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Pomegranate Mousse Cake

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“Hey, Stan,” Kyle grinned at his friend. Stan shook the seawater out of his hair before approaching Kyle to hug him. His arms were rough with sand, and it scraped off of him when they touched, falling to the ground. “How’ve you been?”

“Oh, you know,” Stan looked away sheepishly, “Having to memorize history and rules and stuff is super boring, but training how to fight and talking to the creatures in the domain is actually really rad! Did you know there are sponges that are over ten thousand years old? They’ve got dirt on literally everyone in the ocean, dude; it’s so cool.” Stan glanced at the sea behind him, then back at Kyle. “So, how’s your training been going?”

Kyle deflated with a long groan.

“That bad, huh?” Stan asked, a comforting hand on Kyle’s shoulder.

“It’s awful!” Kyle cried, “My mom just won’t stop hammering it in!” His voice sunk into a high pitched imitation of his mother’s accent, “‘You have to keep training Kyle,’ ‘the people are going to have to depend on you, Kyle,’ you have to know the difference between horse manure and sheep manure, Kyle.’” Kyle rolled his eyes. The beach grass around his ankles climbed up his calves in dry, vicious stalks. “And that isn’t even mentioning my dad, who keeps looking at me like I’m some kind of mistake.”

Kyle sighed.

“Sorry to take all this out on you dude,” Kyle said to Stan, “I’m just glad we can hang out.”

Stan gave Kyle a watery smile, unable to meet his eyes.

“Uh...about that…”

Kyle’s smile dropped. His brow furrowed.

“What?”

“I kind of have a date with Wendy—”

“Seriously?” Kyle yelled. Beach saltbrush erupted around his feet, extending out past the grass, growing around where Stan was standing in front of him. “I haven’t even seen you in so long and you’re blowing me off for Wendy?”

“Kyle, please,” Stan pleaded, “I’ve already had to cancel a bunch of dates with her, and she’s been super stressed lately because Eros has really been bugging her. I have to do this for her, Kyle!”

Kyle frowned. His and Stan’s schedules were both extremely busy, and it took Kyle forever to talk his mom into giving him the day off. And now he was going to have to spend it without his super best friend.

“I mean...I can hang out here for a little while longer…?” Stan’s voice was hopeful, apologetic. He had the look of a kicked puppy—the same look that always made Kyle feel like a shitty person for yelling at him. Kyle sighed, and collapsed backwards onto the bed of saltbrush. Stan sat next to him.

“So, why’s the Love God messing with Wendy?” Kyle asked, “Isn’t he, uh, a little too old for her?”

“Ew! Sick dude!” Stan grimaced, “No! He’s just looking for an heir, and Wendy is the best archer in the Heavens—” (Stan’s voice took on the edge of pride and awe that made Kyle want to puke),”—so he’s been trying to talk her out of her apprenticeship with Artemis.”

“Didn’t he already have an heir?”

“I...I think so?” Stan sounded unsure, “But, not anymore, obviously.”

“Do you think his heir did what Shelley did?”

Stan cringed, as he always did when his sister was mentioned.

“You mean the part where she ran off with a mortal and gave up her heir-hood or the part where she did it without telling anyone?” Stan rolled his eyes. “You know where I was when we got the news? On a date! I was three inches away from kissing my girlfriend when Kenny kicks down the door to drag me back to the ocean without even letting me say goodbye! We didn’t even get to finish the date because I had to start training, like, immediately!”

“But can you imagine having to train with her?” Kyle said, remembering Shelley’s mean glare and even meaner fists, “Or, even worse—sharing the throne with her?”

Stan shuddered, and Kyle laughed. They continued to chat, the tide coming in higher than it should have, seafoam lapping at their toes. Stan was in the middle of a story about an argument between a whale and an anemone when they heard an unmistakable humming.

They turned around, and Kenny, apprentice to Hermes, was hovering above them. He pulled down the collar of his short cloak, grinning.

“Aw, Ken get down here! No one wants to see up your toga!” Kyle said, the beach grass rising to tug at Kenny’s ankles. Ken laughed, tickled, and the wings on his heels buzzed faster as he tried to kick the unruly plants away.

“Sorry to break up the happy reunion,” Ken said, producing a note from his cloak. He handed it to Stan. “It’s from Wendy, dude.”

“Oh, shit! I gotta go,” Stan scrambled to his feet. “I’ll see you later, Kyle!”

Then Stan ran directly into the sea, diving under the water. Kyle watched him go with a sigh.

Kenny lowered to the ground, the buzzing of his winged shoes quieting once his sandals hit the sand.

“I don’t have any mail for you, Broflovski, but I do have a couple minutes I can spare.”

“Thanks, Ken,” Kyle said, “But I think I’m gonna go clear my head.”

“Alright dude, but if you need me, just write.” Ken gave Kyle a clap on the shoulder and then started flying off. Kyle watched him go, a blip on the horizon, then stood once he vanished from sight.

Well. Since Kyle took a day off, he might as well use it to do something. No use moping around. Kyle put his hood over his head, making sure the shadows covered his face. His mother may have promised him the day off, but if she, or any of her followers, caught sight of him, they’d somehow be able to rope him right back into training.

Kyle ended up wandering around, giving plants little pick-me-ups as he passed along. Training under his mom may have been a nightmare, but if there was one thing Kyle always liked, it was their powers. He had a vivid memory of his mother kneeling by a rose bush, gently whispering encouragements to it, the wilted, fading petals suddenly becoming vibrant, reaching towards her as if to kiss her in thanks. Kyle always wanted to emulate that—the feeling of helping preserve and enable life.

The forest eventually opened up into a path, leading to a small village. Kyle didn’t dare walk directly into the village—humans were stupid, yeah, but they probably weren’t dumb enough to not notice a mysterious man with flowers growing in his footsteps. So Kyle stuck to walking around the village, peeking into people’s windows and backyards. He found a home with an egregiously overgrown, unmaintained garden spilling into the neighbor’s backyard.

Upon closer inspection, the main culprit of the spillover was a slowly dying rosebush. Its flowers simply looked sad. Kyle gave them a little boost, watching how the buds began to plump up again. He smiled. He heard footsteps from the house and hid behind a tree. He watched the human sleepily allow their dog to run around the garden, digging up a few black-eyed susans in a way that made Kyle cringe. Then the human and their pet were gone. Kyle watched for a little bit longer, wondering if he could save the susans, when suddenly, the rosebush began to rapidly wilt. The beautiful roses crinkled and curled and Kyle gasped in horror.

When the dying had stopped, the bush seemed to be on its last legs, and Kyle pushed more power into it, invigorating the bush again. The rosebush popped with the sudden rush of life, dead petals flying off of the plant.

Kyle heard someone swear, and a power began pushing against his own, trying to sap the life of the plant away. Kyle grit his teeth, channeling more energy into the plant. Kyle fought back against the power, and it fought right back. Kyle’s hands had begun to ache; the tree he was standing by had begun to bend in his direction at the trunk.

They were at a standstill. Kyle gathered every bit of power he had stored away, and gave a final shove against the life-sapping energy coursing through the little bush—but the other energy had apparently decided to do the same, because Kyle was jolted back, physically pushed away by the impact of their powers meeting and clashing. The little bush cried out, Kyle could feel it. The bush was back to a normal, neutral state, but it begged to not be touched by divine energy again. The stress of the powers on the poor bush was almost too much for it.

“What the fuck!” A voice yelled. From the shadows below the human’s porch, a shadowy figure emerged. “You!” The figure pointed directly at Kyle.

It was a reaper, one of the henchmen of the Underworld. The reaper wore the typical uniform of his kind, a long, flowing cloak that melted into the shadows, and a bone white, birdlike mask.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The reaper yelled. He marched directly up to Kyle, towering over him. “You ruined it! Now I can’t do jack shit without straight up just murdering the fucking flowers, you dumbass!”

Kyle was taken aback. He processed what the reaper said and reared right back up, defiantly staring dead at it.

“Well that the hell were you doing just killing innocent plants? Last I checked Hades wasn’t interested in those,” Kyle snarled, “Or maybe you just enjoy spreading misery?”

The reaper jerked, as if shocked.

“You take that back!” he screeched, “You have no idea what you’re talking about! God! Who the fuck even are you?” The reaper leaned back, and though Kyle couldn’t see his face, he knew the reaper was looking over him. “Oh, I see, you’re a minion to that whiny cunt Demeter and her bitch daughter Sheila.”

Kyle’s heart stopped. Not out of hurt or fear. But out of sheer, blinding rage. Without a thought, the grass at his feet erupted into a flurry of vines, lifting Kyle in the air as he roared in fury. The vines contorted around him like an extension of his limbs, his arm slammed down towards the reaper, who just barely had enough time to slip away into the shadows with a yelp, into the forest behind Kyle.

“Holy fuck!” The reaper cried, throwing up a shield to block the incoming flurry of thorns. The reaper fell back into the shadows, fleeing. Kyle chased him.

“Get back here you dirty son of a bitch!” Kyle yelled, chasing the thin snake of black on the forest floor. He grew thorny brush around its path, blocking it from going anywhere but forward. Kyle didn’t want him to have any chance of escaping. Eventually Kyle finally funneled him out of the forest, into an open field—under the bright summer sunlight, with nothing to offer shade.

The reaper was forced out, and he summoned his scythe, knowing he had no option but to fight. Shadows shot forward from the forest behind them, slicing through the “arms” of Kyle’s vines. They tried to twist around him, but Kyle resisted. He shot forward, the earth rumbling beneath him. A gauntlet of thorns twisted around his arms. His fist came in direct contact with the blade of the reaper’s scythe. Kyle pressed down harder, snarling.

The scythe began to crack, its hellish aura seeping into Kyle’s gauntlets, slowly rotting them from the inside. Death oozed between Kyle’s fingers; he pressed on. With a final push, the blade of the scythe snapped in two, and the burst of dark energy instantly disintegrated Kyle’s gauntlets, killed the vines around him. The shadows retreated back into the woods, and the momentum from Kyle’s punch angled his fist directly into the reaper’s stupid fucking face.

They tumbled to the ground in a tangle of hitting, grabbing limbs, frothing at the mouths. They grappled at each other, wrestling around on the field like a pair of squabbling children. Kyle ended up kneeling over the reaper, pinning his thighs down with his knees, one hand was smashed against the reaper’s mask, trying to push his face into the ground, his other hand was gripping the reaper’s wrist, as the reaper had his fingers twisted in Kyle’s miraculously still up cloak hood.

The reaper yanked back on Kyle’s cloak in the same moment Kyle reared back his fist to connect to the reaper’s mask. In the same breath, Kyle’s hood had been thrown off, and the reaper’s mask laid in the grass next to them. They both froze, panting heavily, staring each other in the face.

The reaper—he...Kyle was struck silent. The reaper had the biggest honey-gold eyes Kyle had ever seen. Thick brown bangs framed his round face and pink cheeks. He looked nothing like any reaper Kyle had ever seen. He looked almost...alive.

“I...um—” Kyle stuttered. He suddenly scrambled off of the reaper. Kyle offered a hand to the reaper, who took it with a dazed look in his eye. Without the help of the shadows, the reaper was actually shorter than Kyle.

The reaper continued to stare, his hand still in Kyle’s. Kyle glanced down, noticing how small the reaper’s hands looked, at his pudgy fingers under his dark gloves. The reaper snatched his hand away, suddenly, and when Kyle looked up, the reaper had a look of shock, fear.

“Uh—fuck,” the reaper swore, “Um…” The reaper searched Kyle’s face, before looking away and turning swiftly on his heel. “I gotta go—”

And then he ran into the forest, disappearing on the staircase down to hell.

Kyle stared at his back as he sank into the ground, still a little flabbergasted.

“My lord!”

Kyle whipped around. A human saw him, running towards him with open arms, collapsing at his feet. Kyle grimaced. Shit. Now he had to deal with this. He knew his mother was gonna catch wind of it too—

Chapter Text

With training, Kyle had been swept up into another whirlwind of simulation drills and public appearances, and didn’t have much time to think of the mysterious reaper he’d met in the woods. Though, by the Gods, did he use up the little time he had.

When he was meant to be studying, Kyle instead found himself glaring in the distance, remembering the confrontational attitude of the reaper, how he’d gotten up into Kyle’s face. Reapers weren’t supposed to do that, right? Kyle was a deity of life, so he didn’t interact with beings of the Underworld often, but he distinctly remembered sitting at his mother’s side during the Assemblies of the Olympians and seeing the King of the Underworld, silent and somber in his seat, with his reapers ghosting around his shadows, still as statues.

But the one Kyle saw definitely was a reaper. He wore their uniform and had their abilities—the scythe he summoned, his shadow manipulation, and most importantly, the fact that he could make things fucking die.

But he didn’t have a face like death, that was for sure.

Kyle groaned, his forehead hitting the pages of the tome he was meant to be memorizing. Then, he heard a familiar humming, and despite being glad for the distraction, still didn’t lift his head as Kenny hovered in front of his desk.

“Hey, Kyle,” Kenny said, a playful edge to his voice. Kyle glanced up at him, his face still mostly buried in the spine of the old book. Kenny was gesturing to his own head. “You got, uh, a little something right here.”

Kyle sat up, popping his shoulders. Something coarse tickled his ears, and when he reached a hand up, he plucked a blossom from whatever had grown around the wreath on his head. He instantly recognized the pretty indigo plant as blue salvia, and his eyes widened slightly. Kyle coughed into his fist, willing the persistent buds to recede. They had a habit of doing as they pleased when he wasn’t paying attention…

“I actually have a letter for you—shocking, I know.” Kenny produced an envelope. It was a pale beige in color, and when Kyle slid his finger under its seal the scent of salt wafted from it. Kyle grinned, knowing already who it was from.

The letter was a single page, simply written, with dark dripping ink that stuck to Kyle’s fingertips. Stan had found a definite opening in his schedule—a little over two weeks away, intersecting with Wendy’s training negatively. All he needed was a go-ahead from Kyle and they’d be all set. Super best friend hangout day, all day, he promised.

Kyle scrambled for a scrap of paper, eagerly scribbling out his response. It was a long shot, considering he’d just begged for a day off from his mom, but if Kyle played his cards right, and trained really hard, he could probably ask his grandmother directly for a day off—knowing she would be a little more lenient than her daughter.

Kyle hastily folded his letter into an envelope and handed it to Kenny, offhandedly asking, “Have you seen my parents recently?”

“Yes, Kyle, I have,” Kenny spoke slowly, nodding his head with wide eyes, silently urging Kyle to continue. Kyle felt kind of dumb.

“Oh, uh, how were they?” Kyle asked, then he backtracked, adding, “What did they say?”

Kenny sighed in relief, giving Kyle a weary smile. As a messenger for Hermes, Kenny was literally unable to speak freely about the Gods he delivered to, unless he was asked directly. There were layers of complexity to the curse, but since Kenny didn’t really talk all that much Kyle kinda...forgot about it most of the time. Though...the curse might’ve been the reason he didn’t really talk...Kyle made a mental note to apologize to Kenny at some point.

“They seemed a little stressed, what with the humans making more demands and all. Uhhh, your dad tried to talk about you, but thankfully a servant interrupted before that argument broke out again.”

Kyle grimaced. Sheila and Gerald’s struggles weren’t a secret, and they certainly weren’t an uncommon occurrence among gods. (Kyle wasn’t even going to get into the drama of Zeus and Hera, urgh.) It was just pretty embarrassing to know his friend had intimately seen his parents’ slowly crumbling marriage with his own two eyes.

Kenny glanced down at Kyle’s desk with interest, seemingly oblivious to the sudden awkward silence.

“Oh, hey,” Kenny picked up a dark book from the stack. Soot fell from it as he flicked open the pages. “This doesn’t look like required reading.”

“That’s for...personal research,” Kyle said weakly.

“Personally researching the Underworld? Doesn’t seem like your style, Broflovski.”

“Yeah, well…” Kyle trailed off, before realizing something. “Hey, Kenny, you’ve been to the Underworld, right?”

“Yup,” Kenny popped the word at the end, shutting the book with a plume of dark soot. “One of the only bitches who can. I’d ask ‘why do you ask,’ but that part’s kind of obvious.”

“What are reapers like?”

Kenny lifted his legs off of the ground, crossing them as he sat midair.

“Well, there’s the basics—shadows, masks, scythes and all that jazz.” Kenny scratched his neck. “They’ve also got a strict code of conduct they’re supposed to abide by at all times, but there’s a few of them who skip out on it, usually the ones who aren’t that close to the Boss.”

“What do they look like under their masks?”

“Uh, normal?” Kenny’s face screwed up as he tried to find the words to say. “I mean, I don’t know where they really come from, and I’ve only seen a few with their masks off, so I can’t really tell you much. Other than that those few have just looked like people.” Kenny continued, jokingly, “Most people expect skeleton faces or an empty void, but they’re not that scary. That’s why they wear the masks, you see.”

Kyle looked at the book still lazily lying in Kenny’s lap. Before he could say anything else, though, Kenny suddenly yelped, the book thumped to the floor, and Kenny was zipping out of the room, letters clasped in his hand.

“Gotta go, Kyle! Letters to deliver!” Ken called back as he flew away. There was some sort of alarm system set in place to keep Kenny from goofing around instead of making deliveries, Kyle supposed.

With Kenny’s departure, the room seemed eerily quiet. Kyle looked down at the open books splayed on his desk. Kyle sighed, grabbing the nearest one and continuing his actual research. He couldn’t get so caught up in trying to figure out that reaper, especially if he wanted to hang out with Stan.

Chapter Text

For the next week or so, Kyle was the perfect student. Impeccable. He did everything he was asked of without question or complaint. Every. Single. Thing. He memorized the mulch ratios most suited for each type of grain, he attended every public meeting, he revitalized the crops and gardens of two entire towns—he even personally counted every individual seed in a barrel to settle a farmers’ dispute.

The people were praising him, which was always a slightly uncomfortable experience, but it meant his grandmother would definitely be noticing his efforts. Kyle was able to feel the pride from his mother when she stood beaming next to him, constantly gushing about the progress he was making. Even his dad seemed impressed.

Kyle also sent excited letters to Stan, writing back and forth about all the cool stuff they were gonna do.

And between his training and writing and schmoozing up to his Ma and Grandma, Kyle even found time to squeeze in a few chapters of Underworld research. Most writings were about the mortal souls of the dead or the different realms the Underworld was split into—but Kyle poured over every paragraph with a fine-toothed comb for information on reapers. Everything still seemed to be in theory, considering the secrecy Hades preferred to cloak himself in, but Kyle had found enough vague references to begin his own tenuous hypotheses too.

Kenny always gave him weird looks when he found Kyle nose-deep in a deathly looking tome. Kyle ignored him. Plus, it’s not like Kyle was focused solely on the reaper he met before. The incident made Kyle realize his absolute blindness for anything else Underworld related—so as heir to the throne of Demeter, he had to be prepared for any occasion, including and especially ones relating to the Underworld.

Plus, Kyle was just creeped out by the whole thing, and knowing more about something helped him feel more confident going against it.

Though no number of textbooks could help the way Kyle kept seeing shadows move in his periphery, or shaded areas looking just a tad too dark.

But aside from that, everything was going incredibly smoothly.

Eventually, Kyle approached his grandmother—without his mother’s knowledge, of course—with all the respect and humility due to such a powerful elder god. Head bowed, he offered her gifts of poppies and his own progress.

Demeter shooed away his offerings and pulled her grandson into a hug.

Kyle, who hadn’t noticed he’d been holding his breath, entirely relaxed into her comforting embrace. Earth stained her skin in splotchy patches, and she smelled of mint. Being so close to her made Kyle feel like a child again, running around her skirts and falling into piles of soft, dewy grass when he tripped.

When he pulled away, she held him at arm's length, her laugh lines deep around her fond smile.

“Oh, let me look at you,” She said, “I haven’t seen you in so long, Kyle! I hear your training is going well. I’m so proud of you!”

Though Kyle was pushing his training further in hopes of a day off, the praise from his grandma still made him feel happy and warm, glowing from the inside out. He smiled at her, preening under her approval. For a moment, they simply looked at one another.

Demeter always been beautiful, almost overwhelmingly so. Mortals painstakingly carved dozens of statues dedicated to her stunning, striking profile. Her silver hair curled thick and long down her back, entangled with vines and dappled with flowers.

She given her striking green eyes and hooked nose to her daughter, and from her daughter to her grandson. Kyle had always heard he looked so much like her, and standing before his grandmother, with her overwhelming aura of comfort and wisdom, he never felt more humbled by the comparison.

“Oh, and I bet your mother told you all sorts of silly things about keeping your training away from me.” Demeter’s voice was warm. She affectionately ran her palm over Kyle’s hair, the same as she did when he was a child, still towering over him like a pillar of strength. “Don’t you listen to her—oh! She’s just as stubborn as I was when I was her age! It was one time you distracted me from letting the humans’ crops grow, Kyle, just once!”

