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Oxygen buzzes through tubes of malleable plastic.

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

That oxygen and those tubes are everywhere.

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

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

It’s funny.

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

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

It’s so funny.

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

“Kyle—”

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

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

“No,” he says. “No, it’s not—”

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

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

It’s funny.

It’s so funny.

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

Stan shakes his head.

“Wow,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Says who?”

“Says science.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, ma.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s different, and you know it.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Stan, “How?”

“It just is, okay?”

“Whatever you say, dude.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh oh,” says Stan. “What?”

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

Stan hums. “Yeah, I got that.”

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

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

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

“Wow, that’s gotta be frustrating.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Kyle says.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just… not the same.

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

They walk back to the lunch table silently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” says Stan. “Sorry.”

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

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

“I’m eating,” Stan says.

“You’re totally not.”

“I totally am.”

“Yeah, okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

“Nice one,” compliments Stan.

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I genuinely don’t care.”

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah?” asks Kyle.

“Yeah!”

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

“What sign?” Eric finally asks.

“Exactly,” Kyle replies.

“Wh— ai! I told you to stop that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chocolate Twinkies,” Eric finally says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, are they successful?”

“…what?” asks Stan.

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

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

Another pause.

And then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like, to…

Hug…?

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

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

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

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

Kyle glances around the living room.

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

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

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

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

Kyle steps forward and sits down.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if it kills me,” Ike whispers.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ike—”

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

“Hi, Dad,” Kyle says. Ike shifts.

Hey, Kyle, how are things going at home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not until tomorrow, I’m staying the night.

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

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

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

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

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

Shuffling. “Yes, Kyle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kyle?”

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

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

Kyle smiles. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan,

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything you say is important,” Stan says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink.

They’re probably warm, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan says yes.

Chapter Text

“Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t ‘dude’ me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The French scene? Uh, which one?”

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

“Kyle—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope, we’re doing this.”

Stan whines, “Kyle.”

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

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

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

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

“Kyle, gimme the remote,” Stan says.

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

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

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

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

Kyle nods and says, “That’s all.”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle wakes up.

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

During a sleepover.

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

He’s…

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I try?” Kyle asks. Stan blinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It.

Hurts?

And…

He doesn’t want to be like this.

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

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

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

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

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

what?

“Come on, man. ‘I solemnly swear’…”

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

Except he doesn’t hate Stan.

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

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

Kyle takes it without hesitation.

Chapter Text

He feels like everyone knows.

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

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

Is he still high?

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

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

“Kyle, what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not gay, he’s not...

Impostor.

He glances down; he stares at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He…

He needs to…

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

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

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

Kyle swallows.

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

Except it is.

I’m a weirdo, aren’t I?

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

I'm a disappointment.

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

I

am scared.

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

Eric argues, “It is not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny takes a step back and lets Kyle be.

Chapter Text

A week.

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

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

But it’s been a week.

And she hasn’t gotten any better.

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

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

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

Except Eric can’t deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s it.

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

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

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

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

“—‘Kyahl’!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric doesn’t let it lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yourself, dude,” says Kenny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he knows. He knows why. Stan wheezes.

“So…” Stan says. “I’ll see y—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly.

Platonic.

Plastic.

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

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

Chapter Text

This is exactly the escape Kyle needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” Kyle replies.

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

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

Stan repeats, “Could lungs be considered bubbles?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“A song,” Kyle says.

“No shit,” Stan says. “What song?”

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

Stan laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, fuck you.”

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

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

He wants to lay here forever.

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

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

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

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

“I’m okay with it,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard me,” Kyle says.

“That’s really fucking gay, dude.”

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

“Still sounded pretty fucking gay to me.”

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

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

“So, have you?” Kyle asks.

Dumbly, Stan asks, “Have I what?”

“Wondered about kissing boys,” says Kyle.

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

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

“You wanna try?”

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

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

Finally, Kyle says, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

Not all day.

He rarely is, anymore.

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

He hasn’t felt hungry in a while.

What have you done?

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

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

You are disgusting.

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

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

Out of control.

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

STOP IT.

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle huffs. “I told you, I’m just—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Kyle says. “Yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hey,” Kyle says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that hurts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kyle feels frozen.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

Aspirin. Oh. Okay.

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

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

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

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

“—up…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” Stan asks, quirking a brow.

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

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

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

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

You’re sick.

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

I hate you.

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

Maybe he should go.

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

You should go home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it dark outside?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so slow.

Slow.

He doesn’t know if he likes it.

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

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

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

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

To a very minimal extent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop talking,” says Ike. Kyle snorts.

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

“Stop,” Ike repeats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“—that’s all she wrote.”

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

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

“No,” says Ike.

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

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

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

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

It’s nice to relax, though.

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

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

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

Cl-chkk.

Pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle says nothing. Ike looks away.

“Just go shower, okay?” Ike says.

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

Chapter Text

She’s shaking.

Kyle leaves the room before he can think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kyle?”

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

“Kyle, is that you?”

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

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

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

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

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

It’s quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny.

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would she…?

Err… would she…?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Eric.

Fatass: how was ur night?? ;))

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t… like it.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lie.

Kyle cares.

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

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

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

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

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

“What does wha—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What game?”

“Do what I say.”

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

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

Silence. Kyle swallows. “A reward?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will mess it all up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind over matter.

Kyle breathes.

Do it for Ma.

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

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

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

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

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

Confused.

What… was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentially, this will just be a waiting game.

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

Fine.

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

But, fine.

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

Chapter Text

Kyle turns his phone off and enters room 4268.

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

How could she ignore Stan?

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

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

In some ways, it’s funny.

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

Don’t you know he hates you?

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

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

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

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

He can’t.

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

He takes Stan’s hand and holds it.

Keeps it still.

Waiting.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d…

He forgot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle knows it’s unfair, but he looks up at Stan, narrowing his eyes in a glare. Stan’s expression is red, though assuredly, it’s deepened from embarrassment, and not from being flustered. That normal face of confusion is more tense, though still vaguely puzzled. Wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights. “I…” Stan swallows. “Kyle, c’mon, I’m clean.”

“I believe you,” Kyle says. He cringes at how bitter his own voice is. His stomach churns, making him regret eating. The nausea is back, squirming in through the cracks Kyle thought he’d forgotten. “I just don’t understand why that’s the first thing to come to mind, after however long—”

“Four years,” Stan mumbles, like that makes it better somehow, like he’s trying to inject his success over the fear of his failure. Bitter thoughts start to break in, marring the niceness that Kyle had been thoroughly enjoying thus far. His instinct isn’t anger. It’s not anger, it’s not anger, it’s not. His instinct is to drop his sandwich and pull Stan into a hug and not let go until Kyle knows for an undeniable fact that he’s safe, but he can’t do that. Kyle cannot do that, because friends don’t do that. Isn’t that right?

So, just as Stan injects his success over the fear, Kyle injects his anger over the truth. “Because that makes it okay,” he snaps. Stan’s eyes are still wide. The redness of his cheeks starts to turn into a pallor. “Just how true is ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’?”

Pause. Kyle didn’t mean to say that.

Stan wheezes. Kyle’s expression immediately softens.

“I can’t…” Stan says, his voice hardly coming out above a whisper. He goes through the motion of drawing in a deep breath, but it catches somewhere. He tries to clear his throat, but that doesn’t work very well, either. He pulls up his backpack. “Look, okay, I— I can’t do that right now, I’m sorry, I just—”

Stan searches through the pockets of his backpack, but comes up dry on whatever he’s searching for. Kyle guesses he’s looking for his inhaler. Oh fuck. Kyle fucked up. Kyle seriously fucked up. “Stan, I’m so sorry,” Kyle says. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Please stop,” Stan says. Kyle shuts up. Stan tries for another deep breath, but Kyle can see the way he struggles for it. Stan laughs, quiet. “I forgot my fucking inhaler at home, great.”

There’s a moment of stillness, where Stan simply works on taking in breaths. Until, eventually, there is that telltale cough, dry, a precursor. Stan knows it just as well as Kyle does, and immediately, Stan stands up, dropping his backpack in his chair to save the seat.

“Wendy has my spare, I’ll be back,” Stan says. Kyle opens his mouth to speak, but Stan shakes his head, and Kyle is rendered mute. “It’s fine, it’s not your fault, I’ll be back, I just can’t handle that, fuck, sorry, I can’t.”

Stan leaves, running his fingers through his hair in what Kyle can only assume is an attempt at self-soothing. Now alone, the guilt creeps up on Kyle and tries to swallow him whole. Whatever nausea he’d had before has now doubled, forcing him to feel like he’s minutes away from needing to rush to the bathroom to vomit. For a moment, he simply watches, observes Stan as he crosses the cafeteria to where Wendy sits with the rest of the cheerleaders. Kyle watches Stan get there, and he watches Stan tap her politely on the shoulder, and he watches as the seconds tick by and Wendy hops up, and then they leave the cafeteria through the entrance.

Kyle did that.

Stan would be better off if Kyle just…

Normally, Kyle would push the thought away, but for now, he lets himself feel it. He wraps his sandwich back up in the wrap, putting it into his backpack just in case he needs it later. The trembling from earlier is back with a vengeance, though the cause is different. The cause this time is actually his fault. Kyle is such an idiot. Kyle pushed a boundary he knew Stan had issues with, but he still pushed it. Kyle knows better than that.

Kyle pulls his notebook out of his backpack, jots down a quick note, and leaves it in Stan’s backpack, which was left behind.

Stan,
Thanks for the sandwich. You don’t know how much I needed that.
- your super-best-friend, Kyle

Kyle dismisses himself to the bathroom.

Chapter Text

It’s in the middle of AP Chem that Kyle receives a text. His first instinct, of course, is beyond terrifying. The idea that something has gone wrong at the hospital, that his mom has—… that something happened, and Dad is sending him a message to let him know he’s going to be picked up early, or something, and— there’s a second buzz. Fuck, another one, fuck. The idea of leaving the texts for later is an impossible one. His fear surmounts his ingrained sense of following the rules, and even though this means breaking the first rule of the class, he doesn’t give a single fuck. As discretely as possible, Kyle pulls his phone out of his pocket and unlocks it, glancing down only when he needs to.

Fatass: NEW TASK!!!

Fatass: Text back

Everything rushes out of Kyle. All of the tension in his muscles, all of the fear in his heart, all of the utter panic he’d started to feel like something physical— it dissipates in a snap. He glances up at Eric, who sits directly across from him. And he’s grinning, this smug little shit-eating grin. Kyle glares, tempted to say fuck it and ignore Eric completely. He can’t, though. There’s still that tiny voice in the back of his head that tells him, on the off chance that Eric really did do something, that he cannot take any risks. Kyle decides to disobey in a different way.

Kyle: Fuck you.

Kyle hits send and looks up, his glare hardening. He watches as Eric pulls his phone out, having zero regard for the teacher, Miss James, possibly looking over and seeing. Eric purses his lips at the message, apparently unsure of the contents of it. Maybe it’s stupid, but Kyle feels like that’s a victory on his part. Loopholes are such lovely things. He has a newfound respect for them. Next time Ike manages to find one, he won’t be mad. He’ll laugh, because in a way, he gets it.

Eric taps out another message on his phone, blatant as he does so with his hands and phone out in front of him, above the table. It’s casual, and for a moment, Kyle’s glare hardens. How is Eric getting away with this bullshit? This doesn’t make any fucking sense. One glance over Eric’s shoulder reveals the answer, though. Eric has his back facing the front of the room. Kyle, on the other hand, faces the front properly. The width of Eric’s shoulders and the mass of his body must block any obvious view of what he’s doing.

Eric sends the text. Kyle’s phone buzzes.

Fatass: JOKES ON JEW, KYLE, You still Answered >:o) haHa see what I Did There?

That text wasn’t worth checking. At all. Kyle rolls his eyes and shoves his phone back into his pocket— just in time for it to buzz again. This time, Kyle doesn’t check it. He doesn’t care if it’s another “task” from Eric. He doesn’t care if it’s some stupid rule or edit to the conditions. This is an elective class that Kyle is taking so he can get better credit for college and bump up his GPA. He can’t slack off, and he certainly won’t do it voluntarily without significant reason to. He turns his attention back to the lecture, although he already knows this stuff like the back of his hand. He took regular chemistry already. AP Chem is no sweat. He’s done this shit.

So, maybe, that’s what pushes Kyle into checking his phone again. Maybe it’s because he knows all this stuff, and he knows he knows all this stuff. Maybe it’s because he could do this with his eyes closed, backwards, in the dark, because it certainly isn’t because Eric is staring at him like that. It has nothing to do with Eric. It’s a completely voluntary decision that Kyle makes because he has the ability to choose for himself what he wants to do with his time. Kyle swallows and checks the text.

Fatass: Next task!!!: Take it.

Kyle furrows his brows, checking the message history with him and Eric to make sure he isn’t missing anything. Take what? There’s no explanation of what “it” is anywhere. Pursing his lip, Kyle moves to put his phone away—

And almost drops it when Eric kicks his leg under the table. Hard.

Kyle tightens his grip on his phone, making sure he has a solid grasp on it so he won’t drop it and give away the fact that he’d taken it out in the first place. He glances at Miss James, like she knows something about this, but it’s obvious she doesn’t. She’s still talking, avid about the concept of VnTP tables, explaining quickly and efficiently the elaborate process of multiplication and division and Eric kicks him again.

With a quiet intake of breath, Kyle closes his eyes and comes to the abrupt conclusion that this is what Eric meant. This is the “it” that had previously gone uncertain, mysterious under the guise of an ambiguous pronoun. Whatever. The kicks are fine, Kyle can manage. He’s dealt with worse— much worse, significantly worse. He pockets his phone and grabs his pencil, resuming his previous note-taking. Eric kicks him for a third time. It’s not nearly as hard this time. Or, maybe Kyle has already gotten used to the ache. It’s firm and lingering, but not nearly as awful as Kyle thought Eric’s tasks could be. In fact, this is really quite juvenile. If these are the types of things Kyle will have to put up with in order to save his mother (again, under the hypothetical that Eric is, in fact, involved), this’ll be a piece of cake. The most this will be is a minor annoyance. An irritant to the skin, rather than a blade to the vein. He can manage it.

Miss James moves on from VnTP tables, quickly chalking up the review to the basic of we’re doing this later this week. For now, apparently, they’ll be revisiting covalent bonds and chemical reactions, and balancing equations. Some wonderful things that Kyle finds— admittedly— significantly easier than VnTP tables.

Eric has started to kick him more rhythmically at this point, tapping his leg bluntly at least once every second. Kyle knows he’ll stop when he gets tired. That’s how it works. Eric will bore himself, because Kyle isn’t going to react. This is fine. Another kick, a little softer, and Kyle knows he’s correct in the assumption. Miss James tells the class that they’ll be working at their tables, and within a matter of seconds, Eric ceases the kicks. See? He became bored and gave up. Thus is the monotony of such a mundane task.

Miss James hands out the worksheets that they’re supposed to work on as a table, and as soon as Kyle’s table receives them, he passes them out. One to Butters, who sits directly next to him, one to Clyde, who sits across from Butters, and one reluctant shove of a paper leaflet at Eric. The force with which Kyle threw the paper at Eric catches the attention of Butters, who chuckles like it’s funny. In some ways, Kyle supposes it is. It certainly must be amusing to outsiders, huh?

Kyle sits back in his seat and starts to work, piping in to answer anyone who has questions, though they rarely do. They’re the table who knows how to do shit right. In many ways, they’re a bit infamous for that. People from other tables sometimes ask them for clarification— particularly Clyde or Butters. Clyde may not look it, but he certainly knows his shit. He’s not great with the numbers part of things, but he can figure his way around element charges and equation balancing like a master. Butters is the best in the class with numbers, though. He’s basically the human calculator.

“Uh oh,” Clyde voices. He’s always rather loud when he finds something he can’t magic his way through. He perks up like a prairie dog, eyes wide and mouth slightly pursed. He starts to tap on the surface of the table with the hand not holding his pencil. “Guys, quick, I need the molar mass of oxygen!”

Kyle opens his mouth to respond, as this is something he knows well, but he’s startled out of his coherency by a particularly sharp, harsh pain on his leg. Fuck. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his lips together into a tight line as he pushes away the urge to vocalize his surprise. Eric just kicked him again, and this time, it was much harder than he’d been doing before. That hurt. Almost certainly, it will leave a bruise. Kyle isn’t thrilled for that. He isn’t thrilled at all.

“Fifteen point nine nine!” Butters says, sing-song and borderline lyrical. He continues to work on his own worksheet. He has the paper tilted slightly to the right so he can see it better. At the response, Clyde snaps his fingers in appreciation, pointing at Butters with both hands.

“You’re the man, Stan!” Clyde says, quickly going back to the problem he was having issues with.

All Butters says to that is a soft, happy, barely audible, “My name is Leo.”

Kyle glances at Eric. The smug expression is back, but he isn’t directly looking at Kyle anymore. He’s staring at his own worksheet, doodling on the edges to make it look like he’s actually doing shit. With anger threatening to bubble up from his chest, Kyle resumes his work. Whatever. That was probably it— and if it wasn’t, Kyle can handle it. The pain has faded, more or less, and although there’s still a soft ache that pats from his muscle, he has no issues with Eric kicking him again. Technically, at least. It’s still tame. Manageable.

It’s only a matter of time before Clyde finds another issue, though.

“Shit!” he says, gasping dramatically. Kyle sighs.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at Clyde. Clyde has a hand on top of his head, apparently trying to think.

“Aw, man, what the hell is the symbol for sulfate?”

Kyle furrows his brows. “Dude, where’s your equation sheet?”

“I forgot it at home,” Clyde whines. “It was right on my desk, I swear I was gonna grab it!”

“Okay, okay, wow, calm down,” Kyle says. “It’s S-O—”

Eric kicks him again. Kyle has to actively bite back a grunt, his face scrunching up in pain without him giving it express permission to do so. Once he recovers and opens his eyes, the embarrassment starts to leak through. Clyde is staring at him, this confused expression on his face. “Dude,” Clyde says, frowning. “Are you all good, there, bro?”

“I’m fine,” bites Kyle. “It’s S-O subscript four, by the way.”

Theres a second of silence. Kyle ignores it, decides it doesn’t matter, tries to think of a way out of the awkwardness he’d just pushed into the situation. He hopes Clyde will leave it be, but that’s wishful thinking. The look of confusion turns to one of skepticism. Clyde asks a question he should know the answer to. “What’s the charge of sulfate?”

Kyle shoots Eric a glare. A don’t you dare glare. Eric holds his hands up, feigning innocence. Clyde glances over. Kyle begins, “Negative t—” but that’s all he gets out, before Eric kicks him again. The soft ache starts to turn into a more moderate wave. The repetitive trauma of the same spot isn’t good for his shin. Kyle pulls his legs back, scooting back a bit in his chair. Trying to, at least. Eric hooks his ankle around one of the front legs of Kyle’s chair, holding him in place. A silent command to stay right where he is. Kyle takes a deep breath and scoots back in. His face is warm as he corrects, “Negative two.”

“Oh,” Clyde says. And that’s it, for a while. A relief, a respite, a tiny break. But then the continuation of never-ending questioning picks back up. This is like an experiment for him, it must be, that’s the only logical explanation. Why else would Clyde be looking at him like that, and why else would he be asking so many questions to see the reaction? A tiny part of Kyle tells him that Clyde knows something. That, maybe, just maybe, Clyde is in on it. That Clyde is getting some sick humor out of this. Kyle’s stomach does a flip. “What’s the charge of Oxygen?”

Kyle is anticipating a different question— no, he’s anticipating the kick, and anticipating the pain, anticipating the undeniable hurt that comes with answering correctly. It’s strange, but he’s almost certain, that if he answers wrong, Eric won’t kick him. But that’s a lie. A fairy-tale, something to explain away the reason he gives the wrong answer. “Six,” Kyle whispers, and fails to bite back the split-second whimper that Eric forces out of him with a series of kicks to his leg. After a second of processing, breathing through the pain that lingers in his shin, thrumming up his leg and keeping him stiff, he realizes that he gave a very wrong answer. It’s not six, it’s—

“Negative two,” Clyde says. He furrows his brows and narrows his eyes, glancing between Kyle and Eric. Kyle turns his gaze down for a second, trying to sink into the chair or something. He was so certain he’d get through this without any issues. He was certain he could be better than to react to Eric’s prodding. Suddenly, Clyde leans in, whispering, “Are you two doing the gay stuff?”

