becoming pure black and Kyle feels like he can’t breathe and there’s the 3, there’s the 3, the straight-lined jagged curves of the number creating pools and crescents of red-hot, collecting with the other numbers and dribbling heat down the sides of his arm. “Why are you doing this?”

“Oh, good boy, good boy, look at the perfect skin of your perfect body…” Eric says. He sounds out-of-breath, like he just ran a mile or like he’s been making out for the past half-hour, like he’s trying to contain himself or keep his composure or maybe he’s about to give into something. Kyle tries to inhale but his lungs won’t work. He is endlessly reminded of his insides, of the blood and the panic and the testing the testing what about— is Ike okay? Ike is okay, right? Eric huffs a breathless laugh, sucking in air with the statement of, “Not anymore, huh? Perfect, perfect, perfect little Jewish baby, not anymore…”

Another soft whisper: “Stop it, Eric, it hurts—”

Just like that…”

“—Eric, please, Eric—”

“…look at it, look at all of this, of you, it’s so imperfect…”

Kyle whimpers, back to biting the inside of his cheek and his lips and anywhere his teeth can reach. His arm has been through so much it has numbed, a frozen cold forcing him to flex his fingers just to make sure his arm is still there and it is, it is, and the muscle feels like it’s cramping, a burning sick ache, like it’s wrong. It’s something so intense. It’s so hot, the inside, so inflamed and irritated. Fireworks of his own biology, DNA and genetic makeup. The 7 is over before Kyle can realize the start of it. The downward dip of the 7’s tail digs in farther than the rest. Kyle can’t hold back the cry, but he doesn’t have to because Eric drops Kyle’s arm and grabs Kyle’s chin, turns his head sharply, and kisses him.

The blade is gone; Kyle has dropped it, and Eric has dropped Kyle’s hand. Eric’s free palm shifts over the new and budding blood on Kyle’s left arm, but sticks in the wake of the drying, caking attempts at healing, filling the cuts so thoroughly. Kyle shakes, from head to toe his body quivers, wrecked with the freezing of his fight-flight response, adrenaline pumping and keeping him from fully processing, his brain shattered and unsure and confused, eyes wide and staring at the tilted head of Eric as their lips press together so—

“Poor baby…” Eric says, pulling away. Kyle doesn’t even try to shy away; it’s no use. He can’t move. Eric grins, a big grin, a winner’s grin, at Kyle. Before Kyle can even think to attempt understanding, Eric leans down and presses their noses together, an Eskimo kiss. “Poor Jewish baby, all alone, oh…”

Tears bud and fall from Kyle’s eyes. Humiliation forces Kyle over the edge of sobs. Quiet sobs, soundless sobs. His mouth frowns and his brows furrow, eyes closing as wet slides across his face and drips onto his shirt. Eric gets up, removing himself from Kyle. Eric pushes Kyle onto his back, one hand still cradling the flowing wound on Kyle’s arm. Eric leans down, and just when Kyle expects Eric to kiss him again, Eric licks across Kyle’s damp cheek, leaving a quickly-drying track of saliva just under his eye. Eric leans back, then, a dreamlike smile cracking over his lips.

“Your tears,” Eric chuckles, cheeks red from genuine amusement, “taste delicious.”

Kyle hiccups. A quiet sound. Almost keening, though it’s barely audible. Something twitches. Eric’s expression falters— though Kyle knows better than to assume it to be in empathy. Because just like that, the expression turns to disgust. Anger. Eric drops Kyle’s arm on the mattress; a shock-wave of burning and itching grabs and squeezes the injured and torn flesh.

“Clean yourself up, kike,” Eric spits. He climbs off of the bed, crosses to the window, and heads out the way he came in. The window slips shut behind him. Kyle thinks he glances a rope, but he’s not sure, and he doesn’t care enough to wonder.

Eric left the blade behind.

And it’s strange.

Because in the morph of expressions on Eric’s face, in the slew of things Kyle saw within his tension, in it all—

Kyle swears he saw fear.

Chapter Text

It’s Saturday, after all.

Kyle feels nothing. He slips into the hospital room. He ignores the nurses. He ignores the noises. He ignores the smells. He thinks on broken things and the strange flicker within his arm, that he decides isn’t actually there. He walks past the curtain, which is half-drawn, and comes to a very sudden halt when he sees that Stan isn’t alone.

Butters is there, and he’s smiling so happily as he reads from a 3 Minute Bedtime Stories book. Kyle used to have on of those, too, but he got rid of it before he hit the third grade. In the middle of narrating the story about the Little Dutch Boy, Butters glances up, widens his smile just a bit, and resumes his elaborate storytelling. Kyle glances at Stan, who still lays motionless in that hospital bed with machines breathing for him, and decides he doesn’t have the heart to stop Butters from doing what he’s doing. Kyle takes a seat in one of the chairs set up next to the window.

Kyle watches cars enter and leave the parking lot. He stares at the snow, though the weather has started to warm up with the introduction of February, and some spots are melting just the slightest. It won’t last long, everyone in South Park knows that. Stan would, too. But Stan would still leap on the opportunity to go bike riding. It’s weird. Even on Stan’s darkest days, he would always cheer up when the snow started to melt.

Butters finishes the story soon enough. The room is silent until Butters closes the book. Then, the air is full of an old, plastic-spine book creaking and shifting closed. There is some more rustling. When Kyle looks up, he is shocked to see that Butters now stands hardly a few feet away, holding a backpack out for Kyle to take.

Stan’s backpack.

Kyle stares at it.

“Go ahead,” Butters says, reaching further to bring the object closer. “Take it, he commissioned it for you.”

A spaced feeling interrupts Kyle’s thoughts, and although he is reluctant, he takes the backpack nonetheless. “Commissioned?” Kyle mutters, turning the backpack over in his hands. And there, he sees it.

Dandelions.

On the worn, ratty, gray fabric of the face of Stan’s backpack, there is a field of dandelions. Golden stems and silver puffs and seeds. Some are naked, with their seeds scattering higher up on the backpack, near the handle. Othe