Demeter moved gently around the room with a deep grace, every blade of grass, every petal swaying with her, bending towards her.

“You can come visit your grandmother any time, darling,” Demeter said. Colorful tulips bloomed around her, brushing just at the edge of her skirts. “Now, I know you, Kyle, and I know you’re just like your mother! You didn’t come see me just to visit!”

Kyle blushed, inclining his head in his embarrassment, like a child being caught in the middle of a scheme—which, well, he sort of was.

“I, uh, I kind of wanted a day off so I could go hang out with Stan,” Kyle explained meekly, “Our schedules are so busy and I haven’t really seen him and—”

“Oh, Kyle, you don’t have to explain yourself to me!” Demeter laughed, and carnations burst into bloom in the vines of her hair. “You can run along and play with your little friend! One day will hardly make a difference to your training! You just leave everything to me.”

Kyle was then gently escorted out by one of Demeter’s maidens, as a gaggle of them came to surround his grandmother. Kyle, light on his feet, simply allowed himself to be pushed along.

He started heading towards the beach, a little skip in his step.

Everything was going great. He had his grandmother’s blessing for a day off, and he could finally just relax and hang out with his best friend.

Kyle was in such a good mood, he even decided to take a quick stop into town. Humans were fascinating little creatures. Kyle liked keeping track of their progress—it seemed they were always changing their minds about something!

Kyle strolled through the streets, hood over his face, unnoticed in the bustle. He wandered down the main road, when the delightful smell of something sweet sailed through the air.

Ah, the other thing Kyle liked about humans: their cooking.

Gods tended to avoid most foods which weren’t alcohols, as they didn’t require sustenance, though occasionally, they would receive offerings of mortal-made meals. Kyle himself rarely received offerings, as he only just began his training. His godly interactions with mortals were limited, and thus, they simply didn’t realize he existed. But Sheila very often shared her offerings with her son, allowing him to try the foods she had helped them grow.

And Kyle may have grown a bit attached. He found himself sneaking into town, filling his pockets with human foodstuffs. Humans were just so creative.

Kyle followed the sweet smell until he began to approach a nearby street vendor. The woman’s counter was topped with simple plates of assorted goods, baked treats, bottles of jam, fresh fruits. She was arguing with a short cloaked figure in a hushed, hissing tone. The figure, however, seemed uncaring of making a scene.

“Are you fucking kidding me! Do you think I look like some kind of idiot? No, tell me to my face if you think I look stupid enough to pay that fucking much.” The voice was loud, angry, attracting the attention of passerby...and somehow familiar sounding.

“You will not find this fruit anywhere else in this town, I can tell you, sir.” The woman stood firm, her eyes narrow. “For generations my family has been the only one able to grow it. To find it elsewhere is to travel two days to the west.”

“That’s bullshit!” The man stomped his foot, and as he flailed, Kyle was able to sneak a glance of his face from under his hood. Kyle’s blood turned to ice.

Somehow. Some-fucking -how.

Kyle’s resolve hardened. With a stern face, he marched directly to the vendor, shoving aside her other customer.

“I overheard the commotion.” Kyle spoke simply, coolly. “Whatever he’s asking for, I’ll take your whole stock, double price.”

Kyle felt the reaper’s eyes on him. The reaper spluttered incoherently, stumbling through his words in his shock. The vendor blinked.

“Well—okay.” She began adding more to the bag. Kyle still hadn’t seen which fruit the reaper was buying.

“Wait are you serious?” The reaper continued to stare, incredulous. Kyle watched him from the corner of his eye, hiding his grin. The reaper began to flail again. He watched in a panicked horror as the vendor ignored him, filling the bag.

“Ay! What the fuck—You can’t—you can’t do that!” The reaper’s face had gone from anger to alarm so quickly it was almost comical. “Fucking, stop it, lady!”

“Unless you can offer her more, I’ll just be taking the rest of her stock.”

The reaper paused, taking a long look at Kyle. Suddenly, his hand shot out to Kyle’s shoulder, wrenching him around to face him, his eyes furious.

“YOU!”

Kyle broke, unable to hide his grin.

“What is up with you ruining all of my shit?” The reaper yelled. His hands clenched in Kyle’s cloak. “All of it! You ruin all of my shit, flowerboy, like the pompous asshole you are!”

“Oh, I’m pompous?” Kyle replied with a scoff. “Have you even seen yourself? You were yelling at some random woman over fruit.”

“Why are you acting like fruit is so fucking unimportant!” the reaper yelled back, his knuckles white. “That’s like, your whole fucking thing!”

“Yeah, dickhole, that’s why I know how trivial it is.” Kyle’s head began to throb. “One stock of fruit is nothing. You try overseeing an entire town’s worth of fruit. Then get back to me about how goddamned important it is to you."

The reaper gave Kyle a harsh shove.

“There you go again!” The reaper gesticulated wildly. “You just talk about shit you know nothing about! As if you know anything about me! Newsflash, asshole! You don’t know jack shit!”

“What are you gonna do about it,” Kyle hissed.

The reaper began to say something, but suddenly choked on his words, falling silent. His gaze turned unfocused. He was quiet for a moment.

“Shit,” he whispered. Kyle stared at him. The reaper, suddenly ignoring Kyle, reached into his cloak and dropped a velvet purse onto the vendor’s counter with a dull thump. In a movement too quick to be natural, he had also bent himself over the counter and snatched the bag of fruit from the vendor before turning tail and running.

Kyle watched the reaper go, just as, if not somehow more confused than he was upon their first meeting.

A gasp. Kyle looked back at the vendor. She overturned the purse to reveal a pile of golden coins, glittering innocently in the sun. She started to frantically, disbelievingly, count the coins one-by-one. Kyle watched her mutter to herself for a moment, before, suddenly feeling awkward, made his presence again known.

“Can I buy one of these?” He pointed to a sweet bread roll. The woman waved him off, saying something about it being “on the house,” before going back to completely ignoring Kyle.

Kyle hesitantly took a roll.

It was custard filled, which was nice, but even the delightful taste and texture of the treat couldn’t distract Kyle from thinking of the reaper again, and his thoughts were only interrupted when he tripped and fell facefirst into the sand of the beach.

“Dude!” a familiar voice laughed.

Kyle grinned, even as he shook the sand out of his hair. Finally, he got to really hang out with Stan.

Chapter Text

As quickly as things could go up for Kyle, they could all come crashing down. And crash down they did, in a glorious, infuriating inferno. Kyle fumed. The grass turned to thorns as he walked, stabbing at the soles of his feet and scratching his calves. Poison ivy twisted in his hair, tight around his scalp and thick enough to dip into his periphery.

He got to spend the day with Stan, just as planned—and it was awesome. They talked for hours, played stupid games, showed off how much they’d improved with their powers. It was just like when they were kids, only better because it felt like such a breath of fresh air.

And then, after Stan had walked back into the ocean, and Kyle made his way back up the path home, he was met with the grave faces of his parents.

“Kyle, your mother and I need to talk to you.”

Hearing Gerald’s voice sent ice down Kyle’s spine. His father saying that to him was never a good thing.

And it took only moments before Kyle exploded.

The area where the quote-unquote “conversation” took place was a complete mess, a tangle of dark thorny brush and malformed trees with thick hides and spindly branches. Sheila’s influence was not enough to settle the plants back to calm, not with Kyle’s anger still fueling them.

Kyle had stormed off after Gerald stood his ground, unmoving against Kyle’s arguments. He heard his mother try to follow him, but Gerald held her back. Something about “letting him throw his tantrum.”

Kyle was not throwing a fucking tantrum. He had every right to be as pissed as he was! How dare they fucking try to do this to him! To take away the one thing that calmed him down; to take away one of the most important things to him.

They tried to forbid him from seeing his best friend.

The thought made hot, angry tears build in Kyle’s eyes. It took all that fucking time and effort for just one day of seeing his friend, of letting off some steam and feeling like himself again, and they were just going to take that from him? As if Stan were just a distraction and not Kyle’s best friend?

Kyle’s messy stream of thought was interrupted by a sound ahead of him. When he looked up, he saw a figure walking casually through the woods, chatting to the air.

It was that fucking reaper again.

He must have just finished a reaping, because his deathly influence was stronger—grass withered under his sandals, and the lazy drag of his scythe behind him sliced through innocent tree trunks like soft butter. As emotional as Kyle was in that moment, he could feel every aching cry of the lives that were carelessly snuffed out. It was like a thousand needles digging directly into Kyle’s own nerves, stabbing and twisting.

The reaper descended down the portal to hell.

Kyle was going to give that fucking brat a piece of his damn mind.

So Kyle dove into the portal behind him.

Kyle’s eyes were trained on the reaper’s cloak as he took purposeful strides deeper beneath the earth. He was focused, barely noticing the changes around him—the plunge into a dark dimness, the damp chill around him, the way the ground beneath his feet felt too smooth, too barren.

Kyle’s blood thudded in his ears. The reaper still spoke aloud to himself, gesticulating wildly, his scythe scratching thin trails into the walls of the narrow passageway. Eventually, the passage opened up into a wide cavern, with high arching walls and glowing stalactites, rhythmically dripping into the waters below.

The reaper stopped, standing at the edge of the water’s surface. He nonchalantly flipped a coin in his hand, his posture calm. Kyle ground his molars. He strode up to the reaper. Kyle put a firm hand on the reaper’s shoulder, wrenching him around so they would stand face to face. The coin slipped from his fingers.

“Who do you think—” Kyle began.

“What the fuck are you doing here!?” The reaper cried, terror in the strain of his voice.

“I’m here to give you a piece of my fucking mind!” Kyle yelled back.

“So you followed me?!” The reaper was incredulous. “Are you a fucking idiot?”

“Hey you watch your damn mouth asshole—” Kyle grabbed the reaper by the front of his cloak. The reaper snarled, struggling to wrench Kyle’s hands from his person, and had an angry word halfway out of his mouth when a voice interrupted them.

“Fee, please,” a raspy voice, thin and airy, spoke to them. Kyle and the reaper both froze. When Kyle turned, a ferry had pulled up at the bank next to them, a hunched, willowy figure standing at its head. Though the figure looked as though made of fog, his eyes were bright, searing through Kyle. He was reminded of the sharp gaze of Demeter. Eyes that somehow knew more than they should.

The reaper pushed Kyle’s hands off of him and fumbled under his cloak. The reaper placed two gold coins in the figure’s outstretched palm. Kyle, shocked still by the ferryman’s suspicious scrutiny, forgot to struggle when the reaper pushed him forward into the boat. The cramped ferry lurched to the side as the reaper followed Kyle, sitting thigh-to-thigh next to him on the shallow bench. It was only when the ferryman turned forward that Kyle felt he could breathe.

And, likewise, that Kyle realized where he was. He was sitting on a boat.

Kyle looked around, his brow furrowed. The river had an eerie glow about it, a bluish-greenish kind of color that made Kyle’s skin look sickly. A thick fog obscured the area around them, leaving Kyle clueless to the size of the river and where they were in it. The entire cave was silent, save for the dripping of water echoing around them, and a sound Kyle thought, at first, was the quick heartbeat of some kind of beast.

And then he glanced over, and realized it was just the reaper bouncing his heel anxiously.

The reaper’s body was tense, shoulders hunched, half his face behind his palm with his elbow on his thigh. His face was strained in a grimace. The glow of the river made his eyes seem dark, endless.

With a shudder, Kyle suddenly realized he was on the River Styx.

“Holy shit…” Kyle whispered.

The reaper jolted. He glared sideways at Kyle.

“You finally come to your senses, flowerboy?” The reaper muttered, his cheek resting on his fist.

Kyle stared, both in awe and horror around him. Now that he was aware of his surroundings, he was struck with the sudden feeling of emptiness. The connection he felt with the earth was severed. There was no life here. Kyle all of a sudden felt a cold settle deep in his core, an uneasiness that squirmed its way under his skin.

The ferryman was silent as his spindly arms pushed his oar through the water, a slow, practiced motion. The ride was almost unnervingly smooth; if it weren’t for the water rippling around them, Kyle wouldn't have known they were moving.

Eventually, the blurred shoreline eased its way through the fog. The ferry pulled up to the edge of the riverbank, stopping with a harsh jerk. The reaper stood first, his arms crossed tightly as his eyes went shifty around him. Kyle, unwilling to stay with the ferryman a second longer, followed suit. As he exited the boat, he felt the ferryman’s eyes on the back of his head, and with an uncomfortable shiver, he refused to look back.

The reaper started walking away, and Kyle, unable to really do much else, followed.

“Where the hell are you taking me?” Kyle tried to look forward, but the farther away from the river he looked, the darker the space in front of him seemed to be.

“To my fucking room,” the reaper snapped, “Now shut the fuck up before someone hears you.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means you’re not supposed to be here, and I don’t know what will happen if someone finds you!”

Kyle shut his mouth with a click, glaring. He rubbed at his arms with his hands, trying to warm up from the suffocating chill. The glow from the river began to dim the further they walked. Kyle squinted, trying to keep focus on the reaper’s silhouette in front of him.

“Jesus, it’s dark in here,” Kyle whispered, more to himself than anything, “How do you even see anything?”

The reaper scoffed.

“I don’t,” the reaper said breezily, “It’s like...some Underworld magic bullshit, or whatever.”

Kyle, uncomfortable with not being able to see jack shit, stealthily shuffled forward and took hold of part of the reaper’s cloak. The material was soft, smooth, almost like silk, but thicker. Kyle wondered what its lining was like, if the material was warm at all to stave off the cold.

The reaper took a sharp turn, and Kyle stumbled as he followed down a much narrower path. A glinting orange speck was in the distance, and as they walked closer, Kyle realized it was a light, seeping from the crack under a door.

When they entered the room, the reaper’s room, Kyle assumed, the sudden brightness hurt Kyle’s eyes, and he crouched over, shutting them tightly. The reaper came to a confused stop at Kyle’s motion, kind of awkwardly allowing Kyle to hide behind him while his eyes adjusted.

When Kyle could see again, he found himself standing in, frankly, an incredibly boring room. Of anything Kyle was imagining as the abode of Death’s underlings...a simple little apartment was not exactly what he was picturing. The room was a uniform block shape, lit with scattered torches. To the direct front of Kyle, at the back of the room, was a cozy stone fireplace, a bow on its mantel. To the left of the fireplace, near the far corner of the room, was a bed and nightstand. Nearer to Kyle, against the leftside wall, was a modest bookshelf and matching wardrobe. What was most surprising, though, was a kitchen, which took up the entire right side of the room past the line of the fireplace. The floors and walls were the same smooth stone as the rest of what Kyle had seen. The room seemed entirely devoid of personality save for the books on the shelf.

The reaper cleared his throat, and Kyle remembered to be angry.

“Okay, now explain what’s going on,” Kyle demanded.

“Oh, you’re asking me to explain? Really?” The reaper rolled his eyes. “You’re the one who followed me. So I should be asking you that.”

The haughty tone in the reaper’s voice really, really made Kyle’s blood boil. He took a deep breath.

“Fucking hell—just get me out of here already.”

The reaper faltered, the smug look on his face crumbling.

“What?” Kyle asked, a sinking feeling in his gut.

“I can’t do that.”

“You what?”

“I can’t get you out of here.”

Kyle’s eyes boggled out of his head. The reaper looked pained at the confession. Kyle spluttered, finally spitting out his response—

“What do you mean you can’t get me out of here?” Kyle’s voice began to rise in volume. “Can’t you just make one of your portal things?”

The reaper gave Kyle an unimpressed look.

“You really don’t know jack shit about how this stuff works, do you, flowerboy?” The reaper rolled his eyes. He rubbed at the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Look, those portals—no reaper can make them whenever we want. The only one who can do that is the big man himself. Whenever we do it it’s basically a command from him or a special request.” The reaper paused, a glaze of revulsion on his tongue, “And I’m sure you can guess how often he gives those out.”

Kyle blinked, the words slowly sinking in. He raked a hand through his hair, his fingers catching on whatever was growing. He looked down at his hand, seeing the white, trumpet-shaped blossom of bindweed. Kyle shut his eyes, taking a shaky breath, the flower crushed in his palm.

“So...you’re saying I’m stuck here?” Kyle asked slowly.

“Um, kind of, I mean—yeah, basically.” The reaper tacked on: “At least until I get another assignment up above.”

“And how long would that take?”

“I don’t know. The scheduling down here is really fucking random.”

Kyle was silent. He stared up at the ceiling, suddenly very, very tired. How had he gotten down here, again? The reaper started to fidget, shuffling around, whispering behind his fist to himself. His eyes glanced to the empty air next to him. Kyle ignored him.

“So,” the reaper said, with a forced casual tone, “If we’re gonna be stuck here, then, uh, can I call you something? Because ‘that guy’ and ‘ginger’ are kind of getting old.”

Kyle looked over at...the reaper. Huh.

“I didn’t know reapers had names,” Kyle said. The reaper made a face.

“Yeah, whatever. Mine’s Cartman.” The reaper—Cartman, held out his gloved hand after a moment of hesitation. Kyle looked down at it. He glanced up at Cartman’s face, once, before gripping the hand in return.

“Kyle.”

Chapter Text

After introducing themselves, the room fell back into an uneasy silence. Kyle looked around again, despite not having much to see. Cartman seemed equally as uncomfortable, fidgeting and muttering to himself under his breath.

“So...what now?” Kyle asked.

“I mean, I guess we just wait?” Cartman replied curtly.

A few more tense moments passed. Kyle wandered towards the bookshelf, Cartman’s eyes watching him intently. Almost all of the books were cooking or baking related, which would’ve been surprising if not for the fact that the kitchen took up a little over half the room. The few books which weren’t food-based included a few human medical tomes and a children’s storybook.

Kyle had kept himself vaguely occupied for a few minutes reading the spines of the books.

Eventually, though, he cracked.

“Gods, what do you even do down here?” Kyle turned back around to face Cartman, who jumped at the sudden volume of Kyle’s voice.

“Uh,” Cartman seemed to blank for a moment. “I cook, obviously. And sleep, mostly. Sometimes I play something.”

“You play?” Kyle raised an eyebrow. “What exactly?”

“I mean, shit—” Cartman scurried forward, brushing shoulders with Kyle as he approached the unassuming wardrobe next to the bookshelf. He threw open the wardrobe door. Looking inside, Kyle was met with a neat row of inky cloaks, a pile of white masks, and on the floor of the wardrobe, an assortment of stringed and wind instruments.

“Oh,” Kyle said simply, “Huh.”

Kyle reached forward, his fingertips gently brushing against the strings of a lute. There was a gentle, discordant line of notes. Cartman cringed, a little. He took the lute from under Kyle’s hand. He held it in his arms, softly strumming the strings, taking time to re-tune the instrument. He fiddled with it. His eyes glanced up at Kyle, then back down, almost shy.

“You can, like, sit or something,” Cartman said, quietly, his eyes still trained on his lute.

Kyle blinked, then walked around Cartman towards the bed. He stared at it for a moment. There were two pillows, one at the head of the bed, the other sideways against the wall, on the rumpled sheets, the blanket haphazardly balled up in the middle. It seemed...too intimate, almost. After a moment’s hesitation, Kyle instead sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, leaning against the bedframe.

Cartman’s back was to Kyle. He strummed a few opening notes, before diving directly into a scale. Kyle watched how Cartman’s shoulders eased as he played. His whole demeanor seemed to soften, somehow. Kyle found himself being sucked into the story of the song, the emotion laden in its chords.

It was beautiful, but somber; almost sad—longing even. Yet somehow, it still felt like a deeply romantic song, a tragic romance, but a romance nonetheless. As the song continued, Kyle felt his heart ache, empathizing, desperately missing someone who did not exist.

The song sped up, the notes more intricate, becoming almost joyful. Coupled with the deep, mournful aura of the first piece, the quicker, more upbeat second half felt like a memory, like someone reminiscing on better times, calling forth a time of happiness from far in the past.

Cartman swayed gently as he played. Suddenly, Kyle wished he could see how Cartman’s hands moved across the instrument, to see for himself how he could produce a sound as profound and moving as he was, in that little dim room, with torchlight framing him in a dull orange.

The song began to slow to an end, with a conversation between the chords, a back and forth between the highs and lows. A lonely part of Kyle, deeply lost and locked away, spoke up, sang in harmony with the song. For once, during the last fading moments of the music, Kyle didn’t feel the need to repress that lonely part of him, and let it sing until its lungs gave out.

When the final note came to a close, Kyle discreetly wiped at his eyes before clapping lightly. Cartman jumped, the tips of his ears turning pink as his entire body tensed again. He turned slowly, and Kyle thought he might’ve forgotten he had company. Cartman coughed, awkwardly, gently placing the lute down before turning to Kyle, his hands clasped in front of him, looking almost like a child awaiting feedback from a teacher.

“That was...incredible.” Kyle sounded a little breathless. “Where did you learn to play like that?”