Immediately, Eric bursts into laughter, doubling over the table and resting his forehead against the surface of it. Kyle’s face heats further, his cheeks pounding the warmth in an uncomfortable rhythm that matches the beat of his heart. The pressure builds in his chest until he can’t hold it back anymore, hissing, “I’m not gay.”

“‘The gay stuff!’” Eric is wheezing under his breath, slapping the table with his palm. “‘The gay stuff’! Oh my god, you guys, I’m seriously!”

This isn’t happening. It isn’t happening, it isn’t happening, it isn’t. Kyle grips the main body of his pencil, scraping his fingernail against the paint until it sheds off, revealing the pale wood beneath. His brain tells him to look at Clyde, because he can feel him staring, but the embarrassment is too much. Kyle can’t look up— no, he won’t look up. He tries to ignore everything around him, simply thankful that the rest of the class is too involved in their own bullshit to notice the issues at their table. It feels like his brain isn’t working, though, and as Kyle tries to connect the dots on the next chemical equation, he finds that he can’t. The symbols that used to make so much sense no longer process. They’re just lines, blurring around the edges and burning into his eyes until he needs to close them.

Eric kicks him again. He numbs himself to it, bites the inside of his cheek, tears at the thin layer of skin, tries to override the feeling. He pulls his leg back, but Eric steps on his foot. The instinct to kick back hits him hard and sudden, but he doesn’t acquiesce to it. It’s tempting, almost violently so, but he can’t. The fear is still there— and with the instinct of fear overrides the instinct to fight back. A few kicks later, Kyle opens his eyes. Eric is looking at him, leaning forward just enough to reach. The rest of his posture is relaxed, his hands folded in front of him like a pathetically stereotypical evil villain. It’s such a simple thing.

And yet it makes Kyle feel…

a little helpless?

Lost.

He wonders how Mom is feeling right now. She’s certainly hurting more than he is. He cannot complain. He refuses to.

Kyle swallows, straightens up in his chair, and tries to go back to work.

“But maybe we are, huh?” Eric says, his hushed tone cutting in suddenly. Kyle doesn’t react. He stares at the unbalanced equation before him, the black letters on the colored paper, the dark lead on the pale background, the contours and the shapes, and the kick to his shin hurts. “Maybe we are doing the gay stuff.”

“We’re not,” Kyle says, firm. He does not look up at Eric.

“Maybe we’re playing a game,” Eric hums, resting his chin in his palm. Kick, kick, kick. Stupid idiot fuckhead. “Maybe we’re playing footsie under the table, or maybe I have a vibrator in your ass.”

All of the breath rushes out of Kyle’s lungs from shock of the words. Quickly, his airways refill with anger. Kyle growls, “That’s the most disgusting—”

“Maybe I’m in control,” Eric interrupts. “Maybe I have the switch, or maybe it’s mental... maybe you’re mine, hmm?”

“You sick—”

“Don’t talk back to me,” Eric quips, firm in his tone. Kyle opens his mouth to protest, but he doesn’t have the energy. “Be a good boy and I’ll be a good master.”

Kick, kick, kick— why, at this point, does Kyle fight back? It comes up with no positive results, it’s only beating him down further, ruining the positive image he thought he’d had of himself— kick, kick, kick— but he will not give up, he will not give in, he is stronger than this, and Eric will not win this sick “game”. He will not. Kyle says, “Shove it up your ass.”

Smug, Eric replies, “It’s already up yours.”

“Eric,” Butters says, finally piping up from his spot beside Kyle. The unexpectedness of it forces Kyle to flinch, almost dropping his pencil on the floor in the process. He’d forgotten that there were other people here. For a moment, it’d just been Eric and himself, facing off in a silent battle, staring each other down and waiting for the loser to claim the failure. But no one had budged, and thus the referee pitched in. Butters. The kicks soften. They keep coming, but they soften. Kyle exhales. He glances at Clyde, whose expression has gone tight, disturbed.

“What do you want, Butters?” Eric asks. Butters smiles brightly.

“Stop kicking Kyle under the table, please,” he says, sweet, almost saccharine. He picks up his worksheet and flips it around, displaying it to Eric. Butters points to his writing, which has wavered in places. “You’re messing up my penmanship.”

For some reason—

For some fucking reason

Eric obeys Butters without any protest.

Chapter Text

Dealing with an aching leg for the rest of the school day is unfavorable, to say the least. Stack that on top of the fact that Kyle feels strangely absent, and there’s an efficient recipe for disaster. As strange as it is, however, the rest of the day is silent. Eric doesn’t text him, nor do they run into each other in the hallway or anywhere else they might run risk of meeting. Kyle’s brain keeps on the lookout. It forces his eyes open, even when they’re so unbelievably tempted to close. It makes him glance up at the noises he usually wouldn’t notice. The colors of the items around him burn into his memory. He latches onto the image of the white board in his final period class. He stares at the red marker. He stares at it like that’ll fix the weird disconnect forming in his mind. By the time the final bell rings, fatigue is so intimately interlocked with the tangles of his mind, that he hardly has the energy to gather himself and start the walk home.

Every step fills his leg with a rush of something tender and unpleasant. It’s like he can physically feel the blood pooling, collecting to form the bruises he knows are there, being created under the skin. He hates the imagery of it. It makes him cringe, but he can’t really stop thinking about it. A weird masochism, maybe. He doesn’t really know. How lame is that?

He intends to walk home alone, but it doesn’t work that way. He pushes the front door of the school open and immediately finds Stan leaning against a tree. Kyle tries to ignore him, to pretend he doesn’t see him, but Stan isn’t going to let him off that easy. He never does. Stan’s like that. He’s a lost puppy, sometimes, just waiting to follow people around, happy when he can occupy the company of someone else and not be a burden in the process. Kyle thinks it’s cute. It makes him smile. Stan pushes off of the tree and starts heading over, waving as he does. Kyle waves back, but doesn’t stop walking. That’s okay, though, isn’t it? Because Stan will follow no matter what. Stan proves the point by jogging up the rest of the way, not slowing until he can walk beside Kyle, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, dude,” Stan says, this soft grin on his face that parts his lips and shows his teeth, the soft pink of his gums, the inside of his mouth… Kyle knows what it feels like. He knows what Stan’s tongue feels like. It’s not as soft as it looks. It’s rough, kind of like a cat, but in a good way, and— Kyle needs to stop thinking about that. He really needs to stop thinking about that.

“Hey,” Kyle says. “What’s up?”

“Not a lot,” Stan replies. “And yourself?”

So proper. Kyle rolls his eyes. “Everything’s really boring on my end,” he says, hoping that if he’s casual enough, it’ll come true. Things don’t work that way, though, do they? It’s unfortunate. It’d be really convenient if things could go away with just a hope. He and Stan push through a group of freshman, giving them glares for taking up the entirety of the end of the sidewalk. The freshmen, of course, don’t notice the intrusion whatsoever. Typical. Kyle and Stan continue on, marching slowly down the path that takes them home. The soles of their shoes crunch against the pebbles and dirt that have been kicked up, and mush in the lingering remnants of snow. It’s trying to melt again, but it’s likely that the season won’t let it. It’ll snow again soon, assuredly, bastardizing the work that the water has tried so hard to achieve.

“You’re limping,” Stan says.

“You’re hallucinating,” Kyle says, not looking up.

Stan doesn’t respond to that.

And maybe Kyle is grateful for that.

Step. Step. Step. Every maneuver onto his leg forces him to think about walking straighter, walking taller, walking normally. It’s harder than it seems. Every time he tries to apply his full weight, he has to close his eyes. He thinks, maybe, he should just bear that pain. Maybe it would teach him a lesson, or maybe it would help make him stronger. The logic behind it doesn’t make sense, certainly, but that’s never stopped him before, has it?

Kyle’s head hurts. He needs to stop thinking.

His hand brushes Stan’s, maybe halfway into their walk. Kyle’s fingers itch to hold it, to lace their fingers together, to memorize the feeling of Stan’s skin and grasp, to feel the way it’s so warm against his own and understand the way Stan works to a deeper level. Thoughts start to surface. Of the other day, of when Stan wrapped his arm around Kyle’s waist, of when Stan kissed him and mouthed at his stomach. Something sparks, and Kyle shoves his hands into his pockets to push it away. Stan has a girlfriend. Stan has made it abundantly clear that he still loves Wendy, and Kyle doesn’t want to get in the way of that. It hurts to see Stan with someone else, though, and the minute he takes his eyes away from the sidewalk to glance at Stan, he finds himself falling down a rabbit hole of urge. He doesn’t even know what he wants, anymore, there’s just this physiological, automatic need that swarms in his blood. This I need I need I need that won’t stop thrumming. His lungs itch to take in heavy air, to feel the weightlessness of marijuana and sink into the heaviness of the calm, to stare at a wall and imagine nothing while wasting time, just to get through it.

Weed would help, right? It always helps. It always blanks Kyle’s mind, forces away the improper, immodest, lurid temptations. It dulls the hurt. Maybe it’d help his leg.

Stan always kisses him when they get high.

“So,” Kyle begins, nervous in every sense of the term. Stan perks up, brows raised, receptive. Kyle knows the answer before he even asks the question, but he can’t stop the words from tumbling out anyway. It’s… weird, this… something, that refuses to let him have real control even though he’s making these decisions. A creeping, distorted, distant… quiet. He chuckles, because that makes it seem less important than it really is. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into a weed session tonight?”

Stan laughs, too, picking up the lighthearted tone where Kyle leaves it. “Sorry, dude,” Stan says, shaking his head. “I got shit to do tonight, pharmacy and stuff… you know the deal.”

Kyle does know the deal. He’s been there since the start of that deal, the one with the refills and the prescriptions just to keep Stan from going off the deep end again. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, shrugging, trying to push it off, even though the disappointment physically hurts. It’s an escape he needed. It’s something that he’s worried to go without. Not afraid, not panicked, not upset, just… a little nervous. Jittery, maybe— if you want to stretch it, of course, because Kyle can deal with his shit without the crutch of something external. He does it all the time. He’s done it since he was a kid. He’s able to compartmentalize and process and deal with his shit, healthily, on his own.

So why is he bothered by this?

Stan sniffs. Kyle is reminded of the cold air. He’s reminded of the airways. “Hey,” Kyle says, keeping his tone soft. He looks over at Stan, who looks back at him, a soft acknowledgment on his face. Kyle swallows. “Do you— uh, have your inhaler, or whatever?”

Stan’s brows twitch downward. “Yeah, I got it back from Wendy,” he says. “Why?”

“I just wanted to make sure,” Kyle says. “Look, okay, about earlier…”

“Kyle—” begins Stan, but Kyle shakes his head quickly.

“No, I’m serious, okay? Let me talk for a second, please,” Kyle says. “I just wanted to apologize, I was seriously out of line, and—”

“Okay, okay,” Stan says, cutting Kyle off. He’s quick, almost snappish, and it throws Kyle for a bit of a loop. For a second, the moment is palpable. Stan is holding his breath. Kyle can tell, based on the quiet. Stan exhales. “I’m sorry, I just can’t do that right now, okay? I didn’t—”

Quiet again. Stan runs his fingers through his hair, another repetition of the self-soothing behavior. Kyle remembers it from the lunchroom.

“Look, I didn’t—” but Stan cuts off again. Kyle waits, patient and silent, listening. Stan finally mutters, “I wasn’t able to take my medication today, okay? That’s why I’m busy tonight, man, and I hate it, but I can’t— like, talk about that shit right now, it makes me freak, I don’t want to—”

Silence. Kyle’s leg shoots a particularly painful throb through him. He ignores it, and finally stops trying to avoid the limp. He was probably failing, anyway.

“I don’t want to lose control,” Stan says. “Not again, and I can’t be sure I won’t if we keep talking about it, okay? We can talk when I take my next dose but right now is really not a good time if you don’t want me to flip my shit.”

Stan looks over. His eyes are soft, a little damp, but not from sadness. From something else. Kyle has seen it before, but he hasn’t seen it in a while. He doesn’t remember what the name of that emotion is.

“Okay?” Stan whispers the word. Kyle frowns.

“Okay,” he says. Stan breathes a sigh of relief.

“Okay,” he repeats. He turns away, ignoring Kyle’s gaze. “I’m gonna forget this conversation happened, okay? For the sake of my stupid sanity.”

And Stan laughs at that. Kyle smiles, but doesn’t make a noise.

His vocal cords, strained with the effort of trying to keep himself calm, refuse to work for the rest of the walk. Stan’s house comes up quickly, and their goodbye is virtually nonexistent. It’s a minuscule wave, really, something that could be missed if not for the activeness with which Kyle is searching for it, for something to latch onto and remember and feel for the rest of the night, just something to keep him company in the dark of his bedroom, or the cold of the car if they go visit Mom tonight, or to fill the air with something other than stale oxygen.

Kyle unlocks the front door and steps in, shedding his backpack and shrugging off his coat with a particular malaise. He goes to kick the door shut behind him, but stops short, wary of the fact that he only has one good leg. It stings, now, a brisk grasp of the limb is heating the skin. He pushes the door shut with his elbow, instead, locking it as quietly as possible. He takes a step towards the kitchen.

Stops short.

Glances at his shoes and backpack.

They’re strewn, a little haphazardly, in the corner. He… no, he can’t leave them like that, it’d be irresponsible. Bad luck. He needs to be better, he needs to—

Kyle crouches, fixing his shoes and his backpack so they’re settled neatly and symmetrically next to the front door. He stands back up, taking care not to put too much unrestricted pressure on his injured leg. There. See? Look at that, all neat and tidy, now. Keep doing that, it’ll make things look nicer and that’ll make everything feel better. Cleaning can do wonders for the psyche, he’d read that somewhere. Being in a clean environment is important.

He heads into the kitchen and opens the freezer, removing an icepack. It’s cold, numbing his fingers immediately. Relieved, he shuts the door to the freezer and grabs a towel to wrap the icepack up in. He’ll need that to make sure he doesn’t freeze his skin. That’s not what he’s trying to do. He just needs to make sure his leg heals as fast as possible. He can’t risk getting more injuries on top of this one, and he can’t risk being incapacitated for too long. He has to stay strong for Ma, and he can’t show weakness to Cartman. It’s basically lifeblood to the sociopath, the misery of others.

With a sigh, Kyle meanders back into the living room, using the wall to support his aching path, trying not to aggravate the already angry bruises. He can feel them. He hasn’t seen them, hasn’t pulled up his pant leg yet, but he knows he’ll have marks there for a while. He sits down on the couch and turns, laying along the length of the couch. He pulls up his pant leg, biting his lip in preparation of the moment of truth.

Red. Lots of red, and ferocious hues. It flowers up, blood underneath the skin. It’s hot to the touch, and it hurts with pressure. He hisses, trying to ignore the fact that there are some places that are starting to darken to a very simple shade of lilac, spotting just barely. Oh, fuck…

Kyle wraps the ice pack in the towel and rests it on the injury, making sure to keep his touch mild and calm. For a second, it hurts, and the throbbing feels a little more like squeezing, or punching. The numbing scratch of the ice has him cold in a matter of moments, though, and he catches up with himself quickly. His mind is starting to reel, now, with the reality of something so physical reigniting the frozen discomfort that had dug itself a home deep within his stomach. He leans back, propping himself up with a couple of the pillows on the couch.

Fuck.

Breathe, fucking breathe. It’s fine.

He’s fine.

Kyle reclines for a long time, mulling over the details of the things he doesn’t want to think about. The ice melts a little, but not significantly. He rests, keeps himself from giving in to the pounding pressure that has started to surface in his chest. A strange mild tapping of his heart, something he can feel quite well. But he’s fine. He breathes through it, thinks about good things, like rabbits and ducks and dogs and Stan’s puppy dog eyes. The way they redden when he’s high— fuck, stop.

He rubs his eyes, trying to wake himself up, trying to get a grip on the bullshit he’s spiraling into. He’s fine. Everything is fine. He doesn’t need anything, he can compartmentalize, he can fix, he can repair, he can understand and control and he can get his shit together, okay? He’s in control. Breathe.

Breathe.

Breathe.

There’s a tapping. What’s that tapping?

Wait.

There are footsteps heading down the stairs, and immediately, Kyle sits up. He removes the icepack from his shin and struggles with pulling down the leg of his pants. He turns to sit normally, ignoring the way it aches to move. Not his leg, his leg is numb, but the rest of him aches with the sudden burst of energy. He rubs the back of his neck, where it has become stiff from his relaxation. He shuts his eyes against the offending light.

“Kyle?” Ike asks. Kyle glances up, squinting as his eyes readjust to the brightness of the outside that sheds in from the window. Ike stands, having just stepped off of the landing a moment ago. There’s something about the way he holds himself, casual yet formal, like he’s in a mode he can’t quite crack. Or… wait, hold on. Kyle rubs his eyes again, trying to force away the strange film that has collected over his vision. His brain has fogged up. Something in him snapped. Turned off. A light switch was flicked, powered down, and he’s hardly there at all.

It feels funny.

He feels vaguely high, but not really.

“Hi, Ike,” Kyle says, sitting up a little straighter where he sits. He fidgets with the icepack in his hands, brushing the pads of his fingers over the fabric of the towel it’s wrapped in.

“What’s with the towel?” Ike asks. Kyle glances down.

“Well, if you look closely, it appears to be a towel,” Kyle deflects. Ike frowns.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Nothing,” Kyle says.

“Uh huh.” Ike glances down, his gaze fixed on the specific spot where the ice pack had been resting on Kyle’s shin. Self-conscious, Kyle reaches down to rub the spot. He almost gasps when he feels skin rather than the fabric of his jeans. When he looks down, he finds that he’d completely failed to pull the leg of his pants down all the way. Most of the injury is hidden, but there’s certainly enough for someone to become suspicious of something happening. Kyle yanks the pant leg down the rest of the way, brushing off some imaginary dust. “You’re being stupid.”

Kyle looks over. Ike glares.

“What’s going on with you?” Ike asks. Although Ike’s not hostile, Kyle can’t help but be bitter.

“Nothing’s going on with me, it was a basketball mishap,” he says, standing up from the couch. “Just don’t worry about it.”

“Well, if nothing’s going on, I shouldn’t have to worry,” Ike says. Kyle rolls his eyes. Smartass. Kyle says as such.

“Smartass.”

Ike just smiles.

Kyle doesn’t have the energy to naturally smile back, so he has to force it. Although it’s obvious that Ike doesn’t buy it, he doesn’t say anything. Kyle is grateful for that. He grips the icepack tighter, holding it close to his body, where it cools a spot against his stomach. “Will you be okay down here by yourself?” he asks, trying to make sure he takes care of his brotherly duty. Ike makes a face, probably inquisitive of why he’s asking such a thing, which spurs Kyle to reply, “I’m tired, and I’d like to take a nap.”

Hesitantly, Ike says, “I’ll be okay, you go do that.”

But he’s fidgeting, and Kyle doesn’t like it. “Ike, I can stay down here if you want me to.”

“No,” Ike protests, his voice firm. He pouts. “I’ll be fine, I’m old enough to handle myself!”

“Okay,” Kyle says. He rubs the back of his neck with his free hand, tempted to call it a day on the couch rather than suffering the stairway. He’s not going to do that, though. If he did, it’d only give Ike more fuel to become picky. The last thing Kyle needs is Ike dragging Dad into this, when it’s unnecessary. Nothing’s even happening. Kyle is fine, he’s holding things together on his own. Dad doesn’t need to take all of the stress. Kyle can bear some, too.

“Go nap,” Ike commands, pointing sharply at the steps. Kyle rolls his eyes, waving Ike’s gesture off dismissively.

“Right, okay,” he says. He starts up the steps, holding back the natural wince that comes with unintentionally leading with his injured leg. He pushes through, taking the steps one at a time. The feeling has returned by now, and it’s sharp, unpleasant. Very unpleasant. Kyle tries to hide whatever limp might be peeking through, but he doesn’t know if he’s succeeding. He makes it to his room, pushing the door shut behind him.