“Oh, I mean.” Cartman seemed sheepish, flushing pleasantly under Kyle’s praise. “I get a lot of practice down here.”

“What song was that?” Kyle asked.

“Oh, uh,” Cartman faltered a bit, looking away as if embarrassed, “It’s got a few bits I’d been working on, but that was mostly on the spot.”

Kyle blinked, shocked still by the information.

“Wait—you made all that up?” Kyle spluttered incredulously, “On the spot?”

“Yeah.” Cartman’s voice sounded a little defensive. Kyle waved his hands.

“No, no, I mean—that’s amazing.”

Cartman flushed bright red. He stared at Kyle, in awe, as if Kyle were the one who did something astounding. They just gazed at each other, for a while, drinking in the atmosphere—the electricity of a genuine mutual respect, buzzing around them.

Eventually, Cartman shook himself out of it, literally shaking his head and stammering as he tried to push some words out.

“I—uh, thanks,” Cartman said quickly. He changed the topic immediately, stumbling for something to say. “So, um,” Cartman gestured around the top of his head, “Your flower things? Uh, how do they do that? I mean, they’re nice. I like red.” Cartman kept backtracking, over explaining himself, trying desperately to not ruin the nice moment of civility. Kyle was almost amused before he realized he was being asked a question.

“Oh.” Kyle reached up to pick one of the new blooms. He held back a blush when he recognized the flower, instead focusing on answering what was asked of him. “They just kinda do that on their own.”

Cartman tentatively walked forward, sitting on the bed. He glanced closer at Kyle’s wreath.

“Oh.” His honey-gold eyes seemed to glimmer with something soft. As if in a daze, his hand reached out, gently brushing against the petals. “I haven’t seen carnations in a while.”

The delicate touch sent a shiver down Kyle’s spine, but more than that, he was surprised Cartman had recognized the flower. Kyle had a feeling Cartman was somehow unlike any other reaper. Or maybe he was just biased. It helped to have at least somewhat of a good opinion of the guy if they were gonna be stuck together for who knows how long.

Chapter Text

The silence was filled with music. Kyle leaned back against the bed from his seat on the floor, his eyes shut. It wasn’t an assortment of separate songs as much as it was Cartman linking together melodies as they came to him. Kyle was content to exist entirely in the space between the notes, his worries temporarily filed away. He wasn’t sure how long they sat there, Cartman resting on his unmade bed with Kyle at his feet, the lute singing gently.

“So, uh, how’s life up there?” Cartman asked. Kyle opened his eyes, Cartman was looking at him, his hands still moving on the strings of the lute. Kyle hadn’t noticed when he’d taken off his cloak, but it laid in a messy heap on the floor next to the bed.

“Why do you care?” Kyle raised an eyebrow. Cartman frowned. The next melody he played was a harmony of sharp, quick notes in succession.

“I don’t get out much, flowerboy.” Cartman rolled his eyes. “Sue me. I’m curious.”

“Uh, I mean, I don’t really have much to say,” Kyle replied, “I’m stuck in training. The most I can tell you is the new innovations humans have made with irrigation.”

“Gods, you’re boring—you don’t have any gossip?” Cartman strummed a sweet-sounding scale. “Who’s hooked up with who, illegitimate demigod children, which god insulted which other god’s kid.”

“Like I said, I’m way too caught up in training to pay attention to any of that shit.” Kyle’s mind immediately went to his parents, and he grimaced and pushed the thought away. He paused, though—”But, uh, Eros has been looking for a new heir. He’s been bugging one of Artemis’s for a while now.”

Cartman’s hands had stumbled over the notes. Kyle glanced over his shoulder at him. Cartman quickly reeled himself back, shaping the sound back into a melody.

“So,” Cartman’s voice seemed a little too sudden. “What’s it like being a minion to that bitch Demeter?”

Kyle felt a vein in his forehead throb. He turned around and gave Cartman a sharp slap on the closest body part he could reach from his place on the floor—which happened to be his thigh. Cartman squealed, the notes of the lute echoing his sentiment.

“Ay! What the fuck was that for, you fucking prick!”

“Stop insulting my grandma, fatass!”

“Wait—what?” Cartman’s eyes went wide. “Demeter is your fucking grandma?”

“Yes, dumbass; did you really not know?”

“Yes, Kahl, I didn’t know! How the fuck am I supposed to keep up on which fucking gods are popping out babies when I’m literally stuck in hell.”

“Maybe this will teach you to not be such a fucking douche all the time.” Kyle rolled his eyes.

“Oh fuck off, flowerboy, I’m not the one who jumped directly into the fucking Underworld without knowing he couldn’t leave.”

“Maybe if you weren’t such a careless asshole I wouldn’t have needed to come after you!”

“I don’t even know why you did that!”

“Because I was interrupted, fatass—”

“I’m not fucking fat! I’m big boned!”

“Oh really, tubby? Then what’s this?” Kyle didn’t know when he’d crawled onto the bed, nor did he know why he gave into the impulse to pinch at Cartman’s side.

Cartman squealed, jerking backwards, his hands trying to protect his pudgy belly. He started trying to kick at Kyle, but Kyle was too quick, pouncing suddenly.

They were a tangle of limbs and screaming curses. The lute clattered to the floor somewhere during the scuffle. Kyle’s knees pinned down Cartman’s thighs, forcing them to splay open. Cartman’s hands gripped at Kyle’s tunic, and Kyle was at once trying to make him let go and hold down his shoulders with his forearm. Kyle’s arm caught against Cartman’s throat, pushing him down, making him splutter. Cartman’s face began to turn red, and he dug his nails into Kyle’s arm, trying to rip it off. His eyes were still absolutely furious as his face strained against Kyle’s weight.

“F...fuck—” Cartman spluttered. He suddenly stopped struggling, his grip on Kyle’s arm still tight. His eyes rolled back, and he took quick, panting breaths. His face was red from exertion or lack of air. Kyle’s hands began to tremble. Cartman bit his lip, still breathing harshly. The air around them changed, becoming thick and charged. Kyle felt a bead of sweat drip down his temple, his entire body scorching, his nerves electrified. Cartman kept making little whimpering sounds, and every one of them drove Kyle a little crazy.

Kyle’s skin felt too tight, somehow, his heart thudded in his chest, his blood rushing in his ears. He shifted, still holding his arm down on Cartman’s throat. The long, breathy, whining sound Cartman made in response sent a familiar burn down Kyle’s gut, and the second he recognized it, he’d thrown himself off of Cartman, flinging himself to the other side of the bed.

Cartman gasped for breath, blinking dazedly as the fingertips of one of his hands gently brushed against his collarbone. Kyle stared, watching the tremble of Cartman’s still splayed legs, his black tunic barely long enough for modesty’s sake.

After a few, dragging, painful moments, Cartman’s heaving chest began to steady.

“What the fuck…” Cartman wheezed. Kyle couldn’t agree more.

Cartman sat up, slowly, and when he did, white petals fell from his hair, standing out starkly against his black tunic. Cartman pointedly refused to meet Kyle’s eyes, and instead busied himself by picking up the discarded lute and checking for damages. While he was distracted, Kyle reached up to pluck a bloom from his wreath.

For a moment, Kyle looked at the cluster of little white petals in confusion. It was a flower he saw occasionally in human gardens, but it had been so long since it had bloomed on Kyle that he’d forgotten its meaning.

He sniffed the flowers, and the distinct smell suddenly brought Kyle back. He remembered the flower with sudden, humiliating clarity—coriander. Kyle hastily willed the flowers to recede. He glanced at Cartman, who still seemed to be occupied with his lute...though his cheeks seemed a little pinker than before…

Cartman clambered off of the bed, lute in hand. Kyle watched his back as he rummaged around in the wardrobe. When he turned back, he held a small bundle of lyres and harps in his arms. He dropped the instruments on the bed and took a seat, the pile acting as a barrier between Kyle and Cartman.

“So, I think we can both agree that was weird as fuck and it shouldn’t happen again?” Cartman said, tuning a lyre. “But let’s move past that. Any requests?”

“Uhh…” Kyle fumbled, caught in the whiplash of the sudden change in pace. The first thing that came to mind was Stan talking about the sirens, musical, seductive monsters that reeled in unwitting sailors to devour them whole. “Do you have anything relating to, like, the ocean?”

“Hm,” Cartman hummed, looking up in thought as he tuned his lyre. “Yeah, I’ve got something.” He placed his fingers over the strings, then paused. “Uh, this song is meant to be played by the ocean, so just, like, imagine some wave sounds, I guess.”

Cartman began strumming, a slow beat. He almost looked hesitant, but he began to sing a soothing melody. His voice dropped out, eventually, to be replaced fully with the lyre. The song sounded like the rocking of a ship, a steady back and forth of the waves on the shore. But it was also...enchanting, somehow. Kyle felt at ease, swaying back and forth unconsciously, in sync with Cartman.

The song eventually came to a close, and Kyle found that its melody had wormed into his brain, repeating over and over.

“That was cool,” Kyle said, “What was it?”

“Just something I picked up,” Cartman said breezily, “I think it was from some nymphs? Or maybe sirens? I don’t remember.” He shrugged. “Oh, I just remembered one I learned from a follower of Eris. Anyway, here’s Wonderwall.”

Kyle scooted to lean back against the wall, stretching out his legs as he listened to the easygoing, lighthearted song.

“Yanno, I think I met Apollo, once,” Kyle said offhandedly, “He was at this party my parents dragged me to. He and Dionysus were fighting over who would get to play.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that,” Cartman replied, “The muses went ballistic.”

“Gods, and you remember when Melpomene cried so hard she puked all over Aphrodite’s shoes?”

“Holy shit—I can’t believe I almost forgot! The catty bitch whined about her sandals for, like, a whole ass month.” Cartman threw his hands up in disbelief. “They weren’t even that cute.”

Kyle had no opinion on how cute Aphrodite’s sandals were, but he did remember her outraged expression when she realized what happened.

“Remember that time a few years ago when Hera suddenly raised hell on that little farming village?” Cartman asked, sounding mischievous.

“Which time? When she turned the women into hens or when she cursed the soil to smell like feces?”

“The second one—also you’re gonna have to tell me about that first story, by the way—” Cartman continued, “So you know why she went crazy?”

“I don’t know the details, but I’m gonna guess it was Zeus being a douche again.”

“Correct.” Cartman grinned impishly, “The reason was because she found out that Zeus was sleeping with not one, not two, but eighteen of the milkmaids. It was too late for the maids, though, because they were already dead. So Hera just cursed their town.

“The reason I know this?” Cartman leaned back against the headboard, smug, “Someone had to be in charge of collecting the souls of all those poor maids after Zeus literally fucked them to death.”

Kyle choked on his own spit.

“What?” Kyle wheezed.

“Milkmaids are the most chatty people on the planet, Kahl, let me tell you.” Cartman dramatically ran his hands down his face. “Do you want me to tell you what Zeus’s dick looks like? Because I can tell you what Zeus’s dick looks like.”

“Aw, dude sick!” Kyle cried.

“I have, so many death stories, dude,” Cartman said, “You don’t even know. Humans are crazy.”

“You’re telling me,” Kyle replied, “I have to deal with farmers and followers and I think get a tic in my eye whenever someone mentions fucking manure. Like. Dude. I really don’t give a shit what kinda food you feed your damn cow. I’m just here to make your crops grow better.”

“And they don’t stop being weird in the afterlife either,” Cartman sighed, “I’ve walked into, well, I call it ‘town’ because I don’t know what else to call it, but whatever. I walk into death-town, but like, the mortal dead part of the Underworld, and even though it’s all basically over and they’re here forever, humans still get into stupid-ass arguments. Like. Dude. That shit literally has zero bearing down here. Who the hell wants to talk about taxes in their eternity? Fucking Eutuches I guess.”

And so, Kyle and Cartman ended up going back and forth with their Weird Human stories, gesticulating wildly, ranting about semantics, laughing, and getting into brief bickering matches about whatever random topic they bumped into.

Occasionally, Cartman played a few melodies on one of the several instruments still sitting on the bed, arguing that they all had a slightly different sound and therefore all deserved their own play. Kyle thought that was pretty dumb, because he certainly couldn’t tell the difference, but Cartman was good at playing so he didn’t complain all that much.

Besides, Kyle liked being able to see how Cartman’s hands moved across the strings. He was so enraptured by his own stories he didn’t even notice Kyle’s staring. Kyle wondered what material his gloves were made of, but decided to keep the question to himself, because Cartman was in the middle of an insane fucking story about the time he made a bet with a dying man for his own soul, but somehow was interrupted by a seagull? Thrilling.

Chapter Text

Shockingly, there were no windows or clocks in the Underworld, so Kyle had no idea how much time had passed since he’d arrived. He and Cartman exchanged stories to the point where Kyle felt like he was about to exhaust his own supply—he really had to reach for the interesting ones. Aside from the one...blip, the atmosphere remained amicable.

Cartman swapped instruments as it pleased him, claiming each lute or lyre had its own distinct sound and tone and type of song that could be played on it. Kyle didn’t really hear any differences, he wasn’t a very...musical person, but it sounded nice nonetheless. Cartman played until he stopped with a sudden jerk and groan, clasping his wrist tightly.

“Fucking—” Cartman spat, “Hand cramp.”

And then they went back to talking.

Eventually, though the conversation began to slow, growing sluggish like sap dripping down a tree in the chill of winter. Long pauses punctuated their sentences. It felt less like the brick wall of “boredom” and more akin to the lethargic descent into “sleepy.” Kyle’s eyelids felt heavy, and he spaced out every so often, needing Cartman to repeat his name a few times to get him back on track. Kyle felt like he could fall over any second—it was strange, actually. Kyle hadn’t felt that dead tired in forever, even after hours of training.

“I think it’s the Underworld thing,” Cartman mumbled, almost intelligible, “You don’t have, like, life and shit down here. Or at least—” Cartman yawned. “—nowhere near as much as you’re used to.” 

Kyle blinked, slowly. He wondered, vaguely, where the fuck that had come from before he realized, no, reapers can’t read minds, and Kyle had just been the one to accidentally say something out loud.

“Oh.”

“Gods, let’s just go to bed already.” Cartman rolled over with a groan.

“I didn’t know reapers slept,” Kyle said, honestly. Cartman fixed him with a tired look.

“We are literally sitting on my bed right now, dude.”

“Right.”

At the mention of the bed, the two of them became hyper aware of its presence. Kyle noticed how they’d both stiffened up, in sync. Because, well…

There was only one bed.

“I’m not taking the floor,” Cartman said firmly, staring directly at Kyle, defiant. Kyle’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you kidding me? The floor is literally just stone!” Kyle argued back, gesturing with his arm. “And you don’t have any couches or chairs.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if you realized this, Kahl, but I don’t get many visitors in hell.” Cartman crossed his arms. “Besides, it’s my room, and my bed, and I’m the one who’s still on call for my job.”

“Oh wah-wah, you fucking baby.” Kyle realized his arguments were starting to deteriorate as he grew more and more tired. “I’m the guest so I should get the bed.”

“Honey, I don’t remember inviting you.” Cartman stifled a yawn, “Last time I checked, you were the one who stalked me into hell.”

“I wasn’t stalking you!” Kyle screeched, too loudly. He felt the sudden urge to stomp his foot on the ground like a child.

“Sure you weren’t, flowerboy.” Cartman crossed his arms, turning his nose up dramatically. “Anyways. I’m getting the bed.”

Kyle sighed heavily, dragging his hands down his face.

“Gods help me,” Kyle muttered. The bed looked so inviting and plush. The pillows fluffed up just so and the blanket looked nice and warm. Kyle glanced at them longingly. “Look. Let’s just—” Kyle hesitated, his face screwing up as if he’d just bit into a lemon. His voice trailed off, “...share the bed.”

“What?” Cartman asked, incredulously. He looked lost, blinking in an almost innocent way.

“Neither of us are going to sleep on the damn floor, and we’re both about three seconds away from passing out already,” Kyle explained, running a hand through his hair, “So let’s just share the bed.”

“I—” Cartman started, then stopped. He looked conflicted, his face pink and scrunched up. In Kyle’s exhaustion-induced delirium, Kyle thought he looked kinda cute. Cartman pouted, looking away as he murmured out a quiet “fine.”

Kyle stood up as Cartman started shuffling around on the bed. Cartman pressed himself as close to the wall as he could, his back facing Kyle. Kyle took in a sharp breath and lifted the blankets to slide in next to him. Kyle laid on his side away from Cartman, the two of them trying desperately not to touch each other.

The bed was about the size of Stan’s, if Kyle was remembering their sleepovers correctly (they felt so long ago…). Stan and Kyle could both fit on Stan’s bed comfortably, but, well, there wasn’t as much Stan as there was Cartman. Kyle called him a fatass, and sure, that was likely true—if not a little harsh. Cartman just carried some extra weight; his belly was pudgy, his arms and legs were thick and soft, his face was round at his cheeks and jaw. He wasn’t morbidly obese or anything. And he didn’t look bad, either. Kyle didn’t mind a little extra love around the edges. Looked nice to grab, nice enough to bite—

Kyle paused. Hey. Hey what. What was that thought process.

Kyle cleared his head, grounding himself back in reality. He could feel the heat of Cartman’s back against his own. He seemed to have relaxed, as his spine curved against Kyle’s. Kyle laid still, feeling the slow in and out of Cartman’s breathing. How was he asleep already? Cartman shifted a little, mumbling incoherently in his sleep, a little breathy murmur. Kyle, curious, slowly turned to lay on his back so he could glance over next to him. Cartman had curled around a pillow, like a koala—his arms and legs wrapped tightly around it. His forehead pressed into it, nuzzling the fabric and mussing up his bangs.

If Kyle was gonna keep thinking Cartman looked cute, he might as well stop denying it. At least when Cartman was asleep. Kyle closed his eyes, accepting his fate, finally. His hands were clasped against his stomach, like a corpse. Kyle tried to match Cartman’s breathing, growing drowsy.

The last thing he was aware of before drifting off was a movement next to him, and a warm press against his arm.

-

Kyle’s dreams were a distorted, abstract mess of color and sound. He heard Stan laughing, the hum of Kenny’s winged shoes, Cartman’s lyre. A blue had washed over him, like a wave, bringing with it a new song. The four of them fit together, somehow, like mismatched puzzle pieces. Kyle heard himself, saying something indistinct. And then he was surrounded with red carnations, and drowning in gold.

When he began to wake up, the petals from his dream were still dancing at the edge of his consciousness. Kyle felt a sort of tickling sensation under his nose, a gentle, featherlike touch on his upper lip. He scrunched up his face, his eyes still closed. Kyle dragged his eyes open, his vision a blur of dim oranges and reds and blacks. For a second, he was overcome with innocent confusion. He blinked at the ceiling above him, trying to place it.

Then, something moved, and when Kyle looked down he was immediately bombarded with memories of the night (?) before. Well. He wasn’t sure it was a “night” since he still had no idea what time it was, but he felt well-rested. What he was sure about, though, was the fact that Cartman was currently hugging his arm with both of his own. Sometime while they had slept, he seemed to have turned over, and was now curled up against Kyle’s side. Kyle was then intensely aware of how warm Cartman was, how his cheek was smooshed up against Kyle’s shoulder.

Kyle wriggled a little, trying to dislodge Cartman’s grip, but Cartman just made a little noise and nuzzled further into Kyle’s shoulder, his head tilting to bury his face against Kyle’s skin. Kyle stiffened against the soft press of Cartman’s gently parted lips against his neck. The point of contact felt searing hot. Kyle strained his head, struggling to move his neck just an inch farther away, but he was held in place by Cartman’s weight.

Kyle debated if the humiliation would be worth waking Cartman up and getting it over with already. His movement must’ve done something, because, half-awake, Cartman hummed happily, nosing at the space behind Kyle’s ear.

“You smell nice…” Cartman murmured sleepily.

Kyle’s heart quickened its pace; he felt that hot breath ghost along the shell of his ear, unintentionally sending a shiver down his spine.

Clenching his teeth, Kyle used his free arm to gently pry Cartman’s hands from around his upper arm. He was able to get Cartman’s hands to relax by gently rubbing circles on their backs with his thumb. Cartman’s hand even turned over, his fingers twitching as if to entwine with Kyle’s.

Kyle, somehow, found a way to clumsily clamber out of the bed, almost falling on his fucking face when he did. He stood over the bed, watching as Cartman rolled over into the warm spot where Kyle once was, his arms reaching up to wrap around Kyle’s pillow. As he did, Kyle finally noticed the mess of purple petals that had been strewn on the sheets. Kyle knew what they were from instantly, without even needing to check the blooms on his wreath—he always made lavender when he was asleep. 

Then Kyle realized he was just watching Cartman sleep. His face heated up, and he turned away quickly, not looking back even as Cartman gave another happy little hum. Kyle marched himself forward towards the bookshelf, determined to at least look like he was doing something. He scanned the shelf, ignoring the way Cartman rolled over again in his periphery, and took out the human medical book.

From what Kyle had remembered, the book was only slightly outdated in terms of the pathology. It was more focused on memories and amnesia, though, which Kyle had never really taken the time to study. Most of the medical books he’d come across were about illness and diet. It was actually quite fascinating. Kyle had immersed himself halfway through a case study about an experimental brain surgery performed on an amnesiac when he heard a loud groan.

Kyle glanced up, only mildly annoyed that he’d been interrupted. Cartman was sitting up, his arms high over his head, stretching. He arched his back and his spine popped in a gruesomely loud and unhealthy way. He looked over at Kyle in sleepy befuddlement before the realization came over his face.

“Uh…” Cartman hesitated, awkward, “Morning? I guess? Time doesn’t really exist down here."

“Right.” Kyle looked back at the cover of the book. “Hey, Cartman? Where do you even get all these books?”

“Oh.” Cartman squinted. “That one was a gift, but I get most of them from town.”

“Town? You mean the human plane?”

“Oh, no, I mean, like, down here.” Cartman got out of bed, rolling on the balls of his feet to stretch his legs. Kyle was definitely looking at the book, then, not at all noticing how Cartman had to tug his tunic back down from where it had risen up over his thighs. “Hell has like...little towns, kinda.” Cartman’s pause hung heavy in the air, his brow twitching in thought. “Um...if you want I can like...take you there?”

“Is town any more exciting than being stuck in your room all day?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m down.”

Cartman seemed to brighten up, his eyes glittering, the faintest etch of a smile at the corners of his mouth. He strode towards Kyle, bypassing him for the wardrobe.

“First thing’s first, though.” Cartman threw open the doors of the wardrobe. His grin was devilish. “You’re gonna need a disguise.”

Cartman threw a bundle of black fabric at Kyle.

“You put this on, I’m gonna go put away all my fucking shit.”

Kyle fumbled around, his vision blocked by the fabric. When he pulled it down, he realized it was one of Cartman’s reaper cloaks. Kyle haphazardly left the book on the shelf, a little too eager to try on the wispy, shadowy cloak. When he placed it over his shoulders, the front seemed to melt into itself, becoming a seamless wall of darkness. Curious, Kyle raised an arm out of the side, grinning when the fabric easily split. He put his arm down, and tried it in another place. The cloak was like a waterfall—wherever he reached out, it would open up for him. Neat.

“Cool, right?”

Kyle looked up. Cartman was gesturing to the cloak with his elbow, since his hands were full of discarded instruments. He neared Kyle again to put them back in the wardrobe, pausing for a moment to grab two white masks. He handed one to Kyle.

“It’s, uh, not as stuffy as it looks.” The mask distorted Cartman’s voice, making it sound far away and echoing, layered on itself as if several people were talking at once. Kyle shuddered when he noticed the difference. He looked down at the mask. It didn’t seem to have anything to hold it in place. He felt like he was facing some kind of momentous decision as he held it in his palms. Kyle held his breath as he raised it towards his face, his vision growing dark.

The mask shifted around him, a chill scratching at the sides of his face, like cold, skeletal fingers dragging over his cheeks. Kyle gasped, feeling like he’d been submerged suddenly underwater, freezing, arctic water. Then, when he opened his eyes, Kyle let out a breath, and the chill was expelled with his exhale. Kyle blinked. His vision had a kind of grayish hue to it, but when he looked down at his own hands, they seemed oversaturated in comparison, almost glowing.

“Yeah, I forgot how weird it feels the first time, but you get used to it,” Cartman remarked casually.

Cartman also looked oversaturated, his skin golden like sunlight, a halo around him.

“Put your hood up,” Cartman said, mirroring what he’d told Kyle to do. “It shouldn’t fall down unless someone takes it down, but like, make sure to keep it up, alright? I don’t care if you get stuffy—your little hairpiece is a dead giveaway that you’re not supposed to be here.”

Kyle paused.

“Was that a pun?”

Cartman looked confused for a moment, then his face screwed up.

“Oh shut the fuck up, Kahl.” His voice had little bite to it, considering he sounded like he was holding back laughter. “Let’s just go, already.”

“Lead the way, I guess.”

Cartman didn’t hold the door open for Kyle, but he couldn’t get too far ahead without Kyle’s longer legs quickly catching up. Kyle was again at Cartman’s mercy, as he was plunged back into that uncomfortable darkness. Unlike last time, though, he didn’t feel cold. He was glad to note that the cloak had what felt like insulation to it, warm and fluffy like fur.

They walked in relative silence, until Kyle spoke up.

“So what are these towns like?”

“Well, there’s like...I don’t know, countless of them? I don’t know if there’s a set amount or if they just pop up whenever. They’re separated into different quadrants and shit. They start out as a little hunk of space, and then the humans wander in and fill it up with stuff.”

“Humans?”

“Yeah, humans love doing shit. Lots of them just wander into towns looking for a place to set up shop.”

“They work? Why are they working in the afterlife?”

“Kyle. Have you ever met a human before? Those bitches hate being bored. They like having shit to do.”

Kyle hummed. “Fair point.”

“Anyways, not all humans want to work for the rest of eternity, but plenty of them do, and will pick a job they like, find a place that needs that job, and just kinda do it.”

The darkness began to ease up. There was a dim blueish-whiteish glow emanating from the walls. They’d approached a huge...wall. Along it was what looked like a grid of milky, foggy portals.

“We’re heading to quadrant eight-point-one-three-dash-M-T,” Cartman said. He walked up to a little gray box at the far end of the wall, a stamp dangled from a cord attached to it. He took a little card from a row of cards along the side of the box and stamped it. He slipped the card into a slot on top of the box.

“What’s that?”

“I have to sign in. The Boss likes to keep tabs on us reapers.”

“The boss? Do you mean Ha—”

“Oh, gods no—” Cartman interrupted Kyle before he could finish the name. “He is like, the supreme boss, but my boss, the overseer of the reapers, is a completely different guy.”

“Is he the one who tells you which humans to get?”

“Kinda?” Cartman’s lip curled in thought. The box dinged, and the card popped back out of the top. Cartman casually put it back in its place. “There’s a whole hierarchy. Lots of supervisors who get cushy desk jobs until you get to the bottom of the pyramid—field reapers. Yanno, the ones who actually do all the work.”

Kyle raised an eyebrow. Before he could respond, one of the portals swirled from a whiteish color to a deep teal.

“That’s us.” Cartman pointed to the portal. “Let’s get going before it closes.”

Cartman walked purposefully through the portal; when Kyle followed, he braced himself—but there wasn’t any actual sensation. If he had to find anything, he’d say there was a little tickling feeling like walking through a spider-web, but nothing as extreme as he was expecting. When the fog cleared, Kyle was faced with what looked like a completely average village, if not a little dark.

Buildings of stone and wood were erected down a long street. Ghostly looking people floated along the walkways, chatting quietly, their voices indistinct. Kyle didn’t see any other reapers.

“Do reapers hang around here often?” Kyle asked. Cartman began walking purposefully again, looking entirely at home.

“Not in the MT quadrants—this is where all the small town folk ended up. Most reapers like the more exciting big city quadrants.”

“Then why aren’t we in those quadrants?”

“I don’t think crowds are a good look in our situation, Kahl.” Cartman looked a little sheepish. “Plus I don’t want to get lost.”

“I thought you had like...reaper magic or whatever the fuck to guide you?” They paused in front of a street vendor selling woven quilts. Cartman peered at them. For a moment, Kyle thought he was being ignored, until Cartman began to speak again.

“I mean, I’m sure I do, but I don’t want to risk it. I’ve never been further than a few MT quadrants.” Cartman ran his fingers over one of the quilts, a twisted pattern of greens. “I’d rather stick where I know than to trust some vague reaper ‘gut feeling,’ or some shit.” Cartman paused. “Anyways, which of these do you like best? I’m really feeling this purple one, but the green one is thicker.”

“Wait what?” Kyle asked, surprised at the change in topic.

“Since I have no idea how long you’re gonna be here, I might as well get you a damn blanket,” Cartman mumbled, head ducked down as if to further inspect the stitching, but Kyle noticed his ears were pink.

“Uh, I like the green one?” Kyle hesitated. He only just then noticed the street vendor, with translucent skin and a content and an almost eerily peaceful smile.

“‘Kay.” Cartman took his coin pouch from under his cloak, and handed a coin to the vendor in exchange for the quilt. The heavy looking material looked almost comical bundled haphazardly in Cartman’s arms. Kyle took the quilt from him, to his confusion, and folded it neatly, tucking it under his own arm. Cartman kind of blinked at him, empty-handed, before they moved on.

They came to another vendor who looked to be selling potatoes and dates. Kyle stared down at the table in complete, shocked confusion. Cartman turned over a few dates between his fingers. The fruit looked fresh, its skin shiny. Cartman gave one of them a little squeeze, testing its give. He frowned down at them.

“Give me a minute.” And then he turned and purposefully strode off in another direction. Kyle watched him go for a moment before snapping out of his daze, trotting along to catch up.

“Wait—Cartman,” Kyle said, “Were those real? How did they get down here?”

“Of course they’re real.” Cartman stopped in front of a basket weaver. She was meticulously piecing together a large basket in her lap, and didn’t even look up when Cartman traded a few gold coins for one of her completed handbaskets. “There’s some foods that take well to the soil of the damned.”

“I... what…” Kyle breathed, still in shock. He lagged behind Cartman as he turned with his basket back towards the other vendor.

“There’s some foods that grow really well here, Kahl,” Cartman said, putting a few dates into his basket. “Not all of them, of course, but potatoes, carrots, ginger, shit like that all love it down here. There’s even some fruits, too, but those mostly grow because the big man likes them. Not my boss, the big boss.”

“How is that even possible?” Kyle’s head was spinning.

“I mean, there’s still some life energy around here. Human souls kind of emit a little bit of it.” Cartman added some potatoes to his basket. Almost oblivious to Kyle’s disbelieving gaping. “But, like, nothing tastes the same. Everything that can grow down here tastes a little more bitter? Or like, with this kind of weird tangy aftertaste. It’s not great for everything, but it’s really good in dates, and you can’t even tell in the potatoes. It can fuck with human recipes though.”

Cartman left the vendor with some coins, continuing down the path. Kyle followed, dumbstruck.

“Are there...farms here?” Kyle asked. He reached out with his powers, following the tenuous threads of energy  as far as he could. He realized, with an ache, how much he missed feeling grass tickle at his feet, the singing of the trees as they soaked the sun.

“Yeah, there’s one down that way if you want to see it.”

Kyle nodded.

The farm was tiny, just a little plot of land no bigger than the average backyard. There were a few rows of potatoes, a date tree, and a small, neat patch of white lilies. A spirit tended to the flowers, gently humming. Kyle tried to energize the plants, but found he could only push a fraction of his power into them. He guessed the Underworld counteracted his full power.

Still, it almost felt disappointing. Plants normally craved his power, reached out to him, embraced him with open arms. But these plants only knew the touch of their caretaker, the trickle of life from the one who cultivated them. They didn’t reject Kyle, but they were confused at his presence, and that felt almost as bad as a rejection would’ve been.

“You have any hobbies?” Cartman asked suddenly, knocking Kyle out of his thoughts.

“What do you mean?”

“Anything to keep you busy. I can’t be your 24/7 personal bard, you know.”

“Um…” Kyle furrowed his brow. He’d been so busy lately he hadn’t had much downtime. He forgot what he liked to do for fun, other than hang out with Stan. “I like to read?”

Kyle hadn’t noticed when Cartman started walking again, or when he’d began to follow, but the farm was at their backs, the street stretching out in front of them.

“Is that it?” Cartman raised an eyebrow, his judgement hanging in the air between them.

“I’ve…” Kyle thought back to before his training started, “I’ve competed in a few Olympic games, played some sports—”

“Well that’s fucking out,” Cartman interrupted with a grimace. “Unless you can somehow play by yourself.”

“What about you?” Kyle asked. Cartman gave him a flat look, gesturing to himself.

“Do I look like the kinda guy to run an Olympic marathon?”

Kyle’s gaze made a quick path down Cartman’s body, lingering on the thickness around his hips and thighs, almost hidden under the fitted cloak, before guiltily jerking back up to his face.

“Fair point.”

“What else do you do, Kahl?” Cartman started listing off on his fingers, his basket in the crook of his elbow. “Weaving, origami, model-ship building…”

“I’ve painted a little,” Kyle frowned, "But just a little. And like. Not even anything good—just color on paper.”

“And that’s good enough if it can keep you quiet for an hour.”

“Oh fuck off, Cartman.”

Cartman just hummed, a little smirk on his face.

They approached a tiny shop with no name and no windows, and Kyle warily followed when Cartman entered it. In reality, it was a bookshop.

“Go buck fucking wild, Kahl,” Cartman said, “There’s a lot of repeats and most of the nonfiction ones are outdated as fuck, but it’s better than nothing I guess.”

From the outside, the bookshop looked tiny, but as Kyle wandered through the aisles, he realized it extended much deeper than he expected. The mazelike shelves rose to the ceiling, made of dark, dry wood and densely packed with books. The repeats Cartman mentioned only added to the puzzling atmosphere of the dimly lit corridors, making Kyle double back, check himself. At times he wondered if he had even moved, or if he’d somehow walked back the way he came. It was unsettling. He was, however, able to pick up a modest stack of tomes that interested him. Most of them were fiction, as, like Cartman said, the nonfiction books were incredibly outdated.

He somehow was able to wander back towards the front of the shop, where Cartman was waiting by the front desk, talking to himself again. Cartman gave the shopkeep, a stout man who towered over the both of them, a few coins, before exiting the shop.

“How do you know what all these cost?” Kyle asked.

“I don’t.” Cartman shrugged. “Money has no actual value here, but humans still like trading it for stuff. Force of habit I guess.”

“So they just hoard gold coins for no reason?”

“I mean, they can trade them amongst themselves, or sometimes a reaper can find ways to get the coins back,” Cartman said, “But mostly? Yeah.”

Cartman went to investigate the painter’s shop, and looked deep in thought, trying to decide between two sets of paint. Kyle, with aching arms, decided to take the opportunity to wander away in search of a cart of some sort. He left his books by Cartman’s feet. Instead of asking, he kind of just...took a few coins from the purse in Cartman’s basket. Cartman was too distracted to notice as he squinted at the paint label, holding it up to the meager light to inspect.

Kyle wandered down the street, coming to a fountain which was surrounded by a cul-de-sac of more indeterminate shops. The fountain dribbled a gentle stream of bubbling water. Standing on the edge of the fountain was the spirit of a young boy. The boy was reading off a piece of paper in his hands, his voice projected to an audience of no one. Kyle’s eyes narrowed. The boy’s voice was soft and even, almost feminine.

The announcements were for menial things of people Kyle didn’t know—so and whoever sewed a new dress, someone built a new desk for their house. Kyle couldn’t stop listening, somehow. There was some nagging feeling in the back of his mind.

Kyle took a closer look at the boy. He couldn’t have been older than eight or nine years old. His hair was a neatly parted bed of curls, his face covered almost entirely in a motley of freckles. Kyle noticed the translucence of the spirits dulled their natural colors, and they all held an almost blueish glow to them, so he couldn’t tell what color the boy’s hair was.

Kyle racked his brain for why the appearance of this boy was bothering him so much. Well...it wasn’t his appearance...it was more his voice? Where had Kyle heard that voice before…

"Gordon Stoltski,” Kyle whispered in disbelief. He felt a sudden clench in his heart, a jolt of horror.

Upon hearing his name, the boy looked up. Kyle almost couldn’t stand to look into his eyes, wide and innocent. Kyle couldn’t speak; he stood silently. Gordon didn’t say anything, but he brightened up when he noticed he was being watched. He quickly looked down to his paper, crumpling its corner in his eagerness to start over, to give his morning announcements again now that he knew he was being listened to.

So Kyle stood, and he watched. When Gordon finished again, he smiled brightly at Kyle. With a shaky hand, Kyle simply waved at him, then turned tail and fled the cul-de-sac, leaving Gordon to his business.

Kyle walked briskly down the street. He felt sick.

“Kyle! What kind of brushes do you want?”

Kyle looked up. He almost jolted from the appearance of the reaper, until he took in its short stature, and realized it was only Cartman. Cartman was holding two bundles of paintbrushes.

“Kyle?”

Kyle tried to take a deep breath, but when he exhaled, it came out as a sob. Cartman stiffened, he dropped the brushes on the counter and rushed up to Kyle. His head swiveled around, as if he were looking for something. He gripped Kyle’s elbows and tugged him along, and Kyle was helpless but to follow.

Cartman tucked them away into a narrow alley between two buildings, blocked from sight of the street. There was hardly a foot of space between them, but Kyle was too numb at the moment to realize. Cartman tugged off his own mask, dropping it on the ground. When he looked at Kyle, his big honey-gold eyes were swimming with worry. He reached up to tug off Kyle’s mask, Kyle’s hood falling as he did.

“What the hell happened?” Cartman glanced up and jumped, his voice panicked. “Shit! Kyle, what happened?”

Kyle’s voice was trapped somewhere in his throat. His vision was blurry. His body felt weak, shivery, his head spinning. He kept hearing it. How could he have forgotten—

“Hey, hey, Kyle—” It was Cartman. “Just, fuck, um—” Cartman fumbled, searching Kyle’s face. “F-follow my breathing. C’mon Kyle, in and out.”

Cartman’s breathing slowed. Somewhere, his hands had come to hold Kyle’s. He gently lifted their linked hands on the inhale, lowered them on the exhale. Kyle’s fingers twitched around Cartman’s. He stared deeply into Cartman’s eyes, not really seeing them until the third exhale, when the fog in his mind began to dissipate, when the memories were tamped down.

Kyle gripped Cartman’s hands tighter, shutting his eyes to take a deep breath on his own.

“What happened?”

Kyle opened his eyes. He swallowed thickly.

“I...I saw someone I knew.”

“Oh.” Cartman blinked. “Okay.”

“I knew him when I was a kid. I snuck into his town. There were a bunch of kids being tutored and I sat with them. Gordon—he was a servant of the home, he always brought messages.” Kyle squeezed Cartman’s hands, Cartman squeezed back, still quiet. “One day, uh, Gordon had just left the room, and we could hear it, from the windows. He was—oh gods— someone was killing him. And no one did anything. He was...he was just a kid—”

“Kyle!”

Kyle looked up, his cheeks felt wet.

“You saw him,” Cartman said firmly, “You saw Gordon. He’s fine now. He’s been fine.”

“But he’s still dead—”

“All humans die, Kyle. All of them. And they all end up here, doing the thing they love for the rest of eternity. He’s fine.”

Kyle sighed. Their linked hands dropped to their sides. Cartman let go, and Kyle almost found it in himself to miss the feeling.

“Are you good?” Cartman asked. “‘Cause I kind of just left all of our stuff unattended back there.” Cartman picked up their masks from the floor. Putting on his own before handing over Kyle’s. The weird cold sensation when Kyle put it on wasn’t as bad as the first time, thankfully.

“Oh, yeah, like anyone here is gonna steal it.” Kyle’s voice wavered, but he pushed himself through it. He felt the blooms on his wreath begin to dissipate. Curious, he plucked one. He never knew what color the cypress would grow as. Kyle held the flower between his fingers. White. He let it drop to the floor, continuing on his way to follow Cartman back to the painter’s shop.

“Why did you even run off in the first place? You do realize I’m getting all this shit to keep you entertained, right?”

Kyle rolled his eyes. He suddenly remembered what he’d planned on doing before he was distracted.

“And how many arms do we have between the two of us to carry all this shit?”

Cartman rolled his eyes.

“So you decided to go find a cart or something? You just conveniently forgot that I’m the only one who knows the way around here?”

Kyle blushed, grateful for the mask. Cartman took his silence as a victory.

“Shut the fuck up, fatass.”

“Ay! I’m not fat, flowerboy!”

Chapter Text

The walk back to Cartman’s room was comfortable, punctuated with light chatter and the rolling of the wooden wheelbarrow Cartman found. He made Kyle push the wheelbarrow, claiming he “needed to get in touch with his reaper energies so they can find their way back.” Kyle called bullshit. Cartman asked him which of them knew the way around hell.

Kyle didn’t let Cartman win, but he knew his silence and eye rolling was taken as a victory anyways.

Somehow, the room seemed...homier, after they’d unloaded the wheelbarrow. Kyle’s colorful fantasy novels sat snugly in an empty shelf underneath Cartman’s cookbooks. The bright green quilt, neatly folded, sat stark against the unmade black sheets. Kyle’s easel and canvases were set at the foot of the fireplace, his paints resting on the mantle below the mounted bow.

The wheelbarrow was left propped next to the door, and Cartman’s basket of dates and potatoes was on the kitchen counter. Cartman had wandered off to the kitchen to start putting them away, leaving Kyle to his own devices.