Dizzy, Kyle sinks to the ground. He crouches, dropping the icepack and gripping his shin with one hand, covering his mouth with the other, squeezing his eyes shut as tight as he can. He tries to force it back, and he succeeds. The burning of his eyes threatens him, but he keeps himself from indulging in the urge to cry. The stinging goes away, and when he’s out of the woods, he blinks his eyes open. They just want to close again, but he won’t let them.

The dizziness that had forced him to his knees is mild, barely able to be called dizziness. More than anything, it’s just disorientation, making him feel like someone is grabbing his head and forcing him to look places, rather than him genuinely controlling his own body. It’s like his brain isn’t getting enough oxygen. With the thought, he draws in a deep breath, inhaling until something in his chest pulls tight. He coughs, once, quietly, until that tightness goes away.

He’s fine.

He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine.

His mother is not fine.

She could die.

She could be dead, right now, and he wouldn’t know until Dad called. Or the hospital, or whatever— he wouldn’t know.

He should—

Pray, maybe, or something. He should pray, a conversation in hopes of her to be safe, or healthy, or just be okay wherever she ends up going, if anywhere. He knows he’s not supposed to feel so crushed by this, since death is a part of life and a natural thing, but it’s so suffocating. His eyes are burning again, forcing him to blink back the blur of tears, biting his lip. He knows that whatever is going to happen will happen, and he knows that he shouldn’t fear that, and he knows he should let it fall into the hands of—

he can’t, fucking fuck, he can’t even think about it.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

How does the rest of it go?

It’s a psalm. He’s heard it before, he knows it, he knew it, and he’s always felt like it was special. Like it deserved attention, even though that might sound weird. He’s felt connected to it, maybe a little overly, or maybe he’s overestimating it in a time of need, but he doesn’t care. He feels the urge to read it, to know it, to hold it in his hands and look at the words and be able to keep it together.

To be better.

He should know it. It’s weird, but it’s a distinct feeling. He should know it, just in case. He could laugh. In case of what? What would he need it for? He doesn’t know. But he’s afraid.

No, he’s not.

Yes, I am.

Kyle claws at the carpet, balancing himself and slowly standing, pushing himself upright. He limps over to bed, not realizing he forgot the icepack on the floor until he’s already sitting on his mattress. At that point, he doesn’t care enough to go back for it. Kyle takes a deep breath and opens his bedside drawer, pulling it out all the way until he can reach the copy of the JPS Hebrew-English Bible (which may-or-may-not have been, uh, "permanently borrowed" from a certain large department store a while back) that he keeps back there. He hasn’t used it much; he doesn't really have a reason to. It’s more of a comfort of the presence thing than something he reads, anyway. He pulls it out when he needs to not be alone.

Does that sound stupid?

He closes the drawer and sets the book beside him on the mattress, slowly laying down. He pushes his extra pillow under his leg, keeping it elevated, though he would prefer the ice. He retrieves the Bible and opens it, slowly and carefully flipping through until he finds the place he’s looking for.

Psalm 23.

Chapter Text

He can’t remember it.

He spent all night trying to memorize it, and all morning trying to recall it. His head hurts in the wake of such an effort, it straining just behind his eyes. With every step to AP Chemistry, Kyle pretends the pain in his leg is the same pain in his head. A punishment, maybe— something he can indulge in based on his disappointment. He catches himself inflicting it multiple times throughout the day. During particularly agitating moments of exasperation, he’ll rub absently at the bouquet of bruises which he sports.

It’s funny.

He entertains the idea of telling someone, but then the reminder of the fact that this is stupid comes back, and he’ll try not to laugh at his own idiocy. He double-triple-quadruple checks his pant leg, making sure it’s pulled down. He knows from experience that teachers always read way too much into things— particularly in the moments where it doesn’t matter.

That, too, is funny.

So, so funny.

Ha ha.

See? He’s laughing.

Kyle slips into his seat, tugging his textbook and pencil out of his backpack. He settles, then after a moment, withdraws his notebook. He mindlessly doodles. That’s what he would call it: mindless doodling. Like he’s scribbling little hearts or something, but he’s not. He jots down words, sounds out sentences, chops up phrases and makes new, nonsense words out of alphabets he wishes he were less familiar with, if only to save himself the pain of having to gaze into that language as it laughs. Because that’s what it’s doing, isn’t it? It’s laughing at him, with open letters and large loops, circles on G’s and wide-based A’s…

Abruptly, mid-sentence, he switches alphabets. He prefers the Hebrew alef-bet to the English letter system, anyways. It’s always been more pleasing to his eye, not to mention a bit sentimental. There’s something calming about its presence, like that’s enough for him to feel okay. In some ways, he supposes, it awakens something deep in his soul that reminds him of who he is, and who he’s always related to.

מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.

Mizmor leDavid: yevah roi lo achsar.

A psalm of David. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.

(And with that, an affirmation: I will not fail.)

Kyle hardly hears Miss James as she speaks. He hardly heard the bell ring for the start of class, actually. The thing that gets him to perk up is the movement— the way the seat across from him shifts, and the way Eric sits down in it. A sudden thunk, haphazard and utterly uncaring. He has his phone in his hand, Kyle notices. He picks up on the detail, zeroing in on it like a hawk. When Eric glances up at him, Kyle glances away. Kyle thinks he saw a smirk, but he’s not interested in testing the theory. He pulls his notebook closer to himself, trying to be casual in the way he covers the contents of the paper with his arm.

Miss James announces that they’re taking a test. In that moment, Kyle feels lost. He’d not been… expecting it, which is unlike him. He’s usually on top of those things, preparing and studying for them as soon as they’re brought up the two or so weeks in advance. Discombobulated, it’s all Kyle can do to refresh himself. He’s been doing fine in class thus far, so the odds of him having any issues with the test are slim. He puts away everything other than his equation sheet, calculator, and pencil. The rest of the class follows suit quickly, the rustles of their hands digging into their backpacks overriding Miss James’ voice for a few seconds. Once the ruckus dies down, she begins speaking again.

“This test will cover what we’ve been learning over this unit, and the final section of the last unit,” she says. She shuffles through some papers on her desk, withdrawing the packet of tests. Kyle tries to watch, to pay attention, to observe the way he’s always been used to, but something catches him. Eric shifts, the chair squeaks, and Kyle snaps his attention over, examining his posture to make sure he’s not about to start kicking again.

Eric isn’t even looking at Kyle. He’s watching Miss James.

Kyle takes a second to recuperate, swallowing down the strange lump that had hardened his throat. It’s easy to push away, and he finds himself absent in his observations within a matter of seconds. His thoughts try to bother him, but he doesn’t let them. He shoves them away, forces them to hide until he doesn’t even remember why he was so irritated in the first place. Miss James begins to hand out the tests, starting at the front, rounding each table to give each student their test individually. Kyle isn’t nervous. “So, as long as you have been paying attention,” Miss James begins, glaring at a student who is notorious for sleeping through class, “You should have no issues with this test.”

She makes it through the next few tables, shushing a few kids who try to hold conversations about their fun on the latest social media craze. Kyle taps the eraser of his pencil against his table’s surface, fighting off the urge to doodle on the pale portions of the plastic. Doing that would be immature, and he remembers the lectures he’s gotten from teachers for doing exactly that: don’t draw on the tables, you’re ruining them.

Kyle’s phone buzzes in his pocket. His first instinct is to just ignore it, but it doesn’t work like that. Not anymore. He glances up at Eric, who still isn’t looking over. This time, though, Kyle can see the smirk that threatens to part Eric’s lips. A snicker, in some ways, he supposes— though it’s being held back, stifled in favor of… what? Seeming aloof? Uncaring? Whatever it is, Kyle doesn’t care. He glances up, making sure Miss James is busy in her own thing, before withdrawing his phone and checking the message, as fast as possible.

Fatass: NEW TASK!!: fail the test. ;)

With his face heating up, Kyle tucks his phone back into his pocket. He wills his brain to forget about it, but the more he tries not to care, the more of the opposite affects him. He fidgets, scraping the tip of his pencil with his thumb nail, watching the shavings of graphite shed onto his skin and smear from contact.

He has to fail the test. It’s for his mom, right? He’ll do anything to make sure she’s okay.

Kyle sets down the pencil and rubs at the shavings, rubbing them across his fingertips. They’re stained, now; his fingerprints are vaguely gray in the corners. His own skin is strange to touch, almost waxy, but too dry to truly be so. He remembers seeing a dead body, but the specific circumstances for which he saw it are unclear. He just remembers the way it looked. Waxy, dead, unmoving, like a mannequin. A figure.

Miss James hands him his test. He simply stares at it. The thing, the test, the piece of paper— it’s alien, foreign, something he can’t pinpoint or comprehend right in this moment. There are words on the page, but his brain won’t connect the dots. English and questions, pictures of particles and atoms and things he knows how to do. His heart sinks. It thumps in his chest, that beat. It radiates in his stomach, something frightening. He picks his pencil back up and writes his name at the top of the test, in the preprinted blank. In a frozen nausea, Kyle finds that he might really fail the test. Not just because Eric told him to, but because the language isn’t making sense.

2 H2S + 3 O2 —> 2 SO2 + 2 H2O

He latches onto the numbers.

2 2 3 2 2 2 2 2

And one by one

H
S
O

The letters start to make sense.

It’s like he’s waking up. It’s what he understands. It’s the thing he’s okay with, the subject he’s most comfortable hiding in. The whole reason he’s studying in the first place refreshes itself, and in that moment, he can think clearly. He glances up at Eric for only a second, and since Eric isn’t paying attention to him, he doesn’t fight back the way the corners of his lips twitch upward. Even so, he rubs his mouth, hiding the smile from the public view and trying to make himself look like he’s thinking, instead. By no means is Kyle a good actor, but he doubts anyone is paying enough attention to him to really notice much. The test is enrapturing to the students, save for the kid who has decided to give up on staying awake in the corner.

Kyle makes a decision.

An affirmation: I will not fail.

With almost five minutes under his belt already, Kyle begins working as swiftly as possible. He completes problems without issue, having found genuine joy in Chemistry as a subject. Maybe he works too quickly, or maybe he doesn’t work fast enough— he doesn’t know. But something feels off. He knows it’s just his imagination, but it still feels real. As the preset time for the test runs out, Kyle turns off his calculator and pockets his things. In some minutes, class will be over. He does a quick once-over of his answers, making sure that he did them all correctly.

To his knowledge, he did well.

It’s stupid, really, but it feels like a success.

It’s a victory. A little rebellion liberates him, something he never thought he’d find himself happy with. Stan often said Kyle was a stickler for the rules, and sometimes Stan says Kyle has a stick up his ass about doing things correctly— and it’s stupid (it’s so stupid), but Kyle has to fight back another smile, because he did it. He did the test correctly, against Eric’s orders, and as the time passes today, he will come to find that Eric isn’t in charge. He will come to find, in fact, that Eric was never the one in charge.

The bell rings. Kyle packs up his stuff and brings his test to the front, giving it to Miss James as he exits the classroom.

Now free, Kyle can’t help but chuckle. Jesus, how stupid has he been? Actually believing that Eric Cartman had some secret remedy for his mom’s health? Assuredly, that was just Eric exploiting Kyle at a weak point. In retrospect, it’s utterly obvious— painfully so, in fact. His chest fills with discomfort, and he bites back a cringe at his gullibility.

Seriously, he’s known Eric for his whole life. How the hell had he fallen for such an idiotic lie? Something so blatant in its exaggeration, something so utterly fucking ridiculous to every extent?

Kyle slips past a group of seniors, then rounds a gaggle of wide-eyed, stressed-out freshmen. He remembers being a freshman. He hadn’t minded it, really. He just hated the fact that everyone else hated him, simply because he was a freshman. That seems to be a common theme in high school. The upperclassmen always seem to have a weird distaste towards the lower. Honestly, Kyle wonders if it’s just a natural learned behavior… he certainly has caught himself in the midst of an irritation towards freshmen.

“You’re dead.”

Kyle startles, almost choking himself with the strap of his backpack as he spins around. His breath struggles to catch up with his heart, which has jump-started with adrenaline of the scare. He stumbles to a stop, his back hitting the wall, only breathing a minuscule sigh of relief when he sees it’s Stan.

Stan, with his wide eyes and look of concerned shock, asks, “Whoa, man, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says, quick in his assurance, though the pain, always lingering, reiterates itself in a constant ache up his leg with the stumbling. He ignores the urge to rub at the area, distracting himself by asking, “Why am I dead?”

“…what?” Stan asks.

“You said I’m dead,” Kyle says, quirking a brow. He crosses his arms over his chest. “So, what’d I do this time?”

With an antsy expression, Stan glances down the hallway. “Uh,” he begins, choking on the syllable. His cheeks pink up. “I didn’t say you were dead, I… didn’t say anything, actually…”

There’s a split-second of stiffness, before Stan gives a hesitant grin, snorting in amusement.

“You’re losing it,” Stan says. Kyle rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” Kyle says. He must have overheard someone else’s conversation and overreacted. It’s not the first time that’s happened. He beckons for Stan to follow, starting to walk again. They have next period together, so walking like this isn’t uncommon. “At least I don’t use girl’s shampoo.”

Stan laughs and prods at Kyle playfully. “Jesus, dude, you’re such an idiot.”

Kyle can only agree.

Chapter Text

An exhaustion had started to tug deep in Kyle’s brain, sometime between the start of final period and after the end-of-school bell. He had plans of walking home with Stan today. In fact, they still do have plans to walk home together.

But before they’d decided to head out, Kyle had needed to excuse himself to the restroom. As Kyle did so, Stan piped up with his decision to stick near the entrance and wait for Kyle to come back, as is routine if one of them needs to make a pit-stop.

It’s essentially a soft torture just getting to the boys’ bathroom in the East wing. Before Kyle even enters the restroom, he can’t stop himself from rubbing at his eyes, trying to rouse his sleepy brain from whatever funk it’d fallen into. There’s still graphite stuck to his skin, and he makes note to wash that off before he rinses his face. He stops at one of the sinks, reaching for the soap, but he stops short. Glancing at the stalls, Kyle contemplates a pee break. With a shrug, he decides it couldn’t hurt, and leaves his backpack next to the sink he’d previously occupied.

In the thirty seconds or so it takes him to take care of business, no one enters the bathroom. The door stays shut the whole time; Kyle kept an ear out for the telltale squeak, just in case he had to suddenly start panicking about anyone trying to steal his backpack. Ultimately, though, that dormant fear doesn’t have to come into play. He exits the stall and resumes his position at the sink he’d lain claim to via his backpack, quickly pumping some soap into his hand and running his elbow under the tap to get the water started. Sensors are quite helpful, aren’t they? It certainly limits the amount of germs he has to come into contact with, even though he knows technically that phones and keyboards are more dirty than even a toilet— not that he would even dare consider trusting a school toilet more than his phone, considering, well… just ew.

Kyle rinses the lather off of his hands, and once that’s done, he glances at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t pay much mind to his reflection, though, hardly giving it the time of day before ducking and splashing some cold water over his face. He digs the heels of his palms into his eyes, trying to initiate the feeling of being awake. He thinks his exhaustion might be due to his state of borderline relaxation after AP Chemistry today. He’d been weirdly calm. With the realization of Eric’s threat being empty, he’d accepted the fact that things would be okay.

Kyle withdraws from the sink, flicking the excess water from his hands and reaching for a paper towel. He squints, keeping the water out of his eyes as he moves—

hands

on his waist

pin him to the sink, thrust him forward until there’s no room, until he drops the paper towel on instinct and reaches up, supporting himself with a loud clamor of noise, against the mirror. His hips complain, unfamiliar with the sensation of being pressed against the ceramic. He shifts, kicks his leg back to fight off the attacker, his eyes still shut to fight off the lingering threat of water getting into his eyes, but it doesn’t help that he can’t see. His body reacts. He shoves his hands, digs them into the wall at each side of the mirror, trying to push back against whoever is pinning him. The wide frame of the guy is telling, though. Kyle opens his eyes. He barely catches a glimpse of Eric before he’s shrouded in darkness. Pressure over his eyes, a thick hand keeping him blinded.

He can feel the way Eric is pressing against him, into him. His arms struggle with the bearing of the weight. He kicks again, more intently, and he thinks he lands a couple of them, but he doesn’t know for sure. He’s too stuck in his head to feel if he makes contact. His nerves try to defend him, to pay attention to the cold on his palms rather than the heat of Eric’s chest and stomach and hips and—

Don’t say anything,” Eric says, his breath hot and spidery in the shell of Kyle’s ear. A shudder bolts his spine stiff, makes him dig his fingertips into the surface of the wall. Kyle’s heart doesn’t pound, it flicks— patting his ribs in rapid rate, something that makes his head feel dizzy and his feet feel light. Kyle needs to fight back. That’s what he needs to do. He moves to do so, but when he shifts, Eric pushes forward, leaning everything into Kyle’s back. If Kyle lets go of the wall, if Kyle stops bracing himself, he’ll hit face-first into the mirror.

Not gently.

His hips hurt, aching and tense. The adjust in position increases the amount of pressure bearing into his bruised leg. Kyle sturdies himself, steels his nerves, wonders if he told Stan which bathroom he would be using, but he doesn’t know. To that, he wonders if he can even care. It’s a passing thought, just a what-if. For now, his brain is on repeat, telling him things he knows while blasting him in the face with blatant clarity.

Dark. That’s all he sees. And Eric’s weight, the grip of that hand over his eyes, the arm wrapped around his waist.

Stay calm.

Kyle opens his mouth to speak, not thinking.

Eric digs his fingers into the flesh of Kyle’s stomach. Kyle tries to recoil, but that only forces him closer to Eric’s looming body, the overwhelming burning that keeps him still. Kyle squirms, biting his tongue at the awful atrocious bad feeling that comes with all of the contact, the nonstop pressure and reminder that Eric is right there, and he’s not leaving.

Be quiet.

“Read the Bible, Jew?” Eric asks, curling the words over his tongue like ribbon, his teeth snipping them free in lengths too short for the necessity. Kyle swallows thickly, unsure of himself and what he’s supposed to do. He simply stays silent, waiting for something else to happen, waiting for the little shift— that’s all he needs, one little shift and he can shove backwards with all of his might and run. But he has to save his energy. Eric chuckles. Kyle goes still, huffing for air. Eric’s breathing goes from his ear to his jaw, then trails back, to the nape of his neck. Chills pepper themselves over Kyle’s skin. He shies away on instinct, but Eric refuses to allow Kyle, firming his grasp over Kyle's eyes. Eric whispers, “I have an issue.”

Pressing.

“I know what you did, Kyle...”

(It’s not real.)

“...you disobeyed me.”

Stop it

Kyle bites the words back. Eric asks—

—“Feel it?”

Stop it—

“Don’t worry, I won’t make you do anything.”

DON’T MOVE.

“I have a different idea,” Eric says. All at once, the hand disappears from Kyle’s eyes, and he’s faced with blinding white. The bathroom, tiles and mirror and lights and all, fades into focus, going from blurred to sharp in a matter of seconds. He feels a shift, and he thinks this might be his chance, but the opportunity is gone before Kyle can even think about it. Eric wraps his now-free hand around Kyle’s neck, bearing strength into the grip, the joint of his thumb choking against Kyle’s pulse point. Kyle coughs against the pressure, and Eric finds that amusing. “Look at yourself… look at you.”

Eric pulls Kyle’s head up from where it had naturally fallen, forcing him to look at himself in the mirror. He struggles with the eye contact of himself, swapping between each eye, confused by his own reflection like he’s never seen it before. The outline of Eric’s hand contrasts with Kyle’s skin. It’s only a split shade darker, only a hair’s difference, a minuscule diversity that sticks out, painful in its obviousness given the situation. Kyle’s face has gone so pale, his lips darker than he’d thought they were. Hazel, hazel, hazel, those are his eyes. Hazel. He tries not to look at Eric in the mirror. He doesn’t want to know what Eric’s face looks like, holding him so firmly, regarding so much control. He doesn’t want to see the brown of Eric’s eyes.

Kyle focuses on the reflection of the scuffed bathroom tiles, counting them, paying attention to the numbers even as Eric snakes that horrid hand underneath the hem of Kyle’s shirt, even as he starts squeezing into the flesh of Kyle’s stomach. The air rushes out of Kyle’s lungs.

Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six...