Kyle was curious, though, about Cartman’s kitchen. He was still trying to wrap his head around the concept of plants in the Underworld. Plus, Cartman didn’t look like the type to cook. And Kyle, as he leant over the counter, said so.

“Well,” Cartman muttered, his face pointedly buried in his pantry, “Hobbies, I guess.”

“What made you want to start cooking?” Kyle asked.

“I—fucking….” Cartman looked conflicted. Finally, he huffed sourly. “Look, will you just go do something? I didn’t buy you shit for it to sit around and look pretty.”

“What’s your fucking problem?” Kyle frowned.

“Nothing is my fucking problem, Kahl." Cartman snapped, “Now will you just let me bake in goddamned peace?”

Something about the way Cartman’s whole body had tensed, his shoulders raising, his voice strained, had reminded Kyle of an angry cat. Kyle muttered below his breath, too low for Cartman to hear, as he turned to walk to the bookshelf. He bitterly mocked Cartman, mouthing out an exaggerated pantomime of his words. If Kyle didn’t have a book in his hand, he was certain he would have also started opening and shutting his fingers like a mouth.

Without anywhere else to sit, Kyle stiffly walked towards the bed, his book against his chest like a shield. He unfolded his new blanket and sat on top of it, scooting backwards to lean against the wall. He faced the kitchen directly, in that way. He cracked open his book, but every so often, his eyes would quickly dart to Cartman, and then away again.

Cartman was making something, obviously. It looked elaborate. Every time Kyle glanced up, Cartman had something new in his hands. He was darting back and forth between what Kyle thought was a ludicrous number of bowls, with bottles and baskets scattered about the generous counter space.

Cartman was stirring what looked like a yellow batter when his hand suddenly jerked. A glob of batter splashed up onto his hand. He stopped.

“I...uh,” Cartman said, his voice wavering. He hesitated.

“...I didn’t mean to yell before.”

The statement sat between them for a moment.

“Oh,” Kyle said. He blinked, watching the rising pink on the tips of Cartman’s ears. He realized two things, in that moment: that was probably the closest he’d get to an apology from Cartman, and Kyle was very quickly growing fond of the way Cartman blushed.

The quiet hovered over their shoulders for another beat. Cartman’s fingers tightened around his spoon, which still sat unmoving in the bowl.

“I guess I shouldn’t have pushed it, either,” Kyle said with finality. At once, Cartman’s body relaxed, and he went back to stirring his batter.

Before Kyle went back to his book, he saw Cartman raise his hand to his face, and Kyle watched, transfixed, as Cartman’s pink tongue darted out to lap the dollop of batter off of his skin. The movement was quick, and soft, and Kyle could only tear his eyes away when Cartman turned around to grab a bottle of something from the pantry.

And thus, the time passed by. Kyle was able to make it a good chunk of the way through his book—which wasn’t the best he’d ever read, but it was passable. And Cartman had poured his batter into trays and set them in the kiln to bake. He’d moved on to mixing together something else in a bowl.

By this point, Kyle had gotten pretty bored of his book and instead decided to watch Cartman’s practiced motions, so smooth with repetition they bordered on elegance.

Kyle set his book down on the nightstand next to the bed and walked over to the kitchen. He leaned against a miraculously empty spot of counter, his eyes trained on the way Cartman poured and measured and cut various ingredients.

“What are you even making?” Kyle asked. Cartman didn’t miss a beat when he responded.

“Pomegranate mousse cake,” he said without looking up.

Kyle continued to quietly watch him. Cartman had set a bowl over a small, contained fire and whisked it vigorously. Cartman stood whisking for so long Kyle wondered how he had the patience. Cartman watched the mixture like a hawk, periodically lifting the whisk into the air to check the consistency. The liquid had started to thicken, after a while.

Soon, Cartman lifted the bowl from the flame and maneuvered it onto the counter in front of Kyle. The steaming bowl smelled heavenly, and combined with the smell of cake, still baking in the kiln, Kyle’s jaw ached miserably.

Cartman dipped just the tip of his finger into the bowl to taste the mixture, and Kyle tracked the movement with both bitter envy and a flash of warmth in his gut. Cartman’s pink little tongue made its appearance once again, but this time, was followed by a tight frown.

Cartman gave a little huff through his nose. He poured a little of the pinkish mixture into another, smaller bowl. Kyle just. Looked at both the bowls. A stream of pink dripped down the side of one of the bowls. Kyle watched the dollop as it rolled down its slow path. Now that Kyle was closer, he could make out the pomegranate and sugar in the mix.

Then, the clatter of bottles shocked Kyle out of his reverie. He stood up from where he’d been leaning over the counter. Cartman was back, and there was a mess of bottles and pouches in between them. Cartman was looking at the bottles, opening them at what appeared to be random, before discarding them into different, neat piles. Kyle couldn’t see any order to it, but Cartman was intently focused on his task.

He started mixing different ingredients into the test bowl, periodically tasting, and then tossing the mixture into a wastebin when it didn’t please him.

“What are you doing?” Kyle asked, a little mournfully at the bowls of sweet pomegranate that were being thrown away one after the other.

“The pomegranate curd doesn’t fucking taste right,” Cartman said, through gritted teeth. He hadn’t looked up at Kyle, instead mixing a whiteish powder into the bowl. “I don’t know what I’m missing…what if I…” Cartman began mumbling to himself.

Unthinkingly, Kyle reached forward into the main bowl. He scooped up some of the curd onto his fingertip, bringing it to his lips the same as Cartman had. He rolled around the taste on his tongue.

“Lemon."

Cartman froze.

“What did you say?” he asked slowly.

“Have you tried adding lemon?” Kyle shrugged. “There was lemon in the last pomegranate dish I had,” Kyle added, remembering the little tarts that had been offered to his mother recently.

“You—” Cartman gasped, “You fucking genius.”

Cartman darted to the other side of the kitchen, rummaging through a few drawers, coming back to the counter with a lemon and a grater. Kyle watched as the yellow flakes fluttered into the bowl and were quickly mixed in. Cartman reached down to taste.

His finger slipped out of his mouth with a pop and a gasp.

“That’s it!” Cartman exclaimed, breathless. “That’s fucking it!”

Before Kyle realized what had happened, he’d had an armful of Cartman.

“I can’t believe it—it tastes perfect.”

Kyle looked down at Cartman’s big, gold eyes, wide with awe. Cartman’s hands gripped at Kyle’s forearms in his excitement.

Kyle couldn’t help but grin down at him, caught up in the moment. Cartman dropped Kyle’s arms, turning to trot back into the kitchen, eagerly talking to himself. He took the cake out of the kiln, setting the steaming dessert onto the counter. He’d just grabbed a knife when he froze.

“Wait…”

All of a sudden, the atmosphere grew cold. Cartman’s expression had melted into one of sheer horror. He set the knife on the counter with shaking hands.

“Did you just…” He turned to Kyle, slowly. His fearful gaze met Kyle’s. Kyle’s gasp was ice in his lungs.

Both of them stared at one another, the realization settling around them with a vicelike grip.

Kyle had just eaten something from the Underworld.

Chapter Text

Kyle felt lightheaded.

“I….” Kyle looked down at his hands, as if he could see the life draining from them. His skin was clammy, pale; he was trembling.

“Maybe it doesn’t count!” Cartman cried, his voice high. “I... shit— most of my ingredients were from the mortal realm, so maybe it doesn’t count.”

Kyle tried to control his breathing, but he felt disgustingly dizzy all of a sudden.

“You didn’t even eat anything,” Cartman tried again, his voice still desperate, “You just—tasted it. That can’t be all it needs!”

Words swirled in Kyle’s mind. All of the books he’d read, the research he’d done.

Eating the food of the Underworld damns the soul. He...he was…

“I’m stuck here— with you.” Kyle snarled, angry tears at the corners of his eyes. He turned with vicious intent, stalking towards Cartman.

“No—no, Kyle please,” Cartman pleaded, “I can fix this! Just calm down!”

That was the wrong thing to say.

“Calm down? You’re telling me to calm down?” Kyle’s voice started to raise. He’d backed Cartman into the counter, its edge digging into his back. Kyle’s fists twitched at his sides. The vines on his wreath had started to spread, growing down to circle around his throat, climbing down his arms, the dense vines of poison ivy, and the bright, dangerous red blooms of the castor oil flowers dotted his expanse of his skin.

Kyle’s eyes were immediately drawn to Cartman’s throat. His hands raised, fingers outstretched, thorns on his fingertips like talons. He was only moments away from striking when his vision suddenly turned black. Kyle reeled back, his hands clawing at his eyes. There was a strip of cold gripping at his face. As he struggled, more of Cartman’s shadows had slithered up his arms, worming under his vines, tearing at the surface of his skin with their rough texture, twisting around his hands, forcing them to spread out at his sides.

Kyle fought against the restraints, his muscles straining with the pull, his vines started to wither around him, and yet he continued to fight, thrashing like an animal.

“Kyle!”

Instead of a response, Kyle just growled, baring his teeth.

“Calm down! We can’t do anything about this shit unless you do!” Cartman’s breaths were labored. “I want to help you!”

“Why?” Kyle spat, his jaw clenched, molars gnashing.

“Because I fucking like you, dumbass!” Cartman’s words rushed out of him all at once. “I thought we were getting along!”

The words didn’t register immediately. But there was something in Kyle’s mind that was telling him to listen. His struggling began to slow as the words began to sink in.

“Will you let me be your fucking friend,” Cartman’s words were barely a whisper, an angry statement hissed into the air.

Eventually, Kyle stilled. His anger, his hurt, still simmered under the surface, the adrenaline bubbling in his veins. The poison ivy and castor oil vines moved as he breathed, slithering and dragging over his skin.

Then, the shadow over his eyes was gone. Kyle’s eyes only needed to adjust for a moment. His vision slid back into focus. Cartman stood in front of him, eyes wide.  

“...you okay?” Cartman’s voice was quiet, hesitant.

Kyle’s lip twitched. He slowed his breathing, his chest filling with air. With every exhale, the vines began to recede, inching back just a little bit more with every breath.

“...let’s go with that.”

Cartman looked at Kyle warily, before slowly unwrapping the shadows from Kyle’s arms. Without their support, Kyle fell forward, his limbs weak and limp. Cartman rushed forward to catch him, easing them both onto the floor.

Kyle needed something to focus on. Cartman’s gloved hands were warm on his arms, a tense grip. Once Kyle was aware of the sensation, the pressure on his skin, he also became aware of the stinging. Kyle hissed. Looking down, he saw his arms were covered in rough abrasions, the surface of his skin scraped as if he’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper.

Cartman’s eyes were also on his arms.

“...Uh…sorry about that…” Cartman muttered, slowly drawing his hands back.

“I mean, I was trying to kill you.” Kyle shrugged, trying to ease the tension. He looked down at his injuries and took a deep breath, focusing his energy, bringing it, bubbling, to the top of his skin. His power ran over his arms like a cool salve, and Kyle sighed as he felt it begin to heal him. After a few moments, Kyle’s arms were as pristine as ever, injuries vanished.

“Woah, dude…” Cartman said quietly, his eyes wide.

Kyle opened his mouth to say something, but his words fizzled out. Cartman’s hands were back, this time gently brushing against Kyle’s healed arms. The touch was featherlight, enough to make Kyle shiver. Kyle felt the seam of Cartman’s gloves tracing a line up his forearm, where the biggest scrape once was.

Cartman leaned down, inspecting Kyle’s skin. Kyle could feel the brush of his bangs, the light puffs of his breath.

“Uh, yeah.” Kyle didn’t try to move his arm, but his voice seemed to jolt Cartman.

“That’s, uh, cool.” Cartman guiltily retracted his hands, unable to meet Kyle’s eyes. His ears were pink again.

They went quiet. They both started to fidget, looking around awkwardly.

“So, I guess we should, like, go try and fix your thing.” Cartman cleared his throat.

“Yeah, you…” Kyle paused for a moment, thinking back, “...you said something about fixing it.”

Both of them were careful not to mention it by name. Even the indirect reference was sharp, though, a sting between Kyle’s eyes.

“Yeah.” Cartman swallowed, slowly standing, wiping the dust from his tunic. “We should probably...talk to my boss.” Cartman spat the last phrase with a shudder. Whether out of of fear or disgust, Kyle couldn’t tell.

“Wait, which boss?”

“What? Oh— oh! Yeah, don’t worry; just the reaper boss.” Cartman scratched the back of his neck, looking uncomfortable. “Though, that doesn’t mean he’s much better.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Kyle asked coming to a stand in front of Cartman.

“He’s just a douche,” Cartman said flippantly. He turned to the kitchen. He started cleaning up as he spoke. It was only then Kyle realized the cake was still sitting innocently on the counter. “He always acts like he’s your friend, but it’s seriously bullshit. He’s still my boss, yanno? He’s trying to wring me of my labor, not take me out to dinner.”

“So he’s too nice to you?” Kyle took his spot against the counter again, casually leaning over it while Cartman tutted around the kitchen.

“He’s not nice; he just pretends he’s nice. It’s not like he gives us any vacation days.” Cartman put the naked yellow cake on a tray and covered it. He scooped the pomegranate curd into a jar. “He’s just...unsettling. Like, you know he’s had wet dreams about killing you before or some shit.”

“Ew, dude—sick!”

“I’m not kidding, Kahl,” Cartman insisted, “When we meet him you’ll see.”

“Oh gods…” Kyle realized he’d have to reveal himself to Cartman’s boss. The overseer of the reapers of the Underworld. “What’s gonna happen when we get to him?”

Cartman had finished cleaning, and was looking around for his mask when Kyle asked.

“I’unno, probably passive aggressively threaten taking away the pay he doesn’t give me?”

“I meant about my...you know.”

Cartman froze with a quiet ‘oh.’ His mask was in his hands, his cloak secured around his throat.

“I...I don’t know.”

“What’s gonna happen to you?”

Cartman looked away. He put his mask to his face before rushing past Kyle to grab a second one.

“Just...put your shit back on.” Cartman shoved a mask and cloak back into Kyle’s arms.

The walk out of the room was tense. The hallways were just as dark as ever. Kyle stared at Cartman, who hurried to walk in front of him, with a stiff, awkward gait. Impulsively, Kyle surged forward, putting his hand on Cartman’s shoulder.

Cartman’s mask tipped up to face Kyle.

“I still can’t see anything, fatass,” Kyle said simply. Cartman paused for only a moment before continuing to walk. They took a few steps before Kyle let his arm slip from Cartman’s shoulder down his arm. The cloak slipped open easily, just a little, for Kyle to slide his hand into Cartman’s. Neither of them mentioned it.

The walk to Cartman’s boss was both too long and too short all at once. It felt like they’d taken a thousand steps, but the trip was only half a minute. They stood in front of the most intimidating set of doors Kyle had ever seen—massive, dark black wood, carved with figures of the dead, screaming in agony. The torches on the walls glowed an unnatural deep red. The lack of yellow in the flames threw blood-like reflections onto the surrounding surfaces.

Kyle’s attention was diverted from the doors, however, when Cartman walked them towards another little gray box on the wall. Cartman stamped his card and put it into the slot on top of the box.

“Well. That breaks the atmosphere, doesn’t it?” Kyle said, referring to the nonthreatening box.

“Boss has absolutely no sense of aesthetics,” Cartman said, the grin evident in his voice, despite the waver in his words.

The doors opened with a deep, warbling groan, like a great animal on its deathbed. The room inside didn’t emanate any light. When Kyle looked in, his eyes strained to take in anything but pure darkness.

Kyle felt Cartman squeeze his hand.

Then, they walked forward.

They walked exactly six paces, in the most suffocating darkness Kyle had ever experienced. In those six paces, the only thing that felt real was Cartman’s hand in his own.

Then, in a flash, the room was alight in a warm, comfortable gold.

The hallway opened into a room. There was a red rug in the center of the floor—that was the first thing Kyle had noticed. His eyes were on his feet when he saw the soft, expensive looking material. Then he looked up, and there was a desk, in the same black as the doors, only looking less menacing in the bright, yellow-orange torchlight. There were two plush chairs in front of the desk, and as Kyle looked around, wide-eyed, he noticed a bookshelf, a glass display shelf with brightly colored knickknacks, several paintings of landscapes on the walls. There was also a vase on the desk, with a single nightshade flower.

“Welcome, Cartman.” A deep, smooth voice echoes around the room, surrounding Kyle from all sides. Despite the booming power behind the voice, it still had a gentle tone. “What brings you to my office?”

Kyle looked at the being behind the desk. He was massive, easily towering over the both of them, with muscles that bulged even as he sat comfortably in his ergonomic chair. His skin was a blood red, his eyes an unnaturally piercing yellow, sunken, rimmed in black. Tusks protruded from his underbite, easily the length of Kyle’s entire arm, and goat’s horns extended from either side of his head, twice as long and filed to a point.

“I…” Cartman’s voice shook. “I need your help—sir.”

“Of course.” The boss’s voice was warm, friendly, even, but there was something about the way that hand gestured to the chairs, too measured, the long claws at the ends of his fingers glinting in the light.

“Now, will you introduce me to your friend here? Is your problem with them?” The boss asked.

“Yes, uh…I…” Cartman’s voice was tight. “I…”

“Before anything, though,” the boss interrupted, “You know it’s impolite to wear your masks in my office.” The voice chided gently, but there was an implication underneath the boss’s words that made Kyle shudder.

Cartman looked over at him, his grip on Kyle’s hand like iron. With his other, he took off his mask. His copper-gold eyes were wide with terror.

“And your friend?” The boss didn’t look at Kyle; he didn’t need to.

Kyle hesitated. He looked at Cartman, who just stared right back, helpless.

“I’m waiting.” The boss rapped his claws on the wood, his voice still too gentle.

With shaking hands, Kyle reached up to his mask. He gripped the side of it.

“He’s actually why I’m here—” Cartman blurted. “I may have accidentally, uh—”

Kyle took the mask off.

The soft smile on the boss’s face froze, then slowly melted into something unreadable, tense.

“You.”

The boss’s voice echoed in Kyle’s skull; his eardrums vibrated with the heavy, booming bass. The boss looked directly at Kyle, with his searing yellow gaze, his pinprick black pupils narrowing in through Kyle’s very soul.

“So you’re the one I’ve been hearing so much about.”

“P-please, Boss,” Cartman stammered, “Mr. Satan, sir—”

The boss’s eyes swung to Cartman like the arc of an axe.

“And you.” The boss’s laugh sounded like thunder, muffled underwater.   “I have plans for you.”

“Am...am I in trouble?” Cartman’s voice was a tiny, fragile thing. He’d curled up in his chair, his knees at his chest, his hand in a vice grip around Kyle’s.

“TROUBLE?” The boss laughed, his head thrown back. The furniture shook around them with the force of his bellow. When he looked back at Cartman, he grinned, with every one of his razor teeth gleaming. “Of course not!”

The omnipresent quality to the boss’s voice had disappeared, leaving him back to the friendly tones of before. Kyle felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room suddenly, leaving him dizzy, lightheaded. Cartman seemed to feel the same, considering the dazed look on his blanched face.

“I...what?” It sounded less of a sentence, and more of a breathy sound of general perplexity. Cartman’s lips remained parted, dumbly, as he stared at his boss.

“You brought our little friend down here to us!” The boss continued, jovially. “In fact! You’re getting a promotion!”

“A promotion?” Cartman parroted. He stared at his smiling boss before shaking out of it. “No—I want to get him out of here!”

“Get him out? Oh no, Cartman, we wouldn’t want that,” the boss laughed, “Now you go run along and do whatever you’ve been doing.” He started ushering them to stand, beginning to push them out of his office. “And while you’re at it, I’m gonna throw in a few vacation days for you too! You deserve it! This company really owes it to you! Go have fun! Goodbye now!”

Then, the big black doors slammed shut behind them.

Kyle and Cartman just. Stood there. Blinking as they tried to process what had just happened.

“What the fuck did that all mean?” Cartman asked.

Chapter Text

They walked back to their room in a confused stupor. Cartman kept mumbling to himself, his brow furrowed. They hadn’t been able to pick up their masks before they were shoved out of the office, so Kyle was able to see the frustrated little expressions Cartman was making. Though Kyle was sure he looked just as perplexed.

Their room was a warm, welcoming thing when compared to the boss’s office, which was distant and foreboding even when nicely decorated.

All Kyle wanted to do was curl up with his new quilt and take a long nap. He thought, for a second, that was what they were going to do, because Cartman made a beeline towards the bed the instant they were in the room. Instead of laying down, though, he let go of Kyle’s hand—which, Kyle hadn’t even realized they were still holding hands—and started rummaging through the nightstand next to the bed.

Kyle stood, feeling a little useless, his hands cold.

“What are you doing?”

Cartman emerged from the nightstand drawer with a notebook and a pen. His face was pinched with a vague annoyance.

“Since boss is being a damn pain,” Cartman said, “I have to call in a favor.”

He sat down on the bed, cross-legged, and flipped through the pages of the leatherbound notebook. Kyle noticed the pages upon pages of writing in the old thing. He wondered what was in it, but couldn’t catch what anything said before Cartman finally found an empty page about four-fifths of the way through. He hunched over, pen in hand, and began to write furiously.

“Can you pass me an envelope?” Cartman asked. He’d sat up for a moment to stretch out his wrist.

Kyle nodded and opened the nightstand drawer. He rummaged around, taking in what he saw, unable to help himself. It seemed to be mostly pens and ink and many, many notebooks. Their creased spines and folded pages indicated they were all full. Kyle itched to read through one, but then his eye caught on a bundle of envelopes, and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing.

Kyle handed Cartman one of the envelopes. It was simple, white, and instead of sealing it properly, Cartman just folded the lip through a little slot in the paper. Kyle frowned. He always enjoyed sealing his letters with wax. He wondered if Cartman simply didn’t have the supplies to do so. Maybe he’d ask if they could go into town again soon.

Kyle heard a defeated sigh, and his eyes darted back up to Cartman’s face.

“Now, uh, we have to...wait.”

“For what?”

“Well, we can’t get out of hell to deliver this,” Cartman said, “So we have to—”

Both of them were startled by a knock at the door.

Cartman leapt out of the bed, the envelope creasing in his hand. Before he could even made it to the door, it opened.

Kyle was expecting, say, a reaper, or a spirit, or even Cartman’s boss.

He was not expecting a satyr.

The satyr was at least a head taller than Kyle, broad-shouldered with a trim waist. His defined muscles were easily seen, due to the fact that, aside from a thick sash tied around his hips for modesty, he wore no clothing. He had a strong jaw, a glowing smile of straight white teeth, and a shock of sunshine-blonde hair. His horns curved close to his skull, and the coarse fur on his powerful legs was a light brown. His eyes were a powder blue, though one was lighter than the other, with a faded scar running over it.

Somehow, seeing him put Kyle on edge.

“Well hiya, fellas!” The satyr waved his hand in a grand arc. His voice was so joyful Kyle wanted to hurl.

The satyr looked at Cartman, his friendly smile still affixed to his face. When his eyes raked over to Kyle, a dangerous glint passed over them, making Kyle shudder.

“Well, golly, Evan.” The satyr approached Cartman and enveloped him in a big hug. “It’s been a hot minute!”

“Still not my name,” Cartman mumbled. His face was squished against the satyr’s chest, his hands twitching at his sides, his cheeks turning pink.

“I’ll get it one day—just you wait!” The satyr laughed, ruffling Cartman’s hair, which earned him a sharp rebuke. The satyr took it in stride, ignoring Cartman’s anger as easily as one would ignore a bratty kitten.

Kyle cleared his throat, getting the satyr’s attention.

“Oh! Where are my manners!” The satyr left Cartman’s side to approach Kyle. He offered his hand. “Everyone calls me Butters!” His grip was almost too firm around Kyle’s hand, like a reminder. “And you must be Kyle!”

“You know me?” Kyle’s eyes narrowed.

“Of course! You’re the one who’s set off armageddon!” Butters said, “Your mom’s gone berserk! Humans are being attacked by their own farms—it’s like attack of the killer tomatoes up there!”

Kyle’s face paled.

“H-how long have I been gone?” Kyle had...how could he have forgotten about his mother.

“Oh, about a week,” Butters’s easy reply twisted a knife into Kyle’s gut, and Butters had the gall to continue—”Or maybe two! It’s so hard to keep track of time!”

“Oh gods,” Kyle hissed, his eyes wide in horror. His mother freaked when Kyle was gone for an hour. “Can you tell her where I am?”

And Butters...just laughed. He laughed right in Kyle’s face. He threw his head back and laughed boisterously, as if Kyle told a hilarious joke.

When his chuckles calmed down, he wiped a tear from his eye, and looked at Kyle with a dark look in his eye.

“Now, why would I do a thing like that?”

Kyle spluttered incredulously.

“There’s nothing but chaos up there!” Butters grinned, “My mentor is ecstatic!”

Kyle’s jaw dropped.

“You…” Kyle said, “You’re an apprentice of Eris?”

Butters grinned.

“Sort of—apprentice to her apprentice,” Butters said, “But heir to her throne nonetheless.”

Kyle’s skin crawled. Before either of them could say anything more, Cartman interrupted them. He’d marched right up to Butters—heir to the throne of chaos, by the gods—and grabbed at his arm to try and wrench him around. Cartman’s hand looked so tiny compared to Butters’s sculpted biceps. Kyle’s eyes narrowed at the point of contact. He crossed his arms tight against his chest. He didn’t trust this guy.

“Butters!” Cartman held out the envelope. “I need a favor.”

“Oh! Ethan! Anything for you!” Butters’s eyes slunk over to Kyle for a moment. “But you know I don’t do anything for free.”

“That’s still not my name,” Cartman said quickly, it sounded habitual at this point. He continued. “I was making pomegranate mousse cake, but I didn’t get to finish. I’ve still got some leftover lemon squares, or I could make some cookies really quick—”

Butters interrupted Cartman with another laugh. His eyes crinkled with mirth. He covered Cartman’s hand, which was still on his upper arm, with his own. Cartman’s eyes darted down to where Butters’s hand clasped his. He then, for whatever reason, looked back at Kyle. His ears were pink again.

“That’s okay; I’m not hungry right now.” Butters’s little smile looked downright predatory. Kyle saw a visible shudder go down Cartman’s spine as Butters leered down at him. Kyle couldn’t see Cartman’s face.

“I want something else from you~” Butters mimicked as if he were thinking hard, resting his elbow on his hand, using his other to tap at his temple.

“Butters, what are you—”

“I want…” Butters’s sang, “...a kiss.”

Kyle felt his eye twitch.

“Are you kidding me?” Kyle snapped, “Humans are dying and you’re just fucking around? We have more important things to do here!”

Butters ignored him. Cartman’s ears were bright red. Kyle made to move forward, but a nervous look from Cartman stopped him. Now he stood perpendicular to the pair, like an outsider. Or a third wheel.

“C’mon Eli,” Butters said playfully. He leaned down an inch, inclining his head to the side, tapping his cheek with his fingertip. “Just one lil’ kiss, right here.”

“...that’s not my name,” Cartman mumbled, his voice strained. Butters didn’t lean down far enough, and Cartman was forced to stand up on his toes. He rested his hands on Butters’s shoulders for support, his eyes closed.

At the last second, before Cartman could make contact with Butters’s cheek, Butters moved his head, his hands shooting out to grip at Cartman’s hips—their lips collided.

Kyle swore he saw red. They—they didn’t have time for this bullshit—

Kyle’s entire brain crashed into a wall spectacularly when Cartman made a soft, sweet keening noise against Butters’s mouth. Butters’s hands tugged Cartman’s hips forward, Cartman’s tunic riding up on his thighs—thighs that Butters was now running his palms over. Cartman mewled.

Kyle’s face hurt from how hard he was screwing it into a glare. His fists clenched at his sides, a hot burning deep in his gut.

When Butters pulled away, Cartman blearily tried to follow him for a moment, but Butters’s strong hands held him in place.

“Are you done?” Kyle hissed.

Cartman jumped back, his face blazing red, his lips swollen and pink.

“You’re always so much sweeter than your cakes.” Butters plucked the envelope from Cartman’s hand. He smirked at Kyle. “I like your flowers, Kyle! Yellow is my favorite color!”

And then he was gone, with a wave goodbye and a friendly “See ya later, fellas!”

Kyle’s jaw clenched. He saw how his flowers had grown down around his collarbones, sitting on his shoulders like a snake. He’d glanced at them for a moment, but he couldn’t bring himself to remember what the hell French Marigolds stood for before he’d angrily vanished them.

Cartman couldn’t meet his eyes, and he shuffled around in place awkwardly. There was a silence that had shoved its way between them, making itself comfortable like an unwanted houseguest.

“So,” Kyle grit out, his arms crossed, “Are you two, like, a thing—”

“Oh no!” Cartman’s eyes widened. “No, no we’re not, I swear I’m seriously. He, he just likes to fuck with me.”

Kyle raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“C’mon! I’m seriously serious, Kahl!” Cartman’s voice rose to a flustered panic. “He’s a god of chaos, Kahl! He doesn’t actually like me like that!”

“Then how do you know he’s going to deliver your letter?”

“He gave me his word,” Cartman said, “He may be an agent of discord, but he’s still a god. Gods keep their word, Kyle; he promised. That...that was our deal.”

“Right. Deliver the letter in exchange for a kiss.”

Cartman flinched.

“Yeah…” Cartman mumbled, “He usually just eats something I’ve made, since, yanno, he can do whatever the fuck he wants. Hades can’t trap him down here. He’s never...I mean...it’s nothing, we’re nothing.”

“Fine…” Kyle forced himself to uncross his arms. “Why do you just let him do that, then?”

“He’s...he’s actually a really nice guy! He’s just...kind of a smartass, sometimes.” Cartman rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, he’s one of my only friends down here, you know?”

Kyle frowned.

“Are you sure he’s not pressuring you or anything?”

“No, he’s...uh, no it’s not that, uh,” Cartman stammered, “It’s...complicated. I, uh, sorry you had to see that.” Cartman tugged his tunic down over his thighs. Kyle’s eyes tracked the motion. “It was, uh, a really good coincidence he came, considering he’s like, one of only two people who ever see me on a semi-regular basis. He should get the letter delivered pretty quick.”

Kyle felt antsy. He wanted to change the subject. So he did.

“Do you want to, I don’t know, paint or something?” Kyle asked, gesturing to the new paints and canvases they’d bought.

Cartman’s entire body seemed to relax, grateful for the change in topic.

“Sure, let’s do that.”

Chapter Text

Painting was so therapeutic, even if Kyle had no fucking idea what he was doing. He’d made a dark mauve border around the canvas, dripped some paint in the middle, and he did that thing where he beat two brushes together to make little splatters. It actually looked kind of cool, in an abstract kind of way.

He just found the fan brush and was dragging it through all the wet paint. Eventually Kyle started to run out of space. If he kept adding colors or trying to blend them anymore, he’d probably end up with a big brownish-greenish blob. So he decided to just leave it for now.

Kyle started to dip his dirty brushes in the cups of water. He looked over to Cartman, who was leaning over his canvas in deep concentration. Kyle thought his canvas looked like a bunch of indistinct blobs. Cartman looked like he had a plan, though, unlike Kyle who had grabbed brushes and colors and random. Kyle started to watch him, curious.

Eventually, the picture started to come together. It wasn’t perfect by any means; in fact it looked pretty amateur, but at least Kyle could tell what it was meant to be, sort of.

The streaks of blue at the top made up a sky, with fluffy white clouds in the empty white space. The green blob at the bottom left was a bush of some sort, with what was either pink flowers or pink berries. Cartman was mixing the white with the light purple to make a soft lilac color, which he then used to start outlining something in the space next to the bush. 

Kyle leaned forward, a little, to watch. Cartman was painting in quick little strokes, a round bulb at the top of the figure.

“What is that?” Kyle asked. Cartman looked up with a pout. He leaned back to look at his canvas.

“It’s a bird, duh.”

“It looks more like the top of a palm tree, or a really unfortunate haircut.” Kyle grinned, squinting at the purple blob.

“Ay!” Cartman lightly hit Kyle’s arm with the back of his hand. “And what’s yours supposed to be? Baby vomit? A chariot accident?”

“It’s called abstract art.” Kyle lifted his hand from where he’s accidentally rested it on the wet paint. His palm was a motley of colors. He wiggled his fingers. “I’m expressing myself.”

“I can see that.” Cartman gestured to his face. “Your freckles are rainbow now.”

Kyle blinked, looking down his nose. Unthinkingly, he wiped at his face with his paint-covered hand, leaving a greenish streak across his cheek.

“Shit!” Kyle swore. Cartman was laughing at him, head thrown back, a hand over his stomach as he pointed with the other. Kyle smirked and lunged to his side to catch the side of Cartman’s jaw with his fingertips.

“Ay!” Cartman tried to fight Kyle off, but Kyle was persistent. He clambered over until he was almost in Cartman’s lap, trying to push his paint-covered hand onto Cartman’s face. Cartman lost his grip on Kyle’s wrist, and Kyle was able to put a matching handprint on the other side of Cartman’s face. Cartman squealed and shoved Kyle off of him. Kyle fell back on his ass, laughing. He covered his mouth with his clean hand, laughing so hard his eyes screwed closed.

Then, he felt a glob of something cold slide down his chin. Kyle opened his eyes to see Cartman brandishing a paintbrush like a sword, a dollop of dark blue dripping onto the floor from its bristles.

“Oh, so we’re playing dirty now, huh?” Kyle said. He reached for the brushes he’d set aside.

“You played dirty first, flowerboy!” Cartman retorted. He pushed their paintings aside to make space, and flung another glob of paint at Kyle, who braced himself with his arms, and now had a streak of blue on his elbow.

In retaliation, Kyle scooped up a blob of yellow paint onto his brush and hurled it towards Cartman. The yellow landed squarely in the center of his chest, smeared when he instinctively tried to wipe it with his hand. He dragged his newly-yellowed hand through the pallet he’d been using and dove forward towards Kyle. Kyle scooted back, and scrambled to his feet to run to the safety of the kitchen island.

Cartman was hot on his heels, chasing him around the kitchen with his paint-covered hand. Kyle had grabbed a bottle of paint on his way up, and used his brush to throw more blue paint at Cartman from behind him. Kyle was breathless, exhilarated, as he ran. He was looking behind him, aiming a blob of paint for Cartman’s hair, when he felt something cold spill over his head. Kyle spluttered. When he looked up, he saw a familiar vine of shadow and an overturned paint bottle above him.

“Cheater!”

Cartman only laughed.

“It’s on now!” Kyle yelled. It was war.

Once powers had been introduced, there were no survivors. Cartman whipped a barrage of pinks at Kyle’s back, and Kyle, in turn, used his vines to sneak some cold lime green down the back of Cartman’s tunic. Cartman’s screech was so worth the aquamarine he got in his mouth while he laughed.

Kyle was running from Cartman, again, dodging his attempts to fling blobs of white at him, when suddenly, his sandal slipped on a puddle of burgundy paint. Kyle yelped, tried to throw his arms out to catch himself, the stone floor quickly coming to meet, painfully, with his nose.

Kyle’s eyes clenched shut—but impact never came. When he cautiously opened an eye, he found himself just a hair's breadth away from the floor. If he wiggled his fingers, they’d brush against the ground. Kyle blinked. Suddenly, he was heaved back upright. When he looked down, he found a rope of shadow tightly coiled around his waist. Kyle looked back at Cartman, who still had a paintbrush in his outstretched hand.

“You okay?” Cartman asked.

“Yeah.” Kyle watched as the shadow unwrapped from around him, slinking gently as if it didn’t want to let go. “Thanks, dude.”

Now that they’d calmed down, Kyle finally got a good look at the state they’d left the room in, left each other in. There was paint everywhere. It covered the floor in messy puddles—Kyle noticed they’d both tracked footprints all over the ground. It was splattered on the walls, the kitchen counter, the side of the oven. Somehow, they’d avoided the side of the room with the wardrobe, bookshelf, and bed, so those were still perfectly clean from paint. The ceiling, somehow, wasn’t, though.

Kyle looked at Cartman. He was covered in paint. His once black tunic and gloves were a kaleidoscope of color. He had paint streaked on his face, his arms, his legs, his face. There was a stripe of lilac dripping down his hair. Kyle was sure he looked no better. He could feel the crunch of half-dried paint in his curls.

“Uh, is there anywhere we can wash this off?” Kyle asked, his skin already starting to itch from where the paint began to dry. His once-white tunic was absolutely wrecked.

Cartman looked down at himself. He grimaced.

“I...uh, yeah, there’s a bathhouse around here.” Cartman’s voice had a weird, tense quality to it.

“Well, let’s go,” Kyle said, making his way to the door. “I’m starting to realize there’s paint where paint definitely shouldn’t be and it’s itching like a motherfucker.”

Cartman caught up to him. They didn’t bother with the disguises, now that they realized everyone knew Kyle was there.

Cartman walked stiffly—though, so was Kyle, because of the paint. But there was something pinched about Cartman’s face, his eyebrows twitching under a layer of tangerine-orange.

As they began to walk down the hallway, the light at their back growing steadily dimmer, Kyle, almost unthinkingly, took Cartman’s hand in his own again. You know, because he couldn’t see. Cartman’s hand jerked in surprise, but Kyle held on firmly.

They approached the wall of portals again. Cartman signed in, and they shuffled through into another town, a different one from the first. As Kyle looked around, he noticed this one had less street shops, and more walk-in services and activities. There was a hotel, a theater, and, obviously, a bathhouse.

The bathhouse was a quiet little affair, with simple decor and a general feeling of cleanliness. There was one worker, an older looking spirit with deep laugh lines and crow’s feet. The bathhouse only had one section for bathing, instead of being segregated. Not that it mattered, since Cartman and Kyle were the only ones there—and would likely remain the only ones there.

They walked through the curtain into the bathing room. The ceilings were high, and there were large windows at least eight feet in the air to let in what would’ve been sunlight, if there was any. Instead, the room was well-lit with a sort of brightly glowing stone, which lined the walls and floor. The bath itself was in-ground, rectangular, and much smaller than Kyle expected—only four by six feet, if he were to guess. At the end of the bath was a small waterfall that emerged from the wall to keep the bathwater from going stagnant. There was a light layer of steam from the bath, filling the room like a gentle fog, not enough to obstruct any vision, but enough to feel like a warm blanket on the skin.

Next to the door where they were standing was a wooden rack with towels hanging over it, and a wicker basket of colorful soaps. Kyle, curious, picked up a soap to smell it. The smell wasn’t strong, but Kyle thought there might have been the barest hint of ginger. Kyle decided to take the soap, and a towel. He started walking towards the bath. Then he noticed Cartman hadn’t followed.

“You coming?” Kyle asked. When he looked back, Cartman was staring pointedly at the basket of soaps, his feet frozen to his spot in the doorway.

“I...uh…” Cartman tugged on the hem of one of his gloves. “Sure…”

Cartman bundled a towel and bar of soap into his arms, holding them over his chest.

Kyle put his stuff down and began to strip, starting with the laces of his sandals. He noticed Cartman sat at the opposite end of the bath, as far from Kyle as he could be without physically leaving the room. Kyle was slightly miffed, but he guessed there wasn’t anything wrong with being a little shy in their situation. They’d only known each other for, like, a week or so.

Kyle was never really ashamed of his body, so he was able to disrobe and lower himself into the water pretty quickly. He couldn’t help but groan aloud at how warm the water was. It felt incredible . Kyle let himself sink into the bath, leaning down so the water reached up to his neck. He let his eyes fall shut for a moment, his head leaning back against the tub rim. He knew he would have to start actually washing off the paint, but he just wanted to take a moment to relax. He hadn’t realized how much tension was in his muscles until the warm water just unraveled them.

Kyle felt something bump against his arm. He cracked an eye open and saw a little pink petal floating in the water—in fact, the water around Kyle was swimming with flower petals. Kyle picked up a bloom to inspect it. Sweet Pea. He must have been more stressed than he thought. Well, at least it made the room smell nice.

With his eyes open, Kyle caught sight of movement from his periphery. Unthinkingly, he looked over. His face instantly burst into flame when he realized he was staring at Cartman’s naked back. The tub obscured his lower half—thank the gods.

Cartman reached over to put something on the ground; Kyle realized it was his gloves. Then, with start, Kyle realized he had never seen Cartman without his gloves. Even when he cooked or slept, he wore them. Now, however, they were covered in paint, so he was forced to take them off.

Cartman turned slowly, his hands balled up against his chest.

“D-don’t fucking watch," Cartman screeched. Kyle noticed his blush had started to travel down his neck; he wondered how low it would—"Kahl!”

Kyle jerked his head away, his body creating ripples in the water. He staunchly kept his eyes on the waterfall at the other end of the bath. He felt the water move around him, displaced with the new weight.

Kyle took a deep breath, the scent of sweet pea in the air. He tried, desperately tried, to not imagine the scene which was most definitely behind him. He reached over the rim of the tub to grab his soap and began to lather it in his hands. Quietly, they began to clean themselves off, acutely aware of their proximity to one another in the rather small bath. If Kyle stretched his legs out against the length of the tub, he was sure he’d knock his feet into Cartman.

Unfortunately, Kyle realized there were no mirrors in the room, and the water was too clear to see his reflection—so Kyle had no idea if he’d gotten all the paint out of his hair and off of his face. That wasn’t even getting to the issue of the paint he knew was on his back.

And since Kyle was sure Cartman was in the same position as him, he sighed and steeled himself.

“Hey, Cartman?”

“...yeah?” Cartman’s voice was almost suspicious.

“Can you check to see if I got all the paint off?" 

“You—” Cartman choked, “You want me to what?”

Kyle’s face burned.