“Are you gaining weight?” Eric asks, peeking just over Kyle’s head. Kyle refuses to glance up, refuses to look at him, refuses refuses refuses.

Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four—

What are you doing? Counting? Fight back.

Kyle wrenches his head down, working to escape the grip. Eric immediately adjusts, grabbing Kyle’s jaw to force him to look up again.

“Oh, you didn’t like that, did you?” Eric hums. Kyle scowls at his reflection. Scowls at the tiles. Thirty-five. “What about it didn’t you like?”

Eric pulls Kyle’s head up higher. Kyle stares at the ceiling, refusing to give in and make eye contact. Eric huffs.

“Don’t like being fat?” Eric asks. “Don’t like that idea, don’t like going soft? Afraid you eat too much, or move too little?”

Don’t listen to him.

Eric tugs Kyle’s head back down again. Kyle tries to turn away from his reflection. He doesn’t want to look at himself anymore. He doesn’t want to see the wide-eyed stare of his own face. He doesn’t want to. “You hate me,” says Eric, his tone seething with poison, a venomous concoction of air and saliva that clicks in Kyle’s ears. “You hate me so much, you can’t handle the thought of being close to who I am, isn’t that right? You don’t want to be me, isn’t that right? Kyle?”

Don’t talk.

The grip on Kyle tightens, and Eric barks, “Speak!”

Kyle whispers, “Don’t give yourself so much credit.”

His throat is raw, rubbing painfully as he talks, a reminder of the way Eric had grabbed his neck just seconds ago. Eric seems pleased with the answer nonetheless— as pleased as he can be, given the words that had come from Kyle’s mouth. Eric’s dull, thought-bitten nails pinch and scratch at Kyle’s stomach, catching at his navel. Kyle chokes out a growl.

“Not everything revolves around you,” Kyle spits, newly confident. It proves vaguely in the ballpark of hubris, however, as Eric reacts none-too-kindly. He pulls Kyle away from the sink in such a rapid movement that Kyle doesn’t have time to process. He just knows that, one moment, he’s grasping the wall— the next, he’s gripping the sink, more doubled-over than he’d like to admit. Eric remains, front pressing into Kyle’s backside. This… this is a good opportunity. Kyle can run. Eric doesn’t have as much high ground here. But if Kyle wants this to work, he needs to find a good opening before he moves.

“You don’t think so?” Eric asks, removing his hand from Kyle’s jaw and trailing it, instead, down the line of Kyle’s spine. When he reaches Kyle’s waistband, Eric moves back up, taking the hem of the shirt with his hand. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his teeth. Without thinking, he sucks in and holds stiff. Eric snorts. “If not everything revolves around me, why is everything happening while I’m around? Huh?”

Eric walks his fingers down Kyle’s exposed ribs— 

“Why am I there with the bitch?”

—counting them, tapping the skin of Kyle’s back— 

“Why am I there in your class...”

—he stops over Kyle’s right kidney— 

“...why am I at your house, and why am I…”

grabbing him

“…here?”

Immediately, Kyle tenses, holding the sink with a white-knuckled grip. When Eric smooths both palms around to fidget with the scar, Kyle’s brain short-circuits. Memories, old and new, all horrible, explode in his skull. His reaction is based purely on instinct. He kicks Eric, aiming for the knee but hitting the shin, and twists. The shock of the pain is enough to get Eric to startle— the squirming seals the deal. Without a second thought, Kyle bolts, tugging his shirt down and snatching up his backpack as he absconds.

His brain catches everything. Every movement around him, every sound nearby, every glitter of light from the window or jimmy of a faraway handle as a janitor starts sweeping the halls.

Everything.

Chapter Text

As the smoke fills Kyle’s lungs, overriding everything he’s built for himself thus far, he tries to pretend their newfound routine has nothing to do with himself. Suggestions are just that: suggestions. Whenever he gives Stan a look, there’s still an option. Whenever he asks, it’s still a question. They wouldn’t do it if Stan didn’t want to do it, too. That’s what Kyle says. That’s what Kyle thinks.

That’s what Kyle hopes Stan knows.

He leans back against Stan’s headboard, contemplating the outline of his hand against the wall. Just as such, he tries to understand the difference between the joint and his flesh.

As far as he’s concerned, there is none.

As, as, as.

What a wonderful world.

Another draw— the smoke pulls into Kyle’s mouth, curls down his throat, little teasing tendrils he can’t help but imagine. He wonders how much he would have to smoke before he became part of this, too. The smoke. How much could he take in without disintegrating? How much could he take in before the bonds of his skin started to replace themselves, swapping with smoke and air, until he became a pile of dust and ash?

Particles fall from the tip of the joint. They make homes in the little cracks of the cinder block in Kyle’s lap. He doesn’t remember grabbing the cinder block off of Stan’s windowsill, nor does he remember putting it in his lap. He hardly remembers arriving here, or climbing into the bed. There’s a section of life that he just doesn’t remember, doesn’t recall, and no matter how much he tries, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a fall, not something he minds too much. He lowers the joint, pinching the sides and feeling the heat that creeps from the end.

Skin.

Soft, unmarred, untouched.

Kyle had taken off his jacket, at some point. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up, revealing his wrists and forearms.

Is it funny?

The way he remembers the things he doesn’t want to? The way Eric’s hands feel, creeping up his back? The way his shirt feels, being pulled up to his neck? The way his hips feel, being pressed into the sink? The way his face looks, when he’s afraid?

Is it comedic?

The way Kyle isn’t there, the way he’s alone in the worst of it, the thick of the forest and the way those hairs on the back of his arms stand up— do you see that? Thin, light, lighter than his hair, hardly noticeable if you don’t look for them, look.

And his skin is so soft. It better be, he uses lotion, he takes care of himself.

But he doesn’t like it.

The burning end of the joint creeps closer to Kyle’s forearm. That skin, the miles of it, the stretch of his arm, where the bone and muscle and flesh and fat reside, the fact that there’s too much of it, maybe. The fact that he exists. Is this real life? He might need to pinch himself. Just pinch the skin, the bone the muscle the flesh the fat, curl it between his fingers or mar himself through his own doing. Voluntarily.

Look at it.

The joint.

Creeping.

A hand that isn’t Kyle’s own wraps around Kyle’s wrist, forcing his movement to stop. Kyle looks up, blinks through the gradual blearing of his gaze, where Stan’s face rests just an inch too far away. His hair is caught, shining in the light that comes in from the window, illuminating it like there’s a halo, a beautiful fractal of brightness that Kyle doesn’t want to let go of.

“Don’t do that,” Stan says, eyes half-lidded. “It hurts.”

“How do you know?” Kyle asks, quiet. Stan seems caught on this, his teeth chewing on something that isn’t there. Stan looks down, at where they’re touching, at the joint that spits smoke, at the thing that muddled their brains so acutely, the thing that Kyle loves.

But Stan’s the addict.

How sour a thought. Kyle can taste it. He needs another hit. He kisses Stan, meeting the corner of his mouth rather than the center, but he doesn’t care. Stan’s the one that fixes it. Slowly, he turns his head, languid as he presses forward. His fingers catch in their grasp on Kyle’s arm, sliding the contact down to Kyle’s wrist. Kyle doesn’t know how, but Stan manages to retrieve the joint and put it out on the cinder block in Kyle’s lap without looking.

Or maybe he did look, and Kyle just didn’t notice. He doesn’t care.

Stan leaves the remnants of their drug on the cinder block and sets it back in its rightful place on the windowsill. Kyle won’t let go of Stan’s hand, the one that had previously been grabbing his wrist. It’s okay, though, since Stan doesn’t seem keen on letting Kyle fall too far, anyway. They’re in a pool, Kyle concludes. Even as Stan tugs Kyle down by his hips, having him lay down on the bed, they’re underwater. That’s why the visuals are unclear, and that’s why everything looks so much more beautiful. Who is to say that the air isn’t water in its own right? Maybe science has it wrong. Liquids are solids and solids are gas and gas is liquid.

Stan kisses him, and Kyle kisses back, curling his fingers into Stan’s shirt, grabbing him and pulling him down, closer. Stan smells more like the joint than the joint itself, smoky and deep, a trench that Kyle can’t help but fall into. Those hands of Stan’s, they roam. Pressing skin licks against Kyle’s waist. He slips the fingertips beneath his shirt and lets them settle, linger there, his thumbs at either side of Kyle’s stomach, rubbing above his hips.

And is it funny?

That when Stan does this— when Stan touches him, so gentle— Kyle can only fear it?

It storms in his stomach, a weather pattern brought on by a loss of control, something supposedly temporary.

And, as they continue, as they kiss and taste each other’s mouths, as they understand the way each other’s enzymes comprehend the components of smoke, as they arch against each other and giggle together like it’s a joke, is it funny?

And if it is, why is Kyle not happy?

Maybe.

Kyle’s muscles quiver, try to turn to mush, and Stan supports him. He loops a gentle arm beneath Kyle, reaching with his other soft hand and cradling the back of Kyle’s neck with it. Kyle rises with it, wrapping his arms over Stan’s shoulders and starting to sit up, because he wonders if it’ll feel different. Stan pulls him, sits back until Kyle can slip into his lap and kiss at Stan’s mouth and cheeks and face and nose, looping his fingers through the thick hair atop Stan’s head, trying to cover him with the affection that Kyle craves having with someone who actually loves him back.

But for now, it’s just Kyle’s love, and the lust of Stan as he’s pulled along, unable to resist the idea of it, maybe. The taboo, or the thrill of getting caught, or something less satisfying than the idea that Stan actually might like Kyle the same way Kyle likes Stan.

Stan tries to pull away, duck his head back from Kyle’s mouth, and embarrassingly, Kyle chases it. He doesn’t want to let the moment go, he doesn’t want to fuck this up. His hands aren’t as strong as he wants them to be, his muscles aren’t as sturdy as he’d like them to be, his skin is a little too squishy and maybe he is getting soft, and maybe Stan finds him gross.

Kyle backs off. He tries to get up, but Stan doesn’t let him. Stan grabs his waist and holds him down, holds them together, holds them sturdy. They look at each other, silent, until Stan whispers the word, “Fire,” like that answers something beyond the universe itself.

“Ice,” Kyle whispers back, finding a game in it, but Stan shakes his head.

“Fire,” Stan repeats. He coughs, clearing his throat. There’s a smile on his lips, those beautiful lips, beautiful. Kyle traces the pad of his thumb over the partition of them. Stan draws Kyle’s thumb into his mouth, going the extra mile and sucking so gently on it, flicking his tongue along the crease of his knuckle. Kyle exhales, enraptured and awestruck. Stan lets it go, and Kyle pulls his hand away. Stan smiles, wider, his cheeks pink, his eyes glossy. “That’s how I know it hurts, because it’s fire, and—”

Kyle snorts, saying, “Fire bad.”

Stan starts to laugh. Kyle does, too. They fall into a tight hug, encasing each other in warmth as they bundle under the uncontrollable giggling. Stan has his arms wrapped so tightly around Kyle’s waist, Kyle wonders if he’s going to be able to breathe through it. He can, of course, but there’s that catch in his throat. Stan lays on his back on the bed, and Kyle naturally follows over him, pressing his face into Stan’s neck on the way down.

It’s funny.

It’s so funny.

And Kyle can’t help but lose himself in it, the unfocused panic of his chest constricting, the way he’s out of control. He thinks about the fire, and he thinks about the joint— he thinks and thinks and thinks, until he’s in a circle, imagining those hands and his shirt and the scar and the quiet.

Stay calm.

Be quiet.

Don’t move.

And it’s scary, but at the same time, it’s funny. It’s funny, funny, funny— ridiculous, because it doesn’t make sense. Why would Eric do that?

“Kyle?” Stan whispers, but Kyle doesn’t respond. He can’t. He gasps for breath, shuddering with his next exhale, a mess of giggling that sounds more like sobbing as the tears start to prickle, as the saliva starts to gather, as he chokes through swallows and starts to whine instead of chuckle. He tries to lose the scent of school soap and heat by taking in Stan’s scent, the smoke and sweat and apples, artificial and tangy from the day of work and school. Fingers curl through Kyle’s hair, a grounding sentiment, something that helps him come back down from his loss of control. His emotions, for a moment, had run rampant— Kyle takes in breaths, lets them out, settles in the midst of this place. It feels like ash, breathing it in. Stan keeps petting Kyle’s hair. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s funny,” is all Kyle says after a pause. He’d needed to rehearse that phrase, repeating it over and over and over in his mind until it felt like a language he understood. The way Stan shifts frightens Kyle, makes him fear loss, makes him fear the world and all the scary things inside of it. Without thinking, he says, “Hold me tighter, you idiot.”

Nothing happens. Until Stan does. He pulls his hands from Kyle’s hair and wraps his arms around Kyle’s waist, tugging him as close as possible. Kyle matches the feeling, nuzzles down, settles. He syncs his own breathing with Stan’s, meeting with every inhale and sinking with every exhale. It’s the way their bodies move, closed-eyed and resting, tangled together a little messily. They can say it’s the thought that counts, but they both know this was thoughtless. So what does that make them?

Kyle tries to lose himself on a cloud of ecstasy, but there’s only so much that a joint can do for him. He should ask for more. “Stan,” he says, quiet. He lifts his head, just enough so they can make eye contact. Stan hums, blinking through a mild irritation.

Those lips of his, so soft.

Kyle forgets his urge for more marijuana. The distraction is enough, for now. He kisses Stan, a pleasurable roll of a shiver stepping down his spine as Stan kisses back.

But the “for now” is just that: temporary.

He feels ashamed when he whispers the question of another joint.

Chapter Text

Kenny and Butters are pretend sword-fighting with plastic forks stained with the acid from tomato slices. Kyle thinks he finds it funny, but at the same time, he doesn’t really know. He’s mid-conversation with Stan about something they both found funny at one point. It feels different, he guesses. Something lost that he’s mourning for, to some strange extent that refuses to apply connections in his brain. Synapses try to understand him, or maybe he tries to understand them— the places where he used to be a person feel a little strained. He’s okay, he really is, he’s just tired. He didn’t sleep well enough last night, because he couldn’t relax. The weed wore off before he could pass out in bed. He wouldn’t say he’s a naturally anxious person, because he doesn’t like the way that makes him sound. Anxious, anxious, anxious. Anxiety. Everyone has anxiety. People just deal with it. He just deals with it.

He picks at the corner of a carrot slice with his nail, shaving little orange bits off of it that he tries to smear against his skin. He imagines it leaving a stain like the lead did when he was in AP Chemistry yesterday. But carrots don’t do that. The carbon from graphite leaves marks on the paper, revealing itself in writing that will likely never be read later. Carrots are food, something he’s supposed to eat, something that has vitamins and minerals and calories and water, fiber, maybe, antioxidants or whatever the terms are. It’s something he’s supposed to put into his mouth and chew and chew and chew and swallow. Then it goes down his esophagus, into his stomach, to be digested, and that’s energy and sugars and water and all the other dietary needs he’s supposed to consume throughout the day. That’s the way it works. That’s the way eating works.

But somewhere along the way, it’ll catch. The carrot slice, the sandwich, the bread— it’ll catch, and make a home in him, and be a part of him, and he can’t have that right now. Too many things are trying to make homes in him, too many things are trying to get his attention, too many things ache for the pieces of him he’s slowly running out of. The more he thinks about it, the funnier it is. The more logic he applies to it, the less it makes sense. He needs something to go his way for once.

It’s stupid, but he thinks that, maybe, this is the thing he’ll be able to keep as his own. Just a little, maybe, because he doesn’t want to die. He needs energy to take care of his family, and he needs energy so he doesn’t become paralyzed when he smokes with Stan, and he needs energy to keep playing sports with the guys, and he needs energy to understand Chemistry and get good grades and go into college, but maybe.

Maybe.

He doesn’t need as much energy as he’s supplying his body with.

Maybe.

“Huzzah!” exclaims a victorious Butters, raising his red-stained fork into the air above his head. Kenny has been caught up in the details of the game, too, gasping and playing out another forgettable death. For some reason, Butters gets caught up in a speech— something funny, maybe, because Stan’s attention withdraws from Kyle completely and turns to Butters and Kenny’s theatrics. He’s chuckling, snorting quietly with his eyes narrowed and his mouth smiling and his cheeks pink. Kyle smiles like he’s listening to the stupid thing, but he’s not. He’s too busy, quickly and quietly sneaking his food back into the bags it came in and slipping it into his lunch box. He doesn’t manage to pack all of it, but he gets most of it.

Kyle decides he’s being stupid, and starts to eat the carrots. He keeps the bread within reach, just in case he wants to nibble on it or something. After giving his brain time to ride out the sudden emotion, he realizes the utter fucking stupidity of the idea. Is the weed ruining him? It’s tearing apart his brain and making him think he’s invincible, isn’t it? That’s what it must be doing. These thoughts aren’t Kyle’s own, they’re from the weed.

Or maybe

(frighteningly)

They’re from the lack of it.

It’s sudden. A single thought is enough to throw him back to when he woke up in Stan’s bedroom to see him smoking. To the burning choking aching heave of the first drag, to the attempts and pain of the second and third attempts, to the gradual ease he’d come to accept the joints with. His head is dizzy, and his eyes won’t focus, like he’s actually still high or something. As his brain struggles to catch up with everything going on around him, he begins to pick at another carrot slice. He picks and picks and picks, scraping orange shavings into a pile on the tiny plastic bag he’d brought them to school in, staring at it like it’s the fix.

But weed is the fix. It helps him feel better. It’s associated with nothing but good things, happy memories, stress-free thoughts and actions and feelings of relaxation and glee. Pathways inside of his brain try to connect, but they can’t. He’s in a loop, but the loop is pinched at one side, and he can’t force his way through it to keep going without effort— and he just doesn’t know if he has the effort.

Y’know, when he’s not high.

Stan is saying something about sheep when Kyle kicks him softly under the table—

( kick kick kick

[the gay stuff]

Kick kick kick

[maybe I’m in control]

Kick kick kick. )

— and Stan glances over, allowing Kenny to take the conversation into his—

[maybemaybemaybe I’M in control]

—control, spewing nonsense about some dirty magazine he found at the park yesterday. Kyle isn’t paying attention, unsurprisingly, and neither is Stan. They look at each other, and Kyle bites his lip, maybe a little obviously. Stan gets it. He looks Kyle up and down, glances away, and then nods without a word. A nonverbal agreement to meet up later and talk about doing it again tonight, like every other night. It’s commonplace. They’ll do it.

The tightness in Kyle’s chest— one he hadn’t even realized was there in the first place— starts to dissipate now that he knows he can smoke tonight.

A buzzing erupts from Kyle’s pocket. It makes no noise, but it startles him out of his focus. He drops the slice of carrot he’d been picking at, and it rolls into his lap only to bounce onto the floor. He stares at it, for a second, wondering if he has the will to pick it up rather than just leave it for whoever sweeps the floors in the cafeteria after the lunch periods. He can’t do that, though. He can’t not pick up after himself. Kyle scoots away from the table and leans down, grabbing the carrot slice and standing, making his way over to the trashcan to throw the now-filthy thing away. On his boring journey, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and checks the text.

Fatass: NEW TASK!!;; meet me into the lunch room bath room. ;))))

Kyle halts, mid-drop of the carrot. It falls into the trashcan. He glances up, double-checking to make sure this is the compost. With a sigh of relief, he realizes it is. He hesitates next to the bin, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one is confused about his whereabouts. Kenny, Butters, and Stan are all engaged in a discussion on something or another— Kyle is too far away to hear. Just as such, he must be too far away for them to notice. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Silent, Kyle slips into the boys’ restroom.

It feels the same as the one in the East wing. There’s an equal number of stalls, an equal number of toilets, an equal number of sinks and mirrors.

He pauses, hesitant. His instincts tell him to get the fuck out of there. His feet itch to move. His hands want to be washed. Everything is the same, his brain concludes. Everything is the same, and that means everything else is going to happen again. Three sinks, three stalls, three mirrors, all that work and all that are functional— the mirrors reflect Kyle’s image, every one of them. He checks, steps in and out of the sight of them. He looks the same in every one and for some reason, he can’t stop seeing his face go pale with uncertainty. He’s not making that face, is he? No, he’s not, he looks normal. The mirror lies.