“I can’t see myself, dumbass. I don’t know if I got it off of my face.” Kyle tacked on: “Or my hair. Or back.”

Before Cartman could respond, Kyle turned around to face him.

The water came up to about an inch below Cartman’s collarbone. Kyle noticed immediately a splotch of purple on the underside of his jaw.

“See! This is what I mean,” Kyle said, moving forward before he could stop himself. “You missed a spot.” Kyle’s thumb wiped away the leftover paint, tilting Cartman’s head up slightly. Kyle heard the quiet hitch in Cartman’s breath. His hand froze when he realized where it was. His gaze caught on Cartman’s for the briefest second before he jerked his hand away.

“So...uh...am I good?” Kyle asked, trying to keep his eyes away from the pink that traveled down Cartman’s chest.

“Yeah, uh…” Cartman mumbled, “Except there’s, uh...here, just close your eyes.”

Kyle did so. He heard the water slosh around a bit as Cartman moved closer. One of Cartman’s knees bumped against Kyle’s. Kyle felt only the very tips of Cartman’s fingers on his face, his nails gently scraping over his cheek, his temple, the bridge of his nose.

“Are you even getting anything? Use the rest of your hand, dude.” Kyle cracked open an eye. Cartman snatched his hand away.

It might have been a trick of the steam, but Kyle could have sworn he saw something on Cartman’s palm, in that split second before he shoved it back under the water.

“What the hell, man,” Kyle said, confused. He opened his eyes fully. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“Uh, yeah, just...can you get my back first?”

“What? Why? Why can’t you just finish my face?”

“B-because, Kahl! It’ll go faster that way!”

Kyle rolled his eyes.

“Fine, you big baby.”

Cartman turned around. He still had some paint on his back he couldn’t reach. Kyle lathered his hands with soap. He hesitated, his hands hovering in the air, inches away from the smooth, pale expanse of Cartman’s naked skin.

“What are you waiting for?” Cartman muttered.

Kyle’s eyes flicked upwards, to the back of Cartman’s head. He decided to just go for it—and placed his palm on the back of Cartman’s shoulder. The skin was soft, warmer than the bath water. Kyle pressed his hand over a streak of green. Kyle washed away the paint on the area. He worked in small increments. He was...a little afraid of what he’d do if he let his hands spread wider, further.

He had gotten almost all of it off, when he noticed something. He thought it was white paint at first, then he put more pressure over it, rubbing a little harder. When it didn’t budge, he realized it couldn’t possibly be paint.

Over Cartman’s back were two, perfectly straight, vertical lines, perfectly parallel, about as thin as half the width of Kyle’s pinky and a foot long each.

“What are these?” Kyle asked, his vice quiet.

Cartman shivered.

“Nothing.” There was something decidedly final about the way Cartman spoke. Kyle decided not to push it this time.

They lapsed into silence. A sweet pea blossom floated by Cartman, and he touched it with a single finger, once, his hand curled into a fist, before letting it fall back into the water.

Kyle finished washing the paint off of Cartman’s back. Indulgently, he let his hands make a final trip from Cartman’s lower back, under the water, up to the base of his neck, letting his palms arc out against his shoulder blades, his soft, warm skin. Kyle almost hesitated, almost regretted, having to let go.

“Done.”

“Good,” Cartman’s voice sounded far away, “Now, uh, close your eyes again.”

Kyle rolled them first, but he obeyed. The water sloshed around them again, and Cartman’s fingertips were slowly scraping against his face again. The sensation made goosebumps erupt on Kyle’s skin.

“Use more of your hand, or we’re going to be here forever,” Kyle warned. Cartman’s hands stuttered, slightly.

Then, Kyle felt the flat side of Cartman’s thumb, almost rolled to its back. There was something rough about the skin on his hand, unlike the smooth plushness of the rest of his body. Cartman took forever, and Kyle was forced to bask in the feeling of his closeness, the soft sounds of frustration he made when he found another splotch of paint. When his nails skimmed down Kyle’s neck, Kyle’s shoulders scrunched up in a laugh.

“Ticklish?” Cartman asked, devilishly.

“Don’t you dare.”

Cartman just huffed out a quiet chuckle, before going back to finishing the paint off of Kyle’s front. His fingers rubbed against Kyle’s collarbone.

“Done.” Cartman’s voice was small, almost a whisper, as thin as the steam curling around them.

When Kyle cracked his eyes open, Cartman’s hands were safely back in the water. Kyle kept noticing the fact.

“Get my back?” Kyle wasn’t sure why he asked. That’s what they agreed to before—but there was something open, vulnerable in Cartman’s big honey eyes, made him want the confirmation again.

Cartman nodded, his thick bangs stuck to his forehead. Kyle almost pushed them away, before deciding against it, and turning around.

Kyle felt Cartman’s presence behind him, and his hands clenched. Cartman’s slow, almost exploratory, motions with his thumbs stirred something warm and sweet in Kyle’s gut. He felt as though he could melt back into Cartman’s hands.

Before he realized it, he was dozing off, sliding back dangerously into Cartman. Kyle was stopped and guided to sit back upright. It was only when he shook off his sleepy stupor that he realized—Cartman’s palms were flat against Kyle’s shoulder blades. And there was something off about them. They were gone before Kyle could really get a grasp on what, but texture was too strange, too rough.

The thought kept ringing in Kyle’s mind. He was wide awake now, hyper aware of the feel of Cartman’s skin, of the miniscule ridges that dragged over the sensitive parts of Kyle’s spine.

Cartman dumped some of the warm water onto Kyle’s back, washing away the last of the paint.

Kyle turned around to face him again.

“Cartman?” Kyle’s voice was inquisitive, but not demanding. Cartman’s gaze on him was fearful, still.

“Yeah?”

Kyle looked down into the water, where Cartman had balled up his fists against his stomach.

“Can I see your hands?”

Cartman shook his head, his arms pressing in more tightly against his body.

“Please?” Kyle tried again, his voice quiet and pleading; he hoped his sincerity came through in his voice, in his face.

Cartman searched Kyle’s face, his internal conflict clear in his doe eyes.

Kyle kept his posture open, nonthreatening.

“Just...don’t ask about it,” Cartman said, finally. He uncurled his arms, lifting them out of the water, palms down, still bundled into fists. Kyle glanced once at Cartman’s face, before reaching out to cradle his hands, guiding the motion as Cartman turned them over. They were trembling.

Cartman’s fingers unfurled.

Kyle inhaled sharply.

On the underside of Cartman’s hands were angry, irritated scars, red like burns. They were a thick, straight line over his palms, climbing up his fingers. The only part of his hands unscathed was the bottom third of his hand, the portion right at the ball of his thumb.

“I…” Kyle started, intensely aware of the questions swimming in his head. “I’m sorry…”

Cartman shrugged, about to tug his hands back, but Kyle kept hold of them. Kyle met his gaze again.

“Do they hurt?” Kyle asked, quietly. Cartman didn’t respond; he just looked away. He felt something, deep and cavernous, climb up his throat. The words escaped him before he could think about them—

“I can heal this.”

Cartman’s head jerked back up. He stared at Kyle, blinking in an innocent confusion, a skepticism, a tentative hope swimming in his eyes.

Logically, Kyle wasn’t sure he really could. He didn’t know where the burns came from, or how deeply the wound was—or if Cartman would even let him. Cartman had to trust him, had to let his magic in.

Cartman swallowed thickly.

“Okay.”

Kyle placed his hands on top of Cartman’s. He shut his eyes, and let his energy reach out. His energy brushed against Cartman’s testing the waters, coaxing. Cartman gasped shakily. He opened up to Kyle, though, his energy, almost longing for contact, curled around Kyle’s reverently.

Kyle weaved his magic in between Cartman’s, slotting them together, shocked at their fit, at their resonance. Kyle drew their combined magic to the surface of Cartman’s skin, easing down into his palms, deeply, entirely. Kyle guided his powers through the magic, pushing life into the damaged flesh, breathing a newness into the skin. Like a great beast being soothed, the scars began to recede, the damage began to heal.

Kyle untangled his energy from Cartman’s. When he opened his eyes, Cartman was crying.

“I…” He looked down at his newly healed palms. The scars had disappeared, as if he’d never been injured in the first place. “Holy shit…”

Even Kyle was surprised. He didn’t think he was strong enough to heal someone else so fully, especially not a deity of death.

Cartman ran his thumb over his palm, in awe.

“Thanks, Kahl.” The look of appreciation, so honest and genuine, Cartman gave to Kyle sent Kyle’s heart stuttering dangerously in his chest.

“Uh, no problem, dude,” Kyle replied, a small smile on his face, sweet pea blooming and settling into the water.

Chapter Text

Cartman kept looking down at his hands, in awe, almost wonder. The look in his eye, so innocent, made something churn in Kyle’s gut. He coughed into his fist.

“So, uh,” Kyle started, breaking the calm atmosphere, “Do you want to, like, get out, or something? I’m starting to prune.” Kyle held up one of his hands, wriggling his wrinkling fingertips.

“Oh, sure,” Cartman looked at Kyle with a relaxed smile. Kyle had to look away.

Kyle turned away from Cartman when he got out of the bath. He quickly grabbed his towel and began to pat down. He heard the water sloshing behind him. Kyle’s eyes glanced behind him for a split second before darting back to the decidedly neutral tile floor. He started scrambling for something to do before noticing—

“Hey, where are our clothes?” Kyle couldn’t find the sloppy pile where he’d thrown his things.

“Oh, a worker came by to get them while we were in here,” Cartman said breezily. He came to stand by Kyle. Cartman had wrapped his towel up under his arms, where Kyle left his own around his waist, and was somehow still feeling naked despite the coverage. “They should be over here…”

Kyle, almost helplessly, followed Cartman to the other end of the room, at the rack with the towels and soaps. There, sitting innocently in a wicker basket, was their clothing. Cartman kneeled to pick up the basket, and Kyle had to again avert his eyes from where the short towel had started to ride up.

Cartman held the basket at his hip, gesturing for Kyle to grab his stuff from on top. Kyle did so, marveling at how soft and clean his tunic was. Kyle turned to begin dressing; he assumed Cartman was doing the same, if the sound of fabric was anything to go by. Kyle pulled his tunic over his head, and realized, with surprise, it no longer fit awkwardly over his shoulders, and he didn't have to readjust the neckline to make it fit right. Somehow, the tunic was better than when he’s gotten it. He gave his hips a little swish, feeling how the fabric fell around his knees.

“Ready?” Kyle asked.

“Yeah.” Cartman was adjusting the straps on his sandals. He stood up, looking at Kyle, eyes narrowed. “Hold on—”

“What’s wrong? Hey, what are you doing?” Kyle made to back up from Cartman’s approaching figure.

“Your hair is dripping!” Cartman said, a new towel in his hands. “How do you even forget about that? Come here.” Cartman tugged Kyle down by the shoulders. Kyle squawked indignantly, but complied.

Kyle stood hunched over, grumbling to himself, while Cartman toweled off his hair. After a few seconds, Cartman seemed to be satisfied with himself, and flung the towel around Kyle’s neck. Kyle rose to stand up straight. Cartman was still standing in front of him, smoothing out the sides of the towel over Kyle’s shoulders. Self-consciously, Kyle ran a hand through his hair—only to be stopped by a soft slap to his bicep.

“Stop that,” Cartman said, pouting up at Kyle. “The more you mess with it, the more you’re gonna brush out your curls. Do you want to be frizzy all the time?”

Kyle dropped his hand, rolling his eyes.

“Let’s just go, already. We should be getting a letter back any time now.”

Cartman turned and began to walk out, suddenly purposeful. When Kyle followed, he went to drop the towel from his shoulders to the wicker basket—when he noticed the pristine, black gloves sitting abandoned at the bottom of the basket. Kyle’s breath hitched.

“Kahl? Are you coming or not?” Cartman called, already paying the worker at the front desk.

“Yeah! I’m coming!” Kyle gave a final glance to the gloves before leaving the bathroom.

They weren’t quite sure who took the other’s hand first, but Kyle realized, in the back of his mind, it was becoming a habit he wasn’t entirely uncomfortable with. Cartman babbled about his job on the walk back, but Kyle couldn’t really offer much in the way of responses—he was too distracted by the feel of Cartman’s hand against his own. He never realized how cold the gloves were compared to Cartman’s bare skin—how soft he was, how small his hand was when Kyle’s longer fingers were wrapped around it.

When they got back to the room, there was a loud, familiar buzzing coming from inside. They opened the door, and immediately their eyes locked with a new pair, sitting cross legged on the counter.

“Kenny!” Kyle said in sync with Cartman. Kyle’s voice was more bewildered, but Cartman’s was entirely upbeat.

Kenny’s eyes widened. He had chocolate icing all over his mouth, from the bowl he was eating from with his bare hands. He wiped the back of his forearm over his mouth, shock clear on his face.

“Kyle?” Kenny’s voice was pinched.

Before Kyle could say anything in his own defense, Cartman interjected first—

“Kenny! Do you have my letter? It’s urgent.”

“I—” Kenny’s eyes darted between them, “I do.” He handed Cartman a clean, black envelope with his sticky fingers.

“You’re the best, Ken,” Cartman said, tearing open the letter.

Kenny locked eyes with Kyle again.

“Kenny, I swear I can explain—”

Then Kenny shot up, falling from the counter, with a string of curses.

“I have to fucking go—I’m so sorry, guys.” And then Kenny, who looked almost panicked, had to race from the room. Though he looked like he really, really wanted to fight it.

“Kyle! He did it!” Cartman held the letter up to Kyle, too excited to notice the tense atmosphere Ken left behind.

“What? Who?” Kyle blinked, tearing his eyes from the door to Cartman.

“You probably don’t know him—but my boss’s son owed me a favor, which I just cashed in for us.”

“So, wait—what? What happened?"

“We should be getting a call sometime soon.” Cartman looked up at Kyle, earnest, determined. “We’re going to get you home, Kahl.”

Kyle’s breath hitched. Cartman’s hands were wrapped around his biceps, a letter in one. Cartman, in his eagerness, had rocked up onto his toes to lean closer to Kyle, the beginnings of a grin on his face. Kyle’s hands twitched at his sides. Cartman’s honey-gold eyes were glittering in the torchlight, so open, trusting—

A bell rang. Kyle jolted, and Cartman jumped away from him, looking around the room almost frantically. A plume of shimmering mist bubbled between them, forcing Kyle to take a step back. Cartman was smiling, fully, now, his face only slightly obscured by the fog.

“Your presence has been requested, immediately.” An unfamiliar, almost scripted voice emerged from the mist.

“Yes, thank you—I’ll be there ASAP,” Cartman said to the mist, before it faded into nothing. And Kyle was left face to face with Cartman again.

“That was it.” Cartman was practically vibrating with excitement. “That was the boss—we gotta go, Kahl!”

And then Cartman’s hand was in Kyle’s again, and Kyle barely had the time to process the mental whiplash before he was being dragged out of the door again.

The massive dark wood doors were just as terrifying as before. Kyle grimaced when he realized he was stood directly in front of a particularly gruesome face of horror, engraved in the door. Cartman’s hand never left his.

“Boss has to cooperate with us now,” Cartman said, stamping his card. He was so excited...it was almost hard to remember why. They were going to get Kyle home.

Kyle glanced at Cartman, in those few moments before they walked into darkness. He took in the softness of his jaw, the glimmer in his eyes. Kyle was going home. Kyle was going home, but the idea of home, in Kyle’s mind, was covered in paint splatters, looked like a green quilt on black sheets.

He...he didn’t know when he started thinking of their—of Cartman’s room as a version of “home.”

Kyle felt ill, all of a sudden.  

He squeezed Cartman’s hand as they emerged from the darkness.

“Really, Cartman,” Cartman’s boss sounded tired, almost pleading, “You’re such a devious, resourceful young man. Are you sure you don’t want to be my protégé?”

Cartman climbed into the chair, finally letting go of Kyle’s hand. Kyle, likewise, made to sit, noticing the way Cartman rolled his eyes.

“We’re not talking about this again,” Cartman said firmly, “We’re here to talk about Kahl.”

Mr. Satan sighed, defeated. He put on a pair of reading classes which were almost comically too small for his large face and stature.

“Alright, my hands are tied.” He took out a manilla file from one of his drawers. “I asked my lawyers to look through these documents,” (Kyle seriously doubted Mr. Satan had “asked” anyone anything. Ever.) “And they informed me there is a way for your friend here to be released from the Underworld.”

“What do we have to do?” Kyle asked.

“Well, on paper, it’s incredibly simple, but, ah, in practice…” Mr. Satan took his glasses off. He leaned over the table, his sunken yellow gaze directly, purposefully, on Cartman. “To free your friend, Cartman, you need to break your curse.”

Cartman’s face went ashen.

“You’re cursed?” Kyle whipped around in his seat to face Cartman. “And you didn’t think it was important enough to tell me? Are you fucking kidding me? Your curse is literally the thing trapping me here and you didn’t think ‘oh hey, maybe I should tell Kyle about this!’”

“Shut the fuck up, Kyle,” Cartman hissed, his eyes narrow. “Shut up and think for one goddamned second, will you? Don’t you think, maybe, I can’t talk about it?”

Kyle deflated, suddenly ashamed of his sudden burst of anger. Cartman glared at him from the corner of his eye.

“That’s what I thought, asshole.”

Cartman’s sudden attitude made Kyle’s eye twitch. Kyle took a deep breath.

“How do we break his curse?” Kyle asked. From his periphery, he saw how Cartman had curled up in his seat, his legs tight to his chest, his hands rolled into fists on top of his knees.

“He knows.”

Kyle took another deep breath.

“How much can you tell me about his curse?”

Cartman flinched.

Mr. Satan handed over the manila file. Kyle looked down at the unassuming folder. He ran his finger under the seal.

The silence thickened. Kyle didn’t open the file, not yet.

Mr. Satan spoke again.

“I’m really backed into a corner here, I’m sure you realize.” Mr. Satan folded his hands on his desk. “I can release you two to the surface, but aside from that, there’s nothing else I can do. You’re going to be on your own.”

Kyle looked up from the file. Mr. Satan’s gaze was passive, neutral.

“Thanks, I guess.”

Kyle stood from his seat, manila folder under his arm. He turned to walk out of the office, stopping just at the edge of darkness. He stood there a moment.

“Cartman.”

Kyle didn’t look back, but he did offer his hand.

Cartman was absolutely silent on the walk back. His grip on Kyle’s hand was iron. He kept his hood up, and refused to look anywhere but the ground.

It was fine by Kyle, who felt the folder burning under his arm, a searing, heavy weight. If it was so heavy for Kyle, who simply held the information—he couldn’t imagine what it must’ve felt like to Cartman.  

Each step they took was with lead boots, the air suffocating between them, choked with tension and unsaid words, strung with the fragile, vulnerable trust they shared.

When they returned to the room, Cartman scurried away to the kitchen, hiding his face in a pantry. His shoulders were trembling. Kyle didn’t say anything. A thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, were swimming through his mind.

It was needless to say, but curses were a powerful magic. To be cursed was to be branded, in some way, with mistakes, with envy, with rage, with retribution. Some curses were hateful, others necessary. There was no way to tell one from the other without context.

Kyle stood in the middle of the room, feeling suddenly empty inside, a cold, hollow space lived right below his sternum. He ran his hand over the seal, letting the envelope rest open.

Kyle had to resist shutting his eyes when he reached into the envelope, his fingers pinching around the bundle of papers. He pulled them out, swiftly, like a bandage. They fluttered a little, as he settled them in front of him. The cover page looked as such:

 

      Cartman

Reaper; Level 1

Entry to workplace: Unknown

Days in service: Unknown

 

SECTIONS OF FILE

1) Physical Details

2) Work Ethic

3) Other Notes

 

Under section 3, there was a sticky note, with a quick, sloppy ‘cursed’ written on it. Kyle skipped to section 3. He had to skip down a few paragraphs about Cartman’s baking, his love of cats, before he got to the section that sent his heart racing:

 

Cursed.

Curse giver: Unknown

Time of cursing: Unknown

Duration of curse: Unknown

Reason for curse: Unknown

Effects of curse: The entirety of the curse’s effects are unknown. The cursed is unable to speak openly about the curse. Can only allude to it using vague gestures or indirect words.

Breaking the curse: Known only by the cursed. Unable to talk about it. Alludes to the need to find something or someone.

 

There were several sections which had been blacked out and replaced with new text.

Kyle held the files up to the torch light, but the black censors were too thick to see through. He glanced over the file once again, before putting it back with a sigh.

“So, I guess we have to find something?” Kyle still hadn’t turned to look at Cartman. He heard the sound of something hard hitting something wooden—like a head butting into a pantry shelf, perhaps?

“Do you have any ideas for how to find...whatever we’re going to be looking for?”

There was a beat of silence.

“I mean...it’s not a good idea…”

Chapter Text

Cartman fidgeted, rocking back and forth on his feet.

“You...you really don’t have any other ideas?” Kyle’s fingers were firmly clamped over the bridge of his nose. He felt a kind of sharp pain right behind his eyes, and he suddenly understood, with stark clarity, why Stan always performed the gesture.

“If you really think I haven’t thought about this extensively, Kahl, then you’re a massive dumbass.”

Kyle rolled his eyes. With the subject so delicate, he was sure he should tiptoe around it, but, ah, Kyle was never one to walk on eggshells for anybody. Unless it was his mother. Which, speaking of—

“Fine. But when we get up there, nobody can know,” Kyle said firmly. Cartman’s shoulders relaxed with the change of subject, Kyle noticed. “If my mom finds out I’m bound to the Underworld she’s gonna start a Divine War.” Kyle shuddered. He spoke with absolutely no hyperbole whatsoever. Sheila was just like that.

“Dude your mom sounds like a—”

“Don’t even finish that,” Kyle interrupted, “I’d rather have my Ma care too much than not care about me at all.” Cartman’s eyes widened, his face unreadable for a moment.

“Fine, I won’t badmouth your mom, who is currently, need I remind you, giving the Underworld a boost in numbers. Sure.”

Kyle rolled his eyes, tired. He guessed Cartman was tense, and, despite knowing the guy for such a short period of time, Kyle knew he was someone who didn’t know how to handle his emotions well.

“Anyways,” Kyle said pointedly, “How are we getting to the surface?”

“Oh, that’s easy, a big tear will happen right in the middle of the room, like, any time now.”

“Really? You have to use a punchcard to see your boss but that’s the method for going to the surface? Seems messy.”

“Yeah, it’s the one thing they haven’t updated yet.” Cartman shrugged. “Uh, I’d say we could do something, but boss is usually pretty punctual so…”

“We’re just gonna wait it out?” Kyle raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah.”

“You’re just full of great ideas today, aren’t y—”

Before Kyle could finish, his words were shocked into a yelp—a sound like a combination of hair being torn out of a head and nails on gravel burst into the room, accompanied by a bright, blaring light and a windy sensation, uncomfortable, and too hot to the point where it felt cold, almost, like sticking your hand in boiling water.

“Told you!” Cartman yelled over the fanfare. Kyle grimaced and threw him the best glare he could when his eyes were squinted and his hands were over his ears. “You should get out of the way!”

Kyle couldn’t finish the obvious reply—’Get out of the way of what?’—because he’d fallen flat on his ass, knocked back by an invisible force. A thick plume of dust blew up in a circle around the ground, directly underneath the giant, gaping hole in the ceiling. Then, a dark stone staircase began to clunk down, step by step, from the hole, rumbling the ground as it did so, like the heartbeat of a massive creature.

The whole event took an excruciating twenty seconds to complete, and when it was over, Kyle was shaking his head to get rid of the ringing, and patting the dust from his tunic as he stood.

“Does it do that every fucking time?” Kyle was incredulous.

“Yeah.” Cartman made a face. “It really sucks when you’re trying to sleep, though.”

“How long is it going to stay here?” Kyle asked. The dark stones stared back at him, impassively, a thick layer of dust coating each step.

“Uh, indefinitely, I think,” Cartman said, shrugging, “But the longer I wait the more uncomfortable I get; it can start to hurt after a while, too, like a toothache, but, you know, everywhere.” Cartman secured his cloak around his neck, letting it fall closed over his shoulders. “You know how Kenny always has to leave after he delivers his letters? It’s like that.”

“It hurts Kenny when he delivers his letters?”

The look on Cartman’s face was of a sharp shock, his mouth parted open in bewilderment.

“You didn’t know?” Cartman blinked confusedly, looking even more lost at Kyle’s answering grimace. “Dude, it’s not a secret—that’s how Hermes makes sure he stays on track.”

“Oh…” Kyle suddenly felt kind of small. He thought back to those times he’d held Kenny back while talking to him, every time Kenny offered to stay back when Kyle felt like shit— “Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘oh,’” Cartman muttered. While Kyle was pensive, he had already marched over to his wardrobe and pulled out a new cloak for Kyle. “He says it’s worse for more urgent letters, but wherever it starts it will just get worse. He says most letters just feel like an annoying itching.”

Before Kyle could respond, he’d gotten a face full of dark fabric.

“Let’s just go already,” Cartman said with a whine, “Do you want to bring anything? I’ve got a bag.” Cartman held up a large, sturdy looking leather satchel.

Kyle hooked the cloak around his shoulders. He looked around the room, the dried paint coloring the place like a frozen kaleidoscope, their books, their— the bed. Cartman was by it, digging through the nightstand, shoving journals into his satchel. Somehow, the bag didn’t seem to bulge or distort.

“How much can you fit in there?” Kyle asked, approaching closer, leaning over Cartman to scrutinize the bag. When he looked inside, he couldn’t see anything but darkness.

“Oh, uh, I think I got everything in my room to fit except for the furniture.” Cartman adjusted the strap over his shoulder. “It’s light too. Some kind of magic shit, I guess. Never asked. Butters gave it to me.”

Kyle’s hand twisted in the quilt on the bed.

“Oh, that’s cool.” Kyle looked down at his hand. He relaxed his fingers, running them over the fabric. “Can I take this?”

Cartman looked over, his eyes catching on the quilt.

“Yeah, totally.” Cartman held the bag out, and, with slight hesitation, Kyle pushed the blanket in, marveling at how it disappeared neatly into the bag. Cartman patted the side of the bag, his head swiveling to take a final look around the room. His eyes caught on the mantle over the fireplace. He sucked in a sharp breath.

Kyle followed his line of vision. Shrouded in shadow, the bow sat on its mount.

“You want to take that, too?” Kyle asked, pointing with his thumb.

Cartman tore his eyes away from the bow, his eyes jerking back and forth until they settled on Kyle. There was something haunted in them. Before Kyle could read his expression further, Cartman nodded.

“Could you go get it for me? I, uh, still have some stuff over here to put away.”

Kyle glanced at the nightstand, which seemed to be full of leftovers—papers, envelopes, spare pens. Kyle looked at Cartman again.

“Okay.”

And then Kyle was marching towards the mantlepiece. The bow was a simple affair, an unadorned wood stained black. It was thick, too, thicker than the sleek bows Kyle was used to seeing. Kyle wasn’t sure why it was displayed—why it was the only decoration in the room, for that matter. It fit comfortably in Kyle’s hands, though it seemed heavier than it should have been.

“Do you have a quiver?”

Cartman startled at Kyle’s reappearance. He glanced down at the bow.

“Not anymore.”

Kyle’s brow furrowed. “What happened?”

Cartman looked away. He held the satchel in front of him, his arms stretched far, only his fingertips holding the bag up and open.

“Lost it,” he mumbled, “Can you just hurry up—the fucking stairs are starting to hurt me.”

Kyle knew a guilt trip and diversion when he saw one, at least from Cartman. But he complied anyways, and put the bow away with nothing more than a wary look to Cartman. Cartman closed the satchel, smoothing the fabric once, before he closed his cloak over it.

“You ready?” he asked, impatiently rocking on his feet, inching towards the steps.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.” Kyle started to follow. “Gods, it’s so bright. I can’t see anything.”

They stood at the foot of the stairs, and maybe Kyle was intentionally inviting it, but Cartman took his hand anyways, and Kyle didn’t mention it.

And then, they were climbing upwards.

Kyle had to shut his eyes against the white light, and with every step they ascended, he felt lighter, rising into the air, shedding a weight he hadn’t realized he was carrying. He didn’t count how many steps they took, but he felt a tug, a pull, a warmth in his core, making him climb a little faster. His heart sped up.

Kyle gasped.

His lungs filled with clear, cool air, expanding his chest. He was suddenly aware of the sound, sounds he hadn’t realized he missed—the wind, the birds, the chattering wildlife, the rustling of the—

Kyle’s eyes burst open. He looked down, breathless. Green, green, green. The grass curled around his ankles, a familiar, adoring weight. Kyle felt it. He felt the life. The plants around him reached out, curious, friendly, affectionate. And Kyle had to laugh, tickled at their inquisitive nature.

Kyle felt a piece of him click back into place. He felt complete again. He looked down at his arms, where the vines of his wreath had mingled with those of the trees, the shrubs; they gathered around him, all of them did. The grass blanketed his feet up to his calves, the branches of the trees leaned towards him. He turned, his hand reaching up to gently hold the bloom of a flower from where it had grown to meet his face. His arms were dappled in dandelions, and he knew his hair was full of them too.

His laughter bubbled out of him, and the plants danced over his skin. Kyle felt alive. Revitalized. He just...he just had to bask in it. He greeted each plant personally. His energy was shaken back to life, charged with their influence, and in turn, he poured it back into the earth. Vines thickened, flowers bloomed, saplings began rise from the ground—all of the colors were vibrant.

Kyle breathed in deeply. He felt like soot was being washed off of his skin in a spring shower. He opened his eyes, not knowing when they had fallen shut—and caught sight of something dark.

Kyle’s gaze refocused, and he was looking directly into wide, golden honey—Cartman. Kyle was...he felt too good to really be embarrassed about his display, about the wait. But he thought he didn’t have to be, not against the open look of awe on Cartman’s face.

“Hey,” Kyle said, unable to keep the smile off of his face. Cartman blinked his big doe eyes, so bright against the ashen black of his cloak.

“Hey,” Cartman replied, breathless. They stood in their quiet, just looking at each other—until Cartman coughed, awkwardly. “I, um, see you got your...your...stuff back. Congrats.” Cartman gave a little smile as he shuffled his feet.

“Yeah, I just...I feel...I feel right again, I guess.” Kyle looked down at his hand. His wreath had curled down around his wrist, up against his palm, where a single, baby pink aster had bloomed between his fingers. Dandelions for happiness, aster for...trust. Before Kyle realized what he was doing, his body moved without him, and he was gently tucking the aster behind Cartman’s ear. Its perfect, soft petals brought out the color in Cartman’s face, the blush in his skin. Kyle never realized how the Underworldhis dark uniform, the suffocating wallswashed him out. “This color looks nice on you,” Kyle said, unintentionally. His fingers lingered against Cartman’s cheek. Cartman’s wide eyes reflected every beam of sunlight, shining back just as bright.

And then, suddenly, Cartman jerked back. Kyle blinked as Cartman stumbled backwards. He yelped, almost tipping over, when Kyle looked down—the soft brambles had circled his feet, unnoticed. Kyle’s hands shot out to steady him by the shoulders. He hauled Cartman upright, yet Cartman still leaned away from him, stature lopsided from the awkward way he’d gotten one foot free from the foliage.

“Are you okay?” Kyle asked. More aster had started to bloom against his wrists, climbing off of his fingertips, reaching to Cartman, curling over his shoulders—dappling the dark cloth of his cloak in baby pinks, sky blues, pure whites.

Cartman’s eyes slanted sideways, looking at the flowers, and he bit his lip. Cartman hauled himself up, out of Kyle’s hands, standing steady on his own, arm’s length away. Kyle’s aster retreated back to the safety of his own arms.

“We—We should get going,” Cartman said, eyes to the ground.

Kyle blinked.

“Right, yeah. Let me just…” Kyle willed away the excess foliage, a little flustered at how much had accumulated.

Cartman was mumbling to himself when Kyle finished. His cheeks were pink, matching the aster still tucked behind his ear.

“So, where now?”

“Uh, there’s a town maybe an hour out this way—” Cartman jerked a thumb backwards, gesturing to the indiscriminate expanse of woods.

Kyle glanced behind him, an eyebrow raised.

“How do you know that?”

Cartman rolled his eyes, his gaze momentarily caught out beside him, as if he were looking at something.

“Don’t worry about it,” Cartman said dismissively, “Part of the job. Now, we’re gonna head into this town and get something more inconspicuous to wear.”

“What’s wrong with what we’re wearing?” Kyle looked over Cartman’s attire. It was dark, but he didn’t think it was that out of the ordinary. Especially since Cartman had been wearing it in the market after their first confrontation. Which, damn, how long ago even was that?

“It tends to look suspicious when there’s two people wearing identical black cloaks, Kahl,” Cartman said, “But there’s more to it—and by more, I specifically mean you. You stick out like a sore fucking thumb!”

“Hey!”

“Have you seen yourself? Your longass legs? Your hair? Even without your magic headband you still look like a fucking god!”

Kyle blinked, unsure of how to...really take that statement.

“I mean, I have been told I look like my Grandma.”

“Exactly!” Cartman said, waving his arms for emphasis. “We need to get you something to make you look more normal.” 

“What about you?” Kyle asked. Cartman spluttered to a stop, his hands freezing in air.

“What do you mean, what about me?” Cartman asked, disbelieving, confused.

“I mean, uh—” Kyle diverted his eyes to the very interesting bark pattern of the tree next to him. “Your, your eyes aren’t very common, uh, I guess…”

“Oh…” Cartman said, quietly. One of his hands gently touched at his cheek. “I mean...I don’t think they’re that uncommon, uh, I mean, some humans have had them before…”

Cartman fidgeted, his face flicking through expressions before Kyle could read them.

“Uh, I’ll...I’ll get a hat if you want me to?” Cartman asked.

“S-sure, dude.” The wide, confused look in Cartman’s eyes was the exact reason why he’d brought it up. They almost glowed against his pale flushed skin, his dark cloak, like liquid gold. “Let’s just get going.”

Kyle started walking in the vague direction of where Cartman pointed, and, hurriedly, Cartman followed.

Eventually, of course, Cartman began to lead them, as Kyle had no idea where he was going. The foliage in the trail underfoot cleared at Kyle’s influence, to make it easier for them, even if it would’ve been funny to see Cartman have to struggle and fumble over roots and shrubs.

The weather was beautiful—clear, blue skies, with a few fluffy clouds here and there. The sun was warm when a gap in the trees allowed it through.

They walked for a few moments in silence, before Kyle decided to break it.

“What’s the plan for after we get new disguises?” Kyle asked, “It’s not like you know where she is already—and even then, how to actually get anything useful out of her.”

“Uh, I was just gonna...ask around?”

“Really?” Kyle deadpanned, “Just ask around? Sure, that’s not suspicious in any way—I’m serious here, Cartman!”

"Well! So am I! Do you think this isn’t important to me too?”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “I didn't say that. I just meant that we can’t rush into this sloppily. That’s a one way ticket to get caught.”

“Seriously, Kahl, don’t you think having your mom would be even a little helpful in this situation? Why are you so scared of her?”

Kyle stopped, suddenly. He also stopped Cartman, grabbing him by the shoulders, making sure to look him in the eye.

“It would be the opposite of helpful in every way. You don’t know my mom.” Kyle stared, hard, at Cartman, his voice like steel. Cartman stared back, almost dazed.

“Er—okay...so we won’t ask your mom.”

“Good. Let’s keep going.”

Cartman muttered something under his breath and kept walking.

“You have money, right?” Kyle asked, after a beat.

“Yeah, except now we have to be careful with it, since humans up here attach actual meaning to their coin.”

Kyle laughed under his breath.

“You have no idea, the crazy shit they give meaning to,” Kyle said.

“No, I know. Apparently using your left hand is considered a sign of evil spirits, right? When did that come around. Like? Who gives a shit, seriously. You’re gonna use both hands for something, at some point.” Cartman gestured with both hands, unintentionally supporting his point.

“Honestly? Yeah—I mean, why is everything rare somehow either a curse or a blessing? It’s all chance, anyways.”

Cartman hummed in agreement.

“You know what’s really bad luck, though? Crows. Those fuckers are always gossiping back to Apollo, the crafty motherfucker.”

“Full of himself, too,” Kyle said, his nose scrunching up with distaste.

“Yeah, gods, yeah— He thinks he deserves everything he wants ‘cause his daddy is Zeus and he can shoot a bow. Just because he invented the lyre doesn’t give him an automatic invitation into my fucking pants. He’s such a dumbass—”

“He what?” Kyle choked out, “Wait, wait— Apollo tried to what?”

“Uh—it’s...it’s a long story.”

“Long story?” Kyle’s voice was on the edge of hysterical. His stomach churned with...something sour. Kyle’s brain unhelpfully pictured it—Apollo, with his dumb pretty-boy face, trying to talk up Cartman. Kyle’s molars grinded together uncomfortably. “I’m sure we have fucking time for your long story.”    

“You’re flowering again,” Cartman said, changing the subject, his gaze diverted.

Kyle reached up, plucking another French marigold from his wreath. He rolled his eyes, tossing it back behind him. Cartman watched the action carefully.

“Stop trying to distract me, Cartman!”

“Why do you even care so much, Kahl! Whoever I do or do not let into my pants is none of your business.”

“It is when you’re being harassed and I can do something about it!” Kyle said, a note of worry to his voice, “Apollo talks with my mom, sometimes—I’m sure I can ‘accidentally’ put some poison oak in his chair the next time he’s over…”

Cartman’s irritated frown wobbled.

“Okay, that would be fucking sweet,” Cartman admitted, a laugh bubbling under his words as he pictured it.

Kyle grinned.

“He wouldn’t even notice it, either,” Kyle continued, “I could sneak it up while he’s talking, make sure the leaves are soft. You know how he always wears his togas too fucking short, too.”

“Gods, yeah, he’s such a showoff. You know the thing with him and Daphne?”

“Yeah, that was when Eros shot them with arrows, right?”

“Exactly—so, get this: most people think that happened because Eros challenged Apollo to an archery contest, right?”

“Right.” Kyle said, intrigued. Cartman had leaned over a bit, lowering his voice as if he was telling a secret. Kyle had to hunch over to meet him.

“That’s just what Apollo said happened. What really happened was that Eros was practicing archery when Apollo approached him first, and straight up just insulted him.”

“Really?” Kyle said, “I mean, Apollo deserved it, but Daphne didn’t." Kyle frowned, thinking. "Well, she’s okay now, but that was rough on her.”

“You know her?”

“She’s a friend of my grandmother’s. Or, I think they’re friends? Last I knew of she lived with my grandma.”

“So, you’re telling me, Daphne, who wanted to remain a virgin so badly she got herself turned into a tree, just happens to be live with your grandma? How long ago was this?”

“I’m not sure? I think she’s just always been there, I guess.”

“Oh my gods, they were roommates…” Cartman whispered, still somehow coming to some conclusion Kyle couldn’t see.

“Yeah, exactly?”

“Oh, Kahl, poor innocent little Kahl, you obviously can’t see what I do—I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Oh shut up, Cartman.”

“Okay, but if we’re talking about arrogant douches: Heracles.” 

Kyle groaned in agreement.

“What is it about being a demigod that makes you such a douche? I know like, one demigod who isn’t an asshole about it,” Kyle said, thinking of Stan. Well, technically Stan was a demigod—his father was human, after all.

“Hey —it’s not the demigod thing, it’s totally the fucking Zeus thing.”

“Fair point.” Kyle said, “But seriously, he totally could’ve avoided the ‘killing his entire mortal family’ thing if he just shared his immortality with Megara. Like, sure, he would’ve lost most of his god-powers and some of his strength—but he’d still have a wife! And fucking kids!” Kyle said, suddenly impassioned—only full gods could kill other immortals without a macguffin, if Heracles followed Kyle’s brilliant hindsight plan, he wouldn’t have been able to, you know—“This asshole was so fucking caught up in his ‘strongest man alive’ schtick that he straight up got his family slaughtered, ‘cause his dad’s actual wife was out for revenge again.”

“Yeah, and it’s not like he could claim his full godliness, considering his god-parent, is, you know, fucking Zeus.”  Cartman paused for a second. “Oh, shit, so his kids weren’t already immortal? Gods, I always forget how the demigod-human thing works.”

“I think they would’ve just lived a lot longer than normal humans, but, no—at the end of the day they were just mortal, still. If Heracles shared his immortality with Meg, then their kids would've been immortal.”  

“Damn, that’s rough.”

Kyle nodded, resigned, agreeing.

They continued to talk as they walked. Every few moments, Cartman paused to look around them, mumble to himself, and then keep walking, as if reorienting himself. After the third time, Kyle asked what he was doing, and Cartman just responded ‘making sure we don’t get lost in the woods, Kahl; gods, let me work!’

Cartman seemed to be full of gossip, though, which kept their walk interesting. Once they cracked open the tea, Cartman was totally and entirely content to drag out everyone’s dirty laundry like nobody’s business. Kyle was sure the next Assembly of the Olympians was going to be...kind of awkward now that he knew so much about so many of the other gods.

“Yeah, so if you mention this, you will be the next Prometheus—but Aphrodite bites her toenails,” Cartman said, with a look somewhere between disgust and smugness. He grinned in response to Kyle’s revolted gagging. “And don’t even get me started on the nasty shit Dionysus is into. Like, you think you have a rough idea, but you don’t even know—”

“Oh my gods, Cartman—where is this fucking town, please.”

Cartman laughed, and Kyle couldn’t help but join him. Unbeknownst to either of them, dainty purple lilacs bloomed in Kyle’s footsteps.