Kyle pockets his phone and starts to pace, from the first sink to the third and then back to the first, crossing his arms over his chest and ducking his shoulders like he’s trying to make himself smaller, but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s cold, he thinks. It’s cold in here, and he left his jacket at the table. And he’s annoyed, he thinks, because Cartman is pulling him away from eating to talk about whatever bullfuckery they’re going to be talking about this time and the bathroom is the same, why is the bathroom the same?

He rubs his hands together, stands leaning against the back wall, and pays attention to the things that aren’t the same. He plays spot the difference with the vivid image within his brain. He picks out the things that are wrong, or missing, or extra, and it grounds him. Helps him feel less agitated.

One of the paper towel dispensers doesn’t work, one of the soap dispensers is empty, one of the sinks has a stain in it that looks suspiciously like blood, the first stall doesn’t have a door and someone coughs in the third— and, possibly most importantly, Kyle isn’t alone.

The toilet in the third stall flushes, and soon, the occasional coughs stop. There’s a pause, some shuffling, and then the stall door opens and out comes Clyde Donovan, dressed in his usual attire of a letterman jacket and jeans that are only slightly too long. When he sees Kyle, his eyes widen, vaguely caught off-guard, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He gives Kyle that I’m-popular-and-I-know-everyone look, and says, “Hey, how’s it going?” all casually, like they’ve been friends since kindergarten. Kyle can’t help but feel skeptical, even as Clyde goes about his business and washes his hands at the sink. He knows Clyde won’t say anything— he hasn’t said anything, at least, and they have sixth period together—, but Kyle still can’t get the image of Clyde approaching him at the hospital out of his head. The way he’d looked so concerned, like he genuinely cared, or like he got it, even though Kyle didn’t say what was going on.

Clyde whistles as he rinses his hands free of soap, some tune Kyle isn’t familiar with. Clyde turns off the sink and tries to get some paper towels out of the broken dispenser. Clyde doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, even as no paper towels come from it. He just keeps trying.

“Dude, I asked you a question,” Clyde says, this dopey grin on his face.

“It’s going fine,” Kyle finally answers. Clyde elbows the paper towel dispenser, apparently displeased with the lack of paper towels, but he doesn’t stop smiling. Kyle eventually gets annoyed, grabs a paper towel from the other dispenser, and hands it to Clyde. Clyde’s eyes go wide, but this isn’t a caught off-guard wide, it’s a happy-surprised wide. Clyde takes the paper towels.

“Thanks, dude!”

Kyle only shrugs and goes back to leaning against the wall. Clyde purses his lips, tossing the used paper towel into the trash. He leans against one of the sinks. Kyle rolls his eyes when he realizes Clyde is getting hunkered down for a conversation. Clyde pulls a pack of gum out of his pocket and takes out a piece. He holds the pack out to Kyle.

“You want one?” he asks. Kyle, although he really doesn’t want one (nor should he have one), doesn’t have time to say no. Clyde is already stepping forward, shoving a stick into Kyle’s hand before returning to his spot at the sink.

Exasperated, Kyle mutters, “Sure,” because it's already in his hand. Clyde grins, unwrapping his own piece of gum and popping it into his mouth. He begins to chew it.

“So, what’s up?”

“Not much,” Kyle replies, trying to be polite. He examines the wrapped stick of gum in his hand. The scent of mint hits him as soon as he starts to really pay attention to the thing. Kyle pockets the gum stick, making a note to remind himself to give it to Ike later, or something. He looks up at Clyde. “What’s up for you?”

“Not a lot,” answers Clyde. Oh, what a fun conversation. He points at Kyle’s pocket. “So, you’re not gonna actually chew the gum?”

Kyle sighs. “Look, I—”

But Kyle doesn’t finish. The door opens before he gets the chance to, squealing as the next person comes in. The wide frame of Eric Cartman bears a letterman jacket similar in style to Clyde’s, but different enough in a vague way that makes it distinguishable. It’s an older style, that’s for sure, but only by a couple of years. Eric doesn’t look very happy, but at the same time he looks the way he always does. Calm and weirdly composed, even though he is a childish asshole. “Heeey!” exclaims Clyde, startling Eric enough to make him flinch. Clyde grins. “It’s the Cart-man!”

“Go away, Clyde, no one likes you,” Eric says, exasperated. Clyde snaps his fingers, giving a bastardized version of finger guns, before obeying and slipping out of the bathroom. The silence that follows his leave is deafening, something that makes Kyle feel irate. That’s nothing new, of course. Eric doesn’t move from his spot, just a couple feet away from the door. Kyle doesn’t move from the wall, even though he wants nothing more than to kick Eric in the testicles and follow Clyde back into the cafeteria.

Eric turns around and locks the door. It clicks, unsatisfying, sharp, hoarse in the air. Kyle imagines all sorts of things, in the moment, and his immediate reactions override everything else. He stiffens, going so far as to take a step forward, saying, “You can’t do that.”

“Fuck you, Kyle, I do what I want,” Eric replies through a sigh, making it sound like he is utterly sick and tired of pointing it out all the time. He tries the door to make sure it won’t open. It doesn’t budge, stiff in his grasp. The mechanism works. Kyle could easily slip past Eric, unlock it, and leave. He could easily do it. But he doesn’t. He stays still, silent and waiting and watching and hoping and maybe, just maybe, he’s praying to some extent. Eric turns around, a look on his face. Unreadable.

Slowly, Eric approaches. One step at a time, he gets closer, advancing and closing in. Kyle refuses to slouch, or back down, or back away. He refuses to duck himself against the wall. Not again. Not this time. Kyle, with his lungs feeling too big in his chest, straightens his posture to take Eric head-on, if he has to.

“You’re lucky, you know,” Eric says. “With the way you acted, I should have punished you.”

Kyle bites back the retort of Isn’t that what you did yesterday?

“You’re disobedient,” Eric says. “You only get in the way, you know that, Jew? And, quite frankly, I don’t think you grasp the seriously-ness of this situation.”

Eric stops, six inches away. Kyle can already feel his breath, the way the air moves around him, the way his body takes up space. He can feel the phantom hands of past Eric Cartmans, grabbing his hips or his face, running his hands down his thighs and tapping over the scar on his stomach. It makes Kyle’s skin crawl. It makes him feel sick to his stomach with anger. He bites back the urge to spit into Eric’s face.

Something in Eric’s expression changes as he whispers, “Unless you do.”

Eric takes the final step forward. He lifts a hand and traces the backs of his fingers down Kyle’s cheek. It’s such a gentle motion that Kyle doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think. He just knows he dislikes it. He leans away, out of the touch, tipping his head to the side. Eric follows with his hand. Another attempt to shy away is met without success, but Kyle refuses to give in. He pushes Eric’s hand away. Eric’s smile doesn’t leave.

“You know what I’m doing to your mom,” Eric says, “And yet, you still keep disobeying… maybe you like it.”

Kyle freezes.

“Oh, is that it?” Eric asks. Another step forward. Too close. Kyle pushes against Eric’s chest. Predictably, Eric doesn’t back up. He leans in, bearing his weight into Kyle’s attempts to shove him away. Kyle can’t help it. He stumbles back until he’s pressed with his back against the bathroom wall. Distantly, Kyle wonders how many times he’ll be in this position. How many times will he have to be pinned before his mother recovers? How many times will he be controlled? How many times will Eric force himself on Kyle before he’s satisfied, how many times? How many? “Do you secretly want your mom to die, Kyle? Is that it?”

“No,” Kyle says. Eric pulls his hands away. He doesn’t touch Kyle, at all. He just stands there. Kyle keeps his hands against Eric’s chest, trying to keep distance between their bodies.

Again, Eric says, “You’re lucky.”

“Fuck you,” Kyle says, his face contorting with anger. Eric doesn’t like that. He grabs Kyle’s shoulders, hard, shaking him and pulling him closer. The eye contact is forced. Kyle doesn’t look away.

“I wonder what your tears taste like,” Eric says. The shock of the statement alone, the pure disgust it holds, makes Kyle fall utterly still. Eric leans closer, until their foreheads are touching. Kyle doesn’t like it, but he’s pressed against the wall. He tries to turn his head. Eric’s nose bumps his cheek. His breath is hot, too hot, and it smells like the hamburger he must have eaten for lunch. Kyle holds his breath. “I wonder…”

Eric lowers his head, pressing his nose into the place under Kyle’s jaw, against his pulse. His mouth opens, he speaks, and his breath heats up Kyle’s skin. Wet. Humid.

“…what your skin tastes like, when you get scared, when you sweat,” Eric says. He inhales. Kyle can hear it, deep, right under his ear. Kyle stares at the light fixture above them, where a bug keeps running into the bulb, landing and taking off repeatedly. Tiny thuds, little thunks, click click click

( kick kick kick )

“And I wonder,” Eric hisses, rubbing his cheek up Kyle’s neck, to his jaw. He pulls back an inch, breathing shakily directly against the shell of Kyle’s ear, “What your face looks like when the bitch is dead.”

When Eric pulls away, Kyle is shaking. He doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t feel fear, necessarily. There’s a crawling urchin of disgust under his skin, pushing at his every pore, but he’s not afraid. He will not admit such a powerful emotion, nor will he collapse under the so-called "control" of Eric. He isn’t afraid.

So why is his stomach flipping? Why won’t his lungs work? Why isn’t he leaving? Where did his voice go?

Because there’s no way Eric is really in control of his mother’s condition. It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t.

“Do you understand?” Eric asks. To Kyle’s surprise, Eric doesn’t look pleased. His expression is dead, set and stony. Eric shoves his hands into his pockets, rolling his shoulders back and widening his stance in dominance. Kyle swallows. Eric snaps, “Yes or no, Kike, do you understand?

Against every fiber within Kyle’s being, he nods. His throat tightens.

“Tell me your next task,” Eric says.

“Meet you in the bathroom,” Kyle says. Eric tenses. He pulls his hand out of his pocket and slams it against the wall. Kyle winces at the noise.

“I said tell me your next task, idiot.”

Kyle wonders how Eric’s voice stays calm when the rest of him doesn’t. Unwilling to let this go, Kyle allows the aggression to come out. He snaps, “Fine, I’ll fucking fail the next stupid test.”

Because Kyle isn’t afraid of being hit, and Eric is a coward.

Eric seems pleased with this. His expression doesn’t change, his posture doesn’t change, but he puts his hand back into his pocket.

“You can go,” Eric says. Permission. Juvenile. Stupid. Kyle doesn’t need permission to do something.

( kick kick kick

[I AM IN CONTROL]

Kick. Kick. Kick. )

Kyle slips past Eric, making sure not to make contact with him. He doesn’t want to involve himself in anything physical. He doesn’t want to spark any ideas in Eric’s brain. Kyle isn’t afraid of being hit, but he’s afraid of something else he can’t explain. The power dynamic is nonexistent, he tells himself, and maybe it’s to make himself feel better. His mom will be fine. He will be fine.

“If you don’t fail the test,” Eric says, bored, “I’ll kill her.”

Kyle doesn’t reply. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. He pauses just in front of the door, mid-reach for the lock. He has two weeks until the next test. Surely, Eric isn’t going to keep his mom sick that long. Surely, his mom will get better before then. It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Kyle unlocks the door. He grabs the handle. But he doesn’t turn it. He doesn’t leave.

“Lunchroom and bathroom are both just one word,” Kyle says. He hears Eric turn around. He can feel the dead-eyed glare, the firm spine and sturdy stance twisting.

“What?” Eric asks.

“Your text,” Kyle says. He stares at his hand, where it touches the door handle, where he could leave. He thinks about the permission. He should leave right now.

Eric grunts. “What about it?”

Quiet.

Feel the air.

Oxygen.

It buzzes everywhere.

“You put spaces,” Kyle says, “but they’re both just one word.”

The bell rings, and Kyle leaves. He thinks of little victories. The war he might not win, but the list of battles he will complete. Kenny and Butters are gone, but Stan is still at the table. Kyle approaches, maybe a little out of it, but he won’t admit it. He cleans up his spot quickly, his stomach protesting silently at the sight of food. After packing everything up, Kyle pulls his backpack over his shoulder and leaves the cafeteria with Stan.

“Are you okay?” Stan asks. “You were in there a long time, I got kinda worried.”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says. He wants to cringe at the fact that his tone is so stiff, but he doesn’t. He makes it seem purposeful. Tries to. Stan doesn’t look convinced, but he doesn’t look unconvinced, either. They split ways.

In the middle of AP Chemistry, it hits Kyle that Eric might not be making her sick.

But he doesn’t have to be the one making her sick, does he?

He could still kill her.

Maybe that’s the point.

Chapter Text

Before Stan even comes back with the weed, everything starts to feel funny. With the world distorting around him, Kyle sinks into the mattress of Stan’s bed and stares up at the ceiling. His fingers, numb with a feeling he’s not used to, pick at the edges and length of his sleeves. The world is too sharp. It has too many things, with too many visuals and colors and lights. Simultaneously, his brain won’t think. It won’t conjure images that he’s used to fighting off, it won’t tell him things he wants to forget. It is silent. He’s left bare, open to the world, drowning in a room where the only sound he can hear is the ringing in his ears. It’s simultaneously too loud and too quiet, a tinny beep of a noise that pressurizes in his skull and makes his eyes feel incredibly forced to close. His limbs, heavy as pure burden, stop moving. His fingers stop picking, his lungs ache to breathe. He takes in oxygen, but it doesn’t feel like it’s coming in. His incessant attempts at breathing deeply do nothing for his need for air. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, anymore, and pieces of him start to disappear. The pieces of him that were conscious attempt to viciously clear, but they don’t succeed. They stay, as fighting pokes of what his brain is supposed to feel like. The ones that do leave go silently. They leave so quickly, so quietly, that he doesn’t even realize what he’s missing. He knows he’s missing something, but he doesn’t know what. He just knows that it was there a second ago, and now it’s not.

And now he’s staring up at the ceiling, with eyes burning and vision darkening because he refuses to let himself blink, and he doesn’t understand how he got here.

He tries to tell himself to breathe, but the thought of such a thing flits away into silence. The ringing in his ears remains. It’s a constant, he supposes, though he doesn’t know if he wants that to be the only constant he’s capable of owning. It irritates him, maybe, or it makes him feel agitated or angry. Or, maybe, that’s what he wants it to make him feel. Because he doesn’t. Feel, that is. He doesn’t feel.

That’s a new sensation. A loss, an empty, a blank. He is a slate, something he can’t even comprehend. He doesn’t feel inside of himself. He’s just a character, watching everything happen around him, waiting for something to happen. He is a puppet, waiting for the next forsaken task from Eric, waiting for the humiliation of the thoughts of Stan or the beating hurt inside of his chest for his mother, who lays sick in a bed and he can’t save her. He can’t save anything. And he wonders, maybe a little unjustly, if he even exists— and, if he doesn’t exist, is it worth it to entertain the thought that he should keep up the illusion? If he closes his eyes, and doesn’t move and doesn’t think and doesn’t talk and doesn’t breathe… will he go away? Will it all go away?

Another piece of himself fizzes out. It’s the piece of him that knows who he is. It’s the piece of him who gets it. He always thought that piece of him was gone, but apparently it wasn’t, because he suddenly knows it isn’t there anymore. Click, click, click. Pieces break off and fall into an abyss he hopes will vanish.

Why is he sitting here? What is he doing? Where is he?

Stan is back in the room. Kyle doesn’t know how he knows, because he can’t really see that well. He doesn’t tear his gaze away from the corner of the ceiling, where a cobweb rests, dusty and abandoned. He just knows Stan is there.

Maybe it’s his presence. Maybe it’s a soul thing.

“I don’t think I consist of anything,” Kyle says, maybe a bit abruptly. The thing that characterized Stan’s existence flickers. Kyle wants to feel concern— about the fact that Stan suddenly feels less bright, or the fact that Kyle can barely hear himself over the empty heavy ringing in his ears— but he doesn’t. He just breaks his mouth into a stupid grin, enjoying the way it feels to say that. It gives his entire chest a certain realm of lightness, like saying it is enough to help him feel better. But it’s an action with no thought.

“What?” Stan asks, and Kyle doesn’t know how to answer. His body, loose, rolls onto its side.

Kyle isn’t in it anymore.

Kyle isn’t in it at all.

“Pieces,” Kyle’s mouth concludes. Stan gazes at Kyle, his eyes confused. But instead of being wide, like normal, they’re narrow. Stan’s confusion is to a depth Kyle’s eyes have never seen before. It’s funny, says the heart in Kyle’s chest, and his body responds to the feeling by beginning to laugh— just a little. His hand comes up to push his hair away, even though it wasn’t getting in his eyes or anything. His body is light. Heavy, but light. Easy to move but hard, like a dream. That’s it. That must be it. He’s dreaming. “But they’re gone, okay? They’re gone, that’s all, it’s just not there like it used to be.”

Kyle concludes his mouth works better when he’s not in control of it.

Stan frowns. He straightens up from where he’d been, huddled at his desk rolling a joint. Kyle’s eyes observe. Stan hesitates— one minute, two, three, or maybe they’re seconds?

Stan rubs his palms on his jeans and steadily steps over, more in-control than Kyle’s brain ever has been, and crawls up onto the mattress next to Kyle. There’s a split-second of distance that Kyle gains, in that moment of closeness. His body is calm, and won’t move. Stan presses the back of his hand over Kyle’s forehead, as if feeling for fever. “Kyle, are you okay?” Stan asks. Kyle’s head turns, looking up at the face he’s been in love with for all of these years. At the face he wants to hold and be held by. Kyle’s hand pats Stan’s cheek. He feels good, but it’s a weird kind of good. A wrong kind of good. Why?

“I’m not real,” Kyle’s mouth says, but this time, he doesn’t want to say it. The lightness hits something higher, a lither note, until he feels like he’s suspended in the air by threads sturdier than the trunks of youthful, strong trees. “I don’t feel real, this doesn’t feel real.”

Concern takes over Stan’s face even more, and that frown deepens, creating this expression that Kyle’s eyes don’t enjoy looking at. Stan smooths back Kyle’s hair, being gentle like Kyle’s body will break. Stan shifts so he’s laying next to Kyle rather than hovering over him. The next thing Kyle’s body knows, Stan is talking— he’s speaking, muttering, saying something, but Kyle’s attention drifts. Kyle’s head turns and his eyes take in the image of Stan looking at him. Another wash of calm kicks in. Kyle just lets it happen. Kyle’s fine with what will happen if he lets it happen. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he’s not afraid of it like he wants to be.

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” Kyle’s mouth says. Then, it won’t stop speaking. Rambling. His throat keeps chuckling, and his mouth keeps smiling. “This doesn’t feel real, it’s so weird, I feel like I’m dreaming.”

“I know,” Stan says. He grabs Kyle’s hand, lacing their fingers together. His skin is warm, Kyle thinks, but most of all, it’s mildly rough. It’s not dry, like Kenny’s, and it’s not soft as a girls’, like Butters’, and it’s not cold or sweaty or burning aching angry like Eric’s. Kyle is weirdly okay. For some reason, Stan’s eyes go soft. “Hey, Kyle, you seem a little distant there, what’re you thinking about?”

Kyle’s shoulders shrug, awkward.

“You don’t know,” Stan says, a repetition or confirmation. Kyle doesn’t answer. Stan tightens his grip. “Okay, I want you to pay attention to my touch, alright? Just focus on me holding your hand, dude, just think about that.”

“Why?” Kyle’s mouth asks. The question feels foreignly easy. Stupidly childish, like he should already know the answer, but it’s a ridiculous notion that he should understand it already. He hardly knows what’s happening around him. He knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t really know, y’know?

How funny is that?

“Because I think you’re doing that space-out thing,” Stan says. He’s calm. Like this is simple, like everything is okay, like this is a normal thing he’s dealt with hundreds of thousands of times before. Kyle can’t find it in himself to care. He feels high and dopey and stupid.

“That’s bullshit,” Kyle’s mouth says. Stan laughs, but it’s hollow. Kyle’s ears don’t make the connection. He laughs with Stan. He withdraws his hand from Stan’s, rolling onto his back. After a second, he rolls onto his other side. He gazes at the weed supplies still sitting on the desk. “It’s getting late, we have to smoke.”

“Kyle, I don’t think it’s a good idea to smoke right now,” Stan says. Kyle’s body doesn’t make any moves to look over. “I don’t know why this is happening, like, maybe it’s stress from midterms coming up, or maybe the myths are actually true and it’s the weed making you get memory-high, or whatever, but I don’t think adding drugs on top of this is a good idea.”

“Of course you don’t,” Kyle mutters. It’s sharp, barbed— something he doesn’t know if he means. For a moment, Stan is quiet.

“What?” he asks.

“You’re being paranoid,” says Kyle. His arms push himself up, and his feet bring him over to the desk. He examines the joint Stan had been working on and tries to put the pieces together of how to fucking do this shit. All it achieves is him staring blankly at the table, though. Stan comes up behind him a few seconds later, gently pulling him back by the shoulders.

“I’m not being paranoid,” defends Stan. “If you wanna get technical, you’re the one being paranoid, but I don’t think that’s a line we want to touch right now.”

Kyle picks out the texture of the desk. The pattern prickles details into his eyes. He blinks it away, but the memory of it still lingers. It swirls in the blank gray of Stan’s wall as he gazes at it. He glances at the window, at the door, at the ceiling, at the floor.

One.

Two.

Three?

The dizziness of the dream fades away a little, and Kyle finds the energy to pull himself out of Stan’s grip. Stan reaches out again.

“Kyle—”

But Kyle spins around and snaps, “Don’t!”

Stan falls silent. The narrow of concern is no longer there. It’s replaced with the wide of the confusion, the gaze of trying to understand what’s been going on. Kyle hates that look, he decides. He tries to blink away the rest of the issues within his sight, tries to take in enough air to get his head to start thinking straight. He still doesn’t know if he’s here, but he’s aware enough to know this is different. Slowly, to what he can only assume are his own efforts of deep-breathing, he starts to understand where he is and why.

“I said I wanted to smoke,” Kyle says, firming his voice. Stan’s brows twitch downward. Kyle ignores the expression, glancing at the forgotten weed. He doesn’t remember touching it, but there’s some on the floor next to Stan’s desk. Not a lot, but a little. Just enough to be noticeable. Like a tiny bit of lawn clippings, or crumpled and rotting paper.

He looks back up at Stan, furrowing his own brows so Stan knows he’s not fucking around. Kyle is sick and tired of not being taken seriously, for fuck’s sake. He’s never good enough for the people around him. They don’t let him make his own goddamn decisions. Why can’t they leave him be?

“Can we just smoke, Stan?” Kyle asks, sarcastic and sardonic and so distant, buzzing, ringing, he cannot hear or see or smell or taste, he just needs. “Do we have your permission to do that? Or do I have to promise we’ll do the mushy feelings stuff? Because I’m honestly half-tempted to grab the weed and just leave.”

Stan, with a mildly panicked expression, silently acquiesces.

Kyle fears himself.

And, lost, Kyle realizes that he doesn’t care.

Chapter Text

The first thing Kyle asks when he enters is, “Why is he intubated?”

It feels like a slap in the face. An image his struggling brain lacks the tools to fully comprehend, something he could only wish to perceive with the clarity he once took for granted. Now, in the midst of the muddled, he stumbles, surrounded on all sides with walls that do nothing to hold him upright. In the dark, he is alone. In the quiet, he is forgotten.

In the stillness, he is dead.

Someone’s there. Rustling and shuffling with the blankets stuck in the shelf on that stupid dresser unit that no one’s actually using for anything. Something rises in Kyle’s chest, a protectiveness, a sensitivity that urges to rip his insides from the outside to the center.

The hospital room smells like cleaner and tape, the glue from envelopes and weak paste. Brownies that taste like salt with flavorless attempts at peanut butter sandwiches, a horrifically concentrated mixture of particles that he wants to scream at, to yell at the top of his lungs GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!

“Kyle?”

Kyle doesn’t look at the person, the husk of a human being, the twisted figure, because it doesn’t exist. His vision remains strict on the form of Stan so comfortable in the too-soft hospital bed. The lights are off, all of them. The only illumination sheds in from the mild glow of the nurse’s station just outside the room. It’s fucking depressing in here. It’s dark and fucking depressing.

“Kyle.”

Oh, and don’t forget the machine in the corner. The one with all the numbers, with the color-coded vital signs, the blood pressure and heartbeats and oxygen levels. Kyle is a liar, did you know that? He said there were no lights in this room, but there are… that’s not right, now, is it? He can’t be a liar, he can’t be, you don’t understand, okay? Because if he’s a liar about this, what’s to stop anyone from saying he’s a liar about other things, too? About the crushing terror, and the way he wakes up choking at night? Liar, liar, liar—

Kyle.”

Hands wrap around Kyle’s wrists, pulling him backwards, away from the colors. It’s just dark, then. Just a deep gray hospital room, full of the thickness that comes with nighttime. He wants to succumb to it. He wants to give in to it, to allow it his body as a vessel, just so he won’t have to be a part of it all anymore. He doesn’t care if his consciousness is taken up with vibrations and meaningless darkness, he just wants it to stop. He just wants the pain to stop. He just wants it to…

“Kyle— Kyle, stop.”

Kyle is turned around, pulled into the crushing hold of the stranger. The stranger, they smell like mint. Like overpowering chewing gum, flavored without sugar and branding proudly without the particles. Under the mint is the smell of bleach and baking soda. When Kyle’s eyes finally open to the world around him, he sees the red of their high school’s letterman jacket. His hands, dry, claw at the fabric, not caring if he ruins the jacket of the stranger. In fact, he wouldn’t mind tearing the jacket to pieces. The stranger doesn’t seem to mind, either. The stranger just holds him, the stranger just— the stranger…

Is Clyde.

“You can’t do that, dude, you can’t touch the machines,” Clyde mutters, walking backward slowly. Kyle, still clinging tight, follows. In a matter of seconds— blurring before his eyes, confusing him—, Kyle and Clyde are seated on the floor next to the window. Light from the full moon comes in, peppering the floor with reflections. Kyle counts them among the tiles. Clyde does not let go of Kyle's wrists, keeping his hands immobile. Tight. Kyle thinks.

“This isn’t neurology,” Kyle whispers, forcing his gaze down, unwilling to see the laminated posters about stroke scales and brain bleeds that the doctors use for diagnosis and informative communication and care. “This isn’t neurology, he didn’t have a stroke.”

There’s a second of quiet before Clyde says anything. “It’s okay, Kyle,” he says. Kyle looks up, eyes unfocused in the mix of stimuli— or lack of it. Clyde stares back at him, his brows furrowed and mouth gently smiling.

“Stop trying to reassure me,” Kyle snaps.

Clyde’s hopeful expression remains.

Chapter Text

The two weeks between tests is up too quickly. With an overfilled backpack and a number two pencil, Kyle fails the next AP Chem test as instructed by Eric. Maybe it’s a little strange, or maybe it’s just him over-thinking things, but either way he stares at the test he will get zero percent on. He thinks not on the things he thought he might. He barely acknowledges the fact that his stomach hurts, and he barely realizes just how much his grade will get hit by this. Instead, the thing he focuses on is what Ike’s going to do for dinner tonight.

Kyle is sleeping over at Stan’s this weekend. They’re going to smoke weed and watch eighties movies until their lives make sense. That’s Kyle’s plan, at least. He came up with it when Stan admitted his parents were going out for most of the weekend. A guilty part of Kyle wants to just forget about his family— goodness knows it won’t make a difference if he’s home or not, anyway. He still worries, though. He frets over his brother’s safety. He fears doing something different in the name of his own relaxation, and he fears indulging himself in such selfishness.

Miss James takes the tests away, one at a time, individually. She barely even glances at his test as she picks it up, but even so, his heart tries to leap out of his throat. It’s pounding, silent as it is. He lacks the breath necessary to deal. The everything hits him suddenly, like a baseball to the chest. He thinks, in some way, it hurts. It squeezes and aches in a nonphysical way. It makes his throat constrict like he’s going to scream, but he refuses to do that. In defense from the outside world, Kyle squeezes his eyes shut. He rubs at his forehead. He could guess at what he feels, but he doesn’t really know. He just needs to smoke.

A B A A C D A D A C C D B B B. Those were the correct answers on the test.

Eric kicks him underneath the table, but Kyle hardly feels it. He feels it, of course, but he doesn’t feel it. He expects Eric to get angry at the lack of response, but there is no follow-up. It was just the one kick. And, maybe, Kyle is relieved about that. But he doesn’t know. He just doesn’t.

He spends fifteen minutes trying to bite back the urge to pick at the skin on the inside of his mouth with his teeth. He’s already created a tiny scrape on the inside of his left cheek. He’s trying to stop biting it. He’s trying hard. It’s not easy. He can’t stop. He hates the taste of blood, but at this point, it’s comforting. He’s been chewing on his cheek since he was a kid. It bleeds when he bites it, now, and although the metallic taste of blood never fails in nauseating him, it’s also something he’s gotten strangely used to.

Bitter.

Sharp.

Ouch.

The kick Kyle was waiting for. The one that tells him how Eric is feeling. He glances up, to look at Eric and gauge his reaction to whatever it is he’s reacting to, but there’s nothing. Blank. Eric’s face, turned down to examine the brightly-lit screen of his phone. Kyle looks back down at the table. He counts the stripes in the artificial wood grain. He bites his cheek. Picks at the skin. Thinks of holes and crevices, places he can fill with the things he wants to hide or where he himself can hide. He gulps at the intrusion of blood. The imagery of it is gone, something he can’t picture, yet it’s exactly the way he remembers.

Bitter, sharp, salt.

Kyle feels like he’s going to throw up. Nausea grips his stomach, makes his chest go cold and lips go numb. He’s shaking, and he might be pale, but he doesn’t know. He remembers every other time he vomited. The casual illness and the more serious things. His kidney and Eric’s kidney inside of his body and milk and a hand on his stomach. The scar tingles, triggering his body to react, instinctive in clenching his abdominal muscles to ward off the phantom ticklishness. Without thinking about it, he rubs the spot, replacing the ghost hand with his own, recalibrating his own brain’s natural reaction to external sources by a futile attempt of self-correction. It’s just his hand. His own hand.

He must look pretty awful, because Miss James comes up to him. She places her hand on the table surface in front of him, urging his attention without making sudden movements or saying much of anything. He looks up, politely turning his attention to her. For a second, he’s afraid. She saw his test, she saw that he failed, she saw the zero and now she’ll be so disappointed that she fails him and he’ll have to repeat the class or he won’t graduate on time and he has a lot riding on this fucking class, he can’t handle that. He breathes in, silent. She’s frowning.

“Kyle,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, “Are you okay?”

There isn’t much time left in class. He knows he can make it, if he really wanted to, but he doesn’t. There’s a tense, yet gaping feeling in the pit of his stomach, out of breath as if he’d just run a mile. He shakes his head, swallowing, muttering an apology as he asks if he can go to the nurse. “I’m not feeling well,” he says, like this is just a random bout of illness that he’ll be over in a matter of hours. But he’s starting to psych himself out, and he can’t flip his shit in class. His instinct to bail overrides his instinct to stick it out. Thankfully, she nods, writes him a pass, and sends him on his merry way.

His legs are shaking as he walks the hallway, taking the route to the nurse’s office like he’s actually sick. He’s not. But then that feeling comes back, that I’m going to throw up feeling, the same one that clenches his gut and heats his throat and numbs his lips, except it spreads from his mouth to his entire face, and he can’t.

He ducks into the first bathroom he finds, and almost loses it when he sees the sink he was pinned to around two weeks ago. He hadn’t realized it, but he hasn’t stepped foot in this bathroom since that incident. He blanks his mind and takes sturdy strides forward, locking himself in one of the stalls and dropping his backpack on the floor. He stares at the toilet. At the water. Looking at it makes him think of illness. Of all of it. Everything.

And he pays attention to the particles. He contemplates the looks of them, the anatomy and makeup of the water. H2O.

Sickeningly, his thoughts turn to food. His jaw follows the strange feeling in his lips. The idea of eating is so disgusting, so horribly atrocious, that he can’t handle it. So many particles in one area. Too many things condensed into a single form of matter, which is ingested and turned into energy and waste and it’s disgusting. He doesn’t want to think about it, but he can’t stop it. He rubs at his face, trying to regain the feeling of being in his own head. He glances at the ceiling, expecting to find cameras, expecting to find eyes, someone watching, but there’s nothing. Just pale, just white, just light just bright just too much too much too fast and he can’t

Stop thinking.

He presses the fingertips of his left hand against his lips, settling on the surface of them, where they’re rough and slightly chapped and maybe a little broken from the biting. The nausea threatens to double him over, but his stomach is settling and he knows his body won’t do it on its own.

His phone buzzes. He pulls it out of his pocket, examining the text from Eric, where it sits just below the one from this morning.

Fatass: TRYING AGAIN!!!;; Fail. The. Test.

Fatass: Good boy ;))) 

He breathes, blinks, focuses on the way his head is trying to make him drop. Fall, collapse, faint, whatever. He doesn’t. He pushes his phone into his backpack, forgets. Forgets about it. All of it. Everything.

More particles. More food. More thoughts.

It feels like it’s coming from behind him. A whisper. External. He doesn’t look over, because he knows he’s alone, but he still feels like it’s talking to him rather than in him.

...no, he can’t do that.

He can’t.

It’s his own brain. He’s telling himself to do something he doesn’t really know if he wants to do.

And maybe he isn’t thinking straight.

Something in his vision shifts, blurring the lines like his eyes are coated in water.

He lowers himself to his knees in front of the toilet. As disgusting as it is, it’s like he’s submitting to it. Such a horrid thought. Just another thing to add to the list. Just another thing to try and ignore. Just another guilt trip he’ll force himself through later, where thoughts worm in and tell him he’s the most despicable person.

He leans forward, bracing himself with one hand on the back of the toilet, because like hell he’s touching that fucking seat. With his free hand, he prepares, unsure of how he’s going to go about this. He’s never self-induced vomiting before, so he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Kyle assures himself that no one is watching, that no one is judging him, because he is alone in this bathroom, and for once he doesn’t need to worry about what other people think.

This is entirely him.

Feeling a little better, a little more calm, a little more quiet— Kyle opens his mouth and places two fingers in, slow in the movement of inching them back. He feels nothing, at first, just the presence of his fingers against his tongue, but then something shifts and he hits the limit of his gag reflex. Out of pure instinct, he yanks his fingers out of his mouth and doubles over the toilet bowl, coughing something harsh. Nothing comes up. It’s just him choking, gasping for breath, recovering from a strange dry-heave that did nothing to soothe the ache deep within himself. His eyes water.

Fuck. Okay, this time I’ll get it out.

He shifts to try again.

The bell rings.

Sounds of students hurrying, stampeding out of their classrooms in a rush to the doors to get home for the weekend. There’s always an influx of people heading towards the bathrooms after class lets out. He shoves himself up, stumbling to his feet and flushing the toilet just to make it sound like he did something normal, or at least got a product out of it. The door to the bathroom swings open, and in walks another guy. Kyle swallows his nerves— an ironic idea, all things considering— and pushes his way out of the stall. He’s shaking, quivering like he actually threw up, even though he very much didn’t.

As awful as it sounds, he is disappointed in himself.

Kyle sidles up next to the sink, squirting (one two three four pumps) a bit of soap into his hand. He waves his hand under the sensor of the tap and starts lathering, trying to scrub the invisible evidence of his idiocy out of his skin.

“Oh, hey, dude!”

Kyle flinches, looking up. Stan gazes back at him, this casual smile on his face. Kyle returns the smile, but he doesn’t feel it. “Hey,” he says. “Small world.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Stan says, huffing a laugh. “Jesus, man, just what the hell were you doing?”

Blood runs cold. Tastes sharp in his mouth. Remembrance of his own gagging, the way it felt to choke and have no tangible result. A horrible thought that makes no sense, and feels utterly fucking stupid now that he’s out of the heat of the moment. He clears his throat, asking, “What?” as cautiously as possible.

“That’s a fuck ton of soap right there,” Stan says, gesturing to the (admittedly, insane) amount of suds bubbling up under the water stream. Stan settles at the sink next to Kyle, just lingering. Existing. Being friendly. “You jerk off in here or something?”

“Oh wow, creative,” Kyle says. He rolls his eyes, but he’ll admit, he’s relieved. The tension leaves his shoulders. He rinses the rest of the soap off (you’re not clean enough) and grabs a paper towel. Stan snorts, lifting his hands into the air like he’s innocent.

“Dude, just saying, lots of soap.” Stan drops his backpack on the ground, overly confident that nothing will happen to it in the meantime as he wanders over to one of the urinals. “You ready for Better Off Dead tonight?”

“Hell yeah,” Kyle says.

Stan starts undoing his fly. The situation suddenly clicks in Kyle’s mind, and he makes a face.

Ew,” he says. Stan startles, halting.

“What?”

I,” begins Kyle firmly, pulling his backpack more thoroughly over his shoulder, “Will be waiting at the front door for you, goodbye.”

“Oh,” says Stan, teasing, “Is it the pee thing again?”

Kyle waves, reiterating “Goodbye!” when he pushes the door open.

He can’t help but cringe with Stan playfully calling, “It’s just pee!” as he leaves.

Chapter Text

Coming back from the hospital is difficult for everyone tonight. Mom is doing a little better. She isn’t shaking as much, and she’s coherent enough to talk, even if it’s a bit difficult to hear her— but Dad is stiff and silent as soon as they exit her room, and Ike stares at the ground for the entirety of the time they’re out and about. Kyle doesn’t know what he’d been doing, himself. He’s still reeling, unsure of how his body takes up the space around him. It’s weird to think about. He tries not to. They climb into the car. It starts, and the car creeps out of the parking ramp. His gaze, not unlike a stare, focuses on a spot on the window.

Allowing a loss of himself, his brain wanders to memories of this morning.

[ “Why? What's different about me?”

Anger. The most distinct thing inside of him at that moment was anger. An all-encompassing heat that tried to push him up and out the door, but he refused. Kyle stayed, stiff and still in that kitchen chair, as he waited for Stan to stutter out his response. “I don't mean—” Stan cut off. “I just... you're Kyle—”

“Thank you, captain obvious, for teaching me my fucking name,” Kyle snapped, agitated by the nondescript response. “What's that got to do with anything?”

“You're my best friend,” Stan said, like that explained something monumental between them that Kyle had been missing. There was a sense of believe-me, and something else that he couldn’t place. Infuriating. It hurt Kyle, but Stan kept talking. “And— I mean, kissing can be platonic.” ]

His mom might die.

Is it weird to say it doesn’t evoke a reaction from him?

He loves her, and the idea of her just… not being there is impossible to comprehend. It’s so incomprehensible, in fact, that he can’t wrap his brain around the feelings he’s supposed to be overwhelmed with. He’s seen movies, and he’s seen shows. He’s read books. People cry about this sort of thing— and he has, he cried. As of now, however, things are stagnant. She isn’t recovering. She isn’t getting worse, but she isn’t getting much better, either. And maybe, in a way, it’s like he’s already lost her.

He comes home every day wanting to talk to her about his day, but she isn’t there.

[ “Are you planning on telling Wendy?” Kyle asked, withdrawn.

Stan paused. “Of course not.”

“Why not?”

A look crossed Stan’s face, tense. Kyle watched it as it left. Stan attempted an explanation, saying, “I don't want to hurt her, I—”

But Kyle cut him off. “What about this would hurt her?” Kyle asked. He wanted to get this through Stan’s stupid thick skull, but he was starting to doubt. He tried to silently ask, tried to convey his frustration, but Stan just stared, wide-eyed and fearful, inside of himself. “It was platonic, right, Stan?”

Stan's mouth lingered open, though they both knew he had nothing to say. His face was red, embarrassed, maybe. Stan brought his hands up to his hair, carding his fingers through the strands and locks. “It... but— it doesn't mean anything.”

Stan said it like he was trying to convince himself. ]

And the house is silent, y’know? Like there’s a massive amount of foundation missing, or there’s a hole in the air, and he doesn’t even remember what it felt like to have it there in the first place. It’s January, for fuck’s sake. A month. Is that really how long it takes to recover from pneumonia? Is there something he’s not getting?

The car bumps and growls, a false floor beneath Kyle. Among the hundreds and thousands of other things that are uncertain, he is more aware of everything that exists.

Why else would he feel the car so acutely? Why else would his eyes go from full screen to wide screen? His peripheral vision is more pronounced, more vivid. He rubs at his eyes to get the strange panning-sensation of them away, as if they’re cameras with smudges. The car shakes. That’s what it is. It’s shaking, unsteady as the wheels fly haphazardly across the highway, lights poking out through the cover of darkness. He can’t make out the distinctions between which lights come from where.

In this car, Kyle is not safe.

[ Kyle always knew this wouldn’t work. He didn’t even know why he liked Stan so much, sometimes. “What doesn't mean anything?” Kyle asked. Stan shook his head, but the movement was so minuscule, Kyle had to wonder if Stan even noticed himself doing it.

“The kisses, and shit, I mean— it doesn't mean anything, right? So, it doesn't count.”

It doesn’t count.

Of course it doesn’t count, why the fuck would it count? ]

They’re going too fast down this highway, aren’t they? Kyle doesn’t look away from the window, so he doesn’t know what the speedometer reads, but he doesn’t care. The number is a liar. Numbers always lie. Why else would he feel like they’re going eighty? Why else would he feel like the date doesn’t matter? Why else would he look in a mirror and see nothing but fat and too much and places where he could slim down, but when he steps on the scale he only sees 135?

[ Kyle was just a puppet to Stan, too. His throat threatened to voice that. Kyle opened his mouth to speak, though he only ended up closing it without saying anything further. It’s not like there were actually two parts to this equation. Kyle thought about his cup, thought about the water, thought about the toilet. He thought about all of it. He swallowed. And then, he opened his mouth again, though he said something different than what his brain had been urging him to.

We shouldn't do it again.” ]

Because numbers lie.

Because the speedometer is broken.

Because the scale is off by twenty pounds.

They always lie.

They’re going too fast.

He’s too big.

Too many particles in too little space, a container full of volume that he can feel and see and understand— something a scale can’t possibly realize, because it’s an inanimate object. There is no sentience, there is no common sense, there’s just a program that comes up with a digital number that, at some point, decided to start subtracting twenty from the real sum because because because it is a program, made up of numbers.

Numbers lie. Averages mean nothing. 135 is 155, and 155 is too much. He needs to get down to 115 on the scale if he wants to be average. Because the scale is off by twenty pounds. It has to be. He needs to get rid of twenty pounds.

Kyle is nauseous. With the return of the nausea, comes the return of the thoughts.

Get it out.

[ It was laughable. Stan sounded hurt, muttering, “What?” ]

It’ll help.

“Dad,” Kyle says, glancing over to his father. Dad hums, his gaze still tight on the future of the road ahead of them. Kyle doesn’t reply for a second, putting effort into swallowing the saliva gathering in his mouth. There’s too much. Particles and enzymes and food to be broken down, a rolling heaviness in his soul but not in his body, he whispers, “Can we pull over?”

It’ll make you feel better, get it out.

“No, why?” Dad asks. Kyle feels his heart sink, a panic.

“I feel sick,” Kyle replies. He’s trying to put it as delicately as possible while still getting the message across, and he thinks it works. Dad glances over to him, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Oh,” Dad says. There’s a second where no one says anything. “I’ll pull over when I can.”

Kyle just has to trust him. He goes back to the window, staring at the horizon as they approach but never reach it. Rolling down a highway where nothing around them is populated scares Kyle. If they were off near the shoulder, he could hop out and puke, but he can’t. Too many cars blur past, boxing him in, caging him. Eventually, hints of civilization start to come into view. Stop lights and signs, busy intersections and buildings with parking lots.

Dad pulls into the parking lot of a nearby strip mall. As soon as they’re parked, Kyle unbuckles himself, slowly getting out of the car as to not agitate the heaviness in his stomach.

The nausea will go away, get it out.

“I’m going to go walk for a bit,” Kyle says. He shuts the car door behind him. He walks through the divider of grass that separates the main road from the parking lot. He finds a tree, halting next to it, gazing out at the traffic and pauses and lulls, little cars following slow semis, the common SUV.

He decides it’s too bright. He grips the front of his jacket and starts walking again, meandering down as far away as possible, into the dark beyond the stores where it’s just a section of undisturbed trees that are looking utterly bare from the winter.

[ “Kiss— or anything else, for that matter, we shouldn't do anything else… it was a dumb mistake, anyway, right?” Kyle stood from the kitchen table, the fingers of his right hand clasping the mug through its handle. ]

Kyle finds a good place and settles, hiding himself from view as much as possible with the widest tree he can find— a naked, shaking oak. He stares at the ground, at the dirty snow and dead grass poking up through the occasional miserable lack of white. It’s unclean, a sludge of mush and nature. His stomach starts to calm.

And Kyle starts to panic.

Because he needs to—

[ Mid-walk toward the sink to dump the rest of his beverage— ]

GET IT OUT

[ —the mug snapped. ]

Kyle sticks his fingers into his mouth, barely noting that it’s not as weird as it’d been yesterday at school. Maybe it’s funny that he’s doing this outside.

[ Sciences and particles exploded, a combustion where ties were severed and materials were shattered. ]

There’s a sweet spot in the back of his throat that gets him close to the result he needs. He coughs and sputters, accidentally scraping his knuckles between his teeth as his jaw tries to clench in reflex.

[ Kyle cussed, but he didn’t know what he said. ]

He makes a choking noise, but he’s too deep in his own head to hear it.

[ His attempts to catch the mug failed, a miserable drop in his reflexes, something that made his entire head hurt. ]

Another quick adjustment and he pulls his hand away, doubling over to vomit into the filthy snow at the base of the tree.

There goes dinner.

[ It felt like the planet quaked. When the mug disintegrated into puzzle pieces of porcelain, he was inclined to tremble. ]

With a flushed, overheated face and a sensitive, aching stomach, he grasps at the tree. He stares at the vomit. They had chicken and rice for dinner. It looks the same coming up as it did going down. How disgusting. So disgusting, but it’s true.

His throat burns, and his mouth tastes like acid and sour. His stomach churns, threatening to puke again just from the sensitivity that stems from an unnecessary induction, but he doesn’t care. He spits.

[ One thing after another after another, all going wrong and splaying in directions surrounding him, on the floor at his feet, crushed like a piece of paper in a trash can, ripped like an old love note. His chest burned. His heart throbbed. It was too much. ]

Kyle whispers, “Fuck,” his voice quivering and dry.

[ Kyle lowered himself to his knees, none too gracefully, trying to sweep up the shards of a possession he’d ruined. The sharp edges of the pieces bit into his skin, but he didn’t dare hold them tight enough to cut. He picked the pieces up one at a time, brushing extra dust into his palm, and he knew his hands were shaking. He could see them shake. He didn’t know when Stan had stood up, but at some point, he had— and he helped, aiding Kyle in cleaning the mug.

“I’m so sorry,” Kyle said, the words tumbling, too loose from his lips, “I didn’t mean to drop it—”

“It’s fine,” Stan interrupted. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it, we have a lot of these, so it doesn’t matter.” ]

Kyle kicks snow over the evidence, but it’s messy work and it’s not doing much other than dampen his shoes with frozen water. Every limb is shaking. His eyes won’t stop tearing up. He takes a step back. He wipes his mouth with the back of his jacket sleeve. It smells like weed. There’s saliva and vomit on the fingers he used. He meanders a few feet away and crouches, rubbing his hand off in a patch of new snow, trying to get it clean.

[ Love notes and heartaches. Shattered porcelain mugs of water and toilets, expanses of clean skin and questions that were too dirty, Kyle lost something. ]

And Kyle is ashamed of what he’s done. He knows it’s wrong. He feels guilty, bombarded by thoughts.

[ He stared at the shards in his hands, where he cupped them in support, kept them from falling back to the tile. ]

But those thoughts are quieter, now.

As Kyle looks over at the snow, the base of the tree, the specks and flakes and dead things and putrid aftermath of mistakes, he feels strange. He feels sick, and he’s tired, and…

[ “Oh, right,” Kyle said. He felt like he was going to puke. “You have more than one, so it doesn’t matter.”

Maybe he was proud of the fact that his statement got Stan to fall still. Kyle’s lungs ached to gasp. He coughed once through it, his eyes burning at the realization that Stan wasn’t denying any of it.

“This one doesn’t mean anything, anyway, isn’t that right, Stan?”

He wasn’t denying any of it.

He was just sitting there.

Silent. ]

…he’s in control.

Chapter Text

Kyle made the mistake of counting the calories of his lunch.

410.

He ate 410 calories, and he can’t stop thinking about it.

He can feel every single speck. Every single particle, chewing him right back, gnawing on his stomach and digging a hole in his very being. It’s uncomfortable. Heavy and distressed, he adjusts, trying to focus on the worksheet that Miss James handed out at the beginning of the hour. For the most part, chemistry is mind-numbing. It flips the switch that allows him to blur out the rest of the world. He can balance equations and put together the particle diagrams and forget everything except for the concepts, jotting down the law of conservation of mass, theoretical yield, limited and excess reactants—

But he ate 410 calories for lunch, and 95 for breakfast this morning, and the thought is enough.

505 calories.

Disgusting, despicable, atrocious, get it out, get it out, get it out.

Kyle, swallowing down the nausea that he knows isn’t real, finishes the front of the worksheet and flips it over. The room, while not silent, is quiet enough for him to recognize most everyone is actually working. The occasional table of people who don’t really care about chemistry are goofing off, tossing balls of paper at each other and laughing about sexual encounters they had in the backs of their cars. Someone talks about an incident that occurred with weed, gossiping about themselves to their friend, but Kyle doesn’t focus on that.

He categorizes the numbers on the page. Into pockets of prime and lines of integers. He picks out the points, adjusts them to fractions, calculates the masses of moles and elements and understands the grams but still it isn’t enough to allow him to forget.

The urge is still there, to dismiss himself quickly and duck into the bathroom and stick his fingers down his throat to get it out, and—

The thought, frighteningly explicit, suddenly builds pressure in his throat. His gag reflex threatens to trigger without external involvement. It startles him, because he suddenly can’t tell if he’s genuinely sick or not. He can’t think about it, though. His saliva sticks in his throat somewhere, making him start to cough through it. He tries to do so quietly, but it’s difficult to recover his breath from the momentary choking. He presses his hand to his mouth, doing his best to stifle the sound. But, of course, the room falls quiet.

Maybe it sounded like he was going to puke. Maybe they’re afraid he will. Maybe he’s afraid he will take advantage of that.

“Dude,” Clyde mutters, leaning over the table. He scoots into Eric’s seat, to be closer to Kyle so they can whisper more effectively. Eric isn’t here, today. Kyle hasn’t seen him all day, and in some ways, that does freak him out. Finally managing to catch his breath, Kyle lowers his hand and dips his attention back to the worksheet. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kyle says. He takes deep breaths, forcing his body to calm down when he really doesn’t want it to. The only thing he wants to do is walk right the fuck out of there and find comfort in the bathroom. He doesn’t want the nausea to go away, as weird as that sounds, because he’s afraid that it’ll make the actual puking part of the equation more difficult to induce. Then he’ll just be left with this horrible pit in his stomach, and what is he supposed to do with that? Live with it? He can’t do that, he’s already insanely uncomfortable.

“You sure?” Clyde asks, and Kyle can’t tell if he genuinely cares or just doesn’t want to deal with the possibility of a puking classmate. Kyle certainly can’t blame him for the skepticism. Kyle himself hates sickness. Which, he supposes, makes this all a little ironic.

“I’m fine,” Kyle says, maybe a little more snippy than he’d like to admit. Clyde gets the message and backs off, but he doesn’t go back to his usual seat. Instead, he pulls his stuff over and continues his work. Kyle feels a little like his personal space has been violated, but he pushes it off in favor of finishing the worksheet.

He taps his pencil down on the paper when he finishes. Repeatedly. He presses the lead to the center, watches the carbon leave little marks, doodles useless little designs over the corners. He loses himself, spaces out from his boredom, knowing that only ten minutes or so remain of class. Without thinking, he starts to write. Scribble, more like, jotting down the words and numbers that haunt him in a way he’s comfortably unused to.

505 cal.
> 140
> 90
> 90
> 90
> 70
> 25

Kyle scribbles out the abbreviation, because he doesn’t want someone noticing. As it is now, with just the numbers, he feels safer. He can brush it off. Say it’s a score for a game I’m playing or I’m just practicing basic addition.

Kyle stops scribbling, finding no reason to keep filling up the corner of the paper. He has to turn this in at the end of the day. What if Miss James sees it and starts asking questions? He can’t do that. He won’t be able to balance the pressure of being questioned. It’ll break him. Without a second thought, he erases the list of numbers. When the marks are gone, he looks at the indents and remnants of the lead. He scribbles as hard as he can over where the list was, hoping to get rid of any and all evidence, even ghosts of numbers. He erases the mess of black at the corner of his paper, only to fill it in again and repeat the process.

With the corner of the paper thoroughly messy with dark remains of his pencil, blackened from his effort, he decides that’s enough. He can’t see it anymore, the pressure-marks from the numbers are gone. Drowned out from the rest of the divots, from the scribbles. His head hurts from staring at the contrast.

Even though he can no longer physically see the numbers, though, he still knows full well that he can’t forget them. They’re buried somewhere in his brain, in the thickets of his thoughts. They tease him. A collection of literal things that exist, being digested right now and he hates the thought. He doesn’t want his body to be full of anything.

He tells himself he won’t throw it up.

He shifts.

It’s quiet.

But maybe what he tells himself isn’t true.

Because there’s this thing in his head that makes him fear not being able to do it.

Like, if he doesn’t do it, something bad will happen.

He doesn’t know what the something bad is, though.

It’s just going to happen.

And, well, he feels sick anyway. Maybe he really does just need to get it out. Maybe, if he gets it out, he won’t feel so ill anymore. If he just makes himself puke this one last time, he can reset himself and his body and everything in it, and it’ll be like nothing happened.

But he can’t. If he does, he’ll smell like vomit for the rest of the day. What if someone notices? What if someone tries to send him home sick? What if someone calls his dad, and then his dad will know that he made himself puke, and then everyone will think he has an eating disorder or something stupid like that.

And then, to top it off, maybe they’ll be convinced to put him into therapy or some sort of inpatient treatment somewhere, or something. Then he won’t be around to finish school, even if he wanted to. He wouldn’t be able to smoke with Stan, or save his mother from Eric, or keep everything from falling apart at the seams, and it’ll be all his fault. He can’t let that happen.

The bell rings. Everyone starts to pack up their things immediately, creating a storming whirlwind of students attempting to get the hell out of the classroom without causing themselves injury. Kyle lingers, even as he watches Butters and Clyde exit into the hallway, jabbing at each other jokingly like sports players, which has always been Clyde’s thing, not Butters’.

Kyle grabs his stuff and tucks it into his backpack. He doesn’t put the worksheet in his backpack, though, because he has to turn that in. He stands from the chair, pushing it in with his hip, and walks to the front of the room. He hands the paper to Miss James, who takes it without hesitation. Kyle avoids looking at her face. He turns on his heel, hoisting his backpack over his shoulders, making to leave.

“Wait, Kyle.”

Kyle stops. His heart freezes in his chest, a precursor to panic— ice cold and with a body that threatens to tremble, Kyle turns, wringing his hands. Miss James is looking at him, this vague look on her face. She looks older than he remembers her appearing before. He doesn’t know what to feel about that. As normally as he can, he asks, “Yeah?”

“I’d like to talk to you quickly, if you don’t mind,” she says. She phrases it as a question, but Kyle knows it isn’t negotiable. Adults do that. They pretend like they’re asking questions, giving people choices, but they’re not actually giving out options. They’re just trying to make it seem like they actually care about what someone younger than them thinks. It’s with that thought that Kyle becomes a little irritated. He walks over. She gestures to a chair nearby, and with reluctance, he pulls it up to sit down.

She’s staring at him, her glasses falling down her nose, like she expects him to say something. He has nothing to say, though. He stays silent. She gets the hint.

“About your last test,” Miss James says, and Kyle’s heart starts speeding. He glances away. “You got a zero.”

“Guess I’m not good at it,” Kyle lies, his tone fake in its nonchalance. She frowns. She starts to shuffle through some papers at her desk. For a second, he wonders if she’s going to present him with the failed test, but she doesn’t. She just keeps shuffling, adjusting things like it’s a nervous habit.

“We both know you understand the material,” she says. She pulls up the worksheet he just handed in, resting it on the desk space between them. “I don’t even have to look that closely at this to know you got these answers right.”

“Oh,” Kyle says, because he doesn’t know what else she expects. She sighs. She leans forward, resting her forearms on the surface of her desk. Kyle scoots back.

“Kyle,” Miss James begins, “Is everything alright?”

He wants to say he’s fine, but it’s harder than it seems. The pressure hurts. He rubs his arms, like he’s cold, but brushes off the action as him crossing his arms. It’s uncomfortable, being forced from his discomfort with the natural anxious response of his body, but he won’t let himself leave the position. “Yeah, everything’s going great,” he says.

“Really?” she asks, like this is unbelievable to her. Kyle’s first response is to be offended. She notices, but doesn’t back down. “You seem significantly more distracted in class, and I’m getting concerned.”

Kyle shrugs, assuring, “Everything’s fine.”

“Nothing going on at school?” she asks, prying. “No one’s picking on you?”

You don’t know the half of it, says his brain, but his mouth replies, “No.”

She frowns. “How are things at home?”

Well, lets see. My dad’s rarely home anymore, my mom very possibly might die, and I’m in charge of caring for my little brother, but since I’m so useless, he basically has to take care of himself… you should really be concerned about Ike, Ma’am.

But Kyle shrugs. He pushes his hands into the pockets of his jacket, trying to make himself look more casual than he feels.

“They’re good,” he says.

“They’re good,” she repeats. Again, her tone is full of concerned disbelief. But he doesn’t care. He can’t find it within himself to risk what will happen if he tells someone about what’s going on. There’s a part of him that wants to get help, of course. There’s a part of his brain that’s stuck in the back, screaming at him to tell her! Tell her, for fuck’s sake, tell her! She can help you! But he buries it down.

Because that voice, that tiny little inkling of a thought, is a Number— and Numbers will always lie.

“And how are you feeling?” she asks. The question catches him off guard. He pushes his hands deeper into his pockets, and almost startles when he feels his right graze against something that’d been buried. He pulls it into his hand, feeling the shape of it, running his fingers over the texture of the wrapper…

Gum.

It’s the mint gum he got from Clyde over two weeks ago. The stuff that was overwhelmingly strong in its scent. Shit. Shit, wait.

Wait a second. If he has gum…

He’s been quiet for far too long, and Miss James becomes skeptical, her brows furrowing. “Kyle?” she asks, soft, and he snaps out of his head as much as is possible. It’s hard for him to focus, at this point. There’s something new inside of him, controlling and telling him things he doesn’t want to hear.

She doesn’t care about you.

And cologne in his bag—

She can’t help you feel better.

She isn’t speaking.

Kyle asks, “What?” just to get her talking again, so he’ll have an excuse to stay silent. An excuse to stay in his brain, to think through his next move. Even without the thinking, though, he knows exactly what he has to do.

You know what will help you feel better.

“How are you feeling?” she repeats, a question he doesn’t feel like he deserves to answer honestly.

You know what works.

“I’m okay,” he says. “I really am.”

If it worked before, it’ll work again.

He keeps talking. “I was probably just having an off day,” he says. “I can come before or after school to make up the test.”

Get it out of you.

Kyle swallows, still grasping the stick of gum in his hand. “Look,” he says, standing up. He lets go of the gum and pulls his hands out of his pockets, pushing his chair back into the table he’d taken it from. “I really appreciate you being concerned, but I promise that everything is okay.”

He looks at her, right at her, hoping the eye contact will convince her of something he doesn’t even believe himself. She still doesn’t look happy with the way their conversation went, but he doesn’t care. She looks like she’s about to keep talking, but students are starting to file in for the next class, and neither of them want to have this sort of conversation with other people around. Miss James sighs, apparently giving in. She pulls out her stack of hall pass notes, writing one up for him, because they both know he won’t make it to final period before the bell rings.

Miss James gives him the pass, and he takes it with an almost silent “Thank you,” before squeezing his way out of the flock of students that have started to congregate near the entrance of the classroom. He examines the hall pass. He has a freebie. He has an excuse not to make it to class on time. Now he doesn’t have to worry about being marked tardy without a note.

Kyle doesn’t walk to class. He makes a beeline to the bathroom, unwilling to waste any more time. He’s shaking, and his stomach starts to ache in knowledge of what he’s about to do, but he can’t not do it. He assures himself that this is the last time, that he won’t do it ever again after this. He convinces himself that rediscovering the gum in his pocket is a sign that he should do it, just for today. It doesn’t make sense, even to himself.

But he doesn’t care.

Not about that.

Chapter Text

Kyle tells himself he will never do it again.

His face still buzzes with the feeling, heat in his cheeks and a soreness in his jaw. His entire torso feels heavy, and he wants nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep. He chewed the gum as long as he could before he got to class. His mouth still has the taste of it, and after double-triple-quadruple checking his breath, he knows it’s mostly just that mint that lingers.

Paranoia, although edging through his body as soon as he sits in his seat, isn’t nearly enough to keep him awake. His eyes hurt, sensitive to the lights in the room. He’s able to pay attention to the lecture for a while, but his attention quickly fades, and he finds himself scribbling to stay awake. He jots down doodles of the things that come to mind— loops of Terrance & Philip episodes, little badly-drawn comics that don’t make much sense outside of his own head. He counts down the minutes, subtracts the amount of time he has before the end of school, doodles more, scribbles more, writes from memory the words that make him feel a little more human, a little more courageous or whole or something.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.

Words and phrases and sentences, commas and dashes and semi-colons… strictly planned, attempts at remembering the thing he thought he knew, but the more he writes, the less he’s sure. Does this word go here, or does it go over there?

He knows this. He knows this. He knows he knows this. It shouldn’t be this difficult to remember.

But it is. Why can’t he remember?

Kyle, frustrated, stops writing. The lack of movement is a recipe for disaster— and, in many other ways, failure. The exhaustion trickles in from seemingly nowhere, finally taking hold of him until he can’t keep his burning eyes open anymore. He rests his chin in his hand and, for a second, relaxes.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep. He hardly remembers anything. It’s just black.

But something happens—

DANGER I’M IN DANGER

—and Kyle reacts immediately, eyes tearing open as he retaliates, shoving out at the offending thing, whatever it had been. His body can’t even process, it just tries to fight. Kyle hardly recognizes Stan’s hiss of pain when he throws his elbow straight into Stan’s side.

“Dude!” Stan exclaims.

Panicking and unsure of where he is, Kyle replies, “Fuck you!”

“Language, Mr. Broflovski,” says the teacher. Right. The classroom. He’s in the classroom.

Kyle shoots a glare to Stan, examining where he stands beside Kyle at the table. “Sorry, ma’am,” Kyle says, though it’s a bit unfeeling. The memories of the afternoon are coming back to him. He drapes his arm protectively over the writing in his notebook, hiding it as he flips it shut, trying to be discrete about the contents. Every so often, he intensifies the glares that he gives Stan. He pushes himself up, hooking his backpack over both shoulders, and nudges the chair in with his knee.

It’s automatic, at this point. They leave the classroom together, as always. Sometimes they talk, other times they don’t, like it’s some sort of mutual agreement that they don’t have to converse in order to know they’re there. It’s just the two of them, in the quiet, and as they head down the hallway, surrounded only by their own footsteps, Kyle is completely comfortable doing the silent thing today.

He contemplates. He wonders if the gum was enough to get rid of the smell of vomit, he wonders if he washed his hands thoroughly enough, he wonders if the hand sanitizer helped, he wonders if the cologne did anything to mask it. He wonders if the guilt will ever leave him alone, and when he finds himself concluding with I don’t know, he discovers that he’s afraid of that. There’s a weird, morbid piece of him that wants to ask Stan if he smells anything. Just to make sure he’s covered on all facets, he wants to casually bring up the idea of something smelling off.

But at the same time, there’s this fear of outing himself. He doesn’t know how Stan would react to finding out about what Kyle did— or, has been doing, more rather. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? He’s been doing it, recently. And he has complete control over it. It’s something he decides to do. He assures himself of that, so it must be true, right? Whether it’s purposeful or not, though, isn’t the point. The point is that he’s been making himself do something… wrong.

It’s bad for him to do it, and he knows that. It makes him feel sick and tired and lethargic and, in all honesty, a little bit dizzy. The logic of it doesn’t really ring true to him, though. Sure, he feels awful afterward, but at the same time, he doesn’t really feel like he’s hurting himself. It feels like just another necessary evil, just another little thing he has to do. And maybe—… maybe it’s okay?

Like, it’s not as if he’s doing this for no reason. He’s seen himself. He’s stood in front of the mirror and examined his body. He’s pinched and prodded at those problem areas: the too much of his thighs, the suck it in of his stomach, the not thin enough of his arms. He needs two hands to fully wrap around a bicep. Well, more like a hand and a third, really, but that’s still too much, right? He honestly has no idea why it took him so long to realize he needs to lose a few pounds.

For a long time, Kyle completely forgets where he is. His anxieties create a pit in his core, and he can’t stop staring down at himself as he walks. He only manages to snap out of it when Stan blurts, “I have three proficiencies.”

Kyle looks at Stan with confusion, caught off-guard. “Huh?” he replies. He picks out little things about their surroundings; the tiles of the floor, the lockers on the walls, the pattern of the ceiling above them, little squares that break sometimes for seemingly no reason. Fluorescent lights that attract bugs.

“Proficiencies,” Stan clarifies, a certain levity in his tone. “I have three of them unfinished.”

Kyle rolls his eyes, asking, “You've been absent three days in a row?”

“No.”

“Holy shit, you got a zero on all three?” Kyle asks, honestly shocked. Stan doesn’t reply, which is usually not a good sign. Kyle groans. “What the hell happened to all of the study material I gave you?”

Stan clears his throat. “The— the what?”

“Study material,” Kyle repeats, giving him yet another glare. “Y’know, the study guides? That literally told you, step by step, how to do it?”

“Oh,” Stan says, but Kyle can tell Stan is just going through the motions. Such a thing is only confirmed when Stan says, “That.”

“I swear to all that’s holy,” Kyle begins, “If you say—”

“I lost it.”

“Oh my fucking—!” Kyle doesn’t even bother completing the sentence, stopping dead in his tracks. He brings his hands to his face, and digs his fingertips into his brow to urge away the frustration. Kyle could totally slap Stan, and he would only slightly regret it. He begins to count backwards, even though it’s never helped him much before— it’s just something for his mouth and brain to focus on as he figures out this shit.

Stan makes the stupid decision to try talking. “Um—”

“You're coming over,” Kyle says, just barely making the decision before he says it aloud.

“...what.”

Kyle lifts his head out of his hands and repeats, “You’re coming over, right now, after school—” and when Stan starts to look like he’s going to interrupt, Kyle swaps trains of thought quickly. “I don’t care if you have plans, you’re canceling them, we need to fix your bullshit.”

Stan glances around the empty hallways, a strange look on his face. “Uh—”

“Nope, nope, nope, nope— there's no fucking way I'm standing idly by, while your sorry ass—” Kyle jabs a pointer finger accusingly towards Stan, “—heads towards flunking at the speed of fucking light...”

Kyle glances down and just a tinge to the side. There’s a piece of paper sticking out of Stan’s backpack, he notices, and he suddenly can’t remember what he was talking about before, more interested in this new topic.

“And your stupid backpack is unzipped!” he says, barely managing to stave off the urge to throw his hands into the air.

With an angry growl, Kyle shoves Stan’s shoulder to turn him around. Thankfully, Stan obeys Kyle’s motions without fight. Kyle is already running extremely short on patience, and he hopes that fact doesn’t display itself in the rushed fumbling of his fingers as he pushes the stupid paper back into the pocket.

“You don't sort anything other than your dumb bedroom,” Kyle snaps. He grunts with an attempt to shut the pocket around the miscellaneous crap Stan keeps in it. “Your backpack looks like my brother’s, and he’s twelve.”

Or... is he thirteen, now? Why is it so hard to remember?

Stan snorts, something soft under his breath, and Kyle knows what’s coming before Stan even says it. “Are you calling me a genius?”

“You wish!” Kyle scoffs. With one final tug, Stan's backpack finally relents. It closes with a sharp ziiip. “There! Christ, we’re sorting through this bullshit when we get to my place, too.”

“Dude,” Stan says, “Why are you so mad?”

“I'm not mad,” Kyle replies. And that, for the most part, is true. In the purest form, at least. He glimpses the dark hair of his little brother, the thoughts of Ike still fresh. He brushes the wrinkles out of Ike’s uniform jacket...

Kyle withdraws his hands when he realizes what’s happening. Stan turns to look at him, and the expression on his face is utterly confused. His brows have furrowed mildly, a small hint of a frown at the corners of his lips. In all legitimacy, Kyle is confused, too.

“Sorry— sorry, habit,” he says. He rubs his hands together, trying to get rid of the physical memory. His heart is beating, a soft upset in his chest, and without thinking, Kyle says, “I’ve been sending Ike off to school these past few weeks.”

“Oh,” Stan says. He’s watching Kyle, and Kyle can’t help but feel self-conscious, like Stan knows something that Kyle knows Stan definitely doesn’t. There’s no way Stan knows about Mom, there’s no way Stan knows Kyle made himself puke—

Kyle clasps his hands together, and brings them up to his mouth. Stan doesn’t think Kyle’s fat, right?

“Doesn’t your mom usually do that?” Stan asks, and Kyle barely hears him over the sound of his own thoughts. Of course Stan doesn’t think Kyle is fat. Stan knows Kyle is fat. He has eyes, you know.

“Yeah,” Kyle mutters. He lowers his hands, brushing them against the front of his jacket. He glances down at himself, examining just how obvious his body is. His brain hardly has time to panic over the idea of Stan finding out about his mom. Numbly, Kyle says, “But she’s been... busy, lately.”

It’s so nondescript of a statement, that Stan’s furrowed brows are justified.

Kyle tries again. “I mean—”

But he can’t. God, look at him. Just fucking look at it. He fights the urge to hide himself, to hug himself and find a way to be as small as possible.

Kyle forces himself to try ignoring it. He lifts one of his hands up to his mouth again, picking at a chapped area of his lips. He says, “She’s been... she’s been offered a really big job opportunity,” and the lie hurts his teeth. “She’s been away trying to work things out… you know how it goes.”

Stan, for too long, is quiet. “Right,” he finally says. “Yeah, of course.”

Kyle doesn’t want Stan to come over anymore, but he doesn’t have the option to back out. Instead, Kyle nods. He pinpoints the shapes; the walls, the ceiling, the twitch of Stan’s bottom lip, the floor… a crumpled, torn, and slightly dirty piece of notebook paper lies beneath Stan’s foot. Paper-thin. Ha. Kyle gestures to it. “So... is that yours?”

“Oh— jeez, yeah, probably…” Stan lifts his foot and picks up the piece of ruined paper. He unfurls the corners. A look crosses Stan’s face, tight and intrigued. “Or not.”

Kyle nods again. “Then we should throw it away—”

“It's Cartman’s.”

Every cell in Kyle’s body urges to react. To curl him in, to hunch his shoulders, to vomit what little he has left in his stomach— if anything, at this point. Kyle swallows and mutters, “Huh?” hoping he’d misheard Stan.

“It's Cartman’s,” Stan says. “Cartman wrote it, this is his handwriting.”

Kyle’s throat wants to close up. With difficulty, he says, “Burn it.”

“What?” Stan asks, confused in an amused way.

“Burn it,” Kyle snaps. “I don’t care what it is, he doesn’t need it.”

“Or...” Stan looks back at the very piece of paper in his hands. Kyle feels angry at the disregard. Stan says, “We could read it.”

Kyle wants to rip the paper out of Stan’s hands and shred it, no matter what it is, but he thinks that might be a little over-the-top.

.If you tell anyone, she’ll get worse

What if the paper has some information about what Eric is doing?

“Or we could do that,” Kyle says, reluctant in all senses. A familiar dizziness takes hold. “C’mon, read it as we walk.”

Stan nods, much happier with this idea. The two of them begin on their way down the hall again. Amid the taps of their feet, and the sounds of a meeting being held in one of the nearby offices, Stan begins to read directly from the paper in his hands. “‘Guess what motherfuckers?’— and then in parenthesis, ‘What Eric?’

Kyle heaves a sigh, finding this a good place to insert his let’s not do this anymore in any way he can. “I regret this decision already,” he says, but Stan doesn’t pick up on the hint. Stan never was very good with hints.

‘Well, Polly Prissy Pants’— oh, Jesus, it’s one of these,” Stan mutters. When he goes quiet, Kyle is hopeful that he won’t read anymore, but that’s not the case. He’s simply looking away from the paper long enough to hold the school’s main door open for Kyle, and while Kyle appreciates it, he’s upset by the fact that he’s still going to be subjected to the words from someone who made him feel so… “‘Well, Polly Prissy Pants, I just got offered a full ride to NYU’—”

“What?” Kyle hisses, looking at Stan incredulously.

‘Oh wow Eric’—” Stan continues, not regarding Kyle at all. His eyes dart over the words on the page as he reads them. “This is in parenthesis, by the way— ‘that is so awesome’…”

Kyle wants Stan to stop reading. Please, just stop reading.

‘You are so smart and cool and totally not fat at all’…”

.Stop. This isn’t safe

‘Everyone is so proud of you and that jew Kyle won’t know what hit him when he sees you there’— end parenthesis— ‘Thank you, Polly Prissy Pants. Kyle will be sooo pissed off. Maybe he’ll cry’…”

—kick kick ki]
I wonder
—ck, kick, kickkickkick—
what your tears
?taste like
BREATHEBREATHESTOP
[kick

‘Nya nya nya nya nyaa nya... ha ha ha ha haa ha’.”

?do you see him]
                          I see him, I think I see him
?Back there
Kick kick kick
I don’t know what’s going on
                                            ?Of course you do are you crazy
Stop kicking me please
                                   ?It hurts
LOOK AT YOURSELF
                              ?Feel it
inthemirror
Maybe I’m
Kick kick kick
                      [?in control

“Um... Kyle?”

Kyle’s body itches. His hips hurt; they’re pressed against the sink.

No, they’re not. He’s fine. He’s outside, see? Look at the trees. Breathe in the oxygen. The atmosphere is thick, even in the winter— or perhaps, especially in the winter. With the stillness of the atoms and molecules and particles, whatever differences they hold for each other. He glances at the fading monochrome of the sidewalk and the blinding white glitter of the snow. The sun is hardly there, but if he focuses, he can see it poking through a thick sheen of foggy clouds. He’s fine.

“He didn’t,” Kyle says, grounding himself with his voice.

Stan shifts, fidgeting slightly absently with the piece of paper. It makes a mild amount of noise— slightly irritating, really. Kyle wants to rip the paper away from Stan and bury it in the snowbank. “Didn’t what?” Stan asks.

And just like that, Kyle’s entire face heats, blood flushing his skin with a vengeance. “Get a full ride,” Kyle snaps. “He’s a liar, he’s a fucking liar and a fucking thief, and a fucking cheater, he will never succeed that way, it can’t be possible— so, I’m telling you, there is absolutely no fucking way he got a full ride to NYU, there's no way.”

Stan looks at the crumpled piece of paper. “I don't know, man, this is Cartman we’re talking about.”

—Stop please I need reassurance that he’s notrightthere

Kyle looks around the view of the neighborhood. The streets and driveways are lined with a moderately thick blanket of snow. Kyle’s gaze suddenly glues itself in the direction of the basket ball court. He thinks he sees the outline of someone much further down the sidewalk, so far away only their silhouette is visible, but he can’t really tell, so he pretends he doesn’t see a thing. “Do you think he’s there?” he asks, trying to get the reassurance. And maybe. If he goes there and sees Eric is there. Maybe Kenny? And if he says it, if he tells them what happened, they can make sure Eric doesn’t—

PLEASE GOD DON’T KILL HER I NEED MY MOM

The thoughts, they take the air away, and he wonders if he’ll ever be able to breathe again.

“Where?” Stan replies, and his voice is too calm. A sound of realization cracks the air. “The court? Oh, hell no, you’re not seriously thinking about confronting him about it, are you?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Kyle snaps. How dare Stan, with his assumptions and stupidity, he knows nothing. “If he was planning on ruining the entirety of your—” life “—educational career, wouldn’t you push for answers?”

What a convenient lie.

Stan rolls his eyes. “If by ‘pushing for answers’ you mean ‘beating the ever-loving fuck out of him’, then no, I wouldn’t.”

“Well—”

.Stan’s not on your side

Kyle shoots a lasting glare towards the hill. Just beyond the trees.

?I need something. What is it? What do I need

“Dude, Kyle, no,” Stan says.

“But—”

“No, it’s not worth it, trust me on this.” Stan grips Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle wants, more than anything, to pull away. He doesn’t. “We’ve been through so much Cartman bullshit, I’m honestly really confused… why is this the thing that pisses you off?”

.STAN ISN’T ON YOUR SIDE

“Because he’s always there!” Kyle says, desperate. “He’s always there! Things are changing, and I don’t want him to be the only constant in my life! I don’t want him to be everywhere I am, is that too much to ask?”

...He won’t be satisfied, it’s a plan, he’s going to follow me and kill me and then he’ll kill Mom and Ike and Dad

“No, of course not,” Stan says, and he appears… agitated? “But immediately jumping on his back about it isn’t going to help, if anything, it’s just going to convince him to pursue it even more— seriously, dude, don’t.”

.I don’t want him to rule over me

Kyle's face flushes a deeper shade of red. He can feel it. The way his jaw hurts. “I don’t want to go to college with him.”

“Then don’t!” Stan says, all happy, like it’s an easy fix. His puppy-dog mannerisms are resurfacing. “You could always go somewhere else, you’re smart enough to get into any school you want to… okay?”

They make full eye contact; Stan leads it. After a few seconds, Kyle gives a gentle nod.

“Okay,” Kyle says, even though his body wants to start screaming. He has—

kickickick]
Maybe I’m in control
Kick
[?Feel it

—control, though. “Yeah.”

[.I’ll kill her]

Kyle draws his bottom lip between his teeth. He chews on the skin of it, tastes blood. It hurts. It distracts him from—

the bug hitting the ceiling light]
Click click click
Kick kick kick
[STOP IT STOP OKAY STOP I GET IT STOP IT STOP IT STOP

—the fact that he’s looking at Stan’s bottom lip.

.He’s not on your side

But that thought is stupid, and Kyle knows that.

Stan drops the piece of paper— it flutters down, out of sight out of mind. Kyle finds himself pulled in. Stan has his own gravitational pull, it seems like that sometimes. It’s no surprise that, when Stan lifts his other hand to Kyle’s other shoulder, Kyle allows it to happen. Stan’s grip on his shoulders is heated, smooth yet firm yet gentle and kind. Kyle steps closer. He wants to sit here, staring. He wants to look into Stan’s eyes forever. There’s this comfort in his chest— not really inside of him, but just ahead of him, and he wants to chase it before it disappears, even if that scares him.

Kyle doesn’t care. He wants comfort. He yearns for it. Hurts for it.

For care.

But Stan pulls away, and the movement is enough to shock Kyle out of his daze. Their hearts are pounding and their minds are reeling at the thought of what could have just happened. Kyle…

Stan loves Wendy.

And if Kyle kissed Stan, then he—

[————thesoundofcontrol————]

—might find out.

“Sorry,” Stan mutters, holding himself tightly.

“It’s fine, let’s just... let's go to my place now,” Kyle says. “Okay?”

“Actually—”

HE’S NOT ON YOUR SIDE I TOLD YOU

Stan’s eyes widen, like he knows. Stan quickly adds, “Could we stop at my place first? I gotta grab something real quick.”

.No, I told YOU that he IS on my side

Kyle grits his teeth. After a moment of pause, he allows himself to continue with the conversation. “Sure, I guess...” When Stan begins to walk, he follows. “What do you need to grab?”

“My textbook,” Stan says.

Kyle could laugh, but he doesn’t. He just says, “You’re shitting me.”

Stan laughs at it like a joke, and that helps lighten things up a little.

Maybe.

Kyle can’t really tell.

How funny is that?